The Review: Skin Games


19486421 Skin Game; Jim Butcher, 2014

Hi, my name is Shawn Spjut and it’s been 3 days, 6 hours and 45 seconds, since I read my last Harry Dresden novel.

There. I freely admit to being completely addicted to the White Wizard-Dark Knight-best-of-intentions, but-my-choices-just-keep-getting-me-further-and-further-into-trouble, Harry Dresden. A character who welds magic like a bull in a china shop, has so many vulnerabilities its like reading Swiss Cheese, and is completely lovable – smartass mouth and all.

My only question is, if wizards really do live long lives, how in heck will Harry make it to a hundred and fifty, without some series prosthetics, and a lot of pharmaceuticals? No man, wizard, or supernatural being (outside of were’s, vampires, and shape shifters), can get beaten up, thrown down, stomped on, broken or bruised as often as he does, and still keeping moving like a young buck for long.

If my calculations are right, this guys only in his thirties, maybe early forties, and he’s already in need of some serious mojo to keep from feeling the pain.

Just sayin . . .

Now before I rave any further, I have to admit, after reading Ghost Story, I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to keep going (the only book in the series I didn’t care for). But then along came book #14, ‘Cold Days‘, and my faith in the world of Harry Dresden, Wizard at large, was restored. What better conundrum, than to put a well-intentioned wizard at the beck and call of an evil Mab, and then stick around to see if good really does prevail?

As for the plot? Lets just say, Butcher continues the fight for good and evil with old friends and enemies alike – as well as bringing in a few new twists to do what he does best; fight bad guys, create chaos and mayhem, tease us with romance, then leave us begging for more.

On my readers scale of 1-5 stars, I’m giving Skin Game 3.99999 stars for being a great read, and Jim Butcher 4, for knowing where to let the curtain fall.

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The Review: Blood Rights


9571401BloodRights; Kristen Painter, 2011

Hand over heart – or maybe I should say, hand over jugular – when I first picked up Blood Rights, I wasn’t sure it was something I wanted to read. First, it’s by an unknown author (at least to me). Second, it was on a subject that has been written to death (forgive the pun). And third, I had just finished reading the latest book in Jeaniene Frost’s ‘Night Huntress’ series, and didn’t feel like reading some other authors rendition of the same genre – at least not for a week or so.

Face it, sometimes a reader can get so caught up in the characters in one series, to read about someone else in another, just feels like cheating. Maybe I’m the only one who feels this way, but I doubt it.

With that said, I finally bit the bullet, asked Cat and Bones to forgive me, and began reading Kristen Painter’s Blood Rights (House of Comarre). It only took a couple of pages and I was hooked. Whatever emotional attachment I had going for my previous fav’s, had to make room for the new kids on the block – Chrystabelle and Malkhom.

So much for fidelity.

Fast paced. Interesting characters. Plot twisting. Unique addition to an already well established genre. In other words, because of ‘Blood Rights’ there were several days I didn’t get a whole lot of writing done on my own novel.

As for spoiler alerts, I’d say it was like reading the modern-day version of Frankenstein meets Electra meets Cruella De Vil meets the Volturi, with Casper the Ghost and Kitty Kitty thrown in for good measure. An interesting crew of characters that hate to love and love to hate, with enough vampiric mystery and suspense to compel its readers to keeping turning the pages until their done.

On my readers scale of 1-5 stars, I’m giving Blood Rights 3.5 stars for a great read, and Kristen Painter 4, for proving to readers that there is always a new way to skin an old genre.

The Review: Highborn


highborn

“As the heat of Hell swirled inside and outside of her, she had to wonder – Could she be redeemed?” –  Brynna; Highborn

Highborn; Yvonne Navarro, 2010
So . . . I’d just finished speed reading the last of Jeaniene Frost’s ‘Cat & Bones’ series and was cruising my 3MCloud Library (love it), looking for new authors to test read, when I came across ‘Highborn’, by Yvonne Navarro. Now we all know there are two things I look for in a new book; art work (bad cover art – I won’t even open up the book unless I already know the author) and a story hook within the first two paragraphs. I might be able to get around the bad cover art, but if they haven’t set the story hook by the end of page one, I’m a gonner.

Anyway, I find this new author whose cover art is so-so and start to move on to the next book ad, when I see this blurb; ‘A twisted urban paranormal noir . . . ‘ just below her name.

Okay, they had me at ‘twisted’.

I can’t say I was hooked by the end of page one. Heck,I wasn’t even hooked by page ten. But I did find the character and story (bad angel seeking redemption) interesting enough, that it pulled me onto the next page and the next and . . . until finally I found myself turning them without effort.

So what is it about ‘Highborn’ that kept me going, even after admitting I won’t read something that hasn’t set its fictional claws in me by page two? The main heroine, Brynna. Despite the authors failure to grab my immediate attention with the story, she did manage to create an interesting enough character, quickly enough, to make me wiling to invest another twenty minutes of my time. Fortunately for both of us,it paid off, since I read the remainder of the book in one sitting.

More and more, as both a reader and fledgling author, I’m finding that the four most important ingredients for a great book are: fast hook, interesting characters, better than average plot and good beat/pace. Now, it might just be my short attention span, but if a book has at least three of those four things going for it, I don’t see how the story can go wrong. Heck, I’ve enjoyed poorly written books, simply because the ingredients for greatness was there. I just had to get over my need for perfection to see it.

And that in a nut shell is what I found with this book; a slow starter with all the ingredients needed for greatness. It just took Navarro a little while to get there.
On my reader’s scale of 1-5 stars, I’m giving ‘Highborn’ a 2.5 for taking a little too long for lift off and 3.5 for recovery. Looking forward to the second book in the Dark Redemption Series, ‘Concrete Savior’.

The Review: Night Broken


 

night broken_front mech.indd“Rabies has a lot in Common with vampirism.” said Adam” ― Patricia BriggsNight Broken

Night Broken: A Mercy Thompson Novel; Patrica Briggs, 2014.As we all know, or at least I’m assuming we all know, Briggs is one of my fav authors and her ‘Mercy Thompson’ series is right up there with Starbucks, cheesecake and ‘Downton Abbey’; three things which I’ve come to realize, I prefer not to live without.

Superficial I know, but true none the less.

Once again our heroine, coyote-shifting Mercy, is pitted against things that go bump in the night and those that we non-scary types would prefer to believe exist only on NBC’s ‘Grimm’ and CW’s ‘The Originals’. Both of which can be rendered moot when the scenery and verbiage get to be more than the unbelieving mind can handle.

Recently I wrote a review on a novel series I thought well past its expiration date(here) based on the premise that due to character arc failure, the story was becoming flat. One of the reasons for that, which I probably should have stated. is that when a story line is complicated,  involving layers of conflict and mystery, the main hero’s either have to keep growing or die, which ever serves the greater good. I used Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse as an example; the blond-bombshell had reached the end of her evolutionary arc, so Harris took the smart route and had her exit gracefully.

I said all that because, in book #6 ‘River Marked’, I was beginning to think the same thing for this series as well; Mercy had reached the pinnacle of her character arc and it was time for the author to start looking for the exit door.

But bless Briggs’ heart, not only did she rally back with ‘Frost Burned’ but, in my not so humble opinion, gave us yet another great story in ‘Night Broken’. Though, and here is the‘spoiler alert’, the fact that the author did not have Mercy wiping the floor with Adam’s ex-wife, says a lot for the state for our heroine’s ability to choose what is right for the greater good, over personal preference. If it had been me, I’d have put the woman out of all our miseries – but that’s just me; not very gracious when it comes to manipulating-backstabbing . . .

You get the point.

So on my reader’s scale of 1-5 stars, I’m giving 3.5 for over all story, and 4.5 for reminding me that goodness and kindness are choices we make, not only for ourselves, but for those we love and care about as well.

The Review: The Chase


18282915

“I like cars the way I like my men. I pick them up, grab the stick, and drive them hard down the straightaways and fast around the curves.” 
― Janet Evanovich and Lee GoldbergThe Chase

The Chase: Fox and O’Hare #2; Janet Evanovich & Lee Goldberg, 2014.
As with their first novel under team ‘Evanovich & Goldberg’, these authors have once again given us, their readers, an all out butt-kicking, gotta-run-to-keep-up,damn-I-wish-it-wasn’t-over novel, full of fast paced action with characters interesting enough to withstand a few short stories of their own.

From the Burb’s of Southern California to the smog filled landscapes of Beijing to the green-green-hills of somewhere on the eastern sea board, these authors have our hero’s running around the world, pulling scams and breaking laws that force the question; does the end always justify the means?

In their case, the answer is a resounding yes – as long as they don’t get caught that is. And let’s face it, we all know that the only difference between a thief and a government agent is, one wears a badge, the other doesn’t (unless he or she is pulling off a scam, then they’ll wear whatever badge suits the purpose).

‘The Chase’, like ‘The Heist’, is a great read for those occasions when my idea of cutting loose involves glass, ice cubes, sunshine, shorts, tank top and a deck chair. Which is another way of saying, it’s the perfect read for vacations, long flights, boring weekends and just plan ‘I’m not home’ kinda days.

On my reader’s scale of 1-5 stars, I’m giving ‘The Chase’ 3.5 for good story and 4 for being my reader version of ‘Calgon take me away’- without all the water of course.

The Review: A Wind in the Night


a wind in the nightA Wind in the Night; Barb Hendee, J.C. Hendee, 2014; Roc, NY.
Here we go with #12 in the Noble Dead Saga, in which our heroine’s Wynn Hygeorht and Magerie (with an M) are once again leading their merry, or not so merry, band of heroes across the globe in search of yes, more globes – ‘spirit’ and ‘air’.

Though Hendee and Hendee tried to split the story-line between the two protagonists, the real action went to team Wynn, not Magerie – or at least not until the end, where . . .

Can’t say as that would be giving away the story. Suffice it to say, as with any good series, the authors left us hanging and the only way to get our fix of Noble Dead, is to read the next, and last book.

As far as character and story goes, I’m thinking, not for the first time, it’s time to put the story to rest. Why? Because the trouble with all good stories is keeping the arch of character growth alive and well.

What do I mean by that? Like real people, a writer’s protagonist, even their antagonist, need to continually evolve, for good or bad, and if they don’t, the story goes flat. If the series is only three or four books long, it doesn’t usually become a problem.  It’s after that point (and the point differs for every series) that it becomes, in my not so humble opinion, harder to keep the arc of evolution alive and well. In the case of the Noble Dead Saga, Hendee & Hendee, who have put their two heroines on opposing developmental arcs, are starting to lose the strength of that arc. In Wynn’s case, hers is an upward climb into independence and maturity, in Mageries’, a downward spiral into monsterhood.

Up until ‘A Dog In the Dark’, these changes were evident and helped propel the story forward.

Now? Not so much.

Not long ago, Charlaine Harris got a lot of flack for ending the Sookie Stackhouse, Southern Vampire Series. But as an author and business woman, she did the right thing. Sookie was beginning to run out of character arc. So rather than wait for her heroine to become tedious and boring, Harris forced her into making the choice that would allow her to exit the story gracefully. An assumed disappointment to readers, a smart move for the author. As far as I’m concerned, it’s better to leave em wanting more, than bored and wishing it would just end.

Does this criticism of Hendee & Hendee’s choice to drag this particular story out longer than I think it should have been mean I don’t care for their writing or that I won’t read anything else?

Not even. Loyalty trumps short-term disappointment every time. A couple of books, out of more than two dozen, won’t sink my Loyal Reader Ship. I love Barb’s ‘Memory Series’ as well as their team ‘Hendee’ ‘Mist-Born’ Witch one. Not to mention that they’ve produced some short stories that I’m looking forward to reading. And despite my bitching over when I think something should end, the Noble Dead Saga is still a great story and one which will always have an honored place on my bookshelves.

On my reader scale of 1-5 stars, I’m giving ‘A Wind in the Night’ 3.5 for over all good story.

The Review: Blood Maidens


Blood Maidens; Barbara Hambly, 2010; Severn House8388595

As my readers know, I’m a big Hambly fan (she’s in My Favorite Reads list). As talent goes, Barbara always restores my faith in the power of good narrative – which, let’s face it, not every writer can do without making me want to shoot myself (or worse, skip over the entire passage). She also does an excellent job with dialog and the make-it-or-break-it, ‘show don’t tell’. (Which if you didn’t know, wasn’t a big deal until about fifty or sixty years ago.) And in today’s historical-paranormal-romance genre, its hard for an author to come up with a unique twist that doesn’t involve a woman in leather, give-me-a-break-sex scenes and vampires.

But Hambly does.

Fact is, she’s done such a great job with her James Asher series, I finish every book relieved to know my imagination is still in tact: i.e.- I get to decide whether the sex was hot and heavy, or if the main vampire, Don Simon Ysidro, is really as nasty as he’d like James and his wife Lydia, to believe.

 “Being a writer is a very peculiar sort of a job: it’s always you versus a blank sheet of paper (or a blank screen) and quite often the blank piece of paper wins.” ― Neil Gaiman

I also appreciate that this author knows her history and does an incredible job of weaving fantasy, paranormal, romance and history into one really good plot; my four favorite escape genre’s, all rolled into one. Nine times out of ten, Hambly will hit a home run.

Unfortunately, this was that one that didn’t quiet make it to home plate.

Not that she didn’t do a wonderful job with the history and the paranormal and the romance or the dialog or the narrative. Where she would have lost me, had I not whipped out my ‘Loyal Reader Badge’, was the first twenty or so pages. It was almost as though it took her awhile to figure out where she was going with the story, and then forgot to go back in the re-write and tidy up the confusion. In other words, it took quiet a while for me to connect with the story she was trying to tell. Too convoluted by far. Which is not her normal style. It also didn’t help that there were so many Russian names, I couldn’t keep track of them (What do they always tell an author about having too many characters?)

So on my readers scale of 1-5 stars, I’m giving Blood Maiden, a 3 for taking too long to reach first base.

 

The Review: Allegiant


18710190 Allegiance: #Veronica Roth, 2013; @HarperCollins

In my review posts, ‘Divergent‘ and ‘Insurgent‘, my reader comments were focused on the flatland first person POV Ms. Roth chose to use in her novels, and what I believe is/was, the evolutionary metamorphosis of  her protagonist Beatrice Prior (Tris). I also devoted time pontificating on the unique experience I believe we, the reader, were given; to witness something which seldom, if ever, occurs in the world of Traditional Publishing – the development of an author.

 

“Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”― Stephen KingOn Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

Now something that not all readers might know (but certainly recognize instinctively), is that in order for a story to compel the reader to turn the next page, the characters not only have to be engaging, and the plotline interesting, but there has to be a reward at the end (for the reader, and hopefully, for the protagonist, as well) – be it good, bad or ugly. In other words, there has to be an upward  evolution, an arch, something that lifts the hero up and catapults them forward so that in the end, they or someone, is a better person for all that has taken place.

If it’s a stand alone, this arch has ‘X’ amount of pages to accomplish this evolution in. But if it’s a series, such as ‘Divergent’, or ‘Catching Fire’, the author has three (or more) books to do it in. What I found so very unique about Roth, was the way she created two arch’s; one that lifted our heroine, Tris, upward, and another, that took our hero, ‘Four’ downward. And the way she did it was to utilize the upward trajectory of the one, to emphasis the downward trajectory of the other.

What do I mean by upword and downward trajectories? As Tris begins to let go of more and more of the ideals of those around her,  including her boyfriend Four, she is then free  to develop her own values – embracing more and more of who she is, and who she is becoming. The opposite is true for Four – who comes out of his own evolutionary chrysalis dragging as many dead cats behind him as he had going in. In other words, unless he finds a way to break free of the nightmares from his past (family, friends, society) he will never have the power, or confidence, to embrace the man he is destined to be.

My only criticism of Roth’s ‘Allegiant’ is, unlike the first two novels, Roth decides to add the voice of Tobias, or ‘Four, to that of Beatrice, ‘Tris’, giving us, the reader, now two dimensions instead of the  one-dimensional- flatland-POV. I wish she would have done this from the beginning, as it adds a layer of depth to her story which, now that we’re in book 3, I realize I found lacking in the first (that might explain why I always felt like I was reading/watching the movie – Flatlanders.).

On my reader’s scale of 1-5 stars, I’m giving ‘Allegiant’ 3.99999 for story well done and Roth 4.599999 for making me a fan of first POV flatlanders.

 

 

 

The Review: Insurgent


13335037 Insurgent: #Veronica Roth, 2012; @HarperCollins

In my first post on the Divergent series I rated Ms. Roth’s dystopian novel, 3 for over all story, and 3.5 for pulling off such a unique POV.  Now that I’ve finished reading ‘Insurgent’, her second novel in the series, I stand by my original  assessment of ‘Divergent’. It was a good, not a great, start to an interesting story with a very different way of writing a first person POV. The same cannot be said about her second novel, “Insurgent”.

In a good way.

Let me explain.

The advise a new author will get from almost all editors, agents and publishers alike is; if you’re going to write a series (if they even let you write a series), you need to write the first 3 before actually publishing the first one (good advise no matter how you swing). I have no idea whether this is what happened in Roth’s case, but I’m assuming, since each of the novels came out roughly 12 months apart, it is.

So, Who who cares? you might ask. Well, actually, I do.

Why? Because in book two, not only does the main protagonist (Beatrice Prior) begin to develop some backbone, but so does her creator, Ms. Roth. (And for someone like mwah,  who prefers to read a series, rather than stand alone’s, this proved to be a very unique experience)

Explain!

With every word, sentence, paragraph and story a writer creates (and revises), they are growing, morphing and honing their craft, and by process of evolution, becoming a better writer for it(we hope). In the world of Indie-Self Publishing, this is far more evident; especially if you’re following a particular author’s work from the beginning. But  in the world of Traditional Publishing, it’s not. Here, we the reader, are seldom, if ever, allowed to see an author’s work until they have honed their craft to a finely tuned writing machine (except maybe in the penny stories at the back of some obscure magazine no one, except maybe the Almighty, have ever heard of). Like hot-house orchids, these supposedly ‘new’ authors, who aren’t allowed  in public until their editors, agents, and publishers have cloned them into the lean-mean-selling machine that will make them, the publishing house, a lot of money.

“We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.”― Kurt Vonnegut

Now, maybe it’s because I read all three books (Divergent, Insurgent, Allegiant), one right after the other, within three weeks (thank the Almighty for eReaders and treadmills), that I noticed the evolution of both the character and the author so dramatically. Or, maybe its just I’m a real pain in the butt about good character development. Whatever ! The fact remains, despite or because of (I’ve not figured it out yet)  Roth’s use of first person, flatland, one-dimensional POV style of writing, I was able to experience the arch of development in both the main character as well as her creator. An interesting, and not, unpleasant experience.

Which leads me back to original statement: ‘Divergent’. It was a good, not a great, start to an interesting story with a very different way of writing a first person POV. The same cannot be said about her second novel, “Insurgent”. . . In a good way.

In my not so humble opinion, ‘Insurgent’ moved the ‘Divergent’ series from, a good, not a great, start to an interesting story, to somewhere between that and really good.

Like Suzanne Collins –  Katniss Everdeen,  Roth and her gal/pal ‘Tris’, have  invited us, the reader, to experience what it means to go into the chrysalis of society as a caterpillar, and come out the other side, a butterfly. And not just any butterfly; but rather one which is unique, and therefore, a danger to the society in which she/her has been bred and raised. A trouble maker. An ‘insurgent’ – someone who isn’t content to let sleeping dogs lie. For Tris (and author I suspect) it was, is, a journey of becoming; not who the world says or thinks she ought to be (and therefore has a pre-qualified social obligations to act according to the society in which she finds herself in) but rather, the Tris who is and has yet to become.

But like all born again experiences, Roth  uses her heroine to illustrate what all newly formed beings must learn; in order to live we must be willing to die – either to society, or family or friends or even, and more importantly, to the skewed imagination of our own making. Because as long as these nouns (people-places-and-or-things) hold the guy wires to our identity, we will never be free to fly.

On my readers scale of 1-5 stars, I’m promoting ‘Insurgent’ to 3.5, for a story better told, and Veronica Roth to a 4.00005, for an author who  is, learning how to fly.

 

 

 

The Review: Divergent


Divergent: #Veronica Roth, 2011; @HarperCollins  13335037

To be honest I didn’t really pay attention to all the hoopla over the #DivergentSeries when it hit the market in 2011. I thought the cover was nice, but with such a plethora of other YA (yes I admit, I’m an avid reader of YA despite the fact my YA has long since gone bye bye) books available, I just never got that far. Then I saw the trailer for the movie and thought, Why Not! I need something to read on the treadmill. So I downloaded the book onto my trusty eReader and started walking my way through Beatrice Prior’s dystopian Chicago.

I’ll admit it took me a few pages to settle into the authors POV and her almost flatland way of telling the story. But once the heroine’s voice found a comfy spot in my psych from which to share her journey, I was hooked enough that I did one of those ‘Can’t put the book down until I’m finished’ things we reader’s so love to do. (My justification – research. I was studying POV from a flatlander’s voice.)

But here’s the rub; what Roth pulled off doesn’t work for everyone. Like I said, it took me a few pages before I was hooked – which can be death to an author. In this case it wasn’t. The technique worked because she created an opening scene that was interesting enough to pull me into the next, then the next and . . .  well you get the point. Which is probably why I gave Beatrice’s voice a chance and which is why I’m going to read the second book, Insurgent as well.

As for the story itself, I thought it was a regurgitation of Hunger Games, but not in a bad way. Like Suzanne Collins, this author has used the same dystopic story structure of crèches, socialism, only the fittest survive, can’t-help-myself-love-you romance-ology, that ends with more questions asked than answered. Which is what any good series should do, right?

On my reader’s scale of 1-5 stars, I’m giving Divergent 3 for over all story, and 3.5 for pulling off such a unique way of telling it.