Tuesday, 23 December 2014




by David Gaughan

A historically-based biography of an American mercenary and entrepreneur with the somewhat improbable but real name of Lee Christmas, who was active around the dawn of the 1900s, primarily in Honduras.

Lee Christmas's life story offers the author rich material to work with. He grew up in an American South gripped by poverty and with few opportunities to better himself, yet he was clearly a man of great natural talent. He was also seriously flawed. From falling asleep while driving a train drunk, or hungover, and causing a head-on collision which he narrowly survived, to exercising very poor judgement in his entrepreneurial ventures, Christmas constantly makes mistakes as well as occasionally getting things right. Christmas is billed as the man who single-handedly changed the course of history in Central America. This claim has some truth to it, but it is not the whole story. Christmas was influential in key ways in the events described in the book, but he did not act single-handedly, and the author's sources ultimately go back to Christmas himself to a great extent, so the reliability of the reports of his actions, and the extent of their influence, may be open to question. However, what is clear nevertheless is that Lee Christmas was a real life man who lived life to the full, and then some. It is amusing to note that so ordinarily reliable a source as the New York Times erroneously reported his death in action.

The biggest problem I have with the book is the writing style. It is very ordinary and seems unengaged with the characters and the events. The adjective that persists in coming to mind is 'pedestrian'. The book reads like a newspaper article, or an encyclopedia entry. The action scenes were a tiny part of the book - probably less than five percent of the whole. Lee's love life, if one can call it that (although he did marry three times) is described at a very conservative and safe distance. Lee's drinking is better described, but again lacks any immediacy. There is no real characterization as such; it is all based on describing the historical man as best Gaughan has been able to exhume him. Other reviewers have reported being unable to finish the book, and I believe that the dull writing style is the reason. 

Perhaps the comparison should be made with a history book, because the author has made a serious and commendable effort to properly research Lee Christmas's life and the events in which he was involved. The fact that alternative sources are practically impossible to come by is not the author's fault. I would suggest the book is being marketed to the wrong audience, i.e. military/adventure readers, who find virtually no military action between the covers, and while there is plenty of adventure it is described in a dull way. It would be better presented as a historical biography of good quality.

One oddity of the book (the Kindle edition) which struck me as I began reading it was the lack of a table of contents near the front. In fact the book has a table of contents, but for whatever reason it is located on the very last pages, so that one finds it when one has finished reading the story.

Recommended for history buffs of the turbulent times in Central America at the dawn of the 20th Century.

Currently Reading

Ataxia and the Ravine of Lost Dreams
by Rachel Barnard

Monday, 15 December 2014

At One's Beast


At One's Beast
by Rachel Barnard

This is an immersive fantasy for young adults, but with broader appeal and deeper purpose. It is a relatively quick read, what I would call a long novella or a short novel. The setting is the isolated pastoral village of Frey, which is surrounded by a wild and largely unknown forest.

The key physical feature in the story is a mysterious well in the forest, which the villagers use in an annual cleansing ceremony, as a receptacle of all their ill-will from the past year. The well no longer contains water, but exudes an accumulated dark menace; however, "No one has ever fallen into the well."

There are three main human characters: Zosimos or 'Zos' for short, and Alcina, who are children when the story begins, and Aethon, of similar age but whom we meet a little later. The events in the main body of the book take place ten years after the opening scenes, when the three have grown up. The Jackal is also an important character, whether primary or secondary depends on your reading of the book.

Barnard's writing style is good, easy to read, and a comfortable fit with the content.

Before I go on to the good, and why you really should read this book, let me deal with the negative. Perhaps intentionally, Rachel Barnard has set Frey in an extraordinary isolation. There is virtually no contact with the outside world, and when the villagers do request support from Aporia, it takes weeks to arrive. Yet the village has such things as books, which require a minimum degree of technology to produce. So I felt that there was a gap in the book's logic where the setting was concerned: it wasn't clear how the villagers were making a living, or how the village continued to survive. This may have something to do with the author's underlying aims with the story, see below. The Jackal appeared oddly enormous where the real life animal is quite small - but then, this is a fantasy, and the Jackal has a symbolic role.
There are also some minor failures in editing: an occasional typo or odd word choice. I must emphasize that these are rare, and do not detract from the reader's experience.

Now, what makes this book special, and why should you read it?

Firstly, it's a great story. There is drama, there is a mysterious beast of the forest which the villagers perceive as a destructive enemy and which they try to appease by offering an annual sacrifice. There is romance and tension. There is love, there is quick judgement and rejection, there is the eternal struggle of conflicting human emotions. The characters are endearing, particularly Zos and Alcina. There is the sway of influence between the chaotic forest and civilized village life. The story grips, the characters struggle with themselves and with one another, and with the revelation of buried truths.

Most importantly, this is not just another light fantasy. Rachel Barnard has aimed high. In At One's Beast she strives to address profound truths and ethical challenges through the model of this isolated village and its well of darkness. Where does ill will go when we have gotten over our hurt or our anger or malice? What is the impact upon the society we live in - and, how might it manifest if it were magically visible? What might one achieve if, instead, one were at one's best?

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Iron William and the Carpenter's Tears


Iron William and the Carpenter's Tears
by Michael Gardner

'Iron William' Kidd, who acquires the apt soubriquet in this story, has a mission impossible thrust upon him. It's not his fault, but neither does he have any choice, not if he wants to live - and the Church of Rome would make a deadly enemy. Although the story is fiction it is set in the competently replicated historical period of the Reformation, in the mid-16th Century. The action takes place in Mediterranean Europe, in fact across most of it, from one end to the other and half-way back again.

There are a number of clearly defined characters in this book, in addition to Kidd himself, both friends and enemies. Kidd is particularly well done, and the main characters are all well drawn. William Kidd has an arch-enemy in Hamilton Rush and the dearest desire of each is to see the other dead, by fair means or foul. Pages turn easily, the pace accelerating nicely towards the brilliant conclusion.

Somewhat reminiscent of Sam Llewellyn's 'Gurney' books, from the reader's perspective Iron William's adventures are as fun-filled and action packed as those of any Tomb Raider or Indiana Jones. On land or at sea the crises are relentless, and William must dig deep within to find the resources to be true to himself, whatever the cost. Strongly recommended to anyone who enjoys a rousing historical adventure.

Currently Reading

At One's Beast
by Rachel Barnard

Will be a free ebook on Amazon on December 18 and on Christmas Day -
I'm half-way through it and can confidently say, go on, treat yourself!

Ataxia and the Ravine of Lost Dreams
by Rachel Barnard

I was going to read this next but got temporarily sidetracked by the above!

Added to my reading list

by David Gaughran

This is probably Bruno Goncalves' fault.

See my review of Descent into Mayhem!

Friday, 12 December 2014

Descent into Mayhem: Review & Author Interview


Descent into Mayhem
by Bruno Goncalves

Genre: Hard military SF

The highlights:
Bruno Goncalves is, simply put, a find. Comparisons to Heinlein's Starship Troopers are justified. The only thing is, Goncalves may actually be better - once the little editing issues are sorted out. 

A super-earth lost colony; military conflict featuring giant mechanized "Suits"; superb realism in world creation, technology, SF military and social organization and behaviour. How often do you get all those from one author?


Toni Miura is a farm boy who gets tired of his family telling him how to live, and making decisions about his future. So he joins the army. If you've ever been in the army, I won't need to tell you to chuckle at this point. 
Toni is a great protagonist - gifted, but also flawed. He has good instincts and good aptitude, but he's not prescient and he makes mistakes. His squad mates are sketched more sparingly, but still well drawn, with the possible exception of Ian Templeton whose motives are unexplained, at least in this first book.
Partially genetically adapted human colonists on the super-earth planet Capicua have had no contact with Earth or anyone else for centuries. Now an armed expeditionary force arrives to reclaim Earth's 'territory'. The shocked colonists fight back. Toni and the other recruits picked a bad time to join the army. They're not even half-trained when Bad Things begin to happen, but they have to do the best they can with what they've got.
Goncalves is a tough writer. Characters get hurt, and they get killed. Just as in war, there are no favourites and no one has a charmed life. The reader really does not know who will die next, or how.

The book starts with a prologue describing combat action which takes place twenty years earlier. I suspect the importance of this will become clearer in Goncalves' sequel (see the Interview below!).
Capicua's boot training, and selection of Suit driver candidates, is outstanding. It reflects the standard military method, but it is expertly applied in the SF setting of Capicua. After two hundred years of peace, the armed forces are not exactly in a high state of readiness to repel invaders; nevertheless the actions of the invaders push the Capicuans into armed conflict.
The invaders from the Earth Federation are also very well drawn: real characters, with different cultural values and customs from the Capicuans. One feels a connection with the invaders as well as with the hard-pressed defenders. This is particularly so in the case of Kaiser, but also with the ruthless Lippard.

What is truly impressive is the hard SF nature of this book. Goncalves has taken the trouble, and done the research, to create an unusually real-world feel in his creation.

The only criticism I can level is the lack of professional editing. There are occasional typos or incorrect word choices - but the book is so good that they are unable to detract from the pleasure of reading a great hard SF story. That's why, in spite of this, I still give the book five stars.

Fans of hard military Science Fiction, salute your new commander!

Interview with the author (I believe it's his first!)

I was so impressed that I contacted Bruno and asked him for an interview, and here it is:

Question: (In a very anxious tone) Will we see Toni in the next book?

Bruno: Toni’s place in the Capicua world is safe. As one might realize from Descent into Mayhem’s ending, Toni’s gotten himself into a load of trouble; there are some clans out there you just don’t mess around with… On the other hand, his own family could hardly be considered a pushover (hint, hint).

Q: What gave you the idea for the story?

Bruno: The idea popped into my head back in 2008. At the time I was a rookie police officer in Lisbon and had a small room for myself two floors above my precinct. I had no television, but I did have a computer with an internet connection, and my interest in space-travel and colonization had taken me into exoplanet research.
We’re living in very interesting times, with more than 1800 exoplanets discovered as of this month. This feverish phase of planetary discovery was beginning to take off in 2008, and it made me wonder: if we happened to fail in discovering faster-than-light travel, what would be the social and political consequences of Mankind‘s Diaspora among the stars?

Q: Was the 'Mechwarriors' series or similar books part of your inspiration? Are you a fan of those books, and if so which authors do you particularly like?

Bruno: “Giant Freaking Robots” have always been a particular fetish of mine. When I listen to epic music and begin to smile, I’m imagining them running amok. It all began with a Japanese anime franchise known as Mobile Suit Gundam, they’re the culprits. After that I couldn’t get enough, I consumed Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, and then joined my army buddies in all-night LAN parties where we’d face off against each another in Mechwarrior 4 and club each other to death. (David: As a Mechwarrior Mercenaries vet myself, I grin knowingly).
After a while I began to design one of them; it needed to be something real in my mind. I imagined an aluminum-lithium alloy frame, pneumatic artificial muscles, a closed compressed-air system to actuate them and a gas turbine to power it all. I could go on but, as anyone who has read my book already knows, the design of a bipedal APC with unique all-terrain capabilities ended up making its way into my book.

Q: You seem to have done a lot of scientific and medical research for this. Or did you just make it all up as you went along?

Bruno: As an inveterate fan of hard science fiction, I find myself unable to refer to technical, technological or scientific matters without grounding them in as much science fact as possible. Much of the time I spent researching the current state-of-the-art and speculating on the technological future. I’ve realized it may all be a little unnecessary for some readers but, on the other hand, Descent into Mayhem was written for those die-hard fans of the military science-fiction genre.

Q: Why did you choose a super-earth?

Bruno: The star Gliese 667C exists! And, curiously enough, Capicua does as well, although its present name is Gliese 667Cc. And it happens to be a super-earth with an Earth Similarity Index of 0.85, which means it orbits within the Goldilocks zone of its parent star with a period of 28 days. Sound familiar?
Oddly enough, I only located Capicua around Gliese 667C upon its discovery in 2011, having before then “planned out” a super-earth planet so as to get into the necessary adaptations potential colonists would have to face. That part was a lot of fun.

Q: Why do you write?

Bruno: My first reason for writing was as a cure for boredom and an outlet for my overactive imagination. A cop on patrol shouldn’t be spending his time staring up at the stars, should he? But writing only made it worse as the “world” I was building began to take shape. I’m still surprised no-one took a shot at me in those moments.
Nowadays I write with a mission: to be successful for the sake of my family.

Q: Why did you publish this when it *clearly* still needs a final edit?

Bruno: As someone who’d never read a self-edited Indie book and come face to face with the curse of the stealth errors, I believed it within my grasp to carefully edit my manuscript up to publishable status. I read all the right blogs (or so I thought) and rolled up my sleeves and, after doing three edit runs (grammar, paragraph, structure, etc…) I became tentatively convinced that it was ready.
I realize now that, due to the very nature of the human mind, editing should be done by someone other than the author. That person should be a professional.

Q: Do you hate your characters, or are you just a hard-nosed storyteller?

Bruno: I can’t envision an author who hates his characters. Even the villains are interesting, in their own way. I have also never considered myself to be hard-nosed (although maybe I’m making the same mistake as when I thought I could edit my own book). Thing is, people are imperfect. I’d never create a character possessing only positive traits and no negative ones.
As someone who spent four of his five years in the military training people to soldier, I’ve had to get to understand them in all their complexity. By the end of three months of training I was expected to evaluate them in accordance with five basic criteria.
Weigh the souls of more than five hundred people. Use five criteria with a one-to-four scale. Mission impossible. The extraordinary diversity of people involved, their complexity and, mostly, the way their strongest points were sometimes counterbalanced by horrid weaknesses, this was my army experience. Add to that five years in a patrol-vehicle stalking the streets of Lisbon.
I could never have imagined my characters in any other way.

Q: Don't you think you should put more effort into rounding out secondary and tertiary characters? (Sometimes I can be nasty - they're not that bad.)

Bruno: Ouch, that’s a zinger, although I might have been asking for it. We have a saying in the army. Terrain is a dictator. Well, in my opinion, narrative’s a bit like that too. I follow the narrative of the story in accordance with a general plot, jumping from one POV to another to tell my story as best as I can. Sometimes this allows me to get into certain characters in greater detail. However, sometimes it doesn’t. I’ve realized by now that there are many, many different ways to write a book, some better at capturing the essence of secondary characters than others. It’s not only a matter of method, though. I realize now it’s also a matter of skill.
Perhaps as I improve at writing I’ll be able to do better. I truly hope so.

Q: Tell us about your next book, and *rather urgently* when is it coming out?

Bruno: Tears of Gliese is my sequel to Descent into Mayhem, and it’s presently more than nine-tenths of the way through its first draft. If the first book gave people an impression that there are two sides to the conflict, the second will make it clear that it’s never that simple. It’s in times of peace that the seeds for war are sown, and there’s been peace in Capicua for a very long time. Two hundred years of enforced peace can generate a lot of rancor. A much closer look into how Gliese 667Cc was terraformed, how it was christened and how the seeds for internal conflict were in fact brought over from Earth during the colonists’ voyage are explored.
And there’ll be more on Toni and Kaiser, of course.

Last word
Bruno has indicated that he hopes to release Tears of Gliese early in 2015, so hopefully we won't have too long to wait! Personally, I think he's going to become a big name in hard SF. When he does, remember I said it here first!

What I'm reading now:

Iron William and the Carpenter's Tears
by Michael Gardner

I recently read a beta sample of the prequel, which was excellent.

Ataxia and the Ravine of Lost Dreams 
by Rachel Barnard

Thank you, Rachel!

Added to my To-Read List:

Too busy reading right now to add any more!

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Time for Books 2015 Review Team

Time for Books 2015 Review Team

 I'm signing up for this because I want anyway to do as many Indie reviews as I can manage, because I want to get the word out about good Indie writers and their books, and because by participating my efforts contribute to a broader footprint of visibility on the web.

If you're interested, have a look at Jo Michaels' review team page on her blog.

And doesn't my blog tag-line say it -
It's all about wreading and writing, isn't it?

Added to my To-Read List: 

Jay Asher's Thirteen Reasons Why and The Future of Us. This is what comes of looking at what another author liked on GoodReads because you like the other author...

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

First Post


The Vesta Conspiracy
by Felix R. Savage

I got to read this for free by participating in a non-reciprocal review programme on Good Reads.

Richly imaginative doesn't do this justice. Try to imagine the kind of opulently detailed solar culture a super-computer with a penchant for writing SF might come up with. The plot is convoluted and clever, as are the variety of characters. The story is downright frightening at times.

For me, the main negative was the density of jargon specific to this universe. That made getting into the story more difficult than it might otherwise have been. Yet it must also be said that the same ubiquitous use of jargon, odd terms and mysterious acronyms made Savage's world more real and more immersive.

The pace begins quite deliberately, but picks up steadily, in the same way as the load on a rail-gun accelerates. The use of virtual reality and 'phavatars' (physical avatars) is another factor which leaves one with a vertiginous grip on one's point of view.
I gather that this story is the second in a series, but it stands solidly as an independent read.
In conclusion I think the author is hugely talented, but writes in a style that will leave some readers behind. Nevertheless, you should absolutely read at least one of these and decide for yourself.

What I'm reading now:

Descent into Mayhem
by Bruno Goncalves

I used the Amazon cover; I think it looks better than the Smashwords current version!

At 25%: Soldier, suit up! And push that big red 'BUY' button!

Iron William and the Carpenter's Tears
by Michael Gardner

I recently read a beta sample of the prequel, which was excellent.

Added to my To-Read List:

The Tree of Everlasting Knowledge
by Christine Nolfi

The Rabbit Ate My Homework
by Rachel Elizabeth Cole

At One's Beast
by Rachel Barnard