The Silver Portal, by David J. Normoyle: A Review

Five weapons of power. Magic gone wrong, and instead of five trained warriors bonding to WeaponsofPower-Final-Smallthe weapons, five disparate young people from across the land become the weapons-bearers. Magically linked to the weapons, each must learn its powers and its responsibilities, evade those who want to use them for ill, and find each other across a wide and dangerous land. David J. Normoyle’s book The Silver Portal, the first book in a planned series, introduces us to the five protagonists: street urchin Twig; would-be-adventurer Lukin; noble Suma; Mortlebee, outcast from his religious community, and rebellious Simeon. Each character stands as individuals; each has their own difficulties with their unexpected weapons. Struggles with trust, ethics, personal convictions and the expectations of upbringing are central to each character’s growth and development through the story, but not in a heavy-handed or preachy way. Instead, these dilemmas are an integral part of the story, handled for the most part deftly and naturally.

The writing is competent and fluid, and at the right level of difficulty for the young-adult target audience. Readers are introduced to the history, politics and magic of the world in a gradual manner, often learning along with the characters. Although in a couple of places I found myself wishing for a deeper understanding of the history, enough is given to flesh out the story and the motivations of characters.

I found the plot a bit rushed towards the end, given the fairly slow development of during most of the book. But as part of a series, the pacing may be less uneven when the book is read as an introduction to the world and the characters rather than a stand-alone story. Overall, 4 stars, for a worthy addition to young-adult fantasy.

Throne of Lies, by Sara Secora: A Review

On long-haul flights, I occasionally watch animated films, usually from Disney/Pixar, enjoying their satisfying simplicity; they’re a pleasurable, escapist way to pass a couple of hours. Throne of Lies, from new author Sara Secora, falls squarely into this category. If you’re a fan of Disney’s princess films, you’ll like this book.

Princess Amethysta Serelle of Northwind is the heir to the throne….but she doesn’t want to be. Betrothed to a man she dislikes, bored and irritated by the restrictions on her life, and puzzled by the odd and frightening things that happen when strong emotion grips her, she attempts to escape the expectations of her parents. Her journey of self-discovery is both aided and frustrated by her newest personal guard, the disturbingly handsome commoner, Soren.

Throne of Lies is a charming fairy-tale incorporating many of the aspects of classic, Disneyfied fairy-tale, but with a modern twist. Fingers are pricked on thorns, apples are eaten, shoes are tried on…but these are all peripheral to the story, background reminders of the genre. Nor is it the cautionary fairy-tale of the Brothers Grimm: there is nothing terribly dark here, although one scene does not flinch from the realities of what can happen to a young girl alone. But not all apparent monsters are what they seem, either.

The ARC I read had the usual number of production errors, which is to be expected from a pre-publication version. There were also a few grammatical errors, odd changes of tense within sentences, and non-traditional uses of words that affected flow and comprehension. The story, I felt, was a bit slow to get going; there are some early scenes that are too detailed or drawn out without substantially adding to either the world-building or the plot; this might discourage some readers.

I would have recommended this book for readers eleven and up, but two scenes in the book suggest that thirteen and up is a better age recommendation. My personal rating is 3 1/2 stars; this will be 4 stars on Goodreads and Amazon.

Accepting Applications for Book Reviews until August 1st!

I am accepting books for review again until August 1st, but you must read this before you submit.

I (reluctantly) need to become MUCH more selective about what I review.  Between the work I do as an editor and beta-reader and the reviewing  (and the rest of my life), I’m not finding enough time for my own writing.  And I am a writer first, as I know you will all understand.

I will accept twelve books a year to review, so for the rest of 2016, I’m accepting SIX.  

When you submit a review request, please include a few pages or link to a preview, as well as your webpage/Amazon/Goodreads links, and tell me a little bit about you as a writer.  If you already have a fistful of reviews, I may decline; if I think I can’t do justice to your book, I will decline. I don’t want to add to the stress of marketing/publicizing indie books…believe me, I know about it.

And I promise this…I will reply to you.  Not until after August 1st..but if this page says I’m accepting books for review, then I will reply, even if I’m declining to review your book, and I will let you know the reasons for my decision.

I review published or pre-publication works.  My preference is for unusual fantasy/dystopia/sci-fi but will consider other work. But I am getting saturated with young adult fantasy, both dystopic and otherwise, so to do writers of that genre justice I’m going to turn those down for a while.  I accept both e-books and paperbacks (but check regarding paperbacks as I travel frequently and may be away from my mailbox for some time!)

Please note that I do not automatically give four or five star reviews.  I am a somewhat critical reader, wanting to see the same sort of quality in indie works that I would in a traditionally published work.

Requests to marianlthorpe (at), please.

for further details, please click here:

The Ballad of Allyn-a-Dale, by Danielle E. Shipley: A Release Day Review

For a delightful and amusing quick read, Danielle E. Shipley’s newest book, The Ballad of Cover and Spine, Ballad of Allyn-a-DaleAllyn-a-Dale, will be hard to beat if you – as I do – enjoy suspending disbelief and going along for the ride. The founding conceit of the story – that Faerie has turned the isle of Avalon into a space where the great heroes of British mythology: Arthur, Merlin, Robin Hood and his band – are unaffected by time and mortality, and that this protected place is further hidden in the 21st century by disguising it as a medieval/renaissance fair – had me hooked from the start.

Allyn-a-Dale, a wandering minstrel of royal blood, falls – literally – into Avalon, blown in from another world by the influence of the Winds. Quickly taken up by Marion and the rest of the merry men, Allyn finds a place in the fair, only to find that he is caught up in a quest to recover the stolen scabbard of Excalibur, the magic item that provides the protection to Avalon.

Shipley writes with a deft and light hand, her characters recognizable as their mythical counterparts but thoroughly of the modern world, if somewhat confused by it. Will Scarlet has the most page time and is the most thoroughly developed character, (and character he is) but others are well represented. This is less true of Arthur and Guinevere, but they are peripheral to the story.

This is not a complex or deep story. The conflicts and solutions are fairly simple, but that suits the light-heartedness of the novel; Shipley is not investigating deep truths and personal angst here, she’s writing a fun tale. It’s the first in a series, and I look forward to the next book.  A good summer read on the deck, and one that is suitable for middle-grades to adult. Four stars.

Devil’s Breath, by Jon P. Wells: A Review


Private security consultant Ian MacRae agrees to do a favour for a friend, meeting a low-level informant in Baghdad, a meeting that propels him into a complex and terrifying search for the truth of what happened at Chernobyl in 1986…and a frantic race to stop world annihilation.

Devil’s Breath is an enjoyable thriller, the pace rapid and the writing competent and well-tailored to the genre. Author Jon P. Wells brings together the thirty years’ past events at Chernobyl and modern-day headlines, weaving them together to create a plausible story. Like many of its genre, the plot is a bit dependent on some coincidences and connections, but no more so than most thrillers, and there are sufficient twists and turns to keep the reader guessing.

The main character is attractive: the protagonist, Ian MacRae, specializes in security analysis for non-governmental organizations working in remote and dangerous areas. Other characters are a bit two-dimensional, but again, in a way typical for the genre.  An occasional minor inaccuracy in facts – Dreamliners have two engines, not four, as one example –  could detract from the verisimilitude for some readers.  Devil’s Breath is easily as good as many thrillers available as airport paperbacks, and certainly better than some, and would translate well onto the screen. Four stars.

The author provided me with a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

Child of the Light, by D.M. Wiltshire: A Review

Child of the LightChild of the Light is the first book by indie author D.M. Wiltshire. Falling squarely into the fantasy genre, Child of the Light is set in a well-realized world, Gaitan, where north and south have been at war for generations. Cael, the prince of the north, is suffering from an agonizing illness that is beyond the knowledge of the Master Healer, Caldor. The answer may lie in the medical knowledge of the province of Morza, but in one searing moment on the night of the 200 Year Moon, Morza – and all her people – are destroyed by a flash of light: a judgment from the gods, or a celebration gone horribly wrong?

When Caldor and his friend Foe go to investigate, they find two things: the healer Naygu’s book, hidden, safe, and written in a language Caldor can’t read, and the footsteps of a child, leaving the devastated city. Could this only survivor hold the key to the book and the healing of Cael?

Child of the Light is competently plotted and written. The author has woven together familiar constructs from fantasy, but in a way that presents them, not as stereotypes, but as valid and necessary aspects of Gaitan. None of the fantasy aspects felt imposed: there are dragons, not because a fantasy series needs dragons, but because they are simply part of Morza’s culture. The pace is slower than many current fantasy books, but as a reviewer I prefer this to rushed and incompletely realized stories where action takes precedence over character development and world-building. I was still left with many questions about Gaitan and its history and culture, but not in a frustrating way: I am confident these questions will be answered in future volumes. The main characters, Caldor and Foe, and the child Liora, are well-rounded, characters who develop over the story.

This is the first of a planned series, and so while most conflicts and challenges specific to the central characters are brought to a conclusion, other threads of the story are not, and the book ends with a tantalizing hint of future developments.

Niggles? Not many. There are the occasional awkward (to me) sentence or paragraph transition, and a couple of times I thought chapter structures, in terms of how the action developed in that chapter, had some misplaced scenes. A production error in the paperback version I read had one chapter single-spaced where the rest are more widely spaced. Fairly minor issues that didn’t detract from the overall story.

I’m giving Child of the Light four stars. I’d recommend it to anyone who likes true fantasy, or is looking for a change from dystopian futures. The sequel, Children of Sirphan, is in process, and I look forward to following the series.


The author provided me with a copy of this book as part of a contest prize.  This is an honest and unbiased review.

How I Review a Book

With twenty-five years in education behind me, it will come as no surprise to readers who are also teachers, or who know teachers, to read that my book reviews are based on something called a rubric.  A rubric has several meanings, but in education, it means:

a guide listing specific criteria for grading or scoring academic papers, projects, or tests

So what are my criteria?

I consider the following major categories in reviewing a book:

  • Writing style:  does it scan?  Is the mix of active and passive voice appropriate to the story? Is there too much description, or  too little? Does the tone fit the story? Is the pacing of the story balanced?
  • Dialogue:  is it realistic? Is it complex – are emotions, nuances, subtleties conveyed?  If meant to, does it convey regional accents or cadences?
  • Plot:  is it either original, or a new telling of a genre-standard story? Is it internally consistent?  Does it rely on coincidences or happenings that strain the reader’s belief?
  • Character Depth and Development:  are these real characters, or stereotypes? Do they have dimension?  Do they develop over the story?
  • World-building:  does the author make us believe in this world?  Is it fully explained over the course of the story, or are we left guessing? Does the author appear to understand her/his world thoroughly? Are phrases/terms used correct for the setting? (e.g., not using Australian terms when the book is set in Canada)
  • Spelling and grammar:  Are conventions followed?   Are spelling errors the result of spell-check limitations? (e.g., overseas/oversees).  If non-conventional use is purposeful, is it used consistently?  Do spelling/grammar errors detract from the story?

I also look at production issues (the way the book is formatted) and reading level if it’s not an adult book.

Each of the 6 main categories is rated out of 4, and then the overall rating made. (Educational rubrics, at least here in Ontario, are always out of 4…so that’s why I rate out of 4 –  habit.) I then mathematically convert that to a rating out of 5, to be consistent with Amazon and Goodreads. (Unlike those sites, though, I will report 2.5 or 3.5 or 4.5, but I will use the next full ‘star’ when posting the review on either of those sites.)

I read with a clipboard and the rubric beside me, and I take notes.  Using a rubric means I’ll be more consistent, and, it allows me to rate a book in a genre I don’t usually read.  But I’ll be honest – there’s a bit of gut reaction still in there.  I’ll give you an example from film.  Years and years ago my husband and I saw a film called Blood Simple.  It had internal plot inconsistencies.  It had production issues, especially with continuity.  It was clearly low budget – and both of us loved it.  It was the first Joel and Ethan Coen film to be released (I think) and it had all the hallmarks of their quirky, eccentric film-making, and those qualities over-rode the problems, in our opinion.

And the last thing to remember about any review?  The friends we were with hated Blood Simple.  In the end, it’s only my opinion.  I’ve been known to be wrong.







Hunt (Freya Snow: Book One) by L.C. Mawson: A Review

Hunt (Freya Snow: Book One) by L.C. Mawson

Freya Snow, the unknowing child of magical beings, has grown up in foster homes her whole life. Moving once again in her teens, her discomfort at a new situation grows as her powers begin to emerge and she discovers that the social worker who has organized her new home is actually her magical guardian and mentor.

Freya has only one friend, an older girl at her last foster home, Alice,who is high-functioning autistic and whose disinterest in most social norms and trends Freya shares. Unsurprisingly for a child who has moved multiple times and perhaps borders on the ASD spectrum herself, Freya finds it difficult to make other friends. But at her new school she is approached by the somewhat odd Damon, who is not English and is unfamiliar with many of the cultural references of the school and society. The two become allies and then friends as Freya’s world becomes much more complex, confusing, and dangerous.

The basic premises of Hunt will be familiar to readers of young adult fantasy: the magical child from another world whose powers begin to develop in their teens, bringing them to the attention of the powers of evil and good from their own realm. But for this premise to be convincing, the magical world must be internally coherent, fully understood by the writer, and that internal coherence conveyed to the reader. In the case of Hunt, this coherence is missing. While introducing such a magical world in small hints and explanations, to build interest and plot, is a valid device, in this case it leads more to confusion than epiphany. Whether or not this stems from a lack of understanding of her own magical world by the author, or a lack of telling the story in a way that explains that magical world, is not clear.

Hunt would have benefited, in my opinion, from being a longer book, told from two points of view, the second being from the magical realm, which would have given the author an opportunity to more fully flesh out the structure and conflicts of that world. As part of a planned series, these may be revealed in later books, creating from a promising but flawed first volume a substantial and fully realized universe.

My personal rating is two-and-a-half stars for this story from a young writer who is learning her trade. I’ll be interested to see how Lucy Mawson develops as a writer over the next few years; I think she’s worth watching.

The author provided me with a free copy in exchange for an honest review. The opinions here are completely my own.

Magic of the Gargoyles, by Rebecca Chastain: A Review

Magic of the Gargoyles (1)

Mika Stillwater is a mid-level earth elemental adept, specializing in quartz working. Moonlighting from her unfulfulling quarry job, she is desperately working late into the night to finish a commission that will finally fund her own shop, when a frantic, terrified baby gargoyle arrives on her balcony. Seeking help in rescuing its kidnapped siblings, new hatchlings that have been taken for black-market sales, the gargoyle has been attracted by the strength of Mika’s magic.

The opening scenes of Magic of the Gargoyles grabbed my interest and attention immediately. Nor did either wane throughout the novella. Well-paced action, interesting and strong female characters, and a fresh and imaginative take on a magical world all contribute to the strength of this story. Chastain’s writing is crisp, with enough description to flesh out her world and the people and creatures that inhabit it, and her descriptions of Mika’s magic are tactile and convincing.

I had only one tiny niggle, and that was the description of a captured hatchling as “a gross mimicry of a Thanksgiving dinner plate”. To me, the inclusion of Thanksgiving into this magical world, clearly not our own, jarred, and it took me a few minutes to return to the state of disbelief (or belief) needed to thoroughly enjoy this urban fantasy.

I would recommend this book to good readers over the age of twelve (there is some violence, no love or sex scenes). Girls especially will enjoy it, but it shouldn’t be limited to a female readership. It is also completely appropriate for adults who enjoy urban fantasy…I’m well into my sixth decade but read it in one day with great enjoyment. Magic of the Gargoyles is available from Amazon. Five stars.

The author provided me with a free copy in exchange for an honest review. The opinions here are completely my own.