Dark Designs

Dark Designs

Dark Designs by Stefanie Spangler (Urban Fantasy)

I have to admit, the first thing that drew me to this book was the cover. The second was the description – being a twin is always fun to think about when you’re not a twin, and I’d be okay with having some magic powers now and then.

Being urban fantasy, the story veers away from reality, which is what I expected, and that part was fine. The girls being twins, however, was never explored. They’re fraternal, not identical, which we don’t know early on because no description is given, even though the simple fact that Ivy is a redhead and Violet a brunette would have sufficed. We know Ivy is more reserved than Violet, but I never felt that I got to know either one very well, and there was no indication that their psychological connection was any different than my connection with either of my sisters. So much for the significance of twinness.

Each has magical powers to some degree, but they learn about their powers off-stage. We don’t know how they react to finding out they are different from their peers or how (or if) they hone their skills. Instead, the story abruptly jumps from the girls being clueless eight-year-olds to the day that Ivy comes home from college, back to the family farm that Violet now manages. We’ve had no opportunity to get to know them, to watch them grow in any way, and now they are adults about to be thrown into a magical dilemma.

Considering that this is a short novel, some fleshing out of the characters could have been done. Instead, we have the immediate jump into action with danger entering their lives, but since I hadn’t really become invested in the girls as people, it left me feeling detached. The author is in everyone’s head – both the good guys and the bad guys – so there is little opportunity to experience a whole lot of emotion with any one character or to learn more about someone through the eyes of a single person.

The story itself is entertaining; one always wants to know how the main characters are going to get out of a predicament. For the YA urban fantasy reader, this book delivers the good guys and the very scary bad guy, some magic, and a little budding romance. There are the young witches embarrassed by their unusual skills, the suspicious neighbors, and the disbelieving cops. There is some tension, some danger, and a creepy monster to give the reader the willies. And, for some reason, there is the angst of the missing mother who abandoned her twins in infancy without explanation. It does little to move the story along, however, and I have to wonder why it’s even in there, since no one actually makes any attempts to find out more and nothing changes regarding Mom.

One final point: the time jump from eight years old to college graduate would have made more immediate sense to the reader if Chapter One had been called a prologue. It sets the stage for the rest of the book and occurred more than a decade before the rest of the story. Ironically, the book does have an epilogue which didn’t feel significantly different enough to be an epilogue and could have simply been the final chapter. Unless, of course, it’s meant to portend Book Two.

Bella gives Dark Designs three stars. 3 stars

Bella Reads and Reviews Books received a free copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Give Me a K-I-L-L

Give Me a KILL

Give Me a K-I-L-L by R.L. Stine (YA Thriller)

This latest addition to R.L. Stine’s Fear Street series incorporates the usual mean girls, snotty cheerleaders, school officials with no backbone, and annoying, clueless parents. A highly talented, but troubled, cheerleader from another school moves into town, threatening the makeup of the entrenched cheerleading squad, with murder and mayhem as a result.

Young adult readers, including those reading teen horror, deserve better from R.L. Stine. Besides stunted, uninteresting sentences that seem to assume the reader is incapable of reading anything more complex, the characters in this book are hard to care about, the ending wraps up problems the reader never knew were problems, and there are very basic errors, like saying the aorta in a victim’s neck was eaten away by acid. The aorta is not in the neck.

To make things worse, we have to believe the perp is using acid that’s strong enough to eat through skin, muscle, windpipe, and esophagus to get to the aorta — which, if it were there, would most likely be against the vertebrae — but somehow the acid has no effect on the vulnerable parts of the item it coats. Not to mention that any high-schooler who has taken basic chemistry knows that concentrated sulfuric acid fumes would be a dead (pun intended) giveaway, and the victim would have to be severely distracted (think comatose) not to notice before picking up said item and putting it to her throat.

Other than a scene involving cockroaches, there’s not much here that rates as creepy. There’s nothing deep and psychological and no real build-up to a total freak-out moment. The closest we come is a fairly glossed-over minor scene with the big question: will one cheerleader catch another or let her fall on her head?

I expected a whole lot more from R.L. Stine.

Bella gives Give Me a K-I-L-L two stars (Not enthusiastic, but you may be.). 2-stars

Potty-mouth Index: CLEAN

Bella Reads and Reviews received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

The Impossible Fortress

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The Impossible Fortress by Jason Rekulak (General Fiction)

Although this is classified as Adult General Fiction by the publisher, it is a coming-of-age story that could easily be Young Adult. The narrator is a fourteen-year-old boy in 1987, and his “impossible fortress” is both his homemade computer game and a fourteen-year-old girl.

Billy loves computer programming and he also loves TV’s Vanna White. When the latter appears on the cover of a Playboy magazine, Billy and his fellow underage buddies will go to extremes to get their own copies.Their elaborate plan is to break into the local typewriter repair shop that also sells magazines and newfangled home computers, which means they will need the security code. Billy makes friends with the owner’s daughter, Mary, in order to learn the code, not realizing that she’s a whiz at computer programming and a kindred spirit. As the attraction between them grows, he’s faced with a moral dilemma amidst increasing pressure from his friends to deliver the code. However, the story is more than the question of will he risk his budding romance for a magazine, and that makes it hard to discuss here without giving away too much.

For those who remember the 80s, Commodore 64s, or the “olden days” of early computer games, the author provides lots of authentic forays into popular music of the time and the awkwardness of early home computer technology. I thought it was over the top that the boys would undertake such a complicated plan to break and enter just for a magazine, but maybe fourteen-year-old boys are that desperate and that dumb or maybe it was more about the challenge of pulling it off. I also thought that Mary’s flirty programming notes to Billy seemed out of character once we learned her real situation. And, by telling us early on that Billy’s Impossible Fortress game didn’t win the competition, the author took away the tension of waiting to find out. Still, the book was enjoyable because Billy is a fun and believable narrator who made me laugh and the information about old-time computers was interesting.

Bella gives The Impossible Fortress four stars. 4 stars

Potty-mouth index: Clean

Bella Reads and Reviews Books received a free ARC from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

The Impossible Fortress will be released on February 7, 2017, and is available for pre-order.

 

Heartborn

heartborn

Heartborn by Terry Maggert (Young Adult Science Fiction/Fantasy)

I’d like to start by saying that I really enjoyed this book. I especially loved the fantasy world that Terry Maggert creates. The imagination and creativity of authors who write these types of books always fascinates me. He has brought to life a whole society living in the clouds, with Skywatchers, Scholars, Watershapers, Blightwings (my favorite), Flyers, and the Factors of the nasty Crescent Council, as well as Windbeasts, Airdancers, elementals, and, of course, Heartborn — the rarities born with a need to care for others.

The story fluctuates between the angels in House Windhook, a powerful family looking to overthrow the oppressive Crescent Council, and a seventeen-year-old on Earth named Livvy. Livvy is waiting for a heart transplant, but we know early on that she is very important to members of House Windhook. Keiron, the youngest son, has plunged to Earth in an effort to find her and save her, while the entire family prepares to do battle with the Crescent Council and its supporters in order to change the future of their society.

I enjoyed the style of writing. I was in the moment with the characters and felt like I knew them pretty well. Where it fell apart for me was the ending when I just became confused. I had to go back and reread parts to make sure I didn’t miss something, and when I finished I still wasn’t sure where Livvy was – on earth or up in the clouds? Were her parents really her parents after all, or was she adopted like she said? All of the people who seemed to exist in two worlds – were they watching and taking care of her the whole time? Were they really angels? There were too many unanswered questions for me.  I know it’s the first in a series, and that’s not the problem. I’m just not sure what happened in the last chapter or two. I will definitely be interested in reading the next book, but there are some things I felt should have been more clear in the closing to the first.

Bella gives Heartborn four stars. 4 stars

Potty-mouth Index: CLEAN

Bella Reads and Reviews Books received a free copy from the author in exchange for an honest review.

The Dragon Sphere

the-dragon-sphere

The Dragon Sphere by Abel Gallardo (Young Adult Fantasy, Middle Grade Fiction)

This book, the first in a series called “Nation of Dragons,” introduces Landon Brown, a fifteen-year-old who learns that he is a “dragonoid” or “halfling,” half dragon and half human. He has no idea prior to this; all he knows is that his dad has been absent most of his life. His dad, it turns out, is a highly regarded elder among dragons; his mom is human. Full-blooded dragons can take on human form a few hours per day, while dragonoids are humans who won’t literally transform into dragons but have special powers and need training to learn how to harness them.

At fifteen, Landon goes into training in a summer camp for dragonoids, where he encounters a number of magical things and makes friends with other halflings, including Aurora, whose mother is a dragon elder. They learn about both good and evil dragons and that one of the most feared has been imprisoned in The Dragon Sphere. A group of evil dragons and their followers wish to find and release him in order to regain power over humans, and it becomes the mission of Landon and Aurora, along with their fellow trainee, Shade, to bring back The Dragon Sphere unopened. Unfortunately, many dragonoids before them have taken on the same mission and failed, never to be heard from again. Landon also sees this as an opportunity to finally find his dad and confront him about abandoning Landon and his mom.

This book is categorized as Young Adult Fantasy, designated for readers 12 to 18 in grades 6 through 12. However, it felt more on the younger side, like Middle Grade fiction. The simple, sometimes stilted, sentence structure and limited descriptions and character development left me, as a high school-aged reader, wanting more depth. That said, it has plenty of action, and the story will keep a middle schooler engaged. The author has a vivid imagination and has created an interesting dragon world and fun powers for young dragonoids. There are some messages about believing in one’s self and stick-to-it-tiveness, but the one I expected, about global warming and doing our best to preserve the environment from destruction, wasn’t developed.

Bella gives The Dragon Sphere four stars. 4 stars

Potty-mouth index: CLEAN

Bella Reads and Reviews received a free copy of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review.

The Raven Bride (Short Story)

The Raven Bride

The Raven Bride by Sean Fesko (Short Story, Historical Fiction/Paranormal)

We agreed to review The Raven Bride after being approached by the author, even though we don’t normally do short stories. The era and setting is that of the Salem witch trials, a topic that interested us. The description asks the question, “What do you do when the ones that should save you are the ones that accuse you?” As you might guess, you can’t do much.

The year is 1692, and sixteen-year-old Victoria Crowe lives with her mother and little sister just north of Salem, Massachusetts. Her father passed away earlier in the year, leaving the women to survive on their own. The church helps out when it can, but then, one night while their mother is out of the house, the local deputies come to arrest Victoria and her little sister as witches. Will Victoria be able to convince the town that they are not evil?

While Mr. Fesko characterized this as paranormal fiction, I found it to be more along the lines of historical fiction in that it does a good job of entering the mind of an innocent accused of witchcraft in a turbulent time in Colonial history. On the other hand, everything happens so quickly, there is little time to contemplate the fate of Victoria and her family, leaving me feeling somewhat cheated out of what could have been a longer, more intense experience if he had simply turned it into a novella. The paranormal part comes later, and I won’t attempt to explain it here in order to avoid spoilers.

The writing is well done to a point, but there are jarring inconsistencies of language and word usage that took me right out of the story. Victoria is the narrator, and while most of the time she speaks in a somewhat inaccurate, but obviously intended to be, Olde English style, she occasionally throws in modern phrases like “Good job!” or “I lost it” meaning she lost control of her emotions. A few “haths” or “thous” do not Olde English make, and that aspect of the storytelling could have been done much better.

This is a quick read, and it leaves one thinking about good and evil and their origins.

Grandma gives The Raven Bride three stars. 3 stars

Bella Reads and Reviews received a free copy of the book from the author in return for an honest review.

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Unfolding

Unfolding

Unfolding by Jonathan Friesen (Young Adult Fiction)

The cover of this book did not grab me, but the story sure did. It’s a well-written, gripping novel that kept me reading to find out how it all would, well, unfold.

Jonah is a high school senior who suffers from both a severe, body-twisting case of scoliosis and from epileptic seizures of ever-increasing intensity. His self-deprecating sense of humor helps him make it through life and also makes him a captivating narrator as he tells this tale of the secrets hidden in his hometown of Gullary, Oklahoma.

Much of what happens centers around Jonah’s eighteen-year-old next-door neighbor and love interest, Stormi, who was literally dropped into Gullary as an infant by a tornado. Stormi senses things before they happen, which makes her highly suspect in a small town that already considers her to be “unnatural,” and when a tragedy occurs, the townspeople blame her. Jonah’s love for Stormi — and his ability to protect her — are put to the test as things heat up.

I found it refreshing to read about a hero who wasn’t a paragon of physical perfection. His seizures occur at inopportune times, his twisted young body is an embarrassment, and yet he perseveres. His friend Arthur displays autistic tendencies that make it impossible for him to be dishonest, but also result in some creative problem-solving. The story has a few sinister characters, some mystery, some tragedy, and plenty of interesting plot twists that held me captive. I could feel the dry, gritty heat of summer in Oklahoma and feel the creepiness of the town’s abandoned maximum security prison that also plays a part in the story. At the same time, Jonah’s optimistic approach to life and his sense of humor kept the narration light enough to be enjoyable and full of hope.

Grandma gives Unfolding five stars. 5 stars

Bella Reads and Reviews received a free ARC from the publisher via NetGalley in return for an honest review.

Unfolding is scheduled for release on January 1, 2017, and is available only on pre-order.

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