Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Sword by Bryan M. Litfin

book cover

The Sword
by Bryan M. Litfin

Trade Paperback: 416 pages
Publisher: Crossway Books
Released: April 2010

Source: Review copy from the publisher.

Book Description, my take:
Hundreds of years in the future, after a super-virus and global nuclear war destroys human civilization, all current world religions have been forgotten by the population of the kingdom of Chiveis. But some of that population is beginning to reject the four cruel gods whose priests and priestesses use fear and greed to control them.

When a beautiful peasant girl is kidnapped by Outsiders, a frontier guardsman defies his commander and goes into the dreaded Beyond to save her. While there, they find an ancient holy book--a Bible with a New Testament too damaged to read--and are drawn to the god described in it. When they return, they share this new god with their family and close friends. But the evil gods of Chiveis warn the high priestess about this new god's coming. She does everything in her considerable power to stop the new god's followers and to convince the kingdom to reject this new god before they get curious and want to learn more about him. Will the followers of God withstand this persecution and bring the knowledge of him to the people?

The Sword was an entertaining Christian fantasy set in our future after modern civilization has fallen. The target audience appeared to be Christian adults (both women and men), but some teens might like it.

The characters were varied, complex, and interesting, and I was curious about what would happen to them. The story was fast-paced and exciting, with the action rarely slowing. The suspense was created by the physical danger to the characters and the attraction between the two main characters even though they were divided in their beliefs. (And I thought the resolution of this difference was handled in a nice and convincing manner.)

The story was frequently unrealistic and inconsistent, and the characters acted in illogical ways. For example, two characters have a letter they desperately need to get to the prince and they know they can't get to him, yet they don't give it to a character that can and will see the prince. In the prologue, the author has a super-virus that--following his parameters and taking into account only the mail system--would have killed everyone in the world who received mail in less than four weeks, but he has it last for decades. And then he adds in a worldwide, nuclear war. Yet the world, several hundred years later, looks remarkably like a pagan medieval Europe with healthy humans and every pre-war plant and animal.

Also, taking into consideration the only religions they knew, it seemed like the characters were a little quick to follow this new god and trust that he was good. While the reader can see God working behind the scenes, the characters had very little evidence that he even existed. And their knowledge of him was based solely on the first few chapters of Genesis, some Psalms, and Ruth. When they asked God to do a miracle at a critical moment and he didn't, I find it hard to believe that any of the followers were willing to remain faithful in the face of immediate death. Granted, most of the followers did publicly deny their new god, but they still intended to secretly follow him.

The characters frequently prayed, sang hymns, and read Scripture, and this was done primarily in a "they prayed" way. There was no bad language. There were several seduction scenes, but the sex was implied rather than explicit. There were a couple explicit torture scenes, but they weren't gory, just violent. Overall, I'd still recommend this novel as entertaining, clean reading.

If you've read this book, what do you think about it? I'd be honored if you wrote your own opinion of the book in the comments.

Excerpt: Read an excerpt from Chapter One

Friday, August 27, 2010

The Knight by Steven James

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The Knight
by Steven James

Mass Market Paperback: 464 pages
Publisher: Signet
Released: Sept. 2010

Source: Review copy provided by the publisher.

Book Description, my take:
FBI criminologist Patrick Bowers finds a unique clue left for him at the scene of the second in a series of murders where the bodies appear to be staged. It's a tape recording predicting Bowers' own next move. At a subsequent murder, Bowers realizes the killer is re-creating the endings to a series of fictional stories contained in a book that was written centuries ago. Most of the stories end with horrible deaths. And it appears that the killer is reserving a place in the last story for him...

It doesn't help that his step-daughter has discovered information about her previously unknown biological father and wants to meet him, and Bowers has to testify in the re-trial of a serial killer where the guilty man might be set free if Bowers tells the full truth.

The Knight was an exciting, fast-paced suspense novel. Though it has a who-done-it mystery to solve, it departed from the conventions of the mystery genre in one major way, so I'll simply call it a suspense or thriller. This book was the third in the series, but you can still follow what's going on even if you haven't read the previous books.

The details about the job and the setting brought the story alive in my imagination. The good-guy characters were realistic, varied, and dealt with realistic relational troubles in addition to the dangers and frustration of tracking the serial killer. However, I didn't find the bad guy realistic--he was more a lifeless but scary character out of a horror story.

I was left feeling disturbed and irritated by the ending rather than satisfied. This was partly because the mystery wasn't completely explained. Though the killer was one of the four people I suspected (due to opportunity and non-obviousness), it wasn't obvious that he had the full skill set needed for the crimes. We're never told how he got those needed skills. [SPOILER] And then he gets away at the end, thus escaping justice to kill again (like two of the other serial killers in this series if you count the next novel). While I can accept a killer potentially being freed to make a point about our justice system, one of the reasons I read mysteries is because the real murderer is always discovered and stopped. Steven James makes the killers sick, deadly psychos, but he's letting them get away. That's the stuff of nightmares and horror novels, not mysteries. [END SPOILER]

While one character was a Catholic, there wasn't really any religious talk. There was a political "our justice system doesn't work perfectly" theme, though. A very minor amount of bad language was implied. There was no sex. The level of violence was high, but the gore was often implied rather than graphically described. Though I was disappointed with it, I'd still recommend this novel to Steven James' fans as exciting, clean reading.

If you've read this book, what do you think about it? I'd be honored if you wrote your own opinion of the book in the comments.

Excerpt from Chapter One
Thursday, May 15
Bearcroft Mine
The Rocky Mountains, 40 miles west of Denver
5:19 p.m.

The sad, ripe odor of death seeped from the entrance to the abandoned mine.

Some FBI agents get used to this smell, to this moment, and after a while it just becomes another part of the daily routine.

That's never happened with me.

My flashlight cut a narrow seam through the darkness but gave me enough light to see that the woman was still clothed, no signs of sexual assault. Ten sturdy candles surrounded her, their flames wisping and licking at the dusty air, giving the tunnel a ghostly, otherworldly feel.

She was about ten meters away and lay as if asleep, with her hands folded on her chest. And in her hands was the reason I'd been called in.

A slowly decomposing human heart.

No sign of the second victim.

And the candles flickered around her in the dark.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

City of Veils by Zoe Ferraris

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City of Veils
by Zoe Ferraris

Hardback: 400 pages
Publisher: Little, Brown, and Co.
Released: August 2010

Author Website

Source: Review copy from the publisher.

Book Description from Book Flap, Slightly Modified:
Women in Saudi Arabia are expected to lead quiet lives circumscribed by Islamic law and tradition. But Katya, one of the few women in the police forensics lab, wants to become even more active in solving the cases that cross her desk.

When the body of a brutally beaten woman is found on the beach in Jeddah, the city's detectives view the case as another unsolvable murder--chillingly common in a city where the veils of conservative Islam keep women as anonymous in life as the victim is in death. If this is another housemaid killed by her employer, finding the culprit will be all but impossible.

But Katya is convinced that the victim can be identified and her killer found. She soon discovers that the dead girl was a young filmmaker named Leila, whose controversial documentaries earned her many enemies.

She asks her friend Nayir to help her with her investigation. While they follow up on what the city detectives view as a useless lead, Katya and Nayir meet an American woman whose husband has mysteriously disappeared. Is her husband somehow involved in their case? Their growing search takes them from the city's car-clogged streets to the deadly vastness of the desert beyond.

In CITY OF VEILS, award-winning author Zoë Ferraris combines a thrilling, fast-paced mystery with a rare and intimate look into women's lives in the Middle East.

About the Author:
Zoë Ferraris moved to Saudi Arabia in the aftermath of the first Gulf War to live with her then husband and his extended family of Saudi-Palestinian Bedouins, who had never welcomed an American into their lives before. She has an MFA from Columbia University and is the author of one previous novel, Finding Nouf. She now lives in San Francisco.

City of Veils is a mystery novel set in Jeddah, a port city in Saudi Arabia. It's the second book in the series, but this story didn't "spoil" the mystery in the first novel and I could follow what was going on without having read the previous novel. However, I think I'd still recommend reading Finding Nouf first since I suspect it's also a very good read.

The author kept me guessing who-done-it until the end. I figured it all out the same time the investigators did. The world-building was excellent, bringing the setting and culture alive in my imagination. I felt like this story really was happening over there because the characters and setting felt so realistic. (Well, there was one amazing coincidence near the end. It didn't have to do with the mystery, but how it occurred could have been more completely explained.)

The pacing was a little slower in the first 62 pages because the author focused on introducing the city, the culture, and the many characters. Once the main focus switched to solving the case, the pacing and tension picked up nicely. The tension was created by wanting to figure out the case, not knowing if a missing character was in danger or the murderer, wondering if the main women characters were going to get in trouble for pushing the cultural limits, and the relationship tensions between all of the characters.

The characters were mainly Muslims of varying devotion. The rest were atheists or didn't mention their beliefs. The Muslims and the American residents were portrayed realistically, with both the good and the bad. While the author understandably slanted the story in favor of women having more freedom in Saudi Arabia, I don't think most Muslims (especially American Muslims) would be offended by the novel.

There were a few Arabic terms used in the story, but they were either defined in the text or the meaning was obvious from the context. However, there was also a glossary in the back of the book. There was some bad language. There was one very brief (married) sex scene, but it wasn't explicit. The brief description of the dead body was graphic but not overly gory. Overall, I'd highly recommend this well-written, fascinating, and exciting novel.

If you've read this book, what do you think about it? I'd be honored if you wrote your own opinion of the book in the comments.

Excerpt from Chapter One
The woman's body was lying on the beach. "Eve's tomb," he would later come to think of it, not the actual tomb in Jeddah that was flattened in 1928, to squash out any cults attached to her name, nor the same one that was bulldozed again in 1975, to confirm the point. This more fanciful tomb was a plain, narrow strip of beach north of Jeddah.

That afternoon, Abu-Yussuf carried his fishing gear down the gentle slope to the sand. He was a seasoned fisherman who preferred the activity for its sport rather than its practical value, but a series of layoffs at the desalination plant had forced him to take up fishing to feed his family. Sixty-two and blessed with his mother's skin, he had withstood a lifetime of exposure to the sun and looked as radiant as a man in his forties. He hit the edge of the shore, the hard-packed sand, with an expansive feeling of pleasure; there were certainly worse ways to feed a family. He looked up the beach and there she was. The woman he would later think of as Eve.

He set his tackle box on the sand and approached carefully in case she was sleeping, in case she sat up and wiped her eyes and mistook him for a djinn.

Read more of chapter one.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

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Hunger Games
by Suzanne Collins

Trade Paperback: 374 pages
Publisher: Scholastic
First Released: 2008

Source: Borrowed from a friend.

Back Cover Description:
In the ruins of a place once known as North America lies the nation of Panem, a shining Capitol surrounded by twelve outlying districts. The Capitol is harsh and cruel and keeps the districts in line by forcing them all to send one boy and one girl between the ages of twelve and eighteen to participate in the annual Hunger Games, a fight to the death on live TV.

Sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen regards it as a death sentence when she steps forward to take her sister's place in the Games. But Katniss has been close to dead before--and, survival, for her, is second nature. Without really meaning to, she becomes a contender. But if she is to win, she will have to start making choices that weigh survival against humanity and life against love.

Review (Contains Minor Spoilers):
Hunger Games is a young adult science-fiction suspense novel. The premise--sending teens into a game that requires them to kill each other--also qualifies it as a horror novel, in my opinion.

The story was very exciting and fast-paced. For the first two-thirds of the story, there was barely a pause in the danger-laden action filled with unexpected twists. The world-building was very good and brought the story alive in my imagination. The characters were interesting, and there were many very nice characters risking themselves to help Katniss survive. I liked the potential of Katniss more than I actually liked her. She wanted to be nice, but she thought everyone was out for themselves so she rarely trusted others and her main goal was survival at whatever cost.

I read the book because my mentee wanted me to, because of the suspense, and because I thought Katniss would be pushed to the point of boldly defying the evil of the Hunger Games. But her main goal was to survive while avoiding conflict. Even her minor defiances stayed within the rules and she eagerly cooperated in trying to patch up any damage done by them to The Capital's power. She lied knowing it would be hurtful to someone she cared about and was willing to kill people she liked in order to survive. Only some fancy footwork on the part of the author kept Katniss from facing much moral dilemma about her actions and intentions.

By the time the Feast came about (near the end of the book), I had concluded that Katniss wouldn't stand up against the Hunger Games, no matter how cruel or how much she disliked them. By this point in the story, there were also a bunch of inconsistencies--including a critical one that meant the story wouldn't have played out the way it did. (Peeta said that his family only ate stale bread. Thus, Peeta's mother would never have told him to feed fresh, slightly-burned bread to the pigs--which formed the bond between Katniss and Peeta--when his family could have enjoyed the bread themselves.)

At this point, the pacing was also slower so I started to notice things like how fresh, unpreserved meat stayed good for days despite very hot days (it would have spoiled much sooner), how Katniss never thought to use the iodine for medicine when it might have made a big difference, how she hid some knives yet never thought to go back to get them when she needed them, and how she didn't even try to use her weapons when captured by an opponent intending to torture her to death.

In my opinion, it basically fell apart at the end, and I stopped caring about the story. Some readers might not catch the inconsistencies or care as long as there's great action, but I do.

There was no sex. I don't recall any bad language. The gore was left to the readers imagination. The novel was written in first person, present tense. Overall, it was a "clean" and exciting reading, but I was disappointed by the end.

If you've read this book, what do you think about it? I'd be honored if you wrote your own opinion of the book in the comments.

A Teen's Review:
My female 13-year-old friend loved it so much she could hardly put it down to do things like eat and sleep. She thought it was very exciting and didn't seem bothered by the violence or horror of the situation because she was sure the heroine would be fine. She's also the one who lent me the book.

Excerpt from Chapter One
When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim's warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.

I prop myself up on one elbow. There's enough light in the bedroom to see them. My little sister, Prim, curled up on her side, cocooned in my mother's body, their cheeks pressed together. In sleep, my mother looks younger, still worn but not so beaten-down. Prim's face is as fresh as a raindrop, as lovely as the primrose for which she was named. My mother was very beautiful once, too. Or so they tell me.

Sitting at Prim's knees, guarding her, is the world's ugliest cat. Mashed-in nose, half of one ear missing, eyes the color of rotting squash. Prim named him Buttercup, insisting that his muddy yellow coat matched the bright flower. He hates me. Or at least distrusts me. Even though it was years ago, I think he still remembers how I tried to drown him in a bucket when Prim brought him home. Scrawny kitten, belly swollen with worms, crawling with fleas. The last thing I needed was another mouth to feed. But Prim begged so hard, cried even, I had to let him stay. It turned out okay. My mother got rid of the vermin and he's a born mouser. Even catches the occasional rat. Sometimes, when I clean a kill, I feed Buttercup the entrails. He has stopped hissing at me.

Entrails. No hissing. This is the closest we will ever come to love.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

And the winner is...

It's time to pick the winner of The Gentlemen's Conspiracy by Nick Daniels. Using a random number generator and numbering the entrants in the order I received them, the winner is:

Katie G.

Congratulations! I'll be contacting you for your address.

For those who didn't win, you can always join in the fun by buying the book at your favorite bookstore!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Advice for Authors

1) Don't use movies for research. Every genre has it's cliches, and some are based on things frequently shown in movies. But, honestly, movies aren't very realistic.

2) Think things through. Also, imagine what a scene will look like and if the actions the characters are taking will really work.

3) Keep track of what you know versus what the characters know. For example, if the characters thought they were safe at the end of a scene, then it's odd when (because the author knows what's coming next) they're acting like they're not safe in the next scene. Or if they should be afraid but the author knows they won't be hurt so they act unafraid.

I'm not sure how this will go over, but...

[The scene wavers before you...Hero just saved Heroine from the bad guys in a suitably dashing, brave, and last-minute way.]

They raced to the nearest horse, sounds of pursuit behind them. Hero lifted Heroine up behind the saddle then vaulted onto the saddle in front of her...or at least tried to. His foot hit the horse's neck (much to it's annoyance) and his thigh hit the saddle horn. He fell face first over to the other side.

After recovering and acting like that had been his plan all along, he grabbed another horse. They rode off at a gallop. Luckily, the roads were straight and made of dirt for the horses might have slipped and fallen while making a sudden turn at that speed.

The next day, they halted their horses at a river. Cynical Reader waved at them from where she sat on a nearby boulder, but they ignored her as they dismounted.

Hero surveyed the situation. "If we swim to the other side, the hounds won't be able to follow our scent."

Cynical Reader piped up. "I thought you lost them in the rain yesterday."

Hero brightened. "Oh, yeah, right. Why are we pushing ourselves so hard, then?"

"On the other hand," Cynical Reader said, "The downpour was raining on you during your escape rather than after it. You left a bunch of muddy hoof-prints all the way to this river."

Hero frowned. "You mean the rain didn't wash our tracks away? I thought it would."

Cynical Reader pointed at the muddy trail behind them, but then relented. "Well, maybe some."

Heroine moved closer. "We followed a paved road part of the way, so we didn't leave tracks there."

Cynical Reader said, "And when they don't find tracks on the other side of that road, where do you think they'll look?"

"But they don't know which direction we went."

"They have lots of people after you. They can split up. Plus, the dogs can still track your scent since that was after the rain stopped."

Hero cut in. "If we release the horses and cross the river, they'll follow the horses, right?"

Cynical Reader shrugged. "Could be, but the horses won't go far. There's juicy grass right over there and you haven't let them eat in over a day."

"Ha! Easily fixed." Hero turned and smacked the butt of his horse. The tired horse cocked a back leg, looked back at Hero with its ears laid back, and considered whether it was worth kicking Hero or not.

"Nope. That only works in movies."

Just then, baying hounds followed by enemy warriors on horses burst from the forest into the unnatural clearing at the river's edge. Hero vaulted back into the saddle and charged his horse at the lead enemy. When they were close and Hero was set to swing his long sword/club/short-range weapon, both horses suddenly swerved away from each other.

"To fast," Cynical Reader commented. "Horses are smart. They don't want to hurt themselves by hitting against each other. Even with training, they don't like getting too close at high speed."

Hero, thinking fast, used his long-range weapon--which was capable of breaking bones, knocking people out, and so on--to send a projectile into the hand of the next enemy. The enemy dropped his weapon, cursed, and drew his knife, which he threw at the Hero.

"Um," Cynical Reader said. "Why didn't Hero use his long-range weapon first to eliminate as many foes as possible before he had to fight them one-on-one? And since he's a perfect shot--apparently even from horseback, though he's never practiced it there before--why didn't he use his long-range weapon to knock out his enemy? Not to mention, Heroine, you have a long-range weapon, you're good with it, and these guys want to do really bad things to you. Why aren't you shooting them?"

"Um." She said. "Because I'm admiring how brawny Hero is?"

And so the day went, with Hero and Heroine in more distress from Cynical Reader's constant remarks than from their pursuers.

--The End--

In The Days of Noah by Gloria Clanin

book cover

In The Days of Noah
by Gloria Clanin
Illustrated by Earl & Bonita Snellenberger

Hardback: 80 pages
Publisher: MasterBooks
First Released: 1996

Source: From my personal library.

Book Description, my take:
Noah and his sons faithfully build the Ark in a society that is filled with violence and corruption and that has many similarities with our own. The story follows Noah's family as they build the Ark, his sons find wives, Noah tells the people about the coming judgment, and they all face danger and scorn from those around them. By the time the animals come, Noah's family has angered many people and a mob heads out to burn the Ark with Noah's family in it!

The story portrays what life might have been like before the Flood, what the Ark might have been like (including how the animals would have been feed and cared for), and shows what life might have been like right after the Flood.

At the back of the book, the author answers 47 questions about the Flood and the Ark, ranging from questions about the geologic column and fossils to how the animals all fit on the Ark.

In The Days of Noah is an exciting tale for ages 8-12 based on the Bible's account of Noah and the Flood. The story stayed true to what is given in the Bible, but the author also filled out the story with details. Each page had a realistic-style, full-color illustration of the events happening in the text. However, it's not a picture book--there's a lot of text on each page.

The story flowed smoothly. The author wove in the details about what life might have been like before the Flood, how the sons found their wives, how Noah's family was able to care for the animals on the Ark, and such, without slowing the pacing or forcing the action to illustrate some point.

I gave this book to my teen reviewer when she was 10 years old. Several months ago (when she was still 12 years old), we pulled it out to read and she lit up with excitement. She kept telling us what was going to happen next as we read it (including remembering all of the character's names) and was practically bouncing on the couch. So kids will enjoy the story, want to read it again and again, and remember it fondly.

After the story, there was a nonfiction part that answered a number of questions the reader might have about the Flood and the Ark. It's written at a level that kids can understand and used questions they're likely to ask. Adults might want to read this section or refer their children to it when their kids start asking questions inspired by the story.

Overall, I'd highly recommend this book as well-written, exciting reading.

If you've read this book, what do you think about it? I'd be honored if you wrote your own opinion of the book in the comments.

Excerpt from Part One
Noah watched his sons bringing the elephants in for the noon break. He was proud of the fine men they were becoming. Lately, Noah often thought of his sons--and of the years ahead which he knew would be difficult for all of them. Fortunately, his was a close family, bound by their love of God and for each other. They would need the strength provided by these bonds.

Shem, the tallest of the three brothers, looked up and saw their father waiting for them under the shade tree on the rise. It was a rare treat for Noah to meet with his sons during the day. The family lands and business required much of his time.

Shem, Ham, and Japheth quickly dismounted their elephants and hurried to Noah. The day had grown unusually warm, and they were almost as eager to get in the shade as they were to see their father. They knew Noah had brought the noon meal with him. The three raced to see who could reach their father--and the food--first.

[Note: a picture shows the sons riding the elephants and directing them to move large logs around and into piles.]

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Heartless by Anne Elisabeth Stengl

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by Anne Elisabeth Stengl

Trade Paperback: 368 pages
Publisher: BethanyHouse
Released: July 2010

Source: Review copy provided by the publisher.

Book Description, my take:
Princess Una of Parumvir has turned 18 years old, and princes and nobles from neighboring kingdoms are coming to court her. The first prince, Aethelbald, arrives with a magical faerie market. Una resents his interference when he removes her from a situation she doesn't realize is dangerous, plus she finds him too practical. What she wants is a prince who will sing love songs about her beauty. The next prince to arrive does just that, but she's disappointed when reality still fails to match her romantic dreams.

Then Prince Aethelbald receives word that the Dragon who has been destroying Southlands is on the move. He warns the king that the Dragon is coming to make Una one of its own. Una's father dismisses the danger, so Prince Aethelbald leaves to deal with the Dragon as does another prince. But the Dragon still arrives, accompanying an invading army. He takes Una captive and chases her father and younger brother away. Can she, her family, or any of the princes save her from the Dragon before he breaks her to his will with lies?

Heartless is an enjoyable fantasy novel for young adults and adults (though teen boys probably won't find it quite as interesting since the teen girl gets more point-of-view time than her brother).

The world-building was excellent, skillfully immersing the reader in a unique and fantastical world without bogging the pace down with long descriptions or hard-to-pronounce names. The characters were engaging and complex. The princess and prince were occasionally arrogant, but overall they were admirable and brave.

Initially, the tension was created by wondering who Una would choose to marry, but I mainly kept reading because of the enjoyable humor woven into the story and the charming writing style. Then the story shifted into adventure mode where the tension was created by physical dangers but also by the question about whether or not the princess would chose to trust the right person. I had a hard time putting the book down once the adventure section began.

There was an underlying Christian allegory that I found very moving. The allegory wasn't overt, and I think the story would still be quite enjoyable and exciting even if the reader didn't realize the allegory--though they might think Prince Aethelbald's love for Una wasn't realistic (at least, for a human, so it's a good thing that he's not precisely human).

There was no sex or bad language (that we'd call bad language). Overall, I'd highly recommend this well-written novel as engaging, clean reading. I look forward to reading this author's future novels.

If you've read this book, what do you think about it? I'd be honored if you wrote your own opinion of the book in the comments.

Excerpt from the Prologue
Two children, a brother and a sister, played down by the Old Bridge nearly every day, weather permitting. None observing them would have guessed they were a prince and a princess. The boy, the younger of the two, was generally up to his elbows in mud due to his brave exploits as a frog catcher. His sister, though significantly more prim, was often barefoot and sported a few leaves and flowers stuck in her hair. She thought these romantic, but her nurse, when she brushed the princess's hair at night, called them "common," and said it with a distinct sniff.

This never stopped the princess, whose name was Una, from weaving daisies and wild violets and any other flower that fell under her hand into garlands and coronets, with which she festooned herself, thereby transforming from an ordinary princess--which was rather drab--into a Faerie Queen of great power and majesty. Felix, her brother, was never a Faerie. He, by dint of a few expert dabs of mud in the right places, made himself her gremlin guard instead and waged war against all her imaginary enemies.

Read chapter one.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Dark in the City of Light by Paul Robertson

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Dark in the City of Light
by Paul Robertson

Trade Paperback: 416 pages
Publisher: BethanyHouse
First Released: 2010

Source: Review copy from the publisher.

Book Description, my take:
Baron Harsanyi is a military attache at the Austrian embassy in 1870s Paris. As war between France and Prussia becomes increasingly likely, the need is high for mercury fulminate, an explosive. The Prussians already have a source. The English have the ability to manufacture it for both sides but need more cinnabar ore. France has no source.

Baron Harsanyi's wife owns a large cinnabar mine in Idria, but she refuses French and English offers to buy her ore. After the Baron's wife suddenly dies, he plays a dangerous game with the English, French, and Prussians to see who wants his cinnabar the most. Several would be happy to see the Baron dead in the hopes his son, Rudolph, would be more willing to sell to them.

Baron Harsanyi doesn't let his son in on his schemes, so Rudolph is left with increasing doubts and anger toward his father. When his father orders him to train to become a military officer but then refuses to let him fight with the French in the war, he gives in to his doubts and runs away.

The Baron's daughter, Therese, is so wrapped up in her romance with a dashing French cavalry officer that she doesn't notice the political intrigue surrounding her family until the war separates her from her beloved. With her mother dead, her brother gone, and her father increasingly absent, she worries about the changes pulling her family and world apart. But she's told there's nothing a young woman like her can do about it.

Are they right? Will the greed and need for cinnabar destroy the Harsanyi family?

Dark in the City of Light is a historical suspense novel set mainly in France in the 1870s. There was also a "who-done-it" mystery in this story, though that's not obvious at first. The "who-done-it" was also not obvious, though there were enough clues that the reader could guess the answer before the main characters did (since the characters were limited by their not knowing they needed to share those clues).

The world-building was excellent, vividly describing the locations, events, and politics of the time period. Because politics were a driving force behind much of the suspense, it's woven into the story and didn't slow the pacing. The suspense was from the physical danger to the various characters and the strain on the family relationships. The characters were interesting, complex, varied, and acted realistically. They dealt with realistic problems, and I cared about what happened to them.

The characters didn't believe in God (at least, not one active in human affairs). However, they had a habit of saying, "Only God could do that" with the implied assumption that He wouldn't. At the end, one character said that if a certain impossible thing did happen, it'd be proof God existed. You can guess what happens, but that's about the extent of the religious content.

There was no sex or bad language. Overall, I'd highly recommend this intriguing novel to those who enjoy clean, well-written historical suspense.

If you've read this book, what do you think about it? I'd be honored if you wrote your own opinion of the book in the comments.

Excerpt from Chapter One
On a violent, black winter evening, Baron Ferdinand Harsanyi in Paris received a telegram from his wife in Vienna. It was delivered to his lodging on the Rue de Saint-Simon, and by candlelight at his desk he read its three words, I AM ILL.

"Will there be a reply, monsieur?"

The messenger, an old man, shuddered from the cold and stood close to the fire. The heavy coat of his uniform seemed to do little to warm him. Outside, hard gusts of the tempest outside assailed the window. It rattled and shook in its casing and the wind whistled through it. These were the only sounds inside as the man stood shivering and the Baron Ferdinand sat, uneasy as the storm.

Finally, the baron took the form and touched his pen to the ink bottle. "Today is Monday?"

"Yes, monsieur."

He scribbled, WILL LEAVE TOMORROW ARRIVE THURSDAY. "There, take that."

The messenger returned reluctantly to the night, and Ferdinand stood and began to pace the room. His steps were silent on the thick carpet, a slow tread that soon became quicker and more troubled. His path was wall to wall beneath two portraits, one behind his desk, of the Austrian emperor, and the other opposite, of a woman. At last, he stopped beneath it. The woman, in her youth, with long black hair and striking features, was wearing the fashions of an earlier time. The baron faced her, looking up; he was two hard decades at least past his own youth.


His valet appeared.

"Yes, master."

"We'll depart tomorrow for Vienna. I'll call on the ambassador at his residence this evening to ask his leave."

"Yes, master."

Read more of chapter one.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Dragons of the Deep by Carl Wieland

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Dragons of the Deep
by Carl Wieland

Illustrated by Darrell Wiskur

Hardback: 80 pages
Publisher: Master Books
First Released: 2005

Source: Bought from New Leaf Publishing Group.

Book Description from Publisher's Website, slightly modified:
Could the stories about sea monsters be true? Did fearsome and marvelous creatures once roam the oceans? From the predator Mosasaurus, called the ocean equivalent of T. Rex, to the gigantic turtle Archelon, these beasts who glided through the planet’s oceans no doubt were the inspiration for ancient sightings by mariners who described fantastic encounters on the open ocean. As researchers discover teeth, bones, and fossils from these creatures, it's no longer easy to dismiss sea monsters as tall tales...and some gigantic sea creatures are still alive today! Wieland’s descriptions of these amazing creatures are complemented by the beautiful full-color illustrations by acclaimed artist Darrell Wiskur.

My Review:
Dragons of the Deep is a children's nonfiction book about huge sea creatures (marine reptiles and mammals, turtles, squid, fish and sharks) of both the past and present. Adults will enjoy the book as well. It covered 17 main sea monsters with a 4 page spread for each creature. The author discussed what we know about the creature and, if it's thought to be extinct, what fossil evidence this information was based on (bones, skin impressions, stomach contents, etc.). We're given the creature's name, length, weight, the location it (or it's fossils) have been found, and fun facts about what it ate or what legends might be based on it. There's a painting-style picture of what each creature might have looked like, pictures of live ones, pictures of the fossils, illustrations showing how large they were compared to common objects (like cars), and more.

Woven into this was information on how we can determine things about what the creature was like based on the fossils. Also, when discussing how and where the various fossils of the creatures were found, the author discussed how fossils are formed.

The book was written from a Christian perspective, so the author occasionally said things like "God created this creature..." or refered to Noah's Flood as creating many fossils. Overall, I enjoyed the book and thought it was very well done. I'd recommend it to children and adults who are interested in sea monsters.

If you've read this book, what do you think about it? I'd be honored if you wrote your own opinion of the book in the comments.

A Teen's Review:
I gave this book to a girl who'd just turned 13 years old. She was highly engaged by it, and, as she was reading, she kept looking up to say, "Hey, did you know that such-and-such was this big?" and other things she'd just learned from it. She read the whole book at one sitting, and I suspect she'll be going back to look at it again (once her other birthday gifts start to get boring ;)).

A magnificent predator, Mosasaurus, was a sea-dwelling reptile that has been called the marine equivalent of Tyrannosaurus rex--only much bigger. Known today only from fossils, mosasaurs (this is the name given to the whole group that includes Mosasaurus) came in a wide range of sizes. Some were truly huge. From their bones, it is estimated that some could have been up to 50 feet (15 m) in length, more than a four-story building on its side. If so, that would make such a creature the biggest predatory carnivore (flesh-eater) the world has ever known.

The bones of mosasaurs have been found on every continent of the world, including Antarctica. They had long, snake-like bodies, and would have used their long, sinewy tails to propel themselves powerfully through the water with a side-to-wide motion. These animals probably could not swim fast for very long distances, but would have been able to ambush their prey by surprising them, and outswimming them in a burst over a short distance. Their broad, paddle-like legs were primarily useful for steering.

They had a long, pointed head with powerful jaws containing many long, sharp teeth.

[There's more about the mosasaurus, but I'm quitting typing here.]

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Starlighter by Bryan Davis

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by Bryan Davis

Trade Paperback: 400 pages
Publisher: Zondervan
Released: 2010

Source: Review copy from the publisher.

Book Description from Back Cover, slightly modified:
Jason Masters has grown up hearing the tale that, long ago, people were taken through a portal to another realm and enslaved by dragons. He doesn't believe the story even though his brother does. For a slave girl named Koren, it's the stories of a human world that are considered pure myth by the knowledgeable.

But what if the tales are true?

When Jason receives a cryptic message from his missing brother, he decides to discover the truth about the portal and save the Lost Ones if it really exists. At the same time, Koren, a slave in the dragons’ realm, discovers she has a gift that could either save or help doom her people. As Jason and Koren work to rescue the enslaved humans, a mystic prophecy surrounding a black egg may make all their efforts futile.

My Review:
Starlighter is a young adult fantasy novel. There were several teen male and female main characters, so both boys and girls will probably enjoy it. The action was non-stop, and the story fast-paced. The world-building was very good. The author created unique societies and worlds (which included dragons and talking bears) without getting bogged down in description or made-up words. The suspense was created mainly by physical danger of one sort or another.

The main characters were teens that were varied, earnest, engaging, and cared about helping others. Only one minor teen character could quickly make good decisions under stressful circumstances, so most of the characters' troubles were brought on themselves through making one poor decision after another. By the end of the novel, I was feeling exasperated that they didn't seem to learn from some of their mistakes, but this wasn't pushed past the edge into unrealistic.

The story wasn't predictable, partly because the characters kept making poor decisions. Also, sometimes Jason would think, "Okay, if we do this, then they won't be able to do that." Though his reasoning didn't always make sense to me, I figured he knew more about his world than I did...but then he turned out to be wrong. So, basically, you learn not to trust his judgment. Luckily, near the end of this novel, he started to realize his problem of not fully thinking things through.

The Christian allegory was good but not obvious. I doubt it'd bother a non-Christian if they even noticed it. There was no bad language and no sex. Overall, I'd recommend this novel to teens as exciting, clean reading.

Update, 2/2/11: I'd highly recommend reading Masters & Slayers by Bryan Davis before reading Starlighter. It'll help you understand what's going on in Starlighter. Both novels are set during the same events but have different viewpoint characters, and the characters in Masters & Slayers know more about what's going on and drive many of the events in Starlighter.

If you've read this book, what do you think about it? I'd be honored if you wrote your own opinion of the book in the comments.

A Teen's Review:
My 13-year-old female friend also read this novel. She could hardly put it down, and she said, "there's never a dull moment." She can hardly wait for the next book in the series. I asked if she liked the characters. She said, "I liked Koren." But she mainly seemed to like the story because it had interesting worlds and suspenseful action (which are the story elements she focuses on the most).

Excerpt from Chapter One
Blood match. The words echoed in Jason's mind as he stood at his corner of the tourney ring and gripped the hilt of his sword. Like a beating drum, the announcer must have repeated that phrase a hundred times, as if the potential for bloodletting might whip the crowd into a frenzy.

Jason scanned the two-hundred-plus onlookers. Seated in the surrounding grassy amphitheater during the warmth of midday, they offered no cheers, no applause, just a low buzz signaling a rising anticipation. Jason Masters, a peasant boy, had advanced to the finals and faced the obvious favorite, Randall Prescott, son of the governor of all Mesolantrum. And with the final round came new weapons and new rules designed to pose a fresh challenge to a young warrior's expertise and courage.

Read the rest of chapter one.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Giveaway: The Gentlemen's Conspiracy

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I enjoyed The Gentlemen's Conspiracy by Nick Daniels so much that I've decided to hold a giveaway for my review copy.

You can learn more about the novel by reading my review.

This contest is for USA & Canada residents only.

To enter the giveaway:

1) you can twitter me saying "Hi @genrereviewer. Enter me in the giveaway for the historical suspense novel, THE GENTLEMEN'S CONSPIRACY by Nick Daniels."


2) You can leave a comment to this post asking to be entered. Please also leave some way for me to contact you--or follow this blog so you can see the winner announcement. I'd be fun if you also included why you're interested in reading this novel.

The winners will be randomly selected. I'll announce the winner at noon (Central Time) on August 19, 2010 on this blog.

If you entered using twitter, I'll send you a @ or DM telling you of your win and asking where to send the book. If you entered using the blog comments, you'll need to leave your e-mail address or check back to see if you won so you can e-mail me your mailing address. If the winner hasn't responded with a mailing address within four days, I reserve the right to pick a new winner.

I hope everyone has fun with this!

The Gentlemen's Conspiracy by Nick Daniels

book cover

The Gentlemen's Conspiracy
by Nick Daniels

Trade Paperback: 324 pages
Publisher: Risen Books
First Released: 2009

Author Website

Source: Review copy from the publisher.

Book Description from Back Cover:
London, 1836. A young aristocrat is murdered after finding incriminating letters from a secret society. When amateur geologist Daniel Young inquires about his friend’s murder, he discovers a plot to overthrow the king of England. Plunged into a crisis of faith and separated from the woman he loves, Daniel must stop the killer before becoming the next victim. He soon realizes that the conspiracy not only threatens to destroy the king, but the foundation of Christianity itself.

The Gentlemen's Conspiracy is a historical suspense novel set in London, England in 1836. There were also short scenes set in Paris, France, and England that start in 1744 and progress up to 1836. These showed the groundwork leading up to the events in the main story.

Historical personages such as Charles Lyell, Adam Sedwick, William Scrope, Henry Cole, Andrew Ure, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Jean-Baptist Lamarck, and William Pepys were characters in the novel. The author researched their writings and historical accounts about them so that he could accurately portray their views. However, he stated that their internal motivations and the interactions between them portrayed in the novel were made up by him.

The world-building was excellent and brought the story alive in my imagination. The historical detail was worked into the weave of the story without slowing the pacing. The information about the politics of the time and the changing views about the age of the earth was very interesting.

The story was fast-paced with the suspense mainly created by the danger to the lives of Daniel and those involved in the case. There was also some suspense over whether Daniel would be able to marry his sweetheart.

The characters were engaging, varied, and complex. They dealt with realistic problems, like the death of a close friend and the shaking of one's faith (in people and beliefs). I'll point out that the main characters were basically all males. The one female main character was barely involved in the case.

The Christian characters were portrayed in a realistic manner and with different shades of commitment to the Bible. Daniel was raised a Christian, but he lost his faith when the geologists he looked up to taught ideas that made him doubt the reliability of the Bible. As the novel progressed, he's shaken to realize that the people he trusted were withholding information from him (and others) so that he would blindly follow whatever they said.

There was no sex. There was a very minor amount of bad language. Overall, I'd highly recommend this novel as well-written and suspenseful clean reading.

If you've read this book, what do you think about it? I'd be honored if you wrote your own opinion of the book in the comments.

Excerpt from Chapter One
5:12 PM

A hand on his arm yanked Daniel out of his thoughts. He spun and saw Alexander emerge from the shadows of the half-closed entrance of the Geological Society's museum.

"What are you doing? I was about to go to the library to meet you. Did you finish your work for the day? We--"

"Let's go," Alexander said.

"You're all covered in sweat. What have you been doing?"

Alexander trotted down the stairs and Daniel followed, wondering what had gotten into his friend this time. He exited the society's apartments on the north wing of Somerset House and crossed the courtyard toward the street, walking fast.

"Alex! Would you wait for me?"

A cool fog had begun to set down on the city along with the sun. Merchants bundled in down coats roamed The Strand.

Read the rest of chapter one.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Tower of Babel by Jon Taylor

book cover

Tower of Babel
Illustrated by Jon Taylor

Hardback: 22 pages
Publisher: Master Books
First Released: 2007

Source: Personal library.

Book Description from Back Cover:
What is Babel, what happened there, and why is it so important? Many kids don't know the answers to these questions as biblical knowledge is becoming less and less of a priority in people's lives. This full-color book explains how the different languages and "races" came about. It has one large pop-up of the tower that stays up as you turn the pages and read the story. The stunning artwork is both beautiful and realistic (since the Tower is based on the actual worship towers that were built in ancient times). This fun book is a great way to teach biblical history.

Tower of Babel is a short children's picture book. The text used easy-to-understand words and was closely based on the Bible account. There was also a summary at the end reinforcing that this explains the origin of the different languages and 'races.' The illustrations were truly lovely. They were realistic, detailed, and looked like paintings. (The picture on the front cover doesn't accurately show just how lovely the inside illustrations are.) The pop-up of the Tower was nice, but it stays open at the top of the book as you read. I had to hyper-extend the book open to keep the pop-up out of the way of the pages when I turned them. I'd recommend this book to Christians looking for Bible "story books" for young children.

If you've read this book, what do you think about it? I'd be honored if you wrote your own opinion of the book in the comments.

Monday, August 2, 2010

The Bishop by Steven James

book cover

The Bishop
by Steven James

Trade Paperback: 528 pages
Publisher: Revell
First Released: Aug 2010

Source: Review copy from the publisher.

Steven James Launch Party!

Book Description, Slightly Modified from Back Cover:
FBI Special Agent Patrick Bowers's specialty is environmental criminology--tracking lawbreakers by analyzing the significance of the time and place at which the crime occurred. His cutting-edge skills are about to be pushed to the limit when a young woman is found brutally murdered in Washington DC. Her killers continue a spree of perfect crimes in the Northeast, but with nothing to link them to each other, Agent Bowers faces his most difficult case yet. Even as he tries to solve this frustrating case, his personal life begins to crumble around him. His stepdaughter's biological father starts a custody battle for her, and two women whom he admires want him to chose between them...or he's going to lose them both.

The Bishop is a fast-paced forensic/detective suspense novel. This is the fourth book in the series. Though you can follow what's going on without reading the others first, you'll probably understand it better if you start with the first novel, The Pawn. Also, reading this novel spoils the "who-done-it" mystery in several previous novels, so you'll want to read the others first if you plan to at all.

The novel had a somewhat bleak tone. Several of the "killed by violence" bodies were described in more graphic/gory terms than in his previous novels--though, oddly, I found these descriptions less chilling. The ones were he left most of the details to my imagination were more chilling. Also, this was the first novel in this series that I've correctly guessed "who-done-it" before the big revel. Part of the reason I liked his previous novels so much was because he's one of the few authors who can fool me on a mystery anymore, so I was a little disappointed by that.

The world-building was excellent, with the details about forensics, the case, and the city bringing the novel alive in my imagination. All of the aspects of the novel seemed very well researched. The tension was high throughout most of the story (with a few slight lulls). The suspense was created by the race to save a victim before she's killed, the potential physical danger to the main characters, and the relational tensions.

The characters were interesting, complex, and dealt with realistic issues outside of the case (like how to relate to a biological father or potentially losing a daughter in a custody battle). The author portrayed the main women in this novel as smart, competent, respected, and not trying to be men. As a woman, I liked that.

There was a minor, ongoing "what makes human's moral" discussion among the characters in relation to the case. The Christian view was vaguely presented. More detail was spent on scientific study promoting a "humans are animals, there is no god" viewpoint, though only a few minor characters seemed to wholeheartedly support that view.

There was no explicit sex or bad language. Overall, I'd recommend this novel as well-written and exciting clean reading.

If you've read this book, what do you think about it? I'd be honored if you wrote your own opinion of the book in the comments.

Excerpt from Chapter One
Two weeks later
St. Ambrose Church
Chicago, Illinois
6:36 p.m.

[Name deleted to prevent a spoiler of the previous novel]'s body lay grim and still in a lonely casket at the front of the church. I stood in line, nine people away from him, waiting for my chance to pay my last respects to my friend.

The air in the church tasted of dust and dead hymns.

Having spent six years as a homicide detective and the last nine as an FBI criminologist, I've investigated hundreds of homicides, but I've never been able to look at corpses with clinical objectivity. Every time I see one, I think of the fragility of life. The thin line that separates the living from the dead--the flux of a moment, the breadth of eternity contained in the single delicate beat of a heart.

And I remember the times I've had to tell family members that we'd found their loved ones, but that "their condition had proved to be fatal," that "we'd arrived to late to save them," or that "we'd done all we could but they didn't make it." Carefully worded platitudes to dull the blow.

Platitudes that don't work.