Mandy by Claudy Conn

Sometime in the 1940s, regency period romances moved away from the Austen model of intelligent heroine and logical hero – into studly rake and ‘spirited’ but dumb as a doornob, overemotional wreck of a heroine (both of their only ‘redeeming’ qualities translate into being an alpha and beautiful, respectively). Worse, books like this are borderline misogynistic; the women are all schemers and loose, eager to destroy each other and others in order to get or protect their poor hapless menfolk. And yes, clearly the manwhores fall in love and are redeemed by the ‘spirited’ heroine at the end.  Barf.

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This hit so many cliches (ok, yes, this was written decades ago) it was increasingly hard to stop bonking my head on the table. People talked like a writer pushing a story forward (say this to show that the heroine is loyal to her brother, say that to show that the brother loves his twin sister, etc. etc.) than anything with true feeling or reality. The dialogue and interactions were unrealistic and very canned. It was like someone read some Georgette Heyer and took every odd phrase and tried to incorporate it into the book with a pretense of being historic. But it all came off as a bad cliche when characters acted so anachronistic and modern (and yes, stupid) as to be wince worthy.

There is a plot here, somewhere, with a murder mystery of a scheming young lady out to get our heroine’s brother entrapped in marriage (how dare she!). No one seems too offput by her death, though – I guess it was common to have relatives violently murdered in the Regency period or something. There’s a chase and hiding place (fooling no one) and yes, our gutsy (and incredibly loathsome) heroine will reform her rake by the end, save her brother, and solve the mystery.

Compounding the writing issues is one of the worst Audible readings I’ve encountered in years. The narrator pauses noticeably after every.single.sentence – creating a paragraph at the end of each period. Try stopping and counting to 3 after each sentence you read in this review and you’ll get the idea. It was really annoying, prevented any kind of dynanism or motion in the plot, and was so staccato as to render the story inert. Add in odd pauses at inappropriate places in the middle of sentences and the narrator began to sound like one of those computertized robo callers that never sound human, pausing and starting up at weird places and with equally weird intonations and emphases. It was as robotic as it comes – sort of like being slowly tortured and making the silly story seem like a punishment rather than an enjoyable way to pass time.

I’ve read historical romances for several decades. Is this the worse? Sadly, definitely not. I know there is a built in audience for the ‘spitfire’ heroine with more hair than brains or depth. But I suspect those people were raised on the pulp historical romances of the era in which this was originally written and not on literature as with Austen. The 1970s was a throw away decade in many ways – not just fashion but also, sadly, fiction for women.

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The Second Guard by J. D. Vaughn

The Second Guard is a solidly written late middle grade alternate universe fantasy drawing upon both Spanish and pre-columbian cultures. The mixture creates a very unique and striking world into which we have politics, betrayal, and the strength of friendships. The characters are earnest and the author spent considerable effort to create a very vivid and well-drawn world (read: it’s logical and coherent).

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Story: In the City of Tequende, their peace in a continent fraught with continual war is earned through mandatory servitude of the second child of every family. Tali is on her way to join the army on her 15th birthday. Along the way, she befriends two boys also traveling to the capitol for their service. The three, though from different faiths and cultures, will soon become embroiled in the politics of Tequende as betrayals and politics endanger both their families and their own lives.

The world building is quite distinct in The Second Guard. Using continental politics and setting the story in a pseudo-Spain – but then culturally overlaying the nature-mysticism of pre-columbian America makes for a fascinating mix. The religions of our three main characters dictate a lot of their perspective – from the studios moon sect, to the outgoing sunfolk and the grounded workforce of the lower caste in the Earth group. As well, we have a Moorish transplant, a gypsy, and a nobleman. Each has talents and advantages that will help our main characters navigate Tequende and stay alive.

The book is very straightforward and info-dumps about the densely plotted world are limited to a few brief paragraphs introducing each chapter. They can be skipped but I felt they added quite a bit to the story. The book is a deceptively easy read – there’s a lot packed into each chapter but author Vaughn has deftly woven action around the dialogue to keep young and older readers invested.

If I had one quibble, it would be that everyone is drearily earnest and comic relief was hard to find. Tali and her friends are quite serious nearly all the time and the book really could have used some off beat characters to lighten the tone (e.g., a Hagrid to the Harry Potter). There is a quirky professor but he’s more a Dumbledore than a Hagrid.

The strength of this book is a very logical but fascinating world that for once, eschews the over-trodden English medieval fantasy trope. It was a pleasure to delve into this world and discover the twists at the end.

Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Star Runners by L.E. Thomas

Star Runners was a welcome surprise: what could have been a rather silly retread of The Last Starfighter wass actually an engaging and decently written story with a grounded main character. Author Thomas allowed the story to grow organically, refusing to rush through the pre-sci fi scenes and never allowing the main character to be a Marty Stu male wish fulfillment fantasy. Although not perfectly written, I greatly enjoyed Star Runners.

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Story: Austin Stone is approaching graduation from high school with a growing awareness that his future has few options other than blue collar drudgery: his grades are ok, he is decent at softball, but fails to really stand out at anything. Financial constraints mean college is out of the picture and his mother is still grieving from the loss of his father several years past. His one escape: the sci fi based Star Runners game. He, along with best friend Josh, has made it to the elite server; he’s even managed to defeat uber player Scorpion. When a special college comes calling with a full scholarship dangling, he knows he has one chance to change the course of his life. But the school is much more rigorous in its demands – even harsher than a military school. As students begin to drop out one by one, he begins to question himself and his abilities. Until the day he is taken to a secret basement and then to another world – one of many in need of defense against ruthless pirates. The Star Runners game might just be real.

Although the premise of the Last Starfighter is intact (Read: boy excels at video game that is secretly a recruitment agent), this book has much more depth. We’re given a full back story and quite a bit of character growth across the entire story arc. I found that the more I read about Austin, the more I really liked the character. At this beginning, he starts off fairly unlikeable – a rather clueless but earnest loser. But as he faces trials at home, at the school, and then in space, with each triumph or defeat, he learns.

Those expecting a Mos Eisley assortment of aliens will be disappointed – all are humanoid. Nor do we get to the sci fi aspect until the last 20% of the book. A chunk of the book is dealing with the academy – difficult curriculum, bullies, friends, foes, and general growth. It makes the accomplishments (and failures) in space much more believable and realistic since we were able to see all the history that goes into each of Austin’s actions.

The only let down for me was that I listened to the audible version and the narration was a bit odd. The narrator did a decent job but had such a strong Minnesota/Canadian accent that it created a dissonance between Austin being from Atlanta but talking like an extra from the movie Fargo (minus the ‘youbetchas’).

I’m looking forward to reading book 2.

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Copperhead Part 2 by Jay Faerber, Scott Godlewski, Ron Riley

Copperhead Part 2 continues right into the story begun in the first book, completing the Sewell family story arc. The ending leaves us with a teaser that trouble is coming for Clara Bronson and the massacre of the Sewell family is a tame opening salvo for a much more complex plot. I would have preferred to see both parts 1 and 2 together in one volume since they do complete that arc – and we’d have a normal graphic novel book length. However, the story is engaging enough that I’m glad to see it in print – any way they can get it out to us.

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Story: Clara is tasked with tracking down the person(s) who murdered the Sewell clan – but her investigation is going to take a dramatic turn when her own son ends up missing and presumably lost in the wilds.

The plot winds up nicely here, with a decent but not clean resolution. Of course, this is part of a wider plot and I am greatly looking forward to seeing where this goes. The writing is excellent – creating heroes/antiheroes with pathos and nuance. The story is both familiar and distinct, taking so many Western cliches and extracting the essence of what makes them so popular and then imagining them in a sci fi setting.

The designs are excellent and the art propels the story well. The artistry effectively conveyed the most subtle of emotions and very smart decision were made from stylistic and layout choices.

The end of Part 2 comes with some extras: plot outline, character design, and development correspondence between the writer and illustrator.

Copperhead is turning into one of the best graphic novel reads I’ve had this year. I am looking forward to continuing the story.  Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Copperhead Volume 1 by Jay Faerber, Scott Godlewski, Ron Riley

Although short, coming in at a brief 55 pages or so, Copperhead is an excellent debut for what looks to be a fantastic series. Weaving ‘Western cliches’ of sheriff, doctor, town drunk, malcontent mine workers, and smart mouthed deputy with a sci fi setting could be very hit or miss. But in this instance, snappy dialogue combined with fascinating characters make the fairly typical story much more nuanced and intriguing. I found I couldn’t wait to read the next book in the series as soon as I finished this one.

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Story: Clara Bronson (likely named after Charles in homage), is a no-nonsense woman who takes her young son to an outpost world. She’s got a past and ‘reasons’ why she’s taking the sheriff post in that po-dunk mining town on a backwater planet. But she’s barely off the mag lev train when there’s a fight and then a massacre. It all centers around the Sewell family – and suddenly her sleepy job is going to become much more complicated than she could have ever foreseen.

Stylistically, the character art really works here. With a vast cast of humans and aliens, the story is make or break on the look alone. Here, the aliens are very familiar looking – and yet still and don’t look like warmed-over rehashes of the Star Wars Cantina. That adherence to traditional sci fi complements a story that is an nod to typical Westerns. It makes the story both familiar and yet also unique but without being trite or a rehash. Even the outfits are very well thought out – from Clara’s sci fi re-imagining of an 1880s travel dress to the arms and armament of an outpost settlement. It all makes sense without feeling overstylized. The art complements but doesn’t usurp the story.

The story moves at a swift pace and quickly escalates from a simple premise of breaking up a domestic squabble. There are some excellent bon mots in here and in later volumes, subtly winking at the Western cliches of bad guy and hero but without ruining the experience. It takes a deft hand to merge genres, poke fun at them, but also create an engaging story. From antihero(ine) to fat cat mine boss, Copperhead gets it all very right.

Although the volumes are short, I am greatly looking forward to continuing the read.  Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publish

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Dark Space By Jasper T. Scott

Somewhere about the half way mark of listening to the Audible version of Dark Space, I began to realize that this was very much a Mary Sue (or, at least, a Gary Stu – pure middle age male wish fulfillment fantasy). The deus ex machina is so thick here as to really be mind boggling – in a very bad way. From the loser ‘salt and pepper haired’ main character with the hot exotic girlfriend half his age, perfect wife and son, and chance to really inexplicably prove he’s still studly to the evil moustache twirling bad guy. Really, take a blender and add in Firefly and Star Wars and here you go.

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Story (such as it is): Ethan and the surviving humans have fled to a place called “Dark Space” – closing a gate behind them so that the vernicious knids…er…evil aliens…can’t continue to exterminate the humans. Han Solo…er…Ethan Ortane wants to rejoin the army but his ship is in hock to Jabba…er….Brondi and Brondi concocts the most senile plot ever in order for Ethan to get his debt paid. Ethan must use a holo device to pretend to be an officer of the surviving military – infiltrate and sabotage the last remaining law in the human universe. The only ones preventing the aliens from finding the humans….

Characters.  Right off the bat we have the aging vet and hot girlfriend from well-to-do family slumming with him (for reasons unknown). He treats her like crap and she takes it – being so ‘madly in love’ with him. But he’s still mooning over his missing wife and son from some 20 years previous, so it’s ok that he abuses the girlfriend and treats her like crap. Of course, we have the wonderful cliche of women: exotic ‘super’ gorgeous young girlfriend with ‘violet’ eyes and fancy name like Alara. Contrast that with the other female character, a hard hitting, tough talking pilot with the common name Gina. Because who would want to date a Gina when you could have an Alara?

It’s hard not to go into the silliness of the holo device, lack of any ability of detection of someone using it, and that no one seems to question the personality change of the office he is impersonating. Better yet, (mild spoiler here), everyone seems to forgive quite easily that he was involved in the officer (and mate) being tortured and killed for that identity and used it to do harm (actually, kill) 10,000 other people. But hey, it’s ok, no biggie.

We’re also supposed to like a character that is willing to hurt so many in order to save his own hide or that of his idiot girlfriend. I didn’t buy it and everyone seemed to have 1 second of half hearted regret before patting him on the back and welcoming the loser to their fold – no biggie that he killed so many.

The bad guy is so over the top and yet so incredibly stupid. Half the time the set up is gentle coercion but it always turns into kidnapping of family, etc. E.g., Brondi has Ethan over the coals for the debt but only thinks to kidnap the girlfriend on impulse later? Or the scientists who are concocting Brondi’s evil scheme for a payment – only to have family members kidnapped after completion anyway.  Why not just kidnap in the beginning and get it over with? It just seemed silly and a forced way to escalate the drama/plot.

There are some ‘plot twists’ at the end that are so left field as to make implausible segue straight to impossible. I won’t go into it for spoilers but the book ends abruptly on the spoiler and not in a very eager or satisfying end of arc way.

There was a lot I really didn’t like about Dark Space. It lacked gravitas, realistic characters, or an interesting storyline. I hated each one of the cliche characters and never invested in any part of the story.

I listened to the Audible version and the narrator did an ok job with a really silly story.

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Earth Strike: Star Carrier Book One

I purchased the Audible version on sale and decided to give this series a try. Unfortunately, turns out this is the type of military sci fi that generally turns me off: uber jingoistic “superpower” Americans fighting thinly veiled Islamic aphorisms while bogging down on endless scientific drivel. I tend to prefer character and story rather than technical jargon and macho men.

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Story: Well, typically I’ll put a story synopsis here. But this book was so all over the place that I’m not quite sure what the story is about.  There’s a lot of fighting, your typical military incompetence/apathy/negligence/politics horror stories, and some aliens.

This novel pretty much failed to engage me at all levels. At one point, I started to vacuum the carpet and didn’t bother to turn up the volume so I could hear the narration. When the vacuuming ended 20 minutes later, I didn’t feel like I had missed anything. I realized then that I’d had enough of Earth Strike.

At the half way point, I felt confident that I could go apply for a degree in xenobiology or speculative physics. There is so much endless scientific discussion it felt almost like a case of phallus waving – macho soldiers and they have a brain too! It was boring and really difficult to skip through those sections in an audible presentation.

Added to the endless annoying science was the complete lack of characterization. No one in the book felt real and each seemed to react rather than actually think through situations with emotion or any kind of feeling. Add in a real pet peeve of mine – POV chapters from an alien – and I was left with no one to root for or want to know more about.

Finally, the whole first part of the book seemed to be about the author making observations about the current Islamic condition as it pertains specifically to the US. The whole idea that there are no Christian fundamentalists wreaking havoc (or Buddhist!)only those evil daughter killing Muslims – it got old fast.

I did manage to get through most of the book but really want that time back. But at least perhaps I’ve grown some hair on my chest (to my husband’s dismay) thanks to all the machismo in there – and I can drop terms like “relativistic” into ordinary conversation with ease.

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