Overdue Book Reviews

A Toot Hansell Christmas Cracker

By Kim. M. Watt

02/02/21

I’ve read each of Kim M. Watt’s Beaufort Scales novels with great enjoyment, a good cuppa, and a yummy slice of something baked. Thus, I was ecstatic to learn there was a new volume of dragony, cake-filled goodness, along with assorted mayhem and mischief, served up for the holidays.

A Toot Hansell Christmas Cracker is a bit different from the norm of Ms. Watt’s offerings. In this case, a series of twelve vignettes, and I have to confess that I was a bit baffled at the beginning. Although I enjoyed the early stories, I was laboring under the impression each chapter was a stand-along story, and several of them ended with a definite lack of satisfactory wrapping-up-ness. It took me a bit to realize the chapters all progressed towards one final, lovely, dragon-fueled climax which is both hair-raising and hilarious at once. So, shame on me for doubting one of my favorite authors. Patience has its rewards (often mince pies seem to feature prominently, as they naturally should at Christmas), and the Toot Hansell Women’s Institute, DI Adams and her invisible dog, Thompson the Cat, and a host of dragons manage to rout the villains in a most satisfactory manner and still have time to bake up something scrumptious.

Ms. Watt’s stories are cozies in the truest sense of the word, albeit with an underlying acknowledgement that beyond the tea and scones, some fairly dark and dreadful things might be lurking. So it’s best to keep a dragon handy (as one does), and enjoy the season with this wonderful outing in the Scales series.

The Marked Princess

By E.P. Stavs

01-24-21

The Marked Princess, Book One of the Shendri Series, is a fascinating “fractured” fairy tale, featuring 18 year old Josselyn,  princess of Eldour, who finds herself in a frantic quest to save both herself and her kingdom. Ms. Stavs has developed a fairly traditional fantasy setting, but really ups her game with some lovely mythology to underpin the basis for the celestial magic imbued in Joss.

The Marked Princess is a YA fantasy with a modern flair in terms of its use of language (something I can definitely relate to). This is definitely not a classic “princess” tale, but rather a rollicking thrill-ride with a warrior-princess heroine who channels both magic and a fierce fighting spirit. Ms. Stavs has developed her characters soundly, and has created a fascinating mythology to boot. The tale comes with a hefty dose of romance, nicely incorporated as part and parcel of the story line rather than, as many YA fantasy novels tend towards, more of an obligatory afterthought.

I liked Joss (and her companions), loathed the villain (as of course one should), and hope to see more of her in the next installment, The Searching Songbird. I’m eager to dive into that one as well, to continue to learn about this world and see how things work out. And that’s the hallmark of a good storyteller, that they keep me wanting to know “what happens next.”  Well done, Ms. Stavs.

Awen Storm

by O.J. Barre

01-24-21

 

Awen Storm, the second installment of O.J. Barre’s pre-apocalyptic Awen Trilogy picks up right from the ending of Awen Rising, and carried me right along like a rushing river, deeper into the intricately crafted world Ms. Barre has developed. This is a very complex, urban-fantasy storyline, primarily dealing with the modern descendants of Druid myth, combined with a reptilian “underworld” intent on conquering “Upper Earth”. 

Ms. Barre keeps the tension and excitement ratcheted up to a high level, as Emily Hester, the Awen-in-training, learns to manage her Druid powers while navigating challenge after challenge. And at last we are introduced to the “keepers”, ancient beings charged with protecting our world, and with preparing Emily to meet the momentous tests sure to be coming her way.

My only quibble was in trying to keep track of the large number of characters in the cast, each with their own subplot.  Other than that, I thoroughly enjoyed this part of the ongoing story, and am looking forward to the finale, in Awen Tide, to see how Ms. Barre wraps up the multiplicity of plot threads developed in the first two books. Awen Storm is a win for urban fantasy fans, with excitement, adventure, fascinating myth and world development, and a bit of romance.

I just finished an ARC of Dan Koboldt’s latest book, Domesticating Dragons, and “wow!!!” I’ve read Mr. Koboldt’s Gateways to Alissia trilogy, a lovely mashup of technology and sorcery. Domesticating Dragons is a bit different. This is straight, hard-core sci-fi, excellently done. Mr. Koboldt draws on his own extensive background as a geneticist to create a world in which dragons have been genetically engineered and sold as pets. I can practically hear Dr. Ian Malcom gnashing his teeth and muttering “They didn’t stop to think if they should…”

Domesticating Dragons does indeed read quite a bit like a Michael Crichton novel in terms of plot, pacing, and technology. Which, to me, is great—I think Crichton’s technothrillers are tremendous fun. But Domesticating Dragons actually reads much better, primarily because Dan Koboldt has a much defter hand at developing characters (apologies to Dr. Malcolm). His hero, Noah Parker, has flaws, moral dilemmas, and a bit of an obsession (can’t say too much without venturing into spoiler territory, so I’ll just leave it there…). But Noah also has purpose and drive and smarts, and even a romantic side. Even though he started off (to me) as a not-particularly-likeable character, I quickly came to find him engaging and believable, and was absolutely rooting for him before long. And that’s the mark of a master storyteller.

But enough about people. Let’s talk about the dragons. Big ones, small ones, clumsy ones, vicious ones, smart ones. Very smart ones. Reptilian Corp. makes them to order, and everyone wants a dragon. The descriptions of and science behind the engineering of the dragons are spot on, although I’ve come to expect no less from Mr. Koboldt, and he pulls out all the stops in this book.

Noah is hired as part of the dragon design team, but he’s not as interested in the dragons themselves as is he in the access this provides to their genetic code. For Noah has big, secret plans, and only the genetically engineered dragons can bring them to fruition. Along the way he’ll have some major choices to make, choices which will affect not just his own plans, but ultimately, dare I say it…the world…

Koboldt weaves a highly entertaining, fast-paced, and technically adroit tale in Domesticating Dragons, one which should whet the appetite of anyone who dreams of having their own dragon someday.

Highly recommended. Five Talons Up.

Lady of Sherwood

by Molly Bilinski

08/15/18

I entered this version of Sherwood Forest with a bit of trepidation. After all, there are outlaws in there. Also, Robin Hood is one of my all-time favorite legends, right up there with King Arthur, and I’ve seen some pretty awful re-imaginings (looking at you, Prince of Thieves).

I needn’t have worried. Molly Bilinski’s retelling of the legend of Robin Hood is a marvelously textured, gender-bent effort that pays proper homage to the source while exploring heretofore uncharted bits of the forest.

Rhiannon (called Robin by her father) of Locksley’s backstory is handled deftly, with Bilinski providing her an absolute imperative to start down the path which will lead her to ultimately become the Lady of Sherwood. She allows the reader to experience firsthand both Robin’s joyous ecstasy and the subsequent despair and rage that will drive her on this journey to the heart of Sherwood and herself.

Robin is conflicted about her role, but fiercely loyal both to those she seeks to protect and to the memories of those she holds dear. The character development of Robin and the large cast of supporting characters is excellently done—my only complaint overall is that I sometimes had a hard time keeping track of who was who amongst Robin’s ever-widening circle of comrades in that clearing in Sherwood.

I shan’t go into too much detail, for that would only lead to spoilers best left hidden for the reader to uncover and enjoy as I did. Suffice it so say the parallels to the original Robin Hood legend are kept lovingly intact, while the nuanced twists and turns of Bilinski’s retelling set them all brilliantly inside-out.

Bilinski continually ratchets up the tension and the stakes as the story gallops full-tilt to its inevitable satisfying conclusion with the impact of a perfectly placed arrow landing square in the center of the target. Molly Bilinksi has landed a bullseye with this tale, and I shall eagerly await Robin and Co.’s return in subsequent adventures. Because, as any good writer does, she leaves me wanting to know “what happens next???”

Cardboard Castles

by K.L. Young

05/15/18

Back in February my fellow fantasy author K.L. Young asked if I would like to be a beta reader for the final pass through her debut novel, CARDBOARD CASTLES. “Would I?” I demanded. “I’ve been dying to read this book.”

On Friday, May 18th, the general public will have the opportunity to read this tale, and I envy them. I wish I could read it again for the first time… CARDBOARD CASTLES is by turns introspective, heart-wrenching, brilliant, and daring.  Kenda Young’s prose seized me like a dragon’s talons, never letting go as I galloped breathlessly through this dazzlingly ingenious twist on the traditional portal fantasy.  

Of course, saying CARDBOARD CASTLES is a YA portal fantasy is rather like saying King Lear is a little tale about a guy who goes for a walk in the rain. It just doesn’t quite do the material justice. And I use the Lear reference purposefully, because the entire first section reminds me vividly of Shakespeare’s mad king. This had to be a difficult book to write, and I can feel Ms. Young’s blood on every page.

The main character, Josilyn, is a young woman struggling to survive and cope with a life of homelessness, and a father whom she adores but whom she is pretty certain is mad. I loved Jos, and Ms. Young has nailed her voice perfectly, evoking Bogie doing Sam Spade—tough, world-weary, but good-hearted underneath. Although I have to admit Jos seems like one of the most unreliable narrators since Chief Bromden told the world how Randall Patrick McMurphy and Nurse Ratched squared off. 

 The world-building in CARDBOARD CASTLES is outstandingly well done, and Ms. Young’s talent shows here especially. While both worlds Jos inhabits are intricate and complex, Young brings them each to vivid, sometimes painful reality. I’ll be honest—this is not a book for the faint of heart. Ms. Young explores some dark themes here—homelessness, mental illness, betrayal. And yet despite this, there is humor and hope and love abounding in Josilyn’s story. It will leave you wanting more from Ms. Young’s pen, and I certainly hope she delivers…and soon.

Oil and Water

by Nikki Andrews

01/31/18

In the spirit of full disclosure, I have to confess that Nikki Andrews is both a friend and the editor of my Knights of Kilbourne series. So allow me to say that Oil and Water is unequivocally The Great American Novel!!!

All kidding aside, Oil and Water a terrific follow-up to Nikki’s 2013 mystery, Framed. Where the first book in the series featured gallery owner Ginny Brent and her loyal sidekicks Sue and Elsie, Oil and Water takes Ginny out on her own, as she’s invited to be a judge for the prestigious Oil & Water Arts Festival in Ogunquit, Maine. Before Ginny can say “lobstah” she attracts the attention of several men of dubious character; gets caught in a barroom brawl, and discovers the body of one of the artists washed up on a rocky beach.

After her last outing with murder, Ginny is determined not to get involved, but events and personalities conspire against her. In addition, Ginny’s inquiring and intuitive nature force her to draw conclusions that may lead her into danger, to the point where she finds herself on a park ranger’s tiny boat, up the proverbial creek, on the track of a killer.

Nikki Andrews is well-versed in the art world, and she has a deft touch with the various characters who populate the festival. She also spent quite a bit of time in Maine, snarfing lobster and doing on-location research for this story, and it shows. Oil and Water is a fast paced, engaging, and satisfying mystery that will keep readers guessing, and leave them eager for another venture into the cutthroat world of art with Ginny Brent and friends.

Damian's Workshop

by Deborah Kaminski

08/04/16

Intriguing, surprising, well-written, nicely plotted, and fun. Deborah Kaminski’s debut outing Damian’s Workshop is easy to read, but hard to classify. Part historical fiction, part time-travel-ish science fiction, part romance, with a dash of Indiana Jones thrown in for good measure, it might sound like a mish-mosh, but the book works on all its levels, resulting in an excellent read.

The basic premise—grad student/researcher Brook develops a means of virtual time travel, by accessing the memories of an individual’s ancestors—provides the springboard into the world of ancient Constantinople at the time of the Fourth Crusade. The Memex—the device Brooke is utilizing—allows her to experience in brief snippets the lives of Damien the goldsmith and his daughter Julia, as well as Garnet, one of the Crusaders, who also ends up as one of Brooke’s ancestors. I’m no historian—I make up all my history—but Kaminski has obviously done a ton of research into the period, the city, and the Crusades, and provides a fascinatingly detailed vision of the great city of Constantinople before, during, and after the siege by the western Crusaders, from the perspective of both sides of the conflict.

Back in her own world, Brooke is experiencing some major problems. She’s operating the Memex without sanction, and testing human subjects (herself and her lab partner Chad) in direct violation of her school’s directives; her funding is fast evaporating and she still has no clue how the Memex actually works, or why; her thesis advisor is obstructive and obstreperous; and even though Chad obviously adores and desires her, Brooke remains intentionally oblivious to him, fearing another bad relationship like her last one. With time and funding running out, Brooke desperately strives to prove both that the device is safe (test subject mice have been dying of brain tumors) and that it has a use that will render it commercially viable. And, she must somehow come to terms with her feelings for Chad.

The last quarter of the book morphs into a search for treasure, as Brooke has clues to where the goldsmith of Constantinople may have hidden not only his own treasure but also the Church’s sacred relics from the clutches of the Crusaders. The lure of gold paves the way for acceptance of the Memex, and the search is on, in true Dan Brown/Steve Berry fashion (minus the evil masterminds and their minions who are also seeking the treasure.

 

Kaminski, an engineering professor at the redoubtable RPI, has her history and science down pat, and her writing flows nicely throughout the story. My only quibble would be that I sometimes felt some of the historical scenes, while loving written and excellently executed, didn’t always serve to drive the story forward and thus could have been a bit tighter. A minor point in the grand scheme of things—Damian’s Workshop is a fun read for anyone with a love of science, history, or romance—or just a good story. 

The DuLac Chronicles

by Mary Anne Yarde

06/13/16

Historical fiction isn’t one of my normal go-to genres. Ah, but when it’s historical fiction melded with (post)Arthurian legend, that’s a different kettle of dragons. MaryAnne Yarde’s The DuLac Chronicles is a telling of Britton after Arthur’s death, when the area has been divided up into numerous small kingdoms. Two of these are ruled by—ready for this?—the sons of Lancelot DuLac.

The tale opens with Alden DuLac, King of Cerniw, bested in battle by Cerdic of Wessex. Cerdic was a former ally, and brother of Alden’s (now-deceased) wife. And Cerdic wants more. More land, more power, and the title of High King. Alden is forced to surrender in an effort to spare his subjects from any more bloodshed, and is brutally tortured and condemned to death even as Cerdic continues to pillage Cerniw. Nearly dead from the lashes he received and due to be executed at dawn, Alden is rescued by Annis, Cerdic’s daughter. Annis had fallen in love with Alden at his wedding to her sister.

An interesting touch is that neither Alden nor Annis speak the other’s language, and must communicate through Latin, the language of the now-departed Roman invaders. This makes things extremely difficult for Annis as, on the run with Alden, she rarely knows what he’s saying to people they meet along the way.

The DuLac Chronicles is as much a tale of romance as it is historical fiction. Alden and Annis are decidedly star-crossed lovers, each coming with so much excess baggage they’d never be allowed near the plane. She’s on the run with the sworn enemy of her father, and will certainly be executed as a traitor if caught. Alden is literally a man without a country—he’s lost in the battle with Cerdic. He’s thus lost the respect of his peers, and his self-respect. In addition, everyone he meets tells him he can't trust her, and that he must send Annis back, as she’s the daughter of his dire enemy, something Alden refuses to do, to the point where he pretends they’re married in order to protect her.

With nowhere left to turn Alden seeks out his brother Budic, King of Brittany since the death of Alden’s beloved other brother. Budic is the only one with enough troops left to face Cerdic and have any hope of defeating him. Budic, a nasty of the first order, would just as soon see Alden dead and Annis ransomed back to her father. Alden’s other brother, Merton, appears at critical moments throughout the story, but Alden can never be sure which side he’s actually on. Along his journey to win Annis and win back his kingdom, Alden discovers some startling revelations about his own father, Lancelot.

Yarde has drawn splendid characters in both Alden and Annis. However, the character of Merton, the conflicted and enigmatic younger brother, is the one who really stands out to me. I found him fascinating and want to know more about him. I think the next book may satisfy that need. In addition, she's dropped some clues regarding Alden's past and set things up nicely for more mystery and intrigue.

The DuLac Chronicles deftly melds well-researched history, romance, mystery, political machinations, double- and triple-crosses, and intrigue with a healthy serving of desperate flights and fights in a 5th Century version of not-so-merry olde England. Fast-paced, well written, and with characters you can root for all the way through the book, Yarde provides a fascinating twist and examination of the post-Arthurian world—and the notion that Arthur might not have been such a nice guy after all.

My only quibble with the book is a tendency to rapidly shift POV, which I found a bit distracting for the high quality of the writing. Other than this minor issue, The DuLac Chronicles is a spirited and rousing tale to be devoured in one sitting. I’m ready and eager to dive into the next volume.

Four and a half swords up!

Party Central

by Mandy Lawson

02/16/21

 

In The spirit of the season (Valentine’s Day, of course) I did some reading outside my genre—to whit, a fluffy little rom-com by one of my Twitter pals, Mandy Lawson. I own all the books in this series, but Party Central (Book 1) is my first foray. It won’t be my last.

Party Central focuses on the trials and travails, both personal and romantic (actually inexorably intertwined) of Lora Kate (LK) London, a twenty-something living in an expensive Manhattan apartment, who suddenly finds herself unemployed and sans roommate. LK’s resources are limited—a pair of wealthy and doting parents (who, she discovers, have actually been covering her half of the rent), and a bestie: Sam, her friend from college (NYU), who is her rock, shoulder to cry on, and supplier of cake in times of need (which seem to come fast and furious). Sam, a friend from her days at NYU, is now a weatherman at a NY TV station, and obviously besotted with (totally oblivious) LK.

In short order the scatterbrained and imminently klutzy LK manages to land both a new roomie (Lyndsey) and a job—as a party planner for the titular Party Central. Unlike her previous (mainly coffee-house) jobs, LK suddenly finds herself well paid, and the object of attention of her hunky, smooth-talking boss, Ben. Sam, in the meanwhile, starts to date Lyndsey. Romantic tension all over the shop…

Initially, I have to admit I didn’t care for LK as a character. She seemed shallow, obtuse, and spoiled rotten. But… but… as I read on, and came to know her, I actually changed my mind—I found her to be caring, spunky, determined, and possessing a surprisingly strong moral compass and faith. Ultimately, LK is loveable, and I was rooting for her (and all choked up) by the happily-for-now end of the story.  I think if Party Central had a theme song, for me it would be Vanessa Williams’ Save the Best for Last:  “Sometimes the very thing you’re looking for is the one thing you can’t see…”

All in all, Party Central is a fun, fluffy, tale that’s great for a beach read or snuggled up by the fireplace with a cup of tea (as I did). I’ll be reading the next one to see where Ms. Lawson takes LK next, and the pitfalls that await her (and her loving heart).

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