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Review: “The Saeshell Book Of Time, Part I–The Death Of Innocents” by Rusty Biesele (LEFT UNFINISHED)

Title: The Saeshell Book Of Time, Part I–The Death Of Innocents
Author: Rusty Biesele
Series: The Children Of Sophistra #1
Publisher/Copyright: CreateSpace, 2013

I never leave a book unfinished once I’ve started it. Never. Not intentionally, anyway.* But midway through this book, I had a revelation: Life is too short to waste on books that you have zero interest in. When you find yourself actively avoiding picking up the book you’re currently reading, that’s a bad sign. I’ve suffered through several really poor books on the basis of having won them in a giveaway, and feeling obligated to finish them so as to fulfill the terms of the agreement, but in this case I just can’t do it. Had The Doomsday Diaries or The Tarizon Trilogy come up in my queue following this decision, would I still have finished them? Hard to say. They certainly weren’t good, but they were at least readable. In the case of this particular book, I forged my way through the first third, found myself still completely unengaged, and threw my hands up in submission. The desire to know how the story ends is not at all a factor, since even beyond my disinterest I know I don’t care enough to track down the other three books, and so this serial will end (for me) with a cliffhanger anyway. I received a free copy of the book from the author through the Goodreads FirstReads program, and I’m always grateful for free books. I’m just sorry in this case that he got such a poor return on his investment.

The book opens with a brief chapter in which the book itself tells you how to read it, insults you, and threatens to kill you if you damage it.** See, most of the characters are telepathic, and there are different bullets and typefaces used to indicate whether the text is being transmitted on a private channel, an open channel, is a recorded transmission, or is just plain narrative exposition. This could be cool, I wanted it to be cool, but it turned out to just be distracting. There’s a frame story with a young boy (who is apparently the younger version of the main character) and his mother, who has used her fairy powers to drug her husband so that she can read The Book Of Time to their son. Apparently this is an atrocity, but will somehow fix future events in place in the form she wants them to take, except that “Atreyu” (who I take to be either God or an analog of Him) has already taken steps to prevent this happening. Not creepy at all. Apparently The Book Of Time is a paradox and contains all the stories that will ever happen, because the story that follows is supposedly the future. We cut to the older version of Stephan, the young boy, at age thirteen. He and his lover, the nineteen-year-old Tova2, are just hanging around invisible to observe the beginning of the education of two other boys. Ty is nine, sees “ghosts” who tell him secrets, and has some mysterious connection to Stephan. Tyco is eleven, can fire energy beams from his palms, and was somehow engineered by a group of lizards? I didn’t get far enough for them to explain that. These two are being tutored by Elof2, a Tibetan-American teacher. Oh, and apparently both Elof2 and Tova2 are clones of people that Stephan accidentally killed because he doesn’t have control of his powers. It’s a little jarring to hear someone refer to “the time I killed you” in casual conversation with another character, let me tell you. The world that is constructed here has potential to be interesting, as do the characters, but the writing prevents them from reaching more than a modicum of their potential. Beyond the writing, the off-putting factors go on and on; some I could overlook, others would be harder to do so. There’s a creepy pseudo-sexual (possibly actually sexual as well, between the lines) relationship between the thirteen-year-old protagonist and his nineteen-year-old lover. The numbers by everyone’s names could be tweaked slightly to be less jarring, like in the film The Island–Lincoln Six Echo is much less jarring than Tova2, wouldn’t you agree? The characters themselves, far from being as interesting as they’re supposed to be, just fall flat. Stephan is a whiny little teenager, and we have to be constantly reminded that he’s to be their messianic figure so we don’t hate him. Ty is almost as whiny, and the mystery surrounding his nature is also annoying. You can do mystery well, but that involves actually parceling out information as you go instead of taunting your audience with the fact that they don’t know what’s going on over and over again. The illustrations are supposed to be a selling point, but instead they’re just creepy. Initially I attributed this to the black-and-white copy I have, but after seeing the colorized versions on the website I have to conclude that that just makes it worse–everyone has “Sith eyes!” If you’re a Star Wars fan, you know what I mean by that. I hate to break my record, but I just have zero interest in finishing this book.

CONTENT: Mild language, so far as I read. Some disturbing violence. Disturbing pseudo-sexual content. The metaphysics of this universe lend themselves much more to alien life forms and powers granted by their manipulation than they do to occult explanations, but characters who aren’t aware of what’s going on would probably suspect otherwise.

*There have been a couple books that had to be returned to the library mid-stream, but I always intended to check them back out. It just hasn’t always happened….

**Apparently writing your name inside the cover doesn’t count, because my brain remains un-toasted.

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Review: “The Curse Of Europa” by Brian P. Kayser

Title: The Curse Of Europa
Author: Brian P. Kayser
Rating: ***
Publisher/Copyright: CreateSpace, 2012

I received my copy of The Curse Of Europa through the Goodreads FirstReads program. It was even inscribed by the author, which was kinda cool. I have to say that the book was really well researched, or at least appeared to be. Not being an expert myself, I’m giving Mr. Kayser the benefit of the doubt when it comes to his sources. He does mention Dr. Britney Schmidt as his source for a lot of the science, and I think it would be fair to say that he based the premise of the book on one of her scholarly papers. The plot of the book, while maybe a bit predictable, is at least fairly thrilling. Unfortunately, the narrative itself is incredibly mediocre. Not bad, just…mediocre, which is sad, because I really wanted to like this. One always wants a self-published novel to turn out to be excellent, but aside from praising his research the best I can say this time is that Mr. Kayser shows good potential.

The year is 2056, and mankind has taken to the stars. Well, star. We’re still working on exploring our own solar system properly before going any further. After numerous failed probe missions to Jupiter’s icy moon of Europa, the Global Space Organization is sending a manned expedition to test for liquid water and, if they’re incredibly lucky, life on the barren moon. The previous failed missions have led to talk of a curse (thus the title), but for the most part the crew of the White Bull 2 dismisses this as ridiculous. What will they find on–and below–Europa’s icy surface? Well, I’m not going to tell you, but it would hardly be spoiling things to tell you that everything does not go as planned….

Like I said, I wanted to like this. The science seemed well researched and thought out, at least to my amateur eye, but the narrative itself…well, it could have used some more work. The main issue is the narrator’s voice. It seems more like a screenplay than a novel, maybe even the detailed outline for a screenplay before the writer goes back in and fleshes things out. The maxim in writing is always show, don’t tell, and I regretfully have to conclude that the narrator here does far more telling than showing. Sometimes we get a full-out scene, but far more often everything is glossed over in generalization. Don’t tell me that Patrick is worried about the curse, put me inside his head and let me see his reactions for myself! There are exceptions, but all too often they feel forced. Too much of the narration feels like set description and blocking, and a disappointing amount of what should be characterization is simply character description. The main couple characters are reasonably developed, but most of the others are merely caricatures. The dialogue wasn’t excellent, but it wasn’t too bad. I’ve seen (and written!) much worse. The plotting was solid, if predictable. There were a few grammatical errors, but not too many for being a self-published book. As a bonus, the book includes numerous CG art images at the beginning of select chapters. This works so long as it is confined to the spectral landscapes and spacescapes, but the lack of color printing really makes it look poorly-done when you’re pulled inside the ship or shown the crew roster. It doesn’t really detract from the experience, but it certainly does the book no favors. I blame it on the lack of a professional publisher. At the end of the day, I have to conclude that this book was simply incredibly mediocre. The good news is that if Mr. Kayser cleans this up a bit and fleshes it out a bit more, this (or his next book, if he decides to simply move on) could be really good.

CONTENT: Mild language. Some flirting, but no real sexual content. Brief disaster and monster violence, which I shall avoid describing in order to keep from giving away plot points.

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Review: “Elements Of The Undead: Books One-Three (Fire/Air/Earth)” by William Esmont

Title: Elements Of The Undead: Fire/Air/Earth
Author: William Esmont
Series: Elements Of The Undead #1-3
Rating: ***/***/****
Publisher/Copyright: CreateSpace, 2011-2012

I won a copy of the Elements Of The Undead omnibus through the Goodreads FirstReads program. My review is in no way influenced by this fact, except that I doubt I ever would have read this otherwise. This omnibus is, I think, largely intended to get people ready for the fourth book that is coming out in the near future. I reviewed each individual story on Goodreads, but this is a review of the omnibus as a whole. I say a lot of the same stuff in the individual reviews, but am more specific and don’t worry about spoilers for previous books as much. Read or ignore at your leisure. Links to the individual reviews are as follows: Fire (***)/Air (***)/Earth (****).

Also, the Kindle version of the first book is available for free from Amazon at the moment. Not sure how long that will last….Get it here. (If it’s no longer free when you click there, leave me a comment and let me know.) The second story is $.99, the third $3.99, and the collection is $4.99. So you don’t really save any money by getting them individually, but with the first one free you can check it out without spending anything. Bottom line: this is far from being high-quality literature, and nowhere near the best of the genre, but it is decently entertaining and probably worth the five bucks to get it for your Kindle.

Book One: Fire is a pretty standard zombie survival story. We meet our characters as the world falls to pieces, then pick them back up as each arrives in the Tuscon suburb that is the setting for the second half of the novel. There’s Megan, a prostitute until the infected sweep the world. Now she’s one of the leaders of the little post-apocalyptic community she helped to found. Jack is a loving husband and father at the beginning of the book…but can he protect his family from the walking dead? Kevin is a drifter, with no ties to anyone. Will he find his place in this new world? Or will he wind up just another zombie-snack? Mike is a womanizing airline pilot stuck in the air when the plague hits. He’s not saying how he managed to survive that situation, but he has definite ideas about how the community should be run and who should be running it. With these and other characters knocking about, the first book is definitely intriguing and moves fast. I only wish the pacing had been as good on the back half as it was to begin. The quality goes from good in the first half to mediocre/decent in the second half, with a building conflict that inexplicably short-circuits as if the author hit his word count and decided to call it a day. I was frankly disappointed, after the quality the book started with.

Book Two: Air is more accurately a novella, a bridge between the other two book-length tales. The good news is that it made none of the mistakes of the previous chapter. The bad news is that it was too short to be all that compelling on its own. So long as you’re not reading it out of the context of the series, it serves mostly as a prologue to book three, introducing a character that becomes important near the end of Earth.

Book Three: Earth closes out the omnibus, but I understand that there’s a fourth book coming out soon. This is good, because the ending of Earth is really not a satisfying end to the series. The author is clearly trying to stoke your appetite for more. Did it work? You tell me. I would read the next one, provided I could do it for cheap/free. This was the best of the three stories in the collection, and Esmont is definitely improving his game as he goes along. The book would benefit from a more cohesive antagonist or conflict (see my individual review for this book, linked above, for details), but on the whole it was a solid story.

Zombie fiction, like most subgenres, has its rules. You can tweak them, you can bend them, but you had better not break them because these rules are all that allow us to suspend disbelief and believe the impossible. “Zombies aren’t real, but if they were they would act like this….” When they don’t, it jars you out of the story and forces you to reconsider your choice of reading material.* For example, you always go for the head. Destroy the brain and the zombie is no longer a threat. Running zombies? That’s a new(ish) thing. I personally side with Max Brooks on the issue–slow zombies make more sense, at least so long as we’re sticking with reanimated dead folk. If we’re doing a virus that doesn’t kill but instead manifests with zombie-like symptoms (Zombieland, 28 Days Later) I don’t have as much of a problem with zombies running. But that’s a contentious issue among the zombie-lovers, and I’ll leave it alone from here out except to say that Esmont’s run just fine. People reanimate really fast here, especially in the opening phase of the plague. One character watches a guy go down, get munched on for a minute, then stand up and join attackers, all within two minutes tops from infection to reanimation. Seems to me that if it worked that fast the world would go to hell even faster than it usually does in these stories…. Origins of the plague? Most of the time this is left alone, but the idea is that it started somewhere and is spread from there by travellers. It works, unless your characters are either responsible for or combatting the source of the plague. Here, though, the plague itself makes little sense. Or rather, most of the time it’s not an issue, except that a quarantined and bedridden old lady with no contact with anyone save her uninfected family inexplicably gets zombified. Was I jarred out of the story? Yes, yes I was. Was there a good reason to do this? Nope. There wasn’t even any payoff to that scene–it ends in an unresolved cliffhanger. We meet the relevant character again, but no mention of how he escaped his zombie-mom is ever made. Could such a turn of events been explained, had Esmont tried? Sure. I can think of at least three methods off the top of my head, but the point is that without making up your own explanation it makes no sense. Even more inexplicable is the scene where a character battles a severed hand and forearm ala Evil Dead 2. That’s not how zombies operate–if that was the case destroying the brain would be useless! Unless the zombies are telepathic, in which case we’re all screwed. That could be an interesting story too, but that’s not the story we get. We get a standard zombie tale with a couple of inconsistent bits of worldbuilding. Meh.

I’ll admit that I was a little annoyed with the way Esmont portrayed Christians in Fire. One character is a young, charismatic Christian whose entire youth group is excited about the zombie apocalypse, because they believe it’s the Rapture. Only, you know, with more biting. Idiots. I would have liked to get back inside the character’s head later and see how he was dealing, but was never given the chance. That whole element disappeared from his character anyway, aside from one mention of him reading a Bible while on guard duty. Yet another inconsistency. Less annoying was an undeniably positive Catholic character, though even the author admits the character is more Buddhist in outlook than he is Catholic.

Language: R-rated.
Sex: One of the protagonists begins the story as a prostitute, thus there is some explicit sexual content related to that. There is also some that has absolutely no connection to that fact, some of which is a little disturbing. Frankly, I found this a little off-putting.
Violence: Umm….Zombies! What did you expect? Gruesome and gory violence throughout.
Other potentially offensive material: Some use of marijuana, cocaine, and methamphetamines. The Marijuana by a protagonist, the harder drugs by the villains. Some use of painkillers, but given the fact that the character involved had just lost an arm I think it was justified….

*I know, sometimes it pays to break such rules. If done properly, such a change can reinvigorate the whole concept. Unfortunately, that’s not what happened here.

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Review: “Colored Floodlights” by Frank Drury

Title: Colored Floodlights
Author: Frank Drury
Rating: ***
Publisher/Copyright: CreateSpace, 2012

I received my copy of the book through the Goodreads FirstReads program, which I highly recommend! (I think I have to say that for legal reasons) This book, however…I didn’t find it all that fascinating. I’ll admit that this isn’t really the kind of book I usually read (It isn’t quite what I expected when I signed up for the giveaway–see below for that explanation), and I’m sure there are those out there who will enjoy it, but it wasn’t for me. I go more for adventure in my books–mystery, fantasy, sci-fi, anything with an adventure in it–so this milder fare just didn’t really push my buttons. Or at least not the right ones….

I expected that the blurb (go read it if you want, I won’t reproduce it here) described the first fifty to a hundred pages, then Roy would have a PTSD attack, First Blood-style, and the rest would be the various characters dealing with that. THAT I would have found interesting. Instead, the incident mentioned (misleadingly, I might add) in the blurb is about twenty pages from the end, if that. I also expected Roy to be the main character, but he was more the secondary protagonist. The result seems a little bit aimless, in that there’s no central conflict driving the plot forward. I realize its a character-driven work, and I have to admit that all the characters are well-developed and distinct, but I still just wasn’t engaged.

Parker Boyce is a psychologist who specializes in PTSD after dealing with himself after Gulf War I. Roy Calhoun is back in the states after three tours in Afghanistan and having trouble dealing with his PTSD. As he treats Roy, Parker begins to take him on as a special project–getting him into classes at a local community college, hiring him as a gardner/caretaker, etc. This relationship formes most of the plot. In addition, there is Parker’s wife Katrina, who is cheating on him with a local detective (that’s not a spoiler–that gets off the ground right away); her sister Roberta, who takes instantly both to Roy and to the Occupy movement, leading to the climactic incident; and Parker’s mother Virginia or “Ginny,” who spends her evenings searching for dates online.

I really liked Ginny most of the way through the book. She’s funny and at least moderately conservative in her politics, which makes her stand out from the other characters who all tend left of center. I actually pictured the actress who plays Nathan Fillion’s mother on the TV show Castle. She gets abrasive at the end though, and while I don’t disagree with much of what she says, she’s not very nice about it. Roy is a sympathetic character, and you do get involved with him and his struggles. Parker is also a good guy, and you can tell he’s trying to do the right thing most of the time. He’s a liberal, but not obnoxious about it. Roberta is nice enough, and you are supposed to sympathize with her, but she dives headlong into the Occupy movement without really knowing anything about it, taking Roy to his doom. Katrina…..well, let’s just say that if you are going to have a character cheat on her husband while he is lying in the hospital, you are going to have to work extra hard to make me like this character. The author doesn’t, so I rather dislike her character quite a bit.

This is a novel very rooted in current events, especially the Occupy movement. I have no problem with that, per se, but as someone who identifies somewhere between the mainline GOP and the Tea Party I was annoyed by the pro-Occupy slant. I’m not saying that this in any way diminishes the quality of the book, but it did diminish my enjoyment of it. Its well-written, but its not a book for me. I’ll see if I can pass my copy on to someone who will enjoy it more…..

Content-wise, I’m calling this PG-13 to R. Language was not over the top, but there were a few F-bombs. There was some sexual material, not too explicit. Some violence, especially in flashbacks. Not too gory, aside from one flashback to an IED explosion.

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