Friday, November 14, 2014

The Northern Star: Civil War by Mike Gullickson

Reviewed by The Bookworm's Fancy.

The Northern Star: Civil WarMike Gullickson’s The Northern Star: Civil War picks up with a bang eleven years after the events of The Northern Star: The Beginning. The tentative cooperation between the world government and MindCorp (the company that owns the technology that makes civilization possible in a world drained of oil) has slowly begun to fray. Like its predecessor, Civil War is full of complex characters with interconnecting motives. It is very hard to separate the bulk of the characters into good/bad or black/white. Instead they all (except for Evan Lindo) exist in a state of varying shades of gray. This, in of itself, makes for a compelling read. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Let me start with the easy stuff. All too often, we hear horror stories of indie books with bad editing and horrible covers. Not only are Gullickson’s covers amazing, but the editing is spot on. No odd formatting or glaring grammatical errors to break the reader’s immersion in the story.

I referred to Gullickson’s The Northern Star: The Beginning as an “old school, science-fiction romp”. The Northern Star: Civil War is this and so much more. It is more than just men in mechs destroying each other. It is more than amazing technological advances. Gullickson manages to make it all accessible to the average reader without overloading the senses. The technology is intricate and complicated but explained to the reader with a simple ease that just flows.

All the characters that survived through the first book are back to continue their journey in this book. Most interesting, though, is the inclusion of John Raimey’s now twenty-year-old daughter, Vanessa. Just a child in the first book, she has blossomed into a confident, intelligent young woman working with the bionics. While Gullickson’s story sets her up as the lynchpin to the ultimate evil scheme, the character of Vanessa becomes the emotional center of the story. Her relationships with Evan Lindo, Mike Glass, and John Raimey drive the story just as much as the constant struggle for power between MindCorp and the government.

Following the trend of the second installment in a trilogy being darker, Civil War is to The Beginning as the Empire Strikes Back is to A New Hope. It is decidedly darker, dirtier, and grittier. You find yourself rooting for the heroes and rallying with them only to have the rug pulled out from beneath you when they fail. The final scenes evoked the same emotional distress and despair as when Han Solo gets frozen in carbonite. The ending compels you to read the last book in the series because it just can’t end like this. The good guys have to win. Or do they?

The Bookworm gives The Northern Star: Civil War 4.5 stars for delicious darkness. For more information, please visit the author's website.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Mobsters, Monsters & Nazis by Dan O'Brien and Steve Ferchaud

Mobsters, Monsters and NazisMobsters, Monsters & Nazis is a six-part illustrated series that is a throwback to pulp books. The first installment goes on sale this Halloween, but you can pre-order now.

Mobsters, Monsters & Nazis takes place in an alternate universe where lizard men, fish-faced nightclub owners, and tentacled mobsters are everyday people. Derrick Diamond, a private eye, is tasked with delivering a mysterious artifact to the Fat Man. But there are others who are interested in the artifact, and their intentions appear to be just as malevolent as the titular Nazis. To put it succinctly, Mobsters, Monsters & Nazis is an illustrated short story, so I can't say anything more about the plot as that would spoil it for you.

O'Brien has lovingly crafted his characters with familiar personalities. Derrick Diamond channels Bogart. Ava Harpy is the femme fatale nightclub singer. The Weasel lives up to his name. And the Fat Man is the successful mobster who wields power and conducts his business transactions with shrewd calculation.

Ferchaud's ink drawings capture the noir atmosphere and the essence of the hard-boiled characters. To say that they add a nice touch to the work would be an understatement. While O'Brien's words offer enough visual cues, Ferchaud's work brings it to life.

So if you're a fan of pulp or old gangster films, and don't mind a dash of dark fantasy, check out the first installment of Mobsters, Monsters & Nazis.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Noise by Brett Garcia Rose

Noise by Brett Garcia RoseThe only person that Leon ever loved was his sister, Lily. But ten years ago, she left a suicide note and allegedly drowned. Allegedly, because her body was never found. Regardless, he was left alone.

But then a postcard in Lily's handwriting arrives one winter, drawing him to New York City. What he discovers unleashes a deadly rage that knows no bounds. A grisly trail of clues leads him to "The Bear", a sadistic Russian crime lord who traffics in human flesh. The police are of little help and don’t like Leon’s methods or the mess he leaves in his wake. He is single-minded in his purpose and will do anything to find Lily.

Now here's the kicker: Leon is deaf.

But being deaf isn't much of a handicap to Leon. He can read lips. He pays attention to his surroundings, aware of the change in shadows, the vibrations of someone walking across a floor. It's what kept him alive as a child in Nigeria and later through a stint in the army.

By and large this could simply have been the literary equivalent of one of those revenge flicks you curl up with on the couch, a bowl of popcorn and a beer (or two) close at hand. But no, we're given a story that's more than popcorn and violence (though there is plenty of the latter). When Rose isn't detailing Leon's choreography of investigation and execution, he offers Leon's reflections on his predicament and surroundings.

Our introduction to Leon:
The world is an ugly place, and I can tell you now, I fit in just fine.
We see New York through Leon's eyes, and it is a cold, heartless place where:
The sidewalks are narrow and crowded, the pedestrians impartial and unaware of one another in a way that even the simplest of animals are not. They never make eye contact; inches apart, they never touch. A New Yorker approaching another human being is indistinguishable from one approaching a utility pole or a tree.
And Leon makes no effort to hide what he thinks of the place:
It is not possible for me to be the first to say this, but I'll say it nonetheless: I hate the place. It is cold and ruthless. Humanity in constant battle, all its inhabitants rushing towards some invisible exit, never tiring of the trap. Cities are hell, and New York is the Grand Dame of them all.
I couldn't resist the noir-like atmosphere that Rose conjured. Now, I love New York—warts and all—but I know what he's talking about. It's the perspective of an outsider, and it's very easy to relate to it.

The story moves along predictably enough, with Leon punishing the guilty without mercy or remorse. There are no clean executions, no crises of conscience. His methods are as brutal as those he seeks out. He exists to make sure that those who live by the sword, die by the sword. Were it not for the fact that his cause was just, it would be difficult to root for him. In fact, some might pity the guilty.

One thing I found lacking was detail about Leon's past. There is scant little about his childhood in Nigeria, and his adoptive mother only receives a few sentences. There is Lily, but all we know of her is her suicide note, and that she was the one person in Leon's life that showed any kindness to him. Perhaps, it's intentional. Leon's single-minded determination leaves no room to dwell on the past.

Noise is a revenge flick dressed up as art house mystery. Rose juxtaposes brutality with spirited, yet acerbic, prose. Meticulous attention to detail evokes noirish cinematic imagery. Read the book before Hollywood figures out how to make the movie.

For more information visit the author's website.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Fluency by Jennifer Foehner Wells

Fluency by Jennifer Foehner Wells is what 2001: A Space Odyssey would’ve been if the monolith had actually talked to the crew.

NASA has known about an alien spaceship parked in the Asteroid Belt since the 1960s but has kept the information from the public.  All efforts to establish radio contact have been met with silence.  In the early 21st century, NASA finally develops the technology required to send six astronauts to the ship to discover its secrets. 

Dr. Jane Holloway is a linguist and a reluctant astronaut recruited by NASA to communicate with any possible aliens.  As soon as their capsule docks with the mysterious ship, she begins to hear voices.  She not only has a hard time convincing herself they are real, but most of her crew as well. 

When the mission takes a disturbing turn that not even the highly trained astronauts are prepared for, it’s Jane’s connection to the ship that becomes their only hope for survival.

Fluency was a finely written derelict spaceship story.  Wells’ style and language are beautiful and descriptive without relying on cliché.  Wells does not overly explain the science behind the ship's gadgets, but gives us just enough to make them all seem plausible without bogging the story down. 

I liked how the alien cultures that the ship reveals to Jane Holloway sounded very different from one another, even among individuals within a species.  Too many sci-fi stories depict aliens as one monolithic culture where all individuals share the same values.  I prefer my aliens to be, well, more human and unique between individuals.  Besides drone-like insectoid aliens, that just seems more realistic to me and Wells does a fine job of it in this book.

I only had some minor nit-picks.  The main characters ruminated too much for my taste, making me skip pages at a time to get back to the action.  I also thought the ending was too abrupt; I got the feeling I had just read the opening chapter of a longer work rather than a complete work in itself.  Fluency's sub-title is "Confluence Book 1," so this was obviously by design, but I'm not a fan of the style.

Fluency is Wells' debut novel and an impressive effort that I enjoyed.  It hit all the right notes that a derelict spaceship story should hit.  The novel only hints at the strange galaxy awaiting humanity, so I look forward to the alien wonders that Wells introduces us to in the sequel.

Fluency is available on Amazon as an ebook and paperback.

[Note: Fluency was purchased by the reviewer.]

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Numbers 16:32 by Brady Koch

Joseph's Sunday morning routine of church, beer and solitude is interrupted by a ragged screaming coming from the far side of his farm land. What he finds there will challenge his resolve in ways he hasn't faced since losing his wife or facing the horrors of the Korean War.

Numbers 16:32 is a long short story (25 pages), which makes it a novelette. It gets off to a slow start as Koch focuses on character building. I stuck with it as Koch successfully forged a connection between this reader and Joseph, the protagonist. Once Joseph sets out to find the source of the screaming, the pace of the story picks up and stays steady right up to the end.

Joseph's actions and dialogue ring true. As a Korean War veteran and widower living out his remaining years on a farm out in the Midwest, you really get a sense for the loneliness that he keeps bottled up. There's no self-pity with this man. He's seen far too much to bother with any of that.

Once the reader's connection with Joseph is made, Koch leads Joseph out into the fields to face the peril. I can't say too much more without spoiling it. Joseph's military training kicks in. No, I'm not talking about his combat skills. He assesses the problem, comes up with a plan, and acts on it. He's the "cool under fire" type. As the situation changes and the stakes escalate, Joseph adapts.

Unfortunately, the story is marred—for me—by typos: many missing commas, some capitalization issues, and several misspelled words. If Mr. Koch had sent the manuscript to a proofreader before publishing, 95% of these would've been caught (A cheaper alternative would be to have had it peer reviewed in a writer's group). It takes away from the experience for me. To be fair, even traditionally published books have typos. I'm also reading Moving Mars by Greg Bear. There's a scene where they talk about eating cheesecake for dessert, but it's misspelled as "desert".

Numbers 16:32 is a finely crafted story. The plot and characterization are solid. Despite my grumblings over typos, I enjoyed Numbers 16:32 and would recommend it for the character of Joseph alone. I hope that Mr. Koch will continue to hone his craft.

Stop by the author's website to find out where you can get a copy.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

In The Clear by Ayami Tyndall

In The ClearArne was content with her career as a hydrogen rigger, harvesting fuel from Saturn's clouds for use across the solar system, until two prospectors offered her a job that kindled old desires. She used to be an angel, a guide through the lightless sky beneath Saturn's clouds, but abandoned that deadly wasteland years ago. Now she returns, taking flight again on cybernetic wings to guide a new prototype through the invisible gale of the liquid sky. She used to know Saturn's depths well, but returning ignites old scars, and there is something new and unnatural waiting in the burning air.

When the wind comes for her and her wings fail her, will she remember why she calls herself an angel?

This is one of those sci-fi novels that dares to dream big. I got hooked on the concept of "angels", humans with artificial wings, flying through the depths of Saturn to assist in hydrogen mining. Tyndall evokes colorful language to describe Arne's flights through Saturn's atmosphere. She relies on her suit's sensors and the flutter of eddies as they play across the metallic feathers of her wings. There's a grace to her swift acrobatics and deft maneuvers that is reminiscent of a well-choreographed ballet.

The story also deals with obsession. Tyndall's main characters each have something they're obsessed with and can't let go. Arne is obsessed with her past failures as an angel, while the Drakes, Arne's employers, are obsessed with their mission. Neither seems willing to let go when confronted by the other, and the story becomes a race against time to see if anyone will come to their senses before facing disaster.

So it is with reluctance that I have to dredge up the flaws in this work. First off, there are problems with commas. There aren't enough of them, and there are many more that are misplaced. These—and other typos—would've been easy to repair with a proper proofreader.

A more serious problem lies with the layout of the story. There is the current story where our intrepid heroine guides her employers down to the depths of Saturn, and then there are the flashbacks to her days as a full-time angel. The placement of the flashbacks within the overall story confused me. The book starts with Arne in the middle of her current job, and then flashes back to the day when she met the Drakes. At the start of chapter two, I realized that this was the new current setting. But in chapter three, we get another flashback that goes back even further to her angel days before returning to the current story. As there are similar action sequences in Arne's past and present, it was too easy to get lost. It was only when Arne interacted with other characters that I could place when we are at. I'm not sure that all of them were necessary or in the right sequence.

The other major problem I had was with the characters. The present day story and the flashbacks are told from Arne's POV. While she walked a fine line between reliable and unreliable narrator, I was more concerned by her interaction with other characters. When told by her employers that an angel had died on their previous foray into Saturn's depths, she seemed a bit too unmoved about it. This was supposedly an organization with close ties among its members—a brotherhood. She was more concerned about bad intel from the Drakes than the death of a fellow angel. But as soon as she found out it was someone she knew, she flipped out.

I found too much inconsistency with the Drakes' behavior. They could be remorseful one moment, and then snippy and insensitive in the next. I couldn't figure out if the remorse for dead angels was sincere or not. There is also one point where Mel seems like she's near death, and then in the next chapter she's up and around going about her business. No explanation was given for her miraculous turnaround.

Ok, I've spent way too much time being critical. Despite these flaws, In The Clear is a good read. Besides inspiring us with humans flying through the reaches of Saturn, there are also matters of exploration. Tyndall draws parallels to deep sea diving here on Earth. What lies waiting for Arne and the Drakes in the depths of Saturn? What effect does Saturn's magnetosphere have on the human mind? While the underlying theme of the destructive consequences of obsession is a familiar one, Tyndall demonstrates that there's a way out if you're willing to recognize it for what it is.

In The Clear is available from Amazon and Smashwords.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

A Letter from Hell by William Presley

A Letter from HellIn a desperate attempt to save his soul before he dies, southern aristocrat William Virgil Hollingsmore writes the world a cautionary letter on the last of his twelve days in a personalized Hell. In it, through the haze of his own mental deterioration, he chronicles the horrors and agony that befell him at the hands of Satan, as well as the sad events leading up to this unfortunate climax.

When Hollingsmore was a younger man, he was an alcoholic and did as he pleased when drunk. He's older now and full of regret. Upon returning home, he finds that Satan is chomping at the bit to claim him and drag him on down to Hell for his eternal punishment. This is a man desperately trying to find a way to avoid his fate. There is no excusing his past behavior, so it is difficult to sympathize with him. But does he deserve to burn in Hell? His "letter from Hell" is his attempt to find redemption by warning others.

Hollingsmore serves as protagonist and narrator. As such, we only get to see the other characters when he interacts with them. There is a chapter where Hollingsmore is put through out of body flashbacks in order to learn what suffering he has inflicted upon the people in his life. Satan is obviously the antagonist, but his character only sees development when he shows up to torment Hollingsmore. I wouldn't say that he's two-dimensional, but he doesn't stray from what we expect of him.

A Letter from Hell reminds me of old fashioned horror—more concerned with chills and suspense than gross outs and visceral gore. The writing style Presley uses reads like something out of the Romantic movement of the 19th century, which produced such notable greats as Poe and Coleridge. Presley forgoes the purple prose but retains the suffocating imagery and puts it to use at all the appropriate times. While in the midst of Hollingsmore's recounting of his ordeals, I was often reminded of Vincent Price horror movies from the 60's.

A Letter from Hell is William Presley's first novel. There are times when I felt it could've used another round of proofreading to remove extraneous commas and freshen up the dusty writing style he chose. However, it should be noted that when it was published earlier this year Presley was only a junior in high school. I could not have written something this good back when I was his age. I have no doubt that if Presley sticks to it and continues to work at his craft, we will see great things from him in the years ahead.

I don't have an author's website to point you to, so I'll just state that A Letter from Hell is available from Amazon, Smashwords, Barnes & Noble, and even Google.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

First Stone by Gary Ballard

First StoneForensic psychologist Dr. Jack Carter wakes from a semi-catatonic state in a mental hospital with no memory of the previous year. His wife, Sarah, has disappeared, and as the last human being to see her alive, Jack is the prime suspect in her disappearance. Without a body and with no physical evidence to prove foul play, the lead investigator and Jack's friend, Bill West, must continue to search for the truth even if it means fingering Jack for the crime. When a serial killer in West Virginia's coal country claims to have killed Sarah Carter, Bill and Jack rush to the crime scene. What they find is a deeply disturbed man with no memory of his crimes or of taking credit for Sarah's death. As Jack tries to decipher the mysterious series of runic symbols the killer carved into his slaughter house, he unlocks a deeper cosmic mystery that goes beyond anything he could imagine.

First Stone is the first novella in Gary Ballard's Stepping Stone Cycle, a "modern interpretation of H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos." Naturally, I'm curious about all things Lovecraft, including new tales by authors playing in the Master's non-Euclidean sandbox. Of course, should anyone defile that sandbox, I would feel compelled to warn everyone to stay away. Fortunately, that isn't the case here.

The novella opens with Carter waking from his semi-catatonic state. As a nice touch, Ballard has Carter re-discovering his senses and the world around him. He questions the words we attach to objects, the length of time, and his own body. There are elements of knowledge still functioning within his brain, but we don't know if these are all a priori nuggets or the undisturbed bedrock of memory. Either way, slipping back into one's body isn't as simple as getting back on a bike after years away.

A good chunk of Lovecraft's work involved the protagonist setting off on an investigation to uncover the truth to a bizarre circumstance. In this regard, Ballard follows a similar path. His protagonist is a forensic psychologist, a solid choice for going out to crime scenes and dealing with those whose minds may have been damaged by things that dwell in the dark.

Ballard invests a good deal of time developing his characters, and it pays off. You really get to know Carter and root for him to find the answers to Sarah's disappearance. His friendship with Bill plays easy. And Ballard develops the small town West Virginia characters, too. It would've been easy to let them be two-dimensional stereotypes, but Ballard invests in their backgrounds to make their personal stories real.

While Ballard is playing in Lovecraft's sandbox, he doesn't play with his toys in quite the same way. Ballard sticks with his own writing style. Yes, he teases you with a survivor's testimony, has you listen to some preaching about the unfathomable darkness, and flaunts mysterious objects. The obligatory fhtagn and R'lyeh utterances are thrown in, too, but the story flows like a crime drama rather than cosmic horror. It's an interesting twist on presenting Cthulhu Mythos fiction and might serve as a bridge for psychological thriller fans to get a glimpse of the Old Ones.

Like quest fantasies and space opera epics, this isn't a tale that will be wrapped up right away. Patience is the key here. Ballard explains that he's writing the novellas like episodes in a TV series. Short-term mysteries are solved in each novella and clues to the overarching plot (What happened to Sarah Carter?) will be provided as the mystery deepens, but to get it all you'll have to read all of season one (Episode Two was recently released).

All in all, it's an entertaining and quick read. I'm left wondering just how far Ballard intends to go with this series and if he'll deliver the goods at the end of the season. I got the feeling that he was holding back, not wanting to give too much away so soon. But like many a good writer, he dangles the line out far enough to hook you in.

For more information (including sample chapters, series concept, and where to buy the books), visit the author's website.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Cover Critics

Over the last couple of years, I've written about how important it is for an indie author to have a good cover for their book. I've invited several indie authors here to talk about the process they went through to get their covers, whether doing it themselves or hiring a professional. M. Terry Green pointed me in the direction of affordable, professional designers who offer pre-designed and customizable covers—the growing list can be found by clicking on our "Book Cover Designers" tab.

While we've seen a decrease in the number of bad covers submitted here, there seems to be no shortage of lousy covers out there.

So I'm going to throw another resource at you:

Cover Critics

CoverCritics offers a snark-free environment (the host, Nathan Shumate, prohibits it) where indie authors can receive constructive criticism of their book covers before they go to press. I'm heartily recommending that any indie author who designs their own covers, isn't sure about a cover they purchased, or just wants some feedback submit it there (it's free) before publication. When you visit the site, you'll see from the comments what's good or bad about the designs. And actual graphic designers are among the commenters. Even if you're not at that stage yet, you'll learn a lot from what's discussed there.


Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Justice, Inc. by Dale Bridges

Justice, Inc.Imagine a future where orphan children are adopted by international corporations and forced into indentured servitude, where zombie viruses are spread through heterosexual intercourse, where Osama bin Laden is cloned by the thousands for public execution. Welcome to the world of JUSTICE, INC. No one is safe. Nothing is sacred. And all sales are final.

Justice, Inc. is a collection of short stories written by Dale Bridges and published by Monkey Puzzle Press. It is due to be released on June 20th.

All in all, this is a solid collection of 21st century American satire.

"In the Beginning: An Introduction" sets the tone for the collection with Bridges explaining how he came to write these stories. If it's divine inspiration, there's certainly a bit of playful smirking—and possibly spirits—involved.

There are bits of flash fiction that serve as appetizers for the normal length stories. While "Texting the Apocalypse" doesn't have any direct links to "Life After Men", its sniping characters would fit right into the latter story. Shallow, materialistic mean girls maintain their 21st century valley girl identity until the bitter end and would likely commiserate with the protagonist as she bemoans the loss of her purse more than her zombified ex-boyfriend.

"The Villain", another short piece, imagines how a pair of bros who have acquired super powers figure out who the hero is and which guy gets to be the sidekick. It isn't anything you see on the big screen.

Generational discord is an underlying theme in "The Generation Gap", "The Other Ones", and "The Time Warp Café" and each story explores it differently. "The Generation Gap" is playful. "The Other Ones" is sinister. "The Time Warp Café" adds in the dilemmas of immortality. How do you explain youthful rebellion to a new generation of immortals?

In "The Girlfriend™", socially awkward Derrick buys an artificial companion to combat his loneliness. Assembly required.
At first, it felt bizarre to be handling body parts in this manner, like a remorseful psychopath who had chopped up his lover and was now trying to undo the crime.
Bridges deftly manipulates our feelings towards Derrick. Having a girlfriend, even a robotic one, changes him. But as Derrick's outer personality undergoes a transformation, his inner self betrays him.

"Welcome to Omni-Mart" is another story where a man's relationship with artificial life transforms him. Leonard, one of those aforementioned orphans forced into indentured servitude, inherits Peter, an InstaBaby, which is an artificial life form that grows from infant to adult in a single day. Leonard is meek and obedient after growing up at Omni-Mart, not to mention terrified of the world outside (he actually lives in the store). He lives in fear of his bullying boss, Barry, and he pines for fellow orphan, Cynthia. Peter forces Leonard into confronting elements of his self that he's been too afraid to face.

The collection's namesake piece, "Justice, Inc.", is the kernel of Bridges' work. James Hamilton and his wife, Sarah, are struggling to have a child. She lost her brother in 9/11 and sees having a child as the only way to cure her depression. The longer it takes, the worse it becomes, and it's putting a tremendous strain on their marriage. James works for Justice, Inc., a company that provides a unique way for Americans to deal with the sort of grief that comes from national tragedies induced by evil men. And in Dubya's America, it totally makes sense. James uses his job to formulate a solution to his wife's dilemma.

Justice, Inc. lives up to its billing. Dale Bridges has channeled his acerbic vision of American corporate dystopia into enjoyable satire. Of course, it is advised that readers share a similar perspective in order to appreciate Bridges' wit. Those readers bearing any similarity to the characters skewered in these stories will chafe at his spot on portrayals.