Category: stand alone


So, here’s a review where I dip my toe in a setting that I know not a ton about. I feel like the book stands well enough on its own to be enjoyable even if you aren’t super familiar with the rest of the Star Wars extended universe. This has sort of inspired another thing I want to talk about. For now though, enjoy!

Star Wars Queen's Shadow cover

On the last day of her rule Queen Amidala stayed ensconced with her handmaidens and trusted guards, relaxing on the one day she could before trying to build a life as Padmé Naberrie. A life she would have to put off building once the new Queen asked her to continue serving Naboo. The planet needed a new representative in the Galactic Senate, who could be a better fit? Who else loves Naboo and its people well enough to fight for them? And so Padmé agrees to take up the mantle of senator, to remain Amidala for as long as she is needed. A senator needs to be a much different person than a queen though, Padmé and her handmaidens will need to figure out what that means if she is going to navigate the Galactic Senate.

I confess, I started E. K. Johnson’s Star Wars: Queen’s Shadow because I wanted something science fiction but with little to no narrative consequence. So a book focused on a character who, while I’m certain other aspects of her personal arc have been covered on other books, by definition cannot be allowed to do anything that would have consequences for the greater Star Wars narrative seemed like it would fit the bill pretty well. The blurb suggested that it would be mostly character work, something that sounded really good honestly. It was pretty well exactly what I was looking for.

As much as this is a book about Padmé, and her change over from Queen to senator, it’s also very much about her world and the people she surrounds herself with. Early on each of Padmé’s handmaidens get a fair amount of focus all the better to drive home how close they all are and how much they care about Naboo, how idealistic Naboo’s culture is even after the Trade Federation’s attack. It gets the reader attached to everything Padmé is about to leave behind. Gives a taste of her relationships and the rules she’s lived by before leading into a place where those relationships and rules are not nearly as effective as they had been at home, are in fact detrimental in some ways. I adored that. Having the protagonist not only very clearly relying on others, but having that be a core feature of how she is able to accomplish things and adapt is something that I had not really realized that I miss in a fair number of other books. Because Padmé’s handmaidens are more than just her staff, she trusts them with her life and there’s this support structure there. Especially with Sabé, Padmé’s best friend and bodyguard and body double, very nearly the deuteragonist in some places where she acts as an agent outside of the happenings directly in the Galactic Senate.

I found myself wanting to see more of the handmaiden characters as the book went on and focused more on Senator Amidala. I find myself wanting to see more of them having finished the book, it left me curious about how they would deal with the Empire but not doubting for a moment that each of them would rebel in her own way be that art or politics, providing space for those displaced or fighting directly. I want to know where they went from the last chapter of Queen’s Shadow and where that took them.

That also leads me to one of the only issues I had with Star Wars: Queen’s Shadow.  The ending, specifically the epilogue, just completely took me out of it. The final chapter wrapped things up on a low note but left the reader with a sense of hope. Padmé and her team are going to keep fighting for what’s good and right in the galaxy.  The Epilogue shattered that in a way that starts off beautifully mirroring the first chapter but that also feels unnecessary and almost mean spirited in how it deals with some of the characters. It took me from knowing that cannon will still happen with everything that implies and hammered it in like a crooked nail in an otherwise fantastically built piece. It killed the sense of hope that the final chapter ended on and that’s what I find myself coming back to over and over like a missing tooth. The death of hope and how very out of place it feels in the context of the rest of the book.

That’s my only big issue and, aside from a couple of odd romance-ish moments that felt a little out of place, I think it was my only real issue. If not for the epilogue Star Wars: Queen’s Shadow would be a five out of five for me. It leaves me wanting more from the characters and I am definitely planning on looking for more of E. K. Johnson’s work. So, all told Star Wars: Queen’s Shadow earns a four out of five.

Given Away

Full disclosure, by the time I had this review written the book that it goes with had been removed from the Kindle store. I almost feel like I’m cheating a little by posting it, but I read the book and I have opinions about it. Not necessarily constructive opinions, but it was something I wanted to talk about. So, without further ado, here is Briar Lane’s Given Away.

Given Away cover

Anya and Catie have been friends since they were kids and have hit every major milestone of their lives together, from rooming together in college to moving to the same city after graduation. Now they plan on sharing one of the biggest milestones of their lives, their bridal shower in Las Vegas. But as they get closer to marrying their respective fiancés worries begin to surface for both. Anya wonders if she should be relying so heavily on Catie for emotional support, isn’t that what her loving fiancé is for? Catie feels years of friendship slipping into a terrifying distance between then, worried that they won’t see each other as much anymore after their vows are said and done. Can their friendship survive the bridal shower weekend? Can love bloom where friendship has grown for so long?

Briar Lane’s Given Away is a book that I found disappointing pretty well from the word go, and my problems with it just sort of piled up like a forty car wreck of poor writing choices and bad editing. Spoilers ahead for a handful of things, I feel like I need to talk about them to get across some of the issues I had with the book.

                Given Away alternates its narrator, so some chapters are from Anya’s perspective and some are from Catie’s perspective. Unfortunately, if it was not for Anya talking nigh constantly about what great friends she and Catie are but she should totally be spending more time with her fiancé, since after they get married he will be her rock and all, and Catie worrying that she’ll never get to see Anya again after they get married and wondering if she really even wants to marry her fiancé, I would have had a serious issue telling the two apart. I actually did have issues telling the two apart for some chapters, something that was not helped by the author seeming to forget the names of her protagonists’ fiancés a few times. The lack of character voice extended to both of the fiancés and the Greek chorus of bridesmaids, who at least had the excuse of being largely kept out of dialogue despite one of the big scenes being a big catching up dinner for them all.

Alongside the issues with character voice are Lane’s habit of telling the reader about characters and situations rather than showing them. Both of the protagonists’ fiancés are treated like stand up guys for the first half or so of the book, the reader is told repeatedly about how great they both are. This lasts right up until the story needs them not to be as good as they were set up to be so that Catie can walk in on hers about to cheat on her and there can be a dramatic breakup leading to her tearful confession of love to Anya. Even Anya, one of the protagonists, is hit by this when she feels that her fiancé isn’t listening to her or respecting her feelings about Derek cheating on Catie, so suddenly her fiancé is also terrible and she’s off to find her best friend the love of her life. None of these characterization changes feel earned by the narrative, which leaves both protagonists feeling at best so in their own heads that they shut out everything else or simply so oblivious to their partners’ feelings and behaviors that they really shouldn’t be in a relationship. It is frustrating to say the least.

All that lead to my not enjoying the book. I did not like the cheating plot on either side, or the telling characterization, or the weirdly sudden sex scene after Anya leaves her fiancé and goes to find Catie. The sex scene seriously felt much more detailed than the rest of the book and went from zero to sixty-nine in seemingly no time and was just jarring and out of place. All of that would have left the book with a two out of five and a note that I would likely not read more of Briar Lane’s writing in the future. That would have just left me feeling like I had been waiting for the book to get better.

But there were two things that bothered me enough to drop the book to a one out of five, two things that were absolutely avoidable and that have little to do with the story itself. The first issue was the sample of Lane’s next work at the end of this one. This is not something that generally bothers me, it can be a great way to find other books that you might like. But in this case the out of place sex scene hit and then a flash forward to a year later at what was, according to my app, around the seventy percent mark for the book’s page count. The author dedicated nearly a third of her page space to advertising her next book in one that desperately needed an editor or a beta reader and at least one more going over. But then she also promised one last chapter of Given Away, an exclusive chapter that the reader could download if they just followed the included link. The link lead to a website that wanted me to sign up to it to get the opportunity to download the chapter that the author just couldn’t include in the book proper, so I guess I will not be reading that chapter.

Those two issues left me feeling more than a little cheated. Which of course leads to this, it is not hard to give Given Away a one out of five. It is worryingly easy to keep finding things that I did not like in Given Away. I can only hope that it is some other reader’s cup of tea and that Briar Lane keeps working on her writing and has the opportunity to improve. After her hiding a chapter of her book away on a website that requires sign up to access, I will not be there for the rest of her career.

 

Never Just Friends

So, this got delayed a little. Got some stuff going on that made it a little harder to write than I’d like to admit. But this was a book I had a really good time reading. So here is Lily Craig’s Never Just Friends. Enjoy!

Never Just Friends cover

Having feelings for your best friend, as Georgie knows well, is terrible. Having feelings for a best friend who has not only just come out to you, but also assured you that she would never date you, is worse. So Georgie does the only thing she can to deal. She leaves town, finds a new job and tries to start a new life. Through a year of distance and worry Madelyn has come to realize that the love she holds for her best friend is romantic. She hopes that she can take time during their yearly cabin trip to mend the rift that has opened up between her and Georgie. Mend the rift and make her feelings known. But Canadian winters can be brutal and a sudden snow storm traps the two together in their cabin. Trapped by the weather the two will have to deal with their feelings and the distance created by miscommunications.

I feel like, before digging into the review here, I have to admit that friends to lovers is one of my favorite fictional romance tropes. I like the history that it can give characters and the familiarity that it tends to bring which, at its best written, can make the evolution to romance feel more natural or can bring really good drama. In most ways Lilly Craig’s Never Just Friends delivers on that.

Something that really worked for me in Never Just Friends was the way the chapters alternated between the present, with the events in the cabin as Georgie and Madelyn try to work around their feelings, and the past, showing bits of their friendship from when they first met right up to the year before. It does a good job of keeping the characters’ history and the reasons why two people who are as totally different as Georgie and Madelyn would still be sticking together after years and years. It also gives a really nifty look into who the characters were and who they became as they grew up. These looks into the past are really something that it feels like the book needs to work, the characters’ attraction could feel a little one sided and shallow without it. Georgie is shown to be more than a little emotionally shut off, not really willing to put herself out there, especially after having her heart broken by Madelyn at the start of the novel. The sections of their shared history help keep Madelyn going after Georgie so doggedly from feeling forced.

There’s actually a lot baked into Never Just Friends that really works for me, though a lot of it also verges on spoilers to talk about so I won’t go into it here. Similarly, there is not a lot that I find myself wanting to complain about. There are some places where either protagonist could have been toned down a little. Georgie’s temper flares up more than feels entirely reasonable a couple times and Madelyn can feel almost a little manic pixie dream girl desperate in her attempts to get Georgie to hear her out. Neither issue is a major one and both fit pretty reasonably with their respective characters, but there were spots where it felt more like an awkward necessity to move the plot along or maintain drama than something that was natural to the moment.

So, where does that leave me? I really liked this book. The characters were a little more complicated than I’m entirely used to in romance novels and the chapters that covered their history together was a really nice touch. While there were bits that felt like they were pushed a little further than necessary for the sake of the plot, they didn’t distract terribly from the narrative flow. For me, Never Just Friends earns a four out of five. I also admit that I did not realize that I was reading another Lily Craig novel until I was most of the way through and needed to redownload the book after clearing space on my phone, so points to her for range. I’m likely to seek out more of her work at this point.

Way late on this. I took a nap earlier and slept through my alarm, so best laid plans there. This was the kind of read that I didn’t know I needed until I was midway through it and kept pausing to bother my poor mother about bits that I was really enjoying. So, with no further ado, this is Lily Craig’s Pretend Girlfriend. Enjoy!Pretend Girlfriend cover

The best revenge, they say, is living well. When Celeste Lamontagne receives an invitation to her cheating ex-girlfriend’s wedding she knows that isn’t true. The best revenge is being seen living well, and to do that Celeste will need a happy relationship to show off during the wedding cruise through the Mediterranean. A happy relationship with a girl outside the social strata she and her ex share so no one can discover the truth, that she hasn’t let anyone close since they broke up. That’s where free spirited stylist Lane comes in, all she has to do is play the part of Celeste’s loving girlfriend for the duration of the cruise and she’ll be set up with a second chance in New York’s fashion scene. They just have to convince a yacht full of people that they’re a couple for two weeks without getting caught. Two weeks without stumbling over each other, spilling the secret, or butting heads too hard might be manageable if they can handle the sparks stirring up between them.

A solid three quarters of the appeal Lily Craig’s Pretend Girlfriend held for me starting out was that it is built on the fake dating trope. That sort of deal where two characters fake a relationship for one reason or another but it’s obvious from the start that one or both of them are totally into the other, and of course they wind up together because it’s a romance trope. It’s meant to have a happy ending. I have no idea why I’m as about this trope as I am, but here we are.

Pretend Girlfriend has more than a fair amount of repetition and not a ton of plot. There’s some places where it feels kind of soap opera-esque, with really big reactions to things the reader hadn’t been in on either. Despite all that, it is a lot of fun. Celeste and Lane are two very different characters from two very different sets of circumstances. They play off each other well for a lot of the book and the places where they don’t do a good job of setting up a situation where their personalities would absolutely clash.

There is a lot of mutual pining and deciding that the other is just in it for the job. That, I admit, got a little old especially since it was intercut with the characters making huge strides in caring for and getting to know each other. It was never so bad that it became unreadable, but it did get to a point where it felt like it was being used to keep Celeste and Lane in a holding pattern longer than necessary. It also made the cruise feel like it had gone on for far more than two weeks by the time the climax hit.

Contrasting that though, I really enjoyed the bits with the two out and about at the cruise’s various stops. Celeste trying to show she cared and finding that she was enjoying herself while with Lane was pretty great. The banter between them was fun. And it actually felt like Celeste was loosening up and having more fun as the book continued.

So, yeah, Pretend Girlfriend was a lot of fun. It doesn’t need much of a plot because the focus is squarely on the protagonists getting closer and falling for each other. It’s fun and light and a little ridiculous, so Pretend Girlfriend gets a four out of five from me. It has a base trope that I really like and fun characters that I wouldn’t mind seeing more of.

This is one that’s been giving me all kinds of trouble writing a review for. It’s one that I really enjoyed reading, but that is really hard to talk about without risking serious spoilers. Obviously something I want to avoid there. This one’s courtesy of netGalley. Here’s Mira Grant’s In the Shadow of Spindrift House. Enjoy!

In the Shadow of Spindrift House cover

Straight lines don’t exist in nature. There is no place for them among the curves, the twists, the softened edges. The House stands, all ruler straight lines and sharply measured angles, above a dying town that the sea reclaims street by street. The House stands, holding tight to its secrets and waiting. Harlowe Upton-Jones has been searching for answers for as long as she can remember. It’s what found her the teen detective group that would become her family. It’s what she’s good at. But a teen detective group can only stay teens so long and it’s all Harlowe can hope to do is find one last big case. One last big case to keep the band together or give the group a proper send off. One last big case that might find her the answers she’s been looking for since her parents’ murder. The legends surrounding Spindrift House twist in on themselves bending the Answer Squad’s story into something it was always meant to be, something it was never meant to be.

In the Shadow of Spindrift House by Mira Grant is decidedly Lovecraftian in its horror, which in a lot of ways makes it kind of hard to talk about. The house itself is this inescapable thing for Harlowe, something she’s been keeping back from showing the other members of the Answer Squad for years but that she also knows is the big mystery. The one that could make them hit the big time, the one she hopes will keep her friends together for a little longer. The book is a story of losing battles and inevitabilities, buried family secrets and friends growing up and growing apart.

A lot of the story is driven by Harlowe being desperate to hold on to her present, to avoid facing the future for just a little longer. She doesn’t see any prospects for herself, no colleges that would take her that she could afford to go to, the girl she loves is planning on moving on with her life now that the mysteries are drying up. It’s that desperate fear that takes them to the Spindrift house and let’s Harlowe make excuses to just stay a little longer and a little longer. After all, Addison would be so mad if they left  and missed out on the reward money. Or maybe she just imagined the truly creepy things going on, they should just take a little longer and keep looking. There’s a fair amount of that.

In a lot of ways, the atmosphere of the story builds on mundane fears and frustrations. The Answer Squad are at a point in their lives where they can’t really be teen detectives anymore, and Harlowe feels more than a little trapped by the changes she’s staring down. She’s the one with no plan. She’s the one that weird things are happening to in Spindrift house. In a lot of ways it feels like the mundane is the root of all Harlowe and, by extension, the Answer Squad’s troubles within the story. They’re high school graduates, so the local authorities don’t have as much patience for them solving mysteries the police couldn’t. There aren’t many mysteries headed their way anymore, so they can’t support themselves with it, so Addison is getting ready to go make something of herself and start a career. Harlowe feels adrift and scared that she’s going to lose the people closest to her, so she pulls out the nuclear option of final mysteries.

Then Spindrift house itself has this fantastic oppressive atmosphere. The weight of time and all the fears that have driven Harlowe to lead her friends here. The things that are just off, that are wrong in little ways that add up. Then, there’s a reprieve, a moment with the Answer Squad just being a group of friends. It eases up for a little while to let the reader breath and to restart the cycle of rising tension. The writing in In the Shadow of Spindrift House is tight and satisfying even as a number of things begin to feel more and more inevitable.

This is much further on the horror end of things than a lot of things I read. But a slow creeping sort of horror, an internal horror that’s too big to properly fight, as opposed to something more action oriented. That is absolutely to its credit. Grant did a fantastic job here, especially with regard to the atmosphere. So, of course In the Shadow of Spindrift House gets a five out of five from me. It makes me want more of this setting and this type of horror.

I’m later than I wanted to be on this. No excuses there, I just didn’t get it done on time. That aside, this one is thanks to Entangled Teen. Here is A. M. Rose’s Breakout. Enjoy!

Breakout cover

Lezah doesn’t know what landed her in prison, or really much of anything else about herself. With six days left before her execution the only chance she has to find out is to escape. And her only chance of escaping requires relying on strangers, possibly dangerous ones, and her former school rival. Can she trust anyone long enough to get out or will they all fall prey to the prison’s formidable defenses?

A. M. Rose’s Breakout is a book that I bounced around on how I felt about it, especially early on in reading it. But once it hit its stride, it worked really well.

The start was a little rough, with what’s nearly a new world entirely in the form of a California that’s been separated from the rest of the US by earthquakes. Special standouts on that were the WALTERS or Walking Computers, essentially robots that are meant to have free will, and the SOULS that everyone is supposed to have that are ID and phone and personal entertainment all rolled into one. SOULS do everything from let their users keep in contact to changing their appearances pretty drastically to being the main way the government kept tabs on citizens. It was all fed to the reader pretty bluntly at the start, which was necessary to a degree but also felt incredibly clunky.

I had a bit of a similar issue when the male characters, Trip and Seph, were introduced.  It quickly became clear that Seph was our designated love interest, with his history with Lezah and his sad sad eyes and super competence. The build up to that felt like it took away from the immediacy of escaping the prison for a good bit. It felt like there were big neon signs telling me that this was going to be a huge part of the experience.

Here’s the thing though, both the rough bits from the start and Seph and Lezah’s whole thing, both worked out. The blunt early explanations felt weird because it was stuff that Lezah knew and wouldn’t have had much reason to explain to, essentially, herself but that smoothed out later once the characters were more in the action and things felt more focused. As to Lezah’s crushing on Seph? It wound up feeding character stuff for both of them as well as feeding in some bits of Lezah’s missing memories. The book hit a point in the action where the mystery and the full cast were more important than just those two characters, so it made the moments between Lezah and Seph feel more impactful. It wasn’t just the two of them and a world of card board cutouts.

This all said, the thing that made the book for me more than anything else was one of the antagonists. They were written in so well that I was genuinely caught off guard at the reveal. It was built in really well and makes me want to see how Rose handles other antagonists.

That’s about it. While I’m left wanting to see where things go for Lezah and company from the book’s ending on, it was still a satisfying ending that worked for the story. The things that didn’t work did well by the things I enjoyed. And, at the end of the day, I even wound up appreciating the romancey bits. So, Breakout earns a four out of five from me. I’m interested in seeing what A. M. Rose does in the future.

This feels like way more of an accomplishment than it really should. But, for this week at least, I’m back to book reviewing! This one’s courtesy of the nice folks at Entangled Teen. Here is T.H. Hernandez and Jennifer DiGiovanni’s Prom-Wrecked. Enjoy!

Prom Wrecked cover

Prom wasn’t supposed to end in a jail cell. Riley Hart is the co-chair, the vice president, the planner for more clubs and student organizations than anyone cares to count. But when senior prom is cancelled due to lack of interest and funding, she has to step up for the first time in her high school career. With the help of her gaming buddy, the utterly off limits Owen Locklear, she’s going to make prom memorable for everyone involved. Missing deposits, elderly musicians, uncertain community donors, missing deposits, or even venue destroying acts of nature or not there will be prom.

T.H, Hernandez and Jennifer DiGiovanni did a number of nifty things with Prom-Wrecked. The split point of view between advertised protagonist Riley and her former best friend Catherine showing the reader different aspects of prom planning and the various characters is used fantastically. Add on to that, both points of view feel like very different coming of age stories that complement each other well. It was a really fun read.

One thing that I think worked to the book’s favor was the bit at the beginning where the reader is shown how prom ended. All the major characters are in jail, a number of them are roughed up, and the reader knows nothing about how a high school prom went so wrong that it ended up like this. Roll back to the day that prom’s cancelation is announced and read every bit of everything going wrong and the kids in the jail cell trying to make it work anyway. It simultaneously takes away the worry about Riley and company failing while also promising ridiculous events on the way there.

The two separate coming of age stories thing that I mentioned earlier is also worth noting. Both Riley and Catherine are sort of stuck in their respective social niches. Riley is in everything but avoids leading anything until the prom committee, while Catherine is one of the popular girls but stuck with friends she isn’t really friends with and trapped by her mother’s expectations. One has to learn to lead and deal with other people’s expectations, the other has to learn to embrace what she enjoys despite expectations. It works. More so, it works while still feeling like a single cohesive  story rather than two partial stories stitched together.

Extra special bonus points to the Catherine chapters. As the former best friend who dumped the protagonist to hang out with the popular girls, she could have easily been a one note mean girl character. Having her be the deuteragonist neatly avoids that, gives the story a character who’s invested in prom happening and has the connections to attempt things that Riley couldn’t, and makes the love story bits more interesting and satisfying. She might actually be my favorite character.

The romance aspect that generally is something that elicits an eye roll and a fair amount of disinterest in both YA and contemporary novels is present here. And it did initially get an eye roll. But then something happened. Riley kept a lid on her crush on Owen and was as good a friend as she could be, supporting his relationship with Catherine and joking around with him, listening to his ideas for Morp and spinning them into something workable. It’s a lot of fun and leaves him the one pining for what can’t be. More even than that, on Catherine’s side of things we have her realizing that her relationship with Owen isn’t what either of them really wants. The lack of an antagonist within the romance narrative works for me really well, as does the way Riley and Owen and Owen and Catherine feel like friends who care about each other instead of points on a triangle.

If I have one quibble, it’s with a bit towards the end where better communication could have avoided a lot of stress for a number of characters. But that feels both in character and like it paid off pretty well, so it’s kind of a nothing issue. If I have a second one, it’s that some of the music references felt kind of forced. That might have just been because I’d only heard of a third or so of the artists referenced though.

So, Hernandez and DiGiovanni’s Prom-Wrecked is very much not my usual cup of tea, being a YA contemporary romantic tragicomedy about the rise and fall of a canceled senior prom. It’s not the kind of book I would usually pick up or, really, give much thought. But it was absolutely the book I needed to break myself out of my reading slump. Prom-Wrecked was just fun and I’m ready to look for other things either author has written. Five out of five.

Alright, so right after talking about being close to back to a schedule I’m late again. That’s all good though, it’s a day this time instead of months. This one was an enjoyable read for the most part, but it did feel a bit scattered. This one is courtesy of netGalley, here is John Dixon’s The Point. Enjoy!

The Point cover

Scarlett Winters is a screw up. A troublemaker. After blowing off her high school graduation and, unknowingly, the party her parents had planned for her she finds herself backed into a bad choice. Go to West Point, something she’s never wanted, or be blamed for a terrorist attack and be sent to jail. West Point isn’t what Scarlett expects though as she’s thrown in with other misfits. Other misfits with superhuman powers and backgrounds a lot like her own. Threats from the Point’s troubled past leave Scarlett with a choice, stay the same as she’s always been or buckle down and learn to control her ability to manipulate energy and help save the Point and her classmates.

I’m not entirely sure what to do with John Dixon’s The Point. Left to itself, the book is a bit of a mess that jumps between having really well done moments and leaving me wondering how it reaches certain points. This is largely a matter of character motivation feeling lacking or just strange. The Point itself feels like a good place to start.

The Point doesn’t entirely seems certain if it wants its military element to be a balancing force in Scarlett’s life or a force for negative over all. There’s a fair amount of talking up all the good being at the Point has done for Scarlett in helping her get a handle on herself and making her feel like part of something more than herself, at least in the second half of the book. But then the cadets of the Point were nearly all brought in as opposed to being incarcerated. All of them were forced to go through normal West Point initiation before inevitably losing their tempers and failing out. And they’re kept in line through threat of what amounts to literal torture in addition to hazing from older cadets. And we don’t really see much of Scarlett building towards feeling like being at the Point is a good thing. She spends time getting tormented by this one older Cadet and his flunkies, then her powers are finally triggered and suddenly she’s moved into a better room and being treated much better. She’s suddenly got friends and a degree of freedom if she sneaks out. It’s that combination that helps her start dealing with things at the Point, but not really the Point itself.

Nothing really progresses from there until the antagonists make a move. Then it’s go time, things are personal for Scarlett so she absolutely wants to figure out how to use her power to be allowed to fight these guys. And it feels disjointed here, because you have to wonder if Scarlett would have cared enough to get serious if it hadn’t been personal. But it’s like flipping a switch, that’s how the troublemaker who only just chose the Point over prison is brought in line. That’s how we get from Scarlett barely treading water to Scarlett digging in her heels and pushing herself further and further.

The characters are, by and large, static. Scarlett changes some, but it feels forced. It’s the same for the student that’s supposed to be mentoring her. The love interest starts off hating Scarlett for being given special treatment, but he’s so obviously the love interest that that hardly counts. But then, that’s about it. Her fellow cadets are at best sketches of characters.

I would have liked to see more of the antagonists throughout the book. Just, more of them building towards their plan and letting it feel as dangerous as it’s supposed to be. It makes it hard to care about most of what’s going on because the stakes feel non-existent. Like, in the very lead up to the final confrontation, we get told that the big bad is super powerful and amazing and the most dangerous man to have come out of the program prior to the Point being cooked up. Everyone is just super doomed. But the reader hasn’t really been shown how good this guy is, it was touched on at the beginning and then he just sort of disappears until the climax. There’s this big confrontation at the end. It’s huge and flashy, like summer blockbuster flashy, but the impact is lost because it’s just so out of place. It took me out of the book in a bad way with just how badly out of place and over done it felt. More than that, I found myself asking why I should care about the chaos that was happening.

So, conclusions here, The Point has some scenes that work really well but it has a number of issues with character work and pacing. I’m left feeling like this was originally meant to be the start of a series, but then Dixon changed his mind and just didn’t go back and account for that. I would have liked to have seen more done with the characters overall. I think I would have also liked to have seen more of Scarlett and her fellow cadets daily stuff rather than the romance sub plot. That said, I would read John Dixon again, which leaves The Point with a three out of five.

I return! This is one of the books from Odd Voice Out’s Kickstarter back in December and I was lucky enough to be invited to review it. So with a big thanks to the awesome folks at Odd Voice Out publishing, here is K. C. Finn’s Fallow Heart. Enjoy!

FHcover2

Lorelai Blake was on the way to work when she was attacked by the creature with the massive antlers and breath that stank of rotting meat. She should have died. With something demonic growing within her and a murderer on the loose Lori will have to learn everything she can about what’s happened to her. Will she decide if she can trust the organization that supposedly treats conditions like hers, the DC, or if she should follow Kasabian, the mysterious fellow who seems to have escaped his demon? Something is stalking Lori, waiting to harvest her. Can she control her burgeoning demonic powers in time to find out what’s going on? Can she escape it?

K. C. Finn’s Fallow Heart is a solid supernatural story with some really nifty ideas. The concept of people being infected by demons, like it’s a cousin to lycanthropy, is particularly cool. Plus I like the idea of the various groups that are trying to deal with the demon problem.

That said, Fallow Heart is very focused in on its protagonist, so let’s talk about Lori.  A lot of the early stuff in the book involves Lori being bothered by the fact that she’s over weight, it affects her self esteem deeply.  She thinks of herself as being ugly a number of times. This is, in fact, something that one of the murder victims uses when he’s bullying her. It’s something mentioned in the blurb and I admit that I was concerned that it would be over used, but Finn did a really good job with it. It isn’t a constant thing, but does crop up when Lori is already second guessing herself. It isn’t the sole non-demon issue Lori has, and it doesn’t eclipse the other issues. It does make the bits where she’s clever and resourceful or confident, feel more solid. The balance makes Lori feel more real.

The flip side of the focus on our protagonist is that since Lori is out of her depth things can feel confusing or disjointed. We’re introduced to everything from Lori’s point of view and follow things with her biases. So if she isn’t interested in or can’t follow up on something, that’s not going to be explored. I’m hoping that a lot of what was introduced here will be built on in later books.

There’s some really good horror elements here. Finn does an excellent job with atmosphere. There’s this really good emotional feel for some of the places, a low creeping fear. I’m hoping for more of that too.

Honestly, the only thing I have an issue with is the ending. I’m not going to go into spoilers. It was just something that’s fairly common to stories that are billed similarly to Fallow Heart that I really hoped wasn’t going to be the end point. A thoroughly expected disappointment if you will.

So overall, I’m left with a really positive experience with Fallow Heart. I’m definitely looking forward to the next book in the series and reading K. C. Finn again. It does lose a little for the ending just because I feel like more could have been done there within the theme. That leaves Fallow Heart with a four out of five. Check it out if you get the chance.

I had a hard time writing this one. It gets minorly spoilery, due in part to the official blurb itself . This one’s thanks to netGalley for providing me a copy for review. Here’s Sean Grigsby’s Daughters of Forgotten Light. Enjoy!

Daughters of Forgotten Light cover

Oubliette, prison city, population: forgotten. Unwanted. Worthless. The women society doesn’t want. It’s been Lena Horror’s home for the past ten years. A flimsy truce keeps everyone from killing each other. Keeps the gangs mostly in line. At least, until something unexpected arrives in the quarterly supply drop. Back on Earth, Senator Linda Dolfuse has been ordered to find an excuse to wipe the prisoners off of Oubliette to allow good, honest citizens of the United Continent of North America a chance at a better future away from the frozen Earth and its endless war. Seems like a smooth enough job until she sees something on the drone footage that shouldn’t be there, the baby she’d given up.

This is one of those books that I started reading ready to love it. The concept of a prison world ruled by motorcycle gangs where unwanted and misbehaving women are sent to be forgotten, that’s something that has a lot of potential. Unfortunately the writing just doesn’t stand up to the concept.  Similarly, the Earth side portions, where corrupt politicians live big while their constituents are often forced to sell their children to Oubliette or the massive unending war just to survive, could have been fascinating. That concept could have carried a book on its own if it had been done well. It just doesn’t. And then, of course, we have the mess with the baby.

The baby thing bothers me, in part because it could have been done so much better, but largely because it lands the book with a bunch of hardened prisoners who all want this helpless kid for what feels like no reason. Each gang is only allowed six members and, even with the treaty keeping outright murder from happening, none of them should be willing to give up one of those slots for something that’s such a handicap against the other two gangs. Of course this means that all three gang leaders want the kid, because reasons? I keep coming back to that. I don’t want to say that they all want the baby because women, but it feels an awful lot like that. The cannibals want her, the all black gang wants her, and Horror wants her. Horror wants the kid mind, not the Daughters as a whole. It also isn’t even like the baby was a secret test and the drone was sent to see how the prisoners would react to her, the drone came way later in the book and existed just long enough to force the two stories together.

The time line is super vague. Three months pass between our introductory supply drop and the one the drone shows up on. That’s three months for both Senator Dolfuse on Earth and the prisoners on Oubliette, with it being repeatedly mentioned that there is nothing to do on Oubliette except fighting or having sex. Three months where Horror and the Daughters of Forgotten Light seemingly do nothing except get their new member, Sarah, her motorcycle and her weapon. Then it’s like Horror remembers that the cannibals have that baby she wanted and she’d been itching to break the truce her mentor set up anyway, let’s go take the kid despite having not prepared for a fight at all.

The worst of this is, the three month gap was taken up with Senator Dolfuse’s adventures in ill defined guilt and getting the drone on the shipment. She’s probably the single character we spend the most time with, but she feels way less important than the others. The Earth bits would have probably served better as shorter segments that attempted less with the world building, as is, they just felt like they dragged on forever without showing anything for it. It could have been great to see Dolfuse checking in more actively with the Vice President, or having her interact with characters that are against shipping, showing her growing awareness and how she changes as a result. That could have been aces.

If we had seen any character development, that would have been great. Most of the women on Oubliette are terribly static, which isn’t helped by the vague timeline because there isn’t really anything for them to grow from. Horror we see being aggressive and murdery, but it feels empty because she’s just like that, either ready for violence or ignoring everything because baby. The new girl goes from being afraid of everything, including the other Daughters, to being jaded and nearly as violent as Horror in the space of something like three paragraphs. She gets what feels like way too much page space talking about how Oubliette has taught her not to trust anyone when we don’t see Oubliette teaching her not to trust. It doesn’t work, especially given that early on Sarah feels like she’s meant to be the reader’s view point into the workings of Oubliette, and we never really get that either.

Even leaving aside the character issues, the world building really isn’t there for me on this one either. There are so many things that feel like they need explanations that just get breezed by. Why are only men sent to the army? Why wasn’t an eye already being kept on Oubliette to make sure that they weren’t just dropping prisoners into an airless void? Why not provide something for the women on Oubliette to do with their lifetime of being stuck in the middle of nowhere? How can the UCNA afford to ship these women to space and fight this massive war, but then food is horribly scarce and the average citizen is in real trouble of needing to sell one of their kids to survive? It’s all very forced feeling, things need to happen so that the plot can exist, but they can’t be gone into deeply enough to feel solid because reasons. I really feels like the author was trying to fit two or three books worth of information and ideas into half a plot.

Daughters of Forgotten Light is a book that I really, really wanted to like. I was excited to start it despite the baby thing in the blurb. I mean, really, space motorcycle gangs and a plot from Earth to wipe them out, that falls right in my wheel house. It just didn’t have nearly enough substance to it, everything felt half done and under baked with a rush to the end that leaves neither a satisfying conclusion nor the possibility of a next time. There were a lot of cool ideas. But then they felt wasted when nothing came of them. I finished the book not caring if anything changed for the better, if anything changed at all. I feel like Sean Grigsby could be a really decent author with a couple more books under his belt and a better feel for character and flow. After this, I’m not likely to be there for it though. Daughters of Forgotten Light gets a one out of five.