SBR 2-for-1 Special: Mercedes Lackey’s Most Recent Herald Spy Novels

Mercedes Lackey has been reviewed many times here at SBR, and for good reason. Her books are the ultimate page-turners; some are better than others, but nearly all of them hold my interest until the final page.

Tonight it’s time to review BASTION, book five in Lackey’s Collegium Chronicles, and the follow-up to that, CLOSER TO HOME, billed as the first in her new Herald Spy series. Both feature Herald-trainee Mags, his love interest Amily (partially disabled — she has a lame leg — and daughter of the King’s Own Herald, Nikolas), and Companions galore, but both stories are markedly different otherwise.

Bastion coverBASTION starts off with Mags, Amily, their best friends Healer Bear and Bard Lena (recently married), Herald Jakyr and various Companions (bonded souls in the form of white horses) trying to figure out what is their next move. Everyone knows that Mags is in trouble (see the reviews for both CHANGES and REDOUBT if you don’t believe me), they know he’s being hunted…and they also know that if Mags himself is unavailable, the hunters will take revenge on his nearest and dearest.

So the decision is made that they will all go to ground in a place that’s easily defensible, or a bastion. Provisions are bought, traveling is done, a few minor skirmishes are encountered, and then, finally, we find out who’s hunting Mags and why.

(No, I’m not going to tell you. You have to read the book for that.)

Because I’ve read every book set on the world of Velgarth known to man, I’ve seen most of this before. The only new stuff here is the interplay between Mags and Amily — new lovers, just trying to find their footing with each other — and a rekindling of love between Herald Jakyr and another member of the party.

Mind, I enjoyed those things. I appreciated finding out, finally, about why Mags has been hunted. I also relished the journeys they had to get there, as there were some deft moments of humor that cut the tension nicely. And the fight scenes were clever, the mind-magic was well-done…all good.

But there was something here that didn’t quite meet my expectations, and I can’t quite put my finger on it. Perhaps it’s the fact that Ms. Lackey has written at least thirty novels in this particular setting — Velgarth — full of Heralds, Companions, derring-do, villainy that must be thwarted, and much more. And amid those thirty novels are some true gems, including her first-ever trilogy, ARROWS OF THE QUEEN, ARROW’S FLIGHT, and ARROW’S FALL.

I mean, this lady started off with a bang, OK? And over time, she’s had other winners like MAGIC’S PAWN and MAGIC’S PRICE, EXILE’S HONOR, BY THE SWORD, OATHBREAKERS…these are all compelling stories with richness, freshness, compassion, energy, and all of them make you want to read them and re-read them until your eyes get tired. Then re-read them again.

BASTION is not up to that standard, I’m afraid. It’s a decent, hard-working novel with a nice protagonist, a nifty heroine, and a better-than-average antagonist (whose relation to Mags must be read to be believed, but makes sense in context). It made me laugh several times, it made me cry at least once, and I enjoyed it…but I cannot imagine re-reading it.

CLOSER TO HOME is the first book in Lackey’s new Herald Spy series, featuring Mags, now a full Herald, and Amily, who’s still involved with him. Amily has a job of her own now — she’s a scholar, and a good one — and both Mags and Amily are stationed in Haven and are taking their first steps into adulthood, albeit under the guidance of Mags’ mentor and Amily’s father Nikolas, the King’s Own Herald.

Then tragedy strikes, as Nikolas is involved in an accident. The Death Bell rings for him, but Mags remembers some of his lessons from his friend Healer Bear (not otherwise invoked during this novel), and manages to re-start Nikolas’s heart…but before he can do that, Nikolas’s Companion has Chosen Amily to become the next King’s Own Herald. (Don’t worry, though; Nikolas is re-Chosen by a new Companion, Evory.)

All of a sudden, Amily must become the King’s Own. She’s a smart young woman, and took many of the same classes Mags did — including self-defense, equitation, mathematics, and more — but the King is not pleased that Nikolas is no longer the King’s Own. And that creates many new problems, some that are resolved easily…and some that aren’t.

This was a welcome addition to the Valdemar canon, and I appreciated it very much.

However, amid Amily and Mags getting more used to their new roles (hers being very new, while he’s more or less taken up his prior role in recruiting unlikely spies and messengers, albeit with less oversight as Nikolas is recovering from his near-death experience), there’s a blood feud going on between two noble families. And one of the families has a young girl, who’s fallen in love with a slightly older boy…shades of Romeo and Juliet, except of course it can’t be that easy. (Not that Romeo and Juliet had an easy resolution, either, but…as always, I digress.)

For the most part, I enjoyed CLOSER TO HOME quite a bit. It’s a nice start to a new series, a fast, page-turning read with some interesting things going on that I didn’t expect. I didn’t necessarily like all of them (that Romeo and Juliet subplot being a case in point), but I give Ms. Lackey big “props” for doing something new and fresh with her long-running Valdemar series.

Bottom line: While both BASTION and CLOSER TO HOME kept me turning the pages, I was left ever-so-slightly dissatisfied. And while CLOSER TO HOME was by far the better of the two books, it’s still not up there on the “Keeper” shelf with Lackey’s best.

Grades:

BASTION: C-plus

CLOSER TO HOME: B-plus

–reviewed by Barb

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E. Ayers’ “A Skeleton at her Door” — A Quick, Fun Halloween Read

Who’s up for a little Halloween-themed romance?

Tonight’s review is for E. Ayers‘ novella A Skeleton at her Door, an American contemporary romance featuring a winning heroine, Angie Robertson, and a likable hero, Tom Meyers. Both are divorced thirtysomethings, both are lonely, but because of some past relationship distress, they’ve become quite wary of romance.

A Skeleton at her Door opens with Angie literally opening the door to Tom in a skin-tight skeleton costume. Normally, Angie wouldn’t do this, but it’s Halloween, and she’s expecting her friend Matt, who lives two doors down, to come over in costume. So since the man’s build is close to Matt’s, and the height is close also — and because Angie cannot tell under the black and white makeup who is wearing that skin-tight costume — Angie mistakes Tom for Matt.

It takes Lissy, Angie’s young daughter, to point out that Matt has blue eyes, while the man in the skeleton costume at the door has brown ones. This causes Angie some embarrassment until she realizes that the man at the door (who she doesn’t yet know is Tom) is looking for Matt’s apartment, not hers.

So, of course, Angie sends the man on his way. And we’d not have a story, except that Tom sends Angie flowers the next day . . . plus Matt, of all people, vouches for Tom.

See, Tom is a good guy. He has two teenaged children, he works hard and has a nice house, and he normally doesn’t try this hard. But there’s something in Angie that calls to him, so he’s willing to perhaps make a fool out of himself to get to know her.

Also — and I’m not sure how he figured this out — he realizes very quickly indeed that Angie is gun-shy. Because of that, he’s careful in how he woos her, and makes sure to include her daughter at every turn.

All fine and dandy, yes?

But there’s more to this story than meets the eye. Angie, you see, is dealing with some serious relationship trauma — much more serious than we were initially led to believe — and has a hard time saying “no” to men. And Tom nearly oversteps his bounds four or five times, all to get Angie to react rather than simply withdraw into submission.

Note that the submission I’m discussing here has nothing to do with BDSM. (If it did, I’d not be reviewing it, methinks.) Instead, it’s all about this wounded woman, Angie, and how she has a hard time actually having conversations that include the words “no” or “not right now” with men. Even men she deeply cares about . . .

Perhaps especially the man she cares about most, Tom.

Of course, once she realizes she can trust Tom, how long do you think it’s going to take these two to make a commitment to one another? (Further reviewer sayeth not . . . at least, not about this.)

The biggest plus here is Ms. Ayers’ strong sense of craftsmanship. The set up of A Skeleton at her Door is masterful. We know right away there’s something lurking in Angie’s background that’s made her distrustful of men, but we also know that the skeleton (Tom) is going to be different…and not just because Angie cheerfully leered at him when she thought he was her neighbor, Matt (safely in a relationship with someone else).

However, the biggest minus is a lack of internal monologue, especially on the part of Angie. I would’ve liked a great deal more depth in two places in this novella, one right before Angie decides to sleep with Tom, and the other right before Angie decides to marry him. The second is a much bigger problem than the first, because I didn’t once get the sense that Angie had any trepidation about Tom at all once she’d slept with him (and confronted him, gently, over his four-five attempts at getting her to say “no” to him, sometimes about the most innocuous of things).

Mitigating this lack of internal monologue to a degree, though, was some very nice character development between Tom and Angie. Tom, you see, is into Angie in every way, even to the point where things she sees as flaws are seen as badges of honor by him. And because Tom sees Angie in this way, she can drop some of her body consciousness and just get down and dirty with him…especially as he’s made it clear that they will not have sex in front of any of their children before they are married. (Instead, they find somewhere else to have sex while making sure the kids are taken care of, a sensible and smart precaution.)

Bottom line: While I would’ve liked to see a bit less emphasis on the physical perfection of Tom (as that gets old, fast), I enjoyed A Skeleton at her Door quite a bit. It’s a quick, fun, Halloween-inspired read that any romantic will enjoy…and I look forward to reading more of Ms. Ayers’ work in the future.

Grade: B-plus.

Reviewed by Barb

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Empress Theresa — Norman Boutin’s Masterpiece (titles now laden with heavy sarcasm!)

(Warning: this review contains foul language and fouler grammar due to the reviewer’s rage and disgust. Reader discretion is advised and, quite frankly, is totally understandable if you want to get out now before the screaming and the bleeding from the eyes gets to be too much.)

Empress Theresa2Very rarely do I come across a book that literally stops me in my tracks and forces me to ask the age-old question, “What the unholy fuck?” Norman Boutin’s self-acclaimed literary classic Empress Theresa is just such a book.

From the very first page I knew that this book was going to be different. Hubris is not in the author’s vocabulary, and in the introduction alone he challenges you by saying that this is a book unlike you have ever read. All I can say to that is, “You aren’t kidding.” The introduction does give us some insight into the creative process of the author, however, and it’s a terrifying glimpse of an attempt at literature gone terribly awry.

My brain was slammed with a large, ice-cold bucket of “the fuck?” on page 1 of the book. Suggesting that Scout from Harper Lee’s classic To Kill A Mockingbird led a charmed life led me to believe that the author hadn’t even read it, simply skimmed through the cliff notes version you can pick up online, and forced me to question my own sanity when it came to requesting this book for review. I had to go back and check Wikipedia to ensure that yes, this is the book he’s talking about and no, I hadn’t forgotten the plot. I mean, holy shit man, did you actually grasp the context of the book or did you simply watch the (excellent, by the way) movie? Or are you getting this confused with John Grisham’s lame ripoff A Time To Kill? What are you doing to me, Norman Boutin? I want to know more about your character, damn it. And while the main character (Theresa Sullivan, TYVM) tells you that she has a story to tell, she really doesn’t seem to know how to tell it. So far, all you’ve covered on the first page is a screwed up comparison of a classic literary novel with a dash of fired buckshot across a brief family description! I’m not expecting the greatest opening in the history of mankind on a first-time author’s very first page, but I’d expect a little… something.

Nonetheless, I soldiered on. I chalked the first page up to new author jitters, and figured “Hey, maybe it’ll get better.”

Note: do not get your hopes up. I did, and all that precious hope was shattered and shat upon, spread across the ground and then piled haphazardly in the darkest, deepest corner of Hell.

Theresa talks about going to different places around the world in the past tense, as well as suggesting that Theresa may well indeed become something far greater than a boring little girl from Farmingham, Massachusetts. Her parents are wonderful and bland, and rely on a computer to babysit her when she plays outside while they are at work. Her parents have convinced her, at the age of 10, that she will avoid drugs and boys through her high school years. Yes, I know, I was shaking my head here too.

But her story begins with the sighting of a red fox. In broad daylight. Weird, since the only time a fox is out in broad daylight is because they’re rabid (ed. note: it was brought to my attention that foxes are out in the daylight when they don’t fear humans and live in parks and whatnot. Living on a farm, we shoot foxes because they are after our chickens, especially the potentially rabid ones out in daylight, so I’ll accept that foxes are sometimes seen in daylight. Regional bias on my part), but Theresa doesn’t fear this in any way and watches as the fox walks up her back porch, sits down and stares at her. Then suddenly, a bright ball of light leaps from the fox and slams into Theresa’s stomach. She screams and runs inside, locks the door and… calmly watches the fox disappear.

Okay, think about this for a moment. No 10 year old girl would be rational at this point, no matter how normal and boring they are. 10 year old boys and girls flip out over the weirdest stuff, and a glowing white ball leaping out of a fox and hitting you is pretty fucking weird. Hell, I’m the most rational person I know (I should get out more, I agree) and would have freaked out. Of course, I also probably would have grabbed the .22 and disposed of the fox because I don’t need rabid animals on the farm.

But I digress. This is starting to make my head hurt, and I really wish I had more booze on hand.

I really can’t get over how poorly the first two pages are written, by the way. It takes real effort to be this bad and, for a moment, I had a sneaking suspicion that the author was trolling everyone who had read the book. I looked him up and, well, he’s a real author and takes himself very, very seriously.

He is not going to like this review, I can guarantee that much.

So anyways, back to the story. Theresa admits that she’s worried about her weight (her mother says she’s too skinny, so this is the first time that the character has been portrayed in any semblance of “realistic”). Thinking she was hallucinating due to lack of food, she goes into the kitchen and makes fried eggs, bacon, toast and milk…

…and then a bunch of firetrucks appear.

No scene buildup, no suspense, just BOOM! and let’s keep moving. This could have been executed very well if the author had any talent at making the reader give a shit about Theresa. Even though it’s early in the book, this is reminding me of a book I read once called The All-American by John R. Tunis. But, you know, without the talent. Or skill. Or character development. Or a plot.

I’ve spent just about 900 words talking about the horrors on the first THREE pages and I’m starting to wonder if this is turning into a slam piece. I mean, I want to be professional about this review, but when I’ve wasted hours of my life reading this book (and never getting them back, I’ll add) I get really irritated.

Okay, so it suddenly got very warm in the middle of a summer day (she’s not in school, parents are at work, she has an idyllic lifestyle… I’m assuming this is the middle of summer here) and someone called the fire department to report a fire. I… come on Norman, what the hell? I can’t even lose myself in this book because you keep yanking my suspension of disbelief right out of the book with inconsistencies. You’re trying to make this sound like present-day, but it sounds more like Andy Griffith. I… I just…

Damn it, this review is never going to get finished. I can’t even talk about the basic plot of the first chapter without losing my shit.

Okay, I’m skipping ahead, because basically the next few chapters are Theresa becoming inhabited by an alien AI, meeting kindly Federal Agents who do not whisk her away to Area 51 to cut open her brain, and her becoming super smart and being able to throw a baseball very hard (this girl is a cheater, by the way, for using an alien intelligence to make her a better athlete than everyone else around her but hey, morals don’t matter when you’re Empress motherfucking THERESA). It’s strange, because the author even managed to make all of this completely boring. This could have been a great bit about her wrestling with the sudden expansion of her mind and awareness, discovery of hypersensitivity and perfect memory retention, or even simply watching a 10 year old outwit and outduel a grown woman (things that kids actually will enjoy reading about). Instead, the author falls flat again and deprives the reader of some quality character development.

I really can’t describe how horrid this is. Putrid, fetid stink emanating from an old urinal cake that was forced through a septic system is the closest thing I can think of, and the argument could be made that I was insulting the urinal cake. By the way, if someone sends me something like this again, I will find you, and I will do things to you that would make even Liam Neeson shudder in horror.

Now, one thing the author does well (yes, a compliment) is show the various interaction between the Canadian and British governments. Of course, the immediate question which came to mind is why the US government is completely ignoring the girl after discovering that she is interacting with an alien machine. Unfortunately, by this time the author has flayed the reader’s mind with numbing agents called “words” in a vast attempt to write a literary masterpiece that falls somewhat short of Atlanta Nights. I still can’t shake the feeling that I’m being catfished by the author the further I go. It’s like I’m Alice, he’s the White Rabbit and we did some horrible peyote before falling into the well from The Ring (complete with creepy murderous girl).

Theresa promised to save the world for Prime Minster Tony Blair but unfortunately she is unable to crack the alien code of HAL (what she calls the alien machine inside her). While the pace is moving along, I just can’t seem to garner up the energy to give a damn about Theresa or her new husband Steve. I’ve never seen an author go out of their way before to make a main character so bland and boring, and kill any attempt that the reader may make to engage her. She’s a Mary Sue, half-assed fantasy of a man who doesn’t grasp the concept that characters need to do more than walk through the pages of a book. She’s trying to save the world, and all I can think at this point is that I’m not even halfway through the book and I want to end the pain.

But I can’t stop reading, because my seemingly endless suffering is for your amusement. Yes, dear readers, I love you that much.

You all owe me. You owe me big.

The world begins to die for inexplicable reasons, droughts reign, and crops wither and die, all the while the world sits back on its ass and waits for an 18 year old girl to save it. The science in the book started to drive me crazy. Bad science, horrible science, and not even explained rationally enough to make a YA reader (because really, that’s the target audience here) to say “Okay, cool” and continue on with the story. Really, I went back and read that bit three times trying to figure it out. I mean, maybe kids would skimp over it and cut him some slack (because YA readers are a forgiving bunch; look at how well they adapted to Catching Fire after The Hunger Games came out! #/sarcasm).

This book review is starting to make me sick. I’m getting a stiff drink to see if I can finish this up without losing my sanity. I’m changing the author’s name, by the way. No more shall he be called “Norman Boutin”. No, Norman shall henceforth be known as “The Black Goat of the Woods, Shub-Niggurath, Devourer of Souls, Eater of Sanity, Beholden of Chtulhu and Smiter of the Righteous.” Seriously, our hero and savior changed the poles in the book so that everyone can have summer all year long! That’s great for people in England. Sucks to be in the southern hemisphere but hey, fuck those guys, amiright? I think that the author should have gone into the Dark Arts. They’d love to learn just how well he can cause suffering at levels they had only previously masturbated to. H. P. Lovecraft couldn’t even imagine the horrors held in these pages. This book breaks the confines of a pandemic outbreak, requiring handling in full CDC garb, and should be called “Litbola” (courtesy of a Twitter follower, @zeewulfeh)

Much of what the author shows throughout seems to have been made up on the fly, including (and not limited to) the military, the government, how things work, nature, aliens, terrorists, OPEC, treaties, gravity, physics, water…

*long suffering sigh*

Look… this is, quite frankly, one of the worst pieces of published fiction I have ever laid eyes upon. For some reason, the author thought that he could project his world domination fantasies onto a populace in the form of a young girl, fixing all of the worlds problems without considering that the basis of human nature is to fight against being controlled. This is not a book for kids (unless you want them to hate reading), and I wouldn’t even say this is for adults (adults, hopefully, know when a book is so bad that nothing can save it). This is nothing more than idiopathic projection in literary form.

I know you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, or by merely one book review, but for the love of your unborn children, run away. Run as far and as fast as you can. Do not look back. This is your Sodom and Gomorrah, kiddies. Don’t look back or a pillar of salt you shall become. Don’t waste your money, time, or sanity trying to make it through this book. Don’t even try to start it. Don’t force yourself to get to chapter three. Don’t swallow the arsenic and push to the end. The payoff isn’t worth it (since there isn’t really any payoff) and you’ll hate yourself for it afterwards. I suffered through this so you would not have to.

Don’t make my suffering be in vain.

Grade– *is “Ebola” a low enough grade? Did I go too far? Did I go far enough?

-Reviewed by Jason (May God have mercy on his soul)

 

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Michael Z. Williamson’s “Freehold” — The Story that Started it All…

Long-time readers of Shiny Book Review are most likely aware of Michael Z. Williamson’s Freehold series, particularly because of Jason’s reviews of ROGUEDO UNTO OTHERS and WHEN DIPLOMACY FAILS. But what about the novel that actually started this whole series in the first place, FREEHOLD? The one that’s spawned several sequels and prequels and has been wildly popular has never been reviewed at SBR . . .

Until now.

You might be asking, “So, Barb. Why are you reviewing this instead of Jason?”

Well, it’s simple. I asked Jason if I could do it. He said, “Sure. Why not?” So here we are.

 FREEHOLD is the story of Sergeant Kendra Pacelli, an honest soldier in the armed forces of the United Nations. But her higher-ups have implicated her in an embezzlement scheme, and it doesn’t seem like she’ll be able to prove her innocence to anyone.

As Kendra is no fool, she quickly decides that she’s not going to stick around to be framed for anything. After a few harrowing adventures, she decides to flee to the only place that doesn’t have an extradition treaty with the UN — the Freehold of Grainne. And the way she gets the Freeholders’ attention is by forcing her way into their Embassy on Earth to ask for asylum.

Fortunately for her, the Freeholders appreciate good soldiers and decide to grant her request. But the Freehold of Grainne is much different from Earth, Kendra is warned; for one, she will have to start off life in the Freehold as an indentured servant of sorts as the Freehold does not grant free passage even to political refugees. (Perhaps especially not to political refugees.)

Over time, Kendra gets slowly acclimated to the Freehold and its culture. She pays off her debt and meets two interesting people, Rob McKay, a pilot and reserve officer in the Freehold Military Forces, and Marta Hernandez, a high-end escort (a respectable profession, in the Freehold) and also a reserve soldier, and forms a tripartite relationship with the pair of them. And eventually, she, too, becomes a soldier for the FMF . . . just in time for the war with Earth to break out.

Because of course there has to be a war with Earth, doesn’t there? Earth’s society, in Williamson’s conception, has gone so far toward socialism and its society overall has become so debased and corrupt that a war with the Freeholders — capitalists who believe in an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay and nothing else — must be inevitable.

Williamson skillfully renders all of the military planning that’s going on in the FMF to try to avoid the worst of it, then when those actions fail, the actions of the individual soldiers in the FMF to rally the countryside and fight an insurgency against the UN.

And Kendra, as an honest soldier for the FMF, is in the thick of the fighting every step of the way. Because she is in a unique position, the reader gets to see many different sides of this conflict. As an immigrant, she loves the Freehold and doesn’t want to give it up, but knows that there are many good soldiers fighting on behalf of the UN despite the stupidity and moral vapidity of the UN’s titular leadership (she should; she used to be one of them). But some of what she does while fighting for the FMF during the insurgency is deeply disturbing, including psychological warfare and worst of all, torture.

Kendra doesn’t like doing this, mind. It appalls her. But the Freehold has been invaded, and she has to do her part to throw the invaders — the UN — back out again. So she’ll do anything it takes, anything at all, to get rid of them.

I’ve deliberately skipped over much of the plot, partly because I don’t want to spoil anyone’s reading pleasure, partly because I’d rather talk about something else. Namely, the structure of this novel.

Most debut novels are not as well-structured as FREEHOLD. Everything Williamson does at the beginning is mirrored at the end, and there are references throughout that seem like throwaway lines that will reward the patient reader down the line.

That said, I also have one main criticism of FREEHOLD. I didn’t see anywhere near enough internal monologue from Kendra. Most of the time, I had no idea what she was feeling until I’d read the whole section, gone back to read it again several times, and then grasped that Williamson was showing Kendra’s reactions through other people (usually Rob or Marta). I’d much rather have seen a 60/40 mix of internal monologue/showing reactions through others as it would’ve strengthened the overall emotional impact.

Bottom line: FREEHOLD’s military action and “fish out of water” storyline with Kendra acclimatizing to the very different society of Grainne was enjoyable, and I appreciated the strength of Williamson’s world building and how he structured his novel. But I wanted much more of an emotional reaction from Kendra, and didn’t get it.

Grade: A-minus.

–reviewed by Barb

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SBR 2-for-1 Special: “Digital Disconnect” and “The Word Exchange”

Today’s 2-for-1 special features two books that discuss the future of the Internet in two different ways. One, THE WORD EXCHANGE by Alena Graedon, is fiction; the other, DIGITAL DISCONNECT: HOW CAPITALISM IS TURNING THE INTERNET AGAINST DEMOCRACY by Robert W. McChesney is non-fiction. But both cover many of the same themes, and discuss many of the same problems.

In a nutshell, both books warn of the problems of too much information going to the wrong people. Whether it’s words or ideas or political campaigns, the fact remains that when privately held corporations know too much about us — whether it’s Graedon’s mega-corporation Synchronic, or McChesney’s take on Google, Microsoft, Apple, and Facebook (to name only a few) — our choices get taken away. And life as we know it gets that much more difficult.

We begin with McChesney’s DIGITAL DISCONNECT, which is a frightening, yet plausible tale about what could be the future of the Internet. McChesney starts out with a brief history of the Internet, including the halcyon days of the 1980s and 1990s, where users could do anything online and not be tracked by mega-corporations like Google, Facebook, etc. The people who came of age back then believed that the Internet could be the dawning of the Age of Aquarius (OK, I’m misquoting, but it’s apt); the Internet was supposed to be an open-sourced forum that was free from corporate misrule. And knowledge was supposed to be paramount, so everyone could educate themselves as they saw fit.

But that idyllic vision turned into the rough-and-tumble 2000s and beyond. Corporations like Google and Facebook, which were unknown in the 1980s and 1990s (or much lesser presences, at best), started to collect all sorts of data on the people who used their services — without oversight of any sort. And while they said they were not putting people’s names with all this data collection, after a while it gets fairly easy to match names with data.

Then, couple all of that knowledge with the fact that it’s now legal in the United States and much of the civilized world for companies to watch what you’re doing online. So if you go to, say, the New York Times, there are many companies that are observing what articles you click on and are trying to figure out why you wanted to read those particular articles rather than, say, the newest stuff about Kim Kardashian West.

That means the range of information that’s available, over time, is harder to come by. Advertisers have started steering people to content, more so than ever before, and due to the collapse of journalism in the United States, it gets harder and harder to sort the wheat from the chaff — the truth from the falsehood, as it were — while many Americans don’t seem to realize just how much information these monolithic corporations actually have.

Granted, McChesney’s take has been described as liberal, even partisan, but I don’t necessarily see it that way. McChesney discusses many things from the perspective of freedom of information — and the freedom of a person to hold his or her own information without the “help” of various corporations.

The final part of McChesney’s narrative discusses what could happen when the next “smart devices” come onto the market. For example, a “smart” refrigerator can tell you when you need to buy some milk, which seems innocuous enough. But it also tells whoever and whatever is gathering that data that you like milk, which means corporations can send you more milk coupons (harmless), send you more advertising with milk in it (less so), or even start telling you about how you’re not a child, so you shouldn’t really drink cow’s milk any more and should drink the super-expensive coconut milk (which is flat-out wrong).

And that’s not all. Because your “smart” refrigerator’s contents would no longer be your own private affair. The fact that you like chocolate mousse at three a.m. would not be a surprise to anyone (possibly harmless); the fact that you have a sweet tooth might actually cause your health insurance premiums to go up (detrimental and flat-out wrong).

You see, who controls the information when everything is available online? And where is the oversight?

McChesney is right when he says this is deeply worrisome. And he’s also right that if the flow of information can be disrupted entirely — whether it’s by Verizon, Comcast, Sprint, or any of the other telecommunications giants — we’ll have a less informed populace, which leads to a less informed democracy almost by definition.

DIGITAL DISCONNECT is a spirited, entertaining, educational book that everyone should read. There are parts of it you will not agree with, even if you are an ardent liberal; there are parts of it you will absolutely agree with, even if you are an ardent conservative. And that’s because the issue of who controls the flow of information is the most important debate we’re not having.

Now, why do I think THE WORD EXCHANGE, Graedon’s fictional tale of word flu and Memes (souped-up smartphones with seemingly all-encompassing power), has anything to do with DIGITAL DISCONNECT? It’s simple: here, we have a tale of technology that has gone way too far and has fulfilled McChesney’s dystopian vision of the future.

In Graedon’s conception, very few people actually read any more. They instead use Memes, and will look up any word they’re not familiar with. While this seems benign, what would happen if one corporation, Synchronic, decided to put nonsense words into people’s Meme feeds and charge money for looking up the meanings? Because people apparently don’t have any memory any longer, apart from these Memes . . . they can’t remember the definitions of hardly anything.

Synchronic starts their reign of terror slowly, by first changing the meanings of well-known words to see if they can get away with it. (We know this mostly because of subtext, but it’s there.) When they realize no one except a bare, literate few have twigged to this, they start adding more and more nonsense words to the lexicon in order to get the fee every time users look up these nonsensical words.

But their actions backfire spectacularly, causing the word flu — aphasia mixed with a physical virus. Very few have any immunity to this excepting academics who read more than one language or people who write e-mails or journals or actual books, which means the word flu is immediately devastating to the world economy.

While I didn’t totally buy the idea that aphasia can also transmit as a harmful virus, I liked Graedon’s conception quite a bit. Her take on power and who controls it is frightening. Synchronic, through their ever-present Meme devices, knows everything there is to know about everyone with the exception of people trying to stay off the grid. And those are vanishingly rare in Graedon’s version of the near-future, because everyone wants to be connected to the Internet via the Memes, and almost no one recognizes the dangers of this.

Ultimately, Graedon’s world fights back against the word flu, Synchronic is vastly reduced, and people realize the dangers of the Memes. But it takes a long time to get there, and I never once believed in any of the characters, only in what they were doing. (Don’t get me started on “heroine” Anana, a woman I considered far too dumb to live, or we’ll be here all night. And why Bart, an academician with a formidable intellect, would ever like Anana was completely off-putting.)

Bottom line: DIGITAL DISCONNECT and THE WORD EXCHANGE have many of the same themes. But one thing is clear: Whoever and whatever controls the medium controls the message, and both authors have clearly understood the costs of that in their disparate ways.

Grades:

DIGITAL DISCONNECT: A-plus.

THE WORD EXCHANGE: B

–reviewed by Barb

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Romance Saturday Returns with Sherry Thomas’s “The Bride of Larkspear”

It’s Romance Saturday at Shiny Book Review, so you all know what that means…it’s time for a new review, this time of Sherry Thomas’s erotic novella The Bride of Larkspear. This is written for adult readers, and is a bit sexier than I usually read, but I was willing to take a chance due to liking all of Thomas’s other work. It’s also a companion piece to Thomas’s TEMPTING THE BRIDE (reviewed here), and as such, many of the same plot elements exist in both stories.

The Bride of LarkspearBecause it is a companion piece, The Bride of Larkspear has to be discussed in the context of TEMPTING THE BRIDE. The hero of TEMPTING, David Hillsborough, Viscount Hastings, has loved publisher Helena Fitzhugh for a long time. But it’s an unrequited love, mostly because David’s one of those guys who just doesn’t seem to know how to approach a woman, much less the woman he’s loved his entire life. So instead of being kind to her, asking about her interests, her inner feelings, or even trying to go out with her, he insults her. Repeatedly.

Mind, Helena is not a shrinking violet living a blameless life. Instead, she’s been seeing a married man and insists that no one else will do. Even if David were different and knew how to properly approach her, it’s likely he still wouldn’t be heard. That’s fueled his bitterness.

You have to know all that before the plot of The Bride of Larkspear makes any sense, as this is a book David wrote (sub rosa) to express his feelings for Helena on the night of their future wedding. Because of all his pent-up rage and frustration (in all senses), David’s titular hero Lord Larkspear starts the novella by tying up his new bride and insisting on her submission. He doesn’t say he loves her; he just says he desires her, and that he’ll make her submit…or else.

This was not an appealing beginning.

So why did I go on? Two reasons. One, I have liked everything Sherry Thomas has written. And two, I knew that David (AKA Lord Larkspear) truly loved Helena in this fantasy of his. Or I’d have stopped reading right away.

But I’m glad I didn’t.

Larkspear, you see, is a closet romantic. He’s a well-intentioned guy with a good heart, and he desperately desires a woman who has no interest in him. Yet if she could see him for who he was, he’s sure they could build a life together. (Of course, this being an erotic novella, he’s also sure that he can satisfy her like no one else. That’s part of the price of admission.)

He’s right that he’s a better fit for “Lady Larkspear” (AKA Helena) than anyone else. He’s also right that if she just got to know him without all the pre-conceived notions he’s set into motion (all those stupid things he said), she would like him.

In that context, the erotic content amounts to window dressing.

That said, this is written from a man’s perspective. He’s a generous lover, yes, and he wants to please his partner. But at the beginning, he’s talking about what he wants — not what he wants to do with or for her. And he’s doing that to provoke some sort of reaction from her, even if it’s just revulsion.**

This means the way he approaches sex is much more direct than you often see in romances — erotic or otherwise — that are written for the female audience. It also means that some of the sexual fantasies he’s having (as this is all one sexual fantasy, in essence) are not particularly realistic.

However, it does make sense in the context of “Larkspear’s” time that he’d have exactly these types of fantasies, plausible or no. (See FANNY HILL if you don’t believe me.)

If you’ll forgive one spoiler — one of the reasons I was able to appreciate The Bride of Larkspear is because Lady Larkspear ultimately says that Lord Larkspear also must submit to her. And within the context of a marriage, I have no issues with that, even if the way toward this mutual submission isn’t exactly to my taste.

Bottom line: I enjoyed the romance but I did not think some of the sexual situations were realistic. That said, it’s a nice companion piece to TEMPTING THE BRIDE, and I’m willing to recommend it to readers of adult/erotic e-books.

Grade: B-plus.

–reviewed by Barb

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Note: I’m dancing around exactly what he says and does mostly because I know we have pre-teen readers. I know when I was that age, I could handle the idea of sex, I understood there were many ways to please someone else (as I’d taken sex education), but it was ultimately embarrassing and somewhat distasteful to think about at the time. (Now, not so much.)

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First Strike — Good Story, but A Little Plain

First StrikeChristopher G. Nuttall has a fan in me, I’ll have to admit. After devouring his Ark Royal series (which was an homage to both Battlestar Galactica and David Weber’s Honor Harrington), he’s climbed into the “probably going to buy” ranks of writers I enjoy and will gladly spend money on. So I didn’t even hesitate when his publisher sent us First Strike, the first book in a brand new series.

From the very beginning of the book, humanity faces a crisis unlike one that has ever been seen. An alien has invited the major leaders of the world to a summit to assist them — and warn them that the barbarians are at the gate, and humans have very little time to prepare. Then Mentor disappears, and the book fast forwards to 15 years later, when a new member of Mentor’s species arrives to warn humans that a grave threat has emerged — the same one which Mentor warned them about years before. The Funks, as humans have taken to calling the neighborhood bullies on the intergalactic scene, have already conquered one human colony world (through nefarious legal means, proving that everybody in the universe is cursed with lawyers) and are quickly moving to take the rest of Earth’s space in the same manner. In order to prevent Earth from falling under the “benign” rule of oppressive aliens, the Federation decides that a first strike is necessary to warn the Funks that Humans will not go quietly into the night.

Enlisting the aid of billionaire merchant and former Navy Captain Joshua Wachter to harass the Funks trading lines in the rear (which, given the vastness of space, is something that the author never talks about how they triangulated such a thing in the first place, much to this reviewer’s annoyance), Admiral Tobias Sampson has come up with the plan that with either protect humanity for all time — or be its untimely doom.

Nuttall’s writing is clear and concise, staying away from the common every day tropes that usually litter the pages of new military science fiction. Minus a few name drops of Star Trek characters throughout (Beverly Troy was humorous, but I’m that kind of nerd…), that is. The action is well-timed and hard-hitting, and there is just enough boom to make me happy without turning it into a Michael Bay movie. He does his aliens well, creating one character (Lady Dalsha, a Funk) whose evolution on-page from enemy to villain is worth noting. The plot is well done, though the subplots could have been fleshed out a little more, but it did not leave me wanting. Some characters were done very well, while others were there and then simply gone, leaving no hole from their disappearance from the pages. All of these problems, however, are very minor ones, and really not worth the energy to worry about.

The problem worth worrying about with this book (and truthfully, the series as a whole moving forward) is, quite frankly, plain. It’s vanilla SF (which I can enjoy, if done properly). Everything in the book goes humanity’s way, save for one little hiccup. While I’m all for the nerdy kid punching the schoolyard bully in the mouth and standing up to him, I still want there to be some drama. That element is missing from the book, the uncertainty of what is to come, and the actual feeling of humanity’s desperation is not felt. Indeed, I continued to get the sense of Imperial British “Oh dear, old boy… we might just die. Hand me another crumpet, will you?” Regulars who were stuck in a air-conditioned office battling paperwork instead of a “do or die” scenario. It lacked a sense of urgency, in other words.

All in all, I enjoyed it. A little too plain, but I have high hopes for the rest of this series moving onward. Definitely would recommend.

–Reviewed by Jason

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