book review

An Almost Local Author Book Review: Adventure on Whalebone Island by M. A. Wilson

A while ago I decided to write reviews of some of the books in the Emerging Local Authors Collection at my public library. There were strict geographical criteria as to what constituted “local.” Michael Wilson, the author of Adventure on Whalebone Island, lives outside of the defined area, but I think I can bend the rule (this is my blog, after all), to include a resident of British Columbia’s Sunshine Coast, where the book is set.

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The book is aimed at 8- to 12-year-olds. Here is a brief description:

Ryan and Kendra have come to Maple Harbour on the BC coast to spend their summer holidays with their aunt and uncle. They’re expecting a leisurely holiday swimming and playing on the beach with their cousins Claire and Nathan. Claire, however, has other ideas – exploring islands in her sailboat and searching for sunken treasure. But what’s hidden on mysterious Whalebone Island? Have the four of them come across a secret that others don’t want discovered? Join these four intrepid adventurers and their fearless dog Meg in the summer escapade of a lifetime!

The story is simple and straightforward, with the main focus being a series of adventures. The children get re-acquainted, go swimming, sailing and enjoying the natural world. In the course of these activities, each of them has to deal with challenges involving self-confidence, getting along with others and learning new things. The action intensifies when they start looking for a sunken boat and survive a storm at sea, seeking shelter on Whalebone Island. While camping on the island, they encounter unexpected hazards presented by a group of criminals. Each child must call upon their inner resources to extract themselves and each other from dangerous situations.

The characters are sufficiently distinct from one another to give most readers someone to identify with. The situations are realistic and plausible, but the world in which these kids live is essentially a safe and secure one. There is no family dysfunction, corrosive personal anxiety or urban grittiness. This is a sunny adventure, perfect for entertaining its intended audience, who may also vicariously enjoy a lot of good food while reading about the meals and treats partaken of by the four adventurers.

The elements of this book — pre-teen children on a summer holiday, small sailboats, camping on an island, a quest for treasure, unexpected hazards — necessarily reminded me of Arthur Ransome’s books. Adventure on Whalebone Island may be favourably compared with those classics, incorporating the key elements in a present-day setting on the coast of British Columbia. One difference is these children inhabit the same world as the adult characters. There is no attempt on their part to create an alternate reality like the kids in the “Swallows and Amazons” stories. This is not a fault, but having made the comparison, I thought it worth mentioning.

The illustrations, by Vadym Prokhorenko, are notable for their elegant simplicity.

Further information, including purchase links, may be found at the website of Rainy Bay Press.

This review is based on a review copy of the ebook version.

Book Review: The Song of Narne by Bill Fitts

Bill Fitts The Screaming Sword

In a significant genre change from his Needed Killing series (“cozy mysteries with a Southern flair”), that feature amateur sleuth James Crawford, author Bill Fitts has turned to the realm of fantasy with two novels — The Screaming Sword and Sokhal’s Star. They are the first two books in Song of Narne, a promising series intended for young adults, but entirely suitable for not-so-young adults as well.

Bill Fitts Sokhal's Star

The necessary elements of classic fantasy are present — a perilous quest in a land of mountains and plains, an old, dangerous city, a lost empire, an ancient library, a wandering people who hold a tradition of prophecy, an artifact of power. And characters of all kinds — soldiers, thieves, assassins, merchants, magicians both good and evil. And cats. Cats are more than incidentals in these stories; they take an active role in furthering the plot.

The story centres around the young mage Kenrad and his faithful companion, reformed thief Blumgar the Fat. Kenrad must contend with a tragic loss in his childhood, and the development of powers he neither fully understands nor controls. He carries an artifact of power which is, unbeknownst to him, sought by an evil magician. Blumgar is always at Kenrad’s side to protect him from dangers and to ground him in the earthy matters of life — food and drink, companionship and humour.

Three over-arching elements become evident as one reads — the peril of magic, the Song of Narne, and a mental discipline necessary to those who seek knowledge and understanding. Magic isn’t simple or easy in these books; it is elusive, perhaps damaged, and feared by most. The Song of Narne emanates from nature, and when perceived and interpreted by skilled women called Listeners, it may reveal the future. The Listeners employ a meditation technique called Omeras to connect with the Song.

The principal characters, and many of the secondary ones, are fully developed, realistic and memorable. Their interactions are conveyed in lively dialogue, often presenting essential information about the world they inhabit and its history. It’s easy to feel at home in this world, and engaged with its peoples. Ordinary, non-magical activities of trade and commerce, travel and camping, strategy and the use of arms are worked into the plot in ways that are interesting and informative.

Fitts carefully crafts each scene to introduce settings, situations and groups of characters, moving from place to place, but clearly building up a mosaic which becomes increasingly complex and interesting. The reader is never at risk of losing track of the plot threads or becoming confused.

The author has supplied an extensive glossary of characters, places and concepts. In the best fantasy tradition, there is a map of the lands in which the books take place, but I found it a little hard to read the place names on my e-reader. Displayed on a computer screen, it was perfectly legible. A direct link to the map in the table of contents would help a reader easily find it when needed. (A colour version of the map is available on the author’s website).

Fans of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis will enjoy these two books and hope for more. I suspect there will be more, because there remain many enticing loose threads at the end of Sokhal’s Star. The books must be read in order, starting with The Screaming Sword; although subplots are resolved at the end of each one, elements introduced in Book 1 are necessary to enjoy Book 2.

Information about the books and their author is available on his website.

This review is specific to the ebook versions of these books. I received free copies with no expectation of reviews.

Vampires, Heavy Metal and — Marionettes? : C Harrison’s We Are Toten Herzen and The One Rule of Magic

The explosion of books by indie authors has created an embarrassment of riches for readers. There’s no reason not to venture out of one’s comfort genre and read something unfamiliar. I’m not a fan of rock music, and haven’t been too taken by vampires in fiction either, but Chris Harrison’s blog, The Opening Sentence, opened the way to an interesting reading experience. His Smashwords interview is also worth reading.

we-are-toten-herzen

Harrison has written several books about the mysterious heavy metal band called Toten Herzen. The first in the series is We Are Toten Herzen. Here is the plot summary:

In 1977 all four members of the rock band Toten Herzen were murdered. Thirty five years later an investigation by British music journalist Rob Wallet led him to discover the band still alive in a remote village in southern Germany. He persuaded them to make a comeback. Hoax or strange reality? Find out in the only official account of Toten Herzen’s long awaited reappearance.

Sounds fairly straightforward, right? Well, it isn’t. The narrative swirls from place to place and decade to decade. A scene in which the reader is closeted with the band members (three formidable women and one understated guy), is followed by a flurry of tweets and news reports. Twenty-first century music biz honchos have to work out a modus operandi with folks from the 1970s who are pretty touchy about criticism and have their own ways of getting things done — ways that aren’t always pretty. Then there are flashbacks to the band members’ origins and the forces that created Toten Herzen. Rumors abound and tension builds as the first concert of the comeback tour approaches.

Harrison creates memorable scenes with masterly prose and what seems to be a thorough knowledge of the music business. I have to say, I didn’t find the characters terribly likable (they’re definitely not “sparkly” vampires), but they are certainly not cardboard cutouts. Rob Wallet, sometime journalist and general hanger-on, is an odd duck. He has clearly thrown in his lot with the band, but isn’t really “of” them. For the reader, he serves as a point of view character, furnishing “insider” views of the secretive, night-loving band. At times I found myself thinking he was a fictional version of the author, making an appearance in his own book the way Alfred Hitchcock used to show up in his movies. (But I may be wrong).

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Curiouser and (to me) more entertaining, is The One Rule of Magic, a book whose main character has something in common with the members of Toten Herzen, and inhabits the same world (she’s a friend of Rob Wallet’s), but is engaged in a different sort of comeback.

Here is the plot summary:

Frieda Schoenhofer is dead, murdered in Rotterdam. For her grief-stricken parents the true story of their daughter’s life is about to begin.

Her father, slowly demolishing the world around him, tries to eradicate painful memories by throwing out his lifelong collection of film memorabilia. Her mother is convinced Frieda has been reincarnated as a new born foal.

But Frieda isn’t dead. She is travelling Europe hoping to rescue her father’s discarded collection. A journey of redemption that takes her to Nice, Prague, Turin and Vienna, where she meets a crooked dealer in antique silverware, joins a funeral party full of mourners who can’t stop laughing, falls in love with a beautiful marionette, and discovers a plan to destroy the legacy of Mozart.

The One Rule of Magic explores Frieda’s attempts to make amends for the crimes of her old life, come to terms with what she has become, and prepare her parents for the bizarre truth surrounding their daughter’s disappearance.

The book is charming as well as bizarre. Frieda’s quest for her father’s film memorabilia takes her to a variety of places and situations, some of them dire and others just weird. I found it a bit odd that anyone should pursue relentlessly things like hats, overalls and model skeletons, but of course it’s obsession that drives the serious collector, or, in this case, the collector-by-proxy. The items had all appeared in well-known movies, and were unique. Frieda’s odyssey started to intrigue me; by the time she hit Prague I had warmed up to her and sympathized with her mission. A surprise twist near the end provided extra payoff for reading this book.

 

 

Book Review: Fascination by Kevin Brennan

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Get ready for a road trip! Fascination is an odyssey around the quasi-wild West, on a mission of “self-realization and vengeance.”

Gorgeous Sally Pavlou, widowed by her husband’s fake suicide, sets out with insouciant PI (and punster) Clive Bridle to track down her errant spouse. From an unnamed Midwestern burg, the two hit the road in Sally’s ’63 Dodge Dart (nicknamed “Dot”). Readers get to ride along — to Denver, Albuquerque, Phoenix, L.A., San Francisco and various side trips to spots that may or may not appear on any map. Along the way, the pair encounters an astonishing variety of sages, sinners, eccentrics and downright lunatics who offer opportunities for enlightenment.

Sally is an aficionado of an old-fashioned arcade game called Fascination. Every now and then she just has to play, even if it means a considerable detour. Clive is fine with that; stretching out the trip means he gets to spend more time in Sally’s company. His cheerful exterior hides a wounded heart and a capacity for duplicity. Altogether, there are quite a few bumps in the road to self-realization and vengeance.

Kevin Brennan has created a finely-textured novel, with laughs (or at least smiles) on every page. Whether it’s groan-inducing puns or agile prose that creates vivid scenes in the reader’s personal mind-movie, the alert reader will find way more than the captivating plot to reward their decision to read Fascination.

Fascination may be obtained from only one source — the author.