October Book Reviews, Part I

My 60-book Autumn Reading Challenge is progressing, even though I’m behind and probably won’t catch up. I’ve read 13 books so far – enough to warrant a mid-October review post!

This month, my offering of  4 and 5 star reviews includes a sentimental thriller, historical fiction, horror, short stories, poetry, and a children’s book. I hope you enjoy the browse.

Click on the covers for Amazon global links.

*****

A Boy Named Rabbit by Marcia Meara

I fell in love with a little boy named Rabbit. OMG. This book is so wonderful, I can’t recommend it enough. Rabbit is ten years old, and for his entire life, he’s lived in the deep forest of the Blue Ridge Mountains with his grandparents. They took him there when he was a baby to keep him safe from the “bad people.” When his grandparents die, he starts a solo journey to find a place he belongs.

Rabbit enters the lives of Sarah and Mac Cole and what follows is a story of love, loss, and discovery as Rabbit learns about a whole new world. He’s never seen electricity in action or ridden in a car or listened to music! He’s an amazing character—inquisitive, funny, heartbroken, and wise beyond his years. As Rabbit transforms, the characters around him transform as well.

There’s danger in this book, a bit of paranormal “sight,” and kindness galore. My investment in Rabbit was intense, and I couldn’t stop rooting for him. Though Rabbit is the star of this literary show, the other characters are well-rounded and emotionally authentic. The writing is exceptional with spot-on dialog and an excellent pace. I couldn’t put the book down and got all teary with happiness at the end.

Though this is Book 2 in the Wake-Robin Ridge series, I’m not sure it’s necessary to read Book 1 first, though it wouldn’t hurt. I enjoyed that book too. Interested in something thoroughly original, engaging, and tender? A Boy Named Rabbit will steal your heart.

*****

The Last Pilgrim by Noelle Granger

I just finished this amazing historical fiction, and despite its length (458 pages) I clung to every word. The story chronicles the true events of the Pilgrims’ journey to the New World in 1620, and then continues through 80+ years as the colony struggles for survival and contributes to the growth of a nation. The author deftly weaves two narrative threads from beginning to end: the historical events of the times, and the personal lives of those who lived them, as seen through the eyes of Mary Cushman.

One thread, about 50% of the narrative, focuses on the politics of the time—conflicts between the venture’s investors and the colony, friendships and wars with the Native Americans, and problems with governance, both civil and religious. This is primarily narrated through the eagerly prying ears of Mary Cushman whose family(s) are leaders in the Plymouth colony.

The other 50% of the narrative is Mary’s personal story of growth into a pioneer woman, wife, mother, and grandmother. Mary is 4 years old at the crossing and the book ends when she’s in her eighties. The story is told initially from the perspective of Isaac Allerton, her father, and then gradually shifts to Mary’s point of view alone.

One thing I found enthralling was how “true to the time period” she was in her thoughts and actions while at the same time demonstrating her innate intelligence and will. She’s a lively character, and the connection to her was instantaneous. All of the characters are 3-dimensional and beautifully written, and the themes of friendship, loyalty, faith, love, loss, and family are no different than today.

The author’s research was clearly extensive—of both the actual events and politics of the time but also of the daily lives of men, women, and children. Wonderful details brought the story to life, transporting me smack into the 1600s.This isn’t a glorified tale of colonization. The events are conveyed through the lens of those who made choices for the colony and their families. Some are disturbing to our modern sensibilities, but I thoroughly appreciated the authenticity.

Having grown up in New England, many of the places were familiar and I was captivated by the history. I highly recommend this novel to history buffs and readers of historical fiction.

I just finished this amazing historical fiction, and despite its length (458 pages) I clung to every word. The story chronicles the true events of the Pilgrims’ journey to the New World in 1620, and then continues through 80+ years as the colony struggles for survival and contributes to the growth of a nation. The author deftly weaves two narrative threads from beginning to end: the historical events of the times, and the personal lives of those who lived them, as seen through the eyes of Mary Cushman.

One thread, about 50% of the narrative, focuses on the politics of the time—conflicts between the venture’s investors and the colony, friendships and wars with the Native Americans, and problems with governance, both civil and religious. This is primarily narrated through the eagerly prying ears of Mary Cushman whose family(s) are leaders in the Plymouth colony.

The other 50% of the narrative is Mary’s personal story of growth into a pioneer woman, wife, mother, and grandmother. Mary is 4 years old at the crossing and the book ends when she’s in her eighties. The story is told initially from the perspective of Isaac Allerton, her father, and then gradually shifts to Mary’s point of view alone.

One thing I found enthralling was how “true to the time period” she was in her thoughts and actions while at the same time demonstrating her innate intelligence and will. She’s a lively character, and the connection to her was instantaneous. All of the characters are 3-dimensional and beautifully written, and the themes of friendship, loyalty, faith, love, loss, and family are no different than today.

The author’s research was clearly extensive—of both the actual events and politics of the time but also of the daily lives of men, women, and children. Wonderful details brought the story to life, transporting me smack into the 1600s.This isn’t a glorified tale of colonization. The events are conveyed through the lens of those who made choices for the colony and their families. Some are disturbing to our modern sensibilities, but I thoroughly appreciated the authenticity.

Having grown up in New England, many of the places were familiar and I was captivated by the history. I highly recommend this novel to history buffs and readers of historical fiction. 

Side Note: There was an interesting moment in the book when one of my notorious ancestors, Arthur Peach, was hanged by the colonists for murder. Arthur’s history has been well-researched by my family, and it was wild to read a few paragraphs about him in Noelle’s book.

*****

Murder They Wrote

by Judi Lynn, C.S. Boyack, Mae Clair, Kathleen Palm, Julia Donner, D.P. Reisig, Rachel Sherwood Roberts

Seven authors, seven genres, seven murders. One of the things that appealed to me about this book was the blend of genres and authors, which guaranteed lots of varied entertainment. The stories offered a wide range of settings and characters from a 19th century courtroom to a medieval castle, from a modern sleuth with the ability to dissolve into a fog to a regency couple who solve a murder at a balloon launch while engaging in witty repartee.

Story length ranged from short story to novella, and together made a full-length book. I was impressed with the quality across the board. No weak links in this group. Well-constructed plots, three-dimensional characters, and expertly edited. Highly recommended. 

*****

We All Die in the End by Elizabeth Merry

This collection of loosely-connected vignettes offers glimpses into the lives of nineteen different residents in a small, seaside Irish town. For the most part, the stories are grim, the characters ranging from slightly off kilter to severely struggling. There are tidbits of humor and kindness here and there, but those are few and far between.

The writing is polished, and the characters are deeply rendered and distinct. My overall impression was that the characters are trapped in their lives, contributing to a sense of despair, sadness, madness, and violence. Despite the bleakness of the situations, the read is mesmerizing. Each story is unique. Highly recommended to short story readers and readers of literary fiction.

*****

Brazos Wind by Jan Sikes

A wonderful western short story. Jack McClean finds Savannah Logan on the brink of death outside her burning farmhouse. In a nutshell, what follows demonstrates how kindness can not only save a life, but heal a soul. As Jack helps Savannah, he changes both of their futures.

There are no bad guys in this short story beyond chance and bad luck. Like life for many of us. The story is expertly crafted with well-rounded believable characters. It leaves off with a hint of more to come and I hope the author follows through. A lovely read.

*****

Slices of Soul by Harmony Kent

I picked up this book after learning that the author spent 13 years in a Zen Buddhist Temple. I was curious about how her experiences influenced her poetry. The poems are divided into seven sections beginning with Shaved Head, Short Hair, and Long Hair, representing the journey from the monastery back into modern life.

Many of the poems read like koans, statements used for meditation. The poems are simply written and it’s easy to appreciate how they reflect of the author’s journey of change and discovery. Several favorites are Rebirth, Diamonds, Waterfall, and The Alchemist. A lovely collection that I read in less than an hour.

*****

Molly Finds Her Purr by Pamela Wight

Molly is a stray who sees a pampered cat named Clara purring as she gets some loving from her owner. Molly wants a purr too, but has trouble finding it, since life on her own is pretty lonely. That all changes when she encounters Petey the squirrel and a couple of other friendly creatures who create a circle of friends.

This is a lovely story about friendship and belonging. As a rescuer of feral cats, I happen to know that inside every cat there’s a purr waiting to come out. How true for people too. The sweet message of friendship and kindness will resonate with children, young and old. Beautiful illustrations and perfect for preschoolers.

*****

Nightmareland by Dan Alatorre (Editor)

Robbie Cheadle, Ellen Best, Kaye Booth, Betty Valentine, Alana Turner, Christine Valentor, more…

I haven’t read a horror anthology before, and with Halloween right around the corner, I thought I give this one a try. With 23 stories from 14 authors, I was bound to find something I enjoyed. I wasn’t disappointed.

The anthology offers a variety of stories from witches and hauntings to madness and murder. Monsters come in all shapes and sizes, including human ones, and to me, those were the most frightening tales of all. “My Scared” was such a tale and my favorite in the collection. The variety of authors ensures a range of narrative voices and writing styles that I thoroughly enjoyed. A great read for anyone who enjoys suspense, thrills, spooky tales, and a few bone-chillers.

*****

Magical Whispers by Balroop Singh

I’ve read a few of Singh’s poetry collections, and this one is my favorite. Each poem is a gem, and though this isn’t a long book, it’s worth taking a few leisurely days or weeks to savor.

The 73 poems are divided into two sections: Magical Whispers and Whispers of Life. The poems in Magical Whispers have a strong focus on Nature—the mysteries, solace, and magical connections the author has to Mother Earth. A few of my favorite poems are Dawn Whispers, Magic of Senses, and A Moon Fairy.

Whispers of Life is broader in scope, touching on love, growth, longing, memories, and other facets of human life. Though personal to the author, the poems are relatable and insightful. My favorites in this section are My Words, Only Memories are Mine, and Muted by Time. Highly recommended.

*****

Happy Reading!

Guns of Perdition: Interview and Review

A couple of years ago, I beta-read Guns of Perdition, and (woot woot) I’m delighted to see it out. I’d never read a western horror before this one, and Jessica Bakkers’ debut novel was a treat. My review is below, but before going there, I wanted to pick this author’s brain a bit. If you follow Jessica’s blog, you’ve discovered a kind, friendly, introverted Australian with a wry sense of humor. So, what twisting creative road led her to write an America western horror story? I asked Jess that question, and here’s her answer:

Jessica: I’ve always loved dark fantasy – both reading and writing it, but I was always much more of a sword and magic fancier than guns and cowboys. I actually had (and still have) a massive saga outlined about an assassin in Roman times that I was all set to write, when Grace (the main character from Guns of Perdition) popped into my head and demanded to be written. Actually, it was her strange love affair with a reverse werewolf that demanded to be written. Something about the story of tortured lovers who can only appreciate each other once a month by the light of the full moon needed to be told.

So, I wrote the first chapter of GoP without any clear idea where the story was heading, only knowing that I had two star-crossed lovers to play with and there would be supernatural themes and horror aplenty. I may be inspired by romance at times, but I am a dark writer at heart! The story – as stories do – evolved from there. Grace turned into a no-nonsense hardcase, so I needed a soft foil to counterbalance her loutish ways. Jessie was born. Then, somewhere around the middle of the first Part, the whole story – for all three novels – came to me. I was finally able to outline and write to some kind of plan…well, a loose plan! Call me a Planster!

After researching a different time period, different country, and completely different way of ‘jawing’ (talking), the characters and setting came alive for me, and telling their story went smoothly. Plot holes, editing, writer’s block, and crippling self-doubt… not so smooth. But, with the support and help of my friends in this writing community, I pulled it out, and am immensely proud to finally have my debut novel finished and published.

If you take a chance on Guns of Perdition, I hope you enjoy reading it – after all, that’s why we writers write, isn’t it?

Diana’s Review: Guns of Perdition

This is the first western-horror to cross my Kindle, and the blend of genres was a treat. Jessie is a young man sweeping up a saloon when Grace, one tough and dusty drifter, saunters in. Her face is hidden by a broad Stetson, and her holsters boast a pair of pearl-handled Smith & Wessons. It doesn’t take long for Grace’s guns to start blazing. But she isn’t shooting criminals. She’s hunting demons and out to get revenge against the Darksome Gunman. With no idea of what he’s signing up for, Jessie decides to tag along. Oh, Jessie, don’t do it!

The action in this dark and bloody story starts on the first page and doesn’t let up until the last. As Grace and Jessie ride through the wild west, each destination brings evil creatures, villains, and dangers, and the gunfights are frequent. They also pick up a few unsavory horsemen who join them on the hunt for vengeance.

As a horror novel, there’s plenty of gore, death, and horrifying scenes. I actually shouted, “Oh my God” near the end. Bakkers doesn’t hold back the punches, and I appreciated her unabashed commitment to the genre and plot. The over-arching basis of the story becomes increasingly clear throughout the read, and it gave me goosebumps.

The story is told from several POVs, and the pace moves along at a gallop. The characters are well-drawn and terribly flawed. I really liked Grace’s character, and I really hated Grace’s character. She’s sympathetic and ruthless. Jessie grows up and grows wiser, and he pays a price for falling for the drifter. The language uses western vernacular and has a western twang that I needed to get used to, but ended up enjoying.

This is the first book in a series. It doesn’t wrap up in a nice neat bow in the end, but I found it satisfying and will be reading on when book 2 comes out. Definitely a gruesome, creative, entertaining tale. Recommended for readers of horror and paranormal stories, who enjoy the Old West, flawed characters, and some intense writing.

Guns of Perdition – Amazon Global Link

Jessica’s Blog

Happy Reading!

Writing Teenage Boys: Guest Post with Teri Polen

I’m not much of a horror reader since Dean Koontz scared the bejeezus out of me as a teenager. I’m also not a huge fan of teenagers. The real ones are tolerable, but the ones in books sometimes drive me crazy. They’re angsty,  dramatic, and they make dumb decisions. They remind me of me at that age.

So… when I picked up Teri Polen’s YA horror novel, Sarah, I was worried.

Well, silly me for fretting. The book was awesome. I’ll give you my review below, but first, I had to quiz Teri. One of the best things about the book was the way she dove into the experience of Cain, a 17-yr-old teenage boy. It felt totally genuine to me, and I happen to know Teri isn’t a 17-yr-old teenage boy. How did she do that with such authenticity? How did she prepare? Here’s her answer:

***

You’re not the first person to ask how I channeled the voices of 17-year-old boys, Diana. A good friend is convinced I was a teenage boy in a previous life. I have two sons—I honestly don’t know what I would have done with girls—and we’ve always had a steady stream of their friends hanging out at our house.

I spent countless hours driving them to sports and band practices, sleepovers, movies, dances…you get the picture. They trash talked each other while playing video games, compared puzzling encounters with the female species, and debated superhero movies. I’ve witnessed their heartache after breakups, their bets on when a friend would get dumped by a new girlfriend—and if it would be by text or in person, and their vehement defense of each other when challenged.

All the while, I listened. And it’s mostly been quite entertaining and enlightening. When the characters in my head demanded their story be told, it was natural they’d be teenage boys, because that’s what I know.

Cain’s pigsty of a bedroom is a near perfect picture of my oldest son’s room—or as my younger son calls it, ‘The Black Hole’. Things have literally disappeared in there, and the smells emanating from that room have been horrific at times. If a zombie apocalypse happened today, we could live on the half-empty Gatorade and water bottles, snack bags, and protein bars for quite a while.

My sons and their friends probably never dreamed some of their comments would come back to ‘haunt’ them in a YA horror novel. You never know who’s listening.

***

My Review: 

Sarah is categorized as YA horror and the book fits the genre perfectly. Sarah is a teenage ghost seeking revenge for her murder. She returns to the scene of the crime, now the home of Cain Shannon, a 17-year-old horror fan. At first, she appears shy and vulnerable, and Cain agrees to help her, but she’s not as helpless as he believes. With each bloody act of revenge, she grows in power, and her tactics increase in brutality. Before long, Cain is in the battle of his life against a ghost intent on death.

This book has some really creepy, icky, suspenseful, and scary things going on, but the scare-factor and gore feel appropriate for YA readers (as well as adults). The story grabbed my attention from the first page, and the tension and suspense escalate at a steady pace without much of a break right up to the climatic end. Even the last few paragraphs of the epilog are worthy of a few terrifying chills.

Though the horror aspects of the book were engaging, what impressed me the most was Polen’s outstanding characters. All of them felt well-rounded to me with fully developed personalities, but I was totally taken with the main character Cain and his friend Finn. They felt authentic to me in their thoughts, emotions, dialog, banter, friendship, and relationships with others. I’m in awe of the author’s ability to capture the essence of teenage boys with such expertise. I found the pair of them refreshing and likable, and therefore enjoyed the non-horror moments of the book as much as the horror, if not more so.

Another thing that impressed me was the believability of the characters’ choices. I often find that characters in horror (movies) make stupid choices because the plot would keel over and die if they acted sensibly. Polen was meticulous in building a backstory that supported Cain’s decisions, particularly his choice not to involve his mother and to stay in the house despite the presence of a murderous ghost. This careful attention to character and plot kept me enmeshed in the story from chapter one right through to the end.

An excellent book for both YA and adult readers of horror and suspense.

***

Eh, what’s one more book in your TBR pile? Here’s a link: Sarah

Connect with Teri on her book review blog: Books and Such

Sunday Blog Share: Steel Venom

I thought maybe I’d start sharing why I picked a certain piece for the Sunday Blog Share. In this case, Almost Iowa gave me a hysterical reminder of the crazy, dangerous things I did as a kid.  Prepare to laugh (or cringe).

Comments are closed here, so click through and enjoy.

Steel Venom

by Almost Iowa

Every summer my wife tries to get me on an amusement park ride called Steel Venom.

She loves the contraption – about as much as I hate it.

Last summer was no exception and one afternoon we found ourselves bickering in the shadow of a half roller-coaster half catapult.

“You’re chicken,” she taunted.

“Not at all,” I said.

Overhead, the ride flexed and moaned as a trolley corkscrewed its way up a high tower. When it reached the top, it paused for one heart-thumping moment to dangle its riders above a flock of confused birds – then it plunged into a wild spiral that ended only inches from the ground.

The riders flashed by us, howling in terror. A few wore faces whiter than death and I thought for a moment that I recognized an old friend among them.

Without the slightest hesitation or remorse, the trolley fired up a companion tower then repeated the process over and over – until everyone, rider and observer alike, was nauseous.

“Don’t look like much fun to me,” I observed.

“Chicken,” she repeated.

Believe me, Steel Venom did not frighten me. I’ve dodged bullets, survived a car wreck and endured an audit by the IRS and not one of those things even quickened my pulse – because nothing, absolutely nothing will ever come close to the ride I took on a Radio Flyer wagon when I was six years old.

***

At first, I simply put things into my wagon and towed them around the yard. But I soon discovered it was more fun to hop in the wagon and roll down our backyard hill…

(Continue Reading: Steel Venom)

Sunday Blog Share: The Swamp

sunday-blog-share4

This story is about 2800 words, longer than I would normally share, but what a story. Enjoy!

The Swamp

by Andrew Joyce

When I got into the car, he told me to call him Teddy Bear. It was 3:00 a.m. and I was hitchhiking. I was grateful when I saw the brake lights come on and the car stop about thirty feet from where I was standing. The car itself was not visible because the fog at that time in the morning was so thick.

As I’ve said, I was to call the driver Teddy Bear, which didn’t strike the seventeen-year-old boy, which I was at the time, as a strange or unreasonable request. The road was a deserted two-lane affair that ran right through a swamp, which accounted for the excessive fog. I was damn glad he had happened along. It was mighty wet and cold, standing out there on the side of the road.

Because of the low visibility, we were going about twenty miles per hour and Teddy Bear was in an expansive and talkative mood. He told me in great detail of his job as an ambulance driver. He especially enjoyed picking up and transporting dead bodies. Still no alarms went off in my head. As he talked, I noticed he was slowing the car down even more than was necessary, given the conditions. As he spoke of his fascination with death and dead bodies, I just sat nodding my head and agreeing with whatever he said. I was not about to be put out into that inhospitable climate again for being an inattentive guest. I had been let off from my last ride about four hours earlier, and in those four hours, I had not seen one car until Teddy Bear came along.

We traversed the winding road through the swamp at an annoyingly slow pace as I learned of the joys of being in close proximity to the dead. About fifteen minutes into our time together, Teddy Bear started fishing around in the console that separated us. He did not seem to be trying very hard to find whatever he was looking for; his eyes never left the road and at times his hand would stop moving and just lay there in the console. Then he said, “You know, I could kill you, throw your body into the swamp, and nobody would ever find you.” That got my attention! However, before I could digest the statement and make the appropriate reply, his hand came up out of the console and made for the area of my neck. He was holding the largest damn hunting knife I think I have ever seen—before or since…

(Continue reading: The Swamp)