Score: 93/100 (9.3 out of 10)
The Silver Coin by Mika Matthews is a fantasy/mythology novel that takes place after an apocalyptic war between the Greek gods of Olympus led by Hera and the mortals of Gaia (Earth). The world's human population was decreased to just one billion (by about 90%). The preceding generations consisted mostly of mixed-blooded demigods due to the gods intermingling with the surviving humans. It is implied that—following the trends of classic Greek myth—the gods may have done this in an unscrupulous manner.
The main protagonist, Dante, is actually special and spectacular in a very interesting way: he really isn't special or spectacular at all. Unlike seemingly everyone else on Gaia, he isn't a demigod. He is overweight, depressed, and frail in more ways than one. However, what he does have is a strong sense of compassion and empathy. Death and suffering affect him in a way that doesn't seem to affect many of the gods and demigods, who generally turn a blind eye to these things. Dante seems to inherit a very special calling: to become a healer.
A lot of this book concerns Dante's quest to becoming a capable enough healer (sort of like a white mage) in order to help his fellow people. Unfortunately, being a foolish mortal, he goes about doing this in probably the worst way possible: by essentially selling his soul to Hecate, the goddess of witches. Anyone who has read Macbeth or Dr. Faustus or who at least watched The Little Mermaid probably knows that this is an incredibly dangerous decision. You don't go selling your soul to demons or large, powerful Gothic women. It usually doesn't work out very well for you. Well, be prepared to have your expectation subverted because even she's quite nuanced in this.
This book definitely seems to have more edginess than The Princess, the Knight and the Lost God or any of the Percy Jackson books. There are several instances in which expletives are used. Death and destruction are taken rather seriously, although there is an afterlife component that does somewhat cheapen that. Also, the psychological and emotional issues that Dante is going through are quite raw. They seem real. And, furthermore, Dante is a character we can get understand and get behind because his struggles and thoughts are very familiar to readers. Anyone who has worked in healthcare or aspired to become a nurse or doctor has probably experienced a lot of the thoughts and feelings that Dante feels. In a lot of ways, this book serves as a powerful analogy for healthcare in general. And, thankfully, this is approached in a tactful, subtle, and non-preachy way.
The most interesting thing about this book is how the Greek deities themselves are treated. They seem to have a little extra spice to them compared to other mythology books. It is interesting to see a ripped and jacked Aphrodite, paying homage to her role as a war god to the Spartans. It is interesting to see Hera being large and in charge, although it is strange that she is considered better than individual gods in the areas in which they specialize (i.e. “smarter than Athena, and crueler than Ares”).
Similarly, Persephone is presented as a very overpowered character compared to her portrayal in the source material. She is actually portrayed as large and in charge in Hades, even called “stronger” and “meaner” than Hades. At the same time, Persephone might be the best character after Dante himself because Persephone somewhat serves as a foil to Dante. Persephone was simple and weak at one time, similar to Dante, yet became a queen who rules over the dead. While Dante is struggling to save lives, Persephone is forced to embrace death. This is not to say that Hades himself plays no role. His portrayal in this book might be one of the most accurate (to the source material). Hades is not pure evil. He is not the devil. Hades comes across like a grandfather and someone who is just doing his job, as grim as it may be. That's basically how Hades was most of the time in the original myths.
Similar to what happened in The Princess, the Knight and the Lost God, circumstances and pent up frustrations have caused the gods of the sky and the lower worlds (the sea and the underworld) to be at odds. There is a subtle subtext to this, possibly serving as a criticism of human-triggered climate change, global warming, and pollution.
Now, this book probably needs some work. Its current state is as an unformatted manuscript. There's something about the ending that doesn't seem... finished. That's not to say that the book itself isn't fun and entertaining (it is), but that maybe we're supposed to be expecting a sequel to tie up loose ends and continue the story.
One thing we wanted to mention is that it is a little funny and also interesting to see the Greek gods interact with and ponder modern technologies like cell phones and weapons like bombs.
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Score: 90/100 (9.0 out of 10)
Violet by Sabrina Simon is a book of poems (and accompanying prose) that not only captures the fiery love and passion of the author but also their journey as a poet and a writer. You can literally see the improvement and the growing sophistication of Simon's writing from the time she began dawdling in poems as a teenager to the present day as an adult. In that sense, this book is incredibly impressive!
The quality of writing that this book reaches by the ending of this is actually mind-blowing, especially when compared to the quality of the writing at the start of the book.
Now, let's get this out of the way. It got off to a rough start. The first few poems, which were apparently written when the author was 15, are rather cringe-worthy. Let's not sugarcoat things. The poet is likely aware of it and had the courage to still release her older works.
We all struggled at something when we first started doing it. No one is born with the ability to pen Hamlet or Anna Karenina, it's something that develops with time and with practice. Think about the first time you tried to write a poem, story, or essay. It probably wasn't your proudest or best work, was it?
So, what do we mean when we say the first few poems are cringe-worthy? Well, an experienced enough reader—even while empathizing with the poet at that age—can still spot the flaws in the young person's reasoning. The poet at that age was possessed by a feeling of infatuation—of puppy love—entranced by intense feelings (and likely a surge of hormones) that were new to them. We know (as a mature third-party) that this mystery guy who the poet is fawning over is likely not the idealized person that the poet describes. We catch hints that they may have “friend-zoned” the poet, sends them mixed signals, and really doesn't seem all that into them. We also catch that the poet at that time seemed to be venturing into somewhat dangerous obsessive territory, fantasizing about the target of their affection constantly.
Interestingly, you can even spot holes or contradictions in the poet's claims in their early poems. For example, the poet keeps saying that they're so glad that they love their crush's “mind” (“from the neck up”), however, we get lines like “our legs are tangled” and “everything we need now is between our thighs” that clearly contradict that. However, even this is understandable. New emotions and hormones as a teenager can create a chaotic environment in that person's head space. It can be very confusing for that person, and that's fine. It's part of growing up and learning.
Like we said, this is relatable behavior. It's the kind of thing that you live and learn from, and we were really hoping that the poet would learn and live from it. It seems like they did.
And that's kinda the beauty of this whole book: the progress or the hero's journey that the poet undertakes. You can see them start off the book like a naïve young protagonist in a 19th century bildungsroman, then see them come into their own by the end.
Digressing a bit, the puppy love wasn't the only thing that was a bit shaky about the beginning. There are poems and portions of poems near the start of this book that very obviously are borrowed from—or at least are structured similar to—well-known songs. For example, there's a poem in here called “Are You in Love?” that seems to be a clone of “Lose Yourself” by Eminem—although it could be argued to be done for humorous effect or as an homage. There are times the poet does seem to poke fun at the playful use of the lyrics. The poet later confirmed that this was done as an homage to a beloved song.
There are times in the poem “Mindplay” that sounds like “Wonderful World” by Louie Armstrong, although this turned out to be coincidental. There is also a poem called “Smooth Criminal” that constantly uses the phrase made famous by Michael Jackson. We get it. We really, really get it. We listen to good music while we write too. We pay homage to the things we like in our writing too. However, you don't get maximum originality points for paying homage to another IP. In the poet's defense though, even famous songwriters and musicians sample music and lyrics all the time. That's where familiar leitmotifs come from, the most famous of which is without a doubt the opening of Beethoven's 5th Symphony. And let's not forget that just about every rapper, hip hop artist, and their mom had to mention Grey Poupon in their lyrics at some point or another.
Ultimately, the poet started crafting some really beautiful, elegant, sophisticated works of their own.
So, thank goodness we read past the first ten pages of every book (unlike some contests), right? If we'd stopped as soon as we encountered something we didn't jive with, we would've missed out on some true treasures.
Without a doubt, the best poem in this book is “Sad Truths” and it shows up about 2/3rds of the way through. “Sad Truths” is not only powerful in the shear amount of pain and emotion it showcases, but it seems to be the turning point of the book and the poet's journey. It is the moment when the poet realizes that their love interest may not feel the same way that they do or that their love interest may not appreciate them at all. This poem is full of juxtapositions. The poet is constantly comparing what they would do for their love interest versus what their loved interest would do for them. It's actually chilling how effective this is and how well it's carried out in literary terms.
Here's an excerpt:
“If you decided to come back, I’d probably have the door wide open for you, but I don’t think you’d even turn the doorknob for me.
If you asked me to, I'd jump hurdles for you, but I don’t think you'd even step over a crack in the sidewalk for me.
If you needed me, I’d swim a thousand miles just to see you smile, but I don’t even think you’d get on a boat to see me.”
You can literally feel the anger and frustration of the poet just by reading these lines. It goes back to something that the late great Anne Rice said as a tip for writing: “Go back to where the pain is.” This poem was clearly written at a time of great pain for the poet, and look at what power and beauty came from it!
Now, we're NOT condoning self-harm or inflicting pain on others as some sort of way of accessing your muse. That's 1000% NOT what we're saying. What we're saying is that pain, disappointment, and other negative emotions are felt by everyone, but you can channel them constructively instead of letting them hold you back and drag you down. They can drive you to do better and be better. Anger, when used constructively, can drive a person to be able to accomplish something physically that they might've not been able to do otherwise (perhaps from the adrenaline and/or testosterone boost). Pain can give you the ability to empathize with the suffering of others and to be better connected to fellow human beings. These are all positive, constructive things that can come out of something that initially seems negative (like feeling sad or hurt).
There's another line that comes up later in the book that really steals the show:
“He has the aura of the evening—— calm and quiet, and sits like the moon—— beautiful, majestic, yet distant, so how can I approach him?”
There's a lot to unwrap here. First of all, the simultaneous use of simile, metaphoric language, and personification (of the moon and, to a lesser extent, the evening) is absolutely incredible. The other thing is that this line touches on and reveals a lot about the poet that was talked about in far earlier poems. The poet definitely seems insecure and unsure of themselves. They're constantly self-deprecating and putting down their appearance compared to other girls. Sabrina, girl, don't worry. And remember that “sexiness” and “hotness” isn't just looking good, it's putting across confident, sexy “energy.” Confidence is sexy. Some people just have very sexy personalities. Kid you not, there are women and men out there who have physical characteristics that might seem undesirable (like being overweight), but they have an infectious sense of humor, or a “cool” nature, or an inviting disposition that just make them so attractive even despite their physical characteristics.
The one thing (or two things) that aren't sexy at all are: 1. being needy, 2. being desperate. So, as the poet matures and evolves as a person, we hope they can realize what a special, intelligent, capable, and self-sufficient person they are, pushing past these two things.
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Score: 95/100 (9.5 out of 10)
Toward a Model of Constitutions by Williams Kuttikadan is a remarkable achievement in the realm of political science and philosophy. It is an invaluable, well-research educational work in that discipline. Although the book is based on the US Constitution, it has implications for all constitutions—past, present, and future—throughout the world.
The greatest accomplishment of this book, beside the general presentation of valuable information, is that it presents information in an unbiased and matter-of-fact way, apparently without motive (by the author). This is very impressive and admirable as it can be frustrating when an author/educator's bias is apparent and taints the presentation of that information. We experienced that in the past with Rise from the Blue by Boade Mandeng (a clearly right-wing-leaning work) and Wisdom by Jason Merchey (a clearly left-wing-leaning work).
That's not the case here, at least from what we could tell. We haven't seen a more unbiased, matter-of-fact presentation of political information since we read Trust and Confidence by Jim Lichtman in December 2021. It has been a while!
However, this is both the book's greatest strength and one of its greatest weaknesses. It's a double-edged sword, in a sense. It seems to be... missing something. It seems to be missing any sense of pep or energy. That's not to say that it didn't take a ton of passion to research, write, and edit this book, but that passion isn't evident in the dry presentation of this information. It is, in fact, very dry and maybe a bit dull. However, if you've ever read a textbook about legal process, this is par for the course. Legal textbooks aren't usually melodramatic stage-plays or epics created for your entertainment, they are informative, educational texts created to let you know what's up.
This book is clearly intended as such a text. It's incredibly informative and educational, looking at various aspects of politics from the top to the bottom—everything from rule of law, checks and balances, vote share, levels of government, stages in the evolution of government, organizational spaces, the liberty space, models of self-control, self-regulation, natural resources, and monetary system (along with the taxes that naturally come with them).
To say that we learned a lot of things we didn't know (or even didn't know we wanted to know) would be an understatement. There is so much incredible information packed into less than 300 well-formatted, sharply-written pages. There are even helpful diagrams and charts accompanied by a truckload of sources that demonstrate the enormous amount of research that went into this. And the sources are legitimate, not just links to some opinion piece or Wikipedia. That is also impressive.
How could this almost-perfect educational book have been better? What was it missing? Well, we think we figured out the answer to that question. It was missing stories. Think about it. Yes, it's important to explain the constitution, the laws, the ins and the outs, but you should also provide examples. It's one thing to say, “Taxes are necessary for rule of law” or “governments shouldn't interfere in the private space” but... can you provide specific examples of why that is? If this were an essay, wouldn't you—the educator—expect the same from your students? If this were a scientific research paper, wouldn't you need to provide specific details that prove your conclusions? The author seems to present a really idealistic way of how things work. Anyone who has written and tried to carry out a plan knows one thing: things aren't going to go to plan. That's why we have the checks and balances the author describes, especially the judicial system which interprets laws. The very fact that we have a branch to interpret laws shows that the system is not so ideal or so perfect. And we're not saying that's what the author says, but that's how it feels.
We love the US Constitution and agree with over 95% of what the author says. At the same time, we would've loved a little more flavor to this text. For example, in WINX by Irma Parone, the author provided multiple different examples (real-life stories) of times when business owners and companies made terrible or even dangerous decisions. If the author were to explain different concepts like the amendments, shouldn't there be examples of these amendments in practice? Like, how about when explaining the first amendment Now, in all fairness, there are references to how different concepts affect the governments of different parts of the world like North Korea and Sub-Saharan Africa. However, even that is mentioned but not delved into.
But we digress because there's so much GOOD in this book. Our favorite part of the book concerns the three theoretical frameworks that explain the concept of liberty: Mandela's freedoms, Berlin's liberties, and improvement-perspective. The author is not afraid to point out potential errors in reasoning or practice, particularly in Berlin's liberties, as these ideas were all cultured at times that were different from our own. Mandela's freedoms almost seem to form the “heart” of the book as they are often referenced and seem to form the “ideal” from the mind of one of the great visionaries and leaders of our age.
Really, check out this book and consider putting it on your syllabus if you teach social or political sciences at the college level.
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Score: 94/100 (9.4 out of 10)
Temple of Valor Part Three: Astar's Blade is a true fantasy novel by Joe Lyon which features impressive world-building, some interesting characters, and an elaborate plot.
This book has enough world-building to rival some of the book in the Jaralii Chronicles series by Joanne Reid. It also features a traditional plot very reminiscent to The Angels of Resistance by David V. Mammina—pitting the forces of light (like the priestly warriors of the “White Eminence”) against the forces of darkness (“The Demonic”). This book also pits these ancient factional forces against each other whilst they circle around a central axis consisting of much younger and more vulnerable protagonists—Astar and Micah—teenagers who remind us a lot of Frodo and Sam from Lord of the Rings, respectively.
Chen-Li, the 60-year-old pyrokinetic master of the White Eminence priesthood, seems to fill a similar role to someone like Galadriel: a very overpowered and stoic character with a very black & white view of the world, both literally and figuratively. Chen-Li might prove to be a favorite character of many readers. He reminds us of so many characters, but among them are the aforementioned Galadriel as well as Seraph (the stoic Asian guardian from The Matrix trilogy), and even Count Dooku from the Star Wars prequels. He seems like a guy who truly believes he's doing the right thing, all the while being as severe and pigheaded about it as possible. Chen-Li is one of those old heroes who may have lived long enough to see himself become the villain. He is supposed to be the leader of a peace-bringing organization, yet he is basically a walking manifestation of the inquisition and crusades all wrapped in one. He brings the full wrath of the divine (often referred to as “the goddess” or “Ehlona”) onto his enemies.
The Temple of Chen-Li sits in geographic opposition to the titular Temple of Valor (it is even implied they may be in viewing distance of one another). Forgive us for any error in understanding because we're missing context from the previous two books in the series, but the Temple of Valor seems to be frequented by the mysterious Lady Valen, a being known for her rare ability to heal the sick and wounded. Indeed, many sick and wounded come to her for healing. The true identity of Lady Valen and the secret behind her ability are major plot points in the story.
The inciting incident that sets this plot in motion seems to be the moment when Micah finds a mysterious hole in the ground, bringing it to the attention of his best-friend, Astar. Soon, ghoulish winged beasts snatch them away. During the traumatic scuffle, Astar and Micah are separated and these Devourers (flesh eaters who work for the Demonic) are only able to successfully carry off Micah, ironically the far less valuable of their targets. The devilish creatures then consider what to do with Micah and lean toward eating him. The leader of the Demonic, though disappointed at having not captured Astar, still sees value in Micah and looks to sew discord between their longtime enemies: Chen-Li and King Leopold. So, this abduction actually sets in motion a dramatic chain of events that largely involve political (and, at one point, even judicial) intrigue with different sides advocating for different ways to deal with the new threat.
Some champion the act of saving the boys while others value simply slaying the demons and/or saving themselves.
It is actually a lot like when Merry & Pippin are abducted by orcs in Fellowship of the Rings, it sets in motion the subsequent events as the heroes pursue rescuing the boys.
A lot like the villains in Angels of Resistance, the Demonic are quite unique characters. They include Langula, who seems to be their COO and the one who ends up poisoning Micah as a means to an end. Not like it really matters, but it is interesting to note that Langula is a she-demon similar to Satka in Angels of Resistance. She is “evil” yet not absent of love, care, and affection. She definitely has a thing for Frost and is definitely loving, caring, and affectionate toward him. It's amusing to see a villain with these qualities, but that's like saying that it's amusing seeing the affection between two mass-murdering, sadistic psychopaths. The Zorn, meanwhile, seems to serve as the chairman of the board or CEO of the evil operation. But all in all, Langula—similar to Chen-Li on the other side of this struggle—steals the show.
Another awesome thing about this book are the amazing weapons in it. Gensen has a sword called Vengeance. But the weapon that really steals the spotlight is the sword named Soothsayer—a weapon that seems to vibrate as a warning or a prophecy to the worthy wielder. An unworthy wielder might find their hand plastered to it and helpless. Soothsayer reminds us of old myths of a “singing sword” and is likely based on those myths. It also behaves a bit like Excalibur and Blade's weapon in Blade.
One last thing we very much appreciate about this book are the maps that the author provided in the beginning. Any fantasy author who takes the time to provide a GOOD and QUALITY map of their world is a next-tier fantasy author.
This also has one of the best covers we've seen!
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Score: 94/100 (9.4 out of 10)
Out of all the many books in the Jaralii Chronicles, this book pleasantly surprised us the most. You would need context to understand why, but this ambitious, imaginative series by Joanne Reid has had huge peaks and deep valleys.
Probably the deepest valley in the series was Gilraen Returns (book four) because it was following right behind the heels of I Conquered, arguably the best and most action-packed in the series, and seemed more like a break in the action rather than a continuation of it. So, we were prepared for a similar kind of book: a more laid back book with multiple happy endings that would read more like a Tolkien-esque epilogue. However, that wasn't the case!
The worry that we had was that there wouldn't be much more for Gilraen & William to accomplish after defeating the Supreme Guild of Narwortland, Machister, dozens of Adjudicars, and Beckworth. Where do you go from there?
Well, it turns out, there was a lot more for Gilraen & William to accomplish diplomatically and militarily.
This book is actually one of the most interesting of the seven. It is full of drama, adventure, action, and even mystery. The mystery aspect actually surprised us the most. It's an aspect that's been mostly missing since Gilraen Returns, ironically, when Gilraen and company uncovered a secret haunted music room visited by Queen Dominica. Sorry if we misremember that, but we do remember it being quite a thrilling, spine-tingling highlight of the book.
Investigating the sacrificial alter and the secret passage in Gilraen Regnant reminded us a lot of the treacherous journey through the Mines of Moria from Fellowship of the Rings. It's intense and definitely keeps the reader's attention.
Something we loved about this book compared to the others is that BOTH Gilraen and William adventure together, fight together, and experience trials and tribulations together. In previous books, Gilraen and William were largely separated with Gilraen traveling, experiencing, and accomplishing things on the road while William held the fort at home. We all know that William is strong (lifting 500+ lbs.) and can fight (displaying that in various battles), but what we were really starving for was to see William and Gilraen fight back-to-back and side-to-side as a dynamic duo. We got glimpses of that in the previous books, and we get a great few scenes here, starting with Gilraen & William taking on assassins together. Not only that, but they actually go through many of the obstacles in this book while at each other's sides.
Another cute aspect of their relationship that comes to light in this book is that William still doesn't understand figures of speech and idioms used on Earth, so Gilraen is always educating him about them. This is a nice little touch. Gilraen's knowledge of Earth things also has practical uses like when she is able to identify the threat posed by scorpions. Yes, there are giant scorpions in here that are over six feet long! Gilraen is knowledgeable enough to recognize that they may be crossovers from Earth's prehistoric past. It's like a scene out of a Ray Harryhausen movie!
Another thing we loved is that there's a great amount of continuity to this book. It doesn't stick out like a sore thumb, it fits right into the series. Notable are the many callbacks to previous events and characters in the book. For example, the burial of the massacred elves, the encounters with the Daunts (large blue cat creatures), the tunnels that Beckworth was using to launch attacks, and Gilraen gaining acceptance by William's family are all touched on. Talbot, one of our favorite characters throughout the series, is also still active.
Something you need to be prepared for when reading a Jaralii Chronicles book is the political drama and the fact that it's probably going to dominate a large portion of the book. Indeed, this book is full of it. However, for some reason, it is more pleasant and interesting in this book. The premise of this book, similar to I Came (book one), is that Gilraen needs to start reaching out to other groups of people, particularly the elves of different kinds, knowing that a “matrix” of enemies still exists that plan to use the world as a launchpad to conquer other worlds.
The people that Gilraen reaches out to all have their own quirks. Some are even former allies of Gilraen's enemies. One is a kingdom of pacifists who hate Gilraen and what they view as her warmongering. Many are stuck in their ways. Beside confronting ideals like the aforementioned pacifism, Gilraen also combats misogyny, patriarchy, and religious fanaticism. These are the kinds of socio-cultural challenges that one would naturally encounter as a foreign ambassador or diplomat. So, it's fitting that Gilraen encounters these challenges here.
World-building remains a strong suit in this book. For example, we learn a bit more about the Dwarves in the series. Did you know they can't swim and are afraid of bodies of water? That's pretty interesting. Every location here also has something new and unique to offer.
One thing that Joanne Reid does prolifically, sometimes to a fault, is that she's very ambitious with her details and descriptions of things. This goes back to the first couple books in the series when dying enemies were compared to “marionettes” whose strings had been cut. Likewise, this book is very detailed with strong descriptions. It almost seems like the author may have finally figured out a good balance between being detailed enough to get the point across and being overly detailed.
As an example of how Reid's writing has really evolved, look at this passage:
Now, with that said, Gilraen is still Gilraen. She has quite an ego, and she even displays it playfully here when someone doesn't recognize her as a high-queen. Instead of just declaring her high-status and marriage to King William, she implies and teases these things until the other party feels like a fool. She's more upfront and bold about it through the rest of the book.
One of the first descriptions you get of her (and from her) is: “I enwrapped myself in a brilliant white aura of power and awe with just a hint of lust to maintain their attention. I was the sexy goddess of their most carnal dream, yet indefinitely superior to them and unapproachable...”
Let's face it, Gilraen can be quite a drama queen and prima donna sometimes. This might be best exemplified in this passage in which she “whines” to William: “I'm just frustrated... I don't handle frustration well. I don't stand around and wait for things to happen, I make them happen. I bend the world to my will!”
So... here you really get to see three layers of Gilraen that we've noticed over the course of the last seven books. From one perspective, she's admirable in her ambition and with her go-getter attitude (“I don't stand around and wait for things to happen”). From another perspective, she seems to be incredibly egotistical—practically plagued with a god-complex (“bend the world to my will!”). From yet another perspective, she's flawed and emotionally vulnerable (“I don't handle frustration well”).
She also briefly describes redressing herself in “less smelly underwear, tunic, and breeches” in the middle of the journey, so there's a humorous hint of humility and self-consciousness there. We've also seen her be a bright light to other characters. We've seen her be compassionate and loving. In this book, she even tries to crack some humor in the middle of a stressful battle, trying to lighten the mood with mixed results (partly because many of her entourage don't understand Earth humor).
Gilraen is a handful, and possibly the most polarizing character we've seen. You're going to hate her at times, and you're going to love her at times.
But you probably also need to consider that Gilraen is also “played” by a nerdy middle-aged male gamer (Tony) who probably has a few insecurities and power fantasies that are impossible for him to work out otherwise. Compare this to Jake Sully from the Avatar series. Both Gilraen and Tony are actually pretty complex and nuanced.
All in all, this book stands out as one of the stronger entries in the series.
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Score: 91/100 (9.1 out of 10)
Death by Saxophone is an interesting hybrid between numerous different fiction genres centered around the mysterious death of a prominent jazz musician. The characters, ideas, and plot threads are blended together like ingredients in a sweet, tangy smoothie. And, like sweetness and tanginess, it becomes a matter of taste.
Death by Saxophone blends elements of cozy mystery, international travel, romance, and musical fiction. It even has a pseudo-biographical feel to it (as we'll discuss later in this review). The book largely celebrates the beauty and complexity of jazz music, specifically smooth jazz.
This book could be very exciting for musicians and/or those who are passionate about jazz music. It could be confusing or intriguing—depending on your point of view—if you fall outside that niche. Either way, you will likely discover, explore, and learn new things, not just about music, but about Cold War-era Russia and the black market. At the very least, you'll learn about Moscovium, the lesser-known 115th element.
If we were to describe this book with one term, it would be avant-garde. It really seems targeted to a certain niche of people with a very particular interest and taste.
Interestingly, we're reading and reviewing this book right off the heels of another very niche novel, The Princess, the Knight and the Lost God, which explored the game of chess in the form of a fictitious story. Likewise, this novel highlights the wonders of music and musical instruments like the eponymous saxophone and the concertina, a type of accordion that becomes the primary instrument of the lead character, Becka.
Becka (Rebecca Rifkin) is one of two lead characters in this book, the other being Jerry Zolotov, a famous jazz musician whose sudden and mysterious death on the Verrazano Bridge serves as the exciting incident for the plot. Was Jerry a “jumper” who committed suicide or was he pushed?
Now, before you go thinking that this is some kind of detective mystery where the clever character(s) with a seeing-eye glass and a khaki trench coat hunts for clues that no one else sees or understands, it's surprisingly not like that for at least 3/4ths of the book. Instead, you are given the perspectives of both Becka and Jerry (separately) and get to experience the events of the past as they did. That's why we brought up that this book has a striking pseudo-biographical feel, especially when it comes to taking Jerry's perspective. When you read about Jerry, you almost feel like you're a member of an entourage or the paparazzi following someone like John Lennon, Freddie Mercury, Elvis, or Michael Jackson. Behind the curtains, Jerry—like many famous musicians and other celebrities—is a very flawed person struggling with his own demons. Not only has he fallen into a stereotypical rockstar life of promiscuity and megalomania, but his massive wealth has tempted him to get involved in dealing on the black market.
Of special interest to Jerry (and the audience, for the sake of the plot) are special “bone records” or pirated versions of rare, banned, or nearly-unobtainable records cleverly printed on X-ray film. Jerry splurges his fortune on these and comes into possession of one very special one, displaying the name of Uliana Stalin and X-rays of the hand-bones of a little girl. Could these be the X-rays of the daughter of THE Soviet dictator, Joseph Stalin? Viewing them like saintly artifacts, Jerry jumps at the opportunity to purchase the record. And, as you might have guessed, hijinks ensue.
Now, it's important to take note that there's context to this. Much of this book, particularly Jerry's flashbacks, takes place during the Cold War. At that time, western music was treated as contraband in the USSR and certain records could only be obtained illegally. So, there is precedence for Jerry valuing these illegal records to the extent that he does.
The other half of the book concerns Becka's perspective. When we first meet her, we're in medes res, finding that Becka is a huge fan of jazz and Jerry Zolotov. Well, it turns out that her hero, Jerry, is now dead after last being seen playing his saxophone at the edge of the Verrazano Bridge in New York as some sort of publicity stunt. The wheels immediately start turning and Becka, along with the audience, begins wondering if he might have been pushed and, thus, murdered.
However, rather than focusing exclusively on Becka's hunt for the truth, we actually get a romantic tie-in story exploring the relationship between Becka and her enigmatic Russian lover, Pyotr (Peter). We also learn about Becka's budding love for music as she becomes proficient at playing a soup-up accordion called a concertina, which she names Athena.
Now, if you don't initially catch that Becka's musical instrument is personified and has a name, you're in trouble because the author constantly refers to Athena as if “she” were a real person, even having “her” own things. This isn't too unusual since musicians are known to name their instruments, but it can seem a bit bizarre and confusing to some. Similarly, Jerry's prized saxophone is called "Violet" and is one of the key motifs in the book.
Anyway, we originally felt like there was no way Becka was going to be anywhere near as interesting or good a character as Jerry, but she definitely holds her own. She reminds us a lot of Julie Scolnik, a real-life musician (performing violinist) and author of Paris Blue--a memoir we read last year. Like Scolnik, Becka is caught between countries, caught between worlds, entranced by music, and enraptured by the love for an exotic, foreign man who seems to promise her a dream life outside of her existing one. All the while, she battles for self-sufficiency. Somehow, someway, the author is able to tie these large, meandering, deviating plot threads together, which is impressive in itself.
With all that said, this book feels a lot longer than it really is. It's actually quite exhausting to read, and it's hard to explain why. Usually, when we read a story, one thing leads to another thing which leads to another thing. There's a flow to it. The flow of this book is rather... bumpy. Your attention is torn between the two protagonists, the two time frames, and the two deviating plot lines.
Let's say you're used to musical jargon, that's fine, but what about unfamiliar concepts like “bone records” and other elements like Russian culture? The more times you have to stop to look up something, the more your reading flow is interrupted. Things could've been better explained for the layman who doesn't understand these concepts. Pacing also became a big issue. There are times in this book when the plot seems a bit stuck in a rut, when the author dwells on a few people talking or doing stuff instead of advancing things. With that said, it isn't nearly as bad as people constantly sitting around and eating in Fifty-Three Tuesdays.
Many of us started and stopped reading this book a number of times before we were able to push through and finish it. It might just be one of those books that's so dense, it can become frustrating. You can't rush this book. You need to slow down and be patient as it develops.
Fun fact: this isn't the first musical fiction book we've read in the past few months (and, yes, musical fiction is an actual genre). The Devil Pulls the Strings by ZW Zarek followed a guitarist who could understand the cryptic plot due to his knowledge of music. There's even a prominent figure mentioned in both books: Paganini.
The last thing we wanted to say is that the author definitely demonstrates a high level of sophistication in their writing. For instance, you have descriptions like “a bolus of pain” and words like tangentially. The presentation is very high-end and classy.
You might really end up enjoying or even loving this book, particularly if you have a passion for music and/or mystery novels.
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Score: 93+/100 (9.3+ out of 10)
The Princess, the Knight and the Lost God by Victoria Winifred may not knock you off your rocker or sweep you off your feet. It might not be The Lord of the Rings or A Song of Ice & Fire, but it definitely—most assuredly—stands out as unique and special in the realm of fiction. Who would've thought to write a book that fictionalizes the game of chess? Who would've thought to bring to life the greatest board game of all time via the pages of a novel?
We definitely recognize, commend, and appreciate the creativity put on display here. In a Percy Jackson sort of way, it presents huge concepts involving mythology (and chess) in a way that is digestible and not so scary or overwhelming for young people.
For young readers, it's practically perfectly. It's exactly what a 11-13 year old might want to read, and exactly what the parent of a young reader would want them to read. It's fun, it's cute, it's interesting, and mostly harmless. There are some references to unsavory activities like running away from home and bullying, some polytheistic & mystical elements, and brief instances of peril, but that's all relatively tame with perspective. If your kids can read Harry Potter, they can safely read this.
Let's dive into this book.
The Princess, the Knight and the Lost God follows Kassie, a young goddess, princess, and daughter of the reputed god of chess, Mars. Interestingly, Mars is a much kinder and softer version of himself when compared to his portrayal in Roman mythology. He's someone who generally loves and is protective of his daughter and wife as well as being a responsible leader rather than the problem-starter he is often portrayed to be. In this telling, he rules the Chesslings from Chess Mountain, which is a bit like Olympus. It's generally viewed as a better than average place, but it lacks many of the complexities that the Earth or human realm has. In fact, one of the best things about this novel is that it forces the main protagonist, Kassie, to appreciate the nuances and imperfections outside her place of comfort.
For example, she learns to appreciate bad weather, rain, and snow. It fascinates her because those aren't things she experienced growing up on Chess Mountain. Another thing she learns to appreciate is that the humans on Earth are less hierarchical and less superficial in their dispositions, attitudes, and behaviors than the Chesslings. Where as the Chesslings are generally courteous and rigid in what they do and say, the humans on Earth are not.
She learns about figures of speech, idioms, and even about Santa Claus for the first time!
The secret god among man trope is well played in that sense as Kassie must learn that she can't always have her way and can't always be treated and viewed like she's better than everyone else. In another sense, this also makes this a coming of age story.
So, how does Kassie end up in this predicament on Earth? Well, it turns out that Mars is an old friend and rival of Euphron, the god of sports, the latter of whom sends his son, Dimitri, to visit Chess Mountain to try his hand at chess. It turns out that Dimitri, who is ironically terrible at sports, is a prodigy at chess. Suddenly, Dimitri goes missing—kidnapped! And, in true Greco-Roman fashion, Euphron blames Mars for this insult and declares war on Chess Mountain. Kassie is threatened with the prospect of being abducted herself, or worse! So, Mars sends her away to Earth (Queens, New York to be specific) in order to keep her safe. With her appearance and name dramatically changed to protect her, the only familiar thing she has beside her memories is her loyal knight and uncle, Maurice, who also takes the form of a human to look after her. Maurice will likely prove to be a favorite character of many readers, and he'll be a consideration for "Best Supporting Character."
Essentially, Kassie is in a witness protection program, and we all know that witness protection stories are often fun and full of hijinks!
She is forced to live among humans, learning to appreciate them and their foreign ways. Incredibly, she finds that many of them enjoy chess, so she's still able to exercise her fondest passion.
Along the way she meets new people including the class bully and chessmaster, Hunter—who proves to be more complex than he initially seemed—as well as interesting and mysterious figures like Mr. Mercury, Abaddon, and Min.
Can Kassie adjust to her humble standing among the humans? Is Dimitri safe & will he ever be found? And can peace come between the game-loving followers of Mars and sports-loving followers of Euphron? And is chess a game or a sport?
Now, this book is not perfect. There is an instance in which “Kassie” is called “Cassie” and another in which “gaping” is used in place of “gasping.” This happens. It doesn't detract from the quality of the story in any way. The art, similarly, is not the Mona Lisa, but it has the unique charm and genuineness that only comes from hand-drawn art. We greatly appreciate their inclusion. There are even some maps here, a nod to classic fantasy books that often included maps.
In closing, we have to bring up one of our favorite aspects of this entire book, and it's the notion of achieving growth and self-fulfillment through patience, hard work, and force of will—the idea that someday a pawn can become a queen.
This is definitely a worthwhile read, especially for middle-grade, teen, and YA readers!
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Score: 90/100 (9.0 out of 10)
Excerpt: “Sam covered his face with his hands. This is wrong. This is all wrong. How has it come to this? Was this deadly game a symptom of the end of humanity or was it destined to be its root cause?”
The Doomsday Clock predicts that humanity's time on Earth is running out. Freak storms have ravished the world, World War III is said to have occurred, and a viral pandemic spread by insects has inflicted most of the survivors, leaving behind a population of deformed human beings who've evolved or adapted to the worsening conditions on the planet. Among this generation of survivors is Samuel Richmond, better known as Sam. He is the son of a brilliant scientist and is an aspiring pilot in a sort of space cadet/space force program. They are deeply involved in a project called the Canadian Human Resiliency Program, which might be humanity's last hope for survival...
Midgard by Jeanne Hull Godfrey is a fun and interesting sci-fi dystopia novel and the first in an apparent series of sci-fi novels. With that said, it seems to be filled to the brim with a lot of the same sci-fi cliches and apocalyptic plagues that we've seen and read dozens of times before in books like THAW, Grydscaen Dark, and Left Alive. Almost every sci-fi and dystopia cliché is here, except maybe extreme torture and execution. This does make it more appropriate for a younger audience than others. You might even compare it to something like The Giver in that sense.
There's the repressive government hiding something and their “public safety” officers, there's the need to apply and gain permission in order to have children, and there's the climate being unstable thanks to mankind releasing excessive amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere (and, well, blowing things up in the last war).
At least the book covers the basics and did what it needed to do. It's solid and sufficient. Your kids and teens will be entertained. The characters are good, the world-building is solid, the plot is buried in there somewhere (with breadcrumbs hinting at a sequel), and there are some intriguing concepts sprinkled throughout. It is a solid sci-fi book.
If this is your first sci-fi or dystopia novel, it might wow and amaze you.
And you know what? It turns out that this was the author's debut novel, so you have to give them credit for putting out a competent story with decent entertainment value.
Sam is a solid protagonist for us to follow—a well-meaning dreamer who develops a strong, pseudo-romantic/pseudo-friend relationship with the heroine, Tamara Ashraf. Sam has a gift, not only being the son of a brilliant scientist but also being the human being to survive the most times through the daunted “Tunnel.” Sam is also a very emotionally complex person. Something that really motivates him is his desire to protect Tamara and his mother. However, he doesn't always express himself in the best possible way. He is angsty at times—anxious, apprehensive, and insecure—despite the fact that his great gifts should grant him the superhuman confidence to go where no man has gone before.
Sam and Tamara make a great team for much of the novel. Sam clearly loves and cares for Tamara, but does she reciprocate his feelings? And can Sam get over his apprehensions?
One pillar of this book is the love-triangle between Sam, Tamara, and Hector Ramirez, creating a rather interesting and tense character dynamic as all three must coexist and work together while the world is essentially ending.
World-building takes center stage in this book. The author clearly tried to put across the idea of a dying world. It's debatable if they succeeded or not. Yes, you get reminded about the world war, the pandemic, and climate change. Yes, the Doomsday Clock is nearing midnight (you're reminded of this multiple times). It just feels like something's... missing. It's hard to put our finger on it. We faced this problem early in the year with Left Alive. Maybe we're just desensitized to disaster stories. We've read so many, and many of them are incredibly similar.
Compare this to The Last Keeper of the Light in which the world was an absolute wasteland in which people scavenged for food (including rats and bugs) and formed violent tribal groups which fought, mutilated, and massacred each other... this book never quite gets that gritty. Yes, the government stinks and is definitely hiding something, but it just doesn't have the same oppressive feel that something like Hunger Games or 1984 had. It never seems so dire or so harsh.
Even the concept of Capsule, probably the most important plot device in the background of this story, is a lot like plot devices in other sci-fi/dystopia stories like THAW by AC Kabukuru or the concept of “SEEDS” in Trigun.
The character-centered part of the story involves Sam's involvement in the military academy, Verdi. Now, this aspect of the story really reminded us of Academy Bound by JC Maestro, a book we called “Hogwarts in space.” A lot of this book focuses on Sam learning as a kind of space marine or pilot and associating with others academy, namely Tamara and Hector. There's even a director of operations character named Gage (Dr. Stephen Gage) who fills the same leadership role that the Gage in Academy Bound does.
As mentioned before, Sam is special because he is said to be the human being who has transversed the obstacle known as “The Tunnel” the most number of times and lived to tell the tale. His movements through the tunnel are evaluated to be unlike anyone else in history. So, he is given special responsibilities and a leadership position, something which causes some tension between him and Tamara—a brainiac and workaholic who feels she deserves the promotion just as much as Sam (if not more). However, they develop a friendship that forms the heart of the book.
Sam and Tamara are, ultimately, good people who you want to root for. They're good people who are rough around the edges. What more could you ask for in a protagonist? They're solid for their function. Now, do they have the same chemistry that Glenn and Maya had in Fifty-Three Tuesdays? No. But they're sufficient, and the chemistry is clear and comprehensible.
This book seems a bit slow until a crisis involving freak tornadoes sweeps up the convoy of lead characters. The idea is puts forward that a weather-based weapon is being used by some sort of insurgency. It reminded us of the time Cobra employed the Weather Dominator in GI Joe. Anyway, a lot of mystery surrounds this apparent attack and the weapon used during it...
Who employed this weather-based weapon and why? What is the government hiding? Will humanity find a way to survive the apocalypse? And who will Tamara ultimately choose to give her heart to?
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Score: (94/100) 9.4 out of 10
Fifty-Three Tuesdays by GK Nakata explores a fascinating what-if scenario: what would happen if a respected lawyer & politician were to have an affair with someone whom the rest of the world might be ashamed of?
The book follows Glenn, the aforementioned lawyer & politician, who finds himself enamored with a bargirl named Maya. While Glenn isn't the archetypal bar clients, neither is Maya. Maya is naive, shy, and actually very human.
What's amazing about this this book is that it portrays red-light district & adult workers as very human. Why wouldn't they be? They are human like the rest of us, full of doubts, fears, hopes, dreams, ambitions, inhibitions, apprehensions, and motivations as well as having friends, family, and even pets of their own. They aren't “bad people” or subhuman because of the work they do. They're trying to make a living like the rest of us. They want a better life like the rest of us.
In this sense, this book is comparable to Silver Lights by Michelle Lynn which focused on the opposite (hostess) perspective and humanized them.
The more we've gotten to know people who've done adult films, the more we've come to realize that they're usually good people who just happen to do work that society deems dark or questionable. Some even raise money for charities and champion things like conservation and compassion. Who would've thought?
This is in perfect contrast to Glenn, a damaged human being who has long tried to hold up an upstanding public image (for the sake of his career) and marriage (to his estranged wife, Katie).
Glenn retreats to a bar run by Mama Linh, a fascinating character in her own right. Mama Linh is dynamic as both a cutthroat businesswoman and as a motherly figure who actually cares about the well-being of Glenn and her girls, above just exploiting them for financial gain. So, on one hand, she's a bit of a pimp, on the other hand, she's the closest thing to a mom that many of her girls have. In fact, it is even implied that she becomes the de facto godmother to many of the girls' children and grandchildren after they move on with their lives. Imagine that: these girls have lives.
The poetic irony of all of this is that much of what the bargirls do is a front—a facade—not all that different from what Glenn did as a public defendant (sometimes for some unscrupulous people) and eventually as a public official and politician. A lot of it is an act. What the public doesn't see is often times the real, genuine person, and it's nothing like the idealized version that shows up on an Instagram feed, another aspect of this story which is played up.
Glenn, who holds positions you'd normally associate with an alpha-male archetype, is actually the exact opposite of that. Deep down inside, he is damaged, vulnerable, weak, and unsure of himself. He is a mama's boy with trust issues and a profound fear of abandonment that stems from his very harsh upbringing, seeing his mother beaten by his father and resorting to eating grass due to the situation his father put them in. So, his thoughts, feelings, and actions are very understandable, although Glenn does prove to be a very frustrating protagonist despite this. Maya seems to be a very kindred soul to Glenn, although younger. Her life story was very similar to his, suffering abuse and poverty as well. Maya has a lot of things that make her very relatable. For one, she seems to be motivated to do what she does in order to help her sick mother and impoverished family overseas as well as to take care of herself and her “four-legged son,” Rusty. She also suffers from a sinus condition caused by plastic surgery and seems apprehensive to take any money from Glenn, who she genuinely seems to view as a good and likely confused man.
However, how much of this is manipulation and an act—a fantasy? How much of this is genuine and real? Those questions seem to dominate this book from beginning to end.
Interestingly, while we mostly get Glenn's perspective and thoughts, we also occasionally get glimpses into Maya's thoughts as well. The problem is: Glenn can't read Maya's thoughts and vice-versa, so misunderstandings are prevalent. That's one of the keys to a good romance. The only problem with that is, it seems to happens over and over again. There's only so many times you can go back to the same well before it runs dry. In other words, it kinda gets old. Glenn and Maya have so many falling out moments, it almost because comedic after a while. Because of these misunderstandings, both characters venture out and try their hands with other partners, some good, some ok, and some downright nasty. One of the most interesting of these is apparently a conscientious hooker who actually ends up counseling Glenn a bit. It's actually both interesting and hilarious to think that this hooker starts giving him romantic advice.
The other thing that keeps happening over and over again is that the characters keep eating. The characters are constantly sitting at a table and eating. Yes, we understand that some of these dishes are culturally significant and show that the cook actually cares about the person trying the dish, but... how many more times do we have to read about it?
The writing is usually quite good, although it has its share of problems. For example, “most important” is used instead of “most importantly.” In another instance, there's the typo “Oh well, good chance to get know her friend” [SIC] with the word “to” clearly missing. The author does do some impressive things. Case in point: the text messages. The author actually took the time to craft the text messages like actual text messages. They even appear in boxes/bubbles the way they'd appear on your phone. We'll give him half a point for that alone. That demonstrates care and style. Similarly the broken English is handled so well. We know people—mostly immigrants—who talk like this. This is what some of them talk like.
We'd like to mention that Gary Nakata brings some invaluable experience as an actual public official into this book to make it seem and feel all the more real. He is also very good at detailed descriptions, particularly of the female form. He really fleshes tings out and brings them to life.
Our biggest complaint about this book by far is that it's JUST. TOO. LONG. Why is this ROMANCE novel nearly 700 pages, 120+ chapters, and probably 20+ hours long?! That seems far too long for this genre in the modern age. There are times when reading this book is absolutely exhausting. Yes, it's extremely interesting and the characters are great at times, but it's just too much.
We get it. The author probably wrote it chapter by chapter over the course of several years and was probably inspired by multiple different experiences. We also get that it's not meant to be read in one sitting and that it provides a great value to the reader since they get to read what's essentially 3-5 books for the price of one book. However, the fact remains... could this not have been cut down to like 400 pages with a clear beginning, middle, and end? Did there need to be like a dozen misunderstandings, side-quests, and sub-plots?
Yes, we also get that each of the other partners is a foil for the main characters. That's literature. But, could the author have decided on maybe one, two, or maybe three side partners? Eddie, Katie, and Caleb were enough. They taught the characters what they needed to know about what they wanted and didn't want in a partner. Everyone else seems to be superfluous. Ok, the conscientious hooker who wouldn't kiss anyone “with tongue” was funny, but the point remains.
Overall, this is a solid book with some very commendable things, mostly interesting lead characters and an exotic style.
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Score: 93/100 (9.3 out of 10)
There are books that are practical and there are books that are entertaining, then there are books like The Irrelevant Old Brand that manage to be both.
The Irrelevant Old Brand by Jim Huebner is a fictionalized account of a tired, old business that seems to be in the twilight of its lifespan, failing to keep up with trends and growing competition.
This is, ironically, a very relevant book as we've seen many businesses bow out during the course of the pandemic. Even former powerhouses like K Mart, Sears, Toys R Us, and Blockbuster saw a steep decline after the turn of the century, largely due to the growing popularity of online shopping and streaming services. The fact of the matter is, you either stay relevant and adapt or you go the way of the dodo (extinct).
That's one of the major points of the book and the meaning behind its title.
However, the book is about more than that. It's about learning good business, maximizing strengths and limiting weaknesses in a work environment.
This book is most like The Goal by the great Eliyahu Goldratt, both in that it's a lesson about business taught via a fictitious story and in its overall story. The book follows a disgruntled, old business owner named Bob as he seeks the aid of a business consultant named Peter, the book's protagonist. Through a series of interviews with the workers in the business, Peter is able to not only figure out what's going wrong with it, but also learns a few things himself (along with the audience).
The audience will learn about the three P's of marketing: placement (distribution), product (in relation to quality), and price (in relation to value). You also learn about the pillars of a relevant brand, seen in the acronym GIVE: grateful and generous, inspired difference, value exceeds price, and endless quest. The one that stood out to us the most was the first one: G- grateful and generous. Customers and clients remember the businesses that took care of them and were good to them, even if it means paying a little more.
This book is incredibly concerned with one key thing: value and the consumer satisfaction it brings. Peter continually emphasizes that people will pay more for a product that is well-built, safe, ships fast, and fresh as opposed to one that lacks heart and soul yet is cheaper.
And that's not to say that this book is simply one big business lecture. It actually has human elements as well. For example, Bob's good reputation in the small town is very evident in the way he is looked at and is treated. His name is even listed as a sponsor for the local baseball team and he's a beloved patron of the local restaurant. There are some grittier, human moments as well like when Mary laughs about something exploding in the microwave or when there's a sudden, unexpected tragedy that shakes the workers to their core. There are also subtle things like descriptions of the way the BBQ smell sticks to you that make this story seem real.
There are some small things that hold it back. Perhaps the most annoying thing about the book is that it lack indentations for new paragraphs and pieces of dialogue. It can be an eyesore at times, but it's not too bad.
All in all, if you enjoyed The Goal by Elijah Goldratt, you will definitely enjoy and learn a lot from this book.
Check it out on Amazon!