Archive for May, 2011

Goth Sex-Kitten and Other Stories — Some Fun, Some Not, Too Short

Goth Sex-Kitten and Other Stories is an interesting collection of various short stories from author Dave Freer. Published by Naked Reader, it’s a mishmash of varying genres of fiction while maintaining a somewhat whimsical feel throughout the entire collection. Coming in at only 33 pages (of which, about 8 are blank), it’s a brief read. And that is a shame, given how interesting some of the stories within are.

The anthology (loosely termed here) starts off with the title story, Goth Sex-Kitten. A magician’s apprentice (from what I gather), while hiding from his master’s temper tantrum, accidentally stumbles upon a portal which transports him do a strange dimension – a goth club. Confused, chaos and hilarity take hold as he struggles to figure out what is going on.

The next story is a one page story titled Rob. It was short, confusing and (quite frankly) not very good. With some of the other stories, you get a sense of background, of setting and place. With Rob, I just felt someone trying to paint a scene using no layers or tones. Maybe this is a bad analogy, I’m not certain. Perhaps if it had been fleshed out a bit more, this one wouldn’t have bugged me. It is the weakest story of the novella as well. Thankfully, they get better, since…

Jack is the next story and is very, very good. Of course, I’m a bit demented, so the idea of a child playing with a bunch of soldier’s minds while in the midst of a siege sends me into mad giggles. Poor Hrolf, suffering from the memory of his lost wife and daughter, is targeted first by the strange girl, only he rebuffs her and sends her on her way. Undaunted, she moves to another man and causes him to disappear. Hrolf is suspected of murder, but eventually the entire truth comes out as more and more men disappear and the mysterious Jack reveals much. This is a story that, if the author wished, could be expanded upon. I wish he would, actually, it’s that good.

Left Behind is a story that reminds me much of the Heroes in Hell series. Ryan, a lawyer in life, is given a chance to end up in Purgatory, if only he’d help his grandmother cheat on an exam while in Hell. The Devil is the one who offered, and the story, compelling and dark, is a nice contrast to some of the lighter and more amusing tales in this short anthology. The Devil gets his due, though not in the way he expected, and Ryan makes the ultimate choice.

If I Wake Before I Die is a confusing little piece, though a beautifully written one. It tells the story of two sisters, one of whom is mentally trapped in the past while mourning the loss of love. It’s a bit confusing because I get the impression that something darker is at play here, only it never seems to come to fruition. Too bad, really, because this is a wonderfully dark and tragic piece.

Regency Sprite is the last story of the short novella, and a clever little mystery wrapped in 19th century London. A fey is caught while following her traitorous lover into the human realm by cold iron bars, and breaks her arm accidentally. A besotted drunkard and cuckolded count, Arthur Redmund, stumbles upon her and reluctantly agrees to help. He takes her back to his home and, as the tale switches viewpoints between the two, dark secrets about Arthur’s past comes to life as he tries to help the poor fey girl.

This novella is really too short for my usual tastes, though Freer’s writing drew me in well enough. I just really wished there had been more to it, more meat and ‘taters with this. However, the price ($2.99) for the collection seems to be about right. I’m not sure I would buy this outright, though maybe if it were a larger part of a bundle I would. Great stories (mostly), but this was just too short for me. Perhaps there will be more stories with some of these characters at a later date?

reviewed by Jason

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Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ Screwball Comedy “Call Me Irresistible:” Contrived, with Funny Moments.

Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ new screwball romantic comedy CALL ME IRRESISTIBLE is contrived even for the genre of screwball romantic comedies, but it is often extremely funny.   It’s about Meg Koranda, the child of famous parents, and Ted Beaudine, the favorite son of Wynette, Texas, who’s also a world-class entrepreneur and inventor and a past amateur golf champion.   Ted’s about to get married to Meg’s best friend, Lucy Jorik, who happens to be the daughter of the former, female, President of the United States.   CALL ME IRRESISTIBLE has that name because Ted is a character who seems too good to be true, and Meg can’t stand it.   She senses something is way off about this wedding, and she’s right — her friend Lucy isn’t as enthused as she should be, considering she’s about to marry such a paragon.

So, of course, we know immediately that the wedding between Lucy and Ted isn’t going to come off.  But it’s how the wedding doesn’t happen that causes a high level of animosity; no one blames Lucy, you see, while everyone blames Meg.  Meg only told the truth, though she wasn’t exactly tactful in doing so; Meg pointed out that no one’s perfect, so even the “irresistible” Ted Beaudine must have some flaws.  (And of course no one blames “Mr. Perfect,” either.)

Complicating matters, Meg is flat broke — she spent the last of her money getting to Lucy’s wedding — and no one’s willing to help her in her family as Meg’s thirty years old and they believe she’s too old for needing help no matter how desperately it’s required.  Meg doesn’t have gas for her car, an old clunker, and she also doesn’t have food to eat nor many clothes, either.   Which means she needs to find work, pronto, and does — as a hotel maid, making barely above minimum wage.  Ms. Phillips makes a very strong point about how underpaid these gals are, then immediately undercuts that point because Meg, herself, is being paid $3/hour less than all the other maids.  This is due to the fact the owner of the hotel is angry with Meg, partly because Meg couldn’t pay her bill, but mostly because Meg “insulted the town legend” by supposedly running Lucy off.  (That Lucy ran out of the church herself, and Meg has no idea where she is, makes no nevermind to the story.)

As this is a screwball comedy, many contrived and predictable situations follow, though Ms. Phillips does a good job with wringing the humor out of each situation.  From Meg having to caddy for Ted when she knows nothing about golf to Meg being insulted left and right because the folks of Wynette hate her with the passion of a thousand unending suns to Meg being hit on by a much older, influential man and not being able to do much about it, we can’t help rooting for Meg because most if not all of these things are totally undeserved.

But this is a romantic comedy (Ms. Phillips’s twenty-first; I counted), so of course the next step in the plot is for Meg to fall for Ted, and so she does — in a way, at least as far as falling into bed goes.  But there’s where she finds Ted’s one and only flaw — he has committed the cardinal sin of spending “too much time” making love to Meg, because apparently Ted likes to spend hours with every woman he’s ever been with and Meg feels betrayed.  (No, this doesn’t make much sense, even though Ms. Phillips’ point about how passion sometimes, or often, should carry true lovers away is true enough.)   That Meg got chapter and verse from Lucy (who apparently is in another sexual relationship inside a week or two’s time; Meg asked Lucy’s permission to sleep with Ted, and got it), and that Lucy confirmed that Ted is the “world’s best lover” and that “every woman should be made love to by Ted” doesn’t help — Meg does not feel special this way, and is angered because Ted doesn’t allow himself to be carried away by passion from time to time.   (Though Ms. Phillips didn’t write it, I kept thinking what Meg needed was a few “quickies” to appreciate what Ted was doing in delaying his own pleasure to give her as much of her own as possible.  Or maybe give Meg a new brain, as this is the weakest excuse for a “flaw” I’ve ever seen in a novel.)

Look.  I enjoyed CALL ME IRRESISTIBLE because it’s funny.  But it’s not as good as WHAT I DID FOR LOVE, Ms. Phillips’s last novel, much less the “Phillips gold standards” of AIN’T SHE SWEET? or DREAM A LITTLE DREAM.   And this isn’t Ms. Phillips second novel, or third, or even tenth — this is her twenty-first.   So I can’t give her a “pass” for writing a novel with someone’s “flaw” being that he’s such a people-pleaser that he must give any woman he’s dating as much pleasure as humanly possible — that’s just not good enough.

So my grades are going to be split, I’m afraid.

Humor — A.  Writing quality — A.  Characterization — B.  Romance — B-.   Plot — C.   Which averages out to about a B, B-, somewhere in there.

My advice regarding CALL ME IRRESISTIBLE is to read it for the humor and the writing quality, because it is funny and I enjoyed it very much.  But it’s just not as good as AIN’T SHE SWEET? and DREAM A LITTLE DREAM, much less WHAT I DID FOR LOVE or many of the other twenty-one previous Phillips’ novels.   And that’s a shame, because Phillips at her best isn’t just funny or a good writer — she actually elevates the genre.

Too bad this wasn’t one of her better efforts.

— reviewed by Barb


**Note for long-time readers of Ms. Phillips; this is a sequel of sorts to Phillips’ previous novels FANCY PANTS (where Ted was nine), LADY BE GOOD (where Ted was in his early twenties), WHAT I DID FOR LOVE (where Meg was a minor player) and GLITTER BABY (where Meg’s parents are featured), and finally also a sequel to FIRST LADY (about Lucy’s parents).** 


“A Rush of Wings” — Good Stories about Angels, Demons

A RUSH OF WINGS, an anthology edited by Amanda S. Green about angels and demons from Naked Reader Press (, is a nice collection with a variety of stories about angels, demons, or at least those who could be confused for angels and demons by the uninitiated.   The stories are interesting, there wasn’t a bad story in the lot, and it contained one outstanding story that I still can’t stop thinking about several days after reading it in Kate Paulk’s “His Father’s Son.”

The collection starts out with prolific storyteller Sarah A. Hoyt’s “Daughter of Man.”   A young man from Brazil, Luis, a college student, has come home for a rendezvous with his girlfriend, Anunciação, someone his family doesn’t like because she doesn’t have any money (her family is decidedly working class, while his seems to be upper-middle at best).  However, when Luis gets home, he finds that Anunciação has run off with someone no one else could see; someone she insists is an angel.   I liked this story despite its unsettling ending mostly because of the descriptions of Luis’s home and how he was trying to continue his star-crossed relationship despite the disapproval of his parents.   There’s a lot of truth to all of this; Ms. Hoyt got the frustrated longing of this young man just right, and the main question here may not be what you think it is.

The second story in the anthology is Taylor M. Lunsford’s “Agape.”  Here we have two people, an angel, and a demon, who must work together for the benefit of society.  However, the demon, Esme, was a good woman in life who always did her best, while the angel, Kamin, was a bad-boy soccer player who smoked, drank, ran around, and died while making love to a floozy after a chandelier came down on his head.  The two protagonists start off the story annoyed with each other, annoyed they have to work together, and don’t really understand why they’ve been placed together.

However, out of the strongest disapproval can sometimes come an unexpected love, and that’s what happens here — I’m giving nothing away by saying this, as this story is all about “Agape,” or the Greek form of love which they viewed as the highest — it is seen as self-sacrificing, unconditional, thoughtful, and perhaps even divine, which is why it works so well in Lunsford’s story.  Watching Kamin and Esme interact and learning more about them is interesting and sometimes poignant; that they must fight problems in this world, together, is a very nice and unusual way to set up this story.  I enjoyed this story very much and I hope to see more from Lunsford in the future.

Then we get to the next story, the jewel of the entire collection, Kate Paulk’s magnificent “His Father’s Son.”  This is a story about Jerith (called “Jerry”), a fallen angel-turned-demon, his son Dante by a human woman, and the angel Seriah, who wears Jerith’s dead wife Caitlin’s face.   Dante has more power available, being half-demon, than most humans, and has lived three hundred years; he is also quite insane, as his human mind can’t contain all of this.   Because of Dante’s insanity, he’s been destroying demons and angels in order to raise power for himself because he doesn’t understand very much about who his father is, nor what his father has done.  Dante  wants answers and doesn’t care how he gets them; this sets up a complex tale of love, forgiveness, betrayal, and most oddly and unexpectedly, hope.

The best part of “His Father’s Son” isn’t the interplay between Seriah and Jerry, though that’s extremely good.  It’s the true grasp of emotions, which even angels and demons must feel, when it’s either stop a madman (regardless of who he is) or perhaps bring down Heaven — and Hell.   “His Father’s Son” is an excellent story, one I’ll re-read again and again, and one I hope was submitted to the “best of 2010” anthologies as it deserves to be there.

Next is Chris McMahon’s “Murtagh’s Fury.”  This is a story about one of the last Celtic protectors, who’s been losing power for years and years — he was bonded to the Murtagh family, yet somehow became adrift from them.   The reason this protector is called “Fury” is because he doesn’t really have a name; he has power, and he has purpose, but he’s not what he once was and he knows it.  Now, with his badly-weakened power, he has to somehow defeat a Fomorian (evil incarnate).   What happens to “Fury” is interesting, yes, but it’s the ending — which I refuse to spoil — that adds poignancy here.   This is a good story about how people — or entities — must do whatever they can to fight off evil, even if they don’t think they’re up to the job, and I really liked the Celtic mythology.

Next is Robert Cruze, Jr.’s story “Predator: Prey: Protector” about a thirteen year old boy, Josh, who has fallen prey to an Internet predator.   However, a friend of his family, Andrea (called “Andy”), has caught wind of the problem while she was over babysitting Josh’s two younger siblings, and the chase therefore is on.   “Predator: Prey: Protector” has some nice nods to David Weber, to Baen Books, a bit of a throw to Baen’s Bar fandom, and a great deal of lore about various sorts of predators and protectors.

That Andy has some hidden abilities helps a great deal, because we know from the start that Josh will not be permanently harmed — which makes “Predator: Prey: Protector” more about this question instead:  can a predator become a protector?    And if so, why don’t more of them become protectors?

The best part of this story is its humanity; Andy may be more than human, but she hasn’t forgotten who she is — her pluses, or her minuses — and she uses them to benefit humanity.   This is a very balanced and nuanced way to look at someone who might be considered an angel by some, and that Andy’s made more than her share of mistakes shows that just about anyone can be redeemed if he or she tries hard enough.  This is an extremely positive message, one that made sense in the context of the story, and it’s one I appreciated a great deal.

Next was Chris Kelsey’s “Angel and the Demon.”  Angel is a human shape-shifter, becoming a lioness at need, while the demon here isn’t exactly what I thought at first — there’s an overtly evil antagonist causing trouble, and then there’s the problem of someone who can be subverted against his own wishes.   That Angel seems to be in a rather unusual relationship with another couple along with an older man who is simply a friend adds complexity, yet I wasn’t sure why it needed to be there because the story was about Angel herself — a shape-shifter — finding that sometimes no matter what her powers are, she won’t be able to solve every problem in the way she wants.

“Angel and the Demon” gave me an unsettled feeling for a different reason than Ms. Hoyt’s “Daughter of Man” — simply put, while the story is here and it’s OK, there seems to have been more there that was somehow left on the table.  I don’t really know what’s missing from this story — I just know it is — and while I could handle the unusual three-way friendship/love triangle going on between Angel and her friends, I just didn’t see the need for it because aside from her friends also being shape-shifters, I didn’t really get why they’d be around each other at all because they didn’t seem to have a lot in common.

That said, “Angel and the Demon” isn’t a bad story and does have some depth to it; I just think it could’ve been a lot better.  That I can’t really explain the “demon” part without blowing any appreciation of the story apart for someone else reading it down the line doesn’t help me explain what didn’t feel right to me.

Next there’s Robert A. Hoyt’s story “Afterlife 2.0.”  This was a fun story about technology, human ghostbusters, the Devil, lawyers, an angel, and what the afterlife is supposed to be all about.   I can’t really give too much away because the concept, and the humor behind the concept, is pretty much the whole story, but it’s a nice story with some unexpected twists.  I enjoyed it.

Finally, there’s Dave Freer’s short-short “My Grandmother’s Shame.”   Mairi’s grandmother had a brief relationship with someone Other long ago, and believes he will return for her.   But complicating matters, Mairi’s grandmother is now on her deathbed; will her lover return?  And what, exactly, is he?

“My Grandmother’s Shame” is a nice story that, like Ms. Hoyt’s “Daughter of Man,” raises more questions than it answers; because of that, despite its brevity it was the right story to close out A RUSH OF WINGS.

As I said above, this is a good collection — it contains a few stories that will surprise (“Daughter of Man,” “Predator: Prey: Protector,” “Murtagh’s Fury” and “My Grandmother’s Shame”), one outstanding story (“His Father’s Son”), and several stories that are OK or better.   Overall, I enjoyed the collection a great deal, and would recommend it to anyone who likes angels, demons, or good fantasy writing overall.

Grade:  B-plus

— reviewed by Barb 

** While the cover for A RUSH OF WINGS was unavailable at the NRP Web site, it is artist Herbert Draper’s (1863-1920) painting “The Lament for Icarus.”   The Draper painting was an excellent cover choice.


Dave Freer’s “Dragon’s Ring” — Intricate, Rousing Action-Adventure

Dragon's RingDave Freer’s DRAGON’S RINGis a cracking good read that’s intricate, rousing, and often moving.  It’s the story of Fionn the small black dragon-shapechanger, who’s also called Finn while in human-shape, and his apprentice, Meb (also called Scrap).  Meb is a displaced human magician who shouldn’t ever have been brought to Tamarind, a world with more than its share of secrets, but somehow, as a baby, she was placed on Tamarind, then left to grow up believing herself to be a normal, human citizen of that world.  How the two meet, interrelate, and then finally destroy (or save) Tamarind is the main upthrust of this book, but if you’re only reading it on one level, you’re missing the point.

Tamarind is a very odd place; the humans who live there have dragon overlords who charge outrageously high fees to their human tenants (who aren’t quite serfs, but close); some dragons treat their tenants better than others, and give them more freedom to pursue their lives due to asking for lesser amounts in taxes, while others are awful, treating their humans like lice — vermin that can be wiped out at need, then brought back in greater numbers later on.

Mind, Fionn is the oldest dragon on Tamarind, but there are other old dragons about here and there who’ve forgotten why they were made even if they remember how demeaning it was to be servants.  This is the main reason why some of the dragons are far, far worse than others; in general, Fionn notwithstanding, the older the dragon, the worse he or she treats the humans who live in his/her demesne.

Fionn, alone among dragons on Tamarind, does not have a territory and does not have humans giving him tribute.   He earns his money in other ways because he’s embraced his heritage as a shape-changer while other dragons refuse to use other shapes unless they’re literally at death’s door and it’s the only way out of a bad situation.  Fionn’s hoard of gold is even in a different place altogether than any other hoard on Tamarind, partly because he remembers why Tamarind was made as an artificial construct, and partly because he enjoys confounding people and being different.  And all of this — all — is to highlight the fact that Fionn not only relishes his differences, but remembers what he’s for — to re-balance this particular unstable world, this made world, this world, he has firmly come to believe, that no longer has a right to exist.

Fionn says all this at the regular dragon gatherings, called conclaves, too, but he’s not listened to, nor is he often respected (except for his wit; he has a sense of humor, which many of the other dragons lack).   This is because the younger dragons lack his sense of purpose, while the older ones are just angry they were once used as servants by the First, those legendary beings whose descendants are the Alvar (think “Elves”), the humans, the Dvergar (think either “Dwarves” or “Gnomes” and you won’t be far off), the Merrow (merpeople), the Lyr (sprites), or the creatures of smokeless flame — this is one reason most of the elder dragons hate humans (and all the others) with the passion of a thousand suns, because they can’t get at the First (who are either long-dead or long-removed from Tamarind due to its oddities) and yet have to vent their rage somewhere.

And trust me on this one; dragons have a lot of rage, as we see more often than not, something Fionn can’t help but regret as he’s grown to like most of the other races quite well.

The story behind how Meb finally figures out Finn’s secret — that he’s also Fionn — is the main driver here, yet there’s so much else going on.   What is up with Tamarind?  Why is Finn/Fionn of the fervent belief that he cannot love, when it’s obvious that not only does he love (at least in the philios sense) many of the other races, he’s capable of great caring?  And why is it that so few of the dragons on Tamarind realize that they are like Fionn at least as far as being able to deeply care about others, to the point that many have allowed their baser selves far too much free rein?

Fionn’s journey — from a well-traveled wanderer to someone who has found his place, be it ever so unusual, in the universe — is well worth watching.  But so is Meb’s — she goes from apprentice-wanderer to full conspirator along with Finn/Fionn, and tests his mettle along with his resolve. 

DRAGON’S RING is a highly original story of love, rage, redemption, self-sacrifice, learning amidst often-closed cultures, and so much more, and it’s well worth reading over and over again.   It’s closest cognate, in some weird way, might be Jacqueline Carey’s duology “The Sundering” of BANEWREAKER and GODSLAYER; while those two aren’t close in their style, they do have a very unusual sense of morality that is deeply at the heart of the story and are both intricate stories that deserve to be read over and over again, being more appreciated each time.

Grade:  A-plus.   A masterpiece — so what are you waiting for?  Go grab it today!

— Reviewed by Barb


Hoyt and Skapski’s “A Touch of Night” Equals Jane Austen Plus Weres — and it’s a lot of fun

Sarah A. Hoyt and Sofie Skapski’s A TOUCH OF NIGHT is a re-do of Jane Austen’s seminal novel PRIDE AND PREJUDICE — except this time, it’s with Weres — humans who change into animals.  Which complicates the events of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE rather well, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

In A TOUCH OF NIGHT, Austen’s protagonists Jane and Elizabeth Bennet, along with their eventual love-interests Fitzwilliam Darcy and Charles Bingley, now have additional problems to worry about.  That’s because some of them are Weres, even though none of them are the harmful variety, and English society can’t leave well enough alone.  Now, there’s the Royal Were-Hunters, which the Bennets, Darcy and Bingley must now worry about, because the RWH doesn’t care who or what you are, nor whether or not you’ve done any harm.  They will just shoot you stone, cold dead if they find you, with no appeal.

The additional complications brought about by some of Austen’s protagonists being Weres reminds me a little bit of the gleeful mayhem of Seth Grahame-Smith’s Austen pastiche PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES: THE CLASSIC REGENCY ROMANCE, NOW WITH ULTRAVIOLENT ZOMBIE MAYHEM because it’s doing some of the same things (fortunately in a much better way).  Where the Grahame-Smith version added violence to Austen’s classic novel, A TOUCH OF NIGHT adds more romance along with the additional complications of fantasy — that is, how can you be human and want a human love when you turn into another creature some of the month?  And how can you trust anyone with your secret when, once you do, you’re putting them as well as yourself at risk due to the RWH?

Note that if you loved PRIDE AND PREJUDICE in the original version, and you also love fantasy, you will really enjoy A TOUCH OF NIGHT because Austen’s version of England is treated with respect — it’s as if this additional story was always there, and for whatever reason Austen just didn’t feel up to telling it, so Hoyt and Skapski have decided to add it right back.  It fits just that seamlessly.

Because the essential story of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE is unaltered, we know that despite the additional complications that Bingley and Jane will eventually make a match of it. and we know that Darcy and Elizabeth will also do so . . . but getting there is only half the fun because we have more to discover about Mr. Bennet (the patriarch of the Bennet family) than we’d ever expected.  We find that Mr. Darcy is even more heroic than we’d thought, and Mr. Collins even stranger . . . we appreciate all of the characters of Austen’s classic novel even more with the additional material added from Hoyt and Skapski.

A TOUCH OF NIGHT deepens and broadens the Austen mythos and more to the point, doesn’t distract from it as can some pastiches of great works.  This is a fine fantasy effort that rings true on the romance and human levels, and I enjoyed it immensely.

Best of all, there’s another Jane Austen-inspired fantasy novel coming from Sarah A. Hoyt called A FLAW IN HER MAGIC from the Naked Reader later this year (an adaptation of the classic MANSFIELD PARK), which I know I will be looking forward to — avidly.

Grade: A.  For anyone who loves Regency romances, Jane Austen, or fantasy — trust me, if you give A TOUCH OF NIGHT a try, you will not put it down.

— reviewed by Barb


The Lost Hero — Like Percy Jackson, Except Not As Fun

I liked the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series by Rick Riordan, so when I learned that Riordan was creating a new series about more “half-bloods” I was intrigued. However, I never really had a chance to review this new series until I received the first book of the series last week. So today I’ll be reviewing The Lost Hero, book one of The Heroes of Olympus series. Now, where to begin…

The story starts off with Jason, Piper and their friend Leo sitting on a bus on their way to the Grand Canyon, a part of a classroom filled with juvenile delinquents from a special camp. The only problem is, Jason isn’t sure who he is or what he’s doing there. He seems to be suffering from a little amnesia and he has a girlfriend (Piper) who he doesn’t remember either. This seems odd but nobody really questions it (they assume he’s teasing them or something) until the teacher admits to Jason that he doesn’t remember ever having Jason in the class before today. Then they are attacked by a monster, as per the course for a group of half-bloods (also known as demigods, children of the Greek gods), and defeat it at the expense of their teacher, who turns out to be a satyr protecting them from such creatures. However, there is still a mystery surrounding Jason, who still cannot remember who he is or how he got there. There is not doubting who his parent is — Zeus, which means potential trouble since the entire previous series (starring Percy Jackson, who is currently MIA and nobody knows why) was around the idea that the “Big Three ” (Zeus, Poseidon and Hades) were not allowed to have any more children.

They are taken to Camp Half-Blood, where it is determined who the three parents of the children are. Jason, as mentioned before, is Zeus’ son, while Piper is (surprisingly) a daughter of Aphrodite, while Leo is a child of Hephaestus. They try to settle in but are immediately whisked away on a quest. It turns out that the gods have not spoken to anyone recently, barring entrance to Mt. Olympus. Even Mr. D, the camp director (Dionysus), has been recalled back to Olympus. Mystery abounds as Rachel, the Oracle, predicts that the three will release a god who has been trapped.

The story is drawn out, with quite a bit of mystery surrounding Jason. The chapters jump between Jason, Leo and Piper as each has dreams pressed upon them by various beings and deities. The mystery surrounding Jason deepens as it comes to light that he doesn’t speak or understand ancient Greek but Latin, and calls the gods by their Roman names (Jupiter, Venus, etc). This gives some clues as to Jason’s origins, though the real shocker comes when he meets Thalia, Zeus’ other child from the original series (and now one of the fabled Hunters).

This is a quality book, though you can see the answer to the “mystery” coming a mile away. There are times when I wanted to reach into the pages and slap them all as they missed obvious (painfully obvious to the reader) clue after clue. I understand that “kids” might miss clues like this, but these demigods are fifteen or so at the start of this book. They weren’t like Percy Jackson in the first series, who had his lack of life experience to fall back on as an excuse for his ignorance.

I did enjoy it, though I wouldn’t call it Riordan’s finest work (like many others appear to be doing). His pacing is loose at points in the book, which can lose a reader if they haven’t been sucked fully into the characters yet. His structure is decent, but thankfully the literati are hiding out and this book is for YA (young adults, younger readers), so he gets a pass here. I didn’t like the characters, because they seemed to be whitewashed versions of Percy, Annabeth and Grover from the original series. There didn’t seem to be anything special about them that distinguished them from one another, which could have been confusing had Riordan done anything tricky in his dialog.

A buy if you’re a huge fan of the series. I’m a fan, but I’m not certain I would have purchased it on its own merit. Hopefully the second book of the series, The Son of Neptune, will be better.

Reviewed by Jason


Ellie Ferguson’s “Wedding Bell Blues” — a funny, spicy mystery

Wedding Bell BluesEllie Ferguson’s WEDDING BELL BLUES (available at the Naked Reader Press, is a funny, spicy mystery set around Jessica “Jess” Jones’s sister Maryanne’s wedding.  Someone wants to stop this wedding at all costs, but who?  And why?  And how can Jess resist former lover (and police detective) Colton Dougherty, especially when he’s being so solicitous of her welfare?

Much of the fun of Ms. Ferguson’s work isn’t the plot; it’s the snappy dialogue and the snarky wit that makes WEDDING BELL BLUES so much fun.  Like Toni McGee Causey’s debut novel BOBBIE FAYE’S VERY (VERY, VERY, VERY) BAD DAY, while the plot is just fine, it’s the characterization and most importantly the humor that makes this a joy to read.

The plot is as follows:  Maryanne Jones is about to marry the love of her life, Brett Boudreaux, and her sister, Jess, is disgusted as you might expect with a pink and fuschia bridesmaid gown.  She’s also distracted by thoughts of her former lover, Colton, especially as he’s been on television quite often lately due to a string of high-profile murders.  Colton is the only man Jess has ever loved, but ten-plus years ago he did something Jess could not forgive and she immediately cut Colton out of his life, no explanations, no warning, no nothing.  And Colton just left — which was an admission of guilt as far as Jess was concerned.  (Have I mentioned yet that Jess has a temper and that this is one of her besetting sins?)

Of course these two are going to get together, but what’s more important is how they do it — and I found that realistic, funny, and even touching at times.  As they’re trying to re-start their relationship amidst all the troubles around Maryanne’s wedding, things are difficult from the start and get worse and worse — yet Jess never quite loses her sense of humor, and we continue to root for her and Colton, seeing them as flawed humans, yes, but folks for whom we can clap and cheer.  (A nice balance, that.)

As this is a novel of romantic suspense, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention one other plus — the sex scenes between Jess and Colton are fraught with emotional tension, which is realistic and true-to-life yet funny as Hell.   This isn’t as easy to write as it sounds, because most writers don’t even try to do something like this — yet Ms. Ferguson carried this off effortlessly, which bodes well for her future.

Simply put: there are a lot of romances out there.  And there are a lot of romances with suspense out there.  But there are far fewer romances out there with romance, suspense, and humor — and Ms. Ferguson went three-for-three, holding my interest nicely.

I truly enjoyed this fine debut novel, and I look forward to whatever else Ms. Ferguson writes next.

Grades:  For humor — A; for suspense — B; for romance — A, which averages out to a very nice A-minus.

The upshot: WEDDING BELL BLUES is a fun book with nice plotting.  If you give it a chance, you will enjoy this a great deal.  (In other words, I recommend this novel.  Wholeheartedly.)

— reviewed by Barb

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“Knights in Tarnished Armor” and “Born in Blood” — two novellas by Kate Paulk show great promise, range

The two novellas Born in Blood and Knights in Tarnished Armor couldn’t be more dissimilar except for a few things: they both were written by Kate Paulk and are available at the Naked Reader Press Web site (, and they both are fine and worthy novellas that will hold your interest if you give them time.

The first novella, Born in Blood,  is a suspenseful prequel to the previously-reviewed IMPALER which shows how Vlad Tepes, Prince of Wallachia, endured until he became an adult.  Prince Vlad’s adolescence was undoubtedly difficult and painful; we know from history that he wasn’t well-treated by the  heir of the Ottoman Sultan, a guy by the name of Mehmed (who later became Sultan).  Mehmed apparently tortured Vlad and quite possibly sexually abused Vlad — we know this from history — and Paulk’s version makes things a bit starker, a bit more graphic in spots (though no sex is shown; it’s merely suggested) to explain Vlad’s visceral hatred of Mehmed in full measure.

Vlad’s much-younger brother, Radu, is also imprisoned by the Sultan, but the Sultan himself, Murad, is not a bad man.  Paulk describes Murad as kindly, scholarly, and ruthless, and that appears to be an apt description.  Murad was the type of guy who would make sure the children being held as hostages for their parents’ good behavior (such as Vlad and Radu) were well-educated, able to become good rulers in their turn, though Mehmed himself seemed much less interested in this and didn’t see the wisdom in doing anything other than having a lot of sex with young men (which wasn’t seen, necessarily, as a sin by a ruler, especially as it was rarely talked about in any way, shape or form).

Paulk’s vision of the Sultan Murad and of the Turkish people around him shows that Vlad understood the Turks and liked many of them even if he didn’t like or care for their religion (them being Muslims, which at the time good Christians called “Mohammedans,” and Paulk, to be historically accurate, has called them exactly that).   This goes right along with the view that Vlad was a complex, multi-faceted man who didn’t ask to be afflicted with the “curse” of having to drink blood, someone who was better at war than peace, but wanted to get better at both.  Someone who was intelligent, learned, and had troubled relations with his family — and someone who never forgot, nor forgave, the abuse he suffered at the hands of the Sultan’s son Mehmed.

Vlad indeed seems to have been the type of man who could’ve forged a very strong and unusual friendship with the Sultan Murad but have hated Mehmed, Murad’s son and acknowledged heir, with a passion, because he’s just that complex, just that skilled, and just that poised.  Paulk did an exemplary job showing how Vlad managed to navigate the tangled path he had to walk in order to attain adulthood, which adds more depth and color to an already-vibrant man, Prince Vlad of Wallachia (called Dracula, though Paulk again transliterates this to Draculea in order to avoid confusion with Bram Stoker’s DRACULA).

This is compelling historical drama with just a touch of fantasy about it, and I urge you to read it without delay.

After that thrill-ride of intensity, I was in the mood for some lighter fare, and once again Kate Paulk delivered.  Her novella, Knights in Tarnished Armor, is a fun farce written in epistolary style (in other words, we learn about what’s going on through the letters each character sends).  The heroine is Francine Virtew, called “Fat Fanny” initially by her school-mates at the boarding school for virginal young maidens she attends, is abducted by a “known scoundrel” and given to be a hand-maiden to a dragon, Syrillia.  But Syrillia doesn’t want to eat Fanny — all she wants to do is talk with her a little, and be around her, because in Paulk’s vision of a fairy-tale kingdom like this one, dragons are just like unicorns — they love virginal men and women, or those with true hearts or caring souls.

The names here are part of the fun.  A few of ’em include Lady Margaret Basoomy, who is indeed well-endowed in the bosoms department,  Abbess Bahl-Buh-Rehka (sound that out in your head) who fights with swords (being literally exactly what she’s named),  and Sir Jeremy “Jimmy” Faythful, who is anything but.  But don’t forget about Sir Roland Truheart, who endures much that he hadn’t expected precisely because his heart wasn’t as true as his name, or Sir Philip Grimston, who might just steal Fanny’s heart if she gives him a chance.

While there are some pointed morals here underneath all the fun, I enjoyed this as the farcical romp that it is — and have already re-read it three times.

So, if you like historical suspense (with just a little fantasy), you’ll love Kate Paulk’s Born in Blood (a prequel to Impaler, which I reviewed earlier), and if you love humor or farce, you will adore Knights in Tarnished Armor.

As for official grades:

Born in Blood — Grade: A.

Knights in Tarnished Armor — For fun, an A-plus.  For plot, probably a B-plus.  This averages out to another solid A.

So what are you waiting for?  Go grab ’em now!

— reviewed by Barb

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City of Ruins — Fast Ride to the Future

I’d never read anything by author Kristine Kathryn Rusch before, so when I received City of Ruins I was a little… nervous, I suppose. Kind of like a first date, where you hope that your date leaves as good of an impression on you as you hope to on them. I’d heard of Kristine, of course, but for some reason or another I never actually got around to picking up a book of hers. I’m thrilled to say that Ms. Rusch’s writing and I get along just fine.

City of Ruins starts us off in a distant future where Boss, the leader of a team of space divers, has recently received permission to explore the vast underground area beneath the Empire’s oldest city. The Empire is an interstellar one, don’t let the name fool you. Boss, who is a part of the Nine Planet Alliance, is searching for something from the distant past called “stealth tech”, unbeknown to the rulers of the Empire. Rumors had it that inside the “death holes” of the city lay something… interesting, and Boss is determined to find out whether or not it’s what they were looking for.

Time is a crucial part of the story, as a ship which had been in fold-space (a part of space where the ship can jump into and out of while moving through time) suddenly arrives in the vast and cavernous underground region where Boss and her team of divers is exploring. This trigger massive “groundquakes” in the city above and, for a time, Boss and her team are cut off from the outside world.

Boss and her team manage to get out, but things become a little strange when the ship they assumed was empty is actually occupied…

City of Ruins is a short book, merely 300 pages long, but tells a lot of story in such a short space. Rusch’s characters are genuine and believable, and the twists and turns that she lets the readers see before the characters figure it out is very well done. The action, while contained in short bursts, creates a tense scene that allows the reader to be immersed in the vastly different worlds of Boss and the crew of the mysterious ship. The pacing is very quick and when you come to the end, you are a little disappointed that the book is over. Rusch makes you want more, and she does it with a style of her own.

I, for one, look forward to her next book. I am going to ensure that I do not remain a stranger to the fantastic writing’s of Ms. Rusch. Highly recommended, go read.

–Reviewed by Jason

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