Mark of FIre by Richard Phillips

Book Review: Mark of Fire by Richard Phillips (Top Review on Amazon!)

Link to original posting here: https://www.amazon.com/gp/customer-reviews/R2DAJD85CY4S4C/ref=cm_cr_dp_d_rvw_ttl?ie=UTF8&ASIN=B06ZYW8B2D

Looking for a fantasy story with an intricate magic system, a solid plotline, and of course unique names you’ll never hear anywhere else? Then this is a good choice for you. But if you want deep characterization and powerful emotions, you likely won’t find it here. Despite that, I’d still call it a worthwhile, quick read.

For those worried about content, there is some violence of course, but it never goes into extreme detail. And I think that the only swearing used is the ones made up for the story, so not too much to worry about, unless the mere mention of something being a swear word offends you.

As for the story itself, this one took a bit to get going, and definitely improved later on. But I nearly put it down in the first few chapters. There were so many proper nouns after the prologue that I didn’t bother trying to keep them straight, and there are a lot of named characters I’m still not sure about. So if you’re wondering which ones actually matter, focus on Arn and Carol, who are the protagonists. It generally sticks with them from a 3rd person perspective, with occasional visits to Mr. Not A Good Guy and a few randoms as well. And because a lot of names appear upfront, I was surprised when one of the guys who seems like he’s kind of just a terdmonkey is really THE BIG BAD. At first I figured he was more of an advisor like Jafar from Aladdin (Which I guess if he’s THE BIG BAD he really IS like Jafar…), until it became clear that nope, this is THE GUY.

Anyway, The King Joffrey of the story decides to be a buttmunch and starts a long chain of events leading a group of people leaving the region and going… I’m still not sure what their goal was. Honestly, I was a little confused on how the main plotline got started in the first place. I felt like it was rushed through far too quickly.

And for me, that was the overall theme of this story; important events were rushed through. As this will be a trilogy, normally going quickly through some of these early events isn’t a problem as there’s a lot to cover. However, setting and description was crafted with great detail, and I would have preferred less setting and more focus on the characters and their motivation. Life-altering decisions would frequently be made in half a page or so with minimal discussion, sort of like,

“Hey, I have this idea. But it will affect the lives of thousands of people.”
“Hmm, I’m not sure about that. We should consider all our options.”
“I already did. This is the best. We should do it.”
“Well I’m convinced.”

And I’d be left scratching my head wondering how such a huge decision was made so effortlessly.

This feeling of being rushed through made it so we don’t get as much insight as I’d like into the characters. This book is strong when it comes to the storyline and action sequences, and if that’s what you like you won’t be disappointed. However, It felt like this series was originally going to be a book or two longer but was cut to fit into a trilogy. Usually, I have the opposite issue for Fantasy giving too much, like side characters that don’t really matter getting 100 pages of useless side battles. But for once, I would have liked MORE, as I was frequently surprised at how quickly battles and escapes played out, and how the characters didn’t discuss them very much.

The magic system was definitely unusual and one of the strong points, but I’m still not sure how powerful spells can actually get and the effect these ultra spells will have on the caster. There’s a lot of the usual stuff: The Avatar collection of Earth, Wind, & Fire (But strangely, no Water that I can recall…), but also some MASSIVE spells like changing the weather in September (Ha! Like the song…) and nearly insurmountable ones with an enormous area of effect I’m not sure how they can stay maintained. I’m assuming this will probably be covered in the sequel, but for now it was a little bit perplexing.

Still, I didn’t have any trouble reading to the end after I got through the first section. So if you love Fantasy and reading for action sequences, you’ll probably love this story, and while it has its flaws, I will likely see the trilogy through to its end.

Crimes Against a Book Club by Kathy Cooperman

Book Review: Crimes Against a Book Club by Kathy Cooperman

Link to original posting here: https://www.amazon.com/gp/customer-reviews/RG5TCC0M9TSX0/ref=cm_cr_dp_d_rvw_ttl?ie=UTF8&ASIN=B01JOEK5WK

I liked this one. Definitely more in the upbeat/humor department, so if that’s what you’re looking for, come here!

You know how there’s that idea that book clubs don’t actually discuss books? Cooperman took that idea and ran with it, while at the same time, making sure that some ACTUAL books are discussed. An interesting take on book clubs, I know.

I’m not saying the Book Club in the story itself has many conversations about books–the goal was to keep it SOMEWHAT realistic at after all–but they’re brought up elsewhere. This as done as the opener at the beginning of every chapter, where a trademark section of famous books are brought up and related to the character that the chapter will focus on. And at least several DOZEN popular books are mentioned with enough detail that at least the Cliffs Notes were browsed.

It’s a clever idea, but it’s also the reason I’m knocking off a star. Because sometimes, the major conflict or plot point was spoiled in these mini-synopses. I’m a pretty well-read guy, probably eeking my way into the low thousands of books read, and I’ve read a decent portion of the books Cooperman brings up at the first of the chapters. (Where’s Monte Cristo anyway?!) But not ALL of them.

I know most classic pieces are too old to warrant a spoiler review, but still, several times the ending of one of these stories I HAVEN’T got around to reading was brought up… Yeah. Not my favorite thing. It’s not on the level of ruining who Darth Vader REALLY is (!) but I think it would’ve been better to use this method without the spoilers; it’d be like me spoiling the “special ingredient” from the description. Still, It really is astonishing how many separate books Cooperman could tie-in to her characters and for me, it’s the new record–at least for explicit comparisons.

So if that’s not a big deal to you or if you’ve read ALL the classics because you have The Flash level of speed reading, then absolutely give this one a chance. It’s kind of an unusual premise, and an unusual take on the con(wo)man tale, but it works. I mean, granted, some of the plot is a little absurd–I’m not a big fan of the ending (Oh wow, big surprise!) for instance–but there’s nothing so wholly unfeasible, so blatantly inconceivable that The Twilight Zone looks like a documentary in comparison.

Character wise, the women are the stars. While there’s a couple blokes here and there, they’re more bit parts, supporters, that sort of thing. Starting out, it’s pretty clear who your two protagonists are. The brilliant and comedic Annie Baker (Who I know from school! Just, a non-fiction one) and the suave and beautiful Sarah Sloane. Annie’s an oddball and has some issues, but the biggest issue with Sarah might be that she’s made from the ingredients of The Powerpuff Girls minus Chemical-X; she’s equally smart as Annie and has unTrumpable moral standards, friendly, warm, helpful, so on. The Chuck Norris Standard of Quality.

Their tale is told through third-person, but uses much more than three people. In the middle, Cooperman gave chapters to so many characters I thought were minor that I started to question if there were any protagonists at all. I wouldn’t say it’s a bad thing, they had some humorous and empowering anecdotes after all, but they were all bunched together, which I thought was an odd choice.

There’s not much in the questionable content department for this book either. Sex and language are pretty sparse, though strangely enough it may be F-tomic bomb that’s dropped the most, maybe half a dozen times or so. There are no sex scenes or anything like that, and no glamorization of the worst of humanity (depending on your opinion of child therapy that is).

It’s an easier read, but that doesn’t mean it’s not complex. An impressive amount of knowledge and research was poured into this book but conveyed in simple English. There’s plenty of themes and symbols to go around, but if you don’t care about such things, the book is set up in such a way that missing them doesn’t detract from the story. I certainly missed a few at first glance, and figuring them out later added another layer instead–don’t think I didn’t notice the beverage of choice!

So if you’re looking for something with less gloom n’ doom with a couple of laugh-out-loud moments and a focus on positive themes like self-empowerment and motherhood, give this a try, and you shouldn’t be disappointed.

Book Review: The Odds of Loving Grover Cleveland by Rebekah Crane (Kindle First November Option)

For those of you with Kindles looking for your freebie this month, I highly recommend The Odds of Loving Grover Cleveland by Rebekah Crane. There’s a reason that all the reviews are 5 stars (as of now at least). This review is also posted at Amazon here.

I’ve been reading Kindle First Books since the program started. And poor sad, sad little me, most of the time I’ve been disappointed (Just look at some of my reviews). The Odds of Loving Grover Cleveland is by far the best book I’ve read these last few years as a loyal First member. Even the title is a fantastic fit, as weird as it sounds at first glance. I mean, Grover Cleveland? Like the President? The only thing I know about the guy is that he was elected for two non-consecutive terms, and the only reason I know that is because my mom made me eat all my meals on a President placemat so I didn’t spill mac and cheese on her stained cedar. Oh, and he had a different color bow tie in the second picture, and as we all know, bow ties are cool.

The book is written in present tense, which isn’t my favorite, but I give it a pass since it’s in first person. This means tha we learn about what happens with our main character as she experiences it, which I think in this case, was a good choice.

The book takes place almost entirely at some sort of summer camp. But it’s not your run of the mill murder camp run by some guy called Jason, nor is it Space Camp where all those rich kids come back and brag about how they got to build mini rockets and ride that crazy spinning simulator, a marvel us plebians could never comprehend. Actually, they never really say what exactly Camp Padua is, but I’m assuming it’s for troubled teens and/or teens with behavior disorders to share the summer with kids like themselves. Basically, it’s a a story of how these teens go to summer camp and how it changes them; and how they change it in the process. Yet at the same time, it’s NOT basic; it’s both a simply-told story we’ve all heard yet a unique one at the same time. It’s hard to describe. Maybe it’s like the Breakfast Club? That comes up a few times in the book, but I’ve never seen it. Just read this book. Really.

In case you’re not convinced yet, the protagonist is at camp and doesn’t seem to happy about it. I’ll just call her “Main” or some variation. People that read reviews are smart; you’ll pick up on it. Anyway, we open up with Main Squeeze and she seems a bit… Constrained. Odd. When she gets in a bind (or just, exists, I guess) she likes to conjugate French verbs. She tries to keep to herself, stay stuck at nowhere, but come on, this is camp, no way that’s going to happen. Some of the things she dealt with hit close to home, like the apathy she has when she should be feeling SOMETHING when the people around her are, but doesn’t. I thought her journey dealing with that was remarkably accurate. Main Street quickly meets Grover Cleveland, who shares the height but not the girth of the former commander-in-chief. He’s a quirky, outgoing string bean who’s like C-3PO in the asteroid field, knowing the odds to all kinds of random things like being struck by lighting. His name, what he does, maybe it has something to do with the title…? *nudge nudge*

Along with these two, there’s also the tougher than hermetically-sealed glass Cassie, the Blue Christmas Dori who needs to find herself (ha!) and even the well-known star of a popular game show (Or is he?), who all work together to make the camp counselors earn their pay. Now, even though I’m describing them with these quick tidbits, what makes Crane’s writing work so well is that the characters of this book aren’t caricatures scanned from DSM-III, but are shown as actual living, breathing human beings. The dialogue is the best I’ve read in a long, long time. It’s witty at times, simple at others, revealing or concealing depending on the situation. And the conversations and word choice sound like things a reality-based homo sapien might utter periodically.

I think this is a major point Crane wanted to show her readers, that everyone has imperfections, and they manifest themselves in each of us in different ways. For some of us that could be being too cheap to shop at the mall, other times it’s one of these disorders like the kids in this book. And then there’s those of us that are just too gersh dern good at Mario Kart Wii. We all have our problems. That doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with us.

It just means we’re alive.

It’s a good message, but parents, don’t expect it to be told through rainbow puppies on unicorns. There’s some F-bombs, sex jokes, tough problems at home, “adult situations”, you know, Teenagers 101. It’s not sugar-coated, but it’s not intentionally dark where every kid is the next Charles Manson because they somehow each have the single worst American childhood ever of all time. And they don’t just get into crazy, stupid situations, although of course, it’s camp, so… Yeah. Still, I feel like this content was woven in for realism and used artfully instead of for shock value, and that makes a yuge difference.

Of course, as much as I enjoyed the book, there were some… Interesting choices, but it’s still an easy five stars. I didn’t particularly care for the ending, or at least, the very very ending, and there were some times where the Main Idea said or thought things that were sappier than a overflowing spigot on a maple tree, but the otherwise realistic dialogue and strong characters more than made up for these brief moments.

Overall, this is not only easily the best Kindle First book I’ve read, but one of the top ten books I’ve read, and I’ll definitely be looking into more of what Rebekah Crane has to offer.

Book Review (Top Review on Amazon): The Special Power of Restoring Lost Things by Courtney Mauk

Original review at https://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/review/B01BXSFGE2/R1OJHCVV591422/ref=cm_cr_dp_mb_rvw_2?ie=UTF8&cursor=2

Phew, talk about a downer. Everything about this book is joyless, hopeless. It really fits in the mood of the subject matter, but for the time frame, a year after a girl’s disappearance, I thought there could be SOME lightheartedness, but there wasn’t really anything for this book. Like zip, zero, AND zilch.

All right, I’ll try not to spoil anything crucial, but yeah, this is a more detailed review so there’s bound to be one or two things that get ruined. My apologizes.

Writing Style: I like the short sentences, always thought they helped the pacing and the mood. What I don’t care for, and maybe I’m in the minority these days, is present tense. I think it’s limiting, and doesn’t draw me into the moment like it’s designed to. But with most of the books I’ve read lately in present tense, I’m starting to slowly, cope. The issue here is that Mauk likes to swap between past and present tense, as well as past and present moments. And there’s not much indication of the change. Like, “Whoa, this chick’s here with them?” Oh wait no, that’s the past. I caught on towards the end, only because I think the entire book from the “present” on takes place over 24 hours. So anything that doesn’t directly come after the last part must be in the past. It’s confusing, and not in the good way. For the most part, I got over it after I realized what happened, except one part where I have no idea how all the characters got together. Seemed very forced. Which reminds me…

Characters: I can’t argue that these aren’t developed characters. They are. But they’re the unlikable kind of developed, not like Jack Sparrow who’s kind of a dirtbag but in a cool way, but like Eeyore mixed with Marvin from Hitchhiker’s. True, these people are dealing with a very depressing situation. But they let do more than define them; they aren’t really anything else at all. The absence of the older daughter is everything, like hermits on snowy peaks devoting themselves to… solitude I guess? Of course it would change them, but I think Mauk went a little overboard. I mean, these people worshiped this girl who to me, was kind of a jerk. Maybe it was intended; the symbols of the cheap saint candles and how it relates to the title, and if so, +5 author points and a kudos bar, but the transformation is pretty extreme. Especially with the crazy, hardcore life that 20-year-old lived.

Anyway, there’s 3 main characters that get the story told from their point of view, and each chapter goes through them in order. First is Carol, the wife and mother, up for national award of I Love You Since You’re Not Here Anymore. This woman has issues. Enough that I don’t think the therapist she avoids going to could do anything to help except send her to Arkham. She worships her daughter once she moves out, and I guess bribes her with money to come by once a week? These past stories come up a lot, and they’re weird. Such a fool.

Next is Drew. They call him a straight shooter; you know, those of us who only take illegal drugs every once in awhile and leave the country on a whim as teenagers without telling our worried family. He’s a weirdo too, alternating between being the family’s strict provider and the cool dad that winks at your “magazine” stash. Nobody seems to like this guy, even though he seems to be the most sane of the family. Another fool.

Last of the trifecta is 15-year-old Ben, a kid who at first seemed to have learned from his sister’s poor lifestyle, then decides he’s just going to mimic her bad choices, complete with all the same deadbeats his sister palled around with. Remember that everyone worshiped her, so all of these adults not only let this kid do things that aren’t only reckless and life-threatening, they encourage it because his sister was the best at everything. He alternates between learning from what happened to sister and doing things differently back to copying her throughout the book. The legacy of fools.

Mood: Normally, I’d stick the plot here, but this is more appropriate. This isn’t as much a story about what happens as it is how the characters react and deal with their situation. It opens up dark and depressing, and never lets up. That’s not so bad by itself, I like a dark mood as much as the next body cloak with white make-up, but for it to work for me, to show how truly miserable their lives have become, I feel like it needs to be contrasted with the opposite. For me to truly feel the pain of the daughter missing, I want to see how the happy times they shared together. I want to see the laughter, the jokes, the teasing, anything like that. Maybe it’s because I don’t have kids, but this seemed to be missing that crucial piece and honestly ruined most of the book for me. I don’t think there was even one moment of this, and I don’t recall a single joke in this entire book. This is what put it down to Two Stars for me instead of me. Even those cerebral, intense Nolan movies have one or two jokes, but this one… Nothing. So don’t expect to smile.

So if you want a depressing read for whatever reason, or maybe you’re wondering how a very dysfunctional family deals with their hard circumstances, then you might like this. But if you want anything with the whole spectrum of human emotion, the highs and the lows, maybe steer clear of this one.

The Language of Dying by Sarah Pinborough

Amazon review also here.

For me, this was a fantastic read. But there’s two things to think about before picking this up:

1. It’s written in second person (When I saw YOU), and that’s a little jarring. This is honestly the first story I’ve read in second person that wasn’t written by a first grader. I would’ve preferred first person, but, well, we can’t always get what we want.

2. That dark, nameless presence thing is more a symbol than a part of the book. So if you’re (Second person, I’m so clever) looking for a supernatural/paranormal book, it’s more supernormal than paranatural.

If those two things are okay, then definitely, read this. Basically, this is a story about the narrator dealing with her father as he’s sick and dying and can’t do much for himself. Most of the story is told through flashbacks of the narrator living with her dad or dealing with her siblings (who show up for his dying time as well) and all those dramatic family dynamics like a sitcom’s Thanksgiving episode.

Maybe that’s not the best holiday since this is set in the UK. But it’s not all bangers and trainers; even if you’re unlucky enough NOT to be married to a hot Brit, it shouldn’t be a problem. (Poor, poor, people)

Full disclosure, I work in end of life care, and people react to their loved ones dying in different ways. Some people that read this might think that the family is apathetic, cold, unrealistic, but in my experience, that’s a common way to grieve when the death is slow and drawn out. Families grieve in different ways. This book doesn’t the kind of heartwarming, friendly advice like a televangelist saying all is well, but focuses on a different, troubled family and how they deal with it. And the depiction of these people and how they deal with it is the most real I’ve seen yet.

There’s more inspirational, life-changing books about the dying process out there, but for one with a less happy tone that realistically shows the way a broken family deals with the passing of the glue that held them together, read this one.