The Cult of Unicorns, by Chrys Cymri: A Review

When dead bodies and unicorns begin to appear in the English midlands, Penny White, Church of England vicar , has work to do. 

When characters from a story begin to inhabit your dreams, you know the story has Cult of Unicornsreally taken hold of your imagination.  In my case, it was a snail shark, a creature of Chrys Cymri’s mythical, magical land of Lloegyr, a mere thin-space transport away from our own world, that began to crawl through my nightly fantasies.

When dead bodies and unicorns begin to appear in the English midlands, Penny White, Church of England vicar and official Church liaison with Lloegyr, has work to do.  With the help of Peter, the local detective, her brother, the devil-may-care dragon Raven, and her gryphon companion, Penny must navigate the glamour of unicorns and the deep pockets of a multi-national corporation to find the truth.  Interspersed with realistic examples of the difficulties of running a parish in an increasingly secular world and glimpses into Penny’s personal struggles, The Cult of Unicorns is a satisfying read set in an easily-believable world just a little skewed from ours (or is it?)

An appreciation of Doctor Who and good whiskey likely add to the reader’s delight in Penny’s world (I qualify for both) but aren’t necessary.  But you do need to accept a beer-loving snail shark named Clyde that loves the Teletubbies and can sing…and clearly my subconscious was quite happy to suspend that piece of disbelief, because Clyde comes to visit every so often, sliding his way into otherwise normal dreams.  He’s delightful…as is The Cult of Unicorns.  Five stars.

Reaper: A Snowverse Novel, by L.C. Mawson: A Release-day Review

I found Reaper more satisfying than some of the longer books. It’s tighter, more focused on the immediate issues.

Reaper is the seventh book in the Snowverse series, continuing Freya’s adventuresReaper almost immediately after Enhanced.  With Alex, Freya is travelling in Europe, dealing with car-sickness and more: the diversity of supernatural genes she carries result in upheavals she cannot fully control, and her past experiences are adding to the volatility.

Freya’s difficulties in controlling her emerging powers, and in tapping into the ones she needs to access, reminded me (not in a plagaristic manner, but in a thematic way) of the “Threshold Sickness” of the psi-enhanced characters in Marion Zimmer Bradley ground-breaking Darkover series.  The disruption that uncontrolled psi powers can wreak, when an untrained individual accesses them, can have far-reaching and dramatic effects: a great subject matter for a book,  and I was pleased to see the issue addressed in Reaper. (By the way, if you’re a fan of the Snowverse, then I’m guessing you’re a fan of diversity in science fiction and fantasy – and if you haven’t read the Darkover series, give it a try. Yes, it was written in the 1960’s, but for early introduction and acceptance of LGBTQ characters, it was truly a ground-breaker.)

Lucy Mawson’s skills as a writer have blossomed over this series, and her depiction of Freya’s internal conflict about Alex, and her realization of how to access her Angel powers, are some of the author’s best writing. Freya is learning, too, to make the distinction between how her autism directly affects her relationships, separate from how her (unrecognized?) emotional reactions to past events affects both herself and how she relates to others.  I’m treading carefully here, because I’m allistic, or as my husband prefers, a neurotyp, but certainly Alex’s attempts to help Freya handle her reactions and understand them rang very true to me, after thirty-eight years of living with a man with ASD.

Reaper is short – 139 pages in my e-book edition – but it doesn’t suffer from that; in fact, I found it more satisfying than some of the longer books. It’s tighter, more focused on the immediate issues. Five stars.

I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Escaping Infinity, by Richard Paolinelli: A Review

Good potential, unrealized.

Losing their way on desert roads, and nearly out of gas, Peter and his work partner escaping infinityCharlie are relieved to see a hotel – a magnificent, modern hotel – standing alone on a highway.  They check in, only to find, like in the Eagles’ Hotel California, they can’t check out.

Peter and a rebellious receptionist, Liz, attempt to escape the Hotel Infinity; Peter’s explorations and their escape attempts make up the first part of the book. This part is a pretty good science-fiction story; there are a few issues with pacing, but overall, I would have given it maybe four stars.  The problem is, it’s only the first section of the book.  The second section is, basically, an outline: written in primarily passive voice, the reader is told what occurs over the next several hundred years after the climax of the first part.

Spoilers after this point!

Author Robert Paolinelli should have, in my opinion, taken the time to create this story, not hand the reader a summary. As a two or even three book series, Escaping Infinity could have expanded into an thoughtful exploration of redemption, responsibility, and the realistic problems in the attempted creation of a second-chance utopia.  Even when the chosen people have escaped hell-fire; even when their leader has god-like properties and apparent eternal life, for the society to evolve as problem-free as it is described here stretched my belief beyond its breaking point. Stories depend on conflict, tiny conflicts, large conflicts, to propel them forward, and the second part is a narrative almost free of any struggle.  I found it immensely disappointing.

As a result, Escaping Infinity is only getting a 2 1/2 star review from me.  Good potential, unrealized.

I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Shattering Glass, by Connor Coyne: A Review

What if thought could be turned into power, not of the kind wielded by politicians and heads of corporations, but the sort that turns on lights, runs motors, boots up your laptop?

Universities run on thought.  It’s why they exist: to share thought, to foster new thought, toShattering Glass turn thought into something, tangible or intangible, new to the world.  But what if they ran on thought in a different way, if thought could be turned into power, not of the kind wielded by politicians and heads of corporations, but the sort that turns on lights, runs motors, boots up your laptop?  And what would happen to those whose thoughts were channelled into that power?

In a rust-belt town in Michigan, a businessman creates a new university on the grounds of an abandoned psychiatric hospital. First-year students Samo, Monty, Ezzie, and Dunya share a residence floor, below ground in the Calliope Cradle. None is quite sure how he or she ended up here, but the angst of first-year adjustment is more than enough to occupy them.  But even in the confusion of buying overpriced and unaffordable textbooks, joining clubs, figuring out where to eat, and discovering mid-terms can be in almost any week of the semester, they come to realize something wicked this way comes…or rather, is already here.

Complex, intricate, perhaps a little self-indulgent (like its protagonists at first), Shattering Glass is neither straightforward nor stereotypical. It contains elements of steampunk, Greek tragedy, absurdist theatre, and film noir, all wrapped up in a superficially Harry Potteresque setting transported to a failing industrial city.  But it also delves into some difficult questions….what does happen to a personality subsumed into a university’s -or a universe’s -power system? How do we stay ourselves? Can we? At what price?

This won’t be a book for everyone. Its non-linear narrative, metafiction techniques, and elaborate detail does not make it an easy read.  But if you read Vonnegut, give Shattering Glass a chance. I’m giving it 4.5 stars here on my blog, which will translate to five on Amazon and Goodreads.

I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

A Gleam of Light: Book 1 of the Survival Trilogy, by T.J. & M.L Wolf

A Gleam of Light pits a young Hopi woman and a reporter against the U.S. Army in a race for the secrets buried deep within a cavern on Hopi land.

Drawing on ‘documented’ UFO sightings, Hopi cosmology, and some non-mainstreama gleam of light interpretations of various petroglyphs, religious practices, and experiences from around the world, A Gleam of Light pits a young Hopi woman and a reporter against the U.S. Army in a race for the secrets buried deep within a cavern on Hopi land.

The concept of using the cosmology of a people whose beliefs can be interpreted to mesh with UFO and alien sightings isn’t new – I’m old enough to remember – and to have read –  Chariots of the Gods, by Erik Von Daniken (although that was marketed as non-fiction.)  It’s a decent premise for a book, and in many ways A Gleam of Light reminded me of Dan Brown’s books, building a story around a race to interpret symbolic messages left by a previous generation.  Throw in some action and settings reminiscent of Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom, and you’ve got the general idea.

But while it’s a decent premise, the Wolfs don’t quite pull it off.  The book suffers from a number of structural issues: uneven pacing; exposition disguised as conversation (usually almost monologue) to give background or explanation; coincidences that stretch credulity, solutions to dilemmas that just come a little too easily.  I think there is a good adventure story here, and one more rewrite under the guidance of a good developmental editor could have brought it out.  As it stands, 2 ½ stars.

I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Penny White and The Temptation of Dragons, by Chrys Cymri: A Review

With a mother from Northamptonshire, a voracious reader of anything fantasy since childhood, an upbringing in the Church of England, and a definite fan of both single-malts and Doctor Who, the book was, for me, a perfect storm of reference points.

What do these have in common? Single-malt whisky, Doctor Who, dragons,temptation-dragons Northamptonshire, the Church of England. While this might sound like a round of Only Connect, the actual answer is that they are all integral aspects of Chrys Cymri’s delightful book Penny White and The Temptation of Dragons.

Penny White is the vicar of a small parish in Northamptonshire. One night she finds herself at a vehicular accident, giving last rites to a….dragon?  This act of compassion is Penny’s introduction to the parallel world of fantastic creatures that exists alongside our own, a world where St George is the dragon, not the knight. Asked to take on a significant position liaising between our world and this other one, with a gryphon as her assistant, Penny accepts, to find herself not only caught up in a murder inquiry, but attracted to the ultimate bad boy, the James Dean of dragons.

Chrys Cymri writes with a deft, light hand, a fine sense of pacing, and an ear for comedy. I found myself laughing out loud many times while reading The Temptation of Dragons.  But behind the light-hearted fantasy is a story about frailty, love and forgiveness. Penny has her own tragedies; she may be too dependent on her single-malt, and she’s lonely. Her gryphon companion has his demons, too.  They need to work past their differences, not only to be an effective team, but to find the commonalities that bond them.

I may have been just about the ideal reader for The Temptation of Dragons. With a mother from Northamptonshire, a voracious reader of anything fantasy since childhood, an upbringing in the Church of England, and a definite fan of both single-malts and Doctor Who, the book was, for me, a perfect storm of reference points.  But I doubt all those are pre-requisites to appreciating Chrys Cymri’s writing. Five well-deserved stars!

I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review

When We Go Missing, by Kristen Twardowski: A Review

A competently crafted thriller and a promising debut.

When We Go Missing by Kristen Twardowski is a competently crafted thriller and a when-we-go-missingpromising debut. A young woman, Alex, falls for a charming man, Nathan; her sister’s antipathy towards him is dismissed.  But Nathan is not what he seems…and Alex slowly realizes this.

Told from the viewpoints of several characters over time, the author handles the various voices well and threads the related stories together effectively, creating sympathetic characters without letting their individual stories overwhelm the direction of the narrative. Tension and conflict are created, and mount throughout the story, well-paced until the denouement.  Here, I felt the story faltered: the related stories have woven together to create two narratives both heading for a climax, and in both cases the climax disappoints: the solution in both cases is just a little too simple.

But When We Go Missing was an enjoyable read, keeping my attention and making me wonder how the story would unfold.  Definitely, it’s worth considering as a beach or plane book!  Four stars for a debut novel that strongly suggests there will be more to look forward to by Kristen Twardowski.

I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Regolith, by H. William Glenbrook: A Review

I liked half of it and not the other half.

I am of two minds about this book (a debut science fiction novel by author H. Williamregolith Glenbrook), because I liked half of it but not the other half. Two interconnecting stories make up Regolith: one is a fairly standard ‘spaceship crew fighting aliens’ story; one is a tale of corporate research, in-fighting, and one-upmanship that provides the climax and ultimately the back-story to the other half.

The half I liked is the ‘battle against the aliens’ story. It’s a pretty standard shoot-em-up for the most part; while set in space, it could have been set in any troubled area of the world, with a few changes in technology.  Written in spare, staccato prose, it still manages to convey emotion as well as action.

The corporate half, while ultimately necessary for the denouement, I didn’t like. Subject to too many clichés and wooden characters, as well as awkward dialogue, it might have been better addressed as a prologue to the main story, dealt with in a few pages of exposition until necessarily being reintroduced near the end of the main narrative.

While overall the story could be read as a metaphor for every misguided intervention in world politics made by various governments and countries over the centuries, three stars is the best I can do, and perhaps generously, for this debut novel.

I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Kerala Hugged, by Ankur Mutreja: A Review

A delightful and quirky travelogue, chronicling the author’s travels through this southern-most part of India.

Kerala Hugged is a delightful and quirky travelogue, chronicling the author’s travels kerala-huggedthrough this southern-most part of India.  I travelled in Kerala a few years ago, so I agreed to review the book even though it’s well outside of what I usually review.

Ankur Mutreja has a very personal way of describing his relationships with landscapes, objects, and events. His description of muddy roads, busy towns, river trips, friendly people and home-stays brought back my own experiences there (I ate some of the best food I’ve ever eaten anywhere in the world in Kerala, the spice-growing area of India).  As he wrote about free-wheeling down through the tea-gardens on his hired motorbike, I thought of all the people we had met doing exactly that.

The writing is lyrical, and it’s clear the author fell in love with this area (just as I did). It’s far from the usual travel book: you’re not going to read detailed reviews or directions, or a list of the top attractions. It’s much more personal than that! It’s his impressions, emotions, reactions to the location and his experiences there, much written in almost poetical language.

When I first wrote this review, I commented that the biggest lack in the book was a map.  The author has since added one, much to the benefit of the reader who does not know southern India.

So…not a typical travelogue, but one I personally enjoyed. 4 stars.

I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Shadow Magus, by Rob Steiner: A Review

I reviewed the previous book in the series, Citizen Magus, about a year ago, giving the light-hearted and fast-paced fantasy five stars. The sequel continues the mood and quality of the first book.

shadow_magusShadow Magus continues the adventures of Remington Blakes, aka Natto Magus, a 21st-century American magus transported to 1st century Rome.  (It’s not necessary to have read the first book to enjoy this one, but I’d recommend it.) Steiner continues to blend good writing, likeable characters, fast action and sense of humour in a well-paced and well-plotted story.

I reviewed the previous book in the series, Citizen Magus, about a year ago, giving the light-hearted and fast-paced fantasy five stars. The sequel continues the mood and quality of the first book.

Another magus, with a type of magic that Natto Magus can’t identify, appears in Rome…and apparently bent on destruction. Caesar Augustus needs Natto’s help to save Rome. From the Circus Maximus to the underworld of Egyptian mythology, Remington pursues the magus in a desperate quest, while not losing his own life to this new power.  Even Remington’s household god Lares gets involved in the crusade.

I don’t want to give away too much of the plot.  But as in the first book, Steiner captures Ancient Rome in all its crowded, smelly reality, without ponderous archaeology weighing the book down.  The magic remains internally consistent and very well described, even the new type of magic the intruder brings, and the historic backstory to the conflict is accurate.  And Natto Magus’s character continues to develop; the next in the series should prove quite interesting!

Five stars to the second installment of a fun series.

I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.