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Books and a Washer

This has been another fun-filled week for this old, retired guy. The one decidedly un-fun highlight was that another Whirlpool repairman tried and failed to fix my washing machine, which broke over six weeks ago. Since the 1-year warranty doesn’t say how long the manufacturer can take to fix it, I’ve been stuck without one while they try to get the parts they need. (I’ve blogged about this a few times as my frustration has grown.)

I also finished reading a few books last week. Two were mysteries set in 1958 and 1959 London. I gave a 3-star rating to both on Goodreads. They weren’t bad but not ones I’d highly recommend.

Marion Lane and the Midnight Murder by T.A. Willberg

1958 London. An apprentice private investigator for an underground (literally) organization stumbles upon several secrets as she tries to discover who among her coworkers has committed a brutal and seemingly inexplicable murder inside their own secret lair. The recipe for this story starts with a mix of classic Agatha Christie, adds a touch of cozy mystery, a good helping of Harry Potter, and a pinch of James Bond. It may be a bit underdone, but it’s really not too bad. I cant say I was taken by any of the characters, and sometimes their actions and motivations had my scratching my head, but it’s a fine historical mystery written in a classic style.

Marion Lane and the Deadly Rose by T.A. Willberg

1959 London. There’s been a mysterious murder. Miss Brickett’s secret underground detective agency is investigating, but it may have been infiltrated by, well, someone untrustworthy. And someone within the organization is rabble-rousing. Marion lane, apprentice detective, finds herself in the middle of things.

This second book in the series is much like the first. It reads like an old YA mystery (Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, that kind of thing) with a bit of Harry Potter thrown in, but none of the characters are under 20 years old. I can’t say any of them stand out. Actually, neither the good guys or the bad guys come across as especially competent or clever, and their plans and plots often seem to rely heavily on serendipity. There are some cool (albeit unlikely) gadgets and gizmos, including some battery tech that would be impressive even today.


I also read a pretty good nonfiction book about people losing their ability to focus their attention. I gave this one 4 stars and wrote a fairly long review. I won’t share all of that here, but you can see it on either Goodreads or the Avery Slom Philosophical Laboratory site if you are so inclined.

Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention- and How to Think Deeply Again by Johann Hari

Are we losing our ability to focus? Is it harder now than in the past to pay attention to things? If so, do our work habits, lifestyle, diet, environment, and (especially) social media habits have anything to do with this? The author of this book, a writer and journalist who has consulted with experts in the field of behavioral science, believes the answer to all these questions is “Yes,” and although he brings up many valid points, I’m not convinced he’s entirely right. I think the real problem may be something else. It’s not that we can’t focus, it’s that our basic human instincts are being exploited to manipulate our behavior. A side effect of this is that our focus gets diverted.

You can see the rest of this review here https://philosophylaboratory.wordpress.com/2022/05/18/stolen-focus/ or here https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/4731524969

Last, but not least, I finished the sixth book in the Skullduggery Pleasant Series. I rated this one 4 subjective stars and would recommend it because it’s fun.

Death Bringer by Derek Landy

The necromancers are nurturing a Death Bringer to bring about a better world, but “better” can be a matter of opinion, and what necromancers see as better may not be what most others see as better. Meanwhile, another group is trying to reestablish the Church of the Faceless Ones. Why anyone would want gods like these is difficult to imagine, but some people seem to have a deep need for that kind of thing. And while Skulduggery and Valkyrie are dealing with these threats, both are hiding an inner darkness and very powerful magic, which they are doing their best to suppress. Adding to and slightly complicating these things are a couple of inept zombies for comic relief.
This is another fast paced and extremely entertaining episode in the continuing adventures of the Skeleton Detective and his (still) teenage apprentice. Like the previous books, it is a fest of witty banter and wordplay that sometimes had me laughing out loud. It has it’s dark moments, and the characters (even the “good” ones) can be unpleasantly snarky, inconsiderate, and rude, at times, but these flaws do not dominate their personalities. They still come off as fairly likeable.

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Dark Days (Skulduggery Pleasant, #4)

The weather has been lovely here in Florida, and I really should be going outside. Actually, I should be doing yard work (weeding, mowing, that kind of stuff), but I really don’t enjoy any of that. I do enjoy reading, though, so here’s another short book review.

Dark Days by Derek Landy

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The skeletal detective is trapped in the dimension of the Faceless Ones, and Valkyrie (his teenage assistant) thinks she’s figured out how to get him out. She’s not getting any official help with this, of course. In fact, it seems as if that Thurid Guild (the Grand Mage) and the entire Irish Sanctuary (like the regional Magic HQ) don’t want him back. Meanwhile, Valkyrie’s being recruited by a necromancer who seems all right, but who really knows with sorcerers into all that dead stuff? Also, there’s a temporary alliance of outlaw psychopath sorcerers who are seeking vengeance on Skullduggery, Valkyrie, the Grand Mage, and the Sanctuary in general.
This is another unpretentious fun fantasy adventure with likeable characters. I found it a highly enjoyable light read. So, on to book #5.

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The Faceless Ones (Skulduggery Pleasant #3)

The chronicle of my retirement life continues with a short review of The Faceless Ones by Derek Landy

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Teleporters are being murdered. (These are people who can do what a Star Trek transporter does but without the transporter.) Who is killing them and why are the questions skeletal detective Skullduggery Pleasant and his teenage assistant Valkyrie Cain tackle in this third full length novel in the series. Given the title, I don’t suppose it’s a spoiler to say it all has to do with bringing about the return of the Faceless Ones.
This, like the others I’ve read so far, is an enjoyable adventure. It has lots of witty banter and loads of “action” (i.e. superpower hand-to-hand fighting). The characters are distinct and pleasantly quirky, and the plot makes about as much sense as any other fantasy story. It’s a good, quick read. I quite enjoyed it. So, on to the next book in the series….

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Playing With Fire (Skullduggery Pleasant #2)

I spend a lot of my retirement reading, so, it’s time for another book review. My copy of this one is part of a 9-book boxed set that I bought recently. I think I got a very good deal. It originally sold for £71.91, which equates to about $90.00 US. I paid $58.83. I’m not sure why I’m sharing that, but I do love a bargain. (It’s probably not healthy, but I base a fair amount of my diet around what’s on BOGO sale (buy one get one free) at the supermarket.)

Playing with Fire by Derek Landy

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The skeleton detective and his teenage apprentice are back for their second adventure together. This time, they need to stop a sorcerer from bringing back the Faceless Ones (like a bunch of evil gods). Unfortunately, he has minions, magic armor, and possibly an ally (or at least an informant) in the local magical law enforcement organization. The good guys are fun. The bad guys are thoroughly despicable. There’s lots nasty villainous types, loads of witty banter, and several (sometimes too prolonged) superpower fight scenes. This series doesn’t pretend to be great literature. Actually, it doesn’t take itself very seriously at all, which I quite appreciate. My taste in fantasy leans heavily to the light side. This doesn’t have the kinds of insights or real world relevance you often find in a Terry Pratchett novel (for example), but it’s still a quite enjoyable read.


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The God of Lost Words (Hell’s Library, #3)

The God of Lost Words by A.J. Hackwith

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Stories have power, which demons crave, which is why Hell’s library is under assault. First, they come for the Arcane wing; next, the Unwritten Branch. The only way to save it, may be to change it, to get other wings of the Library, which are hosted by other afterlife realms, to join them to break free. But to do that, they need a guide, a realm, and a god, and those are in very short supply. In fact, no one has seen an actual god in quite some time.

This is a marvelous fantasy story that reads like a modern creation myth. The characters are delightful and their friendships are inspiring. When I finished reading this final book of the trilogy last night, I experienced something reminiscent of the “Oh, that was wonderful!” feeling I often got at the end of a Terry Pratchett story. That’s a rare thing, indeed. Nicely done, Hackwith. Much appreciated.

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The Library of the Unwritten

The Library of the Unwritten by A.J. Hackwith

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s been said that everyone has a book in them, a story only they can write, and although the vast majority of these remain unwritten, all are shelved in a library in Hell. Claire is spending her afterlife as its librarian, presumably for her sins. It’s become something of a routine job for her until an unwritten book escapes and she goes to Earth to retrieve it, and she is then confronted by a fallen angel who mistakenly assumes she’s there for something else entirely, which turns out to be true, although she didn’t know it at the time.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable tale. It reminds me of Pratchett and Gaiman’s Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch in that it’s fairly witty, imaginative, has a certain charm, and features mythological characters from the Abrahamic religions and gives them a bit of personality. I found it to be a very good read.



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Until the Last of Me

Until the Last of Me by Sylvain Neuvel

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I like to succinctly summarize the main plot of a story for these short reviews, but this one is a bit tough. Anyway, for what it’s worth….
There are two hereditary lines of alien beings of the same species living on Earth. Each is represented by only one “family.” They’ve been here for about 3,000 years. One is male and wants to bring the aliens to Earth, and the other is female and wants to prevent that in order to save humans. (I think it’s actually about human nature and gender and such, but I don’t want to presume or analyze. That can take all the fun out of a story.) Some chapters are from the male perspective, and focus on dark and destructive instincts. They think the female line has some kind of transmitter that will call the rest of their alien species to come here and invade the planet, and they really want to get their hands on it. The female line stresses protection and progress. The female goal is to “take them to the stars,” meaning that they are subtly attempting to get humans to understand and venture out into the wider universe. How this might prevent an alien invasion wasn’t clear to me, and I had other questions, but all in all, I really like this book. Mainly this is because of the underlying hope in human potential that resonates with it but also because of all the embedded history of science type stories it includes. Actually, I think my favorite chapter was the nonfiction “Further Reading” bit at the end. If you’re a fan of stories about human progress and the history of science, you may really like this series.



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A Stainless Steel Trio

A Stainless Steel Trio by Harry Harrison

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


An exceptionally bright young man with an understandable distrust of authority has few career options. His ethical sensibilities, while arguably laudable, are a bit outside the norm, which makes him unsuitable for most “normal” vocations. So, he turns to a life of crime. Adventure ensues….
This edition contains the first three Stainless Steel Rat stories: A Stainless Steel Rat is Born, The Stainless Steel Rat Gets Drafted, and The Stainless Steel Rat Sings the Blues. Set 32,000 years into the future, in which humans have spread throughout the galaxy and Earth has been forgotten, these read like traditional space operas. They may be a bit dated in that it’s sometimes hard to imagine space faring societies without something like cell phones, or people still using physical coins for money, but many of the planets in this vision of the future suffered cultural and technological collapse, so maybe they never reinvented much digital tech. But, regardless of all that, I found this book a very enjoyable read. Maybe I was just in the mood for something like this, but it sure hit the spot. It’s witty, clever, and sometimes even wise. It’s doesn’t quite have the charm of a Pratchett book, but I can recommend it to Pratchett readers.

I’m sure I’ve read these books before, but I only vaguely recalled them. I grabbed this collection from my local library. Sadly, they have no others in the series. I may have to see if I can find them elsewhere.

The only negative thing I have to say is that the cover really doesn’t reflect the stories, but you can’t judge a book by its cover.



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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?

No?

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

SpaceBetween

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
Genre:
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
Author:
Dermot Davis
Publisher:
Dermot Davis
First Published:
2013
Genre:
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
Publisher:
Wyrdstar Books
First Published:
2012
Genre:
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
Genre:
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
Author: http://www.andyclose.co.uk/
Publisher: Andy Close
First Published: 2013
Genre:
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
Author:
David A. Lindsay
Publisher:
David A. Lindsay
First Published:
2012
Genre:
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
Publisher:
Stray Pubishing
First Published:
2011
Genre:
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.

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