Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Dead List (A John Drake Mystery) - Martin Crosbie

Happy New Year!

The Dead List is an intriguing mystery novel. It's easy to see why the Kindle Scout folks picked it to publish and promote. And it's a fine option for this night, whether it's the year that's passing or the one to come that you want to keep your mind off of.

John Drake is something of a cipher. He's from somewhere back in eastern Canada, or so he claims. But he's landed here in the tiny town of Hope, British Columbia, with some police training under his belt, and is working for the local police department. Then a man is found dead. The local cops want to call it an accidental death, but Drake thinks it's murder -- and saying that aloud is enough to bring in the RCMP.

Crosbie's style is engaging enough that even when there's not much movement in the plot -- and there's not, for perhaps the first third to half of the novel -- you're caught up in the story anyway, watching the interplay among all the characters. When things get moving, though, the book becomes very tough to put down.

I'm looking forward to reading more books about Drake, if only to find out what he's running from.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

A Sudden Gust of Gravity - Laurie Boris

It's Christmas Eve -- give yourself the gift of a terrific new book.

The best thing about e-books is that you don't have to go anywhere to shop for them. So while your pals are out at the mall, elbowing other shoppers out of the way to get to the least ugly sweater in the picked-over bin, you, my friend, can simply go online and buy copies of A Sudden Gust of Gravity for everyone you know. And while you're at it, get yourself a copy, too.

The lady on the cover is Christina Davenport, a waitress who has given up on her dreams of becoming a magician. Then she meets Reynaldo the Magnificent, who offers her a job -- not as a magician's apprentice, but as a magician's assistant. You know, the girl in the flirty skirt who keeps the crowd's eyes occupied while the magician does his tricks. Still, she figures she can pick up some pointers from the guy.

Across town, Devon Park is a surgical resident with his own set of personal problems. Yet he's intrigued by Christina, when he sees Reynaldo's show in a public park -- and concerned about the bruises Christina's trying to hide with makeup. He's interested, she's trying not to be interested, and Reynaldo's jealous -- so you can bet things are going to get very interesting indeed before the story ends.

Boris continues to amaze me with her ability to write about characters from disparate cultures. Devon is Korean-American -- very unlike the Jewish family in her Trager Family Secrets books and, again, unlike any of the characters in Drawing Breath. Boris is the real deal, guys. Why she's not a bigger literary name is a mystery to me. Highly recommended.

Happy holidays, everyone!

(Note: I read an Advance Reader Copy of this novel.)

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Mr. Pish 2016 Calendar - K.S. Brooks

All right, fine. This one isn't a book, either. But Mr. Pish does have a literary connection: he is the star of a series of children's books that promote reading and outdoor literacy. His photographer/typist/publicist/chauffeur, K.S. Brooks, has put together a selection of shots of the adorable Jack Russell Terrier and added them to this 2016 calendar.

The calendar has big squares, so you can keep track of your important stuff. And it also includes dates for astronomical events like meteor showers and supermoons, to remind us all to look up once in a while, when we're outside in the dark.

You need a calendar anyway, right? You could do worse than this one. Recommended for Jack Russell Terrier lovers, people who think kids should read more, and anybody who needs a calendar.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Tribal Nations Maps - Aaron Carapella

Okay, okay. This isn't a review of a book. But this would still be a terrific gift, so I'm including it in my holiday guide.

Aaron Carapella has made it his mission to spread correct information about the names and locations of Native American tribes in North America -- both before, and at the time of contact with, Europeans. He has done a ton of research to find out each tribe's territory and the name by which the tribe refers to itself.

He started out with maps of the United States and Canada, and has since expanded his line to cover Mexico, as well as Central and South America. He even has specialized maps -- including a separate map for Alaska, which I found quite useful when I was planning Dragon's Web earlier this year.

If you're a teacher, a historian, or affiliated with a museum -- or even just interested in Native America -- Aaron's maps are a great resource.

I don't usually include buy links in my reviews, but I see only a few of Aaron's maps listed on Amazon, and they're all from third-party sellers. If you're looking for more information or would like to see the whole line of maps, go to Tribal Nations Maps and check them out.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Sunflowers: Photos, Facts, and Fictions - Leland Dirks

This is a beautiful little book, and very much deserves a place on my holiday gift guide.

Author Leland Dirks spent part of his summer taking photos of the sunflowers that grow wild in his little corner of the world, from first bloom to faded seed pods. Those photos feature prominently in Sunflowers -- but in addition, Dirks weaves in quotes, facts, flash fiction, and poetry about the plants. There's even a recipe for sunflower bread.

I was surprised at the amount of sunflower lore I learned from this book. For example, did you know that the big outer petals are not the actual flower? The real flowers are the tiny yellow florets that pop out in the middle; the seeds grow under these florets. The big yellow petals around the rim aren't there for any reason other than to attract birds and insects.

Sunflowers would make a lovely gift for a gardener or a fan of wildflowers. Highly recommended.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

The King's Justice: Two Novellas - Stephen R. Donaldson

Happy Thanksgiving! I'm always thankful for a new book by Stephen R. Donaldson, and I liked this one well enough that I'm giving it a place on my annual holiday book list.

The King's Justice is the first of two novellas in this book. The fellow on the cover is Black, the protagonist. As the story opens, it's clear he's on a mission for his king. It's also clear, as he approaches the village of Settle's Crossways, that he has the power to encourage people to help him and give him information they might otherwise have kept to themselves. And information is what Black is after, for an evil has wormed its way into the fabric of Settle's Crossways, and it's Black's job to set things right for the king -- no matter what it takes.

This story is written in present tense -- a departure from Donaldson's other work, but it's necessary, I think, for the theme of the story. Black lives his life in the present. He doesn't think about his life before he was employed by the king -- or what was done to him so he could do this job -- and he certainly doesn't think about the future. 

Some Goodreads reviewers have complained about the gore in this story. There's one tough scene, and it's mild compared to the GAP books (and very mild compared to some battle scenes I've read by other fantasy authors).

The second novella is The Augur's Gambit, and I've been waiting to hear the ending of this story ever since I heard Donaldson read the beginning few pages at the World Fantasy Convention last year. Our hero here is Mayhew Gordian, hieronomer to the queen of Indemnie, Inimica Phlegathon deVry the Fourth. And his plight is a gordian knot indeed, for he learns that his queen has proposed marriage to each of her barons, including the married ones, in an effort to discover which of them is plotting against her. But that's not all. Besides Indemnie's internal intrigue, another power threatens the island nation from across the sea. Gordian has read the entrails countless times, but he does not know the outcome of either dilemma. And he's beset by a personal problem, as well -- his attraction to the queen's daughter, Excrucia Phlegathon deVry. (Yes, that's right -- the love interest is named Excrucia.)

The story seems much in the model of Donaldson's Mordant's Need series -- high fantasy, with an inscrutable ruler, grasping barons, and at least one unexpected plot twist. I enjoyed those, and I enjoyed this story, as well.

I'd recommend any of Donaldson's books, of course. But if you're new to his writing, this volume is a good way to sample his style before committing to a series.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Inspirational Quotes for Writers (Nightfire Inspiration Series) - Deborah Carney

My holiday shopping guide posts worked well enough last year that I've decided to do them again. First up is Inspirational Quotes for Writers.

The author has selected a number of inspirational quotes from a file her late son kept, and paired them with her own photography and artwork. It's a short book -- the whole thing is only 40 pages long, and most of each page is taken up with the artwork -- but even so, the layout gets monotonous. I wish the author had sometimes put the quotes above the artwork, or to one side, or made the photos halftone with the quote on top.

Most of the quotes aren't writing-related, despite the book's title. So while you may not get a story idea out of any of them, you may at least find something there to think about.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Shattered (Chronicles of White World Book 3) - M. Terry Green

Shattered is a worthy end volume to M. Terry Green's dystopian sci-fi trilogy.

When we last left Thirteen, Cord, and little Miyu, they had liberated a slavers' ship and were heading for Helado, the city-on-a-volcanic-island where Thirteen hoped to find and rescue her sister at last. Hot on their heels was Helado's navy, headed by Prince Céfiro, who has sworn to win his father's favor by bringing in the Ghost -- the pirate who preys on Helado's most profitable industry by attacking slaving ships and setting the slaves free.

Cord has no interest in going to Helado, for reasons he is trying to keep secret. But he knows where Thirteen's sister is, and Thirteen has demanded that he take her to her. So when the navy catches up to them at last, he does the one thing he knows will reunite the sisters.

To tell you what he does would be a major spoiler. Suffice it to say that Green provides her readers with more than our fair share of twists and turns. Thirteen, Cord, and Miyu are affecting and engaging characters, and I couldn't stop reading until I reached the final page. If you're a fan of dystopian sci-fi, I highly recommend the entire Chronicles of White World series.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

The Earthquake Doll - Candace Williams

The Earthquake Doll is the sort of deceptively simple story that you keep thinking about, long after you've reached the end of the book.

It's 1952 in Japan. The victorious Americans have never left, and in fact are about to begin using Japan as a base of operations for the Korean War. Japan's traditional ways clash with modern American customs, and the Japanese are trying to make sense of it all.

Among those navigating this brave, new world is 16-year-old Miyoko. Her uncle has found her a position as a maid in the home of an American officer, and her mother and her mother's sister are arranging a marriage for her, even though she is too young to get married by traditional standards. And then Miyoko's cousin dies, and the foundation of her world really begins to shake. Somehow, she must find a way out of her dilemma without disgracing either herself or her family.

Williams is an excellent storyteller. I found myself rooting for Miyoko the whole way through the story. In addition, the author does her best to explain the Japanese words in the book, to the point of linking them to the glossary that she has helpfully included.

I'd recommend The Earthquake Doll to anyone with an interest in postwar Japan, Japanese culture, or fine storytelling.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Necromancing the Stone (Necromancer #2) - Lish McBride

Just in time for Samhain/Halloween, I bring you a trad-pubbed urban fantasy whose main character is named Samhain.

Samhain is Sam LeCroix, a former short-order cook and son of a local witch, who has only just recently realized he's a powerful necromancer. He's dispatched his hometown's former head necromancer, Douglas Montgomery, and has thereby inherited Douglas's house, gnomes, gargoyles, and houseboy -- a pukis named James. Sam is a nice guy, and isn't crazy about succeeding Douglas, who was definitely not a nice guy and who ruled mostly by fear and intimidation. Sam is new to his powers, and he's in love with Brid, the daughter of the local head werewolf. All of which makes him vulnerable. And as it turns out, Douglas isn't quite as dead as he ought to be -- and he's very interested in re-acquiring a little green stone that's stashed away in the house that now belongs to Sam.

This is the second book in the series, but I don't think you have to read the first book to enjoy this one. I figured everything out quickly enough and was never very confused.

I was, however, a little bit disappointed. I spotted this book in a bookstore and was excited pretty much right away. The title's a pun on the movie Romancing the Stone, after all, and the title of the first book in the series is a pun, too (Hold Me Closer, Necromancer -- and if you don't know that reference, I'm very disappointed in you). The blurb made it sound like the plot would include one madcap complication after another. In short, I was expecting a story along the lines of Jasper Fforde's Tuesday Next series. Or at least a heaping helping of snark. And then the author didn't deliver, and I was sad. I mean, it was okay. Just not what I was expecting.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Brother Raven and Other Tales from the Middle of Nowhere - Leland and Angelo Dirks

Leland Dirks is rapidly becoming one of my favorite authors. In Brother Raven, he is ably abetted by his Border Collie companion, Angelo.

This collection of flash fiction includes pieces Dirks wrote for a couple of my own favorite micro-fiction haunts: the #2minutesgo outings at JD Mader's blog on Fridays, and the weekly flash fiction contest at Indies Unlimited. He has paired each story with his own photography and most of the photos were taken in southern Colorado.

All good so far. But the guy can also write. I'm partial to the first story in the collection, "Brother Raven," but I don't think there's a clunker in the whole bunch.

Highly recommended for fans of flash fiction.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Seeker (Seeker #1) - Arwen Elys Dayton

I received an ARC of Seeker free in my World Fantasy Convention book bag, and picked it up without knowing anything about it. I expected the usual YA epic fantasy. You know -- the kind where old wizarding families teach their kids the family business, in which they'll travel around the world, righting wrongs and fighting for Justice with a capital J. Yeah, no. Seeker features old wizarding families, all right, but something has gone wrong with the system, and the Seekers are ruthlessly wielding their magic for the benefit of certain rich and powerful companies.

The McGuffin here is a stone athame -- a techno-magical knife that allows its wielder to travel from one place to another by cutting a hole in the fabric of time and space. Each old wizarding family had one originally, but somehow Quin's family ended up with John's family's knife. John's family has sent him to Scotland so that Quin's father, Briac, can train him to become a Seeker. Then he can fight Briac and get his family's athame back. Briac, of course, knows why John is really there, and has no intention of letting him become a Seeker.

And of course, John and Quin are in love. The requisite love triangle is completed by Shinobu; his Scottish father is related to Quin's family, his Japanese mother is dead, and he loves Quin and is jealous of John. When things go pear-shaped in Scotland, Quin and Shinobu escape from John to Hong Kong where, as it turns out, Shinobu's mother is very much alive. A master of Eastern medicine wipes Quin's painful memories, and she starts a new life. But it doesn't take long before the past -- and John -- catch up to all of them.

This was an amazing read that held my interest far better than a lot of YA fantasies do. Dayton lets us see out of the eyes of all of the young people, so that we understand the pressures all of them are under, and why they're all, in a sense, doomed. Yet the book ends with a glimmer of hope.

If what you're after is a typical YA epic fantasy, keep looking -- Seeker ain't it. But if you're up for a globe-trotting adventure with a bunch of surprising twists and turns, I would highly recommend this book.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Kidnapped by Nuns, and Other Stories of a Life on the Radio - Bob Fuss

I'm not a fan of memoirs, as a rule. But when I heard Bob Fuss had written one, I had to read it -- partly because (here comes the Six Degrees of Separation moment) I worked with Bob at Mutual/NBC Radio News, and knew him to be an outstanding journalist, as well as an entertaining guy. (No, he doesn't mention me in the book. Although he does talk about the "talented people working at these networks (who) were told they were being laid off" when the owners merged the Mutual/NBC news operation in the DC suburbs with CBS News in New York in 1998, and I was one of those people.)

You may not think you know who Bob is, but if your favorite radio station carries CBS News at the top of the hour, I'm certain you would recognize his voice. For decades, he was the network's Congressional correspondent. He also covered political conventions, presidential campaigns, and the odd disaster and/or coup.

Most of the chapters are straight past-tense memoir, but interspersed here and there are travelogues written in present tense, radio style. Bob has traveled a great deal, both for his job and for fun, and some of his observations had me laughing out loud. For instance, when touring Chilean poet Pablo Neruda's home, Bob writes of Neruda's tchotchkes, "The collection of items from around the world was quite impressive, as was his 'Stalin Peace Prize,' which is not something you see every day." No kidding.

In later chapters, he indulges in opinions about politicians of his acquaintance that would have gotten him canned if he'd said them in public twenty years ago. Back then, as he notes, journalists were required to avoid showing any bias; we had to keep our opinions to ourselves. Of course, things are different today.

He also talks candidly about his disability, and makes it clear that it has never slowed him down.

I give Bob a lot of credit for sticking it out in radio longer than I did -- that layoff in '98 did me in, but he didn't retire 'til last year. His book made me nostalgic about the business, though. Radio was a lot of fun, back in the day. If you're interested in radio, or in journalism, or in politics in Washington, or in travel to exotic places...oh, heck, just read the book. Highly recommended.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

The Finisher (Vega Jane #1) - David Baldacci

Baldacci is best known for his adult thrillers, none of which I have read. The Finisher is his first YA fantasy. And if you guessed this was the first of a series, you'd be right. (The second book should be available shortly, if it's not already.) The main character is Vega Jane -- Jane being her last name. She lives in a village called Wormwood, which no one ever leaves. She and her younger brother live in a sort of boarding house since their parents went into a catatonic state, more or less, after Vega's grandfather had an Event -- which means he went poof! and disappeared. Vega's best friend is a boy named Delph, who stutters. Her brother goes to school and she works in a factory called Stacks, where she and a man named Quentin Herms finish all the things manufactured there. They sand rough edges and paint pretty statues. And then one night, Vega sees the local constabulary chase Quentin into the Quag -- a mysterious barrier that surrounds Wormwood. No one who has gone into the Quag ever comes out again.

So already, you know that Vega is going to have to enter the Quag before the book is over. But before that, she will come into her own power, and deal with the town bullies -- not the least of which is Morrigone, a member of the town council, who starts out friendly enough but who clearly has her own agenda.

While the protagonist is a strong female and while the plot included some surprises, the story struck me as a fairly predictable hero's journey. Vega is provided with magical tools with which to unlock her own magical potential, solve some puzzles, beat the bad guys, and progress through to the next level. Baldacci has picked such weird names for things in this world -- people are Wugs, minutes are slivers, days are lights (which makes for a nice "lights and nights" pairing, actually) -- that I had to wonder whether the story wouldn't morph into sci-fi before it was over. And it still might; I expect it'll be a trilogy before all is said and done.

This book is nearly 500 pages in hardback, but it's a fast read (for adults, anyway). I'd recommend it for kids who have finished the Harry Potter books and who are looking for something a little different, but not too different.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Old Town Nights (Blood & Company Book 1) - Linda Lee Williams

If you like your romance with a bit of a bite, you may like Old Town Nights.

Ambrose Slater is part of a family that has run the popular Slater's Bakery chain in Chicago for many years. But the real family secret is that everyone in the family is a vampire. In the world of this novel, vampirism is hereditary. Those who suffer from the condition can withstand sunlight, although they burn easily. And they can eat and drink regular food, but they also need blood -- preferably human blood -- to survive.

Ambrose has his eye on a woman named Abby Lawrence. He spotted her in a park one day as her boyfriend was yelling at her, and was smitten at once. Ambrose wants her for his own, but he's certain Abby will never agree to marry a vampire. So he decides his best course of action is to kidnap her.

That's right -- he's a stalker and a would-be kidnapper. But really, deep down, he's a good guy. And Abby does fall for him, with help from a few love bites. But the real drama begins when she realizes that he wants to have children -- babies to whom she would have to feed blood as well as milk.

I had a few problems with the editing. It seemed to me that there was too much telling and not enough showing. Also, Williams begins too many of her sentences with an -ing verb, and at times the construction doesn't make sense. The -ing form indicates an action that's ongoing. "Kicking off her sandals, she rested her feet on the coffee table" implies that she put her feet up while still in the act of taking off her sandals -- which I suppose is possible, but probably not what the author meant to say.

In addition, there were some instances where words like "yesterday" and "last night" were used with a verb in the past perfect tense. For example, "All he'd done was toss and turn last night" sounds wrong to me. I would have replaced "last night" with "the previous night." If Ambrose had said, "All I did was toss and turn last night," that works fine, because everything is in simple past tense.

Does that make sense? Maybe it's just me. If that sort of thing doesn't trouble you -- and if you like vampires and romance -- then maybe Old Town Nights is for you.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Shadowcursed - Gelo R. Fleischer

Shadowcursed is the story of an aging thief who takes one last job, and gets more than he bargained for.

At 42 or so, Bolen is not as spry as he once was, but he's convinced he can still pull off one more job. So he agrees to break into the home of the City Lord, Falasade, and steal a ruby statuette from the man's vault. The risk is great -- they don't call Falasade the Mad Lord for nothing. But there's something enticing about that statuette. Something...magical.

Still, he fences it. And then he's forced into another job, this time for an anonymous employer: to steal the statuette he's just fenced.

To sort out the mess he's in, Bolen will need the help of the clergy, all of his wits, and maybe even a meeting with the Mad Lord himself.

I really enjoyed this fantasy novella. They story moves along at a fast pace, with plenty of unexpected twists. I didn't see any editing issues. Highly recommended.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Kitty Saves the World (Kitty Norville #14) - Carrie Vaughn

Now this is more like it. With Kitty Saves the World, Carrie Vaughn wraps up her 14-book urban fantasy saga, and she does it perfectly.

Kitty Norville, werewolf and Denver late-night radio talk-show host, has put out a tasty bit of bait for the vampire who wants to rule the world. The idea is to lure Roman, a.k.a. Dux Bellorum, out of hiding so that Kitty and her allies can trap and kill him. The vampire bites, you might say, but the assassination attempt fails -- and it's now clear that Roman is making his final moves in the vampires' Long Game. The head of the vampire coven in Denver passes a message to Kitty -- leave town now, or you and your family are dead. At the same time, she receives an offer out of the blue from a shady producer to put her radio show on TV, but only if she moves to California. What a coincidence, huh?

I've said before that with this series, Vaughn had me at Denver and radio. In this final book, she puts Kitty back in her natural setting -- the radio show, the werewolf pack's territory, and her life with husband Ben. It reminds the reader of everything Kitty personally stands to lose if she can't defeat Roman.

I skipped over book 13 of the series because Kitty wasn't the main character. While some readers seemed to think that book was crucial to understanding what's going on in this final volume, I didn't feel like I missed out on all that much.

Anyway. If you've been a Kitty Norville fan previously, you'll love Kitty Saves the World.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Half a King (Shattered Sea #1) - Joe Abercrombie

I got sidetracked from my plan to review one trad-pubbed book a month, didn't I? Now here it is, September. This year's World Fantasy Convention is happening in just two months, and I still have a whole stack of dead-tree books from last year's book bag that I haven't read. The Kindle is just so much more convenient... Anyway, I took this one along with me on vacation a few weeks ago, and ended up liking it very much.

Half a King is YA epic fantasy. Our protagonist is Yarvi, the younger son of the king and queen of Gettland, who was born with a deformed left hand. Without two good hands, he is useless at most things involving physical labor -- including fighting -- and so is deemed a weakling by his father. But Yarvi has a quick mind, and he is training for the ministry (somewhere between magic wielder and royal adviser) when he learns that his father has been killed in a raid. Yarvi's elder brother is also dead -- which means Yarvi is now king. Or half a king, as he tells himself bitterly -- too crippled to lead his people effectively. Or so he believes.

Regardless, his uncle forces him to lead a raid of vengeance on a neighboring king. Treachery ensues, and Yarvi ends up sold into slavery as an oarsman on a pirate ship that sails the Shattered Sea. Yarvi must somehow escape and make his way back to Gettland before he can see justice served.

I liked Yarvi, despite the fact that he comes off as a whiner in a good chunk of the book. He's always picking on himself because of his disability, but perhaps it's excusable. He's just parroting all the people around him who are telling him the same thing. The plot is tight, the treachery believable. And Abercrombie throws in a few twists along the way that I should have seen coming but didn't.

I think readers of epic fantasy would enjoy Half a King.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Second Chance Summer: A Short Love Story - Shawn Inmon

Can we sneak in a quick summer read on this next-to-last weekend of summer 2015? Why, yes, I believe we can.

Second Chance Summer continues the story of Elizabeth and Steve, who ran into one another on a Christmas tree lot several months back and rekindled an old romance. Now, Steve is on the verge of making a fortune on a high-flying real estate deal involving the construction of a resort hotel in the Philippines. He's about to whisk Elizabeth off on vacation -- just the two of them -- when a typhoon hits the island where his big deal is going down. This intervention by Mother Nature will tax the couple, both physically and financially. But what will it mean for their relationship?

This is the third installment in Inmon's five Second Chance Love stories. He has since collected all five into a single volume. But the stories can be read separately, and the fact that I haven't read any of the others affected neither my understanding nor my enjoyment of this one.

Inmon is a wonderful writer whose romances always deliver. If you enjoy reading contemporary romance, you could do much worse than any -- or all -- of the stories in Second Chance Love.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Mistborn Trilogy - Brandon Sanderson

I love series box sets. When I've finished one book, I can just plunge ahead into the next one.

At Kevin's Watch, when we talk about the fantasy authors we like besides Stephen R. Donaldson, Brandon Sanderson's name always comes up, along with Steven Erikson, Robert Jordan (but only the first few Wheel of Time books), Patrick Rothfuss and, to a lesser extent, Patricia McKillip. And yet I've put off reading Mistborn until now.

Sanderson has created an original system of magic for this series. Basically, there are some people on this world who gain magical powers by ingesting certain metals. Each of the so-called Allomantic metals (of which there are eight, or more, depending on how far along in the story you are) provides a certain ability. And they come in pairs -- so burning Steel allows the Allomancer to push against other metals nearby, while burning Iron allows them to pull against them. Most Allomancers can burn only one metal, but a few -- known as Mistborn -- can burn them all.

They operate in a world where a single man, the Lord Ruler, has been in power for centuries. As befits all emperors, he rules over a societal system where the nobles live posh lives in grand homes in cities, or on plantations, and the skaa are virtual slaves who live in hopeless, grinding poverty. Supposedly, only nobles can be Allomancers -- but nobles tend to take the liberties with skaa that you'd expect, so Allomancy does turn up among the skaa.

In the first book, we're introduced to Kelsier, a Mistborn skaa who is already a legend as the only man who has ever escaped the Pits of Hathsin. Kelsier plans to overthrow the Lord Ruler, and he has gathered a team of thieves to help him. The team includes Vin, an orphaned girl who doesn't trust anybody. Kelsier figures out that she's Mistborn, and sets her up to masquerade as a noble girl from the country, so she can gather information by attending the nobles' balls. There, she meets Elend, the rebellious son of one of the most important noble families -- although Elend's rebellion takes the form of reading banned philosophical texts and wondering whether the skaa aren't just like nobles underneath. These three are the pivotal players in the revolution that Kelsier sets in motion.

Sanderson is a capable author, but the occasional problem slips through. At one point in the third book, Elend refers to three people Vin has murdered as a "homicidal hat trick." The line made me chuckle, but it also pulled me out of the story. Hat trick, after all, is a sports term for scoring three goals in a game, and nowhere in any of the books does anybody play a sport -- not even the nobility.

Anyway. This omnibus edition is not a quick read by any means, but it's well-written and enjoyable. If you like epic fantasy, I'd highly recommend the Mistborn Trilogy.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

On hiatus.

Rursday Reads is taking the week off. 

Go read a book!

See you back here next Thursday, August 20.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Once Upon a Dragon - Tabitha Ormiston-Smith

Yeah, yeah, I know. Summer is supposed to be the season for long, not-very-thought-provoking beach reads. But sometimes the mind wanders, or your attention span is short, and all you want is a little something to occupy your brain for a few minutes.

In that instance, I highly recommend Once Upon a Dragon. This collection of twelve short stories has something for almost everyone: fantasy, science fiction, and horror. And humor, too -- I laughed aloud at the end of "Professor Tomlinson's Last Experiment," although perhaps that wasn't the reaction the author was going for. "Perspectives on a Dragon" Parts I and II are nicely-paired point-of-view studies of all those fairy tales in which an unlikely lad rescues a princess from a dragon. Later in the collection, the story continues with "The Last Dragon." "Lifestyle Choice" takes a turn for the macabre when the heroine doesn't get the job she covets. And "User Pays" was a creepy, if all-too-plausible, look at what might happen if your average family followed a political proposition to its inevitable conclusion.

In short, the stories in Once Upon a Dragon are well-crafted, and the collection is well-edited. I thoroughly enjoyed them.

Speaking of summer vacation, Rursday Reads is taking a break next week. See you back here on Rursday, August 20th.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Winter's Tale - Mark Helprin

I'm reviewing this book as part of the 2015 Magic Realism Blog Hop. But Winter's Tale has been on my TBR list for some time.

Viewed from our end of the turn of the 21st century, Winter's Tale appears to be set in a version of New York City that never existed. The book spans a hundred years (it skips several decades in the middle) and begins in the late 1800s with a cart horse. The horse escapes from his stable and rescues a burglar, Peter Lake, who's being chased by a gang of thieves called the Short Tails. Peter Lake (who is always referred to by both names) eventually falls in love with a consumptive girl named Beverly Penn, and when she dies, he and the horse go over a mysterious wall of cloud and disappear. This cloud wall moves, appears, and disappears throughout the novel, occasionally spitting out something that has gotten caught up in it. Like the white horse. And Peter Lake. Both show up again in the waning years of the 20th century with magical powers and villains to thwart -- except that Peter Lake has amnesia, and he must cure himself of that before he can bring back the dead.

The book is long, the language dense and almost lyrical. I found myself enjoying the descriptive passages at some points, but rushing through them in other places in order to get on with the story. There's a very funny set piece in the middle of the book, when a character named Hardesty falls in with a dwarf who claims to be a wilderness guide but who is worse than useless at it. And occasionally there's a bit of wisdom, like this from Peter Lake: "The balances are exact. The world is a perfect place, so perfect that even if there is nothing afterward, all this will have been enough."

Ah, but it it magic realism? I'm not sure. The book's New York doesn't have much in common with our New York, other than topology. If you view the things that happen as metaphorical, then I guess it's similar to the work of Carlos Fuentes, kind of. Regardless, I did enjoy Winter's Tale and I'm glad I finally read it.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

A Contest of Succession (The Usurpers Saga 2) - John R. Phythyon Jr.

With A Contest of Succession, Phythyon returns us to the land where his earlier epic fantasy, The Sword and the Sorceror, takes place. A couple of the characters from that book are also in this one: Liliana Gray, the bumbling magician's assistant who turned into a powerful sorceror after her patron, Gothemus Draco, was murdered; and Draco's murderer, the former Lord Vicia of Elderburg. Vicia was stripped of power after Liliana thwarted her attempt to take over Elderburg. Now Vicia has joined forces with a horde of goblins to take over the neighboring city-state of Twin Falls. The elderly duke there has died without an heir, so there's to be a contest to see who is best suited to take over the rule of Twin Falls. Vicia intends to win, and she intends to cheat. Because there really is an heir to the dukedom: a soldier by the name of Garrick Tremaine. Vicia wants him dead, which suits the goblins just fine -- they need his life essence to free their horrible god, Gruul, from his enchanted prison. It's all going swimmingly until Liliana rescues Garrick from the goblins, and then decides to help him win the contest.

The story is interesting, and I very much like Liliana and Garrick. But I had two problems with the book. First, the author over-explains things. Readers don't need a recap of all of the pertinent events in the story every time the point-of-view character changes; it bogs down the action. And second, the book ends without any of the big plot points resolved. It's not exactly a cliffhanger, but the author has left a whole lot of important stuff up in the air -- to be resolved, I assume, in the next book.

If you don't mind that sort of thing, then I would recommend A Contest of Succession. It's not necessary to have read The Sword and the Sorceror first -- Phythyon does a fine job of filling in enough back story so that readers new to the series won't be lost.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Sand Omnibus - Hugh Howey

Howey has done it again: Sand is another engrossing dystopian sci-fi adventure.

This book appears to take place in a different universe than his bestseller, Wool. The main characters here are three siblings who live in a desert wasteland. Buried deep below them in the sand are artifacts from a lost technological civilization. There's money to be had in scavenging these artifacts, and one of the most potentially lucrative professions is sand diving. The diver rigs him- or herself up in a suit that uses electricity to flow the sand away from and around the diver. The best divers can go a few hundred meters deep. The eldest of the siblings, Vic (short for Victoria), has figured out a way to stage air tanks in a dive so she can go much deeper. Connor, the youngest of these three, shows promise. But it's Palmer, who is between Vic and Connor in age, who is destined to discover the greatest find of all -- the fabled lost city of Danvar -- and almost gets himself killed. For the men behind the search for Danvar care only about a certain kind of artifact -- the kind that can level a civilization -- and they don't intend to let anyone who learns their secret survive.

The mood in the first section of the book is so intense that I had to put it aside for a little while. I just knew things were going to go badly for Palmer and his buddy Hap. It also didn't help that I very quickly figured out where Danvar was in our time (mainly because I happened to be reading the book in that very city!). But once I got past that, I enjoyed the story immensely. My only quibble was the ease with which people traveled between towns. I've driven from Denver to Pueblo, and it takes several hours -- not the hop-skip-and-jump these folks make it out to be, unless their sarfers can go a lot faster than I think they can. But overall, Sand was a great read. I highly recommend it.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Henry Wood Detective Agency - Brian D. Meeks

It's New Year's Day 1955, and Henry Wood is suffering the effects of a big New Year's Eve. Then a dame walks into his detective agency and asks him to find her father and her father's journal. Then another dame wants to hire him to find the same journal. It's about at this point that everything goes pear-shaped.

This is a pretty standard noir mystery, with a twist -- Henry's hobby is woodworking, and he has a special closet in his place where items from the future turn up from time to time. That's not the only time-travel aspect in the book, but to say any more would give the story away.

The writing could use a polish. And there's an odd glitch in the formatting of my Kindle copy -- each new chapter begins almost at the bottom of the page, as if the author or formatter put in a whole bunch of extra returns before the chapter title. But if you like mysteries, it might be worth your time to give Henry Wood Detective Agency a whirl.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Our Souls at Night - Kent Haruf

This novella -- Kent Haruf's last -- is a bittersweet reminder of what the literary world lost when he died last November.

The story is set in Haruf's fictional plains town of Holt, Colorado. This is the first sentence: "And then there was the day when Addie Moore made a call on Louis Waters." It's as if the good ol' boys down at the mercantile are swapping stories: "And then there was the time that...." That tone -- a little sly humor, a lot of empathy for the characters -- carries through the book.

You see, Addie is calling on Louis to make him a proposition. Both are widowed and elderly, and Addie thinks maybe Louis wouldn't mind coming to her house at night to sleep in her bed with her. Just to talk, you understand. Maybe hold hands. But just to have a body on the other side of the bed. Just for comfort.

Louis decides to give it a try. Before long, he and Addie are an item -- and not long after that, their grown children (who all live elsewhere) hear about it and, scandalized, do their best to break them up.

That sounds more madcap than it is. There's a tender heart to Haruf's writing, and a serious side, too, as demonstrated by the way Addie and Louis step up to parent Addie's young grandson while the boy's parents sort out their marriage. When Addie's disapproving son takes the boy home, it's as heartbreaking a scene as any death.

Perhaps my favorite scene is Haruf's nod to his own works. Addie and Louis are discussing a new play to premiere in Denver that's based on Haruf's novel Benediction, as well as the plays based on his earlier books, Plainsong and Eventide. All three of those novels are set in Holt, and our characters talk about how the author made everything up except the town's physical details. (The plays, in fact, have been staged in Denver.) Louis says he can't imagine the events in those books actually happening. But Addie says, "It might happen. People can do the unexpected."

They can indeed. For instance, a dying man can give us one final gem of a book. Thanks, Mr. Haruf.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Flesh and Spirit (Lighthouse 1) - Carol Berg

Flesh and Spirit is the first book of a duology that concludes with Breath and Bone.

The main character is Valen, a man running from his destiny. He is a pureblood, which means he has magical ability, and he is also the youngest son of a family of famous mapmakers. But he was unable to learn to read, and rebelled against the family business, finally fleeing to join the military. Dreadfully wounded in battle, he and a buddy named Boreas desert and turn to thievery. Eventually, Boreas abandons Valen near a monastery, trusting that the brothers will heal him -- but first, he steals everything he can from Valen, including the nivat seeds Valen is addicted to. The only thing Boreas doesn't steal is a book that Valen insisted on carting away from one of the houses they had plundered. Boreas sees no value in it, but the joke is on him, for it's a special volume of maps drawn for Valen by his grandfather. And it holds the key not just to Valen's destiny, but to the destiny of their world.

Berg drops her readers right into the story with very little explanation of what's going on, and expects us to keep reading 'til we catch up -- an accepted epic fantasy technique that I found to be less annoying here than in, say, the Malazan Book of the Fallen. And yet, the book starts off slow, partially because of the main character. For a man who's disgraced and nearly dead, Valen certainly likes his flowery prose. As annoying as he is, though, I ended up liking him -- and even pulling for him by the end of the book.

I wasn't as fond of this duology as I was of Berg's Collegia Magica trilogy; I thought Dante made the better antihero, perhaps because he's not a point of view character in the first book or so. But I enjoyed the Lighthouse books, and I recommend them to fans of epic fantasy.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

The Storyteller's Bracelet - Smoky Zeidel

It's the late 1800s in America, and the white people in power are trying to civilize the Indians -- and one way they're doing it is to forcibly remove as many Indian children as they can and send them to boarding schools far away from their homes.

Sun Song and Otter are members of an unnamed desert tribe who fall foul of this policy while in their teens. Sun Song is a storyteller, Otter is a silversmith, and the pair are very much in love. But at the white man's school, they are forced apart, given new names and new clothing, and told not to speak their mother tongue upon threat of punishment.

Otter adapts to his new name, Gideon, and his new life, but Sun Song can't do it. She ends up brutalized by the school's headmaster, and cannot bring herself to tell Gideon what's going on. In the meantime, Gideon has begun to fall for the daughter of a white patron of the school. But the spirits of the land have not deserted them, and Gideon and Sun Song discover they have a role to play in saving the earth for all people.

Zeidel's writing is smooth; her characters are appealing and finely drawn. I was interested in the subject matter anyway, of course, but I was delighted to find the story was so well told. I highly recommend this novel -- and if you enjoy it, too, then you should also look for Zeidel's short stories about this pair: The Boy Who Survived the River and Why Hummingbird is So Small.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Trapped (Chronicles of White World 2) - M. Terry Green

M. Terry Green turns in another fine effort in this second book of her Chronicles of White World.

As Trapped begins, we are back on the Pacifica Ice Sheet with Thirteen and her castaway crew: Cord and his young daughter, Miyu. Thirteen can see her goal on the horizon -- Volcano Helado, where she last saw her sister -- but an impossibly long rift in the ice sits between her crippled skimmer and her goal. Chased by slavers who want to put an end to Thirteen's attacks on their trade, she and Cord debate whether to chance crossing the chasm at an ice bridge. The bridge seems stable enough until Thirteen sends a probe into it to check its thickness. The next thing they know, all three of them are sliding under the ice and into a mysterious colony that resembles the Hotel California in one respect: you can never leave. But if anybody can get them out, it's Thirteen.

Some middle-of-the-series books suffer from being nothing but a bridge between the beginning and the final volume. But Green is the kind of storyteller who knows how to keep things moving. We still don't know a lot about Thirteen's past, and Cord is more of a mystery man at the end of this book than ever. But I'm confident all will be explained in the final volume -- which I'm very much looking forward to.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Tortured Truths (Phillip McGuire Mysteries #1) - Randy Attwood

I warned you, didn't I? I said after I read Attwood's Heart Chants that I was going to have to read the first book in the series. Well, I did, and here's what I thought.

Tortured Truths is a very different book from Heart Chants. Phillip McGuire is the main character in both books, but Tortured Truths is the story of how the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist found his way back to Lawrence, Kansas, and decides to revitalize a local bar. Of course, you can never take the hound out of the newshound, and so McGuire soon finds himself investigating some odd local goings-on: the disappearance of some local kids whose bodies end up in the river with traces of drugs in their system; the strange behavior of the guy who heads the university foundation; and where that same guy is getting all his money. On top of that, he gets romantically involved with a journalism student named Sheila Perez who comes to the bar to do a story on him, and convinces her to write a story about the foundation's funding. Of course, the bodies and the money are tied together, and things get dicey for McGuire, as well as those he cares for, before it's all wrapped up.

I had two quibbles: McGuire occasionally calls Sheila "Signora Perez," using the Italian honorific -- but Perez is a Hispanic surname. I wasn't sure whether he was kidding around, or whether it was a mistake. My other quibble involved McGuire's decision to put Sheila in the middle of everything. I wondered whether that move was morally defensible -- but maybe only another old journalist would have a problem with it. Those two things aside, McGuire is an appealing character whose pain is very real, and the small-town political atmosphere was spot-on. I would recommend Tortured Truths as an enjoyable read.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Keep Me Ghosted (Sophie Rhodes Romantic Comedy) - Karen Cantwell

Come on -- with a last name like that, I had to read at least one of her books. (To be clear, I've never met Karen Cantwell, and as far as I know, I'm not related to her.)

Sophie Rhodes is a young woman with a problem. For starters, she needs a job. But besides that, she's haunted -- by a veddy British gentleman ghost named Marmaduke Dodsworth. Marmi has been known to get her into scrapes in the past. But in this particular instance, he turns out to be useful. Because Sophie's new employer -- a cute optometrist named Dr. Callahan -- is also haunted. His office is afflicted with a banshee that just won't go away.

Sophie and Marmi do their best to rid the office of the ghost, with plenty of paranormal hijinks and romance along the way.

I found Keep Me Ghosted to be a light, fun, and entertaining read. It's not a genre I would normally pick up, but I did enjoy this book. And if you're the sort who likes light, fun paranormal books, then I'd say go for it.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Willowtree (Bruce DelReno Mysteries) - Mike Bove

In Willowtree, we meet an unlikely sleuth -- a retired mailman (can we still call them mailmen?) named Bruce DelReno. Bruce is retired and living in a little town in Arizona called Willowtree, where he plays a lot of golf, and more or less keeps house. His wife Genny still works as an on-call nurse for a nursing agency -- which is to say that she has a part-time job with full-time hours at a lot of different places. So Bruce is in charge of most of the cooking and housekeeping, and of taking care of their dog.

Everything's going along great -- until the dog discovers a body in the wash on the local golf course. Before long, our retired letter carrier is unofficially helping the local cops with a murder investigation. It turns out that another body was found at nearly the same location many years back, and Bruce figures the two incidents might be related. Eventually, a whole host of characters is involved -- including a crazy old guy, one of the people who works for the golf course, and Bruce's least favorite golfing partner.

I enjoyed the book, although our hero is a bit long-winded at times. I could have done with fewer instances of Bruce recounting all the stuff he did that day that didn't have anything to do with the murder investigation. His day-to-day chores got so much attention that I half-expected the bad guys to attack either Bruce's wife or his dog, or both, before the story was up. Thankfully, that never happened. Wait, was that a spoiler? Hmm. Guess you'll just have to read Willowtree yourself and find out.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Mazie Baby - Julie Frayn

Mazie Baby is a well-written story of domestic abuse and, eventually, redemption.

Mazie Reynolds has been married to Cullen Reynolds for many years. At first, he loved and even worshipped her. But his behavior has spiraled down over the years until now, Mazie finds herself walking on eggshells to avoid setting him off. Even so, his temper explodes too often -- and when it does, Mazie is often seriously injured, and must explain away her injuries as clumsiness to medical authorities, and even to her daughter Ariel.

But unbeknownst to Cullen, Mazie has been documenting everything for the past several years. Finally, she snaps. She means only to give him the same sort of treatment he has been giving her all these years, but instead she goes too far and kills him. Then she and Ariel hit the road on a journey across Canada to hide from the authorities and start a new life. Along the way, she finds personal strength, and a support system she never knew was there.

Frayn is a gifted writer. Her descriptions of Mazie's torture at Cullen's hands make her suspicion of those who claim to want to help her all the more believable. I was pulling for Mazie and Ariel all through the book, but especially at the end. Which was perfect, and perfectly believable.

Mazie Baby is not an easy book -- some of the descriptions are graphic -- but it's a rewarding read in the end. Highly recommended. And I'll be looking for more from this author.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

The Healer's Shadow trilogy - Zoe Brooks

This week, you get a three-fer -- mainly because I had all three books in the Healer's Shadow series and once I'd finished the first one, I just kept reading 'til I'd read the whole thing.

This series of books in the genre of magic realism follows the tale of Judith and her Shadow, Sarah. When we first meet them in The Girl in the Glass, they are young girls named Anya and Eva, living in the home of their cruel aunt, who took them in after their parents died in the plague. The aunt believes Anya to be a witch like her dead mother, the healer. Eva, as Anya's Shadow, is treated as less than human -- but she gets the better end of the deal, as the aunt finds every opportunity to punish Anya by beating her and/or locking her in the broom cupboard. After one particularly harsh punishment, the girls run away from home, across the desert, to the town of Pharsis -- a port city that suffers from frequent earthquakes. The girls change their names to Rosa and Elizabeth; they move into a condemned house and find odd jobs. Eventually Rosa comes to the attention of a powerful man named Rex, and again the young women are subjected to humiliation and abusive treatment until they run away. They change their names once again, to Judith and Sarah, and have a stroke of luck: an elderly perfume maker named Mistress Elma takes them in, and Judith finds her calling.

Or one of them, anyway. As it happens, many of the herbs and oils used in the art of perfume-making can also be used for healing. And in Love of Shadows, Judith is called upon to use her healer's gift not only to help injured dockworkers, but also to staff a secret hospital for Shadows who have been attacked by students at the local university. There's a war going on against Shadows in Pharsis, and Judith and her husband Bruno find themselves embroiled in it.

In the final book, The Company of Shadows, Judith and her young sons travel to Bruno's home village in the northern forest. There, Judith learns more about both Bruno's upbringing and her own, and finds peace -- and a real home -- at last.

Judith's story is compelling, and Brooks does a first-rate job in revealing it, bit by bit, over the course of these three novels. The reader also gets hints about where Shadows come from, and when the full story is revealed, it's a head-shaker at the very least. All of this is played out against a fully realized backdrop, magic-realism-style: Anya's desert home is devoid of love as well as moisture; as Rosa, and again as Judith, her world is rocked by personal earthquakes every bit as unexpected and severe as the real ones that plague the city; and there's a good reason why Judith keeps falling for men from the Forest, where magic is as abundant as the flora and fauna, and as nurtured.

For fans of women's fiction as well as those who love magic realism, I highly recommend all three books in the Healer's Shadow series.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Digitus 233 - K.D. Emerson

I wanted to like this book. But the story just leaves me with too many unanswered questions -- and that's even before I discovered the ending was a cliffhanger.

The main characters of this dystopian YA novella are Zander and Zeph. Zander, the older of the brothers, has been hoping for years to attend a special leadership camp run by the Digitus Corporation. As the book opens, Zeph has stowed away in the hold of the airplane that's taking Zander to camp. So he knows when his brother and several other young people are dropped out of the plane, still strapped in their seats, while the plane continues to its destination somewhere in South America.

Zander and his fellow campers find themselves stranded on an island in the Arctic, and must figure out how to get back to civilization. Meanwhile, at Digitus headquarters, Zeph learns that his brother's travails are no accident. In the process, he uncovers a lot of information about Digitus -- including its brainwashing techniques and that its ultimate plan is to take over the world.

My biggest problem with this book is that it starts too far into the story. I understand the temptation to wow the reader with an exciting scene at the very start of the book, but you still have to go back and fill in enough backstory to make your reader care about your characters. The brothers' relationship is never established -- they have zero scenes together until very late in the book. Similarly, the boys' parents are mentioned, but only in passing -- we never get to meet them. I have no idea what sort of relationship the kids and parents have. And without that knowledge, it's hard to like, or root for, either of the boys.

Other important things things are left unexplained. For example, the book's title. "Digitus 233" seems to be some kind of post-hypnotic-suggestion-type mind-control command. But how do the kids know it? And what's the 233 for? I don't know any of that, either.

I wouldn't have minded the cliffhanger ending so much if I'd known in advance that the story arc wasn't going to be wrapped up at the end of the book. Folks, if you're writing a serial, please let your potential readers know that upfront.

Digitus 233 is well edited; I only saw a few typos, none of them glaring. The action scenes are well done. But Emerson needs to go back and fill in some of the blanks.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Beneath the Tor - Kat Yares

I felt a little subversive, starting this book on Easter Sunday.

You could say that Beneath the Tor is a mash-up of New Testament history and the backstory of the King Arthur legend, but that would be a little unfair. Yares has certainly re-imagined the life and death of Jesus, and along the way, she explains who Mary Magdalene might have been, and why Joseph of Arimathea might ever have traveled to Glastonbury, England.

The main character in this novel is Miriam, a priestess of the old religion as practiced on the Isle of Avalon. She has known Yahshua since they were children, and the two of them are in love. However, Joseph of Arimathea, who is both Miriam's father and Yahshua's uncle, is grooming Yahshua for the role of the Jewish Messiah. Joseph hopes that the Jews who rally around the Messiah will overthrow the Romans and end their occupation of Judea.

I won't go much farther into describing the plot. Suffice it to say that this novel would give Biblical literalists a coronary. Yares has described a very different -- and mostly plausible -- explanation for the goings-on in the early days of the church. I did have some trouble believing that Yahshua would become such a hard-liner as he got older.

So the plot is interesting and worthwhile. Unfortunately, the book could use an editor's careful hand. I found numerous errors in punctuation, particularly in dialogue, and a few terms were used incorrectly. For example, there's a construction technique that's called wattle and daub, but it's referred to as "waddle" in the book.

With a better edit, I'd be pleased to recommend this book.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Old Man's War - John Scalzi

I seem to be on a sci-fi kick right now....

I've read some other books by Scalzi, but I'd never before read Old Man's War, his debut novel. The novel is set on a future Earth in which the elderly are given a unique opportunity: they can sign up with a corporation that, when they turn 75, will give them new bodies and a new career in an interstellar army. They can serve as little as two years. Once their hitch is up, they can settle in any human colony on any planet that strikes their fancy -- or they can re-up. The catch is that they're signing up as infantry; statistically, only one in ten will survive the enlistment period. Oh, and they can never go home to Earth again.

On the other hand, they get downloaded into the bodies of souped-up twentysomething Army men, complete with green skin. As someone who is old enough to have owned a bunch of green plastic Army men, I thought the green skin was a nice touch.

The story is told by John Perry, a former advertising writer whose wife died before she was old enough to join the army. Perry bonds with several men and women before their transformations, and one of the bittersweet subplots has Perry tracking how that one-in-ten survival rate pans out amongst his pals.

I can see why some have compared Old Man's War to Heinlein's work. Scalzi's green army men and women tread some familiar sci-fi ground, including what it means to be human. But the author doesn't delve too deeply into philosophy -- rather, he skims the surface of the big questions while offering the reader an entertaining ride.

I've already picked up the next two books in this series, and I'm looking forward to reading them.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Khe - Alexes Razevich

In Khe, Alexes Razevich has given us a compelling main character in a fascinating alien environment.

As the novel opens, Khe is living with her sister doumanas on a collective farm. Males in their society live apart on their own collective farms, and the two genders meet only once a year, at Resonance, when the doumanas all become fertile at once. Not all doumanas live on farms, however; some live in cities, and others live in floating towns that facilitate trade between the city dwellers and the farms.

Khe is happy enough until her first Resonance, when her body doesn't react to the signals all the other doumanas are feeling. This makes her feel useless and incomplete, until she undergoes an experimental procedure to remove the block that's keeping her from participating in Resonance. The procedure works -- but it also unblocks an unusual ability that allows Khe to make the plants and animals on the farm produce better than they ever have before. Using the power ages her prematurely, though, which is bad enough. But her life is really in danger when her ability draws the attention of the Powers, who want her to be their vessel for a new race.

The author did a great job with describing Khe's alien culture. I especially loved the way the doumanas literally wear their emotions -- nodes on their necks change color to match the emotions they're feeling. Relationships would be so much simpler on Earth if humans did the same thing.

Razevich also does a fine job with revealing, little by little, what's going on behind the scenes on this planet. Suffice it to say that the doumanas and their occasional mates aren't the only race here.

The book was well-edited, and I thought the cover was stunning. If you like dystopian sci-fi, I'd highly recommend Khe.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Feels Like the First Time - Shawn Inmon

I'll be honest: I'm not a huge fan of memoirs. On the other hand, I think everyone of a certain age has somebody in their past who they would date again in a heartbeat. So on that basis, I decided to give Feels Like the First Time a whirl.

The book opens with Shawn, who's in a miserable marriage that he hasn't had the gumption to end, stopping at a drive-through window on his way home from work. There at the window is Dawn, the love of his life. They had lived next door to one another as teenagers, in the late 1970s and early '80s, in a little town in Washington state. First they were friends; then Dawn's mother hired Shawn to tutor her daughter; and then they fell in love. At this point, Dawn's parents -- well, mainly her mother -- decided the relationship needed to end. A couple of youthful missteps sealed the deal, and the two of them were forbidden to see one another again. But Shawn has never forgotten Dawn, and decades later, Fate steps in to bring them together again. It's not all sunshine and roses, however. The two of them have to figure out just what went wrong back then, before they can even think about creating a happy ending at last.

I'm not that much older than these two crazy kids, so I could really relate to Inmon's depiction of his high school and college years, although I felt like that part of the story went on a little too long. But the present-day portion of the book was wonderful. When Dawn says in wonderment, "You're my Shawn" -- yeah, that got me right in the feels.

I would recommend Feels Like the First Time to anybody who grew up in the '70s and '80s, and to anybody who likes a good love story.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Fleischerhaus - Melissa Bowersock

Melissa Bowersock is back with another ghost story, but this one is a little different than her book Stone's Ghost.

Julia Martin, recovering from a marriage gone sour, travels to Bavaria to stay with Maggie, an old college friend. While she and Maggie are bicycling in the countryside one day, they chance upon a site that was once the location of a German concentration camp. Maggie feels a sense of disorientation there -- and the feeling gets even more pronounced when the two women tour the site. To top it off, Julia knows the locations of buildings in the camp that historians are only guessing at. It's almost as if she has been there before.

A concerned Maggie takes Julia to the local clinic, where Julia meets Dr. Theo Seiler. Theo speculates that Julia might indeed have lived -- and died -- at Fleischerhaus in a previous life, and together they embark on a search for answers.

Bowersock's usual smooth style is in evidence here. Julia and Theo are wonderful characters, and their blossoming romance is charmingly portrayed. The author does as deft a job with the horrific scenes where Julia recalls what happened to her earlier self at Fleischerhaus, as well as the inevitable end game in which Julia puts more than just her own ghost to rest.

Highly recommended.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Conjure Woman's Cat - Malcolm R. Campbell

Conjure Woman's Cat takes on a host of tough topics -- race, class, and sexual abuse -- and tells about them from the point of view of a magical cat.

Lena is the name of the cat in question. She belongs to Eulalie, a conjure woman (in a different neighborhood, she might have been called a hedge witch) who lives in a tiny town in rural Florida. In this era, poor black women still care for the children of wealthy white racists and the Ku Klux Klan stands ready to assist if any black person gets above their station. When a young black girl named Mattie disappears, Lena steps between the worlds to find out what happened to her. And when Lena discovers that Mattie was raped and murdered by some local white boys, she and her conjure woman wreak their own version of justice on the perpetrators.

Of course, when any book is narrated by an animal, readers have to suspend their disbelief from the get-go. I didn't find that difficult with this book. I was quickly drawn in by Lena's unique voice, and by the mysterious goings-on around her and Eulalie. I loved the way Campbell made magic part of the fabric of the place. And I was glad to see those boys get the comeuppance they deserved.

Readers of magic realism will appreciate Conjure Woman's Cat. Highly recommended.