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Book Review – Gods and Monsters

Holly Chism has come out with the next volume in her Modern Gods series, Gods and Monsters:

Here there be dragons…again, damn it.

Deshayna has her sanity back, and forces older than the gods have granted her a new purpose. Chronos, his freedom restored, fights for his sanity, and with it, a purpose in helping Deshayna—now called Shay—with hers. The gods are starting to pull together more…and it’s about time.

Millennia after the last dragons to threaten human existence have been hunted down, they’ve started to reappear, hinting to the surviving gods that something more sinister appeared first: Tiamat.

Instead of a confrontation, though, the gods—major, minor, and genus loci—are drawn into a frustrating hunt for a predator that flees rather than attempting to strike.

Gods and Monsterscontinues the story of how the ancient gods live and thrive in the modern world.  The story discusses, and is sometimes from, the point of view of Poseidon, Hades, Odin, and Artemis.  A cast of other deities from other traditions rounds out the cast.

Mrs. Chism always packs her stories with human interactions, such as love, competition, and conflict, but Gods and Monsters also has quite a bit of action as the characters come together to fight against an ancient evil.

This is a quick read, but doesn’t feel like it.  An action-packed chapter that whizzes by is followed by one that slows down and shows us the more human and family side of the characters.

If you haven’t read the first few books in the Modern Gods series, you should probably take some time and read them before starting this book.  It’s well told, but builds on what came before.  Like the rest of the series, there are a couple of adult-oriented sequences in Gods and Monsters, but none of them are gratuitous or unnecessary.

Gods and Monsters is the best work I’ve read by the author, and I’m really looking forward to what comes next.

Audiobook Review – Galaxy’s Edge: Savage Wars Book 1

Jason Anspach and Nick Cole take us back to where it all began in Galaxy’s Edge: Savage Wars Book 1

The greatest conflict the galaxy has ever known….

They were the Savages. Raiders from our distant past. Elites who left Earth to create tailor-made utopias aboard the massive lighthuggers that crawled through the darkness between the stars. But the people they left behind on a dying planet didn’t perish in the dystopian nightmare the Savages had themselves created: they thrived, discovering faster-than-light technology and using it to colonize the galaxy ahead of the Savages, forming fantastic new civilizations that surpassed the wildest dreams of Old Earth.

Until the Savages came in from the Darkness…. 

When a Savage hulk lands on glittering New Vega, one of the crown jewels of the post-Earth galaxy, a coalition of planetary governments amasses their forces to respond to the post-human Savage Marines who’ve come to sack and enslave. But what the coalition forces find is something far more sinister than the typical Savage hit-and-run: this time, the Savages have come to stay.

Witness the intense beginning of The Savage Wars, the epic conflict, built into the lore of Galaxy’s Edge, that will encompass over a thousand years of brutal fighting. Only the greatest military force in the galaxy can bring this war to an end…and the galaxy will never again be the same.

Experience the beginning of the Legion. Experience the Savage Wars.

Featuring an unforgettable performance by Stephen Lang (Avatar, Gods & Generals), Jason Anspach and Nick Cole explore the thrilling, desperate, and brutal war that forever shapes the galaxy….

We’ve read about the Savage Wars in the other Galaxy’s Edge books.  It’s normally talked about in hushed tones, and we learned how Savages impacted Tyrus Rechs and Goth Sullus.

Now, Anspach and Cole bring us to the first true battle in the Savage Wars.  Savage Wars Book 1 introduces us to the galaxy in the time after the diaspora from Earth, but before the founding of the Republic.  Mankind is splintered and only works together in the most academic sense of the word.  We get to see a titanic battle to retake a planet from the Savages and glimpses of the adventures to come.

The action is fast paced and constant throughout this yarn.   A new cast of characters just as engaging as Chuun and Ford fill out the story.  There are a few side plots that slow things down and make you think, but I found myself staying in the truck to listen to the end of a chapter several times.  I didn’t want to go all night without finding out what happened next.

Stephen Lang did an excellent job narrating Savage Wars.  He easily changed his cadence, tone, and vocalizations to match the story and characters.

If you’ve gone as far out on Galaxy’s Edge as you think you can, take a breath, close your eyes, and step into the Savage Wars.

Book Review – Pretending to Sleep

Monalisa Foster has penned a poignant, vivid depiction of life under communist rule in Pretending to Sleep:  A Communism Survivor’s Short Story.

Based on actual events, this short story provides a quick glimpse into life under Ceaucescu’s brutal communist regime. Like so many Romanians, ten-year-old Renata lives in fear of Securitate (Ceaucescu’s secret police). They don’t always take you in the middle of the night. In a world where the living envy the dead, not all examples are made in the shadows. Some are made in the light of day.

Pretending to Sleep depicts the events in a child’s life as she endures and escapes communist Romania.  The dehumanizing discipline and fear that such regimes demand is portrayed in simple, blunt language.  Ms. Foster’s tale is in the same vein as Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl or Ryabakov’s Children of the Arbat.

This is a short story, so I read through it quickly.  However, that made it easy to go back and reread it.  The narrative of Pretending to Sleep reminded me of stories told to me by folks who survived Stalin’s terror or suffered under the heel of the Stazi.

One more compliment I can give this book is that it’s appropriate for children older than 10 or 12 years old.  In fact, I’d say that it would be good for someone who is learning about the world to read it.  The evils of totalitarianism, communist or not, need to be retold so that we don’t forget them.

Give Pretending to Sleep a read.  It’ll definitely give you something to think about.

Audiobook Review – I Heard You Paint Houses

Rather than watch DeNiro and Pacino chew on the scenery for three-plus hours in The Irishman, I decided to just listen to I Heard You Paint Houses.  I’m glad I did.

The Irishman is an epic saga of organized crime in post-war America told through the eyes of World War II veteran Frank Sheeran, a hustler and hitman who worked for legendary crime boss Russell Bufalino alongside some of the most notorious figures of the 20th Century. Spanning decades, Sheeran’s story chronicles one of the greatest unsolved mysteries in American history, the disappearance of legendary union boss Jimmy Hoffa, and it offers a monumental journey through the hidden corridors of organized crime: its inner workings, rivalries, and connections to mainstream politics. Sheeran would rise to a position of such prominence that in a RICO suit against The Commission of La Cosa Nostra, the US Government would name him as one of only two non-Italians in conspiracy with the Commission. Sheeran is listed alongside the likes of Anthony “Tony Pro” Provenzano and Anthony “Fat Tony” Salerno.

Charles Brandt did a masterful job of mixing quotes from Frank Sheeran’s discussion of his life with historical facts to make The Irishman / I Heard You Paint Housesinto an interesting living history lesson on the American underworld in the second half of the 20th Century.

The book covers Sheeran’s life, starting with his youth in Depression-era Philadelphia, through his service in World War II, and his career as a soldier in organized crime and the Teamsters.  We get to meet people like Russ Bufalino and, of course, Jimmy Hoffa.

The author spends quite a bit of time humanizing his subject, which makes his crimes even more shocking when they are discussed.  Sheeran goes into detail about his deeds, explaining how he would approach and eliminate his targets, how crimes were planned and executed, and how the syndicates controlled government, business, and the unions.

If you’re looking for an insider’s look at crime and the people who live in its world, this one is a great source.

Book Review – The Reservist

J.R. Handley joins Nick Cole and Jason Anspach in the 6th volume in their Order of the Centurion series: The Reservist

They promised him one weekend a month. The House or Reason swore the 9th would never leave their gentle homeworld. But after Kublar, things changed for Sergeant Fetch and the Caledonian Reserve Legion Corps. Thrown into a meat grinder conflict in a desperate bid to hold the line, it doesn’t matter whether you’re reserve or active, only that you kill and survive.

A searing tale of combat and honor at any price from a wounded veteran of the War in Iraq who fought to keep the MSRs open from Mosul to Tikrit.

Short version – The Reservist is one of the best pieces of military fiction I’ve ever read.  I got as much out of it and enjoyed it as much as I did Starship Troopers and David Drake’s Redliners.

The Reservist follows a part-time soldier who has to become a warrior and a leader when the world falls in on his unit before they’ve even geared up.  The action is relentless, punctuating a story of personal growth and loyalty to those who stand with the main character against an evil and intractable enemy.

Even with all the action to grab you, it’s the characters who hold on.  Fetch and the soldiers who fight with him are drawn in vivid Technicolor throughout the book.  The details that make them individuals and not cardboard cutouts make their suffering and loss even more impactful.

I read The Reservist from cover to cover in one sitting, and I completely lost track of time while I was reading.  Handley paced this one perfectly.

If you’ve read the other Galaxy’s Edge books, you’ll enjoy this one.  Even if you haven’t, if you enjoy good military fiction, science fiction or not, then you’ll love The Reservist.


Audiobook Review – Galaxy’s Edge: The Best of Us

Karen Traviss enters Galaxy’s Edge by taking us back to Earth and the beginning of the series’ future history in The Best of Us:

Half the world is a wasteland; the other half is on borrowed time.

The West has been devastated by epidemics, bio-terrorism, war, and famine. Asia has shut its borders to keep the threats at bay, and some with power and influence have already abandoned Earth. Now an escape route a century in the making – the Nomad mission – finally offers hope to a small town and a secret research centre hidden in a rural American backwater.

Shrouded in lies and concealed even from the research centre’s staff, Nomad is about to fulfil its long-dead founder’s vision of preserving the best of humanity to forge a new future. But who decides who’s worthy? The mission is now in the hands of a unique AI called Solomon, and an encounter with a band of military veterans reshapes his plans for mankind’s future after the arrival of a scientist with a grudge threatens the whole mission.

Don’t miss this breathtaking new series from New York Times best-selling author Karen Traviss as she explores the dramatic origins of Jason Anspach & Nick Cole’s Galaxy’s Edge universe.

It’s not often that the umpteenth book in a series can be read without having to go back and read the rest of the series, but The Best of Us is that rare gem.  It’s set in the Galaxy’s Edge universe, exploring events hinted at by Tyrus Rex and Goth Sullus, but it doesn’t depend on the other Galaxy’s Edge books to stand on its own and shine.

Traviss takes us back to the collapse of the United States and introduces us to what could be the founders of the world Jason Anspach and Nick Cole created for us in Legionnaire and it sequels.  She paints a bleak picture of a future in which our world is on the brink of starvation and dissolution, but also has sparks of hope.

This tense, tightly woven tapestry is set in rural America a decade or so after bio-terrorism and nuclear holocaust brought civilization to its knees.  Her characters strive toward the same goal, but the story’s conflict arises when they try to get to it using vastly different means.

Where Galaxy’s Edge is wonderful military science fiction highlighted with political and heist subplots, The Best of Us is entirely driven by Traviss’ characters and how they deal with life, the past, and their own futures.  There is the old soldier and the farmer, trying to keep their folks safe and together.  The author also introduces us to managers and scientists who have been shielded by the increasingly harsh conditions outside their bubble.  Intermixed with all of this is Solomon, an artificial intelligence that tries to guide all of them toward a better tomorrow.

The plot does not race toward its conclusion. This is a book that takes its time, letting us get to know the characters.  Fred Tatascoire did a good job giving all of them voices and painting their pictures through words, tone, and pacing.

Whether or not you’ve enjoyed the other Galaxy’s Edge books, The Best of Us will make for great reading or listening.

Audiobook Review – Galaxy’s Edge: Takeover

Jason Anspach and Nick Cole begin Season 2 of their Galaxy’s Edge series with a bang in Takeover:

Every disaster brings an opportunity.

Goth Sullus and his empire have fallen.

With the Legion and the rest of the galaxy watching from the still-smoldering galactic core, Carter, a former legionnaire turned private contractor, and Jack Bowie, a Navy spy with nowhere left to turn, sign up to work for an enterprising private contractor looking to make a statement on the planet Kublar.

Plans are in motion dating back to the Savage Wars, and as the galaxy rushes to fill in the vacuum created by the fall of the Imperial Republic, the bodies are hitting the floor.

But every plan has a reckoning…

Takeover is the thrilling aftermath of the final, desperate execution of Article Nineteen and the looming rebirth of the Legion and the galaxy itself as Galaxy’s Edge: Season Two begins!

Takeover is set in the aftermath of the death of Goth Sullus and the Republic.  The stories of Carter, a former Legionnaire, and Bowie, a former spy, intertwine as their new employer tries to wrest control of Kublar from what’s left of Republic forces.

Carter’s story is pure military fiction.  Raids, battles, and gunfights burn through his tale.  Any reader who enjoys run-and-gun fiction will get their money’s worth just from Carter.

The plot of Bowie’s exploits is more understated, but just as riveting.  This is pure cloak-and-dagger storytelling, and it’s done masterfully.  There’s a lot of action here, but it’s short and violent when compared to Carter’s firehose of non-stop combat.

Both stories are done by masters of the art.  The plots flow beautifully, and I found myself glued to Takeover as Ray Porter read it to me.  His narration was spot on, changing tone and cadence when switching between the two plot lines.

If you’ve enjoyed the first season of Galaxy’s Edge, you’ll love Takeover’s introduction to Season Two.

Movie Review – Jumanji: The Next Level

Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!

Following up on 2017’s Jumanji:  Welcome to the Jungle, Dwayne Johnson, Karen Gillan, Jack Black, and Kevin Hart return in Jumanji: The Next Level.  They are joined by Danny DeVito, Danny Glover, and Awkwafina to round out the cast of this enjoyable romp.

If you’re looking for high cinematic art, look elsewhere.  If  you’re looking for a great couple of hours eating popcorn and laughing until it hurts, this one is for you.

Just as in the last movie, a group of friends are pulled into a video game world and have to defeat the game in order to go home.  A twist on the theme happens when one of their grandfathers and his elderly friend come along for the ride.  There is a ton of slapstick comedy and a lot of heart-warming sequences slathered on the storyline like melted butter on a $10 bucket of popcorn, but it works.

The plot moves along pretty quickly, with a few slower parts to allow the characters some interaction that didn’t include screaming or running.  I certainly didn’t notice the 123 minute runtime.

If you saw Welcome to the Jungle, you know what the acting is like.  Dwayne Johnson and the rest of the cast seemed to enjoy themselves in this one.  The part of Ruby Roundhouse, played by Karen Gillan, gets more screen-time than in the first installment, so we see her character develop a bit more.

The visual effects were about par for the course for a modern movie.  The animals and settings they portrayed were realistic enough, but also cartoonish enough to remind you that the movie is set inside a video game.

While there is a bit of rough language in the dialogue, I wasn’t uncomfortable with it.  It did seem to be more prevalent than in the 2017 movie.  Both movies are rated PG-13.

Overall, I’d recommend The Next Level for families with older children or teenagers.  It made for a great mid-winter evening getaway.

Book Review – Eerily Familiar

Alma Boykin wins the 2019 “Best Use of a Knock-Knock Joke in Urban Fantasy” award with Eerily Familiar.

Something hunts the hunters . . .

Something waits in the shadows, watching. Lelia Chan and her Familiar, Tay, hear vague rumors of trouble among the shadow mages. Everyone’s heard rumors before, and keeping her boss happy is more important. Then a painting tries to capture her friend. When her mentor and good friend André and his Familiar Rodney both go missing, Lelia has to take charge.

She’s not ready. No shadow mage ever is. But she’ll find a way or die trying.

Things worse than than death hide in the shadows. And they LIKE meeting over-confident young mages

After setting the table over the course of her last two or three books in the series, Alma Boykin serves the main course in Eerily Familiar.  We swing back to concentrate on Lilia Chan and her Familiar, Tay in this one, but all of the other main characters in the series make an appearance.

Even as Ms. Boykin continues her exquisite development of Lilia, we also get to know other characters, such as her boss Arthur and Andre the shadow mage, better.  I think that the depth of Boykin’s characters, regardless of which of her books you’re reading, are my favorite part of her writing.

The plot has a delicious tension running through it from cover to cover.  Eerily Familiar isn’t a thriller, but keeps a steady pace that is easy to slip into.    I read it in one sitting, but it could also very easily be broken up into several quiet evenings.

I’m definitely looking forward to seeing where this series goes.  Several plot lines point toward further adventures in the series.  If you’ve enjoyed the series so far, you’ll enjoy Eerily Familiar.

Book Review – Distinctly Familiar

Distinctly Familiar, Alma Boykin’s latest collection of short stories in her Familiar Tales series, reunites us with old friends and introduces several new ones.

Temptation lurks in marshes between the land and the sea…

Lelia and Tay discover a new puzzle…

Fundraising collides with a spell gone awry…

A mage discovers the impossibility of arguing with almost two-thousand-pounds of Familiar…

There’s something distinctly familiar, and Familiar, about these urban fantasy short stories, set in a world like our own, almost.

Merging excellent storytelling with a wry wit, the author brings us back to Lilia and Tay Chan as they make their way through life, as well as introducing us to new characters.  These include mages in Europe and an American geologist who has an octopus as a Familiar.  All of the stories in Distinctly Familiar are entertaining, but Power and Pivo was my favorite.

The artistry that Ms. Boykin uses to draw characters, both old and new, across multiple books is amazing.  By now, I know exactly how Lilia Chan and Tay look and sound, but even new characters such as Barbara and Magda immediately come to life as you read the first few pages of their story.

Go back and read the rest of the series, then enjoy Distinctly Familiar.

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