Thursday, April 19, 2018

What do diet Coke, Andy Warhol, and aliens have in common? They're all in 'The Book of Ralph'

Title: The Book of Ralph
Author: Christopher Steinsvold
Genre: Science Fiction
Pages: 416
Publisher: Medallion Press
Buy: Amazon

What Goodreads has to say:

A message appears on the moon. It is legible from Earth, and almost no one knows how it was created. Markus West leads the government’s investigation to find the creator.

The message is simple and familiar. But those three words, written in blazing crimson letters on the lunar surface, will foster the strangest revolution humankind has ever endured, and make Markus West wish he was never involved.

The message is ‘Drink Diet Coke.’

When Coca-Cola denies responsibility, mass annoyance becomes worldwide indignation. And when his investigation confirms Coca-Cola’s innocence, Markus West becomes one of the most hated men on Earth.

Later, five miles above the White House, a cylinder is discovered floating in the night. It is 400 feet tall, 250 feet in diameter, and exactly resembles a can of Campbell’s Chicken Noodle soup. Nearly everyone thinks the cylinder is a promotional stunt gone wrong, just like the lunar advertisement. And this is exactly what the alien in the cylinder wants people to think.

Ralph, an eccentric extraterrestrial who’s been hiding on the moon, needs Markus’s help to personally deliver a dark warning to the White House. Ralph has a big heart, a fetish for Andy Warhol, and a dangerous plan to save the world.

2016 Silver Medal for the IBPA Benjamin Franklin Award in Science Fiction and Fantasy.

Top ten books of 2016, Our Book Reviews Online.

What I have to say:

I just realized the cover for The Book of Ralph looks like a can of Campbell's soup. I'm a little slow on the uptake, I guess, though to be fair I read this on kindle, so the cover was black and white and I didn't really look at it that often. Anyway, A+ design choice.

Here's my favorite line:
"In essence, the universe is an exquisitely efficient and maximally elegant, ego-crunching machine. That is what it does."
I read this shortly after experiencing an ego-crunch myself, so it felt very true.

The Book of Ralph is an extremely enjoyable, well-paced adventure peppered with sly humor that sometimes feels a little Douglas Adams-ish (that's a word, I just invented it). There's definitely an Adams feel behind the line quoted above. And other things, like the fact that the evil aliens happen to be from the planet Kardash and are thus "Kardashians" are reminiscent of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy humor.

But on the whole, The Book of Ralph steers clear of just being a tribute to Hitchhiker's Guide, or to any other work of science fiction, for that matter. It's fresh, original, and imaginative. In fact, it's set up in such a way that it kind of messes with your expectations.

The story begins when an inexplicable message appears on the moon during a solar eclipse. The message reads: "Drink Diet Coke." Markus - our protagonist - is hired to head up an investigation, ultimately finding that Coca-Cola was not behind the message. This makes him extremely unpopular.

So this is going to be a clever, comic sci-fi story, I'm thinking at this point. The writing is great: very clean in the sense that it reads easy and it's clever. I'm enjoying it vastly.

Fast forward a bit, and we have our first contact with an extraterrestrial. Ralph (the alien in question) is hilarious and adorable and I love everything about him. At this point, it's still a very funny story. But all that's about to change.

Through a series of disastrous events which none of the main characters could reasonably have foreseen, some prominent people die and it looks like the earth is going to be invaded by evil aliens (yes, these are the Kardashians).

Suddenly everything's dark and scary and we're faced with the threat of the end of civilization as we know it. Where the heck did this come from? Wasn't this supposed to be a cute, tongue-in-cheek story about an alien with an Andy Warhol fetish?

Not quite. Or rather, yes, it was supposed (air quotes) to be about that, but that was probably just a ploy to lull us into a false sense of security or something. At any rate, what we have on our hands now is a serious discussion of good and evil, hatred, envy, violence, the ego, and humanity.

We're still rooting for Ralph, but whereas before we were rooting for him to seize the day, upset the status quo, and possibly have sex with the president, now we're rooting for him to save the earth from imminent destruction without dying in the process.

It's well done, because the tone change doesn't feel jarring as you're reading. Or rather, it feels a little jarring in the way it would if you were hanging out with an adorable alien one minute, then facing the threat of total destruction from a hostile race of extraterrestrials the next. But that's just good storytelling.

There's also a lot to think about - Markus and Ralph have some pretty deep philosophical talks around the middle of the book, and those parts are also well done. In particular, my concepts of hate and envy have probably changed after hearing Ralph's explanations of the two feelings. I've also gained more insight into the ego and why it's actually a good thing that the universe keeps crunching mine.

Then, like most good science fiction stories, there's a plot twist. And of course there's a moment where the fate of humanity depends on the actions of the main characters, and someone has to make a sacrifice.

I'm enthusiastic about this book. I wanted to like it, and I did. The author does a great job portraying and developing his alien characters - well, mainly Ralph, since he's the only alien we really get close to. Ralph isn't just a guy from another planet who has two heads or is green or something; he's really, completely, alien. But, incredibly, he seems more human than any actual human. And you can connect with him on a level you can't with another human.

Still, when I finished this book, I was left wanting something more. It's not that the book wasn't well-written, because it was - clever and engaging and psychologically deep - I just didn't feel profoundly changed by it, and that's what I want out of a really good science fiction novel.

After reading over my review, I realize the book did change the way I think about certain concepts, and now I feel like I'm just being a jerk about this whole thing. It's a fun story. I enjoyed it. I loved Ralph, and I loved reading his book.

Also I'm going to give a disclaimer here letting you know that there's some swearing in this book, like mainly the F word. If you're like, why the heck do I need to know that, Erin? just ignore this. If you're like, thanks I don't want to read a book that has the F word in it, you're welcome.


Until tomorrow.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

A random C.S. Lewis story

The name of this blog is taken from a story by C. S. Lewis, so I just wanted to take this opportunity to share a brief but AWESOME story from C. S. Lewis' life that I just read.

You may or may not know that Lewis (known to his friends as Jack so that's what we'll call him cause we're on a first name basis with the guy and you know it) was an English tutor at Oxford. And apparently he had strong feelings on the subject of poetry. Because this one time he was arguing with one of his pupils about whether or not this one poem was any good, and the pupil was having none of it. So Lewis quoted like, half the poem to him, and the pupil was like, yeah I just don't think this poem is actually that good.

So Jack was like, "The sword must settle it!"

And for some reason that no one could explain afterward, there were two swords in the corner of the room, and Jack picked them up and freaking STARTED FENCING WITH HIS PUPIL. LIKE THEY LEGIT HAD A FENCING MATCH RIGHT THERE IN THE CLASSROOM.

This is my new favorite thing ever.

That's all. Have a good day.

(Also if you're wondering, this book is The Inklings by Humphrey Carpenter and yes, I recommend it.)

Until tomorrow.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Review: Broken Wizards by Jeffrey Bardwell

Title: Broken Wizards
Series: The Artifice Mage Saga, Book 2
Genre: fantasy/steampunk
Pages: 468
Publisher: Twigboat Press
Buy: Amazon

What Goodreads has to say:

Would you flee into the land of dragons and evil wizards?

The wizard purge is in full swing. Sorcery is illegal in the modern, steam-powered Iron Empire. The Magistrate's Black Guards hunt the uncivilized mages using mechanized armor and mysterious, clockwork weapons. The guards deliver their prisoners to the Butcher, Captain Vice. All wizards are tortured and executed as traitors to the state . . . with one exception.

That exception is Devin, the outbreak mage and ex artificer, a prince of machinery. The Magistrate exiles the youth over Vice's protests to the wild kingdom of wizards and dragons. Devin only knows gears and springs, but his savage magic offers salvation, if he can tame it. The exile must learn to harness his dangerous, new powers before the Butcher tracks him down to finish the job.

Follow Devin's quest in Book Two of The Artifice Mage Saga. Join the fantasy steampunk brawl of metal vs. magic where sorcery is bloody, science is greasy, and nobody's hands are clean.

What I have to say:

In Broken Wizards, author Jeffrey Bardwell continues the story of Devin the artifice mage. When last we saw Devin in Rotten Magic, he'd locked himself in a room with his arch nemesis (the school bully) and it looked like he was about to torch the place. The stakes were high, the tension was real, and boy did I love it.

Keeping that tension, Broken Wizards starts off with pretty high stakes. We're not entirely sure what Devin did in that room, nor are we sure what happened afterward. We're concerned about what may have befallen Devin's very lovable mother and sister, and we almost can't watch as the young mage's punishment is meted out.

Oh, did I mention? Being a mage is a crime in the Iron Empire. And Devin has now officially "come out of the closet" as a mage - which means there's no sanctuary for him anywhere.

Banished from the Iron Empire, he wanders through the poorer Kingdom of Corel: a place where mages and dragons roam at large, though Devin seems to have a hard time finding either at first. Eventually he reaches Cornelius, a mage who agrees to help Devin harness his magic powers.

So yeah, this is that one book that every fantasy series has at one point, where the main character goes on a quest of self-discovery and basically the whole book is like, hero wandering from one town to the next, talking to a lot of people, learning about his/her parentage or learning to tame his/her powers. At best, it's Taran Wanderer, The Empire Strikes Back, etc. At worst, it's The Druid of Shannara (Man, I love Shannara but I hated that book. It just dragged on and on forever!)

I'm pleased to report Broken Wizards is much more engaging than The Druid of Shannara. It's not Taran Wanderer, but then what is?

Like I said, this book started out strong. And it stayed strong for a while. There were also parts where Devin and Cornelius just rehashed old arguments over and over again, and those weren't the most engaging passages, I must say. Don't get me wrong: I love a little magical philosophy in my books, but I felt like these characters could have used less talking and more doing. However, maybe that's their fatal flaw.

At other moments, the story is boss. Some of my favorite parts were when we left Devin's story for a while and saw through the eyes of other characters. Devin's point of view is muddled and meandering: which isn't exactly a fault in the narrative, that's just Devin's character and I'm all about those unreliable narrators. But because of that, transitioning to another character feels refreshing. I loved the passages from the magistrate's point of view, and I love that the book started out that way. It was different and it gave us some more context on the Iron Empire and its mage dilemma.

Also - Styx!

By far my favorite narrative voice was that of Styx - and I won't actually tell you who Styx is because it could be a spoiler, but he's a character, OK? The first time we got a passage from Styx's point of view, it was like a breath of fresh air in the story - so emotional, so poetic, I loved it. I also loved how the passages from Styx kept alluding to things that were going to happen in the future, teasing us with hints of prophecy and war - and then never explaining them! (I assume we'll get it in a subsequent book.) It was a brilliant way of keeping the reader engaged and guessing.

And did I mention how great Abigail is? Though it took a little time for me to warm up to her (as it should, she's kind of intimidating), I really liked her in the end. I don't think we ever got anything directly from her perspective, but she was a strong supportive character.

So there might be a lot of talking, but there are also parts in this book that are spine-tinglingly awesome.

Devin has a moment of revelation at the end of the book, when he realizes something about the dynamic between Cornelius and himself (I won't spoil it). I loved that part.

Also, Devin has some great one-liners, like this one that I don't think is a spoiler because I'm not giving any context and honestly Devin says this kind of stuff all the time anyway:
"None of your men will leave this beach alive," Devin said. "You only thought you faced a dragon before. I am the real dragon."
Boom. Devin has arrived.

It just takes, like, a lot of pages. (IDK how many, I read this on Kindle, OK?)

Final takeaway: I could do with less talking - especially when characters are in the middle of a life or death situation and they're like, o...k... time for a philosophic debate.... but overall this book has great characterizations, great alternating viewpoints, and freaking dragons. Plus some steampunk mixed with magic, which I dig. (Send me more steampunk books, yo!)

If it's a little broken, maybe that's because it's like its hero (anti-hero? both?): artifice mage (and occasional metaphorical dragon) Devin.


(Honestly I'd probably give it 3.5 but you can't have half a tree.)

Until tomorrow.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Review & GIVEAWAY: The Knight's Secret by Jeffrey Bardwell

Out on March 5 is Jeffrey Bardwell's newest fantasy thriller: The Knight's Secret. First volume in The Mage Conspiracy series. 

We've got a synopsis, a review, and a giveaway. Scroll down for some magic....

Title: The Knight's Secret
Series: The Mage Conspiracy, Book 1
Genre: fantasy
Formats: epub, mobi
Publisher: Twigboat Press
Buy: Amazon, Other places


Retired hero Sir Corbin rides to the capital of the Iron Empire for one last adventure. But the capital is in an uproar. The emperor has been slain by rogue mages. The new empress is livid. Soon all mages are suspect . . . including Corbin's daughter.

Corbin attempts to find allies among his old regiment. The army has become a slithering nest of vipers as imperial mages and cavalrymen move warily around each other. Both sides snare Corbin in tight coils of suspicion, politics, and lies. He is caught between a tryst with a jilted mage ex-lover and the tight-lipped scheme of an ex-buddy in the cavalry. When the vengeful empress launches a vendetta against all mage kind, Corbin must decide whether to be a father or a hero.

The bickering mages and cavalrymen aren't the only ones hiding something. Sir Corbin is not who he seems. Discover The Knight's Secret, the first fantasy adventure in The Mage Conspiracy series. Join a quest of self discovery, romantic entanglements, and political intrigue where lies cut deeper than any sword.


You might remember a certain post in which I (Erin) gushed over the steampunk/fantasy novella Rotten Magic, written by Jeffrey Bardwell. Now I'm back to tell you about another book by the same author, which takes place in the same world: The Knight's Secret. And I'm pleased to report that the author is still in full possession of his powers as a storyteller.

While I wasn't quite as over-the-top thrilled with The Knight's Secret as I was with Rotten Magic, I still loved it. The Knight's Secret continues Bardwell's gritty, character-strong fantasy style. It's a page-turner, with a complicated world, very real characters, and another of those cliff-hanger endings this author is so good at. (He knows how to keep us reading, am I right?)

Kelsa, the (more or less) main character of the story, is the granddaughter of legendary military hero Sir Corbin Destrus. She's grown up hearing about his adventures, but there seem to be a couple of things he's never told her.... Meanwhile, the state of the kingdom isn't looking so good. The emperor is dead under mysterious circumstances, and the new empress is ruthless. Anyone who practices magic comes under fire, and civil war looms on the horizon. 

As in Rotten Magic, but maybe even more so in this book, the author does a great job painting the backdrop for us. The world of The Iron Empire is vivid and politically complex: with conspiracies, machinations (just wanted to use that word), and a good deal of witch-hunting. Literally.

The same can be said of that world's characters, who all come off as compelling and natural. Main characters like Kelsa, Corbin, and Maven are well-rounded and complex. I love Kelsa's preference for stripping and walking around naked - but also love that she doesn't do it to attract attention. She just enjoys walking around naked. 

Speaking of, um, getting naked...the portrayal of the two genders is one thing this book does especially well: a main theme seems to be the differences between men and women. Sometimes these differences are divisive; sometimes they're unifying. And without giving anything away, the gender element is wonderfully highlighted in Kelsa herself and her story arc. The author has an equally strong grasp on both his male and female characters.

The character complexity was one of the things I loved most about Rotten Magic, and that element is definitely alive and well in The Knight's Secret. No one is just a token character - and most can't even be squarely cast as either "good guys" or "bad guys." That makes this story all the more satisfying.



Five lucky winners will be selected at random and emailed their prize on March 5, 2018. 

Every entrant will receive a free sample of The Knight's Secret upon entering the contest.

May the odds be ever in your favor.

Erin and Anna

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Hey there.

Yes, you.

Do you like books?

Do you like... free books?

Did you know you could win a free book by entering our giveaway RIGHT NOW?

I know, right????

And I haven't even told you the best part yet: it's a book about... magic.

OK, it's about some other things too, but magic features heavily.

Magic: that unpredictable, flighty, marvelous... what do you "call" magic? How do you classify it?

In the world of the Iron Empire, it's a crime. Mages - those capable of working magic - are worse than outcasts. They're traitors: their crime punishable by death.

If you missed author Jeffrey Bardwell's guest post from last week, you can scroll down and find it below this one. He addresses this topic from within the world of The Iron Empire, which is also the world in which our giveaway book, The Knight's Secret, takes place. 

In fact, you can just skip me and scroll down to the end of this post, where you'll find a link to the giveaway for The Knight's Secret.

Or you can stick around.

Still here? Thanks, man. (:

Today I'd like to talk about magic - and why we fear it.

Now, at this point you're all, "Magic is the greatest thing ever! Definitely no fear going on here! Hogwarts is my true home, etc. etc. etc."

Yes to all of that (especially the Hogwarts part).

But if you dig a little deeper, I think you'll find that, even if it's just on some subconscious level, you really do fear magic.

I mean, if you straight up met the Wicked Witch of the West right now, would you not be just a little bit scared? A mage, wizard, or witch can do virtually anything to you - and you never know what it's going to be until they do it. Unless you have magic yourself, you're powerless to stop it. Is that not scary?

Societally, this fear manifests in various ways. In the 1600s, there were the Witch Trials. Why would you try, condemn, and hang a bunch of people unless you believed they posed a threat to society?

And isn't banning Harry Potter from your child's reading list an indication that, on some level, you're afraid of magic?

(We're not getting into that now or ever, by the way.)

I think I've made my point. So why do we fear magic? I have a few theories.

Theory One: We fear the unknown.
If there's anything that's equally exciting and terrifying: it's the unknown. And what's more unknown than magic? You never know what it will do next. That's exciting, but also horrifying. A witch could turn you into a frog, or she could curse you to prick your finger and die on your sixteenth birthday. Maybe there's something to do with transformation there, too. Because magic often transfigures, turning something into something else. Are we afraid of the next step? (Is this getting too Jungian?)

Theory Two: We fear what we don't understand.

Wait, isn't that the same thing? No, my friend. I'm making a distinction between the two. We fear not knowing what's going to happen next; but maybe even more than that we fear not knowing how it's happening. No one knows how magic works, do they? I mean, maybe there's a few really powerful wizards out there who know what's up (Merlin? IDK), but it seems like most workers of magic don't even really know where their power comes from or why they have it. And for the rest of us - forget it.

Magic operates on a whole different set of rules. It's almost impossible to understand.

Take Elsa. When her magic flares up, everyone freaks out. But the person who's scared to death more than anyone else is Elsa herself. Why? She's got this stunningly powerful force inside her but she can't control it. Segway to Theory Three...

Theory Three: the killer Marianne Williamson quote

"Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us."

Oh Elsa, you're so afraid not because you're weak - but because you're powerful beyond measure. If some people can work magic, does that mean all of us can? That we all have that kind of power inside us?

Does that scare us?

Am I using magic as a metaphor now?

Man, I don't even know. It's like I write these blog posts and by the end of them, I'm not even sure where I've ended up. It sounded cool in my head, though.

"Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people will not feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine...We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone and as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give others permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others."

Sounds like magic to me.

So don't fear it, Elsa - embrace it. (I'm talking to all of you like you're Elsa now, in case you haven't noticed.) By working your magic, you free up others to work theirs, liberating them from their fears as they realize magic isn't something to be terrified of - it's something wonderful.

Now enter this giveaway.


The Knight

Delve into the plight of the mages in The Knight's Secret, the first fantasy adventure in The Mage Conspiracy series. Join a quest of self discovery, romantic entanglements, and political intrigue where lies cut deeper than any sword. Coming March 5.

Enter to win your free copy of The Knight's Secret ebook today:

Five lucky winners will be selected at random and emailed their prize on March 5, 2018. 

Every entrant will receive a free sample of The Knight's Secret upon entering the contest.

May the odds be ever in your favor.

Erin and Anna

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Guest post from author Jeffrey Bardwell + GIVEAWAY

Knights, mages, countrymen - lend me your ears!

(Yes, I will use that line every chance I get.)

In case you need reminding, the giveaway for Jeffrey Bardwell's newest fantasy adventure - The Knight's Secret - is still in full swing. Scroll down to the end of this post to enter.

In the meantime, to get you excited for the book's release on March 5, here's a guest post from Jeffrey Bardwell on "magic and mob mentality."



by Jeffrey Bardwell

Sorcery, wizardry, magic . . . call it what you will, but such powers are rarely subtle in the realm of fiction, unlike the realm of reality where almost everything is hidden and obscured by misdirection. A powerful wizard with bristling beard and tall staff will rain fire from the sky. A street performer in a top hat will conjure flames from his fingertips. 

These are the polar ends from a gradient of effects of course. Nothing prevents a stage act from being bombastic or a wizard’s staff emitting a quiet glow in lieu of crackling flames. The result is the same among the gathered mob: awe and the persistent question, what just happened?

This awe is in part sparked by the unnatural quickness of the street performer’s nimble fingers or the wizard’s vicious attack. Much of the shock during and after magic is from the illusion of speed. People tend to fear what their eyes cannot follow, what their mind cannot perceive. 

One of the most fearsome creatures on the planet, but hardly the most deadly, is the viper. The coiled animal strikes with astonishing ferocity. Blink and you’re dead.

With their capes flaring like the hood of a cobra and poison magic dripping from their fingertips, wizards are the human vipers of their world. Such is the perception. 

But just like you can strike the head off a viper with astonishing ease, magic often has tremendous liabilities and disadvantages that lead to the ‘squishy wizard syndrome.’ A wizard caught unawares or temporarily bereft of magic is like an uncoiled viper: a weak and pitiable being.

To the weak, defenseless mob, ruled by their emotions rather than logic, the perception of danger is more powerful than reality. In the real world, this draws respectful crowds. The illusion of danger is titillating. 

In the realm of fiction, this draws fearful crowds. Let us examine a case study: magic—thunderous flames from the sky magic—is real and disturbingly close to home.

What if you suspected that your neighbor was a mage: a powerful being, a snake hiding in the grass? 

To an individual, this may be cause for reasoned response: empathy or introspection or caution. You question yourself. Surely this friend across the street whom you’ve known for years whose children frolic with your own could not pose any danger? 

But the fear gnaws on your mind. Suppose you tell your other friends. Whispers spread. The mob gathers.

To the mob, the accusation of magic is enough to stir fear. The perception of danger is enough to stir a response, and this is no reasoned response. Reactions are primal and instinctual and vicious. A mass of human snakes whose minds are more venomous than their fangs descend upon the nest of vipers. 

The mage is killed. The mage’s mate and brood are slaughtered, whether they share his powers or not. The mob is in a frenzy. 

The mage’s house is destroyed with torches. The raging flames are no less destructive for all that they do not rain down from the sky.

The mob is safe. It disbands. Only individuals remain to question themselves and kick the debris. 

Were these smoldering ashes really a threat to me and mine? 

Was he even really a mage? 

Did I dare assume otherwise?

Did I just make an entire family . . . disappear? 

What just happened?


The Knight

Delve into the plight of the mages in The Knight's Secret, the first fantasy adventure in The Mage Conspiracy series. Join a quest of self discovery, romantic entanglements, and political intrigue where lies cut deeper than any sword. Coming March 5.

Enter to win your free copy* of The Knight's Secret ebook today:

* Five lucky winners will be selected at random and emailed their prize on March 5, 2018. 

Every entrant will receive a free sample of The Knight's Secret upon entering the contest.

May the odds be ever in your favor.
Erin and Anna

Thursday, February 1, 2018

GIVEAWAY: The Knight's Secret by Jeffrey Bardwell

Awesome people! Blog readers! (But I repeat myself.)

I'm excited to announce a giveaway for Jeffrey Bardwell's new book The Knight's Secret: the first installment in his forthcoming series The Mage Conspiracy. It's a tale of forbidden magic, closely kept secrets, political conspiracies, and boss women. Emphasis on that last one.

I'll be reposting my review of The Knight's Secret closer to the book's release (March 5). But before then you can all look forward to a guest post from the author, coming soon to a blog near you. (like, in a couple weeks, to this blog)

The Knight

Five lucky winners will be selected at random and emailed their prize on March 5, 2018.
Every entrant will receive a free sample of The Knight's Secret upon entering the contest.

Delve into the plight of the mages in The Knight's Secret, the first fantasy adventure in The Mage Conspiracy series. Join a quest of self discovery, romantic entanglements, and political intrigue where lies cut deeper than any sword. 

Coming March 5.

Sign up to win your free copy of The Knight's Secret ebook today:

May the odds be ever in your favor.

Erin and Anna