The Heathback Break by J.E. Clarkson

This installment in the Nemo & Co. series takes us to a prison, where The Cleaner has been captured. The Cleaner undergoes her most significant transformation to date through the course of this story.

We also learn more about her family and, through a letter from someone she believes she can trust, she is challenged to complete an impossible quest.

The Heathback Break by J.E. Clarkson

When reading this series, I always feel like I am racing through a maze. I know there’s going to be something unexpected around each bend and I can hardly wait to get there. The characters feel like they are part of a video game, fighting their way through a rapidly morphing world.

J.E. Clarkson has demonstrated once again why her books are an automatic buy for me. Whether it is this series or her detective series, her creativity and writing style keep me engaged. Anytime I’ve doubted whether Clarkson can keep The Nemo and Co. Series interesting, I have been proven absolutely wrong.

I wonder what she will think of next!

For more reviews of Clarkson’s books, check out the J.E. Clarkson category of this blog.

A Hundred Years to Arras by J.M. Cobley

In this historical fiction work, Private Robert Gooding Henson leaves the family farm to enlist in the Somerset Light Infantry against his father’s wishes. 

The writing is outstanding in this captivating story that follows Henson and two of the fellow soldiers he befriends. The emotional turmoil a 23-year-old soldier feels fighting in a war is delicately explored. The horrific conditions the soldiers experience and the awful things they see are matter-of-factly juxtaposed against flirtations, humor, and lighter moments.

It was interesting, but not surprising, to learn of the connection the author had to Private Robert Gooding Henson at the end of the book. While it is a fictional account of Henson’s life, the book had a respectful undercurrent appropriate for honoring an ancestor.

A Hundred Years to Arras by J.M. Conley

The book has been compared to All Quiet on the Western Front, which is one of my all-time favorite books, and I can see why.

Like All Quiet on the Western Front, the story is poignant, moving, expertly written, and does not glorify war.

I recommend this book to those who are fans of World War I-era history or war novels told from the perspective of an individual soldier.

Thank you to J.M. Cobley for providing a free e-review copy. I am leaving this review voluntarily and the opinions expressed are my own.

The Dark Cygnet Files

The Dark Cygnet Files by J.E. Clarkson
The Dark Cygnet Files by J.E. Clarkson

4 stars

The fourth installment in the Nemo & Company series, this book delves into The Cleaner’s family history. I liked that we learn more about The Cleaner and other characters in the series. In this book, we get some answers. Or, at least we think we do, as I’m never quite sure with this series what’s reality or what I’ll discover later was only a mirage.

“You always think you have more time in this life than you actually have.”

J.E. Clarkson, The Dark Cygnet Files

The storyline has evolved way beyond the original book. What started as a story about a woman working for an anonymous boss at a mysterious company has exploded into a haunting technothriller series about deception, a secret society, conspiracy, and deep mistrust. 

Can we spend a moment appreciating the breakneck pacing present in all of the books in the Nemo & Co series? Short chapters packed with action and intrigue always have me feeling like I can’t gobble up each book fast enough.

In The Dark Cygnet Files, like the other books in the series, the characters are constantly making their way through a maze of confusion and furiously trying to escape the present. And, again, readers are left with so many questions. Who will survive? And, will we ever learn The Cleaner’s name?

This is a series that definitely needs to be read in order, so be sure to start with The Vanishing Office. As for me, I already downloaded book number 5 – I will be seeing this series through until the end.

Dragon Emperor by Dawn Ross

5 stars

Dragon Emperor by Dawn Ross
Dragon Emperor by Dawn Ross

Dragon Emperor is book two in The Dragon Spawn Chronicles. The story picks up where book one left off, and features many familiar faces from the first installment. 

Dragon Emperor is a bit darker and more violent than book one. Surprisingly, I found myself even more drawn in by the increased intensity.

A central element in the story is conflict over whether showing emotion and understanding the feelings of others is a weakness. As someone who considers genuine empathy one of the greatest strengths an individual can have, I was fascinated by the debate in the story. I wanted to find out if Jori and company would come to the same conclusion as I have in my own life.

I appreciated how the author developed the relationship between brothers Jori and Terk, and how each of the characters grew in their own way.

While early chapters of Dragon Emperor offer a good summary of the main events in the first book, I recommend reading book one first. I also recommend reading the books in order.

Again, I appreciated the inclusion of a glossary to help explain the different types of ships, warriors, and devices used in Ross’s universe. While you can easily understand and enjoy the book without referencing the glossary, it serves as a great reminder of the well-thought-out world Ross has created. 

The action continues in a third book, Dragon’s Fall, and I plan to continue reading this intense and exciting series.

Information about where to purchase the books in The Dragon Spawn Chronicles can be found on the author’s website, https://dawnrossauthor.com/

Heir of Blood and Secrets by Linda Xia

3 out of 5 stars

This dystopian YA murder mystery is told from the perspective of Scylla Delevan, a 16-year-old daughter of a magistrate in Devovea. Despite their difficult relationship, when Scylla’s father is accused of murder, she goes on a quest to prove his innocence. Her loyalties are challenged and she uncovers a number of secrets along the way.

This fast-moving story presents interesting views on fatherhood, and I was intrigued by the class system that was built into this book. The story also deals well with a somewhat naive teenage girl figuring out and standing up for what she believes and facing the repercussions of making rash decisions. 

The cover of Heir of Blood and Secrets
Heir of Blood and Secrets by Linda Xia

This story had a lot of strengths but there were a few parts that didn’t work as well for me. I felt there could have been more depth and dimension to some of the side characters. There were also a few points in the plot where I got slightly confused.

Overall, I appreciated the world Xia created, and look forward to reading what she writes next.

Thank you to the author for reaching out to me and providing a free e-review copy. The opinions expressed in this review are entirely my own.

The BackUp Who Cried Wolf by Kayla Hicks

4 out of 5 stars

The cover of The Backup Who Cried Wolf by Kayla Hicks.

This post marks my 100th post on Book Picks and Pics! Whether you are a dedicated reader or just discovering this blog, thank you for your support.

I agreed to read and review The Backup Who Cried Wolf as part of my participation in my first-ever blog tour. As someone who was already a fan of the BackUp superhero series, it wasn’t hard to convince me to read book 3. 

Like with the previous two installments, Hicks delights readers with endearing characters and the continuation of the fun, creative concept of a league of backup superheroes. 

This book features Dwighter, an unreliable backup superhero with a drinking problem, as the main character. I appreciated being able to learn more about Dwighter. I also loved that Tanser Girl, my favorite character in the series, returns to play an important role.

The Back-Up Who Cried Wolf is a quick read that lives up to the expectations set in the first two books. If you haven’t already read the other books in the series, I recommend starting with The Back-Up Superhero. You will be glad you discovered this quirky, binge-able series.

Thank you to Kayla Hicks for inviting me to be part of her book tour and for providing me with a free review copy in exchange for my honest review. 

Links to purchase any books in the series can be found on the author’s website.

My review of The Original Superheroes is linked here.

My review of The Backup Superhero is linked here.

Branches by Adam Peter Johnson

Four stars

I was drawn to this book because the description compared it to Dark Matter by Blake Crouch, which is one of my all-time favorite books. There are definitely some similarities between the two multiverse novels, but Branches is different enough that it still felt fresh and interesting.

Branches by Adam Peter Johnson displayed on an i-pad mini.

With the re-election campaign of an unnamed male authoritarian president shaping the events in Branches, this novel has a more political undercurrent than Dark Matter. However, its primary focus is on a family of three, and how different decisions could change their fates.

The science doesn’t get too technical and, with its contemporary setting, there isn’t a lot of world-building in this novel. This well-written story focuses on the decisions of one man – a husband, father, and son – and his slow realization of the impact his choices have on the people he loves.

Fate isn’t fate at all. It’s just people, and people are stubborn. The systems they build even more so.

Adam Peter Johnson, Branches

Branches was intriguing, observant, confusing, repetitive, and even funny (the paint colors!) at different points. One thing it never was: boring. It held my attention and made me think and feel. 

I recommend this for science fiction, semi-dystopian, and political thriller connoisseurs. Fans of Blake Crouch and of a story told across multiple timelines will enjoy this one. 

However, if you don’t want reminders of the 2016/2020 presidential elections embedded in your fiction, you may want to hold off on this one for now.  As for me, I will definitely be picking up the second installment of this series.

Branches is available for purchase on https://www.adampeterjohnson.net/

Haze by Rebecca Crunden

4 stars

“The dead don’t care if you’re religious.”

Haze by Rebecca Crunden

Unexpected phone calls in the middle of the night are usually either creepy or scary. The phone call Eliza Owens gets late one evening from her fiance’s ex is no exception, especially since the girl on the other end of the line has supposedly been dead for five years. 

Eliza tries to forget about the call until her sister Sam, who is not a fan of Eliza’s fiance Erik, brings up an encounter she had with Paige a few weeks before. A dramatic fight ensues, destroying Eliza, Erik, and Sam’s lives, and resulting in Erik abandoning Eliza and their hometown for five years.

Although I didn’t agree with many of their choices, the characters and how they handle the events that transpire are what make this book compelling. Given her drug use and the deep emotional turmoil she experiences, Eliza makes for a likable yet unreliable narrator. I was never quite sure whether to trust her take on what was happening. 

The lifelong relationship between Erik and Miles added depth to the story. I was glad to see their opening scene in the introduction was significant to the overall plot.

I appreciated the book’s themes of family and friendship and felt it came to an interesting resolution fitting for the story. 

Overall, this was a unique and interesting read. I recommend it to readers who enjoy dark paranormal love stories with a touch of humor.

Crunden is a prolific writer and her novels and short stories are available on Amazon and through her website.

My review of Crunden’s short story, The Man and the Crow, is linked here.

The Alchemy Thief by R.A. Denny

Book review graphic with bookshelves in the background.

The first in the Pirates and Puritans series, The Alchemy Thief has an ambitious, intricately woven plot that spans centuries and continents.

Experience “Peri” Fuller is about to start her studies at Harvard when she discovers an ancient hairpin in the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard. She becomes intrigued by the symbol on the artifact, which believes she has seen before during a post-graduation trip with her best friend.

Shortly after embarking on a new relationship, starting college, and beginning an internship, Peri is suddenly and dramatically transported to 1657, where she meets among others an alchemist John Winthrop, Jr., and Daniel, a Wampanoag man who lived with Reverend Thomas Mayhew, Jr. as a boy.

This historical fiction tale has a lot of components I enjoy in a book: a leading woman character who grows during the course of the story, the use of time travel as a major component of the plot, and references to an interesting time period in early American history.

Denny also throws in hypnosis, alchemy, pirates, and terrorists – elements that are both interesting and overwhelming at times.

The Alchemy Thief was told mostly from Peri’s perspective but interspersed a good number of chapters from the viewpoint of Ayoub, a young thief raised to be a terrorist. I connected more with Peri. I found myself engrossed in her story, particularly after she is transported in time, while I dreaded getting to Ayoub’s chapters because of their disturbing descriptions of violent and horrific acts.

There is a fair amount of attention given to religion in this book, which makes sense given it is a story that focuses heavily on 17th-century Puritans and includes references to Islamic extremism. While I could see that some of the ways the author presented the Christian and Muslim faiths were to be true to the time period, there seemed to be a hint of bias against the Muslim faith which made me uncomfortable.

I was also caught off guard that the book, which is nearly 500 pages long, stopped so abruptly, leaving me wanting desperately to find out what happens to Peri, her family, and the friends she makes in the 17th century. I understand ending on a cliffhanger to build interest in the next book in the series, but after investing so much time in the characters, I felt readers deserved a little more closure.

To the author’s credit, it is clear she cares about history, has a fantastic imagination, and that she did an amazing amount of research to write this book. I enjoyed the Author’s Note at the end which provided insight into which characters were real historical figures.

Thank you to R.A. Denny for providing me with a free e-review copy of The Alchemy Thief. The views expressed in this review reflect my honest opinion.

The Man and the Crow by Rebecca Crunden

The Man and the Crow by Rebecca Crunden.

In this short story, what starts off as a seemingly ordinary evening for Jessica, a part-time sales clerk at a hardware store, takes a shocking turn. 

Jessica arrives home to the flat she shares with Clara, the odd roommate she barely tolerates, and makes her way through Clara’s various housepets. Jessica stumbles into a horrific scene. 

Magic was everywhere and secrecy was paramount.

The Man and the Crow by Rebecca Crunden

Following Jessica’s peculiar encounter with the perpetrator, the book quickly pivots to the story of Enlil and Aris, who have a connection to Clara and the events that transpire.

Saying too much more would spoil the plot. Suffice it to say that Crunden makes the most of every word and scene in this 24-page, century-spanning story.

With witches, warlords, wit, and wry references to contemporary topics, I couldn’t ask for anything more as a reader.

I will definitely be reading more works by Crunden. Crunden’s books are available on Amazon.