Friday, December 30, 2011

The Case for and Against DRM

By BigAl 

A few weeks ago, we had a post that discussed alternatives to Amazon and Barnes & Noble for purchasing eBooks. One of the advantages some of these alternatives had was that they don’t sell eBooks with DRM (Digital Rights Management), and I promised a future post on this subject. In this post I’ll lay out the arguments for and against from the viewpoint of both the author and the reader.

What is DRM?

Digital Rights Management or DRM is a method intended to insure that consumption of digital content conforms to license terms. Also called copy protection, DRM limits the ability to make or use copied digital content including computer software and digital media such as music, video, and eBooks. In this post, we’ll be discussing DRM only as it relates to eBooks, although the experiences of other industries are pertinent to the discussion.

What You are Really Buying: The difference between paper and digital media.

I’m not a lawyer (and none of this post constitutes legal advice, although hopefully it is reasonably accurate). It is also very US-centric. Although much of it is accurate elsewhere, the laws involved can and do differ in other countries.

Many people may not realize the difference between purchasing digital and physical media and the different rights this gives them. In general, if you have something physical (a book, a computer disc containing software, a CD, or a DVD) that you’ve bought, you can lend it or resale it. Whether you can copy it and allowable uses if you do depends on the terms of the license. Allowable uses are defined by a license that comes with the product, by copyright law, or a combination of both. For our discussion, the key thing to know is that the right to copy or have copies (if any) goes with the physical product. For example, if you have MP3s on your computer or MP3 player that were ripped from a CD you purchased then you are probably not in violation of copyright law. However, if you later sell the physical CD and don’t delete the MP3s, you are in violation of the copyright.

With digital goods, the consumer doesn’t have a physical product. What they are purchasing is a license that grants specific rights to use the content in clearly defined ways. They have no right to resale, for example. Depending on the eBook and where it was purchased the license may grant limited lending rights. They might have the right to keep a copy of their purchase somewhere as a backup. They might have the right to keep a copy of the book on multiple devices or for multiple people to read it at the same time (as in different devices attached to a single Amazon account).

The Case for DRM

Creating copies of a paper book is labor intensive. Whatever method is used will be of a lower quality than the original without significant investment in time and equipment. In contrast, creating copies of a digital file is almost effortless and the copy will be the same quality as the original. Almost anyone with a computer can reproduce unlimited copies of an unprotected electronic book. Authors, publishers, and other interested parties may decide to add DRM to their books to protect their interests. The theory is that DRM will prevent piracy by making it more difficult to produce usable copies of their eBooks. Even if someone has the skills to circumvent the DRM, it will be more work for the pirate. It will also prevent what I’ll call social piracy — when people make a single copy for a friend rather than for widespread distribution.

The Case against DRM

On the surface, the case for DRM seems straightforward and reasonable. If it prevented piracy and had no effect on legitimate purchasers’ use of the product, the case for using DRM would not be an issue. However, those who argue against using DRM say the effect on pirates is insignificant and what little effect there is on social pirating isn’t worth the downside of treating all your customers like thieves. In a discussion about DRM on another blog, I theorized that there are five kinds of people to consider when an author is deciding for or against DRM:


1) Those who actively pirate books by putting them up on pirate sites. They may or may not buy a copy of the book, but have the tools to easily strip the DRM. Whether a book has DRM has little effect on them. While targeted primarily at this group, DRM has very little impact on them.

2) Those who frequent pirate sites to obtain their reading material. As far as they are concerned, your book isn’t DRMed if they find it on a pirate site. This person is also extremely unlikely to actually buy a particular book whether it is DRMed or not. While they might get a book illegally and violate the author’s copyright, this is not a lost sale.

3) Readers who are not tech savvy and are never going to try anything out of the norm. They purchase their books from Amazon (or B&N) directly from their device or the retailer’s website, let it download automatically, and never go outside of the retailer’s system. *IF* they read on multiple devices or have multiple people on the same account, these people will all stay within the retailer’s system for everything. As long as nothing comes up to cause them to go outside their norm, they don’t know if your book is DRMed and don’t care.

4) People who are tech savvy and are not in category #1 or 2. These people buy your book and may mostly be like the people in category #3. However, they have enough knowledge to work outside of the retailer’s system. They realize any hardware might fail and they may, for example, want to keep a backup of all their eBooks on their PC. That way, if their Kindle breaks down, they could easily re-load it from the backup. However, those books with DRM won’t be readable. If someone in this group decides they would like to read your book on another device, maybe their Smartphone, you force them to stay within the retailer’s system, even though they might prefer to get books to the other device some other way. If they decide to change eReader brands, they realize they will lose their investment in eBooks. Anytime someone in this group runs into a DRMed book, they are at a minimum going to get irritated at the author/publisher and might potentially decide to stay away from their books in the future. They are also prime candidates to move to group #5. Personally, I’m in this group.

5) People who would fit in #4, but are worried enough about the potential of losing their investment (without removing DRM, which in some countries is illegal) or have run into DRM roadblocks/irritants enough that they actively avoid buying DRMed books.

While a subset of people in groups 4 and 5 might sometimes illegally lend a book, it is not going to be in any kind of volume. (Those are people in #1 and 2.) While illegal, in many cases the person who “borrowed” the book wouldn’t have purchased it, which means that while still illegal, it didn’t hit the author in the pocketbook. There is also a chance that this casual lending might gain the author a new reader, and actually be a positive for their pocketbook.

You can imagine the percentage of people distributed across these groups however you want. It doesn’t matter how many fit each because the only people who care about the book being DRMed and are significantly impacted by it are those who are paying customers and are not trying to rip off the author. The goal of DRM, to prevent and decrease piracy, doesn’t work.

Although there hasn’t been a formal study that I’m aware of, some authors have done informal experiments that appear to indicate lack of DRM doesn’t hurt an author’s sales and may actually help them. The trend in other industries has been away from DRM use because they have found the DRM creates enemies while not solving the problems it was intended to address. (One example is Apple’s iTunes store, which originally used a DRM scheme for MP3 downloads which was subsequently discontinued.)

Conclusion

Each reader and author needs to come to their own conclusion based on perceived risk, convenience, and their view of the future. If Amazon or Barnes & Noble were to go out of business, this would leave Kindle or Nook readers in the lurch when their current eReader stops functioning. For readers who decide they prefer eBooks without DRM, it argues for using Smashwords or other alternatives to the major retailers; however, this is at a loss of convenience. It should be noted that although both Amazon and Barnes & Noble have DRM schemes, it is possible for a self-publishing author to opt-out of using DRM when first publishing a book on Amazon. (I’m not certain whether this is an option at Barnes & Noble.) However, there is no consistent way for a potential purchaser to determine if a book from either retailer has DRM or not prior to purchase.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Ladies Temperance Club’s Farewell Tour / Jeff Lee

Reviewed by: BigAl

Genre: Humor

Approximate word count: 75-80,000 words

Availability
Kindle US:
YES UK: YES Nook: NO Smashwords: NO Paper: YES
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Author:

A native Californian, Jeff Lee has spent thirty years as an award winning copywriter and creative director in the advertising industry.

Description:

After twenty years of abuse from her alcoholic boyfriend, Vonda Mae Ables finally fights back and in the process crushes his skull with the football trophy he didn’t win, but does display, in his home office. Now she and her best friends are on the lam. “Imagine Thelma and Louise meets Lucy & Ethel -- It's about good friends, good wine, manslaughter and the lengths we’ll go for those we care about.”

Appraisal:

I wish the author hadn’t used the “Thelma and Louise meets Lucy & Ethel” line in his description. Then in a rare burst of creativity, I could have (at least in theory), come up with the line myself. It’s the perfect description. Participating in some female bonding while on the run (like Thelma and Louise), the group of friends who call themselves The Ladies Temperance Club keeps getting into situations that are very much Lucy and Ethel. The murder hanging over their head provides conflict and tension, but the humor in the situations the ladies get into is what sets this book apart. When it’s all over, someone may have some ‘splaining to do.

FYI:

Some adult language.

Format/Typo Issues:

There were a small number of typos and other proofing errors. The version I received for review was a Word document file, so I am unable to comment on formatting.

Rating: **** Four stars

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Return to Tahoe / Barbara Strasburg

Reviewed by: BigAl

Genre: Contemporary Fiction

Approximate word count: 120-125,000 words

Availability
Kindle US:
YES UK: YES Nook: YES Smashwords: NO Paper: NO
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Author:

This appears to be Barbara Strasburg’s first novel.

Description:

The “Five-Os” are more than a softball team. A team initially formed by former-major-league-hopeful Vic Wagner to play a once a year softball tournament in Lake Tahoe, over their nine years of existence they’ve become much more, with softball taking a backseat to their friendships and camaraderie. But in the tenth year, Vic’s actions and a subsequent tragedy tests those friendships.

Appraisal:

There was a lot to like about this story. It dealt with themes and emotions with which most of us can relate: love and loss. Friendship (not only what it means, but the responsibilities it brings). The consequences of decisions, past and present.

It was a story I enjoyed reading; however, numerous editing issues marred it. These were not only clear errors (discussed in more detail in the format/typos section), but a need for a bit more polishing of the prose and a little too much fat. With a good editor to help cut where the story drags and tighten up the prose, followed by a thorough copy edit, it would be a winner. As it stands, all but those with the most forgiving internal editors will have a hard time wading through to the end.

FYI:

Some adult language and situations.

Format/Typo Issues:

There were an extremely large number of grammar errors, typos, and other proofing miscues. A full list would be too long, but I’ll give some examples. Food is arraigned (no idea what it was arrested for), couples walk hand and hand (rather than the correct hand in hand), and the homonyms pass, past, and passed are used incorrectly a vast majority of the time. Words that should be compound words (dugout, intact, within), are broken in two. There are occasional errors in verb tense and singular/plural mistakes.

Rating: ** Two stars

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Half Past Midnight / Jeff Brackett

Reviewed by: BigAl

Genre: Post-Apocalyptic Thriller

Approximate word count: 115-120,000 words

Availability
Kindle US:
YES UK: YES Nook: NO Smashwords: YES Paper: YES
Click on a YES above to go to appropriate page in Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Smashwords store

Author:

Perusing Jeff Brackett’s bio in the “About the Author” page in his book and on his website, you’ll find that besides writing he has a longtime interest in the martial arts and makes knives as a hobby. (These aren’t regular knives. Some might call them works of art.) He shares both these avocations with the protagonist of his story. For more, visit Brackett’s website.

Description:

A nuclear war blasts the world back in time, with much of the technology we take for granted rendered no longer functional. Follow survivalist Leeland Dawcett and his family as they adapt to their new world.

Half Past Midnight has been designated a “Red Adept Select” book.

Appraisal:

For years, scientists have argued about the effects of a global nuclear war, the best guesses saying there would be many human survivors, but the impact on the world as we know it would be immense. Electromagnetic pulses from the bombs would render most electronic equipment useless. Fallout would have impacts on the food supply, both animals used as meat and crops.

In Half Past Midnight, author Jeff Brackett has imagined what it would be like in this post-nuclear-war world and how families like his own would survive. His protagonist, Leeland Dawcett, has thought about this eventuality and is more prepared than most, but soon finds that you can’t plan for everything. As the Dawcett family adapts to the changing world, they discover what is important and what it takes to survive.

I found Half Past Midnight entertaining, not only as a vicarious adventure, but also as a thought exercise. How would I do in this situation? (Not very well.) How prepared would I be if it did happen? (Hardly prepared at all.) Books give us a chance to imagine experiences we’d like to have and those we’d rather not. I’ll pick option B this time.

FYI:

A small amount of adult language.

Format/Typo Issues:

No significant issues.

Rating: **** Four stars

Thursday, December 22, 2011

My Frankenstein / Michael J. Lee

Reviewed by: Corina

Genre: Paranormal

Approximate word count: 65-70,000 words

Availability
Kindle US:
YES UK: YES Nook: YES Smashwords: YES Paper: NO
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Author: Michael J. Lee

Michael J. Lee is a script consultant and an entertainment blogger with a wide range of interests. See his blog for additional information.

Description:

Lee gives us a retelling of the classic novel Frankenstein with a feminine protagonist and point-of-view.

Appraisal:

Although Lee has presented this as a romantic retelling of the Frankenstein tale, I found no romance in the story. I am an experienced reader of many romance novels, encompassing historical, contemporary, and futuristic, as well as paranormal and dark romances, as well. There are indeed romantic relationships within the novel, but I would not call this novel “romantic.”

There are a few items that I found it difficult to get past to enjoy the story, and the initial assumption that I would be reading a romance was one of them. The second was that the heroine is supposed to be an avid reader, which is a nice thing in a strong heroine, but she borrows multiple volumes of scientific topics in a night, and somehow plows through them all, bringing the books back the next day, and she understands and remembers all she’s read. The third item was the romantic involvements of the heroine. She came across as flighty, fickle, and promiscuous, which seriously degraded her from heroine status to round-heeled protagonist in my appreciation.

On the last item, there are novels that I’ve read where the heroine has her eye on more than one man, and she might even dally with them all. However, there are good reasons for her attraction to each male, and the sexual content doesn’t detract from her status as heroine. For this novel, the sexual mores of the time were not properly reflected in the heroine’s behavior.

Overall, the underlying structure of the story was sound, but the heroine’s sexuality was not a good addition to it. If this story were retold without sexual content, and without being referred to as “romantic,” I would say it was an interesting reinterpretation of the Frankenstein tale, and a story worth reading. As it is, I would recommend a good proofreader and an editor take a look at it. One more draft of this novel would make for a much more powerful story.

FYI:

There are some sexual scenes with some erotic content. Scenes are of typical sexual interactions, but may nevertheless disturb some readers.

Format/Typo Issues:

There are occasional grammatical errors and a few spelling errors. They were enough to seriously disrupt my own reading experience, but for readers that are not sensitive to grammar and spelling, this may not be an issue.

Rating: *** Three Stars

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Deadline Murders / Ron Morgans

Reviewed by: BigAl

Genre: Thriller

Approximate word count: 70-75,000 words

Availability
Kindle US:
YES UK: YES Nook: YES Smashwords: YES Paper: YES
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Author:

After a long career as an award-winning photojournalist for several major UK newspapers, Ron Morgans decided it was time to chase his lifetime ambition to write thrillers. He and his wife now live in a fishing village on the Mediterranean where he writes, using his experiences in journalism as inspiration for his books. Morgans has three books available in addition to this one. For more, visit his web site.

Description:

Five deaths, each with a few similarities that don’t seem pertinent to their demise, put paparazzo Henrietta Fox and tabloid reporter Cass Farraday on the trail of a murderer. This is the first book in The Fox & Farraday Mysteries series.

Appraisal:

I’ve heard it said that thrillers, more than most genres, are “plot based.” I’ve taken that to mean that the book is built around or starts with the plot whereas in other genres the story is often built around something else. That might be the characters (imagine the characters, throw them together, and see what happens). It could even be based on an imaginary world the author creates, which I think would be the situation with much science fiction and fantasy. While I think this is true, the reality is that no matter how much the details of a thriller plot vary, they tend to run together after you’ve read enough of them. (I think my reviews of thrillers are starting to do the same thing, since I’m sure I’ve written something like this before.) What sets one thriller apart from another are the characters.

In his dual protagonists, Henrietta Fox and Cass Farraday, Ron Morgans has given us two eccentric characters who work well together. Fox is successful as a paparazzo. She’s built up contacts that are valuable for information gathering and is proud of her success, yet seems at least a touch conflicted by what she does. This makes her more than willing to take assignments that involve more than snapping pictures of ill-behaving celebrities. She is a thrill seeker who likes to be in control. Farraday is a tabloid journalist who loves the trappings of success, but, like Fox, wishes his stories were about things that truly mattered.

In the most important things, like their drive to get the story, Fox and Farraday are a perfect team. In the little things, they aren’t. These little things add some minor conflict between the two main characters, which makes for a better story. Morgans’ characters should make for some fun and entertaining reads. They did in The Deadline Murders, and I expect the same from the other books in the series.

FYI:

Uses UK slang and spelling conventions.

Format/Typo Issues:

No significant issues.

Rating: **** Four stars

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Mason-Dixon Despot / Christopher Jones

Reviewed by: BigAl

Genre: Mystery/Parody

Approximate word count: 15-20,000

Availability
Kindle US:
YES UK: YES Nook: NO Smashwords: NO Paper: NO
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Author:

If we’re to believe the “other books by” listing at the beginning of this book (we aren’t), then if I counted correctly (possibly not, since I ran out of fingers) Christopher Jones aka Woody Stewedfarts has previously written an even dozen books, with this volume making a baker’s dozen. The reality appears to be that this is his only book and that listing (which includes such titles as It Depends, My Love: U.S. Travel Guide for the Incontinent) is part of the parody.

Description:

Subtitled A Bear Stonington Mystery (The Woody Stewedfarts Books), this book parodies the Stone Barrington mystery series authored by Stuart Woods.

Appraisal:

Is it possible to have a reaction to a book that is bipolar? If so, I did to this one.

We’ll start with the beginning. We’ve all heard the old saw that you can’t judge a book by its cover. It would be more correct to say you can’t always accurately judge a book by its cover. Regardless of the claim, most readers do. Certain kinds of covers attract our attention in the bookstore. Different color schemes, fonts, and the look and feel in general provide clues as to genre and the story within. You’d think that a cover would be inconsequential in an eBook, but it turns out the opposite is true. Not only is the cover what makes a book jump out from many on a page in an internet bookstore, but the cover has to work at drawing a potential reader’s attention even when compressed to thumbnail size.

I won’t review a book based on its cover and had already made the equivalent of the buying decision before I saw this one, but seeing the generic cover created certain expectations as to what I would find. It told me the author hadn’t done his homework by finding out what it takes if you want your book to have the best chance of success. Successful Indie author Joe Konrath, who blogs on what it takes for Indie success, continually harps on the same things. He says a book must not only be well written, but also have a good product description, be priced low (relative to your legacy published competitors), and look professional (which includes the cover, formatting, and editing). I fully expected to crack the virtual cover to discover a plethora of other problems.

In this case, not meeting my expectations is a good thing. I expected to find all the typical issues indicating lack of adequate copyediting: typos, spelling errors, grammar, issues with homonyms, etc. I found none. As in zero. That almost never happens, regardless of who the author is or how their work made it to publication. That doesn’t mean I didn’t miss something, but no one is going to reject this book as being unreadable due to copyediting issues unless Jones has a big problem with something that is a blind spot for me.

This review is getting long and it is past time I actually talked about the book, where my bipolar reaction continues. It has been a few years since I last read one of Stuart Wood’s Stone Barrington books, but from what I remember (with a little help refreshing my memory by scanning book descriptions of those I have read) I think Jones’ Bear Stonington is a well formed character who parodies Woods’ character well. While there were times it felt as if the caricature was going over the top slightly, each reader’s reaction is likely to be different, and it is much better for a parody to go a little too far than not far enough.

Where I have an issue with this book is with the actual story. While we know the mystery (or at least what Bear’s mission is for this case) relatively early, it isn’t until the halfway point that Bear takes any concrete action toward accomplishing his mission. Up to that point, he is spinning his wheels while his character is getting established. Once we get to the case, there isn’t a lot of meat there (although laughs remain plentiful). What conflict the story has is not with the theoretical antagonist in the story, but with Bear’s ennui as he delays working on the case. Possibly this is parodying something I’m not getting in Wood’s books, but for me, an exercise in parody isn’t enough if the story doesn’t work too.

FYI:

Some minor adult language and situations.

Format/Typo Issues:

No significant typo or proofing issues. The formatting was okay with the exception of the font, which changed back and forth between two different looks at random intervals. It appeared to have a specific font defined rather than using the default, which is preferable in most cases (and also helps prevent this kind of issue).

Rating: *** Three stars

Friday, December 16, 2011

Ros / Dee DeTarsio

Reviewed by: BigAl

Genre: Chick Lit/Science Fiction

Approximate word count: 75-80,000 words

Availability
Kindle US:
YES UK: YES Nook: NO Smashwords: NO Paper: NO
Click on a YES above to go to appropriate page in Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Smashwords store

Author:

A native of Ohio, after college Dee DeTarsio fled for warmer climes, first as a TV news producer in Tucson, Arizona. She now lives in San Diego with her husband and two children, where she has worked as a producer/writer at SeaWorld and on an NBC comedy/variety show. DeTarsio has two other novels available (The Kitchen Shrink and The Scent of Jade) <link scent of jade review> and a novella (‘Til Somebody Loves You). For more, visit her website.

Description:

When a small spacecraft crashes behind her house, the previously bored-with-life Micki Cramer finds a purpose, helping Ros, the alien who was piloting the craft, avoid authorities until Ros’ rescuer arrives. At least they hope a rescuer is on the way.

Appraisal:

Dee DeTarsio may write Chick Lit, but her books are never just that. They always include elements you’d expect in other genres and almost never see in Chick Lit, like action-adventure (which features in both of her books I’ve read ) or even a science fiction element, as in the alien this book is named after. These additions are fun and entertaining. They allow DeTarsio to take the story in directions you wouldn’t typically see in Chick Lit.

Pushing the genre boundaries is fun, but what stood out for me in this book was the sense of humor of the main character, Micki. At least in the beginning, she seems to be lacking in self-esteem and is unhappy with life. She lets people run over her which results in her ex-mother-in-law (who is in a mutual-loathing society with Micki) being dumped on her. But Micki’s inner dialogue is always funny and witty, as in this snippet involving Rhoda, her ex-mother-in-law:

“No go,” Rhoda said. “I think there was a murder in that bathroom. Something died in there. I could not use it. I would not go.” And now she’s Dr. Seuss? Could you, would you, in your pants? I wanted to scream.

I found Micki’s “voice” to be unique from that of Julie Fraser (the protagonist in The Scent of Jade, the other book of DeTarsio’s I’ve read), which is something most authors have a hard time doing this well for characters who are so different. If you’re a fan of Chick Lit and not afraid of the boundaries getting stretched a little, the story of Ros would be a perfect choice.

FYI:

A single adult word.

Format/Typo Issues:

No significant issues.

Rating: ***** Five stars

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Caribbean Moon / Rick Murcer

Reviewed by: BigAl

Genre: Thriller

Approximate word count: 70-80,000 words

Availability
Kindle US:
YES UK: YES Nook: YES Smashwords: NO Paper: YES
Click on a YES above to go to appropriate page in Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Smashwords store

Author:

A father of two and grandfather of three, Rick Murcer caught the writing bug eight years ago. He found success with his first story, Herb’s Home Run, which was published in Writer’s Journal, and hasn’t looked back. Caribbean Moon is the first of his Manny Williams Thriller series, with two others published and the fourth in the works. He also has a short story available for your favorite eReader, Capital Murder, featuring Sophie Lee, Manny Williams’ partner in Caribbean Moon.

Description:

Manny Williams, a workaholic police detective for the Lansing, Michigan Police Department, is thrilled to be getting away for a Caribbean vacation with his wife Louise and some friends. After a fellow police officer’s wedding in San Juan, Puerto Rico, the group is planning to take it easy on a Caribbean cruise. All goes as planned until the dead bodies start showing up.

Appraisal:

The latest description of Caribbean Moon on Amazon says it is “written in the tradition of Connelly, Patterson of old, and JA Konrath.” I was on the verge of writing this off as marketing hype; Murcer’s book is good, but not at the level of those three, nor, if you evaluate the words, is that claim being made. Then I realized that the statement does give a hint of what Murcer is aiming for and, in the JA Konrath comparison, is the hook to describe the qualities of this book.

Konrath’s Jack Daniels series is nominally a police procedural. The main character is a member of law enforcement whose goal is to solve a crime, typically one or more murders. Yet Konrath’s books have several elements that aren’t typical of the standard police procedural, all of which are shared by Caribbean Moon. The first of these is the case becomes much more personal than a normal police procedural when the detective (Jack Daniels or Manny Williams) is at risk after they determine that they or someone close to them is the likely next target of the murderer, who is almost always a serial killer. The murders are consistently grisly, yet described in a way that isn’t very explicit, giving horror fans the chance to let their mind run free while allowing those who are more squeamish to overlook the blood and gore. The last quality Murcer shares with Konrath is that, despite the seriousness of the crimes depicted, they both sprinkle humor, helping to keep the book (and the reader) from descending too far into the dark.

This is a formula that has worked well for both. Caribbean Moon is a worthy first novel and an excellent series introduction. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the series. 


Format/Typo Issues: 

No significant issues.

Rating: **** Four stars

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Candy Wars II: Sweet Revenge / R.G. Cordiner

Reviewed by: BigAl

Genre: Middle Grade / Fairy Tale

Approximate word count: 30-35,000 words

Availability
Kindle US:
YES UK: YES Nook: YES Smashwords: YES Paper: YES
Click on a YES above to go to appropriate page in Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Smashwords store

Author:

A primary school teacher in Australia, R.G. Cordiner uses his students as guinea pigs, reading his books aloud in class and gauging their reactions. I view it as a hands-on kind of market research. He has three other books available for the Kindle, Bug Island (a horror story for a younger audience), Treasure Lost (a pirate adventure), and Candy Wars: The Tooth Fairies vs The Candy King. An omnibus edition of both Candy Wars books is also available. For more information, see Mr. Cordiner’s blog.

Description:

This is a sequel to Candy Wars: The Tooth Fairies vs The Candy King. Emily and James have been home for a year since their adventures in the first Candy Wars book and are bored. When a portal appears, they know what to do and are soon back at the scene of their previous adventures. They hardly recognize the desolate wasteland and they can’t find their friends, the tooth fairies. (Both Candy Wars books are available in a combined volume as well.)

Appraisal:

Although not folkloric, both Candy Wars books have the qualities of a fairy tale as I think of them. The experts are still arguing over a definition. The setting is (mostly) in a magical enchanted land populated with mythical beings. The characters experience adventure and in the process are transformed.

Cordiner’s distinctive style uses made up words for sounds. Whether intended or not, I see this as a nod to the oral tradition of fairy tales and other folkloric stories. It makes them fun to read aloud and readers in the prime age range for this book have fun making the sounds while getting practical practice in “sounding out” words.

Another quality I imagine is (or should be) in the definition of a fairy tale is that they teach their audience something by example. Where the original Candy Wars had lessons about war and family, Sweet Revenge has lessons about friendship and responsibility. My eight year-old granddaughter just ate this book up. I think your kids will like it too.

FYI:

Uses Australian slang and spelling conventions. 


It would be better to read this book after reading the first in the series. Full understanding requires knowledge of what happened in the first book.

Format/Typo Issues:

I’m reviewing based on a pre-release copy and can’t judge this area.

Rating: **** Four stars

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Kindle Fire


My day job for just shy of thirty-five years (yes, I’m really that ancient) has been in technology. One thing that has set me apart from many of my peers is a different attitude towards technology. When most computer geeks and other technologists get access to a new, sexy piece of hardware or software (yes, they really think a new feature is sexy), they immediately start finding excuses to use it. My attitude has been not to use it if it wasn’t the right tool for the job. Many of those I’ve worked with have been the personification of the clich√© that if you have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

This has meant that I’ve been slow to adopt new technology and slow to buy a new gadget. My cell phone is always a generation or more behind what everyone else has. (A Smartphone is in my future soon, but hasn’t happened yet.) Until I see a reason to upgrade or buy the first of a new kind of gadget, I won’t. I don’t buy the hammer until I have something to nail. My take on the new Kindle Fire and my decision whether to purchase was predicated on this mindset.

I see the decision to buy or not buy a Kindle Fire as involving four main questions:

1) Do you have tasks or activities you’d like to accomplish that can potentially be accomplished with the Fire and will the Fire be better, whether more efficient or more convenient, than your current method? In other words, do you have something to nail with this hammer.

2) Would an iPad or an android tablet computer be better suited to your needs? There are tradeoffs in capability and price that also need consideration as well.

3) How well does the Fire accomplish the tasks you want it to do?

4) Is the added capability you’ll get from the Fire worth the price to you? This question is one that will vary widely from person to person. Only you can answer this after considering the first three questions.

For me, I was hoping to accomplish four different things.

1) Light web browsing. I wanted to be able to check forums, email, Facebook, and light duty web lookup when away from my computer, typically in other parts of the house, but also when away from home and somewhere with Wi-Fi access.

2) Stream video and music.

3) As a backup eReader.

4) To be decided. Although the first three items were my main goals, I knew there were other apps that would be available for the Fire: games, productivity, social media, etc. My expectations here were low. If I didn’t find other uses I would be mildly disappointed, but saw this area as one that could easily enhance my opinion of the Fire.

First, I’ll address usability in general and then how the Fire has stacked up in each of the four specific areas.

I'd had no previous experience with the Android OS in a Smartphone or elsewhere. My use of a touch screen had previously been almost non-existent. Despite this, I found the setup and use of the Fire to be reasonably intuitive. With the little instruction given to get the Fire started and registered, I easily figured out how to run it. With a little experimentation, I found how to get at different options and functionality. When I finally read the manual (really a quick skim), there wasn’t anything significant I found that I hadn’t figured out on my own. If you’re a guy who fits the clich√© of thinking owner’s manuals are for wimps, you should do okay.

The colors are bright and vibrant. The device is a little heavier in one hand than the Kindle Keyboard (K3). I can see how some people might be nervous carrying it that way. Although I do it, I'll also use two hands if both hands are free, since chances of me dropping it are higher one handed. However, wandering around holding the Fire with one hand while reading, watching video, or whatever has not been a problem. I sometimes have a hard time hitting the spot I want on the touch screen and have heard it requires a heavier touch than most touch screens, but think this is more a matter of practice and experience for me to get used to it.

This is how the Fire worked out for my main areas of concern:

1) The light web browsing and forum posting has worked as well as I expected. Being able to increase the size and to focus in on different parts of the webpage is easy. My only issues here are that you can't do some things from Facebook, or at least I haven't figured out how, specifically share someone else's post - this is a limitation in the Facebook app, not the device. I also play Words with Friends and gave up playing it on the device because I was unable to get it to place the tiles correctly on the board. I'm not sure if this a fault of the app, the browser, or my inexperience with a touch screen. While I am mostly satisfied in this area, be aware that you might find some areas like this where the experience falls short and it won’t always be a limitation in the Fire, but may be due to an area where the app or the mobile version of a website falls short.

2) I’ve been happy with both streaming of videos and music. However, a potential purchaser needs to consider other costs they might incur to take advantage of these features. The 8GB storage available onboard the Fire might seem like a lot, but it doesn’t take many apps or MP3s to eat that up.

If you intend to use the Fire for either of these functions, you need to consider where you will get your content and where it will be stored. If your music collection is small (somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,000-1,200 songs) or you’re okay with shuffling music back and forth between the Fire and your main computer, the 8GB (minus space used by apps, books, and other content) might be enough. Otherwise, you’ll want to store music on the Amazon cloud drive.

Each Amazon account can sign-up for a free cloud drive that has 5GB of storage. Music, video, books, and apps purchased from Amazon can be stored without counting against your space allocation. You can upgrade the size of your drive with an upgrade to a 20GB drive currently costing $20 a year. <link to cloud drive upgrade page> Amazon is currently running a promotion with cloud drive upgrades that allows unlimited music files to be loaded to the cloud drive without counting against your allocation. (This free space is only assured for the one-year period of your upgrade. You might find that you’ll have to clean most of the music off your cloud drive or upgrade to a larger drive at the end of that year.) Music or video from the cloud drive can be streamed from there if you are somewhere with Wi-Fi access. You can also download a selection of music or video to the device to play when you won’t have that access.

The Fire is advertised as giving purchasers a month free of Amazon Prime.  It does. However, anyone can sign up for a free month of Prime without making this purchase. The Prime service includes unlimited streaming of select videos, one free book rental each month from those available in the Kindle lending library, and free two day shipping. If you plan to stream video, you’ll obviously need to consider where you’ll get your content and what additional costs you’ll incur. For those who choose Amazon Prime for some of their video consumption needs, you can also stream video to your TV (if you have the hardware to make the link from Wi-Fi to the TV).

There are other possibilities for streaming music and video content. The app store includes apps for Pandora and Rhapsody for music, Netflix, and Hulu for video content, among others, for those already subscribed or who would prefer to use these services instead of, or in addition to, Amazon.

3) The Fire works well as a backup eBook reader. The backlit screen isn’t something I would personally want to use regularly for extended periods for reading, which is something I anticipated. For those whose reading contains a large amount of magazines, graphic novels, or children’s books that are in color, this might still be the way to go. For someone who currently reads eBooks on a computer or Smartphone, wants the Fire for other purposes, but isn’t willing to invest in both the Fire and another eReader, the Fire could well fit your needs for a primary reader.

4) Since I had no expectations for apps except there would be some I’d use, I was easy to satisfy. The downside here is that some android apps won’t function on the Fire if they require functionality the Fire doesn’t have that is common to android smart phones, tablets, and other devices. You’ll want to consider whether you have a need for a camera/video recorder, GPS, and external storage. (These are the main items the Fire doesn’t have and I’m sure there are others I’m missing.) On the positive side, the apps in Amazon’s android store will all let you know if they are not compatible with the Fire. Some you’d expect might not be or to have limitations turn out better than you’d expect. For example, the Mapquest app may not be able to determine where you are from GPS functionality, but was still able to pinpoint my current location somehow.

There are a few other things to consider when deciding whether the Fire meets your needs.

The first is the need for Wi-Fi access for some functionality. I’ll assume you’ll have Wi-Fi access at home and anywhere else you expect to use the Fire regularly (office, coffee shop, airports, and hotels). If this won’t be true, you’ll have to either work around it by downloading content in advance and forgoing web browsing in these situations, or consider alternatives. The iPad and some tablet computers can access the internet using the cell phone network, but these also require a monthly financial commitment for this service in addition to the extra cost of the device. You’ll need to consider the tradeoffs involved.

Battery life for the Fire is going to be short relative to the eReader only Kindles. That isn’t a fair comparison, but something that needs to be considered. Time between charges can be increased by turning off Wi-Fi access, but doing so could be problematic since you’re likely to need to access Wi-Fi for much of what you’ll want to do.

Some of the popular Android apps are not available for the Fire. If there are specific apps you are concerned with running would advise exploring the Kindle app store, verifing they are available and are compatible with the Fire, and last, scan the reviews for any issues people mention having with this app on the Fire.

The main screen of the Fire has what is called the carrousel. This is a spot on what looks like a bookshelf with icons that can be scrolled through. These icons include all your apps (whether stored locally or on the cloud), all your eBooks, (including those purchased and not downloaded), purchased and recently watched videos, recently visited webpages, etc. While there is apparently a way to remove an individual item from the carrousel, doing so could quickly become a nuisance. I haven’t found this to be a problem despite the many books archived on my account because it is fast to scroll through and there are alternative ways to search for a particular item. However, many people have raised concerns about privacy issues. How you feel about this would depend on who might potentially see your carrousel and the likelihood of having something in the recent items that you’d rather not have them see.

For me, the Fire has turned out to be a good choice. I had specific expectations and was aware of the potential tradeoffs in advance. Whether the Fire is right for you depends on your particular needs and situation.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Flatheads / Byron Starr

Reviewed by: JA Gill

Genre: Horror

Approximate word count: 35-40,000 words

Availability

Kindle US: YES UK: YES Nook: YES Smashwords: YES Paper: YES Click on a YES above to go to appropriate page in Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Smashwords store

Author:

A small town undertaker by day, Byron Starr’s “writing hobby” has covered a lot of ground in just three books. This is his first book. He has since written Finding Heroes, a non-fiction book about the experiences of people in the piney woods of East Texas in the wake of the crash of the space shuttle Columbia and a novel, Ace Hawkins and the Wrath of Santa Claus. For more, visit Starr’s website.

Description:

With school out for the summer, Kevin Harvey’s fist day on the job starts with the usual hassle as the only “college kid” among a bunch of East Texas, roughneck loggers. Once in the woods, that’s not all Kevin has to worry about though; someone or something does not want to let him leave.

Appraisal:

The most captivating aspect of this book is not the surreal horror, for most of the story a mere niggling nuisance, but the sere and redundant East Texas landscape—the story takes place in a region called the pineywoods. The characters are a product of the land, land they do not own though on which they depend, wonderfully reflected in the clipped dialect and almost mythical connectedness to the woods they log. As modern rednecks, rural, anti-intellectual, yet given complex inner lives, these loggers project an extreme parochialism—born and bred as it were—xeno-phobic at the county-level.

As Starr provides this lexical and bio-geographical insight, the unfortunate, and until the very end, inexplicable events befalling the hapless lumberjacks are oddly dreamlike: familiar settings followed by an unfamiliar set of events. In fact, there were times, even as the death toll mounted, when it was easy to forget one was reading horror fiction. However, after a certain point the conspicuous silence as to what it is our fellers and flatheads are up against grows deafening. After all, the willing suspension of disbelief is only nourished with well-placed glimpses of the terrors that await. While rich in local color, the fear driving the narrative never quite materializes.

FYI:

Some crude language.

Format/Typo Issues:

No major issues

Rating: *** Three stars

Friday, December 9, 2011

Dead is the New Black / Christine DeMaio-Rice

Reviewed by: BigAl

Genre: Mystery/Chick Lit

Approximate word count: 90-95,000 words

Availability
Kindle US:
YES UK: YES Nook: YES Smashwords: YES Paper: YES
Click on a YES above to go to appropriate page in Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Smashwords store

Author:

A former award winning screenwriter with a master’s from USC film school who has worked in the fashion industry since 1990, Christine DeMaio-Rice says she likes to structure her novels like movies. She has one previous novel, Blue Valley, which is science fiction. To find out what is currently going on in DeMaio-Rice’s life, check out her blog.

Description:

Laura Carnegie (no relation to Carnegie Hall) is in love with her boss, fashion designer Jeremy St. James. If only he wasn’t gay. When St. James is arrested for murder, Laura finds out that nothing is what it seems as she scrambles to prepare for a fashion show on Friday and find the real murderer.

Dead is the New Black has been designated a “Red Adept Select” book.

Appraisal:

A murder mystery in the world of the New York fashion industry, Dead is the New Black has all the elements of a good mystery: unique characters, plentiful suspects, and several clues that seem to point in different directions until they are all fit together like puzzle pieces. The book also has all the elements of good chick lit: a good dose of humor and a protagonist who has some goals, in this case both romantic and professional, that are met in the end — not necessarily in the way they desired, but in a way that is satisfying.

Although I’m not a follower of the fashion industry (I might even be called an anti-fashionista), I’m always interested in finding out about new things. A bonus for me was a glimpse into how the fashion industry works. The author gives just enough of this to provide context and spice, but doesn’t overdo it.

FYI:

Limited adult language.

Format/Typo Issues:

No significant issues.

Rating: **** Four stars 

Thursday, December 8, 2011

BigAl’s Alternatives to Amazon (or B&N)




For some time, I’ve intended to write a few non-review posts and have kept procrastinating. Recently I’ve read some blog posts touching on two of my planned subjects that served as the push I needed. This is the first of these.

As Anne Allen points out in a recent blog post, Amazon has a near monopoly, at least where purchasing eBooks for Kindles are concerned. The same is true of Barnes & Noble for Nook owners. Although Anne’s post is on a different subject (and it’s well worth reading both it and the follow up if you haven’t already), this “monopoly” is what I’ve wanted to talk about.

I’m a big fan of Amazon and they have received the vast majority of my book-purchasing budget for many years. This isn’t likely to change any time soon. They provide the best selection, superior customer service, and excellent prices. But they also have an unbelievable percentage of the book market in the US and close to a monopoly on books for our Kindles. Quoting Anne Allen’s blog post, “… the truth is: monopolies are always scary.”

This could also be scary for authors. In a recent guest post on Joe Konrath’s blog, bestselling author Barry Eisler made the case that if this were to become a problem, competitors would enter the market, forcing Amazon to remain competitive. The fact remains, some authors are also nervous about Amazon’s position. Whether an author or a reader, having all your eggs in one basket is unnerving.

I would suggest the old saying about an ounce of prevention is pertinent here. There are a limited number of alternatives to Amazon for Kindle owners, but supporting those that exist by occasionally using them for your eBook purchases will help keep them viable. These alternatives have some tradeoffs. You lose some of the convenience of purchasing from Amazon, but there are also some benefits. I’ll discuss both in more detail below.

The downside to any of these alternatives is the loss of that convenience one enjoys when purchasing from Amazon. With a single click, you can purchase and have your eBook “instantly” delivered via 3G or Wi-Fi to your Kindle. Use of an alternative involves setting up a new account the first time you purchase, downloading the eBook file to your computer, and side loading it onto your Kindle. While relatively quick and simple, especially after you have experience with this, there is no denying it falls short of the almost instant delivery Amazon provides. Amazon’s archive also means you don’t have to be concerned with keeping a backup of the eBook file in case of accidental deletion. However, there are advantages to using some of the alternatives that help offset this loss of convenience.

Amazon alternatives fall into three categories: alternative sources for Indie books (both self-published and small publishers), sources for free (public domain) books, and other places to purchase books published by larger publishers. We’ll take these in reverse order. This guide isn’t comprehensive. My aim is to raise the issue and point you to some potential Amazon alternatives.

Large Publishers

There is an excellent argument that, for books in this category, there is no compelling reason to look for an alternative source. The publisher sets the eBook price and retailers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble can’t discount. The publishers are a quasi-monopoly and some think they are engaging in monopoly pricing. Sticking with Amazon or Barnes & Noble for Kindle and Nook owners makes sense for these books. (If you don’t understand why all sources charge the same price, Google “Agency Pricing.”) However, there are some alternative sources if you’re interested in finding them.

Almost everything in this post applies more or less equally to Nook owners and anyone who has any other major eReader as much as it does Kindle owners. This section is an exception in that it much of it doesn’t apply to Kindle owners. As Kindle owners, we believe we have the most reliable and easy to use eReader on the market, backed by the best customer service in the business, but the Kindle has one quality that is a definite negative.

While most eReaders use the ePub format, which is as close to an industry standard as currently exists, Amazon uses a proprietary format. A DRM (digital rights management) or copy protection scheme is available for the ePub format (called ADE or Adobe Digital Editions) for use by anyone. It appears that many large publishers have decided not to offer Kindle format eBooks through other sites beyond Amazon. I suspect this is because of issues with DRM. For those with other eReaders, there are two possibilities. The first is the publisher site.

For romance readers, Harlequin offers eBooks directly from the publisher. I should note that this site does have eBooks in the Mobipocket format, which might have been compatible with the Kindle, but they are discontinuing this format as of the end of 2011.

Another publisher with eBooks (ADE format) available for purchase directly from their website is Simon & Schuster.

Many other publishers may have the same capability on their websites.

There are also other sites that sell eBooks from the major publishers for non-Kindle owners. One such site is eBooks.com, which has books from many large publishers available.

Free Books

Although there are many places you might legitimately find eBooks for free, including Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and some titles from Baen Books (a publisher of science fiction), this section is for books in the public domain. (Books no longer under copyright, which can be copied at will.) Many of these are available free from Amazon or Barnes & Noble and other sources, but the most extensive collection is at Project Gutenberg. If you’re a fan of the old classics: Dickens, Twain, Poe, Shakespeare, Thoreau … the list goes on and on, this is a great place to find those books at a price that can’t be beat.

Indie Books

Most Indie authors don’t sell eBooks directly from their website, instead providing a link to Amazon or B&N. However, there are exceptions and I expect this to become more common in the future. Along with offering multiple formats to satisfy the needs of most readers, an eBook store integrated into an author website is generally going to mean more of the money you spend will actually make it into the author’s pocket. While not every reader will see this as an advantage, I see it as a positive in encouraging my favorite authors to write more. The other advantage is that books obtained this way are normally DRM-free. Lack of DRM does not give you the right to give the book away or send a copy to your friends, but it does have advantages to the purchaser. (A good subject for a future post.)

Here are a few Indie authors who have set up stores as part of their website:

Joe Konrath has an eBook store integrated into his website, which also has books from two of his fellow Indie authors, Barry Eisler and Blake Crouch.

Eisler also offers the option of buying some of his books directly from his website (along with links to the major eBook sites).

The primary alternative source for Indie books is Smashwords. Although a large part of Smashword’s business is as a distributer for self-published authors and small publishers, they also have a retail operation. Smashwords is how most Indie authors get their books to the major eBooks stores except Amazon and (for many US authors) Barnes & Noble, so most Indie books are available there. Although they don’t have tools as extensive as Amazon to discover books, they’re an excellent alternative if you’ve already identified a book you want to purchase. (Since mid-June Books and Pals has included links to a book’s page at Smashwords if it is available there.) Smashwords is an especially good alternative to Amazon if you live in one of the countries where Amazon charges a $2 per book delivery fee, since Smashwords does not . There are two major advantages that Smashwords has over Amazon. The first is that it has multiple formats available. If you have more than one brand of eReader or own a Nook eReader, but also read eBooks on your smartphone and prefer the Kindle emulator, this gives you a way to be able to read a book in both places. It also helps protect your book investment if you decide to change eReader brands. The second advantage is that all books purchased from Smashwords are DRM-free.

What do you think? Should we be concerned? Does spreading our eBook purchases among multiple sites make sense?

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Showstoppers / Helen Smith

Reviewed by: BigAl

Genre: Mystery

Approximate word count: 17-18,000 words

Availability
Kindle US:
YES UK: YES Nook: NO  Smashwords: NO  Paper: NO
Click on a YES above to go to appropriate page in Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Smashwords store

Author:

An award-winning playwright, poet, and novelist, Helen Smith has several traditionally published books that she has re-published as an Indie. One of these, Alison Wonderland, not only had a second life, but in some ways a third life, when it was published again by Amazon’s Encore imprint. Her Emily Castles mystery series is a series of novelette length cozy mysteries Smith is publishing as an Indie. The initial book in the series, Three Sisters, was among the first I reviewed on this blog. For more about Smith, visit her blog.

Description:

Emily’s neighbor, Victoria, is receiving threatening notes that eventually escalate into a murder at her school for future stars of stage and screen.

Appraisal:

The cozy mystery is a sub-genre I couldn’t have defined or even known had I seen it. Luckily Wikipedia purports to answer all my questions. Among other things, Wikipedia says cozy mysteries are built around the inhabitants of a small, insular community (a London neighborhood in this case), with characters that are often eccentric and provide comic relief. The emphasis is on puzzle solving, with the protagonist using their intelligence and knowledge of the community dynamics to solve the mystery. Examples of the genre given included Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple books and the American television series, Murder, She Wrote.

Having read several of Helen Smith’s books, it struck me how well the cozy mystery sub-genre plays to her strengths as a writer. Her prose is comfortable (dare I say cozy?) while still feeling more literary than a typical genre book. Her books are full of humor, but it is subtle — if you aren’t paying attention, it will fly past and you’ll miss it. More Woody Allen or Steven Wright than Mel Brooks or Benny Hill. More intellectual (or assuming intelligence on the part of the reader) than slapstick.

If I had any complaint with Three Sisters, the first book in this series, it would be that I was well into the book before finding out what the “mystery” was. This isn’t an issue with Showstoppers, as we find out about the mystery (or at least the initial mystery) early on. As Emily works toward the solution, we meet plenty of those quirky characters and Smith gives us numerous puzzle pieces to decipher along with Emily.

FYI:

Smith is English and uses UK spelling conventions and slang.

Although part of a series, this book can be read as a standalone. It does not require knowledge from the first book to follow the story in the second.

Format/Typo Issues:

No significant issues.

Rating: **** Four stars

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Pentecost / Joanna Penn

Reviewed by: BigAl

Genre: Thriller

Approximate word count: 70-75,000 words

Availability
Kindle US:
YES UK: YES Nook: YES Smashwords: YES Paper: YES
Click on a YES above to go to appropriate page in Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Smashwords store

Author:

Based in London, England, Joanna Penn is a blogger, speaker, and business consultant. Although this is her first novel, she has previously written three non-fiction books. For more, visit her website.

Description:

Each of the Apostles took stones from Jesus’ tomb after his resurrection. These stones, which have special powers, were passed down through the generations via “Keepers,” who kept the powers and the locations of the stones secret. Someone is tracking down the Keepers and murdering them for the stones.

Appraisal:

Pentecost combines the ancient (traditional religious history along with some purely fictional additions) with secret organizations, a touch of academia, and some cutting-edge science, to construct a thriller plot that feels like a Dan Brown creation.

The protagonist, Morgan Sierra, splits her time between private practice as a clinical psychologist specializing in issues related to religion and as an academic, lecturing at Oxford University. She is happy with her life and only reluctantly pulled in to assist a secret government organization who needs her expertise. Morgan takes the reader on a fast-paced quest around the world as she struggles to meet an immovable deadline. The author does an excellent job with a plot that weaves a broad range of the world’s religious history and settings from around the world into story that, while far from simple, doesn’t overwhelm the reader with its complexity.

FYI:

The author uses UK spelling conventions.

Format/Typo Issues:

No significant issues.

Rating: **** Four stars

Monday, December 5, 2011

Conundrum / Michael LaRocca

Reviewed by: Arthur Graham

Genre: Science fiction

Approximate word count: 50-55,000

Availability
Kindle US: YES UK: YES Nook: YES  Smashwords: NO Paper: NO
Click on a YES above to go to appropriate page in Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Smashwords store

Author:

A Tar Heel by birth, Michael LaRocca spent 12 years living and working in Asia before recently returning to his native North Carolina. He has edited more than 300 books over the course of his career. Conundrum is his ninth published novel.

Description:

“I'm on a starship flying to some damn place that nobody has ever gone before. No humans, at any rate. And boldly, I guess. I was born in 1964, but here I go in 2123, on past Earth and Mars and shit. Freaky.”

So begins Conundrum, security officer Drake’s account of one strange trip to the Pegasus system 50 light years yonder. Accompanying him is Miss Picasso the cat, a host of less consequential crewmembers, and the infinite possibilities inherent within them all.

Appraisal:

On the surface, Conundrum may read like a scientific/philosophical treatise intercut with dirty jokes and snide remarks, but somewhere underneath it all lies a good, original story. LaRocca’s background as an editor of both fiction and nonfiction shines through in his polished prose and dialogue. Barry Drake comes across as likeable despite his swaggering cynicism, and while his proclivity for gender/ethnic jokes may wear thin after a while, I believe it would be a mistake to equate this general misanthropy with any specific bigotry (he describes himself as an “equal opportunity asshole”). In fact, much of the humor in Conundrum derives from these conflicts between the recently defrosted 20th century man (cryonically preserved for 100 years) and his seemingly more enlightened 22nd century peers. Like Kurt Vonnegut, LaRocca aims to expose the absurdities inherent in all aspects of human behavior, whatever the era.

I’m giving Conundrum a solid 3 out of 5, not because it left me lukewarm by any means, but because it’s the kind of book that readers will likely either love or hate. Those harboring a low tolerance for off-color humor or hoping for the standard sci-fi treatment might rate it as low as 2. On the other hand, readers in possession of thicker skin and looking for something different might find it deserving of a 4 or even 5. The term “conundrum” may not be purely synonymous with “dilemma” in this sense, but that is precisely the trouble I encountered in trying to rate this book.

FYI:

Plenty of “adult” language/situations.

Format/Typo Issues:

No significant issues.

Rating: *** Three stars

Friday, December 2, 2011

Zellwood: A Dog Story / Rebecca Stroud

Reviewed by: BigAl

Genre: Short Story / Literary Fiction

Approximate word count: 1600 words

Availability
Kindle US:
YES UK: YES Nook: NO Smashwords: NO Paper: NO

Click on a YES above to go to appropriate page in Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Smashwords store


Author:

Rebecca Stroud loves animals. In addition to working as a reporter and newspaper columnist her career has included a series of jobs with animal hospitals, wildlife sanctuaries, and the SPCA as well as being politically active in issues involving animals. In addition to this short story, Stroud has four other works available from Amazon for your Kindle: a small short story collection (Three Dog Night), a novella (Do Unto Others), a novel (Devil’s Moon), and a volume called The Animal Advocate, which is a collection of her previously published newspaper columns. She has a blog, also called The Animal Advocate, if you’d like to find out more.

Description:

“Have you ever lost a beloved pet? Have you grieved and mourned yet still feel empty? May the road to Zellwood help you find an end to that sad journey.”

Appraisal:

A short story, done well, is almost like story concentrate. No filler or spare words, yet still including what needs saying. If properly focused there is still plenty of room for evocative description, needed back-story, and characterization, without feeling as though something important was left out. This is one of those short stories, done well.

It is a story of loss and, although the narrator doesn’t like the term, closure. A story about pets, how we relate to them, and how they relate to us.

Format/Typo Issues:

No significant issues.

Rating: ***** Five stars

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Freedom’s Sword / J.R. Tomlin

Reviewed by: BigAl

Genre: Historical

Approximate word count: 75-80,000 words

Availability
Kindle US:
YES UK: YES Nook: YES Smashwords: YES Paper: YES
Click on a YES above to go to appropriate page in Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Smashwords store

Author:

J.R. Tomlin is a native Texan who grew up in Texas and Scotland. A former Texas Longhorn, she now lives in the Pacific Northwest. She has six novels, some which are Scottish historical fiction and others, co-written with writing partner C.R. Daems, are fantasy. J.R.’s short story A Long Lonely Time, won fourth place in a contest held by Red Adept Reviews and was included in the anthology of contest winners, Twists and Turns. For more, visit the author’s blog.

Description:

You may have heard of William Wallace or Robert the Bruce, both depicted in the movie Braveheart. Freedom’s Sword is the fictionalized story of Andrew de Moray, another historic Scotsman who played a key part in Scotland’s battle to maintain its independence from England.

Appraisal:

Historical fiction is a genre I’ve typically shied away from. I think this is because I didn’t think I could relate. This is a prejudice I’ve had with other genres, mostly science fiction and fantasy. By making a conscious effort to expand the universe of what I read, I’ve found that my prejudice was unfounded, at least partially. While the world in which these stories take place is different, when done well the characters are still very relatable in their hopes and struggles.

Although the setting of Scotland in the thirteenth century is very different from our modern world, the characters in Freedom’s Sword experience the universal struggle of keeping what is theirs: property, culture, and the right to govern themselves. Wartime is a good setting for a story with lots of action, plenty of heroes to love, and more than enough villains to hate. The author tells the story well and I found myself drawn into the story. Unfortunately, I also found myself jarred out of the story by minor, but frequent typo and proofing errors.

Format/Typo Issues:

A large number of typos and proofing errors.

Rating: *** Three stars