Saturday, August 29, 2009

Manifestations


Manifestations:
The Red Horseman

by D. C. Wilson

(iUniverse / 1-440-14183-5 / 978-1-440-14183-6 / June 2009 / 280 pages / $17.95 / Kindle $9.95)
Reviewed by Dianne Salerni for PODBRAM

Strange events are happening in Brockton Falls, California – dark events that link to ancient wars and trace their history back to the arrival of Christopher Columbus on this continent. Ten year-old Eric Jessing, his younger brother Kevin, and their father Matt find themselves at the center of a terrifying paranormal adventure after their house is infected by strange, foul insects and all the mirrors in their possession turn mysteriously black. Turning to the assistance of psychic Carmen Fenwick and her daughter Pamela, the Jessing family discovers that they are gifted (or cursed) with a special ability. Their souls have the ability to reflect dark matter, the source of all evil in the world. People with this ability, called Charges, provide protection to everyone around them, but they are also vulnerable to special attack by dark forces.

After they are threatened in their own home, the Jessings seek the further advice of an antique book collector, Harker Jefferies, who sends the two young brothers on a quest to an ancient graveyard in England. It seems that the Jessing boys have been singled out by an entity called Moniades, a once human Charge now possessed by a demon and sometimes referred to as The Red Horseman of the Apocalypse.

Author D.C. Wilson certainly knows how to bring the creep factor into his writing and make his readers’ skin crawl. Insect infestations, gruesome murders, blackened mirrors, and an invisible presence in the basement caught my attention immediately and drew me into a frightening paranormal world. In fact, in spite of the age of the protagonists, I would not put this book on the shelf of my fifth grade classroom, due to some of its more graphic imagery. Manifestations is appropriate for teens, however, who won’t be bothered by autopsies and cadavers and who probably have enough background in science to appreciate how the author links dark matter physics to the paranormal elements in the book.

A good, suspenseful novel will take readers on a fast-paced ride where the events are unpredictable and yet inevitable. Although readers might not be able to see where the author is going, they should understand how and why they arrived at the destination once he gets them there. I felt that Manifestations provides this continuity to a point – but the scene that ought to have been the climax does not actually end the book. The story continues seventy-five pages past the logical climax, and the groundwork is not laid in the earlier part of the book for the events that happen afterward. The reader finds out new information that doesn’t match the old; new characters are suddenly introduced, and I felt a bit lost.

There are a few editing bumps along the way – an inconsistent use of heading to identify place and time, and occasional mistakes such as labeling a day Sunday and also Monday within the same section. D.C. Wilson has a knack for writing chilling scenes, and more novels with these characters are obviously planned. The potential for a great paranormal series is here, if the logical sequence of the plot were better maintained in the next installment.


See Also: The High Spirits Review
The Manifestations B&N Page

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Southcrop Forest


Southcrop Forest
by Lorne Rothman

(iUniverse / 0-595-49588-5 / 978-0-595-49588-7 / June 2008 / 184 pages / Ages 9-12 / $13.95)
Reviewed by Donna Nordmark Aviles for PODBRAM

Auja, a young red oak tree, has discovered an amazing creature nibbling on her broadleaves – a collective of tent caterpillars that can actually speak to her! With Southcrop Forest in danger of extinction at the hands of the hewmen and their rollers, the collective – known as Fur – is the only being that can save the trees from certain doom. But doing so will mean a long and arduous journey through dangerous terrain to gather a secret gift that will save Southcrop Vision (the trees’ ability to communicate with one another through their roots, soil and leaves) and the forests themselves. With constant encouragement from his new friend Auja, little Fur takes on the challenge, devoting his entire short life in a quest to save the trees.

Zoologist Lorne Rothman, has delivered in Southcrop Forest a unique combination of science and fantasy designed, I believe, to spark the reader’s imagination as well as one’s conscience to the ecological dangers of over-cutting in our forests. Additionally, there is such an abundance of educational information intertwined throughout the story, as well as in the author’s end notes, that the book could easily be used as a classroom tool. Determining the proper age group for the book, however, might prove to be a challenge. Some of the well researched science and language is quite advanced while portions of the dialog and general story are more appropriate for a younger reader. The target audience might fall somewhere between 10 and 15 year olds, with careful oversight and discussion given to the younger end of that range to ensure that they fully comprehend the story and the science.

The book ends with an intriguing final sentence that leaves me thinking that perhaps this is only the beginning of Mr. Rothman’s eco-fantasy adventures!


See Also: Lorne Rothman's Biography

Thursday, August 20, 2009

PODBRAM Technical Update


A few days ago I updated the template of PODBRAM to match the newer design of my other blogs. Several new features are now at the disposal of Captain Curmudgeon to enhance the PODBRAM experience. If you look carefully at the homepage format, you will see these changes, and I am sure that new and regular readers will enjoy utilizing all these new tools.

Here are the changes, listed from top to bottom:

The Search feature in the blue band in the upper left hand corner can be used in several ways, but its capabilities are somewhat limited. The best use of this search box is to enter the name of your favorite PODBRAM reviewer, click Search Blog, and then bookmark the URL that pops up. This search feature works great for doing this, but not much else.

The next thing down the page is Search PODBRAM in Detail. This search box has been set up to search for reviewers, authors, titles, or keywords within the context of the many pages of PODBRAM. Although this search feature will not take you to outside links, I think this is probably the most efficient use of this particular feature. You can always click any of the links in the link lists at the bottom of any post or in the left column of the home page to follow a particular subject outside the internal realm of PODBRAM.

As on my other blogs, I have now added a revolving poll question box to PODBRAM.

The new system alphabetizes the links automatically in a manner it chooses, so I can no longer plug in each new book reviewed wherever I want it in the link list using the HTML code. The only change effected by this is that you will find the alphabetical list in a new order, and the new pattern will continue into the future as more titles are added. This means any title beginning with The or A will be listed according to those letters, not in the traditional manner of listing book titles alphabetically.

The Blog Archive by month and year has now been moved to a point near the bottom of the page. This section was left near the top of the old format because you could not create a direct link to any post title from the title in the old system. You needed to click the title listed at the top of the Blog Archive to do that. The new system allows you to simply click the title of any post to open the comments on that post and create a URL that you can bookmark.

The Followers section is listed next. I encourage any of our regular readers to join us as an official Follower.

The last change, going down the page, is that the Live Traffic Feed now displays the site from which a visitor arrived, rather than how long ago he or she arrived at PODBRAM.

The new format allows me a little more control over appearance and arrangement features, too, but you may not have noticed the few changes I have made so far because they are very subtle. I may make more such changes in the future if a new idea comes my way. The main one that bugs me is that the creator of this Harbor design that I like to use for all my blogs has not allowed for easy changes to the link colors. If I figure out a better color scheme that I can use, I may change this in the future. On my monitor at least, I can barely discern the presence of any unclicked link contained in any PODBRAM post.

Something that I have been mulling over for a while now is the development of an index by author. I may consider setting this up in the future. The process will be quite time consuming, so I want to be certain of the details before undertaking such a task. Adept use of the two search features will accomplish most of the same process in the meantime. Thank you to all of our fans for supporting PODBRAM.

Monday, August 17, 2009

The Caliphate


The Caliphate
by Jack Stewart

(Non Sequitur Press / 0-981-26990-7 / 978-0-981-26990-0 / May 2009 / 322 pages / $9.95 / Kindle $.99)
Reviewed by Lloyd Lofthouse for PODBRAM

The Caliphate, a political thriller by Jack Stewart has action, conspiracy, politics, and both economic and Islamic terrorism mixed with family values delivered in 316 pages. This thriller sends a chilling message made more frightening due to al-Qaida's goals to bring back the Caliphate that existed after Mohammed's death in 632 AD.

If the Caliphate were to return today, one man would rule all Islam's 1.2 billion believers representing about 22% of the world's population spread across more than fifty Muslim countries. Consider the consequences if someone like Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei or the leader of the Taliban ruled all Islam. Does it matter of he were a Shiite or a Sunni?

The story starts when the antihero, Trent Lambert, a greedy Wall Street currency trader and CEO of the multi-billion dollar Lambert Fund, manipulates the currency of Indonesia to increase his wealth. Unknown to Trent, his actions are being closely watched by one of his investors, a Saudi Prince with plans to lead the next Caliphate. This scenario seems even more frightening considering the fragile economic situation in the world today that started in the United States due to similar greedy goals.

Like Howard Hughes, Lambert has a phobia for germs and viruses and lives almost isolated in a sterile environment. At one time, Lambert was mentally healthier, and he had a wife and a son. When his son, Eric, is kidnapped by Islamic terrorists to be used as leverage to gain Lambert's currency trader expertise to bring down the American economy, Trent is reunited with his wife in a mutual attempt to save their son. What happens after that is like James Bond and Mission Impossible in one package.

Unlike many thrillers, The Caliphate offers a balanced view of Islam through Indonesian pirates, Harmina, her son Ando, and father Datuk. Without the help of Islamic pirates, Lambert and his wife do not stand a chance to get their son back and thwart the plans of the Saudi Prince and his allies, the Jemaah Islamiyah, one of the world's most dangerous terrorist groups, and save their son while keeping America and its allies from economic collapse.

The Caliphate is a feasible, well-plotted story that kept my attention even though the unconventional formatting with block paragraphs separated by blank lines was distracting at first.


See Also: The Caliphate at Mobipocket

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Crossing the Wake


It's been quite a while since I posted an update article to PODBRAM. I even missed the Third Anniversary of PODBRAM exactly one month ago today. A Third Anniversary post had, of course, been planned long ago, but there was just too much on my mind to put together into a coherent post back on 7/12/09, but things have settled down considerably since then.

The photo is of a 1960 Kettenberg Sweet Sixteen. Produced during the early days of fiberglass ski boats, this unusual classic has a wood deck placed on a fiberglass hull. The motor is a Mercury inline six of unknown power and vintage. There are many reasons why I have been relatively quiet these past few months, but this is the main one. I am working on a 2010 edition of my powerboat book, Ker-Splash, and it is quite a massive project.

The PODBRAM Review Team has already reviewed more than 160 books, and many more reviews are in the works. I have been considering adding a link index by author, and maybe one by reviewer, too, and if I find the time, I may add those at some later date. I don't think I shall ever rejoin The Team as a reviewer. My many projects, including the management of PODBRAM and two more blogs, will surely absorb all the time I have in the future, as it has for this past year.

When you drive a boat across the wake of another boat, you have to be careful to cross as close to a ninety-degree angle as is feasible, particularly when you are piloting a small boat following a big cruiser. A big wave can capsize a small boat trying to slide through at a less than oblique angle. PODBRAM is definitely a small boat following in the wakes of much larger vessels. There is an inevitable quandary in which PODBRAM is trapped within its own integrity. We can never grow into one of those larger vessels without doing as they do, charging the authors for a ride. PODBRAM can only remain a tiny little personal hobby of mine, and I do not see any way out of this dilemma. I have not been a happy camper these past silent months, watching sadly as the madness grows and swirls all around me. We cannot charge for reviews at PODBRAM without throwing our scruples to the shifting winds. We could increase the number of reviewers, and therefore accept and post more reviews, but we have already reached critical mass. If I had to manage and edit more reviewers, Ker-Splash 2 would never be completed. As someone has already suggested, I could set up PODBRAM for reviewers to post directly, but with apologies to my distinguished review team, I can imagine in advance that that plan would not meet my high standards. The organizational and editing efforts I put into the site are just too extensive for this level of quality to be coordinated continuously with more than one captain at the helm.

From the number of review requests that have been coming in, I doubt that many of you have gone to The POD Review Ring Chart to see that submissions have been officially closed at PODBRAM since 7/16/09. That's okay, because I did not really expect many of you to see it. I could easily have made a Submissions Closed statement to accompany the change to the chart, but I chose not to do so. Many of you have received replies from me that PODBRAM is not currently accepting submissions, and a few of you have even been sent later notifications that an opening for your book has appeared. As with most free review blogs, a lot depends on the timing of your request, whether or not you catch the reviewers at a time when they are not overwhelmed with books to read and reviews to write.

Speaking of free review sites, we seem to be diminishing in number quite steadily. You may have noticed a few changes in the link listings of other review sites as well as changes in the Ring Chart. Mark McGinty's The Boogle has been the only positive recent addition! The Self-Publishing Review is becoming an embarrassment to anyone interested in tasteful discourse. I have yet to understand what sort of P. T. Barnum sucker wants to be summarily trashed in public by someone who hides behind relentless anonymity, but there surely do seem to be a fair number of such authors out there! Her Odyssey hasn't posted a review since April 23rd! POD People (the only one older than PODBRAM) is still recommended, but with only three reviewers, only some of whom are active, I am sure their backlog must be as big as a house! The only real shining light among this sad state of affairs is LLBR. The LL (formerly Lulu) Book Review is the only site that currently should allow the word gangbusters in the same sentence. Shannon Yarbrough's LLBR has already surpassed the 100-review mark, and I highly recommend his site for authors looking for reviews. Shannon accepts only Lulu and CreateSpace books for review, so the rest of you are pretty much out of luck. I do know a place just down the street from me, however, that will be more than happy to review your POD book. For only $75 they will be glad to write a review and post it on Amazon with the rest of their paid reviews. I hope that by now everyone who reads PODBRAM regularly can spot one of these shams a mile away!

There have been other recent disappointments, too. As I feared and stated to many of you long ago, both The Kindle Boards and IAG have fallen victim to The Popeilians. Surely you must be kidding yourself if you really think you have been discovering any useful discourse lately at either of these message boards. If you are too young to remember Ron Popeil, he is the one who invented the Veg-o-Matic, the Pocket Fisherman, and other products that he hawked relentlessly in late-night television commercials. Dan Akroyd's Bass-o-Matic was a scream, but the original ads were simply annoying and disgusting. So are the advertising sideshow tents that these once encouraging websites have become. I have to tip my hat to First Mate Al Past for coming up with the Popeilian moniker. It's almost as good as his Dunking Tank!

Call me a snob if you will. I've been called that and worse before. PODBRAM by its very nature must be the Studio 54 of POD review sites. We have to keep the riff-raff out because we have time to read and review only so many books, and we want these to be the best we can find, and we want to write the most professional, accurate, helpful reviews possible. We are here for the readers just as much as for the authors. Of course we understand that most of our readership are also authors, but when we review a book, we want it to be as much like a real, old-school review as we can make it. We tell your potential readers whether or not they may want to read your book and why. A book review is not supposed to be a writers' workshop critique, although that is exactly what many of the online review sites produce. We are not here to tell you all about the plot details of a book, as many of the moronic Amazon reviewers do, or blow heavenly smoke up your butt about the limitless high quality of your average genre novel, as even more of them do so voraciously. We are here to invite you onto our dance floor and then tell you and your readers if you can really dance or not. We won't be catty and criticize your outfit or your hairdo, but we will glance under your skirt when you do the twirl.

Another issue I have been watching and researching carefully lately is the Kindle phenomenon. I think the boom has peaked. I could say it a lot of different ways, but this is the bottom line. It's like we have been hearing on the news lately that the recession is no longer in freefall. It's still falling, but at a slower pace. Invert the curve and that's what I think is happening with the Kindle. Kindle readers, for the most part, will always be obsessive, high-volume readers of genre fiction. Earlier this year I had hoped that the Kindle would open a new market up for otherwise grossly overpriced POD books, but that market has already exploded and fizzled like a damp firecracker. Yes, the market is there for everyone's positive gain in the future, but the excitement of the fad is already over. How long will it take for all the new Kindle owners to actually read all the free and low-priced books they have downloaded just because they could when their excitement level over a new toy was fresh? I rest my case.

Back in 1999 iUniverse was almost as good at unleashing a monster as John McCain! We can all try to deny that that's what they unleashed when they rattled the cages of thousands of authors who wanted to become instantly rich and famous. We can all say, You talkin' 'bout me? We can all deny that we want recognition, but we cannot deny that the cage door has been left open and there are far, far too many of us!

I cannot answer with any absolute accuracy what the future of PODBRAM holds. The beast has yanked me up and down an emotional roller coaster for the last three years. Just when I get disgusted with the lack of quality submissions or the lack of growth in the legitimate, free review blog universe, somebody sends me a heartfelt thank you for the work we do, and the coaster goes right up that next hill. I have considered increasing the number of reviewers on the team, but at least for now, I need to sit on that idea simply because I don't have time to increase my involvement with PODBRAM and finish Ker-Splash 2 on schedule. The incoming requests from publicity firms are being immediately thrown into an e-mail folder for now, and I may never give any of those a shot at our dance floor. We have more than enough direct requests to keep us busy without dealing with arrangements with authors that have proven to be something less than reliable. As of today, I am officially closing all submissions for children's books. We have enough more serious literary dance partners to keep entertained, and it takes as much of my time to run a kids' book through the system as it does a more deserving adult author who has invested considerably more time in his project. At what reader age bracket will the cutoff point be? I have not decided yet. Will we ever charge for reviews, post less than three stars at Amazon, or simply blow you off and never actually read and review your book? No, no, and no.

PODBRAM will continue to cruise the waters of small inland lakes. We shall never be rich or famous, but we shall never rip you off, either. We don't want to be the big fish in any pond. We want to be the tastiest catch. We want to be the Alaskan King Crab swimming among the canned tuna fish from Wally-World. We want to be the Maine Lobster served on Murder, She Wrote. Happy Third Anniversary from The PODBRAM Team and Captain Curmudgeon!

Monday, August 10, 2009

Strange Future


Strange Future:
A 23rd Century Guide for the 21st Century Cynic
by Josh Smith

(CreateSpace / 1-448-61549-6 / 978-1-448-61549-0 / June 2009 / 190 pages / $9.99 / Kindle $1.99)
Reviewed by Dianne Salerni for PODBRAM

Thomas Gordon doesn’t have much satisfaction in his life. He has no living relatives, and he has never been in a meaningful relationship. His dead-end job as personal assistant to a demanding boss has just ended abruptly and unfairly. He is “fed up” with his life, with the city, and with the whole world. So when the opportunity arises to take a trip to the future via cryogenic preservation, he doesn’t think about it very long before agreeing. The future has to be better, right?

Thomas and his companions, Doug and Vera, are cryogenically frozen by a groundbreaking new invention in a place known as “the lab”. Their needs are cared for by pairs of employees carefully selected over two centuries, and eventually the three time travelers are awakened in the 23rd Century by Darin and Lyla, who have been selected to introduce them to the new world.

I have no complaints about the technical writing style and editing in Strange Future, and the narrative is sometimes amusing. However, the reader has to suspend a lot of disbelief in order to accept the new technology, and the plot structure is rather flat, without rising action or substantial climax. None of the three volunteers – Thomas, Doug, or Vera – really has a compelling reason to risk their lives by being frozen, no traumatic life change or disappointment to make them want to take such a drastic step. They are just unhappy and cynical about the human race, which makes it strange that they would think the future would be any better. Indeed, the first thing they do upon awakening is to complain about most of the things they find. The remainder of the novel follows the trio as they learn about the world of the 23rd Century. Once they arrive in the future, there is no central problem to be resolved or mystery to be uncovered. A budding relationship between Thomas and Lyla happens more off-stage than on, with dialogue used to point out the cool (and not so cool) aspects of the future rather than provide needed character development. Overall, the vision of the future in this novel could not sustain my interest due to the lack of a compelling adventure to hold it all together.


See Also: The Author's Website

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

The Dawn of Saudi


The Dawn of Saudi:
In Search for Freedom, a Contemporary Romantic Mystery

by Homa Pourasgari

(Linbrook Press / 0-977-97801-X / 978-0-977-97801-4 / June 2009 / 352 pages / $15.95 / Amazon $14.35)
Reviewed by Malcolm R. Campbell for PODBRAM

The Center for Democracy & Human Rights in Saudi Arabia says that, “as documented by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Freedom House and even the US Department of State, Saudi women are among the most oppressed and marginalized citizens in Arab and Muslim countries.” In an author’s note at the end of her novel, Homa Pourasgari describes the social and legal environment in Saudi Arabia more directly: “Women have no rights and are considered the property of a man.”

Pourasgari’s powerful romantic mystery The Dawn of Saudi focuses on the lives of two young women who meet while attending college in Barcelona, Sahar Al-Hijazi of Saudi Arabia and Dawn Parnell of the United States. Sahar, whose travels have given her a taste of freedom, fights her family’s attempts to force her into a loveless marriage with Husam. Dawn, however, doesn’t heed her best friend’s warnings and marries a Saudi man whom she believes is a progressive thinker and finds herself trapped instead within a hopeless world.

“They buried her in an unmarked grave,” the novel begins. “Only in death did Saudi women and men receive equal treatment.” On the next page readers learn that Sahar collapsed on her wedding night, went into a coma, and died within an hour of an aneurysm.

In California, Jason Crawford worries over the news of Sahar’s death because he has business ties to the families involved and doesn’t want to see a pending merger with Crawford Enterprises jeopardized.

Subsequently, Dawn Parnell begins work as a housekeeper at the grand Crawford estate. While the house has a large staff, Dawn catches Jason’s attention even though she’s definitely not the eye-candy type of woman he usually dates and discards. Among other things, he notices that her intelligence, skills and interests greatly exceed those normally expected in a maid placed by an employment agency. How, for example, can she be an expert skier and horsewoman? Since Dawn won’t talk about her past, Jason can only wonder what she is hiding and why she hides it so fiercely.

Pourasgari’s inventive plot and strong characters not only open a wide window onto Saudi oppression of women, but make for a very strong story with the poignant moments of well-told romance and the twists and turns of page-turning mystery. Both the oppression and the fear associated with it are aptly shown from a woman’s perspective through Dawn and Sahar. Jason’s silver-spoon lifestyle and love-them-and-leave-them approach to women stands out in stark contrast to Dawn’s and Sahar’s experiences, and this adds greatly to the depth of the story.

The story’s pacing is disrupted in several sections due to the need to convey a large amount of background information to readers and to other characters about Saudi culture and conservative Islamic law through dialogue and narrative. A longer preface with basic Saudi facts might have reduced the strain on the story. An over-abundance of detail gives an intrusive travelogue flavor to a trip to a resort and a disruptive interior designer’s guidebook tone to walks through the Crawford mansion.

That said, The Dawn of Saudi remains a very satisfying novel with unforgettable characters who must fight through a labyrinth of Western apathy and frightening conservative Islamic beliefs in a search for freedom. The novel is both an education and an oasis for the human spirit.


See Also: The Author's Website
Malcolm's Review at Amazon UK
Malcolm's Review at Powell's Books
Malcolm's March of Books Review