Tuesday, June 27, 2023

Herbs and Empire: Merchant and Empire Book Eight, by Alma T. C. Boykin. Kindle Edition.

A slightly condensed version of this review may be found on Goodreads, and has been submitted to Amazon.

A sign of my absence from Reader Land: I’m not familiar with the first seven books in the series.

A sign of astounding writing skill: in no way did that detract from my appreciation of this 8th volume: 
  • If there were previously uncompleted story arcs, they were not obvious to me. 
  • If there was some bit of essential information I missed, I couldn’t identify it. 
  • In fact, the ONLY effect that discovering this was the most recent in an 8-volume epic is that I realized I have seven beauties yet to discover. 
  • So, good!

Saxo Birdson is an abused and neglected youth, apprenticed to Master Agri, who raises (giant) ‘great-hauler’ birds for use as draft animals. While performing those duties, a beast healer (Master Jeaspe) discovers Saxo has the power to influence the behavior and healing of the great birds, and insists he be trained in that gift, per the command of the Great Northern Emperor. 

And: the REAL story begins!

Among the MANY things I found particularly noteworthy is this: somehow, somewhere, Saxo has developed the most EXCELLENT habit of repeating back any instructions he is given. While a valuable habit in any job, his developing life will require such attention to detail. Alas, my own dogs are too old to learn a new trick (and by dogs, one may mean 'children').

I found myself nearly giggling with delight, as I read the descriptions of the uses of assorted vegetation.  These ‘primitive’ people are steeped, through and through, with the disciplines of SCIENCE! Describe, explain, predict, control; that’s at the heart of every use of herbs found in the book. It’s transformed the use of medicinal properties of growing things from the mutterings of hedge witches, to a formal body of knowledge, which can be transmitted to future practitioners.

A small note on language: some of the names for things may be totally made up; I really couldn’t say. Others are merely archaic forms, no longer in use in Woodstock, GA, Cultural Center of the Universe, in Anno Domini 2023. However, I sheepishly confess that I had forgotten that ‘kine’ refers to cows; I was thinking it meant ‘pigs.’ It took a reference to horns for me to snap back to reality. Pigs are SWINE, not KINE. Duh, me.

While it is true that this world contains significant magical elements, that is definitely NOT what drives the bus. That job goes to the role of duty, and in particular, to the degree of duty owed to authority. The story is very clear that sometimes a duty to one conflicts to a duty to the other; the society essentially requires that such conflicts exist. How is one to know what takes precedence? (That answer is found in the text as well. )

This was a delightful introduction to what appears to be a sophisticated exercise in world-building. Every step along the way is consistent with things we know, or can reasonably anticipate. None of the characters are single-function villains or heroes; I could say more on this, but I won’t. 

My grateful thanks to the author!

Friday, June 16, 2023

Falcons of Malta: Anthology #4


This is the fourth anthology of Malta stories published by Raconteur Press. Believe it or not, this is NOT the most bizarre thing this new publisher has brought forth; they also have a series of art-inspired anthologies, with each story having a max size of 50 words. I doubt that anyone could really predict what they do next, but my money is on a Do It Yourself series covering items such as: how to differentiate between a GHOST in your attic, and GOATS in your attic, and recommendations for each.

As a matter of fact, anything related to an attic could show up. I believe that’s where you’ll find the Usual Suspects, unless they are attending a convention.

I was a Falcon for 16 years, and thus, even if they hadn’t already hooked me with the three prior works,  it was a foregone conclusion that this volume was going to join my review queue. I do not regret this in the slightest. HOWEVER: in order that I receive maximum adulation, I will state once more that anthologies of short stories are one of my favorite forms to read, but are the most difficult to review.  That’s because so many short stories turn on a reveal, which must NOT show up in the review, as spoilers are a horrid thing. Therefore, I have to do actual brain work, and who has time for THAT anymore? 

A condensed version of this review, beginning with the next paragraph, has been submitted to Amazon and Goodreads.

Welcome to some new stories, about entities of various age, set on an ancient island.

Cat and Mouse, by Cedar Sanderson. The Stasi had the job of keeping Westerners and Western influences OUT, while keeping their own population IN. If that sentence makes no sense to you, I’m guessing you came of age before the Wall came down (and you won’t understand THAT phrase, either). I don’t know that DDR mothers ever warned their children not to be bad, or the Stasi would get them, but they were boogie man, banshee, and Baba Yaga, all rolled into one, and the threat would not have been idle. Young love doesn’t have much chance against an enemy like that; it would take a magic cat to help (plus something else I can’t mention because SPOY-LERZ).

Where the Heroes Go, by Nicki Kenyon. Some myths describe the reward for fallen heroes as a great hall, where the mighty sit and drink beer forever. Personally, an eternity in the company of loudmouth drunks doesn’t sound like a reward. And how does an eternity of alcohol consumption work, anyway? If getting drunker and drunker is the pattern, then again, no thanks. I like Nicki’s proposal MUCH better.

Family Matters, by Evan DeShais. I’d have to classify this as a crime thriller, but that’s not right, either. It’s got a high-tech thread running through it, but the tech doesn’t always work. Loyalty does, though, as long as you add the right amount of hard work.  

Knight Errant, by E.C. Ratliff. Members of the warrior class chase a miscreant though alleys and look forward to hitting him with sticks. It doesn’t work. It never works, because success takes a LOT more than muscle. It takes determination, commitment to a cause, and a magic rat.

The Old Man of Malta, by Heather Strickler. Don’t EVER threaten an old man, because they aren’t motivated by a fear of death. Actually, what they ARE motivated by is anything that ends the problem, so they don’t have to be bothered anymore. And if that leaves the opponent mostly (or all) dead? Who cares? 

The Peace of Il-Maqluba, by A. Kristina Casasent. There are extensive tunnels and caves underground in Malta; some of them are more than just rock and dirt. Everything has a purpose, which sometimes can only be revealed by doing.

The Grandmaster's Treasure, by Seth Taylor. When the Turks drove the Society off the island, the Grandmaster’s treasure stayed behind. It wasn’t abandoned, though; it was hidden, until the right people came back for it. Remember: no battle plan survives contact with the enemy. 

Spring Festival, by Claire Bernay. How do you know when it’s time to pass along the adult secrets to the children? How do you protect them from the inevitable? How can you make sure you aren’t crippling them with the decisions you make? 

The Tides of Malta, by Zane Voss. It’s a straightforward commando raid, but the stakes are incredibly high. You can prepare all you want, but it’s the on-the-spot decisions that make the difference between success and failure. 

Special Delivery, by D.A. Brock. In this timeline, the Texas navy is fighting in the vicinity of the island. The submarine minelayer Devastation isn’t really equipped to do the new job, but it’s “other duties as assigned.” What’s more explosive: a boatload of avgas, or a boatload of nurses?

Backchannel, by Richard Cartwright. In the future, we have bases on the moon. High tech doesn’t mean infallible, though. When the aliens land, mistakes are made, people on both sides die, but EVERYONE gets blamed. Somehow, the future of humanity depends on how well one human gets along with one alien. It doesn’t look like it’s going well.

Alas, my review is finished, and once again, I fear I have not done the EXCELLENT work of these authors justice. If I failed in that respect, it's someone else's fault. Not the authors, though. 
Probably the GHOST or the GOATS. I'll have them cleared out sometime this weekend.

Peace be on your household.

Thursday, June 15, 2023

Space Cowboys, or 'Meanwhile, Back at the Asteroid'

My review of the book will be posted in two versions. This version will contain 350+ words of backstory and explanations. The Amazon and Goodreads version will not have any of that.

Space Cowboys Edited by C.V. Walter. Raconteur Press. Kindle Edition. 

My heroes have always been cowboys. It was rather inevitable, because at that time, Roy Rogers and The Lone Ranger dominated the three channels available on the rabbit-ear-antenna’ed black and white television set, to be followed closely by Bat Masterson, Gunsmoke, Maverick, Bronco and Bonanza. Have you got the idea? Because I can list MANY more examples, if you like. I was THERE, you see; and, to top it off, we moved to San Antonio in time for me to start the first grade, and I got my first cowboy hat and boots, and saw the Alamo, and had a pet horned toad. So, yeah, cowboys.

Nothing lasts forever. The US got interested in rockets, and the new shows were Men in Space, Tom Corbett: Space Cadet, Twilight Zone, and Lost in Space; by the time Star Trek finally hit the screen in 1966, NOBODY wanted a pony for Christmas anymore.  

And, if ANYONE had suggested that the writers were just dusting off un-used or over-used Western story lines, calling a rabbit a smeerp, and replacing the ferocious Apache with the ferocious Martian/Klingon, they would have been shunned as a spoilsport.

Even though nothing lasts forever, nothing ever changes, either. We STILL wanted cowboys! So, we got Wild Wild West (cowboys PLUS high-tech!), which was the very first prime-time steampunk event, preceding the origination of the term by more than 20 years. 
I’m ignoring cartoons, which haven’t been my thing since Bugs Bunny/Roadrunner, and comic books, which I abandoned shortly after Spiderman emerged.  
For those of us who really loved the blend, though, it was a wasteland.
WHO SAID THAT? Please, PLEASE don’t make me remember Firefly…

Yes, I KNOW I’m leaving out a lot of greatness. Please feel free to make up the lack in the comments!

At long last, a colony of psychos, hippies, chippies, rednecks, cops, veterans, school marms, librarians, pilots, priests, scientists and authors (oops, redundant!) decided it was time to get the job done. And they came up with this collection of SPACE COWBOY stories. I hope that one of the future volumes will be titled “Meanwhile, Back at the Asteroid...”

The stories:
Asteroid Wranglers, by JL Curtis. When we finally get a foothold in space, we are NOT going to be able to rely on lifting up essential resources out of Earth’s gravity well. No need to either, since there is an entire planet’s worth, already busted up, drifting out there, waiting for us. It’s dangerous work, though, and The Man only cares about the bottom line.

Drover, by Evan DeShais. The man told me that he was excited by our future in space, because there are SO many resources out there that everyone will be rich, and there will be no crime, just peace. 
So, I sold him some crypto-currency, an extended warranty on his car, and the winning ticket to the lottery. He was happy for the opportunity! (NOTE: none of that happened; it’s just my way of illustrating that where opportunity exists, cheaters, robbers, bullies and thugs will find a way.) 

All Creatures Weird and Wonderful, by David Bock. I understand that it was customary in ancient times to lame the blacksmith. He was so vital to the village, they didn’t want him to run away. Same could happen with medics, in a future on another planet, with bizarre forms of disease. Query: did witch doctors ever get killed if they guessed wrong? 

Getting the Herd In, by Richard Cartwright. Cool, this one is in the BIBLE, sort of! There’s a difference between a shepherd and a hired hand, paid to watch sheep. In this case, it’s bison adapted to a semi-terraformed Mars, but that takes NOTHING away from the story. 

Showdown at Palladiumtown, by Andrew Milbourne. The Texas Rangers are the oldest law enforcement agency in America. There’s no reason to believe their history can only be written on Earth, is there? Sure, there are bound to be conflicts over jurisdiction, but competent professionals can usually win over well-intentioned local cops. And, if they AREN’T well-intentioned? I don’t know; shoot ‘em, maybe?

Gideon's Wild Ride, by Scott Slack. Roy took good care of Trigger, and the Lone Ranger took good care of Silver. The partnership between horse and rider is a precious trust, and it goes both ways.

No Home on the Range, by Rick Cutler. This isn’t a story about homeless space cowboys. This is a story about how keeping to a code of honor can be complicated; it’s about loyalty. And it serves as an excellent reminder that survivors MUST know their environment. 

Tin Badge, Tin Dog, by Daniel G. Zeidler. A good dog has saved more than one person from harm, and from loneliness as well. They are amazingly perceptive, and the bond between a dog and his human has to be seen to be believed. Will robot dogs be able to do that? Well, I hear that some people can be both cop and combat, so maybe it’s possible. 

Interstellar Cattle Drive, by Cedar Sanderson. A herd of cows may look placid, but they can DEFINITELY kill you. If that happens, though, it won’t be because of evil intent; it’s just that the cow couldn’t be troubled by realizing you were in the way. If you are appropriately prudent, though, you can expect to operate safely in the vicinity of the herd. That safety doesn’t extend to situations involving humans. 

W.A.R.P. in Sector 3! by Jesse Barrett. There are good reasons that ship captains are given a great deal of authority. Most of those reasons are related to potentially lethal events. It would be nice, if the threats could be limited to weather. Or even warfare! However, I suspect that threats generated from actions by crew members are those which are most likely to succeed.  A captain’s authority will NOT save the author of this story, however! He played “fun with the written word,” inserting cultural references, and probably puns and other japes, and is destined for the carp catapult. 

This volume is certified free of existential angst, and may be used to illustrate the value of an ethical system of beliefs to youth and others in need.

Peace be on your household.

Tuesday, June 6, 2023

Revisiting The Little Old Man in Line

 It’s June 6, and I MUST honor the memory of D-Day. When I first wrote this, in 2013, my first-born son was in Afghanistan. Today, my Kenneth is about to start the second phase of his National Guard training. 
We stand together, with The Little Old Man in Line.

The Little Old Man in Line

He was a little old man, just like this one.

The little old man in line in front of me at the grocery store was bent over, and it took him a while to unload his shopping cart onto the conveyor. He shuffled forward, and greeted the cashier with a clear, pleasant voice. It took him a while to scan his credit card to pay for his groceries; then he had to retrieve his cane from the cart while the young lady (what do you call a female bagboy?) helped him move it to the door; it was a slow process. The cashier looked at me with some embarrassment; she had seen me watching him, and I read her mind: she was afraid I was put out over the little old man's slow movements. 

She rang up my few items, and I leaned over to her, and said, "I'll bet you any amount of money you want that he's a WWII veteran." She gave me a puzzled look; I said "Didn't you see the way he was standing?" She probably didn't see it, but I did. Even with the trembling and the cane, the little old man had seen service. "His generation saved our generation," I told her.

Her voice broke. For the first time, I realized she had an Eastern European accent. She said, "They come in here all the time, and I never know what to say to them." 

"It's a debt we will never be able to repay," I said.

I hobbled out to the parking lot. Even with my own limp and cane, I caught up with the little old man and his helper before we reached the parking lot.

"Excuse me, sir, but I have to ask you where you were 69 years ago."

He gave me a funny look. What the heck is this gray haired, bearded pony-tailed cripple asking me? He started to answer. "well, let's see, I'm..."

He was going to tell me how old he was, and figure it out from there. I stopped him.

"June, 1944."

He smiled, and looked at me full in the face. "In the Navy."

"I knew it," I said. "I could tell by the way you stand."

"Well, I used to stand a lot taller..."

"You stand just fine, sir. Thank you for your service. Your generation saved my generation, and we won't ever be able to pay you back. We're doing our part, though; my oldest son is in Afghanistan now, and I was in the 582 Med Company." 

"Good for you, young man" the old sailor replied, with a trace of moisture in his eyes, and a bit of a quiver in his voice.

"Thank you, sir, and thank you again for your service."

"And thank you as well," he said.

And I hobbled off to my truck, and he shuffled off to his Buick; and I looked at the young lady who was helping him with his groceries. Her eyes were glowing, and she studied the little old man as if she had never seen a man before in her life.

And maybe she hadn't REALLY seen one before; but she will remember this day, and I will; and so will the little old man, and hopefully he will tell someone he loves that we haven't forgotten him and all those other boys who saved civilization.

Peace be on your household.

Monday, June 5, 2023

Hunters and Hijinks: Book One of Salvage Treasure

Once upon a time, there were four tiny cogs in a big machine. That’s not bad in itself; big machines really NEED tiny cogs to operate. In this case, however, the cogs were really not DESIGNED to be cogs. 

They were members of the Jongee race, and if you think of humanoid hyenas, as I did, you’ll come as close as possible to getting the picture in mind. To get closer still, read a bit about customary behavior of Earth hyenas. They like to hang out in small packs, and they are pretty good at killing things. So: answer phones? Do paperwork? Be a part of a huge conglomerate? Nope, none of that is a match.

Eddie is the big, dumb klutz, who manages to break mop handles while trying to clean the floors. He’s joined by the most senior Jongee, Harold, who is likely to drift into a daydream at any point. Reggie, a customer service tech (complaint manager) has a bit of a mysterious past, but clearly, the danger everyone fears is coffee-guzzling Maddy, the lone female Jongee. 

Their friendship is solidified when they discover they won’t be able to take their long-planned vacation to attend a celebration at home, and the group decides to quit. Harold insists he has a no-fail treasure map in hand, and that beats the idea of staying on their hated jobs. All it will take is everything they have saved. They pool their scant resources, and head out to the deep black. 
In a broken down hunk of space junk Harold thought would be a good buy, because the salesman SAID it was a good buy.

The plot thickens! Can Eddie REALLY be the incompetent goober he projects? Can Harold REALLY have no discernment whatever, even while finding the treasure map? Will Reggie and Maddy come to blows over the diminishing coffee supply? Can the witty dialogue contain any more puns and cultural references? Semi-sentient small hitch-hikers! Mall cops! Pirates! MY LITTLE PONY!

This is a delightfully pleasant romp. Yes, there is danger, from environments as well as from other sentient beings, but the authors treat these characters with happy respect. This is (allegedly) the first of a trilogy, so some obvious potentials are left unfulfilled, but much is resolved as well. 

Although, perhaps not as the Jongee would prefer. Still, as long as more is coming (despite the authors’ threats, I believe it will happen). We can all stand by for more. Maybe not for long.

Peace be on your household.

Postcards From Mars: Book 1 of the Postcard Series

 Postcards from Mars
CV Walter, editor. 
Volume 1 of 4 (so far)

(I’m NOT going to do any more research on it, so there may be errors in the next paragraph, BUT not sufficient to change the essential truth of the story. )

My primary source is my memory (HA!) of reading Isaac Asimov’s two-volume autobiography “In Memory Yet Green (1920-1954)” and “In Joy Still Felt (1954-1978).”  
Sometime in the 1970s, Unknown Person approached Isaac Asimov and others with the novel idea of Postcard Stories. These were to be super-shorts, which could be contained on a postcard, and were to receive a special marketing approach (after all, money was needed).  Asimov needed only the suggestion to dash off “The Turning Point,” an example of his pun-centered works. 

Alas, the idea was not workable at the time. 

And, what with one thing and another, a half-century passes….

….and then, THE THREE MOMS OF THE APOCALYPSE emerge on the scene. To be specific, the scene was MarsCon in Virginia Beach, where they issued the challenge: using a bit of (AMAZING) artwork as inspiration, write a short story with a 50-word limit. POSTCARD STORIES!

Whether it was the artwork, the advances in technology available since the failed attempt, or the charisma of the Three Moms (which has my vote), THIS effort succeeded. In fact, they have now published FOUR volumes, of which this is the first. I actually encountered the fourth volume a couple of weeks ago, and reviewed it here. 

So (stealing a line from elsewhere), these are their stories:

Verdict, by Christopher R. DiNote. If you go to the rescue of a fool, you will only have to do it again.

The March of the Hare, by Jolie LaChance. Who knows what lurks in the hearts of Alice’s co-stars?

The Wedding of Sir Fluffykins, by Karina Fabian. Much can be said for arranged marriages of state.

Fred and the Barnacle, by Rick Cartwright. Parasite or symbiote, some things just go together. Other things? Not so much.

The Root of the Matter, by Rob Howell. Hard-boiled detective prose notwithstanding, the author deserves the carp!

Leo the Bunny Test the Hot Box, by Kortnee Bryant. One little mistake, and it’s the sixties all over again. 

Baby Warrior, by Clair W. Kiernan. Yes, I’m a monster. But I’m YOUR monster.

Restaurant Critic, by Sherri Mines. You knew it was a tough job when you took it.

Callback, by Sam Robb. It’s method acting. I THINK it’s acting. ("Funny, how? I AMUSE you?)

Spirit Delivery, by Evan DeShais. “Did I do it good? Did I? Did I? Did I? I hope I did good!”

The Fae-chi, by Sandra Medlock. They grow SO fast! Sometimes you wish…

The Paper Swans of Ellendell, by Jimmie Bise, Jr. Poetry and beauty, and lethal capability.

Back From the Ballgame, by Caroline Furlong. Parenting cannot be accomplished without joyful sacrifice.

Another, by Liska McCabe. We do our duty; we grow; do we change?

The Mission, by Jennifer Cameron. A journey of a thousand miles better begin with one trip to the bathroom.

Day 4, by Nick Larda. Where else are you going to be able to see something like this?

An Evil Path, by James Bellinger. Don’t leave home without… never mind. Just, don’t leave home.

 Not a Feature, by Dorothy Grant. “I’m a smashed bug on the windshield of your heart…”

Peace Goes On, by Brian Cameron. They made a desert, and called it Las Vegas. Later, that is.

Business Expectations, by Sanford Begley. To the untrained eye, she seemed to be a nice person.

A Note to Novablanca, by ZM Renick. I think this is the beginning of a beautiful relationship. (And I think this is maybe The Perfect, The Ideal, manifestation of the form. YMMV)

Puppet in the Stars, by C. V. Walter. Don’t try to bluff an old person. They will kill you, just to avoid the hassle.

It's yummy popcorn for the brain and whatever else in you that likes yummy popcorn. The artwork is absolutely lovely, and The Three Moms credit something called Midjourney for that.

I say: BRAVO!

Peace be on your household.