Saturday, March 23, 2024

Reader's Review: "Belle the Beast Tamer" by Pauline Creeden

Synopsis from Amazon:

Belle Parisi didn't know she was a shifter until she was twelve years old—the same day that her mother died. Since then, her father sent her to Wonderland Guardian Academy in Virginia to protect her from the same people who hunted her mother. Shifters become the animal that most reflects their inner being, and for her and her mother, a tiger was found at their core.

Now at seventeen, she's more than ready to graduate and get on with her life, and maybe return home to the small town in Italy. But when she's caught shifting off school grounds, she's given a task instead of a punishment. Another shifter has been discovered hiding out not too far away in the Appalachian Mountains—a dragon shifter.

Belle's not sure exactly what kind of personality brought out the dragon in the man she's hunting, but it couldn't be good...

My Review:

All the way back in 2019, I got on a massive fairy tale retelling kick that sent me in the direction of Pauline Creeden. I loved her excellent take on The Little Mermaid with Verona: A Mermaid's Tale, so I went into the first book, Red: the Wolf Tracker, with all kinds of hope.

You can read the review >here< to learn whether or not it paid off.

Anyway, about a year later I bought the box set of the Wonderland Guardian Academy series on a book-buying spree, and now at last, five years later, I've finished the next book in the series. Belle's story was longer than Red's, and for that I can be grateful--and yet there were some highs and lows about my reading experience with this one.

First of all, I want to list all the great things about this book: Belle is a tiger shifter, like her mother. I loved that, even though it felt kind of cliche that she would get in trouble with the school administrators for shifting--but at the same time, looking back it might feel more like the whole "getting in trouble" factor was more of a set-up to get her in the room so that she can be commissioned to track a dragon shifter (the "beast" of the fairy tale) who has apparently gone rogue.

So not only do we have tiger shifters, but dragons as well. Score two!

Belle is tasked with tracking the dragon, but in the process of searching the rumored territory, she ends up at an abandoned cottage where she uncovers a conspiracy cover-up that makes it seem like the Guardians she's trusted all her life aren't so trustworthy after all. The owner of the cottage discovers her and takes her prisoner (shades of the "damsel being held prisoner" from the original fairy tale!), but as the tension cools between them, the two end up teaming up to try and investigate what the Guardians are trying to hide, and what it has to do with Belle, and most of all why they had her tracking down the dragon in the first place!

It's a neat story that I enjoyed from start to finish. It felt much less rushed than the first book--albeit there were still some pacing issues, some places moving too slowly, while jumping too quickly from one beat to the next at other points. But it's a solid retelling, with interesting characters, great closure, and further contributing to a larger series arc that promises to pay off very well over the course of these urban fantasy tales!

I'm giving Belle the Beast Tamer a solid *****4.5 STAR***** rating. It's not the most perfect retelling I've ever read, but it's very well-done, it's a spiffing urban fantasy story with plenty of plot that doesn't necessarily involve romance between the characters! If you like shifter stories, fairy tales, and you're looking for good clean urban fantasy, definitely give the Wonderland Guardian Academy a look!

Further Reading: (Also By The Author/Urban Fantasy/Fairy Tale Retelling)
Verona: The Complete Mermaid Tales--Pauline Creeden
The Firebird Fairy Tales--Amy Kuivalainen
       -The Cry of the Firebird 
       -Ashes of the Firebird 
       -Rise of the Firebird
Lord of the Wyrde Woods--Nils Visser
     -Escape From Neverland 
     -Dance Into The Wyrd 
The Bhinian Empire--Miriam Forster
     -City of A Thousand Dolls 
     -Empire of Shadows
The Valiant Series--Joanna White
The Portal Prophecies--C. A. King
     -A Keeper's Destiny 
     -A Halloween's Curse 
     -Frost Bitten

Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Reader's Review: "Alienation" by S. E. Anderson

Synopsis from Amazon:

Sally Webber's dream is coming true: Zander is back and taking her out for a night on the town--on a planet hundreds of light years away from Earth. But when an accident separates her from her alien tour guide, she’s thrown into the seedy underbelly of an insane city where nothing is as it seems.

Suddenly lost and desperate to get back home, Sally is willing to do anything to get out, even if it means accepting spontaneous marriage proposals, crashing some fancy parties, or joining what appears to be the space mob.

All she wanted was some decent interstellar pizza, but now it might be the end of the world as evil nanobots and an out-of-control AI try to take the universe by force, and the only one who can stop them is missing in action. Sally has no choice but to try to stop them herself--if she can stay alive that long.

It was back in 2019 when I finally got around to reading this book I'd been seeing hyped, not only on the author's page, but also in some writing groups we shared. I went in hoping against hope that it wasn't going to be some kind of smutty alien/human romance, that I would at least find something in at least one character that I found relatable, ready to abandon the story if it got too dramatic for my tastes.
It was one of the most entertaining books I read in 2019. I loved it through and through. So the next time I had a gift card to spend on ebooks, I definitely knew I was going to pick up the next two books in the series!

Which brings us to Alienation, my foray back into the Starstruck Saga after three and a half years. It was like I never left. Anderson picks up right where she left off, and takes Sally, Blayde, and Zander on another wild galactic chase. What begins as just a quick planetary "tour" so Sally can see what life is like on the other side of the galaxy ends up stranding her in the strangest sidetrack she has ever faced. From the most bizarre case of food poisoning (betrayed by pizza, no less!) to ending up in the underbelly of the towering city with no means of returning to the elevated portion, an almost forced marriage, being roped into a high-stakes heist, and infiltrating a government-sponsored party, to trying to stop a sentient computer program from taking over the planet... Sally Webber wanted to see the galaxy, and she's beginning to find out just how big it all really is!

This is where Anderson shines, with her diverse alien races and cultures to match, each one relevant through Sally's basic sensibilities and yet completely foreign to anything we have here on our little planet--I may have only read two of her books so far, but I am seeing a pattern emerge from her of every story being littered with unique and yet relatable characters, eclectic personalities, and always some little detail that presents itself as a clear sign that they aren't all "humanoid." The fact that this is a ten-book series is a feat in itself--but I have a feeling each book is going to be more enthrallingly bizarre and mind-blowing than the last!

I would give Alienation the full *****5 STARS***** rating. Every aspect of the novel was on-point, and I can't wait to see how this series of adventures unfolds! If you're someone who likes a good space-based sci-fi adventure led by a smart, capable, curious woman, and full of creative alien races and spectacular worlds, but without the heavy dependence on romance that a lot of these "space travel" novels typically contain... then I can confirm that the Starstruck Saga is just the thing for you!

Further Reading: (Space-Based Adventure/Awesome World-Building/Sci-Fantasy)
The Children of Dreki--N. R. Tupper
The Chronicles of Lorrek--Kelly Blanchard
        -Someday I'll Be Redeemed 
        -I Still Have A Soul 
        -I'm Still Alive 
        -Do You Trust Me? 
        -You Left Me No Choice 
        -They Must Be Stopped 
        -Find Me If You Can
The PSS Chronicles--Ripley Patton
       -Ghost Hand 
       -Ghost Hold 
       -Ghost Heart 
       -Ghost Hope

Tuesday, January 30, 2024

Reader's Review: "Hemlock" by Jesse Teller

Synopsis from Amazon:

The busiest pirate bay in Perilisc is newly infested with vampires. These monsters will soon overrun the world, but the Manhunters must try to stop them in secret. Agents of the king are hunting Rayph's vigilante crew. With one false step, they could all end up at a royal execution.

My Review:

A little over three years ago, I started this trilogy after having my introduction to grimdark fantasy well in hand, and enjoying the gratuitous use of Avengers-like superpowers in addition to all the violence and grittiness of your typical grimdark.

Then last fall I started reading the second book--and realized I'd forgotten a lot about where the story was at and what the characters were up to. I've even fallen out of reading grimdark in recent months... it just hasn't been something I've read in a while.

I think that was my first problem when approaching this book. Second, where Song was introductory, more flashy and action-oriented, bringing the readers into a world they hadn't encountered before, genre-blending in a way that few have tried... Hemlock just gets DARK. VERY QUICKLY. Perhaps even more horror-leaning with its subject matter. Last time it was sorcerers and thugs and dark alleyways. Now it's vampires and ruthless pirates and seedy brothels.

The world-building is still on-point, and the descriptions are absolutely gut-wrenching. One thing I found a little disappointing, and probably the reason it took me so long to get through it, is that it didn't do as good a job of referring back to the first book as a sequel ought to do. There was just so much going on in this book with characters that I may or may not have remembered (if indeed I was supposed to remember) from the first book, I could see how there might not have been time to rehash previous events, especially if what happened before would not necessarily be relevant to what is now current. But that just meant that only a few characters had any sort of context attached to them, and the rest, well... it was like walking into a conversation between friends that you'd only known in passing--they're carrying on like they've known each other for years, but you're stuck trying to get yourself oriented and acquainted with them. The battle scenes were suitably action-packed and there were some emotional moments in the plot that I found very touching. The torture scenes I didn't entirely appreciate. The new side character, Aaron the Marked, was a highlight of this book, and I enjoyed his arc very much.

Suffice to say, Hemlock does what it sets out to do, and for that I can rate it ****4 STARS****. I might be falling out of my initial taste for it--the glamour of the first book has worn off, it seems, and now that the story seems to be sliding down a slippery slope of increasingly savage imagery and nightmare fuel, and fewer characters I am drawn to in the main cast, I am less inclined to finish off the story--maybe things might have developed differently if I had read the whole trilogy all at once, rather than splitting it up like this.

If you're an avid fan of horror and grimdark, and things like intense gore and violence described in vivid detail don't scare you, then you might pick up the Manhunters Trilogy for a new world to explore.

Further Reading: (Epic World-Building/Vampires/Sword-And-Sorcery/Dark Fantasy)
The Chronicles of Lorrek--Kelly Blanchard
        -Someday I'll Be Redeemed 
        -I Still Have A Soul 
        -I'm Still Alive 
        -Do You Trust Me? 
        -You Left Me No Choice 
        -They Must Be Stopped 
        -Find Me If You Can 
-A Change in Crime--D. R. Perry
The Firebird Fairy Tales--Amy Kuivalainen
       -The Cry of the Firebird 
       -Ashes of the Firebird 
       -Rise of the Firebird
Tales of the Fallen--Katika Schneider

Monday, January 29, 2024

The Upstream Reader: Ranked Reads From 2023!

Reading in 2023, all things considered, was abysmal, if I do say so myself. According to Goodreads, I only read 17 books in total, and of those 17, only 7 of them were Reader’s Reviews books. That is why I chose to divide up my usual “complete Upstream Update” post into two parts, instead of talking about all of everything on one long post. So, without further ado, here’s a ranked list of all 17 books I read in 2023!

17–A Tree of Bone and Mist by Melissa E. Beckwith

Starting off fairly strong with this one! Just your garden-variety portal fantasy with a female MC with a chip on her shoulder thrust from her mundane Montana ranch life with her domesticated pet wolf (which was never explained
how she ended up with an actual wolf, not a “wolf-like dog” or even a “wolfdog”, just a straight-up wolf!) into a fantasy world where she’s somehow connected to the lost royal family and possessing special powers and hence all the evil forces that would like to have said power for themselves are all gunning for her and she has to find her footing and get to safety even though nothing in this new world is remotely safe because she has no idea where things are or what she’s supposed to be doing… it was a trip, the world-building was awesome, but it just didn’t hit me in the fantasy feels. To read my full review, follow >this linked text<

16–What The Chat Dragged In by Cyn Mackley

With as much as I really enjoyed the Goode-Grace Mysteries, I was hoping to put this a little higher on the list… but with all things considered, and how few books are on this list in the first place, this isn’t half bad! It carries Mackley’s signature charm in her main characters and the pages of tantalizing food that’s introduced throughout the adventure–but I think the thing that sort of downgraded it for me was the subject matter.
FMC is a federal forensic investigator, so she sees (and thus the reader “sees”) a lot of really sick and twisted stuff… and MMC turns out to be a survivor of abuse and trauma himself, so while on the one hand it makes for a really sweet story of being vulnerable and trusting one another… on the other, it’s a lot of secondhand trauma for the reader to experience, albeit in a fictional book with fictional characters! To read my full review, click on >this linked text<

15–A Change in Crime by D. R. Perry

Not my first vampire novel, but my first time reading this indie author! Don’t get the wrong idea about its placement on this list… yes, it’s not a “top 10”, but the 4.5-star rating should speak for itself.

In fact, if you want a more in-depth review of this book, follow >this linked text< for my full Reader’s Review.

14–The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum

I was a little excited to find the whole Bourne trilogy at a book sale a couple years ago, thinking of how much I enjoyed the movies and wanting to see how the books compared.
Imagine my surprise to learn that the film trilogy had very little to do with the book trilogy at all! Movie Bourne is innocent, instinctual, young, with an altruistic streak. Book Bourne feels much older, is more jaded, more traumatized, and seems to just react to things with little thought except for how it might benefit him. Movie Bourne goes on the run because he wants to find out the truth of himself and he wants out of the life he finds attached to his name; Book Bourne is on the run because he wants to escape the truth of himself, but he cannot escape all the trauma and baggage attached to his current identity. Almost as if Movie Bourne finds his aim to seek out and establish a new iteration of “Bourne”, the independent citizen, while Book Bourne is obsessed with finding any sense of “Identity”, and that becomes his driving motivation, whatever rises against him. 
Still rather interesting though, and I’d keep reading the trilogy, now that I know it is completely separate from the film trilogy’s arc. 

13–Saturday The Rabbi Went Hungry by Harry Kemmelman

The second book in the delightful Jewish-centric cozy mysteries my grandma recommended and gifted to me! I’m quite enjoying this series, Rabbi David Small is just the right mix of Poirot and Father Tim from the Mitford series: more American than European Poirot, but also heavily integrated into the relatively small community like Father Tim. He leads his synagogue with studious grace, and yet he’s not so steeped in the religious traditions like some of the other synagogue leaders that he misses important details and changes among the people. 

This time, it’s the middle of a Yom Kippur fast, and a man is found dead of carbon monoxide poisoning in his garage–but the Rabbi happens to notice that the car wasn’t on by the time the police arrived, which means someone had to have turned it off before the man was dead… and what does this stranger have to do with an ailing wealthy Jew and a pharmaceutical testing lab where the man supposedly used to work? Can Rabbi Small put the pieces together before the members of the temple board find grounds to fire him as their Rabbi?
It’s quaint, it’s fun, and it lays out all the clues beautifully before matching them to their respective part of the solution as a whole.

12–The Woman In Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware

I’ll say it, I’m a fan of Ruth Ware. While this wasn’t her best work, there’s just something poignant about reading a book about a travel writer embarking on a North Sea cruise where nothing is as it seems, while sitting on a beach in Hawaii. Yes, I brought this one along with me on our beach vacation–and it was well worth it. What started out as an innocent moment of “I forgot which cabin door was mine” turned dark very quickly when the titular Woman of Cabin 10 disappears on the same night the travel writer is convinced she saw someone toss a body overboard… but when all the guests are accounted for, and no evidence of the woman she’d seen the night before, how can she prove what she saw? There were some parts I was easily able to predict, and probably a savvy reader will pick up on the clues much quicker than I did–but if you’re looking for a beach-read or a titillating mystery to entertain you while on vacation–this is definitely a good one!

11–"V" is for Vengeance by Sue Grafton

I can’t believe I’m almost finished with this series! While yes, there are 4 more letters of the alphabet, unfortunately the author passed away shortly after releasing the book for “X”, and so the final book is letter “Y”--which means I have only 3 books to go and I’ve finished this series that I started literally 10 years ago. 

This one had a lot of flashbacks, as Kinsey starts out investigating a potential shoplifter she busts who might be part of an organized ring connected to the Mob, and gets embroiled in the death of a woman who ostensibly jumped–or was thrown–off a bridge. A lot of the story is told through flashbacks of the woman’s point of view of the circumstances that led to her ending up on that bridge, and also the Mob family’s point of view, so Kinsey is more of an additional or backup player in the whole narrative, but it’s interesting, the latest in a long line of plots that manage to be distinct and intriguing enough to keep one guessing all the way through!

10–The Seven Towers by Patricia C. Wrede

This was one I found at the same book sale I bought the Bourne trilogy at, and I was excited because it looked really intriguing and I remembered how much I’d enjoyed Wrede’s take on Snow White and Rose Red. 
The ensuing adventure was entertaining enough in the moment, but even now as I write this I’m struggling to remember any stand-out parts. The magic system was pretty cool, and the conflicts were suitably devious, if I recall… but that’s about it. A nice, fun sword-and-sorcery novel that I can recommend to friends if they’re interested in that sort of thing. (Although really, if they’re into sword-and-sorcery, there is a whole indie series I think I’d rather recommend over this one!)

9–Moonblood by Anne Elisabeth Stengl

Now that we’re solidly in the top ten, I’m feeling many more memories of the individual stories coming back! Like this one, a tale in which a goblin princess is trying to remain in exile from her manipulative father, while there’s conflict with the human kingdom brewing that may yet give the Goblin King power over that kingdom while he waits for his daughter to inevitably fall within his clutches again…

There’s just something so ethereal and enchanting about the way Stengl writes that never fails to drag me in and captivate me, no matter how long it’s been since I’ve read the previous book in the series!

8–Undying Light by Aurora Wildey

This one was quite fun! A random contact through my author page netted me an advance copy of this new release, and I quite enjoyed it more than anticipated! I'm not usually a fan of PNR (paranormal romance) because it’s
always the angsty immortal that can’t keep himself in check around the innocent, naive mortal… but come to find out, she’s got secrets of her own!
For a full review of this book, click on >this linked text<.

7–Sahara by Clive Cussler

Yet another book I picked up because of how much I enjoyed the movie adaptation–but unlike The Bourne Identity, this adaptation at least managed to hit the highlights of the original plot!

Most of the main cast is still there, and although the book descriptions differed greatly from the actors’ appearances a lot of the time, I had no trouble inserting the actor into my “headcanon” anyhow! Yes, I did roll my eyes at the over-campy descriptions of Dirk Pitt (small wonder McConaughey was drawn to the role!) and I found myself giggling at Cussler’s own self-insert scene… but it was a pretty well-told story itself, and I enjoyed going even deeper into the lore and the technical aspects that the movie could only gloss over!

6–The Ask and The Answer by Patrick Ness

Two books down, one more to go and I’ve completed the trilogy! (Whereupon I will be ready to watch the film! Although I have little hope that it will be anything like what I’ve been reading) Ness is a fantastic author and I kind of like the unorthodox, nearly-stream-of-consciousness style he’s adopted for this series. The plot development is fascinating, I wish Prentiss would die in a hole and never come back, and I’m really invested in the survival of both Olivia
and Todd at this point!

5–King of Hearts by Patricia Loofbourrow

You’d think I’d be a little bored with a book that deals in courtroom trial scenes almost the whole time, in the midst of a series with such phenomenal world-building, superb characters, and an intriguing plot that keeps me on my toes the whole time. But no, this book caught me in a time when I was watching a lot of random scenes and episodes of Law & Order: SVU. Didn’t bore me a bit! For my full review, follow >this linked text here<.

4–The Twist of a Knife by Anthony Horowitz

Booyah! I found this on a library shelf when I was least expecting it! This series is turning out much longer than I expected–but I am not at all mad! Yes, I’m talking about the Gratuitously Self-Insertionist Inspector Hawthorne series. This time, “Tony” is invited to the performance of a play
he himself wrote, and not long after, one of the actors is found murdered, and the only prints on the murder weapon belong to Horowitz himself! He’s got to find Hawthorne (they’d parted on bad terms after the last adventure) and beg the inspector to exonerate him, before Scotland Yard puts him behind bars for “finally committing that perfect crime he’s always writing about in his books.” It’s hilarious, there are so many Princess Bride references, and there’s hints at the end of more to come, so I’m here for it!

3–The Burning Page by Genevieve Cogman

This series continues to surprise and delight me! It was very fun getting back into it after it being a while since I read
The Masked City. Irene and Kai are still dealing with shifty Fae and overly-scrupulous Dragons–and this one is probably my fastest-read of 2023 (from what I can tell… it’s hard to know sometimes on Goodreads when you’re inconsistent with your “Currently Reading” status, as I am!). Irene has to find answers and stop Alberich from destroying the Library from within–all while not knowing who she can trust, and who has been turned against their own organization, threatening the stability of all worlds in the Library’s network. It was very enjoyable!

2–The Wendy by Erin Michelle Sky

And here we are at the Best Featured Indie Read of 2023! I love a good retelling–and this one had a unique take on
Peter Pan lore that I really enjoyed! To read the complete review, click on >this linked text<.

1–Supernova by Marissa Meyer

And finally, the Best Read of 2023! This trilogy was absolutely masterful. I loved the uniqueness of the powers, both their strengths and the limitations presented with each. The character development was excellent, and the build up matched with the payoff every time! I am immensely satisfied with how this series turned out, and I highly recommend it for anyone looking for a YA superhero-themed series!

So there you have it, my Ranked Reading List of 2023. Here’s hoping I’ll be able to finish even more books in 2024! What was your favorite (or Top 3!) from 2023? What are you looking forward to reading in 2024? Let me know in the comments!