Another book I picked up through Lydia Schoch’s weekly Twitter thread of free books. This is a military sci-fi novella, and military sci-fi is one of my favorite genres, so of course I had to check it out!

The book tells the story of Floribeth Salinas O’Shea Dalisay, a deep-space pilot exploring an uncharted system. A stunning discovery and a narrow escape only land her in deeper trouble with the corporation she works for, leaving her with few options, save one that leads her into a series of interstellar fighter battles as part of the Navy of Humanity.

Floribeth (“Beth”) is fun protagonist to root for, and her fellow pilots make for enjoyable sidekicks. At times, I had a little difficulty keeping track of all the secondary characters, so making notes may be helpful. But all of them are entertaining and real, so that’s not really a problem. As long as I’m enjoying the characters, I don’t mind if I have trouble remembering who’s who.

I also had a bit of difficulty visualizing some of the action scenes. Sometimes, trying to picture what deep space combat would actually look like can be a bit daunting. (I had the same problem with the book We Are Legion (We Are Bob.)) That may just be a commentary on the limits of my imagination, though. Overall, I really liked the fast pace and the camaraderie among the pilots. It made me think of Rogue Squadron, which is always a good thing. And the motives of the different corporations and governments are well-thought-out and plausible.

The book is the first in a series, and having read it, I’m eager to read more of these. Fans of sci-fi, or just adventure in general, should definitely give this one a try.

Mark Paxson has often said that he writes in order to see things from other perspectives. The Dime is a great example of this. There are three main characters: Sophie, a teenage girl, now in a wheelchair after the car crash that killed her parents; Lily, her sister, who has been her guardian since turning 18, and Pete, a boy Sophie’s age with a violent alcoholic father and a distant, uncaring mother.

The three are brought together by a chance encounter between Pete and Lily at the Five & Dime where the latter works. Together, they are forced to navigate their difficult circumstances, and confront a lot of personal trauma and pain.

The book is told from the perspectives of all three, supplemented by the voices of secondary characters, such as Pete’s mother, the owner of the Five & Dime, a boyfriend of Lily’s, etc. The book is great at showing multiple people’s perspectives. Often, characters I initially disliked became more understandable once I heard their side of it. Not always likable, but at the very least, pitiable.

This book combines many of the features of Mark’s previous works: the almost poetic character study found in The Irrepairable Past with the many different perspectives and people woven throughout his short stories collected in Shady Acres and The Marfa Lights. Elements of both are in The Dime. It’s a focused portrait of specific characters and also a portrayal of a whole world.

If you like the idea of getting in somebody else’s shoes and walking around a bit, of seeing the world through new eyes, then The Dime is a good book for you. It’s a powerful, emotional, and ultimately uplifting story, told with empathy and thoughtfulness.

One other thing: the book is dedicated to a writer named Zoe Keithley. I’ve only read one of Keithley’s books so far, but it haunts me still, as one of the most emotionally powerful books I’ve ever read. Two of the most memorable pieces of imagery used in The Dime were inspired by her literary techniques, and I can definitely see it, because they have a way of staying with you long after you close the book.

But I won’t say what they are! The Dime is more driven by characters than plot, it’s true; but even so, I wouldn’t want to give away too much about it. You must meet Sophie, Lily, Pete, and the rest for yourself. Inhabit their world; get to know them a bit. What is the point of books, after all, if not to learn to connect with other people?

Sorry, I’m behind schedule. Finding time to read is getting harder lately. 

But, not all is lost for the week! I will give you a peek at what’s on my TBR list. And as a bonus, if any of these books strike your fancy, and you decide to review them, let me know, and I’ll link to your review.

The Dime, by Mark Paxson. I’m reading this right now. I’m about halfway through, and it’s terrific. If you’ve read Paxson’s other books, you have an idea of what to expect: deep characters, lots of emotional trauma and healing, and wonderful prose. I’ll be reviewing it soon.

 

Fire Ant, by Jonathan P. Brazee. I saw this on one of my friend Lydia’s Twitter threads of free books, and it looked cool. 

 

Burke and the Bedouin, by Tom Williams. This has been on my TBR list for months, but I had to read the first book in the series first. If this one is as good as the first, I won’t be able to put it down once I start. 

 

 

A Flight of Broken Wings, by Nupur Chowdhury. This book comes recommended by my friend ESXIII. It looks like a very original sci-fi/fantasy tale.

 

Arctic Snow to Dust of Normandy, by Patrick Dalzel-Job. This is a non-fiction book. It’s a memoir by British Naval Officer Patrick Dalzel-Job, recounting his service in the Second World War. Dalzel-Job is said to have been one of the inspirations for Ian Fleming in creating the character of James Bond, so I’m expecting an exciting read.

These are books I’m hoping to read in the near-ish future. I actually have a lot more on my list, but hey, if I had the time to list them all, I’d have time to write a review this week. 🙂 Anyway, I hope you see something interesting here. With any luck, next week I’ll be back to posting reviews.

I heard of this book thanks to Lydia Schoch’s review. I wasn’t sure what to expect, as it looked like a children’s book.

But it’s not a children’s book, not exactly. It is true that it is about a child’s toy, and one of the major characters is a child. But the book has a few PG-13 words in it, and the drama is more intense than you might expect. It’s about a valiant Teddy Bear fighting to defend his owner from a monster living in his closet, and it’s not played lightly or humorously. Sure, it may sound fanciful, but there’s a grittiness to the way Teddy fights against his sinister enemy. He’s a grizzled veteran of many nightly battles against the creature, and it shows. In short, I loved the character of Teddy Bear.

His nemesis, the monster in the closet, was also brilliantly described: a wraith-like being that assumes different forms. The author did a fantastic job describing just enough to let the reader form a picture, and then fill in the blanks with their imaginations.

The book is very short, but it packs a punch. Anyone who enjoys a good fantasy should check out this story.

“Harrowing” is the best word to describe this fast-paced short story that serves as a prequel to the novel His Name Was Zach. The book is told in first-person, from the point of view of the title character, a young girl whose normal life is interrupted in horrific fashion.

As befitting an introduction to the world of His Name Was Zach, the book is intense and not for the fainthearted. Martuneac does a great job conveying the sheer terror of the speed at which Abby’s world collapses. Some of the techniques he uses in the text are quite ingenious, creating a memorable atmosphere in a brief space.

This is a very short story, and I think it is probably best read as a prologue to the main novel. I had already read the novel before reading this, but even though I knew what would happen, it still pulled me in.

There is one thing about the story that I felt could use a bit of expansion, but I can’t discuss it without major spoilers.  Let’s just say it concerns Abby’s reaction to a very traumatic event. She seems to accept it very quickly, more so than I would have expected. However, this is just my interpretation, and there’s no doubt that different people process traumatic events in different ways. (This is, in fact, one of the major themes of this series.)

I highly recommend this to fans of dark, post-apocalyptic stories. It’s a good intro to a gripping series.

Truly, the more I like a book, the harder it is to review it. I don’t want to give you my second-hand summary of the plot or the setting; I want to take you into this world to see it. Like previous books of Litka’s that I’ve reviewed, Keiree and A Summer in Amber, Beneath The Lanterns instantly enveloped me in its setting.

The world-building that he put into this thing! It’s breathtaking. I can practically feel myself looking out across the Azere steppes under the Yellow Lantern. Read Litka’s posts here and here about how he carefully crafted this setting.

With just a few lines, Litka can suggest a whole world, a whole culture. Most fantasy books with intricate settings have to spend pages and pages on description. Not Litka. As in his paintings (one of which you see on the cover above), he suggests a great deal with but a few strokes. His work reminds me of Joy Spicer’s fantasy novels in that regard. Spare, yet rich.

But what of the characters, you say? Ah, I’m glad you asked! Beneath The Lanterns features a character who instantly became one of my all-time favorites: Ren Loh, the daring, independent and stubborn daughter of the Empress of Jasmyne, who leads the scholarly narrator, Kel Cam, into one wild adventure after another as they flee toward Lankara.

What I like most about Ren Loh is her sheer audacity. Displaying the recklessness characteristic of most heroes, Loh realizes that “fortune favors the bold” and thus is always at her most aggressive when the odds seem most against her. Sometimes her gambles work, sometimes they don’t, but what a great character she is! Of course, I can also sympathize with Kel Cam, who prefers a quiet, ordered life to the sort that Loh leads. I would probably behave much as he does in his situation, which makes him the perfect Boswell for the larger-than-life Lieutenant Loh of the Lancers.

This is a wonderful journey across a fascinating world. A classic romance, in the old-fashioned sense of the word. As Litka describes it on his blog, “It is not an epic, but… about people caught up in the gears of statecraft, whose main concern is personal survival.”

And yet, somehow, it feels epic. I don’t know how to put it exactly, because it is certainly a very personal story, but at the same time it feels momentous, and not just because of Ren Loh’s status in the political machinations, but in some deeper sense. An epic about the human condition, about duty, about freedom… I could go on, but I can’t do it justice. Just read the book already!

Having now read three of Litka’s books and a good many of his blog posts, I have some understanding of his style and his literary philosophy. And all I can say is, the man is a treasure. He writes these wonderful stories, creates these fantastic worlds from nothing, and he does not do it for fame nor money, but simply because he loves it.

Since you are for some reason still here and have not gone out and downloaded the complete works of Chuck Litka, indulge me in a flight of cultural criticism, beginning by way of analogy.

As a teenager, I drank diet soft drinks all the time. As in, multiple cans per day. Diet Dr. Pepper was my favorite. Then, at some point, I read some articles about what’s in soft drinks, and decided to quit cold turkey and drink water instead.

Many years later, I had a diet soft drink again one day, and it tasted disgusting. “How did I ever drink that stuff?” I asked myself.

Our mainstream entertainments are basically the equivalent of diet soft drinks. What else can you say about an entertainment industry that does this, for example? The spark of creative talent is almost entirely obscured by the needs of marketing in this world, leading to endless reboots and spin-offs that all have this shared quality of soullessness.

If you want to wean yourself from these artificially composed concoctions and seek the pure waters of original stories told with wit and charm, know that the spirit of good storytelling is not dead. It lives in Litka, who tells stories for the sheer fun of it, for the love of the storytellers’ art.

Read his books. Read his blog. Look at his paintings. Above all else, be glad that there are people like Litka sharing their work with the world.

This book starts off with the death of a university administrator at a retirement party. A retirement party for a staff member who isn’t there. Not physically, anyway–James Crawford is the guest of honor, but he is monitoring the events remotely. As an IT manager, he is able to watch as his boss abruptly collapses just as he is about to give a speech.

The late boss, Sean Thomas, is not exactly missed by his former subordinates. The title of the book refers to him, and this sentiment is shared widely by the staff. Nevertheless, no matter how much he may have deserved it, there’s still a great deal of suspicion surrounding his death, and when his chief lackey also turns up dead, the provost recruits Crawford to investigate.

Crawford is a likable protagonist; a southern gentleman who takes his time about things, and muses his theories on the case to his dog, Tan, and cat, delightfully called “The Black.” Usually, he does this while preparing a meal, which is described in mouth-watering detail. Sometimes, he meets with his colleagues Stan and Bobby to discuss things, and more than once, the gruff but goodhearted police officer assists him in solving the case.

The book is slow-paced, but that’s not a bad thing at all. It captures the feel of a Southern college campus perfectly, right down to how life in the university town has to be carefully planned around whether the collegiate football team is playing at home that week.

While I enjoyed the denouement, I will say that I pretty much guessed how the mystery would be resolved long before it ended. But that’s okay. This book is more about the journey than the destination, and it’s a fun one. More than a mystery, it’s really about getting to know the character of Crawford, and his reflections on life at the university.

The book even has a theme: centralization and power. This can be seen everywhere from the late Dr. Thomas’s management of the media center, which ends up being critical to the plot, to a minor detail like Crawford’s description of a popular football commentator:

“A couple of years ago, the radio station he’d been on had been bought up by one of those conglomerates that try to homogenize the stations so they all sound the same, from coast to coast. I guess the idea is eliminate any but essential staff, but that kills the local color as well.”

The university’s buying up of the surrounding properties to create a carefully-manicured off-campus “shopping experience” is another example of this. For me, the real fun of the book is hearing Crawford’s sometimes cynical, sometimes sentimental views on the place where he has spent his career.

Another striking thing about the book is the way it shows the university from the perspective of administrators. Students hardly register except as obstacles to be avoided on the drive in. Classes are scarcely mentioned; the world of college administration is a world unto itself.

While the mystery of Thomas’s death gets cleared up, the book ends on a cliffhanger introducing another mystery for Crawford to solve. I’m looking forward to the second book, and recommend this one to anybody who enjoys a nice, leisurely mystery.

Recently, during a chat with the Writers Supporting Writers group, I was talking about Lindy Moone’s novel Hyperlink From Hell. I asserted that as far as I knew, that was the only published work by this author.

Well, clearly I don’t know very much. I thought I remembered looking for other works after reading Hyperlink. And yet, when I looked up Moone’s works recently, I saw this short story, published in 2014. I could have sworn it wasn’t there before, but perhaps I am mad, quite mad. (But at least I don’t sing choruses in public, yet.) Anyway, if you haven’t already pegged me as having all the reliability of an average Lovecraft protagonist, maybe you should start now.

But one point on which I want to be crystal clear is that this story is excellent.  It’s a short story, very short; but the setting is so evocative it instantly captured me. The mysterious town of Fogland, full of odd things and odd people, and one raven with a “screech impediment.” This is the second book I’ve read this year involving a mysterious raven who brings warnings to unsuspecting characters. It’s a trope that always works.

In addition to the bird, we have a newlywed French couple moving to their new home in Fogland, a shady realtor, and an impertinent little girl. How does it all fit together? Well, I’m not telling. Besides, you wouldn’t believe me. I’ve already led you astray once regarding the very existence of books by Lindy Moone.  Why don’t you instead go pick it up and read it yourself? It will only a take a few minutes, and fans of short fiction and weird stories with twist endings (think The Twilight Zone) are sure to like it. Besides, the cover is simply gorgeous!

This is a science fiction adventure story, but not the sort that Vogel usually writes. Most of his books, such as his Scout series, feature upstanding, chivalrous heroes on noble adventures. Fortune’s Fool is different. It’s darker and grittier, and less romantic. (In the literary sense.) Whereas most of Vogel’s protagonists are honorable, duty-bound types, Mark Fortune is more of an anti-hero. Think James Bond as portrayed by Sean Connery, or Han Solo early on, before his mercenary heart softens.

Actually, the first Star Wars is a good comparison for this book in more ways than one. In addition to a ragtag band including a scoundrel, his powerful, lumbering sidekick, and a beautiful woman with an acerbic wit, there’s a huge floating fortress they need to destroy.

The book is fast-paced and violent. There’s a lot of banter in combat, which is not necessarily something I’m a fan of, although I will admit some of the lines made me chuckle. Sometimes the action moves so fast, it was hard to keep track of where it was all taking place. But it was certainly intense and exciting. I especially enjoyed Fortune’s reliance on an archaic firearm instead of an energy blaster.

In broad outlines, it’s not too different from a Scout book: hero finds himself on a strange world, and must fight to survive and save a beautiful woman. But the devil is in the details. One can’t imagine the hero of a Scout book speaking to a princess the way Fortune speaks to Alis. Moreover, Fortune is quite ruthless and definitely not one to fight fair, although there are signs that he’s not quite as brutal as he would like people to believe.

Then of course there are the villains, who are an altogether nasty bunch of folks. The main antagonist, Maelon, definitely deserves to have someone like Fortune opposing him.

All told, it’s a fast-paced and exciting story. I enjoyed it for the most part, although there’s no denying some parts were quite dark. Vogel was well aware this book is a departure from his usual style, so much so that it was initially published under a pen name. I can understand this, as it would be a shock for fans of his lighter works to find themselves in this world of cruelty, cynicism, and a good many four-letter words. But as long as you’re prepared for that, Fortune’s Fool is a good read.

This is the third and final book in the Cassie Black series. If you’ll recall my review of Book Two, I didn’t want to go into too much detail for fear of spoiling Book One. And so now, I face the same problem doubled, because to describe the setting of this book risks spoiling the first two.

Hmm, what to do? Well, I think I’ll start by talking about an element of these books that I neglected previously: the food. To power her magical abilities, Cassie needs lots of sweets, and eats a steady diet of delicious foods throughout the series. I love Painter’s descriptions of her meals. In fact, the one that sounded best of all to me was a description of a salad in this book. Reading this series is sure to whet your appetite.

As for the rest of it? Well, Cassie is snarky as ever, and her sarcastic voice stays with her even into her final confrontation with the arch-villain. The supporting characters are once again enjoyable, and I was especially pleased with how the character arc of the ghostly Tower Warder Nigel turned out.

All told, this is a fun series for readers who enjoy fantasy adventures that don’t take themselves too seriously. Painter’s magical world is entertaining and populated with plenty of amusing characters. The Untangled Cassie Black is a fitting way to wrap it up.