Archive for December, 2013

SBR 2-for-1 Special Spotlight: Stephanie Osborn

After our mini-holiday break, it seemed a prudent time to review two of Stephanie Osborn’s stories (both published by Chromosphere Books).  The first is THE MORE THINGS CHANGE, while the second is EL VENGADOR.  Both stories are interesting, well-researched reads, and feature intelligent storytelling and world building in a small space.

THE MORE THINGS CHANGE is a twenty-page story about “the People.”  We meet Griblich and Bihune, two unusual creatures with eight legs, multi-faceted eyes and three lips, who’ve formed a family that lives by a river.  Like any family, Griblich and Bihune want their brood to thrive . . . but unlike most families, Griblich and Bihune’s family is able to survive famine, drought, plague and even hard vacuum, providing they can go into something called “oversleep” before they perish.

Mind you, the People will die if they’re not able to get into oversleep first.  They can be swept away by floods, burned by wildfires, or even trampled by much larger creatures . . . but despite all that, they’re amazingly hardy creatures.

Because Ms. Osborn is a noted scientist, I was reasonably sure she had a scientific explanation for these creatures, and she does — but as it’s on the last page of the story, I’m not about to spoil it.

I enjoyed reading about the People, and believe Ms. Osborn’s conception is one of the more interesting ways of talking about hard scientific concepts in an easily accessible way I’ve ever seen.

EL VENGADOR is a different type of story entirely, as it’s more of a police procedural/horror hybrid.  We start out in the trailer of Elsie Moore, a sixtyish woman with a German Shepherd and a gun.  After making a meager meal, she hears a mighty racket outside.  She goes out, only to see part of her trailer shredded, as if it had been through a metal compactor . . . and she can’t find her dog anywhere.

Frightened, she calls the police, who take quite some time to respond as Elsie lives way out in the back of beyond.  But once Deputy Sheriff Mike Kirtschner responds, he realizes something is very wrong.  Whatever the creature was, it left tracks behind that are like nothing he’s ever seen before . . . and while the dog is found unharmed, as the unknown creature is still at large, Kirtschner decides that the best move is to get Elsie and her dog out of the environs completely as the trailer is no longer safe.

Later, he compares notes with a local game warden, Jeff Stuart, and finds out this creature — which Stuart calls “El Vengador” — has been around since Christopher Columbus’s time . . . and might even be Mayan in origin.

This thirty-page novelette is interesting, and the descriptions of El Vengador plus all of the intriguing background that Kirtschner digs up and relates to Stuart brings the story to life.

However, there are two minor drawbacks here, and even though neither one impacted my enjoyment or appreciation of EL VENGADOR much, they still must be mentioned.  First, the story has a rather unusual ending . . . and because I don’t want to give the ending away, that makes talking about it rather challenging.  (Let’s just say it’s not the ending I was expecting, and leave it at that.)  Second, the Southern dialect Elsie Moore speaks in has to be the thickest I’ve ever seen since Mark Twain, and as her internal monologue is clear and distinct, the spoken accent kept throwing me ever so slightly out of the reader’s trance.

As for grades?  Because these are shorter works than SBR usually reviews, it’s tough to put a letter grade on them.  That said, THE MORE THINGS CHANGE was extremely enjoyable and I appreciated it immensely, while EL VENGADOR was brooding, thoughtful, complex, a good police procedural mixed with a horror ending that didn’t quite work for me — but certainly made me think long after I’d finished reading, which means it succeeded as a story even if it’s not my exact cup of tea.

It was good to see Ms. Osborn’s range demonstrated yet again in both of these stories, and I look forward to more of her work in the future.

If you need grades, though (must have grades!), here they are:



–reviewed by Barb

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Romance Saturday Returns with Aaron Paul Lazar’s “The Seacrest”

Folks, it’s Saturday night . . . and long-term readers of Shiny Book Review know exactly what that means.

Yes, it’s time — and past time — for a romance.  Which is why I turned to Aaron Paul Lazar’s THE SEACREST, a sensual contemporary romance with a rather interesting hook.  THE SEACREST features Finn McGraw, an artist-turned-handyman, and Libby Vanderhorn, a wealthy horsewoman whose family he works for . . . who also happens to be his first love, who spurned Finn years earlier, reasons unknown.

At the beginning of THE SEACREST, Finn’s working at Libby’s family’s horse ranch, The Seacrest.  He’s flat broke, tired, has no time for his art work, and his marriage to Cora seems a bit off . . . then he gets shocking news: his wife has been found dead, and his estranged brother Jaxson with her — the two being passengers in Jaxson’s car at the time it went over a cliff.  Jaxson was drunk at the time, so their deaths are quickly ruled “death by misadventure.”

Finn, of course, is absolutely devastated.  He and Cora weren’t really getting along, no, but she was his wife and he sincerely loved her, even though it wasn’t the passionate love he’d felt years earlier with Libby.  And the circumstances of her death make no sense to him; as far as he knew, Cora and Jaxson didn’t even know each other, so what were they doing together?

Then, Finn finds out that despite being estranged from Jaxson, Finn is Jaxson’s sole heir — the rest of their family having died in a house fire years ago.  (It’s because of that house fire that neither brother has spoken to one another for years, as Finn believes that Jaxson had something to do with it.)  And Jaxson was extremely well-off due to a number of investments, to the point that Jaxson has restored the old family home (yes, the same one that had been damaged in the house fire) to its previous dimensions.

Finn debates a little, but decides he’s going to accept Jaxson’s inheritance.  (This makes sense considering how angry Finn is with Jaxson, who was having an affair with Finn’s wife.)  But because Libby and her family still need help at The Seacrest, he continues to help them while slowly adjusting to his new life — and his twin losses.

But that’s not all that’s going on here, as Libby’s soldier husband has been missing in action and presumed dead for three years in the Middle East for over three years.  But “presumed dead” is not nearly the same thing as actually dead . . . so what happens after Libby’s husband shows back up again?

I’ll stop there with the plot summary, as I really don’t want to spoil your reading.  (Granted, I’ve gone a bit further than most reviewers as it is.)

So there’s plenty here to keep you riveted, if you’re a romance reader.  There’s Finn, a deeply honorable man who never, but never, cheated on his wife, finding out that his wife was not as faithful as he by a mile.  There’s Libby, who’s been mistaken for years about Finn and Finn’s motivations, which is why she spurned him in the first place.  And there’s all the stuff going on about their families — Libby’s is enormously wealthy, and that’s one reason Finn wasn’t immediately welcomed as a sixteen-year-old suitor, while Finn’s is deceased in the present day, but vitally alive in the many flashback chapters.

Speaking of that, the dual setup of “present day/past actions” works nicely in THE SEACREST, to the point that I didn’t skip any of the sections — not even once, which is quite rare in my experience as I usually am quite impatient with numerous flashback sequences.

You see, the reason I didn’t skip anything — and the reason I didn’t even want to skip over anything — is because of Aaron Paul Lazar’s effortless prose.  I cared about Finn from the very first chapter, you see.  I cared about him in the present, wounded heart and all . . . and I cared about him in the past when he was a virginal, lovestruck teen.

More to the point, there wasn’t a character here I wasn’t interested in reading about — not the odious Jaxson, nor the rather shallow and spoiled Cora, nor complex and tormented Libby, and not even Libby’s nasty husband, Ian.  Because all of them worked in the context of this novel, and all of them held my interest.

That, my friends, is the power of a truly great romance writer.  Which is what Aaron Paul Lazar is — this being his first-ever romance novel notwithstanding.  (Mind, he’s written many, many other books, almost all of them mysteries of one description or other, which is one reason his characterization and plot are so assured.)

Now, as far as what I thought of the plot?  It’s what you’d expect, really, of a good-to-better sensual contemporary romance.  You have two lovers, Finn and Libby, who’ve been parted for far too long with reasons that don’t stand up under the weight of adult examination — and when they try to get back together, all sorts of adult obligations get in the way.  But the power of love has the ability to conquer all obstacles if you let it . . . which means that if you give THE SEACREST time to work its magic, you’ll almost assuredly enjoy it as much as I did.

The only minor drawback is this — the ending wrapped up a little too quickly and a little too neatly for my liking.  (Then again, romance readers want a HEA — happily ever after — and Lazar delivered, so that’s why it’s a minor issue.)  I would’ve liked to see another ten pages to fully flesh out the last plot complication, and I definitely would’ve liked to see these two actually marrying.  (Which really shouldn‘t be considered a spoiler — it’s how they get there that I tried hard not to spoil!)

Bottom line?  THE SEACREST is a winning romance full of heart and soul.  I enjoyed it immensely, and hope it won’t be Lazar’s last foray into the romance genre.

Grade: A-minus.

— reviewed by Barb

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Leo Champion’s “Legion” is Solid, Entertaining Military Science Fiction

We at Shiny Book Review receive many review requests, so when a request came in from Leo Champion — who once wrote a review for SBR — we discussed it and decided to accept it as it has been two whole years since Mr. Champion’s review and he has not been actively involved in the running of SBR in all that time.

Now, on to the review!

Leo Champion’s LEGION is about Paul Mullins, a bright, well-educated American citizen living in the year 2215.  Mullins, an advertising exec, gets drunk after finally receiving word that he was about to be promoted into the position of his dreams . . . then wakes up the next morning to find himself the newest member of the United States Foreign Legion, a branch of the U.S. military formed to deal with what’s euphemistically termed “colonial conflicts” — in other words, extraplanetary colonies that would much rather be independent instead of paying tribute to the good ol’ U.S. of A.

Mullins quickly finds out that there’s no escape from his drunken pledge; instead, he’ll have to spend five full years in the USFL before his enlistment is up.  And, much like the French Foreign Legion and other fabled groups made up of a bunch of roughnecks and misfits, most of the people Mullins serves with are radically not to his taste.

But as he goes through training, then serves in combat, Mullins finds a number of kindred souls, including his company commander, Lieutenant James Croft IV.  Croft, you see, has a similar background in many ways to Mullins, excepting that Croft opted for West Point instead of Boston University, then opted for the USFL rather than the Army because he wanted to see actual combat rather than push a bunch of meaningless papers.

Wisely, author Champion avoids throwing Mullins and Croft together too quickly.  Instead, they develop on separate paths that end up putting them in the same place at the same time on the colony world of New Virginia, just as the Second Insurrection is about to break out.

Lives will change, blood will spill . . . and the only question remaining is this: Will Mullins and Croft get out alive?  And if so, how?

Everything else — and I do mean everything — is for you to discover.  But if you enjoy military science fiction, LEGION will definitely keep you up long past your bedtime.

The pluses of LEGION are many.  Champion’s writing is crisp, clean, and rings with authority.  His grasp of military behavior, tactics, and training is stellar.  The characterization is outstanding — Mullins goes from a rather naïve Yuppie hotshot to a competent soldier, while Croft quickly discovers that officers often carry the heaviest burdens on their souls and that second-guessing is just part of the territory.  And Champion’s conception of twenty-second century America — complete with corrupt politicians, unthinking regular Americans who blindly put their faith and trust into these same corrupt politicians, and citizens of other countries desperate to become American citizens (perhaps hoping that the American “Shining City on the Hill” somehow exists somewhere outside of myth and legend) enlisting in the USFL as that’s the only way through toward American citizenship — is also plausible.

In addition, Champion’s tale could be seen as allegory.  We have corrupt politicians now.  We have blind, unthinking American citizens now.  And assuredly we already have citizens of other countries enlisted in the various branches of the U.S. Armed Forces in order to eventually become American citizens now.

So the conceit of having Mullins, an average, unthinking American forced into waking up and taking charge of his life (albeit because he was shanghaied into the US Foreign Legion), rings true on both levels.  And I liked that very much.

However — and I really wish I did not have to say this — there are two drawbacks here to LEGION that I must point out.

First, the year is 2215.  Yet the men in the USFL are issued M-16s.  Still.  And that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, even if the USFL is considered the most expendable force in the entirety of the American military.

Granted, there is an internally consistent reason that Champion gave that works for his story, and because of that, I was willing to suspend disbelief while reading LEGION.  But every time I came up for air, I thought again about this . . . and it still did not make sense.  (Sorry.)

Second — and this is much bigger sticking point — there was only one female soldier in the entirety of LEGION.

You read that right.  There was only one female soldier — that being a Naval Commander who blows up an extraterrestrial stronghold — in the entirety of LEGION.  And that completely blew any suspension of disbelief out of the water.

Look.  I can believe that Mullins would never see a female USFL soldier during his training.  Segregated training is the norm in the American military, and it has been since women became an important part of the U.S. Armed Forces.

But I cannot believe there are no women in the USFL.  Because that is absurd.

Here’s the deal — if men are given the option after stealing, lying, cheating, blowing things up, and even murdering people of going into the USFL rather than to jail, why aren’t the women?

Surely there are female prisoners out there who’d much rather go deal with Chauncy, the USFL’s intimidating stronghold, than rot in jail for years on end.  So where are they, and why wasn’t any mention made of them in this book?

But worse even than that, there’s an insurrection in New Virginia that’s causing massive unrest.  We see man after man in the colonial militia, and we’re told that these men start shooting guns at around age five or so, which is why they’re so difficult to kill.

Yet with all those fervent men who are willing to blow things up and run the American military off the planet (including the USFL), wouldn’t you expect to see at least a few fervent women soldiers here and there, too?

And yet, there weren’t any.  Which again is absurd.

And finally — and this was the most problematic point of all — I didn’t even see a female doctor or nurse, not in the USFL, not among the colonials.  And that’s just wrong.

Bottom line?  Leo Champion is a writer to watch.  He’s got boatloads of talent.  LEGION is entertaining, solid, has moments of humor and got nearly everything right.  In fact, I kept getting absorbed in LEGION to the point I didn’t want to put it down . . .

. . . but every time I did so, I wondered where the Hell the women were.

Because of that complete and utter implausibility, the final grade for Champion’s otherwise sparkling debut is a B-plus.

–reviewed by Barb

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Vera Nazarian’s “Cobweb Bride” is Slow to Start, Hard to Put Down

Vera Nazarian’s COBWEB BRIDE is the story of what happens once Death comes calling, asks for his “Cobweb Bride,” and then leaves again after saying he will not do his job until/unless his Cobweb Bride is found.  The world is thrown into chaos as animals cannot be killed for food, anything left on the vine does not ripen, and most importantly of all, people do not and cannot die.  Because of the urgency of the situation — Death had best get his Cobweb Bride quickly, or people could starve but be left in an undead state, and those who truly need to die cannot — a number of women, mostly young, from the Kingdom of Lethe and its environs go in search of Death to find out if any of them could be his bride.

Persephone (Percy) Ayren, a sixteen-year-old young woman from the Kingdom of Lethe, is one of the many young women from all over Lethe who goes to find Death in order to find out if she’s Death’s bride or not . . . but as she’s the principal player in a large ensemble cast, it’s easiest to start with her.  Percy is the overlooked middle sister from a rural family, and she hasn’t been treated well by her mother, Niobea (though Percy’s father loves her dearly and so do her sisters).  Percy sees herself as ordinary and mostly has hidden her talents, including a rather odd one of being able to see the shadow of death as it approaches.  So when Death’s call resounds throughout Lethe, she’s among the first to answer as she figures she won’t be missed.

But Lethe is not a stand-alone kingdom; no, indeed.  It’s part of an altered Renaissance landscape, so the countries we know as France, Germany, etc., are still there but not necessarily in their current positions.  Lethe is part and parcel of an Empire called the “Silver Court,” where the Infanta Claere Liguon has just been killed by Marquis Vlau Fiomarre of Styx (another kingdom allied with the Silver Court) due to an apparent blood feud.  But because Claere cannot die — and because Claere has retained more of her essential humanity than most of the undead — she spares Vlau’s life, asking him to accompany her on her journey to find Death and see if she might be the Cobweb Bride Death’s looking for.

And because Claere is both noble in spirit and already dead, she figures she won’t be sacrificing very much to be one with Death.

Vlau, of course, goes along with Claere, and eventually they meet up with Percy and the gaggle of young women who’ve joined up with her.  The reason Percy is leading this pack of young women is because of one notorious newly-dead noble, Duke Ian (“Hoarfrost”) Chidair, who tries to keep any potential Cobweb Brides away from Death for the Duke’s own spiteful reasons.  Percy, the other girls with her, Vlau and Claere all go in search of Death, eluding Duke Ian and his men and searching for Death everywhere they go . . . but it will not be easy to find him.

Providing they do find him, will any of them be Death’s Cobweb Bride?  And if not, what will happen to the world at large?  (Further reviewer sayeth not, at least as far as the plot summary.)

I enjoyed COBWEB BRIDE very much, mostly because Ms. Nazarian’s prose, once past the first third of the novel in particular, is something to savor.  (Like a fine wine, except without the calories.)  Between the excellent storytelling, the haunting and elegiac descriptions, and the flawless characterization, I found COBWEB BRIDE to be one of the toughest books to put down I’ve read during 2013.

Note that COBWEB BRIDE is definitely dark fantasy, as Ms. Nazarian doesn’t shrink from the nastier problems caused by Death refusing to take anyone into his embrace.  Pigs get butchered, then keep screaming in pain because they cannot die.  People freeze to death, then get up and walk home, scaring everyone in sight and sometimes doing horrific things as they know they’re dead and nothing seems to matter.  And the balance of power starts to slowly shift away from those who are trying hard to rule honorably in the way they’ve always done toward those who wish to find a way to use Death’s refusal to allow anyone to die until he gets his bride as a shorthand path toward nation or empire building — because there are now many things worse than death, and humanity is finding out about all of them.

But ultimately, COBWEB BRIDE is also life-affirming, too.  And it’s because of those two things — and the balance between those two things (literally, life and death) — that COBWEB BRIDE is not only one of the most original fantasies I’ve ever read, but also one of the most memorable.

In other words, if you think you know the ending to Percy’s story, you’d best think again.

That being said, there’s one minor drawback to COBWEB BRIDE, which I alluded to in this review’s title: it’s quite slow to start.  We see a whole lot of why Percy decides to go in search of Death, which is important and essential information . . . but it’s not conveyed at the same rate of speed as much of the rest of the novel.**

Providing you stick with this slow start, though, the rewards of COBWEB BRIDE are many.

Bottom line?  Don’t miss COBWEB BRIDE.  (And bring on the sequels!)

Grade: A.

— reviewed by Barb


** Note that this one minor drawback is the sole reason COBWEB BRIDE did not receive an A-plus.  (It’ll just have to settle for an A.  Oh, the horror.)

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