This is a deeply strange book. It is set in an alternate future in which the Roman Empire still exists, and has evolved into a starfaring civilization. There is also a strong mystical element involving something called the Godstream, which is evidently some powerful, magical energy which grants great power.

And of course, as in the original Roman Empire, there are political machinations aplenty as various noblemen and women scheme for power. There are betrayals heaped upon betrayals, and ever-shifting alliances.

The first half of the book I admit was pretty dense, with lots of world-building I found hard to understand. It may just be my own literal mindedness; but I initially struggled to form a clear picture of what was happening. I did get strong Dune vibes, though, which is on balance a good thing. (Maybe with the exception of imitating Frank Herbert’s technique of frequent italicized thoughts to deliver exposition. But hey, if it worked for Herbert, it can’t be all bad.)

The second half of the book turned into more of a classic adventure type story. If not for the occasional references to philosophy and mysticism, I practically would have thought I was reading a Henry Vogel novel. There is a brave hero fleeing from two competing groups of villains, a beautiful slave woman he rescues in the process, and a wild battle in a gladiatorial arena.

This gladiator scene was the highlight of the book for me. The star is the gladiator Deimos. It’s the only chapter he’s in out of the entire book, but he has a complete story arc in that one chapter.

After that, there’s more mysticism, although it seems less esoteric this time, and more intrigue, back-stabbing, and a final battle. The ending feels satisfying, even though there were still some things I didn’t fully grok.

What to make of this book? Well, at times it was heavy-going. Partly, that’s because of all the Latin terms the author uses to create the setting. I liked this, but at the same time, it made it hard to keep track of who was who. Those more familiar with Roman naming customs may not find this to be a problem.

Then there’s also the mysticism element. I think the author was trying to make a point about philosophy, or maybe even about the nature of divinity, but I admit I couldn’t tell what it was. Again, that might be indicative of my own lack of understanding rather than a problem with the book.

Overall, I found it a tough but ultimately rewarding read. If you like deep sci-fi, with some adventure elements thrown in, I think you’ll enjoy it.

[Audio version of this post available below.]

There is of course a powerful recency bias that is well-documented, but offhand, this may be the funniest book I’ve ever read. It’s certainly up there. Even when reading a really funny book, I rarely laugh out loud. I laughed out loud multiple times per chapter reading this.

I could try to give you a plot summary, but it just wouldn’t do justice to this madcap epic. Basically, there’s a mysterious virus that gives geese human-like intelligence and the ability to talk. This results in tensions between the world’s human and geese populations, culminating in two wars.

If this sounds insane; well, yeah, it is. But it’s a comedy! And that’s just the setup. The titular goose finder is a man named Harlan. Harlan is a gruff, hard, Clint Eastwood type of character, seeking to avenge the death of his brother in the Goose Wars by finding and killing every goose he can. He’s hired by a toaster tycoon to find (but not kill) one specific goose.

It just gets wilder from there. There’s a mad scientist building a time machine, a desert sorcerer, an old sea captain, a ruthless goose general, a couple of infatuated hackers… the list goes on. It’s totally crazy, and I loved every word of it. Each chapter had me laughing harder than the last.

I think humor is probably the hardest genre to recommend, because it is so dependent on personal taste. With a romance book, for example, everyone has a fairly similar general idea of what a romance should be like, and so even if it’s not to their taste, they still can tell what it was supposed to be. But with humor, you either think it’s funny or you don’t. If you don’t, then you’re just going to be like, “What the hell did I just read?”

But it’s a chance worth taking. Not everyone is going to get it, but the people who do get it are going to love it. This book was recommended to me by Noah Goats himself, a master of comic novels, and I’m so glad he told me about it. It’s an absolute hoot.

I try not to quote too much from the books I review, but for this one, I’m going to give you a few of my favorite lines. If you laugh at them, it probably means you need to read this.

“Some of the toughest bastards in the world had marched into City Hall to renew a fishing license only to come out deeply changed, haunted by the feeling that something had been taken from them.”

Here is one of the two besotted hackers, describing how they started dating:

“We met at an anarchy convention, which turned out to be a disaster. Horribly organized.”

Then there is one of the scientist’s speeches, which I actually found moving as well as funny:

“Why do things die? That’s just idiotic… it’s okay when bad things die, like spiders and naked mole rats, but not things like cats, dogs, or people. Especially people. People shouldn’t die, and it’s stupid that they do. It really creams my corn, I don’t mind telling you.”

Maybe none of that makes you even begin to think about the possibility of chuckling inwardly. If so, you should probably skip this. But if it makes you laugh, like me, then you should pick it up.

Underneath all the humor, there is actually a bit of a message about understanding and empathizing with those who are different. It’s not heavy-handed at all, but just a nice touch that makes the whole story feel essentially good-hearted.

A final note: there is some mild violence in the book that might be upsetting to some readers. It’s nothing graphic or explicit. It’s the literary equivalent of the violence in movies like Airplane! or Monty Python and the Holy Grail in terms of realism.

However, because this is a comedy, I feel an obligation to say something. Again, this is another thing that makes recommending a comedy tricky. One person’s hilarious joke may evoke uncomfortable memories for someone else. Unlike with, say, horror, where you can reasonably anticipate reading things that are horrific, I hate the idea of recommending a comedy to someone and having them instead find something about it upsetting, however benign it may appear to me. Particularly because it can be especially disturbing when something you take seriously is treated humorously.

This is a roundabout way of saying, if violence against geese, or gunfights, or grenades, are upsetting to you, this book might not be for you. If you want to know more about these details of the book, please feel free to email or DM me on Twitter. I’m happy to discuss.

[Audio version of this post available below.]

This is a literary novel about a young woman named Faby who lives in Vermont in the 1920s. Faby is obsessed with vaudeville acts that come to town. Every year, she attends with her sister and relishes watching the different acts.

One performer in particular who catches her eye is a dancer called Slim White, who bills himself as “America’s Favorite Hoofer.” Faby catches his eye as well, and after a quick fling one evening, Faby becomes pregnant. White, whose real name is Louis Kittell, seems willing to do the right thing and marries her, and the newlyweds start off on a trip across the Eastern United States, as Kittell moves from one town to another performing in various shows.

Normally, what I’ll find most memorable about a book is either the plot or the characters. I’ve just described about 80% of the plot, saving one semi-twist near the end, and while it’s certainly fine, it wasn’t what grabbed me.

As for the characters: Faby starts out as a naive girl, barely more than a child, and while it’s easy to feel pity for the situation she finds herself in, she’s a very passive type. Things happen to her, rather than her doing them.

And then we’ve got Louis: he’s basically a con man. A charming con man, to be sure, (think Robert Preston in The Music Man, or Burt Lancaster in The Rainmaker) but still ultimately a con man. It quickly becomes clear to Faby that he lies routinely and often for no apparent reason. Given this, many of his later actions are not really surprising. He’s not an absolutely terrible person, and he does in some sense care for Faby, but he’s far from being a good guy, and much of the book is just waiting for the inevitable in that regard.

But even though the characters weren’t the most likable folks in the world, and the plot is straightforward, I recommend this book strongly to fans of literary fiction. There are two reasons: one, the writing is just beautiful. It reminds me of Mark Paxson’s, and his mentor, Zoe Keithley’s, knack for crafting gorgeous paragraphs that really make you feel what the characters are feeling. For that reason alone, this is worth picking up.

The other reason is the setting. The author clearly spent a lot of time researching the culture, the fashions, the technology, and the slang of the 1920s, and it paid off in a big way. And I loved all the references to vaudeville. Louis may be a lying scoundrel, but I can’t deny that his little tidbits about the vaudeville life are enjoyable.

There are numerous references to many then-famous performers, including a brief mention of Elsie Janis. Janis is little-remembered today, but she was known as “The Sweetheart of the American Expeditionary Force” for her benefit shows in World War I. (She also hailed from my own stomping grounds of Central Ohio.  I once lived in an apartment built more or less on the site of her Columbus home.)

As you can tell from the above, I love history, and this book is like stepping into a time machine to a bygone era. I’ve read a decent amount of historical fiction, but it’s rare to find something that transports you so completely to another era. That, combined with the wonderful prose, are what make Telling Sonny memorable.

[Audio version of this post available below.]

This is a classic space-opera style adventure. The protagonist, a starfarer or “starfer” named Riel Dunbar finds himself with a night of leave on his homeworld of Isvalar, a world home to an active nightlife. He meets up with another starfer, an adventurous soul named Cera Marn, and is quickly swept up with the roguish Marn into one wild escapade after another.

Basically, if you’ve enjoyed the other Litka books I’ve reviewed, it’s a safe bet you’ll like this one. There are fights with gangs of thugs reminiscent of Keiree, and Marn herself reminded me more than a little of Ren Loh, the daring, often inconsiderate and rebellious noblewoman from Beneath the Lanterns. She even uses Loh’s signature line, “Pff!” when dismissing our more risk-averse protagonist’s concerns. And of course, against his better judgment, he goes along with her. I can’t blame him; I’d do the same.

At times, I found the action a little hard to follow. There are so many new worlds, characters, and technologies packed into such a short book that it made my head spin a bit. But, that didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the overall tale. I liked Marn a lot, and she’s really what makes this story flow. Even if she turns out to be not quite what she appeared at first, I found her an entertaining character.

This is a novella, originally published on Kindle Vella, and the ending leaves room for plenty more adventures. I wouldn’t mind spending more time in the world Litka has created here, with its inter-gang turf wars and neuro-blade fights. It’s just a good old fashioned throwback to Golden Age sci-fi.

[Audio version of this post available here.]

I ended my review of the previous book in this series with the words, “Martuneac is a promising author. I’ll definitely be reading more of his work.” Zombie apocalypse books aren’t a genre I normally read, but the characters and writing in His Name Was Zach were strong enough to hold my attention and make me pick up the sequel.

And what a sequel it is! The foundation Martuneac laid in the first book really pays off in a number of ways in this sprawling epic. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you all the details, lest I spoil both books. But, I’ll do my best to give you the flavor of it.

Our protagonist is, naturally, Abby, the teenaged girl from the first book, who is struggling to survive in the harsh wilds of the Midwest, infested by zombies and small gangs of people struggling for self-preservation with varying degrees of brutality.

For reasons which I can’t say without spoiling the previous installment, but which will be obvious if you have read it, Abby can no longer rely on Zach, the man who raised her, and has to fend for herself. Her Name Was Abby picks up right where the first book left off, with an unrelenting post-apocalyptic world, full of violence, betrayal, and in general a reversion to the anarchic condition of life that Thomas Hobbes described as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

This nightmarish world, in which no one can be fully trusted and the worst survive while the best perish, takes a major psychological toll on Abby, whose own hands are far from clean at the end of the first part of the book.

But then, she finds her way to something approaching civilization. And this is where the book takes a turn. For a long time, I’ve wondered why this series is categorized as “dystopian.” Maybe it’s me, but I don’t consider zombie apocalypse books dystopian. (I’m not really sure why. They’re certainly not utopian!) But once Abby reaches the West, she finds an area where the government remains in control.

And when I say “in control,” I mean police-state level control. This is where the book starts to resemble what I think of as a dystopia, as the reconstituted government under President Cyrus Arthur uses patrols of an elite military unit, the DAS, to terrorize the civilian population.

In fairness, we are talking about an outbreak of zombies here. You can see it would take a firm hand to reassert control in a situation like that. As other apologists for other tyrants have said, “You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.” In the case of President Arthur, “breaking eggs” includes a naval bombardment of San Diego. (This incident is only referenced a few times in passing, but somehow I found it one of the most haunting bits of world-building lore in the entire book.)

Abby quickly joins a resistance movement, where she meets a young man close to her own age named Hiamovi, the grandson of the movement’s leader. Abby is, understandably, slow to trust, but eventually she and Hiamovi fall in love.

Unfortunately, nothing good ever seems to last for Abby, and she soon finds herself infiltrating the DAS on an undercover mission that takes her into the very highest levels of the government, and into a relationship with President Arthur’s own son, Derrick.

And that’s about as far as I can go without spoiling things. It’s too bad, because what I’ve summarized so far is just the setup for a thrilling final act, full of suspense, action, and even a remarkable love triangle. It’s really well-done, and pieces that have been hinted at going back to the first book start to fall satisfyingly into place.

For instance: if, like me, you were wondering how the government was managing to keep firm control of the Western half of the country while the East collapses into zombie-barbarism; that question is answered quite clearly in the later parts of this book.

To recap: the first quarter of the book is pure survival-horror, brimming with relentless violence and a constant sense that Abby is living on a razor’s edge, kept alive by a combination of sheer luck and an ever-increasing willingness to betray her own moral code for the chance to see another sunrise.

Then the book transforms, fairly smoothly, from a zombie-horror book to more of a spy thriller. Spy thrillers are more my usual fare, so for me, this was a pleasant surprise.

So, would I say the book is a zombie book with some spy thriller elements, or a spy thriller with some zombie elements?

Answer: it’s neither.

Her Name Was Abby has another facet to it beyond the zombies and the cool high-tech espionage. It’s actually a surprisingly deep psychological portrait of Abby. More specifically, of how Abby tries to cope with all the horrific trauma she’s experienced from a young age.

Now, I get it: almost all thrillers have a Protagonist With A Dark Past™. Many, many books have a flawed anti-hero who is running from some kind of horrible event that has left a scar on their psyche. And it almost always feels forced and fake to me.

But Abby’s feels genuine. I can’t really explain it. Somehow, though, Martuneac conveys her mental state in a way that seems real. Her PTSD flashbacks are vivid, and the way she struggles with feelings of depression, rage, doubt, and guilt are all viscerally powerful.

Abby’s journey is a moving one, and whereas in the previous book she relied heavily on Zach to save her, in this one, she has no one else to turn to. As one character, one of my favorites in the book, says, “If your life is going to be saved, it must be you who does the saving.”

The book has many good lines, but I can’t quote most of them because they would also spoil important plot developments. In general, let me just say that Martuneac’s style of writing is very interesting to me. I do think most modern fiction critics would argue it relies too much on “telling” rather than “showing” and we all know the standard rule about that.

However, I’ve never been completely onboard with this rule. (Yeah, yeah; if you watch the Writers Supporting Writers videos, I’m sure you’re just shocked by this.) I know what people mean when they say it, but at best, it’s badly phrased. Because all fiction is actually telling, never showing. The art is in making people feel like you’re showing them something.

Anyway, this is a roundabout way of saying Martuneac tends to use what I think of as an older style of narration that is often detached from the immediate thoughts of the characters. Some people might not like this approach, but personally, I found it kind of refreshing. There is such a thing as too much immediacy, and I feel like a lot of modern fiction has it. Probably because most writers have had the “show, don’t tell” rule drilled into them.

This is a really good story, and one that should have broad appeal. While I do think it’s better to read the series in order, I will say that if you like thrillers but are positively allergic to the zombie genre, you could start by reading this book without reading His Name Was Zach. That’s what H.R.R. Gorman did, and if it’s good enough for Gorman, it’s good enough for me.

And one more thing about Zach. Despite the fact he’s not in this one, his presence still can be felt throughout this book. Like Abby, I often found myself wondering what Zach would think of this or that. I’m always impressed when a character looms large even when not actually “in” the story as such.

I’d like to say a lot more about this book, but I don’t want to spoil anything. Hopefully I’ve piqued your interest enough that you’ll want to check it out, and after you’ve read it, you can come back here and discuss it in detail.

[Audio version of this post available below]

This is a novel with layers. Superficially, it’s a “chick lit” relationship novel. The narrator, Dr. Sarah Phelan, says as much in the first chapter. This layer is a classic romance of a woman falling in love with a man who at first seems to be Mr. Perfect, but who has hidden Byronic depths.

The difference with this book is, Dr. Phelan is aware of how her story fits into the conventions of the genre, and repeatedly makes meta references to what part of the standard story she’s in, or acknowledges different tropes that she encounters.

And she has more going on in her life than just her relationship with her new beau (name: Dylan Cakebread). She’s still getting over her ex-husband, who has become a published author, and dealing with a long-running feud with her sister Ella. Fortunately, she has the support of her close friend, Jules, whose chatty, gossiping manner made her a treat every time she appeared.

But there’s more to this book than a mere girl-meets-boy light romance. It’s deeper than that, and it doesn’t always hew to the conventions of the genre. In fact, it’s not really a “genre” book at all, though of course at first glance it appears to be. Like other Brennan books I’ve reviewed, it’s not one you can easily pigeonhole.

Also like other Brennan books, it’s full of memorable lines. Like Dr. Phelan’s comments on a certain genre of fiction:

“I think there’s really only one enormous thriller out there now, made up of the hundreds of thousands of them that are published every ten minutes or so, and our job as readers is to somehow knit them all together.”

And then there’s this line from Jules’ husband, Wayne:

“Everything is unsustainable,[…]We’re living in the Apocalypse Years, right? Nobody knows when the shit’s gonna hit the fan, but it’s pretty obvious that it is.”

Occasional Soulmates was published in 2014, and this line reminded me of Brennan’s later novel, Eternity Began Tomorrow, an environmentalist political thriller that painted a picture of the year 2020 almost as insane as the real one.

Like Eternity Began Tomorrow, Occasional Soulmates doesn’t conform to the genre it superficially appears to be. It winds up going in a very different direction than I expected, but I should have known it would. Brennan never falls back on tired clichés, and always strives to surprise his readers.

If you like clever literary fiction that has more to it than meets the eye, this is a good read. Also impressive is how well Brennan writes his female protagonist. As Audrey Driscoll said in her review, “Either Mr. Brennan is a mind-reader or he had really good intel from women. I loved the girly-gossipy tone of the narration, especially the parts where Sarah and her best pal Jules dissect relationships and classify men.”

I couldn’t agree more. Writing female characters when you’re a male is quite tricky, but Brennan manages it beautifully. This is just one more reason why this book is worth your time: Brennan is a master of the craft, and it shows on every page.

[Listen to an audio version of this post below]

This is a collection of three short stories set in Chicago. I’ll be reviewing them in the reverse of the order they appear in the book.

“Annie Doesn’t Mean Any Harm” was my least-favorite story in the book, which is not to say it was bad. On the contrary, it was quite good. Keithley writes beautiful prose and creates characters who stick in your mind long after you close the book.

So, why was this my least-favorite? Simply because it’s so brutal and tragic. As in her novel, The Calling of Mother Adelli, Keithley portrays cruelty upon cruelty. The story deals with a petty tyrant who works as an aide in a senior citizen home, but who badly mistreats those in his care. The story is a terrific character study, but its unrelenting bleakness can be a lot to take.

The middle story in the collection “The Only Thanks I Wanted” is another grim tale that illustrates the old adage “No good deed goes unpunished.” It has a darkly comic undertone to it that resolves in a way that layers irony upon irony.

And this brings me to my favorite story in the collection, “The Second Marriage of Albert Li Wu,” which tells the story of a widower trying to cope with loneliness and haunted by unpleasant memories of his first wife.

This story was my favorite, not because it was written better than the rest, (Keithley’s prose is uniformly excellent in every story.) but because it strikes a bittersweet note, and leaves the reader with a sense of hope. It’s also the longest story, with the most room to develop and get to know the characters.

I’ve been meaning to read this collection for years, ever since Mark Paxson told me about Keithley’s work. I read and reviewed Mother Adelli shortly after. It’s a wonderful novel, but incredibly haunting and emotionally tough to take. I admit, I wanted to wait until I was in the right frame of mind to read this, and reading Mark’s recent novel The Dime, which is dedicated to Keithley, inspired me to do it.

Anyone who loves literary fiction with gorgeous writing, fascinating characters, and a fatalistic, tragic sensibility, should read this collection.

This was the first Burke book I heard of, but as it’s the second in the series, I had to read the first installment, Burke in the Land of Silver. I loved it, and eagerly anticipated reading this one.

A bit of background: Burke is like a Napoleonic-era James Bond. (I actually think he’s more like Patrick McGoohan’s “Danger Man,” but hardly anyone remembers that series.) A spy for the British who monitors and sabotages the activities of Britain’s main geopolitical enemy, France.

Unlike Land of Silver, which was based on the true story of the real James Burke, Burke and the Bedouin is a fictionalized account, though most of the major events, such as Napoleon’s army clashing with the Bedouin and the Mamelukes, and the climactic Battle of the Nile, are real, and it is no doubt true that Britain would have had men like Burke present in Egypt.

The book is a bit faster-paced than the first one, and it seemed like there were fewer characters. That’s not a negative, though; just a difference in style. This felt more like an old-fashioned desert adventure story, compared with the political intrigue and machinations of the previous entry. Fortunately, I love a good desert adventure, so that’s all to the good.

And like the previous book, there are definitely times when you have to question just who you should be rooting for. Burke is a very likable protagonist, with a clear sense of personal honor and bravery, so he seems like a straight-up hero… but then you get a scene of him torturing a young French surveyor for information, or spreading sensational lies about the French among the Bedouin. Of course, he’s not doing this randomly–he’s a soldier, in a war. Ugly stuff happens, and people just have to deal with it.

The book does a great job of conveying the sheer brutality of the era. It’s easy to romanticize the Napoleonic wars, especially if you learn it as the history of dashing, larger-than-life figures like Nelson, Wellington, and of course, the Corsican himself. The everyday reality of it was much nastier, and this book captures that well.

If you enjoyed the first one, this book is a worthy sequel. And while it is true this would work as a standalone book, I would strongly recommend reading them in order. Fans of historical fiction, spy thrillers, and adventure books alike should all check out the Burke series.

There I was, poking around one of my favorite YouTube channels, when I saw this video. “Hmm,” I said to myself, “Full audiobook? That implies the existence of a non-audiobook of same.” So I went to Amazon and, behold, there it was.

So, what is The Fall of Alla Xul? Well, it’s presented as a translation of ancient Sumerian tablets recounting the epic quest of Atun-Shei to topple the evil Emperor Alla Xul. The preface includes a whole summary of how the tablets were found, and various scholarly interpretations of them. These interpretations are referenced throughout the book in footnotes as well.

Except… well, you know, my favorite short story of all time is The Repairer of Reputations. I’m a big fan of stories where all is not what it seems. There are layers to this story, and half the fun is in seeing how many different elements have been woven together to make this narrative enjoyable.

Oh, and the titular fall of Alla Xul? Well, that particular scene evoked something else for me, something not out of Sumerian legend at all. But I don’t want to say what it was. Read it yourself, and see if it conjures up any memories for you. I think it’s a clever reference to… something. But then again, it may be just the universal tropes of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. 

All in all, this is a very fun, fast read that will be particularly entertaining for anyone who enjoys scholarly takes on ancient legends, stories-within-stories, and generally weird, esoteric tales. I recommend it. I also recommend checking out that YouTube channel linked above, particularly if you’re into history and/or film.

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.