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.
the night you left
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
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.