Articles and Reviews

How High We Go in the Dark, a Review

Sequoia Nagamatsu’s collection of interlocking stories spanning centuries, explores plague and how we deal with loss. The characters are diverse and intricately linked and the plot is wildly imaginative. How does one relate talking pigs, to funerary skyscrapers, to euthanasia theme parks, to melting permafrost? Read and find out. Be aware How High We Go in the Dark has very dark moments (including the loss of children) but a strand of hope runs through out. Highly recommended.

Splinter Town! A Review.

(Or, so this kind of cross-genre illustrates why we need indie authors)

Splinter Town, an autonomous island nation off the coast of Wales, must fend off an English incursion! Will the ingenuity of the town’s people, their spies, and the efforts of a rogue assassin be enough to to preserve the town’s independence? And what evil propels the corrupt prime minister and his allies?
This genre defying book is a fun read. Highly atmospheric with rust and brine aplenty, and full of unexpected twists and turns, this novel is a complete story set in a highly alternate 1920s. Those of you who enjoyed The Hammond Conjecture will also enjoy Splinter Town.

And now there’s more! Peter Maloy continues the Splinter Town saga in Splinter Town Fall. The Splintertonians are negotiating a new treaty with England, but England’s up to no good again, and the town and its secret operatives are put in great peril. But unbeknownst to the good people of Splinter Town, they’ve made friends in the oddest of places. Meanwhile, Splinter Town’s airship crew explores the American continent, hoping to find a new population of their aquatic allies.

Splinter Town Fall
continues this deeply imaginative series and kept me on the edge of my seat! I’m still worried about Splinter Town, its citizens, and operatives. Fortunately, as the cliffhanger suggests, more’s to come.

Remnant Population, a Review

In Elizabeth Moon’s Remnant Population, a colony’s corporate overlords order all residents off the planet. But elderly Ofelia, who has had quite enough of being bossed around, chooses to remain, a remnant population of one. Or so she believes, until she hears new of new colonists and an unexpected indigenous population. Ofelia, overlooked an devalued by her culture, turns out to be exactly the person the situation needs for an amicable resolution. This novel is perfect for those tired of typical heroines. Excellent first contact/anthropological sci-fi! And a terrific portrayal of an older woman settled into her time of life, no condescension, no cuteness.

The Journeyman – A fantasy/horror adventure.

Three people board a doomed bus: a wayward teen, a disabled vet, and an autistic child. But their problems don’t end after a snowy crash ends their lives.

A brutal despot rules purgatory. Instead of helping souls move on, he drains souls and harvests their energy. Purgatory has devolved into a nightmarish decrepit America rife with bandits and the insane.

Will a trio of unlikely heroes and their bizarre found family overcome the odds and save eternity? This richly imagined contemporary fantasy/horror adventure works as an adult or young adult fiction. Recommended!

The History of Soul 2065, A Review

Not your typical family saga…

This gorgeous set of interlocking stories follows the souls of two families as they navigate the 20th and 21st centuries.

Each story is the literary equivalent of a gem and collectively tell a tale with elements of magical realism, fantasy, paranormal, and science fiction. The stories celebrate humanity and cover entire arc of life, from cradle to grave, and beyond.

Deeply emotional and beautifully written. Highly recommended.

Birds and the Vagaries of Reality; It’s All Just Too Complicated.

An Out-take from Sounds out of Time

Martin Davis, defrocked rock star, sat clutching his coffee cup. The warm porcelain soothed his perpetually cold fingertips, a curse on these frigid Nordic countries. Out the window, jagged peaks were hard etched into a blazing blue sky. The sanitarium’s garden was far too green. The lake’s indigo was far too indigo. Nature screeched with too much colour and harsh line, far too much for his shattered nerves. How he suffered.

He sipped the coffee. Caffeine might take the edge off his black mood and the relentless cravings, but wouldn’t it be better if he could transform caffeine into cocaine molecule by molecule? Shouldn’t be too much to ask. After all, Pam had come by bird attracting superpowers out of the blue and for absolutely no reason. Somebody of his stature, or former stature, deserved one small chemical superpower.

Somebody plopped down on the lounge chair opposite. So rude. The facility had several small lounge areas. Why must this toadstool intrude? The bloke crossed one institutional powder-blue jumpsuit-clad leg over the other. According to the clinic director, Dr Bauthman, the unisex outfits equalised all inmates. But as far as he was concerned, the jumpsuits only made everybody look like extras in a sci-fi film. And this bloke in front of him belonged in sick-bay or the brig.

Yes, with one eye squinted, the other eye open wide as if terrified, but terrified only on one side of his body, this bloke was undoubtedly one of the mental cases.
Even the jumpsuits couldn’t disguise the fact that two classes of inmate occupied this sanatorium: addicts and mental cases. The addicts were his set: higher class, more interesting, and suffering agonies he could relate to. Whereas the mental cases were…strange, talking nonsense, moving oddly, or staring off into space. But the unrealistic director felt both populations should mix and mingle. His eyes began to roll as he considered the doctor’s do-goodism. But bloody hell! Half way through the roll, he’d made the worst mistake one could make. He’d made eye contact with a madman.

The nutter shook his close-cropped head and wagged a finger. “Listen, man. Birds aren’t real.”

They weren’t? No, wait. Of course birds weren’t…were real. This statement confirmed his impression that the man was a mental case. As extra proof, he sounded American. Most Americans, even the sane ones, were completely crazy. Diets, religions, and conspiracy theories abounded across the pond; he knew. He’d just spent a year living in California, an epicentre of crazy. Of course, the English were mad as well, but British insanity was more genteel, often involving offbeat and obsessive hobbies such as niche gardening, bug collecting, or train spotting.

Just then, a plump grey bird fluttered by the window, alighted on a branch, and surveyed them with a beady eye, a dove of some kind, appearing gentle and possibly tame.

“See! Watching us. Just like I said,” Martin’s unwanted companion whispered. Then he covered his face with his hand and scurried off, darting looks behind himself, and ducking from doorway to chair to doorway as if pretending to be James Bond under fire.

***

A few days later, he was hard at work at his new job: folding. Doctor Bauhaus had stationed him in the laundry, thinking that the relative isolation would shield incredibly famous, handsome, and glamorous Martin Davis from unwanted attention. Although Martin almost always simultaneously wanted and didn’t want attention, he agreed with the doctor’s decision. His nerves were shattered, no, bullet riddled, no, eviscerated, and he needed peace and quiet. Besides, right now, he couldn’t trust himself around others. He’d already been snappish and otherwise not very rock-and-roll to a few fellow inmates.

The crisp hand towel held the scent of tumbled dry cleanliness, a sunshiny, bleachy smell that suggested all was right with the world. And he was an excellent folder; his creases always sharp, his folds uniform, and his stacks even. Maybe he wasn’t as quick as the others, but the task wasn’t about quantity, was it? No. The task was about perfection and soothing his nerves. And yes, sometimes he considered snorting the towels’ fine white cotton loops, but only on a bad day.

“Like I was telling you, it’s not birds. It’s B.I.R.D. Bio-electronic individual reconnaissance device.”

What? Oh. God. The bird-fixated nutter was here, in his laundry, folding at the table near the door! As expected, he was a poor folder. Uneven layers, bent corners, branched folds abounded in his done pile. Disastrous. Martin stepped over to serve as an example and provide some aid.

“I considered your hypothesis.” Years tuned to Open University were still paying off with words like “hypothesis.” “But what about the poops? Must be real to poop, mustn’t one.”

The bloke glanced around the room, as if expecting eavesdroppers, and whispered, “Tracking devices.”

Martin flapped open a towel for refolding. “Tracking devices?”

“Shh! Keep your voice down. Microelectronic radio-emitters embedded in a gel-like substrate. Why do you think eighty-five per cent of bird poop falls on cars and other vehicles? Think about it, man. They want to know where we go.”

“Perhaps, but how would you explain the mulberry tree?” He demonstrated his signature move, a crisp half-fold, then a tri-fold flip with the thumbs. Press the lower half to his belly then fold down, and voilà.

“What’cha mean?”

“The tree isn’t even on my Mum’s property. It leans over from Mrs Fitzhugh’s next door. Mrs Fitzhugh, by the way, sells shoes in town, hence she’s a person of no interest to the government and doesn’t even own a car. But flocks of birds land and eat those berries, squawking and flapping like real birds. Then they perch on the wire that runs to our house and shit purple all over Mum’s car.” Well, when he’d been living at home and had forgotten to pull the car into the garage, which was often because of the spider… “A real junker that car, and believe me, Mum is also of no interest to the government. Why track a suburban library assistant, I ask you? Consider with a clear head; most people aren’t that interesting. Are they? Most people’s worst crime is pinching the odd secretarial supply from the office. Following everybody via bird poop to track a few boxes of paperclips could never be worth the expense.”

Martin looked up, expecting a rebuttal, but the man had disappeared.

***

During his afternoon session with Dr Bathhouse, Martin stated his case in support of “real birds”. The doctor stroked his moustache, possibly covering up a smile. Not that Martin blamed the stout little subcontinental. The situation was entirely ridiculous.

“You were generous to carefully consider Mr Peterson’s theories.”

Still clinging to the idea Martin Davis was a good person, was he? Truth be told, Martin Davis was a gullible, thick witted rotter, a fact that’d been proved time and again.

“Well, Peterson was somewhat convincing, given his grasp of advanced technology. You don’t suppose he’s from another time?”

The doctor chuckled. “No, Mr Peterson is from this time, an era in which many struggle with critical thinking and rational thought. But Mr Peterson’s delusions have been especially persistent. I don’t recommend trying to argue him out of his theories.”

***

The next morning, Martin strolled the sanitarium’s extensive grounds hoping to clear his head of last night’s Technicolor monstrosity of a dream. Dr Baumner promised the dreams would pass, once he’d thoroughly detoxed. “Soon.” When exactly was soon? Not bloody soon enough.

He paused under a tree which was shedding little white things, petals or seeds. He bent and scooped up a handful. Oh, God. Suddenly, a heap of cocaine lay before him, and he was carefully carving it into lines with his monogrammed silver razor blade, the subtle scritch of razor across mirror. Gradually, he tamed the powder into perfectly straight parallel lines of ecstasy. Then the rolling of a C-note, a delicate snort, a numbing tang on his palate. He could almost feel the rush.

But, no. He was on his knees in a carpet of plant bits outside a dry-out clinic. Reality could be so cruel.

Peterson stepped from behind the tree. “Conspiracy goes back to J. Edgar himself. He commissioned NASA to design the bioelectrics and radio-frequency eye transmitters. He authorized the mass avicide. Without real birds, entire ecosystems are collapsing, thanks to the CIA. Happy to spell out the tie-in to Watergate, if you need me to.”

Martin ran his hand over the false-coke and silently grieved at the turn his life had taken. Sure, Doc Balustrade recommended against arguing with this lunatic. But damn it, if these tree-droppings couldn’t be cocaine, then bird-droppings couldn’t be radio-transmitters either. Fair was fair.

“Listen. It’s just not true. I know birds. My wife sings to birds, and they like her. They even protect her. So, I’ve seen birds up close. And very recently, a bird died from a gunshot, BAM, right in front of my face. Blood splattered everywhere—real blood, no wires, no gubbins, no knobs. And if the birds were real, the whale must’ve been real too. And it was! I felt the whale’s skin under my fingers. Trust me; it was real. So were the barnacles. Listen, NASA can put a man on the moon, but they can’t make a bioelectric whale with real-feeling skin. No way.”

Silence hung in the air like a group of friends ignoring a fart, the usual reaction to Martin Davis babbling nonsense. He sighed. It was all so exhausting.

Hands in pockets, head hanging, Peterson used the toe of his shoe to scrape a semicircle in the plant snow. “Sorry man. Sounds like you have serious problems. Better talk to the doc about the…um…whale.”

Then a plop sounded close to his left ear. He turned his head seeing a gooey bird dropping sliding down the shoulder of his powder-blue jumpsuit. Above, a big black crow loosed a raucous caw and winged away.

Peterson eyed the whitish goo and shot him a meaningful look. “Better clean that off ASAP.”

***

But was Peterson correct? Decide for yourself at https://birdsarentreal.com/

A Queen Among Crows by M.S. Linsenmayer, A Review

Steampunk-Alternate History-Magical Fantasy and Talking Crows!

1908-Russia: A scrappy intelligence officer from war torn North America hires herself out as a mercenary in the service of Catherine the Great. Both women are “Queens,” descendants of the Gods possessing certain powers. Eryma communes with crows, and her birds provide reconnaissance and protection. Though bashed, battered and covered in tread marks, she plans to help recover a crash-landed asteroid in exchange for eternal youth. But both Catherine’s court and Eryma’s plans are suffused with intrigue. 

A complex series of events ensues laced with historical distortions, magic, monsters, blood, gore, and a steam punk feel. The plot unfolds gradually, and Eryma’s intentions and history are delivered in bits and pieces, leaving room for reveals and plot twists. And the novel excels in characterization, including Eryma who’s battered but tough and resolute with a goofy sense of humor.

“Other women may have had beauty, class and romance; I had wit, experience, and explosives. The latter, in my experience, solves more problems than romance does.”

Grim, hard-living, violent, and lusty Dame July provides a frenemy-romance, and several acts of savagery. And Eryma’s crow community includes both a corvid genius and a comedian. 

     “So, if I am dead, which religion was correct?” I mused aloud.

“Yog-Slaggoth,” Lois stuck her head through the drapes “The Elder tentacled on is coming to dine on us later. Please be properly shaved, greased, and seasoned by five.”

If you’re after diversity, banter, wordplay, action, and strong female characters, A Queen Among Crows is your book. However, please observe the CLIFF HANGER WARNING sign and don’t tumble off at the end of the novel. Stand alone readers may be disappointed. On the bright side, several additional volumes of this series are already out and available.

  1. Genres: LGBTQ+ Science Fiction, Steampunk Fiction, Alternate History, Fantasy.
  2. Humor: Interlaced
  3. Violence: High
  4. Diversity: High
  5. Sex: Closed Door
  6. Warnings: CLIFF HANGER (but series completed)

Hotel Bars and the Art of Life’s Third Stage

Hotel Bars and a number of other stimuli triggered my consciousness to consider how life’s three stages intersect with literature. According to Daisy, the three stages of life should be titled:

Childhood, sexual, and the difficult to name one, postsexual.

As you’ve probably noticed, humans are obsessed by life’s sexual stage during which the focus is finding a partner in order to procreate then rearing and supporting children. Naturally many readers new to this stage flock to steamy “emerging adult” titles, erotica, and romance. Those in the child-rearing portion of this stage might crave the romance or thrills they’ve missed whilst changing diapers or being passed over for promotion, and reach for escapist titles; thrillers, fantasy, mysteries, and romance, because; let’s face it, adult life is difficult.

Second-stage literature encompasses the bulk of titles because second-stagers are obsessed with sex and spend money. And many still seek outwardly to define themselves, features that draw market savvy authors like flies to honey.

Eighty-five percent of content focuses on characters in the thirteen to thirty range.

However the postsexual generation also reads. Sure, some of them are satisfied by the same titles as younger readers. But some of the older set have lost interest in certain aspects of life’s earlier stages. Some have reached the conclusion that romance and heroics don’t hold life’s answers.

Right after finishing Hotel Bars, I came across Midlife Witch Unexpected in a independent authors group promotion. Midlife Witch exemplifies “paranormal women’s fiction,” a literary genre which places a forty-plus heroine in a plot combining elements of urban fantasy, paranormal romance, and/or mystery. Intrigued, I did a bit of research into the genre.

Detail from “The Crone Age,” an example of paranormal women’s fiction. However, in real life very few menopausal witches retain this bust to waist ratio.

Have to say, I was amused by the women depicted on some of these novel’s covers, many appearing twenty-years shy of forty. The genre seems to focus on “magic, romance, and starting over.” In short, a child-free woman over forty divorces, moves to a new location, discovers special powers, saves the town or solves the case, and finds a hunky dude. At a glance, the underlying messages seem to be resilience, coping with change, and remaining powerful, attractive, and visible as an older woman.

I’m reminded of a side-of-the road billboard featuring a group of very fit almost naked older people captioned “Can you see us now?” The billboard seemed to be part of a campaign raising awareness of older adults. As an introvert, my response to the billboard was “why would you want to be seen?” And I wonder, how many third stagers care about being seen by the general population. How many still chase, public acclaim or being attractive to a younger hunky dude? What percentage? Aren’t many happy to be left to their gardening, bowls club, bicycling, and game streaming? But paranormal women’s fiction is popular, so the notion of using supernatural powers to dive back into second-stage must appeal to many readers.

Aren’t any forty-somethings and fifty-plusses writing stories about the meaning of life? Or does everyone remain captivated by the love theme?

So I queried on my sci-fi/fantasy group for novels featuring older female protagonists who are okay with themselves. Who don’t feel deficient or tossed aside. Who aren’t seeking a replacement man, replacement family, replacement career to create meaning for themselves in middle age and beyond. I’ll let you know what I uncover.

Maybe part of the issue is that stage three is an extraneous blip of existence, featuring people past prime reproductive age, with minimal evolutionary purpose. Maybe there is no meaning for this group.

But people who’ve lost meaning are usually unhappy, and studies show life happiness peaks around age sixty. Presumably,  everything is less fraught; the kids are gone, the pets are dead, the job is over. Hobbies are still doable. Friends are still healthy and alive. Perhaps oldsters appreciate these experiences more keenly because they’re less embroiled in drama, and they know time is short. Maybe if you’re lucky, drama comes earlier in life. And maybe contentment’s lack of drama accounts for the dearth of third-stage literature.

Of course not everyone ages well. Some people go very dark and looney, wreak great havoc, and make great fodder for novels. Consider Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, a mystery featuring a deeply eccentric older woman.

And the activities of contented older people, whether they’re meditating, contributing to the community, writing novels, crafting, or caring for grandchildren “reverberate until the end of time, in some small way.” And may be of literary interest. Just consider Miss Marple.

Hotel Bars and the Art of Being Conscious by August Delp, A Review

Hotel Bars and the Art of Being Conscious is more of a thought experiment than a novel but a thought experiment well worth reading.

After Daisy drops her teenage son off at boarding school, she’s officially an empty nester. What should she do with the last phase of her life, the phase past child rearing, mate seeking, and striving?

These questions are pretty first world, and Daisy is a highly fortunate first world-type. She played her cards right in the dot.com era and has no economic concerns. So seated comfortably at the pinnacle of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, highly cerebral, alone but not lonely Daisy contemplates life.

In the beyond stage, though, a person doesn’t really need anyone else. At that point, all you really need to do is die, and everyone dies alone.

Daisy decides to seek meaning through experience, and the experience she chooses is bar-tending. Sure, bar-tending is social, and she’ll meet all sorts of interesting people, but Daisy is also an alcoholic, highly functional, but an alcoholic none the less. And interestingly, as she dissects her personal meaning of life, she’s entirely untroubled by her alcoholism. Much and varied alcohol is convivially consumed in the course of this tale without ill effect to the point that this book might not suit a reader in recovery.

Through bar-tending, she encounters several characters who aid her search, and the novel includes a subplot revolving around scientist Bianca. The subplot doesn’t add much interest, but the character adds philosophic and scientific street cred to some of the conversations.

But Daisy must defines her meaning of life alone, and the result is interesting, especially for readers traversing middle age and points beyond.