Vokhtah: sci-fi world-building with acflory

THE most original sci-fi book I’ve ever read is Vokhtah by Andrea Flory. The depth of her world-building and character-construction is highly creative and intensely alien, right down to the language these insect-like creatures use. I’ve been wanting to interview her and finally got the chance. Welcome Andrea!

1. You decided to create an alien world without humans. Lots of authors do that, but their characters are often “human in disguise” with human-ish thoughts and emotions and cultural variations. Your characters are definitely NOT human. What inspired you to create a completely alien species?

Aaaah Diana! Thank you for inviting me, but…you’ve opened a real Pandora’s box here. What inspired me? I could say it was the original Mr Spock played by Leonard Nimoy, or the character of Dexter, the ‘good’ psychopath, or the aliens of The Left Hand of Darkness by the late Ursula K. Le Guin, but that would only approximate the truth.

To give you a genuine answer I would have to change your question to ‘Why do so many humans create aliens in the first place?’

To that question, my answer is that we’re looking for answers about ourselves. Humans are such a mixed bag. We run the gamut from saints like Mother Teresa to monsters like Ted Bundy. Why are we so different? In creating my aliens, I tried to create a dark mirror to the familiar, a contrast by which we could see ourselves more clearly. And what could be a greater contrast than flying, sociopathic hermaphrodites?

2. For a book to engage readers, characters (particularly the protagonists) need to be relatable. Readers want to feel connected to them, and this is often accomplished through shared “human-ish” experience and emotion. What was your thought process in how to achieve relatability while maintaining a sense that these are very different creatures?

Every society requires some kind of co-operative ‘glue’ to survive. On Vokhtah, my alien society evolved to value strength, courage, justice, honour and the paying of ‘debts’, traits we humans recognize and value too. Those traits provide a bridge between them and us. Plus, I have to admit that some of my aliens are ‘nicer’ than others. The hardest part of writing them was stopping myself from making them too nice.

3. Your world-building is deep and complex.  Did you plan it out in advance of writing? And to what level of detail? Did it evolve as you wrote the first book?

Nanowrimo 2004 triggered the creation of my aliens, but the world took about nine years to evolve, and it required a lot of research, including a crash course in basic astronomy. The relationship between the twin suns has a profound affect on the planet so I had to learn about binary star systems and how they might affect the day/night cycle as well as the seasons. This is my reference ‘calendar’:

And then there’s the con lang [constructed language] spoken by my aliens. Because their lungs are in their wings, sound is produced by pushing air through tiny ‘pipes’ called cilia. As a result, their language evolved as a mix of organ-like sounds together with optional ‘scents’ that add an emotional depth to their words.

Adding to that complexity is the fact that, as hermaphrodites, my aliens are neither ‘he’ nor ‘she’ but ‘it’. Trying to make English reflect these constraints without being too awful to read was a…challenge.

4. I know you enjoy making images as you conceptualize your story.  Tell me more about that process and your reasoning.

Some people can visualise everything perfectly in their heads. Me, I have to see the things I imagine in some kind of physical form, otherwise I miss the ‘obvious’.

One of those obvious things I almost missed had to do with how many arms my aliens have. I wanted them to have ‘clever hands’ and powerful wings that look a bit like bats, but bat wings look like this:

Those wings rely on impossibly long ‘fingers’, leaving no room for functional ‘hands’. The challenge was to find a way for my aliens to have both hands and wings.

It took a while, but as I messed around with various models, I suddenly realised that my aliens needed not one set of arms but two! That ‘ah hah!’ moment combined with a lot of images of black leather eventually led to this:

Still a work in progress, but getting there.

5. What excites you about writing these books?  What are you most proud of?

I love a challenge, and I love doing research, but what I’m most proud of is that I stayed true to the original vision of the story.

I created sociopaths so I could explore what it means to be human. I created hermaphrodites so I could explore gender. But to stay true to both those themes, I had to create a language that was both gender neutral and lacking in names. That resulted in dialogue like this:

Begging,” the Apprentice sent in desperation. “Allowing others in group to join Tellers. Not deserving this.”

There was a short silence before the Runner replied.

Others can re-joining caravan,” it said, “but not Apprentice, Flyer or that Plodder. Life-debt must being cancelled.”

One of my first beta readers strongly advised me to re-write the dialogue in standard English, to make it ‘easier’ for readers. I did agonise over that one because I know that too much ‘dialect’ can make dialogue almost incomprehensible, but there was no way I could change the dialogue without changing everything about the story, starting with the biology. I kept the dialogue.

6. Thank you so much for sharing your creative adventure with us, Andrea. Anything else you’d like to add?

Vokhtah was, and is, my passion. If the book had been picked up by a traditional publisher, I am sure I would have been told to change a great many things, including the dialogue. One of the joys of being an Indie is that I can stay true to the vision that made me write the story in the first place. That freedom is a gift of immeasurable value.

And so is the gift of community. Family and friends are precious, but sometimes their eyes glaze over when I talk about writing. When I come here, it feels like coming home. Thank you, Diana, for always making me feel welcome in this accepting community of writers and readers.

Huge hugs to all,
Meeks [aka acflory]

Diana’s review of Vokhtah:

This is a hard book to describe. “Pure Alien” is a good start, and I’m impressed by the author’s ambition and execution. Vokhtah is an alien planet and the characters are insect-like (my impression) creatures who engage in their own sort of political intrigue, espionage, and social caste system. They’re clever, dastardly, selfless, and selfish – much like humans – but there the similarities end.

The world-building is rather amazing and humans won’t find much that’s familiar here. Even the speech is different. The iVokh and Vokh are genderless “its” and don’t have names, referred to by their role in society, their ranking, and their talents. Social norms are dictated by groups and reinforce variations in dominance and subservience. It takes about a third of the book to get used to.

The story unfolds from multiple points of view, all alien. Flory doesn’t pamper the reader with backstory or explanation, but tosses us right into the strange world – sink or swim. The experience is immersive, but it requires patience to figure out who these aliens are and what the heck they’re doing. I enjoyed the story-telling, the fascinating world, the author’s imagination and writing skills. The pace was excellent and kept my interest.

I did spend a fair amount of the book confused about the characters, though. This is primarily, I think, because they don’t have names and, in many cases, go by multiple designations. For example, there are a number of Sixths and Sevenths. A Blue is also a Messenger who is also a Healer. A Teller is also a Trader, and is sometimes an Apprentice, so sometimes they’re the same character, sometimes not. There are a lot of identically designated characters as each location/eyrie in the story has the same basic social structure, and the book involves travel. I struggled to keep them straight until about 50% through when the plot began to narrow down the action and further define the characters’ personalities and motivations.

But then, I struggled to keep Erikson’s Gardens of the Moon straight. That one I gave up on; this one I didn’t. And it was worth it. By the end, I was ready for the next book in the series. I highly recommend Vokhtah to readers who love pure alien sci-fi, love a reading challenge, and want to engage with the work of a wonderfully creative imagination.

Amazon Global Link

December Book Reviews, Part II

My 60-book Autumn Reading Challenge was a success, finishing with 5 days to spare!!

Here are final 6 reviews and a snapshot of all the wonderful books.

December’s Part II book reviews include my 4 and 5 star reads of YA fantasy, a paranormal anthology, short stories, and poetry! I hope you enjoy the browse.

Click on the covers for Amazon global links.

*****

Life is like a Bowl of Cherries: Sometimes Bitter, Sometimes Sweet by Sally Cronin

 I’m a fan of Cronin’s short stories and snagged this anthology the day it came out. The author describes it as a collection of short tales that reflect “the complexities of life, love, and loss.” That’s a fit description. There are stories of kindness, family, grief, courage, and second chances. The characters are ordinary and relatable, but they’re also extraordinary in those moments that define who they are as people.

The first story in the anthology, The Weekly Shopping, is hilarious if not a little ominous, but the rest of the selections are touching. Many are heartwarming, and I wanted to hug the characters. I enjoyed the whole collection but my favorites were: The Scratch Card, The Charity Shop, The Date, and The Gardening Assistant. Between the stories are selections of syllabic poetry. A crown cinquain entitled The Birds was just beautiful. I highly recommend this anthology to anyone who loves well-written short stories about life. 

*****

Perfectly Imperfect by Jacquie Biggar

What a delightful feel-good romance. This is an hour-long read, a fun foray into the contentious relationship between two business people, one trying to hold on to her dream company while the other one is tasked with selling it out from under her. Of course, sparks fly – the bad kind as well as the good.

I whipped through this book. The characters were colorful, both likable, and I loved their sarcasm and spats. The secondary characters were just right and wonderfully well-rounded for such a short book. The plot isn’t overly complex, and there isn’t any of the belabored drama-queen, helpless-female stuff that sometimes makes me roll my eyes. Instead, it struck me as carefully-crafted with just the right details to give a vivid sense of place, character, and action. Honestly, this spunky romance was one of the best I’ve read. Highly recommended.

*****

The Dome by Suzanne Craig-Whytock

Cee and Dee (named for their childhood designations of C and D) are young adult siblings who live on their own in a dystopian world where the “Fancies” reside in comfort and everyone else lives in tent cities or as near-slaves on agro-farms. Anyone who bucks the system is likely to end up at the Dome where they’ll fight other prisoners to the death. Crime is a means of survival and when Cee gets in trouble, his sister joins with other renegades to save him. But it doesn’t stop there! This plot has a lot going on.

The worldbuilding is extensive, and there’s a fair amount of backstory about the place and its history, peoples, and characters, usually relayed through stories. The pace varies, slower when filling in backstory and speeding up significantly during the action scenes and toward the story’s climax. Along with futuristic technology, there’s some quasi-magic too, particularly when it comes to Cee and Dee’s one-of-a-kind talents.

Cee and Dee are fully-drawn, emotionally rich characters with a close relationship. The first-person POV switches between them, and though they’re often separate from each other, they stay connected through their telepathic abilities. I didn’t quite believe that they weren’t aware of their other immense powers, but other than that, I was drawn into the story. An entertaining book for readers who enjoy awesome world-building and dystopian YA. I received a free copy of this book without any expectation of a review. (Paperback)

*****

Timeless Echoes Poetry by Balroop Singh

I’ve read Singh’s poetry books Magical Whispers, and Moments We Love, both of which I thoroughly enjoyed. So, I decided to travel back in time a couple of years and dive into an older collection. The poems of Timeless Echoes reflect the poet’s same beautiful voice and reflective musings with a slightly more formal style.

The poems struck me as personal, a sharing of the many facets of love and relationships – the joys, but also the regrets and hurts, those which we carry with us, examine with older eyes, and come to know in a new way or let go. My favorites were the more free-flowing poems that struck a personal chord: Ageless Echoes, Illusional Calm, New Life, and A Letter. This generous collection of nearly sixty poems can be easily read in an afternoon, though they deserve to be savored.

Dolphin’s Cave by D. L. Finn

Coral is a teenager who’s lived with her aunt since her parents died in a mysterious plane crash in Hawaii. She has repeating dreams of riding dolphins to a golden city, but she always wakes up before the dream’s secrets are revealed. With another family, including their teenage kids, Ben and Beth, Coral and her aunt head to Hawaii for a vacation. Coral is determined to find out what happened to her parents and learn the meaning of her dreams.

The story is told from Coral’s POV. She’s a believable character and true to her age. There’s an appropriate focus on things teens enjoy, and her experiences with young love are sweet. She and her group enjoy some of the tourist-based highlights of Oahu and Maui, while in the background there are darker forces at work – several nefarious characters are spying on Coral and targeting her aunt.

The pace is moderate and the setting well researched. As the plot ramps up, the magical world of the golden city bursts in on an otherwise real-life narrative with all kinds of fantastical creatures like unicorns and dragons, healing powers and royalty. The murderous goals of the bad guys become clear as Coral learns the secrets of her dream and magical heritage. I was too “old” for this read, but do recommend it to tweens and young teenagers, especially girls

*****

Whispers of the Past: Wordcrafters Paranormal Anthology, Edited by Kaye Lynne Booth

This paranormal anthology includes 8 short stories from 6 authors, and I finished the read in a couple of hours. The stories varied widely from a horror-filled tale of untreated rabies in Missed Signs to a naïve and enthusiastic infatuation with a mermaid in Tanked. Other favorites included Partners in Time and A Peaceful Life I’ve Never Known, both exceptionally well-written. As with most anthologies, I appreciated some stories more than others, but they were all entertaining and thoroughly unique. Recommended to fans of paranormal short stories who are looking for an enjoyable way to spend an afternoon.

*****

The books of the 60-Book Autumn Reading Challenge:

A total of 140 books read and reviewed in 2020, so far.

Happy Reading!

December Book Reviews, Part I

My 60-book Autumn Reading Challenge speeds toward the finish line. I’ve read and reviewed 54 books!!

Ten days to read 6 more. Piece of Cake!

December’s Part I book reviews include my 4 and 5 star reads of fantasy, sci-fi, paranormal fiction, thrillers, a memoir written by a dog, poetry, and a children’s book! I hope you enjoy the browse.

Click on the covers for Amazon global links.

*****

Snow White and the Civil War: Survival of the Fairest by Cathleen Townsend

Clearly, from the title, this is a fairy tale retelling, and though the story of Snow White is recognizable in the book, this tale has enough originality and enhancements to rise above the Disney version. No singing mice here; instead there’s a young woman named Gwen trying to survive in California at the start of the Civil War.

Like in the fairy tale, Gwen flees her evil stepmother (and her mirrors) and finds a new home with seven dwarfs who dig for gold in the mines. Gwen keeps house and cooks while the industrious dwarfs keep her safe. The story diverges from the classic tale as Gwen’s desire to pull her weight encourages her to excel at her domestic skills as well as learn new ones. Life is pretty wonderful, and so is love, until the war and her stepmother get in the way.

An underlying theme of the story is the vital role frontier women played in the forming of the country. That said, there’s plenty of magical and real danger, and Gwen has a strong character arc. The narrative includes less-known historical facts about California’s role in the Civil War. It’s also full of details about the mid-1800’s, including homesteading and survival skills.

Townsend does a good job of differentiating between the dwarfs. Told in first person from Gwen’s POV, she’s the character that I got to know best. She’s well rounded, emotionally believable, and her sensibilities are true to the time period. The pace is moderate, and the book ends with a cliff-hanger, so be prepared to dive into Book 2 (Snow White and the Civil War: Plot of Gold). Recommended to YA and adult readers who enjoy fairy tale retellings and stories about frontier women.

*****

Snow White and the Civil War: Plot of Gold by Cathleen Townsend

This book is Part 2 of the Snow White and the Civil War tale, which should be read in order. It switches its POV from Gwen (Janet/Snow White) to Jack (the Prince Charming who isn’t so charming and needs to grow up quite a bit). The timelines of the stories overlap slightly though the characters don’t meet again until later in the book. The story diverges from the traditional fairytale in that Jack has a complete story of his own – as opposed to the largely absent prince in the childhood versions I read.

Having left Janet heartbroken, Jack’s goal is to impress his father by making a successful business for himself. At the same time the Civil War is looming, and California’s gold can make or break the war depending on whose pockets it fills. The politics of the time are well-researched and play a greater role in the story than they did in the first book. Jack’s efforts on behalf of the Union run parallel to his growing up and growing deeper, which I liked as his primary arc. He’s a three-dimensional character, as are a number of secondary characters.

The pace picks up alongside the action. Toward the conclusion, the story transitions back into the Snow White tale, and the evil stepmother makes her reappearance. All the plot threads come together nicely for a satisfying conclusion. Recommended to readers who enjoy fairy tale retellings, historical fiction, Civil War fiction, and books set in the American west.

*****

Patient Zero by Terry Tyler

I’ve been avoiding pandemic books (since there’s enough of that going around in real life these days), but decided to give this collection of nine short stories a try. Great decision (pats self on back). All of the stories take place in the same world, a place being ravaged by a “bat virus.” They read like vignettes, and I was completely drawn in by the characters and their situations. It was fascinating and chilling at the same time.

Each story focuses on a different character, often living through a different stage of the pandemic. Some of them are alone, others with family or friends. Some are highly prepared, others not so much. What I really enjoyed about the collection was how unique each story was and how believable! Yikes. I could absolutely see these tales happening in my neighborhood.

The deadly pandemic is the driving force behind the stories, but the characters bring their own situations, logic, and emotions into their choices. Not all of them survive, despite the best of plans, and for those who do, the world will never be the same. This isn’t a long read, and I recommend it to sci fi fans who enjoy a fictional pandemic and great writing.

*****

The Glamourist by Luanne G. Smith

I really enjoyed The Vine Witch and picked up this continuing story about Elena, a vine witch, and Renard, her fiancé and a vineyard owner. They’ve left the vineyard for the city to assist Yvette, a young woman on the lam from the law who’s trying to discover her magical abilities, protect a treasured book, and find out why she was abandoned as a child.

The plot is too complex to summarize, but it’s well laid out without any confusion. There are a number of characters with competing goals, and the story unfolds like a mystery as paths cross, clues are deciphered, and magic revealed. With witches, jinnis, eccentric mortals, criminals, and a magical cat, things get interesting fast.

One of the best parts is the world-building. This is a society (city) where witches are everywhere among the mortals. They own businesses and their magical abilities are strictly governed by the laws of the Covenants Regulation Bureau. It’s rather wonderful and fascinating, and both witches and mortals have their law-abiding citizens and criminals. Characters are rich and varied, and I enjoyed the author’s creativity when differentiating between them.

The writing is superb with a snappy pace. I’d suggest starting with The Vine Witch, though this book can be read as a stand-alone. A great choice for fantasy readers.

Crown of Coral and Pearl by Mara Rutherford

The start of this fantasy is all about being beautiful, going to a ball, and marrying a prince. The shallowness of the characters almost made me put the read down. But I hung in there, and lucky for me, things started going wrong, and they continued going wrong. Before I knew it, I was hooked.

In an act of kindness, Nor, a feisty young woman, switches places with her demure twin sister, Zadie, and heads from her sea-stilt village into the mountains to marry Prince Ceren. Not only is Ceren sickly and cruel, but he has brutal plans for her people in his lust for the healing pink pearls that they alone provide. Nor is determined to save her home even at the cost of her life.

The pace moves along well, and there’s plenty of action as well as a touch of romance. The plot is well constructed, integrating key parts of the worldbuilding. I like it when the fantasy elements play a role in the story and aren’t just background. Nor is a great character, unable to keep her mouth shut and ultimately unable to keep the prince from learning her secrets. She’s a well-rounded character as is Ceren and his brother Talin (Nor’s love interest).

The story is told from Nor’s first person POV, which unfortunately requires some “telling” at the conclusion when Talin has to explain a bunch of political secrets and maneuvering. But other than that, I thoroughly enjoyed this read. Recommended to fantasy fans who like a well-crafted tale with lots of action and a touch of romance.

*****

Desolation Bluff by Toni Pike

Oliver is a successful romance writer and happy newlywed. His wife, Vanessa, is his writing assistant, and his best friend Ray handles promotion. But Oliver is also blind, and what he doesn’t see is the way Vanessa and Ray roll their eyes at him and touch each other’s hands across the table. Then a freak accident returns Oliver’s sight. Before he can tell the two most important people in his life about the miracle, he discovers them in the throes of passion. His ability to see becomes his secret, and the tables turn.

The characters started off a touch flat for me, but they didn’t stay that way for long. As soon as Oliver gets his sight back, things get very interesting, very fast. Oliver is quite crafty and when a distant relative, Ferris, shows up at Oliver’s estate, she joins in the scheming. Things escalate like crazy and grow out of everyone’s control. The pace is great and the plot well-conceived.

The characters are varied and interesting, all of them flawed. Even Vanessa and Ray, despite their deceptions, don’t seem to start out with murderous intentions. And Oliver, in many ways the victim, makes vengeful choices with disastrous results. This book is a quick read that I polished off in a morning. Recommended for anyone who enjoys thrillers.

*****

Sam: A Shaggy Dog Story by Sally Cronin

This read is a little more than an hour, but it’s an hour of cuteness and laughs. I’ve lived with dogs for most of my life, and the attitudes and antics of Sam, a Collie, were delightfully familiar. This tribute to a dog’s life is narrated by Sam himself, starting when he was a newborn and stretching into his old age. I rarely laugh out loud while reading, and this book was an exception.

Sam has a very funny (as well as adorable) perspective on life with accounts of his cat friend Henry, his love of chicken and sausages, his dislike of veterinarians, his job as a paper shredder, and his occasional encounters with “that Bloody Danny,” a little canine with poor manners. He relays his experiences with “cat speak” as well as his acquisition of several human words which are strategically employed to earn pieces of cheese.

The book is organized into short chapters by topic. This is a lighthearted and endearing read for anyone who loves dogs.

*****

Thistledown: Midsummer Bedlam by Teagan Geneviene

I read most of this book when it was a blog serial, and since I missed several episodes, it was a pleasure to sit down and read the finished story from end to end. Geneviene has a great imagination, and this tale of fairies is chock full of delightful magic. The sheep float, cherries roll into the bakery in single file, and there are hallucinating bats. This doesn’t even begin to touch on the fairy names which are a hoot all by themselves (Bedlam Thunder, Catseye Glimmer, and Peaches Dragonfly to name a few). And then there’s the hummingbird with the “strange” name Bob.

Bedlam Thunder is the main character and a seer. She has a vision of a colorless, parallel world, and little by little it’s seeping into Thistledown. There are magic books, doppelgangers, hornless unicorns, and kissing fish called suckers. Somehow, Bedlam and Bob have to figure out how to save Thistledown from the insidious drabness.

The story fishtails through this marvelous fairy world. Don’t look for carefully plotted action or lots of time spent ruminating on the meaning of life. For me, the enjoyment of the story was derived from the imaginative jaunt through this fairy world. I recommend this story to children and adults. It’s a quick read and lots of fun. 

*****

Mr. Sagittarius by M. J. Mallon

I didn’t know what to expect when I opened this book, and must have been in just the right mood, because it was charming and poignant and very sweet. The book offers a glimpse of three elderly siblings -William, Harold, and Annette – one already passed on at the books opening. The intermittent visits with these characters, a paragraph or two here and there, form the thread that holds the book’s narrative together. The memories and grief are touching, and it isn’t long before Annette is on her own.

Between the story’s visits with the siblings are loosely related sections of prose and syllabic poetry. Some pieces touch on the seasons. Others are fantastical tales about bubble monsters and snow snakes. Most of them are about nature and flowers which are tied to the garden bench where the siblings enjoyed their days. I especially enjoyed a chain cinquain titled That Twinkle in her Eye is Magic. This book is less than an hour’s read, and I recommend it to readers who enjoy a fanciful and touching foray into poetry and short prose selections.

*****

Whispers of Dawn by Celestine Nudanu

This modest collection of poetry took under an hour to read, and what a worthwhile way to pass the time. The author explains that the form of her poems is called a cherita, a Malay word for story or tale. It consists of six lines broken into three stanzas.

In these small poems, the poet shares her personal truths and depth of experience. Like all short poetry word choice is deliberate and evocative. The collection is broken into seven themes, some light and hopeful, others dark and full of loss: Whispers, Making Love, The Dark Side of Love, Death, Saving Grace, Random Thoughts.

I could have jotted down a dozen favorites, but included two below. Recommended for readers who enjoy short poetry.

***

I cried

the night you left
only once

not because of the cold pillow
but for the stars
that refused to shine.

***

stillness of night

rustle of silk, silvery whispers
draw me to the window

I peep
God’s presence
Amongst the stars

*****

Murtle the Purple Turtle by Cynthia Reyes

Murtle is a unique turtle – she’s purple. And when another turtle points out to her that she’s different, she does everything she can to change her color to green – all to no avail. Then, with the help of her friends, she learns that turtles comes in a lot of different colors, and that being purple is wonderful. The story’s message of self-acceptance and diversity is perfect for young children. and the vivid illustrations are a delight. I recommend this sweet book to preschoolers and their parents.

*****

Happy Reading!

November Book Reviews, Part II

A short break from muse reblogs to share a bunch of reviews. My 60-book Autumn Reading Challenge is looking grim, but I’m still going for it. I have 3 weeks to read 20 books!

November’s Part II book reviews include my 4 and 5 star reads of fantasy, sci-fi, paranormal fiction, historical fiction, a short story, poetry, and a few suspense-thrillers! I hope you enjoy the browse.

Click on the covers for Amazon global links.

*****

Someone Close to Home by Alex Craigie

I read on the treadmill, and this page-turner made me exercise three times my usual minutes! I think I burned off an entire chocolate cake in calories. I couldn’t put it down (the book, not the cake).

Megan was a successful concert pianist with a bright future. But her career and happiness are a part of her past at the opening of the book. Megan lives in a neglectful nursing home, unable to speak or control her body, and someone in the home is determined to torment her.

The story covers a time period of about a month or so. The progression of Megan’s life, starting at age 9, weaves through her memories, and eventually the timelines intersect. Both timelines are gripping. Megan’s inability to protect herself is heart-wrenching and infuriating. Craigie did a great job of stringing me along as Megan navigates the danger and vulnerability in her life.

Megan is a great character and the most three dimensional and relatable of the cast. I empathized with her immediately, understood her choices (even the horrible ones), and was in her corner for the duration. The pace is speedy, the setting bleak. A great choice for readers who love a gripping thriller.

*****

Harbinger by Marcia Meara

I loved the book A Boy Named Rabbit and couldn’t wait to read Rabbit’s next adventure. Once again, this little 11-year-old kid stole my heart. Rabbit and his dad, Mac, are enlisted by the local sheriff to see if they can use Rabbit’s “sight” to figure out what happened to a little girl who disappeared twenty years ago.

The book is a paranormal mystery and thriller as well as a beautiful story about goodness and love. I enjoyed watching Rabbit and his new family interact. They’re kind and thoughtful and it warmed my heart. I also enjoyed the tension and disturbing actions of Cadey, the bad guy, who slowly loses touch with reality as the story progresses.

The plot is well constructed, with the pov alternating between Mac/Sarah and Cadey. There’s no mystery as to who the bad guy is, but there’s a great deal of tension as their paths draw closer to each other. The characters are well-done, realistic and with full emotional lives. The ending of the trilogy gives a sneak peek into Rabbit’s future, which I thoroughly appreciated. I could happily read more books about Rabbit, but this one ends on a high note and I appreciated that.

Highly recommended to readers who enjoy great characters and well-told stories.

*****

The Pellucid Witch by G. Owen Wears

If you like alien world-building, this book is the tops. It’s very cool; the world is bizarre, the characters are bizarre, the plants and animals are bizarre. I loved the author’s imagination. Kryl is a human-ish man with a fungal exoskeleton that is both a symbiote and a parasite. It’s protective of Kryl while it also feeds on him. When it’s turned on his enemies, it’s downright ravenous. Did I mention the world-building?

The plot isn’t as fascinating as the world-building but both are thoroughly entwined. It takes about ½ of the book to set the story up. Then in the second half, the conflict take off. The tale is told in the 3rd person from Kryl’s POV. He’s a relatable character, nothing special while being very special. He’s a brutal killer but also holds tight to a sense of fairness.

There is blood and guts a plenty in this read, but not gratuitous gore. Kryl, his exoskeleton, and the Pellucid Witch are characters who survive on violence. This isn’t a long book and I read it in a day without a problem. I highly recommend it to sci-fi fans who want to dive into some awesome world-building.

*****

The Nine by D. L. Cross

The third book in the Astral Conspiracy Series starts off in the thick of the action. There’s little backstory, so it took a while for me to get my bearings with the complex plot and large cast of characters. Thank goodness the series was released together and can be read in one long binge.

There are a lot of factions at play – more than one of them nefarious and more than one of them trying to do the right thing. They take off in different directions so there are several stories to keep track of at once. And none of the characters are particularly gentle people. With the fate of the Earth in play, almost to a person, the good guys are tough and the bad guys are tougher. Landon continues to be the most relatable, though I have to say I enjoyed Beck’s predicament (and humor) the most.

And then there are the Aliens. The world-building continues to impress, and little by little Cross reveals the aliens’ abilities and the power of the Atlantean artifacts, as well as who The Nine are. As in the previous books, the research into alien/Atlantean theory is fascinating and adds authenticity to this sci-fi adventure. This is a dense read that required me to pay attention. Highly recommended to readers who enjoy hard sci-fi, aliens, complex plots, great world building, and lots of suspense.

*****

Contract by John Howell and Gwen Plano

Pete and Teresa are sent from heaven to assume the bodies of Brad Channing and Sarah O’Brien, two strangers who recently died. Their mission is to prevent a political cataclysm that could destroy the world.

The first third of the book relates Brad’s and Sarah’s individual stories as they are given second chances at life and eventually find each other. It switches to solid romance until the midpoint when the action and thrills take off. Brad (an ex-Navy Seal) takes over as the book’s hero as Sarah fades to the background. I wondered why the authors chose to start the book in heaven, but it does make for a cool ending.

There are some red herrings and twists, and it isn’t clear who the bad guys are until the end. The plot doesn’t answer all the questions raised by the story, and I questioned the bad guys’ motivations and choices here and there, but I also read the book in a day, so it clearly held my attention. An entertaining book for readers who enjoy a bit of romance and a lot of action.

*****

Virtually Gone by Jacquie Biggar

A serial rapist and killer is on the loose, and a DNA match links the killer to the murder of Detective Matthew Roy’s sister a decade ago. The story tracks the police investigation, led by Matt and his partner Connor. Conner’s girlfriend, Julia, a head-strong journalist, is also on the killer’s trail.

This book is part of a multi-author series that focuses on the same group of characters and features a different character per book. I read this story out of order, and once I got to know the characters, it worked fine as a stand-alone, tying up with a satisfying conclusion.

As main characters, I found Matt and Julia believable. The secondary characters were equally three dimensional with rich backstories. The reality and details of the investigation seemed plausible including the high-tech aspects that serve as a connecting theme of the series. There are red herrings aplenty, and the clues add up logically. Not a long read, I read this book in a day. Recommended to readers who enjoy police investigations and suspenseful murder mysteries.

*****

Elizabeth’s War by D. L. Finn

When WWI breaks out in Europe, brothers, sons, and fathers leave their livelihoods and families in the US to fight overseas. This story is told from the point of view of Elizabeth, an eleven-year-old girl whose life changes dramatically. At home on the farm, she begins her own version of “fighting the war” with new responsibilities and challenges – increased chores, learning new skills, nursing sick family members, worrying that Christmas may come without gifts, and more (no spoilers!). It clearly demonstrates the quiet strength of women and the valuable role they played while the men were away.

The young perspective and gentle kindness reminded me a lot of Laura Ingalls stories. I think this book is perfect for middle-grade readers and young teens, but can be enjoyed by adults too (like me). In the Afterword, the author writes about how the story is based on her own family’s experiences, and the details of the time-period seem well-researched. A lovely story.

*****

Reckoning Tide by Anneli Purchase

This book picks up right at the end of The Wind Weeps, which should be read first. Andrea’s reprieve and escape from her abusive husband, Robert, is brief, and he’s out to get her. What ensues is a stalking nightmare as Andrea and her lover, Jim, flee Robert through the windswept coastal channels and islands of the Canadian Pacific.

The action starts immediately and continues right to the end with several breaks for sexy romance. As in the first book, the authors knowledge of the area and the life of a fisherman add a lot of authenticity to the setting and action.

Purchase does a good job of showing the lingering complexities around domestic violence, how women aren’t believed, and how hard it is for them to be safe from their abusers. Even Jim is a bit of a jerk for a while. But Robert escalates rapidly and the need to escape him becomes critical to the couple’s survival. I liked Andrea’s arc from dependence on a man in book one to a strong woman who sticks up for herself and is determined to take charge of her life. A fast-paced series for romance and suspense readers.

*****

Conscience by Jonathan Pongratz

In this science fiction short story, Epher, the leader of the Free Thinkers is dead. The Corporation has the rebel’s body in their lab, and Rory Bennel’s job is to conduct a cerebral upload of Epher’s mind into data storage. When things go wrong, Rory makes a frantic adjustment, and the next thing he knows, he’s on the run.

This is an entertaining story of a brutal governing corporation, the manipulation of the masses, and the power of one person to make a difference. The story moves at a quick pace with a cohesive plot and empathetic characters. Recommended to readers of sci-fi short stories.

*****

Crimson Skins by Devika Mathur

I’m a fan of freeform poetry that’s thick with imagery, that explores the language of the senses and seeks out beautiful words. Mathur’s poetry does all that. Overall, the tone of the collection struck me as melancholy, full of pain and longing. There’s little romance, though the poems are often sensuous. The book is structured as a journey, starting with Isolation and moving through sections titled Detachment, Delirium, and Attachment, and into Revival (where the poems have a stronger, more self-assured theme).

The imagery often has a dreamlike quality, and I found myself reading aloud to “hear” the language and let the meaning and emotion behind the words find a place to settle. Some of my favorite poems were: Pointless, Sentiments like Silk, Madness, and the Art of Embalming. Highly recommended for readers who enjoy freeform poems, beautiful language, and a reflective journey.

*****

Picky Eaters 1 by S. J. Higbee

An elderly dragon named Castellan has to move in with his daughter and her family, which puts an end to his quiet life. His precocious granddaughter, Sammy-Jo, is full of energy and adventure and practically forces Castellan into resurrecting his time-traveling skills. His talent doesn’t go over well with the other dragons or the dwarves.

This story made me laugh a few times, particularly because humans are referred to as “food” and knights in armor are “canned food.” The dwarves fare about as well as their human cousins in terms of ending up crispy and delicious. This novelette moves quickly. A plot-based story, it didn’t steal my heart, but readers who like some time-traveling twists may enjoy this short tale.

*****

Happy Reading!

November Book Reviews, Part I

My 60-book Autumn Reading Challenge is rolling along. As I hunker down at home, I’ve upped my total of reviewed books to 34.

November’s Part I book reviews includes my  4 and 5 star reads of fantasy, sci-fi, poetry, women’s lit, and two memoirs! I hope you enjoy the browse.

Click on the covers for Amazon global links.

*****

A Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzie Lee

I picked up this book because I’d heard it’s wonderful (which it is). And as usual, I didn’t bother to browse the blurb, so I was surprised to find myself reading a love story. I’m not usually a fan of love stories, and yet I was enraptured by this beautiful and tender tale. Who knew? (Probably anyone who read the blurb, but that wasn’t me.)

Monty and Percy, and Monty’s sister Felicity, go on a “tour” of the Continent before Monty has to settle down and start a respectable life according to his father’s rigid standards. The tour ends up being a quest that involves highwaymen, pirates, sinking tombs, and magical hearts, but honestly, I didn’t care about the quest. Though peppered with vivid characters and clever dialog, the quest was just the backdrop to Monty’s and Percy’s unfolding love story. I wanted to hug them through most of the book, and Monty’s character arc is believable as well as emotionally riveting.

The writing is fabulous and full of droll humor. The first-person story is told from Monty’s pov. He’s a spoiled rich lord – witty and sarcastic and prone to exaggeration. His carefree life is falling apart, and his devil-may-care attitude is getting knocked out of him as he faces himself and his choices. His relationships with Percy and Felicity are perfectly expressed through exceptional dialog and the way the characters care for each other (despite their difficulties). Secondary characters are just as distinct and entertaining.

This is Book 1 in the Montague Siblings series, but can be read as a stand-alone novel. Highly recommended!

*****

The Emissary 3: Love Hurts by Marcia Meara

I really wondered how Meara was going to wrap up this series. At the end of book 2, Dodger receives permission from the Archangel Azrael to experience a loving relationship with a girl. But I just couldn’t imagine how it would work between a human and an immortal emissary of the angels. Well, silly me for being skeptical. The author pulls it off beautifully, though not at all how I expected. I was a teary mess.

This is a wonderful series with characters that I completely empathized with. They’re supremely human, emotional, and kind-hearted. Even scary old Azrael is enjoyable as he loosens up a little. Though there are problems to be overcome in the story, the main conflict centers on the challenge I posed above. The ending is brave, believable, and emotionally stunning.

The writing is tight, and the editing is flawless. The books in the Emissary series aren’t long, so they make for quick satisfying reads. I’d definitely recommend starting at the beginning of the series. A wonderful trilogy for readers who enjoy feel-good stories. 

*****

Lethal Impact: A Dragon Soul Press Anthology

This post-apocalyptic anthology includes 16 science-fiction tales by 15 authors. These stories border on novelettes, so there are plenty of pages for fabulous world building, rich characters, and interesting plots. What they have in common is the end of civilization as we know it and humans facing a dangerous world where survival requires a whole new set of skills. There are viruses, androids, steel forests, and vicious gangs. Add to that some cannibalism, zombies, and aliens. The stories are highly original and well-edited. My favorites were King’s Note, Eve’s Apple, Blood and Light, Assimilant 620-Singe, and A Little Less Conversation. Highly recommended for sci-fi readers and post-apocalyptic fans.

*****

Marriage Unarranged by Ritu Bhathal

This is a light, romantic jaunt from England to India and back again. When Aashi finds a used condom in her fiancé’s bathroom, the wedding is suddenly off. Her family is angry and embarrassed, but they support her decision. A trip to India, originally to purchase a wedding gown, becomes a vacation for Aashi and a chance to unwind and heal. Her two brothers and her best friend Karin go along.

The romantic story is fairly straightforward, and it unfolds at a leisurely pace. What held my attention was the story’s immersion in India’s rich culture and setting, specifically the bustling city of Delhi. The main characters are England born and raised, so the influences of their dual cultures were interesting to see played out, and the details of life in India were fascinating. Bhathal clearly incorporated a wealth of personal experience into the narrative.

The characters are all likeable, except for the cheating fiancé, though I felt a twinge of sympathy for him by the end. All in all, this story was about family, culture, self-esteem and independence, love and friendship. Recommended for readers of romance and women’s lit.

*****

The Wind Weeps by Anneli Purchase

The Wind Weeps starts off as a romance and gradually shifts to a tension-filled walk on the high-wire of domestic violence. Andrea is a naïve and insecure single woman who, despite warnings from her friends, rebounds after a very short relationship into the arms of a charming man with a dark side.

The story takes place in the Canadian Pacific Northwest, beautiful and rugged country where commercial fishermen make their livings. The author’s familiarity with the area and with the details of the industry lend an incredible amount of authenticity to the narrative. As Andrea’s life becomes geographically isolated, she falls into more and more danger. I was on the edge of my seat.

The plot moves along at a good clip once things get tense. The writing is polished with well-rounded, consistent, and interesting characters. I wanted to shake some sense into Andrea in the beginning, but was quickly caught up in her fearful situation and her determination to save herself. The book offers an honest look at domestic violence, including why women are sometimes slow to make a break. My only complaint would be the abrupt ending; however, the story continues with a second book: The Reckoning Tide. Recommended to readers who enjoy a mash up of romance and suspense and plan to read both books. 

*****

Words We Carry by D. G. Kaye

D. G. Kaye shares the true story of her growth from a child with poor self-esteem into a confident woman who changed her thinking, took responsibility for her relationships, and discovered happiness. Though she shares her personal experiences, many of her observations are common to other women, and there are lessons to be gleaned from her advice.

The book is divided into two sections: Appearance and Relationships. The focus of the appearance section is on boosting self-esteem by paying attention to physical appearance. It isn’t about being beautiful, but about feeling beautiful and investing energy into clothes, shoes, hair, and makeup that enhance a woman’s strengths and make her feel attractive. Chronic lazy dressers like me may not relate to Kaye’s love of shoes and big hair, but there’s a lot of humor in this section that kept me smiling.

Section Two, Relationships, was the most meaningful to me as it opened a discussion of the deeper issues that contribute to low self-esteem, as well as the vicious cycles that can lead to isolation, depression, and abuse. The author maintains that healthy self-esteem is essential to healthy relationships of all kinds. She provides strategies for evaluating relationships honestly, changing patterns, and taking control of choices.

Words We Carry is part memoir/part self-help. Recommended for women who are struggling with feelings of low self-esteem and want to make a positive change in their relationships and lives.

*****

Shorts: a take on poetry by Eric Daniel Clarke

As the title of Clarke’s anthology states, the poems in this vast collection are generally short in length and spare of words, drilling down to the essence of thought and experience. To me, the poetic style was one that frequently invited contemplation and interpretation. The poems range from a few lines to several stanzas, and in most cases, they explore the reality of relationships. My favorite poems were Life’s Lights, Promises, Called Your Name, and the heartbreaking poem Forgotten:

I don’t remember everything
dates and place escape me
moments spent with you
fade and forsake me too

Strange faces begin to haunt
with their smiles and tears
I still know I love you
ask of you one thing

When I don’t know you
all our years forgotten
I beg no regrets be free
let me forget to breathe

Recommended to poetry readers who enjoy a unique style and generous selection of poems. 

*****

My Gentle War by Joy Lennick

This memoir focuses primarily on the years 1939 through 1941 when the author was 9-11 years old, a child living in Wales with her younger brothers during WWII. The children were sent to Wales to escape the more dangerous areas around London.

This isn’t a harsh story. It’s a recounting of life from the perspective of a child and is, therefore, full of fun and imagination and resilience. There are “ear-wigging” glimpses into the adult world, news of the war, and letters from the author’s dad who was serving in France. The sad and confusing realities of war surely intrude on daily life, but the focus is on friends and relatives, memorable gatherings and events. There are new trousers, dance performances, and games of truth or dare!

Lennick’s writing is witty and conversational, and she includes a handful of poems commemorating particular memories. Perhaps my favorite part of the book was the brief jump ahead at the end to the conclusion of the war. The feeling of joy is palpable in the pages.

As Lennick concludes: “Oh the puzzling juxtaposition of every-day events, the ordinary, the extraordinary and the tragedies of life.” That sums up this book perfectly. Recommended for readers who enjoy memoirs of the war years.

*****

Happy Reading!

October Book Reviews, Part II

Happy Halloween! Bwa-ha-ha-ha. My 60-book Autumn Reading Challenge is stumbling along. I’ve read and reviewed 21 books so far.

October’s Part II book reviews includes my  4 and 5 star reads of fantasy, sci-fi, short stories, women’s lit, an exploration of spiritual landscapes, and a guide for new educators! I hope you enjoy the browse.

Click on the covers for Amazon global links.

*****

Heir of Doom by Jina S. Bazzar

It’s been a while since I read Heir of Ashes, the first Roxanne Fosch novel. This one reminded me how much I enjoyed this kick-ass female character, as well as Bazzar’s complex world-building. This book picks up where the last left off. Roxanne is training with the hunters, but her halfbreed status will always leave her an outsider. When a young girl goes missing, Roxanne’s clan singles her out for blame. It’s a set up, and she has two weeks to find the child or face execution.

The pace moves quickly, and the action is well done. Danger is Roxanne’s constant companion and it’s hard to know who she can trust among these powerful and ruthless preternatural beings. Across the board, the characters are compelling, demanding, and rather scary. I’d last about 2 minutes with this bunch. Roxanne is tough! But she has a soft side too that puts the reader solidly on her team.

The world-building around the story is complex. There are multiple dimensions, magic talents, preternatural beings, clans and hierarchies and histories. I recommend reading the series from the beginning in order to absorb the backstory as its shared and to get a grasp on the large number of characters and their roles. The book ends with a cliffhanger, so you’ll want to keep going onto Book 3. Recommended for readers of urban fantasy and paranormal thrillers. 

*****

The Vintage Egg by A. C. Flory

A. C. Flory writes some great sci-fi, and though I’ve read her novels, this was my first experience with her short stories. Her imagination and polished writing skills never disappoint, and these six stories are original and entertaining. My favorite tale was broken into two parts—The Vintage Egg and Egg Run—which bookend the other offerings. I also thoroughly enjoyed The Christmas Roast. I read this collection in under an hour and highly recommend it. A great peek at acflory’s writing talent.

*****

My Baby Wrote Me A Letter by Jacquie Biggars

Grace’s mother, Beth, disappeared when Grace was 5 years old. For most of their lives, Grace and her older brothers believed that their mother had abandoned them. Their father, Ray, had been stuck in Vietnam at the time, and he blames himself for the hardships his wife endured without him. All grown up and 8-1/2 months pregnant, Grace travels with her father to visit her brothers, and Ray brings a letter discovered in an old desk. The truth changes everything.

This short story is full of grief, anger, and self-blame. It also has plenty of humor along with lots of sibling banter. The deep camaraderie and caring between the siblings felt both authentic and poignant to me. A quick heartwarming tale with great characters and a message about the resilience of family and the power of love.

*****

A Home for Her Daughter by Jill Weatherholt

The reading of a will reunites two old friends who must work together in order to take advantage of a generous inheritance. Janie, the mother of a little girl named Riley, has a secret—she’s just left an abusive marriage. But she’s not the only one with a painful past. Drew’s wife and daughter died in a car accident, and he blames himself for falling asleep at the wheel.

The characters are endearing, and they become increasingly closer as they face the challenges of fulfilling the will’s requirements and accepting their past mistakes. This is the perfect book for romance readers who appreciate cute kids and a sweet tale of second chances.

*****

The Initiate by Sue Vincent and Stuart France

This is the first book in the Triad of Albion series which chronicles the explorations of Don and Wen through some of the old churches and ancient ruins of the UK, a journey “beyond the realms of accustomed normality.” It’s an erudite read, abounding with spiritual symbolism that weaves connections between Egyptian and Christian mythology, the ancient landscape and its lore, numerology, astrology, tarot, and other esoteric studies.

Essentially a true story, the characters’ discussions of their discoveries are accompanied by photographs. Images are also the basis for a series of reflective poems at the end of the book. I found the read dense with information, sometimes beyond my grasp, but with enough gentle humor and personality to keep me engaged. The authors’ knowledge of lore, history, and symbolism is highly impressive. Recommended to readers interested in the “deeper truths of existence… and opening wide the doors of perception.”

*****

They Call Me Mom by Pete Springer

I was impressed with this highly accessible, entertaining, and informative read. A long-time educator, Springer shares his practical experience and the wisdom gleaned from working with children within the educational system. My impression was that the book is geared toward new teachers as it offers ideas about setting up a classroom, dealing with colleagues, administrators, students, and parents.

As an early childhood mental health counselor, I was most interested in Springer’s thoughts about discipline. I was glad to discover a thoughtful, holistic approach to children and their challenges in light of the stressors in their lives. Springer highlights a number of strategies that would be helpful to parents as well as to educators.

Most of the chapters provide concrete and anecdotal examples of Springer’s approach in action. He touches on cultural diversity, grief, problem-solving, and other life experiences that are part of a child’s broader education. My favorite chapters were Memorable Students and Funny Moments at School. These two chapters are testaments to his success as an educator as well as to the joy and value of teaching in general.

*****

Tales from the Annex by Audrey Driscoll

I jumped into this collection of stories despite never having read H.P. Lovecraft or Driscoll’s novels based on the HPL character Herbert West. That may have been a mistake since the first seven stories are “by products” of Driscoll’s Herbert West novels. Without knowledge of the original stories, I had a difficult time following the narratives.

Don’t get me wrong. Driscoll is talented, and these are beautifully written tales. The prose is polished, and the characters have distinct voices and believable sentiments. I’d characterize the style as literary fiction with a turn-of-the-century tone. I suspect that Herbert West fans will appreciate the connections.

The final five stories are stand-alone speculative fiction tales, and I thoroughly enjoyed them. My favorites were The Colour of Magic and A Howling in the Woods, though I recommend them all. Each tale is unique, and they range from creepy to bone-chilling!

*****

Fireborn by Trent McDonald

Dr. Elliot Everett-Jones has a semi-scholarly knowledge of ancient Celtic myths, and when his archeologist brother unearths a giant cauldron in the English countryside, Elliot is intrigued. When naked blue zombies, berserkers, and goonies start popping up around the world and going on killing sprees, Elliot searches for the mythological keys to their destruction.

I prefer a more cohesive plot with less wandering and more foreshadowing, but there are intriguing elements to the story—specifically some exploration of Arthurian legends, including Excalibur and the Lady of the Lake. I also enjoyed the human relationships, particularly between Elliot, his ex-wife, and his brother. The relationships felt natural, and the dialog was well done. These were the scenes where I felt the most connected to the characters’ emotional life and reality.

Otherwise, the book requires a willing suspension of disbelief on multiple levels. Elliot becomes the Merlin of the story, and there’s a fair amount of magical dreaming, mind reading, and implausible fighting skills. The battle scenes are well written, though Elliot’s final solution seemed a bit out of the blue. Recommended for readers who enjoy slightly campy stories and are interested in Arthurian legends, evil kings, and battles with zombies.

*****

Happy Reading!

September Book Reviews

Another month of reviews

including some from my Autumn Reading Challenge
(which I’m already behind on – yeesh).

This month, my offering of  4 and 5 star reviews includes thrillers, humor, sci-fi, horror, short stories, and YA fantasy. I hope you enjoy the browse.

Click on the covers for Amazon global links.

*****

You Beneath Your Skin by Damyanti Biswas

This debut novel by Biswas travels at breakneck speed. Set in India, it deals with the atrocious and criminal practice of throwing acid in women’s faces. But that’s only one theme in this complex and engaging plot that kept me riveted from page one. I’m not surprised that this book is receiving so much acclaim.

A police investigation headed by Jitan Bhatt into the mutilations and murders of several women intersects with an acid attack on Anjali Morgan, his lover. Everything goes totally crazy, and I mean Totally Crazy, as characters get tangled up in a web of power, secrets, confessions, and extremely hard choices.

Though I sympathized with Anjali, Jitan was the character that captured my attention. He’s the one who’s pulled in every possible direction as his marriage and career teeters on the brink of destruction, his son forces impossible choices, and his sense of morality is challenged in the face of a system riddled with corruption.

The story is a thriller indeed, but it’s also about inner strength and survival, identity and love, truth and justice, and what one is willing to do for family. An excellent read that I found difficult to put down.

*****

The Stones (Astral Conspiracy #2) by D. L. Cross

Book two of the Astral Conspiracy series starts off at a thrilling pace that doesn’t let up right to the last page. At the same time, somehow, the narrative managed to catch me up on what happened in The Gate, so if it’s been awhile since reading book one, no worries.

In this book, the aliens have landed. Professor Landon Thorne is front and center again. But the story tracks a number of contingents with separate agendas – from a paramilitary “resistance” unit to a brutal agency called CORE to a fanatical priest who believes the aliens are the spawn of the Devil. There’s a lot going on.

Thorne’s focus is on following several ancient clues that might explain the aliens’ objectives and how to defeat them. Thorne’s knowledge is interesting, entangled with well-researched speculation into the akashic records, Atlantean firestones, and the Georgia Guidestones. He and his team are at risk as the factions attempt to protect, control, or kill them.

The aliens are still a mystery in this book. They come in several variations and can be incredibly violent. Cross doesn’t hold back on the human violence either, which raises the stakes for all the characters. The world-building is great and full of details that add authenticity.

It’s clear that the series is one long and complex story, and therefore should be read in order. This book doesn’t wrap up neatly but ends with a big cliffhanger. The good news is that the series will be complete at the end of September 2020 so readers can keep going without a hitch. A highly recommended series for sci-fi fans.

*****

In Search of McDoogal by Mae Clair

In this lighthearted novella (about a 90-minute read), Brady and his friend Declan go in search of a painting of an ugly cat named McDoogal. Brady accidently sold his artist-girlfriend’s creation when filling in for her at an art sale, and he’s got one day to hunt it down and buy it back.

A road trip ensues and finding the painting isn’t as simple as it seems. Several colorful characters come into play, and there’s plenty of witty dialog about the feline subject of the artwork. Brady’s deadline keeps the pace moving.

This is a purely feel-good read, fine for the whole family. Definitely check out the author’s Afterword about the real McDoogal – it’s a touching treat for anyone who’s ever loved a cat.

*****

Tales from the Thrift by Kim Laettner

Francine gets a job working at a thrift store, but this is no ordinary shop. The customers who come in usually find exactly what they’re looking for—sometimes a memory, sometimes healing, sometimes kindness, and perhaps even romance. It’s a magical place where I’d love to work!

The story is told from Francine’s third-person POV with some minor tangents into the POVs of other characters. The pace is steady and the book is an engaging read with well-rounded, genuine characters through and through. Francine is a strong female protagonist, and I liked that she was able to take care of herself without needing a man to manage or rescue her. The dialog is fabulous, though some speaker confusion interrupted the story’s flow. Otherwise, I was swept right in.

This is primarily a sweet romance, but about halfway through, a second plot enters the story as women in the area start showing up dead. There are a number of red herrings and until the reveal I wasn’t sure who the murderer was. I’d recommend this book to readers of romance who enjoy a dose of magic and murder to spice things up.

*****

Malice and Foresight: Short Stories of Malice and Murder

This collection of 4 short stories kept me entertained for an hour on a rainy afternoon. Each story reads like a vignette, with vivid characters and a quick pace. The central theme is murder with a bit of malevolence and planning, and the stories are quite different from each other. A favorite was hard to choose, but I probably enjoyed “The Marshall Sisters” most of all. Recommended for short story readers who enjoy a good murder and quality writing.

*****

Diaballein by Cage Dunn

This is an unusual read. The writing style is distinct with short sentences and fragments that almost give it a staccato quality. The narrative is highly “present” with minimal backstory or internal reflection. I felt as though I experienced the story the very instant it happened, each sight, action, and thought recorded with precise detail. My only challenge was that I noticed the fascinating writing more than the tale.

That said, this is an engaging story. It alternates between two characters, Kano and Eyza, both struggling with what is real and what is madness. I liked the uncertainty while it lasted, and it was during this time of disorientation that I most connected with the characters. I felt their panic, as well as the power of their choices and the risks they took. The staccato quality of the writing added to the disjointed feel of the characters’ thoughts, which I thought was effective.

The story takes place in the Australian bush and an amazing sense of place grounds the narrative. Both characters are researchers, one a metallurgist, the other a naturalist. Their research brings them to the outback where a dark force is at play. The quick pace becomes quicker for the second half of the read when the couple battles the Diaballein. The battle feels both epic and surreal as science overlaps with ancient lore and Earth magic. I recommend this novella to readers looking for something different. It’s worth exploring.

*****

Maya and the Book of Everything by Laurie Graves

I love magical books, and the Book of Everything that a desperate woman slips into Maya’s pocket is magical indeed. And apparently, it’s no accident that Maya and the book find each other. The book has many talents, including the ability to transport her to other times and planets.

With her friend from the past, Andy, Maya travels to a medieval world, Ilyria where she encounters two dukes, rival brothers vying for control of the dukedom. And the Book of Everything in Maya’s pocket isn’t the only magical book in play. If both books come into the possession of those who wish to exert control over knowledge, all will be lost.

The world-building is engaging including the wondrous Great Library and the Toad Queen who “peels” Maya’s eyes. Maya was my favorite character, a brave 15-year-old with a strong sense of duty. She always chooses well, which is something that can’t be said of everyone in these pages.

The story starts off at a brisk pace, though there’s a significant portion of the second half that proceeds without Maya and the pace slows. There are bad guys and poor choices but no gory violence and little death. For that reason, I think this book is well-suited for young teens on up to adults who enjoy YA tales. I’m curious to see where the Book of Everything takes Maya next!

*****

I Wouldn’t Be Surprised: A Short Story by D. L. Finn

This thriller of a short story starts with an evening of laughter between Janice and her husband, Dale. Her supposed lack of surprise at some hypothetical scenarios sets the couple up for trouble when a ghost tests their bravado. The scary-factor ramps up quickly without much backstory or foreshadowing. Go with the flow, and enjoy the build-up of creepy tension; the ghost will provide backstory near the end.

I’ve read other books by DL Flinn and think this would make a great prequel to her world of ghosts, red-eyed evildwels, and angels. Janice and Dale’s story continues beyond this short read, and I liked learning how it all began. A quick tale for readers of paranormal thrillers and for fans of Finn’s evildwel-based fiction..

*****

Happy Reading!

August Book Reviews

Only four this month! I’ve been slacking.

Actually, I’ve been super busy preparing for my launch and then dropping into bed at night, too tired to read.

This month, my offering of  4 and 5 star reviews includes fantasy, sci-fi, and a children’s book that my 7-year-old grandson reviewed. I hope you enjoy the browse.

Click on the covers for Amazon global links.

*****

Coyote Summer by Laura Koerber

I really, really enjoyed this book. The story starts with a “boys will be boys” rape of a very drunk teenager at a party. The main character, Ben, doesn’t participate, but he also doesn’t take strong action. This story is about his loss of innocence as he grapples with his guilt and the disheartening cultural biases, including within his own family, that force the victim into silence and give the perpetrators a break.

The story, the attitudes, and the choices of all the characters felt authentic to me. I related deeply to Ben as his rosy, privileged world dimmed, and he was forced to grow up and consider his values and actions, to decide what kind of person he wanted to be. Though his situation was unique, the loss of innocence and the rite of passage into adulthood felt universal. He’s a great character that I liked a lot.

There is a paranormal thread to the story that complements the main one. I wasn’t sure the paranormal aspects were necessary, but they didn’t detract, and I appreciated Ben’s relationship with the young woman Puppy and how healing and defining that was for him. All of the characters were beautifully written. The pace is perfect, and the story moves along without a hitch. The ending felt important. Highly recommended.

*****

Serang by C. S. Boyack

This is my first read from Boyack that wasn’t a madcap paranormal adventure, and I enjoyed the seriousness of this story. It’s described as an origin story about Serang who has a role in the Lanternfish books (which I haven’t read yet). I think that description is exactly right.

The story begins when Serang is 6 years old and progresses through her teens. As a child, she’s abandoned at a temple by her mother. The monastery becomes her home, its residents her family, until the Emperor has the monks killed. On the run, Serang finds a new master who continues her training as the two of them travel across the harsh land.

The characters are wonderfully 3-dimensional, and I enjoyed the way their relationship developed. The worldbuilding is exquisite. After I finished reading, I learned that the tale is a fantasy, and I laughed because I had assumed that the setting was a real place.

The plot consists of the journey as well as Serang’s training and mastery. As an origin story there’s no giant climatic conclusion, but there is a satisfying ending to the intriguing tale. The pace is steady overall with moments of exciting action. I recommend this book as a companion read/prequel to the Lanternfish books, which I’ll be reading soon.

*****

Aftermath (Book 2 of the Shard Chronicles) by Ono Northey

Aftermath is the second book in the Shard Chronicles series. Any book that’s over 600 pages makes me a little squirrelly, but I enjoyed the first book in the series and dove in.

The main strength of both books is the wonderful characterization. Steve is an awesome protagonist and tough as nails. In this book, we get to know the bad guys who were rather nebulous in the first installment. These mages are so powerful that they almost don’t know how to function in the real world and the situations can get funny as well as outrageously weird. They also kill and destroy indiscriminately without the slighted idea that this might be wrong.

The writing is exceptional. Northey has a wonderful grasp of language, description, action, and dialog. It’s hard not to be impressed. The world-building is also outstanding. It’s broad and deep, and comes off as real science and psychology… and after reading, I almost believe that magic exists. Overall, I enjoy the long discussions of the power of perception and mind over matter, though some readers may find this too labored.

And that gets me to the challenge with this book. I think it suffers from a second book slump. As wonderfully as its written, there’s a long long stretch (about half of the book) where the plot stalls. Several characters from book 1 disappear while Steve trains his mind and the mages prepare for conflict within their ranks. The action is great when it happens, but much of this book seems like preparation for the third book. That’s a lot of preparation.

This is a hard book to rate. I love the writing and characters and didn’t skim any of the 600+ pages. But the lack of movement in the plot and long delivery were a disappointment. I’m going in the middle with four stars and a warning to readers that the “action” in this book is conceptual more than physical.

*****

Brody Cody and the Stepmother from Outer Space by Toni Pike

I purchased this book for my grandson, and this is what he said about it:

I liked this book. It’s about this boy, Brody Cody, whose mom died. He and his dad live together and Brody doesn’t have very many rules. Then his dad goes away and comes back with a new mom. Brody doesn’t like her because she has rules, like eat vegetables and do chores. He thinks she’s an alien. The best part is when he thinks he sees the spaceship. I liked Brody, and he found out having a mom was pretty good. I read the whole book. There aren’t pictures, but it was good.

*****

Happy Reading!

July Book Reviews

I’ve been writing like a madwoman, so fewer book reviews this month – but some good ones!

My offering of  4 and 5 star reviews includes romance, historical fiction, mystery, family drama, superheroes, and prehistoric fiction. I hope you enjoy browsing.

Click on the covers for Amazon global links.

*****

The Sister Pact by Jacquie Biggar

I read this book in a day and thoroughly enjoyed the distraction. It’s a romance, but so much more than that. The story has a maturity to it that I appreciated, genuine characters struggling with all kinds of relationships, old hurts, forgiveness, and love.

Holly Tremaine is ill and, forced to leave her job, returns to the dysfunctional home of her childhood. You couldn’t cut the tension with a chainsaw, and she immediately wonders what the heck she just did. An old beau enters the scene, but so do old wounds, misunderstandings, and hurtful assumptions between the family members, particularly between Holly and her sister Susan.

One thing that I enjoyed about the book was how genuine the family and characters felt, flawed but trying hard to make their lives work. The focus is on Holly who shares the story’s pov, primarily with her sister. The writing is polished and tight, which provides a speedy pace while allowing for some beautiful descriptions. The plot works well and wraps up nicely. Highly recommended for readers who enjoy romances, relationship stories, and a fast-paced entertaining jaunt through family life. A perfect beach read.

*****

Cape Menace by Amy M. Reade

This mystery begins in 1711 in Cape May, New Jersey, a small settlement in the new world. Sarah Hanover’s mother disappears, and despite their grief, she and her father, the local apothecary continue on. But the question of what happened to Ruth Hanover never goes away and Sarah is determined to discover what happened.

I like historical fiction and the richness that a particular time period adds to a story. In this case, the beliefs about healing are fascinating – a reliance on blood-letting, drawing out a burn with hot metal, and shaving a head to cure a fever, to name a few.

The entire tale is tole in Sarah’s first-person pov. She’s a great character, kind and obedient to her father, but endowed with a well of inner strength, resilience, and independence. She’s also a bit of a snoop, which is highly improper, and about which she feels guilty. Secondary characters are also wonderfully developed, particularly Sarah’s father.

The mystery aspect of the story is well done with a weave of red herrings and parallel running plots. Despite all my guessing, I wasn’t able to guess the ending until it came. The book isn’t particularly bloody or scary though there is plenty of tension at certain points. The writing is polished and beautifully edited. Highly recommended for readers of historical fiction and cozy mysteries. Appropriate for YA and adult audiences.

*****

A Ghost in the Kitchen: Three Ingredients 2 by Teagan Geneviene

I’ve read a number of Geneviene books, and what I love about them is how light-hearted and whimsical they are, full of great characters, fantastical creatures, and quirky adventure. This one is no different. Pip and her grandmother have the ability to see ghosts and several show up in Granny’s kitchen, including a rather colorful Maestro who enjoys cooking. The story has mermen, cursed cowboy ghosts, and Daisy, Pip’s friend who died under mysterious circumstances. Pip and her friend Andy are determined to discover the truth.

This is a lively story with great characters and a lickety-split pace. Pip is a 1920’s flapper with an engaging personality, and the story is full of fun lingo. I haven’t read the first book in the series and though there are references to what occurred, this book worked fine as a stand-alone. A lighthearted, magical read

*****

Watching Glass Shatter by James J. Cudney

Families aren’t easy, filled with flawed humans who bounce off each other in myriad directions, some sweet, some chaotic. When a family is full of secrets, things can get pretty tangled. Ben Glass was the glue that held his family together, and when he’s killed in a traffic accident, his widow Olivia and their five grown sons start the process of shattering.

Olivia struggles for control, and one by one begins interfering in her sons’ lives. She is the keeper of one of Ben’s secrets, but the young men have secrets of their own, and like an overpowering mother, she tries to “fix” everyone and “fix” their relationships. There were definitely points in the book where I wanted to shake her. That said, there aren’t any villains in this story, and I appreciated that real-life quality.

Without giving too much away, the family’s journey through grief and separation into repair is the main focus of the plot. A lot of detail and description gives the book a leisurely but steady pace. The characters are thoroughly developed, three dimensional and unique, with full emotional lives. I felt a lot of empathy for all of them, even for Olivia as she bungled along, an imperfect person who wants so much to manage her family into healing. In many ways, the story is about family strength and love. Recommended for readers of family sagas and literary fiction.

*****

Bystanders by Phillip Murrell

This is a great read for anyone who loves action, a plot-driven story, and superheroes. But it’s not typical of superhero reads since the superhero has almost no role in the narrative. Instead, the story focuses on those touched by his actions – a news anchor, hospital workers, EMTs, law enforcement, criminals, and a couple of teenage bloggers.

Don’t expect any deep character development, emotional turmoil, or personal growth. For the most part, the characters are simply reacting to events and don’t have overarching goals that drive the action. But do expect well-rounded personalities revealed through exceptional dialog, the strongest element of the book.

The pace is good throughout, though there are times when the dialog, though realistic, goes off on short tangents. There’s some humor around the superhero’s name, and there’s plenty of violence, so be prepared for blood. An entertaining book that I recommend to readers of plot-driven superhero and action novels.

*****

Against All Odds by Jacqui Murray

This book concludes the fascinating trilogy that began 850,000 years ago as Xhosa and her People begin their search for a new home, migrating across continents, meeting different peoples, and facing the harsh elements. They learn new skills, adapt, and develop strategies that help them survive. I recommend reading this series in order since it entails a single journey.  (For the full review, click here.)

*****

Happy Reading!

May Book Reviews

This is an upsetting time in the US with virus deaths reaching 100k, and the 9-minute public murder of an African American man by police. My heart is broken. Reading continues to be a release.

This month my offering of reviews includes beautiful poetry, fantasy, sci-fi, and a short story. I hope you enjoy browsing my 4 and 5-star reviews. There are some lovely reads here.

Click on the covers for Amazon global links.

*****

Passions: Love Poems and Other Writings by Gabriela Marie Milton

There are poetry books where the words feel like chocolates that melt on your tongue, where the imagery seduces you into a timeless place of mystery or lays out a universe of emotion, the crux of a life in a few perfect lines. I love free verse that’s evocative, where the sounds and rhythms sweep me off my feet. Gabriela Marie Milton’s poetry is and does all those things.

The book is set up into three parts. First, Love Poems, a generous collection of free verse that took my breath away. Part two has side-by-side poems, one in English, the other its Italian translation. And Part three has short prose that honestly, reads like poetry. All of it is sublime.

And none of it should be rushed. I read this collection over two weeks, savoring each offering in the darkness before sleep. A luxurious read for anyone who loves poetry and beautiful words.

*****

An Enchantment of Ravens by Margaret Rogerson

This book is charming, charming, charming. Did I mention that it’s charming? Isobel, a human, paints portraits for the fair folk, and something about her painting of Rook, the Prince of Autumn, thrusts her into danger. Stuck in the courts of the fair folk, they fall in love, but the penalty of breaking the Good Law that forbids such affairs is death.

Forbidden romance is a source of tension in this story, but I’m hesitant to call it a romance. There’s deception, danger, magic and glamour, hard choices, and sinister forces at play. The fair folk are beautiful and exquisitely described, but beneath the nearly perfect exterior, they are opportunists, decaying, hollow, and cruel.

Characterization is exceptional. The story is told from Isobel’s pov. She and Rook are sympathetic protagonists, and their perceptions of each other’s worlds, behaviors, and rules are fascinating. In general, the differences between the fair folk and humans are meticulously developed and kept me entranced. Secondary characters run the gamut from the human Aunt Emma, to the murderous fairy thanes, to Isobel’s delightful half-sisters who are also half-goats who eat everything and climb on furniture.

Descriptions of the landscapes are as immersive as those of the characters. The writing is quite beautiful. The plot is well thought out and keeps moving right up to the reveal at the climax. I wish this was a series because I had a serious book hangover. I’ll be reading more of this author. Highly recommended to fantasy readers and anyone who loves beautiful writing.

*****

It’s All in the Blood by Carol Forrester

I was looking forward to this generous collection of poems, and as soon as it was available on kindle, I picked it up. To me, Forrester’s style is gentle and reflective with an underlying poignancy. The free form poetry unfolds in short phrasing almost like an internal monolog but interspersed with the beauty of poetic metaphor. My favorite poems were those nostalgic musings about family, aging, loss and love, regrets, hopes, and an array of universal experiences that I could relate too. This poetry is simply stated, sprinkled with jewels of imagery, and rich with feeling. An excellent collection. Highly recommended

*****

Awakening: The Shard Chronicles by Ono Northey

I’m a reader of character-driven novels. A fantastic character will keep me riveted, and this book has a six-star main character. Steve is a veteran who lost his legs in Afghanistan in an explosion that took out his team, and he wants out of the hospital. A strange murder ends up splattering his hospital room with a human smoothie and suddenly he’s on the run, learning to use a unique mental power that gets him into trouble as much as it saves him.

Why is Steve a fantastic character? He has a sardonic sense of humor that I thoroughly enjoy and that runs through the book from start to finish. External and internal dialog is exceptionally witty, consistent, and natural. He also has a complex personality; he’s a competent soldier, as well as a nice guy at heart who’s grasping at happiness while hiding from the police and visiting his unusual shrink, Tony. The secondary characters, Tony and Steve’s love interest Amber, are both perfectly believable personalities, and the relationships were interesting as well as genuine.

The pace rips along, and there’s a lot of action interspersed between Steve counseling sessions and his budding relationship with Amber. I was impressed with the military details as well as the psychological concepts resulting from Steve’s conversations with Tony. They seemed grounded in reality (I couldn’t really tell but was totally sucked in) and I found myself paying close attention.

Unfortunately, I struggled with the sci-fi-bad-guy elements of the plot. The bad guys have about 6 pov chapters out of about 60 chapters (Tony has one, Steve has the rest). I had a hard time grasping who the bad guys were, their relationships, and their motivations to kill or save Steve. The story ended with lots of loose ends, which I assume will be addressed in the next book. I’m looking forward to the read. I considered a 4-star rating, but the characters forced me to go with 5.

*****

Limbo by Laura Koerber

I wasn’t sure what I thought of this book at first. A teenager, Alyse, finds herself in Limbo after dying of a brain tumor. It’s a dismal place, populated by rather dreary ghosts like herself. The pov doesn’t stay with Alyse, and though I found this distracting for a couple of chapters, as the story progressed, I got to know this odd community, the characters’ backstories, their hopes, dreams, failures, and sorrows. Suddenly, they became deeply human, relatable, and utterly poignant. I was moved.

The world-building details are unique, clever, and enjoyable. For example, many of the characters are wearing hospital gowns (and many of us know that those don’t close securely in the back). They make poker cards out of peeling wallpaper, and have a tendency to float.

Most of the characters don’t understand why they’re in limbo or how to leave. Honestly, I didn’t understand why they were there either, and I didn’t think that question was answered by the end. For me, the lack of a reason for their presence made God (who is not a character in the story) seem cold and unkind. The end is incredibly touching. I recommend this short, well-written, and gentle read to anyone who enjoys a human story.

*****

No Pedigree: A Really Short Story by Nonnie Jules

Baylee is biracial and lives with her hardworking single mom. Mom wants her to get the best opportunities for a successful future and part of that means getting a great education in a posh high school. But in Oklahoma, racism is alive and well, and Baylee is the victim of both verbal and physical abuse. A lucky break enables her to get justice in the end.

This story is a 90-minute read and geared toward young adults, though I enjoyed it as an old adult. Lol. It takes on the important topic of racism and injustice as it still exists today in schools, communities, and the criminal justice system. I enjoyed Baylee’s strength of character and that of her good friend Carson. My only struggle with the story was the somewhat implausible way Baylee skyrocketed out of her situation, but her ability to get justice was satisfying.

*****

An Island Too Lovely by Deborah Kaminsky

Isadora lives on an island, her community isolated from the mainland, peaceful and prosperous, technologically equipped, but tightly controlled. A strange experience with a force field compels her and her friends Annie and Dylan to start questioning the mysteries of their island home.

The first part of the book covers her fruitless explorations as a child. Part 2, the bulk of the story, chronicles her “Walkabout” on the mainland with her friends, a once in a lifetime adventure that all island residents experience in their teens. Part 3, covers her return to the island and her discovery of its secrets.

For most of the book, the plot seems to wander with rambling goals and tangents… until part 3 when the whole thing comes together with an intriguing and clever twist. I thoroughly enjoyed the revelation. At the same time, I did struggle with the middle of the book and was left with questions, particularly about the structure of the walkabout (no spoilers here).

Isadora, Annie, and Dylan are great characters, and I particularly enjoyed Isadora and Annie’s lifelong friendship. They are richly-developed characters and Isadora’s point of view gave me a thorough insight into her personality. The sci-fi elements are detailed and techy, which I enjoyed. Overall, quite entertaining.

*****

Happy Reading!