Thursday, December 25, 2014

Happy Holidays!

I'm not going to do a review today. It's Christmas Day, after all, and even though I'm not Christian, I believe we ought to have at least one day a year where nobody's trying to convince us to buy anything.

Instead, I offer you words to live by, from one of my favorite holiday stories ever.

"I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach!"
-- Ebenezer Scrooge

Gods bless us, every one. See you next year.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Mix Tape No. 1 - J.D. Mader

So Christmas is only a week away, and you don't even have time to read a short story? Is that what's troubling ya, Bunky? Well, then. How about some flash fiction?

J.D. Mader does this feature on his blog on Fridays. He calls it, "Two minutes...go!" The idea is to set a timer for two minutes, open a vein, and let the words pour out of you onto the virtual paper in the comment section of the blog. Mader himself opens the festivities with his own offering, and usually contributes a few more as the day goes on. They are always intriguing and often amazing.

Here in this short volume, Mader has collected 16 flash fiction gems, at least some of which had their beginnings in "Two minutes...go!" His work is dark and often profane (the "parental advisory" sticker on the front cover is there for a reason), but it's so worth checking out. Save it, maybe, for some dark day in the winter months to come.

And feel free to stop by Unemployed Imagination some Friday and see what we're up to. Maybe even try your own hand at some flash fiction. It'll only take two minutes.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Stories of Genesis Vol. 1 - Chris James

Week 3 in my ad hoc holiday gift guide brings us to a volume of short stories. And why not? I mean, it's the holidays, for crying out loud. Who's got time to sit down and read a whole novel?

Chris James has subtitled his Stories of Genesis "A New Kind of Fan Fiction." He is not wrong. Authors have used song titles and lyrics as springboards for their own creative endeavors for generations, but I don't know of anybody else who has taken the idea to such a fascinating extreme.

The five stories in this collection all have their, uh, genesis in one or another of the songs by the prog-rock group Genesis. And each story has something to recommend it. "Mr. Magrew's Incredible Journey" is a sci-fi coming-of-age story about why, sometimes, it's better just to stay home. "The Chat Show" features a conniving talk-show host who is determined to advance his career, no matter what it costs. "One Regret" is about a dying man who contemplates going to his grave with the biggest secret of his life. "The Final Battle" is full-on weird sci-fi, set in a world where special forces battle the Eternal Sanctuary Man. But perhaps my favorite is "The Agent Lunges," a bit of metafiction in which a copyright agent harasses an author very much like James himself.

The real Chris James needn't worry about that; Genesis lead guitarist Steve Hackett has endorsed the book. So do I. And if you read these stories and enjoy them, I have good news for you: James has written two more volumes of Stories of Genesis.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

A Year with Mr. Pish 2015 - K.S. Brooks

'Tis the season, as they say. I didn't mean to do a series of reviews of publications that would make great gifts, but then I ran across this.

Mr. Pish is on a dual mission this holiday season. As usual, the adorable Jack Russell terrier on the road, educating kids about all the great things they can do outdoors -- just as he does in his popular "Postcards from Mr. Pish" series of children's books. But he also wants to help us all get organized in 2015. So his secretary-cook-chauffeur-and-who-knows-what-else, K.S. Brooks, has put together a desk-format planner featuring photos of the little guy. Each two-page spread consists of a monthly calendar on one side and shots of Mr. Pish at various U.S. national parks on the other.

The calendar squares are roomy enough for several entries apiece, and they feature important holidays, as well as some lesser-known observances. Did you know the first week of October is National Walk Your Dog Week? Neither did I, until Mr. Pish told me just now.

I had fun noting how many national parks Mr. Pish has visited -- although I was a little annoyed that he's been to some I haven't visited yet. Looks like my bucket list needs amending....

There's also a wall calendar version. If you have kids, or even if you just like little white dogs, you could do worse than keep track of your stuff next year with Mr. Pish along as your guide.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

100 Days of Gratitude - Leland Dirks

Happy Thanksgiving! This seemed like the perfect book to review today.

In the summer of 2014, there was a challenge going around on Facebook: For each of the next seven days, post three things you're grateful for. Leland Dirks took that ball and ran with it -- not just for a week, but for a hundred days (and more -- in fact, he's still at it).

Dirks lives in an off-the-grid home in southern Colorado with his two dogs and, sometimes, a cat. In the mornings, he takes the dogs out for a walk, and brings his camera along. He posts many of the photos he takes of his neighborhood on Facebook, too.

Somebody suggested to him that he put the two together and publish them. So he did.

100 Days of Gratitude is only available in hard copy, but it's worth the price. The photos are stunning (and I would say that even if I wasn't a nut about the Rockies) and the sentiments are clearly heartfelt. It would make a terrific holiday present for anyone on your list who loves mountains, or the desert, or dogs or cats, or gratitude. And since that covers just about're welcome.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Wonders of the Invisible World - Patricia A. McKillip

I seem to be reading a fair number of short works lately. Rest assured that I'll be back on the novel track pretty soon. But first....

When I grow up, I want to write like Patricia McKillip.
McKillip's fantasy novels are almost all told in a lyrical, once-upon-a-time voice. I marvel at her ability to sustain that voice throughout an entire novel. (When I met her, I told her so. She thanked me and said, "It's hard." Yeah, I can just imagine.)
Some of the stories in this collection have that same fairy-tale feel to them; one, "Kelpie," has an Edwardian artiste feel, with a dollop of faerie; and a couple of them feel very modern.
The title story tells about a time-traveling researcher who is sent back to meet Cotton Mather; the result felt darker to me than Connie Willis's books on the same general topic.
My favorites in this collection are probably "Byndley," in which a mage tries desperately to find his way back to an enchanted wood, so he can return something he stole from the fairy queen who lives there; and "The Doorkeeper of Khaat," the final story, in which a young poet agrees to help his terminally-ill father end his life.
But we're talking about minor degrees of favoritism here. I can't think of a single story in this collection that I hated. If you've never read any McKillip, this collection would be a good way to sample her work. Highly recommended.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Art Collection: Three Short Stories - Carla Sarett

I liked Carla Sarett's stories in 13 Bites Vol. 1 and Summer Dreams, anthologies in which I also participated. I  So I felt confident that I would enjoy the three short stories in The Art Collection. I was not disappointed.

All three of the stories in this collection have art, or works of art, as a theme, and there's a mystery at the heart of each one. My favorite is probably the final story, "The Captain's House." It's about a woman who volunteers with the committee that runs a historic house on Philadelphia's Main Line. The house is a showcase of period decorative arts, but something's not quite right about at least one of them.

Sarett's characters are well-drawn and believable. In particular, I loved her description of the president of the board of directors of the Captain's House, Evan Beamish: "a tall, white-haired man who seemed serenely absent-minded. He wore an endearingly bright yellow bow-tie, and he seemed somewhere between the ages of sixty and ninety. It was hard to tell. He might have looked the same at forty." I'm pretty sure I've met that guy, and I'd bet you have, too.

The Art Collection is a quick read that I very much enjoyed.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Passage to Belize - L.A. Lewandowski

Passage to Belize is a short story -- really, a quickie travel memoir -- about the author's adventure Belize with her mother-in-law, Rose Marie.

Rose Marie's health is failing. She and her husband used to take cruises together; now that he has passed away, the author agrees to go on a Caribbean cruise with the older woman. At each port of call, they go in search of local art -- not the ticky-tacky made-in-China stuff, but authentic pieces by local artists.

When they arrive in Belize, the city outside of the port area is locked down due to recent violence. But the author is determined to find some local art to take home -- and where there's a will, there's a way.

This is a quick and entertaining read that I very much enjoyed.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Blackbirds (Miriam Black #1) - Chuck Wendig

Happy Samhain! This week I'm reviewing a book that scared the crap out of me.

Chuck Wendig is a force of nature. His blog, Terrible Minds, is a must-read for indie authors (and pretty much anyone else with a pulse). And he writes his fiction in multiple genres at once, as if he didn't know any better.  

Blackbirds is a case in point. This book could fit into any one of several genres -- contemporary fantasy, paranormal something-or-other, thriller, horror. It tells about an episode in the life of Miriam Black, a woman who has an unusual ability, and one she wishes she didn't have. All she has to do is touch someone, and she can see how the person will die. In living Technicolor. And she knows, pretty much to the minute, when it will happen. It's part of the reason why she's adopted a wandering lifestyle, but it's not the only reason.

One night, she gets into Louis Darling's truck, and learns in her usual manner that he will die in a month, in a horrible way -- and all because he met her. The worst part of it is that Louis is a nice guy. Thus begins Miriam's quest to either get out of Louis's life entirely, or figure out a way to cheat the fate she knows is his.

This is not a book for those with delicate sensibilities. Many of the novel's scenes are visceral in their violence, and Miriam has a colorful vocabulary. But the plot is well-paced and the characters are believable. I was invested enough in Miriam and Louis that I had to keep reading to know how it all turned out.

Blackbirds isn't the kind of thing I usually read, but I'm glad I did.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Queen's Gold - Melissa Bowersock

It seems only fair, this close to El Día de los Muertos, to travel to Mexico for this week's Rursday Read.
Hal Thompson is nobody's fool. So when his daughter gets involved with someone who performs past-life regression therapy, he is understandably skeptical -- even after the details of his son's regression check out.

Reluctantly, he agrees to undergo a regression himself. And he's even more skeptical when his session reveals that in a past life, he was involved with hiding a fortune in Aztec gold from the conquistadores.

Unfortunately for Hal and his family, there's at least one group of people searching for that cache of artifacts, and some of them appear to be up to no good. It looks like Hal is the only person who can unravel the mystery behind the gold's disappearance, and protect his family in the process.

Bowersock is a wonderful author. Her characters are believable, and the plot kept me turning the pages of this book into the wee hours. I've enjoyed several of her novels, and am happy to add Queen's Gold to that list.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Heart Chants (Phillip McGuire Mysteries #2) - Randy Attwood

This week, I'm reviewing a book that treats Native American beliefs and customs with a great deal more respect than The Blue Coyote Motel does.

I'm not a big fan of mysteries, usually, but I have enjoyed reading Tony Hillerman's books -- mainly for the glimpses into Navajo culture that his characters provide.

Heart Chants is similar to Hillerman's work in that it's a mystery, although "thriller" may be a more accurate genre description, and that it includes a lot of information about the Navajo. But there's quite a bit more to it.

Phil McGuire is a former journalist who quit the business after a horrific incident in Beirut and retired to Lawrence, Kansas, where he now owns a bar. One night outside the bar, he rescues a Chinese woman from a group of thugs, and gets beaten up in the process. At about the same time, two Navajo women have disappeared from the local community college, and a third -- who is like the missing women in that her father is a singer -- is convinced her friends were kidnapped. She comes to Phil for a place to hide, so she doesn't end up missing, too.

Phil's story runs concurrently with that of a half-Navajo, half-white man who wants the whites in America to go back where they came from. It's not long before we realize this young man is involved with the disappearance of the women, and much of the book's tension comes from watching these two story lines head for their inevitable collision.

Attwood is an old newspaperman himself, and it shows in his ability to tell a story. His characters are genuine -- I liked Phil right away -- and it's clear he did his research into Navajo culture. Although this is the second book in this series, I didn't have any trouble keeping up with either the characters or the plot.

I enjoyed Heart Chants very much, and I'll definitely be looking for more of Attwood's work.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Blue Coyote Motel - Dianne Harman

I wanted to like this book, but it just has too many problems.

In a nutshell, the plot is this: Maria, a Hispanic woman who is terrified of losing her looks to aging, meets and marries Jeffrey, a scientist who is developing an anti-aging hormone. When one of Jeffrey's colleagues at the research lab where they all work discovers Jeffrey has been giving the hormone to Maria, both Jeffrey and Maria are given the heave-ho, and sent out the door with a $2 million settlement. They use the money to buy a rundown motel in the middle of the California desert. Maria runs the motel while Jeffrey sets up a test lab in the basement. He comes up with a gas that treats depression, and they test it on the occasional guest by piping it into the rooms. Each of the treated guests consequently leaves the motel feeling terrific; they all go home and turn their lives around. Eventually, though, the drug wears off. When it does, they all happen to  come back to the motel on the same weekend, meet each other, and figure out pretty quickly what's going on. Jeffrey, who is in full-blown mad scientist mode by then, charges them each big money for a continued supply of the drug. And things go downhill from there.

The idea is interesting and original. But oh my goodness, does this book need editing. There is way too much telling and not nearly enough showing. The author repeats details far too many times; for example, we hear that a particular character has earned a specific degree three times in the space of two pages. And the characters deliver their dialog as if they were soliloquies: first one declaims for a paragraph or two, and then the next gives a paragraph in response. Friends, this is not how real people talk.

All that is bad enough, but the author gets numerous facts wrong. Alzheimers, which is a form of dementia, is not the new term for "hardening of the arteries," which is a form of heart disease. The author is confused about how bipolar disease works; she claims people in the manic phase cycle between not sleeping and sleeping ten hours per night (manics sleep very little -- it's people in the depression phase who sleep long hours) and don't shower (again, that's people in the depression phase). I got the impression she pulled up a list of bipolar symptoms online and simply mixed-and-matched.

But what annoyed me the most was her misunderstanding of Native American culture. One of Jeffrey's human guinea pigs is a member of an unnamed tribe. She asserts that once someone receives an "Indian name," they're stuck with it for life. That's not true; many tribes give their members new names to mark significant milestones. She also claims the tribe let her character off the hook for his adolescent vision quest because he was too busy with school, which is unlikely, and that every male gets only one vision quest per lifetime, which simply is not true -- shamans in particular do them more often. Her character is supposedly studying to be a medicine man, but his mentor seems to think he can pick up everything he needs to know in a few months of part-time study, as if he were going to night school for a certificate in shamanism. Sorry, but that ain't how it works.

I cannot recommend The Blue Coyote Motel. It's the first in a series, but with so many significant problems in this book, I will not be bothering with the others.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Playing Charlie Cool - Laurie Boris

Charlie Trager's back, and this time he's playing for keeps.

Playing Charlie Cool is the sequel to Boris's novella The Picture of Cool (her novel Don't Tell Anyone fills in the timeline between the two), and features the same main characters: Charlie, producer of a TV talk show; and Adam Joshua Goldberg, former New York City mayor's aide, who resigns from that job when he announces he's gay. He and his wife subsequently split. But Adam -- or Joshua, as Charlie calls him -- is leery of making his relationship with Charlie public. For one thing, he and his soon-to-be-ex have two kids. For another, Josh comes from a political family, and his father the senator wants him to run for Congress.

Charlie's head-over-heels for Joshua, but he's getting more and more tired of waiting in the wings. How long will it be before Mr. Producer Man loses his celebrated cool?

I loved this book. Boris does such a great job at portraying both Charlie and Josh that you just can't help but hope that they can figure out a way to be together. One of my favorite scenes is the transatlantic phone call during which they hash out Joshua's big speech in Geneva. It shows that their relationship isn't just about the sex -- there's respect there, too, as well as love.

Yes, Playing Charlie Cool features two gay men as its protagonists. But it's a love story for everybody.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Black Elk Speaks - John Neihardt

With this, I've hit the bottom of my dead-tree TBR pile. I'd be more excited if I thought it would last. But World Fantasy Convention and its freebie book bag of doom is right around the corner....
For years, I have meant to get around to reading Black Elk Speaks. When I found a copy in my favorite used bookstore several months back, it seemed like a sign that now was the time to do it.

This book, which is considered a classic on Native American spirituality and culture, is somewhat problematic. Nicholas Black Elk was a Lakota Sioux medicine man who spoke with John Neihardt in a series of sessions in 1930-31. Black Elk's life spanned eras -- that of his tribe's traditional life on the Plains, its wars with white men, and its subsequent defeat. He talks about all of that. But his aim in talking to Neihardt at all is to pass on to him details about the Sioux religion -- a religion that he feared would be lost unless he shared his beliefs with the author.

Neihardt's agenda was different. He was a poet, according to Vine Deloria Jr. in the foreward to my edition of the book, who was interested in chronicling the history of the West. For him, Black Elk's narrative -- and those of his fellow Ogalalla Sioux who helped him tell their story -- was raw material to be shaped into a book that would appeal to white readers. In doing so, some of the meaning, as well of some of the flavor, of Black Elk's words was sacrificed. You can readily see the result in Appendix 2, which compares the original notes of Black Elk's story of the legend of White Buffalo Woman with the edited version in the text.

Still, the old man's voice resonates down through the years. And while he clearly worried that he considered his life a failure because he could not bring the Six Grandfathers' world to fruition during his own lifetime, the fact that we're still reading, and considering, these words, more than 80 years later indicates -- to me at least -- that he may yet succeed.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Other Side of Virtue - Brendan Myers

This is the second book of three in my short stack of dead-tree books. I'm going to try to stick to e-books after this. (At least until I collect my book swag at the World Fantasy Convention in November, anyway.)
This is not a novel. It's a book about ethics.

Myers has a Ph.D. in philosophy. He's also a Druid. So he approaches his subject from an angle that may be unfamiliar -- even perhaps uncomfortable -- for readers steeped in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

He begins by tracing the evolution of the notion of virtue, from Heroic societies (primarily the Norse and the ancient Celts) through Classical Greece and Rome, the humanist side of the Renaissance, the Romantics, and Nietzsche. He rounds out this survey course with a discussion of the qualities of virtue in two recent fantasy series, Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and Rowling's Harry Potter novels, and looks at how these two authors have implemented some of the great ideas on the subject into their works.

He then talks about modern life, and how we respond to what he calls the Immensity. In the final analysis, he argues, there is no overarching meaning to our lives; instead, each of us determines, moment by moment, our reason to continue living. And we make the determination with our actions. "For it is what we do," he says, "more than anything else, that creates a worthwhile life."

As a writer, I was especially heartened by his support of storytelling as critical to that worthwhile life. He says, "It is through storytelling that life can make sense: life as recounted in stories is intelligible, structured, unified, and one's own." (Italics are in the original.)

I found The Other Side of Virtue to be very readable, despite the plethora of big ideas packed into it. I'll be keeping this one on my bookshelf.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Flicker - Melanie Hooyenga

I have promised myself that I will spend this month clearing out my dead-tree TBR pile. (It's a short pile, so it won't take long.)

First: I owe the author an apology. I won this book as part of a Goodreads giveaway quite some time ago, and have been putting off reading it in favor of books on my Kindle. And now I'm kind of sorry I did that, because I enjoyed it.

Flicker is about Biz, a teenage girl with an unusual talent: when she sees the right kind of flickering light, she time-travels about eighteen hours into her own past. This has pluses and minuses. Her grades are better because she can take the same test twice (and tell her friends exactly what to study for), and she can relive happy moments with her boyfriend. On the other hand, she also must endure lectures from her parents twice, as well as her father's bouts with a serious, mysterious illness. And her ability makes her feel like a freak -- so much so that she keeps it a secret from everyone.

And then she realizes she can use her talent to stop a criminal. The only catch is that she's going to have to trust someone with her secret.

The book is written in first person. Biz makes for a pleasant narrator -- not as manic as some teenage girls can be. If the reader can accept the time-travel aspects of the story, the plot is believable. And the story moves along at a nice clip -- so much so that I found myself staying up past my bedtime to finish the book.

Flicker is a YA novel. If I had to give it a rating, I'd say it's a PG. If you like YA fantasy, it's definitely worth a read.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Coyote Still Going: Native American Legends and Contemporary Stories - Ty Nolan

You guys must know by now that I'm kind of a nut for Native American stories and culture. Coyote Still Going, like the Trickster god of its title, charmed the pants off of me.

Nolan is a storyteller and therapist, and he is upfront about the way he uses traditional stories in his therapy work. Native cultures often use story as a teaching tool, and so Nolan has also developed a program for presenting legends to Indian children participating in Head Start programs.

"Here are some stories," Nolan writes at the very beginning of this book. They are wonderful stories. And he throws in some recipes, too. Coyote Still Going has a little something for everyone. I recommend it.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Marysvale (Marysvale Trilogy #1) - Jared Southwick

Marysvale is a YA horror story of sorts that's set in a fantasy world.

The setting is a frontier region similar to our Old West. The main character, John Casey, is a man with an odd gift: the ability to see into people's souls. That makes life difficult for him in this superstitious and suspicious culture. So John settles in some town for a little while, until the townspeople realize there's something odd about him, and then he moves on.

His latest escape leads him through a forest peopled by monsters -- creatures with the ability to track and hunt people. He escapes with his life, and arrives at an isolated farm where the owner, a middle-aged woman named Sarah, takes him in.

Then visitors arrive -- Jane, who is about John's age, and Jane's younger sister Hannah. They have come from the nearby town of Marysvale, where they live with their father. They used to live on a farm near Sarah's, but they fled after the monsters killed the girls' mother. As you might expect, John and Jane begin to fall for one another. But there is more to their relationship than young love, and the truth lies in the visions John has been having about his past -- a past he cannot remember.

Marysvale is the first in a trilogy. The book is well-edited, the plot moves along, and the monsters are well-conceived, although not overly gruesome. If you're looking for a YA fantasy with a bit of scary stuff, this book might be just the thing.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Assignment Prague - Helen Haught Fanick

Since I'm half Czech, stories set in Prague always catch my attention. So when I saw this book with the Charles Bridge on the cover, I was immediately intrigued.

Assignment Prague is set during World War II. The main character is Anton Janak, a Czech who is a member of the Resistance fighting against the Nazi occupation of what was then Czechoslovakia. As the book opens, Anton is participating in the nighttime parachute drop of a spy working for the OSS -- a woman whose mission is to infiltrate Nazi headquarters in Prague. But her chute fails, and she ends up with a broken leg and a concussion. Anton takes on the responsibility of caring for her, which not only entails getting her medical care and food, which are both in short supply, but also keeping her presence in his apartment a secret from everyone he knows.

The spy, whose cover name is Tereza, and Anton do their best to keep their relationship professional. But proximity and danger work their magic, and soon they find themselves falling for one another. When the danger heightens, each wonders whether their love will survive the war.

Fanick trained as a journalist, and it shows. I know from my own background how easy it is to fall prey to delivering just the facts, even when writing fiction. However, a novelist also has to portray the characters' emotions -- not just a description, but actually showing them feeling their feelings -- and I thought that was in short supply here. Because of it, I didn't get as close as I could have to Anton and Tereza. And because of that, the dramatic scenes didn't have the same punch to the gut that they should have.

Still, I liked Assignment Prague. If you like stories set during the time of the Nazi regime, you might want to give this book a try.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Strange Savior: A Short Story - Leland Dirks

The topic of suicide has been in the news lately, with the death of comedian Robin Williams. So my Rursday Read this week couldn't be more timely. 

For a 3,000-word short story, Strange Savior packs a hefty punch.

In the late 1970s in Boulder, Colorado, a college student is coming to grips with his homosexuality. One bleak night, he contemplates ending it all by jumping off a bridge into a frozen creek. What happens next is...well, I have my own opinion. But I urge you to read it yourself and decide: is it magic, or divine intervention, or a rare show of humanity?

Dirks is a wonderful writer. Please pick up this book. And if you know anyone who is contemplating suicide, please give them the hotline number at the end of the book.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Rock 'n Roll Heaven - Shawn Inmon

This one's just plain fun.

Jimmy "Guitar" Velvet has been playing in bands since he was old enough to notice that girls dig a guy with a guitar. That was several decades ago, and while Jimmy once got close to stardom, he's never made it big. He and his fellow band members tour the Pacific Northwest in a converted bus, playing bars and just scraping by. Then one night, traveling between gigs, the brakes go out on the bus and it plunges into a creek. Jimmy is the only member of the band who doesn't get out alive.

But that's just the start of Jimmy's adventure, because St. Peter sends him to Rock 'n Roll Heaven. The streets there are paved in gold CDs, and everybody who was anybody has their own little club. Jimmy can't figure out why all these legendary rockers are welcoming him -- a guy who never made it big -- with open arms. But as it turns out, Jimmy has something special to contribute to Rock 'n Roll Heaven.

Inmon's style is smooth and engaging. Jimmy's a likeable guy, and his reaction to meeting all his heroes is believable. I found Rock 'n Roll Heaven a quick, fun read. If you're looking for a beach read for these last summer days, you could do worse than this book.

And because I know you're dying to know: yes, in Rock 'n Roll Heaven, they really do have a hell of a band.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Blind Sight (The Celadon Circle #1) - Nicole Storey

How about a demon or two for your Lammas celebration?

Seventeen-year-old Jordan is a seeker -- one of a handful of humans tasked by angels to root out and kill evil creatures. It's a family business; she works with her older brothers, who are fraternal twins, and their uncle -- the kids' parents are dead.

We're introduced to Jordan's special powers as soon as the book opens. She's in the grip of a horrific vision about a monster that is terrorizing a small town in Tennessee. Soon, she and her family have moved into a camping cabin in the town, where they are set to go to work.

But all is not Good vs. Evil in this book. The monster is a bad guy -- that's for certain. But the angels have their own agenda. And as Jordan discovers, even seekers may not be completely free of the taint of demons.

Jordan is a complex character, and Blind Sight is a fine beginning to her story. It will be interesting to see where Storey takes her characters next.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

My Name Is Hardly (My Temporary Life #2) - Martin Crosbie

That was a short dystopian summer...although I imagine the Troubles in Ireland were a sort of dystopia for those who lived there when they were going on.

Readers were introduced to Gerald "Hardly" McDougall in Crosbie's first novel, My Temporary Life (which itself will be a Rursday Read, by and by). But you don't have to have read the first book to figure out what's going on here.

Hardly is the son of an alcoholic father, and a short kid who fought off his share of bullies while growing up in Scotland. When he comes of age, he enlists in the British Army, and finds himself stationed in Ireland during the Troubles. Owing to his size, he's often placed with a comrade in some British sympathizer's cramped attic, where they gather intelligence about the movements and plans of the Irish Republican Army. As the book opens, Hardly and one of his pals is holed up in yet another attic, in what they hope will be their final mission. And when he gets out of there, he plans to help his buddy track down the man's sister -- a woman who Hardly has fallen in love with through his brother's descriptions of her.

My Name Is Hardly packs love, hate, suspense, and adventure into its pages. It's a great book. I highly recommend it.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Life First (Life First #1) - R.J. Crayton

Apparently it's Dystopian Summer here at Rursday Reads, or at least Dystopian July.

Life First follows the story of Kelsey Reed. Her father is a politician in this post-pandemic version of America; her mother died of pre-eclampsia while pregnant with a second child. The fetus also did not survive. In this America, where Life First is law, fetuses are never sacrificed to save the mother's life, and all good citizens are required not only to give blood, but to be organ donors whenever they are a good match for a person who needs a transplant. Refusal to donate when marked is punishable not only by prison, but by a horrible death: the prisoner is killed by having all his or her usable organs taken at once.

Kelsey is marked for a kidney donation. Her best friend suffered serious complications during her donation, and is now in a wheelchair. Kelsey no longer believes in Life First. So she and her boyfriend, with the help of a doctor, hatch a plot for her escape to Peoria -- another country, in what used to be Florida, where no one is forced to give up any body parts to save a stranger. But the plan fails; Kelsey is captured and sent to prison, where her life hangs in the balance.

I found Crayton's plot compelling, and I could imagine America turning into this parody of itself if certain political factions had their way. I wished the writing were a bit smoother, and that Kelsey and Luke didn't feel compelled to call each other by name so often when they're the only two people in the conversation. But those are quibbles. Life First is a fine start to what looks to be an interesting series.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Rook (Allie's War, Book One) - J.C. Andrijeski

Allie's War is dystopian sci-fi, an alternate-Earth series in which humans only think they're the dominant species.

The main character is 28-year-old Allie Taylor. She works as a waitress in San Francisco, where she grew up as thoroughly human, although she was a foundling and her birth parents are unknown. In this America, humanity looks down on the seers -- another race of beings which humans have essentially enslaved. Or at least, humans think the seers are enslaved.

Then one day, a man named Revik walks into the restaurant where Allie works, and mayhem ensues. He encourages her to come away with him, and for some reason, she does.

It doesn't take long before she discovers that there's more to the seer-human dynamic than meets the eye, and that she's special to both races -- perhaps even humanity's salvation.

Andrijeski has an easy, fluid writing style, and she reveals just enough as the story progresses to keep her readers along for the ride. She has written a number of volumes in this series -- Goodreads shows twelve, including a compilation and three spinoff novels -- but if you're into dystopian sci-fi, Rook is the place to start. You won't be disappointed.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Forevermore (Pat O'Malley Mysteries) -- Jim Musgrave

Edgar Allan Poe has always been one of my favorite authors. He is probably best known today for writing "The Raven." But his horror stories are classics, and deservedly so; my all-time favorite is still "The Masque of the Red Death."

Poe is also credited with creating the genre of detective fiction, and it's on this particular hook that Musgrave hangs his hat. Forevermore is narrated by Pat O'Malley, an acquaintance of Poe's, who takes it upon himself to investigate the mystery surrounding the author's death in Baltimore in 1849. But instead of traveling to Baltimore, O'Malley confines his search to the area around New York City, where many of Poe's acquaintances lived. He begins to suspect that Poe was killed in connection with the murder case that Poe used as the basis of one of his detective stories, "The Mystery of Marie Rogêt."

The real-life murder victim, Mary Cecelia Rogers, may have had an abortion prior to her death. Musgrave runs with that, and further emphasizes the Victorian-era discomfort with bodily matters by giving O'Malley an odd sexual dysfunction -- he is unable to be intimate with a woman. It's when he begins to make progress on this problem that he begins to find his way to the truth about Poe's mysterious death.

Musgrave appears to be aiming for a steampunk vibe. I found it only partly convincing; sometimes O'Malley's voice dropped out of the Victorian vernacular and used modern phrases, and sometimes the prose was even more overwrought than a real Victorian would write. Still, Forevermore was worth a look.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Monkee Business: The Revolutionary Made-for-TV Band - Eric Lefcowitz

Alert hearth-myth readers know by now that I was a huge fan of the Monkees when I was growing up. I was eight years old when the TV show hit the airwaves on Monday nights (yes, kids, "The Monkees" was originally a prime-time show). I had a huge crush on Davy; Peter was my second favorite.

Then the show went off the air and the band broke up, more or less, and I kind of grew out of them. But everything old is new again, if you live long enough. I attended a Monkees concert last summer, and that rekindled my interest in the Prefab Four. So I picked up a copy of Lefcowitz's book. It's billed as the definitive biography of the band -- with good reason: it's just about the only one out there. Lefcowitz does a pretty good job with fleshing out the backstory behind the Monkees. I was somewhat disappointed to learn that Davy was a bit of a jerk in real life (the show was conceived as a star vehicle for him from the start) and that he and Peter never really got along. I guess it's just as well that I never made to Hollywood to meet them.

I was saddened, but not surprised, to learn how the band mates were kicked to the curb by Bob Rafelson and Burt Schneider after the TV show made them a fortune. Jack Nicholson has the Monkees to thank for his career; Rafelson and Schneider used money they made from the show to produce "Five Easy Pieces" and "Easy Rider" -- movies that made Nicholson a star.

This edition has been updated through Davy's death in 2012 and the subsequent reunion tour featuring the three surviving Monkees.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Appalachian Justice (Cedar Hollow) -- Melinda Clayton

Appalachian Justice begins in the present-day, as an old mountain woman is breathing her last in a nursing home in Huntington, WV. Billy Mae Platte's mind drifts back to the events that shaped her life in 1940s Cedar Hollow, WV.

Life was never easy for the half-Irish, half-Cherokee young woman. Orphaned young, she finds herself irresistably attracted to her best friend Corinne. An ugly incident involving Corinne's brother and some of his buddies, all of whom have just returned from World War II, forces Billy Mae to flee up Crutcher Mountain. There she lives alone -- until she learns that one of the men who raped her is sexually abusing a young girl left in his care. Billy Mae must find the strength to protect the girl and herself, and enact justice in her own way.

Some readers who are unfamiliar with Appalachian speech patterns might have trouble with Billy Mae's narrative voice, but as someone who has lived in the Mountain State, I can tell you that Clayton got it just right.

I found Appalachian Justice to be a gripping read. The 1940s storyline ended satisfyingly, and in the only logical way. Good stuff. I'm looking forward to reading the rest of this series.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

In the Absence of Light - Susan M. Strayer

(Full disclosure: the author is my editor, and I was a beta reader for this book.)

Shiloh is an autistic boy with a knack for solving puzzles. His father works for the government on a top-secret project. His best friend, Calliope, wants to be a Shakespearean actress.

Just a normal family, right? But then Shiloh's world turns upside down. His father is captured by government troops that behave like an invading army. Their laser-like weapon renders Calliope almost catatonic. Shiloh believes the only person who can help his friend is his dad, so he takes her along on a cross-country trek to rescue him. Their only guide is a book that Shiloh's dad filled with puzzles that only Shiloh knows how to solve.

Before it's over, Shiloh will come to doubt everything he thinks he knows -- including his own memories.

In the Absence of Light should please anyone who enjoys reading YA dystopian fantasy. I can't wait to read the sequel.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Lions and Tigers and Bears: The Internet Strikes Back (Oh Myyy! #2) - George Takei

Who doesn't love George Takei? The guy's everywhere on social media these days. His Facebook page has millions of fans (including me), and his hilarious posts on everything from Star Trek puns to Amazon product reviews often go viral in a matter of minutes.

And what do you know -- Uncle George is an indie author, too.

This book is a sequel to Oh Myyy! There Goes the Internet, which was about his first year on social media. In this one, Takei talks about some of the lessons he's learned in his second year on Facebook. He devotes chapters to the causes to which he's lent his considerable star power: marriage equality, LGBT rights, and awareness about the US internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. And he laments that fans complain when he posts an occasional plug for one of his enterprises -- this book, for example.

He also doles out some secrets to his success that other indies could take to heart -- to wit: Post stuff that will keep people coming back to your page; don't beat your fans over the head with promotional posts; and police your page -- try to keep the discussions civil, and don't feed the trolls. (Of course, unlike most indies, Takei has a staff to help him with all of this. And his fame precedes him; Star Trek gave him visibility that most of us can only dream about.)

If that's not enough, Uncle George reprises many of the memes that have graced his Facebook page over the past year or so, and a lot of them are still funny. For that, if no other reason, I thought Lions and Tigers and Bears was worth the price.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Pharos Objective - David Sakmyster

I was on a World Fantasy Convention panel with David Sakmyster a few years ago. The panel was about using mythology in fantasy stories, and I made a mental note then to read this book. I'm a little ashamed to admit that I am only now getting around to it.

Our hero is Caleb Crowe, a university professor whose family is adept at remote viewing -- a paranormal talent in which the subject can see events happening across the world, or even far back in time. Caleb's still beating himself up for an accident years before that put his sister Phoebe in a wheelchair. And he hasn't forgiven his mother --  as a child, he drew remote-viewing pictures of the place where his father was being held prisoner, and she refused to act on them to rescue him.

Now, his mother has fallen in with a team of psychic archaeologists to find the legendary treasure supposedly hidden beneath the ruins of the Pharos Lighthouse. Grudgingly, Caleb agrees to go along with the team to Egypt, even though he trusts neither the motives of the team's leader nor the man's interest in his mother. The lighthouse's architect built in traps and puzzles to protect the treasure, and while Caleb's talent gives him the inside track on solving them, it's by no means certain he will gain the prize -- for the team has also drawn the interest of a shadowy group that appears to be blocking their attempt to find the treasure.

The story was well-written and the puzzles had me stumped. I liked Caleb's relationship with his sister.

However, my file had some formatting issues. Some chapters were in Times and some were in Courier, and there didn't seem to be a reason in the narrative for the shift.

Still, for fans of Indiana Jones, The Pharos Objective is worth a read.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Shaman, Healer, Heretic (Olivia Lawson, Techno-Shaman #1) - M. Terry Green

I loved this book, and was so glad to find out it's the first in a series.

Olivia Lawson, known as Livvy, is a former med student who now works as a shaman, healing people in a different way. She uses special goggles to go into a trance state so she can venture to the Middle World and talk the spirits of dying people into coming back. It doesn't pay very well, and people are suspicious of her work. Even some of her clients think shamanism is next to Satanism.

She awakens one night to find a kachina -- an honest-to-goodness Hopi Indian god -- standing over her bed. That should be impossible. There's no way any beings from the other side can get through to this reality.

At the same time, shamans have begun dying while in the other world. Livvy gets the idea that all the techno-shamans should band together to cross the divide and find out what's going on. She talks her boss, SK, into helping her pull everybody together -- a tricky feat, as shamans work alone.

Somebody's spreading rumors that the shamans are responsible for bad things that are happening on this plane, making her job even harder. To top it off, there's a paramedic who seems to have taken a shine to her -- but can she trust him?

Livvy's a great character. Her angst is believable, and I felt sorry for her when she seemed to have trouble convincing the other shamans to help. I did wish the author had mentioned Livvy's ability to jury-rig electronics sooner, but you can't have everything.

I'm looking forward to reading the rest of the series.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Hounded (The Iron Druid Chronicles) - Kevin Hearne

I could tell right away that a guy wrote this book. All the goddesses are voluptuous and irresistible, and they all want to have sex with the main character.

That main character would be Atticus O'Sullivan -- or at least, that's the name he's going by these days. He's a couple of centuries old, give or take. He's the last surviving Druid on earth. And he's taken up residence in Tempe, Arizona, of all places, where he runs a New Age bookstore and tearoom. It's also where he's hiding out from Angus Og, the Celtic god, who wants a magic sword Atticus has hidden under the basil in his herb garden.

I've had a couple of people recommend this series to me. I found this first book to be okay, but I probably won't read any more of them. The randy goddesses put me off, for one thing, but that's not the only thing. None of the characters have much depth to them -- not even Atticus, who ought to have gained some wisdom in his 2100 years on the planet, but who instead seems okay with skating along on the surface of life. I liked his dog, Oberon, with whom he can converse via mind-speak, and who has some of the funniest lines in the book.

If you're looking for a light, funny read featuring Celtic gods in Arizona, this series may be for you. Lots of people like it. It's just not really my cup of herbal tea.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

The Picture of Cool - Laurie Boris

I admit it -- I'm a big fan of Laurie Boris's. And it's not just because we're both minions at Indies Unlimited, either. The woman can write.

The Picture of Cool is a short story featuring Charlie Trager, the brother of Adam Trager from Don't Tell Anyone. Charlie's latest romance -- you can't even really call it a subplot, it gets so little screen time -- gets a mention in that book. This is the story of how that relationship began.

Charlie works as a producer for a national daytime TV talk show. He meets Adam in the green room, just before Adam is to go on the show. There are sparks between the two men pretty much immediately, but Adam is married and there's a kid involved. The "how gay is he?" question only adds to the story's poignancy.

Charlie is a great guy -- the kind that women shake their heads in disappointment over when they find out which way he swings. You want things to work out between him and Adam. And when this story ended, I didn't want it to be over. To me, that's always a sign of a good tale. And I'm hoping we haven't heard the last of Charlie....

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Jimmy Mender and His Miracle Dog - Angelo Dirks and Leland Dirks

Can a man you've only known for a week change your life?

Paul Young is a writer living in a San Francisco rooming house when his landlady introduces him to a new tenant. The new guy, Jimmy Mender, is an ex-Marine, and a Stetson-wearing cowboy who smells of Old Spice. Paul is instantly smitten, but he's not sure whether Jimmy is gay, too. Still, he invites Jimmy out on a date, Jimmy accepts, and they seem to click.

For a week. And then Jimmy leaves town.

Heartbroken, Paul turns to his writing. He starts a newspaper advice column that he calls, "What Would Jimmy Mender Do?" And he wonders what happened to the real Jimmy Mender and why he left so suddenly.

Months later, Paul receives a package from Alaska. It contains a number of notebooks -- Jimmy's journals -- and a note from a friend of Jimmy's informing Paul that Jimmy has died. The notebooks are Paul's now, as are some of Jimmy's things up there in Alaska, and Paul is welcome to come up and get them.

And so, Paul embarks on a journey. In the process, he learns a lot more about who Jimmy was, and in turn, he learns a great deal about himself.

Jimmy Mender and His Miracle Dog (yes, there's a dog in the book) defies categorization. There's a touch of magic, a fair amount of adventure, and underneath it all, a lot of heart. It's a great read. I recommend it.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

My Gentleman Vampire: The Undead Have Style - L.A. Lewandowski

I have to say that this is the first book I've ever read that featured a tango-dancing vampire as one of the main characters.

Natalie, who's an author, is in the process of getting over Mike, the guy she threw out of her house after he cheated on her. One morning, after drinking herself to sleep the night before, she wakes up to discover someone has been through her closet and has laid out a chic outfit for her. Somehow or other, a stylish vampire named David has moved himself into her basement. He takes Natalie on as his personal project, and before long, he has renovated her diet, her health and beauty regimen, and even her house. And it turns out he is as much of a fan of the tango as she is. Pretty soon, the two of them are getting lessons from an unusual dance instructor so they can compete in the vampires' annual tango competition. Of course, there's a similar competition coming up in the human world, and Mike and his new partner are considered to be the dance team to beat. Anyone want to bet whether there will be a showdown?

I didn't completely buy Natalie's willingness to let David take over her life. Classical vampires use mind control to subdue their human companions, but David doesn't do that -- instead, Natalie just kind of goes with the flow. To his credit, he doesn't bite her, either. Oh -- and did I mention he's gay?

I don't typically read chick lit, but My Gentleman Vampire was a cute, fun book.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Yucatan Dead (A Kate Jones Thriller) - D.V. Berkom

Like all good thrillers, Yucatan Dead starts off with a bang and keeps going.

Kate Jones wakes up, realizing she's been kidnapped. And it doesn't take long before she figures out who is behind it: a former lover who also happens to be a Mexican drug lord. He's after her for the money she took when she left him, and since then, every attempt she has made to start a normal life anew has ended with the people she loves in trouble.

In a twist of fate, she manages to escape from his clutches yet again, and falls in with a shadowy paramilitary organization that uses less-than-legal means to combat the drug trade. The head of the organization gives her a choice: get out of Mexico and go back to her life in the States, or help him bring down her former lover. But Kate knows that leaving would only mean continuing to live on the lam.

This is the first of Berkom's six Kate Jones books that I've read, but I didn't have any trouble following the goings-on -- the author fills in just enough back story to clue in the reader. The pace is fast, the characters believable, and the editing excellent. I enjoyed Yucatan Dead, and now I may have to go back and read the previous books in the series.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Pinball (The Gatespace Trilogy) - Alan Seeger

Steve Denver has kind of come unstuck in time.

One day, he looks up from his attempts to focus on writing his next novel, and sees some kind of metal monster heading for his home. He subdues it, more or less accidentally, and follows it to its source -- an interdimensional gateway that wasn't there the day before.

With a little ingenuity, Steve goes through the gateway and pilots through the green void on the other side, until he finds himself on another world. When he manages to get back home, he discovers more time has passed than he thought. You would think that would convince him to stay home -- but no, he's got to go back. And this time, the other world he lands in is not a welcoming place. How he gets back home again, and how his repeated efforts to set things right with his family after his time travels have mucked it up, make up the plot for the rest of Pinball.

Travel to alternate universes is a time-honored sci-fi trope, of course, and Seeger's book owes much to previous stories in this vein. But there's a good bit of humor underlying the gee-whiz technology in Pinball that isn't typically present in sci-fi (Kurt Vonnegut excepted), and I thought the humor added to the fun in this book.

I did think the early part, before the giant robot shows up, went a couple of pages too long. But in all, Pinball was a fun read.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Sword and the Sorceror -- John R. Phythyon Jr.

The Sword and the Sorceror is somewhat of a rare thing in epic fantasy these days: a hero's journey in which the hero isn't a young adolescent.

The book opens with Gothemus Draco's death scene. He's poisoned by Lord Vicia, a power-hungry member of the Council of Elders of Eldenberg, and his end comes at a dinner with the whole council, the other members of which are clearly okay with this. And why not? Gothemus is the most powerful wizard in the Known World, after all. And with him out of the way, they can seize the Eye of the Dragon, with which Gothemus has kept evil subdued, and rule the Known World their own way.

But as is usually the case, it's not just the council that wants the Eye of the Dragon. It was a gnome named Elmanax, who claims Gothemus stole the gem from him, who convinced Vicia to poison Gothemus. He wants the gem back so he can go home. And then there's Gothemus's brother, Zod the Fearless, who had always expected to rule the Known World with Gothemus just as soon as Gothemus finished fiddling with the legendary sword named Wyrmblade and turned it over to him.

But Gothemus has a son. And although Calibot rejected his father's legacy years before, Gothemus isn't done with him yet. Calibot has built a nice life for himself in the neighboring city-state of Dalasport; he's chief bard to Duke Boordin and has found happiness with a courtier/soldier named Devon. Then Gothemus's intern, the hapless Liliana Gray, shows up, with posthumous orders from Gothemus to turn over Wyrmblade to Calibot -- and the reader just knows nothing in Calibot's life will ever be the same.

I thought The Sword and the Sorceror was a light, fun read. My only complaint is the author's tendency toward over-description. For example, I did not need to be reminded every time Gothemus's name was mentioned that he was the most powerful wizard in the Known World.  But Phythyon resolves the various plot threads in an original and satisfying way. And hey -- dragons. What's not to like?

Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Talent Sinistral -- L.F. Patten

The Talent Sinistral is Patten's first book, and I hope it's the first of a series. That's how much I enjoyed these characters and the world the author has created for them.

Kier is a captain in the armed forces of Alcor -- a high rank indeed for someone with his mixed bloodline. He's the bastard son of a Tiernai noble, and his mother was Dynian, the race the Tiernai conquered upon their arrival in the Ten Kingdoms. Many Dynian have some magical abilities, and Kier is one of them. He trained with a Fithlon monk before assuming his military duties, and even now Gwythion contacts him on occasion.

And so it is as the novel opens. Kier, who is stationed abroad, is mulling over his latest message from Gwythion when he is set upon in the dark. His life is saved by a man who appears to be a Dynian adventurer -- but, surprise, JonMarc is a slave who believes he has never set foot in Alcor. Before long, Kier discovers the attack was not at all random, and in fact, it's related to the reason for Gwythion's summons.

Kier learns his father is near death, and begins the journey home to Alcor -- accompanied, at Gwythion's insistence, by JonMarc. This is epic fantasy, so of course a prophecy is involved, and the future of both the Tiernai and Dynian races hangs in the balance.

I enjoyed The Talent Sinistral. It's well-written and well-edited. If you're a fan of epic fantasy, I recommend it.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur - Guy Kawasaki & Shawn Welch

The subtitle for APE is How to Publish a Book, and Kawasaki (and Welch, who is referred to in the third person throughout Kawasaki's first-person narration) do a pretty good job of delivering on it.

I've now read a few of these "how-to" books, and this one stands out for a couple of reasons. First, the authors are clear that you shouldn't be publishing just any old crap. A lot of books of this ilk recommend writing your "book" in a weekend, giving it a once-over, and slapping it up on Amazon -- often as a marketing adjunct to your other line of work. Kawasaki and Welch, to their credit, think even this type of would-be author should take the craft of writing more seriously than that. They advocate taking your time in the writing phase -- both in choosing your topic or story and in polishing your prose. They also urge the use of both beta readers and an editor. And they tell you to hire a cover designer. All good so far.

They also advocate striving for excellence in publishing your book. I love the term they've coined -- "artisanal publishing" -- and if I ever start my own publishing house, you can bet I'm going to steal it. Interestingly, they don't flat-out diss Smashwords, but it's certainly not one of their recommended publishing platforms; instead, they advocate uploading directly to the big players: Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo. (Apple's not a problem for them; as a tech guy, of course Welch has a Mac. Publishing straight to iBooks is trickier for the PC-bound, which is not a wrinkle the authors give much attention to.)

It's in talking about the entrepreneur leg that the book falters a bit for the average indie. If you've already got a following and/or you're rolling in dough, you'll have no trouble using their suggestions to send ARCs to hundreds of your closest friends and betas and/or crowdsource buzz on NetGalley at $399 per book. The rest of us will have to continue muddling along, building our platform one fan at a time.

I also wish the authors had spoken out against vanity publishing. Kawasaki and Welch lump the Author Solutions companies together with CreateSpace and Lulu as "author services companies." True, CreateSpace and Lulu offer a fee-for-service option to indies who don't feel capable of going it alone, or who simply don't want to take the time to learn. But they also offer do-it-yourself options for a whole lot less money, including -- hello! -- free. That's anathema to the business model of predatory vanity publishers like Author Solutions. For serious, guys, a real publisher pays you for the privilege of publishing your work -- not the other way around. Even if all you want to do is make Great-aunt Kate's recipes into a book for Christmas gifts for the family, I would never send you to Author Solutions or Publish America (which is now calling itself America Star Books). Your chances of getting ripped off are just too great.

I'll get down off my soapbox now. APE features some good advice and some innovative ideas. Like most books in this genre, readers should take what they need and leave the rest.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

VOKHTAH (The Suns of Vokhtah) - A.C. Flory

Vokhtah is a fascinating look into an alien culture -- and unusual because there's not a human character in the whole novel. This is no "first contact" kind of book, like much of classical sci-fi. Instead, it's a full-on immersion into life on another planet, where the dominant life forms are not at all humanoid.

The sentient species are of two types -- the Vohk, who rule the planet's day-to-day life, and the smaller iVokh, or healers. But the iVokh also act as a shadowy sort of check-and-balance on the Vokh: the iVokh's ruling council can decide that a particular Vokh is an abomination and arrange for its death. Yes, it; both the Vokh and the iVokh are hermaphrodites. Mating requires a fight for dominance -- which has obvious implications when a Vokh ruler decides to take over a territory adjoining its own.

As the book opens, the Blue -- a member of the iVokh ruling council -- is so troubled by a decision by the council to assassinate one of the Vokh that it abandons its seat on the council and goes undercover as a Messenger to try to put things right. This involves a dangerous journey with a group of Traders across mountains and desert -- one that taxes the Messenger to its physical limits -- as it races against time to beat the council's orders to their destination. It falls to one of the Traders -- a small but mysteriously powerful Vokh called the Apprentice -- to decide whether to help the Messenger survive.

It took me a little bit to get into Vokhtah. The reader is dropped into the world without the usual sci-fi trope of a human observer describing the new race, and so physical descriptions and explanations of the culture are left for the reader to discover during the course of the novel. But the characters' motivations are clearly explained and the book is well paced. There's even some humor.

If you don't mind a little bit of strangeness in your sci-fi -- and why are you reading sci-fi if you don't? -- then give Vokhtah a try.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Daimones (Daimones Trilogy #1) - Massimo Marino

This book has a number of problems.

First, a quick synopsis: Daimones is set in and around Geneva, Switzerland. Dan works for a firm in Geneva, but he, his wife and his daughter live in a sort of exurb across the border in France. One day, he's fired from his job and goes home. A day or two later, there's some kind of weird windstorm that wakes him and his wife in the middle of the night; the next morning, they discover every other human in the world is dead. Or, to be more precise, nearly every other human -- there are survivors, but they are far-flung around the globe. Eventually, Dan figures out who caused this apocalypse, and how it ties into an incident from his childhood.

Now, the problems. The biggest one is the pacing. Marino spends the whole first half of the book describing, in too much detail, the family's efforts to stockpile supplies and arm themselves. It's only at the midpoint that Dan and his family learn of another survivor in Geneva. And contact with the aliens behind the apocalypse kind of comes out of the blue; it should have been foreshadowed much earlier in the story, especially since it turns out Dan has had contact with them before.

I also think Marino missed an opportunity with Dan's dismissal from work; it could have been much more than a plot device that allows him to be home when the apocalypse occurs. Dan never makes the connection that he was singled out at work for dismissal in the same way he's been singled out by the aliens for survival.

But also, he never goes through the typical emotional responses of someone who's been let go: anger that he was misunderstood, confusion about what happens next, concern about how to support his family, and, in Dan's case, a sick feeling of justification when he survives the culling and the morons who fired him don't. Numbness and depression are also common reactions to being fired. But Dan doesn't think about any of that, and his actions don't belie that he's feeling any of it, either; his biggest concern is the timing for telling his daughter.

Finally, I wish Marino had used someone whose first language is English to go over his prose. His English is good, but I ran across numerous instances where his word choice, while accurate in terms of definition, is not what a native English speaker would have used. The one that sticks out for me is "corpse." It's technically correct, but most people would say "body" or "dead body" instead. 

In summary, I'd say Daimones is a science fiction novel with an interesting premise, but some problems in its execution.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Burning Through - Melissa Bowersock

When Jennifer and Robert Stinson bought the restored Victorian home in their new town, they had no idea about its troubled past. But the house is a perfect fit for them, as it becomes apparent in a hurry that their marriage is in trouble, too. Robert, who's in sales, is angry that he's been transferred to this podunk route in the middle of nowhere. Jen, for her part, loves the house, and seems happiest when Robert's out of town and she can concentrate on her online antiques business.

And then the fires start.

Things in the house seem to catch fire spontaneously, with no apparent cause. Each time, Jen sees a mysterious older woman near the scene of the fire, but she always disappears before Jen can catch her. She begins looking into the house's history -- and she also finds herself looking forward to seeing a particular fire captain who shows up with his crew each time they have a fire. With his help, she begins to get to the bottom of the house's mystery. But she runs the risk of seeing her whole life go up in smoke.

Bowersock does a great job of portraying the Stinsons' unraveling marriage. The unexplained fires often seem to be sparked by Robert's explosions of rage, and it's clear -- to this reader, anyway -- that the paranormal energy in the home is feeding off of his anger. I also liked the way Bowersock handled the budding relationship between Jen and Chris, the fire captain.

There's a twist at the very end that I didn't expect, but Bowersock makes it work. She's a wonderful writer, and I very much enjoyed this book.

I received an advance copy in return for an honest review.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Night Undone (Agent Night Cover Me #2) - K.S. Brooks

I wanted to get this review in before the Sochi Olympics ended, for reasons which will become apparent in a minute.

First off, this is neither a mystery nor a thriller. It's a love story about two people who happen to be spies.

When we last saw Agent Kathrin Night here at Rursday Reads, she was young and lethal, a globe-trotting spy for a United Nations agency. In this book, she is older and wiser -- and she's nursing a career-ending injury. She's also falling hard for Aleksey, the Russian agent sent by his government to keep an eye on her, and he's falling for her, too. But she's having trouble allowing herself to be vulnerable enough to admit that she loves him, let alone that her spying days are at an end. Agent Night, vulnerable? No way!

Aleksey sort of tricks her into seeing a psychiatrist who specializes in helping ex-military members adjust to civilian life. In the midst of her treatment, which isn't going fabulously well, he's called back to Russia -- but not before sharing his deepest secret with Kathrin. She wants to help him find peace with himself, and so she concocts a scheme to get them both hired on as security guards for the Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

Kathrin mistrusts everyone who tries to help her -- the psychiatrist, her landlord in Vancouver, even Aleksey. I love that, because it makes sense, given that she has always prided herself on her independence. Accepting help is difficult for anyone used to taking care of themselves; I can imagine it would be worse for someone used to trusting no one in order to stay alive.

My favorite scene might be the one in which Aleksey returns from Russia -- in the middle of the night, without calling first. Without giving too much away, I'll just say that Brooks' sense of timing here is excellent: Kathrin goes on the offensive, which makes Aleksey go on the offensive. The scene would have been hilarious, if I hadn't been so aware that they were quite capable of killing each other.

Night Undone is an exciting, touching, and timely read.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Saving Drake: a Romance - JD Mader

Happy Valentine's Day, everybody.
Romance isn't in Mader's typical wheelhouse -- he usually writes gritty noir stuff. So as you might expect, Saving Drake isn't your typical romance.

Rachel meets Drake at a party. They hit it off immediately, but Drake is gun-shy about relationships -- the love of his life died in a car wreck with him behind the wheel. But Rachel is patient, and slowly, Drake comes around. Only then does she realize what she's gotten herself into with him. Then she must decide whether she loves him enough to help him conquer his demons.

Mader calls Saving Drake a "real love story," and in many ways, it is. Both characters are awash in imperfections -- as is Rachel's best friend, a randy woman who decides to conduct her own investigation into Rachel's new guy. Drake's problems with alcohol seem realistically portrayed, and the love story between the diner owner and his wife is poignant and perfect.

Two things, though. Well, three. First, I wish Clyde had made at least one more appearance later in the book -- it would have driven home Drake's anguish about his dead love that much more. Second, while the romance genre pretty much requires a "happily ever after," I wanted at least a hint that it might not be all smooth sailing for Drake and Rachel from here on out. And finally, there's a lot of alcohol in this book. A lot of alcohol. If it's a problem for you, you've been warned.

For me, though, those are all minor quibbles. The prose is stunning, as always in Mader's work; the relationships are realistic and believable; and on the whole, I very much liked Saving Drake.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

The Devil You Say (Realy Paranormal) - Fred Musante

The elevator pitch for The Devil You Say might be this: Rush Limbaugh meets The Exorcist. And if you're a dittohead, you'll probably hate this book.

This is Musante's second outing for Mike and Ethan Realy, fraternal twins roped into becoming paranormal investigators due to an odd clause in their father's will, and Mike's girlfriend Noelle, who's a karate expert. They're hired by conservative talk-show host Mike Baxter to investigate a ghost haunting Baxter's bunker-like mansion. Our heroes discover pretty quickly that the "ghost" is actually a demon that's been set loose on Baxter by one of his enemies. Not like a guy like Baxter would have enemies. The brothers enlist an Italian priest to conduct an exorcism -- and that's when the fun really starts.

I liked Mike, the first-person narrator, who cracks wise at the drop of a hat. I liked the team's politics, and how they're working for Baxter while holding their noses at the stream of hateful comments he spews on the radio from his in-home studio. As a Pagan, I was a little uncomfortable with the emphasis on Good vs. Evil and how easily the author reached for the usual suspects (voodoo is evil, demons exist, etc.). But hey, it's a comic novel -- it's not meant to require either deep thought or an examination of theological tropes.

As a reader, I thought the plot was well-paced and the situations believable. But I thought the priest's accent was overdone; wading through his dialogue slowed me down and even required re-reading in a few instances.

The author is calling this urban fantasy. I'd be more inclined to categorize it as contemporary fantasy with a paranormal twist. But no matter. The Devil You Say was a quick, fun read.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Sea Inside (Cerulean Songs #1) - Vickie Johnstone

If you could escape your troubles by going to an alternate reality, would you? And would the problems you find there be worse than the ones you left behind?

As The Sea Inside opens, Jayne is in a hospital, recovering from an accident that robbed her of the ability to walk. She is approached there by a mysterious woman, who offers her an escape -- a crystal that, it turns out, transports Jayne to a magical land where everything is blue, people live under the sea, and she can walk again. There, she meets the love of her life.

Returned to her home world against her will, Jayne wants to go back. Only (of course!) time moves differently there; even if she succeeds, things may be very different from when she left.

Still, she has to try.

I found The Sea Inside to be an appealing fantasy novel -- and not just because blue is my favorite color. I'm looking forward to seeing where Johnstone takes her story in future installments.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Kitty in the Underworld - Carrie Vaughn

I'm always interested to see how an author of a long-running series keeps her stories fresh. This is the 12th outing for Vaughn's Kitty Norville, a late-night radio talk show host in Denver who also happens to be a werewolf. I absolutely loved the first book (she had me at Denver and radio -- the shapeshifter thing was a bonus) and I have mostly enjoyed the others (the book set in Las Vegas didn't really grab me). But when you get to dozen outings with the same, uh, pack, you might begin to have some trouble delivering.

Vaughn stayed close to home with this book, and went minimalist in a way. While husband Ben (who, for the uninitiated, is also a werewolf, as well as a lawyer -- oh stop, they are not the same thing) is away on a business trip, Kitty is lured up into the mountains by the scent of a couple of werebeasts encroaching on her pack's territory. She's tranquilized and captured, and sucked against her will into a cockamamie scheme to try to defeat Roman, the vampire who's playing to win the Long Game (vampires vs. werewolves, with world domination as the prize). Her captors believe Kitty is an avatar of Regina Luporum, the legendary wolf who suckled the eventual founders of Rome; Kitty has already been drawn to her, and believes she too may have been a werewolf. (I bring this up because I expect it will come up again in future books.)

Kitty spends a good chunk of this book locked away in the dark. That could be a problem in terms of driving the plot, but Vaughn throws her readers enough bones that I was willing to stick it out. Still, I enjoy the interplay between Kitty, Ben, and Ben's cousin Cormac (and his ride-along witch, Amanda), and that was mostly missing here.

I found Kitty in the Underworld to be an enjoyable read. But Kitty and Roman are going to have to meet in epic battle sooner or later, and I wonder how much longer Vaughn will draw her own Long Game out.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Uncertainty Principles - Krista Tibbs

What if you could predict the future? What responsibility would you have to try to stop bad things from happening? And what effect would your intervention have on the course of future events? Those are the issues Tibbs's characters struggle with in this engaging novel.

An eclectic group of college seniors is assigned, seemingly at random, to work together on a project that must be completed before they can graduate. Aiyana is the driven one; Brian is the baseball player/science nerd; Becky is the religious, most-likely-to-marry-and-stay-home one; Kai is the slacker; and Dmitri is the quirky genius. The project must be their own design, and they flounder around, trying to find something that will suit. In the process, they stumble upon a method of predicting world-changing events by measuring energy fluctuations in the atmosphere. Becky believes it proves the existence of God; Aiyana, the atheist, thinks the whole thing is crazy; and Brian is obsessed with getting scientific proof. Things go wrong in spectacular fashion -- so much so that you would think the five would run screaming in opposite directions after graduation and never see one another again.

But somehow, they all end up living near one another, and Becky and Aiyana even become friends. When Brian predicts an event of mass murder in the town where they live now, the group comes together again to set things right. Or not. The plot resolves, but uncertainty plays a big part in everything that happens -- right through the epilogue, which features two separate interpretations of the final scene.

Tibbs' writing is solid and the science seems plausible. If you like your stories tied up in a neat bow at the end, Uncertainty Principles probably won't be your cup of tea. But if you enjoy weighing what-ifs and varying points of view, you may very well enjoy this book. I did.