Three SFF Novels

I’ve fallen way behind on quick reviews, but I’m trying to catch up. Here are three favorite SFF novels from last year.

The MartianI avoided reading The Martian, by Andy Weir, for a long time for fear it would be depressing. An astronaut abandoned alone on Mars with limited supplies and no hope of rescue? Hey, I’ve read some pretty depressing science fiction in my time. Unlike romance, SF doesn’t come with the guarantee of a happy ending. But after a couple of friends recommended it, I picked up a copy.

And I loved it. Mark Watney, the protagonist and narrator (through his log entries), is a wonderful character, optimistic, determined, and endlessly ingenious. His specialty in botany comes in surprisingly handy on the dead red planet, and (since astronauts always have more than one specialty) being a mechanical engineer and general fix-it guy is even handier.

Although Mark and his adventures (if it can go wrong, it does, of course, but that’s just another challenge to Mark) hold center stage through the novel, we also, in due time, meet the earthbound NASA folks struggling to rescue him, as well as the crew of the Ares 3, now on their way back to Earth without him.

Draw your own conclusions from the fact that I enjoyed this book (and marveled at the author’s scientific knowledge and research) right down to (and including) the last page. I thoroughly enjoyed the movie, too, but they had to leave out a lot, of course. If you liked the movie, read the book, too.

Voyage of the Basilisk is Marie Brennan’s third Memoir by Lady Trent. I love this series, at least in part because Brennan and I share a background in anthropology, archeology, and folklore, which she puts Voyage of the Basiliskto wonderful and detailed use in constructing Isabella Camherst’s pseudo-Victorian world. In this volume, set several years after The Tropic of Serpents, Isabella sets off with her colleague Tom Wilker, her son Jake (now nine years old), and Jake’s governess aboard the research and trading ship Basilisk in search of new dragons to investigate and record.

Along the way, Isabella and her friends meet sea serpents, fire-lizards, dragon-turtles, and even a very angry Komodo dragon, are expelled from one territory and shipwrecked in another, and make some new discoveries about dragon bone and fire stone. Isabella includes in this memoir a good many things she did not sent home to the Winfield Courier (one of the sponsors of her expedition), including her friendship with an attractive Akhian archeologist who joins her party.

Voyage of the Basilisk answers some questions and raises new ones. The next volume, In the Labyrinth of the Drakes, will be out (and on my doorstep) on April 5.

Naomi Novik’s Crucible of Gold is the seventh installement in the saga of the Napoleonic Wars and Dragons, another series I love. While Marie Brennan’s dragons are wild animals of interest to her naturalist heroine, Novik’s dragons are intelligent and participate in society in a wide variety of ways.

Crucible of GoldTemeraire and his captain, Will Laurence, are respectively the dragon and human protagonists of Novik’s series, and this volume finds them pulled out of retirement and disgrace in Australia and sent to aid the Portuguese Royal Family, besieged in Brazil by African and French forces. Most of the novel follows their journey across the Pacific and South America, meeting one disaster after another. The book felt a bit like a long transition between book six (Tongues of Serpents) and book eight (Blood of Tyrants), but the writing is so good and the dragons so charming that I didn’t mind. Temeraire continues to refine his view of dragon/human relations as he meets new species and cultures, and the alternate history becomes more and more complex (the Inca Empire holds more than a few surprises). The ninth (and last) Temeraire novel (League of Dragons) will be waiting for me on June 14.

Books: Mystery With Humor

Corrie Locke, the heroine of Lida Sideris’ Murder and Other Unnatural Disasters, is a newly minted lawyer who has just landed her dream job as a contract attorney for a motion picture production company. Murder and Other Unnatural DisastersUnfortunately for Corrie (but not for the reader), Keith-Ameripictures appears to be staffed entirely by lunatics. And while all Corrie wants is to live a fairly normal life and hang on to her new job, her reputation, or rather her father’s, haunts her.

Corrie spent her teen years helping her private investigator dad solve cases, even cracking a few herself. And word has gotten around. One of the security people at her new job quickly pulls her into the mystery of a recent suicide that might have a more sinister explanation, a pro basketball player insists she hunt for his missing lucky (and extremely bad-tempered) cat, and a barely coherent rap star brings her a case of alien abduction.

Murder and Other Unnatural Disasters is a wild roller coaster ride, full of loony characters, snappy dialog, and at least one ruthless murderer. Fans of Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series will certainly enjoy the ride, and will spot a few common notes: Corrie’s self-appointed sidekick, Veera, reminds me of a better educated, better behaved, and definitely better dressed Lula, and Corrie finds her attention split between two attractive men: her long-time best friend Michael Parris and snarky, quick-thinking ADA James Zachary.

There are a lot of characters to keep track of, and abrupt transitions sometimes had me wondering where the characters were and how they got there. But the dialog is snappy and funny, and Corrie is an entertaining and sympathetic heroine as she navigates the perils of her new job, the temptations of investigating crime and craziness, and the dangers of raiding her mother’s padlocked and nanny-cammed closet for wardrobe emergencies. I hope this is the beginning of a new series and that Corrie, Veera, Michael, and James will be back. Put up your shingle, Corrie, and make your own dream job.

Speaking of Janet Evanovich, Tricky Twenty-Two is the latest in the long-running adventures of Stephanie Plum, the world’s most accident-prone bond enforcement agent. I can’t say worst, because Tricky Twenty-TwoStephanie usually gets her man (or occasional woman) in the long run, but along the way she destroys cars, gets beat up, goes to pre-funeral viewings with her gun-toting grandma, and wavers between two men, cop Joe Morelli and security ace Ranger Manoso.

I see a lot of snarky reviews from people who swear they’ll never read another book in this series, they’re terrible, they’re repetitious, etc. So, okay, don’t. (Like the people who want the TV shows they hate canceled, instead of just turning to another channel. Better yet, turn off the TV, folks.) Meanwhile, this installment hit Number One on the New York Times Bestseller list.

Yes, in Tricky Twenty-Two a few cars are destroyed (one of them by geese–now that’s different). Yes, Grandma takes her gun to a viewing or two, Lula eats her way through the book, Stephanie and Joe get crosswise, Stephanie moonlights for Ranger. Yes, if I were Stephanie I would have married Joe a long time ago.

These are comfort books. I know what’s coming–that’s why I buy them year after year. That’s why I enjoy them. I love the characters. I love the crazy messes Stephanie gets into. I’ll keep reading them as long as Evanovich keeps writing them. I’ve gotten bored with other mystery series and characters, but I still love Stephanie.

Books: Small Town Romance

In I’ll Stand By You, Sharon Sala returns to Blessings, Georgia, the locale of her novel The Curl Up And Dye and e-novella Color Me Bad, stand-alone stories tied together by the town and its often quirky inhabitants, and especially by Ruby Dye and her gossip-central beauty salon.

In this latest installment, Dori Grant, a determined seventeen year old with a six-month-old baby and I'll Stand By YouJohnny Pine, a twenty year old raising his two younger brothers, are brought together by tragedy. Both of them are viewed with suspicion by most of the townsfolk, Dori because she has never reveled the name of her baby’s father and Johnny because his father is in prison, his mother dead of a drug overdose.

Dori and Johnny, who knew each other only slightly back in the day when they were in school, soon find that with teamwork they may be able to care for the three little boys in their charge. But as the obstacles grow, so do the challenges: just how far will they go to keep things together? And how far will some of their neighbors go to tear them apart?

I’ll Stand by You is a sweet, warm novel of small town life, both the good and the bad. Its real strength lies in its characters: Dori, Johnny, and especially the two younger Pine boys, twelve-year-old Marshall and seven-year-old Beep. Reading it kept me up late, and that doesn’t happen often.

Sally Kilpatrick’s second novel, Bittersweet Creek, recasts Romeo and Juliet in small-town Tennessee. A decade ago, Romy Satterfield and Julian McElroy fell in love despite the long-standing feud between their families. In fact, they were secretly married, but on the night of their high school graduation, when they planned to leave town and start their new life together, Julian stood Romy up.

Crushed but never defeated, Romy went off to college and made her own new life in Nashville. Now Bittersweet Creekshe’s come back to Ellery (the setting of Kilpatrick’s terrific debut, The Happy Hour Choir) to help her injured father run the farm and her best friend run the class reunion, but most of all to get a divorce from Julian so she can marry Richard Paris, her wealthy fiance.

No one but Romy and Julian (and the justice of the peace) ever knew about the marriage, and Romy would just as soon keep it that way, but her dealings with Julian seem to get more complicated every time they meet. And somehow her view of Richard seems to change more and more the longer Romy stays on the farm.

Written in first person chapters alternating between Romy and Julian, with sections of Romy’s late mother’s “History of the Satterfield-McElroy Feud” here and there, Bittersweet Creek has humor, suspense, Shakespearean references, and family secrets. Highly recommended.

My New Toy: the Kindle Voyage

When I realized I’d read more titles on my Kindle than on paper in 2015, I decided it really was time to upgrade from the keyboard Kindle I bought in March of 2011. In the world of electronics, that’s practically an antique (begging pardon of my beloved computer, which is even older). I’d been dithering about the splurge for a number of reasons: my old Kindle worked fine, most of the time; there didn’t seem to be any easy way to transfer the contents of one Kindle to another; and the Voyage is pretty expensive.

And I dithered between the Voyage and the Kindle Paperwhite, which has pretty much the same software and, in the newest generation, the same resolution (300 ppi, as compared to 167 ppi for my old Kindle). When my friend Jo Anne recently upgraded, she chose the Paperwhite, and it is a beautiful ereader.

I read all the reviews and comparisons, and four features of the Voyage called to me: the flat glass surface, the self-adjusting lighting, the multiple page-turning methods, and the “origami” case Amazon sells for it. So I splurged, ordered a Voyage and a leather case, and hoped it would be all I wanted.

It is. I love it. I’ve had the Voyage for about ten days now, and if I thought my first Kindle was magic five years ago, this one has it beat all over.

It has taken some getting used to. It took me a couple of days to learn to “tap” when turning pages or using the menus. You can also turn pages by swiping (one direction forward, the other back) or by pressing the bezel (as for the “haptic feedback” connected with the bezel-pressing method, I can’t feel it through the case; without the case there is a faint “clunk” somewhere in the back of the Kindle. Pointless, in my opinion, but I suppose some people like it). The menus are a bit different from those on my old Kindle, and I made good use of the User Guide. The Internet connection (WiFi or 3G) seems to be on by default—to turn it off (and save the battery) you must go into the menu system and turn on “airplane mode.”

VoyageThe Voyage in its case is much smaller and easier to hold than my old Kindle in its much larger lighted case. The Voyage is made of magnesium and glass, not plastic, and its case is magnetic. The folded easel configuration is exactly what I’d hoped for, allowing comfortable hands free reading. The Voyage turns on when you open the case and off when you close it.

The resolution and contrast make the text extremely sharp, and I read comfortably at a smaller type size (there are six fonts to choose from, the default being Bookerly, developed for the newer Kindles) than I could on my old one. The difference between the paper white Voyage and the grayish/greenish keyboard Kindle (what color is that, anyway?) is stunning. The screen is indeed flat—no annoying bezel edges to catch those tiny bits of hair when I read under the dryer when I have my hair cut.

The software allows several choices for display at the bottom of the screen. The percentage remains in the bottom right corner, but the Reading Progress menu allows you to choose Page Number (if available), Time left in Chapter, Time Left in Book, Location, or nothing at all to display in the bottom left corner. (I never did see much use for Location as a reader, although it is useful for reporting typos and such to friends who actually want that sort of feedback.) And there’s the Page Flip function, and About the Book, and several other goodies that don’t exist on my old Kindle. Probably some I haven’t even found yet.

As for the 350 or so items sitting in my Amazon cloud, I’m just leaving most of them there, at least for the time being. I’ve set up a few collections on my Voyage (the touch screen keypad is so much easier to use than the mechanical keyboard on my old Kindle), downloaded two or three books into each one to get started, and established the Voyage as my default device so new purchases will go to it. I can identify every title I’ve bought on the Kindle app on my computer and then find it in the cloud. Some I’ve read, some I downloaded, early on, because they were free and will never remember to read, and some I’ll just download when I’m ready for them.

And by the way, if you already have a Kindle wall charger (from when they came with the Kindle, as I think they should), you don’t need to put out twenty bucks for a new one. The old one will work just fine.

Writer Wednesday: The TBR Pile

This month’s topic is “Show Us Your TBR Pile.”

Well, I don’t have To Be Read piles. I have To Be Read shelves.

There are a few more unread books scattered around, on a shelf above my bed, on the back of the living room couch, on the bottom of a bookcase that’s mostly full of DVDs. But here are the bulk of my TBR books.

TBR Shelves

A while back when I realized I could no longer find anything, I reorganized the shelves in my bedroom. More recently I held a purge, passing a lot of books I wasn’t going to read (or reread) on through Half Price Books. What’s left are the books I really mean to read. One of these days.

Up there by the blue elephant, those are steampunk novels and stories. One the next level down, the left and center sections are science fiction, with the occasional fantasy. To the right, romance. More romance left and center on the next shelf down, while the right hand section holds mysteries. The bottom shelf is general fiction, thrillers, historical novels, that sort of thing, with a few nonfiction books on the center right. (Those are Harry Potter and Tolkien over on the right—I’ve read them.)

We’re not even talking about my Kindle, either. Lots of TBR books there. I’ve just bought a Voyage to download them to. Tell you more about that soon.

The Wednesday Writers are a little shorthanded this month, but do visit Tamra Baumann, Priscilla Oliveras, Jean Willett, and Sharon Wray for more TBR piles. We’ll be back next month with our tales of romantic dates.

WW January

Cheryl Bolen’s One Golden Ring

In One Golden Ring, Cheryl Bolen visits one of her favorite situations, the marriage of convenience. When Lady Fiona Hollingsworth learns that her brother is being held for ransom by Spanish bandits, she decides that the only collateral she has with which to raise 25,000 pounds is herself, and her status as the daughter of an earl. Even though her late father left a near-worthless estate to her missing brother, she knows her own value as a member of the ton. So she approaches extremely wealthy businessman Nicholas Birmingham, offering marriage and social standing in exchange for her brother’s ransom.

One Golden RingAt first thought, Nick Birmingham rejects the idea of marriage, although he is willing to loan, or even give, the ransom to the lovely Lady Fiona. Known as the Fox of the Exchange, Nick spends his days making money and his nights with ladies who are not Ladies. But when his brother Adam tells him he’s a fool to reject the marriage, Nick begins to realize just how attracted he is to Fiona, and accepts her offer.

Fiona and Nick are each cautiously pleased to find how well they get along, in the bed chamber as well as in the drawing room. But convenience does not equal confidence, and both have their reservations. Fiona believes that Nick has married her only for her social status (that was the agreement, after all), and knows about his recent mistress. Is her husband still seeing the pretty actress? And why won’t Nick discuss his business activities with her?

Nick believes Fiona has married him only for his money (that agreement, again), and that she is still in love with the earl to whom she was once engaged, before he married another woman (in Bolen’s The Counterfeit Countess).

Tensions build over differences in social standing as well as more practical matters. Can Fiona accept Nick’s young illegitimate daughter? Will her snobbish brother forgive her for marrying the businessman who provided his ransom? Can Nick rescue his own brother from peril? And what will happen when Nick’s shy sister discovers the true identity of the man she’s met in the park?

Bolen pulls all the threads together in a delightful story of two people who are just a little too restrained to admit to their unexpected love for one another, so obvious to all those around them, in a most enjoyable Regency romance.

Happy New Year! And, Of Course, Books

Welcome to 2016. My resolutions are always pretty much the same. Write more. Publish something. Declutter the house. Lose a few pounds. Read more.

I actually did pretty well on that last one in 2015. I had read 48 books in 2014, and joined Goodreads. So when Goodreads put up the reading challenge, I aimed for 50 books in 2015. I actually finished 72.

Now, admittedly, some of those books were fairly short. Epublishing has opened the field for novellas and short novels; books no longer have to reach a certain length to be financially viable if they don’t have to live on paper. Even so, Goodreads tells me that I read 20,131 pages last year (up from 13,641 in 2014).

I depend on Goodreads for page totals, and who knows how accurate they are on ebooks? But I do keep my own list of the books I read, and I can report that in 2015 I read nineteen romances, twenty-six mysteries, seven science fiction/fantasy novels, five general fiction, and fifteen nonfiction books, eleven of those related to writing or DIY publishing. This year I read 38 books on my Kindle, slightly more than half, up from my previous average (since I bought my Kindle in 2011) of about one third ebooks. (Maybe that would justify replacing my near-antique keyboard Kindle with a nice new paperwhite model.)

I must have been lucky or cautious in my choice of reading material: Goodreads tells me that my average rating was 4.4 stars, and I do try to rate and review what I read. I also know what goes into writing a novel, so perhaps I’m inclined to be generous.

I have not done a lot of writing this year. WordPress tells me I only published 38 blogs, less than one a week, in 2015. I’ll try to do more of that in 2016, keeping up my essay writing skills. I still have quite a few of those 72 books to tell you about, so I’ll start on those next week.

I did finish writing the third novel in my Jinn series, Jinn on the Rocks, but now I need to do considerable editing on the three Jinn books before I can seriously approach publishing them—when I wrote the first one, Jinn & Tonic, I had no idea I was starting a series, and the world of Pandemonia has expnded quite a bit. I’ve been reading and researching the self-publishing process, and it does sound like such a lot of work. Marketing doesn’t appeal to me at all. So I’ve been dragging my feet.

I think this year I’ll aim for reading 60 books—five a month, I can do that. And I’ll start the decluttering with the old office. And stick with the exercise bike. And start a new manuscript.

Happy New Year, and I wish you the best of luck with whatever you hope to accomplish in 2016.

Books, Books and More Books

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