Book Review: Life Is Beautiful

Book Review: Life Is Beautiful by Sarah M. Johnson

In 2008, an airplane carrying humanitarian workers to a remote village in Guatemala, where they were to build a school, crashed and burned.  The crew and most of the passengers were killed; one young woman survived relatively unharmed, though she had lost half her family, and her mother was severely injured.  This is her story.

Life Is Beautiful

Sarah’s life had not been an easy one for some time before the crash.  Raised outside a small town in rural Wisconsin, Sarah’s family was socially and emotionally isolated.  Her father was a recovering meth addict, they’d recently lost a close relative to cancer, and what little social life Sarah had revolved around heavy drinking with her friends.

At college, Sarah met Jacob, a young man who introduced her to a stronger belief in God, but was dangerously flawed; in particular he reinforced her drinking habits.  A combination of alcoholism and depression made Sarah’s  college career a bust, and Jacob cheated on her, so she had to come home feeling a failure.  The Guatemala trip was meant to help mend the family’s fences.

As this book is in the “inspirational” sub-genre, you might expect that Sarah turned her life around after hitting rock bottom, and you would be correct.  When she finally accepted the help of a therapist (it isn’t directly stated, but her father’s apparent ability to quit meth cold turkey may have influenced her to try to handle everything solo), Sarah began to be able to process her grief and make progress on recovery from alcoholism.  (Finding sober friends and a welcoming church group also helped.)

From a writing perspective, this book is a good example of how real people are far more complex and messy than they generally are shown in fiction.  Jacob is a prime example, a fervent believer who introduces Sarah to a personal relationship with her “higher power” but prone to bouts of unwanted preaching and self-righteousness when drunk, and who is a toxic boyfriend for her.

One misstep is Sarah’s breakthrough moment with her therapist, when she can finally tell the story of the crash and its aftermath while allowing herself to feel the emotions associated with it.  While it would be a powerful moment if the facts had been concealed up to that point in the book, on paper it’s mostly a recitation of details already covered in the first chapters.  This is a short book, and a reader with a decent memory will find this bit redundant.

Recommended primarily to fans of inspirational literature, and older young adult readers who like non-fiction stories as Sarah’s life is of interest.  Not necessarily recommended to those currently undergoing the grieving process; Sarah mentions several books that helped her, and those would probably be better choices.

If you would like to purchase the book, please consider getting it new, as part of the proceeds go to Habitat for Humanity.

Disclaimer:  I received a free copy of this book to facilitate writing the review; no other compensation was offered or requested.

Book Review: Festival of Crime

Book Review: Festival of Crime Edited by Christine Husom, Mickie Turk & Michael Allan Mallory

Minnesotans have a reputation for being a bit mild-mannered and reserved.  But we love celebrations just as much as anyone else, and the state is filled with fairs and festivals, from small-town scarecrow contests to the crowded Pride in Minneapolis.  And sometimes crimes happen at these events.  Thus this collection from Twin Cities Sisters in Crime, a local writers group.

Festival of Crime

Most of these 19 tales are indeed crime stories, but not always murder, and a few have mystery elements.  A couple have supernatural elements, though only one has it proven.  Some merely take place at or near a festival, while others have it essential to the plot.

The collection begins with “Sawbill Checkpoint” by Michael Allan Mallory (wait, isn’t he one of the editors?)   A man is shot during a dogsled race, and his final word may be a vital clue…if only someone knew what it meant.  The last story is “All Sales Final” by Douglas Dorow.  A pair of art dealers discover a treasure trove owned by two elderly women.  Now, how to get it away from them before the old ladies figure out how much it’s worth?

Stories I enjoyed the most were “Looney Daze” by Cheryl Ullyot, in which a gambler woos a woman obsessed with wiener dog races; and “Corn on the  Cob” by Colin T. Nelson, about a sheriff faced with criminals he can’t put in jail, and an election coming up.

“No Time Like the Present” by E.B. Boatner is about a man who spots some anachronistically-dressed people, and learns their secret.  It feels a little too tidy, with a long-winded wrap-up.

Content warning:  homophobia, torture and domestic abuse come up in different stories.

The writing is decent on average, and I only spotted a couple of minor typos.   There are author bios in the back if you decide one of the stories makes you want to read more.

Recommended primarily for Minnesotan crime story fans, as they’ll be most familiar with the local color, but any fan of crime stories should be able to enjoy this.

Book Review: Superheroes

Book Review: Superheroes edited by Rich Horton

Superheroes as we know them more or less started in the comic books of the late 1930s, with the most obvious first “true” superhero being Superman.  And comic books have largely shaped our perceptions of costumed superheroes ever since.  But sometimes prose is a perfectly acceptable way of writing about people with unusual powers and distinctive appearances who fight crime and injustice.  There have been quite a few anthologies of short stories in the field, and this is one of them.

Superheroes

The sixteen stories cover various aspects of the superhero genre, from the superheroes themselves, through supervillains, and to the civilians who have to try to survive in these larger than life worlds.  The lead story is “Sunlight Society” by Margaret Ronald.  A nethead (a cyborg able to interface with computers) is called in to deal with a virus in a superhero base’s computer.  But that’s not all he’s there for, and the information he seeks will cost him dearly.

“Wonjjiang and the Madman of Pyongyang” by Gord Sellar is the story of a South Korean superhero who’s been forced into the role of leader for a multi-national team operating in his homeland and sometimes in neighboring countries.  Unfortunately, politics has freed his North Korean nemesis, budget cuts have gotten Wonjjiang laid off, and our hero’s overbearing mother is pushing him to get married.  (Sadly, the one woman he’s interested in already has a boyfriend.)  One of the more “traditional” superhero stories in the book.

A couple of the stories are of special interest.  “Wild Card” by Leah Bobet is set in the Shadow Unit continuity, about a secret group of government agents that normally battle serial killers who’ve developed super-powers.  Except that this time, the “anomaly” has picked on someone whose personal mythology comes from comic books, and he’s decided to become a full-fledged super-villain.  Somewhat lighter than the usual Shadow Unit story.

Peter S. Beagle (The Last Unicorn) contributes “Dirae.”  Suddenly in the city there’s a woman who appears out of nowhere to save lives like a real-life superhero, then vanishes again until the next rescue.  It’s told from the perspective of that woman as she slowly comes to realize she literally does disappear between those incidents, with no clue where she’s spending the rest of her time, if any.  She tries to work out who she really is and what’s happening to her.  Mr. Beagle is an excellent fantasy writer, and this is one of the best stories in the book.

The weakest story for me was “Secret Identity” by Kelly Link.  A young woman comes to a hotel to meet a man she got to know on the internet; by coincidence (or is it?) there’s a superhero convention going on at the same time.  The secrets she’s been keeping from her prospective lover are compared to a hero’s secret identity.  I didn’t like the main character and found most of the people she interacted with boring.  Overall, a decent collection of 21st Century superhero themed writing.

There’s some vulgar language and sexual situations in the stories, and a couple of them deal with euthanasia.  I’d recommend this to senior high students and up.

Book Review: Twin Cities Speculations: An Anthology of Sci-Fi and Fantasy

Book Review: Twin Cities Speculations: An Anthology of Sci-Fi and Fantasy edited by Eric Binfet

As I may have mentioned before, I have a soft spot for local writers, of which Minnesota has many.  One Twin Cities writers’ group got together and self-published an anthology, and here we are.  Eight stories of SF and fantasy, all first officially published in this book.

Twin Cities Speculations

The opener is “Space Aliens on Maple Lake” by Bill Cutler.  It is ice-fishing season, and a downed alien spacecraft lands on Maple Lake.  The aliens need to avoid detection by pretending to be an ordinary ice fishing shack, but will they be able to fool the Earthlings?  Light comedy with Minnesota stereotypes.

“The Cursed Years” by  Cecelia Isaac is the only story with no mention of Minnesota, being set in a fantasy world.  The protagonist, Py, is cursed to wander far from his kingdom for seven years.  He starts his journey  voluntarily in an effort to make the curse less onerous, but soon discovers even thinking about returning home is dangerous.  He acquires a talking sword, and an actual goal when he learns there may be a way to break the curse.  This is one of the better stories in the volume, and has an obvious sequel hook–it could also be turned into a doorstopper trilogy with enough padding.

“The Harry Hawkins Experience” by Jonathan Rogers has a would-be biographer tagging along with the title character, a wealthy adventurer.  They investigate a tomb with restless inhabitants.  The writer is a filmmaker, and it shows with a very “this could be a movie” feel.  Sadly, Mr. Hawkins is an annoying character who is supposed to become more endearing as the story wears on, but doesn’t.

“Heaven Help Me” by Lindsey Loree is a monologue by a fallen guardian angel.  Turns out that Heaven is very judgmental and not at all big on redemption.  The protagonist unwittingly helps set an alternative plan in motion.

“Robbing the Grave” by Eric Binfet concerns a guilt-ridden man having dreams that seem to predict the future…and the future is murder.  Is this his dead brother giving him another chance to prevent innocent life from being taken, or just his guilt finally causing a permanent breakdown?  There’s an in-joke for Marvel Comics fans, and an interesting police character.  The protagonist’s relationships with his best friend and girlfriend come off a bit tedious.

“Kreet” by Tina S. Murphy is about a grif, an insectoid creature, named Sooe Han-Cen who is going into the desert to find the stronghold of the titular Kreet.  The Kreet are an invasive species with an explosive population curve, and a penchant for eating grif.  Sooe’s mission is complicated by all her fellow Agents having already been eaten, and the presence of a foolish treasure hunter who thinks she’s trying to steal his goodies.  This is the longest story in the volume, and comes with an extended coda that reveals the consequences of Sooe’s mission from a different perspective.

“Volunteers” by Susan L. Hansen is told in reverse order, starting with the heroes having had successes against the alien slavers called Jakooma, and flashing ever back to how they got there.  The most imaginative bit is the psychic whose powers are normally kind of useless due to the future changing every time someone makes a decision, but in dire circumstances that narrow the possibilities, becomes Earth’s one hope for freedom.

And the book closes with “LOST” by Lizzie Scott.  Lilith, grieving the loss of her husband and children, has isolated herself in a remote farmhouse.  During a blizzard, a very lost little girl  named Pyry shows up on her doorstep, and Lilith must put aside her own problems to help the child.  But what she does may be more dangerous to Pyry than the thing that got the girl lost in the first place!  This too was a good story, that followed through on its fantasy concept well.

I regret to say that spellchecker typos, the bane of self-publishing editors, are frequent, especially in “Kreet.”

Overall, a decent enough collection of stories, but mostly of local interest to Minnesotans.  Others might want to invest in case one of the writers eventually becomes famous.

Book Review: Dark Waters

Book Review: Dark Waters by Michael Merriam

Disclaimer:  My copy is an uncorrected proof; there may be changes in the final product (I am hoping for many less spellchecker typos.)

Many years ago, Richard Martz ran afoul of the law forbidding children who have both mage and fey blood from being born.  His lover and her unborn child were executed in an overreaction by the local magical community, and he overreacted in turn, wiping them all out.  Now he is cursed, his magic crippled and longing for death, but unable to die.

Dark Waters

Richard’s buried himself in an electronics repair job in Minneapolis.  His employer died recently, and Richard is surprised when that man’s daughter, Holly Ellefson, turns up in his apartment that night.  It turns out that she herself is a mage/fey combination, her powers and heritage hidden by her mother’s spell…which was tied to her father’s life.  Now that Holly has no blood relatives, her disguise is fading, and her powers emerging.  She need magical training, and protection from those who would murder her to keep the law.

Richard accepts, but his price is that if he saves her life, Holly must take his.

“Urban fantasy” is a subgenre of fantasy that is generally set in something like the modern day, in real world places (usually cities) and has a theme of magic co-existing with technology and mundane life.  Often, the magical world is hidden from  normal people (see for example the Harry Potter series.)  In this case, the story takes place a century or so in the future, after the magical community suffered a disaster that exposed it to the normal humans.

To protect themselves, the magical community provides magical technology that does not rely on the now nearly exhausted fossil fuels.  Only the wealthy can fully afford this, so much of the rest of society is reverting to earlier technology.  General Mills and the Basilica still stand, but Nicollet Island and the Sculpture Garden are ruins.  There’s a magical Council that polices their own community, and has considerable influence over the normal human government.

This book was sparked by a random premise generator, and that origin peeks through the cracks from time to time.  As the cover suggests, it follows the standard Hollywood formula of middle-aged looking male lead, twenty-something looking female lead; though he’s over a hundred years old, and she’s in her forties chronologically.  (Also, the cover is early in the story–Holly is less conventionally attractive by the end.)  There’s also something of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope, as the free-spirited Holly helps Richard overcome his deep man-pain.

The Mississippi River plays a fairly large part in the setting of the story, and provides the title.

Content advisory:  There’s several gruesome deaths, a couple of which are basically shrugged off by the end (they’re only non-magical humans after all.)  Late in the book, there’s a on-screen sex scene.

It’s an okay book, but mostly of local interest.  The setting could use more thought, and a less formula plot.

Note:  I have reviewed another book titled Dark Waters; there is no resemblance or connection beyond the title.

Book Review: Headaches Can Be Murder

Book Review: Headaches Can Be Murder by Marilyn Rausch & Mary Donlon

Charles “Chip” E. Collingsworth III was supposed to become a neurosurgeon like his father and grandfather before him, but wasn’t suited to being a doctor, so dropped out of medical school.  Three failed marriages later and with his trust fund depleted, Chip wrote a crime novel about famed neurosurgeon John Goodman  investigating “the Cranium Killer” with the FBI, and casting two of his ex-wives as victims.  To his surprise, he found an agent willing to represent the manuscript, and it turned into a best-seller.

Headaches Can Be Murder

On a cross-country trip, Chip stumbled across an abandoned farmhouse in Turners Bend, Iowa, and decided that this would be a good place to write his second book in.   Except that he’s run out of ex-wives he wants to murder (his first wife was much nicer)  and that means he’s out of ideas.  Until one day he falls off a shed, and the ensuing bump on his head gives him a painful inspiration for a possible plotline.  As his real life and novel intertwine, can Chip survive long enough to finish the manuscript?

The gimmick in this book, the first in the Chip Collingsworth series, is that there are two stories unfolding simultaneously.  Chip lives his life in rural Iowa, and as things happen around him, he incorporates versions of them into Dr, Goodman’s quest to find out whether microchips inserted into people’s brains are turning them into killers.  Chip meets an attractive veterinarian, and Dr. Goodman meets an attractive FBI agent.  Chip adopts a golden retriever, and Dr. Goodman does as well.  Not all the things happening in Turners Bend are so benign, however, and Chip winds up doing some investigating himself.

One thing that amused me was Chip constantly being given suggestions on what kind of characters should be in his next book, which just happened to match the persons who suggest them.

The twin narrative approach is fun, but means that each story gets less character development.  I noticed quite a few spellchecker typos, which would be acceptable in the “fictional” chapters as Chip writes his drafts, but not so much in the “real world” ones.

There are a couple of sex scenes, and a bit of torture in the Goodman section.

Recommended for those wanting to read mysteries with an Iowa connection.

Comic Strip Review: O Human Star Volume One

Comic Strip Review: O Human Star Volume One by Blue Delliquanti

Roboticist Alastair Sterling wakes from a dream of dying to find out it was true.  His mind is now in a synthetic being (“robot” if you will) body that looks exactly like his human body did sixteen years ago.  Two other synthetic beings, who look like designs he came up with years ago, drive Al to the home of his old partner, Brendan Pinsky, whose money they claim was used to create Al’s new body.

O Human Star Volume One

Except that Brendan claims he did no such thing, which brings up the question of just who did–and why does Brendan’s teenage daughter Sulla look so much like Al?   These mysteries must be looked into while Al attempts to reconnect with the people he left behind.

This science-fiction romance story has been running at http://ohumanstar.com/chapter-1-title-page/ since 2012.  The title comes from Karel Capek’s play R.U.R. which is referenced in several ways in the strip.  It’s won a couple of awards for Ms. Delliquanti, and a bound volume of the first three chapters is now available for those of us who like paper.

This is a slowly developing story; these first three chapters cover a bit more than 24 hours in the current day, with frequent flashbacks.  Those flashbacks are tinted in reddish tones, while the 2021 parts are in bluish tones, which makes it easy to tell which is which.  We see how Al and Brendan’s relationship began, and the small beginnings of what will become full-fledged synthetic beings.  (Who have rights!)  We also see the strains on their relationship–Al is closeted, and even after his death Brendan kept the fact that they were lovers a secret even from Sulla.

In the present day, the mystery of Sulla takes precedence as she gets to know her father’s friend (and sort of also her father), and makes outside friends her own age for the first time.  She’s very bright, but also sheltered due to her unique upbringing.

Meanwhile, Brendan is on an emotional rollercoaster.  The man he thought was dead forever is now alive…sort of, and Brendan wants to welcome him back, but can’t help worrying that there’s a darker motive behind this gift.

The art is good by webcomic standards, with all the characters being easy to tell apart (and Sulla’s family resemblance to Al being obvious) and the setting being recognizable as Minneapolis, Minnesota.

The cast is quite diverse, especially given its small size so far, in terms of sexuality, ethnicity and obviousness of synthetic parts.  I also like that the two people whose love story it is are middle-aged.

The book is rated as “Mature Readers” and there is some partial male nudity in a sexual context.  However, I think there’s nothing here that would be shocking to a fairly mature high-schooler–conservative parents might be more concerned.

There are some sketchbook pages in the back as an incentive to buy the collected volume.  While these chapters are largely set-up, the availability of future volumes will depend on sales of this one, so please consider it.

Book Review: Twin Cities Noir: The Expanded Edition

Book Review: Twin Cities Noir: The Expanded Edition edited by Julie Schaper & Steven Horwitz

Like the previously reviewed USA Noir, this is a collection of grittier crime stories from Akashic Books with a regional focus.  In this case, the cities of Saint Paul and Minneapolis in Minnesota, and the surrounded metro area, plus one up north in Duluth (“Hi, I’m God” by Steve Thayer; a teenager drowns in Lake Superior…or does he?)

Twin Cities Noir

This is the “expanded edition” released in 2013 with three new stories, bringing it to a total of eighteen.   The new ones are conveniently all in the front in the “Star of the North” subsection, starting with John Jodzio’s “Someday All of This Will Probably Be Yours”  about a speed dating scam gone wrong.  The other sections are “Minnesota Nice”, “Uff Da” and “Funeral Hotdish.”

Each of the stories is set in a particular neighborhood, several of which I’m familiar with.  One scene takes place less than a block from where I live!  This makes it easy for me to picture the action in my mind.  This may not be as evocative for non-locals, but will please readers in the Twin Cities area.

Some standouts:  “Skyway Sleepless” written and drawn by Tom Kaczynski takes place in Minneapolis’ extensive skyway system.  The art uses the rectangular boxes of the skyway to indicate the maze-like architecture of the story, as people are found filling chalk outlines and no memory of how they got there.

“The Brewer’s Son” by Larry Millett is a period piece set in 1892 Saint Paul, and starring his series character, saloonkeeper and amateur detective Shadwell Rafferty, acquaintance of Sherlock Holmes.  The title character has been kidnapped, supposedly by the Black Hand, and Mr. Rafferty is called in by the concerned father.  This is noir, so expect some darkness.

Mary Logue’s story “Blasted” takes place in upscale Kenwood, as a police officer tells her daughter about a domestic dispute call that was the most frightening experience of her life.  The officer is still alive, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t good reason for fear.

The final story is “”Chili Dog” by Chris Everhart.  A small time crook stops in downtown Saint Paul for lunch, and things go very wrong for him.

As a crime story anthology, there’s a fair bit of violence, one story features domestic abuse, and there’ mention of suicide.

If you are local to Minnesota, or have lived here in the past, highly recommended.  The book’s pretty good if you’re not local, but you might miss some of the nuance.  Akashic may have a volume set in your area; check their catalog.   If you own the previous version, you might want to save money by going with the e-book, so you can check out the new stories without shelling out the big bucks.

Book Review: Fresh Fear

Book Review: Fresh Fear edited by William Cook

Horror anthologies are like a box of chocolates.  One story might be crunchy frog, another spring surprise, while a more disappointing one is just maple cream.  (Seriously, maple cream?)  This is because horror tends to be a balancing act between what the writer finds scary and what the reader does.   Two different readers looking at the same story may fiercely debate whether it’s terrifying or just kind of gross.

Fresh Fear

This particular anthology is listed as “contemporary horror” which seems to mean mostly recent stories, set close to the present day.  Other than that, there’s no real overarching theme or subgenre requirements.  After an introduction that talks a bit about why people read horror stories (among other things, to feel horrified), the opening story is “God of the Winds” by Scathe meic Beorh, a hallucinatory piece that is at least partially about the tendency of white people to appropriate Native American mysticism in stupid ways.  The final story is “Out of the Light” by Anna Taborska, a Lovecraftian-feeling story about a man who gets too heavily invested in reading a horror anthology.  Hmm.

I was a bit disappointed that the piece by big-name author Ramsey Campbell (“Britain’s most respected living horror writer”) was a reprint from 1988.  Which is not to say that “Welcomeland” itself wasn’t a fine story.  It concerns a man returning to his home town which has been partially rebuilt into a failed amusement park.  Or has it succeeded at its true purpose?  It doesn’t feel dated.

Also outstanding is Christine Morgan’s “Nails of the Dead” which looks at Norse mythology from the point of view of a very minor character with a small but important job.  Of local interest to me is “Just Another Ex” by Roy C. Booth and Axel Kohagen.  A man is sent to find another man who may be unfaithful to his loved one.  His reward is non-standard.

There were some typos, most clustered in “Spencer Weaver Gets Rebooted” by Thomas A. Erb, about a bullied high schooler who gets pushed too far.  Because of this, and the rather immature feel of the plot points, it felt more like something a high school student would write than something for a professional anthology.  (“Did I mention the head bully has a small penis?  Well he does.”)

This is an “18+” book, which has sex, rape, foul language, torture and in some cases excessive focus on body fluids.   Happy endings are few.  But with twenty-eight widely varying stories, there’s something for almost every horror fan.   Recommended for the horror buff who wants to try some new authors.

Comic Book Review: Uptown Girl Imitation of Life

Comic Book Review: Uptown Girl Imitation of Life by Bob Lipski

This is another collection of the Uptown Girl comic book stories, filled in with short newer pieces.  The main stories feature Rocketman’s never before mentioned career as a pinball champion (and the forgotten rival who wants revenge), and a zoo-related saga that combines an artistic monkey, a talking car, and a robotic dinosaur.  Smaller pieces talk about comics and gaming fandom, and Uptown Girl’s sometimes difficult relationship with modern technology.  And downer appearances by Sulky Girl.

Uptown Girl Imitation of Life

This is very much a local product of Minneapolis and the surrounding area–see if you can spot all the references!  The art is simple but effective, and most of the jokes hit.  Uptown Girl tries to do her job as a reporter, Ruby Tuesday tries to do her job as an artist, and Rocketman tries very hard not to do his job as an office drone.

The last story in the volume is “Learning How to Smile” , which is a more somber piece that also provides the book title.  Ruby’s uncle has had a stroke, and struggles with the smallest things.   This reminds him and her of his mortality, and it’s time for Ruby Tuesday to inherit part of her legacy….

Recommended to small press comics fans, especially in Minnesota.

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