Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Sometimes I just don't want to "Help myself"

"Mom, will you help me with my homework?"
"In a minute. Try helping yourself a bit first."
Mom continues to cook dinner. Child turns pages back to read the instructions.

"Mom, may I have more potatoes?"
"Of course. Here. Help yourself."
Mom offers the ladle and child piles more food onto plate. Some falls on the floor.

"Mom, I didn't mean it. I couldn't help it." Guilty looks.
"You'll have to learn to help it," Mom replies.

And, "Mom, why won't God change me into a good little girl?"
"God helps those who help themselves."

Last week's reading included lots of self-help books. Some tried to offer a ladle so I could help myself to happiness. Others promised to hold the plate, so I wouldn't spill my problems on the floor. Still others offered a place where I could find help. And all together... well, I'd offer you coffee, but you'll have to find your own brew while I just offer book reviews instead.

Since we're relaxing over caffeine, let's start with Relax More, Try Less, The Easy Path To Abundance by Neville Goddard and Tim Grimes. Goddard's book has a Bible-as-metaphor spirituality, but Grimes offers excerpts with a more secular aim. There's plenty of sensible wisdom in the pages, but exhortations to just imagine what we need remind me awkwardly of religion's "Just have faith and you'll receive." Still, the injunction to relax is well-argued and well-received. Read this short volume with some mild crisp one-star coffee, and relax.

Maximum Mental Health by Aleks G. Srbinoski aims to improve motivation, mood, means and mastery in readers who are of normal to moderately depressed mental health. It's a very user-friendly, easy-reading book, heavy on reminders that the author offers hypnosis tapes etc., but with plenty of sensible down-to-earth advice. Enjoy with some more mild crisp one-star coffee.

Continuing the theme of happiness, Lucky Go Happy, Make Happiness Happen by Paul Van Der Merwe, is easily my favorite of these three. A book of pleasingly humorous animal fables, with a touch of science and plenty of wise advice, it's smooth enjoyable reading and my only complaint is I'm not sure happiness really is the goal of all my actions. Still, this one's well worth reading. Enjoy with a three-star, well-balanced, smooth-flavored brew.

Signs in Life by Deanna Nowadnick offers a Christian approach to happiness, comparing life-signs to road-signs and God-signs. The author's nicely conversational tone feels like sitting in a bookstore discussing, well, life. And the author's life lessons are relevant to all. Never preachy, offering advice from many sources, and well-tended with personal questions for the reader, it's one to enjoy with some more well-balanced, full-flavored three-star coffee.

Finally, there's Devotions for Moms by Heather Bixler and Christina Fox, a self-help, faith-help book for busy mothers with well-arranged topics (healing, feeling burned out, life seems pointless, etc) and well-placed links allowing e-readers to navigate simply and surely. With honest, open opinions, wise advice, prayer and practical suggestions, these devotions almost read like phone calls with a friend. Pour the coffee first, another full-flavored three-star brew.

So now I'll help myself to some lunch, wonder where the time's going, and dearly wish someone would help me download an extra few hours a day. But perhaps the memory of these books will help me slow down (and achieve more?). The wisest advice might be to spend a moment or two in prayer as well. What about you?

Friday, October 2, 2015

Novels for All Seasons?

One novel of the future, one that crosses the future with the present day, and one that's firmly set in the present and the past--these were my reading joys of the last week, and I loved all three of them. So, working my way forward through time, here are brief reviews of three must-reads. Find some coffee and enjoy.

Forgiving Mariela Camacho by A. J. Sidransky follows on from the author's earlier novel, Forgiving Maximo Rothmann (click on the link for my review). It's a wonderful standalone novel of separations and connections, commitment and forgiveness, and the complexities of history and identity. An apparent suicide might turn out to be murder, an independent woman might find her freedom curtailed, and an honest cop might have to break a few rules to find the solution. Ranging from the Dominican Republic, through Europe, and all the way to Washington Heights Manhattan, the story paints a haunting immigrant experience, so wonderfully relevant to today. Enjoy with some rich, elegant, complex four-star coffee. They're both wonderful books.

Next is Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, a novel that beautifully combines contemporary literature with science fiction, building a wonderfully interconnected world of pre and post-apocalypse where values, loves and promises change, but humanity clings on and remains the same. Chapters interweave past and present with tiny links like mysteries or fireflies gleaming and it all comes together in a novel that's both wide-ranging and tightly woven with never a spare word or phrase. Enjoy with some more rich, elegant four-star coffee.

Then there's The Extinction Game by Gary Gibson. The first scenes had me hooked as the protagonist fought for his lonely existence. Hints of mystery intrigued. Then, suddenly, everything's different. A larger story takes the stage and takes a little longer to get going, but it's worth persevering. It's a cool mystery, inviting interesting questions about identity, relationships and existence. Enjoy with some bold, dark intense five-star coffee.

I read some non-fiction last week too. But reading, writing and reviewing have taken back burner to compiling, editing and formatting our Writers' Mill Journal (an anthology of works from our local writers' gruop). So has housework, and it's calling me. Soon it will grow spider-legs and begin to call even louder, so the next batch of reviews will have to wait. Enjoy your coffee while I work!

Thursday, October 1, 2015

What is the Immigrant Experience?

Today I'm delighted to welcome author A.J. Sidransky back to my blog. Some time ago I read and enjoyed his novel, Forgiving Maximo Rothmann (click for my review). As an immigrant myself, I found the uncertainties and sense of un-belonging in this novel truly resonated. Add a wonderful storyline with evocative dialog and descriptions and a wealth of amazing historical, geographic and social detail, and you'll see why readers of any background can be transported to a different world-view and experience.

Now I'm delighted to have just read the author's next book, Forgiving Mariela Camacho (I'll post reviews soon!). Here is A.J. Sidransky to tell us where this second novel comes from. Welcome A.J. and over to you.

When I began writing Forgiving Mariela Camacho I was drawn to a theme that I felt I had left only partially examined in Forgiving Maximo Rothman, the theme of the immigrant experience and the search for identity.  I had originally planned a fourth story line for ‘Maximo’ that examined the Dominican immigrant experience in the United States.  That story line ended up on the proverbial “cutting room floor,” for the sake of shortening the novel.  Forgiving Mariela Camacho picks up some of those threads in the back-story of Pete Gonzalvez, the novel’s protaganist.

Completely unexpectedly, I find that my book is about to be released at a time when the issue of immigration has stepped to the forefront of our national political debate.  I will spare you my personal opinions, as they would be inappropriate in this forum.  I will tell you though what I have learned.

In studying the experience of immigration for books, in which immigrants moved from Nazi occupied Europe to the Dominican Republic, from the Soviet Union to the United States and from the Dominican Republic to the United States, coupled with my own experiences growing up among immigrants in an immigrant household and my close relationships with many Dominican immigrants in Washington Heights, I can tell you that all immigrant experiences are essentially the same.  Economic and political forces drive immigration.  The names, the language, the foods and where you go to pray changes but essentially all immigrant experiences mirror each other.  Immigrants seek a better life for themselves and their families.  At the same time the longing for the home they left never subsides.

Regardless of your political inclinations, I hope you will read my book with this theme in mind and an open heart to the experiences of those who have lived the joy and the sadness of immigration.  We are all from someplace else.  Connecting to those who are arriving now may help us to understand better the experiences of our own ancestors.

I hope people will read them too--vivid depictions, great characters, wonderful locations and stories. Thank you so much Mr. Sidransky. I love both books, especially for the way they read as complete stories in themselves, each as multiple stories in one novel, and as a smoothly connected series together.

Find the author at:

Twitter: @AJSidransky

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Ever Gone On Tour With The Undead?

Today I'm delighted to welcome author Peter Welmerick back to my blog as he tours the internet with his undead friends and a wonderfully post-apocalyptic Hunt for the Fallen (second in the Transport series). Welcome Peter! And have fun, dear readers, as Peter tells us about...


When I first starting writing my TRANSPORT Military adventure series, I wasn’t quite thinking I’d have the shambling Undead wandering about in the background, foreground or side to side. TRANSPORT was originally going to be about a huge armored personnel carrier (the HURON) and its crew and the crap and adventures they’d endure in some kind of a hostile, post-apoc world.

But then I had to figure out WHAT KIND of post-apoc world I wanted them to venture out and about into.

Post-nuclear war devastation? Nah. Cool, promising, but, nah. Technology run amok, sentient robotic beings overtaking and/or fighting against humanity? Hmm, I’ll use that for something else. Zombie apocalypse? Hmmm, yes, that would be cool, but, damn it, I have to make it MY OWN.

Enter the TRANSPORT “world” and storyline in a POST-Post zompocalyptic setting. The initial crisis (viral pandemic) has passed for the most part. Good ole Humanity’s still here. The rotting, walking, moaning carcasses of Humanity are still here. We’re rebuilding, treating each other with reborn tolerance and respect, while skipping gleefully along with our undead brothers and sisters through a field of green grass and black-eyed susans.

Not quite. Not even close.

But I did have some, um, demented fun with my local undead citizenry. In fact, there are undead citizens harbored on the big city of Grand Rapids west side in TRANSPORT. They are fed, and clothed, and city ordinances protect them from being brutalized by the Living. This goes as far as even accidentally, in the throes of panic as the city’s undead family and friends advance, you aren’t supposed to do them bodily harm without the potential of being arrested and fined.

The HURON and crew, when going in for a feeding run, or patrol, have to be sure to maneuver their 72-ton wheeled and tracked vehicle through the streets without mooshing anyone.

Did I mention there is a mission store/house in the heart of the UCRA (Urban Civilian Retention Area) overseen by a big, gun-toting nun and her Holy sisters who administer aid to the local teetering denizens.


Billet looked at the pair, a picture flashing in his mind’s eye of his late wife and son. These two weren’t them; his son had been much older when he’d been lost. Judging by the stump of a small arm in a torn, frilly sleeve in the woman’s right hand—she seemed unaware and not alarmed she was missing a child—the family had been larger than his anyway.

Sister Mirose lifted a solid forearm, scarred red with bite marks. She stopped the undead woman before she walked by the building. The woman and child sniffed at both her and Billet, but showed no sign of hostility.

“Inside now. Sister Terese will see you.” The big nun said, turning the woman towards the open door behind her.

The woman and boy, and bodiless small forearm, teetered and wobbled into the Apostolate.


The HURON’s driver, LCpl Loutonia Phelps, is schooled in several dialects including ZOMBIE. She uses her training to get Intel from one of the undead locals during their excursions into the UCRA. This particle Zee is what they refer to as a “Satellite Zombie.” For whatever reason, he picks up “transmissions” from both the local and Ferals, informing Phelps of any abnormal situations inside and outside the city when it comes to other Undead.


Bob’s head jerked upward, startling Jake.

Mumbling unidentifiable words, Bob drooled a line of bloody spittle to punctuate his statement. He moved his hands and arms about as if mired in molasses, yet with gestures like a frustrated mute explaining something, trying to get his point across.

Phelps leaned in, listening to the gurgles and halting grunts and groans.

She interpreted: “Marauders detonated…section of Interstate 96…between Coopersville and Nunica…”

“Yes. Old news. Two year old news.” Billet responded. He thought he saw a curtain move in a second floor window of the sagging house across the street.

“Current news. M-45. Between Grand Rapids and Grand Haven,” Billet said at Bob who continued to grumble and gesture.
He knew it took a while for those rotted cogs to turn in the undead man’s head.

Jake looked up at that same window again. This time he watched as the tattered curtain fall back into place.

Bob coughed violently, and continued “talking.”

Loutonia continued to listen with a grimace, wiping foul spittle from the front of her uniform.


It all seems pretty humorous, how I have depicted MY zombie populace. It isn’t all sunshine and unicorns pissing raindows as you will discover if you read the TRANSPORT series. Like I said, I wanted to change things up a bit, and not have it all be standard zombie fare.

I had my fun with the Undead theme in my own sinister sort of way.

*evil laugh*


Okay, now I know your undead are seriously undead, and I'm eager to read more. Thank you for introducing us, Peter! And here's some more information for readers - where to find you, where to find the books, and how to follow the tour.

PeterWelmerinkAuthorPhoto_BWPeter Welmerink ( was born and raised on the west side of pre-apocalyptic Grand Rapids, Michigan. He loves his hometown and West Michigan, which is why he writes about it. He writes Fantasy, Military SciFi, and other wanderings into action-adventure. His work has been published in ye olde wood pulp print and electronic-online publications. He is the co-author of the Viking berserker novel, BEDLAM UNLEASHED, written with Steven Shrewsbury. TRANSPORT is his first solo novel venture. He is married with a small barbarian tribe of three boys.


Twitter: @pwelmerink (TRANSPORT-related posts) (author interviews and all things fantastical)


9/21 A Work In Progress Interview
9/21 I Smell Sheep Guest Post
9/21 Beauty in Ruins Guest Post
9/21 shells interviews Guest Post
9/23 Book in the Bag Interview
9/23 Sheila Deeth Book Blog Guest Post
9/24 Bee's Knees Reviews Review
9/25 WebbWeaver Reviews Guest Post
9/26 Vampires, Witches, & Me Oh My Top Tens List
9/26 fuonlyknew Review
9/27 Coffintree Hill Guest Post
9/27 Armand Rosamilia, Author Guest Post


Barnes & Noble

Barnes & Noble


HuntFortheFallen_Cover  Find Out More About Book Two: Hunt for the Fallen:

Captain Jacob Billet Journal Entry - Sunday April 5, 2026

It’s raining, it’s pouring, the undead are roaring…

Amassed at the UCRA east end enclosure, the dead strain the fence line while soldiers keep watchful eyes, the survivors on the opposite side of the rising river about to lose their minds.

It’s a crazy time: nonstop precipitation; everyone's up in arms; paranoid city council members with an asshat City Treasurer. Water, water everywhere. Zees dropping into the churning drink. Troops afraid of being stitched up and thrown back into the fray as Zombie Troopers. Tank commanders getting itchy to head out on their own after drug-laden shamblers. Reganshire insurgents trying to extract our west side civvies for some unknown reason, possibly pushing the city into taking heavy-handed action against them.

Then there’s some black-haired dead dude staring at me through the fence, grinning like he’s off his meds.

And I thought Lettner was a headache.

All this sh*t might give me a heart attack.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Who's on First?

I seem to be reading lots of books written in first person this week. Each tells of a time, place, or way of life that I don't know. But how the author tells the reader what's going on is different in each. I read somewhere that there are different kinds of first-person writing, so I'll see if I can figure it out as I work through these reviews. Find yourself a coffee, and enjoy.

The The Jamie Quinn Mysteries by Barbara Venkataraman are narrated by the eponymous Jamie Quinn. She's a family lawyer, and I know nothing about family law. Jamie offers details to the reader in an enthusiastically natural voice, like a friend sitting over coffee. There are three books in the set (and a fourth coming out soon). And I like the way the "telling" is so personal - first person enthusiastic perhaps?

Jamie could tell me tons about autism in "Death by Didgeridoo" but instead she tells a little - it's not something the character, Jamie, is passionate about. But about how adoptions are so much more fun that divorce? In The Case of the Killer Divorce, the telling is part of creating the character. And in Peril in the Park,  I learned lots about parks and recreation - why? Because Jamie's passionate about someone who's working in that field.

Enjoy Jamie's passions and solve mysteries while drinking some well-balanced, full-flavored three-star coffee. Meanwhile, can you think of a better name than first-person enthusiastic? First-person involved maybe?

Dobyn's Chronicles, by Shirley MacLain, is also told through first-person narration. The setting is Oklahoma in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The world is changing, and the character - a trustworthy and hard-working young man, orphaned when Yellow Fever takes his parents - changes gently with age, Some of America's history is seen through the character's eyes, and I love his surprise at, for example. his first encounter with indoor plumbing. Maybe I'll call this first-person memoirish (since it's not technically a memoir). Other parts of history are revealed instead through long-winded dialog which slows the story down--but life was slower back then. Meanwhile more details are revealed through occasional slips into other characters' eyes--characters who might have told their tale later. All in all, it's a fascinating book. Enjoy with some dark five-star coffee, since the world was unforgiving and death a close companion of those who lived in it.

Until We’re Strangers again by Sean Gorman is a tale of a young man growing up in the world of wrestling. Okay, I know nothing about wrestling, but the author manages to convey information with casual asides from the first-person narration, and interesting musings on his passions. It's a long book, with many dark scenes. Stage violence and imaginary personae leave the real world to be turned into a playground of failed relationships, sex, drink and drugs. Drink some seriously dark five-star coffee with this one. And the first-person style? Definitely memoir.

Finally Dene Hellman's The Ninety-Ninth Reunion tells a story through several different first-person narrators, each flowing naturally from the telling of the last. This time the author's pulling you into the story, rather than asking you to sit and listen. The narrators are following through events whose conclusion they can't know, and neither can you. Maybe I'd call it first-person deep, to match with third-person deep narration. Deeply involved in the characters, you share their hopes and fears, and a certain sense of dread without ever knowing what's going to come. A wonderfully evocative novel, a romance where land and siblings and the recent past are all important characters, and a tale that defies expectations, this is one to enjoy with some rich, elegant, complex four-star coffee. Highly recommended.

Of course, I'm still reading first person novels - Gary Gibson's Extinction Game this weekend (just for me, but I might post a review). There really are a lot of them around, and my beloved, soon-to-be-released Infinite Sum will be a first-person tale too; first-person deep, by my flawed definitions!

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Do We Live In Dark Times?

Last year, part of my research for writing children's Bible stories based on Acts was to undertake a study of Acts with a group of friends. Of course, Acts took place in ancient history - dark ages, dark times perhaps, and surely a world much different from ours.

We looked at history, geography, social issues, non-Biblical resources and, of course, various books of the Bible. It seemed those were indeed dark times - days of wars, riots, political unrest and intrigue, refugee crises, death and destruction...

Then I listened to this week's news from Europe, of refugees sailing from Turkey to Greece, storms at sea, shipwreck, and more... And I realized they are sailing the same dark seas as Peter and Paul must have crossed when Christianity was born. Hence my question in the title - do we live in dark times? And is the world really so changed? We have our new technologies, new countries and new laws. But the seas and shipwreck are the same. Politics plays the same games with refugees. And people are ever the same.

My first book review this week is of a tale from Europe in a different dark time, between then and now. Luther and Katharina by Jody Hedlund describes the world of political, religious and social upheaval at the time of Luther. Encouraged by Luther to flee the convents, women enter the secular world only to find the promised freedoms belong only to men. Meanwhile men are fighting oppression, churches are fighting change, and it's hard to find that balance between duty and love. Read this one with an elegant, rich and complex four-star cup of coffee.

Luther's call to freedom isn't the only one that can lead to greater pain. Modern America's siren lure can bring refugees crossing arid borders to find no solace here, as in Journey Through An Arid Land by G. Davies Jandrey. Arizona's desert isn't the only arid land in this novel though, as very human characters face the aridity of their own souls, a lonely man investigates murder, an abused child tries to make sense of her life, a rejected woman confesses her true nature, and a woman losing her senses perhaps finds herself. It's a lovely novel, best read with another rich, elegant, complex four-star coffee.

G. Davies Jandry's A Garden of Aloes takes a journey through one long summer - a dark summer for the mother who has fled an abusive husband, but unexpectedly darker for her child. The aloe garden of the title provides a wonderful metaphor for a tale filled with unexpected gentleness, quiet healing of violent hurt, and a multitude of wonderful characters. Enjoy some more rich elegant and complex four-star coffee with this one!

Then there's Weapons of Mass Destruction by Margaret Vandenburg, a tale of moral certainty invaded by the slippery slope of human nature as soldiers march into Fallujah and mass destruction isn't just a threat or a weapon anymore. It's a tale for all time, quickly read, rushing forward into battle while sneaking its peeks at the past, and revealing the humanity behind all those moral pronouncements and certainties. Drink a bold, dark, intense five-star coffee with this one.

Finally, perhaps to counterbalance the dark worlds of these tales, here's a short volume for kids called Teaching Christ’s Children about Feeling Angry by Corine Hyman. It's illustrated with well-chosen Bible verses, and it offers lessons based on very real and natural childhood events. My only complaint is that in the version I read some of the pictures in this illustrated book felt stretched or shrunk, though I was very impressed with how easy it was to recognize characters and expressions - more so than in similar books I've read. Enjoy with a bright, lively, easy-drinking two-star coffee.

So now summer's bright lights are giving way to fall. Do we live in Dark Times? Or do we define our own darkness. I loved how these books made me question that.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Is it a strange tale or a mystery?

We're working on our next Writers' Mill Journal - volume 4, 2015 coming soon! But click on the image to learn aboutVolume 3. It's a collection of writings from our local writers' community, and any sales benefit our local library so...if you like what you see from the link, please buy copies for all your friends!

Like all "random" anthologies, our journal contains entries in multiple genres, from poetry for kids to scary horror stories for uncles and aunts (well, maybe not too scary - it's still PG13), and I get the joy of making sure all the entries end up in the right place. This year "It's a Mystery" had so many entries we had to start splitting them up. Some went into the "Kids' Corner." Several book excerpts landed in "Book-It." One mystery whose answer lay under the bed was assigned to "Under the Bed." And the rest were split between Mysteries and Strange Tales. But what's the difference between a mystery and a strange tale?

For our purposes, we decided it hinges on clues. If clues are important, the story's a mystery. If strange events predominate, we'll call it a strange tale.

All of which leads nicely into my reviews of recently read books, many of which were mysterious or strange, and none of which had their reviews posted because I was too busy working on the journal. Today I take a break while other editors read, so grab a coffee and see what you think:

Space Monsters by Peter Joseph Swanson is definitely a strange tale. Combining real history of the early '80s with a genuine feel for the obsessions of university students and teens enjoying their first clear tastes of freedom, the author creates a novel where monsters, real, imagined, science fictional, historical, twisted and natural all work together in a thoroughly weird, convincing and absorbing narrative. Enjoy this odd dark read with some oddly dark five-star coffee.

Portrait of Ignatius Jones by Peter David Shapiro is similarly strange, starting with an evocatively scary Victorian scene, then moving forward to a woman haunted by a painting, and that scary intersection of psychic power with human greed in the present day. There's a great female protagonist as the mystery deepens, and I'd love to read more books about her. Meanwhile, this is one to enjoy with a rich complex four star cup of coffee.

Dead Market by Gary Starta is harder to classify. There's definitely a mystery, with clues. There are bad buys with plans. And there might be a scientific explanation for it all. But it's also very definitely strange. I think I'll have to call it a strange mystery, blending medical discoveries, police detection, and something suspiciously like vampires - very cool. Enjoy with a dark five star coffee.

The Ghosts of Petroglyph Canyon by Christopher Cloud is a children's mystery, with some intriguingly strange overtones. But this time the clues are the thing, so I'll definitely call it mystery. Imagine Enid Blyton's Famous Five on a New Mexico Ranch, protecting a heritage while their uncle prays for rain, and you'll get the picture. It's fast, fun, and a nice blend of action and information for middle-grade readers. Enjoy with some bright lively easy-drinking two-star coffee.

Indemnity Only by Sara Paretsky is a clue-driven mystery with a cool female protagonist. I know it's the beginning of a series, and I plan to read more, if I can only find the time. It's set in Chicago, which to me means Harry Dresden, and the mystery has the same sense of bad news growing worse. But the story's entirely believable, modern-day, with no paranormality. And the protagonist is a determined young woman, getting no younger, balancing check-books, lives and loves with the needs of others. There are some seriously dark scenes, so enjoy a dark five-star coffee with it.

Then there's Death by Coffee by Alex Erickson, first in a new mystery series, so it must be a mystery. It's set in a bookstore/coffeeshop, so it's bound to appeal to me. Hapless coffee-pourer Krissy proves an even more hapless solver of mysteries, but the case is closed by the time the last door closes, and the bookstore's still open so all's well. Plus the detective is really handsome. Enjoy this one with some lively, easy-drinking two-star coffee, and don't forget to visit your local bookstore.

That's all my mysteries and strange tales for the last two weeks. I'll post more reviews as soon as I escape from editing again.

Friday, August 21, 2015

What makes a scifi world seem real?

My husband doesn't like fantasy. When we were dating he always told me he liked his science fiction real, with convincing science and logic holding its strange new worlds together - be they ours or alien planets in the future. So why does he love Game of Thrones? I think it's because the social science is so convincingly portrayed. The history hangs together. The characters act according to their nature, or else reveal their nature convincingly through action.

And what makes me enjoy science fiction and fantasy? To be honest, I like some logic too. Vampires for the sake of added vampire, fairy because we've already used up every other creature, or volcano because it fits the storyline will probably distract me. But creatures that build into essential parts of the plot--they'll hold my attention. And logic. Ex Machine is a brilliant movie! But deus ex machina is not a very convincing plot device.

Anyway, here are three science fiction novels I've read recently, staring with one that I absolutely loved. Grab a coffee and enjoy.

Ted Saves the World by Bryan Cohen is middle grade/young adult science fiction at its best, with age-appropriate affections, great characters, smooth humor, successful nerds, superpowers, and just enough left unexplained to keep the imagination's wheels a-turning. Watch out for the blue-light special, and read with some rich, elegant and complex four-star coffee.

Robin in the Hood by Diane J. Reed is a cool, fast romp through an almost modern world of robbing of banks, the bombing of enemies with red jello, occasional hints of murder, and a high-society girl fallen on bad times. It's also a tale of familial love and forgiveness, mysterious hidden societies, secrets and lies. All told with a cheerfully convincing teen voice, it makes for a fast fun furious read, best enjoyed with some lively, easy-drinking two-star coffee.

And then there's Adam’s Tiger by Lawrence Lapin. This one takes place much further in the future, after life on earth has been destroyed by a meteor strike. The mysterious Adam with his ark of frozen embryos and genetic engineering skills is trying to create a better world; one where man won't hunt creatures to extinction, and where populations will all be perfectly in balance. It sounds like Eden before the fall, but of course, there's humanity in the mix, waiting to fall again. No taste for religion in this one, and some rather odd attitudes to science (given our "success" with radiation, it seems a little odd to deliberately irradiate mice in search of better mutations...), it's a long slow novel, packed with intriguing detail, carefully imagined future history, and plenty of thought-provoking ideas. Sometimes dark and definitely intense, it's one to enjoy with a dark intense five-star coffee.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

How do you build the world you already live in?

The first time I met the term "World-building" I wondered what it meant. I play lots of board games with my sons, so perhaps world-building meant the art of setting up rules so a game wouldn't be too easily lost or won. I watched my sons play lots of computer games and wondered if world-building was the writing of long lines of computer code to model the buildings, hills and roads. I read a lot of science fiction too. Is world-building the task of adding science to imagination so a new world makes sense? In historical fiction, is it the art of convincingly depicting a distant time? And in the present day?

The present day surely is what it is and doesn't need to be built. But what makes a reader believe in a novel? What creates that willing suspension of disbelief, that leaves us thinking these people lived real lives when we know they didn't? What keeps us turning pages to see what happened next to someone who never really existed?

I guess I'm convinced now that world-building is a part of every fiction, whether board game, computer game, book, movie, opera or more. World-building decides which pieces are needed to create a convincing whole. On the stage, where the whole won't fit, world-building dresses the set. In opera where the dialog's tuned to music, world-building dresses the notes with honest emotion. And in a novel of a present-day average widow falling in love, world-building adds those details that make me believe, she's human, she's real. Then I might care.

So here are some book reviews of titles set in the real world, in the present day. How real the world and characters seem might be a way to measure the author's world-building. So find coffee and see what you think. Meanwhile remember the ratings are there to help you know which coffee to drink as you read.

A Ripple In The Water by Donna Small invites readers to question preconceptions about rules of love and attraction. Can an older guy love a younger woman? Can an older woman love a younger guy? And how does the love of a parent learn to let go? Great details anchor this story in present day people and activities. Complex soul-searching invites the reader to search their own soul too. And a pleasingly honest relationship proves complex and hard to achieve. Enjoy this tale with some well-balanced, smooth, full-flavored three-star coffee.

A wonderful sense of place and weather anchors Aaron Paul Lazar's The Seacroft in the present day too, as two employees at a coastal mansion try to unravel the mysteries of their feelings for each other, loss and betrayal, and a curious employer who's husband is far from home. Sensual, with some serious but nicely drawn sex scenes, it's a story of love in its various forms, trust through all its betrayals, and hope; best enjoyed with a well-balanced, full-flavored three-star coffee.

Fairy Tale Murders by Kelly Money is set in present day Topeka. While I don't know the location and have never worked in a crematorium, the author's attention to detail makes me sure she knows both well. But details in the lives of every soon-dead victim somehow didn't make me feel for them. I'm not sure what that says about me. There's a nice contrast between strong female protagonist and women viewed as helpless by the killer. But there's a heavy darkness in this novel, so drink some bold, dark, intense five-star coffee as you read.

Khawla’s Wall by Andrew Madigan is set in the present day too, but in a very different part of the world, where women are veiled, poor men send money home to their families, and "wasta" is the hand that guides every aspect of life. The author brings his world and characters to vivid life, giving serious depth to their emotions and concerns, and offering a powerfully convincing glimpse behind veil and wall, as a young married woman takes the risk of a job, and a young man builds the wall she will hide behind. Enjoy this rich, elegant tale with a rich elegant four-star coffee.

Then come back for some science fiction reviews, coming soon.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

When is a book just for kids?

As a child, I hated fairy tales. I'm not sure why. I loved my brothers' books of adventure stories. I even volunteered to clean my older brother's room so I could read his classics while dusting his bookshelf. But offer me the Snow Queen and I'd run a mile. Alice just felt wrong. Snow White might as well have been Red, but she certainly wouldn't be read by me.

As a young teen, I hated hearing the Hobbit read aloud to class. I therefore refused to read Lord of the Rings. I cleaned my parents' bedroom so I could "borrow" their library books while vacuuming. I loved the novel Oil. I loved one about a farmer trying to tame the top of a hill while his son tamed his love life. I loved... Oh, I just loved books... as long as they weren't fairy tales, or the Hobbit which I now know I had so clearly mis-classified.

As a mom... I still didn't read the sort of fairy tales I'd grown up on. But I read the new ones, the nuanced ones, the Paper Bag Princess... I read fairy tales that had something in them for grownups too. And my kids didn't hate fairy tales (or else they didn't tell me).

Just for reference, I now love the Hobbit, I love Lord of the Rings, I love Alice and all things Carroll, but I'm still not sure about the Snow Queen.

So when is a book just for kids? I'm not sure. I suspect when I review children's books, I'm looking for something that pleases both the child and the adult in me. If there are pictures, I don't want my inner child to complain they're not right. If there are concepts, I don't want my inner adult to say they're riskily simplified. If there's a storyline, I want a depth that lets me believe I can swim... and maybe that's it. I hated fairy tales because they kept me tied to my fairy-water-wings.

And maybe that's it. The best kids' books really aren't just for kids.

So skip the water-wings, grab a coffee, and read on for some children's (and not-so-children's) book reviews:

First is The Green Musician by Mahvash Shahegh, illustrated by Claire Ewart. The words and illustrations are beautifully matched in a story that encourages hope and persistence, evokes Persion history, and even includes characters who age convincingly - all in one short picture book. Enjoy with some well-balanced, smooth, full-flavored three-star coffee.

Another beautifully illustrated hardback is The Hunter’s Promise, An Abenaki Tale, by Joseph Bruchac, illustrated by Bill Farnsworth. It's a story of mankind, nature, loyalty and love, deceptively simply and delightfully deep. The pictures have a haunting darkness of natural forest and stream, and it's a truly lovely book. Enjoy with some bold, dark five-star coffee.

Now I am Paper, by Uvi Poznansky, is illustrated by author/artist in beautifully simply and flowing style, perfectly complementing the poetry of the tale. Combining the honest truth of how wood becomes paper, with the poetic truths of whispering leaves, this is a delightful book to enjoy with a child and some elegant, complex four-star coffee.

Jess and Wiggle by Uvi Poznansky is beautifully illustrated too with an enjoyable mix of styles, combining harlequin cutout with a child's smoothly convincing facial frown (which of course, is turned to fun). It's fun and nicely untethered, perfect for any child with any caregiver to enjoy. Pour some well-balanced, smooth, full-flavored coffee to go with it.

Oliver and Jumpy 22-24, by Werner Stejskal, continues a long-running series of childrens picture books starring a svelte, well-dressed cat and a bouncing kangaroo. The writing has a read-aloud feel and the stories sound like ones a fond grandparent might tell as children gather around his knees. Computerized pictures are bright and fun, and kids, I'm sure, will continue to enjoy the series. Brew some crisp mild one-star coffee to drink as you read these ones.

Mommy What Do I Feel by Sagit Cohen has a slightly stilted style, but offers a nicely illustrated way of describing the sense of touch. It's part of a series of books for children on the five senses. Enjoy with some mild crisp one-star coffee, and see rabbits getting their feet wet.

Finally, here's a book that I thought would be for children, but probably isn't. It's aimed, I'd guess, more at teens and adults and would make a great resource for youth group or Sunday school (for all ages). The Life of Noah by Adrian Pelzer includes patriarchs, pharaohs and more, and is an intriguing combination of ancient and modern - see Noah playing computer games for example. Thought-provoking and fun, enjoy with some well-balanced smooth three-star coffee.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Where do books go when they die?

Ah, the scent of the used book store. Charing Cross Road in London is filled with noise, people, traffic... and books. There's the famous Foyles for the bright and new, a reminder that books are alive and vibrant and fun. Then there are the used book stores, with their peculiar, wonderful scent, and their peculiarly wonderful assortment of fascinating literature. Used, perhaps; rejected even; but these books most surely aren't dead.

Closer to home, Oregon has  Powells, where new and old books share the walls, stand side by side, and proudly complain, we're not dead!

And then... One of my book reviews today proved peculiarly elusive. Not listed on Amazon. Not listed on Barnes and Noble. Not listed on Powells. I tried Smashwords - perhaps it's "just" an ebook - but it wasn't listed there either. I'd only been given the book in May, and my review's just a month overdue. So I wondered, where could the book have gone to in so short a time, and where do books disappear to when they die.

Proving it's not quite dead, I eventually found the book on Goodreads and posted my review. But there's something sad about the fact that the buy link goes nowhere. It renews my determination to keep my books on sale, somewhere, somehow, even if my latest quarterly payment won't buy me a single cup of coffee.

You'll have to buy your own coffee while you read this blog, I guess. Meanwhile I'll  savor its scent and offer you book reviews. Don't forget, the stars are for flavor, not for ratings.

First, I guess, is that absent, semi-demised friend, The Mind of the Living, by J Kaihua. It's more of a short story really, slightly mystical, ponderous, and gorgeously illustrated. Enjoy its answers to the questions of mankind and happines with a suitably intense cup of five-star coffee.

The Last Orphans by N W Harris poses questions of happiness and survival in the guise of a teen horror novel where a teenager balances love for family against care for himself and others, ultimately ending up caring for a band of survivors when the world falls apart. Gory but relatively clean, it's one to enjoy with a suitably bold, dark five-star coffee.

Shadows over Somerset by Bob Freeman is contemporary horror for a more adult audience, but it adheres pleasingly to the old rules of horror, with an authentic feel of plot and counter plot, age-old protagonist, new member in ancient society, and powers greater than mankind. Lots more dark five-star coffee required when reading this classically terrifying tale.

Eternal Curse, Giovani’s Angel, by Toi Thomas is another contemporary horror tale, set around another dark American mansion. The romance is heavier, and the faith more real and weighty than in Somerset. But the backstories run to greater length making it a slower read. Enjoy with another dark five-star coffee, and then...

Twin Powers by David Pereda is more suspense than horror, though there are some pretty horrifying scenes. When a child is kidnapped, both parents find they have dangerous secrets to reveal. The Castro family's involved, but the book spans continents and is chock-full of action, sensual and otherwise. Enjoy with another dark intense five-star coffee---I seem to be drinking lots of five-star coffee at the moment.

But here's something completely different: Storyality, by J T Velikovskyy, claims to present a scientific and empirical analysis of movies in an attempt to determine how they go viral, returning high percentage returns on investment. The result's not terribly scientific, though it's certainly interesting. And the best bit, well-hidden more than half-way through, is the use of golden ratios to design your story/screenplay. Skip the pseudo-science, and jump to the spiral, while enjoying a mild one-star coffee. Then write a book or screenplay that doesn't die.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

What do you do when you're asked to review?

I've read and reviewed books by A. J. York before. I know roughly how long they'll be. I know I'll enjoy the storylines, and I know A. J. York's very English voice will appeal to my English heritage. When I receive an email from her asking for another review, it's not hard to say yes. After all, this will be a quick, short, thoroughly enjoyable read, and I'll fit it in between my other commitments... eventually. Ms York is always very willing to wait, which helps a lot, since my other commitments are rapidly wearing me down.

I've read and reviewed lots of wonderful picture books from Wisdom Tales too. They are one of my favorite publishers of children's books, and their stories always blend cultural significance with immediate relevance in a thoroughly pleasing way. When they send an email asking for a review I always say yes. Picture books are lovely, uplifting, quick reads. And the time spent writing a review (probably longer than reading the book) is always time well spent as I get my thoughts and my priorities into order.

The Permanent Press sends me much longer books, literary novels, frequently with a mystery bent. They always arrive with plenty of time to read before the book comes out. I try to read each in a timely manner, and send pre-release reviews, counting myself lucky to be trusted by such an impressive publisher. So yes, I always say yes to them, and eagerly await their parcels.

Then there are websites like Blogging for Books which let me choose my own reads, but do tend to place demands on how quickly they'd like me to review (which is why I'm not doing so many Amazon Vine reviews anymore). Choosing my own entertainment can be great fun though, so I'll say yes, just as soon as I post the last review.

Meanwhile publicists send me emails or letters with information on books. I might agree to review something, depending on timescales, and how the subject or author appeals to me, and depending on my schedule. I'll usually invite the author to be a guest on my blog, hence all those great guest posts here. But book reviews for authors I've not heard of can take a long time - my current schedule is full until late next year!

Finally there are those emails from people who find me, randomly, on Amazon.

We're sure you'd love to review this lipstick, phone case, pencil sharpener... No really. No.
Dear Sheila, I hope all is well with you. I have a favor to ask... depends...
I think you would really enjoy my book... maybe, or
I wonder if you could take time from your busy schedule... perhaps before August 15th, 2016 perhaps?

What do you do when you're asked to review? I used to say yes to (almost) everyone. Then I learned to agree only if the book appealed to me. Eventually even those had to turn into "No. My review list is full until next year." But there are so many great books out there, so many I'd really love to read, so many I'd delight in reviewing, sometime, someplace...

and so many I really, really want to write.

If you asked for a review by August 15th, I've probably already replied and said I can't do it. There's no way I could fit anything longer than a picture book in. If you gave me more time and I still said no to you, please understand, it doesn't mean I wouldn't like your writing. And if I've asked you to wait then made you wait  longer, I apologize. For those who've given me a book to review, who are wondering what's the delay, please feel free to remind me when it takes too long. I always love to know the author cares about hearing back from me.

Meanwhile, here are some long-delayed reviews of some much-enjoyed recently-read volumes. Grab a coffee and see which ones you'd like to read (and review?) - authors love to be reviewed!

Starting with one I chose for myself - lucky me!

The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber seems to be everywhere, on all the big displays in all the big bookstores. It deserves to be there. It's a wonderful novel with faith, science, biology, love, hope and more, all perfectly blended together. Don't let anyone tell you what it's about. The story unfolds beautifully with perfect timing and smooth revelations to carry the reader far and further away. Enjoy some rich, elegant, complex coffe and sit down for a seriously good read!

Two children's books just had to be on the list:

Eliza Bluebell by AJ York is a lovely modern-day fairytale fantasy set in a small English country town, where the inhabitants learn from a slightly magical visitor (and her shadow) that they can do so much more than they imagined. Enjoy with a bright lively two-star coffee, and read with a smooth English accent.

The Thunder Egg, by Tim J. Myers, illustrated by Winfield Coleman, is another delightful Wisdom Tales picture book. The illustrations convincingly evoke a Native American background, and the story, though modern, reads with the haunting lyricism of myth, drawing from and speaking to many different cultures. A lonely girl learns just what she'll be willing to give for her community, and a community learns to value the outsider. Enjoy with some well-balanced, full-flavored three-star coffee.

Next come two dark novels of mystery and suspense...

Measure Twice By J J Hensley is part mystery, part police procedural, part psychological thriller. An unready detective works through the 12 steps of recovery, and salvation comes in unexpected guises. A dark, haunting tale with great dialog, well balanced horror and humor, and some fascinating complexities, this is one to enjoy with a bold, dark, intense cup of five-star coffee.

Blue Flame by MC Schmidt presents a different kind of mystery as an elderly man falls prey to the problems of the day, and his estranged son finally faces up to the past. It's an oddly powerful, compelling novel, told through multiple points of view. And it carries a great touches of hope in spite of its sorrow. Enjoy with an elegant complex four-star cup of coffee.

Finally, here are two novels that take Christian romance to more serious levels - not for unquestioning readers I guess:

Wind over Marshdale by Tracy Krauss is a story of romance, suspense, faith, listening to God, and the clashing cultures of indigenous peoples with comfortable small-town life. The drawing together of faiths is beautifully done, making this much more than the usual Christian romantic suspense. Enjoy with well-balanced, smooth-flavored three-star coffee. Then read Lone Wolf by the same author, and see how the story continues in the life of Thomas Lone Wolf. More well-balanced smooth three-star coffee would go well.