Tuesday, March 26, 2024

Lines of Deception by Steve Anderson

book cover for Lines of DeceptionWest Germany, 1949. Former actor Max Kaspar suffered greatly in the Second World War. Now he owns a nightclub in Munich—and occasionally lends a hand to the newly formed CIA. Meanwhile, his brother Harry has ventured beyond the Iron Curtain to rescue an American scientist. When Harry is also taken captive, Max resolves to locate his brother at all costs. The last thing he expects is for Harry to go rogue.

Max's treacherous quest takes him to Vienna and Prague to Soviet East Germany and Communist Poland. Along the way, dangerous operators from Harry's past join the pursuit: his former lover Katarina, who's working for the Israelis, and former Nazi Hartmut Dietz, now an agent of East German intelligence. But can anyone be trusted? Even the American scientist Stanley Samaras may not be the hero Harry had believed him to be...

In the fourth novel of the Kaspar Brothers series, Steve Anderson cranks up the dramatic tension. The story is set in a postwar Europe transitioning to the Cold War. The Soviets have begun to flex their muscles in Europe, and the Americans are trying to hold them off while the U.K. and France are busy mending their wounds. Weary of war, all sides have resorted to brinkmanship to see who takes the leadership role for the second half of the twentieth century.

Into this setting, we reunite with Max, who we first met in The Losing Role, where he was an operative in Operation Greif during the Battle of the Bulge. Max spent most of that novel running scared, fearing for his life. He wasn't a hardened soldier or zealous SS officer. He was just a down an out German actor conscripted into service.

But since the war, he's spent the time trying to forget it, except when he's called upon to do the right thing (as in Lost Kin) because the factions may have changed, but there are still evil men in the world bullying the weak and downtrodden. And it makes him angry. When he's visited by an odd, little man while working at his nightclub that anger resurfaces. The man claims that Max's brother Harry is being held for ransom, which Max must deliver. Max is furiously protective of his brother and can barely restrain himself from taking it out on the messenger. Later, when Max encounters the man responsible for the death of a dear friend, he so desperately wants the man to suffer, but as the man is necessary to complete the mission, he has to tamp down that anger.

As suggested in the book blurb, no one is completely forthright with Max. Whether that's to protect him or deceive him is dependent on the person in question. It leads to a constant string of surprises for Max (and the reader), forcing him to react quickly or change plans in order to find his brother and get home safely. He reacts differently to these deceptions. They become a way for him to work through his anger, on some level accepting what he cannot change, which leaves him exhausted.

Lines of Deception is another solid entry in the Kaspar Brothers series. The setting is thoroughly researched with Anderson dragging in historical events to craft a credible and entertaining story. Strong characterization leads the reader into believing what the characters are telling Max, but when their deceptions are revealed, it doesn't strike one as being out of character. One realizes that Anderson left clues all along the way. Ultimately, it enables Anderson to turn a spy thriller into catharsis for his protagonist.

4 stars


Tuesday, April 4, 2023

Zervakan by Rob Steiner

Zervakan book coverReason and science gave the Recindian Compact wonders like steam engines, telegraphs, and gunpowder. The world had order. It made sense.

Until one night two multi-colored bands of light split the sky, spanning the horizons like rings around the planet. Soon after, unnatural storms assaulted the Compact's cities. Whispers spread of ghoulish creatures haunting Compact forests. And then a message from a legendary race called the Mystics - "ally with us to fight the growing evil, or we all perish."

The Compact's desperate leaders turn to disgraced history professor Taran Abraeu. Taran spent years searching in vain for the ancient healing magic of the Mystics to save his dying daughter. His family and colleagues once mocked him. Now his research might save them.

When the Compact asks Taran to accompany a secret delegation to the Mystic homeland, he is swept up in an adventure that forces him to fight a horrifying enemy that only he among all his people can comprehend.

I discovered today that I reviewed this on GoodReads in 2013, but didn't cross post it here. I've decided to make up for that oversight.

Full Disclosure: I was the editor for this book. You can discount what I have to say here in this review but hear me out. I think what I have to say might still sway you.

You can read the description for what the book is about. I'm here to tell you that Steiner did a fantastic job. The world in Zervakan is a clever juxtaposition of one civilization which relies on primitive technology but is well-versed in magic (the Mystics of Beldamark) while the one in which our protagonist hails from is comparatively advanced: muskets, steam engines, and the telegraph. It would've been easy for Steiner to take a side, i.e. "technology is evil" or "faith is for fools." Instead, he shows that there are good points about both systems, and neither has a monopoly of short-sighted dogmatists. His point is that both sides must learn to work together to overcome an evil that is stronger than either one can handle on its own.

Steiner excels at characterization. They're real. Young characters are passionate but lack the wisdom that comes with experience. Older characters are stuck in their ways. Tarn makes for an excellent protagonist: His daughter is his Achilles' heel, and he struggles to make the right decisions. Fatimah wrestles with trusting Tarn, the outsider who has embraced mysticism despite his Compact upbringing, and obeying the wisdom of her elders. Speaker of the Compact, Dylan Edoss (my favorite character), is forced into having an open mind with regards to the Mystics because he realizes cooperation is the only way to protect his people, but that very open-mindedness leaves him vulnerable to his political enemies. Even Steiner's minor characters and villains defy the cookie cutter mold. I even want to root for Karak, a villain with a conscience.

Even before I was Steiner's editor, I was a fan of his storytelling (See The Last Key and Aspect of Pale Night). He's able to construct a highly believable world that is easy to get caught up in. There's just enough detail: enough to believe you're there in the world he's constructed but not too much that you drown in minutiae. And he's able to conjure up horrors in this land that would fit right in with Lovecraft. My favorite scene is when Steiner plays homage to the Master while Taran and Dylan ride a train to meet with the Mystics. If I say anything more, it will count as a spoiler, so I won't.

So I hope that, despite my obvious prejudice, you'll check out Zervakan, a fantasy vs. steampunk mashup, lightly seasoned with Lovecraftian horrors. At the very least, check out the sample chapters to see Steiner in action. You won't be disappointed.


Sunday, January 8, 2023

AI-Generated Images for Indie Book Covers

stressed out author
James, the lead book cover designer over at GoOnWrite.com, has posted an article to his blog wherein he discusses the recent explosion of AI-generated images and helps to clear up some misconceptions. It's a long read, but very informative and a tad bit entertaining.

UPDATE - 2/28/23: Over at the Independent Publishing Magazine, there's a related article about how AI art affects indie writers.

The use of AI-generated art remains a contentious issue. And now, with the launch of ChatGPT, AI-generated stories have flooded the marketplace. Interesting times.


Saturday, October 1, 2022

Pharoni by Colin Dodds

book cover for PharoniWhen the body of Harry Injurides - playwright, provocateur and bodybuilder - washes up on a beach, his friends are shocked, but not altogether surprised. But when they meet to mourn Harry, he shows up and says he's been resurrected.

Pharoni is the story of those friends. Tommy Pharoni tries to overcome his shock by writing about his friend's resurrection, and accidentally starts a religion. Roy Sudden starts a tech empire based on digital empathy and digital pain, drawing in billionaire investors, femme-fatale programmers, and tsunamis of capital. And, Roy's on-again, off-again girlfriend Maud works in secret to bring radical justice to the most neglected and abused corners of society.

As Tommy's religion grows, Roy and his backers try to take control of it. The battle, about more than doctrine, engulfs Tommy's marriage and threatens his life, leading to a conflict with strangely humane results that no one could predict.

Told in the first person, Pharoni has the feel of a memoir or a really long confession. Tommy Pharoni is a struggling screenplay writer who pays his bills and alimony by working a soulless marketing job. His closest friends were aspiring artists of different sorts in college. Now in their mid-thirties, they've set aside those aspirations to "adult" properly. All except for Harry, whose death opens the story. Harry struggled to fit into contemporary society, instead preferring to help the homeless while penning "words of wisdom" in his many notebooks. After his death and subsequent re-birth, those notebooks wound up in Tommy's possession. Ultimately, Tommy would collect them into a coherent manuscript and seek out a way to get them published.

As Tommy is a screenwriter, the format of the story periodically shifts into screenplay mode. This works particularly well for conversations as it affords opportunity to get to know the other characters through their dialogue rather than relying on Tommy's narrative. I wouldn't say Tommy is an unreliable narrator, but he does limit what we can learn about what's going on elsewhere with other characters. References to things that have been written elsewhere and NDAs force the reader to fill in the gaps.

After Harry's resurrection, the lives of Tommy and his friends change as described in the blurb, but there's so much more. The group of friends find themselves splattered by the seven deadly sins, fitting for a story where a religion is founded upon the philosophical musings of a character that has died and miraculously resurrected days later. At least Christianity didn't get partnered with a health and wellness brand. The corrupting influence of millions and billions of dollars seeps its way into their lives and rots them from within. What is friendship worth? Can you put a dollar amount on it?

If there's one overarching theme that I can take away from this tale, it's that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Keeping this spoiler free, I'll say that Tommy started out as a character that I could connect with to someone I didn't want anything to do with. But I stuck with him because act two opens with:
This is where I get unrelatable, maybe even unlikable. As the writer of failed screenplays, I know what a mortal sin unlikability can be.
That gave me hope for him in act three. But Tommy is far from the only person to be corrupted by power. It's everyone up to the very end of the story. And the only characters whose souls are left intact are those who never possess it.

Colin Dodds has crafted an excellent morality play with vivid characters. Pharoni offers modern day parallels to the founding of Christianity, right down to the Christmas star, but in an age of unbridled capitalism. If you're old enough, with all of the life experience that implies, it forces you to take a look at this fellowship of friends and how they sacrificed art and friendship for wealth and power and check to make sure that this isn't a mirror of your own life.

4 stars


Sunday, June 12, 2022

The Theatre of Shadows by Christian Ellingsen

book cover for The Theatre of ShadowsSix months have passed since the events of The Silver Mask. Over the winter months, Vasini was plagued by Gareth Miller, the Winter Fayre Killer, who murdered 17 people before he was captured by Lieutenant David Locke. The city now waits for Miller to be hanged. But when Miller escapes gaol, ready to terrorise Vasini's streets once more, Locke must hunt the murderer again to stop him from claiming more lives.

As Miller flees into Vasini's streets, Joseph Bastin, ambassador to Vasini for the city-state of Laège, is assassinated in a brothel. With the threat of political repercussions for the death, it is up to Dr. Marcus Fox, newly appointed Commandant of Police, to find the ambassador's killer.

Fox's investigation soon leads to a suspect, someone who has been investigating links between the Laège embassy and the worship of the dead deities - his ally, Dr. Elizabeth Reid.

Now, Elizabeth and her friend, Catherine, must act quickly to clear her name before she is found by someone who doesn't believe her claims of innocence and she's forced to dance the hangman's jig.

This is the sequel to The Silver Mask, a terrific "flintlock and alchemy" novel. Unfortunately, The Theatre of Shadows wasn't as enjoyable for me due to the plot style and pacing. The story read more like a police procedural set in the 1700s, which isn't the sort of thing—regardless of time period—that I read. Investigating the ambassador's murder provided enough intrigue, but the serial killer plotline kept getting in the way, hogging the spotlight. Maybe the serial killer was fully developed in The Winter Fayre, a novella contained in The Divided River that preceded this novel, but here he's rather one-dimensional. He's always two steps ahead of the Inspectorate and the watchmen (police), rendering them seemingly incompetent as he murders people with impunity. It went on for far too long for me. It took roughly three-fifths of the novel before any sort of clue was given as to why the serial killer plotline even existed, and it wasn't resolved until much later.

The main characters from The Silver Mask—Fox, Locke, Elizabeth, and Catherine—are here. While fully developed before, they weren't neglected here. Fox and Locke are in pursuit of the ambassador's assassin and the serial killer. Elizabeth and Catherine spend their time searching for clues to clear Elizabeth's name of killing the ambassador. Ellingsen gives us each main character's POV—as well as those of a few key minor characters—as they investigate, thus enriching the depth of each one.

Ellingsen doesn't spend as much time world-building here as he did in The Silver Mask, but what he provides is top-notch. The city of Vasini feels authentic with Ellingsen's descriptions of the sights and scents of everyday life.

Ultimately, the protagonists' relentless pursuit of clues paid off. Ellingsen corraled the plot into a climax that resolved the current crises of random murder and calculated assassination. It was an effective ending, and so I feel better about the book as a whole. But for me, it was probably a hundred pages too long. However, I remain optimistic that the next installment in this series will have more intrigue and less procedure.

3 stars
Just to be clear: This book was not submitted to us. I went out and bought it on my own.


Tuesday, May 17, 2022

The Pros and Cons of the Publishing Industry

a fork in the roadOver at the Independent Publishing Magazine, guest blogger Andrew Deen outlines the pros and cons of traditional and self-publishing. Thorough yet succinct, it's a must read for every writer about to embark on the road to publishing their work.


Thursday, March 3, 2022

Characters Are Like Onions

onionsMike Reeves-McMillan, an author and editor, has posted an analysis of the different types of characters one finds in a story. Beginner and intermediate writers should check out his essay, "Characters Are Like Onions," to learn more.


Tuesday, December 21, 2021

A Review of Pubby

Pubby is a paid book review service that offers indie authors a chance to get book reviews on Amazon. No sock puppets or fill-in-the-blank five-star reviews. Authors pay a monthly fee for access to their network where authors review the books of their fellow authors. Books can be purchased to satisfy Amazon's verified purchase rules (Kindle Unlimited counts) or given away for free.

No one here has used Pubby's service, so we can't offer a proper review, but prolific indie author, Scott Rhine, has. He offers a balanced review of their service, listing pros and cons, and breaks down the financials. If you're interested in trying Pubby, read Scott's review first.


Sunday, November 7, 2021

Tethered Worlds: Bankrupt Star by Gregory Faccone

book cover for Star in BankruptcyJordahk isn't sure who or what he is anymore, and just trying to be “normal” is becoming increasingly challenging. As adulthood looms he'll face his greatest challenges yet both personally and in space.

For Janus hasn't been idle. His schemes within schemes will launch the First Cruiser into the most audacious stratagem since the Sojourners' Crusade. Perhaps only the mystic technology from that era has a chance to stop the Prime Orator's designs.

But neither Jordahk nor his grandfather can currently operate on that level. When the most eclectic space battle in centuries begins, only desperation will bring one side to victory.

This is book three in the Tethered Worlds series. With over a thousand pages published so far, this isn't a series you can pick up in the middle. You really have to start from the beginning. Here are links to spoiler-free reviews for books one and two.

If you've made it this far into the series, you're familiar with the universe that Faccone has built and the factions contending with one another for power in this space opera. You need to be, of course, as Faccone doesn't offer a refresher in what's already been published besides the occasional character reminiscing about past incidents.

Right off the bat we're back with Jordahk's family in the midst of a training exercise. But before you get disgruntled with a "not another one", Faccone throws a cyborg assassin at them. The encounter gives the reader some idea as to how far Jordahk has come in developing his fledgling sojourner skills.

After this confrontation has played out, we learn that trade negotiations are planned at Aventicia, one of the worlds in the Banking Confederation. Janus has plans in place to affect the outcome favorably for the Perigeum and himself, but the Trade Union sends a fleet of their own to provide security. And then a pirate fleet shows up to toss a match on the powderkeg.
"Sadly, war is but politics stripped of every civilized façade
While this is the longest book in the series, 569 pages, I found that it had less filler than in the two previous books. However, the inevitable confrontation that ensues when plans are set in motion takes up about half the book. While one major story arc comes to an end, it's clear that the author has more stories planned for this series.

Characterization, plotting, and world-building all remain strong. Faccone proved that in the first two books. The personalities of the various characters are well-developed and distinct. The setting is rich with detail. Unfortunately, typos remain an issue: My notes highlight misused or missing apostrophes and spelling errors.

Bankrupt Star is a fine addition to the Tethered Worlds series. While there isn't as much exploration or side quest action as the two previous works, the plot is more focused and the stakes are just as high. It's still big and bold space opera with a protagonist you can root for as he grows to fill some very big, heroic shoes.

Series website

4 stars