Category Archives: Reviews

An Imperial Family in Space

Lady Felicia Sorensen, a brilliant microengineering student, finds herself pressured to date Emperor Victor Sinclair, for he has fallen madly in love with her! Despite being showered with extravagant gowns and attention, she longs for a fascinating life as a scientist, instead of the stressful and dangerous destiny of an Empress The social pressures of being the Emperor’s Betrothed, from gossip and manipulation to an assassination attempt, cause her to weigh her love for him against her personal goal, to do research in her own lab someday. Will Felicia choose her Imperial lover and tough out the extreme political and social pressures with the supreme ruler of the Empire, or will she choose her goals and help thousands, millions, possibly billions of people through her intellectual achievements?

Dignity is the first of Eva Caye’s thirteen-book series “To Be Sinclair”, a romance in a science fiction setting. Everything that happens in the plot revolves around the relationship between thirty-one year old Emperor Victor Sinclair and his paramour, Felicia Sorensen. When we meet Victor, he is despairing of ever finding the woman to help him secure his dynasty.

Felicia is something of a maverick. Although of high-born status, unlike her female peers, she has no interest in pursuing a suitable mate and becoming, effectively, the manager of a household. She wants to be a scientist, and do something to improve the lot of humanity.

Introduced to Felicia, Victor finds the young woman refreshingly different. Felicia, for her part, is well aware that a relationship with the Emperor may well mean the end of her ambition to be a scientist. The story evolves as Felicia learns more about Victor, while at the same time growing to a greater understanding of how she might fit into his life as Empress, without giving up her own goals.

The juxtapostion between the essentially solitary role of a scientist and the glaringly public life of the Emperor’s fiancee is taxing. Felicia constantly struggles with her ambitions and her feelings for Victor. Increasingly, her position in Victor’s life attracts envy, duplicity and hate, emotions Felicia must learn to deal with.

The characterisation is excellent. I liked Victor and Felicia, and wanted their relationship to work, despite the trials. It was nice to see that neither was perfect, tripping and falling and making mistakes. The subsidiary cast – quite a few – were sufficiently fleshed out, with plenty of jealousy, back-biting, and plotting, as well as support from friends and family. Both main characters develop and grow, and the ending is as satisfying as one expects from a romance.

I found the world building to be an interesting mixture of high tech, low tech and no tech, ranging from space travel via wormholes, to computer systems which seem to be no better than we have at present, through to hand-written letters on exquisite paper. But then, the feel of the society smacks of Georgian Britain, with high-born ladies vying for eligible men of rank. Indeed, the author’s writing style is more reminiscent of an earlier time. There’s a formality about it. For instance, Lady Brighton, who runs the hostel for young ladies where we first meet Felicia, is frequently referred to as ‘the good lady’, and the author tends to use the word ‘for’ instead of ‘because’ or ‘since’, a rather old fashioned construction. Although we’re in (mainly) Felicia’s head, often the narrator steps in to explain something, or to summarise a discussion, telling instead of showing. That said, there’s plenty of exquisite detail to bring the scene to life. I particularly liked the descriptions of Felicia’s gowns, which she wears to various court functions. She has no interest in fashion, so Victor commissions the dresses for her, sometimes to make a point to an audience, sometimes to make a point to her. The security arrangements surrounding an Emperor and his court are detailed and totally convincing. Privacy is hard to come by in that world.

There are a number of low-key sex scenes in the book, nothing much more than suggestion. However, the author has included a short story at the end, something she calls an Easter egg. It’s fun – but it’s hot. You have been warned.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book. It’s leisurely reading, not a full-on, action-packed space opera. But it’s a book I kept going back to, and something with sufficient depth to make me think I might well read it again. If you like series, then after you’ve finished this one, there are eight other books as Victor and Felicia’s family grows and matures.

You can find Dignity at:  Amazon   Smashwords

Horses and space ships – woohoo

Copenhage, Denmark – November 05, 2017: Group of horse riders at the annual Hubrertus fox hunt event

When we talk about Science Fiction – at least when I do – I immediately think of space ships. Having established (for me) that given, SF seems to be a comfortable home for just about anything else. Romance, shape-shifters like werewolves, vampires, weird creepy things. As long as whatever it is can be explained scientifically (even if the science is beyond our current comprehension) it’s okay in SF. Vampires and shape-shifters could be aliens, weird creepy things could be alien weird creepy things – as long as it’s not magic or fantasy.

I guess one of the last things I expected to find in a space ships book was a strong story arc about a woman riding in fox hunts, much as depicted in the phtot at the head of this post. But I have, and I thoroughly enjoyed Elizabeth Moon’s Hunting Party.

For Heris Serrano, nothing gave her life as much meaning as serving the ruling Familias Regnant in the Regular Space Service. But after defying a vindictive superior officer in order to save the lives of her men—she’s cast off from the crew and finds herself struggling to retain her sense of purpose.

Now, she finds herself in the civilian world and at the helm of the ‘Sweet Delight’—an opulent interstellar space yacht owned by the wealthy, powerful and irascible matriarch Lady Cecilia de Marktos. After a disciplined life in the Service, Heris doesn’t anticipate having many problems captaining a flying pleasure palace.

But she didn’t count on her crew comprising some of the most incompetent degenerates she’s ever had the displeasure of commanding. Or that her predecessor had been using the ‘Sweet Delight’ for criminal enterprises…or that their final destination will bring Heris face-to-face with the man who ended her career.

This isn’t an action-packed story with danger at every turn – although the danger does happen further down the track. There’s no space battle. It’s very much character driven, with lots of extra interest as we wonder why Heris resigned from the Regular Space Service. She’s a member of a powerful military family, often referred to as the Serrano Admiralty and whatever she did has finished her career. She certainly hadn’t seen herself ending up captaining a rich old lady’s yacht.

Cecelia Marktos, having sacked her previous captain for making her late, isn’t one to accept Heris’s rules and regs approach to captaincy lying down. It’s fascinating to watch Heris and Cecelia move from mutual disdain through to respect and even friendship. Having lost a wager, Heris agrees to learn how to ride a horse using Lady Cecelia’s simulator and later ride in a hunt with her. In return, Cecelia learns about her ship, how it works, and how her previous captain and crew had taken advantage of her hands-off approach.

There’s lots of technical detail as Heris checks out the ship’s hydroponics and environmental systems, which have been allowed to deteriorate to a dangerous condition. Her investigations lead to animosity with some of the crew. Her insistence on holding emergency drills which involve Lady Cecelia and her four spoiled rich kid passengers creates animosity with the twenty-something lads and lasses – though not with Cecelia, who has been lumbered with them against her will. Ronnie, in particular, decides to pit himself against Cecelia’s ‘little captain’. There’s also lots of technical detail as Heris learns to ride, first on Cecelia’s very realistic simulator, then on real horses at Lord Thornbuckle’s property. The hunt is very much copied from traditional hunts held at aristocratic properties on Old Earth, which gives a hint at the politics of the Familias Regnant world,s dominated by well-bred, wealthy families.

Not being keen on hunting, Ronnie, George, Bubbles and Raffa sneak off in one of Lord Thornbuckle’s flitters for a jaunt to the islands where they used to camp as children. Things don’t go as planned and the four young people are forced to grow up – fast.

What makes this a compelling read is the characters and the unanswered questions. Why did Heris resign? The explanation comes out in dribs and drabs, in realistic discussions as the two senior women get to know each other. We learn more about Cecelia, too, an unmarried aristocrat who decided to make her own way against her family’s wishes. She’s the crazy, eccentric aunt who used to be a champion horsewoman and is now facing old age.

The four spoiled rich kids go on a journey, too. At first it’s easy to despise them. What is there to say about a young man whose favourite expression appears to be, “it’s not fair”? How can anyone take a girl with the name ‘Bubbles’ seriously? How can they survive when there’s no one to help them?

The story comes to a satisfying conclusion and the promise of a second book about Heris and Cecelia. Following the vaguely horsey tone, it’s called Sporting Chance’.

I’m off for a re-read.

 

Reader expectations – a mixed blessing

Last week I talked about covers and their importance in selling a book. I shied away from discussing the elements used in a cover except to mention that romance covers using images displaying a heap of ripped abs and powerful pecs are likely to be at least steamy. That’s a reader expectation which will attract some potential buyers and repel others. If you have animals on the cover with humans, and your book is listed under ‘paranormal’, people will expect a shifter novel. My own White Tiger is an example.  And if you’ve written in a certain category before you’ll earn a label as that sort of author. I’ve made that mistake myself, picking up an Elizabeth Moon novel expecting military space opera and finding (to my disappointment) that it was nothing of the kind.

One of my favourite authors is Nya Rawlyns who writes in a variety of genres which often overlap. Several of her more recent books seem to be classified as gay romance even if they’re not listed in the romance category. Which is sad, because often it isn’t true. Take The Eagle and the Fox. At first glance you might think it’s about an eagle and a fox and in a way it is. Let’s read the blurb.

TEaTFJosiah Foxglove is given a second chance when he takes over his family’s spread in the shadow of the Snowy Range. A veteran of the Gulf War, he came back broken in body and spirit.

Marcus Colton buried his long-time lover and best friend three years ago. Lonely and still grieving, Marcus finds solace in protecting Petilune, a girl with learning difficulties, who will surely become a victim of abuse and neglect without his help. But that doesn’t help him get through the long, dark nights.

When violence wracks the small community of Centurion, WY, it’s easy to place blame on Petilune’s mysterious new boyfriend, Ojibwe teen Kit Golden Eagle. It looks open and shut, but for Josiah and Marcus the facts simply don’t add up.

Something’s rotten in Centurion, something that smacks of a hate crime…

Unfortunately, this excellent book is diminished by reader expectations. Some look at the cover and expect a paranormal with shape shifters. (The eagle and the fox, you see.) Others will read the blurb and realise Kit Golden Eagle and Josiah Foxglove might be the eagle and the fox. That, and the fact no mention is made of shape-shifting and the book isn’t listed as paranormal. Heck, it’s not even listed as a romance, yet it has been judged as one.

Expectations, you see.

If it’s listed in gay literature, it has to be a romance, it has to be steamy. Except it’s not. Sure, there’s a romance arc – with sex, even. Life tends to be like that – love will find a way. But it’s a loooong way short of the whole story.

What this book is is a slice of life in a small American town, where the drought hits hard and despair hits harder. Foxglove is a war vet with PTSD. Marcus is an in-the-closet gay man who has lost his partner. Petilune is a vulnerable young girl with a learning disability and Kit Golden Eagle is an embittered Native American kid making his way in the world as best he can. And, as the blurb says, something’s rotten in Centurion which will enmesh the whole community.

The relationship between Marcus and Josiah develops slowly, helped by the mystery surrounding Petilune and Kit which brings them together in other ways. But it’s not a romance. By definition, a story can only be called a romance if the romance is the centre of the story. In this case, it’s not. Like it says in the sub-title, it’s ‘A Snowy Range Mystery’, with murder, kidnapping and violence.

I love the way Rawlyns brings the tiny town of Centurion, overshadowed by Wyoming’s Snowy Range, to life. You don’t have to be American to relate. Transfer the story to a dusty wheat belt town in Western Australia and it’ll still make sense. Because it’s about the characters, you see. It isn’t a boiler plate, paint by numbers romance, it’s a slice of life with all the complexity that involves. Nothing like the nasty, fantasy world of Christian Grey or the one-hundred-year-old vampire who’s re-enroled in high school.

This book is very difficult to slot into a box. I’ve spent some time considering where I’d put it on a bookshelf. Let’s see now… a slice of life starring a range of disadvantaged, damaged people. A small town mystery, hope and despair, starting again, love and loss… <Sigh> I guess it’s just going to have to go into Literature.

Oh – and for those to whom these things matter, it’s beautifully written. Go on, give it a try. There’s a link on the cover.

The trouble with labels

Pile of Books

You’ve heard the old cliché ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’? We all have. And sometimes we judge books based on preconceived notions of what we’ll find when we open the covers.

I suppose everybody agrees that books need to be categorised so that people can find fiction that’s of interest to them. I like SF and crime, so they are the labels I look for in the bookstore, and on line. But many books fit more than one category. For instance, Isaac Asimov’s Elijah Bailey series is always found in science fiction. But Elijah Bailey is a working detective solving crimes. The setting is SF, and because of that solving the crime is a little bit different. But I think most crime readers would enjoy the three Elijah Bailey books – if they could get past the SF preconceptions.

That’s the issue with the book I’m going to talk about – Roman.

The main character is a teenage girl, so the immediate assumption is that the book is aimed at YA (Young Adult, ie older teens). It’s not. Older teens would probably enjoy it, but it’s an adult book with supernatural elements. There is no conceivable reason why adults would not enjoy this book. I certainly did, and I was in my late teens half a century ago. (Wow) Indeed, I can cite a few examples where YA supernatural crosses over to adult readers. Have you read Harry Potter? Yep, so have I, several times. And the first couple of stories were children’s books. What about the Twilight series? Not my cup of tea but lots of women loved it. Then there’s Anne McCaffrey’s Pern stories, Dragondrums,  Dragonsong, Dragon Singer. All YA with dragons. Or the incomparable Terry Pratchett, with his Tiffany Aching series, the Bromeliad trilogy, Johnny and the Dead, Johnny and the Bomb etc. I’ve read them all. (Except Twilight. I have standards.)

So please consider this book, if not for yourself, for somebody who has an interest. There are no vampires or dragons.

Here’s the blurb

With the death of her cold-hearted mother, TJ faces life in a decaying town with a father she barely knows. From a future bright with promise to one stripped of everything she’s worked so hard to achieve, TJ needs more than luck in her corner.

Roman is trouble, pure and simple—at least that’s what everyone keeps telling her. He’s a juvenile delinquent with sealed records and a suspicious link to the town’s tragic past, but despite all warnings, TJ can’t ignore his dark pull.

In a coal mining town where lives were once shattered beyond repair, a new evil surfaces, forging strange alliances as both believers and skeptics alike face the inexplicable to save their livelihood, their families and even their faith.

Some secrets are worth keeping, some secrets must find the light of day, but in the end…
some secrets you take to the grave, no matter what the cost.

Here’s my review.

This book starts off with a fairly routine YA premise – a sixteen year old girl (TJ) finding herself dumped on her estranged father when the mother she despises dies. Coming from a wealthy, upmarket life style and a private school, she’s faced with a new life in an impoverished, dying mining town where Latinos do what they can to survive. The longed-for college sporting scholarship is no longer an option in a school which doesn’t (can’t) support women’s sport. TJ’s brother, Tony, the only person who cares about her, the closest to a father she has ever known, is a serving soldier due to return to active service, leaving her to cope on her own. Before he goes, he makes her promise to keep away from Roman, a young man working for her father.

It’s obvious TJ isn’t going to keep away from Roman. But many things about this novel are not obvious. TJ’s father, Ben, has his own demons tormenting him with deep levels of guilt at not taking in his daughter when he and his wife divorced. TJ’s deceased mother is an invisible participant, sitting on the sidelines, mocking TJ and Ben. Ben’s cousin, Marcus, is a Roman Catholic priest who delves into ancient scrolls. Tony’s girlfriend, Marsha, is a scarred veteran of the Iraq war.

And then there’s Roman. He’s described as a seventeen-year-old juvenile delinquent who is sent to live with Ben as a form of rehabilitation. From the outset it’s obvious he is dark and dangerous. But how dangerous? And who to? He arrived in Montville not long after a series of mysterious events that are still spoken about in whispers, accused of bashing a man near to death.

In a way this is the usual YA coming of age story, but it is so much more. There’s a thread of dark fantasy – or call it myth – which begins as a hint, then coalesces in the latter part of the book and brings it to a thumping, heart-stopping climax. It’s a book about love, acceptance, sacrifice and redemption on many different levels.

The characters are all well-developed, real people with pasts and futures and reasons. Only the mother’s motives are not crystal clear. But then, that’s life, isn’t it, and she is dead.

The writing is sensual and evocative. You spend a lot of time absorbing atmosphere, feeling events. This is no skim read. You have to pay attention or you’ll miss things. Perhaps that is my only criticism. I occasionally lost my place as it were, since the narrative might skip from the present to a past conversation or reminiscence in the character’s head. The description is rich and real. I particularly liked the detail. You can see the town, the garage, the metal stairs up to Roman’s apartment. The author talks about motorcycles, a dying Pennsylvania town, living on a mountain road in the woods and coal mining, just to name a few, with authority which lends authenticity.

I really enjoyed this book. My YA days are far behind me and it would be sad to imagine that this is just a story for ‘teens’. It’s not. I give it *****.

The book’s available at Amazon Kobo iBooks B&N (coming soon) – and in print.

As Molly would say, “Do yourself a favour…”

Day 9: Bamberg

IMG_1756Bamberg has so many historically significant buildings it has been designated as a UNESCO world heritage site. Unlike towns like Frankfurt and Nuremberg, it wasn’t bombed flat in the war. So there was some honour between the combatants. Unlike the recent destruction of Petra, but that’s another story. Anyway, you can read all about Bamberg here.

IMG_1743As usual, there’s an abbey on one hill, and the cathedral plus the stronghold of the cardinal princes who ruled the area on another hill. And lots and lots of cobblestoned roads lined with beautiful old buildings in a variety of architectural styles. We did a short tour of the cathedral, parts of which date back to the eleventh century. It’s one of the few churches that actually has two altars – one for the emperor and one for the church. And one pope is buried here – Clement II. He had been the local bishop before he was promoted, and asked to be interred here. Back in the day (1046) being pope was a sought-after job and since it’s given for life, the only way you got to be pope is if the incumbent died. Clement died of lead poisoning in 1047. Who knows if the death was deliberate? Suffice to say he was succeeded by Benedict IX, who had already been pope twice before at the time – the first time when he was just 20 years old. They were exciting times 🙂 (I knew there was a reason I read Medieval history)

There are lovely views to be had from the cathedral precinct where the rulers lived. You can bet there was a fortification up here well before the cathedral was built.

I have to admit that the various picturesque German villages tend to blur together in my memory. But each had its own unique quality. In this case it was the river Regnitz, which is a tributary of the Main. It was fascinating to see how the buildings have been built over the fast flowing river, incorporating rapids and arches. They obviously do kayak racing through the rapids. You can see the gates hanging over the water.

One thing all of these places have in common, though, is that just because the road is built of cobbles that doesn’t mean it’s for pedestrians only.Bamberg was particularly bad for this. The road (the bit for the cars) was delineated by some white lines. No kerbs. No gutters. And over there in Europe they drive on the wrong side of the road. Us Aussies had to remember to look LEFT for approaching cars. And if you’re wandering around in a large group, meandering out into the traffic because it’s crowded just behind the lollipop might not be a good idea. However, the locals know about the visitors. I have no doubt they talk about the browns cows while sharing a pint (I certainly would be), but the tourists are what keeps these places going, so tolerance has monetary value.

We had a very pleasant morning, nobody was killed or injured from playing in the traffic and we returned to the ship tired but happy.

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The view from the palace

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Looking down on the town

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The courtyard at the residence

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Note the murals on the walls

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Rapids in the heart of town

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The joys of a heritage listed home

 

 

 

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Fresh produce at the market

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More of the markets

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Follow the leader along the cobblestoned street

Introducing Nya Rawlyns’s latest, “Timber Lake”

Timber LakeProlific genre-bending author Nya Rawlyns has a new release out in the ebook stores.

Timber Lake

Michael Brooks is a loner, and with good reason. A short fuse and a tendency to shoot from the hip, sometimes quite literally, mean he’s all the company he’s got most of the time, and he likes it that way just fine. It suits his job as Warden for Wyoming’s Fish and Game Department.

Being alone sounds good to the researcher for the USDA Forest Service, Dr. Seamus Rydell, especially since it means time away from the pressures to follow his family’s political traditions. He’ll need a guide to Timber Lake to set up his testing equipment, and who better than a Warden whose boss needs him out of sight for a while?

They’re just doing their jobs, until both men get derailed by a lust threatening to light up the night sky and by egos big enough to fill the wilderness.

When a psychopathic poacher intrudes, Michael’s past rises up and the present twists out of shape around a sick mind. As the future for both men fills with darkness, it is all too clear no one will come back from Timber Lake unscathed.

Timber Lake is a standalone suspense/thriller taking place against the magnificent backdrop of the Snowy Range in southern Wyoming. 

This second book in Rawlyns’s Snowy Range series introduces a few new characters and an absolutely murderous villain. At its heart, Timber Lake is a romance as two men with very different pasts engage in games of one upmanship, interspersed with scenes of affection they don’t seem to be able to avoid. Over time, respect and understanding builds between Michael and Seamus as they battle with the elements in the unpredictable mountains. I liked both men, both strong in their own way, both confronting themselves as well as each other. The sex scenes are sensual, rather than blow-by-blow – which suited me perfectly.

I loved the scenes in the mountains with the tortuous trails, the trees, the water, the weather. And the animals. I especially liked Seamus’s mule. When the psychopathic poacher appears the story builds into a climax which had my flesh crawling. A suspense/thriller it is indeed.

As usual, the writing is expressive, filled with details about horses, mules, and mountains as well as men. The secondary characters, the two ladies in particular, are sharply drawn, three dimensional people with their own story. All in all it’s a satisfying story that I thoroughly enjoyed.

Tch. I don’t think Rawlyns is able to write just a SIMPLE romance. She keeps have to mix it all up with nail-biting plots.

Buy the book at Amazon: ARe/OmniLit : B&N: Kobo: Apple:

The Hobbit – how to turn a kid’s book into a block buster movie

I watched The Hobbit the other day. It’s old history, I know, but that’s how it is at my place. Anyway, having watched the movie (part 1) I re-read the book for the first time in many years. It was an interesting exercise in seeing how a children’s book was adapted to be a fitting precursor to The Lord of the Rings.

Make no mistake, The Hobbit was written for children. In fact, I can imagine Prof Tolkien reading the book to a bunch of kids. The style is narration, the narrator writes himself into the words on the page. The songs are simple verse with lots of onomatopoeic words. See the kids marching around the room, banging and thumping? The dwarves are not portrayed as particularly brave or fierce. We are given an image of little people with different coloured hoods and belts appearing at Bilbo’s door. It puts one to mind of Noddy, more than Gimli. Later in the book, Bilbo becomes something of a leader and Tolkien has some rather patronising and hardly flattering things to say about the dwarves. The elves, too, don’t come out of this book in a very auspicious light. They run away from a small group of travellers in what they know is a dangerous place, and Thranduil’s main motivation seems to have been greed. Of them all, the behaviour of the Lake people is the most convincingly drawn.

The dragon is the real villain; old and smart and dangerous and in that respect, cleverly depicted. The goblins and their wolf companions are certainly nasty but they are cartoon villains for kids. And Gollum is scary in the same way that a monster in the dark is scary.

So how DO you turn a kid’s book into a block buster movie three block buster movies?

Well, for a start you show people the odds. Jackson’s portrayal of the dwarf kingdom of Erebor and the city of Dale is truly magnificent, and its ruination by the dragon very well done. This is the purpose of the dwarves’ quest, and the enemy they must defeat.

Then you make your characters much more robust. I loved Jackson’s dwarves. Each one has character and is unique, but it’s possible to see the similarity in brothers like Kili and Fili, and Dori and Nori. Much has been said about the ‘humanness’ of Thorin. (A dwarf as a sex object??) But his nephews, Fili and Kili, are also more human in appearance. Personally, I could have done without. But I suppose Jackson had no Aragorn, or Legolas to appeal to the ladies.

The villains are much, much darker. The introduction of a vengeful Orc leader in Bolg was smart. Suddenly the odds are greater and at the same time the dwarves are lifted from selfish miners into a fighting force to be reckoned with, doughty warriors all. Here, Jackson has used LOTR and its appendices to provide backstory. This change allowed him to add more action and conflict to the plot. Instead of aiming to go to Rivendell, Jackson shows Thorin as anti-Elf. Pursuit by the Orcs and Wargs forces the party into Rivendell after much hard fighting. Here we learn a little more about Gandalf and his role in Middle Earth, as shown in LOTR. Again, this gives depth to the story.

Gollum is depicted as truly nasty. Instead of Bilbo happening across the ring in a dark passage, the ring falls from Gollum’s person as he murders an Orc (to eat). What’s nice about that is Bilbo actually sees Gollum doing the killing. (We’ll ignore the fact that he wouldn’t have been able to see a thing down there – phosphorescence in the rocks?) The ring leaves Gollum because it realises it can trap a new bearer. Nice. And Gollum is suddenly elevated from a horrid person into a killer to be reckoned with. Yes, I know the book talks about Gollum eating Bilbo – but this shows the issue so much more clearly, and emphasises the inherent courage of Bilbo’s decision not to kill Gollum to escape. I also liked the dual Gollum personality – Smeagol/Gollum.

Jackson used minor elements in the book as whole scenes in the movie. The stone giants are tossed-off words in the crossing of the mountains in the book. But in the movie, they come to life, throwing boulders at each other – and giving an opportunity for an over-the-top action scene. Then the dwarves find themselves in Goblin town. In the book, Gandalf arrives in secret, waves a magic wand and they all escape. That’s the kid’s version. In the adult version, the dwarves fight their way out in spectacular fashion, underlining their legitimate claim to be warriors.

Not all of the changes worked to improve the story, though. Maybe the encounter with the trolls was not quite as silly in the movie as it is in the book. It’s hard to imagine the dwarves being quite so stupid. But never mind. It’s early in the story and adds a bit of humour, I suppose. I should imagine the scene, as it is in the book, read out to children, would be hilarious. But this isn’t a kid’s movie. In the same vein, I felt starting the story with the first words of Tolkien’s book was a mistake. By then we knew what a hobbit hole was – we were in one. Further, the tie-in with the opening scene in LOTR (the preparations for the eleventy-first party) was an unnecessary distraction.

My biggest “say-what” was Radagast. Not so much the depiction of character, as the out of sequence events. Certainly, dealing with the Necromancer turns out to be why Gandalf is elsewhere as the dwarves make their journey into Mirkwood. I suppose Jackson aims to show the audience what has been happening in the world. But the way it is presented is as if the darkness spreading from Dol Guldur has only just started. Yet there is no doubt Gandalf knew about a growing evil when he spoke with Saruman, Galadriel and Elrond at Rivendell, and thereby justified the dwarves’ quest to defeat Smaug. That said, showing the leader of the Ringwraiths manifesting itself at the ruined fortress of Dol Guldur was pretty cool. Showing Radagast dashing through the grass drawn by a team of bunnies with Wargs in hot pursuit – not so much.

Sure, I could probably name a few inconsistencies in continuity, but I could do that for the movie and the book. So I won’t.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the movie. Just seeing New Zealand’s spectacular scenery is a joy in itself. I think Jackson had a very, very difficult task in coming up to everyone’s expectations from LOTR. I expect that was why it took him so long to commence this series of films. Because it is a kid’s book. As an aside, as a writer I think much can be learned from Jackson’s achievement. He has added conflict, action and much more character to the story, as well as giving it extra depth through back story so that the audience can see how the ring became what it was in LOTR.  It might be a different medium, but the rules are the same.

I’m looking forward to the next part of the Hobbit. How about you?

What I learnt from “Slow Lightning” or how to build a riveting plot

Jack McDevitt’s Slow Lightning (or Infinity Beach in the US) was one of those books which I bought and had sitting on the shelf for – years, actually, and that was after the years of prevarication before I bought it. I don’t like horror, and the Stephen King quote on the front hinted at that. But then again, it had the Horsehead Nebula on the front, and McDevitt had been compared to Arthur C Clarke. Apart from that, I’d read A Talent for War and although I hadn’t been all that impressed, it had won some award. You know how it is. I succumbed, bought the novel and there it sat.

I dipped into the book in due course. I don’t like prologues, didn’t like the one in A Talent for War and couldn’t see any point in it, so I flicked on through to Chapter One, which was s-l-o-w going and it didn’t do much for me. I threw the book across the room and left it for another time.

When I tried again, I soon discovered I had to read the prologue. It’s McDevitt’s style. He poses a situation in the prologue, an event that happened some years ago, then spends the rest of the book unravelling that event. Mind you, I still say the prologue in A Talent for War was a waste of time.

Back to Slow Lightning. Okay, so the prologue describes a chase, a crash, a death. Remember all that. On to chapter one, where we meet Kim, whose clone-sister, Emily, had disappeared shortly after returning from a space voyage. And yes, that chapter is slow, as McDevitt labours the point that far in the future, man is still alone in the universe and what’s more, has lost the urge to push on and explore. Perhaps that latter part is a clue to what the author was trying to get across, a theme, if you will. If we lose the urge to explore, we stagnate. Asimov made a similar point in his Caves of Steel stories, and the fate of planets like Aurora.

The plot builds up, though. Soon, I was hooked, as Kim and her great friend Solly head off to investigate the mysterious events at Mount Hope. Here we get the sense of creepy hinted at by Stephen King, something evil lurking out there. Together, Kim and Solly work on finding out what happened to Kim’s sister, despite opposition from Kim’s employers via their powerful benefactor, who also has a stake in the story. The novel became un-put-downable.

By now I was reading a well-constructed mystery thriller, peppered with clues and red herrings, excitement and spine-tingling dread. What is out there at Mount Hope and what did it have to do with the space voyage Emily had been on just before she vanished? And then we get to the really good bit, when Solly and Kim steal a spaceship and retrace Emily’s journey all those years ago. They piece together what happened out there by collecting radio signals using a very wide array. The tech is totally plausible and the events believable. And then the creepy ratchets up a notch. This ain’t no haunted house – it’s a spaceship, way out in space, and we all know what happened in Alien. Altogether now… in space, no-one can hear you….

I’ve said before that what I really liked about this book was the detail. McDevitt paints a vivid picture of the planet Greenway and its history. He knows all about this Earth colony and he tells us without labouring the point. Just a few throw-away lines as he mentions a castle built by a tyrant a few centuries back, or explains that body shapes vary over time, just like fashion, as parents chose what their children will look like. He also describes his tech and the spaceship, and the amazing view of the great Orion Nebula and the stars of Orion’s belt – Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka. You’re out there with them, open-mouthed as a wondering child.

Sure, there are a few things I’d pick on. It’s a high tech society where you choose whether to work or not. So where does the high tech come from? And what about farmers and food? And so on. It’s all glitz and glamour missing foundation. One other thing which my husband picked up on, the broken down dam which flooded the town. Um. Wouldn’t a broken down dam just resume the course of the original river? That is, a dam might flood a town – has done, many times. But the other way round? Not quite plausible. Having said that, I didn’t trip over that one on first reading.

I learned a lot from this novel. Do your homework, draw a map, develop the background so you can write with authority, even if you don’t reveal everything you know. Work out the details, because they add substance. One trick I’ve found McDevitt often uses is to have a character read a book, watch a movie, take part in a role play. You read about it and dismiss the scene as a bit of “adding substance” – and then later in the book, a character draws on that earlier experience to work something out. Nice.

This was a five star read if ever there was one. But on top of that, I learnt a lot about the gentle art of writing. And for that I’ll always be grateful.

Roman: Saints and Sinners

This is a review Amazon refused to publish.

I admit it, the author is a friend, in fact we have had a business collaboration in the past. But I gain no profit from the sale of this book and I am not in direct competition with the author. I don’t write YA books – although I think this one is a cross-over. I do wonder if Amazon would have published my review if I had written a 1 star screamer. But I haven’t. If I didn’t like the book, I would have told the author so, and said why, and I would not have reviewed. You’re right not to trust all Amazon reviews. But you can trust this one.

Blurb

In a dying town, two teens marked as broken struggle with the burden of lies masquerading as truth. Not even a man of faith is strong enough to hold back the coming darkness.

  • Benedict Nowak bailed on his marriage, taking his son with him but leaving behind his five year old daughter. He had his reasons. He had no idea they’d come back to haunt him.
  • TJ had come to terms with the mother she despised, making those small concessions that made life bearable. But her mother’s death changed everything.
  • Her brother, Anton, was the parent missing in TJ’s life, until he found a calling in violence, and left his sister at the mercy of shrinks and a mother with ice in her veins.
  • Roman Rincon was the juvie rescued by Father Marcus and placed in the care of Benedict Nowak. With his records sealed, no one knew what happened that fateful night when Roman was only fourteen.
  • All Father Marcus knew was the boy had confessed to a crime not even the cops would talk about.

In the small coal mining town of Montville, two teens whose lives have been shattered beyond repair must find a way to cope … with school, with each other, with growing up marked as broken in a town dying under the weight of secrets and lies. Warned off having anything to do with Roman, TJ is all too willing to agree, except for one little thing. The young man lives in the apartment above her father’s car repair business so avoiding him might be a problem.

As for Roman, he will take his secret to the grave, no matter what the cost.

Review

This book starts off with a fairly routine YA premise – a sixteen year old girl (TJ) finding herself dumped on her estranged father when the mother she despises dies. Coming from a wealthy, upmarket life style and a private school, she’s faced with a new life in an impoverished, dying mining town where Latinos do what they can to survive. The longed-for college sporting scholarship is no longer an option in a school which doesn’t (can’t) support women’s sport. TJ’s brother, Tony, the only person who cares about her, the closest to a father she has ever known, is a serving soldier due to return to active service, leaving her to cope on her own. Before he goes, he makes her promise to keep away from Roman, a young man working for her father.

It’s obvious TJ isn’t going to keep away from Roman. But many things about this novel are not obvious. TJ’s father, Ben, has his own demons tormenting him with deep levels of guilt at not taking in his daughter when he and his wife divorced. TJ’s deceased mother is an invisible participant, sitting on the sidelines, mocking TJ and Ben. Ben’s cousin, Marcus, is a Roman Catholic priest who delves into ancient scrolls. Tony’s girlfriend, Marsha, is a scarred veteran of the Iraq war.

And then there’s Roman. He’s described as a seventeen year old juvenile delinquent who is sent to live with Ben as a form of rehabilitation. From the outset it’s obvious he is dark and dangerous. But how dangerous? And who to? He arrived in Montville not long after a series of mysterious events that are still spoken about in whispers, accused of bashing a man near to death.

In a way this is the usual YA coming of age story, but it is so much more. There’s a thread of dark fantasy – or call it myth – which begins as a hint, then coalesces in the latter part of the book and brings it to a thumping, heart-stopping climax. It’s a book about love, acceptance, sacrifice and redemption on many different levels.

The characters are all well-developed, real people with pasts and futures and reasons. Only the mother’s motives are not crystal clear. But then, that’s life, isn’t it, and she is dead.

The writing is sensual and evocative. You spend a lot of time absorbing atmosphere, feeling events. This is no skim read. You have to pay attention or you’ll miss things. Perhaps that is my only criticism. I occasionally lost my place as it were, since the narrative might skip from the present to a past conversation or reminiscence in the character’s head. The description is rich and real. I particularly liked the detail. You can see the town, the garage, the metal stairs up to Roman’s apartment. The author talks about motorcycles, a dying Pennsylvania town, living on a mountain road in the woods and coal mining, just to name a few, with authority which lends authenticity.

I really enjoyed this book. My YA days are far behind me and it would be sad to imagine that this is just a story for ‘teens’. It’s not. I give it *****.

PS. I LOVE the cover, designed by fellow author (and friend) Poppet. It truly suits the story

PPS. The book was written as a serial, a couple of chapters a week. I dips me lid. I could not possibly write a book in that way, especially as the writer just… goes with the flow without elaborate planning. Kudos.

 

 

The Gospel According to the Romans – a non-believer’s view

Forget the legends. Jesus was a Jew, and he hated the Romans. I know, because I lived with him and his followers for a year.

That’s the first sentence of the blurb for Robin Helweg-Larsen’s novel “The Gospel According to the Romans”.

I was brought up in a ‘Christian’ household and attended Sunday school as a child. So I heard all the stories about Jesus – the Star of Bethlehem, the virgin birth, walking on water, feeding the multitude, healing the sick, raising the dead – indeed, rising from the dead. When I grew up and became a doubter and then a non-believer, I simply dismissed these tales as fairy stories. But now, the author has written this highly entertaining book about how it might have happened if a zealot called Jesus of Nazareth had lived and died in Roman Palestine at the start of a new era. If you’re a dyed in the wool, born again Christian, you might as well leave this page now. Helweg-Larsen warns that parts of his novel may well offend Christians.

Those bible stories I heard never talked much about Romans, which meant Jesus was never placed into context as a Jew living in occupied territory. Mister Helwig-Larsen has written this story from the point of view of Matthew Levi, one of the disciples who had been a Roman tax collector – and a spy for Pontius Pilate. Yes, that Matthew, the one referred to as Saint Matthew, which in this book is ironic in the extreme.

It is an enthralling story, providing on the way historical background about the Roman occupation and way of life, the countryside, the lives of the various Jewish factions and the impact of history on the population. In particular, the impact of the Roman’s brutal suppression of a revolt 20 years before and the subsequent crucifixion of 2,000 men. The story is completely plausible – although, of course, it is a work of fiction. The characters are 3 dimensional, each with virtues as well as flaws. Matthew is a pragmatic character, principally absorbed with making his way in society. Pilate offers him Roman citizenship in return for espionage and he is prepared to risk his life to earn the right to wear the toga. Hence, given the opportunity to join Jesus’ followers, he takes the risk. Matthew the spy who is at first totally committed to self comes close to reversing his allegiance at one point and his friends the Romans have their good points – and their bad. The author peppers this book with wonderful detail, such as showing the discipline and precision of a Roman detachment sent to quell the rioters in the temple and the deep gulf between the Roman way of life and that of the Jews.

This is one of those stories, like the fate of the Titanic, where we all know what the outcome will be, yet I kept reading, waiting for the explanation of the next ‘miracle’, for the next revelation about the disciples, Mary Magdalene and Mary of Bethany, the meeting with Jesus’ mother, the last supper and the crucifixion itself. Matthew’s relationship with Judas, who the gospels tell us ultimately betrayed Jesus to the Romans, adds drama to the narrative. In the opening chapter we learn what Judas Iscariot really means – Judas, who carries a large dagger called a sica, is a ‘sicariot’, a word the Romans use interchangeably with ‘robber’, ‘insurgent’ and zealot. That information in itself sets the tone of the book. Judas never trusts Matthew, despite Jesus’ remonstrations and continually looks for opportunities to expose Matthew as a fraud. Towards the end of the book, I was drawn into how the author intended to resolve the issue, leaving Judas as the man who betrayed Jesus.

All in all, it’s a fascinating read. Throughout, Helweg-Larsen adds some intriguing insights into how people think and the very nature of religion itself. At one point Matthew ruminates on the problems of having only one God as opposed to the Greek or Roman approach of many Gods. One God must cover so many different facets – at once the God of mercy and of retribution, whereas in a pantheon different Gods represent different aspects of nature. The author also dwells on the way truth is distorted and exaggerated to become legend. The same process still happens today.

The depth of Helweg-Larsen’s research is impressive and he provides an extensive bibliography.

I can’t recommend this novel highly enough. It is a voice of reason which I might even liken to the small child in ‘the Emperor’s new clothes’. In the same vein, I recommend Mister Helweg-Larsen’s website where he posts always entertaining, often challenging stories about religion, myth and reality.

You can buy ‘The Gospel According the Romans” on Amazon.