Wednesday, November 29, 2017

DEAD AMERICANS AND OTHER STORIES, Ben Peek's excellent SFnal collection

DEAD AMERICANS and Other Stories

ChiZine Publications (non-affiliate Amazon link)
Out of print; available at various prices from various vendors

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Welcome to a world where bands are named after the murderer of a dead president, where the work of Octavia E. Butler is turned into an apocalypse meta-narrative, and John Wayne visits a Wal-Mart.

A world where a dreaming Mark Twain has visions of Sydney, where a crime begins in a mosque, and answers are given to a questionnaire you never read.

Where a dying sun shines over a broken, bitter landscape, and men and women tattoo their life onto their skin for an absent god.


My Review: Disclaimer: I like Ben as a social-media acquainted person. And isn't it a little sad that I need to say that.

What Ben Peek offers to discerning SFnal readers is the same thing that the camera obscura offers artists. He flips the image, sharpens the edges, and shines brighter for the darkness around him. He writes about the world through the fish-eye lens of an observer of the human comedy, often without revealing his own stake in it. These stories offer the reader the unmissable opportunity to take a bite-sized portion of the well-stocked buffet of Ben's imagination. He's written a fantasy trilogy that I think you should read as well, but for now get your mental palate used to the creator's caviar with these ten tales. I will, comme d'habitude, give short responses to them (the Bryce Method, in other words) below.

There Is Something So Quiet and Empty Inside of You That It Must Be Precious styles itself a murder mystery. What you wonder as you read it is not whodunit or why, but what the hell took so long. And then the bottom drops out. 3.5 stars

The Dreaming City brings the Winds of Change to Australia via the (factual) 1895 visit of Mark Twain ("the most American of Americans") to Sydney. From there, the Dreamtime grabs Samuel Clemens and brooms away centuries of rage and outrage, replacing them with outrage and rage. 4 stars

Johnny Cash is formally experimental and hugely Australian and left me scratching my ear and just slightly flushed with the embarrassed sense of Not Getting the Joke. 3.5 stars

Possession begins the short cycle of steampunkish dystopian future-earth (?) tales that are the gems of the collection. A Botanist lives inside the Shaft, a void in a dying earth (?) that she relishes for its grant of invisibility to God. Then Rachel falls into her life, the uninvited monster Returned being, and the world ends for them both. 4.5 stars

The Souls of Dead Soldiers are for Blackbirds, Not Little Boys regales us with the nightmare of eternal war, lost futures, and a red sun whose blackbirds eat only the cruelly used and abandoned victims. Gave me bone-shudders as I felt the reality of reincarnation hit me for the first time. 4.5 stars

The Funeral, Ruined dissects the intersection of love and character, without sparing either from a dark-adapted eye. May very well be my favorite story because "And yet, despite herself, she did not." 5 stars

Under the Red Sun is hands down the most technically accomplished story in the collection, and merits my shared favoritism. William who loved Jonas is desperate enough to go to him in his hour of starkest need; Jonas who loved William is regretful enough to help him despite knowing, fully knowing, that it will cause more hurt than any mortal man can bear. 5 stars

John Wayne (as written by a Non-American) is my least favorite story because Wayne wasn't 6'4", didn't have a folksy way of talkin', and was brutally racist so one moment in the time we spend with him makes no sense; oh, and it's Sixth Avenue, LaGuardia be damned with his stupid Americas name. An alternate reality? Yeah, okay, but I'd need a lot more to make me buy in. 3 stars

Octavia E. Butler (a remix) gets, really gets, how sexual predation occurs. I remember little else after the awful sense of having my mother carefully normalize horrible things came rushing back to me. That is why this is a very good, in a technical sense, story; again, we're in an alternate not-Butler's-actual-world. Much to appreciate in this examination of horrors become norms. 3.5 stars

theleeharveyoswaldband is a funny, wickedly sharp recasting of a modern American legend. Timeless, of course, as all legends are, but the only story rooted in an explicit time and that's one that's fast disappearing in the rear-view mirror. The Internet, back when it was capitalized, was a wild and wonderful thing. It got things wrong, gloriously and completely wrong, and the story of Lee is an example of one such thing. Back in capitalized days, the audience was smaller...anyone remember Google-whacking?...and it was possible to make some joyful noise. I think Ben Peek misses that. 4 stars

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

THE STONE, first in an Irish-mythology infused urban fantasy series starring two gay men

(Lockstone #1)
Wolfline Publishing (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$4.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: A stone holds an ancient secret—and the key to present-day terror.

A murder-suicide was only the beginning.

Seven years ago, Liam’s father picked up a gun, killed his family then himself. Liam was left behind to carry the burden and the guilt.

Now Liam only wants to finish college and live a normal life. But when he is handed a stone, a stone that appears plain, he is catapulted into an unknown world of mystery and magic…

…and mayhem.

A CIA agent finds himself a part of something with more secrets than the government he works for.

Patrick possesses a psychic ability to find people. Coerced to find Liam, their first meeting reawakens an ancient connection. Together, they find themselves in the midst of a culling, the destruction of a secret society formed millennia ago.

Destiny unites a group of strangers to face an antediluvian evil that has the world as its prize.

The Stone is a paranormal, urban fantasy adventure that involves a secret agent, a law man, and a gay guy who becomes a hero.

This novel features an LGBT relationship with a low-heat romantic subplot.


My Review: I don't see much Irish mythology used in fantasy literature, pace Kevin Hearne. And don't mistake me, I love Atticus and Oberon, but they need more company. One problem with folks wanting to use Irish mythology is, I am surprised to learn, its decentralized nature. How Irish, to resist any attempt to codify, regularize, organize its story culture.

And ain't that grand! It gives Author Carter a pretty damn free hand with his world-building, and that is a really good thing. Carter's free hand is played really, really well. The Irish gods and goddeses, the fabled TirNaNog, all used well as both background and setting for the scary action of the story.

What I will say is that the author needed a copy editor as well as a conceptual editor. I hope the current Kindle files are corrected.

So there's this kid named Liam. He's a super-survivor, both of a mass murder and suicide. He's living a pretty ordinary young gay man's life in Chicagoland, going to school, hanging with his buds, his BFF the beautiful and damaged young woman whose wisdom is among his anchors. His aunt, the woman who raised him after his father murdered his entire family in front of his unbelieving eyes, is his other anchor. He chairs a local suicide survivors' meeting as a way of coping with the overwhelming depression that he barely surfs the curls of.

And then comes Patrick. Well, first comes a looney old homeless guy who stalks him, gives him a weird stone, and dies in front of him (seems to be a trope with this guy, huh?); then comes Patrick the Navy SEAL/CIA agent. Hot, hunky Patrick of the many skills. Sadly, included among the skills is a deep familiarity with how to make people die. Of course, first Patrick has to find them, and he's *very* good at that...too good for it to be chance or coincidence. Hmm. And Patrick's been—incentivized—to find Liam and, well, enough about that.

So Liam meets Patrick and KER-BLAM instalove complete with magic peen! A romance cliche if ever there was one. Ah, ye of little faith. There's method in Author Carter's madness, there is. For Liam is suddenly the Hot Young Thing in the sights of all sorts of people! They are sliding out of the woodwork to get them a piece of Liam. Strangers of astounding physical attractiveness, not just Patrick; strangers who make Liam's skin crawl and provoke violence from him that he had never ever considered himself capable of.

And then there's that magical, mythical side of the story, replete with monsters out of myth and very, very bad hombres with end-of-the-world-y notions that involve all kinds of bloody horrors, families whose sole purpose it has been to keep the bad hombres in their place on the other side of a magical veil, gorgeous men with mystical knowledge galore, and the FBI.

Yep, that FBI. An agent whose role and relationship to Liam and his newly discovered magical side is as yet undefined, but guaranteed to be more than it seems. This is a first-in-series book, so Author Carter is doling out knowledge as you need to know it, but you can't have read for as long as I have and not see the writing on the wall. Agent Zach, Liam, and Patrick are not through with each other, and their connections are not going to be of the simple, straightforward ilk.

Now about the gay male romantic plot. It's there, and it does involve mild sexual content. I do mean mild. Straight readers will only wince if they're eww-ick homophobes. Gay readers won't want to blink too often or they'll miss it. This is, to me at least, a good thing because the love is there for a strong reason and the sex is, as of now, secondary. The sad truth is that I want to shake Liam and shout at him, "just fucking TALK to the man!" And I was practically beating my Kindle on sharp corners as I watched Patrick fuck things up without seeming to think about consequences, which for a covert operator to do stretched my credulity hard.

But this, laddies and gentlewomen, is the first book in a series. There's time for the author to stop using lazy-person tricks and get to the real sources of conflict between our young men. *pointed stare*

He can't do that, though, if we don't buy his book. Give this to your GBFF who devours fantasy! Give this to your teenaged cousin who can't quite come out yet...there's a scene that'll scare him or her into not wasting time and looking around at the adults in his/er life with new eyes. It's also a good idea to read it yourself, because, well, how do you know how good it is until you absorb its ideas and tells yourself? I recommend it.

Monday, November 27, 2017

THE LAMB WILL SLAUGHTER THE LION, punk trans writer blows old man's mind

(Danielle Cain #1)
$3.99 ebook, $14.99 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Danielle Cain is a queer punk rock traveler, jaded from a decade on the road. Searching for clues about her best friend’s mysterious and sudden suicide, she ventures to the squatter, utopian town of Freedom, Iowa. All is not well in Freedom, however: things went awry after the town’s residents summoned a protector spirit to serve as their judge and executioner.

Danielle shows up in time to witness the spirit—a blood-red, three-antlered deer—begin to turn on its summoners. Danielle and her new friends have to act fast if they’re going to save the town—or get out alive.


My Review: ...the fuck did I just read...?

Genderqueer, gay, celibate, punk, anarchist, shaman-magical people find a town and found a stateless collective that they defend by summoning a demon to make the world stay the fuck away.

I think.

Fantasy doesn't get more exciting than this. I'm mortally sick of reading yet another iteration of Lord of the Rings and being told it's New! Different! Amazing! No. It's not. But this? This is new, different, exciting. It even eschews urban fantasy tropes. It's refreshing and I'm eager for the next one, coming out sometime in 2018.

Margaret Killjoy, with your pretty hazel green eyes, you made my reading year. This book is a perfect gift item for the jaded fantasy reader, or the fantasy-resistant reader (me) on your Yule gifting list.

My Young Gentleman Caller picked this book up during his Thanksgiving surprise visit to me. (Hint: If you want to see whether someone is Interested in you not just looking for something from you, bore them. If they hang, they're Interested.) His comments are quoted for y'all's amusement and edification.

The only electric light I saw shone inside a small grocery, which was lit up by its bank of fluorescents. The place was filled with furniture, tools, and food. Well-lettered in red and yellow along the facade were the words: EVERYTHING FOR EVERYONE. A folding sidewalk sign out front read: A FREE MARKET SHOULD MEAN EVERYTHING IS FREE.
YGC: Did you write this? You don't look like a Margaret but it sounds like you.
ME: Nope. Innocent. Though Margaret's got beautiful eyes.
{WE look at @magpiekilljoy on Twitter}
YGC: Appalachia's far enough away.
ME: For what?
YGC: That I don't have to get worried about you wandering off.

"Cuddling sounds nice," I said.

It should have been nice. The moonlight came in through the circular window, and she laid on her back as I nuzzled up with my head on her. It had been months at least since I'd been with anyone, even slept next to anyone, and my skin was alive at her touch. I could hear her steady breath, smell her pheromones. For a moment, just a short peaceful moment, I was able to revel in that simple pleasure.
YGC: That made me feel lonely.
ME: Yeah, me too.
YGC: Feeling lonely doesn't scare me as much since I started reading.
YGC: *keeps reading*

"I have this wicked crush on you," Brynn continued, "but also I'm celibate, at least for now. So I guess I wanted to just get both of those things out there before I get too hung up on you or lead you on. Also there's a non-zero chance we're both going to get eaten by a demon sometime soon."
"I haven't let anyone in for awhile," I said, after thinking about it. "You're a total badass and you're a babe. I mean, you've got everything I should want. But yeah, walls. Lots of walls.
I probably can't be with anyone while I'm like this."
"A perfect match," she said.
YGC: *finishes reading aloud, stares at me*
ME: (defensive) What?
YGC: ::eyeroll::
ME: What are you suggesting?! (more defensive)
YGC: *peck*

"Fucking hell," Thursday said. "It's almost like you can't summon otherworldly beings into existence, let them loose on your enemies, and set up a culture of worship around them without people getting all crazy."
YGC: I call bullshit!
ME: On what?
YGC: You totally wrote this! That sounds just like you!
ME: Thanks, I appreciate the compliment, but no I didn't.
YGC: Go know from there's another sarcastic old smartass in the world.
ME: Love you too, ya little pisher.
YGC: *blush*

After he finished the book, it was time for the Young Gentleman Caller to meet up with his friends for whatever sporting event they were going to watch. As he left, I got another peck and a quiet, "I love reading with you."

Margaret Killjoy, you ROCK!!

Sunday, November 26, 2017

THE CHAINS OF THEIR SINS, fourth Taking Shield space opera


Glass Hat Press
$3.99 various ebook platforms, available now

Rating: As near 5 stars as dammit, so 5 out of five

The Publisher Says: Shield Captain Bennet arrives on the Gyrfalcon to take up his final year's posting before returning to the Shield Regiment after his rotation out.

On the Gyrfalcon he faces up to the fallout from Makepeace—ethical, political and above all, personal. Will he be able to accept necessity: that knowing what the Maess are up to outweighs the humanitarian issues surrounding the prisoners he rescued from Makepeace? Can he ride out the political furore that follows the loss of the dreadnought Caliban? How will he cope with an entire year of serving under his father, Caeden? And worst of all, how in the name of every god in the Pantheon can he stand to see Flynn every single day, with the Fraternisation Regs standing between them and keeping them apart?

It will be an interesting year. Bennet can hardly wait for it to be over. Of course, things never really do go to plan...


My Review: Yes, yes, yes, I get it, you're tired of Noble Self-Sacrifice and Dutiful Self-Abnegation. Believe me so am I. I want Bennet to unbend his starchy spine, I want Flynn to throw his man onto the bed and have his way with him, I want this endless tease to end already and, need I say it?, with these wonderful men TOGETHER. So why the Full Five, since that sounds like a pretty big bitch? Because Author Butler made me care. I'm a cynical old man, and she made me invest actual energy in her world, her vision of humanity, and her still-struggling-with-society bisexual male leads.

But these men are showing us real, believable responses to having your back against the ultimate wall: Extinguishment. Erasure. End as final as it gets. Not your personal death, nothing so small as that; the end of your world and your culture, the death of untold numbers of your friends and family and lovers and all the strangers you can't hope to meet, know, love.

It's repression or catatonic dissociation, and there's way too much to do for such self-indulgence. And Bennet can't ever allow himself to forget the Holy Trinity of his entire life: Duty. Honor. Service. His inner life is a shambles, he's never ever again going to sleep a dreamless night after the horrors of Makepeace are burned on his brain, and he refuses to compromise his entire life's foundations to seek the comfort available to him in the love of his man, Flynn.

Or does he...?

Well, that dangling thread aside, this fourth excursion into the lives of Bennet and Flynn is deeply painful. Losses mount as the war being fought for humanity's survival drags on. The Maess, whose very appearance is unknown to humanity before Bennet's very brief sighting of what he presumes is an organic Maess back in Gyrfalcon, are clearly not going to give up their war of extermination. Their actions in this book are startling even to me. The tactics are obscure, the strategy cloudy. In the end, the danger to humanity makes the last scene of the book make all the sense in the world. But the fifth volume, Day of Wrath, had better bring some clarity to befuddled fans; and let's not forget that Happily Ever After for Flynn and Bennet, eh what, Author Butler?

England's smaller than the Texas county I grew up in, and I'm ready to go Full American Nutter to get what I want.

MAKEPEACE, third in the Taking Shield space opera series

(Taking Shield #3)
Glass Hat Press
$3.99 various ebook platforms, available now

Rating: 4.almost-...oh hell, make it five of five

The Publisher Says: Returning to duty following his long recovery from the injuries he sustained during the events recounted in Heart Scarab, Shield Captain Bennet accepts a tour of duty in Fleet as flight captain on a dreadnought. The one saving grace is that it isn’t his father’s ship—bad enough that he can’t yet return to the Shield Regiment, at least he doesn’t have the added stress of commanding former lover Fleet Lieutenant Flynn, knowing the Fraternisation Regulations will keep them apart.

Working on the material he collected himself on T18 three years before, Bennet decodes enough Maess data to send him behind the lines to Makepeace, once a human colony but under Maess control for more than a century. The mission goes belly up, costing Albion one of her precious, irreplaceable dreadnoughts and bringing political upheaval, acrimony and the threat of public unrest in its wake. But for Bennet, the real nightmare is discovering what the Maess have in store for humanity.

It’s not good. It’s not good at all.


My Review: What makes a series work for me is the way the author handles the characters whose lives need to feel real enough to make me go with the unreality of fiction. A series of novels, stories, television episodes...all the same standard. Make me care, make me believe, or make your goodbyes as I move on to greener pastures.

Okay, I surrender. I am officially Author Butler's fanboy. The series has me by the eyelashes and I'm eager to dive into book four, The Chains of Their Sins.

A warning for those who follow me down this rabbit-hole: Do not buy the books one at a time. When you get to the ending of this book, you will be very frustrated if the next book isn't already queued up.

I am an old-time fan of space opera. I like the sweep of a long story. I adore space battles (I'm a guy, shut up). Tech talk isn't up there with dirty flirty but it's close. I want to be told stories that make sense (not necessarily in a straight line you understand, just make sense please) and I like 'em set in space because SPACE my goddesses what could possibly be more interesting?! I mean in fact as well as fiction. And I'm also a big old mushball and want my heroes to find love because heroes have hearts too. Sexytimes are fine, but I *need* my men to fall in love as well as get 'em some or why not just watch porn. (For the sake of argument, you understand.)

So here I am telling you to buy the series, ye fans of SF and ye readers of love-novels but not expecting sex or romance-novel level involvement in our hero's world. He is the hero, the story isn't totally about him, and his world is rich and densely packed with great stuff.

It isn't perfect, of course, but I'll accept the flaws for the great parts.

I'm also really excited by the major development of this book's self-contained plot arc, regarding the military future of Albion.

HEART SCARAB, second entry in the Taking Shield space opera series


Glass Hat Press
$3.99 various ebook platforms, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Shield Captain Bennet is on Telnos, a unpleasant little planet inhabited by religious fanatics and unregistered miners running illegal solactinium mines. It’s about to be about to be overrun by the Maess. Bennet’s job is to get out as many civilians as he can, but the enemy arrives before the evacuation is complete. Caught in a vicious fire fight, Bennet is left behind, presumed dead.

His family is grieving. Joss, his long-term partner, grieves with them; lost, unhappy, remorseful. First Lieutenant Flynn has no official ‘rights’ here. He isn’t family. He isn’t partner or lover.

All he is, is broken.


My Review: Author Butler takes us deeper into the life of Shield Captain Bennet, eighteen months following the events on Maess-held planet T18 and on board the Gyrfalcon. As Bennet performs his duty to evacuate illegal religious-fanatic colonists on Telnos, soon to be behind Maess—the faceless, unknown aliens winning a war of annihilation against humanity's great-to-the-10th-power grandchildren—lines, he obsesses over his failing relationship with his elegant, worldly lover Joss; his burgeoning love for Pilot Flynn stationed on his father's ship the Gyrfalcon; and his patient, long-suffering Lieutenant Rosie listens to him and moons and pines for him completely unheeded, unnoticed, unconsidered for the position she (along with the rest of humanity, I'd guess) craves: Bennet's lover.

But that's just the beginning of Bennet's troubles at Author Butler's hands.

And that's why I read space opera: Pile the troubles on with the highest-possible stakes! Then make the stakes personal! Then by gawd create some scary aliens with a baseless grudge and an attitude, some super-advanced tech that is actually just like what we have now on steroids so I can get it without over-physics-ing my brain and thereby losing propulsive interest in the story.

Why I read this space opera is simple: gay guy. Bennet flies in the face of humanity's one apparently eternal character flaw, religious belief, to live his truth as a man who loves men. Add to that his father's strong religious convictions and his family's long tradition of the apparently eternally homophobic military service, his older lover's patrician disdain for exactly *how* his luxurious lifestyle is maintained, and military anti-fraternization rules that Bennet takes very seriously and that prevent him from pursuing his new love for Flynn, and you have a witches' brew of good drama.

Still very little sex. Very little indeed. And what there is is non-graphic by today's standards. More than in Gyrfalcon, I think, though I haven't done a statistical analysis. I can assure the eww-ick squeamish that no unpleasantly meaty words are used and with a small effort of intentional misunderstanding the import of the few sexual scenes can be contextualized as emotional intimacies that can't be expressed in any other way without falseness. Who here hasn't had what you *knew* was break-up sex while pretending the pleasures of a familiar touch were, after all, enough? Yeah, me too, and so does Bennet when the flypaper and prayers that've kept Joss in his life finally blow apart under the final assault: Death.

Bennet, you see, has the bad taste and rude vigor to return from the dead. It's just...unseemly. And after Joss, in the manner of their people, has made sacrifices of his and Bennet's treasures, some of the perfect and glorious antiquities Joss (archaeologist by training) offered up to the gods for Bennet (ancient historian by academic training) to use in the Field of Reeds, back comes Bennet hale and hearty and not in the Field of Reeds at all! embarrassment? confusion? of it all.

And that "hale and hearty" is solely a valid description when matched against "dead and rotting on an alien-held planet." Bennet is in shards, physically and psychically and emotionally. His body will heal slowly, his psyche and emotions might or might not heal at all ever, and he might well never get to use his new bionic knee back in his deeply loved Shield role. A soldier who's too broken to soldier is by definition A Very Unhappy Man. Add to this soldier's woes the emotional mismatch between himself and his partner. The immense, irresistible force of falling in love with the right one. The awful reality of wartime military service meaning unavoidable separation from your lover.

*happy sigh*

I will say my wish (expressed in my review of Gyrfalcon) to get to sympathize with poor overmatched Joss came true. I was sad for him as he was hollowed out by loss and the hideous, regret-charged acid bath that is grief. All the times one falls short, one is unkind impatient unwilling to understand or empathize...oh gods and goddesses those will keep a soul awake and agonized as they replay unchanging and unchangeable in the darkness! But far more painful is the way they play out like movies on a screen while living, breathing people are making noises meant to distract—console—reach you when you are in the locked projection booth of your failings as the movie of your life replays in an endless loop.

Yes, Joss, I know that one. Author Butler was cruel to you. Goodness knows you deserved it, but...well...don't we all.

And the ending of this story is fascinating. It is unusual within the genre of gay-male-centered fiction. I will read the next installment of Taking Shield, called Makepeace, as soon as I've caught my breath and begun to accept the changes wrought on my feelings already.

Which, if I need to say it, is the hallmark of a really good read.

GYRFALCON, first entry in the Taking Shield space opera series

(Taking Shield #1)
Glass Hat Press
FREE!! various ebook platforms, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Earth’s a dead planet, dark for thousands of years; lost for so long no one even knows where the solar system is. Her last known colony, Albion, has grown to be regional galactic power in its own right. But its drive to expand and found colonies of its own has threatened an alien race, the Maess, against whom Albion is now fighting a last-ditch battle for survival in a war that’s dragged on for generations.

It’s not certain anyone has ever seen a true Maess. They have seen drones: cyborgs animated by a small neural node of organic cells. The first drones the humans met (more than a century previously) were not humanoid in shape but, as the war progresses, the Maess start to produce human-shaped drones.

Taking Shield charts the missions and adventures of Shield Captain Bennet, scion of a prominent military family. Bennet, also an analyst with the Military Strategy Unit, will uncover crucial data about the Maess to help with the war effort. Against the demands of his family’s ‘triple goddess’ of Duty, Honour and Service, is set Bennet’s relationships with lovers and family. When the series opens, Bennet is at odds with his long term partner, Joss, who wants him out of the military and back in an academic, archaeological career. He’s estranged from his father, Caeden, who is the commander of Fleet’s First Flotilla. Events of the first book, in which he is sent to his father’s ship to carry out an infiltration mission behind Maess lines, improve his relationship with Caeden, but bring with them the catalyst that will destroy the one with Joss: one Fleet Lieutenant Flynn, who, over the course of the series, develops into Bennet’s main love interest

Over the Taking Shield arc, Bennet will see the extremes to which humanity’s enemies and his own people, will go to win the war. Some days he isn’t able to tell friend from foe. Some days he doubts everything, including himself, as he strives to ensure Albion’s victory. And some days he isn’t sure, any longer, what victory looks like.


My Review: A classic space opera with a father-and-son reunion that starts a healing process for both men, a crappy demanding spouse whose selfish demands are his undoing, and two worthy mates who, against every single probability in this or any other time, find each other.

This is how you can tell it's fiction.

The space opera part takes up ⅔ of the book. It's really a lot of fun, and any SF fan who loved/s Battlestar Galactica (the 2004 iteration) and The Expanse owes it to themselves to try the first one out. You'll make it if you squint through the sex scene. That's right: One (1) mild sex scene and a good deal of falling in love.

A quibble I have is that I'd like to like poor Joss, Bennet's husband, at least a little bit. As it stands he's a maelstrom of selfishness, shrieking at Bennet as soon as Bennet dares to be one little bit his authentic self. What would it cost to add a little appealing lovingkindness to appear? It's not clear to me, from the man I see on the page, why a muffin like Bennet would've fallen in love with Joss at all.

A minor, minor point when matched against the manifold pleasures of the Taking Shield universe's character developments, background developments, and involving overall arc of story. I am delighted that these second Kindle editions have addressed the earliest reviewers' concerns about some repetitive language etc etc. I found no evidence of such failings in this tale.

Of special interest to me as an old gay man is the relationship Bennet builds with his father, tentatively, in this book. The old man blew his stack when he found Bennet snogging the much older man he would end up married in all but law to; that human failing homophobia was not bred out of us as we went to the stars, depressingly enough. That set off a decade's coldness between father and son that Author Butler has the sense and grace to give Caeden a shot at redemption. He essentially forces the unwilling Bennet to listen to his side of that awful story: He was wrong, he admits he was wrong, and he apologizes.

A dream come true. Any of us who lived through such an event know that this is the emotional core of the series right there. A man coming to terms with his father's love, imperfectly expressed, bone deep, and all encompassing, is an evergreen story. Author Butler gives both father and son the opportunity to speak their piece, and affords her readers the chance to let out that deeply held breath. For many this point of catharsis would be enough value to make purchasing the entire series worthwhile.

But the satisfaction of reading about Bennet's struggles and problems, so personal, so universal, as a gay son of an unhappy parent, a loving spouse to a demanding partner, a starved lover with unmet needs who is surprised by the joy he never thought he was missing...these are the hooks that could, if you'll allow them around your defenses against thoughts that aren't easy for you to relate to, bind you to the series arc for a really satisfying read.

There is so much more to savor.

The TAKING SHIELD series, the first four of five (plus a prequel novella) planned I've read and loved


This is an overview of the Planet Albion, the setting of all four novels currently available in Author Anna Butler's space opera series, Taking Shield. It set in a 10,000-year-future Earth colony, mother planet to other colonies and in a war for survival with the alien race they've named the Maess. Yep, "Albion" like the old-fashioned personification of England (not Britain, Americans, ENGLAND and yes, there's a big difference).

Albion, as envisioned (literally!) by William Blake (Wikimedia image)

The Albionese have only one name, used in conjunction with a title where appropriate (eg, titled aristocrats, military personnel). I was a little bumfuzzled by this at first. There are bound to be billions of humans on Albion and its colonies, after all. But then it occurred to me that, in a society as advanced as this one, there are multiple biometric forms of identification available, so identifying yourself officially isn't name-dependent and socially how many of us are known by our full names now? There would be significant social pressure not to use names too freely. I can dig it.

The Albionese worship a Pantheon of Gods derived from Egyptian models, settled in Albion's landmasses with Hellenistic province names, and have a Parlialimentary (not a typo) democracy that very closely resembles the debased and disgusting kakistocracy (get it now?) of today. Author Butler starts us out with the following teaser on her website:
Taking Shield started out as a simple ‘what if’ set of questions. What if in some AU universe Earth’s been a burnt out dustball for the last ten thousand years? What if we do a riff on the Exodus and have remnants of humanity escape, but led by Pharaohs? What if the new world they found, Albion, is at war with an enemy no one has ever seen? What if the hero is a member of Albion’s special forces *and* the Military Strategy Unit? What if he finds something that seriously threatens Albion? What if he falls in love with a Fleet pilot and has his life turned upside down?

And somehow that grew into a serial of four books so far with more to come.
My issues with the Albionverse are few, really, the biggest having to do with the improbability of feet, miles, a.m. and other specific-to-earth measurements surviving more than 10,000 years when meters, kilometers, light-years, and military time-keeping are so much better suited for the Universe as we know it. Author Butler saw my bleat of dissatisfaction, recognized it for what it is...a fan's grumble not a detractor's brickbat...and gave me the following explanation, which I present to you with her consent:
Albion's days, months and years are not the same as Earth's but the words used for those measurements of time on Earth have translated across with different values*. Similarly other earth measurements have translated. Some - like parsec or lightyear remain constants because immutable physical law demands they do. Others have new, Albion-specific values. My reasoning was that having lost Earth to catastrophe (see Passing Shadows, the prequel, for what happened), the survivors clung very hard to whatever of Earth they could take with them. I'm English. We have the most mixed system here of decimalised coinage and weights and measures, but still measure our distances and things like car speeds in terms of miles. Nostalgia has the people of Albion clinging to the terms their ancestors knew best. From which you may gather that despite the Egyptian overtones, Albion (and Bennet) is most definitely British!
* Albion has a normal year of 412 days:
ten months of forty days each divided into four equal ten-day weeks plus an extra week at the end of each year, Yule week, to absorb the outstanding 12 days.
each day has 25 hours, each hour has 100 minutes.
Those minutes, hours, days are not the same as Earth's. I worked out to my own satisfaction that each Albion day of 25 hours is equivalent to around 29 Earth hours, 35 minutes . So each Albion minute = 42.6 Earth seconds.

Albion's actual rotation is 412 and some 8 hours so in every third year, Yule week is 13 days long, with an extra day to compensate and to align the calendar with the sun's apparent position—pretty much like our leap years. Albion's leap day is actually a few extra minutes longer than normal, for real accuracy, but I don't trouble my head about that level of detail!

There are truly arbitrary figures that doesn't at all *matter* in terms of the story, but were created for my own amusement and which I now share, for yours.
These are the sorts of details that vastly increase my personal pleasure in a series of books set on a made-up planet. I figure that, since you're reading my blog, you're at least slightly more likely than the Normals to want some sort of satisfaction regarding seeming inconsistencies that are actually designed-in landscape features. Just think of Author Butler as a literary Capability Brown.

I'd love to see more of the Egyptian roots of the world, for an example of an area of dissatisfaction; the series is clearly populated by people of England-English descent, based on the culture's stratification and its Parliamentary democracy in place. How'd we get to Egypt? I'm not against it, or bitching about it, just curious. What would lead a bunch Brits to mummify their dead, for example? I get the whole art style revival since they've done it twice before (the 1790s and the 1970s), but this is a deep cleavage from British norms and bears some 'splainin'. And Bennet *is* an historian....

The website has a handy-dandy obsessive fanboy's guide to the rich background of Albion and its institutions as they are at the time of the stories herein told. It's a really interesting way to get your obsessive series-reader's feet wet. Try the first book risk-free, for free, freeing you up to decide whether Bennet and Flynn and Albion and the Maess are your cuppa joe. (I hate tea.)

Saturday, November 25, 2017

THE PREY OF GODS, a 5-star gonzo South African supernatural punkopalypse


Harper Voyager (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$1.99 Kindle edition, available now through 12 September 22!

The Publisher Says: In South Africa, the future looks promising. Personal robots are making life easier for the working class. The government is harnessing renewable energy to provide infrastructure for the poor. And in the bustling coastal town of Port Elizabeth, the economy is booming thanks to the genetic engineering industry which has found a welcome home there. Yes—the days to come are looking very good for South Africans. That is, if they can survive the present challenges:

A new hallucinogenic drug sweeping the country . . .
An emerging AI uprising . . .
And an ancient demigoddess hellbent on regaining her former status by preying on the blood and sweat (but mostly blood) of every human she encounters.

It’s up to a young Zulu girl powerful enough to destroy her entire township, a queer teen plagued with the ability to control minds, a pop diva with serious daddy issues, and a politician with even more serious mommy issues to band together to ensure there’s a future left to worry about.


My Review: I am not going to pretend this is a review. I read this book at least three times in different incarnations before it was accepted by Harper Voyager because Nicky's my bud. I was knocked on my fat spreadin' butt by her warm, deluded thanks addressed to me in the Acknowledgments. But I can tell you the simple, god's-honest truth: If I didn't like this book, I'd send her a nice email thanking her as prettily as possible and let the matter rest.

This book, y'all? This book is THE SH...STUFF. This is what you hope to find when you go shopping, vaguely dissatisfied by everything, critical of every cover, impatient with the puffery that probably isn't much to do with the contents. This is what happens when you're just taking a risk...c'mon, $2.99 on Kindle, you spent more than that on that coffee in your hand, admit it...and stumble upon gold.

A setting that feels as real as your cube-neighbor's garlicky lunch. A premise that feels as right as walking in on your mom snogging your dad, be damned with that gross old bore she's married to. A story that doesn't say hello, just grabs your earlobe and drags you along behind it wherever the hell it damned well pleases.

Nicky's voice is her own, her story is her own, and her love for the craft of writing is just her. You probably won't have a chance in this life to have tea and turkey jerky *retch* with her, you poor, poor bastard, but this book is the next best thing.

Buy it, read it, love it.

Friday, November 24, 2017

It's Booksgiving! What's Booksgiving, I hear you ask? Read on:

Wikipedia gives us a wee bit of background on the Icelandic custom of giving a book as a gift to your family and friends at Yuletide. Like here, at least my friends and family...the difference is the Icelandic friends and family like the custom. Decidedly not like people I know.

Iceland isn't like the US in any way that I can think of: no mass shootings, low poverty, socialized medicine, but most importantly the fact that, in a lifetime, one in ten Icelanders will write and have published at least one book. Appearances and Kindle sales to the contrary, that can't happen in the US or there would 35 million writers getting their stuff published. Think of the deforestation implicit in that thankfully unrealized statistic. Agents and publishers will sigh exasperatedly and moan "there already ARE 35 million Americans writing books and they all have MY address!"

It only feels that way.

Iceland also has an Icelandic Literature Center, according to a 2013 BBC News report, which quotes Agla Magnusdottir (head of the Center as of the article's writing in 2013):
"Writers are respected here," Agla Magnusdottir tells me. "They live well. Some even get a salary." Magnusdottir is head of the new Icelandic Literature Center, which offers state support for literature and its translation.

"They write everything - modern sagas, poetry, children's books, literary and erotic fiction - but the biggest boom is in crime writing," she says.
Yrsa Sigurdardottir, Arnaldur Indriðason, Ragnar Jónasson ring any bells, mystery series lovers? All Icelandic. A book I adored, Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was by Sjón, is Icelandic historical gay fiction. There's a niche for you.

Now think about it. Those writers have achieved popularity in the US market, easily ten times the absolute size of the Icelandic home market, and largely thanks to their government. Pause a moment. Think about that. Writers getting a state-supported salary so they can write. Translators of foreign-language books getting the same. Holy puppy dogs, it sounds like heaven.

But is the US actually so different? Most books in our market are published around gift-giving holidays, too. Look up any statistical source you can think of and you'll see the jaw-dropping surge in sales in each and every segment around Yuletide. Black Friday got its name from more than the salesdroids' moody misery on the horrible, horrible day; it's the day that almost all retailers stem their losses and go into black balance-sheet ink.

And it's not like there are no initiatives to encourage the bookish to share their addiction in the Holiday season. Take #GiveBooks, which is described in this Publishing Perspectives piece. It's admirable, and I suggest that you all put some money into the outreach for underserved children to get books. After all, the Jesuits' founder, St. Ignatius Loyola, famously said, "Give me the child for the first seven years and I will give you the man." Knew his onions, did that old guy. He stole from the best, seeing as Aristotle said it first. You can tell because there's neither hide nor hair of "woman" in there, nor any sign that either of those old white men even sensed their absence. I'd recast it as "...I will give you the adult," but purists would be as vocal as feminists in their scorn. One cannot win.

But let's dream big. The tradition of giving a book as a much-desired present...the encouragement to read it that very night...there are some of us who want that family life and now we have a model for how it should look.

Why shouldn't we, book lovers, embrace this vaguely distasteful-in-the-aggregate behavior of being good little consumers? Let's repurpose it. Let's take one tiny facet of Iceland's excellent book culture and bring it here. The Christmas Book Flood isn't directly translatable, and anyway focuses on the end of the process, the gifting that's always so fun.

Let's celebrate the process, shall we? Let's have Booksgiving! Starting on *shudder* Black Friday, let's think about what books we'll flood the tree skirt with on Book Flood Eve. I'll give you some ideas from my 2017 reading to include in your purchases.

Happy Booksgiving!

Friday, November 10, 2017

OPTION B, a really useful self-help book...I can't believe I said that...

OPTION B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy

Alfred A. Knopf
$25.95 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: After the sudden death of her husband, Sheryl Sandberg felt certain that she and her children would never feel pure joy again. “I was in ‘the void,’” she writes, “a vast emptiness that fills your heart and lungs and restricts your ability to think or even breathe.” Her friend Adam Grant, a psychologist at Wharton, told her there are concrete steps people can take to recover and rebound from life-shattering experiences. We are not born with a fixed amount of resilience. It is a muscle that everyone can build.

Option B combines Sheryl’s personal insights with Adam’s eye-opening research on finding strength in the face of adversity. Beginning with the gut-wrenching moment when she finds her husband, Dave Goldberg, collapsed on a gym floor, Sheryl opens up her heart—and her journal—to describe the acute grief and isolation she felt in the wake of his death. But Option B goes beyond Sheryl’s loss to explore how a broad range of people have overcome hardships including illness, job loss, sexual assault, natural disasters, and the violence of war. Their stories reveal the capacity of the human spirit to persevere . . . and to rediscover joy.

Resilience comes from deep within us and from support outside us. Even after the most devastating events, it is possible to grow by finding deeper meaning and gaining greater appreciation in our lives. Option B illuminates how to help others in crisis, develop compassion for ourselves, raise strong children, and create resilient families, communities, and workplaces. Many of these lessons can be applied to everyday struggles, allowing us to brave whatever lies ahead. Two weeks after losing her husband, Sheryl was preparing for a father-child activity. “I want Dave,” she cried. Her friend replied, “Option A is not available,” and then promised to help her make the most of Option B.

We all live some form of Option B. This book will help us all make the most of it.

My Review: Sheryl Sandberg lost her husband before he was fifty. I lost mine when he was not quite 34. I connect with her pain on every imaginable level.

I also understand why she wrote this survivors' manual. She had to do something positive with her agony or it would sink her, and she was now a single mom. She couldn't afford the luxury of sinking because it would take her children down as well. That is a great reason to do the horrible, painful, disconcerting work of growing around your grief.

Make no mistake: It's awful work, hard and thankless and lonely. Your successes feel fleeting, your failures eternal, and with the best will in the world outsiders (parents, children, siblings, friends) will say, do, preach things at you that will make you furiously angry and hurt inexpressibly.

All normal.

And if you're wondering, we will all lose spouses in our lives, not necessarily to death. Grief is grief. Your loss is not unique, and your loss is not anyone else's so no one else gets to tell you how to go through it. But those who have walked the walk before you have some ideas on what you can do to make this hideous amputation work *for* you.

Yes, that's possible. I promise you that it is. And this book, with its combination of the deeply personal and the professionally informative strands of information, is a great, a wonderful, a tremendously valuable resource for someone experiencing the involuntary transformation that is grieving.

But the best thing about Option B is the fact that it excludes no one from the helping, healing conversation about grief and grieving. No matter the genesis of your trauma, grieving is a process with known parameters. All sources of trauma produce grief in their wake, and that fact...while on its face horrible and actually, in the end, incredibly hopeful. Your grief is unique to you, but grief is universal and grieving is ever-more-completely understood; this is one of the key realizations in the book. It is also the key realization that many people, lost in the fog of grief, need most to hear as it can offer them Ariadne's clew to get away from the devouring Minotaur of misery in their lightless, timeless labyrinth.

Now, the stuff I wasn't crazy about. Sandberg is astoundingly successful. Her world doesn't have survival challenges. She makes more than enough money to do whatever the hell she wants to do even if she stops going to work today and never goes back again. The other 99.99% of us do not have that luxury. If your purpose in reading this book is to figure out how the hell you're going to keep the lights on, cans of beans in the pantry, and a box of rice to go with, this isn't a helpful tome. In fact it will probably make you livid, so pass it up. But if survival isn't the problem for you, there are ideas in here to use...especially some of the out-of-the-box ones. You're likely to have a low bullshit tolerance when grieving, and Sandberg advises going with the flow here. I tend to agree with her.

BUT. Do not think, as Sandberg apparently does, that your grief will insulate you from the consequences of your newfound unwillingness to suck it up. She can tell her boss to do shit right and get away with it because she's a powerful, successful woman with oodles of money. Your manager isn't going to give you the same rope hers does, make no mistake. Adapt this concept to your circumstances. Maybe, if your desire to speak truth to power becomes overwhelming, crank up that job search and get outta Dodge before the sheriff makes you. Remember that Sandberg's journey is her own. Use the ideas though not necessarily the techniques.

Sandberg's discovery that she could find and feel happiness again is the important take-away here. You might not find a good man to have fun with. You might, in fact, not *want* to find a good man to have fun with. Here's the thing Sandberg's saying: Be available to happiness, not sewn to the shroud of wretched miserable loneliness that comes with grieving. However it looks to you. Take roads you haven't been down. Do different things, do them differently. This book isn't a prescription, it's a supplement shelf, and it can lead you back into lighter, brighter, happier life.

Let it.

Friday, November 3, 2017

CRAVINGS, proof that fame doesn't guarantee happiness

CRAVINGS: How I Conquered Food

Nan A. Talese Books
$26 hardcover, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Since childhood Judy Collins has had a tumultuous, fraught relationship with food. Her issues with overeating nearly claimed her career and her life. For decades she thought she simply lacked self-discipline. She tried nearly every diet plan that exists, often turning to alcohol to dull the pain of yet another failed attempt to control her seemingly insatiable cravings.

Today, Judy knows she suffers from an addiction to sugar and grains, flour and wheat. She adheres to a strict diet of unprocessed foods consumed in carefully measured portions. This solution has allowed her to maintain a healthy weight for years, to enjoy the glow of good health, and to attain peace of mind.

Alternating between chapters on her life and those of the many diet gurus she has encountered along the way (Atkins, Jean Nidetch of Weight Watchers, Andrew Weil, to name a few), Cravings is the culmination of Judy's genuine desire to share what she's learned--so that no one else has navigate her heart-rending path to recovery.


My Review: A lifetime spent in and out of the limelight, a lifetime of performing for audiences who cheer and boo and ignore, but performing all the same, always always putting her best out enviable life, no?

Not always. Judy Collins made her voice her fame, and when it became harder for her to perform it became another self-lacerating weapon in her battle with her body. Her diets and plans and struggles with her addictive personality are carefully presented here as *personal* struggles. Collins isn't preaching, she's giving witness to the struggle she knows many others go through. That technique is very much more effective than would be another guru prescribing actions and dictating methods for achieving the goal of being in control of one's own body.

I'm also very appreciative of the quite interesting stories behind the gurus whose dictates Collins frequently failed to follow. I found these to be some of the most useful parts of the book, as the motivations of Saviors are almost always excellent means for demythologizing and even debunking the gurus' sacred words. I hasten to add that Collins isn't out to make people feel bad or wrong about their struggles or their need for advice. She just has clear eyes when it comes to the whys of the whats of dieting.

The reason I'm not more generous with my star rating really comes down to one issue: The conquest of Collins's food addiction is so complete and so thoroughgoing that I am left with deep doubts. I don't think she's lying to me or even to herself; I think she's got an iron will forged through a generation-long struggle to control her body. What I question is the declaration of victory over something that's a fundamental part of her identity. She says she's a food addict but she's beaten it. That doesn't scan for me. I'm also not 100% Team Judy on the means by which she's conquered her food addiction, as it's *impossibly* restrictive and simply impossible for a person without her considerable financial and social resources to emulate.

This is, to me at least, the principal failing of all eating-disorder diet nutrition etc etc books. Fine great and wonderful if you're upper middle class and up, have money, servants, time at your disposal. Useless and, worse, counterproductive if you're a 60-hour-a-week wage worker whose paycheck is never quite enough, has kids, a spouse, and no one to do diddly squat for them.

That said, if you're not a desperate soul seeking a way out of the addiction trap, this is a sprightly and involving and educational read. I liked the experience of reading it quite a bit.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

BANDERSNATCH, a group portrait of the Inklings

BANDERSNATCH: CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien, and the Creative Collaboration of the Inklings

Black Squirrel Books
$24.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the Inklings met each week to read and discuss each other's work-in-progress, offering both encouragement and blistering critique. How did these conversations shape the books they were writing? How does creative collaboration enhance individual talent? And what can we learn from their example?

Featuring original illustrations by James A. Owen, Bandersnatch offers an inside look at the Inklings of Oxford, and a seat at their table at the Eagle and Child pub. It shows how encouragement and criticism made all the difference in The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, and dozens of other books written by the members of their circle. You'll learn what made these writers tick, and more: inspired by their example, you'll discover how collaboration can help your own creative process and lead to genius breakthroughs in whatever work you do.


My Review: Author Glyer is a past mistress of explication, as witness her previous Inkings study The Company They Keep. That book was more about who, when, and where among the English old boys' club we know as the Inklings: JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, Roger Lancelyn Green, Owen Barfield, Hugo Dyson, et alii. This book delves into the how and the why of the Inklings' writing community. If literary criticism isn't your jam, this book will bore you silly. If you've never read any literary criticism, I'd encourage you to start here. Author Glyer is a dab hand at writing and a scholar to be reckoned with, two things that don't frequently coincide.

So the sugar coating is the story of the Inklings, two of whom became internationally famous for the works they made in this writers' group for the ages. The meat of the tale is, though, how this incredible group *failed* its members. Tolkien, for example, was subjected to humiliating and deeply personal insults by Hugo Dyson who detested his elves and orcs and such-like goins-on; Lewis did as well; but Lewis was quiet while Dyson was not and, in the cumulative effect of one noisy nastymonger on a group, Tolkien was driven to silence.

In a group of writers wanting to make their art better, that is Death. Shameful that it should have been allowed. And let's not fail to see the irony of the insulter being utterly and completely forgotten by History while the insulted literally changed the world.

Author Glyer offers a few prescriptions for the potential breeding grounds of today's Tolkiens in consideration of her analysis of the Inklings' failures. They are trenchant and they are excellent. If I have a grump with the book, it's the revolting Jesusy tone of a lot of it. It's inevitable, I suppose, given the endemic, emetic christianity of the group's members. I found I could read the book, not usually the case with Jesusy stuff, because it was so much more than a tract.

One facet of the book that stands out, and that merits an entire review of its own, is the beautiful illustrations by James A. Owen. The cover illustration should give you the tone Owen takes throughout the book. These are beautiful artworks and could be reason enough right there to buy the book, simply to make your eyes happy and your heart glad.