Hi folks! I really hate to do this, but I’m putting a hold on submissions. We’ve just got so many that I really don’t think I’d be able to catch up anytime soon. I’m also in the process of a move, so all my focus is on that and editing. On the positive side, once we get settled, I should have more time to devote to reading and reviewing. I’ve missed this over the past year and hope to be able to get more of the submissions waiting reviewed. Sorry to those who haven’t heard back. By the end of the summer, I should have things sorted out and a general idea of how things will go with the reviewing side of things.
Thanks again to all those who have read and I’ll see you here in a few months.
Uncategorized: 4 stars book review exploring ethics krista d. ball military science fiction science fiction thriller
by J.A. Beard
“Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.”
Personal self-defense is normally an easy concept to understand and justify. Though the particulars vary, it’s a rare society or group that insists a person passively accept death or harm. Self-defense of a society is a trickier thing. Societies also defend themselves, but part of that is defending the values and ideologies of the society. Even defensive war, by its nature, is still organized mass killing. The various ethical and moral considerations involved in warfare have been debated throughout the entirety of human history. At what point, though, does self-defense trump all other considerations?
Krista D. Ball’s military science fiction thriller Road To Hell explores such ethical conundrums through one Captain Katherine Francis, a military officer in a democratic and pluralistic interstellar society, the Union of Planets. The Union is hard pressed by a vicious invading enemy, and the only hope is to somehow involve the neutral Alliance. Unfortunately, the Union’s restrictive Ethics Laws may mean that Captain Francis will have to sacrifice herself to save the Union.
Ethical issues may not, on the surface, sound like the most exciting subject for a military science fiction novel, but the book’s intense focus on character provides more than enough drama to sustain interest. In addition, the actual ethical dilemmas are explored nicely through their consequences on Captain Francis and those around her. While a somewhat more morally nuanced enemy may have heightened the overall complexity of the main ethics question, the progression in what Captain Francis is willing to do, and who she’s willing to harm, is interesting.
The psychological portrait of Captain Francis is well-rendered. The brisk pacing doesn’t always leave time for full exploration of everyone who is introduced, but all the characters still come off as realistic people with realistic motivations. I particularly enjoyed the presentation of a shadowy expatriate whose motivation and loyalties remain teasingly unclear throughout.
The setting is unobtrusively developed. The future painted he story isn’t particularly exotic. All the factions are human, and the technologies and cultures a reasonable extrapolation from the present for the most part. This is effective in highlighting that this is fundamentally a story about an age-old human problem.
The plot unfolds briskly and at a satisfying pace. My only real quibble is that the book is on the shorter side, and I would have liked to have had a bit more time to see the effects of everything implemented. Though I suppose that really just means I’m asking for a sequel.
Uncategorized: at road's end book review historical fiction J.A. Beard mesoamerican history zoe Saadia
by J.A. Beard
leave a comment
Years ago during a family trip to Arizona, I had an opportunity to visit some ruins associated with the ancient cliff-dwelling native Anasazi peoples of the southwest. Though the ruins had been abandoned for centuries, these artifacts of the once-thriving culture made me curious about these people and their lives. In At Road’s End, Zoe Saadia explores the intersection of this culture with other regional powers. After reading it, I feel that I have better insight into how the ancient peoples of the Southwest lived. I think, in the end, that’s one of the best things a piece of historical fiction can accomplish.
The plot moves along at a comfortable pace. There’s a good interspersing of more leisurely character development scenes, action, and even a bit of romance. Though the plot is focused on a small number of characters, it serves as a microcosm of some of the major trends affecting the Natives of the Southwest. The book expertly illuminates the complex nature of their societies and, to a lesser extent, their neighbors to the south.
The use of an outsider main character, a warrior escorting traders, allows an exploration of the historical culture in a natural way. The author’s respect for the material and her research is obvious in her attention to both major and minor details. The depth of historical information never becomes overwhelming, nor does it come off as didactic. Given how often a lack of restraint can undermine historical fiction works, I was rather pleased at how well the author managed this.
The arrogance of the main character, though expected given his background, makes him not the most immediately likable lead, but he’s intriguing and does have a solid character arc. The relative depth of character development on the other characters is not as strong, but all major secondary characters still come as realistic and not mere plot props.
I hope you all will help show support for such a great reviewer and lover of books. Although this might come off a little shill like, I feel like credit should be given when it is due.
So here is the summary as shown on the Amazon page:
In this loose re-imagining of the Wizard of Oz, Kansas teen Gail Dorjee has tried to escape from the pain of her parents’ death by retreating into a hard shell of anger and sarcasm.
When her aunt and uncle ship her off to an elite Seattle boarding school, Osland Academy, she spends her first day making enemies, including the school’s most powerful clique, the Winged, and their leader, the ruthless Diana.
Social war and the school’s uptight teachers are only mild annoyances. Mysterious phone outages, bizarre behavioral blocks, and strange incidents suggest Osland is focused on something much more sinister than education.
Now Gail has to survive at Osland with a pretty pathetic assortment of potential allies: her airhead roommate, a cowardly victim of the Winged, and Diana’s cold but handsome boyfriend, Nick.
And now for my review of the story.
I’ll admit to being a little biased but not much. This is just a really great story. The spunky leading character Gail reminds me of Rose from Vampire Academy but with a more wholesome feel of Harry Potter. The writing is done well, along with the general movement. I never felt like things weren’t progressing or there was just too much information. It’s also great trying to spot all the subtle references to the original Wizard of Oz. It’s an all around good book.
I would highly recomend this to anyone and, in fact, am. His record as a reviewer is just a testament to they type of writing you are in for.
My indie, my tea and me
Uncategorized: 4 stars aboriginal Australia george hamilton historical fiction secrets from the dust
by J.A. Beard
Whether or not humanity will overcome ethnic and racial conflict remains to be seen. In many ways and in many countries, we’ve slowly improved things and relations even if perfection is still far off. It’s easy to decry violent behavior motivated by hatred, but many questionable behaviors in the past weren’t motivated by violent hatred.
In several countries the practice of taking children from an ethnic group judged to have an “unacceptable” culture was presented as an act of love and generosity toward the child. If the child could only learn the “proper” speech, the proper ways, the proper religion, so it was said, then they would be made better than their backwards. While certainly not the only example, such was the case in the recent past with some Aboriginal children in Australia.
George Hamilton’s Secrets From the Dust follows the life of a young half-Aboriginal girl, Margaret, who is taken from her family in the late sixties as part of government-sponsored policies to “improve” her. She is sent through various parts of a system that are at times seemingly equally devoted to devaluing her as person as it is to helping her.
Although thematic, political, and moral issues are obviously in the forefront of this story, it is, more than anything, a character-driven tale about a girl, and then a woman, trying to answer the fundamental question of personal identity. It’s a difficult enough thing for adolescents to figure out even without all the added racial assimilation baggage. Margaret’s struggle is presented with depth. She’s a bright young woman who isn’t driven by ideology or political struggle but the simple and fundamental desire to find a place she belongs. Though the story is firmly focused on Margaret but also allows an exploration of late-sixties and early seventies’ Australian racial politics.
A careful, detail-focused writing style highlights Margaret’s struggles and growth. In particular, the author does a good job of communicating her mental processes without being overwhelming. Admittedly, there were a few occasions where the story might have been served by a somewhat more swift pace, but overall, it had good flow. The shifts in emotion and motivation enhance character development well.
In this kind of story, it’d be far too easy, and perhaps even lazy, to present it as a simple struggle of evil racist white people disliking Margaret. While there are certainly more than a few characters in the story who disdain Margaret just for being born part-Aboriginal, the full-range of moral attitudes and relative kindness among both white and aboriginal characters provides a more realistic and nuanced exploration of racial themes.
Secrets From the Dust is a fascinating, if occasionally depressing, view into relatively recent Australian history.
Uncategorized: ben woodard book review children's book native american the boy who flew with eagles
by J.A. Beard
At the beginning of Ben Woodard’s children’s book, The Boy Who Flew With Eagles, a Native American elder relates a story to the younger generation. That narrative frame is used to relate the rest of the book’s story. While only a small number of paragraphs are used to support the framing device in the beginning and the end, it’s a nice atmospheric touch and a nice reminder of the lengthy heritage of storytelling, especially in this modern age of e-readers and internet distribution.
As one might derive from the title, the story itself is a briskly paced tale of a young Native American boy who ends up captured by a mother eagle but subsequently befriends the eagle and her family. Though this is a children’s book, the author doesn’t dumb-down the language, but neither does he make it overwhelming. Grade school readers will, I believe, find the writing engaging and accessible. There’s a combination of both action and character development to excite them and get them to understand the main character.
While as a parent, I don’t believe that it’s inherently wrong to have violence in children’s books (after all, violence is a part of life and existence), the current media landscape for children is somewhat saturated by stories that feature a lot of battle. There’s a threat of violence in this tale in relation to the cycle of life, but otherwise the story is free of those elements.
For a relatively short tale, there’s a surprising amount of thematic heft. A variety of subjects from resource usage responsibility to empathy are handled in a way that are accessible for children. In that way, this book would probably lend itself well to a classroom or library discussion, but can be enjoyed quite well by younger readers without any sort of critical analysis involved.
Uncategorized: book review edward eaton fantasy J.A. Beard rosi's castle young adult
by J.A. Beard
leave a comment
Children never truly know their parents. Adult concerns and obligations are often kept hidden from young people. When those obligations and parental legacies will later fall upon the children, an untimely death can make the situation worse than the parents imagined. Such is the case in the young adult fantasy Rosi’s Castle by Edward Eaton.
Teenage orphan Rosi Carol is sent to live with her uncle at his rather spooky estate in New England. Upon arrival, all sorts of strange and seemingly supernatural encounters descend upon her, along with memory gaps. It’s more than to frighten the girl and make her question herself.
The book takes good advantage of the New England coastal setting. Weather and geography is well-used to build tension in individual scenes, and the disconcerting potential of laconic small-town folk who don’t trust outsiders enhances the plot. One of the keys in this sort of young adult work is successfully removing the protagonist’s support networks to allow them to proceed on their own in a logical way. This aspect is well-executed. As various allies and potential foes swirl around Rosi, it’s hard to tell who is trustworthy.
That limitation is heightened in this story because Rosi’s own perceptions and memories aren’t always trustworthy, either. Most of these secondary characters receive decent, though not outstanding character development, but they are all distinct. Rosi comes off a bit younger in both thought process and maturity than her age would initially suggest, but she does have a nice development arc throughout the story.
The central plot has a number of interesting elements. Even though certain aspects of what is going on seem obvious, there are several twists and turns that provide surprises, along with conflicting information provided by the aforementioned allies and foes that keeps the reader guessing without feeling like unfair misdirection. These various plot elements and the revelations toward the end of the book do a good job of establishing sequel potential while capping a complete story.
Though the plot elements are interesting and many individual scenes have good dramatic tension, the basic central plot tension isn’t as strong as it could be. The mystery was definitely enough to keep me engaged, but despite the various supernatural goings-on, I didn’t really feel the risk to Rosi and for various plot reasons she often proceeds without really feeling the risk either dampening the overall tension.
Overall though, Rosi’s Castle was an enjoyable young adult fantasy and a good start to what looks to be an interesting trilogy.
Uncategorized: contemporary ya dolphin girl J.A. Beard shel delisle
by J.A. Beard
leave a comment
Ah, the pain of adolescence. Childhood and adulthood have their own pains, but have a more fundamental clarity of purpose. The transition from one to the other, especially in a society that often seems to praise individuality but expects conformity. This transition and the general yearning for personal freedom are explored in Shel Delisle’s contemporary young adult novel, Dolphin Girl. The book has a crisp style and a solid voice, something always vital in any YA work.
The story follows Jane, a South Florida teen, as she begins to fully push against some of the weight of parental and peer expectations on her. While she has the somewhat expected teenage angst, Jane isn’t drowning in feeling of inadequacy, and is lacking in the kind of smug condescension that sometimes YA stories attempt to pass off as unusual awareness and/or enlightenment. She’s frustrated with the restrictions she perceives around her, particularly as she parses her social life by likening it to the life of a dolphin. It’s a good metaphor. The dolphins may have a certain freedom, but they find it difficult to exist without their fellow pod mates.
Jane is a well-developed and her motivations well-actualized, something critically important to making her plot struggle against the various factors limiting her self-perceived freedom. The core enjoyment of the story comes from watching her growth throughout the book.
There are a number of secondary characters, and while they don’t receive as nearly as good development as Jane, they still are distinctive and realistic characters. The story eschews easy over-hyped antagonistic villainy. Yes, there are struggles against parents and social foes, but this story is more about the internal struggle to understand one’s place in the world than it is some story of outcast being targeted by vicious Queen Bees. Given that social situations come and go, this sort of thematic treatment of the transition in adulthood perhaps resonates a bit more than a more straight-forward external conflict narrative. Also the focus allows a more even and realistic treatment of the secondary character, particularly the adults. There’s a subtlety to the conflict that universalizes the story well.
As much of the attention in the YA fiction landscape is dominated by intense paranormal romance works or books focused around particularly dramatic social issues, a book like this, with an likable character that is easy to relate to and a nice, flowing plot has a certain freshness to it.
Uncategorized: 1940s book review clown noir historical settings J.A. Beard james finn garner mystery noir
by J.A. Beard
leave a comment
It’s tough being a washed-up clown, especially in Top Town, a seedy township mostly populated by circus folk. Rex Koko, a clown with a past of more than a few mistakes, helps make ends meet with the occasional private investigation job. When a trapeze star hires Rex to look into his wife, the clown is soon dragged into a mess that’s no laughing matter. Yes, it’s exactly what it sounds like: clown noir.
With such an unusual premise, the immediate question is can a mystery reader actually take this book seriously? Yes, in fact they can. Bizarre premise aside, the novel does present us with an intelligent and somewhat dogged investigator following the a classic trail of bodies and questionable actions. The strong echo of the past masters of noir is only reinforced, despite the general circus culture background, by the use of an early-40s setting. There’s no internet background checks or cell phones around to help out poor Rex. While the fundamental mystery is perhaps not the most impressive or unusual I’ve ever encountered, it did provide sufficient tension to propel me forward. I also appreciated that though Rex seemed, for the most part, much more intelligent and thoughtful than many around him, he was far from being able to laugh off physical threats.
The true strength of the book though is the intricate attention to the mid-20th century circus culture. While I can’t claim to have a detailed knowledge of said culture and thus can’t comment on the accuracy of the depiction, the novel establishes a living, breathing and plausibly sleazy little slice of circus Americana complete with political corruption, job-based factions and its own sort of circus-based segregation. The juxtaposition between the various classic circus archetypes and their very real, and often petty, human nature heightens the dramatic impact of these various characters.
This intense attention to detail extends to language. Both the circus and 40s slang gets thick at times. Admittedly, it takes a bit of adjustment to get used to it at first, but once fully engaged it helps enhance the period atmosphere of the piece.
For a book focused on a clown, one might expect humor. There’s definitely a solid wit running throughout though Rex is more a master of deflating people with clever jokes than a pie. There are a few occasions where the book fully embraces its circus and clown nature and passes into an absurdity, depending on taste, a reader may either find sublime or ridiculous. In either event, they certainly aren’t boring.
Uncategorized: contemporary J.A. Beard louise crawford ramona butler Romance sagebrush cinderella western
by J.A. Beard
leave a comment
Four years is a long time. When Zack Daniels returns from college to his family ranch, he’s shocked both by the exotic animals all over the ranch and the person responsible: a childhood friend now grown into her full glorious womanhood, Joy Littlebear. The already engaged Zack has to fight his growing attraction to Joy while at the same time trying to help get the family ranch returned to normal.
With its straight-forward plot, Sagebrush Cinderella is free to tightly focus on the interactions between its male and female lead. It eschews a lot of descent into dealings with subplots or secondary characters, but the interplay between Zack and Joy were more than enough to keep my attention. I’ll admit I was slightly surprised at the background scenario, in that it seems like Zack would have managed to have made it home at some relatively recent point and noticed Joy, but, that being said, it does come off as reasonable enough in the context of the story.
The writing is crisp and briskly flowing. Its economically evocative nature contributes to a leisurely reading experience.
Both Zack and Joy are painted with a nice mix of fiery strength-of-will but also genuine caring that makes them easy to like as romantic leads but also prevents them from coming off either so rude or obstinate as to undermine the interest in their potential relationship. This can be a difficult balance to pull off and any fan of romance will have read countless romance novels where it’s hard to understand how one party would ever be interested in the other due to excessive personality defects. That’s mercifully not the case here, and their clashes make for interesting drama, the occasional humor, and later nice passion. It’s easy for the reader to understand why they would find each other appealing.
At the same time, that does result in somewhat forced scenarios in certain parts of the story to inject more dramatic uncertainty. The implied love triangle established in the beginning of the story ends up more isosceles than equilateral. Depending on one’s tastes they may or may not care, but I’m personally more a fan of a bit more fight from all potential contenders as it adds a lot more dramatic intensity to the whole matter.
Sagebrush Cinderella may not be radically redefining contemporary Western romance, but it does present us with two very likable and interesting leads that you want to see get together.