Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Review: Spirit Storm by E.J. Stevens

Rating: 4.5 out of 5


It looks like my newfound love of paranormal romance will continue, and I can pretty much blame it on one of my new favorite authors, E.J. Stevens.


A couple months ago, when I read She Smells the Dead, the first book in her series, I wrote that the innocent and almost ideal aspects of the relationships between the characters appealed to me the most. It reminded me of my own youth – actually, reminded me how lacking in sincerity my own youth was – and left me grinning by the end.


Well, with Spirit Storm, Stevens has raised the bar…in that category and just about everywhere else.


We start out where SStD leaves off. Yuki, our heroine who receives “smell impressions” from the dead, is busy preparing herself, in both mind and body, for Samhain (aka Halloween), when spirits enter the world in overwhelming numbers and could potentially drive her crazy, or worse. She is assisted by her werewolf boyfriend Cal, Simon, Cal’s werewolf mentor, and Emma, Yuki’s best friend/vegan/animal rights activist/all around spitfire.


It would be all well and good if all this group had to do was prepare for the horrors of that night. But no, fate intercedes with a tragedy: a member of Cal’s pack has been murdered by a werewolf-hater and the ghost of the dead man now haunts Yuki, urging her to help put his soul to rest. And then another werewolf is kidnapped, potentially by the same person. The small group of four is put on the case, future obstacles be damned. Can’t a girl get a break? It’s not like she doesn’t have enough to deal with.


Add to this to the stresses between Emma and Simon (they really don’t get along, though the text makes you wonder if there might be a hidden attraction that slips between the cracks during their fights) along with the pressure Cal is under now that it’s been revealed to his hidden society that he is the alpha male, and therefore leader of the pack by birthright, and we have a recipe for potentially overwhelming these poor, loveable young people.


Luckily, they’re up for the challenge.


The plot of this book is really quite simple and straightforward. As with SStD, the dialogue is impeccable and the story flows as smooth as any you’ve ever read. There are no dull moments, and even the dream sequences, which in the first book seemed to come from left field a couple times (which is appropriate, actually, seeing as that book served as an introduction, and those dreams ways to extrapolate on the functionality of the mythology presented), serve to heighten the tension this time around. The characters are idealized versions of teenagers yet completely believable, especially if you allow the language to take you on the magical ride it has to offer. Also, the author has curtailed her penchant for inserting Yuki’s thoughts into the story. Instead of being redundant this time around, they’re funny and poignant, which is a great improvement.


Perhaps what Spirit Storm does best, however, is something more mundane, more easily overlooked, especially when dealing with teenage romance. Stevens drives home the point that Yuki and Cal are soulmates throughout the story, and yet there are subtler tones there as well that bode well for future conflict. The author, while at times idealizing their behavior, doesn’t allow that to make them caricatures of young love. Instead, she inserts a rather brilliant thread involving the dangers of being too close, too young. In this way, she’s telling us that although these two wonderful creatures belong together, things don’t always end up the way we think they should. She’s careful to let her audience know that these are still children, that there will be other choices, other paths, other dangers, presented to them as time goes on. The risk comes from obsession, from thinking a situation to be too good to be true. She warns against holding on to this love, even if it might hurt to let go, because in life, when things go bad, the hurt and pain will do nothing but drag you into a deeper well of despair, the full cost of which may actually be a loss of self or identity.


As I said, this point isn’t preached about, but it’s there. And this line of reasoning is pressed up against the more surface themes of the work – responsibility, morality, and loyalty. This is illustrated wonderfully when the characters finally come face-to-face with the werewolf killer, himself. I won’t get into the particulars, but it was quite refreshing to see that a simplistic tale such as this, which often can veer into absolute shades of black and white, took the opportunity to splash massive amounts of gray on the landscape. What makes us who we are, the story asks. And who is to blame when we discover that those we’ve judged have reasons beyond our capacity to understand for acting and thinking the way they do, that their lives, and their actions, are the result of a cacophony of unfortunate life experiences? The book offers no answers to this question, only begs for forgiveness, for patience, for perspective. In this regard, I’ll even go out on a limb and say that this book may not only be an outlet for entertainment, but a teaching tool for the young, as well. It has something to say, after all, and it states its message with class and respect.


Now I have to be honest here and say that I was this close to giving Spirit Storm only the third perfect score


I’ve ever handed out. By the time I reached the last page, however, I discovered that I couldn’t. For as wonderful as the first ninety percent of the book is, I found the last bit a little…unsatisfactory. Again, I won’t go into detail, but there is a huge buildup to a climax that never seemed to come. I’ll leave this open to interpretation by the rest of you readers out there, because I’m only one man and perhaps I’m saddled with a need for action and resolution. Perhaps others will see the ending differently, perhaps they’ll find it perfect for the story it has to tell. But for this reviewer, it was slightly disappointing.


However, with that being said, the points I dock for this are minimal. The rest of the book is fabulous. More than anything, it is beautiful in both style and substance. It’s a quick read, and I continued to fall in love with the characters and root for them to succeed, both at the tasks at hand and at love, as the layers that make them who they are get pulled back. The romance between Yuki and Cal is refreshingly innocent yet needy, and it’s interesting to think about whether they’ll be able to grow as people or if they’ll find their only distinguishing characteristics are each other. This is a story of perseverance and devotion, both to loved ones and community, and still makes sure to let you know that there are pressures, both internal and external, that wish to rip apart everything they’ve built.


What else can I say? I adored this book, ending be damned. It deserves to be up there in the pantheon of new PR releases, right alongside Amanda Hocking, another of my favorites in the genre. I know I will be passing both Spirit Storm and She Smells the Dead down to my daughter, and I will feel confident in doing so; confident that the messages she receives from the words Stevens has put down on paper will enlighten, amuse, and most important of all, make her think.


That’s really all you can ask for.


Plot - 10

Characters - 10

Voice - 9

Execution - 7

Personal Enjoyment – 9

Overall – 45/50 (4.5/5)


Buy Spirit Storm in the following formats:

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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Review: The Gods of Dream by Daniel Arenson

Rating: 4.8 out of 5


All my life I’ve held the opinion that fairy tales come to us from the darkest depths of imagination. They are stories of suffering and grief wrapped up in a bundle of cutesy imagery, mythical beasts, and social disorder. They come as warnings: Little Red Riding Hood and Hansel and Gretel against the allure and dangers of child predators, Jack and the Bean Stock against the perils of experimentation and exploration without first understanding the consequences…and these are only a few examples. They are at their core disturbing, grim tales, meant to pass along a necessary social message.


This is what The Gods of Dream, written by Daniel Arenson, accomplishes. In spades.


The Gods of Dream is the tale of Cade and Tasha, twins from a never-disclosed, war-torn country, whose parents were killed during a bombing at a local market. They are forced to leave their home and travel to a new country, where they are alone, afraid, and despondent. Tasha hates life and has tried multiple times to end it. Cade does his best to support and coddle her, his own war-ravaged hands constant reminders of the past they left behind. He does everything he can to give his beloved twin a reason to live.


Well, they have one. For reasons never fully explained (and thankfully so), Cade and Tasha have been granted access to Eloria, the true land of Dream. In this reality they are Talon and Sunflower, children of the illusory wilderness, unscarred (both physically and emotionally) by their guilt, sorrow, and the horrors of their past. When in Dream they cavort like the free youths they should have been, before the real world cruelly tore all that away from them.


This carefree existence is not to last long, however, for it seems that Phobetor, the ruler of Nightmare, obviously the counterpoint to Dream, has set his sights on conquering the sleeping paradise. Cade is recruited into the fight, told he must defeat the evil prince, and heads out on a long, long quest. Tasha, for some reason left out of the original plan (actually there is a reason, though it’s never spoken, and that reason is sublime and necessary), sneaks in and joins her beloved brother on his journey, disguised as a mouse.


Along the way Cade and Tasha meet all sorts of strange and wonderful creatures. They are the gods of Dream, and they’re fantastic creations with roots firmly planted in Native American (or any other naturalistic culture’s) lore. Each resides in (and is master of) a certain location and aspect of Dream. These gods have lived for thousands of years, and they take it upon themselves to assist Cade and Tasha in whatever way they can.


The twins journey for weeks (possibly months) through the landscape of Dream and enter Nightmare. I could go on and on describing every step of their journey, but I won’t. This review would be ten pages long if I did that. Just believe that there are a great many plot points in the book that are worth mentioning, but what interests me more than anything are themes, and that’s what I’m here to discuss right now.


One of the first things I noticed when the chapters started shifting between events happening in Dream and Nightmare, respectively, was the paradigm of these realms. Just as Dream’s gods are constructs of the “real world” – elks, cats, lions, hippos, pandas, etc – so is the landscape. It is filled with earthly trees, grass, rivers, and gardens of flowers. There is a day and night. There are oceans and beluga whales. There is also a natural order to the land, represented in pockets that depict the seasons of Earth. The lands of Nightmare, on the other hand, are cracked and burnt in some places; in others, the ground is covered with what could be skin. The trees there are likewise fleshy, covered with eyeballs. The creatures that inhabit it are gruesome, beasts of fangs, spikes, hooks, fur, and bodies that don’t seem to follow a natural order (aka shark head on a wolf’s body, etc). These unsavory citizens carry themselves with utter hatred and intend to harm, and every emotion is taken to the extreme. To break it down, Dream is the land of balance and healthy imagination; Nightmare of radicalism and brooding darkness. Sure, at first glance one might say, “But doesn’t the existence of Nightmare balance out Dream?” And the answer to that would be no. Some of Nightmare’s inhabitants were born in Dream, and they were born the way they are – wicked, cursed, unsavory – and at least one was told he did not have to leave despite this. That, in and of itself, demonstrates that the world of Dream is evenhanded. Because of this, Nightmare is actually a weight that tips the scales toward darkness.


(Not to mention that Dream exists seemingly of its own accord, while Nightmare needs a motor. It’s powered by a subway system that runs beneath its soil. I won’t explain what this subway system is or how it operates, because I wouldn’t want to give that away, but trust me when I say it’s one of the most inspired and original ideas I’ve ever set my eyes upon.)


The creative inventions of the world aside, the emotional threads are spectacularly done as well, in fact more so. Cade and Tasha really feel like damaged souls. They’re full of doubt and guilt. Tasha is nearly pathetic in her unhappiness, and you pity Cade for how hard he tries, even while he’s doubting his every action. In every way it makes sense that these two were the ones chosen to save Dream, because they needed to be saved just as much. They needed to rediscover beauty even in the face of ugliness and evil. And I think that might be the main point: that there is splendor all around you, that if only you’d take the time to actually deal with the hardships that come upon you, you’d bust out on the other side realizing all you’ve had and all you could have. Tasha, herself, embodies this. She is small in soul and scope at the start of the novel. In this way, it’s no wonder that she chooses to be a mouse when she crosses into Dream. For she is afraid of everything, her fear and sorrow have made her as insignificant as a creature that makes its home in shredded bits of discarded paper. In this case, that discarded paper is her life, both former and present.


All of this is sad yet beautiful to read, and I have to admit that on more than one occasion I found myself getting teary – especially at the beginning and end of the book. The middle is where the action is, and it is wonderful, but let me tell you…the emotions that run through these opening and closing segments are just about perfect. We see Tasha staring at her bandaged, scarred wrists, and we sob for her, when it would be very easy, if the work wasn’t crafted as well as it is, to say, “Just get it over with, already.” The writing helps in this regard, with flowing sentences and vivid description. Really, I can’t say enough good things about it.


So why, one might ask, did it not receive a perfect score? (Yeah, I have to be a little bit critical.) Two reasons. First of all, author Arenson has a habit of repeating things, important points that need to be remembered (such as the reminders that Cade and Tasha have to save Dream…or else.) Now, I get that, but I thought it was done just a tad too much. I understand that this is the author’s style, however, and it really doesn’t distract from the story. The second is the character of Phobetor, the ruler of Nightmare. His repartee his demon wife is eerily similar to the interplay between a pair of characters in another one of Arenson’s books. Now, I almost didn’t mention this, but I felt the need to, if only to assure readers who’ve read the author’s other works that these sections are short and few. In fact, there are only two scenes that actually have both characters in them. However, they’re both towards the beginning of the book, and I want to tell any who might notice that the characters are, in fact, quite different, as the meat of the tale bears out and their interactions cease. I wouldn’t want anyone to put the book down because of something minor such as this.


On a whole, The Gods of Dream is a very impressive, nearly impeccable work of art. It’s The Neverending Story meets The Dark Crystal meets The Odyssey. It surges in parts, lingers in others, and always leaves the reader with the impression that they’re taking in something important. It teaches a lesson about pain and what it takes to withstand it. It shows how important life is, how important love is, how important family is, be them blood or otherwise. It takes you on its journey of imagination and leaves you both panting and sighing at the fantastically bittersweet, yet hopeful, ending.


In other words, it’s magnificent. And I have a sneaking suspicion The Gods of Dream is going to end up being one of the best books I read in 2011. It gets the highest recommendation from me that a single book could possibly ever get.


Plot - 10

Characters - 9

Voice - 10

Execution - 9

Personal Enjoyment – 10


Overall – 48/50 (4.8/5)


Purchase The Gods of Dream in ebook format for the:





Wednesday, February 9, 2011

JOA Book of the Day

JENNY POX
by J.L. Bryan




-------------------------------------------------------------


Jenny has a secret. Her touch spreads a deadly supernatural plague. And she can't turn it off.
She devotes her life to avoiding contact with people, until her senior year of high school, when she meets the one boy she can touch, and falls in love.

But there's a problem--he's under the spell of his devious girlfriend Ashleigh, who secretly wields the most dangerous power of all.

Now Jenny must learn to use the "Jenny pox" she's fought to suppress, or be destroyed by Ashleigh's ruthless plans.

***

The sequel to Jenny Pox will be available by summer 2011.

Winner of a Red Adept Indie Award: #1 in Horror for 2010.

Selected by Geeks of Doom for Top 10 Urban Fantasy and Horror Books of 2010

If you enjoy Jenny Pox, you might enjoy books by Stacey Wallace Benefiel and Amanda Hocking.

Purchase Jenny Pox in ebook format at Amazon or Barnes and Noble

REVIEW SNIPPETS


This is one of the best novels of the year I’ve read so far, and I absolutely enjoyed every minute of it. The ending has a satisfying resolution, and I think that Bryan is one of the most talented writers I’ve had the privilege to read. - Hellnotes.com

This book has it all: teenage angst, sex, drugs, hiding an evil agenda disguised as a religious quest, evil cheerleaders. - Bewitched Bookworms

This story is intensely emotional, brilliantly told, and absolutely worth reading. - Supernatural Snark

NOTE FROM THE JOURNAL

This is a book that's been on my "wish I could read if I had the time (or if the author submitted to me)" list for a long time now. I'm a sucker for horror and Buffy-esque stories, and everything I've heard about this book is that it's very close to emotionally perfect. Friends whose opinions I trust have told me it's one of the best, if not the best, book of the recently departed 2010. So to say that I'll eventually be getting around to reading it would be a severe understatement. It should be on your list, too.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Review: The Stasis: Powerless Book 3 by Jason Letts


Rating: 4.6 out of 5


Growing up. It’s hard. It sucks. Our heroes are revealed to be mortal and flawed, our presumptions about the world are constantly proven untrue, and the evils that surround us, which we’ve been gleefully na├»ve of in our younger days, slowly trickle into our consciousness, threatening to crush our spirit. Often, when I look back on this myself, I wonder how I was able to keep a positive outlook on life. But the thing is, that positive outlook was learned. It came from realizing that I didn’t really want to dwell on the bad, that I wanted to appreciate what I had, the people who loved me, while they’re still here.


That, in a nutshell, describes the atmosphere of The Stasis, the third of the Powerless series by Jason Letts.


As with book two, the story picks up where the previous volume left off, with Mira, the powerless girl in a world where everyone else has superpowers, leading her fellow students from Dustfalls Academy into the war after her failure to win the Rite at Shadow Mountain.


In book two, Mira learns her rather sordid history (which I will not disclose here for fear of a major spoiler for those who haven’t read it), and in The Stasis her emotional deconstructions is complete. Whereas she was once full of wonder and innocence, she now carries herself with a coldly logical hardness that is difficult to see from a character that’d once been so glowing. But it makes sense; her definition of self has been stripped away, leaving behind a skeleton of her former life that she’s ill equipped to reconstruct. So she does what people do when they’ve been abandoned by hope – she latches onto an ideal (to free her sister from the clutches of the army her people are fighting against) and pushes tirelessly and fearlessly for that goal, all else be damned.


Along the way she alienates her friends, becomes involved in a great many battles, and gets wounded (physically as well as emotionally). From there, the meat of the story deals with Mira trying to rediscover the love and purity she’s lost.


This is a very dark book, especially for something in the young adult genre. Quite a few characters are killed off (thousands, actually, if you count all the soldiers fighting in the war), and those that do survive are stricken with such difficult circumstances that their guilt threatens to overcome them. You have to remember that these are sixteen-year-old kids the author has written about here, and they’ve been asked to risk their lives for what amounts to opposing principles they haven’t the maturity to grasp. The senior officers of the army treat them like fodder and are willing to sacrifice them at a moment’s notice to simply prove a point, which brings to mind some very real circumstances that have occurred in our own military during the last ten years or so.


And yet these kids do fight, they do push themselves to the limit, and that aspect of the storyline owes itself to simple survival. When the chips are down and you don’t understand what everyone’s fighting for in the first place, it’s your own life and the lives or your friends that end up mattering more than anything. I couldn’t help but think of World War II and the stories my grandfather has told me of the young people in his platoon stepping up when their superiors went down and all seemed lost. Like the characters in The Stasis, my grandfather fought to keep his friends alive. In that way, this book acts as homage to the stories of these wars past and the grand sacrifices much-too-young individuals had to make during battle, when death surrounded and threatened to swallow them whether or not they stayed on their toes.


Speaking of battle scenes, The Stasis has a few of them, and they’re all pretty grand in scale. They’re confusing to read, what with so many different people having so many different powers that affect their surroundings in so many different ways. This could be looked at as a drawback, but I ended up appreciating the execution. When I found myself being confounded by what was going on, I put myself in the characters’ shoes; if it was difficult for me, the reader, to follow, how must it be for those involved? Reading them actually made me tense, which in books usually only happens during overly emotional scenes.


With all of this violence and the overarching spiral into different facets of the social unrest that started this war, it would’ve been easy for poignant characterization to fall by the wayside. However, the opposite happens. Even with the confusing mess of fighting, the characters actually come more alive, gain more depth, prove more of their usefulness as metaphorical vehicles. Each individual grows and demonstrates just how pure of heart and mind they are, even those that make irrevocably bad decisions. I applaud Letts for this, because he definitely didn’t take the easy way out.


I had very few problems with this book. At times I found the dialogue stilted and robotic, and still the head-hopping persists, but I’ve come to simply accept these as a part of the series’ voice. I’ll no longer dock points for it, considering that if you’re here reading this review it most likely means you’ve already read the first two books. It’s still a wonderful and emotional read, one that I’m growing to appreciate more and more with each installment.


Before I end this review, there’s one last thing I want to mention. With all the death, destruction, and ominous foreboding in this book, there is one particular scene towards the end that jumps out. Letts does something I didn’t expect – he takes these characters that he’s lead through the ringer and allows them to once more rediscover their youthful innocence, if only for a fleeting few moments. I was taken aback and made to feel rather morose. Again I thought of my grandfather, eighteen years old and trapped behind enemy lines. Did he take the time to engage in a games and laughter in the down times, those moments when the fear of imminent death took a much-needed breather? If so, did it help steel him against what was surely to come next? It seems like such a depressing state to find oneself in, and yet I couldn’t shake how real it felt. If nothing else, Letts has a handle on the emotive core of human nature.


The Stasis is a powerful work. It dares to question everything from what constitutes family and the nature of morality. It brings you into the depths of despair and then pulls you out, only to shove you back in once more. It’s a fantastic book, for all ages, and one that I’m not shy at all about giving a heartfelt recommendation to. The best of the series so far, which says a lot. By the end, you’ll think of one line Mira states at the beginning of the novel – The only inevitable truth is death – and hope that the characters will come to realize that despite the nugget of truth of that statement, there are many inevitable truths.


Death is only one of them.


Plot - 9

Characters - 9

Voice - 9

Execution - 9

Personal Enjoyment – 10

Overall – 46/50 (4.6/5)


Available in ebook format for the: