Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

Review of Craig Falconer’s Not Alone

Thursday, February 22nd, 2018

(Craig A. Falconer, Not Alone, self-published?, 12/19/15)

Mr. Falconer’s book doesn’t need another review—at last count, 1850+ readers have jumped on the fanwagon and written their one- and two-line endorsements (called reviews by Amazon)—but I often review books that I buy for R&R reading when they have a lot of positives.  Unfortunately this one has many negatives too.  So here goes.

First, the positives. There is no Star Wars-like space opera here. Most of the first half of the book is spent uncovering a government conspiracy and battling the perpetrator’s and media’s attempts to hide it. Dan Murphy, a believer in UFOs, just happens to be present when a thief steals a Top Secret folder containing evidence for ETs from a government agency, and it also just happens that Emma Ford, an expert in PR and marketing, shows up to help him battle the media. When no one worries about who the thief is, I became suspicious—that’s a flaw some readers might glide over, but I didn’t. Still, I managed to get through this ponderous half of the story because the concept was interesting, albeit a long variation on all those conspiracy theories about Area 51.

Second, there are nice twists that happen in the second half of the book, if you can make it that far. Consider them examples of the adage, “It’s not paranoia if it’s true.” These twists can be a lot of fun, I’ll admit, but I just wish it hadn’t taken the author so long to get to them—completely unnecessary. Because Mr. Falconer can’t seem to pare things down, he should have hired a content editor.

In his “apology” at the end, he states that he wanted to make just one novel and not split it up. At 742 equivalent pages, this ebook is shorter than my Chaos Chronicles Trilogy Collection, but it’s certainly equivalent to at least two novels.  And it didn’t need to be! Where does Falconer go wrong? Call it his being a wannabe speech writer, overly enchanted with his own prose, or what you like—he’s just too verbose.


Book review of Andy Weir’s Artemis…

Thursday, January 4th, 2018

(Andy Weir, Artemis, Crown-Penguin Random House, 2017, ISBN 978-0-553-44812-2)

Visitors to this website and readers of this blog should know that my book reviews originate in two ways. I “officially review” at because I can choose from many books I’m not familiar with and provide authors new to me some name recognition. I also read many books for R&R and will sometimes review some of them if I have something positive to say. In either case, I won’t refrain from stating the negatives.

Artemis fits in the last category, I suppose, but I didn’t buy it.  I rarely purchase any Big Five ebooks these days because I can buy three, sometimes four, excellent ebooks for the price of one Big Five ebook.  That said, I’m reviewing the print version that I received as a gift.  I enjoyed Mark Weir’s new sci-fi thriller enough that I’m motivated to write the review, even with its many flaws. So, play Ennio Morricone’s wonderful score, because I’m going to discuss the good, bad, and ugly about this novel.

The good. This is a fair sci-fi thriller, much better than The Martian in the genre-sense.  It’s nothing like Weir’s first book, in fact, and dabbles in some political issues that make me think of sci-fi Libertarians like Heinlein, Pournelle, Niven, and Hogan.  Actually, that’s a negative, but I just want to point out that the plot is much more complex. I’ll read a good sci-fi story even if I disagree with opinions expressed via underlying themes.

The tale here has more meat on it than The Martian, although compared to Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress and Friday, two classics, Weir’s novel often seems like watered-down Bud Light compared to Guinness.  Fun, yes; profoundly entertaining, no. Heinlein’s first book has a better plot (though Weir’s is also Libertarian, in the sense that the lunar city has a lot of vigilante justice), is more entertaining (Heinlein’s characters aren’t stereotypes, for example), and is more profound (Heinlein’s lunar city is a penal colony, for example, not a haven for fascist capitalists); his second has a better female protagonist (OK, she’s a bit of a female Rambo, but not a spoiled brat).  To his credit, Weir’s main character is a woman; he stepped up to that challenge.  From his acknowledgments, he even had female help, but something went wrong. Jasmine “Jazz” Bashara acts like a precocious, immature, and rebellious tween throughout the book, not a mature woman in her twenties with some common sense. Does Weir think this YA character merits serious sci-fi readers’ attention?

The plot starts slowly—there’s too much superfluous narrative because Weir isn’t world-building in this novel—but the pace increases, enough so to keep me reading to finish the tale.  Jazz is smart, but she wants to be rich. She graduates from small-time smuggler to more profitable crime…and gets into a heap of trouble. You might think she’s some urban urchin eking out a street life in any big city on Earth—in fact, you could transport the tale to such a venue, except for the lunar setting—but she lives in Artemis, the first and only lunar city created in the future by a strange Kenyan organization–as Africa’s response to European colonialism, it’s too much like a Steve Jobs’ project. (That’s a bit weird, but I’ll not dwell on it.)

The bad. The boring potato farming in The Martian has been replaced by boring details about Jasmine’s life, EVAs, and blowing up ore harvesters and smelters.  Like the potato farming, most readers will want to skip over most of the tedious technical details in Artemis—they read like an engineering manual, except Jazz is describing them in her urban-urchin’s cutesy language.  The tech here is more varied, but most people won’t be able to check it, or care to do so. I was turned off by the super fiber optics, though. Any transmission medium is lossy—zero loss only exists in a vacuum, and there EM radiation (light and radio, for example) loses by the one-over-r-squared effect. Because the story depends so much on this “discovery” in fiber-optics technology, I was immediately turned off.  And Weir only provides some unbelievable techno-babble to explain why it has to be made in a low-g environment.


Review of Edita A. Petrick’s Ribbons of Death…

Friday, October 20th, 2017

(Edita A. Petrick, Ribbons of Death (2nd ed.), Peacetaker series #1, 2017)

I suspect this started with a play on words. We all know what peacemaker means, but what is a peacetaker? You can find out in detail by reading this sci-fi/fantasy/mystery/thriller. I’ll start by explaining the genre overlap. The sciences are archaeology and linguistics. The fantasy is a curse that has affected several ancient civilizations. The mystery is in how it is now affecting our modern world…and why. The thriller is in trying to stop people from being murdered by the peacetaker.

That’s quite a lot for a plot, but the author handles it well. She goes too deep into the archaeological/linguistic narrative with the ex-prof who is the main character and wrote a book about the curse—I skipped a lot of that once I got the gist. The subtitle of every chapter also contains some ancient historical reference that I usually didn’t understand—maybe the author saying, “I did a lot of research for this”? The ex-prof is a solid character. Her on-again-off-again romantic interest isn’t—he’s a thriller stereotype, shallow but violent. I believe both continue on in the series—the ex-prof should have dumped him.

What the peacetaker does is scary—he makes people go mad. (I wonder if one was operating in Las Vegas. Nah. That was just one guy. The peacetaker makes whole crowds of people go mad and try to kill each other.) There’s some fantastic gobbledygook about “why” this happens that never makes much sense—because it borders on magic, it’s pure fantasy and akin to werewolves going wild with a full moon, and I hate stories about werewolves, especially the Twilight series.

The plot moves along in spite of the narrative overload mentioned above (especially if you skip most of it). It held my interest for the most part, and there’s a nice twist at the end involving that nasty peacetaker. This is basically a road-trip story where the womansplaining ex-prof takes her mansplaining hunk around the country trying to prove her theories about the peacetaker, and he tries to prove her wrong. There’s a nice hook at the beginning when that soldier-of-fortune stereotype also goes mad in a crowd affected by the peacetaker. The hunk’s scars from his injuries play a small role in the story, as well as the stereotypical ambivalence of a feebie who’s contracted that soldier-of-fortune  (he’s torn between obeying the ex-prof and the feebie, of course). There’s an evil rich guy as villain in this story too, generally skulking around in the wings like some ghoulish phantom of the opera. You don’t actually know for sure he’s the villain. Is the peacetaker ultimately controlled by him? Does the villain get what he deserves? You’ll have to read the book to find out. No spoilers here.


Book review of Peter May’s Entry Island…

Friday, August 11th, 2017

(Peter May, Entry Island, Quercus, 2014, 978-1-62365-663-8)

Because I’m half-Irish by ancestry, I once tried to learn Gaelic. I failed. So it was interesting to learn in this novel that speakers of Irish and Scotch Gaelic can understand each other, but, thinking about that some more, I guess it’s like when I spoke Spanish in Italy and got along fine.

This is a small point about the huge panorama of this novel. It’s a tour through history as Sime (pronounced “sheem”) MacKenzie, a homicide detective, tries to figure out how he already knows Kirsty Cowell, a murder suspect. That’s one mystery. The other is about who killed Kirsty’s husband.

Being half-Irish, I also knew about the Irish potato famines (I seem to remember there were several), but again I had no idea The Famine had affected parts of Scotland too. And the bad history between English lords and their Irish tenants had its parallel with the English lairds and their Scottish tenants. You can learn history from reading fiction much more than you can watching Hollywood destroy it on the silver screen (after I saw The Gladiator, I had to come home and check to make sure I wasn’t going senile—and that movie won an Academy Award?).

Maybe because of these relationships between Irish and Scottish history, I found the mostly predictable plot still gripping. Sime’s ancestor’s history, told via the latter’s diary entries, is the short part and the most interesting until the Postscript (it should have been called an epilogue) that shattered most of my admiration for the ancestor. Maybe I should have said two plots, as the longer part of the novel describes Sime’s struggles to solve a murder case while carrying the mental baggage of a failed marriage, insomnia, and the loneliness he feels as a Scotsman in French Canada, the last similar to his ancestor’s troubles in the New World.


Book review of The Three-Body Problem…

Friday, July 28th, 2017

(Cixin Liu, The Three-Body Problem, Tor, 2006)

I’ll admit it: I struggled through this Hugo Award winner. It’s a cross between a physics textbook; a historical account of China, including the Cultural Revolution; and a story about first contact.

The physics is a bit much for the average sci-fi reader perhaps, especially for those who think Star Wars, Star Trek, and other Hollywood gruel are real sci-fi. The history is more interesting. I feel I don’t know enough about China. Books like this one, Ludlum’s third Bourne novel (and not the third movie!), and The First Excellence by Donna Carrick, represent good ways to understand Chinese history and modern culture via fiction. First contact is overdone in the sci-fi literature (perhaps Asimov was smart to avoid ETs altogether in his Foundation series), and this book offers few novelties.

I can’t refrain from commenting on the title. The Centauri star system has achieved some notoriety lately because there’s an Earth-sized planet orbiting the red dwarf Proxima (the usual extra-solar planets are Jovian-sized). Obviously the author didn’t know about this planet when he wrote his book, but any inhabitants of that planet might be interested in exact solutions to the three-body problem because the “suns” in their sky form such a system. Beyond that, the mysticism that shrouds the three-body system in this novel is unwarranted because the Centauri three-star system has been stable for millions of years.

The end of the book leans more to Harry Potter-like fantasy than hard sci-fi. Unfolding a proton and etching integrated circuits on its surface is a story that Harry’s house dwarf might dream up (if the author knew anything about science, that is). It’s a silly extrapolation, if it can even be called that. And it’s definitely not good sci-fi.

The climax is too long coming. The description of the two camps of human thought about how to deal with the ETs is too. I’d say 70% of the book is how one woman dealt with and had her little victories against the Cultural Revolution; there’s very little sci-fi beyond the fact that she and her father were physicists. That’s about 270 pages out of 390 before the reader even gets to the point.

The usual sci-fi story elements are missing: fast-moving plot (there’s not much world-building here, so why is it so slow?); interesting characters (I don’t like any of them); strange settings (OK, there are foreign and interesting ones, but I wouldn’t call them all that strange, except for the fantasy home of the Centaurians, and you can’t tell them apart from those in a computer game); and so forth. The author also spends too much time writing about a computer game. I’m just not into them because they’re a waste of time, but this one is used to subvert and convert and recruit intellectuals to further the ambitions of the main character (hard to tell whether she’s protagonist or antagonist, by the way). Maybe you like computer games. If that’ the case, you’ll maybe like some of this book.

I kept thinking as I read, “Hey, Steve, this is a Hugo winner. It must get better.” It never did–not for me. I found it to be a slog. Maybe the Hugo judges were trying to achieve some rapprochement with China? For me, Hugo has been slipping the last two decades. This one was a major slip-up (I previously tried to read another Hugo winner, one I couldn’t even finish, so I didn’t review it).

This is the first book in a trilogy. I won’t be reading the two remaining ones. That’s my cultural revolution against Hugo as much as this author.


Rembrandt’s Angel (a mystery/thriller from Penmore Press). To what lengths would you go to recover a stolen masterpiece? Scotland Yard’s Arts and Antiques Inspector Esther Brookstone goes the extra mile. She and paramour/sidekick Bastiann van Coevorden, an Interpol agent, set out to outwit the dealers of stolen art and recover “An Angel with Titus’ Features,” a Rembrandt painting stolen by the Nazis in World War Two. Their efforts lead to much more, as they uncover an international conspiracy that threatens Europe. During their dangerous adventures, their relationship solidifies and becomes a full-blown romance. This book is available in ebook format at Amazon and at Smashwords and its affiliate retailers. It’s available as a print version at Amazon, B&N, or your favorite bookstore (if not there, ask for it). Happy reading!

In libris libertas…

Review of A. H. Richardson’s Murder in Little Shendon…

Wednesday, July 5th, 2017

[A. H. Richardson, Murder in Little Shendon, 978-1-5152-8397-3, Serano Press, 2015. A free copy was sent to this reviewer in exchange for an honest review.]

Oh, those British mysteries! How I love them! From Agatha Christie to Ian Rankin (OK, he’s Scottish, and I go for the Irish stories too), the Inspectors, DCIs, and detectives, pros and aficionados, have always entertained me (so much so that my new book is an homage to Christie). This one’s a who-done-it a la Christie, mostly taking part in a rural village where everybody knows everybody, and everybody seems to be a suspect!

The cast of characters—it takes a village—features Inspector Stanley Burgess, the local constable, Sir Victor Hazlitt, nephew (really cousin) of Lady Armstrong, the richest woman in the village, and almost-famous actor Beresford Brandon. The latter two men go to Little Shendon to help Burgess find the murderer of the hated Mr. Fynche who seems to have had everyone in the village mad at him for one thing or the other and not regretting his demise.

There are twists and turns and an entire collection of English characters who are delightful in their eccentricities. Who did the dirty deed? The dirty deed seems associated with other ones. What connects them all? I’ll not go into details to avoid spoilers. Suffice to say that I had two candidates among the many but wasn’t sure until the end—I was right with one, but I suppose as an author I have an unfair advantage.

This author shows her British roots even though she now lives in Tennessee. Like many of us, she had a very interesting life before she became an author and before she came to the U.S., presumably most of that interesting life in Britain. I found this to be an entertaining mystery with all the key ingredients—good plot, characterization, description, dialogue, and a wee bit of dry British humor that follows the Goldilocks Principle. I read the print version for this review, but there’s also a reasonably priced e-book version. Definitely worth a summer read if you’re a fan of this genre.

The only negative for me were the residual editing errors, particularly those associated with quotation marks. Those can be a bit confusing at times, so readers will have to get past them—it’s easy enough to do if you’re an avid reader. Perhaps my eagle-like editing eye did me no favors! If you get past them, you’re bound to have an enjoyable read.


In libris libertas…

Book review of Shattered…

Wednesday, June 7th, 2017

Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes have written the best book so far about Hillary Clinton’s doomed presidential campaign in 2016. In spite of obvious omissions and questionable opinions, they present their case that HRC faced the perfect storm of incompetent campaign advisers and bad luck. She was a flawed candidate to begin with, of course. Rejoicing in getting what she considered to be the weakest of the GOP candidates, she trounced Trump in the debates and popular vote, but she still lost. For those disappointed Dems who have to face four years of Trump and see the party disarray as they prepare for 2018 and 2020, there are lessons to be learned here.

Here’s a list of reasons why she lost, with MoND signifying “minimally or not discussed” in the book: (1) the arrogance and the entitlement felt by the candidate and her staff (MoND); (2) letting Bill be a loose cannon (e.g. the meeting with SoJ Lynch) and not listening to him when they should have (e.g. ignoring working-class whites, especially in those “rust belt” states, and using analytics instead of old-fashioned polling); (3) being the “establishment candidate” and not being sensitive to voters at each end of the political spectrum fed up with “politics as usual—the Wasserman Schultz dustup was also crucial); (4) the private email server, a particular but telling example of number one; (5) being a candidate from another era unable to confront new political realities (MoND)—if she or Biden are thinking about running in 2020, they’ll lose; (6) winning a primary on the basis of super-delegates and ones from southern states she would lose in the general election (MoND); (7) not unifying the party, and (8) a plethora of historical mistakes from Bill’s administration, to Benghazi, and beyond.


Review of Leah Devlin’s Ægir’s Curse….

Wednesday, May 25th, 2016

(Leah Devlin, Ægir’s Curse, Penmore Press, 2013, 978-1-942756-44-6)

This archaeological thriller was a special treat.  First, there is an interesting cast of characters, many flawed, and relationships among them representing a microcosm of the diversity in American society.  The author uses internal dialogue to allow the reader to get inside the characters’ minds; we understand why they’re flawed.  The real villain here is Ægir’s curse, where Ægir is the Vikings’s sea god—if you discount the personal demons bedeviling the main protagonist.  The nominal villain and a few other characters I liked are dispatched with early as the body number increases.  There’s no mystery here, only anticipation as this thriller moves inexorably to its end.

Lindsey, that main protagonist, is a bit too flawed, fighting her self-destructive quirks while trying to hold together a blended family.  As a Nobel Prize winner, I suppose she’s an example of the fine line between genius and insanity.  She’s interesting, but I found her collaborator Sara more interesting and normal within today’s wide social spectrum.  In all of this, the author never forgets the children, who often don’t understand and are innocent victims of adults’ personal turmoil.

Some character flaws lead to or are caused by lots of philandering going on in a tightly knit research environment.  Lindsey and her adopted daughter’s history of substance abuse aside, it’s mostly men doing the philandering in this tale.  I guess times have changed.  I never saw this much action in a research environment before!  I said it’s a microcosm, but it’s like condensed soup—some water must be added, and that’s where Ægir steps in.  The curse of that Norse god of the sea—at least the sea around our national treasure, Cape Cod—isn’t only the true villain, he’s essential to this tale.  Or, maybe it’s his daughters stirring up all the trouble?


Review of Rebecca Marks’s On the Rocks…

Wednesday, March 30th, 2016

(Rebecca Marks, On the Rocks, Black Opal Books, ISBN 987-1-626943-79-7)

It’s always a pleasure to discover a new and interesting author.  I’m not sure it’s wise to announce a series with the first book in the series—it’s a wee bit like signing a contract with the readers, after all—but I have to say most readers will probably want to read more about ex-NYPD homicide detective Dana Cohen.  She’s Jewish and a redhead, but, like the ubiquitous Irish cops (not so ubiquitous anymore), crime fighting is a family tradition—she even fits that Irish stereotype of drinking too much.  Pop is an ex-LI police chief and estranged hubby Pete is still on the NYPD force, as near as I can tell.  Dana has retired from the daily grind of trying to police the Big Apple’s underbelly.

Dana is that quintessential flawed main character.  She has major problems with Pete—even wants to divorce him (he’s resisting)—but she’s addicted to sex with him. She has that drinking problem but owns a winery, so that’s more irony in her life.  And she foregoes the Irish cop’s usual confession sessions with the parish priest by using bartender “Mac” McCormack as a surrogate, who just happens to hate Jews and Blacks (the manager of her winery is a Black woman).  In an area as densely populated as the tri-state area, you can have all kinds of human behavior, of course—the tails of the statistical distribution in any behavioral direction are well populated.  If LI seems idyllic to you as you think of the rich and famous and their summer houses in the Hamptons, you’re in for a surprise.  But I see news about crime activity there every morning on the news.

In that setting, Dana has to solve a mystery to save her husband who is framed for murder.  Although she has problems with the guy, she doesn’t believe he’s a killer.  But the circumstantial evidence becomes overwhelming, and Pete spends a lot of the story in jail.  In the process of solving this mystery, I think Dana is diminished as a main character.  She can’t seem to get beyond her liquor problem.  Pete’s lawyer Jed and his detective Itzy, contemporary versions of the Perry Mason duo, take on the MC roles.  The lawyer is just a good lawyer, but the gay PI is the real gumshoes in this story.  This bifurcation of the book into two parts—the first with MC Dana and the second with MC Itzy—is a bit weird, but it works.

Another unusual stylistic choice that works is that the whole story is told in first person present by Dana.  First person isn’t that uncommon in mysteries—it allows readers to discover clues and experience twists and misdirects along with the protagonist.  But those things are recounted secondhand by Dana in the second half as Itzy does the real sleuthing—Dana and Itzy providing a Dr. Watson and Mr. Holmes déjà vu.  The choice of present tense was much more unusual, but that worked too.  It gave an immediacy to the story as it unfolded.

Direct dialogue was a bit unwieldy at times.  Not only did that present tense affect things, but a lot of backstory and material that would have been better as internal dialogue or flashbacks made Dana seem a bit preachy.  Jed’s bringing Dana up to date at the end, necessarily done in dialogue, could have been all replaced by following the action in standard third-person fare, but Dana could have been there participating even in first person, making the ending more show and less tell.  The ending, as it stands, seems to be a bit rushed too.  I didn’t buy that Pete was framed to get at Dana either—the villain had better reasons for doing that.

This is not minimalist writing by any means.  Often called hard-boiled in the mystery genre, you’re more likely to think of Christie than Chandler, especially during Jed’s wrap-up at the end that recalls Poirot’s embellished explanations of who did the dirty deed and why.  Never fear, the deeds here go far beyond Christie, though, and touch upon general problems in U.S. society.  On first reading, I found myself skipping overly verbose sections, but I paid more attention the second time through.  It seemed that a lot of that could be left to the reader’s imagination to make her or him more of a participant in the creative process—that’s minimalist writing, my preference but not the author’s.

This might seem like a lot of negatives, so let me downplay them.  Overall this was an entertaining and well-written book.  With her stylistic choices, the author has created a sense of urgency that keeps you turning the pages.  The author has a story to tell and tells it well.  Dana is a flawed but interesting character.  I’m sure she will grow in upcoming books in this series as she lets Ms. Marks see more into her psyche.  I’m looking forward to it.


This is a reposting of my review made for Bookpleasures.  The author provided a free copy in return for an honest review.

In libris libertas….

An incorrect view of creativity…

Thursday, January 28th, 2016

In his op-ed article on creativity in the NY Times, Prof. Adam Grant, management and psych professor at the Wharton School of UPenn, says step one to creativity is to procrastinate.  “Creativity takes time.  So I’m trying not to make progress toward my goal.”  I think that’s BS, and I’m hoping I’m not alone.  The first part depends on your definition of creativity, of course.  Presumably, this prof, who’s trying to sell his book, Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, is using a business definition.  I don’t see much creativity in the business world.  I see it in the author/composer of Hamilton; I’ve seen it in the works of Alejandro Obregon and Gabriel Garcia Marquez; and I’ve seen it in scientists and engineers, from researchers to smart phone and car designers.  Grant confuses creativity with business acumen.  Trump has the latter, but he isn’t creative (come to think of it, Trump and his progeny went to Wharton).

So, let’s get past that first statement in the quote and move on to the second.  Procrastination is the opposite of creativity!  If one procrastinates, s/he’s doing absolutely nothing.  Now Alan Watts might say doing nothing is accomplishing something—that’s part of Buddhist teaching (make your mind blank to achieve enlightenment)—but it sure as hell isn’t being creative.  I’d generally call it wasting time!  At a conference once some Austrian physicists told me that they were in the process of thinking about getting some dinner.  Maybe that’s typically Austrian—I seem to remember Vienna as pretty laid back (but probably not during WWII)—but dinner just isn’t that complicated, and time spent in the process of thinking about it would be better spent doing physics in this case, where a physicist can and should be creative.  Leave the dinner creativity to chefs—culinary art is creative, but only when you do it, not in the process of thinking about it.