Monthly Archives: August 2011

Polly! by Stephen Goldin (2008)

Polly by Stephen GoldinSmashwords / Amazon / Author’s Site

4/5 stars

Description:
Herodotus Shapiro has had an unbelievably bad week. His wife left him. The IRS is after him for thousands of dollars. His home/bookstore burned down. On his way to take refuge at his brother’s place he got a speeding ticket. And now his car has broken down in the middle of the desert in front of a large mansion. What more can go wrong?

But now his world takes a turn for the weird. The mansion has a snowman on the front lawn–in the desert in July. The house, which is bigger on the inside than on the outside, is owned by Polly, the most preternaturally beautiful young woman he’s ever met. Polly is an acrobat, a gourmet chef, a psychologist, an international financial consultant, a physicist and a woman of who-knows how many other incredible talents. She has an unbelievable library, an art collection of all the world’s great masterpieces and a print of a previously unknown Marx Brothers film. Her toilet paper is actually silk.

And she seems to have some mysterious plans for him….

Review:

“That’s the way the universe works. Not random at all. The universe is passive-aggressively hostile.”

- Polly (she who may or may not be God)

Polly! is a quirky contemporary fantasy with a hopeful message. It follows Herodotus, a middle-aged man down on his luck, as he undergoes a process of rediscovery upon meeting the enigmatic Polly. The story is comparable to the Frank Capra film It’s a Wonderful Life, but it speaks to non-religious skeptics and has a weirdness that makes it more interesting. It’s never clear what Polly is, but she fights entropy, gives some serious tough love, and has plenty of thoughts on dealing with a passive-aggressively hostile universe.

The reader follows Herod’s journey from sorrow to renewed hope and wonder. Goldin’s prose is really enjoyable, it moves quickly with just enough description to make a scene memorable. The pacing is smooth, there’s never a dull moment, and it’s always engaging and unpredictable. There’s some offbeat humour which helps lighten the mood, and all of it feels natural to the story and Herod’s point of view.

While there’s only two major characters, they’re done excellently: Herod is a sympathetic everyman and Polly is vibrant force to be reckoned with. Another aspect I liked was the timelessness of the setting and the themes–it could be set any time in the next thirty years and it would still feel contemporary.

The worst part of the book has nothing to do with its contents—it’s the cover. The cover is confusing to potential readers, and Polly doesn’t even look like that. But hey, don’t judge a book by its cover. Polly has a French maid that is funny but a bit too over the top, and there’s a line or two or dialogue that rubbed me the wrong way, but those are insignificant nitpicks.

I advice checking out the longer sample at Smashwords to see if you like Herod and Polly and its agnostic themes. The book is filled with interactions between these two characters getting all Socratic-method style discussing life, the universe, and everything else. Polly pulls out all the stops on her criticism of organized religion, so if that’s not up your alley, well yeah, you’d think it’s blasphemous. It’s a quirky book that’s not going to appeal to everyone, but I enjoyed the ride and it made me feel warm and fuzzy inside.

You might like this if you like…
Agnostics and atheists; a giant house with the craziest interior design; tips on dealing with a passive-aggressive universe; lots of dialogue

If military SF is more up your alley, I have also reviewed Goldin’s The Eternity Brigade. If reviewing books in exchange for reading them for free is up your alley (like it is mine), the author has a “Review One, Get One” program. He’s got an extensive backlist so there’s plenty of books to choose from.

3 Highly Recommended Science Fiction Ebooks

You know the myth that good indie books are hard to come by? Yeah, that’s a myth, and this book blog is proof of that. I’ve been reading mostly self-published and small-press ebooks for almost five months now, and I’ve been reading more books that I’ve enjoyed than ones that I didn’t enjoy.

If you’re curious about science fiction indies and ebooks, here are some books I enjoyed and would highly recommend. They’re available in all major ebook formats, and can be purchased by readers all over the world. No matter where you are, you can be reading them in two minutes.

1. Reich TV by Jeff Pearce

Reich TV by Jeff Pearce

Sub-genre: Alternate History (yes, alt. history can be sci-fi)

Ebook Price: $4.99 USD at Smashwords and Amazon.

Why should you read it?: It has a lot of insights about the relationship between journalism and technology, and it has a ridiculous A-list cast including the Marx Brothers, Erich Maria Remarque, and George Orwell. Yes, they fight the Nazis, but the WWII research is excellent and makes the scenario convincing. Engaging, funny, and when was the last time you’ve read an alternate history novel that moved like a thriller? Read the full review here.

***

2. The Last Man on Earth Club by Paul R. Hardy

The Last Man on Earth Club by Paul R Hardy

Sub-genre: Apocalyptic

Ebook Price: $2.99 USD at Smashwords and Amazon

Why should you read it?: Hardy has a unique take on apocalypses, because while other books focus on the event itself, this book focuses on the recovery of apocalypse survivors. Being the last person of your kind can be pretty damaging stuff, especially if you survived a nuclear holocaust, or genocide, or a machine war and such. It’s a dark but very original book. Read the full review here.

***

3. TAG by Simon Royle

Tag by Simon Royle

Sub-genre: Futuristic techno-thriller

Ebook Price: $3.99 USD at Smashwords and on sale for $1.00 at Amazon.

Why should you read it?: I have to admit that I’m not the biggest fan of the techno-thriller subgenre, but TAG is a breath of fresh air. You’re not kicking around with the CIA or American special-ops, instead you’re with a nice-guy lawyer from New Singapore, trying to stop a powerful man in the world government from killing off 6.3 billion people. I’m especially taken with TAG’s world-building. The global government is very convincing (New Singapore seems like an apt location for its headquarters), and most of the action takes place in sci-fi Asia which has various kinds of developments. Definitely not your average techno-thriller. Read the full review here.

***

If you’re interested in more sci-fi reads, you can browse through these blog’s science fiction posts. If you’re looking for a science fiction sub-genre, you can browse by speculative fiction sub-genre. I’ve enjoyed reading more books than these three I’ve mentioned, but these are the first ones that I think of for a general sci-fi audience. I really enjoyed my last sci-fi read, Becca, Reporting for Duty, but a space opera Choose Your Own Adventure with elements of erotica is understandably pretty niche.

Hungry for You by A.M. Harte (2011)

Hungry for You by A.M. HarteSmashwords / Amazon / Author’s Site

4/5 stars

Description:
“There is no greater drug than relationships; there is no sweeter death than love.”

Love is horrible. It’s ruthless, messy, mind-altering, and raw. It takes no prisoners. It chews you up and spits you out and leaves you for dead. Love is, you could say, very much like a zombie.

In this haunting short story collection, anything is possible—a dying musician turns to tea for inspiration; a police sergeant struggles with a very unusual victim; a young wife is trapped in a house hiding unimaginable evil….

With “Hungry For You”, A.M. Harte explores the disturbing and delightful in an anthology that unearths the thin boundary between love and death.

Review:
Hungry For You is a horror short story collection that explores the links between desire and decay through tales of zombie romance. The POV character is either a zombie, or someone who is attracted to one—so while readers may be experiencing zombie fatigue, A. M. Harte injects new life into the material. There isn’t just one type of zombie in this book. It takes a more general approach as it covers some people who are not traditional zombies, but exhibit the same bodily experiences of addiction and deterioration. All the characters are sympathetic individuals, no matter how many fingernails and ears fall off, and no matter what they hunger for.

I really enjoyed this collection. It’s engaging and heart-wrenching all throughout, and I finished it in one sitting. The simultaneous themes of passion and destruction are unique, resulting in some chilling prose that straddle the darkness between the two:

“It hurts,” she moaned, clutching at her side where I’d sunk my teeth into one of the love handles she so hated. The memory made my gums tingle. I took a step closer, could feel the growing hunger, the excitement, the urgency to eat and eat before her flesh went off.

The stories that stood out for me were the title story “Hungry for You”, and “Dead Man’s Rose”—which are respectively about a female police sergeant with an unusual zombie victim, and a young wife dealing with an abusive relationship. About the former, it takes some serious skill to write zombies as attractive beings while maintaining them as rotting corpses. It’s infinitely twisted and awesome. Although the subject matter in “Dead Man’s Rose” isn’t new (young wife has creepy husband; young wife is stuck in a house and creepy things happen), it’s written with such a touching sadness that it affected me emotionally like no similar story has.

I was hoping that the stories would add to a greater overarching theme, but they don’t. They could be read in any order and it wouldn’t affect your experience of this collection. While every word is absorbing, the stories feel more like samplers of bigger tales, so some ideas could be explored further.

Some of the characters could be fleshed out more in terms of personality and background—while they’re all in different states of rotting and non-rotting, there were some that I could only remember as hetereosexual and in their 20’s or early 30’s. Due to the similarity of subject matter and not-as-defined characters, there are a few stories that aren’t as memorable. But really, these are just my thoughts on how a great 4-star anthology could become an even better 5-star book.

Hungry For You is a captivating read. Although I felt like some of the stories could be expanded, every single one was emotionally moving, and I suspect that I’ll be re-reading several. If you’re interested in highly original zombie stories, or exploring the dark side of passion, I recommend this book. Reading the sample will give you a good idea if these stories will tug at your heartstrings. They certainly tugged mine, and I’m very interested in reading more books by this author.

You might like this if you like…
Zombies; the dark side of passion; horror that tugs at your heartstrings; hot zombies; zombie swans?

A.M. Harte wears many hats. She’s a speculative fiction author, the editor-in-chief of the independent Canadian publisher 1889 Labs, a book reviewer at Quills and Zebras, and a podcaster and such in the web fiction community. She has a separate day job in London too. That’s a lot of hats. I speculate that she is post-human, but definitely not a zombie.

The Cornerstone by Nick Spalding (2011)

Smashwords / Amazon / Author’s Site

2/5 stars

Description:
A great book will transport you to another world… literally, if you’re not careful.

On a gloomy Thursday afternoon, Max Bloom enters his local library in a last ditch attempt to stave off an epic case of teenage boredom. Among the hushed stacks he discovers The Cornerstone – an ancient book tucked away on a dusty, forgotten shelf. Opening the cover, Max is transported to an alternate dimension full of things intent on killing him – thus avoiding boredom with remarkable success.

He meets a beautiful girl called Merelie (brilliant), who tells him he’s the only one that can save both their worlds from the Dwellers – hideous mind sucking creatures from beyond the universe (not so brilliant).

Merelie thinks Max is a Wordsmith, a sorcerer able to craft magic from the written word itself – one powerful enough to stop the Dwellers and their treacherous human allies.

This all sounds completely unbelievable. The kind of thing you’d read in a fantasy novel… but The Cornerstone doesn’t lie – and the danger is very real.

In a world threatened by monsters, where books are worshipped and powerful magic exists, Max Bloom must make a choice: close The Cornerstone and run home – or trust Merelie, become a Wordsmith, and save two worlds from certain destruction…

Review:
The Cornerstone is a contemporary fantasy set in suburban Britain. Max is an ordinary Xbox-playing 17-year-old boy, but when he finds a magical book, it transports him to an alternate world threatened by monsters. A beautiful girl is convinced that Max is the fated sorcerer that will save her world, but that’s not likely as her world’s magic comes from books… and Max doesn’t read any. The story follows Max as he discovers books, magic, and if he has what it takes to be a hero.

This novel kicked off to a great start. The lively prose pulled me in quickly, the flippant tone was refreshing, and the humour had personality. I expected to read a lighthearted fantasy adventure that was genre-savvy and would play with some of fantasy’s most common tropes. It turns out to be a story that’s promising in concept, but not quite there in execution.

“Show, don’t tell” is a classic adage for good reason. The Cornerstone lost my interest because it frequently read like a series of summaries rather than a story that was actively unfolding. The first half of the book slowly sets up the conflict, but after that, it decides to skim over the most important developments. As major events are told rather than shown, it removes the dramatic tension that should have taken place, and I did not feel emotionally involved in the rest of the book.

The concept of an alternate world where words have power, wordsmiths are magicians, and God is called the Writer is intriguing. I was eager to see what magic system would be developed, but it doesn’t have any rules beyond “draw power from books, shoot lighting beam”. Not all fantasy books need to get detailed about magic, but if it deals with a lot of magicians and the protagonist has to learn new powers, developing a magic system with rules and limitations is an integral part of world-building. Magic can’t be an unstoppable force or else magicians would be too powerful to care about; in this story, the sources of power (books) aren’t scarce enough to create that sense of vulnerability.

I liked the idea of an uncooperative teenage boy as a hero, and several characters brim with personality. I found Max, the grandpa, and the librarian particularly charming.  The Cornerstone’s strengths are its characterization, wit, and entertaining commentary. Unfortunately, the humour didn’t work for me in the framework of a fantasy adventure.

The pacing is too brisk when there should’ve been more world-building, and it drags in uneventful scenes because much of the prose is dedicated to humourous aside commentary. It tries to go for an anachronistic style of humour similar to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I’m a fan of humourous SF/F like Douglas Adam’s The Hitchiker’s Guide series and Terry Prachett’s Discworld, but this book often misses the punch line:

Just how many Wordsmiths and Dwellers could be taken defeat before being overwhelmed and taken prisoner?

It turns out the answer was 42.

The humour is supposed to come from The Hitchiker’s reference, but the original 42 joke is about the absurdity of the universe and the futility of grand questions. If 42 could meaningfully quantify something, it defeats the point of the joke.

Great satiric SF/F books play with genre tropes while adding new ideas to the mix. Max belittles the overused fantasy tropes that he encounters, yet The Cornerstone doesn’t act on its genre-awareness. It follows the “boy becomes a wizard to save the world” connect-the-dots with a plodding predictability. Perhaps the story’s inability to breathe new life into old tropes deserves the protagonist’s condescension, but neither endeared itself to this fantasy reader.

There’s nothing wrong with the classic “boy becomes the chosen one” plot if there are other engaging elements, like with the great world-building found in The Tales of Alvin Maker and the Harry Potter series. The relationship between the parallel worlds is original, but most of the fantasy elements feel like placeholders (insert monster here, insert secondary fantasy world here) rather than a world to get to know. Again, this problem is rooted in the book’s tendency to summarize rather than show.

I’ve been looking at other reviews and it seems like this review is the most critical. I think it’s because I was looking for a solid fantasy book first and a humourous read second. I felt disappointed with how it handled fantasy tropes and I don’t think it contributes much to the genre. The Cornerstone is a worthwhile read if the humour hits you in all the right places. But if you’re looking for a satisfying fantasy read, I suggest you look elsewhere.

Other reviews of this book: All Metaphor, Malachi; Booked Up

You might like this if you like…
British humour; anachronistic pop culture references; boy becomes wizard and saves world; magical literature (literally)

While I’m not a fan of this book, Spalding is an entertaining writer. His other books, such as Life… With No Breaks, have been receiving great reviews and have sold over 10,000 copies this year. While I’m not sure if I want to read him for fantasy yet, I’m interested in his other books for humour. If you like British humour and wry commentary, I wouldn’t hesitate to check out his other titles.  

Free Ebook: Epic Fantasy – The Black God’s War by Moses Siregar III

The Black God's War by Moses Siregar IIIGenre: Epic Fantasy

Length: Novella – 27,000 words

Publication Year: 2010

Short Description: Her father-king wants war. Her messianic brother wants peace. The black god wants his due. She suffers all the consequences. King Vieri is losing his war against the lands of Pawelon. Feeling abandoned by his god, he forces his son Caio, the kingdom’s holy savior, to lead his army. Victory ought to come soon.

Comment: I admit that while reading the official description of the novella, my eyes glaze over and all I see is “epic fantasy means epic wars ‘n epic stuff”. But it’s hard not to get intrigued by this book when the cover is so damn good and a number of book bloggers that I trust gave very positive reviews. So while I haven’t read it yet, you might want to check it out.

This free novella was brought to my attention because of the blogger + twittersphere hype surrounding the recent release of the full standalone novel. Readers can try out the novella first, or go ahead with the novel. Grace Krispy over at the Motherlode Book Blog is having a giveaway of three ebook copies of the novel, and that giveaway is going on til August 20. So checking out Grace Krispy’s ebook giveaway is probably a good thing for you. If you don’t check it out, the chances of me winning the ebook just goes up higher =P

August 23 update: I just won the ebook giveaway. Told you that you should’ve joined :)

Becca, Reporting for Duty by Mima (2011)

Becca Reporting For Duty by MimaSmashwords / Amazon / Author’s Site

4/5 stars

Description:
Becca is so done with her older brother’s naval heroism constantly landing in the headlines. She’s ready to hit a starcourse herself as an engineering intern and she’s going to keep her family pedigree a secret. But her pursuit of travel and success holds quite a more tangled path than she planned.

Upon arrival at her first space trader, the Captain meets her with a curious offer of responsibility. Soon she faces aliens, smuggling intrigue, a mysterious cryo prisoner, and plenty of sexual options. A moment’s decision can change the course of a person’s future. Take control, play below decks, and watch out for heat pistols.

Review:
When was the last time you saw a choose your own adventure space opera book with plenty of sex scenes? You’ve never seen one before? I thought so. That’s why I decided to read this book, and I enjoyed it more than I expected.

A choose your own adventure (CYOA) or a gamebook, is like a normal book, only that once in a while you make decisions for the protagonist. In one of the scenarios, Becca finds a mysterious cryogenically preserved prisoner in the cargo hold. Should she investigate the cryo prisoner herself, or should she alert the Captain? There are hyperlinks provided for the two options, and clicking on one of them will take you to a different page and change the course of the story. There are sixteen different endings in total that lead to glory, love, or failure.

Thankfully, unlike the CYOAs I’ve read in the past, this book is in third-person so it’s easy to get into it. It’s a fast-paced adventure and I was at the edge of my seat the entire time. Becca is a young engineer intern that’s in a rather dangerous space trader, and the choices she makes has important consequences for her safety and the safety of others. The danger doesn’t come from outside the spaceship, but from the people that she works with. Some are involved with an interstellar mafia called the Brotherhood, some are sleazy and possibly abusive supervisors, and there are alien race relations to deal with on board too—all of which she could benefit from, or leave her dead.

I really liked Becca as a protagonist. She’s an ambitious, capable, and passionate woman, and I was invested in her by the time I was confronted with the first choice. All the available options are valid and there are no obvious answers. There are just risky choices and less risky choices, but some pay off while others kill off. Each choice changes Becca’s nature slightly, but everything is in character within the story thread.

My first read led to a demoralizing ending, but the book has a clickable table of contents, making it easy for readers to go back and explore each path in any order. Unlike some CYOAs where some storylines feel like a waste of time, every storyline is engaging and reveals a different side to the character. I also liked the ambiguity of some of the endings, and whether it’s good depends on the reader’s values. In one scenario, Becca loses everything but becomes a hardened survivor. I found that very inspiring and it’s one of my favourites.

I was curious to see if there were any storylines that didn’t lead to sex, but every thread involves some sexual intimacy, so make sure you’re ready for that. She becomes intimate with men, and some of them are humanoid aliens that are just a little bit different. The sex scenes are written in a candid, lusty, and delightfully audacious sort of way. It’s interesting that body parts and bodily functions are referred to by their actual names, but it’s logical coming from the POV of an engineering intern. It’s passionate and yet the complete opposite of purple prose. Some of the intimacy made me giggle because of the ridiculous sexiness, but I consider that as part of a fun erotica romp.

I don’t really have any criticisms, but I found one of the endings a bit cheesy because it was a fairytale happily ever after set in space. It fits the story and the genre, so there’s nothing wrong with it, it’s just my comment as a reader that doesn’t read romance. Possible turn offs for other readers may be the exotic aliens (e.g. humanoids with tails or wings) and some of the misogynistic characters. For me, the aliens felt natural to the setting, and Becca doesn’t have to take crap from the misogynistic characters if she doesn’t want to.

Becca can get intimate with a lot of people, and while some it is dangerous, she’s always portrayed as a person with agency. She can choose to go with the heat of the moment or follow a more cautious route, then she lives with the consequences. The way she handles external pressure and conflict is written quite well so it doesn’t wander into unfortunate implications. If you read the sample, you’ll get a good sense of the space opera setting and the other characters, so you can decide if that’s up your alley.

Becca, Reporting for Duty is a surprisingly fun space opera adventure. It has danger, sex, and a strong female protagonist. If you’re looking for a tale that moves at a breakneck speed and filled with highs and lows, I recommend checking this out. Space opera, CYOA, and erotica aren’t the sort of stories I read often, but damn this was good. I want more of the first two, and I’m more open to the last one. The 16-different endings format doesn’t naturally lend itself to a sequel, but if there is more to Becca’s adventures, I’d love to read on.

You might like this if you like…
A CYOA filled with danger and sex; exotic aliens; a space opera adventure that moves at a breakneck speed

In addition to being purchased as a single book, Becca, Reporting for Duty can also be purchased as part of the Take Control Trilogy. They’re all gamebooks with romantic elements, and the other two that complete the set is a paranormal romance and a contemporary western. If those sound neat to you, snapping up all three for $6.99 could be worth your while instead of purchasing each title at $2.99.

You can also read more about Mima’s commentary on CYOAs on her blog. It’s interesting that a romance publisher rejected Becca because the happily ever after ending wasn’t guaranteed, but it’s an enthralling CYOA precisely because there’s real danger and seriously crap endings. As a speculative fiction reader that doesn’t read romance, I found the HEA ending boring and loved the other ones, but it’s great that such a diversity of endings exist. I’m glad that the author stuck to her guns and made Becca the exciting book that it currently is.

Guest Post on E-book Endeavors about Approaching Book Bloggers

I have a guest post today on Lindsay Buroker’s E-book Endeavors about How to Approach Book Bloggers for Reviews.

If you’re an author or publicist, that’s recommended reading :) If you’re not familiar with E-book Endeavors, I highly recommend visiting that blog. It’s one of the best blogs on e-publishing and e-book marketing, so check it out!

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