Book Reviews

4 Stars, out of 5.

I’m so happy that I’ve finally addressed the terrible shortcoming of being one of the few fantasy fans who had not read any of George Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series.

I wasn’t drawn immediately in, truth be told. The mysterious prologue (no spoilers here, so that’s all I’ll say) didn’t strike me as particularly absorbing. It wasn’t bad, but since I’d heard Martin’s work referred to as “literary crack” in the past, I expected to be sucked into the story immediately. Having said that, it wasn’t long before I realized that I cared for the characters soon after their introduction. The Stark clan is an intriguing group of people, particularly Eddard and his wife Catelyn. .

The story unwinds masterfully, as intrigue and mystery begin to pull the Starks into the game of thrones that they would prefer to avoid altogether. It’s not long before honor is set against vice and ambition, and I couldn’t help but be drawn in. All the while, another threat is developing as “winter is coming”, and a looming threat grows in the North. The story is told though the perspectives of a number of characters, some at odds with each other. I love the fact that you get to see adversaries striving against each other, but nobody has the full picture. The lack of omniscience of any of the actors enhances the tension as the story unfolds.

I’ve heard Martin called an American Tolkien. But since I’ve seen that comparison made to any number of writers (none of whom measure up to it, I might add), all that did was make me a more skeptical reader. Having finished A Game of Thrones now, I still don’t think it’s valid. In all honesty, with the political intrigue and varied points of view, I find Thrones more similar to Frank Herbert’s Dune.

My greatest criticism of Thrones, and it’s one that I’m sure will not be shared with many, is the sex. I felt the many sex scenes in this novel were more often gratuitous and pointless. Yes, it was done skillfully, and perhaps it added a layer of realism over the characters, but rarely did it advance the story. I’m not sure when such explicit scenes became important to heroic fantasy, but I tend to think such cheapens the literary quality of a novel.

A Game of Thrones has rightfully earned the adoration that fans have given it. I would gladly recommend it to any fan of fantasy, and I plan on continuing with the series. And now that I’ve finished this first installment, I’ll let myself check out the HBO series as well.

Book Review of Gabriel’s Return, by Steve Umstead

I had been looking forward to getting my hands on a copy of Gabriel’s Return for several months, since I finished reading the first installment of the Evan Gabriel Trilogy, Gabriel’s Redemption, earlier this year. This science fiction series, written by Steve Umstead, established itself as an action-packed and intelligent saga with Gabriel’s Redemption, but this latest installment builds on the realistic future world of Lieutenant Commander Evan Gabriel in an extremely entertaining and satisfying way.

At the risk of hyperbole, I believe that Steve Umstead has created what I can only describe as a Tom Clancy-esque world a few hundred years into the future.  There are many layers to this story – personal conflicts, military engagements, political maneuvering and, of course, the action-packed tactical elements – that are skillfully delivered throughout the narrative.  There are so many plots and counter plots, actions and counter actions, that at one point I wondered if all the loose ends could be addressed adequately. In short, they were addressed, and quite effectively.

For a science fiction or fantasy novel to work, the writer has to win over the reader with the world he or she has created.  The world within Gabriel’s Return is not only compelling, but its realism makes the most fantastic elements seem plausible.  I very much enjoyed the brainy nuances of this story, such as the physical limits to communicating across vast reaches of space, or the effect of weather and the environment on the military gear of the protagonists as they slogged through the steamy jungles of Eden.  The futuristic settings are very cool, but have an edgy, gritty realism that helped to pull me into this world.

Good science fiction also has its human element, and again in this area Umstead does a fantastic job.  The protagonists are noble, heroic, and dedicated. The antagonists are ruthless, calculating, and in many ways merciless.  But they’re ALL human, none are omniscient, and they’re all driven by emotions that make them vulnerable to miscalculation. No one really has all the cards, and so the reader is left guessing as to which side will come out on top.  This is effectively played out throughout the novel, but is wonderfully illustrated in a few separate scenes where both Gabriel and the military commander of an enemy terrorist group, Chaud, are seen worrying about whether they each have made enough preparation to defeat the other as the reader approaches the climax.

I have to confess: I enjoyed the first installment, Gabriel’s Redemption, quite a bit.  But Steve Umstead’s delivery of Gabriel’s Return demonstrates that he knows how to up the ante.  After reading Return, along with its cliff hanger ending, I can honestly say that I hope Steve is well underway on the third installment.

Gabriel’s Return is available as an ebook for Kindle and Nook, and is also available on Goodreads.

More information about Steve can be found on his blog here: www.SteveUmstead.com

Enjoy your reading!

WEL

Book review of Bridges, A Tale of Niagara, by D.K. LeVick

In a coming of age tale filled with action and mystery, D.K. LeVick’s Bridges tells the story of five young men who – in an attempt to find adventure – instead find themselves swept up by the powers of nature into an adventure infinitely more dangerous than they had bargained for.  What begins as an ambitious dare to visit the treacherous ice bridge of Niagara Falls quickly deteriorates into a life threatening ordeal where one misstep could easily end in tragedy.

The author, who grew up by Niagara Falls, puts his familiarity with the surrounding wilderness of his home to fantastic use. The descriptions of the wintery landscape are compelling, and LeVick very effectively places the reader in the middle of the frigid trials that challenge our protagonists.  At first mesmerizing and beautiful, the primitive beauty that is everywhere in Bridges transforms into intimidating, raw power as the story progresses.  No matter how great or small the obstacles and challenges faced in the story, the ever present winter constantly lurks to magnify the growing sense of desperation of the characters (and the reader).

As enticing as this may sound, Bridges offers even more.  The author weaves throughout this story, set in the dead of winter in the early 1960s, historical vignettes, glimpses into tales of men and women who also were touched by the ever-present Great Falls.  The reader is allowed to look back in time – as far back as just prior to the American Revolutionary War in one case – to see the personal struggles of people who will never be known by those who come after, but who nonetheless somehow touch our protagonists in some way. At one point the main character, Kevin, wonders “if there was anything that wasn’t connected to everything.” In a most effective way, LeVick demonstrates the inter-connectivity of those whose lives have been touched by Niagara Falls.

Something I found quite compelling was the varied motivations that propelled each of the young protagonists into and throughout this adventure.  I felt a pang of empathy with Kevin as he morosely concluded that he was “born in a generation that had nothing to achieve and no mark to leave.”  I know that at a young age, looking back at the enormous accomplishments of the generations before me, I felt similar trepidations.  There’s more that drives each young man on, but this sense that great things are no more to be had forms the bedrock of motivation that triggers our story.

Bridges, A Tale of Niagara, is a compelling story that will certainly appeal to those who enjoy tales of survival and friendship.  Although I believe the book is geared towards young adults, by including such a wide range of stories and appealing to a shared sense of adventure, the author makes this story accessible to readers of all ages.

Book review of Asylum Lake, by R.A. Evans

I can tell you that I was eager to read and review Asylum Lake, by R.A. Evans, for a couple of reasons.  First, I enjoy a good horror novel.  Second, ever since stepping into the pool that is the world of writing, I’ve heard some really good buzz about it.  So I jumped at the chance to put a critical eye towards this dark and sinister tome.

Asylum Lake is bare-knuckle horror, the macabre equivalent to a street rumble. Although the novel begins its 225 page yarn at a trial in the aftermath of some grizzly murders, it doesn’t take long before the reader comes face to face with the malevolent forces that haunt the protagonists. This brings me to one of the most enjoyable aspects of the novel.  Mr. Evans does a fantastic job of doling out the plot across multiple time periods, periods that span several generations.  This is a difficult story telling mechanism to master, and the author does so effortlessly in Asylum Lake.  So the story unfurls in an interesting but unconventional way that is very satisfying. It helps to keep the mystery woven throughout moving along at a pace primed to keep the reader engrossed.

The story telling is classic horror, albeit of the more gritty variety.  It’s a bloody tale of vengeance with a memory.  If you’re looking for a good ghost story that twists and turns through murky mysteries, then Asylum Lake is for you. This is R.A. Evan’s debut novel, and as such it does come with some rough edges. But nothing detracts from the overall story, from the spooky beginning to the satisfying ending.  I’m looking forward to the sequel, and other future works by the author.

Book review of Noria, by McCollonough Ceili

Preview The first thing that strikes you about Noria: A Collection of True Stories and Legends from Noria is the unconventional way the author has chosen to tell her story. Casting aside the more traditional linear telling of a life, McCollonough Ceili has instead knitted together memories and poems from her childhood home, an island she calls Noria, somewhere off the coast of Ireland.  True, early on we’re given a brief oral history of the origins of her people, but after this short introduction we’re essentially sitting with the author as she tells us story after story, and poem after poem, of a time gone by.

Ms. Ceili certainly has a unique story to tell, and she does so in a way that is engaging and fascinating.  There are stories that many of us could relate to in some fashion, if you’ve ever lived in the country or gone for long periods separated from urban life.  But there are plenty of stories that are unique and, in some cases, nearly mystical.  In a number of chapters we’re instructed on what it took to be a “God Child,” from the tragic beginning to the near mythical initiation and training.

What I found to be particularly enjoyable about Ms. Ceili’s style is how she is able to document her memories without stripping away the warmth and sentimentality that should accompany thoughts of one’s childhood.  We’re not just told that flowers and animals returned to life in the Spring, for example.  We’re told that “Spring always meant a house smelling of onions.” Time and again we’re asked to summon all of our senses as we read through the poems and vignettes, and in doing so we share, as much as is possible, in actual memories and not just stories.

This memoir is engaging and all too brief.  We don’t get a complete life story here, and in a way that adds to the sincerity of the work.  Rarely are memories neat and sequential, and this book does a wonderful job of presenting a tale that feels both heartfelt and complete.

You may like this book if you enjoy the story telling in the most literal sense.  If you favor Irish history and the like, you’ll enjoy this as well.

You may not like this book if you’re looking for a more traditional, linear memoir or autobiography.

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