Bright Shining World by Josh Swiller

Bright Shining World is a book that, while it doesn’t talk down to you, never really achieves any semblance of believability. Our main character is snarky and always has the perfect snippy one-liner to the adults, making him an instantly likable (though unrealistic) anti-hero. There are the usual “high school is weirder than science fiction” moments and in that way, this is kind of a fun play against type on the typical YA romance. But the eco agenda is heavy enough to be stifling (as well as very annoyingly repetitive).

Story: Wallace has followed his distant father all around the USA, often staying in a town for maybe a year until his father fixes whatever problem is at the nuclear power plant and they move on to the next one. Wallace is tired of saying goodbye, of never getting to stay with a girl long enough to get intimate, and with a father who barely acknowledges him and looks to be permanently traumatized by the death of his wife many years ago. But Wallace’s new school in upstate New York is different: the students are suffering from ‘hysteria’ and there are rumors of bright lights in the forest and the trees talking. Wallace soon begins to suspect his father is involved in more than just fixing nuclear power plants.

While the blurb makes this book sound serious, its tone is anything but grave. Rather, because of Wallace’s constant snarky observations on his life and others’ lives, it feels much more like a rant on the silliness of American culture. There are countless ‘hit you over the head with a sledgehammer’ paragraphs about how the world is killing nature and the Earth – even the plot itself is a rant against humanity’s insatiability. I have to admit, the lack of subtlety felt like the greatest weakness in the book: the author could have made the message more poignant with a bit more care. By the time we meet the bad guy, the characterizations get ludicrous.

The characters themselves are quirky, if cliche’d. The overachieving cheerleader, the geek who stays in his basement all night, the jock who randomly hates anything new and beats up other kids (especially new kids), etc. It makes the characters and plot feel paper-thin and unrelatable. Wallace looks to be the only sane one in a world created to destroy Earth’s ecosystem and he’ll make sure you know that ad infinitum.

Wallace as a character is very snarky and that was fun – for about the first 20%. Then the ‘angry angsty teen’ began to wear thin when there were no natural dialogue scenes to be found. I couldn’t engage in the plot or characters, especially when the ‘twist’ at the end (the reason for the hysteria) and the ‘big bad’ were just silly. At one point, I have to admit I thought about Shyamalan movies The Village and The Happening often since this felt like one of those movies. The ending was just as anticlimactic and disappointing as in those movies.

In all, I didn’t hate Bright Shining World. It was easy to read and there were a few laughs with the Wallace repartee. But it also was clearly a book with an agenda the author wanted to forward and with characters who were cliches and cardboard cutouts of high school life. Wallace never turned into a person I wanted to root for and especially the adults were disappointingly the typical ‘self obsessed, stupid, dense’ caricatures that are a hallmark of anything aimed at teens. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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I was Legion by Evan Currie

I am going to guess that this is self published; there are quite a few typographical or grammar errors throughout that really bring the overall quality of the read down. But it is an Evan Currie book so it has plenty of relatable characters performing plenty of action. That said, for an author who has always channeled Star Wars in his books, you’ll definitely see the references clearly here: young princess, young idealistic guy saving her, elderly mentor, mysterious abilities, and a smuggler saving them against his better judgement. It’s all good fun – escapist sci fi that won’t challenge you with technobabble or high concepts. Consider this the anti-French Revolution, Star Wars style.

Story: When Earth began to become too toxic for life, mankind spreads out among the stars, taking the best and the brightest minds away from the cradle of humanity. What was left on Earth was a mess; then one man changed all that and brought the Earth together under his rule with force. Now, his ancestor wants to complete his mission and return rule to the people now that the time is right – something the nobles are decidedly against. When a coup happens, the ruler’s daughter becomes a commodity the nobles have to control: whoever controls the bloodline controls the Earth. But Princess Jinsha has a protector – a young member of the mysterious order of the legionnaires. Can Eryn save the princess before the nobles take control of her and yet also before the colonies decide that Earth is now a soft target for conquest?

Most of the book consists of Jinsha and Eryn outwitting the coup during the escape. Eryn has a former mentor who is both an Obi-Wan and Darth Vader, countering Eryn’s moving with a preternatural ability reminiscent of The Force. Eryn himself is highly idealistic and, not coming from nobility, has a natural predisposition not to trust the nobles. As a legionnaire, he is equipped with a special laser sword and known for its cutting ability. Freighter Captain Jan is the owner of an interesting ship with a unique name that he uses to transport both legal and contraband items. So far, so Star Wars.

As with all of Currie’s books, the characters make the story. There’s nothing deep here and there are always far too many POVs (e.g., do we really need a POV of the fighter pilot chasing down Eryn as he is trying to escape?). But it’s just so much fun, who cares? Sometimes, it is best to just let it go and enjoy the ride. Currie knows how to write ‘fun’ and, like Star Wars, his sci fi universes are enjoyable relatable.

For a book like this, it’s best to make sure your expectations align with the writing style. Nothing deep here just plain adventure and fun. Despite just being published now, this feels very much like a book from very early in his writing career: it may not have the sophistication of the Oddyssey One series but it has all the zeal and ‘raise you fist in the air’ bravado that we’ve come to expect from Mr. Currie.

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The Many Lives of Pusheen The Cat by Claire Belton

This one is a bit odd to review as it’s not really a type of book I’m familiar with (picture book? Cofee table book?). Some aspects of it feel a bit like a comic strip but primarily I feel like I’m seeing a collection of postcards with a Pusheen content in them, all printed into one volume. Perhaps most likely one-offs to be licensed to be put on various products?

The book is divided into nine sections, each covering one of the Pusheen archetypes, from plain o’ Pusheen to Pusheenicorn, Dragonsheen and so forth. There’s no real great insight in any of them (or rather, there is no insight at all), but it’s fun to see a range of drawings for each type.

In addition to the adorable art, the content is mostly a range of Pusheen antics and other minifunnies. While a truly dedicated fan might coo and aww at each one, others will likely be left wanting. None of them are bad, but they mostly bring a smile to your face rather than make you actually laugh (ok, I did laugh at the take on “Social Media for Cats”). Still reading through this at one sitting is probably not the intended use for this book.

If you’re a superfan and love all things Pusheen then likely this book will be purrfect for you. If you think she’s cute in T-shirts and stickers and the like, then you might enjoy looking at the adorable art and the mildly amusing jokes. For others, there’s probably not much here. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Requiem of The Rose King Volume 13 by Aya Kanno

With Volume 13, we get the culmination of all the plotting: Richard finally ascends the throne of England. The princes in the tower are quietly dispatched and power is consolidated. But the price has been steep as Richard continues to battle the duality of his nature: both male and female, angel and devil, saint and sinner, and with no place to truly call home.

Story: Through cleverly orchestrated theatrics, Buckingham and Richard convince the people of England that it is their choice to make Richard King. But as evening falls, Richard is finding it difficult to put off consummating his relationship with his queen. He is always drawn back to the only warmth and acceptance he has ever had: with Buckingham. But there is a Henry in the past who is now haunting even that relationship. And a new thorn has appeared in his side in the form of Henry Tudor.

Despite the big moment in this volume of Richard ascending the throne, there are serious clouds on the horizon, especially with the relationship with Buckingham. Those versed in the Shakespeare play upon which this is based will know how things will soon go downhill very fast. There are several hints of what is to come but, of course, it will be interesting to see how Aya Kanno spins it.

This continues to be a fun and imaginative take on Shakespeare’s play. I appreciate that Kanno took out a lot of Plantagenet prejudices that Shakespeare was obliged to put in a play written for the Tudor era monarchy. Now that Henry Tudor has appeared in this volume 16, we have most of the players in place for the end of Richard’s reign. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Lady Mechanika by Joe Benitez

The Lady Mechanika series has been a guilty pleasure – the stories are not groundbreaking but the artwork was breathtaking enough to make it worth every moment spent reading. With Volume 6, that beautiful Benitez artwork is missing here as new artists step in to fill his shoes. They are definitely not bad artists but I couldn’t help but feel that a lot of the look and especially feel of the series was missing. But we do have a complete arc here and more tantalizing hints as to Mechanika’s secret history.

Story: In Aztec era Mexico, the Spaniards have brought more than firearms, horses, and disease: they also brought those who survive on blood. In Mechanika’s day, what looks to be an investigation into a possessed Baron’s son turns into far more as ancient history rears its head and an ancient vengeance plays out.

I have to admit, I greatly missed the decorative borders and and beautiful paneling of Benitez. Yes, his artwork is distinct and lovely but I came to realize through each volume that he is more than just preternaturally thin idealized characters. The lady Mechanika world had a unique look and feel that some how got tossed out here into a more generic no-so-streampunky-anymore bland world. I have to appreciate that Benitez gives his artists artistic freedom but do lament that so much flavor has been lost in the process for this series.

The story here is fine – on pat with previous volumes. There’s always a main arc and then a secondary arc that will reveal more of Mechanika’s mysterious origins. The series has been leaning more and more to the supernatural than the mechanical so it is going to be interesting to see where the story goes from here.

In all, I’ll continue reading the series due to the mysteries unfolding about Mechanika’s past. But I do greatly miss Benitez’s work that was so amazing. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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All Stirred Up by Brianne Moore

First – I am VERY glad I listened to the audiobook version of this story – the narrater was fantastic and did such a great job with a wide range of characters and accents. Her storytelling skills really brought the Edinburgh scene to life.

As a retelling of a Jane Austen Novel, I was impressed. I’ve read some really bad retellings lately and only now caome across one that really understands that the heart of the Persuasion novel is more about the characters then the ‘lost love’ trope. As a contemporary Austen, it is lovely; entertaining and with a wide spectrum of emotional situations. As a romance – perhaps less so. That’s not where the focus is (not here and not in the Jane Austen novel). In that, the cover suggesting a cute little lite romance is very misleading: this is more of a slice of life of a modern Edinburgh woman with some romance on the side (which I appreciated but others may not).

Story: Susan’s grandfather’s legacy is a chain of prestigious restaurants that has kept the family in good fortune. But that was the past and her vain father’s mismanagement has led to the closure of the satellites and with the original Elliot’s coasting on its laurels. Susan returns to the Edinburgh flagship restaurant to give it a rehaul – revitalize and modernize it and reinvigorate the brand again. At the same time, her grandfather’s protégé has returned to Edinburgh to create his own restaurant. At one time, Susan and Chris were an item but family situations drove them apart. Will being competitors prevent any chance of making up for the past?

For the Persuasion part, I really feel that the author captured it quite well. The side characters and plot are modernized in a good way that make sense yet are still respectful of the depth and subtlety of the original. From the vain father, the mismanagement of wealth, frivolous suitors, etc. But even more, both Chris and Susan are very reminiscent of their Austen counterparts Anne and Wentworth: grounded, realistic, and still hanging on to the past. I am very glad that author Moore kept the characters intact. The plot follows the novel fairly closely but not slavishly, which is also a relief.

Because the homage is Austen, this isn’t a quirky romance with twinkly overdramatic characters and scenes. There are a lot of discussions about food, the restaurant business, show business, and especially Edinburgh. Those looking for a focus on romance may be frustrated since the romance does takea back seat to the milieu and family dynamics of both main characters. Susan is constantly dealing with her family while Chris also has his own family issues. There are many discussions and descriptions of Edinburgh locales.

If I had a nitpick, I wish Susan was plainer (as was Anne) and Chris a lot less ‘hunkier’ sounding in his description. The author says several times that Chris looks like Christopher Lambert from The Highlander movie – and perhaps it is no coincidence that he is named Chris. I just had a hard time picturing the Highlander spending ‘most of his time in the kitchen’ as was said throughout the novel. Other than walks with a dog, we never hear about him doing anything physical to keep up that physique.

So, although there were some issues, I did greatly enjoy the narration and the plot. I appreciated that the author respected Austen’s characters and resisted the impulse to make them over the top in order to appeal to modern audiences. And I like a book that is gentle and heartwarming. I just wish the cover better reflected the nature of the book. And if you do decide to read All Stirred Up, I highly recommend the audio version. The narrator is excellent and elevators the story even further. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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The Photography Storytelling Workshop by Finn Beales

This is exactly what you want in a workshop book – instruction, inspiration, and assignments. Everything is clearly laid out, there are great examples that really highlight the assignments, and the author is thoroughly modern and up-to-date (a failing so many photography books have). I highly recommend this for all photographers, whether amateur or professional, with thousands of dollars in camera equipment or just a simple prosumer. The book does an excellent job of teaching you the difference between clicking a shutter button and being a photographer. And most importantly, it teaches you everything you need to know about securing jobs with commercial entities.

The book starts with the basics, including what equipment you need and explains the essence of a great photographer. Storytelling is explored through text and images with great explanations of how to make a photograph that creates ‘a second look’ by the viewer. Since the book has a focus on being a professional and working with corporate clients, the author goes through the process of creating a photo story. Also included are how to pitch for work, doing prep work, expenses, editing and final selection of images. I liked that there are tips, creative briefs and many real world examples. A company even allowed the author to use their product shoot in the book so we have an actual example of the process. This includes mood boards, call sheets, directing models and post production. I especially appreciate that pricing is included.

The Workshop section was especially good. The author goes into how to build a story around a product and entertain the audience at the same time. But the projects/assignments are not necessarily commercial in nature. A sample project would be to e.g., capture an environmental portrait. There is a brief (capture an intriguing environmental portrait of someone close to you), requirements (frame your subject, use props for context, keep things natural), and objective (tell a simple story about the character of your subject/the viewer should be able to comprehend the scene and character). These are all cleanly laid out and easy to follow. The brief, requirements and objective are further explained with examples given of a finished project.

Storytelling photography is often about several images (just as a novel is about several words). To that extent, establishing shots, transition shots, cutaways/details, and reveals are all explained. But also long shots, close ups and cutaways, and medium distance shots.

What really sets this book apart is that it is thoroughly modern. It tells how to use social media and phone aps – and is set in the digital age. No old school cinema verite type of street photography in black and white cliches being shown as the only ‘true’ photography storytelling style. Yet at the same time, this is a photographer who has experience with film and understands the medium. He’s not a modern flash-in-the-pan type of visual photographer but clearly thinks deeply about every session.

As with any written workshop book, there is no teacher to fine tune or personalize what you do as with an in-person workshop; but then again, the cost differential between hundreds to thousands of dollars and the price of a book more than compensates for that lack. The one criticism I have of this book is that the author begins by saying location doesn’t matter; yet all the photographs he shows are from exotic locations around the globe. It felt disingenuous. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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The Pocket Complete Color Harmony by Tina Sutton

This is meant as a reference for professionals – individuals in various artistic or design fields who already have an understanding of color. As such, the introduction to color section is very brief and fairly inscrutable. The heart of the book is providing a mood and then swatches that would achieve that mood. But the swatches look to be done in watercolor, oddly enough, and are strangely blurry in many places, making them difficult to distinguish. In all, I had a very hard time appreciating this book.

The book breaks down as follows: Introductory sections (color wheel, how to use color, color chart, process color), a breakdown of color aspects (cool, hot, warm, light, dark, pale bright), and then moods and color. The back has some brief writeups about the psychology of color, color conversion charts, color swatches.

As noted earlier, the introduction to color is pretty useless. You’re not going to gain an understanding of how primary, secondary, and tertiary work and it is all pretty confusing, to be honest. There isn’t even much of a discussion of shades and tints to make sure you are using those words correctly. I’ve worked with color for many years and was baffled at the presentation.

Since the book is about creating moods with color, there is an explanation of the psychology of color. The author makes an odd choice to say that a person’s favorite color is a reliable indicator of their personality type and then gave examples – which felt like astrology to me.

The color chart and swatches weren’t ‘pantone-like’ solid color. Instead, the color charts are all water color-like paints with the white showing through. To show the transition of a color from darkest to lightest, they just desaturated the original and blurred it out more. To show the tertiary colors, they mixed the red and green watercolors so that you could still see both the red and green in the orange. For the mix of green and red, we had a yellow with a lot of green in it rather than something approaching blue. It was very odd.

The moods are cleanly arranged but with a whole blob of swatches in your face; it creates a lot of distraction. Each mood (e.g., “romantic” – which is heavy on pinks and greens) is broken down by: monochromatic swatches, primary swatches, complementary swatches, analogous swatches, split complementary swatches, split swatches, clash swatches, and neutral swatches. It creates a wide range of color combinations but there is no understanding of why you would want e.g., a split complementary set of colors over clash when creating your ‘romantic’ mood. Why you would use red, green and light blue (split swatches) versus purple, light purple, and pink (analogous). With a page filled with 20 swatches next to another page with another 20 or so, it’s a confusion of color.

The author has numbered each color for reference in the book but be reminded that in real life, you’ll be going by Pantone or other professional color identification. It might be a bit confusing and frustrating to choose a color scheme in the book and then have to match it up in a paint store or furniture store where the colors are tainted by fluorescent lighting. What you think was a light pink in the store comes out fuchsia in natural light.

So, as a mood book this does provide inspiration and it should definitely not be something you get to better understand color harmony. I found the ‘watercolor’ presentation lackluster (I’d rather have opaque color). I also didn’t like that for each swatch, some colors were solid and others were fuzzy and out of focus. I’m not sure why they were presented that way because it hurt the eyes and made it a chore to ‘read’. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the pulisher.

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To Love and to Loathe by Martha Waters

Enemies-to-lovers can be fun, especially if written in a witty manner with sparkling dialogue and heartfelt characters (as with Pride and Prejudice). And although the writing here with To love and To Loathe is fine, I found I didn’t get invested in the plot at all. It lacked the likeable characters of Pride and Prejudice while also missing the bite and lessons of the repartee in Dangerous Liaisons. Several scenes just dragged while also feeling very anachronistic. There was a marked lack of subtlety in everything.

Story: Diana had one goal in life: secure a financially advantageous marriage, hopefully with an elderly man who will depart life soon after. This accomplished, she is now a bored widow looking for a bit of bed play. Her childhood friend Jeremy (Marquess of Willingham) is a jaded gambler, womanizer, and unfortunately low on money (making him always a poor marriage choice). But the two have had always had a quirky friendship and now Jeremy comes knocking on Diana’s door for a bit more. She’s intrigued – but does she take him up on the offer to make her his mistress (and thus create the ‘calling card’ that Diana is available for various lovers)?

As you can see, this is not your traditional ‘young virginal nubile’ protagonist. The ‘rake’ as a lover that will be transformed by the relationship/love is old but where else can the author go from here? Both characters are shallow, selfish, and self-centered – neither really cares what the other wants. So this feels more like a love letter to 1980s Reagan era than a Regency ‘romance’.

The bon mots and witty repartee are ok here: there are some good quips/comebacks but they began to feel mean spirited at some point (since the characters were so self-obsessed). Add in scenes where Diana will randomly throw a drink at the face of Jeremy just as a power play, and I didn’t find enough amusing or interesting to want to really stay with the story.

The plot does plod in places, especially considering I had a hard time caring about either of these selfish people. For witty repartee to work, I’d need more show than tell and more pathos and heart with the characters: the ruthlessness of Dangerous Liaisons verbal sparring or the warmth and charm of misunderstanding as in Pride and Prejudice. With this novel, we just had two disagreeable people looking to get their own selfish objectives realized. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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The Tower of Fools by Andrzej Sapkowski

This ‘new’ novel by Andrzej Sapkowski (originally published in 2002, but only translated now to English) is an historical fiction novel set around 1450 in the area between Poland and the Czech republic at the time of the Hussite Wars (which also sets the scene for the whole book). The main premise is the schism between the reformers, protestant Hussites and the Holy Roman Papacy. Knowing a bit of European history gives a nice background into the book but it is not mandatory to be able to read it. Some of the characters are real while others are fictional; as such, some should be recognizable by almost everyone and others only for history scholars. For the most part, the world of the book is real but there’s a bit of magic thrown in. Even with magic, this is definitely more of a historical than fantasy.

Story: Our protagonist, Reinmar of Bielawa, sleeps with a married woman and flees to avoid the wrath of the husband’s family. While everyone tells him to flee to Hungary, he invariably makes an increasing amount of stupid decisions that lead him, and his eventual companions, into more and more danger. I felt a bit like I was reading Odysseus – that is, if Odysseus was an idiot.

This is my main gripe with the book: the protagonist is mostly unlikable due to being foolish. his personality is fine – he’s a nice enough guy and usually tries to do the right thing. But, given an option to do something smart or stupid, he picks stupid every time. After the 10th time it gets old and you really start to wonder why the other characters put up with it or bother to come save him yet again.

The other parts of the book are better. I like the history part (though there are so many characters and names I totally gave up trying to remember them already in chapter 1). While I’ve studied a bit of history of the region, I could not really tell where the real stuff ended and fiction began. It all feels very real. The description of medieval religion is very accurate and unapologetic. Neither side of the conflict is good and the horrors inflicted in the name of a proper style of faith are vivid enough to become a bit uncomfortable. Similarly, descriptiona of the age at large are very nice – this is not a fantasy setting with clean and happy peasants and noble knights. The world is gritty and dirty.

The writing (or perhaps translation) style is good, though it is very wordy and flowery at times, especially the dialogue. There are a lot of Latin quotes and if you know the basics you’ll get a bit more out of the book. And like I mentioned before, there’s an unlimited number of names and places, but luckily you don’t have to remember the vast majority of them. The story has a good pace, though occasionally due to the main character’s tendency to go in the wrong direction all the time, it’s not quite clear if you are actually getting anywhere in the story. I did not realize this was not a standalone novel until the very end of the book.

For those who are thinking of reading this because of the Witcher books (likely fairly many): The writing style is the same and the world is similarly gritty. The war of the religions is similar to the war between the empires. The main character is like Dandelion without any of the charm plus a bit of a noble streak. The story is a bit like the part in the Witcher where Gerald follows Ciri around the map without actually getting furthering the plot in the process. There’s a bit of the same dry humor here, as well as the tendency for various characters to be surprising philosophers. In short, if you loved the Witcher you might enjoy this but it really doesn’t have the same charm. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Black Sun By Rebecca Roanhorse

While I didn’t love Black Sun, it was an easy read. I appreciated the pre-columbian middle American setting (of note: this is a pure fantasy piece, not a magical realism historical) and the characters felt very modern and #metoo now, with a host of LGBQTI and female empowerment storylines. But I have to admit I was very uncomfortable right from the start of the book with a mother multilating her son for religious reasons and the whole undertone of religion being bad. Granted, those are appropriate themes for a pre-columbian setting but it’s too close to a horror aspect for me to enjoy.

Story: At the age of 12, Serapio’s mother lovingly blinds him and sews his eyelids shut in order to prepare him to be a vessel of their crow god. Now an adult, he is to be ferried to his home city to fulfill his mother’s carefully wrought prophecy of vengeance on a rival religion. Xiala commands the ship to take him and becomes ever fascinated with the quiet young man. At the same time, the city to which they travel has become embroiled in conspiracy as the major religious leader Naranpa ponders how to save her floundering flock and hold back rivals eroding her position.

This is a very modern approach to fantasy storytelling. We have a nearly all-female cast of very strong women who are more empowered than their male counterparts. In fact, nearly all the men in the story are either weak or under the power of the women in the society. From Xiala, a sea captain, to Naranpa, the head of the major religion in the area, to Naranpa’s battle hardened chief guard (who is also nonbinary and goes by “xe” instead of he/she). Only two male characters get POVs – Serapio and a warrior of the crow clan. The women are very liberated to pursue their own sexual partners without interference or condemnation from their male counterparts.

This first book in the series, which ends fairly abruptly, has three main storylines: Serapio, the god vessel, being tortured and tormented most of his life by his mother and then various ‘tutors’; Xiala the sea captain dealing with backstabbing crewmates; and head priest Naranpaa dealing with ambitious priests out to take her position away. Another smaller storyline features the brother of the head priest of Serapio’s crow god. Most of the characters talk in very modern speak, making the story much more relatable to a modern audience.

There is plenty of adventure as Serapio makes his voyage to his mother’s home city in order to fulfill the destiny she so carefully crafted for him. Although the POVs change often, they are not too hard to follow and it is clear that their stories are leading to the same convergence.

The setting is mostly Mayan but I spotted some Aztec influences in there as well. You won’t find the clichés such as sacrifice/heart removal at the top of a step pyramid. But because the voices are so modern and feature 2020 topical issues, I also didn’t really get a feeling of the pre-columbian culture. At times, it felt like a CW Television show version of pre-columbian America that, while easy-to-swallow, also felt distilled and then given a modern make-over.

Black Sun feels like an easy YA-read with (thankfully) a different fantasy setting than the typical medieval Europe. It will keep you engaged and is a nice nod to #metoo as well as great representation for the LGBQT community. But the continual tormenting/mutilation of the main character deserves a trigger warning. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Star Trek: Deep Space 9 The U.S.S Defiant Illustrated Handbook by Simon Hugo (Edited by), Ben Robinson

Preface: I’ve seen every episode of DS9 at least three times. Once when it was first airing, second time about 15 years ago and a third time just a few years back when the series became available on Netflix. It is also my favorite Star Trek series of all time.

Hence, I delved into this book in order to find new information, interesting bits of lore that I did not know and reliving some very good memories.

Unfortunately the book didn’t deliver very well on any of these. A large portion of the book are schematics of the station, the runabouts and Defiant and the various technologies contained within them. It’s definitely a comprehensive list, but also a list that likely any (semi-HC) Trek fan will already know. Some have a bit of extra detail, but most just regurgitate information that was learned in one episode or another. The cross section graphics are very nice, but also only cover the sections that I already know – the parts that we’ve seen in the show. In “reality” DS9 is a very large space station (1.5km across and almost 1km high), and the sets available to the show covered a very small portion of it. I was really hoping to get a glimpse into the parts we never saw. Alas, there’s very little of that here.

The cross sections and details on various technologies are nice but again, very little is said that was not revealed in the show (which for most things is actually not that much). On several I got a feeling that there was a minimum word limit that the author was shooting for, even when the source material did not really extend that far.

For the tie-in, there’s a good smattering of various episodes thrown in various places. A lot of time this felt a bit forced though. Some even feel flipped – the whole section was written just because there happened to be an episode about it (Zek’s call center did not really need a cross section treatment).

As the book is written from in-universe perspective, I would have hoped for a more general treatment of DS9, not too focused on the episodes we saw. Again the station is big, and the time span of the series is long. It makes the universe feel small if no interesting things of note ever happened that did not happen to our principal crew.

Still, I did enjoy this trip down the memory lane, I was just left hoping for more. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Teen Titans GO! Roll With It by Heather Nuhfer, P.C. Morissey, Agnes Garbowska, Sandy Jarrell

More reviews at the Online Eccentric Librarian

More reviews (and no fluff) on the blog The back of the book lists the recommended age as 8-12 and I’m almost 4x that range. Still, being a huge fan of the original Teen Titans (not Go) TV series, and quite enjoyed the silly adaptation of Teen Titans Go, I wanted to give this one a whirl.

From an adult reader point of view, this comic feels pretty much as it does watching the TV series. There’s enough crazy antics to make it amusing, lots of (good and bad) puns and stabs and references a plenty. But also just like the TV show, it too often devolves into what looks like a bad acid trip and the plot loses cohesion and is just plain nuts.

Story; Robin is a huge Dungeons & Dragons fan (sorry, I mean Basements and Basilisks) and entices/forces the rest of the team to play in his campaign. Secretly, Jinx is actually influencing him in order to trap the team into the campaign so she can go on a crime spree. In other words, the plot is silly but definitely appropriate for the series.

If you’re a fan of D&D, there’s plenty of in-jokes in here to amuse. All the tropes of varying styles of roleplaying and DM’ing are being made fun of, and having Robin be a rules-lawyering DM is very much in his nature. Jinx’s campaign where the PC’s get everything going their way, and that the team prefers, is also very believable and fun. Though, I’m not sure how many 8-12 year olds will be able to get a lot of the jokes here. Being a long time D&D fan I enjoyed these quite a bit – but also felt there was more mileage that could have been done on this premise.

The comic falls flat on two main areas: firstly, it goes too whacko too often. I never liked that in the series either. The second is that while the comic is 100+ pages, it feels like it’s running at the crazy pace of the TV series which is like 10minutes per episode. There are two many things crammed in and the plot moves all over the place. In this medium there’d be more time to spend on, well, everything.

Art is passable. It’s not great but matches the Adobe Flash art of the series very well. The ARC version had a pretty low resolution in the graphics, but I doubt this is an issue with the actual release.

All in all, if you watched the series, you’ll know what you’ll find here. Nothing better, but also nothing worse. Reviewed from an advance reader copy (ARC) provided by the publisher.

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The Art of Ghost of Tsushima

There are art books – and then there is something that transcends the genre. With the Art of Ghost of Tsushima, a beautiful game is elevated through all kinds of visuals: storyboards, world building, character designs, and the user interface. Those interested in game development will find a lot here but others who enjoyed the game will marvel at the jaw dropping paintings and art. Quite a few were so good I wish I could have used them as art on my walls. It may be an idealized Japan and Island of Tsushima but it is a glorious one.

The book breaks down as follows: Characters, World, Legends DLC, Storyboards, User Interface, Visual Development.

The characters section will give you concept art, background info on the characters, their various cosmetics (mask, outfit, sword) and how the artists approached character aesthetics. I appreciated that all the main characters had concept art that was just stunning to behold. But we’re also given all the Mongol outfits as well as monks, companions, guardians, vendors. etc.

The World section focuses on what the Mongols were doing to Tsushima. There is concept art from many mediums and discussions/info about important areas on the map such as the Ariake Golden Temple and Castle Kaneda. Everything from home types to camps are given lush graphics to explore. The game comes with several biomes – swampy to snowy, forest to coastline.

The Legends DLC combines world and characters, providing an intriguing preview to the download.

The storyboards show how the animators created their storytelling. The illustration work is clean and detailed – and each provide an interesting perspective on the littlest things – such as looking up from under a straw hat to wrangling the Ghost’s horse.

The user interface shows all the details that make the game usable – from Japanese Mon symbols for the families to how the team approached levelling up.

Finally, the visuals section explores how objects like trees or landscapes were created: with an eye toward realistic but very much focused on expression. The colors a bit brighter, the trees more colorful, and changing time of day views such as sunset. It’s here that you find the absolute best images.

The book is 90% images, many full page but smaller ones as well. There is so much to explore and enjoy, especially after you have finished the game. Because this is so gorgeous, I highly recommend it. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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The Fowl Twins: Deny All Charges by Eoin Colfer

Eoin Colfer has consistently been one of the few authors who can write for children but spark the joy of adults as well. With this new Fowl Twins series we get all the hallmarks of Artemis Fowl but with a bit more in the form of creative dynamics between our two twins, Miles and Beckett. The plots are not convoluted and fairly short but you really have to appreciate the humor and writing here. Colfer is really at the top of his game and I had quite a few outloud chuckles throughout the read.

Story: Miles and Beckett are into mischief again, causing their parents to put a fast hold on the adventures. The parents already lost one son (who fortunately came back) and therefore are doubly careful with the twins. But a personal vendetta against Miles by a murderous Dwarven clan will cause the boys to forsake their promise to their parents and once again team up with Agent Lazuli of the LEP force.

What I really like about the Fowl series is that our hero(s) is never black and white; e.g., Miles (like his annoying big brother Artemis) pretty much wants to take over the world but ends up saving it instead accidentally. It’s this type of humor that is very tricky to write but very fun to read. Colfer is clearly having as much fun with the twins as he did Artemis (a favorite line in the beginning of the book: “In fact, the Fowl twin kept a tally of his victories, and by his reckoning he had to date incapacitated twenty-seven special forces officers, eleven burglars, a small carful of clowns, six drunken Dublin men, five bullies whom he caught picking on smaller children, three big-game poachers, and, in a display of cosmic humor, an intrusive journalist named Partridge who had concealed himself in a pear tree”).

With book two, we get much more of the Fowl parents, which was a nice change. As well, expect cameos again from LEPers such as Holly Short. But for the most part, this is a book about Miles, Beckett, and Lazuli. We get each of their perspectives in a fun way through shifting time periods an moments. It leaves you guessing quite a bit which made the book all that more interesting.

I greatly enjoyed the Fowl Twins and feel that Colfer writing has never been better – this new series, now with book 2, is every bit as good as the original Artemis Fowl series. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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The Unofficial Disney Parks Cookbook by Ashley Craft

This is a nicely presented cookbook with a good survey of sweet and savory park goodies: from Dole Whip to Bengal Beef Skewers, Juleps to Tiger Tail Breadsticks. Even the Grey Stuff and Blue Milk recipes are in here. There are some photographs of finished images but as an unofficial book, all the food has to be presented very independent of the parks themselves. So although the magic is likely eating the food in the park, this is a great way to spend a Covid isolation weekend conjuring great memories.

The recipes are broken down by park: all 4 Disney Resort Florida (Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, Hollywood Studios, EPCOT) and 2 Disneyland Resort (Disneyland and California Adventure). There is a nice write up about each park and a bit about the recipes and their places in the park. A nice addition is a faux ‘park map’ that shows where you would find these delights – all suitably drawn in a cartoony style resembling what you would get at the actual parks. Other items such as equipment needed are also given the ‘cartoon’ treatment in keeping with the theme.

Each page has a nice decorative border theme. The title is in bold gold at the top with a “Did you know? paragraph at the bottom that provides tidbits about the parks or food item. Ingredients are in bold and italics on the left with short numbered steps on the right. There is no nutrition info given (for obvious reasons, ha!), only serving size. Each recipe tells you where it can be found in its respective park. Of note, only parks food is included – not restaurants at resorts such as Sanaa in Animal Kingdom Lodge.

I like that there is a nice selection of old and new – e.g., we get the original Disneyland Fritters recipe even though they have long since been replaced by Double Chocolate Fritters or Berry Cheesecake Fritters. As well, there are seasonal items from e.g., Food and Wine festival that became a staple (e.g., the Croissant Donut). But the real stars in the EPCOT section are the popular World Showcase items such as Caramel Popcorn from the Karamell-Kuche stand and School Bread from Norway (the caramel is made from scratch!). Even new land Galaxy’s Edge is represented – Ronto Wraps and colored milks!

The thing you’ll need to understand about the book is that you’ll need a wide range of kitchen items – from an ice cream maker, ice shaver, ramkins, to Mickey shaped cookie cutters. As well, what is made fairly inexpensively in bulk at the park can be very time consuming for a family-sized portion. But these are all solid recipes that recreate the food (if not always the presentation) of the parks.

In all, because it has such a lovely design despite being unofficial, I feel it would be a great present for a park lover, especially one with children. For all Disney Park fans, it’s definitely a must – just include a set of mickey shaped cookie cutters with the book. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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The infinite Feast by Brian THeis

I can now say I have fallen hard and truly in love: with a cookbook! This is absolutely everything I have ever wanted in a cookbook: great recipes, beautiful illustrations, copious photographs, a great voice, and just a joy and exuberance that is so rarely found these days. It’s like your fantasy 1960s perfect party day come true with wonderful vintage songs, decorations, themes, cooking tips, and of course recipes. How about a ‘snack stadium’ for game day in January? What cocktails to serve for that perfect Luau? Theme napkins? Even great vintage serving finds in avocado green and harvest gold!

The book breaks the recipes down by seasons: New Year (Winter Feast, Chinese New Year, cookies from around the world, valentine in Paris), Spring (Carnival, Italian holiday, Easter primavera), Summer (luaus pool parties, Mexican fiesta), and Harvest Season (Texas hayride, Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas). In between the recipes are interviews with chefs from New Orleans and New York City, songs, party ideas, decorations, presentations, and more. Each page is an explosion of joy, color, and great food!

There are some great recipes in here. From Captain Nemo’s Hot Curry Crab Dip to Marie Laveau’s Voodoo Maque Choux! Apple Pandowdy pie to figgy pudding. There are some fun traditional finds (deviled eggs) to more interesting tastes (creole crawfish n cornbread dressing for Thanksgiving). Although the theme throughout is vintage 1960s New Orleans, there are many international recipes as well.

This is a cookbook I HAVE to have in person. The kindle version is great and handy but the book is so beautiful and useful that I want one I can have open in my kitchen. This is by far my favorite cookbook I’ve come across and I have to give huge props to the team that put this together. It truly is fantastic! Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Instant Pot Miracle Vegetarian Cookbook by Urvashi Pitre

This is a bit hard to rate since the book does deliver on the title: simple and easy vegetarian recipes. I didn’t find any of the recipes inspiring or “must cook this right now!” but many looked to be suitable to try out, if only for something quick and easy for the evening’s meal. There are many photographs but problematic again, I found an example where it was the same dish, just photographed from a different angle. Serving and prep information is given but there are no nutrition breakdowns. So this is very much a mixed bag of good and no-so-good.

The sections are broken down by: Vegetable recipes, Bean recipes, Rice/Grains recipes, Eggs/Cheese recipes, Sauces/Spice mixes, and then Desserts/Drinks recipes. An introduction covers the author’s perspective on the book, how she approaches recipes and meals, instapot information, and an FAQ. The end of the book has a useful chart of dietary considerations (which recipes are gluten free, nut free, etc.) and then an index.

The recipes have a nice variety to them with an international flavor. E.g., ingredients can include things like Japanese curry blocks, soy curls, boba balls, Chinese black vinegar, coconut, garam masala, etc. The author prefers to not use ‘meat substitutes’ so you will find mushrooms, beans, sometimes tofu, in many vegetarian meals. The recipes are fairly easy despite not using many ‘cans’ or other prepared products. As well, many recipes are designed to be cooked alongside other items: e.g, you can cook Boston Baked Beans at the same time (in the same pot) that you are cooking Boston Brown Bread (by layering them).

The presentation is easy to follow, utilizing both orange and black colors. There is a short introduction to the recipe, prep time, allergy considerations, list of ingredients and then short numbered steps. There are photographs for every fourth recipe or so.

In all, although I didn’t find any recipes that made me want to rush to my pressure cooker, I did find the book to have some good options for vegetarian meals. There aren’t too many fancy or strange ingredients but be aware that recipes often call for ingredients you likely don’t have hanging around in your pantry (or, if you are in a rural area/located overseas, you may have trouble obtaining the ingredient). Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Zorro’s Shadow by Stephen J.C. Andes

Zorro’s Shadow is a thorough examination of the Zorro myth: from historical origins to comics, books, tv shows, and movies. As well, a thorough dissection of culture and myth, superhero origins and latinx whitewashing can be found throughout. The author takes an easy conversational tone that is neither dry nor boring. But at the same time, he did have a tendency to go off on a lot of meaningless tangents that added nothing to the story he was telling.

The first quarter of the book attempts to track down the origin of the legend – was it rebel/outlaw Joaquin Murrieta? Or was it Irish Spanish adventurer William Lamport? Author Andes takes great pains to thoroughly investigate both leads but ultimately (and frustratingly) comes up with very little. I found this first section so frustrating and full of odd musings and pointless journeys that I put the book down and didn’t pick it up again for several weeks.

The rest of the book is far more interesting: a dissection of the various media that have featured Zorro, from the first Zorro story called The Curse of Capistrano to 2005’s Antonio Banderas movie, The Legend of Zorro. You’ll get to know about the pulp author who created Zorro (and his notorious life) before travelling from his grave in Glendale to Hollywoodtown and Douglas Fairbanks assuming the role in movies. From there, Disney gave us Guy Williams and the comics picked up the mantle.

Throughout the historical facts are cultural/political/opinion /observations/discussions such as the white-washing of Zorro (e.g., The Lone Ranger). Discussions of how important Zorro became to the Latinx culture yet how rarely Zorro movies had actual Latinx actors in there is also covered. But I think the true discussion throughout is that Zorro is the inspiration for superheroes to come: Batman, etc.

So while it is a conversational read, it is also a frustrating one. The number of times the author says something to the point of “but I digress” can get annoying fast. Do we need to know the history of the Glendale Forest Lawn mortuary park where the first Zorro pulp author is buried? Do we really want to read about the author’s vacation to Mexico City where he talked with a security guard at a statue as to whether Zorro was real? Honestly, I just wanted him to get to the point. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Muse by Brittany Cavallaro

Muse started out promising: a rare YA where the heroine is understated and has to use her brains in order to navigate a world determined to keep her helpless. But a very slow first half morphed into a second half that built so much momentum that the ending felt both rushed and unsatisfying. There is an arc here but it felt manufactured.

Story: It’s 1893 and Claire Emerson’s province is celebrating – and posturing – through a grand World’s Fair. The province’s governor is young and untested, leaving the area ripe for a war and brutal takeover by a neighboring State. Claire’s father has created a giant canon exhibition for the governor and the fair to discourage a coup or takeover. But unbeknownst to the world, her father believes Claire is the key to the exhibition’s success through her ability to ‘bless’ good fortune. When the canon fails, she comes under the close scrutiny of the young governor and must learn to fight and stand up for herself. For in this game of politics, the stakes are life and death.

So what we have here is an alternate universe America where Washington decided on a monarchy rather than a democracy. Governors and the Kingship are hereditary positions leading to strife and posturing. There is a lot of scheming in the book as various political or non political individuals jockey for favors or prominence. This includes military generals, suffragettes, governors and inventors.

The characters are diverse and each followed their own desires. This led to many twists and turns, betrayals, surprises, and reveals. But it also meant that characters had very abrupt personality changes that felt both unrealistic and disingenuous – there to give a plot change rather than a natural and organic response to events. Several times I was pulled out of the plot because a character did a complete reversal on their stance and I had to reread to confirm the improbable. That said, I did like that characters were neither too good nor too evil – they were all at the mercy of their intellectual desires and needs.

The love story in this first volume was similarly odd. It was an instaluv that never turned into a romance. Very odd – and very unsatisfying. I’m sure it will grow and change in future volumes but for now, I had a hard time believing any of the confessions of affection. Or the abrupt falling out of love. Similarly, this had an odd friendship between Claire and Beatrix; one built more on familiarity than mutual respect and affection.

Finally, a really problematic issue for me is the art deco (1920/1930s) cover image for what is a Victorian era (1890s) setting. It’s like writing a book set in the 1950s and showing an image of 1970s disco balls and leisure suits. Even for an alternate universe where timelines may not match, the setting in the book is clearly Victorian era and not roaring 20s. I have to wonder if the artist mistook the 1933 Chicago Worlds Fair for the 1898 Chicago World’s Fair.

In all, I applaud the interesting characters, especially at the beginning. I just wish they were more realistic and consistent in their growth and responses. Similarly, with the plot, I wish it was paced better and without the very abrupt and unsatisfying end of this first volume. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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