Thursday, January 16, 2020

A mystery in low gravity: Frozen Secrets by Myles Christensen

Title: Frozen Secrets
Author: Myles Christensen
Series: Europa Academy (Book 1)
Genre: MG Science Fiction / Mystery
Pages: 298

What Goodreads has to say:

He has trouble following the rules on Earth, but Jupiter’s moon could kill his curiosity for good…

Thirteen-year-old Max Parker is a grounded Earthling with the soul of a space explorer. So when he learns his family is relocating to Jupiter’s moon, Europa, he readily agrees to stay out of trouble. But his promise is soon forgotten, and his snooping lands him on a shuttle doomed for a fiery disintegration.

Convinced someone sabotaged the craft to cover up the theft he witnessed, Max digs into the incident. What else could they be hiding? Dodging a series of deadly accidents, he follows the clues to an abandoned outpost and discovers a secret that could blow the lid off a moon-wide conspiracy. Can he solve the mystery before his interplanetary escapade gets him killed?

What I have to say:

A mystery in space? Sign me up!

The climax is an Iditarod race across the frozen surface of Jupiter's moon?

Even better!

From page one, I knew this was going to be a fun, action packed book. 

It starts off with two kids trying to launch an antique jetpack that they rebuilt.

In Jonathan's (one of said kids) words: "The fuel lines might leak, the combustion chamber might explode, the nozzles might shear--" 

Any number of things could go wrong, and Max (the kid strapped to the jetpack) could very likely die.

But that doesn't put Max off one bit. He has a talent (problem?) for getting into life-threatening situations. And while the jetpack adventure comes just shy of proving fatal, don't worry, because it's very probably the least life-threatening situation he'll find himself in for the rest of the book.

Getting stuck in a sabotaged shuttle, getting sealed in an underground tunnel, getting stranded in the wilderness with low oxygen levels, getting caught in a crazy car chase, getting caught by enemy spies, nearly blowing himself up in a drilling rig, jumping off a precipice--these are all in a day's work for Max Parker: super secret spy.

OK, he's not a super secret spy, he's 13, and he's probably grounded for life at this point. But he wants to be a super secret spy.

And honestly, for a frequently grounded 13-year-old, he does pretty dang well.

Max is a fun character. And his supporting cast is fun, too--from his seriously awesome older sister to his diverse group of friends and the villainous members of the Xenium League. 

I especially like Max's friend Cameron, who gets pulled into the spy adventure reluctantly and isn't fond of taking risks. (He's a rock-solid friend, though.)

And what's any young teen mystery in space without a little awkward romance? YES. Bring it on.

Oh yeah, it's a mystery. That part is fun, too. It kept me guessing as to who was on the good guys list and who was on the bad guys list. 

Did I mention it's in space? While the book starts on Earth and has a brief sojourn there in the middle, most of the action takes place in the new Europa colony on Jupiter's moon. Europa City is an awe-inspiring place that speaks to the space-happy child in me. Also....

Zero gravity is awesome. 

So basically, picture trying to solve a mystery as a 13-year-old with the fate of humanity at stake and your friends and family in danger. Then picture doing it in low gravity, on a frozen moon. That's this book. You like?

I do. I had a lot of fun solving this mystery in space. 

Well, credit where credit's due. I didn't really solve it. 

That was Max Parker: super secret space spy.


Until tomorrow.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Review: The Spirit of London by Rob Keeley

Title: The Spirit of London
Author: Rob Keeley
Series: The Spirits series
Genre: MG Fantasy / Ghosts
Pages: 152
Buy Childish Spirits (#1)

What Goodreads has to say:

On returning to London, Ellie investigates the mystery surrounding 47 Foster Square. Who is the sender of ghostly messages asking her for help? What is the secret of the Meadowes family? And what does Edward know about all this?

With her parents about to divorce, and her Mum acting very strangely, Ellie quickly discovers that a sinister force lies between her and the truth...

The Spirit of London is the second instalment in the thrilling and suspenseful ‘Spirits’ series and follows the success of The People’s Book Prize-nominated Childish Spirits. It focuses on slavery and a mixed-race family in Georgian times. Ellie finds herself facing a very dangerous foe and will need all her courage and humanity to get her through. The Spirit of London also sets up a story arc that will continue into future books in the series. The book will appeal to girls and boys of upper primary and lower secondary age – and to parents and teachers reading the book aloud!

What I have to say:

If you've read a previous review in which I praised Rob Keeley's novel Childish Spirits to the skies, it should come as no surprise that I also loved the sequel, The Spirit of London. Much like the first novel in the Spirits series, the sequel is mysterious, engaging, slightly creepy, and all-around adorable.

There's a new house, new ghosts, a new mystery to solve. And Ellie is on the case...even if she'd rather not be.

I actually read this novel in one sitting because I was so engrossed. (Also I was on a 6+ hour flight so what else are you going to do, but honestly I might have read it in one sitting regardless.) Just as in the first novel, the characters are strong, the mystery intriguing, and the stakes high.

Edward is just as annoying as ever, but somehow I now want to adopt him more than ever. The scene where he and Ellie go out on the town was hilarious and quite possibly my favorite part of the novel. He's so exasperating but in such an adorable way. Don't ask me how.

I also loved the new mystery. It's cool that in these books geared toward children/preteens, the author manages to bring up historical and societal issues like the poor treatment of governesses and the stigma against interracial marriages. Was that a spoiler? I hope not.

But not all the issues are in the past. In the present day, Ellie's struggles with the breaking up of her family make for a nice echo (or maybe it's the other way around?) of the family issues faced by the historical characters. Maybe it suggests that the problems of the past don't go away, they just change shape a little. And maybe by looking to the past, Ellie can resolve her own problems in the present.

As for the future, it's anybody's guess, but that ending is one heck of a good way to make me want read the next book. What new adventures will Ellie face next? I can only imagine.


Until tomorrow.

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Review: In 'Stripes Recruitment,' the job search is tough for a tiger

Title: Stripes Recruitment
Author: Luke Melia
Genre: Short Story
Pages: 36

What I have to say:

As anyone who's ever been unemployed will tell you, the job search is tough.

OK, but it's a lot tougher when you're a tiger.

That's just Stripes's problem. Determined, hard-working, and highly qualified, he'd be the perfect candidate for any job.

...if not for the fact that he's a tiger, and no prospective employer can seem to overlook that obvious fact.

Is Stripes stuck forever at the humdrum construction job he hates? Or can he change his stripes?

When I read the premise behind this story, I laughed out loud. And "Stripes Recruitment" is funny. I'm struggling to think of a word that describes it (surreal? absurd?) and of something similar to compare it to (Monty Python?). But even if I can't quite put neat boundaries around this story, I enjoyed it very much, and while it made me laugh, it also made me think.

In theatre and fiction, ridiculous objects or characters are sometimes set in commonplace surroundings to show us something. The ridiculousness of the situation brings to our attention things we otherwise wouldn't have noticed. On another, wider level, this is the ultimate purpose of fantasy stories. But let's not go there right now, because I'm guessing you don't want to read a 30-page manifesto about the importance of fantasy literature in modern society. (Unless you do, then go read Tolkien.)

So what is "Stripes Recruitment" trying to bring to your attention?

I can only speak for myself, but this story made me think about my own career path. As an English major, I was basically told I could either teach or go into law, and after surviving 16 or so years of school and doing a brief legal internship, neither of those options appealed to me. So then (sorry you're getting my life story now) I stumbled onto the idea of copywriting. This was something I could do! But I don't interview well, and I didn't have a lot of experience, so I struggled to "get my foot in the door" for a traditional in-house or agency copywriting job. Then I discovered freelancing: something I hadn't even known was a possibility.

Stripes finally comes to the realization that no traditional employer will hire him. If he wants to achieve his dreams, he'll have to blaze a new path to reach them. I know it sounds like a cat poster, but it's true and it's possible and, guys, you can do it. Thanks for coming to my TED talk.

In short, "Stripes Recruitment" is a neat little story with an intriguing premise, a fun style, and an empowering message. Instead of changing your stripes, change your worldview. Open your mind to conceive of new possibilities, and you'll find the world open at your feet.


Until tomorrow.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Review: In 'The Scion's Delight,' a tyrannical, sadistic empress is... lovable?

Title: The Scion's Delight
Series: The Mage Conspiracy (Prequel)
Author: Jeffrey Bardwell
Genre: Fantasy
Pages: 145

What Goodreads has to say:

Princess Cordelia has steel plate ambition, a mind like twisting brass gears, and the political might of tin foil. The girl aims to ratchet the Iron Empire into a glorious new day of gears and steam. The entire palace is arrayed against her. The chambermaids disdain her. The emperor ignores her. The mages, championed by Lord Oriolanus, lead a brisk campaign of lies and coercion. Those evil magic users threaten to tighten their grip upon the land even though machines are clearly superior. By the gods' oil-stained hands, why can't anyone else see her vision of the ideal future?

Just when Cordelia's future threatens to slip back into medieval quagmire, a lone stranger with ice blue eyes and flowing blond hair arrives from the savage north. The handsome barbarian is destined to make both the hearts of the empire and the princess tremble. Does this spell doom or salvation for the girl's fragile dream?

Explore The Scion's Delight, the fantasy romance prequel novella of The Mage Conspiracy series. Discover a world of adventure and intrigue where lies cut deeper than any sword.

What I have to say:

The Mage Conspiracy series revolves around two sisters: Maven and Minverva, a mage and a soldier, best friends and dire rivals, both competing for the love of Sir Corbin Destrus.

In The Knight's Secret, The Dragon's Mercy, and The Soldiers' Heart (the first three books in the series), we learn to love these two--even if they're exasperating at times--through the eyes of Kelsa, granddaughter of Corbin and Maven (the only member of the legendary trio still living).

And we learn to hate the tyrannical woman who makes Kelsa's and Maven's world a living hell: Empress Cordelia, a twisted, psychotic dictator with a vendetta against all mages.

So, naturally, a prequel to the series can only be expected to focus on that most endearing of characters: Empress Cordelia, long may she reign.

OK, clearly, it's not the most obvious choice for a prequel. But the fact is that the story of Kelsa, Corbin, and the two Dragon Warriors doesn't need a prequel. Their stories all start in exactly the right place, at exactly the right time, and we get a lot of backstory in flashbacks throughout these three books. If there's one character who desperately needs a backstory, it's Cordelia.

And you know what? After reading said prequel, I kind her.

Resourceful, passionate, clever, and surprisingly sensitive--who knew the diabolical ruler of the Iron Empire had so many great qualities? And who knew I'd end up feeling so much sympathy for her?

The Scion's Delight gives us a glimpse of Cordelia's youth and a taste of the experiences that shaped her, both the bitter and the sweet. We see why she hates mages (and honestly, who can blame her?), where she got her stubborn streak, and why she's just a little on the sadistic side.

And despite the fact that her hobby is running a death maze for rats, that she'll stoop to anything to thwart the man she hates, and that she ends up unintentionally betraying her most loyal friend, I'm still oddly charmed by Cordelia.

Whatever else she may or may not be, she's strong. And now that I understand her better, I'll return to the world of The Mage Conspiracy more eager and invested in all the characters, including the "villain."

If I were going to make one criticism of this prequel, which would be a slight one because I really enjoyed it from start to finish, I'd just mention in passing that the chapters from Mustellus' perspective were a little difficult to interpret. I get why and I appreciate the dedication to authenticity involved. Mustellus is Cordelia's barbarian servant, and as such, he has a broken command of the English language. But like, after five years immersed in the Emperor's court, wouldn't he learn to speak English?

Possibly not. But whatever the case, the chapters from his perspective are written in broken English and it means the reader has to do some work sometimes to figure out what he's trying to say. It's also slightly jarring / confusing when the narrative jumps back and forth in time.

But like I said, I still enjoyed it very much. And I never saw that ending coming.

A+ for the women in this series. Not only are they boss as heck, they're satisfyingly two-sided. Even the heroines have their villainous moments, and even the villain has her moments of heroism.

The one exception may be Kelsa, who doesn't really have a dark side because she's just all-around awesome. (As you can tell, because in this review of a book in which she is never mentioned once and is in fact not even born yet, I clearly can't keep myself from talking about her. Sorry, Cordelia.)


Until tomorrow.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Guest post from Luke Melia: author of 'Give Up the White Room'

Hello readers. 

Today we're sharing a guest post from Luke Melia, author of Give Up the White Room--a novel about a puzzle-solving young woman who struggles with agoraphobia and OCD.


‘Talk me through the plan’
Portraying mental health in my novel Give Up the White Room  

Give Up the White Room is my first novel. Prior to publishing it in 2019, I had only written comic books, so a piece of long-form prose presented quite the challenge. On top of that, I chose to write about some difficult themes, as my protagonist Reya struggles with both agoraphobia and obsessive-compulsive disorder. 

I portray these mental health issues in writing through Reya’s first-person narrative. As the reader, you see events from her perspective and, through her inner monologue, get a sense of how she processes the world around her. Reya uses her natural gift for solving puzzles as a way to approach her mental health. 

This is where Ivan comes in. Ivan is an essential character in the novel, maybe as important as Reya herself – in a sense because he is Reya herself. Ivan doesn’t exist – he’s a therapist Reya consciously creates as a way to self-medicate. She sees her mental health issues as a puzzle, and Ivan is part of the solution.

When we first meet Reya, she and Ivan are working on a plan to build her confidence to a point where she can leave the house, walk to a local shop, buy milk and come home. This might sound like the simplest of tasks, but for someone suffering from extreme agoraphobia, it presents a monumental challenge.

‘Talk me through the plan’ is the second chapter of the novel and consists of a dense conversation between Reya and Ivan, during which I explore the meticulous extent to which she has to plan even the most basic activities. My aim was to give an insight into the depths of her mental illness and explore just how crippling agoraphobia and OCD can be. I was very conscious, though, that if I didn’t write it well it could easily come off as a boring slog in which a woman talks to herself for several pages about going to buy milk!

This chapter is so important to me as it shows how Reya thinks, how she plans, and how she perceives the world in a different way to most people. It’s key that the reader understands this early on so that later in the narrative the decisions she makes and the ways in which she approaches people all make sense.

Reya knows that Ivan isn’t real. She explains why she created him, and how it was a conscious decision to do so. From that moment on, I wanted the reader to see Ivan the same way that Reya does – as a separate entity. His purpose is to challenge Reya’s thought processes, so the two of them are able to look at the same situation from different perspectives. Reya’s is one of fear and emotion, whilst Ivan can take a colder, more methodical view.

As Reya’s therapist, Ivan insists on a level of professionalism in their relationship. However, he is the only ‘person’ with which Reya has conversed for the past six years due to her reclusive lifestyle – at times, their relationship slips into friendship, sometimes with Ivan even acting as something of a parental figure.

In establishing these elements of the story, hopefully I’ve written a chapter in which the two of them discussing the plan to go and buy milk is interesting, thought-provoking and an authentic but sensitive look at how Reya struggles with her illness.

Of course, this is only the beginning… when her plan goes awry, Reya retreats to the safety of her home, and that night when she sleeps discovers a boundless and magical place called the ‘shared Dreamspace’. There she can bring to life anything she imagines and has the opportunity for the first time in six years to talk to, connect and form relationships with a group of fascinating and eccentric individuals from around the world.

Reya and Ivan’s relationship grows increasingly strained as Reya becomes obsessed with this ‘White Room’, which Ivan does not believe exists… but if you want to know more about that, you’ll have to read the rest of the book!

Eager for more? Read Give up the White Room.

Happy reading,
Erin & Anna

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Indiana Jones meets Earthsea--with airships: Hûw Steer's The Blackbird and the Ghost

Title: The Blackbird and the Ghost
Series: The Boiling Seas (Book 1)
Author: Hûw Steer
Genre: Fantasy
Pages: 252

What Goodreads has to say:

The Boiling Seas are the mariner’s bane – and the adventurer’s delight. The waters may be hot enough to warp wood and boil a hapless swimmer, but their scalding expanse is full of wonders. Strange islands lurk in the steamy mists, and stranger ruins hold ancient secrets, remnants of forgotten empires waiting for the bold… or lying in wait for the unwary.

On the Corpus Isles, gateway to the Boiling Seas, Tal Wenlock, the Blackbird, seeks a fortune of his own. The treasure he pursues could change the world – but he just wants to change a single life, and it’s not his own. To reach it, he’ll descend into the bowels of the earth and take ship on burning waters, brave dark streets and steal forbidden knowledge. He’ll lie, cheat, steal and fight – but he won’t get far alone. The ghosts of Tal’s past dog his every step – and one in particular keeps his knives sharp.

The Blackbird will need help to reach his goal… and he’ll need all his luck to get back home alive.

What I have to say:

It must be my birthday or something, because I keep getting sent these awesome books to review. On the same day I finished listening to Rob Keeley's adorable MG ghost story Childish Spirits, I also turned the final page of Hûw Steer's thrilling fantasy adventure The Blackbird and the Ghost

This book is kind of like Indiana Jones meets Earthsea. Tal Wenlock is a tomb-robber with magical powers. Sounds awesome, right?

It is.

But it's about to get even more awesome when I tell you that there are also sailing ships, boiling waves, ancient libraries, deep dark mines, and world-building that will make you stop and exclaim: "Yes! That's how you do it!"

In other words, this book is my dream come true.

I've got a thing for archaeology. (I'm kind of obsessed with Howard Carter and the discovery of Tutankhamen's tomb.) I also love magic, stories of adventure, and far-off places. And clearly I've got a thing for books or I wouldn't be writing this blog.


OK. Deep breath. I'll try to settle down and talk about this book in more sensible terms. 

Let's start at the very beginning.

Oh yeah, there might be some minor....


The beginning of this book is actually the end.

And talking about the way this book is structured is almost sending me into another geek out session, but I'll try to stay calm for the sake of my hapless, captive readers.

The story starts with Tal Wenlock--alias The Blackbird, famed tomb-raider--breaking into the tomb of his career. He's after an ancient scroll with magical properties, and no mission has ever been so important to him.

The prologue follows Tal as he breaks into the tomb and makes his way toward the sarcophagus of the king, avoiding one deadly trap after another in pursuit of his object. It's so intense and it's so boss that we're not even told his name until the very last sentence! 

Then there's a sudden, totally unforeseen disaster, and then the chapter ends and we go back to three weeks before!

I can't even with this book. It's so freaking cool.

Because the whole time I'm reading from here on out, my mind keeps flashing back to that prologue and what happened at the end of it, and internally I'm screaming, but I'm also strangely invested in what's happening on the page in front of me right now, and I'm rooting for Tal so hard even though I know what lies at the end of his journey. 

I'm hoping against hope that once we get there, once we return to that moment, there will be something I missed the first time around and it will all be all right after all. Man.

On the subject of rooting for Tal, he's definitely someone to root for. A thieving tomb-raider with a strong interest in history, a respect for the dead, and a love of thick books, I mean, what's not to love? 

He's also very good at what he does, and his skills at everything from lock-picking to locating rare books to evading certain death are, to say the least, impressive.

The other characters are great too. Max is a scholarly young doctor and historian who, upon very slim persuasion, gets pulled into Tal's illegal quest for a mythic item. She doesn't fit the mold of the average sidekick, and for that she's way cool.

Mikhail is a seriously terrifying rival tomb-raider who I assume is the "ghost" of the title. I love the effect he has on Tal because it makes Tal himself more vulnerable and relatable as a character. He's a competent, thrill-seeking tomb-raider with serious survival skills, but he's not fearless. The idea of Mikhail stalking him makes Tal's hands shake.

Also, side note: I just love that Tal is a tomb-raider who also digs libraries, is super nice to people, and goes to therapy. He's a total boss but he's also kind of adorable.

Besides awesome characters, another thing this author does really well is world-building. All the places--the coastal town of Fort Malice with its wharf and maze-like streets, the chilling ruins of the Sydren Mines and the forbidding tomb on the island of The Palm--they all feel so vivid and real.

This story is richly painted: you can almost feel the salt wind on your face as Tal walks the streets of Fort Malice, hear the sinister velvet of Mikhail's voice, taste the stale air of the ancient tombs. 

I felt like I was right there with Tal from start to finish, shadowing him on his quest for the scroll, because all the scenes, sights, and even Tal's private emotions had such immediacy to them. 

Long story short: 

Loved this book. Hope there's a sequel in the works. Send it my way.

(And keep sending me awesome books, everyone.)


Until tomorrow.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

A perfect Halloween read (or listen): Rob Keeley's Childish Spirits Audiobook

Title: Childish Spirits
Author: Rob Keeley
Genre: MG Fantasy / Ghosts
Listening Length: 3 hrs and 26 min
Read by: Sally Millest
(Or you can listen for free with a 30-day Audible Trial)


When Ellie and her family move into Inchwood Manor, Ellie quickly discovers strange things are happening. Who is the mysterious boy at the window? What secrets lie within the abandoned nursery? Who is the woman who haunts Ellie’s dreams - and why has she returned to the Manor, after more than a century? Ellie finds herself entangled in a Victorian mystery of ghosts and tunnels and secret documents - and discovers that life all those years ago isn’t so different from the world she knows today.... Rob Keeley’s first novel for children brings out all the ingredients of the classic ghost story within a recognizable modern world setting.

Listeners of his short story collections for children will find in Childish Spirits the elements which made his past books such a success - strong and contemporary characters, inventive twists on traditional themes, and a winning combination of action, suspense, and humor.

Erin's take:

Childish Spirits is an adorable book. As in, I adored it from start to finish. It's also adorable in the sense that its characters and story are charming and sweet. 

But it's not just a "cute" story. There's a strong creep factor (it's a book about ghosts, so I'd hope so), and talk of some deep issues like divorce, class prejudice, and suicide. Also, it's incredibly well-written. 

As read by Sally Millest, it's doubly enjoyable. Of course, a big part of my personal enjoyment probably stemmed from the fact that she has a great English accent and as an American, I'm a succor for that. But she also reads with beautiful flow and expression. Animated by Millest's lively yet sensitive voice, the characters are vibrant and vivid, each with a unique, strong personality.

Let's talk about the characters, shall we? Edward, the ghost of a rich (read: spoiled) 10-year-old, is absolutely adorable. He's also a pain in the rear, but somehow, that makes him not less endearing but more. He's certainly infuriating at times and Ellie deserves a ton of credit for putting up with him. But despite that, I for one grew very attached to him. 

I also love Ellie, the main character. An ambitious if young painter and poet who's about the same age as Edward (and also alive, by the way), she makes for a wonderful heroine. I also found her brother Charlie hilarious. He calls his younger sister "small person," and "miniature one."

I've read plenty of MG novels that bored me. Likewise, I usually have a hard time listening to audiobooks because I'll zone out and miss something important. To prevent this from happening, the book has to be both very well-written and paced, and the reader has to be very dynamic. Otherwise, I probably won't make it to the end.

I'm happy to report that I didn't zone out once during Childish Spirits. Not only is it well read--it's perfectly paced. The story is a flawless blend of suspense, mystery, creepiness, charm, and character development. 

The first few chapters were deliciously creepy in exactly the kind of way I like (I don't really do scary movies but I dig ghostly stuff and am obsessed with E.A. Poe). Then I was curious to know who Edward was and what he died of. Soon a strange new ghost appeared in the house and it was totally creepy and suspenseful again.  

Mystery followed upon mystery: just as Ellie solved one, it would lead to another. Then there was very real danger and needless to say, by this time I was hooked.

While a few of the twists were things I saw coming, this is a MG book, so I feel like that's how it should be. And there were definitely other twists that threw me for a loop. 

In short, Childish Spirits is the kind of MG ghost book I wish every MG ghost book was like. It reminded me of The Graveyard Book and The Children of Green Knowe, except it's probably more exciting than those books (especially Green Knowe, which, though I say it affectionately, has an excitement factor of about 1).

It's also a wonderful October read. Not too scary, but mildly creepy and totally--to use my favorite word because I always will if at all possible--phantasmagoric.

Parts of it made me shiver, parts made me catch my breath, and the end left me smiling. I'll say it again: adorable.


Until tomorrow.