Serafina and the Black Cloak

September 4, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

serafinaSerafina and the Black Cloak by Robert Beatty


I lived in and around Asheville, NC for several years in my twenties, so when I first heard about Serafina and the Black Cloak, I figured it would be a matter of time before I read it. Set at the Biltmore Estate during the turn of the century and having a supernatural angle, the story seemed like it would hit all of my interests, and I was surprised it took me a few years to get to it. I think I could have waited a lot longer and it wouldn’t have bothered me.

The book isn’t bad, necessarily — it flows well, and has compelling characters — but it feels clunky. It’s clearly a juvenile book, since it lacks some subtlety in its storytelling. The characters and themes are drawn with broad strokes, and the plot feels more like it’s just loping along from one point to another instead of feeling developed and fleshed out. Plus, the big secret about Serafina becomes obvious at about the quarter-length point of the book, but Beatty doesn’t come out and tell us directly about it until near the end. I’ve heard “But it’s a kids’ book” as a defense, but it’s hard to claim that anymore, when the Harry Potter series raised the bar for how complex and subtle a juvenile book can be.

Beatty’s narrative is also a bit awkward in places, particularly in his similes. When he goes with the story and lets the plot unfold on its own, it’s fine, but then he throws in something like “Her corset felt like Satan’s bony hand…”, and the whole thing falls apart. I think authors are trying so hard not to write cliches that they come up with something so ridiculous that it doesn’t make sense, and pulls the reader right out of the story. Nick Cutter’s The Troop was another story that did that, though admittedly, Black Cloak isn’t that bad.

Serafina and the Black Cloak is the first in a trilogy, and while I enjoyed how Beatty wrapped up the characters in this story, I don’t feel the need to read the rest of the series. For one, now that Serafina’s secret (such as it is) has been revealed, that mystery won’t carry the story any more. For another, the story simply doesn’t wow me enough to make me want to continue. I’m somewhat curious to see how some of the relationships develop over the series, but I’d be satisfied just to read a summary of the next two books to see how they’re resolved.

Started: August 27, 2018
Finished: August 29, 2018

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Worlds Apart

August 7, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, )

apartWorlds Apart by James Riley


With Worlds Apart, Riley brings his Story Thieves series to an end. As expected, he takes the threads from the previous books and winds them back together into a single strand. Most of the characters from the previous books find their way into the story, and they interact in ways both expected and not. The book feels familiar in style and tone, but it isn’t as compelling as the other books, which surprises me, since this is the culmination of the series, and the stakes are high.

At the end of Pick the Plot, the fictional and nonfictional worlds had been separated, and Worlds Apart shows what happens when they no longer interact. In the nonfictional world, imagination is stifled, and people are boring. When Owen finds himself drawn back into fictional events, everything starts to come together as he risks everything — quite literally — to defeat Nobody and rejoin the two worlds.

The book brings the series to a satisfying close, but it wasn’t the BOO-YAH ending I expected. It didn’t help that Pick the Plot was creative and exciting, both in structure and story, and Worlds Apart seemed to plod along in parts. I found myself having to force myself to return to the book, when the previous book had been one I hadn’t been able to put down.

Obviously, anyone who’s come this far with the series will want to see how it concludes, and I can’t say that I didn’t like the book, but it wasn’t as fun as the previous books in the series. I’d still recommend the series to younger readers, and to older readers who enjoy the cleverness of books like the Thursday Next series. It falters a bit near the end (which is exacerbated by the Return of the King syndrome, where we get two endings too many), but the rest of the journey is a lot of fun, and it would be a shame to pass up the whole thing for that reason alone.

Started: July 17, 2018
Finished: July 25, 2018

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Pick the Plot

August 1, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

plotPick the Plot by James Riley


The whole Story Thieves series has been pretty clever so far, but Riley raises that cleverness a notch by turning the fourth novel into a choose-your-own-adventure story. Since the series frequently breaks the fourth wall for Owen and Bethany’s adventures, Riley brings the reader in as an important character in the story, which makes sense, since most of the CYOA books were written in the second person. Pick the Plot, though, is not.

This time around, Owen is trapped in a time prison back in prehistoric times, and the prison is set up so that it resets at the end of each day, putting the prisoners back on their first day there, with no memories of what happened in the previous day. Since the story sometimes sends the readers back to the beginning of the story to pick the next choice in a situation, the conceit works well, even if it means the story is pretty much on rails. As I was reading, I cheated with some choices so I could make sure I read the whole book, but it turns out that Riley will still steer you in the direction he wants you to go. There is a divergence in the story that alters part of the plot, but it reconnects with the ending so there’s still only one complete plot. For a book in a series, though, this is to be expected; if there were different endings, it would affect the next book.

Speaking of which, it looks like Story Thieves is coming to an end with the next book. While I wouldn’t mind seeing more stories set in this universe, I’m glad that Riley is working toward a known ending, instead of carrying the series out through too many books. It’s been a fun ride, thanks in part to how clever it’s been, but it feels like it will be going out on a good note. I’ll be starting the final book immediately after this one, so I’ll let y’all know.

Started: July 15, 2018
Finished: July 17, 2018

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Usagi Yojimbo: Mysteries

July 23, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

usagiUsagi Yojimbo: Mysteries by Stan Sakai


Stan Sakai can churn out a lot of Usagi Yojimbo. I don’t mind at all, since I have yet to come across a collection I haven’t liked. I’ve said before what makes the series so great — vivid characters, real history, a good sense of place, and honest conflicts — and that holds true with Mysteries, which of course is no surprise.

One of Sakai’s more recent character creations is Inspector Ishida, a police inspector who investigates the crimes in his district in feudal Japan. Usagi and Ishida are two characters who interact well together — both rely on people underestimating them, though for different reasons — and Mysteries is a collection of stories featuring the two characters. The collection would be a good one regardless, but with both of them featured in the entire book, of course it’s good.

I repeat myself a lot in my reviews of these collections, but the series overall is consistently good, and since Mysteries is volume thirty-two, it’s hard to come up with new praise for it. Regardless, Usagi Yojimbo is a series to read, for readers of any age. If you haven’t yet, now is the best time to start reading it.

Started: July 7, 2018
Finished: July 7, 2018

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Time for the Stars

July 18, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

starsTime for the Stars by Robert A. Heinlein


I’m not new to Heinlein, but it’s only been recently when I decided to read more of his work. I recently listened to Sixth Column on audio, and found it to be decent, but nothing spectacular. That one isn’t considered to be one of his juvenile novels, though, and Time for the Stars is. I was surprised with how much I liked this book, though I guess I shouldn’t be; everyone else has known for decades how good a storyteller Heinlein was, so it’s finally time for me to discover him.

Time for the Stars is about a pair of twins, Tom and Pat, who learn they’re psychic after they’re tested for a long-term science experiment. See, speaking psychically happens instantaneously, which makes it easier for communication to take place between Earth and deep-space ships. The two of them are recruited for a space journey to look for other planets to populate, one of them to travel into space, the other to stay at home to receive their messages.

Heinlein captures character and setting well, and the story features an interesting interplay of science and psychology. The story is compelling, namely because of the characters, but it has a strong “What’s going to happen next?” feel to it. Heinlein examines the time dilation that occurs in ships traveling near the speed of light, so as Tom, the space twin, only ages a few years through the story, Pat ages decades. Heinlein’s themes work well, too, especially considering this book was published over sixty years ago. He looks at the bonds of family, and how loving and liking your family are two different things. This being a Heinlein book, it starts off with a strong anti-tax, anti-government angle to it, but luckily that’s not the point of the story.

Of course, the biggest critcism of Heinlein is his view of women. They may be smart, capable, and strong in his stories, but they’re still evaluated first and foremost on their attractiveness. This could be a product of the time in which the story was written (women are also relegated to roles of cooks, caretakers, seamstresses, etc., even on a space ship), but for Heinlein to be progressive in other ways, it’s disheartening to see him be backward in this one.

I’m eager to read the rest of Heinlein’s juvenile works. Oh, OK, I’m interested in reading his non-juvenile books, too, but given how I remember Stranger in a Strange Land as a ponderous, overwrought, male sexual fantasy story, I’m more interested in the juveniles right now.

Started: June 19, 2018
Finished: June 25, 2018

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HiLo: Waking the Monsters

April 10, 2018 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

monstersHiLo: Waking the Monsters by Judd Winick



Really. I can’t say much more than that. If you really must know, then you can check out my reviews for the first three books, where I talk about my love for Judd Winick and the characters he creates. Or you can just take my word for it and start reading the series.

(Though you should really start with the first book if you’re new to the series.)

Started: January 16, 2018
Finished: January 16, 2018

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Galaxy of Fear: The Hunger

March 22, 2018 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

hungerGalaxy of Fear: The Hunger by John Whitman


Well, my hope for the series to end on a strong note was dashed. This final book takes us to Dagobah, where we (of course) meet Yoda, and even have a run-in with Boba Fett while we’re at it. I don’t think that’s a spoiler, though, since the two characters are featured on the cover of the book. This time around, Zak and Tash have to survive in the harsh jungle setting of Dagobah, while Tash finally gets a chance to understand her Force sensitivity.

I’ve like the way the books go back and forth between Zak and Tash being the heroes of the books. They even work together in some books to solve the mysteries, and I like that the stories give readers different people with whom to identify. Plus, it was nice to see DV-9 return, since his character development was interesting in the first six books. I’m not quite sure why Whitman decided to take him out of the story, but if anything indicated this was the last book in the series, Deevee’s return was it.

It’s funny to think that I started reading this series three days ago, and have finished all twelve of them in that time. I guess it helps that I was on vacation at the time, and the stories were short and easy to read. I wouldn’t be opposed to reading more of Whitman’s work in the Expanded Universe, but it looks like these are the only books he wrote for the license. Oh, well.

Started: December 29, 2017
Finished: December 29, 2017

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Galaxy of Fear: Clones

March 21, 2018 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

clonesGalaxy of Fear: Clones by John Whitman


It’s everyone’s favorite Star Wars trope: clones! This time, Zak and Tash find themselves on Dantooine at the abandoned Rebel base we all remember from the first movie, but everyone is encountering people from their past. For Zak and Tash, those people are their parents, who died when Alderaan was destroyed. They have to dig to discover the truth, but the title of the book should give you a clue, even if they don’t get it.

The story feels the most convoluted out of the entire series, but it also feels like it’s the best book so far. I’m not sure how Whitman manages that, but the plot does feel more complex than the others he’s created for the series. Tash and Zak both have to come to terms with the death of their parents, which helps give the story some gravity, since they have to come to terms with their own identities, as well. Their relationship with Hoole develops over the course of the series, too, which has been fun to watch, and it comes together nicely in this book.

The stories continue to be solid adventure stories, which is just what the Expanded Universe needs. The cameos here are less obvious and more natural to the story, which helps them feel less like fan service. I’m hoping Whitman will bring the series to a close with a strong conclusion in the next book.

Started: December 29, 2017
Finished: December 29 2017

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Galaxy of Fear: The Doomsday Ship

March 20, 2018 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

shipGalaxy of Fear: The Doomsday Ship by John Whitman


Whitman is still reaching to include as many cameo appearances from other media in this series. This time, Dash Rendar from Shadows of the Empire shows up on a luxury space yacht where Zak and Tash are taking a break from their adventures. Of course, this being Star Wars, nothing is ever as simple as taking a relaxing cruise through space, and when they’re the last passengers left on the ship after an “Abandon ship!” claxon, another adventure begins.

The series falters a bit here, as what’s happening seems pretty obvious from outside the story, but the main characters don’t get it. They continue to make poor choices, mostly to keep the story moving, when if they would stop and think about it for a moment, they would realize the truth and stop making stupid decisions. The whole series goes back and forth with this dilemma, with some stories being done well, and others done poorly. These were published pretty quickly, though, so maybe some kinks in the series should be expected.

The story is still easy and fun to read, but it’s hardly the best in the series. At this point, I might be hard-pressed to pick the best, but they’ve all been entertaining to some degree, and fun. Maybe I shouldn’t look any more deeply than that.

Started: December 29, 2017
Finished: December 29, 2017

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Galaxy of Fear: Spore

March 19, 2018 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

sporeGalaxy of Fear: Spore by John Whitman


OK, if there’s any time a writer is clearly going for fan service over genuine character development, it’s when he includes a video game character into his story. Whitman does just that in Spore by including Jerec from the Jedi Knight game from the mid-1990s. He was a fine character for the game, but pulling him out and using him as a secondary character in a kids’ book is reaching.

Spore takes us to the Ithorians’ planet, where Hoole is looking for a particular mineral to use as fuel for their ship. Their quest for the mineral takes them to an asteroid belt, where they find something far more concerning that just space slugs. By the time it reaches the surface of the planet, though, they discover just how threatening Spore can be.

To be honest, Spore is pretty convoluted. It doesn’t feel anchored, since it takes us from place to place, seemingly on a whim. That we go from needing fuel to finding an ancient crypt on an asteroid, back to the planet, all with Jerec dancing around the periphery of the story, just means we can’t get a grip on the story itself. If not for Zak and Tash there to keep us reminded of the connection to the rest of the series, it would feel like a book outside of the current series.

The story is compelling, just as all of the books in this series have been, but this is probably the weakest of the books so far. I think it’s also the shortest, though. That’s something, at least.

Started: December 28, 2017
Finished: December 29, 2017

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