Category Archives: Four Stars

Steel, Blood & Fire

Steel, Blood & Fire

Dark, gritty, and altogether brutal, Steel, Blood and Fire is an archetypal dark fantasy novel. In the first chapter, one of the main character’s hands and feet are amputated, and the story continues in similar fashion from there onward. The setting is fantasy grounded in muddy reality, although there is a vein of consequential magic that adds a little sorcery to this otherwise swords-based world. If you’re familiar with Game of Thrones then you’re familiar with Allen Betchelder’s style; multiple character perspectives, inter-weaved story lines, and a healthy dose of murder. It’s a fantastic modern-style medieval fantasy, and a definite read for any fan of the genre.

When I began Steel, Blood and Fire, my first thought was, “Wow, this is a lot like Game of Thrones.” Then I began to think, “Or is it more of a Witcher book?” As I continued through the novel, I began to decide it was a blend of both. By the end, I thought that perhaps it was its own thing.

The book isn’t afraid to touch on the brutal. In fact, it seems to revel in it. Blood flows freely; rape is the buzzword of the day. It’s a mature novel for sure although it doesn’t quite cross the line, but regularly toes it. A lesser author would have toppled their novel over into prurient pulp.

The writing is well-executed, with the author’s own voice clearly shining through. There is one trap that Allen Betchelder tends to fall into, and that’s the ‘fear of said’. Every other sentence seems to find a new synonym – characters question, murmur, mutter, bellow, but words are never just ‘said’. It’s awkward to read, and tends to draw you out of conversations that should flow naturally.

In any perspective-hopping plot, characters are one of the most important factors. Fortunately, Steel, Blood and Fire features a strong and memorable, if slightly generic, cast. They come off as slightly one-dimensional, particularly towards the start of the novel, and the inclusion of a comedy group of village bumpkins – who of course meet with terrible fates – struck me as being an attempt at generating some frisson with the grim background. Other than those minor niggles, the diversity and depth of the cast begins to truly shine through around the midway point; from here onward they become much more than the sum of their parts.

Despite my above criticisms, I really did enjoy the story, and it quickly became engaging only a few pages in. If you’re a fan of the genre, particularly Game of Thrones-esque fantasy, you’ll certainly enjoy Betchelder’s offering.

Pages: 548 | ASIN: B00AW53RMQ

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The One Eyed Pug

The One Eyed Pug

It’s important to share messages of acceptance with children, but it can be difficult if you don’t take into consideration their level of understanding. What a child can understand is vastly different than an adult. The One Eyed Pug by Deborah Hunt is a cute little story about a pug puppy that has a slightly difficult life waiting for her. She has to go through the anxiety of being separated from her birth parents and then living with a stranger. While she does her best to adapt to her new life, change is right around the corner as her ‘mother’ ends up being unable to care for her and gives her to another family. Our little pug now has to deal with the uncertainty of a new home with new people without understanding why she was given up in the first place. Things seem to start going better for our pug until the introduction of a new friend and the terrible accident that follows close behind.

Using animals as a way to deliver important messages and teach important lessons to children is something that is not easily done, but delivered well in this story. Children seem to be able to listen carefully and understand difficult lessons when taught through an animal that can speak. Hunt uses the story of the pug to show children that change is not always bad. She also teaches them that while bad things may happen, there are good outcomes as well. Our pug has only lived for a short time yet she’s met with various changes and has to face the anxiety of the unknown each time. This story can also teach children compassion. Compassion for those who are different than us and compassion for those who are struggling.

There are several drawings throughout the book which can give the readers a nice interruption to the waves of text. It is important to keep children engaged as well as entertained. The drawings give more information on what the characters look like which helps the readers connect more to the story. The language in the story is very easy for new readers to understand. While this isn’t a first step book, it is definitely suitable for a child who has experience reading books with little pictures. The language might be too young for older readers, even though the message it sends is positive.

Deborah Hunt takes us on a trip to learn compassion and acceptance with The One Eyed Pug. This tale allows children to connect their own feelings of anxiety and uncertainty with things like change to the life of the protagonist, the little pug. It also allows children to see that dogs and other pets have feelings as well, even if we can’t always understand what they’re trying to tell us. Even when our little pug goes through a life changing situation, she comes out strong because she has the support of those who love her around her. This is an important thing for children to understand as well: we are all stronger thanks to the people who support us. This would be a great book for any avid young reader.

Pages: 80 | ISBN: 1945175788

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JACS

J A C S

A BOOK OF SHORT STORIES
GEORGE J. MARDO

JACS places people in hard or surprising situations and challenges the reader to accept when the characters do not follow a traditional arc. George Mardo writes in such a way that seeks to subvert the easy plot points and story lines most readers have been familiar with in most recent years. Typical of a short story collection JACS contains a variety of stories.

The first story, Jackpot, follows two older men who have a racehorse bestowed on them. The catch is that the horse has never entered a race and both men play the part but are surprised to find themselves happy when things do not go their way. The next is, Amy, where the reader follows a girl who has strange dreams and holds onto them. The story really gets underway when she tells her grandfather about them and he confesses to having the same dreams. Candera is a hard story to read, since it follows a nun that was sent to the Congo and her tribulations of being captured by terrorists, raped, and becoming pregnant. When forced to try, and send the child away to be adopted, Sister Candera refuses. The last, Sorrow Has No Opposite, is more of a short, fictional biography that follows a Iraqi boy named Boutros Suffady, who undergoes a horrific tragedy and eventually finds happiness in life that he thought he lost.

Mardo has a talent for needling into a character’s perspective and teasing out what emotional heart strings should be pulled for the reader. These stories on their face may sound overwrought or framed in such a way to be emotionally manipulative, as it would be usually expected but Mardo avoids this with clear heartfelt authenticity. If nothing else, the author captures the “slices of life” that some may take particular pleasure in.

Some of the stories tend to be stronger than others and that will depend on the reader who wishes to give this collection a chance. The stories would be considered more literary based on the more character focused stories and lack of any real genre conventions. These small narratives are not adrenaline bouncing thrillers, nor are they dark and mysterious mysteries or horrors. What these stories do capture is the grounded reality that all of us abide in and these experiences all these characters’ share are to enlarge our scope.

JACS is recommended to more mature readers who are seeking different experiences on the page. The stories provide a unique lens that the reader only dons for a short time but will be left wondering long after reaching the end.

GOODREADS | AMAZON

Day Moon

Day Moon (Tomorrow's Edge Book 1)

As the first book in the Tomorrow’s Edge trilogy, Day Moon is an outstanding contribution to the world of futuristic creation. The author, Brett Armstrong, provides a novel which allows any reader to question the “what ifs” of the world.

The story is set in 2039, where a seventeen-year-old boy, Elliott, is assigned to work on a project instigated by his deceased grandfather. After all forms of print are destroyed, Elliott must let go of his beloved book of the complete works of Shakespeare.

Elliott soon realises that in the complete works of Shakespeare, something unusual occurs. For some reason, an extra sonnet “Day Moon” had been inserted. This unusual event is the start of the unravelling journey of Project Alexandria; a journey which has no intentions of using the project for its original purpose. Can Elliott unravel the mystery and prevent Project Alexandria being launched?

A fantastic attempt to draw upon the unknown possibilities of the world. Armstrong creates a strong, imaginative plot line, with relatable characters and emotions; this is a remarkable read which creates a vibrant and thought-provoking storyline.

Based on the originality of his ideas, and Brett’s noble attempt to write in a world of pure creation, I could look beyond our everyday lives, and recognise a possibility of how the world could look in years to come.

What I thoroughly enjoyed about Day Moon was a mixture of themes including passion, distrust, uncertainty and suspense. What also sets this book apart from others in this genre, is the small quotes inserted at the beginning of each chapter. Each quote has been taken from a work of Shakespeare; which ties in beautifully with the underlying concept of the narrative. In that respect, I think Brett Armstrong demonstrates a huge amount of commitment and passion in regards to his ideas for his trilogy in Tomorrow’s Edge.

Whilst reading through this book, I recognised that the author had put a tremendous amount of attention to detail in regards to his layout, consistency, flow in writing and grammar, which all adds to the book’s qualities. Not only does the book contain a strong narrative full of suspense, drive, and futurist qualities, but it also blends our world of reality with a world that could be.  

A fast-paced, diverse, intense piece of writing that falls under categories of Historical Fiction, Science Fiction and Futuristic genres. I highly recommend this book for anyone who shows an interest in the genres as mentioned. Although the narrative lagged at times, this does not detract from the quality of Brett Armstrong’s creative writing.

Packed full of inspiration, creation and innovation, this novel provides a great insight in to a world that is not real, but not impossible either. A fantastic read, and a great beginning to the Tomorrow’s Edge series.

Pages: 389 | ASIN: B06XWDM49Z

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Bitter Awakenings

Bitter Awakenings (The Keeper Chronicles, Book 1)

Bitter Awakenings is the first book from an up and coming author Kester Finley. With fantastically creative writing right from the get go and a unique tone that is quickly set from the very first chapter. The book does a lot to show Kester’s enormous potential.

The plot follows Truddie Mae Watts, a woman with supernatural backing and purpose. Truddie is a ‘keeper’, a woman chosen to protect and guard the ‘veil’ between our world and what lies beyond it. Truddie is seemingly immortal, inhabiting the body of a young girl while she uses her supernatural powers to protect the veil. The story starts with her peacefully spending time at home without worry, until the veil, and all the keepers who protect it, come under threat from an occult force who hungers to see her and all keepers dead. Truddie is forced out of her peaceful existence and into a world ending scenario.

Kester Finley does a fantastic job of setting the scene and establishing expectations for the rest of the book from chapter one by setting up the books dark supernatural undertones from the moment you start reading.

The plot seemed to bounce around a bit, leaving me confused at times. On the other hand, the premise is rather unique and executed very well. Kester has a fantastic writing style that dives into deep detail and explains almost everything with incredible craftsmanship that serves as an example of the author’s skill and the vividness with which he has imagined his world.

This first installment sets a firm foundation from which should come a rich story with vibrant characters. Even with this book being paranormal all the characters felt human, with real personalities behind them and dialogue that felt natural, which is a skill even some bigger authors lose. The characters were my favorite, with the banter and inside jokes, I could easily relate.

Bitter Awakenings is a fantastic first installment that paints a vivid picture of a imaginative world. The writing is fluid and descriptive, and the characters are well constructed.

Pages: 504 | ASIN: B073YG2NQP

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Black Overalls

Black Overalls

Black Overalls by Tom Donaldson is an all-American tale of home-grown heroism, set in the struggling farms of Texas during the 1960’s. We follow Roy, failed football prospect turned journalist, as he digs into the history of his football idols – and discovers the tale of an unexpected hero. The story takes us from backwater Texas counties, to the State championships, to the horrors of Vietnam, and beyond. We find two seemingly separate lives are more intertwined than we think, and that there’s not much a small town with a big heart can’t do.

The comeback story has a universal appeal – you don’t have to know much about the game in question to appreciate the little guy standing up to the big team. And that’s exactly what this book is: a classic underdog story.

Black Overalls oozes with heart. Tom Donaldson clearly cares deeply about his subject, about the setting, about old-fashioned American values. The book touches on era-appropriate controversies, particularly around race, which culminates in war-torn Vietnam. I have to admit, it’s not where I expected the book to go. But it gives the story a touchingly human element and a feel-good ending. It’s nice to read a book where there’s no shocking twist, no depressing revelation; just a happy ever after. Occasionally that’s to a fault – scenes can lack conflict sometimes – but you certainly come out of it feeling okay about the human race.

This book is obviously a passion project for the author, but it struggles with a lack of proper grammar and punctuation. The pacing is sometimes confusing. The mixed perspective can occasionally jump between past and present without warning or context. And some chapters are often just technical descriptions of matches, venues, plays and lists of scores more comparable to Match of the Day.

Despite the flaws, a need for an editor, and dry sports commentary, I enjoyed Black Overalls immensely. If you’re a football fan or just looking for a short, light read then I think you might just enjoy it too.

Pages: 145 | ASIN: B01BNR347O

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The Wagon Driver

The Wagon Driver by [Berardelli, David]

A futuristic, dystopian story which combines elements of mystery, tension, and eccentricity. The Wagon Driver is one of David Berardelli’s many stories inspired by the works of Ray Bradbury, Theodore Sturgeon, Ian Fleming, and Rod Serling.

The story is set in the not-so-distant future where eighteen-year-old Kyle Sonnet lands his first  job as an employee of the Department of Population Control. Population control is the pivotal theme throughout The Wagon Driver, and leaves the reader to believe that Earth’s population is more than it can bare. To resolve this issue, wagon drivers are required to follow ambulances and collect bodies and dispose of them. Unsettling, don’t you think?

Kyle Sonnet is the main protagonist of the story, and instantly you feel a sense of empathy towards him. The early chapters of the book point out themes of isolation and loneliness; illustrated by Kyle’s childhood background of growing up in an orphanage. Now, he has left his younger years and is trying to find his feet. However, when he lands this job and is stated that he “cannot quit”, as a reader, you soon realize that Kyle’s luck has not improved.

What I loved about this book is how the story follows the life of a young adolescent who is simply trying to find his way in the world. Instead of finding a job to gain some independence, Kyle soon realizes that he is in over his head. As the story unfolds, we soon realize that the issue of population control alongside the collapse in the healthcare system, means that euthanasia has taken over. Kyle finds himself in the middle of a conspiracy when he witnesses something of utter horror; Kyle needs to make a crucial decision. Does he continue with his job and accept what has happened, or does he face a challenging escape and risk his life in attempt for resolution?

The story moves at a steady pace, and I was pleasantly surprised by the twist in the narrative. What makes for good reading is uncertainty and uniqueness, and I believe the author of The Wagon Driver does this remarkably. The grammar and punctuation is strong, and the narrative is creative and unique.

The Wagon Driver, a book full of entrapment, isolation, and shock is a great read. An emotive, intriguing and dramatic novel set in a dystopian American society. The story goes against the American dream, and instead shows real concern and fear, in the hope that things can change. At the expense of everyone, the world and how it is portrayed is now simply in the hands of a naïve, inexperienced eighteen-year-old boy.

Pages: 402 | ASIN: B0725V6ZKH

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Days Gone By

Days Gone By

Days Gone By is a heartfelt tale of loss, memory, and acceptance. Jerry Veit writes a heartwarming and wholesome tale that is startlingly intimate.

We follow the main character, Caleb, four years after a car accident that occurred three days after Christmas and left him partially handicapped and terrified of leaving his house. The accident also took the life of his five-year-old nephew. The fallout of the event is not only Caleb’s physical and psychological difficulties, but the spiritual burden of guilt for being the cause of his nephew’s death. We find him now, four years later, unwilling to leave his house, even for his brother’s wedding. It is only after the mysterious arrival of past friends and deceased relatives, who give him messages that help him out of this fog of phobia and grief.

At first glance, Days Gone By may seem to echo some of the beats of A Christmas Carol, but in some ways, it brings us back to the classic fable in a nostalgic glance. Veit chose to write this story in play format, but considering the story and themes it allows the reader to enjoy the dialogue and characters even further. The reader can feel a part of the action this way and considering that the story bespeaks more fabel qualities, than a usual novel, Veit gets away with it.

The story has an almost Lifetime channel or Hallmark qualities, considering the history and cause of Caleb’s problems. What should not be left out is how Veit chooses to tackle these issues and instead seeks to bring his hero through these tribulations. It calls on the long tradition of other Christmas story classics such as It’s a Wonderful Life.

Once the reader gets used to the format of the story, it reads quite easily and fairly quickly. It is perfect for the short winter days and may be a perfect thing to pick up around the holidays. As Caleb struggles with agoraphobia readers will find it easy to connect with the sense of loss and how memory often haunts us. We all long to speak with loved ones who have since passed and Caleb is lucky enough to experience this for a short time. Hopefully, we can cherish that gift and not take our time for granted.

Pages: 106 | ASIN: B0175A7258

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Underlord of the Netherworld

Underlord of the Netherworld by [Jinsei, Juna ]

Decades after the fateful battle with the ruinous shadow monster, the Neverlanders are living comfortably in the afterglow of victory and harmony. As families grow and tribes evolve, the congruous balance amoung civilizations has nourished fairies, men, and mermaids alike. All good things must inevitably come to an end though, and with the abruptness of a sudden treacherous storm, the Neverlanders once again find themselves prey to a cataclysmic force, an invading army of Malomen. Author Juna Jinsei returns to the Neverland series with Underlord of the Netherworld, once again brilliantly melding age old wisdom and youthful spirit into this daring tale of life after Peter Pan.

As a fan of the first title in the series, The Essence of Neverland, I had naturally high hopes for this sequel. There was a charming poignancy to the first book, as impactful as it was impressive. Author Jinsei certainly did not disappoint with the caliber of thoughtfulness infused into this followup story. The profoundness of self-discovery is every bit as present, although the lessons themselves have shifted somewhat. Again, I really have to applaud Jinsei’s remarkable talent for exploring significant themes with such clever insight and casual relatability.

Although Underlord of the Netherworld may be lacking some of the more macabre moments entailed in its predecessor, the story is still steeped with hearty action, interjected on occasion by gut-wrenching moments of tragedy. The invasion of Malomen, a swarthy society of bloodlusting sea creatures, has brought with it the tides of war. Despite the love and unity shared among the Neverlanders, the cruel reality of battle leaves many villages devastated, ravaged by the unwelcome army. These passages were particularly moving to me, written with such vividness and sincerity that I couldn’t help but to imagine vast cities of war-torn wreckage, not unlike those we sometimes see on the news. In fact, much of the conflict within The Underlord of the Netherworld can be paralleled to our society’s current political struggles. Despite their progression and intelligence, the Malomen have little regard for the lives of the foreign land-faring civilizations, seeking to claim those territories as their own. Their lust for conquest is driven by greed, and fueled by ego, pride, and racial tension. I was incredibly impressed at Jinsei’s ability to craft such strong parallels to modern society, while remaining loyal to the setting and tone of Neverland and its inhabitants.

True to the style of the first novel, Underlord of the Netherworld earnestly explores the powers of communication, compassion, and community. Without spoiling any of the juicy bits, I will say that the resolve comes together beautifully, with a respectful nod to the opening title. It is almost incomprehensible to me how casually Jinsei weaves the severity of self-discovery into the light-hearted nature of the characters. Without being too stuffy or, alternatively, too childish, Underlord of the Netherworld is the perfect balance of altruistic deeds and daring actions. I’d happily recommend this book and will be crossing my fingers for the next title in the series!

Pages: 248 | ASIN: B06XS121SH

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A Guardian Falls

A Guardian Falls

A Guardian Falls by Rebecca Tran is a fantasy novel and the second book in the Chronicles of the Coranydas series. In the first novel, we are introduced to our main character Mara, who is seeking revenge after watching her father’s murder. She gives up her privileged lifestyles in order to seek justice. The second starts soon after the events of the first novel, with Mara’s betrothed recovering from his injuries after she has rescued him from her father’s killer, and her self-doubt in her abilities to finish what she has started.

The novel starts well, with a good re-introduction of characters and an update in the current situation. Tran’s writing is easy to follow, and you’re given a sense of the characters as soon as you meet them. Mara is also a likeable main character, and one of the reasons for this is that she is not a perfect or even confident lead. She doubts herself and her destiny throughout the novel, but all this makes for a more realistic and endearing character. It is much easier to empathize with a character who is self-critical and questions themselves, and this makes for an enjoyable read. Mara’s relationships also makes her more likeable. Her relationship with Kess is sweet and you find yourself invested in it – the novel starts with them having been in an argument, but their quick reconciliation is a subtle way to show you the strength of their relationship.

One thing the author does well is her ability to write both long scenes of in-depth dialogue between two characters and epic battle sequences. Both of these will hold your attention, and flow easily. The dialogue is good, and anything the characters say is believable and feels like a true conversation. Similarly, any action is written well, and is not too over the top.

The only problem I found with this novel is the amount of characters there are. It can sometimes be hard to follow so many characters in one book, and occasionally things can become muddled and you start to feel you’re in information overload. However, this does not affect the enjoyability of the novel to a high degree, but it is something you need to concentrate more on as you read.

Overall, this is a well balance book, with a good degree of both action and dialogue that is paced well. You will enjoy both the action sequences and the calmer, more character driven moments. The characters are strong, and our main character is likeable and relatable. The plot is interesting pushed along by some thrilling twists. If you are looking for a good fantasy read then you can’t go wrong with this one.

Pages: 394 | ASIN: B072LJV5Z5

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