Book Reviews

Wednesday
Jun132012

Review: Pirates of Mars

Pirates of Mars by Chris Gerrib; Hadley Rille Books; $16.00 trade paperback. $2.99 ebook; © 2012. 

Reviewed by Kent McDaniel

At first, I had trouble getting into Pirates of Mars. Many characters made their appearance in its early pages amidst a lot of action, and I had some difficulty sorting them out. Plus, the scene-setter with which Gerrib begins each chapter threw me off a little: Each gives the day of the week, the day’s date in the “Virgo Year,” the time in Martian Zulu Time, the year and time in GMT--which seems to be some variation of Earth time—and then the scene’s location; in the beginning, I found that all a little confusing as well. 

I persisted, though, and was glad I did. Twenty pages in, I had a handle on the characters and the scene-setters, and Gerrib had me hooked on a roller coaster of a science-fiction thriller: Space pirates have hijacked a cargo ship, killed some of its members, meaning to steal the cargo and hold the remaining crew members for ransom. To complicate matters, the pirates are unable to restart the hijacked ship’s engine, and in desperation send out a Mayday to The Space Rescue  Mission, with whom they end up in a firefight and add two as their hostages. The Space Rescue mission is a cash-strapped organization unwilling to pay ransom for their captured members, so some of its other members organize an “unofficial” rescue-plan. Oh, and did I mention that some of the hijacked ship’s cargo turns out to be mysterious and sinister? 

As I said, the story begins fast-paced, and Gerrib never lets it bog down. He just keeps ratcheting up the suspense and tension as things progress. All the action is complemented by a large cast of well-developed characters and by convincing settings, whether in the various Martian settlements or inside the different space vehicles. Gerrib also relates the microcosm in which his characters play out their drama to the larger political and economic conditions within the solar system in 2074. He obviously devoted much effort to his world building, and it pays off.  I particularly enjoyed the details about everyday life on a space ship and on Mars. In addition, Gerrib, a Navy veteran, had a convincing feel for the culture of a paramilitary group and evinced a good knack for writing the novel’s police procedural aspects. Finally, I congratulate him on managing to refrain from overdoing the rich details of setting. He gives us plenty but never swamps the story with them.

 It all adds up to rollicking good space-opera that hurtles ahead like a starship in warp drive. 

It all adds up to rollicking good space-opera that hurtles ahead like a starship in warp drive. The wild ride carried me past some concerns about a few typos, an over-abundance of coincidences, and occasional questions regarding some characters’ motivation or reasoning. I was having enough fun that I shrugged such matters off. The suspense, action, colorful characters, and exotic setting trumped any minor reservations I had. 

The book calls out for a sequel and for a movie adaptation. I have no doubt that Gerrib intends to provide the former, and should the latter come about, I’ll be in line for a ticket.    

Monday
Jun112012

Review: The End

The End, by Paul Roach 

Reviewed by Ophelia Julien

Five Stars for Sheer Ambition 

Five stars, but not just for ambition: also for the audacity to weave together action/adventure with paranormal, metaphysics, thriller, and a dash of science fiction thrown in. The End, by Paul Roach, is such a mixed bag of genres that at the start of it all this reader couldn’t decide whether to scratch her head in confusion or nod in agreement. Turns out that by the time it was over, both impulses were correct. 

The End is the story of Fran O’Rourke, an all-around nice young man who is killed in Afghanistan while trying to pull off a rescue in the middle of a fierce firefight. It is the story of a happily married young woman who becomes deathly ill while pregnant with her first child. It is the story of good vs. evil, heaven and hell, and the fate of mankind as a sort of outcome depending on how the battle goes. And it is also the story of how much we, as human beings, have a part in that outcome. Have I lost anyone yet? The fact of the matter is, the author manages to pull all of this off without losing the reader, as intricately woven as the different strands may be. 

The book starts off a bit slowly, building up steam as background for all the different subplots is presented to the reader. This gives the author, both a surgeon and a military man, ample space to utilize his expertise in both areas. There is enough combat and medical detail for working writers to use this as a reference work for certain types of scenarios. That being said, however, once the different stories do come together the pace picks up considerably and the acceleration rate doesn’t drop until the climax of the book. After that, there remains a curious type of denouement to close out the tale that might almost seem extraneous, but only if one has read this book too lightly. The discussion at the end of the book is crucial to making sense of the entire work and what this author is trying to tell us: in The End, we’re all of us in this together, long after our physical selves have quit the battlefield. 

Be aware, however, that this book, which asks and attempts to answer some of humanity’s biggest questions, will make you stop and think.

Readers of all different genres may find themselves caught up in this work: action/adventure and thriller fans, sci-fi aficionados, even those with a philosophical or metaphysical leaning. The book may be a bit quirky, but quirky can be a terrific thing when it’s entertaining. Be aware, however, that this book, which asks and attempts to answer some of humanity’s biggest questions, will make you stop and think.

Sunday
May132012

Review: Halo of the Damned

Halo of the Damned by Dina Rae 

Reviewed by Ophelia Julien

Current cultural trends show a persisting, growing obsession with all things angel, demon, and darkly supernatural, all with a thread of romance thrown into the mix. Fans of this genre will not be disappointed with Dina Rae’s Halo of the Damned

Set ironically in Wheaton, Illinois, a city with one of the highest number of churches per capita, the story opens by acquainting the reader with Andel, the head of an advertising agency that bears the very honest name Evil Empire, after his most recent kill. With just a few leading hints of what is behind this murder, Rae continues with the introduction of heroines Joanna Easterhouse and her sister, Kim. Kim also has a young daughter, Maria, who very early into the story reveals not only her apparent psychic abilities but her importance in the coming maelstrom. 

And there is indeed a storm in the making, spun into high gear when Joanna takes a job at the Evil Empire Agency and becomes inadvertently enmeshed in the otherworld intrigue that is the culture of a business run by a fallen angel. The action of this story begins in Wheaton, wanders north of Illinois to Lake Geneva in Wisconsin, and zooms across the ocean to Florence, Italy before the final resolution back in Wheaton. 

Amazingly enough, with all of the rituals, murders, and yes, blood-sucking and dismemberment, Rae manages to pull off an ending that is both sweet and believable. Ah, romance, one might say, but perhaps the bottom line is that love really can conquer all, even something as formidable as an army of demon worshippers. And the demon. 

"...a devilishly good read."

This book will intrigue readers of dark romance. How Andel is an integral part of the Easterhouse sisters’ past, what they discover about their recently deceased mother and the estranged family that still walks this planet, and how it all relates to an ancient religion born in the Middle East and devoted to angel worship is the stuff of nightmares. Or a devilishly good read.

Saturday
Apr212012

Review: Thunder Demons

Thunder Demons by Dipika Mukherjee

Review by Serena Wadhwa

I confess that when it comes to the politics of any culture, I am politically challenged. While I have my views on the various issues that plague America, I am unaware of those that exist in other countries, particularly on the other side of the world. As it happened, I met the author of Thunder Demons for coffee, as we shared membership in the Chicago Writers Association and in our cultural background. Indian authors have always fascinated me and I looked forward to the meeting.

After a few hours of coffee, tea, and conversation, as we were wrapping up to go our separate ways, Dipika Mukherjee asked me to review her book. Initially, I hesitated, as I confessed my lack of knowledge of the political, cultural and economic turbulence that she seemed well aware of. This didn't matter as she requested a review that was based on the writing, the story and the characters. I agreed.

...I was immediately drawn into the mystery of the scene and the characters themselves. 

And I am grateful that I did so. When I started reading this book, I didn't know what to expect. I'm not a fiction reader, as professional and non-fiction readings occupy my time. However, when I began reading the first chapter, I was immediately drawn into the mystery of the scene and the characters themselves. I wanted to know more about this seemingly heartlessly loyal colonel, the passive, divided scientist and the twists of love weaved through the book. I struggled with putting the book down, as I did not want to stop reading.

Set in Malaysia, this fictional account challenges the reader to consider where they are at with such issues of love, loyalty and obligation, to country, principles and people. How the past can influence our present and our future is skillfully woven into the fabric of this story.

Thunder Demons is one of those books that keeps your interest, gets you involved and clarifies your beliefs relating to the matters that these characters struggle with.

If you're looking for an intriguing read, something to get you out of yourself for a moment, something that seems larger than the moment, with realistic and "live" characters, this is it. Thunder Demons is one of those books that keeps your interest, gets you involved and clarifies your beliefs relating to the matters that these characters struggle with.

Friday
Apr202012

Review: The Living Wills

The Living Wills by Brendan Sullivan and Rick Kaempfer, available in soft cover from Eckhartz Press or in e-book for Kindle, Nook or Sony Reader.

Review by Megan Renehan

In The Living Wills, Sullivan and Kaempfer tell a story of interconnected lives and the consequences of split-second decisions.  The novel follows five main characters: a parking garage attendant, a barista, a toilet salesman, a lawyer, and a corporate executive, ultimately connecting their lives in deep and unexpected ways.  The story is structured in short chapters alternating between the main characters' points of view.  Rich with emotion and local detail, The Living Wills is a story that stayed with me long after I had closed the book. 

In the preface, the authors note the novel's structure is influenced by the Harold, an improvisational theater form created by Del Close.  While the novel does not exactly follow the form, the interwoven stories lend themselves to the influence of improv.  Sullivan and Kaempfer set themselves up for a challenge by telling the stories of five main characters each through a different point of view, but each of the story lines is unique, all the characters are clearly drawn, and there is no confusion for the reader.  Short chapters  advance the plot quickly and keep the reader engaged. 

What struck me most about this novel was its sweetness.

What struck me most about this novel was its sweetness.  Sullivan and Kaempfer navigate issues of love, loss, and family dynamics with a care that is crucial to the success of the novel.  The straightforward, unadorned prose does no work to convey the depth of emotion in the novel; that job is reserved solely for the characters, and they carry the load well.  Though each of the characters trend slightly towards the stereotypical, the reader is able to accept them as individuals thanks to Sullivan and Kaempfer's well-placed personal details.  Delmar, the toilet salesman, is a salesman to his core, and his application of sales principles to his romantic relationship is at once comic and endearing.  Similarly, the scenes in the parking garage with the executive and the attendant are injected with emotion when we learn that “Reed went through the usual charade of offering a smoke to Henry, who always pretended to consider it before declining.”  These details elevate the novel from cliché to something much deeper and more satisfying for the reader. 

As difficult as it is to wrap up intricately woven narratives, Sullivan and Kaempfer succeed there, as well.  However, for me, the final section, “Justice,” seemed more like an afterthought and negated the balanced ending that the authors had achieved for the primary characters.  “Justice” was the giant bow on an already beautifully decorated package – it wasn't needed and detracted slightly. 

The rich details about Chicago only add to the novel's appeal, and I find myself thinking of Henry, Reed, and Delmar when I pass Waveland Bowl or a parking area on lower Wacker Drive.

On the whole, The Living Wills was a pleasure to read for Sullivan and Kaempfer's deft characterization and effective structural choices.  The rich details about Chicago only add to the novel's appeal, and I find myself thinking of Henry, Reed, and Delmar when I pass Waveland Bowl or a parking area on lower Wacker Drive.