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Playing With Fire (Skullduggery Pleasant #2)

I spend a lot of my retirement reading, so, it’s time for another book review. My copy of this one is part of a 9-book boxed set that I bought recently. I think I got a very good deal. It originally sold for £71.91, which equates to about $90.00 US. I paid $58.83. I’m not sure why I’m sharing that, but I do love a bargain. (It’s probably not healthy, but I base a fair amount of my diet around what’s on BOGO sale (buy one get one free) at the supermarket.)

Playing with Fire by Derek Landy

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The skeleton detective and his teenage apprentice are back for their second adventure together. This time, they need to stop a sorcerer from bringing back the Faceless Ones (like a bunch of evil gods). Unfortunately, he has minions, magic armor, and possibly an ally (or at least an informant) in the local magical law enforcement organization. The good guys are fun. The bad guys are thoroughly despicable. There’s lots nasty villainous types, loads of witty banter, and several (sometimes too prolonged) superpower fight scenes. This series doesn’t pretend to be great literature. Actually, it doesn’t take itself very seriously at all, which I quite appreciate. My taste in fantasy leans heavily to the light side. This doesn’t have the kinds of insights or real world relevance you often find in a Terry Pratchett novel (for example), but it’s still a quite enjoyable read.

View all my reviews

Paper Towns

Paper TownsPaper Towns by John Green
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A fairly average high school boy in central Florida lives next to an unbelievably uncommon girl of about the same age. She’s endearingly clever, but she’s also totally self-absorbed, casually inconsiderate, socially domineering, recklessly adventurous, and inexplicably popular. He is, of course, infatuated with her. It surprises no one when she goes missing just before graduation. She’s done that kind of thing before. But there are circumstances that suggest this time may be different. Fearing that she might be emotionally unstable enough to off herself, the average kid recruits a few friends to help him follow clues she’s left behind, seemingly for his benefit, to try to find her… or maybe her body.

I picked this up at my local library mainly because I recognized the author as the guy who did the entertaining and informative Crash Course videos on YouTube. I had no idea at the time: 1. That it had been made into a movie (so the sticker on the cover claims), 2. That it is set very near where I currently reside (a norther suburb of Orlando), or 3. What a paper town was (actually, I did, but I had never heard them called that).

Because of the age of the characters, the story is shelved as YA, but it’s not juvenile. The prose and pacing are both quite good. The crazy girl may not be overly likeable (although she is, in a way, admirable), and her imaginative pranks may be unbelievable, but her story is quite entertaining.

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Book Review – Paw-Prints of the Gods by Steph Bennion

PawPrintsofGodsTitle:  Paw Prints of the Gods
Steph Bennion
Wyrdstar Books
First Published:
Science Fiction (YA)

Ravana O’Brien resumes her role as an intrepid teenage heroine in this sequel to Hollow Moon, which ends with… well, to avoid spoilers, let’s just say you should not count your dead villains until you see their desiccated corpses. In this story, the residents of her home inside a recently crippled hollowed-out asteroid have become refugees on Ascension, a nearby planet orbiting Barnard’s Star. They are not entirely welcome. In fact, they are not at all welcome. Ravana, now a student at Newbrum University, is not there, though. Her father believes she is on an archeological dig on the distant and inhospitable planet of Falsafah in the Tau Ceti system, but when the story opens, she finds herself in a hospital with very unlikely nurses, and she has no idea how or why she is there. Thus begins a well-told tale of mysteries, escapes, cyberclones, aliens, spies, spaceships, and giant spiders. It is a hard-to-put-down book.

I found the prose, editing, and formatting for the digital edition above average. Pacing is also good. Although some of the science is highly speculative, it is not outlandish within the context of the story. A little suspension of disbelief is required, but this is YA science fiction, so you expect that. The story is written with a limited omniscient point of view from the perspective of several characters, although primarily from that of Ravana. I had no trouble following it, and it was clear who was on center stage at all times. I found the characters quite believable, and I would put Ravana ahead of most teenage heroines I’ve seen in recent fiction. She is brave, intelligent, resourceful, and kind to short grey aliens and rude little boys.

YA science fiction has become something of a rarity these days, and it was delightful for me to find some that was so well done. I highly recommend Paw-Prints of the Gods for YA science fiction readers, but I suggest reading Hollow Moon first.

Full Disclosure: I received a promotional digital copy of this book through Awesome Indies.

Related Post: Book Review – Hollow Moon by Steph Bennion

Book Review – Mad Science Institute by Sechin Tower

MadScienceInstTitle: Mad Science Institute
Author: Sechin Tower
Publisher: Siege Tower Entertainment
First Published: 2011
Contemporary Science Fiction / YA

I like the idea of this book — a YA story premised on science rather than magic, with smart, young adult heroes, passionate about learning and discovery who find themselves in an environment where they can pursue their interests. It reminded me a bit of another book I read and reviewed not long ago, Evil Genius by Catherine Jinks. There should be more stories in settings like this.

The plot of this one is the classic ‘good guys versus bad guys bent on taking over the world.’ The pacing is good, with discoveries and events leading incrementally to a satisfying and logical conclusion.

I was less taken with the characters.

The star of the story, Sophia “Soap” Lazarcheck, is a 16-year-old science geek, brilliant but socially awkward. Her ability to invent and build truly amazing gizmos is offset by a lack of appreciation for how these inventions might go wrong. Explosions and fires tend to be the result. For the most part, I found her an endearing character, but my ability to suspend disbelief was breached in her first encounter with the antagonist. She was far too trusting of this mysterious and clearly untrustworthy voice on the phone, and I could not accept how easily she sold him the key code for her new, and otherwise impregnable, school.

Her cousin, Dean, is the character that most failed for me. He plays the part of the well-muscled and well-intentioned but intellectually uncomplicated knight in shining armor. He’s not quite dimwitted enough to be a comic character, but I found him far too simple to be either likeable or believable in his role in this story.

The mysterious antagonist, always in the background and pulling the strings of his minions, is a recognizable James Bond type villain. The biker gang that serves as his muscle is a group of unwashed, uneducated, and thoroughly unpleasant individuals. They were not inept enough to be funny but too (unjustly) stereotypical to be believable. (I’ve known a few bikers, and most were nice people.)

The chapters with Soap providing the point of view are written in first person. The other chapters are written in third. This can be a bit jarring when you’re reading. I would have preferred third person throughout, with chapter or scene breaks for changes in POV. Otherwise, the book is well written, although I did spot a few typos. The ending is set up for a sequel.

The book is an enjoyable departure from more common magical or mystical YA stories, and I can recommend it as a quick, light read.

(Loosely) Related Post: Book Review – Evil Genius by Catherine Jinks

Amy’s Pendant is now Available

Pendant e-book Cover 13-2A day late, but the paperback edition of my latest published book is now available on Amazon.

Amy’s Pendant is set in the same world as my ‘Warden’ novels but features a 14-year-old protagonist. I hesitate to call it YA because I did not ‘dumb down’ the vocabulary or simplify the ideas in the book for children. There is no sex, violence, or extremely vulgar language, but it is more of a YA for MA type of book, suitable, I think, for readers 14 and older.

Her father’s inventions aren’t selling, her mother has just lost her job, and there is chance Amy and her parents may soon find themselves homeless. When her aunt suggests that the mysterious pendant Amy received from her cousin for her fourteenth birthday might be a magical treasure finder, she is more determined than ever to solve the puzzle it represents. At first, her efforts lead nowhere, and then they lead to disaster when she becomes trapped inside an underground alien labyrinth populated with strange robots, android animals, and a central intelligence that does not want her to leave.


You can get your very own copy at these fine online retailers:
Paperback ($8.99) CreateSpace /
eBook ($1.75) (Kindle) / Smashwords (all eBook formats)

(It is also available from other Amazon sites worldwide.)

Book Review – The Tiger in the Well by Philip Pullman

Sally Lockhart is a rare woman in Victorian England. She’s a single mother, competent, independent, and a successful and prosperous business owner. She has never been married, so when she is served with divorce papers, she cannot understand how such a mistake could be made. It soon becomes clear it is not a mistake. The details about her in the document are correct — all except one. She has never met the man claiming to be her husband, the man who wants to take custody of her daughter.

I would not have labeled this a YA book. There is nothing juvenile about it. It is a suspenseful Dickensian story of vengeance, greed, cruelty, and corruption, which vividly captures the social conflicts of the time. The images of Victorian London are detailed and clear. The contrasts between rich and poor, worker and owner are sharp. The only YA aspect may be a carryover from the first book in the series, The Ruby in the Smoke, in which Sally is first introduced as a 16-year-old orphan. I didn’t see that book as specifically YA either, though.

My only criticism, and it’s not a strong one, is that I thought Sally should have been a bit quicker on the uptake in identifying the real force behind her troubles. I figured it out long before she did, but then I, as a reader, understand this is a novel and therefore must make sense. Real life, of course, is not like that.

I highly recommend this book to all readers, especially those fond of Victorian mysteries. It’s a great story.

Related Post:
Book Review – The Ruby in the Smoke

Book Review – The Ruby in the Smoke by Philip Pullman

This is the first of Philip Pullman’s Victorian mystery novels featuring Sally Lockhart. She is 16-years-old in this story, her father has just died in a shipwreck, and she finds herself in the middle of nefarious dealings involving a missing ruby, criminal gangs, fraud, piracy, and the opium trade.

Because the protagonist is young, this is often considered a Young Adult novel. Don’t let this mislead you. This is a well-crafted tale of mystery, murder, and intrigue. The characters are engaging. The prose is exceptional.

Victorian England is a great setting for stories because of the sharp contrasts it provides — from the largely illiterate poor working in sweatshops or grubbing a living on the streets of London, to the cultured gentry living on returns from investments of inherited capital. The extraordinary portrayal of this time and the details scattered throughout the scenes in this book make it seem as if they were written by someone who lived there, or who is, at least, intimately familiar with it and can bring it to life for those of us who are not.

I often find myself uncomfortable putting novels in predefined genre cubbyholes because the best of them often don’t fit. This is one. I think the YA categorization of this particular book and the rest of the series is most inappropriate. Sally is not a typical teenager and she is not a typical Victorian young lady. Neither is she a role model many people would want their kids to emulate, although I, as and adult, found her admirable. She defies convention, questions authority, and does her best in a bad situation.

The story is dark, at times, darker than I normally prefer, and although a hopeful conclusion comes a bit unexpectedly, it is not a case of “and they all lived happily ever after.”

In my opinion, this ranks among the best Victorian mystery novels that I have read. The story is suspenseful, the characters are well portrayed and believable, and the protagonist is likeable. I highly recommend it — for adults. (Some kids may like it, too.)


(Note: A T.V. adaptation of this book starring Billie Piper (Doctor Who) was produced for BBC One in 2006. (I haven’t seen it, yet.)

Book Review – Evil Genius by Catherine Jinks

School stories have been popular since at least the 19th Century when Tom Brown’s Schooldays by Thomas Hughes was published in 1857. I suppose that once school, and therefore childhood literacy, became common, young people wanted to read, and the one setting they all shared and could relate to was school. Such stories became a sort of genre, which I’ve heard labeled ‘English Schoolboy Stories’ or, alternately, ‘British school novels,’ although they can take place in any part of the former British Empire or other English-like setting. The main character in these is normally a student, often an outsider or social outcast, exceptionally talented or clever, and possibly an orphan.

I’m not an expert, although I have read a few books like this. I’m sure everyone reading this review is familiar with a recent offering that falls into this category — the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling. Stories set in schools continue to be written and read because all of us can relate to them. If you can read this, chances are you learned to do so in a school.

Whatever the genre is called, Evil Genius by Catherine Jinks definitely falls into it. The story is set in a private school in Australia. The protagonist, Cadel, lives with emotionally distant adoptive parents. He is exceptionally brilliant and is skipped ahead in public school, which of course makes him younger than his classmates and consequently a social outcast. He is seeing a counselor because of perceived emotional problems and past discretions. He comes to regard this man as more of a father figure than he does his adoptive father. His counselor offers him a spot at a relatively new private school for ‘exceptional’ students. Cadel does not yet know that this school was founded a few years ago specifically for him, to train and mentor him in the skills needed to become a criminal mastermind — like his real father. To avoid spoilers, this is as much of the plot as I will reveal.

The story is well constructed, the plot is complex but clear, the prose is exceptional, and the characterizations are good (but not great). There is a bit more here than in many YA books I’ve read, and the points are made more subtly. It touches on human behavior, social exclusion, emotional depravation, and various other sociological and psychological topics. It especially contrasts the behavior of people who truly care about others with that of those who regard them only as tools, and it shows the likely consequences of each.

The premise is a bit outlandish for something that turns out not to be quite as funny as one might expect from the title, although there are some humorous bits. Cadel is almost unbelievably bright, and his deviations into mathematics and the wonders of the periodic table may loose a few readers. At first, he is mean, vengeful, and thoroughly unlikeable. He disrupts things and causes distress to others just to see if he can do it. I could not force myself to care about such a person or about what happened to them. The story was intriguing enough that I stuck with it, though. Through a few encounters with people who accept him, he grows and becomes a much better person, especially in contrast to those around him who are responsible for his care. He learns the value of friendship when all his mentors tell him it has none other than as a means of manipulation.

This is an engaging, well written, and enjoyable story. It may not appeal to younger readers, but I can recommend it to most adults and young adult geniuses.

Book Review – Spell of the Witch World by Andre Norton

This is an anthology of three short stories, Dragon Scale Silver, Dream Smith, and Amber out of Quayth. I read many Andre Norton books years ago when I was in high school, so when I saw the free Kindle promotion for this one, I grabbed a copy.

These are typical sword and sorcery stories, and, quite honestly, they were just all right. I remember staying up late into the night reading Andre Norton books as a teenager, but the stories here did not tempt me to do that. I don’t think it’s the stories, though. I’m quite sure my tastes have changed.

The stories are predictable, the prose adequate, and the characters unexceptional. The Kindle version of this book appears to have been hastily assembled. I found several typos caused, I suspect, from relying on an optical character reader to digitize the book and inadequate proofreading.

As a freebie, this collection is a fine introduction to Andre Norton’s fantasy books, but I cannot recommend spending $2.99 for it. There are several better novels and short story collections available for Kindle in that price range from both old favorites and new authors.

Book Review – Oom by DJ Webber

This is a rather charming Young Adult tale with a ten-year-old protagonist and an alien.

Joe Hills lives on a farm in Australia. There is a drought. The sheep are dying, and his family does not have the money needed to do anything about it. They are literally a day away from losing the farm when they get help from a very strange visitor. Enter Oom, an alien whose people consider this particular chunk of land something close to sacred for reasons not entirely clear to them or to us (until the end), but it has to do with ‘Ascension.’ Oom helps Joe’s family find water and save the farm. He befriends Joe and helps him understand more about himself and the universe.

One thing I especially liked about this book is that it doesn’t treat kids that might read it as ‘children,’ that is, incapable of thinking. There is a bit of philosophy, value lessons, a little science, and a lot of encouragement to consider big questions about life, the universe, and everything.

There are flaws, though. The prose is a bit choppy, amateurish in places (at least to my American ear), especially in the beginning, and it gets off to a slow start. There are numerous punctuation errors, especially the frequent omission of commas after introductory clauses, to set off participle phrases, and between independent clauses joined by a conjunction. (I’m basing this point on the Chicago Manual of Style, which is, of course, the American standard for fiction. I’m not familiar with the style guide that would apply in Australia.) There were also several formatting problems with the Kindle edition. These are hardly critical problems and do not detract from enjoyment of the story.

As a YA book, I liked this overall. It’s a good story with interesting and likeable characters. It could use a little bit of rework and editing, though.

Book Review – Starswarm by Jerry Pournelle

Kip, the young heir of one of the planet-controlling corporations of a future humanity, has been in hiding on a planet the residents call Purgatory and unaware of his true identity most of his life. His parents, major stockholders of Great Western Enterprises, were killed in what amounts to a VERY hostile corporate takeover attempt over twelve years before. Not sure who was behind the attempt, his guardian, his parents’ former bodyguard, keeps him hidden until he becomes old enough to vote his shares.

This novel intentionally mimics the ‘juvenile’ science fiction stories from the 1950’s through 1970’s, especially the Heinlein juveniles. Today, such books might be called ‘Young Adult.’ It’s an enjoyable enough read, although the plot is predictable and the main characters are fairly cliché. The supporting characters and aliens are imaginative, though. I especially liked Gwen, the AI program Kip’s mother created to watch over him and to whom he communicates via a chip in his head. The genetically modified dogs are great sidekicks — smart but not unbelievably smart. The starswarm alien is quite interesting.

My biggest disappointment with the story was that it wasn’t believably futuristic. There are no speculative leaps in either culture or technology. Essentially this is a contemporary adventure story for kids with some cool aliens and ray guns thrown in. Politically, economically, and culturally, this is mid-Twentieth Century America. They use helicopters, tapes to record data, air conditioning is not ubiquitous, they play Warcraft and reference Star Trek the Motion Picture — well, I suppose I’m okay with the last thing. Star Trek is timeless. But a believable or thought provoking portrayal of a future humanity, this is not.

It’s a fine, light read for a rainy day. I found the one I read at the library, and if you see it at the one you frequent, go ahead and pick it up. It’s not a ‘keeper,’ though.

Book Review – Shelby and Shauna Kitt and the Dimensional Holes by P.H.C. Marchesi

 My Rating: 4.5 Stars

Shelby and Shauna Kitt are kids with special abilities and an abundance of “positive energy.” It is this unique energy that makes them the most suitable people on the planet to save not only our world but also the parallel world of Miriax from the Klodians who inhabit a third parallel world. Dimensional holes have opened between Miriax and Earth, and between Earth and Klodius. They must be closed and Shelby and Shauna are called on to help. These young heroes are engaging and likeable. The adult characters may sometimes seem childish or simplistic to older readers but I think younger readers would find them believable.

This wonderfully imaginative book is sure to appeal to Middle Grade readers. It’s a bit Little Prince, a bit Wizard of Oz, a bit Alice in Wonderland and a lot of fun. What I like especially are the lighthearted tone and positive mood that are carried throughout the book. The plot is strong enough to carry your interest and the tone is just silly enough that you know not to take it too seriously. This combination makes for a very enjoyable reading experience.

Book Review – A King in a Court of Fools by Larry Enright

   A snapshot of America not so long ago.
My Rating: 4.5 Stars

After the first few pages, this ebook reminded me of the movie “A Christmas Story,” which was based on a book by Jean Shepherd titled “In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash.” That story is also set in 1950s America and is also told from the perspective of a young boy, in that case one obsessed with getting a BB gun for Christmas. I’m sure you’ve seen the movie. It’s on TV almost continuously during the holidays. I only bring it up as a way to describe what A King in a Court of Fools is like. It’s like that movie.

In this ebook, young Harry Ryan has no overriding obsession like the kid in the movie although we learn he would like to ride shotgun in the pink Corvette he and his siblings find in the woods one day. But the pink Corvette is not so much a plot device of this book as it is part of the setting. There really isn’t much of a plot and no deep insights or big ideas. It is not that kind of book. It is a snapshot in time, a picture of suburban life in the mid to late 1950s seen through the eyes of Harry Ryan, the youngest child (about 7) in a large Catholic family living near Pittsburgh.

The reason this book earns 5 stars (from me anyway) is because the author provides a picture of 1950s America clearer and crisper than if it were made on Kodachrome film. The details he provides, from common phrases used, to the descriptions of various brands and products that serve as props, accurately fill out the setting and help highlight differences from today. What the characters see, how they talk, and how they look at things are vividly told, allowing readers of a certain age to recall the feeling of what it was like to be a kid at the time.

Those who grew up later than the 1950’s or early 1960’s may find it harder to relate to this story. It may be too far removed from the world they know but the descriptions are so well done, I think they may be able to as well. I will leave it for them to decide. All I would say to them is that yes, this is what it was like. Trust me. I was there.

Book Review – Milrose Munce and the Den of Professional Help

Extended Edition [Kindle Edition] by Douglas Anthony Cooper
My Rating: 4 Stars

Milrose Munce and the Den of Professional Help is a charming and humorous tale of a schoolboy who befriends the ghosts inhabiting his school. Milrose, an intelligent if somewhat sarcastic young man, is a great nerdy hero — smart, proudly unathletic and fascinated by new and strange things–the stranger the better. Unfortunately he is less than circumspect in his conversations with his ghostly friends, who remain unseen and unheard by the school staff, and he is sent to receive Professional Help along with one other classmate, Arabella who shares his peculiar affliction. The Professional Help however seems far from either professional or helpful and Milrose and Arabella learn that people who are sent there are never seen again by either the living or the dead.

This is not a serious book nor is it meant to be, as evidenced by the host of wittily named ghosts who wander the corridors. If you’re looking for a scary ghost story, this isn’t it but if you appreciate a quick, light read with lots of smiles, this is well work the 99¢ price for the Kindle version.

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