Review: Breaking Eselda by Tabatha Shipley

Disclosure: This review contains Amazon affiliate links. Thanks for your support.
I received a copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.

Breaking Eselda
by Tabatha Shipley

Lulu Publishing, 2018

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The verdict: A fantasy twist on “coming of age” with a YA protagonist actually worth following.

It’s difficult to categorize Breaking EseldaIt’s an epic fantasy without extended sequences of mountain crossings or clan-clashing warfare; it’s a young adult romance without secret hookups or an overblown love triangle. In fact, it’s Shipley’s play with genre and expectations that makes the Kingdom of Fraun so interesting. Princess Eselda’s likable enough—curious and resilient, yet flawed. It’s always great to see a complex female lead who can be enchanted by romance but not so swooned that she forgets to how to think. Eselda considers others and the implications of her actions without becoming so selfless that the story feels cheaply moralistic.

The Kingdom of Fraun has long been divided into five domains, and young Princess Eselda is poised to take the throne in her homeland. Yet her coming ascension arrives in a time of political turmoil. Fraun is both threatened internally with few heirs to the realms and externally as new threats press against the borders. Most distressingly, those with royal blood are subject to “age markers,” certain years of their lives in which they’re overcome with lust or power. As tensions rise in the royal council, Eselda uncovers long-held family secrets and scandals, and she develops a growing urgency and fear as she nears the next age marker. Questions of lineage and royal duty loom as a high-profile crime shakes the kingdom, and Eselda’s every action comes against the dripping sands of time.

“Why was Fraun set to be run by five realms?” Tutor leads.

“Five is the same as the fingers on your hand.” I hold up my own hand for emphasis. “When they all work together they keep your hand balanced. With five realms there is always someone to hold the kingdom together.”

Typically with fantasy worlds, I prefer to learn as I go, so I found the first several chapters a bit slow-moving—too much information and not enough motion. The story has quite a few character names to remember before I have reason to care about them. Shipley switches perspectives a few times from one chapter to the next, but I usually wanted to stay with Eselda, finding her plot the most interesting. That said, the action comes later, and the world of Fraun has enough thought and structure to facilitate the drama. The markers explore the literal implications of coming-of-age, but it was nice to see examples of characters maintaining complexity even after they’d reached the “malicious age.” I also enjoyed the added layers to the narrative, like the roaches, a subjugated species in service of the royal family. Shipley successfully contains the plot while still opening plenty of doors for more in the series. Through all the drama and politicking, Eselda finds the key to the kingdom may be following her heart. All things considered, Breaking Eselda is an intriguing first entry in a promising series. Recommended for young adults or adults young at heart, especially those who like romance without all the mushy-gushy.

Jimmy Leonard is the author of The Evangelist in Hell.
Be sure to check out Tabatha Shipley’s writing, visit her awesome writing blog and website, or see more book reviews on this site.

If you’ve written a book you’d like me to consider for a review, find out more information and follow the submission guidelines here.

Review: The Year of Oceans by Sean Anderson

Disclosure: This review contains Amazon affiliate links. Thanks for your support.
I received a copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.

The Year of Oceans
by Sean Anderson

Riversong Books, 2018

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The verdict: Gripping and emotional—a portrait of a grieving man and a mirror for those willing to look.

To be completely honest, I almost passed on The Year of Oceans for one reason: I didn’t want to be sad. A drama about a man dealing with grief after the death of his spouse? Normally my fun reads are mysteries and thrillers. Yet I gave it a chance, and I’m so glad I did. Anderson’s novel is far from the melodrama I thought it’d be. Told in short vignettes over the course of a year, punctuated with flashbacks to life before the loss, the story’s in small enough bites to digest without sacrificing the gravity owed to the circumstance. So many novels of this genre are about the post-diagnosis bucket list or the woman on her deathbed, making it strangely refreshing to see a focus on life after tragedy. This is the kind of book that can be read in a day or put down and picked up again over a series of weeks—like grieving itself, ready to move at the reader’s own pace.

Retired accountant Hugo Larson is struggling to cope with his wife’s recent passing. Irritable and alone, he finds the only thing harder than filling the void is talking about what he’s lost. Hugo’s long-time friend Paul and brother Martin make every effort to reach out, while all the while Hugo becomes more estranged from his aimless son, Adrian. In a year of chess matches, jazz music, swimming laps, and long talks about life, Hugo battles his own inertia and growing family rifts. As drinking and despair set in, Hugo flounders to make amends, wondering if life can ever give back instead of only take away.

“The giant field of flowers is all well and good…but isn’t it nice to have some flowers in your own little yard? Isn’t it nice to be able to have something smaller, more manageable to work with? That’s how I feel about my life. You and I can spend an afternoon here, looking at flowers, but when we go home we spend ninety-nine percent of our time with our own little gardens, and you don’t see me complaining.”

The one issue with meeting a man already mired in grief is that I had no chance to see his bright side. From the outset, Hugo himself is difficult to like. He’s whiny and indecisive, surprisingly crotchety for a man only in his 60s, and his career as an accountant for a vacuum company seems to have taught him how to suck the life out of anyone. At one point Hugo has an awkward encounter with a musician and thinks, “How can a jerk make such beautiful music?” Not sure if the author intended that as a central question of the novel, but it works—can Hugo the Jerk ever make something beautiful in his life? Thankfully, Anderson provides a healthy cast of supporting characters whose hopes and personalities can sustain the reader while Hugo works on himself. Another little gripe—although the tale’s set in Seattle, some details are oddly generic, perhaps intended to make the story timeless but that instead end up creating distance with the reader. Hugo spends a good portion of the novel following a nameless soccer club that’s only ever referred to as “his team.” Overall, The Year of Oceans is both reminiscent and thought-provoking, challenging readers to live in light of their sorrows. Recommended for those with more life experience, but a general audience can still find plenty of takeaways.

Jimmy Leonard is the author of The Evangelist in Hell.
Be sure to check out Sean Anderson’s writing, visit his awesome website, or see more book reviews on this site.

If you’ve written a book you’d like me to consider for a review, find out more information and follow the submission guidelines here.

Review: Dragma’s Keep by Vance Pumphrey

Disclosure: This review contains Amazon affiliate links. Thanks for your support.
I received a copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.

Dragma’s Keep
by Vance Pumphrey

Leaping Wizard Press, 2015

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The verdict: Lighthearted adventure that seeks an audience willing to join the quest.

Much to its credit, Dragma’s Keep stays true to its genre and knows its intended audience. Fans of Dungeons & Dragons will slide right along with the backstory and lore. Each chapter reads like a new level of an RPG. Pumphrey brings heavy action and enjoyable banter, making the novel’s tone more lighthearted than dramatic despite the extended adventure sequences. The plot stays singularly focused on the party’s mission, which is all it needs to do for readers who know what they’re getting into, but those looking for some twists and detours in the narrative might find the opening acts a bit repetitive. It’s a long wait for a truly disruptive wrinkle in the storyline, but Pumphrey eventually deviates from the expected and brings a satisfying conclusion.

Valdaar’s Fist, an ancient weapon of untold power, emerges after 2000 years. In search of it, a five-person party—including sorcerer Sordaak, thief Savinhand, sword-swinging muscle man Thrinndor, dwarf Vorgath, and healer Cyrillis—embarks on a quest following a lore reference to the lost site of Dragma’s Keep. The group must work together to decipher an ancient map, battle orcs, minotaurs, and other monstrous creatures, and unlock hidden passages to plunge deeper into a network of caverns toward the fabled treasure. Yet each member of the posse has his or her own priorities, and their secrets from each other may prove more dangerous than the secrets of Dragma’s Keep.

“Bah,” repeated the caster, even more vehemently.
“Legend has it,” the paladin went on as if he had not been interrupted, “that one day he will return to rule the land that is rightfully his. But first the path must be prepared for him. His disciples must join together and set up a kingdom worthy of his rule. His sword—Valdaar’s Fist—must be found and the power contained within must be released.”

Pumphrey’s language is a bit hard to pin down as he throws in some modernisms that don’t feel native to the fantasy world. In certain moments it almost feels like a parody of the usual archetypes, especially when orcs topple over with video-game quantity and ease. Each of the five main characters also has a good half a dozen monikers that rotate every line of dialogue, and while that might sound like an odd thing to critique, it does take longer than it should to sort out who’s who in the early chapters. Once I had an image of each person, though, I did enjoy seeing the limitations on individual powers. The party’s needed collaboration and slow trust in each other provide depth to the story, even as they reach the different checkpoints in their journey relatively easily. All in all, Dragma’s Keep is an entertaining thrill ride that serves up a full-course meal of lighthearted escapades. Recommended for epic fantasy lovers who are serious about adventure, especially if they can still share a good laugh while swinging a battle-ax.

Jimmy Leonard is the author of The Evangelist in Hell.
Be sure to check out Vance Pumphrey’s writing, visit his website, or see more book reviews on this site.

If you’ve written a book you’d like me to consider for a review, find out more information and follow the submission guidelines here.

Review: The Breaking of Liam Glass by Charles Harris

Disclosure: This review contains Amazon affiliate links. Thanks for your support.
I received a copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.

The Breaking of Liam Glass
by Charles Harris

Marble City Publishing, 2017

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The verdict: Poignant and biting satire that brings laughter, sadness, and—most importantly—a strong call for change.

Going in, I knew The Breaking of Liam Glass was a satire, but for whatever reason, I expected an over-the-top detective spoof. What I found instead was a tight and suspenseful noir, featuring sharp wit and spot-on social commentary. Harris dives into London’s underbelly without the story ever feeling seedy or unfair, and as a result, he creates a brilliant novel on the press and perception, a tale of “fake news” that’s all too rooted in reality. I can see Harris’s background as a screenwriter in the close third-person narration hopping from character to character without ever breaking the action. Without giving any spoilers, I’ll say that after racing to the finish line I felt more lost than found. Maybe that’s the point. Liam Glass entertains and unsettles, and, as a society, we have to fight against the current.

It’s the spring of 2010 in London. Fourteen-year-old Liam Glass disappears while making a late-night ATM run for his mom, and the authorities soon find him stabbed and barely hanging on to life. Small-time journalist Jason Crowthorne catches a whiff of the story and decides this could finally be his big break. When a major sports agent offers his support, Jason crafts a heartwrenching narrative that will finally earn him professional recognition and his daughter’s approval—never minding whether or not the story has any ounce of truth to it. Yet as rumors circulate and actual facts come to light, Jason discovers the sea’s full of sharks, and he’s not the only one willing to use a fabricated headline to skyrocket his career. In a race against the deadline, Jason’s willingness to risk it all soon shows he has more to lose than he ever thought possible.

Home was a small studio flat in an old conversion; four very basic rooms reached by a fire escape. Jason ran up the steps, slammed the front door shut behind him. Then he pulled out his camera and looked again at the picture of the kid under the oxygen mask. He had a nose for stories, a good one. Maybe it hadn’t been twitching much recently, but he knew what worked and what didn’t.

As a character, Jason’s crafty and desperate, but sometimes his internal deliberations grow a bit tiresome. He’s neither horrible in a way that’s delightful nor hapless in a way that’s endearing. Much of what happens really is his fault, and it took a long while before I was ever on his side. Harris delivers the story over an improbably action-packed 24 hours, unfolding a domino effect of one bad choice after another. Nearly every character is self-seeking in some way or another, but nobody’s all bad. It’s a cast of people doing the wrong things for the right reasons, or maybe the right ones for the wrong reasons, or maybe real life’s as gray and sloppy as London in the rain. The Breaking of Liam Glass holds the tension of our sensational tabloid addiction alongside a bitter apathy toward progress. Recommended for anyone with a passion for current events, or anyone brave enough to hold a mirror to society, if only to find a way to break it.

Jimmy Leonard is the author of The Evangelist in Hell.
Be sure to check out Charles Harris’s writing or see more book reviews on this site.

If you’ve written a book you’d like me to consider for a review, find out more information and follow the submission guidelines here.

Review: On Level Ground by Danny and Wanda Pelfrey

Disclosure: This review contains Amazon affiliate links. Thanks for your support.
I received a copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.

On Level Ground
by Danny and Wanda Pelfrey

Crosslink Publishing, 2017

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The verdict: A clean, inspirational cozy that caters to its niche. 

Local historians just like their main character, the writing duo of Danny and Wanda Pelfrey bring love and charm to their hometown setting. While some parts of it might have been a little too quaint for my taste, On Level Ground presents a heartfelt cozy mystery that’s safe for all ages. This was my first experience with Davis Morgan, but I had no problem understanding the story without reading the previous ones in the series. Weaving moments of prayer, scripture, and clean adventure, the Pelfreys create an inspirational tale about second chances and finding solid footing amid the constant throes of life.

Small-town Georgia preacher and bookstore owner Davis Morgan makes a routine pastoral visit to the elderly Bessie Taylor. Upon arrival, however, he discovers a grisly crime scene. With the so-called Adairsville Creeper making headlines, the assault on Ms. Taylor could be anything from a prank gone wrong to something far more sinister. Meanwhile, Davis’s daughter, Amy, adjusts to married life and her father’s new spouse; policeman Charley considers his future career path while facing conflict as executor of a family estate; a new basketball coach has a fierce and mysterious obsession with Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind; and hardworking EMT Tonya is sidelined by injury. Elsewhere, an increased interest in famed local author Corra Harris might have some connection to the Creeper’s trespassing. In the small town of Adairsville, nobody’s business is private, and recurrent sightings of the Creeper soon escalate into a criminal ploy with potentially deadly consequences.

“You’re just a little gullible, Deidre,” Charley retorted. “In my work, you soon learn there are all kinds out there. It’s sad, but I constantly encounter people that wouldn’t think twice about pounding a nice old lady over the head for a twenty-dollar bill. Our world is full of mean and desperate people.”

I wish he were wrong, but that’s not the case, Davis thought. He’s right, as much as I hate to admit it. Satan is alive and well in this world and that sometimes makes it a scary place to live.

At several points in the novel, the characters seem too aware of their audience, making the dialogue a bit stilted and uptight when I wanted more raw and intimate. Much of the novel feels like a lesson with a story attached rather than the other way around. When the Adairsville Creeper comes on the scene, his only distinguishing feature is a black hoodie—perhaps a missed opportunity to unpack some current events around police profiling. As for Davis, he faces pressure on all sides in a humanizing way, although the reader rarely sees chinks in his armor. Thankfully, the Pelfreys unveil more of his natural limitations as the story progresses. In fact, the titular character does very little sleuthing on his own, often being the last to know information or having clues fall straight into his lap. The story’s more about Charley than Davis, and the supporting cast sees the most character development while the mystery itself often feels secondary. The final chapters tie the bow pretty neatly, but the door’s still open for more in the series. All in all, On Level Ground presents clean, inspirational fiction, recommend for Christian readers looking for an upbeat, faith-affirming read.

Jimmy Leonard is the author of The Evangelist in Hell.
Be sure to check out Danny and Wanda Pelfrey’s writing or see more book reviews on this site.

If you’ve written a book you’d like me to consider for a review, find out more information and follow the submission guidelines here.

Review: Curses of Scale by S.D. Reeves

Disclosure: This review contains Amazon affiliate links. Thanks for your support.
I received a copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.

Curses of Scale
by S.D. Reeves

Riversong Books, 2017

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The verdict: A well-paced, mystical epic packed full of surprises—something different in all the right ways.

Just from the author’s quirky sense of humor on the acknowledgments page, I had a feeling I’d like this book. Curses of Scale will by no means be every reader’s cup of tea. It’s mysterious and odd, full of surreal sequences and shifting points of view. Yet it’s also original and well written, featuring clever dialogue and immersive imagery without breaking the pace. From the action-packed opening to the gradual unfolding of the narrative, Reeves achieves what he sets out to accomplish. I tip my hat whenever an ambitious fantasy writer actually pulls it off, and Reeves delivers a mystical tale about finding purpose, forging one’s path, and time’s relentless pursuit of us all.

The story opens with the druid Calem racing to uphold a bargain with the wisecracking fairy Oberon. Calem’s wife, Niena, is cursed to become a dragon, and only the fairy’s ritual can reverse her fate. Meanwhile, the aspiring musician known as Squirrel wants nothing more than to attend bardic college but must contend with her militant, overprotective grandfather, Marny. Squirrel plots to run away until a surreal experience in a tavern one night transports her off course. When a fire-breathing dragon threatens Marny’s post, he barely escapes with his life. Across the wide path of destruction that follows, Marny seeks his granddaughter just as she discovers her true identity. With fairy magic at hand and a terrifying dragon on the move, Niena must race against time to escape her destiny and break the cycle of the curse.

“They who taught us the three chords.”
The quartermaster clutches his chest. Light begins to creep back into their ruin. But it is queer and evil; flames spread over the great sprawl of Kimbesh in the distance, rolling across the rooftops of the urban menagerie and setting upon them as fast as sunlight in the quiet of the dawn.
“They who gave us music to keep back the silence of the night.”

The first few pages feel a bit like an out-of-body experience, but the story untangles as it goes. Calem’s internal conflict pairs well with the fairy’s cynical quips, although Calem’s magical abilities remain somewhat undefined. He has healing spells, can transform into animals, and sometimes his magic fails due to his own dwindling energy. Niena’s own musical spellcasting feels similarly opaque, which might bother some fantasy aficionados in it mostly for the world building. At points I felt disoriented with the timelines, wondering if a subsequent chapter happened before or after the one before it, but Reeves eventually pieces it all together once all his cards are on the table. In fact, there’s a certain elegance to the disorder, like a song with strikingly different verses that come back to the same refrain. Reeves brings twists and duplicity; he unfolds the story in discrete moments instead of blurring his characters across the years. One must read this novel with eyes open and brain turned on. Curses of Scale works for me, but I can see others not fitting this niche. Recommended as an intelligent, engaging read for those looking for something fresh in fantasy.

Jimmy Leonard is the author of The Evangelist in Hell.
Be sure to check out S.D. Reeves’s writing or see more book reviews on this site.

If you’ve written a book you’d like me to consider for a review, find out more information and follow the submission guidelines here.

Review: The Scribe by Liam Mullen

Disclosure: This review contains Amazon affiliate links. Thanks for your support.
I received a copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.

The Scribe
by Liam Robert Mullen

Amazon, 2016

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The verdict: A quick read, sparser than I’d hoped, serving a specific audience with an interest in biblical history.

I picked up The Scribe intrigued by its premise—a look at biblical history from a rarely told perspective. Mullen draws from the gospels and Acts to create plausible backstories for some of the Bible’s best-known characters, infusing some fictitious elements and extrabiblical traditions. While Mullen’s writing feels knowledgeable about the subject matter, some glaring anachronisms keep it from being truly immersive. Character thoughts refer to years as “BC” or “AD” even though the terms didn’t exist until centuries later, and the prose references some future events and includes modern vocabulary that took me out of the ancient mindset. Less nerdy readers might not have the same gripes. In terms of structure, the chapters are more like short vignettes involving different characters, making Mullen’s work more like a story collection than one continuous narrative. The behind-the-scenes musings about Christianity’s early days might spark thought or discussion; it’s to the story’s credit that I wanted more than I found.

Following Jesus’ crucifixion, Sanhedrin scribe Escobar faces an unexpected crisis of faith. In the wake of his own personal tragedy, Escobar is strangely moved by this rabbi on the cross, and he determines to learn more about Jesus. Years earlier, the young fisherman Simone loses his grandfather in a horrific accident but later earns the name Cephas, while meanwhile Roman Senator Cesari loses his wife in childbirth but learns from a Seer that his son will become the gospel writer Luke. Back in the present day, Escobar sees the resurrected Christ and receives a special mission. Interspersed with scenes of Jesus’ earthly ministry, Escobar goes to Ephesus with a changed heart, a city where he encounters Mary and the apostle John. Elsewhere, a now-adult Luke meets Paul on his own journey to Ephesus. As the scenes unfold, ripple effects stretch out to touch men and women across the Meditteranean world, culminating with a trial before Emperor Nero in Rome.

“The answer already lies in your heart, Escobar. You must cut all ties to the Sanhedrin or they will destroy you. You’ll destroy yourself by associating with them…listen closely to the words of men like Cephas. They have a steadfast message for the world.”

In contrast to the linear narrative of the gospels themselves, Mullen gives a layered perspective of the first-century Roman world. As a result, however, the timeline jumps around, and it’s challenging to find a single main character or conflict. The story has several developmental and proofreading issues and could benefit from professional editing. Several transitions feel choppy, and I wanted more development of the main characters. As a starting point, it’s an interesting take on a biblical origin story. All in all, The Scribe offers a quick, intriguing novella for those interested in biblical history.

Jimmy Leonard is the author of The Evangelist in Hell.
Be sure to check out Liam Mullen’s writing or see more book reviews on this site.

If you’ve written a book you’d like me to consider for a review, find out more information and follow the submission guidelines here.

Review: Artemis by Andy Weir

Disclosure: This review contains Amazon affiliate links. Thanks for your support.

Artemis
by Andy Weir

Crown, 2017

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The verdict: With his trademark nerdiness, Weir delivers a well-imagined, entertaining thriller. Sometimes that’s all I want.

As a fan of Weir’s smart wit and geeky science in The Martian (after all, who isn’t?), I was glad to see more of the same in Artemis. It doesn’t have the full-scope problem solving or human-forces-that-join-us-together grandeur of Weir’s earlier novel, which won’t bother the genre fans but might disappoint some who jumped on the bandwagon after seeing the movie. Weir continues to nerd out with technical discussions and detailed asides, offering somewhat plausible, real-science sci-fi. The engineering and economic angles make this otherworldly science fiction surprisingly down to earth, and the voice has the same snark and humanity that makes The Martian so lovable. It’s not a sequel to his breakout title by any means, but I at least enjoyed the tighter setting and change of pace in the plot.

In the not-so-distant future, humans have a colony on the moon. Divided between ultra-rich tourists and the working class residents, the city of Artemis makes the perfect escape from earthly problems, or so at least its residents hope. Lifelong moon-dweller Jasmine Bashara wants to graduate from her career as a bottom-rung porter to one of the lunar elite, and she doesn’t mind the dishonest path to the top. Not only that, but Jasmine has a serious debt to pay off and needs cash more than anything. So when her side job as a small-time smuggler drags her into a much larger criminal operation, Jazz takes the risk in hopes of a life-altering payout. Her plans backfire, however, and soon Jazz is in way over her head with literally nowhere to run outside the protected bubbles of Artemis. Yet as Jazz turns the tables to investigate what went wrong, she finds that lunar politics go far beneath the surface. Jazz’s one shot out of this mess will jeopardize everything she holds dear, and she’ll need some help to pull it off.

No. I was a smuggler, not a saboteur. And something smelled off about the whole thing.
“I’m sorry, but this isn’t my thing,” I said. “You’ll have to find someone else.”
“I’ll give you a million slugs.”
“Deal.”

Weir mixes the fast-paced heist story with intriguing discussions about the near-future aluminum industry on the moon and the implications of a colony in lunar gravity. Even more so, he makes social considerations alongside the scientific. Refreshingly, it’s not just Americans running the moon’s economy. (It’s Kenyans, actually, and for logical reasons explained in the novel.) Alongside the brilliant creativity about the practical benefits and horrors of moon life, Weir throws in a few poignant observations on race and class, reminding readers that progress isn’t just about technology.  In terms of writing style, Artemis features a sassy, wisecracking first-person narrator with some lazy information dumps, but the delivery’s forgivable when the content’s this enriching. Although definitely recommended more for the engineering puzzles than the character development, Artemis celebrates both scientific and human achievement, seeing our weaknesses and triumphs. It’s a smart, enjoyable read, and sometimes that’s all I want from a book. Recommended for anyone who loves science fiction, crime thrillers, or dreaming about the world’s near future.

Jimmy Leonard is the author of The Evangelist in Hell.
Be sure to check out Andy Weir’s writing or see more book reviews on this site.

If you’ve written a book you’d like me to consider for a review, find out more information and follow the submission guidelines here.

Review: The Color of Fear by Wendy Wanner

Disclosure: This review contains Amazon affiliate links. Thanks for your support.
I received a copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.

The Color of Fear
by Wendy Wanner

Amazon, 2017

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The verdict: A genre-bending tale delivering strong characters, suspense, and just the right amount of occult.

I love thrillers with supernatural twists, and so The Color of Fear piqued my curiosity from the back cover alone. For Wendy Wanner’s debut novel, the book contains an impressive amount of research and thought. The story starts off as a cozy mystery, with Rachel as the uncharacteristic amateur sleuth and nothing especially grisly about the crime. At first, motives feel predictable and dramatic irony comes a bit heavy. Yet Wanner brings new layers as the story progresses, and the supernatural threads mix well with the everyday events, leading to a strange if not thought-provoking metaphysical conclusion.

Following her brother’s suicide in Scotland, Rachel Steerley returns to her Massachusetts home and successful career as an interior decorator. Two years later, the ghosts of her past return to her idyllic small-town life. When long-standing socialite Greta Wallace drowns in her bathtub, only Rachel sees the death as suspicious. Eerie sensations follow Rachel’s every move, and when the body count rises, she determines to discover the truth on her own. Everyone’s a suspect—from antique bookseller Brian and his vicar brother, to ruthless real estate tycoon Gavin and his secretary Daphne, to Rachel’s childhood neighbor and newfound love interest, Douglass. At the center of the mystery lies Rachel’s own fear of drowning, stemming from a horrible accident that claimed her parents’ lives. For answers, Rachel must dive into the past—both the town’s history and her own.

Greta shivered as if the unnaturally icy wind was blowing right through the glass. “I have had the strangest feeling lately, as if everything is closing in on me. This town feels oppressive and I don’t seem to have any privacy or freedom to do what I want.” She paused only a moment then shook her head. “No, it’s silly, let’s go inside.”

While the dialogue feels oddly literary in an otherwise modern setting—more than once is a character “debonair”—perhaps I just don’t spend enough time with old-money New England elite to relate. The page count is a bit high; the first few chapters have a pretty heavy information dump and a large cast of characters. Rachel’s personal history takes a backseat after an emotional opening, and at times I wanted more skin in the game for her. Wanner evens out the pacing as things go along, however, and each character receives enough attention to justify his or her presence by the end. Considering the length, Wanner does a great job extending the suspense without leaving the reader bored. Critical readers might find some of the character head-hopping distracting, while others may enjoy seeing the thoughts and feelings of each member of the suspect pool. As a slight trigger warning, the novel contains a literal sermon against abortion. Full of old mansions and modern decor, Wanner’s The Color of Fear explores what it means to “live in our pasts,” both healing from personal trauma and embracing our family heritage. It’s hard to classify this genre-bending tale. Recommended for anyone who loves Victorian-style drama or country romance, especially those in the mood for a mystery.

Jimmy Leonard is the author of The Evangelist in Hell.
Be sure to check out Wendy Wanner’s writing, visit her website, or see more book reviews on this site.

If you’ve written a book you’d like me to consider for a review, find out more information and follow the submission guidelines here.

Review: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert

Disclosure: This review contains Amazon affiliate links. Thanks for your support.
I received a copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.

The Hazel Wood
by Melissa Albert

Flatiron Books, 2018

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The verdict: Strange and captivating—as grim as advertised, and absolutely worth the ride.

I’ll be honest: The Hazel Wood hooked me on page one. Readers definitely have to know what they’re getting into here. Albert’s novel is not a fairy tale in any conventional sense, and the plot strays from the typical safety nets of “young adult.” Disclaimers aside, however, Melissa Albert delivers a deliciously refreshing fantasy adventure, managing powerful commentary of our age without feeling forceful or pedantic. It’s creepy and dark but still soft enough to swallow. The story molts a few times, widening the premise and pulling the reader into deeper and more dangerous territory. Well crafted and rewarding for readers who like to follow breadcrumbs and pick up hints, The Hazel Wood makes a worthy destination for those willing to take the journey.

Seventeen-year-old Alice has only known a life on the road with her mother, always outrunning an unpaid lease or long streak of bad luck. When her enigmatic grandmother Althea, the once-famous writer known for her rare and gruesome book of fairy tales, passes away, Alice’s life in New York takes further unwelcome turns. After her mom goes missing from her new husband’s high rise apartment, Alice’s only ally is her classmate Ellery Finch, a lonely, misfit rich kid who happens to be an obsessive cult-follower of her grandmother’s book. The story spirals inward as Alice pieces together each new clue, all with some connection to Althea’s fairy tales and her isolated estate, the Hazel Wood. The bad luck of earlier feels more and more like a curse, and what Alice finds at the Hazel Wood is far stranger than she could have ever imagined.

“Then I got my hands on Althea’s book. And it was perfect. There are no lessons in it. There’s just this harsh, horrible world touched with beautiful magic…They’re set in a place that has no rules and doesn’t want any.”

Notably, Albert has a sincere eye for story and shows patient, methodical craft. Like a modern Through the Looking-Glass (could that Alice be this character’s namesake?), The Hazel Wood plays with time and space, including some delightful quirks and turns. The narrative form intersperses some stories from Althea’s book as readers slowly uncover the origin and context of her bizarre tales. Lines between real and fictional become increasingly blurred as Alice moves forward in her search for her mother. At a certain point, I realized there are no rules in this novel. Nothing’s given, nothing’s expected, and I could take absolutely nothing for granted. This fact will sit better with some readers than with others, especially those who prefer the security of traveling with a roadmap. The last act of the book wanders pretty far from the beaten path, but somehow Albert sticks the landing. Most impressive are the fantastic themes on who writes our stories—and who tells them once written. Dark, eerie, and addicting, The Hazel Wood succeeds in fighting for our power to forge our own futures and voice our own identities. Recommended for lovers of fantasy and magical realism, especially readers willing to step outside their comfort zones.

Jimmy Leonard is the author of The Evangelist in Hell.
Be sure to check out Melissa Albert’s writing, or see more book reviews on this site.

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