Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Review: Scourge by David H. Burton

Sorry I'm late with the review this week! The upcoming holiday concert at school has left me with some extra duties that needed attending. It's that time of year!

Scourge by David H. Burton is an interesting little YA novel that came to my attention through David's posts at Mobile Read, where he is a regular. It was described as a YA "Steampunk" adventure, and that sounded intriguing. I do enjoy a good YA read from time to time, and David had a very polished profile: the book is a second novel, so he has some experience, it is available both at Smashwords and on his website (and if you purchase it from him there, he'll personalize it by using your name for a certain minor character!) and there is even a YouTube trailer. I had to check it out.

The plot concerns a young boy named Grimwald "Grim" Doyle who lives in a strange house with two dads and a passel of siblings. One day, there is a skirmish involving some magic rocks, and all of a sudden some bad guys from another world are after them and they are transported to a fantastical parallel world where there is magic and gadgets and danger galore...

And my verdict? Well, I had to keep reminding myself that this was a book geared for children :) It was certainly well-written, well-edited and had a very creative storyline once it got going. But there were some very well-worn tropes in this book---the evil orphanage, for example, was straight out of Dickens, and like many fantasy novels I've read, there was this air of Sherwood Forest Meets Renaissance Fair underneath all the Steampunk trappings. Of course, children would be less versed in such things. For me, I felt like much of the first third was fairly skimmable and I would have liked to stop for the Explaining of How Things Work a few less times than we did.

Once the story got going, it was a decent enough adventure. And I do think the target audience will probably eat this sort of thing up, especially the boys out there in ebookland. Mr. Burton is the adoptive father of three boys himself, and this experience no doubt influenced Mr. Burton's writing. Ultimately, with no offense intended to the affable and extremely nice Mr. Burton, I am going to decline to rate this one. I like the overall package, I like the author's approach (personalizing the book with a character named after the purchaser is a great touch!) and I respect the obvious work he's put into crafting and carefully editing a solid story. As with the handful of other books I declined to rate, this turned out to be not my kind of story---but I do think it might very well be the kind of story for a different reader. So, as with those other unrated few, I'll say go for it, if this is your sort of thing.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Review: Soul Identity by Dennis Batchelder

At last, a real Smashwords gem! After several weeks of promising--but-needing-a-good-edit indie reads, I was delighted to find Soul Identity. It's a fun, original and utterly entertaining adventure story. Scott Waverly is a security expert---the opening prologue has him cheekily confounding airport security in order to help them improve their weak spots---who finds himself mixed up with an unusual organization that claims to track souls into their subsequent lifetimes and allow people to transfer their wealth to their future incarnations. He at first writes them off as quacks, but a heartfelt plea from his lonely neighbour, who is an aspiring member, leads him to take them up on a temporary job offer. Once inside the lion's den, he finds a well-meaning majordomo in over his head, a gorgeous computer expert who steals his heart, and a nefarious conspiracy that's out to destroy them all...

The action moves briskly from India to Venice and beyond, and the more philosophical parts are handled deftly without slowing down the action. The characters, especially the two leads, are well-drawn and Scott especially, with that little bad-boy glint in his eye, were fun to read about. Perhaps the villain was a little too obvious and cartoon-ish---might have been nice to see more of him as a character before he was outed as the bad guy---but this is a small quibble. The book was excellent and I heartily recommend it.

I had trouble loading this onto my Kindle for some reason---I read it on the iPad and didn't even notice the Kindle troubles until later. But my sister says it loaded fine on hers. I see too that Mr. Batchelder has a sequel out on a 'pay what you want' price. I will definitely be picking it up and sending a tip the author's way.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Review: The Demon Queen and the Locksmith by Spencer Baum

This engaging (and free!) YA novel was a treat! The story is about three teens in a mystery-plagued New Mexico town who stumble upon a supernatural-ish adventure involving a strange mountain, a missing radio announcer and mystery forces of evil, and something else entirely.

The first two thirds of the novel were excellent. It was a pleasure watching Jackie, Joseph and Kevin come to terms with the powers they were tapping into, and begin their little teen gumshoe routine. Toward the end, the story got a little too bogged down in the technical stuff, however. I started wanting to skip ahead a little.

That said, I did feel this was one of the better Smashwords books I've read---reasonably polished, entertaining and very original. Sort of across between early Dean Koontz and later Neil Gaiman. Very worth a read, if you like the horror genre. 3.5/5.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Review: Deadly Gamble by Connie Shelton

Like many of the reviewers who posted at Smashwords about this book, I obtained it during Read an Ebook Week last year. It's a solid, well-edited little mystery and the ten others in the series promise more good reading for those who enjoy this sort of story.

Charlie is an accountant who works for her PI brother, and when he is out of town and an old friend drops by with a seemingly simple lost item retrieval case, Charlie goes off on her own to find Stacy's stolen necklace. But when the thief turns up dead, it's a full-on mystery that Charlie may not be ready for.

The book was of a high quality for a Smashwords title, free of amateur errors and well put together. I am avid mystery reader and this was exactly the type of book I normally like. But something was missing for me. I kept taking breaks from this one, forcing myself to read one more chapter in between rounds of Plants vs Zombies :) I can't quite put my finger on what it was, but I suppose it came down to not enough stakes for me. When I think back to the series I follow most devoutly, they usually involve protagonists with very interesting jobs (Kay Scarpetta is a coroner, Stephanie Plum is a bounty hunter) or with super-compelling backstories (Kinsey Millhone is an orphan with a murky past, Eve Dallas is a former foster child who doesn't even know her real name and is married to a zillionaire). Charlie Parker, in comparison, was kind of blah. It wasn't so much 'J.D. Robb' as ' Carol Higgins Clark' for me, and I hated *those* books!

That said, I do think this is a solid and very polished mystery series for those who read more in the cozy vein, and for some reason I am disinclined to mark it down too much just because I didn't love it. I do think this book (and the others in the series) have potentially wide appeal and are quality entrants in a genre that, let's face it, is under-represented in the indie world both in quantity and quality. If it had that extra zip that felt, to me, to be missing, it would have been a 4/5 for sure. As is, I am going to decline to rate this one. Not my favourite, but it may well be a favourite for others, so go ahead and enjoy if you are a mystery fan.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Review: Still Life with Murder by Patricia Ryan

I am delighted to welcome a guest blogger for this week's review: my sister Tammy! Tammy is a paralegal, a published freelance writer with more than 300 newspaper and magazine credits to her name (including The Writer, Rangefinder, Paralegal Today, and others) and an as-yet unpublished mystery novelist. Tammy has been a fan of e-books since they first emerged on the PalmOS platform a decade or so ago and just got a Kindle 3 graphite for her birthday. She says she believes it is finally starting to realize the promise of e-books and she dearly loves it! Tammy also reads on a MacBook and a Droid, but neither of those is quite as satisfying as reading on the Kindle! You can find out more about Tammy and her work at her website and at Mobile Read.

Now, onto today's review! The book is Still Life with Murder by Patricia Ryan, and here are Tammy's comments:


I'll be honest: I wasn't expecting to love Still Life With Murder. I don't read a great deal of period fiction, and in much of that which I have read, the author's attempts to set the period overwhelmed the story. This book was different.

The story centers around Cornelia “Nell” Sweeney, who through an accident of circumstance becomes governess to the adopted daughter of a high-society Boston family. But Nell’s world explodes hen one of the Hewitt family’s sons, long believed killed in the Civil War, is found both alive and accused of murder. Viola Hewitt enlists Nell’s aid to clear her son, and Nell finds out that unburying secrets can have a heavy cost indeed.

The story's setting was clearly placed, in both location and time, without seeming heavy-handed. The author's writing had a pleasant, almost lyrical, feel that I really enjoyed, and was quite well-crafted. By the end of the book, I genuinely liked the characters and cared about what happened to them. And, best of all, the mystery ended with one of those surprise twists that, upon further reflection, makes the reader say “of course, it had to be that.”

Overall, I’d give this one a 4/5, but that’s just because I don’t read much in this genre. If you love period fiction, bump my rating up to a 5 and go buy this one. Whether you love period fiction or not, you’ll probably enjoy being swept away into Nell’s world. I know I did,


Thanks, Tammy, for the review! Tammy will be contributing other reviews to this project and I look forward to seeing what other gems she will bring our way!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Review: The Bad Seed by Maurilia Meehan

The Bad Seed is a paranormal-themed small press title by a veteran Australian author. It is set in Australia, at a spooky run-down house in a 'spa' town which is purchased by a gardening columnist seeking an escape from a life in tatters after the disappearance of her daughter several years before.

The writing is top-quality and the atmosphere and mood of a small tourist town is captured very well. But I found the plot tended to wander a little. Agatha's job as a magazine columnist is very prominent as the novel begins, then fades away and comes back again several times. It was also not portrayed completely realistically. I doubt, for example, that an editor would be pestering her to run tours of a garden he himself has never seen. And the supernatural lore of the local village could have been woven in a bit more smoothly rather than just being dumped in all in a lump at a convenient juncture.

This is my third read from indie publisher BeWrite Books and I while I respect the kind of business they seem to be running, I have to confess that I have been a bit disappointed with the books I've actually finished. In addition to the above-mentioned issues with this one, there were some sub-plots that would have benefited from better pacing, and there was a glaringly obvious error in a Wizard of Oz reference that never should have made it through the first editing pass. It's disappointing because they seem to choose to choose interesting novels from authors who clearly have the chops, but then it never seems to come together so that the book realizes its full potential.

If this were a first draft, I would give it top marks and be eager to read the final version. But as a finished product, I rate this one a 3.5 at best. More subtlety on the supernatural aspects, a better-paced narrative and a clean-up of some of the obvious inaccuracies would up it to a 4 or higher. But it's not there yet.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Review: Capable of Murder by Brian Kavanagh

I needed a short one this week; I am recovering (hopefully) from bronchitis and spent most of the weekend sleeping. Capable of Murder by Brian Kavanagh was just the thing---just barely novel-length, and a fairly inoffensive cozy that made for a quick and easy read.

The story involves a young woman who inherits an old cottage near Bath, England from her aunt and goes to live there. She meets several sinister characters who all seem to have an interest in the cottage and grounds, and as the body count climbs, she wonders what secrets her aunt---and the old cottage---contain...

The story was entertaining, and the setting well-realized---Mr. Kavanagh's author bio says that his day job has been work in the Australian film industry, so this is definitely evident in the writing. The characters, however, were less well-realized. We got little sense of the heroine as a person other than that she used to live in London and has inherited a cottage. And the villains were cartoon-ish and not terribly subtle. This was a plot-driven story, not a character-driven one. Unfortunately, I can't help but feel, as I have with other books from this publisher, that the story would have benefited from one more pass by an editor to flesh things out a little.

There appear to be two more novels in the series. My gut tells me they are better than this one, but they are a bit over-priced for an indie read so I probably won't get past the sample. That said, this was not a bad story and made for a reasonably entertaining Sunday read. I give this one a 3/5.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Review: Wake Up! You're Probably Never Going to Look Like That... by Michelle Pearl

This Smashwords freebie is one of the few wellness titles I have found there that is not either an informercial ad, or priced like one. It's a full-length, content-rich and well-written motivation guide for anyone interested in health, fitness and wellness issues.

The focus of the book is attaining a healthy lifestyle---not necessarily a size zero lifestyle, but rather a realistic and maintainable one where you are at your personal fittest and best. Pearl, who is a personal trainer, outlines ten steps to 'transformation' which include eating regularly, controlling your cravings, reducing temptations and other common-sense but useful suggestions.

The book has many personal anecdotes from both Michelle and her clients (including a former contestant of the Biggest Loser show who has been making media rounds with an eating disorder and a scathing indictment of the show) and is written in a chatty, informal style which works well for the type of book it is. I would have liked to see a sample two-week plan with meals and workout suggestions spelled out in detail---that is standard for 'real' books of this type, and Pearl is at times vague on actual specifics---but that aside, I did find the book a good read, especially for a freebie.

My one big complaint is the formatting---it looks fine on the website and iPad, but this book looked absolutely abysmal on the Kindle. Someone needs to go through her code and clean it up a lot! Page breaks in odd places, weird spaces in between lines, images that just don't look laid out correctly and other glitches abound. I deleted it off the Kindle after less than a dozen pages.

I am going to say 3.5/5 for this one. She loses points for the occasional general idea which could have benefited from being a more specific idea instead, and she loses points too for the absymal formatting. So it's not a 4, but it's better than a 3...

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Review: Space Junque by LK Rigel

Space Junque is a novella-length space opera type of story set in a post-apocalyptic future where eco-terrorism is slowly eroding the planet. The protagonist escapes into space and finds herself stranded there with her missing twin sister's boyfriend, and a shuttle pilot she has a thing for. Things escalate from there...

I don't usually read in this genre, aside from Star Trek novels, but I was intrigued by the sample and took a chance on this one, to mixed results. I enjoyed the human side of the story---Rigel nicely plays such details as the interpersonal vibe between Char and Mike (her identical twin is his girlfriend and his feelings for her are therefore bittersweet) and Char's small efforts to make life go on were similarly deftly drawn. The writing was good, definitely publishable quality.

However, as the story developed, I did find myself getting bogged down a little with the world-building, and this reminded me why I tend to not enjoy such stories. It's hard to work in the backstory needed for a future setting without veering into tireless exposition territory. Something like Dragonverse, which I recently reviewed, erred a little too far on the side of patient explaining. This one was definitely on the side of 'in media res' and I am not sure I am experienced enough with this genre to catch on as quickly and really enjoy that. If you are the type of reader who needs everything spelled out for you very explicitly, you might find yourself struggling a little to piece together the geo-politick at play in this short little book.

I am going to hold off on assigning a rating to this one. If this book is your sort of thing, you'll probably enjoy it. I can definitely say that on a purely functional level, the book is readable, polished and well-paced. Ultimately, it did turn out to be not my kind of story, but I think that is more a reflection on my personal reading tastes than on any issues with the book itself.

The author is currently running a contest to promote the book. So if you enjoy this sort of story, it might be a good time to check it out!

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Review: The Adventures of Whatley Tupper by Rudolf Kerkhoven & Daniel Pitts

I found The Adventures of Whatley Tupper via a recommendation on another blog; it was described as a contemporary, adult 'choose your own adventure' kind of book where at various points in the story, you are presented with choices and taken in different story directions depending on what you choose. You can read the book multiple times and it will be like a different story each time. I was intrigued; I read these types of books (the original Choose Your Own Adventure series) as a child, and the hyperlink functions of a well-designed ebook system are a natural fit for this type of story.

The main character is a janitor at a small university who has various outlandish adventures. The story I read involved a missing person and a wile goose chase after them. It was a very fun little read---the style is kind of cartoon-ish and very much leaning toward farce. If you are a fan of pulp-era dialogue ("“Uhh, I don’t know,” replied the young Vince, adjusting the curly dark locks of his mullet.") this is the story for you.

I tested the book on both iPad and Kindle. On the iPad, it was easy as pie to touch my choice when it came up and go at once to the next 'page' in my custom story. On the Kindle, there was some scrolling needed; it worked, but I will probably keep this on the iPad if I want to do further playing.

This was a very slick and well-done little experiment, but ultimately, it never did progress beyond 'experiment' and into the realm of actual book for me. There was the gimmick of the choose your own adventure thing, and the gimmick of the pulp-speak, and the gimmick of the utterly outlandish storylines (the blurb promises such options as "Will he travel into a parallel universe? Will he tame the troglodyte murderer living in the tunnels?") It was just too much cutesy 'look at how clever.' Fun to play around with for an hour or so, but not really a proper 'book' when all is said and done.

4/5, and most of the points are coming from the fun factor. It does not deserve that on literary merits alone.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Review: The Seventh Compass Point of Death by Richard Sanders

The Seventh Compass Point of Death is an engaging, quick-moving thriller from Richard Sanders. The main character is a journalist-cum-PI who gets involved in a group of wannabe terrorists at the behest of an old friend, who worries that her brother has become involved. I read through the book (it's a short one) in one sitting and overall enjoyed it.

However, on reflection, I found myself of two minds concerning this book. On the one had, the writing itself was excellent---a sort of noir-ish, brisk-paced style, but with some deft descriptive touches and lovely characterization (especially of love interest Shala and her conflicted, misguided brother Roozie). But treatment of several other key characters was less rich, less developed and overall, less realistic. The government flunky was downright cartoon-ish, and main character Quinn McShane was far more cardboard than he deserved to be. I questioned how realistic some of the events in the story would be.

I also found that, while Saunders' writing pedigree (he has worked for many years as a journalist) was apparent in his knowledge of New York City and the moments of witty description, his pedigree as the editor he claims to be in his author profile was less apparent. Even allowing for some of the characters not being native English speakers (and their dialogue justifiably reflecting this) there were errors in spelling and usage that jumped out at me. Off-hand, I can recall 'bit' where 'but' was clearly meant, 'al' where 'all' was obviously intended, and other such flaws creeping into an otherwise polished story. And the exciting opening sequence featuring a dead body in a car-jacked trunk turned out to have far less relevance---and prominence---than it should have considering the time devoted to it in that critical opening chapter. I do think it is details like this which make many readers feel that self-published books are inferior. It is a shame because I think a proper edit where these mistakes are fixed and some of the less credulous and/or less well-developed aspects of the book were fixed would make this a solid, commercial-quality adventure.

That said, there were some beautiful moments in the quieter scenes with some of the better-developed characters. The pacing, and overall writing was excellent. It is definitely a worthy read---more than a 3/5, certainly. It's Probably the number 2 book I have read so far from Smashwords. But---I can't give it a 4/5 either, given the careless mistakes (one of them in the very last line of the book!) and need for just a little more editing and more time spent on developing certain characters and scenes.

So...I don't know. I recommend it, certainly. But I can't help wishing it would get a tiny bit more polish before anybody takes me up on that recommendation.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Review: Dragonverse by Doug Farren

I don't usually read fantasy novels, so I was surprised to find myself drawn to the sample for Dragonverse by Doug Farren. In spite of its epic adventure aspirations, it's a fairly simple, sweet little story about a man who is left a house by his absentee uncle and learns that the man is not dead as he thought, but rather has moved permanently to a parallel world in which humans are psychically bound with dragons who spend their lives searching for their intended human half.

The protagonist Terry of course follows his uncle over to this other world and meets his intended dragon. From here, it gets a tad predictable. There is an evil uber-dragon threatening the world, and a prophecy about an uber-good dragon/man pairing who will defeat him. Three guesses who that turns out to be!

On the good, I appreciated seeing a fantasy world that had aged with the times. I think one of the reasons I don't usually read fantasy is the sameness of many of the stories. All the elves and dragons seem stuck in a perpetual Renaissance Faire that makes such books hard for me to distinguish from the other. The fantasy world in this book has cities with electricity and modern conveniences. When Terry applies his Lord of the Rings preconception filter to the world, he is quickly set straight about how elves have modernized too!

On the less good, I did find the story a tad predictable as I said. Certainly, anyone who has widely read in this genre will find it extremely derivative. There was also a fair chunk of time spent on exploratory exposition as Terry learned the mores of dragon world. I would expect to see the apparently intended sequel to be brisker-paced; if I were the author, I would make the sequel as fantastic as I could and then offer this establishing novel as a freebie to promote it.

I would also consider downgrading the ages of the protagonists. With its fairly g-rated action and coming of age type feel as Terry learns to work with his dragon in a new world, this would be a great YA novel. The grown-ups it is geared for now are likely to be wider-read in this genre and might find the story a bit too by-the-numbers.

That said, there were some fun parts---and really sweet moments---that elevated the story a bit for me. So, I'm going to say 3.5/5 for this one. Clean up some late-appearing typos, give me a bang-up sequel and work on your marketing plan a little and you'll have me for part 2, Mr. Farren!

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Review: Risen by Jan Strnad

Risen is one of a growing genre of 'self-published' books which had previous life as a print release from a traditional publisher. This re-release by the author is under his real name (Pinnacle Books published it under the byline of 'J. Knight') and includes some bonus short stories.

'Risen' a fun, fast horror tale. In a small town called Anderson, a long-suffering woman kills her scumbag husband---quite definitively---and is shocked when he comes back to life again, seemingly fitter and happier than before. But he's not the only one...

A reporter and his local cub, a troubled lad named Tom who has own demons, pursue the truth in classic horror-tale fashion. The depiction of small-town life was excellent, but most of the characters proved a little too cardboard after a time. This is definitely a plot-and-action centered story. It reminded me a little of early Dean Koontz---not the depth of some of his classier stuff, necessarily, but good old adventure stories with evil forces and out-of-their-depth Everypeople trying to fight them. Not the sorts of books you remember for the ages, but fun reads for what they are.

I have been asked to comment on formatting---I generally don't notice it, but I did find the formatting a bit sloppy on this book. The chapter headings all had a larger font to distinguish them, but there was no extra spacing to indicate a break. It just ran together a little. An extra paragraph break at the end of the chapter would have made this book look a lot nicer.

I save my 5/5 for books with a little more staying power than this one. But for what it is---a good old-fashioned genre read---it was very good. I give it a 4/5 and my strong recommendation.

1001 Kids Books to Read Before You Grow Up

I came across a book by this name at Indigo the other day, and had no trouble finding a list of the thousand books mentioned. Some of them were predictable. Some of them were titles I had never heard of. And almost 100 of them are in the public domain. I put together a clickable list of these below for your enjoyment. Happy reading!

Works of Beatrix Potter by Beatrix Potter

Grimms's Fairy Tales by the Grimm Brothers

A Visit from Saint Nicholas by Clement C. Moore

Fairy Tales by Hans Christian Andersen

Book of Nonsense by Edward Lear

Max and Maurice by Heinrich Busch

The Magic Fishbone by Charles Dickens

A Child's Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson

The Blue Fairy Book by Andrew Lang

The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling

Perez the Mouse by Luis Coloma

Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling

The Dutch Twins by Lucy Fitch Perkins

The Adventures of Maya the Bee by Waldemar Bonsels

The Magic Pudding by Norman Lindsey

The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams

My Father's Dragon by Ruth Stiles Gannett

Aesop's Fables by Aesop

Arabian Nights by Unknown

Tales from Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb

The Swiss Family Robinson by Johann Wyss

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll

At the Back of the North Wind by George MacDonald

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain

Black Beauty by Anna Sewell

The Cuckoo Clock by Mrs. Molesworth

The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald

Nobody's Boy by Hector Malot

Uncle Remus Stories by Joel Harris

The Prince and the Pauper by Mark Twain

Pinocchio by Carlo Collidi

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

Little Lord Fauntleroy by Frances Hodgson Burnett

The Canterville Ghost by Oscar Wilde

The Happy Prince by Oscar Wilde

Moonfleet by J. Meade Falkner

The Story of the Treasure Seekers by E. Nesbit

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum

Five children and It by E. Nesbit

Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm by Kate Douglas Wiggin

The Bobbsey Twins by Laura Lee Hope

A Little Princess by Francis Hodgson Burnett

Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens by J.M. Barrie

Cautionary Tales of Children by Hilarie Belloc

Arsene Lupin, Gentleman-Burglar by Maruice Leblanc

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Pollyana by Eleanor H. Porter

The Young Visiters by Daisy Ashford

The Story of Doctor Dolittle by Hugh Lofting

Just William by Richmal Crompton

Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe

Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift

The Three Musketeers by Alexander Dumas

The Children of the New Forest by Frederick Marryat

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Rose and the Ring by William Makepeace Thackeray

Tom Brown's Schooldays by Thomas Hughes

The Coral Island by Robert Ballantyne

Eric, or Little by Little by Frederic Farrar

Captain Fracasse by Theophile Gautier

Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne

What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge

Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne

The Fifth Form at St. Dominics by Talbot Reed

With Clive in India by George Henty

Kidnapped by Robert L. Stevenson

Heart by Edmondo de Amicis

Seven Little Australians by Ethel Turner

The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope

The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle

The Call of the Wild by Jack London

White Fang by Jack London

The Railway Children by E. Nesbit

The Fortunes of Philippa by Angela Brazil

Mystery of the Yellow Room by Gaston Leroux

A Girl of The Limberlost by Gene Stratton Porter

Emily Climbs by L. M. Montgomery

See also: 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4)

Friday, August 20, 2010

Review: Prestwick by David Hough

Prestwick by David Hough is decently-written adventure novel. Two planes collide in mid-air---a passenger 747 with 400 people, and a military plane. Neither can land at Prestwick, the nearest airport, because a top-secret experimental vessel is having an emergency too...

Hough clearly knows his plane jargon, and he describes the technicalities well for the layperson reader. But the book---well-written though it is---was a tad long for me. I felt like we were witnessing the same conversations over and over again. If I saw one more chapter where the pilot radios his rescue plane, states that he must land at Prestwick and is told he may not (and in subsequent conversations, that he 'still' may not) I was ready to scream. We get it. We got it the last three times we read it too. The novel could have benefited from a tiny bit more editing.

And on another pacing note, a sub-plot about a murdered stewardess got off to an intriguing start and then fizzled. We know who had done it too early on. It would have been better, plot-wise, if Hough had allowed his investigator character to flesh out those events via mid-flight investigating, rather than through flashbacks, as he did. But again, that is a judgment call. Hough was clearly not aiming to write a detective novel---it may have been a better read, for me, if he had been, but that would have been a somewhat different story.

Some characters were very well-realized. And Hough had a deft hand with the technicalities of the mid-air emergency and with making the reader feel they were right up there with those pilots in that dramatic situation. For that reason, I give the book a 3/5 and put it above some of the other books I've read. Had I been the editor, I might have tightened things up a little and removed some of the redundant scenes. And I might have encouraged Hough to play up the mystery novel aspect a little more. But the book, as it is, is still a half-decent adventure.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The ebook drinking game

This is too good not to share...

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Review: Tied in by Lee Goldberg

Happy weekend, everyone! Time for another Smashwords review. Tied in: The Business, History and Craft of Media Tie-in Writing edited by Lee Goldberg is a non-fiction title I found via a thread on Mobile Read. It's a collection of essays from authors who write media tie-in novels. As someone who has read such novels, mostly of the Star Trek and Buffy sort, some of the names of the contributors were already familiar to me, and I was curious to learn more about how these books get written.

As with most anthologies, some of the chapters were better than others. There were several standout essays. The first, by Max Allan Collins, dealt with a movie tie-in he wrote in which the movie was based on one of his own novels. It proved to be a frustrating experience for him because he had to show fidelity to the movie and his status as creator of the original property did not afford him any special privileges. He found it frustrating to try and flesh out the movie script based on his own insider knowledge only to have the producers of the movie reject some of his unscripted material.

Another standout chapter was a lengthy roundtable discussion that featured several of the many contributors answering questions as a group. They discussed all aspects of plotting and writing media tie-in novels. One observation I found interesting was a discussion on original characters. As a reader, I have sometimes found such characters boring; you buy the book to read about the Star Trek people, or the Buffy people or whomever. But since the tie-in authors are for obvious reasons constrained from killing off a major character or otherwise introducing a major change in them, an original character is often their only chance to spotlight any sort of character growth during a story. So for them, these original characters serve an important function in the book which, as a reader, I had not considered.

Other excellent chapters included Elizabeth Massie writing about her 'The Tudors' novels; Donald Bain on his 'Murder, She Wrote' series; Nancy Holder on her 'Buffy' experiences And Alina Adams on writing soap opera tie-ins, including in website form.

Overall, I give this book only four stars because some of the chapters were not quite up to par for me. This is the risk you run with any multi-author collection! If you have ever written fanfic or read Star Trek novels or been curious as to how this interesting sub-genre works, this is the book for you. It's a quick, light read with some food for thought for anyone who enjoys these types of books.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Why a blog? And an FAQ answer...

A question came up at Mobile Read asking me why I am blogging these reviews instead of simply posting them at Smashwords. Here was my reply:

1) Smashwords is a huge site to browse and not all the books have reviews (in fact, most of them do not). I wanted to create a convenient aggregator of ONLY books with reviews to narrow the field and make people feel less like they are wading through the world's biggest slushpile. I am in essence creating a curated sub-collection of only reviewed books.

2) Many of the reviews on Smashwords that do exist are not detailed, objective or critical. I am aiming to write 'proper' reviews, not just one-liners, shills or only positive comments. I am doing this to help *customers* buy and choose books, so I am not interested on posting reviews just because I know an author or have any stake in the books myself.

3) Doing it as a blog allows people to immediately see if there is new content by subscribing to an RSS feed. Smashwords does not have an RSS feed for new reviews. And, as I said, a lot of the reviews on Smashwords, when they do exist, are not helpful. And a lot of readers feel frustrated with having to wade through the massive, massive slog that is Smashwords just to find a few books that do have reviews or are of acceptable quality.

4) Other efforts I have seen to 'promote' indie authors are pretty much vehicles for self-promotion. My blog is different because I do personally read and review every book (i.e. I don't just post press releases) and because I am not affiliated with any authors.

I appreciate that Smashwords does offer the capability to leave reviews, and I do plan to leave a rating and short comment for every book I read. But my goal is to separate out the books I review, not to just have them exist as part of this larger set. I am creating a curated collection of books I have personally reviewed.

Now, on to one other FAQ-ish matter, there have been a few authors who have left comments saying 'I appreciate you may not post this since you moderate the comments, but can I send you a code for my book?' Yes, you can, and I will happily read it if it interests me. But please do not be offended if I say 'no thanks' should the summary twig my radar that your book might not be my style, and please do not get impatient of the review takes some time appearing. I have a massive TBR pile and am just dipping in and choosing what strikes my mood. It may take some time before I get to everything!

And finally, if you are an author and you do want to comment on any of the posts here, please be respectful that this blog is not a venue for self-promotion. A sig line indicating that you have a book yourself is fine, but the content of your comment should be about the review in question (for example, if you too read the book and have something to say about it) and not about your own book. Comments such as 'great review, love your blog, and check out my book, here is the link' will not be posted :) I am trying to strike a fair balance here---I am all for promoting the indie cause, but the purpose behind the Smashwords pledge is to honestly review a sample of the Smashwords collection as one reader to another. It's for the readers, in other words. Have a sig line if you want to, but please show respect and do not engage in author promos here. If you want to send a press release or promo to me personally, you may do so, as I outlined above.

Review: Learn me Good by John Pearson

Welcome to my second Smashwords review! Today's book is Learn me Good by John Person and unfortunately, it's not as glowing as my last one. The premise seemed promising enough: an engineer-turned-teacher recounts his exploits in the classroom to a former colleague in a series of 'humourous' emails. There is one positive review up on Smashwords already, from somebody who found the book hilarious, but adds that she does not work with kids and does not read in this genre.

Well, I do work with kids, and I do read in this genre. And while I can't fault Mr. Pearson for his grammar and overall polish, I have to admit that I just didn't find most of his stories very funny. A lot of what he recounts is fairly standard teacher stuff: a new kid joins the class mid-year and clashes with a child who is already there. A new kid joins the class who has a funny name. A kid does something wrong and lies to your face about it, or lies to their parent's face about it, or lies to your face about what they told their parent's face and so on. A kid gives a 'creative' answer when you ask them something.

Meh. I keep a blog about teaching, mostly as a means of sharing self-created lessons with other teachers using the same curriculum program as me, and most of my stories are the same, or better. And I found his relentless leanings to the cutesy tiresome---'clever' nicknames about, and there are puns everywhere. It was just too much. And it was especially too much when there was no plot to speak of and all you had to look forward to was an endless parade of sameness about kids with funny names giving you smart answers to the sorts of questions which populate a third-grade standardized test.

If you don't work with kids, this might not all sound so run of the mill to you. But as a teacher who sees all of this stuff on a routine basis, none of what he writes about here was terribly unique or interesting. This book needed a stronger narrative drive, a serious toning down of the cutesy, and just overall better content. I give this a 3/5, and in my opinion, that is generous. If you want to read two really excellent books on children and teaching, I recommend this one and this one instead.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Review: Radium Halos by Shelley Stout

"A whole person's life is something like a war. After you fight in a war, you can't help but be different in some way, but folks change just from living through hardships and sorrows and angers too. Also, like a war, nobody really wins, but life goes on anyway."
---Radium Halos by Shelley Stout

Welcome to my first Smashwords book of the week. Radium Halos by Shelley Stout is a historical fiction novel based on the true story of the Radium Girls---factory workers from the 1920s who were hired to paint the dials of clocks and watches with luminous radium paint to make them glow in the dark. The girls were coached to lick the brushes in order to get a finer point, and many became ill from the radium paint they ingested.

The narrator of this fictional novel is Helen, a sweet but slow woman who worked in the factory as a teenager with a friend and with her sister Violet. A terrible accident occurred during that fateful summer which swore the girls into a pact of silence about even the fact that they were there, a pact which persisted through the deaths of both Violet and her friend Clara over the intervening years. The now-widowed and childless Helen is 65 and lives a rootless life, moving back and forth between a mental hospital and the home of her sour niece Pearl, who has learned about the radium dial factory and is trying to uncover the 'truth' about her mother's death.

The novel is polished and well-written, and full of interesting characters. Pearl manages to be both disagreeable and ultimately sympathetic; Helen wavers between sweetly naive and trenchantly observant. Adrienne, on-again-off-again sweetheart to Pearl's disagreeable son Tony, offers a whiff of girl power to the struggling Helen at an opportune time. The feeble Benjamin, son to Clara, shows different sides of himself to all three of the central women. And driving the narrative are Helen's memories of that summer at the factory. Minor characters such as Pearl's fiance and son, are less developed; I think Stout does better with the women.

Helen narrates in a sort of simple person's dialect that might be wearying for those who don't enjoy such things, but the voice is consistently maintained and definitely not gratuitous. The author appears to have done her research on the historical details and thankfully glosses over aspects of the story that would have bogged the narrative down (for example, the court cases the women fought to get their medical treatment paid for is mentioned but not covered in great detail). I felt that the real star of the story was Helen though. She as a character will stick with me more than the over-riding story of the Radium Girls.

High marks for a Smashwords novel! I definitely recommend this one, without hesitation. A great start to my year of Smashwords reading!

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Review: The End of Science Fiction by Sam Smith

I got The End of Science Fiction for free during the Read an Ebook Week promotion; it's now $6.99 and in my opinion that's a little much. But if this book were available under a 'pay what you want' system like some of the other books I got during Read an Ebook Week, I might have sent the author $5. The novel is based on an intriguing premise: the world is going to end in six days and there is nothing to be done about it. What happens?

We learn what happens by following the character of Herbie Watkins, a police inspector who has chosen to spend his last few days solving his final case. As he interviews various citizens in connection with the murder of one Katherine Helen Soames, he finds people coping with the impending end of days in a myriad of ways. And he draws closer to solving the mystery of how one girl met her untimely end mere days before the rest of them...

I liked the central premise of the novel, and found the mystery reasonably interesting. But there were three things which bogged down this novel a little for me. The opening chapter is written in an unnecessarily gimmicky format which turned me off, and itwas only at the urging of others (and reassurance that the rest of the novel was written in the usual way) that I continued. Additionally, there were lengthy quotes at the beginning of each chapter that I began skipping fairly early on. They did turn out to have a minor relevance to the plot, but they were tedious and uninteresting and not particularly necessary. Finally, I felt that the novel, by virtue of its premise, grew a bit repetitive. Herbie would go to question someone, and the first words out of the person's mouth would be 'but the world is ending in X days, so what's the point?' I, the reader, understood what the 'point' was as far as this character was concerned, of course. But I grew tired of hearing him explain it umpteen times, over and over again, to everyone he met.

I appreciate that this novel came from a by all accounts reputable e-publisher; I have come to grow weary of 100% publisher-free self-published stuff which makes me feel like I am vetting the world's biggest slush-pile. This was a decent story, well-written and definitely worthy of reading. However, I am not sure it's worth the fairly high (for an indie book) price that's on the table now that the promotion under which I obtained it has ended. Comparable e-only publishers tend to offer their stories for less. $3.99 and I would heartily recommend this. At mass market paperback price, I would say sample it first and then decide.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Review: Fear of Fighting by Stacy May Fowles and Marlena Zuber

I got Fear of Fighting as a freebie on Kobo, and I was not quite sure what to expect from it. The description: "Combining Stacey May Fowles’s sharp prose with Marlena Zuber’s whimsical illustrations, Fear of Fighting revolves around Marnie, a broken-hearted young woman fighting for something more in Toronto’s lonely, urban landscape."

Illustrations in an ebook can be an iffy thing sometimes, but given the price (free) and the setting (I am always interested in books which take place in my hometown) I figured why not? So I downloaded away and finished this short little volume in a day.

And...meh. Sorry! But here is the thing, the illustrations don't really add that much and the prose is a little bit flowery and overdone. There is a frame narrative with a minor character that never really goes anywhere, and the main character is not especially likable. The plot revolves around her breakup with a boy called Ben, and at one point she wonders what he saw in her. I kind of wonder too.

If you are looking for a good post-breakup story, you're better off with this one, which is also free, and DRM-free (in multiple formats) to boot.

It's Read an Ebook Week!

March 7-13 is Read an Ebook Week. There are tons of freebies listed on their website. My plan is to download everything from Smashwords that looks even remotely interesting, then go back and tip the authors later if the book is any good. BeWrite Books has about 25 titles available under a 'pay what you want' promotion, and there are other Smashwords goodies---free, and heavily discounted---at their Read an Ebook Week home. Enjoy!

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Misc: Fanfiction Favourites, Part 2

Some fanfiction favourites by others, along with a belated New Year's Resolution to post much more often. I am reading a TON of stuff this year and trying to re-dedicate myself to more quality stuff, so I have bookmarked a ton of great public domain finds and off-the-beaten path indie goodies. I'll share, I promise! Anyway, onto the stories...

And Sarah Laughed (TSCC). Sarah Connor prepares for the borth of her foretold son.

The Secret Diary of Cameron Baum (TSCC) When Terminators self-examine...

Phoenix Burning (BtVS). Buffy is resurrected to the future---the very far future---and into a situation...

Close to Home, So Far Away (Angel). A novel-length 'Doyle comes back' epic, with some unexpected twists...