Thursday, December 17, 2015

Battle of the 2013 Books, Bracket One, First Round :: The Scholar, the Sphinx and the Shades of Nyx by A. R. Cook vs. The Doctor and the Dinosaurs by Mike Resnick

This is our eighth and last first round match of Bracket One of Battle of the 2013 Books, which features The Scholar, the Sphinx and the Shades of Nyx by A. R. Cook versus The Doctor and the Dinosaurs by Mike Resnick. The winner will be the book I (Jackie) most want to continue reading after 25 pages.

The Scholar, the Sphinx and the Shades of Nyx:  Knox Robinson Publishing, May 2013; 286 pages; cover illustration by Grzegorz Rekas. A. R. (Alison Reeger) Cook has written short stories and short plays, which have received honorable mentions in some journals and digests. Her second book in this YA series is titled The Scholar, the Sphinx, and the Fang of Fenrir.

We begin the story in Cervera, Spain, in the year 1852. David Sandoval, our 16-year-old hero in The Scholar, the Sphinx and the Shades of Nyx, procures an architectural apprenticeship from a family friend who lives in Paris. Despite the misgivings of his parents, David persuades them to let him travel to Paris on his own.

At an inn near Paris, David hears music in the street. The innkeeper informs David that a traveling gypsy show is performing. "Just keep your coin purse close. Got to be watchful of sticky fingers," warns the innkeeper. David meets a young girl and a Scotsman juggler who challenges David to perform in the gypsy show. David does so and wins an old-fashioned dagger that is "curved like a basilisk’s tongue."

That night a strange creature breaks into David's room, entering through the window. The creature's breath soothes David into a peaceful lull, but he wakes himself enough to push the creature away, reach for his knife, and scare it away. He sees his coin purse on the floor and a fancy gold coin on the windowsill. David assumes the creature is with the gypsy troupe.

The next night David steals into the woods to find the gypsy caravan with the intent to kill the creature that attacked him, to potentially save others from such a fate. After finding and creeping into the creature's wagon — smelling the same smell from the night before — he sees a female sphinx, who suddenly awakens. Trying to escape, he is caught and tied up by the gypsies. The creature pulls him into her wagon, and lulls him to sleep with her breath.

The next morning, David, still tied up, observes the gypsy camp as people are eating breakfast. The sphinx is serving her group a delicious smelling stew.

The Doctor and the Dinosaurs:  Pyr; December 2013; 255 pages (with and extra 30 pages for appendixes); illustration by Andrew Bosley. Mike Resnick is a prolific writer of novels and short stories and has edited 40 anthologies. He has won five Hugo Awards and has been nominated over 30 times. He is the author of the Starship series, the John Justin Mallory series, and the popular Kirinyaga series. Resnick's novel The Doctor and the Dinosaurs is the fourth book in his "Weird West Tales" series.

The Doctor and the Dinosaurs takes us on a trip to an alternate version of the Wild West. Doc Holliday is dying in a sanitarium in Leadville, Colorado. An owl rests on the windowsill and watches as Doc coughs up blood and gasps in some breaths. The owl turns into Geronimo who then offers Doc a chance to live about one or two more years if he will help him with a problem. According to the Apache Geronimo, white men are digging for dinosaur bones on sacred Comanche land. Geronimo thinks Doc Holliday can convince the men to stop digging, using any means possible, including Doc’s famous gunmanship.

Doc asks why an Apache leader is helping the Comanche people in Wyoming. Geronimo reveals that the Comanche medicine men plan to resurrect some of the dinosaurs to destroy the white men and end the digging. Unfortunately, once the dinosaurs are resurrected, they can't be controlled and will go haywire and mindlessly kill anyone else in their path, which includes Apache and Comanche, as well as anyone else in their path. In Geronimo's opinion, the better plan would be to simply stop the dig and leave the dinosaurs as bones.

After Doc Holliday agrees to this deal, Geronimo does some chanting. Although Doc still coughs, he feels as he did two years ago. Doc then sets out on his journey, which first takes him to Cheyenne, Wyoming. There, he meets up with Theodore Roosevelt, who is not president yet, and they head in a northwest direction to find the paleontologists' digging site and to see what's what. They notice two Comanche following them.

The Battle:  We have a Wild West alternate-reality fantasy battling against a YA mythological fantasy. After reading the first 25 pages, I find these books to be a good pairing. May the best book win!

In The Scholar, the Sphinx, and the Shades of Nyx, David, our scholar and hero, loves stories and devours books. He is young and ready to embark on his life's journey. Unfortunately, he makes a poor decision, which takes him on a creepy path of abduction and magic.

The book flows well and the storyline so far is interesting. The writing is good, and there are some high-quality vocabulary words, which I appreciate when reading young adult novels. The name-dropping of myths and famous authors, such as "Perseus" and "Victor Hugo," seem to be placed in the story to educate the reader rather than move the story forward. Some references reminded me of the Percy Jackson series.

I wondered why the sphinx and the gypsies didn't rob David and kick him out of their gathering. Why is the sphinx interested in David? The good writing makes me believe the reasons will be forthcoming and plausible.

The Doctor and the Dinosaurs is witty and easy to follow. Humor seeps in a lot. After Geronimo temporarily heals Doc Holliday, Doc goes to a saloon where he sees Thomas Edison entering: a prosthetic-armed man walks into a bar... I was expecting a joke to follow! Then Doc says, "I've still got consumption, but at least I can function." Both seemed funnier while reading the story than they do as I write about it now. But what matters most is how much I liked the words as I read them.

Doc, a true alcoholic, believes that "water was for bathing, whiskey was for drinking, and only a fool mixes the two up." Other quotes worked well in the story and never pulled me out of the story.

Historical figures are fictionalized characters in The Doctor and the Dinosaurs. In addition, many other Wild West and famous names are "dropped," such as, Kate Elder, Lillie Langtree, Wyatt Earp, Ned Buntline, boxers John L. Sullivan and William Smiley, outlaw Johnny Ringo, famous paleontologists Edward Cope and Othniel Marsh, and philanthropist George Peabody. And that was within the first 25 pages!

However, The Scholar, the Sphinx, and the Shades of Nyx also included a few dropping of names: David and Goliath, Napoleon Bonaparte, Victor Hugo, and writer Johann Ludwig Tieck who wrote about Brunhilda.

Both books include data for thought: historic names and mythological references. They seemed to me like books to read along with school topics, although only The Scholar, the Sphinx and the Shades of Nyx is a YA novel.

After reading 25 pages of each book, I (Jackie) enjoyed both books. But for Battle of the Books a winner must be chosen. Although both authors had unique writing styles and cleverly created stories of interest, I choose to continue reading the story that takes me to the Wild West.

THE WINNER: The Doctor and the Dinosaurs by Mike Resnick

The Doctor and the Dinosaurs advances to the second round to face The Cusanus Game by Wolfgang Jeschke.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Battle of the 2013 Books, Bracket One, First Round :: The Cusanus Game by Wolfgang Jeschke vs. The God Tattoo by Tom Lloyd

Our seventh and next to last first round match of Bracket One of the Battle of the 2013 Books involves The Cusanus Game by Wolfgang Jeschke going up against The God Tattoo by Tom Lloyd. The winner will be the book I (Jackie) most want to continue reading after 25 pages.

The Cusanus Game:  Tor, English translation September 2013; originally published in 2005 in Germany; 538 pages; translator: Ross Benjamin. Wolfgang Jeschle was a German science fiction writer who also wrote Last Day of Creation.

The prologue in The Cusanus Game finds the caravan-leader Emilio awakened by the "hum and rumble" of heavy repellers. One of his guards Bakhtir angrily brings two bruised and bloodied men to Emilio. The men were runners who survived their escape, unlike their other two companions who had died. They had attempted to leave the caravan through the repellers, which create the border between the past and future. Bakhtir's anger and mourning comes because one of the dead men is his son.

The year is 1425, and Emilio has brought supplies for the airship, which arrived from the mid twenty-first century. Emilio and Bakhtir meet holograph men who aren't really there but can communicate while they take supplies. Distraught, Bakhtir attempts to kill one of the future men, resulting in the hasty departure of the airship. Emilio and Bakhtir barely escape.

The first chapter begins in mid twenty-first century Italy where Domenica lives in a war-ravaged town, with the factions still fighting. Domenica needs to cross the bridge over a dry riverbed. Sandbags line one side of the river while armored vehicles and a tank sit on the other side. A man tells her she can't cross because of the danger. "But I live there!" she states. She pushes her battery-dead "lectric" over the bridge. The soldiers let her pass. So, while the factions fight, life continues.

Domenica's boyfriend Bernd is handsome, but flawed. Entertainment in the city is brutal and cruel: one show includes barbaric sex on stage. Domenica is disgusted, but Bernd is entranced. She decides their relationship is over. She crosses paths with a modified military dog who is dying from the inside out due to self-destructing implants. "Help me," says the dog. Domenica gives him a chocolate bar.

War caused trauma seems to be everywhere, from creatures to landscape. CarlAntonio are Siamese twins, with Carl riding like a backpack behind Antonio. Stavros, fellow tenant of Domenica, has a prosthetic tongue—which was cut out while in captivity during the war.

The God Tattoo: Untold Tales from the Twilight Reign:  Pyr; November 2013; 250 pages; illustration by Larry Rostant; Story collection. Tom Lloyd is a British writer who has written eight fantasy books, including the five-book "Twilight Reign" series.

The God Tattoo contains eleven stories. For this book, the 25 pages I read included one and a half short stories.

The first story, "A Beast in Velvet," follows the Captain of the City Watch of Narkang. He is called to investigate a gruesome crime that involves blood, gutted people, and runes scratched on the walls. When a second gruesome crime occurs, the Captain's superior brings in Nimer, one of the King's Men, to help with the investigation. Nimer declares the murders to be either a sacrifice for summoning or banishing daemons or caused by a vampire. Nimer works with the Captain, who eventually comes up with a surprising suspect.

The second story, "The God Tattoo," begins with a large, "white-eye," humanoid creature Daken and his human companion Yamal, walking down the road. They had been fighting in a war on the losing side and now feel dirty, tired, and hungry. Daken observes a traveler riding toward them. Being a white-eye, Daken wants that human for his evening meal. Yamal hopes the traveler has food in his knapsack so he can enjoy a meal as well. When the traveler arrives, Daken attacks him and misses. The traveler uses magic to confuse Daken's vision. The one traveler becomes two and then the traveler looks like Yamal and then he's the traveler again. Daken lunges at the traveler but severely wounds his companion Yamal instead, due to the illusion created by more magic. The traveler says that if Daken does as he demands, Yamal, who is now at death's door, will live.

The Battle:  We have two different types of books to decide between, which is never easy. The God Tattoo is an epic fantasy short story collection that offers stories from the world of the author's "Twilight Reign" series. The Cusanus Game is a futuristic science fiction novel that involves disaster and time travel.

The Cusanus Game is a novel that, so far, offers tragic background stories that come with being in a war-torn country, which we see through the eyes of Domenica. Crude, crass, morbid, and yet fascinating, the stories within the novel both pull me in and push me away. The writing seems masterful at this point. There are some confusing jumps in time, some being centuries and others being months.

Time-travel is involved, but after 25 pages I only know that the humans in the future need supplies from the past. After the airship leaves the past, Emilio says that they have time. But time to do what? Change the direction of the future? I’m curious.

The God’s Tattoo contains eleven stories, and unfortunately, Battle of the Books stopped me in the middle of the second story. The excellent writing pulled me into the stories. The first short story had a nice twist at the end, which I hadn't foreseen. Ending my reading in the middle of the second story left me wanting to find out who the traveler was and to discover more about the magic. The Twilight Reign, so far, seems to offer stories that take place in a violent, coarse world.

Sadly, though, after reading 25 pages of both books, I (Jackie) must choose a winner to advance to the next round of Battle of the Books. Only one book can continue on in the tournament. Even though both books contain believable characters and interesting plots, I really want to learn more about the fate of Domenica and discover her role, if any, in time travel.

THE WINNER: The Cusanus Game by Wolfgang Jeschke

The Cusanus Game advances to the second round, to take on either The Scholar, the Sphinx and the Shades of Nyx by A. R. Cook or The Doctor and the Dinosaurs by Mike Resnick.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Thursday, December 03, 2015

Battle of the 2013 Books, Bracket One, First Round :: Burning Paradise by Robert Charles Wilson vs. Trinity Rising by Elspeth Cooper

This match-up, our sixth, in Bracket One of the Battle of the 2013 Books features Burning Paradise by Robert Charles Wilson going up against Trinity Rising by Elspeth Cooper. The winner will be the book I (Jackie) most want to continue reading after 25 pages.

Burning Paradise:  Tor Books; November 2013; 317 pages; jacket art by Getty Images; jacket design by Base Art Co. Robert Charles Wilson wrote the Hugo Award winning Spin and has won various other awards. He is a prolific science fiction writer.

Burning Paradise takes us to an alternate reality where WWII never happened. Instead, a 1914 Armistice created, so far, 100 years of peace. However, the United States is not a "free" country. Members of a freedom-seeking underground organization, the Correspondence Society, are being shot, killed, and eliminated. They were forced to go underground after the 2007 massacre of the Correspondence Society.

Somehow, some group or government has engineered a pseudo-human called a simulacrum that looks very human unless it gets ripped apart and the inner guts of green goo, smelling like chlorophyll, oozes out.

Cassie, who is 18, and her 12-year-old brother Thomas have lived with their Aunt Ris for 7 years, ever since their parents were killed in the 2007 massacre. The family is part of the Correspondence Society, and the kids have a plan of escape in case they are discovered. One evening when Aunt Ris is out with her boyfriend, Cassie sees a strange sight out the window: a man, who looks like he's headed to their apartment, is hit by a car. Green goo exiting his wounds reveals him as a simulacrum. Cassie immediately wakes up her brother, they grab their pre-packed bags, and they head to another secret location.

Meanwhile, in a remote farmhouse attic, Ethan Iverson, former University Professor, looks at a video screen showing the approach of a stranger, which he knows is a simulacrum. When he opens the door for the stranger, he zaps it with his 300kv shockgun.

Cassie and Thomas make it to 21-year-old Leo Beck's apartment. Beth Vance, his unpleasant girlfriend, is staying with him. Leo is the son of the famous Werner Beck, a higher-up in the Correspondence Society. Cassie tells her story of the gooey simulacrum, and the four of them grab their bags and squeeze into Leo's car. "So where are we going?" asks Beth.

Trinity Rising:  Tor Books; September 2013; 338 pages; cover art uncredited. Trinity Rising is book two in Elspeth Cooper's "The Wild Hunt" series that began with Songs of the Earth. The third book in the projected quartet is The Raven's Shadow.

Trinity Rising begins with magic as Savin steps through a "Veil" that he created in the air. He ends up in a cold room in a castle. He flicks his finger and a fire bursts forth in the fireplace. A sudden shift in the air lets him know he's not alone as he's drawn to a mirror on the dresser. Inside, instead of seeing his reflection, he looks into a writhing void. A voice comes to him from the mirror asking if he has found "it." Savin says no, and that the task has turned complicated. The voice replies that the master grows impatient. Savin talks about the Guardian and an apprentice that he can't "read." The voice warns that unpleasant consequences will occur if Savin doesn't deliver soon.

In a camp that hints of Scottish bagpipes and clans around a campfire, Drwyn lights the funeral pyre of his father Drw, chief of the chiefs. Drwyn has been impatient for his father to die because Drwyn plans to replace him as chief. Drw finally does die while sleeping with Teia, a young 15-year-old girl. At the evening campfire, Drwyn's musings are interrupted by Ytha, an elder "Speaker." She enters his thoughts, saying Drwyn must bed the young Teia in case she got pregnant by his father, so that any future child by the dead chief could be claimed as his. She directs him that the time is right for a speech.

Teia is alone cleaning dishes while the other single females are at the funeral celebration. Teia is grieving the old chief's death, thinking of him as a nice man. Teia needs to gather more water, so she goes to the creek. Looking in the bucket of water she scryes to see the future. Ytha walks up behind her asking, "Are you scrying?" Teia lies and says no. The Speaker Ytha demands that Teia go to Ytha's tent immediately. Ytha wants to prepare Teia for Drwyn's bed.

The Battle:  We have two different types of books to decide between, which is never easy.

The alternate reality, science fiction book Burning Paradise offers a mystery and creates a many questions: Who are the bad guys? Who's behind the creation of the simulacrums? What is the fate of the kids? What's the purpose of the Correspondence Society? There are hints that Leo Beck plays an important role in this society. Various quotes are attributed to him, such as "Beware the attention of strangers." The society also preaches warnings. "In a crisis, always assume the worst." "Park, warn and run." "No telephone calls."

Ethan Iberson, the former professor, stores and protects files and firearms for the society at his farmhouse. He's been isolated for the past seven years. Ethan claims that "one useful device by which a solitary man could keep touch with sanity was a regular schedule, strictly obeyed." That determined his daily routines, which was why he was well prepared before the simulacrum knocked on his front door.

Normally, I’m not a big fan of alternate reality books as much as fantasy or science fiction. However, this book seems more character driven, which works well for me.

Trinity Rising is full of magic and intrigue and cool medieval fantasy settings. Even though this is the second book in the series, I find it easy to follow, without any feelings that previous information is stuck in here and there. The book has a flow that compels me to read further.

Savin seems to be the probable villain in this novel. I'm curious to find out whether or not he's a pawn or strong character. I also want to know more about the elusive Guardians and the apprentice.

My reading ended with the character Teia, and I wanted to turn the page and see what happened next.

This is a very tough decision. After reading 25 pages, I want to continue reading both books. However, for Battle of the Books, I (Jackie) must choose between them. In this case, I plan to delve into an alternate reality!

THE WINNER: Burning Paradise by Robert Charles Wilson

Burning Paradise advances to the second round to take on Shadow People by James Swain.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Battle of the 2013 Books, Bracket One, First Round :: Mist by Susan Krinard vs. Shadow People by James Swain

We continue the first round of Bracket One of the Battle of the 2013 Books. The bottom half of the draw begins with Mist by Susan Krinard against Shadow People by James Swain. The winner will be the book I (Jackie) most want to continue reading after 25 pages.

Mist:  July 2013; 382 pages; cover illustration by Fred Gambino. Susan Krinard had written paranormal romance and fantasy since 1993. She has written three books for her "Midgard" series: book one, Mist; a prequel Freeze Warning; and book two in the series, Black Ice. She has also published books with Harlequin.

Mist begins with a prologue. The setting is 1942 Norway, during World War II. Mist is a Valkyrie, a female warrior of Odin from Norse mythology. She is with two other sister Valkyrie: Horja and Bryn.

The All-father Odin exiled the Valkyrie from Valhalla and forbade the use of their "treasures" (weapons) in battle until the Aesir return. Mist has rebelled and encouraged her sisters to join her in wielding their treasures. Horja holds Thor's unbreakable staff; Byrn uses the magic feathered cloak, which gives her the ability of flight by changing into a gyrfalcon; and Mist wields Gungnir — Odin's spear that never misses. All are activated by chanting runes. These three Valkyrie have lost contact with the other nine Valkyrie since the Last Battle, not knowing if they are alive or dead.

The three Valkyrie are helping a group of people in the Norwegian Resistance escape, through the snow, from Nazi soldiers. Unfortunately, the soldiers find them and kill most everyone, except two girls. During her fight as a gyrfalcon, Bryn's cloak loses its magic, and she falls to the ground. She dies after impact. Mist goes her separate way from Horja who will help the two survivors cross the border into freedom.

Mist feels responsible and guilty for the deaths since she persuaded her sisters to use the forbidden weapons.

Moving into the future, Mist continues in present-day San Francisco. Mist is sword playing with her boyfriend Eric. When they part, Mist finds herself drawn to a city park. There she is confronted by a chill of fog, "slithering and hissing like the serpent Nidhogg…." Out of the fog appears the frost-giant Hrimgrimir. Mist still controls some magic. She finds a stick, and with blood and runes, changes it into a sword. She injures the giant and he retreats. She goes after him and encounters a homeless person who seems to be something different.

Shadow People:  June 2013; 351 pages; jacket art by Trevillion Images; Jacket design by Base Art Co. Shadow People is the second novel in the Peter Warlock series that began with Dark Magic. Swain has also published crime and mystery books in the Jack Carpenter series and the Tony Valentine series.

The dark entities you might see out of the corner of your eye are called Shadow People. They are between this world and the world of spirit. They are "evil apparitions that attach themselves to humans, and refuse to let go."

Peter Warlock, magician and psychic, is conducting a séance with friends — including a psychic reader, an aspiring witch, and a blind fortune teller — in a New York apartment. This weekly event usually goes well, and sometimes crimes are solved or stopped because of Peter's visions. Before starting the séance, Peter gets a glimpse of a shadow person. Before pondering more on this entity, Peter transports into the future to the basement of a serial killer who's about to go snatch his next victim.

Usually, when Peter transports to a location, whether in the past, present, or future, the people he sees cannot see him. However, this evil man, whom Peter calls "Dr. Death," can see him, which means that Dr. Death is in cahoots with the devil. Dr. Death tries to run over Peter with his car and then attempts to shoot him. Peter can die in this future place, and while he faces the gun, he begs his spirit helpers to snap him from this place. They usually respond immediately, except for this time. He barely makes it back to the séance.

Peter dictates his experience at the séance. Peter plans to contact his FBI friend Agent Garrison with the details, hoping the FBI can track down Dr. Death and end his future killing spree.

Peter leaves with Homer, the blind fortune teller, and walks him to the bus stop. Homer tells Peter what he knows about shadow people and how they can "destroy your life." When Homer had to deal with the shadow people in the past, he and others wore five-pointed star talismans against the evil.

Herbie, Peter's limo chauffer, drives Peter home. On the way, he tells Peter that a cab driver he knows saw Homer disappear under the arch in Washington Square Park.

Peter, standing outside his brownstone, calls FBI Agent Garrison. During the call, Peter's girlfriend Liza is trying to call him. He ignores it, until she tries again, which means it's important. Then his shoe flies out from an upper window. Peter rushes in to see his brownstone in shambles. Many of his magician's tools and tricks are broken and trashed. He runs upstairs to find a shadow person in the bedroom and Liza hiding in the closet. Peter opens a wall safe to retrieve a necklace of his mom’s — a five-pointed star — and gives it to Liza. The shadow person closes in on the two. Peter tries to protect Liza by pushing her behind him. He has a plan.

The Battle:  A Norse urban fantasy Mist battles a dark occult fantasy Shadow People.

Mist takes us into two time periods: WWII and then the present day.

In the past, Mist seems broken and frustrated to not be able to battle the Nazis as a true powerful Valkyrie, using the "treasures" that should work and defeat the enemy. Innocent people die around Mist for centuries, and she is helpless to do what she was made to do. But when was the Last Battle? How long have they been wandering the earth?

Next we jump to present day where Mist is in a sword battle with her boyfriend Eric. She considers letting him win, "male pride being such a fragile thing….," but doesn't because Mist has the Valkyrie instinct to win battles.

When Mist confronts the frost-giant Hrimgrimir coming out of the fog, it seems surprising that she can use powerful magic to force the creature to retreat, yet she and her Valkyrie buddies couldn't do much against the Nazis. I wonder how strong Mist's magic really is, and why didn't she and fellow companions use it back in 1942?

Shadow People follows a normal time line until Peter enters a trance. His soul or astral body moves to these places and can be killed in these places. I'm curious to know how and why.

At first, Peter's last name, "Warlock" seemed over the top and typical for someone who conducts séances and performs magic. However, the story propelled me forward right away, and my curiosity continues to be tweaked. Homer, the blind psychic, interests me. I want to know more about him, too.

Even though Shadow People is the second book in the series, I followed along without feeling backstory details were necessary.

Both books have great compelling hooks at the end of the 25 pages that made me want to read more. Both included happenings in different times, jumping from past to future or present to future. I liked the characters within each story. This is a tough choice.

I think my reading experience of Mist would have been enhanced had I been more knowledgeable of Norse mythology and the stories of the Valkyrie and Odin. The poem helped a bit, but I wanted more background.

On the other hand, considering Shadow People, I’m not a big reader of occult fantasy, especially if it has to do with serial killers of women.

However, I (Jackie) must choose a winner after reading 25 pages, and for me that’s the book that gave me the clearest visuals after reading 25 pages.

THE WINNER: Shadow People by James Swain

Shadow People advances to the second round to face the winner of the battle between Burning Paradise by Robert Charles Wilson and Trinity Rising by Elspeth Cooper.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Monday, November 23, 2015

"Solder and Seam" by Maria Dahvana Headley :: Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week

"No one ever thought of themselves that way, but statistically, it had to be true that some people were exactly what they thought they weren’t."

My Story Recommendation of the Week is for "Solder and Seam" by Maria Dahvana Headley, a short story from the October 2015 issue of Lightspeed Magazine.

Set in a mostly depopulated far-future Midwest, "Solder and Seam" is the story of a soldier turned farmer, who one day decides to build a whale out of wood in the middle of the prairie.

Our protagonist is building a white whale, at once putting us in mind of Noah and Captain Ahab. But we also know he is emotionally scarred from fighting in a revolution on another world. And we know he has hidden his true identity for many years:
The afternoon he painted the whale, there was a storm. It wasn’t raining where he was. It’d stopped raining on the dirt. Now storms took place above the ground and if you were watching, you could see rain disappearing fifty feet above you, sputtering out like it had hit some invisible drought. He watched the storm roll across the sky like his first wife had rolled across his bed and out the other side. He’d done that one wrong. He probably could have told her who he was, but he had a new face, and why take responsibility for his old soul when he looked like someone who hadn’t been born into it?
This is an evocative, beautifully-written story. Even if you've guessed the protagonist's identity, the way it is revealed is memorably done.

Maria Dahvana Headley is the author of the YA fantasy Magonia, the historical vampire novel Queen of Kings, and the memoir The Year of Yes. She has previously been nominated for the Nebula Award, and "Solder and Seam" is written at an award-caliber level.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Battle of the 2013 Books, Bracket One, First Round :: The Secret of Abdu El Yezdi by Mark Hodder vs. Mage's Blood by David Hair

This fourth match-up in Bracket One of the Battle of the 2013 Books has The Secret of Abdu El Yezdi by Mark Hodder going up against Mage's Blood by David Hair. The winner will be the book I (Jackie) most want to continue reading after 25 pages.

The Secret of Abdu El Yezdi:  A Burton & Swineburne book: Pyr; 2013; 438 pages; cover illustration, John Sullivan; cover design by Jacqueline Nasso Cooke. Mark Hodder is the author of A Red Sun Also Rises and the Burton & Swinburne books, which also include The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack, The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man, and Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon.

The Secret of Abdu El Yezdi first puts us in 1859 on a British dirigible, the HMA Orpheus, with the feverish Captain Burton, recovering from malaria. He feels like two people, and each persona remembers history in a different way.

The young man Laurence Oliphant, Lord Elgin's private secretary, enters the room and talks with the delusional Captain Burton, telling him the real history of who is alive and who died. He calls in Sister Raghavendra, Burton's nurse and fellow explorer, who says the Captain's misconceptions stem from the medication, and he’ll be better soon.

When Captain Burton does feel a bit better, he wakes up to hear chanting in a far-away room. Staggering, he grabs a bottle of Saltzmann's tincture from a drawer, which has cocaine as a major ingredient. He swigs half the bottle. Burton feels this snake oil is the best cure for any ailment one has. Next Burton sees Oliphant's walking stick that has a hidden sword inside, and he takes it with him.

Captain Burton staggers down to his friend Stroyan's cabin and finds the cabin empty — with blood on a pillow. Burton enters a different cabin and finds Oliphant standing in the center of a pentagram drawn on the floor, chanting and hovering over a kneeling and dazed Stroyan. Oliphant then slits Stroyan's throat. The walls are covered with symbols and numbers. Oliphant sees Burton and declares that Burton can't stop him now because the master has been summoned. Burton whips out the sword from the walking stick and attacks Oliphant eventually knocking him out, despite Burton's wild state of mind. Fortunately, the airship captain, 2nd officer, and Doctor Quaint enter the room to help Burton. Oliphant is shackled in a cabin to await further questioning when he gains consciousness.

Around this time the telegraph develops problems. It is disconnected but still works as it reveals a disjointed message with English words and "nonsensical balderdash," which no one understands. Also, strange lights are in the sky, similar to an extraordinary aurora borealis.

Meanwhile the dirigible lands in Vienna to pick up Lord Stanley, Lord Elgin and Prince Albert, widower of Queen Victoria.

Captain Burton discovers that he will be knighted when they land in England.  Burton hears about the difficulty England is having with China, concerning silver and opium. Lord Elgin says, "Trade is warfare and warfare is trade."

Lord Elgin discusses details about his secretary Oliphant with Captain Burton. Apparently, the murderer Oliphant had become overly involved with a book called Wisdom of Angels, which stated that there are multiple levels of existence that can be seen by using mind-altering drugs. Burton says, "Utter claptrap," to this concept.

The airship lands in London's Royal Navy Air Service Station, which is beside Battersea Power Station. Upon landing, Prince Albert, Lord Elgin, and Lord Stanley climb into a six-wheeled armor-plated carriage pulled by two steam horses. As they leave, a voice in the murky smog yells, "Ahoy there, Orpheus! Welcome back to the civilized world!"

Mage's Blood:  first book in "The Moontide Quartet." Jo Fletcher Books; 2013; 686 pages; cover art by Patric Carpenter, Jem Butcher, and Paul Young. The second book in this series is titled Scarlet Tides and the third book is Unholy War. David Hair had published two YA fiction series: The Aotearoa and The Return of Ravana.

Mage's Blood, epic fantasy, takes place on a world with two continents: Yuros and Antiopia. The continents are "divided by...300 miles of impassable sea," which, according to the Yuros people, the God Kore created to keep East from mixing with West. However, 23 years ago, an industrious Antiopian named Antonin Meiros built The Leviathon Bridge (or Moontide Bridge) between the two continents. This 300-mile bridge is only accessible once every 12 years, during Moontide, when the tides are low enough. People from both continents can cross the bridge and trade and intermingle during that time.

On the continent Antiopia, a centuries-old witch named Sabele replenishes herself by inhaling the energy of animals and people as they die. When she does this, she can commune with ghosts and her spirit guardian. After inhaling the energy of a doomed baby, she discovers that Antonin Meiros, who she dislikes and distrusts, is coming to attempt to avert an upcoming war. Both Sabele and Antonin are Diviners, who can commune with the ghosts, thus gaining knowledge of what is happening in both continents.

Meanwhile in Yuros, a celebration is taking place to canonize the Emperor's mother Lucia as a living saint. The next day, there is a secret meeting between some noblemen, the Emperor of Sacrecour, his mother Lucia, and three magi who hail from the country of Noros.

The people of Yuros have a history of war and destruction. During one of the wars came the beginnings of the Magi, or the mages, who have the gnosis power and can destroy with a thought. Many people since then are mage-born from the proliferous co-mingling of mages and commoners. However, with each generation, some of the mage power is diminished. Most mage-born people wear channeling gems that enhance their power. During meetings, mage-born are asked to leave their gems at the door.

At a meeting with the nobles and the Noros mages, Lucia (the Saint) spouts her anger and bigotry against the people of the continent Antiopia. She declares that many people need to be killed. She rages against the merchants and bankers who grow rich from trade with Antiopia. Her whiny son the Emperor defers to his mother while she rails against others who don't meet her standard. The plan to destroy the Moontide Bridge is about to be revealed.

The Battle:  An epic fantasy Mage's Blood battles an alternate history steampunk novel The Secret of Abdu El Yezdi.

Mage's Blood delves immediately into the fantasy with the witch Sabele who can talk with ghosts across the planet. I find that to be a clever means of communication. The concept of seeing the dead has been around forever, but having this as a way to know what's happening in the world is unique.

The maps at the front of the novel are clear and easy to follow. The Moontide Bridge that is only open during special low tides is another distinctive concept, especially because the seas are too wild to sail or cross. However, we were introduced to Lucia who was literally flying from window to window, so I wonder if that was a trick or a real power.

The continents Yuros and Antiopia feel distinct in both the people and government. Not much has been revealed about Antiopia at this point. However, the people seem more intent on enjoying the trade between the two continents when the bridge is open. The Yuros government, on the other hand, consists of arrogant supercilious self-involved people who want to destroy the bridge and eliminate the mutual benefit of Moontide trade.

I like the idea of the diviners on Antiopia as well as the gnosis power on Yuros that is enhanced when wearing the "periapts" gems.

A few events in Mage's Blood parallel things that happened in "real" life, such as the legend of King Albrett and "his knights of the round table." I wonder why the author included this fact that is so close to our history. Also, Yuros's newly-sainted woman Lucia is ready to get involved with a holy war against Antiopia. The holy war is called a "Shihad," which is too close for me to "Jihad" in our world. These similarities pulled me out of the story.

I wish the first 25 pages of story details in Mage's Blood were written in a less disjointed manner. Inserting historical events seemed misplaced. Interesting to read, but sometimes it stopped the flow of the story.

The Secret of Abdu El Yezdi immediately pulled me into the story with Captain Burton and his confusion of reality. The introduction of the supernatural in a steampunk world takes the alternate-reality novel in a different direction, according to my limited steampunk experience.

My unfamiliarity with British history was a negative for me, but I still enjoyed the first 25 pages. Anyone reading this book with knowledge of the historical background will probably enjoy it all the more, extra gravy. On a positive note, the book includes an appendix of sorts — a quick reference — that explains the important historical people and events as they happened in the "real" Victorian era. This is a definite plus in understanding some of the book's alternate realities.

Both books have political and trading issues. However, one novel will pull in the occult and the other deals with a holy war.

After reading 25 pages of each, I (Jackie) like both novels, so this is a tough decision. Unfortunately, I'm not yet drawn to any of the characters in Mage's Blood, although I wanted to learn more about Antiopia.

I do like Captain Burton from The Secret of Abdu El Yesdi. I’m not excited about a demon-mixed-with-steampunk situation, unless the demon is atypical. I am, however, looking forward to reading more about Burton and the so-far-elusive Swinburne.

THE WINNER: The Secret of Abdu El Yesdi by Mark Hodder

The Secret of Abdu El Yesdi advances to the second round to take on The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Battle of the 2013 Books, Bracket One, First Round :: 23 Years on Fire by Joel Shepherd vs. The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord

The third match in the first round of Bracket One of the Battle of the 2013 Books features 23 Years on Fire by Joel Shepherd doing battle with The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord. The winner will be the book I (Jackie) most want to continue reading after 25 pages.

23 Years on Fire:  Pyr; 2013; 438 pages; cover illustration by Stephan Martiniere; cover design by Jacqueline Nasso Cooke. The novel 23 Years on Fire is the fourth book in the military science fiction Cassandra Kresnov series. Joel Shepherd has written nine science fiction and fantasy novels.

23 Years on Fire begins with Ari, creeping through a dark city on planet Anjula, then entering Vice President Moon's apartment to steal security codes. He plans to overthrow the government with help from his fellow terrorists that are, at the same time, entering the atmosphere in their pods. The 56 pods are transporting manufactured GIs (which include Cassandra Kresnov, part of the "elite six") who are created for war.

While Ari continues his quest to control the security systems of the city, Kassandra and her warriors break out of the pods on their "jumpjet" vehicles, landing on roofs and working their way into the government buildings, hoping to take over the city as quickly as possible.

Kassandra enters a building with a few of her elite group. They separate and Kassandra goes alone, fighting and destroying with her amazing guns and incredible agility. The government workers are experimenters, doing genetic manipulation on the GIs. They are actively breeding, creating, and killing these GIs in the name of science. Kassandra and her elite GIs and other GIs plan to eliminate this government program, by taking control of the island city.

The Best of All Possible Worlds:  Del Rey; 2013; 306 pages; book design by Victoria Wong. Keren Lord's debut novel, Redemption in Indigo, was published in 2010 and won the Frank Collymore Literary Prize in Barbados.

The Best of All Possible Worlds, galaxy-spanning science fiction epic, begins with a third-person narrator. Dllenahkh, who is on an off-world meditation retreat from his home world. A messenger tells him that the people on his home planet have been destroyed, all poisoned. Very few Sadiri females are left from this race because the females don't meditate off-world, thus most of them were on the planet when it was attacked.

Dllenahkh's people, the Sadirians, have discovered that the Ainya people from planet Ain were responsible for poisoning the Sadirians.

The Ainya people, also called the "taSadiri," are the same race as the Sadirians, but do not practice the mental disciplines like the Sadiri. This offshoot group left planet Sadiri to settle on planet Ain, although they felt they were ousted from the homeworld, which might be the reason for their poisoning of that world.

Chapter 2 changes voice to the first-person viewpoint of biotechnician Delarua, the Second Assistant of Tlaxce Province on planet Cyrus Beta. Delarua must work with the Sadirian Counsellor Dllenahkh, who left the meditation world and has moved to Cyrus Beta, which is a planet that has been described as "a galactic hinterland of pioneers and refugees."

Other male Sadirians join Dllenahkh on the planet Cyrus Beta. The Sadirians have an agenda.

Second Assistant Delarua takes Dllenahkh on a tour of the Tlaxce Province. Delarua deduces that the male Sadirians' goal is to procreate with genetically-compatible Tlaxcian women, hoping to increase the Sadirian race. Delarua calls Dllenahkh out for being an arrogant race. Dllenahkh seems impressed that Delarua is so astute.

Delarua arrives at work one day to find he has been demoted from Second Assistant to Civil Service liaison, which mostly involves working with Counsellor Dllenahkh and the Sadiri people. Delarua is not happy to relinquish his biotechnician job to the famous Dr. Freyda Mar. Delarua has two months left before his career takes a detour.

The Battle: An epic science fiction novel The Best of All Possible Worlds battles against the fourth book in a science fiction series 23 Years on Fire, which puts a lot of pressure on the beginning structure of the latter book-in-a-series.

The Best of All Possible Worlds introduces two interesting people: Dllenahkh and Delarua. Delarua is a humorous, fun-loving, blunt guy, who tells-it-like-it-is, which is very refreshing, and his bantering humor keep me engaged in the story. I like Delarua, and his first-person observations help move the story along without getting bogged down in too much foreshadowing.

The arrogant Dllenahkh is faced with the possible extinction of his race after the Ainya poisoned his home world and killed most of the females on the Sadirian planet. The two plots intertwine as do the lives of these two characters, Delarua and Dllenahkh. I want to know more about these people as well as other curiosities (like who are the Caretakers) that were mentioned within the first 25 pages of the book.

Despite how much I, Jackie, have enjoyed these chapters so far, I was greatly upset that these two main characters have names that begin with the same letter. It's always easier for me to keep people straight when names are not similar.  Fortunately, I didn't have any other issues with this novel.

In 23 Years on Fire I had problems with how the author introduced the back story, since we are reading the fourth book in a series. I had to decipher and remember too many acronyms: VTS, VR, CNS, NCT, CDF, FSA, NCT. I also had to figure out too much military tech vocabulary: tacnet, armscomp, optocam, UAVs, AMAPS. Finally, after trudging through 19 acronym-filled pages, the story began to get interesting.

Following Ari from page one, I didn't realize that he was part of the "good guys" until Kassandra entered the story. I had to do a reversal in thinking, deciding that I should now be on the side of Ari and Kassandra instead of rooting for the "innocent" sleeping city.

My curiosity grew about the details of the GI soldiers. However, I did not find out what the difference was between "straight humans" and GIs. I’ve deduced that the GIs are manufactured (cloned?) people, which is fascinating because (just a guess) they must "awake" as an adult soldier. I have no idea how they wake up as a fully-functioning adult—or if they do. One of the soldiers was a series 47, 4-year-old.

When introduced to Kassandra, I do become interested in the story. Kassandra and her modified human GIs made me realize why the attack was necessary. She has great insights. Commenting on why the government scientists on Anjula were experimenting and genetically messing with the GIs without questioning the humanity of their actions, Kassandra says, "All human psychology has a natural inclination toward consensus." Good observation, but it’s not a new concept.

I feel 23 Years on Fire would have stood out better had I previously read the first three books in the series.

In conclusion, after reading 25 pages of each book. I (Jackie) found 23 Years on Fire failed to garner my attention until about 20 pages into my reading. Although I’m interested to know more about the GIs, I was disappointed with most of the pages I read. Too many acronyms, for me, cluttered the beginning of this book.

The Best of All Possible Worlds caught my attention from page one. Although my only complaint so far dealt with both main characters having names beginning with a "d," I am intrigued and want to know more.

THE WINNER: The Best All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord

The Best All Possible Worlds advances to the second round, to take on either The Secret of Abdu El Yezdi by Mark Hodder or Mage's Blood by David Hair.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Thursday, November 05, 2015

Battle of the 2013 Books, Bracket One, First Round :: Fiend by Peter Stenson vs. Never by K. D. McEntire

Our second match in Bracket One of the Battle of the 2013 Books is Fiend by Peter Stenson versus Never by K. D. McEntire. The winner will be the book I (Jackie) most want to continue reading after 25 pages.

Fiend:  Crown Publishers; 2013; 295 pages; cover design by Christopher Brand. Stenson has published stories and essays in various magazines, newspapers, and journals. He was nominated for a Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Publishers series.  Fiend is Stenson's first published novel.

Fiend begins with first-person narrator Chase Daniels looking out a window. He watches a cute little girl creep up to a Rottweiler and rip out its throat. Thinking that his high from smoking "scante" has warped his vision, Chase retreats from the window toward the company of his friend named Typewriter. Both guys are getting high in Typewriter's house.

Typewriter is just as high as Chase, if not more; so both of them are shocked when the Rottweiler-killer girl breaks into the apartment with the intention of killing again, accompanied by little girl giggles. Typewriter picks up a typewriter and kills the zombie girl.

Chase decides to leave this murderous scene and go home to his apartment building, with Typewriter right behind, hoping this weird "trip" will end soon. They eventually notice that no one is in the streets, no cars drive by. Stores are empty. The first thing Chase sees at his apartment building are cats eating another tenant named Rebecca. Next the guys try Svetlana's apartment. A computer is on and some guy on the computer says they should kill Svetlana. Confused, Chase and Typewriter look around the room — and there is Svetlana, in the corner, ready to pounce on them, already turned into a zombie.

Never:  Harlequin MIRA, September, 2013; 300 pages; cover design by Grace M. Conti-Zils Berger. McEntire has written the first two books of the YA "Lightbringer" trilogy: Lightbringer and Reaper. She has also published a short story, “Heels.”

Never begins with a prologue. It's one a.m. when Laurie hears noises coming from the basement. Laurie opens the basement door of their fix-up home in San Francisco and walks down the steps. Her girlfriend Kara is using a sledgehammer to demolish a brick fireplace. Laurie joins in and both ladies continue with the demolition. Soon the whole façade falls down to reveal a hidden opening.

Laurie has the ability to see a "grimacing and growling" face in all the mirrors. There's a mirror in the basement. When the bricks fall and the hidden room is revealed, the face laughs.

Chapter 1 introduces new characters. A child, Wendy, walks on the beach gathering shells with her mother, Mary. Mother tells Wendy that babies aren't in the Never because they are too pure. Along with other bits of knowledge, Mary gives philosophical advice, such as, "You have to sense what you are missing for suffering to exist....Only with reason, with higher thought, does true misery come." While Wendy asks questions and talks, Mother takes the shells and creates a doorway in the sand. Wendy opens the door and walks through.

Chapter 2 introduces us to adult Wendy who is in a coma and doctors are zapping her to bring her back to life. Walking on the beach with her mother was a coma-dream she had conjured up. Going through the dreamscape shell-lined doorway had awakened her. Surrounding Wendy are some friends: Eddie, Piotr, Lily, and Elle, who are all dead spirits. The Never, I assume, is the real world with which we are all familiar.

In the past, the Lightbringer Wendy had trusted her Light with a Reaper named Jane, who had twisted it. That's why Wendy was in a coma. And Wendy's mother is dead.

The Battle:   Here we have a vulgar, coarse, offensive, dark, zombie-apocalyptic novel battling against a YA urban fantasy novel, the last book of three.

The first 25 pages of Fiend were filled with unique metaphors that helped stamp a definite visual to each scene. However, many of the metaphors and similes were crude and crass; i.e., the bloodied little girl who killed the Rottweiler is compared to "a used tampon." Other metaphors work well by giving details that run smoothly into the story: "my heart is 16th notes." Ignorant comments also fill the pages. Typewriter says that he "smells butt plugs." Chase responds, "grow up." Surprisingly, the crass statements flow smoothly, and fit in as well as the word "fuck" fits in with The Big Lebowski movie — necessary inclusions because the foul-mouthed words help define the characters. We're getting more than a glimpse of the world of drug addicts. The first 25 pages of this dark book drags you into the horror of addiction and spits you out when you have to close the covers of the book. It's decadently exhausting.

The narrator, Chase, shares his internal dialogue and thoughts, which are realistically clear and detailed. As soon as the killer girl-child is dead, Chase worries about how to keep from going to jail. Where did he touch things and leave his DNA? What story should he give to the police, because he didn't kill the girl — Typewriter did! Chase's stream of consciousness goes on tangents as well, with a few alternate-reality "what if" possibilities, which we all create from time to time. There are paragraphs of smoothly flowing flashbacks, giving backstory about our main character.

Stenson seems to be a true writer, which is why he can draw us into this bizarre, zombie-apocalypse novel. It's as if there are two kinds of zombies in this story: the drug addicts who would do anything for a hit and the zombie killers who would do anything to devour some blood and guts.

Never jumped from prologue to chapter one to chapter two with different settings and characters. It seemed to be a strategy to remind people what happened in books one and two — to bring us up-to-speed in order to understand where this series has been and where it's going.

McEntire uses onomatopoeic, sound words, such as, huurrk, slam, and whoosh-hisssshhhh. I loved the words. However, they made me think of words I might find in a book for younger readers. The main character, Wendy, is a strong female heroine, who has amazing abilities — always refreshing to read. I enjoyed learning that "The Never" was our world. Usually, books have characters from our reality entering other realms that have unique names. This twist intrigues me.

In conclusion, after reading 25 pages, I (Jackie) find the obscene, foul-mouthed Fiend an interesting, yet grueling, read. This zombie story has a stimulating plot and makes me want to read more to find out how this zombie disaster began. Never, on the other hand, failed to completely pull me in within the first 25 pages, most of which seemed to be backstory. I understand that some backstory is necessary, but I found the jumping from scenario to scenario not as exciting as it might have been had I read the first two books in the series. Despite my negatives, I give McEntire kudos for writing well and for creating excellent visual scenes.

THE WINNER: Fiend by Peter Stenson

Fiend advances to the second round to take on Electricity & Other Dreams by Micah Dean Hicks.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Battle of the 2013 Books, Bracket One, First Round :: Electricity & Other Dreams by Micah Dean Hicks vs. The Returned by Jason Mott

We begin the first round of Bracket One of the Battle of the 2013 Books with Electricity & Other Dreams by Micah Dean Hicks going against The Returned by Jason Mott. The winner will be the book I (Jackie) most want to continue reading after 25 pages.

Electricity & Other Dreams:  New American Press; 2013 (the collection of 26 stories were published individually from 2010 to 2012); 224 pages; cover design and interior art by Liz Green. Micah Dean Hicks writes "magical realism, modern fairy tales, and other kinds of magical stories." Per our rules concerning story collections, I read the most recently published stories until I had read a total of 25 pages, which happened to be three complete short stories. No "spoiler alert" endings are revealed.

"The Alligator Guides" --  Story two in this short-fiction collection is a bizarre tale about three southern backwoodsmen Mitch, Sawyer, and James who hunt alligators while philosophizing about the nature of God. Their catch, muddy alligators, are tied to the outside of the truck, then the guys roll into a car wash to clean off the mud. No character in the story, just me the reader, was surprised that the alligators turned into alligator men.

"Ladybaby's Chickens" --  Here we have a fantastical story of old chicken-keeper Ladybaby who buys herself three chickens, more like roosters with their sharp spurs. Old neighbor Bubblegum tells her that ferrets are better. And he's right because the new chickens, real bawking chickens, turn the "playhouse" into a meth lab. Ladybaby takes the blame. "I drink that meth all the time," she says to the Corrections Officer.

"Dog Summer"  --  Lijah works on his car while dreaming of leaving the drudgery of his life at home in the rural south. His mom and brother have jobs at the plant. His sisters are home with their dad who seems unable to do much of anything except watch TV. Lijah finds temporary jobs picking peas, beans, or okra. With his meager salary, Lijah buys parts for his car, working hard, until he finally gets the engine to turn over. But then the unthinkable happens to thwart Lijah's plans.

The Returned:  Harlequin MIRA, September, 2013; 338 pages; cover art uncredited. This is Jason Mott's first published novel. Mott's two poetry collections are also published.

Lucille and Harold Hargrave have been listening to the news. Apparently, people who have been dead for years are alive and returning to their loved ones. "They're not people," says Lucille. "They’re devils…." The doorbell rings.

Harold Hargrave opens his front door to reveal Bureau Agent Martin Bellamy and a young boy. "Jacob?" asks Harold. The boy rushes to Harold and wraps his arms around him. This boy is the spitting image of Harold’s 8-year-old son who died in 1966, not having aged a bit in these many decades. Agent Bellamy reveals that Jacob was found by a river in a small Chinese village.

Things calm down as Jacob settles in with the Hargraves. Lucille picks up where she left off back in 1966. Harold takes up chain smoking and harbors a feeling of unease.

Other reports pop up about more dead people returning to life. Kami Yamamoto, wearing a war uniform, walks into a convenience store, saying, "I surrender."

Agent Bellamy is now part of the Bureau of the Returned, dealing with those "people" who were dead but now show up alive. How many of the "returned" are out there? Agent Bellamy answers, "not terribly many… a small phenomenon, a modest number… only enough to remain miraculous." Yet more and more "revived" people appear.

The Battle:  Having a fantastical short-story collection battle a mainstream fantasy/horror novel made my decision very difficult. Not because I had to compare a short story collection with a novel, but because both books were well-crafted and entertaining!

With my love of short-shorts, I found that Electricity & Other Dreams offered powerful stories that left me hankering for more. These stories were concise and complete with twists and turns, including a touch of magical realism.

The stories included characters from rural Americana with settings fashioned so real that the magical elements brought in seemed to flow as a matter-of-fact, daily occurrences, as if nothing out-of-the-ordinary was happening. However, out-of-the-ordinary is precisely what we read: the sane mixed with the insane.

I enjoyed all three stories, and I felt sorely tempted to read more than the twenty-five pages. The plots for each of the three stories were unique and bizarre, and I felt a hunger for more. However, near the end of the third short story, I felt that I knew what would happen, but the ending still broke my heart. Despite any foreshadowing, the story’s ending remained gut-wrenching and frustrating. The other two were stories so unique and bizarre that my attention was riveted to the pages until the end. The stories in Electricity & Other Dreams masterfully dragged me along with familiar setting and then plowed me under with their fantastical elements and crazy endings.

The Returned offered a plot that was easy to follow and engaging. The characters seemed authentic with their interactions and responses. The fantasy/horror book - with the returning dead - presented a mystery that I wanted to read to the end. This premise holds much promise! We don't know much about the dead who have returned, but they seem as confused about their situations as the living relatives and communities they have returned to. The little boy Jacob and the WWII soldier Yami have been dropped into unfamiliar locations with their minds, seemingly, unchanged from the time right before they died. We are left supposing that maybe more people have returned than Officer Bellamy is disclosing.

Fortunately, this grim but hopeful story gives us humor, too, such as the familial bantering between spouses Lucille and Harold.

A mystery built up in The Returned, and questions a journalist might ask arose: who, what, when, where, and why. Why are the dead people returning? Are they really the same people who died? Will the revived-dead be a joy or a sorrow? "What are they?"

Mott’s book was turned into a TV series titled "Resurrection."

As a side note, while searching for the name of the American TV series, an Internet search found a French TV show called "The Returned," based on a 2004 French movie titled They Came Back by Fabrice Gobert, which has a similar theme.

In conclusion, having read 25 pages, I (Jackie) must give these two outstanding works of art very high ratings. Unfortunately, the battle rules say I must choose one book to continue in this Battle of the Books. Maybe my love of short fiction and appreciation for magical realism comes into play with my selection.

THE WINNER: Electricity & Other Dreams by Micah Dean Hicks

Electricity & Other Dreams advances to the second round, to take on either Fiend by Peter Stenson or Never by K.D. McEntire.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Battle of the 2013 Books, Bracket One

Announcing Bracket One of the Fantastic Reviews Battle of the 2013 Books!

We started the Battle of the Books at the Fantastic Reviews Blog as a fun way to try to keep up with the great volume of review copies we were receiving. (For more about why we started the Battle of the Books, click here.

The good news is we've done nine brackets of books so far, eight 2012 brackets and one 2014 bracket, discussing over 140 books. We've had a lot of fun and gotten some great feedback from the authors both here and at Twitter and other social media.

The bad news is we have definitely not kept up with all the review copies flowing in. But we're slowly taking on the mountain of books we've accumulated.

In a valiant (please don't say hopeless) attempt to catch up, we're alternating between brackets of the new books we're receiving and brackets of books from recent years.

Here's the basics for how we work our Battle of the Books. We start with a bracket of sixteen books as contenders. For the first round, our judge / reviewer will read the opening 25 pages of both randomly matched-up books. The winner will be the book they most want to continue reading (not necessarily the better book -- how would they know that after only 25 pages?). Those books that win their first-round battles advance to the second round.

For the second round, our Battle of the Books reviewer reads both books through page 50. Then they choose which of the books they'd rather continue reading. So if a good book starts slow, in this review format, it may face an uphill battle. Books that win their matchups advance to the semifinals.

For the semifinals, The reviewer reads through page 100, then picks which of the two books they'd prefer to continue reading. The winners advance to the finals.

In the finals or championship round, our reviewer will read through page 200 of both books. The winner, the book they most want to read to the end, will be proclaimed our Battle of the Books bracket champion. (For all the rules, click here.)

This bracket, Bracket One of Battle of the 2013 Books, introduces a new reviewer for Battle of the Books, Jackie Sachen Turner. She is no stranger to Fantastic Reviews. Jackie has previously written four book reviews for Fantastic Reviews.

Of the sixteen books, Jackie selected four "seeded" books that she was especially looking forward to reading (marked with asterisks), placed one in each quarter of the bracket, then we filled out the rest of the bracket randomly. Here are your matchups:

First Quarter of Bracket:

Micah Dean Hicks
Electricity & Other Dreams
(New American Press)
Jason Mott
The Returned***
(Harlequin MIRA)

Peter Stenson
K. D. McEntire

Second Quarter of Bracket

Joel Shepherd
23 Years on Fire
Karen Lord
The Best of All Possible Worlds***
(Del Rey)

Mark Hodder
The Secret of Abdu El Yezdi
David Hair
Mage’s Blood
(Jo Fletcher)

Third Quarter of Bracket:

Susan Krinard
James Swain
Shadow People

Robert Charles Wilson
Burning Paradise
Elspeth Cooper
Trinity Rising***

Fourth Quarter of Bracket:

Wolfgang Jeschke
The Cusanus Game***
Tom Lloyd
The God Tattoo

A. R. Cook
The Scholar, the Sphinx and the Shades of Nyx
(Knox Robinson)
Mike Resnick
The Doctor and the Dinosaurs

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Some notes on the books in the field:

-- Classifying books before you read them is tricky, but I'd guess this bracket features 5 fantasy books, 2 YA fantasy, 4 science fiction, 2 mainstream speculative fiction, 2 story collections and 1 horror novel.

-- I believe 11 books are by men and 5 by women.

-- It looks like 7 of the books continue an existing series, 2 are the first volume in a new series, and 6 appear to be stand-alone books.

-- 5 books come to us from Tor, 5 from Pyr, and 1 each from Del Rey, Jo Fletcher, Crown, Harlequin MIRA, New American Press, and Knox Robinson.

Good luck to all our contenders! Let the new bracket of book battles begin!

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Battle of the 2012 Books, Bracket Eight :: Wrap-Up

We have completed Fantastic Reviews Bracket Eight of the Battle of the 2012 Books.  There were plenty of good book battles along the way.  Hope you enjoyed our reviews of samplings of these books!

Congratulations to Osama by Lavie Tidhar, winner of this Battle of the Books bracket!  Let's give a round of applause for all the participating books!

To see the whole completed bracket, click here.

Listed below are the sixteen books which were featured in this bracket, sorted alphabetically by author.  Click on the book title links to go that book's highest round book battle review.

Dead Religion by David Beers
The Diviners by Libba Bray
The Steam Mole by Dave Freer
Untimed by Andy Gavin
Destiny's Flower by Linda Harley
Libriomancer by Jim C. Hines
A Red Sun Also Rises by Mark Hodder
Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone by Stefan Kiesbye
Sharkways by A. J. Kirby
Beyond Here Lies Nothing by Gary McMahon
Blood and Feathers by Lou Morgan
Bad Apple by Kristi Petersen Schoonover
Grim by Joseph Spencer
A Pretty Mouth by Molly Tanzer
Osama by Lavie Tidhar
The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker

Some of these books and authors may be new to you, but after reading Aaron's book descriptions and battle reviews, I hope some of them sparked your interest.  Perhaps we introduced you to a few new books and authors.  Only one book can win each battle, and only one book can win the bracket, but there were many good books in the competition.

Battle of the Books match-ups are decided based on reading a sample of the book.  Most upon reading a mere 25 pages or 50 pages.  So if a good book starts slow, in this review format, it may face an uphill battle.  These matches are inherently subjective.  These battles were decided based on which book the reviewer, Aaron, would rather continue reading.

Stay tuned for Bracket One of the Battle of the 2013 Books.  Another sixteen books are lined up for this competition.  These are books we received earlier, but hadn't had the time to review yet because of real life getting in our way.  We're valiantly working to whittle down our backlog of books.  Jackie, a new Battle of the Books reviewer, will be judging this bracket.  We'll be announcing the books which will be featured as our next group of contenders soon.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Battle of the 2012 Books, Bracket Eight, Championship Round :: Osama by Lavie Tidhar vs. Libriomancer by Jim C. Hines

We have arrived at the championship round of our current bracket of the Battle of the Books. In one corner we have Osama by Lavie Tidhar. In the other corner we have Libriomancer by Jim C. Hines. Two fine competitors. I (Aaron) have read through Page 200 of both these books, and the novel I most want to continue reading to the end will be the champion of Bracket Eight of the Fantastic Reviews Battle of the 2012 Books.

Osama: Solaris, October 2012 (published in UK by PS Publishing in 2011), 302 pages, cover art by Pedro Marques. Lavie Tidhar is an Israeli writer now living in London. Osama won the 2012 World Fantasy Award. Osama made it to the championship by overpowering The Steam Mole by Dave Freer in the first round, by defeating Beyond Here Lies Nothing by Gary McMahon in the second round, and by pushing past The Diviners by Libba Bray in the semifinals.

The setting of Osama is an alternate universe where Osama bin Laden is not a real terrorist, but the hero of a series of pulp novels, the plots of which parallel actual terrorist attacks from our world. Our hero Joe is a private investigator hired by an enigmatic woman to find the author of the Osama books, who writes under the pseudonym "Mike Longshott." In the first 100 pages, Joe tracked down the publisher of the books in Paris. Most of the next 100 pages take place in London, where Joe believes he will find the author. But Joe repeatedly encounters interference from people who do not want him to find his target. One clue leads Joe to an opium den, where he has a vision of another world like his own, but more frenetic and computerized. It's a world that seems strange to Joe, but not to us.

Libriomancer: DAW, August 2012, 305 pages, cover art by Gene Mollica. Libriomancer is the first volume in Jim C. Hines' latest series, Magic Ex Libris. Libriomancer made it to the championship by easily beating out Dead Religion by David Beers in the first round, by defeating Untimed by Andy Gavin in the second round, and by overcoming A Pretty Mouth by Molly Tanzer in the semifinals.

The protagonist of Libriomancer is Isaac Vainio, who can reach into any book he has read and pull out objects described in the narrative. The trouble is, if he draws on this talent too often, he starts to lose himself in those fictional narratives. In the opening 100 pages of Libriomancer, a large-scale struggle broke out between supernatural beings. Isaac fears that the world's first libriomancer, Johannes Gutenberg, is behind the conflict. In the second 100-page section, Isaac tries to trace the rogue libriomancer causing the trouble. This effort prompts a dangerous visit with his dryad companion Lena to the underground lair of a great colony of vampires.

The Battle: One thing that becomes very clear doing the Battle of the Books is that there are many different ways to tell a good story. Osama and Libriomancer are awfully different but both excellent.

Libriomancer is a hoot for any lifelong reader of science fiction and fantasy. I can often identify the books Isaac is drawing objects from before Hines even names them. Hines works through the underlying magical system convincingly. And in the second 100 pages, he gives us a clue about the nature of the villain Isaac is facing that I won't spoil for you, but I found it a terrific surprise.

Meanwhile, notwithstanding the consistently elegant writing, Osama has the feel of a well-paced noir mystery. But the mystery isn't really about Mike Longshott, the author of the Osama bin Laden books, but about how the universe of those books relates to our protagonist Joe. Why do people who know something about the bin Laden stories refer to Joe as a "refugee" or a "fuzzy-wuzzy"? The closer he gets to Mike Longshott, the less Joe understands about his own place in the world:
Joe looked up from the book and drew a deep breath. This was insane. Longshott's obsessively neat facts and figures seemed designed to snare him, entrap him: names, times, street addresses, hobbies for the dead men. London. He thought: fuzzy-wuzzies, and giggled. Was he searching for Longshott, or was Longshott searching for him? The pulp writer was leaving him a trail of crumbs to follow, and he was following, and the world was slowly unravelling around him, a threadbare tapestry that could no longer quite comfort him against the chill.
The Battle of the Books is not about making a case that one book is objectively better than the other. I'm not even saying one book is better in my subjective opinion. I decide the battles on a single subjective criterion: which book do I most feel compelled to keep reading?

Libriomancer is a lot of fun. I enjoy it every time I pick it up. I expect I will enjoy reading the sequels. But when I put it down, I stop thinking about it pretty quickly. When I put Osama down, it stays in my mind. Tidhar's language continues to resonate. I keep thinking about the book's tough but ultimately lost protagonist, the shifting boundaries between his universe and mine.

I don't know that Osama is better than Libriomancer. I don't even know if I'm enjoying it more. But I know I find it tremendously intriguing. And if I had a fire tonight and both books burned up, I know which one I would immediately have to replace so I could finish reading it.

THE WINNER: Osama by Lavie Tidhar

Osama wins Bracket Eight of the Fantastic Reviews Battle of the 2012 Books. Congratulations to Lavie Tidhar as our newest Battle of the Books champion!

To see the completed bracket, click here.

We've crowned a winner for this bracket, but soon we'll announce a whole new bracket of sixteen books. Jackie, our new reviewer for Battle of the Books, will be judging the next bracket. This will give Aaron a break, to focus on some short fiction recommendations. Stay tuned for more book battles to come!

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Battle of the 2012 Books, Bracket Eight, Second Semifinal :: Libriomancer by Jim C. Hines vs. A Pretty Mouth by Molly Tanzer

Our second semifinal match in Bracket Eight of the Battle of the 2012 Books features Libriomancer by Jim C. Hines going up against A Pretty Mouth by Molly Tanzer. The winner, the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 100 pages, will advance to the championship round.

Libriomancer: DAW, August 2012, 305 pages, cover art by Gene Mollica. Libriomancer is the first volume in Jim C. Hines' latest series, Magic Ex Libris. Libriomancer made it to the semifinals by easily beating out Dead Religion by David Beers in the first round, and by defeating Untimed by Andy Gavin in the second round.

The opening pages of Libriomancer introduced us to Isaac Vainio, who has the magical ability to reach into a book he's read and pull out objects described in the narrative. Isaac has had difficulty controlling his power in the past, and so has been relegated to a desk job by the "Porters," who hold authority over magical beings. But some sort of war has broken out among the Porters, vampires, and possibly the first libriomancer, Johannes Gutenberg. In the second 50-page section, Isaac learns of a predicament faced by his sexy dryad companion Lena, and explores the scene of his mentor's murder and the destruction of one of the Porters' archives of magical documents.

A Pretty Mouth: Lazy Fascist Press, October 2012, 227 pages, cover art by Matthew Revert. A Pretty Mouth is a novella collected with four related stories, all of which place Lovecraftian creatures in a slightly odd context. A Pretty Mouth made it to the semifinals by overpowering Destiny's Flower by Linda Harley in the first round with its opening story "A Spotted Trouble at Dolor-on-the-Downs," and by getting past Blood and Feathers by Lou Morgan in the second round with its story "The Hour of the Tortoise."

The second 50-page section of A Pretty Mouth consists of the story "The Infernal History of the Ivybridge Twins" (which previously appeared in Historical Lovecraft and The Book of Cthulhu) and the opening two chapters of the title novella. These tales take us further back into the history of the Calipash family, a cursed house of English aristocrats. The Ivybridge twins were two particularly wicked but amusing family members who lived in the 18th Century, while "A Pretty Mouth" dates back to the 17th Century, where a misguided young college student is fascinated by his dashing classmate Lord Calipash.

The Battle: As often happens by the time we get to the semifinals, I am enjoying the hell out of both these books and don't really want to put either one down.

In Libriomancer, Jim Hines is having a blast pulling props out of all his favorite science fiction and fantasy books. In the last scene of the opening 100 pages, Isaac uses potions from Alice in Wonderland to shrink himself and Lena down, rides his pet fire-spider into the wreckage of a destroyed building, where he gets in a fight with a powerful vampire, whom he defeats by pulling out a goddamn light saber. How could any genre reader not get a kick out of this?

One scene in Libriomancer that gave me pause was when the dryad Lena admitted her true nature to Isaac. She was created from a ripoff of John Norman's Gor series, in which a dryad is a sex toy perpetually hot for her master. And Lena wants Isaac to be her new master. Deliberately setting up a main character as a blatant sex object makes me cringe a bit, but there are hints that Hines intends to give Lena more control over her own destiny than this set-up might suggest.

Turning to A Pretty Mouth, "The Infernal History of the Ivybridge Twins" is a hoot. I especially enjoyed the sections during the youth of the twins, Basil and Rosemary, as they are raised essentially by an evil stepfather aptly named Mr. Villein. For instance, here the eight-year-old twins are grudgingly invited to a May Day celebration:
Rosemary arrived at the event in a costume of her own making, that of the nymph Flora; when Mr. Villein was interrogated as to his reasoning for such grotesque and ill-advised indulgence of childhood fancy, he replied that she had earlier proved her understanding that May Day had once been the Roman festival of Floralia, and it seemed a just reward for her attentiveness in the schoolroom. This bit of pagan heresy might have been overlooked by the other families had not Mr. Villein later used the exact same justification for Basil's behavior when the boy appeared at the celebration later-on, clad only in a bit of blue cloth wrapped about his slender body, and then staged a reenactment for the children of Favonius' rape of Flora, Rosemary playing her part with unbridled enthusiasm.
While the Ivybridge story is great fun, I confess that two chapters in, the next story "A Pretty Mouth" hasn't yet grabbed me. This may be a case of bad timing for the Battle of the Books: "A Pretty Mouth" started on page 85 and I haven't gotten very deep into it, so don't yet feel excited about the next 100 pages of this novella.

Aside from that small strike against Tanzer, this battle turns on the following passage from Libriomancer, where Isaac explains how the Porters keep libriomancy from getting out of hand:
"Catalogers flag potentially dangerous books. Take David Brin's Earth. He wrote about a microscopic black hole that fell into the planet's core, threatening to devour the entire world. That black hole would be small enough to fit through the pages, meaning any fool kid with magical talent who didn't know better . . ."

"Would it really destroy the Earth?"

"It's tough to say." . . . There were plans upon plans for such world-threatening eventualities, developed by Porter researchers. "We get review copies of every new book from the major publishers and most of the small presses. We usually catch and lock the troublesome ones before they're released to the public, though Harry Potter gave us some trouble."

J.K. Rowling had received a visit from Gutenberg himself, asking her to eliminate that damned time-turner from future books.
And that's why the time-turner never reappears, when it would obviously have been pretty darn useful to Harry in later volumes. Both Libriomancer and A Pretty Mouth pay tribute to great genre works of the past. But when you go the extra mile of actually fixing plot holes in beloved classics, you are too cool to stop reading.

THE WINNER: Libriomancer by Jim C. Hines

Libriomancer advances to the championship round to face Osama by Lavie Tidhar.

To see the whole bracket, click here.