Magic Bitter, Magic Sweet – A Brilliant Concoction of Greek Tragedy Infused with Original Sin and Laced with Fairytales.


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Ms. Holmberg baked into her story intriguing characters, even the least lovable among them evokes some empathy (despite some serious nastiness). Her world is rich with smells, sound and myth come alive. Her story arcs in sometimes surprising ways and enters dark corners but never artificially or without purpose. I devoured this delectable treat in a couple of days and wish to immediately jump back into Raea. I cannot recommend it enough.


Imagine taking a Greek tragedy (and the related pantheon of gods), merge into it the story of the Fall and Original Sin and twirl in a mixture of fairy tales; never mind being able to “bake in inspiration”. That’s Magic Bitter, Magic Sweet. It’s one thing to have a brilliant premise, it’s another to execute that well. Ms. Holmberg delivers in spades. She takes us along Maire’s painful journey of discovery of her own story. It’s a challenging world into which she has fallen, much like medieval Europe, full of might-makes-right and enslavement, as well as love, hope, and friendship. Maire’s “owner” is clearly not quite right. Not only is he devoid of a moral compass, he’s even devoid of common sense. So, he looks to the world around him to give him some clue of how to be in it. Given that sends him mixed messages, he’s not quite sure what that to do. As abusive and disgusting as he can be, he’s also an intriguing character of conflicting and foreign makeup. He is not only not normal, but he is “other”. He is not of this world. So even while you despise him, there is some empathy towards his plight. It’s a little like despising a snake that bites you. He cannot be other than he is. He cannot reflect and grow into something more even as he does learn to “fake it” better. He is limited by his very nature in an even more profound way than humans are.



Charlie N. Holmberg

Maire’s antagonist is also a bit of an entrepreneur; his business deals bring us into the world of fairy tales. Charlie Holmberg weaves these tales within the overall story in clever ways with just enough of a twist to make them new. While this is a fun sideline from the main thrust of the narrative, it’s integrated well and certainly adds to the overall enjoyment of the story. While no individual element of this world is completely new, Charlie Holmberg combines them in intriguing and innovative ways.

The characters are well developed; these are primarily Maire and Allemas, but also Arrice, Franc and Fyel. The relationships are complicated. Arrice and Franc essentially adopt Maire even though she’s appears to be a young woman when they meet her. Fyel is the ultimate tightlipped mystery man who appears to be connected with Maire and on her side, but for some reason doesn’t directly help her. Maire and Allemas have an often bizarre, disturbing and ever-changing relationship. At times, Allemas seems to treat her as property while at others he evinces a more intimate connection.


In terms of her writing style, I love how the dialogue matches the characters so well, especially for Allemas. Even his speech patterns are bizarre. Because Fyel feels he must hold his cards close to the vest, his halting attempts to communicate with Maire are a study in frustration. Arrice’s speech brings forth her loving and nurturing nature as Cleric Tuck’s conveys his competence and care. In other words, there’s a great fit between the manner of communicating and the characters themselves.

Like most journeys, the path on which Magic bitter, Magic Sweet takes you has many unknowns and a number of surprises; the journey takes you along in a different manner than you might think and leaves you at a slightly different place than you anticipated. I think the magic of this story is how she melds these disparate elements of myth, magic, and misdeed. While it’s a time of worn phrase, this is a novel where the whole is greater than its parts. At least for me, this journey is well worth the effort; it is enlightening and full of points that inspire reflection. I highly encourage you to take the journey as well.



Kate Rudd


Kate Rudd narrates the audiobook. She has fast become one of my favorite narrators and this book is indicative of why. Her flavor for each character is spot on, her pacing beautifully reflects the book and the ability to understand her, even in the midst of emotionally charged sections, is lovely. I think I last heard her in Rysa Walker’s Chronicles File series. It was interesting to note that she definitely has a go-to competent-caring-male voice she used there as well as in this book. Overall, I love her performance which mixes just the right emotional energy while maintaining clear enunciation.


*** SPOILER ALERT for Magic Bitter, Magic Sweet & The Paper Magician series ***


I saw a number of reviews that suggest this book is quite the surprise coming from Charlie Holmberg. They suggest that it’s so much darker, with abusive behavior to a number of people but especially to the heroine, that this is just out of place and too dark for what they expected from Ms. Holmberg. Well, let’s think about the Paper Magician series. There is a whole group of magicians whose material is blood; they are willing to do things to people to get that blood that are pretty nasty. You’ve got people that are willing to go after a young lady and kill her. You’ve got a magician willing to literally rip the heart out of a body with the person alive. So there’s some pretty nasty stuff going on in the Paper Magician. I’m not sure enslavement and physical abuse of women are much more beyond the pale than these. Moreover, this is set in a sort of medieval world where, unfortunately, that kind of behavior was prevalent. The idea of owning another person is not new to Ms. Holmberg’s book. So it may be a slight change of tone, which an author is more than within her rights to do, but I don’t see this as a huge order of magnitude leap from her previous work.

Much more interesting is this idea of one’s own creation being the very thing that causes you this kind of pain. She is Frankenstein to her monster, Allemas. She brilliantly merges a Greek tragedy with that of original sin. Here we have Maere overstepping her mandate to create worlds by wanting to be God through mimicking God’s ability to create a soul. This takes on the biblical idea of being image bearers of God where we’re called to glorify him through our reflected capabilities but twists that by desiring to be God himself. It is so well done here when she tried to push beyond that boundary as she creates this warped creature. I love the grace that’s given to her, there are consequences to the action but that ultimately, she is allowed to, at least temporarily, take on a mortal mantle and procreate in a more mundane manner with a hint of then moving back into the celestial row.

Going back to the original problem of the evil that is done; let’s look at the claim that physical abuse of a woman is beyond the pale of what they would expect from Charlie Holmberg. Let’s be clear that physical abuse is horrific. No woman should have to go through what Maire does. It is, however, absolutely central to the story. It is like a Hitchcock film where our sins come back to haunt us but in a much more intense manner than deserved; it also harkens back to Greek tragedy. Dr. Frankenstein, and those close to him, paid a horrific price for his arrogance in creating the monster (whose horrific nature was at least magnified by our lack of acceptance of him). It seems to me that Ms. Holmberg’s use of this abuse is critical to the story and is portrayed on a reasonable scale and in line with what she’s done previously. While a parent may want to be warned at the ensuing horrors before allowing their child to read this, it strikes me as a bit disingenuous of us to be shocked.  The idea that an author can’t ramp up the intensity of conflict in a new novel series is a little funny to me. Even thinking about the Harry Potter series, we see a starkly dark book by book 7; it darkened over time as the subjects matured. This is a whole new series unrelated to The Paper Magician series whose protagonist is a full woman (it turns out that shes centuries old), not a teen. So I would think that if we dislike the book, it should be because the writing isn’t that good, the storyline fails to satisfy or the characters are wooden but not because it’s different than what went before it. And as you can see from my review above, I think it does well on all of those fronts.

The Delphi Effect – Making the Paranormal Gritty Reality


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Rysa Walker’s The Delphi Effect is a heart-racing, tough, paranormal thriller which makes the paranormal seem, if not normal, totally credible. (For synopsis of the story see the author’s site.)


Let’s start with the characters. Our protagonist, Anna, is a complicated person with whom you develop empathy almost immediately. This never wallows down into syrupy sympathy because she’s quite capable and she does some crazy stuff. At numerous choices points, she opts to take, at least on the face of it, both brave and unwise paths. The interesting part is that she knows it’s unwise but, because of her feelings of obligation, does it anyway. So, not only does she have this challenging special ability where the dead communicate with her, she’s also had a pretty cruddy life floating between foster homes all of her days due to that very same ability. I also love how Ms. Walker brings in a tight-knit set of family and friends whose interactions are real but not completely dysfunctional. Then there’s Anna’s extended family of Deo and Kelsey. Deo is like the younger brother she’s never had with whom she’s navigated the foster world for many years and Kelsey is the counselor who has helped her come to grips with her strange abilities in a world that can’t accept them.

[Full disclosure: I received an advanced reviewers copy from Netgalley for an honest review.]


Rysa Walker

The storyline itself is a fast-paced thriller that sucks you in but is always more than just a ride. You feel embedded in the piece which comes at you with multifaceted furor: from internal conversations with Anna’s dead hitchhikers and herself, the hunt and chase, the bits of dug up research on Delphi and dialogue with extended family and friends. There are no twists for twist sake, but there are surprises and turns that season the story and keep it fresh. Now you are hooked. Not simply into a desire to discover of what happens next but also into knowing these people more fully and seeing their relationships flesh out. Ms. Walker makes you care about the main characters. Let me warn you now, there are some really ugly characters and event brought out by them, but never gratuitously described. She doesn’t wallow in the ugliness even as she paints a clear picture of man’s depravity.

Often in discussing speculative fiction, we talk about world building. In The Delphi Effect, there isn’t world building in the sense of creating a whole universe but there is world setting. Ms. Walker is quite detailed and vivid in providing the backdrop to her story. Her literary set making skills are spot on and help paint, what I’ll describe more fully next, a plausible alternate world in which the paranormal seems real.

I’ve indicated that one of the aspects that sets this novel apart is how real the non-real feels. As you go through the process of finding out more about these paranormal abilities, the more it seems like “yeah if we had those this is how it would go down.” How so? Well, when we are introduced to a number of people who have said abilities, it becomes clear that for most, it’s a burden. They tend to whack you out mentally and emotionally to some degree, make you a social pariah, and in general much of your energy is taken up with attempting to cope with these abilities. You tend not to have the kind of control over them that you would desire and some come with limitations that are maddening. Ms. Walker takes all these elements of character, relationship, narrative, the world setting, and makes them into a quite plausible and intriguing whole.

The inevitable comparison to X-Men will come to mind. This is grittier, with no Professor Xavier or estate to save the day (at least, not yet). Their abilities are not writ large with any purely physical differences – this is a largely mental game with some physical consequences. So no bright spandex outfits or funky hairdos (OK, there’s Deo but he’s “normal”), but lots of inner turmoil.

I’ve previously reviewed Risa Walker’s Chronos Files series, and as you can see from my reviews, they were outstanding. I honestly think her writing has become even better. There’s a sense in which I feel enveloped in the story. I’m not outside of it, enjoying the story but as a spectator. Somehow, I feel like I’m a part of The Delphi Effect. It’s like Anna, if not a friend, is at least an acquaintance for whom I care.

In The Delphi Effect, we have a gripping story with an empathetic heroine, a well-done setting, with the compelling characters and powerful, wicked bad guys. We also have a well-completed phase of this series, but it’s definitely a series, which is to say there’s a bit of a cliffhanger at the ending. I highly recommend The Delphi Effect for your reading pleasure. It’s available tomorrow, October 11th! [A note about the audiobook version: while I haven’t heard the book yet, Kate Rudd is one of my favorite narrators, who always give an admirable performance. So, if audiobooks are your thing, I’m confident in recommending this one despite not having heard it yet.]

Phrasing/Dialogue 4/5
World Setting 4/5
Character 5/5
Narrative 5/5

I’ll end with a little bit of hubris; Haiku inspired by Anna:

Anna hears
Hitchhiker’s burdens released

Ceres, the Well-Crafted Third Book in the Universe Eventual Series


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Ceres is the third, and most polished entry in the Universe Eventual series by N. J. Tanger, a pseudonym for the writing team of Nathan Beauchamp, Joshua Russell and Rachel Tanger. The first two, Chimera and Helios, introduce us to the world of Stephen’s Point, the challenge to that colony and the push to send a fractal-class ship (think, a ship capable of finding and traversing a worm-hole trail) back to earth. Much of that book introduced us to the young people (late teens) who were to become candidates to make up the crew. In Helios we see that crew form and deal with a surprising new arrival from Earth. We see a mastermind sociopath’s impact on the crew as they prepare for what mysteries lie ahead on earth. Now a much-diminished crew turns its attention to the colony with an older predecessor to Chimera, Ceres. This colony on Damascene, has its own set of cultures and troubles. In Ceres, we see the seemingly disparate worlds of Damascene and that of the Chimera’s crew join together. (Note, this story will continue in Horus).


Ceres does everything a third book ought to do, namely extend storyline but develop it in new and exciting ways, continue to build the characters and their relationships, organically introduce new characters that make sense to this story and continue to build the tension. One of the ways that it continues to make this story fresh is through the new world of Damascene. The authors do a beautiful job of bringing these two disparate worlds with their respective storylines and weave them back and forth until they finally come together whole. The new world is interesting in and of itself; it has subcultures of interest, challenges that are intriguing and with fascinating bad guys (and good guys) and everything in between.


N J Tanger

Nathan Beauchamp, Rachel Tanger & Joshua Russell – AKA N. J. Tanger

We really continue to witness the growth of characters that are on the Chimera and we become connected to those on Damascene. We’ve lost a little connection to those back on Stevens Point but these new characters more than make up for it. From what I’ve been able to surmise from the authors work so far, all of this patchwork will be made into whole cloth before their through.


World building is absolutely spot on in Ceres as are the characters and their relationships. Nothing is cookie-cutter or one dimensional. The narrative is developed builds to a crescendo. While this book is not the end of the series, they still have a clean finish to this part of the story even as they look to the next. The phrasing in the dialogue are quite fine without any awkwardness; the level of dialog fits the characters and their roles perfectly. Overall, the writing is well done.

This really is a tightly written story with a great narrative, characters with whom we connect and a stellar world to set it all in. I highly recommend it.

Phrasing:                    3/5

World Building:         5/5

Character:                 4/5

Narrative:                   4/5

A Little Book Music: I spent a good deal of time listening Han Zimmer’s Interstellar as well as his Inception while reading this. You also might want to try some of Maurice Jarre’s Lawrence of Arabia sountrack.

Star Wars: Fate of the Jedi Series Reviewed – a fabulous audiobook series


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Star Wars: The Fate of The Jedi (see series list below) are surprisingly (at least to me) well-written and remarkably well-produced audiobooks. While I doubt any will win the Pulitzer Prize for literature, they are consistently well-crafted stories which have unique nuances from each of their authors yet mesh well together and make some of the best use of sound, both music and effects, of any audiobooks I’ve heard. Breaking that down just a bit more, let’s look at some aspects that I believe are incorporated in all of the books: complex and conflicted characters, consistently rich and clever extensions to the Star Wars universe, well-woven, multiple storylines, and good pacing with a nice mix of intrigue/politics and action. So these are not potboiler, shoot-‘em-up action books nor are they simple character studies but rather are a nicely woven package within the confines of the Star Wars universe (although technically not canonical because Disney changed the timeline to be incompatible with the Expanded Universe (now Legends) with rich detail while still moving at a quick clip. A great example of complex (but not so conflicted) character is Natasi Daala. She is a true believer; she really thinks that order is the highest value which justifies almost any extreme action. Kenth Hamner represents a more convoluted character. Again, he is assured that he is right to the point he will not listen to his fellow Jedi and is willing to harm and, perhaps kill, colleagues to preserve his view of order and peace at all costs. While there are a few one-dimensional characters strewn throughout the series, they are rare and small roles.  [Similarly conflicted characters are found in Chuck Wendig’s Aftermath duo (soon to be part of a trilogy, currently consisting of Aftermath and Lifedebt]. Another true believer is the empire’s Adm. Rae Sloane. Once again, order is the highest value for her with the second being her running the show because that’s what’s best for the universe. Gaillus Rax has similar views and reminds us of the cleverness of the best of leaders on the wrong side, Admiral Thrawn.

– Star Wars: Fate of the Jedi” Apocalypse Trailer

In terms of world building, you have all of the diverse species, characters, and worlds which you’ve come to love in the Star Wars ‘verse. We sometimes forget how well the wonders are described. Here’s an example from Christie Golden’s Allies: Star Wars Legends (Fate of the Jedi):

What appeared on the screen was a vision of beauty. It looked like a geyser at the moment of eruption, captured forever in time, each finger of water, each splash, each droplet, frozen so that one could admire its power and grace. Swirling, turning, it was vibrant, creative motion somehow paused, and Taalon’s heart leapt. Like all the Sith Tribe, he put a great value on beauty, whether it be in the lines of a being’s face, the drape of a handmade garment, or the curve of a shikkar handle. This moved him to his core.

So whether you’re visiting Klatooine’s deserts. the lush, yet wickedly dangerous flora of Dathomir or Coruscant’s urban underworld, there are wonders aplenty as well as intriguing backdrops to the narrative.

Not only do these authors have to work with some known characters, a largely known universe, with a defined “history” to the Star Wars canon, they all have complex stories with at least two threads going simultaneously – a slave rebellion in the midst of Galactic Alliance – Jedi tensions whilst Luke and Ben are off attempting to unravel the mystery of Abeloth is but one example. Yikes. Yet these stories weave together organically with endings that never feel too forced. Speaking of endings, that’s another aspect that is well done. While each story sets up the next and they suck you into the series since you want to see how the story resolves in the next book, they never just leave you hanging. These always do a nice clean job of ending while hinting at the next stage. I hate cliff-hangers that just stop and these don’t.



Marc Thompson


Marc Thompson does a fabulous job with all the books. Having a consistent narrator through each of them is a huge help to unifying the Fate of the Jedi series on audiobook. Honestly, he really is near the top pantheon narrators. His range of voices, pacing and nuance really bring alive the stories. At times, he does reuse a voice for different characters in different books but never within the same book. He is also able to retain the feel of the characters introduced in the movies whether is Han, Lando or Leia. Moreover, the consistent incorporation, in just the right measure and time, of music and sound effects really add (and never distracts) from the overall experience. This is a series I would really encourage listening to the audiobooks over simply reading the books, although both are great.

– Star Wars: Fate of the Jedi – Vortex Audio Clip Trailer

These books perpetuate the evil of sucking you in because they’re so good and because you want to know what happened before and after the book you’re in based on references and hints. Despite this “flaw” (doesn’t every series writer wish for the same problem of grabbing their audience and keeping them connected to the series until the end), these books, especially the audiobook present a cohesive series that is well researched and well validated in terms of the candidate is creating and so is one story finishes it leads right into the next story and then into the next and, man, you could just get lost in this little mini universe forever.

What I love:

  • Consistent, clear “canon”: There is continuity among the various stories, not only in the writing but in the narration. The uniqueness of each author is maintained but within the framework of the universe and what’s gone on before them.
  • The production, sound effects, music, and pacing. These are well-directed productions.
  • Marc Thompson. Not only does he perform the books well, not only does he bring out the voice of known characters like Han and Lando well, but he is internally consistent not only in the story but throughout the books. Lando sounds like Lando throughout.
  • These are fun, good stories in their own right, but are helped that this rich universe is well understood so they don’t have to reinvent the framework but may add to it with their own touches.

What I’m less fond of:

Really there is only one small issue: Mr. Thompson reuses characters voices. So Admiral Daala of Fate of the Jedi becomes Winter in Scoundrels. I know Scoundrels isn’t in the Fate series but it’s the example that comes to mind. This is pretty nit-picky anyway. Seriously, great performances in these books.

Star Wars: Fate of the Jedi Series:

Outcast (2009), by Aaron Allston

Omen (2009), by Christie Golden)

Abyss (2009), by Troy Denning

Backlash (2010), by Aaron Allston

Allies (2010), by Christie Golden

Vortex (2010), by Troy Denning

Conviction (2011), by Aaron Allston

Ascension (2011), by Christie Golden

Apocalypse (2012), by Troy Denning

Stories*  3.5/5
Characters  3/5
Phrasing 3/5
Pacing 4.5/5
World-building 4/5
Audio-production 5/5


*Avg for books in the series

Kubo and the Two Strings – Moving Art that Moves You


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Imagine taking a favorite artist’s works of art, putting them into motion, and telling a story. That’s Kubo and the two strings. Forget about the meticulously designed sets and tedious work of moving stop-action figures (you are given a little sense of this as the end credits roll). Set aside all of the effort that goes into telling stories in this manner. Simply drink in the visuals. Revel in the surprising fluidity of the scenes and characters and a beautiful story being told. That’s Kubo and the two strings.Our protagonist Kubo is in desperate straits, having only two strings for his shamisen and a mother to nurse, he only has his super powers of origami to rely on (so reminiscent of Ceony of The Paper Magician).


There are so many brilliant choice points made throughout this film, one of which is themed color palettes for each of the major set pieces. For example, when you come to the Kubo’s family castle, all is dark. When you walk in the fields, you’re immersed in tans, browns and yellows. Not only do these color palettes set some of the emotion of the scene but they also provide a great way for that scene to stick in your memory.  You’ll recall the dark time at the castle, the hues of late summer fields and blues mixed with the autumn colors of the boat in the sea. While I love the comparatively oversaturated and polychromatic nature of Pixar films, I really appreciate the organic feel of the more muted and similar color threads that are used in a scene in Kubo and the Two Strings. You don’t have vibrant reds clashing with greens and blues and blacks. While the color schemes are clear and beautiful the more natural organic feel to the overall look brings a human element that you typically don’t see in modern animation. I think the producers are right that this element of humanity does come across with the handmade sets, hand-crafted creatures who are set in motion by hand. This is such a human story, after all, even though there are fantastical elements used to tell it. So while there are the Moon King and the (anonymously) masked sisters with their magical powers, it is a story of control vs. letting go, of holding everything to the vest or deep-felt love. Our will willing to be stripped of our humanity so that we may rule from afar or shall we dwell in the midst of murky, messy bits of humanity, both good and bad? These are the issues Kubo and the Two Strings addresses in this beautiful and human manner.

Accompanying Kubo’s journey into his past which points to the future is a poignant, lovely soundtrack by Dario Marianelli (of Pride and Prejudice, Anna Karenina and V for Vendetta fame). The movie begins with the brooding scene with the mother in the midst of The Impossible Waves and capped off by Regina Spektor’s lilting cover of the Beatles “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” Obviously, the Beatles have a great, original rendition with one of my favorite covers by Santana, Yo-Yo Ma and India Arie. Ms. Spektor’s is my favorite recording full stop. Her turn of phrase, the haunting lilt in her voice, and overall tone paired with the shamisen (actually, a three-stringed instrument) are near perfection.


So, in sum, I love the look and sound of this movie. The story breathes of humanity and pathos, with the exception of the very kid-friendly ending. Speaking of kids, there are dark and scary moments for the very little and those sensitive to these things. I’ve seen parents have to take their children out, so you may want to let the young and sensitive skip this one.



I won’t wade into the treacherous waters of the controversy around the lack of diversity on the film. Clearly, the main family in this film are not oriental, let alone Japanese. They are white with the white male (McConaughey) having a particularly distinctive voice. I will simply say that the folks at Laika Studios have given this some real thought, though you might find it inadequate, see their response in The Wrap here.   

I really cannot recommend the movie enough.

Story – 4/5

Acting (voice) – 4.5/5

Visuals – 5/5

Sound – 4.5/5

Music – 5/5


[****Warning slight spoilers are given below to dive more deeply into the points I’ve discussed***]

One of the chief examples of this lovely mess is the skeletal monster. It’s a huge, scary and a bit of a mess. Its teeth are chaotic bits of bone, it has swords sticking out of its head and its armor is falling apart. Yet it’s powerful, large and daunting with its glowing eyes. Its own color scheme is rusty reds and reddish browns within a cave of verdant green.


Along with color, texture is used to clue us into the creatures of this world as well. The Kubo and the village were nubby silk and cotton, have coarse hair and their eyes are alive. The two sisters wear hard, smooth masks, reminiscent of Guy Fawkes masks worn by Anonymous, which must be broken through to reach them.These masks show how cold and untouchable they are. The Moon King is ethereal and shimmering; he is not substantial or fully here. They are not truly alive.


Mpow’s Value Proposition


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I don’t normally review or comment on vendors in general but I’ve recently been introduced to the electronics company Mpow when I bought an inexpensive Bluetooth wireless speaker that was waterproof for my son. I was surprised by its overall quality construction and sound. For about $20 (when I bought it, it’s now going for about $14.50) the Buckler delivers reasonable sound, fair loudness, and seriously IPX4 level protection. This not something that you want to drop in a pool but you can certainly stick it in a shower. This seems to me to be good value for what you pay. I’m not all about the best nor the cheapest; I am about value for your particular use. If you going to do serious, careful listening, your value proposition changes than if you’re doing casual listening of a Bluetooth speaker while doing homework or take a shower. So your application your use of the item does play an important role in figuring out what is reasonable enough even for an inexpensive price. For our particular application, this was awesome. [Note: I have no affiliation with Mpow; all of the items mentioned here were purchased by me]



Mpow Buckler Bluetooth Speaker


So when I saw they had a gizmo that kills the noise I get when my phone is plugged into the car recharger and the aux cord, I thought I would give it a try. “Good enough” in this case meant it had to be easy and result in no noise since I really wanted to get rid of the annoying noise over my car’s speakers. Mpow “Ground Loop Noise Isolator” to the rescue. For $7.50, on promotion (currently $10), this thing works perfectly. There is no noise when my phone is both plugged into the auxiliary and into power and it’s as easy as plugging it into my phone and the aux. cord into it. In this case, partial noise reduction wouldn’t fit the bill; it had to be all or nothing.



Mpow Noise Isolator


Next, I was looking for an inexpensive set of decent sounding Bluetooth headphones that I could use while working out. This was not an urgent need since I have wired in-ear monitors that worked well for this but would look forward to not having to deal with the wire. So I could take my time looking. Along came Mpow “Wolverine Bluetooth Headphones 4.1 Wireless Sport with Noise Cancellation.” Now there’s quite a mouthful. For $15 (again on promotion, currently $22), I was shocked how good these sounded. Now, I had pretty low expectations, but they were far exceeded. They’re mainly used when I’m working out or doing chores, so my focus on the music, podcast or audiobook isn’t the focus. Certainly, for this use, they are more than adequate. Even sitting down and really listening to the music, they’re pretty good. Certainly better than any wired $20 headset (I’ve never tried any other Bluetooth headset at this low of a price point). These really fit the bill when I need to have music take my mind away from the grind (or the stroke, when rowing) but even for casual music listening, While initially pairing them is dead easy, they do have some challenges, from time to time, reconnecting to a paired phone (both on iOS and Windows 10 Mobile). They tend to connect, then turn off unless you start streaming sound to them almost immediately (maybe to save battery life). So it often takes to attempts to connect. In terms of sound, range, and battery life, I’m amazed at what these do. They even take phone calls in a reasonably decent way. All for $20 normally priced. So if you can accept the occasional pain of reconnecting or pairing, these offer stunning value. NOTE: They have a new version call Mpow Coach for the same price; it may (or may not)  address the connection issue




Mpow Wolverine


Finally, we recently had to replace an FM transmitter for an old van whose previous transmitter went with my oldest son to college. Again, I turned Mpow. They seem determined to always deliver more than you anticipate, so they included a USB port to the car plug for the transmitter. This is a digital transmitter that allows you to go to many channels, not just a few static channels typical of a physical switch and the results are better connection, less interference and good sound. This actually looks good, works well and you don’t lose a potential phone charger when you plug it in and it currently goes for $10.



Mpow FM Transmitter



I’m becoming a Mpow fan. Is this the place that I would go from a high-end gear? Not so much. However, for delivering value under a plethora of uses, I’m going back to Mpow because the quality they deliver at their price point provides lots of value.

Halie and the Moon’s Marvelous Million Suns


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Halie and the Moon’s recently released their second EP, A Million Suns Vol. 1. I loved their debut Blue Transmissions Vol. 1 and so, waited with bated breath for this new addition. Of course, this begs the question: “When are volumes 2 dropping?” Equally perplexing to their naming practice is attempting to pigeonhole their music. Is it folksy pop with jazz overtones or, as their site describes, “acoustic dream pop ethereal atmospheric folk.” By any name, it’s lovely. It’s also not that far afield for Halie Loren; much of the style is reminiscent of Full Circle, Ms. Loren’s debut album recently celebrating its 10th anniversary. The melodic underlying structure and vocal overtones are quite similar while the writing and combined sounds of the instrumental members of the band do provide a different flavor.

[Note: I received a copy of the EP for review. While this didn’t effect my review, there’s my full disclosure.]


The overall sound of this EP is less of the dream ethereal nature the Blue Transmissions and more along the lines of ballad pop. Trying to peg it, while fun, is not all that informative, so let’s dive into the pieces themselves. Shangri La is an ode to that notion that we desire to share our best moments – that fabulously slowly and chromatically shifting sunset, those perfect vignettes of a street side café with early light filtering over your cappuccino and croissant or lovely mundane moments of: “…tangerines/ and here’s the scene/ I got the light just right / and the Beatles in the kitchen.” I don’t know if there’s irony in this, but there seems nothing missing in this symphony of sound. While it starts with a simple guitar and Ms. Loren’s voice coming together on the melody, as it moves on, layers of instruments (cello, voices, piano) converge to create a more complex sound mix. As if that someone came and joined in the moment. I love the play with complexity as it’s broken back down to Ms. Loren a capella then to layers and next to an instrumental interlude. The tapestry of sound woven in this song is just right.

The sentiment of Shiny New Thing is that we will bob together on the sea of life whatever waves may come; this is reflected in the bouncy beat of the music. She sings of her willingness to be the “shiny new thing” to the end: ‘Til I stop shining/ The light of your days/ ‘Til we grow sick of trying/ Or ’til we live with the crazies /Or we’re pushing up daisies/ Or slide into the steep sea/ With the angels below.” We will be the ones who ramble life together: “I’ll be the bread in your mouth/ Poetry on the table/ The one who remembers/ To weave all the fables…” These slightly crazy lyrics looped into this bubbly song make for a wonderful combination of ardent sentiment and a light heart. Rather than cloying or heavy on the notion of sticking together, this celebrates the wackiness of life in riding the rapids together.

Sunshine in Disguise seems to pair the first two songs where we’re stumbling along together and that’s precisely how we have those missed moments from Shangri La of perfect (and not so perfect) vignettes shared. Sharing those moments (“I can taste the sunshine in your voice when you’re singing along”) keeps us both shiny new things for each other (“So let’s stay and dance all of our prayers until the dawn”). Clearly, I love this song. While its beat is up, it’s also more directed. The moment the drums start the rhythm to the final tone from Halie Loren, there is purpose and play, poignancy and whimsy.



Halie and the Moon – photo by Bob Williams


Paint the Stars provides a sonic impressionist image drifting near the edges of jazz and pop where we sense the stars and crickets, taste the ocean in the sand and leave wrapped in devastating joy. I love the textures of the song, how the individual clear notes of the piano infused in the overlay of Ms. Loren’s voice and then the layers of the percussion, guitar, and layered voices come in and out and all weave together this wonderful harmony as the melodic narrative thread continues through it. This song epitomizes this group; it all comes together to make for glorious sound, brilliant images where the whole woven together takes on a quality no individual element quite matches.


A Million Suns, Vol. 1, is a great celebration of summer, love, and beauty, and in these days of so much hate and violence, an homage to love and beauty is to be cherished. The combination of Daniel Gallo’s writing (and guitar playing), Halie Loren’s vocals and the precise yet lyrical playing of Katherine Dudley on cello, Bobby Stevens on bass, and Beau Eastlund on drums bring together magical moments on the EP. I cannot recommend it enough.



Madeline Ashby’s Company Town in which the disenfranchised save the white knight and the selfish are lost.


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Company Town is set in the future on an oil rig off the coast of Newfoundland which makes the rig itself a company town. It feels very much like a novel of the gold rush days but with futuristic ability to augment and modify the human body. It is owned by the powerful Lynch family who purchased it after a disastrous fire that took the lives of a third of the town. It is a working man’s platform and, so, there is a cadre of sex workers (unionized, of course) who live there and have a number of protectors including our hero, Hwa. In the midst of her duties, she is pulled into a series of murders of her sex worker friends, the Lynch family and man’s constant desire for eternal life.


Madeline Ashby

While the premise, as I’ve laid it out, seems “normal” and prosaic, Ms. Ashby makes it anything but. Hwa is a phenomenon in herself. While most of her upbringing has done its utmost to teach her not to value herself, she has pushed back and will suffer no fools. While she doesn’t see her own value as she might, she is no doormat. Yes, as part of her job, she kicks butt and asks questions later, but it is her ability to put the puzzle together, to think through the challenges put before her that set her apart.     Her relationships between her family (in the form of a prostitute mother and a dead brother), her employers (both the sex union and the Lynches) and her “under-world friends” are rich, varied and multi-dimensional. The augmented bodies around her make for a difficult world to navigate as one who still has pure and natural biology.

One of the processes that fascinates me is to see an already really good writer become an even better writer. I believe that’s happened here with Ms. Ashby’s writing. So what makes it better? It’s more accessible and draws us into caring more about the characters and relationships while remaining edgy and holding no punches. How is this magic achieved? At least for me, I found myself more able to empathize with Hwa than I ever did with Amy, Charlotte or even Javier in her previous Machine Dynasty duology (vN and iD). While her characters there were rich and fascinating, they were different enough, both in capabilities and outlook, that I couldn’t empathize with them.

My life has been considerably different than Hwa’s. First, I had parents who in many different ways and forms made it quite clear to me that I was unconditionally loved. There are a few more freeing gifts than this. Second, I had a relatively comfortable middle-class life. Yet we all feel those moments of exclusion, where we feel substantially different from and, somehow, less than those around us. All, while not to her same degree, have suffered loss. Merely because she bears the stares with an insouciant shrug makes them no less painful. We take heart in seeing her network of friends. We sense the steel in our own spine stiffen when she makes clear that she suffers no fools. So while there are many differences, including physical and intellectual talents, well beyond our own among them, Hwa is someone with whom we may empathize.

Another mark of Company Town is that a mutually caring relationship takes center stage. The relationships were at best awkward, sometimes antagonistic while always complex in the Machine Dynasty duology; while the relationships between Daniel Siofra and Go Jung-hwa or Hwa and Joel are different types, they are both mutual caring relationships while remaining complex.  Javier relationships with Charlotte and Amy were all too strange. While that strangeness added to the novels but distanced us from the charachters, here, we more naturally care even in the midst of the strangeness

Our vision of the world is all too often upended in both good and difficult ways. So too in the Lynches’ New Arcardia.. The “white knight” proves to be the one in need (bought that t-shirt). The broken one proves to heal many and the man in control finds his reign illusory. It’s a masterful bit of writing that pulls that off without feeling artificial and manipulative. While I know some may disagree, I love the ending; it brings things together in a beautiful but possible way without ignoring the realties that we never have a perfect world when we’re done. So is justice fully achieved? No. While we may long for “… justice [to] roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:24 ESV), it will not, on this side of the grave; Company Town reflects that fallen state oh so accurately.

So, what do I love about Company Town?

  • Hwa – her tenacious character who cannot fail to help others
  • This world of augmentation and biological adoptions and their social implications
  • The complex, multi-dimensional relationships and interactions.
  • The riveting, quick-paced yet thoughtful narrative

I really can’t think of anything I didn’t like about the book; even the depiction of the seedier side of New Arcadia was intriguing.

I highly commend Company Town to your reading pleasure.

Phrasing: 3.5/5

World Building:  4.5/5

Character:  4.5/5

Narrative: 4.5/5


The Golem and the Jinni: A Cultural Treat


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The Golem and the Jinni provides the rare treat of historical fiction infused with fantastic elements whilst mixing multiple cultures. The characters are compelling, multiple related story lines are deftly woven together and the story itself provides a beautiful tableau on which to paint these characters. The turn-of-the-(previous)-century, immigrant New York that Helene Wecker paints is a full character in itself.


Courtesy of Harper Books

Ms. Wecker doesn’t simply invite us to know her characters, she has fully immerses us in their world, their lives, and in their thoughts. As we read the book, the rhythm of our own thoughts and the vocabulary of our own reflections begin to take on a hint of flavor from those of the characters. These characters are so rich in their responses and their thought life as well as the way they see the challenges ahead of them that, while there is a lovely driving narrative throughout the whole story, you can simply enjoy diving into the well of these lives.

Helene_Wecker_cr_Sheldon_WeckerHelene Wecker – Photo Credit Sheldon Wecker

Let’s take a little deeper look at the culture picture given of early Easter European Jewish and Syrian Christian immigrants to America. There is much in their cultures that overlap – the near-eastern tradition of honoring and taking care of strangers in need as well as some of their cuisine. In New York, each had a tight community to deal with the transition to this new world in which they found themselves. Standing on the streets of each neighborhood would have brought similar impressions – busy, smells of coffee and spices, street vendors and calls of friendship. There were, of course, differences and sometimes hostility. Ms. Wecker allows you to vicariously experience this world while weaving in fantastical elements with the story between the Golem and the Jinni. The warp and woof of the cultures brings out the features of the various characters, how they perceive others and respond. It’s not like their cultural automaton but culture flavors all that they do; Ms. Wecker brings this all about in an organic and realist manner. It provides a framework for the character’s relations and the direction of the narrative.


Jinn, Bedouin, caring Rabbi, crafty and cruel magician trained as a rabbi, coffee shop owners, a scion of the Winston family who wanted to be more than a jewel on some man’s arm and so much more. Indeed, both Chava, the poor Golem and Sophia, the Heiress, live under the burden of limiting expectation. Both are expected to be obedient wives who exist solely to please their husbands. Clearly, they walk in different worlds (that eventually collide), but their primary issues are similar  There are multiple story threads that smoothly come together. Each person, each thread, every story told and each bit of action are all masterfully used to build the narrative and drive the story toward the conclusion. There are no wasted bits and yet it doesn’t fill artificially contrived.

In this debut novel, Ms. Wecker already exhibit a mastery of her craft. The dialog, story, characters and worlds (whether New York, the desert, Poland or an oasis) are perfectly married, her phrasing carefully reflects each setting and person and she understands and conveys the challenges and longings that come to us all.


George Guidall – Photo Credit Joanna Perrin

I heard the book, performed by audiobook veteran George Guidall, as much of the story as I read. His pacing, inflection and characterization are spot-on. In particular, his pacing allows you to fully soak up the world, the characters and storyline. If you enjoy audiobooks at all, you love this one. If you want to luxuriate in the wording, you can always user Whispersync for Voice to jump between the Audible version and the Kindle.

  • HarperBooks Trailer

I highly recommend this story of love and loss, moving beyond people’s expectations laid down for you and rising about your cultural limitations even as you embrace it.

Phrasing  4.5/5
World Building  5/5
Character  5/5
Narrative  4.5/5



SnagIt – Real World Notes from the Field


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I’ve used TechSmith’s SnagIt for well over a decade. I’ve used it at work to create training documents, user manuals, document issues and overall communication about software systems I use, support or help develop. In the evenings, I’ve also used it from my work laptop/tablet to edit photos, capture screenshots to communicate with others how to do things or to document support issues when things go awry. I think are a lot of folks think about SnagIt  simply as a screen-capture tool and, hey, doesn’t the Snipping tool included with Windows do that for you? For some, the Snipping tool may be all they need, but SnagIt’s ability to capture scrolling areas within a page, add annotation, make it dead easy to share and countless other activities all leave the Snipping tool and other capture tools (free and otherwise) in the dust (about which more later)



All images courtesy of


While its screen capture ability is the gold standard, I use its editing tool at least as much; I use it for photos as well as screen captures. Now, it’s not going to have filters, change of white balance or other pure photo editing features, however, I tend to use those aspects sparingly. I typically use the original image but will crop/paste, annotate or resize for web use. One of the primary uses I’ve had over the last couple of year is to manage images for this blog. There are times I’m just using my home computer and I always run into a challenge – there is no other tool in its price range (roughly $50) that I can find that allows me to edit an image for a particular pixel dimension without degradation of the image. Many online platforms have defined recommended pixel height and width (they’ll accept others but the aspect ratio or quality will be degraded). For example, the particular WordPress template I use has the banner set to 960 x 260. Not too many images have that as their native dimension.  I typically mashup images such as an author picture with book cover elements to create a banner (with their permission, of course). SnagIt’s editor is a huge help in this. I can crop, resize and paste in images with clear feedback on the pixel size throughout the editing process. The editor has some of the best annotation tools as well as ability to obscure sensitive information with highly configurable blurring. Simply put, SnagIt is my business and personal workhorse for image editing. Yes, I’ll turn to other tools to create a collage, to apply rarely used filters and to fix an image’s white balance, but nothing is as easy, intuitive and functional as SnagIt for my purposes. This is key for an impatient, non-artistically inclined guy such as myself. It returns its value on its editor alone.


The editor, however, is certainly not the only story; indeed, it’s not the main event. SnagIt’s ability to capture exactly what you want on screen is dead-on simple and accurate. If you word within web applications or just grabbing information from a web site, SnagIt can accurately capture the most obscure elements whether that is a drop-down box with values listed, a window within a window or an area on the screen that scrolls or where you select an area like a slide show. It can capture all of it. You can also create presets to manage the way you capture for your use. For example, the default capture mode will present the captured screen in a box that allows you to quickly set the pixel dimensions and whether you’re capturing a still image or a video (see below). The vast majority of my captures keep whatever pixel size I originally selected and it’s a still image. So, for my use, that dialog is redundant. Presets to the rescue! I created a preset that bypasses the dialog and brings it right into the editor. By the way, this is a tribute to Techsmith’s excellent customer service. I actually fussed about the intermediary dialog when it first came on the scene in release 12 and didn’t like that there wasn’t a setting to ignore it in this post. The folks at TechSmith came right back with the suggested preset. I felt partly idiotic for not thinking of it myself but mostly grateful for their detailed suggestion.


The magic of the latest release, along with improved user experience through changes in the user interface, is its enhanced ability to capture any region and especially a part of an application or web page that scrolls they’ve dubbed panoramic capture. Here’s a little video example of how it works:

This latest ability has finally pushed me over the edge. As cheap as I am (for example, I still have a 1995 Ford Taurus station wagon for the use of my children), I finally broke down and bought my own copy for personal use. I’m not sure I have a better evidence for how well the tool works for me than that.

There are some tools that, over the years, that simply nail their niches such as Scooter Software’s Beyond Compare, Nuance’s Dragon NaturallySpeaking and IDM Software’s UltraEdit; Techsmith’s SnagIt (as well as their Camtasia video creation/editing tool, but that’s another post) belong in that pantheon that own their category of software tools. If you need to do anything beyond the most rudimentary of screen captures or image edits, I highly recommend SnagIt, you’ll be glad you grabbed it.