• Archives

  • Topics

  • Meta

  • The Boogeyman - Working Vacation
  • Coming Home
  • Quest To the North
  • Via Serica
  • Tales of the Minivandians
  • Join the NRA

    Join the NRA!

A Look Inside the Writing Process

Over on her YouTube channel, Jill Bearup has been doing a series of posts that have had me in stitches. During this serialization of both a novel and her interactions with her main character while writing it, she points out almost exactly how things go when you’re trying to put a story together. I especially love how the character eventually goes off the rails in relation to how the author wants things to go.

If you’re a writer, this may give you a case of the giggles. If you’re a reader, it’ll give you a good story to follow and some insight as to what writers go through.

Her entire channel is a great resource for armor and medieval combat for the stage. I’m working my way through so that my own writing gets better.


Movie Review – Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Alternate title – Crouching Panther, Hidden Avenger.

Marvel’s newest contribution to its already huge collection of popcorn movies, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, is a fun, engrossing ride that holds on and doesn’t let go.  If you enjoyed the Avengers, you’ll love this one.

I won’t give a plot synopsis other than to say that the film includes one of the most romantic ass-kickings I’ve ever seen.  It is studded with martial-arts sequences and just enough comedy to remind you that it’s a comic-book movie.  If well-done martial arts movies set in either a classical or modern Chinese setting are your thing, this one is definitely up your alley.

The acting in the movie is superb.  Simu Liu stars as Shang-Chi. His ability to work both the emotional and physical side of his character make Shang-Chi real from the first scene.  He is supported by a strong cast of notable actors, including Michelle Yeoh and Tony Leung Chiu Wai.  A surprisingly strong performance by Awkwafina as Katy, his friend/love interest, filled out the cast and added some light-hearted levity to what could easily have become a much heavier and darker story.

The movie runs at over two hours, but it didn’t feel like it.  The plot moves quickly, pausing only a few times to expand on one point or another.  The characters are thrown down a rabbit hole and keep running until the very end.

Like all Marvel movies, Shang-Chi is targeted at younger people, but older folks who enjoyed the rest of the MCU should also enjoy it.  A good portion of the movie is in Chinese with subtitles, so if you’re watching with younger children who can’t read quickly, you may have to provide some help so they can keep up with the dialogue.  Other than a bit of mild cursing, though, Shang-Chi is appropriate for youngsters who can handle The Avengers or Spiderman movies.  That’s right, Shang-Chi is for the children.

So, if you’re in need of a couple of hours where you can just absorb a fast-paced action movie with outstanding acting, amazing visuals, and great characters, you really ought to check out Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.

Book Review – Other Rhodes

Sarah Hoyt begins another engrossing series with Other Rhodes:

Lily Gilden has a half-crazed cyborg in her airlock who thinks he’s Nick Rhodes,
a fictional 20th Century detective. If she doesn’t report him for destruction,
she’s guilty of a capital crime.

But with her husband missing, she’ll use every clue the cyborg holds,
and his detective abilities, to solve the crime her husband was investigating
when he disappeared.

With the help of a journalist who is more than he seems,
Lily will risk everything to plunge into the interstellar underworld
and bring the love of her life home!

Mrs. Hoyt’s greatest talent as a storyteller is to mold characters that spring from the pages fully formed, and Lilly is one of her finest creations so far. She is quickly painted as a loving wife to Joe, the jaded detective with a starship. But when things go sideways, she quickly evolves into the heroine, doing everything she can to save her man.

If you’re a fan of hard-boiled detective novels, Other Rhodes will be like slipping into your favorite fedora and trench coat for a midnight stroll down by the docks. The story moves quickly, and where it surprises, it does so in a way that puts a great twist to a familiar story.

This is a quick read, and would be perfect for a summer afternoon by the pool. Like the best of Agatha Christie or Mickey Spillane, Other Rhodes is appropriate for readers from teenagers to their grandparents. Mrs. Hoyt takes her time to fill in the broad strokes of a universe in our distant future, all while filling it with the characters and forces familiar to all of us.

For anyone who has enjoyed a dime-store detective novel or just likes solid, character-driven science fiction, Other Rhodes is highly recommended.

Book Review – Malevolently Familiar

Alma Boykin delves deeper into her characters in Malevolently Familiar:

Caught between the Old Lands and the New . . .

Less than a month after confronting an ancient evil, Lelia Chan, her Familiar Tay, and their allies meet an unmovable object. Meister Gruenewald needs their help. A new danger rises across the Great Sea, one that requires more than just his knowledge and power.

What Lelia and Master Saldovado find in the Old Land triggers a race. Can the shadow mages and their Hunter allies bring a power-obsessed sorcerer to justice? Or will his twisted idea of paradise destroy all they have fought to protect? Light-side magic workers have tried to stop the sorcerer, and paid with their lives, struck down by a creature from Elsewhere. One with a grudge.

Worse than death awaits Lelia and her chosen family if they fail.

Like all of the stories in this series, the best part of Malevolently Familiar is the characters and how they interact.  Yes, there is action and suspense, but the true thread running through this tapestry is Lelia Chan’s family.  In this installment, we learn more about Lelia’s employer and semi-adopted father, Master Saldovado.  As this character fleshes out, Lelia herself is evolving from the young mage to an elder.  Looking back on how Lelia started out all those books ago, it’s amazing how well Ms. Boykin has created and molded her.

While this is not a swiftly paced story, it does not drag.  It’s not a simple read, but I found it an easy read.  Boykin’s style is straightforward without being sparse. As her characters move in and out of the story, the reader can easily see them and how their stories play out.  By now, we know almost all of them, but with each book, they come more sharply into focus.

If you’ve enjoyed the series so far, Malevolently Familiar will be like spending a week with old friends.

Review – Learnedly Familiar

Alma Boykin’s 17th book in her Familiar Tales, Learnedly Familiar, continues a series that I can’t put down.

Where do you file a Missing Meister Report?

Something is moving. Arthur Saldovado, Lelia, and André defeated ancient evil, but mysteries remain. And worse – Arthur’s name-sake is learning how to drive! Who needs abyssal creatures when you have teenagers, school-yard spats, and retail woes to worry about? Certainly not Lelia Chan Lestrang.

When André’s mentor disappears, Lelia braces for the worst. Trouble’s coming, as bad perhaps as the evil that drew her and André together. But she has a few surprises of her own now, including allies in very strange places. With very strange senses of humor.

Return to a Familiar world, full of adventure, bad puns, dark music, magic, shedding lemurs, and domestic chaos.

Like the rest of the Familiar Tales, Learnedly Familiar is a character-based story centered around Lelia Chan and the people who make up her world.  Her husband and soulmate, Andre, continues to be the rock upon which her life is built.  Her children are growing up and discovering their own magical abilities.  The extended clan of old-world hunters that adopted her continues to develop as a cohort of new characters, enriching an already powerful gaggle of personalities.

And, hey, if a wise-aleck lemur, a pack of demented ferrets, and an oversized skunk with a Scarlett O’Hara accent don’t catch your attention, what will?

Ms. Boykin weaves a comfortable plot that has a thread of tension in it that grows until the very last scenes.  Story arcs that reach back several books continue here, but new patterns start to develop in each addition to the Familiar Tales tapestry.  The continuity throughout the series, coupled with fresh faces and adventures, keeps me coming back for more.

If you’re a fan of stories that pull together family, life, and just enough magic to keep things interesting, then Familiar Tales is a great series.  Start at the beginning, but be prepared to devour them until you’re caught up with Learnedly Familiar.

Review – Showdown on the River

J.L. Curtis has started what I hope is a new western series. It’s a great beginning that starts fast and never stops.

Rio Bell is leading a cattle drive up the Goodnight Loving Trail to Fort Laramie. It’s his first time as trail boss, but with trusted hands and hard work, he expects to be back in Texas by late September though fire, flood, or rustlers bar the way!

He didn’t count on a range war.

They didn’t account for the Rio Kid…

And he sure as hell didn’t count on the girl showing up!

Curtis is one of his generation’s best storytellers, and his talent really shows in Showdown on the River.  The author fills the wide open spaces of the American West with bigger-than-life characters.  We have cowboys, mountain men, bad men, and a fiery frontier woman who isn’t afraid of anything. If you enjoyed the glory days of Western dime novels, you’ve met all of these people before, but Curtis puts his own twist on them and makes them even more human.

Showdown on the River follows a cattle drive from Texas to the Mountain West, then follows Rio, the main character, as he stumbles into a range war.  Rio has a dark past, and Curtis does a great job of showing the bad things that can happen when a good man is pushed to violence.  The plot starts at a brisk pace and gradually picks up steam before going full tilt through the final act.  Along the way, we meet and get to know Rio and his cowboys, along with a bunch of cantankerous mountain men.  Curtis throws in a strong-willed, beautiful woman, giving Rio one more thing on his mind as he tries to survive doing the right thing.

Showdown on the River is a quick read, especially after the book’s midpoint.  Once the table is set, Curtis treats us to one great plot sequence after another.  He keeps the reader’s attention throughout by including enough historical detail to be interesting, but without delving too deeply.

I’d definitely recommend Showdown on the River if you’re a fan of old-fashioned spurs-and-six-guns Westerns.  If you’ve never tried the genre before, this would be a great place to start.

Audiobook Review – Spymaster: Startling Cold War Revelations of a Soviet KGB Chief

If you’re looking for an intriguing look into the inner workings of the KGB from the beginning of the Cold War until its end, Tenant H. Bagley’s Spymaster: Startling Cold War Revelations of a Soviet KGB Chief should be in your collection.

From the dark days of World War II through the Cold War, Sergey A. Kondrashev was a major player in Russia’s notorious KGB espionage apparatus. Rising through its ranks through hard work and keen understanding of how the spy and political games are played, he “handled” American and British defectors, recruited Western operatives as double agents, served as a ranking officer at the East Berlin and Vienna KGB bureaus, and tackled special assignments from the Kremlin.

During a 1994 television program about former spymasters, Kondrashev met and began a close friendship with a former foe, ex–CIA officer Tennent H. “Pete” Bagley, whom the Russian asked to help write his memoirs.

Because Bagley knew so about much of Kondrashev’s career (they had been on opposite sides in several operations), his penetrating questions and insights reveal slices of never-revealed espionage history that rival anything found in the pages of Ian Fleming, Len Deighton, or John le Carr. This includes chilling tales of surviving Stalin’s purges while superiors and colleagues did not, of plotting to reveal the Berlin Tunnel, of quelling the Hungarian Revolution and “Prague Spring” independence movements, and of assisting in arranging the final disposition of the corpses of Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun. Kondrashev also details equally fascinating KGB propaganda and disinformation efforts that shaped Western attitudes throughout the Cold War.

Because publication of these memoirs was banned by Putin’s regime, Bagley promised Kondrashev to have them published in the West. They are now available to all who are fascinated by vivid tales of international intrigue.

Spymaster follows the career and exploits of Sergei Kondrashev as he wended his way through the different departments and intrigues of Soviet state security between the end of World War II and the fall of the Soviet Union. We hear about everything from the subversion of staff at the American embassy in Moscow to the suppression of anti-Communist movements in Hungary and Czechoslovakia. The author’s obvious personal connection with Kondrashev, as well as his own experience as Kondrashev’s competitor in the CIA, gives Spymaster a seasoned, well thought out perspective on the shadowy workings behind the scenes in some of the most important bits of modern European and global history.

Bronson Pinchot is a master storyteller, and his narration of Spymaster was just another example of his art. His pacing is, as always, in that sweet spot of not too fast, but not too slow. He does an excellent job of keeping the listener’s attention and helping to visualize the scenes and people that flow through the book.

If you’re interested in true-life spy-versus-spy stories, or are just a history buff who needs to fill in some blanks about the Cold War, I think you’ll enjoy Spymaster.

Audiobook Review – The Way I Heard It

You’re probably familiar with Mike Rowe, host of Dirty Jobs and narrator for a plethora of documentaries and other programs on cable TV. The Way I Heard It brings together stories from his podcast and autobiographical musings from his life and exploits.

Emmy Award-winning gadfly Mike Rowe presents a ridiculously entertaining, seriously fascinating collection of his favorite episodes from America’s number-one short-form podcast, The Way I Heard It, along with a host of memories, ruminations, and insights. It’s a delightful collection of mysteries. A mosaic. A memoir. A charming, surprising must-have. 

Mike Rowe’s The Way I Heard It collects 35 fascinating stories “for the curious mind with a short attention span”. Five-minute mysteries about people you know, filled with facts that you didn’t. Movie stars, presidents, Nazis, rank traitors, and bloody do-gooders – they’re all here, waiting to shake your hand, hoping you’ll remember them. Delivered with Mike’s signature blend of charm, wit, and ingenuity, their stories are part of a larger mosaic – a memoir crammed with recollections, insights, and intimate, behind-the-scenes moments drawn from Mike’s remarkable life and career.

This audiobook is read by the author, and I couldn’t imagine anyone who could have done a better job.  Rowe’s narration and pacing are perfect.  All of his experience in keeping our attention with his warm, conversational tone shines through in each chapter of this book. 

The stories the author tells, both about himself and the other people he captures with his words, range from funny to touching, but are always good enough to keep you in the driveway until we come to their end.  While a few are a bit racy, and there is a bit of rough language sprinkled lightly through this book, I would have no worries about letting my 12 year old listen to them as we drive or while we’re doing things around the house.

If you’re a friend of listening to someone tell tales, especially if that person seems to genuinely enjoy the subject, then The Way I Heard It will be a treat.


Book Review – Knowingly Familiar

Alma Boykin’s latest in her Familiar Tales series continues its unique blend of family and magic in Knowingly Familiar.

When Ghosts Walk . . .

Something moves. A Mesopotamian curse sends ripples through the magical community of Riverton. Mages André and Lelia Lestrang find themselves fighting ghosts from their past. The battle draws them closer to Master Saldovado and the clans, closer perhaps than Lelia’s heart dares to go. How long before Patrick Lee and Riverton’s other magic users demand answers about the clans? The Familiars are keeping the secret. For now.

But breaking ancient spells comes easily for shadow mages. Juggling parenthood, budgets, car repairs, school schedules, and a six-year-old daughter’s desire for a pet unicorn? (Or a house dragon, preferably pastel pink.) That’s difficult!

Lelia Chan and her family continue their adventures in life, love, and keeping the forces of ancient evil at bay in Knowingly Familiar.

The story follows the day-to-day happenings in a family that is inextricably intertwined with magic and its impact on the world. They do laundry, meet with teachers, and prepare to defend themselves against the wrath of ancient evil.

Like the rest of the series, this is a narrative driven by the relationship between the unique characters that Ms. Boykin has created and fleshed out. Lelia’s family life includes budgeting, juggling schedules, and teaching her older children about their magical talents. Her relationship with Arthur Saldovado becomes closer with each book in the series, and a very sweet, moving sequence in this book cements his role as her father figure.

Knowingly Familiar is a quick, easy read that will hold onto the reader until its last page. This far into the series, you really ought to start with the first book, but if you’ve enjoyed the other Familiar Tales, you’ll love this one.

Book Review – Judiciously Familiar

Alma Boykin continues her unique and enjoyable Familiar Tales series with  Judiciously Familiar:

“By the Pricking of my thumbs/ Something wicked this way comes!”

“Caw! Caw!”

A raven the size of an eagle appears in Riverton. When it begins haunting Familiars, Lelia and André Lestrang have to decide if it needs their special attention. Lelia, battling fatigue and postpartum depression, juggles family, magic, and working at Belle, Book, and Blacklight. Her employer, Arthur Saldovado, too wonders about the raven and its meaning.

Something from the past stirs, something dark and deep. A new sorceress and the raven hint at dangers hiding in the shadows. Shadows perhaps too dark even for shadow mages to master.

The main character of the series, Lelia Chan, has come a long way since her introduction as a troubled teen trying to get her life together.  Now, she’s a full time mom, wife, and shadow mage.

When Lelia got married and had her first baby, I was worried that Ms. Boykin would have to move on to another character to center these tales around, but she has done a masterful job of letting Lelia evolve and grow as the series progresses.  We get to meet her new sons and see how being a mother has made her stronger and more dedicated than ever.

As I found in the rest of the series, a gentle humor runs through Judiciously Familiar.  Additionally, the plot has a tension to it that builds to a crescendo in the third act.  The pacing is not overly swift, but Boykin’s writing keeps the reader’s attention throughout. I worked my way through the book in a few hours of dedicated reading, but you can definitely take your time and savor this one in small bites, if you wish.

You definitely need to have read the rest of the series before starting this one, as Judiciously Familiar includes many characters and situations from earlier books that fit together in an intricate mosaic.  By now, the Familiar Tales world is well fleshed-out, so treat yourself and enjoy them first.

%d bloggers like this: