The Unclaimed Wolf

Posted on May 31st 2021 ⋄ By Sara Cleveland ⋄ Category: Reviews

This week’s review is of The Unclaimed Wolf by E.P. Stavs. I have already reviewed the first two books in the Shendri Series. You can find that review here.

As always, this review is my honest opinion and I received no compensation for it.

Book Details

The Unclaimed Wolf is available in paperback and eBook from Amazon. It is currently enrolled in Kindle Unlimited, so you can read it for free if you’re subscribed. The paperback cost $12.99, which is what I paid for it. Without KU, the eBook will run you $2.99. Considering that this book is slightly longer than its predecessors at 262 pages of story, I would say that’s a pretty fair deal.

The book is available in English, and I’m not currently aware of any plans for an audio adaptation. I do try to update these sections if/when translations and audio editions become available.

5 teaspoons of tea leaves

Design

As with the first two books in the Shendri Series, The Unclaimed Wolf features a beautifully simplistic cover. A gorgeous “fantasy-esque” font is layered over background image with mystical vibes. All of the text is easily legible. The series name and number are clear.

Personally, I enjoy the visual simplicity of these covers. They are very much about the fantasy “vibes” and I dig it.

As with the first two books, the interior is nicely formatted. I didn’t notice any major formatting flaws. Nothing new to say about it really.

Total for design is 5 teaspoons.

5 teaspoons of tea leaves

Premise

The Unclaimed Wolf picks up pretty much where the epilogue of The Searching Songbird left off. Sir Edmund is sent to search out the final, unknown wolf Shendri in a foreign country based on a rumor. That Shendri is a though-as-nails mercenary who doesn’t think too much of pretty-boy knights. He has a long road ahead of him if he thinks he’s going to convince her to come with him back to Eldour.

I’m not sure how to categorize this book. It’s not exactly enemies-to-lovers (although Maya certainly doesn’t like Edmund very much at the beginning). While the characters certainly follow some trope/archetypes I have a harder time putting the premise itself into a box. It’s certainly interesting, and I was looking forward to Edmund’s story.

I give the premise 5 teaspoons.

4 teaspoons of tea leaves

Characters

I’m just going to be blunt. I did not like Maya for about the first 50% of the book. Or rather, I didn’t like her for Edmund. This is easily my least favorite pairing of the series so far. Her devotion to her family and her home is admirable, but… I generally found her outlook to be narrow and short-sighted.

Edmund was very much Edmund. His role in the first two books was quite small (he spent most of book one in a dungeon, after all), but we did get a bit of a feel for his character. At times he is the consumate flirt, but underneath it all he really does seem to have a heart of gold. I’m really glad that it felt like Edmund’s character from the previous two stories was deepened, and not contradicted.

But as a couple? I didn’t get the chemistry. At all. I’m still not sold on them as a couple, if I’m being honest.

We also got to learn a little more about Fia and Bade. That relationship is… interesting. I’m really curious to see where things go in the final installment. I’m wondering if we’re being set up for a redemption.

Anyhow, individually I give the characters 5 teaspoons. They’re well written and enjoyable. I have to knock off a teaspoon though for the pairing. It just didn’t click for me.

4 teaspoons for characters.

4 teaspoons of tea leaves

Worldbuilding

This section is going to be difficult to talk about without spoilers, but I’m going to try.

Maya’s abilities beyond her standing as a Shendri and where they came from added an interesting element to the world and the story.

I wasn’t enamored with the Dirt Mercs and their home in the ground. The whole situation with the village also just felt weird to me. It was definitely an element of the world I could do without.

I didn’t feel like we got as much of a taste of the culture of this new place as we did in The Searching Songbird. The village near the Dirt Mercs felt very generic medieval fantasy world to me. However, There was some great foreshadowing with a children’s game played in the village. It added a layer of richness and history to the world overall. This is a living, breathing place where truth is lost to myth, and myth is lost to children’s nursery rhymes.

I give worldbuilding 4 teaspoons.

5 teaspoons of tea leaves

Plot

There were some surprises in this plot, for sure. I didn’t see the ending coming. Although Stavs did poor Edmund dirty AGAIN. And that’s all I’ll say about that.

Plot gets 5 teaspoons.

5 teaspoons of tea leaves

Writing

Stavs’s style continues to be an easy, fluid read. It’s descriptive and dynamic. The action scenes were well done without being over-done.

Writing gets 5 teaspoons.

4 teaspoons of tea leaves

Final Thoughts

Overall, I enjoyed the book. It’s not my favorite in the series– that distinction still goes to The Searching Songbird— but it did a lot to develop the overall plot of the series and was fun to read. I’m really looking forward to seeing how Stavs wraps things up in The Moonlit Warrior this fall.

My final score for the book is 4 teaspoons.

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Of Snow and Scarlet (ARC Review)

Posted on May 24th 2021 ⋄ By Sara Cleveland ⋄ Category: Reviews

Today’s review is for Of Snow and Scarlet by Katherine Macdonald. It’s sort of abbreviated review because I don’t have the final published version of the book in front of me. Unlike the ARC I received of The Shield Road, this was not a ready-for-print PDF, so I don’t feel comfortable speaking to the formatting or anything like. I’ll give a follow-up once I have a physical paperback in my possession next month. (Although, I seriously doubt there will be quality issues. I already own two of Macdonald’s paperbacks, and they are excellent).

4 teaspoons of tea leaves

Cover Art

Some of you may recall that I wasn’t as impressed with the cover for A Song of Sea & Shore as some of Macdonald’s other gorgeous books. I wasn’t a fan of the different fonts and textures in the lettering on that cover. Of Snow and Scarlet does the same thing, but I think the effect on this cover is much more pleasing.

There’s something very magical in the pop of the scarlet cloak against the wintery background. I do wish though that the author’s name might have been made to pop a little more against those tree limbs. Maybe it’ll look different in print.

Cover is a solid 4 teaspoons.

 

4 teaspoons of tea leaves

Premise

As with many of Macdonald’s books, this one is a fairytale retelling. It reimagines the story of Little Red Riding Hood. As many of you probably know by now, I’m a little bit picky about fairytale retellings. On one hand, I love them in general, but it can also be difficult for the premise to really stand out. In this case, Macdonald builds on a common theme with Red Riding Hood retellings, which is the introduction of shapeshifters and/or werewolves to the tale. What makes it interesting, however, is in this case we’re dealing with a whole pack of wolves, not one Big Bad Wolf.

I will admit, I was a *little* disappointed to read “omega” in the blurb because we’ve seen those sorts of pack dynamics in every wolf shifter book in the last 40 years and they are… well… kinda wrong. That sort of behavior does emerge in packs in captivity where wolves from different packs were thrown together but… I digress. Here’s an link that explains briefly how leader dynamics really work in wild wolf packs with links to other resources if you’re interested.

I give premise 4 teaspoons.

4 teaspoons of tea leaves

Characters

To me, Andesine read as a typical misunderstood fantasy romance heroine who just wants to be more than what her little village will allow. If this was Disney there would be a big “I want” song early on in the movie. Actually, the one from Beautiy and the Beast would be pretty close without many alterations. Andy is a well written character, but I don’t feel like she really added anything unexpected to the story until just before the epilogue.

Poor Finn. He had a rough life before he really met Andy. If you like really sweet love interests, I think you’ll love Finn. Personally, I would have like to have seen a few more rough edges early on in the story.

Weirdly, I would have liked to have seen more of Vincent, who was the real Big Bad Wolf of this tale. I enjoyed the plot twist around him (although I kinda saw it coming). It would have been nice to see him try just a little harder at being a wolf in man’s clothing to get what he wanted.

Granny was probably my favorite character. That’s all I’ll say about that.

I give characters 4 teaspoons. They were all well written and had great chemistry, but I still found myself wanting just that extra little something.

4 teaspoons of tea leaves

Worldbuilding

I mentioned before that I was a little disappointed in the alpha/beta/omega pack dynamics. This is true. However, I do appreciate the way that Macdonald used them. The added magical element really added some interest into what I kind of feel is a tried trope.

I enjoyed the way that we were given hints of the wider world, even though the bulk of the story takes places in a tiny village and/or the woods. The interludes giving us a glimpse into Finn’s life also give us a glimpse into the wider world. That added a lot of depth to a story with a traditionally rather narrow setting.

I give worldbuilding 4 teaspoons.

5 teaspoons of tea leaves

Plot

There’s plenty of plot to enjoy. I was able to guess some of the twists, but not all of them. The author really got me at the end. If there were any plot holes, I didn’t notice them. The pacing was largely fine. I thought the romance was actually pretty quick compared to A Song of Sea & Shore.

5 teaspoons for plot.

5 teaspoons of tea leaves

Writing

If there is one thing Macdonald does well, it is suck you in with her gorgeous prose. It’s enough that I don’t even care that the book flops between first person for most of the story and third person for Finn’s history chapters. This is very similar to the interludes in A Song of Sea & Shore (yeah, I know, I keep comparing them, sorry). If you find POV swapping like that jarring (which I usually do) that might bug you. However, if you can get past it, it’s so worth it. I could almost feel the winter’s bite while reading this book.

Writing is a solid 5 teaspoons.

Final Thoughts

Macdonald once again invited me into a world of magic and romance. I was once swept away into a story I struggled to put down and devoured quickly. I (thankfully) didn’t need a whole box of tissues this time.

I’m going to do something I’ve never done on the blog before. I am going to give a half teaspoons rating. Of Snow and Scarlet is a 4.5 teaspoons for me, and I will be rounding it up for platforms that don’t allow half star ratings.

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May 2021 Update

Posted on May 21st 2021 ⋄ By Sara Cleveland ⋄ Category: News, Writing

Sorry for the late blog post. Just have a few quick updates.

Grand prize basket for the Courting the Dragon giveaway. A gray dragon plushie, physical copies of Saving the Dragon and Courting the Dragon, a coffee mug, two bookmarks, and a small magnet with a dragon on it are shown.

First, the release-related news. The release party giveaway for Courting the Dragon is currently open. Check out my Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook for instructions on how to enter. The prize baskets are pretty sweet if I do say so myself! Check out the grand prize basket pictured here.

Speaking of the release party…

The current plan is host a digital release party event. The platform and start time are still TBD, but some polling on Twitter has indicated a preference for Twitch. Since the streaming options there are a bit more robust than FB or Instagram Live that currently seeming like the best option. I will try to have the details nailed down this week. Tentative event information is currently posted on FB; the event will be updated by the 1st of June.

By the way, you can use the hashtag #CourtingTheDragon to find the latest tweets and Instagram posts about the release, including sneak peek snippets, the giveaway, and what ARC readers are saying!

On to the writing.

I have made some progress on Finding the Dragon. The major plot points, who the antagonist is, and all those sorts of important bits are mostly ironed out. I’ve written a couple chapters’ worth and I’m pleased with what I have so far. A few snippets have been posted to my Instagram, so if you’re looking for sneak peeks, that’s the place to be. Maybe sometime in June after Courting the Dragon goes live I’ll do a cover reveal. I don’t have a specific release date in mind for this yet (at least not that I’m comfortable sharing), but you definitely won’t be waiting another six years for it.

Meanwhile…

For some reason yesterday I got the itch to write a fairytale retelling. I’m about a chapter and a half into an interesting shifter-romance retelling of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Why does “Baby Bear” have insomnia? Why were the village jerk and a wereweasel chasing “Goldie”? Is there a plot to this beyond the classic fable? I don’t know, but my muse says we’re going to find out. Not sure how long this is going to be or what format it will be released in. I’m toying with the idea of trying it as a Kindle Vella serial. Or maybe it will be a short, 99 cent novella. Who knows? Maybe I’ll write a whole dang novel and Goldilocks and Baby Bear will save the world from impending doom. My brain is also insisting that whatever this is, it’s the start of a new trilogy because Baby Bear’s older brothers are going to need their own Happily Ever Afters. Oy vey.

I’ve also been seriously looking at The Foundling again. I recently purchased a cover for it, and the itch to get it finished and out the door is getting strong. It’s about half written, and as I start actively working on it again is probably a good time to start thinking about alpha readers for it. I’m not sure when I’ll do a cover reveal or what the release timeline will be for this yet. Sometime in 2022 would be nice. I’ll keep y’all posted.

I think that’s all for now folks. Here’s a sleepy kitty picture to brighten your Friday.

Mayhem (orange/buff tabby) and Zoe (diluted tortie) sleeping in a large, teal saucer chair.
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Mark of Favor

Posted on May 17th 2021 ⋄ By Sara Cleveland ⋄ Category: Reviews

Today’s review is of Mark of Favor by Kaitlyn Keller. I found this book via a recommendations thread on Twitter.

Warning: this review is slightly more spoiler-y than usual, so proceed with caution.

About the Author

According to her biography in the book, Keller currently lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and two kids. She enjoys watching anime and playing video games. In addition to Mark of Favor, she is the author of a YA fantasy trilogy and a horror novel.

Book Details

Mark of Favor is available from Amazon in both paperback and Kindle. It is currently enrolled in Kindle Unlimited. If you prefer to purchase, the eBook is $3.99 and the paperback is $12.99, which is what I paid for it.

The paperback is roughly 355 pages of story, and includes a glossary at the front.

4 teaspoons of tea leaves

Design

The cover for Mark of Favor is cute. I really enjoy the art style and the colors. It definitely drew my attention and influenced me to purchase the book. The font on the back of the paperback feels a little weird in comparison with the rest of the outer cover. 4 teaspoons for exterior design.

The inside of the paperback is well formatted. I didn’t notice any formatting issues. Scenes are nicely delineated and the font is very readable. 4 teaspoons for interior design.

Total for design is 4 teaspoons.

4 teaspoons of tea leaves

Premise

I was really excited about the premise of the story. A young American transfer student (who definitely doesn’t believe in Japanese myths) finds herself chosen to be the bride of a powerful Yokai. I can think of works of fiction with a similar premise. The first thing I thought of was actually a webtoon called Ghost Wife, although the similarity is very surface. Nonetheless, I found the premise intriguing. 4 teaspoons.

2 teaspoons of tea leaves

Characters

I did not like the main character, Ember Lockley. Her personality rubbed me the wrong way pretty much from the start of the book. Her love for her sister is admirable, but I honestly found that to be her only redeeming quality. The negative way that she views herself and the people around her was grating from page one.

Sakuya had all the personality of a doormat. He just seemed like he existed purely as a means of wish fulfillment. After all, what young girl doesn’t want a guy who is perfectly handsome and willing and able to do just about anything to make her happy, right?

2 teaspoons for characters.

3 teaspoons of tea leaves

Worldbuilding

There were definitely some interesting aspects to the worldbuilding. Keller’s vision of the Spirit Realm was interesting, at the very least. I found parts of it a little off-putting for my personal taste, but it was well done. I do feel like some of it was presented in a slightly info-dumpy way. I give worldbuilding 3 teaspoons.

2 teaspoons of tea leaves

Plot

I was bored through most of the middle of the book. As far as I could tell, most of the conflict could have been cleared up if Ember had simply told Sakuya what her hang up was. If she had just explained her home life and her concern for her sister clearly, I’m sure they could have come to happy resolution in about a quarter of the time. The whole time I couldn’t figure out why she didn’t just explain it to him. Of all people, Sakuya ought to have a lot of sympathy for her sister’s plight.

The ending also felt super convenient and a bit “well, let’s wrap this up” rather than a logical, satisfying conclusion.

2 teaspoons for plot.

4 teaspoons of tea leaves

Writing

Keller has a lovely, descriptive writing style. Any time she describes what was going on around the character is when I really felt like her writing shines the most. On the other hand, I found some of the dialogue to be a bit stiff in places, but not to the point of being unenjoyable. I give the writing 4 teaspoons.

3 teaspoons of tea leaves

Final Thoughts

I went into Mark of Favor really excited, thinking it would be right up my alley. I loved the animes Kamisama Kiss and Kakuriyo: Bed and Breakfast for Spirits. I also adored Annette Marie’s Red Winter Trilogy. While Mark of Favor did hit some similar notes to these favorites, it also hit some sour ones.

There were a couple of things about Mark of Favor that really turned me off. The first was Ember’s general attitude towards those around her at the beginning of the book. I feel like several missteps were made in the portrayl of her character and her hurt. Perhaps showing rather than telling her terrible home life would have been more impactful than showing off her teenage disdain for everything else around her.

My second issue with the book was how we never actually meet the sister until the last quarter of the story. It’s hard to empathize with Ember’s emotional bonds when the reader hasn’t been given a chance to form those bonds themselves. The whole conversation between the sisters when Ember and Sakuya visit feels stiff and contrived. It had zero emotional impact for me. This combined with how much Ember lingered over that point instead of just discussing it with Sakuya just left me irritated and bored.

I really, really wanted to love this book. And there were moments where I found it entertaining. However, all in all, it just wasn’t the enjoyable, romantic read I was hoping for. I am unable to give it more than 3 teaspoons.

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Fiction Friday: The Lady

Posted on May 14th 2021 ⋄ By Sara Cleveland ⋄ Category: Short Story

Before we hop into the flash fiction story I’m sharing with y’all today, I just want to get a few things out of the way.

First, this is not a cry for help. My mental health is pretty much as good as it gets at the moment, all things considered. (All things being a crazy work schedule, a pandemic, releasing a new book, etc, etc, etc). This is actually a re-write of a much longer piece I wrote about a decade ago that was lost on an old harddrive. It annoyed me that I lost it, so I wrote it again in a tighter format. This was some flash fiction practice. That’s all.

Second, I don’t normally do trigger warnings on content unless specifically asked to when submitting for a review/contest/etc. This time I am. Please skip this one of you find stories involving the following triggering: terminal illness, alcoholism, homicidal thoughts, and/or suicidal thoughts. I know that’s a lot for 499 words.

And finally, I hold the copyright to this fiction. You may not copy or reproduce it in part or whole without my written permission except for the purposes of review and other cases allowed by copyright law. Basically, don’t be a jerky pirate or plagarizer.


The apparition is here again. He sulks in the corner of the room, glaring at me with rheumy eyes. I’m so distracted by the way he wrings his gnarled hands and rubs his knobby knees that I don’t hear a word Dr. Hart is saying. I only notice he was speaking when he stops to glance over his shoulder. He can’t see Creaky. 

Dr. Hart writes out a prescription. He has to stop periodically to shake out a cramp in his hand. I take the paper, but I have no intentions of getting it filled. The last three drugs he prescribed did nothing. Creaky waves to me as I leave.

At work, more monsters lurk behind unsuspecting souls. The one that followed my old boss scared me the most; a small, gaunt creature with sunken eyes and grayish-purple skin. Only a few wisps of hair clung to its scalp. I never dared to give it a name. 

My own ghost is a lady in black who comes and goes. She never speaks, only stares at me with deep, knowing eyes. She is mysterious and alluring, yet something in my gut warns me never to let her whisper the secrets her smile keeps. At first, I only caught short glimpses of her from the corner of my eye. Now it seems she stays for hours or even days at a time.

Not every vision’s meaning is as opaque as my lady. The shades of my wife’s alcoholism are as obvious as they are obnoxious. They are the only ones that actually speak to me. One of them greets me at the door. I call him Bubba, and he smells like cheap beer. I ignore him and the piles of empty cans cluttering the entryway. I used to gather them up in bags, but I don’t even bother kicking them aside anymore. Jean will clean them up when one of her sober moments strike.

I find Jean in the living room, sprawled on the sofa with plastic children’s cup. I don’t need to guess what’s in it because the bottle of bourbon is lying on its side by her feet, soaking the carpet. She doesn’t look at me but turns up the TV volume, ready to drown me out with a game show or soap opera.

A new apparition dressed in black is sitting beside her. I meet his gaze and immediately recoil from the venom in his eyes. A shiver of fear runs up my spine, and I retreat.

The lady is waiting for me by the nightstand in the master bedroom. Her gaze is sympathetic, a balm after the sting of my wife’s hostility. She holds out her hands to me. I hesitate. She makes no move towards me. I know I have to come to her. 

I hear footsteps on the stairs. It’s time to choose.

My hand closes on the gun in the nightstand’s drawer. The lady’s hand covers mine. Together we lift it to my mouth.

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