The Imaginary Realms of
Gilbert M. Stack



Hi! And thanks for continuing to hang out in my imagination. This page is a diverse collection of reviews. If you like them, you can find many more organized by genre through the "Reviews" heading above. Take a moment to look around. I hope you enjoy your visit.

What Have I Read Recently?

Here's a smattering of what I've read or watched in the past few weeks. If you'd like to recommend a book for review, please leave your suggestion in the Guestbook.

Dads vs. Zombies by Benjamin Wallace

I really like the zombie apocalypse subgenre. I read the spectrum of them from the very serious to the spoofs and from the science-based virus-style infection to the supernatural cause. So it is with some authority that I state that this was one of the best zombie apocalypse novels I have ever read. It has a solid plot that would fit in nicely with any book in the genre (three men trying to reunite with their families as the world falls apart around them) but it’s the extraordinary level of humor that lifts this book to the top of the ladder.

The novel opens with our three dads (John, Chris and Erik) at the bowling alley where they have been forced to join a league by the much-hated president of their Home Owners Association. The three men don’t appear to like each other very much and it’s fairly clear that at least one of them (John) probably isn’t liked by much of anyone. The laughs start early in the chapter and continue to the end of the book. The banter between these three men is superb as Wallace draws out each man’s very distinctive character. Forced to walk home because they’ve been drinking, the zombie apocalypse comes to unlife around them and they don’t notice. By morning, the world has gone to hell and our three dads are trying to figure out how to find their families and reconnect with them.

Then the mistakes begin. In many of these novels the heroes are super smart and physically capable. They kill zombies better than Rambo. That does not describe our dads. John, especially, has an almost superhuman ability to do something stupid. And these blunders both add to the tension and create extraordinarily funny situations. Laugh out loud funny. Grab your sides funny. Rip yourself a new hernia funny. Get your eighteen-year-old son to start listening to the book with you funny. It’s that good.

It also took me in directions I didn’t expect several times. Part of this is because John continually does such comically stupid things. But many are also just good plot twists. I was sorry when the book came to an end because I just wasn’t done listening to it yet. Fortunately, I see on Audible that Dads vs. the World is coming so the humor will continue.

I received this book free from Audiobook Boom in exchange for an honest review.

Poseidon’s Children by Michael West

This excellent novel by Michael West strikes me as a reinterpretation of Lovecraft’s classic Dunwich Horror with a little legacy of Atlantis thrown in for good measure. The first portion of the book is a half-mystery as West introduces a cast loosely connected by their ties to organized-crime boss, Roger Hays. As the remains of Atlantis are discovered in the Atlantic Ocean, half-man/half-fish creatures begin to haunt the waters off the small east coast tourist trap of Colonial Bay. The reader knows there are monsters, but the characters in the novel do not. That’s why I refer to the plot as a “half-mystery”—the reader knows a lot of what is going on and watches as the various protagonists start to uncover the horrifying truth. By the end of the first part of the novel, the whole cast is converging on Colonial Bay for a variety of reasons. They are about to discover a more literal definition of the term “tourist trap” than the one we generally mean.

The second and third parts of Poseidon’s Children watches the various protagonists from Part I arrive at Colonial Bay and learn there are a nightmare’s worth of mythical creatures hidden under the surface. The tension just keeps ratcheting higher with each successive chapter. There’s a lot of good action here, but I found the politics within the community of “monsters” even more fascinating. On the one hand, we find the fanatics who are ready to announce their presence to the world by eating a lot of people. On the other hand, you have more pragmatic creatures who recognize that the humans who defeated them millennia ago are now far more numerous and have much deadlier weapons. Yet recognizing that this nest of creatures probably doesn’t spell the end of humanity all by itself doesn’t make the danger to the humans in the area any less severe. People die in this series and West keeps you guessing as to who will die next.

I enjoyed two of the organized crime-types (Horror Show and Roger Hays) more than the technical good guys in the story. I think that’s because when you’re dealing with human-eating monsters, people who are tough enough to fight back look good no matter what their other drawbacks. I enjoyed the fight scenes and the conclusion of the story quite a bit, but it’s the epilogue that truly got me excited for the sequel. I’m definitely planning to read West’s next book.

Wilders by Cass Kim

With the flood of “zombie apocalypse” style novels saturating the market these days, it is refreshing to find a new take on the old theme. Cass Kim’s book stands out from the pack for two main reasons. First, her equivalent of the zombies (and for the record, her story does not have zombies but the far more creative “wilders”) have not yet completely destroyed civilization. Humanity (at least in the United States) has adapted to what keeps getting referred to as the “half-pocalypse”. Life is not easy in the new normal, but it is livable. This provides a quite different story environment than the typical tale and that was very refreshing.

The second reason Kim’s book leads the pack of this subgenre is that it is not about simple survival but something much more important in the grand scheme of things. (It’s difficult to write about this without giving away an important plot twist.) There is plenty of action in the book, but larger issues than personal survival are dealt with on a very intimate level that really struck home with me.

So those are the big issues that can be summed up as Wilders has a unique flavor for this subgenre, but by themselves they would only have made this an interesting book—not a great one. Fortunately, Kim populates her world with a believable cast of teenagers who are trying to thrive in the half-pocalypse. It’s a difficult balance which Kim handles with a master touch dealing with the basic immaturity of young people when the consequences of teenaged rebellion can include being eaten alive by wilders. Add to that parents who are emotionally damaged by the civilization-threatening events and Kim has created a social environment that quickly builds sympathy for her cast and adds quite a bit of tension to the story.

Finally, every novel can benefit from superb narration and Liz Brand certainly does her part to bring this book to life—especially excelling at young, easily differentiated, voices.

I received this book from Audiobook Boom in exchange for an honest review.

Test of Fire by William L. Hahn

In Test of Fire, William L. Hahn proves that great writers do not need to have their heroes save the planet to construct a gripping tale. What it takes is fascinating, well-developed characters willing to risk everything they have for a cause they believe in. That’s the situation that Querlack finds himself in. He’s a retired adventurer who has invested his loot from his wilder days in a foef—a bit of mostly swampy land that doesn’t appear to have much of a future. A poor investment by any contemporary standard, made more so by Querlack’s determination to better the land for the sake of his peasants, not to milk it for every coin he can extract from it.

His neighbor, Sir Cran-Kalrith Pritaelseran is a hard elf with a rigid sense of honor that basically comes down to the following—everyone exists to better him. He finds his new neighbor offensive and decides to continue a centuries old conflict and attempt to expand his own borders—a strategy he has used successfully on other neighbors. It’s a serious threat, but not the only one Querlack faces as he learns more and more about his new home.

This is a great book—made all the better by its primary focus on a relatively small territory. Hahn has always been capable of “painting” the master strokes of epic conflict—demons threatening his Lands of Hope. Now he proves he can be just as effective in small scale adventures and in doing so makes us cherish his characters all the more.

The Singularity Trap by Dennis E. Taylor

This is a remarkable novel with a strange twist on first contact. The aliens arrived well before humanity existed, prepared a “gift” (the Singularity Trap of the title), and left again. The story picks up with the human mining crew who are going to discover the aliens’ parting present.

This is where the story moves into high gear and gets incredibly interesting. The alien gift begins to transform one of the mining crew members and threatens his ability to control his own mind and body. This naturally scares the authorities of his nation and heightens the tensions in a futuristic cold war. There are issues of strategic defense, human rights, and mob mentality to deal with. At the same time there is an extraordinary mystery to be uncovered—what are the aliens, what do they want, and why are messing with our hero’s body?

As we move toward the finale of the novel, our hero must carefully outthink just about every side in the book as he struggles to find a path through the complex future maze that leads to the survival of humanity. This is a thoroughly enjoyable, thought provoking, science fiction novel that took me in directions I never expected to go.

Wolf Hunt 2 by Jeff Strand

If you enjoyed Wolf Hunt you’re going to love Wolf Hunt 2. George and Lou are back and funnier than ever. They’re on the run after their problems in the first book but quickly get roped into helping Mr. Dewey capture another werewolf. They are made an offer they truly can’t refuse and that’s important because the werewolf is a fourteen-year-old girl and it’s only the threat of being burned to death that makes George and Lou violate their personal code against harming children. They justify it to themselves by promising that they will rescue the girl after she bites Dewey and turns him into a werewolf, but you can feel how much it bothers them that they are going after a child.

To make matters worse, everything goes wrong from the very beginning. The various criminal groups involved in the plot are nominally working together but act at cross purposes. George and Lou are trying to protect the girl (who understandably hates them) while keeping themselves alive. And in the background three very angry werewolves are getting closer and closer to making their own rescue attempt with a heap of vengeance against George and Lou thrown in for good measure.

These werewolves are one of many critical elements in the story. Will they be heroes, antiheroes, or outright villains? All the possibilities are open and Strand does a great job of crafting them into excellent three-dimensional antagonists. He also does some superb character development with George and Lou and the two new characters of interest, Eugene and the kidnapped girl. There’s a lot to love here and at times their struggles choked me up with emotion, just as their squabbles often doubled me over with laughter.

All of that beings said, I think it’s the surprises that solidified this book as a five-star experience. There were five or six times in the story where I thought—oh, that’s clever, I can see where this is going. Each of those times I was one hundred percent wrong and usually because Strand was even more creative that I had imagined. I admit that there were a couple of times when I wish I had been right—but that’s for emotional reasons—not because my idea would have made the novel better. This is simply an impressive book all around.

As was the case in the original Wolf Hunt, narrator Scott Thomas does an extraordinary job of capturing the humor and the pain in this story with his excellent characterizations. There is a lot more emotion in this book than in the first novel and Thomas seamlessly captures all of the nuance. His talents make a great story beautiful.

Deep Night by Ambrose Ibsen

Deep Night is a supernatural detective story that plays fair with the reader even as it offers a healthy portion of make-the-hairs-stand-up-on-the-back-of-your-neck terror. As with all good horror novels, author Ambrose Ibsen builds the reader’s feelings of unease slowly and with a brilliant mechanism that absolutely everyone can relate to. A woman is awakened in the middle of the night by a tapping on her window. Just think about that for a moment. It’s almost midnight and she’s shaken from her sleep by a quiet tap tap tap on her bedroom windowpane When she builds the courage to peak outside, no one is at her window, but she catches sight of a figure watching her from the street. She quite sensibly calls the police, but the responding officer doesn’t find anything. The next night, matters progress further and when the police again come up empty handed, the woman goes in search of a private investigator to discover who is harassing her.

Enter Harlan Ulrich, formerly of Toledo. He’s lazy and uninterested in the case until his landlord increases his rent and he realizes if he doesn’t earn some money he’s going to lose his office. It was in many ways an unfortunate way to introduce the character because it made Ulrich initially unlikeable. We, the reader, knows this woman desperately needs help and he seems uncaring about her predicament. Fortunately, Ulrich quickly wins the reader back by sticking with the case when it immediately goes bad. You see, Ulrich quickly uncovers evidence that the client’s nocturnal visitor is not human.

From this point forward, the novel revolves around the investigation into why the client is being harassed by a supernatural creature. The creature’s appearance is quickly connected to a painting the woman has just acquired so Ulrich opens his investigation by looking into the painting’s origins and how it came into the woman’s possession. This investigation did not take the direction I initially assumed it would, and that’s always a good thing. Not all of the twists and turns in the rest of the novel were as surprising, but when an author fairly provides the clues to a mystery, he has to risk readers putting the pieces together faster than his detective does.

This novel is boosted by the excellent vocal talents of narrator, Kyle Tait. He provides excellent pacing and clearly discernable voices for all the characters. His low voice and quiet style added significantly to the tension Ibsen builds in the story as the scope of the supernatural problem is uncovered. If you like solid detective stories with a healthy (or should that be “unhealthy”) dose of the supernatural, you’ll enjoy Deep Night. I intend to read the next mystery in this series.

Wolf Hunt by Jeff Strand

George and Lou, the atypical heroes of Wolf Hunt, have just become two of my all-time favorite characters in fiction. They had me laughing right from the beginning of the novel and their banter was enough to take the gruesome edge off even the most horrendous crimes that Ivan the Werewolf commits throughout the book. They’re a little bit dumb, seriously stubborn, and surprisingly heroic and human as they try to make up for the admittedly stupid mistake that sets a seriously sadistic werewolf loose on the world. It seemed like a simple job—transport a caged man a few hundred miles—but we quickly figure out that nothing involving George and Lou ever goes smoothly. Things happen to them, and around them, and, unfortunately, to anyone in the vicinity.

There is a lot to love about this novel—but for the serious fan of werewolf books and movies two particular items stand out head and shoulders above the rest. First, Ivan, is a phenomenal werewolf villain. He is so clever in his psychological sadism that the author’s family might want to have him checked out by a mental health professional. Ivan gets in everyone’s head as he taunts them on his way to dismembering and killing them. It’s sick, but that’s what makes a great villain so fun to hate, isn’t it?

The other absolutely amazing thing about this book is the creative—but pretty untraditional—ways in which George and Lou continue to go after Ivan. It turns out that silver bullets just aren’t that plentiful in the state of Florida and that forces them to get clever—not A-Team clever by any means, but creative none the less. I was astounded by the mirid ways they managed to hurt this basically unkillable-by-conventional-means creature. All the while soaking up tremendous amounts of damage themselves.

As if these three characters were not wonderful enough, Strand adds an innocent victim—accidentally kidnapped along the way by George and Lou—and their handler who set them up with the job. Again, wonderful characters who had me laughing my posterior off throughout the book.

Now, lest I give you the wrong impression, Wolf Hunt is not a comedy. It’s a serious action/horror adventure, but the humor sure does add tremendously to the fun even while the action and the evil deeds of Ivan continue to ramp up the feelings of suspense until the very last page of the novel. Ivan is a serious monster on both a human and lycanthropic levels and you will want him to die just as badly as George does.

I suspect that this would be a great book in paper or electronic format, but it was my good fortune to encounter the audio version, so let me just add a few words of praise for the performance of Scott Thomas. All of the key figures in this book have totally unique voices that make them easy to identify. More importantly, Thomas really draws out the humor in the banter. I am really impressed that he did this without once breaking down into peals of laughter himself, as I did consistently while listening to it.

In summation, let me say that Wolf Hunt is a gem of an adventure novel, but it should come with a warning not to listen to it while operating a motor vehicle.

I received this book from Audiobook Boom in exchange for an honest review.

Book 19: Sudden Silence by Mike Adams

It’s been obvious for several books now that while the alien invaders might well be able to crush the human colonists on New Hope, they have no chance of winning the actual war once reinforcements from earth with proper military weapons (tanks, fighter jets, artillery, high caliber bullets, etc.) start to arrive. In the opening pages of the latest Fierce Girls novels, Mike Adams shows that the aliens fully understand this problem and gives both a plausible explanation for their continuing to fight and a dastardly strategy for trying to snatch some measure of victory out of the catastrophe they have created. I appreciate that, but I’m not surprised by it. If there is one thing I have come to expect from this series it is that the author has carefully thought out all the issues that I can think of. He is literally planning at last six or eight books ahead of the current novel as he proved again in Sudden Silence when he brought two long-running and apparently disparate storylines together in an exciting and action packed encounter.

Most of this book continues to follow Rick Cassidy and Jack’s Company as they struggle to make their way out of the deep wilderness and back to civilization. They encounter new problems at every turn—not the least is the continued need to rescue humans captured by the alien forces. As was true in the last book, the rescued humans have a lot of difficulty coming to grips with their dependence on a company composed of high school girls. That difficulty continues to cause serious problems that strain the leadership talents of Cassidy.

One of the things I like best about this series is Adams’ ability to foreshadow coming action through the slow arrival of the various spacecraft and the planning sessions by the two militaries. It keeps us thinking ahead to the next phase of the war even as our heroes battle to survive the current ones. With another wave of alien reinforcements arriving, it certainly appears that matters are about to get a lot worse.

Extinct by Ike Hamill

Extinct presents a particularly creepy and isolating vision of the end of the world told from two very different points-of-view. Robby is an exceptionally intelligent thirteen-year-old with an unusual ability to analyze situations which gives him odd, but mostly credible, insights into what is happening around him. He is a thoroughly likeable character. He and his family are trapped on their island in a snowstorm on Thanksgiving when first the power goes out and then people start disappearing all over the islands—lots and lots of people. As they explore what is happening around them, they begin to witness people “disappear” and Robby and his family and a couple of neighbors decide to make a run for it. This storyline is totally engaging and utterly intriguing.

The second storyline (told in alternating chapters) did not work nearly so well for me. It is slow to develop, but the underlying mystery (starting with carnivorous plants and getting stranger from there) is a good one. The problem is that the story is told from the point-of-view of Brad. The kindest thing you can say about Brad is he is odd. He is also, despite the apparent effort to make him look intelligent, dull, uninteresting, and capable of repeated acts of ridiculous stupidity. He hides information from key people repeatedly for no reason that I could ever discern. He also passes up opportunities to learn information about what is happening just because he is obstinate. To make things worse, despite not appearing to be a particularly physical guy or having any combat training, he wins a fight with a monster of a man that more than strained credulity. I was never happy when the story returned to Brad’s perspective.

The first third of the novel is the best part of the book. Hamill does a great job of creating a truly perplexing and horrifying mystery that appears to be at least partly supernatural in character. There is a great deal of suspense and a lot of discovery without actually clarifying any of what happens. After this, the novel begins to lose its punch. Robby constructs a theory of what is happening that seems to come completely from left field and convinces a number of other survivors to help him enact a plan to save the world. The plan is strange and far-fetched, and I don’t think the now fourteen-year-old boy received enough push back on it, but it does set the stage for the last third of the novel when the excitement picks up again.

There are several genuinely creepy and frightening moments in this book and the conclusion basically worked, even having a heart-wrenching moment in which I (had I been in the book) probably would have made the wrong choice and gotten killed. In addition, I really liked a couple of the supporting cast members. In Extinct, Hamill has set the groundwork for a strange new world and I’m curious what he will do in the sequel.

I listened to this book in audio format so I’d like to conclude with a couple of comments on the excellent narration. For huge sections of this book, there isn’t a lot of dialogue. The pacing is slow and measured building suspense as the characters try to figure out what has happened to them. Kyle Tait does a superb job of cultivating the tension and helping the text build the atmosphere that Hamill obviously wanted to create. In addition, his voices are memorable. When one of the characters reappeared approximately twelve hours since we had last seen him, I knew who it was before the text identified him. That’s a pretty extraordinary accomplishment for a narrator.

Ferocious by Jeff Strand

There are few genres in which characterization is more important than the horror genre. If you don’t care about the people to whom terrible things are happening, it’s hard to care deeply about the book. When I picked up Ferocious by Jeff Strand, I was a little bit worried about his ability to pull off the characters mentioned in the blurb—a recluse raising his niece off the grid in the middle of the wilderness. It seemed quite likely the author would slip into caricatures as he wrote about a zombie apocalypse in the backwoods. I could not have been more wrong. In the very first chapter he establishes Rusty Moss as both a hard man who hates people and someone that you absolutely have to love. In the next chapter he establishes Rusty’s niece, Mia, just as credibly. And this father-daughter style team will capture your heart as they struggle to survive one of the weirdest twists on the zombie apocalypse that I have ever read.

Strand is a master at building tension—not only with the ever-growing level of danger but with the very credible mistakes that Rusty and Mia make throughout the novel. They never do anything stupid, but many of their plans and reactions go badly awry. This makes them remarkably human as they deal with a horror they can’t quite believe is really happening to them.

One of the best distinguishing features of this novel is the vast array of zombie creatures that threaten Rusty and Mia. Strand has really thought out the strengths and weaknesses of the various undead forest animals so there is never a point in which the action gets routine. Even the smallest animals are dangerous and this gives the novel a decidedly different flavor from every other zombie story I have read.

Finally, I’d like to take a moment to talk about the vocal talents of narrator Scott Thomas. It’s not an easy thing for a man to craft a believable voice for a seventeen-year-old girl, but Thomas pulled it off and without his ability to do this, the audio book would not have worked nearly as well. He also catches the humor and affection in the back and forth banter of Rusty and Mia. His narration takes an excellent story and gives it that extra touch of magic to finish bringing it to life.

I received this book from Audiobook Boom in exchange for an honest review.

King Kong by Delos Lovelace, Edgar Wallace and Merian Cooper

King Kong is one of the most recognizable names and images in America. He’s inspired movies, novels, comic books and more. I first became aware of him through a cartoon when I was four years old—but rather than be scary that Kong was taking care of a young boy. Since then I seem to run into him everywhere and so it was with a great deal of interest that I decided to read this novelization of the original movie.

Kong quite understandably overshadows the whole book even though he doesn’t make his first appearance until halfway through the novel. The tension builds well as Denham leads his cast out into the middle of the ocean in search of something new and exotic that he can film. He finds an isolated island he’s heard rumors of. There a great wall protects the natives from some unknown threat and adds to the sense of suspense as we, the readers, recognize that the westerners have no idea what they are getting into. They are so wonderfully confident—even after they see Kong—and so woefully unprepared for the horrors of nature unleashed on this island out of time.

Of course, the heart of the story quickly becomes Kong and Ann Darrow. This is always described as Kong falling in love with Darrow (and certainly that’s the position of Denham terming it “Beauty and the Beast”) but I didn’t feel like the evidence in the novel supported that position. My reading was that Kong was absolutely fascinated by Darrow’s hair and pale skin and the texture of her clothes—so unlike anything he had experienced before. She was akin to a new favorite pet or toy to him, and perhaps he would have quickly tired of her. We’ll never find out for certain because Jack rescues her, but I think this is a more likely conclusion than the rather absurd notion that Kong has fallen in love as if Darrow were a potential mate.

The brilliance of this novel is that there is a complete juxtaposition of hero and villain by the end of the story. Denham who was so brave in leading his men to rescue Darrow becomes a monster, torturing Kong to break his will and turn him into a sort of circus spectacle. As he does so, Kong becomes the underdog we want to escape and be free again. The fact that we know that’s not going to happen only makes the story more tragic. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this tale.

Nowhere to Run by Elliott Kay

Nowhere to Run picks up with the Wandering Monsters trying to earn a living by taking care of problems for a small village in the north of the kingdom. They frighten off some bandits only to have the villagers they are protecting turn on them and throw them out once the danger is over. (Humans in this series often fill the role of “bad guy” not because humans are evil, but because many just suck.)

Our heroes find a group of refugee goblins, hobgoblins, etc. and try to help them out. They’ve arrived just in time. The “bandits” that were driven off from the human village turn out to be cavalry scouts for the king acting incognito so as not to alarm neighboring lands. Real reinforcements are on their way and they plan to exterminate the refugees who have no place further to flee. So this novel ends up being about preparations for a fight while trying to resolve internal problems in the goblin camp and an ancient evil that is buried beneath it. As with all of Kay’s books, the action is solid and the story moves along at a very quick pace.

We also learn a little more about the characters and set the stage for the next volume. The dwarves have discovered that Dig Dig has uncovered a powerful artifact and they want it. The king has discovered that the daughter who escaped him is with the Wandering Monsters crew and he wants her back as a powerful token in his relationships with his neighbors. This series is only getting better with each new volume. I look forward to reading the next one.

Aliens and Ice Cream by Michael James

On the surface, this is a rather straightforward novel about alien drones that blanket the earth killing anyone who steps outside of a structure like a house or an automobile. The death toll quickly mounts upwards of one billion as humanity hunkers down and tries to figure out what they will do when the food and water runs out in their homes. At the same time, this is a story about people and how they will respond to being shut up with each other after terrible tragedy. Their fears and their insecurities bring out the absolute worst in some while others find the courage to face their circumstances and help others. It’s this latter story, handled with subtle sophistication by the author, Michael James, that makes this novel so powerful.

James sets the stage by introducing a fairly large cast of people planning a neighborhood barbecue. As with any street in America, there are a lot of tensions underlying the relationships on this street. An alcoholic mother is abusing her teenaged daughter. An adulterous affair is on the verge of rocking two marriages. And the usual macho bs dominates the interactions of the male parents. None of these problems seem important when the sky opens up spawning thousands of drones that immediately begin firing lasers at anyone caught out in the open, but when the survivors find themselves trapped in small groups wondering how they will survive, these tensions will threaten their ultimate survival.

Focusing mostly on four locations—three houses and a tree fort with three kids inside—the novel examines how different personality types deal with what could well be the end of the world. The ones who have the most difficulty coping with their sudden helplessness are the most assertive and controlling of the neighbors. Strangely, it is the teenagers in the tree fort who are best able to think about the global problem of the drones and begin to figure out ways to work around them. They show intelligence and courage that their parents are sadly (but believably) lacking. And one of the best (i.e. most outrageous) lines in the whole book comes after the teenagers have made it possible for people to start linking up together again when one of the parents says, “Let the adults handle this.” The irony of it still makes me chuckle.

Aliens and Ice Cream is a brilliant mix of all-too-relatable horror and a well-thought-out science fiction setting. As with most good horror fiction, its success is built on believable characters dealing with appalling circumstances. Some rise up to the challenge while others give into their darker natures. It makes for very good reading and leaves me hoping there will be a sequel.

Planetside by Michael Mammay

This novel caught my interest from the very first pages and didn’t let it go until I’d read the final word. Colonel Carl Butler is getting ready to retire when his old friend and the second most powerful general in his branch of the military asks him to travel to the planet, Cappa, halfway across the galaxy to investigate the disappearance of an important politician’s son. It actually seems like a pretty straight forward assignment except that at, Cappa, no one will cooperate with him. The young man disappeared from the shuttle taking his injured body from the battlefield to the space station hospital. The hospital claims he never arrived. The shuttle pilots are now dead. And all the records that might trace what happened have disappeared—and all of that is BEFORE the mystery gets complicated.

This is both a great story and a great mystery. Carl Butler is a superb character—an old colonel with a heroic past he won’t discuss and very little in the way of diplomatic skills. He’s a bulldog who won’t stop once he has a mission and yet he also has a peculiar sense of honor and duty that becomes very important to the resolution of the case.

Mammay plays fair with the reader throughout this book. I don’t say that just because I figured out the core of the mystery halfway through the novel. There are plenty of clues, many of them coming in the middle of shocking surprises. The ending was powerful, made total sense, and yet, I didn’t see it coming. Anyone who likes a good mystery will enjoy this novel.

Finally, narrator R.C. Bray, really enhances an already superb novel with his spot-on depiction of Butler’s voice—a totally credible aging colonel who lacks patience for most of the BS happening around him.

When by Victoria Laurie

I don’t quite know what to think about this book. On the one hand, it is an undeniably enjoyable tale about a teenaged girl with the undesirable ability to see the date of when any person she meets will die. She can even see the death date in a photograph. As you might imagine, this is not a blessing. It causes her to be socially isolated in school and it has helped to send her mother into alcoholism when her father is killed on precisely the day Maddie predicted.

The characters are all well drawn and believable. To get drinking money, Maddie’s mother sells sessions with Maddie for people who want to know when they or people they care about are going to die. Unsurprisingly, some of these sessions go poorly as people respond negatively to the news. Maddie is suspected of murdering a young boy when he dies (kidnapped, tortured and murdered) as she predicted. (She only predicts the when, not the how.) And this is when the story takes a turn for the worse.

Despite having an obviously high IQ, Maddie behaves stupidly for most of the story. When the FBI questions her in the disappearance of the boy she tells them she sees death dates but makes no effort to prove to them what she can do. Proving her talent to customers must be a regular part of her life. Think it through. They bring the photograph of an already deceased person that Maddie couldn’t know and she tells them the day they died. Anyone with half a brain would know that the FBI (and just about anyone else) was not going to believe she had this “talent”. With the internet at their disposal they could have quickly come up with fifty or a hundred pictures that would have at least stopped them from automatically dismissing her claim. They could then (as they finally do half way through the story) have created a more controllable test using old family photographs and in doing so eliminated Maddie as a suspect. But she doesn’t make any effort to prove things to them until a third of the way through the novel. Similarly, she constantly holds back important information from her uncle (who is also her lawyer) and the FBI and the whole conclusion of the story depends on her doing something that I frankly don’t believe anyone is dumb enough to do.

Not all of her foolish moves are unbelievable. She is a teenager after all. And she and her best (and only) friend are almost obsessed with the idea of changing a person’s death date, which explains how he catches the FBI’s attention and gets accused of murder. The bullying in school that follows is well written and disturbing and it is in the resolution of that problem that the novel finally hits its stride and gets on firmer footing.

Once Maddie undertakes to prove to the FBI she has her ability to see death dates, the novel improves considerably. The action moves more quickly and her talent proves useful to the investigation. But again, something happens that it is difficult to justify—even though it is very exciting when it happens. Maddie discovers the ability to influence death dates. This is difficult to justify. She hasn’t been seeing the date people die of natural causes. She’s been seeing the date they die no matter what the cause—cancer, murder, automobile accident. So how does she suddenly gain the ability to change the course of fate? Again, it’s exciting, but it left me looking for an explanation from the author that was not forthcoming.

Overall, I’m glad I read the book. I enjoyed it. But I think that with just a little restructuring of the plot it could have been a far superior novel.

Maelstrom by Peter Cawdron

I almost didn’t get this book and that would have been a terrible misfortune for me. On the surface, Maelstrom struck me as a run-of-the-mill story of beings and creatures passing between parallel earths, but it proved to be much better than that.

The novel is broken into three parts. The first is told from the POV of Elizabeth Cali, an American doctor working in rural China. Security guards at her medical center have a violent conflict with a tribesman from the nearby desert. The tribesman has brought in a sick elderly man and for reasons that aren’t immediately apparent, the guards are fighting with the younger tribesman who performs feats of amazing strength and basically wins the battle. The doctor calms him down, gets security to back off, and starts to help the sick man who is dying of heart problems. She realizes that both tribesmen have deformities. Neither can speak, their skulls are elongated, and more. She gets x-rays and realizes that both are Neandertals. Excited that she thinks she has discovered a possible Neandertal tribe that has survived into the present day, she investigates further and learns that the situation is much more bizarre than that. The Neandertal have been passing from their world into ours for centuries and there is frightening evidence that more worlds are colliding with ours, opening up passes between them in a manner that will eventually destroy our planet.

The second portion of the story follows a NYC cop, named Mark, and a jogger in Central Park who are caught in the next collision of planets and transported to a world where Homo Sapiens does not appear to have risen and prehistoric lions, saber tooth tigers, and more roam what on our planet is NYC. This is both the best section of the novel and the one that requires the greatest suspension of disbelief—it seems highly improbable that for the first time a portal will open in a major city just as Dr. Cali was discovering that the portals exist. That small problem aside, I was extremely impressed by how the author, Peter Cawdron, handled this dislocation and the terrible problem of trying to help a woman trapped in the rubble of NYC buildings that collapsed when they were pulled onto this new planet. This is a painfully powerful section that had me on the edge of my seat.

The third section follows many of the people introduced earlier in the novel as they move through the portal (called a maelstrom) in China to try and figure out how to save our planet. This seemed hopeless to me when they started, but again, Cawdron has brilliantly thought through the situation that caused the maelstrom and I was totally satisfied with his conclusion. This is among the very best of parallel universe stories that I’ve ever had the pleasure to read and the three narrators in the audio book do a magnificent job of bringing the text to life. I’m very glad I bought the story and I’ll be looking up other books by Peter Cawdron.

Andorra Pett and the Oort Cloud Café by Richard Dee

This is a fun little mystery set out in the rings of Saturn. Andi Pett and her friend Cy have left Earth for the outer reaches of the solar system because a love affair went bad for Andi. Even though they have absolutely no experience in running a restaurant, they decide to open a café and go into competition with the man who unofficially runs the station. Almost immediately, they discover that the former owner of their new establishment didn’t simply pick up and leave as everyone believes. His very dead body is found frozen in the freezer. Andi and Cy are convinced by their new friends not to report the crime on the theory that they will be blamed even though they just arrived on the station that day and the dead man has been missing a long time. Then things get really crazy!

There are moments in this story, such as the one that I just described, when as a reader you have to do more than suspend a little disbelief. For example, everyone thinks the dead man left the station, but apparently no one thought to check the shuttle records to see if that was true. And no one searched his place (and the freezer he was lying in) even though, as it turns out, the dead man had kept a black book with explicit details of his many liaisons that everyone thinks he was blackmailing people with. For some reason, the many days or weeks the restaurant was empty before Andi arrived were not good times to search it—although everyone wants to once the café opens. Yet, strangely, these weaknesses in the plot do not in any way detract from the overall enjoyment of the story. This is a people-centric tale in which you follow Andi trying to figure out who the murderer is by learning about all the people he interacted with. There are a lot of great characters in this book and the clues are honest and decipherable. If you like a cozy mystery, you’ll be glad you read Andorra Pett and the Oort Cloud Café.

The Green Brain by Frank Herbert

Frank Herbert’s novels have often included ecological themes and in this one he seems to have taken his inspiration from Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward and the War on Crop Eating Pests—birds, rats and insects. In China, this effort to eradicate pests put special emphasis on the killing of swallows because they ate the crops. Swallows also, as it turns out, ate their body weight in insects every day and without them the insects could not be stopped from ravaging harvests exasperating the famine caused by other policies of the Great Leap Forward. Yet, China found it ideologically difficult to admit that Mao’s policies had had such devastating results and it is in this that I think Herbert found his idea for The Green Brain.

China is leading the world (except for North America and Western Europe) in a program to destroy all insects so that they will not eat food needed by people. China is convinced (and tells people that in China they have already marvelously succeeded) that all the ecological niches filled by insects can be filled by mutated bees. Unfortunately, these policies have resulted in horrendous crop failure in China and they need a scapegoat they can provide to the Chinese people so that their leaders can stay in power. To find this scapegoat, they have come to Brazil where their agent is spreading rumors that men hired to exterminate the insects in the jungle are secretly repopulating the jungles with mutated insects in order to continue earning the huge bounties they make from their work.

There are two heroes in the story—one is Joao Martinho, the man chosen as the Chinese scapegoat. The other is the Green Brain of the title—a mutated insect collective that is trying to figure out how to convince the humans to turn away from their path of destruction that is destroying the world. It is part of Herbert’s genius that these insects can be both the source of horror in the story and a force that we can also hope succeed.

The heart of the story is very similar to Herbert’s book Angels’ Fall which he wrote early in his career but wasn’t published until after his death. It involves an unpowered trip down a mighty jungle river with the intelligently directed insects pursuing our heroes.

This isn’t Herbert’s best novel, but it’s a good story so long as you remember that it was written before our modern satellite system was in place. China’s schemes would be impossible with satellite imagery showing that they had turned their nation into a desert.

The Spider: The Wheel of Death by R.T.M. Scott

Richard Wentworth makes his second appearance as The Spider in this 1930s novel brought to audio life by narrator Nick Santa Maria. Wentworth is an adrenalin junkie who only feels alive when he is in great danger—not just mortal danger but the danger that comes from exposing his vigilante crime fighting activities. Because of this need for danger and his love of using his wits to get out of trouble, he is constantly taking rather absurd risks for the simple pleasure of forcing himself to find a way out of the resulting problems. Strangely, this need on his part succeeds in creating a fast moving and quite enjoyable adventure.

In this volume, Wentworth finds himself impulsively agreeing to help free a man on death row and in so doing discovers a blackmail scheme that has put New York City into the hands of a criminal mastermind. To make matters worse, a simple mistake early in the book allows the criminals to identify Wentworth as the Spider forcing him to use his cunning not only to expose their schemes, but to get back the evidence that can unmask him. It’s a lot of fun watching him dance his way out of trouble.

In Wheel of Death, author R.T.M. Scott goes to great length to praise the courage, loyalty and intelligence of Wentworth’s girlfriend and manservant from India, but they still come off as inferior to Wentworth specifically because they are female and Indian respectively. In this regard, the novel is very much a product of its time when the attitudes toward women and people of color can generate cringe worthy moments for the modern reader.

To Sir, with Love by Blodwedd Mallory

This novel is a lot of fun. It’s an urban fantasy setting told from the perspective of a young woman who was about to graduate from her magical high school when the apocalypse happened. That makes it sound like the secret of magic is now out in the world, but frankly, I’m not certain that’s the case. There is a lot of talk of secret societies such as the Templars and the Illuminati and I doubt that they would need to be secret if everyone knew about the supernatural.

That confusion aside, this is a fast-moving book about a young woman and her best friend who have to stop a wraith from killing the headmaster of their school. Complicating that significant problem are several hundred familiars that have been raised from their graves in the basement by the onset of the apocalypse and want nothing more than to kill everyone remaining in the school. It’s a tough situation for two teenagers to be in and Mallory handles it with a lot of skill.

As the efforts to stop the wraith become increasingly sophisticated, we learn a lot about how magic works in this world. I found the chaos-aspected magic the most interesting, especially the ability to step out of time and look at different outcomes that can flow from the caster’s magic—none of which seem to work out exactly as hoped.

I enjoyed this book enough that halfway through I bought the sequel novel, London Underground. In the afterward at the end of the book, I learned the story was based on a game system. That makes sense after the fact, but the book stood on its own and you don’t have to know anything about the game to enjoy it.

Area 51 by Bob Mayer

This novel is an alien-contact conspiracy theorist’s dream. Area 51 is the famous / infamous theorized location of a secret government repository of alien artifacts and possibly dead bodies. It’s the center of a conspiracy theory in which the U.S. government is orchestrating a massive cover up designed to hide the existence of these alien artifacts and intelligent extraterrestrial life from both foreign governments and its own people. In Area 51, Bob Mayer spins a tale in which he connects the dots behind Area 51 and a great many of the mysteries that populate the alien contact shows that dominate late night cable television.

At the heart of the novel’s mystery is a secretive government compound where alien spacecraft—whose technology is not yet understood—are being test piloted. The president is concerned that the personnel in charge of the project are concealing information from him, so through his science advisor he arranges to have a special forces solider inserted into Area 51 security as a presidential spy. Almost immediately everything starts going wrong.

Ancient Egypt, Easter Island, legends of lost Atlantis, secret Nazi investigations, Antarctica, Thule…all point to the conclusion that aliens once visited our planet and unless humans are very careful the secret machinations of the investigators at Area 51 might just bring them back again.

The Wild Heart of Stevie Nicks by Rob Sheffield

I used to think I was a pretty strong Stevie Nicks fan back in my college years. I’m not much of a concert goer, but one of the three I’ve been to was Stevie Nicks. I had all her albums up to that time, knew tons of the lyrics by heart, and knew it was only a matter of time until she got inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Then I came across this Audible Original and realized that for me Stevie Nicks was just a passing phase. Rob Sheffield has been breathing Stevie’s air for his entire life and he clearly thinks in her lyrics. The whole book could almost be described as stringing versus from her various songs together to make a narrative whole. And what a narrative it is. If you’ve any interest in Stevie or Fleetwood Mac this book is a must listen. Everyone knows that the band had romantic problems—hookups and breakups—during the making of Rumors, but I had no idea just how long lasting and how crazy the drug-fueled romantic madness really was.

Through it all, Stevie’s strong voice resonates as Sheffield successfully articulates why she is so important to rock and roll and why her music continues to resonate with so many fans. I’m very glad I stumbled across this book.

Bad Things by Jasper Tripp

If you buy this novel be prepared to fasten your seat belt because you’re in for a wild ride. Aliens have come to the small town of Slagstone, Montana and it’s up to the small-town sheriff, his cheerleading coach girlfriend, and a family of crazy survivalists to save the whole world from alien conquest. There frankly isn’t a lot to this plot that you haven’t seen a dozen times before, but Tripp puts it together with lovable characters and a heck of a lot of action. It’s loads of fun from start to finish and I’m very glad I read it.

I wanted to give this novel five stars for the sheer pleasure of the experience but the truth is there are a couple of flaws in the book that make me hold it down to four. The first is that the way the aliens propagate never really makes sense to me. I don’t want to say more because it would spoil a surprise toward the end of the book, but it seemed to me that the rules for making more aliens that were setup early on are broken near the end and that doesn’t sit well with me.

My second problem was much more serious. There are a lot of encounters with the big bad guy across the room while our heroes are shooting up the aliens. They identify him. They watch him do bad things. They exchange meaningful glances. But nobody ever takes a shot at him and that doesn’t make a lot of sense. Since he’s needed for the end of the story, I wouldn’t have minded him ducking out of the way, or one of the other aliens taking the hit for him, but it’s hard to understand why nobody tired to send a bullet his way in multiple scenes.

I think these problems are serious, but they only slightly tarnish a really fun story. So if you’re looking for a lot of hearty action in the alien invasion subgenre, you’ll be glad you read Bad Things.

Wearing the Cape 3: Young Sentinels by Marion Harmon

One of the many things Marion Harmon does very well is develop ultra-powerful super villain threats. This time the book opens with the Green Man—a super-powered eco-terrorist with the ability to make plant life grow and spread at remarkable speed. So new trees essentially “charge” across the parks, break up roads, grab and kill anyone in their paths, wreck property, overturn cars and basically try and turn Chicago into a forest. Stopping the growth across a front more than a mile wide and rescuing all the people involved would tax the abilities of the Justice League or the Avengers and it’s a great challenge for Harmon’s Sentinels. But it’s not the only difficulty they face in this story.

The Wreckers, a new group of super villains, has come to Chicago where they are targeting for execution known members of the Paladins—an anti-supers extremist group. The Wreckers powers are top-notch and dangerous and they’re not afraid of causing a lot of collateral damage in their attacks. To make matters worse, their appears to be a connection between the Wreckers and the mysterious mass murderer called the Ascendant, further complicating the Sentinels’ problems.

While all of this is happening, Blackstone decides to increase the fire power of the main team by recruiting a group of trainee heroes to be led by Astra. Technically, these new heroes-in-training will be blocked from most combat operations, but in the insanity that has become Chicago that is often impossible. With the city in constant danger the Sentinels are going to need all the help they can get to win this face off.

Enriching all the action is the growing cast of very strong characters and intriguing personal relationships that are Harmon’s bread and butter. One of the young Sentinels is a Merlin-type super who believes she is Ozma of Oz. Grendel is a shape changer who gained his powers the day he lost his family in the Ascendant’s first mass homicide. Megaton’s family has deserted him because they’re afraid of his new superpowers. These backdrops create intriguing problems for Astra to deal with that can’t be simply punched and kicked into submission.

Finally, in my review of Villain’s Inc I expressed some unhappiness with the change in narrator from K. F. Lim to Caitlin Kelly. I still like Lim’s excellent narration of Wearing the Cape, but Kelly has found her groove in the series and I was completely comfortable with her storyteller’s voice. She shows a lot of talent in bringing the large cast to life and I look forward to hearing her read the next book in the series.

Last Man Out by Elliott Kay

The latest novel in the Poor Man’s Fight series finally brings us past the Debtor’s War and into a whole new galaxy of troubles. Tanner Malone has become one of the most hated men in the galaxy thanks to the propaganda machine of the Northstar Corporation which has succeeded in twisting his heroic deeds against them into the actions of a blood thirsty war criminal in the eyes of much of the Union. Fresh out of the military, Tanner is trying to get his life started again by finally heading to college, but he discovers that many of his fellow classmates are more interested in protesting his presence than in learning anything approaching the truth about what actually happened. To make matters worse, many who lost a lot of money because of the war have decided that killing Tanner would give them no small manner of satisfaction.

With his life in danger and apparently going nowhere, Tanner gets an opportunity to join a xenoarchaelogical dig which would get him away from campus for a semester and earn him tons of college credits. He agrees and in so doing gets himself firmly entrenched in a mystery involving another greedy corporation, colonial insurgents, and an alien technology from a race that died off five hundred years before.

This is the most complicated of the books so far with plots and subplots galore, but ultimately, like all the others it’s a wild ride with the kind of action that makes this series stand out from so many others. By the end of the novel, the galaxy of Poor Man’s Fight has gotten a lot wider. I can’t wait to see where Kay plans to take the series next.

The Moon Maze Game by Larry Niven and Steven Barnes

The Dream Park series ends on an awesome note with The Moon Maze Game. I loved the first book and thoroughly enjoyed The Barsoom Project but thought the series took a wrong turn with The California Voodoo Game. With the Moon Maze Game, Niven and Barnes recaptured the magic, and ironically did it by breaking the formula that governed the first three books.

These novels all revolve around a live-action role playing game which utilizes holograms and robotics to produce fantasy adventures. The efforts by the players to win the game is always a central part of the plot, but there is also always a crime that occurs outside the game that somehow involves the players in the games. Our heroes are always trying to solve the crime without interrupting the game which is a major cinematic event with tens of millions dollars depending on it being completed. The Moon Maze Game has all of that plus some excellent subplots involving problems between members of the cast, but what makes this stand out as the best book in the series was that Niven and Barnes broke their formula midway through, upping the tension dramatically and making this a thrilling rollercoaster of a ride.

The plot was especially appealing to me because it revolves around H.G. Wells’ novel, The First Men in the Moon. The numerous ways that Wells’ work is woven into this story is an utter delight for the science fiction fan. You don’t have to be familiar with Wells to enjoy the book, but it certainly adds to the fun if you are.

There was only one significant mistake in the plot that I picked up upon. The crime involves people on earth believing that one of the players in the game taking place on the moon has been kidnapped—even though the kidnappers don’t always have control over their victim. Communications between the game area and the rest of the world have supposedly been severed. Yet, we find out at the end of the story that the game cameras were transmitting everything that happened. This means that everyone on earth knew the kidnapping had at least partially failed. It also means that the authorities on the moon trying to figure out what to do should have had more information than they did (because they were still able to contact earth). To make matters worse, the error wasn’t necessary to advance the plot. Still, it’s easy to overlook this one thing and enjoy a great novel.

Trying Times by Jan Stryvant

Trying Times starts out a little weak with a villain who is less than two dimensional, but it gains strength as the novel progresses and sets up an intriguing problem that will have to be resolved in later books. First, the two dimensional villain…

Stryvant quite correctly figures out that not all the country is going to be happy to discover that lycans are everywhere and that thousands of military men and women are being converted to fight the war with the demons. So Stryvant shows us this by creating a preacher who goads his followers into attacking Sean and his people. The preacher is every bad stereotype of a protestant minister that you’ve ever seen on TV rolled up into one. He’s a bigot that’s been looking for the “right” group to hate. He takes sexual advantage of every pretty female in his congregation, telling them that God wants them to have sex with him. He’s a coward who justifies his cowardice (like his evil deeds) as God’s work. And he turns on his own flock to “save” them from the lycans when his idiocy gets them in trouble.

I’m not opposed in principal to idiot villains, but I think Stryvant missed the boat here. It isn’t hard to imagine that an honest preacher might fear what is happening in the U.S. and blame the lycans (who are quite visible) instead of the demons (who are not so visible). Had the preacher been more honorable in his fanaticism that would have made for a much more dangerous and insidious villain. But hey, it’s Stryvant story and ultimately these are his decisions. I’m just glad that we quickly moved on to other things because the problem with foreign governments, for reasons both strategic and corrupt, starting to move against Sean is well thought out and far more interesting than the cartoonish preacher’s efforts.

The war is going to have to move to Europe where there are plenty of signs that the demons have made inroads with the magic users and now with key government figures, but how exactly Sean and his crew will handle that is beyond me. I very much look forward to seeing how Stryvant handles it.

I also want to credit Stryvant for killing off one of the better supporting cast characters. This was a shocking and painful loss and I thought he dealt with its aftermath well. The cast is big enough to absorb quite a few of these deaths, but it’s never easy for an author to kill off a beloved character. Stryvant deserves praise for his handling of the situation.

As always, I’m looking forward to the next book.

The March South by Mike Adams

Adams returns to his Fierce Girls at War series with another strong entry in the consistently high quality science fiction military adventure. Now that we’re seventeen books in its worth taking a few moments to remember how we got here. Earth is developing its first interstellar colony. It’s an impressively international effort marred only by the terrorist groups that oppose any interstellar colonization and the normal distrust that nations have for each other. To minimize that distrust, the earth governments have agreed to minimize the military hardware on the admittedly dangerous planet to modest automatic rifles with minimal excess ammunition. This leaves the colony ill prepared to defend itself when aliens show up to contest their right to the planet.

The aliens, however, are not your typical sf villains. While they definitely count as bad guys in the series, the “jammies” as the humans come to call them are not used to waging war among themselves and when they do find the need to fight generally use low tech proxies to wage their battles for them. These proxies, the raagaa, are physically durable creatures using medieval-style weapons. They also find human flesh to be a delicacy. The long-lived jammies are inexperienced in combat and slow to react making “initiative” one of the primary human strategic assets during the war.

The other factor to keep in mind is that it takes about six months for a ship to get from the colony of New Hope to the earth and another six months to get back again. So from the beginning of the alien attack, the humans have recognized that their primary task is to hold on until help (in the form of military back up with state of the art weaponry) can reach them. This leads to the only significant weakness in the overall story. The aliens aren’t stupid. They also figure out that the humans are much more warlike than they are and that their reinforcements are likely to bring much more advanced and destructive weapons, yet somehow they think that killing and eating every human on the planet before the reinforcements arrive will resolve the conflict in their favor. Maybe this is simply a reflection on how their species would react to a similar situation, but it seems rather dense of them.

The March South picks up the storyline of a group of captured humans who are basically waiting to be eaten. Their situation is desperate and they have no hope. The aliens have pushed the humans back to only three settlements and the colonists have no ability to locate or rescue the prisoners. But by fortuitous, but credible, coincidence, one of the main storylines that has been being developed for fifteen books, crosses paths with the prisoners. On the first day of the war, a shuttle bearing a handful of rangers, two of the principal heroes of the series, and about fifty young women from the New Hope Academy was shot down by the aliens and crashed in the wilderness far from any hope of rescue. Our heroes have been training those young women to fight as the colonial rangers do and after about six months of preparation have been trying to march their way out of the wilderness to civilization. This small group (called Jack’s Company) encounters the raagaa with many of the prisoners and their clash forms the central action of the novel. Then Adams does one of the things that makes this series so good. In the aftermath of the rescue he brings a great deal of strife into Jack’s Company by having many of the rescued prisoners be self-centered jerks unable to recognize the reality of their circumstances and to take the young women who rescued them seriously. In the midst of all the life and death struggles that dominate the series, this is a very different style of challenge that makes this novel stand out from the rest. As always, I am looking forward to the sequel.

At the Mountains of Madness by H.P. Lovecraft

I think it’s important to start this review by recognizing how tremendously influential Lovecraft in general and At the Mountains of Madness is in particular has been. He basically created and popularized the whole Things Man Was Not Meant to Know subgenre of horror / fantasy / sf or whatever it really is. The Elder Gods threatening the very sanity of the planet comes from Lovecraft and not only do his motifs show up rather blatantly in works like Roger Zelazny’s A Night in the Lonesome October as well as more recent series like John Ringo’s Special Circumstances and Larry Correia’s Monster Hunters International, I suspect that you would never have gotten a TV show like the X-Files without Lovecraft.

So Lovecraft is hugely influential (the World Fantasy Award used to be a bust of Lovecraft) but that doesn’t mean that he’s an easy author to read. Most of the problem is that he was writing in the 1920s and 1930s and his fiction style comes off as slow moving and dated. At the Mountains of Madness takes the form of a narrative account of a disastrous expedition to Antarctica written long after the expedition’s survivors returned with the hope of dissuading the next expedition from beginning. It is filled with long and impressive descriptions of the geology of the continent and the remarkable discovery of a series of fossils the like of which have never been seen on the planet. Isolated from the rest of the world the scientists begin to discover that a wholly unanticipated species inhabited the earth tens of millions of years ago and the more they discover about this early life form the more horrific the story becomes.

And yet, while it is definitely creepy and Lovecraft has many subtle tricks to increase the reader’s understanding that things are going badly wrong, it is still a very slow moving story thanks to the narrative style. Today this book would have been written as a third person narrative following the expedition in “real time” and the action scenes that are quickly summarized in the original would have been fleshed out to play a much more significant role in the book, but that’s not how Lovecraft wrote and I think it makes the book harder to approach for today’s readers.

I listened to an audio version of the novella narrated extremely well by Edward Hermann who did a masterful job of bringing the text to life, but even so it remains a slow moving story. That being said, I still highly recommend it due to its influence over the decades since it was published.

This Immortal by Roger Zelazny

Zelazny won the Hugo for this novel and it’s easy to see why. Conrad (of the many names) is a fascinating man and the immortal of the title moving through a vividly and poetically depicted post-apocalyptic earth which is supported economically almost totally be alien tourists fascinated by earth’s history and the near destruction of the planet in the Three Day War. There is depth of thought regarding this future society evident in almost every page and yet never once did I have that experience of wondering, “Why is Zelazny telling me this now? Why can’t we get on with the story?”

The plot revolves around a rich Vegan who wants to write a travel guide to earth’s most important sightseeing spots starting with Egypt and the Great Pyramids. Conrad is an official in the government agency in charge of protecting the historical monuments. He doesn’t want to play tour guide especially after it becomes that some of the humans who attach themselves to the tour want to see the Vegan die before he leaves earth. They worry that the alien’s real purpose is to lay the groundwork for the Vegans to buy up the rest of the planet.

This is where Zelazny truly shows his depth because much of the plot revolves around a political terrorist group who have embraced the ideology of Returnism—wanting all humans to return to earth and make it an independent planet again. Conrad actually started this movement and led the terrorist cell in an earlier life, but came to a point where he believed that it was not capable of achieving the Returnist aim and set about instead exploring other paths. As with many diasporas, most humans don’t live on the planet anymore and the sad truth the Returnists don’t want to face is that second and third generation humans who have never seen earth don’t want to return there at all. Their lives are elsewhere now, but the fanatics can’t give up the dream and have become certain that killing this Vegan is the key to earth’s eventual independence.

To achieve their end they have hired a fascinating assassin named Hasan who, thanks to a quirky response to a longevity procedure, is also effectively immortal (at least he’s lived for a very long time as a young man). Conrad and he know each other well but now they are reluctantly on opposite sides of the Vegan problem.

As if this tension wasn’t enough, the post-apocalyptic earth is a very dangerous place with mutations giving rise to legends out of myth and other monsters. Over all, it’s just a delightful tale filled with Zelazny’s brush-stroke characterizations that hang in the mind years after you read the piece.

This time through I listened to an audio edition narrated by Victor Bevine. At first I thought his slow rate of speech was going to wreck the novel. (I never think of Zelazny’s books as slow moving.) Fortunately, I quickly came to love the nuance with which he shared Zelazny’s prose and brought his characters to life. Whether in print or in audio, this book is worthy of its Hugo and well worth your time.

Old Tin Sorrows by Glen Cook

Garrett’s old sergeant calls in a favor to make everyone’s favorite fantasy detective find out who’s trying to murder an already dying General Stanton. Stanton’s a lot like General Sternwood in The Big Sleep. He’s tough but likable in his final days of life, sitting next to a roaring fire because he doesn’t generate enough heat to keep his body warm on its own. He looks like he’s mere days from croaking on his own but is his poor health the result of a rare tropical disease caught in the service or an exotic poison? It doesn’t help that the General doesn’t like doctors and won’t cooperate in trying to save his life.

As to motive? There’s a will that gives half of the General’s estate to his daughter and splits the remaining half between several long term retainers most of whom served under the General in the war. Suspicions that someone is trying to knock the General off are strengthened by the growing number of his retainers that have met an unexpected end—shrinking the pool of inheritors and growing everyone’s share of the estate. There’s also a woman (isn’t there always a woman in a Garrett novel) who is sneaking around the General’s home and nobody but Garrett admits to being able to see her. The only thing really going for Garrett as he tries to investigate this tight-mouthed group of suspects is that the pool of potential killers is diminishing so rapidly.

Old Tin Sorrows shows us a different aspect of Garrett. He’s ten miles outside of the city for almost the entire book so he has to depend on his own wits and a little bit of help from his friend, Morley Dotes, to solve the crime. The Dead Man is simply not available to make connections or suggest courses of action. As the story progresses and the tension grows tauter it begins to look like Garrett isn’t up to the task.

It’s always hard to evaluate the mystery of a novel you’ve read a couple of times before but I think Cook does a pretty good job with this one. At times Garrett seems to be a little slow, but if we recall he’s getting no sleep and is under a lot of strain, I’m not sure it’s fair to hold that against him. There are a couple of nice surprises toward the end and the portrait of Eleanor becomes a fixture in later novels, so this is not a book that is forgotten as the series progresses.

Invasion at Bald Eagle by Kris Ashton

This promising tale of alien invasion in a sparsely populated Colorado town in the 1960s has a lot going for it despite taking a swerve toward the parody, Sex Zombies, in the first third of the story. Bald Eagle is a tiny little place with one hotel, a two-man sheriff’s department, a weekly newspaper, a nuclear plant and a hippie commune. Life is pretty tame in Bald Eagle despite the fact that the hippies enjoy protesting nuclear power and the manager of the facility freaks out every time they arrive with their signs. Bert, the sheriff, is pretty laid back and sensible about his job, at least until he discovers that his daughter, Sharna, who is supposed to be in Denver has actually joined the commune and its free love lifestyle.

While the sheriff tries to figure out how to stick all the hippies in jail without forever alienating Sharna, strange things begin happening at the commune. A silver egg plummets from the sky into the lettuce patch and “stings” the hippie who picks it up. The next day he begins to act stranger than usual as does the woman he sleeps with a short while later. This is where the Sex Zombies parallel comes in as the “strangeness” spreads like a venereal disease in the free love community (and later in the larger area of Bald Eagle).

I don’t want to give too much away, but things really start to heat up when Derek, the leader of the commune, gets undeniable evidence that his fellow hippies aren’t just sick, but have something sinisterly wrong with them. He runs for it, eventually encountering the sheriff who locks him up and is uninterested in stories revolving around strange eggs from the sky and the changes they have wrought on a hippie commune. Yet within a couple of days, the sheriff can’t pretend that the problems growing in his town (a large number of disappearing persons and more of the silver eggs) are all originating from hippies taking bad drugs and he is forced to deputize Derek, plus the head of the local nuclear plant and a journalist in an attempt to save his community. The federal government also gets involved but they seem more intent on quarantining the town and wiping all the infected out than in helping people.

This is where this novel goes from being merely entertaining to gripping. These unlikely defenders of humanity have to come up with a plan to save Bald Eagle—both its handful of uninfected residents and those who have already been contaminated by the eggs. Their plan is a little hokey but frankly, with the pressure they are under, it’s totally believable they would try it. One of the strengths of the story is how Ashton deals with this effort and the extraordinary pressure on these men as they try to save everyone—especially the handful of very young kids who seem to be immune to the contagion. People you come to like die painfully and frankly I quickly reached the point where I couldn’t figure out how anyone was going to survive the crisis.

If you enjoy a good mystery turned horror-thriller, you’ll like Invasion of Bald Eagle. I know I did.