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Review of All the King’s-Men by Adam Dreece

All the King's-Men

I’ve been a fan of Adam Dreece’s The Yellow Hoods series since I read the first book, Along Came a Wolf. The series has a fun, upbeat style, with some brilliant kids who get into all kinds of danger and have to use their ingenuity and a variety of unique inventions to survive. The series is labeled as “An Emergent Steampunk Series” because a lot of the steampunk technology we see in the books is brand new, being developed by the characters as the series progresses. It’s very interesting to see so many inventions being unveiled, rather than having a world where such things already exist.

This book focused a lot on a developing conflict where it seems the villains are planning to use their newly developed technology to start conquering less-developed nations. There’s also an interesting subplot where at least one kingdom has an old law that outlaws inventors and innovation, unless the inventors work for the government. This leads to a sort of secret society of inventors who have to keep their works hidden, for fear that they’ll be arrested for developing potentially dangerous technology. A lot of the tale is centered around a group of people trying to keep the plans for a new type of steam engine from falling into the wrong hands.

Compared to the previous books, All the King’s-Men takes on a bit of a darker tone. In Along Came a Wolf, the central main character, Tee, was a preteen girl who got into trouble with some unsavory characters, and she and her friends had to work together to save the day. By the time we reach the third book, the characters are a bit older, their enemies are more dangerous, and there are darker twists and more violence and bloodshed. The stakes are also a lot higher, with a war brewing, assassinations taking place, governments being overthrown, and betrayal around every corner.

The only complaint I have about this volume is that with the expansion of the conflict, it sometimes seems that there are too many characters and too many subplots, which makes it a bit harder to follow a central storyline. There were a few times where I started to mix a couple of characters up, simply because there were so many characters engaged in different branches of the plot. This didn’t detract from the writing style itself, which is quite strong. But it does make it so that All the King’s-Men works best as one bridge in an ongoing series, rather than as a standalone novel. It would definitely be best to pick up the first books in the series before this one, in order to keep up with everything that’s been going on.

You can find the book on Amazon, or through the author’s webpage (where you can also order autographed copies). You can also connect with Adam Dreece on Twitter.


Review of Two Pairs of Shorts

Disclaimer: I won a free copy of this book from a Goodreads Giveaway.

First, I should note that I went into this book having no idea what it was. I thought the title was quirky enough to be interesting, and I figured I’d give it a shot and see what it was about. It turns out the title is a pun on the four short stories in the book…two pairs. It’s clearly a self-published book, and from the start I could see it isn’t one of the more professional self-publications. There are no page numbers, the text is left-justified (like a Word document that was directly uploaded without formatting), and most of the book is double-spaced, giving it a strange layout. However, I decided to focus on the content itself, rather than letting the formatting anomalies affect my judgment of the book.

The stories themselves were mostly bland. The writing itself is solid enough; the writer knows how to paint a descriptive scene, and the book was mostly free of grammatical errors. But the problem was simply that the stories didn’t go anywhere. One of the stories was nothing more than a man walking to the mailbox, for about twenty pages, while he reminisced about how his life wasn’t going anywhere. Another had a woman doing laundry, for about six pages, while she reminisced about her poor life and her abusive husband. She spends the whole time thinking about having a nice cold glass of lemonade, but the big twist ending (Spoiler Alert!) is that when she goes inside, her husband already drank it!

The only thing that made reading this worthwhile was that two of the stories were kind of funny. Completely predictable and without much plot, but humorous enough that I was entertained. But all in all, I’m glad that I didn’t actually pay for this book.

mani_promoManifestation is available in paperback format through:

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and in ebook format through:

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Review of Breadcrumb Trail by Adam Dreece

Dreece-YellowHoods02CoverI just finished reading Breadcrumb Trail, the second book of The Yellow Hoods by Adam Dreece. It was a fun story, with entertaining characters, and some pretty interesting steampunk-style gadgets and inventions along the way.

The story centers around a group of young teens who call themselves “The Yellow Hoods.” They’re all bright, resourceful kids who can handle themselves in a fight, racing through the woods on sail-powered carts and using electric shock sticks to duel against sword-wielding soldiers. The Hoods get drawn into a conflict between two secret groups of inventors that are manipulating events from behind the scenes, plus there’s a war brewing in the south, a group of dangerous red-hooded outlaws kidnapping children, and a conspiracy to steal the secret plans to the world’s first steam engine.

The writing style is upbeat and fun, with a sense of swashbuckling adventure behind a lot of the action scenes. There’s also a lot of subtle (and not-so-subtle) references to fairy tales and fables, from Tee’s grandfather putting on a red coat and handing out toys during Winter Solstice, to the home of the Ginger Lady and her kids, Hans, Saul, and Gretel. Add in a few puns here and there, and the story gives you plenty of chuckles during the more lighthearted moments, though there’s definitely a dark side to some of the conflicts.

The pacing of the story could use a little work, with some of the chapters feeling too short, or some conflicts being resolved before there had been enough tension built up. There were some moments that felt like they were building up towards some good dramatic tension, but some of the impact of that tension can be lost when a chapter ends without hitting the right “cliffhanger moment.” This didn’t take away from the fun of the story, but it did lead to most of the story having a more casual pace, rather than the high-energy, action-packed pace it achieves at certain points.

All in all, the book was fun, entertaining, and intriguing. The inventions and gadgets show a lot of style, from electric shock gloves to compressed air cannons to a rocket-powered whirly-bird. And Tee and her friends are characters you really end up rooting for.

Review of Biowars

NaturalKillerCell-SyrinxI was recently introduced to Biowars, an online comic book series, created by Gabriel Shaoolian along with a team of writers and artists. Now, I’ve been a fan of webcomics for some time, and I regularly follow works like The Order of the Stick, Girl Genius, and Schlock Mercenary. Right from the beginning, Biowars gave me a different impression from the other webcomics I read. It seems to be less of a webcomic and more of a digital comic book.

What’s the difference? Well, while webcomics like The Order of the Stick release their work online, they do so in a page-by-page format. Readers see each new page as it’s released, and once an entire story is complete, the pages are compiled into a book and released as a completed story. I’ve seen this format across enough webcomics to consider it a sort of “industry standard.” Fans of the page-by-page work can buy the print versions in order to have their own hard copies of the books and to get the bonus content that comes with it, which usually includes deleted scenes, author commentary, and other additional material not found online.

Biowars seems to operate on a very different concept, which is closer to the way traditional print comics work. A full issue is uploaded to the Biowars website once a month, and they have a page where you can view all of the issues currently released. They’re free to read, but unlike other webcomics, you get a full story at a time. It can also be read online as a digital book or downloaded for free in PDF format. This is definitely a different style than I’m used to seeing, and I can see some advantages to it. Since the comic is released a full issue at a time, there’s no waiting in the middle of a storyline to find out what happens next. Though of course, there is a “To be Continued” at the end of every issue, and an ongoing story arc continues across the entire series.

As of this writing, there are nine issues currently posted online. I decided to start at the beginning in order to find out what kind of world these comics would create. The first page of issue #1 started out with some very vivid and interesting artwork, and introduced an interesting premise. The beginning of the story takes place inside a human body, with quasi-mystical beings engaging in a conflict against a “pathogen from the beyond.” This intrigued me right from the start; it gave me the impression of a story similar to Innerspace or Osmosis Jones, but with more of a fantasy and supernatural feeling, rather than being purely sci-fi. As if our inner workings are controlled by magic and other arcane forces, rather than by medical science. The concept seemed so unique that I had to read more and find out what would happen.

SuturaThe story does show some sci-fi aspects, though at times it’s hard to tell where the science ends and the fantasy and mysticism begin. There are soldiers who seem to represent white blood cells and who use some kind of biotech scanners to search for infections. They fight with biological weapons or in hand-to-hand brawls with their enemies. But then there are characters with more mystical natures. For example, Sutura (pictured to the right), is described as “a healer.” She’s able to use some kind of empathic ability to “sense” how “the world” (the human body the characters live in) is in pain. This makes her seem like a cross between a component of the human nervous system and a Druid who uses magic to understand the plight of Mother Nature. She then performs healing on damaged tissues, and her healing powers seem much more mystical than technological.

Similarly, the “bacteria” that the characters are battling against are depicted as demonic monsters, alien in appearance and swarming in a massive horde. The battle sequences are in the style of proud soldiers doing battle against a swarm of alien invaders. When reading the battle sequences, you almost forget that this is a collection of cells fighting off a bacterial infection. It’s depicted more like an army defending their homeworld from invasion.

Then, about halfway through the first issue, my entire understanding of the world got thrown upside down.

The first issue cuts from the battle raging inside the body to show what is happening outside. We find out that the infected body is that of Alexander Hawking, a man on the run. He’s being chased by some kind of high-tech secret agent through the streets of New York. What the agent is after isn’t immediately apparent, but the entire “real world” sequence immediately raises all kinds of questions. Was Alexander infected with some kind of top secret genetically engineered supervirus? Who are the people responsible? Suddenly I feel like I’ve been pulled out of a mystical-slash-sci-fi-fantasy-alien-warzone story and into something more like a traditional comic book story. Alexander may turn out to be like Bruce Banner or Peter Parker, a man who has been genetically altered in a way that might end up granting him superpowers (though the exact nature of the infection has yet to be revealed).

Despite the way these two halves of the story have a very different genre and feel, I can’t help feeling like they’re going to be woven together in a combined plot line. The concept is fascinating, and not quite like anything I’ve ever seen before. I can see all kinds of potential for the way the two halves of the story might interact, with Alexander’s experiences in the real world affecting his body in ways that impact the struggles of the “soldiers” living inside of him. Or the victories and failures of those soldiers affecting Alexander’s life in ways that I expect will go far beyond a simple cough and cold. The story goes back and forth between the two halves, so you constantly see the balance between Alex’s struggle in the real world and the internal struggle of the biological soldiers inside of him.

I’ve read all nine issues that are currently available, and I found the story to be quite intriguing. So far there’s mad scientists, high-tech secret agents, mystery, intrigue, political scandal, murder, and a genetically engineered supervirus created by a secret organization with plans to change the world. And that’s just on the outside. Meanwhile, inside Alex’s body, the struggle against the virus continues, with mutations causing it to spread, while the bio-warriors struggle to stave off the infection in order to protect their biological universe.

I’m curious to see where the story will go from here, and I’ll definitely be checking out future issues.

If you’re interested in checking it out, you can find the Biowars comic here. You can also find updates and previews on Facebook and Twitter, and the creators run a blog where they discuss comic books, superheroes, and similar topics.

Review of Night of the Living Trekkies

nightof-the-living-trekkiesA zombie outbreak at a Star Trek convention. Yes, that’s right.

I’ve always been a Star Trek fan, so this book was right up my alley. But even if you’re not a Trekkie (I’m sorry, Trekker), you will get a kick out of this.

The premise is pretty simple. There’s a zombie apocalypse starting in Houston, and a group of survivors is stuck in the Botany Bay hotel, where they were attending the fifth annual GulfCon Star Trek Convention. Most of the attendees came in cosplay, dressed up as officers from the Enterprise or as Klingons, Vulcans, Andorians, and other classic alien races from Star Trek. There’s even a zombie Borg marching band. Yes, a zombie Borg marching band.

The con attendees are forced to fight for survival, using whatever they can get their hands on, which luckily includes some bat’leths and lirpa that a convention vendor brought to sell to some eager fans. There’s a lot of classic zombie hacking with a sci fi twist as the survivors fight their way to safety while trying to discover how the zombie outbreak started and what they can do to stop it.

There are enough Star Trek references in this book to delight any fan, from the more well-known movies like Wrath of Khan, to more obscure episodes of the original series, like Spock’s Brain. But the references are spaced out well enough that even someone who’s never seen an episode of Star Trek will be able to enjoy the book for the offbeat humor and the zombie-slaying action. The characters are well-developed outside of their cosplaying and love for sci fi, and you’ll end up rooting for them by the end.

Seriously, Star Trek and Zombies. Go read it.

Review of Grasshopper Jungle

The Style and Strangeness of Kurt Vonnegut. With grasshoppers.

grasshopper jungleThis book was weird. But in a good way.

The narrator had a very blunt, direct way of saying things. He goes into every little detail, from his dog taking a shit, to his polish ancestor’s homosexual love affair, to the vice president of the United States getting oral pleasure from his wife. He uses certain styles of repetition in a poetic style, similar to what I saw Vonnegut do in Breakfast of Champions.

The story is half LGBT YA coming-of-age story, half apocalyptic sci-fi. I loved the way those pieces fit together, and I love that the main character is bisexual, a rare thing to see in novels.

As long as you aren’t thrown off by a story that takes very weird and unexpected shifts into sci-fi territory without much warning, you should love this book.

Red Dirt: A Tennis Novel That’s Also About Sex, Drama, and the Human Mind

Red Dirt

I’m not a sports person, and I went into reading this novel knowing nothing about tennis beyond the basics: they hit the ball back and forth until someone misses and for some reason the score goes up by 15 at a time. For someone who knows more about tennis than me, there’s a lot of detailed descriptions of the various matches throughout the book, talking about backhands and deuces and sets and all the strategy and mind games that go into being a winner. I was a bit lost through those parts, but I really enjoyed the other parts of the book: the parts about this character’s life, his dreams, his psychology, and the friends and women he met along the way.

In between the tennis matches there’s sex, drama, battles with family, bruised egos, paparazzi scandals, and even a few life-or-death situations. The book follows Jaxie Skinner from age 3 to 38, through his early relationships and young tennis career, then into his comeback both as a returning tennis star and as a man who is finally figuring out what he really wants in life. He looks at people in a way that adds some new insight into their lives, and the analysis of people’s desires and motivations is what I found the most interesting. Even during the tennis matches, I was more interested in reading about how some players would get psyched out and succumb to anger, impatience, immaturity, or overconfidence. In most of the matches, I felt like these personality faults were what really led to someone’s defeat, more than anything about the actual hitting of the ball and whether you played close to the net or far back from it.

There were a few sections here and there that seemed underdeveloped and overdramatized, specifically when dealing with a couple of Jaxie’s relationships. On two separate occasions he gets involved with girls that are bad news, and he ends up getting in some serious trouble (once with a girl’s jealous ex, the other time with a woman’s husband when he discovered her affair with Jaxie). Since these relationships weren’t developed enough to really give me a strong investment in them, the resulting volatile endings seemed a bit over the top. By comparison, the two more well-developed relationships (one with a Russian tennis star, the other with a college girl when Jaxie is in his 30’s) were more integral and memorable. In the end, I felt like the book would have been stronger if it had only focused on the two more meaningful and important relationships, and if it had skipped over the two less important, glossed-over relationships. Four relationships (early teens, late teens, 20’s, and 30’s) is realistic enough when looking at this long of a stretch of someone’s life, but I think it was more than the narrative could support.

That said, the rest of the book was interesting and kept me involved right up until the end. The couple of slow spots didn’t take away from my overall enjoyment. And the fact that I don’t like tennis at all didn’t make me like the book any less. I read the book for the character development, not for the sports, and I enjoyed what I got out of it.

Zero Echo Shadow Prime

facebook_cover_01I just finished reading Zero Echo Shadow Prime by Peter Samet. It’s one of the best sci fi books I’ve read in a long time.

The story starts off with a teenage girl, Charlie Nobunaga, finding out she has cancer. As part of an extreme attempt to save her life, her father makes a deal with the head of a corporation that creates advances in artificial intelligence, augmented reality (AR), and robotics. Charlie’s mind is scanned and copied, and as a result, four different versions of her are born. Zero, her original, dying, biological body. Prime, an advanced super-strong robot. Shadow, a computer program that serves as a virtual assistant and companion to a wealthy man. And Echo, a four-armed creation that is forced to duel against a variety of other genetically and cybernetically altered clones in a virtual simulation.

ZESP does an amazing job developing the different aspects of Charlie’s persona and showing how they change once they begin living their separate lives. The book also creates an interesting dystopic future where flying police drones can monitor and control people’s movements, “smart cell” technology allows for digital manipulation of the human body, and radical separationists protest against the loss of humanity caused by the advent of robotics and AI.

In classic sci fi tradition, ZESP develops a mystery that will keep you guessing until the end, and has an ending that, well, I won’t spoil it, but it’s a thrill and a shock that left me wanting more.

If you like sci fi, robots, virtual reality, flame throwers, spaceships, and cyber-terrorism, you should definitely check out this book.

Review of Secondhand Heart

Secondhand-Heart-FOR-WEB-200x300I just finished reading Secondhand Heart by Kristen Strassel, and I found it sexy, surprising, and touching. It got me right in the feels.

I took a liking to the main character, Daisy, right off the bat. She’s got a great attitude with just the right touch of snark. She’s not afraid to say “fuck” when she wants to, and she’ll get right up in someone’s face when they need to be put in their place. I also felt bad for her, learning early on that she’d recently lost her husband and was overwhelmed by the pity and pampering everyone was directing at her when she really just needed some time alone. I also found it refreshing that Daisy wasn’t your “typical” romance novel heroine. I’ve read a number of romance novels lately where the main character has a perfect body, perfect hair, and is generally unattainable in every way. It usually makes me feel like the author is trying to write an idealized version of reality in order to fulfill some fantasy. Daisy, on the other hand, refers to herself as “chubby” in the opening chapter, and throughout she comes off as a more realistic, ordinary woman. She struggles with her body image throughout the story. I found this easier to relate to as a reader.

I lost some of that relatability when the male love interest, Cam, was first introduced. He’s immediately described with a focus on his unattainable hotness:

 “The faded denim made his thighs look amazing. Who the hell checked out thighs? Well, if you saw these thighs, they were worth checking out. On The Spotlight, Cam had been an overgrown, almost goofy kid, playing a role. Doing what he was told. Now, on this tiny stage just feet away from us in this club, it was obvious he was all man. All smoking hot man.”

This seems to be a common, and in my opinion overused, romance novel trope. Even though the female lead is an ordinary woman, her love interest is “smoking hot” and the initial attraction is all physical (combined with the fact that he’s a somewhat famous musician, and wealthy enough to own his own bar/nightclub). As a male reader, I get a bit uncomfortable reading such a description, because it makes me feel like these stories set an unrealistic standard for male beauty. I tend to hear people complain more about unrealistic media portrayals of female beauty, but it happens with men too. It made me wonder whether Cam would turn out to have other, more worthwhile character traits to explain Daisy’s interest in him (intelligence, personality, a sense of humor, kindness, etc.). These things didn’t factor into the initial attraction, so I made a point to watch carefully as I read on to see if they’d come up later on.

By about halfway through the book, it seemed like the entire basis of Daisy and Cam’s relationship was their sexual attraction to each other. Daisy even acknowledges this at one point when she says, “But everything with us is about sex.” The fact that she acknowledged it made me pay even more attention to the development of the relationship. Between the earlier focus on physical attraction and the later development of their sexual relationship, I was curious to see if there would ever turn out to be something more between them, something emotional and serious and worth building a long-term relationship off of. Most of the second half of the book focused really well on addressing these issues, and Cam started to develop a lot of depth. It was enough that by the end of the book, I was thinking of him more as a kind, caring, chivalrous kind of guy, rather than a rich piece of man-candy. I still couldn’t relate to him in many ways, but I did end up liking him by the end.

A secondary plot in the book followed the main character’s sister, Ev. Ev is pregnant and about to get married, and there’s some hints of jealousy between her and Daisy. This leads to some conflict between the sisters that adds more tension to the main Daisy/Cam relationship, though on one level it was underutilized. This is because Ev’s fiancé, Roger, is almost never seen. He’s referred to regularly, and Daisy always describes him in unflattering ways, but the reader doesn’t get to meet him. As a result, I could never quite tell if Roger was actually a jerk, or if Daisy was being too hard on him because of her own biases. He finally appears on the page during a tense high point in the story, a moment charged with a lot of emotion. But it was hard to connect with Roger in that moment, because it was the first I’d seen of his character. Roger actually ends up being the catalyst of a key turning point in the story, but at the same time, I felt like I never got to know him. I would have liked to see more done with his character, considering how crucial Ev was to the story and how big of an impact this turning point has on the final chapters of the book.

Aside from the story and the romantic relationship itself, I also considered the overall writing style. The prose and the voice of the main character were very strong. Daisy has a lot of sass, and her voice in the story comes off as very genuine and down-to-earth. The only issues I had with the writing itself were 1) A handful of typos and formatting errors that cropped up every other chapter and 2) Not enough use of “he said/she said” dialogue tags to make the speaker clear (80% of the time, context clues indicated who was speaking, but there were plenty of times I got lost and wasn’t sure who the speaker was). These issues didn’t detract from the story, but they were a bit distracting. Which is a pity, because it’s a beautiful story, with amazing characters and some twists that you will never see coming.

If you like romance, country music, and down-to-earth girls who know how to live life the way it should be lived, I definitely recommend Secondhand Heart. It’s on Amazon in ebook and paperback, and you can find it on Goodreads.

You can find Secondhand Heart on Amazon.com, along with Kristen’s other books, Because the Night, Night Moves, and Seasons in the Sun.

kristenpic 2You can also find Kristen on Twitter, Facebook, her website, or her blog, Deadly Ever After.

Review of Fallen Son, Darkest Night

FSDN Cover ArtI read “Fallen Son, Darkest Night,” by Melissa A. Petreshock without any prior experience with her work. Even though it’s Melissa’s newest release, it serves as a prequel to her novel, Fire of Stars and Dragons, so I decided to read the prequel first.

The opening of the story was simultaneously intriguing and a bit confusing. The reader is introduced to a goddess who is distraught over the fate of her son, who seems to have been banished from the divine realm down to the earthen realm. Down on earth, the goddess’s son, Dante (a vampire), is waging death and destruction on innocents, possibly out of rage due to his exile. These elements of the story are quite fascinating, though the way the information is laid out at the beginning is a bit hard to follow, relying heavily on the dialogue between the characters in order for the reader to put together the pieces of this world’s rules and mythology. The dialogue is also hard to follow because there aren’t many dialogue tags or other indications of who is speaking, leading to confusion about who is saying what.

The story then shifts to the goddess giving Theo Pendragon, a dragon who can take on human form, the task of stopping the vampire’s rampage. This part of the story has some interesting descriptions of Theo transforming from man-form to dragon-form, and it paints a vivid image of the dragon soaring through the skies in search of the vampire. But a bit of confusion continues to be threaded throughout the narrative. One confusing thing is the dialogue; it has a lofty, medieval-fantasy tone that is both elegant and at times hard to follow. The other point of confusion is the style of the names, with things like the “Arcai Ylanjae islands” and the “Sqaera Brej village.” I ended up having trouble understanding or even pronouncing those names, which pulled me out of the narrative a bit.

A brief battle between Theo and Dante ensues, after which Dante flees. Dante then comes upon a stranger and attacks him, only to end up turning him into a vampire as well. This was another interesting sequence with some good descriptions, but it was lacking a bit in emotion and drama, particularly since the fledgling vampire accepts his fate and his new unlife without the least bit of resistance.

Dante then takes a somewhat sudden shift, now turning towards the path of repentance. He changes his ways and begins destroying the other vampires he has been responsible for creating, with the exception of his newest fledgling who “has a pure soul.” Though the story barely touches on his time hunting his offspring, which is a bit of a disappointment. The reader is told by the end that he killed nearly 250 vampires, though we only see one of those, and it’s a fight that is over so fast, there’s never any reason to believe Dante was in any danger.

By the end, I felt that the story was “good” but not “great,” with some unsatisfying aspects that left me wanting more. The plot jumps around too much, as if the author were trying to squeeze in a lot of different elements into a short span (most likely to connect as many aspects of this prequel as possible to the main novel). I would have liked to see the story trimmed down and focused more on a central conflict that got more development, instead of shifting focus so much. I became interested enough in the characters that I’d like to see more about what they’ll get up to in the novel, but I feel like more could have been done with them here.