Friday, July 3, 2015

Dawn of Steam: First Light, by Jeffrey Cook with Sarah Symonds


Today we are going steam-punk, in a unique way. Dawn of Steam: First Light by Indie author Jeffrey Cook and Sarah Symonds is a compelling story of early 19th century politics, science, and meteorological mayhem.

But first The Blurb:
In 1815, in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, two of England's wealthiest lords place a high-stakes wager on whether a popular set of books, which claim that the author has traveled to many unknown corners of the globe, are truth or, more likely, wild fiction. First Light is an epistolary novel, told primarily through the eyes of former aide-de-camp Gregory Conan Watts, describing the journeys of the airship Dame Fortuna and its crew through journals and letters to his beloved fiancee.

The first recruit is, necessarily, the airship's owner: war hero, famed genius, and literal knight in steam-powered armor Sir James Coltrane. Persuading him to lend his talents and refitted airship to the venture requires bringing along his sister, his cousin, and the crew that flew with him during the Napoleonic Wars. Only with their aid can they track down a Scottish rifleman, a pair of shady carnies, and a guide with a strong personal investment in the stories.

When they set out, the wild places of the world, including the far American West, the Australian interior, darkest Africa, and other destinations are thought to be hostile enough. No one expects the trip to involve a legendary storm – or the Year Without a Summer of 1815-1816. The voyage is further complicated by the human element. Some parties are not at all happy with the post-war political map. Most problematic of all, the crew hired by the other side of the wager seem willing to win by any means necessary.

My Review:
First of all, this tale is well told in an epistolary form--that is, it is told through letters and journal entries. It is also historical fiction, in that it deals with the summer of 1815-16 and infamous Year Without A Summer.  But it is fantasy, and completely steampunk, so strap on your goggles--it's gonna be a bumpy ride. There will be steam, there will be gears, and there will be Sir James Coltrane's wondrous mechanical battle-suit!

We really do get to know and like the protagonist, Gregory Conan Watts through his letters to Cordelia, and vice-versa. We also get to know the other members of his crew, some better than others. Gregory is hired to photograph an expedition to various parts of the world that have only been considered mythical to this point. 

And we get to know the Dame Fortuna as the miraculous air-ship that she is.

The tale is filtered though Gregory's eyes, as he attempts to chronicle events as they happened.

I loved the twists and turns the plots takes. The 18th century prose is well-done in a literary way, slightly separating the reader from the events. But that is completely in keeping with the epistolary style of this book and in no way detracts from it.

I give this book 5 stars for an excellent adventure, well told. This is book one in a series and I am definitely buying book two, Dawn of Steam: Gods of the Sun.



Monday, June 22, 2015

Tenth of December, by George Saunders

Hello!  I'm back after a three-month sabbatical, finishing my own new book and doing some major editing projects for clients. As (I hope) you can understand, I don't read when I am editing, because that is a whole different mindset from reading, and when I am in that frame of mind I dare not try to read for pleasure.

BUT, all was not lost. I listened to several fine audio books, and I have to say that is definitely great entertainment, far more intriguing to me than TV.

So, today I am featuring the audio book version of Tenth of December, a series of short stories by George Saunders. Saunders himself narrates it, and I have to say, he is an incredible narrator, at least for his own work.

But first, THE BLURB:
One of the most important and blazingly original writers of his generation, George Saunders is an undisputed master of the short story, and Tenth of December is his most honest, accessible, and moving collection yet.

In the taut opener, "Victory Lap", a boy witnesses the attempted abduction of the girl next door and is faced with a harrowing choice: Does he ignore what he sees, or override years of smothering advice from his parents and act? In "Home", a combat-damaged soldier moves back in with his mother and struggles to reconcile the world he left with the one to which he has returned. And in the title story, a stunning meditation on imagination, memory, and loss, a middle-aged cancer patient walks into the woods to commit suicide, only to encounter a troubled young boy who, over the course of a fateful morning, gives the dying man a final chance to recall who he really is. A hapless, deluded owner of an antiques store; two mothers struggling to do the right thing; a teenage girl whose idealism is challenged by a brutal brush with reality; a man tormented by a series of pharmaceutical experiments that force him to lust, to love, to kill - the unforgettable characters that populate the pages of Tenth of December are vividly and lovingly infused with Saunders’s signature blend of exuberant prose, deep humanity, and stylistic innovation.

Writing brilliantly and profoundly about class, sex, love, loss, work, despair, and war, Saunders cuts to the core of the contemporary experience. These stories take on the big questions and explore the fault lines of our own morality, delving into the questions of what makes us good and what makes us human.

Unsettling, insightful, and hilarious, the stories in Tenth of December - through their manic energy, their focus on what is redeemable in human beings, and their generosity of spirit - not only entertain and delight; they fulfill Chekhov’s dictum that art should "prepare us for tenderness".

MY REVIEW:
Wow! For once, a book that has a blurb that really tells the truth. Saunders has the ability to get inside each of his characters' heads, showing them sharply as unique individuals. They aren't always nice, and certainly not always moral as I see morality, but Saunders portrays them with such vivid strokes that you feel as if you understand their reasoning. 

For me, the most powerful tale in this collection of stunning tales was "Escape from Spiderhead." This sci-fi tale has an almost Vonnegut-like flavor. It is a stark journey into the depths to which we humans are capable of sinking in the pursuit of knowledge for the sake of knowledge. Where does punishment end and inhumanity begin? This story lays bare concepts regarding our view of crime and punishment that are difficult, but which are important to consider. The scenario is exaggerated, as it is set in a future world, but it exposes the callous view society has in regard to criminals and what punishment they might deserve. 

I can only say that this was an excellent, entertaining book to listen to, and I liked the audio book so much I bought the hard copy to take with me later this summer when I go on vacation.


Friday, April 3, 2015

Dragons In Pieces, Lee French



Dragons in Pieces, book one of the Maze Beset Trilogy by indie author Lee French is a creative, modern take on the old superhero story.

But first, THE BLURB:

All Bobby wanted was a girl to come home to after a hard day of work. Like the last one said before she left, he was going exactly two places - no and where – and he was happy with that. But somebody had other plans for him. A murder. The Terrorist Watch List. For what? Underage drinking? Things couldn't possibly get worse. Right?

Oh yes, they could.

A lot.

He wouldn't believe superheroes were real if he wasn't one himself.

Tiny robot dragons send him chasing his humanity and his future, on the trail to discovering his past and a place to call 'home'. If he's lucky, maybe he can get a beer there.

MY REVIEW:

I have to say, I like Bobby a lot.  He is a bit of a dumb-ass, who  has been on a certain watch list all his life. He gets picked up for some stupid thing, and instead of Juvenile Detention, they take to a secret facility where they torture him and he goes to pieces--literally.  His physical body fragments in a cloud of tiny dragons the size of an American coin, the quarter.

There is a logic to his superpower. In this state he can think, he can free the others who've been kidnapped and tortured, and he can escape the facility. He can't lift anymore in that state than he can as a human being.  There are limits to his ability, which makes this improbable superhero so enjoyable.

Bobby's fellow inmates, Jayce, Alice, and Ai, all seem to demonstrate superpowers too.  The one other thing they have in common is their eyes are an odd shade of blue, leading them to some conclusions about their personal histories and why they are where they were targeted to be kidnapped by the government. 

Lee French writes well and clearly. Bobby's adventures, while completely improbable, seem perfectly reasonable when you're reading them. The logic behind the superpowers all four demonstrate is what keeps this entertaining book on track.

I highly recommend Dragons in Pieces as a great urban fantasy adventure, with wonderful, well-written characters. It's a complete departure from the usual urban fantasy fare.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Faces in the Water, Tonya Macalino



Today we are visiting one of the more creative post-apocalyptic novels I've ever read,  Faces in the Water (Shades of Venice Book 1), by indie author, Tonya Macalino.


But First, THE BLURB:
Who created that slide of silk across your skin as you reached for your cinematic lover? Who recorded the crushing weight of the grizzly as you fought for your life in the fictional wilderness? It is Lone Pine Pictures’ Alyse Kate Bryant who wraps your body in the story only your mind was privy to before.

A brilliant sensory immersion artist and a wild daredevil, Alyse will do almost anything for the perfect sensory file, but the violent death of her father has her teetering on the very edge of reckless sanity.

For just one night, Alyse seeks refuge in the arms of a beautiful stranger.

And her recklessness finally has consequences.

Now Alyse finds herself trapped in the flooded ruins of Venice, a quarantine camp for the carriers of Sleepers’ Syndrome. But it can never be that simple. Because the Sleepers’ Syndrome carriers who populate the camp are no longer as human as they seem.

The city of legend is bringing its legends back to life.

They come now, Alyse.

Run.

MY REVIEW: 
This book is gripping. Alyse is a complicated character, and her supporting cast is equally complicated. The culture of immersion-art as the TV of the future seems quite plausible, given the current penchant for reality shows. And Alyse is one of the most popular artists. She really is an adrenaline junkie.

The world Macalino builds in Venice is dark, mist-enshrouded and eerie--and what Alyse discovers there is disturbing. The plot keeps moving and the action never stops--always it is heading toward the final denouement.

Her experiences, shock, horror, anger--all are true and real. Alyse is one good, solid character. The reactions of her friends are all true too--loyalty, horror, abandonment--all reactions friends would have in varying and different degrees.

Vittoreo and Matteo are wonderfully drawn, sexy, and full of emotion and life Jurgen is exactly what he should be: powerful, charismatic and consumed with the conviction that he has the one final answer...he is a fabulous antagonist.

This is a dark, meaty, grownup novel for thinking people. I give it 5 full stars, because it stuck with me--I was thinking about Macalino's Venice all evening.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Mort, by Terry Pratchett




The great fantasy author, 
Sir Terry Pratchett, O.B.E died on March 12,2015--after suffering from a long battle with Alzheimers. One of the earliest influences on my sometimes smartassed style of writing was his watershed fantasy series, Discworld

Sir Terry took J. R. R. TolkienRobert E. HowardH. P. Lovecraft and William Shakespeare, and many other mythologies, folklores, and fairy tales, and mashed them up in this hilarious series of tales. There were 39 books in this trilogy! Talk about prolific.

One of my favorite books in the series is "Mort." It is the 4th book and is the first to give Death the main storyline.

But First, The Blurb:
Terry Pratchett's profoundly irreverent novels are consistent number one bestseller in England, where they have catapulted him into the highest echelons of parody next to Mark Twain, Kurt Vonnegut, Douglas Adams, and Carl Hiaasen.

In this Discworld installment, Death comes to Mort with an offer he can't refuse -- especially since being, well, dead isn't compulsory.As Death's apprentice, he'll have free board and lodging, use of the company horse, and he won't need time off for family funerals. The position is everything Mort thought he'd ever wanted, until he discovers that this perfect job can be a killer on his love life.


MY REVIEW:
As a teenager, Mort had a personality and temperament that made him rather unsuited to the family farming business. Mort's father, named Lezek, felt that Mort thought too much, which prevented him from achieving anything practical. Thus, Lezek took him to a local hiring fair, hoping that Mort would land an apprenticeship with some tradesman; not only would this provide a job for his son, but it would also make his son's propensity towards thinking someone else's problem.

The conversation between Lezek and his brother Hamish as they discuss Mort's future in the opening pages is hilarious and quite revealing in its simplicity. 

In this snippett, Lezek and Hamish are observing Mort as he attempts to frighten some birds away from the crop. "He's not stupid, mind" said Hamish. "Not what you'd call stupid."

"There's a brain there all right,"Lezek conceded. "Sometimes he starts thinking so hard you has to hit him round the head to get his attention. His granny taught him to read, see? I reckon it overheated his mind."


At the job fair, Mort at first has no luck attracting the interest of an employer. Then, just before the stroke of midnight, a man concealed in a black cloak arrives on a white horse. He says he is looking for a young man to assist him in his work and selects Mort for the job. The man turns out to be Death, and Mort is given an apprenticeship in ushering souls into the next world (though his father thinks he's been apprenticed to an undertaker).


Death is a great character, so completely human in his disenchantment with his career. He retires and Mort's apprenticeship takes off with some amazing ups and downs. 

Death's journey to happiness is one of the more hilarious of the Discworld tales.

I love the snarky way Pratchett took clich├ęs and ran with them. He grabbed the boring, bland, overdone themes of western literature by the tail and swung them. When he set them down they were SO much more fun to watch!

If you love fantasy with humor, and aren't afraid to poke fun at the wry facts of life, Sir Terry Pratchett's work might be for you!

Friday, February 27, 2015

The Belgariad and the Mallorean, by David Eddings

Pawn_of_Prophecy_cover
Two series of books by the late David Eddings  form the basis of a watershed empire in the fantasy pantheon. I have discussed this series several times on this blog--I tend to measure all fantasy books by this epic saga.

Pawn of Prophecy is the opening book in a 5-book series ultimately called The Belgariad. First published in 1982, I have read five paperback copies of these books to death. If you have never read the Belgariad, try the the first book, Pawn of Prophecy,  and if you love fantasy, you will be swept away. Be prepared to sit down and read, because this book is a truly great, immersive read.

I love the opening lines of the first chapter of the opening book in the series, Pawn of Prophecy"The first thing the boy Garion remembered was the kitchen at Faldor's farm. For all the rest of his life he had a special warm feeling for kitchens and those peculiar sounds and smells that seemed somehow to combine into a bustling seriousness that had to do with love and food and comfort and security and, above all, home. No matter how high Garion rose in life, he never forgot that all his memories began in that kitchen."
Queen of Sorcery
A chance visit by an old story teller, Mr. Wolf changes everything, and Garion finds himself and his Aunt leaving the farm in search of something which has been stolen; traveling in the company of Durnik the Smith, and Mr. Wolf.As they travel, they meet up with Silk, a Drasnian spy, and Barak, Cherek Warrior.  Garion soon finds out that no one is what they seem to be.  Silk is actually Prince Kheldar of Drasnia; and Barak is actually the Earl of Trellheim of Cherek.  Only Durnik is who he always was; a good honest man of Sendaria, who just happens to be in love with Pol.

In this first book, Garion doesn't discover who he is, but knowing who he is not is very important, and now he know he is not technically his Aunt Pol's nephew, as he had always believed. This knowledge shakes his world to its foundations, making him fear that he was unwanted. The anger he feels over having been lied to is well portrayed, as is his eventual acceptance of his true path in life.

Enchanter's_End_Game_coverThis is a vivid series of books, written from the heart. What David Eddings does in the first chapters of this book is truly magical. He immediately drew me in and within two paragraphs I was immersed in this world--I could smell the smell scents of the kitchen and visualize the people who worked there so companionably in the generous employ of Farmer Faldor. I felt I knew them, and I felt I knew that farm.

These books were comforting right off the launching pad. 

Wikipedia described it as "picaresque" that is, of a genre of prose fiction depicting the adventures of a roguish hero of low social class who lives by his wits in a corrupt society. But just for the record--Wikipedia got it all wrong. It's a coming-of-age story. the tale of a boy  growing up through the events that shape him, becoming a man with strengths and weaknesses, and it is the story of the people he met on that journey.

Guardians of the WestThe Malloreon is a five-part fantasy book series written by David Eddings, which follows The Belgariad. The Malloreon is set in the same world as The Belgariad, but expands on several aspects of the setting, especially the eastern continent of Mallorea. At the end of The Belgariad, Garion has slain the evil god Torak and expects lasting peace.

Things being what they are in a fantasy universe, he does not get it.
The book opens on a peaceful world. The  foundling, Errand, has become Polgara's ward, and he has grown up on the farm with Polgara and Durnik, as their son. The first half of the first book deals with some really humorous situations, as everyone settles into a somewhat peaceful existence.

After eight years as King of Riva, Garion learns that he is still a figure of prophecy and bears the responsibility of defeating Torak's successor, the "Child of Dark." His son is kidnapped, and the next five books of the Mallorean detail the task of getting him back.

This is just as gripping a series of books as the Belgariad.

Belgarath_coverMany times I see authors try to force an exact, detailed picture of their world on the reader, and it ruins the story for me. An author doesn't have to beat me over the head with minute detail; that sort of thing bores me. David Eddings never fell into that trap. Eddings had the ability to convey a sense of place in a few well-chosen words.

David Eddings freely admitted that he wrote all his books with his wife, Leigh Eddings, and in later books of this series she is credited as his co-author.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Heart Search Book Three: Betrayal, by Carlie M.A. Cullen




Today we are looking at the third and final volume in the Heart Search Trilogy by Carlie M.A. CullenHeart Search  book three: Betrayal. I have to say, I love the cover--it really represents the story well, and the book beneath that cover does not disappoint in any way.

BUT FIRST, THE BLURB:
One bite started it all . . .

Joshua, Remy, and the twins are settled in their new life. However, life doesn’t always run smoothly. An argument between Becky and her twin causes unforeseen circumstances, an admission by Samir almost costs him his life, and the traitor provides critical information to Liam. But who is it?

As Jakki’s visions begin to focus on the turncoat’s activities, a member of the coven disappears, and others find themselves endangered.

And when Liam’s coven attacks, who will endure?

Fate continues to toy with mortals and immortals alike, and as more hearts descend into darkness, can they overcome the dangers they face and survive? 

MY REVIEW:
Where to start? It is the third book in the trilogy, and so it picks at the end of the previous book, of course–but a new reader could start with this book and be intrigued.

For me, this book is a roller-coaster of events and emotion, as Samir’s and Joshua’s covens prepare to defend themselves from an upstart rival’s attempted takeover. The disappearance and kidnapping of one of their own casts suspicion on several people, and the discovery of a traitor in their midst is an unpleasant monkey-wrench tossed into the works, making it difficult for Samir and Joshua to know who to trust.

This book has many, many threads that are woven together to create a compelling story of intrigue, Stockholm Syndrome, and the arrogance that comes with immortality. It is filled with strong characters and inventive plot twists—some creepy, some chilling, and some downright horrifying.

Phoenix, the hidden traitor in their midst is an arrogant, self-absorbed twit. We don't find out until nearly the end just who Phoenix is, man or woman. This traitor claims to care for the person handed over as a hostage, but does it anyway, knowing the hostage will not be treated well. Phoenix manages to cause nothing but trouble before their identity is finally revealed.
Their enemy, Liam, is a low-class thug who has no problem starting the equivalent of a gang-war within the vampires’ society. His heavy-handed bullying of his subordinates and cruelty to his victims is evidence of that. His second in command, Max, is a much smarter vampire, a man who could have been quite decent under other circumstances and isn't quite sure that his maker is all that sane.

This is a fitting climax to a wonderful series. It’s a paranormal romance, so some graphic sex and a great deal of violence make this book definitely an adult read.