Saturday, July 4, 2015

Review: The Red Queen's Gamble by David Sherwood

The Red Queen's Gambit
David Sherwood
Genre: SciFi
Find it on Amazon
Author's Smashwords Profile

In The Red Queen's Gamble, Mr. Sherwood has created an intriguing story that mixes elements of Fantasy, Science Fiction and the culture of internet gaming into a pleasant mélange. While at times it slowed down, overall the story held my attention. The strange and chaotic world that the author presents is well crafted and fresh.

The culture of the gaming community, and the people that populate it are extraordinarily well conceived and developed. Having played online games for a long time I was pleased at how accurately some of the aspects of it reflected my own experiences. From the set of gamers obsessed with attractive avatars to the ones that seem to revel in pushing the limits of strange, I felt like I'd met some of these people in my time online.

The main character was believable and sympathetic but I really wanted more of her. In the middle of the story she more or less disappears for a while. That was also the chunk of the book that didn't consume my attention.

In some places it felt like the author was trying to juggle too many storylines and too many characters. A lot of these sub plots and the character relationships weren't followed up as far as I'd have liked but honestly I can't think of a way to do it and still have the book remain focused and well directed.

Despite any perceived flaws I found that I enjoyed this book and am glad I read it.

If you enjoy books like those of Robert Bevan (who writes highly original and amusing stories based around a group of people trapped in a Dungeons & Dragons game) and Ernest Cline (Ready Player One), you might find this a solid read. As such I'm giving it 4 stars

(disclaimer: I received a copy of this book for review purposes.)

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Review: Monkey Number 100030338732 and Other Stories by C.C. Hogan

Monkey Number 100030338732 and Other Stories
C.C. Hogan
genre: science fiction short stories
Find it at Amazon
Author's website

I’m not usually a big fan of short stories. I prefer longer works. I mean, if I’m enjoying a story I just want it to go on longer. A bite sized snack that just doesn’t satisfy. Another thing I often struggle with is that in a collection of stories maybe one or two grab me but the rest are either flat or just not on the same level. It’s hard to maintain energy and consistency across stories that are usually crafted separately. So when I picked up C.C. Hogan’s collection of four short stories entitled Monkey Number 100030338732 and Other Stories and I was extremely pleasantly surprised.

Hogan offers up four captivating stories, each with an interesting premise, clean execution and an unexpected ending that kept me hooked. Each tale starts out with the barest bones, an absence of context that the author then builds on one brick at a time until you find yourself living within the well constructed walls of a superb story. Hogan manages to maintain this level of storytelling throughout the entire collection.

I won’t break down the stories individually. I didn’t read anything about them until I dove into the first one and I couldn’t put the book down until I finished the last one. When I later read the blurb on the stories I was glad I hadn’t known what was going on. The slow reveal is so engaging.

I will say that I loved the second and fourth stories the best. The New Futurist is a tiny little thread that twists and winds through your brain—the very style of the prose reflecting the mindset of the main character. The Glass Blower, which makes up the final half of this volume is by far the most in depth story in the book, and hints at what a longer work by this author might be like.

Of course, now that I’m done with the book, I really wish there were more. I would love to see what Hogan can do with a novel length offering. Hint, hint.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Review: Hollow's Charge by Arielle LeClair

Hollow’s Charge
Arielle LeClair
genre: Fantasy

Let me start by saying that I really enjoyed this book. When Arielle LeClair publishes subsequent works set in the world she has created, I’ll be there to read those.

This novel contains all the important aspects of a good fantasy novel: intrigue and adventure, a well thought out world, magic and a touch of romance. LeClair builds and maintains tension well, keeping the reader’s attention throughout the entire novel. The magic system is subtle yet central to the story, effective yet not overdone. 

Character development is well executed. I had no problems accepting the motivations of the various players. Character development and growth was handled well. One could say that the villain is a tad one dimensional. I wouldn’t have minded having at least one thing that might make her briefly sympathetic. A moment of accessibility here and there to give her more depth. But even this issue isn’t critical.

The only thing about this novel that I struggled with were the sudden shifts in perspective. I’m not sure if LeClair was specifically going for the omniscient third person or not, but I found the sudden changes in point of view jarring in many cases. For a stretch we would be seeing the action as if behind one character and then abruptly in the same scene we’d see the action from another character point of view. It might be better if these changes were isolated by chapter. On the other hand, perhaps other readers would not struggle with this as much as me.

There were a few typos or other small issues here and there but nothing that bothered me. The action and flow of the book easily reduced any impact those things might have had. 

But when the dust settled, this was a good book that I enjoyed reading and can easily recommend to readers that enjoy straight up, old school fantasy.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Review: In the Hands of the Unknown by A.E. Hellstorm

In the Hands of the Unknown: A novel about the Star Students of the Golden Fleece Society

A.E. Hellstorm
genre: horror
Find it at Amazon
Author's webpage

First, I must point out that while this is the first book in a series that hasn't been completed, the story stands alone and has no cliffhanger.

This book really grabbed me from the first page and held on tight, a death grip pulling me through the story relentlessly toward what I would describe as sublime terror in the final chapters. I found this slow, inexorable building of tension and fear reminiscent of the works of Lovecraft—some of my favorite horror fiction of all time. What started out as macabre and disturbing was horrifying by the final pages. In a world of horror dominated by gore, shock value and slaughter, it was wonderful to read this book.

That's not to say that the writing style itself is the same as the style of Lovecraft. The voice is unique, the storytelling modern and easy to read.

Told in the third person, I found the voice of the main character extremely easy to get behind. While Miriam/Claire is a strong female protagonist, she's also vulnerable—a skillfully woven combination of the two sides. This gave her some depth that really drew me in. While I've always had a fascination for strong female leads, some of the best ones out there have vulnerabilities. The other characters were just as well built. None of the central ones were single faceted foils. Especially well handled was Cyrus, one of Claire's partners.

Every book has technical issues, but overall this was quite clean. There were very few errors—definitely not enough to pull me out of the story.

The only thing I really struggled with was wrapping my head around the backstory that will back the entire series. The author dribbles out details about this over the course of the story but when the dust settled I felt that I wanted to know more about the Star Students of the Golden Fleece Society. Some of this might be simply my own failing in not understanding some common mythology or archetype. I also imagine that more will become clear in future books in the series.

I really hope that the author will write more works like this. It's been far too long since subtlety, tone and mood were so dominant in horror fiction. Don't get me wrong—it's not ALL subtlety; there are more than a few scenes that are violent and frightening. One actually made me uncomfortable, and that can be an important dynamic in horror fiction. But overall the tension rises from beginning to end in a slow, yet powerful progression, never letting up or allowing the reader to relax.

I strongly recommend this for readers that enjoy this kind of horror and I really am hoping to see more books in this style from this author.

Disclaimer: I purchased this book on my own, the author did not solicit a review. The views in this review are mine and mine alone.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

It's all about YOU today!

Today I'm going to try something I've not done before.

I invite all authors, artists, musicians that wander across this blog to add a comment to this post telling a bit about what you do, links to your work and basically take a little space to self-promote.

So tell my readers about yourself! I look forward to seeing what shows up :)

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Reviewing books on the Dreamside

Yesterday I added content to my webpage announcing that I'll be doing a few book reviews on the side, time permitting. I've put up my review policies and I hope they're clear. Here is a direct link to the policies: Review policies on the Dreamside

One of the hardest things about reviewing books is finding a way to provide constructive criticism that will ultimately be helpful in some way to the author, rather than destructive. So maybe giving some insight into how I read a book will help some authors out. Please keep in mind that these are just my own opinions and as such are one voice in a multitude of others.

The first thing I look for is a good story: plot, characters, action. The whole shebang. I don't really focus on originality of the plot, although fresh takes on old themes are appreciated. I love the human aspect of the story--I find myself more interested in stories that show character growth and development. I have a fascination for strong female lead characters. Not sure where this come from, honestly.

But those things are really secondary to some mechanics issues. I won't levy any judgment on people for their writings, but there are some basic things that really get in the way of my ability to enjoy and often even simply discover the meatier things in the previous paragraph. One of the most important things to me in reading a book is my ability to completely immerse myself in the story. In fact, there's an almost 100% correlation between this immersion and my rating of a book. Immersion is not easy to measure or gauge. It's a personal thing. I have a somewhat wild imagination so for me immersion is often a quicker process. It's the things that break me out of that state that ruin a book for me.

First, sudden shifts in perspective. I realize that third person omniscient point of view is actually a valid form, and if it's carried off well, it can be fun to read. But in most cases it is jarring. Every change of perspective within a single scene bounces me out of whatever immersion I've achieved.

Next are inconsistent verb tense changes. Again, these things are jarring. I don't mind when the story is told in past tense and suddenly the character thinks in present tense, but for that to work the thoughts need to be clearly identified as such. One way to do this is to put any direct thoughts into their own paragraph and in italics.

Next is something that many authors struggle with at first (myself included): Show Not Tell. I love descriptive prose, but too often descriptive prose is a substitute for dramatic characterization. When the author tells me explicitly something I'd rather see subtly through character interactions, well, that's jarring for me as well.

Now, here's one that I have struggled with classically: word repetition. Sometimes repetition serves a purpose in the prose. But other times the repetition is unconscious and causes the prose to flatten out.

Finally, I tend to not freak out over a few typos, spelling errors and even some grammatical errors. I know quality editorial services are expensive, and that not everyone can afford them, so I cut this one a little slack--not too much though.

At any rate, the biggest thing I worry about in this experiment doing book reviews is how to present this feedback to an author without alienating them. I know it can sting to get criticism, and authors often have a hard time detaching emotionally from their words. If you make someone defensive, even unintentionally, they are less likely to take your feedback as it is intended.

Anyway, I'm looking for science fiction, fantasy and slipstream books to review. I am completely open to indie/self published authors but obviously will consider any book submitted to me.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Music, history and the creative process: an interview with author Michael Destefano

Recently I had an opportunity to catch up with Michael Destefano, the author of The Composer's Legacy, a historical fiction novel that ties history and music to our present. I managed to get Michael to answer some questions and here is what I learned!

JDK – You’ve got an interesting background, can you tell us a bit about yourself?

MD – (Laughs) Not one of my better topics of conversation, which is why I strived to instill a portion of myself in the various characters. For instance, I included a flavor of my Air Force experience, composing the USAF 50th Anniversary Fanfare and how I felt before retirement. Both are touched on through the late composer’s memoirs. I employed the main character, David Whealy, as a vehicle to share my love of music and cooking. And using academia and a pop culture journalist as devices, I channeled my evaluation the music, not only of my late composer, but of the various pieces discussed that many people are already familiar with. 

From grade school through college, I played various single-reed instruments like the lower clarinets and alto, tenor and baritone saxophones. I used to drive the neighbors crazy playing familiar songs on my accordion on the large boulder near our home in upstate New York. But my true musical education came during my assignments to Okinawa. My years there allowed me to explore the pantheon of composers at a music store called Fukuhara Music and the coffee house called, Pianissimo. By critically listening to various albums and reading their liner and program notes, the fascinating world of “classical” music was opened up to me. The only thing more addictive than learning about composers and their works was traveling through Korea, Thailand and the Philippines and enjoying their delectable culinary opportunities. I highly recommend the kalbi, red curry (chicken flavor of course) and the Shanghai-lumpia with sweet chili dipping sauce.      

JDK – Give us a brief introduction to The Composer’s Legacy.

MD – Basically, the story revolves around a west coast college professor, well established, well liked, and comfortable in his position as assistant dean of music. Things quickly move into high gear as he receives an unexpected inheritance of original compositions from a stranger who lived on the opposite side of the country. He embarks on a journey not only to reveal a prolific and talented composer to the world, but to unravel a mystery centuries in the making.

There are several side stories involving the politics of musical academia, budding romances, and of course, the history of early colonial America. I blended my own fanciful manifestations with researched facts and weaved them together into the fabric of the story. In this way, I strived to introduce the world of classical music, early American and Delaware history to the casual reader. One example would be in chapter nine. I had David Whealy lecture about the early marriage of film and music, with all the essential facts laid out for the reader to enjoy.

But the real surprise is at the very end when a revelation is shared that only the reader will be privy to. The clues are sprinkled throughout the novel, so if you were paying attention, you might figure out what the characters had not.

JDK – Music, specifically the world of academic, classical music plays a central role in your novel. Can you describe your own relationship to music?

MD – It’s no secret really. I’m a die-hard audiophile. I listen to, perform, and write music. For me, it all started in the fall of 1975, when I began of my freshman year of high school. I happened to play an instrument the wind ensemble director needed desperately; the contrabass clarinet. The group was mainly composed of juniors and seniors due to the artistic complexity of the music they performed, so naturally I was thrilled to be a part of it.

Many of the pieces we performed were band arrangements of full-scale orchestra pieces by some of the world’s greatest composers. At the time, my limited musical vocabulary consisted of what I’d heard on the radio and at the movies or on television. One piece stood out that my parents couldn’t identify; the opening theme of the 4:30 movie. I don’t recall which of the thirteen channels it was, but its musical signature, I later found out, was the introductory phrase to the second movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. 

It became apparent that I needed to broaden my knowledge of these familiar pieces with unfamiliar names.

One afternoon, I happened to be in the music director’s office when I noticed his small library of records. He allowed me to borrow one of them, but I couldn’t find the work I originally wanted. I was hoping to find Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, since everybody recognized the first movement’s iconic four-note motive. Since it wasn’t among the choices available, I had to settle for a recording of the composer’s sixth symphony instead. It was nicknamed the “Pastoral.” 

It was the weekend before the Thanksgiving holiday and we had one hell of a snow storm. My bedroom window looked out over the front lawn of our rural home in upstate New York. The outside floodlights brightened the snow that cascaded down in clumps over the twelve inch blanket already on the ground. It was the quintessential winter wonderland; a visual amalgamation of a Robert Frost poem and a Currier & Ives painting. 

With the house to myself that afternoon, I switched on my parent’s Telefunken stereo, set the tone arm above the glossy vinyl’s first track and waited with breathless anticipation. The needle slowly lowered onto the record and soon a winsome introductory subject in F major began to unfold. 

I knew the word “pastoral” meant to be at peace and that was the ideal adjective to describe this charming tune. In the season of peace and in such an idyllic setting, the work was musical perfection to me. From the very first phrase of this sweet symphony, I was captivated by it. This symphony was a piece I would forever link with the Christmas season from that day forward.    

That was it. I was hooked. I absolutely had to explore this world of expressive music further. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a Tower Records store with a startling array of classical composers and titles to choose from. Relegated to what the town library had to offer, I had to wait until I discovered a better equipped resource for my classical music training.

JDK – You also provide original compositions with the intent that they should be experienced while reading. It’s a powerful addition to the content of your book. How did you come to this idea? Describe how you intend the reader/listener to use the two media together?

MD – The idea of marrying music to a novel is not an original one (the Star Wars novel, Shadows of the Empire for instance), but I thought the composer and author being one and the same person would be a novelty. By using several pieces I had already composed along with a few new ones, the idea was to share my music with the reading public. However, creating a mythical composer who ranked among the greatest composers who ever lived was a daunting and humbling experience. As a result, I had to rethink a few pieces I discussed and only partially completed (Reverently Isabella being one of them). I only offered what I considered my best work so there was something of James Burton West for the readers to savor. 

I went into a short bit of music theory when David analyzed Reverently Isabella, but his analysis really didn’t help the musical novice. The theme I originally came up with was decent enough, but I felt unequal to the task of completing the ensuing variations. Quite frankly, I truly believe James Burton West would have done a much better job.

Two pivotal works, The Sunder and the String Quintet (pictured on the cover of the book), were featured specifically to tie the music with the action of the story. 

When Carla reads the score to The Sunder, she’s so taken by it, she plays it on the piano for David. After playing it, not only does the instrumentation of the music—just 3 oboes—have meaning, but the opus number has such significance, the late composer captures it in his program notes (which you will find in the reading). 

Exactly how the String Quintet finds its way in front of the public I will not reveal here, but the description of the piece and how it unfolds is described in detail while the reader has the opportunity to compare the description with the piece. I thought that would be an original touch. 

JDK – What are your favorite composers and pieces?

MD – Wow, not an easy task to set one work or its composer over another, surely. I do have my favorite styles of music. My musical tastes run from classical and orchestral soundtracks to soft jazz, new age, and pop music of the 70s. I really enjoy the story tellers, like Ray Charles, Billy Joel, Jim Croce and Bob Denver.  

JDK – What motivated you to write this book?

MD – Oh that’s easy. Right after Christmas dinner in 2010, we were discussing the lack of originality in Hollywood, when my eldest niece piped up and asked about the story ideas I was working on. Reading some of them, she lighted upon the one about a music professor who receives an inheritance of music from a complete stranger. She even suggested I could use my own music as the source of the late composer’s work. When my wife suggested that I couldn’t write a book, it was all the challenge I needed to begin writing in earnest. Not only did she change her mind as she saw how thick the manuscript was getting, but she became my most ardent supporter.

JDK – What do you like to read?

MD – Mysteries and historical fiction are the easiest for me to get lost in.

JDK – Who are your favorite authors?

MD – From traditionally published fiction? Hm, let’s see now. There is, of course, Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle, Stephen King’s earlier works, Michael Crichton, and Dan Brown. Since my baptism of fire as a self-published author, the interesting world of the Independent Author has opened a new area of discovery I wasn’t even aware of. Just getting to dip my toes in the waters of the Indie world, I’ve found intriguing works and in genres I wouldn’t normally have read. Of the self-published authors I’ve read so far, my favorites include Crystal Heidel, Claudette Melanson, Jacqueline Rainey, Bev Stout, and Em Kaplan (I believe you’re familiar with her).    

JDK – Describe your writing process at a high level. How does an idea become a book in your world?

MD – At a high level? Well, I’m sure about that, but like anything else creative, it begins with a general idea. Before the first word ends up on the page, I spend a great deal of time going over the premise in my head, working out the primary characters, their situations, what the conflict should be, the hook, and why we should care about the characters. I start the writing process by drafting the first few chapters to get the ebb and flow of the story moving. Once I feel comfortable with the opening chapters, I have enough to map out the remainder of the story, generally summarizing each chapter until the end. With “Legacy,” I actually wrote the epilogue first as a way to drive the story to where I ultimately wanted it to go. And luckily, I was able to stay true to the original 43-chapter format with the addition of the completed epilogue to close the novel with its unexpected twist.

With “Legacy,” I tried to make as many aspects of the novel personal to me in the event I never wrote another one again. Examples range from character names that have a direct connection to Delaware (Burton, Fenwick, Bunting, Kirkwood, etc…), the birthday of Klaus von Richthofen—February 6—was my Dad’s birthday. I included both my nieces first names as characters (Shannon and Ashley), and even the box number Shannon was to leave on Giles Radnor’s desk; 37M41 held personal significance. The numbers are the birth years of my parents and “M” meant married.

I even went so far as to draw up a chart creating a mythical family tree for my fictitious composer to make sure all the “details” aligned with the historical facts I researched.

I don’t believe I have to tell another novelist the feeling they get typing that last word, when they finally realize the project that took them so many years to complete was now finished. It’s a wonderful feeling that I look forward to achieve once again, as I finish the manuscript of my next work.

JDK – Are you working on a new book?

MD – As a matter of fact. It’s called, The Old Corsair. The book’s title germinated the idea I actually seeded in “Legacy.” Though it’s historic with regard to whom Captain Vernon “Cyclops” Tunney (the Old Corsair) was, the story takes place in the present. 

The main protagonist, Terrie Murphy, is a junior naval intelligence officer who accidentally stumbles on evidence of an American "Flying Dutchman," a remarkably refitted pirate vessel from the late 1700s. But as she tries to unravel the history of this ship and its enigmatic Captain Tunney, she's pressured by government officials to stop what she's doing in order to safeguard a secret the executive branch of the American government had been trying to keep under wraps for over two centuries.

With any luck, I’ll have the first draft completed by the end of the year, edited and published by mid-2016.

JDK — Thanks for stopping by, Michael. I look forward to reading your next book!