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Friday, December 14, 2012

La Dame à La Licorne by Anne Marie

La Dame à La Licorne by Anne Marie
Publisher: Musa Publishing
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Historical, Suspense/Mystery
Length: Short Story (15 pages)
Rating: 4 Stars
Age Recommendation: 16+
Reviewed by Astilbe

Danger hides in the darkest of places

Always obey your father. That’s what Katherine’s done her entire life. She studies dead languages and practices knife-throwing. Now Pappa’s listening to a virtual stranger, and she’s convinced the stranger cares more about killing monsters than her own safety. Pappa won’t even tell her what they’re going after. He says it’s because if she knows too much, then she’s tainted by that knowledge and it will spoil the hunt.

Can she trust Pappa’s judgment or leave her future in the hands of the stranger? With only her wits to protect her, she joins them in the most terrifying night of the year.

It’s only after the bruises fade and you’re well enough to try again that your true self emerges.

Katherine worried me from the opening paragraph. The reader knows that something has just happened to her that caused her injuries but we don’t know who or what caused them. In a few clicks of the keyboard Katherine is portrayed as a sweet (if possibly terribly naive) teenage girl who believes her father can do no wrong and yet every time I thought I had her figured out a new facet of her personality or circumstances blew my previous theory out of the running.

Ms. Marie packed a novel’s worth of characterization and plot development into fifteen short pages and for the first fourteen of them it worked beautifully. While we’re given more than enough information to figure out what is happening the last scene felt rushed. I would have liked to see a little more time spent exploring the repercussions of what happened that night. Is Katherine as comfortable with her father’s choices as the reader is first lead to assume? Hopefully these characters will be revisited in a sequel one day as there is so much we still don’t know about this world.

In the meantime let La Dame à La Licorne take you on a late night journey you won’t soon forget. Do yourself a favor and do not seek out any spoilers for this tale beforehand. The twists and turns in it will be far more rewarding if you don’t know what to expect!

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Price of Mercy by Gloria Oliver

The Price of Mercy by Gloria Oliver
Publisher: Zumaya Publications
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy
Length: Full Length (288 pgs)
Age Recommendation: 14+
Rating: 4.5 stars
Reviewed by Poinsettia

Which is worse...the monster within or without?

Wooing a new patron at the emperor's ball had been Jarrin Lestrave's only hope after being discarded by the baroness. He finds the perfect subject, but in the end doesn't follow through on his plans. Yet the next day he finds he's been marked a traitor to the realm-for defiling the emperor's daughter. Something which he did not do.

The Twelve, the emperor's secret guard, are sent after him. And when they catch him, they do not kill him. A worse fate has been set aside for him. He is to lose his humanity and become enslaved to the empire for eternity.

Then he meets his accuser-Princess Yolandra. As he battles with his rising hatred and the invisible chains thrust upon him, he begins to see that all is not as it seems-his fate tied to the possible return of the madness which once before decimated the world around them.

How could Jarrin’s life have gone so far off track?

Jarrin is a young man with dreams of being a poet. However, when I met him in the pages of The Price of Mercy, his life is certainly not turning out as he had hoped. Used and then discarded by his former patroness, Jarrin feels trapped in a life he’s deeply ashamed of. Just when he thinks things couldn’t possibly get any worse, he’s hunted down for a crime he didn’t commit. I felt myself getting incredibly angry as Jarrin suffered injustice after injustice for something he didn’t do. He’s never given any explanation, let alone anything that resembles a trial. He is simply caught and punished. I completely understood Jarrin’s rage as his former existence is torn away from him.

At first, Jarrin’s anger at his plight is all consuming. All he wants are answers. When he finally meets his accuser, Princess Yolandra, he can barely contain the violence threatening to spill out of him. I held my breath wondering if Jarrin would make a bad situation even worse. However, something amazing happens once Jarrin speaks to Yolnadra. He discovers that she too has been forced into making tough choices. Not only do Jarrin and Yolandra become friends, but I was also pleasantly surprised to see the first bloom of romance follow soon after. Jarrin and Yolandra don’t have time to dwell on their new feelings because it quickly becomes apparent that someone is plotting against the empire. Jarrin and Yolandra have their suspicions about the culprit, but the motives and goals of their suspect remain murky. Will they figure it out before it is too late?

I do wish Yolandra had been a bit more rounded. She doesn’t seem to have any real character flaws. She does what her father asks, even though it causes her suffering, without questioning his motives. She simply does her duty and is incredibly selfless. Still, I did like her spirit and bravery in the face of danger. She never gives up, no matter how dire the situation seems.

I must advise readers that they need to exercise a bit of patience when reading The Price of Mercy as the first part of the tale is a bit slow and is mainly focused on Jarrin and the changes he goes through as he adjusts to his new life. However, once the situation concerning Yolandra becomes clear, the pacing really pick up. My patience was definitely rewarded as I found myself caught up in Jarrin and Yolandra’s story as they struggle not only to save themselves, but the world as they know it.

I’m certainly glad I had the opportunity to read The Price of Mercy. The world Ms. Oliver has created is enchanting, and Jarrin is certainly a character I can cheer for. I recommend The Price of Mercy to anyone wanting to escape into a wonderful fantasy with just a touch of romance.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Balbena's Grave by Nolan Carlson

Balbena's Grave by Nolan Carlson
Publisher: Vinspire Publishing
Genre: Paranormal, Contemporary
Length: Full Length (165 pages)
Age Recommendation: 14+
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Teen John Riley is excited about his summer job sprucing up an old abandoned cemetery. It would give him a little money, allow him to play summer baseball, and be with his girlfriend, Susan. The summer is perfect until he discovers a crumbling tombstone on the outside of the cemetery fence. A girl who died at age sixteen in 1925 lay beneath it, and John is intrigued by a life cut so short.

Enchanted by his thoughts of a teenager who died so long ago, John wants to know more about this girl. His obsession deepens until one day, he hears flirtatious tittering coming from the depths of the grave. Soon, the girl who is supposed to be dead appears. It doesn't take long for John to fall in love with her. Foolishly, he doesn't realize the evil in this possessive, beguiling creature. Yes, he should have left her lying beneath Balbena's Grave.

Someday you and I will die. Almost no one knows when or how this will happen but we all know it’s coming sooner or later. Maybe this is why cemeteries and ghost stories are so enticing.

Balbena is quite a creepy ghost. John is able to piece together the story of her life from an old newspaper article and a few conversations with older townspeople but I was pleased to see how much of her life remains untold. Somehow the dead feel scarier to me when our speculations about the past are only partially confirmed.

To be honest, though, I had a hard time relating to John as he comes across as a little too perfect. Until the plot starts moving he doesn’t seem to have genuine conflicts with anyone in his life. His family, friends, neighbors and girlfriend have nothing but good things to say about him and he’s consistently shown to be hard-working, loyal, respectful, patient and kind. There’s nothing wrong with writing virtuous characters, of course, but John is too good be true. We’ve all said and done things we later come to regret so it seemed odd to me that John needed a supernatural being to spur him into having a bad day.

It’s also puzzling that a novel set in present day would mention a newspaper keeping old copies of their paper in filing cabinets. It would have been far more realistic for John to search for the details surrounding Balbena’s death online either through a public search engine or by logging into the Burgman Sentinel’s digitized archives. Until John’s cellphone rings in this scene I took it to be an indication that the story was set at least twenty years ago.

Figuring out the most appropriate age recommendation was tricky for me. While there aren’t any sexually explicit or violent scenes this book would be most appealing to readers who are old enough to fall in love or work. Watching the characters react to everything that comes with these new experiences was one of my favorite parts of the story and for this reason I recommend it for only those old enough to commiserate with John.

Have you ever walked past a graveyard and asked yourself questions about the individuals buried there? Were they good people? What was it like to live a hundred years ago? Is there anything they’d have to say to those of us still living? If so Balbena’s Grave may be right up your alley.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Persephone: Daughters of Zeus by Kaitlin Bevis

Persephone: Daughters of Zeus by Kaitlin Bevis
Publisher: Musa Publishing
Genre: Contemporary, Sci-Fi/Fantasy
Length: Full Length (237 pgs)
Age Recommendation: 14+
Rating: 5 stars
Reviewed by Poinsettia

There are worse things than death, worse people too

The “talk” was bad enough, but how many teens get told that they’re a goddess? When her mom tells her, Persephone is sure her mother has lost her mind. It isn’t until Boreas, the god of winter, tries to abduct her that she realizes her mother was telling the truth. Hades rescues her, and in order to safely bring Persephone to the Underworld he marks her as his bride. But Boreas will stop at nothing to get Persephone. Despite her growing feelings for Hades, Persephone wants to return to the living realm. Persephone must find a way to defeat Boreas and reclaim her life.

Can Hades really be a hero? The answer lies within the pages of Persephone.

I absolutely love Greek Mythology. When I came across Persephone, I was immediately intrigued. After reading the blurb, I had high expectations and Ms. Bevis certainly lived up to them. Ms. Bevis’ interpretation of the story of Persephone and Hades is very appealing, and she also does an excellent job of working the Greek gods and goddesses into a modern setting seamlessly. I think it is very interesting that the gods and goddesses keep insisting they aren’t human. However, their thoughts, actions, mistakes, and vulnerabilities make them much more “human” then they’d like to admit.

Persephone is a very relatable and well rounded character. I think her initial disbelief and subsequent meltdown after finding out she’s a goddess is completely normal. Even though she finds out she’s up against gods much stronger than her, I really liked that she didn’t just sit back and let others handle the problem. She takes a very active role in learning how to develop her powers and defend herself. Persephone really blossoms and begins to grow into her full powers throughout the book. It was a pleasure watching her change from a girl into a mature young woman. I have no doubt she’ll be very powerful when she learns how to control all her abilities.

Toward the end of the book, Persephone is forced to make some tough choices when her best friend is in danger. Rather than waiting for someone else to solve the problem, Persephone takes matters into her own hands. While I admire her strength and determination, I think some of the choices she makes will have negative repercussions that she’ll be forced to deal with later.

Hades is definitely not the typical god of the underworld. I’d say most people, like Persephone, have preconceived notions of what type of person, or rather god, Hades would be. Many of the typical assumptions do not hold true in this tale. Hades genuinely cares about the souls inhabiting the underworld and tries to make sure everyone is taken care of and in their proper place. However, Hades does have a darker side that flares to life when he’s angered or those he cares about are in danger. His treatment of an intruder who dares to attack Persephone is particularly frightening.

The twist at the end of Persephone is wonderful. Just when things seem to be wrapping up nicely, Ms. Bevis threw in a complication. Alarm bells should have been going off in my head concerning a particular event and trusted character, but like Persephone, I was completely floored when she realized what had happened. I’m looking forward to finding out how Persephone handles this situation and can’t wait until the next story is released.

I’m so glad I had the opportunity to read Persephone. I loved getting to know Persephone and Hades, and I’m craving the next installment in the series. Fans of young adult romance and Greek mythology definitely need to check out Persephone today.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Walking the Dog by Linda Benson

Walking the Dog by Linda Benson
Publisher: Musa Publishing
Genre: Contemporary, Suspense/Mystery
Length: Short Story (120 pages)
Age Recommendation: 10+
Rating: 4 Stars
Reviewer: Astilbe

Jared feels like he's the only one who looks past Sophie's scars to see her for who she is. But can he be a true friend when she desperately needs one?

Jared is smitten when his teacher seats the new girl, Sophie, right next to him. Even with the scar running up the side of her face, Jared thinks she’s the most beautiful girl in the entire fifth grade. But why did she transfer here so late in the year? Rumors say something bad happened to her.

Jared and Sophie become friends while walking the guidance counselor’s new puppy, but when his parents object to this arrangement, Jared fabricates a series of elaborate lies to meet Sophie on the sly. But little brothers can be pests. First Petey lets the orange cat loose at the animal shelter where Jared and Sophie have been secretly walking the dogs. Then Petey turns up missing.

And Sophie’s past finally catches up with her.

Sometimes the past cannot stay buried.

It can difficult to know how to broach the topic of child abuse with elementary school aged students. Too much information can be unnecessarily frightening for those who don’t have personal experience with it as well as potentially triggering for those have been the victims of it. As Jared slowly learns what happened to Sophie I held my breath. Would Ms. Benson include so many details of the abuse Sophie endures that I’d feel obligated to raise the age recommendation?

I shouldn’t have worried. We learn enough about Sophie’s past experiences to explain her current fears but none of the stories she shares are inappropriate for this age range. What surprised me the most was how quickly Sophie adapts to life in a new town with the help of a compassionate boy named Jared. The abuse will always be part of her past but Sophie’s identity as a daughter, friend, animal-lover and student is in no way limited to the bad things that have happened to her.

My only concern with this book involves how much responsibility for looking after his little brother Jared experiences. Their parents are described as unusually involved in the boys’ lives yet Jared is expected to shoulder an unfair amount of the work that comes with keeping a rambunctious 8-year-old safe. It would have made more sense for Mr. and Mrs. Westin to either be equally protective of both of their sons or expect Pete to be a little less impulsive. As it stands Jared is given a nearly adult level of responsibility for the care of his sibling and yet has the personal freedom of someone much younger.

Walking the Dog is one of those rare stories that appeals as much to adult readers as it will to its intended audience. I’d especially recommend reading it aloud if you live with someone who is about Jared and Sophie’s age. It’s the sort of tale that becomes even more exciting when two or more people are hearing it for the first time together.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Alabaster by Nick Hirsch

Alabaster by Nick Hirsch
Publisher: Prizm Books
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Contemporary
Length: Short Story (15 pages)
Age Recommendation: 12+
Rating: 3.5 Stars
Reviewe by Astilbe

Alan turned to stone as a boy, and now he’s started cracking. His father left when he was a kid, his mother is impossible to talk to, and he’s always been bullied at school. One day he meets a boy on the bus named Luke, and things start to change. Will his feelings for Luke finally cure him, or will he simply fall to pieces?

For some people the passage of time does not heal all wounds. If anything it makes them worse!

The idea of love transforming us into better versions of ourselves has long been a cliche. By pushing this concept from metaphor to a literal act Mr. Hirsch breathed new life into this concept. Alan’s emotional trauma is evident in every inch of his cold, grey skin and he has lived with the effects of it for so long that he’s forgotten what life is like for people without his affliction.

Magical realism is a slippery genre. Inject too much magic into an otherwise ordinary setting and one risks distracting the characters (and audience) from what might happen by the peculiar things going on right now. If too little time is spent on the mystical elements, though, the reader will be left wondering if the narrator is a reliable witness to what is happening. Happily Alabaster strikes a good balance between these two extremes. While I wondered why no one in Alan’s life comments on the condition of his skin this can easily be explained away by the long period of time that elapsed between him turning to stone and the beginning of his relationship with Luke.

I had some trouble determining an appropriate age recommendation for this story. It contains offensive language and includes a briefly violent scene. Although the altercation is not described in great detail and the slurs were necessary in order to explain why Alan finds certain memories so painful they do make this selection inappropriate for younger or sensitive readers.

Repeated punctuation errors were only reason why this book didn’t receive a much higher rating. So many sentences included misplaced commas and spelling and grammar errors that I had trouble understanding the meaning of some of them.

Alabaster has a heart of gold, though. I’d highly recommend it to anyone interested in a sweet tale of a boy’s first taste of love.