Nurturing creativity with art, animals, and science fiction

Tag: Artdog Book Reviews

Here are the covers for the four books I review in this post.

Stranger-than-usual territory

Recently I’ve wandered into stranger-than-usual territory in three urban fantasy books

Actually the third one may fall more into the speculative fiction category, but it mostly takes place in a city, and some elements come across to me much more as fantasy than as fiction that’s based in any science I’m aware of.

It’s been a while (June 2018) since I posted any book reviews on this blog, but today I’d like to share glimpses of the stranger-than-usual territory explored in Extreme Medical ServicesThe SparkleTits Chronicles, and Hollow Kingdom.

Extreme Medical Services

This photo shows the cover of the book "Extreme Medical Services."

By Jamie Davis

A paramedic’s life is never dull, but that goes exponential for rookie paramedic Dean Flynn when he’s assigned to Elk City’s Station U. That place is definitely is located in stranger-than-usual territory

Station U isn’t your standard paramedic station. And the population it serves doesn’t exactly fit into any standard class of human patients. That’s because Station U serves the “Unusuals” in town. 

The local vampires, were-folk, sirens, faeries, dryads, and many other people who quietly (and carefully) live among the rest of the humans, but are medically “different.” As Brynne, Dean’s supervising partner, puts it, “They’re mostly humans, but not.”

Both together and individually, they create a challenging medical specialty. And they offer some moments of delightful humor.

This is a take on myths and legends unlike anything I’ve previously encountered. Davis poses a series of logical problems most of us have probably never imagined. What complications arise when the diabetic CPA also happens to be a werewolf? Or when a vampire has an allergic reaction? Or when a naiad (water sprite) gets severely dehydrated?

"Extreme Medical Services" is the first of a series. This image shows the first book's full cover, overlapping covers of the second and third novels in the series, "The Paramedic's Angel" and "The Paramedic's Choice."

Notes on the Series

These problems and more confront Dean and his colleagues from Station U. Better yet, each patient also is a well-rounded character with a distinctive personality. Davis is a natural-born storyteller with a strong sense of the ironic.

Unfortunately, he’s not a trained storyteller. That means the dialogue is often clunky, the pace is ragged, and the plot is more instinctive than possessing a well-thought-out structure. 

The frequent use of medical jargon may be off-putting to readers who were expecting more standard fantasy tropes, but the science fiction nerd in me got a kick out of the juxtaposition.

This photo shows the inside of an ambulance, with all of the emergency medical equipment laid out ready to go.
You’ll feel as if you’re riding along in the ambulance with Dean and the gang from Station U (Photo courtesy of Parkway East Hospital in Singapore)

Extreme Medical Services is the first in an 8-book (if you count the prequel) series of short novels about Dean, his patients, colleagues, and others. Of course there’s trouble brewing in Elk City, and Dean is uniquely suited to help deal with it. 

Whenever the series sticks close to its core identity it shines. Humorous and ironic medical-fantasy situations with a strong subtext of standing up for the rights of a misunderstood minority population provide some marvelous moments.

But the clunky writer-craft annoyed me throughout the series. And when the stories ventures too far into epic fantasy and cosmic cataclysm, they fall flat for me. In my opinion, the first 2-3 books were the most entertaining.

The SparkleTits Chronicles

By Veronica R. Calisto

This photo shows Veronica R. Calisto, one of the authors I've reviewed today.
Veronica R. Calisto 
at Westercon 71.

Yes, I know this is technically two books, but in a number of ways it’s not. I normally would never have seen or heard of these books if I hadn’t gone to Westercon 71, in July 2018 in Denver. That’s where I met Veronica and became intrigued with her unique personality and sense of humor.

That wry sense of humor and askance view of the world comes across forcefully in her writing, too. This woman has a voice and a style all her own, and it’s a pleasure to read her work. 

When I want to give a full-throated endorsement, however, I’ve normally directed people to her Diary of a Mad Black Witch. That one’s a stand-alone novel that I could have sworn I’d already reviewed in this space–but I can’t find it, soI’ll have to remedy the oversight soon.

Meanwhile, what’s up with “SparkleTits”? 

For a while the title itself held me back. I half-feared it would turn out to be some kind of exploitation ploy. But I couldn’t imagine that the author of Diary of a Mad Black Witch would really go there. So I gave them a try. 

And I’ve got to tell you, they definitely take you into stranger-than-usual territory!

This image includes the book cover art for the two "SparkleTits" Chronicles novels, "Starfish and Coffee," and "Sins  and Barbecue."

Greer Ianto is struggling to deal with the death of her beloved mentor Gabe when we meet her on what turns out to be the Nearly-Worst Possible Day Ever.

Then she gets semi-literally star struck (as in struck by something that looks to others like a star), and lives to ask what the heck just happened. At this point we have well and truly ventured into far-stranger-than-usual territory.

From there we plunge through nearly-nonstop (mis)adventures in a reality where superheroes are real (but, officially, they’re all men). 

As a six-foot-tall black woman with an attitude, suddenly possessed of her own superpowers (that even work on the superhero men), Greer is guaranteed to rock their foundations. And I for one had a blast watching her do it.

Sins and Barbecue

Greer has a new and troublesome relationship going on in the second novel. She encounters a number of new bad guys. And she finds more clues about her mysterious origins and her late mentor Gabe, who wasn’t exactly what he seemed to be. 

This particular cycle-within-a-larger-story finishes, but it’s clear the larger story continues. I very much doubt that the SparkleTits Chronicles are meant to end here.

This photo of Denver, including the city park, part of the downtown skyline, and the Front Range with Mt. Evans, is By Hogs555.
The “SparkleTits” Chronicles are set in Denver, CO–but they definitely also take you into stranger-than-normal territory! (Photo By Hogs555 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0)

You knew there’d be a “however”

These books are a lot of fun. Except for the moments when they fall apart. 

Calisto’s writing is much better-crafted than Davis’s, but there still are places where she needed a line editor and/or a proofreader (different functions!). They could have saved her from confusing constructions, infelicitous turns of phrase, typos, editing artifacts, and more.

They also would probably have reminded her that not everyone who reads Book Two, Sins and Barbecuewill read it immediately after Starfish and Coffee, so the reader needs a reorientation about who everybody is and what happened in Book One

The other big problem with these books is the interior artwork. The covers are workmanlike enough to convey the idea (no artist is credited for any of the artwork). But the interior artwork is just plain embarrassing. Incomprehensible and horrendously-timed, it appears that it’s supposed to convey some of the climactic action. It doesn’t. Instead it stops the story dead in its tracks at arguably the worst possible moment.

So, no. I can’t offer anything like a full-throated endorsement. But I can tell you it’s an interesting-enough experiment that I bought and read the second book. Make of that what you will.

Hollow Kingdom

By Kira Jane Buxton

If we suddenly had a Zombie Apocalypse, what would happen to all the companion animals? That’s the question underlying this much-talked-about top-seller.

Hollow Kingdom is the only traditionally-published entry in this blog post’s collection. The others are Indies that probably would not have received a good reception from the gatekeepers

Is it a better book? Well, the craft is clearly better. Kira Jane Buxton writes well, and she’s been well-served by her editors at Grand Central Publishing. There are no amateurish issues to battle here. The publisher supported this book’s roll-out with strong advertising and review coverage.

You definitely should give it a look. The animal viewpoints deliver spot-on caricatures we all recognize. In addition to the protagonist, S.T. the genius-crow, we hear occasionally from other characters such as Genghis Cat and Winnie the Poodle. Their brief cameos illuminate and provide humor–even as they also are poignant. 

The animal-welfare angle

Readers not used to reading speculative fiction or thinking in animal viewpoints may find it mind-expanding. And anytime we can get people to think more fully about animals and their welfare, that’s a good thing. But personally, I found it more depressing than many reviewers.

I’ve been associated with animal rescue organizations for long enough to cherish no illusions about what happens to domesticated animals when their caregivers cease to care for them. 

In this photo, four feral cats sit or crouch beside a broken fence on a dirt path, with two pigeons in the background.
All fantasy aside, domesticated animals without human care, like these feral cats, lead short, cruel lives. (Photo courtesy of Pretty Litter)

Even cats, which many people think probably would thrive without people around, would inevitably suffer problems (note the dangerous lives of contemporary feral cats). Far more horrifying, animals trapped inside buildings, aquaria, zoo cages, barns and pastures without food and water would die agonized, lingering deaths.

Hollow Kingdom is a fantasy, firmly planted in stranger-than-usual territory. It provides poignant moments, funny moments, and a great many improbable situations. Maybe it’s better not to talk about the rest of the grimness, but I read this more as a slow-rolling horror story than as “hopeful.”


Many thanks to Goodreads, for the Extreme Medical Services cover art, and to Amazon for the series-covers image. The photo of the inside of an ambulance is from Parkway East Hospital in Singapore. 

The photo of Veronica R. Calisto at Westercon 71 was taken with her knowledge and permission, and is © 2018 by Jan S. Gephardt, but you may re-post it or re-blog it with an attribution and a link back to this post. The photo of the two books in the SparkleTits Series is courtesy of Amazon. The photo of Denver, including the city park, part of the downtown skyline, and the Front Range with Mt. Evans, is By Hogs555 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikiepedia.

The photo of the Hollow Kingdom coveris courtesy of Goodreads. Many thanks to Pretty Litter for the photo of the feral cats.

Looking for something new and interesting to read? Consider these!

One of the things that seems to help our favorite authors more than just about anything we can do (beyond buying their books in the first place) is posting reviews–on Amazon, and on other sites. I know that some Amazon metrics seem to leave reviews out of the picture, but in other ways they help. 

I have been promising myself I’d sit down and write Amazon reviews of some of the books I’ve read recently, and I made good on that promise today. Once I’d started, it occurred to me that I should share some of them here, too. These are all science fiction, fantasy, or mystery novels that I have recently enjoyed. I hope you will enjoy them, too: 

Fluency and Remanence

By Jennifer Foehner Wells

Both of the covers are the work of artist Stephan Martiniere; Wells credits these covers with much of her early success as an indie publisher.

Grabbed me and wouldn’t let go! Thoroughly enjoyable

I ordered Fluency on the basis of a review posted on Twitter, and boy am I glad I did! This is an extremely interesting story of first contact that kept me wondering what would happen next, and happily “hooked” all the way through. I especially liked the complexity of the relationships and the excellent pacing. Jennifer Foehner Wells really knows how to write! (hint: buy the sequel, Remanence, while you’re at it!).

Gripping sequel adds to the stakes–this series just keeps getting better

Sequels often aren’t as good as the first book, but Remanence is definitely an exception to that. Jennifer Foehner Wells takes us deeper into the universe she has created, adds more fascinating non-terrestrials, and adds dramatically to the stakes. I found this just as gripping as the highly-readable first book, and I’m seriously frustrated that she hasn’t gotten the third one finished, as I write this. This is an excellent series. Buy this one when you buy Fluency!

Great news: Valence, the third book in Wells’ Confluence Series, is now in the works!

The Curse of Jacob Tracy 

By Holly Messinger

Supernatural terrors and engaging characters in the Old West 

Engaging characters and imaginative twists on folklore give this western gothic horror novel a special power. Holly Messinger is a promising new writer with interesting tales to tell. The push and pull between the main characters gives depth and resonance, the historical grounding is solid, and the monsters are vivid and challenging. The best news, once you’ve finished? There’s a sequel in the works!

A note about this novel’s cover: Designed by Jim Lin, the cover is an assemblage of images pulled from Shutterstock and Dreamstime. This is an increasing trend with some publishing companies. 

Ready Player One 

By Ernest Cline

The thrill of the game, and a hero with nerves of Adamantium

I’m not a big video game player and I also didn’t spend the formative years of my early adolescence during the 1980s, so at first I wasn’t sure how much I’d enjoy this book, but my son insisted, and even made sure I saw the movie War Games and the documentary Atari: Game Over, in preparation.

I’m glad he did. This is a book about an amazing adventure. The stakes couldn’t be higher–either in the virtual world of the OASIS, or in the gritty reality of a collapsing mid-21st-century world in the grip of recession and the effects of global warming. The story chronicles an epic battle between Big Capitalism and the little man; good versus evil; quick wits, nerve and knowledge versus overwhelming force. You’ll laugh, you’ll howl with outrage, and you’ll love the nail-biting suspense that runs right down to the end.

It took some detective work, but I finally discovered that this wonderful painting of “the Stacks” that forms the background of the cover art is by Joe Ceballos. The Stacks are a compelling image in the book, and I dearly love Ceballos‘ visualization.

The Promise 

By Robert Crais

Suspect (2014) introduced us compellingly to Officer Scott James and his K-9 partner Maggie, who play an important part in Crais‘ new book, The Promise

This engaging thriller lived up to all of my high expectations 

I was eager to read this novel in which Crais‘ longtime series characters Elvis Cole and Joe Pike meet up with Suspect principals Scott James and his K-9 partner Maggie–and it totally lived up to my high expectations.

Elvis Cole makes a promise to a client–not realizing she has many more things to hide than she thought. Scott and Maggie get mixed into the case in the line of duty–but the dangers they face as a result range far beyond their normal occupational hazards.

This book kept me guessing right up to the satisfying conclusion. Scott and Maggie add an interesting new dimension to the adventures of Cole and Pike. I’d love to see all of these characters return for a third engagement sometime soon!

Another note on the covers: These, too are amalgamations from multiple sources, rather than being the work of a single artist. the Suspect cover is the work of MCJC Design, created partially from a photograph by Joseph Baylor Roberts, via Getty Images. The Promise cover is the work of designer Kaitlin Lim, built from the work of several photographers via Getty Images.

IMAGES: Many thanks to Amazon for the cover art for: Fluency, Remanence, The Curse of Jacob Tracy, Ready Player One, Suspect, and The Promise.

The cover painting for Ready Player One by Joe Ceballos is courtesy of Motornomadics

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