Heartstone by Elle Katherine White

Heartstone follows the trend of so many Austen-inspired novels: the outline of the plot is intact but so much of the charm and wit of the inspiration material is completely missing. In this modern age of ‘tell but fail to actually show’, we have to assume the heroine is intelligent and that the hero has depths that belie the harsh exterior since neither will actually be demonstrated. Dragons do not make up for the missing nuances that make an Austen work so endearing but Heartstone is an easy read that flows smoothly, if blandly, with a satisfying ending.

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Story: Aliza Bentaine’s family has a deadly problem – gryphons have nested near their home and they’ve even lost a family member to the menace. Their solution is to hire the elite dragon riders to rid them of the problem. Proud and fierce head rider Alastair Daired is the best of his kind but is surprisingly frustrated by his attraction to non-dragon-kin Aliza. Meanwhile, his fellow dragon rider has taken a strange liking to Aliza’s beautiful sister.

Author White stays very close to the origin story, with only a few changes (e.g., one sister is dead when the story begins). But readers don’t need to have read the original Austen to enjoy Heartstone. If anything, I think it might be better not to have read Pride and Prejudice since Heartstone contains so many of the modern romance novel tropes that are incongruous to the spirit of an Austen book. E.g., I can’t imagine Austen writing about how good Darcy smells or chancing upon him shirtless and admiring his naked male physique. I’d call this “Austen Light” or a way to introduce readers to the great situations that made Austen’s romances so appealing.

I felt it was a clever idea to exchange aristocracy based upon nobility with aristocracy based upon ability to bond with a dragon. But that said, it wasn’t well thought out here; too much of Regency era nobility conventions were randomly combined with the ‘dragon nobility’ – women are both missish and fierce and therefore there was less of a uniqueness about a strong willed woman in Heartstone as with Elizabeth Bennet was in P&P. Darcy/Daired’s interest in Aliza was fairly inexplicable as a result. I wish the worldbuilding had been better thought out rather than have a fairly thin model fused with a Regency England milieu.

Pride and Prejudice is a large book that gives its characters time to grow. That doesn’t happen in Heartstone, which is both a blessing and a curse. I think the best description is that this is a Twinkie of a book – sweet but not very satisfying and easily forgettable after an hour. But as an afternoon diversion, I think this is definitely suitable for even younger YA audiences. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

The Bear and the Nightingale is a very well written and well researched story of the change from paganism to Christianity in historic Russia. In fact, I had a hard time discerning if this was more historical, magical realism, or urban fantasy since the story stays grounded yet magic peeks continually around the edges. Arden doesn’t go for over-idealized characters and each certainly has a personality of their own. And yet, admittedly, I had a hard time plowing through most of the book. I found I didn’t connect with the characters, didn’t want to read about Christianity ruthlessly obliterating the magical world, and felt the book was missing charm and playfulness in its over-earnest storytelling.

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Story: Out in the more deserted reaches of Russia, a nobleman raises his family quietly yet efficiently. His wife’s family had a mysterious background with connections to the Russian Czar. And now his youngest daughter, Vasilisa, is exhibiting the same fae traits of her mother and grandmother. While his sons and daughters move in the political world and make advantageous marriages that take them far from home, Vasilisa is left with her new stepmother – a woman afraid of the old world magic and very much invested in Christianity for protection. When a minister with a ‘golden tongue’ is sent to the family to keep him from over-influencing the Czar’s court with his entrancing Christian sermons, Vasila and her old world magic will become embattled with her unhinged stepmother and the zealous priest. Meanwhile, the fortunes of her family continue to morph as the political landscape shifts constantly.

The original wording of the book makes this sound like a fairy tale but I feel this is far too serious and grounded for that categorization (unless one harkens back to the grim original versions of most fairy tales). And in the beginning, I felt this was a bit more of a magical realism, with otherworldly creatures occasionally appearing in the every day life of a mansion buried deep in a far off forest. But then the middle part of the book took a different direction with the introduction of the Christian priest and zealot stepmother, each determined to punish Vasilisa into foregoing her paganism and embracing their faith. I found this whole middle part to be tedious, especially since the blurb on the book had promised a ‘Jack Frost’ type of character but by 3/4 he had only appeared in one or two short scenes.

I also found I didn’t like many of the characters. Arden took pains to make them grounded and real – with all the foibles and contrariness that can be expected. Vasilisa was a main character but the book follows the viewpoints of several people, including her brothers, sister, stepmother, the priest, the Czar, etc. In that way, it felt a bit overwritten as so many first novels can be; the author feeling the need to explain the big picture through all the POVs instead of letting the story organically unfold and trusting the reader to understand why things were happening as they did.

Because the book is somewhat of a mixed bag, I admittedly also have very mixed reactions to it. Once it veered toward the battle of religions, it completely lost me and I had a hard time wanting to pick it up again. But at the same time, I also was very impressed with the writing depth and the assimilating mood that Arden so effectively created.

Would I recommend this? Absolutely. But at the same time, I have to admit that for me personally, I did not enjoy the Bear and the Nightingale as much as I would have hoped. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Adventure Cats by Laura J Moss

Adventure Cats is beautifully presented, well thought-out, informative, and simply wonderful. By far, one of my favorite books this year; surprising considering this is a non fiction book. But the author’s love of the subject, depth of information presented, and beautiful photographs make this an enjoyable read on all levels. Even better, it all makes great sense and can make your life and your cat(s) life even richer.

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The book breaks down as follows: Introduction (story of how the author came to write the book), the basics, safety, hiking and camping, cats on water, winter adventures, and jaunts in your local neighborhood. Also included are inspiring stories of cats who overcame disabilities to enjoy the outdoors and a full resources list.

The book starts with the basics – harnesses, leash training, clickers, body language, traveling. Then, smartly, before getting into the specifics of different adventures, safety concerns are discussed in detail. First aid kits, sunscreen, packing for a trip, dehydration, toxic plants, run away cats, other animals, etc. Of importance, of course, is whether your cat will actually enjoy the outdoors or if their personality means it will be too stressful to be worthwhile.

Once the basics and safety are out of the way, the book gets into specific trips. Hiking and camping trips start small with the backyard and then move on to hitting the trails. Water adventures are also discussed, starting with how cats swim, do they really hate water, lifejackets, etc. For those who live in Northern climes, Winter concerns gets a short chapter. Finally, city/urban cat adventures are covered – exploring the concrete jungle, street smarts, even creating adventure areas on patios or gardens. It isn’t always about taking kitty on far away trips.

The running theme of the book is your cat’s happiness. For most cats, they greatly welcome the adventure but also appreciate the security of their home turf. Interspersed throughout the book are wonderful and inspirational stories of cats and their respective outdoor lives. Quite a few breeds are covered.

There is an impressively large amount of content in this book but it is all beautifully categorized and presented. Professional, full color images of cats are accompanied by intuitive and smart layout choices. It’s definitely one of the nicest non fiction books I’ve read with plenty of personality and a great attitude that is reflected in the text and the design. And for once, the content is equally impressive to the art – this book covers a lot more than you would think there would be on the subject.

In all, if you have a cat, you definitely owe it to yourself to give them the richest life possible. And even better, adventuring with your cat will enrich your life as well. This book provides the instruction and motivation to enjoy more time with your cat in a whole new way. Highest recommendation. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Cells At Work 1 by Akane Shimizu

Cells at Work is an imaginative way to learn about how the body’s blood system works. Although educational, it is also fun – plenty of adventures and even a potential love interest between our hard working red blood cell protagonist and the mysterious but powerful white blood cell agent who protects her. As can be seen from the cover, all the cells looks like people but the bad guys (infections, bacteria, germs, viruses) all look like monsters.

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The story here is that our red blood cell works in a ‘vein’ factory, moving packages (oxygen). Her work is something she loves but the factory sometimes gets invaded by monsters. White blood cell armed security guards arrive and dispatch the invaders in a very bloody (ironic) and messy way. There are asides that describe the actual/real parts of the circulatory system/invaders and how they work. Those asides give just enough information to be informative but not so much that it is burdensome to read them.

A good example of the stories in this book (which admittedly in this first volume feel very ‘monster of the week’) is the first chapter: a pneumococcus bacteria invades and wreaks destruction on our poor red blood cells and heroine. White blood cells arrive and promptly take out the monster but not completely – he is able to hide part of himself to wait for another opportunity to invade. Along the way we learn about neutrophil, red blood cell and its job, venous valve, macrophage, lymph duct, cell capsule, pneumococcus bacteria, receptor, dendrite cell, platelet, blood clot, T helper cell, killer T cell, lymphocyte, lungs, capillary, alveolus, wandering cell, encapsulated bacteria, sneezing. And that’s just the first chapter! Most chapters are fairly long in length to create a whole story arc.

How creative is this? The mangaka/author has created an extraordinary way to present biology. E.g., when the bad bacteria attacks our red blood cell, a white blood cell breaks through the ceiling and attacks him, exclaiming that white blood cells can pass between veins. The pneumococcus can use its own cell wall to protect itself – so in this case, the monster creates a shield matrix that our white blood cell has to penetrate in order to attack. There is even an encapsulation machine in the factory to capture the bad bacteria, put it in a rocket, and then eject it from the body with a sneeze!

This type of story could have been really boring or childish but owing to this being a manga, it’s surprisingly mature and never talks down to the reader. It is quite violent by American standards, yes – but when you think about it, what the human body does to protect itself is quite violent to those invaders (and the invaders are violent to the body’s cells and organs). The story is quite fun with an intriguing mixture of both shounen (boys) and shoujo (girls) manga sensibilities.

As entertainment, the fights between all the different germs/bacteria/viruses and the body’s systems keep readers interested. But the real value here is the creativity in explaining the human body and how it works. And well, the platelets are just so darn cute! This is genius work here anthropomorphosizing the human body’s circulatory system and won several awards in Japan. Highly recommended as the perfect manga for adults to give kids. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Awake: Escape From Gremon By Beneville, Hess, Lang

Awake has many of the superior storytelling aspects that I greatly enjoyed in Avatar: The Last Airbender series: interesting worldbuilding, excellent and distinct illustrations, and a charming set of characters. While it doesn’t reach the highs and lows of nuanced storytelling like Avatar did (the bad guys are kind of cliche, to be honest, here), an interesting set of protagonists make up for that lack. I hadn’t read volume 1 but had no problem picking up the story from this volume 2.

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Story: Picar and his sister have healed the planet but frustrated ruler Gurk in the process – with prosperity he loses his hold over the populace. He hatches a plan to catch Picar, using Picar’s friend as bait. But Picar has a strong set of friends who will aid him in his mission to save his friend and stop the Gurk menace. This book mostly focuses on Pica this time and collects comics 5-8.

The main characters have some nice conflicts in personality and I enjoyed how they were written. The villains were a bit one dimensional, unfortunately, and do a lot of pontificating to minions. The action scenes were interesting but I admit I could have wished for more originality in that aspect of the story.

The illustration work continues to be clean and distinct. Expressions especially on the animals were very well done – almost Don Bluth style in their features. I had no trouble following the plot as it moved from one adventure to another.

This might be a bit too simplistic for adults but I think the target audience of middle grade or younger is perfect. It has a great appeal and it something that can be read aloud and then discussed later for the great messages inside. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Alone by Scott Sigler

With this book three, author Sigler nicely ratchets up the action while also answering quite a few of the questions lingering from the previous two books in the series. Some characters will die, some will change, but all will have to face the coming onslaught of more races who wish to conquer Omeyocan.

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Story: Em is trapped between the threat of the incoming ships and dissent among the humans and Springers on the planet. Both species are unnaturally edgy and subject to surprising violence; one of Em’s most trusted will commit an act that makes her realize that the real problem they face may not be in the sky so much as what’s below the observatory in the city. But time is running out, their resources are few, and Matilda still controls the Xolotl.

I’ve greatly enjoyed how Sigler started very small with the first book and kept broadening the scope of the story and the danger that Em and her colleagues faced. As well, all the characters had to grow up fast and exhibit degrees of personality development as a result. Em has stayed true to her values but her colleagues have all experienced varying changes as they have reacted to adversity.

With new species coming in to conquer and obliterate all other races, the question to be answered is why that particular planet is so important. In finding the answer to that question we will also learn the history of the grown ups and why they left Earth. More importantly, we finally learn about Mathilda and her past – and why she is the person that she is.

Alone is a roller coaster of constant action appropriate for the final volume in the series. If I have one nitpick, it is that I wish we didn’t have to get info dumps from the villain(s) that explain their ‘nefarious plans’ in detail. It’s coming from a novel source in Alone, though, and certainly it was rewarding to finally know the importance of the planet and why the Aztec Mythology was used.

Note: the cover is Spingate.

Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Star Nomad by Lindsay Buroker

Audible had a sale on this book and I certainly love a good space opera. The book had some really good parts: nice snark, amusing interactions, and some good battles. But the writing style is oddly like a romance writer’s (though i don’t believe the author has written romance?) and so that threw me off a bit. As well, I didn’t necessarily believe a lot of what was going on. (EVERY single character has a secret that will aid the protagonist?) I did stay entertained, though, and base the rating on that success.

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Story: Alisa is stranded at an off world, injured in battles that led a successful rebellion against the empire. She has one goal; get back to her daughter on a distant world and start her life again now that the war is done. To do so, she’ll have to recruit an engineer, get her ship working again out of the scrap heap, and then find passengers to pay for the trip off world. All seems fine until she finds a dreaded cyborg warrior (enemies of her rebellion) squatting on her ship and with a requirement she will have to fulfill first. And let’s not forget the quirky passengers who end up hiring her services.

Star Nomad feels very much like a first novel – a way for the author to introduce the key characters in preparation for the main plot in further books. That doesn’t mean it is bad, necessarily, but in putting all her eggs in one basket, we have to get all the key characters together at the same time. And of course, they will all be diverse but have key skills that will affect later plot points. Doctor, warrior, engineer, pilot, scientist – everything you need for a crew just drops into Alisa’s lucky lap.

The dialogue is snappy but I admit to ‘romance novel’ fatigue of snarky female and brooding alpha male. She admires his muscles, he admires her rudeness. All the bad guys just want to jump her, sexism is rampant, the leads have several intimate moments, etc. etc. This is written better than most sci fi romances but at the same time, the influences are definitely there and somewhat distracting. I wanted more grit, determination, and drive than admiring glances, sexy pecs, and male quirking mouths. It’s yet another case where the seemingly powerful male finds the rude female’s constant nastiness entrancing rather than loathsome. At least the author tries to explain it away as a personality quirk (she gets mouthy when she’s scared/nervous) rather than the usual romance cliche of trying to show that the female has ‘personality’ and is ‘strong.’

The adventure parts are will written and fun. Admittedly, most will have figured out the ‘secrets’ of the passengers well in advance and know how they will affect the outcomes in the dramatic scenes. But that’s ok – the side characters are well written and with wonderfully distinct personalities.

I would characterize Star Nomad as sci fi lite. An enjoyable adventure that worked very well in the narrated version. Of note, the Audible narrator did a good job.

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