Sunday, July 29, 2018

Book Review: The Wild Dead (The Bannerless Saga Book 2) by Carrie Vaughn

A Future When Old-Fashioned Detective Work Returns

The Wild Dead is the sequel to the Philip K. Dick Award–winning novel by Carrie Vaughn, Bannerless.

If you miss murder investigations where the solution comes from old-fashion questioning and playing hunches rather than hi-tech, The Wild Dead is for you.  Enid, the heroine of the series, catches her killers with legwork – literally.  That’s because author Vaughn has set these mysteries in a future dystopia, where high-tech forensics is gone and investigators walk to the scene of the crime…or catch the occasional solar car.  More on this unusual mix of high and no-tech later.

Character development is a strength of the book.  Enid, for example, wasn’t a protagonist I immediately liked.  Initially, she is indecisive, torn between what she feels to be right and a host of issues – questions of jurisdiction, complaints from her partner, desire to be home.  But she persists, eventually succeeding through a combination of grit and intelligence.  The secondary characters are similarly brought to life under Vaughn’s pen.  Kudos to the author.   World-building is also a strength.  You can almost see, feel, and even smell the mud and debris of our decaying world, while lives built around agriculture, scavenging, hunting, and trading feel real.

Plot and pace, however, are weaker features of the work.  With few investigative tools other than questioning, clues come slowly.  But unfortunately, the book makes the reader work for them too, with a style that is plodding at times.  This problem is magnified by the repetition of thoughts, themes, and dialog.  For example, Enid constantly evaluates each person’s home, because part of her job is detecting the waste of resources.  But as this duty has little to do with the murder and so, doesn’t advance the plot, these sections end up feeling like filler.  Vaughn also made some ‘convenient’ decisions about which parts of technology to bring forward to her dystopia and which to leave in the past.  Medicine, for example, was saved by a decision of the survivors of ‘the Fall’, but forensics was not, despite the significant overlap between these fields.  Solar energy was another technology kept, explaining the solar cars and house lighting.  But the infrastructure to maintain medicine and solar power is no where to be seen.  It ends up being a strange and somewhat inexplicable mix of our high-tech past and an austere future.

Overall, Vaughn’s vibrant characters and her vivid accounts of a future, decaying world are winners, weakened only slightly by pace and decisions about technology that are convenient for the plot, but not easily explained.

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Sunday, July 22, 2018

Book Review: Under a Warped Cross by Steve Lindahl

A Tough Look at the Clash Between Life and Religion in Medieval Britannia

People didn’t live long in medieval Britannia, Ireland, and Scandinavia.  If you were lucky enough to survive birth and a childhood filled with hard labor and poor living conditions, you could look forward to adulthood when disagreements between individuals and states were often settled with a whip to the back or a battle axe to the skull.  Under a Warped Cross covers all those forms of ‘conflict resolution,’ some several times.  But the aggression at the heart of the story is the inhumanity inflicted in the name of organized religion.  It was a time when religion would condone any and all means to ‘correct’ the thinking of the masses.  And its heavy hand often fell on women.  In fact, as the story begins, priests have just made an example of Abigail, one of the main characters of the book, by cutting off her nose because she was suspected of incest.  The violence in the book, while not graphic, is intense and frequent.

In the simple dichotomy of plot-driven vs. character-driven books, Under a Warped Cross is primarily the latter.  The plot is simple.  The priests’ punishment changes the lives of three siblings, as Goda and Abigail run off together while Waso begins a quest to find them.  This storyline is completed well before the end of the book.  Character development, on the other hand, continues to the end, as author Lindahl does an admirable job depicting the characters’ courage and determination, as well as their distrust and superstition.  In particular, I found the latter interesting, as “signs” were everywhere, but their meaning was never clear and often contradictory.

To go beyond traits that are shown through action, the author occasionally includes thoughts or dialog that deviate from character, e.g., Jolenta wondered if her choice had been a revenge of sorts, for all the times Coventina had chosen her wards over her own child. That thought made Jolenta worry about her own soul as much as she worried about her mother’s.”  That’s a complex concept for a ten-year-old (Jolenta).  But even though these out-of-character thoughts interrupt the story’s flow, they’re useful for the depth they provide.

Overall, Under a Warped Cross is an engrossing look at the people of the Middle Ages and their suffering at the hands of organized religion.  It can be tough reading in places, but then, that was their life.

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Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Love Crime, Thriller, Mystery eBooks?

Then enter for a chance to win 30 or more of them!

Besides my own, Of Half a Mind, you could win:

Darknet by Matthew Matter (Amazon's #1 Financial Thriller)
Famished by Meghan O'Flynn
A Dead Husband by Anna Celeste Burke,
Las Vegas Girl by Leslie Wolfe, and many more.

There's even the seven-book box set, Dev Haskell by Mike Faricy (books 1-7).

Two grand prize winners get all 30+ eBooks
30+ others win individual eBooks
All winners chosen randomly

Enter here:

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Book Review: The Stork (A Shelby McDougall Mystery Book 2) by Nancy Wood

Enjoy a Satisfying ‘Whew’ When Its All Over

The Stork is a well-crafted mystery with a tense, action-filled finale.  The story starts fast, with a middle-of-the-night, hysterical call for help.  A child has been kidnapped.  But not just any child – one that Shelby McDougall, the series heroine, gave birth to as a surrogate mother (in Book 1 of the series).  The pace then moderates.  Minor details like the sequence of California roads taken between point A and point B get perhaps too much coverage, but the discoveries sprinkled throughout the midsection will hold your interest.  Then, things heat up again for the finale, allowing the reader a satisfying ‘whew’ when it’s all over.

There are a couple of factors a potential reader should know in advance.  First, although part of a series, this book is standalone.  However, if you read this one first, you may have little motivation to return to book 1 (Due Date).  That’s because there are fairly extensive flashbacks in this book and you end up knowing the characters, the plot, and even the outcome of book 1 (beyond the obvious that the heroine of the series survives).  So, I’ll make the highly surprising and completely radical suggestion that you start at the beginning…or plan on reading only this one.

Second, if you are a fan of hard-boiled, procedurally detailed crime mysteries, you may not get your fill.  Shelby is a PI-in-training, and so, some of her extremely ill-advised choices of what to investigate and what to let slide and what to tell colleagues and what to omit are frustrating.  But they are also undoubtedly by design; I expect that Shelby will mature with the series.  But some are also a bit too convenient – why isn’t anyone looking at the children’s miraculous capabilities as a way to solve the crime?   And there are a few errors, like expecting an outdoor motion detector to be activated by throwing a stick in front of it.  But overall, these are minor.

I particularly enjoyed the author’s imaginative turns of a phrase, often related to a character’s emotions.  Where many authors might write the first five words of this sentence to show surprise, Wood’s take is:  “My jaw dropped in surprise and I snapped it shut, feeling like it’d been opened and closed by some external force. As if I were the dummy and the universe was the ventriloquist.”  It would be easy to get carried away with this kind of ‘cuteness’, but to her credit, Wood doesn’t.

Overall, The Stork is a well-crafted book that starts strong, sprinkles a few discoveries in the middle to keep you hooked, then ends with a bang.  And while tense in places, it’s cozy feel makes for a comfortable, summer-afternoon read.

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Sunday, July 8, 2018

Book Review: The Soldier’s Return (The Heaven's Pond Trilogy Book 2) by Laura Libricz

Historical Fiction Where Everyday Life is a Test of Survival 

Historical fiction can entertain with a look at everyday life, especially when that life is much different than our own.  The Soldier’s Return by Laura Libricz is a good example of that approach.

The book provides an unflinching look at life during the Thirty Years’ War (1618 to 1648), one of the longest and deadliest conflicts in Europe.  But the wounds the novel depicts aren’t from the battlefield, but from the mercenaries who live off the land.  Life of those in their path is hard, as the soldiers take what they want – food, drink, valuables, women – and destroy much of the what’s left.  Herr Tucher, master of Sichardtshof farm, and Katarina, his maid and mistress accept this life fatalistically, doing what’s necessary to survive.  “Children had to be fed, animals had to be tended. Life had to go on.”  Famine and disease follow the troops.  Then, if that wasn’t enough, the region is also embroiled in witch hunts, with the fanatical Ralf driving “…the devil from those fallen souls. With force. With fire.

By today’s standards, the characters are difficult to like.  For example, Herr Tucher does little to protect his family, servants, and farm, while expecting them to make the best of it.  And in the eyes of the public, he’s the devoted husband while ignoring his true love, the maid Katerina.  Pieter, on the other hand, is a self-centered, drunken, ill-tempered womanizer.  But these characterizations serve the story well by conveying some of the norms of the time.  Outside the nobility, women are little more than property.  Religion is politics, with superstition and intolerance its operating principles.  Survival is for the brutal or the unscrupulous.

Clearly, author Libricz has chosen a time and place overflowing with story-telling potential, and generally, she uses that potential well.  She weaves scenes of vivid clarity and descriptions that evoke images.  “Traveling with the troops is like riding on the top of a wave. We can see where it’s going instead of just waiting for the wave to drown us.”  But at other points, the prose is terse, artificial, and detached even in action scenes.  “A quick visual survey showed Katarina the soldier had a dagger on his belt, close to her detained arm.”  Repetition of words in a sentence and thoughts and actions across sections is also a minor distraction.  For example, Pieter, the returning soldier for whom the book is named, seems to operate in cycles.  Do something foolish due to drink or his temper, get arrested, escape, repeat.  And finally, although this is book 2 of a trilogy, I expected some issues to be closed, some secondary milestone in the series to be reached.  The Soldier’s Return just seems to end.

Overall, The Soldier’s Return is a vivid account of life in Germany during the Thirty Years’ War, focusing on the destruction wrought by the warring forces, the resulting fame and disease, and the accompanying witch hunts.   A bit of artificiality in the prose, some repetition, and the lack of a book-2-specific theme, however, slightly dilute the book’s overall appeal.

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Thursday, July 5, 2018

Continue the 4th of July Celebration...

With a few good books at some great prices!

Now through July 11, In the Space of an Atom is only 99 cents.  You save 66%.

Pick up a copy today for 99c:
Or in the UK, only 99p:

Sorry, but you'll need a little patience for the others.

On Amazon Prime Day (Monday, July 16 at 3pm ET through Wednesday, July 18 at 3am ET), all three books from the World's On Fire series by Lincoln Cole will be on sale.  His website promises a savings of over 60%.  And yes, I've enjoyed them all.

Raven’s Peak
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Raven’s Fall
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Raven’s Rise
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My review:


Starting July 27, Whiskey Kills by Lolli Powell is only 99 cents.

When bar owner, Ricki Fontaine’s friend, Ruby Fogarty, is charged with murdering her boyfriend by clubbing him to death with a bottle of whiskey, the police consider the case closed. But Ricki is convinced Ruby is innocent and sets out to find the real murderer. Although Waterton police detective Gabriel Russell is crazy about Ricki, he isn’t too crazy about her trying to do his job.  The killer’s not too happy about it either.

My review:  (spoiler - it cracked me up)
Get your copy on July 27:

(Check all prices before purchasing)

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Book Review: Miro by A.E. Nasr

A Powerful Story, An Elegant Style…And Some Discord Between Them 

Miro boasts a compelling plot.  An occupying army brutalizes a nation, some of the conquered trying to become invisible to their oppressors to make a living…or even joining with them.  Some resist in secret, hoping to eventually throw off the bonds of tyranny.  Still others just try to survive.  Miro and his companions – the Captain, Alex, Aidan, and Markus – are part of the latter group, imprisoned and tortured for nine years until events give them a second chance at freedom.  And be forewarned – some of this action is intense and brutal.

But even as powerful as this storyline is, it is the prose that sets Miro apart.  The book is elegantly written, the scenes evocative, the characters nuanced.  It explores some of the extremes of human existence that can only be found in the hostile and unforgiving setting of war – courage, betrayal, brotherhood, hope.  Clearly, words are the friend of author A.E. Nasr.

In places, there is some discord between style and story.  With such evocative prose, the transitions from thought to reality can blur easily.  More than once I found myself returning to an earlier paragraph, realizing that what was being recounted was not a dream, not the demon of a former battle or the fantasy of an earlier time, but events in the here and now.  Some of that intertwining of real and imagined may have been intentional – a character’s past influences how he reactions.  But at other times, it seemed that a transition was missing, resulting in my pause.

Overall, melding the ‘nuts and bolts’ of action and the elegance of literary fiction is not an easy task.  With only few exceptions, Miro does it extremely well.

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