Archive for June, 2011

The Sacred Band — A Triumphant Return

Guest Reviewer: Today’s guest reviewer is a holder of a Theater degree from Christopher Newport University. An actress and talented writer in her own right, she has starred in many productions, including the lead roles in “Angel Street”, “Dark at the Top of the Stairs”, “Sabrina Fair”, “Anastasia”, and “Am I Blue”. Please welcome guest reviewer Melanie Boyd.

The Sacred Band

By Janet Morris and Chris Morris

The Sacred Band marks the triumphant return of Tempus, Nikodemus, Straton, Critius and the rest of the Sacred Band of Stepsons to the world of print after many years. Using the true story of the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 BC as a starting point, Tempus, Niko and the Sacred Band save 46 members of the Sacred Band of Thebes, whose remains were never recovered, and takes them away to Sanctuary, to unite the Sacred Bands and save those who would have otherwise perished.

The book flows really well, but unless you have a strong desire for the history of the ancient battles of Phillip of Macedon, the first chapter or two might not be easy for you to read. I think anyone would enjoy the book, but especially those that like history or anything dealing with Classical (Greek and Roman) times. The relationships between the characters are well defined. You feel their pain when something happens to one of the Band’s members and the romantic scenes are tastefully depicted, not graphic in any way.

I really liked Niko as a character, and related to him the best. He was being pulled a million different ways emotionally throughout the story between his love of Tempus, Randal’s love for him, his desire to keep some loyalty with Enlil (due to his love for Tempus), his newfound loyalty and love for the goddess Harmony, and his search for peace through Maat, his inner balance. He also feels a tremendous amount of guilt for what happens to Shamshi and feels as though it were his fault at what becomes of the young boy.

Some of the language I found hard to grasp, though. Words were used I didn’t always comprehend, but I don’t feel it took away from the story in spite of this. If I’d really wanted to, I could have looked up the things I didn’t know, but I didn’t want to stop reading long enough to do this.

The book can be confusing at the beginning because most characters have more than one name they go by. Tempus = Riddler, Nikodemus = Niko = Stealth, Strat = Straton, Kouras = Gyskouras, Crit = Critius, etc. I had to keep flipping back at first to other pages to remember who was who. After awhile, the names began to naturally stick together, which made for a much easier read for me. Some readers may find that that makes it harder to keep things straight, but no worries, as it all makes sense as you go further into the book.

I would recommend this book to any new fan of the series, and definitely to any returning reader. I loved all of the characters and I got to know them very well throughout the book. It’s definitely a page-turner, and one that I plan on reading again.

–reviewed by Melanie

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Marvelle’s “Perfect Scandal” — An Uneven, Frustrating Read

The Perfect Scandal (Hqn)Delilah Marvelle’s THE PERFECT SCANDAL, a historical romance novel set in 1824, was a frustrating book from beginning to end.

First off, I really liked Polish Countess Zosia Urszula Kwiatkowska’s character; here was a strong, smart woman, an amputee with a good mind, a great wit, and a kind heart.  I liked her a lot.

But I never really bought into English Marquis Tristan Adam Hargrove, Lord of Moreland, partly because of the way his problems are discussed.  Moreland, you see, is twenty-eight years old, regularly cuts himself, and has fetishes regarding whips, knives, and swords.  Moreland is also the author of the best-selling book How to Avoid a Scandal — he wrote this because he identifies with people who don’t have great control over their own lives due to his own personal issues and wants to help them, which is probably his most laudable quality.  But this tendency to put words over actions is something that gets at the heart of why Moreland is an extremely frustrating character to write a book around.

If you think the way Moreland looks at things is a bit off-putting for a period romance, the way he meets Zosia is really out there — at least, for 1824.  She waves at him from a window in the late evening, and Moreland stops to converse despite the fact she’s several floors up and it’s not a “decent” hour.  He stays there “talking” with her (really, he’s shouting at her, and she’s shouting back, and both are entertaining the neighborhood no end).  He says whatever he can manage until he realizes what he’s doing, then he leaves — but all that time, he hasn’t a clue who Zosia is, not that she’s an amputee, not anything at all about her whatsoever.  He only knows that he’s sexually attracted.

Now, is the last realistic?  The attraction, sure — similar things have been known to happen the world over.   But does the man in question then start to fantasize this way?

From pages 30 and 31:

Her eyes would never leave his as her hand gripped the thick handle of a whip he’d given her to play with.  She would then smile ever so softly, ever so charmingly, while delicately smacking the braided leather end against his thigh or back, causing him to suck in breaths of anticipation.

I’m sorry; this is horrible writing.  Not because of the nature of Moreland’s fantasy — fantasies are in the eye of the beholder — but because of the fact that later on in the story Moreland admits that most young women would never, but never, be able to handle the nature of his whip fixation.  Zosia is only twenty-three, a maiden, and has absolutely zero sexual experience so she’d definitely fall into this category.  Mind, if this fantasy had been later on in the story, along with Moreland’s own wry take that Zosia would never go for this, but wouldn’t it be lovely for him if she did, I’d buy it — but in the second chapter?  With three adverbs in one sentence (softly, charmingly, delicately)?  Why do this, Ms. Marvelle?

Anyway, Zosia and Moreland’s romance is only part of the story.  We’re also told about Poland and how it wants its independence through the way Zosia acts; about Russia, Poland’s overlord (which has a strange hold over Zosia that must be read to be believed); about King George and his cousin, Dowager Lady Moreland, and the secrets they’ve been keeping from all concerned.  Most of this reads well even if doesn’t quite scan — many romances are based on stuff much thinner than this, and a cross-cultural romance between the Polish nationalist Zosia and believer-in-religious-freedom Moreland isn’t at all strange.

What bothers me is that while there’s some life in this writing, and the love scenes — not just the sex itself, but the intimacy and the conversation between the pair — are excellent, the underlying nature of Moreland’s character just does not work.  (Please, do not get me started regarding Moreland’s insistence on becoming a “changed man,” someone Zosia can love, someone without his odd sexual quirks, or I’ll bend your ears ’til the cows come home — because every woman worth her salt, in or out of a romance novel, knows this very basic maxim:  men do not change easily, or quickly, even if the man in question desperately wants to change.) 

I’m sorry, but I just didn’t understand why Moreland, who’s an outcast due to his sexual proclivities, thinks he’ll be able to change “just like that” because of “love, sweet love.”  Maybe he really wants to change, in theory, but in practice, we know he’s fantasizing about whips and getting so caught up in the fantasy that he’s insisting on using three adverbs where really only one should do.  That makes me think that Moreland’s sexual issues are much more deeply rooted than we’ve been led to believe — meaning there’s no way he’d be able to jettison them so quickly, even for Zosia.

Because of all of this, THE PERFECT SCANDAL is an uneven, frustrating read.  Despite my initial high hopes, based off the first chapter’s banter between Moreland and the “unknown foreign woman” Zosia, the story never measured up to Ms. Marvelle’s obvious talent for dialogue and characterization (Zosia’s character is spot-on).  What’s there is not enough to make up for the poorly-thought-out characterization with regards to Moreland — his faults, his fixations, and his fetishes.  I remained convinced from beginning to end that everything Moreland felt and thought was because Ms. Marvelle told him to say and do and act this way, not because it intrinsically flowed from his character.  That’s a huge flaw in any book, but most especially in a romance novel where we must believe the two people could exist in real life in order to care about them.

My advice is to read something else by Ms. Marvelle rather than this; she has talent, but this book simply did not measure up.  

Grade: a generous C-

— reviewed by Barb

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Mercedes Lackey’s “Unnatural Issue” — a Bildungsroman with teeth

Unnatural Issue: An Elemental Masters NovelMercedes Lackey’s newest book in her Elemental Magic series is UNNATURAL ISSUE, a coming of age story about Suzanne Whitestone.  Suzanne has been raised to believe she doesn’t matter, at all, to her father Richard Whitestone or to anyone save the household servants due to her mother’s death in childbirth.  Whitestone’s grief is so profound that he has immured himself in his rooms for over twenty years, growing more and more bitter and turning away from his duties as an Earth Master.  Because of this, the land around his house had become barren and stagnant, surely a metaphor for Whitestone’s soul, until Suzanne herself took up her father’s duties at a young age.

Due to Richard’s grief and rage over his beloved wife’s death, he turned to evil and has become a necromancer.   Necromancers, as you may know from Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series, can raise the dead and speak with them, or worse, enchant them to fight against the living.   Because Richard’s original talent was for Earth magic (growing things, basically), he’s able to do necromancy more easily because death is a natural part of the way the world works.  He’s become quite proficient, and powerful, with this talent over the past twenty years.

All of this is important to know, because when Suzanne turns twenty years old, Richard finally looks at her through a window and realizes how much she resembles his late wife.  This is the last straw as far as he’s concerned, and he resolves to raise his wife from the dead to rejoin him as his consort.  But he needs a body to put his wife in because her own would never serve as she’s been dead twenty years; decomposition has set in.  This is why Suzanne has suddenly become important.  Whitestone’s intention now is to kill his daughter’s spirit (but not her body), then raise his wife’s body and soul, separate her soul from her dead body and put it into Suzanne’s still-living body.  This is absolutely disgusting, and Lackey writes it exactly that way. 

But Suzanne is not without resources; she’s a powerful Earth magician in her own right, and one of her allies is the Prince of the Fae Robin Goodfellow (also known as Puck).  Robin is what’s known as a “land warden,” someone who has been around since the dawn of time.  Suzanne’s nascent Earth power drew him to her when she was quite young because magicians must be trained if they’re not to unintentionally harm the land, and in any event he’s known to have a soft spot for young children.

But this is a bildungsroman — a coming of age story — so as engrossing as all of this is, it’s only part of the whole.  The real story is about Suzanne — how can she figure out how to be her own person with a father like that, because it’s obvious she’s going to run off just as soon as she possibly can once she realizes her father’s evil intentions.  What can she do with her gifts and talents?  And, when World War I breaks out, will she sit on the sidelines — or will she act?

Note that in this universe, no one magician, no matter how powerful, can change the course of World War I.  (Robin Goodfellow knew something bad was coming, and warned Suzanne as she was somewhat “out of the loop” due to her father’s horrible behavior and being confined on his country estate for the first twenty years of her life.)  So if Suzanne acts, her talents can only heal small things, but it’s still worth doing.  (Note that Whitestone, with all his evilness and necromancy, is unable to affect the overall outcome, either — but he can harass Suzanne and do his best to kill any of her allies.)

So, to sum it up, we have Suzanne, who must come of age quickly in order to fight against World War I, then her father’s evil nature as well.  We have her father, who is an evil necromancer — blacker than black as Lackey seems to prefer, though in a fairy-tale derived story like this, it fits.  We have a “schoolgirl crush/puppy love” object in the form of Charles Kerridge, an Earth mage with some power but less than Suzanne and who is of a higher class and station than Suzanne, for Suzanne to fall in love with.  And we have Lord Peter Almsley, Lackey’s homage to Dorothy Sayers’ well-known character Peter Wimsey, a man of substance and verve, who the reader takes to immediately and hopes Suzanne will notice before it’s too late.

So, will Suzanne live to claim her inheritance as an Earth mage?  Will she notice Peter?  Will she figure out how to claim her adulthood despite it all?  And will the reader appreciate the story?  The answers to all of these questions should surprise no one.

The pluses here are the true-to-life characterization and the depiction of World War I.  The minuses are the usual “lack of shades of gray” in Lackey’s storytelling — granted, when she does try for them, it doesn’t tend to work too well — and the fact that about halfway through, Richard’s story just disappears and we’re left to figure it out from hints and direct information from Almsley, Suzanne herself and other magicians.

As for a grade, I’d give this one a straight-up B.  Lackey’s prolific; she knows what she’s doing as she’s been writing professionally for around twenty-five years.  So I can’t really forgive Richard’s story flat-out disappearing (though he was disgusting and I hated reading his viewpoint, it was crucial to the story and I really wish I’d seen more because the ending would’ve been stronger) because it must’ve been intentional.  (Lackey has way too much craft and skill to have unwittingly done something like this.)  And I feel there must’ve been a better way to do this than to just drop Richard’s story at that point; if I can think of alternative ways to get the story told in the same amount of space, I’m sure Lackey can do the same.

Still.  If you enjoy any of Lackey’s writing, you will like UNNATURAL ISSUE; her strengths as a writer are profound and are present in this story.  Because of her strengths,  the story is compelling and visceral.  And if you’ve never picked up any books by Lackey before, you may well appreciate this because it’s a well-told story about a young woman’s coming of age despite profound evil in and out of her own family (the latter in the form of World War I).

— reviewed by Barb

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Pam Uphoff’s “Lawyers of Mars” — Fun, Fast Satire

Pam Uphoff’s novella LAWYERS OF MARS is a fun, fast satire of many genres.  Uphoff’s heroine is the reptilian Xaero L’Svages, from a long line of Martian cave dwellers and lawyers.  Xaero sees her society for what it is — static, propped up by technology most people barely understand, and often infantile — because her grandfather was one of the last of the Dry Scales, those Martians who actually lived most of the time on the surface of Mars rather than in the caves.  Xaero is a female and is a fertile one (in this society, infertility is common, and “pseudo-males” or “pseudo-females,” commonly called pseudos, are those who may never be able to breed but are otherwise fully functional), but due to her Dry Scale inheritance is able to pretend to be a pseudo because pseudo-fems have a great deal more freedom available than do true-fems.  And in any event, Xaero really enjoys the law.

The story starts off with Xaero getting her guilty-as-sin client (and potential environmental terrorist) Blosilli C’dasi off with a verdict of “not proven.”  Xaero has recently been made partner at the venerable law firm L’svages, L’svages, L’svages, L’svages, and L’svages — yes, Ms. Uphoff repeats the name five times — and most of the firm resents her due to her grandfather the Dry Scale (ah, nothing like class prejudice) and because she’s supposedly a pseudo, so the celebratory and ritualistic drinking that occurs at the L’svages, et. al., firm after her win seems quite hollow to her.  When her much-younger cousin Raelphy — the “y” ending depicting a person who is either a juvenile or behaves in a juvenile manner — gets assigned to her during the party in order for her to “train him up to standard,” she wonders how her life can get any worse.

After Raelphy gets kidnapped and no one seems to care, Xaero decides she’s just going to have to rescue him herself.  When she realizes something is badly wrong, she gets taken captive, then has to find out how to get away.  Then she becomes enmeshed in what seems to be a simple substitution plot based on mistaken identity on behalf of domestic terrorists who wish to wreck the power grid in order to somehow save the environment.  (That the environment is propped up by the power grid due to a rather literal underground greenhouse effect makes no never-mind to the terrorists; they just want to destroy something because they haven’t really thought this one out.)    But of course things couldn’t be that simple, and they aren’t; two Martian princes later, Xaero isn’t sure what’s hit her, nor does she know how she’s going to get everyone away from the rather single-minded terrorists.

How Xaero gets through all this, while rescuing her young cousin and many other innocent bystanders in the process, is for you to read.  But I urge you to take the chance; LAWYERS OF MARS is fun, mostly because of how it sends up current American society — from fashion, to the environmentalists, to the terrorists who haven’t fully thought things through, to the power grid that everyone uses but no one really understands, it’s all there.  Then, add in the fact of this venerable law firm, where billable hours come first (even before signing up new clients), some speculation on the nature of a four-sexed society (true-male, true-female, pseudo-male, pseudo-female), and a sprinkling of hard science with regards to Martian planetary features and how they might affect a native species, and you have a fast-moving action-adventure-satire unlike anything else I’ve ever read.

Now, as for the drawbacks?  I don’t really see the point to all the minor inflections of people’s names, though I get it that many cultures have done exactly what Ms. Uphoff did with her Martians.   Consider that in Raelphy’s case, his basic name is Raelph, but the “y” ending means he’s a juvenile (or has bad behavior, take your pick), the “e” ending (when it shows up) means he’s a pseudo-male (or possibly a male who just isn’t mature enough to breed; sometimes the pseudos do not progress, sometimes they do), and the “i” ending (later on) means he’s impregnated someone else and will be a father shortly.  Keeping track of who was what sex at what point in the story got a little confusing, but it’s at most a minor quibble.

The bigger problem I had with the story was the high amount of expertise Xaero had in fields that weren’t hers — as in, she’s an expert hiker.  She’s an expert tracker.  She’s good at picking locks, or at least thinks she is.  She’s nobody’s fool, which I liked, and she’s able to solve many problems — all good.  But no one has this many talents without having some sort of major personality drawback, and unless Xaero’s supposed drawback is that she doesn’t like her secretary (which isn’t much), or that she snaps at people often when she hasn’t had caffeine in the morning (ditto), I just didn’t see any real weaknesses coming from her.

Finally, the Epilogue is very short and I would’ve liked a great deal more there, especially with regards to Xaero.  We see the resolution of the crisis, yes, in the final chapter — but we do not see how Xaero, herself, manages to keep everyone guessing at her law firm with regards to her sexuality when she has had sex by that point and wasn’t exactly being shy and retiring about it.  How could she have gotten away with it all?

All of that, though, doesn’t really detract from the pleasure I took in reading LAWYERS OF MARS; it’s just something that nags at me and says, “This isn’t quite an A-level story; instead, it’s a B-plus.”

Those quibbles aside, LAWYERS OF MARS is original, interesting, and has several laugh-out-loud moments.   I enjoyed it a great deal, and believe you will, too, if you just go with the story and don’t take it too seriously. 

— reviewed by Barb

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Hirsh’s “Capital Offense” — Wall Street, DC Insiders, and Money

Capital Offense: How Washington's Wise Men Turned America's Future Over to Wall StreetMichael Hirsh’s  CAPITAL OFFENSE: HOW WASHINGTON’S WISE MEN TURNED AMERICA’S FUTURE OVER TO WALL STREET is a wry primer about Wall Street, the DC Beltway and its insiders, and money.  The title is a hat tip to Hirsh’s style, as the term “capital offense” is a legal term used when a crime is punishable by the death penalty, and several of the Wall Street firms either went out of business or had to combine with other, larger banks in order to survive.  But it has a secondary meaning, in that large “offenses” were made with the capital (money, wealth) of the United States by the Wall Street barons; Hirsh’s reporting is thus far the most comprehensive look at how, and why, the 2007-8 financial meltdown finally happened.

Hirsh starts off with the one person, Brooksley Born, who figured out something was about to go badly wrong in 1998.  Born was the chairperson of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, and she was concerned about derivatives trading — derivatives being the short-hand term for what Hirsh calls on page 2:

Derivatives were market contracts that bet on the upward or downward movement of some underlying asset that they “derived” their value from, like interest rates or mortgages.  Using derivatives, global companies could protect their overseas profits from market gyrations, and investors from all over the world could place bets on some country’s currency, or get a piece of an entire state’s mortgage payment stream.”

Now, why did the Wall Street folks want to do this?  Because they were always looking for new ways to “repackage” financial assets and sell them to new customers; derivatives were merely the latest “tool” in their arsenal.  Born knew this was a problem because it was a completely unregulated market that amounted to multiple trillions of dollars in trading that was completely “off the books.”  (Yes, Hirsh said “trillions.”  It gets worse.)  And she said this was wrong, in public, at Congressional hearings — but was ignored, belittled, and basically trampled upon by such luminaries as then-Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan and Treasury head Robert Rubin.  Back in 1998, Greenspan and Rubin had luminous reputations; according to Hirsh, these two were seen as perhaps the “most effective Fed-Treasury team” ever, and they weren’t about to listen to a pipsqueak woman, no matter how much sense she made.  Born was a lawyer, not an economist, and these two well-known financial icons believed they knew best. 

But were, of course, quite wrong.

Going a bit further back, things started to go downhill in 1981 during Ronald Reagan’s first term as President.   Reagan believed in degulation of financial matters, and started undoing many regulations that had been instituted in the 1930s after the Great Depression.   This was done openly, but no one really paid attention; even after the great Savings and Loan scandal of the late 1980s, where 747 of 3234 S & Ls failed, no one seemed to realize that there wasn’t nearly enough oversight going on in Washington, DC.

And it got worse during George H. W. Bush’s administration, as he believed in the “markets policing themselves;” then, during the two Bill Clinton terms, Clinton actually employed a number of long-term Wall Street icons, including Robert Rubin, while keeping Greenspan on as chairman of the Federal Reserve . . . and this all seemed to work, as Clinton actually ended his two terms with a budgetary surplus.

However, then we came up to George W. Bush’s administration, and things rapidly worsened.  This was partly because Bush the younger believed just as strongly as his father in market deregulation (as Bush had an MBA from Harvard’s Business School), and partly because some of what Born had seen years earlier came to pass — all of these unregulated markets started to cause problems, with fissures occurring in even the strongest-seeming banks world-wide.

So, by the time we got to 2007, where the markets started to fail, and into 2008, when the Wall Street firms, like Lehman Brothers (then the fourth-largest monetary institution in the United States), started to fail (with Lehman closing altogether), and big banks world-wide had to admit to enormous problems, the United States was stuck.  Folks like Ben Bernanke, now head of the Federal Reserve, and Hank Paulson, head of the Treasury, had to step in or perhaps the whole economy would’ve collapsed — things were just that dire, and Hirsh says so at great length, starting with the housing crisis (the sub-prime mortgages starting to fail back in late ’06 and into ’07), then into August 9, 2007’s big problem in France.

Now, why was the last such a huge issue?  Because as Hirsh points out on page 249, it was the first time since the 1930s when a big bank overseas (in this case, BNP Paribas) had said flat-out that it was not going to allow its customers to withdraw from certain funds at all, because it “could not determine the market for their holdings” when these holdings were from the United States.  BNP Paribas’s statement (as quoted by Hirsh on p. 249) said:

The complete evaporation of liquidity in certain market segments of the U.S. securitization market has made it impossible to value certain assets fairly regardless of their quality or credit rating.

Which caused a major problem; to wit, markets were now, effectively, frozen.  Because if you couldn’t figure out what assets really were held, and where, how could you possibly continue basing a country’s economy on those assets?

Following that, the European Central Bank said in what Hirsh calls an “unusual statement” that they were making money available for lending, which was a tacit indication that no one could trust anyone else’s holdings.

And then, the bailouts started, along with the mergers, and then the fall-out, as middle-class customers all over the world lost major money.  (That middle-class people had been urged, at least in the United States, to view their investments as “safe,” almost as safe as if the money had been left in the bank to gather a small amount of interest, was the major difference between the 1929 Stock Market crash and the big problems of 2007 and 2008.)

And then, of course, came the finger-pointing . . . but out of all of that, we gained this scholarly, yet readable, book from Hirsh, so at least that’s something.

As far as ratings go, this one’s an A-plus, must-read book about the financial crisis — but be warned.  Some who seem at first to be heroes, like Rubin, turn out to be unwitting villains, while some who are definitely heroines from the start, like Born, never get their due (or, rather, are only truly valued by Hirsh rather than the DC beltway players who helped set up this mess in the first place).  And you may be just like me, wondering why these well-paid folks didn’t see the crisis coming from a common sense standpoint — much less wondering why when someone finally did point it out (like Born), it was ignored.**

— reviewed by Barb


** Note:  If you feel like throwing something after reading about all the deregulation that led to this mess — or if you feel even more like throwing something after you realize how well Born understood the whole derivatives market problem, yet was completely marginalized and ignored rather than listened to at a time her warning should’ve done some good — feel free to break whatever you need.  I will completely understand.

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Yu’s “Universe” well worth entering

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe: A Novel (Vintage)Charles Yu’s HOW TO LIVE SAFELY IN A SCIENCE FICTIONAL UNIVERSE is a book that’s partly science fiction and partly a philosophical discussion on the nature of time.  Yu’s protagonist is also named, coincidentally enough, Charles Yu — and protagonist Yu has a time machine named Tammy, an ontological dog (that may or may not be real), and a job where he mostly takes people back to see themselves while they’re making mistakes — as time can’t be stopped, mistakes cannot be un-made.  Protagonist Yu is in big trouble because his father is missing in chrono-space, his mother is in a time-loop where she makes Sunday dinner over and over again, and his own life is a compete and utter mess as during his travels, he’s actually run into his future self and shot him — meaning he’s now trying to either avoid a paradox or cause one.   As protagonist Yu’s story is told in first-person present tense, this just adds to the frustration — and the humor — that Yu can’t help but feel.

Where is this all taking place?  Mirror Universe 31, which is only 93% complete; it contains sexbots (yes, the prostitutes of this universe are machines), a conglomerate called “Time Warner Time,” and what seems like a whole lot of frustrated people who are implied rather than shown.   Protagonist Yu’s boss, for example, is a machine program who complains about his wife — that made me wonder what the programmers’ lives must be like in that universe — and his AI, Tammy, has a major unrequited crush on Yu.

So, the plot is somewhat convoluted — will Yu shoot himself?  Well, of course he’s going to do that, but the reasons he does may surprise and/or perplex — because ultimately, action and reaction in Yu’s SF universe are the two faces of one coin, which has already been flipped.  And the philosophical nature of these questions — “What is Time, really?  What is space, really?  What are relationships if one person isn’t fully able to be ‘in the moment’ with you?” — is both profound and moving.

But saying all that leaves out the best part of HOW TO LIVE SAFELY IN A SCIENCE FICTIONAL UNIVERSE: its humor.  Writer Yu embodies his protagonist with a ready wit and an insightful mind; his protagonist might seem to be your typical thirty-something slacker, but in reality his mind is engaged and his life has a purpose (even if it’s not the one he’d hoped for).

My favorite passage is this one, located on page 213.  Protagonist Yu has been in a time-loop, and has asked his AI, Tammy, how long they were there.  After she won’t answer him, Yu bursts out with:

“What is your problem?” I say.  “It’s a simple question.  How long has it been since we left?”

“The answer to the question of how long it has been since we left,” she says, “is that we haven’t left yet.”

“Oh my God,” I say.  “You’re right.”

“You shot yourself, and then you jumped into the machine at eleven forty-seven a.m. that day.  From there, you tried to skip ahead, but when you did that, you encountered nothingness.  There was no future . . . “

I liked this little snippet because it encapsulates the nature of Yu’s story (writer and protagonist alike) — it is a story about how we do things, not what.  Or, rather, it’s a story about how we feel about doing things that may well be pre-destined and thus unavoidable.  (Well, that along with the natures of time, space, and whether or not time machine AI programs can fall in love.  Much less whether or not an ontological dog is as good as a “real” one that can be observed by all our senses outside a time machine.)

Readers who enjoy humor and philosophy along with their science fiction will enjoy Yu’s novel immensely, especially if they don’t take it too seriously.

Grade — A.

— reviewed by Barb

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“Night Whispers” — Scary stories from a Short Anthology

NIGHT WHISPERS, edited by Amanda S. Green, is a short seven story anthology put together by Naked Reader Press.  It features a number of scary stories from a number of different angles, but could otherwise be called “variations on terror, human style.”  There are some funny stories here — or at least some stories with funny moments in them — but the tone, and tenor, of this anthology is more grim than not.

First up is Dave Freer’s short story, “Jack.”  This is a story about Hrolf Ragnusson, a fighter, and his men, trying to last a night on Gnita Heath during the medieval (or proto-medieval) era.   Hrolf and the others are out there because way too many men have been getting killed by Jack o’ the Heath — a monster reputed to be terrible and vicious.  However, what Hrolf finds isn’t exactly what he was expecting . . . let’s just say I enjoyed this story and its novel take on Scandinavian myth and appreciated its take that sometimes, what’s truly scary isn’t what you think it is — it’s what you know it isn’t.

The next story was my personal favorite of the anthology, Sarah A. Hoyt’s “Till Your Proud Heart Break.”  This is about three magicians — Glennys, her first husband, Amyas, and her second husband, Thelko.  There is a terrible plague, and Glennys and Amyas have come to try to stop it, though they’re still in the first month or so of marriage.  In Hoyt’s story, magic is far more powerful when a married couple shares it — but to gain the greater power, something must be sacrificed.  Here, what happens is that Glennys and Amyas can no longer cast spells alone — they must cast them together or they have no chance at all.  As for Thelko, he’s been a magical singleton — that is, he’s never married — and he’s also trying to stop the plague or heal the victims as much as he can.  But his magic works differently than either Amyas’s or Glennys’s, something none of the three of them seems to realize, and this causes great problems for all of them.

When Amyas passes on, Glennys suspects that Thelko did away with him because Thelko, like many men, was taken with Glennys — but Thelko, unlike most of these men, was also a capable magician, which gave him a motivation for murder.  But did Thelko really commit murder to be with Glennys?  If so, why did Glennys marry him?  And will anyone, ever, stop the plague?

“Till Your Proud Heart Break” raises many more questions than it answers, and is a stunning story about pride, loss, redemption, heartbreak, sacrifice, and much, much more.   Excellent story, and my pick as the best in the entire NIGHT WHISPERS anthology.

Charles Edgar Quinn’s “Gobble, Gobble, One of Us” is about a vampire hunter in our present-day world, which means this is a contemporary urban fantasy.  Christopher Mauldin is a guy who can’t seem to get it right; he’s geeky, nervous, doesn’t date often (and when he does, tends to screw it up royally), and really cannot stand vampires.  Yet now, there’s a girl he likes at his latest job at a copy shop — but she’s not what she seems.  So what will he do to “save” her if warranted, and how will it change him if he does?

I had a few problems with this story; for one, the nebbish at its heart was a bit too stereotypically drawn.  This is a guy who doesn’t have anything going for him — he lacks self-esteem — yet he wants to be a present-day version of Bram Stoker?  What gives?

And why, oh why, would he put everything on the line for this girl when he’s not been able to make a move in her direction in the particular way he chooses (which I will not spoil)?  (I can see making some sort of move, but why he picks that one, I just don’t know.)

All that being said, this is a competently rendered story and I’d like to see more from Mr. Quinn in the future.

Robert A. Hoyt’s story “Bite One, Get One Free” is about biological packaging run amuck.  Here we have store manager Gavin Shlen as the one human running an entirely biological grocery store.   The carts, shelves, etc., are all living plants which live off both biosynthesis and a certain type of nourishment that’s supposed to be provided by tanker trucks.  Yet the trucks haven’t shown up for a week or two now, and the store is obviously getting restless — will Shlen be able to outwit or outlast the plants as they attempt to take over the store?  And why haven’t those gosh-darned trucks shown up, anyway?

“Bite One, Get One Free” is an unusual and highly original story that combines the worlds of high tech, “green” jobs and manufacturing, bureaucracy, and the most outlandish take on vampirism I’ve ever read.  While it’s a dark story, there are bits of humor here, and I rooted for Mr. Hoyt’s hero, Shlen, all the way through.  Kudos!

Ellie Ferguson’s “Predator or Prey” is yet another dark fantasy with some humorous moments.  Here, we have teachers, shapechangers, and a town that has seemingly lost its bearings — yet Miss Patterson, the town’s newest teacher, will get things back on track, or else.

Here, what drew me in was the character of Miss Patterson; it was obvious from the start she wasn’t what she seemed, yet she has the same concerns of every teacher — plus a few more.  And how she takes on two extremely obnoxious parents, who are convinced their son is right no matter what he writes or says, is well worth cheering.  “Predator or Prey” is a romp, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Next is Kate Paulk’s “Hell of a Job,” another dark fantasy romp, this time about an Earth woman who’s been picked to be the newest Dark Lord of Hell.  Elizabeth Antonia Harrisfield had never wanted this job, but now that she has it, she’s going to do her best to be the best Dark Lord ever — even to perhaps snaring the Dread Lord’s hand in marriage if she plays her cards right.

Here, the story is more about how Elizabeth adapts more than anything else — we already know that the main “hook” is that of a good woman forced into a bad situation through no fault of hers — and the laughs come in whenever Elizabeth finds a way to not kill people (or at least not kill so many), or whenever Elizabeth points out that being good to her loyal Dark minions is better for business than scaring, then killing them.  I enjoyed “Hell of a Job” quite a bit, and look forward to whatever Kate Paulk writes next.

Finally, we come to the final story in this short anthology, Sarah A. Hoyt’s “Zebbie.”  (Yes, this is her second in the anthology.)  This is all about the “little people,” and cats, and how sometimes the lowest-priced house around isn’t the one you want to live in if you have a choice.

Zebbie, the title character, is a cat — no, not a speaking cat, a regular house cat — who stumbles upon something, kills it, and brings it back to his owners.  However, what he killed wasn’t human — it was a fairy (and a very small fairy, at that, smaller than most birds) — and that means Zebbie’s in trouble.  Will his humans figure out what’s really going on?  And will they all get away before the Others become malevolent?

In total, I enjoyed NIGHT WHISPERS quite a bit, but it was a little too short for my taste.  However, it’s priced about right at $2.99 (American dollars), and it’s well worth reading.

Overall Grade — B-plus.

— reviewed by Barb

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Louisa Young’s “My Dear, I Wanted to Tell You:” Surprisingly Good WWI Historical/Romance

My Dear I Wanted to Tell You: A NovelLouisa Young’s MY DEAR, I WANTED TO TELL YOU is a surprisingly good World War I historical with a goodly bit of romance.   Young’s novel starts out with a bang, literally, as she describes what’s going on with an offensive in 1917 — the description is so good that you can feel the bombardment, how it affects everyone for tens if not hundreds of miles, yet how the soldiers have learned to ignore it.  The scene is set in about a page and a half — really fine writing, that — then we shift to 1907, where future soldier Riley Purefoy has just met the love of his life, Nadine Waveney in the oddest of ways — by falling through the ice.  Nadine helps to rescues him (he’s eleven, and Nadine is a year or two older), and that’s how the two of them meet.  Because Riley’s parents, charitably, would be called lower-middle class and Nadine’s father is a noted orchestra conductor (upper-middle class or above), the two of them normally wouldn’t have met in a situation where they’d be equals, even as children.  But an emergency trumps all else, which is one of the main themes of this novel.

We also meet Peter Locke and his naïve, beautiful wife Julia, along with Peter’s relative Rose, a nurse.  Peter and Riley meet on the front lines, while Rose and Nadine meet later on due to Nadine taking up nursing because of the war.  The way people interrelate during wartime who’d normally never meet also is another main theme of this novel — along with the fact that people suffer during war who never get close to the front lines, such as Julia, who must mature and can’t deal with it, or Nadine, who must defy her parents to become a nurse, then must defy them again to keep her nascent romance with Riley alive.

Nadine and Riley’s stories are the easiest to follow and understand, because once you meet the two of them — Nadine smart and sprightly, with a backbone of steel, and Riley, someone with interests in art, music, reading, and serving his country — you see why they’ve fallen for each other, and why they both want to do the right thing with each other.  But war does strange things, especially when someone suffers a serious wound, as has Riley — and what Riley thinks is the right thing to do isn’t at all the same thing as Nadine would think if she realized the severity of Riley’s wound.  Which is why communication is important; if you have it, nothing can come between you, but if you don’t, that’s when you start to struggle — which is yet another theme of this book.

As for the other couple, while Peter’s military service is admirable (he becomes a Captain, and is a good leader of men), how he handles the war in his off-hours is awful — he frequents brothels, as many soldiers (married or not) do alongside him, he drinks far too much, and he can’t seem to handle the fact that his wife, Julia, is pregnant worth a damn.  While this is realistic — wars affect men in different ways, and most of them are far from pretty — it didn’t exactly make me root for Peter.  But believe it or not, Julia’s behavior is even worse; this is a woman of the upper class who’s been told her entire life to be beautiful, decorative, and “seen but not heard.”  She literally cannot deal with the changing circumstances of wartime; that there are shortages of food, fuel, clothing, etc., is something she just cannot comprehend.  She does have a talent to get around these things — apparently her beautiful face and winsome manner works wonders — but she’s self-obsessed, vain, and mostly useless.  And comparing her to Rose, who went immediately to become a nurse as soon as war was in the offing, and Nadine, who went to become a nurse once her beloved Riley signed up as she felt she must do her part — well, Julia doesn’t measure up.  At all.

The structure of MY DEAR, I WANTED TO TELL YOU reminds me of D.H. Lawrence’s WOMEN IN LOVE in that we have a good couple, the ones who show the meaning of self-sacrifice and how love is often a force for positive transformation, and a bad couple — though Peter and Julia wouldn’t be “bad” in the same sense as Lawrence’s Gudrun and Gerald, as their self-destructive tendencies follow from the exigencies of war rather than huge personal failings that would show up no matter what the circumstances, they clearly are meant as “foils” to Riley and Nadine’s purer form of love.  (At that, Riley’s last name of “Purefoy” is obviously no accident.)

Everything in MY DEAR, I WANTED TO TELL YOU is rendered well, without self-pity, and with a matter-of-fact completeness I liked a great deal.  I rooted for Nadine and Riley, appreciated Rose’s fortitude, and kept hoping someone would pound some sense into Julia and Peter’s heads because goodness knows, they need it.  I saw all of the characters, from major to minor, as real people with real, human failings and virtues, a major plus, and all of the characterization enhanced the overall story.

People suffer during wartime, which is something Ms. Young ably showed.  But more to the point, Ms. Young pointed out that World War I, often overlooked by contemporary historians, was not only a devastating event with modern warfare, but was the first war where medical research advanced by leaps and bounds because it had to in order to treat the returning, severely injured soldiers.  In that juxtaposition, Ms. Young has managed to make a point very few novelists or historians have ever made — and I thank her for it.

My recommendation is that you grab MY DEAR, I WANTED TO TELL YOU now, in hardback, because it’s worth the price.   If you love historicals, realistic romances, cross-cultural conflict or all of these, you will truly appreciate Ms. Young’s novel.  If you’re someone who’s been wondering why World War I has been so greatly neglected — well, this story will be right up your alley.

Grade:  A.

— reviewed by Barb

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Interview — Scott Oden

Have you ever wanted to wander the streets of Cairo, or see the mighty armies of the Crusades? Ever wondered why Alexander the Great was able to rip through Persia so easily, or wanted to read intrigue and mystery in the ancient world? Author Scott Oden takes us there in his books, Men of Bronze, Memnon and his latest, The Lion of Cairo.

Shiny Book Review – Thanks for joining us, Scott. So tell us: what possessed you to write about Cairo in The Lion of Cairo?

Scott Oden, Author – Glad to be here.  There’s a line from Sir Richard Burton’s translation of the Arabian Nights that has always stuck with me:

“Whoso hath not seen Cairo hath not seen the world. Her dust is golden and her Nile a miracle holden; and her women are as Houris fair; puppets, beautiful pictures; her houses are palaces rare; her water is sweet and light, and her mud a commodity and a medicine beyond compare . . . Moreover temperate is her air, and with fragrance blent, which surpasseth aloes wood in scent; and how should it be otherwise, she being the Mother of the World?”

So says the father of the Jewish doctor in The Hunchback’s Tale. Until I started work on the Lion of Cairo, my body of knowledge regarding Egypt didn’t extend much beyond the fall of the Ptolemaic dynasty in 30 BCE.  Indeed, besides the Arabian Nights, my library had but a single book that delved into the rise of Islamic Egypt—this book being Harold Lamb’s excellent The Crusades: the Flame of Islam (Garden City Publishing, 1931).

SBR – Interesting. So were you able to use any research from Memnon in The Lion of Cairo, or was that just a one time coincidence?

OdenNo, the research from Memnon didn’t really carry over, except in the most general sense.  But, my first book — Men of Bronze — was also set in Egypt (albeit the Late Period, circa 525 BC) so I had quite a few text to draw upon.  Part of the challenge to me was to make the ghost of ancient Egypt a tangible part of The Lion of Cairo.  I wanted visual reminders of ancient glories — repurposed columns, bits of carving half-glimpsed, that sort of thing.  The Lion of Cairo is as much a fantasy as it is an historical, so I felt compelled to assemble “Cairo as it should have been” . . . a kind of Arabian Nights hodge-podge of styles, drawn from such diverse times as the Mameluke era and the more recent Ottoman era.

SBR – Yes, I could feel the ghosts running through the streets of Cairo in The Lion of Cairo. It was a very vivid picture, imagining the smells, sights and sounds of Cairo during the times of the Crusades. Since you mentioned Men of Bronze (which is, I’ll add for the reader’s benefit, a bestseller and highly acclaimed novel which I recommend the voracious reader to pick up), I have to ask: Greeks and Persians, working together?

OdenIn answer, I give you Xenophon.  The whole thrust of the Anabasis was a band of Greek mercenaries working for a disaffected Persian noble who came *this* close to taking the purple tiara for their paymaster. Also, Memnon and Mentor of Rhodes: Greek brothers who married into the Persian royal family and fought against the invading Macedonians during the time of Alexander.  It happened so often the Greeks had a name for it: “Medizing” — the act of becoming an ally of the Medes (Persians).  So, there’s plenty of precedent for Greeks and Persians to wind up on the same side, be it for pay or for family.

SBR – See, this is what happens when you watch too much 300 and don’t read enough. You get horrible misconceptions! So tell us, what have you been up to lately? Any new projects in the works?

OdenAh, 300 . . . a great movie from a great graphic novel, but about as historically accurate as The Lord of the Rings. For the truth of Thermopylae, in fiction form, one needs must read Steven Pressfield’s Gates of Fire.  Probably the finest historical novel I’ve ever come across.

New projects?  Well, I got a couple: I’m wrapping up a novel set around the sea battle of Artemisium, circa 480 BC; I’m hammering out the outline to the sequel of The Lion of Cairo, called The Damascene Blade; I’m writing a wicked cycle of short stories for the revitalized Heroes in Hell franchise — tales featuring Leonidas and his 300 Spartans . . . in Hades; I’m working up another outline and sample chapters for a novel that will hopefully turn those staples of fantasy armies everywhere, the Orcs, on their pointy ears.  AND, I’m editing an anthology of Orcish short fiction featuring the work of Janet and Chris Morris, Ed Greenwood, and a veritable horde of talented wordsmiths!  I still need a name for it, though . . .

SBR – Wow, sounds like you’re keeping busy. Glad to see you aren’t resting on your laurels. Any advice for struggling writers out there who are trying to get into the business?

OdenProbably the best advice is to cultivate the two P’s: Patience and Persistence.  This is an industry that fickle on its best days, and now it’s been thrown for a loop thanks to the e-book revolution.

Patience will help a writer weather not only the paradigm shifts, but also the day-to-day annoyances, like slow response times and glacial publishing schedules.  Persistence is the true key: so long as you have an honest opinion of your writing (meaning you’re not comparing yourself to Tolkien or JK Rowling and counting your millions before you ever even finish a novel), you can be assured your work WILL find a home . . . it might take it a while, though.  Persistence will get you through those endless bouts of rejection.

The only other advice I can give is to volunteer as a slush reader. Go online and offer yourself as an intern or an unpaid reader to a literary agency.  No better primer for what NOT to do exists.  It will give you a new perspective on your work, on the notion of literary competition, and on why agents and editors are oft-times slow to respond.  Provided you don’t gouge your eyes out with a spork, first.

SBR – Good advice. Last question, Scott, then we’ll let you get back to your work. Star Trek or Star Wars?

Oden – Star Wars, man!  What are their paltry phasers compared to the power of the Force?!  Honestly, though, my answer would be C) None of the Above.  My geekgasm of choice is for the work of Robert E. Howard… Conan of Cimmeria would tear Darth Vader a new one, then shove Jean-Luc Picard into that newly-minted orifice…

SBR – The Barbarian for the win! Thank you again, Scott, for taking the time out to sit down with us. We look forward to seeing your work in the near future.

Don’t forget to check out Scott Oden in the upcoming Lawyers in Hell anthology, due to be released July 15, 2011 from Perseid Publishing. Also, remember that Amazon has his books at a discount rate. Watch for this exciting new writer in the years to come!

Author Bio: Hailing from the hills of rural North Alabama, Scott Oden’s fascination with far-off places began when his oldest brother introduced him to the staggering and savage vistas of Robert E. Howard and Harold Lamb. Though Oden started writing his own tales at the age of fourteen, it would be many years before anything would come of it.

In the meantime, he had a brief and tempestuous fling with academia before retiring to the private sector, where he worked the usual roster of odd jobs-from delivering pizza to stacking paper in the bindery of a printing company to clerking at a video store. Nowadays, Oden writes full-time from his family home near Huntsville.

Oden is the author of Men of Bronze, Memnon, and The Lion of Cairo.