An Unexpected Afterlife

An Unexpected Afterlife

An Unexpected Afterlife by Dan Sofer (Religious Fantasy)

Complex, interesting characters in a most unusual situation. Moshe Karlin wakes up lying on the dirt in a cemetery, naked and alone, with no recollection of how he came to be there. Before long he learns the alarming truth: he died two years before.

Without going into the plot or the outcome, let me simply say that this novel grabbed my attention from the get-go with all its possibilities, and it was a great read. In addition to being highly creative in his premise, Sofer gives us humor and adventure as well as raising a number of questions. Among them: Would it really be so great to come back from the dead? If a deceased loved one suddenly came back into my life years later, would I believe it? How might it complicate my life and what would I do? Will true believers recognize and be ready to accept the End of Days when it begins? Are there people already among us who are more than they appear to be?

Throughout the action, the author brings modern-day Israel to life for those of us who have never been there, as well as providing interesting details about Jewish tradition, Judaism’s belief in the Resurrection of the Dead, and its anticipation of the End of Days. As one who enjoys novels that teach me something, as well as being well-written, well-edited, and well-proofread, I found this book to be pure joy and very satisfying entertainment.

This is Book One in a series called The Dry Bones Society. As such, it left a number of questions open in preparation for Book Two. With that in mind, I’m able to accept the fact that one character – who may or may not be the prophet Elijah – remained a mystery to me at the end. Moshe’s story – at least for the moment —  was resolved well enough, and I hope that future books will tell us more about the fates of his fellow resurrectees.

Grandma gives An Unexpected Afterlife five stars. 5 stars

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

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Rotten Magic

Rotten Magic

Rotten Magic by Jeffrey Bardwell (Science Fiction/Steampunk)

This novella is the prequel to The Artifice Mage series. Devin is a young mage living in an empire that seeks to rid itself of mages. In addition to his magical capabilities, he has a creative mind that gets him into an apprenticeship with the Artificer’s Guild, the techies who keep the steam-powered Empire running and who abhor mages. He tries to suppress his magical side, and as a result we are witness to a continuous internal argument between his artifice side and his mage side. When he attempts to move up from apprentice to journeyman, the internal conflict takes its toll.

I don’t know why, but I never really learned to care about Devin. He has a mom and a little sister, and the story begins with a dialogue he’s having with his little sister. As a result, we know he’s basically a good person with these inconvenient magical capabilities, but somehow he never quite comes across as a sympathetic character. He has a female friend among the apprentices, but no real relationship is explored there. He has an arch enemy. And he has some unfortunate run-ins with egotistical journeymen who ultimately have power over his future.

Overall, I found this to be a downer of a book, with characters I couldn’t connect with. It would also benefit from one more proofreading to rid it of some obvious mistakes.

Bella gives Rotten Magic three stars. 3 stars

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

The Sweet Oil of Vitriol

The Sweet Oil of Vitriol

The Sweet Oil of Vitriol by Daniel Eagleton (Suspense)

If you need a protagonist you will like and empathize with, this book is not for you. Tom Glaze is a failed Mossad agent who drinks too much, uses cocaine, fantasizes about every attractive woman he meets, and makes some poor decisions on the job and in his personal life. He is definitely not your usual hero type, and that made him interesting to me, although a sense of humor or some other endearing characteristic would have made him more palatable. I didn’t like him, but I still wanted to know if and how he was going to pull off a planned hit on a crooked international politician.

Eagleton’s writing style takes some getting used to. At first I thought the lack of the pronoun “he” was a typo, but I soon learned that the author prefers to write in sentence fragments, describing the action in a series of phrases minus a stated subject. I am not opposed to an attempt at originality as long as the endeavor works, and once I came to accept the absence of pronouns, it did. Overall, I found the book well-written and well-edited, with a rare proofreading oversight like “she put his hand on his.”

This is the first book in “The Tom Glaze Series,” and it did a good job of wrapping up the current story while leaving plenty of room for more action to come. Perhaps, as Tom Glaze makes more of a name for himself in his chosen trade, he’ll rely less on booze and drugs and keep his distractions under control. At least one could hope so, and this reader would be willing to find out.

Grandma gives The Sweet Oil of Vitriol four stars. 4 stars

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

The Leftover

The Leftover

The Leftover by Brooke Williams (Humor)

In this book “The Leftover” is a “Survivor”-like TV show that pits twelve people against each other to become the last person left over. Megan Malone becomes a reluctant participant when her sister, Molly, is accepted but then bumped from the show due to being pregnant. Molly talks Megan into taking her place, even though Megan is a thirty-year-old recluse — never been kissed! — with few social or athletic skills. If she’s lucky, she’ll be voted off the show on the first day.

Meek, clumsy Megan, whose severe astigmatism requires her to wear her glasses even when swimming underwater, immediately falls head over heels for Cane, the show’s handsome medic, who is a former reality star in his own right, albeit a humiliated one. He fell hard for the girl on a dating show, but she chose someone else instead of him. Cane, still devastated and heartbroken, is nevertheless instantly drawn to Megan’s refreshing uniqueness as a shy girl who doesn’t wear makeup or comb her hair and has no fashion sense whatsoever.

This is billed as humor, but it’s not particularly humorous, unless being awkward is considered funny. Once on the set of “The Leftover,” Megan has to boil her drinking water, find her own food, and is sleeping on the ground in a lean-to amid a group of strangers who don’t exactly have her well-being in mind. Even so, she’s more interested in ogling Cane on the sidelines who, of course, is surreptitiously ogling her. When she’s not bumbling her way through tough competitions during the day she’s having heartfelt conversations with Cane in the medical tent, and at one point manages to grab his butt by mistake — leading to more awkward humor.

I did a lot of skimming in this book — mostly over the instant “romance” developing between these two — to find out which contestant was going to be eliminated each day, knowing it wasn’t going to be Megan. Would it be the jerk who bossed everyone around, the snotty woman trying to preserve her perfectly manicured nails, or — please no — the hunky blond male PE teacher with the nice eyes? Predictability and clean romance makes this book perfect for readers seeking a harmless piece of fluff.

Grandma gives The Leftover three stars. 3 stars

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

The Miseries of Mr. Sparrows

The Miseries of Mr. Sparrows

The Miseries of Mr. Sparrows by Matthew A. J. Timmins (Humor/Mystery)

This is probably the most unique work I’ve reviewed in a very long time. It reads like a historical novel set in Victorian London, with a strong sense of place and gritty, Dickensian characters with lots of quirks and warts. At the same time, it’s very funny.

The setting is not exactly London but the very similar city of Claudon, capital of Albion, on the banks of the River Plew. Our anti-hero, Mr. Robin Sparrows, is a lowly legal clerk who is paid a pittance to do menial tasks for a disreputable law firm. He’s a timid, self-effacing fellow who falls prey to all sorts of dilemmas, most often due to the nefarious behavior of others. Still, his sense of duty propels him forward and keeps him going as he seeks to deliver a package to the Empire’s most notorious criminal, a man responsible for starting the Crocodile War with the nation of Crocodon.

I loved many things about this book. The writing is superb. The eccentric characters are entertaining, and the names of places — Upper-Hem-On-The-Edge, St. Audley’s Home for Limbless Soldiers — and the names of people — Lord Ernest Arenblast, the diminutive Warden Webert Stillbee — have the sparkling creativity of J.K. Rowling. I found myself chuckling at clever similes and plays on words as well as the outlandish situations in which the hapless Robin finds himself — attempting to hide on a windowsill while being attacked by a territorial pigeon was just one of many.

Readers with an appreciation for the mildly absurd and those who enjoy clever narrative and strong writing skills will find this refreshing novel most entertaining. If Mr. Sparrows were to return with new adventures, I would be happy to meet up with him again.

Grandma gives The Miseries of Mr. Sparrows five stars. 5 stars

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

Forbidden

Forbidden

Forbidden by F. Stone (Suspense/Thriller)

This is a complex and fast-paced thriller with strong main characters — a female Canadian paramedic with a tragic past who suffers from severe bouts of PTSD and a devout Muslim police captain working in a Middle Eastern city where corruption makes it hard to know whom to trust. The massacre of fifteen American aid workers brings the paramedic and the captain together as reluctant allies when both become targets of a local governmental cover-up of the massacre. The arrival of an American CIA Agent bent on finding out who killed the American volunteers adds another layer of risk, as he believes the captain may have masterminded the whole thing. Despite their differences in background and outlook on life, the paramedic and the captain must work together to find the true perpetrator. Along the way they also (no surprise) find each other.

The author did a lot of research to ensure authenticity in her portrayal of the region and Islam, and her respect for her subject matter is evident. She also consulted with weapons experts, police officers, and cultural experts, and uses her own experience as a paramedic to bring authenticity to her characters’ actions. She does a good job of getting inside the heads of both a woman with heavy emotional issues and a disillusioned and unhappy man struggling with violating Sharia law while protecting that woman.

The story is set in the year 2047 — most likely to allow for creation of a new Middle Eastern entity known as the Republic of Islamic Provinces and Territories — but this is not a futuristic tale. Transportation, technology, medicine, etc. remain unchanged from 2017. Also somewhat incongruous is the fact that the paramedic is a “seer,” which pops up now and then, but has very little bearing on the story and, for me at least, compromised a character to whom I could otherwise easily relate.

My major complaint, however, is the book’s need for a good proofreader. While it did not detract from my overall enjoyment of the story, I did find many sentences that were missing articles (the, a, an) or prepositions. Punctuation was funky in places. More distracting were the occasional inappropriate or misused words, including “shoulder” where it should have said “soldier.” I had to read that one sentence more than once to make sure I wasn’t imagining it.

Normally, the issues named above would take an average story down to three stars, but I enjoyed the story itself a great deal and appreciate the author’s careful and extensive preparation to tell it.

Grandma gives Forbidden four stars. 4 stars

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

The Visitors

The Visitors

The Visitors by Catherine Burns (Literary Fiction, Thriller)

For all of her life, Marion has been the object of ridicule from her peers, her older brother, John, and her highly opinionated mother. Now a spinster in her 50s, she lives with John in the big old house where they grew up. Timid and out of touch with the world, she stays in the house and does her best not to irritate John. But John keeps “visitors” in the cellar, and while Marion manages to put them out of her mind most of the time, she can’t ignore them forever, especially when John becomes disabled and she’s the one who must take care of them.

This debut novel is less of a thriller and more of a chilling character study, with its creepiness coming from the fact that basically “invisible” people like Marion and John could be your neighbors just down the block. I was immediately drawn into Marion’s world where her dead mother’s haughty voice continues to regale her with judgmental observations, and strangers who show Marion the most basic kindness populate her daydreams of having normal relationships and a meaningful life. Then there are the occasional references to the visitors in the cellar, the backward glances at pivotal incidents in her painful childhood, and her daily ups and downs as the slovenly, not-so-bright woman living in the decrepit mansion with her creepy bachelor brother. Together they add up to a story that brings Marion to life. I came to like her and feel for her and couldn’t help but wonder how she would cope with the visitors in the cellar, when that time came.

The reader sees everything through Marion’s eyes and Marion’s way of thinking, and it’s a fascinating journey. While what’s going on in the cellar may seem potentially off-putting, it’s handled well and does not become the focus of the tale. Instead, we’re with Marion as she melds her past and present in an effort to create her own future. And, of course, to take care of the visitors.

Grandma gives The Visitors five stars. 5 stars

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

The Visitors will be released on September 26, 2017, and is available for pre-order.