April Book Reviews

A very eclectic selection this month: sci-fi, fantasy, poetry, romance, Danny the Dog, historical fiction, and parenting advice! I hope you enjoy browsing my 4 and 5-star reviews. There are some great reads here. Click on the covers for Amazon global links.

*****

Running out of Space by S. J. Higbee

If readers enjoy sci-fi and a powerful female lead character, this book hits the mark. Lizzy makes one reckless mistake, and her hopes to enter an officer-training program are dashed. But that’s not the end of her problems. She’s caught between competing forces who use her to solidify their power, and her plans to escape their clutches with the man she loves are repeatedly foiled. When things can’t get worse, they do.

The book starts with some love-struck romance (in the midst of some action), but the romance is background music as the main story takes off. Lizzy is a tough character, full of anger and impulsiveness. She has a hard time controlling her temper and tongue, but she’s justified and therefore sympathetic. Her story unfolds with a first-person point of view, and I was invested from the start, rooting for her when she suffered and cheering for her small victories and fiery personality. I found all of the characters consistent, authentic, and compelling, and the author does a nice job of holding back their secrets so there’s always a reason to turn the page.

This fast-paced book is both character-driven and plot-driven, and I enjoyed the balance. The world-building is complete, hard sci-fi with enough technical detail to be believable while not overwhelming the story. The plot belongs to Lizzy and her desire to escape those who are manipulating her, but there are larger political subplots working in the background that may rise to the surface in later books. The first book in a series, this ends at a transition point, but the story doesn’t conclude. It definitely invites a dive into book 2. Highly recommended.

*****

Tiger House by Wendy Scott

This is a great read for lovers of adventure, action, fantasy, and fabulous worldbuilding. The cover is gorgeous. And the prose is excellent too. Can you tell that I enjoyed this book? The story is about a young farmer Jairus who is kidnapped through a magical portal by the inhabitants of another world. He’s enslaved and ordered to represent Tiger House in a series of challenges to the death that will decide the new emperor. The first half of the story is an account of the competitions and the action and intrigue are non-stop. The second half of the book deals with Jairus’s attempts to stay alive for as long as he can while trying to find a way home.

To me, the worldbuilding resembles ancient Asian cultures (though I’m no expert), with the added elements of magic, strange rituals, and a whole lot of disregard for the contestants’ lives or their homeworlds. The people are brutal, macabre, and think nothing of it. The tentative head of Tiger House, a woman named Tekagi, is a ruthless, ambitious villain in the truest sense. An interesting dynamic set up by the author is that rooting for Jairus is also rooting for Tekagi.

So, the worldbuilding is perfection and the characters engaging – Jairus for his good nature, determination, and intelligence, and Tekagi, because she’s sooo bad! I woke up in the middle of the night to read more chapters under my sheets like a kid afraid of being caught by my mom. The plot is driven by Tekagi’s ambitious designs for most of the book, but Jairus does evolve as a character by the end.

There are plenty of loose ends by the book’s conclusion to hook a reader into picking up the next in the series. I know I will. Highly Recommended.

*****

My Name is Danny by Danny (and Andrew Joyce)

If you need something to read that will warm your heart, lift your spirits, and make you laugh, this book will do it. What a fun way to spend an hour.

Danny the Dog lives with his human, Andrew, on a boat in Florida. This collection of brief stories focuses on Danny’s adventures, his human and animal friendships and rivalries, and his daily activities including acquiring hotdogs. He gets into a lot of trouble and is great at justifying his choices.

The stories are all told from Danny’s perspective with a rare story by Andrew while Danny’s vacationing. Each short chapter starts with a photo of Danny, a small dog with a huge personality. Danny’s wry sense of humor, indignation, and sarcasm are hilarious. He definitely thinks he’s in charge of this human/dog duo. Dog lovers will recognize many aspects of life with a canine companion. I adored this read and recommend it to dog lovers everywhere.

*****

I Am Soul by Yecheilyah Ysrayl

I picked up this book of poetry some time ago and finally opened it. My dad was in the hospital and I had hours to kill. I started reading Ysrayl’s poetry, and the first thing I noticed was the powerful words and rhythms. This is poetry with heart, and it begged to be read aloud.

I found myself a green space outside the hospital and for a couple of hours I walked by myself and read aloud, swept away by the strong emotions and messages, the sometimes hard and sometimes soft beat of the words, and the vivid imagery. The blurb says that this collection of poems focuses “on Black History, Identity, Personal Development, and Spirituality. Readers describe this collection as touching, intelligent, personal and deeply soulful.” I can’t say it any better. A moving read and if you can find a place to read it aloud, you won’t regret it. Highly recommended.

*****

Orion’s Gift by Anneli Purchase

Sylvia and Kevin are both escaping abusive relationships and individually head to Mexico to camp along the beautiful beaches of Baja. They end up meeting and fall immediately into lust, which gradually turns into something deeper. But nothing’s going to be that easy as the drug trade south of the border strikes a little close to their camper-homes, and even worse, their exes are trying to hunt them down.

Romance with lots of misunderstandings and emotional turmoil is a major theme in the book, but the subplots add a lot of drama to the story. Both exes—who are quite different from each other—have chapters from their points-of-view which adds to the building tension. The subplot regarding the drug trade escalates the danger, particularly for Sylvia.

I liked the quick pace of the story and there was plenty going on to keep me turning the pages. The descriptions of camping in Baja include well-researched details, not only regarding the landscape but also the challenges, the things visitors need to know, and some of the pitfalls. I enjoyed the authenticity they lent to the story.

Kevin was my favorite character as he’s pretty solid and straightforward. Sylvia suffers from insecurities throughout the book, but this struck me as realistic based on her history as a victim of domestic violence. She also has a secret that interferes with any dreams of a future with Kevin. A well-rounded story and highly recommended to readers of romance.

*****

The Lost Signal by J. S. Fernandez Morales

This book is almost 400 pages, and every word was worth the read. This sci-fi adventure was a great story. For ¾ of the book, there are two alternating, unconnected narratives. One storyline follows the efforts of a group of Earthlings who are preparing for an alien invasion aided by a renegade alien named Bill (named so for convenience).

The other storyline is told primarily from Fiona’s point of view. She’s an alien/human hybrid who’s lived her whole life with humans and feels compelled to protect them when aliens descend on their village and enslave them. The stories begin to overlap at the 75% mark and it’s a very cool twist.

Fiona’s story has a persistent undercurrent of tension as she navigates the alien environment. The villain that she’s connected to is consistently brutal and unpredictable while also oddly vulnerable. I love complex villains like this. He’s horrifying and redeemable. The Earthlings’ story isn’t quite as action-packed, but it is fascinating, particularly Bill’s role. And there are a couple of shocking moments.

Characters throughout the book are unique and plausible and emotionally rich, and I’d say that they stole the show, except the plot is also very cool. A great blend that makes for a great read. Sci-fi readers who enjoy alien stories, action and adventure, and great characters will love this. Worth every word.

*****

Smoke Rose to Heaven by Sarah Angleton

This book isn’t typical of those I normally read, and I’m happy to report that I enjoyed it. Spanning the mid to late 1800s, Ada Moses relates the story of her life to an old man called the Prophet, a key influencer of the Mormon faith at its initiation. The entire book is Ada’s narrative, but it’s told in such a way that I was immersed in Ada’s experiences as they unfolded.

The impetus driving Ada to tell her story to the Prophet is a secret manuscript that came into her possession as a child, a manuscript that is dangerous to the Mormon faith. The document has put her life at risk, and she wants to tell her story before death finds her. Though this was interesting, it wasn’t the plot thread that sucked me in and didn’t let go.

For me, Ada’s human story was more compelling. Her mother dies when she’s a child, and her father gives her away to his sister and her husband. Ada’s aunt is a fundamental Christian zealot and her uncle is a snake oil salesman with some skill at dowsing and other esoteric arts. Ada is caught in the middle, trying to navigate her way safely through her aunt’s fanaticism and seeking some desperately needed parental love which she finds in her uncle and his unsavory business partners. I was riveted by her psychological and emotional growth, insights, and perspectives. Her experiences guide her choices and determine who she ultimately becomes. This is a character-driven story, beautifully written, and thoroughly engaging. Highly recommended.

*****

Be a Happier Parent or Laugh Trying by Betsy Kerekes

Kerekes offers some wise advice for parents and delivers it with plenty of wit. The exaggeration and sarcasm woven into her view of children and parenting is hysterical, but throughout the read, it’s also clear that love makes up the solid foundation of her parenting style. Parenting strategies in the book are often creative and buried in fun, but there’s also some great guidance on discipline and the less glamorous trials of being a firm parent.

As a retired early-childhood mental health counselor, I found the information in this book highly relevant as well as laugh-out-loud funny. The ideas presented in the book are geared toward parents but are equally relevant to grandparents and other caregivers.

Kerekes isn’t shy about sharing her Christian faith and a few chapters focus on parenting within that framework. My impression is that though these chapters focus on Catholicism, they could apply to other faiths or to no faith at all, such as how to encourage kindness and charity in children. I highly recommend this book of sound parental advice delivered with love, fun, and a laugh.

*****

Happy Reading!

Sunday Blog Share: Danny Extorts Andrew…

Since I began blogging, I’ve been an avid fan of Danny the Dog, who lived on a houseboat with Andrew, his human. Danny was a writer, adventurer, and source of witty entertainment for years. On Tuesday the 18th, Danny passed on after a much-loved life. My condolences to his friend, Andrew. I know Danny will be sorely missed. This was his last post. Read and smile.

Danny Extorts Andrew

Danny the Dog

Good morning, everybody. It is I, your favorite dog, Danny the Dog. At least I’m your favorite dog that pens a monthly epistle here on Chris’ blog.

I write about my life, my loves, and my losses—although I do not lose very often. Today, I’m here to tell you about one of my wins. And of course, it’s a win against my arch-nemesis, Andrew, my human.

For those of you who follow my exploits on a monthly basis, you know of my love of turkey slices. How every morning when Andrew and I come in from our walk, he’ll give me a few slices. And you’ll also know that we live on a boat. I only mention that because it has a bearing on my story.

So here’s the set-up. Boats have cockpits—it’s the place you steer from. There are also seats and/or benches where people (or dogs) can sit around and enjoy being out on the water. Me, I don’t get it. I love air-conditioning and all it entails…

Continue Reading: Danny Extorts Andrew…

 

❤ A small note: The link above is not to Andrew’s site. If you wish to visit, read his stories, and take in his photos, Andrew’s blog is Here.

On Vacation in Hawaii (without the girls)

My husband and I are on vacation, our first in 15 years. Why has it been so long? We could blame it on kids, work, unemployment, lack of funds, family obligations, broken down cars and leaky roofs, college educations, and a host of other excuses. Here’s the real reason- my husband has two girlfriends.

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Honey and Lulu

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Honey and Lulu are sisters. The “girls” haven’t spent one day in a kennel since we rescued them in 2004. I think they might be spoiled.

Well, one of our human kids offered to fly up from LA and dog-sit for a week. It was the only way my husband would agree to leave his loves. I’ve dragged him reluctantly off to Hawaii for a long overdue vacation. We arrived yesterday afternoon and my husband has only called home four times 🙂

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We arrived to wind and cloudy skies

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The sun turned the Pacific silver.

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The sky began to clear as the day waned.

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Sunset over the Pacific

I closed comments for this one, so the hubby gets a bit of undivided attention. Wishing everyone a wonderful week. ❤

 

Writing Animals into your Story

dog7On occasion, authors may choose to write animals into their stories. Animals can be valuable additions if done well. They can also detract from a story if an author isn’t careful.

I’m not talking about anthropomorphism in this post – the attribution of human characteristics to animals. Animals that bake cakes, sing show tunes, communicate by telepathy, shapeshift, form armies and conquer cities are more open to an author’s creative interpretation, and often human authenticity matters more than the animal traits.

I’m talking about your everyday animals (including imaginary creatures) that our characters share the world with and encounter in their daily lives and adventures.

There are times when writing animals into our stories isn’t an option. For example, many of my fantasy characters ride horses. Knowing something about horses – their abilities, needs, and personality quirks – is a requirement in order to bring a sense of reality to my books.

There are also times when we add animals for what they contribute to a story. I enjoy writing tales with animals and most of my books have at least one that plays a role larger than mere scenic backdrop. The larger the role the animal plays, the more the writer needs to attend to its needs, presence, and activities.

We might choose to add animals for a number of reasons:

  1. Animals add comic relief.
  2. Animals create tension or fear.
  3. A tough hero’s interaction with an animal can show a softer side.
  4. A villain’s love of an animal can add dimension.
  5. The maltreatment of an animal conveys a flaw.
  6. An animal can reinforce themes in the book.

In the Dragon Soul series, one of my favorite characters is Arful, a black mutt. Arful certainly adds comic relief, as well as moments of tenderness in a callous world.

dog6For a time, Morgen watched the woman and her children, accepted into the familial circle in the sandy lane, invited in by Arful, the dog that ignored all social respectability and did away with any form of restraint.

Aedan ran in circles, chasing or chased by the dog, somewhat difficult to distinguish between the two. 

The Seabourne’s cantankerous first mate shows his “softer” side.

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Tending the captain’s pet now, was all Treasach could think. What could possibly be next?

The dog ran up and down the deck, barking inanely at the men in the rigging as if they were crows nesting on the yards. It pushed its head between Treasach’s knees, nearly knocking him off his feet. If it hadn’t been so comical, and if he hadn’t some fondness for dogs, he would have tossed the beast overboard.

And most importantly, Arful contributes to the arc of the main character, Morgen, a sea captain who avoids responsibility and finds himself saddled with a dog. Responsibility for Arful leads to responsibility for a family, a people, and ultimately to a decision to risk his life for the archipelago in which he lives.

dog2With a frown, he threw a stick for Arful who bounded after it, overshot it, and got his legs tangled in a flailing turn. Morgen had never encountered a more uncoordinated dog. The thought that he collected misfits and lost souls rankled him, and he walked behind the house to sit on the seawall and stew.

Writing animals into a story comes with challenges that a writer has to keep an eye on. A few tips:

1. Know or learn the natural behavior of the animal. Most of us have experience with dogs, but we may have to do some research on wolves, elephants, or goats. You can’t beat hands-on experience.

2. Remember that domesticated animals need to be cared for. Your character can’t just leave without making arrangements. If your characters go on an adventure with an animal, consider how the animal is provided for and how it manages the obstacles along the way. Writing the details isn’t necessary, but knowing them is.

3. Be careful not to let the animal become a distraction that slows down your story. Weigh the benefits against the “intermissions” in your pacing.

4. Remember that the animal, like any secondary character, has to have reasons to be in the story. The more reasons, the better.

5. Avoid stereotypes and cliches – give your important animals authentic personalities and quirks.

Animals in stories can be wonderful additions. When well integrated, they can be amusing, reveal the character of your protagonist or villain, and augment the themes of your story and advance the plot.

Do you write animals into your stories? Have you had to research animal traits and care?