Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Book Review: Overtime

book cover for OvertimeStross runs Christmas through the Laundry. Who's coming down the chimney? Is it Santa Claus? Heh. If you know Stross's Laundry-verse, you know the answer.

Bob forgot to put in for time off for the holidays (too busy recovering from the events in The Fuller Memorandum), so he's forced to work Christmas Eve as the Night Duty Officer. In essence, he's there to field any calls that come in regarding extra-dimensional nasties. We endure the limited budget office Christmas party, complete with a guest speaker by the name of Dr. Kringle, and walk with Bob as he patrols the spooky almost-Escher office building.

Recommended for Laundry-verse completists. Better than "Down on the Farm" but not as good (or as scary as) as "Equoid."

Be sure to save room for the mince pies.

3.5 stars.


Monday, December 3, 2018

Disconnecting the Feed

ethernet cable disconnet
When I started this blog, I'd intended it to be a PR feed for all things pertaining to my writing career. I didn't have any illusions that progress was going to be so great that this was going to be a "must watch" space, but I'd hoped for a bit more than it has been. Life has a way of throwing up roadblocks and detours. Let's leave it at that for now.

The blog feed link is a nice feature on Goodreads. It lets authors keep fans updated without having to remember to cross post. But I really haven't been doing that. What this space has become is a repository of book reviews in case something goes awry with Goodreads. I post little else. I have conflicting ideas about privacy versus self-promotion. I also don't want to repeat the mistakes I made with my first blog.

Since my blog feeds into Goodreads, anyone following me there sees double of my book reviews in their feed. That could be perceived as annoying. So I'm disconnecting my blog from Goodreads. This will be the last post that appears there. If I've got something to say that isn't a book review and want it posted there, I'll just use the "general update" feature or their built-in blog.

On the social media front, I'm transitioning from Google+ to Facebook. It's still in the early stages. I have to study what other authors have done in separating the professional from the personal. I'm not posting a link from this blog to Facebook until I'm 100% ready to go. I realize that could be never.

I haven't ruled out other social media platforms, but besides finding the right fit, network size is a major factor in determining if it's worth the effort. At this stage of the game, I'm still unknown enough that I haven't ventured beyond square one. When Gateway is finished (currently about 50%), I'll have more of an impetus to drive social media and marketing. Right now, it's not worth the time or effort.


Saturday, December 1, 2018

Book Review: Cloud Atlas

book cover for Cloud AtlasCloud Atlas begins in 1850 with Adam Ewing, an American notary voyaging from the Chatham Isles to his home in California. Along the way, Ewing is befriended by a physician, Dr. Goose, who begins to treat him for a rare species of brain parasite... Abruptly, the action jumps to Belgium in 1931, where Robert Frobisher, a disinherited bisexual composer, contrives his way into the household of an infirm maestro who has a beguiling wife and a nubile daughter... From there we jump to the West Coast in the 1970s and a troubled reporter named Luisa Rey, who stumbles upon a web of corporate greed and murder that threatens to claim her life... And onward, with dazzling virtuosity, to an inglorious present-day England; to a Korean superstate of the near future where neocapitalism has run amok; and, finally, to a post-apocalyptic Iron Age Hawaii in the last days of history.

But the story doesn't end even there. The narrative then boomerangs back through centuries and space, returning by the same route, in reverse, to its starting point. Along the way, Mitchell reveals how his disparate characters connect, how their fates intertwine, and how their souls drift across time like clouds across the sky.

A frustrating read. While there were parts that were clever, other parts were irritating and annoying. In the end, I was left unsatisfied. Clearly, I'm in the minority on this one, but I will endeavor to explain why.

The book takes a nested narrative structure, a bit like the dream diving within dreams scenes in Inception (or the "Lawnmower Dog" episode of Rick & Morty), but with different characters. We get the first half of each story and then proceed on to the next until the sixth story, whereupon the order is reversed until the end. In essence, they were cliffhangers with varying levels of intensity. This was annoying. Not only did I have to wait hundreds of pages to resume the earlier stories, but each transition into the new story felt like I was starting over. And on the resumption of the stories, I had to go back to the first halves to recall some of the characters and plot points. The first half of the first story ended so abruptly—mid-sentence—that I thought I had a corrupted file on my Kindle!

Each story is told with a different style. We have journal entries, personal letters, a standard mystery thriller manuscript, a fourth wall breakdown, an interview, and a campfire tale. Each story is referenced by the one that comes after it, while clever, it opens up a potentially fatal flaw. The fourth story refers to the third as being fiction, but with all the references to the two preceding stories, I'm left wondering how much that story's "author" made up and what she incorporated from the "real" world of this novel. I have too many questions and to properly ask them would be spoilers.

I appreciated the changing of the narrator's voice from one story to the next. There was a good deal of playing around with language, too. You've got Victorian English in Adam Ewing's journal. The letters are written with Frobisher's shorthand abbreviations, formal continental vocabulary stocked with antique words, and sprinkled with French and Latin. After the two contemporary stories, Mitchell subjects language to further modifications. Our Korean tale is filled with shortened words, the phonetic spellings taking over (ex- to x-, -ight to -ite). And with it being a corporate dictatorship, brand names are substituted for everyday words (ford for car, nikes for shoes). But I absolutely hated the Huckleberry Finn dialogue style used for the last story. While certainly a possible outcome, it made the last story practically unreadable for me.

The characters, while they were all unique, were a mixed bag. I had trouble making a connection with or caring about most of them. Sonmi and Luisa Rey were the two I rooted for (honorable mentions to Sixsmith and Napier). Frobisher was a foppish fool at first, but improved with time. Ewing was dreadful. Don't get me started on Zachry. Cavendish was the worst. He was an insufferable jerk in the first half of his story. While he was still an ass in the second half, there was enough growth in him to warrant finishing his story.

I'm going to give Mitchell credit that he can write in any style he chooses, but I'm not sure about the choices he made here. Journals and letters, interviews and fireside storytelling, just don't work for me these days. The first two are dated. The latter two aren't strong enough to carry entire stories. One hundred page interviews require a recollection of minute details that only computers have, but apparently Sonmi did. Fireside storytelling for 70+ pages, especially in that dialect and without any back and forth conversation, is tiresome.

I don't want to go into too much about the messages or the reincarnation bits. I'm too tired and have spent too much time finding the right words for my complaints. Quite simply, I found the reincarnation thread to be lacking, and the execution of the messages heavy-handed and pedestrian.

No, I haven't seen the movie, though that's probably less likely now. Maybe with the right direction and proper editing, these stories will reach their full potential.

2.5 stars.


Monday, November 26, 2018

Book Review: Saga - Volume 4

book cover for Saga volume 4It's been several months since the events in Volume Three transpired. Alana is working as an actor for some kind of lame super hero soap opera, while Marko is a stay-at-home dad. Hazel is a rambunctious toddler. Marko's mom and Izabel the ghost nanny still live with them too. The whole situation is extremely stressful and putting a definite strain on their relationship. There are temptations which cloud their judgement and make them forget that they're a team. Kudos to Vaughn for bringing in an element of everyday life to the story.

Prince Robot IV is trying to find himself—more like he's losing himself—on the pleasure planet, Sextillion. Not only is he spoiled in the material sense, but in an emotional sense as well. Meanwhile, his wife has given birth to their son. We learn that not everyone on their world is as fortunate as the royal family, and the story takes on a decidedly dark turn.

The Will is still in the hospital, lost in a hallucinatory dreamscape. Gwendolyn and Sophie are out looking for a cure and run into The Brand, who is out seeking revenge for what happened to her brother. Not nearly enough Lying Cat in this issue!

There's the usual sex and graphic violence, but there's a birth mixed in with all the death. The artwork continues to be excellent, but here it's not so much about the fantastic elements as it is capturing the everyday and encapsulating a character's emotional state with just a single frame.


Friday, November 9, 2018

Book Review: Transmetropolitan, Vol 2

book cover for volume 2 of TransmetropolitanAt this point in the series, Spider Jerusalem is fully settled in the city he hates, cranking out a column of acerbic wit and caustic insight each week. There are three standalone stories in this volume along with a three-part tale.

Building on the volume 1 tale of humans rewriting their DNA to make themselves alien, all of the stories explore some of the different pathways of the human condition in the 23rd century. In "Boyfriend Is a Virus," we learn that you can upload your consciousness into a computer whereupon it will then be downloaded into a nanobot dust cloud. "Another Cold Morning" reveals what happens to those cryogenically frozen heads from the 20th and 21st centuries. "Wild in the Country" reveals that there are "reservations" where one can live any lifestyle from history, a memory wipe removing any trace of your past modern life. Even in the "Freeze Me With Your Kiss" story arc, we encounter a group of people who wear hazmat suits 24/7, the Total Solitude Culture.

But "Freeze Me With Your Kiss" has more of a story to it. Spider's ex-wife's head, which is in a jar full of cryonic fluid, has been stolen, and he's being hunted down by groups wanting revenge for past wrongs. I suspect that this is an occupational hazard of his that we'll see more of in the future.

"Another Cold Morning" was my favorite of the bunch. It's the subject of one of Spider's columns and gets at his sense of injustice, revealing how lousy people are. Spider's compassion is on display, in his unique way, in "Boyfriend Is a Virus" as he tries to help Channon, his assistant, deal with her boyfriend's selfish life choice.

Robertson's artwork is excellent, perfectly capturing the helter skelter insanity of normal urban life in the 23rd century.


Sunday, October 28, 2018

Book Review: Hellboy Volume 2 - Wake The Devil

book cover for Hellboy volume 2Volume 2 picks up where volume 1 left off. Defrosted WW2 Nazis are striving to build their "vampir sturm" army, but they need resources to build it and Vladimir Giurescu to finish the job. While the resource problem is quickly solved, ol' Vlad's been dead since the war and his body is hard to find. A year later, Hellboy and his fellow field agents from the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense (I didn't realize it was located so close to home. I should see if they're hiring.) are sent to Romania to investigate.

The artwork is much like the first volume with lots of black ink: shadows and brooding darkness. Mignola is quite capable of evoking emotion and story out of the gloomier colors in his palette without seeming drab or dull.

Here in volume 2, Mignola takes over the writing duties and improves the storyline. There's a lot more dialogue and multiple POVs. There is quite a bit of infodumping up front, but it's done in the form of a BPRD briefing. The one thing I would've liked to have seen is more interaction between Hellboy and his co-workers. While on assignment, he's told that he has to go solo in order to cover more ground (not enough agents to go around) so most of the volume is him alone. There are a couple of conversations that teased at deeper connections which will hopefully be explored more in detail later.

As for our intrepid hero, Mignola brings out some of his charm during and between fights with his foes. He refuses to be anyone's pawn and will gladly clobber anyone who would have him be otherwise. Not only do we get more details on Hellboy's origin and purpose, but we get more insight into the villains in this tale. Sure they still like to monologue a lot, but this time they also carry on conversations with each other over friendship, faith in the Master, trust, and love. Still, one of my favorite lines comes from a resurrected Nazi general's disembodied head in a jar:

"Think. Why burn down the world when we can be its masters?"


Thursday, October 25, 2018

Book Review: Saga - Volume 3

book cover for Saga volume 3So volume two left off with a bit of a cliffhanger. Rather than pick right up where they left off, Vaughn and Staples rewind a few days to show our heroes arriving on Quietus to meet the author of the novel that sparked their relationship. There's a bit of exploration on how people cope with loss. Some depth is added to Marko's mom.

Meanwhile, The Will is hanging out on a planetoid with Gwendolyn and Sophie (formerly Slave Girl) waiting for AAA to come and repair his ship. Things are fine until he starts arguing with his dead ex-girlfriend. The problem is: No one else can see her.

There's a sub-plot involving a pair of investigative reporters trying to uncover the story about Alana and Marko. It serves to flesh out more of the universe the story inhabits. Something is revealed, but it could just be a red herring.

Eventually, the two forces hunting down our heroes converge on their location and force the conflict to be resolved—for now.

If I could, I'd give this 4.5 stars. I can't, so I'm rounding down. Why? Well, because of the way certain events were handled, I didn't finish this volume with quite the same feels. There were also some meta bits that seemed out of place. Nothing to really mar it, but enough to make it not nearly as awesome as the first two volumes.


Monday, October 22, 2018

Book Review: The Tell-Tale Heart and Other Writings

book cover for the tell-tale heart and other writingsWhen I spotted this book at the Newtown Library annual book sale in the summer of 2017, I was psyched. Here was a chance to read some old favorites and discover other stories that I hadn't read before. I likened it to picking up an album by a band who you only knew by their greatest hits but wanted to dive deeper into their discography. So when October rolled around last year, it seemed the perfect time to re-visit Poe.

This collection kicks off with "The Tell-Tale Heart," probably Poe's most famous work. It's followed by "The Black Cat," which I'd never read before, and I was surprised by its graphic nature. My all-time favorite Poe story, "The Cask of Amontillado," followed, and my opinion of it was untarnished. "The Fall of the House of Usher" and "The Masque of the Red Death" completed the set of familiar hits. Now I was to enter the area of the unfamiliar. While I'd heard of a couple others in the collection, I hadn't had a chance to read them.

I don't want to bore you with analysis of each story, so I will summarize my disappointment.

Poe is credited with creating the first modern detective stories, beating out Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes by over forty years. "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" and "The Purloined Letter" were two of the mysteries included here. Unfortunately, they were all "tell" and no "show." We have to endure a blowhard detective lording over anyone who will listen how he solved the case. The stories are all "reveal." It would've been far more enjoyable to experience the stories as the detective discovered clues. Doyle and Christie would eventually figure out how to do it right.

A few of the stories were treated as fictional testimonials whereupon the narrator related some strange incident or horrifying experience. I think the hook here was to ensnare gullible readers of Poe's time to believe these sensational accounts were really true, maybe drive up newspaper sales. While the events and particulars would change, the stories shared the same structure and struck me as formulaic. And the purple prose! It got to the point where it was so cloying, so thick, that I had to take breaks from it. I could scarcely finish a page without suffocating from its soporific embellishment into a slumber so deep that only the vigorous applause of Conan's studio audience emanating from the television speaker could rouse me.

Sorry. Got a bit carried away there. Apparently purple prose is contagious. Anyway, Lovecraft would later go on to master these techniques, though now I'm worried that I might no longer enjoy his work.

The collection of stories ends with "The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym," which embodies all of my objections. It's 161 pages of Mr. Pym's epic sea voyage. It starts as a drunken kidnapping then turns into a shipwreck. Apparitions, sharks, and cannibalism all make an appearance. But after Mr. Pym is rescued, he doesn't return home, but instead journeys with the rescuing ship south. Now at this time, there was still some uncertainty about the existence of Antarctica as a continent, so Poe took advantage of that to do some Hollow Earth extrapolation. And the abrupt ending is neither mysterious nor satisfying.

From here, the collection moves on to Poe's poetry. While a good deal of it is adequate, "The Raven" is his true masterpiece and stands head and shoulders above the rest in not only subject matter, but form and execution.

Ultimately, it took me a year to get through this collection. I'm embarrassed that it took so long. What started out as a promising journey through literary nostalgia took a horrible turn into musty, archaic manuscripts that—Crap! I'm doing it again. [Sigh] So I'm left with giving this collection just three stars. Before you hate on me, I'll admit that it's me, not him. While there are plenty who still appreciate his style, I think my preferences are now too modern. Maybe Poe is now someone who should only be read in small doses—a story here, a story there—and to be appreciated every Halloween.


Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Book Review: Persepolis - The Story of a Childhood

Book cover for Persepolis - volume 1Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood is a graphic memoir (a memoir in graphic novel form) of Marjane Satrapi's childhood years in Tehran, Iran during the late 70s and early 80s. Those old enough to remember—or know their history—will recall that this is the time when the Shah was evicted from Iran and a religious dictatorship took his place, the American embassy was captured and 52 people were held hostage for over a year, and Iran went to war with Iraq. I'm about Satrapi's age, so I recall those events (from a safe distance) and coming to believe that Iran was ground zero for chaos in the Middle East and the bastion of "Death to America!" sentiment. Persepolis is Marjane Satrapi's attempt to relate what living there was like.

Satrapi's parents were Marxist intellectuals who protested against the Shah's corruption and oppression. This rebellious attitude rubbed off on little Marji and carried with her into her teens. As one tyrant was replaced by a worse one, this became a dangerous trait for Marji to have. As friends and family members were arrested and executed as spies and enemies of the state, the walls around Marji closed in. But rather than shut down, she pushed back as much as any rebellious teen would.

Satrapi remains true to her younger self in telling her story. When she's a child, she daydreams of great things. When she's a teen, she longs for those things that every teen wanted back then: jeans and rock music. While the adult Marjane narrates the story, revealing truths Marji didn't know at the time, she never gets in the way.

The artwork is stark, rendered in black and white. It seems fitting. It reflects the mood. Artistic flourishes and vibrant colors would be out of place here. While the drawings could be labelled "simple," it isn't an insult. In fact, it lends an air of authenticity. Coupled with the workman style of the dialogue, I feel as though I'm reading the illustrated journal of a young girl.

It's probably unpopular to suggest that Persepolis should be in the same conversation as The Diary of Anne Frank. There is plenty of propaganda dictating that all Muslims are evil and makes no distinction between ethnicity or branches of faith. But setting aside their skin colors and religious backgrounds, there is very little that divides these two stories. They both deal with young women growing up under oppressive regimes where the threat of violence is real.

Four stars.


Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Book Review: Saga - Volume 2

book cover for Saga volume 2So if you haven't read volume 1, this review could be a bit spoiler-ish.

Volume 1 leaves off with Marko's parents teleporting in under the assumption that he'd been captured. Volume 2 starts off with Marko introducing his parents to Alana and Hazel. Marko sets off to find the babysitter, whom Mom has banished to a nearby planetoid. Mom, thinking that Marko is incapable of not screwing up, follows him, thus leaving Dad alone with Alana and Hazel. Vaughn then explores the relationship dynamics between the two generations.

Marko's mom is full of piss and vinegar; Marko's dad is the softie. Mom harps on every mistake Marko has ever made. Dad wants to see baby Hazel and make sure she's "normal." He means healthy, but it comes across awkward. Gender stereotypes flipped! I enjoyed how Vaughn handled the conflict resolutions on both sides.

Meanwhile, we're introduced to Gwendolyn, Marko's ex-girlfriend. She's come by The Will's place to check on his progress in hunting down our protagonists. She's annoyed that he's moping over the death of his former lover. In return, he psychoanalyzes Gwendolyn's motives—with the help of Lying Cat—and reveals another dilemma plaguing his conscience. Gwendolyn offers to help with it if he promises to get off his ass and back on the trail. Gwendolyn turns out to have some traits in common with Marko's mom.

We're also treated to flashbacks to when Marko and Alana first met, the book that inspired both of them, and their daring escape from Marko's prison.

The art continues to be fantastic. I thought that Staples' depiction of the planetoid landscape, the way the star's light cast shadows through the ruins, was rendered especially well. And the scenes inside the rocketship-tree were a great mix of earth tones that were vibrant instead of dull. A warning to those who have sensitive eyes: There's a giant naked troll that leaves little to the imagination and, when Prince Robot IV lies unconscious on a battlefield, gay porn plays on his TV monitor for two panels.

Two other scenes deserve mentioning. One is a flashback to when Marko was a kid learning how to ride a giant cricket with his father offering encouragement. The dialogue is in Marko's native tongue and offered without translation, but the artwork explains it all. The other is something Marko's dad says: "Your first grandchild is nature's reminder that your warranty's about to run out."


Friday, September 28, 2018

Book Review: In the Ocean of Night

original book cover for the In the Ocean of Night1999: NASA astronaut Nigel Walmsley is sent on a mission to intercept a rogue asteroid on a collision course with Earth. Ordered to destroy the comet, he instead discovers that it is actually the shell of a derelict space probe - a wreck with just enough power to emit a single electronic signal...

2014: Then a reply is heard. Searching for the source of this signal that comes from outside the solar system, Nigel discovers the existence of a sentient ship. When the new vessel begins to communicate directly with him, the astronaut learns of the horrors that await humanity.

First, a bit of backstory. I actually started this series, not knowing it was a series, back in the 80s. I'd picked up Across the Sea of Suns (book #2) through a sci-fi book club as a teen. Upon reading it, I realized that it wasn't a standalone but a sequel. However, there was enough backstory that it didn't matter. But then the ending was left wide open, so I knew that it was, in fact, a series. I was not amused and subsequently forgot about the series for decades.

By chance, while perusing through one of the local library's book sales, I came across Sailing Bright Eternity and discovered that it was the last book in a six-book saga. I bought it, and it has sat on my nightstand for years hence. So when I spotted this book last summer, I knew that I should go back and read the whole series start-to-finish. Besides, I really liked the titles of the books.

I might be regretting that decision.

This book was written from 1972-1977 and parts were published in If magazine over that time. The book starts in 1999 and runs through 2019 (reprints bumped those dates back 20 years). There is so much 70s dreck hanging over this story that it's downright suffocating. Everything that was ugly about the 70s is concentrated and perpetuated for forty years! The Clean Air Act never accomplished anything, people passively gave up their cars for mass transit because Detroit and Tokyo couldn't innovate, Moore's Law failed to materialize, and the US never snapped out of its economic funk and continued to slowly slide into turpitude. It's enough to make me want to thank Reagan for his "Morning in America" pep rally speeches just to avoid this rubbish.

What arises out of this miasma is a new religious movement dubbed The New Sons. As far as I can tell, it's an amalgam of hippies, Eastern philosophy, Old Testament Christianity, and mysticism that infects the country and the world. Traditional religions are powerless before it and are soon negotiating for inclusion. It comes across as wholly implausible and schlocky. Maybe if I'd been trapped in Haight-Ashbury and my girlfriend was seduced by a bunch of hippies, I'd believe it. In essence, this is what happens to the protagonist, Nigel Walmsley.

Nigel is an insufferable, self-absorbed, patronizing jerk. A certain comment he made regarding a potential asteroid impact in India makes me think he might even be racist. He thinks he's right about everything and disobeys orders because he's right, damnit! What sucks is that too often he is right. But who wants to give that guy the satisfaction? He's a bit of a hypocrite: After witnessing a New Sons' bonfire ritual, he calls it a "license for public rutting" then goes home to have a three-way. Said three-way is Benford's rather clumsy way of informing the reader about Nigel's polyamorous relationship. What's worse is that most of the other characters in the novel are pathetic: power mad bureaucrats and passive aggressive religious zealots. In his relationship, Alexandria seems about ready to pass away from ennui (yes, she's ill, but Benford doesn't take advantage of her lucid moments to develop her character) while Shirley is always angry at Nigel for something. Too much of this book—almost a third—is spent detailing this relationship. While there's some hope for him by the end of the novel, after reading his stream of consciousness babble, I can't help but think he's just going to be a different flavor of insufferable, self-absorbed, patronizing jerk going forward.

So is there anything good here? Yeah, sure. Nigel's encounters with the aliens and anything involving Dr. Ichiro and Nikka. There's the "big idea" that attempts to answer the Fermi Paradox. But there isn't enough of this to counter the swamp of bad I had to slog through.

Now I probably shouldn't be so critical of a book that was written over 40 years ago and was one of Benford's first works, but this was a book that was nominated for both the Nebula and Locus awards. Sure, I'll give him points for the concept, but he lacked vision. How is there a space program if the economic malaise of the 70s never ends and only worsens? He was a physicist at a prominent university; how did he not hear about the advances underway with microelectronics? I gotta use a fax machine on the Moon 50 years after we set foot on it? Maybe we can excuse him for not foreseeing the innovations that would drive the last decades of the 20th century, but not his characters' behavior. Benford writes this damnably sexist scene where Alexandria's doctor won't tell her his prognosis of her medical condition until after Nigel arrives from work, and even then, he directs his conversation to Nigel as if Alexandria is no more than a sick pet. She was an executive at American Airlines negotiating a deal with a Brazilian company! How can Benford do that to her?

Maybe, this book probably would've been easier to deal with reading it right after it was finished, trapped in the 70s, but by 1980 this book's days were numbered.

A weak one and a half out of five stars. Maybe less.


Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Book Review: Saga - Volume 1

book cover for volume 1 of SagaGoodreads has been recommending this one to me for some time, and good many of the people I follow there gushed with praise. My local library had a copy so I figured that I'd finally pick it up. I burned through it in two days. I only put it down because I had to sleep. Then I read it again.

As per the book blurb, two soldiers on the opposite side of a war fall in love and conceive a child. All they want now is to be left alone to raise her in peace. But the opposing factions have been at it for so long, that talk like that is treasonous, blasphemy. Now they're being hunted down in order to stifle their narrative busting idea that peace between their worlds is possible.

There's an American-Soviet Cold War parallel here. Both worlds recognized early on that they'd grown too powerful. If the war continued on their respective worlds (one is a moon of the other planet), the damage would be catastrophic and likely lead to mutually assured destruction. So instead, they've exported their war to other worlds in the galaxy. Forced to choose sides, the locals soon realize the hard way that it's a lose-lose situation. Worlds are mined; people are executed for collaborating with the enemy. They've become collateral damage in a war without end.

I get a slight Heavy Metal vibe (film or comic). It most notably comes through in the scenes on the pleasure planet, Sextillion. There's also Saga's juxtaposition of magic and technology in a space fantasy setting that lends a commonality to Heavy Metal, though Saga seems more grounded with its adult themes—some of them dark—than some of the latter's absurdist stories.

But enough of the comparisons. Brian Vaughn has written a compelling story, told with straightforward dialogue and populated with a whole smorgasbord of mashup aliens, wonderfully rendered by Fiona Staples. Staples' artwork captures the fantastic elements of the story and perfectly conveys the emotions of its characters. I love the color palette. The backgrounds look like they're watercolors while the characters are rendered in solid colors.

I have to give this five stars. I can't think of a reason why I shouldn't.


Monday, September 10, 2018

Book Review - The Alcoholic

book cover for The AlcoholicWhen I picked up this graphic novel from the library, I had no idea who Jonathan Ames was. Upon further investigation, I'd never even heard of any of his works, be they book, film, or TV show, save one (Blunt Talk). But even that one show I've never seen and only knew of it because Patrick Stewart played the titular role.

I gathered from the liner notes that this was the fictionalized memoir of a writer (Jonathan A.) who struggled with alcohol. Having had my own wanderings down that path over a number of years—luckily changing course before it was too late—I was curious to hear his story, even if there was a bit of fiction in it.

For the sake of simplicity, I'm going to refer to the fictional Jonathan A. as the author, Ames.

Ames explores how alcohol played a role throughout his life. Like many, his relationship started in high school. Alcohol is that wonderful social lubricant that helps combat the terrifying awkwardness of being a teenager, a human being. But alcohol didn't like Ames, and it kicked his ass. Ames ignored it though; the euphoria that came with drinking was worth it to him. And when various relationships with family, friends, and girlfriends turned sour, alcohol was there to get him through it. While he had periods of sobriety, there was always something to trigger a relapse, sometimes into harder drugs.

Ames takes us from high school parties in New Jersey to starry beaches in Bequia. He relives sexual escapades, detoxing, and the emotional fallout of 9/11. Dean Haspiel's black and white artwork perfectly encapsulates each scene, clearly conveying the emotions that Ames' character is feeling.

Although fictionalized, it still feels like Ames is telling an honest story, but only to an extent. He tries to balance the melancholy with humor, but when the latter wanders into the scatological, it took away from the sympathy I'd felt for the character. The ending seems rushed. The epiphany Ames experienced might be true, but I was left unconvinced that it would stick. An earlier epiphany after 9/11 was forgotten after a chance encounter with Bill Clinton went straight to the character's head. But the very last page has me thinking that no epiphany will ever suffice until the void in his life is filled.

3 1/2 stars.


Friday, September 7, 2018

Book Review: Hellboy, Volume 1 - Seed of Destruction

book cover for Hellboy volume 1I saw the Hellboy movie years ago and loved it. Rasputin and the Nazis, Lovecraftian monsters, Gothic ruins, arcane machines, and a wise-cracking, cigar chomping, good demon who kicks ass. I didn't know anything about how Hellboy was supposed to be, but I thought Perlman knocked it out of the park.

I always meant to get around to reading the comic, but I didn't get a chance until now. Starting at the beginning, I see that the movie and the book start off on the same page, but then wildly veer off in different directions with only loose connections as the stories unfold. This is going to be blasphemous of me to say, but I liked the movie more.

In the movie, more time was spent developing the characters and the backstory. In the comic, Hellboy and the reader are subjected to a bad case of monologuing (I've had characters do it, too. It happens to writers all the time.) by Rasputin. As the comic is told almost exclusively from Hellboy's POV—after his origin sequence—there's no other place to put it. Perhaps if this opening story had been told over eight issues instead of four, there might have been a better way to develop it organically.

John Hurt and Ron Perlman in a scene from HellboyHellboy's relationships with other characters is largely undeveloped in this issue of the comic. Other than a little background on Abe and Liz, we really don't get any reason why Hellboy cares about them. And Professor Bruttenholm? Forget it. In the movie, Perlman and Hurt really develop the relationship. Here, it's over before it starts with nary a thought or feeling. I have to imagine that these relationships and characters were expounded upon in subsequent issues.

But despite these shortcomings, I liked the story. The Lovecraftian vibe, Rasputin, and occult-Nazis are there with their arcane machines. The Hellboy that Perlman brought to life is a bit more subdued though. The raw power is there, but still in a more embryonic state. There's clearly more to come.

Mignola's art really captures the brooding darkness. Even bright yellow energetic struggles to keep it at bay and won't last long against the suffocating gloom. Sepia tones lend age and authenticity to portraits on a wall. Hellboy pops off the page with his signature fire engine red, particularly when contrasted against the moodier background hues of blue, purple, and gray or contrasting with green-colored foes. And black. Always black.

At the end of this volume, there were a couple notes from Mignola about the origin of Hellboy's appearance, two short four-page comics, and a gallery of Hellboy portraits as interpreted by other artists. It was a nice addition.

3.5 stars.


Monday, September 3, 2018

Book Review: Altered Carbon

book cover for Altered CarbonFour hundred years from now mankind is strung out across a region of interstellar space inherited from an ancient civilization discovered on Mars. The colonies are linked together by the occasional sublight colony ship voyages and hyperspatial data-casting. Human consciousness is digitally freighted between the stars and downloaded into bodies as a matter of course.

But some things never change. So when ex-envoy, now-convict Takeshi Kovacs has his consciousness and skills downloaded into the body of a nicotine-addicted ex-thug and presented with a catch-22 offer, he really shouldn't be surprised. Contracted by a billionaire to discover who murdered his last body, Kovacs is drawn into a terrifying conspiracy that stretches across known space and to the very top of society.

Biotechnology has advanced far enough that immortality is available for those who can afford it. Consciousness is digitized in "stacks" and stored until a new "sleeve"—an all encompassing term for natural, cloned, or synthetic bodies—is ready. Add to this a diverse menu of drugs that enhance or dull aspects of human physiology. A whole slew of possibilities, noble and illicit, opens up. Death, prison, identity, and sex are all re-defined. The whole system is exploitable, and therein lies the story.

Takeshi Kovacs is an ex-Envoy, a type of Special Forces, who is taken from stack prison on another planet and dumped into a sleeve on Earth. He's been recommended to a billionaire (Laurens Bancroft) to solve his murder. The police say it was suicide, but Bancroft believes he was murdered. If Kovacs can solve the case to Bancroft's liking, the billionaire will purchase his freedom. If not, Kovacs goes back on stack for the rest of his two-hundred-year sentence.

What difference does it make to a billionaire why one of his sleeves died? He claims not to be the suicidal type. He has daily backups, keeps new sleeves on standby, and has already lived 350 years (making him a "meth," short for Methuselah). What's the point of suicide, if he won't remember it when he's downloaded into a new body the next day? Murder makes more sense, which likely means that there's a conspiracy afoot.

As Kovacs sets out to solve the case, he shares his experiences as he gets accustomed to a body that isn't his. Some readers have found this to be oversharing as Morgan is graphic in detail. I saw Kovacs' adjustment as having to go through puberty again. The changes our bodies go through seem alien and strange, and it takes some time before our minds grow accustomed to them and reasserts control. What Kovacs (and others) goes through when entering a new sleeve is no different. It's awkward and discomfiting.

Kovacs' past, both military and criminal, bubbles up in flashbacks, offering glimpses into what shaped his psyche. Underneath the cool, indifferent, tough guy exterior lies a soul that seeks justice for the little guy. The plutocrats can buy their way past the wheels of justice; the poor are ground up like hamburger. And it's that sense of injustice that fuels Kovacs. He internalizes it, makes it personal, and sets off on rampages.

Overall, I have to say I loved it. It's a sci-fi story soaked in noir: Cigarettes and whisky, posh AI-run hotels, a femme fatale, morally corrupt billionaires, and a complicated relationship with the cops. You could also think of it as a much more violent cousin of Blade Runner. Like that film, it also asks questions about the human condition, but doesn't lead to easy answers.


Monday, August 6, 2018

Book Review: Wool (Omnibus edition)

Book cover for Wool Omnibus editionThis is the story of mankind clawing for survival, of mankind on the edge. The world outside has grown unkind, the view of it limited, talk of it forbidden. But there are always those who hope, who dream. These are the dangerous people, the residents who infect others with their optimism. Their punishment is simple. They are given the very thing they profess to want: They are allowed outside.

The omnibus edition collects what were five separately published parts into one complete volume. I'm glad that I waited as if I had to read each of these parts individually I would've been frustrated. While part one would've been fine as a standalone, parts two through four ended with cliffhangers and so much of the overall story unresolved that I would've felt I'd been played. That's not to say that I didn't like Wool, quite the opposite. From a publishing perspective (and Howey was still indie back then), it's a risky move. You either leave readers clamoring for more (and you'd better deliver!) or you alienate them for selling a story piecemeal.

The first three parts are told from the perspective of a single character (barring the final chapter of part three). And it works. It serves as an introduction to the Silo and what life is like for those living there. Too many POVs might've proved overwhelming for the reader. By focusing on individual storylines, the reader is slowly acclimated to this world that Howey has created. But events transpire in part three that necessitated multiple POVs for parts four and five.

Part one is Holston's tale. A widower, he pines for his recently departed wife and can no longer bear to live without her. He introduces us to the Silo, a massive underground structure where humanity lives after some apocalyptic catastrophe. His actions serve as a preamble for what's to come.

Part two is Mayor Jahns' tale. She's escorted by Deputy Marnes as they journey through the Silo to interview the next sheriff. Besides learning her story, we learn more details about the Silo: It comprises 140 levels, each level serves some function to maintaining life here, and it has its own unique set of politics.

Part three deals with Juliette Nichols, the newly appointed sheriff. Having worked down in Mechanical for a couple of decades, she's not used to dealing with the politics that comes with her new job. She doesn't realize it at first, but she's been stepping on toes since long before becoming sheriff. The head of a rival department is stepping in to fill a power vacuum, and he doesn't like her. The feeling is mutual. As she strives to solve the mystery behind a couple of deaths, she uncovers a secret that threatens to throw the entire Silo into chaos.

Howey does a great job getting the reader to like these characters. You learn so much about them that you can't help but bond with them. They seem familiar, despite their circumstances. Even the antagonist was well drawn for a bad guy. He wasn't wholly evil, just convinced that he knew what was best for the Silo and control must be maintained by any means necessary (a common belief that has led to the downfall of many leaders).

Parts four and five deal with the fallout of Juliette's discovery. All does not go according to the antagonist's plan, and thus contingency plans are put in place to deal with these events. Sinister secrets are revealed, and the nefarious origins of the Silo are dredged up. Two factions struggle for control of the Silo, but one side has a strategic advantage that is unknown to the population at large: It has always been in control.

The ending gave me a bit of a surprise, but I liked it. All in all, it made for a highly entertaining read. Engaging characters, post-apocalyptic setting, secrets to be discovered, decent plot resolution. I can see why it was such a hit. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if it was made into a TV series. 4 out of 5 stars.


Monday, July 2, 2018

Book Review: Swords and Deviltry

book cover for Swords and DeviltryThis book contains the origin stories for Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, the popular pair of adventurers from the mind of Fritz Leiber.

"The Snow Women" is Fafhrd's story. He's all of 18 and it shows. Leiber captures all the raging hormones and misguided idealism of guys that age. Think of this as the barbarian equivalent of Alice Cooper's song "I'm Eighteen" (both were published in 1970 by the way). He has a hot girlfriend, Mara, who loves him dearly, but he's smitten by Vlana, a sultry actress who rides into town with a caravan of entertainers. He's confused. Tired of life in the snow-covered forest, he longs to see the civilized world. So far, his view of the world is as pillager as his tribe of "ice men" ransack towns along the coast as a way of life. Vlana represents his idea of civilization, and his attraction is dual. He wants to bang her, but his mind wants to learn more about the "civilized world" and what it has to offer.

Vlana struck me as being a few years older, if not in age then surely in mind. She knows how the world works and uses her beauty to her advantage. Fafhrd is an open book to her. His naivete about civilization is cute. While she isn't cruel to him, she does play him to her advantage.

Mara knows that Fafhrd lusts for Vlana. She doesn't buy the whole civilization line he tries to sell her. It pisses her off (rightly so!), and she's torn between kicking Fafhrd's ass and forgiving him.

The arrival of the caravan is an annual event organized by the men of the tribe. There are acting performances with musical accompaniment, but it's primarily striptease. The men are dogs and are dumb about barring the women from watching. The women of the tribe resent it. They've resorted to witchcraft and ice-laden snowballs to interfere with the show and wrest their husbands and sons away. It's gone on for so long that the grudge has festered. Fafhrd's mother, bitter from her husband's death while mountain climbing, is their leader. She's strong with the dark arts and continues to escalate the conflict. Fafhrd feels smothered by her. In turn, he feels like Mara is turning into his mother.

"The Unholy Grail" is the Grey Mouser's origin story. While serving as an apprentice to a wizard, he came to meet the local duke's daughter Ivrian. Love blossomed for a time, but Mouser knew of the duke's disdain for him and the wizard. He returned one day from an errand to find the wizard dead and his home burned. From here, the Mouser's tale becomes all about vengeance.

As for Ivrian, she's torn between helping Mouser and obeying her cruel father. He verbally abused her often, comparing Ivrian to her deceased mother and how drastically she fell short. It isn't pretty; and the emotional abuse has left Ivrian scarred and fearful of her father's wrath. There are few things worse for a child than to grow up with abusive parents, so criticism of Ivrian's alleged weakness should be tempered accordingly.

"Ill Met in Lankhmar" is where our two heroes' stories come together. Each is eyeing a group of thieves on their way back to the guild with a successful haul, but they're unaware of each other. As fate would have it, they simultaneously attack the thieves. But rather than fight over the spoils, they see something in the other that draws them together. They decide to celebrate their success and new found friendship by getting drunk and introducing the other to their girlfriends. But the Thieves' Guild isn't about to take this affront lying down.

I enjoyed Leiber's writing style. I think the bookgator said it best: "Reading these stories feels a little like sitting at the feet of an old, old storyteller while he reminisces about childhood heroes." And I couldn't agree more.

3.5 stars


Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Book Review: Armor

book cover for ArmorThe planet is called Banshee. The air is unbreathable, the water is poisonous. It is home to the most implacable enemies that humanity, in all its interstellar expansion, has ever encountered.

Body armor has been devised for the commando forces that are to be dropped on Banshee—the culmination of ten thousand years of the armorers’ craft. A trooper in this armor is a one-man, atomic powered battle fortress. But he will have to fight a nearly endless horde of berserk, hard-shelled monsters—the fighting arm of a species which uses biological technology to design perfect, mindless war minions.

Felix is a scout in A-team Two. Highly competent, he is the sole survivor of mission after mission. Yet he is a man consumed by fear and hatred. And he is protected, not only by his custom-fitted body armor, but by an odd being which seems to live within him, a cold killing machine he calls “The Engine.”

This is Felix’s story—a story of the horror, the courage, and the aftermath of combat, and the story, too, of how strength of spirit can be the greatest armor of all.

The story starts out with what you'd expect after reading the book blurb (Goodreads or paperback): a non-stop brutal assault. Felix is but one soldier of thousands dumped on Banshee, the alien homeworld, to fight the enemy on their turf. While not stated outright, they're treated as disposable heroes. Lessons are never learned. Tactics never change. Mistakes are repeated, sending the casualty count higher and higher. Published in 1984, I wonder if the hangover from Vietnam factored into Steakley's writing.

Felix's battles are epic, but there's no glory here. The "ants"—giant, mass-produced, mindless biological killing machines—relentlessly attack Felix and his fellow soldiers. Swarm after swarm come at them, and eventually, everyone dies. Except Felix. Steakley writes up Felix's battles in gory detail, which wears on the reader, but that's his point. He wants you to connect with Felix, who is physically and psychologically drained from all the killing, watching his comrades die, and being ordered to repeat the process over and over and over. It's madness, and it threatens to take Felix down with it. He's too afraid to live, but too angry to die.

But in the second part of the book, we shift from Felix to Jack Crow, interstellar celebrity rogue. He violently escapes from prison to a starship on a landing pad, only to be caught up with a group of mutineers. He's coerced into working with them in a scam to secure more fuel from a Fleet Scientific Colony. Jack is to use his celebrity status to his advantage to get the mutineers past the planet's defenses. Jack uses his reputation and charisma to gain audience and then presents a Trojan Horse of sorts to the project's chief scientist, Hollis Ware. Not only does it snare Hollis's curiosity, but Jack's too.

This second story takes over for quite a large chunk of the book, but Felix isn't forgotten. Steakley eventually weaves the two storylines together, and we learn more about what happened to Felix as well as his past before enlisting. Along the way, Steakley works on evolving Jack from selfish to selfless in a way that remained true to the character.

There are a few women characters of note in the book, and each is treated differently. Forest is a soldier just like Felix. She's fantastic: smart, brave, and skilled. Colonel Canada seemed like someone fresh out of college: book smart and eager, but not all that experienced. When she appears, it's like an episode of Spring Break: Banshee. Lya is a psychologist and Hollis's handler, not to mention very much in love with him. Karen is the Project Administrator Let's just say that when we learn her backstory, it strikes a chord with the #metoo movement. All four impact either Felix or Jack in some way that shapes their worldview.

There's been a lot of comparison of this novel to Starship Troopers and The Forever War. Yes, there are big mean bugs that attacked Earth (ST), and there's a bleak outlook on the futility of war and those calling the shots (FW), but there are major differences. ST was more about patriotism and duty as Heinlein saw a moral decline in 1950s America. Armor rejects patriotism as an excuse for stupidity. FW was a mirror of Haldeman's experiences fighting in Vietnam and the difficulty returning to civilian life. Armor acknowledges it, but forges a different path, concerning itself with the toll taken on the human psyche.

There are some parts, including the ending, that beg for further story exploration. Sadly, Steakley died in 2010 from liver disease, having never completed a sequel.

Overall, a fantastic book (please ignore the typos) that worked for me on numerous levels. 5 stars.


Monday, May 7, 2018

Book Review: Burning Chrome

Book cover for Burning ChromeNewer editions have better covers. This was the 1987 cover, which is the one I own.

This is a short story collection of Gibson's early work, ranging from 1977-1985. In it, he lays the groundwork for his Sprawl trilogy, which includes Neuromancer, Count Zero, and Mona Lisa Overdrive. But more importantly, he gave sci-fi a much needed boost in the arm by securing the foundation of what would become known as cyberpunk.

One has to remember that during the time that Gibson wrote these stories, the internet was a domain limited to a select few militaries, government institutions, and universities. The web didn't even exist until 1991. But he saw the potential of where it could lead. While his biotech visions are just starting to show signs of emergence, by and large, he got his computer technology right.

First up is "Johnny Mnemonic." How a 22-page short story led to the movie of the same name is beyond me. It's like the studio cherry-picked several elements from the story that they liked and came up with something else entirely. This story is fine. It rushes by so fast, everything is lost in the world building. I had to re-read a couple of passages as the segues were easily overlooked.

The story was published in 1981, it helped define a cyberpunk future that fortunately hasn't come to pass, though some of the technological elements ring true. Though with the ubiquity of high-density, tiny storage devices (i.e. thumb drives), requiring someone to have wetware for a few megabytes of info is quaint. Tera- or Petabytes would've impressed.

"The Gernsback Continuum": While on assignment, a photographer starts hallucinating about a future that was forecast in the 1930s.

"Fragments of a Hologram Rose": Trying to put a broken heart back together with holograms in a ruined American landscape.

Gibson co-wrote "The Belonging Kind" with John Shirley. In this one, a socially awkward man is smitten by a woman at a bar. As he follows her through the city, he soon learns that she's more than she appears to be, which only makes her even more intriguing.

In "Hinterlands," humanity accidentally stumbles upon interstellar travel, but it's really rough on the people that experience it. There's a team at the L5 station that do their best to help those that come back. It's about as easy as putting a broken egg back together.

After cornering the oil market, the Soviet Union forced the US to concede human spaceflight in "Red Star, Winter Orbit", co-written with Bruce Sterling. Colonel Komarov, the first person on Mars, calls the Soviet space station home, but after two decades in space, it's also a prison. Returning to Earth's gravity would crush him, but that's exactly what the government wants.

"New Rose Hotel": Being a headhunter in the biotech market is a ruthless business. Like love, there's nothing that stings more than betrayal. Substitute thumb drives for diskettes and you'll be ok.

"The Winter Market": When dreams sell like popular music does today (or yesterday), it'll give rise to its own rock stars, complete with their own tragic stories.

In "Dogfight," co-written with Michael Swanwick, a loser drifter decides that he's going to make his mark by being the best holovideogame player in the whole podunk town, and he's willing to do anything to accomplish it, even if it means being a dick.

"Burning Chrome" wraps up this collection with the quintessential cyberpunk story: Two console jockeys set out for that one final score that'll make them rich. To do it, they'll need to take down a criminal kingpin via the internet matrix.

The first three stories are too obsessed with describing Gibson's world and throwing cool, new jargon at the reader than in crafting good stories. Style over substance. But after that, the real storytelling begins. Gibson eases off the nuevo lingo, particularly when writing with others, to develop the characters into people we can recognize beneath the veneer of tech. Definitely worth checking out to see a successful writer when he was still hungry and passionate about writing down his vision of the future.


Friday, April 27, 2018

I Killed MySpace

MySpace logo
No, not really. It's just a coincidence that the #1 social networking outlet went into decline shortly after I joined up. It's also very much alive, albeit largely irrelevant in the social media landscape, as a music and entertainment platform.

I resisted joining for years, but I finally gave in to peer pressure. While I was connecting with obscure indie metal bands, scandals rocked the platform. It was labelled a "vortex of perversion" after sensationalized stories of teen sex, drugs, and kidnapping surfaced, reinforced by unsavory ads that everyone could see regardless of age and "moral standing." Throw in technical difficulties and the platform quickly hemorrhaged users. If you want, you can read a thorough story here.

MySpace was displaced by Facebook, and the rest is history.

I'm still not on Facebook. Why? So many reasons, but they can be categorized into two camps: the politics of personal relationships and Facebook's use of my data. I think both are pretty self-explanatory, but I'll elaborate.

The politics of personal relationships requires that I friend people who I don't like or don't really connect with in real life. And then I have to like things that they post like "sitting on the couch with a bag of Doritos watching TV" or "here are 32 pictures of my kid". Some people don't understand the concept of oversharing. In either case, if I don't play along, I'm a dick. When I see them in person, I then have to explain why I didn't "like" their post or refused their friend request. Makes for some really awkward times. I much prefer to be polite and keep my interactions with them in small doses.

If that makes me seem like a jerk, I'll accept that. But one should bear in my mind, that politeness in uncomfortable situations keeps things civil. Human history is rife with violence. The polite veneer of civility helps us all get along, but it can be exhausting. Do I really need to play this game with people who overshare? Do we really need more drama?

Facebook uses its members' data to make money. Nothing is off limits. It seems like people are just waking up to this. The counter argument is that you can't something for nothing. Yeah, I get that. I'd pay a reasonable subscription for a social media platform (I already pay for my website) where I had full control over how my data was used. But nothing sells like FREE.

I'll spare you the whole fake news crap that surfaced during the last election. Like I want to have a page of lies clogging up my screen.

So why am I considering joining? Because nearly everyone is on there! That isn't hyperbole: 40 million businesses, 2 billion people. Start up companies (breweries come to mind) forego having websites in favor of a Facebook page due to cost and simplicity. But even mature businesses have a presence on Facebook to drum up interest and will use it to handle their communications.

As an indie author, I need to find ways to reach out to people. Websites and blogs are just islands in the vast sea of the internet. Facebook is a continent. If you don't have some connection, you won't necessarily die, but you won't flourish either. If one person likes something, it shows up in their feed, which their friends see. Some might actually follow up and see what their friend liked. Such is the power of the network.

I've tried two other social media platforms (besides MySpace), but neither compares to the Pangaea of Facebook.

Google+ is fine, but its activity is tepid. Yes, I realize that Google is using my data, but I'm careful about what I share. Also, I haven't had any of the liking pressure. Of course, nearly no one I know uses it. I keep wondering when Alphabet is going to pull the plug on it.

Goodreads is a haven for bookworms. Its defined structure means I don't have to worry about drowning in cat videos. Again, no pressure to like someone's review or update. But maybe that's because I don't have a big network of people I connect with there. That's not to say it doesn't have issues, but I haven't had a problem avoiding them. It also offers authors a means to self-promote. I haven't taken full advantage of them yet, but plan to once I finish Gateway to Empire. Maybe that will be enough, but I'm inclined to think not.

But maybe this angst is all for naught. There's anecdotal evidence that Facebook usage is in decline. By the time I get around to joining it, maybe all of its issues will have finally caught up to it and send the company down into a death spiral. I don't think so. It's too big to fail, and there aren't any real alternatives. Unless there's an anti-social media movement where we downplay the importance of its role in our lives, I don't see that happening.

So I guess I'd better get ready to like a lot of cat videos and baby pictures.


Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Book Review: The Practice Effect

book cover for The Practice EffectPhysicist Dennis Nuel is the first human to probe the strange realms called anomaly worlds: alternate universes where the laws of science are unpredictably changed. But the world Dennis discovers seems almost like our own—with one perplexing difference. To his astonishment, he’s hailed as a wizard, meets a beautiful woman with strange powers, and finds himself fighting a mysterious warlord as he struggles to solve the riddle of this baffling world.

While this novel is couched as sci-fi, it reads like fantasy. Sure, the beginning of the novel takes place in a near future Earth, and there's the zievatron thingee that allows Nuel to travel to another world, but it ends there. The rest of the novel is spent in a medieval world, and Nuel must put his wits to use inventing things to gain favor and the upper hand in his struggles with the denizens of this world. There's a princess who needs rescuing, castles and dungeons, and superstitious peasants.

So what is "the practice effect?" Well, you know how you have to practice playing the clarinet to learn a song or get on the ice and skate to improve your hockey skills (maybe not the best examples, but you should get my point)? On this world, that's how you make objects better. The more you use them as they're intended, the better they get. Got a pair of ripped jeans? Wear them a lot and let them practice being jeans and those rips will go away. Got a crude stone axe? Go chop some wood with it, and it'll slowly sharpen on its own accord.

If you remember physics class, you'll know which law has been turned on its head to make worn out things magically like new. Just another element to bolster the case for this being a fantasy novel.

90+% of the story is told from Nuel's POV. Fortunately that 10% exists as it affords the reader a chance to learn that the villainous Baron and Princess Linnora aren't two-dimensional stock characters. The Baron is greedy and lusts for power, but he does have a few principles. It was especially nice to see that, while the princess was in need of rescuing, she carried her own weight as the novel wore on.

None of this is said to infer that this is a bad book. It's definitely not. I enjoyed it. The pacing is good, and the story is entertaining. The characters are fine, though they could've used a little more depth. They're likable, you still root for them to succeed. The story could've devolved into one of those stereotypical square-jawed male heroic fantasy tropes that were so popular decades ago, but it didn't. Not Brin's best work, but still fun.

3 stars


Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Book Review: Mission of Gravity

Book cover for Mission of Gravity2.5 stars.

Clement's world building is the highlight of this sci-fi classic from 1954. Mesklin is a large, disc-shaped world that spins so fast that days are only 18 minutes long. Gravity runs from 3 G at the equator to 700 G at the poles. It is a world of liquid methane seas and ammonia snow. The humans have special environmental suits to protect them from the hostile atmosphere and tanks to get around, provided they stay close to the equator. And yet there's sentient life: 15 inch-long centipede-like beings who are in the early stages of civilization.

And that's the high point of this book.

Characterization is flat. Even the aliens show very little depth, behaving very much like their human counterparts. Interactions between Barlennan, the local Meskinite captain, and Lackland, his human contact, are rather easy. Lackland taught Barlennan English (before the story begins) and except for the occasional idiom or scientific concept, there is little lost in translation. The most interesting part is that the humans and Barlennan's trade group work together to solve problems rather than trying to kill one another.

Science fiction doesn't really age well. Unforeseen technological advances (Computers!) and cultural progression trip up most stories. While the technological hiccups here are few and easy enough to skip over (slide rule, film projector reel), and there isn't any cultural baggage, the writing style is stuck in the time period from when it was written. It's stale. Conversations are all business. The prose is stark, all too objective. It's the Asteroids video game equivalent of literature, with far fewer explosions.

The story is a very linear progression from one encounter to another as the Mesklinites journey from the equator, where they encountered to the south pole of their world to retrieve very expensive equipment from an incapacitated human rocket. It's as much a mission of exploration for the north pole dwelling Barlennan as it is for the visiting humans (though they're keeping an eye on the action via a radio). Unfortunately, we drown in minutiae, both travelogue and mathematical. At times, it seems as if Clement has written this story for boys yearning for careers in science. "Look lads, you can have all sorts of adventures if you study hard!"

It isn't bad, but it isn't terribly exciting either.


Monday, March 19, 2018

Book Review: Aftermath

book cover for AftermathAs the Empire reels from its critical defeats at the Battle of Endor, the Rebel Alliance—now a fledgling New Republic—presses its advantage by hunting down the enemy’s scattered forces before they can regroup and retaliate. But above the remote planet Akiva, an ominous show of the enemy’s strength is unfolding. Out on a lone reconnaissance mission, pilot Wedge Antilles watches Imperial Star Destroyers gather like birds of prey circling for a kill, but he’s taken captive before he can report back to the New Republic leaders.

Meanwhile, on the planet’s surface, former rebel fighter Norra Wexley has returned to her native world—war weary, ready to reunite with her estranged son, and eager to build a new life in some distant place. But when Norra intercepts Wedge Antilles’s urgent distress call, she realizes her time as a freedom fighter is not yet over. What she doesn’t know is just how close the enemy is—or how decisive and dangerous her new mission will be.

Determined to preserve the Empire’s power, the surviving Imperial elite are converging on Akiva for a top-secret emergency summit—to consolidate their forces and rally for a counterstrike. But they haven’t reckoned on Norra and her newfound allies—her technical-genius son, a Zabrak bounty hunter, and a reprobate Imperial defector—who are prepared to do whatever they must to end the Empire’s oppressive reign once and for all.

I wasn't planning on reading this one. After reading reviews by those whom I follow, it didn't strike me as a must-read. It's not an angry fan boy thing. Except for two volumes of the Knights of the Old Republic graphic novels, I haven't read any of the pre-Disney Star Wars novels either. But then I received this book for Christmas and so I had to read it.

I didn't like the writing at the beginning of the book. It was all short, choppy sentences, a good many of them incomplete. It was more like someone blocking a scene in the script to a movie. Fortunately, that style was abandoned and a true narrative took over. This is my first Wendig novel, so I have no idea if he does that sort of thing. Maybe he felt the need to set the scene that way, give the feel of a watching a movie. I liked his writing the rest of the way. Action scenes were choreographed well and his descriptions of the setting made it easy for me to visualize the scenes.

Other reviewers have pointed out how difficult it was to connect with characters that have never made it into film. I get that, but that wasn't much of a problem for me. Wendig's characters were well-developed. I particularly liked Jas the bounty hunter and Sinjir the ex-Imperial loyalty officer. I couldn't stand Norra's teen-aged son Temmin because Wendig nailed it (being a parent of one and a soon-to-be one I can attest to it), so props to you, sir! I think that Wendig had more freedom to develop these new characters than the familiar faces—I found Wedge Antilles to be sorely lacking, but Admiral Ackbar was ok, albeit limited.

Every few chapters there are "interludes." These short tales offered a glimpse into the lives of the everyday people on several worlds and how they dealt with the aftermath of the fall of the Empire. To be honest, I enjoyed these more than the story itself.

Which brings me to the reason why I didn't really love this book: the perceived significance of the events portrayed here. There's more drama packed into the lives of the Interlude characters than the main story. Sure it's entertaining, but I never got the impression that the stakes were high. The Epilogue may have teased something, but it was left too vague to ascertain what was actually teased. If Aftermath were a collection of Interlude short stories, I think I would've enjoyed it more.

All in all, this is still a fine book by an author forced to write with one hand tied behind his back. Three and a half stars.


Monday, March 5, 2018

First Milestone in a While

Murphy saying hello to a frogEvery winter for the last several years, I've made it my resolve to take advantage of being cooped up indoors and write. If you've paid any attention to me whatsoever, you know that I haven't been successful at all at seeing that resolution come to fruition. Sometimes the reasons are good: I have a freelance job editing or coding and I'm actually earning money. Sometimes the reasons aren't so good.

I'll confess here and now: I have seasonal affective disorder. I've had it at least as far back as my teens. It varies in intensity over spans of weeks and from one year to the next. Most years, it just wears on me, dragging on me like I'm pulling a sled full of firewood uphill in the snow. But occasionally, it pulls me down into a pit of despair. Over the last few years, I've had back-to-back bad winters and life came to a grinding halt. Fortunately, I have a loving wife and family to help me get through it.

I don't bring this up because I'm seeking pity. I don't like talking about it in general. When I grew up, admitting that you had a problem like this was a sign of weakness (I can only imagine what it's like for veterans with PTSD), and that hasn't left me, though society seems to be getting better about it. The reason why I'm bringing it up at all is that I feel like I owe an explanation to anyone and everyone who has paid any sort of attention to me as a writer. I feel like I've let them down. I want them to know that I'm not lazy or apathetic; I self-sabotage. I make up reasons not to write, or I'm such a zombie that before I know it, the day is gone. And this goes on every year.

But this winter I've managed to keep plugging away. I still throw up roadblocks to progress, but I've been able to make my way through the barricades more often than not. So I'm happy to announce that I've reached the 30,000-word milestone with the manuscript. To me, that could very well be halfway. Armistice Day wound up at 66,000 words over 250 pages, so there's that. For me, it's a psychological milestone, and I felt like sharing. It gives me a measure of hope that I'll actually keep my word about finishing the book this year.


Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Book Review: Equoid

Book cover for EquoidIf this story had come out ten years earlier, I would never have let my daughter play with those MyLittlePony™ things. But she grew to love giraffes instead of horses or unicorns, so I suppose that worry would've been for naught anyway. At least until Stross pens something horrific about those ungainly ungulates.

If you're new to the Laundry Files, this series is a bit of James Bond battles Lovecraftian beasties and the occult with a healthy dose of The Office thrown in. But our intrepid hero (Bob Howard) resembles John Oliver more than Daniel Craig. In Equoid, Bob is sent to investigate reports of an equoid infestation (unicorns) at a farm in southern England.

Stross has managed to take the wholesome creature of little girl fantasies (here's why) and, after running it through a Lovecraftian filter, turned it into a horrific monstrosity replete with squishy, icky things and pubescent nightmares (If I had read this at 14...[shudder]). It's so bad that, in all seriousness, some readers will be genuinely disturbed by the imagery. But it all fits. If you understand Lovecraft's universe and the biology of anglerfish well enough, you'll recognize that none of the horror is gratuitous.

Stross also offers a glimpse into what drove the first of several nervous breakdowns that HPL suffered during his teens. He does so by offering snippets of a letter "written" by HPL, which the Laundry has on file. I think Stross did a great job mimicking HPL's style for the letter.

If you've read any of the books in the Laundry Files series, you'll be familiar with the writing style and story structure. It's a great addition to the series, and I highly recommend it to all those who enjoy it.


Thursday, February 8, 2018

Book Review: Caliban's War

We are not alone.

On Ganymede, breadbasket of the outer planets, a Martian marine watches as her platoon is slaughtered by a monstrous supersoldier. On Earth, a high-level politician struggles to prevent interplanetary war from reigniting. And on Venus, an alien protomolecule has overrun the planet, wreaking massive, mysterious changes and threatening to spread out into the solar system.

In the vast wilderness of space, James Holden and the crew of the Rocinante have been keeping the peace for the Outer Planets Alliance. When they agree to help a scientist search war-torn Ganymede for a missing child, the future of humanity rests on whether a single ship can prevent an alien invasion that may have already begun . . .

Caliban's War is a breakneck science fiction adventure following the critically acclaimed Leviathan Wakes.

I really enjoyed this book, even more so than Leviathan Wakes, and that was great. This time around, I think the book is better than the TV show (too much chopped out so far), though there's still the second half of this book that season three of the TV show needs to cover.

For POV, Holden's still here, but gone is Miller's noir. In its place is Martian Marine Sgt Bobbie Draper, the political machinations of UN Assistant Undersecretary Chrisjen Avasarala, and the forlorn quest of Prax, a Ganymede biologist. It's a diverse cast with wildly different perspectives and personalities.

Prax's daughter was kidnapped just before the war started on Ganymede, so he spends all of his waking hours searching for her. He's wasting away, praying that she's still alive, but expecting the worst. By the time Holden and the others encounter him, he's so far gone that he's barely capable of speech.

Chrisjen is a foulmouthed bureaucrat. She cusses like a sailor, possibly worse. When asked why her language is so "colorful", she replies that it's to prevent others from thinking she's soft. Why would anyone think that of her? It's not because she's happily married and a grandmother. It's because she "won't kill children." It's a brutal insight into the political landscape of The Expanse. It's all a game, but she can't give it up because she doesn't trust the other players. Her repartee with Holden was excellent. I hope it holds up on the TV show. If it doesn't, it won't be because Shohreh Aghdashloo didn't hold up her end. Her portrayal of Chrisjen is spot on.

Bobbie's coping with PTSD after her squad was obliterated by the aforementioned "monstrous supersoldier" (I don't want to spoil it, but the title is a clue.). She wants answers; she wants revenge. IIRC, she's two meters tall and intimidates anyone who has a clue. And that's before she puts on battle armor. After the Martian government lets her down, she goes to work for Chrisjen, because she's the one person whose objectives are in line with her own. It's not without bumps along the way though. Bobbie is a stranger in a strange land and must confront her perceptions about Terrans (Mars seems a bit like Sparta).

So you have Bobbie and Chrisjen hunting down the bastards that made the supersoldiers while Prax and Holden's gang are searching for Prax's daughter. The plot lines converge, and all hell breaks loose. It's all so epic that I couldn't help but love it. I had too much fun reading this, which isn't an easy things for me to say about a book that's spitting distance from 600 pages. I can't wait to see season three and read Abaddon's Gate.