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JOA "Journal of Always Reviews" (Hartford, CT)

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Best Laid Plans: Shader Series book 2
Best Laid Plans: Shader Series book 2
Price: £2.88

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great, great continuation..., 26 Jan. 2012
Rating: 5 out of 5

Sequels are a tricky business. I consider it a rarity when books actually get better after a fantastic opening volume. Off the top of my head, I can only think of three series that hold this distinction: King's The Dark Tower, Dalglish's Shadowdance Trilogy, and of course the Harry Potter books.

In other words, with Best Laid Plans: Shader Book II, D.P. Prior has joined some pretty select company.

Best Laid Plans picks up the story of the events on Sahul (and in other, more surreal locales) with the characters in dire straits. The undead army of the liche Dr. Cadman has overwhelmed Sarum, the Templum fleet is approaching Sahul, and Deacon Shader, our hero, is, well, dead...none of which will stay true for very long.

To say this book has a busy plot would be an understatement. At my count, there are at least nine storylines going on at once: Deacon's experience in the afterlife, the struggles of the White Order, the survival of those trapped in Sarum, Cadman's angst and rise to efforts to retain power, Maldark the dwarf's guilt over his past, the dreamer Huntsman's continuing education of Rhiannon's brother Sammy, Sektis Gandaw's quest to assemble the statue of Eingana and begin the unweaving, Shadrak's growing importance to the whole (possibly) preordained events unfolding, Shader's resurrection and subsequent quest, and Emperor Hagalle's double-handed dealings. Throw into this mix vast battle sequences, and you have a piece of literature that could very well have become disjointed and confusing in a lesser author's hands.

Yet Prior is up to the task in this opus, and the narrative he builds is a fascinating one. There is mythology and philosophy, questions as to the nature of reality and time, scathing observations on government and religion, and even a few references to modern-day events and objects that bring this beyond the realm of just a great epic fantasy adventure. All of these tropes and points meld together, creating a work that is exciting while at the same time thought-provoking.

This book questions everything. While there are certainly protagonists and antagonists, these characters are as far from being cardboard cutouts that you can get. Perhaps the greatest achievement is the way Prior allows us, through differing points of view, to see inside the minds of virtually every major character and allows us to develop at least an inkling of empathy for them. Even the despicable Cadman and the perhaps more-despicable Gaston (who performed a virtually unforgivable act in the first book) are given time to show they're real, flesh-and-blood people with doubts and fears and even remorse. It allows them, the characters, the move the plot forward rather than the plot moving them, which for a work that deals a lot in fate and preordination is a feat in and of itself.

The battle sequences were well thought-out and exciting--much more so than in the first book--and particularly the scenes that take place at sea, while Deacon is attempting to find the albino who stole his pieces of Eingana, are captivating. They're a mixture of new and old, a melding of science fiction and Tolkien-esque fantasy that is truly original and awe-inspiring in scope. There were very few times where I became confused, and even on those rare occasions all it took was a small step backward to realize that I'd simply missed a sentence or misunderstood the usage of a certain word or phrase.

In conclusion, I can say that Best Laid Plans not only matches Cadman's Gambit, the first book in the series, but enhances it. This is a book chock full of imagery both beautiful and hideous, with a mixture of genuine comedy in places to break up the despair and tension. It was a beast of a story to read, one I didn't want to put down. And by the time I reached the cliffhanger ending, I wished more than anything that I had the third book on hand so I could get right to it.

That's right, folks, D.P. Prior has crafted a wonderful mythology that goes perfectly with his spot-on writing. This is a series that should be savored like a fine scotch, one whose sweetness lingers in your mouth long after you've swallowed.

Legend of Witchtrot Road (Spirit Guide Book 3)
Legend of Witchtrot Road (Spirit Guide Book 3)
Price: £3.04

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Best of the series so far..., 10 Jan. 2012
Rating: 4.7 out of 5

Man, do I love E.J. Stevens. She has such a pure innocence in her prose, as if she's capturing just what it means to be young and in love and also, at the same time, have the weight of the world on your shoulders.

In The Legend of Witchtrot Road, the third installment in her Spirit Guide series, Stevens steps back a bit. The far-reaching story arch that encompassed the first two books is still present, but it is allowed to linger in the background, to heighten naturally. As a storyteller she reins herself in, focusing on the tale at hand rather than building her world outright.

In many ways, The Legend of Witchtrot Road is very similar to a midseason "event episode" of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Yuki, our main character who smells the dead, has her own Scooby gang, and together they must solve the mysterious death of a classmate, whose untimely end came on the Witchtrot Road of the title. The road itself is steeped in myth, superstition, and dark history, and if the always stalwart Yuki is going to have a semblance of peace from her classmate's lingering ghost, the answers to the mystery need to come quickly.

This is a tale of social conscience and, just like the great television show I mentioned earlier, takes some of the more pressing concerns facing our nation's youth (bullying, eating disorders, the proliferation of drugs in the community, etc.) and presents them in a fantastic manner. It's a type of storytelling that's pure in intention and beautiful in message, especially when presented in a professional manner, which E.J. Stevens does with every book she puts out.

Now, even though the specifics of Yuki and company's world aren't explored in-depth, as I already stated, they are still there. There are some interesting developments when it comes to Simon (perhaps the best character in the series), and also certain events that made me, the reader, question whether or not Yuki and werewolf boyfriend Cal will indeed have the happily ever after they've seemed, until now, destined to live.

Yes, The Legend of Witchtrot Road is a fantastically naÔve, touching, and thoughtful novel. Stevens continues on her journey as a writer, and you can plainly tell when you read the words she puts on the page that she continues to grow. The author has a wonderful story to tell, one that I thoroughly enjoyed and will certainly be passing down to my own daughter. To me, this is a coup of the YA genre, one that shouldn't be missed.

Livin' La Vida Papa
Livin' La Vida Papa
Price: £2.21

5.0 out of 5 stars A great slice-of-life, 9 Jan. 2012
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Being a father, I understand the parental duty. However, given the fact I've always had a job, I don't have a clue what it would be like to be a stay-at-home dad.

And now here comes Louis Mack, in his hilariously real Livin' La Vida Papa, to fill in those gaps.

This is a tight and amusing read, as the author--who is himself a rather well known horror novelist writing under a pseudonym--intersperses bits of his personal experience in raising his daughter and infant son between offering advice to young parents that is surprisingly sincere despite its mirth...or perhaps because of it.

Each personal anecdote is humorous and sometimes gag-inducing, while at the same time imparting a sort of innocence and sense of self-exploration that is refreshing. It's a short read as well, one you can read in perhaps a couple hours. This briskness allows the words to pack an even greater punch than they would have if this was some four-hundred page magnum opus.

So yeah, Livin' La Vida Papa is a darn good experience. I recommend it to young fathers, to writers who falsely assume that if they were just able to stay home all day they'd get that much more accomplished, and, well, just about everyone else. It's funny and heartfelt, and no matter what, you're guaranteed to come out of the experience with at least one story you can rest assured no one else will have heard of.

A Dance of Death (Shadowdance Trilogy, Book 3)
A Dance of Death (Shadowdance Trilogy, Book 3)

9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Perfect End..., 16 Nov. 2011
Rating: 5 out of 5

I love David Dalglish's books. There, I said it. Everything he's put out I've devoured and raved about. From Weight of Blood, the introduction to his Half-Orcs series, to his new Paladins adventures, each story builds upon the next, further enhancing and enriching the world he's created and presenting new conspiracies, enemies, and themes.

Now we come to A Dance of Death, the climactic work of the Shadowdance series - which, strangely enough, are really stand-alone novels masquerading as a series. And I will now say, as I seem to after virtually every Dalglish book, that he's once more raised the bar, making this reviewer swoon, sway, and cheer with each swing of the sword (or thrust of the dagger).

This time around, we find Haern, fully entrenched in his role as King's Watcher, being led out of Velderan by a copycat killer in the town of Angelport, miles away from home. This mimic kills seemingly indiscriminately, leaving behind Haern's old calling card, the bloody, traced eye, one he hasn't used in years.

Haern, along with Alyssa and Zusa, head south. There are other bad things going on in Angelport - a fight with the elves over the woodlands, the proliferation of a new, powerful drug that is spreading through the streets, and the infighting between the merchant lords, who own the boats, and the lord of the land, who is slowly losing control of everything. Into this mix is thrown the Wraith, Haern's much-too-talented, unwanted protégé, which pitches everything into a great big smorgasbord of murder, conspiracy, deceit, and political intrigue that brings the city to the brink of war - both with the elves and amongst themselves.

For the first time, Dalglish introduces a plot that is truly mysterious and isn't concluded until the very end. While all of his books possess tremendous character development - and are usually carried by it - this one actually uses the plot itself, the mystery, to drive the story forward, using the previously stated character development to enhance the story, making the characters come to even more life than they already are. We understand Alyssa's doubt, Zusa's anger, Haern's guilt, because each step of the way we're shown why they feel what they're feeling.

And they aren't the only characters spotlighted here. We're also reintroduced to Torgar, from way back in book one, who serves as the master of the guard for the Keenans, the Trifect members who reside in Angelport. We also get further insight into Madelyn Keenan's character, who, let's just say, is one of my favorites in the whole book, maybe the whole series. We also get inside the head of the Wraith, this mirror of a creation whose goals and actions don't quite match up.

This is a book filled - and I mean filled - with meaning and thematic exploration. Everything from drug trafficking to environmental preservation to the question of how far is too far when it comes to the use of violence in making the world a better place are explored. Haern, for his part, is left to question his own motivations, to doubt his every action. He's presented with a man much like himself, one that kills ostensibly at random, with no thought given to whether his victims deserve their fate or not. All of which leads Haern to wonder, what makes me so much better than him?

Because of this fact, there are no true heroes in A Dance of Death. What we cheer for when we read are incomplete people - in other words, fantasy representations of actual, real people experiencing the type of trauma - gang violence, drug dealers, vigilantism - that are found in any city across the world. All of which makes me repeat something I've said many times before: David Dalglish is not a fantasy author. He's an author, period; one whose words would mean just as much if they were set in Chicago or Paris or Los Angeles as they do in Velderan...or Angelport.

The bottom line is this: A Dance of Death is a great, great read, a much more than worthy offering to close out a fantastic series. The characters are great, the story even better, and it has enough twists to make your head spin. We even get to see elves portrayed being not-so-elflike - you know wise and mystical and peaceful and all that - which I absolutely loved. There is heartbreak and anger, betrayal and gut-wrenching decisions, as well as some rather inspired deaths. I heartily recommend it, as I would all of the author's books, and can honestly say I hope he gives us more of Haern's story in the future, because there has to be more to tell.

Yeah, this is pretty much the perfect novel. You won't be disappointed. And if you are, that's on you, not the work.

Suspense, The Spencer Nye Trilogy #1
Suspense, The Spencer Nye Trilogy #1
Price: £1.79

5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent Dystopian Fiction, 9 Nov. 2011
Rating: 4.7 out of 5

In certain ways, Facebook has become an integral part of my life. I spend way too much time on it, conversing with friends, making connections, sometimes simply passing the time. It's become a useful tool, but also a slightly frightening one. If you were to think about how connected everyone is through these bits of data flowing invisibly all around us, it would be very easy to come up with a nightmare scenario where we not only use programs like this as a tool, but they become necessary to continue our way of life, a world where without social networking, the whole of society would be lost.

Jason Letts took this scenario, fleshed it out, and in a flash of unique and original storytelling created Suspense, the first book in his Spencer Nye Trilogy. To say I was impressed with what he came up with would be a grand understatement.

Suspense centers around the exploits of the girl for whom the series is named, Spencer Nye herself. She is a gritty character, full of anger and distrust. She is also a diehard, one who will do anything - even kill - to protect and defend the image and life of her Idol.

What is this all about, you ask? Diehards? Idols? Well it seems that in Letts's brilliant new universe, the general world populace uses a program called Connect - the most powerful social media ever invented, accessed through nodes implanted into peoples' skulls - to, well, keep themselves connected. They float through life only half-existing in the real world, spending the rest of the time immersed in the data that flashes in front of their eyes, reading up on the latest trends, what their friends are up to, or just perusing. I found it to be a quite disturbing visual the first time I read a scene depicting this, representative of a world where the flesh is at times looked at as a hindrance.

A good chunk of society also uses Connect to keep up with their Idols - basically folks who've gained so much popularity, so many followers, that they've become, in a certain sense, godlike. All six of the Idols live in a fortress on a hidden tropical island, to keep them safe. And the animosity between the diehards for each of them is frightening. They're constantly at war, constantly killing each other, with the end game being to elevate their Idol to an even higher level. It's a scary thought.

The specifics of the society the author created are interesting, even beyond the whole social networking angle. There is no more industry, as anything anyone would ever need is created simply by pressing a button on something called a molecular synthesizer. There is no more crime - other than diehard-on-diehard violence - as why in the world would you have to steal if it everyone had everything they wanted and money no longer existed? And people get around by using terminals that transport them from place to place in the blink of an eye, simply by pushing numbers into a keypad.

In a lot of ways you could look at this and think, that's not so bad. On the surface, this society is bordering on a utopia, but with the loss of personal freedom that comes with everyone knowing what's on your mind at all times, and the amount of fanaticism the Idols create, it steers in the opposite direction and becomes pure dystopia. With a lack of purpose, a lack of direction, it leads folks to act irrationally, to search for meaning in a world that, in truth, means absolutely nothing.

The story itself is an adventure, as Spencer and her friends, a cyborg named Jetta and a programmer named Patch, seemingly uncover a plan to take out the Idols - including theirs, the actor Cleary Mintz. This leads to a great many action sequences and a rather ingenious plan, thought up by the three friends, to turn Spencer, herself, into an Idol and fix the situation from the inside.

What follows is a great amount of intrigue and a further exploration into how this whole world started in the first place. There is mystery, paranoia, and a hint that the direction society has taken was orchestrated by something wholly not of this world. And in the middle of all this is Spencer, the unstable teenager whose only desire has ever been for her life to have meaning.

This is a very good book, folks. Suspense is resourceful and technical, a mix of science fiction and dystopian fiction with a truly original premise. Though written for a young adult crowd, it's definitely been created for an older audience. There are scenes of violence, confusion, and at one point a rather inspired scenario of sexual exploration while not in one's own body, experiencing the sensations from the opposite viewpoint. The book is obviously not perfect - what book is? - but it's more than worthy of your time and energy. In fact, I'll go a step further to say this particular work of fiction may be important, as well. It allows us to look at our own actions, how much time we spend on the internet "connecting" with people while ignoring those who are standing right beside us, and urges us to find balance.

It's a difficult tightrope to walk, and the author shows us what might happen if we fall off. Brilliant.

33 A.D.
33 A.D.
by David L. McAfee
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One of the best in ages...., 8 Aug. 2010
This review is from: 33 A.D. (Paperback)
If one were to take the story of the crucifixion and combine it with vampires, you would most likely get one of the most clichéd stories imaginable. I've read quite a few tales regarding this very setup - all in short story format, mind you - and they all were variations on a few different plots. Either Jesus himself is a vampire, hence his rising from the dead, or he becomes Jesus Christ Action Star, staking those pesky vamps left and right. These are unimaginative stories. They either don't do anything new with the characters or they pervert them to where they're no longer viable. And also, there tends to be a trend towards using these stories as a promotion or criticism of Christianity. Never have I seen a story that took the setting of Christ's last days and used them as a framework. In other words, taking the setting and telling a story around that setting to create a complete, comprehensive, and entertaining work.

Never, that is, until I read 33 A.D. This was a book that I loved so much that I can come to only one conclusion about its author:

I have seen the new face of horror, and it resides beneath the glossy, waxed dome of David McAfee.

Mr. McAfee has done the (virtually) impossible. He's taken an iconic figure and backdrop, stayed true to their roots in legend, and layered a very human tale that deals with the supernatural over it. This book is bloody, brutal, depressing, and also moral...however, that morality doesn't overwhelm the reader, as ethical writing is wont to do. Instead it makes us think, both about what we feel about our own past misdeeds and the power each of us holds within us to forgive ourselves.

The two most important characters in 33 A.D. are Theron, a vampire assassin who's lived for more than nine-hundred years, and Taras, a golden-haired Roman Legionary (think a primitive version of the Secret Service) whose greatest desire is to skip out of Jerusalem with Mary, his forbidden Jewish lover, and start a family. Although there are many other characters (including Marcus, the Centurion, whose nobility and strength are measured against his weak willpower, making him a fantastic creation), this is ostensibly their story.

Theron, after killing a renegade vampire at the beginning of the novel, is saddled with the task of executing Jesus, as the Nazarene and his ability to heighten the faith of those around him is dangerous to the Bachiyr (Vampiric) Council of 13. This proves to be an arduous undertaking becaue Theron, as a vampire, cannot get close enough to a man with such strong beliefs. Because of this, he goes about framing the supposed prophet, for all intents and purposes setting in motion the events that lead to Jesus' demise.

Taras, on the other hand, is a loyal and capable soldier. He is strong, both in beliefs and in physicality. He, as well as every other Roman, is turned against the Nazarene due to Theron's actions.

And this is where the meat of the novel lies. Theron and Taras are different characters, and yet they are virtual mirror images of each other. One could imagine that Theron, when he was still human oh so long ago, might have been virtually identical to the Roman he now calls adversary. It's a brilliant piece of writing, and I think the similarity of their names is meant for the reader to realize that, when you cut down to the core, they aren't as different as they think they are. In this way, the entire book is about the choices and the aforementioned need to forgive oneself. Theron cannot. He's been around too long, deviated too much, to will a change, even though he can. No matter how much strength he possesses, he will always be weak. Likewise Taras, towards the end, when confronted with a decision that will define the rest of his life, is similarly frail. This speaks to the humanity in both of them. Even Theron, though immortal, is inexorably human, and it is that human frailty that leads to his ultimate descent into madness. And when Jesus "rises" from the grave, that event is mirrored by the rebirths, in different ways, of the two main characters. In other words, you can draw a parallel between all three, the monster, the hero, and the prophet, and come out on the other side thinking they're all quite analogous. In writing it this way, the author is telling us that at our core we're all the same, all fallible, and it's up to us - and ONLY us - to change.

The subject of religion, when used in fiction, is a slippery slope to climb. It can come off as preachy or ostentatious, and while a core Christian might find that intriguing, my guess is that the majority of readers in no way want to be sermonized to. This is yet another way that McAfee did an unbelievable job. He succeeded in taking the base values of the sermons of Jesus - his theories of love, forgiveness, and togetherness - and took away the devout fanaticism that can curtail lesser works. In this novel Jesus is a loveable, though ethereally strong, hippie. The scenes in which he is involved are tastefully done, subtle, and sublime. He is not a man of action, but one of introspection, tenderness, and amnesty. He never gives up hope for those he runs across, and in the reflection of that faith in others lays the refraction of his words. It causes those not ready to hear them to back away.

I'm sure some, especially those who aren't Christian, may look upon this book and think it distasteful. It is not. I, myself, am strictly anti-religious. Whereas I do have faith, I understand the dangers of dogmatic belief and have no desire to pursue it. However, and this is important, McAfee does NOT preach. He uses the beliefs of New Testament Christianity as a tool, not a be-all-end-all, because I think most would admit that the idea of love, community, and mercy are something to strive for. In other words, much like in AA, he takes what works and leaves the rest. You will find no heavy-handedness here.

Okay, one last thing. Because I'm anal and certain facts never escape my attention, I have to mention the only problem I had with this book. In one scene, a character is described as "short, only five-and-a-half feet tall." The problem is, the average height of a Roman at that time was barely five feet even. Not a huge gaffe, but one that I noticed, and I wouldn't be pretentious old me if I didn't point it out.

That being said, it's a tiny little issue that doesn't take away the fact that this is a fantastic and beautifully written novel. There is death and rebirth, betrayal and loyalty, hope and despair, and ultimately sorrow. We see where the characters end up, and we feel sorry for them. It's well worth the read, and I have to admit that I did cry more than once while sitting on the beach reading it. For me, it is the best vampire novel to come out since "The Vampire Lestat" hit the shelves a quarter century ago. And I LOVED that book.

You get a heartfelt recommendation from me, people. Go get it. Make David McAfee a success. We should all want to read more of what he has to offer.

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