Saturday, August 31, 2013

The Bard Reviews: Songs In the Year of the Cat by H. Leighton Dickson

Having read the first two installments of H. Leighton Dickson’s captivating series, I was rewarded by having the experience of the third being published just when I finished the second. How often does that happen? I was able to leap directly from the end of the gripping second novel into the third, which picks up exactly where the last one left off.

I’ve already heaped praise on Dickson’s writing in my first two reviews, and that excellence doesn’t change here. Dickson is outstanding on presenting her world of combined elements of China, India, and Japan, but her character building is even stronger, and ties the story together. The characters reunite after the last books dramatic ending to try to unite the kingdom against the coming of the Ancestors. In order to do that, everyone must commit to peace.

That includes Dogs.

I can’t say much without spoilers from the last story, but if you’ve read the previous book then you’ll understand how improbable that plan of action is. Kirin, now the Shogun General of the Upper Kingdom, must try to make peace with the savage people he has every reason to hate, not to mention Ursa, Sireth, and the others.

But diplomacy and honor must take precedence, particularly in the face of the coming threat, as we see through flashbacks from Kerris and Fallon’s time spend overseas in the land of the Ancestors. Let’s just say that humanity is as prejudiced and oppressive as ever. In the Upper Kingdom, cats are joined by monkeys to form a powerful army that will face the wild throngs of Dogs that have formed their own army under a powerful Khan who is much more concerned with war than peace. In the middle of the conflict are a Dog Seer and her brother, and of course Sherah, the mysterious Alchemist who might hold the answer to the riddle of peace.

Once again, Dickson steers the reader along a journey with characters that serve a purpose, whose motivations and personalities alter and adapt to their ever-changing circumstances. This book is larger in scope, so some characters are regretfully limited in their impact. I was particularly interested in the monkeys, as their race wasn’t introduced in the first two novels. Unfortunately they didn’t get much exposure in this novel and I wasn’t sure quite how to picture them. Hopefully a future installment will expound. But as a whole the writing was satisfying as ever, and a solid resolution to a three-part act. The ending leaves room for future installments, which I will definitely look forward to. H. Leighton Dickson is now high on my list of favorite authors.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Bard Reviews: Tiger Paw by Charles A. Cornell

What do Wall Street, rogue CIA assassins, and Hindu cult worship have in common?

That’s what Scott Forrester has to find out in Charles A. Cornell’s fast moving thriller, Tiger Paw. Cornell proves he has the goods as a crime/thriller novelist as he navigates Forrester through a truly tangled web of deceit, torture, murder and betrayal that turns the investigator’s world not only upside down but inside out as well. It’s a race against time as he’s on the run from shadowy assassins, his own agency, and cult conspirators who have infiltrated the very infrastructure of society.

At first glance Tiger Paw appears to be a formulaic display of cliché’s from a crime writer’s checklist. World-weary FBI agent? Check. Sexy but tough female partner? Check. Grouchy boss who shouts a lot demanding results? Check. Femme fatale? Check.
Hindu cultists torturing and assassinating in the name of the Goddess of Death?


Gotta hand to Cornell, I don’t think we’ve seen that one before. To think, he could have easily went the Dan Brown wannabe route and tried to milk the whole ‘Catholic Conspiracy’ thing, but instead Cornell takes us an entirely different route. And he’s done his homework. I’m no expert, but Cornell’s writing style feels like he’s in his comfort zone with details on Wall Street marketing, Hindu religion, federal investigation, and the lifestyles of the rich and famous. He navigates the reader through a convoluted maze without losing us on the way to the climatic finish. And even though I guessed the identity of the Tiger Paw killer about 75% in the tale, I enjoyed the way that he wrapped it up. Tiger Paw is very cinematic, and I can imagine it as a Hollywood film one day.

Bottom line: If you like crime novels in the style of Patterson or Deaver then Tiger’s Paw will do quite nicely. Four out of five stars.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Bard Reviews: To Walk In the Way of Lions by H. Leighton Dickson

Having been sucked into Dickson’s world of anthropomorphic animal characters in her first novel, I was eager to return for the sequel. To put it lightly, I had not enjoyed a fantasy novel in a long time as much as Year of the Tiger. In it, I was taken into a fantasy world that discards the overused European mythology for a blend of Chinese, Indian, and Japanese myths that unite to form the culture of Dickson’s world. In the first novel the characters were introduced and were appealing and interesting enough to follow halfway around the world in their quest to unravel the mystery of their fallen Seers. Dickson’s talent is her character’s appeal, the way her motley crew of different personalities interacts like a dysfunctional family.

The new novel digs deeper, exposing the frailties of the characters. Their individual histories are expounded upon, revealing secrets that the others are unprepared for. I particularly found myself captivated by the relationship between the noble and rigid Kirin and the mysterious and deadly Sherah. Of all the characters, the seductive cheetah and honor-bound lion have the least in common, and the way that they interact is strangely compelling and saddening.

But then the entire story is driven by relationships. The yin/yang between the lion brothers, the dance of attraction between Ursa and Sireth as well as Fallon and Kerris. Each character is wonderfully flawed, and their flaws quickly wear on each other as the journey progresses. (with the exception of Fallon, who is the only character in the story that doesn’t quite work in my opinion. Too young to be a true Scholar, and her speech patterns clash with the way that everyone else in the story talks.)

In a way, the actual mission is the backdrop to a study of characters. By the time the novel draws to a startlingly brutal and dramatic conclusion, the mystery of the Ancestors is second fiddle to the culmination of how the characters try to salvage the relationships that they have so severely damaged on the way.

Speaking of damage, events in the climax definitely took me by surprise. Dickson is not afraid to subject her characters to the cruelest of consequences, and the emotional impact is staggering. Just because feline characters are prominent does not make this a story for children. I haven’t been this stunned by deadly turn of events since reading a certain other fantasy series that will go unnamed.

 Bottom line: Read the first book in the series. By the time you get to this one, you will no doubt be as drawn into this world as I am. Dickson creates a unique world of captivation characters that you will be grateful to journey with. Five out of five stars.

Purchased for my Kindle at Amazon

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Perfect Book Covers: Michal Suchanek

When it comes to book covers, I like to see at least one of three things:

1)An eye-catching image
2)A rendering of at least one of the main characters
3)An idea of what kind of book I'm buying.

If you follow my work than you're aware that I'm a big fan of dieselpunk. So it's nice to highlight an outstanding example of artwork that would be perfect for a novel in that genre. The artist is Michal Suchanek. I've seen his work before, both in dieselpunk forums and across the web. Michal is from the Czech Republic and does work in many different art forms. You can find out more about his work at his official website.


The title of this work of art is 'Anna Yurlova'. I like the way it instantly catches the eye. Anna is attractive yet tough, hardened by the gruel of war and injuries apparent by her eye patch and scar on her cheek. I like the small details like the sway of the uniform and tassels, indicating movement, and the field of tiny flowers about to be trampled by the machines of war. The muted color scheme compliments the mood of warfare, and the overall composition makes if perfect for a book cover.

This picture captures all the elements I look for in a book cover. The image is captivating, the main character is spotlighted, and the genre is obvious. This would work well for a wartime novel as well as a dieselpunk book featuring a tough female character.

Make sure to check out more of Michal Suchanek's work at his website.

More perfect covers are featured in my Pinterest board of the same name.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Bard Reviews: These Windows by Thomas the Younger

I have been a fan of the writing of Thomas the Younger since catching his work at an online writing site. Upon learning he was collecting a few in a volume, I immediately picked up These Windows, a troika of stories stirred from the part of the imagination that’s cold and dank, dark and dusty. Where most writers go to bury their skeletons, Thomas goes to unearth them.

Three stories: Rear Window. Jack Snapped. Jill Killed. Yeah, they pretty much mean what they say. Three tales of madness, surreal dreamscaping, and emotionally charged murder. Watch your step, because stairs don’t exist here. It’s just a sheer drop into a boiling pot of literary stew.

Rear Window: a hallucinatory dive into a house that’s not so much haunted as it is haunting, fully equipped with a rear window that allows a view of certain madness, or perhaps a subtle peek at the writer’s own mind. Jack Snapped: the cold-blooded tale of a unfortunate restaurant encounter with a bloke name Jack. Does he indeed snap? Read the title. Jill Killed: A tale to make Tarantino proud, featuring a dame of ruthless temperament who doesn’t mind serving her revenge cold. Watch out for that surprise ending.

There’s a bit of Stephen King here. A bit of Poe. But mostly it’s a lot of Thomas, a writer who doesn’t waste words. Readers who love pages of backstory and setup will be out of their element in these pages. Thomas the Younger enjoys pushing the throttle before you get both feet in. And then blowing you away with his delight of leaping headfirst into the dark side of the human psyche. 

Go get it.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

The Bard Reviews: To Journey In the Year of the Tiger by H. Leighton Dickson

Publisher Description: Kirin Wynegarde-Grey is a young lion with a big job - Captain of the Guard in a Kingdom that spans from the mountains of western China to the deserts of the Middle East. When an ancient threat awakens in the West and threatens to overthrow the Empire, he must lead a team that includes his enigmatic brother, a lethal swordswoman and three radically different and mysterious specialists through a world where humans are legend and animals walk like men.

Review: It’s hard to find fantasy from new writers that isn’t trying to clone previously successful series, but this delightful series by H. Leighton Dickson proves to blaze its own trail as it relates the story of a band of anthropomorphic cats (lions, cheetah, tiger, leopards, etc) undertake a quest to solve a deadly mystery that threatens their Empire. Dickson’s characters are what keep this story moving, and I definitely connected with her dysfunctional family along their lengthy journey.

Books base on fantasy versions of medieval Europe are endless, so it was refreshing that Dickson’s setting is a fantasy version of China instead. The blend of ancient Chinese myth and tradition in her world worked very well to this reader unfamiliar with such things. I was pulled into the story without any lengthy backstory or explanations. In fact, Dickson is such a good writer that even a sudden revelation that throws science fiction into the story isn’t jarring, it just adds to the intrigue. I won’t say more because to do so would spoil the surprise that definitely changes the tone of the entire quest.

What really hooked me was the characters. Dickson takes a stock of familiar archetypes (the stoic, the jester, the arcane, the studious, the fierce, etc) and fills them with flawed personalities that make them all the more appealing. Normally I’m drawn to a single character as a favorite, but I really like the entire band, which is a rare feat indeed. This is a quest story, so there is a lot of journeying. Having characters that keep you intrigued is worth every step of their trek.

Bottom line: I really can’t find anything not to like about this book. Highly recommended to any fan of fantasy, talking animal characters, or an all around adventure story with well-developed characters and a compelling story. Five out of five stars.

Purchased for my Kindle at Amazon.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

The Bard Reviews: Looper (DVD)

Film description: In the futuristic action thriller Looper, time travel will be invented - but it will be illegal and only available on the black market. When the mob wants to get rid of someone, they will send their target 30 years into the past where a 'looper' - a hired gun, like Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) - is waiting to mop up. Joe is getting rich and life is good - until the day the mob decides to 'close the loop,' sending back Joe's future self (Bruce Willis) for assassination. The film is written and directed by Rian Johnson and also stars Emily Blunt, Paul Dano, and Jeff Daniels.

Looper is a rare film that tries to do more than just entertain with a slick premise and pointless action. (Like that awful Total Recall remake) This is science fiction, which is supposed to make you think as well as entertain you.

I'll start off by saying that it was refreshing to see Bruce Willis in a movie where he's not just cashing a check on his Die Hard persona. I haven't enjoyed a performance from him since Twelve Monkeys, which certain aspects of the film give just a slight nod to.

Joseph Gordan-Levitt proves once again that he's capable of lead man status with his multi-layered performance as a dead man walking who gets the wake up call of his life while literally facing his own future.

They dystopian version of the future was realistic and veers away from the constant Blade Runner knock offs that we've seen time and again in sci fi films. The darkness in this future isn't in endless scenes of darkness and rain, it's in the souls of its inhabitants.

The only thing that I'd knock is that the story tries to encompass too many themes at once, which isn't such a bad thing when you compare it to the trivial plots of so called films that are being produced right now. Time travel and meeting one's future self is quite a load, however, and would have been perfectly sufficient without the additional moral quandary of whether it's acceptable to kill someone before they have a chance to become the worst type of person.

Still, the beauty of the story is that it manages to juggle all of its themes without dropping the ball. The characters are fresh, the acting superb, and the movie ends cleanly, wrapping up the time travel paradoxes with a single act.

The only thing I regret is not seeing this sooner. Four out of five stars.