Archive for May, 2014
Romance Saturday Redux: Stephanie Osborn’s “A Case of Spontaneous Combustion”
Posted by Barb Caffrey in Book Review on May 31, 2014
It’s Romance Saturday at Shiny Book Review! So what could be better than another romantic science fiction/mystery offering from Stephanie Osborn?
Tonight’s subject is book 5 in her long-running, popular Displaced Detective series featuring Sherlock Holmes and his wife, Skye Chadwick-Holmes, A CASE OF SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION. (Books one and two of the series were reviewed here; book three was reviewed here; and book four was reviewed here.) This time, Sherlock Holmes is summoned to merry old England without his wife, Skye, to consult on a perplexing case: the village of Stonegrange has died all at once, apparently of spontaneous combustion, and no one knows how or why. And for reasons of national security, Sherlock isn’t even allowed to wake her up to tell her what’s going on.
This is a problem, as Sherlock and Skye haven’t been married all that long (maybe a year, tops), and have just had a huge fight (as newlyweds the world over tend to do). The fight was over something minor, and if Sherlock had been able to tell Skye that he’d been summoned to England, it’s possible the two would’ve made up right then and there — but he wasn’t, and they’re both about to be in a world of hurt.
While Sherlock tries desperately to figure out what’s happened that’s caused Stonegrange to spontaneously combust, Skye is left at home in Colorado. Both are miserable, both try to write each other letters, but as their letters are considered classified on both ends, there are intermediaries between them and their letters to one another.
And their letters are not getting through, which adds immensely to their overall “frustration factor.”
Making matters even more dicey, the mystery of Stonegrange has a strong scientific component, so Sherlock needs Skye. And she’s not there, so solving the mystery is made that much slower and more complex, too.
Mind, Sherlock doesn’t know why Skye wasn’t sent for along with him. Neither do the people who guard Sherlock and Skye on a regular basis. And as the National Security Act has been invoked, it’s keeping them from talking with their counterparts as they normally would.
So that, too, is a mystery that both need to solve . . . but as they’re both extremely upset (Skye has fallen into a severe depression), it takes a bit more time than usual to get to the bottom of this problem.
Regarding Stonegrange, Sherlock goes undercover to find out who did this and why. He uncovers a few leads, but again realizes he needs Skye’s scientific expertise.
After quite some time, romantic and domestic matters are resolved and Skye’s back where she belonged. (So for romance readers, there is a “happily ever after” ending.) And a good thing, too, as Skye’s knowledge of physics is absolutely essential to the solving of this particular mystery.
As always with the work of Stephanie Osborn, her command of language is strong, while her knowledge of physics, England, and Sherlock Holmes trivia is excellent. Her pacing is good, the romance is outstanding, and the hard SF component (the physics involved) is explained well enough that I had no trouble figuring out what was going on.
The one quibble I had here is that the ending was a bit too gentle for my tastes. After all the sturm und drang Sherlock and Skye went through to get back into contact with one another, and then back to each other, I would’ve liked to see some retribution handed out to the person who kept them apart.
But everything else worked quite well.
Bottom line? It’s not everyone who can make cutting-edge physics comprehensible to the intelligent layman and write a kick-butt romance along with an absorbing mystery all at the same time, but Stephanie Osborn did just that in A CASE OF SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION.
One, final thought: If you love Sherlock Holmes as brought to the modern-day and haven’t tried Stephanie Osborn’s Displaced Detective novels yet, what’s stopping you?
–reviewed by Barb
Romance Saturday Returns with Stephanie Osborn’s Displaced Detective Series, Book 4
Posted by Barb Caffrey in Book Review on May 24, 2014
It’s Romance Saturday! And considering it’s been a while since we last checked in with Stephanie Osborn’s inestimable Displaced Detective Series, which features the great detective Sherlock Holmes as brought to the modern-day by hyperspatial physicist (and love interest) Skye Chadwick, what could be better than to discuss book four, THE CASE OF THE COSMOLOGICAL KILLER: ENDINGS AND BEGINNINGS? (Note that books one and two of this series were reviewed here, while book three was reviewed here.)
During the previous book, THE RENDELSHAM INCIDENT, our Sherlock and Skye got married, went to England for their honeymoon, and did their best to figure out whether or not a UFO was truly involved in a perplexing incident. But they also were contacted by an alternate universe’s version of Sherlock and Skye, who have a rather difficult problem of their own to solve. Simply put: the cosmos appears to be falling apart at the seams, and because other-Skye lost most of her original team due to sabotage, only the other-Sherlock is left to assist her. And while other-Skye and other-Sherlock do have feelings for one another, they are currently not lovers — instead, their relationship is that of rather strained good friends, albeit with a whole lot of sexual tension between them.
Anyway, other-Sherlock and other-Skye need our Sherlock and Skye’s help to figure out whether or not other-Skye’s equations are correct. Because of a twist of physics (crudely put, you can see any time that’s in the past from your own, and universes don’t always match anyway, time-wise), other-Sherlock and other-Skye are actually four chronological years older than our versions of the same. Because of that time differential, they are able to give our versions of Skye and Sherlock some space to get up to speed on the equations.
During book four, ENDINGS AND BEGINNINGS, our Sherlock solves what’s going on in the English countryside while Skye works with other-Skye and other-Sherlock to save the cosmos from complete and utter destruction. Which would make you think there’s no time left for romance . . . but actually, there is.
You see, our Sherlock and Skye are worried about other-Sherlock and other-Skye. The latter pair has been overworked and underslept for quite some time; further, neither of them is able to derive any comfort, physical or otherwise, due to all of the emotional baggage they both have picked up due to the disastrous events that took out nearly every member of other-Skye’s Project Tesseract team.
As our Sherlock and Skye just got married and are on their honeymoon, they obviously want to rectify this. But how can they do so without intruding on other-Sherlock’s legendary privacy and other-Skye’s tragic calm?
Anyway, even though it’s never fully stated in the text, the subtext is clear: our Sherlock and Skye do not want to see their other selves floundering like this.
So we have a triple-stranded plot going on. The first plotline deals with the wrap-up of the Rendelsham case. The second plotline deals with Skye’s efforts to check other-Skye and other-Sherlock’s physics equations (what I like to think of as “their homework,” in short). And the third, which overarches both of the other plotlines, is this: How can two extremely intelligent people like other-Skye and other-Sherlock, who’ve gotten off on the wrong foot romantically, make their relationship work?
One of the delights of ENDINGS AND BEGINNINGS is in seeing these two strong characters be vulnerable in both sets of incarnations. Our Skye admits things to other-Skye she’s never said to anyone; ditto for our Sherlock and other-Sherlock. And because of this vulnerability, which is a direct outgrowth of their overall intelligence and strength, it’s possible for other-Skye and other-Sherlock to repair their relationship at the same time as they do their best to repair the cosmos itself.
And that, my friends, is exactly why ENDINGS AND BEGINNINGS is such a delightful book from beginning to end.
There is only one quibble I had, though, and I needs must mention it: We don’t actually see what other-Skye and other-Sherlock do to fix the cosmos. We see all the preparation beforehand, yes. But we don’t see the actual events.
Mind you, it’s possible that it wouldn’t have made any sense to do so from an action-adventure perspective. (Which is why this is but a minor quibble.) Still, I would’ve liked to see a little bit more physics and a whole lot more of the sense of menace and danger while other-Skye and other-Sherlock actually fixed everything . . . and I didn’t get it.**
That being said, this is the best SF/mystery/romance I’ve read thus far in 2014. It has everything you’d want, and then some . . . and the romance between the two sets of incredibly intelligent people is to die for.
Bottom line? Anyone with a brain and a pulse who loves SF, loves mysteries, loves Sherlock Holmes and/or loves it when intelligent people find their true soul mates should adore this book.
— reviewed by Barb
**This, for the record, is the only reason ENDINGS AND BEGINNINGS did not receive an A-plus.
“Lincoln’s Boys” Is A Fine History, Plus a Good Biography of Lincoln’s Young Secretaries
Posted by Barb Caffrey in Book Review on May 22, 2014
Joshua Zeitz’ LINCOLN’S BOYS: John Hay, John Nicolay, and the War for Lincoln’s Image is about Abraham Lincoln’s two young Presidential aides, John Hay, and John George Nicolay (called George by most who knew him). Technically, they were secretaries, though they wielded far more power than that lowly title would seem to grant, almost acting more like joint chiefs-of-staff. And as such, both Hay and Nicolay had a unique perspective when it came to Lincoln, one that has been given short shrift by many other historians.
Simply put, Hay and Nicolay weren’t just Lincoln’s secretaries. They were also his main biographers, collaborating on the massive ten-volume LINCOLN: A HISTORY. (Today, we’d call this an authorized biography, as it was the first biography of Lincoln written with the full approval of Lincoln’s son, Robert Todd Lincoln, and the first that had access to all of Lincoln’s Presidential Papers.)
But when both men met Abraham Lincoln, they had no idea what their lives would be like. In the late 1850s, they saw Lincoln as an able politician, someone who had charisma and smarts. Both Hay and Nicolay worked on behalf of Lincoln even before they were picked to become his secretaries . . . and it was because of Hay’s previous friendship with Nicolay (as Nicolay was slightly older and a bit farther along in his career) that Hay was picked at all.
So there was a lot of serendipity at work here. Lincoln didn’t seem to have done in-depth background checks on Nicolay and Hay, as any serious Presidential candidate would do today; instead, he liked Nicolay, so when Nicolay hinted delicately that it sounded like there might be more than enough work for two men, Lincoln figured it made sense to hire two personal secretaries rather than one.
That put these two young men squarely at the center of the biggest events of the day, including the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Gettysburg Address, and of course, the saddest event of them all — Lincoln’s assassination.
Both men were bright, able, good writers, and were intensely loyal. They enjoyed being around Lincoln, which was just as well as both tended to put in 80-hour weeks in support of their President. (Presidential staffs were not only smaller back then, but also far more hands-on, too.) And this was a big help later on, when Robert Todd Lincoln — Abraham’s sole surviving son — tapped them to write his father’s biography, because Robert Lincoln knew Hay and Nicolay would not distort what his father had done as so many others were already trying to do.
You see, Lincoln was always a towering figure — from the time he took office until his untimely assassination, Lincoln strode like a Colossus. Yet he was a mortal man, with the failings of any mortal, and he also was a consummate politician — something many people of Lincoln’s day and afterward didn’t want to admit.
While Hay and Nicolay were loyal and believed in Lincoln, his politics, his morality, and his ethics with all their hearts, they also knew he was not a demi-god, nor a deity figure. So writing LINCOLN: A HISTORY was to them not just a labor of love — it was a labor of necessity.
Zeitz does an excellent job putting all of this in context. The politics of the day, the problems of Reconstruction after the Civil War ended, and also the difficulties these two young men had as they matured, married, and went on with their lives and careers were described in a way to make all of these matters personal.
Which is what history truly is, if you think about it long enough. It’s the story of what powerful people do during a crisis — and while history is always shaped by the victors, it sometimes can be badly distorted.
Because Nicolay and Hay were honest men, they did their best to show Lincoln as a man. Full of talent, yes, and possibly the best President we’ve ever had . . . but still a man.
And because Zeitz is an honest biographer as well as an honest historian, he was able to show Lincoln in a brand-new light by showing Lincoln through the eyes of Nicolay and Hay.
Mind you, the story of these men in and of themselves was more than worth the price of admission. Both were extremely interesting to get to know — Hay had the wider fame in his time, going on to become Secretary of State and a big name in Republican Politics, but Nicolay possibly had the happier life, as he and his wife Therena were truly devoted to one another. Best of all, both men did as their gifts allowed: they wrote, they edited, and they became their best selves, all while retaining a truly remarkable friendship based on their service to the greatest American of their time, Abraham Lincoln.
Bottom line? LINCOLN’S BOYS succeeds at being both an interesting biography of these two ambitious, driven men (Hay and Nicolay) and as an excellent overview of the political history of Lincoln’s time. And as such, it sheds much new light into Lincoln, his personality, and his politics, from a completely unexpected angle.
In other words, if you enjoy history, politics, Abraham Lincoln or any combination thereof, you will enjoy LINCOLN’S BOYS.
— reviewed by Barb
What’s the Idea with American Craftsmen? — A Guest Post by Tom Doyle
Posted by Jason Cordova in Interview on May 13, 2014
—note: Shiny Book Review would like to welcome guest author Tom Doyle. Tom is here to talk about his new book, American Craftsman, which came out last week. Please give him a warm welcome.
What’s the Idea with American Craftsmen?
by Tom Doyle
Looking at the cover of my debut novel from Tor, American Craftsmen, you might get the impression that my main idea from the outset was to write a modern-day fantasy of military intrigue. The craftsmen of my title are magician soldiers and psychic spies. Two rival craft soldiers, Captain Dale Morton and Major Michael Endicott, must fight together against a treasonous cabal in the Pentagon’s highest covert ranks.
It’s an active area: though a relatively new subgenre, modern-day military fantasy has (along with military SF) grown increasingly prominent. But what I think sets my story apart from related SF/F works are the other ideas I had before I focused on the military-intrigue storyline, ideas that gave my novel more of a sense of history, both literary and real world.
To my own surprise, one of my initial inspirations for this book was L. Frank Baum. When he began telling children’s stories, he had the notion of discarding the existing European folk tales and building a fantasy that was modern and distinctly American. That’s how we got The Wizard of Oz.
I wasn’t going to write a children’s story, but the thought of confining myself to a U.S. mythos for an adult fantasy was oddly exciting. I looked at American folklore, but I ended up spending more time with the great early American writers of the fantastic such as Poe and Hawthorne.
As Classical myths reveal the deep hopes and fears of the ancient Greeks, our nineteenth-century authors may be part of the country’s subconscious. If this is true, the overall creepiness of early American fiction should be worrisome. The founders of our independent fictional canon aren’t known for stage comedies filled with wordplay or for novels centered on the marriage plot. Nor did they master the simple pragmatic optimism that on the surface seemed to be the national zeitgeist. Rather, in tales filled with occult obsessions and morbid fascinations, they explored the shadowy underside of the New World’s psyche.
I fed the classic stories into my conceptual pot, and I didn’t just throw in the tasty bits from the usual dark suspects. For example, the parlor of the House of Morton has sickly yellow wallpaper in a nod to the early feminist story, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.
As I read or reread American fantastic literature and it stewed away in my mind, I saw the lineages of influence: for example, Poe to Chambers to Lovecraft. This reminded me of a concept I had played with in one of my earliest published stories: American families of magical practitioners stretching back hundreds of years. At first, my book was going to cover a whole secret world of American magic, with old families and new practitioners from a variety of backgrounds. But the reader of my earliest draft section, author Stephanie Dray, saw the military intrigue element and said, “This is great. Do this.” I really owe her a lot for getting me to focus on that plotline, as I wasn’t inclined to write a doorstopper-sized epic.
Once I made that choice, the military elements dovetailed nicely with my family lineages, as readers of Lucian Truscott IV would already know. The magic system emerged organically from the classic stories and from military necessities. My world almost seemed to build itself, and I was ready to populate it with my post-traumatically stressed magician veterans and my dangerously confused psychic spies. I hope you enjoy meeting them.
For more about American Craftsmen and my other stories, please visit www.tomdoylewriter.com or connect with me on the social media platform of your choice.
SBR 2-for-1 Romance Saturday SF Special: Grant Hallman’s “Upfall” and “IronStar”
Posted by Barb Caffrey in Book Review on May 3, 2014
Sometimes here at Shiny Book Review, we’re fortunate enough to be able to review stories that the mainstream science fiction community may not have noticed. Such is the case with this week’s “2-for-1 special” featuring writer Grant Hallman’s novella UPFALL and novel IRONSTAR. They are both set in the same universe, but many years separate the two stories.
The first, UPFALL, is set in the not-so-distant future. While Europe appears to be a bit more unified than they are at present, and the space program as a whole seems far better developed as well, we’re essentially dealing with a world we know.
The essential plotline of UPFALL is this — what would you do if the space elevator you were going up suddenly became untethered? Especially if you’d just met the woman of your dreams?
That’s the situation Matthew “Matt” Dunning finds himself in. He’s works for Skyhook Unlimited, and is escorting a science client to Topside Station, while the woman he meets, Ginny Piersall, is there to do a failure analysis study. And of course, the Skyhook space elevator should not have anything go wrong, being based on “next-generation nanowire” . . . but of course, it does.
There’s only a certain amount of air available on the Skyhook, too, while the G-forces are causing many previously unforeseen problems, and there’s no help coming from the surface of the Earth because this was completely unanticipated. (Not to mention that most forms of two-way communication are cut off for completely understandable reasons.)
So it’s up to Matt, Ginny, and the other scientists on the Skyhook (or already in space) to try to figure this whole mess out. Will they be able to do it, or won’t they?
While the drama at UPFALL‘s heart is both believable and compelling, it’s the sweet romance between two smart people — Matt Dunning and Ginny Piersall — that is completely captivating. He’s a clueless nerd of a certain age, and she’s a beautiful, brainy woman who’s mostly met a bunch of men who aren’t up to her intellectual weight . . . so as you might expect, many sparks fly between them while they try to figure out just how to keep everyone on the Skyhook from dying needlessly.
As I’m a sucker for sweet romances, especially between two smart people who must solve an incredibly challenging problem by pooling their resources, I enjoyed UPFALL very, very much.
Approximately 200 years later, the events of IRONSTAR take place. Lieutenant Kirrah Roehl of the Regnum Security Service is the navigator of the Arvida-Yee, a very small survey ship. She enjoys her job, especially when she and her shipmates discover “hablets” (that is, habitable worlds suitable for colonization). And she enjoys being part of such a small crew because it’s like a family.
However, when the Arvida-Yee discovers a habitable planet they weren’t expecting, they encounter hostile fire from aliens called the Kruss — who are traders, but who definitely aren’t kindly and don’t have thought processes most humans can understand. The only thing Kirrah’s Captain is able to do before the ship blows apart is to order all of his crew into their survival suits and get a “mail tube” off to inform his superiors that something hinky is going on.
When Kirrah regains consciousness, she realizes she’s on the surface of the planet. (Hallman deftly accounts for this by the survival suit having its own drop bubble with a gel interior. Apparently the technology is now so good, it was able to “go to ground” on its own, without any information from Kirrah herself.) And while the planet is beautiful to look at, everything seems poisonous . . . worse yet, she believes everyone on her ship except her died instantly.
Then she discovers a young boy wandering in the middle of the forest. (Or, as I thought of it, a “forest-swamp,” as it appeared to have characteristics of both.) The boy, Akaray, warns Kirrah of an imminent attack by some of the local wildlife, and rouses all of her latent maternal instincts.
She quickly realizes that something is badly wrong. Akaray is crying, and between her own knowledge and her suit’s translator (which isn’t perfect, but gets the gist of things fairly quickly), she figures out that he’s lost his parents and everyone he knows due to his village being destroyed.
You see, there’s a war going on between two factions on this planet — the more or less peaceful people (who don’t seem to have a clan name; they do follow a King, but he’s elected rather than hereditary) and the rather obnoxious Wrth. The peaceful people have priest-healers who use something akin to Reiki healing with perhaps a bit of touch-empathy or even low levels of touch-telepathy, and just want to be left alone, while the Wrth are raiders who don’t seem to either have the priest-healers at all, or at minimum do not value them.
And the Wrth have allied themselves somehow with the Kruss, even though they don’t fully understand this . . . but Kirrah, of course, figures it out fairly quickly. This is the primary reason she’s made Warmaster, and is chosen to lead the fight the Wrth.
Kirrah also finds love in a most unlikely place — with Ro’tachk Irshe, a senior enlisted man. Irshe is old enough to respect Kirrah’s intelligence while young enough to appreciate the pleasures of the flesh . . . and as the peaceful people Kirrah’s helping don’t seem to have the same hang-ups regarding sex that Regnum-trained humans do (perhaps because of the priest-healers and their Reiki-like skills), they become lovers.
Down the line, Kirrah will have to decide: Does she want to stay on this world with Irshe and his people, the ones she’s been leading in order to throw off the Kruss’s noxious influence? Or will she go back to the Regnum? (Further reviewer sayeth not.)
So there’s action-adventure here, in spades. There’s a more-or-less traditional romantic science fiction plotline as well, and a coming of age story for Kirrah, and there’s all that interesting stuff from the priests . . . not to mention some dreams and visions that may or may not have a psychic component to them. And the new world is compelling, the science makes sense (hallelujah!), the military acts in comprehensible ways, both in the Regnum and on this new world . . . all good.
But there is one teensy-weensy drawback here, and that’s how quickly Kirrah adapts to everything.
Look. IRONSTAR has a lot going for it. It’s intelligent and interesting, the characterization is good, I believed in the romance between Kirrah and Irshe, and even the “fish out of water” element was carried off with aplomb.
But Kirrah doesn’t have many weaknesses. She’s impetuous, sure. But she’s young. And she’s very smart, and she’s very adaptable, and she’s adopted a kid despite her youth . . . really, in some ways, Kirrah seems almost too good to be true, excepting that darkness within her that, as the priest-healers keep pointing out, makes her the exceptional military commander she is.
But that makes me wonder why Kirrah was on the Arvida-Yee at all. Is the Regnum so stocked with good military commanders that they were willing to turn Kirrah away? Or did they just flat miss the fact that Kirrah could be exceptionally good if she was pushed to her limits?
Regardless, Kirrah is here, the world is here, and what Kirrah does is worth reading about. I just wish she would’ve had some obvious personal weaknesses aside from being young and impetuous, that’s all. (Mostly because I wanted to give IRONSTAR an A-plus, but just can’t under the circumstances.)
Bottom line? I enjoyed UPFALL and IRONSTAR quite a bit. This is excellent fiction with some solid science and some good, believable romances in the bargain . . . and I look forward to seeing more of Hallman’s writing in the future.
UPFALL – A-plus.
IRONSTAR – A.
— reviewed by Barb