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Sassa Margot Reviews at Palantir Press

Reviewer/indie publisher of science fiction, fantasy, speculative and historical fiction. Indie writers, request free, independent, unbiased reviews through Palantir Press. Palantir Press exists to publish, profit, partner and play in the indie book movement.

Intelligent, entertaining, witty. Just read it. Even if you hate science fiction.

All Our Wrong Todays: A Novel - Elan Mastai

All Our Wrong Todays

Author Elan Mastai

$12.99 on Kindle, $26.00 hardcover. To be published February 7, 2017 by Dutton/Penguin


Canadian screenwriter Elan Mastai’s debut novel is a time travel tale with all the psychological insight and skillful wordsmithing of a literary novel. Or a literary novel with time travel, alternate time streams, romance and adventure. But don’t waste time quibbling over what it is. Just read it. It’s good. You’re going to want to read more from this guy.


First, let’s get some reviewer bias admissions out of the way. I quit reading the latest literary fiction releases a few years back when my book clubs kept picking well-reviewed literary fiction blockbusters about self-pitying, self-indulgent protagonists who whine about their parents a lot while floating around in books where nothing ever happens for long pages of beautifully written prose. I like my protagonists more capable and competent, with less self-pity, more like the dude in Andrew Weir’s “The Martian.” Seeking more action and adventure, I threw myself into the more exciting world of speculative fiction, where lots happens but--let’s be honest here--the writing in too many science fiction and fantasy books can be as painful as Sunday dinner with your [insert your most despised political party]-favoring in-laws right before the election.


I hunger for good writing craft plus a cracking good story. “All Our Wrong Todays” delivers both by the truckload.


I don’t want to frighten off the core time travel fans by praising the writing. All the stuff you love is here too! If you enjoy “Terminator: Genisys” or “Time Travel Hot Tub 2,” to name some recent time-travel movies, you’ll find plenty of action, humor, romance and adventure in “All Our Wrong Tomorrows,” plus thoughtful consideration of the usual time travel paradoxes and constraints. Mastai comes up with two separate time travel mechanisms, and a flock of vividly imagined alternate time streams. He just does it subversively, intelligently, humorously, gently rollicking along on the rails of well-traveled time travel tropes until ZHWOING!!!! Mastai hurls you, gentle reader, off into a whole new ballgame, time and time and time and time again. I don’t want to spoil the reader’s journey by any plot hints, except to promise that the moment you think you have it figured out, Mastai will find a way to turn you and the story inside out. He knows the time travel tropes; he uses them in fresh and fun ways.


I’m sure the literary fiction fans are already terrified. Time travel? Egad! But please give this a chance. The writing is great, with rhythm you’ll want to read aloud, an approachable but richly detailed style and an unerring sense for the image and dialogue that captures a moment. The work is a bit of a memoir, multi-faceted, multi-time-stream memoir, one that even starts with my most-hated-protagonist-type, the loser who whines about his parents a lot. Thankfully he does not remain so, nor do we spend hundreds of pages doing nothing. I persisted, even given my disdain for whiny protagonists (see above), because the writing and the world-building were superb, and the intelligence and wit behind the story and the character so evident. I decided to trust the author and he delivered.


For the more literary-minded reader, you’ll get thoughtful and insightful meditations on a range of unexpected topics. What is the good life? What do I value and why? Who is my family? What is reality? What would I do for love? What am I responsible for, accountable for, and what must I do to right a wrong even if it wasn’t my fault? When must I quit blaming others for my life and start owning my choices? What is forgiveness, and how do I learn to forgive? What does the greater good, and my own self-interest, even mean? (And some badass ideas on the logistics of time travel and the heuristics of technological innovation, but if that’s not your thing, you can glide right over those bits.)


Recommendation: for time travel fans, of course, but for anyone who enjoys well-written fiction seasoned with equal parts wit, intelligence and adventure. Strongly recommend, with five stars.


Disclosure: I received a free pre-publication version of this story from Netgalley and the opportunity but not the obligation to write a review.

Source: http://www.amazon.com/All-Our-Wrong-Todays-Novel/dp/1101985135

Historical fantasy lightly flavored with essence of steampunk and a delicate romance

Gunpowder Alchemy (The Gunpowder Chronicles) - Jeannie Lin

Historical romance novelist Jeannie Lin’s foray into steampunk, “Gunpowder Alchemy,” offers readers a rich cultural and historical feast along with adventure, restrained romance, dragon airships, pirates, rebels, imperial princes, revolutions and old-school conflicts over loyalty, duty and honor. Lin’s tale is intelligent, innovative, culturally authentic, engaging and well told.


First, a word about genre. “Gunpowder Alchemy” is steampunk, but not your usual steampunk fare set in England or the U.S. Wild West with feisty Victorian ladies running around in corsets pursuing adventures in dirigibles with their clockwork mechanical friends and their Babbage computers.


Instead, our story is set in 1850 China, during the turmoil of the Opium Wars, and our heroine is a fallen Manchurian aristocrat, living hidden in the middle of nowhere after her father, the Chief Engineer to the Son of Heaven, was executed for failing to fight off the overwhelming military forces of the West. Our heroine, to feed her little brother and opium-addicted mother, must venture into the big city to sell the disgraced family’s last possession of any value. Adventure ensues, set against a historically accurate portrayal of the times, a turbulent and violent chapter in China’s history as that sophisticated empire collided with the brash and militarily superior Western powers.


Some critics have complained that Lin’s story is not steampunk enough, to which I can only reply that they are missing the point of steampunk. The heart of steampunk--and here I refer to steampunk beyond its manifestation as literature or steampunk as a science fiction genre to the wider cultural steampunk movement of the last few years--revolves around its fascination with technology, whether it be in the steampunk Do-It-Yourself/Maker movement or the re-imagining of a better past seen in more mainstream steampunk stories. The whole story grapples with the moment in history when China had an existential need for the technology to fight off the foreign invaders, and deals with characters who for various motivations and in different ways, struggle with that overwhelming challenge using every skill of engineering and science at their disposal. Lin’s story is MORE than merely steampunk, in that it also offers an engaging and authentic experience of a culture and a time period unfamiliar to many Western readers. So to steampunk, add “historical fiction,” ‘historical fantasy,” “alternate history” and yes, Lin’s forte, “historical romance,“ to the other genres that could also be used to describe elements of this novel.


Lin’s characters are a product of her chosen period, geography and their class and station in a rigidly status-conscious culture, not modern yellow-faced white Anglo adventurers marching through historical sets. Lin’s grasp of the history and culture of that period in Chinese history is confident and authentic, and provides much of the pleasure in reading this tale. The romance thread is beautifully and delicately portrayed, with all the constraints of that time pressing down on the growing attraction between the lovers. To our coarser modern tastes, the lovers’ restraint may seem quaint or sweet, but I found it moving and real in its context. The devastation opium wrought on the Chinese people of that time is vividly portrayed in the opium-addicted mother of the heroine, as well as the ravaged and violent victims of a mysterious form of amped-up tainted opium (somewhat reminiscent of Cherie Priest’s zombie army, formed in a different way, so take that, steampunk-genre-doubters!) The cultural meaning, pride and suffering associated with the custom of foot-binding is touched upon as well, with a marvelous steampunk solution woven into an important plot point.


The world-building is meticulous, whether in its descriptions of a rural village or the bustling urban centers, both the Chinese and the foreign quarters. Technology is of the time, augmented occasionally with delightful steampunk inventions blended with, for example, traditional Chinese medicine methods. I’m a round-eyed pale waiguoren, but one armed with a degree in East Asian Studies and a smattering of Mandarin, and I truly enjoyed experiencing the history and culture Lin depicted so masterfully. Where she made linguistic or historical simplifications in support of drama and pacing (always the right choice!), she did so with intelligence while preserving the essential truth of the culture and history.


Finally, the writing and craft are smooth and well done. Lin’s writing is clean and spare, not ornate, with just enough detail to keep things concrete without slowing pacing. I have an old-fashioned preference for stories told in the third person point of view, but I found myself adapting quickly to the protagonist’s first person point of view as Lin unobtrusively engaged me in her story. I found myself questioning my own preferences as I enjoyed the immediacy of her first person POV.


Recommendation: for historical fiction fans interested in China, for sweet historical romance fans, and yes, for open-minded steampunk adventure fans willing to try something other than same-old Anglophile steampunk. Each of you will find a tale well-crafted, full of unique and interesting characters set in an unfamiliar and vividly real world. I've already downloaded the next book in the series, to see where Lin and her characters go next!

No Net

No Net - Noah Nichols [a:Noah Nichols|14933093|Noah Nichols|https://d.gr-assets.com/authors/1457102609p2/14933093.jpg][ai:Noah Nichols|14933093|Noah Nichols|https://d.gr-assets.com/authors/1457102609p2/14933093.jpg][b:No Net|29416191|No Net|Noah Nichols|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1457097492s/29416191.jpg|49043668]

This absurdist, surreal, adult black comedic satire starts off with a bang, or more precisely, a violent and ultimately fatal series of head butts and only accelerates from there. In a completely wacky world where the internet suddenly vanishes leaving behind befuddled consumers and, oddly, the ability to text, a memorable mayhem-loving set of characters confront their new reality and come to terms with the gaping hole in their lives left by the missing internet. I don’t recommend this book to the faint of heart, or anyone who gets his or her panties in a twist over, oh, lessee…racism, misogyny, graphic violence, casual murder, profanity or domestic violence. Wait, I may be unfair, or at any rate unbalanced, on the misogyny charge, as male characters also receive the ultimate in male suffering by way of strategic kicks and knee strikes.

But having offered fair warning to the faint of heart and panty-twist-prone, freely admitting I was…horrified (one searches for a more neutral word, and fails, honesty being the key value here) …as I read, and noting that I received this book free in exchange for a fair and honest review, I have to say this mad twisted tale summoned from me solid admiration for craft and artistry. My favorite read this year? Nope. Something I can recommend to anyone I personally hang out with? Probably not, but then I am an old fuddy-duddy and quite comfortably so. But is this a humdinger of a ride, conducted by a skilled and mad writer? Most definitely. Will it find an audience? Is this writer worth reading? Yes and yes, I believe so, with some admitted fear and trepidation for the fate of civilization as we know it.

Without spoiling the experience for future readers by sharing specific moments from the book, allow me to share some observations from my own personal journey through shock and awe.

I’m a quiet reader. Sedate, well-behaved. I don’t snort and laugh out loud, grimace and moan when reading. My husband had to send me into a different room while reading this because I was shrieking, laughing, snorting and going “no, no, no, noooooooo…you can’t do that!” Mostly cries of horror and offense, yes, but any writer that can rip me out of my solemn ways like that gets points, even if I am terribly offended, which I was.

Points must also be given for a timely exploration of our society’s device addiction. To the critics who do not feel this was the most realistic exploration of what would happen if the internet vanished, I can only reply that they are absolutely correct, but I*don’t* think realism is what Mr. Nichols was going for in this work.

I was struck by echoes of Quentin Tarantino movies like “Pulp Fiction,” “Kill Bill” and “Inglourious Basterds;” or Frank Miller’s “Sin City;” or the shoot-‘em-up balletic violence scenes from the Wachowski brothers’ (or are they sisters now? they were brothers when they made it, so how does one manage this courteously and correctly, gah!) “The Matrix;” or even, stretching a bit here--and not wanting to besmirch the more-heart-less-violent Coen brothers--but some of the speeches in Coen brothers’ movies like “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?” Words are weirdly twisted, turned inside out, used gloriously (?inglouriously?) wrong, but deftly, with rhythm, with a beat, and not just on the hip hop and rap passages. I found myself reading passages aloud because they had a delightfully dance-y beat to them.

Mr. Nichols also used story structure in an intricate and pleasing way, with short chapter-vignettes, at first seemingly unrelated, introducing a dizzying array of characters all confronting the No Net disaster. Eventually the characters and their stories interlock in interesting and unexpected ways, often with a small jolt of very real and tender human feeling, made all the more moving because of all the violence and offense and mayhem that had preceded such moments.

And the hand-drawn line art work—naïve, but intricate and illuminating, by artist James King. Very odd, to be sure, but of a piece with the writing and structure. I have to give points for the flamboyant and fiery out-there-ness of the writing and the art.

So, how do I grade this thing with stars as I am required? It’s a stumper, folks, so I will think out loud for you so you can make your own decision. I can easily defend a one-star score, just to scare off the many people who will be terrified and spontaneously combust if they attempt to read this. This needs to come with some kind of “don’t let the children or delicate adults read this” warning sticker. But I can also completely agree with the folks who give it five stars for the over-the-top and knowing writing style and moments of completely beautiful heart-felt humanity mixed into the mad stew that is this book. Be a waffle with a three-star review? That feels cowardly and wimpy, and three is kind of my go-to score for something that either lacked punch or had distracting craft flaws in spite of otherwise great story-telling, which doesn’t fit on either score. This book packs a whole platoon of punches! The book is well-edited, engaging, comes with weird original art and wacky but deliberate, knowing and original word choices, is brilliantly structured and tells a clear enough story with cartoon-y but vividly memorable characters. I cannot give that a three. I also cannot give something that upset me so much a five. (Noah, dude, watermelons, really?!?) So…Mr. Nichols, a four it is, but a very well-earned four, star-dusted with shattered fragments of a five, with my apologies as a newly hatched reviewer for not being able to bring myself to overcome my own reading preferences enough to bestow the mighty five star.

Impromptu Scribe

Impromptu Scribe - Alex Morritt [b:Impromptu Scribe|23392982|Impromptu Scribe|Alex Morritt|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1413662690s/23392982.jpg|42950441]
[a:Alex Morritt|6828888|Alex Morritt|https://d.gr-assets.com/authors/1426971524p2/6828888.jpg]
127 pages, $0.99

This collection of short stories by British author Alex Morritt offers a smorgasbord of delights.

Whistling through each of the thirty or so short stories is the ghost of the author, not mentioned in the text, but present in the viewpoint, the gaze, the objects and people noticed and ignored in each story. I found myself seeing past the characters on the page and wondering about their creator, about this man, a well-travelled wanderer, lonely perhaps, when he finds himself between romantic interludes, with an eye for the elegant, the well-turned out, who notices the magnificent facades of the buildings in the affluent parts of town, the dust in the rural market, the asymmetry in the hang of a perfect rocker’s smoking jacket hidden away in a thrift store.

The stories carry the reader through a dizzying array of locations and characters. Paris in Le Marais, Italy, a courtroom in Hollywood, a fancy restaurant, a rural English village, Milan, a prison cell, a war zone, a Guatemalan marketplace, a truck full of hopeful undocumented immigrants, Mexico City in the nicer parts. The characters are compassionately sketched, even the bad ones. These pages contain the child molester, the ladies’ man in various forms, snappy dressers, a peasant boy, a dishonored daughter killed by her father, a terrorist, an old British veteran visiting the poppy-filled fields of Amiens for the last time, a terminally ill base jumper, a vengeful babysitter, a pair of lovers feasting before the feast, a dog with a discriminating nose and a foot fetish …

The stories are mostly told from a decidedly male viewpoint, an honest and open one, delivered with a sheepish shrug for any sins and a sense that any female outrage is expected and already factored in and accepted as one accepts with stoic calm both sunshine and storm as Heaven shall find it meet to dispense one or the other. The author writes of the transgressions of men, men who are cads, unfaithful men, preying men, men who pray for the empty seat by the pretty girl, men who listen not well to their wives’ instructions, men who like their lady doctors and long for the visits of their nurses, men in love with their cars, men who long for a just-so artisan poncho, men who long for their dead wives, men robbed by thieves and by time, men abandoned by neglected wives, men with guns, men in disguise.

Some favorites from this box of chocolates: “Hubert and Hector,” “Words in the Wind,” “A Silver Lining,” “Poncho Man.”

The editing and formatting are clean and tidy, unmarred by errors, and the writing is poetically beautiful at times. I am not a reader of short fiction—my taste runs more to the epic—but I can well imagine a dozen or more of his vividly drawn characters taking flight and headlining novels of their own should the fancy ever take them. Perhaps this talented traveling writer will tarry somewhere a little longer someday, and stretch out a short story into a longer one, even a novel, perhaps of experimental format where his characters meander in and out of each other’s lives. I am certain this traveler with so keen an eye could construct a worthy journey through a longer story for his readers should he ever choose to do so.

As for those reviewers who carp that he has bundled up his writing group stories and made a book of them, I can only reply that they should go forth and do the same if they have even a handful of stories as fine as the best of these. Would you not buy a man a cup of coffee in thanks if he told you a charming tale and made you laugh?

Going Underground

Going Underground - L.N. Denison Resentment and rage fuel a dark dystopia.

Summary: Jenara Celesta Cole is a fiery, f-bomb-dropping, beautiful, red-headed, rebellious, “lower class gutter trash” reform school escapee who teams up with “extremely attractive,” born-with-a-silver-spoon, upper class, gallant and brave cadet leader at the military academy, Myron James Cutter, and the “acne-ridden, bi-focal wearing, teenaged crusader” Oscar Saracen to overthrow the oppressive English government.

Set in a dystopian London around 2044, Jen’s battle to save herself and liberate the English people begins days before her eighteenth birthday, when she defies curfew to taste freedom. Freedom, alas, is not Jen’s lot. She is not only lower class, but also of “non-pure blood,” Scottish blood bearing that evil taint. Thus tainted, through her mother’s line, Jen is subject to being “culled” by vicious government patrols. England is, oddly enough, at war with Scotland. A plague also afflicts the long-suffering English public, although Oscar “suspected they were victims of a government patrol’s bloodlust” and not authentic plague victims at all.

The cast of villains is imaginative and diverse. First we meet the sadistic Dr. Simon Besson, who must multi-task between torturing Jen (“’I have such plans for you, my pretty one,’ he said smugly”), murdering captured Scottish soldiers with his own hands (“’Ah, what a delicious display of horror,’ the doctor said with an evil chortle”), hiding his illicit connections to non-pure bloods and overseeing the building of an army of clones from the repurposed DNA of culled non-pure bloods by double-agent scientist-saboteur Gerick Meyer, “your typical geeky scientific type who was an easy target for bullying.” Then we encounter Prime Minister Edward Myosin and “the Himmler to his Hitler,” revered war hero Brigadier John Howard. Brought into the inner ruling circle by Myosin to do his dirty work and eliminate the opposition, Howard “made short order of the list of Edward Myosin’s opposition, dealing with them swiftly and without fuss,” even including the prime minister’s own brother Joseph, who fell to “a simple bullet to the back of the head.”

Alas for the prime minister, the brigadier lacked loyalty and craved power. “The brigadier said nothing as he trussed the prime minister up like a prize hog; hands tied behind his back and feet pulled tight to his knees. Myosin screamed blue murder, which did him no good.” I will leave to the pleasure of the reader the details of Myosin’s demise and the colorful way in which Howard disposed, and re-disposed, of Myosin’s corpse, for this writer is best in describing scenes of torture, mayhem and death, always vivid, creative and unforgettable.

The plot is a straightforward heroic uprising that moves along with vigorously brisk pacing. The three heroes meet, gather allies, repair a printing press and then bravely print and brazenly distribute anti-government propaganda that blows the lid off the whole culling-non-pure-blood-DNA-to-create-clone-army government conspiracy. Various counter-attacks, captures, torture sessions and rescues ensue, with our three heroes and their allies risking life and limb and balls, not to mention possibly perishing into martyrdom in utterly unexpected ways. Fear not, for “Myron, Jen, Oscar and others of a similarly brave and defiant stripe were damned if they were going to languish under [John Howard]’s iron fist.” In the brave and desperate final assault demanded by the genre, vengeance is extracted, villains punished, evil governments toppled, wars ended, clone armies destroyed and freedom restored by our Clone Cudgel-wielding heroes.

Review: I came to this book with high expectations, as the published reviews were strong overall and I enjoy heroic tales set in dystopias, from Hunger Games and the Divergent series to the Mad Max and Matrix series movies. Going Underground seemed a perfect fit with my tastes, and a substantial 420-page epic fifteen years in the making to boot.

However, I did not enjoy the book as much as I had hoped.

While the (British) spelling was perfect throughout, the copy-editing could have been better, as the author struggled at times with capitalization and punctuation, especially in dialogue.

I did not enjoy the writing style. The author is fond of adverbs and embellished dialogue tags, so lots of sneering and smirking and lamenting tagged along with the characters’ words. The author also brandished frequent and disorienting changes in point of view. The dialogue is reminiscent of 19th century English penny dreadfuls or American 19th century melodramas. I wondered if perhaps it was an intentional ironic melodrama style, a humorous parody of bad period writing, but as page after page wore on for 420 pages, the parody did not wear well if parody it was.

The world-building was haphazard and illogical, although the author came up with some great ideas that, fully developed, could have made for a magnificent dystopian world. A war. A clone army. A plague, or possibly a government-induced fake plague. Genocide perpetrated upon the non-pure bloods. Any of these alone could have carried the book. All of them together, well done, would have been stupendous. However, these world-building elements were left underdeveloped and not well integrated with the plot.

We live in a time of terrible battles over religious and racial ideologies, so I was intrigued by Oscar Saracen’s surname, which means the “Arab” or the “Mohammedan” in medieval usage. At first I thought maybe the book would explore the Western/Muslim divide in Britain in a fictional context, and the non-pure bloods were Muslims. Writing this review the day after London elected its first Muslim mayor, a very interesting fact in the real world, I held vainly on to this hope through many pages before realizing Saracen’s name was just random and the tainted bloodlines were…Scottish.

I could have forgiven an implausible world, girded as it was by the sturdy plot, but the characters I cannot forgive. I hate Jen. She begins, and ends, as a rude, selfish, foul-mouthed, ungrateful, dim and bratty girl who does not deserve half the care and concern lavished on her by noble Myron and brave Oscar. I know she is meant to be fiery and tempestuous, but she is just major league annoying.

About a quarter of the way through the story, Myron and Jen have overcome their early differences, those character introduction bits where he calls her “gutter trash” and she beats him up in front of his mates, and they are now allies sneaking back into London at the risk of their lives. She is tired and footsore and grumpy, as she often is. They reach a silent and deserted Hyde Park. Myron, sensible fellow that he is, points out that “Something’s not right.” So we should go hide, perhaps, to avoid attracting the attention of the sadistic patrols that take one to the camps for unspeakable tortures and death, no? Not our fiery and tempestuous heroine, oh no! Instead, and I quote,

“She wrenched her hand away from Myron’s and ran as fast as she could towards the centre of the park. He gave chase, but there was no stopping her. Upon reaching the centre, she let out one of the loudest screams Myron had ever heard. He knew she was letting out all the tension of recent events and tried to comfort her with a hug.

“’Myron, please! Can you just leave me alone for one fuckin’ minute?’ she begged frantically, rebuffing his advances.

“He respected Jen’s wishes and walked away from her as she began to wail like a banshee again. He concentrated his efforts on finding the food they both so desperately needed.

“For a full fifteen minutes, she wailed and screamed until her throat was sore.”


Jen screams a lot.

She physically abuses her friends a lot, and her enemies even more. She swears with every breath, “arsehole” and “f***in’” being favorite forms of expression. She repeatedly endangers herself, her friends and critical missions by disobeying orders, randomly screaming and fighting, again with both friends and enemies. She marinates in seething resentment against the privileged upper class, constantly raising class differences between herself and son-of-privilege Myron, even after he has defied his father and thrown away all his advantages to save her, repeatedly.

In fact, it is Jen’s raging resentment that lingers with me long after putting down the book after their final victory, not Oscar’s insight and bravery, or Myron’s nobility, or the creativity of the clone army or the diverse and unique ways different characters were tortured, maimed, killed and their bodies disposed of throughout the story. (Body disposal methods—memorably creative.)

No, Jen’s resentment and rage permeate the entire story, even when she is not on the page. Resentment is the scent that lingers in her wake.

A wild and fierce argument broke out recently in the Nanowrimo (National Novel Writing Month) Facebook group. Someone posted an article positing that correcting grammar, spelling and punctuation and enforcing rules of “good” writing was racist and classist, an oppressive form of white privilege used to keep down minorities and prevent underprivileged people from expressing their truths. I did not join the Facebook argument, but I watched it rage for days with great attention and thought hard about the two sides, on one side the defenders of classical and high standards in written communication and on the other those arguing for creating space for marginalized voices to make themselves heard.

In my own life, I have struggled to speak with the “right” accent and write in the most correct manner possible, without regard to whatever deficiencies might have plagued my early upbringing and education, in hopes that my message will reach and touch listeners. I instinctively value those writers who make the same effort with their written expression. And I suppose it is also true that I instinctively devalue the writing of those who do not make that effort or value it as I do.

However, after hearing the many heartfelt and moving arguments in the great Facebook debate from the side of those arguing that grammar and punctuation standards are powerful weapons used to silence marginalized voices, I found myself wondering if I was participating, through sharing in this review my frustration with small nits of grammar and punctuation and writing style and logic lapses, in the silencing of a marginalized voice.

Had I, by picking on those things, completely missed the heart of the author’s message? Was the author was trying to communicate something powerful and heartfelt about the author’s view of the class system in Britain, a class system the author sees as so evil and pernicious that it turns the very bodies of the marginalized into the actual instruments of their own capture, torture and oppression in the form of the clone army, a class system deeper than race—the enemy Scots are white like the ruling English—and more profound than religious ideological differences between native British and immigrant Muslims? Perhaps Oscar Saracen was not named randomly after all, but his Muslim-hinting name was put in the story to underline the author’s position that the evil in Britain is found not in racial issues, nor in religious ideology struggles, but in class oppression like that which so suffocates Jen, who, inarticulate and marginalized, can only scream when she finds her way to the center of Hyde Park.

If so, then Jen cannot change, cannot mellow, cannot soften, cannot forgive, cannot take on the nuanced speech and polite behaviors of the upper class enemy, for they are and forever will be her enemy and her resentment and rage must be equally eternal.

Recommendation: Read it if you love vividly described torture and the darkest of dark dystopias and don’t mind heroes who are constantly fighting, insulting each other and beating each other up. Read it if I am wrong to care about details like writing style, character development, world-building and punctuation, and missing the point about the evils of class oppression in England. Read it in case it is a brilliant work by an overlooked and marginalized voice rejected by a classist grammar Nazi.

The New Girl: The Extraordinarily Ordinary Life of Cassandra Jones (Walker Wildcats Year 1)

The New Girl: The Extraordinarily Ordinary Life of Cassandra Jones (Walker Wildcats Year 1) - Tamara Hart Heiner, Elisa Allan [b:The Extraordinarily Ordinary Life of Cassandra Jones: Walker Wildcats Year 1: Episode 1: The New Girl|25525280|The Extraordinarily Ordinary Life of Cassandra Jones Walker Wildcats Year 1 Episode 1 The New Girl|Tamara Hart Heiner|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1431420324s/25525280.jpg|45312044]
[a:Tamara Hart Heiner|2975266|Tamara Hart Heiner|https://d.gr-assets.com/authors/1282171427p2/2975266.jpg]

72 pages

This first episode in Tamara Hart Heiner’s Walker Wildcats Year 1 series focuses on the trials and tribulations of a fifth grader uprooted from her life in Texas and set down in the Ozarks in Arkansas. This well-written and sensitive portrayal of pre-teen society is engaging and real, capturing all the angst of that first walk down the new school hallway, finding someone to eat lunch with that first day and navigating the perils of making friends and getting in with the right group. Young readers going through a similar experience will find a great example in Cassie’s adventures, whether it is dealing with two best friends who hate each other, or handling unfair grownups who shout too much or being sad when not allowed to bring home a puppy. Great for young readers.

Light Love Rituals: Bulgarian Myths, Legends, and Folklore

Light Love Rituals: Bulgarian Myths, Legends, and Folklore - Ronesa Aveela [b:Light Love Rituals: Bulgarian Myths, Legends, and Folklore|25650581|Light Love Rituals Bulgarian Myths, Legends, and Folklore|Ronesa Aveela|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1433293279s/25650581.jpg|45470462]
[a:Ronesa Aveela|8459737|Ronesa Aveela|https://d.gr-assets.com/authors/1436838699p2/8459737.jpg]

158 pages

I was given a free copy in exchange for a fair and honest review of this independently published work.

This comprehensive and exhaustively researched book on Bulgarian myths, legends and folklore is a handcrafted labor of love. Organized around the calendar year, the book works its way through the seasons and festivals of each year and shares with the reader the blended pagan and Christian roots of each festival and custom. Using the device of a local family experiencing and learning about each custom, the book also shares local recipes, traditional clothing, tragic love stories and funny bits of folklore with the reader. “Did you know?” inserts share such useful information as the correct wood for driving through the hearts of vampires, the days you really don’t want to die because you will turn into a vampire and other snatches of folk wisdom. Delicate pencil drawings in vibrant colors and ornate designs illustrated nearly every page of the book.

Opening the book was like entering a riotous colorful bazaar of information, all about Bulgarian folklore and myths, going back to the times of the Thracians. The authors deny any claims to scholarly accuracy or academic methods, but the careful and thorough research they did is obvious. They list in the back of the book several pages of links to additional information. I had to chuckle at the line mentioning that the links functioned at the time they did their research, noting that they share with the U.S. Supreme Court the problem of managing “link rot.”

I found the classification as fiction confusing, as this is very much a non-fiction book comprehensively listing and explaining myths, legends and folklore. The authors used the device of a fictional family to illustrate the different customs, but they were clearly embedded in a non-fictional book. For any researcher interested in Bulgarian culture and folklore, this book should be a first step. I was glad to discover the subtitle “Bulgarian Myths, Legends and Folklore” on Amazon when I went to check out the book there, as my free version had only the not-very-descriptive Light Love Rituals title and I worried about discoverability for the book without a clear hook to Bulgarian folklore and culture.

The writing itself was clean and well-edited, and obvious care had been taken in the formatting, with words of the text carefully framing the images and special note sections. The fictional family sections were sometimes a bit stilted, in the way that an “exposition dump” in a novel can feel forced rather than natural, but for the most part, the writing was fluid and had a joyous, light and often humorous tone that was a pleasure to read. There was a home-made quality to some formatting choices, like the insertion of calendar pages to show festival days, but never was there sloppiness or lazy editing.

The recipes for traditional foods looked mouth-watering, with photos of key steps and final presentation to illustrate each recipe.

Review: for travelers, students, mythology and folklore fans who are interested in Bulgarian/Thracian folklore and culture, this is a terrific resource. This book is also a vibrant, joyous example of the wonderful, creative niche offerings from passionate authors that can come into the world through independent publishing, works that would otherwise never make it past gate-keepers looking for the big market opportunity. I had minor issues with a few formatting and writing choices, but overall found the book to be carefully and lovingly crafted, with a vast wealth of interesting information to share.

Legacy of Truth

Legacy of Truth - Christy Nicholas Legacy Of Truth (Druid’s Brooch Series #2)
Christy Nicholas
$0.99 on Kindle

A tale of magic and love in 1800s Ireland

Author Christy Nicholas’s first book in this series, “Legacy of Hunger,” wonderfully demonstrated her love for Ireland and Irish culture and history. This second book, “Legacy of Truth,” keeps those strengths and adds more—memorable characters, powerful conflict and a nuanced exploration of what is family, what is love and how one is to navigate the choices life throws one.

We meet Esme, the “good” twin in a pair of twin sisters, as a young girl nearing young womanhood. Her life is set in motion by two things—her Grandfa bequeathing her a slightly magical heirloom brooch and her selection of a husband from her suitors. Both lead to a schism with her remaining family, as she must leave her home to follow her new husband and conceal from her jealous twin the precious heirloom. Without spoiling the journey for readers, both the brooch and Esme’s continuing decisions about loving companions frame the course of her life and the drama in the story.

The writing is smooth and well-edited, with a vivid and detailed concreteness that beautifully supports the enthralling world created by the author, a world that begins in the 1780s in small towns in Ireland. I greatly enjoyed the flashes of Irish folklore and moments of magic, more organically integrated into the story in this volume than in the first book. The characters are real and human, with distinct personalities and motives. I particularly enjoyed Esme’s friendship with her neighbor Aisling, a surprising and sweet love. Esme herself, while “good” relative to her scheming and ambitious twin Eithne, is flawed and human, struggling with life’s challenges as we all do, and failing at times to be perfect and upright. While I questioned Esme’s decisions and judgment around love at times, I never found them to be forced or false but rather a natural outgrowth of her worldview and understanding as a simple woman in a small town, far from the worlds of sophisticates and lords and ladies. This is not a plot-driven tale of high adventure, but rather a chance to live in and explore another time and place and society through the life of a sympathetic and engaging character.

Recommendation: for readers of historical fiction who enjoy Ireland and the tiniest hint of magic, and well-drawn humble characters living real lives and a gentle tale pulled inexorably forward by the main character’s decisions about how to live her life.

Blood Red

Blood Red - James Devo James Devo’s debut steampunk fantasy “Blood Red” is a meticulous marvel of madness. I loved it. I’ll tell you why, of course, for this is a review, not a fan girl rant, but it’s the sort of fun, fantastic, quirky read one could work up a good fan girl rant about. I received a free review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review, and I am so very lucky that I did.

I like steampunk, I like fantasy and I like clever British humo[u]r. So, yes, I admit I was pre-disposed to enjoy this book for genre reasons, for it delivered all three in spades.

The steampunk was lightly done, found mostly in the vaguely Victorian/Edwardian speech and costumes of the characters, settings and the use of steampunk mechanical devices to overcome magical devices. The fantasy was yes, I must use the word, fantastic. Devo developed an intricate and yet stunningly simple magic system, of green, red and blue Wonder, magical substances manipulated by hyperphysicists, of course. For bonus points he developed a fantasy world with layers of backstory and varied settings discovered in pleasing droplets as our heroes and villains pursued their various and often nefarious ends. I finished the book a few days ago, and yet beautiful and terrifying visuals still linger in my brain, from hordes of onrushing Humps, masked Immolators, a Cathedral somehow leaning down and then springing back up, a crystalized world, and a fine library where cognac and fine port are served to gentlemen and pushy adventurous ladies on luxurious leather chairs. I wish I could forget Mandrell’s final state, but alas, he haunts me still.

Best of all was Devo’s humor and skill at sketching characters. Within these pages, look forward to lots of droll character development, very British, dry and funny as hell, from the unfortunate aristocrat Mandrell to the equally/less/more unfortunate warrior Tork, depending on how permanent you prefer your death. Let us not overlook the relentless and insatiable Laurel, the noble and tragic Hilt and all the others of this double ensemble crazy cast of characters. I cannot pretend I was able to keep straight all the characters, but as a rough guide for readers, there’s a bunch of good-ish guys and gals and a second bunch of bad-ish guys and gals, and both groups, with occasional team-switching and double-crossing, are in competitive pursuit of this book’s McGuffin, a Gargoyle key, which is eventually obtained and then in the second half of the book, put to use to reach somewhere previously unreachable, with momentous outcomes in the balance.

I loved the voice and writing. It was just right for the genre, mood and pace of this story, with little bon-bons of delicious humor embedded in what could have been the most prosaic and dull of moments. Devo somehow managed to maintain a rather frenetic feel in the pacing as we rush from battle to siege to oasis to battles anew while still slowing down for bite-sized morsels of back story and character sketching and relationship development that are the delight of this book. The story was rather fractal in nature, if I can use the word that way, in that the big over-arching plot was there, writ large (“Find the key. Use the key. Enjoy the consequences”) but along the way we had many mini-plots and mini-situations unspooling and allowing for more humor, depth and complexity.

Don’t for a moment trust the author’s summary guide to characters and terms at the end of the book. It is half-truths, lies and exaggerations, mostly serving as a lame excuse for more humor. Watch the chapter headings carefully, to remind yourself where and when you are, for it can get overwhelming and you could easily get lost without a map and timepiece. That way you will not miss the freeway turnoff to the sad tale of Maisy, one of these fractal side-tales that, I kid you not, brought me to tears at the noble sacrifices made. It was an echo of every great soldierly sacrifice made on behalf of hapless civilians, up to and including Aragorn riding out against the horde when the keep has fallen to give the civilians time to escape.

On craft and presentation, I liked the layout and found the book quite well edited and clean. I am usually quite harsh about typos, and oddly enough the author seems to have misplaced some periods here and there, but spells perfectly and, other than the missing periods, punctuates well. The Humps must have made off with the missing periods, or the Trade stole them to swap for blue Wonder.

Recommendation: Ordinarily I would knock off a star for such craft sins, but I genuinely enjoyed the ride so much I could not bring myself to do it, as my personal enjoyment level was a six on a five point scale. Five stars, for wit, humor, world-building, pacing, wordsmithing, superb and memorable characters and a series I plan to read in full as a paying customer. Highly recommended for fantasy and steampunk fans looking for a new series, as well as anyone fond of British humor.

Not recommended for stiffs who take everything too seriously, as they will find it appalling. Not for young and innocent readers, although I believe young people would greatly enjoy the originality, creativity, creatures and humor of this world, as children enjoy William Goldman’s “The Princess Bride” although it was written for adults. Perhaps parents could read aloud to their children and edit Mandrell’s difficulties on the fly to something more family-friendly.

Legacy of Hunger (Druid's Brooch Series, #1)

Legacy of Hunger (Druid's Brooch Series, #1) - Christy Nicholas A compelling tour of 1840s Ireland

Author Christy Nicholas obviously loves Ireland, Irish legends and the period of history she has chosen to write about, the 1840s in Ireland, the time of the potato blight and much suffering in the Irish common people. Whenever her clean, spare prose turned to Irish faery tales, or descriptions of the land and people, I could see and feel a warm glow on the page as her love for the time and people shone through. There is much to enjoy and savor within these pages, especially for those drawn to the period and the place.

And so I settled in for the story, now on a ship, now in a bumpy carriage, now running from men who would do heroine Valentia harm. Sad things happened, tragic circumstances arose. These tragic events did not rise to the level of drama, in the sense of a purposeful hero pursuing a meaningful end and meeting powerful resistance. They were just sad, tragic distractions on a single-minded journey.

Valentia had goals and motivations aplenty, and Nicholas crafted in her a subtle and nuanced character who did grow and evolve on her bumpy journey. And yet, as a reader, although I rather liked Valentia, carefully drawn flaws and all, and I was perfectly happy to join her on that journey, eventually I found myself waiting for The Story, the heart of her journey, to begin, and it never did, or not in a satisfying way for this reader. When we arrived, rather abruptly, and in strangely summarized form, at the end, I was startled to discover no real hook into the next book in the series, where perhaps The Story proper could begin now that the world and main character had been so carefully drawn.

I struggle to explain what was missing for me, for Valentia did all the things a good hero should do, persisting in the face of obstacles, developing kindness and compassion to overcome defects in her upbringing and blinkers in her world view. She was active, not passive. She made the choices about her journey, not the men or the servants or the mentors she met on her path. If I attempt, imperfectly, to summarize my feeling as a reader, it is that I was a passenger on someone else’s long and circuitous and often colorful and interesting journey, but I never knew where we were going or precisely why, and neither did Valentia, other than her quest to find an old brooch. And that is a terrible summary, for it was clear from the beginning that we were going to Ireland to search for grandmother’s brooch, which may or may not have magical powers, and that is precisely what we did, no matter the many obstacles. I just found myself wanting more powerful motivation than a comfortably raised young woman’s whim to go in search of an old brooch.

I’ve heard it said that “Satisfaction is Reality divided by Expectations,” and perhaps therein lies my personal difficulty with this finely wrought yet ultimately dissatisfying work, the expectations I brought to the read. I was never quite sure what to expect, although I had been told to expect a historical fantasy, a genre I much enjoy. One of the challenges of the genre is the balance between historical and fantastical elements. Nicholas went heavy on the historical side, which I quite enjoyed by the way, and the care she took in her research shows, with slight hints of the fantasy that burst into full view only at the very end. That is fine, and a perfectly acceptable decision for a creator to make, and yet I found it a bit confusing as a reader, for I found myself waiting for the “fantasy stuff’ to begin and start driving the story but it never really did. The author created a kind of glass pane and distance between the reader and the experience of magic, in that the legends were told and described, as though a scholar were explaining to the reader bits of Irish faery legend, rather than allowing the reader to experience them in person as occurred only very occasionally in the book. Rather we were treated to small bits of Irish faery legends here and there in conversation and a few magical moments, but the fantasy never really took root but felt pasted on at the end. I wonder if a stronger choice in either direction might have been less confusing for readers and avoided some of that impatient waiting feeling I experienced, either light up the fantasy side faster and bigger earlier, or tell a straight historical fiction tale without the magic.

Recommendation: for readers who wish to learn more about Ireland of the 1840s, this is a thoroughly researched and lovingly drawn sketch of Ireland in that time. It lacks drama as a story, although the journey is an interesting and informative one, and the main character appealing in her very human mix of virtues and flaws.

Making Monsters

Making Monsters - Joe Turk An oddly heartwarming dystopia

Summary: Ozark and a “misfit toys” collection of co-conspirators—gamer, pole dancer, assassin, gay actor and so forth--must overthrow the United Corporations of America (Health, Energy, Defense etc.) while surviving and/or escaping their quasi prisoner/slave existence. They struggle at it for a while, but are overcome by events. The End.

Review: The plotline and world-building are the simplest of threads, straightforward from oddly intriguing and mysterious kick-off chapters to gentle build in the middle and gallop to a mighty and powerful end. The treat here is the characters, a huge and high quality chocolate box of unique and delicious characters. We’ve got generals airlifted in from Dr. Strangelove. As mentioned above, a pole dancer with a heart of gold. Several gamers, hardcore, and their evil bot opponents. Murderous assassin-roommates. A handsome gay actor with a flair for on-stage revolutionary fervor. Our hero, Ozark, of course, but I will leave the reader to discovery him. Turk is a marvelous character builder. Even the minor characters linger with you, each with their own speech and behavior patterns and perfect reality. The storyline and world are social commentary sketches, more absurd than strictly plausible, powerfully but non-didactically skewering our crony capitalist current reality by taking it to absurd extremes and then letting events unfold. The author also takes aim at online dating sites, military leaders, and seed manufacturers, among other fun explorations.

I loved the writing. Unobtrusive when the action was galloping along, full of delicious observations and turns of phrases during slower periods, this book was a true pleasure to read. From the first chapter, I relaxed into the absurdities and trusted the author, for I felt safe in the hands of a mad master. The book might piss off a few ardent regulation-hating capitalists, but anyone with a sense of humor will enjoy it. Little tricks, like a chapter number countdown, demonstrate the intelligence and craft behind every line. I suppose it is strange to call a dystopian novel “heartwarming” but it actually was, in spite of all the tragedies, and the dead people, and the insect-things, and the end of the world as we know it.

Recommendation: I happily recommend this book for those who like dystopian fiction mixed with a little gently humorous social commentary. The writing and craft are top-notch. Some sexy moments and cartoon violence, but nothing gross or graphic.

The Pages of Time

The Pages of Time - Damian Knight 374 pages
Kudos to Mr. Knight for imagining a novel and creative time travel mechanism and using his invention to stir up a nasty brew of terrorism, coercion and ambition whipped up by villainous foes who can only be defeated by a brave sixteen-year-old boy. In this debut novel, Damian Knight slyly sets us down in mundane family drama, slowly turns up the heat to scorch us with family tragedy and then ratchets up the pace and the stakes when he eventually deposits us on the run in a thriller world of gun-brandishing spies and counter spies with national consequences in the balance.

“The Pages of Time” is a high concept story, deriving its power and engagement from the clever mechanism Mr. Knight has imagined for enabling time travel. Like all good magic, this mechanism has costs and limitations. Even when mastered, its powers are not enough to allow our young hero Sam to escape a terrible, soul-charring choice. The ending is spectacular, worth the ride and only visible a page or two before it explodes in the reader’s face. While the story is a standalone, Mr. Knight has set up an industrial-grade titanium hook into a great sequel or series.

The book is smoothly written and scrupulously well-edited, aside from a few rather Germanic capitalization choices here and there which perhaps obey British rules foreign to this American reader. I did not like the writing, smooth and perfectly copy-edited though it was. A screenplay of the same story, plot and characters would be a fast-paced delight, vividly highlighting Mr. Knight’s intricate plotting, memorable visuals and thriller genre black-and-white villains while moving the story along to its brilliant finish. The screenplay version by its very format, conventions and constraints would burn away the distractions and digressions that mar an otherwise good story. Take a blow torch to most of the side character descriptions, most of the domestic drama, most of the “hello, how are you?” chit chat, most of the backstory digressions, most description of mundane moments like the decisions of what tea biscuits to eat or the full read of flight captain’s take-off speech, and the camera would show us clearly and easily where we are in space and time, leaving only a spare and fast-paced imaginative and innovative exploration of time travel and its consequences set in a high stakes thriller world.

On the page as written as a novel, a reader can easily struggle with jumps between heads and time locations. “Is this the young version of that character?” “Are we in present time or the past?” Upon a careful re-reading, to make sure I understood, I saw that Mr. Knight in fact diligently marked these transitions with reminder clues, but his pathfinding breadcrumbs were often obscured by extraneous detail or side dramas or random conversations that did not keep reader focus pinned firmly on the core drama of his story, a teenager’s battle to save his family from the terrible destruction visited upon them by using his powerful--but in the end tightly limited--time travel ability.

My peevish quibbles aside, “The Pages of Time” is a solid addition to the time travel bookshelf, and Mr. Knight exhibits in this first book a great natural gift with plotting, world-building and sheer imaginative scale as well as disciplined care in the editing and presentation required to deliver a quality book. I look forward to his next book in the series.
* * *
I was given a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest and unbiased review.

Salvation's Dawn

Salvation's Dawn - Joe     Jackson A worthy addition to the epic fantasy canon

“If it so pleases you, we will fire dance in his honor.”

This story is a treasure, a work of art, a labor of love and a magical artifact. Weighing in at 446 pages and something near 200,000 words, Joe Jackson’s first foray in epic fantasy nails both epic and fantasy. Featuring the rare strong female lead, who is not human but demon-hunter, black and winged, but simultaneously all female and all warrior, Jackson’s world and heroine are fresh and unique.

First, to the naysayers. Yes, the story starts slow. For the world-building is intricate, detailed, lovingly crafted and real. I know Kari’s world, for I have now smelt it, tasted it, heard it, learned of its gods and demons. I call this not fault but beautiful slow-building power and solidity, a concreteness and reality that make Jackson’s world as real to me as Tolkien’s or Le Guin’s or Salvatore’s worlds. Is there too much explanation and back story and arcane detail? Possibly. But if you are a reader who is looking for your next great fantasy world and characters to fall in love with and pursue through hundreds of rich and glorious pages, you will not mind the slow pace of the first half or the detailed descriptions of races and lands and history but rather will revel in them.

For gamers, of both the dice or digital tribes, you will instantly know the distinctions between rogues and wizards, healers and tanks. If you, of those tribes, enjoy the RPG part of MMORPGs, you will love this book. And if you are a dice-throwing D&D fanatic, you will have found your ancestral home. If you have no idea what I am talking about, this beautiful rich world and its gloriously complex and detailed heroine may not move you, and so you should pass by, and read something simpler and less demanding. But if you are of either of those tribes, then you must make this journey, alongside Kari, demon-hunter.

I do not want to give away details of the plot, or Kari’s relationships with her fellows the Silver Blades, or her fascinating back story, for these are pleasures due the worthy reader. But any book that begins with a bath and a double god-hammer and ends with a fire dance promises a strenuous and adventurous journey, slow though its start may be. The fighting is rare but physical and visceral, with a Special Forces concreteness that makes the moments memorable. The sex is loving and based in relationship. The conversations are between real and distinctive characters, with individual motivations and agendas.

Jackson has fashioned an amazing world and a brilliant heroine. I look forward to the next installment in the Eve of Redemption series and highly recommend this work to fans of epic, gargantuan fantasy.

Bridge Through Time

Bridge Through Time - Scott Spotson [b:Bridge Through Time|23270286|Bridge Through Time|Scott Spotson|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1411649369s/23270286.jpg|42374010]
[a:Scott Spotson|6929808|Scott Spotson|https://d.gr-assets.com/authors/1366796579p2/6929808.jpg]

348 pages

A campy romp through space, time and family

In this sequel to YA and fantasy author Spotson’s science fiction debut (“Life II”), the eldest son born in the “wrong” time stream to time traveler Max Thorning must set things right and restore the universe to its rightful order.

Burdened with an excessively high IQ and severe ADHD, along with frequent night terrors and a nagging sense he doesn’t belong “here,” Kyle Thorning nonetheless overcomes his father’s depression, his parents’ divorce and his personal limitations to become a world-famous PhD in physics and land a position at CERN, the famous particle physics lab in Switzerland. He even scores a hot physicist girlfriend and seems poised for success and happiness. But events beyond his control have been growing alongside his stellar career, namely the stealthy global takeover of the entire planet by four-legged, four-armed, multi-colored aliens called the “Darsians.” One things leads to another, and eventually Kyle realizes the magnitude of the destruction his father Max Thorning caused by going back in time and creating a second time stream, one overrun by Darsians slowly tightening their grip on his planet by addicting humanity to super strong cidda coffee and enthralling them with integram virtual lives. Can Kyle save humanity--and his father’s life--by finding the means to go back in time and set things right before it’s too late?

Buckle up for a campy ride. Spotson’s writing is fast-paced and clear, well-formatted and cleanly copy-edited. The story starts a bit slow, giving needed space to catching up readers who may have missed the first book, but shifts into a trot by mid-book and gallops to an exciting finish by the end. Spotson “helicopter parents” his verbs with generous doses of adverbs for extra oomph, quite never trusting them to carry the weight of the action unaccompanied. Characters, male and female, spend a good deal of time with tears rolling down their faces, drawn in cartoon-y over-the-top ways, melodramatically nervous, terrified, enraged, grieving or otherwise discombobulated much of the time. I wondered if I had wandered into a middle-grade story, with all the exaggerated emotion and adverbs, but the occasional bouts of romance (committed relationship, discreet, “off screen”), the moments of parental worry about the impact of divorce on children and the physics duel at CERN tugged me back up into a YA-to-adult targeting. To be clear, his writing style drove me nuts, but I found myself unable to put the story down. I had to find out whether Kyle succeeded or failed, and how it all went down. And if that isn’t the definition of engaging, dear reader, I do not know what is.

On what to rate this time travel tale, I am honestly flummoxed. I have to assume the adverb-and-hysterical characters thing is a consciously chosen style, since the world-building is intelligent, the story-telling robust, the copy-editing excellent, and the occasional bursts of physics quite fun. You have to give the man extra points for coming up with not one but two separate ways to travel through time, after all, while working neutralinos, anti-Higgs bosons, Casimir effects and slit experiments gone rogue into the story. I happen to have a minor in physics, and his physics are nonsensical hand waving, but exuberantly delivered with Trumpian compelling effect. The aliens, while central to the plot and eventually revealed in all their glorious villainy, seem almost an afterthought in this family-centric tale of a son’s quest to save his father and the universe. Five seems too high for a book with this many adverbs, histrionic characters and weeping spells; three stars too low for something this well copy-edited and exuberantly over-the-top campy fun. I can see the B-movie version, shot for a skinny budget, of this noble tale of courage and sacrifice in the war against the aliens. Four stars, recommended for precocious children with ADHD who like physics and time travel stories and for adults looking to discover the next campy cult favorite.

The Dragon’s Castle (Apprentice, #2)

The Dragon’s Castle  (Apprentice, #2) - James Cardona [b:The Dragon’s Castle|25464376|The Dragon’s Castle (Apprentice, #2)|James Cardona|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1430511814s/25464376.jpg|45231786]
[a:James Cardona|1214907|James Cardona|https://d.gr-assets.com/authors/1444480188p2/1214907.jpg]

A fresh and engaging take on the making of a wizard
604 pages, $4.99 Kindle, $24.99 paperback

Bel, a new graduate of Lasaat, the elite school for wizards, now serves as apprentice to forest archmage Nes’egrinon. Before he can even recover from wounds suffered in the quest to win his mage staff, Bel and his master must answer an urgent summons and rush to the capital to help King Thrashel save his throne and his realm. Bel and Nes’egrinon are soon plunged into a cascade of challenges: succession battles, wizardly corruption, multiple hostile armies and the much-reviled foreign avian wizards, not to mention mighty creatures bent on humanity’s destruction. Bel must also face his own greatest personal challenge, his love for Shireen, the woman he can never have if he is to achieve his full potential as a wizard.

Written for a young adult audience, this second book in multiple-award-winning author James Cardona’s Apprentice Series covers familiar ground—the training of a wizard—in fresh and engaging ways. Older and more mature than Harry Potter and his friends at Hogwarts, Bel and Shireen must together grapple with the terrible trade-off at the heart of their quest to become wizards, the requirement that they abandon all hopes of love and marriage, even as their love rekindles and grows ever deeper and more passionate. More earnest, dutiful and altruistic than the edgy, cool, pot-smoking, alcohol-guzzling magician college students of Lev Grossman’s “The Magicians” series, Bel and Shireen must make life-changing decisions while learning their wizardly powers, dodging various enemies and watching their elders grapple with the consequences of their own youthful decisions. Less formidably confident than Mother of Dragons Khaleesi from G.R.R. Martin’s “The Game of Thrones” series, these young apprentices are approachable, fallible and engaging heroes, their interactions with each other and their masters leavened with a gentle humor as they struggle, fail and rise to try again and make wise decisions without half the knowledge and wisdom they need.

Uniquely wonderful is the author’s ability to take the reader into the minds of the young apprentices as they struggle to learn their craft, whether it be sensing the forest and the life force of all the creatures it contains, sending oneself out into the world or peering into another’s mind. Even more thrilling are the moments when the reader gets to experience the same skills now masterfully exercised through the viewpoint of their experienced masters at the fullest extent of their powers. Author Cardona exercises a rich and vivid imagination, taking the reader on an exciting, well-paced and always surprising journey through a complex and concrete world. Whether it be political maneuvering, pitched battles, magical fights or courtly marriage ceremonies, Cardona tells his tale in memorable detail.

I admire the complexity and depth Cardona brings to this young adult tale and the respect he has for his readers. He does not insult his young readers with over-simplification and a dumbed-down vocabulary. Relish with me “the fetor of death,” for example. Or the speech of the Tundric officers, with their echoes of the poems of the Icelandic Viking sagas like “game of iron” or “swords covered in the dew of men’s blood.” His political setting of warring realms under outside threat carries echoes of the warring but inter-related Anglo-Saxon realms on the eve of the Viking invasions that eventually unified England. He explores the ancient and persistent trade-off between a spiritual vocation and an ordinary layman’s life through both his young apprentices, standing on the precipice of their decisions, and through the lives of their old masters, who have had to live with their decisions. While his heroes are moral and generous, they are also prey to selfish urges, lapses into cowardice and thoughtlessness. In short, they are very human and real. And oh! He does marvelous things with the great creatures awakened in his story.

Definitely a worthwhile and engaging read, but a few problems bear mentioning. Typographical slips and jarring word choices and repetitions occasionally marred my experience of this magical adventure. Language choices veered from courtly formality (“My good king!”) to contemporary informality (“you know,” “neurotic kook”). I was unsure whether these were attempts at humor or just sloppy style. I hate sounding pedantic about such details when the story, world and characters are so well imagined and engaging, but I believe it hurts the cause of indie publishing when self-published authors release work that does not meet traditional professional editing standards.

In spite of my gripes about these small flaws, I would strongly recommend this series to fantasy fans for its unique and memorable spin on the path of the wizard and the vividly imagined experience of being a wizard.

Million Dollar Staircase (Will Harper Novel, #1)

Million Dollar Staircase (Will Harper Novel, #1) - David  Crosby [b:Million Dollar Staircase|29004874|Million Dollar Staircase (Will Harper Mystery, #1)|David Crosby|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1455026596s/29004874.jpg|49244808]
[a:David Crosby|7368909|David Crosby|https://d.gr-assets.com/authors/1385827524p2/7368909.jpg]

276 pages $4.99 on Kindle

Former journalist Will Harper struck it lucky when Aunt Dotty kicked the bucket and left him enough to kiss his job goodbye and buy a boat. Then his luck runs even hotter when the attractive French-speaking owner of the run-down marina where he parks his boat gets romantic. But they’ve got trouble with a capital “T” because evil developers want the city fathers to wield the weapon of eminent domain to bulldoze her marina and put up a million dollar staircase, ADA-compliant, of course, in the middle of their new development. With the help of a hotshot lawyer who owes him a favor and armed with his journalistic sleuthing skills, fearless and generous Will swings into action to help his new lady friend.

First, the fun. It’s a sun-drenched Florida coastal setting, with ramshackle bait shacks, live aboard boats, lazy boozy meals, flowered shirts, greedy developers, corrupt local politicians and scary tattooed “muscle.” My apologies for bringing current events into a review, but I write this review in the heat of the 2016 presidential campaign, where it’s the Donald and his eminent domain wielded against little old ladies so he can build a casino parking lot vs. Bernie fighting for the revolution of the little guy against Big Money. Mr. Crosby has written a timely book, and built a fictional world around a real and current issue. He’s definitely fighting for the little guy, or in this case, the lovely Sandy of the French accent who is in danger of losing her marina to the evil developers. The author had a good grasp of the legalities of eminent domain and the strategies of evil developers and did a solid job of helping the reader understand them as well. He also knows his way around journalism and boats.

Somewhat confusingly, the book is marketed as a mystery. It is not a mystery, or at least it is not mysterious. The villains are introduced straight off as villains, rather selfish and ham-handed villains in fact, and the only mystery is how and when they will receive their come-uppance for being so villainous and dastardly. “Million Dollar Staircase” is not so much a mystery as it is the introductory pilot for what looks to be a private detective series built around the dashing, justice-minded, generous, brave, gentlemanly, independently affluent and conveniently skilled Will Harper. Think of it as an extended character sketch with some fun action sequences as the bad guys are foiled and brought low.

I like Will, although I question his judgment at times…in ways I cannot detail without spilling plot beans. He makes some very strange decisions. Let’s just say I found myself chanting “Call the police!! Call the police!!” several times. I guess hard-boiled detectives-to-be don’t instinctively do that when confronted by awkward corpses. He’s a nice guy, a gentleman, smooth enough with the ladies and treats them well, which is also appealing, but he lacks a certain cluefulness about the fair and mysterious sex. I liked him enough to want to pull him aside a couple of times and just tell him, “Dude, she’s just not that into you…” His difficulties with love form a kind of subplot as a backdrop to all the legal proceedings and action sequences.

Mr. Crosby is a good storyteller, although I’m not sure he’s demonstrated his mystery chops with this book. (Need more…mystery.) I would also quibble with his dialogue style, which is naturalistic to the point of being too real—greetings and small talk--and not as effective as it could be in showing character and pushing the plot along. Minor typos and formatting issues distracted slightly. He’s a great world-builder. I could feel the Florida mugginess and taste the seafood. I enjoyed his little guys and gals vs. the Big Bad Money Boys plot. His characters are colorful and memorable enough if not particularly complex. The story is conveyed with a warm, earnest upbeat feel, gliding calmly over the occasional murders and kidnappings and difficulties in romance with a gentle humor.

Mystery fans looking for a new series should check out Will Harper, perfectly positioned at the end of Book 1 to start solving crimes and mysteries, although Mr. Crosby’s ability to create mystery and tension remains, in this first pilot book, as yet unproven.