Uncategorized: at road's end book review historical fiction J.A. Beard mesoamerican history zoe Saadia
by J.A. Beard
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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.
Uncategorized: book review edward eaton fantasy J.A. Beard rosi's castle young adult
by J.A. Beard
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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
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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
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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
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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.
Uncategorized: 3.5 stars adventure ginnie dare: crimson sands J.A. Beard science fiction scott roche YA young adult
by J.A. Beard
Centuries in the future, intelligent teenager Virginia “Ginnie” Dare works as a communication specialist on her father’s freighter. When a routine supply mission leads to the discovery of a entire missing colony population, Ginnie is thrust into adventure.
With the main character’s name and the basic scenario echoing one of the most famous disappearances in early American history, the young adult science-fiction tale Ginnie Dare: Crimson Sands opens with engaging natural tension sustained both the mystery of the disappearance of the colonist and the true nature of the inscrutable native population. The subsequent plot unfolds at a comfortable pace, though the beginning was a bit slow. Once things get going, the general tension is maintained, for the most part, well throughout both in tense more-action oriented segments and those parts of the story that focus more on simply attempting to answer the questions that naturally present themselves when hundreds of people disappear into the unknown.
That being said, the tension is occasionally undermined by a slight tendency, more pronounced in the first half of the story, toward spending too much time explaining setting details. If these elements were more organically integrated into the native, the same information would have probably seemed less intrusive and damaged
Character development over the story is generally competent, though the first half of the book suffers from a tendency to be too concerned with showing too many different viewpoints. In some ways this slightly deflates the drama as it reduces some of the points of dramatic uncertainty and, therefore, the accompanying tension.
Also, the book is at its best when it focuses on the titular heroine. In the first half, in particular, a minor lack of character focus slightly undermines engagement, as the plot seems to be granted more importance in the characters. Indeed, given that Ginnie is by far the most interesting of the characters and, ostensibly, the protagonist, the time spent on some of the other view points was a bit disappointing. By the second half, though, this clears up and the talented and likable Ginnie begins to do her own part in solving the mystery.
The general setting, though not ground-breaking for science-fiction stories of this type, has an interesting non-humanoid alien race. More importantly, they presented with a sufficiently alien psychology that some good tension is wrung out of trying to understand their motivations and potential actions.
Ultimately though, Ginnie Dare opens as a mystery and, as such, the exploration and resolution of that mystery are going to help determine people’s enjoyment of the book. In that regard, the plot was satisfying enough. This book presents a self-contained complete arc, a number of interesting potential sequel hooks are raised.
Overall, Ginnie Dare: Crimson Sands is a fun YA science-fiction mystery featuring a likable protagonist.
Uncategorized: book review children's fiction halloween J.A. Beard Katherine Holmes The House of Windward Leaves
by J.A. Beard
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Halloween may trace its origins to ancient Celtic traditions but for most children, it’s nothing more than a fun holiday to dress up, toy with make-believe, and score a lot of candy. A day when a young child can travel around and say with sincerity, “I’m a robot!”
That spirit of playful assumption of identity is explored in a gentle manner in The House in Windward Leaves by Katherine Holmes. In a world where even children’s entertainment is often defined by a thorough and dour cynicism, it’s nice to see books that aspire to joyous fun.
In this children’s book, a group of children spend a magical Halloween where they merely aren’t pretending to be their costumes but instead become their costumes when they are transported to a magical star. While the costumes as an identity concept itself isn’t unique, it’s still handled in an adventurous way that kids will enjoy.
The emphasis in this story is just wholesome exploration of temporary identities to provide various fun adventures for the children to enjoy. Despite this being a Halloween story, it’s focused far away from the darker aspects of the holiday. There’s no true antagonist. Most of the dramatic tension, as it were, stems more from various adventures they have on the star that take advantage of the the traits of their new identity. The large number of characters helps provide a bit of something for every child to enjoy. There’s bound to be at least one child and costume they particularly enjoy.
The writing is clean and brisk without being too simplistic. The chapter divisions also lend themselves well to installment reading.
The House of Windward Leaves is a fine read for younger readers.
Uncategorized: book review ebook historical fiction J.A. Beard mississippians native americans the cahokian zoe Saadia
by J.A. Beard
In the 13th century, the massive Great Mound of Cahokia in the Mississippi Valley supported a huge city and the accompanying civilization. In the following centuries, this complex civilization would collapse. The Cahokian follows the unexpected life course of a warlord, Acoto, of this expansionist culture. The author examines cross-cultural familiarity in her exploration of the common human traits of ambition, attraction, and adaptation, but also provides something fresh in that the story spotlights a culture that has received little coverage in fiction.
At the heart of the story is the aforementioned Acoto. A proud, ambitious man, he finds himself embroiled in political struggle that thrusts him far away from his home. The author uses him as the lens to explore both the Cahokian/Mississipian culture and the Native cultures of the Ohio River Valley. Acoto is well-developed, and the author does a fine job of presenting his motivations, justifying his actions, and making him sympathetic despite his violent occuptation. This is a particular feat as though there are various struggles presented in the course of the novel, his various foes, depending on circumstance, are far from evil, nor their actions not understandable. The Cahokian also does a good job of presenting two very different Native cultures of North America, allowing the reader to understand their mindsets, and also showing how ambition is a disease of all civilizations. Good secondary character development helps in presenting both the sympathetic and not so sympathetic people of both cultures.
I’m far more familiar with the Native groups of the west coast in recent centuries than the cultures of this time and region, so I can’t speak to the total historical accuracy of everything in The Cahokian, but the fine level of detail certainly brought a strong verisimilitude to my reading experience. The novel seems well-researched. There are a few portions where, to my knowledge, the author has to fill in details, as our understanding of the Cahokian/Mississipian culture isn’t as extensive as it perhaps should be, but none of it rings false, and it all fits in well with the more directly grounded elements.
While this extensive, at times educational, level of detail does a good job of taking the reader into the time and mindset of these ancient peoples, it also contributes to some of the weaknesses of the novel. There’s a flagging tension in the second act as the book focuses more on cultural exploration. Depending on your tastes, this may not bother you, but it made portions of the second act feel slow to me. Even though the detailed discussion of the cultural differences was justified by the circumstances presented in the book, there were just a bit too many scenes where Acoto and others sit there and discuss the differences in their respective cultures. Thus, at times, it came off as more pedagogical than engaging. While such scenes were interesting from an educational standpoint, they damaged the pacing of the novel.
Similarly, there is such a thing as too much attention to detail, particularly linguistic detail when writing a story in a language other than the one used by the characters in the story. As someone who spent a number of years involved in linguistics and translation, I understand the urge of linguistic accuracy, but fiction is a different sort of beast. This sort of problem was a minor issue when it came to the rendering of certain Native names and places. There is a skill to rendering names from foreign languages in a story meant for general consumption. A reader otherwise unfamiliar with the language should be able to at least approximate all the sounds use. Several words were rendered partially with non-alphabetic symbols whose meaning was never defined or made clear. The overall result is that this fidelity to phonetic accuracy ended up being distracting more than enlightening.
Acoto, as a warrior and a warlord, is involved in more than his fair share of battles. One might question the relative tactical disparity sometimes displayed by others in comparison to Acoto, but all the battle scenes had a nice tension about them and successfully communicated both the excitement and fear of battle without being overwhelming or fixating on violence for the sake of violence.
Overall, anyone interesting in a story about a man learning more about himself as he bridges two ancient Native North American cultures would be served well by picking up The Cahokian.
Rating: 3.5 Stars
Uncategorized: children's cross-over flidderbugs J.A. Beard Jonathan Gould political satire
by J.A. Beard
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Jonathan Gould’s novella Flidderbugs presents us with two tribes of insets who co-exist on the same tree, but on different portions. Unlike the barbarian bugs or the brutal colony/hive-insect monarchies of our world, these flidderbugs are enlightened. Even if they have some disparities between the two groups, they have a council and democratically elected leaders. They have important traditions. I mean, what more do you need to have a perfect society, right?
My sarcasm matches the amusing subversive tone running through Flidderbugs. On the surface, this is simple tale, about a bug who challenges the status quo and in the process learns some important truths about his world. Really, though, this is an indictment of group think, self-inflicted ignorance, and the almost delusional arrogance that often accompanies the democratic process and attendant cultural institutions. As someone currently involved in academia, I found myself chortling at the story’s skewering of ivory tower arrogance.
Depending on how deeply one wants to read into certain things, they may or may not feel comfortable with some aspects of the allegory, but I’d argue that all good satire, at some level, should make someone uncomfortable. The overall tone, despite the bug’s desperation, doesn’t come as hostile despite the important themes being explored.
To be clear, this is not some insect call for an anarchist revolt, but rather a challenge to the cynical corrupt nature of politics and its influence on society as delivered in an easily digestible tale enjoyable for all ages. Children will find the whimsical setting entertaining and, hopefully, learn a bit about critical thinking in the process of reading the tale. Adults, I think, can enjoy the satire for what is. Despite all the distrust on display toward political institutions and ideology throughout the novella, the resolution is rather idealistic (or maybe I’m just rather cynical).
The writing itself is breezy and entertaining. As a novella, the story’s a quick read. It’s also well-paced. There are more than a few small misadventures as the protagobugs delve into the shadowy cracks of their world.
There’s no serious attempt to detail every aspect of the society, but there are enough elements introduced that you can find yourself believing in this unstable little insect republic. The various flidderbugs come to life with distinct personalities.
If you’re looking for a quick, fun political satire featuring anthropomorphic animals that doesn’t leave you utterly depressed (i.e., isn’t Orwell), check out Flidderbugs.
Rating: 4 stars
Uncategorized: a kiss before you leave me book reviews J.A. Beard james hulbert literary
by J.A. Beard
The question of identity is one that cannot be answered in isolation. As a social creature, the way we define ourselves is often heavily influenced by the way we view others and the reverse. This tangled web of relationships and identity forms the heart of James Hulbert’s literary character study, A Kiss Before You Leave Me.
The novel follows the flow of interactions between translator Miranda Kinkaid, her ex-husband stock-broker Vince, and her new beau, a lawyer. Miranda is a recovering alcoholic still emotionally and even financially reliant on her dependable ex-husband. When a new man is brought into her life by circumstance, she is soon drawn toward a deep emotional intimacy that she’s been lacking, all the while inspiring the artistic fire in her new boyfriend. Emotional betrayal, artistic obsession and the wounds of the past all combine together into a plot that may be more subtle in its tension yet still engaging.
Characterization is the true strength of this novel. Although Miranda gets the most focus, every character introduced is actualized with a depth that lends more weight to their interactions. Many of these characters may not necessarily be likable depending on the reader’s tastes, but they are all very intriguing nonetheless. Psychological states and changes play a key role in the progression of events, and they are all handled in a manner that is both dramatic and interesting yet avoids any hint of implausibility. The character work is generally strengthened by the use of multiple points-of-view throughout the novel, though there were a few occasions where it felt like certain information was held back that should have been accessible given some of the POVs being followed. I will note that I did find the occasional and uneven use of a frame narrator not only unnecessary but also somewhat distracting. The issue didn’t arise enough to seriously impact my enjoyment of the story.
On occasion, there was a slight tendency toward summary that did find less interesting, mostly in the middle acts of the story. Those segments aside, the plot itself is generally paced well and moves along with enough emotional climaxes to have kept my interest. For a mostly psychological character study, there were a surprising number of interesting twists all the way through the end.
Bourgeois ennui as a thematic thread runs throughout the novel. Even though the ennui, in itself, didn’t resonate with me, the expert characterization and the more general exploration of relationships and social expectation were more than satisfying. In particular, I found the examination of how various positive social connections can so easily be turned into damaging ones one of the most interesting aspects of this story.
Overall, I found A Kiss Before You Leave Me an intriguing exploration of the hearts and minds of several realistically depicted emotionally-damaged characters.
Rating: 4 stars