What’s Coming Up Next

The end of 2017 has been quite the whirlwind, given the release of both Notna and Behind the Mask. But with the Jill Andersen series at a bit of a crossroads four books in, and my first standalone book now out, what does the future hold?

Funny you should ask…

Okay, you didn’t ask. I asked for you. Same thing.

(Speaking of Notna… check out this fantastic review and interview with me over at Readcommendations. And if you haven’t read S.E. Anderson’s Starstruck and Alienation yet… well, what better time than the holidays?)

As we speak, I’m in the middle of writing Betrayed, which will be book five in the Jill Andersen series. It was my NaNoWrioMo project this year, and again I hit the 50,000-word mark, but I’m roughly midway through the first draft. With any luck, Betrayed will be out come spring 2018.

Notna was always meant to be a standalone: no sequel, no series. I am, however, beginning to plan out an anthology of sorts, tentatively titled Legends of the Gem. Similar to how the 1990s comic book Tales of the Witchblade detailed that mystical gauntlet’s history, this series of short stories will do the same for the Gem of Notna. There’s no release date on this one just yet, but if I can have it out by the end of 2018…

Having established, in passing, that Notna and Bounty inhabit the same fictional universe, I’ve been debating with myself as to whether or not Jill’s world should eventually be one with monsters and demons — you know, on top of the conspiracies and the science fiction, etc. But that’s not what the series has been, and I’m not sure how that big a shift would go over.

Once I’m finished writing Betrayed, I’m gonna finally tackle The Keeper. A paranormal thriller that tackles issues of life, death, and rebirth, this is another project I’ve had bouncing around in my head for the better part of a decade. I finally want to knock out a first draft and see what I’ve got from there.

I also have a spy thriller in the planning stages called The Agency. It’s got very much an Alias feel to it (Jennifer Garner’s Alias, not the Marvel Comics series of the same name), and I’m anxious to see what I can do in the genre.

Neither The Keeper nor The Agency have a timetable for release yet.

As a result, I’m thinking of doing a spinoff series. One that builds on the more fantastical elements of the Jill Andersen books, but with more of an urban fantasy twist. I haven’t decided the overall plot or the characters or any of that yet, but it’s something I’m excited to tackle — mostly because it’s gonna be a challenge.

2018 promises to be a lot of fun, and I hope you’ll join me for the ride!

Notna is now available! Get your copy: Paperback | Amazon | Universal ebook Link (Nook, Kobo, Apple iBooks, Scribd, 24 Symbols, Indigo, Angus & Robinson)

Behind the Mask is now available! Get your copy: Kindle | Paperback | Universal ebook Link (Nook, Kobo, Apple iBooks, 24 Symbols, Indigo, Angus & Robinson)

About J.D. Cunegan

J.D. Cunegan is known for his unique writing style, a mixture of murder mystery and superhero epic that introduces the reader to his comic book-inspired storytelling and fast-paced prose. A 2006 graduate of Old Dominion University, Cunegan has an extensive background in journalism, a lengthy career in media relations, and a lifelong love for writing. Cunegan lives in Hampton, Virginia, and next to books, his big passion in life in auto racing. When not hunched in front of a keyboard or with his nose stuck in a book, Cunegan can probably be found at a race track or watching a race on TV.

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: 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 VIII

The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey

the-5th-waveThe 5th Wave is by far the most intense book I’ve read so far this year.

And “intense” is really the best way to describe it. I’ve not read many “alien invasion” sci-fi books, but I’m guessing most of them don’t start mid-invasion. But by the time we meet Cassie to open this book, we’re already three waves into this. Hearing the waves described after the fact doesn’t sound great, but… wave #3 alone is gruesome in hindsight (so much so that I’m glad we don’t really get it in real time).

The intensity is so thick that it keeps you turning the pages — and when you finally come up for air, you feel it in your gut. Even midway through the book, as we’re introduced to different characters and things are truly unraveling, the intensity never wavers. This book does not give you a breather — which makes sense, because that’s how it is for the characters.

Some of the exposition is mind-twisting. It’s hard to know what’s the truth and what’s not. That can be frustrating, but I think Rick Yancey did that on purpose. The characters, after all, no longer know who or what to trust — so what better way to engage the readers by ensuring they’re not sure what to trust, either?

This is not a book for the squeamish, because of the intensity and the fact that we’re exposed on more than one occasion to child warfare. That can be a difficult subject to stomach, and there were times when even I had to pause and walk away.

But The 5th Wave is incredibly engrossing, written in such a way that you cannot stop reading. The size of the hardback edition can be daunting, but the story is so intense, so all-encompassing, that hundreds of pages fly by in the blink of an eye. Not every character worked for me — Evan, in particular — but I say that understanding there are still two books in this trilogy I’ve yet to read.

But Cassie and Sammy alone are worth the price of admission.

I’ve read a lot of really, really good books in 2016, and The 5th Wave is definitely near the top of the list. The Infinite Sea and The Last Star have a high bar to climb.

Rating: *****

Buy The 5th Wave on Amazon

Bounty by Michael Byrnes

bountyI’ll be honest: I only picked this book up because it shared a title with my debut novel.

And while both my Bounty and Michael Byrnes’ Bounty share a title and open with a grisly murder, that’s where the similarities end. At its heart, Byrnes’ novel asks the fundamental question: when traditional justice fails, is it right for people to take matters into their own hands? This is hardly the first work of fiction to ask that question — I’m reminded of the League of Shadows from Batman lore, and even Batman himself — but Byrnes explores that question amid the backdrop of the Internet and our digital-dependent culture.

Along the way, the bodies pile up worldwide as numerous law enforcement agencies are chasing their proverbial tails. Murder victims aside, there’s little violence in this Bounty — this is more of a psychological thriller than anything — and yet this is a page-turner as fast-paced as anything else I’ve read in the genre.

The technical jargon is overwhelming at times — far more so than the scientific jargon peppered throughout The Martian — but I don’t think my level of knowledge had any bearing on how much I enjoyed the book. But there are a few occasions where a reader might come across a passage that leaves them a little confused, so it bears mentioning.

Readers might also find themselves occasionally backtracking in order to remind themselves of a certain character, and this book seems to end on a little bit of a cliffhanger; there is not 100 percent resolution, and it feels like there’s a potential sequel in the offing.

I hope there is.

The biggest gripe, to me, is the sheer number of characters. Byrnes does his best to give them all their unique quirks and personalities and what not, but there are so many of them that more than a few don’t come across as well as they probably should. The scope of the plot likely necessitated the sheer number of players, but if there is a sequel, I hope Byrnes trims the roster a bit.

All in all, Bounty is a fantastic mystery/thriller that features a disturbingly plausible storyline. To me, the best novels often posit the question “What if…?” and this novel certainly delivers.

Now… any chance Byrnes might read my Bounty?

Rating: *****

Buy Bounty on Amazon

Forget Tomorrow by Pintip Dunn

forget-tomorrowIf you could see into your own future, what would you do? Especially if you didn’t like what you saw.

Callie Jones saw the worst possible future for herself, sending Forget Tomorrow into an intense, frantic, and emotional journey that often wadded waist-deep into the philosophical divide between fate and free will. An unexpected ally joins Callie on her journey, and despite some missteps midway through, Pintip Dunn offers up one of the more emotional books I’ve read in 2016.

The immediate aftermath of Callie discovering her future is fraught with tension, fear, and the unknown. Though she spends many of the early chapters by herself, or surrounded by those she isn’t sure she can trust, those chapters fly by… and then she finds herself on the run, confronted with possibly the last person she wanted to see, and then… Harmony.

I’ll be blunt. Most of the love story between Callie and Logan did nothing for me — but that’s because of my own bias against romantic subplots as a whole. They often feel out of place, though I will give Forget Tomorrow credit for not shoehorning in a love triangle like so many other YA novels.

And I did enjoy the fact that of the three potential romantic entanglements among those in Harmony, the spectre of their respective futures stood in the way. Aside from that, though, Logan and Callie as a romantic item did nothing for me.

However, Logan’s overall importance to the plot still worked for me. I have this odd ability to separate the romantic from everything else, so a book still works for me even if the romantic subplot doesn’t.

(And if my distaste for romantic subplots makes me a coldhearted curmudgeon, then… guilty.)

The end of the book seems to build to an inevitable conclusion, but there is a twist in the final moments that even had my mouth agape. I flipped through the final chapter thinking there had to be a way out of it, and I even had my theories on that, but I did not see the move that was made. Perhaps, in hindsight, it should be obvious, but still.

My issues with some of the middle notwithstanding, Forget Tomorrow is a fantastic read, almost impossible to put down. The beginning and end are that strong, and I am eager to pick up the next installment.

Rating: ****

Buy Forget Tomorrow on Amazon

MOVIE REVIEW: Ghostbusters (2016)

I know I usually do book reviews on this site — this is, after all, a site dedicated to books — but in the interest of geek culture as a whole, it seemed appropriate to share my review of the recently-released Ghostbusters reboot, which also includes my overall thoughts about the state of geek culture. Fair warning, man-babies will not like what I have to say.

Let me start by saying I know Ghostbusters (2016) wasn’t made for me. This isn’t my movie. I had my Ghostbusters movie 32 years ago, with Bill Murray and Dan Akroyd and Harold Ramis and Ernie Hudson… this new movie will be for a generation of children (a generation of GIRLS) what the original was for me – and that is a wonderful, momentous thing.dm-oaLsx_400x400

A generation of girls are going to get action figures and proton packs and video games and all of the other stuff I got when I was a child. They’ll get to create the same memories and have the same sense of self-worth that I had as a child because of Ghostbusters. And if some of those girls grow up and go into STEM fields – or become history buffs – ALL THE BETTER.

The new film is not about the fans of the original (more on this later).

Now… I said I loved this movie. And that’s true. But now for the potentially controversial part: I loved this movie more than I loved the original (and I’ve been repeatedly reverent in my love for the original). This film was all kinds of fun (which, really, is the most important thing for a movie to be – enjoyable to watch). The effects are what one would expect for 2016, and each of the Ghostbusters are memorable in their own ways.

Are there issues? Sure, but the same was true with the original (and to be honest, the original has a lot more wrong with it… most of that due to the passage of time and my own maturity). The original Ghostbusters never moved me to tears; for some reason I can’t quite place, this new one did. The original movie still exists; I see the DVD on my shelf as I type this. It’s still great. This new film doesn’t change or negate anything. There can be two separate, fantastic films called Ghostbusters. It is possible.

Holtzmann… man, she steals the show from the second she first pops up on-screen, and she doesn’t stop. She is this relentless ball of energy that infuses even the slower beats of the film, and her mix of fierce intellect, sheer joy, and uninhibited love for what she does make her possibly the highlight of the film. And her badass moment in the big fight scene at the end? OH MY FREAKIN’ GORSH (to borrow from another SNL alum). If Kate McKinnon’s star blows up in coming years, this movie – this performance – will be why.

I love Patty just as much; I consider her and Holtzmann co-favorites. I love Patty’s people-person nature, I love that she’s a history buff, I love that the others just accept her for that. I love that she picked a hearse for their official car (because WHY NOT), I love that she is simultaneously let’s do this and aw, hell no about everything. More than anything, I love how protective she is of everyone (Holtzmann especially), and seeing her save Holtzmann while fighting off a possessed Abby one-handed… I mean, dayum.

I expected a little more from Abby and Erin, but that was solely because of Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig. But we know what we’re getting from them by now, and they are still fantastic in their respective roles. I’ve long considered them the Venkman and Stantz of the group, but could never figure out which was which. But now I see that they’re neither of those; they’re simply them, and they are wonderful. I do, however, want more of their backstory as friends. Maybe in the sequel (and how can there not be a sequel, after that post-credits scene?).

I enjoye2015Ghostbusters_New_Press_161215.article_x4d Kevin (because quite frankly, turning the “dumb blonde” cliche on its head is probably the stupidest thing in the world to be offended over – next to a movie being remade with women instead of men) – not just because of the subversion of the stereotype, but because Chris Hemsworth knocked the hell out of the role. Seriously, Thor’s got some comedy chops.

I’m also enjoying the recent trend in genre fiction of the villain being a representation of the whiny, self-entitled man-baby that’s infested geek culture over the decades. Because really, what better way to highlight the necessity for and the highlights of representation than to pit those heroes against the very thing that despises them? Granted, Rowan can’t sniff Kylo Ren’s jockstrap, but the point of Ghostbusters (either film) was never the villain.

Besides, Loki and Magneto aside, it’s not like the Marvel films are doing that great on villains, either.

Which brings me to the meta portion of the essay: geek culture has a sexism problem. And a racism and homophobia problem, but for the purposes of this essay, let’s focus on the sexism (with the understanding that there’s a lot of overlap, too). Now, I know what you’re thinking: duh. I mean, the reaction to this film when it was first announced is evidence enough of geek culture’s sexism problem.

But it’s far deeper than that, and it’s gone on for decades.

Set aside a moment the concept of taking a long-beloved geek franchise and rebooting it with female characters instead of men. Think back and ask yourself… how many times have you known a girl or woman who enjoyed video games or comic books to be accused of faking it, of only pretending to like something to get attention from guys?

(Side note, guys: get over yourselves. You’re not cool enough for someone to fake liking Halo or God of War to get your attention.)

I’ve seen female comic book fans grilled by their male counterparts about obscure plot points or unknown characters, in an effort to prove that the boys are “better fans” – which is utter bullshit, because no comic book fan knows everything (I sure as hell don’t), and those who say they do are full of shit. Others see that behavior, too, and it makes them not want to take part in the culture. Which sucks, because comic books are awesome and video games are great and genre stuff in general is badass, and I happen to think the more people there are enjoying these things, the better off we ALL are.

Granted, for the longest time, geek media itself hasn’t been terribly welcoming. Female characters who were nothing more than eye candy and/or love interests for the heroes, wearing little clothing and boasting bodily proportions I’m not sure I could replicate with several tubs of Play-Doh. Sara Pezzini from the comic book Witchblade was an amazing, fascinating character on so many levels… but because almost every artist drew her half-naked and in compromising poses, few ever got to see that depth.

But the tide is changing. We’ve had Buffy the Vampire Slayer… and Sydney Bristow from Alias… and Max from Dark Angel… and several other fantastic examples of badass female characters spanning multiple platforms (remember the massive hit and cultural sensation Marvel hit upon when it re-launched Ms. Marvel as a Pakistani teenager?). The fervor for a Black Widow standalone film… for a Captain Marvel film… for a Wonder Woman film… hell, my own clamoring for a Batwoman film…

People were jacked for Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice not because of the titular heroes, but because it would be our collective first glimpse of Wonder Woman on the big screen.

And now we have a foursome of women who are presented as tough, intelligent, and resourceful. They take control of their own lives and their own passions, and they don’t belittle each other for it – and not once are they presented for the male gaze. They dress for their job, not to show off skin or curves. They take each other seriously, and more importantly, the narrative takes them seriously.

This is not about alienating long-time genre fans; if the whiny man-babies are that upset over women having an ever-growing place at the genre table, then that’s
on them, not the characters or their creators. It’s not Sony’s fault or Paul Feig’s fault if you can’t handle the idea of female Ghostbusters; it’s yours.

What this is about is welcoming more people to the party. Genre fiction is wonderful in so many ways for so many reasons (I’m proud that I can write and publish genre fiction of my own, with my own badass female character who would fit in nicely in this new Ghostbusters world… even if she might be a bit confused most of the time). Why wouldn’t we want to share these fantastic worlds and characters with as many different people as possible?

And that, I think, is what is best about the new Ghostbusters film: everyone who wants a seat at the table has one. This isn’t just the boys club anymore, and you know what? That’s okay! It’s actually more than okay… and for those 8-year-old girls who want their own proton packs and jumpsuits and yellow goggles and guns to lick on Halloween (well… maybe when they’re older), I say: welcome to the club, have a blast, and don’t let any snot-nosed dudebro ruin your fun.

BOOK REVIEWS: Part VI

Lots of books in this batch, including strong entries from Jason Luthor, Andrew Mayne, and Christy King.

Floor 21: Descent by Jason Luthor

Floor 21 DescentI thoroughly enjoyed Floor 21, so much so that I had extraordinarily high expectations of Descent. Fortunately, author Jason Luthor not only met those expectations, but even surpassed them. The result is a fantastic sequel that is equal parts intense, terrifying, and adrenaline-packed.

When I read the first book, I considered this sort of a dystopian type of fiction. But this book really hammers home the horror aspect of things, as Jackie and her crew finally come face-to-face with not just the Creep, but scores of other threats that are, at times, downright unsettling. Which highlights one of the many highlights of Luthor as a writer: he has done a tremendous job of world-building in such a limited setting. I mean, everyone’s confined to one building, yet it’s clear that Luthor is building a world and mythology that is all-encompassing. The macro and micro merge together perfectly in Descent, resulting in a wholy satisfying read.

Jackie grows tremendously in this book, and I love how true to her voice Luthor remains. I’ve read far too many books written in the first person that eventually no longer sound like the protagonist telling the tale, but Jackie is Jackie throughout, changes and all. And whereas there were passages in the first novel from another character to add much-needed context, the same is done in Descent.

All in all, Floor 21: Descent is a wonderful follow-up, and it sets the stage nicely for the next installment — which hopefully pops up sooner rather than later. If you loved the first novel, then I can’t recommend this one enough. And even if you didn’t read the first, I really think you should and then give Descent a read.

Definitely one of my favorites of 2016.

Rating: *****
Dirty Deeds by Christy King

Dirty DeedsDirty Deeds by Christy King is a great many things — badass vigilante chick, undercover saga, heartbreaking love story, and supernatural drama that spans over the centuries, behind the proverbial curtain to the point where the reader doesn’t realize the true ramifications of Cameron James’ life until it’s too late.

Even with all of that going for it, Dirty Deeds never feels rushed or crammed too full. A book this ambitious in vision could’ve easily been bogged down by that vision. Yet King never allows the macro to get in the way of the micro, and even when the macro reveal feels like a “Where did thatcome from?!” punch to the gut, hindsight, and well-placed clues, will paint a much clearer picture.

There aren’t many books that surprise me anymore. Dirty Deeds did just that.

One of the reasons this book jumps back and forth so well through so many styles and genres and twists is that King never loses sight of the characters. Cam is many different things to many different people — even to herself — and we never lose that sense of who she is throughout everything. Even the supporting characters, like Dev, have enough life to them that your concern for their predicament outweighs your own bewilderment.

In a way, I wish there was another book featuring Cam in the offing, because King has created a wonderful, vibrant character — to say nothing of a potentially rich supernatural mythology that’s practically begging to dug into more. But long and short of it, I’m a sucker for tough female characters, and this book fits that bill perfectly.

All in all, Dirty Deeds is a fantastic read, one of the best I’ve had so far in 2016.

Rating: *****
Station Breaker by Andrew Mayne

Station BreakerIf you’re familiar with Andrew Mayne’s Jessica Blackwood novels, I’m gonna warn you right now: Station Breaker is not like either of those books, and David Dixon is not Jessica Blackwood.

But that’s a good thing.

Mayne has penned a fantastic sci-fi thriller, one that throws you into the fire from the word go and doesn’t bother letting you catch up. That’s a good thing in this instance, as what is supposed to be the best day of Dixon’s life — his first outer space mission — quickly turns to his worst. He’s on the run for much of the book, and there’s a Jason Bourne quality to this book that works, even if the main character is anything but a spy.

Action sequences are masterful, and exposition chapters aren’t too massive with the info-dumping. Mayne grows as a writer with each book he writes, and the climatic battle toward the end represents some of his finest work.

Two minor quibbles:

1) LOTS OF ALL CAPS AND EXCLAMATION POINTS!!! I get that some of them are sound effects (this being a first-person narrative, Mayne chooses “BANG!!!” as opposed to “Gunfire from behind startled David.”), but a lot of it is also some of David’s inner monologue. It’s effective in terms of giving David a definitive voice, but I can see where it would get annoying from time to time.

2) This book ends on a cliffhanger. Yes, it makes it clear there will be another David Dixon book, but I’m of the mindset that you can end a book in a series without a cliffhanger (pay no attention to Behind the Badge…).

Still, Station Breaker is a fantastic, adrenaline-packed sci-fi thriller, and proof that Andrew Mayne is not just a one-trick writer.

Rating: ****
Transference by Sydney Katt

TransferenceI feel like Transference would’ve been a much better book if it were longer. It’s a fast-paced read, to be sure, and I don’t doubt that would still be the case if several important things were fleshed out. But as it is, this book feels rushed… and that affected my ability to emotionally connect with either Allison or Brad.

Too much of the transformative events in these characters’ lives were mentioned in hindsight, in sort of an oh-by-the-way manner, and I feel this novel would’ve been much richer, much livelier, if the author had written flashbacks in which these events had actually occurred. Don’t just tell me how Allison found herself on her way to prison in the book’s open — take me on that journey with her.

What is here is well-written, crisp and free-flowing. There’s a lot of potential, a lot of stuff that could’ve been extremely compelling if it had just been fleshed out a little bit more.

Transference is a solid, entertaining enough read, but it could’ve been so much more.

Rating: ***