Monday, June 25, 2018

Book Review: With Face Aflame by A.E. Walnofer

A Perilous Journey of Self-Discovery in 17-Century England

Madge, the seventeen-year-old protagonist of With Face Aflame, lived in humiliation, ashamed of the red birthmark that covered one side of her face.  Working in her father’s inn in 17-century England, she received little to shape her self-image beyond the stares, the gasps, and in some cases, the ridicule of their customers.  But when circumstances forced her hand, she joins a minstrel she just met and his crass friend, tagging along in search of a miracle.  The rest of the tale is one of discovery…and danger.

The story is told from Madge’s perspective, a large portion of it being her inner thoughts.  Walnofer uses the technique well, as the reader hears Madge’s inner voice as she debates some of life’s greatest mysteries, as well as the meaning of even the simplest of acts – the look of a stranger, the feel of a hand on her back, the kiss of a child.  Those inner struggles and reversals perhaps become a bit overused toward the end, but overall, we come to know Madge quite well.  And she’s a worthwhile person to know – intelligent, caring, funny, growing.

Much of the book involves the daily life of an inn keeper or that of a minstrel, traveling town to town, singing for supper.  And while that may sound slow, the pacing of events and the novelty of the lifestyles easily held my interest.  Additionally, there is an underling tension to her story.  Her world is one built on superstition and religious intolerance, where women are wenches, little more than a man’s possession.  Would her father’s warnings about the ways of men and some simple self-defense see her through?

Overall, With Face Aflame boasts a heroine well worth knowing in a finely crafted story of self-discovery.  It’s well worth the read.

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Sunday, June 17, 2018

Book Review: Rafferty Lincoln Loves… by Emily Williams

If You’re Male, You’ll Probably See Some of Yourself in Raff Lincoln

Rafferty Lincoln Loves… is a fanciful, young-adult book about four teenagers who scarcely knew each other at school, but who bond to care for a horse they find.  The main character, Rafferty (Raff) Lincoln cares nothing about horses, but he’s idolized Liberty Ashburn for years.  So, when she becomes involved, so does he.  Much of the rest of the story is Raff trying to catch her eye, with more than one of his hapless attempts making me laugh aloud…like seeing if he can impress her with how fast he can ride his bike.  Other actions, however, made me cringe at his impulsiveness and ineptitude.  Liberty, on the other hand, is not easily swayed.  As the most popular girl in school, she wants everyone’s adoration, including Raff’s, but nothing more.  It might hurt her image.

The author sprinkles in several serious topics – the price of popularity (as I mentioned), the effect of confidences betrayed, bullying, and even child abuse.  At such times, one or more of the figures would come out of character and speak with wisdom beyond their years, making the story feel a bit artificial at that point.  But it is mostly light and humorous…until it gives way to a rather dramatic ending that will stay with you for a while.

It’s difficult to say who is the appropriate audience for this book.  The synopsis says, “…older young adults,” which is probably due to the language; Liberty’s use of profanity helps sell her image as the queen bee and Rafferty’s helps convey the heat of the moment.  But while the language says older, much of the action seems aimed at the younger end of the scale, like suggesting graffiti that says, “Rafferty Lincoln Loves…” would teach him a lesson.  Would young adults say anything to that beyond, ‘whatever?’  And several of Raff’s inner thoughts hardly seemed like they came from the mind of a sixteen-year-old boy, e.g., “She smelt of summer flowers and linen, probably just her washing powder fragrance. Heavenly.”

Finally, not to be overlooked – the proceeds from the book go to the British Thoroughbred Retraining Centre, a very worthy cause.  So, you can feel good about your purchase, as you chuckle about Raff’s misfortunes and watch him grow as the pages turn.

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Monday, June 11, 2018

Book Review: Nomad: A Thriller (The New Earth Series Book 1) by Matthew Mather

When you’re reading and you have to stop to catch your breath….

Nomad by Matthew Mather has plenty of action.  At the center of the whirlwind is the Earth, being threatened by something invisible, massive, and moving extremely fast toward us from the other side of the sun.  It threatens to rip through our solar system, pulling the sun behind it in its gravitational wake and leaving the Earth a frozen wasteland, ejected into deep space.  And like many of the best science thrillers, the story has the ring of solid research and the latest theory.  But for those not sure or who just want more (like me), Mather provides an Afterword that details recent findings.  They parallel the story to an amazing degree, providing some fascinating food for thought.  They’d even be cause for concern, except no similar events are expected in the next million years.  (Whew)

Although I thought the science was the star of the book, if suspense born of astrophysics is not your ‘cup of tea,’ don’t worry.  Dealing with awaking volcanos, kidnappings, earthquakes, being trapped in a cave-in, robbery, and tsunamis all make an appearance in the story.  The action is intense and nearly nonstop.

With the focus on pace, one might expect character development to suffer, but it didn’t.  One of the primary figures in Nomad is Jessica Rollins.  Even in the first scenes, it’s clear that she’s headstrong and doesn’t hesitate to speak her mind – perhaps to a fault.  As a result, she seems spoiled and arrogant, especially early in the book.  But as the story unfolds, we get views into her history, resulting in a more textured picture of a woman fighting for survival while coming to grips with her past.  At times, Jessica’s backstory seemed a bit excessive.  But if she is to be one of the main protagonists throughout the series, which I suspect, the development is appropriate.  Romance also made its way into the book, but it was the trite, ‘what do you do when you only have hours to live’ type.  It was a throwaway scene, one of the very few.

Overall, Nomad lives up to the name of its genre – it’s a thriller with fascinating science and decent characters.  And the pace?  Well, you may even need to take a break from reading just to catch your breath.

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Sunday, June 3, 2018

Book Review: Force of Nature by Jane Harper

An Excellently Crafted Book with a Somewhat Diluted Ending

One of the things that first drew me into Force of Nature was the way Harper characterized the Australian bush country – so dense and tangled that even if you were walking in a straight line, it could feel like you were walking in circles.  Every sound, every glimpse of motion is lost in the shadows from the vegetation just a few feet away.  Then add a cold wind and rain, and uncomfortable becomes punishing.  So, when five women on a corporate retreat to the area lose some gear and then get lost, a bad situation turns much worse.  It would have been tense even if the women were the best of friends, a well-oiled machine in the working world.  But they weren’t and when the story starts, only four of them have returned from their hike.

Harper uses parallel timelines, one chronicling the women’s hike, the other telling of Australian Federal Police Agents Falk and Cooper’s actions when they are called in four days later.  The tension mounts with both storylines reaching their respective climaxes at the end of the book.  It’s a great technique and Harper uses it well.  I liked Falk and Cooper as the co-investigators.  Neither were simple stereotypes, although Faulk was a bit flat.  And Harper avoided the clich√© of making their story too romantic.  As for the women’s story, they ‘took turns’ relating the events as they saw them, and these shifting points of view give the reader considerable insight into their lives and personalities.  Again, a nice touch by the author.

The paucity of the women’s training and the complete absence of safety equipment was not believable, but the rest of the story creates enough tension that this fact is easily forgotten.  The pacing is acceptable, although it is more the ‘slow burn’ of rivals in a desperate situation for most of the book.  The action does increase markedly at the end.  But what should have been the pinnacle of tension becomes diluted, as the twist in the last third of the book introduces not only new thoughts about what happened to the missing hiker, but the reasons as well.  Shifting themes so dramatically made it feel like two stories, the second one clearly significant but not nearly as developed as the suspense in the first.

Overall, Force of Nature is excellently crafted, with palpable tension for most of the book.  But with a new theme competing for the reader’s attention, the finale fizzles a bit.

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