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.

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: Control Freakz by Michael Evans

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

Control Freakz
by Michael Evans

Palmetto Publishing, 2017

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The verdict: While bumpy and a bit rambling in parts, a solid first effort from a young author. 

As the first novel from a young and developing writer, Control Freakz showcases Michael Evans’s creative aptitude. I respect Evans enough to offer the same critiques I would for more experienced authors. The novel digs its roots into popular culture and certainly knows its YA audience, although trimming the fat on long passages of internal dialogue would help to speed along the narrative. References to robotics and the global economy are realistic enough to suggest a plausible near future, even if the too-extreme dystopian world leaves little room for a moral gray area. To his credit, Evans answers the questions he raises and still ends on a cliffhanger. Genre fans who like to imagine the world beyond the text will find good starting points here.

Natalie Parker, a moody and overly dramatic 15-year-old with a dad who worked in Area 51 before going MIA, faces a new reality when the government enacts Protocol 00. In the years following a global stock crash, the president creates a totalitarian state and demands a national genocide of anyone who resists. Most strange of all is the mysterious blue pill that Natalie’s mom makes her swallow, allegedly for her protection. Soon on the run with boyfriend Hunter and techie neighbor Ethan, Natalie must escape the government hitmen chasing her across the Southwest, racing toward a refugee camp atop Camelback Mountain. Three years later, a disillusioned and increasingly vengeful Natalie searches for answers and her missing family, and the ever-present government threat pulls her back into the dystopian world.

Protocol 00…The final sentence read, “And it is imperative that every last person who took the blue pill be extracted from the population immediately.”

In the non-stop adrenaline rush, sometimes the narration feels like a cameraman with shaky hands, and it’s hard to know which way is up between the shouts. Especially early on, Natalie’s first-person voice screams that she’s about to die in just about every situation. A whirlwind information dump in the first chapter hits a little too fast, which may partially exist due to how easily characters can find information on the internet. For this reason, many of the big reveals later on feel more given than earned. Of course, all modern fiction has to grapple with that problem—how do stories build suspense when the answers are one computer search away? Later chapters slow down and focus on the characters. Natalie grows in confidence and assertion, offering some hope in the face of darkness. The not-so-veiled political references surprised me a bit—at one point Natalie thinks that “maybe if people in this country weren’t so ignorant,” then the world would not have collapsed. Parts of the narration have a hardcore punk sort of tone that I found a bit jarring and forced. Evans opens the door for a deeper sci-fi exploration as he unveils the implications of the blue pill (a reverse-Matrix color scheme, whether intentional or not), and Control Freakz makes a promising starting point for future writing. Recommended for young adult readers who can’t quite get enough of the anti-government dystopian genre and won’t mind the long descriptions.

Jimmy Leonard is the author of The Evangelist in Hell.
Be sure to check out Michael Evans’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 Crimson and The Frost by John Williams and James Colletti

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 Crimson and The Frost
by John Williams and James Colletti

CreateSpace, 2013

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The verdict: A modern tale with classic holiday themes best suited for young readers who won’t overthink it.

Kids bored with the annual Christmas specials have something new to look at: The Crimson and the Frost. For whatever reason—maybe the cover art—I expected this book to target a slightly older audience, but it really fits best for middle-grade readers. That said, Williams and Colletti’s novel creates a Santa-Clause-meets-Polar-Express holiday adventure aimed at the gadget-loving, phone-tapping children of the twenty-first century. While the dialogue and conflicts are often trite, the authors mix in plenty of humor to reach their intended audience and keep the plot humming along. The storyline draws on traditional scenery with some creative twists, making a modern Christmas tale with classic themes and messages that parents won’t mind their kids reading.

A 17th-century whaling ship encounters the terrifying and magical King of Winter, but a mysterious and even more powerful force rises to oppose him. In the present day, young Billy Hampton competes for popularity by showing off techno gadgets from his dad’s company to his schoolmates. When Santa’s sleigh lands outside Billy’s window—driven by two bumbling elves who’d left home for a day of New England lobster fishing of all things—he sneakily stows away and winds up in Christmas Town. Along the journey, however, Billy accidentally loses the all-important jewel that powers the sleigh. Billy’s hosts try to hide the news and fix the problem themselves; meanwhile, Jack Frost seizes the opportunity to make his long-awaited move against the toy-building hamlet. While the elves and Billy seek help from Santa, Christmas Town goes on alert as Jack Frost lurks dangerously in the hills.

You see Billy, sometimes the decisions we make seem trivial to us, but can have a profound effect on others.

The light-hearted comedy definitely drives the story, and the elves’ personalities—either endearingly crotchety or hilariously hapless—play off each other to add some laughs. Billy’s tour of Christmas Town approaches something satirical even, which doesn’t mesh with the supposed gravity of the missing jewel and impending danger. Young Billy is a misfit in his own right, struggling to fit in among elves and ruining everything he touches, yet he rarely faces consequences. Even as Frost looms in the distance, the expected catastrophe never truly comes. A later reveal that losing the jewel wasn’t entirely Billy’s fault limits his character development, and the story never reaches the requisite gravitas for a power-packed moral. Still, Billy works toward an others-orientedness, which provides a necessary message for kids of any age. The authors present their take on the true meaning of Christmas directly from Santa’s mouth—a celebration of generosity and joy—but Santa’s own backstory and flashbacks are less interesting than the elves’ present-day conflicts. Critical readers will likely find some editorial issues and mid-section point-of-view shifts distracting, but a thrilling final act uplifts the story to show that even the most unlikely among us can be heroes. The Crimson and the Frost provides a kid-friendly, modern take on Christmas themes. Recommended for young readers looking for a fresh storyline with familiar holiday characters.

Jimmy Leonard is the author of The Evangelist in Hell.
Be sure to check out John Williams’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: Wonder by R.J. Palacio

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

 

Wonder
by R.J. Palacio

Knopf, 2012

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The verdict: A memorable portrait of human dignity—children’s literature that knows kids are smart enough to understand the world they live in.

So why add another review to the internet of this already smash-hit, critically-acclaimed novel? Wonder the movie is hitting theaters next month, in case people haven’t heard of it. I wanted to read it, but I wasn’t sure if I’d take the time to review it. That changed once I started. As a middle school teacher—as a human being—I must champion R.J. Palacio’s timeless message. Some books deserve the hype, and Wonder lives up to its name. Parents, your kids must read this book. Read this book with your kids even, then discuss it as a family. It’s rare to find literature that distills the complicated themes of life into such simple truths, and a novel that does so makes a powerful treasure.

Born with a facial deformity, 5th grader August Pullman enrolls in a private school to attend classes outside his home for the first time. While adults do their best to not notice and students make no secret of their curiosity and horror, Auggie wants nothing more than to just be ordinary. Soon Julian, a teacher’s pet when instructors are looking and a horrible bully when they’re not, leads a charge to ostracize the new student, and even the friends Auggie thinks he can count on wear masks of their own. Meanwhile, Auggie’s sister Via struggles to adjust to a new high school and the pains of growing up. The point of view changes as the narrative unfolds, allowing the voices of Auggie’s classmates to intersect and craft a heart-wrenching tour of empathy and human dignity. Written at the middle-grade level, this beautiful coming-of-age story speaks to kids and adults alike.

“Like a lamb to the slaughter: Something that you say about someone who goes somewhere calmly, not knowing that something unpleasant is going to happen to them. I Googled it last night. That’s what I was thinking when Ms. Petosa called my name and suddenly it was my turn to talk.”

Told in short vignettes with a relatable middle school voice, Palacio’s novel captures the rapid change-of-subject and constant ups and downs of life from a kid’s point of view. Readers hear first from Auggie, then from his sister Via—whose section beautifully depicts the mess of compassion and resentment that comes with having a sibling who needs special care—and then from the perspectives of two of Auggie’s schoolmates, Via’s boyfriend, and her ex-best friend. Some expanded editions even include the ebook known as The Julian Chapter, giving voice to Auggie’s main tormentor.

Nothing about the story feels forced or contrived. Palacio builds her narrative on ordinary conflicts: shifting friend groups, arguments with parents, a sick family dog. Put together, the chapters touch on all aspects of identity from race and class to which lunch table a student belongs. At times I wanted a bit more pep in the plot; nothing terrifying or particularly unusual happens, especially when compared to other classic novels of its type. Yet the pedestrian tour of Auggie’s universe works to extend its humanity. While one might think Wonder is just a metaphor for how we all feel like the outcast sometimes, it bravely goes beyond that expectation by featuring themes about kindness and courage. The other narrators see just as much transformation as August does, and at times they’re even more likeable. Creative in form and content, Wonder is a twenty-first-century tale that bridges gaps across generations, fighting for every kid to take a turn in the spotlight. Recommended for middle school and high elementary school readers, especially for class or book reports.

Jimmy Leonard is the author of The Evangelist in Hell.
Be sure to check out R.J. Palacio’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: Grace Group by Carrie Maldonado

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

Grace Group
by Carrie Maldonado

eLectio, 2017

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The verdict: A deeper-than-usual inspirational romance that’s as much about living as it is about dying.

As a guy who doesn’t normally read romance, Grace Group caught my attention with its supernatural twist. The idea of angels coming to Earth and a character racing against the clock intrigued me, and seeing the content in some of Maldonado’s blog posts told me this would be more than just fluff. Yes, the story hinges on some romance-novel tropes: The male characters of interest are all gorgeous and near-perfect (even with a terminal illness), making them far too good for the stumbling and increasingly self-conscious female protagonist. Yet Maldonado’s message shines in her appeal to the human condition. What starts as a story about one woman soon becomes a story about all people, and readers of all ages and backgrounds can find points of connection with the narrative’s discussion of life and death.

Holly Matthews—workaholic corporate HR director, impatient, irritable, self-proclaimed loner with a crumbling romantic life—receives a terminal diagnosis at age 35. She reluctantly attends a support group for the dying and is surprised by the members’ camaraderie and frankness. Taking a challenge from the group, Holly begins volunteering at a local shelter—where she finds instant attraction to a hardworking (and possibly single) dad of an adorable little kid—and she develops a new openness and healthier sense of self. When a second potential love interest arrives at the grief group, Holly finds herself on the verge of death but with a sudden urge to keep living. After discovering her counselors are actually angels in disguise, Holly’s on a clock to turn from her selfish ways and instead experience the goodness of faith. Trying to unravel her tangled knot of romantic attraction and caught between her old habits and the hope of something better, Holly must reevaluate her priorities and squash the voice of temptation before her time on earth runs out.

“All of the people you are supposed to ‘touch,’ as you put it, are already in your life. Nothing happens by accident, Holly. You’ve always had everything you needed to live the perfect life for you. Your job is to go live it.”

After the first few chapters paint Holly in a miserable extreme, I expected to see a 180-degree, Ebenezer Scrooge-type transformation. Although Holly’s entrance to the grief group happens a little too easily, once she arrives, the angel characters are well crafted and engaging. Despite the enjoyable banter, however, at times the spiritual themes are a bit murky. “Accepting one’s purpose” becomes a catchphrase without full definition, and the angels describe a certain economy of good deeds combating evil intentions in a butterfly effect without much logic or demonstration. Holly’s prognosis is a universal one, though, and Maldonado certainly pulls no punches in exploring the ways life can get messy. Where the storyline starts as a thought exercise, it soon becomes a full-blown reality. Even the characters who aren’t aware of Holly’s condition appear in convenient places and manage to say what they mean, giving the story a parable feel focused on Holly’s internal conflict. Maldonado does a great job showing the confusion of life and the difficulty of deciding which impulses to follow without making the story itself confusing. Holly’s emotional turns are sharp enough to pull the reader along, and there’s a delightful amount of suspense considering readers know about Holly’s disease from the start. Grace Group is both a celebration of life and a challenge for those living it, demanding that every reader look in the mirror to discover what matters. Recommended for Christian book clubs and lovers of romance and inspirational fiction, especially those experiencing grief.

Jimmy Leonard is the author of The Evangelist in Hell.
Be sure to check out Carrie Maldonado’s writing, visit her blog, 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 Einstein Prophecy by Robert Masello

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

The Einstein Prophecy
by Robert Masello

47North, 2015

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The verdict: A predictable page-turner producing standard action fare, best suited for long flights or a fun vacation read.

From its back cover, The Einstein Prophecy sounded right up my alley: a WWII-era thriller involving an ancient curse and the world’s greatest scientific minds. If the title’s supposed to evoke some Da Vinci Code connection, however, Masello’s novel falls woefully short of its ambitions, but I’m not ready to completely discard it. Masello’s background as a journalist and previous novelist shows in his ability to technically piece together a story, and it does succeed as a quick, mindless thrill ride. Readers looking for complex characters and depth are less likely to enjoy the story as those just hoping for a lighthearted adventure, but the premise at least is enough to engage the imagination. I call it less profound revelation and more mindless entertainment.

On a top priority mission for the Office of Strategic Services, art-professor-turned-soldier Lucas Athan uncovers a stolen sarcophagus cloaked in secrecy and danger. When the US government calls to collect the object, the brilliant and beautiful Egyptian archaeologist Simone Rashid follows Lucas back to Princeton with a mysterious agenda of her own. Meanwhile at the university, the famed Professor Albert Einstein is in the middle of his own secretive work on the Manhattan Project, and as Professor Athan investigates the artifact, their storylines soon converge. The US military prioritizes uncovering the mysteries of the ossuary for reasons not fully explained, but its power soon becomes apparent. Strange and deadly happenings follow anyone too close to the project, and if that weren’t enough, the Nazis want the ossuary back to harness it as a weapon for evil. Set against the historical background of WWII, Masello unveils a fast-paced adventure back on American home soil.

“Even if one fights on the side of angels,” the professor continued, “it can feel as if one is doing the Devil’s work. For years now, every day, it is all bombs and bullets, guns and planes, tanks and cannons, death and more death…One must wonder, where will it all end?”

The many threads don’t always tie together, and some of the historical context, especially with Einstein’s war effort, feels forcefully inserted. Otherwise, though, the story unfolds as standard thriller fare true to genre. Inexplicably well-resourced characters with high-reaching government connections collaborate on a top-secret project to save the world. At times I enjoyed the fast pace and cross-town chase scenes, but the heroes lack the depth and gravitas to inject any personal conflict into the narrative. Lucas is barely affected by his horrific war injury while romantic sparks fly all-too-predictably with his female counterpart. The ossuary’s backstory provides the most intrigue, but the novel’s deeper themes about the nature of good and evil tumble through the air without sticking the landing. Einstein’s character ends up as more of a gimmick than necessary plot piece, and the mystery unfolds linearly with few surprises. It’s not exactly like readers are unsure how the Manhattan Project will turn out. Still, Masello knows the ingredients for an adventure story. Nazis, ancient evil, expendable side characters, and a beautiful woman join together for a novel that’s more joy ride than careful exploration. For readers who want easy thrills and don’t mind a serious suspension of disbelief, The Einstein Prophecy can still pass the time.

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

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