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Book Review – The Lady Astronomer by Katy O’Dowd

LadyAstronomerTitle: The Lady Astronomer
Author: Katy O’Dowd
Publisher: Untold Press
First Published: 2012
Genre:
Science Fiction / Fantasy / Steampunk / Young Adult

Lucretia makes hats. She also assists her brother, a noted astronomer. Her other brother is an inventor. Their lives change when they are summoned to build a large telescope for the king. There are setbacks. There is some rather nasty court intrigue. There is a bit of romance. There are also a couple of far too clever animals, impossible clockwork automatons, seven hardworking short guys and their giant of a boss, and, well, a supporting cast of characters, all with exaggerated quirkiness, which lets you know that this story is not to be taken seriously — at least not on the surface. It is supposed to be fun, and it is.

The characters and the prose style of this charming little book give it the feel of a children’s story from early in the last century, something along the lines of Alice in Wonderland or Winnie the Pooh. Today, I think it would be appropriately categorized as Young Adult Steampunk with a touch of fantasy. The steampunk element is provided by the quasi-Victorian tech, such as clockwork automatons and Lucretia’s eyepiece. The fantasy bit comes from the use of living things as ‘animators’ for clockwork mechanisms and from the unbelievable intelligence of Lucretia’s animal companions. It all works together well in the story, though.

It does commit the one, single most unforgivable transgression that I’ve seen now in a few steampunk novels. At one point, it has one of the mechanisms wind itself. I admit that I may be being inconsistent in my capacity for suspending disbelief. For the sake of a good, humorous story, I’m perfectly willing to accept that a potted plant can animate a mechanical butler, but a clockwork bird CANNOT wind itself by flapping its wings. Sorry, but that just crosses my credulity line. I’m willing to overlook it this time, but please don’t let it happen again.

The scenes, especially at the beginning, were sparsely sketched, making it difficult to visualize or even to be sure what was happening or why much of the time. There were also a few minor technical issues with word usage and punctuation, I think, but I only noticed one obvious typo (‘smiled’ instead of ‘smile’).

On the whole, I found this book well-written, adequately edited, and quite enjoyable. I recommend it for readers of all ages. It is the kind of light and charming story that is perfect to fill a rainy afternoon.

Book Review – Zoe’s Tale by John Scalzi

My Rating: 5 Stars

This is essentially the same story as told in ‘The Last Colony’ but from a different point of view. So why would I give it five stars? Simply because it is done so well. It caught my interest, made me smile, jerked my emotions, and reintroduced me to people and places that I became well acquainted with in Scalzi’s other ‘An Old Man’s War’ books.

Technically, this should probably be considered a Young Adult novel because of the teenage protagonist. There is nothing wrong with this. Other authors (myself included) have written YA spinoffs set in the same world and with overlapping characters from their adult novels. This, however, is not a spinoff. This is the same story related in ‘The Last Colony’ but from the perspective of John’s and Jane’s adopted daughter, Zoe. She was a great minor character in previous books and an exceptional protagonist in this one, which is told in first person, giving us insights into how she deals with being an orphan, the adopted daughter of the colony leaders of the planet Roanoke, and something like a goddess to the alien species known as the Obin.

The aspect of the book that feels a bit unnatural is some of the dialogue between Zoe and her friends. They are almost too witty, and Zoe and her friend Gretchen have more self-confidence than seems likely for two teenage girls. Of course, they are not normal teenagers. After all, who wants to read about hormonally powered, angst driven, girls whose major concern is how to attract a boyfriend? … Oh, right. Those. Do yourself a favor and read this instead. Zoe has angst, she has hormones, she even has a boyfriend, but she also has intelligence, common sense, and wisdom beyond her years.

Scalzi has become one of my favorite authors, and I would love to see more stories set in this universe he has created. How does Roanoke fare? How does the Colonial Union deal with the Conclave? Do they join them? Do they oppose them? Is the C.U. overthrown? And what about Earth? It’s an interesting world and there are many more story possibilities here. If he does continue with this thread, though, it will leave him with less time for his other writing, which would be a shame. Perhaps he could be cloned…

Cover Update

After spending far more time on this than I wished, I think I finally have a cover I can live with for the paperback edition of The Warden Threat. I thought I had this several times before, but I received multiple comments that previous versions looked too much like a Photo-shopped photograph (among other things). I hope this one overcomes that. Anyway, here it is. I welcome comments.

You may notice –how could you help not– that the title is in large font and bright colors. This is mainly so that it will show up well as a thumbnail, but it is also meant to convey that this book contains humor. The scene depicted, although not accurately, is one from about the middle of the book in which the protagonist, Prince Donald of Westgrove, is trying to animate the ancient and mysterious statue known as the Warden of Mystic Defiance. It sits high in the mountains of the neighboring Kingdom of Gotrox in a crater-like canyon with silvered walls. He is naked because the “spell” he has found, which he believes is the means to bring this huge enigmatic artifact to life and obey the commands of the caster, specifies that a prince, “naked to the Warden’s love,” must recite it. After his first failed attempt, Prince Donald reluctantly concludes that this line must be taken literally.

In other news, my edits and revisions of this book are now done. I would like to do one more proofreading before it goes to print, however. Look for the revised ebook in the next couple of months and the paperback shortly thereafter. The cover for the ebook will be pretty much the same as the front cover of the paperback.

I’m in the middle of editing and revising the sequel, The Warden War. I don’t have a cover for this one yet but I’ve been corresponding with the cover artist, and I am optimistic about it. I sent some files to her yesterday for her consideration.

The first draft of my third book is complete and awaiting additional work until I’ve put the first two to bed. It is more Young Adult oriented with a younger protagonist. She is briefly mentioned in the previous books but this is her first appearance. Some of the characters from the first books appear in it as well though. The third book is more clearly science fiction and reveals more about the now defunct commercial enterprise established on this planet several thousand years ago by the Galactic Organic Development Corporation. I have not decided, but I am considering attempting to go the traditional publishing route with this one. Self-publishing may be more advantageous to authors, but it is a lot more work, and these extra duties take time away from what I really want to do, which is write more stories.

Why are good books so hard to find?

   This post is mainly a call for help but I hope it will also provide others ways of looking at fiction that may help them better define the types of books that would appeal to them.

I love to read but even with the exponential expansion of available fiction, I still have a hard time finding new books that really appeal to me. My tastes are apparently somewhat outside the norm.

I was reminded of this recently when I sent out a call for help on Twitter. This is what I said:

I’m looking for a good 99¢ indie ebook novel similar in tone and mood with Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books. Any suggestions?

I sent a few other Tweets in the same vein over the next few hours. Eventually a kindly Tweeter responded with a recommendation for a book by an indie writer that he was offering for free on Smashwords. It was a promotion to gain readers for the other books in the series. Great! Maybe there was a whole series of new books I would like.

I downloaded it. Last night I opened it on my Kindle and began to read.

It opened with a war scene full of action and seemingly mindless violence. This is normally a big turnoff for me but the Tweeter recommended it so I continued to read. Well, I thought, maybe it would get better. The nonstop action continued. I scanned ahead and there seemed to be no end of blood and brutality and nothing that indicated the book would eventually appeal to me and none that it bore any similarity to the wonderful books by Sir Terry Pratchett. I closed it and opened up my copy of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol mainly because I hadn’t yet moved it from my Kindle to my computer hard drive. Today I made an emergency visit to the library.

Now I know there are many people who thrive on nonstop action and I’m sure they would have not been able to put a book like this down. I just don’t happen to be one of them. To explain why not can be the subject of a later post but the short answer is that it ultimately comes down to a matter of taste. I find action by itself dull and uninteresting. I need to know about the characters first and there has to be something I find admirable about them before they are put in peril in order for me to care about their fate. Otherwise they are no different than those they are in conflict with. This is actually the same reason I was never a sports fan. I could never find a good reason to care which team won. The action isn’t enough. The game for the game’s sake isn’t enough. I need a reason to not only prefer one side over the other but also something to admire about the chosen side; something which their opponent either lacks or is opposed to.

I know this is out of the ordinary but that’s my point. With all the new indie authors publishing now you’d think some would be writing books that are not modeled on currently popular mainstream fiction and that there would be some that appeal to whatever niche you might find yourself in. I’m sure there are some out there for mine. Finding them is the problem.

So that is why I am asking for your help. I want to find more books to read and enjoy and I’m hoping some of you might know of some that suite my particular reading preference niche.

The following list should provide some indication of my personal tastes. Breaking out your tastes and preferences in a similar fashion may help you define and find new books you will like.

  • Genre – I prefer Science Fiction although Fantasy is a close second. Mysteries and “literary fiction” can also be good if they share several of the other traits listed here. The target audience can be either adults or young adults. I find that YA books are often the most enjoyable. Within these genres, books that include insightful cultural satire are the most appealing.
  • Mood – The mood is the overall feeling you get from a book. If you feel an emotion when you finish a book, the author has effectively conveyed a mood. I prefer books with positive moods such as, fanciful, happy, hopeful, idealistic, intellectual, joyful, or optimistic. If a book provokes a smile from me in the first twenty pages, that is a big plus. (You can find out more on mood here if you wish: Beyond Genre – Tone And Mood)
  • Tone – The way the mood is expressed by the attitude of the author is the tone. It can also be thought of as part of the author’s style or voice. Tone reflects the author’s attitude toward the story, the characters in it, as well as toward the reader. The books I prefer tend to carry a prevailing tone that is amused, cheerful, humorous, ironic, lighthearted, optimistic, playful, satirical, or witty. (You can find out more on tone at the same link as above.)
  • Theme – I tend to especially like books with an implied message of personal and/or cultural progress and discovery.
  • Characters – There should be something admirable about the protagonist and his, her or its allies. They should be ethically and philosophically superior examples of humanity, even if they don’t happen to be human. This could be because they are unbiased, kindhearted, caring, nurturing, empathetic, or several other positive traits. This is what makes me care about what happens to them and makes me sure that their goals deserve to prevail. It also helps if the main character is intellectually above the norm. Those who are bright, analytical, observant, inquisitive, insightful or skeptical are especially appealing.
  • Fantastic Creatures – If the story is a fantasy and includes such things as vampires, zombies, ghosts, or other supernatural or mythical beings, I prefer a certain amount of humor and satire in how these creatures are portrayed. I can suspend disbelief for the sake of a story and pretend such things can exist but it is more enjoyable if the tone of the book conveys that I’m not expected to.

So now know more about my taste in books than you ever wanted to. Thanks for letting me share. I have one more favor to ask. If you know of books that you think meet my somewhat peculiar taste by authors I have not listed below, please let me know either as a comment here or on Twitter.

These are some of the writers I know of who have written books that met the minimum threshold of my exacting standards.

  • Douglas Adams (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy)
  • Piers Anthony (Xanth Series – These are almost too silly but can be fun to read.)
  • Robert Asprin (Myth and Phule Series)
  • Kage Baker (Company Series – a bit too much romance but not bad.)
  • Terry Brooks (Magic Kingdom of Landover Series)
  • Lois McMaster Bujold (Miles Series)
  • Eoin Colfer (Artemis Fowl Series)
  • Peter David (Apropos of Nothing Series)
  • L. Sprague de Camp (The Reluctant King)
  • Gordon R. Dickson (The Dragon Knight Series and others)
  • Jasper Fforde
  • Cornelia Funke (Inkheart)
  • Neil Gaiman
  • Craig Shaw Gardner
  • William Goldman (The Princess Bride – one of my favorites.)
  • Tom Holt (Some of his are good, others I didn’t much care for.)
  • Jim C. Hines (The Goblin Series was especially fun.)
  • Fritz Leiber
  • Gregory Maguire (Wicked was enjoyable. The others, not so much.)
  • Lee Martinez (Usually his books are a hoot.)
  • Jack McDevitt (Alex Benedict Series)
  • Martin Millar (The Good Fairies of New York)
  • K.E. Mills (A bit verbose but not bad.)
  • John Moore
  • Grant Naylor (Red Dwarf)
  • Terry Pratchett (My favorite writer by far. Fortunately a prolific one.)
  • Philip Pullman (His Dark Materials)
  • Robert Rankin
  • Rick Riordan
  • Spider Robinson
  • J. K. Rowling
  • John Scalzi (Fuzzy Nation)
  • Martin Scott (Thraxas)

Thanks and happy reading.

Related Posts:

On Digital Books And The Evolution Of Genre Fiction

Beyond Genre – Novels And Emotional Needs

Beyond Genre – Tone And Mood

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