Friday, July 6, 2018

Black: The Birth of Evil (The Circle Trilogy)

Title: Black: The Birth of Evil

Series: The Circle Trilogy

Year: 2005

Author: Ted Dekker

Summary: Enter an adrenaline-laced epic where dreams and reality collide.

Fleeing his assailants through deserted alleyways, Thomas Hunter narrowly escapes to the roof of a building. Then a silent bullet from the night clips his head...and his world goes black.

From the blackness comes an amazing reality of another world-a world where evil is contained. A world where Thomas Hunter is in love with a beautiful woman. Then he remembers the dream of the chase as he reaches to touch the blood on his head.

Where does the dream end and reality begin? Every time he falls asleep in one world, he awakes in the other-both facing catastrophic disaster. Thomas is being pushed beyond his limits...even beyond the limits of space and time.

Black is an incredible story of evil and rescue, betrayal and love, pursuit and death, and a terrorist's threat unlike anything the human race has ever known.

Some say the world hangs in the balance of every choice we make. Now the fate of two worlds hangs in the balance of one man's choice.

Main Characters: 
~ Thomas Hunter

Review: Ted Dekker is one of those authors who I really can't make my mind up about. I begin his books with low expectations, get lost in the story and dragged on by suspense, and then end with mixed feelings. Yes, I'm a book snob. I can't help that. 

Anyway, Black follows the beginning adventures of Thomas Hunter a man who's being chased for not repaying a rather large loan. 

Oh. Wait. 

Thomas Hunter is a man without a memory who somehow survives the infamous, evil-filled Black Forest. 

Oh. Wait. 

He's both. Thomas Hunter is living in two different worlds, and we're not sure which one is the real one. And that's where the adventure begins. 

After getting out of the Black Forest alive, Thomas works at getting his memory back, asking a million questions, eating strange fruit, and learning to woo a female as part of the great romance. Behind him, there's always the threat of the large, flesh-ripping bats. In the other world, Thomas works at not being killed by his pursuers, announcing the winner of the Kentucky Derby before the race even begins, and making a trip around the world to gain an audience with science's foremost star. And behind him, there's the threat of assassins and a virus that has the power to effectively kill the entire planet's population in three weeks. No pressure. He can handle both lives. 

This book doesn't give you a moment to catch your breath. Honestly, if I wasn't a new mom needing sleep, I would have been up until 3am trying to finish and find out what happens. Yes, I howled at the cliff-hanging ending. You have been warned. 

For the most part, I liked this book. It's fast-paced, confusing, heart-stopping, and well-written. Thomas is a likable hero with plenty of snark and spontaneity. 

I wasn't too keen on the great romance bit. While I could understand why it was written the way it was, it felt very forced and awkward. Thomas is chosen by this girl and then must woo her; he doesn't show much affection for her, other than a general gawking at her beauty and fighting skills. Personally, I preferred the relationship, albeit short, that he had with the girl from earth. 

Advisory: Lots of violence. Multiple fights bloody/kill/injure combatants. It's not extreme gore, but enough that I would recommend this book for a slightly more mature audience. 

Also, the romance. Some kisses and touches, but not terribly graphic. 

In the strange world that Thomas finds himself in, Dekker makes a parallel to the story of the Bible. The black forest and the evil bats represent sin and (duh) evil while the colored forest, good. The evil bats try to tempt the good people to eat the fruit from the black forest (much like Satan tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden); and the parallels could go on and on. However, the "God" of this world is more essence in liquid form than holy spirit. While it makes sense in a fairly cool analogy in the book, it still felt a little weird to me to make the awesome Lord of the universe into a pool. Just throwing that out there. 

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

The Eye of the World (The Wheel of Time)

Title: The Eye of the World

Series: The Wheel of Time (Book #1)

Year: 1990

Author: Robert Jordan

Summary: The Wheel of Time turns and Ages come and go, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth returns again. In the Third Age, an Age of Prophecy, the World and Time themselves hang in the balance. What was, what will be, and what is, may yet fall under the Shadow. 

Main Characters:
~ Rand al'Thor
~ Mat
~ Perrin
~ Egwene
~ Nynaeve
~ Moiraine
~ Lan

Review: I've heard a lot of people say that Robert Jordan is the new Tolkien. While I partway agree, I still think Tolkien is the best. Old loyalties die hard. 

But honestly, I enjoyed this book way more than I thought I would. Robert Jordan has created a whole world, with histories and genealogies just as complicated as Tolkien's. If you need a good LONG fantasy fix -- pick up the Wheel of Time series. Jordan began this series thinking it was only going to be six books long. Ha. Yeah. Fourteen books later...

Rand, Mat, and Perrin are three friends from a small town known as Emond's Field. Rand farms and herds sheep, Perrin works as a blacksmith's apprentice, and Mat creates mischief. All three seem pretty ordinary, but one night changes everything when everything they know gets turned upside-down. With an Aes Sedai to guide them and Trollocs and a Fade -- and worse! -- at their backs, they begin the epic journey of the age.

So many books today focus on a central character being the chosen one or the unlikely hero. Rand, Mat, and Perrin are unlikely heroes, but I feel that this story breaks the cliche by following THREE of them, not just one. Three different stories and fates tied together -- because even though they stick together and help each other out, they each have a story and a path of their own. I love complicated twists!

There's honestly a little bit of everything in here for everyone. My husband and I both wanted to read this series so we've been taking turns reading it out loud to each other. I'll be the first to admit I've loved sharing this adventure with him. When we're away from the book, we discuss what we've read, try to figure out the mysteries Jordan's been weaving, and throw around suggestions on what's to happen next. Because Jordan keeps you on your toes -- right when you think all's well and something can neatly tie up with a bow, BAM! And you can basically hear Jordan laughing at you in your mind's ear, saying, "Didn't see that coming, now did you?"

The Ogier is one of my favorite characters; I'm looking forward to seeing more of him in later books. Nynaeve is particularly multi-faceted. I'm very interested in her story. Also, Egwene. Poor dear. I'm still rooting for her and Rand... even though I know there's still so many books ahead of us.

Book one ends satisfactorily... if you like a million questions unanswered. I'm so glad I basically found the whole series at Goodwill. Because I'm gonna keep needing to get to the next book ASAP. Once you get sucked in, this is the kind of series that you can't put down. 

Advisory: Lots of fighting/violence/scary creatures/evil in general. For those of you who are familiar with Tolkien, this is up a notch. Certain parts can get kinda gruesome, but I haven't been completely grossed out yet. Just expect with this epic fantasy to have a lot of blood and whatnot. 

Also, magic of sorts. I don't mind it so much, since this series is clearly a made-up fantasy, but it is very prevalent in the novel. The "magic" or power comes from the One Power, an abstract source of some kind of energy. It's split up into two segments - saidar, the female power, and saidin, the male power. Using either half of the Power is known as channeling. For females, channeling normally means training as an Aes Sedai, learning how to use the Power. For males, touching the One Power normally results in the man going mad and killing everyone near him. While it's not implied that everyone can use this Power, it does seem to be available to multiple people. Egwene and Nynaeve both expect to be trained so they known how to use it. 

This book also contains a few New Age type elements. Tam al'Thor teaches Rand (his son) to focus on a void, blocking everything else out. Kinda becoming one with everything around him. That is also echoed in some of the Aes Sedai teachings, though not as prevalent in this book. 

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Monday, June 18, 2018

Dragon Rose (Tales of the Latter Kingdoms)

Title: DragonRose

Series: Tales of the Latter Kingdoms (Book #2)

Year: 2012

Author: Christine Pope

Summary: The shadow of the cursed Dragon Lord has hung over the town of Lirinsholme for centuries, and no one ever knows when the Dragon will claim his next doomed Bride. Rhianne Menyon has dreams of being a painter, but her world changes forever when a single moment of sacrifice brings her to Black's Keep as the Dragon's latest Bride. As she attempts to adjust to her new life -- and to know something of the monster who is now her husband -- she begins to see that the curse is far crueler than she first believed. Unraveling the mystery of what happened to the Dragon's Brides is only the beginning... (from Goodreads)

Main Characters:
~ Rhianne
~ Theran Blackmoor
~ Sar

Review: As far as Beauty and the Beast retellings go, this one handled the aspect of the Beast’s curse in a very creative way. However, other elements of the story make it difficult for me to recommend the book for fairy tale fanatics.

Rhianne is the eldest of four daughters born to a tradesman. She despises her mother’s choice of suitor, a rich man of forty-five years, and thrives in helping her father by painting the stoneware and other pottery he makes. However, her painting skill is somewhat of a disgrace to her name as girls aren’t supposed to be dabbling in trade.

Rhianne is only a month away from aging out of the dreaded call for the Dragon’s Bride. Fro 500 years, he's called for a bride from the little town of Lirinsholme, and no girl wants to answer that call -- because it's a death sentence. Even though the Bride’s family receives a large monetary gift, the Bride herself will be dead not long after her marriage to the Dragon. As ill luck has it, the Dragon Lord of Black’s Keep calls for a bride only just after Rhianne’s painting disgraces her to the entire town. Her best friend – a girl who is already engaged and sewing her wedding dress – is chosen as the Bride, but Rhianne decides to take her place.

As I said before, this book handles all the aspects of the Beauty and Beast story very well. I enjoyed seeing those elements fleshed out as they were. The only big thing lacking was the rose itself. Rhianne’s name means “the rose” and she and the Dragon Lord walk often in the rose gardens, but it is not the rose that begins Rhianne’s adventures with the beast.

Theran Blackmoor, the Dragon Lord himself, is very much like the beast of lore. It always bothered me that so many Beauty and the Beast retellings portray the beast as an ill-tempered brute with anger management issues when the original fairy tales (granted, depending on which variation you read) showed him as a disfigured and rather gentle man. Theran was appropriately moody, and I thought his curse was very well executed. I found I quite liked the Bride twist.

I do realize that this is the second book in a series of fairy tale retellings; however, I believe they are basically stand-alone novels. I have absolutely no idea what the first book was about -- I just read this one because I found it free for Kindle one day and thought I'd try it out as a Beauty and the Beast retelling. I can't recommend the series because I really don't know anything else about the other books.

Advisory: The biggest objection for me was Rhianne's desire for romance and physical intimacy. Once she realizes that she's fallen in love with the Dragon Lord, she wants to kiss him and be near him physically. She wonders what it would be like to be treated like a wife, leading to some not-so-graphic thoughts and feelings. There is also a scene in which she and Theran consummate their marriage, though nothing is described graphically and the scene itself is more suggestive than anything else. Still, I was uncomfortable reading it, and it is for this reason that I can't give this book a higher rating. 

Some talk and portrayal of violence/suicide/murder. The story itself has a darker, more mature tone because it includes these elements, but I didn't think any of it horribly graphic or over the top. 

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

DragonSong (Harper Hall Trilogy)

Title: DragonSong

Series: Harper Hall Trilogy (Book #1)

Year: 1976

Author: Anne McCaffrey

Summary: Anne McCaffrey's best-selling Harper Hall Trilogy is a wonder-filled classic of the imagination. "Dragonsong," the first volume in the series, is the enchanting tale of how Menolly of Half Circle Hold became Pern's first female Harper, and rediscovered the legendary fire lizards who helped to save her world. (from Goodreads)

Main Characters:
~ Menolly

Review: In all the years I’ve been searching for and devouring dragon books, I’m surprised that I didn’t get into Anne McCaffrey’s books earlier. I was actually introduced to this trilogy by my husband, who had read it growing up; he constantly recommended them to me (after we happened to find the trilogy at a bookstore while on our honeymoon), and then came home beaming one night when he found me reading the first one on the couch. After that, it didn’t take me long to read the whole trilogy.

Menolly is the youngest daughter of the Sea Holder and the only one in her hold able to do anything remarkable with music after the death of the hold’s harper. She is constantly coming up with new tunes, and her parents (as well as everybody else) fears how she will disgrace their hold. She has everything going for her to become the next harper – but she’s a girl.

To be honest, I liked just about everything about this book except the main character. Menolly took a while to like. Because no one understands her love of music, she’s kinda moody and self-pitying for most of the book. She understandably hates her life, and is punished for “tuning” or making up new tunes and singing/playing them in front of people.

Anne McCaffrey is fantastic about world-building. Even though she doesn’t dump a ton of information on the reader right at the beginning (unless you read the very helpful foreward that sums up part of the DragonRiders of Pern series and Pern itself), but the world of Pern becomes very real very quickly. Along with the usual weather patterns and turning of the seasons, Pern is doomed to experience periodically what is known as Thread, a mysterious substance that falls from the even more mysterious Red Star. Thread is highly dangerous as it burns/consumes anything organic that it comes in contact with – namely plants, animals, and humans. It is considered death to be caught unprotected outside during a Threadfall.

This is where the dragons come in. Thread can be stopped before it reaches the ground by dragonfire; thus, the dragons and their riders are the official heroes of Pern, considering that, without them, life on Pern would soon cease to exist.

Even though the series runs on a bunch of dragon-ish titles (DragonSong, DragonSinger, DragonDrums), there’s not a lot about dragons themselves in this book. Most of the attention is focused on the fire lizards, a.k.a. mini dragons. Menolly begins the book believing what most of Pern believes: fire lizards are creatures of legend. However, she views a golden fire lizard queen mating, and then her world is turned upside-down.

I won’t say much because of spoilers. My biggest complaint is that the reason for fire lizards being so valuable is never explained in this book. Their apparent value is clear – everyone wants one, even though most people think them legends. But why they are so highly valued is not clear. I’m curious as to whether the author explains that little detail in some of her other books. I rather think she probably did. I'm just huffy since I haven't gotten to it yet. 

Advisory: Some fantasy action; no actual battles or fight scenes, but Pern has its share of exotic creatures. Some characters are injured, so there is some description of blood.

Menolly’s interaction with the fire lizards begins with her watching the queen’s mating flight. While it is implied that the mating flight brings about the egg clutch, no other details are given, and I thought the whole matter handled appropriately for a younger reader. 

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Monday, May 28, 2018

Keturah (The Sugar Baron's Daughters)

Title: Keturah 

Series: The Sugar Baron's Daughters (Book #1)

Year: 2018

Author: Lisa T. Bergren

Summary: In 1772 England, Lady Keturah Banning Tomlinson and her sisters find themselves the heiresses of their father's estates and know they have one option: Go to the West Indies to save what is left of their heritage.

Although it flies against all the conventions for women of the time, they're determined to make their own way in the world. But once they arrive in the Caribbean, proper gender roles are the least of their concerns. On the infamous island of Nevis, the sisters discover the legacy of the legendary sugar barons has vastly declined--and that's just the start of what their eyes are opened to in this unfamiliar world. 

Keturah never intends to put herself at the mercy of a man again, but every man on the island seems to be trying to win her hand and, with it, the ownership of her plantation. She could desperately use an ally, but even an unexpected reunion with a childhood friend leaves her questioning his motives. 

Set on keeping her family together and saving her father's once-great plantation, can Keturah ever surrender her stubbornness and guarded heart to God and find the healing and love awaiting her? (from Goodreads)

Main Characters:
~ Keturah Banning Tomlinson
~ Gray Covington
~ Verity Banning
~ Selah Banning

Review: I enjoyed this book more than I thought I would, honestly. I've read through bits of Bergren's River of Time series, and was more disgusted than anything else with the amount of romance and mush in it. To be honest, I expected the same of this novel -- but was pleasantly surprised. Instead of mooning over a guy's muscles and lips, the heroine actually *did* things. 

Keturah and her sisters, Verity and Selah, aren't your normal, run-of-the-mill heroines. When their financial destiny lies on their father's tropical plantation, they aren't content to just sit around and hope it does well. They go to the island to run the plantation themselves. Of course, that's basically unheard of, and many people think it disgraceful. Especially when the girls are out in pants and in the dirt itself to make sure the plantation does well. 

The first chapter didn't catch my interest completely. In a way, it just felt slow and unnecessary. It really wasn't until the second or third chapter, once the Banning sisters had set sail that I got drawn into the story. 

I liked Keturah. Other than the really cool name, she was believable and stubborn. After her first husband died, she wanted nothing more to do with men since he provided her with a relationship she'd rather wish to forget. Gray is the man determined to change her mind -- you know, once he's managed some success with running in own plantation on the island. Their relationship was actually pretty nice; they were able to interact beyond just the romantic aspect -- discussing business and enjoying a laugh now and then. 

I particularly liked Verity's falcon, and that's one of the reasons I'm tempted to try to get my hands on a copy of book two once it comes out (since I'm assuming by the series title the next book will be about her). The descriptions of the island were really neat, and now I've got a hankering to get to a sunset-lit beach for myself. 

I liked that both Gray and Keturah were in favor of treating their slaves well, but the issue of slavery in history as portrayed in literature is something that I've got my foot on right now (thanks to finally reading Uncle Tom's Cabin). While I think it noble of them to behave toward the slaves in the way that they did, I almost find it a bit optimistically unrealistic. Historically, it was very uncommon for plantation owners to think of their slaves as actual human beings. I'm not complaining about Gray and Keturah's kindnesses; I'm just pointing out that, in this book, all the good characters treat their slaves well and all the bad characters treat their slaves badly. 

Advisory: Some romance. If my memory serves me correctly, our loving couple shares a kiss or two. Both do dwell some on the mushier aspects of observation, but it's not overpoweringly sickening. 

Some violence/graphic descriptions of slave mistreatment. I wouldn't describe it as horrible, but that is something to take note of. Also, a character is discovered to have taken a mistress (unbeknownst to his wife) and fathered a child through her, and a few female characters are manhandled/threatened by the bad guys. 

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

*Please note: I was given a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.*

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Light from Heaven (Mitford Years)

Title: Light from Heaven

Series: Mitford Years (#9)

Year: 2006

Author: Jan Karon

Summary: Father Tim Kavanagh has been asked to "come up higher" more than once. But he's never been asked to do the impossible-until now. The retired Episcopal priest takes on the revival of a mountain church that's been closed for forty years. Meanwhile, in Mitford, he's sent on a hunt for hidden treasure, and two beloved friends are called to come up higher. As Father Tim finds, there are still plenty of heartfelt surprises, dear friends old and new, and the most important lesson of all: It's never too late. (from Goodreads)

Main Characters:
~ Father Timothy Kavanagh
~ Agnes
~ Cynthia Kavanagh

Review: I’ll admit straight up: I haven’t read any other book by this author before. Meaning, I haven’t read any of the previous eight books in this series. I think that was both good and bad for me. How so?

Bad because I was jumping into the conclusion of a story I hadn’t followed since the beginning. Many characters appeared briefly, apparently having larger parts earlier in the series, but I didn’t connect with them emotionally since I didn’t follow their adventures and trials. Honestly, I really didn’t care about them. And that’s what happens when you jump into a series at the very end.

Good, however, because every time a character from the past showed up, the author summed up the backstory. So in the end, I got the information I needed to put the character in context. In a way, this book was almost strong enough to stand on its own without the need for any of the previous books. Which… I think there’s a little bit of a problem if a book can stand alone without its series. If it can do that, you can do what I did here: read the last book and still get the whole story.

Anywho, onto the plot itself.

Father Timothy Kavanagh is a small-town priest who, with his wife, is currently farm-sitting “in the sticks.” Although he has people and errands and animals to keep him busy, he feels that he’s not doing anything with his life. That is, until he receives a new commission from his bishop: revive a closed church and get it thriving again.

When I read the synopsis for this book before I cracked the cover, I was expecting a long tale chronicling the trials Timothy would have to go through to get this church to thriving again. As a pastor’s daughter myself, I’ve seen the struggles that ministry presents – particularly those in reviving a church. However, Timothy seemed to have no problem getting the job done. He finds the church in a well-kept state, with everything it needs already stocked and ready for use. The mysterious caretaker is a kind, religious woman and her son, both of whom are eager to see the church come back. Timothy wonders at first who will attend the church, but on their first Sunday, he counts seven people. Second Sunday, they’ve doubled to fourteen; after that, there’s no mention of him having trouble with attendance. They need a piano – and someone gives them one. Everything goes right for them. Maybe it was just a really good, religious location, but from my experience, it was pretty unrealistic. Sorry.

The whole book felt like a romanticized Hallmark movie with a little bit of the good ladies of Cranford thrown in. The plot and multiple subplots were semi-cheesy and predictable. I think the only plot twist I didn’t see coming was the wind storm that knocked the chimney down – but even that didn’t seem to be a bad thing. Timothy’s wife was only inconvenienced by the mess in the house and the workmen mending the chimney. I’m almost ashamed to admit my favorite parts were identifying what lunch J.C.’s wife packed for him every day. Unfortunately, the author stopped giving us those details after a few lunches. 

Advisory: A woman confesses to having a child out of wedlock, but the matter is handled discretely. A few deaths are mentioned; some characters talk about past murders, but nothing is described graphically. 

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Friday, February 23, 2018

Cinder Ellie (Faraway Castle)

Title: Cinder Ellie

Series: Faraway Castle (Book #0.5)

Year: 2018

Author: J.M. Stengl

Summary: Trained by an enchantress but obliged to work summers for her living, fifteen-year-old Ellie Calmer serves as a maid at a world-famous mountain resort. Her lowly rank keeps her always at a distance from the powerful, beautiful guests who spend their summers at Faraway Castle, yet Ellie dares to dream of one day exchanging even just a few words with shy Prince Omar of Khenifra. 

But when rare magical creatures show up in Faraway Castle’s gardens, Ellie’s life is suddenly complicated. Cinder sprites are causing fires and potentially endangering the beautiful resort. The resort director has sent for an exterminator to deal with these so-called pests. Can Ellie find a way to use her humble magic to save the cinder sprites and Faraway Castle before disaster strikes? (from Goodreads)

Main Characters:
~ Ellie

Review: This short story was just what it promised to be. It's a little bit of fun, fluff, and magic leading up to a new novel. To be honest, I liked it more than I thought I would. Ellie is a fun heroine, and you can't help but want to see her succeed. 

I really liked the interesting magical creatures popping up. Immediately in chapter one, we're introduced to a brownie as Ellie performs her maid's duties, and you know this isn't going to be any typical Cinderella story. There are pixies, sprites, lake serpents, and more, and they're just fun to follow. Very fairy-tale-ish. If you're looking for something sweet to read real quick between heavier novels, I'd recommend this one. 

Ellie's crush on Prince Omar bothered me a little bit. She has seen him interact kindly with his siblings and thinks well of him based on that, but I felt that the crush sometimes was almost unrealistic. More forced than anything else just because there needed to be a love interest somewhere in this story. Honestly, I think that this whole novella could have flowed a lot more smoothly without Omar getting in the way. I will add to that statement by stating that I realize this book is to set up the adventure and romance in J.M. Stengl's upcoming novel, Ellie and the Prince, and I'd be interested in reading that to see how the relationship progresses. Because right now, I'm rolling my eyes every time Ellie swoons. 

No spoilers, but I am very interested in what's going on with the lake serpent. *cough* J.M. Stengl set something big up and never answered. That had better be in the full-length novel! 

Advisory: This is definitely a magical story. It's full of magical creatures, and Ellie and other characters have various magical abilities. The whole fairy-tale feeling of this story didn't bother me too much with the magic, but it's hard to say definitely just from this small sampling of Ellie's world. Ellie is a human (or so I believe) with the ability to sweet-talk people, but this came across as more of a talent rather than something she learned through magic training. She also works with magical potions. For people wondering about magic in stories, know that the magic is definitely present in this one, but it didn't feel out of the fairy-tale box for me. At least not yet. Again, this is something difficult to discern just from a prequel novella. 

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars