Review of Dark Territory by Jerry Hunter

darkterritorySummary: From the Civil War battlefields of England and Ireland to a mystery lost in the forests of North America, this is both a roaring adventure and a timely commentary on the dangers of religious extremism.

Rhisiart Dafydd is a zealous Roundhead who embraces Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army and the violence it entails. But can his convictions survive the atrocities of the English Civil Wars and Parliament’s campaign in Ireland? Called upon by his former commander to voyage to America to seek out a missing group of Welsh Puritans, he must first survive the journey, and then – if he can find the community – see whether they really have created the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth.

An epic historical adventure set during one of the most turbulent periods in history, this gripping thriller also poses questions about violence, power, religious extremism and rejection of difference which are chillingly relevant to our world today.

Note: I was given a copy of this novel by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

If history teaches us one thing, it’s that humanity never really changes. We don’t seem to learn from our mistakes. History repeats itself.

Dark Territory is historical fiction and was written in Welsh, originally published under the title Y Fro Dywyll, and was translated by Patrick K. Ford.

The novel opens with a former soldier named Rhisiart Daffyd walking through the noisy, sometimes harrowing, streets of 1656 London. Among the sights and sounds of the living, death stares back through mounted heads on pikes, a stark reminder of where we are all headed. The climate is chilling, despite the children running through the streets, the vendors selling their wares, and life continuing on as a man who has seen his fair share of death walks these cobbled streets. I am right there with Rhisiart, an invisible set of eyes on his shoulder. The description of the streets of London is done so vividly, with such beautiful detailed language, that the reader really gets a sense of what life was like then.

Rhisiart Daffyd served in Oliver Cromwell’s Army of the Saints and has come to London under the summons of his former commanding officer, John Powel. Powel has gotten word of a settlement in America that has drifted from the Calvinist views being upheld in Cromwellian England, and he wishes to send Rhisiart to the new country to investigate and report back to him.

Rhisiart boards the ship Primrose. He is surrounded by Englishmen, the only other Welshman an older man named Owen Lewys. Some of the best dialogue in the book occurs between these two during the voyage. Having witnessed, and taken part in, so much death during the war, Rhisiart questions his beliefs. The faith he once adhered to is no longer true for him. He and Owen, who his a Quaker, discuss passages in the Gospel of John, where the light within every man is written about. Rhisiart dismisses Predestination, believing it ludicrous that God would select some souls for damnation and others for salvation prior to their births. Rather, he believes now that God’s light shines within all people, even though humanity is flawed. He keeps quiet about his views aboard the ship, however, as he and Owen are in the minority.

A storm rages at sea as the ship approaches land. It hits rocks, leaving Rhisiart and a black tom cat named Nicholas the only survivors.

The novel then gives us the backstory of Rhisiart, from the time he was a boy and lost both of his parents, raised by his sister Alys and his uncle, to when he started apprenticing under a blacksmith. There is lovely narrative about Rhisiart working words into the objects he crafts. It is during this time that he develops his belief in what Cromwell professes. He marries the blacksmith’s daughter, Elisabeth, but he soon goes off to war.

When he returns from war a broken man who now questions everything he believed in, having witnessed atrocities, including the Battle of Naseby in 1645, he hopes to settle down. The “little plague” darkens his family’s doorstep, killing Elisabeth and his unborn child.

I was devastated right along with Rhisiart. Despite the atrocities he has participated in, he is still a man who loves and thought he was doing right for his homeland. It’s no wonder he takes on the mission Powel entrusts him with, seeing as he has no one keeping him in England any longer.

The book switches back to 1656. Once Rhisiart comes ashore, he is cared for by some Native Americans. There aren’t many of them at all, and the one who speaks English tells him how many of their tribe died from diseases from the settlers. The kindness of the Native Americans toward Rhisiart shows more of true Christian (or otherwise) charity than any of the characters in the book, despite they aren’t Christian. This truth is resonates with Rhisiart and does with me as well. It is heartbreaking to look back on history and see how the Native Americans were driven from their land, in some cases, and how such things still occurs today, both in America and globally. The refugee crisis in the world today comes to mind. To show kindness and generosity to your fellow person is in the spirit of what is at the heart of Christianity, the whole to do what Jesus did. To show mercy, understanding, love.

I think this is what strikes Rhisiart, both in his discussion aboard the Primrose with Owen Lewys and with the Native Americans. More than ever, he doesn’t believe in the Calvinist doctrine. He sees it for the manmade construct it is, not a divine ordinance…although he still has a mission to see through.

He regains his strength while in the care of the Native Americans. They give him a map to the settlement Powel told him to seek. Rhisiart travels several days through the woods in the dying fall and arrives at New Jerusalem. By the name alone, you can be sure this settlement believes it is God’s kingdom on Earth.

Rhisiart settles there for several months, befriending some (blacksmith Griffith John Griffith and his son, Ifan, and young, pregnant widow Rebecca) and at odds with others (namely the Elder, Rhosier Wyn). He learns some secrets about the corrupted ways the leaders of New Jerusalem carry out what they believe is divine justice. His beliefs are challenged more every passing day, and as Rebecca’s pregnancy nears its end, dread overcomes the reader, wondering how this is all going to end.

We have seen the crimes and wars done in the name of religion over the centuries, including the accurate historical representation in Dark Territory. So much unnecessary violence and death has resulted over disagreements. The whole “I am right, you are wrong” mentality and the pride of believing one’s way is the only true way puts up walls between people, between nations, and it tears down the Golden Rule. In theory, it should be simple to follow the path of love, to treat others as you wish to be treated, even in our human imperfection.

We can look at the serious nature of the English Civil Wars of the seventeenth century and the harsh beliefs of the Puritans in America and believe we have come so far from those ways of thinking, but a quick look around the world today paints a different story.

Dark territory, indeed. This novel shows the journey, the struggle, the life of one man in the midst of religious wars and tyranny. It forces us to look deep within ourselves and examine our hearts, our beliefs, to trod the path today through dark territory.

This novel is one of those rare gems that hooked me from the beginning. The themes are important for anyone to realize and think about. This is one of those masterpieces that will stay with me for the rest of my life.

5 out of 5 stars

Favorite quotes: “He imagined that silence would roll down the corridors like mist on the surface of a river, that quiet would collect in the chambers like water gathers in a fountain’s pool, turning sound to vapour and dulling the ear, keeping secrets secret.”

“He tilts his face to the sun, his eyes closed, and all the sounds of the ship are like a whisper in a dream. This is the world, he thinks, and this is the life I have lived. The heat he feels on his face has the warmth of skin: like another cheek pressing against his own cheek. Living fingers playing with his hair, a hand caressing his skin playfully.”

“Is the way that the most insignificant instincts lead an animal to its death essentially different from the way that most men follow their instincts to the end?”

“‘I do. He knew that I… had lived the life… had believed… had done. And he knew that I now doubt many of the things I used to believe in. And he saw value in that.’”

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Review of Cobwebs of Youth by Rose Auburn

cobswebsofyouthSummary: ‘Cobwebs of Youth’ is a contemporary, romantic novel set in the London suburbs. It tells the story of Lara Cassidy who realises her dream of becoming a children’s book illustrator like her father. Yet her happiness is short-lived and she is plunged into uncertainty as Robert Kennedy, the mysterious stranger she first encountered ten years earlier, comes back into her life. Will Lara finally be able to lay her Father’s ghost to rest and fully embrace what the future holds?

Note: I was given a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Cobwebs of Youth is a lovely book, let me just say. Lovely is the first word that comes to mind and sticks with me as I recount my experience reading this novel.

I am quite familiar with British novels, having recently read The Girl on the Train and The Woman in Cabin 10. I am also a fan of British shows, such as Doctor Who, Downton Abbey, and Sherlock. Being an American, I pick up on the differences in the English language when I step into a British novel. And it’s lovely.

The characters in this book are very realistic and relatable. Their dialogue reads so fluidly, so naturally. That is probably my favorite part of this story, and it’s a character-driven, dialogue-driven story told in third person-limited narrative, so what a pleasure to read Lara Cassidy’s journey of finding herself.

It may sound like another modern mundane romance story, like another journey of self-discovery. I admit, this arch is overdone these days, yet it works so well most of the time. When done right, as it is in Cobwebs of Youth (which is a great title, by the way), these types of stories can resonate with many people.

The book opens with an 18-year-old Lara visiting her father, against her mother’s wishes. Her parents are divorced. When she arrives at her dad’s house, she finds he is with a French woman. She feels betrayed, no longer the first woman in her dad’s life. She is at a vulnerable age. She and her best friend, Jen, go to a local pub to drink away their sorrows. While there, Lara meets an older biker man named Rob, who comforts her. She is both intrigued and put off by him.

A decade passes. Lara’s dad has died, and she moves into his house. She is in a relationship with attorney Ed, a guy who, according to Lara’s mum, has a good job and is a good match for Lara. Lara is an artist, an illustrator like her dad, and has a big project coming up to illustrate a children’s book called Puddle. It may be her big break where her career is concerned, but she finds herself severely unhappy. She attends one of Ed’s work parties, where everyone is only surface-level and rubbing noses. She has felt little affection for Ed for months, and he seems equally distant, more concerned with his job than their relationship. They finally end it.

Lara almost steps back in time by returning to the pub where she met Rob, unable to forget him all these years. As fate would have it, he is there again. They start talking and strike up a relationship. Rob is everything Ed isn’t. Jen and Lara’s mum don’t approve of her dating a biker, but she feels more alive with him than she has in her life. She rides a motorcycle for the first time and feels exhilarated. She meets new people. She is head-over-heels in love with this mysterious guy.

But life is never easy. As much as Lara wants to get away from the past, it’s still part of her. This story is a beautiful exploration of a young woman’s struggle to come into her own.

There are some grammatical errors in the book, but they don’t detract from the story or the great dialogue.

4 out of 5 stars

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Review of Jacqueline Willoughby by Schuyler Randall

jacquelinewilloughbySummary: A string of mysterious murders rocks Birmingham, Alabama, in the page-turner Jacqueline Willoughby. At first glance, the murders seem to be connected to the Ten Commandments, but FBI agents Kason McAlester and Troy Stephens see that there is more to the story—and that a rare book written decades ago by a woman named Jacqueline Willoughby may have the answer to solving the crimes.

Will the two agents be able to follow the trail of the old book and find the killer responsible for these grisly murders? You’ll have to read Jacqueline Willoughby to find out.

Note: I was given a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Jacqueline Willoughby is a crime novella that reads quickly and is a good short book to pick up if you’re looking for an afternoon of entertainment. It’s what I might call a beach read: It’s easy to understand and straightforward.

The novel revolves around a series of murders in Birmingham, Alabama, in current day. FBI agents Kason McAlester and Troy Stephens investigate these murders and quickly come to the conclusion that they are connected. The murderer is following the Ten Commandments to carry them out. The victims are always purposefully placed and left with a wadded up piece of paper in their mouths that says what their crime is that they were killed for, plus the initials J.W.

For several chapters, the story follows a simple convention: The FBI agents and other police show up at the crime scene to find the victims. Kason smells a perfume fragrance left by the killer. The papers are recovered from the victims’ mouths.

This repetition begins to feel a bit overdone, but luckily, the author breaks up the chapters by having the agents meet with others who may have some knowledge of what happened. I enjoyed these segments more, especially the visits to a Mrs. Madison and her elderly aunt, Dr. Moore, who is interesting and sometimes humorous to read. Dr. Moore is the one who gives the agents the information about a book written by Jacqueline Willoughby that may be connected to these murders. The book describes similar murders that happened in the 1930s and were done by Willoughby’s daughter, Raina.

The dialogue from some of the minor characters was more realistic than what came out of the agents’ mouths most of the time. Of course, it’s expected the FBI agents would be all business while investigating a crime, but I would have liked to have seen more personality worked into Kason and Troy. We get some glimpses of their personal lives, like when they are with their wives or at church, but I would have liked to have seen more.

I don’t read many crime novels (or novellas), so this genre isn’t very familiar to me. It felt very formulaic. As a novella, it is shorter than a novel, but I would have liked it to be fleshed out more. I think more background on the agents and more time spent with them when they weren’t just investigating crimes would have made them more relatable and interesting. Many of the characters just spoke in bland dialogue, maybe even feeling robotic at times.

I am more into character-driven stories. This one is definitely more plot-driven. More motives and background on the killer would have been great as well. Everything seems almost too easy. I figured out who the killer was about halfway through the book. Throw in some red-herrings next time. Make me guess more. Don’t make it so easy.

While this is a good book for entertainment, I think it would have worked better as a full novel with more details. It feels like something is missing for me, but maybe that’s just my bias. Readers of crime novels and plot-driven stories would likely enjoy this book.

Grammar, punctuation, and sentence structure are all near perfect, which is a breath of fresh air after the last couple of indie authors I’ve read.

3 out of 5 stars

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Jacqueline Willoughby

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Review of The Son of Alpha (The Legend of the Sky-Titans Book 1) by Raleigh Daniels Jr.

skytitansSummary: In post-apocalyptic America, two orphaned children raised as sharecroppers live together in a fragile, farm home. Michael Gilliganson Jr, the son of the world’s greatest mercenary, Mopy, acts as the sole guardian of his little sister, Nya, after the death of their parents. But when the NeoMen (humanoid dinosaurs) invaded their small town, they take Nya hostage. Michael, who must now live up to his parent’s legacy as the legendary Sky-Titan to save his sister, is gifted with his father’s Badge of Alpha, a blue and yellow, badge-like device that gives him the ability to transform into the therianthropic god, Alpha to fight against the emergence of the tyrannical dinosaur dominated empire led by the evil King Mungfalme. He then joins forces with legendary werewolf hunter, Val Helsing (now known as Pappy), Jullian the Iota Eagle, the Vendor, Mr. Dalton, The Duke of Washington, and newcomer Samantha as they fight against the Dinosaurs to save and protect mankind from the brink of annihilation.

Note: I was given a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

The book opens with Michael and Nya Gilliganson living on a farm in post-apocalyptic America. They are orphans, so Michael cares for his younger sister. They go about their lives in seemingly normal fashion for the time period, but it’s clear that they are just trying to mind their own business and survive. While at the market one day to get produce, they meet a young boy named Thames, who is also an orphan. They take him home. That’s when things start to get interesting.

Thames is not an ordinary boy, which we find out when Michael drops Nya and him off at the schoolhouse one day. Thames and Nya quickly develop a close bond, and Thames is fiercely protective of Nya. When a bully picks on them at school, chaos ensures. Things unravel, and what was once a benign relationship turns complex, even sour. Thames is not who he appears.

Meanwhile, back home, Michael makes a discovery that will change his life. He finds the Badge of Alpha, which gives him immense power. He is the son of two legendary Sky-Titans, who battled the Neomen (dinosaur-men who invaded Earth and took over). An intense battle plays out right after he gains power from the badge, and not even understanding what’s happening, Michael is joined by the fruit vendor from the marketplace (Pappy). They fight some demonic creatures, who seemingly appear out of nowhere and are looking for the badge.

Not only do we get the story of Michael and Nya, but we also read about the Neomen through a letter that one of them, General Yalen, is composing to King Mungfalme. Yalen begins having reservations about how the Neomen are treating (more like mistreating) humans. He befriends a human named Samantha, who is one of the prisoners on the ship he’s on. His hostility toward the Earl who is in charge on the ship grows daily.

There are many exciting action sequences in this story, which read quickly and keep the reader engaged, although some of the scenes are hard to follow because there is perhaps too much going on in just a few pages. This book is anything but boring, but it is filled with typos, grammatical errors, tense changes, and punctuation problems, which make the reading clunky. I am unsure if this novel was edited at all, but it doesn’t appear to be. If it went through an edit, I believe the story would read much easier and flow better.

The characters are all interesting, and their different voices are clear. However, the constant change of point of view reads odd. I feel that this story would work better told in third person instead of the switching first person views.

There are some lovely passages, showing a clear sense that the author has the ability to write beautifully, but then there are several sentences that read unevenly, repeat the same word, or have extraneous words in them. Again, if edited, I believe this would clean up much of this and help tell the story better.

The content of the story is solid and good, but due to the level of other issues mentioned above, I didn’t feel I could enjoy it as much. I also admit that fantasy is not a genre I read much, so while I am sure others may enjoy this type of story more, I found it good but not great. It was an easy book for entertainment, yet I didn’t feel fully invested in the characters enough to care what happened or feel for them.

3 out of 5 stars

Favorite quote: “Just before I ran to this discarded hill, I heard voices, a melancholy rainbow of voices pouring into my head like a raging waterfall.”

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The Son of Alpha (The Legend of the Sky-Titans Book 1)

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