Tag Archives: paranormal

Esper Files (Esper Files #1)

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In Victorian London, an experiment in controlling electromagnetic power goes horribly wrong, resulting in the Great Storm. This unnatural meteorological occurrence affects some of the population’s electromagnetic field, giving strange new abilities, which of course leads to the rest of the population turning against them in fear, and having the “Espers” live as outcasts.

But not all of them. The man responsible for the failed experiment, the Professor, starts up an Institute to train Espers to handle their abilities, and use them for good. Two of his top agents are James, who possesses the ability to teleport, and Nathan, who can mirror anyone’s ability through feeling their emotion. Together, they rescue Espers and fight against the Baron, a corrupt man and former partner of the Professor who controls an army of corrupt Espers, and wants to control the world. But the Baron has a controller as well…

And you know what would have taken me less time to type? Hey – do you like the X-Men? Then read this series. For the Professor, insert Xavier, for Espers Mutants, for Baron Magneto, for the Institute the School for Gifted Youngsters.

What we have here is a steampunk reimagining of the X-Men universe. But I’m not sure if you can call it a reimagining. It is the X-Men.  Eccentric professor saving youngsters with powers that the population fears and a powerful man with a link to the professor who has gone rogue and is bent on controlling the world.  Put it all in Victorian London, add the Parliament and an airship, and bingo.

What was good? Author Egan Brass writes fabulous action sequences and scenes. The story is well-paced and flows smoothly from one scene to the next. He doesn’t get caught up in over describing the scenes but gives enough detail to really draw the reader into the action. Reading it, I knew where every character was, their actions, and could picture each sequence.

The characters are a bit predictable but change and develop through the novel.  The Professor is horrified by the use of Esper powers for evil and fights for the good of all. *cough* Professor X *cough*. Nathan is a poor outcast with extraordinary powers who is a trouble maker and self-destructive but really has a heart of gold as he discovers how to control his impulses. *cough* Logan *cough*  James is the sidekick, shunned from society as an Esper and a person of colour . *cough* Storm *cough*  You can start to see a pattern… Freya is an orphan whose powers come out under duress as her adoptive parents are murdered and brother is abducted, and she must learn to control her power in order to rescue him.

But. There are problems with the book, besides the obvious inspiration behind it. As a fantasy, a certain amount of disbelief must be suspended anyway. But there is no explanation, scientific or otherwise, of why/how people got abilities through the Great Storm. Nor does it actually ever explain how the Great Storm came about. The failed experiment wasn’t the only factor.

Also, I was distracted throughout by typos and incorrect sentence structure (pot, meet kettle). It is difficult to be in the middle of an action-packed battle scene or tense situation and grind to a halt because of poor word choice or lack of proof-reading. The author has a good story-telling talent, but he needs an editor. (I just researched the publisher and discovered it is a self-publishing site.)  His sentences follow a certain pattern (it is always “he said” or “she ordered” or “the Baron yelled” or “Shadow snarled.”  Mix it up, please).

Show, don’t tell, please. Show me how Nathan learns his self-worth, instead of having me follow his every thought about his life and realizing he is a good person in the end. Show me how Freya comes to trust everyone instead of having read her thoughts as she looks upon her teammates and sees they are good people. And so on. And so on.

The last few chapters were obvious attempts to tie up loose ends and build suspense for the next book in the series, but suddenly certain characters were acting out of character, and I wish the book had ended three chapters earlier than it did.

After all that, you probably think I hated it.  I didn’t. Criticisms aside, this is a fun, fast-paced story. I read it in one sitting, and while it has some violent, fairly gruesome scenes (if excessive blood loss turns you off, or you don’t like the idea of snacking on someone’s brains, this book is not for you), it is a good story for a lazy afternoon.  It is the first in a series, so I am hoping the next book irons out some of the problems.

By the way.  I popped over to Goodreads after I wrote this and read the reviews of the book there.  I’m a DEFINITE minority in my criticisms, so take this review for what it’s worth.

Esper Files was published October 26th, 2016 by Inkitt.

Alice in Zombieland (White Rabbit Chronicles #1)

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Full disclosure: I have had this novel sitting on my shelves for at least two or three years, and have been unable to bring myself to open it. I hate zombies. Can’t handle them. Can handle vampires, ghosts, monsters, witches, you name them, I like them.  But zombies?  Just EW.  But it is Hallowe’en month and sacrifices must be made. So I read it. And I regret waiting so long. Because this one is fun.

Maybe because this is not your typical zombie novel.  Yes, there is fleshing-eating grossness and ooze and snacking on humans.  But there is also a sweet love story and lots of humour that had me giggling throughout.

Alice Bell is a fairly typical teenager, with a few important exceptions. Blond and pretty, she adores her younger sister Emma, and copes with her eccentric parents. Well, not eccentric so much as irrational and deranged. Her father is an out-of-control alcoholic and convinced that monsters are real, even though no one can see them. Alice’s mother loves him and supports his every whim. So at age 16, Alice has never been allowed out of the house after dark, or near a cemetery, or near anyone who would try to convince her leave the house after dark or go near a cemetery, all of which can throw a wrench in any teenager’s life. 

But in one tragic second, she discovers that the alcoholic father she dismissed as insane was not. The monsters are real. And now Alice becomes Ali and fights the undead, the monsters that stole her family.  And along the way, she might get the chance to be a “normal” teenager for the first time.

As a retelling, this one is not close to the original at all, which is fine. There are references to the white rabbit and mad parties and evil grins and of course Alice, but Carroll’s story is more of an inspiration than a framework for this novel.

The zombies in this Alice are not the kind we usually see on TV or read about. Shuffling, decaying, mindless monsters, yes, but these ones exist only in the spirit world, are not visible to all, and must be fought in their realm. They are attracted to fear and death and horror and hurt only those that can see them. These are zombies even I can tolerate. (They are still gross and ooze black gunk, but fine, I don’t have to picture them in a horde chasing me.)

Alice is a strong main character. She is smart, independent, fierce, loyal and doesn’t take crap from anyone. She can also be whiny and self-absorbed. Her  self-worth and sense of humour remain intact even as her world has been destroyed, and she not only has to come to terms with the fact that she had a minor part to play in it but also that she has spent her life looking down on her father and dismissing his beliefs, while all along he adored her and was just looking out for her safety.

Best friend Kat is fun, feisty and a bit wild. But she too knows her own self-worth and doesn’t let anyone – ex-boyfriends and fairweather friends included – tell her who she is. She has her own secrets and isn’t afraid to admit when she is out of her depth, and while I wondered about her motivations at first, it becomes clear through the story that she is who she is, and loyalty is one of her most important qualities.

The boys in the novel are really supporting characters for the cast of bad-ass girls. Tough guy Cole is the typical bad-boy-with-a-heart-of-gold, but I like him.  OK, the intense violet eyes and love at first sight visions of passion are a *bit* over the top, but I can deal. He has a tough job and he carries it out with purpose and passion, all the while managing to look hot and flirt with Ali. Their dialogue is humorous and they have good chemistry, although perhaps the back-and-forth bantering between them goes on a bit long. What I do like is they are equal. Ali is not mooning around, hoping the sexy tough guy will choose her. And while Cole had the upper hand in knowledge and experience of the world she is about to enter, Ali makes it perfectly clear that she stays on her terms, not his.

Nana and Pops bring Ali home to live with them and there are moments that swing between absolute hilarity and sadness as they try to cope with having a teen in their home again, while also dealing with the loss of family themselves. I cringed alongside Ali as they questioned the boys she brought home, laughed at the slang they picked up in their research of current teenage language and cried at their heartbreak.

There is the violence to be expected from a zombie novel, but the gore factor is pretty mild. This is not the book for you if you want a hard-core zombie apocalypse but definitely is if you enjoy a fun romance with a side of zombie beat-down. Books 2 and 3, Through the Zombie Glass and The Queen of Zombie Hearts, are going on my to-read list.

Alice in Zombieland was published September 25th, 2012 by Harlequin Teen.

Labyrinth Lost (Brooklyn Brujas #1)

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15-year-old Brooklyn teen Alejandra is a bruja, the latest in a long line of witches in her family. But magic doesn’t hold a thrall for her; she has seen the dark side of it far too often. So as her own magic wakens and she realizes her incredible power, she makes the fateful decision to turn her power back to the Deos. Easier said than done. She tries a new canto at her Deathday celebration, and her entire family disappears, banished to Los Lagos.

Her only hope is Nova, the strange new brujo who has mysteriously entered her life and raises only questions with his tattoos and odd behaviours.

I was really looking forward to this one. It was released the day that I finished Shadowshaper, and I was so eager to dive into a culture of which I know next to nothing. The trouble with this story is that I just didn’t care. I wanted to. I wanted to love it, and parts of it I did. It draws on the magic and history of the Latin-American culture, which I found to be brilliant. And another enticing and intoxicating cover. But the execution and the characters felt rushed and thrown together.

I like that it is a diverse cast, including a bisexual main character. And written without stereotypes, just a normal teen. Fantastic.

But. I did not connect with Alejandra. Actually, I did not connect with any of them. Although I can understand the daily turmoil Alejandra went through, her choices were unimaginable. After living her life surrounded by magic, after seeing mysterious death, after being chased by malevolent spirits and almost dying herself and seeing her family scarred, and after realizing that her own powers were immense and out of control, she decides she doesn’t want the power, and attempts dispel it with no idea how to go about it properly? And then she blamed the one person who had warned her not to do it? It makes no sense.

The relationships in the novel never struck me as authentic. No one really seems to know each other (at least of Alejandra’s generation), and I’m not sure that you could date or be friends with a witch of the power displayed by her family and have NO IDEA that something odd is going on.

As for the bisexual element of this story, it just falls flat for me. Alejandra’s relationship with both Rishi and Nova is disappointing. While I am not the biggest fan of the love triangle to begin with, I did think this could be an interesting new approach. But the characters lacked chemistry, and while I applaud the attempt to add diversity to the novel, this feels like an afterthought thrown in. Nova is too much the stereotypical bad boy with the troubled past, and Rishi just lacks spark.

The pacing of the novel is way off. At first, author Zoraida Córdova does a good job building to the big event as Alejandra struggles with her powers, unable to control them, and wanting them gone. But after her family disappears and she has to follow them to Los Lagos to rescue them, the plot seems to slow down and takes one confusing turn after another. The characters make bad decisions, take the wrong path (even though they were warned), trust the wrong characters (again, after being warned), and then all of a sudden *poof* and Alejandra figures out a new aspect of her immense power just in time to correct the mistake. Ten minutes ago, she couldn’t control any of it. It is frustrating, not suspenseful.

I did enjoy the author’s notes at the end of the novel, where Córdova explains what is real, and what is straight out of her imagination. It is a great mix between the two.

So I will say not bad, but it never reached its full potential. And for all that I did not love this story, I seem to be in the minority. Most reviews I have read are glowing, so I do think the book is worth the read, just to see what you think. It is appropriate for the entire YA range.

Labyrinth Lost (Brooklyn Brujas #1) was published September 6th, 2016 by Sourcebooks Fire.

Flickers

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You don’t often find a middle-grade novel that can be classified as horror, but I just did. And it is awesome.

Isabelle and Beatrice Thorn are 12-year-old twins, orphaned in a fire that took their father’s life on their prairie farm in Lethbridge, Alberta. Rescued by their Uncle Walter, the two girls now live in Hollywood under the patronage of the mysterious Mr. Cecil, a preeminent director and inventor in the 1920s. Isabelle, a blond beauty, earns her keep as an actress in silent films. Beatrice is kept hidden away, studying science and collecting insects, her birthmarks and scars covered by flowing scarves.

But life is not as easy as it first appears. People seem to be disappearing, Mr. Cecil keeps odd, private hours, and a rare new breed of insect, the scorpion hornet, attacks Beatrice and her best friend Raul.

I did not read the blurb before picking up this book. The cover attracted me, and I didn’t even stop to consider what was behind it. I don’t even know if I looked beyond the title and the picture. So I went into this book completely ignorant. What a surprise. I picked it up thinking to read a few chapters before bed and ended up staying up ’til all hours, unable to stop until the final page was turned.

Delightfully creepy and chilling. I don’t know how else to describe this novel. Creepy in an edge-of-your-seat-can’t-put-it-down sort of way. This is 1920s movie-making horror mixed with the paranormal mixed with enough reality to make you wonder what really goes on behind the scenes in Hollywood.

The characters are wonderful. Beatrice is smart, logical, questioning and independent, and the real star. Sister Isabelle is, at first, slightly spoiled and snobby and the centre of attention. But as the story winds its way through movie making and the adulation that surrounds it, the reader discovers her depth and that her devotion to her sister is not just based on what “Beets” can do for her. The groundskeeper’s son, Raul, is the best mix of practical and fanciful, he is pure friendship for Beatrice, willing to do anything for her, but also well aware of his role and his standing in the elitist Santa Monica neighbourhood where they live. And Mr. Cecil is mysterious and enigmatic patron, supporting and encouraging, all the while trying to harness the energy of emotion and imagination.

The plot starts out in one direction and ends up somewhere totally unexpected. I will not spoil it, but give it your best guess, and you will be so wrong. The twist is nerve-rattling and out of the blue, and I did not see it coming at all. Such amazing storytelling. The pace builds as the mystery gradually unfolds, mirroring the slow, measured life on the prairies and ending up with the furious cacophony of life in LA. Along the way, author Arthur Slade looks at misdirection and reality, at bravery and friendship and redemption, and weaves it all together with old-fashioned horror and Hollywood glamour.

The research that went into the world-building in this novel is evident. 1920s Hollywood, when the silver screen was just starting to change from silent films to “talkies,” the parties and excesses, the dark theatres with orchestra pits and velvet curtains. Slade is a master of imagery; everything from the lonely prairie homestead in Alberta to the crush of the premiere and the emotion in the theatre jumped off the page at me.

The epilogue is SO perfect.

This is the first novel I have read of Slade’s (which is criminal) and he has just become one of my automatic must-read authors.

While Flickers is a middle-grade book, it can and will be enjoyed by anyone.

Flickers was published April 26th, 2016 by HarperCollins.

Sekret (Sekret #1)

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A YA political thriller set in 1963 Cold War Russia, with a paranormal slant. What’s not to love? (Well, a couple of things actually, but not enough to ruin my enjoyment of the novel).

Yulia is a ration rat, a teenager who lives by her wits in the black market, struggling to support and care for her family in Communist Russia. They live clandestinely with her aunt and cousin, stretching the two rations to feed five. Her brother has mental challenges, her mother is a scientist in hiding, and her father left the family years before. Yulia has a few secrets of her own, ones that can never be known. One, her family is former Party but is now on the run from the KGB. Two, she has psychic powers. She can read others’ thoughts just by touch, and she uses that to her advantage on the black market. But it would be dangerous if either secret was discovered.

Russia is in the middle of the space race with the Americans, and so far have beaten them every step of the way. But someone is selling the blueprints of their top-secret program to their adversaries, and they need to find out who and fast. The KGB has been working to develop a team of psychic spies since the Great Patriotic War and recruits a new company of powerful teens to track the traitor.

Yulia’s secrets have been discovered by those with powers stronger than her own. Can she play this new game long enough to escape with her family?

This is a book I enjoyed despite its issues.

As with any spy novel, I spent the entire story wondering which character can be trusted, and which are the deceivers. And this can include the main character, Yulia. Just because the story is told from her point of view, from inside her head, does not make her a trustworthy character. She herself wasn’t always sure what was going on in her own mind. And as the second generation of psychic spies, the mistrust is already well-ingrained in her team.

I quite like the cast of characters. Each has a specific power and personality and quirks, ranging from the handsome bad boy Sergei to twisted true believer Masha to evil mind-scrubbing Rostov. Lara can see the paths and choices in the future, while Valentin can cast a glamour and twist opinion, controlling his subject’s thoughts. And all had their own reasons for playing the game, whether it was for power or a better apartment, or the hope of freedom for themselves or their families.

The history presented is obviously well researched. Cold War Russia was almost a dystopian society in many ways, and Lindsay Smith does a fabulous job of presenting a stark dichotomy in the lives of the population. For most, it was a sparse existence, with rations, queues, harsh vodka and fear housed in cold grey concrete apartments, not far from the brightly coloured domes of St Peter’s Basilica, and the luxury of warm housing, silk and velvet, champagne and caviar. But even the elite live in fear and mistrust, always looking over shoulders and wondering who in their lives will be next to disappear.

This debut novel is not without inconsistencies and problems. The plot begins quite slowly and moves sporadically throughout. There are action-packed sequences and flashbacks, but then time skips by without explanation, making it a bit confusing at times. Along those same lines, the timeline seemed off sometimes. And I don’t think it was – a few quick google searches confirmed that songs were released and shots fired and moons orbited as written – but the feeling was one of cramming in too much in a short period of time. All that said, veiled hints are dropped throughout the story that seem inconsequential at the time until major events and twists happen and bring them all neatly together.

As for the training, too much is left unexplained. To me, the story reads as though Smith knew the teens had to train their minds to master their powers and in spy craft, but she had no idea how that would happen. She rushes through it all, teens are given a few textbooks and then sent into the field, with little to no explanation of the training or the mission itself. Spying has a long history, especially during the Cold War. There should be more to it. The training itself could fill a novel, and I think the background could only add to the mystery and suspense.

Smith also missed an opportunity to really analyse the psychic abilities of the various spies and how each worked. How did the music veil their thoughts to some, but not to others? Yulia thought escape 24 hours a day. Even with her musical defense, how did she prevent others from peeking into her head and discovering her thoughts? She lived in a house full of psychics. And the scrubbers cause pain, just by looking at them, or being in the same room? More explanation is needed, or at least someone needs to explain it to me. My brain hurt trying to figure it out.

So, all in all, a unique enjoyable YA novel, with room for improvement. Maybe the problems are ironed out in book two of the series, Skandal. I haven’t yet decided if I’ll read it. To me, Sekret can stand alone. It didn’t end with a cliff hanger, but just left the door open for more. Suitable for the entire YA age range.

Sekret was published April 1st, 2014 by Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan Children’s.

Ex-Wives of Dracula

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This book is a LOT of fun. And I even broke my taboo about sparkly vampires to read it.

18-year-old Mindy thinks she might be a lesbian. Probably. She is still questioning. It’s just that guys don’t do it for her, but she’s not entirely sure that girls do either. So she works her job delivering pizzas and lives fairly anonymously at school, doing her best to fly under the radar as she figures out her life. Until she delivers pizza one night to her next-door neighbour and former best friend, Lucia. Whereas puberty was not so fun for Mindy, it totally rocked Lucia’s world, turning her into a tall busty bronzed goddess. Naturally, she captains the cheerleading squad and dates the captain of the football team.

So of course, Mindy falls in love with her. And of course, Lucia gets bitten by a vampire. Which somehow just makes her hotter.

The first quarter or so of the book is set-up, and to be honest, I wasn’t sure where it was going or if I would like the story very much. Mindy is a bit of a loner, values comfort over fashion, and is pretty self-aware for a teenager. She sees the pitfalls in crushing on Lucia, but is honest and forthright with her feelings, leaving the ball in the more confused Lucia’s court. Mindy looks out for her and helps her, even when Lucia isn’t interested in her for anything other than her pizza delivery skills.

I rolled my eyes a bit at Lucia’s initial description as the completely stereotypical cheerleader. Every cliche you can think of. Blond. Gorgeous. Tall. Dumb. Privately hurting. Sexually promiscuous. Mean girl. Queen bee. Girls envy her, boys love her.

But then the action really starts, and I couldn’t read the rest of the story fast enough. As the girls’ relationship (both as friends and more) develops, both Mindy and Lucia morph into kind and thoughtful protectors, friends, and lovers. Lucia doesn’t become the perfect human overnight, her flaws are still glaring and eminently teen in their selfishness, but she opens up and looks beyond the surface of those around her, and thinks of others. Mindy doesn’t radically change into an extrovert party-girl either, but her confidence and willingness to try something new strengthen in proportion to the relationship.

The dialogue between the girls and Romanian exchange student Seb is fluent and witty and authentic. See is hilarious in his attempts to be cool, but author Georgette Kaplan treats him respectfully, never making fun of him, but introduces him as an equal friend and confidant. Kaplan brings the reader right into the book, and I felt like I was sitting alongside the three friends as they chat and explore and flirt and scheme and complain and fight and search for answers.

The plot is touching, fresh, funny, but also adds components of horror and violence. Which sometimes seem out of place, but Kaplan does a good job of weaving all the elements together so that the violence is not too jarring. Her take on vampires is different and entertaining, occasionally poking fun at pop cultures’ current fascination with the theme. She mixes it up; some vampires are sexy and fun, some are creatures of darkness and brutality. And the vampires are just a backdrop; the main focus of the story is always the girls’ relationship, however, even as so many new pieces are added.

And the relationship is fully explored and balanced. The first thought would be that Kaplan would follow the predictable: beautiful Lucia has the power, with dorky Mindy grateful for her attention. But it is an even and realistic partnership, with each girl bringing her strengths. Mindy’s self-confidence balances out Lucia’s flamboyant personality, who in turn encourages Mindy to step outside her comfort zone. Through her vampire powers, Lucia shares a mental connection with Mindy, but the two can block each other out or invite each other in, and it is not used as mind control. The two don’t just grow as a couple, they also learn that they can live apart, and they make their choices accordingly. It is a wonderful relationship.

The LGBT theme is beautifully handled. Lucia’s realization that she loves Mindy is treated with no less importance than Mindy’s previous acknowledgement that she is “probably” a lesbian. Lucia’s love for Mindy is as real and as glorious as Mindy’s for her.

There is some fairly graphic violence, drug use, and sexual content, so the novel may be better for the upper end of the YA age range, but the story overall is a really fun and unusual read.

Ex-Wives of Dracula was published March 16th, 2016 by Ylva Publishing.

Antigoddess (The Goddess War #1)

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A war between the gods is brewing. Athena is dying. Feathers grow throughout her body, choking and slowly killing her. Hermes is no longer the fleet-footed god; he is wasting away. Enter Hera. She, Poseidon, Aphrodite, and other powerful gods are banding together to kill off rivals in order to save themselves. Athena and Hermes search for allies, and answers.

The answer lies with the mortals, as it always has. But these ones in particular – Cassandra, Aidan, Henry, and Andie – are special. They have a past that has intertwined with the gods for millennia. And, in fact, Aidan has never been mortal.

This is NOT Percy Jackson and the Olympians. It is dark and twisted, and not for the faint of heart. Kendare Blake does horror like no other.

The story is written primarily from the two perspectives of Cassandra and Athena. As a god herself, Athena really sets the stage for the entire story and brings a depth to the plot that Cassandra can’t, given her mortal status. The basis for the conflict, her rivalry with Hera and Aphrodite, the years of  opposition, layer together to bring this moment about.    Bombs, magic, starvation, dehydration and near fatal car accidents might just be enough to weaken Hermes and herself so they can be finished off. And while all this is going on, brother Apollo is off gallivanting, trying to make up for sins committed thousands of years before.

Cassandra is a weak character in the beginning. She is psychic, she makes predictions for her classmates for profit, she is clingy and moony-eyed over her oh-so-dreamy boyfriend Aidan. She’s a bit much, at first. But when the sh*t hits the fan as she finds out who she really is, she becomes a more interesting and complex character. She remembers her disdain and anger towards Apollo and finds an incredible strength, becoming Athena’s right hand. Her history and present converge into the making of a powerful foe for Hera.

And her visions. Disturbing, violent, fascinating, and packed with gore, Blake’s imagery will not leave your brain for a very long time.

Cassandra handled the news of her true identity, and that of Aidan, with a lot less WTF! than I would have thought possible. Regaining her memory is violent and painful, but she accepts her past. And and Henry’s reactions seemed a bit more cautious and believable, but maybe the explanation actually offers some relief for Cassandra, who has lived her (current) life not understanding so many parts of herself.

I loved that the gods throughout this book were as self-absorbed and childish as always. Even after a few millennia of existence, they never seem to learn, holding onto petty grudges and jealousies forever. Add Athena and Hermes and Apollo portrayed as teens, and their selfish behaviour is even more pronounced.

While the beginning of the book is a bit slow with all the history and set-up, it picks up steam and action as the chapters progress. By the last third, the build-up to the final scene rushes through with an intensity that leaves the reader breathless. I turned the final page without even realizing I was so close to the end, and the cliff-hanger is as epic as a goddess of wisdom could demand. It is a great set-up for book 2.

While you don’t have to know the details of the Trojan War or the stories of the gods to understand this novel, knowledge certainly adds depth and enjoyment to the reading. Alone, it is a gripping tale of power and horror. With the backdrop of the history, you won’t want to put it down. This is an ancient story in a modern setting done perfectly. Blake weaves the old and new together with seemingly little effort.

The two follow-up novels in the series, Mortal Gods and Ungodly, are must-reads on my list.

Antigoddess (Goddess War #1) was published September 10th, 2013 by Tor Teen.

 

My Lady Jane

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If you are the type of person who really wishes that history class could be livened up a little, the type who reads your textbooks and thinks up alternative endings to actual events, the type who wouldn’t mind chopping off a few heads that did NOT belong to the wives of Henry VIII, then My Lady Jane is for you. Especially if you are also amused by men who turn into horses at sunrise, a king who doesn’t actually shoot the messenger but eats him instead, and the mystery of who wrote Shakespeare’s plays finally being solved.

16-year-old King Edward Tudor is dying. But given that he has yet to have even kissed a girl, much less done anything that could produce an heir (bastard or otherwise), England is on the edge of turmoil. Moreso than even Brexit could cause, because not only is the land to be without a monarch, there is also trouble brewing between the Edian and the Verities. Or, those that can shapeshift into an animal form at will, and those that believe such a skill is an abomination. This is unrest on the scale of Henry VIII’s Catholic vs Protestant divide, but much more fun.

Edward’s favourite cousin is Lady Jane Grey. Practically raised together, the two are fast friends and understand each other completely. Edward knows Jane would rather read a book about the cultivation of beets in Eastern Europe than get married. She’d rather read a book about anything than do anything else, actually. She has spent her life avoiding social interaction on any level. But Edward needs an heir, and Jane is one of the few people he trusts. So he marries her off to Gifford Dudley, second son to a Duke and afflicted with an “equine issue,” proclaims her heir the Throne, dies, and Jane becomes Queen. Much to her dismay.

HO. LEE. CRAP. I have not giggled so much and so continuously in I don’t know how long. This book was recommended to me by Kim over at By Hook or By Book, and you need to visit her right away. She has fabulous posts on everything from book reviews to current events, and I lose hours perusing her site. She called this novel a cross between Monty Python, the Princess Bride (as you wish!) and Ladyhawke, and I cannot improve on that description.

This is a hilarious, laugh-out-loud, historical comedy. There is not one serious word in it, and when even an impending beheading can make you giggle, you know it is going to be good. It is full of mockery and jokes and puns and quips and plays on words that will have you snorting your proper English tea straight out of your nose.

The story behind the humour is backroom politics that would impress even today. Backstabbing and plotting and deal-making are apparently timeless pursuits. Not sure that it makes me feel any better, but at least we know it is an honoured practice. Then add in a battle of the sexes and a few budding romances, and you have an unbeatable plot.

Obviously, what makes this story so outstanding is the characters and their language. Edward’s obsession with a second opinion that he might like better than his diagnosis of death, his realization that maybe everyone was letting him win when they practiced swordplay and played games (he approves), and his acknowledgment that being king was maybe not the be all and end all that he initially thought were all done so smoothly and with so much humour.  Jane’s desire to read and not be married to a horse is totally understandable, and her choice of frying pan as a weapon practical. And above all, Edward’s and Jane’s devotion to each other is written so wonderfully and believably, a deep abiding affection that doesn’t need humour to prop it up.

The secondary characters are as in depth and developed as Jane and Edward. I love that the authors do not make them farcical, but individuals in their own right, even when they shapeshift into skunks. Gracie and Pet and G and Bess and even Mary, Queen of Scots, are so alive and totally dominate their scenes. And Gran is friggin’ hysterical. Strong, opinionated, sarcastic, forceful and lovely, but hysterical. I think I might love her.

Coauthors Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows manage what I would have thought to be near impossible. Three authors, writing three different characters that flow seamlessly. They keep the humor constant throughout the novel, it never feels forced or contrived, and the thought of them writing together makes me picture three friends sitting with glasses of wine, throwing out ideas and laughing themselves silly far into the night. I absolutely adored the references to poems and stories and people and events throughout the novel, most of which won’t occur for the next hundred years or so. And the editorial notes throughout are as funny as the dialogue.

The novel might initially intimidate at 500 pages, but I flew through it in one sitting. It is impossible to put down. Take an evening, pour a glass of wine (or three), ignore the family, and prepare to laugh your a** off.

My Lady Jane was published June 7th, 2016 by HarperTeen.

Shallow Graves

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17-year-old Breezy (yes, hippie parents) remembers everything about the day leading up to her death, but doesn’t know who killed her, or how she came to wake up in a shallow hole, digging her way up and spitting dirt from her mouth.  But a year has passed and a man lies dead next to her grave. Because of her.

So now she is alive, sort of; her heart beats and she breathes air when she remembers. And she is conscious of those who hide a murderous past. The shadows of former crimes follow certain people, and she can sense memories of past bad deeds. Breezy sets out to discover what she is, and if she can ever go back to the life she had planned. As you might have guessed, it isn’t that simple. There are those who would hunt her down, those who hate her unnatural state, who can sense what she is.

There are a lot of reasons this novel is impossible to put down. Breezy is the first one. She is strong and independent, curious and confident, with just a touch of vulnerability. She enters a world she previously had no idea existed, armed with strange abilities and facing a cult that wants her dead (or, really, more dead), and she fights her way to understanding and freedom. But it isn’t an obvious outcome, and her plight kept me turning page after page, and I had to force myself not to skip ahead. Her voice is authentic and matter-of-fact, and she faces incredible violence without letting it define her.

Added to the constant cliff-hangers are humour and character diversity. A ghoul joking about eating the dead, mermaid fight club, and chilling with the brownie in the basement, all bring unexpected laughs throughout the story. And a biracial and bisexual main character who accepts herself unquestioningly sends a positive message, without it feeling forced.

The secondary characters are equally well fleshed-out (a little zombie humour for you), with Zeke and Jake being my favourites. Rain is creepy and terrifying, and Violet is still a little girl trapped in a life she doesn’t know how to escape. And Willow and Mother just creep me out.

Flashbacks of Breezy’s family and friends provide great context for her personality while moving the plot along and adding information.

The book is a total page-turner. It is packed full of changing and unresolved threads and heart-stopping predicaments in a creepy world filled with monsters that had me reading just “one more page,” right up to the end. And the end lives up to the rest of the story. Breezy faces an unknown future filled with infinite possibilities and dangers, and makes the brave choice to leave her old life behind and charge into the unknown.

The writing is beautiful, with stunning imagery. Debut author Kali Wallace has a great take not only on death, but also on creatures and ghouls and monsters and things that go bump in the night. They are the monsters we have grown up fearing in the dark, but with unexpected twists and personalities. Maybe all is not as the myths have led us to believe…

The novel is an appropriate read for the full YA age range, but may have the reader looking at people suspiciously after finishing it.

Shallow Graves was published January 26th, 2016 by Katherine Tegen Books.

In the Shadow of Blackbirds

Unknown

If ever I wanted a book to go on and on, this is the one. What an original, enchanting, heart-breaking, haunting (no pun intended), story.

In October 1918, 16 year old Mary Shelley (yes, named after the author) Black flees to San Diego and her Aunt Eva on the heels of her father’s arrest for treason back in Oregon. She arrives hoping to hear news of Stephen, first a childhood friend, and then her first true love. He joined the war effort just shy of graduating school, and letters from him are sporadic.

Stephen’s older brother Julius is a Spiritualist, one who claims he can see and capture the spirit world with his camera. Julius preys on the desperate, who have lost so many loved ones to the war overseas and the deadly Spanish influenza. Unknowingly and unwillingly, Mary becomes his muse, helping to attract his bereaved customers with a doctored image.

But Mary’s scepticism of the spirit world takes a beating when she learns Stephen has been lost, and she herself narrowly escapes death, forever changed by the experience. She begins to feel a presence, an overwhelming knowledge that the young man’s essence is near and in agony, and her scientific curiosity gets the better of her as she searches for a way to help Stephen rest in peace.

Author Cat Winters has me caring about her characters from page one. Mary Shelley is a lost girl, trying to deal with the father she loves being arrested, trying to understand why someone doing right can be accused of wrong, trying to handle the enormity of loss brought on by world conflict. Strong and intelligent, she uses a scientific approach to solve her problems, is a feminist raised to see value in the human being, not the gender. “Why can’t a girl be smart without it being explained away as a rare supernatural phenomenon?”

Stephen is as gentle and caring as his brother is vindictive and selfish. His curious mind and nature are drawn to Mary Shelley’s strength and drive, and although we see little of him whole in the novel, Winters draws a complete picture of him. Aunt Eva is a great complex individual – while she is breaking down barriers, proud of her work in the shipyards building battleships while the men are overseas, she also is a product of her time, widowed young and worried that she won’t find a man at her advanced age of 26.

The plot is engaging from the first page. The initial few chapters do a great job of setting the stage, and by the second half I was fully immersed. As Mary’s world unravels, the action is non-stop and I did an extra 15 minutes on the treadmill because I couldn’t stop reading (my thighs thank Cat Winters).

Mary, as a budding scientist, struggles against stereotypes in a man’s world. Winters manages to weave in a few lessons of the struggle for women’s emancipation without it taking over the story. Aunt Eva’s work in the shipyard illustrates in a few words the shifting and changing expectations of women, not only by men but also by the women themselves.

Ugliness and death are everywhere. There is only fear and mistrust where there was life and curiosity before. Everyone wears gauze masks to protect and mask themselves, and a culture of fear evolves, fed by the snake oil salesman and spiritualists.

The search for equality, the hunt for solace, the need for peace, the desire for answers to how and why; Winters manages to explore so many aspects of human nature, without forcing the story or spoon-feeding the reader. Her style is completely captivating. Her writing evokes images of the horror in the trenches, the uncertainty of life in a flu-ridden city, and the beginning of hope.

This is a lovely, multi-layered story, well-researched about a horrific time in world history. It is a snapshot of a time of fatigue, when hope was nearly gone. Along with the gorgeous sepia cover are archival photographs from the period scattered throughout the novel, adding to the realism of the story. It is easily one of my new favourites.

Appropriate for any age, with the acknowledgment that there is description of war wounds and influenza deaths.

In the Shadow of Blackbirds was published April 2nd 2013 by Amulet Books.