Score: 92/100 (9.2 out of 10)
Longsword: Edward and the Assassin is an epic historical fiction novel by Dimitar Gyopsaliev. It is centered around the events of the Ninth Crusade during the reign of Sultan Baibars over the the Mamluk dynasty in Egypt and Syria. This is also during the budding rule of Edward I Longshanks.
Yes, this is THE Longshanks—THE main villain and William Wallance's arch-nemesis in Braveheart, the historically-inaccurate but nonetheless entertaining 90s film. By contrast, this book aims to portray Edward I in a light that is probably more accurate to his historical character. Edward is no angel, he is a man who must do what he needs to do for his kingdom at a time of perpetual war, and facing the threat of assassination and annihilation. At the same time, he is not the genocidal mass-murdering tyrant who has his archers fire upon his own men for an advantage.
Let's face it: the Crusades were some of the crappiest things that mankind ever engaged in—wars between people who hypocritically claimed to fight for a compassionate, loving, and benevolent God. The Crusaders and their Muslim adversaries did horrific things to each other including raping, pillaging, mass-murdering, torturing, and even cannibalizing each other. This, despite the fact that both of their holy books explicitly tell them not to do these things. This author, somehow, stays relatively true to the violent, chaotic, and wholly ironic spirit of the time while also making it consumable for a modern audience.
This is really a character-driven story, and we love that. This is, in fact, the second fictitious Crusades book we've consumed this season, and it has the same focus on characters in the midst of a crazy situation that's mostly out of their control.
The main protagonist in this ensemble cast (in which the attention is spread out) seems to be Peter, an orphan who is brought under the wing of a grizzled old warrior named Red Herring, one of Edward's best and most experienced knights. Peter, a boy seemingly without a past and an ambiguous future, is a great stand-in for the audience. Peter, at times, seems along for the ride. Some crazy things happen to him, and he is swept up in the action and violence of a world gone mad. He becomes a capable and competent hero.
The fan-favorite character would have to be Diyaab al Sahra, better known as the Desert Wolf. He is a legendary warrior and assassin feared and respected by both sides. He starts the book, from what we recall, working for Sultan Baibars on a special mission to assassinate a VIP, something that actually sorta happened historically—although the book takes creative liberties with this event (which was poorly documented historically). It turns out that the Desert Wolf is on his own personal crusade for revenge!
The main villain for the first half of the book seems to be Sultan Baibars, although he is still shown in a respectful and sometimes even sympathetic light. He does have loved ones whom he cares about, and he is a strong and mostly-effective leader. Imagine that: the villain from Braveheart and his knights are up against this big-bad. Sultan Baibars is legendary in his own right, being said to have dealt the Mongols (yes, the badarse, nigh-unstoppable Mongols who pretty much conquered everyone eventually) their first major defeat.
And that leads us into the exciting twist in this book. We have two groups of competing and morally-gray people—the Christians under Edward and the Muslims under Baibars—who find themselves in peril by traitors and the Mongols and Tartars. Imagine that: the initial conflict that we thought was set in stone is complicated by these events. The two enemies who've been feuding for ages—going into a Ninth Crusade—must work together to survive an even bigger threat—a bigger-bad. It actually makes the story more interesting. And there's historical precedence for this happening.
This would be the equivalent of if Great Britain and France were still fighting since the fall of the Roman Empire or whenever, and then Russia came out of nowhere and nuked them both before kidnapping members of both royal families and holding them for ransom. It's madness! But it makes for good drama.
Now, this book does sometimes lack a degree of refinement. There are times when the wrong word is used. There are also times when words are switched or repeated. Also, there is so much going on. So much. It's hard to keep track of what's happening sometimes.
Now with that said, this book is epic in scale, it has good characters, it is decently well-written, and it is very well-research. You can tell that the author really put their heart into this.
Check it out on Amazon!
Score: 88/100 (8.8 out of 10)
Kairn, the first book in the Mates of the Alliance series, is a valiant and spirited effort at a debut sci-fi novel by Fionne Foxxe Farraday. It is well-written, reasonably well-formatted and structured, and it features at least two memorable characters in Kairn and Daria. It also features a rather interesting high-stakes conflict happening in the background. There is also some commendable world-building (and world-destroying) in this.
Kairn is probably pronounced like “Kirin.” You know, like those dragon-unicorn things or the Japanese beer? If it's actually pronounced like “Karn” (similar to “corn”) then you're just asking future audiobook readers to destroy their larynges. Stick with “Kirin” as it makes it at least endurable. Kairn is a Luperan military officer working as an ambassador for an interstellar government called the Galactic Alliance. Luperans are not humans, they are humanoid but with dog or wolf-like features including claws and fangs. They're essentially space werewolves. They bleed blue and have their own warrior code of ethics and honor. For one, Luperans are fiercely loyal and protective of the people they care about and consider their own, similar to domesticated dogs in the real world. They also tend to be exceptionally affectionate to their loved ones, also like pet dogs. There's a clear cuteness and appeal to this species and this character. Who doesn't love their dog(s) and appreciate their loyalty?
Also, the werewolf genre has never been the same since Jacob Black hit the pages and silver screen for Twilight. He became THE iconic sexy werewolf man. And it's a little hard to separate a character like Kairn from a character like Jacob, they share many of the same traits like fierce loyalty and enhanced physical traits and abilities.
Luperans do seem really cool, and we totally want to see them do their thing and live on. They almost remind us of Commander Cruger from Power Rangers: SPD. The guy was a badarse in every way! And what's more is that he was a believable alien character similar to the Luperans in this book.
A powerful and wicked alien race called the Ichori attack the Galactic Alliance, devastating cities and at least one planet. They behave similar to the aliens from Independence Day, and some of their devices actually share the same nickname as the aliens from ID—the “Harvesters.” This might be a subtle nod to the series intended as an homage or it might just be a coincidence.
Anyway, the other major character is Daria, a human doctor who serves as Kairn's love interest throughout the book. This book is essentially built around the relationship between Daria and Kairn. It hinges on it, for better or for worse. There is an appeal to an interspecial/interracial relationship. And it is really obviously that the two character really cared about each other, the problem is that it really distracts and takes away from the big, huge, exciting conflict happening in the background.
This book started off being about a planet devastated by evil aliens and a brave, unique, and charismatic hero looking to try to make things right. It then became all about two people sleeping together. That's putting it lightly. Really, REALLY lightly. There is so much space sex in this. SO much space sex. There's probably more space sex in this book than Water Witch by Kelly Brewer—our go-to example of excessive space sex that also has a very similar plot. There are like entire chunks of this book that are exclusively dedicated to describing the interspecial space sex between Daria and Kairn. These two go after it again and again and again. You know there's a thing that's called a refractory period, right? Like, guys aren't usually these machine-gunners with unlimited ammo. They have to sleep, eat, and allow time for recovery. Or is there a phenomenon in space that we're not aware of that makes your libido go through the roof and shorten the refractory period?
Like, we know he's a Luperan, but he's still a humanoid character, right? Like, he's supposed to be grounded in some sense of reality. This book is in response to the pandemic crisis after all.
Anyway, it's really, really difficult to look past the constant bombardment of explicit space sex. There's also something about the way that these scenes are described that sound like they belong in another genre entirely. We've read dozens of romance novels this year. There's still a kind of tact to presenting the intimacy without it becoming a porno. You'd think that presenting intense and deeply intimate sexual details would help put across the close trust and bond between two characters, but you still have to get a handle on it as a writer. Many of these sex scenes don't seem caring, tender, or affectionate at all, they seem almost bestial and very aggressive.
The words—the language—used to describe the reproductive parts and the sexual acts that are taking place are far from where they really should be to tell a refined, professional story. The language is something you'd expect to read in a fangirl's fan-fiction about an anime character they have fantasies about.
See, pornographic sex also carries with it the association with also being “fake sex.” People don't normally go at it the way they do in those adult films—those are structured and shown the way they are for a reason, and it's not to tell a good story, demonstrate chemistry, and develop characters, we can assure you of that. So, do you kind of get the point? When you're trying to develop characters, show chemistry, and tell a good story, pornographic-like sex is the last route you want to take.
See, in the movie Deadpool, the main couple also had a lot of sex, some of it experimental. That helped to put across the later dilemmas and tragedies later in the story. We could really tell they deeply cared about each other, and the sex was the cherry on top, it wasn't the whole cake. There's a level of the relationship in this book in which the sex seems to be the whole cake. And before it's argued: well, there are examples of them really caring about each other, like being willing to die for each other. Ok. But let's start with that from Kairn's perspective. Kairn's drive to protect a loved one is instinctive. It is natural. It is part of who and what he is as a Luperan. To say that Kairn's drive to protect Daria is a demonstration of him caring is almost like saying that we humans must really enjoy life because we breathe. It's natural. It's part of our biology.
On Daria's end, there is one scene in which she guilt trips and almost begs Kairn—a military officer—to take her into a dangerous situation, saying that she can act as an extra medic. It's like the scene in every movie or TV show when the clearly-vulnerable person in the group insists on coming along with the audience already knowing they're going to get hurt, killed, or kidnapped, becoming a liability to the group/the other protagonists. This doesn't make her endearing, this actually makes her seem a bit annoying.
Now, the author does flip the situation on its head a bit later by putting Kairn in peril/danger, but... the fact remains: if you need to create a contrivance to make a character's poor decision seem like a “good” or "bad" one in hindsight, then it's going to come across as, well, a contrivance. Forced. You can literally hear the author saying, "I told you so"--the one phrase that grinds every partner's gears more than any other phrase.
Anyway, this book is actually pretty good, especially in the very beginning and in the very end. The marathon in the middle with all the constant, explicit space sex, was a bit much for the story that's being told. What can we do but be brutally honest. There is enjoyment to be had in this book. And if you have a kink for some furry, fiercely-loyal male being constantly ready to have sex at the rate of a minigun, then this might actually be worth checking out. It might also be enjoyable to fans of sci-fi and alien invasion novels.
This book also has one of the coolest covers of the season—really putting across the Beauty & the Beast/Jekyll & Hyde imagery!
We look forward to the sequels. You can check it out here!
Score: 84/100 (8.4 out of 10)
Queen Vernita Visits the Land of Little Rain is an imaginative little story that's got a bunch going for it and a whole lot going on. The book is a multicultural, multilingual hodgepodge that niche readers will be able to derive enjoyment and even insight from.
Let's first talk about the art because it's the first thing you'll notice about this book. You can tell that the authors/artists poured their hearts and souls into the art. There are times when it's incredible. Our personal favorite piece of art is on page 16, showcasing people riding a camel and encountering an ostrich. Yes, the camel's head might be a little disproportionate and the faces of the people might seem unclear or strange, but that might just be the style.
The art is also very colorful. Now, that's to it's benefit and also to its detriment. For one, very colorful art can be inviting and exciting. However, the amount of color in this book is often downright overwhelming and distracting. It's like looking at a “Where's Waldo” picture. The Day of the Dead celebration picture is probably the best example of that. It's so colorful and so bright and so much seems to be going on all at once. With that said, it's probably the second or third best picture in the book after the aforementioned camel/ostrich one and the one that takes place in the wilderness in September.
Heck, who are we kidding? There is a LOT of beautiful art in this book. It really depends on your taste. There's a magnificent sundown scene featuring owls and bright, colorful cacti. There's a house on page five that reminded one of us of a motel in Wendover. The building on page ten is magnificently detailed (seriously), and the donkeys are done well too.
We have to give credit where credit is due. These authors/illustrators probably tried their best and darnedest to create this art. It really shows. And we can't fault them for things like the “hairlines” that form in some of the images. This is clearly the printer's fault. We've dealt with that problem ourselves. Amazon ruins your images with these hairline cracks sometimes.
The actual problem with this book might just lie with it being a children's book. It is very, very wordy and intricate, especially for a children's book. It was actually a bit hard for us to follow, and we're experienced readers, not to mention adults. This book really gets “into the weeds” so to speak, introducing you to a lot of different bits of information, needed or otherwise. And needed is a very subjective term. That starts with the fact that it doesn't feel like there's really a point to the book or the characters. There's no journey or goal in other words. Things just happen. The characters just go places. They experience changes in the season.
You're also introduced to bits of information that add to the confusion like Chango's name meaning “monkey” in Spanish. Ok, so is Chango a monkey? Is he like Boots in Dora the Explorer, a monkey sidekick? No. Chango is a dude. He's some guy. Why is he called “Chango” then? Is that explained? Does he like to climb trees and eat bananas?
Also, there's no set up for who Queen Vernita is and what her deal is. She just is. You're supposed to be 100% interested in her immediately without any introductions. That was a bit troublesome. The hardest part of this whole book is the first page. You really have to get past that first page. You're initially left wondering: Who is Queen Vernita? Is she an actual royal queen who runs a kingdom? Is she just someone whose first name is “Queen” like Queen Latifa or Queenie the cow from that one book we forget the name of? If she's a royal queen, then why is she wasting so much time and her kingdom's travel budget wandering around and fraternizing when she should be running her kingdom? Maybe there should be some backstory about why Queen Vernita travels so much. Maybe she's serving some sort of diplomatic mission or acting as an ambassador. Maybe that was covered in one of the other dozens+ Queen Vernita books, but it's not clear in this one.
Anyway, we don't want the author(s)/artist(s) to take these criticisms personally or to think we don't like their work. We greatly admire their work. We just see areas in which these books could be improved in the future. It helps to have an outside perspective like beta readers (or us) to say that something doesn't quite look right or that it's too wordy or convoluted or that we're confused as readers who are new to the series and have no idea what happened to the characters before this.
This book and this series in general does have heart and some impressive art. You can check it out on Amazon!
Score: 95/100 (9.5 out of 10)
Ancient Egypt for Kids is a short, sweet, and incredibly educational book about Ancient Egypt intended for children. It can be fascinating for parents, teachers, and other adults as well!
Growing up, many of us were enthralled with ancient civilizations like the Babylonians, Greeks, and Romans. This book is such a welcomed little surprise. The art may not be spectacular, appearing chibi-like or similar to what you'd see in an Infographics episode, but it serves its function. You can't fault the author for that. Very intricate art can actually be distracting sometimes (not to mention expensive). The main draw of this book is that it presents information in a fun, simple, easy-to-understand, colorful, and exciting way!
You can just tell the care and passion that the author has for the subject matter.
One of the things we appreciated the most was when the book covered many of the contributions that the Egyptians made to the modern world and future generations. For example, the Egyptians invented papyrus, which allowed ancient people to be able to write their thoughts, ideas, and beliefs onto paper. Imagine if, for example, the Hebrews did not have access to something to write on. That's a sobering thought! The Egyptians also gave us sundials, makeup, cosmetics, and the solar calendar. They literally helped to shape the world for future generations and civilizations!
This is so important for kids to know because it helps them to overcome the idea of “the other” or that there's “us and them.” Often, we get so caught up in our nationalism and infatuation with western things that originated in Greece and Rome that we forget that we were also very heavily influenced by things that went on in the Levant and Asia.
We also loved that this book, despite being for kids, didn't sugarcoat things. Early on, you see pottery art of Egypt's king, Narmar, slaying a prisoner or a rival king. It's not graphic by any means, but it's there. Most kids likely won't understand what's even going on in the image and will likely just see it as a king doing something or being silly. Kids pull their siblings' hairs all the time after all. A similar case is that it shows the institution of slavery in Ancient Egypt, although not mentioned by name. There's little question what the guys with the whips and the people working for them are doing. Again, though, it's not graphic. We'd rather it be shown this way than not shown at all, which would be disingenuous. Slavery was a thing back then and was more than likely used to build Egypt's impressive structures.
This book also introduces kids to the Egyptian mythological pantheon. They might love hearing about Bastet and pet cats, especially if they have a pet cat themselves!
This book is not a chore to go through. It's pleasant surprise after pleasant surprise. You'll find yourself looking forward to the next page and wondering what topic is going to covered next.
We highly recommend this on Amazon!
Score: 88/100 (8.8 out of 10)
This is BY FAR the FUNNIEST book we've read in a very long time! When you first look at this book and flip through the pages, you may be confused and not be very impressed. You might wonder if it's supposed to be poetry or prose.
Well, it's prose...sorta... It's prose formatted like random journal or diary entries. Hey, dudes can have diaries too. However, when you get past the chaotic-as-hell formatting and just accept it and take it in for what it is, you might really enjoy this book the same way that we did. It is HILARIOUS! We just read “I Saw What I Saw” by Tony Garritano, and that was super funny. Well, this is even funnier if you can even believe that. There's just something about Shoemaker's ability to showcase his knack for snark and sarcasm.
Shoemaker has to be one of two types of people: 1. The kind of guy who pretends to be drunk at a party just to be the life of the party, or 2.The kind of guy you want to have around because of his tremendous personality and sense of humor.
There's a moment in here that's so simple yet speaks to this so well. It's the moment when a character is trying to introduce their gay friend to a conservative elderly woman at church. Their mother then intervenes and we get a quote that reads something like “She was trying to be helpful in the most unhelpful way possible.” There are so many moments like that in this book, probably at least two to three dozen! We're not kidding.
Another of our favorite lines was:
“I’m no authority on anything other than household chores such as vacuuming. Vacuuming is the best. Jesus loves vacuuming and that’s why glitter is most likely demonic.”
Gosh, how we wish this book could've just been professionally edited. It could've been a 93 or 94 out of 100 easily. Yes, the author had a bunch of people take a shot at editing it, but... well, this book still lacks a great deal of refinement. Again, that's to its benefit and to its detriment. To its benefit, it lets Shoemaker be himself and show off his extraordinary humor and personality. To its detriment, it can be a downright eyesore. It physically hurts to look at some of these pages. Almost every 14-year-old amateurish writing cliché is exemplified at some point here: CAPITAL LETTERS, lack of indenting, lack of titles or chapters, the repetition of information (sometimes in machine-gun fashion), one-word sentences FOR. EMPHASIS. OF. COURSE. There are footnotes here that aren't even real footnotes, just extra space for the author to clown around and be sarcastic.
Alright, fine. Speaking of footnotes, we get some of the funniest parts of the book in them: one in which the author implies that nothing happens in Seinfeld and a second in which the author tells us to stop reading this book and watch Wicked (the musical) instead! The brutal honesty the author constantly assaults us with is golden.
We did love and enjoy this story. We didn't enjoy the formatting or the spelling and grammar, but we did enjoy the story a ton. We also appreciated the message—that God's salvation is open to everyone regardless of their race, age, gender, sexual orientation, or the things they may have done in the past. Homosexuality and Christianity are central to this book. It's incredible to note how lighthearted this book is yet confronts such heavy subjects.
Also, there is no ho ho freakin' way this is fiction! No freakin' way! That was a shocker to us. The author did such a great job making us think it was REAL!
The most powerful and emotional quote in this entire text is simply: “I accept you just the way you are.”
Check it out on Amazon!
Score: 90/100 (9.0 out of 10)
This little book about social progress in relation to romance tragedy is surprisingly potent and unexpectedly entertaining! What a way to pack a punch in only about 60 pages!
How would we describe this unique and fascinating little book? Well, it is structured and reads like a dissertation. You know, like those things you write at the end of a PhD program? We don't know if that's what it is, but it certainly seems like it is.
What's actually a bit different and sometimes challenging is that the delivery of this information is often very unemotive and dry. Not only that, but it's a little bit of mental gymnastics to figure out what these case studies have to do with any point the author is trying to make. We get that this is a book about tragic romances in the context of different cultures and societies. Ok. But there's almost a feeling like the author might be subliminally supporting what seem to be objective evils by presenting things like arranged marriages, bride murders, and female infanticide in an eerily unemotional and matter-of-fact way. It's almost as if they're saying, “That's just the way that it is.” Well, they're totally not, but that's just a strange feeling we got while reading this as it is written. It took us a while to figure out that the author's thesis is really looking at how culture and societies are changing to push back against things like arranged marriages, bride murders, and female infanticide. It really shouldn't have been that hard for us to figure out. But there are times when these practices seem glorified or glamorized by these stories—stories that should really horrify us. Now, to the author's credit, a lot of stories are just like that, especially mythological ones from Asia—especially South Asia. The author stayed true to the spirit of the original stories.
Another thing to note is that suicide plays heavily in the stories in this book. If that's something that's triggering to you, be wary. And that's another thing that almost seems glorified or glamorized somehow. It's really strange. No, the author isn't advocating for or excusing suicide explicitly, but the stories they present imply that it is warranted in some situations. It's not! If you're triggered, go call a hotline immediately. No one relationship is worth taking your life over. There are plenty of fish in the sea.
There is even a moment when a police officer addresses the public about the death of a couple, implying that the couple is not at fault for committing the act to take their own lives because they were pressured and bullied by their families for being together. Well, were they in a burning building with no way out but to jump out of it? Did they have a gun pointed to their head? That sounds harsh, but... suicide should not be glamorized in the way it is in these stories. It's not glamorous. It's sad, tragic, and almost always unnecessary. As people who've lost loved to it, we can attest to that.
On one hand, the author seems to be saying that there are Romeo & Juliet type stories around the world and that people of different races, classes, ethnicities, and religions find themselves in relations where one or both sides don't fully approve of their union. On another hand, the author constantly supplies reasons and excuses for why the parties at fault do and believe the things that they do—owing to tradition or personal biases against a religion for example.
Ok, we get it. This is an extended research paper and takes an objective look at these cases, but the objectivity in these cases is almost chilling. Could you imagine if you were a researcher presenting information about a parent killing their children, then presented it as something like: “They died. They died because their parents no longer wanted them to live. They no longer wanted them to live because them living was viewed as dishonorable.” Ok, well, is there something that's being done to keep that from happening? Can we do something to keep that from happening? What are the solutions? Information is usually just presented to us, again, in such a mater-of-fact, cold, dry manner.
But here's the thing... this book is, again, surprisingly interesting and even entertaining at times. The reason is it's almost like reading a National Geographic article. This book takes us westerners into the minds and shoes of people—both real and fictitious—in other parts of the world. We get to read case studies of tragic romances in other cultural and social contexts than we would normally see in America or Europe. That makes this an incredibly worthwhile read!
Check it out on Amazon!
Score: 94.5/100 (9.45 out of 10)
We're so privileged to have gotten a second crack at this book, this time in audiobook format! It really added an exciting new dimension to the reading experience. We'd forgotten just how fun, humorous, and thoroughly entertaining this book was.
It's humorous to a surprising degree, everything from the characters slipping and falling into a shelf full of cereals to them dressing up like prostitutes to get a scoop. Some of our favorite moments were just getting to know Sheila and her life alone with her cat running a little online journalism business. There's a scene in here in which Sheila makes the excuse that she was talking to her cat while something else was going on, then the other character asks her if her cat talked back to her. Hilariously, Sheila gets defensive and says, “She did, in fact, she said she was hungry.”
On the this second reading, Sheila does shine even brighter than she did before. She is hilariously awkward and defensive. Her strong-will and strong-mindedness definitely come across as she refuses to give up on her conviction that something isn't right. She refuses to drop the case of the murder of an innocent Black man, Arthur Jones, even though the police and Arthur's own family insist that there's nothing more to it.
Coincidentally, this is the fourth CONSECUTIVE crime mystery novel that we've read. What made this one fresh was that it doesn't take itself too seriously while also being respectful about the touchy subject matters of race and police brutality. As we said in our previous review of the Kindle version of this book, the murder in this book is eerily similar to the murder of George Floyd by police in broad daylight. It's no joking matter, and the author gets it. Sheila is deeply troubled by what she witnessed. She even cries at one point when it sinks in that an innocent man of color was killed in front of her and she felt powerless to stop it. On the flip side, there's a lot more to this than just being a clone or carbon copy of that real-life tragedy. There's a lot more to meet the eye... Firstly, why is it that the “police officers” that Sheila saw commit the murder aren't in the police data base? Why is it that the victim's family, mainly his mother, don't seem that troubled by him being gone? Why is it that the city, the media, and the powers-that-be want to divert attention away from the murder and toward other things, especially their new candidate for governor?
The mystery and intrigue just grow and grow and grow. It's so calculated. Like a spring, the tension just coils and gains steam. There are some great twists and turns. Furthermore, you're fully invested in Sheila and company resolving this murder. What did we say last time? That it's such-and-such meets Scooby Doo and the Mystery Machine? Well, it kinda is! This group of rag-tag brilliant idiots are just so fun to read about. Each and every single one of them stands out in their own way: Sheila, Reggie, Mama Sue, and Tania. There's a scene that encompasses just how great their chemistry is: the scene in which they almost cause an accident and get away with it by playing pregnant.
Another character who really, really shone the first time was Reggie, and he shines even brighter now. Reggie is just such a likable, lovable character. He is a really good guy, the kind of neighbor and friend we all would want. He is unselfish, clever (sometimes too clever for his own good like when he slips and falls because he's trying to play ninja), and always willing to lend a helping hand. As a person of color, Reggie also balances out the cast of characters and gives us a perspective that's directly relevant to the subject of race and police brutality. It is one thing to be a white person and see it happen, it's another thing to be a Black person and actually experience the chocolate rain for yourself. He gives one of the most inspired—albeit somewhat contrived—speeches in the entire book: that we should want both police to be rewarded to do their jobs and for there to be social justice. You can literally hear the inspirational, patriotic music, trumpets blaring and eagles screeching when he is giving this speech. Well, ok, not literally. Like, you can't hear music during the audiobook, but you can definitely imagine it.
We have to address the efforts of the narrator, Michelle Morgan. She did a great job. She does have a different quality to her voice. There's a slight rasp to it and it's slightly deep. The best way we can describe her voice is that it sounds like that aunt your mom didn't get along with all the time but that you still enjoyed visiting from time to time because she could cook and had an expensive entertainment system + all the Star Wars and Star Trek movies on VHS. In other words, the narrator kinda sounds like a fourth grade resource teacher. You know, the one you went to when the regular teacher was being mean?
The voice fits this book because this book is not a straightforward story. There's a silliness and quirkiness to it that fits Morgan's tone and voice. There is one moment in this book that is made even funnier by Morgan's delivery than when we read it the first time. There's this somewhat contrived scene in which “We Shall Overcome” is sung, written out verbatim. Literally word for word. It's obviously supposed to be an emotional and inspirational scene based on the way that the characters start crying and swelling up with emotions, but it's made a little funny in a meta context by Morgan's unemotive delivery of the song. What do you expect? Most narrators probably would've done the same thing. It's just that the delivery of that part was so matter-of-fact and stoic, totally unfitting with what was going on in the scene, that we couldn't help but laugh a little about it. It's like if someone kicked you really hard in the shin, but it took your brain like a full second to register it like, “....Owww..” It really didn't matter that much, and we're not holding it against her or Garritano. We just wanted to mention that we noticed it and it made us laugh like a lot of this book did.
Lastly, the villain of this book does turn out to be a great choice by the author. There are a bunch of red herrings and “obvious” choices, yet we still found ourselves a little surprised all over again.
We're excited for the sequels!
Check this book out on Amazon!
Restoration by the Waters Edge by Tony Caico is a heartwarming and inspirational collection of Christian-based poems emphasizing that there is hope for salvation for everyone including lost sheep.
Just be aware that this is probably the most didactic and preachy poetry collection we've seen, even more so than A Poetic Spanking by Anthony Toomer. So, this might not be the poetry book for everyone. It might be off-putting for people who are atheists or are put off by hyper-religious texts. At the same time, if you're spiritual and/or a Christian, this could be a powerful and inspirational book.
As a poetry book, there is something to be desired. It's really hard to describe why that is. You know like when you just have a feeling that something feels off or missing? It is entirely possible that we are just spoiled and our expectations for poetry books have been raised too high. We were spoiled this season by poetry books by Anthony Toomer, Michael Cook, and also Patricia Stanway. It is very clear and obvious what the author is trying to say most of the time, propping up Christianity and providing hope for victory over addiction through one's faith and trust in God. That is definitely a message worth spreading, and the author pours his heart and soul into it. He does, however, do a lot of telling. And his rhyme schemes are usually quite simplistic. At least he attempts them though.
By far, Caico's favorite poetic design is the use of couplets. He uses this in a very traditional way, sticking to what we'd call an “AA/BB/CC” rhyme scheme. It's about as simple and straightforward as you can possible get in terms of poetry. One of our favorite Caico poems that uses this metre and rhyme scheme is “Chasing the Rabbit.” The special thing about this poem is that it does have a deeper and broader meaning than its words. There is the literal race between the dogs and there are figurative races—the rat races—among the people in this “human sport.” There's another race—a spiritual race toward one's physical death—like the one that Paul figuratively runs in 2 Timothy 4:7. The poem also speculates about things like what the dogs actually have to gain from winning as they see none of the prize money that goes to their owners and have no use for material wealth beside maybe food. Dogs have their own coat of fur. They don't need clothes. They really do it because it makes their owners happy and they want to make their owners happy and be loved. Perhaps that's how we should view our relationships with God over material wealth? Maybe we should seek to be right with God over being rich in our own minds.
Other couplet poems like “Breaking the Chains” and “Treasure Map” are very clear and obvious in their meanings. They might read kind of plainly, but they are structurally quite beautiful. He is not trying to win a rap battle like Anthony Toomer or get deep into the weeds like Michael Cook. He's also not trying to be Shakespeare. He's preaching a very clear message to an audience that needs to hear it.
Our thought is this: Caico is an excellent communicator and writer. He's a good poet too. We actually wish he'd just stuck to writing the prose parts and fleshing them out. They were the most interesting and got the point across. At the same time, again, he is a good and solid poet. Furthermore, his poetry is more than poetry, it was his coping mechanism along with prayer for the longest time—through very tough times. We can't fault him on that.
We really want to say: the real-life stories he tells in the prose are powerful, beautiful, inspirational, and infinitely touching. We really hoped that he might actually just keep talking about them and sharing his stories. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at things), they mainly serve to set up and give context to his poems. Instantly, what happens when a poet does that is it defies the theory that the author is dead. The audience is supposed to be interpreting the text for themselves, not the author. But we can definitely understand why he did it. He's a preacher. He has a lot to say about something near and dear to his heart, and prose is the clearest and most direct way to do that.
It is also a treat to see some of the images in this book.
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Score: 84/100 (8.4 out of 10)
Dr. Altman and the Concubines is really something, but we can't quite put our finger on what that is. This book is a valiant attempt at storytelling and novel-writing. Apparently, this is the author's first novel, and you can kind of tell. Over time, we have hope that they can improve and reach their full potential.
To the author's credit, they really tried. They put together a novel with several characters who stand out and are somewhat memorable like Sigourney, Paul, Jennifer, and the titular Dr. Altman.
There's just something that feels off about the whole thing. There are times when we seriously did not get the point or the plot, and times when the writer just chose to linger on things that didn't need to be lingered on or could've been cut for pacing. Probably the main example of this is Paul's AA meeting. You have to sit through and read the entire AA session including being introduced to the other members in the meeting, some of whom don't seem to play much of a role in the long run. Yes, it does put across Paul's sly and sleazy personality as he pretends to be mournful for the sake of fulfilling his court sentence, but did it need to be drawn out like that? For the first hundred or so pages, we were wondering if anything interesting was even going to happen and who the main character actually was (without reading the summary).
Eventually, we figured out that this was actually a whodunit murder mystery that was setting up the major suspects for later. However, without knowing that or cheating by reading the full product description, it felt a bit dull and flat. Because of the presence of the WTC twin towers, we were wondering if the author might be setting up a 9/11 disaster story or something, but then realized that this takes place in the 80s. You almost can't tell that this story even happens on Earth beside from the mention of the World Trade Center. It literally seems like the characters live in a dystopian world like in Tron. It doesn't feel real. Everyone is terrible to each other and acts like an a-hole. We almost felt like this was some sort of indie sci-fi story about a mad scientist doing sexual human centipede experiments on women because that's kind of how the book was going. Well, that's not entirely off the mark. Only, the experiments aren't so much sewing butts to faces as screwing people physically and screwing them up mentally.
You're initially hopeful when you hear about this character named Ali. She sounds like she might be the book's first really interesting character, someone who is a good person deep-down but who is struggling internally because of the guilt she holds over the activities she has participated in. Then your hopes are swiftly crushed when she dies immediately. Well, she doesn't die immediately, she's already dead. However, her life and death do serve a purpose in reminding the main characters and the reader of the ultimate stakes and consequences of Dr. Altman's unscrupulous activities.
Let's talk about the characters because they're the best parts of this book.
You eventually figure out that Sigourney is the main protagonist of the book, a private investigator hired by Jennifer to investigate the leaking of an adult video featuring the latter. Sigourney is a perfectly adequate character. You're behind her and want her to get to the bottom of things. At the same time, she doesn't stand out as particularly special or interesting when compared to other similar characters including ones we've just read about like Penny from Grounded or Epiphany from Epiphany's Gift. We literally just read a whodunit mystery and maybe that got us a bit jaded on the subject.
Paul is another notable character in this book. In fact, he was our favorite character for the first half of the book. He has an edgy, funny, playboy vibe similar to Sawyer in Lost. But then it seems like the author just downright dropped the ball on him and ruined his character to an irreparable degree by having him commit an unforgivable and brutal crime against another person. The way it is described is reprehensible. How can you possibly get behind a character after doing something like that? You can't. You could make the argument that the author deserves credit for making us feel that sense of betrayal, disappointment, and anger so strongly. However, that kind of assault shouldn't be something you throw into the mix lightly. The use of that type of assault as a plot device is generally becoming overdone and is usually very unnecessary. If you can avoid using it as a plot device, do it. It just felt shoved in there for the shock factor. Sorry. However, you could make the argument that this is a book with a lot of sex and sexually-exploitative crimes being committed, so there is precedence set for that event to occur.
And be warned: there is a lot of promiscuous and violent sexuality in this book. It's actually one of the things that will either interest you (because it's so different) or turn you away. Again, it does play into the characters and their dilemmas as their sexual activities are intertwined with the plot. This is a book about Dr. Altman and his “concubines” after all.
Dr. Altman, the lecherous, voyeuristic b@$^%d, provides us with the best part of the entire book by simply ceasing to be alive. Until that point, this book and its plot seemed to be flat-lining. After his death, things really do pick up. There's a sense of urgency, danger, mystery, and intrigue as we worry who might be next if the killer isn't stopped. That whole thing was a success on the author's part.
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Score: 90/100 (9.0 out of 10)
Epiphany's Gift by Mallory M. Oconnor is a paranormal mystery/thriller filled with a cacophony or mixture of ideas that go together like bananas, strawberries, flax seeds, light soy milk, almond nuts, raisins, avocado slices, tofu squares, and chocolate cookie bits in a blender.
This book is 30% The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown, 20% Psych on USA Network, 10% Final Destination, 20% Mordecai starring Johnny Depp, and 20% The Day After Tomorrow/2012 directed by Roland Emmerich. If you don't believe us, read it!
There's also some Prison-Break-esque plot about an evil multinational company, Ace Energy, that has its tentacles at all level of the government.
In the author's own words near the end, this novel has something for everyone. Except it occasionally features F-bombs, so maybe not for young kids?
Anyway, this book centers on the titular main protagonist, Epiphany, who was born with a rare set of psychic or psychic-like abilities that are a cross between every main character from the Final Destination franchise, Shawn Spencer from Psych, and Hurley & Miles from Lost. In other words, she is a precog with the ability to dream or sense an impending doom event (like an airliner crash or an earthquake caused by human activity) while also being able to notice peculiar things (clues/hints) about an environment or situation, all while also being a medium who can dream about and talk to the dead.
Let's face it, Epiphany is THE character in the book. There are others like Hannah and Ephiphany's mom, Susan, but they are afterthoughts compared to Epiphany, the girl who can do it all and commands almost all of the attention. Hannah does pop up from time to time to be encouraging or share a few insights. For example, she comes out of the wood works with some special knowledge about bugs. So, what, is she like Grissom from CSI now?
Like every crime mystery/thriller ever, there is a mysterious death of a character that is actually a murder. Like every art heist story ever, there is also a famous painting that was stolen that somehow has special meaning. In this case, it may even have a supernatural and/or magical one. More specifically, a William Blake painting is stolen that shows corrupt officials being thrown into a boiling pitch pool. A lot of the action of the book involves Epiphany going around trying to solve the murder and the missing painting. Only breadcrumbs of information are revealed to her and the audience, mostly through her psychic powers.
Ultimately, it turns out (surprise, surprise) that the obviously-evil Ace Energy company is, in fact, evil. However, not only is it evil, but the powers behind Ace-the-Helpful-Place-Hardware-Store has been evil and active for a long, long, long time. They're essentially the Illuminati, or the Patriots from Metal Gear, or the Company from Prison Break, or the Marked from 4400, or Amazon, Google, Twitter and Facebook. Ace-Athletic-Medical-Bandages-and-Personal-Trainer-Certifications-Ventura has its tentacles everywhere, and they've been involved in many of the major events in human history (according to the book) including both World Wars.
According to the book, Ace is also responsible for the wars in the Middle East and the founding of Israel, proposing that it's all about that oil and blood money. Mark us totally offended at the casualness in which that is mentioned and shoe-horned in. If only Israel weren't the only major country in the region without significant oil reserves of its own. If only...
If only Afghanistan, a country with a GDP of less than $20 billion, didn't cost us $975 billion to fight in and occupy. Not to mention the lives lost and the fact that it cost several politicians their reputations and tarnished their careers, being public relations nightmares for every administration since. If only...
Anyway, despite our complaints, this book does have its own song to sing, and it's a song worth singing. Ultimately, this is a book about the premise that there are special people in the world who are able to know and do things that others can't, either through supernatural means or by shear talent. For example, there are extraordinary people who can solve highly advanced problems, beat the best at chess, and make trick shots at pool. This is also a book about the dangers of human activity on the planet. Specifically, the book is highly critical of how humans are accelerating global warming and possibly influencing plate tectonics through the practice of fracking.
Also, again, Epiphany is an inherently interesting character. She has humor too, like when she gets annoyed with someone who doesn't supply helpful or useful clues, so she imagines them with honey on the top of an ant hill. She is also a goofball sometimes who makes pop culture references to things like Mary Poppins.
You can check this book out on Amazon!