'Testament' by Jose Nateras
You know that feeling.. when you see a book cover that just reaches out and draws your gaze? That's exactly what happened to me with this novel. The blood red tempest against the black and white Chicago skyline just pulled me right in. And it's not misleading, in the least. This is a book I feel secure saying, you can judge by its cover.
From the opening scenes, freshman author Jose Nateras easily immerses you in even the day to day life of Gabe Espinosa. The anxiety swirling within the main character is apparent, even in his mannerisms as he takes the train into work.
Nateras glimpses at society as a whole, are clear and concise, but never boring. The same things that emerge in Gabe's thoughts, are the kinds of things we probably think ourselves. Even the pattern of his thoughts feels natural. It's actually difficult to remember that this is a debut novel, because the author is so skilled.
The story is well rounded. There's deep backstory, both on a personal level, and in regards to what is actually occurring around Gabe throughout the story. Though we only see them briefly here and there, the supporting characters have some depth and backstory of their own, which is refreshing. Foreshadowing is so well done, that at least once, I found myself on edge in a situation where none of the intense moments even occurred. I had just become so conditioned to them, I was left feeling almost alarmed when it didn't happen.
And make no mistake, there is a terrifying undercurrent to this story. It may not be the contemporary horror we've come to expect.. overwrought with gore or jump-scares.. but it is most definitely terrifying in its way. This novel is psychologically exhausting, not just due to the nature of the story itself, but also because Nateras does such a good job of connecting the reader with the character. I felt like I knew his pain intimately. At times, I even cried with him, and that's no small feat.
There is an almost old fashioned 'creep' factor to 'Testament.' I've had similar reactions to books over the years, but with few contemporary authors-- William Peter Blatty, Stephen King, Ira Levin-- to name a few.. and okay, you got me. Most of those are not very recent contemporary at that.
But don't just let me tell you, add this book to your to-be-read list. Get to know this phenomenal new author. You won't be sorry.
'Ordinary Souls' by J.S. Bailey
I'm always really excited to dig into a new anthology, especially in the horror genre, as so many of the creepiest works I've ever read have fallen into these releases. Often the tension of horror works are simply at their most taut over a brief period of time, since few authors can maintain that feeling of miasma through an entire novel.
Unfortunately, this one is just not very creepy at all-- rarely thrilling and barely mysterious. Defying all of its genre tags. It's not terrible.. the stories are just not entertaining as a rule. Most of them started with interesting ideas, but just never panned out.
There were about three that stood apart from the rest.
'The Mirror' did a pretty good job of building that tension.. even dread.. to a degree. It began subtly and the stakes rose sharply. There were some missed opportunities though, I feel, to play out the consequences our characters stumbled upon, and by the end.. it fizzled out rather predictably.
'Maria' had this really cool sort of 'Night Gallery' feel to it. The story felt very old fashioned and moved more briskly than the others. In fact, I think that's the only thing that was really wrong with it. When I finished reading it, I felt like I'd only read about half a short story, even though I'd gotten my ending. It just didn't feel full.
And really that's the problem with all the stories in this collection. They feel mostly unfinished. Those that don't, feel like they suffer from the opposite. From taking longer than the particular story maybe needed to. Pacing and substance are definitely an issue.
'Solitude' seemed to lack neither. Though it was more of a sci-fi short story to me and didn't seem to belong in this collection at all. What it did lack, however.. was a good ending. It was almost good. Then some unnecessary fluff was tacked on behind what should have been the end and that weakened the story considerably.
To be honest, if you just need something for a break between heavy reads, it's not bad. I didn't hate it. It just didn't make much of an impact on me. Maybe you'll feel differently.
The Dichotomy of Angels
The transfer to a human form was never easy. It felt confined and constricting, like an ill-fitting suit, and Nathaniel always hated the residual squeeze the morphing left in its wake. He shook himself out, rolling his shoulders and fisting his hands a few times until the discomforting buzz subsided.
The room Nathaniel found himself in was typical living quarters for twenty-first century humans. There was a sofa, a dining table, a kitchen, a fluffy white rug, all spacious and grand, and any human would have appreciated the apparent wealth and luxuriousness of it all. But not Nathaniel.
Human niceties weren’t something he much cared for.
He did, however, notice the skyline out the window. He’d seen it in reports and videos enough to recognize it, and it was apparent the apartment was high up and well-positioned because of the view.
“New York,” he grumbled.
Chasan walked to the window, inspecting the nearby buildings and the park across the road, then turned and smiled. “This city never gets old.”
Nathaniel suppressed the urge to roll his eyes. Chasan found beauty in everything. He had for thousands of years, and it had always been a burr in Nathaniel’s boot. Chasan would simply smile and nothing was ever an issue. He took everything in his stride, and everything was cheery and promising. His blessed cup forever runneth over.
Nathaniel was more of a chalice-half-empty kind of angel.
Chasan and he had worked together several times over the eons, not particularly well, Nathaniel could admit. They were too different. Like night and day: Chasan was sunshine and roses; Nathaniel was darkness and thorns. If you thought angels couldn’t have such vast and varied personalities, you’d be mistaken. They most certainly did. And with differing personalities came personality clashes.
And that’s what this was. Between Nathaniel and Chasan. Just a clash of personalities. The tension, the push and pull, that instant irritation Nathaniel felt from being anywhere remotely near Chasan could all be explained by a difference of personalities.
At least that’s what Nathaniel had convinced himself of since their last disastrous encounter. An encounter that might or might not have led Saint Peter to down most of the sacramental wine—actually, half of the heavens had taken a hit that day—so why Saint Peter had insisted they work together again now was as bold as it was stupid.
“Nathaniel?” Archangel Michael said, as though not for the first time.
Nathaniel blinked and focused. “Yes. Apologies.”
“How does the human modification feel?” Michael asked. “There can be a period of adjustment. It’s been a while for you, has it not? Since you’ve taken human form?”
Nathaniel rolled his shoulders again, noting the absence of his wings and the tightness of his skin, and shook off the unease. “It’ll pass, I’m sure.” Michael’s gaze darted to Chasan, then back to Nathaniel, and a smile played at the archangel’s lips. Nathaniel had always liked Michael—well, he hadn’t disliked him, so that was always a start—but Nathaniel knew this mission was going to be a rough one. Saint Peter had been behaving oddly and wouldn’t divulge any information, and that never boded well. And given he’d been partnered with Chasan . . . “Michael, what is the emergency mission we have been sent here for?”
Michael smiled at them both, then gestured toward the sofa. “Please take a seat.”
Chasan sat, because of course Chasan sat. Chasan did everything he was told. Nathaniel did not. This mission wasn’t going to be good. Not good at all. “I’d rather stand.”
Michael gave Chasan a patient smile and ignored Nathaniel’s petulance. With a small flick of his wrist, in a flourish of sparkles, two files appeared in his hand. “Your missions,” he began, handing Chasan his file first. He held out Nathaniel’s file, but Nathaniel refused to take it. Michael pursed his lips and sighed, his annoyance clear. “This mission isn’t optional, Nathaniel. So quit the dramatics. We’re not here to pander to you.”
“Oh dear,” Chasan murmured, and when Nathaniel shot him a look, he saw that Chasan was reading his file.
“Oh dear, what?” Nathaniel demanded. He held his hand out to Michael for his file now, but this time it was Michael who ignored him. Instead, Michael opened the file and read out loud. Probably because if Nathaniel wanted to act like a child, Michael would treat him like one.
“Nathaniel Angelo.” Michael paused. “That’s your human name, by the way.”
“Angelo?” Nathaniel scoffed. “It means angel. Was the Creative Department off work that day?”
“Don’t complain,” Chasan said. “My surname’s Bellomo. That’s Italian for beautiful man.”
Nathaniel rolled his eyes out loud that time. “Because of course it is.”
Michael ignored both of them. “Nathaniel, age thirty-one. Youngest of three children to Christian and Mary Angelo of Bethlehem, New York.”
Nathaniel blinked. “Christian and Mary of Bethlehem? Why did they stop short of calling my father Joseph? Is this someone’s idea of a joke?”
Michael just kept on reading. “The Angelos are a wealthy family, which explains this apartment.” He gestured to the room they were in. “So your parents weren’t overly impressed when you decided that being an early childhood development teacher was your true calling—”
“Wait, wait. What?” Nathaniel asked.
Michael looked up from the file, his expression serious. “A teacher. Preschool to be more specific.”
If you like sweet, steamy, self-sacrificing love interests.. this book is a must read. If you prefer intricate magic systems and brutal villains at every turn.. this novel has that too.
According to the author's website, Isabella August is the nom de guerre of not one.. but a pair of writers, who began as childhood friends. As adults, thousands of miles apart geographically, but clearly much closer at the heart.. they collaborate on stories like this one. And what a lovely intricate web they weave...
I am absolutely in love with Liam. He is indeed, all the things I mentioned above, but also so much more. He's a force to be reckoned with. He's one of the most sensual male characters I've ever read, but in ways I've experienced, which made him feel all the more realistic. He's amusing and possessive.. yet reasonable about it. He's also deeply conflicted, through no real fault of his own, which.. I am a sucker for.
Our story though, mainly centers around a young witch named Lainey, who has lost huge chunks of her memory, but gained something considerable as well. A character that is quite likable herself. She has vulnerabilities, but she isn't the type to just stand aside and wail either. Nor is she an over the top 'bad ass' type. Rather, she digs down when she needs to.. but she stumbles. She makes mistakes.
The world itself.. for me.. was kind of a stunning mix of the frozen land of Beauty's Beast.. and Wonderland mazes.. with a lot of other interesting landscapes thrown in as well. And that magic system I mentioned? Diverse. So diverse, the author(s?) have even seen fit to include a breakdown at the back of the book. I cannot wait to read more.
All in all, I adored every moment of this story. I read it front to back in one sitting. I think my eyes may be bleeding.. but it was worth it. Just as I know the rest of the books in the series are going to be.
BARNES & NOBLE
'Fairy Tales: The Sequel' by John Hope
Fairy tales have been around for thousands of years. According to the official site for researchers at Durham University, one such tale was even traced back all the way to the Bronze Age, 6500 years ago. Yet, we remain fascinated with them even now.
This anthology, 'Fairy Tales: The Sequel,' touches on some of the most familiar. From the stories of Rumplestiltskin to Cinderella and even Aladdin, the authors' work contained within this novel poses the question.. "what happened next?"
I have to tell you, excited as I was to begin this journey, I spent the first couple of tales.. nodding off. Both literally and figuratively. I even briefly considered shelving this one, which is nearly unheard of for me. In my life, I think I've quit two books. Total.
Fortunately, I persevered and found myself rewarded for my stubborn pursuit of something that might stand out.
'Aladdin and the Lantern' by Chuck R. Stieren, was the first light in the darkness for me. The main character is relatable, plagued with self-doubts, and driven to do better. The story itself is dark and gritty.. and had me leaning in with concern. Eager to get to the conclusion.
'Castle of Blood' by Frances Hight was another, and quite possibly my favorite in the book. Written as a sequel to a fairy tale that I'd somehow managed never to come across-- 'The Black Bull of the Castle of Blood,' it's full of all the gruesomeness I've come to know and love. Essentially this tale seems to be an Irish version of the French tale, 'Bluebeard,' though after doing some research.. I'm hard pressed to say which came first. Nonetheless, this sequel is a fantastic short story.
The final tale within the book worth discussing is 'Married by Magic,' by Bettie Nebergall. It's based on the aftermath of Cinderella's story and though there are worries and magic.. some of which feels a tiny bit contrived, it's definitely the heartwarming story of the collection. The way Cinderella and her Prince interact is lovely.. sweet.. and just as I think we'd hoped it would be. The darkness in their story isn't their doing and I was absolutely invested in the outcome.
These three stories alone, carry the book for me. The others are mediocre at best and a snoozefest at worst. But I'm glad I didn't let that stop me from finishing this read.. and now you know which ones to skip.
I don't know what I initially thought I was getting into with Douglas Wynne's 'Smoke and Dagger' when I planned to take on this review.. but it was not what I expected.. and I mean that in the most complimentary of ways.
While early pages are almost clinical and sent me scurrying back to re-read the synopsis, the story is actually filled with intriguing scenes and a good deal of subterfuge on pretty much everyone's part. I won't say that it starts off slow, because it doesn't. There is some storytelling sleight of hand and that's what made me think I didn't remember what I was about to read, though I was still just as eager to get into it.
Normally, I research an author before I settle in to do a review because I like to have a good understanding of their work. I don't typically like to do this before a read because it allows me to take everything in with a clear head.. no distractions or presumptions. The cover is gorgeous and instantly put me in mind of Alan Moore's 1980's run - 'V for Vendetta', 'The Watchmen', and 'Batman: The Killing Joke', to be specific.. and from a societal perspective, that was perfect for the story within.
Ultimately, that had an entertaining result with this book. Wynne opens with a small handful of quotes, the first of which comes from H.P. Lovecraft, the second from Friedrich Nietzsche, and the last.. a man I was wholly unfamiliar with. In fact, I had no idea he was a real person until after I finished the story, but he is.. and he's fascinating enough to be worth looking up.. if you have the interest.. but I won't spoil that for you here.
The result of the aforementioned quotes was I initially thought he'd subtly set-up my perception to feel like the book had a Lovecraftian bend, without it being stated. The quote put him in my subconscious, then when I read some of the descriptions, that was just naturally the direction my mind went. What's really neat about this is, I discovered that the series this book belongs to, is actually Cthulhu Mythos, but even coming in late as I did and beginning with this prequel.. I hit the ground running before the word 'Cthulhu' actually came up in the story.
I know.. I know. Lovecraft had distasteful opinions. But the man could write. To this day.. I think his 'At the Mountains of Madness' is still one of the more terrifying stories I've ever read.. and I absolutely have to applaud Douglas Wynne for doing that legendary author, justice.
The action is well-placed and the character development.. so far as he is willing to show us without tipping his hand.. is full and enjoyable. The rituals are both mesmerizing and highly detailed, so beautifully that I easily pictured what was meant to be seen and immediately recognized it in the illustrations which periodically grace the inner pages. Honestly, I didn't so much feel as if I were reading a story.. as I did a memoir, thanks in no small part to the inclusion of cyphers, artist renderings, and diagrams.
The book is a relatively short, easy read.. and it's so much fun. Atmospherically, it's gritty, downright brutal at times, and it left me wanting more of this series. Since it's a prequel, I feel like anyone can pick it up and get right into the story. I will definitely be looking into the other novels, but I hope you'll give this one a chance. If you like Lovecraftian horror even a little, you're going to love it.
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If you're looking for a quick, easy sort of fast food novel, this might be the one for you. The author is not bad and the story is a relatively typical one. The protagonist accidentally becomes more powerful and has to figure out what to do with the changes that causes, while dealing with a lot of incoming drama.
Personally, I struggled through it, but mostly because there were a couple of things that kept bugging me.. but I kept reading, because the dark fae Lords were absolutely captivating. Particularly, the Lord of Shadows.
Raven is likeable enough, she's on the sassy side, as is the rest of the family. In fact, most of the characters in the book are likeable people. They're just also not very interesting, despite the fact that many of them are either shifters or magic wielders.
At the start of the book, McKenzie actually includes a disclaimer about her use of both Canadian and U.S. spellings, which to be honest.. I didn't even register. I think most of us are so accustomed to reading work from writers all over the world, we don't pay too much attention to things like regional verbiage. With the possible exception of 'whinging.' For some reason, I hate that word.
The problem for me, is McKenzie is a little bit of a gimmicky writer. The main character is grand-sired by Odin.. sort of.. and I'm not even going to get in to the debate about how these mythological figures are not his children, but rather messengers. I will say, at least the idea of her shifter background was creative, and the first time she cussed something to the effect of 'Odin's nutsac'.. it was even funny. By the second, it wasn't.. and as it continued throughout the book.. devolving into things like 'Odin's shriveled stalk,' it was just painful. Like wise, the 'ooo shiny' reaction of her inner ravens was amusing once, maybe even twice.. but then that too was overdone.
Even the main character's name is a gimmicky, considering her shifter type, but she's a mortal at least.. living in our world. The author offers up more intriguing surnames to the fae dark lords.. Camhanaich and Bane, but then douses them with mundane first names like Cole and Luke. It's like she thought they needed to be both otherworldly and humanly relatable at once.. rather than through their natures over time.. through getting to know them.
Structurally, the novel is sound, but the collision between Raven and the main(?) protagonist for this story seems to build as if it's going to be quite the scene, only to result in a few swings and a quick, rather disappointing.. finality. And just to keep things on point, McKenzie even includes everyone's favorite Scooby Doo ending, "I would have got away with it too, if you.."
There ARE some great quotes in the book. Unfortunately, those are quotes from other writers that the author included at the start of her chapters. Give it a chance though.. perhaps you'll disagree.
'The Fortress' by S.A. Jones
Interestingly enough, upon doing a little advance research on this novel, I found all sorts of trigger warnings and controversy. After reading it, while I realize the subject matter is startling regarding living conditions for anyone, I didn't find it all that shocking. Not as I read it anyway, but like so much of the story, I needed time to consider everything beyond face value.
The premise, a man who's always sort of had it all come easily to him, takes it all for granted.. getting caught by the person who allegedly means everything to him. At the thought of losing her and all that goes with her, he willingly subjects himself to a place where he gives up all his rights.. learning how the other half lives.. so to speak, in exchange for a second chance when he returns home.
I think I expected myself to be more moved by this story than I am. I mean.. it's dystopian theme is intriguing, the author is a very solid storyteller with a great command of language. She's descriptive and her scenes are of the visceral variety.. yet somehow.. they still failed to evoke emotion from me.
I'll tell you something else. I believe she deserves praise for that.
Some of the moments in the book are very dark. The society.. certainly.. is a disturbing picture, both in his regular life.. which is a stark reminder of the way we turn our heads and look away in reality.. and in his year under subjugation. Yet, S.A. Jones has written them with such a casual approach.. with the perspective that in that world everything is fine. It's as expected.. and no one blinks an eye. Unless of course, you're the supplicant.
That is what really makes what happens at The Fortress so uncomfortable. Not the specific things our main character experiences. No. It's the social acceptance.
There's some fantastic conflict, both inner (over his own feelings) and between himself and those around him. One individual in particular, but even between himself and those he grows closer with. Nothing changes their rules and their expectations.. and that's a hard lesson at times.
It is an excellent read. The perspectives so skewed at times, it's difficult to put down, yet you still find yourself pausing to just.. process it.