Book reviews

Review: Lady of the Veils by M. L. John

Lady of the Veils 
3 stars
(4 for Amazon)

This is a good, solid entry into a crowded urban fantasy field. The shelves are packed with takes about integrating magic and supernatural races into the real world, and seen-it-before derivatives predominate. (Pretty elves. Inter-dimensional travel. Touched-by-magic. Special sauce. Again. Meh.)

Nothing about Lady of the Veils is derivative. It goes right to the source– folklore of the British Isles mostly–pulls what it wants, adds in a big helping of pop culture, ties it all up with complicated relationships and political struggles. None of the world-building gets in your face, but it’s there and it’s shiny. 

M. L. John’s characters all have three-dimensional heft, the world they inhabit is complex and built well enough that the seams don’t show, and actions sometimes have unintended consequences that make the plot twist in realistic rather than predictable ways The protagonists in Lady of the Veils face serious dilemmas, they have conflicted feelings, and they behave like people, not characters. They have pasts, personalities, families, and obligations. 

They’re good people in hard situations. It’s easy to care about them.

Have I mentioned how much I like a good portal fantasy? I  I have loved them ever since I cracked open my first Narnia book. I also love tales of the Fae and all the folktale denizens of the British Isles, because I’m the good eldest daughter of an Orangeman who would’ve been saddled with the moniker Ciaran if Irish baby name references had been more thick upon the ground back in those ancient of days. 

But I digress, as I often do. This is good stuff. The follow-up, Storm Prince is even better, and I would recommend getting both at once, because once Karen and Beriani capture your heart, you’ll want to stick with them to see what happens next.

Click link to purchase: Lady of the Veils
Or see all of M.L. John’s works: Amazon Author Page

Book reviews

Review: A Time to Build by Rick Rossing

2.5 stars (For an explanation of my curmudgeonly rating and reviewing quirks, please refer to my reviewing guide.)

There are many things to love about this book. It has a great early Heinlein feel to it, and the positives are easy to list:

  • a classic coming-of-age “lost prince” narrative hook
  • a light touch with dialogue
  • enjoyable character interplay
  • a fabulous, intricately-designed, sweeping universe to explore
  • good pacing
  • plenty of history, plenty of twists and reveals
  • action!

Great ideas. Lots of attention to detail. Fun creatures and creations, humor to balance out tension…but so many assorted presentation issues that I had to push myself to finish.

It’s a rough gem, but the setting interfered with my appreciation of its beauty. Grammar quirks. Repetitive descriptions and dialogue tags. Tons of dialogue without any tags, in multi-person conversations between people whose voices were too similar to tell apart. (I didn’t like it when Asimov did it, and I didn’t like it here.)  Everyone was always standing up and looking around, sitting down and turning their heads, touching an arm and nodding. Everyone was always talking. Telling each other things that happened. Explaining the past. Discussing the plans. Recapping what happened.

All the things I listed are sins I am undoubtedly guilty of committing as an author. Perhaps I am blind to the shortcomings of my own children and over-sensitive to them in others. This is possible, but in any case, this book exceeded my tolerance.

Taken together the elements do make a storytelling style, a cohesive and perhaps even an intentional one, but the older I get, the less patience I have for it. I want more poetry in my prose. My other main issue is more personal. I grew up reading “boy books” because there were very few SFF titles with women in lead roles, so I have no problem identifying with male protagonists. I also have experience tolerating story lines in which women, children, mothers and girlfriends exist as props for the main character’s development. At least the women in this story have brains, brawn and other strengths and weaknesses. Like Heinlein’s women, and David Weber’s, they’re more than furniture. I’m glad of that, but they never felt real to me, not the way the men did. A shiny perfect prize is still only a prize, not a person.

Now that there are plenty of stories out in the world that have spaceships, dragons, adventure and women who are villainous or heroic, strong or week independent of their men, I’d rather spend my time in those worlds.

My advice?  Read the Look Inside. If nothing about the style bugs you, and you have a high tolerance for traditional gender role-play dressed up in “strong female character” clothing, then you have a rollicking fun read ahead of you, with sequels to follow. This isn’t technically YA fiction, but the themes of maturing and choosing to act heroically makes it feel young, and the light, fast-moving plot full of aliens and adventure is suitable for teens.

Link to purchase: A Time to Build.

It may be just your cup of tea. Please give it a look.

Book reviews

Review: Dry Land by Jennifer Anne Seidler



I give Dry Land three stars and change, and it gets a solid “I liked it.”

If you’re a fan of classic-style hard science fiction, circa early Asimov and peak Arthur C. Clarke, this is a tale you should grab and enjoy at your first opportunity.

Your purchase gets you not only the title novella itself but also a short piece that explores some of the secondary themes in the main work. It’s a decent story on its own right, but as a glimpse into the creative process, it’s even more intriguing. I’m a person who listens to director commentary on movies and watches all the deleted scenes, so having a behind-the-scenes extra on a written story appealed in the same way. It was a delightful addition, like a light dessert after a tasty meal.

Speaking of food analogies, this one is a nice, tasty casserole, rich with flavors and textures. Some of the ingredients aren’t to my taste, but they’re well-mixed and topped with a crunchy crust. There’s even a touch of  spice. As I said, it’s a very classic presentation, but there are romance elements–deftly handled and realistically described ones–that far exceed what I remember anyone in the old school putting to page. I enjoyed the addition.

I’m a demanding reader. If an item is offered for sale, I expect it to meet professional standards in its overall presentation, writing quality, editing, and formatting. Dry Land met all those standards with flying colors, and that’s no small accomplishment for a self-published work. At no point did grammar gaffes, typos, or awkward prose yank me out of of the story, and that’s rare indeed.

I can’t say those errors were absent entirely, and the prose could use polish, but the words didn’t make me roll my eyes too often, and I never laughed at a phrase that wasn’t meant to be funny. And when it comes to errors, well. I finished a traditionally-published, professionally-edited bestselling novel today that had 3 major gaffes in the first chapter. Nuff said.

I wait before reviewing, because a story that doesn’t stick in my memory is not as good as one that does. The main character and the plot twists of Dry Land stuck with me. I was thinking about them well after I finished reading, and that’s a telling sign of quality.

This is a space story more than a sweeping science-fiction one — not that there isn’t science, there is, but the life sciences get only a nod while the wonders of near-space get pompoms and a fanfare. The astronomical descriptions and the fundamental physics necessary for the plot are offered with the passion of a true believer in humanity’s future in the heavens. The depth of research informs the plot rather than overwhelming it; a hard balance to achieve, but the author does an excellent job.

It’s hard scifi, in that the plot progression takes precedence over character development, but the broad sketches of character traits skated the edge of stereotype, for the most part. The protagonist’s emotional struggles are realistic, and interpersonal conflicts arise organically from the personalities of the characters.

There’s not much I can say about the plot without spoiling the read. The story is delightfully twisty, and getting into specifics would spoil the reveals. The plot elements are also where my main dissatisfactions lie. Call it a disagreement on premises. I feel that the existence of some elements render the likelihood of other events flatly unrealistic. The main foundation of the whole story rests on a base that shook my suspension of disbelief the way an earthquake rolls skyscrapers.

That said, it’s no more absurd than many a movie premise I’ve enjoyed even while scoffing at its impossibility, so I set aside my objection and enjoyed the ride all the way to a beautifully constructed finale.

As a wrap, I’ll acknowledge that I was offered a free copy for review, but after I finished, I purchased a copy of my own. I’m a cheapskate. Voting with my wallet is the second-highest praise I can offer an author Recommending the book to others is the highest level. I’ve done both with this one. Bookmark this author’s Amazon page. You do not want to miss her next one.

Link to purchase your own copy of this gem: Dry Land


Book reviews

Reviewing: My brief guide

The idea of hurting people’s feelings with “unfair ratings” makes me as uncomfortable as stepping on my cat’s slicker brush, but the idea of abandoning my principles hurts worse. (In case you don’t know what a slicker brush is, I’ve included a picture.)

 I have a bunch of reviews queued up, but I am feeling defensive about how few stars I give stories in comparison to other reviewers. After due consideration I’ve decided I must stick to my stingy guns, but I’m willing to explain my process.

Below is a comprehensive guide to my rating system. It also serves as window on what I value in stories. Please note cover art is nowhere on the list. I may mention it in my reviews, but it has zero bearing on my analysis of the story itself. Covers are marketing wrappers. I only value what’s inside.

1 star:  This is an anti-recommendation. It’s reserved for things I would beg everyone to avoid, except maybe sworn enemies. Maybe. It’s bad, and not in a so-bad-it’s-fun way. It’s too horrible to waste a single minute of precious existence contemplating it. Save yourself. Flee while you can.

2 stars: I can’t recommend it. I don’t object to its existence, but it’s too flawed for me to suggest anyone waste their time on it, not with so many good books waiting to be discovered.

This is where ratings fall short as tools of judgment. The rule Your Mileage May Vary comes into play big-time with 2-star ratings. Points that lead to me delivering 1-star or 2-star ratings fall into these rough groupings:

  • ubiquitous grammar & speeling errors (yes, I did it deliberately, don’t have a COW.)
  • dull or clumsy plot elements, a.k.a. save me from another generic save-the-princess tale.
  • plot holes: anything that would render events of the story pointless or unnecessary.
  • offensive, flat or unrealistic characters. Archetypes are great. Stereotypes make me itch.
  • writing that throws me out of the story into analysis of the prose itself. Noticing the words means I’m not sufficiently submerged in the events the words describe.
  • factual inaccuracies, including historical events, scientific data and common sense fails.
  • logic failures: science fiction & fantasy both play fast & loose with reality, but a story’s internal mechanics should stay true to their premises, and all principles outside the frame of the story should be consistent. Realism isn’t required. Verisimilitude is essential.  

See where the mileage varies?

  • What offends me may not bother you. Some readers have a high tolerance for plot ideas & characters that hit all my “are you fucking kidding me?” triggers and send me reeling. It’s one hazard of reading deeply in a lot of genres for a long time. “Not this shit again” gets to be a reflex reaction.
  • Many people can suspend their sense of disbelief more effectively than I can. I like my fictional realities to feel and look real. Small errors jar me hard.
  • Long-winded, adjective-loaded exaggerated descriptive overload and redundant repetition (see what I did there?) are not to my liking, but it’s a preference. Some best-selling books get 2-star ratings from me. Eye of the World and Interview With a Vampire are two examples.
  • Shorthand labeling is a another style choice I dislike. I don’t enjoy having to memorize a set of labels along with every name. I tolerate it in erotica, but even there, the use of “the perky brunette” and “muscular male” instead of character names makes me snicker. Other people love this style construction to pieces. Good for them. They can write their own reviews.
  • I twitch at spelling mistakes and poor word choices. Homonyms are a particular pet peeve. Stationery is paper used for correspondence not a state of non-moving. A pallet can’t taste anything, nor is it a suitable surface for paint (palate and palette, respectively.)

One or two or five issues won’t sink a story. If I run out of fingers and toes to count the things bothering me before I count the same number of pages, there’s going to be trouble in Review City. I am not a lit’rary snob who reads only books with big words and convoluted prose and Important Themes, but I have my preferences. Something I hate may be the treat you crave.

3 stars: A solid like. I enjoyed reading it. I recommend it to the right audience as I perceive it.
The story gives me all the things I demand from a flight of fancy. 3-star books are my meat & potatoes reading–or beans & rice, chicken noodle soup, mac & cheese, depending on my appetite for comfort food–but whatever the flavor,  they’re basic and sustaining. There may be spice and savor, but nothing that makes me sit up and wonder if I can get the recipe. They’re the everyday, the solid three-squares that satisfy.

Often the stories I rate at a three contain the same flaws I see in a 2-star work. If so, they’re less obvious, less common, or less aggravating.  To use a different analogy, it could be a polished citrine or a rough sapphire, but it’s still a gem, not a sharp rock in my shoe.  Here’s a last analogy; a 3-star book pleases without delivering any big surprises. It’s a comfortable walk in the park, not the awesome vista that stops me at a turn in the trail and puts my heart in my throat.

(I would put most of my published works into this rating. In case anyone wondered.)

4 stars: I loved it. The story has some ineffable quality that makes it stand out, the way a parakeet stands out in a flock of sparrows. The protagonist might hit my sweet spot for identifying with characters,  the plot might be a unique new blend of favorite tropes, the way the author writes descriptions might make me warm and fuzzy inside or give me chills. They’re stories polished to a level of professional presentation that prevents me being yanked out of the read by goofs.

4-star books are the restaurant entrees I will drive fifty miles out of my way to eat again. They’re the special holiday dish, not the weekday equivalent.  Whatever makes the difference between good and great, these books have it. I will recommend 4-star books to anyone who reads the genre or a similar one. They’re also books I would recommend to anyone looking to expand their horizons into a new genre, because they are accessible and appealing.

I like to think I’ve hit this level with some of my stories.

5 stars: It blew my mind. The plot, characters, language or all three changed how I see the world.
5-star books become my touchstones for future reviews. They are new in my experience and change how I view everything like them forevermore.  I recommend them to everyone, and I do mean everyone. To my friends. To my dentist. Strangers on a bus. I buy extra copies, because I’ve learned through hard experience I will give them away to others on random occasions, whenever the topic comes up.

Disclaimer regarding one of the dirty little secrets of reviewing: the first example of a type will imprint on the mind more deeply than anything similar ever will–good or bad. My 5-star rating is in no way a stamp of supreme worth.

Star Wars blew my mind. Nothing like it existed before that summer. Nothing. That movie changed an industry and bred a million descendants, many of which surpass it in objective quality. Take a hypothetical teen who is denied Star Wars seeing for the first time today. She would judge it differently. Rollicking space operas with dazzling visuals and snappy dialogue are no longer rare. IShe would judge Star Wars by their measure. What blows my mind may be just another 3-star to an aficionado of a genre I seldom read. (That’s something to keep in mind reading any review.)

There it is.
That’s why I gave your favorite book two stars or three instead of five. That’s why I panned your precious. I won’t say it isn’t personal, because it is. My reviews are inherently personal. They’re mine.

They are not attacks. I write in my space and in the areas set aside for my expression. I know the view from the other side of the review fence. I reserve the right to roll my eyes and dismiss any point a reviewer makes. Dismiss mine or ignore them if you disagree. Please. That’s your right.  Even if you’re wrong. (Couldn’t resist. I am a facetious wench and cannot be otherwise.)

I bend to generosity in one small way: when I post to Amazon, I generally round up– from 2ish to 3, or from 3ish stars to 4, 4ish to 5.  Their system is inherently flawed and manipulative, and I refuse to penalize someone on the open market for a situation they have no say in improving. I will not post a 1-star review to Amazon or Goodreads, and I will not ever post a full review for a book unless I finished it.

Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, I can finish a bunch of reviews with a clear conscience.

Or at least don’t hate me? Kthxbai.

Book reviews

Review: Hard Luck (Book 1 of The Saga of Menyoral)

Click Here. Buy This Book. Seriously. Now.

4 stars of 5

No one element in this book is astonishing, but calling that a negative would be like taking a bite of an incredible new cookie and saying, “Meh. It’s just another cookie. Flour, sugar, butter and some other things. Same as any other one.” Some things are more than the sum of their parts. Some cookies are so good that I keep the whole jar in my lap and refuse to share it with anyone, not even Beloved In-House Reader.

This book is that kind of good.

It being a book and not a cookie, belly-selfishness does not apply. I am eager to share. Hard Luck is a big bucket of good old-fashioned fantasy fun, and more than that, it is more than just that. Holy wow, is it more. I love this world and the characters M. A Ray has created for it.

Fantasy stories do not have to be about originality, especially not ones that are coming-of-age stories about unwanted outsiders finding a place to belong and setting out on the path to become a shining star. Especially not fantasy stories about unwanted outsiders who have a hidden heritage/destiny that they will have to take up. There’s a reason those tropes are so popular. They touch on emotions and conflicts that speak to almost everyone. They made a great foundation.

The trick is building something interesting on the bedrock foundation–creating a world that is complex enough to feel real and  creating a hero who has struggles that make sense. M. A Ray does that, and then presents the result in prose that is deceptively simple and yet shifts seamlessly with the perspective of the characters.  Every detail revealed as the plot develops adds to the reader’s understanding that there is much more to every situation than meets the characters eyes. The world-building is right where it should be: in the background. The past is where it should be: in stories and asides and comments. The action moves along fast enough to hold interest, but with plenty of room for characters to interact and develop.

If you’ve read any of my other reviews, you know I am not inclined to gush. I am a nitpicker, and a detail-noticing critical reader of the most demanding kind. Hard Luck has structural flaws that usually drop me out of a story the way cutting the cords of a parachute sends a skydiver plummeting to the earth. It contains indie-publishing foibles that usually bother me the way the sound of fingernails on a blackboard bother other people. There are issues, yes, but I would have to give it 6 stars out of 5 if it didn’t have those flaws. I liked it that much. Seriously.

Sometimes–rarely, oh, so rarely– a story comes along that is so much itself, so solidly designed and so beautifully presented that I stop noticing little things like too-exuberant use of adjectives, weird paragraph structure, odd name choices, and grammar hiccups.

This is one such book. The first few pages did not spark my interest, because prologue,  but then, a few paragraphs into the main story, I stopped reading. I immersed myself in the words and rolled around in them like a cat in catnip.  I stopped reading and started living the story along with the characters. That doesn’t happen often even with books that are polished to a much higher technical standard. It was an amazing experience, and that’s not even the best part.

The best part? There are two more books, and each one gets better. Oh, yeah.