Beginning January 1, 2013

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Monday, July 30, 2012

Remember Me by F.J. Bergmann

Remember Me by F.J. Bergmann
Publisher: Musa Publishing
Genre: Scifi/Fantasy, Paranormal
Length: Short Story (13 pages)
Rating: 5 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

What the bottle from Aldebaran held was not wine, but the memories of his lost love.

Broken-hearted and alone, a retired Shakespearean actor sifts through the possessions of his dead love in a desperate attempt to keep his dreams of her alive. The discovery of a strange bottle containing the liquescent record of another human being—memories, feelings, experiences—gives Boris hope that another such bottle exists; one that contains the distilled essence of his lost Année. A desperate quest to posses her last thoughts will wrench him away from everything he has ever known to an alien world beyond the stars, where the human soul can be bottled, stored—and savored.

One of the most frustrating things about grieving the loss of a loved one is the finality of death. Over time I’ve forgotten small details about my deceased friends and family members- the sound of their laughter, for example, or what it felt like to slip into old conversational patterns with them. What if this didn’t have to occur, though? How would the act of grieving change if it was possible to bottle the essence of a human being and reawaken all of those seemingly inconsequential memories?

The nostalgia in Remember Me drapes over the narrative like a warm embrace. More than anything Boris wishes he could have more time with his Année. Boris’ sorrow is nuanced and at times comes out in surprising ways. I wasn’t expecting to sympathize with his experiences so deeply but this story followed the emotional roller coaster of grief so well that more than once I felt as if I was walking in Boris’ shadow.

In the beginning I wished readers could know more about what Boris and Année’s lives were like before her death. One scene made me wonder if Boris’s personality and habits changed dramatically after Année’s death. In a longer piece it would have made sense to explore this possibility in greater detail but perhaps a sequel will be written one day to explore Boris’s character in greater detail! The ending certainly lends itself to this possibility.

Remember Me is one of the most realistic snapshots of grief I have ever read. It’s a difficult experience to capture especially in the short story format but Ms. Bergmann did a beautiful job recreating the messy, sometimes complicated process of mourning.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Skinz by Michael Sutherland

Skinz by Michael Sutherland
Publisher: Musa Publishing
Genre: Scifi/Fantasy, Contemporary
Length: Short Story (17 pages)
Rating: 4.5 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Danger, Keep out, Rot-Riddled, Scab Inducing, Radon Poisoned, Festering, Aliens, Monsters, GM. You know what I mean. It's perfect.

The last extinction is here, man. And I’m it.

Only one side can win this war. For which one are you rooting?

I’ll warn you in advance - this isn’t the kind of narrative that spoon-feeds exposition to the reader. The bare bones of what is happening are revealed as needed but I had to pay close attention to figure out how certain scenes fit together. Once the loose ends do come together, though, what may have at first appeared to be throwaway bits of dialogue reveal their true meanings.

I finished the last page wishing I could know more about the characters. What I did learn about them was so intriguing that I still wonder about the rest of their backstories and how they developed into the men one glimpses in Skinz. This is definitely something that could be expanded into a novel or a series of short stories if Mr. Sutherland ever wanted to do so.

The only thing that kept this tale from getting five stars was its overuse of slang. I found some of the terms confusing at first and while I understand why Mr. Sutherland chose not to stop and explain what they meant as a reader it was distracting to puzzle certain words out while keeping up with a fast-paced, action-heavy plot. It’s not an issue if this sort of thing happens once or twice in a short story but when they become repetitive it distracts my attention from the plot.

Skinz is effortlessly creepy. It was only after I finished reading it and mulled over everything for a few days that the true horror of what happened fully sank in. I’d highly recommend this book to anyone who is in the mood to be deeply frightened.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Sky Dragons by Anne MacCaffery and Todd MacCaffery

Sky Dragons by Anne MacCaffrey and Todd MacCaffrey
Publisher: Random House
Genre: Fantasy
Length: 368 pages
Rating: 4 stars
Reviewer: Meadowsweet

From the New York Times bestselling mother-and-son team of Anne McCaffrey and Todd McCaffrey comes the final installment in the riveting Pern saga that began with Todd’s solo novel, Dragonsblood. Now, with all of Pern imperiled by the aftereffects of a plague that killed scores of dragons and left the planet helpless against the fall of deadly Thread, the only hope for the future lies in the past.

There, on an unexplored island, a group of dragonriders led by Xhinna, a brave young woman who rides the blue dragon Tazith, must battle lethal Merows and voracious tunnel-snakes to build a safe home for themselves and the dragons, whose offspring will one day—if they survive—replenish Pern’s decimated dragon population. But as the first female rider of a blue dragon, and the first female Weyrleader in the history of Pern, Xhinna faces an uphill battle in winning the respect and loyalty of her peers . . . especially after an unforeseen tragedy leaves the struggling colony reeling from a shattering loss.

Amid the grieving, one girl, Jirana, blessed—or cursed—with the ability to foresee potential futures, will help Xhinna find a way forward. The answer lies in time . . . or, rather, in timing it: the awesome ability of the dragons to travel through time itself. But that power comes with risks, and by venturing further into the past, Xhinna may be jeopardizing the very future she has sworn to save.

Sky Dragons is the latest installment in the Pern Series and the last book which will feel the touch of Anne MacCaffrey herself. It's thrilling as a reader and lover of the Pern series that this latest and last book by her is as wonderful and thrilling as the first. The Pern series does need to be read in order because there are elements, which are developed and explained in early books and may leave readers confused, if they're picking up Sky Dragons for the first time.

Sky Dragons revolves around the first female blue dragon rider and a small group of dragon riders and potential dragon riders who travel back in time with the hopes of breeding enough dragons to help repopulate the Weyrs in their own time. They establish Sky Weyr after an attack and some are stuck in a time drama which leaves the young blue rider Xhinna, as the oldest dragon rider in the group and therefore Weyrleader, the first female to ever take the position. She must see to the youngsters both human and dragon as she tries to save them from vicious predators. She becomes the leader of a wing of Queen dragons. Throw in some fancy flying and daring unprecedented ideas and you have a wonderful story that brings adventure, romance, danger, and drama all together in a smooth and delightful mix.

While I enjoyed this story it wasn't quite as enjoyable as some of her other works. There were a few areas of confusion where even I was wondering what was going on. They were quickly sorted out when it became apparent that as the dragons were moving back and forth through time so was the story and there were time leaps to allow maturing of the characters. Also a heads-up:  a lesbian relationship figures prominently in the story, so if that's something which offends you, you may choose not to read this book.

Overall, the book was well written, as delightful as the first in the Pern series and made me a bit melancholy because it will be the last of these special books from an amazing author. It's a book that has joined my collection and I encourage anyone to pick up and read Sky Dragons by Anne and Todd MacCaffrey.

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Boy Who Plaited Manes by Nancy Springer

The Boy Who Plaited Manes by Nancy Springer
Publisher: Untreed Reads Publishing
Genre: Fantasy
Length: Short Story (11 pages)
Rating: 4 stars
Reviewed by Lavender

When a young man mysteriously shows up in the stables of Lord Robley and demonstrates an amazing ability to braid horse manes and tails, the Lord and Lady are quite taken with his abilities and have him stay on. Sure, he doesn't speak a single word and there's truly something odd about him, but his talents at braiding are second to none. When the Lady finds herself in need of the man's skills for her own head of hair, the situation is looked upon as a bit scandalous, but nobody is prepared for the outcome that befalls them as a result.

A dark, little fairy tale, a story with a strange but likeable hero, The Boy Who Plaited Manes has a magical style to the way it’s told.

The setting seems to be Medieval, taking place in a stable and a manor house. The hero is of an indiscriminate age, but young. He doesn’t talk, doesn’t show expression, and doesn’t do much except his job. So what’s the deal with him? He has an unworldly talent to plait the manes of the horses under his care with a beauty that defies belief. The horses rest easy under his talented hands as he works his magic. The groom doesn’t like him. He doesn’t give him the pay owed him or even decent clothes for the winter, but the boy never complains. It’s assumed he’s mute. The groom’s continued bad feelings toward the boy create a sense of foreboding.

The young wife of the manor lord is bored. Her main purpose is to look beautiful. When her maid gets smallpox, the lady is unsatisfied with the way the other maids try to do her hair. So, she gets an idea. She has the talented stable boy work on her hair. Of course, he does a fantastic job, day after day, continuing with the task when the lady’s maid died of her disease.

Then, the story takes a surprising turn. The lady seduces the boy. He’s a good lover but then turns to her and says something shocking. Who even knew he could talk? But his words alarm the lady, coming from such a gentle person.

The whole while, this is all expressed with a beautiful writing style, just like the tales of old that flowed with a sense of underlying magic.  This story is so well written and otherworldly. Fans of a very fast, suspenseful read will enjoy this book.  I did.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Willy and the Ten Trillion Chimpanzees by Larry Hodges

Willy and the Ten Trillion Chimpanzees by Larry Hodges
Publisher: Musa Publishing
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Paranormal, Historical, Action/Adventure
Length: Short Story (10 pages)
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

What if William Shakespeare was a demon with ten trillion captive chimpanzees in his basement, where time is sped up a trillion-fold, and where they are forced to randomly type as they produce the works of Shakespeare? And then the chimpanzees rebel….

A rebellion is brewing. After many failed revolutions, William Shakespeare has long since stopped fearing the chimpanzees he’s enslaved. He knows all of their tricks and can quickly grind any insurrection to a halt. Or can he?

One of the first questions to pop into my mind as I began reading this story was, “how is he feeding all of these animals?” If you can accept magical answers to practical questions such as this one, you’ll quickly find yourself immersed in an otherworldly tale in which what’s happening now matters far more than how everything began.

There are a few cartoonishly violent scenes that, while they definitely serve to further the plot, may be disturbing for some readers. None of them are excessively gory, though, but they were necessary in order to establish certain aspects of William’s character.

It’s difficult to pack a lot of exposition into such a short story but this one would have been stronger if we had been given more insight into William’s motivation for imprisoning the chimpanzees and passing their work off as his own. As much as I anticipated hearing how it would all end I would have enjoyed it even more if I’d known why William made certain decisions and why his powers were nearly infinite in certain areas while in others he seems to have no more influence than would an ordinary human being.

Wouldn't a demon be able to do many of the things he bred and trained his chimpanzees to do? I didn't understand this part and while it was humorous to see primates writing some of the greatest stories in history I would have liked to see William’s reasoning for this explained a little better.

Even with these issues Willy and the Ten Trillion Chimpanzees is a delightful juxtaposition of horror and comedy. If you’re in the mood for a playful, dark look at how power can be abused and what happens when the downtrodden fight back this is definitely the book for you.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Legend of the Beemen by Brandie Tarvin

Legend of the Beemen by Brandie Tarvin
Publisher: Musa Publishing
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Action/Adventure
Length: Short Story (15 pages)
Rating: 5 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Running from your past never works, especially when it's hunting you down.

Former yellowjacket queen, Balsa, has taken refuge with her cousin Juniper after the destruction of her own home by the legendary beemen. When other yellowjacket cities disappear, Balsa must choose between her oath of secrecy and her duty to Juniper’s children. But the beemen have other plans, and Balsa’s choice is not among them.

How would you react if no one heeded to your warning? Balsa knows the beemen are coming again but cannot get anyone in the hive to listen to her.

As a child I spent many lazy summer afternoons observing ants, butterflies and other insects as they crawled around on the ground or zipped through the air. It never occurred me to wonder what they were thinking, though. Legend of the Beemen draws the reader into, what for many of us may be, unfamiliar territory with ease. No sooner does the plot begin than you’ll begin thinking like a bug. Fear, anger, panic and every other emotion are instantly identifiable by scent and the strict hierarchy of the hive is never to be upset.

The end was a little unusual but it was foreshadowed early on and fits in perfectly with the established tone. After reading it for a second time I cannot help but to agree that this book should not have ended any other way.

I did finish this story wishing we could know more about what happened earlier in the timeline. Ms. Tarvin gives the reader more than enough information to explain why Balsa fears the beemen so fiercely but Juniper’s resistance to this threat is never really explored. Is she too afraid to consider the possibility that her cousin is correct? Does she think the beemen’s destruction has been exaggerated? Hopefully these questions will be answered in a sequel one day as there is still material here that hasn’t been fully explored.

If you’re even the slightest bit interested in seeing the world looks from an insect’s point of view Legend of the Beemen is definitely the book for you. I know I will never look at insects the same way again.