Sunday, March 27, 2016


By Michael Crichton

A large object has been discovered on the ocean floor. Based on the build up of corals, it has been there for at least three hundred years. Yet it has the appearance of an airplane fuselage or of a spacecraft.
An expedition to examine the object is hastily put together, consisting of Navy personnel and four civilian scientists: a biologist, a psychologist, a mathematician, and an astrophysicist. The main character is Norman Johnson, the psychologist.
Some time ago, Johnson was hired by the government to put together an advisory study detailing the proper steps to take if humans should come into contact with extraterrestrials. So, even though Norman Johnson is a bit past it for underwater adventures, he was included in the team as the best expert to deal with possible alien contact.
The team heads down to the underwater base, about 1000 feet underwater, to study the "spacecraft." Once the overlay of coral and debris is removed, it is apparent that the craft couldn't have crashed as it is completely undamaged. Even closer examination reveals markings in English.
They get the entryway opened and get inside the craft. It is obviously an American vehicle, designed for deep space, with heavy-duty radiation shielding. There is no one on board, not even any bodies. But there is the sphere.
What the sphere is, what it is designed to do, where it is from, these are the questions, questions with no easy answers. They can't even figure out how to open it.
But then Harry, the mathematician, opens the sphere and goes inside. He stays there for several hours. When he comes back out, he seems fine. But something is a bit off. And that's when the team gets its first contact from the dweller in the sphere, whom they decide must be an alien being. The being, who wants to be called Jerry, is a bonafide jerk. Selfish, uncaring and intransigent, he seems not to understand or care about human fragility. And he seems be responsible for all the bad stuff that starts to happen soon after Harry returns from the sphere.

Always, when starting a Michael Crichton novel, I wonder, as I encounter the various characters in the book, which is fated to die and which to survive until the end. Because lots of people will die, they always do in his stories. By the end, only three people out of the original team of ten are left alive. The other seven die in various imaginative ways.
But never mind that. As for the story itself, it was interesting and posed some very challenging questions about our ability to understand or appreciate the alien mind.  I also enjoyed his descriptions of life in the underground base although I am in no position to judge the accuracy of what he says. The ending is quite exciting and even a bit open-ended. Perhaps Crichton was thinking of a sequel?
I think one of the marks of a good read is if it is memorable. Sphere is certainly memorable, one of the books I doubt I will ever forget.

Saturday, March 19, 2016


By Jacey Bedford

In a different England, at the time of the Napoleonic Wars, magic is reality. Among the people of Great Britain dwell the Rowankind, a created people that live only to serve humanity, working in menial positions and doing the scut work no one else wants to do. It has been this way for about two hundred years.
Rossalinde Tremayne is a young widow. Due to family complications, she ran away with a pirate captain only to lose him to death after a few short years. At which point she donned men's attire and became the captain of her husband's ship. Since then she has been privateering for the British government, capturing French ships and claiming their cargo. It's been a profitable life and she is now a wealthy young woman.
Called to her dying mother's bed, Rossalinde is burdened with the Winterwood Box. It can only be opened under the right conditions, but Rossalinde doesn't know what those conditions are. She learns, during her visit, that her younger brother Philip has died. She also soon discovers that she has a half-brother, David, the last servant left in her mother's household. David is her mother's youngest child, only fourteen years old, and the result of an alliance between the mother and a Rowankind servant.
Rossalinde's mother had powerful magic and her daughter and her son David inherited it. The mother's family, the Sumners have history with the British royals and their ancester, Martyn the Summoner, called up the storm that sunk the Spanish Armada back in the days of Queen Elizabeth I. But in order gather that much magical power, Martyn stole the powers of the Rowankind and doomed them to servitude. Now, with the Winterwood Box, Rossalinde has the tools needed, with the help of her siblings, to restore the Rowandkind to their power and magic. However, the British government is dead set against the Rowankind being set free and loosing their wild magic upon the kingdom and will do whatever it takes to stop the Winterwood Box from being opened.
But Rossalinde is torn. If she opens the box, it could be bloody rebellion and chaos for Britain, with the Rowankind uprising and their wild, untamed magic running rampant. But if she doesn't, the Rowankind remain unfairly trapped in the servant, laborer class.  It all rests on her to decide the fate of her people and her homeland, that is, if British government agents don't kill her first!

This was an okay read. Rossalinde and her allies get beat up a lot and she, or someone else, is constantly recovering from their injuries. That got a bit tedious after awhile. Also I found the last quarter of the book more interesting than the first three quarters, which just didn't grab my attention as I would like.
When they finally open the Winterwood Box, it really doesn't matter at all what is inside it, because she and her allies have already figured out virtually everything they needed to know. That was quite disappointing. She just conjures up an old ghost who reviews the past with them and really doesn't add much at all to their knowledge.  So that seemed rather pointless. All that trouble and death for nothing.
I did enjoy the ending, when Rossalinde makes her decision about whether to restore the Rowankind to their power or leave them as servants to humanity. The ending was quite dramatic and quite satisfactory.

For another review, see

Something Borrowed

By Paul Magrs

Poison pen letters: someone is writing nasty, mean letters to people in the seaside resort of Whitby, England. Brenda and Effie, two older ladies, have developed a reputation for helping people and they are asked to investigate the poison pen situation.
Sheila Manchu, widow of the notorious master criminal Mu Mu Manchu, was the first victim of the poison pen writer. Sheila owns a hotel and has always been the subject of gossip in Whitby, but she is very upset by the letter she received.
It is while visiting with Sheila at her hotel that Brenda sees someone from her past, one Henry Cleavis.
Professionally, Henry is a history professor. But in actuality, he hunts and kills monsters. Brenda's memory is pretty foggy, and although Henry seems quite pleased to see her again, she can't help but wonder if he is going to target her, since she is the "Bride of Frankenstein". But if Henry is not after her, then who has he set his sights on in Whitby?

This book was a bit of a disappointment after all the fun and zaniness of the first book in the series, Never the Bride. It's not a bad read, but it just doesn't compare well to the first book. Aunt Jessie makes brief appearances but it ends badly for her, as if being a Australopithecus zombie was not punishment enough for her original vanity. About the only thing that really made me smile was who the poison pen writer is but, on the other hand, I didn't understand the motive behind the letter writing.
The book ends with a note from Brenda's "husband." He is coming to claim his bride, which I suppose is the premise for the next book in the series.

Friday, March 11, 2016

A Darker Shade of Magic

By V.E. Schwab

Four Londons: Black London, White London, Red London, Grey London, existing in separate universes with few similarities. Doors connect these Londons but only special people, antari, can access the doors by using magic.
Black London has been overrun by magic and to protect the other Londons, it was sealed off. White London is starving for magic and, as a consequence, its people are twisted and corrupt. Red London has bountiful magic and people are happy and prosperous. Grey London is ordinary and not magical, although magic is available to those with talent.
Kell is from Red London and he is an antari. He serves as a messenger, traveling between the Londons, enabling the rulers of each London to stay in contact.  But Kell, who is a bit resentful of his fate, has turned smuggler too, bringing trinkets from one London to another, although this is forbidden. It is his smuggling that brings him to grief in Grey London, when he falls into a trap and is nearly killed but is saved in the nick of time by Lila Bard.
Lila is a thief and a pickpocket. She stole a stone from Kell, an stone that the rulers of White London desperately want. It is a stone from Black London and it is saturated with powerful magic, magic so strong even Lila is able to conjure using it. When she stole it from Kell, he tracked her down and retrieved the stone. Holland, who is the antari for the rulers of White London, takes advantage of Kell's sympathetic nature and tortures Lila, expecting that Kell will come to her rescue, which he does. Holland then nearly kills Kell, trying to get him to give up the stone and Lila simply bonks Holland on the head and knocks him out and saves Kell from certain death.
Now it is up to Kell to figure out why Holland and his White London bosses are ready to commit murder to possess the stone. Together he and Lila will discover a vile and sneaky plot that threatens to destroy Red London.

This was a good read, if a bit convoluted at times. The only thing I found disappointing was that we never get to see Black London for ourselves, even though it is constantly referred to in the story. This book seems like the first in a new series, so perhaps the author is saving Black London for a later book.
I also think the book is aimed at young adult readers more than a general audience. Both the main characters are quite young, Lila is nineteen and Kell is in his early twenties. And there is no "mature content," just a couple of chaste kisses.

Thursday, March 03, 2016

Amish Confidential

By Levi Stoltzfus and Ellis Henican

Levi Stoltzfus was born and raised in the world of the Amish in Pennsylvania. So he knows Amish.
Not everyone born Amish stays Amish. When Amish youngsters become teens, the parental reins are loosened and they are given the freedom to learn more about the wide world beyond Amish-land. Most return to the fold and settle down into the traditional Amish life, get married, go to church, follow all the Amish rules and have as many kids as humanely possible.
Levi Stoltzfus rejected this path. He was always a bit of a rebel. He didn't like the black hat. He didn't like the bowl-style haircuts. He liked cars. He liked music, even learned to play bass guitar. He even went on to star in a TV series about the Amish, Amish Mafia. So when he became an adult, he was baptized in the New Amish Church and not in the Old Amish Church in which he was raised. (New Amish Church is a modernized version of the Old Amish Church.)
So when it comes to telling the truth about the Amish, good and bad, Stoltzfus knows it all.

People are curious about these throwbacks to the 18th Century. The Amish are a huge tourist attraction in Pennsylvania, with visitors spending billions of dollars while there to gawk at them. So keeping the reputation of the Amish gleaming white is very important to the tourist industry. But Levi Stoltzfus doesn't pull any punches, he doesn't whitewash the Amish community. He also is quick to point out the many virtues of his people, a people he clearly loves and appreciates, warts and all. A worthy, inspiring and revealing look at the Amish by one of their own, this book was an informative and enjoyable read.