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.

Testing the WatersThis story is a mystery; but not in the typical “whodunnit” genre; rather, it’s a mystery of what is happening in the little town of Port Athens. It’s a fishing town, and one of the fishermen, Eli P. Marin, has come back with a trident, which sets all the town on edge.

Soon, everyone in the town–all of whom have their own private interests, scandals, and skeletons in their closets, are gossiping about it. Eventually, Marin makes his announcement, and it is met with a grave response.

The writing is crisp, and I love the way the relationships between the townsfolk are portrayed. It’s even more fun once you figure you out what’s really going on. I’ll give you a hint: the characters’ names matter a great deal in this story, so pay attention to that. At first, I wondered why they all followed a certain pattern–and once I figured it out, I shook my head in amusement for not catching on sooner. It’s really neat.

Hmm, what else can I say about this story that won’t give it away? Not much, unfortunately. Maybe this: it made me think of Lovecraft’s The Shadow Over Innsmouth meets Gilbert and Sullivan’s Thespis. That’s actually a huge spoiler, but I’m gambling that it’s so obscure you’ll quickly realize it’s fastest to just read the book to figure out what I mean. And you should read this book, because it’s a quick, easy read that’s also a lot of fun.

HarvestHarvest is a short story that packs a lot of content into few words. It tells the story of a man named Edgar, who, due to some very evil circumstances, has been given a pumpkin for a head–and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

As Edgar is grappling with this horrible situation, a woman named Emelia and her pet approach, and she fills Edgar in on what has brought him to this state, and what can be done about it. Emelia, speaking in a pleasant, folksy twang, helps Edgar come to terms with his plight. I won’t spoil it–like I said, it’s very short, and providing more detail would give too much away. The fun of the story is in seeing how it works out, and discovering exactly what the characters are, how they came to be that way, and, most of all, what they will do next.

I absolutely adored this story. As you all know, I love scary stories, I love pumpkins, and I love the Halloween season generally. This wonderful tale captures everything that makes it special. It’s got just the perfect blend of scares, mischievousness, and fun that the holiday is all about. You can bet I’ll be re-reading it come October.

So, since it’s a seasonal tale, why am I blogging about it now, instead of waiting until autumn? Well, I happened to stumble across this author thanks to this poignant exchange with Lorinda J. Taylor* on Twitter, and frankly, this case illustrates why I think it’s especially important to support indie authors at this time, more than ever.

There are so many people all across the world who work to create art in their spare time, even after all the daily pressures life puts upon them. Even at the best of times, it’s not easy, and these are hardly the best of times. So when I find work that I like, I think it’s important that I share it. And of course, you can surely tell from the cover alone that this would be something I like. Directly upon seeing that lovely scene, I knew I had to read it, and I was not disappointed.

Harvest is a perfect short story for anyone who loves a good Halloween atmosphere. Some may prefer to read it in season, and that is surely when it will be best enjoyed–in a pumpkin patch, on a warm October’s evening, as the sun is sinking behind the trees, I should say–but true Halloween addicts such as myself can enjoy it all year round.

*For those keeping score, this is now two wonderful authors I’ve discovered thanks to Lorinda, the other being Lindy Moone. Thank you, Lorinda!

HyperlinkThis book

This book…

I mean to say, folks: this book!

Sorry, I’m having a bit of trouble getting started. Where exactly to begin is not obvious here. Normally I give a book’s genre, and then maybe an outline of the plot.

What genre is Hyperlink from Hell? I have no idea.

The story begins with a psychiatrist named Dr. Stapledon being given a manuscript to read, care of Dr. Albert Montclair, the former director of “The Haven”– the mental institution where she works. Montclair is now himself a patient, and the manuscript is by James “Jimmie” Canning, a now-missing former patient of Montclair’s.

Jimmie was a reality TV star with good looks, a photographic memory, and attention-deficit disorder. He is also believed to be the only patient ever to have escaped The Haven.

The only way of understanding what afflicts Dr. Montclair, he tells Dr. Stapledon, is to read Jimmie’s manuscript. “To get to me,” he tells her, “you must go through him.” Desperate to help her former mentor, Dr. Stapledon begins to read.

This book-within-the-book is indescribable. A surreal, impossible tale that begins with Jimmie’s apparent death at the hands of kidnappers, and his return to Earth as a ghostly presence, along with the kidnappers, with whom he embarks on a quest to reconcile with his ex-girlfriend, Jenny.

If that sounds weird, just wait. What follows is a madcap chase to track down Rick, the man who has stolen Jenny away from Jimmie. But that hardly does it justice. There are wacky dream sequences and mile-a-minute references to characters from famous old television shows (Referenced with amusing variations on the names: “Logan’s Heroes,” “Battleship Galaxtica,” “Milligan’s Island,” and so on.) 

Have you ever been sick with a fever, done nothing but sit around watching TV, and then fallen asleep? This is like the dreams you have when that happens. 

There are also tons of puns, sex humor, bathroom humor, and recurring conversations with “Al”—a godlike presence who toys with Jimmie and his friends while simultaneously aiding them on their quest. Oh, and there’s also an invisible, smelly dog named Louie.

Lowbrow, crude humor rarely amuses me. Jokes relating to bodily functions are usually just stupid, in my opinion. But it works for me here. It’s a mixture of crude and sophisticated comedy, similar to Monty Python. That makes it… ah, well I hate to say “palatable,” but you see what I mean.

This book is very funny. But I would not classify it as a comedy; not at all. Jimmie’s manuscript might be a comedy—a very dark, absurd, existential comedy—but remember, it’s just the book-within-the-book. Dr. Stapledon’s experience of what for lack of a better term I’ll call the “real world” is the other part of the story. And it’s not a comedy at all.

Don’t let the cover or the fact that it has tons of humor fool you: this book is not light. It goes from weird to unsettling to downright disturbing—all the more so because the darkest elements are referenced subtly at first, almost in passing, gradually setting up the conclusion when we finally learn what went down at The Haven.

I have trouble with stories that involve violence against women, children, or animals. All three are referenced in this book. Not too graphically, or for extended periods, mind you, but when these and other grim things enter the narrative, they hit you right in the gut.

Okay, so this has violence and crude humor and an incredibly confusing plot. Anything else that might alienate readers? Actually, yes: thematically, the book addresses religion frequently—it might even be the core of the story. I wouldn’t say it’s anti-religion. In fact, it might even be pro-religion, in the sense that it’s pro-faith. But nevertheless, the way the “God” figure is portrayed and certain religious motifs are used might be a turn-off to religious readers.

Oh, and of course there’s swearing. Did I even need to mention that?

Normally, this is where I say something like, “fans of [x] will like this.” I can’t say that here, because I honestly have no idea what other books to compare this to. Other reviews compare it to Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, but having not read them, I don’t know how or in what way this book may be similar. The only remotely comparable book I’ve read is Richard Pastore’s The Devil and the Wolf. It was a hilarious fantasy with religious themes as well, but what makes Hyperlink different is the frenzied, sometimes almost physically exhausting pace of its weirdness.  

The closest analogue I could think of was not a book at all, but a video game: Spec Ops: The Line. I realize that sounds bizarre—how can I compare this humorous mystery novel to a military action game? Well, that’s just it: neither Spec Ops nor Hyperlink from Hell are really what they seem to be. Just as Spec Ops surprises the player by revealing that, far from being a standard military shoot-‘em-up, it’s a complex and layered examination of the psychological toll of violence, Hyperlink from Hell ultimately reveals itself to be not simply a madcap comic adventure, but a meditation on grief and coping and God and the nature of reality itself.

This book lives up to its billing as an “in(s)ane mystery” and then some. I’ve read parts of it multiple times, and there are still things that puzzle me. I discovered it thanks to Lorinda J. Taylor’s review, which I strongly suggest you read, because she does a better job analyzing certain elements than I did. 

I think everyone should buy this book and give it a try. I say that fully aware that some of you will hate it. I know I sometimes say, “This isn’t for everybody,” but that’s extra-true here. Some of you will be turned off by the crude humor. Some of you will just be like, “What the hell even is this? What does Gambrel see in this thing?” Some will make it all the way to the end and feel a bit angry, just as I did, that things didn’t resolve themselves in the way we would hope they would.

But the thing is, this book is an incredible achievement. I can’t imagine how someone could come up with and execute this idea so perfectly, and yet Moone did it. Creative people owe it to one another to be supportive, and for that reason alone, you should at least give it a try. If it seems too weird for you at first, you should probably stop, because it won’t get less weird. But if you get hooked on the ingenuity of the concept and the witty prose, as I was, you’ll feel like you’ve discovered a hidden treasure.

You know how so many forms of entertainment seem to suffer from severe copycat syndrome? That’s because the publishing industry, like many industries, tends to play it very conservative with what they decide to send to the market. Great work is rejected all the time because publishers can’t just ask Is this a good book? but instead have to ask Will it sell enough to make us a profit? And so they’re more likely to only publish books that are similar to other books that have made a profit before.

Indie publishing is changing this, but only to the extent we’re willing to reward people who take big creative risks, and Hyperlink from Hell is about as big of a creative risk as there is. The imagination and effort it must have taken to create this book is simply staggering to contemplate, and the fact that it only has eleven reviews on Amazon (all glowing, you’ll notice) is a tragedy. Yes, it’s a twisted and surreal roller-coaster that not everyone will want to take, and from which no one will emerge emotionally unscathed, but it’s also a literary masterpiece and a daring work of creative genius—yes, I said it—that deserves to be widely read and discussed.

Small PrintSmall Print is a collection of four sci-fi short stories, all premised around the ways in which advanced technology can disrupt the lives of organic life forms.

In “Data,” a skilled hacker’s curiosity gets the better of him, and he finds out more about his employer’s use of data than he would have liked. In “Juliet,” the subject of an experimental space exploration mission struggles to cope with the loneliness of space. In “Small Print,” a technician on a lunar base encounters a clerical error with severe consequences, and in “Shelley,” a young woman grapples with a mysterious trauma from her childhood.

All the stories are well-written and interesting. I liked “Juliet” the best—it ends with a surprise twist that makes an already powerful story even more poignant. “Shelley” was the weakest in my opinion—which is not to say that it was bad—but I just felt the ending was too abrupt, and the main character’s mother didn’t react to certain developments the way I would have expected her to, based on her earlier behavior.

“Data” was particularly hard-hitting, given how many big governments, corporations, and other large faceless entities have recently become fascinated by “big data,” it’s easy to imagine them abusing it just as they do in this story.

“Small Print” was probably the most complex and layered story in the collection. There’s a lot going on here, much of which I liked. I won’t spoil it, but space ghosts are a thing in this story, and you know that’s going to be a winner with me. However, there were other aspects that were a bit confusing—I had to read the story twice before I fully “got” it. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I felt like some more fleshing out would have made it better.

I think that’s true of every story in this collection, except maybe “Juliet,” which felt quite complete. They all are promising concepts, but left me wanting more. Which is a very good thing—it’s much better to have a good concept in need of more detail than a weak concept that you try to drag out. I look forward to reading more of Scobie’s work in the future.

VokhtahI’ve known about this book for a few years, but I kept putting off reading it because the premise seemed so forbidding. It’s set on another planet—Vokhtah—and the characters are all aliens. Well, alien to us, I mean–they are the creatures that evolved on Vokhtah. Not a human to be found, is my point. It’s intimidatingly exotic and strange, and that’s why I didn’t read it for so long, even though I enjoyed Flory’s other, unrelated sci-fi novel Miira. 

And for sure, Vokhtah is strange. The most intelligent creatures that inhabit the eponymous planet are a species—or really two closely-related species—with characteristics suggestive of birds, bats and perhaps insects. To make things even tougher, they don’t have names; only titles and ranks. There are traders, plodders, apprentices, healers, and a range of characters referred to only as numbers. Not only that, they are hermaphroditic—so, before mating, they have no defined genders.

Technology on Vokhtah is primitive—it appears to be largely what we would consider Stone or maybe early Bronze Age, although some references are made to machinery of some sort, but it’s not clear exactly how it works. There are different seasons that dictate the tribes’ customs, and time is kept according to the planet’s two suns.

And then there is the language. Obviously, the book is written in English, but the characters speak their dialogue with a different grammar. For example, instead of saying, “Are you hungry,” they would say, “Being hungry?” I don’t think the word “is” occurs once in this book. It gives you the feeling that you’re genuinely reading something spoken in a different language and translated into the closest approximation possible in our own tongue.

I’m telling you all this to prepare you up front: Vokhtah is not a typical or familiar book. The first half or so, you have to get acclimated to the alien planet and its population, their customs, and their ways of life. 

Flory does a great job crafting a profoundly different world. Even though I will admit that in the first half I found the story hard to follow, it really didn’t matter because I was just enjoying experiencing the atmosphere. Although it was sometimes hard for me to tell who characters were and how they related to the larger thread of the plot, it didn’t bother me, because I was just enjoying reading these fascinating little vignettes of life on this world.

My favorite of these is the dramatic performance of an old piece of Vokh lore—the story of the Great Nine and the Rogue. We learn that there are actually two versions of this story, and finding out the differences between the two versions and why they exist is just a fantastic concept. I loved this part.

Over the second half of the book, things coalesce, characterizations take shape, and I found myself sympathizing with members of this bird/bat/bug species more than I ever would have believed possible. The journey of the Messenger and the Apprentice along the Spine of the World (great name) was riveting. There’s even a little bit of a mystery element to it as well, which I won’t spoil here.

Yes, this book is different and weird and unlike anything else I’ve ever read. But that’s the point!  If intelligent life exists on other planets, it’s going to be bizarre and foreign and at least semi-incomprehensible to human intellects. Reading this book really did feel like being transported to an alien world, and that was fantastic. I wish I’d read it sooner, because it really is a master-class in world-building. Vokhtah is a haunting, vividly-constructed depiction of a fascinating world—one I’d happily revisit.