Kingdom of Exiles by Maxym M. Martineau

Kingdom of Exiles is a romantic fantasy, with a strong emphasis on the romance aspect. As such, much of the story fell into the usual romance cliches of alpha male, angsty longing, overidealized characterizations, and a LOT of tell with very little show. Much of the plot was clearly telegraphed but author Martineau left enough of a main arc (for future volumes) within the complete secondary arc to make readers want more. Although not a wholly satisfying read, the critters do make up for a lot of the lack of charm in the protagonists (and upstage most of the book in the process).

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Story: Leena is a disgraced beast charmer with a price on her head. On the run and desperate, she makes a deal with the assassins sent to terminate her: she’ll give each of the team a beast friend in exchange for not completing the contract to kill her. In the process, she falls in love with alpha hunky angsty leader Noc.

Since I assume readers can’t come to love murderous assassins, this supposedly lethal group is just a bunch of big hearted ‘brothers’ who take her under their wing. Along the way, Leena uses her Beast Charmer skills to coach magical creatures out of the Beast Realm to bond with each of the assassins, according to their nature. These scenes were the highlight of the book since the rest of the plot amounted to both main characters mooning over each other as fate forces them to be a part. Noc, of course, has a curse on him that kills those he loves and Leena is reeling after a betrayal by someone she loved and trusted. Worry not, instaluv always finds a way.

The assassin characters were somewhat cliche stereotypes: serious guy, womanizer/playful guy, the big lug with a heart of gold. All lead by Noc, who just wants to protect his ‘family’ and do the right thing. By the end of the book, you’d swear little birdies came in and groomed their hair every morning (a la Cinderella), they were so pure. The antagonist was so over-the-top that he really should have been written so he had a mustache to twirl while he recounted his nefarious plans in a patronizing monologue. Leena, as with most romance heroines, spends most of her time being unpleasant and rude, to show that she has ‘spirit.’

The book is a quick and easy read and should greatly please romance fans, especially those who love the ubiquitous urban fantasy romances that abound right now. This first book has a complete arc but enough of the world building is left unexplained to fill in future volumes.  reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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The Love Interest by Cale Dietrich

The premise of this particular book sounded so intriguing and I remember being greatly disappointed when I was not able to get my hands on an ARC. Eventually, it came out in Audible format and I bought it and saved it for a long transatlantic flight. Sadly, the execution did not live up to the premise; very flat characters, logic holes, sloppy world building, and questionable writing really let the book down. Despite that, however, enough promise showed through to make me want to read more of what this debut author will produce in the future.

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Story: Caden and Dylan are orphans raised by a secret group who develop/train and then provide ‘love interests’ to promising or powerful people. These love interests stay besides their ‘prey’ and feed secrets to the agency, who uses that information to gain power, influence, and money. Here, promising scientist teenager Juliet is targeted by “nice guy” Caden and “bad boy” Dylan. When Juliet settles on one of them, the other will be incinerated for his failure. Should the boys try to run away, they will be hunted down by murderous robots. But what happens when one finds himself attracted to the other love interest and not their target?

The first major hurdle with the Love Interest is that all the characters are flat. Especially Dylan, Caden’s competition, comes off as a cardboard figure – no personality, no depth, and other than being physically handsome, no good reason for Caden’s interest. He felt like an aging hound – lumbering, almost bovine with empty black eyes, and sounding like a halfwit most of the time. It was REALLY hard to understand Caden’s interest (or Juliet’s), despite being given Caden’s POV for the entire book. Caden himself was also greatly underwritten, seeming more of a caricature than someone raised in a secret organization without family or affection. I won’t even get into the side characters, who fare no better. But that segues to the second issue: logic and believability.

Much of the world makes absolutely no sense. Readers can suspend disbelief but it shouldn’t have to be a constant fight, either, to do so. From the silliness of the secret organization or that we are being led to believe that this teenage girl is so damn important as to get two huge resources wooing her, the book really fell apart once it left the high school setting. I would have preferred to see the entire last quarter of the book jettisoned and instead focus spent on expanding and strengthening the first 3/4. The bad guys were stupid, the whole thing inept, too many coincidences, and with a far too ‘pat’ ending. There was a lot of eye rolling after the 80% mark.

The last big issue was that the writing was very simplistic and unexciting. When even a professional narrator can’t elevate it (in my Audible version), then I know for sure that we have a problem. The love was ‘insta’ all around and certainly was as romantic as a dead cat. Juliet was a lot of ‘tell’ with little show and Caden spends most of the book mooning over ‘Dyl’ (who is oblivious) instead of actually trying to woo Juliet and ensure he isn’t incinerated.

In the end, a very disappointing read of what could have been a fantastic premise. It greatly needed some gravitas and rewriting, something perhaps the writer will tackle some day when he has more experience under his belt. Reviewed from an Audible recording.

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Black + Decker Complete Guide to Outdoor Carpentry

It’s hard to go wrong with this ‘inspiration’ book of backyard projects. Lavishly photographed, with easy step-by-step instructions, illustrations (exploded drawings), and charts (including materials and cutting list). I found a lot of these easier than putting together an IKEA wardrobe. Of note, there isn’t a lot of information about the tools – it just dives right into the items you can make. But with 24 or so different projects, nearly all very useful and decorative, it strikes a good note between easy-to- create but also attractive and utilitarian.

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The book breaks down as follows: Seating Projects (patio chairs, garden benches, porch swings, loungers, etc.), Dining and Entertaining Projects ( tables, benches, carts, locker, sandbox), Yard and Garden Projects (bins, arbors, planters, trellis, pagoda, shelters) and a special section on garden bridges. The end has a conversions chart.

I wouldn’t say it is a complete guide to outdoor carpentry; rather, it is a compilation of home carpentry projects for the back yard. Because it is so lavishly photographed and presented, it’s very newbie friendly and not intimidating. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Ash Kickers by Sean Grigsby

As good as the first novel and brimming with exuberance and chutzpah, Ash Kickers is a worthy sequel. The story, which began with Brannigan, now passes to Tamerica Williams, a brash young woman moving up through the Smoke Eaters ranks. Yes, it still feels like a marty stu – even with a female protagonist who, if I am honest, seems more like an amalgamation than a person. But in all, this is great fun with a lot of heart. I think the biggest inspiration must have been Ghostbusters – this feels so much like it, but with dragons instead of ghosts and firefighters instead of academics. It would make an incredible movie!

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Story: Tamerica Williams is a woman with a mission – to get action destroying as many dragons as she can. It’s raising her in the ranks but also getting her in trouble as often as not. When her team chances upon a phoenix, they begin to notice the animal has a strange effect on dragons and people. As dangerous as this fiery creature is – how do you kill something that won’t stay dead?

What I liked most about this book is that it had a lot of lore – the world building greatly expanded here and things are looking to be getting out of hand just as they are getting under control. It’s an interesting dichotomy that the writer has fun exploring with his very diverse range of main and side characters.

Tamerica is fun to follow, as irreverent as Brannigan but in her own way. At least this time we don’t have all the male team members falling all over themselves trying to get her into bed as we did with the women and Brannigan. Similarly, the side characters (returning and new) are fun and showcase our main character nicely.

The action flows, is easy to follow, and there is a lot of fun to be had reading it. Especially with this book, I felt like we had the first Ghostbusters movie given a modern redux – complete with politicians getting in the way and a team of four (though not equals) dealing with an escalating situation that no one predicted happening. Instead of ghosts suddenly becoming more prevalent, we have dragons (and now a phoenix) rising from the ground to terrorize people.

In all, I look forward to every installment of this series. It’s great fun, an easy and uncomplicated read, and we have characters who get to sass and quip their way in and out of strange situations. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Starship Repo by Patrick S. Tomlinson

Starship Repo is a book of very dry and often amusing humor, never taking itself too seriously and clearly written around creating funny lines rather than an engaging (or even remotely believable) plot. And as much as I enjoy fun/funny sci fi, this felt like the writer was trying a bit too hard to be clever, almost as if it was a vanity piece. From every alien starship named tongue in cheek takes on modern/current American cultural phrases (“Goes Where It Is Towed” “Pay To Prey”) to a character named Fonald Plump (who “claimed to be a trillionaire virtual real estate developer turned casino magnate has had an awful habit of seeing his recent project go bankrupt.”). It somehow seemed far less clever than it should have been – and I would have liked to see the author creating a whole new world and inhabiting it with fun and snarky characters unique to the world. Every alien seemed human – just with different features.

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Story: Firstname Lastname (a clerical error led to this being her official name) is one of the few humans left in the universe after the Earth was invaded and the invasion fumbled, pretty much killing off most of both species. Now surviving in space stations, she lives by her wits, currently hijacking cars and giving them to a fence. But when she finds a juicy score, it appears it was the bait in the hook to obtain her services as hacker and brash carjacker. Working with a (barely) legal high end repo operation should be rewarding. Certainly, there is a colorful cast of characters assisting her. The only problem is that people just don’t like having their property repossessed – and often will fight it.

The story felt a bit ‘monster of the week’ in that we have First getting an assignment to repo an item (rock band tour bus, floating casino, pod racer (a little Star Wars there)) and something typically goes wrong, usually because First acts without thinking. Trouble ensues, the item is successfully captured albeit never in perfect condition, and then we await a new target. Each of these feel like they are set up to highlight or showcase something about First – and not necessarily what would realistically or ordinarily occur for the repo operation.

The cultural references from the 1980s to current (most likely reflecting the age of the author) are the hallmark of the novel. From hair bands making a comeback in space (“We’re just a bunch of kids from Michigan who had a band!”), First wearing her favorite Whitesnake band t-shirt, and many many more. It provides relevancy/ralatability to the audience but I couldn’t help but feel true sci fi fans will want/desire a bit more accountability and logic to the cultural choices. Not so much from First – she is a teen girl, after all, though we don’t know from what era of Earth’s history she hails – but at least from the aliens, who seem to only have access to the 1980s in Earth history.

Now, the above nitpicks aside, there are some genuinely funny moments that made me laugh out loud. Because the book feels written only to come up with humorous situations, I would expect nothing less. The deadpan responses of the aliens, amusingly creative insults, and cast of characters were perfectly assembled to make the best use of First’s very American teen rebelliousness and lack of logic. So although we won’t ever believe these are real aliens or that this universe could ever exist, at least we can have fun laughing at the humor.

In all, I probably won’t continue the series should there be more books in it (which could easily happen since the story was left open ended). It was funny but just not what I am looking for in my sci fi. I always want books to have a plot and the humor written around it, not the other way around. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Wild Country by Anne Bishop

I enjoyed Wild Country – even more so than several of the previous books. It felt like Bishop was taking a bit of a stretch here by making sure that the ending wasn’t as pat as in previous books. Yes, the good is still very good and the evil is about as starkly defined as you can imagine. And yes, this still feels very much like a book about women by a woman – with all that would engender. But there was plenty of action and one can’t help but root for the main characters (others and humans) while booing the bad guys before they get ripped apart.

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Story: Bennett’s population (including all but a few Others) was wiped out with the apocalypse wrought by the actions of the HFL movement [see Marked in Flesh #4]. But it is located in an important place in the midwest (as well as being the gatekeeper to the Wild Country where the Elders reside). Tolya Sanguinati is asked to rebuild the town with a few chosen humans in order to keep the systems the humans created operating. He does so carefully, with help from the neighboring intuit farmers. But as he will soon discover, it is difficult to bring in the good without also allowing the bad to come in. And once again, pure greed will be the root cause of so much evil in Bennett.

The book follows several main characters: Jana (a female policeman who is fighting discrimination and misogyny and could only find work way out near the Wilds), Abigail Blackstone (an intuit who is on the run from her gambler/crooks family, who use their ability to fleece others), Tolya Sanguinati (who is trying to keep the peace and re-establish the town thoughtfully), and Jesse (an Intuit farmer with a strong ability to sense when danger is imminent). Along with those POVs, they interact with: two Wolfguards (one of whom is the sheriff – and they are the only ones who survive the HFL massacres from Etched in Bone), two Pantherguards (one of whom is a human, likely son of a Cassandra Sangue, and adopted by the Pantherguard), and Jesse’s son Tobias (who is a love interest for Jana).

Because this story runs concurrent with the events in Etched In Bone #5, there is a crossover, though no characters from the other book appear in Wild Country. But it was a nice touch to show that the events in Marked in Flesh and Etched in Bone had a marked ripple effect outside of the Lakeside Courtyard. I was at first skeptical that it would be interesting to see those events rehashed -but they are a catalyst for a lot of bad in Bennett.

There focus of the plot is Abigail Blackstone fearing the appearance of her avaricious family. And we are going to have to believe that greed will always overrule common sense – and having whole cities and nearly a continent ‘culled’ is apparently not enough of a deterrent for this human nature. But then, it wouldn’t be an Anne Bishop story, either.

In all, I did enjoy Wild Country and will continue to read the series. And I’ll hold out hope that some day the series actually gets a decent cover, that reflects the story inside.  Until then, it’s a guilty pleasure that I look forward to every year.  Note: I listened to the Audible version and the reader did her usual style.

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Meta: Tidebreaker by Danielle Paige

There is a really sad and mistaken belief in women’s fiction (especially YA) that in order for a woman to be taken seriously, she has to go out and do stupid things, pointless things, and then be taught a lesson about it. With Mera, we have the same tired cliche: “I most go out and prove myself so I will do a man’s job” poorly and ineffectively, thereby actually proving the point that the man could have done it better. In this medium of ‘tell, don’t bother to show,’ we are going to have to take the writer’s word for it that Mera is a strong and independent woman worthy of ruling her people. Because by the end of this volume, we sure don’t see it.

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Mera is betrothed but chafing under Atlantean rule – her people, the Xebel, feel repressed and marrying an ally to fight against Atlantean rule seems the best idea to her father. But Mera has another plan: she will find and murder the heir to the Atlantean throne herself – taking that responsibility away from her betrothed and proving to her father that she is worthy of ruling her people alone.

Of course, we’re going to get a lot of “Oh, Mera, you’re no killer, you’re a good person.” When really, they should be saying, “Hey stupid, you don’t have the guts or the brains to pull this off, pull out.” But then we wouldn’t have a story (such as it is). So Mera does stupid things to show she’s ‘not afraid of the Atlanteans,” gets her friends in trouble, and otherwise makes bad decisions. I guess this will resonate with the teen crowd for whom this is solidly targeted. For every one else, the question that keeps coming to mind is: why can’t we have a lead character who uses intelligence and thoughtfulness to address her issues? There are smart teen females out there, I am sure.

So Mera goes to shore and just can’t bring herself to kill Arthur. Although, to be honest, can’t be much of a loss if he was killed, since he is about as nuanced as cardboard (my cat shows more character depth while asleep). Meanwhile, the rebellion against Atlantis heats up and Mera has managed to prove that yeah, she’s the last person who should be in charge of her people. Cue insta-luv at its most egregious and a jealous ex getting annoyed. Pair that with squabbles and people forgiving her/pandering to her bad decisions (which should have got her and her friends killed).

The illustration work is clean but also clearly going for the ‘Archies’ crowd. Everyone looks, acts, and talks like teens – even their outfits underwater are inspired by ‘teen’ looks. E.g., someone tell me why Atlanteans wear hoodies? The pages are duochromatic – showing off the reds with the blues so that certain areas of each panel stand out. Because the art is clean, this is a bit palatable. But yes, it is hard not to roll your eyes.

Perhaps some day we will get writing that isn’t pandering, derivative, or lazy; or whose only purpose is delivering ‘relatability’ on a silver platter to young teens. And some day we will get heroines that can prove they are independent and trustworthy through the use of their brain rather than turning it off. But until then, there will be titles like Mera.

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