Monday, 30 March 2015

Semicolon Frenzy

This week I’ve had the privilege of reading the opening to 11 self-published novels. In at least 8 of them, I spotted incorrect use of semicolons. It was such an issue that I decided not to factor it into my selection.

But we need to talk!

I love semicolons. I think they can turn a good line into a powerful punch. However, incorrect usage seems to be a huge problem for aspiring authors and indie authors alike.

Semicolons are used to join two full sentences to imply a link, or to separate list items.

The most frequent offence was using them instead of either a simple comma or when they should have used a colon. If you can replace one with a comma and you’re not writing a list, you’re doing it wrong. If you can replace one with a full stop, then you’re probably doing it right.

Overuse is a problem, too. Just like someone slapping you again and again, they lose their power and you become numb to them. They become a distraction from the writing. It also means you have repetitive sentence structures as well as a text that looks unappealing from a distance.

If you think about it, sentences in a paragraph are all linked to each other to some degree, but using semicolons all the time is unnecessary. Only use one when they add to the meaning.

I’ll come out and say it too, they look pretentious when overused. Some writers and readers are particular adverse to them for this reason.

Kurt Vonnegut: “Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you've been to college.”

This is an extreme view, and one I do not share, but I understand where he’s coming from. Overuse is worse than no use at all in my opinion. Sort them out, guys!

Here are some past articles on semicolons:

Colon Usage: Non-semicolon usage
The Supposedly Elusive Semicolon
Comma Splice: A Spaghetti Western
Must Read Advice Before You Self-Publish

If you watch this, you need to see the end to get the real point, or skip to 2.25.

Saturday, 28 March 2015

Hidden Gem Awards: Top 5

Without delay, here are my top 5. I'll spend the next month reading each of your books before choosing a winner,

1)  Bloodline by Tara Ellis



By far the easiest choice. From chapter one, we have engaging, strong writing and a story that felt effortless. I want to know what will happen next, and I'm already attached to some of the characters. On to the next round!


2) The Scary Girls by J.D. Kaplan



A few lines in this made me chuckle. I love the narrator - why wouldn't I want to read on? It begins with two intriguing characters and a prose I could slip into. Another very easy choice.


3) Broken Dolls by B.R. Kingsolver


An interesting concept carried by a flawless prose. The ingenious use of asterisks to mark the telepathy made it clear and easy to follow. I'm very excited about this one!


4) Chains of Prophecy by Jason P. Crawford


The opening scene reminded me of Supernatural, and now I want to read on just to find out what was going on. There's a bit of awkwardness in the prose to start off with, but once it started to flow I didn't want to stop.


5) A Time Apart by Rebecca N. Caudill



There's something quirky about the prose that kept me reading. Not much has happened yet, but I'm still curious to read on. I found it easy to relate to the main character.


As I've only read the opening few chapters of each entry, I've had to be critical. I was looking for an engaging prose, clean writing, and signs of an intriguing main plot already unfolding.

If you didn't make it to the list, feel free to contact me and ask why. I'm more than happy to explain how I felt about your book and any issues I had with it as well as what I liked. There were a few that I struggled to part with. In particular, War of Destiny: Lost Soul by Theresa Van Spankeren is going on my reading list.


Cheers!

Thursday, 26 March 2015

SP Book Review: H.A.L.F

H.A.L.F. The Deep Beneath by Natalie Wright

4 Stars

Verdict:
A typical alien experiment sci-fi novel.


H.A.L.F. 9 has taken his first breath of desert air and his first steps in the human world. Created to be a weapon, he proved too powerful for his makers and has lived a sedated life hidden from humans. But H.A.L.F. 9 has escaped the underground lab he called home, and the sedation has worn off. He has never been more alive. More powerful. Or more deadly.

Erika Holt longs to ride her motorcycle east until pavement meets shore. She bides her time until graduation when she’ll say adios to the trailer she shares with her alcoholic mother and memories of her dead father. But a typical night in the desert with friends thrusts Erika into a situation more dangerous than she ever imagined.

Circumstances push the two together, and each must make a fateful choice. Will Erika help H.A.L.F. 9 despite her “don’t get involved” rule? And will H.A.L.F. 9 let Erika live even though he was trained to kill?

The two may need to forget their rules and training and if either is to survive the dangers of the deep beneath them.


~*~

The Rating Breakdown

Enjoyment: 4  I enjoyed reading it.

Writing Style: 4 Only a few minor tweaks.

Plot: 4 Action packed. No twists or spins though. 

World & Concepts: 4 Solid but nothing overly original.

Characters: 4 Villain needs fleshing out. The rest are likable and individual.

Finish: 5 Didn’t even know it was self-published!

Strengths: Action sequences are good and plenty.

Weakness: Just doesn’t have that original or gripping spark.

~*~

This is the perfect example of a self-published book because I genuinely had no idea - not even an inkling - that it wasn't traditionally published. Great cover, no obvious typos, and there were very few cases of awkward/confusing writing. What a cracking example!

I always love it when a character is different or acts unexpectedly, and Tex the half alien was definitely unusual. He used language differently, and tried to understand his actions in a logical way even when he acted irrationally. I find it interesting, and never felt it hindered the prose. If anything, it's what drew me in whenever he led the third person narration. 

The humans were equally good to follow, with Erika taking on the third person narration the second most. Ian’s good humour, mixed with a dash of self-preservation, possibly made him my favourite character. I didn’t feel too connected to Jack, but I enjoyed the light snippets of romance that helped me understand Erika further. I liked how Erika was strong but had issues to overcome.

Now for the villain. Commander Sturgis felt like a typical evil scientist to me, and a little too trigger happy on the ‘kill them’ command when a simple non-disclosure would suffice. The author tried to develop her a little further by adding in snippets about her father, but it didn’t help me understand her actions.

In places the prose felt bogged down with a lot of detail over the characters' thought processes. Several times I realised three of four paragraphs could be deleted in favour of a simple line. The exposition in-between the action basically got in the way. Luckily this is definitely an action packed novel.

Maybe most of the concepts have already been done a lot in sci-fi books, but it's still a read I'd recommend. I'm hoping the sequel will take the trilogy to an unexpected place – I’ll definitely keeping reading to find out.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Hidden Gem Awards: Update

That's it, guys. My review doors are now closed. We have 12 (hopefully) excited authors waiting to see whether they'll make it to the next round. I can't wait to get reading!

From here, I'll test each book out by reading the first few chapters to decide whether or not I want to read on. After all, a good book will pull me in from the start and will never let go!

I hope to have my favourites up by Tuesday the 31st of March. From there, I will read each of the remaining novels as if I'd bought it from a bookshop. This means if I lose interest or start to see huge issues with book, then it's tough love from me. You're out.

Mini reviews will be posted for each of the top five within the month. I'll post with an update if I get delayed for any reason. 

Once read and reviewed, I'll pick a ruling winner. Good luck, everyone.

As I write this, I only have 8 entries downloaded onto my tablet. If you haven't yet sent me a mobi/kindle file then please do this by Friday the 27th of March at the latest. Otherwise you'll have to wait for the next one. 

Cheers!

Sunday, 22 March 2015

Hidden Gem Awards: The Contestants

I am no longer accepting entries.

My self-publishing contest is finally here. If you're self published and would like to enter, then click here for details. If you’d like me to hurry up and get reading, then please spread the word! The sooner the spots fill, the sooner I can get started.

I’ll update this list as I accept entries. If your name is up here and you haven't sent me a copy of your novel, please send a mobi file as soon as you find a spare moment.

1. Chains of Prophecy by Jason P. Crawford

2. Broken Dolls by B.R. Kingslover

3. The Scary Girls by J.D. Kaplan

4. A Time Apart by Rebecca Caudill

5. Bloodline by Tara Ellis

6. Hunters of Satan's Monsters by Horace S. Mallette

7. War of Destiny by Theresa Van Spankeren

8. The Army of the Night by Paul Collis

9. Losing It by Elizabeth Armstrong

10. Murder Becomes Manhattan by Jeffrey Eaton

11. Embryo 5 by J.A. Schneider

12. The Dalia and the Dilemma by Robert Michael



Good luck to all!

Friday, 20 March 2015

Book Review: Treasure Darkly

Treasure Darkly by Jordan Elizabeth
3 Stars

Verdict:
A western romance. Doesn't look like it, does it?

Seventeen-year-old Clark Treasure assumes the drink he stole off the captain is absinthe…until the chemicals in the liquid give him the ability to awaken the dead. A great invention for creating perfect soldiers, yes, but Clark wants to live as a miner, not a slave to the army—or the deceased. On the run, Clark turns to his estranged, mining tycoon father for help. The Treasures welcome Clark with open arms, so he jumps at the chance to help them protect their ranch against Senator Horan, a man who hates anyone more powerful than he.

Sixteen-year-old Amethyst Treasure loathes the idea of spending the summer away from her bustling city life to rot on her father’s ranch, but when a handsome young man shows up claiming to be her secret half-brother, her curiosity is piqued. He’s clever, street smart, and has no qualms jumping into the brawl between the Treasures and Horans. Caught in the middle, Horan kidnaps Amethyst, and all she gets is this lousy bullet through her heart.

When Clark brings her back to life, however, the real action starts, and Amethyst joins him in his fight against the Horan clan—whatever the cost. Defeating the Horans may seem easy at first, but going up against men with the same fighting vengeance as Clark, and a Senator with power he’s obtained by brainwashing the masses? Well, Amethyst’s boring summer at home has turned into an adventure on the run, chock full of intrigue, danger, love, and a mysterious boy named Clark.


~*~

To all potential readers: The cover might be beautiful, but that mysterious girl doesn’t capture the likeness of anyone I’ve read about. This is also primarily a western romance, not steampunk, action, mystery, or anything else you might be hoping for.

It started strong with intriguing concepts, relatable characters, and a prose that pulled me in. There’s a lot to enjoy in this story, especially towards the start, but the longer it went on the less invested I felt.

A lot of what spurred me to read this book – necromancy, wanted by the army, warring clans - was actually fairly irrelevant to the overall story. I almost forgot it was supposed to be steampunk until a devise was mentioned with ‘steam’ in front of it, like steamcycle instead of motorcycle. It’s a little disappointing when you can tweak away the genre.

As the blurb states, Clark gains the ability to bring people back to life, but he also has a ten minute gap afterwards where he can take a life. He also has a perfectly working gun... I can’t say I fully understood it. I wanted to know how he discovered this side effect of his power, how it worked, and how he knew it had such a tight deadline to abide by, but alas it was never used. I have no idea why it was mentioned.

Clark is instantly likable, as a modest survivor who’s just thankful to be alive. Amethyst on the other hand is a character that will probably grate on a lot of readers, but I found her entertaining to read. She’s spoilt, attention seeking, and enjoys flirting, including with her new half-brother, Clark. I’m not a fan of half-sibling romances. I found it just as peculiar yet predictable in this novel as I did in the Mortal Instruments series. Maybe it’s because I’ve never fancied any of my family members before, but it’s also somewhat due to the amount of times the author wrote something along the lines of, ‘Bloody gears, I can’t think about my sister like that’. The repetition irked me just as much as the persistent flirting.

As well as repetitive phrases, the plot was repetitive before it grinded to a halt. All I’ll say is Amethyst reminded of a yoyo. But as soon as she stopped being a yoyo, nothing else happened. Okay, so they went camping, talked about garden designs, and threw a party, but nothing interesting happened. The romance overshadowed the plot to the point it can barely be categorised as anything else.

I just wasn’t expecting this to be a straightforward romance novel. I thought there’d be quirky inventions, an overarching plot involving the main villain for more than just a cameo role, and at least one original and clever situation for Clark to use his skill.

The book is very different from the one first painted in the opening chapters. If you’re looking for a paranormal romance set in a non-standard western, then hop on in. It’s not a bad book, but it just wasn’t what I hoped for.

Source: NetGalley.com

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Hidden Gem Awards: Contest for the Self-Published

The spots are now full. Thanks for all the social media support, guys!

Here’s the deal. For every 10 self published books I read, there tends to be one real gem. With that in mind, I’m opening my review doors to ten individuals who aren’t afraid of a bit of friendly competition. I'm hoping to find a fantastic self-pub author and help spread the word about their novel.

Theme: Supernatural Fiction

I'm going to be fairly flexible about what counts as supernatural fiction. All it needs to contain is some sort of supernatural or magical aspect as one of the key features of the novel. If it's more akin to fantasy, then you'll be better to wait until the next contest. If you're not sure, then enter anyway. I should be able to tell from your blurb.

You can post genres below that you would like to see in the future.


To Enter

You must be self-published.

You can enter by using the contact form on the right or posting a comment on the bottom of this post.

Books must contain fewer than 100,000 words. Ideal length would be 50-80K.

Let me know the title, blurb, and target audience (middle grade, young adult, new adult, adult).

You must be willing to offer a free e-copy of your novel. Thanks for the chance to read it.

Please show some support and follow my blog. Cheers!


The Stages


Stage 1

I will wait patiently for 10 contestants. Participants will be added to the list after they have sent me a copy of their novel. Once it’s full, the fun begins.


Stage 2

I will reject five of these novels fairly quickly based on the opening few chapters or so. I’ll give each book a fair chance, but there are certain red flags that I know to look out for.

Things that upset me: typos, bad grammar, vague language, purple prose, plain characters, plot holes, inconsistencies, clichés, or books that start in a very dull place.

Please remember that it is just my opinion and there is an element of competition to it. I'm also looking for a book that is well written with characters that feel real and a plot that grabs me from the start and leaves me sad to finish.


Stage 3

Of the five remaining books, I will first post up a showcase of the contestants with blurbs and links to GoodReads and Amazon. I’ll also mention a little about why I picked them.


Stage 4

Here’s where the contest really begins. I will read each of the five novels as if I bought them from a bookshop, complete with candid thoughts. If I don’t get to the end, I’ll explain when and why I stopped. If I do get to the end, I’ll post up a mini review.


Stage 5

Out of the books I finished, I’ll pick my favourite as a winner.


First Place Prizes

A full review by me, posted on Scookie Reviews, GoodReads, and Amazon.

An author interview.

Bragging rights You've just beaten 10 other novelists!

I’ll recommend you name onwards to a few other individuals I know who are looking to review self-published books (more details soon).


Extra Details

I expect the time between stage 1 and 3 to be around a month. This is a test run for a contest that I hope to hold a few times a year, so rule might be tweaked and timings will be worked out from this test run.

If several books are amazing, I might have joint winners or several author interviews.

Thanks for entering and good luck! Hopefully this will be a chance to discover fantastic new titles.

Monday, 16 March 2015

Favourite Press: Curiosity Quills

Most of my reviews are thanks to NetGalley.com, a site that allows me to ask for free review copies in exchange for an honest review. I'm well within my recommended feedback percentage, and I've got the badge to prove it.



I recently realised that one publisher has never disappointed me, from cover to blurb to content. Introducing Curiosity Quills Press. So many brilliant titles, where to start?

Their covers are so gorgeous I can't help but take a peek at the blurbs when browsing for new titles. It helps that their favourite genres match up perfectly to my own: Fantasy, Dark Fantasy Horror, Speculative Fiction, Paranormal and Urban Fantasy, Steampunk, Neo-Victorian, Mystery etc.

So here's a showcase of some of their past titles I've reviewed, and a couple of titles I will definitely be reading in the near future.

~*~

Recent Reviews:



Fifteen by Jen Estes

Verdict: Witty and imaginative time-travelling story for teens.

I really loved this book. I’ve already recommended it onwards! The writing is clever and the pacing is fast. I felt the charm from chapter one and just knew I was in for something special.

Every time Ash falls asleep, she lives in her future self and must learn how to change the present in order to stop the future from being so messed up by a Lakota legend monster. It sounds a bit wordy when I explain it, but Estes does a fantastic job.

With two timelines interweaved, I’m glad the author manages to make both the present and future entertaining in their own right. The story is fairly complicated, but easy to follow and always on the move to the next twist with gentle steering so that it doesn’t hurt the brain... Read More




Altar of Reality by Mara Valderran

Verdict:
A romance novel with dystopian on the side.

Madeline jumps between a hectic teen life and a post apocalyptic reality every time she has a seizure. It’s a fantastic idea but I’ll give you two warnings about the novel before you start: the romance-drama is high and this isn’t a standalone novel. If I had read it with those expectations it would have been five stars without a second thought whereas now I’m tempted to put 4.5 because I find fences rather comfortable at times.

Madeline has strength to her character but she can’t control her seizures. This means that her friends and family watch her like a popcorn kernel in the microwave, waiting for the seizures to burst out of her. Despite this, she comes across as a very capable damsel who doesn’t give up... Read More



Catch Me When I Fall by Vicki Leigh

Verdict:  If you want an original spin on a supernatural romance.

At the heart of this novel is a simple, clean idea which is shockingly original. Dreamcatchers are like guardian angels of the night, protecting us regular living humans in our sleep from the Nightmares, which are vicious creatures that feed on fear.

The story is told from first person –and a male perspective for once! Daniel is a Dreamcatcher who is burnt-out from two hundred years of successfully protecting his charges while they sleep. After successfully protecting his last charge for eighty years, he needs a break. Instead, he’s assigned a dangerous case, Kayla, who is a psychiatric patient with an unprecedented amount of nightmares attacking her... Read More



Reviews to come:


Treasure Darkly by Jordan Elizabeth

Seventeen-year-old Clark Treasure assumes the drink he stole off the captain is absinthe… until the chemicals in the liquid give him the ability to awaken the dead. 

Necromancy, a street smart secret half-brother, warring clans – this book sounds too enticing to skip out on. I've just started reading and I'm already impressed. It has that 'great book' feel from the first few pages, with atmospheric world building, characters that jump off the page, and . I can't speak for the whole novel, but so far I'm glad I picked it. Expect a review within the week.




Fairy Keeper by Amy Bearce

Forget cute fairies in pretty dresses. In the world of Aluvia, most fairies are more like irritable, moody insects.

I spotted this one a while back and waited for review copies to be released. Now it's a fully fledged novel with a 5 star rating on GoodReads already. I’ll get my hands on a copy one way or another as it sounds fantastic. I especially like the idea of fairy nectar as the key ingredient in an illegal elixir that causes dreaminess, apathy, and hallucinations. It's on my reading list.

~*~

Thank you, Curiosity Quills Press for the fantastic review copies. They've been fantastic so far, and I know to keep an eye out in the future.

Saturday, 14 March 2015

Book Review: Bittersweet

Bittersweet by Kimberly Loth

4 Stars

Verdict:
A story of survival and maturation of a troubled teen.

After reading the book, the blurb seems inaccurate, so I’ve edited it. It’s not my best work and might not sounds as enticing as the original, but I hope it fits the book better:

Every Sunday Savannah Ray gets an email from her dead dad. She doesn’t know how the emails work but she’s finally ready to start looking for answers and she doesn’t mind either as she’s not ready to let go. To find those answers Now that her mum is fed up of her rebellious behaviour, she has to go to the one place she swore she’d never set foot in after he died—Haunted Valley, the amusement park. Once there and on the hunt for answers bullied by co-workers & customers, she is distracted by the charming Dallas and falls hard for him. When the answers she finds aren’t what she expected and Dallas betrays her, Savannah must make a choice—succumb to the insanity that destroyed her father or find the strength to rise above it. But Savannah and Dallas both hold secrets that threaten their new relationship. Will Haunted Valley help her move on, or will it destroy her from the inside out?

The cover is also perplexing because Savannah has a shaven head, pierced eyebrow, and wears normal clothes. Seeing as I decide whether or not to request a review copy based on the cover and blurb, I feel mislead. I’ve tried to ignore this when writing the rest of my review.

Savannah was a difficult character to like. She starts off struggling with her dad’s passing. While I felt sorry for her, I found her attitude only made things worse. At the same time, I could feel her pain. She really does have it bad. Her dad is dead, her best friend has betrayed her, her mum is nasty, some of her colleagues hate her, and even the season ticket holders are out to get her.

What I really like about this book is that Savannah grows as a character. A third of the way in, I warmed up to her. Her new best friend, Julia, makes Savannah’s life bearable. Designated love interest, Dallas, lifts some of the grief from her shoulders and allows her to open up. Through her encounters with them, she shares more of her story as she starts to mature.

I didn’t like how a lot of back-story was purposefully withheld yet discussed in front of me. For example, she shows another character her tattoo but we don’t get a description of it. We see his reaction, but it’s hard to know what it means without seeing the tattoo. Other sections discuss how what her best friend did was terrible, and if it was ‘that incident’ that went too far, and so many other vague, deictic references. I felt left out at times. I wanted something solid and specific to latch onto. However, if we knew all the details, there wouldn’t be much point in reading the book so I’m still in two minds about it.

We spend a bit too much time at the park learning Savannah’s job with her. There’s a lot of detail on all the rides and how they’re run, so at times I felt I prepared enough to step in for Savannah if she fancied a quick break. I found some of it interesting, but perhaps there was a bit too much detail surrounding the mundane.

After reading the last few chapters and the author note I was almost in tears. The message is powerful, and one that I think should reach more teens. The secondary message is conflicting though. If honesty solves a lot of the issues or at least allows them to heal, then a decision a few pages towards the end is questionable.

I think this book is worth reading just to see how Savannah grows as a character. She becomes a strong individual with a very honest and difficult message to share. I respect the author a lot for writing a book like this.

Source: NetGalley.com

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Book Review: Altar of Reality

Altar of Reality by Mara Valderran

5 Stars

Verdict
: A romance novel with dystopian on the side.

When sixteen-year-old Madeline suffers her first grand mal seizure, she finds herself in an unfamiliar reality, surrounded by strangers wearing familiar faces. Her best friend, Brandon, tells her that the world has fallen to chaos, the aftermath of World War III ten years ago. Madeline doesn’t remember anything from this life— especially not the explosion four years ago that killed her parents and landed her in a coma, or the Lord Commander; a zealot leader of the Southern Territories now searching for her.

Madeline barely has time to process everything before waking up to the life she’s always known. As soon as she dismisses it all as a strange and vivid dream, she finds herself back there once more. Unsure if she’s truly caught in the middle of a brewing rebellion, or teetering on the brink of insanity, she finds herself flipping between the two lives. Her heart becomes torn between two versions of the same boy and the lines between her realities begin to blur as she struggles to save her lives in both worlds.


~*~ 

Madeline jumps between a hectic teen life and a post apocalyptic reality every time she has a seizure. It’s a fantastic idea but I’ll give you two warnings about the novel before you start: the romance-drama is high and this isn’t a standalone novel. If I had read it with those expectations it would have been five stars without a second thought whereas now I’m tempted to put 4.5 because I find fences rather comfortable at times.

Madeline has strength to her character but she can’t control her seizures. This means that her friends and family watch her like a popcorn kernel in the microwave, waiting for the seizures to burst out of her. Despite this, she comes across as a very capable damsel who doesn’t give up.

The other characters are pretty smart and diverse. They are aware of their flaws but can’t help themselves, and nothing feels more real than characters that mess up despite their best intentions.

The first half of the book has a heavy emphasis on the love triangle... well, pyramid might be more accurate description, although as soon as Madeline crossed into the other reality, I had no idea what shape her relationship web resembled.

With a dystopian novel, I want to know about the world just as much as the characters. But after a snippet of the post-apocalyptic environment, we go back to the love enneagram. The romance is highly saturated in this novel, and while I wanted a few more drops of dystopian world stirred in, I soon realised that I had to change gears to enjoy the unexpected genre domination.

That’s not to say I didn’t find the testosterone spurred fights engaging. The love dodecahedron was certainly well executed and even took me by surprise in a few places. Some might find Madeline’s boy issues trivial considering what was happening in reality number screwed, but I still wasn’t putting the book down any time soon.

Two of the love interests are gifted to us before the book begins so we don’t get to see why they fell for Madeline. As more boys seem to trip up over her, I started to wonder what type of plumage this girl is waving around to attract just about anyone who lays eyes on her – but there’s more going on than meets the eye, thankfully. That said, this girl is truly blessed with all the family and friends who can’t imagine their lives without her. She’s also prized by the Lord Commander in the dystopian reality, although I have a feeling there’s more to it than currently mentioned.

The world building is more atmospheric than specific. I know what happened, but not why, how, or who. It quickly became apparent that the dystopian elements aren’t the main focus of the first book, and that just makes me want the sequel more. I also appreciated how author avoids info dumping and piling on the exposition, and instead focuses on a gripping story.

The ending is a bit cheeky. I like book 1 to be a story in its own right so that I can choose whether to continue with the series or not. This story has no sense of completion and will leave you gripping to the side of Dover’s white cliffs as you patiently wait for the next instalment.

So I had a few niggles but this is still a brilliant book and I’m now awaiting the sequel. I can tell this book won’t be for everyone, but I enjoyed it a lot so I think it deserves every star.

Source: NetGalley.com

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Book Review: The Secret Life of Bees

The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd

5 Stars

Verdict:
Beautifully written, steady-paced coming-of-age story in Southern America.

Set in South Carolina in 1964, The Secret Life of Bees tells the story of Lily Owens, whose life has been shaped around the blurred memory of the afternoon her mother was killed. When Lily's fierce-hearted black "stand-in mother," Rosaleen, insults three of the deepest racists in town, Lily decides to spring them both free. They escape to Tiburon, South Carolina--a town that holds the secret to her mother's past. Taken in by an eccentric trio of black beekeeping sisters, Lily is introduced to their mesmerizing world of bees and honey, and the Black Madonna. This is a remarkable novel about divine female power, a story women will share and pass on to their daughters for years to come.

~*~
Every line is original – beautiful and creative without a whiff of pretentiousness. The style felt heavy at times, especially earlier on when I wasn’t fully hooked, but at other times it was the main reason I was reading. I feel like there’s a lot I can learn from this author.

There are obvious themes. Racism, religion, bees... that’s not what this book is about though. It’s about love in a way that warms your heart and gives you hope for people, even the ones who make terrible mistakes.

I liked Lilly a lot. I loved August. And I felt like I shouldn’t like Rosaleen, but it turns out I love her, and May and June too. Rosaleen intrigued me the most though, as she’s rough round the edge but loveable all the same.

Turns out I love bees too. I knew their behaviour was complex yet structured, but it really is a beautiful thing to learn about. I enjoyed how the author matches up facts about bees with Lilly’s life. Sue Monk Kidd has done her research well and made a book that is far more than just a good read.

The actual plot wasn’t the strength of this novel. The pace is quite steady, and if someone turned around and told me it was a memoir, I wouldn’t be surprised. Nothing too shocking happened, but there’s always something going on and it feels very realistic. If the writing wasn’t so amazing, and if I hadn’t wanted to meet August just to talk to her about life, I would have rated a bit lower. I loved the characters and writing style, a lot of it was touching, but it’s not the most eventful book.

I hadn’t read anything like it before, but I’ve had a browse of other reviews and noticed that a lot of people said it was cliché – a typical Southern coming of age story. If the book sounds familiar and the writing doesn’t draw you in, then you probably won’t like it. I’m reading outside my genre here so I’m not exactly an expert, but if I’m going to pick one Southern coming of age story, I’m glad I went with this one.

It had me teary at times and smiling at others. The mystery of the mother ties the book together, and kept me reading because I had to know what happened. I’m glad I read it. I think this is a book I’ll pass on, so it can spread a bit of life philosophy onwards.

This might just be me, although I really hope someone else felt this way, but I couldn’t pick up this book without Eddie Izzards voice saying, “I’m covered in bees!



Source: Bought from charity shop.

Sunday, 8 March 2015

Book Review: A Whisper of Wolves

A Whisper of Wolves by Kris Humphrey

3 Stars

Verdict:
Quick and cheerful middle grade read. Easy on the eyes.

When a raven drops a white feather at the doorstep on the day of your birth, it is a symbol of your destiny. You are a Whisperer – a guardian of the wild. After many years of peace in the kingdom of Meridina, rumours are spreading of a planned invasion – could the demonic Narlaw be returning from the darklands? It is up to the Whisperers and their animal companions to defend Meridina, protect Princess Ona and stop the Narlaw from destroying their world.

When hunters from her village disappear without a trace, Alice suspects that something sinister is at work. With the help of Storm, her wolf companion, Alice fights to save her village. The Narlaw are on the attack and it’s up to the Whisperers to stop them…







~*~

This is a very high three stars from me, especially towards the end, but I just couldn’t bring myself to give it four.

The main problem for the both of our main characters is that Narlaw demons are attacking and need banishing. It’s easy to read, easy to follow, and some of the situations seemed a bit too easy to fix. Even for middle grade novel, the plot felt very simple, and while I found it to be a pleasant read, I wanted more from it.

Dawn is the Palace Whisperer and already knows her stuff but is yet to prove herself. On the other hand, Alice is an apprentice in a distant village. I thought we’d learn all about the Whisperers through her mentor, Moraine, and her teachings. But after letting us know that they are protectors who can talk to an animal and banish the Narlaw, we’re away with the story and that’s about as much detail as we ever get. It’s such a good base concept but there’s really not much to it at this stage. I like it, but it just seems a bit thin.

I liked the heroines. Both Alice and Dawn share the ‘take action’ quality that any protagonist needs. Again, we only see a slither of them. There wasn’t much to connect to, like a socket with a hole missing. I wanted another hole, another dimension to their lives to make me understand them and feel invested. Usually books jump to ‘love interest’ but family, friends, or even hobby would do.

Like, like, like. Not love.

Maybe if Alice and her mentor Moraine talked a bit more about being a Whisperer then the reader would get a better sense of depth and become a little fonder of the relationship I assume they must share. Dawn grates with a few of the characters at the palace and by the end she really starts to show some power, but it was all too little too late. I get the feeling that further along the series Dawn might become my favourite character.

Ah, I almost forgot about Alice’s wolf partner. I thought ‘A Whisper of Wolves’ would have more to do with....well... the wolves. They get a bit of a mention, but the title is a tad misleading now that I think about it. ‘A Whisper of Birds’ would make far more sense.

Don’t get me wrong, this was an enjoyable book. You’ll probably lap it up in one sitting, but an extra 5,000 words spent on character and world building would have been words well spent in my opinion.

Source: NetGalley.com

Friday, 6 March 2015

Book Review: Fifteen

Fifteen by Jen Estes 

5 Stars 

Verdict:
Witty and imaginative time-travelling story for teens.

Legend has it if you die in your dreams, you die in real life. Fifteen-year-old Ashling Campbell knows that’s not true because when she closes her eyes each night, she doesn’t dream about public nudity or Prom dates. Instead, she’s catapulted to the front row of her future self’s execution - fifteen years from now - where monsters have taken control of her hometown and she, or rather, her 30-year-old counterpart, is their public enemy number one.

For three months and counting, it’s been the same dream… until an encounter with an antique dreamcatcher. Ash falls asleep to discover she’s no longer a mere spectator in these dreams - now she’s astral-projecting into the body of her future self. Each night, she goes on the run with a ragtag group of rebels - who have no idea she’s really a high school sophomore and not their noble warrior. She has to make it through each night so that she can wake up and find a way to change the future. For every action she does in the present day, she falls asleep to discover it had an equal impact fifteen years later. It’s up to her to manage her two worlds and make sure she’s still got a place in both.

~*~

I really loved this book. I’ve already recommended it onwards! The writing is clever and the pacing is fast. I felt the charm from chapter one and just knew I was in for something special.

Every time Ash falls asleep, she lives in her future self and must learn how to change the present in order to stop the future from being so messed up by a Lakota legend monster. It sounds a bit wordy when I explain it, but Estes does a fantastic job.

With two timelines interweaved, I’m glad the author manages to make both the present and future entertaining in their own right. The story is fairly complicated, but easy to follow and always on the move to the next twist with gentle steering so that it doesn’t hurt the brain.

Ash is a fantastic main character. She has the type of smarts that a protagonist needs, and her wittiness is never snide or contrived which makes her very likable. She’s still young and uncertain at times, but her experiences make her strong. We get to see her fail as well as adapt to her future life. This is particularly well planned because the reader starts off just as clueless as Ash, and so we share in her experience and learn with her.

As well as a Lakota monster, the future also holds Coop, who is amazingly hot, protective, and sees Ash as someone who she hasn’t quite evolved into yet. With some of the puzzle pieces missing, the romance is a bit odd to start with, and again I could relate to the way young Ash handled the situation.

Her best friend in the present is Tate, who is just as witty and a little more mischievous. Ash and Tate bounce off each other well as they try to fix the future. He was almost my favourite character, except he has a soft spot for a shallow and horrid girl named Nadette. If I had Ash’s ability (and I know it doesn’t quite work like this but) I would want to have a good chat with Tate about what the words ‘selfish’ and ‘user’ mean...

Here I go, talking about them if they are real. Usually I’ll go on about character consistency and development, but I couldn’t help but think of them as real people with choices. This story made me switch off my editor brain and instead enjoy the ride.

The sleep clinic material gets my approval too. From the word polysomnography, I perked up and expected the author to treat terminology like glittering generalities, if anyone knows what I mean... Instead I was impressed that Estes knows her stuff but perhaps made a few tweaks so that the plot works. I can live with that.

There were a few sneaky twists that I can smugly say I predicted, but even when you start to catch on, it doesn’t make the story any less interesting. The book certainly ended on an unexpected note. I’m still gushing over the narrative, too. I try to inject the same type of humour into my writing, but Estes is ten times better at it. I should have got a pen out and started making notes, but I was too enthralled by the whole thing I read it within a day.

I will definitely be sticking with this series. I don’t know how a sequel will compare or where Estes will lead us. All I know is that we can’t leave things like that, and I can’t wait to hear more from Ash!

Source: NetGalley.com

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

When Characters Are Clueless

There’s a type of sentence that keeps appearing lately and I really wish it wouldn’t. Within a few measly words, the author has openly admitted their shortcomings and tried to solve it using this crafty little technique. It’s not even sweeping the problem under the rug – it’s holding the rug up to guests so they can get a good look at what you’ve hidden before offering them a tea.

More specifically, it’s when the characters acknowledge that they are either confused by what they’re doing, or when they’re struggle to put their actual situation into words so they more or less shrug at another character.

Motivation: “I don’t know why I’m doing this, but I’m doing it anyway.”

Concepts: “I don’t think anyone understands it.”

These are two lines I’ve pulled from books I’ve recently read, ones that were a sinking ship anyway but at this point it feels like the author has given up.

If the characters have no idea, what chance does the reader have? If you ever find yourself using this plot device, it’s time to start questioning whether you’ve got yourself a solid concept and a realistic plot progression.

Of course, a character can act on their gut, especially if they’re a spontaneous risk taker or someone who tends to get involved when they see issues. It makes sense if the character is in danger or nothing left to lose. Then again, we’re starting to develop actual motives here, and that’s where the real problem stems.

When this line is at its worst, it’s usually because the events leading up to it haven’t been sufficient to support anything other than confusion. The author has spotted a potential flaw. In those cases, the line translates to:

Motivation: “Look. I need my character to do this because then some other stuff will happen and it will all make sense. I promise.”

Concepts: “Okay, I know it’s a bit wordy but go with it for now.”

Character needs some sort of motivation. Concepts need to be understood on some sort of level, even if some information is withheld. If the characters are flummoxed rather than curious then there’s a good chance your readers will be too. As I said in one my recent reviews, the questions should be ‘What will happen next?’ or ‘When will we learn more about that?’ rather than just a slack-jawed, furrow-browed, “What?”

If you’re struggling to write around this issue, then welcome to the writers’ block. We did have cookies, but we ate them all as we pondered our plot issues...

SP Book Review: Unfortunates

Unfortunates by Lillian Graves

2 Stars

Verdict: Needs a developmental edit.

Seventeen-year-old Vanessa is about to get a new life—whether she wants one or not. With a best friend keeping a crazy big secret from her and her parents rubbing their perfect high school love story in her rocky relationship's face, she doesn't have any more cares to give. So when Adam, a ghost who calls himself an Unfortunate, tells her she is his Match - the one who can help him earn his second chance at life by committing random acts of kindness – she nearly blows a fuse.

No, scratch that. It shot straight off. I mean, why help a ghost who may just be in her head? What was in it for her?

After the denial and resistance pass, Vanessa begins to realize not all of arrangement is against her favor. There is something rather cute about Adam and maybe, just maybe, if he is telling the truth and she brings him back to life, he could be her new date to prom.

But can her selfish ways live up to his expectations?


~*~


The Rating Breakdown

Enjoyment: 2 I got pretty frustrated with it.

Writing Style: 3 A few quirky lines. A few confusing lines.

Plot: 1 Other than milling around and talking about concepts? Not much. 

World & Concepts: 1 Confusing, underdeveloped, inconsistent. 

Characters: 2 Nessa was well developed but not very likable. The rest... were ‘the rest’.

Finish: 5  No typos. Great cover.

Strengths: Made me smile in a few places.

Weakness: No real plot and concepts are inconsistent. 

~*~

To rant or not to rant...

I could write a hefty developmental report for this book. Instead I’ll try and keep this as short as possible.

It started to get confusing pretty early on, and from 50% onwards I was wondering where the main plot was hiding. The story seemed to be a wordy explanation of the different ghosts, called Unfortunates, with Vanessa’s love life thrown in-between. If you can take it on face value you might love it, but if you’re like me and can’t ignore inconsistencies and things that just don’t make any sense then you probably won’t do well with it.

I found Vanessa (Nessa) intriguing. She’s mouthy and enjoys playing the kid-card against her parents, but she also has an altruistic side. There was something very real about her. Then again, she tends to act like a hypocritical bully which makes her difficult to like at times, as realistic as she might seem. At least she was interesting to follow but it’s always better when you can root for the characters.

I liked Nessa’s parents the most. The mum reminded me a little of my own and the dad seemed loving and not afraid to call Nessa out when she’s being rude (shame he wasn’t around more often). It’s great to see an older couple still affectionate too.

That’s it for the characters. I’ve already forgotten the rest. As for the plot, nothing much happens other than milling around and learning about Unfortunates. A lot of coincidental events occur and Nessa went about her daily life. This wasn’t necessarily dull, but if you asked me where will the character be ten pages later, it could have been absolutely anywhere. Probably at school, though. Or trying to shake off Eric, the boyfriend of three years that she’s fed up of.

As for the concepts, I loved the idea of human Matches being linked to ghostly Unfortunates. That’s what drew me in, and it’s kinda what spat me back out.

Once you get into the details, it makes absolutely no sense. We have Ones, Twos, and Threes, and despite the amount the book went on about them, I had no idea what these terms meant until another reader took a stab at explaining it to me afterwards. There are also bizarre and illogical tasks that needed to take place for...reasons. Kindness acts are also some type of currency, but how you spend and receive isn’t something that’s defined or shown.

It is almost like the author didn’t have a clear mechanism figured out before writing it. Even the characters seemed confused. “I don’t think anyone understands it,” Nessa says at one point. What hope does a reader have if even the characters have no idea?

The writing style was a little difficult too. Sometimes it was creative, other times it felt odd. Occasionally I had to reread sections to work out why the characters had mood swings, but for the most part, there’s an original spark. Some lines from the first part made me smile as well. I had high hopes to start with because the writing is quite strong.

Part of me thinks ‘Good writer, wrong story’. I’d be interested to see some of Lillian Graves’ future novels. Some writers take a few books before they really nail the whole writing thing. It’s not as easy as it looks...

Source: Author (Thank you, and sorry I couldn’t be more positive!)

Monday, 2 March 2015

SP Book Review: Girl of the Book

Girl of the Book by Princila Murrell

3 Stars

Recommend:
Young children moving from a Western lifestyle to an Eastern.

Twelve year old Courtney Parker is devastated to have to leave her friends and South Africa behind when her father accepts a lucrative contract and the family relocate to Saudi Arabia.

Jeddah feels like a different planet to Johannesburg. In spite of her initial reluctance to venture out of the comfort and security of their new home, she quickly forms friendships with Nizar Bukhari and Lana Alahmadi. However, not everyone is happy with the situation.

Courtney must learn to adapt to an alien, seemingly unforgiving culture and stand up to the bullies that are making her school life hell.

Nizar and Lana must both try to overcome their family prejudices in order for their friendship with Courtney to survive. Will they succeed? Will they be able to set aside their differences? Can they bridge the cultural divide?


~*~


The Rating Breakdown 

Enjoyment: 3  A quick read, but I wanted more plot.

Writing Style: 3  Clear and easy to read, but sometimes a little bland. 

Plot: 1  Situations where things are learned rather than a plot.

World & Concepts: 4  I learned a lot about the culture, but wanted to see more of Saudi Arabia.

Characters: 4   Main character is likeable, although I thought she was younger than stated.

Finish: 4   Reads flawlessly. I’m not a fan of the cover art but the pictures inside were a nice touch. 

Strengths: I enjoyed learning about a Muslim culture from multiple perspectives. 

Weakness: Very niche audience. 

~*~

This is a bit of a young novel for me. The middle grade novels I tend to review have more of an ageless quality, like Disney films and (when no one’s looking) Adventure Time. This didn't have the same appeal for me personally, although it will probably appeal well to young children moving from a Western environment to an Eastern and feel a bit anxious.

Usually when a book is written with the intentions of teaching, the author to sacrifice the plot and entertainment factor in aide of learning. This book is no different. It’s short and easy to get through but I wouldn’t recommend it to the average reader.

The main character is twelve year old Courtney, although she sounds a lot younger than twelve. She’s a white girl who has to move to a school in Saudi Arabia and needs to adapt to the new culture, although we get to see snippets of others' perspectives which give a balanced view of Muslim life.

The voice is young and simple. It’s mainly narrated by a typical young girl with an annoying younger brother and a reluctant attitude to uprooting her life. I could sympathise, but I couldn’t relate. Young children might love the characterisation, but it’s not written in a way that grabs the older audience. It’s a bit too simple, missing out on that ‘spark’ factor.

I found it was often closer to non-fiction than fiction. Courtney discovered more about a world which is out of her comfort zone in a series of episodic events. I enjoyed leaning through Courtney as I only knew a little bit more than she did about the culture, but when each situation only lasted a page or two, I needed something more: I wanted an overarching plot that would bring the ideas together to form some sort of peak with a resolution towards the end.

There was no grand plot. The conflict included reluctance to be there and a few difficult classmates, but the character rarely acted on these things. The whole book is very passive. The characters experience life without being able to act on it, and have mundane kid experiences. The stakes? None. Action? None. Climax and resolution? Minimal. No mystery, no suspense. Don’t get me wrong, there were a few great scenes, but there wasn’t a clear middle and end - nothing that makes the story cohesive. A bit of a plot started to develop within the last few pages, but it was resolved quickly. That section was more like an extended episode.

If you know someone who’s moving to a Muslim country and has small children, this would be a great book to recommend them. Or maybe this would work well in schools to help children learn about other cultures. I can see it being very useful, but it's more of a teaching tool than a book for entertainment.