Books of Note: THE SALT ROADS, by Nalo Hopkinson and STEEL VICTORY, by J.l. Gribble

As I now get back into catching up on reviews of things I have read, I wanted to mention two books that I’m excited about, but haven’t gotten to read yet.

The first was first released back in 2004, but just had an e-reader release from Open Road Media at the very end of January: THE SALT ROADS, by Nalo Hopkinson. I’ve heard nothing but utter praise for Hopkinson, including from writer Juno Diaz, so I’ve been looking forward to reading her work and regretted having to turn down the chance to review it. But I still feel comfortable in recommending it as something worth looking into if you missed it.


From Open Road Media:

Nalo Hopkinson’s third novel invokes the goddess of love in the name of redemption

Hopkinson’s time-traveling, genre-spanning novel weaves a common thread of spiritualism and hope through three intertwined stories of women possessed by Ezili, the goddess of love, as she inspires, inhabits, and guides them through trying personal and historical moments. Jeanne Duval is a talented entertainer suffering from the ravages of a sexually transmitted disease; Mer is a slave and talented doctor who bears witness as Saint Domingue throws off the yoke of colonial rule in the early nineteenth century; and Meritet is a woman of the night who finds religion her own way. Though the three are separated by many miles and centuries, a powerful bond draws them together.

Epic, wrenching, and passionate, The Salt Roads is laced with graceful, lyrical prose. Hopkinson has crafted a one-of-a-kind novel that spans hundreds of years and multiple countries to tell a mystical, heartrending story of self-worth, respect, and salvation.”

The second title I’m really looking forward to is STEEL VICTORY, an upcoming title now available for preorder from Dog Star Books (Raw Dog Screaming Press), written by J.L. Gribble. Out in June, today was the cover reveal and exclusive spotlight on the novel at Dirge Magazine. It looks fantastic with another superb cover for this small press by Brad Sharp. I look forward to getting my paws on a copy.

Steel Victory

From Raw Dog Screaming Press:

“One hundred years ago, the vampire Victory retired from a centuries-long mercenary career. She settled in Limani, the independent city-state acting as a neutral zone between the British and Roman colonies on the New Continent.

Twenty years ago, Victory adopted a human baby girl, who soon showed signs of magical ability.

Today, Victory is a city councilwoman, balancing the human and supernatural populations within Limani. Her daughter Toria is a warrior-mage, balancing life as an apprentice mercenary with college chemistry courses.

Tomorrow, the Roman Empire invades.”

The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes, by Albert Wendland

The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes, by Albert Wendland
Publisher: Dog Star Books (Raw Dog Screaming Press)
ISBN: 1935738615
236 pages, paperback
Expected Publication: 25th June 2014
Source: Raw Dog Screaming Press

Just after starting this novel a gentleman riding across from me on the metro and pondering the cover asked me, “So what makes an alien landscape, and why does he love them?” I speculated rather generally and explained I had only just read the first chapter.
This wasn’t the only comment I’ve gotten while reading this about the cover and title, something that sadly can’t occur with eReaders. The reactions and questions I got are testaments to the draw, the hook, of the evocative cover and title. The title is representative of the care that Wendland has put into this novel from cover-to-cover and how so many aspects of it can be compared back to those words The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes.
The plot also first unwraps with a typical series of hook. Something monumental – and dangerous – is unexpectedly discovered in orbit of an alien planet  by a group of people and one of them, Henry, ends up murdered. This crime leads the police to the novel’s protagonist, Mykol Ranglen, who is somewhat unwillingly dragged into the fray of the situation, as it escalates from a simple murder and missing person’s investigation to a hunt for an artifact that can alter or destroy human civilization.
The cops seek out Ranglen because he is an acquaintance of the deceased, linked to him through Mileen, an artist and former student and lover who had become Henry’s fiancée. Mykol Ranglen is a poet and lecturer who values privacy and separation from others, including the various governmental factions that control Earth and extraplanetary settlements. However, Ranglen cares deeply for Mileen, and her disappearance following the murder of Henry leads Mykol into a personal quest to locate his love and learn what happened on the voyage through space to lead to the situation.
Ranglen already has a fair idea of what may have occurred, but it is a secret he has divulged to very few, and is not about to tell the police. Ranglen is responsible for locating a technological artifact of an ancient, long-extinct alien race, one of a handful of related artifacts (called Clips) which have given humanity blueprints for the development of interstellar travel and stations.
With his artistic appreciation for things alien (such as landscapes painted by Mileen), Ranglen seems to have a related knack for locating the mysterious and small Clips. And it is this ability that led Henry to seek his help when Henry learned about the potential location of another Clip. Ranglen knows from personal experience the power of greed and desire to find a Clip and win the wealth and renown that could come with it, factors Mykol has eschewed. He also understands the danger that more incomprehensible technology could have for humanity as it accelerates at break-neck speed, and the possibilities of it falling into the wrong hands.
It is truly astounding how much Wendland is able to fit into The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes. With forward momentum from its start, the pacing is ideal. A mixture of adventure, mystery, and science fiction, each aspect is included in the recipe in just the right proportions for the scope of the tale. The intricate web of the plot and its characters makes Wendland’s work particularly impressive for its size. Overall coherence is managed while also delighting readers with details into the world, such as some of the ‘hard’ science behind the technology (as far as the characters can understand the alien tech). He also includes tidbits into past history that could be further developed into future works.
Though remarkable in execution, the word-count constraints on Wendland’s novel do show in some areas. There just isn’t space to develop characters other than Ranglen. The other characters range from complex to thin and some of their changes in behavior from one part of the story to another feel rushed or forced. Along those lines, the Big Bad seems particularly like a caricature of a Bond villain. His motivations are given to the hero in a rush, just as his plan is going to come to fruition (of course to be thwarted). This Bond-like quality to the novel may be intentional, and the title itself is reminiscent of a title one might see for a 007 adventure.
On the surface then, The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes is a well written science fiction adventure, a story complete within the confines of this volume, but allowing for the development of further fleshing out. Wendland certainly whets the appetite of the reader, but nicely also leaves you satisfied.
But, The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes isn’t just an entertaining sci-fi adventure, it is also about some interesting deeper issues, again alluded to within the title. The title gives a sense of desire – of not merely an appreciation of ‘alien landscapes’, but also of an intense yearning for them. Indeed, the novel begins with a chapter entitled “The Finding”  and closes with one entitled “The Longing”. In between is really a dialogue, even a conflict, between these two ideas. The theme is embodied in the general plot, in the relationship between Ranglen & Mileen, in the antagonism between Ranglen and the villain, and the paradoxical personality of Ranglen himself.
In all these there is a sense of longing for something, and even when something is found it isn’t necessarily enough, or it comes at a price, such as giving up a piece of oneself or of independence. Ranglen is described as a “loner” and “paranoid”, and indeed he is. Though he wants to be left alone, other desires overcome this (such as a yearning for Mileen and her happiness/safety). Yet even without this, Ranglen seems to be constantly dreaming, on the move searching for something more to reach that ‘alien landscape, or that ‘undiscovered country’. He is the person that goes to a party and wants to sink into a corner, yet deep within is simply yearning for some kind of human connection. He is someone who can’t stay just with themselves and the familiar because they crave something new, alien, and beautiful.
Despite a life full of secrets, Ranglen seems unable to prevent divulging them, illustrating this conflict between the two extremes of separation and a longing for engagement, sharing, and adventure. This theme is born out most directly in a key conversation between Ranglen and the villain about half-way through, highlighting the similarities and differences between these two strong-willed characters and echoing the alien conflict that has set up the present situation for humanity and the characters in this universe.
Thus, The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes is a notable book in many regards, and I’m not surprised it is written by a professor with combined experience in literature and in science. The book has deservingly been recognized by Publisher’s Weekly, but it is a shame that it does not have wider recognition to date. This is something that I should have seen on those “Must read” lists on speculative fiction themed sites like or io9. This should attract a wide audience in the genre, and I can’t recommend it enough.
Five  Stars out of Five


Wasteland Blues, by Andrew Conry-Murray & Scott Christian Carr

Wasteland-BluesFINWasteland Blues, by Andrew Conry-Murray & Scott Christian Carr
Publisher: Dog Star Books
(Raw Dog Screaming Press)
ISBN: 1935738593
220 pages, paperback
Published March 2014
Source: Raw Dog Screaming Press

The only thing I didn’t enjoy about “Wasteland Blues” is that it ended, just as my interest continued to grow and grow. ‘Leave them wanting more’ I guess is the phrase that Carr &Conry-Murray are putting into practice here. And honestly this sort of surprised me from where I came from starting this novel.Reading the opening chapters my response was rather luke-warm, the post-apocalyptic situation seemed so very familiar, and the plot seemed pointed squarely onto a simple quest with cut-out characters, which ranged from crass to dim to impotent. I knew ‘apocalyptic’ was a genre of story I adore, and even something run-of-the-mill could provide some entertainment, but I was eagerly looking for something more, something that set this apart.

Joyously, the book grew on me quickly, the characters turning deeper than I expected, the plot turning inward and becoming more about the journey and its diversions than that bright far-off quest goal, and intriguing elements introduced that aren’t simple post-apocalyptic tropes. This turnaround in my response is a testament to how well this novel is plotted. With Carr’s background in TV, this strength is understandable in hindsight. The novel unfolds as if it is on the screen, drawing the reader into this world bit by bit, making us start out curious, hating the characters one moment, only to find some part of them that draws our sympathy instead the next. Each character is clearly a ‘type’, yet the majority of them are rounded enough to show struggles and depth, hints of what made them act the way they are, and that perhaps there is more to them beneath the exteriors they parade. As the core cast of characters continue their journey new faces are introduced, each more fascinating than the next, adding further dynamics and threads to the tale.

In terms of style the writing reminded me most of Stephen King, with its moments of humor, absurdity, rage, and general off-kilter characters. Despite being written by two men, the novel maintains a unified voice, and I can see how (as the introduction posits) the two authors complement one another to reach a fine balance in tone. At first, despite the post-apocalyptic setting, the story appeared to have more elements of fantasy to it than science fiction. This feeling in style occurs easily in the genre what with humanity often being pushed back in terms of civilization and technology due to the ‘Collapse’, ‘Devastation’, ‘War’, etc.

But again, it is as if the authors were delighting in throwing the reader off-balance, for elements of science fiction and technology entered into the story in the latter portion of the novel, in unique and intriguing ways, leaving one to wonder what additional surprises may be in store with any future visits to this universe. These portions of the story may come from the influence of Conry-Murray, but regardless of the source, they make for a well-appreciated infusion of science and technology into a wilderness tale.

Which brings me to the downside to this novel, the end. As the pages remaining grew few, I realized that there was no way the plot would be able to wrap up in the sense that their quest, their journey could not possible conclude. Why end the novel now, after one diversionary episode in this grand adventure? Why now, rather than the previous one…or the next? Simply enthralled with the ways the story was going I didn’t want the ride to end, and forgot for a moment that there is more to “Wasteland Blues” then the simple quest plot and its initial set up of simple characters. The diverse characters, each very separate individuals, after their own personal goals, were now at this point an actual family of sorts, an actual traveling group with goals more in common than they may have originally suspected. The most twisted and volatile character has had moments of genuine reflection and calm. They have grown into something, and in a sense, it makes perfect sense for this segment of their overall journey to end at this point where they have reached something substantial, maybe not in plot, but in their own personal characters.

“Wasteland” isn’t fine literature, it isn’t some staggeringly insightful commentary couched within a post-apocalyptic symbol. But it is a solid and engaging journey of reading in the genre, with a bit of depth, some interesting innovations, good laughs, and a ton of heart.

Five  Stars out of Five


Odd Men Out, by Matt Betts

Odd Men Out, by Matt Betts
Publisher: Dog Star Books
(Raw Dog Screaming Press)
ISBN: 1935738461
224 pages, paperback
Published July 2013
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

“The Civil war has ended but not because the South surrendered, instead it’s on hold while both sides face a new enemy—the chewers, dead men who’ve come back to life. Cyrus Joseph Spencer didn’t fight in the war and couldn’t care less about the United Nations of America that resulted from it. His main concern is making money and protecting his crew from all manner of danger. But when tragedy strikes he’s forced to take shelter onboard a dirigible piloted by the U.N.’s peace-keeping force. It’s soon apparent that many more dangers are lurking and Cyrus must decide whether to throw in with strangers in a desperate bid to protect the country or cast off on his own.” – publisher description

A quick read that surprised me in how much I enjoyed the ride. “Odd Men Out” largely works positively because Betts appears to have had so much fun writing it, and such an endearment for fun pieces of genre fiction from sci fi to horror. Mention of Mystery Science Theater 3000 in the introduction to the novel got me excited and hopeful; entering into the story fulfilled those emotions, Betts manages to keep the story serious enough in tone while still having a lot of fun poking at troupes and throwing in amusing references. One lovely pun in reference to “Jaws” made me chuckle for a while.

As others note, the novel is a hodgepodge mix of genre elements from apocalyptic to alt history, to steampunk, to B movie monster movies, and on and on. What makes this work is that Betts keeps the same tone throughout and above all the same style. Despite many elements, the book at heart is a simple adventure story, full of action and crisp writing. The story, and its execution are just simply fun.

What disappointed me about the novel was firstly that it is too short. Some portions seem rushed, with action taking place off-screen that I would’ve been curious to ‘see’. Betts could have also used some more room to get in better characterization (without losing the story’s pace and pulse). At the end of this I have a vague sense of who the characters were – as in their ‘role’ to the story. Their identities, however… What really makes them tick and unique… not so much. In addition their interactions – particularly in the romance aspect – is predictable, clichéd, and thus kind of lifeless. Obviously though, these sorts of issues aren’t what’s at the forefront of a book like this, so while I could imagine it being better, these disappointments didn’t seriously detract from the entertainment at its core.

Despite how much I enjoyed it, this isn’t the type of book I’d normally first go to and pick up cold without knowing the author or trusted reviews. I had entered a previous giveaway from the publisher, Raw Dog Screaming Press, a title I actually was more interested in from the blurb. Failed to win that, but at the time I had looked into the publisher and their entire independent catalog I was intrigued. When I saw this from the same publisher I signed up more to see one of their titles moreso than this particular novel. I’ll gladly seek out future works by Betts though, hoping they’ll keep the fun and magic with improvements to boot.

I could never afford to get lots of their releases, (being independent small press, they aren’t likely to be easy to find second-hand) but I would also be willing now to try ones at full price that did look good. Normally I wouldn’t comment on price and construction like this, but this book is also one of the sturdiest and nicest paperbacks (trade) that I’ve had, and for once I’d consider the full price of a trade paperback to be worth it. I carry books around all the time, on the bus reading to work, etc, and usually they become bent, scarred, creased, despite my best attempts at keeping them pristine. This kept its corners rigid, had no easy creasing, etc. I was so impressed I thought I should say something.

It should be easy to tell if you like this kind of book: the genres, the easy reading, etc. If you do, definitely try getting ahold of a copy. Then watch some MST3K, you’ll be in the mood assuredly.

Four  Stars out of Five

While merging this review from Goodreads and adding a publisher link I noticed that Odd Men Out has garnered some award nominations. Check out the news here.