August Book Reviews: Part 2

Part 2 of a busy month of reading!

Thanks for all the kind wishes about my dang back. It’s made giant strides toward wellness, and I intend to keep it that way after spending the entire month of August groaning.

August book reviews (part 2) include my 4 and 5 star reads of poetry and fantasy, a courtroom romance, a book of dark short stories, two sci-fi reads, and three children’s books.

Click on the covers for Amazon global links.

*****

Dying for Space (Sunblinded #2) by S.J. Higbee

I read Book One of the Sunblinded trilogy a couple of years ago and have no idea why it took so long to read Book Two, since the first book was awesome. And this one was even better.

In this sci-fi page-turner, the first-person protagonist Elizabeth returns. She’s enrolled in an officer training program on a mercenary space station responsible for protecting Sector Two, and she’s looking forward to active service. But her father, General Norman, has other plans. He’s a hot head, a bully, and says he wants her safe. She surrenders to his pressure and takes a job in Procurement, but she’s smart and observant, and there’s a lot more going on than meets the eye. Then the bodies start piling up.

The world building is great from the functioning of the space station to the unique space-jargon used by the characters. The plot gave me whiplash, it moves so fast, and I read the book in two days, sneaking around to get another chapter in and staying up late. There’s a lot of tension, quite a few twists, and Elizabeth is as easy to anger as the General. When the two of them are together, the sparks fly, and things get downright dangerous.

But the best part of the read is the characters. Besides being one tough cookie, Elizabeth is emotional, compassionate, fervent, and at times out-of-control reckless. And she has a dead friend in her head challenging her every decision or adding snarky commentary. That may sound weird, but I tell you, it works. Secondary characters are equally compelling, and at times its hard to know the good guys from the bad. Everyone seems slightly compromised, and there are some surprises.

I recommend starting with Book One, as this is one chronological story. Highly recommended for sci-fi fans and readers who enjoy a fiery female protagonist who can hold her own. I sure to dive into Book Three soon.

*****

Feasting Upon The Bones by Suzanne Craig-Whytock

This speculative fiction anthology of short stories by Suzanne Craig-Whytock is loaded with gems. I read it in one sitting late into the night, saying to myself, “Just one more,” until the book ran out of pages.

The stories are broken into three sections: Be Careful What You Wish For, What Goes Around, and The Price of Love is Loss. I had a bunch of favorites in each section but found every story entertaining and well “executed.”

Some of the stories were creepy like “The Grandmother Tree” and the “Human Match.” Some were dark and twisted like the title story “Feasting Upon the Bones” and “Brotherly Love.” A few fell into the realm of dark humor and had me chuckling such as “Mr. Death Comes To Call” and “As the Crow Flies.” And believe it or not, there were a few heartwarming tales of kindness and love like “Little Soldier” and “Perfect Food.”

The collection of stories is impressive. Highly recommended to readers of short stories who love dark speculative fiction.

*****

Behind Closed Doors: A Collection of Unusual Poems by Robbie Cheadle

When the author subtitled these poems “unusual,” she was right in her description. She says in the foreword that many of these poems are about her experiences during lockdown or her emotions and thoughts about aspects of her life. In that way, this collection feels like a glimpse into the author’s world.

There are many poems in the collection that are positive reflections on life, such as a beautiful poem about motherhood called “He walks away,” a lovely metaphorical poem about marriage called “contrasting colours,” and some of my favorites including “Can you see the butterflies” and “Sleep.”

Perspective (tanka)

Is it possible
To escape conformity
And break your shackles
By riding a bicycle
With your face in the wind?

Many of the poems express the author’s stress, disillusionment, and struggles of the time, including working from home under immense pressure. I think many readers will be able to relate to the strain of the pandemic on different parts of our lives. I connected with many of these, including “Do you want it enough,” “The corporate hunt” and “Making a splash.”

Trust (tanka)

Always remember
When studying the outside
Of anything in life
That it may be misleading
And tell agreeable lies

Highly recommended for readers who enjoy poetry from the author’s heart and experience.

*****

In the Best Interest of the Child by Felicia Denise

Olivia Chandler is a high-powered attorney. She’s asked by a respected judge to represent a young girl Rena. Rena was injured in a car accident that killed her mother and put her father in a coma. Her situation is so similar to Olivia’s childhood experience that it raises old trauma. While Olivia dedicates herself to making sure Rena doesn’t end up in the foster care system, the case changes her life.

But the story is only half legal-drama. The other half is romance, almost too good to be true except that it runs up against Olivia’s deeply ingrained self-doubt related to her childhood.

The characters are deftly drawn and consistent—endearing, charming, greedy, and despicable (this is about lawyers, after all). If I had one tiny complaint, it would be that the extended family of Olivia’s love interest, Bruce Bellamy, is just way too wonderful. I loved Olivia’s strength most of all and her determination to protect her young client. There’s some questionable behavior going on that Olivia is determined to ferret out.

I enjoyed this well-written story on multiple levels. It’s not only about how the legal and foster care systems work (and don’t work), but the romance is sweet. The pace is steady and the dialog is exceptional. Well-edited. Highly recommended for readers of romance with a lawyerly twist.

*****

1NG4: A Long Short Story by Berthold Gambrel

Gunnar works as a research assistant on a floating science station years after the seas have risen and mankind has run short on land. Though he’s merely an assistant, he has important work – to run tests on a technology that (might be alien and) promises to provide limitless energy . All is going well until the science platform is attacked. At the same time, an AI rises from the sea floor with some powerful skills. Gunnar wonders if the world hasn’t gone insane.

One of the things I liked best about the book was Gunnar’s voice as the novella’s narrator. He’s just an average guy and he’s got an average guy’s perspective – just doing his job on the one hand and a little over his head on the other. The AI, named 1NG4, is fast, smart, efficient, and seems to be helping the crew. I liked her scenes and how the humans responded to her, but she’s an enigma.

The plot moves along at a clip. There’s a lot of mystery, distrust, and intrigue that isn’t explained, but the new technology is at the center of it. The reader has to go with the flow and come to their own conclusions. I figure I know the answer.

*****

Dead of Winter: Journey 8, The Lost Library by Teagan Riordain Geneviene

I think this was my favorite episode of the series so far. Emlyn and the Deae Matras begin to explore the Lost Library. Osabide and Zasha have disappeared, and when they return to the group, Zasha isn’t herself, but a woman from 1000 years ago. In this strange altered reality, women of the past and present overlap. Do they have the means and courage to do what’s necessary to bring Zasha back?

The journey starts with a riveting prolog, and with the reader caught up on back story, this one gets right into the action and mystery of the library and its portals. Beautiful details and lovely imagery bring this episode to life. I’m looking forward to Journey (episode) 9

*****

I learned through Sally Cronin that Dawn Doig donates the proceeds from her book sales to a school for deaf children in Cameroon. I was inspired to help out and purchased the three books below. Thanks, Dawn, for your kindness.

Hair Peace by Dawn Doig

Johanita despairs her tight kinky hair. She wants flowing locks and soft curls. Her mother takes her to the mall, and she sees wigs of different colors and styles, and her dreams come true. For a week, she tries various wigs and none of them work for her. Then she meets Zara. Johanita learns a valuable lesson about inner beauty and friendship.

A cute children’s book about being happy with who they are, and about how true friendship has nothing to do with hair. Colorful illustrations accompany the story. Perfect for children at an age where they begin to compare themselves to others.

*****

And So, Ahmed Hears by Dawn Doig

A young boy doesn’t sing or talk or hear the roar of the sea, shouts of warning, or his mother’s call. Concerned, his mother takes him to the doctor and audiologist. Fitted with hearing aids, he gets to hear the sounds that he’d missed before.

A beautifully illustrated children’s book for young children with hearing aids or interacting with hearing-impaired people, especially peers. A simple story about diversity and acceptance

*****

Wadee and the Worry Wakes by Dawn Doig

Wadee the Warthog can’t sleep because he has the worry wakes. He worries about his friend the zebra losing his stripes, the anteater getting his head stuck in an anthill, pesty mosquitos spreading malaria, teasing, and a host of other troubles that come to him in his dreams. Each morning when he wakes, everything is fine. Finally, the gray parrot shares an old African proverb: “When there is no enemy within, the enemies outside cannot hurt you.”

A lovely story for children who worry by day or night. The illustrations of the African animals are bright and colorful. Recommended for young school age children

*****

Happy Reading!

August Book Reviews: Part 1

I read so many books this month I have to split them into two posts.

I was laid up with a bad back and had to spend a lot of time resting, and what better way to relax than to read. Thank goodness for books! Part II will follow in a few days.

August book reviews (part 1) include my 4 and 5 star reads of poetry, sci fi and fantasy, a crime thriller, and a children’s book.

Click on the covers for Amazon global links.

*****

Life is like a Mosaic: Random Fragments in Harmony by Sally Cronin

This collection of poetry kept me up late. I’m a fan of syllabic forms and like it best when the structure fades into the background, transitions are seamless, and the meaning and emotion of a piece rises to the forefront. Cronin’s poetry does that effortlessly. All poems within this collection are complemented by an evocative image that adds another layer of meaning to the words.

The book begins with a variety of syllabic poems focused on nature and the author’s reflections on daily life, including love, peace, aging, dreams, and loss. Some of my favorites were: The Day After, Birthdays, The Future?, Immortality-Writers, Spices, and …

A Toast to Life

Bottles
once filled with wine
have now been re-purposed
as decorative reminders
of fun.
A time
when friends raised high their glasses
in an affirming toast
to the richness
of life.

The latter part of the book changes to longer, rhyming poems about the author’s life, with a delightful focus on childhood, the teen years, travel, and friendship. My favorites in this section were Childhood Memories, Rebellion in Frome, The Lure of the Waltzer, and Farewell to Colorful Friends. Highly recommended to readers who enjoy syllabic poetry and reflections on life

*****

Oskar’s Quest by Annika Perry

Oskar, a little bluebird, finds himself on the island of Roda where the flowers are weeping. Why? Because Drang, the darkest storm cloud in the sky, has captured Maya the songbird, and her music has stopped. Normally a timid bird, Oskar decides to talk to the dark and windy Drang. What follows is his quest to set the songbird free. He discovers that Drang merely wanted a friend, and Oskar comes up with a wonderful solution that saves the day for everyone.O

Oskar’s Quest is a picture book geared toward toddlers and preschoolers with colorful illustrations by Gabrielle Vickery. The vocabulary is accessible to young children as is the theme of kindness and friendship. The story touches lightly on teasing and bullying. It also encourages children to be brave, for what seems scary at first might turn into an opportunity to make friends. This is a delightful story for young children and highly recommended.

*****

Out of Time by Jaye Marie

In this thriller, Kate Devereau wakes up in the hospital without any memory of the violence she’s endured. Nor does she remember any of the people in her life, including a past lover Michael who wants a second chance, or her ex-husband Jack, a sociopathic killer trying to do her in. David Snow is the detective tasked with her case. All four of these characters share alternating points of view in the story.

Kate’s character was the most interesting to me as she’s the one most in the dark. As the reader, I knew more about what happened than she did, but there were many tidbits of information I learned along with her. The author makes no secret that Jack Holland is the murderer and intends to finish the job he started. Jack is completely evil, but the other characters are nuanced and easy to relate to.

The pace moves along well, the tension is good, and I finished this book in two sittings. There aren’t many twists and turns; instead, the return of Kate’s memory provides a counterpoint to John’s increasing menace and David’s attempts to learn the truth. Recommended to readers of thrillers who enjoy a fast-paced story.

*****

The Scarlet Ribbon by Anita Dawes

The book starts with a horrific accident. Maggie is hit by a car, and she’s in the hospital in a coma. Her body might be immobile, but her mind is another story. She enters parallel levels of existence through astral projection, listens to the guiding voice of darkness, and tries to fulfill a mission she doesn’t understand in order to return to her life. But things aren’t quite what they seem and the twists and turns are plentiful.

The first half of the story started a little slow for me, but it picks up significantly when a rather startling twist takes place and doesn’t stop twisting. Things got very interesting, and I had no idea how they were going to work out. The ending was a surprise.

I liked all the characters, found them three-dimensional, and could relate to Maggie’s confusion, her changing relationships, and her struggle to understand what was happening to her. Most of the secondary characters are nuanced and sympathetic. The exploration of alternate realities was intriguing as well as the speculation about a person’s journey, what they need to accomplish in their lives, and the nature of death. Recommended for readers who enjoy great twists, and a jaunt through parallel worlds

*****

Operation Outfect by Alex Canna

A billionaire hires Neil Grenham to recruit a select group of investors to fund a scheme to send the genetic code for human life into space. Neil also must convince the aliens on those habitable planets to turn the codes into human beings. This goal becomes the main plot of the novel, and it’s full of interesting discussions about the art of persuasion, the viability of life on other planets, and climate change since the Earth is on the brink of serious disaster.

The project returns Neil to South Africa where he once worked within the apartheid machine. Backstory about those days transforms into a second plot later in the book: Neil has an old secret, and several characters have their own agenda regarding the space mission. Despite the backstory, there isn’t much foreshadowing of the shift in plots, and it seemed a little out of the blue for me.

This sci-fi novel reads at a steady pace and is full of believable details related to climate change, space travel, Fox news, and some references to covid-19. Mostly a book of planning and discussion, the action picks up toward the end. I enjoyed the characters and found them all realistic and well-rounded. Neil’s first-person narration worked well and I liked his dry humor and commentary on the events of the past and present. Recommended to sci-fi readers who enjoy stories about plans to colonize other planets and how those plans might go wrong.

*****

Song of the Sea Goddess by Chris Hall

This whimsical and magical read is set in South Africa and follows a handful of delightful characters as they deal with some strange happenings including a mysterious bucket of Atlantean gold that burns fingers, the appearance of a naiad and selkie, a couple of lurking bad guys, flying whales, a shape-shifter, and a concrete factory that’s polluting the rivers and sea.

The plot rambles and is full of tangents, some of them quite entertaining though they don’t go anywhere other than to develop character and add flavor to the village setting. For much of the book, I questioned where the story headed, but that said, most of the plot threads wrap up well in an explosive and magical ending.

What I enjoyed most about the book was the fabulous characters. Other than the lurkers, the group is wonderfully original and quirky. The friendships are adorable, and I could easily picture the amiable village community. The two Aunties were a riot, and Abu and Albertina were the epitome of kindness. They were my favorites, and I enjoyed their chapters the most. Recommended to readers who enjoy quirky characters and a whimsical adventure. 

*****

Jonah by Jan Sikes

Jonah had a choice: prison or abandonment on an island. He opts for the island and finds himself in an inhospitable environment that he’s not sure he’ll survive. Then Titus shows up, an unusual boy with webbed fingers and glowing eyes who offers hope and a way out if Jonah is willing to change his life.

This short story, in some ways, works as an allegory for the process of finding self-acceptance, integrity, fellowship, and redemption. It relies heavily on the books The Four Agreements by don Miguel Ruiz, and The Dark Side of the Light Chasers by Debbie Ford, both which Jonah studies while trapped on the island.

Magic also comes into play, perhaps allegorical for the real “magical” transformation that comes with self-discovery and owning one’s choices. Overall, the story worked and kept my attention with its unique setting and relatable characters. Recommended to readers who enjoy allegories and a fictional overview of the steps leading to personal growth.

*****

Happy Reading!

Dark Angel

Pixabay image

*

smoky kisses linger
in a fool’s wild heart
prisoner of the dark angel’s velvet smile
devoured by haunted lips
her dance of desire

*

This poem was written in response to Colleen’s Double Ennead Challenge No. 7 at Carrot Ranch. We were instructed to use the Magnetic Poetry Oracle and write one stanza with syllables 6/5/11/6/5.

The Shadows We Breathe #NewRelease

I’ve been on hiatus for a few days with a sore back and, upon returning to the blogosphere, was delighted to see the release of Sarah’s latest anthology. I’m honored to have my work included with that of her other talented contributors. Many thanks, Sarah! I’m closing comments here as I’m heading out for some treatment (and pampering). Hugs!

Lemon Shark

3D_Mockup_Vol1_watermark logo

It’s here! 🥂🖤 🎉

The Shadows We Breathe is now available in eBook and paperback!

eBook

Paperback

I am so grateful to have worked with seven talented, amazing authors to create this gorgeous anthology of short fiction.

 

Thank you to all the authors who contributed. And to Loni Townsend and Allie Potts for their help and patience in explaining techy stuff I don’t understand. 😜💕

 

Blurb

WE ARE ALL PART SHADOW 

Life promises joy and sorrow. Alongside the light, there will always be traces of darkness. It is the nature of being human.

In this anthology, we explore relationships—how they sculpt us, hurt us, help us, and reveal our deepest desires.

Eight artists, whose words paint worlds, bring you stories of heartache, loss, hope, and forgiveness. They unveil the intimacy and complexity of relationships.

Whether family, friend, or lover, connections to others can hold us up or break us…

View original post 366 more words

Vokhtah: sci-fi world-building with acflory

THE most original sci-fi book I’ve ever read is Vokhtah by Andrea Flory. The depth of her world-building and character-construction is highly creative and intensely alien, right down to the language these insect-like creatures use. I’ve been wanting to interview her and finally got the chance. Welcome Andrea!

1. You decided to create an alien world without humans. Lots of authors do that, but their characters are often “human in disguise” with human-ish thoughts and emotions and cultural variations. Your characters are definitely NOT human. What inspired you to create a completely alien species?

Aaaah Diana! Thank you for inviting me, but…you’ve opened a real Pandora’s box here. What inspired me? I could say it was the original Mr Spock played by Leonard Nimoy, or the character of Dexter, the ‘good’ psychopath, or the aliens of The Left Hand of Darkness by the late Ursula K. Le Guin, but that would only approximate the truth.

To give you a genuine answer I would have to change your question to ‘Why do so many humans create aliens in the first place?’

To that question, my answer is that we’re looking for answers about ourselves. Humans are such a mixed bag. We run the gamut from saints like Mother Teresa to monsters like Ted Bundy. Why are we so different? In creating my aliens, I tried to create a dark mirror to the familiar, a contrast by which we could see ourselves more clearly. And what could be a greater contrast than flying, sociopathic hermaphrodites?

2. For a book to engage readers, characters (particularly the protagonists) need to be relatable. Readers want to feel connected to them, and this is often accomplished through shared “human-ish” experience and emotion. What was your thought process in how to achieve relatability while maintaining a sense that these are very different creatures?

Every society requires some kind of co-operative ‘glue’ to survive. On Vokhtah, my alien society evolved to value strength, courage, justice, honour and the paying of ‘debts’, traits we humans recognize and value too. Those traits provide a bridge between them and us. Plus, I have to admit that some of my aliens are ‘nicer’ than others. The hardest part of writing them was stopping myself from making them too nice.

3. Your world-building is deep and complex.  Did you plan it out in advance of writing? And to what level of detail? Did it evolve as you wrote the first book?

Nanowrimo 2004 triggered the creation of my aliens, but the world took about nine years to evolve, and it required a lot of research, including a crash course in basic astronomy. The relationship between the twin suns has a profound affect on the planet so I had to learn about binary star systems and how they might affect the day/night cycle as well as the seasons. This is my reference ‘calendar’:

And then there’s the con lang [constructed language] spoken by my aliens. Because their lungs are in their wings, sound is produced by pushing air through tiny ‘pipes’ called cilia. As a result, their language evolved as a mix of organ-like sounds together with optional ‘scents’ that add an emotional depth to their words.

Adding to that complexity is the fact that, as hermaphrodites, my aliens are neither ‘he’ nor ‘she’ but ‘it’. Trying to make English reflect these constraints without being too awful to read was a…challenge.

4. I know you enjoy making images as you conceptualize your story.  Tell me more about that process and your reasoning.

Some people can visualise everything perfectly in their heads. Me, I have to see the things I imagine in some kind of physical form, otherwise I miss the ‘obvious’.

One of those obvious things I almost missed had to do with how many arms my aliens have. I wanted them to have ‘clever hands’ and powerful wings that look a bit like bats, but bat wings look like this:

Those wings rely on impossibly long ‘fingers’, leaving no room for functional ‘hands’. The challenge was to find a way for my aliens to have both hands and wings.

It took a while, but as I messed around with various models, I suddenly realised that my aliens needed not one set of arms but two! That ‘ah hah!’ moment combined with a lot of images of black leather eventually led to this:

Still a work in progress, but getting there.

5. What excites you about writing these books?  What are you most proud of?

I love a challenge, and I love doing research, but what I’m most proud of is that I stayed true to the original vision of the story.

I created sociopaths so I could explore what it means to be human. I created hermaphrodites so I could explore gender. But to stay true to both those themes, I had to create a language that was both gender neutral and lacking in names. That resulted in dialogue like this:

Begging,” the Apprentice sent in desperation. “Allowing others in group to join Tellers. Not deserving this.”

There was a short silence before the Runner replied.

Others can re-joining caravan,” it said, “but not Apprentice, Flyer or that Plodder. Life-debt must being cancelled.”

One of my first beta readers strongly advised me to re-write the dialogue in standard English, to make it ‘easier’ for readers. I did agonise over that one because I know that too much ‘dialect’ can make dialogue almost incomprehensible, but there was no way I could change the dialogue without changing everything about the story, starting with the biology. I kept the dialogue.

6. Thank you so much for sharing your creative adventure with us, Andrea. Anything else you’d like to add?

Vokhtah was, and is, my passion. If the book had been picked up by a traditional publisher, I am sure I would have been told to change a great many things, including the dialogue. One of the joys of being an Indie is that I can stay true to the vision that made me write the story in the first place. That freedom is a gift of immeasurable value.

And so is the gift of community. Family and friends are precious, but sometimes their eyes glaze over when I talk about writing. When I come here, it feels like coming home. Thank you, Diana, for always making me feel welcome in this accepting community of writers and readers.

Huge hugs to all,
Meeks [aka acflory]

Diana’s review of Vokhtah:

This is a hard book to describe. “Pure Alien” is a good start, and I’m impressed by the author’s ambition and execution. Vokhtah is an alien planet and the characters are insect-like (my impression) creatures who engage in their own sort of political intrigue, espionage, and social caste system. They’re clever, dastardly, selfless, and selfish – much like humans – but there the similarities end.

The world-building is rather amazing and humans won’t find much that’s familiar here. Even the speech is different. The iVokh and Vokh are genderless “its” and don’t have names, referred to by their role in society, their ranking, and their talents. Social norms are dictated by groups and reinforce variations in dominance and subservience. It takes about a third of the book to get used to.

The story unfolds from multiple points of view, all alien. Flory doesn’t pamper the reader with backstory or explanation, but tosses us right into the strange world – sink or swim. The experience is immersive, but it requires patience to figure out who these aliens are and what the heck they’re doing. I enjoyed the story-telling, the fascinating world, the author’s imagination and writing skills. The pace was excellent and kept my interest.

I did spend a fair amount of the book confused about the characters, though. This is primarily, I think, because they don’t have names and, in many cases, go by multiple designations. For example, there are a number of Sixths and Sevenths. A Blue is also a Messenger who is also a Healer. A Teller is also a Trader, and is sometimes an Apprentice, so sometimes they’re the same character, sometimes not. There are a lot of identically designated characters as each location/eyrie in the story has the same basic social structure, and the book involves travel. I struggled to keep them straight until about 50% through when the plot began to narrow down the action and further define the characters’ personalities and motivations.

But then, I struggled to keep Erikson’s Gardens of the Moon straight. That one I gave up on; this one I didn’t. And it was worth it. By the end, I was ready for the next book in the series. I highly recommend Vokhtah to readers who love pure alien sci-fi, love a reading challenge, and want to engage with the work of a wonderfully creative imagination.

Amazon Global Link