CLOCKWORK SAMURAI

211 pages $2.99 on Kindle

Ninjas, Dragon Airships, Romance and Adventure, from the Forbidden City to Japan under isolation, a fun adventure yarn

Jeannie Lin is best known for her romance novels, historical romances set in Tang Dynasty China. I have not read those, but have now read the first two books in her Gunpowder Chronicles steampunk series set in the Opium Wars era in China in the mid-19th century. I enjoyed both, and look forward to seeing more books in the series, now that she has set up the world and her characters so well.

Clockwork Samurai picks up soon after Gunpowder Alchemy, with our heroes from Gunpowder Alchemy, Jin Soling and Chen Chang-wei, now at work in the Imperial Palace in the Forbidden City, Soling as an Imperial physician and Chang-wei as a senior engineer in the Ministry of Engineering. An audacious plan to seek a Japanese alliance against the British, who are rotting China from within with opium, tainted and otherwise, is ordered into action by the new Emperor.  Soling and Chang-wei are dispatched to Japan, an island nation closed against all foreigners for over two centuries. Action, intrigue, reunions and shifting alliances ensue.

Ninjas! Clockwork Samurai! Dragon airships! And mechanical Chinese herb mixing machines and other delightful Asian-inflected steampunk elements enliven the mix. I don’t want to give the plot away except to notice that there is a great deal of tromping around in the Japanese countryside suffering rather frequent attacks by assassins in well-written bouts of action that reminds me oddly enough of the second book in the Lord of the Rings trilogy where Merry and Pippin as Team A and Frodo and Sam as Team B spend much of the book tramping here and there to get to various places under rather frequent attack by orcs and other disagreeables, an shortcoming remedied in the Two Towers film version by spending the film time on less tramping and one big hellacious siege battle. I kind of got to the end of the book still looking for the climactic “boss fight” after all the tramping. The author set up a lot, whether it be the danger of the tainted opium, the position of the Japanese Shogunate on foreign politics, the position of the Chinese empire, but that the story didn’t quite push any of these elements as far as they could have been pushed or get to resolution or payoff on any of them. I found this underdevelopment by a terrific writer a crime of omission in what is otherwise a great read.

For it is a great read, my quibbles aside, and head and shoulders above much else that is available in the steampunk genre world, well-written in graceful yet concrete prose. For Lin’s adventure yarn also brings in wonderful elements of romance in the slow-simmering and very Chinese romance brewing over two books between Soling and Chang-wei, the backdrop of the urgent and tumultuous struggle for survival between the great Far Eastern powers and the rising Western Powers that marked the mid-19th century, and a growing flock of well-drawn characters in what is fast-becoming an epic scale world. Lin’s characters are individual and unique, reflecting their Chinese status-conscious culture here, or their Japanese dedication to honor and duty there.

The romance element is strong, befitting Lin’s background in historical romance. While I do suspect Lin came up with more excuses for Soling and Chang-wei to be thrown together in private, with Chang-wei’s shirt off to reveal nicely muscled masculine flesh so Soling can play doctor on him, than were absolutely necessary for plot requirements, the occasional fiery chance touches and shivers and moments of snuggling were welcome and let the Western reader accustomed to more sexual action understand that these two are in to each other even if they spend most of their time stoically ignoring each other. Lin’s grasp of the period history and culture is strong and sure, and her tale provides a great introduction to the non-Asia expert on the period and place where she has set her story.

I look forward to seeing Soling and Chang-wei continue their romance and their careers under the capricious new Emperor, and hope they are able to forge the alliance with Japan that they seek with their new friends and…no, I shan’t give it away. Suffice it to say that the new allies and technologies they found in Japan set up many new exciting possibilities for the next installments in the Gunpowder Chronicles. I look forward to reading more from Jeannie Lin. I recommend the book to action-adventure fans, historical romance fans, steampunk fans looking for something outside Victorian England and the American Wild West and anyone who enjoys a well-written yarn.

ALL OUR WRONG TODAYS

Intelligent, entertaining, witty. Just read it. Even if you hate science fiction.

Author: Elan Mastai

$12.99 on Kindle, $26.00 hardcover.

To be published February 7, 2017 by Dutton/Penguin

Canadian screenwriter Elan Mastai’s debut novel is a time travel tale with all the psychological insight and skillful wordsmithing of a literary novel. Or a literary novel with time travel, alternate time streams, romance and adventure. But don’t waste time quibbling over what it is. Just read it. It’s good. You’re going to want to read more from this guy.

First, let’s get some reviewer bias admissions out of the way. I quit reading the latest literary fiction releases a few years back when my book clubs kept picking well-reviewed literary fiction blockbusters about self-pitying, self-indulgent protagonists who whine about their parents a lot while floating around in books where nothing ever happens for long pages of beautifully written prose. I like my protagonists more capable and competent, with less self-pity, more like the dude in Andrew Weir’s “The Martian.” Seeking more action and adventure, I threw myself into the more exciting world of speculative fiction, where lots happens but–let’s be honest here–the writing in too many science fiction and fantasy books can be as painful as Sunday dinner with your [insert your most despised political party]-favoring in-laws right before the election.

I hunger for good writing craft plus a cracking good story. “All Our Wrong Todays” delivers both by the truckload.

I don’t want to frighten off the core time travel fans by praising the writing. All the stuff you love is here too! If you enjoy “Terminator: Genisys” or “Time Travel Hot Tub 2,” to name some recent time-travel movies, you’ll find plenty of action, humor, romance and adventure in “All Our Wrong Tomorrows,” plus thoughtful consideration of the usual time travel paradoxes and constraints. Mastai comes up with two separate time travel mechanisms, and a flock of vividly imagined alternate time streams. He just does it subversively, intelligently, humorously, gently rollicking along on the rails of well-traveled time travel tropes until ZHWOING!!!! Mastai hurls you, gentle reader, off into a whole new ballgame, time and time and time and time again. I don’t want to spoil the reader’s journey by any plot hints, except to promise that the moment you think you have it figured out, Mastai will find a way to turn you and the story inside out. He knows the time travel tropes; he uses them in fresh and fun ways.

I’m sure the literary fiction fans are already terrified. Time travel? Egad! But please give this a chance. The writing is great, with rhythm you’ll want to read aloud, an approachable but richly detailed style and an unerring sense for the image and dialogue that captures a moment. The work is a bit of a memoir, multi-faceted, multi-time-stream memoir, one that even starts with my most-hated-protagonist-type, the loser who whines about his parents a lot. Thankfully he does not remain so, nor do we spend hundreds of pages doing nothing. I persisted, even given my disdain for whiny protagonists (see above), because the writing and the world-building were superb, and the intelligence and wit behind the story and the character so evident. I decided to trust the author and he delivered. For the more literary-minded reader, you’ll get thoughtful and insightful meditations on a range of unexpected topics. What is the good life? What do I value and why? Who is my family? What is reality? What would I do for love? What am I responsible for, accountable for, and what must I do to right a wrong even if it wasn’t my fault? When must I quit blaming others for my life and start owning my choices? What is forgiveness, and how do I learn to forgive? What does the greater good, and my own self-interest, even mean? (And some badass ideas on the logistics of time travel and the heuristics of technological innovation, but if that’s not your thing, you can glide right over those bits.)

Recommendation: for time travel fans, of course, but for anyone who enjoys well-written fiction seasoned with equal parts wit, intelligence and adventure. Strongly recommend, with five stars.

Disclosure: I received a free pre-publication version of this story from Netgalley and the opportunity but not the obligation to write a review.

THE SILVER BARON’S WIFE

Author: Donna Baier Stein

Publisher: Serving House Books

206 pages, $3.99 Kindle, $14.95 Paperback

Award-winning literary novelist Donna Baier Stein has just published a moving and powerful portrait of a controversial and memorable character well known here in Leadville, Colorado but little known at lesser altitudes, “Baby Doe” Tabor, the second wife of Horace Tabor, the 1880s Silver King who left his name on many local landmarks.

Baier Stein brings respect and restraint to this story of a scandalous love affair, keeping her story firmly rooted in a real woman’s battle to live her life on her own terms. In a time when women were expected to keep house and tolerate their men’s misdeeds, Elizabeth McCourt (Doe) Tabor boldly divorced a philandering, drug-addicted husband and sought her fortune in the booming mining town of Leadville. There she met and won the heart and hand of wealthy Horace Tabor, who divorced his wife Augusta for the beautiful young Lizzie. Baier Stein keeps her focus on Lizzie’s choices and actions, brilliantly illuminating her character as a woman of strength and courage. In Baier Stein’s telling, Lizzie truly loved her Horace, raising her two daughters with him after his financial ruin until his death. After his passing, while still a young woman left penniless with two daughters to support, she carried on as best she could to meet his last request, a plea to attempt to revive the Matchless Mine.

To Leadville locals, surrounded on every side by buildings still bearing the Tabor name and tourist picture postcards of the beautiful young Baby Doe, the dashing Horace Tabor and the stern-faced Augusta Tabor, the broad outlines of this story are familiar territory. What I found most moving and engaging in Baier Stein’s account was Lizzie’s inner experience of these familiar events. Her distress, for example, as an earnest and devout young Catholic, at contemplating divorce. Her visions and dreams, which she carefully recorded and pondered, looking for divine instruction and guidance. Her courage in seeking work in a man’s world, refusing the only readily available work for women in Leadville—prostitution. Far from the gold-digger of popular imagination, this Lizzie was a woman of constancy and spiritual depth, a devoted if disappointed mother and a true partner and lover to her Horace.

This is a work of fiction, and so Baier Stein’s Lizzie is a fictional Lizzie, but an authentic and believable one well-rooted in her time and circumstances. The author clearly researched her subject and the period deeply and rigorously, and drew much from Baby Doe’s own journals and letters, as well as the often lurid newspaper accounts of the time. As a reader who loves historical fiction, history and biography, I greatly admire the author’s skill in creating a vivid and memorable character while honoring the historical record and the oral traditions surrounding Baby Doe that still echo around town.

Recommendation: I wholeheartedly recommend this beautifully written book to anyone who enjoys historical fiction, especially set in the Wild West, biography or well-written biographical fiction. Whether you know the story of Baby Doe, or if you have never heard of her, you will enjoy this engaging and moving story of a brave and tragic woman who met life on her own terms no matter the cost.

MAKING MONSTERS

  An oddly heartwarming dystopia

240 pages, $2.99 on Kindle. Dystopian humor.

By Joe Turk.

Summary: Ozark and a “misfit toys” collection of co-conspirators—gamer, pole dancer, assassin, gay actor and so forth–must overthrow the United Corporations of America (Health, Energy, Defense etc.) while surviving and/or escaping their quasi prisoner/slave existence. They struggle at it for a while, but are overcome by events. The End.

Review: The plotline and world-building are the simplest of threads, straightforward from oddly intriguing and mysterious kick-off chapters to gentle build in the middle and gallop to a mighty and powerful end. The treat here is the characters, a huge and high quality chocolate box of unique and delicious characters. We’ve got generals airlifted in from Dr. Strangelove. As mentioned above, a pole dancer with a heart of gold. Several gamers, hardcore, and their evil bot opponents. Murderous assassin-roommates. A handsome gay actor with a flair for on-stage revolutionary fervor. Our hero, Ozark, of course, but I will leave the reader to discover him. Author Joe Turk is a marvelous character builder. Even the minor characters linger with you, each with their own speech and behavior patterns and perfect reality. The storyline and world are social commentary sketches, more absurd than strictly plausible, powerfully but non-didactically skewering our crony capitalist current reality by taking it to absurd extremes and then letting events unfold. The author also takes aim at online dating sites, military leaders, and seed manufacturers, among other fun explorations.

I loved the writing. Unobtrusive when the action was galloping along, full of delicious observations and turns of phrases during slower periods, this book was a true pleasure to read. From the first chapter, I relaxed into the absurdities and trusted the author, for I felt safe in the hands of a mad master. The book might piss off a few ardent regulation-hating capitalists, but anyone with a sense of humor will enjoy it. Little tricks, like a chapter number countdown, demonstrate the intelligence and craft behind every line. I suppose it is strange to call dystopian novel “heartwarming” but it actually was, in spite of all the tragedies, and the dead people, and the insect-things, and the end of the world as we know it.

Recommendation: I happily recommend this book for those who like dystopian fiction mixed with a little gently humorous social commentary. The writing and craft are top-notch. Some sexy moments and cartoon violence, but nothing gross or graphic.

 

LEGACY OF TRUTH

A tale of love and magic set in 1800s Ireland

358 pages, $5.99 on Kindle. Historical fantasy.

Author Christy Nicholas’s first book in this series, “Legacy of Hunger,” wonderfully demonstrated her love for Ireland and Irish culture and history. This second book, “Legacy of Truth,” keeps those strengths and adds more—memorable characters, powerful conflict and a nuanced exploration of what is family, what is love and how one is to navigate the choices life throws one.

We meet Esme, the “good” twin in a pair of twin sisters, as a young girl nearing young womanhood. Her life is set in motion by two things—her Grandfa bequeathing her a slightly magical heirloom brooch and her selection of a husband from her suitors. Both lead to a schism with her remaining family, as she must leave her home to follow her new husband and conceal from her jealous twin the precious heirloom. Without spoiling the journey for readers, both the brooch and Esme’s continuing decisions about loving companions frame the course of her life and the drama in the story.

The writing is smooth and well-edited, with a vivid and detailed concreteness that beautifully supports the enthralling world created by the author, a world that begins in the 1780s in small towns in Ireland. I greatly enjoyed the flashes of Irish folklore and moments of magic, more organically integrated into the story in this volume than in the first book. The characters are real and human, with distinct personalities and motives. I particularly enjoyed Esme’s friendship with her neighbor Aisling, a surprising and sweet love. Esme herself, while “good” relative to her scheming and ambitious twin Eithne, is flawed and human, struggling with life’s challenges as we all do, and failing at times to be perfect and upright. While I questioned Esme’s decisions and judgment around love at times, I never found them to be forced or false but rather a natural outgrowth of her worldview and understanding as a simple woman in a small town, far from the worlds of sophisticates and lords and ladies. This is not a plot-driven tale of high adventure, but rather a chance to live in and explore another time and place and society through the life of a sympathetic and engaging character.

Recommendation: for readers of historical fiction who enjoy Ireland and the tiniest hint of magic, and well-drawn humble characters living real lives and a gentle tale pulled inexorably forward by the main character’s decisions about how to live her life.

LEGACY OF HUNGER

A compelling tour of 1840s Ireland

288 pages, $4.99 on Kindle, historical fiction/fantasy.

Author Christy Nicholas obviously loves Ireland, Irish legends and the period of history she has chosen to write about, the 1840s in Ireland, the time of the potato blight and much suffering in the Irish common people. Whenever her clean, spare prose turned to Irish faery tales, or descriptions of the land and people, I could see and feel a warm glow on the page as her love for the time and people shone through. There is much to enjoy and savor within these pages, especially for those drawn to the period and the place.

And so I settled in for the story, now on a ship, now in a bumpy carriage, now running from men who would do heroine Valentia harm. Sad things happened, tragic circumstances arose. These tragic events did not rise to the level of drama, in the sense of a purposeful hero pursuing a meaningful end and meeting powerful resistance. They were just sad, tragic distractions on a single-minded journey.

Valentia had goals and motivations aplenty, and Nicholas crafted in her a subtle and nuanced character who did grow and evolve on her bumpy journey. And yet, as a reader, although I rather liked Valentia, carefully drawn flaws and all, and I was perfectly happy to join her on that journey, eventually I found myself waiting for The Story, the heart of her journey, to begin, and it never did, or not in a satisfying way for this reader. When we arrived, rather abruptly, and in strangely summarized form, at the end, I was startled to discover no real hook into the next book in the series, where perhaps The Story proper could begin now that the world and main character had been so carefully drawn.

I struggle to explain what was missing for me, for Valentia did all the things a good hero should do, persisting in the face of obstacles, developing kindness and compassion to overcome defects in her upbringing and blinkers in her world view. She was active, not passive. She made the choices about her journey, not the men or the servants or the mentors she met on her path.  If I attempt, imperfectly, to summarize my feeling as a reader, it is that I was a passenger on someone else’s long and circuitous and often colorful and interesting journey, but I never knew where we were going or precisely why, and neither did Valentia, other than her quest to find an old brooch. And that is a terrible summary, for it was clear from the beginning that we were going to Ireland to search for grandmother’s brooch, which may or may not have magical powers, and that is precisely what we did, no matter the many obstacles. I just found myself wanting more powerful motivation than a comfortably raised young woman’s whim to go in search of an old brooch.

I’ve heard it said that “Satisfaction is Reality divided by Expectations,” and perhaps therein lies my personal difficulty with this finely wrought yet ultimately dissatisfying work, the high expectations I brought to the read. I was never quite sure what to expect, although I had been told to expect a historical fantasy, a genre I much enjoy. One of the challenges of the genre is the balance between historical and fantastical elements. Nicholas went heavy on the historical side, which I quite enjoyed by the way, and the care she took in her research shows, with slight hints of the fantasy that burst into full view only at the very end. That is fine, and a perfectly acceptable decision for a creator to make, and yet I found it a bit confusing as a reader, for I found myself waiting for the “fantasy stuff’ to begin and start driving the story but it never really did. The author created a kind of glass pane and distance between the reader and the experience of magic, in that the legends were told and described, as though a scholar were explaining to the reader bits of Irish faery legend, rather than allowing the reader to experience them in person as occurred only very occasionally in the book. Rather we were treated to small bits of Irish faery legends here and there in conversation and a few magical moments, but the fantasy never really took root but felt pasted on at the end. I wonder if a stronger choice in either direction might have been less confusing for readers and avoided some of that impatient waiting feeling I experienced, either light up the fantasy side faster and bigger earlier, or tell a straight historical fiction tale without the magic.

Recommendation: for readers who wish to learn more about Ireland of the 1840s, this is a thoroughly researched and lovingly drawn sketch of Ireland in that time. It lacks drama as a story, although the journey is an interesting and informative one, and the main character appealing in her very human mix of virtues and flaws. I am concerned that more fantasy-oriented readers will find the fantasy dosage less than their hopes and historical fiction readers may find the fantasy altogether too much.

PAGES OF TIME

Imaginative addition to time travel genre

374 pages, $3.99 on Kindle. Science fiction time travel.

Kudos to author Damian Knight for imagining a novel and creative time travel mechanism and using his invention to stir up a nasty brew of terrorism, coercion and ambition whipped up by villainous foes who can only be defeated by a brave sixteen-year-old boy. In this debut novel, Damian Knight slyly sets us down in mundane family drama, slowly turns up the heat to scorch us with family tragedy and then ratchets up the pace and the stakes when he eventually deposits us on the run in a thriller world of gun-brandishing spies and counter spies with national consequences in the balance.

“The Pages of Time” is a high concept story, deriving its power and engagement from the clever mechanism Mr. Knight has imagined for enabling time travel. Like all good magic, this mechanism has costs and limitations. Even when mastered, its powers are not enough to allow our young hero Sam to escape a terrible, soul-charring choice. The ending is spectacular, worth the ride and only visible a page or two before it explodes in the reader’s face. While the story is a standalone, Mr. Knight has set up an industrial-grade titanium hook into a great sequel or series.

The book is smoothly written and scrupulously well-edited, aside from a few rather Germanic capitalization choices here and there which perhaps obey British rules foreign to this American reader. I did not like the writing, smooth and perfectly copy-edited though it was. A screenplay of the same story, plot and characters would be a fast-paced delight, vividly highlighting Mr. Knight’s intricate plotting, memorable visuals and thriller genre black-and-white villains while moving the story along to its brilliant finish. The screenplay version by its very format, conventions and constraints would burn away the distractions and digressions that mar an otherwise good story. Take a blow torch to most of the side character descriptions, most of the domestic drama, most of the “hello, how are you?” chit chat, most of the backstory digressions, most description of mundane moments like the decisions of what tea biscuits to eat or the full read of flight captain’s take-off speech, and the camera would show us clearly and easily where we are in space and time, leaving only a spare and fast-paced imaginative and innovative exploration of time travel and its consequences set in a high stakes thriller world.

On the page as written as a novel, a reader can easily struggle with jumps between heads and time locations. “Is this the young version of that character?” “Are we in present time or the past?” Upon a careful re-reading, to make sure I understood, I saw that Mr. Knight in fact diligently marked these transitions with reminder clues, but his pathfinding breadcrumbs were often obscured by extraneous detail or side dramas or random conversations that did not keep reader focus pinned firmly on the core drama of his story, a teenager’s battle to save his family from the terrible destruction visited upon them by using his powerful–but in the end tightly limited–time travel ability.

My peevish quibbles aside, “The Pages of Time” is a solid addition to the time travel bookshelf, and Mr. Knight exhibits in this first book a great natural gift with plotting, world-building and sheer imaginative scale as well as disciplined care in the editing and presentation required to deliver a quality book. I look forward to his next book in the series.
* * * *
I was given a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest and unbiased review.

THE WONDER: BLOOD RED

Madness and Mayhem: a droll and entertaining start to a steampunk fantasy series

210 pages, $2.99 on Kindle, steampunk fantasy

James Devo’s debut steampunk fantasy “Blood Red” is a meticulous marvel of madness. I loved it. I’ll tell you why, of course, for this is a review, not a fan girl rant, but it’s the sort of fun, fantastic, quirky read one could work up a good fan girl rant about. I received a free review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review, and I am so very lucky that I did.

I like steampunk, I like fantasy and I like clever British humo[u]r. So, yes, I admit I was pre-disposed to enjoy this book for genre reasons, for it delivered all three in spades.

The steampunk was lightly done, found mostly in the vaguely Victorian/Edwardian speech and costumes of the characters, settings and the use of steampunk mechanical devices to overcome magical devices. The fantasy was yes, I must use the word, fantastic. Devo developed an intricate and yet stunningly simple magic system, of green, red and blue Wonder, magical substances manipulated by hyperphysicists, of course. For bonus points he developed a fantasy world with layers of backstory and varied settings discovered in pleasing droplets as our heroes and villains pursued their various and often nefarious ends. I finished the book a few days ago, and yet beautiful and terrifying visuals still linger in my brain, from hordes of onrushing Humps, masked Immolators, a Cathedral somehow leaning down and then springing back up, a crystalized world, and a fine library where cognac and fine port are served to gentlemen and pushy adventurous ladies on luxurious leather chairs. I wish I could forget Mandrell’s final state, but alas, he haunts me still.

Best of all was Devo’s humor and skill at sketching characters. Within these pages, look forward to lots of droll character development, very British, dry and funny as hell, from the unfortunate aristocrat Mandrell to the equally/less/more unfortunate warrior Tork, depending on how permanent you prefer your death. Let us not overlook the relentless and insatiable Laurel, the noble and tragic Hilt and all the others of this double ensemble crazy cast of characters. I cannot pretend I was able to keep straight all the characters, but as a rough guide for readers, there’s a bunch of good-ish guys and gals and a second bunch of bad-ish guys and gals, and both groups, with occasional team-switching and double-crossing, are in competitive pursuit of this book’s McGuffin, a Gargoyle key, which is eventually obtained and then in the second half of the book, put to use to reach somewhere previously unreachable, with momentous outcomes in the balance.

I loved the voice and writing. It was just right for the genre, mood and pace of this story, with little bon-bons of delicious humor embedded in what could have been the most prosaic and dull of moments. Devo somehow managed to maintain a rather frenetic feel in the pacing as we rush from battle to siege to oasis to battles anew while still slowing down for bite-sized morsels of back story and character sketching and relationship development that are the delight of this book. The story was rather fractal in nature, if I can use the word that way, in that the big over-arching plot was there, writ large (“Find the key. Use the key. Enjoy the consequences”) but along the way we had many mini-plots and mini-situations unspooling and allowing for more humor, depth and complexity. Don’t for a moment trust the author’s summary guide to characters and terms at the end of the book. It is half-truths, lies and exaggerations, mostly serving as a lame excuse for more humor. Watch the chapter headings carefully, to remind yourself where and when you are, for it can get overwhelming and you could easily get lost without a map and timepiece. That way you will not miss the freeway turnoff to the sad tale of Maisy, one of these fractal side-tales that, I kid you not, brought me to tears at the noble sacrifices made. It was an echo of every great soldierly sacrifice made on behalf of hapless civilians, up to and including Aragorn riding out against the horde when the keep has fallen to give the civilians time to escape.

On craft and presentation, I liked the layout and found the book quite well edited and clean. I am usually quite harsh about typos, and oddly enough the author seems to have misplaced some periods here and there, but spells perfectly and, other than the missing periods, punctuates well. The Humps must have made off with the missing periods, or the Trade stole them to swap for blue Wonder.

Recommendation: Ordinarily I would knock off a star for such craft sins, but I genuinely enjoyed the ride so much I could not bring myself to do it, as my personal enjoyment level was a six on a five point scale. Five stars, for wit, humor, world-building, pacing, wordsmithing, superb and memorable characters and a series I plan to read in full as a paying customer. Highly recommended for fantasy and steampunk fans looking for a new series, as well as anyone fond of British humor. Not recommended for stiffs who take everything too seriously, as they will find it appalling. Not for young and innocent readers, although I believe they would greatly enjoy the originality, creativity, creatures and humor of this world, as children enjoy William Goldman’s “The Princess Bride” although it was written for adults. Perhaps parents could read aloud to their children and edit Mandrell’s difficulties on the fly to something more family-friendly.

CRY FOR ME ARGENTINA

Ordinary people living through extraordinary times–an English couple in Argentina before the rise of Peron

Historical fiction. 353 pages, $4.90 on Kindle

Debut novelist Phyllis Goodwin’s sweeping tale of two ordinary young English people who meet and marry in Argentina between the wars, and all the history that swept around them as they built their simple lives together, accomplishes the most important thing a story can do, in my humble opinion, and that is to move the reader to care about those characters and their story. As the revelations of the final pages fell into place, I found my throat choking up as unpretentious and non-heroic human souls faced truth and responded with courage and humanity. I will not spoil the journey for the reader, but thank the writer for the gift of sharing that journey.

The book could use a good scrubbing by a tough love editor, for sins of punctuation, telling-not-showing, inclusion of extraneous details, point of view shifts and oddly telescoping time shifts within single paragraphs.

And yet, even with all these technical flaws freely admitted, there is much to enjoy and value in this story. Without the story ever bogging down into a history lesson, the reader absorbs much of the rising tension of that time period as the world convulsed not once but twice in world wars, and then once more the reader experiences the tension of the rise of the Peron movement after WWII through the main characters in Argentina. The author’s feel for setting was rich and nuanced; I too love jacarandas, their color and their scent, and have chickens and dream of a duck pond. The characters are individual and unique and memorable, their motivations clear and sharp. Perhaps there are too many lesser side characters cluttering the main narrative, and a sharper editing knife would pare a dozen away, but even the smallest walk-on part seemed to reflect a real individual, not a type, and to echo a variation on an experience in the main characters’ lives in some way. Perhaps all those side characters and meanderings through unrelated stories are not so extraneous after all. The naturalistic style of the narrative, while frustrating at times as it insistently dwelt in details that seemed to take the reader away from the main current of the story, enhanced the sense of real people and real place that is a major strength of this work.

Recommended: for historical fiction readers interested in the role the English played in Argentina in the first half of the twentieth century. I would not consider it a historical romance in the classic genre sense of the term, although the main characters’ clean romance and married relationship is real and believable.

I received a free copy of this work in exchange for a fair and impartial review.

SHINING ONES: LEGACY OF THE SIDHE

Legends of the Sidhe walk the earth again in a modern Irish world

342 pages. $2.99 on Kindle.

Author Sanna Hines’ “Shining Ones: Legacy of the Sidhe” deliciously blends Celtic myth, family drama, old-school questing and classic conflict between (mostly) good and (probably) evil in this epic fantasy. Undergirded by meticulous research and a bold willingness to mix and match old legends with modern blended family challenges, the story kicks off when Julia, a teenager with some odd skills and confusing parentage is kidnapped, and an ever-growing collection of Dananns and friends must rescue her.

Hines’ characters are legion, vivid and individually detailed and motivated. There are too many to keep track of, and I state this firmly as fact, not criticism. (Nobody yells at G.R.R.Martin for having too many characters.) Hines further torments her readers by having her characters sport both English and Gaelic names, change names, hide identities, bear nicknames and occasionally shapeshift. Yes, I cursed Hines out more than once trying to figure out who was who, but as the onion gets peeled and our band of adventurers digs deeper into Hines’ richly imagined world revealing new layers of history, legend and family ties, keeping track of everyone and their loyalties is half the fun. Side-plots of romance and family drama abound as the motley crew pursues the quests of the main narrative of saving Julia and the world as they preferred it remain. Without spoiling discoveries for the reader, I will remind readers that your mother’s advice to treat everyone you meet as important and worthy is well worth bearing in mind as you meet new characters.

The world-building is superb. From the genetics of Formorian and Danann matings and the transmission of talents, to the biology of longevity, through the portals that transport our unruly band of heroes from the United States to the Irish isles, to the complex and internally consistent magic system and the realism of urban and rural modern and legendary Ireland, Hines has created a rich and compelling world.

The craft level here is fully polished and professional, from the story-telling and world-building to grammar, punctuation and formatting.

Recommendation: for fantasy readers interested in Celtic myth and legend, who love a richly detailed world and the complexity of a huge cast of characters and an ultimately nuanced battle for the future of the world, where good and evil are shaded in gray and not simplistic black and white. While several main characters are young people, this is no dumbed down YA fantasy ruled by mighty and precocious teenaged Chosen Ones, but instead features characters of all ages with adult concerns and challenges. If you are looking for an easy read, you’ll hate this. If you are looking for a richly detailed world and characters so real you feel you could look them up and visit them, you’ll love this book. Some readers may find all the characters overwhelming; for my part I loved the complexity of the world, the conflict, and the new discoveries about the characters that emerged along the journey. If you love modern fantasy, read this book and watch this talented author to see what she does next.