I needed a good romp

Jacob’s Orb by James L Mayor

425 pages

Self-published on January 14, 2018

Amazon | Facebook | Author’s Website

Step into the forest with Jacob and discover the forgotten power of the white orb.

“The sign in the sky is nothing more than a moving star, Jacob. Don’t be so foolish as to believe in magic.”

Jacob would have normally listened to his father, but the strange orb that he discovered with his friends had caught the attention of his adventurous spirit. Jacob is soon forced to embark on a terrifying quest to rescue his family from a power that they had refused to believe in.

Jacob’s Orb reminded me why I love YA fiction.

I really, really enjoyed this book. Mayor has a knack for vivid writing that doesn’t bog down the action – I felt like I was 15 again, joining Jacob and his friends on their harrowing quest to save their village. The storyline was well-paced, keeping the stakes high as the characters faced obstacle after obstacle, and I flew through the entire book a single sitting. I couldn’t help myself! There were some truly thrilling twists that I never saw coming – a refreshing feeling after reading perhaps more than my fair share of rather predictable YA novels.

The main character, Jacob, was my favorite part of the whole story. The book not only gives him plenty of external conflict to fight against, but also gives his internal conflict a good bit of screen time. I loved seeing his character development unfold in such a well-written and organic way. Jacob’s Orb touches on themes of working together and making sacrifices, which makes it a book I’d be happy to plop in front of a young reader.

If I have one complaint about this book, it’d be that it really needs one more pass by a proofreader. There are an unfortunate amount of misplaced punctuation and word choice issues that look like they might be the work of autocorrect. The story drew me in enough that the errors didn’t put me off, but fixing those issues would take this book from good to great.

Still, I highly recommend Jacob’s Orb to young adults and the young at heart. It’s a lightning-fast romp that you won’t want to put down.

This one’s a thinker

Rapture by Alex P Wu

269 pages

Self-published on December 28, 2017

Amazon | Goodreads | Author’s Website

In the year 2067, followers of The Pure are vanishing from Earth. It’s rapture, as predicted in their scriptures. At least that is what the religion’s faithful believe.

To conspiracy theorists, the disappearances are a nefarious government plot. To the government, they’re merely human foul-play. To Reiko Liebenstadt, a disgraced agent at the Federal Protectorate, the mystery is her obsession. On the case that sank her career, she alone witnessed a Purist vanish from a canoe in the middle of a lake.

Reiko’s investigation of The Pure leads her to a world ravaged by disease and war. She uncovers the real reason she was chosen for the assignment, the hidden meanings in the prophecies of the scriptures, and the ultimate fate of those raptured.

The truth is far from heavenly.

{Be forewarned: I’ve tried to keep things very vague, but this review does give away a little more about the plot than the blurb does. Potential spoilers ahead.}

Political intrigue, religious fervor, and the fate of humanity – Rapture is the darkest, heaviest sci-fi action epic I’ve had the pleasure of reading in quite some time. Our main character, Reiko, has to live through her own twisted version of the trolley problem, facing tough decision after tough decision as she’s thrust into the center of a spiderweb of factions and agendas she had no idea even existed.

Even better, that spiderweb has been woven with amazing depth and obvious attention to detail.  Wu has created a universe that’s remarkably plausible (obligatory suspension of disbelief aside), which is always a bonus point in my book when it comes to sci-fi. There are no villains-for-villainy’s-sake – every conflict is layered with reasoning and history, making Reiko’s life all the harder as she tries to navigate the minefield.

Wu sketches this conflict in a writing style that’s sparse and clean. It’s a change for me, as I usually prefer denser, more character-focused writing, but it really worked for Rapture. Despite the heavy themes, the pace is punchy and quick, and I devoured it all in just a couple of sittings.

Moral quandaries abound in Rapture, so if you enjoy books that test your core beliefs, look no further. I highly recommend it to those who enjoy hard-hitting fiction that makes you think.

Life imitates art imitates life…

The Hermit of Blue Ridge

300 pages

Self-published on November 30, 2017

Amazon | Smashwords | Author’s Website

Author Jeremy Woods has found perfect isolation, high in the Blue Ridge Mountains, where he can write in peace–until a strange, strikingly beautiful girl crashes into his cottage, and his life. Showing up at his door during the worst blizzard in recent history, the girl is half-frozen from exposure, with dangerously frostbitten fingers and toes. The roads to town are too inundated with snow to seek medical care for her–Jeremy’s cottage rests 8000 feet high, with no other shelter for miles. How could the girl have survived the journey on foot?

At first, Jeremy is intrigued; the girl displays remarkable talent, able to create stunning sketches with almost photographic detail. Her work soon takes on an eerie quality, however, matching that of Jeremy’s first love, Priscilla–a hauntingly original artist murdered at the tender age of eighteen–to the most minute detail. Even more troubling is Jeremy’s growing attraction to the girl, whose name is Sarah. As they grow close and Sarah starts painting, Jeremy realizes something is terribly wrong–Sarah’s portraits, while brilliant, include disturbing portrayals of Priscilla’s abduction and homicide.
A haunting, evocative love story, Cary Grossman’s fourth book of speculative fiction depicts two damaged people struggling with the ghosts of their past in the hope of keeping the comfort they have found in one another.

I’ve never been happier to not judge a book by its cover.

The Hermit of Blue Ridge is an emotional, erotic, and beautifully-written tale of a writer with a walled-off heart and an artist with a tortured soul. The Amazon blurb touts it as haunting and evocative, and I’d be hard-pressed to find better words. Grossman lushly describes the perfect creative retreat: a cabin nestled high up in the forested mountains, surrounded by snow and solitude. The characters are crafted with just as much attention to detail – their emotions leap off the page, and I couldn’t help falling in love along with them. And the steamier scenes… well. Suffice it to say I was hooked from the first chapter.

Grossman’s writing chops are backed up by a fascinating storyline. I really enjoyed seeing Jeremy’s and Sarah’s pasts unfold and intertwine, and the way their artistic pursuits drove the story forward. There was nary a plot hole or loose end to be found, and the ending was poignant and utterly satisfying. I’m tempted to snap up some of the author’s other work (he has three other books out so far) after being so enthralled by this one.

Despite its need for a much more fitting cover, I highly recommend The Hermit of Blue Ridge to adult readers of all stripes. I’m pretty sure there’s something in it for everyone.

Perhaps too elementary.

Sherloc: Reboot, by Nathan Boeker

109 pages

Published on November 7, 2017 by Boekerbooks

Amazon | Goodreads | Author’s Website

John is an ordinary student at an extraordinary school. When his phone is taken over by an artificial intelligence program, John becomes an unwitting accomplice in a broadening web of intrigue. Get drawn into a high-tech world of adventure and suspense.

I’m always down for a Sherlock Holmes remix, and teaming up a teenaged Watson with an AI version of everyone’s favorite detective is a concept I haven’t seen before. However, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle left some big shoes to fill, and the storytelling in Sherloc: Reboot just doesn’t compare.

The writing is rather threadbare – a torrent of simple sentences that do nothing to build suspense or emotion. Have an excerpt for one of the more gripping scenes:

A few seconds later the door to the cage squealed closed and the lock rattled again. Footsteps retreated. Lights turned off. A door closed.

Darkness again.

I started breathing. I looked down at the phone in my hand and then up at the network router. The rows of green lights went dark. A single red light began blinking on the left side of the box.

“Sherloc?” My mouth was dry and my voice sounded shakier than I liked.

His voice was reassuring in the darkness. “I have changed the security protocols and rebooted the routers. We can now access any network from this building without being tracked.”

I pulled the cable out of the router and stepped off the bucket. I walked as quickly as I could back between the dark storage cases. Enough secrets for tonight.

The elevator ride back to Floor 17 was silent. Sherloc was probably inside some network somewhere.

It’s just not doing it for me. I want my heart to pound with worry the whole time John’s in danger! Instead, the action is over within a few sentences and John comes across as only faintly discomforted.

With more attention to detail and evocative prose, this bland novella could easily turn into a thrilling YA novel. The substance is there – it just needs a little extra oomph.

Needs more aliens

Diary of a Security Guard at Area 51, by Helen Culver

130 pages

Published on September 16, 2017 by Troy International Publishing Limited

Amazon | Author’s Website

Melissa is 26, utterly bored, and isn’t far off ending it all with a nail gun.

Her witty, dry and twisted sense of humour gets her through each day. Her diary is an insight to where the ordinary meets the extraordinary, and every desk assessment and alien invasion in-between. Will she reach a truce with Sandra, her arch-rival?

Will she be able to ditch Colin? And can she coax Fran away from turning into a complete psychopath?

I was so intrigued by the premise of this book, but the execution fell rather flat for me. Diary of a Security Guard at Area 51 is episodic, as opposed to having an overarching plotline, and it’s full to bursting with crass humor. I’m not a huge fan of either of those things, but that’s just personal preference, not an issue with the book.

However, the book did have some issues, which is why I’m still not recommending it to those of us who love a good, raunchy, slice-of-life story.

First off, it really needs a proofread; there were grammatical errors all over the place and it quickly became distracting. The more disappointing thing, though, was that the setting felt like an afterthought. I was expecting to be walloped with all the sci-fi mystery of Area 51 – no such luck. Sure, there were funny mentions of alien insurrections here and there, but it was all happening in the background and hardly impacted the characters. Change the setting to a department store in Springfield, and Melissa’s story would’ve been exactly the same.

I had high hopes for this book, but unfortunately it’s just not there yet.

Just hear those sleighbells jingling…

A Christmas Story a Day, by Louise Richards

264 pages

Self-published on October 27, 2017

Amazon | Author’s Website

A Christmas Story a Day is an Advent calendar for the reader with twenty-five stories that inspire, amuse and warm the heart. Join MaryAnn as she humorously prepares for her family dinner, Bobby, as he navigates Christmas of Cleveland past, a treetop angel, as she and the ornaments bring peace to a bickering family, a misguided town as an angel redirects their path and a choir as it prepares for the yearly choral extravaganza. Follow as Karen finds Christmas in the eyes of her newborn grandchild, Daisy as she goes to the ball, Moira and J.D.’s journey of trust, a little boy who finds his voice and a wondering soul who stops wandering. Read how Henry Wadsworth Longfellow finds comfort amidst his despair, Pepita learns of Christmas love, an old man pays a debt, a police sergeant experiences a Christmas miracle, the author remembers times of Christmas past and Carol opposes materialism. Celebrate the miracle of the Christmas Truce, a man with special needs who finds the love of a fur friend, God as He prepares three stars to play their part, and an old bell ringer’s answered prayer. Ponder a message brought by a quail, solace in the light, the redemption of a shepherd, curious animals who welcome the newborn King, and three ships that appear on Christmas day. Cozy up with a cup of hot cocoa as you celebrate the joy and simplicity of the season of wonder.

Twenty-five stories for twenty-five days of Christmas – it’s an adorable concept and sure to delight anyone who revels in the yuletide spirit, especially if you enjoy the religious side of the holiday. The stories are short and sweet, and the writing has that cozy, simplistic, fairytale feel that goes nicely with a cup of tea. There are some small proofreading errors, but nothing more serious than a missed comma here and there. In short, A Christmas Story a Day is a fluffy, Hallmark-style treat for the holiday diehards among us.

No place on my Kindle either

No Place in Heaven, by David Lee Dambrosio

307 pages

Self-published on September 19, 2017

Amazon | Goodreads | Author’s Website

Under the safe, family-values façade of the suburbs of a city in the Midwest lies infidelity and corruption.

Gina is not an innocent Catholic girl anymore. She’s both a devil and an angel. Gina loves the wrong man. More and more, she learns how wrong. A theft leads to a murder. She’s involved up to her rosary beads. How many times before the stay-out-of-hell card, offered through confession and forgiveness, is revoked by God? She needs to atone or there may be no place in heaven for her. Isn’t a contrived miracle better than no miracle at all? Life is short. Life after death is forever.

What is Sub Rosa? No one would suspect Sub Rosa’s existence in these quiet suburbs. What happens at Sub Rosa needs to be kept secret. Secrets exist because revealing secrets can be deadly.

What about Sam Price, Phil Price, and their lifelong friend Stan? Although everyone likes Sam, his only true friends are Stan and his brother. Sam believes his brother would choose Stan in a life-or-death situation, though he hopes it would be a difficult decision. Sam also hopes it will never come to that.

This page-turning, sexy, smart, and suspenseful story is a mystery of romantic danger and consequences, of money and bad behavior. Who reaps what they sow? Who doesn’t.

The Amazon blurb is a really good indication of what you’ll find in this book: simple sentences, matter-of-fact storytelling, and an unfortunate lack of emotion. Even with all the cops, intrigue, and seduction, No Place In Heaven was about as suspenseful and sexy as a technical manual. For example:

Bob worked long hours. His donuts were homemade and delicious. His coffee was strong – but not too strong. His business struggled. Competition came from donut franchises, coffee franchises, and every other business from burger joints to gas stations claiming good coffee. More and more people were on diets and cutting out donuts. The worst foe was the current depressed economy.

The characters are described only in the broadest of strokes, and it got more and more difficult to tell them apart as the book went on. Even the more adult scenes were bland and soulless. There was hardly any sensory description to be found, so the whole thing ended up being decidedly less than captivating. There’s the makings of a good story in there, but it needs a serious rewrite before I’d want to give it another shot.

Yikes.

I Was An Evil Teenager: Remastered, by Anthony Avina

274 pages

Self-published on October 20, 2017

Amazon | Goodreads | Author’s Website

Lisa Etron is the girl next door. Lisa Etron is the most beautiful and popular girl in her school. Lisa Etron is the girl of Dave Trent’s dreams. Lisa Etron is a demented killer, hellbent on chaos and murder, and she’s willing to do whatever it takes to achieve those two goals. While a seasoned detective works to solve the mystery of a series of brutal murders, Lisa plans a deadly killing spree that threatens to destroy those who have made the mistake of loving her.

Let me start with an excerpt.

Abruptly, the woman brought the knife down upon Kristina, driving the blade deep into her neck. Instinctively, Kris slammed her foot down on the pedal and shot the car forward. Blood spout out onto the dashboard of the truck, and Kris lost control of the wheel. All she could feel was a hot, flowing pain on her neck, and all she could see was the cabin of the truck, spinning out of control. Suddenly the truck struck a tree dead on, going on 45 miles per hour the police would later say.

I’m not going to sugarcoat it. I Was An Evil Teenager is pretty rough. Like the excerpt above, the book is plagued by grammatical errors, odd phrasing, and underwhelming writing. The narration is all tell and no show, so instead of a spine-chilling horror novel, it’s more of a bland play-by-play featuring a bunch of one-dimensional characters.

I was ready to put it down after the first chapter, but I skimmed through a bit more to see if there was any improvement later on. Unfortunately, I was disappointed.

He looked down at her. She looked back up at him and met his gaze as the lights went down, and he kissed her, with the love of a couple who’s experienced months of a relationship. The previews played, and the audience began commenting on each movie, but the two lovers ignored them, and were lost in a world all their own.

This book needs a serious tune-up before I would consider it worth the price of admission.

If Dali wrote about cats…

This Hasn’t Been a Very Magical Journey So Far, by Homeless

~250 pages

Publishing on November 17, 2017 by Vegetarian Alcoholic Press

Vegetarian Alcoholic Press | Goodreads | Author’s Website

VAP’s first novel follows the adventures of Hank Williams, a troubled young man processing the loss of the love of his life, Patsy Cline. He’s greeted with the aid of Sid, a psychopathic cat who takes him on a deranged road trip in search of lost love and new meaning. Surreal obstacles meet them at every pass, leaving Hank Williams to question whether Sid is his savior or captor.

If you’ve been hunting for the perfect anthropomorphic, semi-erotic, off-the-rails, surrealistic feverdream of a book, look no further.

This Hasn’t Been a Very Magical Journey So Far is weird, there’s no doubt about it, but it’s weird on purpose and not by accident, which is an important distinction. It’ll only take a few pages for you to decide whether or not you like the style – if you’re intrigued by the off-kilter storytelling in the first few chapters, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed by the rest of the story.

As for me, while I found the plot to be a touch predictable and occasionally too crass for my taste, the wonderfully strange way in which it was told won me over anyway. It’s very much like those dreams you have in the minutes after whacking the snooze button on your alarm – vivid, bemusing, and enjoyable in its oddness.

Your mileage may vary, but I had fun.

I was captivated

Worldwielder, by JM Vaughan

410 pages

Published on July 30, 2017 by Aeternal Books

Amazon | Goodreads | Author’s Website

Melissa Mabrey isn’t like other sixteen-year-olds. From the time she was four, she’s been able to see the colors of people’s minds, colors that reveal to her their true feelings, desires, and fears. She’s only met one other person who’s like her—her best friend Kyle. But two years ago, Kyle mysteriously disappeared, and she hasn’t heard a word from him since.

Until today. In a book carried by a stranger, Melissa finds a desperate plea for help from Kyle. Following his clues, she’s hurtled from our world into the Gallery, a gateway to millions of worlds. Each world is entered through a painting, and each has a different “pull” on the minds of its occupants. There are pulls that make people grow calm in the face of peril, or flee from shadows in terror, or kill each other, or forget things forever.

But for Melissa, there’s nothing scarier than the unknown, and now she must traverse countless perilous worlds to find Kyle, fending off ruthless barbarians, the Gallery Guard, and her friend’s captors. Along the way, she’ll discover the truth about what she and Kyle are—a truth so terrifying her life will never be the same.

Worldwielder is nothing short of phenomenal.

Vaughan has woven one of the most creative and enthralling fantasy worlds I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. I’m not even sure how to begin explaining everything I loved about this book – do I start with Melissa, who isn’t a Strong Female Character™, but an actual strong female character complete with fears and flaws and the badassery to face them? Or do I start with the rest of the characters, major and minor alike, who all wrenched at my heartstrings in one way or another? Or maybe the writing itself, which was superlative – full of luxurious description without being overwritten, and so evocative that the most dramatic of the twists and turns made my heart start beating a little faster.

On top of everything else, this book avoids every YA trope and pitfall that tends to drive me nuts. No shoe-horned romance, no info-dumping, no nonsensical, unruly magic system, and no shying away from putting the characters in actual danger with actual consequences.

Look, I’m running out of adjectives, so I’ll keep it simple: Worldwielder is a breath of fresh air in the YA genre, and I cannot recommend it enough.