Books By C. LItka

Books By C. LItka

Friday, October 28, 2022

The Penultimate Quest


I had intended this to the final report on this quest to discover a new genre to read, replacing science fiction and fantasy. However, I still have one book to finish, and this report is long enough as it is, another one is on the way. This week, we’ll start with my final historical fiction entry.

Discerning Grace The White Sails Series Book One by Emma Lombard C on the curve

This story concerns Grace, the daughter of a wealthy English family, who in 1826 is promised in marriage to a cruel and gross man, who would’ve raped her in her own bedroom on the night of the announcement after battering her, had not Grace managed to escape his clutches. She flees to a commoner friend, and when he goes to get her some tea to calm her nerves, she cuts her hair off, dons his clothes, takes his money and flees, for who knows where? Pickpockets get her money, so penniless, she goes along with a man who recruits her, thinking she’s a boy, as the cabin boy on a Royal Navy survey ship. The ship is the one that a friend of the family, and her uncle, an admiral is the first mate of. He doesn’t recognize her, in her battered state and garments, so off they sail to the southern tip of South America to survey Cape Horn. She learns that her fiance has posted a great reward for her return, so she must stay away from London at all cost.

So far, so good. The author has done her research on shipboard life in the Royal Navy of the period. She’s not Patrick O’Brian or Forester, but her depiction of aboard ship as a common sailor and cabin boy to the ailing ship’s captain rings true enough for the thrust of the story. I was pretty hopeful at this point for some interesting adventures as a sailor. However, she is discovered to be a girl early on, and after that, the story seems to go flat. Oh, there is a romance of sorts between her and that handsome first mate who, when he learns why she is fleeing, promises to keep her safe. That said, the romance seems, confusing and halfheartedly written even though we presented with both character's points of view. Maybe she was trying to be realistic, but, as I said, it seems just as flat as are her further adventures.

They spend a lot of time surveying ashore, where the two… lovers (?) squabble a lot, she being headstrong, and he being commanding, as befitting a lieutenant in the Royal Navy, who has to assume command of the ship after the Captain dies. They agree to a common law marriage to save her from her engagement, but that gets postponed at the last moment… And so it goes. She leaves the ship in a huff after a fight with the Lieutenant along with the shipmate who recruited her. They see a mysterious ship and search party – looking for her for the reward? They then get captured by natives and her friend gets killed while she saved. Later she is kidnapped by the people from the mysterious ship, which, in turn, is almost captured by Barbary pirates. Finally she is delivered to the cruel and gross fiancée in London. He keeps her locked in a coal room for a week or two to break her spirit. When he finally gets around to trying to rape her, on Hampstead Heath, she use a knife she was secretly given to stab him and escape. She is then reunited with the handsome lieutenant, who had resigned his commission to go to London in search of her, and we have some plot twists at the end. All of which may sound exciting, but I found pretty tedious. Of course I’m not the target audience, but there was something perfunctory about the way the story was written. It was as if all she was doing was hitting all the expected tropes without any real spark of originality, in my opinion.

Moving on to urban fantasy. You would be forgiven if you were thinking that I was crazy to try urban fantasy, seeing that this quest was a result of my decision to find a replacement for fantasy or science fiction that I grown tired of. And you’d be right. What was I thinking? I guess I was hoping for something a little more lighthearted. But… I bounced pretty hard off of urban fantasy.

While I’ll mention the books I sampled, for most of them I didn’t get more than a few pages into them. That’s on me, they were not what I was looking for. These quick looks do not reflect the quality of the books. Some of these stories came from the Urban Mystic Box Set.

I Bring the Fire by C Gockel began with a college student on her way home to Chicago for the summer. Her ugly dog rolls in some smelly stuff at a stop, and after washing him off at a gas station she encounters a big gross man who grosses her out. She continues on only to get into a car crash hundreds of miles down the road late that night. And who should turn up at the crash scene…You guessed it. We then jump to Asgard where Loki is a prisoner. His ex-wife shows up, tells him that their kids are in danger, and they escape using hand grenades, which is where I called it a day. The blurb says she prays for a help and gets Loki, the Norse God of Mischief, and she helps him outwit Odin.

Things Unseen by C. J. Brightley Features a student in an altered America future who gets involved with a Fae person who the government is hunting – a dystopian SF with fairies. It wasn’t silly, indeed it was too dark for my tastes. However it had on curious feature that I want to talk about.

In most of the books I’ve read to in this quest, women are portrayed as being vulnerable, if not victims, to the strength and cruelty of men, but who have the strength of character to overcome their physical and cultural disadvantages. I think this is a fair representation, if a bit exaggerated for the sake of their stories. Now, in this story we have a young woman who sees this rather mysterious, if not sinister looking Fae man, and proceeds to sort of follow him to his apartment building, and the next day – for reasons I can’t explain – returns to that apartment building, breaks in to it and the actual apartment of the Fae man – and of course gets into trouble. Now if the situation was reversed, and a man did this, it would be very creepy, but putting that aside, conducting some sort of investigation on some reason would not be out of character for a male in an adventure story. But it seems, at least to me, to very out of character for a young woman to put herself in such a dangerous situation, unless she was some serious ninja skills. I suspect this perception, if it isn't just me, makes it hard for writers to write a female lead with agency who goes and gets herself into a dangerous situation without making her look rather foolhardy. Just a thought.

Finally I started, Grace under Fire by Frog & Esther Jones which started with a young woman who had captured some sort of baby creature from another realm, and had to get it back were it belonged, by casting a spell, before any normal people saw it. A lighthearted enough beginning, but what followed was something like six pages plus of info dumping setting up the history of this alternative America. Too much, too soon. I got bored. It did, however, make me wonder about the opening of my The Girl on the Kerb, were I deliberately start with a slow, mundane opening to do some world building myself. Perhaps I’m guilty of the same sin, though I don’t think I went six plus pages without some action and dialog.

So that’s my experience with urban fantasy. What next? Cozy Mysteries! What could go wrong with cozy mysteries? Stay tuned for the final quest!

Friday, October 21, 2022

The Quest, Part 3


 The great quest for a new genre, or two continues with three more books, a historical romance, a regency romance, and a gay mystery story.

The Hummingbird and the Sea by Jenny Bond DNF 54%
This novel opens on a summer’s day in 1716 in the Puritan society of a New England town. Our female main character, Maria, a daughter of the wealthy farmer, observes a stave fighting match between the local champion and a newcomer who has arrived to build the school. She finds herself immediately drawn to this newcomer, and falls in love with him over the next couple of days. However, her childhood friend, the son of the Puritan minister has just returned from Harvard where he was taught to be a minister as well, and expects to marry Maria. But having fallen for the buff new guy, and she declines to accept his proposal for marriage. The spurned lover discovers that the buff new guy is a deserter from a British warship and could be hanged, so our buff hero must flee, not before proposing to Maria and being accepted by her and her father. He flees with the husband of Maria’s older sister who has been scrapping by as a silversmith and wants to better himself financially. They head off to join a ship to find their fortunes in the Caribbean Sea. The spurned suitor, her childhood friend, then rapes Maria.

The story shifts to the Caribbean to follow our buff hero and his sidekick, the silversmith, where they fall in with pirates, and work their way up the chain of command until the buff hero has a pirate ship of his own and is making a good living at it. Our buff hero also falls in love with the young madam of a tavern/whorehouse, for the love triangle trope.

It is winter now, and the story returns to New England and Maria is… wait for it... pregnant. This was the point where I called it quits. Now, I’ve watched and enjoyed some pretty soapy K-Dramas, but the soap opera melodrama of this and the Jackson stories are too predictable and too over the top for me. To start out, I don’t believe that Maria’s lifelong childhood friend, a newly ordained minister, would ever rape her, but to get her pregnant in doing so… Really? Is that really necessary to tell an entertaining story of hardships overcome? Or is it simply required tropes? I don’t know, and I’m not going to set out to find out. Moving on…

A Lady’s Luck by Maggie M Dallen C, on the curve
Unlike the previous story, this one has a Regency era female heroine who is standing on her own and supporting her useless brother. With the estate left in debt with the death of their parents, Henrietta as restored their fortune by betting on foibles of the English aristocracy. Don’t ask me how this works. I don’t think it’s a thing, but let's just go with it. An earl, with a lot of secrets to keep, including running a privateer, and supporting a brother who has faked his death to become an (anti-slavery) pirate gets involved with Henrietta on account of a bet she placed on whether or not he was the father of an actress' baby. Spark reluctantly fly, and this being a romance, the happy ever after ending is insured, though not being a steamy one, they only kiss on the pages. I’m not sure there’s an actual plot here, just a series of meeting at various locales. During their meetings the dialog is spaced out by paragraphs describing the thoughts of both the Earl and Henrietta making conversations hard to follow. But I guess it's their thoughts – do I? Don’t I? Should I? Shouldn’t I? What’s going on him/her/me?- that count here. Not my cup of tea again, no surprise to either you or me, but I guess it’s serviceable for the genre.

A Death in Bloombury, The Simon Sampson Mysteries Book 1 by David C Dawson C+
In my scowling through the free titles under “Historical Fiction” I came across this mystery book. And since it was set in 1932 London, it sounded promising. The hero, Simon Sampson is an ex-crime reporter for a London paper and now an announcer for the evening news on the BBC. He is also a homosexual. It turns out that David C. Dawson is an award winning author of gay mysteries and romances. This is a quest, and having looked into some female orientated fiction, why not gay?

Our hero, Simon Sampson, in this story discovers a dying lady in a London alley. He collects a few clues before running for help. But the lady is no longer there when he brings back the constable. Returning to the scene later, he and his pal discover some blueprints and some code in German hidden at the scene. The next day the police (possible fake) are cleaning up the scene and are very unhelpful. He turns to a lesbian friend “Bill” for help to translate the documents and things spiral out of control after that. Not wanting to give too many spoilers away, I’ll only say that while the story is well written, I did have some problems with it. Don’t I always?

First of all, though the author did do a lot of research into London of 1932 and some of the most famous personalities –however, perhaps because of that, the story seems to be told from the present day rather than from within the story. What I mean by that is that much of the color and background is introduced almost as a lecture. This includes not only about the background history, but about the life of homosexuals in England during this period, when it was a criminal offense to be one. In a historical story like this you need to create a world that the reader might be unfamiliar with, while the characters in the story the world would be commonplace. How do you get that background into the story while keeping what the characters see, think, and experience within the story authentic? It is hard, and I don’t think Dawson nailed it. As I said, he would introduce all these facts – from the lives of homosexuals, to that of Noel Coward, to National Socialism in Germany in too much detail that they seemed, as I said, like lectures instead of color and world building. But that might just be me, as a writer. Points off.

My second gripe is also a personal one. I really dislike it when murder mystery writers feel that they need to increase the body count from one to – in this case – four in order to ramp up the tension. I am quite sure that he could’ve written just as good of a story with only one murder. He did, however, make the subsequent murders mean something to the two main characters. But still. Points off.

And finally, I like understated things, and this story when from a murder mystery to something much wider in scope, a scope which I found completely unconvincing – way over the top. It is the type of story that breaks history. Again points off.

This is not a “steamy” story, and can easily be read as a straight mystery adventure with the homosexual aspects of it just as an interesting spotlight on the hidden world of England in the 1930’s (to the, what, 1960’s when the decriminalized homosexual activity?). Still grading it on the pulp curve with my nitpicking I gave it a C+, however it could be a straight B grade adventure story for you, if your tastes are different than mine.

I have one more book to read in this first batch: Discerning Grace by Emma Lombard. It concerns a girl fleeing a forced marriage to a cruel old man in 1826 who, disguised as a boy, joins the Royal Navy.

But don’t despair, I have download a new batch of free novels, this time “Free Urban Fantasy Adventures.” Stay turned!

Monday, October 17, 2022

The Quest Continues (Part 2)

 A couple of weeks ago I began a quest to discover a new genre of fiction to read, since I realized that my old stalwart, science fiction no longer appealed to me. I knew fantasy wasn't it either, so I decided to try historical fiction. I went on Amazon and downloaded nine books that came up under "Free Historical Fiction." I went with novels (and one novella) and cast my net wide. Below are two more of the books I tried.

But before I talk about them, a word about how I am rating these books. In my last installment of my quest, I mentioned that I was grading those books on the curve. I’ve given the subject a little more thought, and can now say with a little more precision just what I meant. Basically I'm reading them as pulp fiction. I’ve long seen books written primarily as ebooks primarily for selling on Amazon as being the 21st century version of pulp fiction. Those first books, and most of the ones going forward strike me as being written by people who were familiar with these books and said to themselves, "Heck, I can write stuff like this, just as good, if not better." So they did, and did. Not having read widely in these genre, I can't say if they are as good or better than most of the other books of their type, but I think I can safely say that I don’t detect any higher ambition in most (but not all) of these stories to be different than the other books in their chosen genre, so I will grade them all on that curve - pulp fiction stories. So let’s get on to the next two.

Impossible Dream by Gemma Jackson C+

This is a novel set in Dublin Ireland in 1899, and the story opens in a convent orphanage. Three of the 13 year old female orphans are selected to be placed, as servants, in the household of a lady who is related to one of the nuns. This was standard practice – the children would be trained as servants and their wages paid to the convent until they were 16. I expected their experiences would be the focus of the story, but once placed in the household they became secondary characters, as the focus of the story shifted to the woman of the house, the physically and mentally abused wife of a cruel sea captain and his five sons from previous marriage.

The basic plot is that wife, who had inherited and owns the house is being abused and starved by her cruel husband. This is possible because women of that age were powerless. The only thing she owned after marriage was the house and its fittings, otherwise she was dependent on her husband who controlled all the money, even the money she brought with her dowry. Her husband gets run over by a cart and loses both his legs. He is confined to a hospital, and the five sons go off to sea. However, the husband still controls the finances and he doesn’t give her any money, all the while blackening her reputation from the hospital. With the help of some old friends she gets her side of the story out and attracts the attention of some wealthy women who approach her with the idea of using her house as a school to train women fleeing from forced marriages, or virtual slavery, to train them to live on their own and make a living all on their own. The point of the story was to show just how totally dependent women were on men in that time. They could  be used and abused as they will, with almost no options to make a respectable living all on their own.

I am not a student of history, and I assume that Jackson has done her homework, so I have no doubt that this was the case. And while there were likely men as cruel as those depicted in this story,  I still felt that the cruelty and helplessness seemed a little over the top – but maybe that’s expected in the genre. The story, however, was more ambitiously written than some of the others, though incidents were introduced and then resolved rather quickly at times. Plus, being the first book in a series, it had the feel of just serving to set up more books rather than a standalone novel. While we followed the thoughts and actions of the wife, the supporting cast was little more than names to me. I skimmed at bit towards the end, as the lessons it wanted to impart got a bit repetitious. And in some ways, off message, as one of the thing these girls were being trained to do is to be come waitresses for the Harvey House Restaurants in the southwest of the U.S. at that time. The incentive t become these waitress at this chain of railroad restaurants, they would have the opportunity to land rich husbands, which were thick upon the ground in female starved west of the time. So much for independence.

All in all, not a bad book, clearly a subject close to the writer’s heart, hence my C+ rating on the curve, but not my cup of tea. I won't be going on in the series.

Krista’s Escape by Gemma Jackson DNF 5%

Though a random choice it turns out that this is a novella by the author of Impossible Dream. This time we find ourselves in the year 1938 in a French city on the border with Germany. The heroine, Krista, a young woman, is the daughter of an innkeeper. As you can see, I didn't get very far into it before I called it a day. I got as far as when she goes downstairs to make coffee and open the cafe. There she has to fight off the advances of a brutal Hitler Youth who intends to marry her and then she is verbally abused by her three brothers… I decided that I'd been there, read that. Apparently women being abused by men and escaping for a better life is either Ms Jackson’s or a genre’s trope. As I've said already, it's not my cup of tea, so I had no desire to continue on.

More adventures in "Free Historical Fantasy" this coming Friday with The Hummingbird and the Sea, A Lady's Luck, and A Death in Bloomsbury. Stay tuned!

Friday, October 14, 2022

So Long, Science Fiction


And thanks for all the fish! 

This week one of the authors I follow on YouTube had an interview with a literary agent and invited questions. I had one. In my process of sending out query letters to agents, it struck me that even agents who claimed to be open to science fiction, it was fantasy that they really wanted. I am sending query letters from a list of agents who handled science fiction, and in this last batch, when I was filling out the submission form for one of those agents, it did not even offer me the option of classifying my story as science fiction. So my question was, was this apparent lack of interest in science fiction just in my imagination, or was it real?

According to this agent, it is very much real. Editors are far more open to fantasy than to science fiction stories. And indeed publishers who haven’t published science fiction or fantasy in the past are now interested in publishing fantasy. The reason this agent and the writer (of fantasy) suggested was that fantasy had become much more mainstream than science fiction due to popular shows like the Game of Thrones, the Lord of the Rings and more recent streaming fantasy stories. The agent suggested that science fiction still has a sort of nerdy vibe to it, pointing to the TV show The Expanse which had the scope and production values of a Game of Thrones but did not escape that science fiction niche.

Fantasy, it seems, simply has a wider appeal. For example, my 13 year old granddaughter is an avid fan of fantasy, and has been reading YA fantasy for the last three years. And while she is a big fan of the Star Wars universe, she’s even a bigger Lord of the Rings fan. I don’t think she has any great desire to branch out into science fiction. And, as I've mentioned before, YA SF doesn’t sell well, and compared to fantasy, there's not much of it published.

While I don’t write books to sell them, I would like to find my widest possible audience, and fantasy seems to offer a much greener pasture than science fiction. As I have noted in past posting I no longer have any loyalty to science fiction. I was never a true, dye-in-the-wool science fiction fan, in that I never liked SF short stories, and grand ideas don’t appeal to me. It was the exotic locales of science fiction that appealed to me. For my stories, I invent different worlds to tell old fashioned adventure stories. I don’t need SF to do that. I can write them as fantasies instead.

I don’t think I can bring myself to write stories with “real” magic, any more than I can bring myself to write stories with  telepathy, teleportation, time travel, or things that seem no more possible to me than magic spells. Instead, as I have in one story already (Beneath the Lanterns), I will use Arthur C. Clarke’s observation that any science sufficiently advanced might appear to be magic as the basis of my fantasy. I don’t seem myself writing high fantasy, epic fantasy, or grimdark fantasy, but I do think that I can invent worlds and stories that look backwards into history, rather than forwards, like fantasy, but without magic systems and the grand scale that merely suggest magic (advanced science) and secrets, but keep them rare and unexplained. I think we’re talking about the “mundane” fantasy, but who knows?

Not, mind you, that I think it will make a great deal of a difference in either my stories or my success. It is simply a matter of slightly increasing the odds that more readers will find me. We’ll see.

Friday, October 7, 2022

A New Quest

Readers of my book reviews on this blog will be nodding their heads when I say that I need to find a new genre or two to read. I’ve sampled the best writers fantasy has to offer, and found them not to my taste. Science fiction isn’t really much better. One of the reasons I started writing was that I couldn’t find modern books that appealed to me, and that hasn’t changed. While I still follow science fiction blogs and YouTubers, I really don’t know why since I haven’t found anything that really interests me in years. It is time to move on.

But to what? I had been reading James Calvell’s Tai-Pan, which was okay, but failed to seal the deal, largely because of my need to have a comfortable companion in the story to tag along with. I didn’t click with Mr Tai-Pan. Still, it seemed that historical fiction of some sort might be a good starting point, so that’s what I have started my quest. To be more specific, “Free Historical Fiction” on Amazon. It was less daunting that trying to select a book off of a half dozen rows of books at the library.

Free historical fiction on Amazon will deliver a grab bag of genre and story lengths, from short stories to full novels, many of them teasers for series. Romance is a key element of at least the ones I selected. But I like a bit of romance in all my stories, so why not? I’ve read three so far. All of these books are published by some sort of traditional publishers of one sort or another.

First off was Liar’s Dice, A Lotus Palace Mystery by Jeannie Lin, a novella of historical romance set in China’s Tang Dynasty period, that would be around 849 A.D. which teases a four book series. While the author claims to have extensively researched the period, that research is not to be found in this book, at least as far as making the world of the Tang Dynasty visible to this reader. Perhaps it is developed in greater detail and color in the novels. Like all three of the books I’ve read, this is written from a female point of view aimed primarily at female readers. I found it interesting enough just for that aspect alone, though as a mystery, our point of view character, the unmarried daughter of a wealthy family is not (yet) anyway, a Sherlock Holmes as she is involved in a murder that might involve her brother as well. There is, of course, a love interest that remains unresolved. I’d give it a “C” (on the curve).

Next up was A Deal with the Rakish Duke, A Steamy Historical Regency Romance Novel by Sally Vixen. A determined “spinster” makes a deal with an infamous rake to pretend that they are a couple in order to dissuade a woman who insists on marrying the infamous rake. Of course he falls in love with her, and she him – and we find that the spinster is only 23 years old… Note that “steamy” means soft-core porn, erotica, so you get a couple of steamy scenes in your 163 pages. Porn Erotica from the woman’s point of view was interesting. It made me wonder what my wife thought of me – forty-five years ago… I suppose if you are named “Sally Vixen” you would probably be fated to write this sort of stuff. Like Liar’s Dice, there is not much of an attempt to set the story in Regency Era England except to have balls and dukes everywhere. I’d give it a “C” (again on the curve, as I am not its target audience)

The third book is Murder at the Dolphin Hotel by Helena Dixon. This one is set in 1933 Dartmouth England. A young woman is put in charge of her grandmother’s hotel while gram goes to Scotland to tend to her elderly sister. The grandmother hires a rather mysterious man, to look after her hotel and granddaughter because someone is sending threatening letters about getting “what is rightfully theirs.” Unlike the first two books, Dixon does make an attempt to paint a picture of 1933 Dartmouth, though to be honest, I didn’t get much of authentic vibe.

Here is a most amusing passage: Kitty sighed and pulled out the visitor’s register. In a few seconds she beckoned Matt to come around to her side of the desk and view the page.

This is the man. Mr Briand Smith from Essex, room twenty-one on the second floor.’

He stood behind her to peer at the details. ‘Can you make me a copy of the register entry?’ He was close enough to smell the fresh soapy scent on her skin and to notice the tiny mole below her earlobe. Matt forced his attention to the screen and tried not to think about his proximity to Kitty or why she ruffled his senses so much. If you didn’t find it amusing, read it again.

It is my understanding that readers of historical fiction are pretty demanding when it comes to historical accuracy, and I have to admit that I’m with them there. If you are going to put your story into real history, it needs to be entirely immersed in it. In the case of this story, the author made a conscious to make the setting real – with less than complete success, at least for me. It had the flavor of a Google street view setting, which is to say, she tossed in a lot of details about Dartmouth, but they seemed superficial, things you might note looking at a modern street in street view. And, she had an elderly character apparently driving to Scotland in a motor car. This being 1933, there is no way an elderly lady would drive a car all the way to Scotland – driving was still a bit of an adventure in those days – plus the most common way to travel any distance in those days was by train. This, like the “screen” above show that the author has not been able to put the present day world entirely aside when writing this novel.

My other complaint, and this applies to almost all mysteries, is the number of murders mystery writers seemed compelled to include in their stories. I don’t know if writers are compelled to always write about murder – and add a few more as the story goes along – by readers, editors, or simply by laziness, since murder is, as the ultimate stakes, is an easy way to make things matter, and raise the stakes, as the story goes along. I stopped reading mysteries because this began to really annoy me. This story has three murders – three too many – in my opinion. An none of them at the Dolphin Hotel. One is off screen, before the story commences, and maybe could be justified by setting the stake, but the other two are clearly just tossed in an attempt to raise the stakes. One is of a long time employee of the hotel where the main character has lived since she was six years old, and her death seems to have had no effect on this character other than it is “horrible” or some such thing, which I found to be totally unrealistic, indicating t me that this murder was simply part of the formula, as understood by the author.

And just to be fair, I grabbed a copy of Dorothy L Sayers Clouds of Witness off my book shelf and read a page or two of it. It was, as I suspected, an order of magnitude better written. While Dixson uses language, Sayers commands it. That said, going in with low expectations, I guess it met them, so once again I have a grade of a “C” on a curve, but I won’t be reading further stories.

I’m almost tempted to keep reading the Sayers’ book, but perhaps I should continue on with my quest. The next one up is Impossible Dream by Gemma Jackson, an Irish writer.