War Forgery & Magical Sanctuaries  - Book Reviews: The Witness, Fablehaven, Blueprint for a Book, Adolfo Kaminsky: A Forger’s Life

A rare thing has happened: I may have found a new favorite author. 

It’s been a long time since I’ve enjoyed fantasy, much less a middle grade fantasy series, but after stumbling on Brandon Mull via my research on another author named Brandon, I’ve devoured his books in a way that I haven’t done in years.

If you like middle grade high adventure fantasy, check out my review for his Fablehaven series below.

In other news, I’ve also discovered the second most important novel-writing book in my life. (It’s been a good month for reading/writing!)

Many writing books are vague and lengthy, and highly impractical or at least difficult to apply when you’re not a highly experienced story writer. But the book I’m about to introduce below is the perfect, practical, step-by-step introduction to plotting a story that works!

Then, of course, to round out this month’s Tic-Tac-TBR game…there’s a true story written by a daughter about her forger-father’s escapades during and after WWII, and a Middle Eastern fictional thriller written by an apologist (of all things!) about a security guard who gets framed for murder and must go on a run for his life.

Read on for reviews of each of these fascinating books…

August 2022 tic-tac-TBR prompts

(To learn more about the Tic-tac-TBR Game, join our Brilliant Writer Merry Band!)

August 2022 Tic-Tac-TBR Book Reviews

Personal Ratings & Review

I use 2 criteria to rate every book on a scale of 1–5:

  1. Content: the ideas in this book are interesting, edifying, and worth learning. (Out of ★★★★★ stars)
  2. Craftsmanship: the work is polished, skillful, and well-written. (Out of ★★★★★ stars)


(F) = Fiction. (NF) = Nonfiction.

Blueprint for a Book (NF)

“Building a house is too complex, risky, and expensive an undertaking to leave anything to chance. The same thing is true of writing a novel, but for some reason, many writers are reluctant to embrace that idea.” 

Prompt: Published within the last 5 years (pub date: 2021)

  1. ★★★★★
  2. ★★★★★

Blueprint for a Book by Jennie Nash is one of the best books on writing I’ve read since Lisa Cron’s Story Genius and Blake Snyder/Jessica Brody’s Save the Cat! Writes a Novel.

Nash breaks down her method into 14 steps you can use to create a book or series from scratch, or revise an already-written book or series.

Like Cron, Nash gives examples of many of her more tricky instructions, which are extremely helpful. But Nash gives a variety of excerpts from different projects, unlike Cron, who focuses on taking readers through the entire process, beginning to end, with ONE story.

Some readers may prefer Nash’s demo methods, others prefer Cron’s. Personally, I’m glad to have both.

My only critique of this book is that it felt a bit short. We could have used an appendix with a full example of the techniques and concepts introduced in the book — either an original story or reverse-engineering an existing book/story.

On the other hand, this critique could be turned on its head and I could say that its brevity is one of the strengths of this book…it just depends on your perspective 😉

Adolfo Kaminsky: A Forger’s Life by Sarah Kominsky (NF)

“If I sleep for an hour, thirty people will die.”

Prompt: Author has the same name as me!

  1. ★★★
  2. ★★★★

In times of war, do criminals become heroes? Sometimes, it seems, they do. At least, that’s one of the arguments made by Adolfo Kaminsky: A Forger’s Life.

This book is a biography of a talented identity-card forger Adolfo Kominsky, written by his daughter Sarah. During WWII, Kominsky worked for the French Resistance, using his chemistry skills and experience in a dye shop to create false identity documents that helped smuggle persecuted Jews and enemies of the Nazis to safety.

After WWII, Kominsky continued his activities as a forger, sacrificing friends and relationships to keep his secrets and forge documents for people who needed his help to get past immigration barriers, dodge drafts, and more.

Was Kominsky a criminal or a hero? In some ways, probably both. Like all humans, he was a complicated character, but reading his story is almost like reading a real-life thriller/spy novel, complete with intrigue, close calls, painful sacrifices, and an ambivalent, well-rounded character at the center of it all.

The Witness by Josh McDowell (NF)

“Which choice do you choose when they are both equally evil?”

Prompt: Last letter of the title of the last book [aka last book listed in the headline of the July 2022 TBR article] = first letter of the title of this book (The last book was The Undoing Project, so the letter is “T”)

  1. ★★★
  2. ★★★★

The Witness is a thriller featuring a hired security guard who goes on the run when his employer is murdered and he’s blamed for the crime. As main character Marwan Accad races around the Middle East, dodging the real killer, an investigator who thinks Accad is guilty tries to track him down, not knowing that if he succeeds, it might mean the death of more than one innocent person.

I’m not sure what I was expecting, exactly, when I read The Witness, but whatever it was, this was certainly…different. In both good and bad ways. There were lots of great elements to the story, better than I expected— intrigue, tension, world-building, etc., but there were also some parts that left me scratching my head and wondering what the author was thinking.

Not in an accusatory way, necessarily, but just, seriously: What was the author thinking as he wrote this part of the story? (For example, the first meeting and growing relationship between the main character and the character who becomes his girlfriend was…odd).

I’ve heard former Hollywood writer-turned-political-commentator/novelist Andrew Klavan say that Christians/conservatives whose worldviews aren’t welcome in mainstream media need to learn how to create their own stories, without being preachy and inauthentic.

For the most part, The Witness does this pretty well, except for in a few places. I guess, being an apologist, McDowell had to include a few conversations along those lines.

Some of the lines were done well, blending into the story, some were more jarring. But perhaps that reaction is also due to the fact that after being steeped in secular culture and perspectives for most of my life, anything that diverges from the mainstream accepted conventions will stick out.

It’s an interesting question to consider: What REALLY makes a strong moral story work, without its worldview ideas poking out uncomfortably like fish heads in Stargazy pie?

(Don’t know what stargazy pie is? Google it and see. But fair warning — if you’re squeamish about fish heads, don’t Google it near mealtimes)

Fablehaven by Brandon Mull (F)

“In matters of consequence, when have doubt and fear given the best advice? Why not heed faith, courage, and honor?”

Prompt: competition, race (Several books in this series involve racing against time and enemies to retrieve artifacts and save lives)

  1. ★★★★
  2. ★★★★★

Fablehaven is a series about a brother and sister who go to visit their grandparents after a set of mysterious circumstances…only to discover that their grandparents are caretakers of a sanctuary for magical creatures.

As Kendra and Seth adjust to their new reality, they’re embroiled in multiple life-or-death adventures involving the magical creatures they didn’t realize existed.

The first book begins with somewhat slow pacing, but once you get into the meat of the story, it’s a roller coaster ride from beginning to end. Mull is a genius at inventing characters, worlds, and intriguing situations to keep readers hooked until the wee hours of the morning.

(Seriously, if this series didn’t consist of 5 full-length novels, I could have devoured the entire thing in a day. As it was, I think I took three days)

This is definitely a series that I will be returning to, to study from a writer’s perspective. There are so many things that it does well, it is worth several re-reads and an in-depth analysis. And even if you’re not interested in writing MG fantasy adventure, I’d still recommend the series just for the rollicking fun it contains 😉

(Also, can I just say the name “Fablehaven” is perfect!)

…And that’s a wrap for August 2022. See you for next month’s reviews!

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