Romance Saturday Returns with Aaron Paul Lazar’s “Devil’s Lake”

It’s Romance Saturday here at Shiny Book Review! And as it also happens to be Valentine’s Day, what could be better than Aaron Paul Lazar’s suspenseful romance DEVIL’S LAKE?

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.

Grade: A.

–reviewed by Barb

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Nonfiction Friday: “Unbroken Circles for Schools” by Ken Johnson

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.

Grade: A.

–reviewed by Barb

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Romance Saturday Returns With Sherry Thomas’s “The Perilous Sea”

Happy New Year, everyone!

OK, I didn’t quite get to the three books I’d hoped to get to at the end of 2014. But the good news about that is that I can now review one of them as my first post of 2015 instead. (See how that works?) And since it’s Romance Saturday, it seems fitting that one of those three books just so happens to be a YA fantasy/romance.

The Perilous SeaTHE PERILOUS SEA, a YA fantasy/romance by Sherry Thomas, stars Iolanthe Seabourne, an elemental mage who has command over all four elements — Air, Fire, Earth and Water, and Prince Titus of Elberon. Their adventures started in book one, THE BURNING SKY (reviewed here), so take it as read that they’re still mostly hiding out in 19th Century England and pretending to be normal teenagers at non-magical Eton. Of course, this may be seen as a bit of a problem by some as Iolanthe is decidedly female and Eton historically admitted boys. But because Iolanthe needs to be hidden as well as possible, she’s hiding under the male name of Archer Fairfax.

Of course, Iolanthe is a smart young woman, and she out-does the boys in nearly every conceivable way, including Greek, Latin, and other pursuits. And as long as no one looks for her, she’ll be well-hidden indeed…but she has to stay on point, use her magic sparingly (and only to help her pass for male), lest she and the Prince be discovered by agents of the nasty Atlantis — an all-devouring country of magicians which has thus far shown no compunction at getting its own way.

For some reason, they want Prince Titus’s realm of Elberon to remain under their subjugation, and have done a great deal toward keeping things that way. There’s an immortal sorcerer by the name of “the Bane” that has a great deal to do with this — think of him more as a coercive enforcer than a traditional sorcerer and you’re not far wrong — and in book one, both Prince Titus and Iolanthe were trying to figure out just why the Bane cared so much to maintain the status quo.

Anyway, THE PERILOUS SEA starts out with a young woman, name unknown, lost somewhere in the desert. (Of course this is Iolanthe, but she doesn’t know it at the time.) Somehow, she’s lost her memory, but remembers that she does have magic and that the dread mages of Atlantis are after her.

Of course she runs into a young man, who also doesn’t know his name, while out in the middle of that desert. (This, of course, is Prince Titus. I don’t think I’m giving much away by admitting this, either, as this is a fantasy romance and the first two people you meet are often the lovers of the story by convention.) And because he doesn’t remember anything, either, except that the terrifying mages of Atlantis are after him, he doesn’t exactly warm to Iolanthe right away.

Intermixed with chapters with our unnamed hero and heroine are chapters back at Eton. One of the Prince’s friends, Wintervale, isn’t acting like himself after nearly being lost at sea. No one’s sure why, and any magic used around him seems to be reacting in a quite unpredictable manner. Worse yet, the Prince discovers that some of the prophecies that helped him find and save Iolanthe earlier may not be correct — which makes him wonder if Iolanthe, much though he loves her, is truly the prophesied heroine.

Again, take it as read that our hero and heroine will find a way to be together because of the conventions of the genre. I think you’ll enjoy all of that, but I don’t want to spoil your reading pleasure so I’ll stop there with the plot summary. (Normally I’d try to finesse my way around this, but I’ve got bigger fish to fry.) So the bigger questions remain these:

  1. What is going on with Wintervale?
  2. Why have the prophecies gone so wonky?
  3. Why does Atlantis care so much about Elberon in the first place?
  4. Who really fathered the Prince?
  5. Who really fathered — much less mothered — Iolanthe, perhaps the most puissant mage of her generation?
  6. And finally, how are Iolanthe and Prince Titus going to throw Atlantis back out of Elberon so they can return to England sometime in the future without fear of discovery? (As they have many, many friends there, it would seem that’s a decent question to ask.)

Some of these questions are answered, only to raise bigger questions that will presumably be answered in Book 3 (as yet unnamed as far as I can discern). Some are still unanswered, but in a way that makes you think Iolanthe and Prince Titus are on the verge of truly finding out just why Atlantis is so interested in Elberon, much less themselves…and that as soon as they figure it out, they will successfully throw Atlantis out of Elberon once and for all.

Bottom line? If you enjoy YA fantasies, YA romance, or any combination of the two, do not miss THE PERILOUS SEA. It’s a fun, fast, fully developed epic fantasy that has a fully believable romance right along with it that’s intrinsic to the plot — and all of it works extremely well. (Brava!)

Grade: A.

–reviewed by Barb

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Erin Moore’s “Awakened by the Minotaur” Is a Steamy, Fun, R-rated Read

Before I get into tonight’s review, I’d like to offer an apology. The last month or so, I’ve been working hard at other things (namely writing and editing), so I haven’t been able to do much in the way of reviewing.

That said, I hope that long-time readers of Shiny Book Review will enjoy the last week-plus of December, as I plan to review at least three more books before the end of the year.

Now, onto tonight’s review!

PictureErin Moore’s AWAKENED BY THE MINOTAUR is a fun, steamy novella set on the island of Crete. Lara Castille, a woman from North Carolina, has gone to Crete in search of adventure — or, if she’s honest, in search of a hot young man to spend some time with (and not just for his assistance in checking out the local ruins). She meets Theseus “Teo” Poulos — her guide and driver — and is immediately attracted, but as in most contemporary romances, Lara does not get down and dirty with him right away.

Even though Ms. Moore’s novella is unabashedly an erotic romance, there are still some romantic conventions that must needs be followed. So Lara goes to dinner with Teo, makes out with him, and then wants to get down to business…

Only for him to walk away.

Why? Well, it has to do with the “minotaur” part of the title. Teo, you see, is a shapeshifter; at certain phases of the moon, he shifts into a minotaur. And as a minotaur, it’s rumored that he killed his previous girlfriend, something Teo can’t really deny because Teo doesn’t truly remember what he does in minotaur form.

So Teo is deeply attracted to Lara, and she feels the same way about him. But Teo feels he cannot do anything with Lara — not because she’s a tourist (though that doesn’t exactly help), but because he’s a shapeshifter and she isn’t.

Anyway, Teo leaves Lara sitting in the restaurant he’d brought her to, all hot and bothered. She has several shots of ouzo, and quickly becomes drunk. She then gets lost trying to find her way back to the “pension” (where she’s staying), and stumbles upon, of all things, an outdoor orgy.

Now, Lara is a good girl. She’s never been into orgies. But everything feels dreamlike, and she’s somehow pulled to the man/minotaur. She’s fascinated rather than repelled, and as you might expect in an erotic novella, has herself one whale of a good time.

Of course, the morning after is a mess as they don’t wake up with one another, so they have no idea what truly happened. Worse, Teo doesn’t remember who he slept with while he was in the form of the minotaur, so he’s awkward with Lara (he truly wants to be with her, but is carrying all of the same baggage as before). Meanwhile, Lara clearly remembers sleeping with the minotaur, but doesn’t know who he was. So she’s awkward with Teo, because he’s the guy she truly wants to be with…besides, even though she doesn’t owe Teo anything, she’s not sure she should be so pleased she succumbed to the minotaur in that precise way.

At any rate, what will Teo do once he realizes Lara was the one he slept with? And what will Lara do once she realizes Teo is the shapeshifter? (Further reviewer sayeth not, but do remember that this is a romance, OK?)

Sometimes reducing a story to its basic plot makes it sound far less plausible and far less fun than it actually is. And such is the case with AWAKENED BY THE MINOTAUR. I enjoyed this little novella, and believed in the “shapeshifter with a haunted past” twist.

Simply put, AWAKENED BY THE MINOTAUR is a fun, fast, steamy, R-rated read with a strong story underlying all of the sex. (Which, by the way, was only between two people. Lara may have witnessed the orgy, but she only had sex with Teo.) Lara’s been unlucky in love and been looking in the wrong places, while Teo thought because of his shapeshifting ability that he’d never in a million years be able to find someone who’d love him for who he is.

And in the nature of all good romances, erotic or not, they find out that they’re both wrong.

Along the way, there’s a healthy dose of scenic, sunny Crete, there’s some interesting and plausible mythology thrown in there, and a nice fantasy twist that held my interest through several re-reads. (Only to make sure I caught everything…a reviewer must be thorough, after all!)

Bottom line? AWAKENED BY THE MINOTAUR will entrance you providing you enjoy fantasy romance and can handle an R-rated plotline and extremely frank, sexual language. I enjoyed this novella immensely, and look forward to more work by Ms. Moore.

Grade: A.

–reviewed by Barb

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SBR 2-for-1 Special: Mercedes Lackey’s Most Recent Herald Spy Novels

Mercedes Lackey has been reviewed many times here at SBR, and for good reason. Her books are the ultimate page-turners; some are better than others, but nearly all of them hold my interest until the final page.

Tonight it’s time to review BASTION, book five in Lackey’s Collegium Chronicles, and the follow-up to that, CLOSER TO HOME, billed as the first in her new Herald Spy series. Both feature Herald-trainee Mags, his love interest Amily (partially disabled — she has a lame leg — and daughter of the King’s Own Herald, Nikolas), and Companions galore, but both stories are markedly different otherwise.

Bastion coverBASTION starts off with Mags, Amily, their best friends Healer Bear and Bard Lena (recently married), Herald Jakyr and various Companions (bonded souls in the form of white horses) trying to figure out what is their next move. Everyone knows that Mags is in trouble (see the reviews for both CHANGES and REDOUBT if you don’t believe me), they know he’s being hunted…and they also know that if Mags himself is unavailable, the hunters will take revenge on his nearest and dearest.

So the decision is made that they will all go to ground in a place that’s easily defensible, or a bastion. Provisions are bought, traveling is done, a few minor skirmishes are encountered, and then, finally, we find out who’s hunting Mags and why.

(No, I’m not going to tell you. You have to read the book for that.)

Because I’ve read every book set on the world of Velgarth known to man, I’ve seen most of this before. The only new stuff here is the interplay between Mags and Amily — new lovers, just trying to find their footing with each other — and a rekindling of love between Herald Jakyr and another member of the party.

Mind, I enjoyed those things. I appreciated finding out, finally, about why Mags has been hunted. I also relished the journeys they had to get there, as there were some deft moments of humor that cut the tension nicely. And the fight scenes were clever, the mind-magic was well-done…all good.

But there was something here that didn’t quite meet my expectations, and I can’t quite put my finger on it. Perhaps it’s the fact that Ms. Lackey has written at least thirty novels in this particular setting — Velgarth — full of Heralds, Companions, derring-do, villainy that must be thwarted, and much more. And amid those thirty novels are some true gems, including her first-ever trilogy, ARROWS OF THE QUEEN, ARROW’S FLIGHT, and ARROW’S FALL.

I mean, this lady started off with a bang, OK? And over time, she’s had other winners like MAGIC’S PAWN and MAGIC’S PRICE, EXILE’S HONOR, BY THE SWORD, OATHBREAKERS…these are all compelling stories with richness, freshness, compassion, energy, and all of them make you want to read them and re-read them until your eyes get tired. Then re-read them again.

BASTION is not up to that standard, I’m afraid. It’s a decent, hard-working novel with a nice protagonist, a nifty heroine, and a better-than-average antagonist (whose relation to Mags must be read to be believed, but makes sense in context). It made me laugh several times, it made me cry at least once, and I enjoyed it…but I cannot imagine re-reading it.

CLOSER TO HOME is the first book in Lackey’s new Herald Spy series, featuring Mags, now a full Herald, and Amily, who’s still involved with him. Amily has a job of her own now — she’s a scholar, and a good one — and both Mags and Amily are stationed in Haven and are taking their first steps into adulthood, albeit under the guidance of Mags’ mentor and Amily’s father Nikolas, the King’s Own Herald.

Then tragedy strikes, as Nikolas is involved in an accident. The Death Bell rings for him, but Mags remembers some of his lessons from his friend Healer Bear (not otherwise invoked during this novel), and manages to re-start Nikolas’s heart…but before he can do that, Nikolas’s Companion has Chosen Amily to become the next King’s Own Herald. (Don’t worry, though; Nikolas is re-Chosen by a new Companion, Evory.)

All of a sudden, Amily must become the King’s Own. She’s a smart young woman, and took many of the same classes Mags did — including self-defense, equitation, mathematics, and more — but the King is not pleased that Nikolas is no longer the King’s Own. And that creates many new problems, some that are resolved easily…and some that aren’t.

This was a welcome addition to the Valdemar canon, and I appreciated it very much.

However, amid Amily and Mags getting more used to their new roles (hers being very new, while he’s more or less taken up his prior role in recruiting unlikely spies and messengers, albeit with less oversight as Nikolas is recovering from his near-death experience), there’s a blood feud going on between two noble families. And one of the families has a young girl, who’s fallen in love with a slightly older boy…shades of Romeo and Juliet, except of course it can’t be that easy. (Not that Romeo and Juliet had an easy resolution, either, but…as always, I digress.)

For the most part, I enjoyed CLOSER TO HOME quite a bit. It’s a nice start to a new series, a fast, page-turning read with some interesting things going on that I didn’t expect. I didn’t necessarily like all of them (that Romeo and Juliet subplot being a case in point), but I give Ms. Lackey big “props” for doing something new and fresh with her long-running Valdemar series.

Bottom line: While both BASTION and CLOSER TO HOME kept me turning the pages, I was left ever-so-slightly dissatisfied. And while CLOSER TO HOME was by far the better of the two books, it’s still not up there on the “Keeper” shelf with Lackey’s best.

Grades:

BASTION: C-plus

CLOSER TO HOME: B-plus

–reviewed by Barb

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E. Ayers’ “A Skeleton at her Door” — A Quick, Fun Halloween Read

Who’s up for a little Halloween-themed romance?

Tonight’s review is for E. Ayers‘ novella A Skeleton at her Door, an American contemporary romance featuring a winning heroine, Angie Robertson, and a likable hero, Tom Meyers. Both are divorced thirtysomethings, both are lonely, but because of some past relationship distress, they’ve become quite wary of romance.

A Skeleton at her Door opens with Angie literally opening the door to Tom in a skin-tight skeleton costume. Normally, Angie wouldn’t do this, but it’s Halloween, and she’s expecting her friend Matt, who lives two doors down, to come over in costume. So since the man’s build is close to Matt’s, and the height is close also — and because Angie cannot tell under the black and white makeup who is wearing that skin-tight costume — Angie mistakes Tom for Matt.

It takes Lissy, Angie’s young daughter, to point out that Matt has blue eyes, while the man in the skeleton costume at the door has brown ones. This causes Angie some embarrassment until she realizes that the man at the door (who she doesn’t yet know is Tom) is looking for Matt’s apartment, not hers.

So, of course, Angie sends the man on his way. And we’d not have a story, except that Tom sends Angie flowers the next day . . . plus Matt, of all people, vouches for Tom.

See, Tom is a good guy. He has two teenaged children, he works hard and has a nice house, and he normally doesn’t try this hard. But there’s something in Angie that calls to him, so he’s willing to perhaps make a fool out of himself to get to know her.

Also — and I’m not sure how he figured this out — he realizes very quickly indeed that Angie is gun-shy. Because of that, he’s careful in how he woos her, and makes sure to include her daughter at every turn.

All fine and dandy, yes?

But there’s more to this story than meets the eye. Angie, you see, is dealing with some serious relationship trauma — much more serious than we were initially led to believe — and has a hard time saying “no” to men. And Tom nearly oversteps his bounds four or five times, all to get Angie to react rather than simply withdraw into submission.

Note that the submission I’m discussing here has nothing to do with BDSM. (If it did, I’d not be reviewing it, methinks.) Instead, it’s all about this wounded woman, Angie, and how she has a hard time actually having conversations that include the words “no” or “not right now” with men. Even men she deeply cares about . . .

Perhaps especially the man she cares about most, Tom.

Of course, once she realizes she can trust Tom, how long do you think it’s going to take these two to make a commitment to one another? (Further reviewer sayeth not . . . at least, not about this.)

The biggest plus here is Ms. Ayers’ strong sense of craftsmanship. The set up of A Skeleton at her Door is masterful. We know right away there’s something lurking in Angie’s background that’s made her distrustful of men, but we also know that the skeleton (Tom) is going to be different…and not just because Angie cheerfully leered at him when she thought he was her neighbor, Matt (safely in a relationship with someone else).

However, the biggest minus is a lack of internal monologue, especially on the part of Angie. I would’ve liked a great deal more depth in two places in this novella, one right before Angie decides to sleep with Tom, and the other right before Angie decides to marry him. The second is a much bigger problem than the first, because I didn’t once get the sense that Angie had any trepidation about Tom at all once she’d slept with him (and confronted him, gently, over his four-five attempts at getting her to say “no” to him, sometimes about the most innocuous of things).

Mitigating this lack of internal monologue to a degree, though, was some very nice character development between Tom and Angie. Tom, you see, is into Angie in every way, even to the point where things she sees as flaws are seen as badges of honor by him. And because Tom sees Angie in this way, she can drop some of her body consciousness and just get down and dirty with him…especially as he’s made it clear that they will not have sex in front of any of their children before they are married. (Instead, they find somewhere else to have sex while making sure the kids are taken care of, a sensible and smart precaution.)

Bottom line: While I would’ve liked to see a bit less emphasis on the physical perfection of Tom (as that gets old, fast), I enjoyed A Skeleton at her Door quite a bit. It’s a quick, fun, Halloween-inspired read that any romantic will enjoy…and I look forward to reading more of Ms. Ayers’ work in the future.

Grade: B-plus.

Reviewed by Barb

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Empress Theresa — Norman Boutin’s Masterpiece (titles now laden with heavy sarcasm!)

(Warning: this review contains foul language and fouler grammar due to the reviewer’s rage and disgust. Reader discretion is advised and, quite frankly, is totally understandable if you want to get out now before the screaming and the bleeding from the eyes gets to be too much.)

Empress Theresa2Very rarely do I come across a book that literally stops me in my tracks and forces me to ask the age-old question, “What the unholy fuck?” Norman Boutin’s self-acclaimed literary classic Empress Theresa is just such a book.

From the very first page I knew that this book was going to be different. Hubris is not in the author’s vocabulary, and in the introduction alone he challenges you by saying that this is a book unlike you have ever read. All I can say to that is, “You aren’t kidding.” The introduction does give us some insight into the creative process of the author, however, and it’s a terrifying glimpse of an attempt at literature gone terribly awry.

My brain was slammed with a large, ice-cold bucket of “the fuck?” on page 1 of the book. Suggesting that Scout from Harper Lee’s classic To Kill A Mockingbird led a charmed life led me to believe that the author hadn’t even read it, simply skimmed through the cliff notes version you can pick up online, and forced me to question my own sanity when it came to requesting this book for review. I had to go back and check Wikipedia to ensure that yes, this is the book he’s talking about and no, I hadn’t forgotten the plot. I mean, holy shit man, did you actually grasp the context of the book or did you simply watch the (excellent, by the way) movie? Or are you getting this confused with John Grisham’s lame ripoff A Time To Kill? What are you doing to me, Norman Boutin? I want to know more about your character, damn it. And while the main character (Theresa Sullivan, TYVM) tells you that she has a story to tell, she really doesn’t seem to know how to tell it. So far, all you’ve covered on the first page is a screwed up comparison of a classic literary novel with a dash of fired buckshot across a brief family description! I’m not expecting the greatest opening in the history of mankind on a first-time author’s very first page, but I’d expect a little… something.

Nonetheless, I soldiered on. I chalked the first page up to new author jitters, and figured “Hey, maybe it’ll get better.”

Note: do not get your hopes up. I did, and all that precious hope was shattered and shat upon, spread across the ground and then piled haphazardly in the darkest, deepest corner of Hell.

Theresa talks about going to different places around the world in the past tense, as well as suggesting that Theresa may well indeed become something far greater than a boring little girl from Farmingham, Massachusetts. Her parents are wonderful and bland, and rely on a computer to babysit her when she plays outside while they are at work. Her parents have convinced her, at the age of 10, that she will avoid drugs and boys through her high school years. Yes, I know, I was shaking my head here too.

But her story begins with the sighting of a red fox. In broad daylight. Weird, since the only time a fox is out in broad daylight is because they’re rabid (ed. note: it was brought to my attention that foxes are out in the daylight when they don’t fear humans and live in parks and whatnot. Living on a farm, we shoot foxes because they are after our chickens, especially the potentially rabid ones out in daylight, so I’ll accept that foxes are sometimes seen in daylight. Regional bias on my part), but Theresa doesn’t fear this in any way and watches as the fox walks up her back porch, sits down and stares at her. Then suddenly, a bright ball of light leaps from the fox and slams into Theresa’s stomach. She screams and runs inside, locks the door and… calmly watches the fox disappear.

Okay, think about this for a moment. No 10 year old girl would be rational at this point, no matter how normal and boring they are. 10 year old boys and girls flip out over the weirdest stuff, and a glowing white ball leaping out of a fox and hitting you is pretty fucking weird. Hell, I’m the most rational person I know (I should get out more, I agree) and would have freaked out. Of course, I also probably would have grabbed the .22 and disposed of the fox because I don’t need rabid animals on the farm.

But I digress. This is starting to make my head hurt, and I really wish I had more booze on hand.

I really can’t get over how poorly the first two pages are written, by the way. It takes real effort to be this bad and, for a moment, I had a sneaking suspicion that the author was trolling everyone who had read the book. I looked him up and, well, he’s a real author and takes himself very, very seriously.

He is not going to like this review, I can guarantee that much.

So anyways, back to the story. Theresa admits that she’s worried about her weight (her mother says she’s too skinny, so this is the first time that the character has been portrayed in any semblance of “realistic”). Thinking she was hallucinating due to lack of food, she goes into the kitchen and makes fried eggs, bacon, toast and milk…

…and then a bunch of firetrucks appear.

No scene buildup, no suspense, just BOOM! and let’s keep moving. This could have been executed very well if the author had any talent at making the reader give a shit about Theresa. Even though it’s early in the book, this is reminding me of a book I read once called The All-American by John R. Tunis. But, you know, without the talent. Or skill. Or character development. Or a plot.

I’ve spent just about 900 words talking about the horrors on the first THREE pages and I’m starting to wonder if this is turning into a slam piece. I mean, I want to be professional about this review, but when I’ve wasted hours of my life reading this book (and never getting them back, I’ll add) I get really irritated.

Okay, so it suddenly got very warm in the middle of a summer day (she’s not in school, parents are at work, she has an idyllic lifestyle… I’m assuming this is the middle of summer here) and someone called the fire department to report a fire. I… come on Norman, what the hell? I can’t even lose myself in this book because you keep yanking my suspension of disbelief right out of the book with inconsistencies. You’re trying to make this sound like present-day, but it sounds more like Andy Griffith. I… I just…

Damn it, this review is never going to get finished. I can’t even talk about the basic plot of the first chapter without losing my shit.

Okay, I’m skipping ahead, because basically the next few chapters are Theresa becoming inhabited by an alien AI, meeting kindly Federal Agents who do not whisk her away to Area 51 to cut open her brain, and her becoming super smart and being able to throw a baseball very hard (this girl is a cheater, by the way, for using an alien intelligence to make her a better athlete than everyone else around her but hey, morals don’t matter when you’re Empress motherfucking THERESA). It’s strange, because the author even managed to make all of this completely boring. This could have been a great bit about her wrestling with the sudden expansion of her mind and awareness, discovery of hypersensitivity and perfect memory retention, or even simply watching a 10 year old outwit and outduel a grown woman (things that kids actually will enjoy reading about). Instead, the author falls flat again and deprives the reader of some quality character development.

I really can’t describe how horrid this is. Putrid, fetid stink emanating from an old urinal cake that was forced through a septic system is the closest thing I can think of, and the argument could be made that I was insulting the urinal cake. By the way, if someone sends me something like this again, I will find you, and I will do things to you that would make even Liam Neeson shudder in horror.

Now, one thing the author does well (yes, a compliment) is show the various interaction between the Canadian and British governments. Of course, the immediate question which came to mind is why the US government is completely ignoring the girl after discovering that she is interacting with an alien machine. Unfortunately, by this time the author has flayed the reader’s mind with numbing agents called “words” in a vast attempt to write a literary masterpiece that falls somewhat short of Atlanta Nights. I still can’t shake the feeling that I’m being catfished by the author the further I go. It’s like I’m Alice, he’s the White Rabbit and we did some horrible peyote before falling into the well from The Ring (complete with creepy murderous girl).

Theresa promised to save the world for Prime Minster Tony Blair but unfortunately she is unable to crack the alien code of HAL (what she calls the alien machine inside her). While the pace is moving along, I just can’t seem to garner up the energy to give a damn about Theresa or her new husband Steve. I’ve never seen an author go out of their way before to make a main character so bland and boring, and kill any attempt that the reader may make to engage her. She’s a Mary Sue, half-assed fantasy of a man who doesn’t grasp the concept that characters need to do more than walk through the pages of a book. She’s trying to save the world, and all I can think at this point is that I’m not even halfway through the book and I want to end the pain.

But I can’t stop reading, because my seemingly endless suffering is for your amusement. Yes, dear readers, I love you that much.

You all owe me. You owe me big.

The world begins to die for inexplicable reasons, droughts reign, and crops wither and die, all the while the world sits back on its ass and waits for an 18 year old girl to save it. The science in the book started to drive me crazy. Bad science, horrible science, and not even explained rationally enough to make a YA reader (because really, that’s the target audience here) to say “Okay, cool” and continue on with the story. Really, I went back and read that bit three times trying to figure it out. I mean, maybe kids would skimp over it and cut him some slack (because YA readers are a forgiving bunch; look at how well they adapted to Catching Fire after The Hunger Games came out! #/sarcasm).

This book review is starting to make me sick. I’m getting a stiff drink to see if I can finish this up without losing my sanity. I’m changing the author’s name, by the way. No more shall he be called “Norman Boutin”. No, Norman shall henceforth be known as “The Black Goat of the Woods, Shub-Niggurath, Devourer of Souls, Eater of Sanity, Beholden of Chtulhu and Smiter of the Righteous.” Seriously, our hero and savior changed the poles in the book so that everyone can have summer all year long! That’s great for people in England. Sucks to be in the southern hemisphere but hey, fuck those guys, amiright? I think that the author should have gone into the Dark Arts. They’d love to learn just how well he can cause suffering at levels they had only previously masturbated to. H. P. Lovecraft couldn’t even imagine the horrors held in these pages. This book breaks the confines of a pandemic outbreak, requiring handling in full CDC garb, and should be called “Litbola” (courtesy of a Twitter follower, @zeewulfeh)

Much of what the author shows throughout seems to have been made up on the fly, including (and not limited to) the military, the government, how things work, nature, aliens, terrorists, OPEC, treaties, gravity, physics, water…

*long suffering sigh*

Look… this is, quite frankly, one of the worst pieces of published fiction I have ever laid eyes upon. For some reason, the author thought that he could project his world domination fantasies onto a populace in the form of a young girl, fixing all of the worlds problems without considering that the basis of human nature is to fight against being controlled. This is not a book for kids (unless you want them to hate reading), and I wouldn’t even say this is for adults (adults, hopefully, know when a book is so bad that nothing can save it). This is nothing more than idiopathic projection in literary form.

I know you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, or by merely one book review, but for the love of your unborn children, run away. Run as far and as fast as you can. Do not look back. This is your Sodom and Gomorrah, kiddies. Don’t look back or a pillar of salt you shall become. Don’t waste your money, time, or sanity trying to make it through this book. Don’t even try to start it. Don’t force yourself to get to chapter three. Don’t swallow the arsenic and push to the end. The payoff isn’t worth it (since there isn’t really any payoff) and you’ll hate yourself for it afterwards. I suffered through this so you would not have to.

Don’t make my suffering be in vain.

Grade– *is “Ebola” a low enough grade? Did I go too far? Did I go far enough?

-Reviewed by Jason (May God have mercy on his soul)

 

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