Category: Book Reviews

Summer with THE SUNSHINE SISTERS

Have I mentioned how much I love using Overdrive to checkout eBooks without ever leaving my house? It is the perfect library. And THE SUNSHINE SISTERS by Jane Green is a title you should check out (by any checkout method).


This isn’t my typical read. I say that half the time I write a review, I know. Maybe you’re wondering, “What IS your typical read?”
Glad you asked. I typically read:

  1. Fantasy – YA and series as opposed to epic. This is the genre that helps me escape and fully engages my imagination
  2. Christian Romance – I’m writing in this genre fairly regularly, so I need to read it in order to write it better. I also prefer things like Susan May Warren’s adventure romances over a straight “boy and girl fall in love” romance.
  3. Sweet Romance that’s more than just romance – I mean that there’s a mystery or an adventure or something. The romances I write tend to lean toward this, as well. The story is about the character’s struggle to change and the romance is a catalyst in that process.
  4. Women’s fiction – usually this is for a book club (as is the case with Ms. Green’s book reviewed below), but I’m also branching out into this genre because it’s where I hope to write in the future.

The Story

This is the story of a mother and her daughters.

The mother is a “B movie” actress who is always hoping for her big break. This motivation informs every decision she makes and impacts her children.

The oldest daughter, Nell, closes herself off to emotion. It’s the way she learned to cope with her mother’s rants and rages. When she becomes a single mother, she makes different choices for herself and her son, fully loving him as she doesn’t anyone else.

The middle daughter, Meridith, becomes a people-pleaser. She runs to London and her grandparents when she’s eighteen, but she can’t make independent decisions. Every time she does, it turns out badly which reinforces the lie that she’s meant to make others happy while ignoring her own unhappiness.

And then there’s the spoiled youngest girl, Lizzy. She roars through life mowing down all who try to stand in her way. This doesn’t make her successful or larger than life, but it does make her more like her mother than she’s willing to admit.

The story problem: can this family overcome the differences that divide them to unite and become a true family?

My Review

This story starts at the end. I don’t like that. It steals the tension from the story for me.
I think, “Oh, so she’s going to..blank.” Why do I care about what leads to that decision?

Green won me over by sharing only vignettes from the forty years of the characters’ lives that mattered to understand 1) why each daughter responded to her mother in that way and 2) where their personal lie came from. She proved she knew how to craft a great story.

Often if there are more than a couple narrating characters, I disengage from the story of many of them and gravitate to those chapters narrated by the ones I connected with. Even with four (and more) narrators, that didn’t happen with this book.

This doesn’t mean I LIKED all the narrators, but their stories intersected in a way that kept me engaged. Each scene moved the characters closer to the big reveal readers glimpsed in the opening chapter (a prologue).

There were several aspects that felt contrived to me and even came out of the blue rather than being hinted at naturally. And I predicted every outcome of the story (but I usually do, that’s a curse of being a fiction writer).

The end satisfied me in every way and gave a glimpse into what the future might hold for THE SUNSHINE SISTERS.

This is a 4.6 out of five star read, and well worth the time investment (and I devoured it in two days).

My Recommendation

This is a book for anyone with sisters or a mother. Yeah, that is most of you. Doesn’t everyone have a mother at least?

Even though I didn’t especially like the main mother character in this story, I could still relate to her struggles and failures. This is what makes the most meaningful story, and authors who are able to draw characters that our so real we “know” them deserve respect and praise.

Thanks for your wonderful snapshot of the Sunshine family, Ms. Green. You entertained, engaged and even enlightened me.

Have you read this book? What are your thoughts on it? What are your favorite genres to read?

Three Reasons I Avoid Writing Book Reviews

I read tons of books. And I enjoy reading them. Even if I don’t end up liking the book all that much, reading has the potential to make me a better writer of stories.
And even though I track all my books on Goodreads, I’ve stopped writing reviews for many of the books I read. At times, I don’t even give them a rating.
And, no, this isn’t just because I didn’t finish them. I don’t even add those ones to my “READ” shelf. I have a special shelf for them: “Abandoned.” And it used to be a lonely place, but not so much any more.
If you don’t finish a book, you have no business reviewing it. Or giving it a rating. I’m sorry, folks, but you shouldn’t even say why you couldn’t get through it.
Reviews are for finishers. Why? Because the story could have turned around. Maybe it was a slow starter. Plenty of books that went on to become blockbuster movies were a drag to begin reading. Nope, I’m not naming names here, but I’m sure you know who you are *winks*
Many of the books I read are advance copies meant for the sole purpose of garnering a review on release day. And sometimes I’ll bet the authors who asked this “favor” from me wish they wouldn’t have.
Because if you’ve read my reviews, you know I can be harsh. Some people have commented that my four-star reviews sound like they’re for two-star books.

I’m honest with my criticism.

I’ll be the first to announce that reading preference is all subjective. A reader’s idea of what makes a book wonderful is also subjective…to the criteria their enjoyment is based upon.

My criteria are few:

  1. A well-structured story (that isn’t predictable)
  2. Characters I can relate to and root for
  3. An obvious story problem with a clear resolution
  4. A dynamic main character (meaning this person CHANGES over the course of the story)

Sure, if you can make me laugh AND cry, you’ll get bonus points, but that won’t keep me from overlooking a lack of any of the above items.

In recent months, the number of books I’ve finished reading but haven’t written reviews for has increased. Here are the reasons for that:

ONE: SOMETHING IN THE STORY AWOKE MY BIASES

Yes, I just admitted I have biases. I’m sorry folks, but everyone does. Even if you consider yourself the most accepting and non-judgmental person on the planet, you have biases.
It’s impossible not to form them. If you disagree with this, let’s have a reasonable discussion about it in the comment section. (But don’t be surprised if I call out your biases when they appear in your commentary…because they will.)
For example, a recent book by an author whose stories I adore didn’t earn a review from me. The story line endorsed something that I am opposed to.
However, her writing was fine. The story met the other qualifications for being great. But I knew I wouldn’t be able to write an honest review without mentioning this thing that burrowed under my skin like a ravenous scarab.
So, I rated the book but didn’t write a review.
And I didn’t mention the reason anywhere.
In fact, I’m still not really telling anyone which book it was or what the THING was.

TWO: THE AUTHOR IS MY FRIEND

Okay, this is a tough one to admit. I’d love to say that I’m only friends with authors whose work I love and adore.
Alas, no.
Sometimes they are writing too far on the edge and I can’t buy into their fantasy world. They haven’t done the work to make me suspend my disbelief.
If I truly dislike the story or find the writing subpar, I might not even give a rating to the book.
In either case, I always contact the author directly if I’m giving anything less than four stars to their book. Because…I don’t want my “negative” review to affect their sales.
I’m an author, too. I might have been a reader first, but the business part of me understands that my opinion could sway people. And they might have enjoyed the story.
Who am I to keep people from reading something they might enjoy? Especially if the fact they bought it would help a friend of mine further their writing dream?
But…I’m not going to fib either. I’m not going to claim something is amazing when I growled about it.

THREE: THERE’S NOTHING REMARKABLE TO SAY

This is the one that I’ve decided is most prevalent for me (even though I’ve listed it third). Sometimes, I really like the book. It made me smile, laugh or tear up.

But when I finish, there’s nothing that stands out about it.

You can be sure it won’t get FIVE STARS in this case. But if I’m feeling warm and fuzzy, I’ll probably give it four stars. After all, all that means is that “I liked it” (on Amazon) and “I really liked it” (on Goodreads).
But if there’s nothing to SAY, why would I write a review?
If I give it a rating but not a review, you can most likely put it in this category. Unless the rating is three stars or less. And I really try NOT to give anything less than three stars.
Do you write book reviews? If not, why not? If so, what are your criteria?

What You Should Be Reading this Weekend

Weekends are the perfect time for cuddling up in front of a fire with a good book. It’s even better if you can get a bite-sized story that fills the one or two free hours perfectly. And I have a recommendation that fits both bills: ONE SNOWY NIGHT.

This is a new collection of four short stories released by Roane Publishing only a few days ago. Because it’s my publisher, I read the advanced copy several weeks ago. And boy did it get me in the mood for snowy nights cuddled up with my honey.

I’m not going to give you the summary. You can click over to my blog earlier in the week to read the blurbs for all the stories.

My Review

You’ll enjoy four- and five-star reads in this collection. It includes stories with traditional tropes but all of them have a twist. That’s exactly the way I enjoy my tropes.

Melissa J. Crispin takes the “I lost my memory” trope and throws it into an interesting situation. What if you forgot you were divorced? What if you woke up after an accident expecting to see your husband? Asking these questions worked for the author because the husband under consideration hadn’t wanted the divorce in the first place.

These characters weren’t especially relatable as far as careers go, but their emotions were universally understood. Although I thought the story shifted too suddenly in some areas, it was still a powerful, feel-good read that made me tear up.

Four stars.

If you haven’t read anything by T.E. Hodden, you’re in for a pleasant surprise. I’ve read several of his stories, and this one has the most “feels” of any I’ve read. Again, he uses a common trope–friends to lovers–and freshens it up with incredible stakes.

He employs two devices I’m usually NOT impressed with. The first is that most of the story is a flashback. The reason this doesn’t really work for me is because I know where the story’s going and that takes away the tension in the progression.

That didn’t happen here. In fact, I kept turning pages wondering, “Well, how did this happen?” And although I figured out the big misunderstanding fairly early, I still wanted to keep reading.

The other thing is the use of first AND second person. I especially dislike second person because I never feel the “you.” In this case, the author pulled off this strange point of view. It came across as the narrator telling the story to the love interest (the “you” of the story). Some skilled writing went into this.

Five stars.

If you like the friends to lovers trope when it’s separated by a time lapse, you’ll like Laurie Treacy‘s story. While I felt like it told us the individual stories of Danielle and Quinn rather than truly building their romance, I still enjoyed it. Part of that could have been the hometown setting, which is one I generally adore.

The characters were well-developed and I could relate to their struggles. The plot progressed very much as expected in a romance, but I never felt the budding (or revisited?) relationship was in peril, so it didn’t have the sort of tension I need to fully engage with a romance-only story.

Four stars.

The final story I read in the collection was by Charlotte Snead. “One Snowy Day” took the trope of surrogate mother to wife and twisted it by giving an incredibly unique situation as the setup. It didn’t have the same “winter afternoon” feeling as the other stories, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t enjoyable and engaging.

I never connected with these characters the way I did in the other stories. The only one who had my empathy was the little girl, Molly. I wanted the aunt and dad to get together so Molly would finally have a happy home.

Four stars.

My Recommendation

If you enjoy sweet romance, you’ll want to pick up this collection. Each story offers enough familiarity to pull you right in and enough originality to keep you reading.

These aren’t holiday stories. Yes, most of them center on events that happen in the winter, but many of them span several months or years.

Once you sample these authors, you’ll be back to Roane Publishing to read more from them. And that’s a perfect way to throw support to a small indie publisher.

Don’t forget the Giveaway for a $10 gift card.

What are you reading this weekend? I hope you’ll consider adding One Snowy Night to your pile.

BIG MAGIC for Creatives

At the suggestion of an author I follow, I checked the audiobook of BIG MAGIC: CREATIVE LIVING BEYOND FEAR written by Elizabeth Gilbert. After all, I needed something to listen to while I cleaned the house and logged miles on the pavement.

In case you’re not familiar with authors, Elizabeth Gilbert is the author of EAT, PRAY, LOVE, so she had a little authority in the are of creativity. As a bonus, she narrated the audiobook.

What’s the Magic?

Inspiration is the magic behind creativity. There’s tons of noise about listening to your muse and being inspired by certain things.

Gilbert has an interesting view on inspiration. She proposes that ideas are the offspring of inspiration. Ideas float freely through the air around us, buzzing into the hearts and minds of various people, looking for a receptive venue.

When they find an artist that pauses to consider them, they stay awhile. They plant their seedling concept into a ready mind where the willing artist considers it.

If the artist, waters and feeds and otherwise tends the idea, it happily grows and flourishes, until finally it becomes the premise for a novel, theme of a painting or thought behind a symphony. Then it goes fully formed into the wider world to be viewed and appreciated by everyone.

Should the artist give up on the idea, it won’t wait around forever. This is why sometimes when we set aside a project for awhile, when we come back to it, the magic is gone. We can’t get into the flow again. It suddenly feels stale and unimaginative.

Gilbert has proof for her hypothesis regarding ideas. It’s a real eyebrow-raiser, and involves an exchange of ideas with Ann Patchett through nothing more than a touch. That’s all I’ll say about that. Read (or listen to ) the book if you want to know the whole score.

Gilbert’s advice: consider art as a vocation rather than a career. Even if you do it full-time. Once you call it a career, the weight of responsibility (to pay the bills and feed the artist’s family) presses against ideas, stifling them.

She names many fears and addresses her own methods for counteracting them. She debunks the idea of a “suffering artist” and proposes creatives fill their well with love for their art. The art will reciprocate with kindness.

My Takeaway

I enjoyed the various anecdotes and personal experiences shared by Gilbert. This will be the only book of hers I have ever read (although I did see the film version of the best-seller mentioned above, but we all know it was NOWHERE as amazing as the book).

Although I’m not entirely convinced of her theory regarding ideas, I can see how she would have made the conclusion she did.

Ideas are inanimate. However, the Creator of all things could very well send them on the air and into the hearts and minds of people He wants to develop them.

I have said, “Inspiration struck. The words poured out of me.” However, this isn’t inspiration in the sense of “God-breathed” scriptures.

Instead, I mean an idea bloomed and was ready for harvest. It responded to my watering with introspection and my feeding through brainstorming or research. It’s growth can no longer be contained in my heart and mind,

Idea explosion makes me adore writing a first draft. Sure, some parts of it might be a struggle, but I’ve learned to skip to the part the muse want to expel. The other parts will fall in line–eventually. Or maybe they will end up being summarized, nothing more than connective tissue for the brain child birthed with a minimum of labor.

A few lines jumped out at me, and I scrawled them down. They’ll be fodder for reflection in the quiet corners of my mind.

It’s true fear dampens creativity, can destroy it altogether. This is why I chose “dauntless” for my word this year. And why I’ve embraced the unexpected opportunities that have flowed my way this year.

BIG MAGIC isn’t an especially long book, so I recommend it if fear is stifling your creativity. It can’t possibly hurt anything, right? And it might invite the Big Magic of Inspiration to drop an idea (or ten) in the fertile soil of your imagination.

If you’ve read this book, what was your takeaway? What fear stifles your creativity?

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Maybe you like romance or some of my other books. I’m sure there’s something worth reading on my page.

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I Want to be a Libriomancer

Books are magical. Reading transports you to a different place and time and introduces you to more people than you could ever hope to meet. That’s why I want to be a libriomancer.
You might be scratching your head, wondering what I’m talking about. If you’re a geek who knows some Latin, you might realize this has something to do with books and magic.

If you’re a fan of the Magic Ex Libris Series by Jim C. Hines, you know exactly what I’m talking about. (Still not sure, read my review of his earlier books in the series).

What is a Libriomancer?

Libriomancer-FullA libriomancer is a person who can draw magic from books.

I know, I think I’ve been one by that definition for most of my life. And I know C. S. Lewis was one because he transported me to Narnia via book dozens of times.

In Hines’ world, a libriomancer can access the magic inside a book to draw objects from the book.

You’d like an Invisibility Cloak? A libriomancer could grab one out of Harry Potter’s closet (if only those Harry Potter books weren’t locked. Don’t know what I’m talking about? Read Libriomancer, book one of the series).

The “librarian” who is the hero of the series is pulling Lucy’s bottle of healing potion out of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in every installment. Fighting evil is a dangerous business. Best to be prepared for the worst.

                                              How does this work?

People read books. The more people who read the book and suspend their disbelief to embrace the story, the more magic potential that waits inside a book.

There are limits. The object has to be small enough that it would fit through the covers of the book. I suggest huge hardbacks for working these spells, so you can make certain Excalibur makes it out of King Arthur’s hand intact.

The magician has an innate sense of magic. They must be able to fully picture the object they want to pull from the book in their mind. Small imaginations need not apply.

Why I Want to be One

I fit all the qualifications for libriomancy.

  • I read books.
  • I have a great imagination.
  • I can recall scenes with vivid detail that’s just crazy considering how many books I’ve read.
  • I have a desire to be innately connected to a magical continuum.

In fact, since I’ve been claiming books are magic portals for years, I should be at the front of the line for receiving the gift of libriomancy.
Also, I’m conscientious. I wouldn’t abuse my power.
What other qualities do I need?

Book-ReviewA Review of Revisionary

Recently, I joined a Facebook book club (more on that later—maybe). One of the founding authors for the group asked what the best book we’d read this year would be.

Revisionary by Jim C. Hines was at the top of my list.
Revisionary-199x300
Even though I didn’t give it five shiny stars (I found a few things a mite of a stretch), it was the book I wanted to read the most that didn’t disappoint me.

I love Isaac Vainio, and I was wondering how things were working out for him since the wider world discovered the existence of magic and magical creatures at the end of book three.

As you can imagine, governments are trying to regulate magic while also exploiting it for their own purposes.

Magical creatures are starting to unite against humans. Humans fear them, so they want them crowded onto reservations and registered like firearms. Since they aren’t human, they don’t have protection under the U.S. Constitution.

The political finagling in this book rivals spy novels.

And we know how much Isaac adores jumping through hoops and cutting through red tape.

Lots of action in this book to keep you turning pages. Plenty of clues and twists keep you guessing to the end whose the mastermind behind the plot behind the plot of the plotters.

Readers of fantasy will love this book. Yes, there is some foul language. However, other adult themes are kept to a minimum.

The Surprise

The most startling thing to me about reading this fourth book in this contemporary fantasy series was learned when I read the acknowledgements.

Most of the time I skim these things. I know! As an author, I should read them. I understand how it takes a village to get a book from the idea stage to a library shelf.

Still, I don’t know most of the people mentioned.

I also don’t know much of anything about most of my favorite authors. I’ve never been one of those people who joins fan clubs and follows every media account of a celebrity. Even one I like.

Color me shocked when I discovered Mr. Hines was not a full-time author.

Excuse me? He’s writing these amazing books at a rate of once per year or so and that’s not his JOB?

Well, it wasn’t his job. With four books in a successful series, Mr. Hines has now donned the cape of insanity. He joins the rest of us spending his days holed up in an office with imaginary friends.

I’m thrilled. I hope that means there will be more books in this series I dearly love.

And if he could grant me the power of libriomancy…all the better.

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Check out Finding Focus and my other books. You’re sure to find something worth reading.
Already read one or more? Please leave an honest review on your favorite site. That’s like the author discovering a gold nugget in the bottom of her washing machine.

Something for Everyone in I’M ABOUT TO GET UP

Once you pick up this book from Julie Hunt, skip right to chapter 25 and you’ll see why a review of it appears on my “No Fear This Year” blog. I’M ABOUT TO GET UP is a memoir about grief written from a Christian perspective, but it has nuggets of truth to help anyone who wrings their hands when faced with death.

You’re at the funeral, next in line. The family stands there, red-rimmed eyes glistening with tears, hugging each person in turn. What will you say?

I’ll confess that I avoided a number of funerals in my younger years just because I couldn’t imagine how I would interact with the grieving family.

Until I was the grieving family. And I heard those cliché phrases that meant nothing or experienced the deep comfort of a wordless hug.

I’M ABOUT TO GET UP

about_to_get_up_coverThis book came to me before it released to the public. A publicist whose newsletter I follow invited me to be on the “launch team” for the book.

Since I’m intermittently writing my own grief memoir-ish book, I thought reading one would give me an idea how other approach the topic.

I’ll admit, it was difficult to read the book in December. Christmas has been a difficult time since 2009 when my grandmother graduated to Heaven a few days before the holiday.

Julie’s experiences are raw and real. She pulls you in to the Rainy Day with her and the grief she depicts resonates. It was too close to my own heart some days, so it took me a few weeks to get through the less-than-200-page book.

If you read nothing else, read the appendices. Here Julie lists all the things people want to know, the “where the rubber meets the road” practical things. Like what you can do for a grieving person, what NOT to say at the funeral (or any other time) and words that do offer help or hope.

In a world where people want to sweep the grieving process under the carpet, this book is just the dose of reality we need.

My Review

It was obvious from early in the book that Julie’s religious beliefs differed from mine. There were moments when my eyebrows scraped my scalp as I thought, “They did what?!”

Still, that’s not what this book is about. And Julie didn’t defend or expound on her specific spiritual ideals. Well, not the ones that had me gawping. The ones that had to do with facing grief head on? Yep, those she tackles.

Nothing can prepare you for the death of a loved one. I speak from experience at the bedside of a terminally ill mother. When they go, you grieve. A part of you shatters and needs time and care to be repurposed.

Julie goes chronologically through her own grieving process. This approach worked well, making the book read like a novel. If you like “based on actual events” reading, this book fits that bill.

Advice and encouragement for both those struck by grief and those attempting to minister to them is sprinkled throughout the prose. You won’t find sermonizing or patronizing in these pages.

In fact, the best part of the book is the practical, pro-active lists given in the epilogue and appendices.

I give four out of five stars to this book.

My Recommendation

This book is a must-read for every person in ministry. The glimpse inside a grieving heart will offer the best hands-on training a person could get without facing an actual death in the family.

Julie admits that she couldn’t read books when she was grieving, but I think this book is the sort that could be read to a grieving person. It is certainly an exceptional handbook for someone who fumbles with how to comfort others in the face of loss.

If you’ve been grieving a loss for a while and feel like the pain is still more raw than it should be, pick up this book. I promise you’ll see yourself reflected from a page or chapter, and you’ll be able to take the next step toward healing.

Thank you, Julie Hunt, for being real with all of us. Your journey will empower others so they can get up and get back to living.

What books helped you deal with grief and loss on a practical level?

Ready for some Love Under the Harvest Moon

Autumn is the perfect time for romance. Okay, is romance ever out of season? But you have to admit that being kissed under a harvest moon sounds totally romantic.

The newest anthology, Love Under the Harvest Moon, from Roane Publishing features five short stories centered around the theme of autumn. Three of them feature back-to-school in one way or another.

harvest_moon_cover

Amidst Strawberry Fields

This short story is by Nemma Wollenfang. I was interested to read it since Nemma shared a spot with me in Masked Hearts.

First of all, I was surprised that is was a young adult romance. Not because I don’t like them, because I’m a huge fan of young adult literature in many genres. However, Roane Publishing generally excludes stories with young adult characters from their anthologies.

I enjoyed the story. At first, I was thrown off because there was talk of a farm but the first sentence has a Ferrari pulling up to the school parking lot. What?

Eventually, I settled into the rhythm of the story. Beth was more mature than your average teenager. Maybe because of all the responsibilities she had at the farm.

This is a story about race relations, prejudice and even racial profiling. Not that any of those terms were used. But the gypsies aren’t welcome at the school and before long, it’s obvious the police want to blame them for any crime that happens around town.

Some things about Beth remained vague (like where was her father?) and the details of the harvest ceremony were released grudgingly.

A solid start for the anthology.

Four out of five stars

Autumn Leaves

HeartsofValor_eBook_CVRI’m familiar with T.E. Hodden because we shared a cover with the Hearts of Valor anthology.

His story ended up being the best in the bunch. His prose is poetic. His characters solid. And the one-day time frame of the story kept the pace ratched up so I had to keep turning pages.

It took me a few pages to orient myself to a romance narrated in first person by a man.  First, I’m not generally a fan of first person in romances because the tension can be tightened so much more effectively if readers can get inside the heads of both characters.

At first, I thought it was going to be another “I walked in on my girlfriend with another guy” story. But Hodden threw a curve ball (or three) in the middle of these over-used (in my opinion) trope.

I don’t want to give anything away because this is a story best experienced firsthand.

Five out of five stars

Moon Dance

This story by Patricia Crisafulli started slow and never really gained momentum.

It was written in present tense which is tedious for me to read, but I don’t think that’s why I didn’t connect with it.

The shero, Anna, was a single mom with plenty of problems. She was relatable and likable. The writing wasn’t terrible.

A romance never unfolded. We went from a guy telling her to loosen up to her holding hands with him at the harvest festival. No idea how they got from one point to the next. Most of the story is about Anna’s other problems and he makes brief appearances. You know he’s going to be the love interest because there’s no one else.

But how? The story has too many holes.

Three out of five stars

A Harvest Homecoming

This little tale penned by Laura Lamoreaux and T.L. French tried to pull me into its contemporary world.

Tanya is home again after an ugly divorce. She’s marking time until she can find another job as a reporter. And, of course, since anyone can be a teacher (in Texas, I guess), she takes a job teaching freshman English.

You all know I’m a substitute teacher with a background working in education for a decade, so this attitude rubbed me all kinds of wrong. But I kept reading.

Tanya runs into a guy she used to know, who once crushed on her, and he ends up being totally hot nowadays.

I probably don’t need to go on. It unfolded predictably from there.

At least the plot made sense and the story was complete. And the dig at teaching (unintentional or not) was redeemed by the end of the story.

Four out of five stars

Opposite Directions

Claire Davon, another anthology mate of mine from Masked Hearts, writes another girl comes home from the big city and takes a teaching job story. Maybe I would have enjoyed it more if it wasn’t back-to-back with the other one.

Here Vanessa runs into her old flame, who broke up with her after cheating on her. See what I mean about the cheating boyfriend or girlfriend being an over-used trope?

Vanessa still has feelings for him. Does he have feelings for her?

Rather than taking the time to develop conflict and flesh out a longer story, Davon takes our couple out on a date and has them resolve everything over one meal. I believe in the restorative power of Italian food as much as the next person, but I couldn’t get on board with such an easy resolution of big issues.

I also didn’t connect with these characters as well as I had with those from the other stories.

Three out of five stars

Harvest Moon Button

All in all, this was a pleasant way to pass some time cuddled up on a rainy day. Each story is the perfect length for a lunch-hour dive into fiction-land.

Overall, it earns four out of five stars. (Okay, if you do the math, it technically gets 3.8 stars, but that rounds up to four, right?)

You can pick up your copy of Love under the Harvest Moon at your favorite retailer, or click here to get it directly from the publisher.

IN THE BEGINNING: My Review

In The Beginning_CoverEight stories that span the imagination, recreating Biblical events into dark tales featuring young adult heroes. Month9Books released their charity anthology on October 25, 2016.

All the authors cite the “inspiration” for their retelling of common and obscure Bible stories. Two of the stories are more allegorical as opposed to straight retellings.

With the exception of one story, these short tales will appeal to teenagers who like fantasy, dystopian and darker themes. Does it seem odd that this anthology twists Bible stories into something foreboding, even chilling or evil?

Maybe. Or maybe not.

To read and enjoy this collection, one can’t open the cover expecting to see the truth of the Bible. Here the imagination of some storytellers has converted segments of scripture into compelling farcical stories. They just left at the whimsy.

Stories I Enjoyed

I didn’t hate any of these stories. All of them were well-written and well-edited. Some of them took a little bit more of a stretch to accept them. You know how I feel about being kicked out of my fantasy world by unrealistic and unbelievable things.

I really enjoyed “Condemned” by Elle O’Neal. This story gives a Hunger Games spin to the story of Barabbas. If Barabbas were a teenage boy in a dystopian world where people liked to be entertained by televised gladiatorial-type games.

The character of Barabbas was well-constructed. I would have liked a little more explanation about this dystopian society. I never understood why they had the game or what made Barabbas a contestant.

Still, if you’re like me and you’ve often wondered how Barabbas felt when Jesus took his place on death’s row, this is a chilling way to get that insight.

One of the truly allegorical stories, “Babylon” by Nicole Crucial, gave me plenty to think about. The author personifies The Book of Life as the main character in this story. It’s a gut-wrenching tale of a friend who knows her friend is destined for a downfall.

It makes readers ask plenty of insightful questions. And convinced me once and for all that having foreknowledge of the future would be a bad thing.

Why Some Fell Short

For example, “Daniel and the Dragon” by Stephen Clements is inspired by a text that is included in the American Standard Version of the Bible that I had never read. Of course, dragons.

Clements wrote a good story but it includes concepts, wording and practices that will be foreign to most young adult readers. Also, it was more of a fictionalization of the passage rather than a retelling.

What do I mean?

A retelling is exactly what it sounds like: the same story but using different characters in a different setting.

This is not a bad story at all (didn’t I mention there are NO bad stories in this collection?) but it just missed the mark with me.

Other stories were also fictionalizations rather than retellings. “The Deluge” by Marti Johnson is a depressing recount of someone who didn’t survive Noah’s flood. “First Wife” by Lora Palmer gives us a look at Leah and Jacob’s wedding night and the day after.

Palmer’s story had great characterization and emotion. At the end, there’s another character introduced. I would have enjoyed the story more if it was about that “friendship” rather than Laban’s double-crossing of his nephew and daughters.

Even though I couldn’t buy the premise in “Emmaculate” by Christina Raus, I do think most teenage girls will fall for it and enjoy the ride. It’s packed with real-to-our-world issues and plenty of trauma drama.

My Top Pick

When I read the ARC, my favorite story was called “The Isaiah Boy.” So color me shocked when I didn’t even see that title listed on the press release during the cover reveal.

But then I found it. It had a new title, but the same incredible “there has to be more than this” ride. I’m talking about “Last Will and Testament” by Mike Hayes.

To say I was a little outraged when I saw the scriptures from Isaiah 53 at the beginning of the story is putting it mildly. After all that chapter prophecies Christ’s death thousands of years before it happens.

“It’s just a story” I started chanting to myself.

And it really isn’t a story about Christ. It takes the “wounded for our transgressions” literally and gives that “power” to a boy, Baz.  What I really admired was that the story was told in first person by a character other than Baz.

I don’t want to give anything away because you need to read this story. When you do, we need to talk about it. And Mike Hayes needs to write a novel that takes off right where this short ends.

Oh yeah, I’m looking at you Mr. Hayes.

Be warned, most of these stories have an incredibly dark tone. Some of them are downright depressing. But all of them offer more than an hour of entertainment. They give a snapshot of humanity that will stay with you long after you’ve closed the book.

Disclaimer: I have a story in this anthology. I don’t mention “The Demon was Me” in my review because it seems self-serving to do so. Elsewhere I have mentioned it is the best short fiction I believe I’ve ever written. I hope you’ll read it and decide for yourself.

Have you read IN THE BEGINNING? What stories spoke to you?

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Check out Poet Inspired and my other books. Already read one or more? Your honest review is a golden nugget in this writer’s world.

My YA Fantasy Debut is Coming Soon

In April 2015, I subbed several short stories. In my mind, I “put out the fleece” for my future writing direction. But I had my toes and fingers crossed that the answer would be “Write YA fantasy.”
The short story in this anthology was one of those submissions. I have read all these stories, and they blew my mind. This collection is a perfect example of what happens when you tell a bunch of creatives to rewrite someone else’s tale. Even if the original story is from the Bible.
 
Today Month9Books is revealing the cover and some excerpts for their Charity Anthology IN THE BEGINNING! Which releases October 25, 2016! Check out the gorgeous cover and enter to be one of the first readers to receive an eGalley!!

On to the reveal!

 

 
Title: IN THE BEGINNING: Dark Retellings of Biblical Tales
Editors: Laureen P. Cantwell and Georgia McBride
Author: Stephen Clements, Nicole Crucial, Mike Hays, Sharon Hughson, Marti Johnson, Elle O’Neill, Laura Palmer, & Christina Raus
Pub. Date: October 25, 2016
Publisher: Month9Books
Format: Paperback & eBook
Find it: Amazon| B&N |Goodreads
 
In the Beginning (Oct. 25, 2016) –Eight authors come together to build a powerful collection of dark young adult short stories inspired by the mysteries, faith, and darkness found within the Bible. Old Testament and New Testament, iconic and obscure figures alike are illuminated, explored, and re-envisioned throughout this charity anthology from Month9Books.
 
IN THE BEGINNING, edited by Laureen Cantwell and Georgia McBride
 
Daniel and the Dragon by Stephen Clements
A troubled orphan named Habakkuk dutifully follows his master, the prophet Daniel, into temples of blood-thirsty demon-gods, battles with unspeakable horrors, and bears witnesses to mind-breaking evil until his master’s zealous defiance of the king’s law seals their fate.
 
Babylon by Nicole Crucial
Far above the earth, in Second Eden, where moments and eternities all blur together, young Babylon befriends Sefer, the Book of Life. As Babylon awaits the moment she’ll fulfill her destiny, she and Sefer try to understand the world in which they live.
 
Last Will and Testament by Mike Hays
A homeless young boy, Baz, bears the weight of humanity on his shoulders and upon his body. When dark forces test a new-found friendship, Baz’s willingness to bear the ugliness of their world will be shaken. 
 
The Demon Was Me by Sharon Hughson
Based on the story of the demon-possessed boy healed by Jesus, this tale provides a glimpse into a post-apocalyptic world where a teenage boy seeks to journey to a better land and yearns to discover the kind of man he’s meant to be, only to be hijacked by an evil spirit intent upon chipping away at the hope, faith, and resilience of its host.
 
The Deluge by Marti Johnson
A non-believer shares the story of Noah’s ark-building and the deadly downpour that follows. Fear, faithlessness, and the fallibility of mankind collide in a community where second chances aren’t unlimited and a better-late-than-never attitude just might be your doom.
 
Condemned by Elle O’Neill
Just sixteen-years-old, Barabbas finds himself pulled out of Routlege Academy and into a reality show competition—against Jesus himself—where the reward for the winner is life.
 
First Wife by Lora Palmer
In a first-person retelling of the saga of Jacob, Rachel and Leah, themes of family, deception, guilt, and heartache emerge amidst the first days of Leah’s marriage to Jacob—a marriage mired in trickery a mere week before Jacob was to marry Leah’s sister Rachel.
 
Emmaculate by Christina Raus
Based on the story of Mary’s Immaculate Conception, we enter the troubled mind of Emma, who finds herself torn between her religious upbringing and the purity ring that binds her to her boyfriend and the pregnancy that results from her relationship with another boy.
 
Anthology Excerpts:
 
From THE DEMON WAS ME, by Sharon Hughson:
 
The ghastly black fog overtook me. Icicles pierced my back. Every muscle in my body spasmed. I plunged face-first against the ground. Something sharp gouged my cheek. Shivery tingles pervaded my insides. A vile presence pressed against my mind.            
“Get out!” I rolled to my back, arms outstretched. I wanted to fight, throw the intruder off me. But how can you resist something as ethereal as air?
            
Laughter rang in my ears. Sinister. It shuddered against my soul. Terror and hopelessness collided in my chest. A foreign power clutched at my mind.
            
I screamed. I rolled to my side and squeezed my eyes shut. If only I could disappear.
            
Another dark wave of laughter echoed through my skull. Convulsions gripped me. Against my will, my limbs flailed in every direction. A spike pressed into my mind. I cradled my throbbing head. My body, a tumbleweed in the wind, spun on the ground.
 
 
From BABYLON, by Nicole Crucial:
 
Only those will enter Heaven whose names are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life.
 
These were the first words I heard, in the beginning of time.
 
But Sefer, the protest comes, Revelation wasn’t written until the first century.
 
My answer is that time is a funny little plaything to God, or so I imagine. That first sentence was the wind that breathed life into my chest, the binding of my pages, the ink in my soul. It knitted together my stardust-atoms from across centuries and millennia and planes of existence.
 
And when the first dregs of consciousness swirled at the pit-bottom of my spine, I yawned and opened my eyes to paradise.
 
 
From CONDEMNED, by Elle O’Neill:
 
To his surprise, as he heard the metal door grind to a stop, there was a popping sound, like the flash-lamp did when they experimented in Classic Photography at Routlege. Except no camera appeared—not that he could see anyway—but rather a digital time clock, bold red numbers, already beginning their descent, in striking relief against the black paint covering the walls.
 
29:48:12.
 
29:48:11.
 
Of course they would include the fractions of a second, he thought. He was now fighting a tiger against a racing clock. For all that they were merely numbers, he saw their dwindling trickle as if he were watching grains of sand pour through the hourglass of his fingers, helpless.
 
29:47:03.
 
The tiger looked at him. It didn’t glance his way. It directed its massive head at him, its eyes trained on Barabbas … and they didn’t turn away.
 
Another man, in another arena, stood calmly while the tiger advanced. His breathing was even, he did not watch the clock, and he looked with love upon the prowling beast. When it snarled, he slowly exhaled; when its whiskers glanced his weaponless fingers, he blinked gently as the hot breath of the tiger dampened his skin.
 
 
From LAST WILL & TESTAMENT, by Mike Hays:
 
I’ve found money, I’ve found food, and I’ve found myself in plenty of trouble on plenty of occasions, but I’ve never found another human being just lying around. That’s what happened when I found a person-shaped ball of olive drab and camouflage clothing—which would have been more at home in the reject pile down at the army surplus store—under our decrepit, worn sign for the, “Extraordinary 
 
League of Witch Assass_ _ _.”
 
It’s true. I found a boy about my age sleeping at the end of the Extraordinary League of Witch Assassins driveway.
 
 
From UNWANTED, by Lora Palmer:
 
“Let me see you,” he whispers. “Let me truly see you.”
 
I swallow down the fear this moment brings, the anxiety that once he does see me, he will no longer accept me. No, I must stop thinking this way. My husband is not like Jacob, dazzled by the superficial beauty of my sister. My husband, my love, will see me.
 
Taking courage from this, I let out a shaky laugh as he helps me stand. I long to see him, too.
 
“All right,” I say.
 
He lifts my veil, his deft fingers moving slow, relishing the anticipation of this moment. At last, he lifts the linen over my face and lets it slip to the floor behind me. We stare at each other, stock still, in stunned silence.
 
It was Jacob.
 
From EMMACULATE, by Christina Raus:
 
The Ten Commandments are pretty straightforward. Killing? Bad. Lying? Nope. Adultery? Don’t even think about it. But is real life really that straightforward? If you tell your boyfriend that you’re going golfing, when really you’re going out to cheat on him, is the lying or the adultery worse? What if you stab the guy you’re having an affair with? Isn’t being a murderer worse than being a cheater? I think the stabbing is worse than the lying and the cheating combined. So, it was kind of unfair for God to group killing, lying, and cheating all together under one umbrella.
They all seemed really different.
 
I was an adulterer. I couldn’t deny that. I was also a liar. A very, very good liar. But I wasn’t a murderer.
 
 
From THE DELUGE, by Marti Johnson:
 
The stench of mildew and mold is heavy in our nostrils, and my lungs feel as though they are on fire. My breathing is audible in the lulls between the thunderclaps. My mother huddles, shivering, propped between two rocks. She is coughing painfully, and I can hear her teeth chattering.
 
It is hard to breathe because the air itself is full of water.
 
A deeper shadow has fallen across the side of the mountain on which we are sheltering. I pull aside the brambles, and gasp in amazement when I realize what it is. “Look!” I call to the others, and point at the sight. The ark has risen with the water, and now bobs up and down. It sits high in the water. We hear nothing from it but the creaking of the wood timbers and the sound of the branches and rocks on the hillside scraping against its hull.
 
 
From DANIEL AND THE DRAGON, by Stephen Clements:
 
Your god is a liar!” roared the wizened man in thin black robes, as he pounded his breast with his fist. 
Habakkuk stood by the gates of the temple as his master picked a fight with a sanctuary full of the slavish followers of Bel, a bloodthirsty demon god. A fire raged in the fanged maw of a giant, stone head sunken into the back of the temple, there to receive the offerings rendered unto Bel. He had seen this before in other temple raids with his master, though not on such a massive scale, and not at the heart of the demon cult in Babylon itself. The fire raged as the greatest offering that the Babylonians—who adored Bel above all other gods—could sacrifice to their deity was their own newborn children, rolled their screaming, helpless bodies down a stone, handshaped altar into the fire. They offered the fruit of their wombs to
their dark god, who devoured the innocent souls sacrificed to him in eldritch rituals.

 

Giveaway Details:

 

3 winners will receive an eGalley of IN THE BEGINNING, International.
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New Today! In the Shadow of the Dragon King

My author friend J. Keller Ford releases her debut novel today. Dragon fans and fans of young adult adventure won’t want to miss In the Shadow of the Dragon King.

Ms. Ford and I are more than writing acquaintances. More than Facebook friends. I’ve actually spoken to her on the telephone about her beta comments on my still-to-find-a-publisher young adult fantasy novel.

She’s seen my own criticism on an early draft of the sequel to this debut novel. Surprise, surprise, she even found it helpful.

So when she needed people to read and review this book before it released, I was happy to do it. As long as she still let me purchase an autographed copy from her (and she did! I have it!).

The electronic ARC arrived post-haste. I couldn’t wait to read it.

My Summary

IN THE SHADOW OF THE DRAGON KING eBook Cover 2700x1800In the magic, medieval land of Fallhallow, Eric wants to get noticed. Isn’t he more than a squire? When the dragon king attacks, all of Eric’s dreams and plans get a quick makeover. His knight disappears, accused of treasonous acts. Eric will find the Paladin and save the kingdom.

Then people will notice him. Finally.

In Tennessee, David and his best friend Charlotte are enjoying the last days of summer vacation. Until several strange visits reveal news David can’t believe. A magical creature whisks him and Charlotte off to a world of dragons, nights, sorcerers and sorceresses.

Apparently, David has some great destiny in this place. If he doesn’t accept his role and learn the basics of magic, the darker forces might destroy him – and all of Fallhallow.

It’s a story of friendship and faith. The characters struggle to grow up and give up on beliefs that no longer hold true. A coming of age tale for readers of our generation to connect with in the same way I connected with To Kill a Mockingbird.

My Review

David and Charlotte have a unique relationship which drew me in right away. I couldn’t relate to his circumstances (rich orphan) but she seemed down-to-earth and quite relatable.

What do you do when your best friend is the opposite sex? What if one of you wants to move beyond the friend zone? Do you risk the friendship in hopes the romance will last? I counseled my sons to steer away from converting friendships to romances until they were adults (or at least ready for a serious and perhaps permanent relationship).

This is an authentic problem many teenagers face. It will help readers love David and Charlotte as much as I do.

As for squire Eric, he rubs me the wrong way. Still. Even after he grew up some in the story.

First of all, he’s supposed to be older than the other two, but he acts more immature on many levels. Which didn’t make sense to me since he was in a land where childhood is forfeited early. His actions from the start seemed like something a younger kid would fall into.

Secondly, he acted like a sidekick with his best friend, rather than taking a leadership role. And he wonders why the knights have no confidence in him? Later, he seemed like a spoiled child, and I didn’t see how that would ever be a default reaction. His blacksmith father didn’t seem like the type to permit such behavior. A knight wouldn’t desire it from his squire.

Later, he runs amok without thought to anyone’s feelings but his own. Rather than trying to seek out people he knows and loves, he determines to find this mystical Paladin, who might be able to save the kingdom from the dragon king. There’s just nothing there for me to admire – but at least half of the story is from his perspective.

It was one of those books when I was dreading returning to a certain narrator.

I enjoyed the story. There was magic and mystery and action galore. Ford introduces some fascinating species in her world, and I’m looking forward to meeting more of them. The ice dragon with feathers is my favorite so far.

The magic system seemed shallow. While the rest of this setting seemed complete, the magical portions failed to compel, interest or convince me.

Why? It didn’t take much practice for David to master the spells introduced to him by a sorceress. Was there a drain from using the magic? Not that I noticed. Hopefully, we’ll learn more about how magic works in Fallhallow in the next book.

Check out the blog tour, including opportunities to win prizes, by clicking on the tour button.Chapter-by-Chapter-blog-tour-button

My Recommendation

I give the novel 4.2 out of five stars.

The plot and characters were compelling, but not universally so. Some of the events seemed a little “convenient” for rescuing the characters rather than being organic to the story itself.

Anyone who enjoys adventure stories similar to Percy Jackson will find this novel entertaining. The dialogue and interaction between David and Charlotte rival what you’d find between Percy and Anabeth in the early Percy Jackson books.

If you’ve been waiting for a good dragon tale, you’ll definitely want to latch on to this book. The nemesis dragon king is terrifying and overwhelming, bitter and fierce. My mouth went dry every time he entered a scene. And did I mention the smaller dragon with feathers? I love him to death.

In the Shadow of the Dragon King will transport you to a magical realm and pump you full of adrenaline for the trip.

Get your copy here:  Google Play | BAM | Chapters | Amazon | B&N | Kobo | TBD | iBooks

Now, I’m off to read my autographed copy. See you in Fallhallow!