The Sky People by S. M. Stirling

Narrator: Todd McLaren

Publisher: Tantor Audio (2007)

Length: 10 hours 38 minutes

Series: Book 1 The Lords of Creation

Author’s Page

In the 1960s, probes to Venus discovered something completely unexpected – life on Venus. Subsequent probes revealed plenty of animal life including dinosaur-like creatures and human-like people complete with civilizations. Now in the 1980s, the US and it’s allies have set up a small scientific outpost on Venus. The Soviet East Block has done the same thing. Venus comes with plenty of dangers but now it seems there might be a saboteur among the American & Allies crew.

Marc Vitrac, born in Louisiana and complete with Cajun accent, is the hero of this tale. He’s got the smarts and the muscles and the skills while also being friendly to Venusian canines and respectful of women. It’s rare to find such a man in science fiction (and even rarer to find one in real life). I really enjoyed this character partially because of all that stated above but because he’s also put in extraordinary circumstances in which he manages to keep his wits about him.

The setting was gripping. First, we know today that we are very unlikely to find Earth-like people and animals on Venus, but imagine if we had? Wouldn’t that raise all sorts of questions? That’s partially what these scientists are here to investigate. They also simply need to explore Venus, learning about it’s peoples and resources. I loved all the geeky science stuff about archaeology and paleontology.

There’s dinos! Yes! I loved seeing Terrans and Venusians interact with these beasties in all their variety. There’s also some intimidating predator mammals, like this large canine. In fact, Marc gets himself a puppy, Tyo, who becomes quite the novelty and Marc’s best wingman.

Meanwhile, the Venusians have several different cultures going on. There’s the ‘civilized’ Venusians of Kartahown city which is nearby the US outpost Jamestown. There are other cities as well. Then there’s the semi-nomadic and mostly peaceful human-like groups, such as the Cloud Mountain People lead by Teesa, a princess and shaman all rolled into one. Lastly, there’s the mostly nomadic and violent Beastmen, which are Neanderthal-like. Toss in tensions with the Soviet outpost, Cosmograd, then you’ve got some politicking as well (most of which happens behind the scenes).

The cast has a fair amount of diversity. Cynthia Whitlock is an African American geologist, and resistant to Marc’s charms. Christopher Blair is our British bloke with the RAF. Much later in the story we get a Russian woman who is doing her best to retrieve a downed Russian outpost exploration vehicle that had her husband, Captain Binkis, on it. Teesa has her moments, sometimes leading her people and sometimes playing the helpless princess.

Despite the well traveled tropes in this story, I got much enjoyment out of it. For me, the weakness is in the women. Sometimes these ladies are well drawn out with skills, brains, and opinions. Yet sometimes they fall into helpless damsels in distress that need rescuing (and I felt that was too easily done and just for drama). Still, I really enjoyed the story.

The Narration: Todd McLaren makes a really good Cajun Marc Vitrac. He kept all the characters distinct and had feminine voices for the ladies. There were some emotional moments in this book and McLaren was great at expressing those emotions through the characters. I liked his various accents (Cajun, standard American, British, Venusian, Russian, etc.).

What I Liked: Dinos and people!; Venus has much that needs exploring and much that is deadly; the variety of peoples on Venus; the political tensions between America & Allies and the Soviets; the deadly mammal predators; Tyo doggy; the very botched rescue mission; left me wanting more; great cover art.

What I Disliked: The ladies sometimes fall into helpless damsel mode.

What Others Think:

Dragon Page

RPG.net

Battered, Tattered, Yellowed, & Creased

SF Reviews.net

Janus: Zombies versus Dinosaurs by James Livingood

LivingoodJanusWhere I Got It: Review copy

Narrator: Randal Schaffer

Publisher: Paperbackward (2016)

Length: 5 hours 33 minutes

Series: Book 2 Zombies vs. Dinosaurs

Author’s Page

Note: While this is Book 2 in the series, it works fine as a stand alone.

I really enjoyed Pale Rider so when the author offered me a review copy of the sequel, I jumped at the chance. Sad to say, I didn’t find this installment as interesting. Janus is a zombie leader and he controls his pack of zombies through instinct. He also uses this power, instinct, to control a non-zombiefied deer or elk (I forget which), which he rides upon. The zombies are definitely different than the ones we saw in Book 1, being able to group together like this and be lead by a strong ‘personality’. However, I found the whole instinct power not well flushed out and difficult to believe in. Yep, I can totally believe in zombies and genetically created dinosaur-looking beasties, but I had a hard time with this instinct. Mostly, it was because of the elk. Wild animals have their own agendas – eat, sleep, fornicate, repeat. Elk aren’t big fans of rotting meat smell either. So Janus is using his power, instinct, to keep this elk in line, by negating the elk’s own instincts to run? That’s where Janus’s power gets to squishy and ill-defined for me.

The character, Pale Rider, is a reluctant leader in his town. He settles disputes and folks seek him out for advice on difficult fencing situations. He has a young daughter and he deeply misses his wife. Janus has recognized him as the human leader and if Janus wants to ‘free’ these humans from their boring lives, giving them the gifts of instinct and freedom, he must take out Pale Rider. The story sets up early for a good Western-type showdown and I really enjoyed the building of suspense.

Then we have Heche, who is like a mad scientist. She creates new dinos to sell to the local farmers. They are used in putting up fencing, taking down trees, and farming. I really like the basics of her character – she’s a seeker of knowledge both in books and through her work. However, this is another area that isn’t really clear. Does she have a lab with petri dishes and sterile equipment? Or is more like a wizard’s barn, full of smelly potions and unidentified bits of dried animals? I would have liked a bit more on this front because it ties into other questions I have. How far has civilization fallen? There’s a reference to contact lenses and it’s unlikely someone whipped those up, even if the town has a watchmaker. Is it 6 months since the zombie calamity or 6 years? If it’s 6 months, then contact lenses are still around. If it’s 6 years, then no, not realistic.

Book 1 was pretty sparse on the ladies and Book 2 does better but there are definitely not enough females around to save humanity. Heche has the most lines, but that’s perhaps 10-20 lines, though we get some quality time in her head. Pale Rider’s young daughter also has a role. Then there are 2 female zombies (why so few?) and maybe a few human ladies tossed in here and there. As usual, I like to see more ladies in post-apocalyptic stories. How else will we rebuild?

OK. So, bad to the goodness. We do get a showdown at the end and there were some twists. The author took the story beyond what I expected. These zombies are more like feral beasts than shuffling corpses; they are not so easily beaten. Heche creates a fantastical beast that comes in handy. And then there’s that thing that happened right at the end that has me craving to know where things will go from here. It’s all very dramatic at the end and very satisfying.

I received a copy of this audiobook at no cost (from the author) in exchange for an honest review.

 

The Narration: Randal Schaffer’s performance was OK. When the characters were talking, he imbued them with emotion. The rest of the story he read in a monologue that made me wonder if he was bored with the book or not.

What I Liked: Modified beasties!; showdown between zombies and humans; Heche’s work; the reluctant leader; some great surprises at the end.

What I Disliked: Not clear about the level of science or manufacturing that is available; the zombie instinct power was pretty nebulous and squishy; few female characters.

Pale Rider: Zombies versus Dinosaurs by James Livingood

LivingoodPaleRiderWhere I Got It: Review copy from the author (thanks!).

Narrator: Michael C. Gwynne

Publisher: Paperbackward (2015)

Length: 57 minutes

Author’s Page

The zombie virus was initially misdiagnosed. Of course it would be. Eventually, it spread and society as we know it collapsed. A new method of transport was needed, one that did not depend on petroleum products and was immune to the virus. Some scientists got together and gengineered large reptilian birds to transport humans and to be used as heavy equipment in farming and clearing land. Us humans couldn’t help but refer to them as dinosaurs.

I read the description to this novelette and smiled. How could I not give it a listen? The story starts off with a short lead in that sets the stage clearly for the reader. I liked how the zombies (also called ‘blues’ in this story) have a nervous system disorder caused by a virus. Then I thoroughly enjoyed how the dinosaurs came into being. If you have ever owned chickens, then you know they are not far removed from T-rexes. So it was not hard for me to imagine some gengineered featherless birds crossed with reptiles being raised to take out tree stumps.

Then we get into the story. Farming is pretty dangerous today, without zombies and with modern equipment. Imagine trying to clear a bit of farming land while watching out for and possibly fighting zombies. Yeah, pretty damn exciting. The story is told through a single point of view (a man, known as Pale Rider, who travels around the area clearing farm land) in a near nitty gritty way. I liked his skeptical attitude.

There are only 2 women mentioned in this book and neither have speaking roles. They are both wives and we only see one on stage, just once, to plant a sultry kiss. Obviously, I would have liked to see a real female character or two, with actions and dialogue pertinent to the plot. However, that’s my only complaint about this tale.

The mix of action and dinos and zombies had me alternating between a black humor chuckle and nibbling on my nails wondering if our hero had met his end. James Livingood is an author to keep an eye on and I really hope he continues to explore this world he has created.

The Narration: Michael Gwynne was a good fit for Pale Rider, giving him a hard-boiled feel. He had a range of voices for the few other characters we encounter.  

What I Liked: Modified beasties!; interesting main character; zombies versus dinos!; the cover art; satisfying ending.

What I Disliked: Women are relegated to the background.

Interview: Selah Janel, Author of Olde School

SelahJanelAuthorPicEveryone, please clap eyes together for Selah Janel! We chat about a ton of stuff in this interview, ranging from comics (Batgirl, Sandman) to books (American Gods, Ray Bradbury), to Welcome to Night Vale, along with lots of other interesting bits. Enjoy!

What book should be made into a game (card, PC, board, etc.) and why? Is there a specific character who you would want to play in this game?

First, thanks so much for having me on! I’m an unabashed geek, so there are a lot of books I’d love to see branch out into some sort of interactive play. I really love Neil Gaiman’s work, so I’d have to say that I’d be all for some sort of American Gods or Sandman game. Both of those worlds are so rich in settings, characters, story, and mythology, so you could do a lot with any type of game experience. You could even have different players actively working against each other with either title, so that would be a lot of fun. I’d totally be down to play Death or Delirium in Sandman!

Ray Bradbury is also probably my favorite author, and I have an unhealthy love of carnival-themed stories, so I would absolutely love to spend all evening playing any kind of version of Something Wicked This Way Comes. It would be so cool to play as Jim or Will and go around exploring the carnival, then seeing the town come undone and having to figure out the reason for it, then face down characters like the dust witch, Mr. Cooger, and Mr. Dark.

And honestly, I’d love to eventually see Olde School get that kind of treatment. Kingdom City and The Land in general is a huge area with a lot of great characters and places to explore. I’d love to see people playing their way through the city and Thadd Forest, dealing with characters like Nobody and Addlebaum, and facing off against the Olde Ones. There could be so many fun possibilities there!

JanelOldeSchoolWith the modern popularity to ebooks, a book is no longer limited to a specific genre shelf. It is now quite easy to label place an ebook in multiple genres (i.e. YA, Fantasy, Horror). How do you see this affecting readers? Have you been inadvertently lured outside your reading comfort zone?

I tend to read a little bit of everything, and I like perusing the new section of my library and grabbing titles with no prior knowledge, so I don’t know that I’ve been lured outside my comfort zone without expecting it to happen. I like discovering different work, and even if it makes me feel uncomfortable, I’ve discovered a lot of great titles by being open. So I suppose if classifying a work in different genres helps people who may not go looking for something discover that they like more than what they assume, then it’s definitely a good thing. Anymore, as cross-genre titles become more popular, it’s almost impossible to distinguish a title by one genre, anyway. The genre labeling helps bookstores and marketing, sure, but at the end of the day, I think most books tend to be more than one classification. Sure, there are people who only go after certain genres: horror, paranormal romance, etc., but even those two examples encompass a lot of subgenres.

My book, Olde School, is a good example. It looks like a fantasy book, and it encompasses a lot of those creatures and plot elements. It also has a lot of folklore and fairy components, but lends itself to urban fantasy because of its modernized setting and the fact that there are paranormal/Lovecraft-type horror elements coming into it from another realm. On a shelf it would probably be found under fantasy, but I’ve had all sorts of people get into it and enjoy it – some of whom made it a point to mention that they never read fantasy, but really enjoyed this title!

In that way, I think marketing to different genre shelves definitely helps authors, but it also helps readers expand their horizons and find titles that they might have overlooked. It’s the equivalent of me wandering through the library grabbing whatever’s interesting. If I hadn’t picked up Gil’s All Fright Diner by A. Lee Martinez, I may have just thought it was some goofy title playing on the horror genre and not the really clever book and well-written story it is. If I’d walked past This is Gonna Hurt by Nikki Sixx, I’d have assumed it was yet another rock star bio and not a really incredible photography book combined with musings about living a creative life and not judging people (plus I’d have missed out on a book that probably changed my creative life). It all goes back to not judging a book by the cover, and if the various genre filing does that for a reader, then I’m all for it!

JanelMoonerWhat reboots (or retellings) of classics have you enjoyed? Are there ones that haven’t worked for you?

I’m really (really, really, really) into fairy tales and folklore of all types, as well as myths from all areas of the world, so I can definitely get behind a well-written retelling or a story that uses the characters, settings, or arcs to make them new. The Tenth Kingdom miniseries came at a time when I was starting my twenties and had gotten away from a lot of genre fiction because I was a freshman in college and studying theatre. Although I’d been brought up with various versions of fairy tales, it seemed that only the Disney versions made it into popular culture, so to see something closer to the Grimm versions used in such unique ways blew my mind. I loved the way the story incorporated the “real” world and original characters, and utilized a lot of themes as well as just having the fairy tale characters show up. Diane Wiest is so amazing in that, as is Ed O’Neil. The humor is fantastic, and I love that it doesn’t shy away from slightly bawdy themes and some really dark territory. I really don’t think Olde School would have gotten written if it hadn’t been for that influence – it made me think years later of what was possible and just go for broke, giving me permission to do my own slant on old themes.

As a kid, I also grew up with Jim Henson’s The Storyteller. Those episodes were just mind-boggling and seemed so real. I was mesmerized…and terrified. A local library happened to have the novelization of those stories, and I checked it out so often that I’ve probably still got some of them memorized. I always found it a shame that his fantasy work always gained more of a cult following, because things like that series are exquisite – just perfection, and really show what you can do with puppets, great acting, and fantastic stories.

A few years ago I stumbled upon My Father He Killed Me, My Mother She Ate Me, which is an anthology of fairy tale retellings. Like any anthology, I gravitated to some stories more than others, but The Color Master by Aimee Bender…to this day I am in awe and incredibly jealous of this story. I love any version of Allerleirauh I can find, and to have it told from the perspective of a craftsperson really spoke to me since I sew and design costumes in my daily life. The emotion in the tale brought me to my knees, and the descriptions of making the three dresses really spoke to me. It was such an unusual take on the story and it’s done so well.

Obviously I’m really into Sandman – that series never ceases to make me feel on a visceral level and give me something to think about. American Gods, too – that’s one of the few books where I really didn’t see a lot of the reveals coming. You can really tell that Neil Gaiman knows what he’s talking about. He doesn’t necessarily cram anything down a reader’s throat but uses the revamped characters and themes in some subtle ways. I still catch things when I go back and reread both titles.

As far as ones that haven’t worked for me…I honestly don’t get into movie revamps that purposefully take fairy tales and make them “dark.” This doesn’t make sense at all to me…they’re already dark, it’s just that we’ve sanitized them so much in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Just go back and tell older versions of the story and tell them well! You don’t need to work so hard throwing in twenty action sequences and over the top love triangles and things that just don’t fit. I get the fixation, I get wanting to modernize things, but I can’t help but think that there are better ways. I really wish that instead of taking the same five or ten stories and continually showing the “true” version or cramming them into some new subgenre, people would take a look at a lot of the international versions of the stories and work with them. I mean there are over three hundred known Cinderella stories and we regularly use maybe three. That’s a shame, especially when some of them have some great elements like the heroine leaving home to find her own way or man–eating trolls.

JanelInTheRedWhat is your favorite fictional holiday (from books, movies, or tv)?

Speaking of Jim Henson…and probably showing more of my inner workings than is healthy….Refrigerator Day, from the TV series Dinosaurs. I would totally be all about celebrating the glory of the fridge.

JanelHollyAndIvyIf you could sit down and have tea (or a beer) with 5 fictional characters, who would you invite to the table?

Oh, man! Questions like this always get me! I always have to fight the instinct to put a bunch of people together that might become a powder keg, just to see what would happen. Definitely Jareth, the Goblin King, from Labyrinth. I’ve always really been intrigued by that character since you really don’t know a lot about him other than his role (that he seems bored by), and if you believe his interpretation of things in the end scenes, that may be a front because it’s how Sarah expects to see him. Barbara Gordon/Batgirl would be one that I’d definitely want to talk to, but only in her pre-new 52 version. I found her transformation into Oracle so emotional and inspiring, and it did wonders for her characterization in the comics. I really hate that all that got reverted. Salem the cat from Sabrina the Teenage Witch because I am that big of a geek and a cat person and I cannot help but think that it would be hilarious. Cecil from Welcome to Night Vale because I just want to know everything that goes on in that town and he’s probably the best one to get the dirt from. And I’m sure Clyde from Olde School would make me invite him to keep the peace – he’s annoying like that. He was once a magical/possibly evil entity, and now is stuck as a non-magical songbird with a deep, sexy voice who helps the lead character in my book as long as it means he gets unlimited access to red wine and cable television. He wouldn’t want to be left out…plus he’d probably give Salem a run for his money.

Man, only five? I guess I’d have to save the invites to Eowyn, Aslan, Meg Murry from Madeline L’Engle’s books, The Endless from Sandman, Tamora from Titus Andronicus, Loki, Skinner Sweet from American Vampire, The Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives in your Home from Welcome to Night Vale, and half of the standard fairy tale characters for the Christmas party……..Come on. You know that would be amazing!

JanelTheOtherManCare to share an awkward fangirl/fanboy moment, either one where someone was gushing over your work…..or one where you were gushing over another author’s work?

I feel like this happens on a day to day basis for me. I tend to talk prolifically about anything I’m really enjoying, be it a band, movie, book, whatever. I know it gets obnoxious and although I try to dampen that down, I do get really passionate about what I’m into at times. I’m also still not used to people coming to conventions to see me or coming up to me to talk about my books, so I have to really stop myself from going “Me? Really?” and looking around in confusion.

Probably the best example of me overreacting isn’t actually me gushing to anyone, but an incident that happened a handful of years ago. I was in the middle of just a lot of different things going on and I’d recently lost a family member, so I was a ball of tension anyway. I love going to the library and I had found a book of source material written by Ray Bradbury around the same concept of Fahrenheit 451 that either didn’t make it into the book or were written before or after, etc. I didn’t realize until I’d gotten home that it was a limited edition…a signed limited edition.

The thing about me is I’m a huge lover of Ray Bradbury. His work really encouraged me to keep writing, and I could speak about his influence forever. He’s one that I keep slowly going through the list of his works, debating whether to read it all or leave some go, so there’s always something to look forward to. And having that book in my hands that I happened to check out, knowing that it wasn’t available anymore and at the time I didn’t have the money to spend on it, anyway….
….this is so embarrassing, but I lost my ever-loving mind.

There’s a story he wrote in Dandelion Wine called The Happiness Machine, and it involves a husband trying to make his family happy by building a machine that would show them all these different things that they didn’t happen to have. The wife comes out of the machine sobbing and says something to the effect that they were things she didn’t even know she wanted, and now she knew she’d never get them. That’s about what it was like for me, to hold that thing in my hands, running a finger over the signature, knowing I’d love reading it, knowing I’d get attached to it, knowing I had to give it back…

Yeah, definite meltdown. My mother happened by and actually thought someone else had died or some other tragedy had happened until I calmed down enough to explain. After realizing that she’d given birth to a crazy person, we actually sat down and tried to find a way around the situation, but by then most of that edition had been bought up.

A lot of my friends suggested a lot of ways around the library process, but I couldn’t in good conscience do anything with a book that advocated literacy and shared knowledge, so I actually had my mother take it back so I wouldn’t be tempted. I never read a single part of that book because the thought of having it but not having it just tore me apart.

In hindsight, a lot of it was probably me expressing a lot of grief and frustration at the things that were going on, but man that was a huge catalyst that actually got me to express a lot of that emotion. I was also fortunate enough that a dear friend of mine found a signed copy of Dandelion Wine (my favorite Bradbury book) and sent it my way to ease the ache. I’ve never forgotten the gesture and it helped to reorient my headspace at the time. Still, I will admit that I’ve never tried to check that book out again.

JanelLostInShadowsWhat is a recurring or the most memorable geeky argument or debate you have taken part in?

I feel like this happens once a week, so it’s really hard to choose or remember a specific incident. I get involved in the Marvel vs. DC debate a lot, and I end up getting way more detailed in any Batman discussion than I probably should. People tend to rope me into a lot of discussions about fantasy or fairy tales. Sometimes I’ll play devil’s advocate about titles I’m not really into or things I love but don’t think need endless sequels, just to make sure everyone keeps an open mind. Lately, since I’ve become a regular listener of Welcome to Night Vale, the most recent geektacular discussion involves deciding out of my friends and family, who would be a resident of Night Vale and who would belong in Desert Bluffs. I got talked into moderating a fanfiction panel at a writing convention a few weeks ago. Whatever your feelings on it (and I have many different ones), as I’ve gotten older I’ve developed this secret theory that fanfic is the new oral tradition and a lot of the “new” archetypes specific to it are downright Jungian, but for slightly different reasons and goals. I’ve had a lot of moments lately traumatizing people with that more intellectual take on fandom. It’s always something – if I can inject people’s daily lives with a little bit of geekiness and get them to appreciate all the fun stuff out there, then I’ve done my job,

HartnessLeverettBigBadFinally, what upcoming events and works would you like to share with the readers?

Most of my upcoming stuff is still in the development stage at the moment – I’m finishing up some standalone manuscripts to shop, working on a few proposals, and plotting out the next Kingdom City book. I’m discussing a few other projects, including an issue of Tales of Indiscretion dedicated to my short fiction, but as of yet I don’t have any official dates on anything. I’m hoping to make an appearance in the Columbus, Ohio area on October 25, but that’s still being finalized and I’m still working on my 2015 schedule, as well.

I will have a story in The Big Bad 2 anthology, which focuses on characters traditionally seen as “evil” getting the spotlight. “A Family Affair” will be a prequel to my vampire story “Real Wild Childe” in the first Big Bad anthology, and deals with cold war era vampires and a fairly interesting housewife.

There’s a lot to discover on my blog, though! After a short break I’m trying to get back to regular posting, and a full list of my available releases, as well as magazines and anthologies I’m in is there. There’s also a full page of different Kingdom City fun, including little shorts featuring Clyde the bird. The main link is http://www.selahjanel.wordpress.com and the rest can be found by clicking at the subheadings. I always welcome people to message me on my FB author page or tweet me or leave a comment on the blog. I love hearing what people have to say!

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