Category Archives: book reviews

Book Review: Druid’s Portal by Cindy Tomamichel

Druid's Portal: The First Journey (Druid's Portal, #1)Druid’s Portal: The First Journey by Cindy Tomamichel

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I don’t usually read time travel romance but I have heard that it is a full-fledged genre. I think the main reason it doesn’t generally appeal to me is the thought of having to live, as a woman, in a pre-feminist era. I don’t think any love story would be worth that. But perhaps the better examples of the genre manage to find a way around or through this problem. Druid’s Portal does.

The protagonist, Janet, is a history professor who knows a great deal about Celtic lore and the druids. I found this aspect of the book to be quite interesting and extensively researched. I had tended to think of druids as benign priests of nature, but the author here shows that their legends and lore have a dark side. She also invokes a deity, Bridgette, who takes the souls of humans who use the time-travel portal more than 3 times and for their own gain. Bridgette makes a powerful villain, but I have not been able to find anything about her in a cursory internet search. The closest that I have come is to reading about the Goddess Brigid, who, according to wikipedia is associated with the spring season, fertility, healing, poetry and smithcraft. This Brigid too seems like she could be a good, rather than destructive presence.

As the book opens, Janet is grieving the loss of her fiancee, Damon, who was abusive while they were together and who abruptly ended their engagement. She knows she is better off without him, but misses him nonetheless. After a break-in in the museum where she works, Janet finds an artifact that serves as a portal back to Roman times. She doesn’t realize at first that that is what it is, and suffers from what she believes are hallucinations of a Roman soldier in battle. This soldier turns out to be Trajan, eventually her love and partner.

The obstacles to Janet and Trajan getting together are mostly external and circumstantial. First Janet has to believe that he is real and that she can travel back in time. Then she has to actually do so, and find a way to survive in Roman Britain. This is made exponentially easier for her when the soldiers she encounters, Trajan included, think she is a goddess when she appears. Being seen as a goddess exempts Janet from a lot of the indignities that a regular Roman or Celtic woman would have had to endure. No one takes advantage of her while she and Trajan are on the run, and she soon finds a job working in a bath house where the men are friendly and flirtatious, but they still don’t take advantage of her.

She then comes up with a wild plan to help Trajan with his intelligence gathering for the Roman army, and they pose as minstrels visiting nearby towns. This expedition too, like working in the bath house, seems like a fun romp at first, and Janet and Trajan engage in hot, gracefully written, physical relations while they are out being minstrels. Their idyll comes to an abrupt end when they are found out by the enemy, and when Janet’s ex-fiancee Damon starts stalking them.

Trajan is an appealing, if somewhat unrealistic, character. The author sets him up as a simple but honorable man in contrast to Damon’s scheming and conniving persona. Janet and Trajan are able to communicate easily because Janet is fluent in Latin, and she tells Trajan stories about the future, stories that he is surprisingly accepting of. Some of the most poignant moments in the novel come when Janet is thinking about the parallels between her life and Trajan’s, and also about what makes them different. He is in his early-to-mid 30’s, presumably like she is, and she thinks at one point that he only has about 10 good years left if he stays in his own time. He had a wife and baby son years ago when he was young, but they were killed. Janet also tells him about how she and her museum colleagues study skeletons and remains of people from his time. This creeps him out and she feels bad about it. The decision to bring him back with her to her own time is easily made and accepted by both of them.

This is where Damon and Bridgette come in–to keep the lovers apart. Damon’s will to power is reasonably well drawn and believable, but we could have used a bit more backstory. It seems somewhat crazy that he would sacrifice his soul to Bridgette’s “dark creatures” when the payoff is so murky. He hopes to change history, but it is not completely clear what he would change it to and especially why. Janet simply wants a happy life with Trajan in her own time. Her journey could be viewed metaphorically as a wounded woman’s healing from the scars of an abusive relationship, and I especially enjoyed reading the novel from that perspective. (However, the reader should not take this novel as saying that you have to go back to ancient Rome to find a decent man!)

This is the first book in a series and I would gladly read the next ones. But I’m a sucker for happy endings, history, and pretty much anything having to do with pre-Christian England. If time-travel romance is something that appeals to you, through the Druid’s Portal is a good place to go.
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Book Review: Outside the Limelight by Terez Mertes Rose

Outside the Limelight (Ballet Theatre Chronicles. #2)Outside the Limelight by Terez Mertes Rose

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed the first book in this series very much and eagerly looked forward to the second. In most ways it did not disappoint. The author’s love of ballet and her extensive knowledge of the subject informed the story at every turn. I also appreciated the complexity of the relationships she delineated in this book. I have grown weary of stories that always hew to a formulaic hero’s journey or romance, and so I appreciated that Outside the Limelight dealt with other kinds of human relationships: siblings, parents, divorce, failed mentorship, work colleagues and teams, professors and students, and friends.

That said, I think the author may have taken on too much in this volume, and it ended up losing focus. The medical details of Dena’s tumor, operation, and recovery went on too long, as did the development of her relationship with Misha. The parallels between Dena and her sister and Misha and his brother did not need to be spelled out and dramatized in this much detail, especially because much of this quiet and somewhat dull post-tumor part of Dena’s story came at the expense of dramatizing the arc of Rebecca’s relationship with Ben. The denouement to that part of the novel was dramatic but confusing. I was glad all the characters got their happy endings but while I could see Dena/Misha coming a mile away, Rebecca/Ben came totally out of the blue for me. There had been so little sexual tension or chemistry between Rebecca and Ben throughout most of the story that I had assumed Ben was gay.

Rebecca’s on-again, off-again relationship with Anders formed the tight core of this novel for me. It takes place in 2010-11, just on the precipice of the current re-imagining of mentor relationships between powerful men and young ambitious women in the arts (and many other fields). One wonders if Anders Gunst’s career would survive the #MeToo movement. And even if so, how his life and those of the dancers under his tutelage would be forever changed.

This book strikes me as transitional in other ways too. It shows the beginnings of a new path by which dancers can open up the closed, insular ballet world and take charge of their own careers and lives via social media. What can happen in this brave new world is the story I really want–really need–to read now.

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Book Review: Stormwielder by Aaron Hodges

Stormwielder  (The Sword of Light #1)Stormwielder by Aaron Hodges

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a promising debut novel. The construction and characterization are not seamless, but it held my attention until the end. I have read another of the author’s books, set in modern times, and overall I liked this one better.

Where I think the author’s writing especially shines is in coming up with plot developments that make sense and move the action forward. The story is fast paced and never gets bogged down. The battle and action scenes are well written and enjoyable but also skimmable if you get tired of that sort of thing after a while, the way I do.

A character whose magic is too strong for him to control so that he unwittingly commits terrible deeds is an intriguing premise. This would have been a good setup for the development of a dark wizard. That Eric doesn’t go that way, but is actually led towards redemption, could be a very powerful character arc. That potential is largely unrealized in this novel. Eric learns to control his magic pretty easily and quickly once he meets up with Alastair, and never looks back.

In general the relationships between Eric and Alastair and Eric and Inken are pleasant to read but I think they could have used more development. If a story is going to start with magic so strong out of control that it burns down an entire village, murdering dozens if not hundreds of people, it is going to have to take more than a week or two and a few lessons for the magicker to learn to control that magic. A more drawn-out and suspenseful learning curve would have also given us more opportunity to learn about the history of the world and the magical system.

This book almost seemed like 2 stories, stuck uncomfortably together. The first deals with Eric, his magic, and the fallout from his destroying Gabriel’s village. It is basically an origin story for Eric. The second is when the real quest begins, to save the world from Archon. I liked both stories but found them a little thin in this format. I hope that in future installments Eric’s past comes back to haunt him and provide some further conflict.
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Book Review: The Silver Option by Elizabeth Lasky

The Silver OptionThe Silver Option by Elizabeth Lasky

Vampire novels are not my usual genre, but I did read Twilight years ago along with my then-tweenage daughter. The Silver Option is much smarter, but less creepy-romantic. There is also no need here to wade through pages of bloated purple prose to get to the good parts.

Lasky’s writing is snappy and witty. She gives her characters fresh voices and manages to make the existence of vampires believable in fin-de-siècle Cincinnati without insulting the reader’s intelligence. Her explanation of vampire biology was very smooth. I don’t know if she writes science fiction, but I think she would be good at it.

The first half of this book is excellently paced, and I enjoyed Jeff’s initial attempts to hide his vampire nature from Roxanne. The scenes told from his point of view created a believable alien/vampire mindset. Jeff’s behavior was a good simile for the self-conscious stage play that is modern dating. I also didn’t mind knowing before the characters did why Roxanne turned. The description of her turning was both eerie and matter-of-fact. It was a delicious irony that Roxanne handled vampire-hood so much better than Jeff.

The death of Tiffany tripped me up. The situation in which Roxanne uses her vampire nature to seek revenge on rapey douchebags has a lot of potential, but that potential was underutilized. Tiffany’s character deserved better, and the fact that Roxanne played a role in her death, however unintentional, undermined the argument that Roxanne had a good handle on this whole vampire thing. I won’t spoil the ending but I found it a little abrupt. It was almost a relief to get back inside Jeff’s head again.

That is a minor quibble, however. The Silver Option is a fun read, even for readers who may not think they like vampires.

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Book Review: 2022 (Percipience #1) by Ken Kroes

2022 (Percipience, #1)2022 by Ken Kroes

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was a thought-provoking, if flawed, book. I like near-future ecofiction and I like playing around in fiction with utopias, dystopias, and planned communities. Kroes’ ideas about these concepts are worth pursuing. How can you set up sustainable communities? Who pays for it? Who gets to (or has to) live there? How can you plan for these communities to last through what you expect will be a grim future? I wish more of the book had been devoted to questions like this.

I found the character development a little underwhelming. I didn’t believe Olivia would have been chosen for a top-secret microbiology project. Mikhail came across as a dork rather than an evil genius. It was almost comical that Diane and Olivia didn’t recognize the misnamed Hope before she burned down their trailer. And Spencer was completely mysterious to me–he seemed to just fit into whatever box the author needed at the moment: spy, dupe, model, love interest, puppy . . . None of the characters had a particularly unique voice, except for Sue, sometimes, which made the story periodically confusing, especially with all the head-hopping.

But simply viewing the characters as blank slates brings the reader up against the inconvenient truths the novel wants to examine: we humans are vulnerable and our behavior usually makes the problem worse. The institutions we expect to protect us, even the good guys, have their limits. And stress and danger make people do stupid, craven things. This book will stay with me longer than it deserves to based on the writing alone. It depicts is a future we want to avoid, made more frightening because it is populated by people who are so ordinary and banal.

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Book Review: The Box of Tricks by Alistair Potter

The Box of TricksThe Box of Tricks by Alistair Potter

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was a fun read and I think it would make a good movie. The conceit at the bottom of it all, the reason the planet Earth appears to be going to Helena Handbasket, was a nice touch, and something I hadn’t seen before. Similarly, several of the SF/fantasy elements around time, such as unaging, crop enhancement, collecting, etc. are unexpectedly and wittily rendered. Comparisons to Douglas Adams are well deserved.  Continue reading Book Review: The Box of Tricks by Alistair Potter

Book Review: 2047, Short Stories from Our Common Future, edited by Tanja Bisgaard

2047 Short stories from Our Common Future2047 Short stories from Our Common Future by Tanja Rohini Bisgaard

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is only the second collection of short stories that I am reviewing on this blog (here’s the first), and again I am finding the process unexpectedly challenging. All the short stories I try to write myself turn into novels, and I prefer to read novels. So maybe short story collections just aren’t my thing.

With that warning, I’d still highly recommend this book. I found it in a Facebook group for Cli-Fi authors, where the book’s editor, author Tanja Rohini Bisgaard, posts. And I’m surprised there aren’t more story collections like this competing for reviewer eyes and space. The variety of stories is broad, and the opening story, Still Waters by Kimberly Christensen, about the beaching suicide of a pod of whales in Puget Sound, which mirrors the disintegration of the protagonists’ relationship and their very lives, packs a huge emotional punch. I was worn out after reading it and I wasn’t sure that any of the other stories in the collection could match it. I was right; none of them did.

Puget Sound, 2017
Puget Sound, 2017

The rest are of more uneven quality, and all the choices are slanted towards North America and Europe (Bisgaard currently lives in Denmark), but the stories cover a wide range of protagonist ages, genders, professions, and voices, and an even wider range of consequences in the worlds imagined. Bisgaard’s own story, The Outcast Gem, is a moving tale of two sisters, one consigned to a shadow life as the consequence of a European one-child policy. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop in Oakridge Train by Alison Haldermaand, a story about a young woman meeting her boyfriend’s family for the first time, but it didn’t. The people in that story actually seemed happy, and their world on the mend.

Bottle Art by Allison McDonald at the Monterey Bay Aquarium
Bottle Art by Allison McDonald at the Monterey Bay Aquarium

Other stories that I particularly enjoyed included Driftplastic by John A Frochio, about an artist who works with plastic trash as his medium, and Dear Henry by David Zetland, told entirely as a series of letters from one Henry H Sisson to the next, starting back in 1880. The last story, Willoy’s Launch by LX Nishimoto, about the CEO of a company that created intelligent, potentially world-saving, service robots, was kind of confusing to me. I didn’t always understand what was happening during the action sequences, or how Willoy was saving the world by holding down a button at the end. It’s good to end the book on a positive note, though, and I could totally see it as a movie.

That was perhaps my favorite aspect of this collection, and why it worked so well despite its flaws: it wasn’t all grim dystopia, there was little-to-no gratuitous violence, and a significant number of the protagonists were women. This collection is a creative mix that invites the reader to step into the minds and worlds of the characters, not merely watch and be entertained.

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Book Review: Autism Goes to School, by Sharon A Mitchell

Autism Goes to School (School Daze, #1)Autism Goes to School by Sharon A. Mitchell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Autism Goes to School is an easy, enjoyable read. I do not know many people with autism but I have done a fair amount of reading, and I think this book will be very good for educating people about it. The author provides a sympathetic viewpoint character, Ben, who is ignorant about autism until his son Kyle is diagnosed and Ben gains custody of Kyle. Ben makes a lot of mistakes at first but he is well-meaning and a quick study, and none of the consequences of his mistakes are ultimately very dire. The novel tells the story of Kyle’s year of kindergarten, in a mixed special needs class taught by an expert teacher, Melanie Nichols. Over the course of the year, Ben and Kyle get to know each other better, Ben learns to be a father, Melanie becomes closer to both father and son, and a romance develops between Melanie and Ben.

The book works well as education and reassurance for anxious parents, but to my mind it is less successful as fiction. I found the situation by which Ben abruptly and surprisingly finds himself a single parent to a 5-year-old with autism to be a bit contrived. There is also a minor conflict around the fate of Melanie’s mixed classroom, in which special needs and mainstream children learn together, but that is happily resolved midway through when Ben makes an impassioned speech in defense of this type of education. As a reader, I hadn’t known such classrooms existed, but the author’s words in Ben’s voice presented a strong argument.

In general I didn’t find Ben that convincing as a character, because he had very few rough edges. He stepped up admirably, almost too admirably to be believable, to the challenges dumped in his lap by his extremely irresponsible ex-girlfriend. The characters of Melanie and Millie, too, were almost too good to be true, and there wasn’t very much difference between Ben’s narrative voice and Melanie’s. Both were stoic, cheerful, hardworking, and accepting of their lot.

There were a number of sweet, heartwarming moments in this book, which made it a pleasant read, but the plot got somewhat repetitive after a while, as Ben makes yet another in a series of parenting mistakes which get Kyle into a little danger, and Melanie bails them out. Melanie clearly cares about Kyle, and Ben seems like a nice enough guy, but one wonders a bit what Melanie is getting out of this relationship. She is doing most of the heavy lifting and emotional labor; someone as beautiful and caring and helpful as she is portrayed could probably do better.

Still, the happy ending, not only for Kyle, Ben, and Melanie, but also for Ben and Melanie’s siblings, is appreciated. The story shows that autism doesn’t have to ruin relationships, and that people with autism and neurotypical people can live and work together in mutual respect, support, and love.
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Book Review: The Scent of Rain by Anne Montgomery

The Scent of RainThe Scent of Rain by Anne Montgomery

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I want to say I enjoyed this book, but that’s not quite the right word. I read a fair amount of dystopian fiction and this novel, about a real-life dystopia, ranks with the most horrifying.

I appreciated the author’s research and the documentation she provided about the FLDS community in Colorado City. I did not know much about the FLDS until reading this book, and I think the author does a service by dramatizing and spreading awareness of the abuses that happen there. She is careful to distance this cult from mainstream Mormonism, who ended polygamy in 1890.

The author is especially strong when she writes about the paradoxes inherent in her subject: the women wearing modern athletic shoes under their prairie dresses; the happy face painted on a truck touting how happy the dour townspeople are; the beauty and timelessness of the mountains and cliffs surrounding squalor and venality; the affectionate little dog murdered by her blundering, clueless oaf of an owner. That these paradoxes are accepted as normal by the young people makes sense, because they are young and it is all they have ever known. But the adults in this tale remained mysterious to me. The author dropped some tantalizing hints of their earlier lives, dashed hopes, and buried dreams, but I wished for more.

The novel works on its own terms, as a thriller, although the pacing is a little off. I also thought that the author was trying to do too much in one relatively short novel. This story really needs to be about Rose Madsen. Rose stands also for the murdered Bonnie Buttars, for her disabled sister Daisy, and for all the girls and women who suffer oppression under this cruel system. Her escape gives them hope. Whereas Adan, Brooke, and Trak have their own stories–interesting, but separate. In this book everybody gets their happy ending, which warmed my heart but also seemed a little forced. It could have worked better as two separate books. The Adan/Brooke/Trak subplot could stand alone as its own novel about immigration and deportation, for example.

Or, in a more ambitious and longer project, this novel could explore what it means to be an immigrant and the true meaning of community. This material is rich and multifaceted and the story is not over. Rose and Adan escaped, but others remain.

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Book Review: Rebirth by Aaron Hodges

Rebirth (Praegressus Project #1)Rebirth by Aaron Hodges

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Rebirth is an ambitious and exciting beginning to the Praegressus Project series. This series, by New Zealand author Aaron Hodges, is in the same vein as The Hunger Games, Divergent, Maze Runner, and other dystopian near-future fiction that puts teams of young adults through a series of brutal tests, the purpose and origins of which only become clearer to the protagonist and the reader as the story unfolds.  Continue reading Book Review: Rebirth by Aaron Hodges