Review of “Hardened Hearts”

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I finished this collection the day after Valentine’s Day, which was kind of perfect.  These are not your typical love stories, although “love” is the general theme connecting them.  I was very impressed with each writer, and I didn’t feel like there was a weak story in the bunch.  The writing is solid.  The range of genres in the collection is cool, too.  Most of these stories are so uniquely weird in their own way, and yet how the stories are organized makes them cohesive, like they naturally belong in the same collection.

A few of my favorites were “Heirloom” , “Dog Tired”, “The Heart of the Orchard,” and “Matchmaker.” Honestly, I liked something about almost every single story.  Despite many being short, they packed emotional punches. The immediate weirdness of many drew me in and held my attention.

If you like your love stories a little on the dark side, definitely check out this collection.

4.5 Stars

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Review of “The Road to Grandeur” by Brandt Trebor

27155940First of all, the blurb for this book doesn’t do it justice.  The story is a full-out adventure in a magical world populated by every fantasy creature you’d hope to find, and there’s plenty of heart and comedy thrown in. I loved all the twists the plot took in bringing together the main characters, and it was wonderfully not predictable.

Jayde is the main character, but Sarah is just as important and  must get close to equal “screen time.” There wasn’t a single character that I found lacking, which is great considering how many minor characters there are. Of course, with this being a “book 1,” I’m sure more will be revealed about some important characters in the future, and that helped to make the story feel even bigger.  Cameron in particular (without being too spoiler-y) seems to have a past I’d like to read more about.  But the pixies John and Lucy and lovable troll Marl are just as interesting.

The writing itself isn’t stuffy or grandiose, and I felt like the writing set the feel for the story – fun and light but serious where it mattered.  The middle of the book wandered a bit, but that tends to happen in long stories.  At no point was I bored, largely because the author does a good job of hinting throughout that something bigger is going on with these two girls.

I highly recommend this as a fun summer read, full of magic and quirky characters.

4 Stars

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Review of “Anatomy of a Darkened Heart” by Christie Stratos

26813854This felt like a book I would’ve had to read in an English Literature class in college – and I mean that in a good way.  Everything about the writing and the story felt legitimately true to the period, like this was an old, classic book I’d somehow missed all these years.

The writing is phenomenal.  It’s not a long book, and the author makes every word count.  Her descriptions are perfectly refined to give the reader exactly the amount of detail you need. The  plot certainly isn’t action-packed (that wouldn’t fit the genre at all), but the slow build works very well as you focus on the psychological aspects of the story.  I was never bored because the tension constantly increases as matters of the heart grow more and more complicated.

This book is, after all, about how these characters are “darkened.” I absolutely loved how I started thinking one character was maybe an okay person, but then they grew to be terrible.  And then another character did the same thing to me.  And then another.  Several times I said to the pages “Oh, no…” because a character would do something so evil to another character (keeping it vague here to avoid spoilers, but I literally gasped several times).  But, because the author does such a good job developing these characters, everything they did felt like a natural progression of their true nature.  And you STILL cared about them.

So, yeah, I recommend this one.  It’s not the kind of book you often see anymore, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

5 Stars

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Review of “Hungry Ghosts” & “Labor Day Hunt” by Calvin Demmer

 

31308950.jpgFirst of all, I found the cover intriguing.

Secondly, short stories can be tricky.  You want enough detail to set the scene but not so much detail that you can’t get to the meat of the story.  It’s hard, in so few pages, to be drawn into whatever mood, tone, feel of the story that the author is trying to create.  It’s hard to become quickly invested in a character.  It’s hard to tell a complete, full story in limited time.

This short story, with all of the above considerations, does a great job.  It helps that there’s a horror/mystery aspect going on with the ghosts, so not everything HAS to be explained.  Lara, as the main character, was easy to identify with and root for.

The story is so short and quick that I feel safe telling you to just read it for yourself to find out more.  I really enjoyed it.

5 Stars

 

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31815027.jpgI loved that I had no idea where this story was going to end up.  It starts out with the rather mundane life of a guy just trying to make money in his hometown.  He answers an ad.  Goes to the job.  How interesting could this be, right?

But there IS a dark tone to the writing that hints at something coming.  I loved the pacing – which is tricky in a story this short – and the twist.  When you meet the villains, something is clearly off, but then the story slams the gas and the action takes off.   By the time it all wraps up, it’s probably fair to say this was the worst Labor Day of Jared’s life.

This short story might be a little too violent for some readers, but if you’re okay with just a bit of gore, give it a try.  It’s so short that even if you don’t like it, you’re not wasting time.

5 Stars

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Review of “Sentinel Five” by James Quinn

31626072It’s hard for a sequel to live up to a great first book in a series, but this one is excellent.  I actually think I liked this book better than the first.  Once again we follow Gorilla Grant on an assignment filled with action, treachery, suspense, and violence.  This time, I felt like the story was much more straightforward and more pleasurable to follow, and it really did feel like a spy movie in the tradition of James Bond, but grittier.

The writing again fits the genre perfectly, getting the job done with great description and dialogue.  The author’s inside knowledge of this world adds a wonderful sense of reality to the story, and it’s very clear that he’s put a lot of thought into how the plot develops.  Grant as a character is complex and interesting, and the new characters here all lent something unique to the story.

You’ll want to read “A Game for Assassins” first to really get to know Grant, but I also think this story stands alone pretty well because it’s quite separate from the first book’s events.

5 Stars

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Review of “Murder on Moonshine Hill” by Joan C. Curtis

31588463It wasn’t super-smart of me to read this while planning my own wedding, but I’m *fairly* certain none of this will go wrong.

I’m continually impressed with this author. This story is enjoyable for both the thought that goes into characterization and the thought that goes into developing the plot. After reading the first book in the series, I know the main character of Jenna pretty well, and she’s equally relatable here. The other main characters and side characters are well-portrayed and fleshed out individuals – which is exactly what you want in a who-dun-it murder mystery where you’re constantly playing detective.

I love that the story starts right out by showing you the murder scene. You know right off the bat what you’re going to be dealing with, and it gives you a jump start on trying to sort out the killer’s identity. It also keeps the slow pace of the beginning from being boring, since you know what’s coming. The setting of the wedding is isolating and colorful, and although you’re really in the same place for most of the book, there’s a lot going on. It feels like a game of Clue, but at a wedding.

My only little complaint about this book was that sometimes the dialogue feels a bit “written” and not how people would actually talk. Several times characters have to describe something that they experienced, and in these chunks their explanations are overly descriptive and not how most people would talk…although certainly how an author would write.

All in all, I really recommend this book if you want a murder-mystery from a woman’s perspective.

4.5 Stars

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Review of “A Noble’s Quest” by Ryan Toxopeus

51Pbvl7CBELIt’s nice to see a Fantasy story where the girl gets to use a crossbow.  Eliza, for being a princess-y type, is a solid character who’s equally witty and brave as the men.  Thomas and Sarentha aren’t quite what I was expecting either.  As common lumberjacks thrown into an adventure, they of course adapt and become heroes.  But strong Thomas is a pacifist, and roguish Sarentha has a good heart despite his focus on shiny coins.   Together, these main characters are an odd trio, but their friendship is really refreshing to see in this kind of story.  The other minor characters are pretty good too, and it was cool to see the author play with races you tend to see in Fantasy – dwarves, elves, goblins, wizards…and more.

The writing itself is a little too fast at times and doesn’t take many breaths to let things settle in.  But this is an action kind of Fantasy story, so the scene changes and many, many, many characters give you a sense of this world’s scope.  There’s enough comedy thrown in to balance out the violence, although one of my problems with the book was the quickness of the killing.  Thomas is angst-y about killing AFTER the fact, but he sure doesn’t hesitate in the heat of the moment.  That was a little weird, but I get the attempt to add depth to the character.  And it was hard to root for these characters right away when the first time we meet them they kill someone.   So, sometimes these action/violence bits were just a little off, I thought.

Overall this book works as a nice, quick, fun read – just don’t expect too much from it.  Perhaps suited best for a YA audience, it was still fun and enjoyable to read as an adult.  The “big secret” helps to build mysterious suspense until the climax, and the twist/reveal was really cool.

3 Stars

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Review of “Portraits of Dread” by Michael J. Elliott

Portraits of Dread (72dpi 900x600)This collection is brilliant.  And I’m not British, so I feel the need to point out I actually mean brilliant.  Almost every single one of these stories starts out in a completely familiar, unassuming setting.  Then some weird, horrific, incredible bomb is dropped and you suddenly realize that something completely different is going on.   I alternated between laughing in surprise to making sounds of “Oh, ew, ugh!” whenever I read a twist.

The writing itself is excellent.  Elliott has a particular tone to his writing that is playful and serious at the same time (don’t ask me how that works, but it does), and the style of the writing feels simultaneously classic and fresh.  I honestly can’t think of one dud story in this collection, nor can I pick out a favorite.  …Okay, maybe “Reconstructing Teddy” for the sheer creepy factor of the twist and the great portrayal of quirky (to say the least) little boys.

It’s also worth pointing out that, horror stories though these may be, they also have moments of genuine warmth and SAY SOMETHING.  Too many horror stories go simply for shock value and can become laughable when trying to hard.  This book never feels like that, and you can tell the author constructed these stories thoughtfully.  “A Glutton for Punishment” in particular seems to be full of commentary on society.

Overall, I can’t recommend this book enough.  The stories are short and quick if you just want little bits at a time, or you can read the whole thing in a few sittings if you just can’t stop.  Which *might* have been the approach I took.

5 Stars

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Review of “Storm Portal” & “Sand Storm” by Michael R. Stern

23496771History class was always my favorite in school.  If my high school History teacher had been able to go INTO history like Fritz, I’d have begged to tag along.  For me, these little adventures to meet Robert E. Lee and see other points in American history were the best parts of the book.  It’s a great premise.  And the way the author manages to sneak in History lessons throughout the book is a great teaching tool to the reading audience – careful, you might learn from this story!

All of the characters in this book feel like everyday people, even the President and First Lady.  It’s easy to put yourself in the shoes of Fritz, Ash, Linda, George, the teenage students, etc.  Everyone is maybe a little too calm about the sudden discovery of time travel, but it works for the lighthearted feel of the story.  There seemed to be a lot of dinners and food-related get-togethers, and I would’ve liked to see maybe a little more use of the portal rather than so many conversations about lasagna recipes, but really the action scenes balance all that out pretty well.

The writing is smooth and easy.  I read large chunks at a time because I wanted to know what would happen next.  The mystery element of “How the heck does the portal work?”  is very well developed.  Overall, I’d definitely recommend this book if you like light Sci-Fi and History.

4 StarsSee it on Amazon!

26183882This sequel picks up right where the first book left off.  Fritz, Ash, and the teachers-aren’t-so-boring-after-all gang now have an understood relationship with the White House, and it’s not surprising that the President now wants to use the portal for covert operations.   This book is certainly more PG-13 rated than the first because of action, violence, and war-based bloodshed, but nothing is over the top.   I liked the more serious tone and political questions raised in this book too.

There’s still lots of history-based fun in this one.  Going to Paris to meet Hemingway DID come out of nowhere and didn’t jive with much of anything going on, but it was a nice break – I will never complain about seeing fictionalized versions of famous writers.  Ash and Fritz are still clever and witty.  George is comic relief as the exasperated, not super-bright principal.   Robert E. Lee gets another cameo.  The author has nice teaching moments between Fitz and his students.

But the main focus is definitely on the covert missions to Ira…I mean Naria.  And here, a lot has to be taken with a grain of salt (or sand).  In no way do I believe their main contact with the President during this important mission would be via a high school teacher’s phone.   Nor do I think they wouldn’t clear the building first to make sure ALL the students were out.   And would highly trained soldiers need a potty break right when they get there?  Several little details are just a little too simple, but it still reads well and I liked the action.

Overall, I look forward to seeing where Fritz and Ash go next.   There were some unbelievable elements to this one, but it was still a fun read.

3.5 Stars
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