Book Reviews: “Nyssa Glass and the Juliet Dilemma” and “Cora and the Nurse Dragon” by H. L. Burke

Yes, two book reviews. I’ve been rather behind on these lately, and I’m at last catching up.

Being framed for murder and forced to flee the country sort of takes the fun out of vacations.

Reformed cat burglar, Nyssa Glass, wants to lead an honest life as an electrician’s apprentice. Instead, she’s on the run with her new friend, Ellis, implicated in a crime she didn’t commit. The pair ends up stowing away on a zeppelin and meeting Renard and Amara, two teens running away to be married. But the mysterious couple is hiding something—and it might get Nyssa and Ellis killed. (from

Tada! The second book in the Nyssa Glass series of novellas that H.L. Burke is cranking out. Nyssa Glass and the House of Mirrors hooked me so much I blew past my bedtime. Thus, I went into this second novella with high hopes–and this novella delivers! While lacking the crisp, creepy originality of the the first book, Nyssa Glass and the Juliet Dilemma is a thoroughly enjoyable second book that features a pair of characters you truly want to root for and a plot that moves briskly to a satisfying conclusion.

Nyssa Glass and the Juliet Dilemma is true to its title, and I loved Burke’s snarky pokes at the young lovers, Renard and Amara, while valuing the honest friendship and intellectual chemistry Ellis and Nyssa share. If the first book had a touch of horror, this book has touches of romance, all sandwiched in a fast-paced plot that is perfectly suited to the zeppelin location. If I had one quibble, I would have appreciated a little more detail. This is ironic since I enjoy how quickly and easily Burke’s novellas read, but in this case, it almost went too quickly for my taste. Still, enjoying an author’s world so much that you want to stay there longer is hardly a true downside. A solid, clever YA read!


Cora’s a young girl with two dreams: to be a dragon jockey when she grows up and to own a pet dragon now. She constantly buys “egg packs” at the dragon emporium in hopes that one will hatch into a rare pet-sized dragon, but only gets short-lived mayflies. However, when an unexpected egg does develop into something new, Cora may be over her head. (from

I don’t read middle grade fiction as a rule, but this book certainly qualifies as a great exception! I downloaded an eCopy of Cora and the Nurse Dragon on a free book day, and I am very glad I did. It is an entirely appropriate MG/YA fantasy story with authentic characters, great dragons, and Burke’s characteristic clean writing voice.

First of all: DRAGONS! I love dragons and so does this author. Her dragon world-building is perfectly integrated into the story. It is also unique and yet easy to understand. I thoroughly enjoyed how Burke explored the concept of free vs. kept animals, and the responsibility of humans to their environment. The theme is effortlessly woven into the plot and adds depth.

There are some intense scenes at the end, but they make sense with the story, so just keep an eye out if your kids are on the younger side or sensitive. Otherwise, entirely suitable for the audience and enjoyable for readers young or old!

5 Essential Tips For World-Building

5 Essential World-Building Tips


1.) Worldbuilding must serve the story or it’s only window-dressing.

I love world-building. That’s one reason I wrote a textbook and workbook about it. But if the world-building has no connection to the story, then why bother? Use the cool things you make up to create issues and conflict in your plot.

Make sure your world-building impacts the plot. Doing so will automatically elevate your story and grab reader attention.

Now, I understand that in epic fantasy worlds, creating a vast landscape of shiny things for the reader to dive into is part and parcel. But even then, epic fantasy readers have limits on just how much insanely technical or detailed content they’re going to ingest before they’re ready for it to effect the plot in a meaningful way, whether on a small or large scale. If you have a dragon, at the very least have it attack your hero or have it get a broken leg or something when your hero is riding it (preferably at the most inconvenient time).

2.) Figure out the following major categories for societies: gender, birth, family, marriage, death.

The anthropologist side of me is coming at you now. These five categories highlight key aspects of culture and society. Figuring out these areas will automatically nail down your race in highly usable ways. These five categories are especially important for human or humanoid races. However, I would suggest you subject even your less-humanoid races to this analysis.


First of all, it will help you to make key decisions about how to make your non-humanoid race different from everyday norms.

Second, it will keep you from making your non-humanoid race too inhuman. Is there such a thing in speculative fiction? Yes, if you want to relate to readers and sell books. Even in Lelia Rose Foreman’s Shatterworld, her race of exceptionally odd aliens still show a protectiveness towards their young–a family trait that humans also have. Thus, even though this race has tentacles and other weird things, the reader will still ultimately find a bond of commonality and a reason to cheer for them. Conversely, if you want to make a disposable, blaster-target-practice inhuman race? Make them as different from humans as possible in really odd or repulsive ways.

3.) Always look for contrasts between the worldbuilding and the protagonist’s goals.

 Yay for contrasts!

This tip connects to Tip #1 about making the world-building impact the story. In Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, the Hunger Games themselves are a key part of the dystopian world-building. Collins uses the selection of Primrose Everdeen at the reaping to push Katniss into the Hunger Games out of protective instinct. Then, within the games Katniss ends up making choices that directly conflict with the official purpose of the games. Her goals, to survive and to preserve the life of someone who reminds her of Prim, conflicts with the bloodthirsty spectacle of the games. The fascinating thing about Katniss is she is largely reactive through nearly all of the story, yet Collins still manages to push her buttons so that she develops into this contrasting character. Imagine what you could do with a character who is intentionally bucking the system!

4.) Make sure to have fun – put in quirky things like favorite foods, odd body modifications, or flaming unicorns as everyday transportation.

 As long as you keep this aligned with Tip #1, feel free to go ahead and stamp your personality all over your world. This is speculative fiction. We can make up all kinds of crazy things and, as long as we execute it well, readers will eat up our stories. Own your favorite things and own what is unique about you. Don’t be afraid to pull inspiration from your own history, passions, and experiences. The authenticity will bleed out onto the page and make your stories that much more compelling.

For instance, I like ice cream…and frozen custard…and whipped cream…and pretty much any kind of dairy-based frozen dessert. Does this show up in my stories? You bet. In fact, I may or may not have written a web comic where the main character partly sets off the whole adventure based upon an argument over a fair price for a certain flavor ($35 is NEVER an acceptable price for ice cream, by the way). And flaming ice cream is the least of the weird flavors I’ve come up with–did I mention I also like things set on fire?

5.) Everyone believes something – know your culture’s worldview.

Worldview is that big, crazy, mixed up pile of beliefs and life experiences and nurture and personality that form into a lense by which we view and make judgments about the world. It’s a pretty complicated thing and not something you can just draw up for a character in one day–unless you’re one of those authors whose stories NEVER change or develop during drafting. However, knowing the worldview of your character or society is a great way to tap into core motivations. From there, you have all the tools to push them into various plots as you choose. For more information, check out What’s Up With Worldview?

Want a quick and easy way to remember these tips? I just so happen to have a limited supply of exclusive bookmarks featuring all five. Share this blog post between now and Saturday, August 13th on your choice of social media and post a link in the comments and I will personally mail you a signed bookmark (I’ll sign the side that doesn’t have the tips😉 ). They’re shiny, sturdy, and blue! Perfect for marking books or poking someone with…or whacking someone with…not that I’ve done this…



This post is also available on YouTube! Click below to access the video version – subscribing to my YouTube channel and notifying me can also get you a signed bookmark. Thanks for tuning in!

Confessions of a Role-Playing, Collaborative Writer



So I’m still recovering from an awesome time at the Realm Makers 2016 conference. I have a ton of things to catch up on and to share, but in the meantime, I’m featured on Ralene Burke’s blog as a guest author, so go ahead and check it out! Includes some never-before-seen info, including:

  • Why I’m so passionate about character creation (to the tune of 37)

  • What would happen if I had to write in pre-internet days (answer: parrots would be involved)

  • Why role-playing made me a better marketer

  • What happens when a social writer breaks her own rules (hint: it weirds people out)

Click here or on the graphic to learn more about role-playing and collaborative writing!

A Bit of Sunshine for a Revamped Website!

Bethany Jennings over at The Simmering Mind posted up this Sunshine Blogger Challenge. In honor of my revamped website, I figured I’d give this a shot!

1. If you could have any magical/supernatural ability, what would you choose?

This one always changes, but I’m currently keen on being psychomimetic.


By Vanessa Paxton

The user can gain/replicate the knowledge and abilities, including their mental and physical abilities, be it knowledge over a subject, a foreign language, or mastery of a fighting style. The user is able to duplicate information from creatures or inanimate mediums of data, such as books, computers, etc. by touching them or by just being near them at the time.

Sounds super handy!

2. What’s one of your happiest childhood memories?

Wow, no pressure, huh? Probably the day my family brought home Ziggy, this overweight, retired breeder basset hound we adopted from a certified breeder. She was a lovable old curmudgeon who was the BEST napping buddy–and she lived another six years!

3. What is your favorite writing spot / workspace like? Why do you like to work there best?

Usually my couch, because it’s comfortable. I was home-schooled during high school and I did a lot of work on the couch then too. Now, even though I have an office, I still like couches.

Dark blue on dark blue – super comfy and spits in the face of photos!😉

4. What’s one thing that is close to your heart?

Writing, communicating, and helping people dive more deeply into their thoughts–while still having fun!

5. Chocolatey desserts or fruity desserts?

It depends entirely on my mood, but I gravitate towards chocolate as a rule. Although chocolate isn’t a dessert. Chocolate is an essential nutrient of life.

6. What was your favorite book as a small child?

I honestly don’t remember. I burned through books at the speed of sound as a child, and I do remember always enjoying new books.

7. What’s something you used to be afraid of but aren’t scared of (or not as scared!) anymore?

…well, I can tolerate people in giant animal costumes a lot better than I used to. Although I still find them pretty creepy. Sorry to anyone who does this for a living! I’m sure you make many people smile. Just ignore me walking in the other direction.

8. What’s your favorite kind of outfit to wear?

It depends on the situation, but I like being comfortable whether I’m dressed up or dressed down.

9. What quote has motivated or challenged you most recently?

This one. Good reflection of Psalm 86:6-7

10. How do you feel about roller-coasters? Love ’em, hate ’em?

There was a brief window in my teenage years when I LOVED roller-coasters–and then that window slammed shut and now even looking at them for too long makes me queasy. I will happily hold ALL the bags/cell phones/wallets at amusement parks and enjoy watching my family/friends scream their lungs out.

11. Do you like sad endings or movies/books that make you cry?  Why or why not?

I’ve never read a book that’s made me cry. Only two movies have made me cry: Inside Out and Mighty Joe Young. As long as the movie or book is well-made, I don’t really have an opinion either way!

Random Surprise Answer to Unasked Question

I recently co-taught a class on mycology (fungi) at an awesome science camp. I lectured on Fungi in Ecosystems and Fungi As Poison in History. Fun stuff!


Okay, now it’s my turn! Here are eleven questions. Answer any/all that you want, wherever you want (the comments, your FB page, a blog post) and toss me the link!🙂

1.) Where is the best place to sleep or take a nap?

2.) What five foods could you live on for the rest of your life?

3.) Hovercraft, spacecraft, or teleportation? Note: teleportation doesn’t work in space and the spacecraft do NOT hover!

4.) What is your least favorite word and why?

5.) If you were given a million dollars and could donate it to any charity or charities, where would you donate to?

6.) What is the weirdest thing you’ve ever eaten? You get to define what ‘weird’ includes – no judging here!

7.) Would you own a robot pet? Why or why not?

8.) If you had to pack up and move anywhere and stay there for the rest of your life, where would you move to?

9.) What is your favorite tool or appliance and why?

10.) You have to change your eye color to something not normal for humans. What color do you choose and why?

11.) What makes you laugh? What doesn’t make you laugh?

Character Test 2 – Do You Use Contrasts?


Why did I return to contrasts? Because it is one of the quickest, most effective ways I’ve found to enrich plot, build tension, add humor, and/or add character arcs. And it’s so easy!

Easy + Quick + Effective = you get a friendly reminder from yours truly in the form of this awesome test.

There is also now a video to go along with the post! As per my habit of perpetual self-improvement, the video has new examples and spins on the concepts contained in the blog post.

Thanks for tuning in! Scroll down for the text.

Do you use any contrasts in your stories? What are your favorite contrasts? Please share in the comments!

A flying dragon who is afraid of heights. An elephant who doesn’t want to drink the water because of potential bacteria. A brilliant doctor who saves lives, but doesn’t get along with people.

What do they all have in common? They use contrasting elements. They put two opposing elements together and then sit back and watch the conflict of those elements create compelling interactions with other characters and within the overall narrative.

Contrasts are a great way to spice up characters and plots. Not only do they create conflict, which is essential to any great story, but they are also quick fixes if a character gets boring or stuck in a rut…. Click here to read the full post on Author Culture.

Cover Reveal – “A Time To Rise” by Nadine Brandes

There are books that give you happy feelings, like eating double chocolate cake

There are books that give you wounded feelings, like finding a pit in supposedly pitted Kalamata olives

Then there are books like hot sauce – they punch your mental taste buds with their potency and burn your brain with harshness, but you somehow keep coming back for more. Because hot sauce.

(Why yes, I am writing this post while hungry…)

Nadine Brandes Out of Time series is one of my favorite types of novel hot sauce. Main character Parvin Blackwater goes through cringe-worthy difficult trials and deeply intense spiritual journeys. Whether or not you share her faith, any reader can admire her convictions and the incredibly hard situations she has to endure for the sake of freeing people from a truly toxic dystopian system.

Well folks, the journey comes to an end this Fall.

What more can you sacrifice than your life?

Parvin Blackwater is dead.

At least…that’s what the Council—and the world—thinks. But her sacrifice tore down part of the Wall long enough to stir up hope and rebellion in the people. Now she will rise again. Strong, free, and fearless.

Parvin and Solomon must uncover the mysterious clues that Jude left behind in order to destroy the projected Wall once and for all. Meanwhile, the Council schemes to new levels of technology in its attempts to keep the people contained. Can a one-handed Radical and a scarred ex-Enforcer really bring shalom to the world?

Nadine Brandes is also an incredibly authentic person who also dared to answer one of my favorite questions to ask anyone: Would you eat a fried tarantula? Check out the video below.

You can also check out her website, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Thanks for tuning in! For more thoughts, check out my reviews of A Time to Die and A Time to Speak.

Oh, and would you eat a fried tarantula?

Book Review: “Saint Death” by Mike Duran

((I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in return for a fair and honest review. Note, spoilers if you haven’t read The Ghost Box. Which you should anyway)).

Reagan Moon didn’t plan on being an earth guardian.

He was your average paranormal reporter…until 1,000 volts of raw electricity fused an ancient relic into his sternum. It left him with Powers and lets him do things most humans can’t. There are others like him, six of them to be exact. They call themselves the Imperia and are charged with keeping earth from going down the toilet. This usually involves fighting monsters, tweaking the laws of physics, and keeping lots of booze and bandages on hand.

But when Saint Death comes knocking, no amount of holy water and hand grenades can slow her roll.

She’s the queenpin of the Santa Muerte pantheon. The folk religion’s central deity often appeared as a Virgin or a bride. Some called her the Grim Reapress. But mostly she was known as Saint Death. Now she’s got a companion. With the help of the Summu Nura, a Neuro priestess has rediscovered the Grimoire of Azrael, the Archangel of Death. And the Tenth Plague is about to be unleashed upon Los Angeles. Apparently, only Moon and his weathered compatriots can prevent the angel’s arrival. Yet earth guardians aren’t indestructible…as Saint Death is about to prove (

First of all, another great book cover by Kirk DouPonce! It aligns well with his previous efforts for The Ghost Box, and offers a fresh look at the same time. I’m excited to add it to my collection.

Saint Death is the second in the Reagan Moon supernatural/thriller/noir kitchen-sink style of urban fantasy fiction that Mike Duran is currently cranking out. Although I didn’t find it as smoothly-written as The Ghost Box, Saint Death delivers a solid story and some intriguing new developments into the fight between good and evil.

Reagan Moon is lost. In The Ghost Box, he was at least a solid agnostic with a wry, cynical outlook on the world. Now that he’s realized all that spiritual stuff is real–and that he has a major role to play in the supernatural world–he spends an awful lot of time ping-ponging back and forth about what he should do. This is understandable, and makes him sympathetic. Moon is clearly out of his league, and his trademark sarcasm comes out in full force to cope–as well as some stupid decisions that seem like the best choice at the time. This is a valid way to push plot, and Moon is established as the kind of character who jumps right into the crazy. However, I did feel like the ‘do stupid things’ plot twist was used a little too much towards the end. Reagan’s still learning, but because he’s so quick-witted, I would have thought he’d learn a little faster. Still, he is human and kudos to Duran for daring to show all the human foibles.

Duran used this book to expand upon the Imperia and the great fight between good and evil. He uses some tropes very effectively, and I enjoyed meeting more members of the ‘knights errant’ with their own superpowers (and consequences). However, broadening the world-building also means less time on individual characters, and since this is a fast-paced book told from Moon’s perspective, I had a harder time connecting with all the newbies. Kanya, the mysterious shapeshifter from book one, came off pretty well, and I enjoyed the inclusion of a new character to deliver the backstory that Kanya is so reluctant to share. In addition, expanding the world and raising the stakes was the best move for the story as a whole.

Note: like The Ghost Box, this is a mature read, with a scattering of profanities and plenty of content dealing with the occult, various worldviews and philosophies. A lot of times, it really seems like good won’t win out–at least from Reagan’s bewildered perspective. Duran certainly builds tension effectively in the plot, and his creepy-horror scenes are some of the best writing in the book.

Final Verdict: Saint Death is a good installment in the Reagan Moon novels. While it suffers a little from ‘expanding world’ syndrome and a few protagonist missteps, the pulse of the plot remains strong, Moon is his snarky-lovable self, and the heightened stakes add fine dramatic tension.