Monday, January 25, 2016

Defending the 'Hood

Review: Domino by Kia Heavey

In a rare instance of my father reading to us when I was a child, we heard the story of George Orwell's Animal Farm. Unlike my mother's choices of standard children's books like Ferdinand and Madeleine, the rich characterizations of the animals at Manor Farm made an engrossing tale for us youngsterseven though we missed the deeper meanings of the novel's conflict.

I suspect many will read the delightful story of Domino, a black-and-white working-class tomcat defending his territory from invasion by an alien culture, as the simple tale it presents. The cats and other animals in the novel are anthropomorphized just enough for their battles to make sense to us, but not so much that their animal qualities vanish.

That's a fine line to tread, and Heavey has done it well. On first reading, I happily enjoyed this upper layer of the tale of Domino and his queen Celine, a wild black lady roaming free in the woods adjacent to the tom's territory. My spouse and I have shared our lives with both cats and dogs, though more often just cats, for almost as long as we've been married, so the animal interactions rang true. And the story is a winner: normal cat nature versus a scheme (promoted by canny city rats using a Siamese "front cat" named Socrates) to convince the rural cat population to stop killing other animals.

The territory Domino himself patrols includes his human's propertybarn, hen-house, and shed, as well as the surrounding woods and streetsbut his buddies have their own patrols in the wider suburb where he lives. All these cats are threatened when the Siamese city cat arrives with a large-dog sidekick, Max, and a radical philosophy: cats can transcend their enmity with other animals and stop killing them for sport, because they are feed by their humans.
Domino longed with every individual hair in his pelt to fight this suffocating threat even as his brain understood there was no way to scratch and bite a poisonous idea.

The idea takes hold, and the cats who accept it begin to suffer the consequences. Not only are they missing some key nutrients (particularly the pregnant queens, who would have supplemented their kibble with mice and birdsand rats), but the influx of rats begins to out-breed the cats. Socrates' relationship with Max, at first a convincing point of "transcendence at work" for the awestruck rural cats, now becomes a problem as Socrates uses Max as a storm-trooper to impose his idea on the few felines who did not join up voluntarily.

On second reading and further thought, a deeper theme began to emerge from the pages of DominoThe imported culture the tomcat fights is inherently antithetical to the nature and life-style of a free cat. When the majority of h
is neighbors try to adopt this foreign way of living, it echoes for me the cultural conflicts as the Western world tries to accommodate to Eastern and Middle-Eastern refugees. 

Domino and his mate, and one or two of the other cats, see clearly that they are being overrun by the burgeoning rat population, but are helpless to combat itparticularly when the rats begin hunting in packs, killing and eating other animals, even much larger ones. Transcendence, it seems, is only a moral imperative for cats. The rats are free to live as they choose, but to punish the cats for failing to embrace the rat-inspired philosophy.

Read at this level, the novel is no longer innocently delightful, but it's still a winner!

Monday, January 18, 2016

Glimmerings of a Good Story

Review: The Shimmering by H.D. Anyone

Let's start with the author's name. Perhaps his patronym is "Anyone." I'm willing to give the writer the benefit of the doubt, but it's a suspicious start when selecting a book to read. I nominated this book in Kindle Scout despite that name and the slightly hokey cover illustration, because its short description sounded likely:

Lance Edgerton resents being moved to a ghost town and sets out to disprove the supernatural lore with the intent of ruining the local tourism, but his investigations prove to the contrary when he uncovers a crystal cavern revealing The Shimmering, which enables him to confront the evil altering the old mining town of Jerome.

I thought the story premise was promising, and the first pages of the novel gave me no clues that it would not fulfill that promise. I was especially encouraged by the high-school science teacher's lecture on crystals:
“Some of the locals would have you believe there are healing properties in crystals.  I don’t know anything about that.  The only mystical property they possess, and of which I am aware, is the power of protection.  If you locate an exceptionally large geode, you can strike someone on the head with it for protection.”  His yardstick hit the board.  “That was a demonstrative whack.”

The book was not selected for publication by Kindle Press, but I bought a copy anyway. Unfortunately, after the first encouraging pages, the story rapidly descends into exactly the kind of woo-woo crystal-power nonsense the chemistry teacher inveighs against at the beginning.

Although this was disappointing from one perspective (science), the story is nevertheless solid and engrossing. Lance and his friends Manuel and Whisper explore, make discoveries about their environment and the town's history, and become more interesting people. In that sense, it is a worthwhile YA novel, and I found it enjoyable to read. 

I hope that H.D. Anyone finds the courage to come out from under the pseudonym to write again. With growth and practice, the story-telling skills can only improve. He already has a solid base to begin from.

Liner Notes:

This is another in a long string of first-time books from authors who publish in e-book format only, who have chosen to hard-code the double-line text-spacing into the book's format. It is very annoying to have the tools to change font faces, text size, and line spacing on the Kindle Paperwhite, and yet be prevented from it by poor formatting choices in the book. I was tempted, but did not take a half-star from the rating, principally because Anyone is a new author. Anyone can learn.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Bedtime (Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge)

After a long day that ended with a late exercise class at the gym (because I couldn't drag myself out of bed this morning to make the 6 AM class), I reflected on the days of childhood. That was when bedtime was not a welcome relief, but something to resist with subterfuges like requests for another drink of water or a bedtime story.

Now my bed is something I must resist falling into until the day's work is done.

Even then I relish a bedtime story, although now I must read it to myself. A few pages (chapters, books) read after I climb under the covers, and I'm ready to give myself up to slumber.

So the Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge this week prompted me with thoughts of bedtime stories and that long-ago desire to stay up late:

January 13, 2016 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) begin a story with, “Once upon a time…” Where you take the fairy tale is entirely up to you. Your character can break the traditional mold, or your ending can be less than happy. Elements of fairy tales include magic, predicaments, villains, heroes, fairy-folk and kingdoms. How can you turn these elements upside down or use them in a realistic setting? Write your own fairy tale.

Grampa Ray is a wise man, but not quite swift enough to head off his grand-daughter Mary's stay-up-late argument.



"Once upon a time," Grampa Ray began.

"Wait, Grampa! Why it is always 'once upon a time'?" Mary wriggled under the covers with the urgency of her question.  "Why do bedtime stories begin that way?"

"I don't know..." Her grandpa scratched his head, then his chin. "Maybe it's like, 'And now, the news.' Just a way people have of telling us that whatever follows is either real or make-believe."

"Oh." Mary thought for a moment, then said, "Once upon a time I wanted to watch TV until 10 o'clock and my mom said I could stay up late tonight."

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

More-Than-Gorey Reflection on the Alphabet

Review: Alphabeticus Atrocitus by Michael C. Romeo

Edward Gorey captured the alphabet in a gruesome, yet whimsical, way, with The Gashlycrumb Tinies and its illustrations of 26 alphabetically-named children dying in unusual ways. 

A is for Amy who fell down the stairs, B is for Basil assaulted by bears, C is for Clara who wasted away. D is for Desmond thrown out of a sleigh... —Gorey's alphabet

I must have had some expectation of finding the same whimsy in art and text from Romeo's Alphabeticus Atrocitus, because my initial reaction was horror. There is no whimsy here. Don't expect chuckles.

But don't flip through and discard this little book, either. There is some real meat in these images. Consider the page: T is for Tree. In the foreground, a sketch of a tree-trunk, grass at its roots, provides the obvious image. Yet on a hill in the background, a trio of rather different trees raises Golgotha limbs over the landscape.

Or F is for Fire: My first impression was of a burning factory with a stream of workers escaping the flames. But then... Who are the men with guns on either side of them? Perspective flips, and I see that these people are being herded into the fire.

No, these images have neither the brilliance of Gorey's art nor the Gothic humor of his verse. What they do have is depth and weight

Spend a little time to learn how atrocious our English alphabet can be. Neither your time nor the pittance of a price will be wasted.

Liner Notes:

Three things cost the book a star in my rating:

  • This eBook-only publication is restricted to Portrait-only. This is unfortunate, as the illustrations would be better viewed in Landscape.
  • The illustrations are in a format that does not permit Zoom. (This may be because they are restricted to Portrait, and the image is already at maximum zoom level.)
  • Text is part of the image, thus the font cannot be adjusted.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Playing Fair in a Supernatural Crime Thriller

Review: Harmony Black (Harmony Black Book 1) by Craig Schaefer

Harmony Black is a witch, and an FBI agent.

Okay, now that you have the premise, you're probably doing what I did when I first encountered this novel: yawning. It turns out, you'd be just as wrong as I was.

Very few authors can do supernatural crime thrillers well, because there's simply too much to juggle, and too many possibilities to breach the reader's "willing suspension of disbelief."

Isaac Asimov did it (notably in the Union Club and Black Widowers mysteries) by making the punchline reveal how there was nothing supernatural involved, the "clever trickster" premise. Stephen King does it in novel after hit novel by linking the supernatural agent to our own dark psyches. His closet-freed Boogeymen are as familiar to us as the natural criminals we read about in the news.

Schaefer does itand does it wellby giving Harmony Black a solid background as an FBI agent before he introduces the magical elements of the story. I'm going to dub this the "just another tool in the crime-fighter's kit" method.

Writers are sometimes tripped up by the idea that magic can solve any problems irresolvable by natural methods. These can be good magic stories, but they are unsatisfying to the crime-novel reader, who wants some feeling of being able to solve the crime ahead of or with the protagonists, the sense that by paying attention to all the clues, the answer is there for both reader and story characters. 

Schaefer avoids this. We see everything Harmony Black and her team see, we get all the clues. Even when they can be contacted, dead people stay dead (a particular pet peeve of mine), while the supernatural opponent does not suddenly acquire abilities it did not have at the beginning of the story.

Put simply, Schaefer plays with the concept of magic as an element of law enforcement and law-breaking, yet still plays fair with his readers. 

Liner Notes:

  • This is Book One, and the next book in this series, Red Knight Falling, will be out in April this year. I already have it on pre-order. 
  • I've promised myself that if Book Two keeps the bargain Schaefer kept with his readers in Book One, I'll indulge in his Daniel Faust novels. There are five of those, and they're already available. 

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Inside Mission Control

Review: Failure Is Not an Option by NASA Flight Director Gene Kranz.

From “God Speed, John Glenn,” to “Houston, we have a problem,” NASA’s Mission Control Center has been the uncelebrated focus of support for the U.S. space program. Astronauts made the news and rode in ticker-tape parades; the telemetry crew at Mission Control in Houston and the dozen-or-so tracking stations simply did their jobs.

We first learned about the tense behind-the-scenes action at NASA with the release of the movie Apollo 13, the airing of the mini-series From the Earth to the Moon—and this book.

Kranz, an insider at Mission Control from the first “manned” flights (“chimped” flights, actually), is in an excellent position to tell the story of the unsung battles and triumphs of Mission Control. These stories ring with the genuine voice of the tautly-focused events inside the control room. For those of us whose most uplifting experiences of the 1960s were not founded on rock-and-roll, but on rocket launches, the effect is like returning in time to a cleaner, more earnest age, when shrill voices meant disaster. That calm, reasoned, in-control aura pervades this book.

It is strongest as Kranz discusses the fire on the launch pad that claimed the lives of astronauts Roger Chaffee, Ed White and Gus Grissom; and the computer crash that nearly stranded Apollo 13 in space. The appalling blaze during a capsule test for the first Apollo mission would have halted less determined men.
It was perhaps the most defining moment in our race to get to the Moon. After this, nothing would be quite the same, ever again. —from “A Fire on the Pad
Apollo 13’s victory-from-the-jaws-of-defeat has been told graphically in the Ron Howard movie. Here, Kranz’s inner dialog is the revelation that did not come through in the film.
For a time, we simply could not bear to look back at the Apollo 1 inferno. We could only look forward to the next blank page, the next mission… we would dream about those terrible last seconds. They would be with us forever. —from “Out of the Ashes

Their chance at salvation would come from a second disaster that might have ended NASA's missions, regardless of their determination to continue. After the on-board control crashed during the Apollo 13 flight, the mission goal changed in a heartbeat when Lovell uttered the ominous words, “Okay, Houston, we have a problem.”
In both the MCC and on board the spacecraft, voices were normal, but heart rates had picked up… In the MCC, you can’t see, smell, or touch a crisis, except through the telemetry and the crew’s voice reports. But you can feel some instinct kicking in when something very wrong is going on… I was wondering which problem Lovell was reporting… The reports and our experience indicated an electrical glitch. I believed we would quickly nail the problem and get back on track… I was wrong. —from “The Age of Aquarius
These are admirable men, and Kranz makes it perfectly clear why they (and by extension, he himself) ought to be admired. This is one of the books that is kept on my bed-side shelf, ready for me to reread a section or in toto

And I now have it on my Kindle, ditto.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Other Sins than Pride

Review: The Ninth Gate with Johnny Depp, Frank Langella

The plot is simple: a rare-book dealer seeking the only other copies of a demonic tome, The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows, for an arrogant client (who already owns one), is drawn into the middle of a conspiracy with supernatural overtones. With Johnny Depp as the book dealer, and Frank Langella playing his employer, you have two essentials for an excellent supernatural thriller.

1999’s The Ninth Gate was Depp’s first of a trio of demon-centric movies. Two more such films followed close on its heels; Sleepy Hollow was released later in 1999, and From Hell came in 2001. Langella, of course, has a long history of playing sinister supernatural characters—his Dracula is still my benchmark for that role.

The film has a brooding air that comes almost entirely from the stellar performances, brilliant direction, and tightly-written script. (The screenplay by John Brownjohn credits the novel by Arturo Pérez-Reverte.) Undoubtedly, the direction by Roman Polanski contributed to this chill-of-the-ordinary approach; recall that Polansky directed and wrote the screenplay for Rosemary’s Baby. (Polansky also takes a credit for co-writing this screenplay.)

In Ninth Gate, Langella plays Boris Balkan, a would-be sidekick to Satan, who is convinced that the original illustrations in the three copies of The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows hold the secret to gaining his desire. He recruits con-artist and rare-book speculator Dean Corso (Depp) to “research” the extant copies, and hands him a huge check in advance.

The puzzle Corso must solve is three-fold. First, he must gain access to the other two books—and since one owner, Baroness Kessler (Barbara Jefford), loathes Balkan and extends that loathing to his agent, the difficulty is not trivial. Second, he must avoid the agents of the Silver Snake, a shadowy cult that developed to save the three volumes from burning in the same auto da fe that executed their author during the Inquisition. Finally, he must solve the riddle of the Ninth Gate before his employer does—and a series of murders that trail Corso’s research indicate that Balkan may be setting Corso up as a scapegoat for the crimes he himself has committed.

Unlike other supernatural thrillers, scenes are mostly fully-lit. The darkness here is of the spirit. Guided by an eerie pair of book-restoring twins, Corso notices that some of the illustrations in each book are not signed by the author’s initials “AT,” but by “LCF.” He, and we, are encouraged to believe that these initials stand for “Lucifer.” Corso never seems to consider the wisdom of seeking such Satanic knowledge; in his pride, he is focused on solving the puzzle first.

There are other sins than pride and murder, too: all three volumes of the book Corso seeks had been owned by women. Balkan’s copy was purchased from the husband of a seductive virago, Mrs. Telfer, played by Lena Olin. Olin’s Telfer is the stereotype of the sexy witch, slyly scary in her use of men’s lust to satisfy her own self-will. Baroness Kessler is, at first glance, a scholar. Later acquaintance with her reveals a woman just as immersed as Mrs. Telfer in the occult, but one who has despaired of gaining her salvation.

Another unusual aspect of The Ninth Gate is the abundance of visual clues. We have the opportunity (or the illusion of it) to “think ahead” of Corso, to solve the puzzle first. Tattoos, postcard photos, and the nine illustrations of The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows all play a part in Corso’s evolving grasp of this puzzle.

The climax of the movie is visually stunning, although entirely expected. After all, the habitual cheating triumph of Satan in any bargain is well-known. The anti-climax, though… I know I didn’t expect it, and you probably will not, either.

It’s a rare thriller that I can stand to watch twice. The Ninth Gate, I bought on DVD. It’s that good.

Growing Up At Last

Review: Meat Only On Mondays by Beryl Ensor-Smith

Raymond really loved his wife, a controlling older woman who managed every aspect of his days. He had settled into a rut of being cared for, with a generous lifestyle that allowed him to do as he pleased, and provided him with every need.

Upon his wife's death, however, the bottom drops out of his privileged world. The will leaves all his wife's wealth to a set of orphans. Raymond, already devastated by his loss, is left to figure out how to continue to live without the support-system his wife had provided.

From a protected spouse, clueless in the world of finance and inheritance law, he must become knowledgeable and thoughtful. From a solitary traveler, he must begin to welcome others on his journey.

I enjoyed seeing Raymond "grow up" all at once, taking on responsibility for himself, and then for others in need. His eventual solution for his situation is amusing and heart-warming together.

It made this book another of my fortunate "wins" from my Kindle Scout nominations. Even though it was not selected for publication in the Kindle Scout program, I was inspired to purchase it, and was amply rewarded for the decision to buy and read it.

Thrilling Political Romance from a Fairy Tale

Review: The Princess Companion (Four Kingdoms Book 1) by Melanie Cellier

Working as a Kindle Scout brings frequent rewards. Sometimes, it comes in the form of free Kindle books when the choices I nominate are selected for publication. Sometimes my only reward is an introduction to a writer I would not normally encounter.

I could increase my chances of getting a free book from each nomination by only selecting HOT choices, but these are books that already have the advantage of being listed as HOT. Instead, I read the descriptions and look at the sample text for each book that sounds like a promising read, and then nominate those.

In the case of the Cellier re-telling of The Princess and the Pea, I won even though the book was not selected for publication. I bought it to read anyway, and was amply rewarded with a masterful political thriller-cum-romantic comedy based on the children's story.

Alyssa is no princess, she is the daughter of a woodcutter with four rough-and-tumble brothers. By luck she stumbles into a position with the royal family, as companion to the twin daughters of a queen with stepsisters and a charming king. Through a misunderstanding, she is ushered into the guest suite planned for testing the princesses who will be coming to meet the heir, Prince Maximilian. Of course, she feels the pea, but she is too polite to mention it!

From there, the story proceeds like all good romantic comedies with plenty of misunderstanding and missed opportunities. An added element of political intrigue with assassins, spies, and sinister strategies for alliance makes the novel much more interesting to an adult reader. 

I am pleased that this is planned as the start of a series. The series title, Four Kingdoms, promises at least two more stories as the history of these kingdoms unfold. I will know to add them to my library, thanks to my introduction through Kindle Scout!

Friday, January 8, 2016

Slapstick With Fish

Quick Review: Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain

Anthony Bourdain has made a second career of tasty writing about his first—and ongoing—career as a chef/TV star. This memoir begins with his inspiration as a child and young man, then rapidly descends into tale-telling of the most delicious and scandalous kind. 

Driven by his nature, which he describes as “a thrill-seeking, pleasure hungry sensualist, always looking to shock, amuse, terrify and manipulate, seeking to fill that empty spot in my soul with something new,” Bourdain falls into a dish-washing job. 

His observations of all levels of work behind the scenes at restaurants and diners may appall or dismay you (especially if you have ever ordered your meat well-done, eaten sailor’s mussels (Moules Marinières), or dined on fish on a Monday.)

Look for lots of double-entendre and slapstick with fish.

Liner Notes:

  • The Kindle edition I bought includes updates learned from Bourdain's more recent TV gigs. I think I recognized that strange dish!
  • You'll honestly wonder how the man has survived some of the incidents he shares. Food poisoning is the least of it!

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Rebellion (Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge)

Not every rebellion is violent or directed against society. Sometimes the most hard-fought battle is with ourselves. The "others" we rebel against may be those who see our future path differently from what we want to follow, or expect things of us that we do not care to provide.

False rebellion of boys against their father's example, pseudo-rebel teenage girls who battle their mother's fashion in black Gothic getup; these "normal" rebellions can mask the real fight against fitting into the neat round holes our families and neighbors have designed for us.

In this week's Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge, Charli Mills' prompt follows an introduction that has more to do with gun-battles and property rights:

January 6, 2015 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a rebellion. Is it one a character fights for or is it one another suppresses? Explore what makes a rebellion, pros or cons. Use past or current rebellions as inspiration or make up one of your own.

My focus is a little narrower. Rebellion begins in a single heart. Whether it expands into a brush-fire, or simply burns in its narrow hearth, has less to do with political conflict than with the particular tinder that feeds its flame.



All his life, Karl fought his nature. 

Born with a keen eye and genes for long bones and plenty of muscle, he avoided sports and opted instead for dance classes. Blessed with a mind hungry for mathematics and science, he spent any free time writing poetry and crafting beautiful watercolors and pen-and-ink drawings of abstract forms. A charming extrovert, he traveled to places where he would be isolated by language and customs from those around him.

Happy in his rebellion, at peace with the world and himself, now he does as he pleases. His battle is over. Karl won!