Romance Saturday is back at Shiny Book Review!
Elizabeth A. Lightfoot’s THE UGLY KNIGHT is about Korten, a not-so-handsome youngster out to make a name for himself. He’s resolute, steadfast, hard-working…you’d think you should hate the guy, except he’s so likeable, he wears you down.
Anyway, after apprenticing with a noted knight for many years, Korten rides off to seek his fortune. If he can defeat a dragon, he’ll become a knight and have the opportunity to marry a princess. So, of course, he’s on his way to the nearest castle that’s actually being threatened by a dragon.
While at the castle, Korten befriends an elderly servingwoman, and also becomes friends with a young and hard-working servant girl, Elzi. He feels much more comfortable with them than the princess, who’s rather snooty and looks down at Korten because Korten isn’t exactly a handsome lad.
But if you’re thinking “handsome is as handsome does,” you’re right. Korten has more to him than looks; he’s resourceful, honest, and has a bone-deep kindness to him. In some ways, he doesn’t like the idea of killing any dragons, even though it’s necessary to the plot that he do so…besides, dragons have a way to enthrall humans, and are big into manipulation and coercion. (In other words, they’re not nice critters.)
So Korten finds a way to kill the dragon. Which he must, or the story can’t progress.
The good thing about THE UGLY KNIGHT is that everything after this point is a little surprising.
Korten rejects the high-and-mighty princess and rejects his chance to rule immediately, partly because his heart has already been given elsewhere. Instead, he’s set his heart on Elzi.
But rather than settle down with her somewhere, he still wants to be a knight who does things that matter. So the two of them engage in some necessary action, all while trying to find out aspects of Elzi’s mysterious past…
Ultimately, Korten must forge his own, true path, while in the process figure out just exactly what being a knight is all about. Only then can he and Elzi have the future of their dreams.
THE UGLY KNIGHT is Ms. Lightfoot’s first novel, and is a welcome young adult fable. It has charm, a cute and age-appropriate romance, and there’s plenty of action.
The main problem I had with THE UGLY KNIGHT is that it’s only about 40,000 words — a very short novel, or perhaps a long novella in length. Because it’s so short, there are things I didn’t get to see that I wanted to see: namely, how did Korten and Elzi do as a couple, once Korten finally declares himself? And what happens to some of the other people introduced here, including the nasty princess, the handsome and somehow squicky squire Jelan, and the sprightly child Jelania?
In other words, THE UGLY KNIGHT is a good story. I enjoyed it, and I want to see more from the author.
But it should’ve been longer.
In addition, there are a few issues with the editing that concerned me. None interfered with the plot, thank goodness. But it was enough to take a book that probably was in the A-minus category as a debut effort and turn it into a B-plus instead.
Bottom line: THE UGLY KNIGHT is a fresh, fun, and enjoyable debut with a likeable protagonist and a sweet, old-fashioned romance, and is appropriate for anyone aged ten and up.
–reviewed by Barb
Superposition by David Walton did that to me this past weekend.
Jacob Kelley is a physics professor far away from the brilliant minds who he had worked with in recent memory and trying to make a difference with young, fertile minds at a local small college. His life is good, and everything is in order… until one night when an old friend showed up and turned his entire life upside down. Brian Vanderhall, who worked with Jacob on the New Jersey Super Collider (think CERN, but in New Jersey), is convinced that something is chasing him. Jacob is only mildly concerned (more for his old friend’s mental state than anything) until Brian pulls out a gun… and shoots Jacob’s wife.
Except that the bullet didn’t hit her. Instead, somehow it moved around her and struck the wall. Angry beyond belief, Jacob punches Brian and throws him out of the house. But then things get very, very weird, because then ext day Brian is found dead from a gunshot wound — the same gun that he used to shoot at Jacob’s wife.
And then Jacob’s family is brutally murdered in front of his eyes by some eyeless entity from within the quantum universe itself… and their bodies disappear seconds after, gone without a trace. Weird? Oh yeah, this book is going to hit you over the head with weird, and make it work.
Superposition is half-SF novel, half-murder mystery, and is perfectly done. There was some initial confusion early on, due to the two concurrent storylines being told from a singular POV (broken down by “Up-Spin” and “Down Spin”). Once the reader figures out the pattern, however, the true brilliance of the story emerges and it truly takes off.
Imagine that in quantum entanglements there is a “mirror-verse”, for lack of a better term. Not a copy of you, but a reflection. Now imagine if that reflection came to life and had your memories, your thoughts, your feelings. Almost like a clone, but better. A mirror image, where the moles on your cheek are on the other side of your reflection’s face (hey, give me a break, this is hard to explain in mundane terms). That version of you is temporary, however, because the wave which separated you two must collapse at some point (typically when the reflection and the original are in the same situation).
That’s… not a very good explanation. David Walton does a much better job of explaining it in the novel.
The story is fantastic, and the plot is fresh and original. I’ve read books on quantum theory and a Higgs boson before (Travis S. Taylor’s Warp Speed series comes to mind first and foremost), but this is the first time where it was explained to me in terms that I could completely grok. The hell which Jacob must endure before the end of the novel makes the payoff worth it, and leaves you with a good feeling.
The pacing starts slow, but soon enough is racing along so fast that the reader can barely keep up. Some of the characters blend together, but the main characters are strong enough in their differences and opinions to make each one special and memorable in their own right.
This book is a definite read for any science geek or a murder-mystery fan, but especially for both. This one is a solid “A” for me. You should definitely check it out.
–Reviewed by Jason
Today here at Shiny Book Review we’re going to try something a little different I’d like to call “Sunday Musings”
As you may have noticed, reviews have been down lately as both Barb and I struggle to finish novels we currently have in the works (she’s editing the sequel to An Elfy on the Loose, I’m working on Kraken Mare). However, I got to thinking… this is a book review site, true. But what if we tried to offer more? I thought about bringing in various different authors (and I still will), and was kind of stumped about today’s article, until I spotted something over at Barb’s that got my attention. I approached Barb today after reading her wonderful essay and asked if I could cross-post it here. She agreed, though she was a bit surprised, and now I present to you Barb Caffrey’s essay, Easter Meditations on Christian Laettner.
Happy Easter, one and all!
A few years back, I wrote a blog called “Meditations on Easter.” In that blog I discussed the nature of forgiveness, redemption, and hope through the story of Jesus Christ. It is still my own, personal gold standard as to why people of all faiths should try to recognize why Easter remains such an important holy day, 2000 and some odd years later.
And this got me thinking.
Recently, I watched an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary called I Hate Christian Laettner. It’s about former college and pro basketball star Christian Laettner, who sank a game-winning shot in 1992 for his Duke Blue Devils in the NCAA championship game…but because he’d also stepped on an opposing player’s hand (Aminu Timberlake) earlier in that tournament and was unrepentant about it, his game-winning shot was highly controversial.
People still remember the shot, years later. But it’s not because Laettner was brilliant. It’s because many people, myself included, felt Laettner should’ve been suspended for stepping on Timberlake’s hand. And when he wasn’t, most fans were indignant — even furious — as it seemed like Laettner was getting special treatment due to his star status as one of college basketball’s best players.
And that has fueled a whole lot of hatred toward a guy who, at the time, was only 22 years old.
Yes, he was an arrogant cuss. Yes, he was a difficult and prickly personality.
But maybe he had a reason for being that way. He was a tall guy who was often mischaracterized in the press as something he wasn’t. He was called wealthy and overprivileged, simply because of the fact he was white and going to Duke. And it wasn’t true — his parents worked hard and were members of the middle class, something I never heard one word about until I watched the 30 for 30 documentary about Laettner.
This particular documentary really made me challenge my assumptions.
Simply put: We humans still have a lot of growing up to do in some ways, don’t we? We judge people based off the appearance, the outward aspect, and that’s only the tip of the iceberg.
In this case, much of the outward aspect of Laettner was flat wrong. He was a middle class guy who would never in a million years have been able to afford a high quality education at Duke unless he had a compelling gift for playing basketball. He needed that scholarship so he could go, grow, learn, and improve himself, both as a player and as a human being.
Now, did he do some stuff that was juvenile? Sure.
But at 22, I have to admit that I did all sorts of things that were juvenile, too. I was just fortunate enough not to be in the public eye, so my immature behavior was not trumpeted from the bully pulpit as Laettner’s lapses were.
After watching that 30 for 30 documentary, I was left shaking my head at how even someone like me — someone who’s very well aware of how the narrative can be framed as a writer and editor — can’t realize that Laettner’s story was far more complex than had been reported in the media.
Personally, I think Laettner showed a lot of class dealing with some of the stuff that was yelled at him during the NCAA Tourney back in 1991 and 1992. (“Ho-mo-sexual” and the like was yelled at him, and yes, that was considered a slur. How far we’ve come…that behavior today would not be tolerated. But I digress.) And I think, upon reflection, that he did try to rise above a lot of the nonsense directed his way.
But the most important thing I learned from the documentary is this: You have to know yourself. And you have to learn to forgive yourself.
Laettner knows he’s a much different person on the inside than was reported. He doesn’t give any weight, he said in the documentary, to people who don’t know him, because that wastes his time. (This is my best paraphrase, mind, as I watched this movie at least a week and a half ago and I don’t have a transcript in front of me.) The people who matter to him are those who do know him. His wife. His family. His coaches. His friends.
Everything else — everyone else — can go hang. Because they are irrelevant.
As Laettner knows, appearance is not the reality. And we human beings have to learn this, whether we’re sports fans or not.
And as it’s Easter Sunday, that got me thinking. If we’re supposed to forgive people who did us wrong, as the example of Jesus surely shows us we should do, why is it that many sports fans still cannot forgive Laettner?
Maybe it’s a flaw in ourselves that keeps us on the hate-train. And maybe it’s something we should try to rectify, before it’s too late.
Please welcome guest reviewer Noah Hill to Shiny Book Review…we’re glad to have him here, and hope to see him again soon!
When Barb asked me to write a guest review for Shiny Book Review, I knew instantly which book I would select. I had just finished reading Saint Odd, the final book in the Odd Thomas series by Dean Koontz, and was chomping at the bit to share my experience.
I will preface by saying that Saint Odd has some big shoes to fill. The Odd Thomas series has spanned six books, two graphic novels, two novellas, a movie, and a web series. We have traveled with Koontz from a sleepy little city in California and through the deserts of Nevada, as he used his special gifts to selflessly commit one heroic act after another. He has introduced us to fantastic characters both living and dead, and taken us along for one hectic ride. Koontz has spun wonderful tales and foreshadowed grand spectacles yet to come. As I said, big shoes to fill. There are many things that Koontz did right with this finale, and a few things that went wrong.
I’m going to talk about the ending first, as it is my favorite part of the book. Koontz fulfilled the promise he has made throughout the series, giving me the satisfaction of ending exactly how I expected. In most novels, I would possibly consider this a problem, but in this case the inevitable ending was the right ending. Had it ended any other way, I would have found myself angry and disappointed.
One thing that has always drawn me into the Odd Thomas books is the protagonist. He is witty, fun, and humble. He has flaws, but also a great self-awareness and the admirable ability to laugh at those flaws. He is a character I can relate to, and that alone can be enough to keep me turning pages. As I read Saint Odd, I found myself with a strong desire to be more like Odd. I can picture myself having deep, interesting conversations with him. He is written in such a way that he really came alive for me.
While Koontz wrote Odd perfectly, it is my opinion that he missed the mark with many of his secondary characters. I felt like some key characters didn’t have enough of a character arc throughout the series, or that their arcs were not completed with this finale. I understand this can be tough with a book written in the first-person perspective, but there were promises made about characters in previous books that were never fully realized in Saint Odd.
The other criticism I have for Saint Odd is the pacing. I understand that with any thriller, it is nice to give the reader a short breather. Dean Koontz attempted to do this with chapters devoted to exposition that were masked as flashback sequences. The problem I have is that I was completely disconnected from the story during these chapters. I would be flying through pages, tension rising, nearly peaking, and then a flashback chapter would reset the tension to zero. I found myself putting the book down and doing something else for a while. Most of the time I tend to read thrillers straight through from beginning to end in one or two sittings. It took me five or six to complete Saint Odd.
Overall, I would say I was happy with Saint Odd. The vibrant protagonist and the satisfying ending more than made up for the flaws. I got the ending I wanted, I saw the fulfillment of the main promise of the series, and I got to spend a few more hours with one of my favorite characters. If you haven’t read the Odd Thomas series, I suggest you remedy that quickly.
— Reviewed by Noah Hill
I’ve deliberately held Lazar’s romance for Valentine’s Day precisely because it’s the best romantic suspense novel I’ve read in quite some time. Twenty-something Portia Lamont was abducted two years ago, and has finally broken free from her terrible captivity. Beaten, nearly broken, and dangerously thin, she gets in her captor’s truck and makes her way home to her parents’ Vermont horse farm.
Once there, she runs into Boone Hawke, a kind man she’s known since childhood, who’s been running her parents’ farm due to her mother’s cancer treatment in far-away New York City. As Portia can barely stand the sight of any man due to the nature of her captivity (let’s just say she was assaulted multiple times, sexually and otherwise, and be done with it), she nearly faints…but after Boone coaxes her to eat a little something, she does. She refuses to say anything about what happened to her…it’s all she can do to stand.
Boone decides the best thing to do is to allow Portia to get some rest. She does, and as she sleeps, Boone calls Portia’s parents and sister, Grace, to let them know Portia’s returned home — but is far from well.
Over time, Portia regains some of her old strength and health. Only then does she open up and tell Boone and the others that she thinks she killed her captor, a sociopath known only as Murphy, in her break for freedom. They hide the truck she’d driven up to the farm by driving it into the deep end of a lake; after that, Portia tells the Sheriff that she hitched from Wisconsin, where she’d been being held in a deserted, remote cabin — a lie, but Portia’s afraid that she’ll be hauled to jail if Murphy is dead.
Boone and Grace’s husband, Anderson, manage to figure out who Murphy is. He’s Charles C. Murphy from Baraboo, Wisconsin, an avid fisherman and former high school football star. They decide to leave for Wisconsin to try to find the cabin Portia’s told them about, and do so before Portia can get up to try to stop them. Once they get there, they find the cabin, exactly as Portia described it — but Murphy is long gone.
Not long after Boone and Anderson return to Vermont, they find a graffito spray-painted onto the family barn that indicates Murphy must be nearby. But worrying about Murphy isn’t the only problem; it seems that Portia’s mother, Daisy, has taken a turn for the worse, and needs to get to the hospital very soon. But as Portia, Boone and Anderson start to return to the house, gunfire rings out. Murphy’s found them.
The rest of the plot, I leave for you to read. But I believe if you enjoy romantic suspense and big bad guys decidedly getting theirs, you will enjoy DEVIL’S LAKE. There’s some twists and turns here that surprised me a bit (most particularly Grace’s actions late in the book, of which I will say nothing more); there’s also some sweet, innocent romance between the wounded Portia and the man who’s loved her since childhood, Boone, along with some slightly more spicy fare between Grace, a former drug abuser, and her long-suffering husband Anderson.
The best thing about DEVIL’S LAKE is its emotional honesty. I fully believed in Portia’s journey back from a living Hell. I also believed in Boone’s quiet, steady love for her. And the way Portia’s parents reacted — compassionate and caring, they never once blame Portia for the mess and only want Murphy brought to justice soonest — is the way you’d want anyone’s parents to react after such a traumatic event. Portia’s brother-in-law Anderson was a nice surprise, and all the other good guys, from the local doctor to the sheriff and his deputies, were all fine as well.
But the best part of the book, to me at least, was Grace — Portia’s sister. Sassy, opinionated, and smart, she is openly flawed but doesn’t care one whit about what anyone else thinks. Grace was refreshing, and I’d love to see her whole story someday as I’m betting her road back from drug abuse would be quite a page-turner in its own right.
Bottom line? DEVIL’S LAKE is a very solid, suspenseful romance from beginning to end, and I enjoyed it immensely. It’s a bit raw in spots, but ultimately it ends in a heartwarming happily ever after that I fully believed in.
–reviewed by Barb
Apologies for being away so long from Shiny Book Review, folks. To partially compensate for that, I’m starting a new category for reviews called “Nonfiction Friday.” Expect there to be more nonfiction reviews on Friday in the not-so-distant future.
Tonight’s review subject is Ken Johnson’s UNBROKEN CIRCLES FOR SCHOOLS: Restoring Schools, One Conflict at a Time. This may sound like an unenticing title, but Mr. Johnson’s book is among the most thought-provoking works I’ve ever read because of his premise. Simply put: the criminal justice system, along with our public school system, is doing juvenile offenders wrong.
Why? Well, Mr. Johnson’s background is in conflict resolution, and over time, he’s noticed that when an offender — particularly a juvenile offender — is punished, the offender doesn’t usually learn anything except how to re-offend. This is because most of our current justice system is set up for something called “retributive justice,” which means if someone does something awful, he or she is going to pay for it. But that’s not enough to help the offender figure out how to repay the person who’s been harmed, nor does it do much to help the offender figure out how to be a better person in order to never, but never, do the same things that landed him or her in jail in the first place.
In other words, the need for our criminal justice system is to change the paradigm entirely. We must stop throwing our youngsters away like garbage, and at least try to teach them how to do better rather than simply punish them.
But Mr. Johnson explains this concept far better than I. From p. 108:
An America Journalist, Mignon McLaughlin (1913-1983) once said that, “True remorse is never just regret over consequence; it is regret over motive.” In other words, true justice means that the punishment must fit the motive rather than just the crime. However, such beliefs, for well over 200 years of American history, have been lost on lawmakers and criminal justice officials. The belief of social retribution is the prominent paradigm of choice. Social retribution occurs when offenders are punished for being deviants, miscreants, and other terms used to socially stigmatize offenders…According to Steven Dellaportas, a writer and lecturer on white-collar crimes, recidivism is one indicator of the failure of a system to meet demands. (Bolded section by BC.)
Restorative justice is different from retributive justice. For one, restorative justice tries to make the victim as whole as possible in addition to punishing the offender. And for juvenile offenders, this is extremely important; as Mr. Johnson says, young people who’ve committed crimes (especially minor ones), but are willing to reform, cannot afford to be stigmatized as their whole lives are ahead of them. Becoming an empathetic person who cares about others is part of the restorative justice process, but teaching the juvenile offenders to make better choices and not to re-offend is the second part.
That’s where the schools come in.
Johnson says the Unbroken Circles (SM) program differs from traditional, retributive-based justice for juveniles in this way (from p. 6):
The Unbroken Circles (SM) program is intended to unify schools, build character, espouse good citizenship, improve grades in low performers with a history of disciplinary issues, and reduce recidivism rates. The skills and lessons espoused by this program give the students the tools they need to diffuse problems both at school and at home.
The program covers a wide array of tactics and methods that run the gamut from simple daily class circles, to peer mediation, conferences, and other forms of Circle Justice. The plan slices through every aspect of a child’s life, whether in the classroom, on the playground, on school grounds, or even in the juvenile justice courts. A community of care is created. This is a veritable unbroken circle that will hold the offender accountable and seek for the child to make things right when wrongs have been committed.
But what does this mean, boiled down to brass tacks?
Simply put, if you use the Unbroken Circles for Schools (SM) method, everyone plays a part in helping the juvenile offender learn how to become a better person. It’s something like the old “it takes a village to raise a child” idea, but it has more teeth in it despite being an outwardly gentle process. Here’s how Mr. Johnson explains a morning circle (from p. 124):
Morning sessions are a great way to build the Community of Care (class) while also relieving stress, learning communication skills, and collectively collaborating on meaningful ways to solve various issues and problems. Usually, the Circle Keeper (i.e., school resource officer, teacher, and aide) gathers the students in a circle and has the students go around the circle saying one nice thing about the person to the left of them. Once the student has said the one nice thing, he/she cannot use that comment ever again in the circle sessions to refer to that same person. By doing such, the students are forced to engage each other and learn more about the members of their own Community of Care. From there, the Circle Keeper may ask questions about how the students are feeling, what happened to them over the weekend, what is happening in their lives this week, or other questions.
Note what Mr. Johnson said about being “forced to engage each other.” This is the important, core concept, because it gets the juveniles out of their own heads. They must learn about one another, and in that learning, they most likely will grow to care about at least some of their fellow classmates.
Midday circles and end-of-the-day circles are intended to defuse any issues that have cropped up during the day, then set up the student for the next day’s learning process. As Mr. Johnson says, “The goal of the end of day circle sessions is to solve problems that have happened, thwart problems before they occur (i.e., a fight after school), relieve tension, and afford students an opportunity to engage in community building.” And he asserts that while using even one of these three circles a day will help, using all three will be incredibly beneficial.
The circles, you see, are intended to work with whatever the kids are learning about. If it’s Japanese proverbs, the starting point of the circle may be to talk about that. If it’s a test day, the starting point may be something having to do with stress relief, as nearly every student feels overstressed on a testing day. And by tying in the circles with the learning, that makes it possible for juveniles to better focus themselves and defuse their anger.
Best of all, Unbroken Circles (SM) works to help all students. It is cost-effective, is proven, and the system works.
Bottom line? UNBROKEN CIRCLES FOR SCHOOLS, despite its simple title, is one of the most important and thought-provoking books I’ve ever read on any subject. More nonfiction books should be like this.
–reviewed by Barb