Along Came a Wolf (Yellow Hoods #1) – Adam Dreece

Yellow Hoods

Publish Date: April 4, 2014

Source: Free copy from the author, in exchange for a fair review; copies may be bought at the US and UK Amazon sites.

Format: E-book or Paperback (read by the reviewer as an E-book).

Pages: 221 pages

Synopsis: Someone is on the hunt for the steam engine plans, and believes that master inventor, Nikolas Klaus, has them. Thought dead by most, and forgotten by many, the quiet grandfather has been living for years in the sleepy mountain town of Minette, keeping his inventions mostly to himself and watching his granddaughter grow up.

Twelve-year-old Tee, and her two best friends, Elly and Richy, come together as the heroic Yellow Hoods in the face of life threatening danger. Whose side are the Cochon brothers on, and will they tip the balance? Will Nikolas’ ties to one of the secret societies cost him Tee’s life?

The world is 1800s-eque, with a thrilling history that is discovered throughout the series. Elements of fairy-tales are woven in, as if these were the real world events that inspired the tales and rhymes we know.

The book shifts to a darker tone part way through, as the initial view of the main characters transitions from naive and simple, to realizing life is anything but. It has been called “The Kingkiller Chronicles meets the Hunger Games” and the “Harry Potter of technology.”. (Source: Amazon product description.)

Short Version: My first foray into the world of Steampunk, and would make a great DreamWorks film.

Longer Version: For someone who hasn’t got kids, I’ve been reading a lot of awesome Kidlit recently, and this is no exception. I actually quit my usual practice of taking notes throughout because I was absorbed in the story which, after a slightly slow world-building beginning, falls into an absolutely cracking pace.

I have to say it outright – this is one of the most tightly-plotted kids’ fantasy books I’ve read in a long time. Every main character has a definite goal, whether it’s the villain who wants Nikolaus’s steam-engine plans, the sub-villain who wants the villain to pay him for said plans, or the sub-sub-villain who, poignantly, wants “to matter.” I find with a lot of fictional characters that they don’t engage me because they seem aimless, doing trivial things without any clear purpose behind them; that’s not a problem here.

Tee is a great heroine – a mixture of admirable, adult-like bravery and ingenuity, and the impetuosity that reminds us that she’s twelve years old. Unlike a lot of fiction aimed at kids this age, Tee’s backstory isn’t played for drama or angst. She is the product of a loving and supportive family, and the importance of that family’s support can’t be overstated in this instalment, anyway.

Andre LeLoup (literally translates as: the manly wolf) is an absolutely delightful villain. He doesn’t just scream “NO” when things don’t go his way; he uses multiple exclamation marks (see my above comment on how I think this would make an excellent DreamWorks film.) He’s a great mixture of campy and genuinely scary.

For someone who’s not otherwise very familiar with Steampunk, I found it fairly easy to adjust to (though the clash of archaic setting and extremely modern names and dialogue, while no doubt a feature of the genre, was a little confusing at first.) Dreece’s explanation of all sorts of apparatuses (apparati? meh) are written with a sure hand that inspired me, at least, to trust that he knows what he’s talking about…. or at least what he’s thinking about.

There are some delightful moments of subtle humour injected into even the most tense of scenes. Our Evil Overlord has a butler named Cleeves, a parental bonus unlikely to blip on the radar of a child. LeLoup tries to flip a table in a dramatic rage and finds it’s bolted down – then decides that the only thing to be done is to sit down and have a nice cup of tea. And there’s this pithy description of an aging army captain:

Even his gray mustache seemed to have gained weight.

There were a few moments where I felt as if the writing and characterisation could have been improved. Our three heroes, Tee, Elly and Richy, discuss the events of the day behind them in a flurry of clichés like “something evil out there”, “our fate is tied to it”, “some kind of test” and “time will tell”, all in as many lines of dialogue. In a couple of other places my suspended belief wobbled or just fell down, such as a twelve-year-old girl outrunning a villain on a horse and a guardsman shooting accurately at three hundred yards. (This character’s father remarks himself that it’s ‘nearly impossible’. I’ve written in my notes, “it IS impossible!”)

Minor picks aside, this was immensely entertaining and definitely something I’ll be suggesting to parents I know with children around Tee’s age.

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Operation Unity – Phill Syron-Jones

Unity

Publish Date: October 10th, 2014

Source: Free copy from the author, in exchange for a fair review; copies may be bought at the US and UK Amazon sites. Format: E-book or Paperback (read by the reviewer as an E-book).

Pages: 367 pages

Synopsis: Detective Samantha McCall and her team are brought in to investigate what appears to be random accidents and a mugging gone wrong. As the team investigate each of their assigned cases in soon becomes clear there is more to the deaths. Across the ocean in Great Britain, Detective John Steel prepares to leave his home town and return to New York after following a lead to his parents murder. However as he plans his return fresh information leads him on to a cruise ship and probably the deadliest case of his career. As the clock counts down on their cases one thing becomes clear, for one of them this may be their last case…ever. (Source: Amazon product description.)

Short Version: Evocative and twisty murder mystery that kept me reading, though let down in the technicalities of storytelling.

Longer Version: My “shorter version” might seem familiar, because it’s word-for-word how I felt about Syron-Jones’ first outing into the world of John Steel, Rise of a Phoenix. You can find that review here. The author’s strength in Phoenix was definitely his attention to detail (particularly the twisty, complicated ones to do with bombs, guns, and the military – an area of expertise for him). It’s the same here, with so much colour and texture thrown into his action sequences that I completely suspended my belief and believed every word he wrote. He also throws in some wonderful details more reminiscent of horror than straight-up thriller, such as this beauty, when our hero John Steel is inspecting a body:

When he looked closer, Steel could see that someone had pushed cocktail umbrellas into the flesh of the man’s face.

I don’t know any other writers who could possibly have written that line, and it’s what makes Jones’s writing unique.

It’s good to see old characters return, especially John Steel and Samantha McCall. When the story begins they are separated by an ocean and some misunderstandings, though lovers of romance needn’t worry – they are brought together in great detail.

I also gratefully welcomed back small but colourful characters from the previous book, as well as some intriguing new ones.

Once again I was ambivalent toward the main character himself, John Steel, particularly in a couple of the earlier chapters as he gets his bearings on a cruise ship. There are lots of instances of his physical attractiveness being pointed out, which felt intrusively authorial (“have I mentioned my character is hot? Because he’s hot” stuff). There’s also a running sort of gag where every woman who so much as looks at him is apparently floored by his attractiveness. It felt like I was being informed Steel is attractive, rather than shown his attractiveness. To me, his attractiveness came to the fore through his quirky sense of humour, such as his trying to explain his way out of being roughed up by some threatening-looking goons with a lesson on spelling.

In most other departments, Jones really puts in the hard yards at description, particularly character description, giving each of his creations time and opportunity to shine. This throws the pacing out slightly – he sometimes dedicates the same amount of time to describing a serious plot twist as he does describing a waitress who has one line of dialogue, who is not seen again once she has taken her order and walks “offstage.”

The pacing was also thrown a little by the formatting – often a new paragraph begins with a new point-of-view character in a new location at a different time, with nothing really separating it from the scene before, as was the case while I was reading Phoenix.

Phoenix also had some spelling, grammar and punctuation errors that negatively affected my reading experience, which I feel is an issue with a book being sold to the general public. The quality of work between Phoenix and Unity is improved, though in some cases there were still a few punctuation mistakes and awkward turns of phrase.

I won’t spoil the plot for you, but will instead say that it is very tightly plotted, with loads of thrills and spills and explosions and dead people, and it would make for an excellent action film. Jones’s style is so strikingly visual; the quick, immediate scenes so clearly written with cinema in mind. And, of course, the ending is both satisfying in terms of this instalment of John Steel’s story, as well as setting up the probability of a sequel.

The Scrapdragon Book 1 – An Adventure Begins – Nigel Edwards

Scrapdragon

Publish Date: November 14, 2014

Source: Can be found on Amazon’s AmericanUnited Kingdom and Australian sites.

Pages: 150

Synopsis: Tom Burrow (Tom-Tom to his friends) happens to be 12 years old – in fact, the adventure begins on his 12th birthday when he visits a fairground with his two best friends, Tinker and Tariq. Unfortunately, they are seen by some bullies from their school, and have to run for it! A November mist aids their escape and they find themselves at a shooting gallery, where Tom-Tom spots a prize on a shelf and decides he wants to win it. He pays his money to the man behind the counter, and… (Source: Amazon product description)

Short Version: Not a Harry Potter knockoff. It follows a tradition of the best of British children’s literature, as well as being a great story in its own right.

Longer Version:  Whenever I read stuff on my Kindle with an aim to review it, I take notes at various places. They don’t tend to be long or particularly erudite notes, generally “love” “lol” “SPaG”, “ew”, etc. When I took notes for the first volume of The Scrapdragon, I found myself writing the names of various authors: CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien, Enid Blyton (yes, shut up, I love her), Douglas Adams, JM Barrie, Terry Pratchett, Lewis Carroll… and all this in a good “this reminds me a little of them” way, not “this is ripped off!”

This has been likened by at least one reviewer to the Harry Potter series, which was and is a compliment. I don’t know if it’s particularly apt, though, because in reading through it I barely thought of Rowling at all. Yes, it’s a fantasy series that revolves around a group of three children, two boys and a girl. That’s… pretty much the only similarity that leapt out at me.

Anyway, if I want to read the Harry Potter series, I’ll go read the Harry Potter series. If I want to read some Kid Lit I enjoyed more than the Harry Potter series, I’ll read The Scrapdragon series.

Edwards nails the narration style, one that nudges constantly at the fourth wall without become overly cute or preachy. His main character, Tom-Tom Burrows, is an extremely likable kid, being neither a saint nor a brat, and the close third-person point-of-view Edwards uses is excellent for getting inside his head. He’s thoughtful and brave, but he’s still very much twelve years old. The character of his friend Tariq is also drawn nicely. Tariq is a boy who is quiet, inclined to be timid, earnest and “sometimes a bit literal.” Tariq is also an Arabic name, something that exactly nobody points out, which is brilliant. There’s no dull moral lesson about multiculturalism here. Edwards just shows us some kids being friends. The character of Tinker was less fleshed-out, I felt (more on that later.)

There’s loads to love about this book. Said Scrapdragon’s stilted style of speech is lamp-shaded nicely when Tinker repeatedly complains she has no idea what he’s on about, and his bruised dignity is also a lot of fun. The Scrapdragon’s real name is Optimus Draconis Ferric Metallica (Great Dragon Iron Metal, roughly) and these parental bonuses made me giggle throughout – there’s also, among others, a captured Duke named Veritas (truth) and a Duchess named Beneficientia Ardour (Kindness and love. That one turns out to be a doozy!)

And of course, there’s some toilet humour thrown in. Kids love that stuff. Grown-ups don’t always, but it was treated here with enough balance that I was as delighted as your average nine-year-old. Did you ever wonder what Metal Dragon poo looks like? Edwards has that one covered. There’s a terrible incident with some giant worms, and a sort of giant weasel called “Mr Snuffles” for a very disgusting reason.

And then there are grabbits. I won’t spoil what grabbits are, but I sort of want one for a pet now.

My only major stumbling point when reading was the character of Tinker, the girl of the trio known as the ‘Terrible T’s.’ She’s an American tomboy and while her character is as endearing as the others, she feels a little superficial. It seemed obvious to me that Nigel Edwards has been an English boy, but has never been an American girl. (To be fair, I’ve never been an American, either.) Some of the slang and style Tinker uses seems dated, which is unsurprising considering that Edwards has been working on this series for years. And, of course, slang changes so fast that once you commit it to print, it’s become obsolete almost immediately.

I don’t often point out gender issues in books, but I do consider it when I’m reading children’s literature. There’s a great balance in this book, particularly when the children come across married couple, Zander and Zola. When they are considering “questing forward” on a trip to faraway Castletown, this exchange made me grin:

“Who else is coming?” Tariq asked. “You said you’d bring two men with you?”

Zander shook his head. “I said comrades, not men. Zola will accompany us.”

His wife smiled. “Zander and I always deal with important matters together,” she said. “We are a team.”

And when Tinker is disappointed that she’s given a slingshot and not a sword like the boys, Zola builds the girl up and explains all the reasons why slingshots are better than swords, anyway. Definitely meets the Bechdel Test (this is a benchmark in fiction where at least two named female characters have a conversation about something other than a man. You’d be horrified by how many works fail it.)

I did also ponder the book’s target demographic, children aged approximately nine to twelve years. The content and writing style seem perfectly geared toward this, of course. But its format may work against it – I know two lovely girls aged nine and eleven who would probably love this series, but they don’t own Kindles and their parents are leery about letting them read off screens instead of paper. I don’t have kids of my own and have no idea how common those sort of parental feelings are, but it may be that not having a paperback version is excluding some of its potential reader base (which it heartily deserves. If this were published by a Big Important Publishing House and marketed properly, I have zero doubts at all that it would sell.)

Lastly, Edwards has managed to achieve what I thought would be impossible – create sympathy and warmth in me toward a character who is a spider. I’m deeply arachnophobic, so you can imagine my surprise at how genuinely moved I was. I won’t spoil the last lines in this volume, but they are beautiful, and you should definitely read them for yourself.

The Finger People – BD Bruns

The Finger People

Publish Date: February 15, 2015

Source: Smashwords. You can download it for free here.

Length: 28,070 words

Synopsis: A fine study of Civil War squalor and carnage, The Finger People spotlights the Union attack on the Confederate stronghold Fort Henry, where a timid rebel cook discovers something even grislier than the usual horrors of war: the Finger People.

Short Version: The most heartwarming short story about murderous bug-eyed freaks you will ever read in your life.

Longer Version: Well, maybe my “short version” put brevity above strict accuracy. This story (originally available as part of an anthology, Gothic Shift) is about a lot of things, including the murderous bug-eyed freaks. Mostly, though, it’s a study in the character development of one of the most engaging, sympathetic protagonists I’ve read recently, Frank Billinghouse, known to his mom as Francis.

He may not be big and brave like the boys [Confederate soldiers], like Jimmy, but he could make a difference. Jimmy said so, anyway.

There ya go, that’s on the second page and sums it all up. Frank, a cook with the Confederate Army, plagued with the fear of his older brother Randy and fuelled by his love for Jimmy Gambauer, finds himself caught up in the siege of Fort Henry. A series of events lead him on the trail of his beloved idol Jimmy, a man who once saved his life and who Frank must save from the Union troops and, more urgently, from The Finger People.

It’s hard to discuss this book without spoiling it.

Frank is a pathetic character, in both senses of the word. He’s a grown man, but he acts like a child, vacillating between wide-eyed wonder, restless energy and fawning on anyone he looks up to. He is a cook, not a soldier; in fact, he can’t even swim. During a moment of high danger, for example, he gets wildly excited because he finally understands why the Rebel army called the Union boats “turtles.” But for all that I did spend some of the book wanting to slap him and order him to behave like a grown-up, he can also be incredibly endearing. The danger he finds himself in is real and immediate, and he responds with everything ranging from cunning to stupidity. It makes for gripping reading.

Bruns’ style is easy to read without being simple, and his attention to detail and research is a delight (this is the second book I’ve read in a month that at least mentions the American Civil War, and I learned loads of interesting things.) At one point, Frank picks up a gun, expecting to know how to fire it immediately; it’s a model he’s never used before, and he hasn’t the faintest clue. It’s little things like that that really catch me as a reader. I’m not interested in reading about a hero who can pick up an 1860s rifle and just shoot the nearest bad guy in the face with it at 200 yards. The structure of this short(ish) story is also incredibly tight, including a plot device that not only serves as Chekhov’s gun (an object introduced earlier must be relevant later) but as character development for three different people. Brilliant.

Bruns also uses a lovely little conceit in his writing, where he blatantly signals when something interesting is about to happen, like this, serving for the end of a chapter:

Then happened the most shocking thing of all – certainly the strangest.

Strange and shocking, say you? Oh, I’m definitely reading on. I did this until 2am – I couldn’t stop. (Non-spoiler: yes, the signalled event was both strange and shocking.)

So let’s talk about The Finger People themselves. The way Bruns describes them is deliciously creepy – their claw-like long fingers, huge, perfectly round eyes, and their… strange eating habits. Yet most of this horror is extremely subdued, a great example of less-is-more. In fact at one point, they are described as behaving like “prey” themselves – leaving a beautifully unasked question of exactly what kind of a creature calls them dinner.

If Bruns wants to write that story too, I’ll be all over it.

Too Dark To See – JJ Ozzy

Too Dark to See

Publish Date: February 11, 2015

Source: Amazon. Can be found on the American and English sites.

Format: E-book

Pages: 150 pages

Synopsis: Will keeps all the lights on in his house. Every closet, lamp, bedroom, and stove light stays on, regardless of the time of day. Bad things happen in the darkness. She hides in the shadows.

But as the stress of writer’s block sets in, and the paranoia that his wife is cheating on him eats at his thoughts, Will finally turns to the darkness for help. (Source: product description on Amazon.com)

Short version: Intense, dark, superbly written tale of addiction and mental illness.

Longer version:

A book about mundaneness would kill people with mundaneness.

So says our anti-hero, writer William Godfree, and he’s only right up until a point. Too Dark to See is a case in point. It’s set on a small stage, focused on Will’s mental landscape and almost never moving physically from the confines of his home. A guy lying on his sofa with all the lights on. Sounds mundane, right? Nope.

Will’s mind is a frightening place, but never a mundane one. The narrative never goes into too much detail about what is actually wrong with him beyond an alcohol problem, but it’s obviously… quite a lot.  He vacillates between pathetic self-pity and frightening bursts of irrational rage at Maya, his wife. The effect is absolutely riveting, because Will is the one telling this story, and we have no idea which of his perceptions to believe and which to write off. Is he just being paranoid about Maya cheating on him, or is this going to be one of those “all because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you” scenarios? The dissonance between Will’s compliance, sometimes affection toward Maya, and the violent rage in his head is genuinely frightening, as in this exchange with his wife:

“I’m fine.”

“Are you? Really? Do you have any idea what you put me through sometimes?”

WHY DON’T YOU ENLIGHTEN ME YOU FUCKING WHORE!

Stephen King, and probably many other writers, have put forward the idea that true horror hits you in some secret psychological place. The Amityville Horror isn’t about a haunted house, it’s about being trapped in a mortgage you can’t afford. Poltergeist is about children growing up and developing independent mental worlds their parents can’t enter. B-movies of the 1950s such as Them! aren’t so much about giant ants/blobs/spiders etc; they’re about the very real Cold War fear of nuclear war. We find these things terrifying because they’re plausible; sometimes they happen, and to ordinary people like us. And here, the terror is: when my mentally ill/addicted loved one smiles and tells me he’s fine, is he mentally screaming at me that I’m a fucking whore, and planning to violently kill me?

How would you know or not, right? Until it was too late?

Will’s breakdown is shown in awful detail, from his struggle to keep a grip on who and what is real or not (at one point he fails to recognise his wife’s car), to his losing battle with drinking, to his slowly dismantling his own writing career. This last one in particular felt painfully real to me. It will probably ring true with any reader who’s suffered a severe bout of depression, the kind that makes you know you’re going to get fired if you don’t go to work, but not be able to care enough to actually get up and go. As time goes on he begins writing a self-insert, a protagonist named Will who has a wife named Shay. He is convinced she is cheating on him, and forms plans to murder her. As the book goes on, it’s difficult for the reader to tell the “real” Will from his character Will. And the really scary thing is, the “real” Will is having the same problem.

All this in beautiful, vivid, almost stream-of-consciousness prose. It’s actually a little frustrating in itself that a man whose narrative has so much spice in it could possibly be suffering from writers’ block:

My voice falls flat to the ground inches from my feet. An abortion. I try again. Another failure. I dare not move. The darkness is too strange to me. I fear it.

Will is a fascinating protagonist, but not a wholly sympathetic one. In some passages he can be witty, charming and even funny (I got a genuine giggle out of his pondering leaving his body behind: “Bye-bye sonofabitch! I’m off to the formless!”) But beyond his dark, violent tendencies, he’s also hopelessly self-centred. On one occasion, just a paragraph after discovering his wife has hocked her wedding ring to pay for him to stay home and write, he moans, “why is it always me who has to change?” I wanted to lunge through my Kindle and strangle him.

Any criticisms I have about this book really are of the petty variety. The cover, and the by-line “A psycho thriller”, don’t capture the “essence” of the book’s content for me and may mislead readers as to what kind of book they’re about to read, and the sophistication of the contents. They seem more appropriate to pulp-fiction gore than this sophisticated, psychological foray.

I did find the sex scenes a little awkward, mainly because they seemed to contain almost every euphemism for sex and the sexual organs imaginable. Is Will the kind of guy to refer to his wife’s “womanhood” and then just call it a “pussy”? It’s possible I missed the nuances of Will’s emotion there, but I found it a bit distracting (I also think “pussy” has to be one of the unsexiest words in the English language, however in-character it might be for Will to use it!)

I think we have established I am about as qualified to judge the quality of literary sex scenes as your average novice in a convent.

The supporting characters, including Maya, are minimised, but it feels right that someone like Will would minimise them in trying to explain his self-centred, unstable view of the world. One character besides Will who will leave you with a strong impression is Anima. I won’t spoil who Anima is, or how this story turns out, but the ending is brilliant.

I’m glad to have read this one.