Zombies: More Recent Dead by Paula Guran

Zombies More Recent Dead by Paula Guran(Cover picture courtesy of Prime Books.)

The living dead are more alive than ever! Zombies have become more than an iconic monster for the twenty-first century: they are now a phenomenon constantly revealing as much about ourselves – and our fascination with death, resurrection, and survival – as our love for the supernatural or post-apocalyptic speculation. Our most imaginative literary minds have been devoured by these incredible creatures and produced exciting, insightful, and unflinching new works of zombie fiction. We’ve again dug up the best stories published in the last few years and compiled them into an anthology to feed your insatiable hunger…

[Full disclosure: I requested and received a free ebook through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.]

I’ve been suffering from a severe case of Walking Dead withdrawal for a few months, so I figured that I might as well get back into that zombie kind of mood with a new anthology from some well-known authors.  Jonathon Maberry, Neil Gaiman and so many more authors that I actually like were included in this anthology.  Where could it go wrong?

Apparently, almost everywhere.  This is a non-traditional zombie anthology, which I knew when I requested it.  All of these zombies are either thinking zombies or just kind of dead shells of their former selves come back to life.  I don’t mind reading about these types of zombies.  It’s a newer (more terrifying in some ways) take on a creature that is a little over-hyped by pop culture.  Of course, being that people are people, sometimes they would do disgusting things with these zombies: have sex with them, make them servants, etc.  It’s sad to see that my faith in the worst impulses of humanity is still justified.

Except, by the end of the anthology, I was really, truly struggling to finish it.  This is not a long book, by the way.  It’s only 480 pages and it should not have taken me so long to finish, but I really had to force myself to keep reading about 2/3s of the way through.  Why?  Because, for the most part, it was boring.  Most of the stories, even by authors that I really liked, were quite boring.  Yes, they showcased the new type of zombie very well but some of them didn’t seem to have a point (or a plot) and still others were so boring that you forgot how the story began by the time you got to the end.  It’s not like I have a short attention span, either.

None of the characters really stood out for me here and even though it’s only been a week since I read this, I couldn’t really name more than two or three of them.  This anthology just did not pack the punch I’ve come to expect from authors like this.  In the end, I was more disappointed than entertained, which is not something you want when you’ve just read through almost 500 pages.

I give this anthology 3/5 stars.

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Blood Diva by V. M. Gautier

Blood Diva by V. M. Gautier(Cover picture courtesy of Mythical Books.)

The 19th century’s most infamous party-girl is undead and on the loose in the Big Apple.

When 23 year-old Parisian courtesan, Marie Duplessis succumbed to consumption in 1847, Charles Dickens showed up for the funeral and reported the city mourned as though Joan of Arc had fallen. Marie was not only a celebrity in in her own right, but her list of lovers included Franz Liszt – the first international music superstar, and Alexandre Dumas fils, son of the creator of The Three Musketeers. Dumas fils wrote the novel The Lady of the Camellias based on their time together. The book became a play, and the play became the opera La Traviata. Later came the film versions, and the legend never died.

But what if when offered the chance for eternal life and youth, Marie grabbed it, even when the price was the regular death of mortals at her lovely hand?

In 2014, Marie wonders if perhaps nearly two centuries of murder, mayhem, and debauchery is enough, especially when she falls hard for a rising star she believes may be the reincarnation of the only man she ever truly loved. But is it too late for her to change? Can a soul be redeemed like a diamond necklace in hock? And even if it can, have men evolved since the 1800′s? Or does a girl’s past still mark her?

Blood Diva is a sometimes humorous, often dark and erotic look at sex, celebrity, love, death, destiny, and the arts of both self-invention and seduction. It’s a story that asks a simple question – Can a one hundred ninety year-old demimondaine find happiness in 21st century Brooklyn without regular infusions of fresh blood?

[Full disclosure: I requested and received a free ebook from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.]

As my regular readers are probably well aware of by now, I love opera.  It makes up the bulk of music I’ve listened to in the past two years or so and since there’s nothing on television anymore it also makes up the bulk of movies/performances I watch.  I guess you could say I’m an opera fanatic, so when I saw this book on NetGalley I decided I’d go for it.  After all, while I’d never heard of the real Marie Duplessis, I sure loved Violetta in La Traviata.  I figured it would be nice to see a different take on the woman behind the legend.

 What was really clear from the beginning is the Gautier loves opera and she loves the book by Alexandre Dumas fils.  She has this excited energy about both of them that you really just can’t fake.  However, to me it seemed like her love of opera sometimes exceeded her knowledge of it.  When referring to a famous aria from Verdi’s Rigoletto she called it “Dona e mobile”, which is not correct Italian.  It should be “La Donna e mobile”.  At another point a vampire tells her he calls blood l’elisir d’amore because of the Rossini opera; that’s not really possible because Donizetti wrote the opera in question.  Some other errors like saying “vencere, vencere” is the last line of the aria “Nessun Dorma” can be attributed to the lack of knowledge of characters, but the two examples above should have been caught in the editing process.

For all of my nitpicking, I really did enjoy Blood Diva.  Marie/Alphonsine is a great character and is very three dimensional.  She struggled so much with her transition to being a vampire and now she struggles with being a vampire because she’s falling in love with a human.  A human that doesn’t (and can’t) know about her past.  Marie also really struggles about what she’s forced to do for work because sometimes the elder vampires (in order to gain funds for the communal fund to help other vampires) sometimes make her revert to her old profession.  It’s actually kind of sad that she was gifted an immortal life on her deathbed and yet, for all that she’s seen and learned, she’s back where she started 200 years ago.

This is mostly a character novel, so it helped that both Marie and Dashiell were three dimensional.  The one thing I really loved was that their relationship was intense and beautiful, but that it also had its rocky moments.  Contrary to how they’re portrayed in many novels, relationships are rarely straightforward and couples in love do argue.  Marie and Dashiell certainly argue, but you can always feel that they love each other.  Considering their relationship takes up most of the book, I really appreciated that Gautier spent so much effort on it.

The plot was pretty good right up until the end.  As I’ve said, this was character driven so of course it’s going to be slower than a plot-driven novel, but Blood Diva never really drags.  The characters are far too interesting for that.  My only problem is that the ending left me unsatisfied.  It fits with the theme throughout the book of Marie’s fictional incarnations, so I don’t mind that the ending was not necessarily the most cheerful ever.  I just felt unsatisfied, like “I read all that only for it to end like this?”.  It didn’t feel like there was much closure, really.

Still, Gautier’s writing style was beautiful, her pacing was excellent as well as her characters and she had that kind of excitement that you just can’t fake.  Despite the ending and the little mistakes I really, really enjoyed Blood Diva and I hope that Gautier, whether under this pseudonym or another, writes more novels in the future.

I give this book 4/5 stars.

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Atlas by Becca C. Smith

Atlas by Becca C. Smith

(Cover picture courtesy of Goodreads.)

Kala Hicks is part of a covert elite military team that answers directly to the President of the United States. But during an emergency mission aboard Air Force One, Kala is shocked to discover that the real threat is none other than the President himself. Defying her commanding officer, Jack Norbin, Kala takes the shot, and her life changes forever.

The moment the President is killed, a supernatural force speaks to Kala, telling her that she has to commit one act of atrocity every four days… or the world will end. Thrown into a reality she never could have imagined, Kala faces off with creatures of legend; from demons determined to make her fail and plunge the Earth into chaos, to angels who don’t trust her to do the job and are willing to kill her to claim it for themselves.

Pitted against the forces of good and evil, Kala must choose whether to save the world by doing the unthinkable, or sit back and let it burn. And four days later, she’ll have to do it again.

[Full disclosure: I received a free paperback copy in conjunction with the blog tour in exchange for an honest review.]

I’ll admit that with this one I was a little skeptical once I actually read the blurb.  To be honest, it sounded a little dumb and I thought that I’d accidentally signed up to read a total lemon.  Thankfully, that was far from the case.  This one is a diamond in the rough, so to speak.

The real strength of Smith’s writing is the fact that she can pace things so well.  I felt the tension ratchet up right from the beginning until it was at almost unbearable levels during the climax.  There were twists and turns in the plot, with plenty of “didn’t see that coming moments”.  I didn’t even see the end coming when Kala did something so unexpected that she shocked angels, demons and those in-betweeners that are desperate to keep up the balance of the world through an Atlas.  Some are determined to stop her and others are still more determined that she should succeed, so in the end who will win?  You just really don’t know.

Kala is a good character and she is quite memorable.  Having grown up largely in foster care until her teen years, she understandably has some trust issues, particularly in her relationships.  Her backstory is fascinating but just when you think you know everything about her, we learn something very interesting about her foster parents and who/what they really are.  What I really liked was her determination in the beginning to find a way out of becoming the next Atlas.  She doesn’t want to commit the atrocity that’s been assigned to her, but she doesn’t want literally billions of people to die.  It’s a fascinating inner struggle, believe me.

I really appreciated Becca Smith’s world-building.  She clearly knows a lot about Greek mythology (which you would expect) but she goes deeper into Christian theology in order to create some of her other creatures like the Grigori and Malaks.  I would have liked a little more time devoted to the creation and working of magic, but then that would have slowed down the plot and thrown the pacing off.  We still have good working knowledge of the whole different world Becca Smith created, but it’s more of a personal preference for me that I would have liked a little more.

All in all, this is actually a pretty good book and I’m glad that I went into it with an open mind, rather than judging it entirely on the blurb.

I give this book 5/5 stars.

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The Castle Blues Quake by Linda Covella

The Castle Blues Quake by Linda Covella(Cover picture courtesy of Patch.com)

12-year-old Pepper Connelly leaves her best friend, Chrissie, behind when her family moves from New York City to Santa Cruz, CA. Pepper discovers a boy, Corey, hiding in her backyard shed. Unknown to Pepper, Corey is a ghost trying to contact his grandfather, Boppie, before he crosses over. He tells Pepper he must locate Boppie before Social Services finds him. Pepper agrees to help.

While Pepper’s communication with Chrissie dwindles, her friendship with Corey grows. She tells Corey about her passion for writing songs, and throughout the story, she composes a song about Corey. Corey teaches Pepper to play the harmonica. Soon, she’s torn between finding Boppie and knowing when she does, Corey will certainly go back on the road with his traveling-musician grandfather.

Other characters help her on her quest: new classmate Ally Cressman, who dresses in an odd-ball, non-mall style; Sawtooth Sam, the mysterious saw-playing street musician; and Madame Mchumba, who performs her psychic readings at the Boardwalk amusement park. Earthquakes, haunted house rides, poltergeists, and crystal ball readings propel Pepper toward the end of her search as she learns about the give and take, the heartache and joy, of true friendship.

[Full disclosure: I received a free ebook in conjunction with the blog tour in exchange for an honest review.]

This is definitely a middle grade novel, probably one that’s not really all that suited for teens, but I decided to give The Castle Blues Quake a try anyway.  It wasn’t a bad decision in the end either.

Even though some characters are walking stereotypes, the main characters are at least a little fleshed out.  Pepper has had to move to a new house in Santa Cruz from New York City so she’s understandably not happy with the situation.  She’s drifting apart from her big city friend but then she makes a new friend: the house ghost, Corey.  The only problem?  She doesn’t know he’s a ghost and he’s not about to tell her he is either.  He’s waiting for his grandfather the whole novel (which would normally make him a boring character) but Corey is actually quite proactive.  He and Pepper essentially set out on a quest to bring his grandpa back home, not knowing that grandpa has secrets of his own.

My only real ‘complaint’ about the book is that the secondary characters should have been fleshed out more.  Sage, Pepper’s parents, the psychic, etc.  Even for a middle grade novel they were surprisingly stiff, like they were cardboard cutouts.  All they really served was to move the plot forward at convenient intervals.  Pepper’s parents especially seemed pretty oblivious to the goings on of their twelve-year-old so there was a little of that believability factor missing.  Still, this is not a bad novel.  It’s just not a great one.

I’ve read quite a few stories like this before so the plot was really no surprise at all for me.  I don’t want to give spoilers away, but I think it will probably be predictable even for the targeted audience.  Still, I like that Linda Covella maintained a decent pace throughout the novel and didn’t belabour the point in her descriptions yet the reader knows what’s going on.  As an older reader I felt the believability factor was a little low, but then again I’m not a 9-12 year old and haven’t been for a number of years.

The Castle Blues Quake is not a book made for my demographic, but it’s not a bad book for middle grade children.  There are better novels out there, but there are also a lot worse ones.  This book didn’t make me gasp in surprise or struggle to catch my breath because it was so beautiful, but it was a solid, generally well-written novel.

I give this book 4/5 stars.

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The Last Song by Eva Wiseman

The Last Song by Eva Wiseman(Cover picture courtesy of Goodreads.)

Spain had been one of the world’s most tolerant societies for eight hundred years, but that way of life was wiped out by the Inquisition. Isabel’s family feels safe from the terrors, torture, and burnings. After all, her father is a respected physician in the court of Ferdinand and Isabella. Isabel was raised as a Catholic and doesn’t know that her family’s Jewish roots may be a death sentence. When her father is arrested by Torquemada, the Grand Inquisitor, she makes a desperate plan to save his life – and her own.

Once again, master storyteller Eva Wiseman brings history to life in this riveting and tragic novel.

[Full disclosure: I requested and received a free ebook copy through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.]

I honestly couldn’t have been more disappointed in this novel; it’s pretty hard to make a story set in the Spanish Inquisition boring but Eva Wiseman certainly managed to.  The main problem was that the writing style of this book is awful.  It’s essentially this: Isabel did [x].  She didn’t know how she felt about it.  Then she reacted to [y].  She felt sad about it.

Are you snoring yet?  That’s basically how the entire book goes.  We are told something happens, then told how Isabel feels about it without actually seeing what happens or seeing anything resembling emotions from our main character.  It’s like she’s carved from wood!  Not only that, there are so many inconsistencies in her character because she goes from “Ugh, Jews” to “sure I’ll go dress as a boy, sneak out of my house and go to a Torah study session with this boy I just met a couple of days ago”.  We’re told she warred about the decision but it really didn’t feel like it at all.  Just like when we’re told she’s worried about her father in Torquemada’s custody but you don’t really get the feeling that she is.

This is a middle grade novel so obviously some things are left out or simplified, but with this excruciatingly boring kind of writing style it was also impossible to empathize with any of the characters.  They’re basically just stereotypes that you find in a thousand other middle grade novels.  Isabel is the poor little rich girl who’s betrothed to a man she hates, her mother is the melodramatic sickly type, her father has always been the supportive and encouraging one who then admonishes her for thinking independently, etc.  Even Yonah, a character who could have been quite interesting, was boring because Eva Wiseman never really went into the hows and whys of his character.  He just exists to guide Isabel to Judaism and be the love interest, not to have anything resembling a personality.

My final problem with this book is that it was so predictable.  A poor little rich girl gets betrothed to a man she hates, something comes along that makes that betrothal impossible and she gets to marry the man of her dreams, usually a person of much lower rank and/or wealth.  Pretty much the whole book was summarized in the blurb above, so there were no real surprises in either the characters or the plot.  The Last Song wasn’t even particularly poignant at the end, when the Jews and ‘Moors’ are expelled from Spain on pain of death.  It should have been a touching, sad moment but it wasn’t.  This book just totally lacked emotion.

What can I say?  If you like being told a story but not actually having to think about it for yourself and discover things about the characters, I suppose this book is for you.  If you like three dimensional characters or unpredictable plots, I can’t even recommend it.  I just don’t see where there’s anyone who would like this novel, aside from pre-teens and early teens who have never read about the Spanish Inquisition.

I give this book 1/5 stars.

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Between by Megan Whitmer

Between by Megan Whitmer(Cover picture courtesy of Goodreads.)

When a supernatural freak of nature forces her family to separate, seventeen-year-old Charlie Page must turn to her frustrating (yet gorgeous) neighbor, Seth, to help reunite them. Seth whisks Charlie to Ellauria—a magical world filled with the creatures of myths and legends—and tells her of the Fellowship, the group charged with protecting mystical beings from human discovery. (All except Bigfoot: that attention whore is a total lost cause.) But when Charlie learns that she’s under the Fellowship’s protection herself, well, “stressed” is an understatement.

Ellauria should be the safest place for Charlie while the Fellowship works to find her family, but things in the mystical realm aren’t what they seem.

Magic is failing, creatures are dying, and the Fellowship insists Charlie holds the key to saving everyone. With her family still missing and the danger in Ellauria growing, Charlie doesn’t know who she can trust. She’s dealing with a power she never asked for, falling for a guy she can’t have, and being forced to choose between her destiny and her heart. And if she chooses wrong, she could destroy magic forever.

Charlie may be in over her head.

[Full disclosure: I requested and received a free ebook through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.]

I wavered on requesting this one for ages.  It sort of sounded like your typical fantasy (girl has special powers, gets attacked, hot protector dude steps in to save the day, whisks her away to a strange land to master her skills, etc.) and that made me a little reluctant, but at the same time I fell in love with the cover.  It’s a shallow reason for reading a book, I know, but it did look interesting and that’s why I requested it in the end.

Luckily for me, Between is actually a pretty good book.

The thing that impressed me most was Megan Whitmer’s world-building.  Not only does she populate Ellauria and Earth with familiar creatures like sirens, harpies, elves and fairies, she adds in creatures that you don’t see very often (ones that I’m pretty sure she created) like jourlings and the ever-important dying race of muralets.  Instead of being one happy quasi-Medieval world, Ellauria is full of politics and danger lurks behind every corner.  Not everything is as it seems and trust me when I say that everyone seems to be playing their cards close to their chests.

I have to admit, the characters were decent enough as well.  Charlie is far from the Mary Sue you so often see in these types of books simply because she actually has to work to develop her powers.  At the same time, she’s constantly worried about her missing brother and mother and she thinks she’s falling in love with the one man she really, really shouldn’t.  Add to that the fact that the Between, the source of all magic, seems to be dying.  She’s stressed constantly and you can really tell, unlike some books where the main characters doesn’t seem to be fazed by anything.  Seth is your typical tragic bodyguard character archetype but he also has quite a bit of depth and I was really starting to enjoy his character by the end.  The only one that disappointed me was Charlie’s brother and I can’t tell you about that without giving away spoilers.

The only thing I was disappointed with is the plot.  For most of the book, it really seemed like Charlie and Seth were wandering around with very little purpose with training scenes thrown in to spice things up.  But then at the end, when we meet the bad guy, I was supremely disappointed.  Let’s just say that the man at his side was a walking stereotype that has been used so many times in the good vs. evil fantasy novels.  It was kind of disappointing when the rest of the book had been so strong.  Still, I will read the second book when it comes out.  The cliffhanger at the end was just too much to ignore!

I give this book 4/5 stars.

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The Daughter of the Sea and the Sky by David Litwack

The Daughter of the Sea and the Sky(Cover picture courtesy of Goodreads.)

After centuries of religiously motivated war, the world has been split in two. Now the Blessed Lands are ruled by pure faith, while in the Republic, reason is the guiding light—two different realms, kept apart and at peace by a treaty and an ocean.

Children of the Republic, Helena and Jason were inseparable in their youth, until fate sent them down different paths. Grief and duty sidetracked Helena’s plans, and Jason came to detest the hollowness of his ambitions.

These two damaged souls are reunited when a tiny boat from the Blessed Lands crashes onto the rocks near Helena’s home after an impossible journey across the forbidden ocean. On board is a single passenger, a nine-year-old girl named Kailani, who calls herself “the Daughter of the Sea and the Sky.” A new and perilous purpose binds Jason and Helena together again, as they vow to protect the lost innocent from the wrath of the authorities, no matter the risk to their future and freedom.

But is the mysterious child simply a troubled little girl longing to return home? Or is she a powerful prophet sent to unravel the fabric of a godless Republic, as the outlaw leader of an illegal religious sect would have them believe? Whatever the answer, it will change them all forever… and perhaps their world as well.

[Full disclosure: I received a free ebook as part of the blog tour in exchange for an honest review.]

What I find interesting is that in David Litwack’s world of religious extremes (blind faith on one hand and clinging to reason on the other hand), one little girl finds a way to bring both together toward a common goal.  Both sides clearly are committing atrocities and are scarily dystopian toward their citizens, so by the end of the book there’s still quite a long way to go but things are getting better.  And that’s really the beauty of the world-building in this book: it mirrors our own society in a lot of ways, particularly with the current events going on in the Middle East.  Finding common ground is a start, both in the real world and in fiction, and David Litwack portrays a slow transition both for society and the main characters in a realistic way.

The characters were quite interesting in their own ways.  Helena is dealing with the death of her father alone because her mother ran away to bury her head in the woods at a farm for artists.  Jason is struggling because he’s never been given the opportunities of Helena, having worked a job after school for so long to pay for university and get a decent job.  Then everything changes when Helena and Jason help a girl whose boat crashed on the reefs and she claims to be the daughter of the sea and the sky who must be forgiven by the wind.  The character of Kailani is interesting but I feel like it had a little more potential because of the way the book ended.  Maybe a clue or something about whether or not she truly is a prophet.

David Litwack’s writing keeps improving with each book, but the narrative of this one seemed a bit off.  His actual writing was nice; lots of descriptions, easy flow, etc.  But the story itself felt like it was building up toward something that was changed in the climax, leaving readers a little disappointed.  Maybe it’s something personal, but I kind of wanted more at the end of the book.  More of an explanation for Kailani, more of the circumstances surrounding her journey explained, etc.  I try not to be too thrown by surprise endings, but this one did affect my overall opinion of the rest of the book.

In short, if you’re looking for a good science fiction/fantasy mash-up book, look no further.  The Daughter of the Sea and the Sky wasn’t necessarily the book I’m the best suited for but I still found a lot about it to love.

I give this book 4/5 stars.

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