Book Review: SpecOps , by Craig Alanson

The second book starring Starship Captain Colonel Bishop and his Amazing Super-Advanced Ancient Alien Beer Can, Skippy


Podium Publishing, 2016, 480 pages

Colonel Joe Bishop made a promise, and he's going to keep it: taking the captured alien starship Flying Dutchman back out. He doesn't agree when the UN decides to send almost 70 elite Special Operations troops, hotshot pilots, and scientists with him; the mission is a fool's errand he doesn't expect to ever return from. At least this time, the Earth is safe, right?

Not so much.

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Also by Craig Alanson: My review of Columbus Day.

My complete list of book reviews.

Book Review: Police at the Station and They Don't Look Friendly, by Adrian McKinty

The sixth Detective Sean Duffy novel starts with a gun to the head.

Police at the Station and They Don't Look Friendly

Seventh Street Books, 2017, 319 pages

Another thrilling mystery featuring Detective Sean Duffy and his most dangerous investigation yet.

Belfast, 1988. A man is found dead, killed with a bolt from a crossbow in front of his house. This is no hunting accident. But uncovering who is responsible for the murder will take Detective Sean Duffy down his most dangerous road yet, a road that leads to a lonely clearing on a high bog where three masked gunmen will force Duffy to dig his own grave.

Hunted by forces unknown, threatened by Internal Affairs, and with his relationship on the rocks, Duffy will need all his wits to get out of this investigation in one piece.

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Also by Adrian McKinty: My reviews of The Cold Cold Ground, I Hear the Sirens in the Street, In the Morning I'll Be Gone, Gun Street Girl, Rain Dogs, and Hidden River.

My complete list of book reviews.

Thorn Circle print copies, and The Mess that is AQATWW

OMG. I want one.

Alex and Charlie doll

Alexandra Quick and the Thorn Circle print copies

Remember I said I was going to stick with my Word layout? Well, I thought my layout was pretty slick, an almost professional-looking imitation of the Harry Potter books, and then I went further down the rabbit-hole of book design and layout, and found out about things like optical alignment and leading and lining vs. oldstyle and bleed and everything else I was doing wrong.

There are lots of book designers out there with free advice (usually ending with "You should hire me to do this for you") but I am a DIY kind of guy, and I persevered with Affinity Publisher. I am now a first-level Publisher ninja, and I ended up spending most of two days importing my Word layout and massaging it into a print-ready PDF.

There are a few things that aren't quite perfect (actual professionals do manual spot adjustments on kerning and justification spacing and line grouping and stuff, and I simply don't have the expertise for that), but I think it's pretty damn close.

However. Publisher is still in "active development" (they don't want to say "beta," but in my opinion, it's still beta software), and I've found it does... unexpected things sometimes. Like, after I update the Table of Contents, I would keep finding that pages in some later chapter had inexplicably been flowed on top of each other, and I'd have to manually redo the text flow. So every time I change the structure, I have to look at the entire manuscript again to see if there is a new gotcha.

Now, people have asked if I would share the print-ready file. And I have decided... yes. Kind of.

Here's the deal. Right now, it's print-ready minus a cover. Anyone can submit this file to a POD service and get a print copy.

Those of you who helped me by proofreading the first layout, and a select few others who know who they are, are going to get actual print copies, once I get my cover and order my own print run.

For everyone else... I am going to crowd-source the final proofreading. The link below is the semi-final print-ready PDF. Submit it to the POD service of your choice and you can have your own print copy. However, you will have to supply your own cover file.

AQATTC print-ready PDF

Now, here's a preview of the exclusive reward for anyone who finds an error or helps me make other corrections in the above file:

AQATTC cover sketch

That's a black and white sketch of the cover I am commissioning. When I get the (full-color) final, anyone who contributed a correction will get an exclusive link to the final final file, including the cover.

Note that the above file is formatted for a 6" x 9" trade paperback. The Scholastic U.S. paperback editions of the Harry Potter books are actually closer to 5.5" x 7.625". Most POD services don't handle non-standard sizes, and at 6" x 9", AQATTC is already 568 pages. I am still experimenting with layouts and might try to produce something closer to the "official" HP book form, but I suspect that I won't even be able to fit a longer book like AQATSA into one volume with a standard POD printing.

So what kind of gotchas do I need help catching? Consider these two pages:



Notice the difference? The first paragraph following a section break should not have a first-line indent. I think I got them all, but it's the sort of thing that's easy to miss when importing hundreds of pages and then manually adjusting the style formatting page by page. Also any obvious things, like a blank page or a missing header or footer, or a block of text or illustration that somehow wandered off the center line, or one of those damn reflowed pages with text flowed on top of itself. I can look and look again and triple-check every page one more time, and I know there is still going to be something I miss.

AQATWW: The Mess

I am now sort of out of The Grind and into The Mess. Which means, I am writing more pages, but I have this grinding feeling that I'm writing entire chapters that will have to be cut, because I now have all the scenes and more or less their sequential order laid out, but there are so many plot holes and "how do I get there from here?" and other questions that are not resolving themselves. It would sure be nice if I could just say "Poof, suddenly Alexandra is in the next chapter, never mind that highway battle with manticores, we'll figure out how that ended later." Actually, sometimes I do leave plot holes behind, knowing I will have to go back and fix them. This is actually somewhat more productive than spending days gnawing on a problem and not writing until I figure out a way around it, but then I know I have a bigger mess to clean up later.

Besides plot holes and loose threads, there are issues of characterization and tone. Like, how far AU is AQ going to go in book six? Because the Wizard War is definitely attracting the attention of Muggles. Now, the Harry Potter tone would be what we saw in Rowling's books, and to a lesser extent in mine up until the last book: the U.S. government is kind of aware of the wizarding world, but doesn't really do much about it because they live in parallel worlds that try to avoid each other.

In a realistic setting, of course, this would not be at all plausible. Fucking wizards with magic powers, and elves and goblins and monsters, hundreds of thousands of them around the world? The U.S. government (all governments, really) would be all over that, trying to recruit Muggle-born wizards and infiltrate the wizarding world, while the Confederation would have plans for casting Imperius on the President and Congress, and the DoD and intelligence agencies would have top secret plans anticipating that, and... you get the idea. We wind up with a "gritty" realistic urban fantasy series that might be interesting, but would no longer feel like it was at all the same world. I know some fanfic authors have taken that idea and run with it, but it's not exactly the direction I intended to go.

On the other hand, I hate handwaving away all pretense at verisimilitude because "It doesn't fit the setting." So we're probably going a little bit in that direction, but I don't want this to be Alexandra Quick and the Men In Black.

(If you do like that kind of gritty, rational take on what it would look like if a magical world got dumped into the mundane real world, I recommend Bill Willingham's Fables. And no, please do not recommend fucking HPMOR to me.)

So, I am still muddling my way through, and there will be a hella mess to clean up and probably a lot of harsh comments from my betas, and I worry it's all going to fall apart and this will be the book where I reach the end of my rope and everyone realizes I don't know wtf I'm doing. (I feel like that with every book, at some point.)

Right now, I have 43 chapters of AQATWW outlined, with 21 chapters and 115K words actually written. I have 15 chapters of book seven roughly outlined.

Book Review: The Core, by Peter Brett

The end of the series goes full grimdark and is resolved with a big boss battle.

The Core

Del Rey, 2017, 781 pages

For time out of mind, bloodthirsty demons have stalked the night, culling the human race to scattered remnants dependent on half-forgotten magics to protect them. Then two heroes arose - men as close as brothers, yet divided by bitter betrayal.

Arlen Bales became known as the Warded Man, tattooed head to toe with powerful magic symbols that enable him to fight demons in hand-to-hand combat-and emerge victorious. Jardir, armed with magically warded weapons, called himself the Deliverer, a figure prophesied to unite humanity and lead them to triumph in Sharak Ka - the final war against demonkind.

But in their efforts to bring the war to the demons, Arlen and Jardir have set something in motion that may prove the end of everything they hold dear - a Swarm. Now the war is at hand and humanity cannot hope to win it unless Arlen and Jardir, with the help of Arlen's wife, Renna, can bend a captured demon prince to their will and force the devious creature to lead them to the Core, where the Mother of Demons breeds an inexhaustible army.

Trusting their closest confidantes, Leesha, Inevera, Ragen, and Elissa, to rally the fractious people of the Free Cities and lead them against the Swarm, Arlen, Renna, and Jardir set out on a desperate quest into the darkest depths of evil - from which none of them expects to return alive.

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Also by Peter Brett: My reviews of The Warded Man, The Desert Spear, The Daylight War, and The Skull Throne.

My complete list of book reviews.

Book Review: The Skull Throne, by Peter Brett

The fourth book in a gourmand, overstuffed post-apocalyptic epic fantasy.

The Skull Throne

Del Rey, 2015, 681 pages

The Skull Throne of Krasia stands empty. Built from the skulls of fallen generals and demon princes, it is a seat of honor and ancient, powerful magic, keeping the demon corelings at bay. From atop the throne, Ahmann Jardir was meant to conquer the known world, forging its isolated peoples into a unified army to rise up and end the demon war once and for all. But Arlen Bales, the Warded Man, stood against this course, challenging Jardir to a duel he could not in honor refuse. Rather than risk defeat, Arlen cast them both from a precipice, leaving the world without a savior and opening a struggle for succession that threatens to tear the Free Cities of Thesa apart.

In the south, Inevera, Jardir's first wife, must find a way to keep their sons from killing each other and plunging their people into civil war as they strive for glory enough to make a claim on the throne. In the north, Leesha Paper and Rojer Inn struggle to forge an alliance between the duchies of Angiers and Miln against the Krasians before it is too late. Caught in the crossfire is the duchy of Lakton - rich and unprotected, ripe for conquest. All the while, the corelings have been growing stronger, and without Arlen and Jardir there may be none strong enough to stop them. Only Renna Bales may know more about the fate of the missing men, but she, too, has disappeared....

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Also by Peter Brett: My reviews of The Warded Man, The Desert Spear, and The Daylight War.

My complete list of book reviews.

Book Review: A Matter of Will, by Adam Mitzner

b>A legal and financial thriller about deals with devils.</b>

A Matter of Will

Thomas & Mercer, 2019, 304 pages

Will Matthews came to Wall Street with hopes and dreams of hitting it big. But things have not been going as expected. He’s on the verge of being fired when he meets the devilishly mysterious and fabulously wealthy Sam Abaddon.

Winning Sam’s business answers Will’s prayers, catapulting the young stockbroker into the privileged world of money and luxury. Not only that, but Will also has met his dream girl, ambitious attorney Gwen Lipton.

All at once, it seems as if Will’s life couldn’t get any better.

And it doesn’t.

When Will witnesses a shocking act of violence, his charmed new existence is revealed to be a waking nightmare as the truth about his benefactor - and his own complicity in criminal conduct - becomes devastatingly clear. As the noose draws tighter, Will faces an impossible choice: feast upon the poisonous fruit of his bloody business or defy his patron and face dire consequences.

Then again, maybe there’s a third option....

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Also by Adam Mitzner: My reviews of A Conflict of Interest and Dead Certain.

My complete list of book reviews.

Haaalp! What does Abraham Thorn's handwriting look like?

Reader participation time!

I've been spending many, many hours exploring layout software. Everyone says "Don't use Microsoft Word for print layout, it's a word processor, it sucks for layout." So I looked at Adobe InDesign ($252/year, seriously?), and Affinity Publisher, which is much, much cheaper but can still do professional-quality layouts.

I spent a lot of time with it, and can actually make some pretty nice mockups now.

Affinity Publisher

But I still fight with it to do things I have already figured out how to do with Word.

Then, gods help me, I went down the LaTeX rabbit hole. There is something appealing about slinging markup, old-school style, like Donald Knuth intended. None of this newfangled WYSIWYG stuff!

LaTeX (built on TeX) was created in the 1970s and it's widely used in academia (most PhD dissertations are laid out with LaTeX). Some people swear by it for everything, and there are even extensions for designing books, including novels. It's pure and powerful and you can, in theory do anything because TeX is a goddamn Turing-complete language but it's as user-friendly as code written in the 1970s by a computer genius and while it's not hard to get a nice, clean, professional layout, it's not intended to imitate a specific design. I spent many, many hours experimenting with different front-ends and print engines (because LaTeX does not play nicely with modern fonts because who the fuck needs a font that didn't exist in 1978, right?) and I still couldn't get it to do things I had already figured out how to do in Word.

So, I looked at the reasons people say that Word sucks for layout, and most of them either don't apply to me (it's definitely terrible if you are doing original book designs, with fancy graphics and the like), or else the things people say are really hard and fiddly to do in Word... I have already figured out how to do.

So for now, I'm sticking with Word. When I get my POD copies back, we'll see how I did.

My original cover artist had to bail, but the new cover artist has already shown me a b&w sketch, and allowed me to make a few corrections, and wow, it's going to look nice.

I got some help from several people with my POD layout and aside from the cover, Alexandra Quick and the Thorn Circle is almost ready for printing. Except for one thing.

As you may recall, Alexandra's father sends her a letter at the end of AQATTC. And while the normal convention is to represent handwriting with italics, I am following the Harry Potter convention and using signature fonts for each character.

Finding the right font for Abraham Thorn's "broad, powerful strokes" has been vexing. I am not a designer. I have tried many, many fonts, and none look quite right.

So, here is a screenshot of the candidates I have narrowed down to (probably). And I am asking you, dear readers, to tell me me which one you think looks like Abe's handwriting.

I am not necessarily going to pick the one with the most votes. I'm still open to private input, and I may find yet another, better candidate. But I suspect most of you (or all of you put together) have a better sense of typographic aesthetics than I do.

Abraham Thorn handwriting fonts (1)
Abraham Thorn handwriting fonts (2)

Poll #2102787 Abraham Thorn's handwriting

Which font do you think looks best for Abraham Thorn's handwriting?

BrushAb Script
FabfeltScript Bold
Hickory Jack
Smooth Fantasy
James Fajardo
None of these. I have the perfect font, which I will tell you about in the comments.

Book Review: Long Black Curl, by Alex Bledsoe

Book three of the rockabilly Appalachian fairy soap opera.

Long Black Curl

Tor Books, 2015, 384 pages

In all the time the Tufa have existed, only two have ever been exiled: Bo-Kate Wisby and her lover, Jefferson Powell. They were cast out, stripped of their ability to make music, and cursed to never be able to find their way back to Needsville. Their crime? A love that crossed the boundary of the two Tufa tribes, resulting in the deaths of several people.

Somehow, Bo-Kate has found her way back. She intends to take over both tribes, which means eliminating both Rockhouse Hicks and Mandalay Harris. Bo-Kate has a secret weapon: Byron Harley, a rockabilly singer known as the "Hillbilly Hercules" for his immense size and strength, who has passed the last 60 years trapped in a bubble of faery time. He's ready to take revenge on any Tufa he finds.

The only one who can stop Bo-Kate is Jefferson. Released from the curse and summoned back to Cloud County, even he isn't sure what will happen when they finally meet. Will he fall in love with her again? Will he join her on her quest to unite the Tufa under her rule? Or will he have to sacrifice himself to save the people who once banished him?

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Also by Alex Bledsoe: My reviews of The Hum and the Shiver and Wisp of a Thing.

My complete list of book reviews.

Book Review: Lethal White, by Robert Galbraith

A caper among Old Money as Cormoran and Robin continue their will-they-won't-they dance.

Lethal White

Mulholland Books, 2018, 650 pages

When a troubled young man named Billy asks Cormoran Strike to help him investigate a crime he witnessed as a child, the private eye is left deeply troubled. While Billy is obviously mentally distressed and cannot remember many concrete details, there is something sincere about him and his story. But before Strike can question him further, Billy bolts from his office in a panic.

Trying to get to the bottom of Billy's story, Strike and Robin Ellacott - once his assistant, now a partner in the agency - set off on a twisting trail that leads them through the backstreets of London, into a secretive inner sanctum within Parliament, and to a beautiful but sinister manor house deep in the countryside.

And during this labyrinthine investigation, Strike's own life is far from straightforward. His newfound fame as a private eye means he can no longer operate behind the scenes as he once did. Plus, his relationship with his former assistant is more fraught than it ever has been; Robin is now invaluable to Strike in the business, but their personal relationship is much, much trickier than that.

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Also by Robert Galbraith: My reviews of The Cuckoo's Calling, The Silkworm, and Career of Evil.

My complete list of book reviews.

Book Review: Washington: A Life, by Ron Chernow

The biographer of Alexander Hamilton (there was a musical, you might have heard of it) writes about his boss.

Washington: A Life

Penguin Press, 2010, 928 pages

In Washington: A Life celebrated biographer Ron Chernow provides a richly nuanced portrait of the father of our nation. With a breadth and depth matched by no other one-volume life of Washington, this crisply paced narrative carries the listener through his troubled boyhood, his precocious feats in the French and Indian War, his creation of Mount Vernon, his heroic exploits with the Continental Army, his presiding over the Constitutional Convention, and his magnificent performance as America's first president.

Despite the reverence his name inspires, Washington remains a lifeless waxwork for many Americans, worthy but dull. A laconic man of granite self-control, he often arouses more respect than affection. In this groundbreaking work, based on massive research, Chernow dashes forever the stereotype of a stolid, unemotional man.

A strapping six feet, Washington was a celebrated horseman, elegant dancer, and tireless hunter, with a fiercely guarded emotional life. Chernow brings to vivid life a dashing, passionate man of fiery opinions and many moods. Probing his private life, he explores his fraught relationship with his crusty mother, his youthful infatuation with the married Sally Fairfax, and his often conflicted feelings toward his adopted children and grandchildren. He also provides a lavishly detailed portrait of his marriage to Martha and his complex behavior as a slave master.

At the same time, Washington is an astute and surprising portrait of a canny political genius who knew how to inspire people. Not only did Washington gather around himself the foremost figures of the age, including James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson, but he also brilliantly orchestrated their actions to shape the new federal government, define the separation of powers, and establish the office of the presidency.

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My complete list of book reviews.