Son of Justice— a quick review

Son of JusticeEli Jayson is a recruit, struggling to get through basic training, just like many others. But, he has knowledge of military matters far beyond his fellow recruits, because his real name is not Jayson, it is Justice, which is the name of the supreme commander of Allied Forces, and Eli’s father. Having grown up in his father’s shadow, Eli may be the perfect soldier, or not. But he must succeed or fail on his own, for as Eli Jayson, he isn’t getting any special treatment.

That’s just a summary of the opening of this novel, Son of Justice, which is the beginning of a trilogy by Steven Hawk. I’m a fan of military fiction, and the “recruit grows up fast” plot line is hardly a new one, but Hawk does a reasonably good job of blending traditional story elements with fresh insights into both how the military mind thinks, as well as building his sci fi universe. As this is the opening of a series, he must also lay the groundwork for the rest of his trilogy as well as keeping the action flowing to entertain his readers. I rather liked this book, as the author manages all those tasks fairly well.

Often, such beginning of a trilogy books suffer from the cliffhanger ending, but this yarn stands alone quite well, so readers who want to sample Hawk’s writing can read this one without being roped into other purchases.

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What’s it about? A non-review of La La Land.

La La LandThe other evening, I told hubby that I wanted to see La La Land on HBO Go. Like many men, he is a direct, compartmental thinker, and he wanted a succinct description, like a phrase. Complex sentences and paragraphs are too much after a hard day at the office, so I said, “It’s a musical.” And he said, “What kind?” Based on the tone as well as the question, I was getting the drift that he didn’t want to try this one, so I said something like, “We’ll talk about it later.”

Today, weary of grading essays, I turned our sorta smart TV to HBOGo and found La La Land. Before the end of the opening number, a sort of modern fantasy about singing and dancing in traffic, I was already glad that I decided to forgo explaining the film to my husband. He is just not gonna go for this sort of film.

That’s not to say it is bad, for it certainly isn’t. But, this clever film is not going to be pigeon holed into a category, although HBO places it under “romance.” The film pays homage to Hollywood in particular and the entertainment industry more generally, and the characters certainly are passionate about their craft, but they struggle to pave a path to personal success. Work gets in the way of their relationship, but there are some seriously romantic scenes in this film. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone have both moved up a few notches in my estimation, based solely on the way they conveyed emotion through song and dance and just looking at the camera.

As I was searching for an answer to “What sort of movie (or musical) is it?” I read several reviews. The one at RogerEbert.com comes the closest to explaining it, and I don’t want to spoil it or plagiarize, so I will merely provide the link. However, should hubby ask again, which I rather doubt, I have my answer: “It’s a different sort of musical.” Yep, it isn’t peculiar, nor avant gardé, nor off-beat. It is just different.

From a Distant Star— quick review and commentary

From a Distant StarThere are many themes in science fiction, and the one about an alien who is trapped on earth entering a host body isn’t exactly a new plot line. However, in this young adult novel, Karen McQuestion taps into the “kids dealing with big stuff” storyline that seems to be popular right now. (Think “Stranger Things” on Netflix or even Stephen King’s, IT! on the big screen.) Anyway, I didn’t find it difficult at all to get into this book and stay with it until the end. The main characters, Emma and her cancer stricken boyfriend Lucas, are believable, engaging, and their exploits are entertaining. Emma is particularly well drawn, and she is the point of view character for most of the novel.

I’m not a big fan of young adult fiction, but I genuinely believe that the most creative stories these days are found in that genre. Publishers, large and small, are not prone to take any chances with fiction intended for adult audiences, but they are more open to new authors and new ideas in YA fiction. This has been true for quite a while, and this trend plays out on the big screen. The Harry Potter novels were quite successfully adapted to film, as were the Hunger Games novels. The Divergent Series is another YA science fiction series that made it to the big screen. Even Twilight and its sequels begat movies.

Probably From a Distant Star won’t be the basis for a Hollywood block buster, but it would make a dandy film for the folks over at the SyFy channel. In the mean time, readers can find it in various formats, from $4.49 for the Kindle ebook to $10.95 in hard cover.

The Lioness of Morocco— review

The Lioness of Morocco is quite a saga. I mean that in a positive way, but some readers may not be ready for a yarn that covers this many years. I, on the other hand, relished it, like a home cooked meal after a long stint of eating fast food.

This story reminds me of the “mini-series” that were once a staple of television networks: a multi-part yarn that covers much of the adult life of an interesting main character, often with a lengthy list of co-stars. Such sagas usually combined romance, suspense, and mystery, and The Lioness of Morocco does that fairly well. The protagonist, Sibylla Spencer, is a good (if not fabulous) character, sufficiently well developed that readers should want to follow along with her travels and travails. Although the story begins in England, before long her adventuresome nature, combined with her father’s shipping business, leads her and her new husband to Mogador, Morocco, where she grows into an even more bold woman, sometimes called “The Lioness” in part due to her mane of golden hair.

< a few spoilers follow>

As an Englishwoman, Sibylla could either cling to all things British, from her clothing and her companions, to her language. Or, she could learn more about the Moorish population, learn their language, and (perhaps) do a bit of business with them. She follows the second course of action, which does cause her more straight-laced neighbors to be a bit put out with her. However, she is well-mannered and well-bred and manages to keep both sides of her world reasonably happy with her most of the time.

The novel is set in a tumultuous time, so there are plenty of plot twists, but the reader is never rushed, as this story happens over a number of years. Much of the Moroccan culture is revealed via detailed descriptions, which I genuinely enjoyed. Several crises occur, from the time her husband is accused of trafficking slaves to being the family being involved in trade wars and political wars. However, Sibylla and her children seem to rise to the occasion, whatever comes their way.

I did find this to be a very satisfying novel, rich in history and culture, if not a compelling read. For anyone who hasn’t enjoyed a saga recently, I suggest this novel. It is available as a paperback and in eBook form.

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.