Monday, June 29, 2015

REVIEW: STORMDANCER (THE LOTUS WAR BOOK 1)

INTRODUCTION
I'm always a sucker for a good fantasy novel. As I get older and busier, I find I have less and less time for prolonged fantasy books so I tend to try and choose as wisely as possible when it comes to selecting the longer works of fiction that I do read. Jay Kristoff's STORMDANCER (The Lotus War Book One) is a book that comes passionately recommended by some and fiercely chastised by others. While I normally don't see such a divide in opinions and was a little skeptical about this book for that reason, it sounded like everything I wanted in this type of plot-line, plus upon sampling some of the author's writing I knew this had to be at least a little good.

HOW I CAME UPON IT
In an effort to get my own book into the hands of people who enjoy reading and reviewing books, I started following the booktubing community on YouTube. This is a group of vloggers that makes videos about books, sometimes they deliver video reviews and other times they will just talk about bookish things. These channels are probably a bit of a hit or a miss for most people, but what's nice is that all of these vloggers are unique from one another and will often read different sorts of books even if they tend to pick from the same genres. Now I'm not the sort of author that just sends a review request, I actually check out the channels of booktubers that I ask to review my book and become a fan of them before sending my request. While most tend to ignore my messages, I normally already like their channel and continue to watch their videos since I'm as avid a reader as I am a writer. One book that several different people mentioned, was Jay Kristoff's STORMDANCER which is book 1 in the Lotus War trilogy. From everything these reviewers said about the book, it sounded like something that I would really enjoy.

HOW I RATED IT

 5/5 Every part of this adventure was filled with intrigue, intelligent thought, and aching emotion. I haven't indulged in epic fantasy quite this good in a very long time. Kristoff has some really interesting quirks in his writing that are a bit of a love it or hate it kind of deal, but I fall on the side of love and couldn't have been more engaged in a cast of characters and the troubled world that they reside in.

THINGS FROM JAPAN
Let's get this out of the way right now, because this is a point of immense praise and bitter criticism in other reviews that I have read. There are some that love the Japanese components and others who claim that they feel forced and fail to be a true representation of traditional Japan.

I openly admit that going into this, I had NO expectation that this would be at all historically or even culturally accurate in terms of what feudal Japan was or was not like. Jay Kristoff is about as white of a name as you could possibly ever hope to find so any that came in with the expectation of this being a true alternate Japanese history piece came in with a misguided idea of what they were getting into (either that or Mr. Kristoff's marketing team REALLY dropped the ball in how they hyped this up). This is Shima, not Japan and while the cultural similarities are absolutely present, this world is as much like Japan as Middle Earth is like Europe - close, but not meant to be an exact match. I never once got the feeling that the author meant to convey any sort of factual information about this country, but I did sense that this is a man who has a lot of respect and admiration for Japanese culture. Other than that, I didn't necessarily feel like Kristoff has that much more actual knowledge of the country than an avid anime fan might posses. The Japanese elements are far more of a backdrop for what ultimately feels like a microcosm of humanity as a whole.

What does come through in the work are the sumptuous pieces of Japanese imagery. From azalea trees to jagged mountain ranges, and bustling cities, this book is brimming with some of the most beautiful and intriguing things from Japan. Then there is the fashion, weaponry, and language. Many of these things are even called by their Japanese names. This could be both a good and a bad thing. It is bad because there is a TON of foreign words thrown at readers all at once. I'm all for expanding my vocabulary, but the extent to which these words are used in the earlier chapters did get overwhelming. Thankfully, the words are somewhat discernible within the context that they are used and there is a fully detailed glossary to be found in the back of the book. These words are also used often enough where I eventually started to read them as naturally as if they were from the English language. All and all the Japanese elements didn't make me feel like an expert in their history and culture, but they did provide an exquisite flavor to a genre that is predominantly saturated with white people who speak with vaguely British affects (not that I don't love that too, but a bit of variety is always nice).

CHARACTERS
Once you can get past the names of these characters, there is a staggeringly large and unnervingly compelling cast of individuals that inhabit the pages of this tale. There were characters I loved and characters I loved to hate. It all centers around our young heroine, Yukiko. I'll admit that she was a character I was a bit nervous about because these "strong female characters" tend to get a lot of hype and often times disappoint me, especially when they are written by a male author. I find that too often, these ladies so focused on being tough and standing up with the guys that the celebration of their womanhood is entirely forgotten. This is not the case with Yukiko. She's not a strong female character, she's just a strong character, period. Yukiko has lived a life of pain and loss, a life that has hardened her, but also left her a little broken. I found her character to be a really interesting blend of cynical and hopeful in a way that felt truly authentic to what being a teenager is really like, nevermind being a teenager in a polluted and dying world. She's as strong of a protagonist as I could ever ask for. She's beautifully flawed and remarkably gifted, especially since she has a gift known as the kenning, which is essentially a psychic ability that allows her to mentally communicate with animals among performing other impressive feats.

Then there's the crew we meet around her. From her lotus-addicted father and the brutish, but loyal Arkihito to the lethally beautiful yet tender Kasumi, the characters in this story are varied from the beginning and only get more interesting from there. The ambitious Captain Yagamata, the wicked Yorimoto, handsome Hiro, and strange Kin among others round out the cast and make this world feel like a living, breathing space. Each have their own personality traits, backstory, and many will suffer tragedies as the story rolls onward. Most of these characters have been indoctrinated into one manner of thinking or another and it was really interesting to see two characters from different factions interact with one another. The world they live in is one of corruption and wickedness and this really shows through in how these people communicate with one another. The angst always felt authentic and relatable which made the moments of compassion and understanding all the more rewarding. Perhaps the best character of all is the Arashitora or Lightning Tiger (essentially a griffon but with tiger parts instead of lion parts). While I'd like to go more into the role that this beast has to play in the story, it would be very difficult to do so without delving into spoilers. All that can safely be said is that he is a pivotal part of the plot and one of my favorite characters to ever grace the pages of modern literature.

WORLD/SETTING
While I know what a lot of people get really excited about in a fantasy novel is the characters, what really sells me on this genre is a compelling world. STORMDANCER has by far one of the most grief-stricken and smolderingly engaging story-spaces that I have ever visited as a reader. The more I learned about the world and all its conflicting factions, the more I wanted to know. The political engagements in these lands are complex and dangerous. Each party has it's own agenda yet all must bow to the will of the Shogun. It's a devious and tense system that only gets better with time. Even on a superficial level, the world is immediately gripping. Before I understood any of the intricacies, I saw a world as polluted with chi ash as with sorrow. This is a world of suffering and hardship where an elite few revel in their wealth and leave little for everyone else. This might sound like a common fantasy trope, but it is presented in a really interesting way herer. It is also a stark reminder that in so many cases, the ones who hold leadership over others often do not have their people's best interests in mind. I think this is a continued theme in fantasy, because it is also something that we must face off against in our own realities. It might be our peers, a manager at work, or even our own politicians and political leaders. Shima deals with this fear and frustration in a very extreme setting. The greed of the Shogun has torn the land apart with war and positioned the skies with the chi which is what the people call their power source.

Chi is burned in order to fuel all of the steampunk contraptions that buzz around. Mechanized suits, chainsaw katanas, and even glorious airships all fill this world and help further distinguish this place as a very unique setting, even within the fantasy genre. It all comes from the lotus plant which is grown and harvested by a faction known as the Guild. In addition to a fuel source, the parts of the plant are used in other parts of Shiman life, namely as an opiate of choice for several characters. As you might have guessed, both the plant and the Guild that grows it have some dark secrets that many people in this world are blind to. It is an unsettling thing to see the more beautiful elements marred by the stain of the chi and points where readers are brought to lands not yet tainted only make the pollution that much more painful to read about.

Then there is all the dark mythology that fleshes out the world and its people that much more. The gods play a huge role in how the characters behave and help define what it is they believe in. While it is not clear as to whether or not these beings are real - and if so, in what capacity - they are a delightfully intriguing aspect of the story's overall lore. The little excerpts quoted from a fictitious text also hint at possible plot points to be addressed in the later books in this trilogy.

This book does an absolutely remarkable job of showing readers as much of the world as it possibly can without ever feeling rushed. Dingy cities, peaceful woodland marshes, fierce wilderness climates, majestic airships, and sparkling palaces are just hints at some of the places that readers will be taken to. It's a world worth exploring and one that I certainly will not easily forget.

PLOT/TONE
A lot of what marks this plot is the people and places that it involves. The story itself goes through several phases which are marked as different sections within the book. While I won't discuss what any of them entail, it's far from a spoiler to say that at the heart of each of these story beats is the individual heartache that each of the characters feels coupled with their determination to survive and perhaps rise above their dire circumstances. Bits of Yukiko's past are divulged gradually as the story moves forward and connections can be found between many people that she comes across. Kristoff was smart to make her father, Mesaru, such a prominent and well known figure within the world because this made a lot of the more convenient coincidences feel way more plausible and even sincere. This is a world filled with secrets and suffering that is not openly talked about. Throughout the duration of Yukiko's odyssey, I could not help but feel an overwhelming sense of gravity while reading. This is the kind of tale that makes you feel more grateful for the little joys that surround you in life and makes you want to hold the ones that are dear to you. Life in Shima is even more imperfect than life in the real world and it is even more fleeting. Be prepared to feel genuine loss and heartbreak at every turn and general rushes of emotion all around.

What is perhaps the most unique and potentially the most enjoyably aspect of this novel is the author's style. Kristoff writes in a sharp and often abrupt tone of voice with a choppy sentence structure that I felt really suited the story, but others may not be thrilled about. It's one of the riskier elements in my opinion and an aspect of the adventure that readers are either going to be in love with or really turned off by. It's a stern and sometimes irreverent tone of voice that conveys sarcastic humor as often as it does raw bitterness. There is also a vaguely cartoonish feel to the writing which feels weird to say, but it is undeniably there. This isn't at all a bad thing, there's just a very distinct stylization to the descriptions that feel a bit larger than life.

CONCLUSION
The best advice I could give on this is to simply give it a try. Pick a copy up off the shelves at the bookstore or download the Amazon sample for your eReader and see if Kristoff's style is one that you think you might enjoy. The world and it's characters are not to be passed by lightly because they have an awful lot to offer. Don't come in expecting some kind of alternate history story, but instead prepare yourself for one of the most flavorful epics you have probably read in a long time. I now consider myself a huge fan of this author's work and fully intend to see this series through to its conclusion.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

REVIEW: INJUSTICE: GODS AMONG US VOL. 2

INTRODUCTION
As I mentioned in my review of INJUSTICE: GODS AMONG US VOL. 1, I generally have a hard time getting into comics. I like it as an art form and I think it's a cool medium for spinning fictional tales, but it is also a really confusing and unapproachable form of entertainment, even with all of the re-branding DC has recently done in order to make their stories more inviting to new readers. So when I decided to try the first volume of the INJUSTICE: GODS AMONG US comic series and found it delightfully well done and remarkably accessible, I of course had to continue on by picking up the Kindle version of the second half of Year One.

HOW I CAME UPON IT
Like I mentioned above, the first volume is what really sold me on picking up the second. INJUSTICE is kind of formatted like a television show in that it works in seasons (they refer to them as years). There is no mention of this being Year One until the very back cover in this volume, but that is probably because the addition of subsequent seasons/years was contingent on the first's success. At this point there are two more volumes out for Year Two and I believe there are issues released within Year Three. This might sound a tad confusing, but it's really not, especially  if you buy by the volume and not by singular issues.

Effectively, the final issue of VOL. 1 was kind of like the explosive mid-season finale of a TV drama. It collected issues 1-6 of the Year One sequence. VOL. 2 includes issues 7-12, plus the INJUSTICE ANNUAL issue which essentially functions as a thirteenth issue and a very intense wrap up to the Year One Story arch.

NOTE: While I won't delve into any major spoilers for VOL.2, I will be discussing things that happened within the previous volume, so please do not read on if you wish to avoid spoilers for the first six issues of the comic series.

HOW I RATED IT

5/5  I really couldn't have asked for anything more from this volume. I've openly admitted that I am no comics expert, but for me, VOL. 2 contained everything I ever wanted from a comic series. I gave the previous volume a 4/5 because I did have some issues with the pacing of certain parts as well as the overuse of tiny comic panels that looked a little ugly. This volume is entirely devoid of either of those issues and just seems to nail things at every turn.

CHARACTERS
This was one of my favorite aspects of the first six issues and it continues to be absolutely amazing
this time around. The main cast is back with Batman, Superman, Green Arrow Wonder Woman, Flash, and the rest of the Justice League taking the lead in most situations. Other characters like Catwoman and Harley Quinn are other welcome returners and then there are all the new faces as well as more focus given to characters that resided in the story's background.

A look at some of the members of Team Batman
At the end of issue 6, there were a number of characters that are teased as becoming part of Team Batman. Among them are Black Canary, Black Lightning, Atom, Huntress, and Batwoman. Some of these are used better than others in these seven issues. Batwoman, Huntress, and Black Lightning can be seen in most of the issues, but they are very fringe, background sort of characters. With such an enormous cast, it is completely understandable that some characters do not get as much attention as others and it was really just pretty rewarding to see these characters show up in this volume, even if only in a couple of bad-ass action shots. Other characters, Like Alfred and Robin get some really compelling sequences that were easily some of the highlights for me in this series. I can't even tell you about Alfred's part in the annual issue because it is just too good! If you're an Alfred fan like I am, then you have to read this and find out what I'm talking about because he is simply amazing here.

A page from the issue featuring Lobo
Other new characters were a bit of a pleasant surprise. Martian Manhunter and Lobo are two characters that appeared in the game as DLC fighters. While you could purchase and play as them, they didn't actually have any role within the game's story so it was very cool to see them play a part in the comic. Martian Manhunter in particular, was a really welcome presence for some reasons that I can't really express without spoiling things. Lobo is more of a one-hit-wonder type of character. He shows up in an issue pretty much dedicated to him, which was neat since he fancies himself as the "Main Man." It's in this same issue that Harley Quinn comes out of the woodwork after only making minor cameos in some of the other issues. Having her back and battier than ever was a really welcome aspect of the Lobo issue and seeing her team up with Black Canary and Green Arrow was beyond priceless. Then there is the introduction of Lex Luthor and the return of Mr. and Mrs. Kent. All three of these characters contribute a great deal to the story's plot and were used in some really interesting ways that I wish I could go into.

While it was nice to see so many of the more minor personalities get their time in the light, the main focus on Superman's decent into madness and Batman's cold, calculating efforts to stop him are not at all lost in the shuffle. The heart-wrenching conflict only grows fiercer as both sides fight for what they think is right. By the end of this volume, that conflict comes to its ultimate head in a way that I found utterly stunning.

A tense scene in one of Batman's hideouts
WORLD/SETTING
In my previous review, I expressed hopes that the setting for the narrative would become a bit more interesting. I am happy to report that my anticipation was fulfilled in every way that I could hope for. The world is now largely under Superman's control and while he does not yet rule with absolute authority at the beginning of the volume, he certainly becomes the almighty dictator by the end. What marks the setting of this collection is the conflict between the two hero camps. There's Batman and his followers who believe that humanity has a right to rule themselves and then there are Superman's underlings who think what they are doing is the correct course of action. Then there are those who have picked a side, but are not necessarily sold on which one is correct. Flash, Shazam, and even some of Batman's followers all question the correctness of their leaders actions which really helps convey the fact that the world is now a battleground despite Superman's best efforts to forcibly instill peace. It's still a rather traditional comic-booky setting with lost of sprawling cityscapes and plenty of secret lairs, but the distopic mood of it all is what makes it feel so unique and memorable. By the final panels of this volume, there is reason to believe that these classic locals will seem even less familiar during Year Two.

PLOT/TONE
Cover artwork from one of the issues
Since the very first issue of this series, the narrative has been steeped in blood. We witnessed the
death of Lois, the murder of the Joker, and the catastrophic disaster that killed nearly every living soul in Metropolis. The story has been pretty heavy ever since, but the issues that followed in the first volume were a bit less fatal than the premier. That's not so much the case here. Many of the characters I knew would die because of the game's campaign mode were killed off within the first volume. That left only one outstanding. I won't say who it is, but that person does get axed from the story in a really brutal way that felt genuinely heart-breaking. I also know who survives these events and makes it into the game, but there are a lot of characters in this comic that don't show up in the game's story, nor are they ever mentioned. This left me with a lot of question marks in terms of what would happen to these other characters. Are they being saved for an appearance in the game's inevitable sequel or are they going to be removed from the equation? There really isn't any effective way of guessing who stays and who goes, but what I can say is that each death felt really epic and impactfull this time around. Whereas moments like Nightwing's demise felt all to rushed in VOL. 1, the killings here got the treatment that they deserved.

What's somehow even more brutal than all the death is the mere back and forth between the two sides. Both Superman AND Batman do some pretty shocking things in order to get their way. These men are getting desperate and they make some very interesting leadership choices that don't break from their character, but did leave me in bit of shock. Batman can be inexplicably cold to those both on his side and those who are not, while Superman's flaming temper only gets worse and somehow more child-like as the story goes on. This is the conflict that the first six comics alluded to and it's one that I don't think I'll forget anytime soon.

CONCLUSION
I can't really give this series enough praise. For me, it has become a sort of benchmark by which I will judge any other comic or graphic novel that I read. It's emotionally raw and utterly tragic in some spots. The action shots are breathtaking and the artwork in general is just astounding. This is easily the most beautiful piece of graphic fiction that I have ever read and it is one that moved me throughout all seven issues, often in ways that surprised me. If you haven't gotten into this series yet, then you definitely should, especially if you're like me and have tried in vain to get into the world of comics. You may not be completely sold after reading through the first volume (I wasn't 100% myself), but after reading through this one, there is very little doubt that I will be reading every issue that this series comes out with.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

UPDATE: 7/1/2015


I didn't mean for this to update to be a Monthly Wrap Up / TBR, since that's more of a BookTuber thing than something bloggers do, but that's just kind of the way the timing worked out. Everyone Dies at the End, The Devil's Child, Injustice Vol. 2, and Stormdancer all have reviews now up on this blog and it is time to switch over to a new reading cycle.

I'm currently reading:

This round will be a bit more fluid than the last in that I am aiming to blast through the first two Hunger Games books in short succession. Sinking will likely be read in a single sitting and Unstable Prototypes will be something I read at a steadier pace.
  • The Hunger Games (The Hunger Games # 1) by Suzanne Collins
    •  I have begun my re-read of the famed dystopia. I already know that I love this book, but will feel better about reviewing it if I have a more recent experience with it. This will also gear me up for the two sequels which I hope to have finished before the final movie comes out.
  • Unstable Prototypes (Big Sigma Book 2) by Joseph R. Lallo
    • I really liked the first in this trilogy and am hoping that the sequel is event better. I'm not very far in and while I was a little annoyed with elements from the first book being overly summarized it promises to be really good once it picks up and kickstarts a new adventure.
  • Sinking by Cy Wyss
    •  This is a short story of about 30 pages that is written by an indie author who also runs a book blog. Subscribing to the newsletter entitles readers to a free copy of this story. I'll be doing a short review on this and since this features a character from one of the author's novels, I may pick that up if I like the short story.
I'm planning on reading:
  • Catching Fire (The Hunger Games # 2) by Suzanne Collins
    • As soon as I finish up with The Hunger Games, I will be jumping right into this one and hoping that I love it as much if not more than I loved the movie adaptation.
  • Mockingjay (The Hunger Games # 3) by Suzanne Collins
    • Hoping to get into this before the final movie comes out. I've felt guilty about each time I go see the movies without first reading the books and I have one more chance to redeem myself in this respect. 
  • Kinslayer (The Lotus War Book 2) by Jay Kristoff
    • I absolutely loved the first in this trilogy so I'll be getting a hard copy of the this once I finish with the Hunger Games trilogy. 
  • Artificial Evolution (Big Sigma Book 3) by Joseph R. Lallo
    • Sometime after I finish with book 2 in this series, I will probably be buying the concluding installment.
  • The Aneid by Virgil 
    • I had to read part of this for a class and liked it a lot, but since we moved on to something else and I had all my other schoolwork to do, I never got to finish it. It's my goal to do a re-read of this at some point especially since I already have a copy just sitting there waiting to be read. 
  • Endsinger (The Lotus War Book 3) by Jay Kristoff 
    • Assuming all goes well with the second book, I will eventually be getting into the third and final book in the main portion of this series (there are some companion novels and/or novellas)
I'm currently writing:
  • The main writing project I have is somewhat on backlog until I have a bit more free time. I chip away at it whenever I can and really do hope to have a teaser prepared for it in the near future. For now though, it's still a lot of prep-work with creating outlines and getting all the details sorted out before really diving in.
  • Visions of: The Future is technically in its post-production phase. I have been toiling away at the cover and will likely o a cover reveal for it in the near future. It's a very time consuming process as to be expected and it is slightly cutting into my other work a bit. I am very excited to see the work completed and can't wait to share the cover.
  • Digitarum music was the start of posts I intend to make on writing and publishing. I eventually would like to share step by step walkthroughs for how to publish, compose a novel, and market a book. While I'm not at all an expert in any of those subjects it might still be fun to share what little knowledge I do have.

REVIEW: THE DEVIL'S CHILD

INTRODUCTION 
Melissa Silvey's twisted romance continues with a second installment. Based on the ending message of the book, there's likely to be at least one more of these, but this could also continue well beyond that. I reviewed the first in this series (The Forbidden Fruit), though at the time of my read-through, I thought it was a standalone title. My opinion of it was generally favorable despite it not really being within my typical genres of choice. I gave it a 4/5 and the author must have really liked my review because she sent me the second book entirely free of charge in exchange for another honest analysis. 

HOW I CAME UPON IT 
As I mentioned above, THE DEVIL'S CHILD was given to me in EPUB format by the author. At the time I had other things I wanted to read, but fully intended to get around to this at some point. Now here I am with a review for the follow-up novel. I may not have anticipated this read as much as I might my next SciFi or Fantasy read, but I was genuinely interested to see where Silvey would take readers this time since things get a little flipped upside down at the end of THE DEVIL'S PLAYTHINGS. Would it be as good as the first? What would become of Emma? What of the devil-child? I needed to find out!

NOTE: Please do not read any further if you have not read THE DEVIL'S PLAYTHINGS. While I will not be sharing any major spoilers for THE DEVIL'S CHILD, there will be some discussion about the previous book's ending so read on at your own risk. 

This is the first sequel I have ever reviewed so the way I express my thoughts will have to be a bit different than a standalone story or the first in a series. Since so many of my to-read books are continuations of first books that I really enjoyed, I am hoping at getting better at this type of review as time goes on.

HOW I RATED IT 

3/5 Now, obviously this score is a bit lower than what I gave the first installment. To be clear, I did enjoy this piece and in a lot of ways, this is a very worthy continuation of the original story, but it also fell flat for me in a couple of key areas. Without further delay, let's get into exactly what I mean. 

CHARACTERS 
When we last left Emma and company, things were in a hazy whirlwind of chaos and confusion. Emma's repentant actions at the end made for quite the narrative climax and the closing paragraphs left me a bit breathless. While much of the plot will be discussed in a section below, it will be hard to discuss the characters with  out at least mentioning bits of the story, so here it goes:

Emma finds herself in a new life. It is a life very similar to the one she realized she was destined to live before Luc intervened and steered her away from that path (as the Devil will do). The only difference is that she isn't with Lee Kim, the man she meets at the end of THE DEVIL'S PLAYTHINGS - the man that Luc took the appearance of - the man that makes Emma realize she was never meant to be in bed with The Devil. In a mad rush of desperation, Luc manages to turn back time and rewrite history a bit. In this alternate reality, he kills Lee Kim and assumes the man's identity, in both name and appearance this time. He and Emma meet the way she and Lee were supposed to but never did and he grants her the life she always wanted...albeit with some strings attached.

Because of this reset in reality, we meet a much softer Emma. She's still a woman with a gruesomely dark past, but this time she has lived out a life of happiness. She is married to the "man" she thinks she was always meant to be with and together they have a "child" who she loves more than life itself. What she doesn't realize is that her loving husband is Satan and her beautiful little boy is The Antichrist. If that sounds like a pretty twisted scenario, that's because indeed it is. 

Luc now goes under the name of Lee, though he of course must eventually reveal his true identity to Emma later on in the story. For much of the earlier half, Lee/Luc takes a very different approach to his original attempts at manipulative seduction. He's posing as a loving and supportive husband rather than an aloof benefactor which creates a very different dynamic between the two of them than what readers saw in the first book. 

Adding to this mix-up of the original formula, is the inclusion of  their son, Pete, who is not necessarily what you might expect from the son of Satan and destroyer of the world, but for the most part, that's kind of a good thing. His developmental arch is definitely a very interesting one to follow and one that contributes quite a bit to the new overall feel.

Father Peter is back and he is doing far better for himself than he was in the first story. He's not really any less weak-willed than he was before and it is sort of hard to believe in him as someone who is destined for greatness within the Catholic Church's hierarchy, but he is an intriguing presence all the same. That said, he is a bit more predictable than the rest of the cast and the twist with him at the end was way too telegraphed to be at all shocking. He's not a bad or weak character by any stretch, and his attraction toward Emma isn't necessarily offensive, its just felt like he was being used as more of a functional character than one that genuinely moved me or even made much sense psychologically. 

The author has nailed it again with her lineup of supporting characters. "Friends" that Pete makes throughout the course of the story are all spot on and are welcome new faces that truly contributed a great deal to the narrative. Old faces return as well. My girl, Rosa, is back, but a little more in the background than she was before which makes sense and I was just happy that she made a return in this reality. On the flip-side, the Archangel Michael plays a far bigger role than he did before and while that's good in some ways, it also caused some issues for me which I will get into later. 

So far, so good though.I think overall, Silvey outdoes herself with the cast this time around and should certainly take pride that that accomplishment since the first motley crew was pretty memorable. 

WORLD/SETTING 
As you might have guessed from the bits of plot mentioned above, the setting for this story is very different from the one we saw in THE DEVIL'S PLAYTHINGS. Everything feels sort of quaint despite the sense that doom hangs off in the distance. Lee provides Emma with as normal of a life as she will ever be able to get with him. This is somehow so much creepier than the lavish mansion from before because I was presented with something real, yet I knew it was all just a fabrication waiting to collapse. There are points where readers are taken back to familiar locations and the contrast between locations from two different realities felt really quite special. 

This is also a version of the world that is much closer to collapsing into the end-times. With Pete (Abbadon) waiting to assume his role as destroyer and Lee manipulating Emma with far more ease, the fate of things does appear to be quite grim throughout much of the story. This raises the stakes a bit for Emma, but she also finds herself in a troublesome predicament where she still think of Luc and Abbadon as her husband and son  despite knowing their true nature. It's a far more conflicted setting and without spoiling anything, the choice of scenery for the book's final chapter was also quite on point. 

So again, another A +. As you might have guessed though, the sections to follow contain some of the components that I did not love as much. 

PLOT/TONE 
I've already really discussed much of the plot within the above sections, but in case things were a bit unclear, here is a quick recap:

At the tail end of THE DEVIL'S PLAYTHINGS, Luc loses and Emma repents. All seems lost to him, but then things suddenly shift into a new reality where everything happens differently. Luc kills the real Lee Kim, steals his life, and acts as Emma's rescuer again, but does so in the way that Lee was supposed to. Father Peter is not attacked this time around, but does find himself in the crossfire. With Abbadon in the mix and Luc employing far more subtle tactics with Emma, things get very complicated very fast. Everything is kept hidden from Emma until near the end and there is even this great sequence where she tries to put the pieces together, but just can't seem to do it, which, given her circumstances, is entirely understandable. 

Tonally, this is an even more morally ambiguous piece than the original which in some ways is intriguing, but in others, it does feel a tad forced. From a storytelling perspective, it makes sense to try to present the Antichrist in a more personable manner, but he just didn't quite come off as being evil enough to destroy the world. He's far more of a moody teenager than he really is a satanic creature. I mentioned above that his parts were interesting, but his nature is also one of the aspects of the story that was a bit harder to take in. I also mentioned that Father Peter felt slightly off to me. While he definitely functioned within the story, I just had a hard time accepting him for what he is allegedly supposed to be/become. We are expected to believe that he is a pious and holy man, yet at every turn we see him succumbing to his own selfishness. 

Whereas the moral grayness of THE DEVIL'S PLAYTHINGS worked out in it's favor, THE DEVIL'S CHILD feels like it tries to push this effect on things that are actually quite black and white. In the author's defense, it makes sense that she wanted to try and continue with a similar vibe as the first book, but it just doesn't click as well as it did the first time around. There's also just not as much clear symbolism or moral musings as the first book contains which is why there is no section devoted to religion in this review. The metaphors are certainly still there if you dig deeply enough, but the messages of the first felt far less prevalent here, at least in terms of their breadth. Emma's internal conflict is still well done and it is a rather poignant thing to see the Devil come back into her life and try new tactics since that is how evil works (whether Satan exists or not).

Another area that wasn't quite as pronounced this time around was the more erotic sequences that made up a huge part of the first book. While I personally liked not having all of the gory details, some may want to know that while there's still a lot of lovemaking to be had here, the author spares us most of the more graphic content and keeps things a bit more mellow to this end. 

One last issue I had with the plot was in how I felt it was generally far more predictable than the first book's. I saw a lot of it's ending twists coming from a mile away. That didn't necessarily detract from my enjoyment of it, but it also didn't leave as much of an impact.  

FORMATTING/FACTS
These components of the story is where things particularly fell apart for me (hence why it is an additional section in this review). For starters, this simply isn't as well edited or put together as the first book. There's really no way around this issue, it just is and there were enough noticeable errors to really detract from my overall enjoyment. I did notice this as less of an issue near the beginning and ending chapters of the book, but much of the middle is sprinkled with everything from typos to sentences that looked like they began one way, then got changed, but the initial thought wasn't overwritten.This is a bit disappointing for me and not something I generally like to call out in what I read (or deal with period), but if it's there, it's there. I'm hoping the next in the series is a tad more refined to this end. There are also more superficial issues like how the first book wasn't really marked as belonging to a series. The lack of a functional table of contents in this installment was also slightly annoying and I can't remember if the first book had this same problem or not. These are pretty minor complaints, but when they are coupled with editing errors, they just feel a lot bigger than they are. 

Another very pronounced issue I had with this one was the way that biblical references and church hierarchy logistics are used rather casually. If I remember correctly, the first book also took some liberties with church structure and cannon, but it wasn't really noticeable because most of it takes place in Luc's surreal mansion. This time around, there is a lot more focus on the real world which places a heavier burden on the story to get the facts right. The way that priests move up the ranks is just completely wrong here. A lot of people think there's some kind of job-interview process or a grand election of sorts, but that's really just not at all true. "Promotions" are decided upon by those already in positions of authority and they are appointments, not necessarily invitations. To be appointed bishop isn't the same thing as getting offered a job, it is a call to serve at a higher level of commitment. This fundamental falsehood made Father Peter's parts extremely distracting because he of all people would not be thinking of his proposed appointment in the terms that I mentioned above. 

Beyond that is Silvey's continued bending of biblical doctrine. Again, while this ploy worked the first time around, it feels just a bit too bent this time. The angels in particular just do not come off in a way that is correct or even makes sense within the context of the world that has been built within this story. They are described as cold and unfeeling, yet there is an undeniable tenderness that many of the guardian angels show to their human charges. This contradiction is especially true for Michael who apparently can't feel love or compassion, but seems to get angry and spiteful just fine. Perhaps the most flagrant party-foul here is the way that Abbadon makes his ascent to fame. In Acts 1:11 the Bible reads:

"Men of Galilee," they said, "why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven."

This is stated by angels to those that gathered on the mount where Jesus ascends into heaven and it implies that when Jesus returns, it will be straight from Heaven in his true form and not be being born again as a man. It is pretty widely believed among the Catholic community that Jesus will only come back to Earth in this way and that any who claim to be a new messiah (as Abbadon does in the story) are nothing but false shepherds and liars. This makes a large portion of the ending then highly implausible since there would be a very large percentage of people in the world who see through the deception. The Antichrists's rise to world power is also supposed to be far more subtle. While the drama and flare of Silvey's take on things does offer a quicker means of reaching the desired destination, it just doesn't make sense in terms of the religion that it so heavily references. It's very unclear to me as to what the author's faith background is, and I don't mean to question her knowlege of the subject, but it does feel like things should have been taken into a bit more consideration even if she is familiar with the religious text that drives this narrative. 

CONCLUSION 
Did I love this continuation of the storyline? No, but it certainly was not a bad outing. It can definitely be hard to get sequels right since there is an expectation that it will be better than what came before. Even professional products often fall extremely short when it comes to doing sequels - just look at how many Disney sequels were complete flops as opposed to those that people actually liked. I definitely stand firm in my opinion that this was not as strong of a continuation as it could have or should have been. The technical issues really needed to be cleaned up and while it's fine to take liberties with the facts, it gets distracting when they are taken and thrown into left field. The characters, setting, and tone were wonderfully consistent with the first installment while also being delightfully different. The ending also left me curious as to where the story might go from here since it seems like it could be headed off into uncharted waters (even in terms of everything that has happened in the series thus far). If you were a fan of the first book, then this will probably be an enjoyable enough read for you and I'd very easily recommend that you pick it up even if it's not perfect. If you weren't crazy about the opening book, then I don't know that this will get you into the series any more than the first one did. Basically my "expert" advice is that if you are already on board with this story-line, then stay on board. If you're not, then I can't promise that THE DEVIL'S CHILD will really change your mind. 

THE DEVIL'S CHILD is available as an eBook on Amazon

Thursday, June 25, 2015

WRITING INSIGHT: DIGITARUM AND THE UNOFFICIAL SOUNDTRACK OF THE WRITING PROCESS

It will be a little bit before any new reviews go up since I am still wrapping up my current reads. In the meantime, I thought it might be a good time to put up my first "Writing Insight" post. This one is a little silly, but it seems like a fun place to start before diving into sharing some of my more serious writing experiences. 

The songs that follow aren't really a desired soundtrack to the book or anything like that. Rather, they are tracks that I listened to with particular frequency during the writing PROCESS. Music can be really helpful to me when I am trying to envision a particular scene/set of images or am just searching for a mood/feeling. I obviously listened to a lot more than the following fifteen songs, but these are the ones that flooded my eardrums the most and those that I found most helpful whenever I got stuck. They are listed in no particular order.

Am I not Human?  Two Steps From Hell
  • A heart-pumping instrumental piece that I definitely played on repeat a bit while writing some of the more action-oriented sequences.
Fire and Rain  Matt Kearney
  • I've always liked Matt Kearney's music even though he's on the chiller side of things. This one has a lot of variation it its overall beat and just felt really emotional. I listened to this at various points during the process.
What I've Become - Zach Hempsey
  • Another super intense instrumental what definitely gives me chills every time I hear it. This was just one of those songs that I listened to all the time anyway and so it naturally became a big help during my writing.
Breath of Life  Florence and the Machine
  • Florence Welch has an incredible, power-house voice and this song is just so intense and so chilling that I naturally needed it in my life while writing DIGITARUM.
Knocking on Heaven's Door  Raign
  • So I know this is a wicked old song that has been redone like a thousand times, but Raign's voice is so powerful and her version was moving in a way that I never found any of the prior remakes to be. I was obsessed with it ever since the season finale of The 100 and would have been constantly listening to it even if I wasn't in the middle of writing a novel.
Hanging On – Ellie Goulding (no Tinie Tempah)
  • Just a great tune with a lot of emotional breadth. I didn't listen to this one as much as some others, but there were moments where it was of huge assistance. 
An End Once and For All – Mass Effect 3 Soundtrack
  • DIGITARUM is a lot more of a world-building type of story than it is one that focuses deeply on its characters. Even still, there were points that I wanted to convey a certain sense of tragedy even if readers may not feel a sense of loss in the same way they would in a more character-centric tale. This somber melody was perfect for those points in the process.
Immortals – Fallout Boy
  • An obviously fitting subject since this is a story about immortal beings. Other than that, this is just a kick-ass song with a really snappy tone and a great beat.
Hope in Front of Me – Danny Gokey
  • Despite only knowing two of this guy's songs, I am obsessed with his music. His voice, the update tempo of this track, and the overall tone/message was really great for those points where I was trying to strike a balance between tragedy and hope.
Midnight City – M83
  • A song that inspired the initial concept for the latter half of this book. It's creepy and cool and just has this really unique quality that I love. 
Centuries – Fallout Boy
  • I guess I had a bit of a Fallout Boy kick during this process. Believe it or not, there were one or two other songs by them that I also listened to a lot, but I decided to show a little restraint with this list. 
Style – Taylor Swift
  • Soooo...this is a little bit of an awkward one, but let it be known that Miss Swift's music is something of a guilty pleasure of mine. This one in particular was hugely influential to me because it has this eerie chiming noise that resounds throughout the song that creates a really exquisite mood that I thought was perfect for moments where one of the gods is flying across the sky or certain pieces of technology like the Knight Riders are being used. 
Warriors  Imagine Dragons
  • Imagine Dragons is just a bad-ass group and this song is so good! Enough said on this one, really. 
Wings of Icarus – Cadweller
  • An absolutely breathtaking instrumental beat. This one was listened to A LOT when I wrote the last two chapters of the book. 
Waiting for Superman – Daughtry

  • Perhaps another unconventional one, but I've been a huge fan of Daughtry's music for a while now and this song is one of my favorites. It's also really upbeat which made it great for listening during a wide range of points during the writing process. 


Saturday, June 20, 2015

REVIEW: EVERYONE DIES AT THE END



INTRODUCTION 
I'm not often one for the zombie apocalypse theme. I think it's overdone and all too formulaic to be of any real entertainment value. I also just don't find that zombies are a compelling type of villain. Vampires are scary because they are smart AND powerful AND eat people. Zombies just kind of eat people most of the time. Occasionally they are stronger or faster than average people, but a lot of the time they are actually slower. What makes a zombie apocalypse entertaining for most (I think) is generally how the world reacts to a global zombie outbreak. What usually does it for me though, is when the story is more of a spoof off of the ordinary zombie plot-line. Zombieland and Warm Bodies are perfect examples of this. I've yet to find any kind of more serious zombie story that resonates with me in quite the same way as these movies did. I do enjoy Plants vs. Zombies and Call of Duty Zombies mode (Left for Dead was pretty good too) but those are games that don't really tell Zombie stories, they just kind of let you kill them in excessive number. One might then wonder why I would pick up a Zombie novel then, but let me explain.

HOW I CAME UPON IT 
I mentioned in my UPDATE: 6/17/2015 post, I stumbled across the author of this on an online forum asking for early reviews of this work. I'm naturally a bit of a sucker for all things indie so I said I'd give an honest review of this in exchange for a copy. It's really short too - only an 87 page PDF file which would probably turn into a paperback length of approximately 100-150 pages depending on page size and font chosen (it could also be way more or way less, but this is a decent guesstimate). The author is a really nice guy and pretty active in the indie community which certainly helped with my decision to offer to try this out. At the time, I was also under the impression that this would be a sort of dark comedy, the likes of which I mentioned above. I can say in advance that EVERYONE DIES AT THE END did not deliver the type of entertainment that I expected and that turned out to be partially a good thing.

HOW I RATED IT 

 3.5/5 I've never given a half-score to a book before, nor have I ever felt the need to. So as you might imagine, I am a bit torn about how I rate this book. Three stars is a perfectly respectable rating in its own right and it is the rating this will probably be getting on Goodreads from me, but I truly think it deserves a little better than that because it tries to do some things that are different and unexpected. That said, I just don't feel it quite deserves a four in terms of what I look for and expect in a book. It is also worth noting that this is an ARC and there are somethings that will probably change between now and when the book is finally released. I mentioned above that I do have a slight bias against zombies, but I did not find that hindered my enjoyment of the story in any way.

CHARACTERS
Generally, horror characters are pretty lame. They often fall into stereotypes and just generally fail to be authentic or compelling in any way. They are also normally VERY dumb. I'm very happy to say that while some of the characters in this story are a bit dense, they are all really quite colorful in their own way.

The casting for this is unconventional to say the least. There's junkies, fat men, children, teenagers, bitchy wives/girlfriends, and average joes. It is an extraordinarily ordinary group of people and I think that made the experience  feel that much better than it would have otherwise. While I won't get into the details just yet, neither the general outbreak plot-line, nor the zombies themselves are all that different from what you would expect. What makes this a worthwhile read are the unique and interesting personalities that inhabit this space. I don't know if I would go so far as to say that they are all relate-able because there is a lot of surprising brutality and subsequent numbness to that gore that may make some of the characters harder to connect with, but its the little things that they say and do that make them feel true to life. Joey is perhaps the best example of this as he is a loving husband who struggles with his own obesity. His wife, Sara, is a as as hot-tempered as she is attractive and though they seem like an odd pair, they balance each other out and truly do make each other better people. Moments like when he comes up from doing a workout or when she cuddles with him in bed felt real and definitely sold me on these wonderful characters.

The story is kind of split up into two groups, there is the family group that Joey and Sara are a part of and then there is the story of Earl, the junkie who desperately craves his next fix of cocaine. His character is where the story is the funniest but also the most morbid. There aren't really any other main characters that are part of his group, but there is his demon which appears to him in various forms whenever his body begins to feel the need for another hit of drugs. This imaginary figure is there to taunt and torment him, but it is also somewhat motivating to his survival at certain points and I really liked the idea of this imaginary companion having such a big role in these segments of the story. There are a bunch of other really distinct characters throughout the tale, but I found that these four were easily my favorites.

WORLD/SETTING
There isn't a ton going on in terms of world intrigue here. The locations feel generally rural or at least suburban and the family side of the story remains pretty much exclusively in one spot for the majority of the plot's duration. Earl gets around a bit, but doesn't seem to go far since he keeps running into the other group. There are some intriguing places like a cannibals' home and a militaristic fortress that the characters run into near the story's conclusion, but these locations aren't really explored in depth. Don't get me wrong, these places aren't bad in any way, the locations visited are simply more just backdrops for the characters to exist within and don't really take on too much life of their own. This is pretty typical for this genre so I got what I needed from the world and had no complaints. If I had a similar opinion of say, a grand fantasy novel, then that would be a different story.

The zombies themselves are a lot of what will definite this type of world space. The ones here are a bit more interesting than the average flesh-eaters, but they aren't a super prominent presence. They are a poignant one, however. The zombies are visually interesting in that they are fungal based in a way that is very similar to how they look in the videogame, The Last of Us. The disease itself is causes by fungal spores that infect people and animals alike. The results are truly gruesome and the way the disease spreads through thick goo that gives birth to the infections fungi was rather horific. Every moment where this disease does show up feels balanced, well-done, and perfectly described. This aspect of the setting is by far the most distinct. While I know zombies are technically people, the way both the monsters themselves and the underlying disease are handled makes them far more a part of the setting than they are cast.

PLOT/TONE 
The tone is one area that I was a bit taken back by. Despite none of the marketing or even the story synopsis indicating that this would be a funny read, I did expect that this would be something of a zombie spoof simply based off of the silly title. And in some ways, it is, but in others, it couldn't be further from that. This is just a hard one to tonally pin down because of how gruesome the overarching tone is. Even the funnier moments are humorous in a really grim way. One example of this is Earl's addition. I shouldn't be amused by the fact that someone is so dependent on hard drugs, but seeing someone work desperately for their next fix in the midst of the apocalypse has an undeniable sense of humor to it. A lot of the funnier aspects are very much in line with this example in that they are things that wouldn't and shouldn't be funny other any other circumstances, but because of this story's context, they may actually make you chuckle to yourself. The way certain people like Joey are described also has this really down-to-earth humor to it. Aside from these bits of morbid jesting, though, this is a rather serious and brutal story that you probably classify as a dark comedy, but its not the same thing as the humor found in stories like Zombieland.

One somewhat distracting thing about the book is the way it is formatted. The author broke the chapters down into individual episodes. That might not sound like such a bad thing, but calling a chapter an episode set up an expectation for me that each part of the book would have a sort of theme to it. I figured there would be some sort of little mini story thread that opened and closed within each episode, but that's just not the case. The "episodes" flow into each other in a continuous way like chapters do and really just didn't feel episodic in any way. It didn't necessarily detract from my overall enjoyment of the piece as a whole, but it did make the earlier sections a little harder to get through since I was thrown off by this feature. One other thing that was a bit off-putting was the formatting. While I did read this as a PDF which is not reflective of the final product, none of the chapters had page breaks to separate them from one another, nor was there a table of contents (functional or otherwise). While this was just an advanced copy, I did find myself a little disappointed in these two shortcomings because I'm a "real" reader too and I feel like a book should be formatted with general readability in mind. It doesn't have to be industry standard or anything like that. I've been through the pains of trying to learn all of the "proper" formatting specs for my own book and it isn't easy, but I do ask for the basics and I felt like those were kind of ignored here at least with the version that I was given to review.

I mentioned before that I did have a little trouble getting going with this story. I knew going in that there would eventually be a zombie outbreak, but did not anticipate the contents of the first couple of chapters. The book starts out on Earl's side and throws readers into this really shady scene of Earl and his girlfriend(?) getting into a fight over whether or not Earl is going to share his drugs with her. There's a flurry of domestic abuse where some very unpleasant words are thrown around. While these scenes do set up the root cause of the outbreak, I just don't think that this was the best way to hook readers in. It's shocking/surprising, yes, but probably not in the right way. I plodded through these earlier episodes in hopes that things would get better and they do for the most part. Once the outbreak starts, the adventure begins. The violence and language don't really calm down at all, but they do fit in a little better when there are man-eating fungus monsters running around. I would say that the vast majority of this plot really worked for me right up until the final couple of episodes.

I found myself a little jarred by the ending for a couple of reasons. First, things happen just a little too fast. I have no issue with pacing changes, in fact, I like a good breathtaking conclusion, but that's not really the case here. As the title implies, everyone kind of dies at the end and the majority of these fatalities all happen within the span of about ten pages. If this was part of some super-intense massively devastating event that would be one thing, but the pacing just kind of rolls along at the normal pace except for all the death. There is also a bit of a twist that I didn't see coming and I'm not sure that's a great thing. It would be hard to explain myself without getting into spoiler territory, but I effectively felt that there were some serious logistical/plausibility issues with it all and actually would have preferred a more standard ending to the one that we got which is a somewhat rare thing for me. That said, the author's decision was pretty clever in a way and my only real problem with it was that I'm not so sure it actually made sense, particularly within the context of the first couple of chapters. It also left me with a lot of unanswered questions which isn't the most pleasant way to end a book.

CONCLUSION
This was a really mixed bag for me. In some ways, I really really enjoyed this work. The characterization and general cleverness of the author made a strong impression on me, but I didn't feel that all of the plot components worked, namely with the first and last chapters. It wasn't really a spoof nor was it a true-to-roots zombie apocalypse, which can be good or bad depending on who you are. For me, this odd mix of dark humor and brutal gore worked and I did feel like I got to read something unique and special. Like I said, it's quite short and can be remarkably easy to get through. If you are a fan of zombie stories, then I'd recommend that you pick this up for sure, especially if you are looking for a short, weekend read or just like to read in short sessions. Either way, this won't take much time and there are a lot of reasons why this is a worthwhile read even if I didn't feel it was on point 100% of the time. I think this writer has some other work already on the market and I was captivated enough by his style to want to try something else out despite this particular story not being a total win for me.

EVERYONE DIES AT THE END does have a Goodreads page, but is not currently available on Amazon for sale. I think it will be eBook only, but am not positive about that. If you're intrigued by a zombie story that tugs at the strings of genre convention, then definitely shelve it for later or reach out to the author since I think he is still looking to give out some early copies in exchange for a review.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

UPDATE: 6/17/2015


I feel that the blog is well underway now. Previous content is posted and several new items were added including the reviews for Hollow Towns which was pretty great and Fade to Black which unfortunately left a bit to be desired. While I did not finish Stormdancer as part of this round, I will be making sure to get it read before my next reading cycle. I also managed to construct a set of trivia for Digitarum and rather enjoyed it so I will be creating more types of new content like that as time goes on.

I'm currently reading:

Unlike the last round I will be finishing ALL four of these before picking up anything else.
  • Stormdancer (The Lotus War Book 1) by Jay Kristoff
    •  I'm still working my way through Kristoff's Japanese (inspired) steampunk Fantasy epic. I'm about halfway through and really loving the imaginative world that has been created here. The only real reason this is taking me so long is that I have it in paper format so I am really only reading it when I have time to sit down with it and I've read a couple ARCs in PDF format which is cutting into the time I would spend with this book. I am determined to finish this book soon though since I really do like it. I will not count this reading cycle as complete until this book is finished!
  • The Devil's Child (Forbidden Fruit Part II) by Melissa Silvey
    •  I have started in on Melissa's penultimate bad romance's sequel. So far there are some things that carry over from the previous book and others that shake up the formula a bit. I'm still pretty early on, but this promises to be an interesting continuation of the original story. I think this is one that I will probably read slow and steady and just kind of enjoy it at my own pace. 
  • Injustice Vol. 2 by Tom Taylor
    • I really liked Vol. 1 and needed to get back into this series so I purchased the second volume. I'm done with the first issue which picks up pretty much where the last one left off, but a bunch of time has passed. There is a lot going on in this one and the plot felt a little scattered in some ways, but it was also nice that I felt a sense of scope and that all of the threads from the last issue were mostly followed up on. I think most of this will be read in a singular binge session like the last one. I'll probably read one or two more in isolation and then just pour through the rest, probably over a weekend, but I may also try and spread this one out a bit - we'll see. 
  •  Everyone Dies at the End by Riley Westbrook
    • I was not originally on my scheduled reads but I stumbled across a forum post by the author asking for early reviews of the work. Because of the title, I assumed this would be a bit of a spoof on the Zimbie apocalypse genre but it that is not the case. I think I'm still enjoying it well enough though since it is typical of the genre in some ways and very different in others. It's not super long so I imagine I will finish and have a review up for it before long.
I'm planning on reading:
  • The Hunger Games (The Hunger Games # 1)by Suzanne Collins
    • So since I am a couple of books ahead of my 2015 Goodreads reading challenge schedule, I will be re-reading this one so that I can put up a review. I toyed with the idea of just reviewing it, but it's been almost two years since I last read it and I'm ahead of my reading game so I figure it would be best just to refresh myself on this since I plan to jump right into Catching Fire immediately after.
  • Catching Fire (The Hunger Games # 2) by Suzanne Collins
    • As soon as I finish up with The Hunger Games, I will be jumping right into this one. 
  • Unstable Prototypes (Big Sigma Book 2) by Joseph R. Lallo
    • I've been holding off on this one since I have other eBooks to read (three of them as listed above). Once those are all finished and reviewed, I will be buying this one from the Kindle store. 
I'm currently writing:
  • I've gotten a bit of the planning done for my next big project and found some helpful ways of organizing all of the people, places, and things that will be playing a part in it. I think there will be a reveal of some kind coming soon for this as well as possibly a new page for major works that are in progress. 
  • As mentioned elsewhere on this blog, both of the short stories I wrote will be appearing in the collection currently entitled Visions of: The Future. Right now, I'm working on the cover art for this publication in an attempt to further support the collection. I will likely be doing some sort of reveal for that once it is finally ready and approved by the author sponsoring this production. 
  • Digitarum trivia was a lot of fun for me to do. I plan on doing more neat things like that since the book is already out, but I'm also planning on going a bit deeper into the writing process. This will start with a post on how I used music to help set the mood for certain moments in Digitarum and will likely expand from there to even include a 3 part walk-through on how to get something indie published.
Early on, there won't be much else aside from the four reviews that I have planned along with the post about the use of music when writing Digitarum. After that is when I will likely jump into some of the more writing-centric posts on my process as well as announcements about my coming works. All of which will help fill in the gap between when I finish this reading cycle and when I get around to finishing the Hunger Games and Unstable Prototypes.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

NEWS: Goodreads Giveaway for DIGITARUM

From now until July 6, 2015 one of three paperback copies of DIGITARUM can be won by entering the Goodreads giveaway at https://www.goodreads.com/giveaway/show/142749-digitarum

There are three chances to win and a lot of folks have already entered for it which is kind of blowing me away.

NOTE: Goodreads selects the winners, I only supply the contest and provide the rewards.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

REVIEW: FADE TO BLACK

INTRODUCTION 
Every now and then I like to try something a little different from what I normally read. Before I started using the Kindle app on my tablet, I was rather narrow in my choice of literature. If something wasn't required for a class or didn't fit my interests exactly, then I just did not give it a chance. Now that I am into using Kindle, I've found it a lot easier to get into things I might not have before since books are so much cheaper, and there are a bunch that are even free either from time to time or are the start of a series and always free. FADE TO BLACK by L.T. Vargus and Tim McBain is both the start of a series and was free for a couple of days so I gave it a try.

HOW I CAME UPON IT 
Right around the time that I started promoting DIGITARUM, I started getting a whole bunch of new Twitter followers from people within the indie scene. One of the authors of this book was/is among them and sent me a private message on Twitter saying something to the effect of: "I'd drink drano to get you to read a sample of my book [book link]." It definitely got my attention and I did give the free sample of the book. I found it intriguing, but not compelling enough for me to jump for a purchase right away, especailly since I was already reading a couple of other things and the book was priced at a little under $5 which seemed a bit steep for an eBook of this length. So I just shelved it on Goodreads with the full intention of reexamining how I felt about it after I had completed my current reads. Later on I saw it announced on Twitter that this would be free for a bit, so I snagged myself a copy. That probably sounds pretty cheap of me, but I knew this was just the start of a series and figured a free download would increase my chances of getting into this story-line (and therefore make me more likely to support the authors through buying their other work). So with out further delay, I will get to how that plan worked out for me. 

HOW I RATED IT 
3/5 I can safely say I was a little torn when trying to figure out how to rate this. On one hand, I felt a desire to like this because it was written by fellow indies and I truly did think that they had an interesting concept going on with this. There are even aspects of this story that are really good: 4/5 good. But then there are other components that just feel extremely weak: 2/5. I think a 3/5 is appropriate then in this case because while there were certainly aspects of the story that I really enjoyed, the overall package just did not come together for me in the way that I felt it should. Now, 3/5 is not a horrible rating, in fact its very respectable, but it does also reflect that there were more than a couple of things that detracted from my ability to enjoy this piece in full.  

CHARACTERS 
The characters are easily where this work shines through the most AND where it also falls flat on its face. Let me explain:

The main protagonist of the story is 27 year-old Jeff Grobnagger. At first I immediately disliked him because he literally feels like a modern rendition of CATCHER IN THE RYE's Holden Caulfield, a character that I find to be utterly insufferable and irredeemable as both a character and general human being. Normally, I don't like to compare books to other books, but the resemblance between Jeff's moody, sarcastic, hypocritical, phony tough guy routine is uncannily similar to Holden's own obnoxious personality. Jeff is a loner and it didn't take me very long to figure out why since this guy has one of the worst attitudes about everything and is selfish beyond compare. Ironically, he's also my favorite part of the novel.

Unlike Holden, Jeff is funny. His snarky demeanor and twisted internal thoughts actually have a bit of charm to them. He's still a selfish, immature, prick, but also an entertaining one. It gets better though. Whereas Holden had really no feasible reason for being the way he was, Jeff has actual reasons for being this way. I don't mean reasons that have to do with alleged metaphors and symbolism, I mean real-life actual reasons, This is hinted at fairly early on and as the novel progresses, I learned more and more about Jeff's past and how it has shaped him. Near the end of the novel, I felt very close to this character and identified with a lot of the hurt that he felt. He has this sort of coming-of-age arch despite his being 27 and well of age. While that might sound weird, it actually works in a way because we are all always growing and big life changes shouldn't be reserved for the very young because if you're not improving upon yourself and overcoming hardship, then you're probably doing something wrong. These authors seem to get that and I found it really endearing to read this type of story with someone who is suffering from adult angst which can be a lot more painful than teenage hurt simply because the stakes feel so much higher.

Now while I genuinely fell in love with Jeff as a character and really appreciated what the writers did with an adult coming-of-age theme, the problem with the rest of the cast is they just didn't feel like they belonged in an adult novel. There are a number of side characters with varying levels of degrees in the story's events, but none of them really have fully dimensional personalities. Most people I met pop up once or every now and then and even Glenn, who is Jeff's primary companion throughout the novel, just fell so flat for me. It's blatantly telegraphed that several of these characters (like Glenn, Ms. Babinaux - a mysterious informant - and Louise - a really vague love interest) all have something more to offer the story, that potential is never really fulfilled. They're all just kind of there for the ride and contribute very little aside from supplying tidbits of plot to help things roll along. They have distinct characteristics, but aren't vibrant in the way that characters should be in an adult novel. That's not to say that every adult novel needs a strong supporting cast, but this one certainly felt like it should. Now Glenn and Babinaux do START to become characters during the back 15% of the novel, but it feels like its too little, too late. It's also unclear if this is actually the start of them having real characterization or if this was just something to create more hype for the next novel in this series.

WORLD/SETTING 
From reading the description of the novel, I figured this for some kind of world where a seedy occult underground ran rampant and uncontrolled. To an extent, that is exactly what this world is, but the problem is that we rarely ever get a peek at it. For the most part, we are kept confined to the normal world except when Jeff gets dragged into one of his mysterious dreams/visions/spirit quests. There are hints that things a bit paranormal exist by I as a reader rarely ever got exposure to any of it until right at  the end. There just isn't anything particularly noteworthy about this world. It's pretty average, and kind of grubby - plus most of the events are confined to a select few locations. The imagery is (mostly) well described, its just that the actual locations the novel took me too were not as interesting as the synopsis led me to believe

PLOT/TONE 
By now, you have probably gathered what I think of the plot. It becomes a real problem when the synopsis kind of oversells the story that I as a reader am actually going to get. It's really not super action packed and I felt next to no suspense whatsoever at any point. This mainly because (1) most of the action takes place in Jeff's dreamworld and after the first couple of times his tormentor kills him in the dream, the other encounters lost all sense of consequence because I knew Jeff would be fine when the chapter closed and a new one began and (2) because I had no real attachment to any of the characters except for Jeff who I didn't really establish a connection with until a little more than halfway through. The plot also just sort of rolls along at its own pace most of the time and moments that I think were supposed to be shocking in some way just kind of felt inconsequential. It's not that this is a predicable novel, it's just that the information that Jeff and Glenn uncover is neither refreshingly different in the way of paranormal mysteries, nor does it go very far toward helping Jeff uncover the truth about what is happening to him and around him. What makes this effect worse is that at the end, NONE of these answers are fully delivered. The only piece that felt at all completed was the developmental arc for Jeff. Aside from that, nothing is answered - only more questions are asked. If that sounds like the story ends in a bit of a cliffhanger, that's because it does. 

I take great issue with the way a lot of writers use cliffhangers a lot of the time. Can they be used in a positive way? Absolutely! Some stories are just to jam packed to end any other way and others come about AFTER some of the main plot points are tied up - effectively introducing new sources of conflict as a teaser for the next installment. Neither  situation is great for me, mind you. I like to feel a sense of closure after reading a book since it generally takes me a little while to get through and even if its a free book, I still spent time reading it. I don't want to feel ripped off that I wasn't given a complete story whether the book is a freebie, cheap, or standard retail price. And a complete story this is not! Without wrapping up any of the main plot-related ideas and really not even truly answering the mystery behind Jeff's out-of-body experiences, I was really just left with a really sour taste and I'm not really sure if this is a series I want to continue since I'm not sure that any of the next installments will have endings that satisfy me. 

Tonally, I also had a lot of issue with this. The dialogue and general intelligence level of Jeff and Glenn seems very inconsistent. It ranges from formal and informed to ignorant and obnoxious. There are also WAY too many pop-culture references. While a few here and there can be fun, the authors go so far as to replace actual descriptions with cheap references. One such case is a pair of boots a character is wearing.  The brand or maybe the style is named and since I was not familiar with what that was, I merely envisioned a generic pair of work-bootsThis sort of cop-out is also used in place of explaining how Jeff is actually feeling in particular circumstances. I also found some of the immaturity to be a bit distracting. While this is largely what defines the characters as well as the overall tone of the novel and is mostly a funny quality, there were points where it just felt like too much. It wasn't a total miss for me in this area, but it also was not something that I would count among the novel's strong points. 

CONCLUSION 
This is a novel that definitely has a couple of pretty good things going for it. Jeff is an absolutely fantastic character. He's honestly the Holden that I deserved, but never got so I have to really credit these authors for managing to pull off this type of character when one of our "great American classics" didn't even manage to pull it off (in my opinion of course - there are many who would disagree with me on this point). Despite failing to be fully realized by this installment's conclusion, the overall idea of the plot-line is really quite intriguing. It's just a shame that I don't feel confident that this piece will get better because of how much is withheld from readers. I also tend to be rather hesitant to continue series when the first book leaves off with an unsatisfying cliffhanger because it feels like a manipulative ploy to get me to buy the next book in the series right away. I don't know that this plot earned its cliffhanger and I'm not sure that I'm too keen to continue onward without knowing that things get better.
Like I mentioned before, these are decently expensive for eBooks of this size (in my opinion) and I don't really care to spend time and money on future entries if I'm not going to feel satisfied by the end. The authors can certainly invent a genuinely compelling idea, but whether or not they can execute and complete it really still remains to be seen. If anyone has read the second book and believes that things improve a bit, then I'd certainly be open to giving the series a second go, I just don't think I'll be continuing onward otherwise. The first novel in a series that tells a longer story is sort of a courtship to readers, and while I didn't flee from the first date, I'm also not too inclined to pursue things any further.
This probably sounds like a lot of really harsh criticism, but I don't necessarily mean for it to be. Indie authorship isn't easy and mysteries are a tough thing to pull off, nevermind ones that dip into the paranormal. There were a lot of things this novel had to balance and I just didn't feel like this work managed to pull it all off. While it is possible that they have created a more satisfying experience in their later work, there is nothing in this particular book to indicate that I should really want to go out and get the next installment. I also think that there IS an audience that  this would be 5/5 for. It's a nice, easygoing read that doesn't require too much focus in  order to follow, nor does it take all that long to read. I plodded through this on lunch breaks and could very easily recommend it to anyone who is looking for a light read that they can either dive into over a weekend or just chip away at here and there. It wasn't a huge hit for me, but I can also understand why there is a lot of praise for this. I'm a little puzzled by much of the hate coming from the opposite end of the reader spectrum, because I don't think this really deserves to be completely torn apart the way that some readers have. This definitely did not have everything I look for in a novel, but I also don't regret reading it - I simply don't find myself wanting more.

FADE TO BLACK is available in eBook and Paperpack editions on Amazon.