Shadow Eyes by Dusty Crabtree

Shadow Eyes (Shadow Eyes Series 1) by Dusty Crabtree, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2nd Edition, 328 pages, June 27th, 2016, Genre: Paranormal and Urban, Young Adult. Warning: May Contain Spoilers.

Review by Leigh Holland.

“Shadow Eyes” is a story about good versus evil. It’s also a story about feeling imprisoned by false feelings of helplessness and inadequacy, feelings each of us has had at some point in our lives, particularly during our teenage years. It has been said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” In “Shadow Eyes”, this lesson is learned through a series of struggles by Iris Kohl.

Iris Kohl is a seventeen-year-old girl whose life seems typical: she has divorced parents, two older sisters, a couple of close friends at school, and a favorite teacher. But there’s nothing typical about Iris herself. After a traumatic event on her fourteenth birthday, Iris gained the ability to see “shadows”. These shadows are really more like demons, invisible, but influencing them subliminally, hanging on their shoulders. These shadows don’t appear to have the ability to force people to behave a certain way; rather, they wait until the person is in a difficult situation fraught with negative emotions. This is their opportunity to pounce, to subtly influence a person to step over the line and commit an immoral act they were already tempted to commit in a moment of weakness. The shadows terrify Iris and she pretends not to see them most of the time. She learns to stay away from people who are surrounded and infested with them, for her own safety. The more she observes the shadows, the more Iris comes to believe people are truly wicked, and that she’s powerless to do anything to change it. Iris makes friends with some new students at school, Patrick and Kyra. Kyra sets an example for Iris to follow by helping those in the grips of the shadows and works to build up Iris’ self-esteem. Patrick, meanwhile, is crying out for help, filled with guilt over things he has done. As Iris sees her own family being pounced on and influenced by the shadows, she knows she can no longer sit by the sidelines. She has to gain enough confidence to make a difference. She has to act.

My favorite character, hands down, was Kyra. Filled with security, peace, confidence, and concern for others, Kyra is a role model for the others to follow. She allows her friends to make their own choices, but is always only a moment away in their time of need. Iris makes a good choice when she befriends and looks up to Kyra.

The story was well-written and centered more on characters and their challenges than on plot twists. I enjoyed watching Iris learn and grow as a character and I’m curious where her newfound purpose and sense of confidence will take her. I’d recommend this book to anyone- but especially to young adults- who likes paranormal stories of good versus evil.

This book is available on Amazon at Shadow Eyes.

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Blessedly Bound (An Elemental Witch Trials Novel Book One) by Lucretia Stanhope

Blessedly Bound (An Elemental Witch Trials Novel Book One) by Lucretia Stanhope, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, February 6th, 2017, 218 pages, Genre: Paranormal. Warning: May Contain Spoilers.

Review by Leigh Holland.

Blessedly Bound features a female witch as the main protagonist, depicting magic as a blend of shamanistic abilities and energy manipulation. After hundreds of years in Western culture of witches being depicted in an incredibly negative light, it’s refreshing to read a story in which they’re presented in a more positive manner. Although the genre is listed as paranormal, I’d also ascribe elements of romance and mystery to the work.

Gwen Hensley is a witch, a woman born with innate potential to tap into the natural elements and thereby use power for either good or evil as each witch sees fit. Gwen comes from a long line of witches. Raised in an orphanage since an infant, after the death of her mother, Gwen has never known her family but has always dreamed of finding a place and people to belong with. Gwen has a familiar, Lewis, who takes the shape of a raven or a man as needed and has been Gwen’s best friend and closest companion most of her life. Bonded to her, his job is to teach Gwen magic and boost her power. When her grandmother, Lizzy, is murdered, Gwen and Lewis arrive on the scene to solve the murder and inherit her sizeable estate. Traipsing about town, Gwen gets to know Lizzy’s friends and joins her knitting circle as she prepares for a memorial for her grandmother. Among Lizzy’s friends is the attractive, suave Sebastian. Sparks fly between them as Lewis grows envious over time.

Lewis is quite possibly the worst familiar ever. He teaches Gwen nothing, yet teaching her magic is his job. Lewis broke her heart when he rejected her romantic advances prior to the onset of the book. Apparently, if a familiar and his witch become romantically involved, the bond between them is broken, weakening them both magically. He treats her as a child, making choices that affect her future without her consent. Gwen, for her part, is a very young and inexperienced lady and witch, struggling to discover her family’s past and forge her own identity. Lewis makes mistakes, resenting his witch for his own romantic and magical frustrations. I was rooting for Lewis and Gwen to find a way to end up together, but by the end of the book, I decided Lewis needed to do some serious soul searching and maturing before he’d be the right fit for Gwen, as either a familiar or a lover. Gwen needs to grow and come into her own before she will be ready to commit to someone with all her heart, so I was satisfied that no permanent commitments were made. Sebastian is an intriguing character with a past still not fully revealed. The most mature of the trio, he serves as a balancing force and mentor for Lewis and Gwen.

There were two themes in the work that stood out to me. From the romantic aspect, this was about longing, reaching out for the fruits of love but never quite touching them. Every interaction seems to be permeated with this longing. I’ll never look at knitting the same way again. The second theme is about unpleasant truths. We like to think that honesty is always the best policy and truth is a goodness. But things aren’t always so clear cut. “Sometimes the illumination of truth makes things darker.”

The book was well written, but the mystery’s solution was predictable. I wish the mystery had been more difficult to solve as I relish an element of mystery in any genre. Overall, I enjoyed reading Blessedly Bound. I’d recommend this to those who enjoy a paranormal series featuring a non-traditional magical female protagonist, particularly if the reader enjoys romance and the interplay between male rivals.

This book is available at Amazon at “Blessedly Bound”.

Crone: A Scarlet St. James Novel by Maria Mayer

Eerie, Ominous!

Crone: A Scarlet St. James Novel by Maria Mayer, 478 pages, Archway Publishing, December 15th, 2015, Format: Kindle, Genre: Horror. Warning: May Contain Spoilers.

Review by Leigh Holland.

Those who go looking for trouble will most likely find it. In Crone, those who’ve gone looking for trouble reap what they’ve sown. The story deals with a recurring set of crimes in Michigan, a serial killer who returns every thirty years to murder several men, then disappear. So far, nobody has connected the crimes, much less discovered any clues as to the true nature of the killer. Over the course of the book, the slayings and events leading up to them are recounted in horrifying, spine-chilling detail.

The murders take place in 1954, 1984, and 2014, respectively. Although events from the 1954 killings are mentioned, the main focus flips between the events in 1984 and 2014. Men are toyed with, psychologically tormented, ripped apart slowly, and devoured; pawns in a deadly cosmic battle between an immortal, evil witch and her demonic lover and master. While the police have tried to solve the crimes in prior years, forensics was unheard of in the 1950’s and barely used in 1984. However, this time they have forensic evidence to help them solve the crimes. As the mortifying evidence develops, clue by clue, they can’t believe what it suggests. Enter Scarlet St. James- a Private Detective, contractor for the cops, devoted sister and aunt, and an intuitive warrior against unseen evil forces.

Eerie and ominous, I felt there was a good balance between frightening, creepy material and grim, graphic descriptions. The primary theme was good versus evil. Evil can never be truly defeated by good; but the reverse is also true. There is a cosmic interplay between forces that at times produces horrific events, at other times, the very things that make life worth living as a simple mortal being. We can’t completely defeat evil, but we can drive it back and shine the light. The plot gets right into the characters and action but doesn’t provide a hook. I felt the intention was to slowly build anticipation and a sense of horror.

The Unholy 5 were bad boys who became obsessed with the occult. Biting off more than they could chew, they met what they’d been seeking, realizing too late what they’d done. It was gratifying to see them get what they deserved. I identified most strongly with the title character. While not perfect, Scarlet has many admirable qualities. Devoted to her family, fiercely protective of her loved ones, and dedicated to doing the right thing regardless of how terrifying it would be, Scarlet St. James was a likeable and relatable character.

I liked reading Crone. I’m interested to see where Mayer takes this character and the series. As a lifelong fan of Stephen King, I could feel his influence in sections of Mayer’s writing. I’m looking forward to reading more in this series. I’d recommend this book to fans of the horror genre.

Find this book on Amazon at Crone.

Monarchy by Laura Pritchard

A Dystopian Nightmare

Monarchy by Laura Pritchard, 233 pages, April 26th 2017, Genre: Dystopian. Warning: May Contain Spoilers.

Review by Leigh Holland.

Monarchy is a futuristic dystopian novel reminiscent of “The Hunger Games”. What will a person do to survive? Will they betray their morals? How far will they go? How will the bitter trials one must endure for survival in a threatening world change those who go through them?

In humanity’s past, we became divided into the extremely wealthy and the horrifyingly impoverished. With wealth unequally distributed, the poor turned to crime to survive. Disease, famine, and misery ruled mankind, with the exception of a wealthy few. A revolution changed the social order, as it always seems to in such circumstances. A new, perfected social order was established under the elusive “Monarchy”; a world where nobody goes hungry or lacks for basic needs such as clothing, shelter, medicine, or food. The cost of this perfection is the loss of privacy and a controlled society in which young adults are taken, trained, and assigned roles in the society. Most of those taken from the various sectors are thrilled to be part of the society and to serve. However, some are not- such as Constance, the heroine, and a few of the other recent recruits she’s training alongside. Constance manages to create loyalty among her group for each other rather than the Monarchy. This is forbidden. The only loyalty can be to the Monarchy. The trainers torture them through a series of brutal tests, culminating with one that breaks their loyalty to one another. Finally, they are ready for their assignments. Constance is assigned as a tower guard, a prestigious position for a new recruit. However, Constance learns about the horrible events happening around the various sectors and her doubts about the efficacy and goodwill of the Monarchy continue to grow. She wonders if she will ever see home and her father again.

Written in the first person, the reader identifies easily with Constance and her love of home and family, her uncertainty about the future. The plot was straightforward, the book well-written, and the main character well-developed. This book leaves off on a cliffhanger and is part of an upcoming trilogy of works. I enjoyed reading Monarchy. I’d recommend this book to readers who like dystopian novels similar to The Hunger Games.

This book is available at Amazon at Monarchy.

The Amplified by Lauren M. Flauding

Don't Give In!

The Amplified by Lauren M. Flauding, 204 pages, Blurtery Publishing, March 15th 2016, Genre: Dystopian/Young Adult. Warning: May Contain Spoilers.

Review by Leigh Holland.

The Amplified is a young adult, dystopian novel set in a world where physical prowess is what determines social status. It explores themes such as peer pressure, societal conditioning, choice and freedom versus security, and forsaking ethics for status. It draws a parallel between our world of image over substance and this fictional world of status based strictly on physical condition. This theme is starkly evident when one of the Amplified characters, Liam, saves Mari’s life, only to have everyone laugh at him for being overweight. Liam is willing to risk death in order to transform his body into one more accepted by others.

Mari Quillen is a fifteen year old girl, living in a society divided into three groups: the Regulars, the Amplified, and the Restrainers. Everyone is born into the Regulars, although the children of the Amplified are of higher status than those born to other Regulars. Mari’s parents were Regulars; in school Mari was bullied for being of lesser birth. She has an older brother and a younger brother. Her father passed away because of a virus and her mother is blind. Her mother picks beans, which are sent away for processing by the government. Nobody eats food anymore; everyone eats capsules which have varying effects. Regulars get only the regular capsules; but Amplified get a variety. Mari’s older brother returns home after four years’ service as an Amplified, fighting against their enemies, the Dissenters, who are made out to be nothing more than savages with pitchforks. Mari doesn’t like how different her brother has become.

Mari decides to go through Amplification regardless, since this is the way to succeed in their society. An amplifier is surgically placed inside her head. Whenever an Amplified issues commands to their amplifier, they are able to perform at superhuman levels in order to achieve the command. As she continues in her training, Mari discovers that not only can they not resist a command they’ve issued to their amplifier once it has been made, but that their are ways for their handlers to override their Amplification units. Indeed, the Override command is used to control them on the battlefield. They kill whether they like it or not. As she uncovers more sinister machinations of the governor, Mari begins to regret ever having chosen to become Amplified.

My favorite character was Mari. She was the only one to see that something was wrong and resist the temptation to forsake her personal values for the sake of societal status. Despite this, Mari, like all of us, is flawed. When her friend clearly was in need, she failed to notice and only managed to be there for her after the crisis had passed. I also liked Liam; I’m holding out hope we’ll see Talina rebel against the governor once and for all in future installments.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed reading The Amplified. The first chapter started off a bit slow, but once past it, I couldn’t put the book down. The plot was original and the characters were developed; the writing was engaging. Flauding does a masterful job of subtly weaving this dystopian tapestry, crafting a compelling tale and fascinating world. I’d recommend this book to anyone who enjoys dystopian or young adult novels.

This book is the first in a series. It can be found at Amazon at The Amplified.

Monoland: Into the Gray Horizon by E.A. Minin

Metaphysical, Philosophical

Monoland: Into the Gray Horizon by E. A. Minin, 223 pages, February 6th, 2017, Genre: Metaphysical Fiction. Warning: May Contain Spoilers.

Review by Leigh Holland.

What is death? In this new book by E. A. Minin, we follow a young recently deceased soul named Owen through his lessons in Purgatory, the Gray Horizon, where things are neither colorful as in life, nor light or dark as in what’s above and below. The best, most vibrant souls who lived life to the fullest go up when they die, while the ones who’ve been dead shells walking and caused others to have less joy fall below. Everyone else ends up in the Gray Horizon.

Minin does an amazing job of expressing his immersive world of the dead. The world is shown to us through the lessons Owen must learn as he follows his ‘curator’ Dizz. We learn the Gray Horizon is a place where you take on tasks given to you by a colorless bureaucracy in order to ‘level up’. It’s particularly sad seeing Owen have to help his mother let go of him once he’s died. Afterwards, Owen gets a stamp on his ‘passport’ and more areas of the afterlife open up to him and he moves to level two. Owen learns about the various jobs and abilities that members of Purgatory have. Owen has a difficult time navigating relationships and understanding the motivations of the souls he encounters. In many ways, the land of the Gray Horizon isn’t much different from our own.

Owen makes various pronouncements throughout the book, such as “Death is Absurd”, “Death is frank”, “Death is bureaucratic”, all the way to the final one: Death is the boss. I enjoyed reading this book and would recommend it to those who enjoy metaphysical and philosophical questions about death and the afterlife.

This book can be found on Amazon at Monoland: Into the Gray Horizon.

Blood Moon by John David Bethel

Horrifying Suspense!

Blood Moon by John David Bethel, 451 pages, Tell-Tale Publishing Group LLC, December 4th 2016, Genre: Thriller and Suspense. Warning: May Contain Spoilers.

Review by Leigh Holland.

This horrifying, violent, gritty thriller isn’t for the faint of heart. This gripping, suspenseful novel terrifies, reminding us of how fragile life is. Blood Moon is about justice delayed and justice denied; based on a real crime that happened in the 1990’s in Miami, Florida. The foreword was written by the survivor of these events and the investigator who helped him, driving home how easy it would be for others to do us harm. Justice does finally come- but not with any help from the Miami police.

Recidio Suarez is a good man, a good husband and father, and a hard-working example of the American Dream. He has survived the trials of life, some of them high risk situations, and has worked hard to build an affluent, comfortable life for his wife and kids. Imperfect as we all are, he nevertheless has always striven to do right by others and treat them fairly. That’s one of the reasons it’s so horrifying when his former protege Dario Pedrajo, a man he trusted, trained, and helped succeed in life, turns on him, getting involved in a plot to kidnap, torture, and extort everything the Suarez family has built. Pedrajo falls in with a bad crowd of criminals, headed by a strip club owner named Blaine Nesbit. With the aid of allies Bob Camarillo and Rector, they kidnap Suarez, holding him at a warehouse for weeks where they torture and maim him. They threaten to rape his wife Lina and torture his kids if he doesn’t sign over his bank accounts, businesses, house, and retirement funds to them. The torture he is subjected to is truly gruesome and a sign of how deeply wicked his kidnappers are. Suarez narrowly survives their clumsy attempt to murder him once they’d acquired his assets. The police chief dislikes Suarez’s attorney due to a past grudge and refuses to allow the case to be pursued. It’s only after the murderous crooks bite off more than they can chew and it can no longer be avoided that the police get involved.

The plot is straightforward with justice eventually dispensed in an unconventional but thoroughly satisfying manner. John David Bethel’s writing is excellent. The characters are relatable and believable. The lack of action and the blaming of the victim on the part of the police burns the reader with anger. The intense and at times unnecessary violence perpetrated by the criminals on their helpless prey horrifies and saddens. How can human beings commit such terrible acts against their fellow men? How can the forces we empower to protect us and obtain justice for us turn a blind eye?

I enjoyed Blood Moon and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys true crime stories, suspenseful thrillers, and gritty, hard-hitting tales.

This book is available at Blood Moon at Amazon.

Killjoy by LeVar Ravel

Witty, cautionary

Killjoy by LeVar Ravel, 188 pages, January 14th, 2014, Genre: Fantasy/Mystery/Suspense. Warning: May Contain Spoilers.

Review by Leigh Holland

A ‘killjoy’ is a person who takes the fun out of any event they attend. The title is most fitting for the theme of this story. The moral of this tale is to live life to the fullest, with hope, honesty, exuberant feeling, and joy. It’s a lesson mankind always seems in need of as we, throughout our generations, conform and adhere to the ‘correct and proper’ lifestyle du jour.

The assassin, whose true name is never told, is delightful with his many accents, costume changes, and faux personalities. He clearly enjoys satirizing people as well as trying to better understand them and their emotions. He’s the perfect assassin, never leaving a trace, always affecting the appearance of suicide to his victims. Everyone wonders, “How does he do it?” His clients, mostly mobsters, are appreciative and consider him to be the best in his field. He’s made a niche for himself dealing with difficult victims, such as musicians, comedians, politicians- the famous, for whom there can be no hint of foul play.

My favorite character was Elizabeth “Gwen” Orangegrave, the wife of the pseudo-religious mobster Charles Edward Orangegrave. As a young girl, she knew joy and love. Due to hardship, she lost this desire for joy and traded it in for wealth, security, practicality, and success: the things society tells us we should want. The assassin takes a peculiar liking to her also. In the end, she sees what she chose against the backdrop of what she left behind and makes a different choice, a better choice.

I felt the politician Corbin Locke represented what I imagine most of them are really like behind their smiles and speeches. Charles was a bit two-dimensional, but of course, that was sort of the point- that he would contrast the life his wife once knew and represent her choices. Written in third person narrative, the writing was enjoyable and engaging. A novella, the book can be read in about three hours. I’d recommend this book to anyone who enjoys suspense with a hint of darkness.

This book is presently available at Amazon at Killjoy.

The Wolfe Experiment by R.W. Adams

Tragic and Terrifying

The Wolfe Experiment by R.W. Adams, 288 pages, March 23rd, 2017, Genre: Psychic/Suspense. Warning: May Contain Spoilers.

by Leigh Holland

The Wolfe Experiment by R.W. Adams is a suspenseful tale of survival and psychic ability. Written in third person omniscient point of view, we’re shown an aggressive, corrupt world in which only those who have the most destructive weapons matter and decent people are merely tools for those who govern them. This corruption is made possible by those among the masses who support it and those who are indifferent to it, as well as those who individually choose to join corrupt forces for their own ends.

The Wolfes, a married couple doing scientific research into pharmaceuticals to treat bipolar in children, slide down that slippery slope of doing some evil to effect a greater good. However, this is merely what they tell themselves to be able to sleep at night. In truth, they are obsessed with completing their research and will do anything to see it to its fruition. When they cannot acquire young enough subjects for their trials, they experiment on their own children; Ethan from age three and Tilly from birth. However, they no longer seek to treat bipolar kids. Instead, they stumbled on a far more miraculous effect of the drugs they created and seek to perfect them. Tilly falls asleep on a car ride during which Ethan is supposed to keep her awake. Her power activates in her sleep, causing massive damage and killing their parents in a car accident. The siblings are moved around to various homes in the social services system. At each one, an incident occurs due to their psychic abilities, and their worker Sarah must find a new home for them. After a particular incident, the military decides it wants its ‘weapons’ back, as they are a product of their funding of their deceased parents’ research. A cat and mouse race ensues as the kids are on the streets and on the run from the military and its researchers.

This story is tragic. The novel jumps between different scenes in their lives until it reaches its inevitable conclusion. I couldn’t help but feel sadness and sympathy for these children and root for them to find a place where they would find love, security, happiness, and peace. At the same time, I recognized that innocents were being harmed each step of the way as they were forced to survive alone or fight against the aggressors. I often wondered how differently things may have been for them if enough people had known, had cared, and had intervened.

The plot was straightforward but intriguing. Characters were believable, having their own personal or professional motivations. The book was well-written. I enjoyed the storytelling style, especially in regard to showing facets in the lives of the siblings in a more relevant order than strict chronology. I’d recommend this book to those who enjoy science fiction and suspense.

This book can be found at Amazon at The Wolfe Experiment.