Kindness in a Scary World, written by Rebecca J. Hubbard & illustrated by Becca Johnson
★★★★★ Kindness in a Scary World, written by Rebecca J. Hubbard and illustrated by Becca Johnson, is a children’s book that serves as a conversation starter with kids about tragic events like terrorist attacks and mass shootings. The story follows a child who observes his parents’ reaction to live news footage of a shooting, and witnesses some of that footage himself. This draws parents and child into a discussion about the causes and effects of tragedies such as the one they watched play out on the television that very evening, and whether there is anything the family can do to help make the situation better. Ultimately, the child’s parents tell him, many of us are only able to contribute in small ways, like sending money or thoughtful letters. But even these small instances of kindness can add up to make large differences in the lives of people affected by tragedy.
Read the full review by clicking on the book’s cover or title!
Gus and the Winter Sprite by J. Steven Young
★★★★ In Gus and the Winter Sprite by J. Steven Young, a diminutive dragon named Gus is lamenting the loneliness that winter brings—after all, his friends are all hibernating for the season and his treasured garden has gone dormant—when a winter sprite comes zooming into his cozy house and interrupts the quiet. Crystal, the sprite, has a problem of her own: she’s not like other sprites, and helping to bring on winter doesn’t make her happy like it does everyone else. Gus swaps a story for a story and tells Crystal that he was once feared by the other inhabitants of the forest, who didn’t understand that Gus is actually harmless. Emboldened, Crystal tells Gus that what she really wants to be is a phoenix, the legendary bird of fire. She uses the power of a wish to transform into her heart’s true desire and helps awaken Gus’s friends so that they can all gather for a festive winter party. Continue reading “Recently Reviewed”
Sarah’s Shadow, written by Nick Jones & illustrated by Si Clark
In Sarah’s Shadow, written by Nick Jones and illustrated by Si Clark, a young girl arrives home after being bullied about her scrawny shadow on the school playground that day. Upon seeing a shooting star up in the sky, Sarah makes a poorly thought-out wish to get rid of her shadow, thinking she’ll be better off without it. Initially, Sarah is thrilled to discover that her wish has come true and that she is no longer dogged by her shadow. But later at summer camp, as Sarah and her campmates are making shadow puppets on the wall of their tent, Sarah realizes just how disastrous of a situation her wish has created for her. In the end, she finds her shadow and the two of them pair up to perform some truly dazzling shadow puppetry for the entire camp.
Continue reading “Recently Reviewed”
The Shroud of Peace by Nathaniel Szymkowicz
A young man wakes up in a hospital room, completely unharmed, on a distant planet with no recollection of who he is or how he got there. Within moments, he is set upon by anonymous assailants, kicking off a cat-and-mouse game that will span entire worlds and civilizations. But just who is he? Mitchell, some call him. MH-217 is another name he hears, its very mention sparking something in the back of his mind. Remembering his true nature could ultimately be the key to his survival—and also might help explain why he seems imbued with the strength of ten men, and the regenerative stamina of a starfish. As secrets spill out among MH-217’s friends and enemies, one thing becomes clear: real peace will not come easy to this sprawling empire. And no one is getting out of this without blood on their hands. Continue reading “Recently Reviewed”
The Sorceress’s Apprentice by Jonathan Gardner
In this riveting young adult fantasy, two nations—the Eisenberge and Alkilion—have long been at war, spurred on by a vicious act performed by the Eisenberge’s malevolent ruler, the Sorceress. Now, the Sorceress and her apprentices seek to end the conflict between the neighboring countries by laying utter waste to Alkilion. In an effort to aid her mistress, Athala, one of two apprentices, abducts the Alkite princess with the intention of inciting the armies of Alkilion to attack the Eisenberge. Little does Athala know that she has single-handedly destroyed the Sorceress’s long-laid plans of conquest, putting her very country’s future at risk. Sentenced to death, Athala is saved by a young Alkite soldier named Zimri, who has been sent to rescue the imprisoned princess from the Sorceress. Together, Athala and Zimri form an uneasy truce and set out to destroy the darkness at the heart of the Eisenberge. But will they be destroyed by their own secrets along the way?
The Sorceress’s Apprentice is a darkly charming trip through familiar fantastical landscapes. Damsels in distress, knights-errant, evil sorceresses—all are present in some form in Gardner’s novel, though they each receive a welcome refurbishment that lends this young adult fantasy a charm all its own. Gardner builds up a tightly wound tale around his two central characters, showing how quickly an individual’s perspective can change when everything comes crashing down around them – or, more likely, when they are shown the error of their ways. Other interesting touches are employed to elevate the mystique of Gardner’s world-building, such as the description of various gods and goddesses worshipped by the peoples of Alkilion and the Eisenberge (some of whom even make an appearance during the story), and the use of Germanic linguistics to help name numerous locations and spells throughout the novel. All told, this is a classy, well-constructed story that we should be so lucky as to see continued in a sequel.
The Last Straw by Ed Duncan
The Last Straw is Ed Duncan’s second book in the Pigeon Blood Red series. In this crime thriller, readers are reintroduced to the talented hitman Richard “Rico” Randers. Rico is approached by Howard Forester, a notorious crime boss in the Chicago area, after Forester’s son kills a man in an attempted carjacking. Forester is determined to silence Sandra Yanders, a teenager who, having witnessed the carjacking, is set to testify against his son. Forester asks Rico to murder Yanders but he refuses. Rico is against killing such a young, innocent girl but John D’Angelo, another hitman and Rico’s enemy, agrees to take the job. Tensions between D’Angelo and Rico run high as Rico teams up with a lawyer, Paul Elliott, to try to protect Yanders, and themselves, from D’Angelo’s fury.
With danger looming in every chapter, The Last Straw is an action-packed and nerve-racking read. Duncan skillfully draws the reader into a complex web of characters navigating difficult situations. A few key twists within the storyline keep the reader intrigued in this fast-paced thriller, and despite the fact that they are both killers, the main characters are very likable. The Last Straw casts an interesting light on right versus wrong, urging readers to reflect on the morality of the book’s characters and the motivation of one’s actions. Multiple people are killed in The Last Straw, and while these murder scenes are well executed, the emotional reactions of the surviving characters are not convincing. The Last Straw is an outstanding crime thriller which could be made even stronger by further developing its characters’ expressions of grief and fear in the face of extreme violence.
To purchase The Last Straw by Ed Duncan, click here to find it on Amazon.
Paint the Sky with Stars by R. O’Farrell
In Paint the Sky with Stars, the magical and bountiful lands of Jupiter are ruled by a council of benevolent leaders known as the Striking Stars, key leaders from each of the races (elf, fairy, human, wizard, merfolk, and more) chosen to work together and maintain the peace. Darkness takes root when one of the council members, the wizard apprentice named Meridoc, abandons his brethren and goes off in search of greater power. Power he finds, but this power comes from purest hatred. Meridoc’s newfound magic changes the landscape of Jupiter and transforms it into a wasteland, where those gifted in magic are sent to their deaths, lest they grow up to challenge Meridoc. Yet, there is a rebellion brewing, and its greatest weapon is a young girl named Seraphina who possesses the very magic of the stars. If Seraphina and her allies can pool all their strength, they just might be able to topple Meridoc’s tyranny—if he doesn’t destroy them all first.
Paint the Sky with Stars by R. O’Farrell reads like a love letter to countless fantasy classics like The Lord of the Rings, The Neverending Story, and Harry Potter—and it is a letter we will happily consume over and over again. Combining classic fantasy elements with her own unique details, O’Farrell tells the tale of Seraphina and friends while also managing to weave around it anotherstory, which takes form as a series of writings that are being penned by an unnamed character to someone named Methuselah. This technique serves to illuminate and explain in greater detail some of the intricacies of the author’s world-building, and also provides an ongoing mystery for the reader, which is revealed towards the novel’s end. One can easily imagine this novel becoming just the first in a (hopefully) long line of missives from the lands of Jupiter.
Songline by John Blenkush
Songline is Book 4 in John Blenkush’s planned five-book fantasy series, and the stakes have never been higher for main character Julissa Grant. After her mother dies, Julissa finds herself estranged from many of the people who she once considered friends and family. The bad news continues to pile up when she learns that her life is in danger from someone close to her—not to mention that the Earth itself is in mortal peril. Though she never asked for it, Julissa’s unique lineage and abilities make her the only person who can stop the complete and utter extinction of the human race. But before she can do that, she’ll have to travel to the mythical city of Telos and figure out who she truly is. Otherwise, it’s Armageddon.
Songline by John Blenkush is the quiet before the storm; when the reader turns the last page, they will have no idea what to expect from the last book in the Solstice series—which is exactly what the best authors manage to do with cliffhanger endings. Having built up his world over the course of four books, Blenkush brings everything tumbling down again, leaving plenty of room for speculation as to what the last book in the series will entail. The Solstice series’ strength lies in its rich cast of characters, who have grown with us since Book 1. Nowhere is this more evident than in the case of Julissa, once just a maligned and shamed teenager but now our planet’s only hope of salvation. Readers will also travel to new settings, like the city of Telos that sits under Mount Shasta, and delve more deeply into the mysteries of Julissa’s world than ever before.
To purchase a copy of Songline by John Blenkush, click here to find it on Amazon.
Coattails and Cocktails by Rumer Haven
★★★★★ Friends, family, and flirts alike gather for a routine dinner party at the Belleau estate, but something isn’t quite right this time. There’s newspaper tycoon Colonel Ransom Warne and his tart-tongued wife, Edith; Lottie Landry, a silent film starlet and the Warnes’ one-time ward; Noble Howard, Lottie’s volatile co-star and soon-to-be fiancé; Helen Conroy, a columnist for Warne’s newspaper; and Rex Rainger, a man with too many merits to list. Isolated at the estate, this dinner party is forced to face death head-on when one of its members turns up murdered. The question is: who’s the culprit? Dark motives will come to light as each of the characters quests after the murderer’s true identity.
Coattails and Cocktails is a delightful whodunnit that combines elements of classic Jazz Age tales like The Great Gatsby with more contemporary crime capers like the 1985 film Clue. As in any ensemble, a piece like this only works if all its parts pull their own weight – and in that regard, we are happy to say that Haven has crafted a well-oiled machine with this new book. The characters and the dialogue play especially well to Haven’s strengths as an author, and their pleasures only increase as the plot’s true fuel begins to burn. We love murder mysteries where past missteps and misdemeanors are trotted out to bring a deeper dimension to their characters – something Coattails and Cocktails demonstrates with particular aplomb.
To purchase a copy of this book, click here to find it on Amazon.
Smoke Screen by Nicholas P Clark
At the start of this romantic thriller, Pam is sipping a tequila sunrise at a bar in Cancun – but she’s not here for a vacation. Pam is an undercover agent with the CIA who has been tasked with bringing down one of the largest drug cartels in Mexico. Short after arriving, she meets the man of her dreams, an international consultant named Brandon who woos her with his frank and open overtures. But Pam knows that she is in Mexico on assignment; there isn’t time for true love, and what’s worse, Brandon could get hurt by the fallout from Pam’s meddling in Mexico. While struggling between love and country, Pam comes across information that reveals things about Brandon he hasn’t told her – it turns out that the man of her dreams might not be exactly who he says he is.
Smoke Screen by Nicholas P Clark is a highly enjoyable hybrid of a book combining the best elements of crime capers and getaway romances. Clark’s main character, Pam, is a kind-hearted, passionate woman, and the reader truly becomes invested in her pursuit of true love and professional prestige. That being said, one downside of hanging so much of the novel’s material on one character is that the reader sometimes wonders why Pam acts the way she does. If, for example, Pam has devoted all of her life toward joining the CIA, why would she allow herself to be caught up in such an impromptu love affair while on assignment? In the end, one supposes that Clark is trying to illustrate not just the positive qualities of love and devotion, but also their very real drawbacks: obsession, jealousy, sacrificing one’s own well being. These are all themes that strike to the heart of Smoke Screen and imbue it with a sense of emotional acuity. Caught up in the intrigue, you’ll be reaching for that imaginary tequila sunrise by your bedside table before you know it.
To purchase a copy of this novel, click here to find it on Amazon.
Miseries, Illusions and Hope by Almas Akhtar
Miseries, Illusions and Hope by Almas Akhtar is a collection of semi-autobiographical short stories that largely take place in Pakistan, which detail the lives of people with professions as disparate as doctors and personal drivers. The stories follow a loose narrative, beginning with a broader look at the problems facing Pakistan, like income inequality, from the perspectives of characters whose fortunes represent opposite ends of the spectrum. Later stories examine the many minute ways in which a family can either fall apart or remain connected when it encounters difficulties like divorce, unsuccessful or barren marriages, and having a family member move across the country for work. Written mostly in first person, Akhtar’s accounts feel immediately accessible and relatable, even to readers who have never experienced anything like what is described by the author.
At the risk of sounding insincere, this short story collection could not have appeared at a better time. Under the Trump administration, immigration has come under fire in the face of terrorist attacks and growing global fear. Powerful – and, more importantly, personal – accounts like the ones Akhtar includes here are an essential step toward restoring the humanity of people who are often reduced to simple labels like “alien” or “foreigner.” It is possible to forget that these very people are seeking many of the same things we are, like safety, financial security, and better lives for their children. We propose a simple challenge: regardless of your background, read these stories and see if you cannot find common ground with at least one of the characters included here; it is a challenge you will likely fail.
To purchase a copy of this book, click here to find it on Amazon.
Goddess of the Wild Thing by Paul DeBlassie III
Thirty-eight-year-old Eve is a professor of esoteric studies at the University of Aztlan, part of the Aztecs’ mythic homeland that exists somewhere in the Southwestern United States. Her past relationships with men have left her grappling with difficult questions about love, but that all changes when she meets Sam Shear. Sam is a hotshot criminal lawyer who possesses an emotional and psychic intensity that startles even jaded Eve out of her romantic ennui. The couple shares an undeniable chemistry that transcends both Eve’s failed relationships and Sam’s one-night stands. Yet there is a powerful presence in Aztlan del Sur that wishes ill will on this match – a presence whose dark ties to Sam threaten to spell destruction not only for the couple’s happiness, but for the entire city.
Goddess of the Wild Thing by Paul DeBlassie III is a female-driven fantasy characterized by an unpredictable plot and a richly brooding atmosphere. From the novel’s very start, readers are welcomed into a mystical world brimming with spirits, angels, witches, and goddesses. This premise might suggest just another urban fantasy, but the story is further elevated by the fine-tuned specificity of its lore and by the author’s emphasis on the connection between psychic energy, unearthly power, and raw human emotion. The writing here is almost dreamlike, a general mood that is then strengthened by the novel’s focus and flavor. DeBlassie has beautifully constructed something of a social experiment, where readers are invited to view the very nature of womanhood, whether it be mother, lover, or sister.
To purchase a copy of this book, click here to find it on Amazon.