AUTHOR SPOTLIGHT: S.E. Anderson

Hey, everyone! It’s time for another Author Spotlight, and I’m excited to feature one of my favorite indie authors, S.E. Anderson! She’s a fantastic sci-fi author, but she’s also a kickass graphic designer (seriously, look at her covers for my series), she’s studying to be a scientist, and… oh yeah, she also happens to be a fan of mine.

Anderson is one of the reasons I love being an indie author, and I’m excited to tell you guys all about her work! First, let’s have a chat with S.E. Anderson.

 

What was your inspiration behind the Starstruck series?

Back when I first started writing the series, it was a joint effort between me and one of my closest friends, Joanna. We wanted to write what we weren’t finding in the books available to us: a girl struggling with real life, but also science fiction that was fun and possibly even hilarious. She wanted to work on characters who lived so long they couldn’t remember where they started out; and I wanted to write an adventure serial about teleportation. The two ideas meshed perfectly!

In my experience, and I know I haven’t read the entirety of it, the science fiction genre can be pretty doom and gloom, and a lot of times, it’s a genre that takes itself far too seriously. How important to you was it for your series to not fall into that trap? How important is the humor in these books?

It’s essential for the series. The universe is a massively chaotic place; the only way through it is not to fight the chaos, but go along with it. Living life by that logic, I’ve been able to have the funnest, oddest experiences. For Sally, it’s on a much larger scale. She struggles with depression and anxiety, so it would be really easy for the series to get quite dark. And it will: some moments are harsh and painful. But it’s in those moments of pure, unadulterated absurdity that she grows.

Tell me a bit about your background as a scientist. How does being a scientist affect your writing? Do you get story ideas from your academic work?

I’m still just a student, but I know enough now to see where science fiction differs from science-fact. I love learning a new concept in lectures and thinking about how to integrate it into my books. It’s fun trying to work out warp drives or faster than light travel with friends! I definitely love to learn, and hints of things that really hit me are dotted throughout the series.

Character vs. plot: the seemingly endless debate over which is more important for a good story. Which side of that debate do you fall on, and how do you approach character when your protagonist grow from one book to the next?

Personally, I’ve read books that fall on either side of the wall: great stories with flat characters and boring plots with amazingly relatable people. But I think character is the most important element. If a book has amazing characters, they could be doing absolutely anything and I’d still read them. I’d read a whole book of Percy Jackson doing his dishes or Harry Potter trying to help Ron with taxes. At the end of the day, those characters are the ones that make you come back to the series.

In my opinion, a plot cannot be separate from characters. Everything (interesting) that happens is driven by choices. So good characters make for a gripping story, no matter what. And authors who treat their world as a character and build it up in the same way usually create something more visually impacting.

Sally is constantly growing through the series. My biggest struggle writing Starstruck(s) comes down to how Sally is going to change. What makes her mad, what drives her to aspire to do more? The upcoming book 4 will make her decide if she wants to take on responsibility or if she’s not ready yet. In the end, the series is Sally’s saga, how she changes from a shy, isolated, self-conscious girl to a strong woman ready to take on anything the universe throws at her. But she’s not there yet.

Are you a heavy plotter, or do you just let the story take you where it will?

The more I plot, the more I procrastinate. I have a premise, my characters, and they lead me along to find the plot as I write. Editing will change a lot of my first drafts!

On top of being an author and a scientist, you’re a graphic designer and a book reviewer. How do you manage all of those different hats, and how does each piece of the puzzle fit into the greater whole that is S.E. Anderson?

I shall answer this with two words, one sound: *pterodactyl scream*

Tell me about some of the other projects you’re working on. I know there’s one more book coming in the Starstruck series, and I think you’re working on a re-telling of The Wizard of Oz?

That’s right! Celestial, book four of Starstruck, is currently with my editor. Book five is being written off and on. My real focus over the next few months is to bring YELLOW (read sneak peek here) to life. The book follows Dora, an illegal clone of the current royal princess, who finds herself trapped on a mysterious planet in the Outer Zone after making a costly mistake. She makes allies with a girl with no memory, a droid with no personality, and a genetically modified soldier with no orders. Together they need to find the Technomage, a genius engineer who could potentially solve all their problems – if he can be trusted. It’s a story about identity, friendship, and taking risks.

What are some of your favorite books right now?

So many! Absolutely loves Atlas Fallen by Jessica Pierce. And Children of Blood and Bone – Phenomenal!
Now, let’s check out her books!

Starstruck (Starstruck #1)

In my experience, science fiction is a genre that takes itself far too seriously.Starstruck

Fortunately, Starstruck — S.E. Anderson’s debut novel — doesn’t have that issue. Don’t mistake: the stakes are high, both in Sally’s life and for the world at large, but this is a quirky tale that isn’t afraid to occasionally stop and take a moment to laugh at itself.

After all, Sally goes from a relatively dead-end life to one in which she’s knee-deep in aliens and trying to save the world. It’s an absurd concept, and the narrative not only acknowledges that absurdity, it embraces it. Sally is a great protagonist who is surrounded by equally remarkable characters. Zander is a treat, and Blayde was so much damn fun to read — very Faith Lehane-like — that I want much more of her going forward.

Most protagonists with Sally’s backstory spend the entire story feeling sorry for themselves, but she doesn’t fall into that trope. Instead, Anderson gives her remarkable agency, revealing layers of depth and bravery even Sally doesn’t realize she has, and it is viscerally satisfying to see how much Sally grows from the first page to the last.

In a way, the ending is a little bit of a head-scratcher, but a) that’s by design, and b) this is clearly the first in a series I have on good authority will be at least five books in length. And if the future volumes are anything like Starstruck, then sci-fi fans are in for a treat.

Anderson’s debut is a fun ride with more depth than it might appear on the surface. It’s not afraid to go for a laugh, but it also takes great care in making sure Sally is at the forefront of everything. She is a fantastic character, one I’m eager to accompany on future adventures.

Starstruck is one of the best books I read in 2017, and it is highly recommended.

Rating: *****

Buy Starstruck now!

 

Alienation (Starstruck #2)

Alienation, the follow-up to S.E. Anderson’s debut sci-fi romp Starstruck, is grander in scale and far more intense than its predecessor. Don’t worry, though; there are still 20623566_10213617375530787_675999032_oplenty of laughs to be had, and Anderson never loses sight of what drives Sally and what keeps her going in spite of… well, everything.

This is very much a fish-out-of-water story. I suppose Starstruck was, to a degree, but whereas the first book had a supporting character learning a new world in Zander, Alienation puts Sally through the proverbial wringer, plunking her on a foreign planet, separating her from Zander and Blayde, and… I’m not sure which winds up harder for her, the mental anguish or the physical pain.

Seriously, Sally goes through some stuff here.

But all the qualities that made Starstruck so great remain in Alienation. Sure, the fantastic world and strange alien species are cool, and it’s fascinating to see how the locals react to Sally as much as vice versa, but the strength of this series remains the humor and the heart. There’s a certain whimsy throughout much of this book, which makes the darker, heavier passages easier to navigate, and Sally’s continued growth is evident.

For all the change Sally endured from the beginning of Starstruck to the end, she grows even more here in Alienation. To see someone so anxious, so used to life being an absolute dumpster fire, seeing Sally stand up straight, ball up her fists, and pretty much say “Alright, enough of this crap” is as satisfying a journey as zooming through the cosmos.

Too much science fiction anymore is dark, gritty, and so damn focused on apocalyptic futures. That’s fine – there can be some great stories to come from that backdrop – but Anderson’s insistence on not falling into that trope is a large part of what makes Alienation every bit the excellent read Starstruck was.

Anderson is not afraid to go for a laugh, but she also takes great pains in crafting a memorable protagonist who’s easy to fall in love with. More than anything, Anderson proves that science fiction can not only be funny, but it can also have tremendous heart.

Rating: *****

Buy Alienation now!

 

Traveler (Starstruck #3)

Traveler, the third installment in S.E. Anderson’s Starstruck series, might not be as laugh-out-loud funny as its predecessors, but it is quite possibly the best, most well-rounded entry in the series to this point.38469649

A cross between Galaxy Quest and Clue, this latest has us join Sally, Zander, and Blayde as they appear on a rather large spaceship — one that winds up being not quite was it seems. In fact, very little is as it seems in this book, which in the hands of a less capable writer would be frustrating. But Anderson’s attention to character detail, and her ability to know when to let a moment breathe, make the journey worthwhile.

Though the outright laughs are not as plentiful in Traveler, there is still a whimsy to it all. The doom and gloom are doomier and gloomier than before, but Anderson never lets us forget how utterly ridiculous this all is. After all, Sally’s on a spaceship. There’s Star Trek fanfic. And a robot trying to do its best Billy Graham impression.

Yet it all works.

All three books in the series to this point have taken place in different locales, and Anderson is showing that she’s just as good at building multiple worlds as she is in crafting memorable characters. Her love for the genre is obvious, even in the moments when she lampoons it, and that’s just another piece of the puzzle that makes Traveler such a great read.

If you’re not in on this series yet, you really should be.

Rating: *****

Buy Traveler now!

 

In addition to the Starstruck series, be sure to catch S.E. Anderson’s work in several anthologies. Check out S.E. Anderson’s website, as well as her Amazon and Goodreads pages. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and be sure to check out her covers, too!

BOOK REVIEWS: Part XI

In which I review a pair of fantastic debuts — from Cait Ashwood and Kerri Maniscalco — and a great sequel from Madeline Dyer.

The Seekers by Cait Ashwood

the-seekersI received an advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

In her debut novel The Seekers, author Cait Ashwood has shown that even in the far future, humanity is not as evolved as it probably should be — particularly with regard to how women are viewed by society. It’s a truth that is, at times, unveiled in an uncomfortable fashion (fair warning, there are a couple passages that are potentially hard to read) — but Ashwood navigates the subject matter without being heavy-handed and without letting us lose sight of what truly matters:

The characters.

Specifically, Audrey. While the book starts off with an ensemble cast, by the time The Seekers reaches the midway point, we’ve shed much of the cast in a variety of ways, leaving us focused mainly on Audrey, Ace, and Hound. While I almost reflexively revolt against anything even remotely resembling a love triangle, I had no such reaction here. I can’t quite account for that, other than the fact that Ashwood creates such vivid, memorable characters that I cared more about them individually — particularly Audrey — than any hint of who might eventually end up with whom.

In some ways, The Seekers is a coming-of-age story. In others, it reads like a future dystopia. But Audrey is at the heart of it all, from the moment we first meet her — fresh out of therapy — until we see her face both her greatest dream and her worst nightmare. The seeds of a vibrant futuristic world have been planted in this book, and there are questions therein, but to think of the world or the Seekers or the Order to be the focus would be a mistake.

While treating us to beautiful twists of language, Ashwood gets us to care about Audrey — and for some other characters I hope to see in the next book. And anyone who knows me knows I’m a character-over-plot guy; get me to care about your characters, and I’ll go on virtually any journey with them. The Seekers accomplishes just that, as Ashwood turns in a remarkable debut effort that succeeds both as a character journey and a commentary on sexist cultures past, present, and future.

This book is highly recommended.

Buy The Seekers on Amazon

 

Stalking Jack the Ripper by Kerri Maniscalco

stalking-jack-the-ripperAnyone who’s read my work knows I’m a sucker for genre mash-ups — specifically, mixing murder mystery with science fiction. But any cybernetic mumbo-jumbo I come up with pales in comparison to Kerri Maniscalco’s debut work Stalking Jack the Ripper, which is a fantastic romp that introduces us to the world of forensic science in 1880s London.

First and foremost, Maniscalco introduces us to the brilliant Audrey Rose (side note: two of the books I’ve read so far in 2017 feature protagonists named Audrey — and they’re both excellent). She’s a forensic understudy, despite what polite society wants for women in that day and age, yet she still maintains her femininity whenever possible. I love female heroes, especially when the simple reality of their presence flies in the face of convention.

Fortunately, this book is more than a period piece making a gender statement. Audrey’s brain takes readers on a thrilling journey as she tries to piece together who Jack the Ripper might be. There are plenty of candidates who make sense as the book goes along, and while I didn’t see the ultimate reveal coming, it makes sense with a healthy dose of hindsight.

The best mysteries don’t necessarily shock you; they simply keep you thinking as you flip through page after page. Stalking Jack the Ripper does just that.

The sci-fi aspect really doesn’t come into effect until the big reveal at the end, but it’s such a deliciously morbid reality that adds such depth to the world Audrey Rose and the other characters inhabit that it’s more satisfying than I had anticipated. I’ve read my share of mysteries that end with the thud, but this book builds to a crescendo.

A minor aside: I love that Maniscalco added a section at the end of the book, detailing the facts she kept from the real-life mystery of Jack the Ripper and where she took liberties. It was a nice little peek behind the curtain that I wish more writers would offer.

All in all, Maniscalco has created a fantastic heroine and a vibrant world that straddles the line of reality and fantasy — and I am thrilled another book is in the works. If you love mysteries, or historical stories, or just a damn good tale, you’d do well to give Stalking Jack the Ripper a read. There are a couple difficult passages for those weak of stomach, but that doesn’t deter from what is a clever, well-written tale.

Buy Stalking Jack the Ripper on Amazon

 

Fragmented by Madeline Dyer

fragmentedWhereas Untamed, Madeline Dyer’s debut novel, was a character-driven YA dystopia, the follow-up Fragmented feels more like a drug-induced mind trip — which is simultaneously frustrating and enthralling for the reader.

This book takes place in the immediate aftermath of Untamed, but before long, we’re left with protagonist Seven and Corin — on the run, on their own. They wind up with a band of people named the Zharat, but what starts as a simple case of finding refuge with potential like-minded allies turns into something else entirely… and for roughly 250 pages, you’ll find yourself thinking you know what’s going on, only to discover you’re nowhere near right.

Along the way, Seven is convinced she’s going mad, and I sometimes felt the same way as I navigated through all the twists. Going back and forth in trying to determine which characters can be trusted and which ones can’t, pushing through the occasional tough-to-read passage (there are a couple of them, fair warning), flipping pages through the ending in which the futility of everything becomes crystal clear… even as the answers became clear, more questions popped up.

Fragmented is an adrenaline-packed read, and Dyer once again establishes her ability to create vibrant, memorable characters. That ability is what makes this a great read, even if you find yourself flipping through pages on numerous occasions asking yourself “WTF?” — and you will be doing just that.

The lack of clarity is occasionally frustrating, and there is a cliffhanger (but it’s abundantly clear going forward that there are two more books to come in this series). Fragmented will keep you turning the pages, will keep you guessing.

And when it’s over, you’ll be asking yourself when the next one’s coming.

Buy Fragmented on Amazon

BOOK REVIEWS: Part X

I trust everyone had a great holiday season, rife with plenty of new reads (including my work, perhaps?). I now bring you all my latest crop of book reviews, including a pair of magnificent fantasy books and a new entry into a long-running series that’s not as strong as the others.

Dangerous Ways: The Books of Winter by R.R. Virdi

Why do wedangerous-ways read?

Do we do it for simple entertainment? Do we do it to escape the stress of our lives? Do we do it to learn something about ourselves, about the world in which we live? Or perhaps we do it for all of the above reasons.

Whatever the reason, when we are transfixed by a phenomenal tale, one so well crafted that it grabs us and transports us to an entirely different world, it’s a magical thing. Dangerous Ways, the first book in R.R. Virdi’s The Books of Winter series, is one such experience — as vibrant and evocative and intense as the myriad of gateways leading to other worlds.

This book takes place in the same universe as Virdi’s Grave Report series, and there are satisfying callbacks, but this tome is a being all its own. Its a massive one — not quite troll massive, but close — and yet Virdi’s quick-witted first-person style is so free-flowing that you’ll push your way through hundreds of pages without truly realizing it.

Where the Grave novels are gritty, street-level thrillers with a healthy dose of the freakish, Dangerous Ways is grand, bordering on high fantasy. The numerous worlds are fantastical and well-developed; for all of Virdi’s skill at weaving through the English language, he is equally adept at creating entire worlds — and something tells me he’s only scratched the surface.

Of course, none of that matters if the characters fall flat. But they don’t; Jonathan Hawthorne and Cassidy Winters are a joy to be around; despite the fact that they’re constantly threatened with certain death, you can’t help but be with them step for step. They’re individual characteristics — bravery, determination, sarcasm, wit, and smarts, just to name a few — make them easy to root for, and the supporting cast is equally delightful in its own right.

As much as I’m eager for the next Grave Report book, I’m just as excited at the prospect of the next Book of Winter. There is no cliffhanger here, but there are enough threads to fill several more volumes… and with writing this clean, this crisp, I can definitely see myself devouring more of this genre.

Fantasy fans — urban, high, and everything in between — should definitely add Dangerous Ways to their collection. This is a fun, engrossing, entertaining read — and I would argue, the best book I’ve read in all of 2016.

Rating: *****

Buy Dangerous Ways on Amazon (available in Kindle, paperback, and hardcover)

A Torch Against the Night by Sabaa Tahir

a-torch-against-the-nightIf An Ember in the Ashes was a solid introduction to the horrific and oppressive world of Elias and Laia, then Sabaa Tahir’s follow-up, A Torch Against the Night, is a fantastic follow-up that builds on what we already know and constantly raises the stakes.

Everything that made Tahir’s first book such a hit is back for the second installment, and the biggest change is the fact that Torch features three protagonists: the aforementioned Elias and Laia, as well as Helene. To me, the addition of Helene’s POV was reason enough to give Torch the full five stars; whereas Helene felt a bit one-note and love-triangle-y in Ember, her perspective and character arc add a tremendous layer of depth to both the character and the novel as a whole.

Along the way, all three characters face seemingly impossible odds with varying degrees of success. Nothing is ever truly as it seems, even in the gripping final pages that take place in the dark prison Kauf. I enjoy Tahir’s way with words, the way she can simultaneously paint vast, sprawling pictures with the intimate personality of the characters themselves.

Large though this tome may be, Tahir deftly transports you from character to character, unfolding plot twist after plot twist in such a way that hundreds of pages will fly by before you come up for air — and as an added bonus, I was not nearly as uncomfortable reading Torch as I was reading certain passages in Ember.

That’s not to say there aren’t moments in this book. There are, and they are gutting and fantastic all at once. I’m probably not the target audience for this series, but I’m a sucker for stories in which the heroes refuse to stop in spite of the odds. As a favorite TV show of mine once said: “If nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do.”

That is the guiding philosophy behind Tahir’s books, and it works regardless of the scale of the moment. Moments big and small resonate equally in A Torch Against the Night, and the result is a sequel that surpasses its already impressive predecessor in just about every way.

Rating: *****

Buy A Torch Against the Night on Amazon (available in Kindle, paperback, hardcover, and Audible)

High Heat by Richard Castle

high-heatCastle may be history, but Nikki Heat is still going.

For the uninitiated, a primer: Richard Castle is a fictional mystery writer, formerly portrayed by actor Nathan Fillion on the ABC procedural Castle (which was just canceled this past spring after eight mostly-quality seasons). As part of promoting the show, the Nikki Heat series was published in real-life, along with select stories featuring Derrick Storm. High Heat is the eighth installment in the series, and it will likely prove just as divisive as the TV show’s eighth season.

First, the good: these books have, for the most part, been better than expected. They are essentially little more than promotional material, even if the thing they’re promoting now only exists in syndication and on DVD. High Heat moves along at a brisk pace, unraveling two distinct storylines: the ISIS-style beheading of a journalist, and its resultant threat on Jameson Rook, and Nikki Heat’s continued dependence on and obsession over the death of her mother.

For the most part, High Heat weaves between the two almost effortlessly. There is enough intrigue and action to keep things moving, and this book being less than 300 pages makes it one of the easier reads. There are callbacks to the show — part of the fun of this series has always been playing “Spot the Castle reference — and there are real-life callbacks as well.

Including a presidential candidate who seems to be some freakish combination of Donald Trump and Ross Perot.

Now the bad: This book needs another editor.

For all the crap independently-published books get for poor editing — fairly or otherwise — this is a traditionally-published book that definitely could have used at least one more lookover. It almost feels as if, now that the show itself is over, the people behind bringing these books to life aren’t putting in as much effort as before. Disappointing, but ultimately not that surprising.

Also… for those of you who didn’t like the direction season 8 of the TV show took (specifically, what occurred at the end of the season-opening two-parter)… well, you’re not going to like the end of High Heat either. Without specifics or spoilers, it is almost a word-for-word rehashing. I know these books normally play close to the TV vest, but it’s not normally this blatant.

Still, High Heat is an entertaining read that doesn’t require too much from the reader — which is about par for the course when picking up a Richard Castle book. It’s certainly not the best in the series, and some will despise the direction it takes at the end, but the series has gotten away with much worse.

Rating: ***

Buy High Heat on Amazon (available in Kindle, hardcover, Audible, and audio CD)

AUTHOR SPOTLIGHT: R.R. Virdi

It’s time for another Author Spotlight! Today, I bring to you Dragon Award-nominated urban fantasy indie author extraordinaire R.R. Virdi — who as of today has released his latest, the fantasy opus The Books of Winter: Dangerous Ways. It takes place in the same universe as his Grave Report novels, but it’s an entirely new tale that’s sure to be as intense and entertaining and delightful as everything else he has written.

About the Book:

dangerous-ways

Jonathan Hawthorne has lived over a century beholden to one rule: do not meddle in mortal affairs. He’s broken it twice. So when he crosses paths with Cassidy Winters, he’s forced to interfere again.

Strike three. And the third time’s not the charm.

Hawthorne is swept along as Cassidy slips through the cracks in reality.

And being hunted by bands of monsters doesn’t help.

To find the answers they need, they’ll have to play in a dangerous world. One where the odds and rules are stacked against them. They will have to navigate magical courts, queens and lords all while trying to keep Cassidy out of their scheming hands.

If they fail, she will end up a pawn in a plot that will consume them all.

Hawthorne will have to face the consequences of his past, and risk his future to ensure Cassidy can have one of her own.

For a man with all the time in the world–it seems to be running out–fast!

Dangerous Ways is available in ebook, paperback, and hardcover formats.

Let’s talk to R.R.!

What was your inspiration behind writing the Grave Report series and Dangerous Ways?

The Grave Report was initially a CIA thriller series in the vein of Burn Notice/the Bourne books meets Memento. Originally, the urban fantasy series was going another route with another name all too close for comfort to another one. Eventually, something happened and the previous (urban fantasy) thriller was scraped and the two merged, with me needing to move over the character’s name and restart my plot. Eventually, the idea of Vincent Graves starting in a grave from the CIA plotline… needed a more paranormal reason. 😉 From there, well, you know it goes and has gone on to do.

The Books of Winter: Dangerous Ways came as… a dream and desire to expand on my urban fantasy universe in a way that Vincent Graves and his time constraints don’t allow for.

You’re one of my favorite urban fantasy authors. What draws you to that particular genre, and – specifically in terms of the Grave Report series – what made you combine that genre with elements of other genres, such as mysteries?

I’m a mythology buff. Have been since… ever. I love the idea of creating and toying with mythos in an urban setting. The genre allows me to make and play with the everyday — the mundane and make it fantastical. It’s a fun ride. The idea you can look out the window and wonder what happens if there are monsters and magic lurking out there — today?!

When reading your work, I find myself having a lot of the same experiences I have when watching episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Not just because of the monsters and demons, but also because you have this uncanny ability to juggle the melodramatic and the whimsical. You strike that balance better than most. Where does that ability come from?

I think it comes from just that. I grew up watching Buffy, Firefly, reading Spider-Man comics and things of the sort. Spider-Man is a character with unending life pressure, horrors, and more. Yet he still cracks jokes and lightens the mood when he can. It’s about being a person. Sometimes, a lot of the times, life is and can be hard. It doesn’t hurt to crack a smile and make others do the same, even in the darkest of moments.

Character vs. plot: the seemingly endless debate over which is more important for a good story. Which side of that debate do you fall on, and how do you approach character when your protagonist’s identity changes from one book to the next?

I normally do have a very loose plot in mind; I’m a pantser, no outlines. But, but, I allow for my characters to lead the story within reason. So far, none have run so far away that I couldn’t save it. Mostly it’s gentle nudging if Vincent and the cast decide to break off the path. But I believe in the letting the characters (people) grow and dictate the story. It’s worked for me so far.

Are you a heavy plotter, or do you just let the story take you where it will?

The most I ever have for a novel is: Book one, Vincent Graves has 13 hours to so and so. Will he do the thing before something bad happens?! (Add in random thoughts as I have them. This is the monster of the week. This is the meta plot advancing stuff. Few scenes I have and I like.)

So far, the formula has worked and led to one award win, one of the largest possible award nominations for an author (the Dragon Award at DragonCon), and I’m selling fine. If it ain’t broke… you know the rest.

You’ve said that Dangerous Ways takes place in the same universe as the Grave Report books, yet it’s still its own entity. What are your plans for this fictional universe going forward? How many other Grave Report books are you planning to write?

Yup. Dangerous Ways is the first in The Books of Winter. They’re larger, more on the scale of epic, urban fantasies set in the same universe. The plan for that series is four to five larger books. The Grave Report books are a tad smaller and faster paced, as they’re paranormal investigator thrillers. I’m aiming for, and have slated in my head, around 20 – not counting standalones and novellas/short stories.

These two, by the way, are at this moment the first of eight or more series in this expanded urban fantasy universe. 😉

You’re almost as famous for your inspiration and positivity toward other authors as you are for your own writing. How important is it for you to lift up other aspiring authors, and do you see it as paying it forward in a sense, given how much support you have among the indie writing community?

I think that’s the most important thing I can do, even more so than writing advice/technique itself. That comes with time and practice to all. But, if you lose motivation, if you give up… it’s over. I want to keep people writing because it’s the only reason I’ve gone on to do the things I’ve done. Without the uplifting and motivational things to come my way, I’d have quit long ago and never have gotten the chance to experience the crazy triumphs I’m enjoying now. And I’m still growing, so there’s more to come I believe.

What are some of your favorite books?

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher. Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time books. The Chronicles of Siala by Russian author Alexey Pehov.

Thank you for having me and your work too (if you haven’t checked it out, readers, do so) is wonderful and rather unique!

(J.D.’s note: Thank you for that!)

Now, to recap… my reviews of both Grave Beginnings and Grave Measures, the first two novels in the Grave Report series (which are also now available in hardcover!).

 Grave Beginnings

Grave BeginningsI hardly ever breeze through books anymore. That’s not an indictment of the quality of the books I read, but between a full-time job, writing/editing three manuscripts at once, and several other interests, it takes a bit to hold my interest and focus enough to actually tackle something on my TBR list.

But Grave Beginnings sucked me in immediately, and I found myself reading one of the best, most interesting murder mysteries I’ve read in a long, long time. R.R. Virdi has created a fantastic world and — perhaps more impressively — a protagonist that has no solid identity, yet is easy to root for. I’ve read my share of novels written in first-person that don’t quite measure up, but the first-person narrative is perfect for this book; the nature of the protagonist allows for narrative freedom in first-person that likely would not be present if this were a third-person book.

The marriage of murder mystery and supernatural works far better than it might seem in theory, and the result is a fast-paced, irreverent read. The cast of characters is relatively small, as the book focuses more on moving things along and less on making sure we keep track of all the particulars. In the mystery genre, it is far too easy for a case to either be wrapped up too quickly or to drag on too long, but the case in Grave Beginnings doesn’t suffer from that, and the conclusion of the case itself was satisfying like an old-school episode of Buffy.

(Aside: it occurs to me that, technically, every episode of Buffy can be considered old school nowadays. Yeah, I feel old…)

The best part to me, though, was the teeth the end of the novel provided the character. It was a clear direction moving forward for the series, and it has me looking forward to the next installment. I read the Kindle version of this novel, but now that a paperback edition is available, I’ll be adding that to my collection in the near future.

Long and short of it, Grave Beginnings is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time, and I wholeheartedly recommend it for fans of mysteries, supernatural stories, both, or neither. This is simply a fantastic book.

Rating: *****

Grave Measures

Grave MeasuresOne of the reasons I loved Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the TV show, not the movie) so much was the seamless way in which the tone constantly shifted. From tense to humorous to heartbreaking and back again, Buffy managed to weave all of life’s great and terrible emotions into a fantastic tale that still felt personal.

R.R. Virdi clearly has that same ability. Grave Measures, the follow-up to the fantastic Grave Beginnings, does the same thing. The stakes feel higher this time, even if Vincent Graves finds himself confined to an insane asylum, tracking down something that’s killing patients. Much like the first book, Grave Measures is whimsical, hard-hitting, intense, and emotional… and every bit the page-turning romp Beginnings was.

One need not to have read the first book to follow along with Measures, but those who have will be rewarded. The return of Camilla Ortiz was a pleasant surprise, and she has quickly made herself a personal favorite — even as great as Vincent Graves himself is.

There are no overly shocking revelations in this book, but a novel doesn’t need to be shocking to be a quality read. There are plenty of breadcrumbs sprinkled along the way, fodder for future novels in the series, and I’m looking forward to seeing how everything unravels going forward.

Virdi is a master at ensuring Graves has a voice all his own — easy enough to do in the first-person narrative with a protagonist with no true identity. Still, Graves has a depth all his own, even with the snark and the one-liners, and his personal code — which has evolved over the course of the first two books — makes him more of a hero than I think he’d admit to.

If you loved Grave Beginnings, you’ll love Grave Measures just as much. Even if you didn’t, Virdi has created a fantastic universe full of rich, interesting characters who are easy to root for. This is sort of Columbo meets Constantine, with a little bit of Buffy sprinkled in for effect… and the result is one of the best books I’ve read this year.

Seriously, read this book.

Rating: *****

In addition to the Grave Report books and Dangerous Ways, Virdi has his work featured in three anthologies: The Longest Night Watch: A Charity Anthology for Alzheimer’s DiseaseThe Longest Night Watch, Volume 2: A Charity Anthology for the Alzheimer’s Association, and Stardust, Always: A Charity Anthology for Cancer Research (in memory of David Bowie and Alan Rickman). In supporting these anthologies, you’re not only reading some fantastic work, you’re helping out some worthwhile causes.

Follow Virdi on his (shiny redesigned) website, Amazon, Facebook, and Twitter.

AUTHOR SPOTLIGHT: Mary Head

Time now for another Author Spotlight! Today, we feature romance and thriller author Mary Head, just in time for the release of her new book, No Safe PlaceNo Safe Place is a thriller, selected for publication through the Kindle Scout program.

Head now has two novels out, including the romance The Only One.

Before highlighting each book, let’s hear from the author herself.

What was your inspiration behind writing No Safe Place?

The simple answer is that I wanted to see Gary Oldman and Dianna Agron play father and daughter in something (they are still my ideal David and Hannah, though I know that if this book is ever made into a movie, they’ll both be too old to play these characters).

The longer answer is that father/daughter dynamics are some of my favorites to write, particularly a single father who will do anything to protect his daughter. I also love a good “damsel-in-distress” story, but I also wanted to sort of eschew a lot of the clichés that are inherent to this type of story. I wanted to write a woman who was forced into this terrible situation, but used her intelligence and her own strength to fight against it as best she could. I wanted to write a father who was desperate to find his daughter, who was a deeply good man, but also deeply flawed, and the way all of these characteristics clashed. I wanted villains who weren’t black-and-white, but surrounded by shades of gray, and I wanted supporting characters who felt just as important as the main ones.

Mostly, I wanted this story to feel real, and for the characters to be relatable.

A lot of writers will hover around one genre in particular and not stray that far from what works for them. You, meanwhile, pivoted right from romance (with your debut novel The Only One) to a thriller with No Safe Place. Are you conscious of genre when you’re writing, or do you just write stories that speak to you in the moment?

I definitely write whatever speaks to me. As an enthusiastic consumer of movies and books and TV shows, I am definitely a fan of a very wide array of genres. I enjoy playing in a variety of sandboxes, and I don’t try to limit myself whenever a new idea strikes. The two genres I’ve written for – romance and a kidnapping thriller – are two of my favorites, but I also enjoy taking my favorite genres and turning the common tropes within them on their heads.

No Safe Place was published through the Kindle Scout program. What was that experience like, and what advice would you have for anyone else thinking of giving that program a try?

The experience was stressful and nerve-wracking, to say the least, but ultimately for me, very rewarding.

I would definitely encourage everyone to give it a shot, but my biggest piece of advice is: don’t expect to get selected. From what I’ve heard from other people involved in the program, only about 2-5% of books submitted are actually selected for publication, so, to quote a popular dystopian YA series, the odds are not in your favor.

However, don’t let that stop you from submitting. Even if you don’t get chosen, you have exposure, which is always very important. You have the people who nominated your book, most of whom will actually want to read it no matter what your campaign outcome is, so you have an audience ready and waiting. Self-publishing through KDP is very simple and quick, and you have the option to have Kindle Scout send out an email to everyone who nominated your book to let them know that it’s available to buy.

I would also recommend joining kboards (http://www.kboards.com/) which is a forum for Kindle users, and specifically has a forum for writers with a thread for Kindle Scout. The members there are incredibly supportive, and you’ll have people to share the experience with. It’s also a great learning tool for anybody interested in self-publishing.

Character vs. plot: the seemingly endless debate over which is more important for a good story. Based on reading both The Only One and No Safe Place, is it safe to assume you sit firmly on the character side?

I would say yes, but really, I think characters and plot are intertwined. A great plot can be boring if the characters aren’t any good, but great characters don’t have anything to do if your plot isn’t interesting. For me personally, my characters definitely come first, and it’s usually their feelings and motivations that help shape the plot from a basic “girl meets boy” or “father searches for his kidnapped daughter” story to something compelling that people will want to read.

Funnily enough, I initially envisioned No Safe Place as having a lot more action than it does, but the characters eventually won out, and it became a much more character-driven story. So while I am definitely on the side of characters being important, to the point where I usually spend more time developing them than the actual plot of the story, I think both characters and plot are vital to what makes a good story.

Are you a heavy plotter, or do you just let the story take you where it will?

I would say I’m a combination of both. I tend to make outlines for my stories, and plot out the major points, but the journey from one plot point to another isn’t as heavily planned. As I mentioned before, I like to let my characters guide the plot, so how they get from point A to point B is usually up in the air, guided by vague ideas that can always change.

You’ve written a romance and a thriller to this point. What’s next?

Up next is the follow-up to No Safe Place called Finding Home Again, which will continue to follow Hannah’s story as she tries to put her life back together post-kidnapping. It was important to me to continue her story and show her healing process, as too often in media the aftermath of these types of traumatic events is never touched upon, and I want to show that things don’t always go back to normal after the story “ends.”

After Finding Home Again, I’ll be shifting genres again to supernatural romance with Crimson Hollow, which is essentially a vampire story, but with what I hope is a fun and interesting take on it.

What are some of your favorite books?

I’ve been catching up on the Pendergast series by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child lately. I’ve been a fan of this series, and the character Aloysius Pendergast, for years, and I highly recommend the series to everyone. They’re crime novels (Pendergast is an FBI agent who has a special interest in unusual murders, usually of the serial variety) with a supernatural, sometimes mystical, current that runs through them, and they’re incredibly riveting books; all too often I find myself staying up into the wee hours of the morning to finish each new book.

My all-time favorite standalone book has to be IT by Stephen King. To save the long drawn-out explanation of why I love it so much (because I could honestly talk about it forever), I’ll just link to my blog post about it.

I’m also a fan of several popular YA series, including Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling, His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, and A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how much I’ve enjoyed the Jill Andersen series, written by the owner of this very blog. Highly enjoyable reads, and I recommend them to anybody who’s into badass female superheroes. (Editor’s Note: I did not pay her to say this!)

 

Now for the reviews!

The Only One

too-coverI suppose a disclaimer is in order here: I’m not generally a fan of romance novels.

They’re just not my thing.

However, The Only One is the exception, because in her debut novel, Mary Head has made the characters relatable and easy to root for. As romance novels go, TOO is a quick read — don’t let the size of the paperback fool you. The chapters are short, the pacing is excellent, and before you know it, you’ll be almost as invested in Richard and Piper’s relationship as they are.

The author also makes each of the supporting characters easy to identify with, and they add to the overall fabric of the narrative. Richard and Piper do not exist in a vacuum, and it’s nice to see that while the story is clearly about them, everyone else is given a chance to breathe and find their voice. Jill, in particular, was a personal favorite.

Another of this book’s many strengths is its representation. While it is, at its heart, the story of a heterosexual relationship between two white people, the overall cast is more diverse than a lot of books. In addition, the relationship itself between Richard and Piper defies certain societal expectations in low-key, blink-and-you-might-miss-them ways. In my mind, these attributes really add to the story.

Long and short of it, if you’re a fan of the genre, The Only Oneis highly recommended. Even if you’re not, this is still a well-written book that tells an entertaining story.

Rating: *****

No Safe Place

no-safe-placeNo Safe Place is night and day from The Only One, Mary Head’s debut novel.

Whereas one was a romance that bucked many of that genre’s conventions, No Safe Place is a fast-paced thriller in which graduate student Hannah Cole is taken from her own home — leaving her FBI agent father David and his team to put the pieces together in a race against the clock.

One of this book’s chief strengths is its ability to get us to care about Hannah and David without spending too much time on their relationship. Far too many books spend so much time establishing relationships and timelines that by the time the action gets going, readers have already checked out. No Safe Place does not suffer from this; Head does a masterful job of establishing the particulars, getting us to to care about the principal players, while still managing to get the story moving along.

But Hannah is no damsel in distress; she’s fiercely intelligent and — being the daughter of an FBI agent — she’s capable of taking care of herself and has no qualms about doing so. That in and of itself turns the damsel-in-distress trope on its head and is enough reason to give this book a read.

Along the way, Head treats us to heroes whose flaws are readily apparent and villains who are perhaps a bit more sympathetic than we’re comfortable with. These characters are fleshed out and deep without spending time and space on fluff, allowing readers to take part in a journey that perhaps goes by a little quicker than expected.

A sequel is in the offing, but this book doesn’t end on a cliffhanger. The preeminent plot if wrapped up in a sufficiently satisfying manner, with each bread crumbs left over going forward. And, in Head’s continuing tradition of upsetting established tropes, this universes focuses less on Hannah’s abduction itself and more on the emotional ramifications of it — both during and after.

No Safe Place is a thriller with heart — and a tremendous read.

Rating: *****

Head’s work is available on Amazon. You can also follow her on Twitter and on Goodreads.

AUTHOR SPOTLIGHT: C.A. King

Greetings!

Today marks the beginning of a new feature on this website: author spotlights, in which I shine the proverbial light on an indie author whose work I enjoy. These will be periodic updates, with no real schedule — pretty much whenever the mood strikes (or when an author I love is getting ready to release a new book).

Our first author? Fantasy scribe C.A. King, author of The Portal Prophecies series!

First let’s hear from the author:

What was your inspiration for writing The Portal Prophecies?

Depression. After experiencing great loss in my life, I found that I needed something therapeutic. I created worlds in my mind – places I wanted to visit. Soon, I learnt writing down those stories was the magic I needed to help me function better. Reading and writing have become important tools for me on my road to recovery.

If I have a bad day and close my eyes, I can travel to a world where things are just a little brighter and get lost there for a while. I want to share that with my readers. When they need to forget about the present, even for a few minutes, I want them to be able to grab one of my books and smile again.

The Portal Prophecies draws heavily from some time-honored traditions and well-known mystical legends. What went into including those in your stories?

Through the years, I have heard it said countless times that there are three sides to every story: what I believe; what someone else believes; and what really happened. If I break that down, then someone else part means, technically, there is a different interpretation for every single person who has read or heard the story in question. Some, of course, are bound to overlap – but others are unique and at the same time still very plausible.

As an author, it is my job to step outside my comfort zone and look at things as if I was seeing and hearing them for the first time. That is exactly what I do. The fantasy and sci-fi genres allow me to add a bit of the unexplained into the mix.

The Portal Prophecies appeared to draw from several other prominent fantasy series – Harry Potter chief among them. What other fantasy influences did you draw from in writing this series?

This is only the second time someone has made a reference to Harry Potter while discussing The Portal Prophecies with me. I personally don’t see the connection. There are many stories that involve wands and magic, and only one book (Sleeping Sands) takes place in a school.

There are, however, a few Easter Egg references to famous scenes in works of literature which readers may or may not catch. These are meant as a tribute of sorts to other authors as well as offering a bit of fun. I want people to say “I see what she did there.”

The following are a few Easter Egg examples from A Halloween’s Curse:

Willow was enticed by the smooth plain texture of the wood in her hands. She was drawn to it, but expected something more … maybe an aura to explode from it illuminating her face and making the choice obvious.

And my favourite;

Up ahead, there were tall gates leading into a city.

“I expected something shinier,” Lilabeth whispered.

“You watch too many movies.” The driver remained silent the whole way, but listened to everything that was said. “Probably thought it would be made of gold or diamonds? Maybe glass or emeralds? Tell me, what other than to make a good story, would be the point? I think you will find that the folks around here would rather use precious metals and gem stones for more practical uses, like magic. Tales made for the terunji have to be dressed up, to keep their attention and grab their imagination. Their subconscious yearns for them to accept what they can’t explain.”

It doesn’t actually end there. If readers follow my social media, they can find a few other surprises. For instance: I was on a diet on a Pancake Tuesday, so I created a scene in Deadly Perceptions where my characters are eating pancakes. They ended up with the fictional calories instead of me.

Finding Balance put a nice bow on Willow’s journey, while still leaving some threads open. What are your plans for that universe going forward?

This is an exciting time for my books. The main group of characters have grown up quite a bit in The Portal Prophecies. Their lives are changing and they have new challenges to face.

Jade has always been one of my personal favourite characters to write. It was only fitting that she carry on in her own series. The first book in the Surviving the Sins series sees an undeniable transition from Willow as main character to Jade. The main theme of these new books revolves around the seven deadly sins, putting a heavy emphasis on vampires. Surviving the Sins: Answering the Call is set for a winter 2017 release.

Shattering the Effect of Time follows the Shinning brothers as they set out to find a cure for their sister. This is really a different theme for me, as the main antagonist is time itself. I’ll be taking an intense look into the lore for some well-known items relating to time, including the Fountain of Youth; the Cinamani Stone; the Holy Grail; and Ambrosia. I’m really excited that Pandora is going along for the journey. She is such a fun character and sure to add some extra excitement along the way.

Are you a heavy plotter, or do you just let the story take you where it will?

I am both. The main difference for me is that the heavy plotting is done while I daydream. I don’t write things down, or scribble on napkins. Some of the smaller twists add in as I go along.

You recently released Tomoiya’s Story. What are the plans for that universe going forward?

Escape to Darkness sets the lore for the series going forward. Woden’s legacy will live on in more ways than even he could have anticipated. Things have changed in the dark side of the universe and Tomoiya is about to find out that her tears aren’t the only thing about her that is considered valuable.

While Escape to Darkness concentrated on characters and backstory, it wasn’t meant to be a heavy detail book. Readers can expect a lot more world building in Stalked and the rest of the series.

What are some of your favorite books?

This is a hard question to answer, there are so many. If I have to name a few: Treasure Island; The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe; One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish;  and the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

I am going to toot the indie pride horn. These past two years, I have met and read the works of so many fantastic authors – authors who deserve to be discovered. I wish I could name them all, but I’d be here a long time. Instead, I am picking one book, Barely Awake by D.R. Perry, as one of my newfound favourites — and adding I hope readers take a chance on an undiscovered indie author – they may find their new favourite book.

 

Now, my reviews of King’s already-published works.

The Portal Prophecies: A Keeper’s Destiny

A Keeper’s Destia-keepers-destinyny is a YA coming-of-age tale that buries itself firmly in several different lores and fantasies — some well-known and others not so much. The result is a solid introduction to an ongoing series that promises to be more intense with each passing volume.

Early on, we meet Willow — a seemingly ordinary girl who grows fruits and vegetables in her home world. But as a rival character makes a selfish choice in an effort to “put Willow in her place,” it sets off a chain of events that see Willow discover realities she never once considered and find herself staring at an unfamiliar, uncomfortable world.

But along the way, one of her newfound friends is in trouble, kicking off a chain of events that will unfurl as the series continues. At the center of it all is Willow — an unassuming, selfless person who is suddenly faced with more than she can probably handle.

To me, characters are what make books. We can wax poetic about style and plot structure and narrative all we want (and those things are certainly important), but if I’m not emotionally invested in the characters, the rest doesn’t matter. Get me to care about the characters, and I’m along for the ride — warts be damned.

There are warts — specifically, writing that occasionally feels stilted and ordinary — but King’s ability to get you to sympathize with and relate to Willow makes up for that. For the occasional slow passage or dry paragraph, you’re watching a girl grow into a capable young woman, and that journey — more than anything — is what makes A Keeper’s Destiny worth your time.

This is the start of a journey — both for Willow and for those of us fortunate to tag along.

Rating: ****

The Portal Prophecies: A Halloween’s Curse

a-halloweens-curseA follow-up to A Keeper’s Destiny, A Halloween’s Curse is a strong follow-up that raises the stakes beyond a simple coming-of-age tale.

Make no mistake; Willow sees tremendous growth throughout A Halloween’s Curse, but the focus is less on her and more about the mission she and her friends have to undertake. Along the way, we’re shown that things run far deeper than previously thought, and the nuggets of behind-the-scenes machinations give this book a depth that I feel A Keeper’s Destiny lacked.

The addition of Halloween as a backdrop enriches the story even further, and it shows the world in a much deeper light. I like the inclusion of Halloween to the overall narrative, and it’s not just a backdrop; it actually affects the characters as they work to rescue their friend. This is not the last time C.A. King will imbue one of her books with a holiday tradition, either.

Some of the issues that plagued A Keeper’s Destiny are present in this book as well, but they aren’t as numerous and this is a cleaner, tighter story than its predecessor. King is building a rich, vibrant universe, and while some of the minor characters are a bit one-dimensional at this point, Willow herself shines as a protagonist should.

All in all, this is a fantastic follow-up, and a wonderful addition to what is shaping up to be a great series.

Rating: ****

The Portal Prophecies: Frost Bitten

frost-bittenFrost Bitten is the strongest of the Portal Prophecies series to this point, because it is the most intense and action-packed entry in the series so far. The stakes are higher, the emotional beats resonate more, and for the first time, a deep sense of foreboding hangs over everything.

Whereas the second book in the series focused on Halloween,Frost Bitten has a Christmas-y feel to it — quite literally so. It’s a much-needed does of levity and lightheartedness, because much of this book is darker than the previous two entries. The depth of King Cornelius’ depravity is on full display, and for the first time, things truly seem… not hopeless, necessarily, but this is the first time I’ve truly feared for Willow’s safety.

To say nothing of her emotional state. The events of Frost Bitten threaten to break her unlike anything else to this point, and that emotional depth serves both her character and the overall narrative well.

Few of the issues evident in the first two books are in this one; C.A. King’s growth as a storyteller is on full display inFrost Bitten, and the result is a fantastic, intense, easy-to-read addition to what has already been a fascinating series.

Business is definitely picking up here.

Rating: *****

The Portal Prophecies: Sleeping Sands

sleeping-sandsSleeping Sands had a Harry Potter feel to it… not the latter, darker editions of the series, but the earlier installments, where the characters were younger and the tone wasn’t quite so doom-and-gloom.

Make no mistake: the stakes are high in Sleeping Sands, the fourth installment of C.A. King’s Portal Prophecies series. Willow is separated from her friends — who might not be her friends — and she finds herself with a new group of friends — who, again, might not be her friends.

Or maybe they are. Who knows? Willow certainly doesn’t.

But even with the change in surroundings, Willow still manages to learn about herself and the world surrounding her, even as she has to watch out for a rival student, a suspect journalist, and the ever-evolving machinations of King Cornelius. The chess pieces are more numerous than ever now, and King is showing an ability to juggle multiple storylines at once, even finding a way to tie them all together without leaving the reader confused or overwhelmed.

A lot of writers can struggle in that regard, but King is showing it’s a strength of hers.

Much like Frost Bitten, Sleeping Sands shows this series finding its footing and its identity. It really feels like the first two installments were all about King discovering her voice and that of her characters, and now that those have been sussed out, the stories and the characters are truly allowed to shine.

This series keeps getting better, and Sleeping Sands is right up there with Frost Bitten as my favorite of the series thus far.

Rating: *****

The Portal Prophecies: Deadly Perceptions

deadly-perceptionsIf the previous four installments of The Portal Prophecies were about setting the proverbial table, then Deadly Perceptions is the magic trick in which the tablecloth is ripped out from underneath.

This installment picks up right where Sleeping Sands left off, and it appears the surprise the good mayor had been hiding is the least of everyone’s concerns. Willow again finds herself separated from those closest to her, but instead of being hesitant and emotional about that, she’s more certain of herself this time, more sure of what needs to be done.

Character development: C.A. King does it right.

Along the way, Willow comes across unicorns and dragons and tiny fairy creatures… not all of whom are friendly, and it might not be who you think. The elves wind up being far more important than we were led to believe in Sleeping Sands, though it does explain some of their behavior in the previous volume.

Again, King shows a deft touch when juggling multiple storylines. As it turns out, King Cornelius is the least of everyone’s problems… and Willow discovers something about herself that could prove far more overwhelming than anything she’s faced to this point. King again borrows from well-known supernatural lore, and the result is an entertaining read that sets up the climactic Finding Balance.

While this one didn’t quite draw me in the way Frost Bittenand Sleeping Sands did, Deadly Perceptions is a fantastic entry in the series. It pulls back the curtain ever so slightly, with the promise that the curtain will be ripped from the rod by the time the final book in the series comes around.

King has created a lovely, vibrant universe with her mixture of familiar faces and interesting twists, and the result is a fictional world in which one can easily lose track of everything in the real world. This is another worthy edition in the series.

Rating: ****

The Portal Prophecies: Finding Balance

finding-balanceOver the course of six books, Willow has grown from unassuming teenager to probably one of the most powerful individuals in the universe. Which explains why just about everything that has happened leading up to Finding Balance, the conclusion of The Portal Prophecies series, revolves around her.

The intensity of Deadly Perceptions is ratcheted up even more in this book — as well it should, since this is the climactic conclusion. King Cornelius’ treachery, Cornost’s plans,what exactly happens when Willow is finally reunited with her allies from the earlier books… everything is tied up in a neat little bow in Finding Balance.

That’s not to say there aren’t threads left over for potential future books, but Finding Balance wraps up Willow’s journey with a finality that is often hard to achieve without resorting to drastic permanent measures. While I can appreciate, as a storyteller, the value of an unhappy ending, it’s still nice to see happy endings on occasion.

Anything less wouldn’t have been true to the series.

After all — for all of the treachery and danger and doom The Portal Prophecies subjected Willow and us readers to, this was never the doom-and-gloom, nothing’s-going-to-be-alright kind of series. There was always an underlying optimism in each book, the feeling that — as bad as things might be in the moment — they will be alright.

I’m glad the ending reflected that.

The only thing keeping Finding Balance from a five-star rating? The climactic battle comes a little too soon, leaving an ending that sort of meanders through wrapping up ancillary plot points. But that’s a minor quibble for what is a fantastic ending to a terrific fantasy series.

Finding Balance was the ending The Portal Prophecies, and it was a fitting end to the amazing journey C.A. King took us on.

Rating: ****

Tomoiya’s Story: Escape to Darkness

tomoiyas-storyTake everything you think you know about vampires and throw it out.

It’s not that you’re wrong when picking up Tomoiya’s Story: Escape to Darkness, the first installment in a new series from C.A. King. But this short tale will show you how vampires came to be what we know them to be today (you know, unless you subscribe to the sparkle-in-sunlight-and-stalk-taciturn-high-school-girls theory).

Though the book is names for a young girl named Tomoiya, she is secondary to this tale, a prequel of sorts. She is told a fairy tale of sorts, one that ultimately reveals how vampires came to be. It is a tale of betrayal, heartbreak, depravity, and insanity, and it is the sort of tale that will have you flying through the pages.

This is a fair bit darker than The Portal Prophecies, andTomoiya’s Story showcases all of the same skills King has displayed and refined in writing that series. I can’t wait to see where this tale goes next, and I highly recommend this for anyone who likes vampire stories or space travel.

Yes, those two go together. King just proved it with Tomoyia’s Story.

Rating: *****

All of C.A. King’s books are available on Amazon. Visit her author page.

You can find C.A. King on Goodreads, and visit her website here. She is also on Facebook and Twitter. In addition to being an author, King also writes a column for Books & Quill magazine.

BOOK REVIEWS: Part VII

In which I review a pair of gems each from Rose Montague and Alex P. Berg.

Jade by Rose Montague

JadeJade is the first in a trilogy of supernatural thrillers and a lot of fun to read. The titular heroine is called a “magical mutt” in the blurb, and for good reason — she’s part witch, part vampire, part faerie, and part shifter… and that just scratches the surface. There is even more to Jade than that, and I really hope future stories dive further into her backstory, which is only hinted at in the second half of this book.

But as much of a badass as Jade is — and you all know my love for badass heroines — she has a softness and a vulnerability to her that keeps her from feeling like she’s too strong or too powerful. Her chemistry with Jane is clear from the instant they meet, and that chemistry is one of the reasons I’ll be diving into the second book, Jane, very soon.

There are a few slight quibbles that kept me from giving Jade five stars; this book couldn’t used one more pass-through in editing, and the pacing does dip on a few occasions. But what starts as a supernatural murder mystery quickly devolves into something deeper and darker, something that promises to show us much more of this vibrant, dark world Jade inhabits.

But more than anything, Jade is a fun read and a strong introduction to the trilogy.

Rating: ****

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Jane by Rose Montague

JaneJane is the sequel to Jade, but this time we see the continuing tale through the eyes of London Jane, a vampire to whom Jade struck a relationship with in the first book. This second novel sees Jane and Jade jetting across the world trying to kill the Devil, and in a lot of ways, this is a cleaner, more adrenaline-packed outing than the first book.

The two vampires’ bond is more than emotion or physical attraction; they are linked to each other in ways that help them in their quest and serve the plot. This story is simultaneously self-contained and has an effect on the world at large, and while I found myself occasionally wondering about characters I met in Jade, Jane is such a fun ride that those quibbles are minor.

The editing issues that plagued Jade are largely absent from Jane, though there is the occasional plot point that seems to come out of nowhere (one major one in particular is the only thing that keeps me from giving this book five stars).

Still, this is another fun read from Rose Mantague, one that has me eager for the third installment, Jill (and you all know how I feel about badasses named Jill).

Rating: ****

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Red Hot Steele by Alex P. Berg

Red Hot SteeleIn a lot of ways, Red Hot Steele is your typical murder mystery, down to the at-times stereotypical hard-nosed Detective Daggers — who is equal parts cynical, not as funny as he thinks he is, and sexist. But it’s the little tweaks to the formula along the way that ultimately turn this book, my first read from Alex P. Berg, into an engrossing, fun read.

We open with Daggers losing his old partner and having to deal with a new partner — a female with seemingly unique psychic abilities named Shay Steele. Their interactions are typical and predictable at first, but as the book progresses and they learn each other as detectives and as people, they develop a chemistry that I look forward to exploring further as I dive deeper into the series.

Oh, and there’s a nice twist on Steele’s character at the end that I particularly enjoyed. For me, it was a far better payoff than actually solving the murder.

I’m a fan of murder mysteries that don’t take themselves too seriously — it’s one of the reasons I was such a fan of the TV series Castle. Red Hot Steele unfolds in the same manner; sure, there’s dark material here, but this book never forgets to have fun. The laugh-out-loud moments can be counted on one hand, but there’s plenty of whimsy and chuckle-worthy moments to keep the macabre from getting lost in itself.

Berg has a way with words, and his sentence flow is some of the best I’ve read — particularly among indie authors — this side of R.R. Virdi. He’s also done a fine job of slowly introducing us to a world that resembles ours, but is just different enough. The supernatural and the occult aren’t huge factors in Red Hot Steele, but something tells me that will change as we dive deeper into the series.

There’s nothing particularly revolutionary here, but Red Hot Steele is still a fun, entertaining read that introduces us to a world full of promises and co-protagonists who have the potential to grow as individuals and as a pair. If you get me to care about your characters, I’ll go along for just about anything, and Berg has done a good job of getting me invested in what happens to Daggers and Steele going forward.

Rating: ****

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Cold Hard Steele by Alex P. Berg

Cold Hard SteeleIn a lot of ways, Cold Hard Steele is a worthy follow-up to Red Hot Steele, taking what worked so well in the first installment of Alex P. Berg’s supernatural mystery series and building upon it.

For one thing, Cold Hard Steele places a brighter spotlight on the supernatural aspect of the world Daggers and Steele inhabit. What was background dressing in the first novel takes the spotlight with aplomb in this edition, and though it featured possibly my least favorite supernatural creature in werewolves, the mystery is crafted well enough that it hardly mattered.

I enjoyed watching the further development of the partnership between Daggers and Steele — though I can certainly tell where it’s going. But it almost has a Castle season 2/3 feel to it, and the lighthearted nature of so much of this book is a strong counterbalance against the mayhem and the murder surrounding everyone.

There’s even a fictitious novel that features prominently in the book.

The only thing that keeps this book from receiving five stars is the ending. Not the solving of the mystery itself, but the fact that it’s revealed in a big info-dump conversation between Daggers, Steele, and the other detectives (Rodgers and Quinto) — instead of unfolding through the interrogation of the character who ultimately wound up being the murderer. I would’ve loved to have read that scene, rather than have everything recited to me after the fact.

Still, Cold Hard Steele is a fun read, a fantastic supernatural mystery, and a worthy follow-up to Red Hot Steele. As of now, there are four other novels available in this series, and I can’t wait to devour them as well.

Rating: ****

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