Thursday, July 24, 2014

Under the Ember Star by Charles Allen Gramlich - A Review

Under the Ember Star

First of all, a story and full disclosure. When this first came out and my friend, Charles, announced it, I bookmarked it and kept meaning to get it. Just like I keep meaning to try the Talera books. But it sat there. I think it was on my Amazon wishlist for a while, and then moved to my cart. And then I got a Kindle and thought, "Yeah! Now I'll get it!" So, I did. But it just sat there, downloaded on my Kindle. I wasn't sure I was in the mood for a scifi adventure story. Sometimes I was, but mostly not. Last year or so I've been cozying up to cozy mysteries and fantasies. And I even started it a couple of times, but never got into it.

But then, it was weird. It was a year later, and it was like it was time. I had been reading a cute little chick lit cozy and a middle grade princess story, and enjoying them. But suddenly they just were too too for me. They were bugging me. I just was not in the mood suddenly for girls or women who were getting themselves into trouble or were being railroaded or cajoled (and passively accepting) the adventure.

So, yesterday, on a whim, I clicked those stories shut and paged over to Under the Ember Star, which is a story that is completely the opposite of those others. I had it half read by last night and finished up the rest of it today. And I loved it! I don't know why it took me so long to read it!

Ginn Hollis has been on her own for the last 10 years or so, since she was about 14 years old, when her father died. She's been living on the streets, by her wits, surviving day-to-day, on a dying planet where the humans only get along grudgingly with the Kelmerians, or Kelms as the humans refer to them. The Kelmerians are an ancient people who used to have a vast civilization, before the sun started dying.

The ember star, or dying sun, has a cycle of rotating about the planet of 28 earth days for every Day/Night. So there are 14 days of Day and 14 days of Night. The sun itself is a red dwarf and doesn't give off enough energy to really keep the planet warm, and water is scarce. It's a mineral poor planet that is now mostly cold desert. About 20-30 above zero when the sun is up. If it weren't for the Collectors, ancient technology orbiting the planet and harvesting some of the heat to keep the planet going, it would have died a long time ago.

These are the basics.

But the story begins with our heroine, or maybe anti-heroine is a better term, breaking into a bar and stealing drugs from a criminal who's basically a drug lord so she can feed her addiction. Shortly after she meets the character who will help propel her on her adventure.

Unlike the cozy or the middle grade princess story, however, Ginn is not being cajoled or railroaded passively into an adventure. She's being kicked, shot at, punched and pulled. And she is kicking, shooting, punching and pulling right back. She knows and accepts who she is. And she might not trust some of the beings she meets, but if they prove trustworthy (or not) she adjusts. She's smart, experienced, thinks on her feet. She's constantly having to balance between the demands of different characters, all with their own agendas. Even the "good" and honorable characters have their own agendas that could get her into trouble.

This wasn't some romance dressed up as scifi adventure. This was romance in the purest term. An adventure story. An adventure story like Lawrence of Arabia, but with a faulty female hero at its heart fleeing through the desert to aid a Kelmerian in helping to find out about himself and his planet. It was also a little bit like a twisted Wizard of Oz in some parts, especially toward the end. But I didn't realize that until I'd already read past that part. At the end. It was cool (I don't want to give it away. "Spoilers, sweetie.").

One of the refreshing parts was that the only time I knew what she looked like was when she was taping the drugs to her chest for safe keeping, and that was just to tell me she was wearing a black tshirt and BDUs. Oh, and the times she was being shot at and had gotten hit with a laser gun, so she had burns on her body. Or when she was throwing up and had to wipe her hair back from her face. No, this wasn't about being pretty or getting the guy. It was about adventure.

One of the other refreshing parts is that, generally, when I'm reading a story a friend has written, I can "see" them in the story. They kind of bleed through. I kept forgetting who'd written this story. I kept forgetting it was my friend Charles. And then I would remember and I could see it, because he is a masterful storyteller of adventures. But mostly, I was just immersed in the story.

Oh, and the "guys"? Cuz there were guys, for people who think there need to be guys in a story. Well, there were some guys. And some people who were not guys. And then there was Ginn. And she was like the gem of the story.

Seriously. I really liked this story. Last I checked, the Kindle version was only $2.51. If you're looking for an adventure, one that's gritty and dirty, intelligent and sharp, but not dumpy and depressing, just fast moving and action pumping, then I suggest you download this one.

P.S. - The only thing I didn't like about this story was that I wanted more and there wasn't more. Not sure if there are more stories on this world, but I think I would like it if there were.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

'Deadly Gamble: A Charlie Parker Mystery' by Connie Shelton - A Brief Review

"Deadly Gamble" by Connie Shelton
Deadly

I gave this a 4 out of 5 Stars.

So, I had a semi-productive day trying to sell classified ads the other day (semi productive meaning out of about 10 people I contacted, one got back to me and said, "sure, maybe"). And I decided to treat myself with another murder mystery. This one was also free on Amazon (it's still free, actually: http://www.amazon.com/Deadly-Gamble-Charlie-Parker-Mysteries-ebook/dp/B002OHD1WQ). This is the first in a series, so it's supposed to pull you in so you buy the rest.

Charlie is an accountant for her brother's investigation practice. He does the leg work and she makes sure they get paid. Then one day while her brother is out of town, her former best friend who ran off with her fiancé comes by and begs Charlie to help her find a watch she thinks someone stole from her. Well, okay, it was stolen from her by a man she was sleeping with while her husband (Charlie's former fiancé) was out of town....

And later that guy ends up dead. So, Charlie has to help her former/now not so former friend prove that said friend is NOT the killer.

Now, what I like about this story is that it is a real detective story. Charlie investigates. She doesn't just run into the information. She isn't invited to help by the police. No, she's really not supposed to be helping at all (no license, active murder investigation, etc.). But, she's making phone calls, going on stake outs, asking questions, and trying to figure it out. And in the meantime, she's also doing taxes and books for the business and taking care of the dog. Unlike the Flock and Fiber mystery, this is really a story where the mystery is the central story. We don't go off on wild tangents about breeds of dogs or her chosen profession as a CPA or her brother's profession as an investigator. We might get a little big of that information to fill in the story, but it doesn't take up the bulk of the story. The murder investigation is the central part of the story. And when we're given bits of trivia in this story, we know to remember it because later on the coin drops and there's a reason for it.

What I don't like is that sometimes the author's viewpoint bleeds through in a little preachy bits through Charlie's thoughts. Not too much, but enough to make me squirm.

However, it's not a bad story. It's free. It's a fun read. Where I gave the Flock and Fiber story 3 out of 5, I gave this one 4 out of 5.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Murder Comes Unraveled 'Flock and Fiber Mystery' - A Brief Review

Crossposted from my Blogetary:

I give this one 3 out of 5 Stars.
Unraveled

I couldn't sleep the other night so I decided to read one of the "free" books I'd downloaded from Amazon (Murder Comes Unraveled by Veryl Ann Grace, http://www.amazon.com/Murder-Comes-Unraveled-Flock-Mystery-ebook/dp/B00A42SBAK now $2.99) and it should have put me to sleep. Really. It should have mediocre-ed me to sleep.

It's not badly written, it's very cleanly written. But everything is too perfect. Places that would naturally use contractions were written out. I stumbled a bit in the reading of the sections before I got used to that. In the descriptions of what the character is doing as she goes through her day, the author goes through every step, whether it's necessary to the story or not. "I put all my handspuns and fleece out on the shelves, then took the dolly back to the truck and put it away. I gave Denali a pat. Ellen waved at me." That's not an actual quote, but an example.

Now, I'm all for setting the scene and describing things, and really getting into the life of the character, but after a while, you wonder what you need to pay attention to, if one of these pieces of iota will mean something later. But they don't. They're all just trivial pieces of life. And it's not even a statement on the trivia of life. It's just a mediocre mystery. It's a pleasant read, but it's just mediocre.
And the mystery is nothing, really. There's not much tension at all. I know it's a cozy, but even cozies have something. Anyway, whilst reading this thing, I did learn about fibers and wools and spinning and weaving. The author spent more time on Great Pyrenees dogs, alpacas, llamas and sheep than she did on the murder mystery. There's even a little bit of a romance, but you wouldn't really know she was in anyway invested in the love interest. And everything, even the conversation, is kind of like reading an informational book, except that all these women call each other "lady". And that's the thing. This is a murder mystery. The murder should be the most important thing, not the fibers or how great Pyrs are.

On the upside, besides learning about fibers and Great Pyrenees dogs, it's set in Washington state and it was nice to read about home. I haven't put corn chips (or heard about people putting corn chips) in my chili since before I moved to California. Used to do that all the time. The "lady" thing I remember from home, too. "Hey, lady! It's good to see you."

But, I couldn't sleep, so I ended up reading it in its entirety, even though I knew I should quit. And I didn't keep going because it was good. I just kept going because – just because.

Good for reading in the waiting room or while traveling.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Crucible of Gold by Naomi Novik - A Review

Crossposted from Blogetary (www.puttputtproductions.com/blogetary).
Crucible of Gold by Naomi Novik
Crucible of Gold by Naomi Novik
This will be a brief review, I think (Well, we'll see - well - maybe not) of Crucible of Gold, the 7th book in the Temeraire series by Naomi Novik.

I have reviewed other books in this series previously, though Tyrannosaurus Press's Illuminata is no longer available online anymore. But as I have said before about this series, the language mixed with the story, set in an alternate world where dragons exist during the Napoleonic wars, hits many of my story sweet spots. You can read some of what said in my review of Empire of Ivory, the 4th book in the Temeraire series.
Empire of Ivory
Review of Empire of Ivory by Naomi Novik in The Illuminata, Tyrannosaurus Press, July 2008.
Here is a review of Victory of Eagles, which is the 5th book in the Temeraire series.
A review of Victory of Eagles by Naomi Novik in the April 2010 issue of the Illuminata.
A review of Victory of Eagles by Naomi Novik in the April 2010 issue of the Illuminata.
But this review is about Crucible of Gold, which is the 7th in the Temeraire series.

But first, some background. The 6th book, Tongues of Serpents, takes place in Australia, where Will Laurence and Temeraire have been shipped as their punishment for being traitors. Though, as Temeraire and Laurence have demonstrated, it's funny how being a good person seems to come in conflict with being a good captain on more than one occasion. But Laurence and Temeraire try to make a go of building a new life in Australia whilst staying out of politics. It doesn't work, of course, but it's a good adventure that includes a journey through the interior, being attacked by bunyips, dragon eggs, making friends, fleeing and fighting enemies, discovering criminal activity, etc.

By the end, however, it looks like Laurence and Temeraire have found a home in a lonely valley where they can have a farm, some cattle, and maybe get on with their lives. This is where the Crucible begins, with Temeraire building a pavilion while Laurence checks over other plans with workman that they have for their farm. (Of course, the prologue shows Hammond, the diplomat from China in a previous book, stumbling into the valley as he falls off a courier dragon and Laurence saves him from bunyips, but then we go to the first chapter). They are busy building and content. It's not the life either of them thought they would have, but it's better than when Laurence was trapped in a gaol ship and Temeraire consigned to the breeding grounds in England, or when they were prisoners in France. They are free. They are - for the most part - happy.

In comes Hammond. If you read Throne of Jade, then you know he can be conniving and passive aggressively aggressive in foisting his (and Britain's) plans upon people, though he usually does sort of fix it in the end. Hammond arrives with a notice that Laurence may be re-instated as captain in the corps once again, if he takes up a mission to Brazil.

While Laurence and Temeraire have been busy becoming Australian, Napoleon has continued to take over Europe. England thinks it can go through Portugal and Spain (with those countries' permissions) to get to Napoleon, but Portugal is dealing with the Tswana from Africa attacking Rio in Brazil. The dragons of Tswana did not like the Portuguese (or anyone) taking their humans, or as they are referred to, their "kindred", into slavery. The riders and dragons, in draconic fashion, have decided to take their kindred back. It has been hinted that if England will help in this matter that Portugal will let them take their military through to attack Napoleon.

Now, Laurence's parents are abolitionists, as is he. However, the House of Lords decided a few years back to not go against slavery (because in a sense, their dragons are slaves). And they (or the Home Office) want Laurence to go with Temeraire and some other dragons to help out the Portuguese in getting rid of the Tswana.

It goes against what both Laurence and Temeraire believe in, but it's a chance to "get back in the game". They don't like sitting still. In addition, if they pull this off, not only will they earn back their reputation, but it will also earn back the reputation of everyone who was on Temeraire's crew. Because when Laurence and Temeraire were stripped of their rank, so were many of the senior officers in the crew. They don't know how they'll do it, but they're willing to give it a try, and hopefully at least partially repair some of the damage they have done to former crew members.
Though it may seem like this is giving away much of the story, it's just the first one or two chapters. Once they are back on the Allegiance (a dragon transport ship captained by Laurence's friend Tom Riley), the adventure really takes off.

If you've read the other stories, then you know this will be another adventure story in the vein of Horatio Hornblower. So far, Novik has taken her readers from England to China to Eastern and Central Europe (Austria, Prussia, Istanbul) to France to Africa to Australia, and now to Brazil, and in between Inca (or Peru), and after, I hear it will be Japan (Blood of Tyrants). And I have no idea where League of Dragons will go (that will be the final book in the series). This will be no different. There will be hardship, treachery, mutiny, flights and fights, death, dragonish behavior, prejudices, romance (as such) and who knows what all (I'm not telling - you have to read the book!).

Emily Roland is now 15 years old, so there is that to deal with in a crew of men. In truth, though, I believe Novik didn't deal with this as much as she could have. Or should have. This isn't Roland's story, of course. But 15 year old girls can be hellish, and Roland, while sometimes irresponsible, was not as hellish as I've known 15 year old girls to be. But, she's also been working on a dragon since she was 10 years old, so she's a much more responsible and adult 15 year old than many I have known. But I did think she would cause more trouble than she did.

We also learn more about Granby, who had been Laurence's 1st lieutenant, but is now captain of Iskierka, a flame breathing dragon. And Demane, who became captain of the now heavyweight Kulingile almost by accident, is having to grow up. Again, I expected him to cause more problems than he did, but for the most part he was a pretty typical 15-16 year old boy.

Several incidents occur in this book in the series that are life changing events for Laurence, Temeraire and their friends and crews. They have been through other harrowing experiences, of course, but some of the things that occur in Crucible are the kinds of things that we say now would cause PTSD. But they all happen one right after the other. And of course, in British fashion, they just take it and move on. Joke about it and go to the next thing. It was bothering me a little bit how little they seemed to be reacting to these events (I don't want to say what they are because - well - spoilers, sweetie).

Not that they're going to go to the 18th century version of a shrink and take meds, but I wanted more (and maybe that's just my 21st century brain). And then, the funny thing is, Novik dropped in the reaction right past the point where I thought - "Oh, come on! What about the.....!" And then there it was. And there was the reaction, and the dealing with other things. And of course, that is the way life is, many times. You just deal and deal and deal, and it's not until later that you react. So, while it felt a little long, to me, to wait for that pay off, it does come, albeit in an understated British manner.

By the end of the book, while things are wrapped up in a suitable fashion, Temeraire and Laurence are taking off once again for foreign parts. There is no rest for them now, and many of the actions Novik set up were not addressed, but will obviously be addressed in Blood of Tyrants and later in League of Dragons. Like setting up dominoes, she'll just need to click the first one and then there it will go.

This is a book that could be read on its own, like the others, maybe. But I have read the others, and I had to go back and re-acquaint myself with events from previous books to keep up with some of the events in this one. So, you might want to save this one until you've read the others, if you haven't already.

Finally, the writing style felt to me like a return to the 18th century style that I so enjoyed in the first few books. Sometimes I just sat and read a paragraph over and over again just because (something I tend to do with Italo Calvino and J.R.R. Tolkien as well).

I heartily recommend this series. I've said it before. I'll say it again. Dragons. DRAGONS. DRAGONS!! Adventures reminiscent of Horatio Hornblower, Treasure Island and Kidnapped. Language reminiscent of Jane Austen, Robert Louis Stevenson and Henry Fielding. Characters who push against the grain.

It comes in a Kindle edition, as well as paperback and hardcover. I got my Kindle edition on a special deal for $3.99 (it's back up again now, I checked), so if you're strapped for cash, check back every once in a while and see if it's gone down again. Or get it at your library.

Like I said - Dragons!