Saturday, November 25, 2017

The Knight's Secret by Jeffrey Bardwell

Title: The Knight's Secret
Series: The Mage Conspiracy, Book 1
Genre: fantasy
Formats: epub, mobi
Wordcount: 26,000
Publisher: Twigboat Press
Buy: Amazon

It has just come to my attention that, while this book won't launch solo for a few months (stay tuned), you can now buy it as part of an epic fantasy anthology on Amazon. And I've got to say, if the other books in the anthology are anything like The Knight's Secret, it would make a fantastic Christmas present for that epic fantasy fan in your life. (Or for yourself: because this is the 21st century and you're a responsible, mature person and you should be able to buy yourself a Christmas present if you want to, darn it.)


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 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.


Until tomorrow.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Guest Post by Frances Wasserman-Bildner

"I wonder the wonder, freedom of freedoms, play for you nightly and sing in the rain.
I pray for your ghosts to let you off lightly, lessen and get rid of your terrible pain." - Expressions of an Artist: The Whole Shebang

Hey bibliophiles! Today we have a guest post from author and artist Frances Wassermann-Bildner. She'll give us a short overview of her book Expressions of an Artist - a mash-up of painting, writing, and poetry. Sort of. I'll let the author take it from here....

Expressions of an Artist: The Whole Shebang

This book is not a novel, nor a book of short stories. It is a collection of writings and paintings. It encompasses the human condition by covering topics such as love, loss, living, fear, political, outsider and belonging. Each piece of writing is written automatically and quickly. The writing actually writes itself and the author is a vehicle for her work. The paintings are done in the same way. There are no preconceived ideas in either paintings or writings.

Although the work is produced this way, it does touch the subjects that we are all concerned with. This is because the artist/author is a product of the human condition and will therefore hold these subjects in her subconscious.

Some of the work is quite dark, all of it is filled with energy and emotion and an appreciation of life in all its facets. 

The book has been collated into these topics by a reader. One can easily dip in and out or read it cover to cover.

Here's an excerpt to whet your appetite:

Champagne Crystals

Champagne crystals, camaraderie, flight, bubbles in the air, bubbles everywhere, aeration, colour, sanguine moments. Spirit alive entering the gates of nirvana. Chrystal, veuve, what’s in a name, the purity, the semblance of a glass of champagne. Jockeys fly, horses neigh, the culmination of another day. Psychics, mediums, bursting through, who’s to say what’s you and you.

Anticipation, bubbles and expectation. I put my hand around your waist and tasted friendship. Not formed in haste. Champagne you asked, is it free, Champagne you queried for you and me?

Bubbles of life, love and laughter floating above the heavier matter. Champagne cocktails, chitter chatter. Corks that pop, love a lot, fizz in the air. Champagne everywhere, in the bath a glass between friends making many amends.

Get the book:

From Amazon

About the author:

Frances Wassermann-Bildner has been painting and writing for many years. This book is the culmination of these many years. She was born in Buenos Aires and has lived in London and New York. These cities, their vibrancy and color have greatly influenced her work. She is also the founder of Creative Wiz Kids: a children’s entertainment company where children come to paint and dance and adults also come to have fun! She loves the honesty and immediacy of children and finds working with them extremely stimulating. Along with her artistic work, Frances has been running these groups for almost twenty eight years!

Frances loves to travel and visit different countries, sitting in cafes and meeting people. She has two wonderful children, a lovely daughter-in-law, a grandson and another grandchild on the way. She plans on taking her grandchildren traveling when they are old enough!

And that's the whole shebang! 

Happy reading / writing / painting / living!

Until tomorrow.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Poetry Appreciation: Autumn

Hey all,

It's been a while since our last session of Poetry Appreciation, and I know you've all been just dying waiting around for the next one.

Whatever. I'll skip the sass and cut to the poetry now.

Autumn is probably the most poetic time of year, don't you think? Autumn is so crisp, poignant, and exciting.

Here's the first of my two favorite poems about autumn:
The morns are meeker than they were -
The nuts are getting brown -
The berry’s cheek is plumper -
The rose is out of town.

The maple wears a gayer scarf -
The field a scarlet gown -
Lest I sh'd be old-fashioned
I’ll put a trinket on. 
Emily Dickinson Homestead Amherst, MA
Emily Dickinson's house in Amherst, MA
By the immortal Emily Dickinson. She's my favorite.

A lot of her poems leave me scratching my head (which only adds to my enjoyment - it's not poetry unless you feel the top of your head being taken off, as Emily herself would say). But this one I think is very accessible. Even if you've never read an Emily Dickinson poem, you can jump right in.

To my knowledge, it's the only poem she ever wrote about autumn. Which is actually a little surprising. Maybe she preferred the spring.

Here's the second. It's a bit longer, so I'll just give you the first stanza, and encourage you to look up the rest if you like what you see:

To Autumn
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
   Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
   With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,
   And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
      To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
   With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
      For summer has o'er-brimm'd their clammy cells.
Photo of London in autumn by Garry Knight
London in Autumn (Credit: Garry Knight)
Give it up for John Keats, my other favorite.

The first time I read this poem was in my Romantic poetry class at BYU. Our professor gave us a print out of "To Autumn" and told us to go sit outside somewhere and read it. That was the whole class for the day. Did I mention it was autumn? Yeah, pretty much that professor was the bomb.

On the surface, this poem is just a beautiful description of autumn. Fruit is ripening and getting ready for harvest, and there are a few last warm days before winter sets in.

But underneath, Keats is exploring the idea of "ripeness." He's probably alluding to the line in one of his favorite plays, King Lear:
"Men must endure Their going hence even as their coming hither. Ripeness is all."
In other words, you don't get to decide how long you live, or when you die. It comes when you're ripe for it. And the best you can do is accept it gracefully.

This was especially apt for Keats, because he always had the sense that his life was going to be cut short. It ran in the family: his father, mother, and brother all died young, and his grandmother died "before her time."

("Why do you write like you're running out of time?" as Hamilton would say. OK, I've never seen Hamilton or even listened to it, but that line is amazing.)

Anyway, the upshot is that Keats died at 25, so that premonition was pretty spot on.

This has been Poetry Appreciation with Erin. I promise it's not always this depressing.

'Til tomorrow.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Happy Hobbit Day!

Woot! Happy Hobbit Day, people!

We like Tolkien just a little bit around here.

This time of year, I always return to this webpage which has every recipe you could ever want to make for your Hobbit Day celebrations.

For some cultural diversity, you can also check out this page which catalogs 67 different editions of The Hobbit from around the world - in 21 different languages.

This year is a special Hobbit Day because yesterday (September 21, 2017) was the 80th anniversary of The Hobbit book itself. 

So party hard, my friends, and may the hair on your toes never fall out.

"If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world." - Thorin Oakenshield to Bilbo Baggins, The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Journey from Skioria by Kandi J. Wyatt

Title: Journey from Skioria
Author: Kandi J. Wyatt
Publication Date: September 5 2017
Number of Pages: 140
Buy: Amazon

Enter Goodreads giveaway until September 12

What Goodreads has to say:

Tania is lost, shipwrecked on an unfamiliar shore. With no friends or family, the nine-year-old girl must make her way through the realm of the woodland people to a town she's never heard of. With unexpected allies from the forest, Tania departs on a wild adventure where storms rage and the forces of nature do their very best to end her journey before it has truly begun.

In a land full of magic and evil forces, can one young girl make it home alive?

Lord of the Rings meets Narnia in this standalone middle grade fantasy by author Kandi J Wyatt.

What I have to say:

This was a cute middle grade story with fun, believable characters in an imaginative world. For my tastes, it could have used a bit more action, but as it is, Journey from Skioria is an enjoyable, refreshing little adventure.

The world of Skioria is rich and well-developed: peopled by different races reminiscent of Hobbits and pixies. Skioria itself is a bit like a mix of Lothlorien, Hobbiton, and Narnia - so basically an awesome place to live in. 

Sadly, Tania needs to get back to her family, and since she's only nine, we can't really blame her for that. Speaking of which, I thought Tania seemed very believable as a nine-year-old human girl. It definitely wasn't one of those stories where you have to suspend your disbelief as a pre-teen ends up doing stuff a seasoned ninja would have trouble accomplishing.

On that subject, however, I would have appreciated a little more action. Even in The Lord of the Rings series, days of hiking cross country is just not all that exciting to read about. 

To her credit, author Kandi J. Wyatt does throw in lots of fun stuff like family secrets, reveals, myths, and delectable scenery. But even with all that, I can only take so much of people hiking towards civilization. 

Luckily, the book is a fairly quick read, so it didn't really have time to bore me. I just think the story would have grabbed me more if the most exciting thing that happened in it wasn't a run in with some unwieldy sheep.

Then again, if anything did grab me in this book, it was the sweetness of Tania's friends and the richness of the world Wyatt has created. That's no small feat, and if the story sometimes succumbs to some Tolkien-esque countryside rambling, I think there are worse things in life.


(Also, anytime an author incorporates pizza into their story, I feel compelled to recognize it, since pizza is probably second only to books as the most important thing in the universe; and bringing pizza into a fantasy or sci-fi novel takes a certain degree of creativity. There was pizza in this story, so well done.)

Until tomorrow.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Happy Birthday Anna!!!!

23 Books That Changed My Life

This week I'm turning 23, and decided that as part of my birthday celebration I would look back and see if I could list 23 books that had changed my life. NEVER TRY TO DO THIS. It was impossible. First, I had to decide to get rid of religious texts (The Bible, The Book of Mormon, etc.) - yes they've changed my life, but I wanted to do more secular books. Second I decided that only chapter books would make the list. Third, I realized not all the books that have shaped me would fit on the list. Fourth, I thought about ditching the whole thing. Fifth, I decided series would count as one book. Sixth, I realized these would not be my most favorite, or the ones that changed me the most, just some. Seventh, my computer rebooted. Eighth, some of them have reasons, some don't. Ninth, it is what it is. So, I hope you enjoy 23 books/series that really influenced me.

(In no order whatsoever. Really though, don't ask me to order them.)
bold = series     normal = single book

1. Harry Potter - J.K. Rowling

2. The Hobbit - J.R.R. Tolkien

3. The Lord of the Rings - J.R.R. Tolkien

4. The Chronicles of Narnia - C.S. Lewis

5. The Great Divorce - C.S. Lewis

6. The Screwtape Letters - C.S. Lewis

7. The Little Prince - Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

8. Nightcrawler, Volume 2: Reborn - Chris Clairemont
     - This may seem like a strange choice, but this comic volume was surprisingly deep and thought provoking. Also I may have cried.

9. The Tolkien Reader - J.R.R. Tolkien
     - Leaf. By. Niggle. 

10. Tiffany Aching (The Wee Free Men) - Terry Pratchett

11. Ivanhoe - Sir Walter Scott

12. Pure Dead Magic - Debi Gliori
     - This is one of my most favorite books to re-read. It never gets old. It's funny, it's weird, and it's fantastic. It helped me to understand that a weird sense of humor isn't a bad thing, you just have to find the right people, and that keeping your living great-great-great-great-great-great-grandmother in your freezer is perfectly acceptable. 

13.The Dark is Rising - Susan Cooper

14. Earthsea Cycle - Ursula K. LeGuin

15. Captain America: White - Jeph Loeb
     - I actually wrote a previous blog article about this one - Cap and Bucky: A Love Story

16. Defiance - C.J. Redwine
     - I read this book at a time when I was dealing with extreme chronic anxiety, and one of the main characters reacted to things and thought about things the exact same way I did, and he still managed to save everyone and function, for me this was a wonderful revelation, even if it was fiction.

17. Sherlock Holmes - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

18. A Long, Long Sleep - Anna Sheehan
     - In this retelling of Sleeping Beauty, the "princess" is not the girl sleeping waiting to be rescued, but the resilient briars that grow around the castle keeping everyone out, and the princess safe. You can be your own hero.

19.The Once and Future King - T. H. White

20. Macbeth - William Shakespeare
     - While reading this play in school I actually laughed out-loud at several points (this is not a comedy). My classmates found it odd. I love this play, and find it hilarious which further notified me of my sometimes dark sense of humor.

21. Dracula - Bram Stoker

22. A Tale of Two Cities - Charles Dickens
     - Sydney Carton's act of selflessness. Need I say more?

23. Through the Looking Glass - Lewis Carroll

So, there you have it. I would love to hear your thoughts and comments! 

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Rotten Magic by Jeffrey Bardwell

Title: Rotten Magic
Series: The Artifice Mage Saga (prequel)
Author: Jeffrey Bardwell
Genre: Fantasy / Steampunk / YA
Number of pages: 122
Publisher: Twigboat Press

What Goodreads has to say:

Devin will do anything to win. Even resort to magic!

Devin competes to become the best artificer in the mage phobic Iron Empire. Who needs magic when you can master the art of machinery? The other apprentices envy his genius and skills . . . especially Benson. Every apprentice hones their craft building and fighting in crude prototypes of powered armor. Some add frills, others barbs or horns. When Devin transforms himself into a mechanical dragon to slaughter the competition, Benson steps into the role of dragon slayer.

But Devin harbors a secret as he claws his way to the top of the Artificer's Guild: he's a mage. These new abilities are thrilling and frightening, and the voices more so. How long can Devin be content wearing a steel dragon mask when the seductive promise of true arcane power whispers in his ear?

Experience the novella prequel to the Artifice Mage Saga: a 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:

If you're looking for a book that reads like a steampunk version of Ender's Game with magic and an element of dragons - look no further. You're currently reading a review of that book. A slim novella packed with punches, Jeffrey Bardwell's Rotten Magic starts off the Artifice Mage Saga with a bang (several, in fact). Setting and characters are intriguing, relationships are complex, ambition is powerful, and magic is dangerous. 

Devin is an intriguing character because he doesn't fit nicely into the young underdog genius mold. At first, he seems to: a young, intelligent apprentice working on a secret project, regularly taking the brunt from the school bullies. 

But as things go on, we realize that's not Devin at all. He is intelligent, but his secret project isn't all that original, and he can't even seem to get it to work when he tries to present it at his examination.

He does often take the brunt from the school bullies, but that's only because he seems to enjoy fighting and has accepted the rule that the dragon always loses. And he prefers to play as the dragon. Far from just an innocent young victim, Devin longs for retribution and it looks like he's going to get it. He can be savage when crossed, and even his family and friends aren't always safe. 

Rather than some young genius who's probably going to save the world with his invention, Devin is a frustrated apprentice who has big ideas that never seem to get off the ground, and he may very well end up destroying the world, rather than saving it. That makes him less of an idealized fantasy hero and more of a, well, human. But one with a dark side that makes him all the more compelling.

Devin's nemesis, Benson, doesn't fit the common character mold either. He's a bully - but as Devin points out, he's not just your average bully with no brain but plenty of brawn. Benson is intelligent as well, and that's mainly why Devin is having such a hard time taking him down.

But back to Devin himself. He becomes even more intriguing as a character when we hear the voices inside his head (yes, everyone has those voices, but Devin's seem to be more vocal than most of ours are). In Devin's thoughts, the voice of the artificer and the voice of the mage are always in conflict. Like the gas lamp he accidentally blows up in his room, Devin is poised to explode at any moment, and when he does, the consequences will be dire. (But you might just have to read the next book to find out how dire.)

Told in an engaging style with suspense, wry humor, and a strong undercurrent of magic, Rotten Magic is a thrilling roller coaster of a ride up to the top - where I expect we can catch the next book and set off on an even more thrilling journey. Bring it on!


Until tomorrow.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Henry and the Hidden Treasure by B.C.R. Fegan

Title: Henry and the Hidden Treasure
Author: B.C.R. Fegan
Illustrator: Lenny Wen

"Henry has a lot of treasure and he keeps it very well hidden."
So well hidden, in fact, that there's no way in heck anyone is getting to that treasure. 'Cause Henry's got a slew of incredibly strong, incredibly scary creatures guarding it, including but not limited to a fire-breathing dragon, gigantic robot, several superheros, and a giant and ferocious pink pig. (I don't know about you, but that pig looks more ferocious than the superheros, dragon, and robot combined). 

Not content to leave it to these guys, Henry has also hidden his treasure in the darkest part of a secret cave and surrounded it with booby traps. If some brave soul succeeds in making it past all of Henry's defenses, they'll still have to get past Henry himself: a swashbuckling kid with a powerful laser gun that's almost as big as his imagination (but not quite).

But, against all odds, it looks like Henry's little sister Lucy (secretly a ninja) may have found a way to break through all of Henry's defenses and reach his secret treasure!

On second thought, it looks like Lucy's not interested in Henry's treasure at all. In fact, she may have something much more drastic in mind....

Henry and the Hidden Treasure is a charming story told with creativity and heart. I loved Henry's wild imagination and all his painstaking precautions in guarding his treasure. The various layers of security (monstrous guards, a huge maze, booby traps, etc.) are sure to appeal to kids with big imaginations. 

Likewise, the sweetness (literally and figuratively) of the story's ending will hit home for brothers and sisters (or maybe mostly just for parents who wish their kids got along a little better). 

To top it all off, Lenny Wen's delightful, fun illustrations complement the story beautifully: seamlessly mingling the world of Henry's imagination with the "real" world and things as they actually are (a.k.a., the secret cave is his bedroom). 

All in all, this is a delightful little story sure to make you grin, awake your imagination, and finally make you go "awwww" because it's just so darn cute.

Until tomorrow.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Southern Dust by Caspar Vega

(this cover is lovely but slightly misleading, as the story takes place in the near future)

Title: Southern Dust

Author: Caspar Vega
Number of Pages: 228
Genre: Pulp / Thriller (I guess...)
Buy: Amazon

Favorite line from the book: "You need light to fight the dark. It's the oldest story in the book."

What Goodreads has to say (with my interspersed comments):

Gretchen Walker: A Southern belle living an idyllic life in the newly independent Alabama; worrying about the upcoming cotillion, and hoping more than anything to find a dapper young suitor from a good family. Might she end up getting more than she bargained for? [yes, she definitely will - run now, Gretchen]

The Governor: The enigmatic leader responsible for achieving the aforementioned independence. [did I mention he's slightly crazy?]

Roger Conaway: An enforcer trying to make a clean break. When his boss tells him a friend's daughter has gone missing, can Roger find the girl and get out of the game while he still has a shard of innocence left? [sadly, no]

Dominic White: An obsessive Hornbuster overcome with grief; recovering from a nervous breakdown, and actively seeking revenge for his murdered sister. [when he's not chilling on the couch for days at a time]

Discover their interconnected stories in this diesel-fueled, black magic powered, vampire-creating extravaganza! [extravaganza is a good word for it]

What I have to say:

OK, wow, where to start? This is a weird story. And I don't mean that in a bad way, because I generally think weird is awesome. There's just no denying this story is definitely weird.

We've got a Southern belle getting tangled up with the young, attractive governor of Alabama, who may be crazy? (I thought he was crazy, but the aforementioned Southern belle was apparently crazy about him, so go figure). We've also got a Captain America type of experiment gone wrong (as in hairy vampire wrong), and a freelance law enforcer/assassin with serious mental health problems. Oh yeah, and black magic - don't forget that one.

All taking place in a post-Trump America in which Alabama has declared independence (go them). And bloodshed abounds. Also some characters with seriously psycho relationship issues.

The narrative structure of Southern Dust is very well done (with one exception which I'll get to later). The story is told through the eyes of four characters, each getting their own vignette. So in essence it's more like four interconnected short stories, each with its own protagonist and plot arc. Vega does a great job getting inside the characters' heads and presenting vastly different personalities. 

My favorite narrative voice was the last one (Dominic White), whose life philosophy cracked me up and reminded me - on a much less drastic scale - of myself. My favorite quote is this one: 

"I'm a procrastinator and a lazy person by nature. However, I require the laziness for greatness."

Basically, he can only handle one event a day. So if he works out one day, that's it. He gets to sit on the couch for the rest of the day and chill. Or if he goes grocery shopping for the day, or does a job for work, or goes out with his nephew - ditto. Rest of the day: canceled.

I had a harder time connecting with the Governor, who seemed like an all around irate guy who was born thinking he was better than everyone else and never changed his mind. But hey, it takes all kinds to make an independent Southern, vampire-super-soldier, black magic world, right? (And I mean literally all kinds).

Here's my one beef with the narrative structure: I would have liked to get more of Gretchen's story. She only gets one chapter at the beginning of the book, and I was just starting to connect with her when we jumped into the Governor's diary and never came out again. Gretchen's story ended too abruptly, I felt. Plus, I think, since we get three stories from men's perspectives (though, oddly enough, they all seem to center on women, which I find very interesting), it would have been nice to get a full vignette from Gretchen's perspective. Or, if not that, maybe come back to her for one chapter at the end, which would add some narrative consistency.

Just as a matter of taste, there was a little too much blood and profanity in this book for my appetite (I'm not a super-soldier-vampire, after all). But that's not a criticism of the work itself, just personal opinion.

On another note, the story is very fast-paced and a quick pulp read. So if you're in the mood for a politically-charged, crime-ridden, supernatural I don't even know what - step into Vega's strange but weirdly fascinating world and take a ride. You may get dizzy, but you'll have fun.


Until tomorrow.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

A Six Year Old, An Assassin and Dragons!!

A Precarious Beginning


Title: A Precarious Beginning
Series: Chronicles of Castlemount
Authors: Siena and Fritz Rollins
Date Published: April 14, 2017
Publisher: Harpalin Press

Summary: “There are only two powers in the universe that determine what a person will become in life — luck and willpower.” 

Orphaned at a young age and forced to become a pickpocket to survive, a chance meeting with the King’s Assassin is the lucky break Hyla needs. At the massive fortress city of Castlemount, Hyla discovers she is destined to become a Dragonrider! Training every day to understand her new role and the magical dragon bond, Hyla learns that mingling with the rich and powerful has its own dangers. Will her street smarts keep her alive? Join Hyla in the precarious beginning to her incredible adventure! 

My Thoughts: When asked to read this book I was informed that the authors were father and daughter and had written this book together, the daughter being around 8 years old. I found that fascinating, and quite endearing. The book is well written, and the world of Castlemount is quite intriguing. I enjoyed the story, and became quite attached to Hyla and her dragons. However, I have some questions - where is Hyla actually from? Is it possible she is royalty from her original country? Is anyone going to fix the problem of the City Watch? Where were the dragons being shipped to? Will Jop ever come back into the story? I expect these questions will be answered later in the series, but that doesn't stop me from wondering. 

Yes, the story is good, but some of the characters (Hyla's fellow Dragonriders) come across as flat and nonessential. This may be because the story is not about them, but with the amount of times they are mentioned you would expect more character development. Perhaps this will occur later in the series. That's another thing; I felt like this book was seriously setting up further stories down the line, and wasn't quite a complete story in and of itself. The could be due to the fact that Hyla is only six, so even a small adventure seems huge to her. Speaking of Hyla's age, I found it hard to sometimes follow the narrative, there were three stories going on, present day Hyla, present day Sergeant Troy, and Hyla's past. While Hyla wasn't a narrator in first person, she was in third - which sometimes made the things she saw or did slightly unreliable. How much of the story is true when a six year old is the narrator? 

Just as Hyla doesn't really understand what is happening around her, the king also doesn't seem to understand what is happening around him. He is slow to trust his advisors and quick to blame everything on a mythical truce that may no longer be in effect (if it ever was). To put it lightly, I hated the king. He was childish, and quick to believe superstitions and lies. He didn't seem like a man that could lead a kingdom, if anyone displeases or contradicts him they are killed by Troy, and if two young Dragonriders come up with a conspiracy theory he believes it wholeheartedly. Ugh.

Sergeant Troy was awesome. I liked that he wasn't one sided. He wasn't just the king's assassin, but that was what most people knew him as. Hyla however first knew him as the man that was kind and shared his food. This changed her whole perspective of him. I liked that he felt responsible for Hyla and wanted to make sure everything was going well for her.


Thoreau turns 200

Hey book-lovers,

Thought you might like to know that Henry David Thoreau, author of Walden and Civil Disobedience (both of which Erin highly recommends) turns 200 today! 

Here's a quote for you:

"The light which puts out our eyes is darkness to us. Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star." (Henry David Thoreau, Walden)

Pretty deep, right? Kind of reminds me of this:

"Should we continue to look upwards? Is the light we can see in the sky one of those which will presently be extinguished? The ideal is terrifying to behold... brilliant but threatened on all sides by the dark forces that surround it: nevertheless, no more in danger than a star in the jaws of the clouds." (Victor Hugo, Les Misérables)

And this: 

"There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tower high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach." (J. R. R. Tolkien, The Return of the King)

Or maybe this is a little closer:

"'The term is over: the holidays have begun. The dream is ended: this is the morning.' And as He spoke, He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before." (C. S. Lewis, The Last Battle)

I guess what I'm really trying to say is, happy birthday, Thoreau.

The sun (or is it just a morning star?) in Walden Woods

 This has been quote time with Erin. 'Til tomorrow.

Monday, June 26, 2017

"Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense."

Today, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's/Sorcerer's Stone turns 20 years old. 

Happy Birthday, Harry.

Thanks, J. K. Rowling, for sharing your world with us.

Erin and Anna
On behalf of The Wood Between the Worlds readership

In which Dumbledore looks fabulous

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

The Hobbit meets Dickens' England with a pinch of Sherlock Holmes

The Miseries of Mister Sparrows

Author: Matthew A. J. Timmins
Publisher: Matthew A. J. Timmins
Published: 2016

Summary: Robin Sparrows is a humble clerk at Winston Winston & Crumpet, the wickedest law firm in all of Victoria's empire. Charged with delivering a mysterious box to the arch-fiend Kermit J. Tarnish, his life of quiet misery is transformed into a quagmire of murder, mud, and madness. 

Unwilling, unaided, and unprepared, Robin must wander the fog-drenched streets of the capital hunting the last man he wants to find while confronting brutish valets, quarrelsome cross-dressers, dithering policemen, forlorn soldiers, and sneering phantoms. Until at last, he uncovers the scandalous truth behind a shameful war. 

My Thoughts: Let me start by saying that I LOVE Dickens, and Timmins called his novel "Dickensian" So I was a little apprehensive. I wasn't sure if Timmins was claiming to be the next Dickens, or if he was simply replicating the style, and if so how long was this book gonna be? (I was having flashbacks to the length of David Copperfield) Don't get me wrong, I love long books and especially Dickens' long books, but I wasn't sure I wanted to read a Dickensesque novel by someone other than Dickens. To my delight and relief I found the book both amusing and well written. 

Timmins' writing style is both flowery and hilarious. The story flows well and each event becomes more ridiculous than the last. Robin Sparrows is a law clerk for the most wicked law firm in all of Albion. Does he not know his employers are wicked? you may ask, oh he knows how evil they are, but they pay him, so he is willing to do anything they require of him, including taking a box with undisclosed items to the man who betrayed the kingdom and started a full out war. The following adventures that are rather forced upon poor Robin Sparrows would make any lesser man turn back, or maybe because Sparrows is a lesser man with nothing to lose, he sees no choice but to go forward, even if that means sliding down a sewage pipe, being mistaken for a monster, and perching on a windowsill while being attacked by a pigeon. But, you may say, other book characters could do that! Yes, they could, but those characters are often thin and athletic. Robin is round and most unathletic. Often Robin reminded me of Bilbo at the beginning of The Hobbit, when he doesn't know quite what he has gotten himself into, but decides to continue forwards. 

Overall I thoroughly enjoyed the book, and give a round of applause to Timmins for having the gumption to use an atypical main character. 


Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Martha the Blue Sheep by Gabrielle Yetter

Title: Martha the Blue Sheep
Author: Gabrielle Yetter
Illustrator:  Daro Sam
Design: Monnyreak Ket

You might remember an adorable little children's book I reviewed last December for this blog, called Ogden, the Fish Who Couldn't Swim Straight. Well, Gabrielle Yetter, the author of Ogden, is at it again: this time with a book about a little blue sheep named Martha.

Martha is a shy young sheep who doesn't like to be the center of attention. So imagine her dismay when a tragic accident with some cans of paint turns her wool completely blue! All her attempts to wash the color out and return her wool to its natural white fail; it looks like Martha is stuck living in a bright shade of blue forever.

But just when it seems like Martha's life may be totally ruined, something happens that changes her whole outlook - and maybe even the way she feels about her blue coat.

While I'm not a blue sheep, I sympathize with Martha on many levels. For one thing, I'm pretty sure most of us know how it feels to make an incredibly stupid mistake like tripping over a can of blue paint. It literally takes two seconds to make the stupid mistake, but then it feels like you're stuck with the results for eternity. And I bet most of us have also had times, like Martha, when we've just wanted to hide under a bush and wait for darkness.

Luckily, Martha is a hopeful, inspiring children's book destined to help readers of all ages find the silver lining in their personal cloud. Complemented by Daro Sam's sweet, lively illustrations, Martha the Blue Sheep is a timely story about diversity, kindness, and standing out in a good way. Most of all, it's a much needed reminder that sometimes, what makes us blue may be just the thing that makes us special.

Until tomorrow.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The Existence of Pity by Jeannie Zokan

Title: The Existence of Pity
Author: Jeannie Zokan
Publishing Company: Red Adept Publishing, LLC
Number of Pages: 250

What Goodreads has to say:

Growing up in a lush valley in the Andes mountains, sixteen-year-old Josie Wales is mostly isolated from the turbulence brewing in 1976 Colombia. As the daughter of missionaries, Josie feels torn between their beliefs and the need to choose for herself. She soon begins to hide things from her parents, like her new boyfriend, her trips into the city, and her explorations into different religions. 

Josie eventually discovers her parents’ secrets are far more insidious. When she attempts to unravel the web of lies surrounding her family, each thread stretches to its breaking point. Josie tries to save her family, but what happens if they don’t want to be saved?

The Existence of Pity is a story of flawed characters told with heart and depth against the beautiful backdrop of Colombia.

What I have to say:

First off, I just learned that the author wrote this book for NaNoWriMo, and would like to offer my congratulations, as that's a feat many people (myself included) have attempted but failed to achieve.

The Existence of Pity is a sweet, rich story that's full of heart. Sweet in the way it explores a young girl's first encounters with romance, her changing dynamic with her family, and her passion and zest for life. Rich in the way it describes Colombian culture and missionary life. Full of heart because it features a heroine who is almost nothing but heart. 

Sixteen-year-old Josie, the story's protagonist, is instantly likeable and easy to empathize with. As she explores love, faith, and friendship, Josie takes the reader with her everywhere she goes and in everything she feels. By equal turns, this book captivated, delighted, and enraged me as I trailed Josie in her adventures.

I enjoyed learning about Colombian culture and missionary life in the 70's, as that's not something I've read much about before now. I especially loved the descriptions of the beautiful Colombian city of Cali, and Josie's tangible love for the place she calls home. I also loved the honesty and quirkiness of Josie's romances. One of my favorite details is Josie's aversion to Tom's goofy hat from Machu Picchu. Consider this quote which I "underlined" in my Kindle copy of The Existence of Pity:
"How did anyone ever fall in love? There were so many things that could mess it up, like dumb hats and awkward moments."
I love it. It's so cute and so blatantly honest. After reading YA books like Twilight (which I'm not dissing, by the way) and The Hunger Games, we might think that young love is all about tall, dark, and handsome men who are incredibly suave and never do or say anything awkward. So thanks to Jeannie Zokan for keeping it real.

I also enjoyed the variety of characters in this book. From down-to-earth Colombians like Blanca, to Josie's fun-loving Aunt Rosie, fellow missionary kids, her exasperating brother, and her flawed but sometimes loveable parents. OK, maybe I loved Josie's parents a little less than I did the other characters. But still, there were moments in the book when I found her interactions with her parents, especially with her dad, really sweet. Let's just say, though, that if the book hadn't ended the way it did, I probably would have thrown it against a wall (which would have been bad, because I was reading it on my Kindle). I'm relieved Josie achieved some freedom at the end of the novel, even if it was in a bittersweet way.

While this book delves deeply into faith, different religious traditions, and missionary life, it doesn't try to convert the reader. In fact, it doesn't even present any one religion as "the best" or "the worst." Instead, it's a thoughtful, compassionate exploration of faith and of the idea that certain people are drawn to certain religions for certain reasons. So if you're hesitant to read the book because you think a story about missionary life might get preachy, don't be. You don't have to worry about that here.

What you will gain from this book, however, is a deeper understanding of and appreciation for different cultures, religious traditions, and personalities. You may also gain a deeper sympathy for people who make fatal mistakes, or for people who chafe against tradition. I'm not saying you won't be totally infuriated with Josie's brother by the end of the book, because the kid is kind of a little jerk, but you can be infuriated by someone and still retain a measure of empathy for them. And that's maybe the greatest thing about this book.

So I'll end with my favorite personal trope - quoting C. S. Lewis:

"The man who is contented to be only himself, and therefore less a self, is in prison. My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through those of others... In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.” 

In The Existence of Pity, Josie is constantly reading, whether it's The Hobbit or Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Is this because she's "a seeker" (as Aunt Rosie calls her)? Or is it because she feels so alone? Probably it's both (and maybe also that she just really enjoys reading).

Anyone who's a seeker like Josie, or who reads mainly "to know they're not alone" will enjoy The Existence of Pity. And in reading Josie's story, we do indeed discover that we're not alone - and neither is sixteen-year-old Josie Wales.


Until tomorrow.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Guest post by David Smith, author of Letters to Strabo

Hey faithful readers, 

Today's guest post comes from author David Smith, who recently published his fourth novel, Letters to Strabo.

I'm always fascinated by the names authors choose to give their characters. For example, I don't think J. K. Rowling gave any of her Harry Potter characters a name without putting an endless amount of thought into it.

Here's a little bit from the author of Letters to Strabo on how he chose names for his characters:

Letters to Strabo – naming the characters

Behind every great love is an epic story waiting to be told.

My fourth novel Letters to Strabo is both a love story and a coming-of-age tale, set in the late 1970s. It takes the form of a fictional odyssey recorded with disarming honesty by my protagonist, an innocent young American writer called Finn Black. 

His adventures, both funny and evocative, follow closely the itinerary taken by Mark Twain on his own tour around the Mediterranean a century earlier in: The Innocents Abroad. The novel is structured around the seventeen chapters of the ancient Greek Strabo’s great work: Geographica; a book that Twain quoted from extensively in his own tale. In Finn’s words:

"I researched how famous travel writers made their first journeys for a series of articles. It fascinated me how they all took something worthwhile out of that first experience on the road, whether they later became writers, journalists or even philosophers. It opened my eyes to all sorts of new possibilities I wanted that life. I wanted to get going, to write and make my fortune. Find out what had really happened to my pa and maybe find a bit more of that mythical free love I’d been missing, too.”

Finn’s full name is Adam Finnegan Black. The ‘Finnegan’ has dual meaning. It’s a nod to Mark Twain (Huckleberry Finn) but also to James Joyce ‘Finnegan’s Wake.’ There’s a connection between these two as Joyce once joked that the end of Finnegan (i.e. the word fin in French) was such a good Twain joke that it deserved a good wake (the Irish celebration before a funeral).

I gave Finn the first name Adam, because I’d already chosen the name Eve for his pen-pal Eve, the beautiful archivist he meets at Olana in the Catskills at the beginning of the novel. Their love story is the thread throughout the book, described through her Letters to Strabo. Adam is also referred to by his friend Ahmet, a boy that Finn meets in Turkey when he shows him a photograph of Eve: “’A very beautiful woman and a very beautiful name,’ he said. ‘You know Adam means man in Turkish so it is fitting.’”

Finn’s surname Black reflects the fact that his father Jerry Black was a descendant of the US Attorney-General Jeremiah Black. Finn refers to his surname at the beginning of the novel “Well as for Black, I fear that all too well describes the recent temperament of my heart. But so be it.” Finn spends part of the novel searching to find out what happened to his father, a professional diver, when he drowned in Alexandra in 1962.

Actually giving names to characters can be a lot of fun, almost a god-like activity. One of the themes running through the novel is Homer’s Odyssey, another Mediterranean journey often referred to by Strabo in his great work. 

So Françoise Circe, the french girl he meets in Spain and then journeys with to Paris and Venice is a reference to the witch Circe that Odysseus meets on the island of Colchys. She invited them all to a grand feast, but one of the dishes was laced with a magical potion which changed his companions into pigs – a word Françoise quite often uses to describe men she doesn’t like: “’Come on Finn, allons nous,’ she said. ‘I don’t like that ignorant man. He’s swine. He’s likes a PIG.’”

Finn also later meets two Italians in Naples: Galatea and Martino, whose nickname is Polifemo. The latter’s subsequent death at the hands of Galatea, in Finn’s presence, is a reference to the killing of the one-eyed giant Polyphemus by Odysseus; Galatea being the “milk-white” object of the giant’s desire.

Finally the girl Nicky that Finn meets on Mykonos while he is lying asleep and naked on a lonely beach after washing his clothes: “I was woken from my siesta by a beach ball landing on my head, quickly followed by the sound of girls giggling. I realized my carefully positioned towel had fallen off my waist. I was completely naked.” 

She is named after Nausicaa the beautiful princess who almost steals Odysseus’s heart and leaves him a message: “Farewell stranger,’ he said. ‘Do not forget me when you’re safe at home again, for it is to me first that you owe a ransom for having saved your life.’”

About the author:

David Smith is a British author who has now published four works under the Troubador imprint. His first novel Searching For Amber has been described as "A powerful and notably memorable debut" with a review describing it as "masterly and confident" and another as "Extraordinary, poetic, enchanting, sublime". In addition to writing, he is currently CFO of a blue chip UK public company and lives near the South Coast in England with his wife and three teenage children.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Giant Secret by David Alan Webb

Title: The Giant Secret (1899 AD): Finding Christopher
Author: David Alan Webb
Genre: Historical Fiction


In an Appalachian valley, a young German couple has just buried their second stillborn, their dreams of raising a family in America gone, when a monster is sighted on their land. An investigation turns into a rescue, and their lives are changed forever, as they discover that reality is stranger and bigger than they had ever imagined.

My thoughts:

I loved this book. What's not to love? It's charming, mysterious, and beautifully written. Honestly, that's about all I have to say. But I'll try to make my review a little longer than one paragraph, for everyone's sake.

The Giant Secret is wonderfully told. The narrative voice is clear, fresh, and sparkling, much like the mountain air and green rolling hills of the setting. The characters are deep and compelling, and the closeness of Hans (the main character) and his wife Ava is beautifully drawn. Their close bond makes them more loveable and relatable as characters.

The historical details are perfectly integrated into the story. We find out early on that Hans and Ava are immigrants, and some people look down on them for it. We're shown what life was like in the Appalachian countryside in 1899, but the story isn't subjected to historical details. Rather, the historical Appalachian setting acts as a perfect backdrop for this mythical, heart-warming tale.

On a related note, I appreciated the references to religion in the book. Some modern authors who write historical fiction either avoid the subject of religion altogether or downplay it significantly. But religion was a big aspect of most people's lives throughout much of history. It takes a skilled storyteller to be able to include religion in a book without coming off as either dismissive or preachy. 

But David Alan Webb does just this in The Giant Secret, and it's beautiful (a word I keep coming back to in describing this book). Incidentally, I am religious, so I appreciated the author's openness and his recognition that religion would have played a large role in these people's lives. But it never felt forced, and certainly not like the author was trying to push something on his readers, which I also appreciated. 

Maybe this book felt so fresh to me because I just finished a super intense young adult zombie novel. That novel was awesome - but turning to this book afterward felt like coming up for a breath of fresh air. It wasn't about hiding from zombies in the ghetto or trying to figure out which of your friends is betraying you - it was about a young couple overcoming hardship and reaching out to take in a stranger. 

If you haven't figured it out yet, I really liked this book. Another great thing is that it's so short, you can read it in only a few sittings. So if you want a book to read but you don't have time to crack War and Peace (honestly, does anyone EVER have time for War and Peace?), give this one a go. (Plus it's free.)

Spend a few hours in turn of the century Appalachia. Escape from your hectic city life (if you live in the city, I don't know, I'm not stalking you or anything, promise), and let yourself get swept up in a little mystery that turns into a bounteous gift. 

You'll mourn, worry, and ultimately rejoice with Hans and Ava, and you'll feel refreshed and enlivened at the end of the adventure. You also get a great little story into the bargain: a story in the tradition of those old fairy tales and myths about a young, childless couple who finds magic in the forest and opens their lives to receive it - much like we open our lives to receive magic whenever we dip into a book. Maybe there's more truth to those old stories than we realize.

Anyway, yeah, The Giant Secret: it's a little book, but it's one giant story.


(yeah, it was that good)

Until tomorrow.