Without You – Entered in 2018 ATAI Book Award Contest

4 Stars

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Brittany Taylor

Without You by Brittany Taylor is an emotional debut novel about one young woman’s struggle to navigate the confusing emotions so often associated with love and heartbreak. The book follows Emiline Ward, a young woman who is struggling to define herself after losing her first love. She has stopped living her life. She merely exists, drifting between her apartment and her job as a server, until one day when Em is introduced to Cameron, a hunky new arrival to their small Texas town.


Without You is an easy, quick read that takes readers through a fully-developed small town populated with young adults just getting started in life. This novel, with its first-person narrative structure, relies heavily on exposition to keep the reader informed about how Em is feeling. Instead of showing the reader conversations, Em will sometimes think about those conversations as they are happening, relaying valuable information through exposition instead of dialogue. Allowing the reader to experience more of what Em is experiencing, as she experiences it, would only heighten the connection between the reader and the protagonist. It would also help to iron out some of the uneven pacing throughout the novel because the reader would get to see Em growing as a person and becoming more self-aware, rather than simply being told that she has undergone these changes.


In Without You, Brittany Taylor has created a world populated with believable, well-constructed characters. A lot of attention has been paid to giving each character sufficient backstory and personality, making it easy to believe that these characters exist. The reader can’t help but be drawn into Em’s loss-ridden life through the clear descriptions of the characters and their relatable personalities. Taylor does an excellent job conveying the mix of emotions that comes with losing your first love, and the excitement and uncertainty that comes with finding someone new. Despite the pacing issues mentioned above, Without You by Brittany Taylor is a quick, light read that would be perfect for anyone who would enjoy an emotional and sexy look at what it is like to navigate relationships as a young woman.

Originally critiqued by a member of the Authors Talk About It team.

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Goddess of the Wild Thing – Entered in 2018 ATAI Book Award Contest

4 Stars

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Paul DeBlassie III

Goddess of the Wild Thing by Paul DeBlassie III follows a woman named Eve on her quest to find love amidst life, loss, and a metaphysical war between two magical deities. Set in the mystical nation of Aztlan del Sur, Eve finds herself torn between the affections of Sam, a man she doesn’t fully trust, and spending her life entirely without love. Goddess of the Wild Thing is an ambitious novel which attempts to answer the question: is bad love preferable to no love at all?


Goddess of the Wild Thing attempts to do a lot in a short amount of time. It occasionally struggles under the weight of all the worldbuilding necessary to establish the world of Aztlan del Sur, and unfortunately sometimes it falls short. Better attention could be paid to establishing the mythology behind the various deities and why it is that they are so diametrically opposed. This would help to better ground the story in the world in which it is set. Further developing the cast of supporting characters would provide the story with more life and make the buildup to the final battle more satisfying.


Where Goddess of the Wild Thing excels is in its ambition. This novel tries to do so much! From the blending of Mesoamerican and Native American cultures to the conversation about toxic behaviors, both masculine and feminine, in human relationships, there is a lot going on. DeBlassie seamlessly integrates his knowledge of psychology to present the reader with a main character that has a fully developed and nuanced psyche. Situating Aztlan del Sur in the Southwestern United States is a smart move. Clearly grounding the story in a real location, even though Aztlan del Sur differs from modern day America, adds to the magical realism that is inherent in the story. Goddess of the Wild Thing by Paul DeBlassie III offers an intriguing look at a fantasy world while encouraging the reader to confront their own ideas about love, relationships, and spirituality.

Originally critiqued by a member of the Authors Talk About It team.

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Least Wanted – Entered in 2018 ATAI Book Award Contest

4 Stars

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Debbi Mack

In Debbi Mack’s Least Wanted, attorney Sam McRae juggles two clients accused of heinous murders. A young black girl named Tina Jackson is accused of bludgeoning her mother to death with a softball bat, and a man alleged to have embezzled money is suspected of murdering his boss. The two cases have more in common than Sam first realizes, leaving her scrambling to find the truth before she becomes the murderer’s next victim.


Though certainly a riveting mystery novel, Least Wanted does feature some rather unbelievable or even cliché characters and plot points. Some characters were a bit too colorful, bordering almost on caricatures, while a few aspects of the plot seem unrealistic or exaggerated. They’re entertaining nonetheless, but in a blockbuster movie sort of way, and not like a real-life crime story. Sam McRae is certainly an attorney who goes above and beyond, which makes for good fiction, but unfortunately, doesn’t resonate quite as much as it could if it was more lifelike.


On the other hand, Least Wanted is an intriguing story, full of dramatic plot twists and a fast-paced narrative that is sure to keep readers hooked. It functions well as a standalone novel despite being part of a series, which is good news for readers looking for a quick thrill. The plot itself is captivating, dark, and even humorous, providing a well-balanced and well-executed novel that is a joy to read. Debbi Mack has crafted a fascinating, multi-faceted mystery in Least Wanted, full of suspense, thrills, and plenty of unsuspected twists along the way; even seasoned mystery/thriller fans will find themselves pleasantly surprised by this gem.

Originally critiqued by a member of the Authors Talk About It team.

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Down in Monterey – Entered in 2018 ATAI Book Award Contest – Young Adult

5 Stars

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Steven A. Moore

Down in Monterey: The Summer of Love by Steven A. Moore is a colorful, nostalgic trip down the Northern California coast. Wyatt, a seventeen-year-old boy upset with his home life, meets a girl named Dusty Bedingham at a convenience store. Dusty promises him a day of adventure as the two set off down the coast towards the Monterey Pop Festival. Hijinks ensue as the two cross paths with rock stars, classmates, and drug dealers.


Meticulously paced and plotted, Down in Monterey: The Summer of Love unfortunately stumbles slightly at the end. The resolution of the novel comes suddenly and almost without warning, bringing the momentum that has been slowly building to a screeching halt. This abrupt resolution has the effect of making the conclusion of the novel feel superficial and rushed, as if the novel itself is actively more interested in the journey than in the destination. This could be remedied if a little more attention were paid to Wyatt’s relationship with his family and his friend Eric.


Down in Monterey: The Summer of Love is a road trip tale that nimbly weaves together the lives of its many characters. Set during the 1960s, the novel plucks at the heartstrings of any reader who has a nostalgia for this time in American history. The world is described in careful and loving detail. Moore does an excellent job of painting a vibrant picture of hitchhiking down the Northern California coast. Although the plot verges on the improbable at times, the reader cannot help but be swept along in the current of chaste rebellion, drugs, and rock n’ roll. Down in Monterey: The Summer of Love by Steven A. Moore is sure to appeal to any reader with an interest in, or nostalgia for, the 1960s, as well as anyone looking for a quick, yet well-written, read.

Originally critiqued by a member of the Authors Talk About It team.

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Twisted Threads – Entered in 2018 ATAI Book Award Contest – Thriller

4 Stars

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Kaylin McFarren

In Kaylin McFarren’s Twisted Threads, Akira is an assassin tasked with hunting down a dangerous murderer aboard a cruise ship. The culprit is presumably one half of a married couple, but Akira can’t decide who’s at fault. Desperate for a lead, Akira seduces the couple’s nephew, Devon, but soon finds more than she bargained for.


Though certainly a riveting mystery, Twisted Threads unfortunately suffers from some issues with its plot development—albeit somewhat minor ones. Several character introductions tend to be confusing or unclear, leading to uncertainty as to who each character is and how they relate to one another. Perhaps they were covered in previous books in the series and thus, are rushed in this entry; therefore, this isn’t entirely suitable as a standalone novel. Also, some aspects of the timeline and plethora of subplots tend to be vague, or perhaps not as well-defined and well-developed as they could be.


Nevertheless, Twisted Threads is a most entertaining read for several notable reasons. Kaylin McFarren’s descriptive style of writing is phenomenally done, expertly crafting each scene, setting, and character in vivid detail. The intertwining dramas and mysteries are delightfully intriguing and suspenseful, making this book a real page-turner. With a load of steamy romance as the cherry on top, this book is a fantastic experience that’s sure to delight its readers. It’s easy to get sucked into this story from beginning to end, journeying along with the characters as they unravel the dangerous mystery. Twisted Threads is one tumultuous, exhilarating cruise that no one is likely to forget.

Originally critiqued by a member of the Authors Talk About It team.

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Arte Blanche – Entered in 2018 Book Award Contest – Horror

5 Stars

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David W. Coons JR

Frightening and suspenseful, David W Coons, Jr., makes readers’ hearts palpitate with Arte Blanche. Gabe Daniels is anxiously awaiting the end of the night to arrive after his date with Becca. He has thrilling plans, but he promised he would attend the opening of a new art gallery with her. The dread of moving through the exhibits of Arte Blanche turns into far more than Gabe could’ve ever dreamed of. What’s real, what’s possible and where the art really derived from keeps readers on the edge of their seats. David W Coons, Jr. crafted a surprise ending that readers will almost certainly not see coming. To top it off, a short story, “The Black Ring” is included at the end of the book.

If there is a drawback to be found in David W Coons, Jr.’s horror Arte Blanche, it might be the crude sexual language. It starts off in the very first sentence. However, it’s unlikely that readers who enjoy reading gruesome horror novels will be put off by that type of writing. In fact, some readers might well find it as a sexier piece of the novel as it pertains to Gabe and Becca and their potential sexual relationship. There are hints early on as to what the surprising outcome might be, but for the most part even the areas that may be guessed or considered as possibilities by readers still have unexpected twists and turns to them.

Arte Blanche by David W Coons, Jr. knocks it out of the park when it comes to suspense and coldly calculated, thrilling scenes. Without a doubt this is a book that will keep readers turning pages as fast as they can and one of those books they won’t be able to put down. Yet, it’s unique enough and frightening enough that it won’t be just “one of those books” because it is thoroughly unforgettable. Being memorable is not an easy task to achieve, but David W Coons, Jr. did it with Arte Blanche through profound skill and talent. Reader’s will probably never look at art in an art gallery the same way again. Well done!

Originally critiqued by a member of the Authors Talk About It team.

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Through the Hostage – Entered in 2017 ATAI Book Award Contest

5 Stars

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J C Steel

Through the Hostage by J C Steel is a compelling journey through a fully realized alien world that seems to be teetering on the brink of internal war. This book tells the story of Khyria Ilan, an alien being who is reluctant to accept her role as leader of a potential group of mercenary fighters. Khyria is forced to deal with many obstacles during her journey, from armed rebellions to a government sponsored conspiracy, to establish and maintain authority over her unit.


Through the Hostage is an incredibly well thought out book. Steel has created a fresh, vibrant world full of engaging characters and tense situations. One drawback though is that Steel stumbles a bit in defining and explaining the many alien concepts. This is particularly the case at the beginning of the novel when the reader experiences everything through the eyes of the book’s alien characters. On the one hand, it is refreshing to read an author who trusts that her audience will keep up with her, however the sheer amount of worldbuilding is a lot to keep up with, leaving something to be desired in terms of context.


What misgivings the reader may have at the beginning of the novel all but disappear once a handful of chapters go by. The introduction of Jack helps to give the reader a solid footing, and gives the characters a reason to explain their alien traditions and behaviors. This greatly enhances the experience of reading the book. The pacing is just about perfect, keeping the reader of the edge of their seat as they are never sure if Khyria, her second, Taiva, and their poor hostage, Jack, will make it to the end. Through the Hostage by J C Steel is an excellent first book in The Cortii Series. Fans of science fiction, worldbuilding, or just good storytelling will find themselves thoroughly engrossed in J C Steel’s excellent work.

Originally critiqued by a member of the Authors Talk About It team.

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Trust – Entered in 2017 ATAI Book Award Contest

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Tabitha Darling

An unlikely fusion of mythic fantasy creatures and modern humans, Trust, by Tabitha Darling, explores the relationship between a stranded centaur from a different planet and the human woman he kidnaps to nurse the newborn in his care. Together, they overcome language barriers, child-rearing, and the terror of an uncertain future, while all along learning to trust and care for one another. The first novel in the Children of Chiron series, Trust introduces readers to a new perspective on modern fantasy.


Trust begins in a centaur village with a rapid series of events that culminate in a magical teleportation to Earth. While the concept is clear, the series of events in the first several pages is not. It can be quite difficult for readers to keep track of characters and actions on top of all the unfamiliar world-building aspects of the scenes. There is extreme urgency to the situation, but the reasons why are difficult to pick out. Without any sort of anchoring expositional information, the quick pace of the dialogue and action could possibly turn readers off the story entirely, despite any course correction the story takes later. Along the same vein, the descriptions for action moments and movement in general could use quite a lot of expansion. The action is very frank, and as a result, uninformative. Poor action description can lead to misunderstanding of the whole scene. For instance, the moment Brenda and Ieang are forced to abandon Tejat is a pivotal moment, but even after several read throughs, it is a confusing moment.


Darling’s decision to write most of Trust through Ieang’s perspective is an ambitious one. The entire experience on Earth is a practice in defamiliarization. Because Ieang does not know what things are or how to describe them, readers are forced to pick up every clue as if it’s a mystery game, providing a steady-yet-mellow layer of tension throughout the whole story. On an entirely different note, the sheer creativity that comes with Darling’s reimagining of mythology and centaurs is commendable. Though the reader does not yet know how the centaurs’ faith and gods relate to what is understood on Earth, the few connections given are exciting and promising for future novels. While Trust is just the first of several novels, the story itself can stand alone as a quest or adventure narrative for both main characters, the unknown elements simply leave the reader waiting and wanting for the next installment in the series.

Originally critiqued by a member of the Authors Talk About It team.

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The Water Kingdom – Entered in 2017 ATAI Book Award Contest

5 Stars

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Deborah Gray

In Deborah Gray’s The Water Kingdom, Nell Cunningham sneaks along on a field trip to White Shell Lagoon, but finds more than she bargained for—including a violet-eyed boy who clearly isn’t human. Meanwhile, Sebastian has been tasked with finding his lost queen and her priceless locket, but there’s danger around every corner for him—and for Nell, too.


Though its plot is certainly intriguing, The Water Kingdom also has some aspects about it that are a bit too cliché and predictable. Many of these obvious hints and tropes give away the plot twists before they happen, which perhaps takes some of the fun out of the story in general. Also, there were many scenes and plot points that were far too rushed, hurtling the reader through a fast-paced plot that may have been better executed if it had been slowed down a tad. Aside from that, The Water Kingdom is an incredibly entertaining young adult novel that shows a lot of promise.


The Water Kingdom’s greatest strength lies in its imaginative and descriptive storyline. Exciting and fascinating from the first page, this story is full of adventure, mystery, and delightful fantasy. Deborah Gray is a talented writer, seamlessly weaving lifelike characters and impeccable detail into a narrative that is consistently riveting. In many ways, The Water Kingdom is so well-written that it seems overwhelmingly believable at times. The Water Kingdom is a brilliant, creative novel that is impossible to put down—and will certainly inspire many equally great sequels in the future.

 

Originally critiqued by a member of the Authors Talk About It team.

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The Avocadonine and Spring Stone – Entered in 2017 ATAI Book Award Contest

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Patrick Barnes

In Patrick Barnes’ The Avocadonine and Spring Stone, Rey Naresh visits a psychic and receives a cryptic reading about his future. Then, as he’s entering the ninth grade, Rey learns that some of his classmates are hearing humming noises emitting from their electronics. With the help of his friends, Rey investigates the anomaly, uncovering a secret plot involving mind control, avocados, and a mysterious girl named Spring Stone.


In short, there’s just too much going on in The Avocadonine and Spring Stone. The plot often comes across as convoluted and crowded, with constantly changing points of view and a distracted narrative. There are many scenes that are so busy or vague that it’s difficult to follow along with what’s happening; one can only imagine how confusing it might be for the younger readers that are clearly the target audience here. Also, the heavy prevalence of avocados (of all things) in this story might have been interesting in theory, but in execution, it’s just overly eccentric and almost too strange.


Nevertheless, there is still much to be appreciated in this quirky novel. Patrick Barnes captures the awkward and curious nature of youths perfectly, making the characters of The Avocadonine and Spring Stone all relatable and realistic. The bare plot itself is interesting and unique, with a creative mystery that is engaging and intriguing right up to its resolution. The Avocadonine and the Spring Stone may be a little odd, but it is a charming and amusing coming-of-age story all the same.

Originally critiqued by a member of the Authors Talk About It team.

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