Keryl Raist is a part-time writer, part-time blogger, part-time book reviewer, and full-time mom. When not balancing babies with books, she likes to sleep. She lives in Charleston, SC, with two little boys; the "Number One, All-Star, Son-In-Law Of The Year Champion" (according to a discerning panel of her mom and mom's best friends); and a remarkably unflusterable cat.
Where to find Keryl Raist online
Where to buy in print
Justice is fine, noble, a beautiful and fleeting thing. But if justice is impossible, revenge is almost as good, and tastes just as sweet.
Yesterday Sarah Metz didn't know who she really is. Today she does. And tomorrow the quest for justice, or barring that, revenge, begins.
Justice: Book Two The Ossolyn Trilogy is the sequel to Sylvianna.
Smashwords book reviews by Keryl Raist
- Hearth and Harvest
on Sep. 10, 2010
All six of these stories have an eerie, almost Neil Gaimanish quality to the writing. A very distinct voice coupled with a beautiful use of language to evoke images and feelings of place and time. These stories feel like poems wrapped around plot to me, and in a few cases the plot appears secondary to the imagery.
I should probably make it clear that when reading, I'm looking for plot and dialogue. These are my main treats in a story. I'm generally not a huge fan of language so much as story. These stories are excellent examples of beautiful use of language, but on the plot front some of them are a little weak. As stories, as opposed to prose poems, they range from lovely (Leatherskin: A steampunk rift on Pygmalion, which you should all go out and download the book so you can read it.) to confusing (Written In Stone: Which is beautiful, but three reads through and I'm still not one hundred percent sure what is going on, or more importantly: why.) to abrupt (Reaping: A sweet little tale of a woman rescuing her god, that would have been quite a bit more satisfying at novella length).
It costs whatever you want to pay for it. On the strength of Leatherskin alone, I'd suggest paying for it. (I paid $2.00.) Hearth and Harvest comes in at about 30 pages, so it's a very short little thing. Call it lunch break or coffee break reading. A very pleasant lunch break.
- Lovers and Beloveds: An Intimate History of the Greater Kingdom Book One
on Dec. 28, 2010
A while back an email popped up in my inbox requesting I read Lovers and Beloveds for review. I did my usual routine of checking the book out, looking at it's reviews, reading the back page copy, and bits and pieces of text. It looked good. My initial impression was steampunk erotic fantasy. It sounded right up my alley.
Then another interesting factoid hit my radar; it was groupfunded, a major plus. If that term means nothing to you, prepare to learn. Groupfunding is a technique where you get a bunch of people to give you money to pay for you to do your project. Call it modern day patronage. On a practical level that means this book was good enough, in the bits and pieces released by the author, to get total strangers to give her money to hire an editor, artist, etc. While total money generated is not a definitive ruler for a book's quality, I've waded through a lot of self-published fiction that no one in their right mind would buy, let alone decide to patronize. I was thrilled to get into this book.
It turns out my initial impressions of Lovers and Beloveds was off, but not in a bad way. It is a coming of age tale wrapped around a story of sexual domination (a story within the story writing technique is used to good effect in this book) exploring how the one story furthers the other. It's a tale of a young man preparing for his eventual kinghood and the paths he may take to get there.
It is set in a fantasy land with an 1890's-1910ish technology level. But the technology is just in the background. To call it steampunk would be similar to calling Sherlock Holmes steampunk, sure it's the right era, but to do so misses the point of steampunk.
It is erotica: coming of age, realpolitik, intelligently crafted with layers and story lines beyond the sex, and wrapped up in the sexual politics of what it means to be a man or a woman erotica. As such, if you don't happen to enjoy reading explicit sex or sexual violence, just put the book down and head for the next one on your list. Assuming such reading does not bother you, go get a copy, you'll be well rewarded.
Lovers and Beloveds uses erotic sex as a vehicle to explore the paths of power and the relationships of dominance and privilege. All things a boy needs to learn to become a man who will be a king. The sex is well written, very hot, and it's easy to see why the main character, Temmin, finds himself aroused and dismayed by that arousal when seeing the main character of the inner story raped.
I think calling this book fantasy might be a bit misleading. There is magic in this world, but it's use is minimal. My guess is that in later books in the series it will become important, (perhaps there will be a magical coming of age in the next book?) but for the opening book it's just sort of there. Really, this reads more like historical fiction than fantasy. Take out the few brief magic bits, and this could very easily be set in a fictionalized 1890's Colonial India or Hong Kong.
Temmin reads as a genuine young man. He's spoiled but trying to be a good person. He can be self-absorbed and whiny, but he's an eighteen-year-old who just had his world turned upside down. He's earned his whininess, and there's something wrong with a person who isn't self absorbed when his entire reality shifts. Basically, the fact that he is annoying on occasion is entirely in character and should the annoying bits be removed, he wouldn't read true.
The writing is tight. Scenes flow from one to the next with no major issues. If there were grammar errors, I didn't notice them. Dialog and voice may not be exceptional, but they were more than competent and worked with the characters. I never found myself thinking, "There's no way Temmin (or any other character) would say that!" There are bits where as a reader I found myself wondering why we were meeting certain characters and plot lines, but the quality of the rest of the story and knowing this is book one of a series makes me think they are the seeds of future plot points. The story within the story may have been a bit longer than strictly necessary, but that's my own personal taste (I tend to skim epic battle scenes), and for all I know in the next book the bits I thought were long may be vitally important.
I look forward to seeing how Temmin will mature into his future.
- Expert Assistance
on May 05, 2011
Sit back and imagine, if you will, a story where Lazarus Long, Hannah Montanna, and Marvin the Paranoid Android on prozac get together to liberate a planet. Got that image in your head? Sounds like fun doesn't it? Yep. Reading it was fun, too.
Jake, the main character is something of a cross between Han Solo and Lazarus Long. Like Han he's in financial trouble. Like Lazarus he seems to have seen and done everything at least once. And like both of them he exudes a sense of fond grouchiness at the naive-cute-and-fuzzy-puppy types that keep tripping through his life.
Like Lazarus, Jake has a sentient computer/spaceship with a brain the size of a planet. This one is not depressed, but does seem to have a dry sense of humor and irony sensors on overdrive. Odin, in addition to knowing basically everything that ever was recorded, also has teleporter technology, can build almost anything, and crack basically any code. As you can imagine, Odin is a very good friend to have. Odin was built as a military vessel. He became sentient and decided he did not want to be a warship. Jake found him floating abandoned in the middle of space, probably bought him some fuel, and the two have been together since.
And now, looking for some fast money, Jake has a new job. Two new jobs really. One is shuttling Evvie Martini (Hannah Montanna, down to her dyed hair) from gig to gig. The other is helping the people of Antioch Two throw off Sordius Maxi, the owner of their planet.
Of course, eventually Evvie finds out about the revolution, gets involved, and a cute little tale that can be described as "Yay Liberty!" ensues. The story is more or less the fictional equivalent of kettle corn. It's sweet, crunchy, yummy, but not exactly nutritious.
Here's why. In the past I've mentioned something called power balance. So, let's talk a little more about plot and power balance. For a plot to work, the good guys and the bad guys need a shot at winning. It can be a one in a million shot, that's good reading, too. But unless you want to study some sort of human emotion, (ie lit fic) the guys on one side can't so completely overpower the guys on the other to the point where the guys on the other have absolutely no shot at winning. Sure the struggle of David V. Goliath is good reading, but the struggle between Goliath and the quadriplegic toddler isn't. The toddler has no chance at all.
Maxi never had a shot. Odin isn't so much taking a gun to a knife fight as taking a tank and making sure that Omniscient God Almighty is driving it. Maxi was so far out gunned by that computer it wasn't funny. And to throw the power balance off even further, Maxi is a lot more like Fredo Corleone than Michael.
There's no tension to this plot, because there's no real danger. There's no chance the revolution won't work. There's no possibility of any of the main characters being in any danger. Because of that, none of the main characters experience any real change. And why would they? Nothing was really risked. Evvie is just a childish at the beginning of the revolution as she is in the end. The rebels are just as clueless; they never had to learn anything. Odin, well, he's already the pinnacle of intellectual evolution, so there was nowhere for him to go. Jake has no deeper understanding of anything because he knew it all to begin with.
If you'll forgive the comparison, this is not Moon is a Harsh Mistress. It's not even close.
When discussing revolution it's hard to avoid politics. This was a fairly innocuous screed against commercialism, without being insulting or annoying. I'm about as far off on my side of the political spectrum as it's possible to get, and I didn't find the political content too bothersome. I doubt anyone else who can still claim to be somewhere on the rational scale would either.
So, if you want a cute and safe read, an adventure where you know everyone comes home just peachy and the good guys are guaranteed to win, this one's for you.
- The Judas Syndrome
on May 07, 2011
Okay, so supposedly, when you see a bad review, it's a case of the book not living up to the expectations of whomever purchased it. That makes sense. You rarely see reviews that state something like, "I absolutely loathe horror stories. So in a masochistic fit I picked up Seven Co-eds Get Horribly Murdered In A Haunted House. It was a horror story. I hated it." (And if you do write that review, you deserve to be smacked upside the back of the head Gibb's style.)
No, usually bad reviews go something like this: "I purchased Seven Co-eds Get Horribly Murdered In A Haunted House because I love horror stories, and there were a bunch of great reviews. Then I cracked it open. I don't know what the other reviewers were smoking while they read it, but it didn't live up to the hype."
So, you see a book, you read the write up, you check out and the reviews and develop expectations. You read the sample and develop more depth to your expectations. Having done that, I expected The Judas Syndrome to be Red Dawn redone with a whole bunch of teen stoners.
Unlike the potential negative reviewer, I was very pleased to see my expectations were not met.
I'd say the first quarter of the book followed the traditional post-nuclear Armageddon script pretty closely. We meet the main characters and the secondary characters. We see them party and do a ton of drugs. They come home and find the world has been blown to smithereens. They huddle together for survival. Up until this point it looks like a sophisticated version of many teen fantasies of life hiding out with your buddies, an unlimited supply of drugs, no parents to kill the buzz, and enough danger to keep everything interesting.
And then the story begins to shift. We move from teen fantasy mode into metaphysical questioning mode. We go from nothing deeper than getting laid and the next joint to an in depth exploration of a psyche at the breaking point.
This is not a light fluffy read with a happy ending. The title, which I barely paid any attention to when I was thinking about the book before I read it, is a warning about how it's going to work out. Joel, is a frighteningly well done psychological profile of a man slowly burning out and arising from the ashes not a phoenix, but a devil. The world is gone. Family and most friends have died horribly. As the seven month course of the book continues, more friends die. This is more stress than most people could possibly handle, add in the paranoia inducing effects of large quantities of cannabis, and you've got a recipe for disaster.
It's a compelling read, heartbreaking, but emotionally very, very real.
There are however, aspects of the story I found jarring and out of place. Joel and his friends are too young. They're high school seniors, seventeen or eighteen years old. And while I do not subscribe to the belief that all teens are twits, I can say that all the teens I've personally met who were as interested in drugs and partying as these kids were twits. They needed more time to grow up. College seniors would have worked better, post-grad students, better yet. Basically, I just ignored how old they were supposed to be, and mentally advanced them to twenty-six ish, it made the story work a lot better.
What actually happened seemed quite fuzzy, too. We know the terrorist mastermind had nukes. We learn he had a lot more than anyone thought he did. We know Joel and his buddies live in some middle of nowhere farming community, 200 miles from the nearest big city. When they get back from their camping party weekend, they find town destroyed, sort of. People are dead, some of them. Some look like they died peacefully in their sleep. Some are covered in burns. Some are running around looting. Some places the buildings have burned and cars are toppled. Some are just fine. What happened? Is this some sort of fall out from a bomb over 200 miles away? Did the terrorist have enough weaponry to go after little, middle of nowhere farming communities? And why didn't any of Joel's group come down with radiation sickness?
Joel's home and a nearby barn are perfectly set up for surviving the apocalypse it turns out. And while I get Poetl didn't want to spend too much time dealing with the physical hows of survival, the set up was just a bit too convenient. It's not only that everything is already set up with generators, but that they also manage to find a tanker truck filled with gasoline so they could run those generators.
What Poetl did want to spend time on was ripping away everything Joel knew or believed about himself. He built his character up, turned him from a lay about stoner into a leader, and then as stress piled on stress, turned him into a paranoid addict. And from there things only get worse. As I said earlier, not a light and fluffy read.
Joel is the only fully developed character of the lot. And I'm not sure if this is intentional or not. We get the story from Joel's POV. So are two dimensional secondary characters an indicator of lazy writing or of Joel's inability to really see and understand the people around him? Part of the reason I'm not sure if this is intentional or not is that the writing as a technical matter of grammar and construction ranges from great to error prone. When I see technical mastery of prose, I assume that things like the shallow secondary characters when told with first person POV is intentional. When it's not, I'm not sure if it's another indicator of sloppy writing or an indicator of deep writing with limited technical skills.
Voice, assuming you pretend Joel is twenty-six, is well done. Action scenes are believably chaotic. (Though, as others have indicated, the sudden military prowess of a crew of high school seniors wasn't.) Joel's descent into self-destructive madness was extremely well done. You almost don't notice he's slipping away because he doesn't notice he's slipping away. The ending isn't much of a shock. Once you realize the title isn't kidding, and the last line of the description really isn't kidding, you know how this is going to end. And while not a shock, it still evokes the pain of losing a character you wanted more and better for.
More careful editing, and more attention to making the setting/characters match the gravity of what happened, and this would have been a five star book. As it is, I'm comfortable calling this four stars.
- Black Earth: End of the Innocence
on June 27, 2011
I started Black Earth: End of the Innocence with a lot of hope. I did my usual pre-review routine of reading the blurb and the first chapter. Both of them looked good. The first chapter is arresting and sets up the promise of a really interesting story. I was happy to agree to review Black Earth.
Unfortunately Black Earth starts going downhill from there pretty swiftly.
This is a big book, and it's the first in a series with, I think, thirteen point of view characters. It's entirely possible I've forgotten a few. On the upside I rarely found myself confusing them with each other. On the downside the whole book is more or less character introductions, a little back story, and a tiny bit of plot. I read the kindle version, so I'm guessing here, but this is probably a 400+ page story where by the end of it we're just starting to get a feel for what might be going on.
What is going on? It's hard to tell. The world is falling apart. Meteorites are crashing into the planet. Aliens or demons, possibly alien demons, are ramping up for war against God. Teenagers with superpowers are fumbling around trying to figure out what is going on. The President of the United States appears to be the Anti-Christ, or working for the Anti-Christ, it's fuzzy. There's some sort of time-travel-fix-the-future, and counter-time-travel-keep-the-future-the-way-it-is angle. Other planets have been destroyed by Legion (the alien demons). There's something about getting humans off of Earth to a new planet (which may have been destroyed in the future, by Legion) so they can evolve and avoid the destruction of Earth. There are bad guys galore (more on this later), and absolute scads of purposeless violence. Any one of these threads could have been a book by itself, but they're all scattered together, and none of them developed enough to do more than give the reader a glimpse of a building story. Basically, we get to read the first third of something like six books.
And then it just stops. Part of how a series is supposed to be built is that each part is a story of its own. Look at Harry Potter, each of the novels has a complete story arc while building up the larger arc of the series. It's possible one of the arcs this story began with ended. All the rest of them are left dangling. If there is an overarching theme of this book, it's everything falling apart, and that's well and truly going gangbusters by the time Black Earth has ended.
There's a saying: a book is only as good as its bad guys. And while that isn't always true, clunky, melodramatic villains will just kill a book. Unfortunately Black Earth has a lot of them. There's Evanescence, Witch Queen of the Damned (something like a Super Satan), The President of the United States (the Anti-Christ?), Mr. Silver (misogynistic, super-rich-corporate-tycoon-James-Bond-style-villain), Alpha 1 (psychopathic killer working for Mr. Silver), Theresa (counter time travel sociopath), and a few other random psychopaths. And all of them need mustaches to twirl. There is not a single subtle, sane bad guy in the lot. Be prepared for clunky dialog; psychopathic musings; megalomaniacs; ice-cold, stone-hard killers, who can be distracted and overpowered by untrained victims; random, useless violence; and monologues that give the good guys the chance to escape.
Good dialog makes me want to sing the praises of a book. Bad dialog makes me want to cry. This book is riddled with stilted and stiff dialog, mostly coming from the mouths of the bad guys. On top of that most of the characters use the same basic vocabulary. Quick example: things are falling out of the sky and crashing into Earth. With the exception of one NASA scientist, everyone calls them falling stars: not meteors, meteorites, comets, shooting stars, or anything else. All of the characters have precisely the same internal vocabulary for this event, even the ones who come from another planet. Here's another example: no one curses. At first I thought this was a young adult book, but no, it has a not-suitable-for-under-17 note on it, so there's no reason that no one ever utters 'shit' or 'fuck.' There are some seriously scuzzy people in this book and one rough teenager, and none of them ever says anything beyond a PG rated word. Not to say I'm a fan of profanity for profanity's sake, but I am a fan of realistic dialog, and at the very least, the kind of teen girl who sets up her own sex club in high school is likely to mutter something untoward upon finding she's been drugged and raped.
And that leads into another aspect of this book, it's Christian fiction. (Not that you can find this out by reading the description or the genre. Why this isn't mentioned in the description or genre is puzzling.) I think this is why no one curses, even though it would be in character for at least a few of them to be doing it. This might also explain the fact that there is only one gray character and everyone else is fully a black hat or white hat.
I like eschatology, and while there's a lot of creative work going on in this version of the end times, it's heavy handed. The President is a bad guy. How do we learn that at first? We find out she's had the "under God" bit removed from the Pledge of Allegiance. As a work of theology goes, this one isn't sophisticated. There's plenty of room for theodicy in this story, but either his characters or Alderman isn't up to it. Instead of spending some real time on what it means that an all powerful God allows evil and suffering, we get the tired tropes of 'it makes us stronger' or 'keep the faith.'
Then there's writing as a technical aspect of putting words together. Parts of this book are eloquent and graceful. Parts feel like a car with a shot suspension driving over a pitted, rocky, country road. Word choice was problematic. Alderman often uses a word that sounds similar to the one he wants, but isn't it: equitable for equal or correlating for corresponding. Likewise he comes up with sentences that sound good, but don't actually mean what I think he was trying to convey. Point of view is also an issue. He's either writing third person omniscient badly, or head hopping from one third person limited to another. Either way it's distracting. You think you're in one character's head, next thing you know there's an info dump involving stuff the character shouldn't know, then you're in another character's head. Top this off with many scenes ending in a cliff hanger, and when next we see those characters they've suddenly gotten off of the cliff, without Alderman bothering to tell us how it happened.
All of this is excruciatingly disappointing because the first few chapters are good. Alderman can write decent teenagers (adults and children not so much). The first chapter has stunningly beautiful imagery and makes you want to read more. The first few chapters that follow were good enough I kept working out so I could read more. (And I'm not what anyone would call a fan of the elliptical machine. Reading the beginning, my normal twenty minutes grew to thirty before I hit the first rough patch.) Then suddenly, it all goes awry and we're stuck in the land of stilted dialog and insane bad-guys. I'm giving it two stars, and wishing the promises of the first chapters could have been fulfilled.
- Beside the Still Waters
on Dec. 31, 2011
I love a good family saga. I love historical fiction. I loved the gilded age, and the turn of the twentieth century. I'm a massive WWI wonk.
So, when Beside the Still Waters, a family saga set in 1904 to 1938 landed in my review pile, I was a happy little reader. Probably a little too happy, I was so excited to see it, I put it in the to review pile even after thinking the beginning was a little choppy and rough.
Let's take a minute and talk about what a historical family saga entails. There should be a huge, sweeping collection of deeply rounded characters, in a vibrantly alive piece of time. John Jakes and Herman Wouk wrote my two favorite sagas, and those tales are massive, fully alive and breathing pieces of interactive history. Basically, if the author is doing her job, you get to join a family and live with them through some fascinating bit of history.
There should be a main story arc, this is usually the sweep of the chunk of history the book is set in. On this plot line the characters or more or less acting like tour guides, giving us an intimate view of life during whenever the story is set. This is the plot line that ties everything together, and should be a meta image of the smaller individual conflicts going on in the secondary and tertiary plot lines.
The secondary plot line will be some level of specific conflict involving different members of the family. This is usually the motive plot for the 'story' and will usually involve breaking different bits of the family off into different camps. The historical aspect of the story is often the fault line that divides different bits of the family into different camps.
Tirtiary (and on and on, a real saga can have at least one main plot line per main character, and often side ones for the side characters and so and so forth. After all, it's a SAGA; no one's worried about it coming out too long.) plots involve romances, coming of age stories, individual conflicts for individual characters.
And, if it's not clear from the above, or the fact they're called sagas, a family saga should be long.
So, basically, when I read a historical family saga, I want a huge, complex, well-researched book, brimming with fascinating characters, in depth locales, plot twists and turns, that all wrap into some sweep of history and a satisfying conclusion for all surviving family members.
Besides the Still Waters is well researched. In fact, I would have very happily read a straight up history of the Quabbin Reservoir by Lynch.
It fell well short on all of my other criteria for a good family saga.
"A rift between two brothers, Eli and John Vaughn, at the turn of the 20th Century continues through to the next generation as John tries to use Jenny, Eli’s daughter, in a plot to regain the family farm from Alonzo, who now runs it, who is Jenny's love. John is broke and eager to sell the farm to the state, which is buying up area property for the coming reservoir. Both Alonzo and Eli refuse to sell their properties, and protest removal by eminent domain. Torn between loyalty to her family and heritage, and the allure of a future beyond the valley, Jenny refuses to remain powerless like the men she loves, but looks for a way to take control. A disastrous decision may prove fatal in a race against time."
That's the back of the book blurb. It's a little choppy, but promising, right? I thought so. Here's the problem: at fifty percent through, the plot, as stated in the blurb, is just, barely beginning to get rolling. To use a historical example that most people are familiar with: if the main plot of this book had been wrapped around the American Civil War, the story would have started with the writing of the Declaration of Independence to get us familiar with the fight over slavery. Jenny (who is identified as the main character earlier in the blurb) isn't even born for the first third of the story.
The antagonist, John, shows up for less than three pages of on screen time, and then vanishes for a third of the book. Once again, a family saga should be long and complex enough to follow the antagonist as he runs away, blows his fortune, and then take him back to the main swing of things, so that by the time we get to the conflict, we're deeply attached to both sides of the argument. A family saga needs the depth to follow multiple characters through their lives while still pushing the main plot line forward.
The writing style is choppy. I'd be reading away, getting a little plot and character development, then into straight history, and back to plot, and back to history. From what I can tell this is intentional, but instead of highlighting how the meta history compliments the individual lives of the characters it's jarring and breaks the flow.
The writing style is non-fiction. As I said, I'd happily read a straight history by Lynch, but I don't want to read fiction by her. In non-fiction it's perfectly acceptable to tell your reader what happened, showing them is nice, but usually not the goal. In fiction the idea is to show your readers what is going on. But, if you pick 3rd person omniscient as your point of view, (the narrator voice) it's very easy to slip into telling your reader what is going on. And tell she does. So much telling that it's actually pretty rare to run into a scene that really is showing something, but when one does occur, a chunk of straight history will show up in a page or so and stop it dead.
And, just to make me grit my teeth, the formatting is wonky. I just wrapped the beta version of my latest novel, and my hubby wanted a version for his Kindle. (He doesn't like reading on his computer, so no Word doc for him.) Anyway, I put the beta version through the Smashwords' Meatgrinder with no prep at all, and got precisely the same sort of wonky formatting Beside The Still Waters has. Basically, it looks fine, and then for no real reason it suddenly changes font, and changes back, and forth again, all through the book.
As I said in the email I sent off to my beta readers, the kindle version looks like it was formatted by drunk weasels, drunk weasels that like Courier. It's not illegible, but it is annoying. Deeply annoying. And maybe part of the reason it annoys me so much is that I know how much work it takes to fix this (about an hour-hour and a half), and how ridiculously lazy it is to just leave it that way.
So, all in all, I'm not impressed by Beside the Still Waters. I wish it had been a straight history of the Quabbin Reservoir. I think I would have enjoyed that quite a bit.