Outpost Zero by Sean Kelley McKeever, Alexandre Tefenkgi

These days, it is hard to find a ‘generation ship’ story that doesn’t end the same way. And while this has the expected ‘twist’ we have seen so often, there are also some other surprises that make the end worth it. What sets this title apart is that it is about the people, not the situation: each person in the story is given time to develop and grow, be nuanced and have their own agendas. It can make for a slower read for those looking for a straight up adventure story; but those looking for an organic and well-thought out piece will be rewarded.

Story: At Outpost Zero, colonists have long been stranded in a biodome on a planet of ice. They have made the best of the situation – over generations some of the technology has been lost and they hope to eventually find evidence of life on the planet. 14 year old Alea is inquisitive and eager to follow in her explorer parents’ footsteps. Her friend Steven wonders about life in general. Other friend Mitchell is preparing to be a fighter for the games. Lyssa wants to be a healer/doctor and then there’s Sam – the weird kid and adopted son of the head of security. As a major destructive storm approaches and threatens to breach the dome, one of Alea’s friends suddenly commits suicide. In tracking down the reasons for what seems like a senseless act, she will uncover startling truths about the colony.

Thsi is a story you are in for the long haul – it is less about solving mysteries and more about each characters learning about themselves and their place in the world. And while we could have all predicted many of the aspects of the ending there were at least some interesting concepts along the way. While following 14 year olds may sound tedious, it makes sense for the story that they are that young. Fortunately, the adults aren’t really the enemies and behave in manners that make sense – protecting their children and also protecting the colony.

The illustration work is fine – I did have problems following the action/story at times but in all the characters were distinct enough that I could tell them apart. It is what I would expect from a sci fi story with decent paneling and emotive reactions. The coloring is clean and bright.

The story did run a bit long but it also had a lot to say. This felt more like a novel than a graphic novel in that regard: you get a full and nuanced story rather than something that flows too quickly and ends too soon. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by our publisher.

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Star Wars The High Republic: Starlight Stories by Charles Soule, Cavan Scott, Justina Ireland

This collection gathers five original short stories from the High Republic era along with several interviews with current Star Wars authors (in a classical ‘zine format). The stories are a bit tied together with a common cast: Administrator Velko Jahen of the Starlight Beacon and Security Chief Ghan Tarpfen as well as some other recurring characters).

The stories are a bit of a mixed bag. On one level, they gave me a bit of nostalgia of reading fan-fiction like stories from ezine’s of old. Unfortunately, you would really expect a bit better narrative from actual authors. I do like the concept of telling stories from the point of view of ‘sideline’ characters, but felt they could have done more here. As a collection, not all stories in themselves need to have a full drama arc – we could have had some proper character building thrown in. Of the stories, I liked “Past Mistakes” by Cavan Scott the best.

The interviews are very nice and professional, if only really interesting if you know the authors being interviewed. I like the Christie Golden one, having read her stuff well before her foray into Star Wars novels.

If you’re a fan of the High Republic era, this will give a bit of perspective into the overall world but is ultimately forgettable. I usually like short story collections as they give authors the chance to venture into something completely new; there’s some of that here but not enough in my opinion. Still, these are not the weakest of Star Wars novels, just average. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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The Great Big Demon Hunting Agency by Peter Oxley

This was a bit different than I expected: going in, I thought it would be a snarky comedy with some supernatural hijinks thrown in. However, what was have is a very distinctively low key British piece about two down-on-their-luck blokes trying to survive with the few assets they have in their bags. There is little humor (and all of it very dry) since this is more about how the two always manage to survive – be it luck, instinct, or actual ideas.

Story: Spencer and Bart grew up in the wrong side of town in a London burdened by supernatural beings and magicians. Their crime boss master isn’t pleased with the hapless pair, especially when they almost botch a job due to a conscience. So Spencer and Bart decide to go legit and start a demon hunting agency (despite not knowing any demons or being sure what that would even entail). Cue a wealthy upper crust lady with a questionable husband who has even more questionable acquaintances. Hired to find out if her husband is trying to kill her, the two have to steer clear of the law, avoid their former crime lord, deal with angry demons, mollify a powerful sorcerer, and still manage to make enough coin to afford a pint at night.

Yes, it is almost a cliché to have a pair consisting of a big strong simple guy with a small weaselly fellow. Add in the usual harassment by a particular policeman and you have a set up we have indeed seen before many times. Both main characters are purposefully dumb but that isn’t used to play off for laughs so much as to get them into situations. At times, it felt like Dumb and Dumber, the historical supernatural London version. With the humor being so dry, it was often easy to miss the bon mots as well. But there is plenty of adventure and the boys have a way of charming if you stick with them.

The read is very easy and the story simple almost to the point of being simplistic. It makes for a decent read and I imagine that an audiobook would be even better. This first book looks to set up a series since there was a lot of questions unanswered despite ending on a solid arc. Certainly, it would be interesting if the boys team up with one or more of the side characters in future books.

In all, don’t read this because you are looking for Pratchett-like humor. This is a lighthearted adventure piece with simple and decent down-on-their-luck- blokes who just want an easier life. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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The Rocketeer: The Great Race by Stephen Mooney

“This is one of those things that you enjoy if you enjoy those things.” I saw this quote from a review and have to agree: this story (set in the 1930s but written/created in the 1980s) is very much of its era: clueless ‘fake it until you make it’ main character, his pin up girlfriend), bad boy Nazi villains, derring do action, and a grizzled old mentor spouting advice destined to be ignored. We’ve seen it all before and yes, this does feel extremely dated as a result. But author Stephen Mooney really does an excellent job of channeling the short lived but extremely popular series – one that has the same feel for the 80s era as films like Indiana Jones and the time before things became so darn serious.

Story: Cliff has just returned from another dangerous job and realizes that saving the world means nothing if he can’t spend time with his beloved Betty. Even Betty is getting tired of Cliff’s antics with his helmet and rocket pack. But then a millionaire offers Cliff the opportunity of a lifetime: fly his prototype airplane in a race to Paris and win the big prize! Betty is happy because she gets to go to Paris and even Cliff is looking forward to trying out the new technology. But he will have stiff competition – perhaps deadly so!

Before we started to get the “Dark Age” of comics in the late 1980s (with Dark Knight, The Watchmen, etc.) a comic title in the early 1980s really caught the zeitgeist of the era of Patrick Nagel paintings, greed is good, and excess: The Rocketeer. Although most assume it was from the 1930s/World War II era in which it was set, this was rather a product of the Reagan era. Our hero is a clueless, shaggy haired, young but ambitious daring guy, his girlfriend spends most of the time on the page posed as a Betty Page centerfold photo, and our hero has one very cool 1930s streamlined art deco helmet along with a bib leather jacket. What’s not to love?

The series, despite its popularity, did not last long (though it inspired a Disney movie sans Betty Page references due to copyright issues). Stephen Mooney slavishly recreates the look and feel here, successfully and not so successfully in places. For certain, this is lovingly done and an easy read. At the same time, issues such as trying to turn 1950ss Betty Page into a 1930s version are perhaps less successful. There is a Howard Hughes tycoon, his girlfriend who seems obsessed with wearing 1920s clothing despite the story being set in the late 1930s, and a Teutonic hunk channeling actor Hardy Krüger to menace American freedom.

Admittedly for me, the story was barely readable. Not because the author didn’t do a good job; rather, he did it too well. The story was perfect for the series, the visuals were in line with the original work, and this was not ‘updated’ for the modern audience. Which means most of the characters were unlikable, Cliff Secord as a hero was eye rolling vapid, Betty an unpleasant over-jealous caricature of a woman, and the villain had all the silly swagger and one-liners of a 1980s Dolph Lundgren movie. For those who liked the movie (in all its Disney saccharine) and had not read the comics, this is probably an especially hard sell.

I highly recommend this for original fans of the series. It slots in perfectly between the two series that were published in the 1980s. There is a great biography/history of the original artist in the back (it was eye opening to learn just how obsessed he was with Betty Page) that was enlightening also for the accounts of life in the comics industry in that turbulent decade. At the same time, the overt sexism, the Marty Stu hero, the lack of 1930s milieu (outfits on the women range from the 1930s to the 1950s, making the historical aspects jarring and odd), and the lack of world building (most of this takes place in the air in planes and there are surprisingly few scenes of Cliff in costume or in 1930s Los Angeles) are problematic. Still, we have a complete story arc here and I respect the author’s choice to not modernize but instead stay true to the original story. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Northranger by Rey Terciero, Bre Indigo

The visuals are clean and make a solid complement to an uncomplicated and sweet story. Author Terciero’s inspiration is Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey and its tale of a hero who reads too many gothic horror novels and then mistakes everything for danger. But don’t worry – this isn’t a scary book in that regard: what we have isn’t a horror novel so much as a story about a Latinx teen going through the angst of growing up gay in rural Texas.

Story: Cade feels alone – hiding his attraction to boys to make sure he isn’t the victim of homophobic violence. When his stepfather takes him to spend a Summer working at a real ranch, Cade has nothing but disgust: no more trips to the movies to see old horror movies and instead spending his precious vacation days shoveling manure and lugging feed bags. But that changes when he meets the ranch owners kids: twins Henry and Henrietta. Henry especially stirs up feelings that Cade knows he should suppress; yet there is something mysterious about the other boy and especially his family and all the deaths surrounding them. Cade soon begins to feel that he has been sent to star in his own horror movie – one he may not survive!

The story is very lighthearted and has a feel-good vibe. I liked the diversity represented and some of the characters were very fun (love her or hate her, I found his little sister cute). This doesn’t get as dark as Austen’s Northanger Abbey and instead focuses in on the frustrations of rural life: the homophobia, racism, and general intolerances. Most of the story is set at the farm and about the budding relationship between Henry and Cade.

The illustration work is very clean and these are perhaps the most adorable horses you will ever see drawn. Ironically, that cuteness kind of killed any chance of believing the innuendos suggesting Henry and his military dad might have killed anyone. So it was an eye rolling set of moments at least alleviated by the solid illustration work. Most of the book is in a sepia color scheme rather than full color, giving a good tonality to the overall story.

In all, this was a very enjoyable graphic novel. It has a complete arc and ends on a good moment. If Love, Simon was a graphic novel, this would be it. And who doesn’t love a good Jane Austen inspired story? Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Gut Driven by Ellen Postolowski

Quite a few books have come out recently on the importance of our gut microbiome (most notably, Fiber Fueled by Will Bulsiewicz) and changing your diet to fix directional issues. Most are about lifestyle changes while this book focuses on a temporary fix: an elimination system over three weeks to determine what is causing your issues. The author does a good job of setting it all up for you: explaining the issues, how the plan will work, how to stick to the plan, and how to address confounders such as stress and support systems.

The book is broken down into four sections: the foundation of gut health, the 90/10 reset program, going into maintenance mode after the three weeks, and then the recipes. As well, there are additions in the back including charts for your reset program, lists of good and bad foods, suggestions for the program, symptoms and food tracker, notes, and of course resources.

The basis of the program is to be 90% compliant and have 10% wiggle room. Over the three week period, you have a heavy elimination of animal products (milks, eggs, meat) and plants that are problematic (such as tomatoes or skins of apples). The three weeks focus on these four topics : remove, replace, reinoculate, and repair. Week one is about detox, week two is the honeym0on stage, and week three is the transformation stage. After that, the author lays out how to evaluate how the weeks went, what was discovered, and whether you would want to stay in the program an extra week or go straight to the maintenance recipes/stage.

There are pages and pages of recipes for each stage. It is important to note that this isn’t a diet and it isn’t about losing weight. Instead, the focus is on identifying which food items are causing problems. Yes, it is mostly plant-based in the beginning stages as a result.

The author is friendly and keeps it light throughout. The plan is fairly easy to follow though if you have a family, you’ll have to figure out how to avoid the temptations from the foods in the pantry that they want to eat. But this is only three weeks so it isn’t a terribly long investment of time to learn more about your own body.

In all, nicely written and laid out. Friendly and informative – the author takes pains to cover all aspects of digestion health. This is definitely not about weight loss or healthier eating (though since the 3 weeks are mostly plant based, it is rather healthy by nature). Other topics affecting the gut such as stress, companionship, chemicals, etc. are also discussed briefly. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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The Grace of Wild Things by Heather Fawcett

This is a well written and fun fairy tale with a great young heroine and a nuanced fantasy setting. The best description is Anne of Green Gables meets Hansel and Gretel. You do not need to have read either of those to enjoy this story, however: despite the young protagonist it is not written in a childish way and can be enjoyable to both kids and adults alike.

Story: Grace is terrible at everything at the orphanage – she daydreams all day and only her small ability at magic gives her a reason to look forward to the future. It is after another terrible day of watching other girls get adopted that she decides to run away and seek out the powerful witch in the nearby forest. There, she hopes to be taken on as an apprentice after she shows the witch her potential. Except the witch really is evil and the only way the witch won’t eat her is if Grace makes a deal: learn all of the witch’s grimoire spells within a year or give up her magic forever to the witch. Turns out, the witch and the girl will get much more than they bargained for.

Those who have read Anne of Green Gables will recognize Grace here: forever daydreaming, using flowery speeches, endlessly talking and going off on tangents…. Within the witch are shades of Marilla – strong willed, pragmatic. A fairy boy reminiscent of Gilbert is her companion and an enchanted cloud doubles for Mathew (Marilla’s brother). The side characters are there too – from Anne’s best friend to the nosy gossipy neighbor next door. And yes, there is the infamous chalkboard over the head scene. That said, the nods are fun but not literal: so you do not need to have read Anne of Green Gables to enjoy the spirited Grace and the motley assemblage of people she associates with throughout.

As such, this is not a retelling and there are several areas where the story diverges from the inspiration. The scenes of magic are fun as Grace figures out how to do the spells (and also about her own strengths and how they are not what she thought/expected). There are some very good lessons here for kids but they never become overbearing or preachy. The story is enjoyable on its own for the magic, the magic’s repercussions, and the great characters.

In all, the story moves well and features a lot of the same themes of Anne of Green Gables – but isn’t a literal retelling. Enjoy the story on its own merits and as enjoyable for readers of all ages. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Revelle by Lyssa Mia Smith

This was a very enjoyable read featuring a strong female lead, a grounded male lead, a lot of magic and the fun of a carnival. Readers will recognize a lot of the plot of Moulin Rouge here but the author does a good job of carving her own story from the inspiration. There is plenty of action and this is one that was hard to put down. That said, the time travel aspects were confusing, not really believable, and added too many head scratching plot holes.

Story: On the island of Charmant, magic bloomed and magic users carved their own clans: the ones who can heal, the ones who can turn back time, the ones who can start fires, the ones who can read minds, and in Lux Revelle’s family, the ones who can charm. Lux is the star of her family’s circus show and her unique ability to charm without an external cost is a secret she guards. But times have been hard for the family and they need revenue badly. Enter the son of the time traveling mayor of Charmant – he holds the keys to illicit liquor that can keep Lux’s family in business. All she has to do is charm him; an easy assignment until she meets a mysterious young man, Jamison, who suddenly appears with her formerly exiled brother.

The story has a great group of characters, all of whom are nicely nuanced and instantly likable. From Jamison’s close friend group to Lux’s family, everyone is interesting and worth following. The whole milieu was nicely set up – I did feel the 1920s flapper era throughout. At the same time, it was also very hard not to imagine scenes from Moulin Rouge often as we follow Lux on the trapeze or behind the scenes in the big top tents.

The pace was excellent and there was plenty of action as well as some mysteries to solve and twists to surprise. I was not bored at any time and the story flowed well. The magic system wasn’t really explained other than that magic was a trait of a family and they all stayed on the island for the most part to carve their own society/world there. The mainlanders (from New York?) had little to do with them other than to come over on boats every day to see the spectacles, fortune tellers, and ‘magicians’ giving entertaining shows. It was in the magic that the book was the weakest since characters found new ways to use their magic that were pretty obvious and would already have been game changers that altered the world greatly.

I enjoyed both Jamison’s and Lux’s viewpoints. The author gave everyone decent backstories and let the characters live and breathe in the world. The viewpoints weren’t confusing and each had a distinct perspective. It was easy to become invested in each of their stories and to want them to succeed despite the odds stacked against them in that magical world.

In all, other than the magic system being weak and a bit too powerful, I greatly enjoyed Revelle. It would make for a great Summer read with a satisfying romance and a solid ending. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Notcturne by Alyssa Wees

This is a solidly written, moody, and atmospheric tale that looks to be based on Beauty and the Beast. It’s not a direct retelling and instead eschews a happily ever after Disney version for something a bit more gothic. Of note, there is a lot of purple prose here though fortunately it only rarely trips up the reader experience.

Story: In 1930s Chicago, prohibition and gangsters wreak havoc on people weary from the depression. At a small ballet dance company, loner Grace has found a home after having been orphaned several years earlier. She may not be as talented as some of the other dancers but she has a charisma on stage that catapults her to the position of prima – and gains her the notice of a benefactor. But who is this master La Rosa – and what does he want from her?

There are nods to several fairy/folk stories here – from Phantom of the Opera to ballet and opera inspired tales. But the main inspiration is obviously Beauty and the Beast. That said, this isn’t really a romance and thus can neatly sidestep a lot of the YA tropes so prevalent this days. It feels like it is meant to be its own fairy tale.

The story is very claustrophobic and takes place at either the theater or the Master’s mansion. The 1930s milieu is there somewhat but you won’t really get a feel of Chicago in that era other than through the repercussions that directly affect Grace’s life (e.g., the earlier death of her brother to mobsters). I would have loved to experience more of the era rather than the more fantastical feel of the insular theater and ‘enchanted castle.’ But Grace’s life is a lonely one and the story is written to support that intrinsic value.

Grace as a heroine is fine – she wasn’t a character I really liked or enjoyable but that also means she wasn’t overidealized. She spends a lot of time feeling sorry for herself and giving flowery prose inner monologues that can get wearying after awhile. Yes, they further the atmosphere but that came at the expense of wanting her to succeed or to even root for her. There are a few side characters but we see little of them other than through becoming a subject for Grace to ruminate upon (ad nauseum).

In all, despite all the purple prose this is a quick read. The author has some good ideas and ties them in neatly into the plot. Admittedly, I did find myself skipping chunks of exposition frequently: all of the characters had a crippling addiction to metaphors, even in their dialogue. But I’d rather a book overwritten than underwritten, to be honest. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Legends of Lotus Island: The Guardian Test by Christina Soontornvat

Those looking to scratch their “Avatar: The Last Airbender” itch will definitely find it here: the author herself noted that she was inspired by how much her kids loved that series. This fits in the age demographic of kids who are just getting comfortable with reading but might be intimidated by dense or thick books. This is cleanly and clearly written and great for younger or first time readers.

Story: Plum loves her home but is told by her relatives that she has the ‘spark’ of magic that could transform her into a guardian of nature. But in order to achieve that, she will need to attend the Guardians school on Lotus Island. Once there, Plum will make friends, have to weather all the school’s challenges, and most of all discover her own unique style of magic.

Plum, as a heroine, is a simple girl with a bit of a unique snowflake type of magic. So her challenges will be in being different than the other students as well as being seen as not as sophisticated because she comes from a small village instead of the bigger towns and cities. This is one of those books where the adults are actually wise and always have the best interest of the students at heart. Plum will learn to stand up for herself as well as have patience to let her own talents develop in their own time.

There are some good lessons here and I think young readers will enjoy this story. It can be read aloud as well and be easily comprehensible. There are a few illustrations in black and white that add to the story. In all, I even enjoyed it as an adult. It is simple but very kid-friendly. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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This is an excellent book – informative, easy to digest, supportive, and encouraging. Although I am not ace, I know someone who is and wanted to understand what it means to be ace and how I can be the best ally possible. Although the book is geared more toward those who just beginning to question whether they are ace or not, there is still a LOT to be learned here by all. For that reason, I highly recommend this book. The read is quick and easy and never bogs down. The author is frank and open about his own experiences. Being ace is highly nuanced and greatly misunderstood -even in the LGBTQ+ community.

The author, Cody Daigle-Orians, is a well known youtuber who recognized late in life that he was ace. Drawing upon his own experiences, he chose to help others through volunteer work and the youtube channel. This book is the result of all that he learned in the years that he has been mentoring others with this very complex topic both in person and online. Because he is of a mature age, he has a lot of great life experience to draw upon.

I’ve read quite a few ace-topic books lately and this is definitely one of the best ones out there. Reviewed from an advanced reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Spice Road by Maiya Ibrahim

Sadly, this suffers from the usual YA tropes: all tell and no show, weak or missing world building, a really tepid romance, emo love interest who inexplicably enjoys being yelled at/insulted by the heroine, and the ubiquitous impetuous heroine who really is too stupid to survive life. The setting should have been fascinating but just wasn’t built up enough, the other characters were cardboard cutouts, and the magic just wasn’t that interesting. The book skews very young – more like tween than YA.

Story: Imani is one of the best fighters of her generation. She protects their magical country from supernatural creatures – and from being discovered by the outside world. But then her brother goes rogue and Imani must go out of their magical dimension to find him. The problem is, there are issues with the balance of power in her home and it will soon involve her and her family- not to mention a vicious war and invasion in the mortal world.

So yes, cue YA trope fest. we have an emo love interest who spends most of their travel being insulted or having to save Imani from all the stupid things she does. Add in a younger sister who is even stupider and it is just a frustrating read (especially since the sister is completely wasted in the plot). The adults are, as usually, dense and clueless and only our plucky little heroine can save them from themselves (before their world is destroyed). Bad guys sprout their evil plans and jails are particularly easy to escape from.

Most of the book is a travelogue through the desert and then into an outside city. There’s nothing new here and the settings could have been chucked out wholesale from a ‘random Arabian city’ generator. Our heroine is supposed to be incredibly talented and (surprising no one) has a unique snowflake magic ability. We don’t see much of it and she never actually uses it in clever ways – only as a plot device to tepidly show that she has a unique snowflake ability. Of course, in order to do that, she has to constantly do stupid things that are just eye rollingly annoyingly inexplicable.

None of the other characters are interesting. The bad guys are evil (or, rather, EVIL!), her travel companions are as thin as paper and about as interesting to read about, and the adults make some whoppingly bad decisions that make little or not good sense. This is a world of very shallow and immature people.

I found the travel to be kind of boring, the town they arrived at uninteresting, and the banter between the characters on par with a junior high school playground. I found myself skimming a lot of the book as a result. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Arca by by Van Jensen, Jesse Lonergan

Arca is an ok read that keeps you invested enough to solve the mystery even though you already know the answer. This is a complete story and though the plot is very predictable and we’ve read it many times, I didn’t regret the time spent on the read.

Story: The Arca is a ship travelling from a dying Earth to a new Eden. The younger/newest generation serve the older generation of citizens until they turn 18 – then they graduate and become citizens themselves. Effie is looking forward to her graduation and ending the servitude that marked her younger years. She was given a rare gift by one of the citizens – he taught her to read. Effie has an inquisitive and sharp mind and soon she begins to question all that she had been raised to believe. With her graduation nearing, is time running out to discover if there is something very wrong at the heart of the Arca?

So yes, this is typical dystopian and you likely will not be surprised by any of the plot points or ‘twist’ ending. There aren’t a lot of side characters and Effie seems to operate alone in her environment, which is a shame. The story really could have been fleshed out better had we been given more insight into her life through the eyes and experiences of side characters. There are far too many scenes/panels of her daily servitude duties. One side character in particular, the child Effie was training to take her place, was especially wasted here.

The artwork is reminiscent of Dick Tracy style of male hook noses and square figures contrasted with a French Rin Tin Tin type of bland features for many of the women. It does work somewhat and the story was easy enough to follow throughout. Oddly, this start off with a full color first chapter but quickly drops that for black and white for the rest of the series. The lack of shading and even some finishing on various panels did stand out at times.

For me, I really wanted more depth – from the citizens (who should have been distinct but instead were either vapid or moustache twirling avuncular caricatures) to the settlers/kids (who all look more like 30 year old adults than kids). I missed the color after the first chapter as well. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Tim Te Maro and the Subterranean Heartsick Blues by H.S. Valley

This is a novel where the setting and culture are far more interesting, sadly, than the characters or romance. I greatly enjoyed all the New Zealand and Maori references – something rarely seen in YA novels. But I never got into either of the two main characters nor any of the rather unbelievable and wooden side characters. The magic and magical school are pretty much wasted and I kind of wish this was written to be more realistic; it’s not as fun as it could be and there isn’t enough wit or snark as there should be.

Story: Time Te Maro is stuck in a magical school under a glacier in a remote area of New Zealand. His mother is one of the employees, his best friends are kids of other employees, and they dislike the snobby Auckland city kids with a passion. Elliot Parker, especially, exists just to give Tim a sneer or rude comment. Then Tim’s girlfriend dumps him for Elliot’s ex boyfriend – and the two boys suddenly have something awful in common. Cue a school assignment to raise an egg (‘lifeskills, they call it’) and both Tim and Elliot decide to partner in the assignment as egg parents – and on the side as friends with benefits. Can the two raise their egg successfully while still getting revenge on the exes and getting it on with each other?

The premise sounds far more interesting than the actual story, unfortunately. Tim and Elliot come off as dumb and dumber and spend most of the book in a state of befuddled confusion about each other and life in general. There are no witty repartees, no snarky comebacks, no bon mots. Someone makes a rude comment and the other just says, “Shut up” and walks off. This could have been a fun situation but instead it’s just really boring. It’s hard to find an interesting or redeeming quality in either boy – they are just dumb kids doing dumb things. Side characters fare little better and seem to be there just to make some plot points. The romance is tepid and it’s really more about hooking up and superficial attraction – deciding when to make it their ‘first time’ for both. There’s little magic (literally or figuratively), the magic system isn’t explained, and that whole supernatural element is greatly wasted.

That said, I loved all the Maori/New Zealand references. Tim is half Maori and there are interesting discussions about his culture, colonialism, and life there (despite the entire book taking place in a secret underground location in a remote area under a glacier). It’s worth the read for those alone; I found myself skipping a lot of the story and was really bored with both the egg-parent plot as well as a arc about getting drunk and magic going awry later.

In all, it is an easy read but doesn’t flow or move as smoothly as it could have. This is definitely not a Simon Vs. HomoSapiens type of book with heart and pathos. It’s two clueless mopey teens doing uninteresting teen things with a random magic school thrown in. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Divine Rivals by Rebecca Ross

This is a satisfying read with a strong grounding and emotive qualities. The setting is pseudo European World War 1, exchanging war machines with a supernatural premise and fantastical creatures. The lead characters are good people in a bad time and place, making the best of heartaches, ambitions, and especially war.

Story: Iris wants nothing more than to become a columnist at the country’s biggest newspaper. But she is thwarted by a rival: Roman Kitt. He comes from a wealthy family and has all the advantages she never had, making their competition for a position that much harder. Compounding this, Iris’ brother received the call from the goddess to become a soldier in a fight between Gods. Her mother is drinking herself to death and Iris doesn’t know if she will be able to survive with the meager amount she makes currently at the newspaper as an apprentice. All the while, the gods’ war comes closer and closer to her City and she is desperate to find her brother.

In this story, two Gods have awakened and begun a grudge war – using mortals as pawns. Each as the ability to sway the hearts of the mortals and bring them into their cause. In this pseudo 1910s Europe, fantastical creatures (rather than planes) bomb the villages on the front while hellhounds decimate the soldiers during the night. It is into this milieu that Iris finds herself abandoned by her brother as he leaves for the battles and shackled with a mother dealing with addiction problems.

It is an interesting concept and the author makes it work by creating decent and strong characters readers want to follow and cheer. Iris is a good foil for Roman Kitt and whether the story’s scenes are at a metropolitan City (think Paris), a small village near the front, or in the trenches, the characters are believable and do what make sense for the situation. In this way, the romance doesn’t get in the way of the story and there is an organic development that is a pleasure to read in a YA. Iris isn’t the impulsive heroine who is too stupid to live and Roman isn’t the ubiquitous smirking emo love interest. Each has their strengths and weaknesses that add to the story. There are relatable and interesting side characters along the way.

In all, I greatly enjoy this pseudo World War I story. In many ways, it reminded me of Atonement – just not with as depressing an ending. This is the first book in a series and completes an arc but leaves plenty of room to continue.

Note: I listened to the audio version and the narrator did an excellent job of bringing the story to life. I highly recommend that version as a result. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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The Everything DASH Diet Meal Prep Cookbook by Karman Meyer

This is a very beginner-friendly way to transition into a diet that is healthier and better suited to help with high blood pressure. So what you have is a focus on low sodium/salt while also adding in more potassium, magnesium, calcium, protein, and fiber to further ease the hypertension condition. Foods with cholesterol and saturated fat are limited as result. For a truly healthy diet fighting off high blood pressure and need for medications, one will likely need to eventually remove animals products altogether. But this is a good first step into transitioning to a way of eating that helps manage your blood pressure rather than increasing it.

The DASH way of eating includes whole grains, fruits/vegetables, low fat dairy, lean meats, and nuts. It provides several options so that if you don’t like one type of e.g. vegetable, there are plenty of others that can be substituted to still get the benefits. The book makes it easy to make your own foods and control your health better as a result. It includes meal preparation, storage, shopping, tips, and staple meal prep components (e.g., homemade low sodium broths and stocks you can easily prepare at home and store until needed).

The book breaks down as follows: the DASH diet, basics of meal prepping, staple meal prep components, breakfast, salads and sides, beef and pork entrees, chicken and turkey entrees, seafood entrees, vegan/vegetarian entrees, freezer meals, snacks, desserts, beverages/smoothies, two week meal plan, metric conversions, index. Recipes include: carrot cake cookies, green mango smoothie, peach cobbler, homemade soft pretzels, spicy lime chicken, falafel with tzatziki shrimp creole, chicken curry, beef tenderloin and roasted vegetables, garlic rosemary potato salad, raspberry almond overnight oats, blueberry banana oat muffins, homemade chicken stock, and many more.

About every 8th recipe has a photograph. Each recipe has a title, a short introduction/info, large font ingredients, numbered paragraph steps, and clear serving/nutrition info (calories, fat sodium, carbs, fiber, sugar, protein). Some have additional info/tips paragraphs (e.g., one explaining what couscous actually is or another how to stock up and save on ingredients for the recipe). The format is 3 color, cleanly laid out and easy to read.

This should be viewed as a first step to ease into a healthier way of eating, one away from processed foods, empty carbs, high sodium, and low fiber (the SAD/Standard American Diet). There isn’t anything overly exotic here and what we have are a lot of American/Western favorites just redone with less salt and more vegetables. The recipes are easy to follow and prepare; I did not find the ingredients to be too exotic or expensive at all (it’s what healthier eating entails). Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Coup De Grace by Paul L. Centeno

This ticks a lot of the boxes that draw people to the steampunk genre: automatons, gears, pseudo-Victorian setting, airships, etc. And while most steampunk stories are set in fin de siècle England/France or Wild West America, this one takes place on a different world altogether (one with multiple moons and suns). The story is enjoyable enough though I am not a fan of the choppy writing style. But there is plenty of action, a painfully earnest main character, his beautiful and spirited love interest, several professors, a requisite clock tower or two, and a bit of time travel thrown in. Note: I listened to the audio version and had several issues with it that likely inhibited my enjoyment of the novel.

Story: 19 year old Kaimo dreams of working as an ophthalmologist but instead finds himself in the mines due to the family’s cash-strapped situation. But a chance encounter with a train-hijacking gone wrong suddenly propels him into the middle of a war and against a nemesis who is almost supernatural in his abilities. Can Kaimo save the world (and the girl)?

This is the type of book where you would expect to hear booing at the villain as he twists his moustache and sprouts his evil plans (while sounding suitably superior) and cheers each time the young protagonist hero saves the day. As such, this is much more in the styles of the Perils of Penelope rather than Jules Verne. That isn’t to say the author doesn’t take the milieu seriously; rather that the superficial storytelling is a quality of the narrative. It didn’t work for me but perhaps others will find it engaging.

At times, it was hard to get into the story due to how it was written. The chapters are broken down into parts rather than breaks – taking away much needed segues that would have smoothed the transitions and provided a less choppy flow. In the same way, there are very noticeable jumps in character development so that relationships seem out of the blue/sudden. E.g., one moment the hero and heroine are fighting off bad guys, and the next scene they are suddenly declaring their love and promptly getting married. There is no organic growth and so we get very little in the way of depth or resonance with any of the characters or storylines. It’s pretty much good guys, bad guys, battles – and the bad guys get their comeuppances (e.g., if you betray the hero, you can expect in the next part that that guy will be betrayed himself).

The audio book was very overproduced – the first time I’ve been really frustrated with too much being done to an audio narration. There are random sound effects that come out of nowhere – don’t be wearing headphones on a quiet night or you’ll lose a few years of your life in startlement when suddenly there is a bomb explosion going off. I had issues with that several times with my ear buds and it was incredibly annoying. As well, every chapter break has a long musical intro and outro – creating pointless interruptions in the narrative and honestly wasting the reader’s time. They do not contribute to the story and some are puzzlingly ‘off’. Honestly, music should probably be kept to the beginning and end of the book only for that reason – not 5-7 times each chapter.

The narration was fine. This is a British English flavor and I did not have issues distinguishing the various characters. With all the overproduction of music, it was surprising each time the narrator downplayed yells, screams, shouts – it is a straightforward read that really could have used a lot more flair and overacting to match the production (and make the story more interesting). I feel like this is a book that could have been fun but instead tried too hard to be ‘serious’.

In all, it wasn’t a bad book and heaven knows it is hard enough to find a good steampunk story any more. I prefer my stories to have more depth and character building – or at least really go over-the-top and just have fun. This fit somewhere between the both and made for a less engaging read as a result. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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The Art of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe by Mattel, Stuart Bam

When I picked up this art book, I assumed this was for either the classic 80’s series or the latest “Revelations” show. However, this is for neither – this one is for the completely re-imagined, CGI show on Netflix (which I have not seen and actually was completely unaware of until I read through this book).

Coming in cold gave an interesting perspective into an ‘Art Of’ book and this one delivered very well. Even with no knowledge of the show, I was able to grasp the concept of their re-imagining, the way each character was designed and I believe I got a rather good idea of the world by just reading through the design notes. I especially liked the re-imagined classical characters as they were revealed one after another and found myself anticipating each one in terms of appearance and design. While I’m sure a person who has watched the show will get good value out of the book just like in any of this type, my ‘outsider’ perspective made reading through this maybe even more pleasant.

I feel that the balance between text and graphics is excellent – there’s just enough text to get an insight into each design and while there are iterations of characters they never go overboard. The layout is beautiful and you feel the love of the creators for their show. They seem genuinely proud to be showing it off. I even like the usually more-boring practical parts – like showing off how they build variety in background characters by just alternating some body/clothing parts.

From the nitpick side of things, there are perhaps some elements that do not deserve a place in a Art Of book – some one-off items are not that interesting. Color key section is fun but a bit long – more of a part of the design bible for the artists rather than general consumers.

All in all, I liked this book a lot. If you’re a fan of He-Man and, like myself, managed to miss this show somehow, I can recommend this as a primer. I am sure that fans of the show will find even more value in it – especially as there is a section at the end that hints of things to come. Personally, I now intend to watch the show as it looks awesome. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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The Marriage Season by Jane Dunn

I had a hard time getting into this book. At many times, it felt very anachronistic or hit wrong notes. At other times, it felt like someone was trying to set a record for talking about horses. The main characters were dull and the male love interests didn’t exactly sound like they would make good husbands for the women. I was bored with the women and really disliked the men.

Story: Sybella lost her beloved new husband in the war but he left her a precious gift – a son, now 6 years old. Together with her sister, the two embark on a trip to London to find a suitable husband for Lucie. Cue several candidates for both women and a lot of horses.

This is a book where not a lot happens and nearly every character lacks charisma. The men all have bad traits that I imagine the women are supposed to cure when they obtain a wedding ring. But it was hard to get to that point. The scenes with Sybella’s son James were especially annoying and we are supposed to be enamored of his precociousness and obsession with horses – but it gets old fast and does not feel realistic at all. I was starting to skip through those scenes as a result. Both ladies did not feel like a part of the era and instead more like constructs who were a bit too preternatural and woke for the Regency milieu.

In all, the book greatly failed to keep my interest, was bland as milquetoast, and lacking a reason to want to root for or even like any of the main characters. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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A Starlet’s Secret To A Sensational Afterlife by Kendall Kulper

This is an enjoyable whodunnit that is best enjoyed when you don’t think too deep into it. Our heroine has strength and suitable 1930s chutzpah while the hero is decent enough to follow. This definitely feels like a YA novel: sadly the world building is rather non existent and it is hard to take things seriously. But as a time waster, it hits the mark.

Story: Henrietta decides to leave boring Chicago and head to Los Angeles to become an actress. She has no experience doing so but enough money socked away to get her through a month in Hollywood before she’d have to return home a failure. Declan is a young man in search of his mother (a failed actress) and working odd and dangerous jobs in the stunt industry while he follows clues to her whereabouts. When it becomes obvious to both that there is something very rotten at the heart of Hollywood, each will have to decide how much they are willing to sacrifice in order to achieve their dreams.

This is set in 1930s Tinseltown though sadly we mostly get movie sets rather than the streets of Los Angeles’ glamour era. All names have been changed so there is no Hedda Hopper or Samuel Goldwyn. Film noir hasn’t really become vogue yet so Hollywood is a place where happiness is manufactured in the form of movies to help a depression-weary America.

As leads, Henny and Declan are fine. They are forced together in order to create a romance story for the public for Silver Wing Studios’ new rising star (Henny) and the usual sparks ensue. The twist here is that Declan is immortal/cannot be injured and Henny soon begins seeing ghosts of dead/missing starlets. They join their talents to solve the mystery of who is killing starlets – before Henny becomes the next victim. Along the way are mobsters, PIs, falls off the Colorado bridge, and handsy producers and costars. Those two are the only ones with supernatural abilities in the entire book and no attempt is made to explain either’s situation. Even stranger, no one seems to take their abilities too seriously.

In all, this was a not-too-serious romp/mystery in old Hollywood with a bit of supernatural thrown in for fun. It is an easy read and you’ll be rooting for the couple by the end. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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