Corpse Rider by Tim Curran

Poor Christina is young and alone. Her every relationship seems cursed, each one slowly turning to poison. The only one that doesn’t seem to have soured is the one with her co-worker.

Christina is also at times kind. When visiting her mother’s grave, she notices a nearby grave left derelict. Thinking she is helping, she pulls the weeds growing around and tidies the tombstone up a bit.

Her simple act of kindness causes someone to notice and Christina realizes she is no longer alone. For what was laid to rest beneath that stone has attached itself to her and to it she will be the perfect wife. And, God help her, the perfect mother.

Corpse Rider by Tim Curran is the perfect creepy story to start off the month of October with. It is a short story – more a novella than a novel – and is therefore a fairly quick read.

This is the first book by Curran that I have read, but judging from his titles on GoodReads, he has a flair for the strange. His books run the gambit and it looks like his readers love them.

Corpse Rider is very much a psychological book. Written in a way that makes the reader wonder just how much is real and how much is in Christina’s mind. Did she really see a figure in black on that hot, sunny day in the cemetery? Was there really a hearse driven by that same figure at her work a few days later? As Christina is the only one seeing these things, one cannot help but wonder if perhaps she is going insane.

At times, it certainly feels that way. Every one around her is skeptical as there simply isn’t any proof. No proof until the very, very end.

I won’t go too far in to what happens next because to do so will ruin the ending for any one who decides to read this. Personally, I recommend it to my readers. Especially to those who like a good, creepy read. So grab your favorite hot drink, a warm fuzzy blanket, and curl up with this great thriller.

A History of What Comes Next (Take Them to the Stars #1) by Sylvain Neuvel

Always run, never fight.
Preserve the knowledge.
Survive at all costs.
Take them to the stars.

Over 99 identical generations, Mia’s family has shaped human history to push them to the stars, making brutal, wrenching choices and sacrificing countless lives. Her turn comes at the dawn of the age of rocketry. Her mission: to lure Wernher Von Braun away from the Nazi party and into the American rocket program, and secure the future of the space race.

But Mia’s family is not the only group pushing the levers of history: an even more ruthless enemy lurks behind the scenes.

A darkly satirical first contact thriller, as seen through the eyes of the women who make progress possible and the men who are determined to stop them… 

When I originally picked up A History of What Comes Next by Sylvain Neuvel, I was intrigued. As someone who has had a lifelong love of space and science fiction, I have always enjoyed reading books where characters dream (and often achieve) going to the stars.

Unfortunately though, what I got when reading A History of What Comes Next was vastly different than what I was expecting. While the general story itself was quite interesting, the writing was often dry and lackluster. The characters of mother Sarah and daughter Mia were difficult to connect to. It was difficult to actually care about what happened to them over the course of the book. Much like the characters do with the people around them, we too are held at arms’ length and are not let in close.

Neuvel relies heavily on the scientific and technical details throughout A History of What Comes Next. And while this is fine for some scenes, it simply does not work for others. It also means a good bit of background information is left out. Like, who exactly are the Kibsu? Why must there only be two? Why do the daughters look exactly like the mothers? What is the significance of the necklace mother passes down to daughter?

None of the questions are answered and when there is the occasional interlude into previous eras it leaves one with only more questions and few answers.

There is a second book in the series and I am curious about it. It continues where the first book leaves off with Mia. I will likely be reading it only to see if any of my questions are answered.

It would be hard for me to recommend this book to any but the most hardcore space enthusiasts out there. Perhaps if the book were handled differently, written in a smoother style it would be easier to read and enjoy.

Provided for Review: The Dali Deception by Adam Maxwell

Five criminals. Two forgeries. And one masterpiece of a heist.

Violet Winters—a professional thief born of a good, honest thief-and-con-artist stock— has been offered the heist of a lifetime. Steal a priceless Salvador Dali from the security-obsessed chairman of the Kilchester Bank and replace it with a forgery.

The fact that the “painting” is a signed, blank canvas doesn’t matter. It’s the challenge that gives Violet that familiar, addicting rush of adrenaline. Her quarry rests in a converted underground Cold War bunker. One way in, one way out. No margin for error.

But the reason Violet fled Kilchester is waiting right where she left him—an ex-lover with a murderous method for dumping a girlfriend. If her heist is to be a success, there will have to be a reckoning, or everything could go spinning out of control.

Her team of talented misfits assembled, Violet sets out to re-stake her claim on her reputation, exorcise some demons, and claim the prize. That is if her masterpiece of a plan isn’t derailed by a pissed-off crime boss—or betrayal from within her own ranks. 

This book was kindly provided for review by the author. Thank you!

Readers who have been with me for some time know that the majority of the books I review tend to skew towards the science-fiction and fantasy variety. Every so often I read and review something “modern” but those tend to be few and far between. When I was contacted by Adam Maxwell and asked if I was interested in reviewing his book The Dali Deception, I admit I was a bit hesitant. Once I read the book description, however, I was intrigued. And once I actually started reading the book itself, I was hooked.

When is a painting not quite a painting? When it’s a blank canvas signed by Salvador Dali.

After being away from Kilchester for almost two years, Violet Winters is given the chance to get back in the con game. All she has to do is steal a priceless Dali painting and replace it with a fake. The only hitch is the painting is located in an underground bunker apartment owned by a security-obsessed banker. There’s only one way in and one way out and enough security to make the US federal government jealous.

As she’s been away for a while, Violet has to assemble an all-new team. This she does by calling in old friends and making new ones along the way.

The character of Violet Winters – and the rest of her motley crew – are an interesting bunch. It would have been so easy for Maxwell to rely on character tropes that readers have seen countless times. But Maxwell doesn’t do this and instead subverts what readers are expecting and in effect take them by surprise. While there are some criminal cliches that are almost impossible to avoid, even with those Maxwell takes them and gives them a unique twist.

Personally, I think my favorite characters were Zoe and Katie. As someone who has perpetually looked younger than she actually was, I can completely relate to her sometimes frustration. And as for Katie, I find her whole person intriguing and cannot wait to get to know her better. In The Dali Deception, we do not learn much about her but it is easy to like her.

Maxwell’s writing style with The Dali Deception is fast-paced and funny. While reading it I couldn’t help but think how well this story could translate to screen – preferably a tv series type thing that would allow the whole story to be told.

In the end, I really enjoyed reading The Dali Deception by Adam Maxwell. I’m glad to know there is a second book featuring this crew and it has already been added to my extensive To Be Read list. I absolutely recommend it to my readers and to anyone looking for something a little bit different.

Many thanks to Adam Maxwell for allowing me to read and review this book!

Provided for Review: The Knave of Secrets by Alex Livingston

Never stake more than you can afford to lose.

When failed magician turned cardsharp Valen Quinol is given the chance to play in the Forbearance Game—the invitation-only tournament where players gamble with secrets—he can’t resist. Or refuse, for that matter, according to the petty gangster sponsoring his seat at the table. Valen beats the man he was sent to play, and wins the most valuable secret ever staked in the history of the tournament.

Now Valen and his motley crew are being hunted by thieves, gangsters, spies and wizards, all with their own reasons for wanting what’s in that envelope. It’s a game of nations where Valen doesn’t know all the rules or who all the players are, and can’t see all the moves. But he does know if the secret falls into the wrong hands, it could plunge the whole world into war…

This book was provided for review by the author and the kind folks at The Write Reads. Thank you!

“Words had power. Words could kill. And secret words all the more.”

The Knave of Secrets by Alex Livingston is a fictional fantasy story of con men and cards, of gamblers and games, and the lengths some are willing to go to win.

The world that Livingston has created for The Knave of Secrets is a complex one. There are numerous cultures featured, not all of them friendly but all with one thing in common – the love of gambling and games. The same can be said for the characters, they too are complex with their love of gambling the main thing in common.

The main character Valen Quinol isn’t a young man but is described as one of middle age. A rarity in that most books of this kind feature a younger character often just starting out on their journey. Valen is well on his journey, having traveled it along with his wife and friends for some years already.

All of the characters are interesting in their own right and thankfully none of them are perfect. Mistakes are made and learned from. Fights and disagreements happen over plans. Even when things seem to go smoothly they don’t. Because of this, the characters are easy to relate to. Who doesn’t have arguments with their friends? Who doesn’t disagree sometimes with the ones they love most? It doesn’t mean we love them any less.

The only real quibble I have with The Knave of Secrets is the lack of “show don’t tell” in the storytelling. This is especially true during the many scenes featuring one game or another. In these instances, Livingston tells us what happens in the game but doesn’t really show us the action. While these scenes are intended to move the story along, sadly they fall flat while they attempt to do so.

Overall, I enjoyed reading Alex Livingston’s The Knave of Secrets. While the book is meant to be a standalone, I would very much enjoy seeing more tales from this world he has created. I recommend this book to my readers and I would remind them of an adage that every gambler knows:

The House Always Wins.

The Utterly Uninteresting and Unadventurous Tales of Fred, the Vampire Accountant (Fred, The Vampire Accountant #1) by Drew Hayes

Some people are born boring. Some live boring. Some even die boring. Fred managed to do all three, and when he woke up as a vampire, he did so as a boring one. Timid, socially awkward, and plagued by self-esteem issues, Fred has never been the adventurous sort.

One fateful night – different from the night he died, which was more inconvenient than fateful – Fred reconnects with an old friend at his high school reunion. This rekindled relationship sets off a chain of events thrusting him right into the chaos that is the parahuman world, a world with chipper zombies, truck driver wereponies, maniacal necromancers, ancient dragons, and now one undead accountant trying his best to “survive.” Because even after it’s over, life can still be a downright bloody mess.

 

Trigger Warning – blood, violence, general gore

So often when I read a book with a vampire as the main character, the vampire in question always comes across as someone cool and aloof. A badass that follows their own rules and doesn’t care what anyone else thinks. Someone who is always ready to kick ass and take names.

Fred – short for Frederick Frankford Fletcher (yes really!) – is none of those things. He’s not even close. And that is what makes him great.

In The Utterly Uninteresting and Unadventurous Tales of Fred, The Vampire Accountant, Hayes has taken a well-known (and often overused) character idea and turned it on its ear. Fred doesn’t suddenly become a super cool guy when he’s turned, he remains his original sweater vest-wearing geeky self. He is aware of the person he comes across as and uses that to his advantage.

The Utterly Uninteresting… is actually five mini-stories in one book. Each chapter is one of Fred’s adventures, introducing us not to just Fred but the friends and colleagues he gains along the way. As the book goes on, we see Fred grow as a person and as a vampire in ways that are not only amusing but satisfying as well.

This is a wonderfully light story despite the seemingly dark subject matter. It’s fun and funny and was an overall enjoyable read. I definitely recommend Fred The Vampire Accountant to my readers. I hope you all enjoy it as much as I did.

Provided for Review: Hall of Mirrors by Roxanne Lalande

The year is 1682, and the place is the palace of Versailles, where the Sun King, Louis the Fourteenth, reigns supreme over four thousand resident courtiers. Their social and political lives are intricately intertwined within a rigid hierarchy of etiquette.

Behind the brilliant facade of lavish festivities lies a shadowy world of intrigue, promiscuity, sorcery, and murder.

When human remains and a silver locket are unearthed on the neighboring estate of her husband’s lover, the duchess Elisabeth Charlotte d’Orleans investigates their origin and jeopardizes her own safety when her discoveries lead to the criminal involvement of her most powerful enemies at court.

This book was provided for review by Netgalley. Thank you!

Hall of Mirrors by Roxanne Lalande has the perfect setting for a murder mystery – the court at Versailles under the rule of the Sun King, Louis XIV. In a place where conspiracies and hidden plots were part of the norm, the discovery of human remains and a mysterious locket compel Elisabeth Charlotte d’Orleans to delve further into the mystery behind them.

My dearest reader, I so wanted to like Hall of Mirrors but unfortunately, it was disappointing. With so many characters it was difficult to keep track of what exactly was going on and to who it was happening. This is especially true since many of the characters have more than one name or title and could be called one or the other. The writing was confusing at times and the dialogue often had a stilted feel to it. Character information was often given in huge chunks of dialogue which I presume is meant to feel like listening to gossip but comes across more like clunky info dumps.

While I did enjoy reading about life at Versailles under Louis XIV and how frustrating it could sometimes be, it would have been nice if the main murder mystery plot had been given the same attention.

Provided for Review: Iron Widow (Iron Widow #1) by Xiran Jay Zhao

The boys of Huaxia dream of pairing up with girls to pilot Chrysalises, giant transforming robots that can battle the mecha aliens that lurk beyond the Great Wall. It doesn’t matter that the girls often die from the mental strain.

When 18-year-old Zetian offers herself up as a concubine-pilot, it’s to assassinate the ace male pilot responsible for her sister’s death. But she gets her vengeance in a way nobody expected—she kills him through the psychic link between pilots and emerges from the cockpit unscathed. She is labeled an Iron Widow, a much-feared and much-silenced kind of female pilot who can sacrifice boys to power up Chrysalises instead.​

To tame her unnerving yet invaluable mental strength, she is paired up with Li Shimin, the strongest and most controversial male pilot in Huaxia​. But now that Zetian has had a taste of power, she will not cower so easily. She will miss no opportunity to leverage their combined might and infamy to survive attempt after attempt on her life until she can figure out exactly why the pilot system works in its misogynist way—and stop more girls from being sacrificed.

This book was provided for review by NetGalley and the author. Thank you!

Trigger Warnings: Physical and emotional abuse, alcohol addiction, mentions of rape, threats of rape, torture, murder, gore, misogyny.

I originally decided to read Iron Widow because of one blurb I saw on Netgalley:

Pacific Rim meets The Handmaid’s Tale in this blend of Chinese history and mecha science fiction for YA readers.

Now while I don’t quite agree with the categorization of Iron Widow being a YA book, I do agree with everything else. Iron Widow IS a strangely wonderful blend of ideas both new and old. The characters are taken from Chinese history as well as Chinese literature and they are given a spin that will allow even those who aren’t familiar with their original stories to connect with them.

Set in the nation of Huaxia, Iron Widow is a futuristic reimagining of Medieval China. It is a nation that is constantly under attack by alien robots known as Hunduns. The only way to defeat the Hunduns is through the use of Chrysalises, giant mecha made from the spirit metal of defeated Hunduns. It takes two people to pilot a Chrysalis; male pilots who are regarded as heroes and female co-pilots who are more often than not forgotten.

Wu Zetian volunteers to become a co-pilot so that she may take revenge for her older sister’s death. It is her main driving force even though she knows she will likely die achieving it. When Wu is able to achieve her revenge, that small taste of power spurs her on. Her abilities make her an asset even as she is considered a threat.

In reading Iron Widow, I not only thought of Pacific Rim but I also found myself thinking of the classic anime Neon Genesis Evangelion. For those who are not familiar, Evangelion featured EVAs which were also biomechanical mechas created to battle similar type creatures. They too feature a human pilot – though the EVAs have one pilot while the Chrysalises have two. The pilots in both are young and must also follow the orders of those above them.

Zhao’s writing in Iron Widow is in my opinion quite well done. The action scenes are well-paced and are nicely interspersed with the more character-building scenes. Scenes that feature Wu’s “down-time” do not detract from the overall story but instead, add to the creation of a character that the reader can connect to. We cheer for Wu as she struggles and succeeds.

The only thing I did not like – and which I hope Zhao will expand upon in the second book – is the whole backstory of the Hunduns and the Chrysalises. We are given a tantalizing tease at the end of the first book and I am hoping that we learn more in the second.

I enjoyed reading Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao. I am very glad I was allowed an early peek through Netgalley and I am eagerly looking forward to the second book in the series.

Provided for Review: The Ventifact Colossus (The Heroes of Spira #1) by Dorian Hart

A tale of epic fantasy begins…

Banished to an otherworldly prison for centuries, the monstrous Emperor Naradawk is about to break free and wreak havoc upon the world of Spira. The archmage Abernathy can no longer keep the monster at bay and has summoned a collection of would-be heroes to help set things right.

Surely he made a mistake. These can’t be the right people.

Dranko is priest-turned-pickpocket, expelled from his church for his antics. Kibilhathur is a painfully shy craftsman who speaks to stones. Aravia is a wizard’s apprentice whose intellect is eclipsed only by her arrogance. Ernest is a terrified baker’s son. Morningstar is a priestess forbidden from daylight. Tor is a young nobleman with attention issues. Ysabel is an elderly farm woman. Grey Wolf is a hard-bitten mercenary.

None of them are qualified to save the world, but they’ll have to do. Even Abernathy himself seems uncertain as to why he chose them.

This book was provided for review by the author and the kind folks at The Write Reads. Thank you!

As a long-time fan of the fantasy genre, I am always on the lookout for new authors and the universes they create. I enjoy meeting new characters and traveling to new lands and I really enjoy seeing the kinds of tropes the author uses. Because while there are some who look down on using tropes of any kind, I personally believe that they can be used effectively.

Plus, there are some that when they are used well, they are a treat.

The main trope that Hart uses for The Ventifact Colossus is the Ragtag Bunch of Misfits. And considering the people who make up the chosen team, it is so very true. They could not be more different and yet they will have to learn to at least tolerate one another. Especially if they are going to stop the evil Emperor.

There were a great many things I enjoyed in reading The Ventifact Colossus. For instance, how the team does not initially get along. Many times in a book (or movie or TV show) when a random group of characters is brought together for some reason they almost immediately begin to cooperate and work together with one another. The opposite is true here, these eight individuals quibble and fight almost from the moment they meet one another. This continues through the book even as they begin to rely on one another. They still argue and disagree and have their differences.

The world of Spira that Hart has created for the series is just as fun as the characters that inhabit it. We the reader are taken to a decent number of locations, each one unique. There are more places hinted at in dreams and visions and considering this is the first book of the series I am quite sure we will be visiting many of them.

The overall writing for The Ventifact Colossus was very enjoyable. Hart has an easy and entertaining writing style, making it easy to lose yourself in the story. There is plenty of action as well as humor, even in some of the more serious moments. It is because of these little moments along with the group of characters that makes the story a real page turner.

I really enjoyed reading The Ventifact Colossus and would definitely recommend it to my readers. Fans of fun easy reads will like it, as will readers of fantasy. While it is certainly possible to read all of the book in a day, I recommend the reader take it a bit slower. Revel in the world Hart has created and become friends with the characters. And then go read the rest of the series, I know I will.

Stepsister by Jennifer Donnelly

Isabelle should be blissfully happy – she’s about to win the handsome prince. Except Isabelle isn’t the beautiful girl who lost the glass slipper and captured the prince’s heart. She’s the ugly stepsister who’s cut off her toes to fit into Cinderella’s shoe … which is now filling with blood.

When the prince discovers Isabelle’s deception, she is turned away in shame. It’s no more than she deserves: she is a plain girl in a world that values beauty; a feisty girl in a world that wants her to be pliant.

Isabelle has tried to fit in. To live up to her mother’s expectations. To be like her stepsister. To be sweet. To be pretty. One by one, she has cut away pieces of herself in order to survive a world that doesn’t appreciate a girl like her. And that has made her mean, jealous, and hollow.

Until she gets a chance to alter her destiny and prove what ugly stepsisters have always known: it takes more than heartache to break a girl.

Trigger Warning: body mutilation, general violence, general blood and gore, character death

There are quite a few Cinderella retellings on book shelves, but there are very few that focus on characters beside Cinderella or the Prince. But that is exactly what Jennifer Donnelly’s Stepsister does. Cinderella and her Prince are merely side characters in this retelling. Instead, the focus is shifted to the “evil” stepsisters and leads the reader to wonder if maybe they weren’t so evil after all.

Who among us has not sacrified part of themself for something they believed they wanted? Who has not changed who they were to make the people they loved happy? Who has not made themselves miserable to please others and done it with a smile?

Isabelle has done all of these things in the belief that one day she will be happy.

Isabelle’s path is one that many will likely recognize and relate to. In order to fit in and make her mother happy she has changed who she fundamentally is even at the risk of destroying herself. When given the chance to have her happily ever after she believes she knows exactly what to do.

The journey Isabelle, her sister, and their mother go on is not an easy one. They are met with the same cruelty and indifference they meted out on Cinderella and some readers might find that hard to take. Their bullying ways are turned back on them making them the ones being bullied. And while it does end up being a worthwhile lesson, it is also a painful one.

I personally enjoyed reading Stepsister. Isabella and her sister Tiva show great character growth from beginning to end. In my opinion it has a good ending and a good message without being too preachy. It is very likely that I will be seeking out more books by this author.

The Library of the Unwritten (Hell’s Library #1) by A.J. Hackwith

Books that aren’t finished by their authors reside in the Library of the Unwritten in Hell, and it is up to the Librarian to track down any restless characters who emerge from those unfinished stories.

Many years ago, Claire was named Head Librarian of the Unwritten Wing—a neutral space in Hell where all the stories unfinished by their authors reside. Her job consists mainly of repairing and organizing books, but also of keeping an eye on restless stories that risk materializing as characters and escaping the library. When a Hero escapes from his book and goes in search of his author, Claire must track and capture him with the help of former muse and current assistant Brevity and nervous demon courier Leto.

But what should have been a simple retrieval goes horrifyingly wrong when the terrifyingly angelic Ramiel attacks them, convinced that they hold the Devil’s Bible. The text of the Devil’s Bible is a powerful weapon in the power struggle between Heaven and Hell, so it falls to the librarians to find a book with the power to reshape the boundaries between Heaven, Hell … and Earth.

Trigger Warnings: suicide, alcohol consumption, gun violence, knife violence, murder, and drowning.

The idea of a library filled with unfinished stories is not a new one. In Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series we find such a library in the realm of Dream. And here in The Library of the Unwritten, we find such a library residing in Hell of all places. Why Hell? Sadly, that point is never explained.

As much as I wanted to enjoy The Library of the Unwritten, I had such a hard time with it and there was more than one occasion where I almost walked away. The overall plot was interesting enough, it was the characters that got in the way. For me, this was especially true of the character Claire. While I am sure there were those readers who found her brusque nature refreshing, I personally found her to be quite mean. Because of her often aloof and brash nature, she became almost one-dimensional and that made it difficult to like – much less relate – to her.

The rest of the characters – and honestly the book itself – come across the same way. Because it takes so long to learn any of their backstories, it was hard to care for any one person/demon/angel in the book. The same for the overall plotline – the true stakes are never quite fully explained so again it becomes hard to care.

I know there are numerous readers who thoroughly enjoyed reading The Library of the Unwritten as well as the second book in the series – The Archive of the Forgotten – I am just not one of them.