The Undernet by J.S. Frankel


The Undernet by J.S. Frankel
Publisher: Devine Destinies
Genre: Young Adult, Suspense/Mystery, Horror, Contemporary
Length: Full Length (232 pages)
Age Recommendation: 16+
Rating: 4 Stars
Review by: Astilbe

Milton (Milt) Edwards, eighteen, high school graduate and gamer supreme, lives for the next game to be played on the internet. His friend, Simon Smith, is no different, and together they rule the world of war simulations and zombie invasions.

When Simon tells Milt about the newest site he’s heard of—the Undernet—Milt is intrigued. However, when Simon turns up dead shortly after telling him, Milt is determined to find out why. Was it the Undernet, a shadowy cyber world, or simply a maniac with a vendetta? He is soon recruited by Ramon, a former prisoner turned FBI hacker, and Larry Caldwell, an FBI agent. Ramon introduces Milt to the Darknet, and soon the clues fall into place, or at least Milt thinks they do.

Against the counsel of his girlfriend, Roberta Jones, Milt goes deeper and deeper into the netherworld known as the Undernet, finding out that reality isn’t what he thinks it is. More deaths happen, and when Milt discovers the truth behind who killed Simon—and others—it may be too late. Log onto the Undernet. Don’t think about logging out.

Not everything on the Internet is friendly or light-hearted.

The premise leapt out at me immediately. As a longtime fan of Mr. Frankel’s work, I was curious to see what his take on the Undernet would be. I was quite happy with how he used this plot device to introduce Milton to a part of the web that few people even knew existed. It was every bit as interesting and unsettling as I’d hoped it would be.

I would have liked to see a little more character development with Milton. He experienced many frightening and surprising things during the course of this book. While I was pleased to see that he changed and grew as a result of some of them, others didn’t seem to affect him much at all. It would have been nice to have more time to explore this and to see if he ever did evolve in those areas as a result of the scary stuff he discovered.

This tale was full of horror. The Undernet was filled with people who enjoyed all kinds of violent hobbies. The narrator didn’t shy away from sharing his impressions of them with the audience in vivid detail. It was something that the plot required, and I’m glad that the author faced his subject matter head on. With that being said, this also isn’t something that should be read by anyone under the age of sixteen because of how grisly it was.

The Undernet is a great choice for anyone who is in the mood for something dark.

Battlefield by J.S. Frankel


Battlefield by J.S. Frankel
The Titans of Ardana 2

Publisher: Devine Destinies
Genre: Young Adult, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Action/Adventure, Contemporary
Length: Full Length (235 pages)
Age Recommendation: 14+
Heat Level: Sweet
Rating: 4 Stars
Review by: Astilbe

Martin Calder and his girlfriend, Dana—no last name given—are back. Possessing superpowers, Martin joins up with Dana to fight crime throughout their adopted city of Baltimore. Fighting crime on Earth is easy, but when an old enemy from Dana’s world, Ardana, returns to wreak havoc and seek vengeance, it will take more than anyone can possibly give to defeat him. Sometimes, though, giving everything isn’t enough.

Every day is a new battle when you’re fighting an impossible strong alien.

My review of the first story in this series talked about Martin not having much character development in it. It made me happy to see how much he grew in this sequel. His basic personality remained the same, but he matured in all kinds of wonderful ways. It was especially intersting to see how he changed as a result of some information about his past that came to light. I can’t say anything else about that part of the plot without giving away spoilers, but I liked how Mr. Frankel connected this character’s past and present. Martin’s evolution made perfect sense because of it.

I would have liked to see Dana get more attention from the plot. She was such a strong presence when they first met that I was a bit surprised by the less active role she played this time around. If these characters get the chance to share more of their adventures, I hope she’ll be given more chances to shine. Dana has a lot of talents, and I’d love to see her show them off. With that being said, this is a minor criticism of something I otherwise enjoyed quite a bit.

One of my favorite things Mr. Frankel’s writing style is how well he writes action scenes. He has a way of drawing a reader into the middle of a battle so completely that I can never stop reading when one of them begins. I simply have to know how it ends, and there were a lot of those moments in this tale! It was especially interesting to see what kinds of weapons the aliens used. Some of them were nothing like what humans have. They made the fight scenes even more exciting than they already were.

This book is the second in a series. It can be read a standalone work, although I would also recommend checking out The Titans of Ardana if you had a good time with this one.

If you like adventure, take The Titans of Ardana 2: Battlefield for a spin.

The Titans of Ardana by J.S. Frankel


The Titans of Ardana by J.S. Frankel
Publisher: Devine Destinies
Genre: Young Adult, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Action/Adventure, Contemporary
Length: Full Length (230 pages)
Age Recommendation: 14+
Heat Level: Sweet
Rating: 3.5 Stars
Review by: Astilbe

Martin Calder and his girlfriend, Dana—no last name given—are back. Possessing superpowers, Martin joins up with Dana to fight crime throughout their adopted city of Baltimore. Fighting crime on Earth is easy, but when an old enemy from Dana’s world, Ardana, returns to wreak havoc and seek vengeance, it will take more than anyone can possibly give to defeat him. Sometimes, though, giving everything isn’t enough.

Celebrities often really are just like us once you get to know them, but Van and Dana aren’t like most famous people.

One of the things I enjoyed the most about this tale was how quickly Martin was introduced to Dana and Van’s big secret. I was expecting everyone to dance around the topic for quite a while, so it was refreshing to see how quickly that extraterrestrial surprise was revealed so that everyone could move on to more pressing matters. It made me wonder what other surprises Mr. Frankel might be hiding up his sleeves, and I couldn’t wait to get to the next chapter so I could discover them.

There wasn’t a lot of character development in this book. While I liked Martin quite a bit, I was surprised by how little he changed throughout the course of the plot. He basically remained the same guy he was in the first chapter despite some pretty scary and unexpected things happening to him. I noticed the same lack of personal growth in the other characters, too. If not for this issue, I would have picked a much higher rating as the storyline itself was exciting and fun.

The romantic subplot was so sweet. Not only did I like both of the characters who were involved in it, I thought they’d make a great couple and hoped that they’d stay together for good. They had a lot in common and their personalities complemented each other nicely. I also appreciated the fact that these characters got to know each other as friends first before either one of them made a move.

The Titans of Ardana should be read by teenage and adult readers who find aliens interesting.

Just Another Quiet Little City by J.S. Frankel


Just Another Quiet Little City by J.S. Frankel
Publisher: Devine Destinies
Genre: Young Adult, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Horror, Contemporary
Length: Full Length (234 pages)
Age Recommendation: 14+
Rating: 4 Stars
Review by: Astilbe

BoM LASR YA copy

Magic is in the air, and it makes the rules. Teenagers Gabe Common and his girlfriend, Millie Themmes, have settled in Angels Camp, California. As a high school dropout with little education and no future job prospects, Gabe is forced to work as a sideshow attraction with Millie at his side. They spend their days taking people on airborne excursions, and Gabe longs for some stability in his life.

However, all things have to change, and change they do when the magic returns with a vengeance. As with Chumsville, their former residence, most of the citizenry of Angels Camp disappear with no rhyme or reason, leaving only fifteen survivors behind. And the changes from human to something else happen once more, this time with frightening speed.

An old friend, Gil Perkins from the FBI arrives as a liaison, and then the army takes over. However, they have another plan in mind, and they imprison Gabe and the other survivors and use them as guinea pigs, trying to copy their powers.

Gabe needs answers, and the answers lie in Chumsville, a small community in South Dakota. He and his friends stage a breakout and make a perilous journey back to where it all started. Once there, Gabe and Millie learn the secret of why the magic happened and have to fight for their very survival.

Gabe’s adventures have only just begun.

My favorite part of this story was seeing how much the main characters had changed since the first time I met them. Gabe’s character development was particularly strong. He learned a lot from his previous experiences in Chumsville, and it showed. To give one example, I really enjoyed seeing how much his confidence in his own abilities had grown. It sure was nice to see him change in this way.

There were some mild pacing issues. I definitely appreciated the fact that the narrator paused early on to quickly summarize what happened in the first instalment in this series, and I’m glad it was written that way. With that being said, there were some times later on in the plot when the narrator’s interjections interrupted the current storyline. I would have preferred to have more attention paid to what was going on in Gabe and Millie’s lives in those sections. This is a minor criticism of an otherwise wonderful tale, though.

The cast of characters was very large, so I was glad to see Mr. Frankel spend as much time as he did introducing and reintroducing all of them. I had a pretty easy time keeping track of everyone because of this. It was fun to see how the original characters from Just Another Quiet Little Town reacted to the new people they met this time around. I’m glad that they were given as many chances as they were to get to know more folks in this universe. Including so many different types of people made such a big impression in my mind of just how complex this world truly is. I’m looking forward to seeing what happens next in it because of all of the fascinating characters I’ve met in it so far.

This is the second book in a series, but it can be read on its own or out of order.

I’d recommend Just Another Quiet Little City to anyone who loves modern fantasy.

Reunion by J.S. Frankel

reunion
Reunion by J.S. Frankel
Catnip, Book 5
Publisher: Devine Destinies
Genre: Young Adult, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Action/Adventure, Contemporary
Length: Full Length (201 pages)
Age Recommendation: 16+
Rating: 4 Stars
Review by: Astilbe

BoM LASR YA copy

Harry Goldman, teenage DNA researcher, genius, and total nerd, is thrown into jail for illegal transgenic research. Freed by the FBI on the condition he works under their aegis, Harry is taken to New York where he meets Anastasia, a cat-girl and the product of transgenic engineering. No sooner do they get acquainted then they are attacked by another creature, a bear which is more than a bear, and are forced to flee for their lives. Along the way, they encounter furries, Doug the Dog, find out that they are more into each other emotionally than they’re willing to admit, and end up in the Catskill Mountains where Harry finds out the shocking truth about how Anastasia was created…and what she was created for.

The danger isn’t over quite yet for Harry and his family.

Harry’s character development was handled wonderfully. He has grown up a lot since I first met him in Catnip, and I’ve enjoyed seeing how all of changes in his life have affected the man he’s become. It was especially fascinating to see how his relationship with Anastasia has matured over the last five books. I can’t say much more about it without giving away spoilers, but it is something to look out for if this isn’t your first introduction to this universe.

My only criticism of this story is a minor one. In the past, this series spent more time focusing on the science fiction and fantasy elements of the plot than fight scenes. I was a bit surprised to see that this didn’t remain the same for the big finale. While I definitely enjoyed seeing how everything else turned out, I would have really liked it if Harry could have had more time to study how transgenic bodies work and what kind of life his hybrid child would probably have as an adult. It was such an important issue earlier on that I thought it would have more time to develop. On a positive note, this was the only plot point in the series that wasn’t wrapped up as neatly as I would have preferred.

The pacing was incredibly strong. There was always something exciting going on, especially once the necessary introductions in the beginning were finished. Mr. Frankel’s ability to keep his characters on their toes is one of the things this longterm fan of his has come to admire the most about his work. I never knew what was going to happen to Harry next, and that made me eager to keep reading.

This is the final instalment in the Catnip series. It can be read on its own or out of order, although I would definitely recommend checking out Harry’s earlier adventures if you enjoyed this one!

Reunion was a wild ride. I’d recommend it to anyone who is in the mood for something action-packed.

Separation by J.S. Frankel

Separation by J.S. Frankel
Separation by J.S. Frankel
Publisher: Devine Destinies
Genre: Young Adult, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Paranormal, Action/Adventure, Contemporary
Length: Full Length (238 pages)
Age Recommendation: 16+
Heat Level: Sweet
Rating: 4 Stars
Review by: Astilbe

Harry and Anastasia are back, this time married and attempting to fit into society. When another transgenic emerges—a mole-man named Leonardo—he tells them an old friend, Istvan, a pig-man, long thought dead, is still alive.

Doing the right thing, Harry and Anastasia go to investigate and find out other transgenics are alive, well, and led by yet another madman, bent on destruction. The trail begins in Italy, and continues on to France, Spain, and finally back to the United States.

As if that wasn’t enough, Anastasia is pregnant and Harry has to worry about her, the baby, and the plans of the madman who hates all transgenics and wants to see them eliminated. Anastasia’s life is threatened as is the life of her baby, and with the outcome far from certain, the quest continues.

Danger lurks around every corner.

This was so action-packed and exciting that I couldn’t stop reading it. The pacing was extremely well done, especially when it came to the last fifty pages or so. There was a lot going on in the end, but it always felt like a smooth reading experience to me because of how careful the narrator was to mention new plot twists at exactly the right time.

I would have liked to see a little more attention paid to Anastasia’s character development. She’s been part of Harry’s adventures from the beginning. Her intelligence and bravery has made me a big fan of hers. The fact that these two were married and expecting a baby made me think that Anastasia would have had more opportunities to show the audience how she changed in this particular tale than she did. While this is a minor criticism, I’d love to see this character be given a more prominent role in the future.

The world building was really well done. Mr. Frankel dove deeply into the story of how transgenics research first got started and how its affected everyone who was experimented on. He’d mentioned some of this history in earlier instalments, but I’ve been hoping that he’d give the audience more in-depth information about it for a while now. It made me happy to see how much time the author spent on this part of the plot. I feel as though I know the characters better than ever because of this.

I’d recommend reading the first three books in this series before starting this one. There was a fair amount of backstory that I was glad I already knew when I started this tale. On a positive note, new fans will be able to find out what happens next as soon as they finish Catnip, Catnip 2: Rise of the Transgenics, and Revolution!

Give Separation a try if you’re in the mood for pulse-pounding science fiction.

Just Another Quiet Little Town by J.S. Frankel

Just Another Quiet Little Town by J.S. Frankel
Just Another Quiet Little Town by J.S. Frankel
Publisher: Devine Destinies
Genre: Young Adult, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Paranormal, Contemporary
Length: Full Length (197 pages)
Age Recommendation: 14+
Rating: 3 Stars
Review by: Astilbe

City dweller Gabe Common, seventeen and a high school dropout, has just moved with his mother to Chumsville, South Dakota, a speck in the eye of humanity. With a population of around three hundred people, Gabe is resigned to spending his summer studying online and watching the wheat grow.

It all changes when he wakes up one morning and finds most of Chumsville’s population gone, including his mother. Along with the other survivors, he finds that an impenetrable barrier has surrounded the town which allows people to enter but not leave. To make matters even stranger, he finds wings growing from his body, and the other residents exhibit changes as well, some of them interesting and many of them frightening.

Soon the Changed, as Gabe comes to call them, are met by the FBI, and they are just as bewildered as everyone else is. Tensions mount as the heat rises, harsh words are exchanged, and sides are drawn. Once Gabe discovers the reason for their transformation, he has to deal with another matter—the darkness of the human heart. It is only then that he learns what it is to confront evil and face it down, even if it might cost him his life.

 

Nobody likes to feel stuck. Gabe has even more reasons than most people do for hating this feeling.

The plot twists were well done. I gasped when I discovered one of them before diving back into the plot to see what might happen next. It was simply that surprising. I’ve been reading Mr. Frankel’s novels for a few years now, and his ability to come up with logical but also unexpectedly thrilling twists has only grown in the time I’ve been following his career. This is truly an area where he shines, and I’d especially recommend checking out Just Another Quiet Little Town to anyone who enjoys this kind of stuff as much as I do.

There were quite a few flashbacks in this book. While I liked having such a clear picture of how difficult Gabe’s life was before he moved to Chumsville, they did seriously slow down the pacing of the plot in the beginning. They also took attention away from the main conflicts. It would have been nice to have more time to figure out why people’s bodies were changing so bizarrely and why they couldn’t leave the city limits instead. Those plot points were what originally attracted me to the storyline, so I really wanted to spend as much time as possible on them.

Speaking of transformations, I relished the author’s descriptions of what the citizens of Chumsville looked like after the weird events started happening. Some of the mutations sounded downright beautiful. Others were gross or just plain odd. All of them were vivid, though, and made it easy for me to imagine what it would be like to be trapped under those circumstances.

I’d recommend Just Another Quiet Little Town to anyone who is in the market for a truly imaginative tale.

Marvin, the Not Worthy by Wayne Greenough

Marvin the Not Worthy by Wayne Greenough
Marvin, the Not Worthy by Wayne Greenough
Publisher: Devine Destinies
Genre: Young Adult, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Historical, Contemporary
Length: Short Story (32 pages)
Age Recommendation: 12+
Rating: 3.5 Stars
Review by: Astilbe

King Mortus grunted and groaned in an effort to think harder. He was close to giving up when an idea shattered his crown and scorched his never combed royal hair. Now he knew exactly what to do. He would become the ruler of that insignificant little world his people were always gabbing about. What was its name? Ah, yes, it was called Earth, a most unusual name for a planet. He would conquer Earth and make miserable slaves of its people. Yes, that is what he would do.

Every quest needs hero. Will Marvin be that hero?

The dialogue was well done. The plot was full of funny lines like “gadzooks, but you are a longwinded oaf.” Since the descriptions of everything else were written with the same quirky style, I felt like I’d walked into a completely different time and place when I read this book. This is exactly the kind of world building that I look for in the fantasy genre, and I liked the fact that the author used the dialogue to make it even more vivid.

There were pacing issues. The narrator spent a lot of time setting up this world and describing what all of the characters were like. While I enjoyed having such detailed images of everything, it did slow down the pacing of the storyline quite a bit. This sort of thing would have been perfect for the first chapter of a full-length book where there would be a lot of time later on to focus on the plot development, but it felt awkward to me in a short story of this length.

What I liked the most about the ending was how clever it was. I can’t go into details about it without giving away spoilers, of course, but it was exactly how this kind of tale should have been wrapped up. The narrator had surprised me once or twice before with how unconventionally he decided to describe certain scenes, so I was glad to see him continue this habit up until the final paragraph.

Marvin, the Not Worthy should be read by anyone who loves fantasy.

Little Slave Girl by Judy & Keith

Little Slave Girl by Judy & Keith
Little Slave Girl by Judy and Keith
Publisher: Devine Destinies
Genre: Middle Grade, Contemporary
Length: Short Story (29 pages)
Age Recommendation: 10+
Rating: 3 Stars
Review by: Astilbe

Nicole and James have a summer reading project. It sounds boring, but they both really relate with the main characters, and take it in turn being the little slave girl. Then Nicole goes missing. Are there clues in the story for James to find?

You never know what you might find in a new book.

James was such a smart girl. Getting to know her was a lot of fun because of how easily she caught onto small hints. I liked seeing how quickly she worked to figure out what had happened to her friend. She caught onto every clue right away and didn’t give up until she’d figured out how she thought all of them should fit together. While I don’t know if the authors are planning to write a sequel, I would be curious to see what this character does next.

There was a plot hole that stumped me. I didn’t entirely understand what the connection was between Nicole’s disappearance and the story the girls had started reading before she disappeared. The explanation that James gave for it wasn’t very strong or detailed. It would have been really helpful if she had spent more time showing how these things were connected. The last few scenes didn’t feel complete because of how many unanswered questions there were in them about this topic.

The dialogue sounded very genuine. Every character had his or her own unique voice that I was soon able to pick up on before the narrator told me who was speaking now. It was especially interesting to compare how James and Nicole spoke with how the adults in their lives spoke. There were exactly the kinds of differences between them that I’d expect to see when comparing girls this age to grownups.

I’d recommend Little Slave Girl to anyone who is in the mood for something unique.

Picture (Im)perfect by J.S. Frankel

Picture (Im)perfect by J.S. Frankel
Picture (Im)perfect by J.S. Frankel
Publisher: Devine Destinies
Genre: Young Adult/Middle Grade, Contemporary
Length: Full Length (225 pages)
Age Recommendation: 16+
Heat Level: Sensual
Rating: 4.5 Stars
Review by: Astilbe

Nolan Goodman, star swimmer for Portland High, meets Mia Swarva at a swim meet and thinks he’s found his perfect girlfriend. They start dating, things are going well…and then he finds out that Mia was born Mark, and his concept of what constitutes relationships not to mention sexuality goes out the window. However, Mia has that certain something about her, and Nolan does his best to understand as he genuinely cares for her. Their relationship develops after a series of stops and starts, but when Mia is inadvertently outed on a social website, she and Nolan have to run the gamut of emotions as well as deal with the inevitable reaction to her being transgender. It is only then, that Nolan learns the true meaning of commitment.

How do you know when you’ve found true love?

To be honest, I wasn’t quite sure what I thought of Nolan at first due to a few habits he had that weren’t particularly helpful for the situations he’d soon find himself in. The person he was at the beginning of this story wasn’t the same as who he became by the end, though. While it did take me a little while to warm up to him, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I liked him once he began to change as a result of his experiences. It was so interesting to see it all take place.

I would have liked to know why the characters spent so little time using modern technology. The setting was contemporary, yet there were a few scenes in it that made this tale feel like it could have been set decades ago because of how rarely the events described in those sections happen these days. This was a minor bump in an otherwise excellent book, but I still was curious to know why it was written this way.

It was fascinating to see how the relationship between Nolan and Mia unfolded. The plot gave them time to get to know each other as friends first. This is something I really enjoy finding in romance novels, so I was glad to find it here. I was also intrigued by how honestly these characters talked about Mia’s gender identity given how little Nolan knew about the topic when they first met. These scenes were quite well done from both a character and a relationship development point of view.

Picture (Im)Perfect was almost impossible to put down. It’s a great choice for anyone in the mood for something romantic.