Book Review: Plum Rains by Andromeda Romano-Lax

Plum Rains
Andromeda Romano-Lax
Soho Press, June 2018
ISBN 978-1-61695-901-2
Hardcover

Skip forward to 2029. Angelica Navarro is a Filipina nurse who is paying back student loans by working in Japan. Years later, the cost of those loans is about to bury her, as her brother’s debts have been added to her own. He signed on to work in Alaska and became sick from the poison left behind when a plague was eradicated by destroying the land. Angelica is nursing a Japanese woman, Sayoko Itou, who is about to celebrate her one hundredth birthday. When her son gives her a robot for a present, Sayoko and Angelica’s lives both take a drastic shift. As for the robot, the self-learning technology with which he (yes, a he) programs into himself will allow him to become both a friend, and an enemy.

The story is convoluted, the author’s vision of the near future rather terrifying, especially as, in a world that grows more crowded every day, privacy has gone by the wayside. And everything costs. One feels for Angelica, working in a strange country. One feels for Sayoko, too, whose background is tragic. Oddly enough and although neither are aware of it, her story is similar with Angelica’s. And oddly, one feels for the robot, who grows more human in exponential leaps and bounds.

The writing is often lyrical, the characters strong, the dialogue always draws the story forward. I felt a sense of dread as I read it, which certainly proves the writer’s ability to impart emotion into the tale. And I believe the end may surprise you.

Reviewed by Carol Crigger, September 2018.
Author of Three Seconds to Thunder, Four Furlongs and Hometown Homicide.

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Book Review: Return to Dust by Andrew Lanh

Return To Dust
A Rick Van Lam Mystery #2
Andrew Lanh
Poisoned Pen Press, October 2015
ISBN 978-1-4642-0426-5
Hardcover

Billed as a Rick Van Lam Mystery, the novel has more atmosphere and character than one usually expects from a good crime novel. As a consequence, the characters and their backgrounds take up far more space and time than does the careful, sometimes plodding, efforts of the novel’s detective, Rick Van Lam, to answer a rather simple question. Was Marta Kowalski murdered or did she simply slip and fall of a bridge while under the influence?

Rick Van Lam is an Amerasian, a sad by-product of that disastrous war in Viet Nam. Van Lam makes a dangerous trek to America as a young boy. Now he’s a relatively calm and accomplished investigator for a large insurance company. He’s stationed in a bedroom community outside Hartford, Connecticut, where lives a sizeable group of Hmong and other refugees from SE Asia. His relationship to the community is fraught because Lam is not pure blood and many in the small community resent his very existence. That attitude interferes with his investigation. It also offers the author many opportunities to expound on the unique troubles of this group of Asian transfers as they continue to struggle to adapt to their new country.

The woman who died seemed to be an inoffensive sort, semi-retired, she cleaned houses and apartments for a wide assortment of people in the small bedroom community and despite resistance at almost every turn, Investigator Lam persists, wading through thickets of prejudice, suspicion and occasional assistance. Ultimately, of course, he solves the mystery of Marta’s death and in the process, delivers a long and occasionally tortuous dissertation on the outflow of the disaster that was that war in Vietnam.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, June 2018.
http://www.carlbrookins.com http://agora2.blogspot.com
The Case of the Purloined Painting, The Case of the Great Train Robbery, Reunion, Red Sky.

Book Review: Anything Could Happen by Will Walton

Anything Could Happen
Will Walton
Scholastic Press, June 2015
ISBN 978-0-545-70954-5
Hardcover

It’s not every book that can convincingly cast a character with such seemingly unrelated skills. A closet dance fiend who can also (albeit a bit dubiously) aid in delivering a calf. Tretch keeps these truths hidden, right along with another fact he hasn’t figured out how to share.

He appreciates the perks of life in a tiny town while acknowledging the total lack of privacy. Also absent, is the population to properly support a funky, refurbished theatre. So, no matter how cool the 1976 King Kong movie is, Matt and his dads will probably be moving to a city soon. The time to come clean is now. Or never.

And it’s here that I could tell you Anything Could Happen is about absolutely true friendship, the strength and support of family and crushing on the wrong kid. Accurate, yet incomplete. To me, it simply shows how sensitivity is a strength, not a weakness.

Tretch is wise beyond his years, in a unique—not unrealistic—way. His uncanny ability to set his own feelings aside to focus on a friend isn’t instinctive, making it all the more admirable. He is incredibly aware of others’ feelings and hasn’t shared particular pieces of himself solely for the purpose of protecting his friends and family.

“…the insults that somehow fly right past me, but I fear would peg each of them smack in the gut.”

Secrets don’t stay hidden forever and often, they are spilled at once. How they come out matters as much as addressing the information, once it’s laid bare. A lot of pressure for an adolescent and while Tretch may not initially handle it smoothly, once he allows himself to be honest, his sincerity is unquestionable.

This was fun, without being frivolous and is appropriate for the Middle-Grade reader, but (I think) appealing to all.

Oh, and now I know who Ellie Goulding is.

Reviewed by jv poore, May 2018.

Book Review: Apocalypse 5 by Stacey Rourke

Apocalypse Five
Stacey Rourke
(Archive of the Fives, #1)
Publication date: February 12th 2019
Genres: Science Fiction, Young Adult

Good luck and have a pleasant apocalypse.

The end of the world is coming. How or when, scientists can’t agree upon. For decades, Earth’s best line of defense has been a team of young soldiers known as the Apocalypse Five, forced into virtual reality simulations to train for Doom’s Day. But, this is no game. Death on the grid is brutally final and calls up the next in a long line of cadets.

Stationed aboard the AT-1-NS Starship, the A5 are celebrities thrust into the limelight by a calling they didn’t choose. All it takes is one unscheduled mission, showing seventeen-year-old team leader Detroit a harsh and unfathomable reality, to shake the A5’s belief in all they thought they knew. After questioning people with the power to destroy them, the team is framed for a crime they didn’t commit and marked for death. Now, the hunt is on.

Can the Apocalypse Five expose the truth the starship would kill to keep hidden? Or, will their bravery end in a public execution?

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My Review

Certainly reminiscent of The Hunger Games, Apocalypse 5 adds a few twists. In the former, society has already suffered the events that led to a dystopian rule and the games are essentially an entertainment and a reminder of who is in charge. In the latter, the events are coming sometime in a nebulous future and the games are intended to defend society.

It’s an interesting premise but is puzzling and part of the story’s development has to do with understanding how it came to this, why death games are required for an essentially unknown danger. Ms. Rourke is an author new to me and I appreciate her storytelling abilities that kept me wanting to read. The characters are fleshed out nicely, although I could do without the ubiquitous romance, and I especially enjoyed the interaction and camaraderie of the team members.

All in all, this book is a good choice for anyone looking for an adventurous story and I’ll be back for the next tale.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, February 2019.

 

Author Bio:

RONE Award Winner for Best YA Paranormal Work of 2012 for Embrace, a Gryphon Series Novel

Young Adult and Teen Reader voted Author of the Year 2012

Turning Pages Magazine Winner for Best YA book of 2013 & Best Teen Book of 2013

Readers’ Favorite Silver Medal Winner for Crane 2015

Stacey Rourke is the author of the award winning YA Gryphon Series, the chillingly suspenseful Legends Saga, and the romantic comedy Reel Romance Series. She lives in Michigan with her husband, two beautiful daughters, and two giant dogs. She loves to travel, has an unhealthy shoe addiction, and considers herself blessed to make a career out of talking to the imaginary people that live in her head.

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Book Review: The Secret Diary of Lydia Bennet by Natasha Farrant

The Secret Diary of Lydia Bennet
Natasha Farrant
Chicken House, October 2016
ISBN: 978-0-545-94031-3
Hardcover

First a confession. I have never read anything by Jane Austen, so I wasn’t encumbered or biased by feeling as though I had to compare the plot and characters to those in her work. Lydia is the youngest of five daughters. While their bloodlines are good and of a quality to allow the girls and their parents a place in English society, the family finances are such that there’s a push for all five sisters to marry well and into wealth. Each sister has a distinct personality. Mary is bookish and could care less about a husband. Kitty qualifies as boy crazy, while Jane is the ‘adult in training’ as the eldest. Kitty is easily led, particularly by Lydia. As for Lydia, I found myself alternating between admiring her free spirit and wanting to shake some sense into her.

Shortly after the story opens, Redcoats come to encamp in a nearby town. As soon as the sisters learn of this, they finagle a visit to their aunt in town so they can view these new young men. While their parents admonish the girls about soldiers not being suitable husband material, for Lydia, at least, the warning slides off like water on a duck. As a result, she meets and begins a connection to a handsome fellow named Wickham. He’s dashing and suave, but his tendency to lose frequently when gambling, coupled with an instinctive sense of which females to con, make him doubly dangerous.

Fast forward to Lydia getting invited to spend time with her new friend Harriet in Brighton on the seashore. When Harriet takes her to the beach where they are to try the bathing machines (contraptions where ladies change and are hauled into the water where they jump in and freeze), Lydia not only takes to swimming, but she’s entranced by a red haired girl and her brother who strike her as extremely exotic. She soon learns they’re survivors of the war with the French and have spent time in India where their stepfather still lives. Enter Alaric and Theo. Theo is determined to make a name for herself as a dressmaker, while Alaric is rather flighty and somewhat of a romantic.

It isn’t long before Lydia has herself convinced that Alaric is her soul mate, but what ensues makes for a neatly twisted plot that involves her getting ever deeper in a swirl of untruths, acting completely unlike a single lady of her time is expected to, followed by an inevitable return to reality. When that happens, it is of a magnitude that would break many ladies of her time, but Lydia, for all her faults, is a resilient lass. Read the book and find out exactly what did happen. You won’t be disappointed.

Reviewed by John R. Clark, MLIS, January 2019.

Book Review: Alt Truths by Alec Birri

************

 

Author: Alec Birri

Narrator: Jonathan Keeble

Publisher: Essential Music Limited

Released: Jan. 2019

Genre: Science Fiction Thriller

What if you knew men, women and children were being slaughtered but had to cover it up?’

Fake news. Alternative facts. Truth, lies, damn lies and statistics. Just who are we to believe? In this near-future dystopian thriller, that will be United Nations Police “moderators”.

Thirty year old UNPOL officer Richard Warren has been embedded with the BBC and not seeing eye-to-eye with journalist Sarah Dyer is just the start of his problems. News of an Ebola pandemic is being withheld, and when it’s discovered Sarah’s artistic savant brother is involved, Richard’s determination to get to the truth takes an unexpected turn. But what if the truth must never be known?

And Richard thought Sarah was a challenge. The very concept of right and wrong is about to be tested and in a way that’s going to make fake news look like quality journalism.

Alec Birri served thirty years with the UK Armed Forces. He commanded an operational unit that experimented in new military capabilities classified at the highest level (Top Secret Strap 3) and it is this that forms the basis of his novels. Although semi-autobiographical, for national security and personal liberty reasons, the events and individuals portrayed have to be fiction but are still nonetheless in keeping with his experiences.

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Narrator Bio

If you regularly enjoy listening to audiobooks then this Shakespearean actor will need no introduction. Winner of a 2016 SOVAS award, Jonathan’s voice is rightly recognized as being one of the best, and his narration of Alt Truths is no exception.

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Having consumed Mr. Birri’s earlier trilogy, Condition, as fast as I possibly could, I really was excited to have the opportunity to listen to this new book, both for the story and for Mr. Keeble’s narration and I wasn’t disappointed although I didn’t connect with it quite as much. I think that’s because there are an awful lot of ideas and plotlines here, not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, mind you. I just tended to get a little confused at times.

From the morass of political correctness to a literally explosive attack to biowarfare (of sorts) to the wonders and dangers of being a savant to fake/manipulated news…it’s all here and more, something for nearly every reader who loves the what-ifs to be found in a well-crafted story. Add to that a narrator who is a master at what he does with a collection of voices that almost make you think you’re listening to a bunch of different people and you’ve got what we all want, a book you just can’t stop listening to 😉

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, February 2019.

I received this audiobook as part of my participation in a blog tour with Audiobookworm Promotions. The tour is being sponsored by Alec Birri. The gifting of this audiobook did not affect my opinion of it.

‘By her own admission, my next guest has led an unconventional life. Born into privileged American society, and educated at some of Europe’s finest finishing schools, a life of fashion shows, A-list galas, political fundraisers and other well-heeled charity events was never going to satisfy the young Karen Bradley. No, this rebellious teenager had another career in mind and one that could not have been more opposite – pounding the beat as a humble police officer. Fast-forward forty years, and today, the United Nations’ most senior policewoman commands a contingent of UNPOL moderators to the UK. And not without controversy.

  • Chief Bradley. Your officers’ methods are currently bringing protesters out onto the streets. How do you respond to those who say forcing people to understand opinions opposed to their own is straight from the pages of a dystopian novel?’
    • ‘I would respond by saying: How else are we to tackle the rampant anarchy of so-called social media? The problem is not only beyond the control of the UK’s own police force but worldwide, so making the UN responsible for moderating the internet would seem to make sense.’
  • ‘But UNPOL’s remit doesn’t just cover social media, does it? News agencies, political parties, industry, institutions, even children’s organisations. Can you not see how unsettling that might be for some?’
    • ‘Desperate times call for desperate measures. Before the UN Security Council voted to accept the measure back in 2025, the world was on the brink of collapse and all because some bored teenager could start a war with a single tweet or post. Thanks to my officers’ interventions, that threat has all but been eradicated.’
  • ‘But by forcing everyone to consume views opposing their own?’
    • ‘Not ideal, I’ll admit. But it’s preferable to censoring. By ensuring both sides of a story are told, society as a whole is not only safer but better informed.’
  • ‘Well, I can see how that could work when it comes to countering lies with the truth, but the other way around? Isn’t that not only immoral but dangerous?’
    • ‘An unfortunate necessity. Blame Trump and Brexit. The world has never been more divided thanks to those two and if countering fake news with alternative truths saves the world, then so be it.’
  • ‘Two wrongs don’t make a right, Chief Bradley. A lie is a lie no matter how you dress it up.’
    • ‘Really? What colour is your tie?’
  • ‘I’m sorry?’
    • ‘It’s a simple question. What colour is your tie?’
  • ‘Er, Blue.’
    • ‘It’s green.’
  • ‘I think I know the colour of my own tie. Aquamarine if I’m not mistaken.’
    • ‘Not to someone who’s colour blind. Some sufferers would say it was green or even grey.’
  • ‘Well, as aquamarine is a sort of bluish-green…’
    • ‘And now, having considered the opinions of others, are we agreed? Your tie is both blue and green?’
  • ‘I suppose so.’
    • ‘Welcome to the world of an UNPOL moderator.’
  • ‘I think you’ve just proven my point – your methods involve concealing lies behind the smoke and mirrors of loosely connected facts. Which brings me to my next question. What is your relationship with the King?’
    • ‘I don’t know what you mean.’
  • ‘Don’t be coy, Karen. Is it true you enjoy more than a diplomatic relationship with our country’s monarch?
    • ‘It is true my privileged upbringing has allowed doors to be opened that might otherwise be closed, but I can assure you my relationship with His Majesty is innocent.’
  • ‘Innocent? You call sneaking into Buckingham Palace at two in the morning “innocent”?’
    • ‘We’re both busy people. Finding time for recreation is difficult.’
  • ‘Recreation? What sort of recreation?’
    • ‘Sex.’
  • ‘Sex? You mean you’re having an affair with the King?’
    • ‘Of course. And not only the King of England. The British prime minister, President Gatesberg, the Russian and Chinese premiers. Don’t you want to see the world making love and not war?’
  • ‘Er, I don’t know what to say.’
    • ‘We’ve just discussed how difficult it can be to settle the world and its differences. Brute force and ignorance might work in the short term, but there’s nothing like gentle persuasion for producing a lasting effect.’
  • ‘Chief Bradley. Is this a confession? Are you saying you’re sharing a bed with more than one of the world’s leaders? Some would consider that treason!’
    • ‘Blame the hippie commune I ran away to back in the 1970s. Taking over the world by making love and not war has always made sense to me.’
  • ‘Don’t you mean, saving?’
    • ‘I’m sorry?’
  • ‘You said “taking over the world”. Don’t you mean “saving the world”?’
    • ‘Did I? My apologies – slip of the tongue.’

Music Playlist

Richard and Sarah’s Top-ten
  1. Poison and wine by Civil Wars – “I wish you’d hold me when I turn my back…”
  2. The Devil in Disguise by Elvis Presley – “You look like an angel…”
  3. Wish you were here by Pink Floyd – “So, so you think you can tell, Heaven from Hell…”
  4. The whole of the moon by The Waterboys – “I saw the crescent, you saw…”
  5. Shades of grey by The Monkees – “When a man should stand and fight or just go along…”
  6. I never cared for you by Willie Nelson – “And the sky was never blue…”
  7. Opposites attract by Paula Abdul – “Baby seems we never ever agree…”
  8. I choose you by Sarah Bareilles – “tell the world that we finally got it right…”
  9. You make me mad by Third Day – “You make me fall, you make me love…”
  10. Marry me by Jason Derulo – “Nothing else would ever be better, better the day when I say…”

Top 10 List

Alec Birri’s Top-Ten Tips For Writing A Dystopia

Blame Brexit. Blame Trump. Blame the rise of populism in general if you must, but there is no doubt we are currently living in what historians may one day refer to as ‘interesting’ times. And, if you know your pseudo-Chinese proverbs, that’s not meant to settle your thoughts. The literary upshot of that? A resurgence of interest in dystopian classics like Orwell’s 1984, Huxley’s Brave New World and the more modern, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Attwood. Want to have a crack at ensuring historians include your name in that illustrious list? Then read on.

  1. Write what you know. Don’t even think about penning a dystopia unless you’ve already spent decades living in a one. What? You haven’t? You mean to say you’ve never been denied entry to a bar, stopped by the police or made to do something you didn’t want to? Take all that and dial it up to eleven. Welcome to your dystopia.
  2. Use technology but avoid ‘hard’ sci-fi. Best done by setting your dystopia in the not-too-distant future. That way it’s more likely to feel ‘real’ to the reader, i.e. if we’re not careful, our children might end up living in it one day.
  3. It’s a thriller first. And some other blah about the environment, population control, conspiracy theories, thought police, eugenics, #MeToo, etc., second. Be passionate about your favourite citizen-oppressing subject but don’t let the detail of it get in the way of the action.
  4. It’s about us. It might be the narrator’s job to keep the listener entertained, but how you explore the human condition will ultimately decide your literary legacy. The chapter involving the rat in Orwell’s 1984 is gripping, but the way a hidden autocracy turned its citizens into unthinking, unfeeling but above all, obedient servants was far more unsettling.
  5. Don’t ignore utopias. A perfect society may make for a boring read, but lambs don’t lie down with lions for long.
  6. Use simple prose. The novel’s going to be complicated enough. The last thing you want your audience asking is, ‘But what’s it about?’
  7. Sex, religion and politics. Might be barred from the dinner table (well, the topics of conversation are) but all three are a must in a dystopian thriller. Remember, you’re aiming to explore why societies do the things they do and digging deep reveals these guys to be the main culprits.
  8. Avoid anything gratuitous. Particularly when it comes to writing political opinions that coincide with your own. If crucial to the plot, then have someone else in the scene state the opposing view no matter how distasteful to you personally. Let the reader decide.
  9. Build the novel. As evolution (creationism?) seems to have built us – step by step. Why does that appear to have resulted in so much inequality?
  10. And finally. Aim to satisfy the audience in this way: They have enjoyed an exciting thriller which has given them a lot to think about.

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Book Review: The Girl in the Ice by Robert Bryndza

The Girl in the Ice
A Detective Erika Foster Novel #6
Robert Bryndza
Grand Central Publishing, April 2018
ISBN: 978-1-5387-1342-6
Trade Paperback

This debut novel introduces DCI Erika Foster, and is the start of a new series.  The next novel in the series will be entitled The Night Stalker.   In The Girl in the Ice, she is brought in from her previous post in Manchester, where she led a flawed operation which resulted in the deaths of several police, including her husband.  Although she has yet to come to terms with her past, the detective superintendent believes her to still be an effective detective and places her in charge of the investigation of the murder of a prominent young woman from a well-to-do family.

The woman’s body is found frozen in ice.  Death was caused by strangulation.  Foster’s efforts are hampered by interference by the powerful father, a wealthy defense contractor, and police politics.  She stands her ground, but suffers for her principles and supposed clues, while attention is focused by higher-ups on other possible “clues,” which she feels are false.

Foster is a flawed character in need of growth.  Her efforts seem to be haphazard and insubordinate, resulting in her being removed as SIO of the case.  The novel progresses by fits and starts, and concludes with a denouement for which no basis is laid in the preceding chapters.  However, it is a good read and can be [and is] recommended, only hoping that the sequel overcomes these stated objections.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, August 2018.