Always Grey in Winter by Mark J. Engels: That’s a hard no from me.

Always Grey in WinterAlways Grey in Winter

by Mark J. Engels
Kindle Edition, 184 pg.
A Thurston Howl Publications, 2017

Read: April 22 – 25, 2019

Let’s get this over and done with in a hurry, I’m in no mood to belabor things here. Let’s just rip off the bandage and just hope I don’t lose too much hair in the process.

Here’s the blurb from the author’s site:

The modern day remnant of an ancient clan of werecats is torn apart by militaries on three continents vying to exploit their deadly talents. Born in an ethnic Chicago neighborhood following her family’s escape from Cold War-era Poland, were-lynx Pawly flees underground to protect her loved ones after genetically-enhanced soldiers led by rogue scientist and rival werecat Mawro overrun her Navy unit in the Gulf of Oman. Pawly’s family seeks her out in a desperate gambit to return their ancestral homeland and reconcile with their estranged kinsmen. But when her human lover arrives to thwart Mawro’s plan to weaponize their feral bloodlust, Pawly must face a daunting choice: preserve her family secrets and risk her lover’s life or chance her true nature driving him away forever.

I honestly couldn’t have told you all of that on my own after reading the novel. I just re-read the pitch the author sent me a few months ago, and I learned more from that than I did the whole novel, too. Things make more sense now.

This is a problem. A huge problem. I’m a pretty good reader, I like to think. I’m even a pretty forgiving reader, willing to make connections that I think the author intended when they don’t do a good job on doing the job themselves. But, I just couldn’t with this book. I’m pretty sure I recognized the tricks of the trade Engels was trying to employ, the techniques he was using to keep this from being over-expository, or too info-dumpy. I applaud the tricks and techniques. When used correctly.

Those last three words are the key. Exposition is your friend. Yes, it can be overdone. Yes, it can be abused. It can be relied on too heavily. But it can’t be ignored if you actually want to communicate to your audience.

I’m just going to give bullet points for the rest of this:

  • If you have to resort to all caps to express your character’s emotions, you need to write better dialogue.
  • If you have to use that many exclamation points to express your character’s emotions, you need to rewrite your dialogue. Nobody yells/screams all the time in conversations.
  • I spent so much time reading scenes trying to figure out where and when they took place that I eventually just gave up, assuming I’d figure it out eventually.
  • A related note: there was a flashback sequence that I couldn’t tell when it ended and returned to the present.
  • The characters weren’t characters, they were names attached to pronouns and occasionally to family relations. I honestly couldn’t tell you what separated some of them from each other. Everyone had the same personality, as far as I could tell (okay, I’m being a tad hyperbolic here…but not much)
  • Did I mention that exposition can be your friend?
  • There was no conclusion, no point. Things just ended. It was, as someone said, much ado about nothing.
  • This is a 184 page book. It took me 4 days to read. I just wasn’t interested past the first chapter when it stopped making sense, it didn’t hold my attention, my mind kept wandering and I had to force myself to read it.

It seems to me that Engels had a very clear idea of what he was trying to accomplish, he knew his story and his characters. I don’t think he communicated any of it on the page. I’m seeing a lot of 4 and 5 star reviews out there, so clearly there’s a lot of people who’ll think I’m out to lunch. But, I just don’t see anything redeeming about this at all — and I like to think I go out of my way to find positives in every book I talk about. I’ve got nothing here.

Disclaimer: I received this novel from the author in exchange for my honest opinion, and I really wish I didn’t have to give it.


1 Star

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A Few Quick Questions With…Melissa Simonson

Okay, I’ve already raved about Lingering this morning (I haven’t written it yet, but it’ll be a rave, I know that much). And now we get to follow it up with a Q&A with Melissa Simonson, the author of Lingering and a handful of other things.

I really appreciate her taking the time — particularly because she doesn’t seem to like doing these. I understand that, but enjoyed her answers — I hope you do, too. I tried something new here, I gave her a thumbnail version of one of my working theories and let her respond. That was kind of fun, I think I’ll try that again sometime. I’ll shut up now and get to the good stuff so you can go buy some of her books after reading this.

Do I want to know how close to possible this book is? Actually, never mind, don’t answer this.
I’m probably the wrong person to ask about that. I can barely work Microsoft Word or smartphones so I’m a bit of a Luddite. Every technical thing I’ve so much as touched has broken, so I try to stay away for the most part. Though I don’t think the talk/text part of the Lingering business is too outlandish…
You’ve written a good number of books prior to that, and seem to bounce from genre to genre — is there a common thread to your work? Is there a genre you want to tackle, but haven’t yet?
Yes, I don’t restrict myself to certain genres….I mainly write in the “whatever the hell I want” genre. As for common threads, I really don’t know. I suppose I wander into the dark very easily, and they’ve all got that in common.
Who are some of your major influences? (whether or not you think those influences can be seen in your work — you know they’re there)
I’m such a bad interviewee, I never know how to answer this question. Of course there are authors and books I love, but I’m not sure whether they’ve got anything to do with my own. As far as Lingering influences go–have you ever seen Ex-Machina? Go watch it if you haven’t, but the second I saw that movie I was obsessed, and it was pretty much the source of my inspiration.
I’ve shared with you my half-baked theory — did you plant seeds for people to think that way, or was I just really out to lunch? (I expect the latter) Did you try to wave red herrings in the reader’s face to keep them off their feet? Or another way of asking this is — how do you go about keeping the audience guessing while being honest with them about what’s going on?
Well, if you’re out to lunch with that theory, you’ll be in good company. I’ve heard that from many people, and I can understand why you’d have thought something along those lines, though that idea never struck me when I was writing the book. RE: keeping people guessing, well, I’m afraid I don’t have a good answer for that, either. Half the time I don’t know what’s going to happen until about five minutes before I write it. I rarely outline and tend to go in with a foggy general idea, but that’s it.
I love the Kylie-Ben dynamic. Was Ben’s niece part of the novel from the get-go, or did you find a need for her later on? What on earth possessed you to have the two of them read The Art of War together? (I love it, don’t get me wrong, but that’s an odd choice)
Yes, Kylie was always around. I don’t know why I had them reading The Art of War, it just popped into my head and I ran with it. Is it an odd choice? Maybe. I’d considered striking the whole Kylie/Ben relationship because some people had asked me what the point of them is, but. I’m stubborn.
In my not-so-humble opinion, you need to stop listening to those people. But I digress. . .

What’s next for Melissa Simonson?

I have another work-in-progress on my hard drive, so I’ll be working on that just as soon as I get over the recent deaths on The Walking Dead and in between episodes of Game of Thrones. I lead a very exciting life, I’m sure you can tell.
Thanks for your time — and thanks for Lingering. I hope you find a lot of success with it.

Lingering by Melissa Simonson: A Touching and Creepy Tale about a Couple that will Always be together in Electric Dreams

This was just published — go grab your copy now and give Melissa Simonson a strong release week!


by Melissa Simonson

Kindle Edition, 326 pg.
Read: March 21 – 22, 2019

Typically, when I just quote the official blurb, it’s because I’m feeling lazy — or I don’t like the book and don’t want to spend energy coming up with my own synopsis. But this time, it’s because I just like this so much:

           Death doesn’t have to be the end.

With Lingering, your departed loved ones are only ever a phone call or text message away.*
Say all those things you should have said. Get their advice, hear their comforting words. Let them celebrate your achievements and soothe your fears like they used to.
Everyone is welcome, and consultations are always free.

*Some conditions may apply. Please call our office for details.

That’s all Simonson said when she pitched me the book. And it absolutely worked. Now, maybe it’s because of what people typically try to get me to read, maybe it’s because of what I was reading at the time — I don’t know why, but I took this to be a supernatural/urban fantasy/beyond the grave thing. It’s not there in what she said about the book, but that’s the impression that I walked away with.

It couldn’t be further from the case, actually. In this case, the grieving client gives Lingering access to the dead person’s social media, texts, emails, etc. and then using the kind of social engineering that Identity Thieves dream about, come up with an approximation of the dearly departed. Obviously, the more data given them, the better the approximation will be.

When Ben is approached by a strange woman while he’s visiting his fiance’s grave about five months after she was murdered, he obviously has no idea what he’s in for. This stranger wants him to be a beta user for Lingering’s services. Not only was his fiancé a prolific texter, she was a fashion blogger and vlogger — so there was a lot of data to use as a source. After weeks of texting back and forth — in which the software was able to imitate Carissa pretty well, they move on to voice calls, and so on.

Lingering is made up of one engineer/developer and his girlfriend who’s in charge of recruitment and the business side of operations. We don’t get to meet other clients, but they do exist (or at least did — maybe they only have one beta at a time — it doesn’t matter). The engineer is a creep, and is clearly invested wholeheartedly (and maybe unhealthily) in this project. The recruiter, on the other hand, isn’t as invested, but does believe in the project (or at least her boyfriend). Their involvement in this story keeps it from being your typical “Boy meets AI/Computer Simulation of a Girl” story.

Because in many ways this is that kind of story — with the added twist of Carissa being the victim of an unsolved murder. But for anyone who’s watched Her, Ex Machina, or even Electric Dreams most of this story goes just like you anticipate. The Lingering duo add in some interesting complications, as does the murder investigation looming over portions of it. Simonson tells this familiar(ish) story in a compelling way, with a hint of menace mixed into star-crossed love. It’s tense, taut and heartfelt.

As the reader knows — and Ben does, too — he’s not talking to Carissa. In his own words, it’s “a machine pretending to be Carissa.” But that doesn’t stop him from sort of falling for her, and for the reader to wonder if there’s a way for it to work out for them. Even as the reader and Ben both feel the wrongness inherent in it all. A feeling that’s compounded as more about Lingering is shown to Ben.

Just with this, I’d recommend the novel. But that’s not what makes this book a keeper.

Simonson gives us a protagonist that you can’t help but feel for. The woman of his dreams, a woman out of his league that somehow truly loved him, his friends and family (well, maybe not his mother — but she wanted to), the woman he would die for was stolen from him in the worst possible way. They have a big fight, he storms out and hits a bar for a couple hours only to come back to discover her body.

Ben plunges into depression and grief — the only good thing to come out of things immediately is that Carissa’s cat suddenly decides she doesn’t hate him. His work suffers, his friendships and family relationships do, too (we’ll come back to that in a minute). He eventually finds a friend in his grief — Joe’s wife died from cancer around the same time as the murder and the graves are near each other. As the two men visit the graves they eventually visit each other and establish a mutual support system (that involves a lot of alcohol).

While we get to know Ben, we get to know the (real) Carissa and those in his life. We can see the devastation that Carissa’s murder has left in everyone’s life. His grief is real, and his efforts to move on aren’t that successful (they are half-hearted at best, too). Yes, Ben has a secret crutch helping him — but this really could be diving into work, substance abuse or something else — in a sense Simonson could’ve used anything here to give Ben a reason to keep going, she simply chose a machine pretending to be a person.

Joe doesn’t have Lingering, and he doesn’t seem to have much of a support network, either. He has Ben and alcohol. And memories. Many, many memories. As wrong as Ben’s “relationship” with cyber-Carissa is, he does seem to be functioning better than Joe, and the reader has many opportunities to see that. But man, Joe’s experiences are genuine, his pain is real. Ben’s got something keeping him from those experiences, and you can’t help but think how bad this is for him.

One of the many people almost as devastated by Carissa’s death was his young cousin, Kylie. I’m sure we’re told her age, but I don’t remember — I’m going to guess 8. Young enough that Goosebumps and Baby Sitters Club books are age-appropriate, but maybe a little advanced. She’s a good enough reader that they aren’t really her speed anymore, though. She calls Ben her uncle (he’s too old to be a cousin in her view). The two of them have a very close relationship, and Kylie will spend time at Ben’s house after school and the two of them make regular runs ot the library and read together frequently. While there’s almost nothing in this book that I didn’t like — my favorite parts involve Kylie.

Early on, they find themselves at a Library book sale and Kylie talks him into buying her The Art of War as well as Little Women (they only tell mom about one of the purchases). Throughout the book the two will read Sun Tzu together, Ben helping Kylie understand (and apply!) the classic. He picks up a handy tip or two from the old warrior/philosopher, too. Those scenes are priceless — warm, cute and insightful. Kylie’s a great addition to the book and humanizes Ben in ways that nothing else can. If Simonson needs a side project, an edition of The Art of War annotated with commentary by Ben and Kylie would be an insta-buy from me.

Thanks to watching Ben with Dexter (Carissa’s cat), Joe, his friends and, most importantly, Kylie you learn to care about him and his loss. You understand what he’s missing in his life and the degree it’s affecting him. So when things happen with Lingering and cyber-Carissa, you care about that. It’s not just some dopey guy being taken in by a computer generated fraud (that he signed up for, don’t get me wrong) — it’s this character you care about risking everything for some clever software.

The writing was excellent — I don’t think I had a negative note anywhere. The closest came when Ben was trying to box up Carissa’s clothes and I said something about how hard it was to read. The grief is real and palpable throughout the book, and really strong in others. All the characters are well drawn and developed — even those we spend only a few paragraphs with. The merging of the SF-ish elements with the story of Ben trying to recover from the death is really well done and adds shades and nuances to both, making the novel stronger.

Simonson took a lot of care about the appearance of the book, too. Which is important (maybe more so for a self-published book than one put out by one of the bigger houses). That’s an eye-catching and fitting cover — but even the graphic elements dividing up the text aren’t run of the mill and are attractive (I read a book a couple of weeks ago that went for an atypical graphic element, but I couldn’t tell what it was — nor could other readers that I talked to). I really appreciate it when people go to the extra trouble that someone clearly did here.

I’m not sure if this is really Science Fiction, but it has some SF elements. There’s a touch of a thriller about it, too. But I wouldn’t categorize it there. Maybe just General Fiction? But it feels too genre-adjacent for that. Eh, just categorize it as a read for people who like good things.

I can’t think of anything else to say here, really. This is an excellent read that totally sucked me in and wouldn’t let go. I spent a lot of time thinking about it between reading sessions, and have mused about it frequently since I finished, too. I guess you could say it’s lingering on in my mind. But you shouldn’t, because that’s just lazy word play, and we’re all better than that here. Just go read the book, okay?

Disclaimer: I was given a copy of this book by the author in exchange for this post and my honest opinion.


4 1/2 Stars

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Crossline by Russ Colchamiro: Out along the edges, Always where they burn to be


by Russ Colchamiro

Kindle Edition, 336 pg.
Crazy 8 Press, 2013
Read: March 18 – 19, 2019

Marcus Powell is a test pilot — not something you think about much anymore, but SF and adventure tales have started with them long enough to strike a classic chord. You’re instantly put into a certain frame of mind — and then when you see he’s on the launching pad, well, it almost guarantees a good time. Since he hits space very early on in the book, you know things are going to get interesting right away.

Because the next thing you know, he’s zipping around the outer parts of our solar system and then he finds himself in a parallel universe on a world that’s remarkably like our own — yet is very different. Thankfully the language — and slang — is largely interchangeable so Powell can get along just fine. But the differences are very striking and could get him in serious trouble/danger.

Back on Earth — as Powell is bouncing around that other planet, we get to meet a pilot from the parallel world that came to Earth. As much as this is Powell’s book, I found this guy a lot more interesting — but we get his story told mostly in summary form, while Powell’s is told to us in much more detail. So you’d expect that he’d be the one that readers get into. Now, I do — Powell’s a great character, and if we didn’t get the other pilot’s story, I’d have been very content to read about him.

While Powell runs around that other planet, trying to figure out how to get home we get to see the societal turmoil that covers the North America-ish place. We meet a wise man who has visions, some dedicated warrior women (and men), an incredibly creative baker, and a disturbed killer. You know, the usual. As Powell aligns himself with one warring faction, he finds himself in a different kind of danger than he’s used to as he tries to find his way home. On Earth, the danger is largely off-screen and the battles take place in the boardroom and the weapons are money and influence. While Powell has to deal with explosives, bullets and knives. Both types of warfare can result in fatalities

On Earth, we also see what goes on with Powell’s wife and daughter as they deal with Powell’s absence. His wife was less than supportive before he launched, and that’s haunting her. His daughter, who shares something in common with the wiseman on that other world, never loses hope. It’s hard to know if that’s because she’s young and naive (5 or so) or if it’s because she knows more than you’d expect. I had more fun reading about Powell’s daughter than I have with pretty much any character this month, she’s simply a delight. The granddaughter of a Native American seer (of sorts), this little girl knows things she shouldn’t anf has a certainty about things she has no business knowing about. She’s the embodiment of precocious, basically. Her mother is a caring and very outspoken teacher, the two of them together make a formidable team.

Everywhere you turn, the motivation driving the characters is family — protecting, avenging, trying ot live a life worthy of them, trying to hold on to, trying to get back to, trying to provide for . . . This is at once an incredibly believable driving force for a character, and incredibly relatable one. It’s a great way to get your reader on the side of every major character. It’s easy to forget the human element in a SF adventure — the advanced science, the fantastic technology, the wormhole creation, etc. can easily become the focus. But Colchamiro doesn’t let that happen, what keeps his characters moving, what keeps them going on — it’s all realatably human.

I’ll admit, I don’t think I got all of the mystical/spiritual/supernatural aspects that Colchamiro brought to the table. I think that’s largely on me, and there are going to be readers who love that part (and I thought it an interesting approach to take_. Similarly, there’s a little plot element makes no sense to me at all. It’s brought up early on when Powell launches that is returned to a couple of times, and then comes back in a pretty serious fashion in the closing pages, and drives the last action scene. It could be cut entirely and make no difference to anything (except the aforementioned action scene would have no justification and would have to be cut — which would be an improvement). There’s no reason for it, it doesn’t help the characters or the plot at all. Maybe it played a decent role in an earlier draft, but not now. Here’s the nice thing about it — it’s so extraneous that you can just ignore it and the story doesn’t suffer at all. I’m being vague here, I know. My point is (or it was supposed to be) is that there are some problematic parts of the book — but there’s enough right going on here that it doesn’t matter.

That aside, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I had plenty of fun with it. Colchamiro kept things moving well, he surprised me a couple of times and got me grinning and cheering. I found myself very invested in what happened with both pilots and wanted them to find what they’re looking for. Strong action, strong characters, a compelling take on the multiple worlds idea — and a whole lotta fun throughout. I can’t point to every part of this book that makes it appealing — most of it is in the intangibles. As frustrating as that might be when writing about a book, while reading it? It’s hard to ask for more.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book from the author and Lola’s Book Tours, which I appreciate. The opinions expressed are my own — especially the seventh paragraph.


3.5 Stars

My thanks to Lola’s Blog Tours for the opportunity to participate in this tour and the materials (including the book) they provided.

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GUEST POST: My Favorite Space Operas (TV shows and Movies) by Russ Colchamiro

Since my novel CROSSLINE falls under the category of ‘space opera,’ the Irresponsible Reader has asked me to rank my top 10 favorite space opera TV shows and movies (I went to 15 – hey! My list!).

Before I dive in, I recognize that some of my entries may not be entirely space ‘opera,’ but, again, it’s my list, and this is how I’m doing it. Second, as expected, there’s a bunch of Star Wars and Star Trek on here.

And finally, my list is about the movies and TV shows I enjoyed the most, regardless of whether they were the technically the ‘best.’

Anyway… here goes*:

For me, the conversation begins and ends with these two movies, which to my space opera-loving eyes, hold up great after all these years. In fact, last summer I got to see Wrath of Kahn on the big screen (my first time seeing it this way since it first came out!), followed by a live Q&A with Captain Kirk himself, William Shatner. Absolutely awesome.

  • Star Trek: The Wrath of Kahn
  • The Empire Strikes Back

Where I’d rank any of these solely depends on how I’m feeling at the moment, and the mood I’m in (and there are other good movies out there, too), but if I had to pick, these are the ones I go back to time and again. Including the re-releases, I think I saw Star Wars on the big screen at least a dozen times. And Aliens? Whoa. I haven’t seen it in a while, but it’ll forever go down as one of my favorite blow-me-away movies ever.

  • Star Wars
  • Rogue One
  • Star Trek: First Contact
  • Aliens

As far as TV space opera goes, the BSG remake and The Expanse have a lot in common, in that both have a hardcore military slant. They’re both great, with one my caveat that the final eps of BSG fell far short of its otherwise brilliant run. And The Expanse is still going, so only time will tell if the quality keeps up. The three Star Treks I have here are all great to me, in slightly different ways, accept that the original took a little bit to find its footing, and Next Gen was a semi disaster the first two seasons. And then, of course, Deep Space Nine is basically a carbon copy of Babylon 5 with more seasons and a bigger budget. Still, give me any of these shows, and I’m happy as a clam. And I’m proud to say that my 8-year twins—my ninjas—are starting to watch them, too!

  • Battlestar Galactica (remake)
  • The Expanse
  • Babylon 5
  • Star Trek: Next Generation
  • Star Trek: The Original Series
  • Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

These three movies to me all belong in the same general sub-category. They’re all fun (and sometimes darn cheesy!), but ultimately leave me with a smile on my face. Get the popcorn out and let’s have a blast!

  • Flash Gordon
  • Galaxy Quest
  • The Last Starfighter

*Note: I did not include Doctor Who on my list because I haven’t seen enough of it to form an opinion, nor did I include Firefly, only because it didn’t last long enough. And while I recognize that Guardians of the Galaxy is a quality movie, it just isn’t one of my favorites.

Read the novel that was inspired (in part) by this list, Crossline by Russ Colchamiro.

My thanks to Lola’s Blog Tours for the opportunity to participate in this tour and the materials (including the book) they provided.

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EXCERPT from Crossline by Russ Colchamiro: There’s work to be done

An open-air man, Powell had been to cities. To Houston, and Denver, and San Francisco that one time for his cousin’s bachelor party. But there was something about the city ahead that made him shudder. It reminded him of his few trips to New York, that city that never sleeps. If you could make it there, the saying went, you could make it anywhere, and maybe even if that was true, Powell never understood why anyone would want to make it there, even if they could.

Powell had that rush he would get on the road to the launch pad. The pre-flight butterflies that caused his chest to tighten, his face to go flush, and the taste of adrenaline to coat his mouth, down to his teeth and gums. The difference between now and then was just so very small, but even if for just a few seconds, that intense queasiness would make him question in a shameful, shaky handed way if he knew what the hell he was doing, and consider that maybe he’d be better off hauling ass in the opposite direction and skipping out on the whole damn thing.

But then the intensity of the panic subsided—the urgency of the present snapping him back from his fears of a worst possible future, one that would require him to confront the demon at the gates. He steadied himself, because like his father told him: Nerves only mean you ain’t completely stupid. Get over it, boy. There’s work to be done. The clarity and confidence of his father’s voice resonated more than ever.

Read the rest in Crossline by Russ Colchamiro.

My thanks to Lola’s Blog Tours for the opportunity to participate in this tour and the materials (including the book) they provided.

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EXCERPT from Crossline by Russ Colchamiro: It was another ship

The warp engines were ready for the first of six return blasts it would take to get him back to Earth, when a blip came across the screen. Powell shifted toward the incoming message, but his short-range sensor interrupted him. Something in the Saturn rings. Video amplification revealed that among a cluster of particles was an odd-shaped fragment, with sharper, more reflective edges than he would expect. But he supposed that after debris crashed around over millions if not billions of years, who knew what was really out there? He looked again. Probably nothing of consequence. Just some lagging hallucination from the multiple warps.

As suspected. Just ice particles swirling around the planet. Billions of frozen blue ice particles floating in space that—

Powell focused his monitor on the third ring layer. Studying it more carefully, his sensors revealed that the particle cluster wasn’t in the Saturn ring, but among it. The fragment wasn’t random, a collection of dust, or some anomalous asteroid fragment.

It was another ship. Looking just like Crossline. And headed his way.

Read the rest in Crossline by Russ Colchamiro.

My thanks to Lola’s Blog Tours for the opportunity to participate in this tour and the materials (including the book) they provided.

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