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Reflections on the #AtoZChallenge

by Donna Huber For the A to Z Challenge, I discussed different book genres/categories. Each day, I gave a few details about the genre/catego...

February 24, 2017

Young Adult Titles to Add to Your Reading Pile

I don't know what it is about young adult books, but even though I'm well past the target audience age I still drawn to the stories. Do you read young adult novels? What draws you to them? Here are a few titles you might want to add to your reading pile.

cover Wintersong
Beware the goblin men and the wares they sell.

All her life, nineteen-year-old Liesl has heard tales of the beautiful, mysterious Goblin King. He is the Lord of Mischief, the Ruler Underground, and the muse around which her music is composed. Yet, as Liesl helps shoulder the burden of running her family’s inn, her dreams of composition and childish fancies about the Goblin King must be set aside in favor of more practical concerns.

But when her sister Käthe is taken by the goblins, Liesl journeys to their realm to rescue her sister and return her to the world above. The Goblin King agrees to let Käthe go—for a price. The life of a maiden must be given to the land, in accordance with the old laws. A life for a life, he says. Without sacrifice, nothing good can grow. Without death, there can be no rebirth. In exchange for her sister’s freedom, Liesl offers her hand in marriage to the Goblin King. He accepts.

Down in the Underground, Liesl discovers that the Goblin King still inspires her—musically, physically, emotionally. Yet even as her talent blossoms, Liesl’s life is slowly fading away, the price she paid for becoming the Goblin King’s bride. As the two of them grow closer, they must learn just what it is they are each willing to sacrifice: her life, her music, or the end of the world.

Buy Wintersong at Amazon

cover We Are Okay
You go through life thinking there’s so much you need…

Until you leave with only your phone, your wallet, and a picture of your mother.

Marin hasn’t spoken to anyone from her old life since the day she left everything behind. No one knows the truth about those final weeks. Not even her best friend, Mabel. But even thousands of miles away from the California coast, at college in New York, Marin still feels the pull of the life and tragedy she’s tried to outrun. Now, months later, alone in an emptied dorm for winter break, Marin waits. Mabel is coming to visit, and Marin will be forced to face everything that’s been left unsaid and finally confront the loneliness that has made a home in her heart.

Buy We Are Okay at Amazon

cover To Catch a Killer
Erin Blake has one of those names. A name that, like Natalee Holloway or Elizabeth Smart, is inextricably linked to a grisly crime. As a toddler, Erin survived for three days alongside the corpse of her murdered mother, and the case—which remains unsolved—fascinated a nation. Her father's identity unknown, Erin was taken in by her mother's best friend and has become a relatively normal teen in spite of the looming questions about her past.

Fourteen years later, Erin is once again at the center of a brutal homicide when she finds the body of her biology teacher. When questioned by the police, Erin tells almost the whole truth, but never voices her suspicions that her mother's killer has struck again in order to protect the casework she's secretly doing on her own.

Inspired by her uncle, an FBI agent, Erin has ramped up her forensic hobby into a full-blown cold-case investigation. This new murder makes her certain she's close to the truth, but when all the evidence starts to point the authorities straight to Erin, she turns to her longtime crush (and fellow suspect) Journey Michaels to help her crack the case before it's too late.

Buy To Catch a Killer at Amazon

cover American Street
On the corner of American Street and Joy Road, Fabiola Toussaint thought she would finally find une belle vie—a good life.

But after they leave Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Fabiola’s mother is detained by U.S. immigration, leaving Fabiola to navigate her loud American cousins, Chantal, Donna, and Princess; the grittiness of Detroit’s west side; a new school; and a surprising romance, all on her own.

Just as she finds her footing in this strange new world, a dangerous proposition presents itself, and Fabiola soon realizes that freedom comes at a cost. Trapped at the crossroads of an impossible choice, will she pay the price for the American dream?

Buy American Street at Amazon

cover Lessons in Falling
LESSON ONE: Playing it safe beats taking chances.

After an injury ends Savannah’s dream of a college gymnastics scholarship, she quits
despite her parents’ protests. She won’t risk breaking her body—and heart—again.

LESSON TWO: Catch your best friend when she falls—or regret it forever.

Rules are meant to be broken, according to Savannah’s best friend, Cassie—and it’s more fun to break them together. But when Cassie attempts suicide, Savannah’s left wondering how well she really knows her.

LESSON THREE: Leaping forward, not knowing where you’ll land, is the hardest of all.

Falling for Marcos wasn’t part of the plan. Not only did he save Cassie’s life, he also believes Savannah can still achieve her dreams. Except Cassie thinks Marcos and gymnastics will only break Savannah’s heart.

As Savannah tumbles and twists through toxic friendships and crushing parental expectations, she realizes you never know who will be there when you fall.

Buy Lessons in Falling at Amazon

cover Daughter of the Pirate King
A 17-year-old pirate captain intentionally allows herself to get captured by enemy pirates in this thrilling YA adventure.

Sent on a mission to retrieve an ancient hidden map—the key to a legendary treasure trove—seventeen-year-old pirate captain Alosa deliberately allows herself to be captured by her enemies, giving her the perfect opportunity to search their ship.

More than a match for the ruthless pirate crew, Alosa has only one thing standing between her and the map: her captor, the unexpectedly clever and unfairly attractive first mate, Riden. But not to worry, for Alosa has a few tricks up her sleeve, and no lone pirate can stop the Daughter of the Pirate King.

Debut author Tricia Levenseller blends action, adventure, romance, and a little bit of magic into a thrilling YA pirate tale.

Buy Daughter of the Pirate King at Amazon

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February 23, 2017

Review: The Spirit Chaser by Kat Mayor

by MK French

August 2016; 978-1535246583; ebook & print
(436 pages); horror
a free egalley was provided for this review
The show "The Spirit Chaser" is fantastically popular, largely because of its lead, Austin Cole. He's handsome and driven, but sometimes that leads to terrible consequences. The lead psychic on his team is possessed and retires after he recovers. His old friend Casey takes his place, and she doesn't get along with Austin at first. They connect, physically at first and then emotionally. The entire team is tight knit, and they're poised to have a successful season of the show. However, Austin angered as many spirits as he helped cross over, and there is one in particular that has decided that he belongs to her.

This book is incredibly vivid and drew me in right away. The characters feel so incredibly real, in part because they're flawed and breathe on the page. Austin has his moments where he lashes out, and others where he's caring and gentle. Casey is proud of her psychic skill but self-conscious in other ways. The romance feels a little rushed in the middle third of the book, but it's more of a connection on Austin's side first. The warm fuzzies of the middle third are wonderful to read, and I was so caught up in it that I didn't realize the other shoe was about to drop for the last third. When it hit, it hit hard. The first signs of the possession seemed abrupt, but once Austin's anchors were undone, one after another, it went downhill fast. This is where the horror picks up again with a vengeance, and it's an emotional horror as well as a visual one. The ending was heartbreaking, and I had no idea it was going to end that way. The Amazon site says that this is the first book in a series, and I'm holding Kat to it!

Born and raised in New York City, M.K. French started writing stories when very young, dreaming of different worlds and places to visit. She always had an interest in folklore, fairy tales, and the macabre, which has definitely influenced her work. She currently lives in the Midwest with her husband, three young children, and golden retriever.

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February 22, 2017

Magic in the Fantasy Genre

by Ross M. Kitson

One of the coolest things about fantasy (and there’s a sentence that before HBO’s Game of Thrones, would never have been written) is the wide variety of how magic is perceived in the genre. There’s a deluge of articles about designing magic systems and ensuring logic and coherency, but I won’t reiterate those here. Suffice it to say that magic is one of those things that if you write badly, and use as a continual ‘deux e machina’ (or, I suppose, pulling a rabbit out of the hat) then folk will disappear as if in a giant magic cabinet.

I enjoy magic in fantasy books. I think it gives it a texture and a richness that no other genre can match, and I also enjoy the different styles of incorporating it, in the same way that I love Dark Fantasy as much as epic or heroic. As a writer it fascinates me that there is so many ways of writing sorcery.....

Cover image from Unearthed Arcana by Jeff Easley; published 1985 by TSR
ISNB 0-88038-084-5
For me, as a kid, I began reading fantasy mainly due to my interest in Dungeons and Dragons (yes, yes, before Stranger Things and Vin Diesel made it 'hip'). The magic system in DnD is obviously designed around the wargaming origins of the game, having your magic users learning spells from their list, being allowed to cast so many before they become dagger wielding softies. The concept was that the magic had a verbal part, a material part, and a learned way of wiggling your hips as you did it. Gary Gygax, the creator of Dungeons and Dragons and former master of my universe, drew much of his inspiration from Jack Vance, and the Dying World series. Certainly in the first book—The Dying Earth—which is a collection of short stories, that style of magic is apparent. In those works, spells are learned, and then once cast are erased from the ‘working memory’ until relearned. There is a wonderful concept in ‘Turjan of Mir’ wherein the words themselves seem to carry the power:

‘He stared down at the characters and they burned with an urgent power, pressing off the page as if frantic to leave the dark solitude of the book. Turjan closed the book, forcing the spell back into oblivion.’
‘He then sat down and from a journal chose the spells he would take with him. What dangers he might meet he could no know, so he selected three spells of general application: The Excellent Prismatic Spray, Phandal’s Mantle of Stealth, and the Spell of the Slow Hour.’
The Dying Earth cover by Li-An. Image
Many works (including mine) have drawn their influence from DnD and hence from the ‘Vancian’ system. The obvious ones are those like Dragonlance, which was originated in an awesome DnD campaign, and so has Raistlin (at least in the original trilogy) learning spells and being knackered every time he casts... Featherfall...(Ok, so he got a bit touger when he hit level 12 in the finale). In a similar fashion, Zelazny's Amber series depicts Merlin (not the one of legend) 'hanging' spells in his mind for later usage: a bit like a cooking show where they show one they 'prepared earlier.'

This throwaway style of sorcery lends itself perfectly to gaming—and this is most apparent in RPGs such as the Final Fantasy series. A series I read recently that was influenced by on-line/RPG gaming was Connie Jasperson’s World of Neveyah books. Connie takes the concepts in a different direction. The magic in her world is fuelled by Chi, like a life-force, and the sorcerers/priests who wield it, use it for either healing or for manipulating elements. Their approach is utterly scientific, and they study it as a science rather than an art—rationalising how to improve it and manipulate it in unique ways. The healing in the book reads like a medical manual (which naturally, I loved!!!). And why not? Why wouldn’t magic in a fantasy world become like a science, in a strange parody of how in history events now rationalised by science were probably regarded as witchcraft.

There are so many cool systems! Moorcock’s books (Elric et al) have a magic wherein its practitioners constantly bargain with demons and gods of chaos/order to manipulate reality. Le Guin’s Earthsea books have a tried and tested formula of objects in the world having ‘true names,’ which carry power when utilised. I suspect she was the first to utilise this in popular fantasy, although Paolini used a duplicate system in Eragon and those other dragon books.

Cover of the Earthsea trilogy by Pauline Ellison (1975)
Then there’s the idea of channelling other world’s energies or using some other ‘place’ to fuel your sorcery. The Amber series by Zelazny also has this magical rationale: after walking the Pattern, those of appropriate birth can manipulate the reality of all things in the shadows of Amber. Another great example is Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series. Here we have a pocket universe, or Warrens, which are accessed and opened by the mage to desired effect. This is a great concept, and it works really well in the books. Oddly what it reminded me of was the rationalisation of superpowers in the Marvel Universe’s Guides—so, when Cyclops fires his optic blasts his eyes are tapping into another dimension and acting as a conduit.

In my own work, I have been influenced by the style of role-playing games, having two flavours of magic. The first, a 'wild magic' is fairly psychic in style—with telekinesis, precognition and so forth—almost like the superpowers in the X-men comics, but at the cost of mental health. The second is an 'elemental magic' wherein magic is focused via gems of power embedded in the wizard's sternum. The casting of spells still requires vocalisation, however, and thus a nod towards Vance and Le Guin.

The idea of items acting as conduits, or power sources, is another well-established magic system. Brooks’ Shannara series uses items and artefacts to great effect; games such as Elder Scrolls: Skyrim use soul gems etc; we have the One Ring in Lord of the Rings; RA Salvatore’s Demon Apostle has gemstone magic. Even good old Harry Potter has magical items galore—the Philosopher’s Stone, the Deadly Hallows, the thingies that He With No Nose sticks part of his soul in....

Image from
There are so many and so little space before the reader dozes off. Magic can be present in a fantasy world, but not be especially in your face like my lightning tossing, Wild-magic shielding characters use. The obvious examples are ‘realistic’ fantasy, such as George RR Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire (or is it Fire and Ice...?). In George’s world, the magic is more subtle—the shadow monster thingy that bumped Renly off after popping out of Melisandre’s nether regions; the worgs and their animal body skipping (skin-changing?); resurrection, with poor old Beric Dondarrion held together with masking tape; those dudes with the blue lipstick, who pop up in the market despite being toasted by dragons. For his realistic setting, it works very well, and this subtle use of magic fits dark fantasy perfectly (such as the awesome Scott Lynch’s Lies of Locke Lamora), as well as lighter fantasy such as the Farseer trilogy by Robin Hobb (the Wit and the Word—lots of mind influencing, animal possession, and so on).

The final quote on magic in fantasy—let’s stick with Georgie...

“Sorcery is a sword without a hilt. There is no safe way to grasp it.”

So what’s your favourite magic system in fantasy? I haven’t read Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan, or Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson, but by all accounts they rock big-style on the magic front. For me, I think the cleverest was Erikson’s—it had a maturity and originality that fitted perfectly with the intricate tone of his books.

But I still like the idea of two mages zapping the heck out of each other like medieval superheroes... I can’t help it!!!!

Ross M. Kitson is a doctor, occasional blogger, full-time geek, and sporadic author of fantasy and YA sci-fi. Connect with Ross on Twitter.

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February 21, 2017

3 Great Beach Reads

by Susan Roberts

Southern Fiction is my favorite genre of books. Maybe because it's my favorite place to vacation. Since I live in the South, I love to go to Myrtle Beach and Charleston to relax. Here are three great beach reads that I've recently read that make me ready to pack my car and head to the nearest beach!

cover A Lowcountry Heart
A Lowcountry Heart by Pat Conroy

When Pat Conroy died last year, America, and especially the South, lost one of it's best authors. No one could tell a story like he could. He bared his soul to his readers and shared with us his difficult childhood and the joys and sorrows of his life. He is one of the few authors whose books I re-read every few years and always the author that I mention first when someone asks who my favorite is. I am extremely saddened that readers won't have any more of his books to devour. This little book, published posthumously, is a collection of some of his best blog posts as well as memorial articles from several friends, his wonderful editor Nan Talese and his wife, Cassandra King - also a fantastic author. I laughed and I cried while I was reading it and it's going to go on my shelf with his other books so that I can read it again and again.

Buy A Lowcountry Heart at Amazon.

cover Sweet Southern Hearts
Sweet Southern Hearts by Susan Schild

This delightful book is the third book in the Willow Hill series about Linny and her search for happiness. After being widowed twice, Linny is hoping that her third marriage to Jack will be her happily ever after despite all of the obstacles in their way. Jack has a teenage boy who runs hot and cold with Linny, an ex-wife who feels the need to talk to him daily, a new consulting company just starting up, a mother who is getting ready to go on a big trip with her friends and a sister with a new baby. With all of this going on, how is she ever going to find time to spend with her new husband?

As the book begins, Linny and Jack are on their honeymoon on a white water rafting trip. Linny is a people pleaser and even though she would like to be anywhere else, she takes the rafting trip to make Jack happy. They have to cut their honeymoon short because Jack's son is upset and needs them home. So begins the story of Jack and Linny's first year of marriage. The main problem that Linny needs to overcome is whether she can learn to speak her mind and put herself and her marriage first. Will she find her happily ever after with Jack?

This is a great series of books and I have enjoyed getting to know the characters - a lot of them are like people that I know. My favorite characters in this book are Linny's mom and her friends and I laughed out loud about some of their experiences on their cross-country camping trip. This is a fun series and I highly recommend it.

Buy Sweet Southern Hearts at Amazon.

cover Tangle of StringsTangle of Strings by Ashley Farley

This is another wonderful book about the Sweeney sisters but this time it's the story of 16-year-old Annie. Her mother abandoned her as a baby and has just come back into her life and wants to develop a relationship with her. Since Annie is under the guardianship of the family, this creates turmoil for them. As the book begins, Annie (driving too fast on Main Street) is in a bad accident and ends up in the hospital. The ER doctor, also part of the Sweeney family, has to ask her if there is any chance she is pregnant. The answer incites a huge family uproar as they try to make a decision about what Annie and Cooper (her estranged boyfriend) should do. They don't stop to realize that the decision really belongs to Annie and Cooper. Along with the family drama, there is a sub-plot that is very intense.

I loved this book and these characters. I hope that there are future books to this series because I enjoyed reading about the lives of the Sweeney family members. There is so much love and drama in this family that the author should be able to add more books to the series.

This is book 4 of the Sweeney Sisters series. This is such a convoluted family that you really need to read this series in order to lessen the confusion.

Buy Tangle of Strings at Amazon.

Susan Roberts lives in North Carolina when she isn't traveling.  She and her husband enjoy traveling, gardening and spending time with their grandson.  Susan reads almost anything (and the piles of books in her house prove that) but her favorite genres are Southern fiction, women's fiction, and thrillers. Susan is a top 1% Goodreads Reviewer. You can connect with Susan on Facebook.

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February 20, 2017

Michael Hicks Thompson: Hemingway Could Pack ‘em In (@MHThompsonSR)

Whether behind his faithful Underwood, or drunk in the corner of the Floridita bar in Habana, Ernest Hemingway could pack ’em in. Not only the booze and admirers, but the words, too.

He’s credited with writing the best 6-word short-short novel ever written. In today's world, it's called Super Flash Fiction.

“For Sale: Baby Shoes. Never worn.”

Sad, when you think about it. A baby who died at birth. But Hemingway is giving his writer friends a 6-word lesson in writing—good story telling is participatory. If the reader doesn’t have any emotion for the characters, or sense of urgency, the story will fall flat on its face.

One of my favorite stories about Hemingway happened when Lillian Ross, writer for The New Yorker, wrote to him in Cuba, asking if she might interview him on his next pass-through the Big Apple. Papa seldom stayed over. He preferred to pass through quietly, heading on to who knows where to be with his friends, drinking, telling loud stories. While he abhorred the limelight of the press, he loved his lime.

He was a regular at the Floridita. (I've been there.) Shorts, sandals, an open, long-sleeve shirt—rolled up above the elbow—was his unassuming style. His life-size bronze statue still resides in the corner. He probably never gave much thought to his sweaty, glistening skin and roughen beard.

The photographs of him usually show a lot of chest hair. Why was his shirt always open? The Cuba and Key West humidity I suppose.

According to Ross, here’s what Hemingway told her on the tarmac at Idlewild airfield, all while hugging a four-foot Nigerian who had shared a seat beside him on the long flight. They’d obviously exchanged much conversation on the flight, because Hemingway kept squeezing this little guy in a hug of fresh friendship. Evidently, the little man had read Hemingway’s work. Papa was astounded, and mimicked to Lillian Ross his new friend’s explanation of Hemingway's books, all while standing on the tarmac.

“Book start slow, then increase in pace till it becomes impossible to stand. I bring emotion up to where you can’t stand it, then we level off, so we won’t have to provide oxygen tents for the readers. Book is like engine. We have to slack her off gradually.”

Did Papa know something about writing, or what? And, he evidently knew about air travel. His aeronautical metaphor for how to write a riveting book is a short story in itself.

Why is it that most of the great writers are peculiar in one way or another? Why am I so normal? Not all of them committed suicide, did they?  

Michael Hicks Thompson was born in his mother’s own bed on a farm in Yazoo County, Mississippi. He grew up in a town of 310 souls. He knows a thing or two about strong Christian women, alcoholic men, and Jesus. He’s a member of Kairos (prison ministry), been to Cuba twice on door-to-door evangelism mission trips, been a Sunday School teacher, and a member of Independent Presbyterian Church for 35 years. He and his wife of 45 years live in Memphis, TN, have three sons and four grandchildren. The little ones call him “Big Mike.”
After earning his undergrad degree from Ole Miss and then a master’s in mass communication from the University of South Carolina, Michael started a one-man ad agency in Memphis. It grew to 87
employees in two cities, winning numerous national and international creative awards. Michael sold his firm in 2011 and turned his attention to full-time Christian fiction writing. His latest novel, The Actress, is available in book stores and on Amazon in print, and Kindle.
The Rector was first in the series. They’re both murder mysteries that take place in the Mississippi Delta. The Rector has already won four major awards. 

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