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Zero Sum Game

Zero Sum Game (Cas Russell, #1)Zero Sum Game by S.L. Huang
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Cas is a super hero. Actually, she’s a super antihero. Her super power is that she is unbelievably (literally) good at math. She knows all the formulas, constants, algorithms, axioms, and whatnot necessary to compute, well, pretty much anything faster than a supercomputer. Combined with her uncanny observational skills and her ability to judge relative distances, atmospheric pressure, wind speeds and directions, and any other pertinent variable, along with her impressive physical strength and apparently superhuman reflexes, she’s close to unstoppable. You really don’t want to annoy her or get in her way because she’ll kill you stone dead without a second thought or a moment of remorse. Like I said, she’s an antihero, so screwed up she makes Batman look psychologically well-adjusted. Cas is the protagonist of this story.

On the other side of the narrative equation is an organization that wants to make the world a better place. Unfortunately, it’s operating under the standard rationalization used by dictators, religious cults and ideologues throughout history: the ends justify the means. They also have a superpower. It’s mind control. They can make you believe whatever they want, which means you’ll do what they want, almost like a puppet on strings. It even works on Cas, although she does have more resistance than most people. The one person who does seem to be immune is her not-friend and ally Rio. Like Cas, he’s a psychopath, but as an added bonus to his uncharming pesonality, he’s also a sadist. The secret organization bent on improving the world wants to recruit him, which is how Cas gets involved. It’s a clever bit of plotting, but we don’t need to go into that for a short book review.

It’s difficult for me to come up with a single star rating for this book. There are parts that I think are brilliant. The story is interesting. The pacing is excellent. The prose is fine. There are no obvious flaws with the editing. But then there are the characters. Since this is a superhero kind of story, you can’t expect them to be believable, but they are comprehensible. They have distinct personalities and understandable motivations (more or less), and yet I found them lacking. The thing is, I like to have good guys in my fiction, at least one character I can like and relate to. It doesn’t have to be the protagonist, and they don’t have to be capital G good. Actually, it’s better if they have flaws and shortcomings and things they are striving to overcome or improve. But they need to have some redeeming qualities, and the main characters in this story really don’t have any. At least the major players don’t. An action story is like a sporting event in which two (or more) players compete, and the reader is supposed to root for one of them to prevail over the other. But in this story, I couldn’t pick a side. Since the story is told in first person from Cas’s point of view, I knew more about her than than the others, but I didn’t feel any sympathy for her. She abounds with negative personality traits. The only positive thing about her that I could see is that she isn’t worse. I certainly didn’t like her. Her primary motivations are self-preservation and revenge. Unlike her opponents, she doesn’t really have an ultimate goal or idea she’s fighting for. As far as the outcome of the fictional narrative went, I didn’t much care which side prevailed.

The Goodreads rating system is based on how much you enjoy the book, and I can’t say I really enjoyed this one. It’s a well-written, action-packed tale with lots of ass kicking, but it doesn’t have much of what I normally look for in a book. There are no endearing, admirable, or even likable characters. It’s not witty or insightful. There is no theme with real-world relevance, a tone I could relate to, or a compelling mood. This may be a great book for readers who like lots of “action,” but I’m not motivated to read any more stories with these characters.

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It’s Not About the Money

I’ve published seven books since 2011 and will be publishing another one this year. I write every day, sometimes just for a couple hours, sometimes for eight or more. Admittedly, it feels a bit too much like work at times, but it’s an enjoyable hobby. I especially appreciate every review readers post to Amazon or Goodreads or wherever—even those that aren’t five stars. Honest reviews are how I gauge a book’s success. The number of purchases is secondary, and the money I receive in royalties doesn’t enter into the calculation at all. It’s not about the money. I’d be extremely pleased if my books made a gazillion dollars, but it’s not why I write them.

Being an indie writer, I have a lot of control over the pricing of my books. The prices for my trade paperback editions have to be enough to cover production, shipping, and handling, but since eBooks are cheap to reproduce and cost almost nothing to deliver, I’ve priced most of mine at 99¢. This is mainly because that’s as low as the big distributors will allow. I have managed to convince some retailers to offer a couple of my books free, but Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes, Sony, and others frown on free eBooks because, unlike me, they measure success in terms of money. Free books don’t make any for them.

There is one notable exception to the 99¢ rule. Smashwords is an online digital publisher that has almost 400,000 books available, both fiction and nonfiction, which can be downloaded in pretty much any format you need (epub, mobi, pdf, rtf, lrf, pdb, txt, or html). They, too, are a business and need to make money to stay in business, but they have a unique entrepreneurial flair to their pricing model. Authors can let readers decide what they want to pay for a book. If the author has selected this as an option, you will see You set the price! at the top right side of the screen just above the Buy button. This isn’t a joke or a bait and switch gimmick. You really can set the price. You’re more than welcome to pay any amount of money you wish, or you can pay nothing. Absolutely nothing, and you get the same book with the same content, in the same format as anyone else who buys it. You decide what that book is worth to you and pay as you see fit. It’s as simple as that.

All of my books on Smashwords, other than those I’ve specifically made free, have this option.* If you wish to pay for them, you may. If you don’t, that’s fine. I don’t mind. Seriously. I really don’t mind. I’d much prefer they be read for nothing than not read at all. It’s not about the money.

BraneChildDigital3-15Brane Child by D.L. Morrese
Price: Free! Words: 75,380. Language: English. Published: December 21, 2014. Categories: Fiction » Science fiction » Adventure, Fiction » Themes & motifs » Technological

The Brane Skip device may allow a spaceship to skip between layers of reality, bypass normal space, and avoid the universal speed limit—the speed of light. Lisa Chang, mission commander for its first crewed test, doesn’t trust it. It seems like magic to her, and she doesn’t believe in magic, not even after the ship skips to a fantasy version of Earth, complete with dragons, orcs, and wizards.

ScarecrowCover1aThe Scarecrow’s Brane by D.L. Morrese
You set the price! Words: 79,940. Language: English. Published: July 3, 2015. Categories: Fiction » Science fiction » Adventure, Fiction » Science fiction » Adventure

The spaceship Brane Child emerges from skip-space into a whirlwind and accidentally squashes the only effective protection Emerald City had against the tyrannical Red Witch of the South. Now, Lisa Chang and her crew must make their way through the Wild Lands of Oddz to convince the Blue Wizards to create a new protector for the Republic of Emerald.

DogTaleseBook11-13aAn Android Dog’s Tale by D.L. Morrese
Price: Free! Words: 74,640. Language: English. Published: November 15, 2013. Categories: Fiction » Science fiction » General

The Corporation made him to observe humans and make sure they weren’t up dangerous things like inventing, exploring, or learning to read. But as the years go by and he works with them day after day, century after century, he grows to like them. Is it right to keep them happy but ignorant? Shouldn’t this be a choice they make for themselves?

TWT EBookCover12(comp)The Warden Threat by D.L. Morrese
Price: Free! Words: 84,320. Language: English. Published: September 10, 2011. Categories: Fiction » Science fiction » General

A different kind of lighthearted science fiction story for epic fantasy fans. On a not so distant planet, a young, naive prince encounters reality and tries to prevent a war.



TWWEBookCover14(comp)The Warden War by D.L. Morrese
You set the price! Words: 86,480. Language: English. Published: September 13, 2011. Categories: Fiction » Science fiction » General

The Warden War continues the adventures of Prince Donald of Westgrove and completes the lighthearted tale of looming war, subversion, and a terrible magical weapon begun in The Warden Threat. The Warden books are a delight. They are sure to appeal to readers of fantasy and science fiction who may be looking for something fresh and different.

Pendant e-book Cover 13-2Amy’s Pendant by D.L. Morrese
You set the price! Words: 77,250. Language: English. Published: March 11, 2013. Categories: Fiction » Science fiction » Adventure, Fiction » Young adult or teen » Sci-Fi & fantasy

The antique pendant Amy receives for her fourteenth birthday unlocks an ancient mystery and traps her inside an alien labyrinth populated with strange robots, android animals, and a central intelligence that does not want her to leave.


ClockworkEbook13-3Disturbing Clockwork by D.L. Morrese
You set the price! Words: 107,520. Language: English. Published: April 21, 2013. Categories: Fiction » Science fiction » Steampunk & retropunk, Fiction » Fantasy » Epic

Benkin, a brilliant but quirky inventor, stumbles upon something extraordinary—clockwork automatons. All he wants is to understand them. Snyde, a fugitive from the king’s justice, has other plans.

*I haven’t made them all free, as opposed to ‘Set your own price’, because I really don’t want to piss off Amazon (which outsells all my other distributors by about 1000 to 1). I also wouldn’t mind making some money out of this. I’d be content if my royalties covered my writing expenses. (e.g. I wore out a keyboard last week and had to buy a new one, which I bought from Amazon)

Book Review – Silver by Andrew Motion

Title: Silver: Return to Treasure Island
Author: Andrew Motion
Publisher: Crown Publishers, Copyright 2012
Genre: Adventure

A sequel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island? Really? When I saw this on the shelf at my local library, I thought it takes a pretty competent and gutsy writer to try that. Well, why not? I picked it up, took it home, and read it over the course of the last few evenings. This is what I thought about it.

I won’t try to compare this novel to Treasure Island. It’s been years since I’ve read Stevenson’s classic adventure tale of pirates and buried treasure. This is perhaps just as well since this novel stands on its own, albeit with settings and minor characters from Treasure Island. It takes place about forty years after that book ends. Jim Hawkins, the son of the original Jim Hawkins, is the first person narrator. Natty, the daughter of Long John Silver, is his companion and the instigator of their adventure together. Their goal is to return to Treasure Island and recover the remaining treasure — a large number of silver bars.

I loved the prose from the beginning. It definitely has a quality and style you see too seldom in recent writing. It did not try to ‘grab’ be at the beginning. It did not try to shock me or entice me with ‘action.’ (I normally hate openings like that.) It invited me in, the narrator almost seeming like a bashful host for the story he was to tell. In my opinion, the prose style alone makes this book worth reading.

In other ways, though, I found the novel less satisfying. The plot tends to drag in places, with no mysteries or answers being discovered, just bits of well-executed prose marking the passage of time and reflecting. I also did not find the characters overly interesting. Jim, as the average young man grown bored by his father’s retellings of his adventures, just did not ring true to me. He seems too subservient and has too little longing for his own adventures to be interesting until Natty shows up. After that, he mainly follows her lead. Although it would be historically unlikely, I think this story may have been better told from Natty’s point of view rather than from Jim’s. She is the far stronger and more interesting of the two main characters. I would not object to this lack of fidelity to historic sensibilities because this is not a story told by a Victorian writer for a Victorian reader. It is a modern story for a modern audience.

Overall, I enjoyed this book. I recommend it to fans of the original Treasure Island and to anyone looking for a well-written new novel that is out of the ordinary.

Book Review – Dodger by Terry Pratchett

This is something different from Sir Terry, a Victorian historical mystery and adventure story. Dodger, a 17-year-old orphan living in the slums of Victorian London, rescues a mysterious damsel in distress. The people who were distressing her want her back — or dead, and Dodger has to use every skill and contact he has to prevent this.

Dodger is a great hero who exemplifies some of the best traits of humanity. He is caring, kind, intelligent, generous… Okay, he’s picked a pocket or two, and he sees nothing wrong with retrieving items that were lost, or about to be lost, but for the most part, he’s a fine young man.

This isn’t an accurate reflection of history, but it does include fictional portrayals of historical figures, some well known such as Charles Dickens, Benjamin Disraeli, and Sweeney Todd, and some who are not so well known (so there is no point in naming them).

I did think Dodger might be a bit too refined at times, almost unbelievably unaffected by his deprived environment. This made him almost too good, although to be honest, this is probably why I liked the character as much as I did. He could rise above his poverty, his lack of education, and still be hopeful, considerate, and even wise.

I only have three gripes, and they are not about the story. The first is that the book was not released in the U.S. until a week after it became available in the U.K. Why is that? The second is that the U.S. cover is not as good. I’ve found this to be common with Terry Pratchett books. The U.K. cover is often great, and something far duller and less relevant to the story is used for the U.S. edition. I have no idea why this is.

My last gripe is about how this is marketed. It is not ‘YA’ in that it’s not a kid’s book. It reminds me of Philip Pullman’s Sally Lockhart books, which are also Victorian mysteries that are misleadingly labeled as YA, although Dodger is lighter and more, well, uniquely Pratchett. This book may interest some teens and exceptionally bright and well-read children, but it’s probably not going appeal to kids (sorry, Young Adults) expecting to find a comic book action story or a mindless vampire romance. I’m not saying those are bad, necessarily (although I am pretentiously implying it). What I’m saying is that a YA label may misrepresent what a great, well-written story this is.

Obviously, I enjoyed this book, but then I am a longtime Pratchett fan. There really should be more books like this, charming, witty, positive, with likeable characters doing admirable things. It is a real pleasure to read such a book.

Book Review – Hunting the Five by Maria Violante

 My Rating: 4 Stars

I should first point out that this is not the type of story I normally read. It starts with action and it barely takes a breath before there is more. It is about a gun-toting, formerly human demon who serves as a mercenary and assassin at the pleasure of a group that are called, logically enough, angels. This would normally put it on my “not my kind of thing” list because I tend to not like tales in which the protagonists use violence as their primary means of resolving conflicts. I don’t find anything admirable about such characters or anything interesting in that kind of conflict. It is normally simplistic and, quite frankly, uninteresting.

Hunting for the Five may be a rare exception because of how well written it is. The prose is succinct and fresh, almost poetic in places. The descriptions are vivid but not graphic. I saw only two or three typos in this self published novella, which are fewer than I would normally expect to see in a professionally edited and traditionally published book.

From the beginning I got the impression that the lead character, De la Roca, is a reluctant token in someone else’s game. I read on wondering who the players were and what the object of that game was. That question is not answered in this short novella. It seems to mainly serve to introduce us to the protagonist.

I can’t say I admire or identify with De la Roca. She is interesting though and I can sympathize with her. She has lost her memory and she finds herself in the middle of a conflict she does not fully understand, manipulated and blackmailed by one side of some grand conflict to seek out and kill agents from the other side. Her motivation is selfish though. She is hunting down and killing demons not to save the world or free mankind; she is doing it so that she can be released from Hell.

Her direct contact with whomever or whatever uses her in its game is simply called the Angel. It seems to be almost like her parole officer. It is an enigmatic but obviously magically powerful creature that shows up after each kill she makes to emotionlessly inform her of her next target. It never shows any personality and one wonders what this thing really is that has such power over her and is it really all that much different than the demons she is contracted to kill?

Of course a novella is far too short a work to do the kind of world building necessary to fully develop the obviously complex mythos behind this story. It is rich with magic and mythical creatures. Most are fairly interesting but we don’t get the chance to understand any of them well. One of the most interesting is De la Roca’s trusted companion throughout the tale, her horse, which is also presumably some kind of demon and can change between various equine forms at will.

I can see this story developing further. There are many questions implied in our introduction to this fantasy world. Will De la Roca free herself? Will she regain her memory? What is this cosmic conflict and who are the opposing forces? Will De la Roca ultimately rebel against those who have been using her or will she continue to serve them willingly? There is a lot of potential here.

If you like an action packed fantasy adventure with a strong female antihero, then I think you will really like this first episode of the De la Roca Chronicles. It is a real bargain as well for only 99¢ from Smashwords or Amazon.

Book Review – Gideon’s Sword by Preston & Child

   My Rating: 4 Stars

Gideon Crew’s life was changed when his father was killed. When he finds out why, he devotes his life to clearing his father’s name and avenging his death. This brings him to the attention of a certain U.S. Government contractor who has another mission for him.

To avoid spoilers, suffice it to say that this is a spy versus spy type adventure with larger than life characters so be ready to suspend disbelief for the sake of the story. Some aspects are predictable but there are plenty of surprises as well. What I like most about this book is the hopeful undertone. There are plenty of shady characters but it treats them as exceptions rather than as typical examples of humanity and there are plenty of truly likeable minor characters, some of whom actually survive to the end of the story. There is also the promise of a technological breakthrough that will change the world for the better.

The combination of likeable characters, an interesting plot, exciting adventure, and a hopeful mood make this a very enjoyable book. I recommend it.

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