Wednesday, February 20, 2019

February '19 Audiobook Reviews

Here we go again! I've been tearing through audiobooks so far this year, let's see if I can keep it up. I started last year hard and fast too, and burned out quickly, but here's hoping I can top my record for books read/listened to in 2019.

Heir to the Empire - 20th Anniversary Edition by Timothy Zahn (read by Marc Thompson)

I think I've talked before about how important "Heir to the Empire" was to my Star Wars fandom in my teens. This book, and the West End Games Role-playing game, kept Star Wars vibrant and alive for me in those dark years between Return of the Jedi and (ugh) The Phantom Menace. Not only was it the first "Star Wars" we got in ten years after Jedi, Heir to the Empire was a really good book. Or at least I remember that it was, though it had been some 25 years since I'd read it.

I remembered it very well - I could recite some lines and even full paragraphs exactly along with the narrator as I listened. But it was a lot more... juvenile than I remember it being. I'm not saying that as a major critique, it's just very obviously targeted at young adult audiences, which I guess I didn't notice at the time since I was, at the time, a young adult myself. The language is very "secondary-school," for lack of a better word, which really stands out when it's read aloud in an audiobook.

That being said, the plot is very well thought out (a hell of alot more than most Star Wars movies, to be honest) with genuinely shocking twists and turns throughout the book and the trilogy. The villain, Grand Admiral Thrawn, is without a doubt Zahn's greatest contribution to the Star Wars universe (that and the name Coruscant for the capital planet). Thrawn is a well-developed, Sherlock-Holmes-esque character, who uses his considerable intellect for evil, yet you can't help be drawn to him because he's just so darn interesting. His plots and schemes are ridiculously elaborate and yet well-thought-out and logical, far more than the simple "and now the bad guys ambush the heroes" we usually get in the movies.

So yeah, the book is still pretty good, but I cringed at the audiobook. This was the most over-the-top, over-produced audiobook I've ever listened to. It had a full soundtrack and soundscape, using all the official music and effects from the films. Every scene was highlighted by laser blasts, lightsaber hums, explosions and monster growls. Even during quiet dialogue scenes, there was always the background noise of starship engines humming in space or animals chirping on-planet. It was really unnecessary, and totally distracting at first. Maybe some people really like this kind of full presentation, but as I've said before, I really just prefer one voice telling me a story.

Marc Thompson is a good narrator, but like most male American narrators I find him a little too slick. It always sounds like the voiceover guy from movie trailers. Plus, he did all the voices (or attempted to do all the voices) as impersonations as the characters from the movies. His Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda and C-3P0 were quite good, but many of the others left a lot to be desired. Luke Skywalker sounded kinda bored, Lando sounded like he was trying to seduce everyone all the time, all of the female characters were terrible (a pretty common complain when male narrators try to do female voices), and Han Solo sounded like Patrick Warburton (the voice of Joe Swanson on Family Guy, Kronk from the Emperor's New Groove, Elaine's boyfriend Puddy on Seinfeld and Lemony Snicket in the Netflix version of A Series of Unfortunate Events).

Actually Han Solo in this sounds exactly like the Han Solo from the Lego Star Wars cartoons, but that's neither here nor there.

Portuguese Irregular Verbs by Alexander McCall Smith (read by Hugh Laurie)
My wife has been bugging me to read this for years, and while I have nothing against it I admit it took me far too long to get around it to. This is my first McCall-Smith book (I've never touched his much more famous No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, either), and I quite enjoyed it.

Charming is probably the best word I can come up with to describe this book. It wasn't gut-bustingly hilarious (though my wife insists the next book in the series is), but there were a couple of pretty funny moments. The opening chapter about three very un-athletic academics trying to learn how to play tennis using only a 100-year old rule book was brilliant. And then they tried to learn to swim from a textbooks, too... But most of the book is cute, witty, and leaves you with "ah, I see what you did there" moments. 

Ostensibly the book is a number of short stories about the lead character, Dr. Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld, a professor of "philology" (study of the history and structure of a language - I had to look it up) whose big claim to fame is writing a 1200-page treatise on Portuguese Irregular Verbs, an incredibly comprehensive (and by all accounts, dreadfully boring and unnecessary) volume about the history and usage of... Portuguese Irregular Verbs. It's a book that all his colleagues appreciate and respect but no on in the right minds would ever want to read. Every chapter and story somehow ties back to this ridiculous book, about how von Igelfeld is trying to get others to read it, or buy it, or how he got the idea to write it, and so on. It's just the right amount of absurd for me, and if you are an academic or know any of them very well, it will entertain you on an whole other level.

My favourite part of the book, however, was definitely the narration by Hugh Laurie. My previous experience with him was reading Three Men in a Boat, by Jerome K. Jerome, which if you recall I was pretty disappointed with (Laurie's reading that is, the book is great). He is a million times better here, taking his time and narrating with a gleeful joy that really makes what could by a dry story far more entertaining. In fact, Laurie's narration here bumps whats would probably be a three-star book for me up to an easy four.

Noir by Christopher Moore (read by Johnny Heller)
I'm a big homer for Christopher Moore. I unabashedly list him as one of my big influences as a writer (I'm not talented enough to write like Kurt Vonnegut, or British enough to write like Terry Pratchett). Hard-boiled detective stories are also my jam. Mickey Spillane is a dirty pleasure, even though his books are horrifically racist and misogynistic. So when you mash the two of them together, I just knew this was going to be a bitchin' ride.

From the opening line, "She had the kind of legs that kept her butt from resting on her shoes," I was hooked. It was full of Moore-isms like this, where he captures the style and tone of the genre he's satirizing/parodying, but twisting it to make it all his own. It was a classic story of a tough, regular Joe who gets caught up with a crazy dame and some illegal shenanigans, and then all hell (and murder) breaks loose. 

Set in post-WWII San Francisco, Moore deftly navigates the racial and social prejudices of the time, being honest about how people thought and acted in the 1940s without being too cringe-worthy for our modern sensibilities. And he touches on a lot of tough points, too. Japanese internment camps, the flourishing west-coast China Town, the Southern blacks who moved to California to build warships, the women who worked to run the country while the men were away but then were shuffled back when the war ended, even the underground but growing gay and lesbian culture. I've read other novels actually written in that period when all of those groups were treated like second-class citizens as best, and manipulative, horrific villains more often than not. The fact that Moore was able to not ignore the racism and bigotry while still making all of the characters real and well-rounded was an impressive feat.

Of course, this being Christopher Moore, there are aliens and secret government conspiracies. Honestly his noir pastiche was so good I would have been happy if he played it straight, without the supernatural elements, but you can't have a Christopher Moore book without talking animals and some kind of otherworldly creature murdering people. It's his gimmick, and bless him for it. I know I love it.

The narrator, Johnny Heller, was solid. He captured the noir/hardboiled vibe wonderfully, and he managed to pull off most of the varied cultural voices without delving too deep into racist caricatures (*cough, cough* Stephen Briggs *cough, cough*). Fun times.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

BIG RED by Damien Larkin REVIEW

Nazis on Mars. Alien space bugs. Secret government conspiracies. Time travel. This book has it all, and, amazingly, makes it all make sense.

When I first saw the publicity material referencing the setting, particularly the "Nazis in Space" part, I thought for sure this had to be some kind of parody, or at least written with tongue planted firmly in cheek. (Which I would be super down for, by the way) I was eager to dig into it after Dancing Lemur Press offered me an advanced copy in exchange for an honest review. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Big Red plays it straight, and pulls it off. It's earnest, and honest, and believable, thanks to the grounding of a realistic, decent protagonist as our guide and narrator.

The packaging says "military sci-fi" but this is a thriller through and through. The pace is fast and the twists and turns are dizzying. Every time I thought I had the story figured out Larkin threw another curveball, and I could barely keep up. It felt like the Twilight Zone or Black Mirror at times with the way it completely subverts expectations. Honestly sometimes it almost feels like there's too many twists happening, but the author pulls them all together, catches all the loose threads and ties everything up nicely in the end. If you're cynical like me and you're asking yourself after three or four chapters "how the hell is he going to pull this together?" then trust me: Damien Larkin pulls it off, and pulls it off with style.

It's hard to get into the plot too much without revealing spoilers (and like I said, the crazy revelations are the best part), but the back cover blurb gives you a pretty good set up. A soldier wakes up on Earth after a year-long mission to Mars goes disastrously wrong. He has only fractured memories of what happened and his commanding officers are desperate for answers he doesn't have. The story alternates back and forth between the main character's time on Mars and what's happening on Earth, as the reader experiences each memory first-hand as the narrator remembers them himself. It's a neat trick and is a wonderful way of slowly unraveling all of the interconnected story threads, as bits of info revealed in each storyline reveals or explains what's happening in the other.

The military aspects of the novel feels real and grounded, despite taking place on Mars, which is obviously due to Larkin's own experiences in the military. His first-hand knowledge really makes the action seem believable, and he provides just enough detail to add to the story without going overboard with the jargon. Likewise with his sci-fi tech - functional and interesting without going into too much minutiae. All of these touches add to the plot, giving the setting an immersive, lived-in feel without bogging it down too much.

All in all I thoroughly enjoyed Big Red and highly recommend it to anyone with even a passing interest in Sci-Fi. A very impressive debut from Damien Larkin and I look forward to future works from the author.

Big Red
By Damien Larkin

Release date - May 14, 2019

Print ISBN 9781939844606
EBook ISBN 9781939844613
Science Fiction - Military/Alien Contact/Alternative History

We have always been here…

Suffering the side effects of Compression travel, soldier Darren Loughlin wakes up screaming from a gunshot wound that isn’t there. Despite a fractured memory, he is forced to recount his year-long tour of duty on Mars to uncover the mysterious fate of Earth’s off-world colonies and the whereabouts of his shattered battalion.

With time running out, Darren recalls his tour of duty with the Mars Occupation Force in New Berlin colony, their brutal MARSCORP masters, and the vicious war against the hostile alien natives.
But as he exposes the truth, Darren suspects he is at the centre of a plot spanning forty years. He has one last mission to carry out. And his alien enemy may be more human than he is… 

Dancing Lemur Press, L.L.C. is dedicated to bringing outstanding and inspiring science fiction & fantasy, new adult/young adult, mystery, paranormal, middle-grade, non-fiction, Christian, and more to readers!

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

A Lesson a 6-Year-Old Should Be Able to Understand (#IWSG February 2019)

The other day my son was working on a drawing of Sonic the Hedgehog. I thought he was doing a great job, creating an image that is perfectly on the level expected for a 6-year-old. He, on the other hand, was not at all satisfied with it. He complained the nose was not right, the ears were too big, etc. Eventually he started to get frustrated and upset, and started erasing and re-drawing things and was ruining the overall picture.

I told him I loved the drawing and asked if I could keep it. I said if there were parts of it he wasn't happy with then he could change them next time. I told him everything we make, every task we complete, is a learning experience. Nothing is ever perfect; we should be proud of what we did well, and look for the things we can improve in the future. My wife and I have been trying to impress on him lately that improvement and rewards come from hard work, and that there are triumphs and setbacks every step of the way. I'm not sure if he believed me, but I really struck a chord with myself.

The past few months I've been working on a new manuscript, a sequel to Hell Comes to Hogtown that I had put off writing for two years. The reason I put it off, which was confirmed as soon as I started writing it, was because I knew it was going to be hard. I can see what I want it to be, but the pieces just aren't going together the way I expect them to. I knew this was going to happen because I encountered a similar issue when I wrote the original. I had fun writing the initial draft, but when that was done it took a lot of work to put it together in a sensical order. I had to almost completely re-write the story in the second and third drafts.

It's a working title.

I'm about a third of the way through the sequel and I'm still fighting the choice I need to make: Either I just have fun now, letting the story and characters go in weird and unexpected ways but with the knowledge I'm going to have to fix it all later; or I force the story into a rigid narrative structure, and let everything feel flat and boring now and hope I can instill life back into the characters in the re-writes. No matter what I choose, I'm setting myself up for more work down the line.

I need to take the same advice I gave my son, the advice that even a six-year old should be able to understand: This is a learning experience. Be happy with what I'm getting done now, and when this step is done, take what I learned and use it next time. The way I see it, when I finish this first draft one of three things are going to happen:
  1. In the best care scenario, it will turn out better than I'm expecting.
  2. It may turn out badly, but fixable. I already know there are parts I will have to change, but other parts that I'm quite happy with that I should be able to use. The first draft will take some work to salvage, but there will be decent story in there somewhere. Fixing it will teach me things that will make my job easier next time.
  3. It will turn out to be terrible and unusable. And that's fine. I will finally know that this isn't going to work, and I can put these characters and this story to bed and move onto one of the other thousand ideas I want to write.
It's a hard lesson to learn when you're in the thick of it. I thought I had learned it last time, but apparently I'm still working out the details. It will come, eventually. And maybe this really is my brain's way of telling me that this book doesn't need a sequel, that I should put it down and move onto something else. But I've got to try, just to be sure.


In case you missed it, the cover for the latest IWSG Anthology (featuring yours truly) was released last week. Here it is again in all it's tentacled-faced glory:

Are you interested in helping to promote the new book, by sharing your blog for a guest post as we get closer to the release date of April 30? If so, please check out the Blog Hop Signup below:

Here are the full details on the book:

Masquerade: Oddly Suited

An Insecure Writer’s Support Group Anthology
Release date – April 30, 2019
Young Adult Fiction: Romance - General/Paranormal/Contemporary
Print ISBN 9781939844644
EBook ISBN 9781939844651

Find love at the ball…

Can a fake dating game show lead to love? Will a missing key free a clock-bound prince? Can a softball pitcher and a baseball catcher work together? Is there a vampire living in Paradise, Newfoundland? What’s more important—a virtual Traveler or a virtual date to the ball?

Ten authors explore young love in all its facets, from heartbreak to budding passion. Featuring the talents of L.G. Keltner, Jennifer Lane, C.D. Gallant-King, Elizabeth Mueller, Angela Brown, Myles Christensen, Deborah Solice, Carrie-Anne Brownian, Anstice Brown, and Chelsea Marie Ballard.

Hand-picked by a panel of agents and authors, these ten tales will mystify and surprise even as they touch your heart. Don your mask and join the party…

MASQUERADE: ODDLY SUITED contains the following tales of romance:

Oddly Suited, LG Keltner
Behind the Catcher’s Mask, Jennifer Lane
Fearless Heart, Deborah Solice
The Dark Charade, CD Gallant-King (that's me!)
The Cog Prince, Elizabeth Mueller
Remedy, Chelsea Marie Ballard
Charleston Masquerade, Carrie-Anne Brownian 
Flower of Ronda, Myles Christensen
Sea of Sorrows, Anstice Brown
A Diver’s Ball, Angela Brown

The first Wednesday of every month is officially Insecure Writer’s Support Group day. Writers post their thoughts on their blogs, talking about their doubts and the fears they have conquered. It's a chance for writers to commiserate and offer a word of encouragement to each other. Check out the group at
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