Overdue Book Review

Overdue Book Review

Damian's Workshop

by Deborah Kaminski

08/04/16

Intriguing, surprising, well-written, nicely plotted, and fun. Deborah Kaminski’s debut outing Damian’s Workshop is easy to read, but hard to classify. Part historical fiction, part time-travel-ish science fiction, part romance, with a dash of Indiana Jones thrown in for good measure, it might sound like a mish-mosh, but the book works on all its levels, resulting in an excellent read.

The basic premise—grad student/researcher Brook develops a means of virtual time travel, by accessing the memories of an individual’s ancestors—provides the springboard into the world of ancient Constantinople at the time of the Fourth Crusade. The Memex—the device Brooke is utilizing—allows her to experience in brief snippets the lives of Damien the goldsmith and his daughter Julia, as well as Garnet, one of the Crusaders, who also ends up as one of Brooke’s ancestors. I’m no historian—I make up all my history—but Kaminski has obviously done a ton of research into the period, the city, and the Crusades, and provides a fascinatingly detailed vision of the great city of Constantinople before, during, and after the siege by the western Crusaders, from the perspective of both sides of the conflict.

Back in her own world, Brooke is experiencing some major problems. She’s operating the Memex without sanction, and testing human subjects (herself and her lab partner Chad) in direct violation of her school’s directives; her funding is fast evaporating and she still has no clue how the Memex actually works, or why; her thesis advisor is obstructive and obstreperous; and even though Chad obviously adores and desires her, Brooke remains intentionally oblivious to him, fearing another bad relationship like her last one. With time and funding running out, Brooke desperately strives to prove both that the device is safe (test subject mice have been dying of brain tumors) and that it has a use that will render it commercially viable. And, she must somehow come to terms with her feelings for Chad.

The last quarter of the book morphs into a search for treasure, as Brooke has clues to where the goldsmith of Constantinople may have hidden not only his own treasure but also the Church’s sacred relics from the clutches of the Crusaders. The lure of gold paves the way for acceptance of the Memex, and the search is on, in true Dan Brown/Steve Berry fashion (minus the evil masterminds and their minions who are also seeking the treasure.

Kaminski, an engineering professor at the redoubtable RPI, has her history and science down pat, and her writing flows nicely throughout the story. My only quibble would be that I sometimes felt some of the historical scenes, while loving written and excellently executed, didn’t always serve to drive the story forward and thus could have been a bit tighter. A minor point in the grand scheme of things—Damian’s Workshop is a fun read for anyone with a love of science, history, or romance—or just a good story. 




Overdue Book Review

The DuLac Chronicles

by Mary Anne Yarde

06/03/16

Historical fiction isn’t one of my normal go-to genres. Ah, but when it’s historical fiction melded with (post)Arthurian legend, that’s a different kettle of dragons. MaryAnne Yarde’s The DuLac Chronicles is a telling of Britton after Arthur’s death, when the area has been divided up into numerous small kingdoms. Two of these are ruled by—ready for this?—the sons of Lancelot DuLac.

The tale opens with Alden DuLac, King of Cerniw, bested in battle by Cerdic of Wessex. Cerdic was a former ally, and brother of Alden’s (now-deceased) wife. And Cerdic wants more. More land, more power, and the title of High King. Alden is forced to surrender in an effort to spare his subjects from any more bloodshed, and is brutally tortured and condemned to death even as Cerdic continues to pillage Cerniw. Nearly dead from the lashes he received and due to be executed at dawn, Alden is rescued by Annis, Cerdic’s daughter. Annis had fallen in love with Alden at his wedding to her sister.

An interesting touch is that neither Alden nor Annis speak the other’s language, and must communicate through Latin, the language of the now-departed Roman invaders. This makes things extremely difficult for Annis as, on the run with Alden, she rarely knows what he’s saying to people they meet along the way.

The DuLac Chronicles is as much a tale of romance as it is historical fiction. Alden and Annis are decidedly star-crossed lovers, each coming with so much excess baggage they’d never be allowed near the plane. She’s on the run with the sworn enemy of her father, and will certainly be executed as a traitor if caught. Alden is literally a man without a country—he’s lost in the battle with Cerdic. He’s thus lost the respect of his peers, and his self-respect. In addition, everyone he meets tells him he can't trust her, and that he must send Annis back, as she’s the daughter of his dire enemy, something Alden refuses to do, to the point where he pretends they’re married in order to protect her.

With nowhere left to turn Alden seeks out his brother Budic, King of Brittany since the death of Alden’s beloved other brother. Budic is the only one with enough troops left to face Cerdic and have any hope of defeating him. Budic, a nasty of the first order, would just as soon see Alden dead and Annis ransomed back to her father. Alden’s other brother, Merton, appears at critical moments throughout the story, but Alden can never be sure which side he’s actually on. Along his journey to win Annis and win back his kingdom, Alden discovers some startling revelations about his own father, Lancelot.

Yarde has drawn splendid characters in both Alden and Annis. However, the character of Merton, the conflicted and enigmatic younger brother, is the one who really stands out to me. I found him fascinating and want to know more about him. I think the next book may satisfy that need. In addition, she's dropped some clues regarding Alden's past and set things up nicely for more mystery and intrigue.

The DuLac Chronicles deftly melds well-researched history, romance, mystery, political machinations, double- and triple-crosses, and intrigue with a healthy serving of desperate flights and fights in a 5th Century version of not-so-merry olde England. Fast-paced, well written, and with characters you can root for all the way through the book, Yarde provides a fascinating twist and examination of the post-Arthurian world—and the notion that Arthur might not have been such a nice guy after all.

My only quibble with the book is a tendency to rapidly shift POV, which I found a bit distracting for the high quality of the writing. Other than this minor issue, The DuLac Chronicles is a spirited and rousing tale to be devoured in one sitting. I’m ready and eager to dive into the next volume.

Four and a half swords up!



Overdue Book Review

The Rogue Retrieval

by Dan Koboldt

04/01/16


Contrary to popular belief, what happens in Vegas doesn’t necessarily stay in Vegas. In fact, in Dan Koboldt’s debut science fantasy The Rogue Retrieval, what happens in Vegas ends up out of this world.

Literally. A multinational corporation has discovered a portal to another world—Alissia. They’ve been sending in covert teams, led by scientist Richard Holt, to scout around and learn all about this new land—it’s left a bit to the reader’s imagination as to how they’re going to exploit this discovery. But Richard Holt has disappeared and his employer wants the rogue scientist retrieved before he can cause major headaches.

Enter Quinn Bradley, a second tier stage magician who’s positive he’s ready for the big time. He just doesn’t realize how big. When what he thinks is going to be an offer to headline a top casino turns out to be a mystery ‘offer he can’t refuse’, complete with strings attached, Quinn finds himself plunged into a top secret quest. As his reticent employers reveal all to little of what Quinn’s in for, he finds himself learning sword fighting techniques (don’t engage anyone older than 12, he’s told, or you’re a goner) and horsemanship. Alissia is a medieval culture, and while directing his employer in the creation of all major of technology-based illusions to dazzle the Alissians. Unfortunately, no one realizes there are actually true magicians in Alissia—and that to impersonate one is a mortal offense. Oops.

Dan Koboldt’s book is a merry blend of science and sorcery that's reminiscent of Christopher Stasheff’s marvelous The Warlock in Spite of Himself. And this comparison is not made lightly, for TWISOH is one of my all-time favorites. While I confess to not immediately taking a shine to Quinn, he grew on me as the story progressed, and by the end of the book I was definitely rooting for him. Quinn is no hero, and he darned well knows it. But he finds himself thrown into ever more dire situations which require him to be just that. It’s actually a lot of fun watching Quinn grow and change throughout the story arc.

Koboldt deftly blends humor, adventure, magic and mayhem into his science-cum-magic tale. In lesser hands this could have been a complete disaster, but Koboldt always seems to have one more trick up his sleeve, like Quinn, and The Rogue Retrieval is an engaging, well told, fast-paced tale that leaves the reader wanting more. There are a number of unresolved issues, and the ending pretty much guarantees that Quinn will have to pull himself out of a top hat for another engagement in Alissia.

Takeaway: 5 Stars--Highly Recommended.


Overdue Book Review

Inconceivable

by Tegan Wren

02/17/16


First, I have to say that I’ve know Tegan Wren as a Twitter-friend since before we both had our books accepted for publication. I’ve waited very (im)patiently for the release of INCONCEIVABLE—I loved the concept of this book from when Tegan first began pitching it, and couldn’t wait to dive in. Ok, yeah, I’m a guy reading a romance novel. I love a good story, I love good writing, and INCONCEIVABLE has both. Plus it has an amazing cover, and yes, you DO darned well judge a book by its amazing cover.

INCONCEIVABLE is not, as might be thought (at least in the circles in which I hang out) a reference to The Princess Bride. It is instead a modern-day fairy tale centering on the high-profile, whirlwind romance between commoner Hatty, an American finishing her journalism degree in a small European kingdom adjacent to France and Belgium, and John, her prince charming (and sometimes prince annoying). But these fairy-tale characters, as portrayed by Tegan Wren, are very human: subject to highs and lows, to love, lust and jealousies, and to the foibles, petty grievances and wonderfully intimate shared moments of a couple in love. INCONCEIVABLE is also an examination of the uses and abuses of power by both individuals and the media; our obsession with celebrity; and the problems inherent in modern-day relationships. Finally, and overarching, is the theme of infertility.

I’m not giving away any secrets to reveal that the royal marriage, when it finally occurs, is haunted by the specter of infertility, with its accompanying feelings of inadequacy, fear, despair, frustration, and anger. I’ve been there—my wife and I went through this many years ago—and Ms. Wren gives an excruciatingly accurate picture of what a couple endures when faced with this issue. The poking and prodding, the innumerable tests, the trying and trying and trying—which can sound fun at first, but soon can turn into a dismal and fruitless chore—and the hard choices that have to be made, all are shown in brilliant detail.

There is a lot going in between the covers of INCONCEIVABLE, and Wren juggles the balls deftly. But in the end, this is a story of two people in love—how they get there, how they deal with that love and its consequences, how they grow in it, and ultimately the choices they are forced to make. It can be a hard read—especially for anyone who has experienced infertility—but INCONCEIVABLE is well worth it. Well done, Tegan Wren.  




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Overdue Book Review

Skeleton Run

by John L. DeBoer

February 1, 2016



Skeleton Run is a thriller examining the havoc which can be reaped from the consequences of past actions. The narrative follows the lives of four young friends who are involved in a tragic accident. The result of their non-action comes back to bite them much later in their lives, as fate rears its ugly head and sets off a chain reaction of events which spiral out of control into dishonor and even death.

DeBoer plys a deft hand in his handling of the narrative arc, constantly ratcheting up the tension and suspense throughout the arc of the story until it culminates in a final, decisive showdown. His characters are solidly developed, with motivations built from guilt, greed, ambition, and an overwhelming lust for power. The political aspects, especially with the upcoming election and so much focus on who controls the purse-strings and thus the politicos, are particularly timely.

I found the author’s use of POV a bit distracting—he switches back and forth between multi-POV 3rdperson narration to 1st person narration from the designated ‘hero’ of the story, Dr. Jim Dawson. These changes had the effect of pulling me out of the story and making me mentally say “Wait, what?” The only other problem I had with this book (and this is a minor technical issue) is that the ebook edition I read was divided into sections, so that I was always on “page 2 of 10” or “page 6 of 14”; thus I never really knew where I was in relation to the overall size of the book. Minor quibble, I know, but I still found it a bit bothersome.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the book. Skeleton Run is a solid effort that will keep readers turning pages to see who lives, who dies, and how it all turns out. DeBoer has an excellent handle on his plot and pacing, and presents a gripping glimpse into the world of political intrigue and personal guilt.




Overdue Book Review

Thief of Lies

by Brenda Drake

January 13, 2016

 

Summary:

Gia Kearns would rather fight with boys than kiss them. That is, until Arik, a leather clad hottie in the Boston Athenaeum, suddenly disappears. While examining the book of world libraries he abandoned, Gia unwittingly speaks the key that sucks her and her friends into a photograph and transports them into a Paris library, where Arik and his Sentinels-magical knights charged with protecting humans from the creatures traveling across the gateway books-rescue them from a demonic hound.

Jumping into some of the world's most beautiful libraries would be a dream come true for Gia, if she weren't busy resisting her heart or dodging an exiled wizard seeking revenge on both the Mystik and human worlds. Add a French flirt obsessed with Arik and a fling with a young wizard, and Gia must choose between her heart and her head, between Arik's world and her own, before both are destroyed.

 First of all, a disclaimer. Brenda Drake is my Fairy Godmother.

Well, close enough. This talented and extraordinarily busy lady not only writes amazing stories, but also runs amazing Twitter contests for other writers. It was through her PitMad contest that I connected with my publisher, Champagne Books, and ended up having my debut novel Traitor Knight published. So thank you, Brenda, for helping me to achieve my dream.

Now, on to Thief of Lies.


First, the cover. L O V E it! There is so much going on there, and guess what? You DO just a book by its cover. The color, the design, everything, just makes me want to jump right into this book.

Right from the opening line (“ “) Brenda Drake creates a marvelously drawn world that melds the mortal and the magical with the great libraries of the world as the gateway between them. Books take us on journeys, right? Well in Thief of Lies, certain books serve as portals which enable people—and monsters—to transport between the Mystik and the human worlds, and young Sentinels are charged with guarding the portals and keeping the human world safe.

Gia Kearns, the main character of Thief of Lies, is accidentally drawn into one of the books when she unwittingly speaks the key that activates the portal. Along with her friends Afton and Nick, Gia finds herself in a library in Paris, beset by a supernatural hound intent on their destruction. Rescued by Arik and his band of Sentinels, Gia is returned to her home in Boston, but finds herself pursued by more malevolent creatures from the supernatural world. As she is thrust deeper and deeper in the world of the Mystik, Gia has to accept that there is much more to her own existence than she ever realized, and that her fate and the fate of both Mystik and human worlds are inexorably bound together.

Gia is a combination of spunky, stubborn, hot-headed, loyal, loving, and strong. She has her flaws, but also possesses a sense of honor and a fighting spirit that would do any knight proud. A wonderfully rounded character, and Drake can be very proud of her creation.

The companion characters, for the most part, were also extremely well done. A few fell a bit flat, but Drake gives most of them clear motivations and personalities that allowed them to be more than cardboard add-ons. Overall an A- here. My biggest negative factor was the sheer number of characters I had to keep track of—occasionally they ran together a bit, and I had to go back a little to figure out who was whom.

Gia’s love interests—Arik, the Sentinel who saves her in the beginning of the book, and Bastien, the young wizard to whom she has an unexpected connection—are both handsome, strong, brave, and kind to small animals. She’s definitely not starved for choices in the fields of love. But Drake frames Gia’s dilemma nicely and the triangle, unresolved at the end of the book, will no doubt lead to interesting conflicts in the next outing.

The rule of magic are well thought out and consistently applied, and while I would have loved to spend more time in the great libraries, the slam-bang action carried me along throughout the book. Gia faces dramatically high stakes which keep getting even higher. Epic swordfights and wizards duels manage to wreck several of the libraries, but Drake, perhaps a bit tongue-in-cheek, postulates a group of Cleaners, adjuncts to the Sentinels, who “sweep up after the elephants”, as it were, putting the books back in order and deftly disposing of monster-guts. I loved this touch—nicely played.

Thief of Lies is targeted at the YA audience, and should do extremely well there. It also will resonate with any adults who enjoy good escapist, rollicking fantasy. The pace is breakneck, the characters engaging, and the world-building outstanding. I absolutely recommend this book. 



Overdue Book Review

The Death of Dulgath

by Michael J. Sullivan

January 6, 2016


Another fabulous romp from Michael J. Sullivan! Highly Recommended. Royce and Hadrian are marvelous characters, and I've happily devoured all their adventures to date. I've been eagerly awaiting this latest outing, and it didn't disappoint.

Our heroes are called in as 'consultants' to determine how best to assassinate Lady Dulgath, so that she can be protected against attempts on her life. The Riyria coffers are low and it sounds like easy money, so they take the job. Of course anything this easy is too good to be true, so immediately things begin to go pear-shaped for them. Twisty intrigue, plots and counterplots, rapier wit and broadsword battles abound, as does a marvelous glimpse into what makes this world, and our heroes, tick.

Some may be a bit put off by Sullivan's use of modern language in what is essential a medieval setting. As someone who uses the same convention in my own work, I love it, and actually MJS was the inspiration who enabled me to bring my character's speech out of the dark ages and into the modern. I find it fun and engaging, so to anyone who finds it distracting, I simply say "pooh".

The Death of Dulgath is a fast, fun read in a marvelously constructed world, with wonderfully engaging characters. Whether you've read any of Royce and Hadrian's previous adventures or not, you'll enjoy this book. 








Overdue Book Review

Six of Crows 

by Leigh Bardugo

December 7, 2015

 

I picked up Leigh Bardugo’s new book Six of Crows with a bit of trepidation. This was a book that had received a tremendous amount of hype on social media (specifically Twitter, where I lurk), and I just wasn’t sure it would live up to the advance billing. Let me just say here and now—it did. Oh boy, did it ever.

I’ve not read any of Bardugo’s previous Grisha novels (although I’ll be looking to remedy that oversight). While it would have been helpful with understanding a bit more of the world in which this novel exists, the lack did not adversely affect my reading of Six of Crows.

Six of Crows is basically a heist caper (think Ocean’s Eleven on speed) with late-teen protagonists. There are numerous stock characters—the misfit, the outcast, the planner etc. But Bardugo does a fabulous job of fleshing out what could be really cardboard characters, giving them depth and dimension and a real reason for existing. It is the characters motivations that drive the plot forward rather than the other way round. And the pacing and plotting are extraordinary.

Bardugo does a deft job of juggling her characters, although this was one of my two quibbles with Six of Crows. Bcause of the multiple points of view, it was sometimes a bit difficult (in the fast pace of the plot) to remember who was narrating at any given time, and I occasionally had to go back and double-check, which took me out of the story. My other issue, and this is minor, is that there was an awful lot of backstory—essential to the plot, as it revealed character motivations—that was presented, and again, this sometimes took me out of the moment. I’d be intent on scaling a wall with one character, only to be left literally hanging while I learned what brought that character to this point. And the backstory was always relevant and well told, but still…  And not, not sure how it could have been done differently. This is touchy, treacherous ground, and Bardugo handles it as well as anyone I’ve encountered and better than most.

But those two quibbles aside, Six of Crows is outstanding. Great characters whose relationships intertwine, diverge, and change on a moment’s notice and who drag you into their world and force you to care about what happens to them. A marvelously built world with intricate attention to detail. And a super-twisty plot that pulls rabbit after rabbit out of the hat, and then proceeds to pull several hats out of the rabbits. I was totally floored at the end of this book, and I can’t wait for the sequel (Crooked Kingdom, coming Fall 2016). But I’ll have to. So I guess I’ll spend the intervening time reading the Grisha trilogy.

 






Overdue Book Review

To Bear an Iron Key

Jackie Morse Kessler

August 27, 2015


Bromwyn is a young witch (actually a witch-in-training) from a long line of witches. Her dour Grandmother is the Wise One of the Village of Loren, and the keeper of the World Key which opens and closes the Door which connects the mortal world to the realm of Faerie. It is through this Door that the Fae arrive each Midsummer Eve, and through which the Key Bearer must ensure that they pass back to Faerie.

Bromwyn is rebellious, headstrong, and determined to do things her own way. This leads her into trouble, both with the King and Queen of the Fae, and with her grandmother. When her friend Rusty, an aspiring thief, steals the World Key and is forced to be the Key Bearer, it falls to Bromwyn to assist him to save their village, their own lives, and ultimately Rusty’s soul from the scheming Fae.

Bromwyn Darkeyes is a great character—Kessler makes her hard to love (she comes off as an obnoxious brat) and yet I ended up loving her, and rooting for her to win not only against the Fae, but against all the obstacles that life (and her grandmother) set in her path. She reminds me a lot of Terry Pratchett’s marvelous Tiffany Aching, which is high praise indeed. And Kessler deftly manages both the humor and drama needed to keep this a page-turner. The stakes are sky-high, the characters are engaging, and the story moves at a breakneck pace towards what will be the ultimate test of Bromwyn’s power and ability.

To Bear an Iron Key is YA fantasy as it’s meant to be. It will keep both YA and adult readers on the edge of their seats, pulses pounding as they turn pages into the night to see if (and how) Bromwyn manages to prevail.  Bromwyn’s relationship with her elders—especially her mother and grandmother—and with Rusty all help to bring her character to its potential. I shan’t give away any spoilers, except to say that Bromwyn is up to the tasks set in her Trial, and left me wanting much much more of her (and Rusty’s) adventures. And Kessler has nicely set up the possibility of that return to Loren. For I have a feeling the Fae are not done with Bromwyn Darkeyes yet




Overdue Book Review

Winell Road – Beneath the Surface

By Kate Foster


Twelve-year-old Jack Mills is bored. He lives on Winell Road, the most boring street imaginable, with his boring parents, Mum (nosy and a horrible cook) and Dad (an inventor of totally useless gadgets), and a collection of odd-ball yet boring neighbors.

He’s bored, that is, until the day the glowing, silvery spaceship shows up overhead. Jack manages to escape being abducted by the alien craft, but he soon comes to the realization that he’s the only one who has actually seen it. His close encounter turns even more bizarre when Jack finds himself involved in a desperate mission to recover a stolen piece of alien technology, with the fate of the galaxy hanging in the balance.

Kate Foster’s WINELL ROAD—BENEATH THE SURFACE flawlessly combines fantastical science fiction, heart-pounding adventure, sinister mystery, and a large helping of humor. Foster has crafted a charming and inventive MG novel that will keep readers of all ages turning the pages as breathlessly as did I. I can’t reveal much of the story itself without dealing out major spoilers, so suffice it to say Foster’s characterizations are spot-on, her scenes both evocative and hair-raising, and her plot twists marvelously handled. For WINELL ROAD is ultimately a story of secrets, and Jack’s efforts to unravel them in order to save himself, his family, his new friend Roxy, and just possibly the galaxy from the clutches of a host of aliens who have descended on Winell Road, the most boring place in the known universe.

Jack is an engaging protagonist--clever, spunky, loyal, and determined, yet filled with all the self-doubts, foibles, and questions lurking in every twelve-year-old boy. In Jack, Kate Foster achieves a marvelous MG voice that impels the reader on to follow along on his quest to save the galaxy. And although the reader may think s/he see’s things that Jack doesn’t and guess the final plot twist, that twist will leave even the most jaded gasping in surprise and wanting more of Jack’s adventures.

WINELL ROAD—BENEATH THE SURFACE is an excellent first outing from Kate Foster. It ticked all my boxes nicely—voice, characterization and plotting--and I anticipate her next venture, hopefully back into the world of Jack and his friends, will be better still. 






Overdue Book Review

May 11, 2015

Becoming Jinn, by Lori Goldstein



I’ve been waiting for this book to come out for quite a while. Ever since I first heard the concept, I thought BECOMING JINN would be something really special.

Turns out I was right.

On Azra Nadira’s 16th birthday, she gets not only a party, but power. Azra is a Jinn (that’s genie to us ordinary mortals) from a long line of Jinn. And like all female Jinn, when she comes of age Azra is not only able, but required, to grant human wishes. Under the control of a remote ruling class of Jinn known as the Afrit, who maintain their hold over the Jinn through blackmail and intimidation.

And rebellious Azra isn’t interested. She hates the idea of being told what to do for the rest of her life—of becoming like her mother, whom Azra sees as being a ‘model Jinn’. Azra is tormented by the death of her best (human) friend, and feels frustrated that the one thing Jinn magic can’t do is heal humans, which would have saved said friend. She’s frustrated with being forced to pretend to act human but never being allowed to be human. She’s frustrated that she can never know her father, who must live with all other male Jinn in Janna, the subterranean Jinn ‘paradise’, cut off from the female Jinn who must stay in the ‘real’ world to grant wishes. And Azra’s frustrated with her own insecurities, especially as she finds herself in a romantic triangle, caught between Henry, the nerdy brother of her dead friend (who has learned Azra’s secret), and the hunky lifeguard Nate, who’s perfect exterior conceals his own insecurities.

But even as Azra navigates the shaky relationships of her Zar—the circle of other Jinn girls who are supposed to be her best friends and support network, whom Azra has consistently alienated over the years—she finds that her own power runs deeper and may have unexpected consequences that that will put everyone Azra cares about at risk if she’s not careful.

And the one thing Azra has never been is careful.

I am in awe of this book. The writing is amazing, and the voice and characterization of Azra is spot-on (you’d think the author had once been a sixteen-year-old girl). Even though BECOMING JINN uses present tense voice, which I normally have a hard time reading, I found that the writing was so smooth that the tense just faded right into the background. Ms Goldstein’s world-building capabilities make me gnash my teeth in jealousy. The intricacies of Jinn society are presented with amazing clarity and detail, and the Jinn rules of magic are conjured with a consistent level of trickiness that reflects the need for the Jinn to remain hidden in plain sight.

A number of reviews of BECOMING JINN have complained about Azra’s supposed whiney-ness, as noted in the catalog of frustrations above. I would beg to differ. My takeaway is that Azra is a teen rebelling (as much as she can in her limited ability) against a system which she finds absurd and in which she has no control of her own destiny. Of course she’s frustrated, upset, and beset by angst. Unless she complies with the Afrit’s directives, she’ll be subject to ever increasingly drastic punishment.

But ultimately, while Goldstein cleverly contrives the Jinn world, BECOMING JINN is more about relationships—with family, with peers, with friends and loved ones. The lines between some of these categories often become blurred as Azra seeks to navigate the treacherous waters of emerging responsibility to her race, her family, her Zar, and her confusing alliances with Henry and Nate. I found that BECOMING JINN had all the key elements in place—well-honed characters, myriad conflicts, and ever-ratcheting stakes, and that Goldstein’s punchy prose kept me hanging on the edge of my seat even as I marveled at the seeming ease with which she put her characters through their paces.

My one complaint—and this is a fairly minor one—is that there were so many subsidiary characters and secondary plot lines that it was hard to keep them all straight, and that some of those subsidiary characters suffered tangentially from lack of development. Admittedly, to do them justice would have taken another 200 pages or so, something not feasible for this book.

Finally, BECOMING JINN is about choices and consequences. For Azra finds herself forced into making choices that will affect not only her own future, but the future of her family, her friends and her Zar sisters. And possibly even Jinn society as a whole. While the book ended at a perfect spot, it definitely made me long for more. And now I’m wishing (any Jinn out there listening?) for the sequel which won’t be forthcoming for almost a year.

Like Azra, I’m frustrated. But in a good way.

*****HIGHLY RECOMMENDED *****


Overdue Book Review

May 6, 2015

Hook’s Revenge, by Heidi Schulz

 

Twelve-year old Jocelyn Hook aspires to follow in the wake of her famously feared father, the world’s most notorious pirate, Capt. James Hook. Instead, her staid grandfather decrees that she will learn to become a lady, and ships her off to Miss Eliza Crumb-Biddlecomb's Finishing School for Young Ladies. There Jocelyn falls victim to snobbery, an overabundance of pink, and the terrifying threat of corsets.

The only thing that makes Jocelyn’s life bearable is the unexpected friendship she strikes up with Roger, the kitchen boy and general dogsbody. But when Roger is banished because of Jocelyn and she faces the prospect of society life, Jocelyn decides she’s had enough and plans her escape. Then a fateful letter arrives, bringing news of her absent parent. Captain Hook has fallen victim to the dreadful Neverland Crocodile, and he charges his offspring to avenge his death if she can manage it (which he doubts).

Traveling to Neverland, Jocelyn recruits the faithful Smee to her cause, and enlists the world’s worst crew of misfit, wannabe pirates to sail with her aboard the Hook’s Revenge. It will take all of Jocelyn’s wit, daring, and courage to navigate the treacherous Neverland waters—filled with cruel mermaids, cannibals, pirates, fairies, the Lost Boys, and (pesky and annoying Peter)—and to ultimately conquer her own nightmares and vanquish both the Crocodile and the ghosts that haunt her.  

J.M. Barrie’s classic has always had a firm hold on my heart, and I picked up Hook’s Revenge with both anticipation and misgiving. While I longed to reach the shores of Neverland again, I confess to a bit of trepidation at how the journey would progress under Heidi Schulz’s captaincy. I needn’t have worried. Ms. Schulz’s homage is a rollicking sea-shanty of a tale, told by an unnamed but irascible narrator, that breathes welcome new life into the legend of the Neverland.

Laced with great high humor and leavened with a soupcon of poignancy, Ms Schulz allows the reader to view Jocelyn as a girl learning to chart her own course in the world. A compelling and colorful heroine, Hook’s daughter faces mean girls, meaner mermaids, menacing marauders, and cavorting cannibals with pluck and panache. And though Jocelyn frequently finds herself suffering defeat, her determination and sense of loyalty to her crew, her friend Roger, and ultimately her quest to avenge her father and conquer her deepest fears, have the reader firmly on her side.

Hook’s Revenge will appeal to readers both young and old. The story-telling itself is reminiscent of the style of “Princess Bride”, which is good enough for me right there. Engaging characters, a wickedly snarky narrator, and a story-line punctuated by the ever-present ‘tick-tock’ of the Crocodile’s timepiece make this book un-put-downable, and leave the reader eagerly craving the next installment of the saga.

Two Cutlasses Up! 




Overdue Book Review

March 10, 2015

The Last Order

by Angela M. Caldwell


Angela M. Caldwell’s debut The Last Order is something very different, at least to me. It’s a YA fantasy in which the protagonist is a 17-year-old girl, Lana Crewe. And Lana is no in-tune-with-the-sprites, talks-to-the-animals girl. She’ the embodiment of a warrior spirit, a take-no-prisoners, full-out hard-charging gal who’s much more at home in leather and armor than she is in frilly frocks.And she kicks some serious butt.

The Last Order starts with a bang—or at least a clash of swords—and doesn't let up until the very last page. Lana's father, Sir Asher Crewe, a former knight, is mortally wounded during an attack on their peaceful village. His dying words present Lana with a cryptic message, suggesting that the queen, long thought dead, is alive. Her father has left Lana the means to find her. But the clues are in the form of a puzzle, and Lana only has one piece. Trusting her father’s words, Lana sets out to track down the other pieces of the puzzle—a la Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code—which will allow her to find the queen and restore her to the throne of their war-torn kingdom. Her only companion as she begins her quest is a mysterious stranger named Silas, who may or may not be trustworthy.

With Silas, Lana ventures deeper into the heart of enemy territory held by the vicious Luther, who seeks the throne for himself. There Lana discovers a band of gypsy women, and enlists them in her quest, forming them into The Last Order, dedicated to restoring the queen. But Lana is forced to wrestle with her decision to follow her father’s tenuous last order, her conflicted feelings about Silas, and her ability to be honest with and trusting of her companions.

There is an interesting quasi-steampunk element to the novel (Silas has technical skills which provide Lana and her band of female knights with explosives and smoke bombs), and while this sometimes felt just a tad out of sync with the rest of the story, overall it ended up playing well into the plot. The fighting scenes are fast, furious and sometimes bloody, and keep the adrenaline level high. The characterizations were well-fleshed out, and the motivations of the main players were quite clear (when they needed to be—Caldwell has a nice talent for obfuscating her characters motives in order to keep the level of tension and conflict at a peak).

I won’t talk about the novel’s ending, other than to say that the twist Caldwell throws in was a total surprise. I did not see that coming, at all. Nicely played, Angela. And she left things open just enough to provide for a second book if she wanted to revisit these characters later.

A side note: Caldwell is a talented artist and photographer, and she produced the fabulous cover of the novel herself, with the assistance of her father, who provided the artwork for the crown and triquetra. Caldwell outlines the process of creating the cover on her blog http://angelamcaldwell.com/blog-tours-2/page/2/ and it’s well worth reading. 

My only issues with The Last order were minor—one was that the e-book edition I read had a few typos strewn about; the other was that occasionally I had some difficulty in telling which character was speaking. These were fairly minor when viewed overall. The characters are strong, the story is killer, and the ending, as I said, totally took me off guard. A very strong debut effort by Angela M. Caldwell, and I definitely recommend The Last Order as a fast, enjoyable read. And I look forward to reading her next effort.

Published 2/3/15 by Rocket Circus Press. 240 pages.


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Overdue Book Review

A Cold and Lonely Place

By Sara J. Henry

 

Anthony Award finalist A Cold and Lonely Place is Sara J. Henry’s sophomore effort, following up her award-winning Learning to Swim. The novel again focuses on freelance journalist Troy Chance, who lives and works in the Adirondack village of Lake Placid, NY and surrounding environs. Troy is at the site of the Saranac Lake Winter Carnival, where workers are cutting out huge ice blocks for the Ice Palace when a body is discovered under the ice. As Troy snaps pics of the gruesome find, she realizes that the dead man is someone she knows—her roommate’s boyfriend, a drifter named Tobin Winslow. Troy is drawn inexorably into the investigation because Jessamyn, the roommate, is at once a suspect in Tobin’s mysterious death. The arrival of the dead man’s sister and a series of inexplicable events—including Tobin’s missing truck, a series of threatening notes and phone calls, and the ransacking of Tobin’s cabin—force Troy to the conclusion that Tobin’s death may have been no accident. As she pursues researches Tobin for an article, Troy brings to light a life that’s even more mysterious than his death, and may have ramifications that impact the current investigation.

A Cold and Lonely Place is first and foremost a mystery—was Tobin’s death accident, suicide or murder? As Troy seeks the answer, she finds that the past has a long and inexorable reach it’s nearly impossible to outrun. The book also scrutinizes the concept of relationships—between family, friends, lovers—and examines how those relationships form and how they can be rent asunder. And Sara J. Henry provides an excellent, atmospheric picture of life in the Cold and Lonely Place that is a remote village in the Adirondacks, where survival can sometimes be as treacherous as the ice on the lakes.

I really enjoyed Learning to Swim, Troy’s first outing, and I liked her even better in A Cold and Lonely Place. Troy is definitely a flawed character—a bit of a loner, living on the edge, extremely impetuous, and prone to over-think situations. And she’s the person you’d want standing by you if you were in trouble.

I’d classify this story as almost-literary-mystery. Very atmospheric, very introspective, and, as noted above, very much an exploration of personal history and relationships. And yet at the same time and the stakes are high, and Troy’s narrative voice is gripping, dragging the reader into this world and not willing to let go. My one complaint when I read the book was that I felt the ending was a bit of an anticlimax—and yet, looking back on it, sometimes life is like that, and this was one of those times. 

RECOMMENDED

Published 2013 by Crown.



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Overdue Book Review

February 10, 2014

The Providence of Fire

By Brian Staveley

 

 

When I read Brian Staveley’s fabulous The Emperor’s Blades last year, I characterized it at the time as a wild rollercoaster thrill-ride of a book. I stand by that. And having just finished the sequel, the savagely gritty The Providence of Fire (Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne #2), I’ll keep on with that theme. But instead of a rollercoaster, PoF is a more of an extreme log flume ride. Cause darned near everybody ends up underwater and nearly drowning. I think the ‘providence of fire’ may be that it dries ‘em all out.

 

That being said, this book should be subtitled The Big Book of Unimaginably Bad Decisions. It picks up where Blades left off, with Kaden, Valyn and Adare, the murdered emperor’s children, all seeking revenge for their father’s death. And trying to avoid the same fate. And trying, each in their own way, to save the empire from insidious and powerful enemies. Unfortunately none of the three main characters has complete (or accurate) information, and so their decisions are constantly based on false assumptions. Each of them is flawed, makes dreadful mistakes, and sacrifices things they probably shouldn’t. They end up working at cross-purposes to the point where their actions may instead tear apart what they each are trying desperately to save.

 

If you’re looking for action-packed, this is your book. If you’re looking for superb world-building, this is your book. If you’re looking for an epic tale that was centuries in the making, this is your book. If you’re looking for amazing characterizations, from the main characters to the secondaries to the (many many) villains to the bloody gods, this is your book. If you like kick-ass special ops soldiers and mystic warrior monks, this is absolutely your book. PoF is all of these and so much, much more.

 

My only caveat—this book ain’t for the faint of heart or delicate of sensibilities. The action is fast and furious, grim and gory, and the language is brutally scatological. To good effect, in both cases—these are people who fight and kill and curse with abandon—that’s who they are.

 

PoF left me on a knife’s edge, feeling like there was a Kettral swooping from one direction and a starshatter incoming from the other. Jeez but this guy can write. Do I recommend The Providence of Fire? Absolutely! Slam-bang epic fantasy of the highest order. Wowza! 5 stars only cause I can’t give seven.

 

Hardcover, 608 pages

Published January 13th 2015 by Tor Books


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Overdue Book Review 

January 14, 2015

 Evil Librarian by Michelle Knudsen

 

First of all, a disclaimer. I don’t normally read a lot of YA. Not because I have anything against the genre—I don’t. Just like every other genre, there are some great books being written by YA authors (cf my blog post on The Future of YA (http://thewritersvineyard.com/2014/11/the-future-of-ya.html). I just normally gravitate to other, more familiar sections in the bookstore or library.

 

But recently my darling wife, who's the office admin in a HS library, brought me home a treasure: Evil Librarian, by Michelle Knudsen. The book, published in September 2014, had just come in and as she scanned through, she knew I'd love it. She was right.

Knudsen is best known for her picture books (Library Lion) and middle-grade fiction (The Dragon of Trelian, The Princess of Trelian). In this outing she has turned her attention to paranormal YA, with spectacular results. Drama, teen angst, humor, romance, musical theater, and demons. What more could you ask for?  

 

Cyn Rothchild just wants to get through her classes, create the best Chair ever for the student production of Sweeny Todd, and hopefully catch the eye of her unrequited crush, Ryan. Instead she finds herself caught up in a battle for the souls of her schoolmates when she discovers that Mr. Gabriel, the hot new HS librarian, is a demon.

 

Cyn’s voice is marvelous, with a combination of level-headedness, terror, sixteen-awkwardness, determination and sometimes gooeyness (when she’s crushing over Ryan). But it works, and I found Cyn to be an exceptionally well-rounded character.

 

And while Evil Librarian is awash in humor, these aren’t cuddly, fun demons. They’re deadly serious, killing humans like we’d squash a cockroach. The only reason Mr. Gabriel doesn’t kill Cyn, the only person so is able to resist his powers, is that she’s the tech director for the student production of Sweeny Todd. And demons, as everyone knows, adore Sweeny Todd (I guess even demons need barbers, eh?).  So Cyn has until opening night to live. And to foil the Evil Librarian.

 

Revealing how she accomplishes this would be a major spoiler. Suffice it to say that even though she succeeds, Cyn doesn’t walk away unscathed from her encounter with the demon realms.

Evil Librarian is quite dark in places, but this is offset by Cyn’s humor and pluck. Her occasional lapses into sappy romantic longings are tempered by a level-headed outlook and  extraordinary loyalty which propels her to go to unimaginable lengths to save her best friend Annie from the clutches of the demon. Overall, an excellent story which kept me turning pages until the small hours. And Knudson elegantly sets things up for what will I hope will be a return engagement.






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