Book Review: Beyond the Gates by Jason D. Morrow

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Title: Beyond the Gates
Series: The Starborn Redemption, Book 1
Author: Jason D. Morrow
Narrator: Stacy Gonzalez
Publication Date: April 20, 2019
Genres: Science Fiction, Post-Apocalyptic

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Beyond the Gates
The Starborn Redemption, Book 1
Jason D. Morrow
Narrated by Stacy Gonzalez
Jason D. Morrow ,April 20, 2019
Downloaded Unabridged Audiobook

From the author—

The Containment Zone is a 500-mile radius surrounded by mountains and closed in by gates. No one can leave, and anyone who tries will die. Within are lawless bandits, corrupt soldiers, and once-human greyskins that hunt down people to spread the virus. Some say the Containment Zone is where the greyskin virus originated. Others say the people inside are little more than lab rats being studied by the nefarious Screven government.

When 12-year-old Skylar and her father, Liam, are caught trying to escape, they are taken to Vulture Hill, a government prison camp no one has ever left alive. Inside the prison, Skylar learns that the facility is little more than a testing site for finding people of a certain bloodline – the Starborn. These are people with special powers that manifests in various spectacular ways, and Screven wants to exploit them.

Skylar has always known there was something special about her family. For years, her father has had the ability to completely numb pain with just a thought. Lacerated skin, broken bones, they can all be ignored with enough concentration. Learning that her father is a Starborn means Skylar is probably one too, placing them both in extreme danger.

Now, father and daughter must do the impossible and break out of a prison known for killing so many. But Liam has leverage the government may be willing to buy – the cure for the greyskin virus.

The first two books of The Starborn Redemption are set 40 years after The Starborn Ascension and 17 years before The Starborn Uprising. Each Series can be listened to independently.

There are a couple of things that set Beyond the Gates apart from so many post-apocalyptic zombie tales. First, one of the two protagonists is a 12-year-old child but this is not a middle grade book. Second, the other protagonist is her father and his primary goal is her safety, a refreshing change from the usual macho guy who has to be a hero. Skylar and Liam are an appealing pair and I felt they were pretty well fleshed out but I thought most of the secondary characters were more two-dimensional except for Nine.

While the core story is intense, dwelling as it does on the imprisonment of these two in separate sections of the prison—reminding me quite a lot of the separation of parents and children that’s happening on our border—I wanted to know much more about the world before the virus struck and a brutal government came to power. Strong worldbuilding is crucial in science fiction but it’s lacking here and, since I haven’t read anything by Jason D. Morrow before, I don’t know if he normally saves the background work for later books in a series. I hope so because I enjoyed spending time with Skylar and Liam and Nine in this perilous society and I can see a really good series in the making.

Stacy Gonzalez had the perfect voice for Skylar, imbuing her with a mix of fright and compassion while allowing her intelligence to come through. Nine was also a vivid character but Liam and other male voices were less successful, not so distinguishable from females. Ms. Gonzalez has good pacing and intonations, though, that reflect the situation and I enjoyed listening to her narration.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, August 2019.

About the Author

Jason D. Morrow is the author of more than 15 books in the Science Fiction and Fantasy genres, including The Starborn Uprising, The Starborn Ascension, The Starborn Redemption and Prototype D.

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About the Narrator

Stacy Gonzalez is a Chicago based narrator and commercial voice actor. She is feisty, bright and expressive. Stacy specializes in YA, self-help and romance, especially when the narration calls for a good handle on comedy, wit and sass. Audiofile Magazine has praised her pace and her ability to create bold characters. Stacy, who is half Colombian, speaks conversational Spanish. She has a great love for Old Hollywood—watching the movies and listening to audiobooks about any and every aspect of it! Follow her on Twitter at @stacygonzalezvo or visit her website at stacygonzalezvo.com.

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Book Reviews: Lifers by M.A. Griffin and When My Heart Was Wicked by Tricia Stirling

 

lifersLifers
M.A. Griffin
Chicken House, February 2017
ISBN 978-1-338-06553-4
Hardcover

Particularly pertinent in current political climate, this fresh Middle-Grade mystery-adventure is a phenomenally fantastic read for all ages.  Mace may be a bit of a conspiracy theorist, but when weird news of missing teens and strange sights at night hits close to home, even practical Preston is pulled in.  Also….he is pretty sure he is partly to blame for the most recent disappearances.

Attempting to trace Alice’s steps, Preston walks the night streets of Manchester and senses a spooky truth to the recent rumors.  He enlists Mace to delve deeper and the two stumble onto a pseudo-futuristic-sci-fi scene.  Children are trapped in a prison prototype with dwindling supplies and absolutely no way out.  The only way in, is scheduled to be permanently shut down in less than twenty-four hours.

The juvenile delinquents are not completely alone.  One young lady is the daughter of a recently deceased politician, her “crime”: doubting that her father’s death was an accident.  She is not going down until the guilty party pays.  Two Urban Explorers snuck into the prison to help facilitate an escape and two workers who never wanted their creations to be used in this manner will fight for freedom.

The story plays out in a matter of days; the pace is very quick and quite captivating.  A bit of sharp wit, an unexpected kindness keeps the book from becoming bleak.  Many questions are answered, but nothing is too pat; there’s plenty to think on…..in a sneaky kind of way.

Reviewed by jv poore, February 2017.

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when-my-heart-was-wickedWhen My Heart Was Wicked
Tricia Stirling
Scholastic Press, March 2015
ISBN 978-0-545-69573-2
Hardcover

Lacy is clearly conflicted and completely compelling. At the tender age of sixteen, she has become so very good in spite of her tumultuous, tangled life; but, things change. The loss of a parent is heart-breaking and often life-changing.  When that loss is followed by an abrupt and unwelcome custody change, the downward spiral spins out of control.

Flashbacks and memories reveal the characteristics of Lacy’s parents allowing the reader to understand Lacy’s influences.  The vibes emanating from the recollections reach from the pages to raise the hairs on the back of your neck.  Parents are palpable presences and when Lacy thinks of her father, sunshine shoots from the pages.  She is light, happy, hopeful……joyous and buoyant when considering her father and his charming hippie-chick wife, Anna.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is Lacy’s mother, Cheyenne.  Her unique “teaching techniques” and willingness to spend weeks without electricity did not result in a nurturing home.  Rather, she burned her daughter’s wrist for asking “too many questions”, tied her to a tree to prevent “wandering”, then completely vanished without a word, leaving a broken 13-year old girl all alone.

When My Heart Was Wicked is a captivating and quick read that bravely tackles taboo topics such as “cutting”.  More than merely acknowledging the existence of a disorder that plagues so many teens, by offering an answer to the common question: “why?” On some level, problems that plague Lacy are the same, or at least similar to the challenges every teenager faces.  The importance of identity is not easy to address, but Ms. Stirling demonstrates how strong will, determination and knowledge can carve a unique path, even when it seems all forces are fighting to make you march down a different road.

Reviewed by jv poore, August 2016.

Book Review: What’s Broken Between Us by Alexis Bass

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Title: What’s Broken Between Us
Author: Alexis Bass
Publisher: HarperTeen
Release Date: December 29, 2015
Genre: General Fiction, Young Adult

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What's Broken Between UsWhat’s Broken Between Us
Alexis Bass
HarperTeen, December 2015
ISBN 978-0-06-227535-6
Hardcover

From the publisher—

Look to the left, look to the right. We’re all going to die. But someone has to do it first. So who’s it going to be?

Tragedy struck Amanda Tart’s town a year and a half ago when a sophomore girl was killed in a car accident on graduation night.

Amanda’s brother, Jonathan, was behind the wheel and too drunk to drive. He’s spent the past year in prison and has cut off all ties. But now Jonathan is coming home. Just as Amanda’s trying to figure out what that means for her family and herself, she’s paired up for a school project with Henry Crane—a former crush, and brother of Jonathan’s ex-girlfriend, who survived the crash with horrible injuries.

Everyone is still incredibly damaged by the events of that night. Can Amanda and Henry finally begin to heal what’s broken and find some peace?

I’m full of conflicting feelings about this book and I both like and don’t like it, leaning more heavily to the liking end.

Who among us has not been affected, either directly or indirectly, by a drunk driving incident in high school, almost always revolving around either prom or graduation. For me, having grown up in a fairly good-sized city and its surrounding counties, such memories do exist and it almost seems like a required rite of passage. The problem hasn’t gotten any less serious, either; there are still drunk driving deaths every spring and, whether we know the kids or not, we all mourn the loss of so much promise.

There have been books on this subject before but Ms. Bass quite imaginatively approaches it very differently. We still see the fallout suffered by family and friends but the main character is the sister of the drunk driver, not the direct victim or a survivor. Amanda is damaged almost as much as anyone else and I see her as someone who tries her level best to not do or say anything that’s going to cause the slightest bit of controversy. Amanda walks through life like a shadow of her true self, very carefully, like a tightrope walker who must place each step extremely carefully, looking neither to left or right. Some of the decisions she’ll make once Jonathan has come home are really questionable but perhaps not surprising although I can’t condone her treatment of Graham no matter what her reasons.

Jonathan is also a surprise. Unlike other stories in which the drunk driver “sees the light” and takes his punishment to heart, this boy is doing his utmost to alienate everyone and he’s a poster child for recidivism. There doesn’t seem to be any way for him to make up for what happened but, perhaps more importantly, Jonathan doesn’t appear to care or to want any kind of redemption.

There is a lot of darkness and unhappiness in What’s Broken Between Us and the ending will not satisfy some readers. For me, it made the most sense because, after all, terrible events rarely have unabashedly happy resolutions. Most of all, drunk driving must always be seen as the worst choice to make.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, December 2015.

About the Author

Alexis BassAlexis Bass grew up in Washington, went to college in Arizona, and spent her early twenties in Seattle. She currently lives in Northern California with Dylan McKay, her gorgeous and rambunctious golden retriever. She loves good fashion and good TV as much as a good book, and is a huge advocate of the three C’s: coffee, chocolate, and cheese. LOVE AND OTHER THEORIES is her first novel.

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Website: http://alexisbassbooks.com/

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Book Reviews: The Twenty-Year Death Trilogy by Ariel S. Winter

Malniveau PrisonMalniveau Prison
The Twenty-Year Death Trilogy Book 1
Ariel S. Winter
Hard Case Crime, July 2014
ISBN: 978-1-781-16793-9
Mass Market Paperback

This noir novel, written in the style of classic crime writer Georges Simenon, is the first in a trilogy, originally a single novel, entitled The Twenty-Year Death.  With or without that homage, it certainly stands on its own as recommended reading.  (Each of the three books that make up the trilogy was published by Hard Case Crime in July of 2014, with the original comprising all three published in August of 2012.)  They are set in different decades of the last century (1931, 1941 and 1951), with the 2nd and 3rd written in the style of the equally famed writers Raymond Chandler and Jim Thompson.  The whole follows an American author and his much younger French wife, as well as several other well-written protagonists to greater and lesser degrees, varying with each book.

The book opens in the French village of Verargent, with the discovery of a body lying dead in the street, a local baker having come upon the corpse while walking home after work during a deluge.  The investigation falls to Chief Inspector Pelleter and the local chief of police, Letreau.  The novel unwinds over a period of less than a month, with the case getting more and more curious.  And it begins and ends in the nearby eponymous prison, where Pelleter has been called, after a fashion, by a sadistic murderer incarcerated there for several years, Mahossier, who has in the past given him information leading to the inspector being able to close theretofore unsolved cases.  Further investigation uncovers the fact that the dead man had been a prisoner at Malniveau, and had been murdered.  As things proceed, there are several more dead bodies discovered, and two young boys go missing, as well as a young woman, the French wife of the American author mentioned above.

Pelleter has his work cut out for him, it would seem.  He muses:  “He knew what had happened in many instances, but he did not know why or how, and therefore he did not know who.  He knew nothing.”  Although newly written, this is a classic noir procedural, and it is recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, January 2015.

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The Falling StarThe Falling Star
The Twenty-Year Death Trilogy Book 2
Ariel S. Winter
Hard Case Crime, July 2014
ISBN: 978-1-781-16794-6
Mass Market Paperback

The second of the books comprising The Twenty-Year Death Trilogy, this book feels more “noir” than its predecessor, “Malniveau Prison” (which took place in France), opening as it does in the world of Hollywood, at a movie studio in what is here called San Angelo, California, in 1941. Two of the characters from Book 1, Clotilde-ma-Fleur Rosenkrantz, a beautiful young woman, and her much older, alcoholic husband, Shem, are now, a decade later, respectively a movie star who goes by Chloe Rose, and a movie script writer, both at Merton Stein productions. The protagonist in the new book is Dennis Foster, ex-cop and now a private detective, hired by Al Knox, the studio’s chief of security, to act as sort of a bodyguard for Clotilde, who thinks she’s being followed. When Foster protests that he is not a bodyguard, Knox tells him “. . . . she only thinks she’s being followed. You just need to make her feel safe. For show.”

Although Chloe had “displaced champagne as America’s favorite French import,” there is nothing celestial about her. Her husband, Shem, “looked like a stereotype of the great American author, which he was.” As things progress, Foster doesn’t like that he is “just here for show, a piece of set decoration, and not a very necessary one either. This case already had a mystery man on the set, a mystery man on the phone, the mystery man that the man on the phone was bargaining for, the mystery man who was drinking and laughing with Shem Rosenkrantz upstairs. I was one too many. I felt like I had come to the party late and got seated at the wrong table,” and that he was “hired to babysit a paranoid prima donna.” And when more than one dead body is discovered, it serves only to make his assignment more complex, and much more difficult.

The author has the noir writing down pat. There is the requisite male movie star, whose butler was “bald with a horseshoe of hair around the back of his head, a pencil mustache, and a tuxedo with white gloves.” A reference to the WPA and a woman with a “tea-length skirt” place it firmly in its era. As well, nothing in these pages reflect what we today call politically correct attitudes. And when Foster is beaten up by men determined to keep him away from the case, the following morning “I had to get undressed before I could get dressed again, which only hurt a little. No more than getting gored by a bull.”  A man who keeps his word, he will not turn his back on his tasks of finding the killer and saving Chloe from herself.

As was the first book in the trilogy, the novel is very entertaining, and is recommended.  And I now have in front of me the last novel in the trilogy, Police at the Funeral, to which I am very much looking forward.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, January 2015.

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Police at the FuneralPolice at the Funeral
The Twenty-Year Death Trilogy Book 3
Ariel S. Winter
Hard Case Crime, July 2014
ISBN: 978-1-781-16795-3
Mass Market Paperback

The last of the books comprising The Twenty-Year Death Trilogy, takes place not in France, as did the first, nor in Southern California, as did the second, but in Calvert City, Maryland.  The two characters from both earlier books return here: Clotilde-ma-Fleur Rosenkrantz, a beautiful young woman who reached film stardom as Chloe Rose, and her much older, alcoholic husband, Shem, who had achieved fame as an author, later as a movie script writer.

Time has not been kind to Mr. or Mrs. Rosenkrantz:  Clotilde is now and has been for the last ten years ensconced in a private psychiatric hospital, and Shem is now washed up, and broke.  Shem returns to Maryland for the first time in 30 years following the death of Quinn Rosenkrantz, his first wife, from whom he has been divorced for 20 of those years, for the reading of her will.  Deeply in debt, Shem has traveled 3,000 miles more than anything because he is desperate for what he hopes will be the money left to him by his wife, who was from a very wealthy family, his desperation caused by his need to keep Clotilde from having to be placed in a state institution.  It had been three years since Shem had seen his and Quinn’s son, Joe, not since his high school graduation, but they of course do meet again at the office of the attorney in whose office the Will is to be read to all concerned.

The presence of the police at the funeral referenced in the title is part of an investigation into another death which follows quickly upon the scene described above.  The book is beautifully wrought, the plotting very original, and the whole a suspenseful read (more so than the two books which preceded it, in fact) that I devoured in the space of several hours.  To say more would necessitate spoilers, so I leave it to the reader to discover and explore for him or herself.  (Just to whet one’s appetite, I will only add that this was the first time I have read a book where the author makes the analogy that “killing someone was a whole lot like writing, a creative endeavor.”)

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, January 2015.