Sunday, February 22, 2015

REVIEW: The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

My Rating: 8 out of 10 stars

Neil Gaiman takes us on a moving and fantastic journey, through the mind of a middle aged man who's returned to his childhood home while back in town for a funeral, and his visit to the old Hempstock farm at the end of the lane. Though most all of the housing and landscape has changed significantly over the intervening decades, the old Hempstock farm stands just as he remembered it. It's as if time's stood still down that narrow lane... past the brambles and briar roses, the hazels and the wild hedgerow.

At the farm, our protagonist is greeted by Old Mrs. Hempstock, who informs him that his old friend Lettie isn't available but invites him to sit by the duck pond for a spell nonetheless, and he fondly recalls how Lettie used to refer to the duck pond as an Ocean. As he sits and reflects, an entire sequence of events passes before his eyes, as if it all happened only yesterday.

He's brought back to the time a few days before he meets eleven year old Lettie Hempstock and the rest of her strange and unusual family. When one of their boarders commits suicide, an odd chain of events is set into motion, beginning with the appearance of a peculiar woman named Ursula Monkton whose only desire is to grant the people of town all that they desire. But we all know the saying to be careful what you wish for, right?

The three women of the Hempstock farm—young Lettie, her mother Mrs. Hempstock, and grandmother Old Mrs. Hempstock—each possess curious skills of their own, and endeavor to right the wrongs committed by the unnatural being. Though they claim not to do "spells", the three Hempstock women appear to represent the Triple Goddess—Maiden, Mother, and Crone—and the workings they perform are of a magic older than time itself. There were many other Pagan undertones to this story that delighted me equally, one of the foremost being how when Lettie was injured, she was returned to the Ocean for the water to heal her.

This story was deep and moving on so many levels that it sits with you awhile. Even after I'd finished reading, I found myself contemplating something that occurred and then proceeded to see it in an entirely new light. A day later and some of the more subtle nuances of the story are coming to me even now. A wonderful adult fairy tale I can wholly recommend to any fantasy fan.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

REVIEW: Southern Spirits by Angie Fox

My Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Verity Long is on the verge of losing her grandmother's family home after her ex-fiancé's dragon of a mother decides to stick her with the full cost of the wedding for running out on her son at the altar. Now Verity's in dire straights and would do just about anything to secure the funds to save the family home that means so much to her. Including taking a job with the enemy!

When Verity unknowingly dumps an urn full of ashes onto the rose bushes at the back of her property, she suddenly finds herself in possession of a very unusual gift. With the help of her new ghost friend, Frankie the German, she's now got the ability to see the spirit world. And wouldn't you know it, Beau's brother just so happens to have a ghost problem at the old distillery he acquired. So when Ellis Wydell approaches Verity with an offer that would allow her to save her home, she knows she can't turn it down. Who cares that angry ghosts now haunt the old distillery.... or that most of the rest of the small town of Sugarland has spurned her. For Verity knows what she wants, and she wants to keep her house no matter what the cost!

This was a fast, fun read, and while not quite literary with regards to the writing, it held my interest nonetheless. There were several parts where the writing seemed a bit awkward, but I could maybe blame that on the fact that I just finished reading two very well-written pieces of work, so the writing here seemed a bit more amateurish in comparison. Despite that, it was still an engaging read, and I was rooting for the main character the whole way through.

I did hate how she was taken advantage of by the Wydell family though, and that hate cemented a strong sense of injustice for what she was going through. If the story hadn't progressed as it had, I would've found myself quite turned off by such an injustice, and her inability to right it. But fortunately, everything works out for her in the end and I found a smile on my face as the story came to a close.

Southern Spirits is the first book of a new series, and despite having several of the author's Accidental Demon Slayer books on Mt TBR, this was actually the first book I've read by her. I will definitely pick up the second book of the Southern Ghost Hunter Mystery series when it's released in the Fall. Though it looks like Ms. Fox just released a short story in this universe a few days ago to tide us over: A Ghostly Gift.

Thank you to Angie Fox, Season Publishing, and NetGalley for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

REVIEW: Things Half in Shadow by Alan Finn

My Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

It's 1869 and Edward Clark lives a comfortable life as a reporter for the Evening Bulletin in Philadelphia. He's happily engaged to a pretty, delicate girl named Violet Willoughby and has pretty much moved on from the tragedy that struck his young life at only 10 years of age. But when Edward's editor assigns him the task of writing a series of articles exposing the many fraudulent mediums overrunning the city, Edward is set on a downward spiral that has him not only witness to a murder, but also one of it's primary suspects.

As one of the city's few legitimate mediums, the murder of Lenora Grimes Pastor, which occurred in a locked séance room, has all of its participants under suspicion. With the help of Ms. Lucy Collins, a medium who uses sleight-of-hand to prey on the unwary, and his friend Inspector William Barclay, Edward is determined to clear his name. But the secrets they unearth go much deeper than any of them expected, and the possible ties Edward's past—a tragedy he's kept secret from both his fiancée and closest friend—may tear his comfortable world apart.

I really liked this book a lot! The story was exciting, captivating, and fun. I'm a sucker for all things ghostly and supernatural so it was not only the subject matter that appealed to me but also the mystery behind it—who killed the medium Lenora Grimes Pastor inside that locked room?

The author, Alan Finn, writes extremely well and has a masterful command of language and how to use it, keeping the reader fully engaged without getting too wordy or revealing too much. The timing and suspense is perfect. The author knows the exact right words to use at the right time to elicit the desired effect, and he knows exactly how to set the right mood with his words. This book's prose truly flows like like classic literature in my opinion. Just check out his gorgeous website which just oozes with atmosphere.

Edward's character did grate on my nerves at times however because he continually left his fiancée in the dark, not only about his past, but also about everything he was doing with Lucy to try to clear his name and solve the murder of Mrs. Pastor. A relationship built on so many lies is doomed to failure, which leads you to wonder, just who did Edward eventually marry anyway? Though the story was written as a memoir with Edward looking back on an event that took place in his life 50 years in the past, that tidbit of information was never definitively stated, and I was left to wonder if the author did this intentionally, or if I just missed some subtle hint in the Foreword or Postscript.

I did see reference on his Goodreads Author page that the author working on a sequel to Things Half in Shadow. Woot woot!! I'm very much looking forward to that. (Do check out the video trailer on that page too if you didn't already do so at his website.)

Thank you to the publisher and NetGalley for providing a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

REVIEW: Those Rosy Hours at Mazandaran by Marion Grace Woolley

My Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Wow what a great read! If you love The Phantom of the Opera as much as I do, then I strongly suggest you pick this one up!

In this Phantom-inspired tale, we meet Afsar, eldest daughter of the Shah of Iran, actually Persia at that time. It's around 1851 and Afsar is 10 years old when her father offers to bring the circus to their palace for her birthday. For within this traveling circus, there is talk of a conjurer with a face so ugly but with the voice of an angel, and the Shah decides that he simply must meet this man for himself, on the pretense of his daughter's birthday of course.

It is a year or so later when the circus finally arrives at the palace, and it seems that everything the trader has said is true. Afsar is quite taken with the conjurer—who is known by many names: the Comte de la Mort Rouge, Vachon, and eventually Eirik. Eirik makes a striking impression on both the Shah and his hauntingly beautiful daughter. As a man of many talents—quite useful, he claims, in overcoming the hideousness of his appearance—Eirik is charged with building a grand place for the Shah, opulent and lavish in design, yet full of secret rooms, passageways, and trap doors, and he also becomes the Shah's favored assassin. His extended presence at the palace allows Afsar to spend more time in Eirik's company, reveling in his darkness and trickery, all the while exploring and embracing her own dark side. For what she learns about herself and the world around her whilst in Eirik's presence is more valuable than any other life lessons she's learned at the palace thus far.

Though Afsar is only a young girl when this story begins, she grows to about 15 years old at the time of it's conclusion. Though that may seem young for everything she's experiencing, the time frame within which this novel occurs places her at a quite marriageable age, women of this time often marrying as young as twelve or thirteen years of age. And the future Opera Ghost, at only nineteen himself, is already quite cultured, having traveled extensively and this only adds to Afsar's wonderment of him.

The writing was superb, written a bit like prose, yet fully descriptive and engaging at the same time. I truly immersed myself in this book, forgetting where I was and feeling myself walking through the sumptuous palace, the streets of Sari, or wherever else the author happened to be describing. Though the the juicy bits didn't really start until about 1/4 of the way in, all the foreshadowing began much sooner, and once Eirik arrived with the traveling circus, you just knew things going to get sinister real soon. This book will definitely be classified as one of my favorite reads.

Since I'm going to see the stage production of The Phantom of the Opera in September, it was a perfect time for me to read this, and I'll probably reread The Phantom of the Opera book before then too. This will actually be my third time seeing the stage production, but I will never get tired of such a spectacular show... so beautiful and haunting! LOVE LOVE LOVE!!

Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for providing me an advance copy of this e-book in exchange for an honest review.

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

REVIEW: Silver Linings: A Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences: Tale from the Archives by Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris

My Rating: 6 out of 10 stars

Eliza Braun and Wellington Books travel to Cairo, Egypt to collect the records of closed cases to be transferred back to the Ministry Archives in London. While there, they stumble upon a most peculiar scene—a group suicide including a very influential man and his colleagues—which of course makes the trip so much more exciting for Agent Braun, who was initially not too thrilled about the trip to Egypt and it's oppressive heat.

This twenty-six page short story didn't add a great deal to the story line of Braun and Books but it was an entertaining diversion nonetheless. Unfortunately, it was riddled with missing punctuation, missing words, and even an instance with an entire set of paragraphs duplicated. Short story or no, I really wish authors and publishers would put a bit of time into proofreading and editing these short stories before releasing them as I had to go back and reread several passages to get past the errors.

REVIEW: Phoenix Rising: A Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences Novel by Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris

My Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

This first novel in the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences series is a fun-filled steampunk adventure. Eliza D. Braun is a field agent for the Ministry in a fantastical world filled with all manner of steam-powered gadgets and devices. Due to her knack for disregarding authority and blowing things up in the field, she's given a transfer to the Ministry Archives, to work alongside the encyclopedic Archivist Wellington Books. Both are disappointed in the reassignment, Braun because she loves the excitement of working in the field, and Books because he doesn't care for the disruption of his nice, orderly existence down in the bowels of the Ministry. Yet despite their initial chagrin, the two complement each other quite well, and when Eliza decides to do a bit of investigating on the side into one of the Ministry's unresolved cases, Wellington decides this is just the kind of diversion he needs.

I really enjoyed my first foray into Book's and Braun's steampunk universe. Eliza can be a bit uncouth and wild, a firecracker, but bookish Wellington is the perfect companion to bring her back down to earth. And likewise, he starts to find her spark just what's been lacking in his life. They have great chemistry together and I think their burgeoning relationship will make for a good series going forward. As usual, the steampunk world with all it's gadgetry and gizmos is fascinating to me and, like the characters themselves, is well done. I am looking forward to reading more books in the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences series.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

REVIEW: The Demon Catchers of Milan by Kat Beyer

My Rating: 8 out of 10 stars
Mia’s ordinary life is disrupted for good in the most horrifying way possible when she is possessed by a hungry and powerful demon—and saved only by the arrival of relatives from Italy, the country her grandfather fled many decades ago. Now her cousins, the charming and gorgeous Emilio and stern, elderly Giuliano, say the only way to keep Mia safe is for her to come back with them to Milan, to live, to learn Italian, to fall in and out of love, and to master the family trade: fighting all demons with the ancient lore of bell, book, and candle. Milan is not what Mia expected, but it will change her forever.

This was a fun book. I enjoyed experiencing the culture of Milan through Mia's eyes, and the descriptions depicted by the author were lush and vivid, totally immersing me in the story. In addition to a great sense of place, the author also did a wonderful job with the characters. All the major players were done so well I could picture them strolling through the streets of Milan by my side.

I read several reviews that complained about the pacing or lack of action in this book, but I didn't see this as a detriment; it only made it stand out more from a lot of the other urban fantasy books out there. Yes, it's true that Mia didn't jump right into demon hunting as soon as she took off to Italy with her relatives, but in my opinion, that only made the story all the more believable. Instead of a kickass female demon hunter with sword, knives, and all manner of supernatural skills, we're presented with a shy, young, and slightly insecure 16-year-old girl who knows next to nothing about demons prior to being possessed by one. And then, rather than becoming an overnight demon hunting superhero, Mia was expected to work for it after moving to Italy: by studying Milanese history, and observing a couple of actual demon possessions and the subsequent exorcisms performed by her family. It was definitely more old school, catholic church type of possession and exorcism—think The Exorcist—as opposed to the glamorized demon hunting you see in most urban fantasy novels today.

I believe the pacing in this book might actually be more suitable for adults however, and so it's classification in the young adult genre may have worked against it slightly in this regard since young adult books tend to have simpler language and faster pacing, which help to keep the younger mind engaged. However, since the language and plot are indeed suitable for teens, perhaps this would've been better categorized as New Adult. *shrug*

On a personal level, the Milanese culture Mia describes, with a family unit very focused on food and breaking bread together, brought back happy memories from my own childhood: Sunday dinners at my Nana and Papa's house, where we would make the pasta and the gravy—for that's what real Italians call their tomato sauce—from scratch, and the entire family, including all the aunts, uncles, and cousins, would sit down together for a hearty dinner and gossip. Granted we only did this once a week, and after my Nana passed and family members moved farther and farther away, the custom went by the wayside, but growing up in that kind of environment definitely instilled that same strong sense of family in me that binds la famiglia Della Torre in this book. It made the whole atmosphere all the more real and engaging to me.

I read this book on my Kindle and though I enjoyed being able to look up the translations from Italian to English as I read along, this isn't really necessary as translations were often given, or else discernible through context of the surrounding text. The one thing that wasn't as great about reading on the Kindle was the family tree graphic at the beginning of the book—it really needed to be just a wee bit higher resolution so that it remains sharp when resized larger. It was still legible when expanded but only barely so.

Of course, the demon that possessed Mia, and continues to hunt her, is still at large, as are a number of other questions about who this demon is and why he is after Mia in particular. This sets things up quite nicely for the sequel, The Halcyon Bird, which was published in November 2014. I look forward to picking up a copy of it soon.

This book was recommended to me by one of my dance troupe sisters, who is also friend of the author, and I'm glad she did as it may not have popped up on my radar otherwise. I highly recommend this book to those who enjoy creepy, atmospheric reads.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

REVIEW: Unseen (Unborn #2) by Amber Lynn Natusch

My Rating: 5 out of 10 stars
After fighting Soul Stealers in Detroit, Khara hoped to return home to find answers in her father's realm. But the land of the dead offers little information, and far too much tragedy. Now cut off from her brothers, and left only with her dark and unreliable companion Oz, Khara must navigate the centuries-old webs of deceit and betrayal, all while eluding the Underworld's most depraved inhabitant. But she soon finds an unexpected ally in her adopted sister Persephone. Together, they endeavor to right a terrible wrong. And as Khara soon discovers, there's more riding on her success than she ever thought possible.

This is the follow-up to Unborn, which I read and reviewed earlier. I didn't really care for this all that much and don't really understand all rave reviews it received on Goodreads! More than half of the story was spent with Khara running around the Underworld, seeking answers to questions from those who would rather hide the truth from her. I believe she sums it up rather nicely in her own words at the beginning of chapter 21:
It seemed as though all I had done upon my return was storm through the maze of halls in the Underworld in search of others. Others with answers that I lacked. The monotony of it was beginning to gnaw at my resolve.
Sing it, sister! I hear you loud and clear!

When Khara first returns to the Underworld, she's trying to discover the reason she was hidden away, but we've already learned in book one that any daughter born to Ares would be put to death. Is that not reason enough for her to be sent from her true parents and hidden away? Why is she not satisfied with this answer?

But then, a tragedy befalls one of her brothers, and suddenly she's got different priorities, and an entirely new set of questions she's seeking answers to. Throughout the story, Khara continues to act recklessly, disregarding any and all warnings placed in front of her. For example, after she knowingly takes all the evil souls from the Fields of Oudeis into her, she then decides to leave the Underworld, taking all these confined souls along with her. And is then surprised when something goes wrong. Ummm ya think???

The way things unfolded in this book reminded me of a sitcom, where all manner of chaos and misunderstanding ensues simply because one person neglects to tell another the full and true story. Haven't we learned by now the trouble that can come by withholding information? Isn't Khara constantly harping on Oz over that very thing? Of course, her hypocritical actions serve to drive the plot forward, but it's weak at best. And it's only about 70% in that some action finally starts to happen.

So were there any redeeming qualities to this book for me? Well, it was more fun once the real action started. I only wish it hadn't taken 200 pages to get there!

Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher, 47North, for providing me an advance copy of this e-book in exchange for an honest review.