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Miscast Spells: The Styx Trilogy, Book 1

Rose Corcoran. Rose Corcoran, , $10.99 ISBN 978-1-943798-06-3

Corcoran’s fantasy debut is equal parts thrilling and ridiculous. In a world populated by old-school magicians, Princess Emmaline Camellia encounters her first goblin and is immediately turned into a rabbit. Pessimistic court magician Bostwick von Dogsbody volunteers to travel the land with her to help find a cure. Their search leads them to Castle Styx, home of Queen Delilah Glossolalia, who’s rumored to possess the Domino of Nonpareil, a mask that allows wearers to become anything they wish. After getting caught trying to steal the mask, the eccentric Delilah forces Bostwick to become her butler under threat of a curse if he tries to leave. Though the story lacks greater worldbuilding, what it does offer is imaginative: a wide array of magician’s tricks, a knockoff-antiques shop whose magical items don’t quite work the same way as the originals, and clever puns. Readers will look forward to the sequel. Ages 8–12. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 04/20/2018 | Details & Permalink

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The Heart to Start: Win the Inner War and Let Your Art Shine

David Kadavy. Kadavy, $10.84 trade paper (138p) ISBN 978-0-692-99569-3

In this encouraging guide, Kadavy (Design for Hackers), shows how to jump-start one’s creativity. Kadavy uses material from his podcast, Love Your Work; entertaining metaphors; and vignettes from his life and those of a myriad of others such as a behavioral scientist, a board game creator, a singer-songwriter, and a chef to highlight the obstacles that prevent people from starting their creative projects. Original terms, such as “the Fortress Fallacy” (imagining one’s project in its most ambitious possible form before even starting) and “Inflating the Investment” (overestimating how much time and energy projects will take) clearly illustrate the thinking that leads to procrastination. The practical advice and techniques that Kadavy provides for circumventing distorted thinking and ego-driven insecurities, such as “motivational judo,” in which “you use the force of your own ego to kickstart your project,” make it sound relatively easy to start creating, but Kadavy is careful to keep expectations realistic. Reassuring reminders not to be defeated by discomfort, perfectionism, and the fear of others’ judgments, and to follow one’s curiosity and passion, round out this lively, motivating entry into the self-help genre. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 04/20/2018 | Details & Permalink

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100 Demon Dialogues

Lucy Bellwood. Toonhound, , $14.99 ISBN 978-0-9882202-4-9

This collection of peppy motivational cartoons for artists began as a project for a 100-day online challenge. Each day, Bellwood posted a one-panel cartoon of herself struggling with an “inner imp” representing her creative anxieties. The cutely sneering little black shape criticizes her artwork and her life, offers poor advice (“If you never turn it in, they can never tell you it’s bad”), and gives impossible, conflicting instructions. In response, Bellwood’s cartoon avatar learns to grow more confident and optimistic to counter the imp’s predictions of doom. Some installments show the duo going through the typical life of an indie cartoonist—drawing, traveling to conventions, fretting over social media, taking a few precious days off—while others are fanciful cartoon representations of problems like juggling too many projects or balancing work and life. It’s a light volume, as might be expected from a comic that started as a casual online challenge; more a series of illustrated aphorisms and off-the-cuff daily thoughts than a fully fleshed-out narrative. And, appropriately enough, the art improves as the book progresses. Bellwood captures emotions and anxieties familiar to anyone who does creative work, providing striving readers motivation and daily affirmations. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 04/20/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Magnolia Storms: A Coastal Hearts Novel

Janet W. Ferguson. Southern Sun, $4.99 ASIN B074JJ76VT

Ferguson (Leaving Oxford) sets her pleasant new series along the gulf shores of Mississippi. Meteorologist Magnolia “Maggie” Marovich left her hometown of Ocean Springs after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. She moved inland to Jackson, but failed to convince her younger sister, Cammie, and the rest of the family to come too. When Cammie is seriously injured in an accident, Maggie has no choice but to return to the coastal town she’s worked so hard to avoid. Maggie ended things with Josh Bergeron years ago when he became the captain of a commercial barge, choosing the same career that proved fatal to her father. Now, he’s her sister’s next-door neighbor, and, unbeknownst to Maggie, the two have cemented a mutual friendship, supporting each other as single parents. Both Maggie and Josh still harbor feelings for each other but much has transpired in the past decade and their stubbornness hinders a meaningful relationship. Ferguson often slows the pace considerably with unnecessary detail about the setting. However, this solid first installment of her new series introduces a complex cast of characters struggling with real-life problems of family and faith. Readers interested in winsome family dramas will enjoy Ferguson’s hopeful book. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 04/20/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Stealing the Light

Lisa Hofmann. Elisabeth Hofmann, $14.99 trade paper (416p) ISBN 978-3-946618-01-0

This middling series opener by Hoffman focuses on the lives of three young people with magical ability in a world where “unnaturals” are killed by the church. Catherine Salt is a descendant of the Tierney family with the blood of the magical cine in her veins. She lives a hardscrabble life in a nameless village near the ruins of the Tierney castle. Dean Greenleaf and his father, Master Sorcerer Ortus, are also descendants of the Tierneys but are unaware of Catherine’s existence. Lorcan Aurum is the son of a ne’er-do-well but shows immense magical promise and is taken under Ortus’s wing at the Fair, a roving carnival that hides and protects cine from unwanted scrutiny. There is no distinct antagonist here to move the story, just the nebulous threat from the church. Instead, Hoffman concentrates on her characters as they mature, Catherine with no one to rely on but herself and Dean and Lorcan thriving with guidance from Ortus. Hoffman’s world bears similarities to our own—there’s a pope and a Milky Way—but includes fairies and shape-shifters. The story is a little vague, but fans of well-drawn characters will want to see where this series leads. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 04/20/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Asphodel

Jane Lindskold. Obsidian Tiger, $4.99 e-book (174p) ASIN B07958ZLBN

Longtime fantasist Lindskold’s beguiling puzzle throws an inventive, amnesiac heroine into a magical world with undercurrents of forgotten trauma. An unnamed narrator awakens in a tower without any sense of her identity. Seven windows looking out on a distinct landscapes provide her only entertainment. She crafts companions by tying a pillow into the shape of a rabbit and drawing a sensible, living paper doll named Muriel. With these two friends, she projects herself in disguise into the scenes outside the tower. The trio stops thieves in an urban setting, hunts for a unicorn, rides giant seahorses, and engages in a dangerous battle with nightmarish, winged cherub heads. The narrator’s lack of hunger, thirst, and fatigue allows for endless exploration and the slow discovery of the rules of her powers. The companions’ excursions increase in daring until a visit to an Egypt full of gods and magic sparks the narrator’s desire to recollect her own identity. Searching for her past, however, exposes the bleak truth of her existence in the tower. This curious blend of fanciful vignettes, real danger, and existential mystery wends a twisting, pleasurable way through the powers of imagination. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 04/20/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Shopping Cart Annie

Cordy Fitzgerald. Cordy Fitzgerald, $12.99 trade paper (323p) ISBN 978-0-692932-07-0

Early in Fitzgerald’s suspenseful thriller, amateur sleuth Inez Buchanan, who has retired after 40 years of teaching in the Denver public school system, is visited by Dolly David, the godmother of her former neighbor, Ted Wabely. Ted has referred Dolly to Inez because six months earlier Inez managed to expose “China’s attempt to outsource its espionage against the United States.” Dolly now hopes that Inez will help her find her missing granddaughter, Kadija Campbell, who she believes is in Afghanistan, married to a Taliban soldier. Inez agrees to reach out to a friend at the FBI who can help. Later, Dolly’s lawyer informs Inez that his client, who he believes fantasized her story about Kadija’s whereabouts, has killed herself and left Inez as the executor of her estate. Inez plunges into life-threatening situations as she commits herself to finding the truth about Kadija. While Inez is an unlikely action heroine, solid prose and an intriguing plot help the reader suspend disbelief. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 04/20/2018 | Details & Permalink

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The Soul Mender

R.S. Dabney. Red Pen Warriors, $14.99 trade paper (380p) ISBN 978-0-692-47201-9

A familiar science fiction theme—a parallel reality populated by alter egos of the inhabitants of our own—gets a fresh spin in this intriguing variant of a dark fantasy. Since childhood, Riley Dale, an environmental scientist living in Boulder, Colo., has been plagued by visions. Then she unexpectedly crosses over into the world of her imaginings with the help of a magic ring left to her by her grandmother. Partnering with Oz, a drug-addicted ne’er-do-well who represents the other half of her divided soul, and protector Zachary Stone, who’s a serial killer in her own world, Riley travels cross-country to Los Angeles, the terrorist-bombed capital of this alternate U.S., to learn the crucial role she must play in events rocking the parallel world. Dabney’s writing is crisp and confident, and her characters—including both of their personalities—are well-developed. She introduces more subplots than can be resolved by the novel’s end, making this a promising start for a projected trilogy. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 11/04/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Hunting in the Zoo: A Detective Pete Nazareth Novel

R.H. Johnson. Hampton, Westbrook, $17.95 trade paper (264p) ISBN 978-1-5323-0214-5

Johnson’s suspenseful third novel featuring Det. Pete Nazareth of the NYPD (after A Measure of Revenge) places presidential candidate Archer Grande, who boasts that he could “stroll naked down Fifth Avenue, and my supporters would still vote for me,” in the crosshairs of an assassin. Nazareth is half of a team dubbed the Dynamic Duo, after he and fellow detective Tara Gimble amassed an impressive record for “not only closing the toughest cases but also for putting themselves in harm’s way again and again to get the job done right.” New York City’s mayor taps the pair to go after Stone Jackson, an expert sniper who has begun taking out child molesters, starting with the Little League coach who abused him. As Nazareth and Gimble search for Jackson, the killer ups the ante after concluding that Grande is a dangerous demagogue. Unexpected developments ratchet up the tension en route to a dramatic climax. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 11/04/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The Flame Eater

Barbara Gaskell Denvil. Gaskell Publishing House, $4.99 e-book (424p) ASIN B01B8SEC3S

This meticulously detailed romantic thriller portrays two flawed families in medieval England whose less moral members are victims of a murderer/arsonist. The families are united in 1485 when heiress Emeline Wrotham marries Nicholas Chatwyn, an earl’s son and the aloof, scarred younger brother of Emeline’s true love, Peter, who was murdered. On their wedding night, the castle is engulfed in flames, and Nicholas is injured. Emeline and Nicholas, who is still recovering from extensive burns, depart for his cousin’s Nottingham home while the castle is being repaired, but an outbreak of the plague sends them away, eventually to London. During their travels, the marriage is consummated, and they become true partners, in love and in adventures. Charismatic and witty, Nicholas is the heart of Denvil’s novel; he works undercover for King Richard, rooting out political threats while maintaining the persona of a lazy drunkard to his disapproving father, whose favorite son is dead. Denvil’s numerous minor characters are as intriguing as Nicholas, infusing vitality and never detracting from the story. Everyday 15th-century life is richly evoked—the clothing, food, travel, habits—providing substance to a winning narrative. Family dysfunction is deftly woven into a mélange of murder, politics, and romance, with a wickedly realistic, often comical portrayal of kinship. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 11/04/2016 | Details & Permalink

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