The Talisman of Elam by Jim Mastro

I have a theory that if philosophy and religion hadn’t already attacked this question ad nauseam, the current academic conceptualization of the determinism vs. free will debate might be packaged as “Star Wars vs. Harry Potter.”  That is, we have the gasping and hoarse “Luuuke, it is your deessttinny” vs. Dumbledore’s passionate argument that Harry isn’t to be ruled by a prophecy;  his reactions, rather, determine the course of his life (e.g. choice, though I suspect Rowling came up against a philosophical conundrum in that she discovered a few books in that they were a tad deterministic and then had to dig her way out through Dumbledore, which she did quite brilliantly).

Anyway. The reader at this point will probably say something like “fine, but what does this have to do with The Talisman of Elam?” To which I would respond that my first reaction to the book was that it initially places itself firmly in the realm of expansive, futuristic sci-fi, but also firmly within the more entrenched lines of patriarchy and destiny. That is, main character Jason Hunter finds out that he is the Heir of Elam, and therefore has a role and a duty to perform in relation to saving the Earth, his parents, and the universe. This role was set in place prior to his birth, knitted in his DNA. It made me question the good/bad nature of things in the novel; after all, we’ve seen how well this sort of thinking worked out for Charles and Diana. How is it in sci-fi that the characters are so sure they are on the right side, or that there ever is a right side? Yet, they inevitably are, because we as viewers or readers could not back them unless they were. So I found myself uncomfortably on the side of determinism and patriarchy, at least in the first half of the book, because I certainly could not be for the awful Oruq and the Thothians. Yet at the same time I was incorporating a beautifully conceptualized, unique universe/landscape. This required me to walk a bit of a line. If the universe is expanding and contracting, so was my mind as I read this book – back and forth between history and the future, structure and lack of structure, tradition and new ground, archetype and stereotype.

I was very engaged. I found myself thinking about the book when I wasn’t reading it, wondering where the characters would go next (although I had no doubt they would come out on top). Certain situations seemed unbeatable, and I was charmed by the clever and unexpected ways the characters worked their way out of them. Mastro pays good attention to details such as physical sensations and smells, so I felt like I was experiencing what the characters were experiencing. With profound regrets to its legions of fans, I did not particularly care for Dune, because the book never felt alive to me, and Elam does not have that problem.

As I don’t wish to put too many spoilers in my review, I’m happy to say that the patriarchal problem seems to dissipate at the end of the book. I almost cheered, quite honestly, because the appearance of De Orlanean helped me to resolve some inner conflicts created by the book (in that a hero with a thousand faces always seems to have a male face). The ending came in a whirlwind, and as Jason works through the puzzle of how to accept who he is and also learn how to put it to use, I found myself reading well into the night in order to see how it would end. The foreshadowing of an unexpected romance doesn’t hurt either, and I will certainly be seeking out the next book in this series.

Plot: Three kids, main character Jason Hunter and his friends Kevin Hayashi and Amelia Reis, start to notice some odd things happening in their New England town. They discover a spaceship, which they initially take for a sort of joyride, but then are convinced by aliens that they need to go on a journey to save the Earth, and then to find the Amulon Talic.  In this journey, they must escape several alien chases, visit many bizarre planets, try new foods, and meet other people from other planets, all of whom have agendas of their own.

Setting:  Many different planets of the universe, as Stevie Nicks might say, and the universe itself. Largely, spaceships of many different kinds, and Mastro does a good job of showing both their similarities and their differences, and grounding us in their divergent technologies.

Characters: I liked the characters and felt connected with them. Jason is a prototypical hero:  thoughtful, determined, kind, good. I think his personality is his predominant trait – he doesn’t seem to have a particular skill other than being the Heir and able to hold the Talic, unlike Amelia who is good at languages and Kevin who is a brilliant flier. The chemistry and energy between the characters was fun, and Shalan in particular grows through the book and becomes far more interesting at the end than she is in the beginning. I loved Takkadian Pheno the giant spider, and Bob the orb – both of whom I hope reappear in the next books. My only concern surrounds the character of Ardemesius. I’m smelling a Gandalf rising (free associate here to the Doors song) and am hopeful Mastro either doesn’t do this or he does it in a unique way. I might add that I loved the names in this book. It’s a gift to cleverly coin both outer-worldy and domestic names well.

Style: Nicely done, well straddling the middle reader genre and sci-fi. A few very minor typos (parent’s instead of parents’, very minor things like that). Engaging throughout, and it left me looking forward to the sequel.

Overall Impression: Four stars. A highly enjoyable trip through the universe, with imaginative, likeable and unique characters and interesting challenges. Perhaps a bit too clearly good-and-evil. I’d love to see some shades of gray start coming out between the two sides, and I think a good place for that would be in the  book’s suggestion that some of the anger directed at Earth is due to Earthers’ carelessness with environmental stewardship.  I’d recommend this book to any lover of either middle reader fantasy or sci-fi.

Link to Purchase

New review this weekend

It’s been awhile – sometimes life takes over – but a new review should be posted this weekend.

Summoning by Debi Faulkner

I really, really liked this book. Faulkner brings together a plethora of lovely, harsh and raw elements to form a bewitching (pun intended, I suppose) whole: the cold, wet beauty of Ireland and Scotland, God and the Devil, mysticism and magic, castles, church, betrayal, love, and witchery. The story is told non-linearly; we meet main character Meredith at a different point in her life each time the chapter breaks. This does not feel like some sort of arty-literary device. Rather, it helped me to connect with Meredith’s unconscious (the story is in first person), as if the story is told through memory, with memory’s capricious and flitting nature.

Plot: In order to make their yearly rent, 7-year-old Meredith’s parents sell her into servitude for seven years to Vicar Goldsmith. Meredith’s desire to find/visit/reunite with her parents drives her through much of the book. As she works for the often-cruel Vicar, she discovers the depth of his avarice and his resultant magical and evil connection to the demon Legion…because not only does he sell his soul, but hers as well.

Setting:  Raedwald Castle in Ireland with Vicar Goldsmith and Strathclyde in Scotland, where Meredith works after completing her servitude at Raedwald Castle.  The setting is beautifully done. I could feel the cold and damp chill of the air, smell the green of the grass, taste the apples, see the dank and dark basement of the castle.

Characters: Another extremely well done aspect of this book. Although basically good or bad, the characters had shades of other aspects to them that made them well-rounded. I loathed the Vicar appropriately, and liked Meredith, although not always. Bridie was an interesting character as well, a mixed blend between a bright and lively friend and a girl with an unfortunate penchant for gossip.

Style: As I mentioned, the time-jumping made for a deeper connection with Meredith; it gave the sense that I had moved beyond reading her diary and had access to her thoughts. I suppose that might be an uncomfortable intimacy because we are so close to that particular lens, but I enjoyed it. There were a few typos that would be easily corrected with a sharp editor’s eye.

Overall Impression: Four and a half stars. An interesting read for anyone who likes historical fiction, cold, raw Irish castles, and conflicted characters. I have to say that I did leave the read confused about the comb. I was expecting something to happen in relation to the fifth tooth but either I missed it or nothing happened. But aside from this confusion, I enjoyed Summoning and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys historical paranormal young adult literature.

Link to purchase



October Breezes by Maria Rachel Hooley

I admire writers who have courage, and Maria Rachel Hooley definitely has courage. She takes on powerful topics – rape, abortion, suicide – and keeps a compassionate pen in their depiction. She also manages to give space to many of the different sides of an issue without taking a side. That is a difficult feat — one in which the author must disappear as much as possible into the book.

Plot: Main character Skye and her best friend Devin are at a crossroads when Skye begins to date a popular guy on the football team. Skye is also wrestling with her mother’s new boyfriend and her feelings of anger toward the father who walked out on her.  Devin, like her father, walks out on her when he disapproves of her choices.

Setting: High school, and this is high school as I remember it, with all of the cliques, yet a good deal of the cross-over. By that I mean that Skye is not one of the popular crowd, yet several popular boys are interested in her. In many books, the groups do not intersect, but in most high schools it seems that they do. We also have Becca, the queen bee mean girl in school, who has her own reasons for her actions.

Characters: I really liked Skye and found her reactions to be very true to how many teenage girls might act in her situation. Hooley does a good job of showing her distrust of her mother’s new boyfriend, and her difficulty accepting that someone cares about her. The dynamic between Skye and her mother is also well done. The football players, happily, do not all fall into stereotypical boxes. The only character that I found myself disliking was Devin — he seemed paternalistic and down the nose to Skye; instead of being a true friend, he walks out on her when he doesn’t like what she does. Unfortunately, his warnings have a ring of truth to them and Skye does find herself in a terrible situation. Because Hooley’s hand is so invisible in the writing, I couldn’t fault her for the paternalistic Devin; it’s impossible to tell if he’s being presented as the typical perfect male best friend, or if he is dealing with his own shortcomings.

Style: Well done, good writing for Y/A. Good “voice.” Some typos.

Overall Impression: Four stars. An excellent read for middle- to older-young adults and adults who enjoy reading young adult literature. A brave book.

Link to purchase

Submission policy change; new review tonight

Due to overwhelming submissions, I’ve implemented some policy changes. All submissions should contain a brief overview of the book as well as genre. At this time I’m no longer able to review every book submitted, and will be choosing based on the overview. I remain open to all genres. I am particularly interested in historical fiction at this time.

Reviews to recommence tonight with October Breezes by Maria Rachel Hooley.

Once Upon a December Nightmare by Cherie Reich

This short story was the first piece of writing that I read on my new Kindle. And what a way to break it in … I couldn’t put it down.  December Nightmare walks that fine thread that all good suspense does – the thread that tells you just enough to make you breathless, but not enough that you can figure out where the story’s headed.

Then there were the deer. Oh, the deer … and I won’t tell you more than that. You’ll just have to read it to find out what I mean.

Plot: A familiar, and creepy pretext: four teenagers in a car who decide to go down an alternative route in the wintertime.  Then the strange stuff starts happening. Again here, as with all suspense-style reviews, I find myself torn because I don’t want to give away too much. So I’ll stick to lighter details. We get several different POVs. Some writers do different POVs that all feel the same. Not the case with this story. Each is well-done in the sense that you feel that you’re really reading a different person’s take on the story, not one author’s voice shining through four characters.

Setting: The creepiest, snowiest backroad you can imagine. As it is the heart of wintertime here where I live, I found myself staring out at the cold and the snow and imagining these scenes. It’s because of the vividness of Reich’s writing. Small aspects of the story are cast in exquisite detail: “A heavy sigh rushed from her lips like a plume of smoke and framed her face in dark fog” and “The liquid mixed with mud and splattered the truck like a Jackson Pollack painting” are examples.

Characters: Well-developed, unique. We get Cassie, who struck me as the most likable of the bunch; her friend Mary, who struck me as rather mousy; Mary’s sister Denise, who was the second most unlikable of the bunch; and Denise’s boyfriend James who was absolutely the most unlikable. Likable or not, I cared about the characters. I may have wanted one of them in particular to come across some misfortune … but I was very engaged in his or her misfortune!

Style: In short stories, real estate counts. Reich is aware of this, and she makes the most of every word. Nothing is wasted here.

Overall Impression: Five stars. An engaging, frightening short story that draws on Civil War history/urban legend-American mythology to make chills run down your spine. Read it, but be prepared to have it stick in your memory!

Link to purchase

Not What She Seems by Victorine E. Lieske

I really enjoyed this book. I found myself thinking about it between reads, wondering what was going to happen, suspecting different people of different actions and motivations, and dying (ha!) to get to the end to find out.  This lovely romantic suspense novel begins with us meeting Steven Ashton, a lonely, good-looking billionaire. Then we are introduced to an interesting cast of characters… and a somewhat unsolved murder, though Lieske crafts well to that also.

Plot: A cat-and-mouse-and-cat-and-mouse-and-dog story…Lots of people with a various motivations to do some pretty wild stuff, with romance to make it come alive. Like I said, it was most engrossing, and though at times I was irritated with the characters’ emotional blindness. Anyway,  I find myself struggling a bit to write this review and not reveal too much of the story so as to disappoint readers, so let’s say that it’s fast-paced, keeps you guessing, and surprises you at the end. Maybe a little too much surprise at the end, but you will not see the end coming. In fact, I was happily heading up one road, convinced I had figured it all out, only to find I was wrong, wrong, wrong. A good suspense novel should do that, and Not What She Seems delivers.

Setting: Various places in the US. Scenes are well done, well crafted, believable, real. I had a good sense of the hotel, the small town, the big city. I would have liked to have seen more use of smell, but other than that it was quite descriptive.

Characters: Well developed and interesting. Steven Ashton was my favorite, probably because he’s the strongest character both in terms of personality and in the amount of time we spend with him. He’s immensely likable. Emily is a bit weak for my taste, and I would have liked to have seen her rescue herself a few more times than she did. But all of the characters’ emotions felt very real to me, and I felt like I knew them personally.

Style: Very nice. Fast-paced, quick, fun read. The end is a little too quick – I would have liked a bit more at that point, but it’s possible I merely enjoyed the book so much that I was disappointed to have to say goodbye to the characters. A minor typo caught my eye, but there were few of those.

Overall Impression: Four and a half stars. An excellent read,particularly on a cold, snowy day during which you want to relax with a fun, engrossing read. Not What She Seems isn’t trying to make some grand statement about the world, and it doesn’t have to. It just pulls you in until the last breathtaking scene.

Link to purchase

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