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.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Haunting Edgar Allan Poe in Manhattan: A Travelogue

Once upon a time there was a girl who couldn't get enough Poe.

That girl was me.

Is me. 

I'm obsessed with Edgar Allan Poe.

So much so that I have a goal to visit every single location he lived in. I've been to his birthplace in Boston, his house in Philadelphia, and even (by coincidence) a bed and breakfast he stayed at in Scotland. 

I've also been to his house in the Bronx (Poe Cottage), and seen the bed in which his wife died. I've walked the Highbridge, which is a short distance from Poe Cottage, and which Poe used to walk--almost manically--at all hours of the day. 

Poe Cottage in the Bronx, New York
The Highbridge in the Bronx, New York

But Poe also lived in Manhattan. In about 60 different locations.

OK, that may be an exaggeration, but he certainly got around the city a lot.

This summer, I decided to track down every single site in Manhattan that Edgar Allan Poe once lived at and visit all of them--in one day.

I compiled my list from several websites and planned out my route. Then I grabbed my pocket-sized Poe book off the shelf and went on an adventure.

I kept a travelogue of my journey.

Here, as we kick off the absolute best month of the year and get ready to read scary stories and go to haunted houses, is a record of my adventure haunting the steps of Edgar Allan Poe.


Erin's Ex-Poe-ration of Manhattan

Today I embark on my long anticipated Edgar Allan Poe tour of New York City. One day. 12 locations.* Anything could happen.

(*Excepting Poe Cottage and the Highbridge as I’ve already visited and they’re a little out of the way. Both are in the Bronx and could be done on the same day.)

First stop: Broadway and W 84th St. 

From 1844 to 1845, when the Upper West Side was still farmland, Poe and his wife lived on this corner in a house on a rocky outcropping. The street looks quite different now, but there is a memorial plaque on 84th between Broadway and Amsterdam. 

It was at this site that Poe finished writing "The Raven." So let's just pretend this strange eagle statue is actually a raven, shall we?

Now down to the end of 84th St for a location that reportedly helped Poe find inspiration for "The Raven."

Walk to the end of 84 St and enter Riverside Park. Looking down toward 83rd St, you will see a mound of rock that seems “a swelling of the ground.” Framed by trees and bushes, it feels almost like a hidden woodland shrine. Approach via the dirt path.

When he needed a quiet spot to ponder, surrounded by the beauty of nature, Poe would walk to this rocky hill overlooking the Hudson. He christened the spot “Mount Tom.”

It’s a windy place, a place that, given the right imagination, could be called Romantic and windswept and even gothically sublime. How much more sublime it must have been surrounded by countryside and without the murmur of cars, when you could stand atop Mount Tom and see the Hudson River sparkling below.

As it is, it’s a good place to sit and read “The Raven” which Poe wrote just a few blocks away.

Poe spoke delightedly of the rockiness of Upper Manhattan. It must have inspired him like the moors inspired the Brontes. But he suspected that all too soon, the dramatic landscape would be flattened and paved to make way for buildings.

Next stop is 154 Greenwich St.

It’s a longish ride on the 1 line, so let’s get into some background, shall we?

Poe moved to Manhattan in the 1830s. When he arrived, he was a struggling writer who had yet to publish any big hits. If I’ve calculated correctly, he lived in 10 different locations around the city until he moved in 1847 to Baltimore, where he died two years later. It was in Manhattan and the Bronx that he wrote and published The Raven and nursed his young wife Virginia, who died of tuberculosis in their Bronx farmhouse in 1847.

The next three stops have changed so radically since Poe’s time that it’s nigh impossible to even locate the addresses in question. 154 Greenwich St is now part of the World Trade Center area. 

 O’Hara’s Pub is fairly picturesque; Poe lived where the restaurant now stands, and there is something vaguely Poe-ish about the building’s red brick and wood paneling.

Ann St, on which Poe lived (4 Ann St) and worked (25 Ann St) isn’t much to look at. As far as I can tell, Zara’s now stands where his residence was.

Another of Poe’s residences, 195 E Broadway, is now part of the Manny Cantor Center. Across from it is a beautiful New York Public Library building.

Now to Greenwich Village. It seems only natural that Poe would have lived here, in the charming place so many writers and artists have called home.

At Waverly Place and Christopher St, in the middle of a street triangle, is the Northern Dispensary, founded in 1827. It was here during Poe’s time and he (supposedly) once visited to buy medicine for a cold. The old brick building is still intact and conjures up Poe’s Manhattan better than any of the other buildings seen on this tour so far.

Just steps away is Waverly Place and 6th Avenue, where Poe resided at one time.

From there, it’s a short walk to 85 W 3rd St, where Poe lived in 1845. Here he wrote “The Facts in the Case of M Valdemar” and revised and published “The Raven.” The original building is no longer here, but NYU (pressured by preservationists) has made some attempt to replicate the facade of Poe’s building.

It’s definitely the best preserved of Poe’s residences I’ve seen today, but then again that’s not saying much. Still, it’s charming. The building is open to the public from 9 to 11 AM on Thursdays, but honestly I doubt it’s worth going into, as it’s now simply NYU offices. The banister of the original staircase has been preserved.

The intriguing 113 1/2 Carmine St (reputedly another of Poe’s residences) no longer exists, but a walk down Carmine St is nice regardless.

Now to the last stop on this tour of non-existent locations: 
E 47th St and 2nd Ave

What I’ll find there is anyone’s guess. Probably nothing.

At E 47th St and 2nd Ave is a rather nice park, as urban parks go. It features a long mall framed with benches and tall, slender trees—their wispy branches reveling in the wind.

There’s also a black structure like a skeletal Greek temple, and a series of fountains that look vaguely Gothic. 

As I watch, a pigeon lands on the edge of the fountain’s dish and I just manage to snap one photo before it flies away, beating its wings and rising upward.

It’s not a raven, but I’ll take it.


In case anyone is wondering, I have only two Poe cities left to visit before my goal is complete: Richmond, Virginia; and Poe's house and grave in Baltimore, Maryland.

Happy October!

Until tomorrow.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Believe in the Fantastical: A.M. Robin's Hidden Scales


Title: Hidden Scales
Author: A. M. Robin
Series: Merrows (book 1)
Published: September 1, 2019
Purchase on Amazon or Barnes and Noble

Goodreads Blurb:
Merrows are supposed to be extinct. No one has seen the water-breathing creatures in over a century.

That's all eleven-year-old Mira has time to think as she stares at the silver scales that have spread over her foot before she accidentally triggers a curse that will change her world forever. She and her best friend, Peter, are forced to embark on a journey across the kingdom, escaping from ruthless spies who will stop at nothing to capture them before anyone else learns Mira's secret.

With the help of a runaway scholar and a familiar young boy who reveals that he, too, has just discovered that he is a merrow, the children begin to train to beat the spies at their own game. Before they can truly find safety, Mira must learn to use the mysterious powers of her people, or else she and her friends may never be able to return home again.

My Thoughts:
I was immediately impressed by this book because it has illustrations, and they're good. Then I started to read, and it was also good. Gripping, even. I found myself already enthralled in the story and connected to the characters. It's hard not to like Mira upon first meeting her. She's cute, smart, and a bit of a social outcast because she's an orphan. But don't fret, she has a fantastic adoptive mother. Appoline is not only heavily involved in the city council, and a celebrated astronomer, but also a kind, albeit strict mother to Mira. And, not in most of the book. Once Mira discovers that she unexpected scales growing across her feet, her life becomes a whirlwind. One second she's playing chase in the woods and the next she and her friend Peter have joined the party of a flying horse, and are fleeing across the country. 

There is never a dull moment in this book. Anytime the group begins to relax, they are either attacked by the enemy's spies, or taught some new fantastical ability. And as the reader you can dive right into the lake alongside Mira and Kay. You too can ride Eola through the skies, and shoot arrows with Peter. You can even stroll through the Ripples and peek into Tonttu's shop. Hidden Scales is a great Middle Grade book because it's immersive. It's immersive, fun, and expands the imagination. I look forward to Mira's and the gang's next adventure!

My Rating:

Thursday, September 19, 2019

I want furniture that rearranges itself: review of Daniel McMillan's Eve of Ascension

Title: Eve of Ascension
Series: The Fall of the Ascendancy (Book 1)
Author: Daniel McMillan
Genre: Science Fiction / Dystopian
Pages: 270

What Goodreads has to say:


When an attempt at establishing a World Government seems destined to fail, the global elite seek refuge on a space station and crash an asteroid into the Earth to "bring the population down to a more manageable level".

Once the world was sufficiently healed from the Cataclysm, the elite reappeared and established The Ascendancy. They offered refuge in twelve new cities around the globe - all survivors had to do in exchange was give everything they could for the betterment of the government.

Baxter Clarke grew up in the city of Enswell, enjoying the highest comforts the Ascendancy provided thanks to his brilliant father's contributions.

But when Baxter discovers a connection that upsets the balance he has been familiar with all his life, he finds himself in a situation he never dreamed possible.

Now, with the fate of the Ascended attached to a device stolen from a government agency, he will have to run for his life and leave the city to save his people and rise to be the man he was meant to be.

What I have to say:

This book has fascinating concepts and super interesting characters. There's furniture that rearranges itself when you're having company over (like why have we not invented this yet in the real world, it would make life so much easier?) and makeup that adjusts automatically when the lighting changes or even better, when the person wearing it cries. (Seriously, we need this now, ok?)

The idea of an ascending order of cities is also interesting: most people start out in the outer cities, and as they advance socially, they're moved up into the inner cities. It can take generations for a family to move from one city to another, and if you screw up your chances, forget it.

Meanwhile, the Sylvans live outside the city, frustrating the Ascendancy (the central government) whenever they can, keeping hope of the resistance alive no matter the cost.

Right away, I was hooked: a rebel fighter was surrounded by deadly robots in a jungle, and his chances didn't look good. The story got off to a bang.

Then I was mesmerized by the two different spheres: the city-life of Baxter and his friends, plush with the latest technology and controlled by the government at every turn; and the rugged life of Raishann and her family, who live in much more humble circumstances but consider themselves free in a way the city people aren't. They even speak differently, using slang rather than highly polished, almost manneristic phrases.

So in the categories of freaking cool concepts, solid world-building, and really awesome, diverse characters (marry me, Laena), this book scores top marks.

But I had a problem with its style, and that kept me from giving it top marks all around. I'm a writer myself and a critic, so it could be that I just have a nitpicky disposition. I also enjoy thinking about how I would rewrite a book/play/movie to make it better. It's one of my favorite past-times.

If I were rewriting this book, I'd use a lot more active voice and follow the time-honored "show don't tell" rule. There were a lot of passages that read along the lines of: "Lila asked him what was on his mind and Baxter said that he wanted to go to the store, Lila agreed with him but pointed out that it was late, which caused Baxter to feel guilty and say they could go tomorrow."

Why tell us what the characters are saying? Why can't they just, like, say it?

Other times, we'd be told what a character was thinking when it would have been more effective to show us what they were thinking by the way they acted or by something they said.

I feel like this got in the way of character development and made it hard for us to get truly attached to the characters--which is sad because the author has put together a stellar cast here. There are some really interesting personalities and wide-ranging perspectives. So yeah.

At the end of the day, great story, fun characters, just needs some polishing up in the writing department. That's something that's easily overcome, and as the ideas and concepts are still super cool, I'm excited to see what this author gets up to next.


Until tomorrow.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Grandpas are magic: B.C.R. Fegan's Don't Drink the Pink

Title: Don't Drink the Pink
Author: B.C.R. Fegan
Illustrator: Lenny Wen


As soon as I opened this book to the first illustration—of an empty inventor’s workshop giving off strong steampunk vibes—I knew it was exactly my kind of children’s picture book.

As I flipped through the next couple pages, my suspicions were confirmed. Early 1900s costumes? An adorable little girl with billowy dark hair? I could eat this book for dessert.

But before I get carried away and start requesting an edition of Little Women illustrated by Lenny Wen, I should get back to, you know, B.C.R. Fegan’s actual story.

Every year on her birthday, Grandpa Gilderberry brings Madeline a box of brightly colored potions. “Happy birthday, Madeline,” he says. “Take a potion, take a brew. Just don’t drink the pink.”

Dutifully, Madeline picks a different color (never pink) every time. And when she does, marvelous things happen.

She breathes fire, turns invisible, runs faster than a train, and creates money with her bare hands. (That last trick wins Grandpa Gilderberry big points with Madeline’s father, I suspect.)

But a month before her 15th birthday, Madeline’s grandpa dies. Heartbroken, she goes to his workshop on her birthday and cries. When she lifts her head, Madeline sees a single pink bottle behind a note that reads: “Happy birthday.”

Clearly, it’s time to drink the pink.

While the story may feel a bit repetitive, it’s wonderfully charming and imaginative. And though after a few pages, the book’s pattern is established, there’s still an element of surprise as we wonder which potion Madeline will choose this time and what will happen when she does.

Of course, below the surface level story is a message about grandfathers and the curious delight they bring their granddaughters. I found myself thinking about my grandpa who passed away a few years ago and how, like Grandpa Gilderberry, he was always surprising and delighting his grandchildren and gifting them with strength, power, and perhaps best of all, memories.

I’ll admit that, while I found the ending beautiful and quite moving, it left me with a few questions. This could be because I’ve watched too much Doctor Who and am taking this simple children’s picture book to complicated places where it doesn’t need to go. (Time loop?)

But whatever my questions, I heartily approve of B.C.R. Fegan’s Don’t Drink the Pink, its whimsical illustrations, and its story about a grandfather with an infinite capacity for giving. Drink the pink, Madeline.

Until tomorrow.

Thursday, July 4, 2019

Good people are hard to find: Review of Stone Man and the Trail of Tears

Title: Stone Man: And the Trail of Tears
Author: Charles Suddeth
Genre: Historical Fiction
Pages: 162
Release Date: October 8, 2019

What Goodreads has to say:

After U.S. soldiers attack twelve-year-old Tsatsi’s Cherokee village, his family flees to the Smokey Mountains. Facing storms, flood, and hunger, they’re forced to go where Stone Man, a monstrous giant, is rumored to live. Their journey is a dangerous one. Will Tsatsi find the strength to become a Cherokee warrior? And will they ever find their family again?

What I have to say:

This was such a sweet story. Tsatsi’s love for his family, concern for their safety, and desire to protect them at all costs makes this a book that will hit home for anyone who has a family, which should be just about all of us.

Besides that, it will hit home for anyone who’s ever helped or been helped by someone outside their family. Johnny Garner, a white trapper living alone in the mountains, takes it upon himself to rescue two Cherokee children and get them to safety.

Along the way *SPOILER* he risks arrest, injury, and death, and even gets shot protecting Tsatsi and Sali. Why would a lone white man risk so much to save two Cherokee kids he just met? Because he’s freaking awesome.

But Tsatsi is pretty awesome too. The kid is 12 and could probably teach a wilderness survival course that I would 100% attend. Tsatsi is the main character and narrator, and he has a nice voice and personality. He’s tough because he’s had to grow up fast, but he’s also very much a 12-year-old boy.

He’s interested in the pretty girl who helps shelter and feed the three fugitives (Tsatsi, Johnny, and Sali). And he has a soft spot for his younger siblings. He’s also terrified of monsters and can’t get the legend of the giant cannibal Stone Man out of his head.

I found this story enjoyable, educational, and inspiring. It made me want to learn more about the Trail of Tears (which I’ve read some books about in the past but not recently). It made me want to try Johnnycakes because frankly they sound amazing. It inspired me to reach out to others and help people in need, even if they’re strangers. And the ending made me smile.

By the way, this book is nonstop action. One crisis follows hard on the heels of another. If it’s not soldiers or a gang of renegades, it’s a flash flood, a thunder storm, or a life-threatening fever. The story kept me fully engaged.

I can’t fathom being thrown into the situation of Tsatsi and his family. I can’t imagine waking up to soldiers burning my village and having to run into the wilderness to escape them. Then losing my family in the wild and having to fend for myself and my little sister—knowing that soldiers are still following us and believing that my parents and other siblings are dead.

But for many Cherokee families in the 1800s, that’s just what happened. In fact, Tsatsi and his family are lucky because *SPOILER* they actually manage to escape. Other Cherokees were forced to march 1000 miles to Oklahoma, many dying along the way.

And similar things have happened to countless groups of people through the ages. I don’t know why people continue to be such jerks time and time again, but it’s good to know that while there are plenty of Andrew Jacksons and Adolf Hitlers in the world, there are also people like Johnny Garner. And they’re everywhere.

As Tsatsi reflects: “Good people came in all sorts of shapes and colors. And good people made life worthwhile.”

So do good stories, and this short but heartwarming adventure is one of them.


Until tomorrow.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Two stories, two killer heroines: review of The Soldier's Heart by Jeffrey Bardwell

Title: The Soldier's Heart
Series: The Mage Conspiracy (Book #3)
Author: Jeffrey Bardwell
Genre: Fantasy
Pages: 222

What Goodreads has to say:

A perilous journey. A dark conscience. An unforgivable sin.

When Black Guards capture the ancient mage Maven and the heroine Kelsa, Maven disguises herself as the once distinguished Sir Corbin, now assumed to be a mage-in-hiding due to the old woman's carelessness. Kelsa, guided by the spirit of a sassy blade mistress, pretends to be a mercenary, but the guards wonder. What ties beyond gold bind her to the traitor knight? The Black Guards gleefully drag their prisoners toward the cruel clutches of the empress so that she might wring the secrets from their bodies.

Kelsa must escape the empress's grasp, desperate to rekindle the mage revolt whose leaders have vanished into the barbarian north. It is a land of dark forests and ice-choked rivers where worth is proven on a dagger's edge and feuding clans are more vicious than any Black Guard. Can Kelsa find and reignite the mages' passion or has the heart of the revolution grown cold?

Grab The Soldier's Heart, the third epic fantasy romance of The Mage Conspiracy series. Discover a world of adventure and intrigue where lies cut deeper than any sword.

What I have to say:

A spunky young heroine journeying through barbarian territory in search of dangerous rebel mages? Daring disguises, crazy escapes, and (squeal) adorable baby dragons??? Yeah, OK, I'll take it.

That's sarcasm, readers. I loved The Soldier's Heart. As if the above weren't enough, there's another story line told in parallel: one about a young recruit navigating the Imperial Army, falling in love, and proving herself to the world.

Kelsa's story is the immediate one. She's the young heroine journeying through barbarian country in search of Gordius and his rebel mages.

Meanwhile, due to a stubborn mage who messed with her head (see book 2), Kelsa finds her thoughts often invaded by Minerva--the young Imperial Army recruit--and as a result we also get Minerva's story (happening in the past) alongside Kelsa's.

You might think that would be confusing, but it's not because the author has an uncanny knack for telling multiple stories simultaneously. Far from being confusing, two plots makes the novel doubly engaging.

It helps that both stories are helmed by killer protagonists. I've loved Kelsa since book 1, but it was this book that really endeared me to Minerva. She's formidable yet vulnerable; prickly yet affectionate; she could take everyone down but deep inside, she just wants to be loved.

While I felt like the last book in this series wandered a bit, The Soldier's Heart has perfect pacing--all leading up to its pair of smoking hot climaxes: Kelsa must convince the rebel mages and barbarian rulers to help her wage war against the Empress, while Minerva duels Corbin Destrus--the man she either loathes or loves.

In the first two books, we heard a lot about Corbin and Minerva, but in this book we flashback to see how they meet and progress from enemies to frenemies to lovers. It's dynamite.

My only negative reaction to this book is that it's a little crude and there's some sex scenes that made me a little squeamish. But on that note, when Corbin and Minerva finally come together, it's described in so few words, as a thing so clean and fitting, that it's a relief and it feels so right after all the messy love affairs in previous pages. Corbin and Minerva feel meant to be.

I'm eager to see where Kelsa's and Minerva's stories go in the next book--when I assume a lot of things will come to a head and there will be a day of reckoning for everyone: country girl, soldier, empress, and mage.


Until tomorrow.