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.

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.

Provided for Review: Never Saw Me Coming by Vera Kurian

Meet Chloe Sevre. She’s a freshman honor student, a leggings-wearing hot girl next door, who also happens to be a psychopath. Her hobbies include yogalates, frat parties, and plotting to kill Will Bachman, a childhood friend who grievously wronged her.

Chloe is one of seven students at her DC-based college who are part of an unusual clinical study for psychopaths—students like herself who lack empathy and can’t comprehend emotions like fear or guilt. The study, led by a renowned psychologist, requires them to wear smartwatches that track their moods and movements.

When one of the students in the study is found murdered in the psychology building, a dangerous game of cat and mouse begins, and Chloe goes from hunter to prey. As she races to identify the killer and put her own plan into action, she’ll be forced to decide if she can trust any of her fellow psychopaths—and everybody knows you should never trust a psychopath.

Trigger Warning: Alcohol use, Mentions of rape (rape occurs off-screen before the beginning of the book)

To the casual observer, Chloe Sevre is the typical teenage “girl next door”. An honor student in her first year at college, she gets along well with her classmates and doesn’t really stand out.

Chloe Sevre however, is also a psychopath. She has been concocting a meticulous plan to kill Will Bachman – a fellow college student and someone from Chloe’s childhood who hurt her. Attending the same college is just one step in her overall plan.

Because as they say, revenge is a dish best served cold.

The overall story contained in Never Saw Me Coming is a multi-layered one. On the uppermost layer is the storyline centered on Chloe and her revenge on Will. An act of revenge she had been planning for years and finally is about to come to fruition. Beneath that is the murder mystery Chloe finds herself involved in. As one of seven psychopaths, she is at the university taking part in a specialized study. When one then two members of the study are killed, Chloe finds herself as both hunter and prey. Finally, beneath that is the rest of college life for Chloe including things like classes and parties and such.

The first two-thirds of Never Saw Me Coming are very well done in my opinion. Watching as Chloe tried to juggle getting close to Will as well as try to figure out who else was in the study and would want to kill her while also maintaining her facade as a typical college girl was entertaining. The issue came when Chloe was able to get her revenge but there was still so much of the book left. With what I considered to be the main driving plot point gone, the rest of the story kind of fell flat.

And personally, the final reveal of who was behind the murders wasn’t that satisfying either.

Final thoughts: Excellent premise, decent followthrough, needed a better ending.

Provided for Review: Lying with Lions by Annabel Fielding

Edwardian England.

Agnes Ashford knows that her duty is threefold: she needs to work on cataloguing the archive of the titled Bryant family, she needs to keep the wounds of her past tightly under wraps, and she needs to be quietly grateful to her employers for taking her up in her hour of need.

However, a dark secret she uncovers due to her work thrusts her into the Bryants’ brilliant orbit – and into the clutch of their ambitions.

They are prepared to take the new century head-on and fight for their preeminent position and political survival tooth and nail – and not just to the first blood.

With a mix of loyalty, competence, and well-judged silence Agnes rises to the position of a right-hand woman to the family matriarch – the cunning and glamorous Lady Helen. But Lady Helen’s plans to hold on to power through her son are as bold as they are cynical, and one day Agnes is going to face an impossible choice…

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

Trigger Warning: Death of a child (mentioned, happens off-page), Abortion (mentioned, happens off-page), Rape (mentioned, happens off-page)

Set at the end of the Edwardian Era and in to the first World War, Lying with Lions is a page turning tale.

Told primarily from the view point of archivist Agnes Ashford, she is a young woman who has been hired to sort and categorize the countless documents amassed by the Bryant family. It is during this time that Agnes uncovers a secret the Bryant family would rather forget. Armed with this information Agnes positions herself closer to Lady Helen, moving from mere employee to close companion and even lover.

The story of Lying with Lions takes place over many years, through numerous changes both to society as a whole and to the Bryant family itself. There are not only changes without but within as slowly Agnes’ “power” grows. Like Lady Helen, Agnes need only say the right word to the right person and she can move mountains. As the relationship between the two women deepens over time, one is left to wonder who is controlling and influencing who.

It is obvious that Fielding put in a great deal of research to write Lying with Lions. The atmosphere she is able to create is at times breathtaking, as is the way she is able to effortlessly weave historical and fictional events. The relationships between characters – not just Agnes and Helen, but the Bryant children, Harold and Meredith – are so carefully thought out. Each event serves not only to push the story forward but to also subtly reveal new facets of each person involved.

Some readers might have issue with the overall pacing of Lying with Lions. Much like the Bryant family, change – and the overall storyline – can be slow. And while there are a few placed where the story does seem to drag, I encourage any reader to stick with the book as it all pays off in the end.

A wonderfully gothic tale centering on the lengths one will go to for power and control, Lying with Lions is for older readers.

Provided for Review: The Seeker of Well-Being by Indrajit Garai

A practical guide, with a unique perspective on personal growth. Numerous case studies on people who have changed their lives simply by overcoming their inner resistance.

We all want to attain excellence in what we do, but the first resistance comes from within us. We prevent ourselves from doing our best, from approaching our inner richness, and from feeling sincerely well within.

The key to our durable well-being is by aligning accordance with our self, by overcoming our internal resistance, and by acting in synergy with our deepest values. But, how?

Only our original solution, which originates from within us, can provide that.

This book, based on twelve years of client work, reveals why ‘accordance with self’ is the prerequisite for a deep and durable well-being. Why only our original solution can do this, and how we can easily construct this solution from inside out. And attain our inherent potential, by aligning with ourselves.

Others have done this with grace; their results endure. You can do it too.

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

Almost every person is looking to better themselves in some way. Whether it be their physical well-being or mental well-being, the search is almost constant. And while it can be fairly straight forward to better oneself physically, to do so mentally and emotionally can be a struggle.

Fortunately, with a bit of help and insight through books such as The Seeker of Well-Being, it can be done.

Unlike many self-help books, The Seeker of Well-Being does not have a one size fits all solution. It doesn’t even have a one size fits most solution. Instead, it encourages the reader to do a bit of self reflection and derive a solution that fits just them. Many examples are given through past case studies and interviews, each one intended to inspire the reader in their search. It is very much a “What worked for this person may not be completely right for you, but perhaps something similar will?”

Like so many in this difficult time, I too am trying to become a better version of myself. So The Seeker of Well-Being came to me at a most opportune time. I found it to be an excellent read and one that really had me thinking on my own internal conflicts. In time I even hope to put some of the advice I garnered while reading this book to work.

I recommend this book to all my readers regardless of where they are on their path in life.

Provided for Review: The Death of Jane Lawrence by Caitlin Starling

Practical, unassuming Jane Shoringfield has done the calculations, and decided that the most secure path forward is this: a husband, in a marriage of convenience, who will allow her to remain independent and occupied with meaningful work. Her first choice, the dashing but reclusive doctor Augustine Lawrence, agrees to her proposal with only one condition: that she must never visit Lindridge Hall, his crumbling family manor outside of town. Yet on their wedding night, an accident strands her at his door in a pitch-black rainstorm, and she finds him changed. Gone is the bold, courageous surgeon, and in his place is a terrified, paranoid man—one who cannot tell reality from nightmare, and fears Jane is an apparition, come to haunt him.

By morning, Augustine is himself again, but Jane knows something is deeply wrong at Lindridge Hall, and with the man she has so hastily bound her safety to. 

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

When I first saw the blurb on NetGalley for The Death of Jane Lawrence, I was intrigued. Especially once I saw it compared to Crimson Peak – a personal favorite in both book and movie. So it leaves little doubt that I had to request it.

The Death of Jane Lawrence on the surface has a basic enough premise. There is a young woman with a potential decision to make and there is a handsome young man with a dark secret. Add in the ubiquitous crumbling manor house and you have the recipe for most any gothic novel. That however is where the comparison ends because this book contains so much more.

I think what I liked best about The Death of Jane Lawrence was how unexpected it was. What I mean is, while reading it I was quite sure I knew the direction in which the story would go. Having read my fair share of gothic novels – both modern and historical – I tend to be able to guess how a story of this kind will end. And while sometimes I am correct there are other times where I am wrong. The Death of Jane Lawrence proved that point to me, that one cannot always guess how a book is going to go.

I quite enjoyed reading this book. Starling does a wonderful job of creating the perfect moody setting with Lindridge Hall and its surroundings. She peoples it with characters that are sympathetic and ones that are insensitive and at times they are the same person.

As a fan of gothic novels, I heartily recommend The Death of Jane Lawrence to my readers. With the colder months soon upon us it the perfect spooky book to settle down with on a dark night.

Provided for Review: Strange Deaths of the Last Romantic by Moses Yuriyvich Mikheyev

“The first time I committed suicide I was ten years old.

There have been many more suicides since.”

Adam is cursed. He cannot die.

But one man’s burden is another man’s blessing, and there are people who are out to harness Adam’s special talents.

However, Adam soon discovers that immortality comes at a cost; every time he dies, he loses a little bit of himself. So when Adam meets Lilyanne—his reason for living—he’s forced to choose between life and love.

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

Trigger Warnings: Suicide, glorification of suicide, death of a parent, murder, child abuse, references to drug use, animal death

Adam cannot die.

Whenever he tries, he wakes up in a new place with only the memory of his name. Any other memories are fleeting and usually lost when he dies again. Adam believes himself alone and unique but he is not. There are more like him and there are those who want to be like him. And they will stop at nothing to accomplish their goals.

My many thanks to NetGalley for approving my request for this book. I generally do not regret my decisions to request an ARC but I deeply regret this one.

I will be honest dear reader, Strange Deaths of the Last Romantic is not a good book. There were times that as I was reading it I was amazed it had even made it to publication. There is fanfiction on A03, fanfiction.net, or even WattPad that is better written and with characters infinitely more likeable.

The basic plot surrounding Strange Deaths… is, I admit, an intriguing one. The opening scene is quite strong and really draws you in but just as quickly descends in to ridiculousness. The plot holes are numerous and many of them could have easily been fixed with some kind of real editing work. Problems and conflicts are solved with little more than a waved hand and are often never mentioned again.

The writing for Strange Deaths is something I could go on about at length simply because it is so bad. Clunky prose and stilted conversations abound. The manner in which Adam describes Lilyanne (or any female character honestly) reminds me very much of the examples from Reddit’s ‘menwritingwomen’ board highlighting what NOT to do. At times I wondered if Mikheyev actually pulled ideas from there.

Unfortunately, the characters that populate Strange Deaths aren’t much better. Adam (or Aristotle) comes to romanticize his suicides. He spends paragraphs admiring the gun he carries and even admits to finding killing himself addicting. His viewpoints on women – along with every other male character – are quite misogynistic. The few female characters falling in to either the “goddess” or “whore” trope with no in-between. The women are very one dimensional and almost every one practically falls all over Adam soon after meeting him.

As I said above, Strange Deaths is not a good book. Clunky and awkward writing, plot holes the size of the Titanic, strange and abrupt shifts in narrator, and deeply unlikeable characters make this an eye rolling read. It is not often that I advise my readers to stay away and NOT read a particular book. This is one of the few times I make an exception. Head on over to fanfiction.net or A03, I know without a doubt you will find something better there.