A Feast for SightThis is a short story set in Painter’s world of Osteria. Osteria is a sort of post-apocalyptic setting in which many of the Ancient Greek and Roman traditions and beliefs have been revived.

A Feast for Sight is a story that fits this setting well. It deals with three oracles, who tell their clients the future–for a price. What the price is, I won’t describe, but the sensitive reader should be warned that it is quite macabre; and increasingly so as the story unfolds. I have only a little knowledge of Greek drama, but this seems entirely in line with the usual tone of the classic stories. The Greek tragedies are full of gruesome and unsettling elements, and this story is full of the same.

It’s also rather funny, in a very dark way, obviously. Fans of twisted humor will certainly enjoy the ironic ending. It has a very Ambrose Bierce-esque approach to humor in that regard.

The book is available for free through Painter’s website by subscribing to her newsletter. It certainly is effective as a promotional device, because after reading it, I was quite eager to learn more about the world of Osteria. And as a rule, I am not someone who enjoys stories as dark as this, but I have to give credit where due–the premise is interesting enough that it made me want to read more. A Feast for Sight probably won’t be for everyone, but for those who enjoy classic literature and dark humor, it will be a treat.

 

ihuThis is a short science-fiction story. Like Hays’ short story Dual Void, it packs a lot of complex philosophical and scientific ideas into a few words. It begins with a professor of astronomy who specializes in Big Bang Cosmology lecturing to an Astronomy 101 class, and proceeds to take the reader on a whirlwind ride that leaves one questioning the nature of reality, the meaning of the universe, and other such deep questions. It reminded me a bit of Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Nine Billion Names of God.” IHU is more surreal, but just as existential.

I can’t say a lot more about the book, given how short it is. Not that I’m concerned I’d “spoil” it, exactly; because that implies giving away some information that explains the whole story. This isn’t a story that can be explained; rather, it’s one of those fictional works that makes you ask questions, that teases your brain a little.  And I liked that a lot. One of the great things about science-fiction is how it can make you ponder deep questions like these.

IHU is a good, quick read for anyone who enjoys stories that make you think about complex, abstract concepts.

Gossamer GlobeThe Gossamer Globe is a very unique book. It has elements of many genres, from political thriller to swashbuckling adventure to biting satire. And the author combines all these in clever ways to make something very original.

The book tells the story of a woman named Lucia Straw, who is being elected as the first Prime Minister of the nation of Zatoria. Zatoria has just abolished monarchy and replaced it with democracy. But as Lucia’s party is celebrating their victory, she receives a message from a rival candidate, Kailani Rhys, accusing her of stealing the election. This casts a pall over everything as Lucia deals with the pains of installing a new parliamentary government.

I love humorous stories about small groups of revolutionaries seizing control of the state. I think it started with my love for Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Grand Duke, a comic opera about a troupe of bumbling actors who take over a grand duchy. The Gossamer Globe has that mood to it–Lucia and her inner-circle all stumble through trying to rule a country, and it’s extremely amusing to read. Before I read it, I saw a couple reviews hinting that it had some funny parts, but that’s an understatement. This book is hilarious, and what’s best of all is that the humor comes organically from the characters’ personalities. Funny lines turn out to not be mere throwaway gags, but jokes that are built upon. I think my favorite example is Lucia’s friend Jevan’s amusing storytelling style.

But it’s not just a silly comedy. It’s also a well-thought-out political satire. I won’t go into too much detail, but the “gossamer globe” the title refers to is a sort of wondrous new technology that has caused major disruption to the Zatorian way of life. This concept is handled very thoughtfully, portraying the new technology as neither an absolute good or evil influence, but simply a technological disruption that the government is only beginning to reckon with.

Ah, the government! That brings me to the core of the book–the struggle for power, the competing philosophies, and all the Machiavellian machinations that drive the plot forward. Lucia chooses to keep the former Queen around in an advisory capacity, and this move proves to be quite controversial. The ex-monarch–now referred to simply as “Ms. Battenbox”–was one of my favorite characters, and the scenes in which she offers her political analysis and shrewd strategizing are absolutely terrific.

All the dialogues are very well-written. I could practically hear the characters speak their lines in my head as I read. It all flowed so well. Also, Evans has a masterful command of how to use profanity. It’s not often, but on the rare occasions when the characters use strong language, it packs a punch.

And then of course, there’s all the sword-fighting.  As the cover suggests, swords are a big deal in this book. I was worried this might come off as a gimmick, but it doesn’t at all. Sword-fighting is clearly a huge part of Zatorian culture, and it makes sense that many disputes are settled this way.

Actually, this is a good time for a word about the cover. It’s not that I dislike it. It’s a fine cover. But it wasn’t the image of the world that I imagined as I was reading the book. It’s probably just my own bias, but I am envisioning this as a steampunk-ish, Neo-Victorian or Edwardian world, and the swords as elegant, rapier-like weapons. I’m not sure what kind of sword that is on the cover, actually; it looks like some sort of falchion or scimitar, maybe? If there are any sword enthusiasts reading this, further information on this point would be appreciated.

However you choose to envision the weaponry and the environs in general, this is a rich, magnificently-constructed world, populated with vivid and enjoyable characters. It’s also an excellent depiction of how politics works at the highest levels. There’s a point where one character is descending into frenzied paranoia, issuing ridiculous commands as the whole structure of the government seems to be collapsing. It feels timeless, like a satire that could have been written about any bad government in history, going back to the time of Rome. It’s the same vibe I get when reading George Orwell’s writings on totalitarianism–this is a pattern of behavior that transcends time and place.

Evans manages all this while still telling a fast-paced, funny, sexy, bawdy, and clever story, in a rich and interesting world. Simply put, I loved this book, and I heartily recommend it to anyone who enjoys speculative fiction of any variety. It’s brilliant, and best of all, it’s free. That’s right, you can get it through Amazon or on Smashwords for free. There’s absolutely no excuse. Give this brilliant novel a try.

ForeverThis is Geoffrey Cooper’s best thriller yet, and if you’ve read my reviews of Nondisclosure and The Prize, you know that’s saying something. All his books are gripping page-turners that offer fascinating glimpses into the politics of academia. Forever includes all these signature elements, but the plot is even more layered, and consequently, the mystery even more exciting to piece together.

The two lead characters from Nondisclosure, Dr. Brad Parker and investigator Karen Richmond, are back and just as likable as ever. Their relationship is one of my favorite things about this series. There is an easy give-and-take between them that makes them feel like a believable couple.

Brad is on sabbatical, working on research at a Harvard lab, when two FBI agents–one of whom is a friend of Karen’s–approach him to ask for his help solving a case of academic espionage being carried out by one of his colleagues. He’s annoyed at having to take time away from his research so soon after having his career was temporarily-but-spectacularly derailed by the events of Nondisclosure, but as a favor to his partner, he agrees to help.

In doing so, however, he and Karen find themselves once again caught up in a complicated tangle of death and double-crossing. In addition to the spy in Brad’s lab, Karen and her friend are also investigating a disturbing string of serial murders. And in the midst of all this, Brad finds himself tempted–in more ways than one–by a fellow colleague, offering him a chance of securing lucrative private funding, as well as some other benefits.

It all builds to a dramatic and satisfying climax that forces Brad and Karen to use their respective skills to the utmost if they are to have any chance of putting the pieces together and solving both the espionage and the murders.

It’s a fast-paced story, although Cooper skillfully includes some pauses for the reader to catch their breath. The descriptions of the lovely New England locales (and restaurants) that Brad visits make it easy to picture the setting. I wished I were there; albeit in some cases, under very different circumstances than the ones Brad and Karen find themselves in!

As with Cooper’s previous books, there’s a fair amount of references to real-word medical science, and it’s done in a way that is accessible for the layman. In fact, it’s so well-written that it informs as well as entertains–I learned a few things from reading it.

If you like medical thrillers, or just thrillers in general, this is for you. And be sure and read Nondisclosure too. While this book certainly can stand on its own, it’s really best if you are familiar with Brad and Karen’s previous work together.

[Note: This review is based on an ARC of this book. Forever releases today.]

 

Moon Goddess 2Moon Goddess is about a young woman named Lamorna who is forced to flee her home with her infant brother, pursued by the soldiers of the lord who holds sway in the region.

With the guidance of a mysterious wise woman, Lamorna is aided by spirits and manifestations of an ancient goddess, whose followers and rituals differ greatly from the harsh patriarchal religion of her upbringing.

This book is steeped in mythological elements. As Spicer documents on her blog, she put intense research into this, from the world in which the story takes place to the wolves to the legends. Moon Goddess is rich with folklore references and fragments of old religions.

This is important, because for the most part, the description of the world in which the story takes place is minimal. As with Spicer’s The Cursed Gift, the focus is on the characters and what they say and do, with little excess verbiage about the setting. This is probably controversial, but personally, I love this about Spicer’s work. It reminds me of what Paul Graham said about Jane Austen: “She tells her story so well that you envision the scene for yourself.”

I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a world this rich made with so little description, but I was very impressed by it. The only point where it was an issue for me (and I realize this won’t make sense until you read the book) was that I would have liked to have read more about the Wild Horde, which has a relatively small, but important role in the story. It’s such a cool concept; I’d have liked to know more.

One other nit-pick: while most of the book was from Lamorna’s point of view in close third person, there were a few chapters told from her fiancé’s perspective, in the same style. There’s nothing wrong with this, except it came relatively late in the story, and felt a little jarring, since it is clearly Lamorna’s story.

That’s a minor point, however. All in all, I really liked Moon Goddess–it’s fantasy, but with sufficient grounding in folklore that it felt authentic. It’s mystical and mysterious, but without its characters ever being totally overwhelmed by the supernatural elements.

Moon Goddess1

Also, there have been two different covers of this book, and they are both great. The current one is pictured above, but I had to include this one as well.

I like the current cover, especially because all of Spicer’s book covers follow a certain pattern that makes them look like a true collection. That said, this earlier cover also has its charms. So vivid and evocative!

Whichever cover you prefer, though, this is a great read for fans of fantasy stories with strong mythological elements.

Calmer GirlsThis is a Young Adult novel, which is not a genre I typically read. It’s probably unfair of me, but I have a stereotype in my mind of what a YA novel is, and generally speaking, they aren’t something that interests me. But this one was recommended by the great Carrie Rubin, and so I gave it a try. And I was pleasantly surprised, because whatever expectations I–rightly or wrongly–have of YA novels, this one easily surpassed them.

Part of it, perhaps, is that I have this idea in my mind of YA books being narrated in a snarky, sarcastic tone. There’s none of that in Calmer Girls–our protagonist, 16 year-old Samantha Cross, is sincere and good-hearted. All her emotions seem genuine, whether in her frequent feuds with her older sister Veronica, her love for the handsome Ben Swift, or her misery at her parents’ recent divorce and her mother’s worsening alcoholism.

A word about the divorce: one thing I liked about this book was its sensitive portrayal of how badly divorce affects the children of the split couple. The constant tension and psychological trauma it inflicts on both Samantha and Veronica is a powerful illustration of the painful consequences.

The main plot of the book is Samantha and Veronica vying for Ben’s affection. Veronica is a gregarious, extroverted young woman, used to attracting the attention of any boy she wants, and is distraught when Ben prefers her shy, younger, bookish sister.

But while he at first seems to be an ideal boyfriend, Ben is tormented by emotional scars left by his own parents. Ben and Samantha soon find themselves retreating into their love for one another, in a sweet–if decidedly not rational or mature–way, characteristic of young people leaving childhood behind, but not yet truly adults.

The prose is rich and evocative. The book reminded me of Mark Paxson’s The Irrepairable Past. That might seem like an unlikely comparison, since that novella is the story of an older man reflecting on his past, and Calmer Girls is the story of a young girl just starting out, but both books evoke a rich feeling of the melancholic beauty found in everyday life.

A running theme in the book is Samantha reading Brontë novels, and many of the chapters begin with quotes from Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. There’s also one scene in particular where Samantha draws a comparison to the former. I liked this a lot–it was a nice touch, without ever feeling forced or overused.

Perry did such a good job recreating what the world feels like to a teenager, it actually made me reflect back on my own teenage years. I suspect anyone reading the book will recognize a little of their own past in it. Personally, it made me think back with both nostalgia and regret to those long summer days when, having no actual responsibilities or obligations, I could nevertheless set myself to worrying obsessively about ephemeral things like whether my crushes even knew I existed. Ah, how the youthful brain makes trouble even where none exists!

The story is set in 1993, and is tinged throughout with period pop culture references, that only add to the book’s nostalgia value. Which brings to me to another point: the slang in this book is very different than what I’m used to. I’m not sure how much of this is the time period, and how much is the setting–Newfoundland, Canada–but either way, it was quite interesting. Samantha, Veronica, and their friends use a number of novel expressions which I had not seen before, which made the story that much more vibrant and authentic.

I ended up enjoying Calmer Girls far more than I expected. Don’t let any preconceived notions about YA fiction fool you–this is a fantastic read for anyone who enjoys solid literary fiction.

IPanama love weird westerns. Maybe this isn’t technically a western, given that Panama is at approximately the same longitude as West Virginia, but in every other respect, it fits the bill. It’s got cowboys, ghosts, witchcraft, and plenty of good old-fashioned gunfights.

Ethan Stafford and Cooper Hexum are U.S. marshals sent by President Theodore Roosevelt to investigate the disappearances of workers in the Panama Canal Zone. Ethan has a mysterious ability to see and communicate with ghosts, and Cooper–“Coop,” as he is called–is well-versed in all manner of magic and witchcraft. Roosevelt has reason to believe supernatural forces are at work, and he is soon proven right, as Ethan and Coop discover that, in addition to a plot by Spanish invaders, a demonic entity known as “El Chivato” is building up an army of his own using the souls of workers lured into the jungle.

Ethan and Coop are outfitted with considerable weaponry to fight these threats, as well as plenty of magical amulets and talismans that Coop acquires. One of my favorite early scenes was one in which Dr. Welker, who plays “Q” to Coop and Ethan’s collective 007, outfits them with all the weaponry they’ll need for their mission, including a Browning machine gun.

In the course of their mission, the pair meet a witch named Jinx, who has been captured by the Spanish, and Billy the Kid, hiding out under a different name, along with many other interesting characters. The tension builds as El Chivato’s powers grow, until our heroes confront him and his malevolent army in a final shootout, just as any good Western should conclude.

The prose is straightforward and blunt. It reminded me a bit of Hemingway, which is exactly the right style for this sort of novel. The story is well-paced and blends elements of adventure, horror, and occasional comic relief very well.

My only gripe about the book was the number of typos. Mostly minor things–missing apostrophes or glitches like “if” for “it,” etc. There were also a few formatting issues, such as character’s thoughts sometimes being unitalicized. It was nothing that ruined the book for me, but frequent enough that I noticed. To be clear, I’m very sympathetic about this, as I know from my own experience that it’s really, really hard to put out a whole novel and catch every typo. What’s great about ebooks is that it is easy to go back and correct them.

Technical issues aside, I loved the book’s atmosphere and the way Boyack balances a classic cowboy adventure, complete with likable heroes and a cruel villain, with occult demonic elements. And he ties it all together in a way that’s very satisfying. Panama is a very fun read for anyone who enjoys a good adventure story.

BBBinary Boy is a short story about a young boy named Devin, raised by two intelligent machines aboard a spaceship. All the rest of the ship’s crew, including Devin’s parents, have been killed by a virus sweeping the ship. Devin alone survived, thanks to his having been sealed away as part of his recovery from cancer.

The two machines that raise him, Ark and Rue, have vastly different personalities, but both in their way teach the young boy how to survive. He comes to view them as his parents, and to wish that he were an invincible machine, instead of a weak human.

Because of the largely disastrous outcome of the mission, Ark and Rue have opted to return the ship to earth—which Devin is dreading. When they finally near the planet, it becomes clear that Earth has fallen on… well, I’ll just say “hard times,” and leave it at that. To survive, Devin has to leave Ark and Rue behind and venture onto what is, to him, a threatening and alien world.

It’s a tight, well-written science fiction tale. All three major characters are efficiently described, and I really liked the contrast between Ark’s warm, soft personality and Rue’s pragmatic, engineering mindset.

If the book has a flaw, it’s that it ends too soon! I wanted to find out more about what Devin would do. And yes, this is book one of a series, but from reading the description of book two, I gather that it’s not a continuation of the same story. 

On the other hand, I sort of understand, because it would be challenging to continue the story given what happens to Devin in the last act. It’s full of intriguing possibilities that simultaneously beg to be explored but would be very difficult, if not downright impossible to write—at least, if it continued from Devin’s perspective.

This is a quick read that nevertheless manages to create an interesting world with strong characters. Fans of all types of sci-fi will certainly want to give it a read.

pantsIn my opinion, everyday life is one of the hardest things to write about. It is, by nature, something that is not exciting, so it takes a skilled writer to make people interested in reading about it. 

Jackson Banks is such a writer, and I Put Pants on for This? is a delightful collection of short episodes drawn from his various misadventures. By Mr. Banks’ own admission, not all of them are strictly factual—he acknowledges that he has embellished here and there, and made full use of “literary license.” But the stories feel real, because they mostly involve the sort of everyday mishaps, misunderstandings, and mix-ups that are extremely funny—when viewed with detachment, at least.

Indeed, if even a tenth of what Banks describes in here has some basis in fact, he is a man with a rare gift for being able to see the humor in the frustrating misfortunes that befall him, whether it’s endless airline delays and reroutes, camping trips gone awry, riding crowded public transportation, or one somewhat Walter Mitty-esque tale in which he convinces himself he and his wife are being kidnapped en route to a vacation resort.

Banks’ humor is light and good-natured, but like the best satire, there’s also a deeper theme which helps tie the vignettes together. What unifies most of the stories is the complexity of modern life, and many of the weird circumstances that result from it. Maybe it’s because I’ve been thinking about this lately for other reasons, but I felt Banks’ stories illustrate something that is becoming increasingly evident: the modern world is growing so interconnected and complicated that human brains almost can’t cope with it efficiently. That’s why airline travel results in lost luggage, mis-directed flights, and a general status of SNAFU—the systems are so complex they really can’t function.

The author punctuates these stories with attempts at escaping into a more simple life which inevitably go wrong—whether it’s a flooding campground, a grueling run through the desert, or an encounter with an off-kilter Kris Kringle character in Jackson, Wyoming. 

Throughout, Banks maintains a witty, engaging commentary. The real star of the book, though, is his wife. My favorite stories are the ones involving Mrs. Banks and her sarcastic commentaries on her husband’s decisions. 

Now, I do have one issue with this book, and that is that at one point he actually lumps Ohio in with New Jersey when listing terrible places to have to stay the night! Really, as a proud Buckeye, this is too much. Alongside New Jersey? Seriously?

I’m just kidding. We Ohioans can take a good-natured joke, and I Put Pants on for This? is full of them.

Twisted Tales 2These stories are ideal for when you just want something quick and light. After reading some long, emotionally-charged novels, I find it’s a perfect change of pace to read one of Drayden’s weird tales. My mother told me once that in ancient Greek drama, after the heavy tragedies were over, they would close the evening out with a slapstick comedy.* That’s kind of what this is, and it works beautifully as a break after reading a serious novel.

If you read my review of Volume One in this series, all you need to know is that this is more of the same. If there’s a difference, it’s that the first volume was more sci-fi in tone, and this one is more fantasy/horror. But that’s the only difference–otherwise, these stories exhibit the same twisted sense of humor and the same bite-sized length.

Again, these stories are very short, so I won’t review them in-depth. Half the fun is realizing what the concept of the story is, as they each usually involve combining some mundane, familiar concept with something from the world of mythology or fantasy. The stylistic parallel to the comic strip The Far Side that I noted in my review of Volume One still holds.

If you read the Amazon reviews, you’ll notice some people complain about the brevity of these tales. This, in my opinion, just speaks to how tough the book market is. It may not seem like much to readers, but it takes a non-trivial amount of effort to come up with four funny stories, write them all down, proofread them, and get them published. The thing only costs 99 cents, for heaven’s sakes! 99 cents for a few good chuckles is a bargain, in my opinion.

With that said, you can get a set containing Volumes One through Six of this series, also for 99 cents, if you’re really serious about maximizing the quantity of stories you get for your money. Drayden’s stories are the perfect little treat for when you want to read something to tickle your imagination, but don’t want to commit to a whole novel.

(*My mom is a classicist. I didn’t want you thinking she was actually around in Ancient Greece. 🙂 )