Flying Jenny by Theasa Tuohy

Laura Bailey doesn’t want much. Just a front page byline in her New York City tabloid about something more substantial than the quality of the finger sandwiches at a Ladies Auxiliary luncheon.

Oh, well, maybe it would also be nice to know who her father was. But for that to happen, her mother would need to show a compassionate side — something she hasn’t done in all of Laura’s 22 years living with her in the cramped little apartment they share in The City.

That’s just one of the deceptively subtle backstory threads underlying standout author Theasa Tuohy’s superb new historical novel, Flying Jenny. The book ostensibly is about the heady late 1920s, when the public went crazy every day over barnstorming pilots and their heroic stunts. And, most significantly, it’s about a petite young eighteen-year-old named Jenny Flynn, whose outrageous feat of flying under each of the four Manhattan bridges begins the book.

But look deeper, past the well-written dialogue that captures perfectly the swell lingo of the day. And the expertly rendered scenes detailing early aviators’ seat-of-the-pants flying style. These are real people a reader can care deeply about — they’re never cliched or stereotypical. It takes superb writing skill to skirt the temptation to render some minor characters two dimensional. But Tuohy succeeds, page after page, delivering a fresh narrative that never fails to entertain.

The main source of tension in the story derives from Laura’s headstrong, stubborn drive to prove herself worthy to report the news in an overwhelmingly male newspaper market. And serving as counterpoint is Jenny’s breezy ability to excel effortlessly, executing the most complicated aerobatic maneuvers as well as any man, without comment or fanfare.

This sets up inevitable conflict between the two lead characters, Laura goading Jenny to push past what’s easy, and Jenny genuinely perplexed at Laura’s need to prove herself. That, and Laura’s achingly vulnerable naivete about men, which leads predictably to trouble.

The story winds its way through the Midwest, as the troupe performs its aerobatic routines for a breathless public, and a slowly simmering subplot involving Laura’s father gains momentum toward a climactic confrontation in which many things are revealed.

We give Flying Jenny five plus stars for its ambitious themes and flawless writing. We seldom see such superb storytelling skills among the dry, dusty tomes that make up so much of the historical fiction genre. Flying Jenny goes well beyond the norm and delivers a spectacular summertime read..

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War World by Rod C. Spence

Six teenagers square off against impossible odds and remorseless aliens in a desperate attempt to rescue parents marooned on a distant planet in War World, one of this year’s most creative and entertaining novels.

Author Rod C. Spence has created  a frighteningly plausible scenario in which titanic biotech companies battle viciously for control over mankind’s future. And a half dozen so-called “TerraGen Kids” — so named for their parents affiliation with the company that created the Portal to the planet Genesis — are right in the thick of things, dodging death across space and time in a highly cinematic storyline.

Early on, Jeremy Austin and best friend Patrick Korrapati narrowly escape the hungry maw of a genetically engineered super soldier, only to find there are still more fearsome creatures willing to deal out torture and death in a heartless quest to get what they want — an invaluable scientific diary belonging to Jeremy’s dad.

As the book unfolds, Jeremy, Patrick and the rest of the TerraGen Kids — Marissa, Selene, Leo, and Alex — pack their gear for a trip through the Portal — a wormhole to the planet Genesis, where TerraGen officers went to set up shop months ago, away from prying government eyes. It didn’t turn out well, as the teens and a small army of mercenaries hired as “protection” quickly discover. They cross the celestial void to find a world that is terrifyingly hostile and teeming with its own primordial conflicts.

Perilous adventures abound on Genesis, where the teens quickly become separated from their protectors and move into survival mode. They fight against a dizzying mix of eerily intelligent Neolithic monsters, predatory aliens, and an evil Gnome-King who answers to an even darker lord.

The teenaged wisecracking dialogue is spot-on, never lagging or stereotypical. These are kids straight out of any high school in America, with the same achingly vulnerable issues that are the province of that age. They care deeply for each other — even in the midst of withering sarcasm and rapier ripostes often uttered in the throes of a dangerous encounter with prehistoric beasts or vicious alien predators.

And much of the author’s turns-of-phrase in the book are priceless as well:

“Their experiments made the Nazis look like compassionate health care workers.” And,
“If the Grim Reaper wore a suit, this man would be his twin.” And,
“He looked like a little boy who just found out Santa Claus was a serial killer.”

There’s a surprise in just about every chapter of this spellbinding novel, and many of them send the story careening down completely new paths. It is deliciously unpredictable fiction from an expert storyteller who has the unsettling talent to create — and then snuff out — characters readers come to care deeply about. Between the fast-paced sci fi action, the unrelenting violence, and the superb, character-rich narrative, the book is two parts Michael Crichton and one part Stephen King.

This first installment in the War World franchise ends on a tantalizing, cliff-hanging note that’s sure to line up readers for the next book — or big screen adaptation, whichever comes first.

Five-plus stars to War World. It’s a well-written winner.

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Emergence by dhtreichler

Immortals are starting to multiply despite the best efforts of the ACLU and concerned citizenry in this exceptional finish to dhtreichler’s Ghost in the Machine trilogy. In this book, Sage Washington continues to have her own questions about the limitations of immortals — and wonders whether there shouldn’t in fact be a few.

Specifically, she contemplates, among other things, if age limits shouldn’t be built into the transition software, capping immortals’ lifespans at, say, one hundred years. And she also wonders — obsesses, actually — about whether this trade-off for escaping her failing former body was worth it. After all, she has lost something very precious in the process — her ability to feel human. And that thought bothers her. A lot.

This kind of intense introspection, dealing with the morality of scientific breakthroughs, has become a hallmark of good science fiction throughout the decades ever since sci-fi great Robert Heinlein made such stuff standard in his fictional fare way back when. His books frequently weighed in on the consequences of too much technology too soon.

Couple that kind of vivid warning with intricate executive suite intrigue — expertly written by someone who is obviously right at home on Mahogany Row — and you have a fascinating mashup of genres not found anywhere else in fiction today.

Sage has been tasked with finding a way to merge the two leading software giants of her day — AppleCore and rival Symbol Ventures — into one technologically dominant leader in the consumer communications and entertainment market.

In addition, she must cope with current public backlash against her and other immortals. Specifically, people are convinced that they are intent on taking jobs away, since one immortal can do the work of ten mortals. The resistance is being spearheaded by the ACLU, and a group that calls itself “Americans Against Immortality. ”

As the book continues, Sage becomes increasingly contemplative about the long-term consequences of immortality, seeing ever more clearly that the trade-off to near godlike status comes with a heavy toll.

She yearns more and more often for a return to what she refers to as “a more humane” condition. For in her current form, she finds that she can experience the sensuous wonder of unlimited orgasms, yet cannot even remember what the taste of a good wine is like. It’s a bittersweet fact that she cannot now escape.

“What does sex have to do with love when you can’t reproduce?” she ponders, regretting a future with no hope of progeny.

One last comment on this masterfully created work of futuristic fiction. The novel features a bit of a surprise twist about three-quarters of the way through. There’s a poignant development regarding Sage’s family that reveals at least one good thing about scientific breakthroughs. And this unexpected new character succeeds in giving Sage one of the answers she wants most about what it’s like to be human: “It means caring for someone else more than yourself,” says this new player.

Does Sage ultimately return from a condition approaching deity to embrace mortality once again? And, if so, who — or what — reverses this inexorable march toward life without limits? Finally, does A’zam — her sexually predatory boss — ever get what should be coming to him?

Find out when you read this excellent, five-plus star homage to past sci-fi greats who also sounded the clarion call to examine carefully the Pandora’s Box that often accompanies technological strides.

Barely Human by dhtreichler

Sage Washington is back for a return engagement as an immortal CEO in this remarkable sequel to dhtreichler’s earlier novel, Ghost In the Machine. 

Transitioned into a twenty-year-old version of her forty-year-old former self to avoid impending death, Sage is seeking to make the very most of her new abilities and new role as AppleCore’s first immortal CEO.

She’s tough and unrelenting, driving her software development team to new heights of productivity. But inwardly, she wonders sometimes if the world is really ready for an entirely new race of people with the potential to rule the planet.

The author once again shows his masterful ability to compellingly and disturbingly mesh the disparate worlds of groundbreaking science fiction with hard-charging corporate management techniques. Anyone who works now in the rarified air of a big company’s C-Suites — CEO, CFO, COO, etc. — or wants to — will be fascinated by exposure to the author’s ultra-realistic command of upper management motivational techniques.

It really is enlightening, for example, to be privy to the inner dialogue that accompanies many of Sage’s actions geared toward gaining more productivity per individual. Much of it is more than a little calculating and even a bit manipulative — which leads her to wonder about the loss of her humanity as a result of being transitioned to immortal status.

At one point she summarily fires a department head for ducking a colleague’s question about how he is going to solve a problem within his sphere of influence. Stunned, the man is quickly escorted out of the building by security guards while the other team members suddenly snap to attention and prepare to substantially up their game.

In another instance, she silences a subordinate’s voice box because he isn’t being a team player, then brusquely defends the punitive intervention when he asks what he is supposed to do now and how he will communicate.

“Think about how you add value to the team you are assigned to in the role you are assigned,” she says. Another team member adds, “You’ll figure it out.”

Throughout the book various interpolations of the “what aspects of humanity have we lost?” question resurface, Even the topic of achieving the perfect orgasm is examined, since Sage must now rely solely on software code to tell her whether the experience she just had with her boss, A’zam, was as good or better than her memories, which are stored in a cerebral microchip.

This kind of extensive narrative discussion on the various aspects and consequences of achieving immortal status make for a fascinating departure from most action-driven novels dealing with such futuristic themes. Here, the reader is forced, like Sage, to form an opinion on the relative merits of immortality. It makes for a very rewarding intellectual exercise.

About a quarter of the way into the book, an element of conflict arises when a plan is revealed to put hidden self-limiting elements into the software of all immortals — the digital equivalent of mind control. All immortals will lose the ability to choose their own actions in certain key situations. This order comes from A’zam, whose character is chillingly complex with equal portions of megalomania, race superiority and massive misogyny thrown into his portrayal. His notion of eventual global control — no matter how many millennia it takes — is both subtle and frighteningly plausible. He’s a whole new breed of bad guy.

And Sage? Her brilliantly drawn character is more difficult to assess. A long-standing conflict with her father lingers in the background of her behavior, mitigating to some degree her hardball management style and reputation as a “man-eater.’

But not everything she does in the corporate arena can be explained away by her recent transition and subsequent loss of human feelings. Even factoring in near-constant meddling and #MeToo caliber sexual harassment by A’zam, Sage remains, in the end, a true believer in her approach to building a winning and productive team. Will it achieve the results she’s after? Stay tuned for Emergence, book three in this well-written trilogy.

We award Almost Human our highest rating of five-plus stars for its stark look at what could happen when all-too-human characters attain godlike status through technological advancements. The result makes for a satisfying and  thought-provoking read this summer — or whenever you can put it on your must-read list.

 

The Ghost in the Machine by dhtreichler

Sage Washington is having an out-of-body experience — literally.

That’s because her old body is lying in a coma while her new, immortal body has gone back to work — re-toned and cougared to about age twenty and wired to process information faster than Google.

It’s pretty sweet for the formerly forty-two-year-old software executive, who now thinks nothing of working most of the day and night, needing only fifteen minutes to recharge in a 24-hour cycle.

But her team is not so thrilled at being dragged at warp speed through dozens of new software upgrades — at the blistering rate of one a day — and the revolt is building. Soon, Sage realizes there are significant downsides to being superhuman.

For one thing, there’s her romantic life. Sure, the new upgrade allows her to have multiple orgasms, leaving her lovers panting and exhausted. But there’s very little sensory satisfaction that goes with it. It’s all very — well, mechanical, for lack of a better word.

Another thing — she can’t eat or drink her favorite foods, wines or morning lattes, lacking taste buds to appreciate them, or a stomach in which to deposit them. Very inconvenient when out to dinner with her “posse” — her very closest girlfriends.

But all in all, the pluses outweigh the minuses — until she comes to a startling realization that could cause her to be transitioned back to her failing biologic body — a difficult choice she must make within 30 days.

The Ghost in the Machine is first-class science fiction, drawing the reader plausibly into a premise that could become reality within decades. Author dhtreicher masterfully interweaves this tale of immortal possibilities with ultra-realistic glimpses of day-to-day life inside a giant multinational corporation. He lays bare the power struggles and intense jockeying for position at the highest levels with great clarity and insight.

And he details carefully as well the toll taken on both Sage and her coworkers as they blow past expectations to gain the undivided attention of rapt Wall Street investors.

The moral side of such a radical concept is also examined carefully. At one point, Sage ponders the wisdom of such an incredible bioengineering breakthrough:

“Now that I’ve crossed over, how long will it be before there will be hundreds and then thousands, and eventually millions and even billions of immortals? Not long, I fear. And why do I fear it? Because we have no idea where this will lead.”

She then grows even more pensive: “Can I live without emotions? I’ve been acting as if I had them. But my reactions are triggered from memories. I don’t really feel them. What do I feel? I don’t know.”

This book is a triumph of storytelling, fusing bleeding-edge technology with the human equation and carefully crafting characters you’ll care deeply about.

From Sage’s workaholic father, with whom she has a problematic relationship — to her giddy girlfriends, always “there” for her, even through this incredible life-altering experience — each character is given depth and texture, making them come right off the book’s pages and into your heart.

Five stars to The Ghost in the Machine. Not since Heinlein has there been such a well-delivered piece of futuristic writing, deeply imbued as it is with man’s tendency to overreach the boundaries of good science and good sense.

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From Hell to Happiness: How to Heal When Your Loved One is Terminal by Christopher Cooper

Hard-won hope and happiness conquer death and despair in this wonderfully inspiring new book by Christopher Cooper.

In its pages Cooper recounts his wife Jenn’s brave two-year battle with cancer and the ripple effects her illness caused for their small family.

His intimate narrative, often tinged with touching vignettes about Jenn’s grueling treatment regimen, puts the reader right in the middle of a family in crisis, and vividly brings home the truism that cancer doesn’t have just one victim. In this case, it tried to  claim Cooper and both boys — one school age, the other in daycare.

To fight back, he made a number of proactive moves that he strongly recommends to anyone going through a similar struggle. First, he advises, seek the help of a professional therapist well before your loved one passes on. Friends are great to vent with and talk to, he says. But there is no substitute for professional assistance. It can mean the difference between you making it all the way through the dark tunnel of despair — or going down in flames emotionally midway through, never to rise again. In that case, he points out, you’re of no use to anyone, much less the people counting on you.

There is also a wealth of solid practical advice throughout this remarkable book. Cooper tries a number of techniques to cope with the pain, grief and — occasionally — guilt brought on by Jenn’s impending death. Everything from binge-playing Minecraft to Zen Buddhism meditation to making sure he listens to plenty of therapeutic music.

Then he goes into great detail about the fulfillment of Jenn’s Bucket List. This included seeing — and meeting — several world-famous bands and a classical music composer whose work both Jenn and Chris admired. Plus, there were trips to Disneyworld and DIsneyland, thanks to generous donors.

At one point, however, Cooper references a brief YouTube video Jenn made about this time, to be posted after her death, and it is well worth searching for. It is both riveting and heartbreaking at the same time. Some readers may be upset by it. But even so, it shouldn’t be missed. All the verbiage and photos in the book can’t make the story as real as watching these eleven unforgettable minutes. It’s no wonder it has amassed more than 70,000 views.

In the final analysis, this book is a thoughtful, articulate, detailed account of a young mother gone too soon and the husband and children she leaves behind to cope as best they can.

Cooper does an excellent job of allowing us to share in their emotional journey. His hope is that others going through a similar Hell can also find happiness on the other side by reading his book and adopting some of his coping techniques.

Early and often, he admonishes, put these tips into practice — before your loved one passes away. You’ll still have to go through all five stages of grief. But, by following this patient and good man’s advice, you’ll arrive on the other side of Hell with a much better chance of being happy.

We award five and a half stars to this courageous book. It is so much more than just another self-help primer on how to cope with losing a loved one.  It will undoubtedly have a huge and life-altering impact on anyone who finds himself — or herself — in Chris and Jenn’s unfortunate situation.

Preorder here.