Amazon Prime

I suppose that internet users are all aware of the benefits of Amazon Prime. For quite a while, I just enjoyed the quick and often discounted shipping. But, the video offerings have improved vastly, and I certainly use that feature often. Amazon has both original content as well as plenty of television and movie offerings. Sometimes I listen to Amazon music, and I am especially fond of the “channels” feature that lets me choose a style of music based on favorite artists. Another benefit that I’ve mentioned here from time to time is the “Kindle First” offerings— free books that are available prior to release on the Kindle platform. I’ve read quite a few of those (and reviewed them here from time to time.) Recently, I’ve taken advantage of the free periodicals, such as Family Handyman.

My publishing career is intertwined with Amazon, as my current books (Trinity on Tylos and The Gift Horse) are mostly available via Amazon’s Kindle store, but even if that were not the case, I’d still have to acknowledge that Amazon’s Prime program is value added for online shoppers, television cord cutters, and eBook readers. If you want to know more about Amazon Prime, use the link to explore it via a free trial.

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The Senator by Ken Fite— quick review and commentary

VFR

No kickstart on this VFR

The Senator: A Blake Jordan Thriller is the beginning of a series, which now has two other entries, and it can be read as a stand-alone, but it does a good job of introducing the federal agent, Blake Jordan, character.

This contemporary novel begins as Senator James Keller is set to receive his party’s nomination for President of the United States, but he doesn’t make his acceptance speech because a kidnapper manages to abduct him right before he enters the arena where his party awaits him. His protection detail is headed by ex-Navy SEAL and federal agent Blake Jordan. The action moves quickly between the senator and the agent, who wants to find Keller before something worse happens, and the suspense never lets up. (I like that!)

I noted that some reviewers on Amazon mentioned that the novel wasn’t entirely realistic. I agree, and here is an example: A character, wanting to be stealthy, walks his sport bike (a Honda VFR) out of an alley onto a main road and then the rider kickstarts it before roaring away. Okay, an experienced and strong rider might have no issues with walking a full sized bike for a ways, but it is a chore. Worse, I’m pretty sure Honda hasn’t put a kickstart on a full sized sport bike in about 30 years, and I have never seen a VFR with one. I didn’t stop reading at that point, but I did have a moment of doubt. The old saying is “write what you know” so I began wondering what else the author didn’t know, or failed to research, which was a distraction for me. However, the novel is quite suspenseful, and many readers would not be bothered by this minor glitch in regards to motorcycle matters.

Ken Fite is a new author for me, and while he did stretch my “willing disbelief” a time or two, I would not be averse to reading more of his fiction. The Senator is available for the Kindle, and as of this post, is $2.99, which is a bargain, for sure.

The Heart of a Dog by Albert Payson Terhune

The Heart of A Dog by Albert Payson TerhuneWhen I was a kid, I read The Heart of a Dog, a collection of short stories by Albert Payson Terhune, over and over. The collection of seven stories is good for adults more so than children. One of the things I did when I first began teaching was to read to my middle school students, and I did read a story, The Meanest Man, from this book to them. Although it was first published in the 1920s, these stories are still very interesting.

All of the stories feature a different member The Sunnybank Collies, and the stories have various themes. One tale of survival, “One Minute Longer,” has a plot wherein a young man gets trapped in some icy water and his life depends on the efforts of his collie friend, Wolf, managing to this convey the situation to the adults back home. This story holds up quite well for modern readers, and it has been used in reading anthologies in the past, but the references to hunting and guns wouldn’t make it past modern censorship. In “Youth Will Be Served” the reader follows the difficult decision of dog show judge Angus McGilead, who wants to award the best in show prize to the old favorite collie, Bruce, but realizes that the young collie Jock, sired by Bruce, should win. Yet, the decision is his, and his alone. Okay, this sounds so boring, but it isn’t because the author does a great job of describing every aspect of the dog show, along with criteria used by dog show judges to pick the best of the best.

“The Meanest Man” is my favorite story. It is about a farmer, Link Harris, a well-trained collie, Chum, and the dog catcher, Eben Shunk. Even those who haven’t read it will know who the meanest man is, but the way that Link and Chum deal with him make this story very amusing, if rather dated. Anyway, my students liked it quite a lot, and according to my notes (still in the book) it takes 45 minutes to read aloud.

I’ve linked to the Kindle edition of this book, because it is a very good deal. The copy of The Heart of a Dog  that I have looks like the one pictured, because it was issued by a children’s book club. If you are ever antiquing and see one of these editions, grab it, because the illustrations are cool, too.

Stranger in a Strange Land— another item from my “Keeper” shelf

Stranger CoverAs a youngster, I loved science fiction. From being a little kid watching Fireball XL5: The Complete Series on television to reading the novels of Robert Heinlein while in school, to seeing the original Star Wars: A New Hope at the cinema while in college (gosh, I’m old, right?) I really loved sci-fi. Actually, I still do, but this is a blast from the past post, so here goes.

Heinlein, now considered one of the “grand masters” of classic science fiction, wrote young adult novels and short stories for a number of years. However, his groundbreaking and movie inspiring Starship Troopers is considered a turning point into adult fiction because this novel begins his exploration of themes that appeal to a more mature audience, including libertarian politics. Perhaps modern readers wouldn’t realize it, but the powered body armor in Starship Troopers was one of those prescient inventions that makes reading and watching science fiction so important to the development of technology.

Stranger in a Strange Land (Remembering Tomorrow)was published a couple of years after Troopers, and while less “realistic” the novel takes some giant leaps into thematic explorations. The novel deals with the life of one Valentine Michael Smith, the first human born on Mars, and because he was orphaned he was reared by the natives of that planet, and later brought back to earth as a young adult human who knows absolutely nothing about his home planet or its inhabitants, hence the title. This situation is a fabulous set up for what science fiction does best: explore what makes humanity work (or not.) I used to read this novel annually, and I have never tired of it, because there are so many themes. Indeed, while doing a master’s degree in English, I wrote a pretty decent term paper on the topic of how Heinlein uses the world savior theme in the novel, and didn’t get thrown out of my fairly conservative program.

The characters in Stranger are often larger than life, but Jubal Harshaw, lawyer, doctor, and homespun philosopher (as well as the voice of the author) is my favorite. His employees and associates included Anne, a “fair witness” which is sort of a human version of a body cam, as she only reports what is seen. As in many Heinlein works, there are any number of gems, but even people who haven’t read Stranger may use the invented word “grok” which is a Martian term for being one with someone or something, in such a way that it is fully understood or appreciated.

Modern science fiction has split into many sub-genres, but Stranger in a Strange Land pre-dates that, and in a good way. Grand Master Robert Heinlein was not restricted to hard science or the softer “social” aspects of the genre, although he uses both hard and softer themes to challenge societal norms. Indeed, this novel broke new ground when first published, and it is just as thoughtful and thought provoking today. Certainly, it deserves a read, but it is so complex that it almost needs a Cliff Notes commentary but not quite yet. Despite its age, it is still in print, so go get a copy!

Girl Power? Wonder Woman review and commentary

I’m not a frequent visitor to first run movies, as hubby and I enjoy our Netflix subscription (and homemade popcorn) more. Sometimes, however, a film comes out that piques my interest so we make the trek to our local multiplex and join a group of folks we’ve never met to see a movie. After reading some reviews and seeing a couple of trailers, I told hubby that I intended to see Wonder Woman, with or without him, so we went to see it.

Gal Gadot is fabulous in this film as the title character, as is Chris Pine’s side kick, Steve Trevor. Others do a good job, and Robin Wright is visually stunning as the Amazon general. Indeed, stunning is a word that comes to mind through the first half of the film. An superhero movie that is not a sequel must begin with some exposition, and that is a tricky phase. Too much detail threatens to bore the non-faithful viewer, but too little will disappoint those faithful fans who will show up regardless of what critics say. This version of Wonder Woman nails the exposition, with lots of action woven into the backstory. The costumes are simply amazing as are the settings and the action sequences. The characters do a great job of holding the viewers’ interest as the setting shifts from the island of the Amazons to WWI London. Again, the settings work well, as do the costumes, and it was easy to feel that we’d been transported back a hundred years.

(I am purposely leaving out details, as I do not want to ruin this movie for those who haven’t seen it, if there is anyone left in that category.)

Once the main mission of our heroine gets underway, the action is almost non-stop, and the villains are properly villainous. If I am totally honest, the final action sequence is a tad too long, but the overall effect is that this is a really good movie. Wonder Woman 2017 earns its fabulous score on Rotten Tomatoes.

I know nothing of director Patty Jenkins other work, nor have I seen Gadot in other films, but I have liked Chris Pine’s version of Captain Kirk in the rebooted Star Trek, and I thought he did a great job in the period action-adventure The Finest Hours (Theatrical). This super hero flick really hits on all cylinders: it is reasonably true to the comic book version, won’t disappoint fans of the old television series, and is so well made that newbies will enjoy it, too.

Please enjoy the links to these previous films available online, and consider going to see Wonder Woman.

From my Keeper Shelf — The Impossible Virgin


When I was young (alas, quite a long time ago) my mom would take us to the library every two weeks. There is no way I can express how important this was in my journey toward being a teacher and a writer. We didn’t have much money, but we had a wealth of information at hand, in the form of borrowed books. As I made the transition from young adult fiction to things written for an adult audience, mom was a valuable guide, because she was quite a good reader herself. One day, she handed me a book with a title that was a bit unusual: The Impossible Virgin. I’m sure I said something like, “Really, Mom?” She assured me that she had read it and that I would like it. OMG, was she right. I really loved that book.

Peter O’Donnell wrote an entire series of books featuring a better than James Bond heroine, Modesty Blaise, and The Impossible Virgin was my introduction to the series, although it is actually book five of thirteen books. The books generally followed a pattern, a bit like a James Bond movie of that era, wherein there is some action sequence at the beginning, then some exposition to get the reader up to speed on the characters, plus plenty of mid-level action before a dramatic series of events that leads to a climax with a very short denoument. Each book is decorated with highly eccentric characters, both the villains and the “guests” that Modesty and her friend Willie Garvin are helping with whatever dastardly doings drive the action.

(Some spoilers follow at this point.)

The Impossible Virgin centers around Modesty’s guy friend, a doctor named Giles Pennyfeather. He gets involved with some bad guys over in Africa, and Modesty helps him out. Later, Giles and Modesty are abducted by the baddies, and friend Willie is thrown out of a plane without a parachute. Giles ends up injured by a gorilla, so he has to walk Modesty through performing an emergency appendectomy  on one of the minor characters, and all that happens before the big climax, which involves a battle with quarterstaffs and a heck of a lot of wasps.

Most of the books in this series are really good, and I have all of them. Some books spend very little time with me, as they are forgettable, but The Impossible Virgin, along with others in the series, including Modesty Blaise, Sabre-Tooth, and I Lucifer are on my keeper shelf, and I have re-read them from time to time.

Modesty Blaise was the subject of a truly horrible movie, so bad that I try to forget that it was ever made, and a really good short film still available on DVD by Quentin Tarrantino, entitled My Name Is Modesty.

Mr. O’Donnell also wrote some nifty “romantic suspense” novels as Madeline Brent, and those are memorable as well.

Winter’s Bone— review and commentary

Winter's BoneAs the film Winter’s Bone is based upon a novel, let me be clear— I am discussing the film, not the book. Hubby and I watched it via Amazon Prime, due to seeing it listed as one of the best films available via streaming, and it stars a young (pre Hunger Games) Jennifer Lawrence. I knew little else about it, other than the brief description on Amazon.

Honestly, it is a haunting movie, but is isn’t a horror story. This film is a polar opposite of a action adventure. Not that it isn’t interesting, because it is, but this is a window into a world that will be foreign to many of us, but maybe not as foreign as we’d like, because drug users, abusers, and dealers are an ever growing aspect of modern America.

Basically, the story follows the efforts of seventeen-year-old Ree Dolly (Lawrence) to find her missing father, after a bail bondsman informs her that if her dad doesn’t show up for his trial, the family home is forfeit. The setting is in the Ozark Mountains, within the past few years, based on the cars. The father manufactures meth, and this is apparently no secret. Jessup Dolly hasn’t been around for a while, and there is little to eat, for the family or their animals. Ree is also burdened with younger siblings who rely upon her, because the mother is a mentally ill mute. As Ree goes from person to person, asking for news of her father, the viewer learns much about the poverty and other issues that inhabitants of this community endure.

When I was a youngster, I remember reading Oliver Twist and thinking that if one more bad thing happened to that kid, I was going to return the book to the library, unfinished. More misfortunes did befall young Oliver, so I didn’t finish the novel. A few years later I saw the musical Oliver on school field trip, so I did finally learn what happened to the characters. And while Winter’s Bone has little in common with Oliver Twist, the relentless despair with only a small germ of hope is similar.

As I do hope readers of Visions and Revisions will take a look at the film, I’m avoiding spoilers. Certainly, Jennifer Lawrence is amazing in this film, but the rest of the cast is excellent, too. The filmmaker did a fabulous job of showing the situation but not telling the viewer what to believe.

I have to agree that Winter’s Bone is an excellent film, and it brings a simple yet sophisticated treatment to the problems associated with the drug culture in rural America.

Honour Bound— a quick review


Some time back, I got a bit more serious about writing reviews on Amazon, and I bought several products and did indeed review most of them. Along with light bulbs, measuring cups, and a backpack, I stocked up on Kindle books, too.

One of those is Honour Bound (Lawmen of the Republic Book 2) by M.A. Grant. Y’all, this is a pretty nifty book. Briefly, this story begins with two people, Natalia, a prisoner in a camp on a distant planet, and Alex Cade, the young Lawman lieutenant, who rescues her. The story takes its time unfolding, so I would not term it high suspense, but it held my attention. And, it is a full length novel. I’ve noticed that the definition of novel does differ from author to author these days, with lots of eBooks being closer to novellas than actual novels. All those electronic pages mean that this is a good deal at the current price of $2.72. Apparently, Ms. Grant has other novels available with more in the works. Here’s my quick review for Amazon:

This novel delivers plenty of action in a science fiction setting. I’m a fan of sci fi romance, and while there is a romantic sub-plot, this is primarily a military story. The main characters are well drawn, but the minor ones are…well…minor. Still, I really enjoyed this book and will read others by the author.

And, here’s a link to her site: M.A. Grant Author if you’d like to know more.

Butterfly Garden— a review

Trust me, this book will get under your skin and into your memory. I’ve read a lot of books, but this one is haunting.

One of my favorite genres of fiction is what is sometimes termed psychological fiction because the author gets into the minds of the characters. Perhaps it is due to my life experiences, or maybe it is due to my eclectic reading, but I am fascinated by the caretaker/villian. One my first exposures to this genre was the film “The Collector” based on the novel by John Fowles. Later, I read the book, which was also fascinating, but perhaps even more disturbing than the movie, which nicely bridges the gap between suspense and horror.

I think that Dot Hutchinson may have read the same book. That is not to say that her novel, The Butterfly Garden, is a rip-off of The Collector; it is not. However, there are some common aspects, so I will say that my guess is that she was inspired by the Fowles novel. Both novels deal with a warped collector, interested in butterflies, and his hapless series of victims. But, the villain in The Collector had one victim (at a time); in Hutchinson’s novel, the Gardener has a much bigger operation. Hutchinson basically took the plot, then raised the stakes. Her villain is far more villainous, so be forewarned that this novel is really disturbing. There is some bad language, as well as non-graphic rape and other unpleasantness directed toward the female victims.

The Butterfly Garden is modern in tone, pace, and language. But it is more of a “why” novel than a “what novel” as it begins at the end, and the plot unfolds as detectives try to unravel the story of the interactions between our victim (who has 3 names before it is over, so I won’t name her here) and an individual that the main character knows as the Gardener. Our protagonist is more victim than heroine, but she is certainly brave in a multi-layered manner. The novel is well-written and sufficiently suspenseful for me to have read it in a couple of evenings.

There are few parallels between The Butterfly Garden and my own psychological novel, The Gift Horse. However, an exploration of the role of the victim is common to both. If any of you readers enjoyed The Gift Horse, and were not overly offended, then you should try The Butterfly Garden. I really, really enjoyed it. But, I am not am not outraged by villains doing really bad things. That is what makes such characters villains.

Alarm of War— The Other Side of Fear

A while back, I wrote a positive review of Kennedy Hudner’s Alarm of War. Perhaps its greatest downside was that it clearly was intended to have a sequel. For a few months, I checked Amazon, hoping that Hudner had released the second part, but after a while, I quit looking. Then, as I reviewed my “keeper” files, I saw Alarm of War and looked again. Low and behold, Alarm of War, Book II: The Other Side of Fear was published in 2014. Finally, I had the sequel, but alas, it’s really part II of a trilogy. So, I am back to waiting.

However, it would be remiss to not review the second book. So, here’s a true confession: I went back and re-read the Alarm of War because it had been so long that I was certain I needed a refresher. Good plan, as I enjoyed it almost as much the second time. Once I had swiped the last page, I jumped right into The Other Side of Fear, and it wowed me from the opening scene.

While there are some stereotypical situations and characters, there is plenty of depth to Hudner’s ensemble of main characters, who met as they went through basic training during the first novel. My favorite is Emily Tuttle, a former history teacher with a brilliant grasp of military strategy. Other main characters include Grant Skiffington, the favored son of an admiral; Hiram Brill, a geeky guy who instinctively puts together intelligence into workable prophecies; and Marine sergeant Maria Sanchez, who is super gung ho, but reads books and likes to hang out with the nerd, Hiram. These characters all had intertwining adventures in the first book and book two immediately picks up the action.

Rather than write a bunch of spoilers, I will say this: Mr. Hudner’s series reminds me quite a lot of the early works of David Weber, the creator of the great Honor Harrington series. But, by using the ensemble, rather than centering on one character, Hudner is able to bring in various aspects of his universe, but keep the reader’s interest. At times, Weber spends more time explaining his villains than his heroine, and that has always bothered me. As a huge fan of military sci fi in general, and Honor Harrington in particular, it is hard to say this, but, “Move over, Mr. Weber.” Kennedy Hudner is writing some seriously kick-butt military sci-fi. Really.

As of this writing, the first book is a bargain at 99¢, and The Other Side of Fear is $3.99. My gosh, so much entertainment for less than the price of a movie ticket!