A Golden Fury by Samantha Cohoe

A Golden Fury is a gothict alternate universe novel that provides plenty of twists and turns as our 17 year old heroine attempts to create the impossible: the philosopher’s stone. The tone is heavy to the point where most of the read is dreary. Characters spend most of the book fighting with or distrusting each other, everyone betrays someone else at some point in the book, and it’s hard to like a heroine whose sole composition is bitter, angry, and a poor decision maker.

Story: In a France very much like the 1790s, the country teeters on revolution and alchemists are considered fantasists at best, swindlers at worst. Thea’s beautiful mother is brilliant and has used her alchemical skills to create armor for the King of France. But she is obsessed with making the philosopher’s stone and goes through patrons like water. She has carefully molded Thea to be the perfect assistant to that end, focusing all her parenting in developing a daughter with all the tools to find the secret formula and make the philosopher’s stone. But what mother and daughter did not predict is the curse preventing it from being made: a madness so terrible it imprisons the mind in a hellish world of torment. Thea will have to survive on her own strengths and merits in order to survive her mother’s madness and the frenzy of others also trying to get their hands on her mother’s secrets.

I had a hard time getting into the plot or really liking the main character. She spends most of the book being assaulted, arguing, or doing fairly foolish actions out of pride. The romance felt tacked on and unbelievable and there isn’t really a single redeeming character in the book. There’s no one you really want to root for, even though several characters do go through a bit of a very unbelievable redemption arc (the transformations happen too quickly and without any apparent reason or trigger). I also felt that had Thea tried to at least be pleasant and less stubborn or prideful, things would have gone very differently.

Thea herself spends a chunk of the book fighting with her mother or others, being physically assaulted (choked, head butted against a wall, etc.), or being manipulated. As a character, she feels immature, overblown, and subject to rash decisions. I felt the book really needed to offset the dreariness and ugliness with characters who provided contrasting positive personalities. But the author was more interested in torturing (mentally and physically) every character in some way or other. I do appreciate nuance in characters but all I saw here were people driven by greed and selfishness.

The plot of the philosopher’s stone was honestly rather unbelievable. The author has a nice spin on what it is at the end but I found it hard to believe that it was so impossible to create and yet Thea does it easily with just a few notes. Same with her mother. Only one stone was ever going to be made and it would be made by ‘the last alchemist.’ Notes on how to make it were scattered across various languages/cultures, each having the formula to creating a key ingredient. I didn’t believe in the veracity of the item or why it hadn’t been created already. The author brought in a deus ex machina that it chooses the alchemist it wants – but I have to admit I felt the mother would have been a much better candidate than Thea.

So while it was a dreary read that was a bit too heavy on the gothic, it did have some twists and turns that made it readable. I admit I didn’t like any of the characters and didn’t really care who won in the end as a result. And I wish there were at least some good people in there. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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To Sleep in a Sea of Stars by Christopher Paolini

To Sleep In A Sea of Stars is a rollicking science fiction adventure that reads in a very cinematic way. The action is continuous, the characters are lovable, and the story never gets too speculative. But at the same time, the story isn’t original and feels derivative of so many sci fi movies/stories, the plot uses many elements wholesale from the Eragon series, and the plot holes can be frustratingly numerous. At 800 or so pages (32 hours audio book), it doesn’t feel that long yet I still get the impression that someone should have let a good editor guide the author a bit more. I listened to the audio version and it was done superbly by Jennifer Hale – top notch work on her part as narrator.

Story: Kira is a xeno-biologist working with her corporate crew to determine if a remote planet is suitable/safe for terraforming. When a remote beacon suddenly goes offline, corporate policy requires someone to go out and make sure there isn’t a hidden danger. What Kira finds there will change the course of humanity.

The above story description is purposely vague – likely you will get the idea from the blurb of the book that this is a first contact story. The author takes you from start to finish of a first contact scnario in one book: from first contact to war to resolution. It’s a lot to ask in that short of a time and I can’t say that the author fully achieves a credible story as a result. But Paolini has always written in an affable manner that makes the read very enjoyable as long as you don’t think too closely about what’s going on (e.g., why are alien species always so human like in intelligence level and development but just look differently?).

There are many references to sci fi movies that can be fun or annoying depending on if you perceive them as homages or annoying rip offs. E.g., right from the beginning, you can spot the James Cameron Alien and Aliens movie in key scenes. There are many other references/easter eggs that the sci fi fan can enjoy discovering; certainly, the book reads as a love letter to science fiction movies.

Those who have read the author’s Eragon series will recognize many similarities in plot (perhaps minor spoilers are here for this book). E.g., a character learning to understand and then merge with a powerful foreign creature (e.g., into a half dragon in the second Eragon book); the fear and musings about losing self and humanity after a merger, the process of learning to control/master this new merger, then becoming something god-like. He’s also the first of his kind to do so and therein lies a lot of the plot of both books – discovery. And in bonding he not only creates a powerful being but he coincidentally provides the means for a super-villain to be created. The villain will be heartless and cruel and boo-worthy. Let’s not forget the addition of a strange human who seems to know much more of the big picture but only talks in riddles that sound sage but are mostly babble (and with a cat, too!). That last character likely was an Easter Egg for the Eragon books.

As noted above, I do wish a good editor had gone through the book. It feels very indulgent with a lot of passages that honestly just weren’t need to further the plot/were there to introduce a small payoff later. E.g., do you want to go through one hundred pages of side-story action and events just so that one character can appear later for a few scenes? Granted, I do agree that there was no need to separate this into two books – this is a very accessible tale that is easy to read and goes by surprisingly quickly.

Finally, I was given the audio version and even at 32 hours, it went quickly. Much of that can be credited to a smart and imaginative narration by Jennifer Hale (best known as Commander Shepard in the Mass Effect game). You will fall in love with the characters as read by her – even the aliens sounded interesting (though still like generic humans, unfortunately). I had to really respect and appreciate the personalities she gave characters like the ship mind and alien jelly. I can’t say I loved the New England accent on one character but you could really get a feel for the characters being very distinct.

In all, I did enjoy the book. But I also had to turn my brain off when characters acted in contradictory ways or when they had to be hit over the head with the obvious. Sometimes scenes or reactions just didn’t make sense in a bigger picture sense and it is in those aspects that I wish an editor had been able to work more closely with the author. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Hot British Boyfriend by Kristy Boyce

The title ‘Hot British Boyfriend’ is your best indicator of what you will find here: girl obsessed with boys, harmless romances, somewhat simplified relationships and friendships, and some travel thrown in. No, it’s not inventive and certainly not very deep. So yes, it’s a Twinkie – sweet but not very satisfying. Something you can read and then promptly forget afterwards. But there is an appeal in that as well.

Story: Ellie becomes the butt of jokes in her school when she falls for the hot guy and thinks he likes her back – but turns out he’s after her shallow bestie and was using her for access. Devastated, she decides to fly to Europe and attend a Summer course there at a prestigious prep academy – and hopes to find a hot British boyfriend to take her mind off the situation at home. Things get complicated when she does just that – but is Will the key to making her happy or is it her unassuming schoolmate Dev – the guy with all the answers and a critical eye on her relationship with Will.

On the surface, this is about Ellie coming to realize she doesn’t have to lie/reinvent herself for each guy she gets a crush on and that she is special in and of herself. As well, it’s about recognizing the importance of school and finding her career path in life. It’s all wrapped up in a nice little package, including a boy that dotes on her and thinks only of her happiness, natch.

Under the hood, you’ll find a melange of Jane Austen references and influences. From the mistaken impressions in Pride and Prejudice (Dev and Ellie), the confused rich boy tied to his relatives’ purse strings in Will (Willoughby) from Sense and Sensibility, to the misconceived matchmaking of Emma. Even the names are purposely close (Willoughby) or similar (Ellie for Elizabeth, Emma, Elinore. Elliot). Unfortunately, that’s where the references end since this book lacks the intelligent and witty writing of Jane Austen and instead dumbs it down to be relatable to a modern audience.

I did admittedly have a hard time getting into Ellie’s character. She spends most of the book confused or willfully misconstruing what people say. When not doing that, she’s obsessing over boys and spends nearly the whole book thinking about what to do with this boy or how to deal with that boy. There’s some travel and studying in between. If Will’s obsession with Ellie is not only abrupt but puzzling well, don’t think to hard on it and just go with the flow.

In all, it’s light and fluffy and is an easy read. When you’re looking for a quick and sweet snack, Hot British Boyfriend fits the bill. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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The World of Cyberpunk 2077

The World of Cyberpunk 2077 is an interesting mixture of an art book, primer for the game, and background information package. While reading it I felt a bit like reading the original rulebook for the roleplaying game that is the inspiration for the computer game. At other times, I was reminded of the type of content you might get with a Collectors Edition of the game as a bonus.

First, the good parts. The layout is excellent and there is a (admittedly thin) story that carries through the book which makes reading through it feel less of a textbook. The art is great though it is completely composed of concept work for the game. If you were hoping to get glimpses into the visuals of the game, it’s not here. In fact, there is nothing here to tell you that this is a computer game – everything is presented from the POV of a resident of the fictional universe.

The book is laid out in roughly four main sections: History, Technology, Night City itself and the people of Night City. Of these, I enjoyed the history section the most, though it is perhaps a bit too detailed and wordy for anyone except the most ardent fans. The technology part is mostly a list of cybergear and weapons – interesting as a reference but not really something I wanted to read through. The section on Night City itself is fascinating but a bit much to read through. The people section describes the world the best but there are no real surprises if you’ve ever read a cyberpunk book or watched a related movie.

The ‘vibe’ of the book is very nice. It has a strong 80’s decadence through and through and if you’re old enough (like me) can be an interesting flashback into teenage years. In particular, I love the various ads thrown everywhere for fictional products and services – those give more of an idea of the world of Cyberpunk 2077 than the text itself. In places it does feel like they’ve stayed too true to the source material – how the future was seen in the 80’s is quite different than what we see it today. There are some places that could have used an update to avoid feeling dated while still staying true to the original vision.

While reading through it now, some time before the launch of the game, I got a weird feeling of studying for an exam on the subject. I found myself memorizing some locations and making mental notes of individuals that were name dropped in some sections with the anticipation that it will help me once I start playing the game. At this point I also realized that I’d probably be happier reading this (again) once I actually have the game as a lot of the information given here will be much easier to absorb once they are in their proper context.

Overall, this is a great book if you are a super fan of the original game (or the game company). It’s also a great reference book to use as cool background information once playing the game itself.

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The Legend of Korra: Ruins of Empire by Michael Dante DiMartino, Michelle Wong, Killian Ng

This edition of Ruins of the Empire collects the previously released books one thru three into one large volume. While I was a huge Korra fan while the original show was airing, I had mostly missed the comics that came after. The re-releases as large volumes have been a wonderful way to catch up on them all.

In Ruins of the Empire, the story continues from where it left off at the end of the show and the focus is on the remnants of the Earth Empire, the king of Earth nation pushing toward democracy and Kuvira, the big bad from the last season, spoiling for revenge. The story itself is pretty good if a bit predictable: the remnant army of the Earth Empire employs Dai Li brainwashing (with a modern twist) on their soldiers, and uses it to ensure a win in the upcoming elections. Personally I very much liked the plan to push for a legitimate takeover via democratic means. Unfortunately it devolves rather quickly into brainwashed masses which felt a lot less realistic.

The character portrayals are all top notch and it’s always a pleasure to see Team Avatar and the extended group around them. Despite the various threads in the plot, the focus is on Kuvira and her redemption arch. I have mixed feelings about this one. I never felt she was a very believable villain so to see her change her ways isn’t a concern. However, rather like with Azula in “The Search”, the other characters forgive a bit too easily, though at least this time there is a reasonable amount of distrust.

The art is not quite as good as in the other Avatar universe comics. The style matches that of the series, but feels quicker and a bit haphazard at times. It’s not enough to be bothersome but definitely noticeable.

In summary, this is a solid extension of the Avatar world but not one of the best. That is not an indictment though; rather, more of a nod to how good some of the other available comics are ( e.g., “Turf Wars” is quite excellent and if you didn’t notice, there’s a live reading of it by the voice cast which is just as much fun as it sounds like). Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Avatar: The Art Of The Animated Series by Michael Dante DiMartino, Bryan Konietzko

Joining the plethora of new books and comics from the Avatar universe, this Art of the Animated Series book is a pleasure for long time fans. I am usually not all that fond of “Art of” books, feeling they mostly have a place as coffee table books. And one can only have so many of those. This title however feels more of a “History and Making of” book, with plenty of beautiful art thrown in.

The book is nicely laid out in (basically) three sections, one for each season of the show. This works excellent as a device for telling how the making of the show progresses through the years and we get quite a bit of depth into the character designs, well beyond just their appearance. I love that the flow also follows that of the order in which the episodes came out, and having just finished a rewatching of the show it allowed me to relive the moments again.

For the art itself, there’s perhaps a bit more of concept art than full color, full page images. Again, I like this as it gives more insight into how the show was created. But if you were just wanting to look at pretty pictures, there are less of them than usual in these types of books.

As a summary, if you loved the original series then this is a great read, and even if you watched the director’s commentaries on the DVD/Bluray set, you’ll still learn something new. The book is gorgeously laid out and I found myself smiling all the way through it. Special mention for the ‘Chibi’ page(s) in the Ancillary Art section – I want one of the crew T-shirts! Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Avatar: The Lost Adventures/Team Avatar Tales by Gene Luen Yang, Faith Erin Hicks, Gurihiru, Sara Goetter

This endearing collection of short stories from the world of Avatar is a wonderful addition to the (always excellent) releases of Avatar books of late. For fans of the show, this is like a comic version of ‘Tales from Ba Sing Se’. Each story stands on its own and while it adds interesting detail to the overall plot, it usually just provides nice back stories and character development.

In total, there are over 40 stories in the book from various authors and artists. As always with such a set, not all stories are equal. Luckily there are no really bad ones, but a few are fairly forgettable. Most are just plain fun, and a few are pure gold. Note than even in these there is no in-depth insight or great drama – this is a collection of comedies.

The art mostly follows that of the animated series, which I particularly like. There are few stories where the art is more ‘artsy’ but I am not a big fan of comic adaptations where the style differs greatly from the original.

Each story is fairly short as one can expect, and this works great if you only have a bit of time every now and then. You also do not need to remember the details of the original series to any length (though if you do, you’ll enjoy some stories a bit more), and probably will be fine even if you never saw all the episodes. As such, this works great for both long time and hardcore fans, as well as people wandering back into Avatar after a long while. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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The Promised Neverland 16 by Kaiu Shirai and Posuka Demizu

Wow that was one heck of a volume. So much hinted at in previous volumes comes to fruition in this action packed installment in The Promised Neverland series. All the characters have now assembled at the demon capitol, each with different motivations, plans, and viewpoints. Some come to kill, some to save, and others to help friends. But who will prevail?

Story: Emma has succeeded in making a deal that will free the humans! But now she has to stop Norman before he can slaughter the entire royal court of demons and thus ruin any chances of peace between humans and demons. Normal has a diabolical plan that involves pitting demon against demon and then taking down the survivors. But will it be enough or will the humans fail as well? As Mujika and Sonju make their way to the capitol, it is all set up for a grand showdown!

So many plot threads come together in this volume – Gilda and Don’s quest to save Mujika and Sonju, Norman’s quest to end the demons altogether with the help of the escapees of Lambda, and Emma and Ray’s journey to find a peaceful solution.

We’re given the usual double crosses, strategic one ups, tactical victories, and ultimate defeats. And as always, battles come about in stages that all seem to be planned to the T by the human geniuses. But there are moments of pathos in there as well as kids like Gilda deal with the betrayal of their own kind.

In all, grab this one – it’s a game changer! Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Ancient Egypt – A Visual Explorer Guide by Trevor Naylor

There have been so many books published on this subject that the first question most will ask is how this book is different. As well, who is it intended for/will enjoy it the most. Those questions are easily answered: This is a book of photographs that mostly explore the sights/architecture of ancient Egypt; it provides a nice survey course on the topic through the images and accompanying captions.

The book breaks down by the periods of ancient Egypt: from prehistory to the old and new kingdoms to the Greco-Roman period and a bit later. Nearly the whole book is a page with one or more photographs, each with a caption description several sentences long. This means the images are large, often two pages, and you have just enough information to inspire and not be overwhelmed.

I was surprised at the breadth of topics this covers. E.g., the author made a point to discuss nearly every pyramid, many I had not seen before in any book (including ones that were completely gone and just a bit of rubble on the ground. Pyamids, mastabas, temples, and tombs took up the majority of the book. But there were also other interesting places such as the remains of fortresses or buildings that were nearly gone and did not stand the test of time. A few items found in the architecture were also shown, each saying when they were discovered.

What I liked about the book is that it showcased a lot of things I had never seen or thought about – such as the cave paintings or roman forts. There are also images of foreign rulers such as Hittite kings. More obvious topics such as Tutankamum were covered but not given too many pages. But a big chunk of the book was images of the many types of pyramids, all in various states.

It’s a book I would love to go over before I actually traveled to Egypt. There were several places I had not heard of or read about (such as the roman fort or various monuments in Alexandria) that I would have wanted to make sure I could visit. The paragraphs that accompanied the images gave just enough information (almost always date and location) to answer the more immediate questions about that image’s topic. I was further intrigued by all there is in Egypt to see as a result (beyond Tut’s tomb, the great pyramid, and the Cairo museum).

In all, a lovely presentation with good photographs. The information is a survey type, meant to give meaning and a bit of info but of course leaving it open for you to further research what captures your interest. It’s a book I will definitely read before a trip to Egypt. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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World Trigger 21 by Daisuke Ashihara

The last rank war is about to begin and Tamakoma need only 4 points to secure second place and the away mission position. But their opponents are tough: Ikoma, Ninomiya, and Yuba are all looking to get points as well. It’s going to be a tough battle for Tamakoma – with everything riding on it.

Story: Mikumo knows he needs to get more info on especially Yuba squad since so little is known and he can’t strategize otherwise. A lucky coincidence, however, could mean that both Mikumo and Kuga get valuable fighting stats – but at the price that they have to give away some of their secrets, too! But as the fight commences, can the team pull out a win?

This volume covers several topics. First, information gathering about the unknown quantity: Yuba Squad. Second, most everyone considers Ninomiya himself to be the biggest threat on the field. Mikumo will have to come up with a plan that doesn’t just involve Hyuse bailing them out but counters Ninomiya’s power. Third, Chika was able to shoot people, though accidentally, last volume. She will have to do some soul searching this volume to determine if that has changed the way she approaches shooting people.

Half the volume is the prep for the battle and the other half is the first part of the battle. I still enjoy all the humor: such as Ikoma squad’s idea of strategizing is to talk about Ikoma dreaming about the wind the previous night. And Konami has some cute moments with Torimaru.

In all, more great World Trigger fun! Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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The Healthy Vegan Air Fryer Cookbook by Dana Angelo White

Although the book is beautifully presented and extremely easy to follow, I feel like the recipes themselves were lacking in taste and interest. There were a lot of ‘shortcuts’ to make the recipe seem easier (such as using frozen pizza dough for rosemary flatbread) and several ingredients looked to be somewhat rare or with niche uses (such as aquafaba or agave nectar).

The recipes break down as follows: breakfasts, mains, sides, snacks, salads, desserts. There is a section with basics on air frying and an index. The recipes are Vegan in nature so use a lot of substitutions that I probably would never use since I am getting away from meat but not wanting to go full vegan. Recipes include banana bread, black bean burritos, tofu kebabs, cashew stir fry, lentil empanadas, carrot fries, onion rings, mini eggplants with tahini sauce, blooming onion, spicy kale chips, kale caesar salad, peach parfaits, etc.

One problem I had with the cookbook is that there are a lot of ‘prepared’ items to be used in the recipes. E.g., black bean burger burritos call for an ingredient of 4 black bean burgers. Breakfast sandwiches call for 4 veggie sausage patties. Tater tot casserole calls for a bag of vegan frozen tater tots. “Chorizo” and chickpea lettuce cups call for soy chorizo, casing removed, Trader Joe’s recommended. Some will appreciate the shortcuts but for me, I wanted to make things with an air fryer that didn’t mean re purposing existing packaged and prepared foods (whose ingredients and quality I cannot control).

Another problem I had is that I didn’t like the recipes. A simple recipe to make bagels and had only 4 ingredients tasted like cardboard and came out brown on the outside and solid on the inside. They were completely inedible and looked nothing like the photograph despite only having a few steps! I can’t even imagine where I must have gone wrong, either. But other recipes, too, were lacking in good flavor for me.

That said, all the recipes are vegan and suitable for an air fryer (whether it would be more convenient or better to use one in certain instances is debatable though). The recipes are beautifully presented, most with full color photographs of the finished product. Each recipe lists calories, fryer temp, prep and cook times, serving size and serving amount. The steps are simple 1-2 sentence numbered steps and the ingredients are clearly listed separately. The recipes are 1 color, black, but the choices in presentation (using bold and italics) were very smartly done. It’s one of the easiest to read and use cookbooks that I have come across.

In the end, I was disappointed. I didn’t find any interesting recipes and the ones I tried came out disastrously. But at least the recipes were easy to follow and I had an idea of what they were supposed to look like. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Master of One by Jaida Jones, Danielle Bennett

Master of One is an interesting book simply because it defies a lot of expectations and really isn’t what you expect from the blurbs. It is definitely not a heist story, there are multiple POVs, it doesn’t follow the normal plot structure, and you don’t find a lot of the usual hoary YA cliches. At the same time, it can also be frustratingly simplistic, have too modern of a voice for a fantasy-set story, and can be inscrutable in the beginning. That said, if you stay with it through to about the middle, things start to get very interesting and the world building truly begins.

Story: Rags is a young man surviving on the streets through petty thefts. He dreams of a big job that will secure his future and is quick to take a job involving a reputed treasure. But it was a set up and now he finds himself forced to take on the formidable task of securing an ancient elven artifact that is protected by deadly traps. When he manages to survive, what he finds will change the course of his world and bring the elves back from the death they were relegated to by the current regime.

Right off from the beginning, it can feel very rushed and lacking enough worldbuilding to make you feel comfortable with the main character, Rags. Then, you follow him for 1/5 of the book before suddenly you start getting other character POVs. As the story progresses, you don’t get as much Rags as you do all the other people involved in the quest (not heist) to find the 6 pieces of an elven artifact that, when assembled, is supposed to be extremely powerful. The pieces all take the form of a mechanical animal that will have a mental bond with their ‘master’. The crux of the story is that they have waited a long time to ‘activate’ and to do so, they have to be found by the previous numbered animal. So Master and One will find Master and Two. Etc. The quest begins with what Rags finds and then we will get the POV of each master after that.

The villain of the piece is a bit of a ‘mustache twirling badguy’ and I found him least interesting. The story also involves our characters discovering a host of lies and cover ups about the ruling queen and why she has been able to maintain her throne over centuries, rather than just decades. At the same time, the elves (who had been vanquished by the Queen and disappeared) are going to make a comeback as secrets are uncovered.

There are some things I really liked about the novel. For one, the LGBQT aspects of it are seamlessly written in and don’t feel like they are there just to make a point. Also, there is no insta-luv and none of the character are overwritten or overidealized. If anything, a lot feels very underwritten. Each of the characters, however, feel distinct and add to the story in positive ways – bringing humor, pathos, or admirable qualities to offset the bad guys.

I did feel that the multiple POVs were not needed and would have liked the book to stay only with the Rags character. I also found the structure of the book difficult and especially the beginning was very hard to read through because of its narrow focus and lack of world explanation. It felt like we were dropped wholesale into the middle of the plot rather than a beginning. And then the way people spoke, especially the sarcastic Rags, was far too modern. Yes, this makes him more relatable to teens but to adults, it feels unauthentic and shallow.

In all, I thought I would dislike the book and had to stick with it to the middle and then really got into it. Once the plot (finally) begins to pick up steam midway, it barrels through in a great way with plenty of surprises and reveals. You just have to stick with it to get there. Also, as a side note, the title refers to both a minor side character and that each of our characters only master one animal. I can imagine the next book will be titled “master of all” once the objects are assembled into one item. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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All These Warriors by Amy Tintera

This sequel to All These Monsters is a fun read – just don’t ask too many questions because you won’t find the answers here. The series is a duology with this book finishing the story on a solid note. Although it felt like All These Warriors pretty much tread the same plot as the first book, there is enough action that you likely won’t care.

Story: Clara and crew leave the fallout in the UK frustrated: Julian appears to have got off scott-free and Maddie isn’t the leader that her brother embodied in the teams. Add a growing attraction to Edan and a gun-shy view on relationships and things are tough for Clara. But a relocation to the US forces Clara to face her family again – something even scarier than the Scabs to her. At the same time, will the team be able to uncover all of MDG’s secrets before it is too late?

The focus here is on a) the romance with Edan and b) Clara coming to terms with her family and life. What you won’t find is much more explanation of the scrabs or any world building. This book follows the plot format of its predecessor: Clara dealing with Julian and Clara killing monsters. So there is still plenty of action and most of the downtime is either Julian being a pest or romantic time with Edan.

I think those who enjoyed the first book will enjoy the second. It’s not rocket science and there’s not a lot of thinking that needs to be done about the plot. The ending won’t give you any better understanding of the Scrabs since the focus is mostly on Clara and her social life. So while an undemanding read, at the end it can feel very slight. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Lose Weight by Eating Easy Dinners by Audrey Johns

This had a nice selection of recipes but with a very strong emphasis on chicken meals (I had a hard time finding something for pork, for example). But then, chicken is pretty healthy so it isn’t surprising you’d find a lot of recipes in here for that one meat. The recipes are easy to use and there are a lot of photographs. The end of the book has some nice substitution suggestions for vegan/vegetarian or other dietary restrictions.

As noted in the title, the emphasis here is on dinner recipes. The book has a quick introduction on dinners, planning, pantry staples, and includes a grocery list format. The recipes are broken down by purpose or type: soups, salads, fast cooking/slow cooking, skinny fried, date night, kid favorites, one pot/dish/pan, once-a-week, proteins and side dishes, after dinner, then some interesting healthy marinades and rubs. A universal conversion chart rounds out the book chapters.

The recipe presentation is a bit messy but does use 3 colors (red, blue, black). The title is bold, there are serving size/prep time/cook time/ and per serving calories, fat, saturated fat, fiber, protein, carbs, and sugar breakdowns. There is a quick description/tips for the recipe (oddly in the middle instead of under the title), and then an ingredients list that is small and needs more spacing (too close together to make it easy to read). Steps are numbered and fairly short.

I liked that there were plenty of images to go with the recipes (though not an image for every recipe). The recipes were fairly easy to follow and I had good results with several items. I especially appreciated the healthy aspect.

In all, a good idea book for healthy dinners using a variety of tools (air fryer, instapot, etc) for interest and diversity in meals. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Pressure Cooker Cookbook for Weight Loss by Sukaina Bharwani

This is an easy to use and follow cookbook with plenty of recipes. The presentation is clean and the directions nicely laid out, making cooking with the instapot less of a chore. Although the book’s recipes come in 3 colors (red, blue, black) there are few pictures so you will have to use your imagination on how these dishes should look if done successfully.

The book has a very quick introduction about the healthy aspects of the recipes and the author’s perspective and experience. A second chapter goes into detail about pressure cookers and how best to use them. The recipes are broken down by the typical: Breakfast, Sides & Snacks, Sandwiches & Bowls, Chilis, Soups, Sauces, Meatless Mains, Poultry and Seafood, Beef, Lamb, Pork, Deserts and Drinks. There are measurement conversions in the back.

Each recipe has a large title, servings/preptime/saute time/ cooking time, release time, and total cooking time. There is usually a 1-2 sentence description of the item underneath. Ingredients are listed in large bold type and most recipes have suggestions for what you can add to create interest and diversity in the meals. Steps are numbered and in nicely short 1-2 sentences (there’s nothing worse than a ‘step’ that is 7 two paragraphs long). There are also break downs of the nutrition info (calories, fat, fiber, protein, sodium, sugar) and health boost suggestions.

The only let down on the book is that there are very few images. So although the recipes are in a large format and easy to read, it is a bit frustrating to guess how what you are making should actually look like or be presented. But other than this quibble, the recipes were tasty, easy to make, and healthy. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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The Fabulous Killjoys by Gerard Way, Shaun Simon, Becky Cloonan

Dystopian tales haven’t aged well and unfortunately this graphic novel is no exception. The concept of the book is that it is the ‘third’ video by the band My Chemical Romance and follows the story begun in two of the band’s music videos: Na Na Na and Sing (from the Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys album). Back around 2010, band lead singer and comic writer Gerard Way admits he was all noncomformity and no direction; meaning, he wanted to be anti-corporation but in the end, he was anti-himself. That lack of focus is evident here in a rambling story that never ends up being the Bladerunner it wants to be.

Story: The Killjoys are a band of rebels protecting a young girl for unknown reasons. They were fighting a huge corporation, Better Living Inc (BLI) while hiding out in the California desert. But they were killed in the past and the girl is now 16 and lost. A new band of rebels takes her under their wing but they appear to be more about flash and body counts rather than a cause. At the same time, in the City, a ‘porno android’ wants to save her girlfriend, another android whose battery is no longer chargeable/outdated and due to be scrapped. Also there is Korse: a mindwashed assassin working for BLI who begins to question his role in society when he falls in love with another man.

The story takes place 10 years after the events of the My Chemical Romance music video Sing. The original Killjoys were killed and the girl has been in hiding since. The book answers the question of why the Killjoys were protecting the girl as well as more information about dystopia Battery Ccity, bad guys the scarecrows and draculoids, villain Korse, and leader of the BLI corporation. It means there are a lot of tangents and you’ll probably be shaking your head feeling like you missed something if you start this without having watched the music videos first.

As others have noted, the two porno androids are easily the best characters in the book. Everyone else feels like they are over or under developed for what is, unfortunately, a rather loosely cobbled together story. Most of the storylines didn’t really go anywhere and the main point of the book is a rather lifeless and boring character in the girl. Even the girl’s mission/background/reason she was protected felt tacked on and an afterthought.

The art is very well done and makes the story flow a bit more smoothly than it really should. The style is reminiscent of a Gorillaz video with enough style to make up for the lack of coherent story.

There is a LOT said in this book and most of it says nothing. It lacks the focused narrative and more centralized heart (read: smaller cast) of e.g., The Umbrella Academy. And it felt like it was trying to say something well after the point was no longer relevant. So although a strange read, definitely not the most satisfying one. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Pie Academy by Ken Haedrich

Pie Academy is pretty much everything you would want in a book about the subject: discussions on pie plates, tools, techniques; a wide selection of recipes; and plenty of beautiful photographs of the finished product. The author combines old and new, traditional and experimental to provide a wide range of fail safe pie

The first part of the book is all about the making of a pie: pins, pans, blenders, flour, fats, fillings, and then a step-by-step tutorial on making the pie crust. The second section of the book covers the wide variety of pie crusts and fillings: doughs, berries, fruits, apple variations, fall classics like pumpkin and cranberry, pecan, custards, small pies like turnovers, chiffons, creams, brownie pies, rice pieces, and then toppings sauces and meringues.

I appreciate that we had a wide selection of pie presentations – different techniques to weave, blend, decorate, or otherwise present your pieces in a fancy way. The end of the book has a short trouble shooting section – really invaluable for understanding why your pie or pie crust went wrong and how to fix it. Nearly every recipe has a photograph.

A large section is devoted to pie crust – and getting that tricky part correct. From the consistency of the blended fat/butter to various ways to roll out the dough and get a smooth but not mushy crush. I know that when I started making crust, cookbooks never explained that the butter had to be cold and so I ended up with a lot of mushy and flat crusts as a result. I wish the author had gone into more detailed troubleshooting in this regard – getting the crust right is a challenge until you understand what you are doing. But this is the only nitpick in an an otherwise thorough and beautifully presented cookbook. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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The Prison Healer by Lynette Noni

This was a new one for me: I greatly enjoyed the book until the last four sentences. They revealed the plot of book two and I likely will not get the rest of the books in the series as a result (it is a planned trilogy). That said, I have to respect how the author tread a fine line between the horrors and grimness of prison while balancing it with some humanity and compassion. It could have been overwhelmingly depressing but you will definitely have something to hope for an root for by the end. There are some great twists and the plot is interesting and well developed.

Story: Kiva has been in the infamous multinational prison Zalindov for a decade. She is one of the few to survive that long, most inmates dying within a few months from the harsh conditions, terrible treatment, and backbreaking labor. She has survived by becoming the prison healer and using her meager supplies to bring comfort to injured or dying inmates (as well as scarring them when they first arrive and the prison mark is carved by her into their hands). She has enemies there but has hope that her family will find a way to get her out evenutally. Then the rebel queen arrives, barely conscious and delirious. Will Kiva give up everything in order to save the queen (and perhaps the hope of her family and country?).

There are several plots woven through this story, bringing some intricacy and nuance. Kiva and her father (who died soon after the imprisonment) were falsely accused of being in league with the rebels and sent there after being captured. Kiva’s young brother was killed at that moment so she has survived with both their deaths in her memory – and a hatred of the current regime. There is also a strange disease going around in the prison and she is desperate to find a core before it gets worse. A new prisoner – young and handsome – is trying to be friendly with her but she is desperate to refuse his attention, knowing he will be dead shortly anyway from the labor. And there is the issue of the arrival of the rebel queen ; the queen will have to go through a trial of the elements – something no one has survived. But Kiva’s family has sent her a secret note that she must save the queen at all costs. Which means Kiva’s only avenue is to do the trials as the queen’s champion.

The writing is smooth and the characters interesting and nuanced. Kiva is neither good nor bad and there are an assortment of characters showing the good and bad in humanity. The prison does hold political prisoners like Kiva but also arsonists, murderers, and more. She is also not on good terms with most of the prisoners since they feel she is a snitch for the warden. So it is a difficult life she treads and things are about to get very interesting for her. I think the only character that felt a bit too underwritten is the young man brought in who clearly develops an affection for Kiva. He was a bit too selfless and cocky – too overidealized a hero/love interest.

As noted earlier, I really enjoyed the novel until the end. There are some excellent twists at the end that you may or may not see coming. The book completes the prison arc and sets the stage for the next book. I did not really like the direction it will take but that is my own personal preference and I can see the series continues to be well done. There is violence and the evils you would expect from a prison-set book: violations, beatings, abuse so keep that in mind. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Avatar The Last Airbender The Search Omnibus by Gene Luen Yang, Gurihiru

This omnibus collects the previously released parts 1-3 into one 230+ page volume, and is a great collection if you missed the original releases. There are multiple such collections in the pipeline as interest in the Avatar universe is on the rise again (thanks to both The Last Airbender and Korra being on Netflix, as well as the upcoming Netflix live-action version of the Airbender). This also came at a good time for me, as I just finished re-watching the original series for the first time in almost ten years.

Some may recall that the series ends in a mini-cliffhanger where Zuko goes to his father and asks where his mother is – a side storyline in the series that is never given an answer. This is finally picked up in this comic, and the story in the Search covers the history of Zuko’s mother, where she disappeared to and why. The story is good and feels perfectly a part of the overall Avatar universe – I could easily imagine this being turned into a series of episodes in the series and it would have felt natural. The same mixture of seriousness and playfulness is there as is the delightful witty dialogue. For fans it provides additional looks into the world and the relations between the characters and would be worth a read just for that alone.

The art matches the series perfectly and in places even surpasses it – there are pages that are just simply gorgeous to explore. I’m personally a big fan of very clean and crisp art and we have that in spades here.

Even my only gripe is a bit of two-sided – Azula is one of my favorite characters, but the premise on which she is woven into this story feels a bit too much fan service. Consider where the series left off it feels unbelievable that our main cast would put up with her antics to the level seen here. Still, as she is one of my favorites it’s hard to complain about this too much.

In summary, if you were a fan of the series you can’t go wrong here. This, and many of the other Avatar comics, really are the continuation of the series we all loved. I also believe this is the most successful transition from a series to comics I’ve seen. On the other hand, if you haven’t watched the original series, this is probably not the place to start. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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THe Midnight Bargain by C. L. Polk

The Midnight Bargain is a romance that takes place in an alternate universe or world, with a setting reminiscent of a cross between Georgian and Regency England. As such, the customs and culture are familiar but the names of places are different. The feminist message of the book is somewhat lost in the egregious insta-luv, partially explained world building, and cardboard characterization. As such, it can feel a bit thin and unsatisfying a read.

Story: Beatrice is gifted with strong magical abilities. But only men get to use their magic; it is too dangerous for women due to the fear of demons possessing their magical children in utero. Beatrice would prefer not to marry so she never has to wear the silver collar that would dim her talent; unfortunately, her family’s wealth is in jeopardy and she needs a rich husband to save their future. Along comes a fabulously wealthy, supportive, and handsome nobleman from overseas. Will she give up everything to be with Ianthe – and allow herself to be dimmed for the rest of her life?

Magic in this book is a metaphor for knowledge; men are allowed to develop their talents in secret schools and societies while women are there to continue bloodlines. This should sound familiar to anyone who has read Regency or Georgian romances. The thrust of the magic ‘system’ is summoning demons from another dimensional plane and enslaving them. Beatrice has figured out a secret code among female sorceresses and intends to summon a major demon and ensure she would no longer be eligible for marriage. Until she manages it, however, she will have to attend balls and seek suitors.

I didn’t find the imagination I was looking for in this type of speculative fiction. Beatrice was stubborn but not too intelligent. If anything, I was thinking it would be better if she did marry and not use magic so dangerously. Ianthe, as the love interest, was so hoary a cliche as to be a cardboard cutout that just stood in front of Beatrice fawning over her and pontificating about how wonderfully progressive she is. Ianthe’s sister was even looser drawn and didn’t really have a place in the story. I have to wonder if her tale will be told next and that’s why she is in this book at all.

The author had a tendency to repeat the same things over and over until I felt like whole paragraphs had been copied and pasted into the storyline over and over. I get that this is a feminist-focused novel about female empowerment. But it can be done much more subtly in order to give a more organic and realistic read. Instead, I have to read over and over and over about the unfairness of women when it comes to magic. That Ianthe is fabulously wealthy. That she has to find that special summoning book. etc. etc. I get it already.

The plot was predictable and the happily ever after ending as unrealistic as it gets. That was perhaps the greatest let down for me: there just wasn’t any tension and I never worried that Beatrice was in danger. The magic amounted to only summoning demons, leaving me disappointed that the magic system wasn’t more defined or pronounced. Once summoned, the demons did everything and felt a bit too powerful to be true. If all sorcerers were wandering around with demons manipulating things, that society would be very different than written.

In all, the insta luv was perhaps the biggest disappointment. It amounted to Beatrice being seen once and then fawned over for the rest of the book. There was no organic meeting of minds or any reason for Ianthe to fall so hard for Beatrice other than looks. He was perhaps the emptiest of all the characters in the book.

Is this book terrible? No, I think undemanding readers can just enjoy this on a very shallow level. But I think those looking for depth, nuance, intelligence lead characters, realistic world building, and a great romance will be disappointed. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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