HuralonI hardly know where to begin with this review. There’s so much I love about this book, from its well thought-out and detailed futuristic world-building, to its treatment of how the history of present-day Earth is reconstructed in the distant future, to the way it blends political intrigue, action, romance and just a dash of humor into an effective story.

The novel follows the crew of ESS Springbok, a powerful military spaceship. The Springbok becomes entangled in an battle precipitated by a powerful politician’s son. From there, the crew takes on a group of rough but honorable space marines, and sees more than their share of ground and space combat as they fight through more conflicts created by the political machinations of scheming politicians and bureaucrats.

The characters are great. There’s the honorable Captain Evander McCray of the Springbok and his lover, the lethal super-spy Aja Coopersmith. The villains are eminently hate-able, and there are other characters who are neither all good nor all bad. Captain Chahine, who commands a huge ship that battles the Springbok, was a particular favorite of mine.

There are also some great references to history sprinkled throughout. Captain McCray’s interest in piecing together Earth’s history starts out as just an amusing bit of comic relief, but it ultimately becomes key to the climactic battle sequence when, inspired by Hannibal’s use of elephants, he…

Ah, no; I can’t spoil it. Because it’s brilliant. An ingenious bit of world-building that becomes important to the plot, that’s all I’ll say.

I do quibble with the number of times that secondary female characters are forced to suffer at the hands of the villains. Female characters who exist just to let baddies prove their badness is a bit of a pet peeve of mine; although I can hardly argue with its effectiveness in making readers hate the villains.

Apart from that, this is basically a perfect book for me. It came recommended by Audrey Driscoll, and as with Lorinda Taylor’s Man Who Found Birds Among the Stars series, I’m so grateful to her for bringing it to my attention. It’s another wonderful example of how to do sci-fi, using an imaginary futuristic world both as a vehicle for exploring deep ideas about society and human nature as well as envisioning new technologies. And it does all that while still telling a gripping story with memorable characters.

If you like sci-fi, especially military sci-fi—and I know many people who read this blog do—you have to read this book. It’s a gem of the genre, pure and simple.

Now, I have a question only an economist would ask. And the fact that I’m even asking this question is a testament to the world-building here.

The citizens of the Egalitarian Stars of Elysium use the barter system. Supposedly, this makes them more advanced than the primitive Madkhal, who use fiat currency. We’re to believe that nanites and additive manufacturing eliminate the need for currency in such a developed civilization.

Maybe it’s a failure of my imagination, but I have trouble buying this. (No pun intended.) If their manufacturing capabilities are really so good as that, then they haven’t made fiat currency obsolete, they’ve made trade obsolete. Either people have items of different worth for trading, or they don’t. If they do, than they need a reliable medium of exchange and store of value to express it. If they don’t, then they don’t need to trade. If you and I both have the ability to produce for ourselves everything that we need, we have no reason to trade with each other. Tell me if I’m wrong about this.

Again, it’s a credit to how invested I became in this universe that I was even thinking about this issue. So don’t let it stop you from buying—or, for that matter, bartering for—this fantastic book.

Okay, this is a little different.

I normally review modern novels and short stories. This was written in the 14th century, and it’s describing events in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. It’s not really a novel, and definitely not a short story. It’s more along the lines of something like the Iliad–a combination of historical account and mythology.

And of course, it was originally written in Chinese. In fact, it’s one of the most famous works of ancient Chinese literature. I read the 1925 translation by Charles Brewitt-Taylor. There are more recent translations, but I deliberately chose an older one because a translator can’t help coloring his translation with his own impressions.

Brewitt-Taylor was an Englishman, and his translation shows a rather Victorian sensibility. So this is looking at a historical-mythopoetic account of ancient China through the lens of an early 20th century Briton. What better way to view one past empire than through the eyes of another?

The book is vast and sprawling, covering numerous battles, political intrigues and other events. The core characters are Liu Bei and his brothers Guan Yu and Zhang Fei. Brothers by sworn oath rather than blood, the trio participate in countless battles and grand historical struggles.

7th century depiction of Liu Bei. Via Wikipedia.

Liu Bei is the closest thing to a hero in the story–wise, capable and humble, he usually manages to extricate himself and his brothers from a variety of dangers.

There are shifting alliances and Machiavellian intrigues on every page. (Can I say “Machiavellian” when the events depicted predate Machiavelli by about 1400 years? Discuss.) Also, huge battles and reports of troop movements that are pretty hard to follow for one as ill-trained on Chinese geography as I am. I have at least read Sun Tzu, who is referenced briefly here.

Also, note that the word “romance” in the title is being used in the classic sense, of a medieval legend. Think the stories of King Arthur. Because it’s almost completely devoid of romance in the sense we think of it today. Marriages are arranged strictly for political purposes, and wives and concubines are treated as property.

Of all the hundreds of characters, I believe there are three women who have actual lines of dialogue. These are all rendered in weirdly submissive third-person terms: e.g. a character will refer to herself as “thy unworthy handmaid.” It’s pretty shocking to a modern sensibility. But I suppose everything about life in ancient times would be.

The central theme of the book is the struggle for power. Constantly, nobles and generals are scheming for ways to take power, and to hold it once they’ve got it.

The exception to this is Liu Bei. Despite being supremely capable, he remains humble and unassuming. One would almost say unambitious, and yet he continually rises, by virtue of his ability to positions of command which he hardly thinks himself worthy.

As depicted in the legend, Liu Bei essentially embodies the Confucian concept:

“The ancients who wished to illustrate illustrious virtue throughout the Kingdom, first ordered well their own states. Wishing to order well their states, they first regulated their families. Wishing to regulate their families, they first cultivated their persons.”

This is sometimes paraphrased as, “To set the nation in order, first set ourselves in order.”

The real Liu Bei of course is somewhat more complex than the character of legend, although he still seems well-regarded by history.

That said, the most fun parts are the translator’s renderings of the condemnations heaped upon Liu Bei’s enemy, the villainous minister Cao Cao. For instance:

“Thus Cao Cao is the depraved bantling of a monstrous excrescence, devoid of all virtue in himself, ferocious and cunning, delighting in disorder and reveling in public calamity.”

The version of the book that I have includes the Chinese Hanzi next to the English translation. For fun, I tried looking up the words in the quote above with this miraculous site, to see if it would render Brewitt-Taylor’s translation back into Chinese in anything like the same characters. But the translation didn’t seem to match up with what I was seeing. Even with the hint, via Wikipedia, that this: 曹操 is “Cao Cao,” I still struggled to match what I read on the page with the translation.

However, learning Chinese is not necessary to use this book as a window into a fascinating period in history–several periods, in fact. Given its massive length, it will probably be a while before I tackle Volume 2, but I’m glad I read this one.

ForbiddenI don’t read a lot of romances. Even less do I read modern romances. On those rare occasions that I venture reading any romance, it’s usually in a historical or fantasy setting. But this book caught my eye because it’s a modern military romance.

I’d never heard of a military romance before. But, we have military sci-fi, so why not military romance?

Forbidden Kisses is told from the alternating perspectives of two people: Layla Matthews and Ethan Parker. The two meet and quickly fall in love–unfortunately, so quickly that neither realizes the other is in the Navy. Layla is a petty officer, Ethan a lieutenant. Military regulations forbid a romantic relationship, but the two can hardly stand to be away from each other.

The book is short and sweet. If there’s one thing I find tiresome in many romances, it’s when the two people who are obviously perfect for each other break up for contrived reasons. Happily, there’s none of that here–it’s just a story of two people in love, caught between the age-old struggle of passion vs. duty.

There is a part of me that would have liked to see the two of them try to control themselves while on a ship out at sea. (It’s high time–or is it tide?–that the nautical melodrama made a comeback.) But as it is, the two have plenty of romantic encounters while ashore.

It’s a fun book. It’s nice to read about two good-hearted, nice, decent people in a wholesome relationship. Especially in a time when escapism is very welcome, having two co-protagonists who are easy to root for is really pleasant to read.

Oh, and if you’re wondering if Layla and Ethan figure out a way to overcome the rules prohibiting their relationship? Well, read the book and find out!

close to perfectThis book is a transcript of a discussion hosted by indie author Kevin Brennan with Karen Choi and Dan DeLonge. Before you go off to search on those latter two names; they are pseudonyms. Both of them are successful authors, and because they are speaking frankly about the industry in this discussion, they are not using their real names.

In a way, this is too bad, because I really wanted to read their books after reading this discussion. But, it’s good that they were able to voice their honest opinions.

The discussion covers every aspect of the writing process, from inspiration, to getting the first draft down, to editing, to publication and marketing. Every writer will instantly relate to the points they make in here, and it’s well-worth reading for anybody interested in the craft of writing.

I won’t go into too much detail about what they say on each subject–the whole point of the book is to read the opinions of three writers on these topics, and it would be a disservice to paraphrase them too much. All I’ll say is that this book is a perfect illustration of one of the best things about writing: the community. Writing may be a solitary activity, but even we writers enjoy hearing the thoughts of others who know what it’s like to dream up a whole story and commit it to the page. This is a great way to do exactly that.

Hart for AdventureBack in May, I wrote about Vogel’s Scout’s Honor, the first in his sword-and-planet Scout series. Hart for Adventure is a prequel to that series, and it fits in well. It follows Terran scout Gavin Hart, who crash lands on a world that appears deserted, finding only the overgrown ruins of an alien city.

Hart soon finds his way to a mysterious chamber where he is knocked unconscious and reawakens to find the planet around him teeming with life—not all of it friendly, as he soon discovers when he clashes with a marauding warlord and his hordes.

Hart, with his superior technology, quickly gains some allies, who see him as almost God-like. However, even these advantages, survival is no sure thing, especially once Hart uncovers the mind-bending and (not to give away too much) time-bending nature of the peril he faces.

The prose is crisp and the plot is fast-paced. There isn’t too much description—I would have liked a bit more—but there was enough to get an idea of the world where Hart’s swashbuckling adventures take place. 

If you’ve already read some of Vogel’s other Scout books, you’ll have a feel for this: daring good guys, evil bad guys, lots of sword fights and other Edgar Rice Burroughs-esque escapades. Like the other books in the series, it’s an unashamed throwback to that style of fun-loving old-fashioned adventure story. Don’t go in expecting deep, intricate world-building or characters—this is light, breezy reading that makes for perfect sci-fi/fantasy escapism.

This book was shorter than Scout’s Honor—more a sketch than the fully-realized world—but it works well as a prequel to the main series. If you haven’t read the other Scout books, this is a fine introduction to the series. And if you have read them and want more sword-and-planet adventures, this is a perfect way to get your fix.

[NOTE: This review is based on ARC of the book, received from the author.]

fhI recently reviewed Henry Vogel’s Sword & Planet book Scout’s Honor. While browsing his other works, this book caught my eye because it appeared to be more traditional spacefaring sci-fi, which is one of my favorite genres. And it features a pair of likable characters going on adventures, another premise that I like.

Matt Connaught is the heir to the GenCo fortune–except that while everyone else believes his parents are dead, his psychic abilities tell him they are still alive. Matt sets off to find them, accompanied by his bodyguard, Michelle. Michelle, the daughter of Matt’s primary security chief, Jonas, has been guarding Matt for years, in the guise of being merely his classmate.

As it turns out, the two have been in love with one another from afar for years, and when they set off on the galaxy-trotting adventure to find Matt’s parents, their romance blooms. The middle section of the book is almost a rom-com in space. I typically don’t read romance, unless it’s blended with some other genre, and that’s exactly what Vogel does here: a romantic road comedy, but in space!

And it’s not all romance–there are plenty of chases, shootouts, and even a few space battles. It’s first and foremost a sci-fi romp, with elements of a techno-thriller sprinkled in. Matt and Michelle are a good couple, and some of the supporting characters are really fun. Flight Commander Nancy Martin is great, and Jonas, with his extreme competence and formal style, is also highly enjoyable. I don’t know that this was the author’s intention, but his manner of speaking made me automatically hear his lines in the voice of Stephen Fry as Reginald Jeeves, which was another plus.

My biggest complaint is that the villains of the story are so nebulous that I was barely even aware they existed. There is some foreshadowing, but when Matt uncovers who is behind the whole thing, it felt a bit out of the blue. (Or is that out of the black, since this is space, after all?)

But in the scheme of things, that isn’t really a problem, because what makes this story enjoyable is the feeling of romance and adventure. The resolution of the plot isn’t as important as the thrill of following Matt and Michelle from one daring escape to the next. It’s an unashamedly fun book. It’s much like Scout’s Honor in that regard: a book that doesn’t take itself too seriously, and invites the reader to come along on an exciting space operatic joyride.

Now, lately in my reviews, I’ve found myself talking more and more about covers. I haven’t meant to do this, and we all know the ancient wisdom “not to judge a book…” etc. This are just my opinions on aesthetics, and independent of my take on the books themselves. I’ll try to cut down on this sort of thing, but I just have to talk about it here.

The cover above is on the Kindle edition that I have. And it’s fine. It maybe makes the book seem a bit more cartoonish than it really is, but it’s distinctive enough.

But, over on Goodreads, I saw this cover:

M and M

I love this cover. The font might be a little plain, but that artwork just screams “classic space opera adventure.” There are a couple different scenes in the book this could be depicting, and I feel like seeing it helps me imagine the whole universe of the story. It perfectly captures that throwback, Golden Age of sci-fi vibe that Vogel’s books evoke.

Sarah LewisThis is listed as a children’s book, which is not something I’d normally read, but this bit of the description caught my eye: “rural sci-fi thriller full of spies, mad scientists, 1980s nostalgia, alternate dimensions, strange new friends, suspense, and mystery.”

Well, that sounded like something I would like. And I was not disappointed. Yes, the protagonist is indeed a kid–13 year-old Sarah Lewis–and the prose does avoid complicated structures and (for the most part) big words, but it’s a book anyone can enjoy. It doesn’t condescend to the reader in telling the story.

Sarah is living with her grandfather after her mother has died and her father has moved away to take a job in another country. She is lonely, and trying to acclimate to a new town and new school in rural Texas, when her curiosity leads her to exploring in the hills near her grandfather’s property.

Long story short, she stumbles into a web of ancient conspiracies, secret societies, aliens, talking animals, magic, and threats of cosmic annihilation from malevolent demonic entities. Imagine The Chronicles of Narnia crossed with The X-Files and maybe a bit of Dan Brown thrown in. It uses a number of the classic YA tropes–a child with no parents discovering her family’s secrets and having to reevaluate her place in the world. Sarah isn’t quite “the Chosen One,” thankfully, but she does turn out to be rather special for reasons which I won’t reveal here. Still, it was quite a fun read for me; and never became boring or predictable.

Before I read the book, I wondered whether it would be too childish for an adult to read. Having read the book, I wonder if it’s too adult-ish for a child to read. It’s touted as “clean,” meaning there’s no swearing or sex, but there is plenty of fighting, references to cancer and dying from it, and strong implications that the villains torture and ritualistically sacrifice people to appease an evil deity. Also, several characters die, including some rather sympathetic ones.

Of course, there are plenty of examples throughout children’s literature of things just as or more disturbing than that. (The classic fairy tales are pretty unsettling, when you think about them.) But everyone has their own ideas of what kids should and shouldn’t read, so it’s important to note that this book was darker than I expected. Not that I minded, and thinking back, I suspect my 10-12 year-old self wouldn’t have minded, either.

While the major conflict of the story is resolved, the book ends on a major cliffhanger to set up the sequel. A sequel which, as far as I can tell, has not been published yet. Certainly, I am eager to see how this story develops–there is a lot of potential in the world that the author has created.

Scout's HonorI love classic science fiction. It may seem corny to some, but there’s a wonderful charm to those vintage pulp stories of science fiction’s Golden Age.

Scout’s Honor is a flawlessly-executed homage to that era. Conventional wisdom about judging books notwithstanding, this is one case where the cover tells you exactly what this is: a love-letter to the space-faring, swashbuckling adventures of yore.

The protagonist is Terran Scout David Rice, who crash lands on the planet Aashla, and soon finds himself fighting to protect the beautiful Princess Callan  from raiders, kidnappers, and armies of rival kingdoms. The inhabitants of Aashla are primitive compared with the advanced technology Rice possesses, but even with his technological superiority, he finds himself needing all his strength and wits to survive.

Along with the princess and her guard, Rice sets out on a fast-paced adventure full of dangerous beasts, alien thugs, and court intrigue. There are airship battles and gladiatorial duels in sewer tunnels. And of course, despite the breakneck pace and the constant danger, Rice and Callan find themselves falling in love.

The story is told in bite-sized chapters, each of which ends with a cliffhanger. I loved this.   Just when one threat seems eliminated, a new one appears. It’s relentless, but in a fun way. I was always eager to see how Rice and company would escape each unpleasant surprise.

Description is minimal, but there is enough suggested through the action that I could picture the scenes effectively. There are a whole host of supporting characters who were quite entertaining in their own right. Martin Bane was a particular favorite of mine; I enjoyed the way his character developed.

There are times when I just feel like escaping into a fun imaginary world, and Scout’s Honor is the perfect way to do that. It’s easy to read, hard to put down, and an all-around delightful way to spend a few hours for fans of sci-fi and fantasy alike.

Joke's on MeThis is a literary novel about a woman named Francine “Frankie” Goldberg returning home to Woodstock, NY after a stalled career as a stand-up comic and agent for a Hollywood actress. Returning to her family’s Bed & Breakfast, now operated by her older sister Judith (“Jude”), Frankie finds herself confronting a number of unresolved issues from her past.

The sisters’ mother, Sylvia, is in an assisted living facility after suffering a stroke. Jude’s son Ethan is an aspiring film director who seeks advice from his aunt Frankie. And Frankie’s teenage crush, Joey Mazzarella, a former MLB player and now minor-league coach, is on the market again, having been divorced from his wife and Frankie’s former rival, Linda Lamb.

Frankie and Jude try to work together to keep the place operating, with Jude having transformed it into a sort of New Age retreat, offering yoga and meditation for the guests. The sisters clash, reconcile, and clash again over all sorts of things–none more so than Jude’s disapproval of Frankie’s increasingly serious relationship with Joey.

The story is narrated in the first-person by Frankie, and she is instantly believable as a former stand-up comedian. Every page is filled with witty, often self-deprecating turns of phrase that make even the most mundane descriptions of everyday life a treat to read about. This isn’t a thriller or typical “page-turner” type of a novel; it’s purely a slice-of-life kind of thing–and yet I kept reading it, chapter after chapter, almost compulsively, until I finished. It’s that well-written.

Every character in the book feels real, even the minor ones. In fact, even one we never actually meet, named “Nunzio,” feels real. I won’t spoil who he is or why we don’t meet him, but you’ll see what I mean.

This book does what I think is the hallmark of all good literary fiction: it lets you see the world through somebody else’s eyes. At first glance, one might not think that I–a midwestern bumpkin and only-child who finds baseball boring–would be a good audience for a story about a comedian returning to New York from Hollywood, who loves baseball and who struggles to figure out her relationship with her sister. But I enjoyed this book immensely. Part of Frankie’s journey involves finding universal truths through humor, and this book does just that.

The Joke’s on Me reminded me of some other high-quality literary fiction I’ve reviewed on here–so if you read and enjoyed Kevin Brennan’s Fascination, Britt Skrabanek’s Nola Fran Evie or any of Mark Paxson’s short stories, check this one out.

Sweet & SourThis is a fun, humorous detective story. I say it’s a detective story rather than a mystery, because while there is some mystery-solving that goes on, it’s not like there’s a wide cast of suspects or a number of motives explored. No, this story is about the fun of reading Jade Stone’s witty narration as she tries to track down a missing young woman named Tanya.

Detective Stone is a memorable character, with a biting wit and a love for fashion. (I admit, some of the fashion terms she’ll use to describe outfits were totally new to me.) As she travels through small English villages to track down the missing woman, Detective Stone casts trenchant observations on everyone she meets. But, when she finally does discover what happened to Tanya, she’s also forced to reveal a more vulnerable side of herself.

My only real trouble with the book–besides the fact that I am completely unfamiliar with the fashion references–was that the conclusion felt a little rushed and difficult to follow. Clearly, it’s setting the stage for more, but it felt a little muddled, at least to me.

Does this book break new ground and revolutionize the genre? No, not really. But would I cheerfully read more like it? Absolutely! Stone is a memorable character, and I enjoyed her voice very much. I’d read a story narrated by this character even if there were no plot, and it was just her acerbic assessments of random people and places.

It’s funny–a couple weeks ago, I blogged about the book Calmer Girls, and how relieved I was that it didn’t have a cynical, snarky narration. And yet this book distinctly does, and I enjoyed it immensely. I think the difference is who the protagonist is–it’s jarring in YA books, when kids or teenagers are cynical and sarcastic. But for an adult detective, who has presumably seen quite a few ugly things, it seems right and proper.

I haven’t read Raymond Chandler, although I know a lot of his famous lines, and I get the sense that the really impressive thing about his detective books was the way his characters talk. Same thing here. I enjoyed this book very much, and plan to give the next installment a try.