What I’ve Been Reading

25894059Arena by Holly Jennings

I don’t always get lucky with books I choose to review for SFCrowsnest. There are a lot of books that sound really great, but don’t quite live up to their promise. I’m getting better at picking winners, though, and Arena by Holly Jennings is definitely that. It’s a great book, one I’m really glad I’ve read.

You can read my full review here, but in short, my favourite aspect of this story—actually, I really liked two things. One was the character arc of Kali. It took me a long time to warm to her, and the fact I admired her so much at the end of the book was due to her growth—and that she did it all by herself. This young woman literally pulled herself up by the bootstraps and got on with the business of winning. In every respect.

I also really enjoyed Holly Jennings’ take on gaming culture and the way it shaped the story. She didn’t just sprinkle a few references throughout the text and say there, gamer book. The story itself is constructed like a quest chain, with each success promising a greater reward. Very well done.


13630171The Skull Throne (Demon Cycle, #4) by Peter V. Brett

Another more than pleasant surprise. After the soap opera/dirge that was Daylight War, I nearly gave up on this series. I love the premise. I adore this world. It’s one of the most fascinating fantasy worlds ever created, with a new magic system, hints of old apocalypse and fully fleshed out characters you really come to know and care about. Peter Brett’s habit of going back to tell the origin story of all of those characters had started to wear on my by the third time ‘round, though.

Daylight War ends with a pretty damn big question—one the cover copy for The Skull Throne doesn’t answer. Also, when you’re nearly 2000 pages into an epic series, it’s hard to let it go. So I moved on to The Skull Throne—and read it in two days. That’s nearly 800 pages in two or three sittings. The pacing was phenomenal with a lot of the plot threads tangling themselves into dreadful knots. The lives and loves aspect is still there, but with more a immediate meaning and an absolute bearing on the plot. Also, there’s very little flashing back to ‘this is how it all began.’ There really isn’t time. This book is a race. It’s frenetic and bloody and a lot of what you might have taken as the status quo up to this point will be challenged and changed.

Unfortunately, we have to wait a year until the fifth and final installment. (◕︵◕)


28531239Trailer Trash by Marie Sexton

I’m late to the Marie Sexton fandom, which actually works in my favor. She’s got a huge backlist for me to explore. The book of hers that really won me over was Winter Oranges. Before then, I’d really enjoyed her collaborations with Heidi Cullinan (Family Man and Second Hand) and Promises, book one of her Coda series. I enjoy her characters immensely. They’re normal guys doing normal things. It’s this accessibility and Sexton’s skill in making them feel real that makes her books so compulsively readable.

Trailer Trash has an irresistible premise: two high school seniors from opposite sides of the tracks, who alternately fight and give in to their attraction for one another. What makes this story special, however, is the focus on the emotional aspects of their relationships with their family, friends and each other.

Teenagers feel things very deeply and to them, what they’re feeling is everything. They can’t think beyond right now and find it difficult to imagine they’ll ever feel that way again. I remember being there and so does Sexton. Her boys are so real and their love story is so wonderfully tender. I loved every word of it.


20821614You (You, #1) by Caroline Kepnes

The cover copy really undersells this book. Yes, it’s possible to take a lesson about how much we reveal about ourselves on social media from this story, but more I found it to be a tale about secret selves and how some people simply cannot be judged by their ‘covers’.

It took me a little while to grasp the point of view—it’s Joe, our apparent villain, talking to Beck, his victim, as if this were his journal and she the only reader. There aren’t a lot of stories told from the perspective of the villain, so that was my hook. The scariest part, though, wasn’t what Joe did (or the why or the how), it was the fact that I empathized with him—nearly the whole way through. Even when he was doing very, very bad things. I liked Joe. Additionally, the premise of the book would have us believe Beck was the victim, but I’m not convinced she wasn’t the most evil character of all.

A very thought provoking read—and there’s a sequel!


18373Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

My daughter read this for school. On the day she started, she described the premise to me in the car. It sounded very familiar, so I asked if she was reading Flowers for Algernon and she replied that she was and further commented on the fact she should have guessed I would know the book because I’ve read everything.

I hadn’t actually read it. I’d seen the movie. I also, inexplicably, had the audio book sitting in my library—untouched. It must have been a daily deal at some point. So I downloaded it and listened.

Flowers for Algernon should be required reading for every human being. The book’s power is in its simplicity, thanks in part to Charlie’s narration. What it says about us as people is both beautiful and sad, and reading it inspired me to become a better person—to be kinder, gentler and more thoughtful; to count my blessings and to remember those who have less. To understand that happiness is completely subjective and that one should never assume their version of it might suit another.

You’d also might think I’d have learned by now that I really shouldn’t listen to books that make my cry while I’m driving. Not sure if I’ll ever remember that one, though.


24983889East of West, Vol. 4: Who Wants War? by Jonathan Hickman (Writer), Nick Dragotta (Artist), Frank Martin(Colourist)

I’ve been a fan of this series since the beginning. The apocalyptic landscape grabbed me, the promise of more doom and gloom to come kept me reading. But really, it’s the combination of art and storytelling that makes East of West such a stand out.

So often during a comic/graphic series, the writer or the artist will change issue to issue—either as guests are invited to participate or ‘staff’ are rotated through current offerings. Sometimes it’s exciting to see what a new artist will do and certainly some artists are more adept at telling different kinds of stories. With its large cast of characters, however, the consistency of the art in East of West—which is always phenomenal and perfectly matched to the story—is such an important factor. At a glance I can tell who is who, even without glancing at the text and dialogue. Given that comic books and graphic novels are such a visual medium, this is really helps the reader with the flow of the story. If you’re too busy trying to figure out whose face is squashed across the page, then you’ve fallen out of suspension. That’s not good.

As for the story, it’s fantastically complex and ever deepening. With the exception of Knights of the Old Republic, this may be the series I’ve invested the most time in and I’m not ready to quit yet.

Review: The Freezer by Timothy S. Johnston

The Freezer (The Tanner Sequence, #2)From the official blurb for The Freezer by Timothy S. Johnston:

CCF homicide investigator Kyle Tanner and his girlfriend are on their way to Pluto, en route to a new life together. Just one little death to check out in the asteroid belt first. But when you’re as tangled up in conspiracy as Tanner is, a few hours on a case can change your life. Or end it.

There are three key phrases here. The first is: ‘Just one little death.’ There is no such thing as just one little death, not for Lieutenant Tanner, because ‘when you’re as tangled up in conspiracy as Tanner is, a few hours on a case can change your life’. Which brings us to the third key phrase: ‘Or end it.’ Continue reading “Review: The Freezer by Timothy S. Johnston”

Review: The Furnace by Timothy S. Johnston

The Furnace

Floating in space between the sun and Mercury, Lieutenant Kyle Tanner has only sixteen hours of oxygen left and not enough acceleration to get anywhere useful. Worse, his radiation shielding is toast. He’s dying. But before he goes, he has a story to tell.

Dispatched to the SOLEX One facility between Mercury and Sol to investigate what might or might not be a murder, Tanner encounters the most baffling case of his career. The death appears accidental, but the body has been tampered with, the head and hands removed. Given identification has already been made, the mutilation makes no sense. Nor do the next two deaths. The two after that make a horrid sort of sense. Tanner is too close to breaking the case and the killer is on the run. Continue reading “Review: The Furnace by Timothy S. Johnston”

Review: The Forever Watch by David Ramirez


Humanity exists only between the stars, onboard a giant ship called The Noah. The journey to a new planet will take over a thousand years and in that time, the soap opera of life continues to play out, with more than a few dystopian tweaks.

Those who test well are Implanted and trained in a particular set of psionic skills. Visible filaments and plates – on the skin, finger tips, skull, face – give clues to the talent of each person. Those with the most sought after talents rise to ‘mission critical’ positions within the ship’s hierarchy, and those with only a thread of power clean up after them. It’s how society works, and how this one will maintain until they reach their destination.

Hana Dempsey is extraordinarily talented with ‘Touch’. This allows her to shape matter – even the ‘plastech’ that the ship is made of – into anything. Clothing, tools, shields. She can reshape a room, or given the right amplification, perhaps an entire building. As such, she has a role in City Planning. She and her team administrate the Habitat, from housing to supply.

Leonard Barrens is a police man, a peace keeping officer whose extraordinary strength and stamina is further enhanced by his Implant. An investigation into a possible serial killer prompts him to ask Hana for assistance.

Though from distinctly different social classes, the two friends find they have more in common than the case, the hunt for a mysterious serial killer. The Forever Watch is not a love story, however. It’s a thriller and the relationship between Hana and Barrens serves to highlight the structure of the society humanity has constructed.

The search for clues turns up more than a treatise on utopia versus dystopia. The ship – humanity’s salvation and mission – is not what they think it is, not quite, and the rules of their society are in place to cover a very specific and brutal truth. Or truths – one of which is not revealed until the very end of the book.

The Forever Watch is a novel of concepts disguised as a Science Fiction thriller. It reads well enough as a mystery, albeit somewhat ploddingly. In between clues and revelations, there is a lot of world building and introspection on the part of our narrator, Hana Dempsey. A lot of thought. Most of it is interesting as it pertains directly to the world of The Noah, which is fascinating. The ultimate mystery – what happened to Earth and her children – is worth the sometimes rambling narrative. It’s gruesome and scary. In fact, this book could easily be classified as horror. It’s also part police procedural, post-apocalyptic and full of dire warnings about a society that relies on too many rules. In some ways, it reminded me of Animal Farm.

It’s not an easy read. The first person present approach is difficult to process at times and, oddly, put distance between Hana and the reader. As I mentioned before, she thinks a lot and it’s mostly relevant stuff, a lot of it personal. But at times her thoughts felt more observational rather than inherent. As first book of author David Ramirez, it’s a worthy entry into the Science Fiction arena, however. The concepts are there and they’re compelling, even through the wordiness of it all.

Despite small difficulties, there was never any question I would not see the book through to the end. The story had me hooked and I enjoyed the characterisation of both Hana and Barrens. I’m definitely interested in what Mr. Ramirez will turn his attention to next.

Written for SFCrowsnest.

Review: How Dark the World Becomes

 How Dark the World Becomes by Frank Chadwick.

Sasha is mid-level gangster involved in the usual smattering of criminal activities: drug dealing, protection and numbers. He seems like a nice guy, so far as thugs go. He funds a clinic, is good to his girlfriend and is apparently respected by his peers, except for the one who’d like to see him dead. To complicate matters, he has been asked to smuggle two high value targets off-planet. There is a thread of connection between matters, but everything in the squashed and squalid depths of Crack City seems related. That’s how slums operate. Simplest solution to all current problems seems to be to accompany his alien cargo off-planet. Trouble does what trouble does and follows.

There are two plots here, the one involving Sasha and the one involving the two alien children he is trying to protect. They’re somewhat related, in that the galaxy isn’t as big as it thinks it is sort of way. But it seems that the more Sasha tries to convince everyone he’s just a thug, the more he has to stand up and do the right thing, to save his own neck, the children, their minder — a woman who seems less objectionable as time wears on, various hangers-on, an entire platoon of marines, a planet and, just maybe, the fate of the human race. The bigger his problems get, the more determined Sasha becomes.

How Dark The World Becomes fits neatly into one of my favourite Science Fiction sub-sets: the thrilling adventure in space. Take a hero who doesn’t really want to be a hero, strip away the things he cares about and then set him an impossible task. He’ll either fail miserably or succeed against all odds. In the best stories, he does a bit of both. While reading Frank Chadwick’s book, I was reminded of Jack McDevitt’s ‘Alex Benedict’ novels and Mark L Van Name’s ‘Jon & Lobo’ adventures. Sasha, as a character, had the same self-deprecating attitude and the tenacity to get things done, even as events messed with his carefully ordered life.

I really enjoyed the world building, too. Crack City, as a concept, both amused and horrified. Humanity rests at the bottom of the pecking order, their labour supporting the rest of the galaxy. I loved how fascinated aliens were with human culture and the way they imitated imperfectly certain aspects. These scenes only served to highlight some of our own more absurd behaviour in a sometimes darkly humorous manner. I got the sense Chadwick has a lot to say about some of our more oddball quirks as a species.

I think Frank Chadwick’s universe and characters have a lot of potential. Given he is a multiple-award-winning game designer, I’m not surprised. I’m looking forward to reading more!

Written for and originally posted at SFCrowsnest.

A note on the cover art: One of the things that usually attracts me to Baen Books is the covers. This piece is by one of my favourite cover artists, Dave Seeley. Click through to visit his gallery.

The Art of Dave Seeley: Publishing &emdash; How Dark the World Becomes - Baen Books
How Dark the World Becomes by Dave Seeley