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.

BOOK REVIEWS: Part IX

No Safe Place by Mary Head

no-safe-placeI received a copy of this book pre-release after nominating it for publication through Kindle Scout.

No 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: *****

Preorder No Safe Place on Amazon 

 

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

the-girl-on-the-trainI’m trying to remember the last time I was so disappointed with a book that was so hyped. Probably the time I tried reading Lord of the Rings, but even that doesn’t feel quite right.

The frustrating thing is, there are passages in which The Girl on the Train is so gripping, so intense, that it grabs hold of you and you can fly through dozens of pages without realizing it. The climactic unravel, satisfying as it is, is the only reason I stuck with this book to the end, because this book suffered from two major flaws.

1) For a book so intense, so psychologically messed-up, The Girl on the Train takes its sweet old time getting going. I understand the need to introduce the particulars, but it shouldn’t take north of the first 50 pages to do so. I almost bailed on this book before things actually started happening.

2) There are no genuinely good characters. I suppose that could be considered a strength — and when I say I need to care about the characters, I say that knowing that doesn’t mean I necessarily have to like them. But none of the protagonists — not Rachel, not Anna, not Megan — are easy to root for; the supporting characters aren’t much better.

There are reasons to sympathize with each of the three women through whom we’re told this tale. Rachel is divorced, unemployed, the victim of of infidelity, and she’s an alcoholic. Megan harbors a secret so heinous, she can’t even let her husband in on it. Anna… well, she and Rachel are far more entangled with each other than she would care to admit.

But all three are also insufferable in their own ways, and if it weren’t for the mystery of what happened to Rachel on the night she can’t remember, if it weren’t for the mystery of what ultimately happened to Megan, I would’ve abandoned this book not quite midway through.

Maybe the upcoming film will address some of these issues — cutting the fat from the beginning would be a huge bonus — but this book really frustrated me because of what it could have been. This had the potential to be an impossible book to put down; this could have easily turned into the best book I’ve read throughout 2016. The ingredients were all there.

But Paula Hawkins meandered her way through the beginning, and she left us with characters who reminded us too much of that friend we all have… the person who has been through entirely too much, which engenders sympathy, but they’re also such exhausting people to be around, for one reason or another, that the sympathy only goes so far.

I did root for Rachel, and Anna, toward the end, but for much of The Girl on the Train, I spent much of my time rolling my eyes at them. There were times where I envied Megan, because she didn’t have to wade through this mess.

But in the end, The Girl on the Train frustrated the hell out of me. What could’ve been a classic begging to be read time and time again instead turned into a maddening cluster of messed up people that you’ll wish would just get over themselves.

Rating: **

Buy The Girl on the Train on Amazon

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

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: ****

Buy Jade on Amazon

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: ****

Buy Jane on Amazon

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: ****

Buy Red Hot Steele on Amazon

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: ****

Buy Cold Hard Steele on Amazon

BOOK REVIEWS: Part V

An abbreviated version, in which I review another stroke of genius from R.R. Virdi and a solid debut effort from Sabaa Tahir.

GrGrave Measuresave Measures by R.R. Virdi

One 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: *****
An EAn Ember in the Ashesmber in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir
Sabaa Tahir’s debut novel An Ember in the Ashes is a fantastic story that is at once a tremendous balancing act — between two protagonists, between quiet moments and violent encounters, between fate and freedom.

Elias and Laia are both protagonists of this tale, and they take turns sharing their story. This shared first-person narrative works out better than I expected — particularly in later chapters when their paths begin to occasionally cross. Tahir pulls off this balancing act with a grace many authors lack after multiple novels, made all the more impressive with this being her first outing.

Tahir also does a good job ensuring the quiet moments never drag on too long. All of the dramatic beats — the violent moments, the battles, the twists — keep the pages moving.Ember never drags on for too long, and when business picks up, the pages fly by.

Because of the violent nature of this tale — and sometimes, that violence is sexual — there are passages that are uncomfortable to read. Also, there are times where Laia’s personal desires are a bit hard to follow, and it was a subplot that left me scratching my head more than anything. Maybe it’s odd to me because I’ve never been a 17-year-old girl, but it was vexing.

Still, An Ember in the Ashes is a fantastic fantasy novel, and I’m impressed with Tahir’s adept storytelling ability; this was her first novel, but it read as if she had been writing books for decades. I enjoyed this book, and eagerly await the follow-up, A Torch Against the Night.

Rating: ****

BOOK REVIEWS: Part IV

In which I review a fun thriller from NCIS‘ Ducky and two forgettable entries from Sir Ian Fleming and Sasha Grey.

OnceOnce a Crooked Man a Crooked Man by David McCallum

As Dr. Donald “Ducky” Mallard on the long-running CBS procedural NCIS, David McCallum is no stranger to spinning a yarn. It shows in his debut novel Once a Crooked Man, which for all its faults is an entertaining read.

Above all else, it’s clear McCallum had fun writing this book. Because of that, one can’t help but have fun reading it — even on the occasion where characters act strangely or it dawns on the reader that this book isn’t quite what was expected going in.

The prose is occasionally dry and awkward, but the story never lulls. This is a fast read, with short chapters that ensure you’re never stuck in one place for too long. Once a Crooked Man does stub its toe on occasion, but the flubs are few and — a moment of dubious sexual consent late in the narrative aside — there’s nothing too terribly glaring.

The premise is far-fetched — a struggling actor overhearing a mafia plot and taking it upon himself to alert one of the targets — but let’s face it: sometimes, the flimsy, yeah-right premises make for the most fun reads.

Once a Crooked Man isn’t a book with a ton of substance; there isn’t a whole lot of meat on the proverbial bone. But it is a fast-paced, entertaining read — and there are certainly worse ways to spend almost 350 pages.

Rating: ****

Buy Once a Crooked Man on Amazon

CaCasino Royalesino Royale by Sir Ian Fleming

I confess: before discovering the TV show Castle, I never knew James Bond originated as a book character. All I knew of him was the never-ending series of movies with an equally endless series of actors playing the world-famous secret agent.

So I pick up Casino Royale and instantly find that Book!Bond is not much like Movie!Bond. Naturally, there are differences between printed page and moving screen, but the difference in character here is so stark that I spent the opening chapters of the novel trying to get my bearings.

Also, it’s important to bear in mind when this book was written — both because of prose and dialogue that is, at times, stilted and needlessly wordy and because of attitudes toward women that are grossly sexist that even the various Movie!Bonds would duck their heads in shame.

There are a share of solid passages in this novel, but Ian Fleming’s maiden voyage for 007 is too inconsistent to truly be a fantastic read, or anything resembling the character I’ve seen on the silver screen for practically my entire life. This was a good book, but not a great one — and I can’t help but wonder if my opinion in that regard is colored by the fact that, to me, Bond has always been a movie character.

Fictional novelist Richard Castle said Casino Royale was the book that made him want to become a writer. I can’t help but wonder… was it because the book inspired his budding creative nature, or because he knew he could do better?

Rating: ***

Buy Casino Royale on Amazon

The Juliette SThe Juliette Societyociety by Sasha Grey

I’m still trying to make heads or tails out of what I read here.

Full disclosure: I bought this book simply because of who the author is and my curiosity got the better of me. But in a way, already being familiar with the author (and, more importantly, being familiar with her previous career) affected my ability to be immersed in this book; I was never able to separate Catherine the protagonist from Sasha Grey the porn star. Every sex scene, I imagined Sasha, not Catherine.

And there is plenty of sex in this book, perhaps more than you might expect. It’s written well enough, but it feels a bit paint-by-numbers and if erotica is your thing, there are far better, far spicier options out there.

As for the plot itself… this book might be called The Juliette Society, but the Juliette Society itself doesn’t feature heavily. Most of this book feels like a coming-of-age story for Catherine. Much of it feels like a romance novel (though I have to be honest, much of Jack’s behavior makes no sense). It’s not until the very end that we’re fed something resembling exposition regarding the Juliette Society, and then the book ends and I was left with a definite feeling of “…that’s it?”

The most frustrating thing is, there’s potential here. There are ways in which The Juliette Society could’ve been a fantastic, engrossing read. The blurb hints at just that, but the book itself never quite delivers.

Rating: **

Buy The Juliette Society on Amazon