Last Stand series by William Weber—review and commentary

Last Stand: The Complete Box Set

From time to time, I’m offered a “box set” of eBooks, which strikes me as funny as there is obviously no box, just a longer than normal eBook. While these often seem to be great values, I seldom read an entire series. Last Stand is different, because I did indeed read all four books, and while I enjoyed them, I liked each one a little less, but that’s just me and what I Prefer to read, rather than any flaws in the books themselves.

Book one, Surviving America’s Collapse, was so suspenseful that I read it in less than 24 hours. Apparently survivalist/prepper books are a sub-genre, but this is my first such book. Viewed simply as fiction, readers might be annoyed, as the narrative often becomes pedantic, teaching survivalist techniques to the reader, but I rather enjoyed those segments. In short, the story begins with the hero, former Army officer John Mack, being the only guy in his neighborhood who understands that the vehicles, phones, and other conveniences aren’t working because some entity set off an “EMP” device. Mack rescues his wife, then his children, thinking they will soon retreat to his survivalist hideaway cabin, but his wife convinces him to remain in their neighborhood, to assist their friends. This proves to be increasingly difficult, as resources dwindle and nefarious elements attempt to takeover their community.

Book two, Patriots, begins in the second setting, the Mack family hideaway. The canvas of conflict widens a bit in this book, as Mack realizes the scope of the attack upon America, and feels the need to take up arms not just to defend his family, but his country. Book three, Warlords, is a bit darker in tone, as the forces behind the attack upon America begin divvying up the country. Book four, Turning the Tide, is on a grander scale, as Mack is one cog in the military effort to fight back against the foreign powers that seem to have figured out how to conquer the United States.

Each of these books has a fictional story, but invariably the author uses his story to also instruct the reader. Those who like lots of details about the military and/or weaponry might like these books more than I did, but I did enjoy them. Some of the characterizations are fairly stereotypical, and sometimes the main characters are able to overcome situations which would probably be hopeless without the assistance of the author. So, suspending one’s disbelief a bit is a necessary skill for staying with the series. Still, the suspense is sufficient to keep the reader turning the pages.

Survivalists, military buffs, and those who enjoy suspense will all find something to like in Last Stand. As of this post, the price for the eBook set is three bucks, which is a down payment on a hamburger! I can’t think of anything as entertaining as these books for that price, so take a look. These books are also available in paperback and as audio books, and all have hundreds of ratings on Goodreads, mostly 4-5 stars.

Semi/Human by Erik Hanberg—review and commentary

A Y/A science fiction yarn

As the pandemic has continued to plague businesses, many of them are accelerating their transition to robots and artificial intelligence, thus replacing or supplementing their all too frail human employees. Semi/Human is set in the near future, and in this novel Silicon Valley has finally written an adaptable code that makes most human employees obsolete. Vehicles drive themselves, dealers in Vegas are all robots, police have been replaced by armed drones, and so forth.

Main character Pen(ney) Davis is more than depressed, because like most other human jobs, her intern job at a Silicon Valley computer firm has been eliminated. However, Pen has come up with a less than practical scheme to steal a ridiculously expensive treasure from her former employer and get rich enough to care a lot less about being unemployed.

As Alexander Pope once observed, “A little bit of learning is a dangerous thing,” and recent intern Pen re-writes the code of a self-driving truck, intending to hijack it for a trip across the country, but ends up making the aforementioned truck autonomous instead. Fortunately for Pen, the truck, Lara B, is both friendly and grateful.

Lest I ruin this tale for readers, let me just say that this yarn is cogent, examining the societal damage which would ensue if gainful employment ceased, as well as the ethics of dealing with a self-aware, nearly omniscient super computer. There’s a dash of economic reality sprinkled in as well, because with no work, there’s no money coming in for the vast majority of the populace, so they end up fighting over whatever is left behind in the technological revolution.

There’s also more than a little suspense, as Pen and Lara B join forces to accomplish the original mission, wherein Pen hopes to acquire both riches and revenge in one fell swoop. Semi/Human is one of those rare books that blends a cautionary theme with an entertaining plot. Most of the characters are well drawn, and there is sufficient description of settings to keep the reader entertained but the plot never bogs down.

As a frequent reader of science fiction, it is rare for me to call a novel memorable, but for me Semi/Human is such a book. Perhaps I simply read it a the right time, or perhaps the book is really that good. If you like youthful, sassy heroines, self-aware computers (and trucks) along with a suspense filled story line, you really should try Semi/Human.

Seduced by the Sea Lord by Starla Night—brief review

A while back, I purchased (at a reduced price) the box set entitled Lords of Atlantis books 1-4, but the review is for Seduced by the Sea Lord, as that was the only novel I read. Quite frankly, it took me a while to read it, because it wasn’t very good.

Here’s the book blurb: “Determined warlord Torun cannot wait to claim Lucy, who mistook him for a shipwreck survivor and pulled his injured body from the ocean. All his instincts tell him she is his soul mate. Now she must join with him and give him a child. 

Lucy can’t believe the words coming out of this dominant male. He insists her destiny is to become a mermaid queen and mother to his future children. The one thing “destiny” forgot to mention was that Lucy’s a broke divorcee who can’t even have a child. 

It’s really too bad, because his gorgeous lips are all too kissable, and she’d love to see his iridescent gold tattoos moving as he flexed those broad, hard pectorals under the water…”

This cover image is for the set; I am reviewing book 1

There are a bunch of five star reviews for this set, by Starla Night, and one reviewer who rated the set at one star accused the others of being “paid reviewers.” Darn, I wish I could afford to pay some of those reviewers to put up five star reviews of my novels. Maybe I’d make some bank, but I’m too honest. Or poor.

Anyway, back to the review. The point of view character, Lucy, is chick-lit cute in her narrative. The alpha male hero is appropriately madly in love with Lucy. The bad guy is Lucy’s ex, and he is cardboard cut out bad. Many gals dislike their ex, but Lucy’s guy stole her money, her ideas, and her dignity. Yep, he’s bad, all right, but some how I didn’t hate him. Nor did Lucy’s grousing about him endear her to me.

The trappings of “mer” vs “human” seemed alternately implausible or just plain silly, which didn’t help the novel at all. In a word, this novel seems phony. I have three more books in the set, but unless I am stranded on a desert island with nothing else to read, I rather doubt I will re-visit the Lords of Atlantis.

Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help— review and commentary

ToxicA friend who works on the staff of a large church recommended this book to me, and while it lacks sufficient support for some of the concepts, the principles are sound. Basically, the title says it pretty well—whether just throwing money or a week of unpaid labor at poverty—this act of charity might do more harm than good.

Author Robert D. Lupton has plenty of experience in urban ministry, and he cites many examples from his experience in Atlanta, Georgia, which is where he lives and works. But, as I have seen lots of churches gather a group of volunteers for week long “mission trips” I was fascinated by the story of a church in Mexico that was painted six times during one summer, by six different sets of volunteers. Indeed, what the author terms “religious tourism” is big business. He states that in 2005, $2.4 billion was spent by 1.6 million Americans, who traveled abroad for short term mission trips. My favorite statistic: “The Bahamas, it is estimated, annually receives one short-term missionary for every fifteen residents.” Okay, I have never traveled abroad on a mission trip, but the Bahamas sounds like a great place to visit. (My daughter mentioned knowing of a local church that did a mission trip to Ireland. Sounds heavenly!)

Lest readers get the idea that all Lupton does is make the good hearted look either mis-guided or just plain stupid, he does mention that many people set out on these trips with good intentions. Then he explains that in the third world, a little bit of money spent properly can do quite a lot. He explains the use of “micro loans” which can give a struggling person a needed hand up. For example, a $50 loan to a woman in Nicaragua allowed her to buy a sewing machine so she could ramp up her production of baby clothes. Once she paid off the loan, she still had the increased earning capacity.

In the U.S. many churches and other charities give away certain items. One example was giving holiday presents to needy families, but the fathers in such situations are often embarrassed that they can’t match the generosity of the well meaning givers, and are thus emasculated in front of their wives and children. Another example was a food bank, wherein the recipients had come to view the handouts as entitlements, which the author then contrasted with a food co-op, where members paid a small ($3) membership fee, and the members then gathered food from free or discounted sources, set their own rules for distribution, and so forth. The co-op helped the members but did not demean them or destroy their work ethic.

Toxic Charity is a bit controversial, but the U.S.A. is one of the most generous nations which has ever graced this planet. Unfortunately, just throwing money at problems can actually make things worse. This book is a must read for anyone who is involved in charity work, faith based or not, because it explains the problem but gives some good guidelines for better ways to help without hurting the recipient or wasting effort and money.

ARC review—Edge of Extinction by Kim Borg

EdgeOfExtinction_CVR_SMLI read Kim Borg’s debut novel as an ARC, and published public reviews on Big A and Goodreads, and I stand by that review. This one is going to be a bit different, however, and there are gonna be a few spoilers, so if that bothers you, go read the Goodreads version.

Science fiction is a modern art form, which probably begins with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, although there is some debate on that. Actually, there is also debate as to the exact definition of science fiction, along with what works should be classified as science fiction. For instance, many works of horror and some that are largely fantasy end up in the SF basket. As I don’t especially like either of those genres, that bothers me, but the lines are often blurred. Anyway, science fiction generally takes what is known (science fact) and extrapolates that is some manner (the fiction part.) I like to say it this way, science fiction asks “What if______?” In this case, we have a novel which poses several questions.

Borg’s novel is set in 2086, when Teslas drive themselves, which isn’t much of a stretch, and population control is a world-wide mandate, which extrapolates a bit more. Oh, and the Earth is a polluted mess, and rather than clean it up, at least one rich and famous guy  is looking to find a new spot to colonize. Apart from the one child per couple population control, which China tried a while back, none of this is much of a mental stretch.

However, after a few more scenes, the point of view characters, Dr. Amber Lytton and Dr. Joel Carter, become members of a space going team who board a ship called the Hermes, launch into space, and rely on a Phoenix drive to take them to the pristine Earth type planet, Arcadia. During their training, the couple learns that they are actually the second team to venture to the planet to assess it as a possible location for colonization. Once there, the travelers must dodge aliens of various sizes and levels of ferocity, while looking for clues as to the fate of their predecessors. Problems, both external and within the group, complicate the mission. Borg’s debut novel has quite a bit of suspense, a good character development, and lots of world building. The gadgets, although present, don’t over-power the story, either, which I like.

As in many worthy stories, the bad guys (or critters) aren’t all bad, and the good guys aren’t all good. There are a lot of questions to answer, such as will the villain who is only along to steal a valuable hunk of mineral get away? Will our point of view characters both live through the conflict between species which rule Arcadia? Is Arcadia a parallel planet to Earth, wherein the dinosaurs were never killed off? And, perhaps most important, are humans too wicked to trust to colonize any planet? This novel reminds me of some excellent science fiction writers, especially Jules Verne and Pierre Boulle (Planet of the Apes.) The ending isn’t quite a cliff hanger, but it opens the door for sequels, and I hope the author continues the story line in other novels.

Edge of Extinction is skillfully written and worth the reader’s time. Kim Borg states in her acknowledgements at the end of the novel that her goal is to both educate and entertain the reader, and while she certainly tries to educate, she does entertains. Borg is a new author for fans of classic science fiction to watch.

 

Retro Review: Moondust and Madness by Janelle Taylor

MoondustA friend (a generation older than I am) recommended books by Janelle Taylor, saying she is a prolific series romance writer from Georgia.  That’s true. Goodreads lists lots and lots of titles by Taylor, and apparently she sold quite a few books in her heyday. The series my friend recommended was “western” but as I am a science fiction fan, I chose to read book one in the Moondust series, Moondust and Madness.

Reviews for the ebook, which I read, are not plentiful, but are mostly positive. However, a deeper dive into those reveal that the positive reviews are mostly by readers who remembered this yarn from way back, whereas younger, first time readers are not impressed. I understand both points of view.

Moondust and Madness is a traditional 80s bodice ripper novel, which just happens to be set in space. Heroine Jana Greyson is a scientist who is abducted by an alien gathering up human mates for a large system of planets in another galaxy. These alien abductions are sanctioned by the alien powers that be due to the devastation of an engineered virus which caused a lack of fertility amongst the alien females. BTW, these aliens look just like humans, and can breed with them, so the only thing Jana (and her five hundred companions) need is an inner ear translation device and some brainwashing to help her get ready for her new life. Much of the science fiction trappings seem to have been lifted from Star Trek, from “Star Fleet” to transporters. That could be viewed as “ripping off” Trek, but I think it was more to give readers some familiar science fiction props. This is a romance novel, so there are very few explanations of how gadgets or space ships work.

Lots of political intrigue and the on-again off-again romance between Jana and her captor, Varian Saar, make up the more than five hundred pages of this novel, which begins a series featuring other characters set in the same universe. While I liked the book at times, it is just too retro for most readers. I won’t continue the series, but I did finish it.

For readers who like alien abduction and then fall in love plots, Myra Nour used this same basic plot for her much better novel, Love’s Captive. And, if you want a dose of reality wherein the heroine doesn’t fall in love with her captor, try my novel, Trinity on Tylos.

 

The Functional. Fragment. Celebrated. Or reviled.

ARC5Claimed (which may or may not also have the title of Rescued) came to me as an advanced review copy (ARC) which I read recently for a review site. Actually, I am glad to have the opportunity to review again, as it has been quite a while since I’ve done this. Most such sites really want a positive review, and I have written one. My comments for the site are true but censored a bit. What you’ll read here is more genuine.

First of all, sometimes minor mistakes are in an ARC, and I certainly understand that. The author used “fussed” for “fussy” for instance. That’s the kind of minor mistake that should be corrected before the final book is published. This book is a science fiction romance, with the emphasis on romance. For me, science fiction should have a bit science, but in Claimed/Rescued there aren’t many science fiction elements, apart from characters (lots of aliens) setting (a spaceship and a space station) and plot (alien abduction.) Apart from vivid descriptions of aliens, the other elements are not especially detailed.

Romance comes in several flavors these days, from very hot (nearly pornographic) to sweet (think Amish stories that talk about feelings rather than body parts.) Claimed/Rescued is skewed well on the sexy side of the continuum. For those who read romance for vicarious sex, this novel is a winner. From a science fiction standpoint, this yarn disappoints a bit. Okay, I don’t have to know how the ship goes or how the remote control on her wicked slave collar works, but a little more detail concerning the gadgets would be welcome. The most sci fi part of the book is the afore mentioned vast array of aliens, and those are described in varying levels of detail.

For me, the most annoying aspect of the book was the author’s reliance upon the “functional fragment.” Of course, lots of dialogue depends on the functional fragment. Think about one side of a phone conversation:

“Hey!”

“Oh yeah.”

“Really?”

“No kiddin’!”

I have no problem with the construction in that context. But. This author. Tends to write. Like. This. The words shared in this manner tend to be feelings or observations, such as “Handsome.” “Kindness.” “To Bond.” “To become as one.” “Tenderness.” “Aroused.” “Stay strong.” “Traumatized.” “Wary.” “Forever.” Y’all, I just listed a few of the functional fragments. Every once in a while, this could be an effective technique, but Claimed/Rescued is far too reliant upon these pseudo sentences.

No doubt Claimed/Rescued will be published, and there will be enough positive reviews that some science fiction romance fans will read it. And, those who want to experience sex vicariously may well enjoy it. But. All I seem to remember. Are. Those. Fragments.

The Future of Learning for K-12

ChromebookNews organizations have truly embraced the old adage, “never let a crisis go to waste.” With every new pronouncement regarding the COVID-19 virus, the sky gets a bit closer to falling. Many of the public schools in my area have closed, but most of them are posting assignments online. Indeed, one of them has offered Chromebooks for check out if the family lacks a computer. This strikes me as a leap into the future of K-12 education.

Having taught both web enhanced and hybrid classes for the Technical College System of Georgia, I fully understand how to teach from my couch. In those classes, students had access to an online learning suite (either Blackboard or Angel, depending on the flavor of the year) wherein I listed assignments or offered online assessments. For those readers who are not chronologically gifted, the idea of closing schools seems unthinkable, but for anyone who has attended a post secondary school in the past decade, these fortnight long closures are no big deal. Indeed, I used to make jokes (during face-to-face class sessions at school) about teaching in my pajamas!

For younger students, such as those in K-12, however, quite a few of them have little experience with online learning, and some of their parents may not have experienced it at all. With a bit of coaching, both students and parents will come to see that much of what happens in a classroom can happen at home. In fact, in some cases, it is better to have online content. Forgot what happened to that important handout? Just print another one. Want to check the due date for an assignment? Just look at the online lesson plan. Need extra help? Email the teacher with your questions and concerns and you should get a prompt, personalized answer. Missed a class? Watch a recorded video session. In my experience, most college students eventually came to appreciate online resources, even if they didn’t embrace them. There is a learning curve, of course, as anything new requires some learning. Parents around here are about to embark on a new way of helping their kids with homework.

Who knows if the COVID-19 will actually be a serious threat to public health? Only the perspective of time will let us know that. However, this unprecedented interruption of business as usual in public education will demonstrate the power of online instruction. No doubt there will be some kinks in it, as this is new for some folks. But, the future of K-12 will be online, and this is just a preview of how it will work.

Resources for Readers

DaVinciWhat to read? When I was young (a very long time ago) my mother took my sisters and me to visit the public library every week. This was “free” entertainment, and as we were fairly poor, it was a great deal. However, there was that day when I’d read everything of interest to me in the children’s and young readers category. Again, this was a long time ago, when “young adult” publications were not a big category. I remember her guiding me over to the adult fiction section (meaning not for kids, but nothing racy—it was a public library) and she suggested some titles. My first reads from that section were what mom would term “mysteries” although romantic suspense would be closer to the genre of that time. The authors were Phyllis A. Whitney and Mary Stewart, although I can’t remember the titles. So began my transition into reading for pleasure, an activity that is still a big part of my life.

Mom has been gone for a long time, as she had cancer and died before she should have, but there are plenty of other places to find recommendations for reading. I do belong to way too many Facebook Groups, and most of those have advertising that I largely ignore. For a time, Amazon was my favorite place to find books, and while it is a source for content, the weirdo reviews have made it less and less reliable for recommendations. Also, big A encourages authors to buy ads, making it even less relevant. If you are lonely and want to be inundated by promotional emails, there are lots of sites that promote books via that route, but by and large that content comes from paid ads, so it’s not reliable either. I read a lot of eBooks these days, and my public library has a few thousand titles, but I’ve noticed that far too many of them are “reprints” wherein established authors are giving their backlist titles new life, and I have either read those books are wasn’t interested the first time. So, what to do?

There are some solutions. First, check out Goodreads. It’s now owned by Amazon, but it seems to work quasi-independently from big A, so the reviews are more often by serious readers. Authors can have a “page” on Goodreads, too, which can be helpful. If you like a certain genre, typically there are blogs that feature books of interest. As a lover of science fiction romance, I like this blog: SFR Brigade. Some authors maintain a blog or a Facebook group, so check on a favorite writer’s web presence. Often writers will mention fellow writers or their own favorite reads. I’ve really enjoyed Susan Grant’s books and her blog, Come Fly with Me (now found via her website).

In addition to big A, readers sometimes leave reviews on traditional bookstore sites such as Barnes and Noble and Books a Million. As these sites primarily serve readers, the reviews tend to be written more literate customers. There may be fewer reviews, but I believe they are more reliable.

Also, if you know others who like to read, try forming a book club. My sister belongs to such a club, and members propose which books to read. She’s given me some suggestions of books that were well-received by her group, such as my current read: DaVinci, by Walter Issacs. It’s fascinating, and I would never have chosen it without the recommendation of that group over in Richmond, Virginia.

 

 

Resources for writers

Book Covers SFOver my almost two decades of writing and (occasionally) publishing, I’ve learned some stuff. Lots of stuff, actually. Some of what I learned (such as a great place to buy a box for a manuscript) is out of date. However, there are some resources that budding writers should utilize that are still quite relevant, so here goes—

While a novel (or a short story or screen play) is still in the drafting stage, consider getting editorial help. Informally, there are many writer’s groups which offer support and critiques. If you live close enough, consider that as a first source of assistance and career development. I was once privileged to judge a short fiction contest held by the Northeast Georgia Writer’s Group, and all of the entries were quite worthy. The group is active, with contests and guest speakers. Many libraries sponsor such groups. There’s a great list of writer’s groups in Georgia at ReadersUnbound.com.

Depending on genre, there just may be a writer’s conference waiting for you. Such conferences usually feature guest speakers, workshops, and opportunities to meet with literary agents, who are the typical conduits between writers and publishers. I was fortunate to attend a few in nearby Athens (at the UGA campus) which was sponsored by the Mystery Writers of America, but there are a number of conferences, either general or targeting specific types of writing.

When the work is more or less complete, if there is no conventional publisher in the picture paying for it, an author seeking to self-publish or polish a manuscript for possible submission should really consider a paid editor. The Writer’s Digest magazine folks have an entire “store” devoted to such services. When I was working on my first novel, a publisher recommended that I go through a course with Writer’s Digest, and the experience taught me quite a lot about the value of editorial assistance.

Whether self-publishing a novel or developing a website and/or a social media publicity campaign, hiring a professional graphic artist is really important. For a web only publication, such as Kindle Direct, I might try the do it yourself method, but even then, it is good to use a site such as Canva.com. However, if there is any serious money going into the project, such as self-publishing in print or multiple platforms, then a cover artist is very helpful. Both The Gift Horse and the second edition of Trinity on Tylos have covers designed by an independent artist. There’s a list of cover artists over at The Creative Penn. By the way, I’d steer clear of Fiver. I tried that, and got nothing, not even a refund for my initial payment.

Once a book is in print or available as an eBook, most writers will want to help with marketing. This can be rather daunting for many writers. The publisher of The Gift Horse (Booklocker) has a companion site, Writer’s Weekly, which has some links to paying markets for shorter works, as well as articles about writing and marketing.

There are a lot of companies that offer “services” to authors. Be very careful to choose wisely, or money that should have been spent on editing and cover design will be frittered away on something else. While some of these resources have costs, others are cheap or even free. Regardless of how much money you spend, for a novelist the two most important resources are editing and cover design—in that order.