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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...

October 7, 2017

Review: An Unsuitable Heir by KJ Charles

by MK French

This is the third and final book of the "Sins of the City" trilogy. Mark Braglewicz, the private enquiry agent, has tracked down the Taillefer heir. Pen Starling prefers being an acrobat and is horrified by the thought of being an earl. The killer from the prior books is still on the loose, and there are attempts on Pen's life while the truth of his birth is being tracked down.

Amazon affiliate links are used on this site. A free book was provided for an honest review.

An Unsuitable Heir
October 2017; Loveswept; ebook (211 pages)
historical, romance

I really grew to love the twins, each with their own distinct personalities, and Mark is far more sympathetic in this book than he was in the prior ones. The conclusion of the trilogy neatly ties up everyone's storylines, and it's almost too neat and contrived. Still, I can't fault the ending because all of the characters do get what they need as well as they want. That makes it the happily ever after of romance novels, and the comfort reading that they can be.

Buy An Unsuitable Heir at Amazon

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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Halloween Reads Part I - Alice by Christina Henry

by Elisabeth Scherer

I have written before about my love of Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. I'm always looking for new takes on classics. I dove right into Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and loved Frank Beddor's Looking Glass Wars series. In some cases, the spin-offs aren't stellar. For me, that list is much shorter.

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Alice by Christina Henry
August 2014; Ace; 978-0425266793
ebook, audio, print (291 pages);
Fantasy, Adult, Horror, Retelling
When my birthday came this year my husband gave me this book Alice by Christina Henry. The back cover of the book describes it as a dark and twisted version of Alice in Wonderland.

I packed it in my must take along bag for our 22-day cross country trip and as we settled in for the long ride I cracked it open. I couldn't put it down.

The first thing I will say is this is NOT a book for kids. This a VERY dark world that grown-up Alice lives in. There are adult themes in this book that would give the average kid nightmares. I found it is perfect for a book to review during the month leading up to Halloween.

At the beginning of the book, we find Alice in an institution in the Old City. Alice was a proper girl from the New City where everything is shining, kids obey their parents, and do not break the rules. Alice runs away to what she thinks is going to be an adventure of exploring the Old City. She goes missing. When she finally returns there is blood on her legs, she is obsessed with talk of a rabbit, there is a gash across her face, and some unexplainable powers her mother would like Alice to suppress. So her parents tucked her away into the institution in the Old City and they continue with their lives as if Alice never came home.

A fire breaks out at the institution and Alice escapes. With her, something darker and more powerful is also released. Alice goes on a journey to find out what happened to her and who is responsible.

Christina Henry writes a tale that is realistic but disturbing. The warrens of the Old City, as well as the men in charge of each sector, are the places and people no one should want to meet. She takes characters from Wonderland and distorts them to fit in her horrific "wonderland" menagerie.

If you have a hard time with dark subject matters this book also isn't the book for you. It is a bleak outlook on life in the Old City and every page I could feel the evil and horrors lurking around the corner.  This would a modern interpretation of a Grimm's fairy tale of Alice in Wonderland. It also has a ring of Edgar Allen Poe and the darkness with which his stories have looming. The Old City runs on crime. Much of this book talks about prostitution, slavery, fight clubs, rape, murder, and other darknesses. Alice must find her way through the city and find her strength to fight on.

I would say I like the ideas that the author to include famous characters that come to mind when you think of Alice. The Rabbit, Carpenter, Walrus, Dormouse, and of course the Cheshire all make an appearance. There are even hints of the Mad Hatter in the main male character in the book Hatcher. I found the book well written with twists and turns. The atrocities abound and I think horror/dystopian readers would agree that this book is a great Halloween read.

Check back soon for my review of the sequel to this book: Red Queen (Chronicles of Alice #2).

Buy Alice at Amazon

Elisabeth Scherer grew up in a very small town in Minnesota but now lives in the lovely Pacific Northwest where she spends most of her time raising her two young children. She and her husband have a large collection of books that takes a good space of their small condo. When she's not reading she has a variety of hobbies that include crocheting, drawing, baking, cooking, and movie watching. She is currently obsessed with making French Macarons and other baked deliciousness! You can also find her blogging at

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October 6, 2017

Epic Journeys and the Wayward Traveler

by Chris
A 3D model of the One Ring
A 3D model of the One Ring (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We have just come to pass Bilbo’s and Frodo’s birthdays—September 22 (two weeks ago today, as it happens). It was not long after that Frodo embarked on his quest to destroy the One Ring, beginning what is one of the most famous epic journeys in the history of fiction. It took him a solid thirteen months to make it there and back (so to speak), getting lost, stabbed, poisoned and mutilated along the way.

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Doctor Zhivago
The funny thing is, for a tome as great and epic as The Lord of the Rings, thirteen months doesn’t seem like a particularly long time. (Yes, the book starts with a gap of seventeen years between Bilbo’s disappearance and Frodo’s embarkation, but the main events transpire well after this.) One would expect a story of such vast proportions to span lifetimes, and while it does through some of the histories recounted within it, the main action takes place in slightly over a year. Take Beowulf, for example—one of the oldest English-language tales in existence. The action of Beowulf, though not starting with the titular character’s birth, does span the remainder of his life, a period of some fifty years or so (although most of those fifty years are arguably uneventful).

Other epics, such as Doctor Zhivago (which I briefly mentioned last month), do indeed span decades in time. So do some sci-fi epics like Dune, whose entire series eventually spans millennia. As I wrap up the drafting stage of the third book in my own epic series, this has given me pause to wonder—what exactly makes a story epic?

The Meaning of Epic

Cities of Flight
The dictionary defines epic as “heroic or grand in scale or character”. My son defines it as better or worse than average (e.g. an epic fail). I suppose the two aren’t that dissimilar, but it raises the question: what counts as epic?

One of the common characteristics of epic fiction is that it involves great tracts of time. Herein fall stories such as those mentioned previously, as well as series such as The Wheel of Time, or James Blish’s Cities in Flight. Sometimes we are introduced to characters who, through immortality, time travel or some other invention of the author, actually live through these extensive spans of time, experiencing the rise of fall of civilizations, and often losing all they love and hold dear as those around them perish in a more natural length of time. Other times, the story will jump from time to time, introducing new characters along the way, and sometimes leaving behind others who would have naturally perished of old age long before.

But time isn’t the only factor in determining a story’s ‘epicness’; for example, Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series spans time from the Stone Age to the end of the universe, but it takes place—from the point of view of the main character, at least—within a comparatively short period of time. In this regard, some might argue that it isn’t really epic at all.

Yet the series, taken altogether, nonetheless leaves the reader with a sense of epicness by the end, simply for the sheer number of traumas and events Arthur Dent survives amongst its pages. From losing his planet to losing his only love, and eventually the entire set of multiverses in which he exists, the main character suffers enormously, which perhaps helps add to the definition of epic: enormous or great suffering, as well. This perhaps ties into the ‘heroic’ aspect of the epic tale, in the sense of a hero being someone who is intended to suffer and yet remain courageous throughout.

Other stories, such as Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series, feel epic for yet another reason: the sheer length of the volumes themselves. While the first book, The Gunslinger, is of a more respectable length (around 200 pages), the series gets longer as it goes on, reaching nearly 900 pages by the penultimate (or final, depending on your point of view) novel, The Dark Tower—leaving the reader having slogged through over 4,000 pages and a million words before the end.

And of course, there are stories that are universally agreed to be epic, yet bear none of these characteristics; Star Wars, for example, is almost always spoken of as an epic tale of good versus evil, yet neither spans great lengths of time nor is particularly long—each movie is a pretty average two hours in length. While the characters suffer losses, they also achieve greatness. But Star Wars’ epic nature might be down to something else: its impact on modern culture. Perhaps no other story is as widely recognized or loved in the modern world—even if you manage to find someone who hasn’t seen it, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn’t heard of it, whereas even sci-fi greats like Dune or fantasy keystones like The Lord of the Rings tend to be beloved within their genres, but less known by those who don’t follow those areas of fiction (or fiction in general).

Journeys in Space and Time

 The Redemption of Erath
One universal truth of epic stories, generally, is that the protagonist must undertake a great journey. For some stories, the tale is the journey: The Lord of the Rings is essentially the story of Frodo’s journey from the Shire to Mordor and back again (even its predecessor, The Hobbit, literally subtitles itself as There and Back Again). Whilst there are many other events that take place, and other major characters travel less (or not at all), physical travel is a key aspect of most epic stories.

Sometimes, this travel is undertaken with a purpose; Frodo sets out with the specific task of first protecting, and then destroying, the One Ring. Other stories are less clear; in the beginning of The Dark Tower series, Roland is pursuing the Man in Black; what he does after he catches up to him is ambiguous, and it’s only later in the series that the concept of reaching the Dark Tower and saving the universe (which turns out to be Stephen King’s collective fictional universe, which himself as the creator) is born.

In my own fantasy series, The Redemption of Erâth, the main characters set out with no purpose at all—exiled from their homeland, they initially are simply trying to survive. I’m still not certain, with the ongoing development of the series, whether there is going to be a larger journey with a destination in mind, or if the journey is going to be of a more spiritual nature.

Journeys in time equally count: from The Time Machine to The Time Traveller’s Wife, many, many stories that take place over decades or centuries, as mentioned before, leave the reader with a sense of epic journeys—even if the action takes place in a single setting. In The Time Machine, for example, the characters scarcely leave the environs of the time machine itself, despite traveling millions of years into the past and future. In Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander (though perhaps more romance than epic), Claire travels between the 1940s and the 1790s, creating parallel lives in each era.

The Emotional or Spiritual Journey

Great Expectations
Another journey that is sometimes overlooked in epic stories is the inner journey: when the character perhaps doesn’t travel much of anywhere in time or place, yet undergoes a dramatic transformation within themselves.

Going back to my own fantasy series (without giving too much away!), this is something I’m considering with my main character, Brandyé; although there is travel across the lands of Erâth and throughout the history of the world, the journey Brandyé takes from an innocent child to a grown man wracked with torment and despair, is perhaps even more important and vital to the story. Paralleling my own emotional growth in life, I have yet to decide if Brandyé will even escape the darkness that haunts him—or if he will succumb, becoming the villain of his own story.

Character transformations can sometimes feel just as epic as great journeys, and sometimes can be the reason a story feels epic in the first place. Although at the end of The Lord of the Rings we feel exhausted after all that has come before, the utter sense of loss in Frodo’s inability to reintegrate into his old life is really the final nail in the coffin: the knowledge that, for him, nothing will ever be the same. So we are sad and devastated to see him leave into the West, yet knowing that it is as final an ending as there could possibly be.

Of course, it could be argued that all stories absolutely rely on character transformation; without growth or change in the protagonist, or at least in the antagonist, there is little to keep our interest throughout. In fact, one could make a list of the worst stories or films based almost solely on this criteria; if no one is better or worse by the end, what was the point of the journey in the first place?

Yet some stories rely on this more heavily, and these are the ones that remain with us longer, make us feel deeper, and truly have a sense of epicness about them. My favorite book of all time, Great Expectations, although in some ways doesn’t necessarily fit this criteria perfectly, always feels epic to me: the spiritual journey of a young boy who is abused and manipulated throughout his life and only at the very end realizes that he can be himself, is to me an exquisite example of character growth and development. Even the secondary characters such as Estella grow and change, eventually learning that there are better ways to live.

The Traveler

The Gunslinger
Naturally, a journey of any kind—in time, in space or in spirit—requires a traveler to undertake that journey. This is perhaps the final aspect of what defines a story as epic: who the traveler is, how the react to events, and—as mentioned—how they change as a result.

Some stories take a somewhat predictable approach, naturally, of creating characters who are humble in origins, make their way through danger and difficulty, and arise to the top—either in status or happiness, before either ending there or falling once more into the abyss (whether you’re describing comedy or tragedy, I suppose). Sometimes it’s the reverse: a character high in status is brought low, and has to work their way back (rags to riches, etc.).

I personally prefer stories where the protagonist is less predictable, where you’re not entirely certain if they’re going to do the right thing at any given moment. The wayward traveler is a wonderful device for this, because of course despite (usually) being forced onto a journey unexpectedly, they may or may not have any desire to remain on that path. Frodo is a poor example of this: although he didn’t particularly want to go all the way to Mordor, once he set his mind to it, he went through single-mindedly and determinedly all the way (except for a brief stumble at the end).

A better example comes toward the end of the first Dark Tower book, The Gunslinger, when Roland is holding Jake over a pit and deliberately drops him to continue his chase of the Man in Black. This is a difficult decision to come to terms with as a reader, but in this sense Roland is very much against the right decisions—an anti-hero, of sorts

Either way, of course, we need a traveler—or several—for epic journeys, and it must take a great deal of time, or effort, to achieve the final goal. When it comes to epic stories, perhaps the only true measure of its ‘epicness’ is how exhausted we feel at the end of it; did we just sprint a hundred yards, or run a marathon (or two)? And this isn’t to say that the marathons are better; sometimes we just need a walk in the park. But there is a genuine sense of satisfaction in completing a story that spans novels, decades and thousands of miles, and without these epic tomes, the world of fiction would probably be a lot more boring.

What are your favorite epic stories, and what makes them epic to you? Let me know in the comments!

Raised between the soaring peaks of the Swiss Alps and the dark industrialism of northern England, beauty and darkness have been twin influences on Chris's creativity since his youth. Throughout his life he has expressed this through music, art, and literature, delving deep into the darkest parts of human nature, and finding the elegance therein. These themes are central to his current literary project, The Redemption of Erâth. A dark epic fantasy, it is a tale of the bitter struggle against darkness and despair, and an acknowledgment that there are some things the mind cannot overcome. Written from a depth of personal experience, Chris' words are touching and powerful, the hallmark of someone who has walked alone through the night, and welcomes the final darkness of the soul. However, for now, he lives in New Jersey with his wife and eleven-year-old son. You can also find him at

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October 5, 2017

Review: The Visitors by Catherine Burns

by Donna Huber

This Halloween are you looking for a macabre tale where the monsters aren't goblins and ghouls but regular humans? Then you must pick up The Visitors by Catherine Burns.

Amazon affiliate links are used on this site. A free book was provided for an honest review.

The Visitors
September 2017; Gallery/Scout Press
9781501164019; ebook, audio, print (304 pages)
I don't read horror, but I love hard-pounding thrillers that push the line of horrific. I was reading the opening chapters of The Visitors through my fingers. I was on tenterhooks knowing that something bad was going to happen, but I wasn't able to stop reading. The book really pulls you in and doesn't let up until the last page is turned.

The Visitors had a gothic feel to it, although it is set in a seaside town in present-day UK. I'm sure it is the dank, decaying family home the brother and sister reside and the dark nature of the story that gave it a gothic vibe. But the hallmarks of the genre - mystery and terror - are definitely there.

Burns created a sympathetic character in the unreliable narrator of Marion. She is a 50-something woman with a low IQ. I had wondered if she had Downs Syndrome as there is mention of her mother having been in her 40s when Marion was born. If that is the case, nothing was done for her. When she couldn't pass the entrance test to a prestigious school, her parents funded the new swimming pool. It wasn't just her intellect that was ignored. you get the impression that she was all but neglected as a child. So was her brother, except when he joined their father in the cellar.

Unlike Marion, her brother has a higher than average IQ, attends Oxford and takes a teaching position at a girls boarding school (though he could have been a doctor or engineer), until he resigns under suspicion of inappropriate behavior with a student.

Watch out for red herrings! The interweaving memories of Marion's childhood with present-day actions create a fragmented story that leads the reader one way only to later turn them around and lead them in a different direction. While at the same time your biases for the characters war with what you read on the page, creating an incredulous internal conflict for the reader. Seriously, you are going to be emotionally entangled in this story.

There is some psychic stuff, which is probably the only disappointment I had with the story. I thought on psychic scene revealed too much, too early in the story. It also felt like an interruption to the flow of the story. But it really is minor.

For those who don't go in for the paranormal for Halloween, this really is the perfect read for the season.

Buy The Visitors at Amazon

Donna Huber is an avid reader and natural encourager. She is the founder of Girl Who Reads and the author of how-to marketing book Secrets to a Successful Blog Tour.

Get even more book news in your inbox, sign up today! Girl Who Reads is an Amazon advertising affiliate; a small commission is earned when purchases are made at Amazon using any Amazon links on this site. Thank you for supporting Girl Who Reads.

October 4, 2017

Review: Fatal Masquerade by Vivian Conroy

by Donna Huber

Fans of Rhys Bowen's Royal Spyness series will love Vivian Conroy's Lady Alkmene Callendar Mysteries. While Fatal Masquerade is the 4th book in the series, it is the first book I've read from Conroy, but it won't be my last.

Amazon affiliate links are used on this site. A free book was provided for an honest review.

Fatal Masquerade
October 2017; HQ Digital; ebook (384 pages)
cozy mystery, historical
Earlier this summer I discovered Bowen's Royal Spyness series and when I saw Fatal Masquerade at NetGalley I knew I had to try it. And again I came up with a winner. Though there isn't really a reference in this book as to the era, looking at the description of the first book, A Proposal to Die For, it is the Roaring 20s.

Fatal Masquerade is kind of like Downton Abbey meets Clue. There are definitely enough suspicious characters to keep you guessing at the who and why. The only thing we know for sure is that it is in the boathouse with the steak knife.

Main character Lady Alkmeme, who is a bit more than an amateur detective at this point, accompanies her best friend Denise to her family's country estate for a masquerade ball. However, if Lady Alkmeme thought this would be a quiet vacation in the country, she soon realizes it will be anything but when friend and detective partner Jack Dubois shows up as an "old friend" of Denise's father.

Since this is my first book in the series, I would like to have had a little more character development. Instead, we are thrust into the mystery of who murdered the manservant pretty quickly. We do get to know the characters a bit more as the investigation progresses, yet I never really felt much of a connection to any of them.

Conroy created an intriquing cast of secondary characters. I feel like I know them more than I do the two main characters. Perhaps that is because the story arc has been building over the course of 4 books, but there are references that Lady Alkmeme doesn't really know Jack so perhaps the backstories for these two characters haven't been fully revealed.

There is indication that the murder is tied to a mystery that is ongoing for the series. Even so, I didn't have any trouble following the story without having read the previous books. I liked it enough and want to get to know more about Lady Alkmene and Jake that I will be looking for the earlier books.

Buy Fatal Masquerade at Amazon

Donna Huber is an avid reader and natural encourager. She is the founder of Girl Who Reads and the author of how-to marketing book Secrets to a Successful Blog Tour.

Get even more book news in your inbox, sign up today! Girl Who Reads is an Amazon advertising affiliate; a small commission is earned when purchases are made at Amazon using any Amazon links on this site. Thank you for supporting Girl Who Reads.

October 3, 2017

Review: The Dark Lake by Sarah Bailey

by MK French

Detective Sergeant Gemma Woodstock is the lead homicide detective in a small town in Australia. One of her former classmates is found dead, and there is as much mystery about who she was as there is for who the murderer is. Gemma is frustrated by it, and almost obsessed with her, and Gemma has her own secrets that she is hiding. Her past tragedies aren't staying in the past, either, and the murder investigation is dragging it all back out again.

Amazon affiliate links are used on this site. A free book was provided for an honest review.

The Dark Lake
October 2017; Grand Central Publishing
978-1538759905; ebook, audio, print (400 pages)
world literature, family life
The book is told mostly from Gemma's point of view, so past unfolds slowly. There are occasional sections told in another's point of view, some with reflections on the past from other characters. Sometimes those sections are helpful, but for some of them, I was left wondering why it was so important for us to know what someone else was thinking. Gemma has her self-absorbed moments, particularly with her romantic relationships; she never really got over her high school love that ended in tragedy, floats around, stays with her current partner without feeling much toward him at all, and is having an affair with her work partner. For all that she has instincts about who to chase down for the job in normal circumstances, she's oddly separated from her own emotional life. Maybe that's why she is so fixated on Rosalind from the start.

There are some doubts as to Gemma's sincerity as a narrator as the book progresses, particularly in the final third. We see some of the secrets she was keeping from her teenage years, and why it seems to be haunting her so much. It's nothing stated outright, likely because she doesn't want to explicitly link her past actions to the present. Some of her relationships seem to be falling apart in this section, but I found it hard to be very empathetic when she was cheating on her partner in the first place. The homicide is solved in dramatic fashion, and the epilogue ties off loose ends for the characters.

Overall, the mystery is gripping and drew me in. The back and forth of "then" and "now" and after in between the dated chapters of the investigation bothered me a little, because it seemed to interrupt the flow at times. One of the final asides makes the teenage secrets that much sadder, because none of it progressed how the characters thought it did, and it turns out had set forth the chain of events in the present timeline. I'm not sure if there is a better way to weave in these flashes of the past while still keeping the story at Gemma's point of view.

Buy The Dark Lake at Amazon

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. 

Get even more book news in your inbox, sign up today! Girl Who Reads is an Amazon advertising affiliate; a small commission is earned when purchases are made at Amazon using any Amazon links on this site. Thank you for supporting Girl Who Reads.

Review: The Fire by Night by Teresa Messineo #TLC

by Susan Roberts

I read a lot of books about World War II and am especially interested in the nurses who were often in harm's way. The Fire by Night is one of the best that I have read on nurse's roles, the danger that they were often faced with and the grit and determination they had to have to survive.

October 2, 2017

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

by Donna Huber

Recent new books - 3 I bought and 1 I received for review.

Since I've been able to finish books a bit more quickly, I thought I would try to go back to doing the It's Monday! What are you reading? meme on a weekly basis rather than as a monthly round-up.

New Releases October 2017

There's a crispness to the air and pumpkin spice everywhere - it must be fall! The next two months will be filled with major new releases as publishers rush to meet award deadlines. Thankfully there isn't anything much better than curling up with a good book and a cuddly blanket.

We already featured two new releases yesterday - Goblins of Bellwater by Molly Ringle and Snow by Mike Bond. Check out this list to start planning your fall reading and watch for even more new releases in our reviews each day.

October 1, 2017

Review: Snow by Mike Bond

by Susan Roberts

Snow is my first book by Mike Bond but definitely not my last. It's a fast-paced thriller with well-written character that will keep you reading until the end.

Review: Goblins of Bellwater by Molly Ringle

by MK French

The small town of Bellwater, Washington is surrounded by a primeval forest, and few of its citizens know that goblins live in it. They have their own rules and are practically immortal. Kit is the human go between because of an ancient contract. Skye is drawn into the woods and fed goblin fruit, ensorcelling her into depression and silence so that she will eventually become a goblin. Her sister Livy is determined to help her sister, and as one of the few that is not tainted by goblin magic, she is the only one that can.