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Nation – by Terry Pratchett

Nation by Terry Pratchett

Nation by Terry Pratchett

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book, like many by Sir Terry, is truly wonderful, which is why I just reread it for at least the third time. I’m not really sure. I’ve reread most of his books at least a few times. But when I went to add a “read date” on Goodreads for this one, I noticed I never wrote a review or made note of when I’d read it the first time. That would have been soon after it was released in 2008. Since around 1999 or 2000, I’d always bought hardback editions of Pratchett’s books the day they came out and read them right away. The price sticker is still on this one: $16.99 at Borders Books (which sadly no longer exists).

But, as for a review, well, this is one of the few of Sir Terry’s masterpieces not set on Discworld. It takes place mostly on a parallel version of (a regular round) Earth around 1870 or so (my best estimate). A deadly disease has killed many in England, including the king and the first hundred or so heirs to the throne. Meanwhile, a tsunami has wiped out several small island nations in the alternate world’s version of the South Pacific. The next in line for the throne of England was not in England to catch the disease, and needs to be found quickly so that he can be informed of his new job as king and have the burden of the crown legitimately placed upon his head. His daughter is on her way to join him when the ship she is on is caught by the big wave and wrecked on an island that hours before supported a small but happy nation. None are left except one young man who returns to find everything and everyone he ever knew gone. By default, he’s now the king of his one person nation.
The boy king and the girl (who does not yet know she’s a princess) meet. But this isn’t a story of young love. Sir Terry (thankfully) did not write those kinds of books. This is a story about survival, about imperialism, about racism, about philosophy and science and religion. Like most of Sir Terry’s books, it’s about us, but in metaphorical fable form. It’s wonderful, but I believe I’ve already said that.

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How Rory Thorne Destroyed the Multiverse

How Rory Thorne Destroyed the Multiverse (The Thorne Chronicles, #1)How Rory Thorne Destroyed the Multiverse by K. Eason
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A bunch of fairies bestow magical gifts upon a baby princess—in a sci-fi universe with aliens and space stations. Sixteen years later, Rory, the androgynously named aforesaid princess, has grown into a spunky girl, trained in both physical self defense and arithmancy (what other universes might call ‘magic’), and she is not at all pleased when she is called upon to marry a foreign prince as a way to end an interstellar war. She’s all for stopping the war, of course, but the prince was something of dud the one time she had met him. That was when they were both young children; it was the same day a suicide assassin blew up their respective fathers.

It’s difficult to mix humor, fantasy, science fiction, and cultural commentary into a seamless story (I know this first hand), but this book does. The plot makes sense. So do the characters. The protagonist is likeable and relatable. The antagonist is fairly loathsome. It’s not exactly funny, but it is fun. I loved it and hereby endow it with five subjective stars.

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And Then There Were Crumbs

And Then There Were Crumbs (A Cookie House Mystery #1)And Then There Were Crumbs by Eve Calder
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is about as cozy a cozy mystery as you can get. A professional pastry chef flees a philandering fiance in New York and escapes to a small town in Florida, where she picks up a job at a bakery, but not as a baker, as counter help. Oddly, this bakery doesn’t sell pastries or cakes or cookies, which is unfortunate because Kate, the aforesaid pastry chef, has a kind of magic ability; she can tell your favorite kind of cookie just by looking at you. She’s only working there one day before an unsavory customer dies after eating some cinnamon buns that the shop’s owner made for himself. The owner is soon arrested for poisoning the guy.

As far as the mystery goes, I had the the perpetrator, the motive, and the general means pegged pretty much from the start. As for the cozy, it couldn’t get much cozier. When Kate first comes to town, she finds the locals helpful, sharing, encouraging, and just as fond of food as she is. It’s like Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood with the warm, fuzzy addition of a friendly community dog that everyone chips into to feed and care for. (It was delightfully refreshing to read about such a lovely imaginary place. I like this about cozies. They’re a nice break from the nonstop action, conflict, and general nastiness you find in so much fiction. But, I digress. Back to the story.) So, in friendly small town spirit, Kate’s new neighbors all volunteer to help her prove her new boss innocent and get him out of jail. A lot of cooking and eating is involved.

I quite enjoyed this book even though it’s almost too cozy and the mystery is fairly predictable. It was a welcome change from the last book I read, but I won’t mention that one here.

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The Portrait of Doreene Gray

The Portrait of Doreene GrayThe Portrait of Doreene Gray by Esri Allbritten
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The team from Tripping Magazine is investing another (possibly) weird occurrence, this time involving a pair of twins—one who appears not to be aging (much) and her sister who is. Oddly, the portrait of the younger looking one, which she keeps in a locked room, appears to be tolling the years in her stead. Her sister, who painted the thing years ago, claims not to understand why.

This is a Scooby-Doo kind of mystery, with a team of investigators looking at clues to figure out what’s really going on. Their leader (editor of the magazine) is biased toward finding the most woo-woo version of events possible. The chief writer is far more practical, and the sexy photographer is mainly in it for the fun. I wish there were more books in this series. I find them quite enjoyable.

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The Way of All Flesh

The Way of All FleshThe Way of All Flesh by Ambrose Parry
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Women are dying in Edinburgh in the mid-19th Century, but is it murder? That’s the question that Will (our protagonist) asks himself after a lady of negotiable affection, with whom he is well acquainted, dies in apparent agony. His interest is both personal and professional as he has just been apprenticed to an eminent doctor who is the Victorian version of an OBGYN.

The setting and characters are believable. The story moves along well, and the plot is interesting. I was also surprised because the person I had pegged as being behind the dire events wasn’t. The fact that I was wrong and it made sense is certainly worthy of an extra star! I tend to enjoy Victorian whodunits, but it’s the historical medical details that make this one stand out.

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Paper Towns

Paper TownsPaper Towns by John Green
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A fairly average high school boy in central Florida lives next to an unbelievably uncommon girl of about the same age. She’s endearingly clever, but she’s also totally self-absorbed, casually inconsiderate, socially domineering, recklessly adventurous, and inexplicably popular. He is, of course, infatuated with her. It surprises no one when she goes missing just before graduation. She’s done that kind of thing before. But there are circumstances that suggest this time may be different. Fearing that she might be emotionally unstable enough to off herself, the average kid recruits a few friends to help him follow clues she’s left behind, seemingly for his benefit, to try to find her… or maybe her body.

I picked this up at my local library mainly because I recognized the author as the guy who did the entertaining and informative Crash Course videos on YouTube. I had no idea at the time: 1. That it had been made into a movie (so the sticker on the cover claims), 2. That it is set very near where I currently reside (a norther suburb of Orlando), or 3. What a paper town was (actually, I did, but I had never heard them called that).

Because of the age of the characters, the story is shelved as YA, but it’s not juvenile. The prose and pacing are both quite good. The crazy girl may not be overly likeable (although she is, in a way, admirable), and her imaginative pranks may be unbelievable, but her story is quite entertaining.

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Book Review – The Martian by Andy Weir

The MartianTitle: The Martian
Author: Andy Weir
Genre: Science Fiction

Do you remember the 1964 movie Robinson Crusoe on Mars?


Just as well. It was bad.

The Martian has a similar plot — a lone astronaut trying to survive on Mars and hoping for rescue. Unlike the aforesaid movie, this book isn’t bad. In fact, it’s quite good.

The protagonist (Mark Watney) is almost unbelievably clever, emotionally stable, and indefatigable. Of course most of the story is told through his journals, that is, from his personal perspective, and don’t we all tend to gloss over our own shortcomings? I did not see his portrayal as ‘too good to be true’ a flaw, although I must admit that his achievements did stretch credulity a bit.

There is a great deal of detail about how Watney uses and misuses the technology available to him. I’m not qualified to comment extensively on that or on the raw science behind it, but it all seemed plausible to my inexpert eyes.

Almost all of the other characters in the book are equally admirable. But then most are astronauts or scientists, which are noted for including some of the best examples of what humanity has to offer. These aren’t average people. They’re the cream of the crop, and they are portrayed as such. Most of them are the NASA people back on Earth. They come into the story in scenes that show us how they eventually realize that Watney is not dead (as they initially believed) and how they pull together to keep him that way.

What I like most about the book is that it shows humanity at its best, when people are being clever, inventive, selfless, and cooperating to achieve a worthwhile goal. There should be more stories like this.

Book Review – The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt

SwerveTitle: The Swerve: How the World Became Modern
Author: Stephen Greenblatt
Genre: Science History/Philosophy

Can a book change the world? (Or at least the part that represents a good chunk of human culture.) I’m sure you can think of a couple that qualify, but can a book that claims no divine authority do so? The Swerve is an account of one that may have.

In 1417, Poggio Bracciolini had been the personal secretary of the pope, but when that pope was deposed, Poggio found himself in Europe, far from Rome and out of work. It was definitely a blow to his career, but he made the most of it by turning it into an opportunity to indulge in his hobby, his passion—finding and preserving old books. He roamed Europe, seeking out ancient and remote monasteries hoping to find copies of books lost after the fall of Rome a thousand years before. And he found one.

Poggio did not intend to cause a philosophical revolution. It seems his main concern was to preserve the beautiful Latin of bygone writers. But with the selection and arrangement of words came the ideas they expressed, and those in De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things), written by the Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius before the birth of Christ, challenged the common beliefs of Poggio’s day and (more dangerously) the dictates of the Church. This was a time when curiosity was a sin and questioning authority was a crime. Lucretius encouraged both. He suggested that everything is made of atoms; that a divine creator did not make the universe for man, and several other ideas about the nature of man and reality that may seem like common knowledge today but were heretical then.

In The Swerve, Greenblatt contends that the rediscovery of Lucretius had a significant impact on European thought and helped loosen the iron grip of theological dogma that controlled almost every aspect of human life in medieval Europe. He goes on to suggest that Lucretius’s later influence on thinkers from Galileo to Thomas Jefferson was instrumental in shaping the modern world.

It’s impossible to say, of course. No one today can ask Jefferson, for example, how much influence Lucretius had on him when he was drafting the Declaration of Independence, or on his decisions when he was President (although Jefferson did have copies of De rerum natura in Latin, English, Italian, and French in his library and said it was one of his favorite books). Even if it were possible to ask him, Jefferson might not be able to say. Everything we read, everything we experience can have some effect on us. Assigning any particular action or inspiration to a single source may not be possible.

It is safe to say, I think, that the rediscovery of Lucretius was significant. If nothing else, it shows that the modern way of viewing nature as, well, natural (rather than supernatural), is not exclusive to our times or a result of science. That it is a necessary precursor to science, however, seems undeniable, and perhaps Lucretius deserves a more prominent place in books about the history of science because of this.

The story of Paggio’s discovery might also provide a good foundation for a work of historical fiction. The Swerve almost starts out as such, narrating the wandering scribe’s search for lost books much as a novel might. This draws in the reader before the author goes on to summarize some points of Lucretius’s Epicurean philosophy. When Greenblatt does pause to relate major ideas in Lucretius, it almost seems disruptive to the story of Paggio.

I enjoyed this book. I had known of Lucretius, but I had never heard of Paggio Bracciolini before reading this. Without him, Lucretius may have remained unknown, and, perhaps, history would have unfolded differently as a result. The Swerve provides an important reminder of how individual actions can have significant impacts. It also reminds us of how repressive the Middle Ages were and how those in positions of power at the time actively (and often brutally) discouraged the open sharing of ideas, which we now recognize as not only a fundamental right but also essential to human progress. It’s a good read. I recommend it.

Book Review – The Space Between by Scott J. Robinson


Title: The Space Between (Tribes of the Hakahei, Book #1)
Author: Scott J. Robinson
Genre: Science fantasy

This rousing and entertaining adventure begins at a renaissance fair and it ends in space. (Although as the first of a series, the ending remains inconclusive.) Ancient spaceships, snobby elves, a confused dwarf, weird aliens, and portals to strange and distant worlds are all rolled into a coherent story that’s just a bit more sci-fi than fantasy. It’s lighthearted and not overly ‘serious’ sci-fi. After all, in addition to elves, it makes a brief nod to Area 51 and Roswell. But it’s different. It’s fun. I like it.

The world building and pacing are excellent, the prose and dialogue are good, the characters aren’t too unbelievable, and the editing, well…. I noticed about a dozen typos in the Kindle edition that I read. There weren’t enough to detract from enjoying the story, and since this is a DIY published novel, I expect they’ll be corrected in later editions. Indie authors tend to be quite conscientious about such things.

I can recommend this one to all readers of light speculative fiction looking for something with a little meat to it. Of the new books I’ve read recently (both indie and traditionally published), I’d have to judge this one among the most enjoyable. There is a lot of potential here.

Full Disclosure: I received a free digital edition of this book during an open promotion on Amazon. I haven’t read the other books in the series, although I may at some point.

Book Review – Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn by Amanda Gefter

EinsteinsLawnTitle: Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn
Author: Amanda Gefter
Publisher: Bantam Books
First Published: 2014
Genre: Nonfiction (Science/Philosophy)

What is real? Really real? Real for everyone everywhere? This is essentially the philosophical question Amanda Gefter is exploring in this truly unique book. It’s part memoir, part philosophy, and part science. It’s a narration of her personal quest to find an answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything. It’s a story about how she finagles a job as a science journalist in order to talk to some of the most eminent people working in theoretical physics today, and it’s an exploration of the metaphysical implications of some of their ideas. (Reviewers note to reader: Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that deals with the ultimate nature of reality. It’s kind of like real physics, especially theoretical physics, but without all the messy math and testability requirements.)

I write (soft) science fiction, but I’m not a scientist. Relativity seemed rational enough to me (after some mental gymnastics), but many of the implications of quantum mechanics boggled my mind. It could make accurate predictions, but it never really made sense. It was like a superposition of ‘true’ and ‘bat-crap crazy’. After joining Amanda on her search in the pages of this book, I feel I have a better intuitive grasp of entanglement, wave-particle duality, the uncertainty principle, and entropy than those I possessed before. My shaky understanding may still be dead wrong, of course, but at least I have some framework to give these ideas structure now.

This would have been enough for me to proclaim this a great science book for nonscientists. But it has more.

She shows us some of the major physicists of our time not as embodiments of their ideas but as real people who interact with the world around them much as we of lesser intellect do. They have personalities, egos, disagreements, and quirks. They are real people who also just happen to be brilliant scientists. As she related her interviews with them, I thought about young students who might be reading this and drawing inspiration from it. We sometimes put great achievers on pedestals, implying that greatness is out of reach for us ‘normal’ people. Gefter brings them down to earth, showing us their humanity and thereby reminding us that they are not so different from the rest of us.

I think this book also reminds us of the tenuous relationship between theory, experiment, and the ‘reality’ behind them. Experiments yield data and theories provide beautiful equations, but what are they telling us about the underlying reality (assuming there is some)? This seems largely open to interpretation, at least on the quantum level. Yeah, the math works, but what does it MEAN? Is the ‘thing’ found ‘real’ or is it just a data point that tells us about a relationship with other data points from a particular point of view? Apparently, the answers depend on the questions asked, and if those answers seem contradictory, it may be because some of our underlying assumptions are wrong.

Some books about science suggest that scientists are simply fine tuning, adding details to the standard model, and working out a few remaining unknowns, such as the nature of dark energy or whatever. Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn, I think, is telling us something entirely different. There are still a great number of things to learn and new theories needed to make sense of them. Science is not almost done. It has barely begun. There remains much to discover and understand.

I found this book informative, thought provoking, and entertaining. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in science and philosophy.

Book Review – The Rainbow Connection by Ian Harac

Rainbow ConnectionTitle: The Rainbow Connection
Author: Ian Harac
Publisher: BlackWyrm Publishing
First Published: 2009
Science Fantasy/parallel worlds

This is part science fiction, part fairytale, and part parody. I loved it. The setting is a contemporary world in which portals to alternate realities exist. The protagonist is an FBI agent in charge of copyright enforcement—that is, making sure other-world copies of things like the fourth season of Star Trek TOS aren’t being brought over. One day while on a seemingly routine assignment, he and his partner discover a munchkin, which his partner, quite unnecessarily, shoots dead. Thus begins a well-told tale of mystery and corruption.

The world-building, or should I say worlds-building (there are a few visited in the story) is quite good. I enjoyed the allusions to various works of speculative fiction, from Oz to Star Trek. The characters are likeable. The plot makes sense and unfolds logically. I also found no major editing issues other than some kind of transcription error. It’s the only negative comment I have on this book, but it turned some of the punctuation (apostrophes, single quotes, and emdashes) into little boxed question marks, at least in the Kindle edition I read. I found this a bit distracting at first, but I was enjoying the story and stuck with it. I’m so glad I did. It’s charming. It’s fun. It’s different. It’s engaging. It’s simply a good read. I highly recommend it.

Book Review – Brain: The Man Who Wrote the Book That Changed the World by Dermot Davis

BrainDermotDavisTitle:  Brain: The Man Who Wrote the Book That Changed the World
Dermot Davis
Dermot Davis
First Published:
Contemporary Fiction / Humor

Daniel is an author of literary fiction, and his novels are award winners. Readers of classic literature love them, but these readers don’t represent a very large portion of the book-buying market. His agent is less than sympathetic with his plight. She agrees that his books are good, but she doesn’t need good books, she needs books that will sell, and she tells him his next two won’t. She won’t even try to find a publisher for them.

In order not to starve, he has to write something that will sell, but he can’t reduce himself to writing popular genre fiction, and besides, he’s not familiar enough with it to try. When he sees a line at a bookstore for a book signing by the author of a very popular self-help book, he has an inspiration. Satire is respectable, so he commits himself to writing (under a pen name) a satire about the popularity of current self-help books. He makes it so outrageous, even cranks, crazies, desperate seekers, and the extremely credulous will not be able to take it seriously, and it will point out just how silly the whole thing is. His new book gets published (despite the fact that his agent initially wants to reject it), and it surprisingly becomes a bestseller—not as satire, but as a ‘serious’ self-help book. Soon, it has a cult following, and Daniel is both relieved and dismayed.

I found several scenes hilarious, and the satire about the state of traditional publishing and the plight of authors rung all too true. Anyone who has suffered through a few of the more dreadful recent bestsellers will understand.

The story is wonderfully imaginative. The characters are believable. The prose, for the most part, is pretty good, although it could use another round of editing—not for typos but mainly for sentence structure and capitalization.

I recommend this one to all writers, especially those struggling with the choice between writing what they think is good and writing what they think will sell.

Book Review – Hollow Moon by Steph Bennion

HollowMoonTitle:  Hollow Moon
Author: Steph Bennion
Wyrdstar Books
First Published:
Science Fiction (YA)

Spunky kids, political intrigue, a kidnapping, spaceships, surprises, a twisted villain, clever AI, mysterious aliens… What more could you want? In this case, not much. The setting is the future a couple centuries from now. Humanity has discovered a means to get from one place to another faster than light, and people from Earth have colonized space. They’ve accomplished much, but they are far from enlightened. They still have greed, fanaticism, war, corruption, and reality shows.

Hollow Moon is an imaginative and well-told tale centering on Ravana, the daughter of a space freighter captain living in a hollow moon orbiting a distant star. When she witnesses the kidnapping of the young Raja, the heir apparent of her small, inside out world, she becomes involved in far more than she expected. What she does not know is that she was already involved.

Hollow Moon is a refreshing alternative to the bulk of Young Adult speculative fiction I’ve seen in the last several years. The story is engaging. It has well-defined and well-developed characters, a fairly intricate but easily comprehensible plot, a few smiles, and, most appreciated of all, it’s NOT fantasy! It’s science fiction, and most of the science is reasonable. Okay, there was one scene with an unbelievably strong rope and a serendipitously placed wagon, and a girl who can resist a force that several tons of stone elephant cannot but, well, that’s just details. Actually, I doubt many readers would even question something like this. And then there was the school band that played Alpha Centauri by Tangerine Dream. Um, well, yeah, that’s not a violation of the laws of physics, and it’s cool, but I can’t see a school band attempting it. It’s 22 minutes long and sounds like some kind of ethereal improvised jazz bit done on flute and synthesizer. I know; details, and this one, despite being unlikely, made me smile, so it gets a pass on credibility for the sake of subtle humor. Actually, there are several gems such as this—allusions to contemporary culture scattered about and in chapter titles.

The story is written from an omniscient point of view with numerous characters sharing the spotlight. I did not find this at all confusing because the characters are sufficiently distinct. It is clear who the camera is on at any point. There were a few places where the adults seemed slightly too juvenile, but this is a YA novel and this seems to be common for those. This book does a better job with this, in fact, than I have seen in other YA stories, and in Hollow Moon, sometimes the adults actually act and sound like adults. The pace is fast enough to keep the plot moving, but it’s not frantic.

On the more technical side, the editing is more than adequate, although comma usage may not be exactly according the Chicago Manual of Style for fiction writing. I’ve noticed this is also true of science fiction and fantasy novels from bigger publishers, which may follow their own style guides for punctuation.

I normally comment on formatting in my reviews only when it is dreadful. In this case, I’m commenting on it because it was exceptional. It is obvious that a great deal of attention was paid to formatting Hollow Moon as an eBook. I see so many digital editions, especially from older, traditional publishers where the formatting is dreadful with double spacing, no paragraph indents, or no breaks between chapters. I don’t know if this is because they regard digital books as an afterthought or if they simply aren’t good at it, but Hollow Moon had none of these flaws. It even included embedded links for previous and subsequent chapters at the start of each new chapter (unnecessary but thoughtful).

Hollow Moon has charm, intelligence, and wit, and it is one of the most enjoyable YA stories I’ve read in a while. I highly recommend it for readers of YA science fiction.

Book Review – The SatNav of Doom by Will Macmillan Jones

SatNavofDoomTitle:  The SatNav of Doom (The Banned Underground Book 5)
Author: Will Macmillan Jones
Publisher: Safkhet Publishing
First Published: 2013
Fantasy / Contemporary / Humor

This is the fifth short novel in the continuing contemporary fantasy series featuring the rock band The Banned Underground. The band members include four dwarfs, a green bog troll, and a bass playing dragon. In this episode, we find them as almost a backdrop to the main plot in which the British government is working with the Edern (think elves or fairies) to develop a future-telling system that will help the government pull the British economy out of trouble. The Dark Lord wants to hack into this system for his own (evil) purposes, and he sends a team to the ostensibly secure Edern laboratories during a fund-raising event at which the Banned are playing. The Dark Lord’s minions are there to install a computer virus. Meanwhile, the dwarves are after those same minions for an unpaid bar tab. (Confused yet?)

Mayhem ensues.

The SatNav of Doom is a comic slapstick farce along the lines of Robert Asprin or Piers Anthony, full of puns, word-play, and references to old rock tunes. Now, I can’t say this kind of humor normally has great appeal for me. I’m more of a science fiction than a fantasy reader, and when I do read humorous fantasy, I prefer something with a bit more satirical or philosophical content (e.g. Terry Pratchett), but in the subgenre this book represents, it’s pretty good. The characters are all clowns, but they can be funny in a burned trousers kind of way (Yes – there is such a scene). The copy editing is adequate, and whereas the prose is sparse and could not be considered literary in any sense, it is serviceable for the type of book this is. I also enjoyed the Doctor Who twist at the end.

I will caution that some may not ‘get’ some of the references (old rock songs and Doctor Who, for example). Also, this is not the book to start with in the series because the character development occurs mainly in the previous offerings. If you have read and enjoyed the others, though, you’ll like this one, too.

Disclosure: I received a pre-publication promotional copy of the eBook edition from the author.

Related Posts:

Book Review – Bass Instinct by Will Mmacmillan Jones

Book Review – Whim: In the Beginning by Andy Close

WhimAndyCloseTitle: Whim: In the Beginning
Publisher: Andy Close
First Published: 2013
Science Fiction

What first struck me about this book is how excellent the prose is. The writing, for the most part, is very good. The next thing I noticed is that it needs another round of editing and revision. That’s not a knock on the book. As a first novel from a self-published author, this one stands out. Subsequent editions may correct the issues I noted when I read it (September 2013).

The novel takes the form of two stories, which seem to have little to do with one another until the end, and then the connection is more implied than explicit. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s different, which is good, and it paves the way for a sequel that may make the connection clear.

One thread of the story follows the building or a spaceship that is intended to take a sample of humanity from an environmentally depleted Earth to other stars to ensure the survival of the species. The ‘Chairman of the Board of the World Committees of the Ship’ is responsible for seeing the ship launched. He is a nasty, self-serving piece of work, but I was never entirely clear about his motivations other than that he wanted fame.

The other thread of the story follows a likeable lad by the name of Bruno. He lives in a fairly backward land with little by the way of technology, but there is a mysterious ‘barrier’ beyond which no one can go. He decides that life as a farmer (the main occupation of the place where he was born) or of a Trader (his father’s line of work) is not for him. His older sister left their village years ago, and he decides to follow in her figurative footsteps. He journeys to a town on the coast in search of a way around the Barrier and, ostensibly, to find his sister.

There were a couple typos (e.g. ‘see’ instead of ‘seen’), a few sentences with missing words, but most of the copy edit errors I saw were punctuation irregularities. There were also formatting issues. The text was double spaced and paragraphs were not indented.

A couple other things related to content caught my attention. One had to do with a game, which gets Bruno back on track on his mission to get around the Barrier. More said on this would be a spoiler, but until he is in town, I don’t believe this game is mentioned (unless I missed it). That makes its appearance just when he needs it a bit too serendipitous. I think there should have been a foreshadowing of this game earlier in the novel. The other thing that I thought did not seem right was when the Chairman mentions cubits to the ship’s chief engineer, and the engineer does not know what a cubit is. When the Chairman tells him that the AI for the ship looks like an Altar of Incense, however, he either knows what that is or doesn’t ask the obvious question, WTF is an Altar of Incense? I would expect that an engineer would be far more likely to recognize that a cubit is an archaic unit of measure than to be at all familiar with an Altar of Incense.

In any case, the prose alone is refreshingly good enough to make this an enjoyable read. As it stands now, I would give the novel 3.5 stars with greater potential with a bit of revision.

Book Review – Gaspar the Thief by David A. Lindsay

Gaspar1Title: Gaspar the Thief
David A. Lindsay
David A. Lindsay
First Published:
Fantasy Adventure

This is not so much a single novel as it is a series of related adventures centered on the thief, Gaspar; the lovely Marna, a fellow thief and Gaspar’s volatile love interest; and their ‘spellbroker’ associate, Hubris. Their escapades (most often not as successful as they hope) and misadventures provide the basis for the ten chapters of the book.

The characters are engaging, but not exactly likeable. Their highest goal seems to be to abscond with as much loot as safely as possible, with little compassion over the fate of the loot’s current owner. Gaspar and his companions aren’t murderous rogues, but they are clearly rogues.

Written from a limited omniscient point of view, the prose, grammar, and vocabulary in this book are a notch above the norm that I’ve personally found in light fantasy. The characters are uncomplicated but not stupid. The world building is quite good and creates a believable fantasy setting full of dirty cities, filthy gutters, crumbling castles, guilds, inns, taverns, and the occasional bawdy house.

This book is not so much comedy as it is light fantasy. The setting and characters reminded by of the Thraxas books by Martin Scott (AKA Martin Millar) — kind of a late Medieval world with personality-flawed characters, magic, and mythical creatures.

I can’t say this book is innovative in any way, but it is an enjoyable read. I recommend it for readers of light fantasy.

Book Review – The Adventure Tournament by Nicholas Andrews

Adventure TournamentTitle: The Adventure Tournament
Author: Nicholas Andrews
Stray Pubishing
First Published:
Fantasy Adventure

This is a Dungeons and Dragons type fantasy with a team of adventurers competing with others to overcome monsters in a series of contest events. A unifying thread of political intrigue and even a touch of romance provide the plot.

The heroes are likeable and the bad guys have motives beyond just wanting to take over the world (Mwa-ha-ha). The name of place where the story begins, Foeny Balognia, adds to the sense of comic adventure, letting the reader know this is not to be taken too seriously. There is nothing deep about this— no cultural satire or philosophical insights, but the prose, editing, pacing, and other technical details are done well, making for an enjoyable, light read.

My only issue is that serendipitous events, such as finding a ladder or a jar laying around just when such things would come in handy, or happening to be on the right rooftop that just happens to collapse at the right time, strained my ability to suspend disbelief. Other than that, this is a fine story. I can recommend it.

Book Review – Mad Science Institute by Sechin Tower

MadScienceInstTitle: Mad Science Institute
Author: Sechin Tower
Publisher: Siege Tower Entertainment
First Published: 2011
Contemporary Science Fiction / YA

I like the idea of this book — a YA story premised on science rather than magic, with smart, young adult heroes, passionate about learning and discovery who find themselves in an environment where they can pursue their interests. It reminded me a bit of another book I read and reviewed not long ago, Evil Genius by Catherine Jinks. There should be more stories in settings like this.

The plot of this one is the classic ‘good guys versus bad guys bent on taking over the world.’ The pacing is good, with discoveries and events leading incrementally to a satisfying and logical conclusion.

I was less taken with the characters.

The star of the story, Sophia “Soap” Lazarcheck, is a 16-year-old science geek, brilliant but socially awkward. Her ability to invent and build truly amazing gizmos is offset by a lack of appreciation for how these inventions might go wrong. Explosions and fires tend to be the result. For the most part, I found her an endearing character, but my ability to suspend disbelief was breached in her first encounter with the antagonist. She was far too trusting of this mysterious and clearly untrustworthy voice on the phone, and I could not accept how easily she sold him the key code for her new, and otherwise impregnable, school.

Her cousin, Dean, is the character that most failed for me. He plays the part of the well-muscled and well-intentioned but intellectually uncomplicated knight in shining armor. He’s not quite dimwitted enough to be a comic character, but I found him far too simple to be either likeable or believable in his role in this story.

The mysterious antagonist, always in the background and pulling the strings of his minions, is a recognizable James Bond type villain. The biker gang that serves as his muscle is a group of unwashed, uneducated, and thoroughly unpleasant individuals. They were not inept enough to be funny but too (unjustly) stereotypical to be believable. (I’ve known a few bikers, and most were nice people.)

The chapters with Soap providing the point of view are written in first person. The other chapters are written in third. This can be a bit jarring when you’re reading. I would have preferred third person throughout, with chapter or scene breaks for changes in POV. Otherwise, the book is well written, although I did spot a few typos. The ending is set up for a sequel.

The book is an enjoyable departure from more common magical or mystical YA stories, and I can recommend it as a quick, light read.

(Loosely) Related Post: Book Review – Evil Genius by Catherine Jinks

Book Review – Voyage to the Red Planet by Terry Bisson

VoyagetotheRedPlanetTitle: Voyage to the Red Planet
Author: Terry Bisson
Publisher: William Morrow and Company
First Published: 1991
Genre: Near Future Science Fiction / Space Exploration / Cultural Satire

What struck me when I was reading this near future space adventure is how dated it is. Much has happened since this was originally published in 1991 (not all that long ago), such as further (robotic) exploration of Mars and the collapse of the Soviet Union, both of which never occurred in this story. A couple of the things that did happen in this fictional tale were a rapid decline of the American space program and the privatization of most aspects of government, including NASA and the U.S. Navy. The book does not present a very hopeful future as a result, but it does provide a bit of subtle cultural satire.

It is told from and omniscient point of view with multiple characters, although the central one is Bass, an aging astronaut from NASA’s glory days. He is approached by an entertainment conglomerate to help ‘salvage’ a spacecraft built (but never used) by NASA and the Soviets, and to bring a crew of movie stars to Mars to make a movie and, as a result, a lot of money.

The writing is good, the characters are plausible and their individual motivations make sense, but the premise itself, in addition to being dated, just doesn’t. At least not much. I accept the exaggerations about corporate takeovers of government functions for the sake of cultural satire, but how could a huge spaceship be built in orbit without it being common knowledge? Why would it be fully provisioned and then abandoned until it is salvaged by a movie company twenty years later? And sunlight digitized and stored on CDs to provide a power source? Sorry. That’s not ridiculous enough to be funny or realistic enough to be believable.

All in all, this is a fairly enjoyable hard science fiction tale. It has some satire, a bit of humor, decent characters, and a plot that hangs together well. I can recommend it for Science Fiction fans looking for a good, old-fashioned story of near space.

Book Review – The Pickup Artist by Terry Bisson

Pickup ArtistTitle: The Pickup Artist
Author: Terry Bisson
Publisher: Tor
First Published: 2001
Near Future Fantasy / Cultural Satire / Absurdist Literature

The similarities to Fahrenheit 451 are obvious. The Pickup Artist is set in a near future America in which art in all forms — music, literature, painting, movies — is being purged to alleviate the glut of such things and allow space for new creative endeavors. When a work, author, or artist is placed on the deletion list, all originals and copies of the applicable art forms are collected and destroyed.

The first-person narrator of this story is a pickup artist, a person working for the Bureau of Arts and Information who confiscates (normally with compensation) books, albums, tapes, CDs and the like from those who own them. One day, he collects a vinyl album by Hark Williams. It reminds him of his father, and he becomes obsessed with listening to it, but first he needs to locate a record player. His search for one brings him into contact with two factions of the Alexandrians, both of which have their roots in the movement that brought about the policy of cultural purging but now have diametrically opposed goals.

The first-person narrative is interspaced with short historical bits on how this policy of cultural deletion came about.

The premise almost works as a bit of cultural satire, but it is too absurd to have the impact of a cautionary tale like Fahrenheit 451.There are also elements such as the cloned Indians, talking dog, and mature baby that I assume were supposed to have some symbolic significance but, whatever that was, it eluded me.

The characters are believable enough to evoke some empathy, and the setting is not so bizarre that it prevents suspension of disbelief for the sake of the story. The book is different and interesting, but I can’t recommend it as a particularly enjoyable read.

Why I chose to read this: I picked this up at the library because it was near an older book by the same writer, which looked interesting.

Book Review – Bass Instinct by Will Macmillan Jones

BassInstinctTitle: Bass Instinct (The Banned Underground Book 4)
Author: Will Macmillan Jones
Publisher: Safkhet Publishing
First Published: 2013
Fantasy / Contemporary / Humor

The Banned Underground is a band. A rock band. Not terribly famous. Not original. Well, their music isn’t. Mainly they do covers of old rock tunes and play gigs at pubs and such. But few bands, even in this fantasy version of present day England, consist of four dwarfs, a green bog troll, and a bass playing dragon.

In this edition of their continuing quest for good-paying gigs, their scaly, fire-breathing bass player has gone missing, and a slinky, mysterious, scooter-riding woman in black leather fills in. She’s pretty hot, and her bass playing isn’t bad either, but she has ulterior motives.

Mayhem ensues involving a Dark Lord accountant, a record executive, some Kali-worshipping thugs, and associated minions. Oh, and a roadie who says nothing but ‘Der,’ although his meaning is clear to those who know him well. He reminds me a bit of the librarian in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books, who only says ‘Ook.’ And, of course, there are some superficial parallels to Pratchett’s book Soul Music in that it is a fantasy story staring a rock band.

I grinned all the way through this short novel. It has a good deal of clever word play, some terrible puns (which ones aren’t?), slapstick humor, and generally likeable comic characters. There is also some fiery dragon romance. I also liked the bits of author (and even publisher) intrusion into the story narrative. Most guidance on fiction writing warns not to do this, but it can work in humor, and here it does.

This isn’t great literature. It’s not cultural satire. There is no single main character, and the plot is not exactly spellbinding (although there are some magical spells), but as a comic farce, this is quite entertaining. I recommend it as a quick, light read for all fans of comic fantasy.


Disclosure: I received a pre-publication promotional copy of the eBook edition from the author.

Related Post: Book Review – The Mystic Accountants by Will Macmillan Jones

The Office of Mercy by Ariel Djanikian

OfficeofMercyTitle: The Office of Mercy
Author: Ariel Djanikian
Publisher: Viking
First Published: 2013
Dark Science Fiction / Post Apocalyptic Dystopian Romance

The setting is the mostly depopulated eastern portion of North America a few centuries from the present in a bunker/city known as America-Five. Other Americas are said to exist, but they do not factor into the story.

The backstory, revealed appropriately in bits of conversation and introspection, suggests that most of humanity was intentionally exterminated by the Yangs, the group that originally built and populated the America bunker cities, and perhaps other places. Who exactly the Yangs were, a bunch of ultra-rich survivalists, a governmental hierarchy, a religious cult, or something else, is left vague. Their intent was apparently to kill all of the people on the planet other than themselves, and their justification for this seems to be that the population had become unsustainable and civilization was on the verge of collapse. People were killing one another in conflicts over resources. Others were dying of starvation. Exterminating them all would end their pointless suffering. It would be merciful.

The Yangs failed in this. Some small populations of humanity survived and went on to create the ‘tribes.’ The Yangs themselves were overthrown by the Alphas, who may have been a faction or the children of the original Yangs. So much for the backstory.

The main character of the book, Natasha, is a resident of America-Five. She works in the Office of Mercy. Their job is to locate and ‘sweep’ any tribes entering the area around their bunker city. The preferred method is to use a ‘nova’ (assumed to be something like a tactical nuke) to exterminate whole tribes at a time, although manual sweeps using Office of Mercy ground troops with small arms are also done when necessary.

Natasha comes to question what she is doing, about the rightness of it, which leads her to take actions and make discoveries, some of which are unexpected.

This book is technically well-written. The prose is professional. There is no dump of information to relate the backstory in a prologue or in lengthy exposition. The writing is good, but the story isn’t. I didn’t find it so, in any case. I read fiction primarily for enjoyment, and in that regard, this book fails for reasons both large and small.

Apart from being depressingly dark and dismal, the book contains no characters I could force myself to care about. None of them is admirable. None tries to achieve anything that I felt worthy of succeeding. None captured my sympathy. None was even especially likeable.

I found the backstory implausible. Although no one can accurately foresee the future, the one that preceded the ‘Storm’ (the attempted global extermination) left far too many questions as to how it came about. To me, it seemed so unlikely I could not suspend disbelief enough to accept it for the sake of a story that had no characters or goals I could care about.

The philosophical questions it seems to ask are: Is mercy killing of people ethical? Is it ever justifiable? Can genocide ever be seen as an unfortunate necessity? This story takes no clear stand, but seems to lean toward a ‘yes’ to all of these. Maybe the point is that sometimes things are so bad there are no ethical choices. I’m not prepared to say this is true, but this is a work of fiction. Sometimes fiction can reveal deep truths using events that never have and never will happen. This does not do that.

There are also some little, niggling things. Two especially struck me as strange. America-Five grows its children in vats. They grow replacement organs for their citizens the same way. Okay. Not a problem. This is a plausible future tech. But America-Five also keeps livestock. Why aren’t they growing their meat in vats? It’s the same technology. The other minor logical disconnect was that they have something like tactical nukes and satellites, but they rely on security cameras mounted in trees to monitor the tribes. Why no spy satellites? Why no surveillance drones? They obviously have the technology for these, but they leave themselves blind to the movements of the tribes they both fear and wish to ‘help’ by killing them mercifully.

I expect this book will appeal to some readers. Dark, dystopian novels do have a following, which is why I suppose traditional publishers keep publishing them. This is just another of that type. It did not appeal to me, however, and I cannot recommend it.

Book Review – The Hole Opportunity by James Minter

HoleOpportunityTitle: Hole Opportunity (click link for video blurb)
Author: James Minter
Publisher: James Minter
First Published: 2011

There are some very silly people living in and around Harpsden. Colin Griggs and his wife, Izzy, are no exception. They are struggling rural farmers. Colin brainstorms (in his case, it’s more like scattered showers), trying to find a way to save his small farm and, after being inspired by donuts and electrical outlets, comes up with the idea of hole farming. So many things rely on holes he figures it can’t miss.

His first contract, to make holes for the local golf course, goes astray. He uses rabbits in a complex cage system to build the holes, and the rodents overachieve with humorous consequences.

Colin is a comic character, unsophisticated, impulsive, and seemingly accident-prone, or at least very unlucky, but then most of the town’s population would be at home in a Monty Python sketch. Their mishaps and misinterpretations make for a slapstick comedy of errors with a certain charming innocence. Once you get past the silly premise, it’s a fun read.

I must admit, that was a bit difficult for me. The hole farming thing was just a bit too silly, even for a farce like this. It might work better in fantasy or Sci-Fi, but as a contemporary humor, I just couldn’t quite get into it. The prose is well done, although it could benefit from a smattering of well-placed commas and additional paragraph breaks. I noticed, I think, only one obvious typo (‘here’ instead of ‘her’ – I make this one myself sometimes).

This book is a bit Monty Python, a bit I Love Lucy, and a little bit children’s story. The characters are clowns to be laughed at more than they are heroes to be identified with, and it does have some quite funny scenes. I can recommend it for readers looking for an absurd farce that, unlike many in this genre, does not rely on people being drunk or crude to create a humorous situation.

Book Review – Makers by Cory Doctorow

MakersTitle: Makers
Author: Cory Doctorow
Publisher: Tor
First Published: 2009
Science Fiction, (Near Future, Culture)

In an economically struggling America, two good friends, Perry and Lester, invent and sell novelty items made of junk. This places them in the vanguard of the New Work movement, and they ride that wave until it busts in obvious parallel to the bursting of the dot-com bubble. They shake themselves off, and build an ever-changing amusement ride in south Florida. It seems to be catching on, which in turn, catches the attention of a nervous Disney executive concerned about declining attendance at the Disney World attraction he oversees in Orlando.

And that’s pretty much the plot. It’s the story of Perry and Lester, two guys with lots of imagination but not much business sense. They are joined by Suzanne Church, a journalist turned blogger who reports on what they are doing, and by a few other supporting cast members.

Mainly this is a book of social commentary. It highlights contrasts between protecting vested interests and investment in new ideas, open and proprietary technology, and big corporations and small entrepreneurs. It did all of this fairly well, I thought, and the future it paints is somewhat depressing but believable.

The characters are also believable, for the most part. I have only read one other Doctorow novel, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, and the characters in this one are a definite improvement. They aren’t admirable or even especially likeable, but they have understandable motivations and personalities. Even the two characters serving in the role of villains are more pitiable than evil.

The prose is serviceable and the story flows logically. My biggest gripe about the storytelling was the inclusion of a far too descriptive sex scene, which felt like it was cut and pasted out of some steamy erotic romance novel. It wasn’t required, and it didn’t fit. Oh, and it talks about people smoking clove cigarettes, which are no longer legal in the U.S. and I doubt they will be again in the near future. You can still buy small, clove cigars, but they’re not as good. (Yeah, I used to smoke the things.)

Anyway, as a near future tale about two average geeky guys, this isn’t bad. It’s not silly. It doesn’t rant. The characters aren’t cardboard stereotypes, and it brings up some interesting ideas. I can recommend it for readers interested in seeing one possible future that believable extensions of current technology and economic trends make possible.

Related Post: Book Review – Down And Out in the Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow

Book Review – Take the All-Mart by J.I. Greco

TakeTheAll-MartTitle: Take the All-Mart
Author: J.I. Greco
Publisher: Evil Universe
First Published: 2011
Science Fiction, Post Apocalyptic, Humor, Horror (zombies)

This short novel follows the exploits of Trip and Rudy as they roam a post-apocalyptic America in their armored, nuclear-powered, antique Dodge.

The main characters aren’t likeable. They’re thieves and conmen. They’re sexist, sex-obsessed, buffoons who are perpetually high, or drunk, or both. Their only redeeming quality is that they are not worse. They don’t kick puppies, well, not that we know, although one did kick a cat.

They are funny, though, but in a vulgar, base kind of way. They are clowns to be laughed at rather than identified with, and the humor relies on sex, drugs, guns, zombies, and lots of beer. The banter between the characters as they interact with these things can be quite entertaining in a juvenile sort of way.

The setting is imaginative, and there are clever, satirical bits, like the self-expanding mega store used as a weapon that creates zombie associates and shoppers, and the Sisters of No Mercy, nuns who seem to regard sex as a sacrament.

I’m a bit torn about this book. It’s quite good for what it is—crude, juvenile humor. It’s just that this particular type of comedy has limited appeal to me, personally. I tired of it quickly, but I can recommend it for those who like this kind of thing.


Related Post: Book Review – Rocketship Patrol by J.I. Greco

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