Review of Random by Alma Alexander

Random is a story about Jazz Marsh, youngest child of a Random Were family. Unlike other Weres, a Random can change into different animals, but otherwise they are like other Weres — locked into a form for their Turns, all three days of the full moon. They’re also literally locked in — either into a Turning Room in their own house or in a government-run Turning House, which can cause some issues with school and work, oddly enough.

The world Alma Alexander has created is ripe for discussing how we treat the Other, who human rights apply to, and what it’s like to grow up different.

But she does this through the story of Jazz Marsh and her dead older sister, Celia. Jazz wants to figure out how her family fits together, why her sister died, and where she fits into the world. It’s a beautiful story, heart-breaking in places, yet with other snippets that made me laugh out loud. It’s an enchanting start to a new series, and I’m looking forward to reading more.

That’s not to say that there aren’t flaws — at one point, Jazz asks a friend how someone could Turn in the middle of the day, and her friend asks whether she hasn’t seen the moon up in the middle of the day. Well, yes and no. The moon might be up in the middle of the day, but it won’t be a full moon. It’s astronomically impossible. The moon reflects the sun’s light. To have a full moon, the sun has to be striking it straight on — which it cannot do if the moon is between the Earth and the sun. So that threw me out of the story.

Overall, however, the world is well-developed (including all the medical information for the drug Stay) and self-consistent, as are the characters. If you’re looking for a YA read and like Weres, check this out. Currently only available in e-book format (Amazon), the paperback will be available in December.

Tales of Hidden Worlds by Simon R. Green (review)

Tales of the Hidden WorldTales of the Hidden World by Simon R. Green
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve read a lot of Simon R. Green’s contemporary fantasy novels (Nightside, Secret Histories) and more traditional fantasy novels (Hawk and Fisher), but this short story collection displays the breadth of his work in the field — from zombies to SF soldiers, from pirates and sorcery to Jack Drood. A few of the stories toward the beginning of the book (especially “Question of Solace,” but also “Death Is a Lady,” “Dorothy Dreams,” and “Down and Out in Deadtown”) had a very strong end-of-the-line vibe, and I couldn’t help feeling Green was compiling a farewell opus, looking back on his career in the same way that Jack Drood does in “Question of Solace.”

From there, though, Green segues into hope, into happy endings and unexpected beginnings, with “It’s All About the Rendering” (one of my favorite stories in the book, even if not a lot happens and in some way the resolution seems too simple and pat) and “Find Heaven and Hell in the Smallest Things.”

I really enjoyed Green’s more sword-and-sorcery offerings, including “Cascade,” “Manslayer,” “Awake, Awake, Ye Northern Winds,” and “In the Labyrinth.” (I also want to include “Soulhunter” in this group, both because of where it’s placed in the collection and because it has the same adventure feel to it, even if it’s supposed to be a psy-based SF story.) The last two in the book, in particular, put me in mind of Fritz Leiber’s writing, although Green’s writing felt fresher to me.

All in all, an enjoyable collection that covers a range of moods and just as wide a range of sub-genres.

Disclosure: I received an advance review copy from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

View all my reviews

This review was originally posted at GoodReads.

Review of The Winds of Gath

The Winds of Gath was originally released in 1967, the first in the Dumarest of Terra series. It has many of the hallmarks of classic space opera — worlds ruled by a single monarchy, simple (albeit pricey) travel between the stars, creatures that can be used to assassinate others, shadowy organizations, and a super-competent hero as comfortable with solving a mystery as with fighting for his life.

One thing that did strike me as odd when compared to more recent fiction was the early lack of an over-arching goal for Dumarest: When the book begins, he is presented as simply a Traveler, one who takes passage between worlds to random destinations, merely to see new places and get new experiences. He inadvertently winds up on Gath, a world where it’s hard for Travelers to earn enough to get themselves off-world again, and so he develops an immediate goal. Once he has the means to do so, however, he stays on Gath for no reason that is spelled out — for the experience of the wind storm that can affect people’s minds? That’s the best guess I had. It’s not until we near the end of the book that we discover he does have an over-arching goal, to get back to Earth, a world most people don’t even know exists.

Both the world of Gath and the larger environment humans live in — complete with dangers, mores, and customs — are well constructed. Tubb does a good job at drawing in the lines of politics, both within a world and across worlds, and most of the characters aside from Dumarest himself seem to have clear motivations.

Although this book can be read on its own, but I will be seeking out the other books in the series to see how Dumarest proceeds from this point, whether the politics and conspiracies shown in this book play a deeper role, and discover whether Dumarest does indeed manage to get back to Earth.

Disclosure: I received a free audio copy of this book in return for an honest review

Raspberries are sweet, vinegar is tart

Cover of Raspberries and Vinegar by Valerie ComerI’m supposed to be working on writing my next cozy mystery. Instead, I spent a good chunk of the day finishing up reading Valerie Comer’s Raspberries and Vinegar. I started it this weekend but got distracted (me, distracted — who’d’a thunk it?), and didn’t get back to it yesterday. So then I popped it up on my Kindle app this morning while I was eating breakfast . . . and just kept reading.

I’ll preface my comments by saying that if you don’t like Christian fiction — if it’s going to bother you to have characters who tell each other to trust in God or to spend more time on their knees in prayer — you’re going to want to give this book a miss. Valerie wrote this book out of her convictions about God, about our duty to take care of the earth, and about how people ought to relate to one another. All of that is there in the book, and it’s not a hidden message. That’s not to say the characters are perfect; they’re people, which means they have foibles and faults, just like anyone else.

Obviously, I enjoyed the book, both the sections that made me laugh and the ones that made me cry — and there were plenty of both. Jo Shaw’s a little spitfire, who’s wanted to get back to a farm since her mom took her away from her grandparents’ farm at ten. Zach Nemesek is only back at his parents’ farm because his father has been hospitalized with Guillain-Barré Syndrome and his mom needs help to get the spring chores done. They meet when she opens a door to dispose of a dustpan full of baby mice and throws them all over him. That pretty much sets the tenor of their relationship.

Friends and family play a big part in this book, from the two friends Jo is trying to create a sustainable community with (Sierra and Claire) to Zach’s best friend Gabe and his wife Bethany, to Zach’s parents and his grandmother, to Jo’s mom and stepfather (who drop in for a visit). Everyone has something to contribute to the story, no matter how active they are, or how often they show up. Oh, and I can’t forget Domino, the cute border collie who shows up on the cover and who spends his time happily romping between the two farms.

I expected to like this book; I’ve read other work by Valerie, and it’s never disappointed. I didn’t expect to love it as much as I did, or to be disappointed after reading the sample chapter of the next book (Wild Mint Tea) to realize I have to wait to buy it. If you do get this book, be warned: You will cry. A lot. And it is so worth it.

(Disclosure: I received a digital review copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.)

Remember — Valerie’s going to be stopping by to do a guest post on Monday, August 26th, so if you have any questions, you can catch her then!

Is there greater treasure?

Greater Treasures book tour banner

As promised earlier this month, today, I’m spotlighting Karina Fabian’s latest DragonEye story, the novella Greater Treasures.

Being a private detective in the border town of the Faerie and Mundane worlds isn’t easy, even for a dragon like Vern. Still, finding the wayward brother of a teary damsel in distress shouldn’t have gotten so dangerous. When his partner, Sister Grace, gets poisoned by a dart meant for him, Vern offers to find an artifact in exchange for a cure. However, this is no ordinary trinket—with a little magic power, it could control all of mankind. Can Vern find the artifact, and will he sacrifice the fate of two worlds for the life of his best friend?

To begin with, this novella is more serious than the earlier DragonEye novels. Yes, Vern still has his wry humor (I was particularly amused by the filet minion line), but he doesn’t find nearly as much funny when his partner’s lying in the hospital, dying. So the tone’s slightly different.

However, if you are a fan of classic movies — specifically, if you love The Maltese Falcon, which this novella is based on, you will love it. The homage to the Falcon is even remarked upon in the novella itself, with (for example) a mention of how Cambridge Ramada is reminiscent of Sydney Greenstreet playing Casper Gutman.

The novella highlights some of the tension between Faerie and Mundane, as well as showing that bigotry and prejudice don’t have a magic cure. Some of the characters are old and familiar; some, this is the first time they’re seen. All fit well in the world Karina Fabian has created, wher St. George really did defeat a dragon, on the other side of the Interdimensional Gap.

It’s a quick read and an enjoyable one, and it’s definitely going on my short list for Hugo nominations next year.

If you haven’t already become acquainted with Vern and his human partner, Sister Grace, you can find Greater Treasures in Kindle and print formats.

Information on the novels in the series can be found at the following links:
Live and Let Fly, which is discussed here on my blog.
Magic, Mensa and Mayhem, which is also reviewed here on my blog.

If you’d like to see more of Vern and Karina’s posts, as well as enter drawings for e-books, check out the rest of the book tour.



V is also for Vern

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you might remember that I reviewed Magic, Mensa and Mayhem by Karina Fabian last year. (If you haven’t been reading here long, feel free to go read that post and then come back to this one. It’s okay; I’ll wait. Back? Great!) I said then that I was regretting reading so fast because the next DragonEye, PI book didn’t come out until this month. Hooray! Live and Let Fly is out! Guess how long it took me to read this one? Continue reading

Scarlett Archer on first lines

1,001 First Lines is a collection of classic first lines, grouped by genre. I don’t always agree with the classifications used (I wouldn’t put Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland under comedy, for example), but that’s to be expected: I don’t think any two people are in complete agreement on genre boundaries. (Watch for my new blog series on Defining the Genres for more outspoken opinions on this.)

I noticed two things while reading through the accumulated openings. What I mostly noticed is that there is no one-size-fits-all, even in a given category. First lines can be short, long, filled with punctuation, or as plain as Dick and Jane. The second thing is that there are excellent openings to books I didn’t like (Bridge to Terabithia) and mundane openings to books I loved (Storm Front). Continue reading

Midnight at Spanish Gardens

This is one of two reviews I’ll be posting this week. I mentioned this book last month, as well as the author, Alma Alexander. If you’ve never read anything by her before, do yourself a favor and do so. I first read Secrets of Jin-Shei, which is one place to start with her work. Midnight at Spanish Gardens, her latest book, is another.

This book starts with college friends gathering for an informal reunion at a restaurant they used to frequent on the eve of “the end of the world” — December 20, 2012. There are tensions between them, things left unsaid as well as perhaps some things that would have been better left unsaid. During the course of their evening, they discover an unusual feature of the restaurant: a way to go back to the past and live a different life. A chance at a do-over.

The characters are people I felt I could know, and my heart ached for their pains, for Olivia, uncertain she wanted to show up at Spanish Gardens; for Simon as a child; for Quincey’s experience of love; for John, learning to define himself without referring to his father; for Ellen feeling trapped by her sex. The details of each life are believable, making each one fully realized, and some of the prose is simply beautiful. Alexander also has one of the best descriptions I’ve read of the mental life of a writer, with the internal editor who sees every flaw. Her mention of the problem with going into science when one has a soul of a poet is something I understand as well, and as for the comment about watching the stars go out overhead — I laughed. I won’t spoil anything by telling you of individual decisions, but I will say that I can understand how hard such a choice might be.

There are some things that nagged me about the writing — I couldn’t decide whether some elements (like the girl with green and purple streaks in her hair) were there for resonance between stories, or if they were accidental duplications of description. Similarly, I found “apprising” occurred frequently enough for me to notice it (especially as it should have been “appraising” in each case). The discussion of Ellen’s background threw me a bit because I was under the impression that naming someone for a relative, while a traditional thing to do, did not usually mean giving them the same name in Jewish culture, but rather something else starting with the same letter. (I could be wrong, or this could vary in different groups. I’m just saying that it threw me.) So it’s not perfect, but it’s still such an enjoyable read that I finished it in the span of a day.

Remember this before you decide. Here, you change the world around you; there, you have to change to fit the world. Both are harder than you think. Choose wisely.

When it comes down to it, that’s what this book is about: choice, how our choices shape our lives, and how we always have a choice. We may not have the choice to go back, to relive our lives from an earlier point, no matter how common of a refrain “If I had it to do over again” is, but we do make choices for what we’re doing all the time.

I can understand why people might want a second chance. I don’t think I’d do anything differently; I like where my life has placed me. If you had the chance to go back and alter a major turning point in your life, would you? If you’re interested in seeing what others might do, in a sympathetic and well-thought-out manner, pick up this book. It’s time well spent.

There’s no place like . . .

We’ve been traveling a fair bit recently, and — having a modern minivan — we’ve played DVDs for the kids in the back. Sometimes, we make them use headphones; Looney Toons are fun, but “The Rabbit of Seville” loses a lot if you can’t see it. Other times, we listen to the DVD, too, and it’s given me a lot of food for thought.

As much as I enjoy the movie The Wizard of Oz — and who doesn’t like saying “Lions and tigers and bears. Oh, my!” or singing along with “We’re off to see the wizard”? — I can’t help thinking about how it changes the truth both of the book it is based on and the entire series. (Spoiler warning!)

Not only is Oz real, but it winds up being Dorothy’s permanent home, as well as Aunt Em and Uncle Henry’s. Yes, it’s an escape from their farm being foreclosed on, but it has its own dangers to face. The big, important thing about Oz for Dorothy (and Trot, Button-Bright, and Betsy Bobbin) is that she has found somewhere she belongs, with friends who understand her, somewhere she fits in.

Looking back on my childhood, I think that may be part of what I loved about these books, almost as much as the magic.

Finding somewhere the characters fit in is a theme in many stories, both in print and in movies. Goonies, the Ice Age series (“We look like a normal pack to you?”), Anne of Green Gables, even the Harry Potter books have it as a theme . . . on and on. As someone who grew up with only a few friends at any time (and rather unpopular with the world in general), I needed stories that said I would, eventually, find my place.

And that’s why I’m going to make sure my children know there’s more to the story of Oz than the movie shows. There is no place like home — but we all need to know we can find somewhere else to belong, too.

Boskone 48 in Review

This is the more detailed report of what I got up to in Boston last weekend. If you’re not interested, come back next week. I’m sure to talk about something else. This discussion is chronological. Events that I don’t remember times for (such as visiting the Art Gallery, which had some amazing stuff) are not included.
Continue reading