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The Secret Chord by Kathryn Guare

The Secret Chord: The Virtuosic Spy - Book 2 - Kathryn Guare

I was really excited to dig into this book because Book 1 was so good. This story had it’s charms as well but I did enjoy the first book more. Our hero, Conor McBride, is in dire need of some serious rest and relaxation. He goes to great pains to walk away from the espionage business that entangled him and his brother in Book 1. A fancy but quiet Vermont Bed & Breakfast needs an experienced dairy farmer and that’s right up Conor’s alley.

At the B&B, he meets Kate (the owner) and Abigail (the motherly demanding chef). Kate is a painter who’s currently suffering from artist’s block. She sits in front of her canvas day in and day out not painting because she lacks that spark. She does have a good sense of humor and can be stubborn and decisive. Sometimes I liked her and sometimes I rolled my eyes at her. She’s initially a little prickly with Conor, assuming that Conor has assumed she’s incompetent at farm work. Kate says she’s good with the tractor but we never see her doing any farm work, so I have my doubts.

Kate is directly tied to my one complaint for this book. I don’t mind a little romance with my espionage thriller, but I do mind characters being idiots and Kate was often an idiot and it usually was because of the romance. She is idiotically jealous over something Conor mumbles in his sleep. In another incident, she feels that Conor needs to ask her forgiveness and I felt she was being high handed, needy, and immature. Finally, there’s this end stage of the spy operation and Kate insists on going along with no spy training. This was such a bad idea but she bullies her way into it, endangering everyone. I really dislike it when stories use this particular ploy to make room for drama later on. So, yeah, I wanted to like Kate but I felt that she was mostly useless and at times detrimental to the other characters.

I loved that Conor played his violin for Kate. They chat about art in general and her artist’s block. Conor makes a comment along the line that Kate is making it all about herself instead of the art – and that sums up Kate perfectly. She’s not a bad person but she is self-centered.

Along this same line, I have to say that the ladies in this book are all comforters or love interests. Kate and Abigail and Yvonne (I think I have her name right) are well written but I wanted more from the women in general. It’s the modern age and lady spies have been around for hundreds if not thousands of years. It would nice to see that reflected here.

Setting that aside, it was great to have Frank Murdoch and Sedgewick back in the game. Conor thought he had been clever, had left his old life behind, but he’s also new to all this spy business. So he’s not too surprised when Murdoch reaches out and has an assignment for him. There’s some unfinished business with Vasily Draganov, the big baddie from Book 1. Conor is still mourning his brother Thomas and his mother Brigid and the loss of the family farm. I could easily see how torn Conor was – go after this man or put it all behind him and try to heal.

At the end of Book 1, I wasn’t sure how much to trust Sedgewick and Murdoch but now there is a true bond among the three men. They each go through this new crisis and come out knowing each other better. Sedgewick is still a bit paranoid and rougher around the edges and Murdoch is still all proper English (doing his best to hide his heritage).

There’s plenty of double crossing and double agents stuff going on. It’s clear by the end of Book 1 that one of the good guys was feeding intel to one of the bad guys. Now in this book, that gets dealt with and wrapped up. Also, there’s a lingering string back to Thomas and to Conor’s farm caretaker (no longer employed since he sold the place) Phillip. I was delightfully surprised with the big reveal on that and also on how it got handled.

All told, 4/5 stars. If the next book comes to audiobook land, I will give it a listen because I think Kate can grow and become useful.

The Narration: Wayne Farrell was great! He has a light Irish accent for Conor that is just perfect. He also does a good job with the female voices. I loved his voice for Sedgewick, especially when Sedgewick was being rude or was in the grip of malaria or alcohol. He also had a good kid voice for the young lad. There were no technical issues with this recording. 5/5 stars.

I received this audiobook as part of my participation in a blog tour with Audiobookworm Promotions. The tour is being sponsored by Kathryn Guare. The gifting of this audiobook did not affect my opinion of it.

The Lover's Portrait by Jennifer Alderson

The Lover's Portrait: An Art Mystery - Jennifer S. Alderson

Note: Even though this is Book 2 in the series, it works fine as a stand alone novel.

I love a good art mystery, where the main character has to dig into the history of an art piece and try to figure out motivations of potential owners. Zelda Richardson has the passion for the job. She was bored sick of her office computer job in Big City, USA and ran off to the Netherlands to study art, working on her master’s degree. I really wanted to like Zelda and eventually I came to care about her in the way I would care about a young niece. She has the appreciation for Dutch art and the dedication to research but she’s not the sharpest pencil in the pack. The clues to the mystery were well laid out and Zelda sometimes took forever to put them together.

Because of that, this cozy murder mystery read more like a kid’s mystery novel. So maybe it’s not so much Zelda but rather how the mystery itself unfolded. I really felt that Zelda acted younger than a woman in her late 20s or early 30s and her slowness in piecing together the clues really added to this. Once I cheated and adjusted Zelda’s age to 15, I liked her more and I enjoyed the tale more.

Most of the story is set in Amsterdam and there were a few scenes sprinkled throughout the story that do well in reminding us of the setting. However, for most of the book, the tale could be set almost anywhere. A few Dutch touches here and there would have added to the atmosphere.

There are two women who claim rightful ownership of a newly recovered portrait called Irises. Rita Brower hails from Missouri (I think) and is friendly. She lived in Amsterdam as a kid and has many fond memories of the place. Karen O’Neil comes in hitting heavy with a pushy attorney, threatening to go to the press with her sob story. I liked that it wasn’t immediately clear which woman had the best case of ownership though Zelda had a clear liking for Rita while her co-worker Huub Konjin clearly favored Karen with all her legal documentation. Her boss Bernice remained professional throughout the entire mess, requiring her employees to look into both cases diligently.

The research pulls in Nazi occupation of the Netherlands during WWII and their persecution of homosexuals. I felt Zelda had a very simple take on this: if character X was a homosexual, there’s no way character X could have children. That’s just silly. Plenty of homosexuals and bisexuals have had kids. This argument of Zelda’s was a very weak one but a lot of emphasis was placed on it, making it a weak point in the plot.

Later on, Zelda talks her friend Friedrich into helping her spy on one of the claimants. However, she’s then dumb enough to play this illegal recording for her boss and Huub. Obviously, that doesn’t go well and I was sure Zelda would face charges. Zelda was completely surprised at how things went and I felt this added to the overall feeling that Zelda was more a 15 year old than a 25 year old.

As the story winds up for the big finale, which was easy to predict well before we got there, I was rooting for Zelda. She may be a bit dense but I didn’t want her dead and I did want her to find the big stash of lost art. Since things had been so cozy and rather PG, I wasn’t worried for Zelda’s safety even when she was held at gun point. I did wonder about that one scene where the Bad Guy has to hold her at gun point and pick a lock at the same time….. hmmm…. it usually takes 2 hands to pick a lock. Zelda didn’t take advantage of that moment but she comes up swinging later once she’s worked out that she’s dead if she doesn’t do something.

Over all, it was a fun cozy listen with good pacing. 3.5/5 stars.

The Narration: Carol Purdom has a very pleasant voice to listen to. She makes a decent Zelda and a really great Rita (Missouri accent). She does well as the slightly outraged Karen too. I was expecting the Dutch characters to have Dutch accents, but they didn’t. They usually sounded a bit formal or stilted but not with Dutch accents. There’s a few lines of German here and there and Perdom’s German pronunciation needs some polishing. She was really good with the emotions, especially Zelda’s. 3.5/5 stars.

I received this audiobook as part of my participation in a blog tour with Audiobookworm Promotions. The tour is being sponsored by Jennifer S. Alderson. The gifting of this audiobook did not affect my opinion of it.

The Hidden Village by Imogen Matthews

The Hidden Village - Imogen Matthews

This was an educational and charming tale about Nazi occupied Holland during WWII. ‘Charming’ probably sounds a little odd for the subject but it was mostly a light-hearted tale about hiding in the woods and pulling the wool over the eyes of the Nazis. Jan, a lad of 11 years old, plays a major role in the story and for much of it, this was just one big adventure. It was exciting running messages and supplies to the Jews hiding in the woods (Berkenhout). He slips through Nazi hands again and again. Also, he’s found a few pilots that had to bail out. Sometimes his family helps out pilots or Jews by hiding them in their attic. So I can see how it’s all very exciting for the lad.

It took me a while to like Sofie. She is separated from her family and lives in Berkenhout on her own as a teenager. There, she eventually learns to help out. I’m not sure if she had a maid come in and clean once a week before the war, but now she learns to cook and clean and eventually enjoys all the tasks she takes on.

I’m going to show my ignorance here but this one little thing keeps niggling at me. The characters in this story (Jew or not Jew) all enjoy pork. Ham or bacon is nearly a daily ingredient in the cooking. There’s no discussion of ‘Oh, well, things are desperate and we really need the protein so we’ll eat pork even though it’s not kosher’. So was it common for 1940s Dutch Jews to eat pork? I don’t know and my few on-line searches haven’t answered the question. A few lines in the story would have educated me and cleared up that minor mystery.

The ladies in general were comforters and romantic interests. When two or more got together, they almost always talked about boys or men. I was a bit disappointed in this aspect of the story. We all know that the ladies did plenty in WWII besides the cooking, cleaning, reproducing, and flirting.

The last hour of the book gets very serious and it was a definite change of tone from the rest of the book. Unfortunately, several people die or are injured. There’s also the question of whether or not a certain side character betrayed the people of Berkenhout. Unfortunately, that mystery is never clearly answered.

I enjoyed the two pilots. One was a Brit, Nigel. Then later in the book there’s Donald, an American from Ohio. Both were welcomed into Jan’s house, partially because Jan and his mom (who is British) speak English. They both made a good counterpoint to Jan’s dad, who was always in a bad mood and rather gruff with Jan. After Jan’s older brother Oscar went off on a small mission for the local resistance, Jan didn’t have a steady male mentor. Both Nigel and Donald treated Jan well and appreciated his help.

Liesbeth, Sofie’s best friend from school, is a small comforting presence for much of the story. At the end she plays an important role and I liked her all the better for it. Though once again, I had some questions about how Liesbeth’s generosity changed her life and how she pulled it off.

So, as you can see, it was educational for me (who knew nothing about Nazi-occupied Holland before reading this story) yet it left me with several small questions. 4/5 stars.

The Narration:  Liam Gerrard was great for this story. He was the perfect, excitable Jan. He also had believable female voices. I know it would be a lot to ask for, but I would have enjoyed a Dutch accent for the Dutch characters… but that would have been the majority of the book so I understand why it wasn’t done. Gerrard used a light British voice for the majority of characters, which was perfect for the two British characters but it did make it feel like the story was set somewhere in the UK rather than in Holland. Gerrard had a good German accent for the Nazis and the one German defector. I also liked his American accent for Donald (who is from Ohio). His pacing was good too. There were no technical issues with the recording. 4.5/5 stars.

I received this audiobook as part of my participation in a blog tour with Audiobookworm Promotions. The tour is being sponsored by Essential Audiobooks. The gifting of this audiobook did not affect my opinion of it.

Straight Outta Fangton by C. T. Phipps

Straight Outta Fangton - Cary Hite, C. T. Phipps

This was a fun tale and new take on Detroit vampires. Definitely no cliched Detroit vamps in this story! This is definitely a comedy with plenty of sarcasm and snark. There’s also plenty of pop culture references, which usually added to the fun but sometimes I found a little too much. Just my personal taste there.

Peter Stone is a decent fellow who gets caught up in bigger, badder things. A vampire hunter who’s been turned into a vampire (Melissa) turns up in his life and the two reluctantly join forces to save the vampire nation of New Detroit from a self- hating vamp. Yep, all sorts of vamps in this story. Not everyone wants to be undead, even if the undead now have voting rights, can get night jobs, and have to pay taxes.

One aspect I really liked about this story was part of the set up. The vamps have been carefully working behind the scenes to make vampires palatable to humans through media. There’s the books, the movies, the plush toys, and the bobble heads. After a hundred or so years, the idea of friendly vampires isn’t all that odd to humans.

David (Peter’s thrall), Melissa, and Peter all have lively banter between them. I really liked that some of the joking was centered around bigotry. There’s so many anti-vampers out there (and Melissa used to be one). It reminded me a little of how True Blood used the anti-vamper hate talk to mirror real world hate talk. It was well done, often eliciting a laugh even as the story takes a jab at bigotry in general.

Part of the tale involves solving a murder and for that, Peter needs to involve his master, Thoth. While Peter is in charge around David and Melissa, he has to rein it in and be a little subservient to Thoth. It was nice to see that Peter has this flexibility and also situational awareness. This bodes well for how the character will grow with the series.

Then in steps Renaud, a former French Templar. He’s the Big Baddie of the tale and it’s going to take everything our heroes have to survive. I did find the second half of the tale more fun than the first half. There’s more action. All told, the story could have used a little more world building and little less pop culture. All told, 4/5 stars.

The Narration: Cary Hite gave a really good performance to this story. He had a great voice for Peter stone and his female voices were believable. I enjoyed his voice for Thoth and for Renaud as well. All character voices were distinct. There were no technical issues with the recording. 5/5 stars.

Theft of Swords by Michael Sullivan

Theft of Swords - Michael J. Sullivan, Tim Gerard Reynolds

This epic fantasy includes a little breaking and entering, plenty of snarky insults, political intrigue, magical beasts, and a chaotic neutral maimed mage. For me, the tale started off fun but not particularly special. It wasn’t until about a quarter of the way through the book that the tale grabbed me. Royce and Hadrian are a lot of fun. They’ve known each other for years and each is well into their adult years. This was a nice break from all those epic fantasy adventures that feature teen/young adults bumbling through their first adventures.

Royce was my favorite because we have the same dark sense of humor and have to sometimes be talked into doing the right thing. Hadrian is an enthusiastic believer in honor and all things good. It’s a very good thing these two have each other to balance things out. Each has a history veiled in questions and half truths. I look forward to Book 2 revealing more on this note.

The one weakness to this tale is the ladies. It’s not all bad, but for the most part they are comforters and romantic interests and need to be rescued. Arista shows promise with her wit and ability to grasp politics. Also young Thrace has a shining moment at the end of the novel. The ladies aren’t the worst I’ve seen in epic fantasy but I did want just a bit more from them.

There’s a big fat mystery with the elves. Ancient conflict and truces are eluded to and I expect that will become a big deal later in this series. There are a few elvish slaves in some areas of the human realms, but no elves roam free… or if they do, they can pass for human. The maimed mage Esra provides most of what we know about the elves. He’s ancient and was imprisoned for perhaps 900 years (if I recall correctly). Esra is a big enigma. I don’t know what he wants and he might not know either. He has to keep his head down as he’s still a wanted criminal.

Then there’s Myron. I adored this character because of his wide eyed wonder of the bigger world. He grew up in a monastery and had never been off the grounds. He had seen a few horse but never rode one and he’s never seen a woman. As he gets swept up into the adventure, he provides several chuckles. I too wish there were blue horses.

By the end, I had fallen in love with the main characters. I really look forward to adventuring further with Royce and Hadrian. 4/5 stars.

The Narration: Tim Gerard Reynolds gave a great performance for this book. He had distinct voices for all the characters and his female voices were believable. He sounded like he had a lot of fun narrating this story too. I did notice a few short repeats but there were no other technical issues with the recording. I loved his voice for Myron (always full of wonder), his skeptical voice for Royce, and his honorable voice for Hadrian. 4.75/5 stars.

Rituals of the Dead by Jennifer S. Alderson

Rituals of the Dead - Jennifer S. Alderson

Note: Even though this is Book 3, it works fine as a stand alone novel.

Zelda Richardson continues to stumble around the antiquities gathered in Holland, making enemies and uncovering old mysteries. I liked this story quite a bit more than Book 2 mostly because I like Zelda more. She’s grown up a bit and now comes off as perhaps 20 years old instead of 15. She’s still a bit unsure of herself and not the swiftest to catch on, but some of that can be excused by the extraordinary circumstances she finds herself in.

Papua, New Guinea is the featured culture in this novel. Once upon a time, Dutch colonists cluttered up the Papua countryside bringing Christianity, modern medicine, and boxer shorts while also taking away cultural artifacts. The story portrays both sides of how modern peoples with their religions and sciences both helped and harmed the native peoples. I really like that the author didn’t shy away from showing this. It would have been easy to throw a rosy blanket over it but it’s way more interesting this way.

Zelda is still hanging out with her friend Friedrich but he’s got a much smaller role in this novel. Zelda still has him strictly in the Friend Zone even as she dates a few other guys. Her boss (Meric – spelling?) still questions if she’s the right one for the internship or not. Basically, Zelda’s life is this constant teetering see-saw. Albert Schenk still isn’t her fan.

The Amsterdam museum she works for is trying to gather enough Asmat New Guinea art pieces for a good show and Zelda has been tasked with gathering as much basic info as she can. In digging up info, she learns of an American artifact obtainer, Nicholas, who went missing in the 1960s. The story has a series of flashbacks showing what Nicholas was doing up to his disappearance and those are quite well told. Even as I enjoyed them, I wish there had been more Papua characters in the tale.

In the 1960s, the priests sent to convert the indigenous peoples to Christianity were instructed to destroy old, ritualistic artifacts and art (which had been obtained by trading medicine and living utensils for them). This put some people in a difficult place – not everyone agreed that destroying these cultural items was the right thing to do. It’s a great little slice of questionable history to explore through this murder mystery.

The murder mystery part is a little long in getting spun up but I felt it was a delicious burn. We have one murder at the museum that doesn’t point to anything Zelda is tripping around in. Then later we get a second one that definitely points to whatever Zelda has gotten herself in. Plus there’s that decades old mystery of the missing American to solve. In the end, things mostly get figured out by Zelda though one small piece to the puzzle comes out in a random confession… and I felt that was a plot device and not really something the character would do.

All told, it’s an interesting mystery and I’m now warmed up to Zelda. 4/5 stars.

The Narration: For some reason, this series switches narrators which I find a bit distracting when I’m listening to a series back to back. Chelsea Stephens does a good job with Zelda’s voice. All her character voices are distinct though her male voices need masculinity. She did a good job portraying Zelda’s emotions and her pacing was good too. I know it’s a bit to ask, but since this is set in Holland, it would be nice to have a Dutch accent for the Dutch characters. That would really make it feel like the story is set in Amsterdam and not just any Midwestern USA city. 4/5 stars.

I received this audiobook as part of my participation in a blog tour with Audiobookworm Promotions. The tour is being sponsored by Jennifer S. Alderson. The gifting of this audiobook did not affect my opinion of it.

Borderline by Joseph Badal

Borderline - Joseph Badal

This book was a delight to listen to! The story was easy to get into, the characters engaging, and the setting well used. Detectives Barbara and Susan are good friends as well as being good cops. In a mostly male profession, the ladies are more than driven to prove they are quite capable of solving this case that has handfuls of suspects. I felt it was very realistic for the ladies to feel pressure to out perform their male colleagues just to be seen as satisfactory workers.

I loved the setting but I’m a little bias being a New Mexico resident for most of my life. Some places noted in this book I know exist and others I would have to look up. It was great that the author included our Spanish and Mexican heritage that makes this state so very interesting.

The mystery itself was a wonderful chase of details and hunches. Victoria Comstock, the recently murdered, engendered love and hate in strong, broad strokes for many people. The more I learned about her, the more I was glad that she was dead! Badal does an excellent job of making the deceased the true villain of the tale while keeping us readers guessing as to who actually did the deed.

The story becomes even more engrossing when another body turns up. The two deaths are almost certainly connected but our hero detectives aren’t sure if they are after one or two killers. Susan’s angry husband complicates matters. Meanwhile, Barbara may have finally found someone to help her let go of her deceased husband – and that also adds some complications to the murder mystery.

At the end, there’s some foreshadowing that gave a hint as to who murdered one of the victims but who killed the other victim was a surprise to me. This mystery hit all the good points for me as it kept me engaged, had me rooting for our detectives, hating the villain, feeling sympathetic for some of the characters, and wanting more. Please let there be more Susan & Barbara murder mysteries! 5/5 stars.

The Narration: Pamela Almand was a great fit for this book. She had a slight accent for Barbara (as described in the story) and a clear, bright voice for Susan. Her Spanish was good and I feel that she captured the mild northern New Mexico accent quite well. All of her characters had distinct voices and her male voices were believable. There’s some real feelings in this story, especially for Barbara, and Almand was great at bringing these out in the narration. 5/5 stars.

I received this audiobook as part of my participation in a blog tour with Audiobookworm Promotions. The tour is being sponsored by Pamela Almand. The gifting of this audiobook did not affect my opinion of it.

The Enigma Factor by Breakfield & Burkey

The Enigma Factor (The Enigma Factor Series) (Volume 1) - Charles V Breakfield, Roxanne E Burkey

This is a really slow book. Since it’s in the Thriller genre, I was expecting there to be more action and a much swifter pace. With that said, the over all premise is an interesting one. White Hat hackers unite! It takes over half the book to get to that point, but once it does, there is a bit of action and a set up for more action in the sequel.

Jacob Michaels is always so very, very polite. It takes a lot of dialogue to be that polite and considerate all the time. He’s faced with some tough truths that rise abruptly and smack him in the face and yet, he is still the polite, caring person. In his 30s, he’s never pursued a deep romantic relationship wanting to wait until he can afford a wife… but he says it in a more considerate way. This quaint mind set made me think of 1800s and even early 1900s where it was fairly common for men in their 40s to marry women half their age. So obviously Jacob has some deep seeded issues to work on.

His mom and granny were White Hats as well but unfortunately they are dead. I think having them alive and meddling would have made this story much more interesting. As it is, the ladies are nearly all romantic interests with a few other skills that we rarely get to see in action. Petra is the main love interest and is a skilled White Hat, though we are mostly told that and not shown. I think she’s in her 40s or older but that’s unclear. Julie is a flirtatious barista with hidden skills. Patty also has hidden skills but seems to be most proficient in inventive bedroom play. Haddy is married. Master Po, while currently celibate, used to enjoy oral sex and was proficient at it. As you can see, with nearly every female character, there is a bedroom scene. While the men get to be professional managers, hackers, bad guys, cops, spies, business men, etc.

At one point, Petra is thinking to herself how attracted she is to Jacob because of his aura of danger. So funny! Jacob hasn’t done anything dangerous at all at this point. He keeps in shape but he doesn’t have any hand to hand combat training nor any gun or knife proficiency. So, no danger here. Also, that was during the bike tour of the Long Island wineries. Petra has a motorcycle but she lacked the experience to carry a heavier passenger on the back seat, so she let Jacob drive. Argh! If Petra had a slew of other skills that we see used in this plot, that scene wouldn’t bother me so. With Petra relegated to Main Love Interest, it’s a let down. She’s been riding since her teen years but has never carried heavier people on the back seat…. It would have been so easy to give her this one skill and put it on display.

OK, so about halfway through this book we finally get a dead body. Yes! Let the action commence! The pace does pick up a little but it’s still pretty darn slow for a Thriller. I did really like how complicated things got for Buzz, Jacob’s best friend. He’s been taking it too easy, using Jacob to complete his own work tasks (Buzz’s coding skills aren’t all that). Now he’s in some hot water and he has to make some tough choices. I expect Book 2 will show us more of Buzz.

There are a ton of info dumps all the way through this book. Some are fun, cutting edge science or just plain science fiction and I enjoyed those. Like there’s some image encryption tech coupled with tattoos. Yes! That’s very interesting stuff and I wish we had more of it. There’s info dumps on China’s economics and how that relates to cyber security and also on the Enigma machine of WW2. Those were interesting if a bit long winded. Other info dumps were pretty pedestrian and only increased the word count to this novel. Honestly, I don’t really need to know how many pairs of socks Jacob packed to go to DefCon in Las Vegas.

For the most part, the characters stay the same throughout the story. I was expecting some character growth since there wasn’t much action going on. Perhaps the characters needed some action to force them to grow. Buzz showed the greatest growth and that was just a smidge. Some evil Russians (Sergei and Grigory) come in late in the book and give us some true, if one dimensional, villains to watch out for. I did feel for the white tiger Nikky.

All told, the book has promise but it’s long winded. 3/5 stars.

The Narration: Steven Jay Cohen does a pretty good job. He has distinct voices for all the characters and most of his female voices sound like ladies. I felt he struggled with some of the accents a little, some being a bit over accentuated. For the first few hours, Cohen kept putting a slight emphasis on an odd word in every other sentence. It wasn’t William Shatner level, but it was noticeable. After a while, this did smooth out and wasn’t noticeable very often. There’s no technical issues with this recording. 4/5 stars.

I received this audiobook as part of my participation in a blog tour with Audiobookworm Promotions. The tour is being sponsored by MK Marketing. The gifting of this audiobook did not affect my opinion of it.

A Temple of Forgotten Spirits by William F. Wu

Temple of Forgotten Spirits - William F. Wu

This book contains the following interconnected short stories: Wild GarlicOn a Phantom TideThe Shade of Lo Man GongPagan NightDesert Night RideCaravan of DeathTong Yun GuyShaunessy FongTinsel ChinkIn the Temple of Forgotten Spirits. They capture the adventures of Jack Hong as he hitchhikes across the USA chasing after the elusive keilin (Chinese unicorn). The collection as a whole works pretty well. I think a few edits would have tightened the story up a bit so that it read smoothly as a novel. Each tale reads like a really long chapter for the most part but sometimes one story will reference actions or people we just left in the previous story. We haven’t had time to forget, so it comes off a little repetitive here and there.

And that is my only criticism of the book.

Jack Hong is an interesting character on an engaging journey. He gets a little jail time for losing a fight and that’s when Lo Man Gong appears, practically pushing him out a window into a jail break. From there, Jack follows the misty form of the keilin, not knowing what the spirit wants with him. But he has plenty of opportunities to help others along the way.

Shaunessy Fong brought in the mystery solving aspect to the novel, as well as ghosts. Jack had his first nasty shock being tossed into jail, then another shock with the escape artist spirit Gong, yet one more with keilin, and finally, now, here are some ghosts. I was waiting for Jack to faint! But he rallied and decided that perhaps he was witnessing this horrible moment of the past via the ghosts reenactment because he was meant to help them.

Desert Night Ride is set in the desert Southwest, starting in Albuquerque and ending near Salt Lake City. Throughout this entire novel, Jack is sometimes searching for his ancestral past, sometimes ignoring it, and sometimes making peace with it. This tale did a great job of showcasing this particular aspect to the greater story. Plus, it’s the desert which is a setting I always enjoy in stories.

Wild Garlic struck a different captured my mind for other reasons. Set in the Ozarks, the population is primarily White with this one Chinese wife. On his way through, Jack is first invited to have dinner with them and then later to help them calm an angry spirit. It’s only late in the story that there’s something magical about some of the characters in this tale. While the Ozarks have kept them a bit isolated from their native culture, it’s also that isolation that’s allowed them to fly under the radar.

Caravan of Death has a little time travel element to it. Here, Jack learns a bit about the Chinese work gangs for one of the big railroad companies in the 1800s. Jack also helps a woman see how her ancestry isn’t lost in her own offspring as that ancestry helped to make this country travelable.

In the Temple of Forgotten Spirits wraps up the novel quite nicely. It brings everything home while also giving Jack a new purpose, a quest to set out upon. The author took the time to add plenty of notes about his experiences that relate to a specific tale or what his historical research turned up. I really enjoyed these as well as I enjoy learning little bits from my entertainment. All told, 4/5 stars.

The Narration: Anthony Lee did OK with this narration. He starts off a little rough, sometimes putting emphasis on one word over others in a sentence, making it sound awkward. But he smooths out about 1/3 of the way into the book. His attempt at hick accents sounded off but his pronunciation of various Asian words sounded great to my untutored ears. He had distinct voices for all the characters and his female voices were believable. 4/5 stars.

I received this audiobook as part of my participation in a blog tour with Audiobookworm Promotions. The tour is being sponsored by Anthony Lee. The gifting of this audiobook did not affect my opinion of it.

Ruin and Rebirth by Michael Whitehead

Ruin and Rebirth - Michael Whitehead

Note: While this is Book 3 in the series, it works mostly OK as a stand alone. The series is worthy, so I recommend starting at Book 1 for entertainment value.

Lucia and the archer Vitas have made it this far and they aren’t giving up! These were my two favorite characters from Book 1 and it’s good to see they have survived the zombie plague to play important roles in Book 3. It’s been a few months since the end of Book 2, but our little band of heroes is on a nebulous quest. Lucia has gotten better and better with weapons and avoiding zombies. She pulls her own weight while also noting how much she’s stepped outside the typical Roman woman’s role in society. These are extraordinary circumstances and they require shields, weapons, and some common sense. The men in her group are all for it because this is a fight for humanity. No room for shrinking violets here!

Meanwhile, back in Rome proper, some few humans have managed to survive by scavenging for supplies and hiding from zombies. There are a few brave folks that ban together to rescue those that can be brought back to one central location. Garrick, a butcher, is a lead character in these scenes. He’s smart, careful, and becomes a major force in the fight to reclaim Rome.

Flavia and her husband do much to bring the survivors of Rome together. I really like Flavia because she’s competent, gets stuff done, and yet sticks to the societal boundaries of the time and location. She doesn’t get to pick up a weapon but she does use her wits. She shows bravery in the toughest moments and appreciates what others risk to keep her and others safe.

Back in Germania, Vitus and Lucia keep moving their band north. Regulus is at the heart of something, having visions of the source of the plague. Vedus (spelling?) has been showing Regulus a temple via these visions. So there’s this supernatural quality to the story and as it progresses, Regulus becomes more and more aware of what might await them. Lucia and Vitus do everything they can to get the weakening Regulus north.

The Roman Empire was huge and contained many cultures. This series and this book have nods to that. There’s a young Chinese lad and the Persian warrior Harkour. And the Spaniard (Gallus, if I recall correctly). I love that the Roman Empire isn’t white washed in this series.

The final conclusion to the tale is carried out on two fronts: the truth of Regulus’s visions and back in the City of Rome where frenzied zombies threaten to eradicate human life. It was only in the last moments that I realized what a toll this plague would take. It pulled on my heart strings, being both horrible and beautiful at once. The concept of sacrifice is well captured in these scenes. It’s a worthy ending to a worthy series. 5/5 stars.

The Narration: Terry Self is his usual outstanding. Every character was distinct and the ladies sounded like women. I especially appreciate how he kept Vitus and Vedus very clearly delineated from each other as it would be easy for a listener to mix up these names if the narration was sub-par. His true gift this time is working with all the emotions of the characters. They are seeing their society fall in short order and so much has already been lost. I also liked his various accents. The pacing was perfect and there were no technical issues with the recording. 5/5 stars.

The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan

The Lightning Thief - Rick Riordan

This is a cute kids’s tale. Percy is 12 and apparently gets kicked out of schools often. His mom currently has them living with a dead beat, verbally abusive man that has a body odor problem. Life is just tough on Percy. But it’s about to get a lot tougher when Greek deities and monsters pop up in his life!

There were several moments that made me laugh…. like Grover suddenly yanking off his pants. That’s the moment where Percy is all, ‘What the hell!’ but then Grover has fur and hooves below the waist, so Percy is stunned into silence. Grover is a Satyr assigned to protect Percy but he’s been keeping his Greek mythology side on the down low with a disguised lower half. Grover isn’t the only one who’s been keeping their real identity from Percy. In fact, there were a few times I thought Percy’s young mind might melt from the over load of reveals.

After a harrowing chase and the death of someone important to him, he ends up at the Half Blood training camp where he meets other kids who are half mortal and half deity. Now, I did think that Percy took that death in stride and it was a bit glossed over. I expected tears for days and scars for life but this book seems to veer wide of any serious stuff. There’s several examples of this, like Medusa and how she really came to be a snake headed monster. It wasn’t some jealousy over dating partners.

Anyhoo, pretty soon Percy gets a quest and goes on a road trip. Annabeth (a daughter of Athena) and Grover accompany him. There’s also the gifts from Luke (a son of Hermes). As Western culture has shifted further and further west, key places in Greek mythology have also shifted and several now reside in the USA. I liked this bit of world building because it meant I didn’t have to bang my head against a wall every time a Greek mythological location popped up.

Percy isn’t the only one to face their fears and take on a personal challenge in this story. His companions also suffer and have a chance at victory. There’s treachery too. Percy must figure out who his true friends are while also discovering who stole Zeus’s lightning. It’s a fun tale but I didn’t have a strong reaction to it as I did with Harry Potter. 4/5 stars.

The Narration: Jesse Bernstein does a really good job. He sounds like a 12 year old boy who has gotten kicked out of a lot of places. His voice for Grover is great, as he sometimes has a little goat in it. His female voices are spot on. There’s several monsters with their various yells, hisses, snorts, etc and Bernstein carries them off without a hitch. 5/5 stars.

The Sea of Monsters by Rick Riordan

The Sea of Monsters - Rick Riordan

Book 1 was only OK for me but since Book 2 was just sitting there on Hoopla, I thought I would give it a try. I liked it a bit better than Book 1. It seemed to move along at a swifter clip and Percy is growing up a little. After all, he’s gotten to use his sword (Riptide) a few times and beaten back several monsters.

After another boring year at a regular school, he returns to the Half Blood training camp for the summer. There he’s surprised to find out that he has to share his living quarters with Tyson, who’s a big cyclops kid with some mental challenges. Percy spends his time being embarrassed by this big one-eyed kid that follows him around. While Percy doesn’t tease him, several other kids tease one or both of them. I really like that we have this character and that Percy has to figure out how to live with him.

Pretty soon, there is a quest! A quest to save the camp! But Percy isn’t the one chosen to go on it. Alas, that honor falls to the combative Clarice, a daughter of Aires. Yet the god Hermes might have other plans for Percy and pretty soon he, Annabeth, and Tyson are on their way to save Grover (who is currently on some unnamed island in drag trying to avoid getting married or eaten).

While there were plenty of moments that made me laugh, there were also those moments were I expected more emotion or reaction from Percy. Once again, there’s the death of a character that means a lot to Percy and yet he doesn’t really put a lot of thought into it, not any tears, no grieving. So it’s hard for me to get fully sucked into a tale that doesn’t take itself seriously. Even if the author knows that all will turn out OK, the characters don’t.

I did like that the kids are getting a little older and Percy has started to notice the first niggling of some deeper emotion for Annabeth. I’m not sure if Grover will ever get a chance to grow up though. He’s pretty much just comic relief in this story.

Tyson becomes the real shining star, teaching not only Percy but some of the other kids that different isn’t so bad. Tyson has different gifts than most of the kids, and in some of them he’s quite the genius. Annabeth is a bit prejudiced towards cyclops in general due to a past bad experience. She has to face this and learn to shelve it because Tyson isn’t a jerk.

All told, it was fun and I liked it better than Book 1. Especially those Party Ponies at the end. 4/5 stars.

The Narration: Jesse Bernstein continues to do great with the voices. He’s got the perfect Percy voice and his female voices are dead on. I really liked his combative voice for Clarice. All of his characters are distinct and his pacing is good. 5/5 stars.

The Meg + Meg: Origins by Steve Alten

Meg - Steve Alten

Jonas Taylor is an interesting character because he’s struggling. A few years back, his career tanked and he’s been kicking around since then between therapists and his hunt for the Meg. His wife, Maggie, has made her journalism career her priority and has turned rather nasty towards Jonas and his hunt. Meanwhile, the star of this story, Meg herself, inadvertently escapes from the warm water layer of the Marianas trench, up through the cold water section, into the upper warm waters of the Pacific. She’s on the loose and happy to be hunting.

I love stories that are just on the edge of possible when it comes to big dangerous beasties. We know so little about the depths of our oceans and that makes them a good breeding ground for stories of monsters. The Meg holds a lot of credibility since this proficient killer ruled the oceans for far longer than humanity has existed. Sharks as a species are hard to kill and Mother Earth has definitely tried…. and not always won. We still have plenty of sharks.

Terri and her father provide equipment and a pre-prepared California bay which might allow them to capture this prehistoric beast. Yeah, right! Right from the start, I knew this wasn’t going to happen as planned. And what’s more, the Meg appears to be pregnant! Yikes! The ocean’s animal social hierarchy will be changed forever! But I still hoped it would work.

After some sightings of the Meg and several deaths, the US Navy decides it’s best to put this beast down for good. Terri is in agreement with them but has to play for her dad’s team, which means teaming up with Jonas. There’s some playful flirtation between the two that comes off as rather forced and fake. I had high hopes that Terri would get to do some awesome stuff, but mostly she spends time on the sidelines.

The action ramps up and up and up… and it looks like things might just work out for those characters that are still left… and then stuff goes horribly wrong. Jonas ends up covered in blood and nearly drowned. More people die. Terri’s dad doesn’t get his prize. It’s a lovely mess of a situation.

The ending leaves us perfectly set up for the next book but closes off the main fights for this book. It also leaves us with a sappy romantic situation that I had trouble buying into even though I wanted some happiness for Jonas. Over all, 3.5/5 stars.

This particular audiobook version includes Book 0.5 Meg: Origins. It’s the story of how Jonas’s career tanked. I really liked this novella. Not only does it flesh out the bare bones facts in The Meg Book 1 but it also shows us that there are others who bumped into the Meg all those years ago. Jonas has mourned the loss of those scientists in the submersible with him that day but now we know how it all played out. This novella was written years after The Meg and it shows how the author’s skill has grown. 5/5 stars for Book 0.5.

The Narration: First, there’s a short bit from the author about his personal fascination with sharks, especially the Meg. I love when authors take the time to add a personal note like this and love it even more when it’s included in the audiobook. Sean Runnette was great as Jonas Taylor. He really does a great job portraying Jonas’s evolving emotions throughout the story. He starts off indecisive and dissatisfied with his life but as things heat up, the character focuses and becomes more and more sure of himself. Runnette did great with this. His female voices could use more femininity. He was great with Maggie’s venom and Terri’s assertiveness but they didn’t always sound like women. I liked his light Asian accent for Terri’s dad and how he made Terri and her brother sound all American. 4/5 stars

Dragonia by Craig A. Price Jr.

Dragonia: Rise of the Wyverns - Craig A. Price Jr.

Devarius is at the center of this tale. His family was devastated when he was just a kid and his new village ruined by the Dragon Riders. Now he leads a small group of ~30 people to possible safety with the Resistance. Along the way, he makes an amazing discovery: Wyverns! This might just well be the answer to how to defeat the Dragon Riders, in time.

It’s a cute, quick story that incorporates many fantasy tropes. It’s fun brain candy that doesn’t take much thought to enjoy it. The story moves along quickly with little pause for character development or development of the world or magic systems.

The ladies don’t do much in this story and that was a disappointment. In the first half of the story, Devarius and his little group are being hunted and trying to locate the Resistance. Once they do find help, Devarius and his friend Paedyn are informed that their society is all about equality. Men and women of any ethnicity will be given equal opportunities. Yes! I was excited because I felt this would be a good way to force your characters into some growth. Alas, that is not what happens. The ladies are underrepresented for the entire story. Aquila, our main female character, is simply a romantic interest and doesn’t add to the plot at all. There is one female guard who has a name and even gets a few lines, but they are all of a flirtatious nature…. and then, poof! She’s gone. I felt the few nods to the ladies were added as after thoughts and their characters were never fully incorporated into the story.

The wyverns are fun but I wish their magical abilities had a bit more depth. They come in different colors and each color corresponds to a different ability. Pretty straight forward and simplistic. I hope the story develops this further in the next book.

Devarius gets some sword training and he sets his heart on having a special sword made: a mashup of the straight Bastard sword and a Flamberge (which has wavy edges). A local blacksmith (named predictably Smithy) puts a lot of thought and trial & error into creating this blade. A lot of time was spent on this and I felt it could have been shortened up to give more time for the basics of the story.

Aquila has skills with a bow, or so we are told. Again, I felt this was tacked on after the fact. While on the run from the Dragon Riders, the group needed food yet Aquila’s hunting skills (which she learned from her dad) aren’t ever used. In fact, we only hear about these skills long after the fact. Towards the end, Aquila once again has the opportunity to show off her skills by joining a fight against the Dragon Riders. However, Devarius won’t let her join in because he’d be too distracted worrying about her.

Sigh…. Devarius, that sounds like a ‘you’ problem and not Aquila’s problem. Someone wasn’t paying attention at the Gender Equality training.

All together, it’s a fun little piece of fiction that moves at a swift clip. Nothing deep here but it is entertaining. 3/5 stars.

The Narration: Reuben Corbett gives a really good performance on this narration. All of his characters have distinct voices and his female voices are believable. He makes a really good Devarius and I loved his impish Paedyn. I could always tell Paedyn was up to something by his voice. There were no technical issues with this recording. 5/5 stars.

I received this audiobook as part of my participation in a blog tour with Audiobookworm Promotions. The tour is being sponsored by Craig A. Price Jr.. The gifting of this audiobook did not affect my opinion of it.

Pawn of Prophecy by David Eddings

Pawn of Prophecy - David Eddings

Pawn of Prophecy by David Eddings is a classic in the epic fantasy realm. I read them as a kid but only recently have enjoyed the first in the series as an audiobook. Here is my review.

While the premise to Pawn of Prophecy is pretty basic (ancient evil is awakening and a Chosen One may be our only salvation), I still enjoyed it. I read this series as a kid and only recently have discovered them as audiobooks. As an adult, I find that I have a more critical eye. However, I still found myself enjoying this book. Perhaps part of that is nostalgia but I think the characters hold up well even if the plot is pretty much boiler plate.

I really enjoyed Silk for his wit. He pokes fun at other characters but also has quieter moments where he teaches Garion something useful or playful moments when he’s getting up to some mischief. Garion’s Aunt Pol (Polgara) is also a favorite. I love how she insists on keeping Garion clean, presentable, and well fed. She’s the care giver in the group but she’s also one of the sternest characters. She will suffer no foolishness on her watch!

There’s this one scene that really stood out for me because Silk was poking fun at certain social norms. At a big meeting of the nations’s leaders, there are some women present. Some nations expect their ladies to stay pregnant and in the house while other nations have greater equality. Silk pokes fun at the former while praising the later. I couldn’t help but think that perhaps the author was making a little fun of earlier epic fantasy works where the ladies are relegated to minor roles of providing love, comfort, and babies. It’s scenes like this that rekindled my love for this series.

Garion himself is an OK character though I expect I will once again fall in love with his character later in the series. Right now, he really is a bit of a pawn. People want to control him because he could be The One. Yep, the bad guys want him and the good guys in the know want to keep him safe. While that is all pretty standard for several epic fantasies, I still found my self holding my breath during fight scenes or when a bad guy was skulking around.

All told, this was a story that stood the test of time and I’m glad that I have reacquainted myself with it. 4/5 stars

The Narration: Cameron Beierle did an amazing job with his narration. He had distinct voices for all the characters and his female voices were believable. I especially love how he managed Silk’s role. Silk speaks multiple languages and likes to go about in disguise, including disguising his voice. I liked his grumpy Belgariad and stern Pol as well. All around, an excellent performance. 5/5 stars

Heat Wave by Richard Castle

Heat Wave (Nikki Heat) - Richard Castle

This is fan fiction of a sort for the TV show Castle. I have only seen 1 episode of the show so I wasn’t sure what to expect when I got into this book. Heat Wave is a fun, fast-paced murder mystery. Detective Nikki Heat is brought onto a case that involves the murder of Matthew Starr, a real estate baron of New York. Jameson Rook, a reporter, manages to get himself attached to the investigation.

The action keeps the story moving along at a fast clip. There’s a little romance between Heat and Rook but it didn’t distract from the murder mystery. The plot itself was pretty straight forward, the mystery being fairly easy to unravel by the reader if not the main characters.

There are several sidekicks in the story, like detectives Ochoa and Raley and the medical examiner Lauren Parry. Mostly, they fade into the background and go unnoticed. Lauren has a few moments where her personality shows through. The cast of characters attempts various quips and jokes but much of it comes off flat. I was much more into the serious scenes. The action scenes were usually well done.

Over all, I liked Nikki Heat as a character. I will enjoy getting to know more about her in future books. While it was a quick, easy read, it had it’s charms. 3.5/5 stars

The Narration: Johnny Heller took some getting used to. His style is nearly monotone but he also tries to go for that hard-boiled detective story feel. Once I settled into his voice, I liked it well enough though I had to pay attention to which character was talking as Heller didn’t always make distinct voices. There were no recording issues. 3.5/5 stars