Sarah LewisThis is listed as a children’s book, which is not something I’d normally read, but this bit of the description caught my eye: “rural sci-fi thriller full of spies, mad scientists, 1980s nostalgia, alternate dimensions, strange new friends, suspense, and mystery.”

Well, that sounded like something I would like. And I was not disappointed. Yes, the protagonist is indeed a kid–13 year-old Sarah Lewis–and the prose does avoid complicated structures and (for the most part) big words, but it’s a book anyone can enjoy. It doesn’t condescend to the reader in telling the story.

Sarah is living with her grandfather after her mother has died and her father has moved away to take a job in another country. She is lonely, and trying to acclimate to a new town and new school in rural Texas, when her curiosity leads her to exploring in the hills near her grandfather’s property.

Long story short, she stumbles into a web of ancient conspiracies, secret societies, aliens, talking animals, magic, and threats of cosmic annihilation from malevolent demonic entities. Imagine The Chronicles of Narnia crossed with The X-Files and maybe a bit of Dan Brown thrown in. It uses a number of the classic YA tropes–a child with no parents discovering her family’s secrets and having to reevaluate her place in the world. Sarah isn’t quite “the Chosen One,” thankfully, but she does turn out to be rather special for reasons which I won’t reveal here. Still, it was quite a fun read for me; and never became boring or predictable.

Before I read the book, I wondered whether it would be too childish for an adult to read. Having read the book, I wonder if it’s too adult-ish for a child to read. It’s touted as “clean,” meaning there’s no swearing or sex, but there is plenty of fighting, references to cancer and dying from it, and strong implications that the villains torture and ritualistically sacrifice people to appease an evil deity. Also, several characters die, including some rather sympathetic ones.

Of course, there are plenty of examples throughout children’s literature of things just as or more disturbing than that. (The classic fairy tales are pretty unsettling, when you think about them.) But everyone has their own ideas of what kids should and shouldn’t read, so it’s important to note that this book was darker than I expected. Not that I minded, and thinking back, I suspect my 10-12 year-old self wouldn’t have minded, either.

While the major conflict of the story is resolved, the book ends on a major cliffhanger to set up the sequel. A sequel which, as far as I can tell, has not been published yet. Certainly, I am eager to see how this story develops–there is a lot of potential in the world that the author has created.

Scout's HonorI love classic science fiction. It may seem corny to some, but there’s a wonderful charm to those vintage pulp stories of science fiction’s Golden Age.

Scout’s Honor is a flawlessly-executed homage to that era. Conventional wisdom about judging books notwithstanding, this is one case where the cover tells you exactly what this is: a love-letter to the space-faring, swashbuckling adventures of yore.

The protagonist is Terran Scout David Rice, who crash lands on the planet Aashla, and soon finds himself fighting to protect the beautiful Princess Callan  from raiders, kidnappers, and armies of rival kingdoms. The inhabitants of Aashla are primitive compared with the advanced technology Rice possesses, but even with his technological superiority, he finds himself needing all his strength and wits to survive.

Along with the princess and her guard, Rice sets out on a fast-paced adventure full of dangerous beasts, alien thugs, and court intrigue. There are airship battles and gladiatorial duels in sewer tunnels. And of course, despite the breakneck pace and the constant danger, Rice and Callan find themselves falling in love.

The story is told in bite-sized chapters, each of which ends with a cliffhanger. I loved this.   Just when one threat seems eliminated, a new one appears. It’s relentless, but in a fun way. I was always eager to see how Rice and company would escape each unpleasant surprise.

Description is minimal, but there is enough suggested through the action that I could picture the scenes effectively. There are a whole host of supporting characters who were quite entertaining in their own right. Martin Bane was a particular favorite of mine; I enjoyed the way his character developed.

There are times when I just feel like escaping into a fun imaginary world, and Scout’s Honor is the perfect way to do that. It’s easy to read, hard to put down, and an all-around delightful way to spend a few hours for fans of sci-fi and fantasy alike.

ForeverThis is Geoffrey Cooper’s best thriller yet, and if you’ve read my reviews of Nondisclosure and The Prize, you know that’s saying something. All his books are gripping page-turners that offer fascinating glimpses into the politics of academia. Forever includes all these signature elements, but the plot is even more layered, and consequently, the mystery even more exciting to piece together.

The two lead characters from Nondisclosure, Dr. Brad Parker and investigator Karen Richmond, are back and just as likable as ever. Their relationship is one of my favorite things about this series. There is an easy give-and-take between them that makes them feel like a believable couple.

Brad is on sabbatical, working on research at a Harvard lab, when two FBI agents–one of whom is a friend of Karen’s–approach him to ask for his help solving a case of academic espionage being carried out by one of his colleagues. He’s annoyed at having to take time away from his research so soon after having his career was temporarily-but-spectacularly derailed by the events of Nondisclosure, but as a favor to his partner, he agrees to help.

In doing so, however, he and Karen find themselves once again caught up in a complicated tangle of death and double-crossing. In addition to the spy in Brad’s lab, Karen and her friend are also investigating a disturbing string of serial murders. And in the midst of all this, Brad finds himself tempted–in more ways than one–by a fellow colleague, offering him a chance of securing lucrative private funding, as well as some other benefits.

It all builds to a dramatic and satisfying climax that forces Brad and Karen to use their respective skills to the utmost if they are to have any chance of putting the pieces together and solving both the espionage and the murders.

It’s a fast-paced story, although Cooper skillfully includes some pauses for the reader to catch their breath. The descriptions of the lovely New England locales (and restaurants) that Brad visits make it easy to picture the setting. I wished I were there; albeit in some cases, under very different circumstances than the ones Brad and Karen find themselves in!

As with Cooper’s previous books, there’s a fair amount of references to real-word medical science, and it’s done in a way that is accessible for the layman. In fact, it’s so well-written that it informs as well as entertains–I learned a few things from reading it.

If you like medical thrillers, or just thrillers in general, this is for you. And be sure and read Nondisclosure too. While this book certainly can stand on its own, it’s really best if you are familiar with Brad and Karen’s previous work together.

[Note: This review is based on an ARC of this book. Forever releases today.]

 

Joke's on MeThis is a literary novel about a woman named Francine “Frankie” Goldberg returning home to Woodstock, NY after a stalled career as a stand-up comic and agent for a Hollywood actress. Returning to her family’s Bed & Breakfast, now operated by her older sister Judith (“Jude”), Frankie finds herself confronting a number of unresolved issues from her past.

The sisters’ mother, Sylvia, is in an assisted living facility after suffering a stroke. Jude’s son Ethan is an aspiring film director who seeks advice from his aunt Frankie. And Frankie’s teenage crush, Joey Mazzarella, a former MLB player and now minor-league coach, is on the market again, having been divorced from his wife and Frankie’s former rival, Linda Lamb.

Frankie and Jude try to work together to keep the place operating, with Jude having transformed it into a sort of New Age retreat, offering yoga and meditation for the guests. The sisters clash, reconcile, and clash again over all sorts of things–none more so than Jude’s disapproval of Frankie’s increasingly serious relationship with Joey.

The story is narrated in the first-person by Frankie, and she is instantly believable as a former stand-up comedian. Every page is filled with witty, often self-deprecating turns of phrase that make even the most mundane descriptions of everyday life a treat to read about. This isn’t a thriller or typical “page-turner” type of a novel; it’s purely a slice-of-life kind of thing–and yet I kept reading it, chapter after chapter, almost compulsively, until I finished. It’s that well-written.

Every character in the book feels real, even the minor ones. In fact, even one we never actually meet, named “Nunzio,” feels real. I won’t spoil who he is or why we don’t meet him, but you’ll see what I mean.

This book does what I think is the hallmark of all good literary fiction: it lets you see the world through somebody else’s eyes. At first glance, one might not think that I–a midwestern bumpkin and only-child who finds baseball boring–would be a good audience for a story about a comedian returning to New York from Hollywood, who loves baseball and who struggles to figure out her relationship with her sister. But I enjoyed this book immensely. Part of Frankie’s journey involves finding universal truths through humor, and this book does just that.

The Joke’s on Me reminded me of some other high-quality literary fiction I’ve reviewed on here–so if you read and enjoyed Kevin Brennan’s Fascination, Britt Skrabanek’s Nola Fran Evie or any of Mark Paxson’s short stories, check this one out.

Moon Goddess 2Moon Goddess is about a young woman named Lamorna who is forced to flee her home with her infant brother, pursued by the soldiers of the lord who holds sway in the region.

With the guidance of a mysterious wise woman, Lamorna is aided by spirits and manifestations of an ancient goddess, whose followers and rituals differ greatly from the harsh patriarchal religion of her upbringing.

This book is steeped in mythological elements. As Spicer documents on her blog, she put intense research into this, from the world in which the story takes place to the wolves to the legends. Moon Goddess is rich with folklore references and fragments of old religions.

This is important, because for the most part, the description of the world in which the story takes place is minimal. As with Spicer’s The Cursed Gift, the focus is on the characters and what they say and do, with little excess verbiage about the setting. This is probably controversial, but personally, I love this about Spicer’s work. It reminds me of what Paul Graham said about Jane Austen: “She tells her story so well that you envision the scene for yourself.”

I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a world this rich made with so little description, but I was very impressed by it. The only point where it was an issue for me (and I realize this won’t make sense until you read the book) was that I would have liked to have read more about the Wild Horde, which has a relatively small, but important role in the story. It’s such a cool concept; I’d have liked to know more.

One other nit-pick: while most of the book was from Lamorna’s point of view in close third person, there were a few chapters told from her fiancé’s perspective, in the same style. There’s nothing wrong with this, except it came relatively late in the story, and felt a little jarring, since it is clearly Lamorna’s story.

That’s a minor point, however. All in all, I really liked Moon Goddess–it’s fantasy, but with sufficient grounding in folklore that it felt authentic. It’s mystical and mysterious, but without its characters ever being totally overwhelmed by the supernatural elements.

Moon Goddess1

Also, there have been two different covers of this book, and they are both great. The current one is pictured above, but I had to include this one as well.

I like the current cover, especially because all of Spicer’s book covers follow a certain pattern that makes them look like a true collection. That said, this earlier cover also has its charms. So vivid and evocative!

Whichever cover you prefer, though, this is a great read for fans of fantasy stories with strong mythological elements.

Sweet & SourThis is a fun, humorous detective story. I say it’s a detective story rather than a mystery, because while there is some mystery-solving that goes on, it’s not like there’s a wide cast of suspects or a number of motives explored. No, this story is about the fun of reading Jade Stone’s witty narration as she tries to track down a missing young woman named Tanya.

Detective Stone is a memorable character, with a biting wit and a love for fashion. (I admit, some of the fashion terms she’ll use to describe outfits were totally new to me.) As she travels through small English villages to track down the missing woman, Detective Stone casts trenchant observations on everyone she meets. But, when she finally does discover what happened to Tanya, she’s also forced to reveal a more vulnerable side of herself.

My only real trouble with the book–besides the fact that I am completely unfamiliar with the fashion references–was that the conclusion felt a little rushed and difficult to follow. Clearly, it’s setting the stage for more, but it felt a little muddled, at least to me.

Does this book break new ground and revolutionize the genre? No, not really. But would I cheerfully read more like it? Absolutely! Stone is a memorable character, and I enjoyed her voice very much. I’d read a story narrated by this character even if there were no plot, and it was just her acerbic assessments of random people and places.

It’s funny–a couple weeks ago, I blogged about the book Calmer Girls, and how relieved I was that it didn’t have a cynical, snarky narration. And yet this book distinctly does, and I enjoyed it immensely. I think the difference is who the protagonist is–it’s jarring in YA books, when kids or teenagers are cynical and sarcastic. But for an adult detective, who has presumably seen quite a few ugly things, it seems right and proper.

I haven’t read Raymond Chandler, although I know a lot of his famous lines, and I get the sense that the really impressive thing about his detective books was the way his characters talk. Same thing here. I enjoyed this book very much, and plan to give the next installment a try.

Testing the WatersThis story is a mystery; but not in the typical “whodunnit” genre; rather, it’s a mystery of what is happening in the little town of Port Athens. It’s a fishing town, and one of the fishermen, Eli P. Marin, has come back with a trident, which sets all the town on edge.

Soon, everyone in the town–all of whom have their own private interests, scandals, and skeletons in their closets, are gossiping about it. Eventually, Marin makes his announcement, and it is met with a grave response.

The writing is crisp, and I love the way the relationships between the townsfolk are portrayed. It’s even more fun once you figure you out what’s really going on. I’ll give you a hint: the characters’ names matter a great deal in this story, so pay attention to that. At first, I wondered why they all followed a certain pattern–and once I figured it out, I shook my head in amusement for not catching on sooner. It’s really neat.

Hmm, what else can I say about this story that won’t give it away? Not much, unfortunately. Maybe this: it made me think of Lovecraft’s The Shadow Over Innsmouth meets Gilbert and Sullivan’s Thespis. That’s actually a huge spoiler, but I’m gambling that it’s so obscure you’ll quickly realize it’s fastest to just read the book to figure out what I mean. And you should read this book, because it’s a quick, easy read that’s also a lot of fun.

Calmer GirlsThis is a Young Adult novel, which is not a genre I typically read. It’s probably unfair of me, but I have a stereotype in my mind of what a YA novel is, and generally speaking, they aren’t something that interests me. But this one was recommended by the great Carrie Rubin, and so I gave it a try. And I was pleasantly surprised, because whatever expectations I–rightly or wrongly–have of YA novels, this one easily surpassed them.

Part of it, perhaps, is that I have this idea in my mind of YA books being narrated in a snarky, sarcastic tone. There’s none of that in Calmer Girls–our protagonist, 16 year-old Samantha Cross, is sincere and good-hearted. All her emotions seem genuine, whether in her frequent feuds with her older sister Veronica, her love for the handsome Ben Swift, or her misery at her parents’ recent divorce and her mother’s worsening alcoholism.

A word about the divorce: one thing I liked about this book was its sensitive portrayal of how badly divorce affects the children of the split couple. The constant tension and psychological trauma it inflicts on both Samantha and Veronica is a powerful illustration of the painful consequences.

The main plot of the book is Samantha and Veronica vying for Ben’s affection. Veronica is a gregarious, extroverted young woman, used to attracting the attention of any boy she wants, and is distraught when Ben prefers her shy, younger, bookish sister.

But while he at first seems to be an ideal boyfriend, Ben is tormented by emotional scars left by his own parents. Ben and Samantha soon find themselves retreating into their love for one another, in a sweet–if decidedly not rational or mature–way, characteristic of young people leaving childhood behind, but not yet truly adults.

The prose is rich and evocative. The book reminded me of Mark Paxson’s The Irrepairable Past. That might seem like an unlikely comparison, since that novella is the story of an older man reflecting on his past, and Calmer Girls is the story of a young girl just starting out, but both books evoke a rich feeling of the melancholic beauty found in everyday life.

A running theme in the book is Samantha reading Brontë novels, and many of the chapters begin with quotes from Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. There’s also one scene in particular where Samantha draws a comparison to the former. I liked this a lot–it was a nice touch, without ever feeling forced or overused.

Perry did such a good job recreating what the world feels like to a teenager, it actually made me reflect back on my own teenage years. I suspect anyone reading the book will recognize a little of their own past in it. Personally, it made me think back with both nostalgia and regret to those long summer days when, having no actual responsibilities or obligations, I could nevertheless set myself to worrying obsessively about ephemeral things like whether my crushes even knew I existed. Ah, how the youthful brain makes trouble even where none exists!

The story is set in 1993, and is tinged throughout with period pop culture references, that only add to the book’s nostalgia value. Which brings to me to another point: the slang in this book is very different than what I’m used to. I’m not sure how much of this is the time period, and how much is the setting–Newfoundland, Canada–but either way, it was quite interesting. Samantha, Veronica, and their friends use a number of novel expressions which I had not seen before, which made the story that much more vibrant and authentic.

I ended up enjoying Calmer Girls far more than I expected. Don’t let any preconceived notions about YA fiction fool you–this is a fantastic read for anyone who enjoys solid literary fiction.

HarvestHarvest is a short story that packs a lot of content into few words. It tells the story of a man named Edgar, who, due to some very evil circumstances, has been given a pumpkin for a head–and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

As Edgar is grappling with this horrible situation, a woman named Emelia and her pet approach, and she fills Edgar in on what has brought him to this state, and what can be done about it. Emelia, speaking in a pleasant, folksy twang, helps Edgar come to terms with his plight. I won’t spoil it–like I said, it’s very short, and providing more detail would give too much away. The fun of the story is in seeing how it works out, and discovering exactly what the characters are, how they came to be that way, and, most of all, what they will do next.

I absolutely adored this story. As you all know, I love scary stories, I love pumpkins, and I love the Halloween season generally. This wonderful tale captures everything that makes it special. It’s got just the perfect blend of scares, mischievousness, and fun that the holiday is all about. You can bet I’ll be re-reading it come October.

So, since it’s a seasonal tale, why am I blogging about it now, instead of waiting until autumn? Well, I happened to stumble across this author thanks to this poignant exchange with Lorinda J. Taylor* on Twitter, and frankly, this case illustrates why I think it’s especially important to support indie authors at this time, more than ever.

There are so many people all across the world who work to create art in their spare time, even after all the daily pressures life puts upon them. Even at the best of times, it’s not easy, and these are hardly the best of times. So when I find work that I like, I think it’s important that I share it. And of course, you can surely tell from the cover alone that this would be something I like. Directly upon seeing that lovely scene, I knew I had to read it, and I was not disappointed.

Harvest is a perfect short story for anyone who loves a good Halloween atmosphere. Some may prefer to read it in season, and that is surely when it will be best enjoyed–in a pumpkin patch, on a warm October’s evening, as the sun is sinking behind the trees, I should say–but true Halloween addicts such as myself can enjoy it all year round.

*For those keeping score, this is now two wonderful authors I’ve discovered thanks to Lorinda, the other being Lindy Moone. Thank you, Lorinda!

IPanama love weird westerns. Maybe this isn’t technically a western, given that Panama is at approximately the same longitude as West Virginia, but in every other respect, it fits the bill. It’s got cowboys, ghosts, witchcraft, and plenty of good old-fashioned gunfights.

Ethan Stafford and Cooper Hexum are U.S. marshals sent by President Theodore Roosevelt to investigate the disappearances of workers in the Panama Canal Zone. Ethan has a mysterious ability to see and communicate with ghosts, and Cooper–“Coop,” as he is called–is well-versed in all manner of magic and witchcraft. Roosevelt has reason to believe supernatural forces are at work, and he is soon proven right, as Ethan and Coop discover that, in addition to a plot by Spanish invaders, a demonic entity known as “El Chivato” is building up an army of his own using the souls of workers lured into the jungle.

Ethan and Coop are outfitted with considerable weaponry to fight these threats, as well as plenty of magical amulets and talismans that Coop acquires. One of my favorite early scenes was one in which Dr. Welker, who plays “Q” to Coop and Ethan’s collective 007, outfits them with all the weaponry they’ll need for their mission, including a Browning machine gun.

In the course of their mission, the pair meet a witch named Jinx, who has been captured by the Spanish, and Billy the Kid, hiding out under a different name, along with many other interesting characters. The tension builds as El Chivato’s powers grow, until our heroes confront him and his malevolent army in a final shootout, just as any good Western should conclude.

The prose is straightforward and blunt. It reminded me a bit of Hemingway, which is exactly the right style for this sort of novel. The story is well-paced and blends elements of adventure, horror, and occasional comic relief very well.

My only gripe about the book was the number of typos. Mostly minor things–missing apostrophes or glitches like “if” for “it,” etc. There were also a few formatting issues, such as character’s thoughts sometimes being unitalicized. It was nothing that ruined the book for me, but frequent enough that I noticed. To be clear, I’m very sympathetic about this, as I know from my own experience that it’s really, really hard to put out a whole novel and catch every typo. What’s great about ebooks is that it is easy to go back and correct them.

Technical issues aside, I loved the book’s atmosphere and the way Boyack balances a classic cowboy adventure, complete with likable heroes and a cruel villain, with occult demonic elements. And he ties it all together in a way that’s very satisfying. Panama is a very fun read for anyone who enjoys a good adventure story.