Thursday, November 28, 2019

Book Review: Broken Angels

Book cover for Broken AngelsCynical, quick-on-the-trigger Takeshi Kovacs, the ex-U.N. envoy turned private eye, has changed careers—and bodies—once more... trading sleuthing for soldiering as a warrior-for-hire, and helping a far-flung planet’s government put down a bloody revolution.

But when it comes to taking sides, the only one Kovacs is ever really on is his own. So when a rogue pilot and a sleazy corporate fat cat offer him a lucrative role in a treacherous treasure hunt, he’s only too happy to go AWOL with a band of resurrected soldiers of fortune. All that stands between them and the ancient alien spacecraft they mean to salvage are a massacred city bathed in deadly radiation, unleashed nanotechnology with a million ways to kill, and whatever surprises the highly advanced Martian race may have in store. But armed with his genetically engineered instincts, and his trusty twin Kalashnikovs, Takeshi is ready to take on anything—and let the devil take whoever’s left behind.

While Altered Carbon is a noir inspired mystery, Broken Angels is a treasure quest. Takeshi Kovacs, having had his sentence commuted after his success in the first novel, is now making a living as a mercenary on the war torn world of Sanction IV. His Envoy skills make him a valuable asset, and thus he is suited up in an enhanced sleeve—slang term for body, whether organic or artificial—with all sorts of neurological advances (thought controlled weapon interfaces) and biochemical additives (combat ready focus, situational awareness) that make him more lethal than ever. Despite his propensity for killing, we know from Altered Carbon that he's not a heartless monster. He has a code that he lives by, and it's pretty much what keeps him from falling into the abyss of soulless killing machine. He's no prig; he knows what he's doing. But even in war, there are lines that shouldn't be crossed.

All the carnage has added an extra layer of world weariness to his cynical mindset, so when he's offered a chance to go AWOL for a huge payout, he jumps at the chance. The prize is an ancient Martian spacecraft, floating in a remote location of the solar system, but only accessible through a teleportation gate. The only person who knows where the gate is and how to open it is archeologist Tanya Wardani, who's currently wasting away in a refugee camp. Envoys are more than elite soldiers; they're also skilled in the social sciences. Wardani has PTSD, and Kovacs has to work with her—primarily in VR as time can be sped up or slowed down as per the situation—to assist in her recovery.

The Martians were barely discussed in the first book. Basically they're the key to interstellar travel, even providing maps to inhabitable worlds in this corner of the galaxy. Much is still unknown about them, but their remnant technological artifacts are priceless. Archaeology has become a multi-billion dollar industry, despite the protests of actual scientists, and corporations fight over access to dig sites, hoping for the next big find that will yield a bonanza.

Mandrake, one of these corporations, is bankrolling this mission and profiting from the war. Matthias Hand is the executive representing Mandrake. He and Kovacs put together a team from a pile of purchased cortical stacks—the constructs which house the backup of everyone's consciousness, built like airplane black boxes—from the salvaged war dead. The recruitment process, which takes place entirely in VR, makes for a great introduction to each of the book's minor characters, and I found each of these interviews intriguing.

The team then heads to the site of the gate so that Wardani can get to work. There are a host of problems: The nearby city of Sauberville has been nuked, and radiation is slowly killing even these engineered sleeves; there's a saboteur in their midst; Hand's rivals have dropped a semi-intelligent lethal nanobot assembly nearby; and the only way out is guarded by Kovacs' former mercenary unit.

There are a couple sex scenes in the book that seemed gratuitous, especially as they didn't do much in the way of character development, but Morgan plants a clue to the identity of the saboteur in each scene that could easily be overlooked. Still, I have to wonder if they could've been handled differently.

The violence is graphic, but essential to the story. Morgan is emphasizing how terrible and dehumanizing war is. Sanction IV has become a corporate testing ground for the latest and greatest in military hardware. Human life is devalued so much that it becomes nothing more than a line item on a corporate balance sheet. Death is a form of slavery as soldiers become indebted to those who upload their stacks into new sleeves—at a price—and sent back to the front. The alternative is eternity in VR limbo. Stack death is the only true death.

Fortunately, the Martian ship proves to be more than just a MacGuffin. In fact, Morgan plays it up like a cross between a haunted house and Egyptian tomb. Morgan also ties it into the book's anti-war theme, but I won't spoil it for you.

All in all, I found Broken Angels to be a highly entertaining and engaging read, full of action, mystery, and the occasional philosophical debate on the nature of life, death, war, and spirituality.

5 stars


Thursday, November 7, 2019

Book Review: Hellboy Volume 5 - The Conqueror Worm

book cover for Hellboy volume 5Part two of my Halloween read, and as good as part one was, this was even better.

This volume contains the one story and there's a lot to it. The Nazis are back, and one of their experiments from the war is coming to fruition sixty years later. Hellboy and the homunculus—they named it Roger—are sent to a spooky castle somewhere high up in the Austrian Alps where said experiment was conducted and thought to be destroyed by a military expedition led by some vigilante named Lobster Johnson. Much smashing occurs.

This collection has everything: poetry samples from Poe, Lovecraftian nightmares, restless spirits of the damned, hordes of ghoulish creations, undead minions, transmogrified soldiers, subterranean lairs with steampunk machinery, and a Nazi mad scientist. What else could you want?

Ok, there's more. Hellboy has his usual witty responses to the situations he stumbles into. It's his coping mechanism. Loyalty and trust are two of his strongest traits. He's expects underhanded behavior from strangers and outright villains, but the BPRD does something to royally piss him off, and he's forced to reconsider his relationship with them.

Roger the homunculus gets plenty of screen time. There's some self-reflection on what he is and how he fits into this modern world, centuries after his creation.

This is probably my favorite of the Hellboy volumes that I've read so far.

4.5 stars


Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Book Review: Hellboy Volume 4 - The Right Hand of Doom

book cover for The Right Hand of DoomHalloween is fast approaching, but I didn't have anything spooky on the nightstand or the kindle, so I went to the library and picked up the next two volumes of Hellboy.

The Right Hand of Doom is a collection of eight stories: one backstory, five missions, and two which deal with Hellboy and his destiny.

Hellboy typically gives people the benefit of the doubt. He might harbor suspicions, but he won't act on them until he gets more information. As such, people mistake this behavior for weakness or cluelessness. But in the end, Hellboy rallies or fate intervenes, and these people ultimately come out on the losing end of things. This theme runs through "The Nature of the Beast," "King Vold," and "Heads."

And Hellboy has a sense of humor, too, although it can be a bit dark sometimes. "Pancakes," "Heads," and "Goodbye, Mister Tod" have their humorous incidents, whether they be intended or not.

"Pancakes" kicks things off, and it's about Hellboy's introduction to, as can be surmised, pancakes. It's a short—merely two pages—and cute. I won't say anything else to avoid spoiling it.

"The Nature of the Beast" sees Hellboy off to meet some cabal of Englishmen in 1954 to investigate the folktale of one Saint Leonard the Hermit. Apparently there's a dragon involved.

Professor Bruttenholm asks Hellboy to go to Norway in 1956 to help out a friend, and fellow paranormal researcher, in "King Vold." Said friend is investigating King Vold, aka the Flying Huntsman.

Hellboy goes to Japan in "Heads." The year is 1967, and Hellboy is wandering in the forests outside of Kyoto, looking for a haunted house, where he is put up for the night at the local equivalent of a bed and breakfast.

In 1979, the Bureau sends him to Portland, Oregon to investigate a complaint about a physical medium in "Goodbye, Mister Tod." "Just say no" never carried as serious a repercussion as what's portrayed here.

"The Vârcolac" sees Hellboy investigating the rise of Countess Ilona Kakosy, a powerful vampire, in Romania in 1992. Even Hellboy feels fear.

"The Right Hand of Doom" and "Box Full of Evil" are bookends of a sort. The collection's title track gathers all that we have learned about Hellboy's past and details that came up in volumes one and two and reflects upon them. The latter story finds someone attempting to force Hellboy's destiny upon him, not to bring about the Apocalypse as Rasputin hoped, but to enslave him. Combined, these stories reflect on destiny and fate. Are we bound to it, and thus, do we let it control us? Is free will an illusion? Do we make our own fate, or is it predetermined? These are questions that Hellboy has to answer for himself, with a little bit of help of course.

The artwork remains quintessential Mignola. The man knows how to make the most of shadows and light. Dave Stewart colored this volume, using a palette of muted pastels to evoke the surroundings of our intrepid red friend.

4 stars.


Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Book Review: The Lost Fleet - Dauntless

book cover for Dauntless - Lost Fleet #1The Alliance has been fighting the Syndics for a century—and losing badly. Now its fleet is crippled and stranded in enemy territory. Their only hope is a man who's emerged from a century-long hibernation to find he has been heroically idealized, beyond belief...

Captain John "Black Jack" Geary's legendary exploits are known to every schoolchild. Revered for his heroic "last stand" in the early days of the war, he was presumed dead. But a century later, Geary miraculously returns from survival hibernation and reluctantly takes command of the Alliance fleet as it faces annihilation by the Syndics.

Appalled by the hero-worship around him, Geary is nevertheless a man who will do his duty. And he knows that bringing the stolen Syndic hypernet key safely home is the Alliance's one chance to win the war. But to do that, Geary will have to live up to the impossibly heroic "Black Jack" legend.

This book got off to an awkward start for me. We're introduced to Geary shortly before he's ordered to take command of the Alliance fleet. First impression: cranky and in serious need of a chill pill. After we're finally given some backstory, we learn why he's so irritable. He eventually learns how to deal with his situation, so between the two, he grew on me as the book went along. But I can't help but feel that that initial awkwardness could've been avoided if Campbell had written a prologue that depicted the "heroic last stand" attributed to Geary or the scene where they revive him from stasis with his mind clouded by confusion over memories of the battle and waking up a century later. I think either scene would've generated immediate sympathy for Geary rather than this standoffish behavior.

Jack Campbell is the nom de plume of John G. Hemry, a retired Naval officer. Given his experience, the manuscript has an air of authenticity when it comes to the interactions between the characters. Hemry lived the life; it's second nature to him. So while the story takes place centuries from now, the way Hemry handles navy culture makes the story all the more relatable.

The story is told entirely from Geary's POV, but the narrative is in third-person so Geary can't hide his feelings or motivations from the reader. He struggles with returning military discipline to a fleet full of would be heroes, a trend that he inadvertently helped to create. While other characters might accuse him of duplicity, we know that isn't the case. Speaking of other characters, the two other characters that interact the most with Geary are Captain Tanya Desjani, who commands the Dauntless, and Victoria Rione, Co-President of the Callas Republic, a key Alliance ally. Both of them believe in the legend of Black Jack Geary, but interpret it differently. As "ancestor worship" has become the de facto religion among humans, having a legend seemingly return from the dead is seen by a blessing by some and a curse by others. Desjani hopes that it means Geary will lead the fleet home, but she doesn't fawn all over him like a schoolgirl with a crush. Rione shares the same hopes, but she worries that the legend will overtake the man and fuel an ambition for political power.

I'm going to speculate a bit here since I can't find the answer on the internet. Geary is shocked to learn that the Alliance navy has grown distant from the values and traditions that were held in high regard back in his day. Some things are merely surprising (hardly anyone salutes); others are downright shocking to him. The rules of war seem to have largely been abandoned. In particular, the way the Alliance treats POWs disgusts him. This book was first published in 2006. Given how long it takes for a novel to make it to market, I wouldn't be surprised if Hemry started writing this element into the story after learning about the Bush administration's use of waterboarding as an "enhanced interrogation" technique. I can't imagine that John McCain was the only veteran to be sickened by that. I don't know Hemry, but if Geary's values are in any way a reflection of his, then I have to think that those revelations played a part in this story.

Overall I found it an enjoyable story, even if the dialogue was a little stiff at times and the relativistic physics lessons were repetitive. Geary was a clever character put into a difficult situation with problems to solve and relationships to juggle. I can see why the series has been so successful and continue with it.

3.5 stars


Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Book Review: Cibola Burn

Book cover for Cibola BurnThe gates have opened the way to thousands of habitable planets, and the land rush has begun. Settlers stream out from humanity's home planets in a vast, poorly controlled flood, landing on a new world. Among them, the Rocinante, haunted by the vast, posthuman network of the protomolecule as they investigate what destroyed the great intergalactic society that built the gates and the protomolecule.

But Holden and his crew must also contend with the growing tensions between the settlers and the company which owns the official claim to the planet. Both sides will stop at nothing to defend what's theirs, but soon a terrible disease strikes and only Holden - with help from the ghostly Detective Miller - can find the cure.

Some refugees from Ganymede have come to settle Ilus (New Terra to others). Life is hard, but it's better than spending the rest of your life stuck on a spaceship begging for food and scrounging spare parts for your CO2 scrubber. The soil chemistry isn't quite right, but the lithium mine is a cash cow. Just gotta fill up the cargo hold and head back to Medina Station to sell it. That'll generate enough cash to buy what they need to thrive.

The thing is, they didn't check with anyone first. Why would they? It seemed like everyone turned their back on them. Along comes Royal Charter Energy (RCE) with a UN claim for the world and things get complicated fast. And by complicated, I mean people die.

Chrisjen Avarsarala (UN) and Fred Johnson (OPA) decide to hire the crew of the Rocinante to mediate the dispute. Holden doesn't want to go, but the protomolecule Miller simulacrum insists. It's been formulated by the protomolecule remnant to investigate why its creators are all gone, and it nags Holden just enough to make him even want to know.

Besides Holden, we get POVs from Basia Merton (one of the squatters), Elvi Okoye (RCE scientist), and Dimitri Havelock (security officer on board the RCE ship Edward Israel, presumably named after the astronomer). The authors do a great job getting you into their heads so that you can understand their motivations. Basia will do anything to protect his family after losing a son on Ganymede. Elvi is the consummate biologist, thrilled to be exploring a new world. Havelock was Miller's partner back on Ceres before the Julie Mao case became Miller's obsession and dealt with his share of anti-Earther bias.

His boss is Adolphus Murtry, a ruthless by-the-book kind of guy, who—to borrow the description that Amos and Holden have for him—is an asshole. Havelock mentions him working corporate prisons and industrial security his whole career. We don't get his POV though, so it's tough to figure out why he's so hardcore on enforcing RCE's charter given what happens over the course of the novel.

The authors explore the mythologizing of public figures. Holden and crew have a solar system-wide reputation at this point. In light of their accomplishments, Holden's public persona has been manipulated in the news media so much that he is hero to some, villain to others. We see that here as some characters are heartened at the news of his arrival to the colony. They assume that he will inherently agree with them on the spot and set things right, not realizing that things aren't that simple. Others view him as a dunce, easy to manipulate and render feckless. But, as Naomi put it to Havelock...
"A lot of people have underestimated Jim over the last few years. A lot of them aren't with us anymore."
I had a tough time putting this down at night and constantly checked the clock to see if I could squeeze in another chapter. Besides obviously wanting to know what happened to Holden and company, I was engaged with all of the POV characters this time. Each one went through personal growth, discovering things about themselves that felt good to see realized. While the standoff between the RCE personnel and the squatters was tense enough, a certain natural disaster that occurred midway through the book just amplified things.

This was a much better story than Abaddon's Gate. While all the interesting stuff happened in the first half of that book—and the second half was tedious with power mad jerks and body count padding—Cibola Burn carried my interest all the way through. It's a sci-fi adventure that lives up to the promise made in the first book. Now I get to worry and wonder what the TV show is going to cut out for season four.

4.5 stars


Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Book Review: The Annihilation Score

book cover for the Annihilation ScoreDominique O’Brien—her friends call her Mo—lives a curious double life with her husband, Bob Howard. To the average civilian, they’re boring middle-aged civil servants. But within the labyrinthine secret circles of Her Majesty’s Government, they’re operatives working for the nation’s occult security service known as the Laundry, charged with defending Britain against dark supernatural forces threatening humanity.

Unfortunately, one of those supernatural threats has come between Mo and Bob. An antique violin, an Erich Zahn original, made of white human bone, was designed to produce music capable of slaughtering demons. Mo is the custodian of this unholy instrument. It invades her dreams and yearns for the blood of her colleagues—and her husband. And despite Mo’s proficiency as a world-class violinist, it cannot be controlled…

When I first heard about a Laundry Files book featuring Mo, I was psyched. When narrating the other stories, Bob always said great things about her, particularly her kick ass-ery. She seemed like an under-utilized character in the series. But after reading some of the negative reviews, I decided to put off reading this one for a while. I went back and read all the short stories in the series that pre-dated this one. Reading those stories—happy tentacle times—put the series right, and I was finally ready to tackle this one.

The story picks up just before the climax of The Rhesus Chart (book #5) and reveals where and what Mo was doing at the time. It leads to the post-climactic standoff that ended book #5 from Mo's POV. Sadly, it seems that the pedestal that Bob placed Mo on was lovingly misguided. As the blurb indicates, Lecter, Mo's nickname for the white violin (a Lovecraft legacy), has inserted itself into the relationship. It haunts her dreams, teasing her that someday she'll be all his, body and soul. Primarily soul. It really wants Bob out of the picture. After a fight, whereupon it is clear that the violin is definitely playing Mo, Bob and Mo agree to a trial separation.

While there seems to be some will on behalf of both parties to work things out, work gets in the way. The death of Bob's boss has him traveling around the world putting out fires while Mo is tasked with starting up a new department (Transhuman Police Coordination Force) whose responsibility is to oversee the sudden uptick in people with superpowers (more on that in a minute). Most of the novel is taken up with Mo preparing for and attending meeting after meeting. There are so many meetings! Ugh! It couldn't get any more boring. There's no dramatic tension. At least with Bob, there's always the chance that the PowerPoint presentation will turn people into literal zombies rather than the figurative variety.

In giving voice to Mo, Stross has painted us a terribly unlikable person. It's a stressful time for both of them, but Mo lashes out at literally the one person she can confide in (break the oath, suffer debilitating pain) and seek solace against the nightmares they face at work. Rather than rehash what others have already said, I would ask you to consider reading the reviews from Will (he likens Mo to Bridget Jones), AMiL (calls attention to Mo's hypocrisy), and Torie (full on takedown) as they cover all the bases. The thing is, judging by a moment of introspection late in the novel, Stross did this on purpose. Mo has to sink to the bottom before she can bounce back. Stross risks alienating his readers with this course, and in this reader's opinion, it wasn't worth it.

Stross does a fine job explaining how superpowered people exist in the Laundryverse without violating the rules that he's established. I mean, I accept the logic of his argument, I just don't like it. I wasn't keen on the introduction of vampires (PHANGs in the bureaucratic vernacular) in the previous novel, but Stross made it work. I'm even less enthused about superheroes and supervillains. I enjoy the MCU, but I don't want them mixing in my Lovecraftian fiction.

Ultimately, the big reveal doesn't happen until the last forty pages or so. There were a few clues, but Mo never picked up on them as she was too self-absorbed with her problems and giddy over her new beau. I won't say that it was implausible—we live in strange times—but it was disappointingly short-sighted by those involved.

It's a character-driven novel; the story was secondary. The climax was more for Mo's personal growth than the plot. Slogging it out with her as she worked through everything had its moments, but they were too few and far between (MEETINGS!) and she was a difficult person to empathize with. It has been my experience that when people go through divorces, family and friends are often collateral damage. That's how I felt reading this book.

2.5 stars


Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Reading Night

Sony Triniton TVAs a kid, I naturally took to books. Way back in the 70s, the internet was still the province of the Defense Department and a few select universities, our phones didn't do anything more than ring, and computers were these massive monoliths that didn't do much besides crunch a few numbers. Sure there was TV, but we only had 13 channels. The only real medium to feed your imagination was books.

Despite my best efforts, my son lost interest in books after several years. He blamed school for forcing him to read dull books. My daughter made a decent attempt at it, but I could tell I was losing her to games and social media.

This was disheartening and completely unacceptable. I wanted them to read more, but I didn't want to make it seem like a chore. After years of failed attempts to persuade them to read more, I made the rather draconian move to institute "reading night." One night per week, the family would gather in a room and read for an hour. My wife had my back, so my iron fist of literacy wouldn't break.

There was resistance at first, but when I explained that I didn't care what was read, they decided to test me on it. Graphic novels were brought out, but I didn't say a word. In fact, I engaged them afterwards about what they read. I even picked up books from them after they'd read them, and when I finished, I talked to them about them.

Nowadays, my kids actually look forward to reading night. One of them will remind me, and if we missed our regular day, they'll insist we make it up. And this summer my son got a job at our local Barnes & Noble (yes, they still exist). This morning he let me know about a sale that was going on soon and mentioned a book that he thought that we'd both be interested in.

While this victory may be a small one for me, I feel that the true winners are my kids.


Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Book Review: All Systems Red

book cover for All Systems RedIn a corporate-dominated spacefaring future, planetary missions must be approved and supplied by the Company. Exploratory teams are accompanied by Company-supplied security androids, for their own safety.

But in a society where contracts are awarded to the lowest bidder, safety isn’t a primary concern.

On a distant planet, a team of scientists are conducting surface tests, shadowed by their Company-supplied ‘droid—a self-aware SecUnit that has hacked its own governor module, and refers to itself (though never out loud) as “Murderbot.” Scornful of humans, all it really wants is to be left alone long enough to figure out who it is.

But when a neighboring mission goes dark, it's up to the scientists and their Murderbot to get to the truth.

As it says in the blurb, Murderbot hacked its governor module—for those not mechanically inclined, think of it as a choke collar. While it follows its orders so that it isn't discovered and risk getting scrapped, it has the freedom to ignore commands it doesn't want to carry out or just pretend to carry them out. It doesn't want to talk about its feelings or hang out with the human crew. It wants to spend as much free time as possible watching thousands of hours of entertainment media it downloaded. Introverts everywhere will identify with Murderbot and quite possibly want its weapons complement to keep pesky annoyances at bay.

The novella is told entirely from Murderbot's POV, but it is perceptive enough to gauge others' reactions to it. And the internal dialogue is full of plenty biting humor that I guffawed audibly several times, eliciting curious inquiries from my family.

Being part-organic, Murderbot isn't invincible either. Although the company has built them to be self-repairing, they are disposable to some extent. Murderbot's vulnerability is made obvious to the reader from the outset. But despite this, Murderbot doesn't hesitate to throw itself into danger. Is its programming overriding self-preservation, or does it actually have a smidge of empathy for the humans it's assigned to protect? That's up to the reader to figure out.

Highly enjoyable. 5 stars.


Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Book Review: First Light (Red #1)

book cover for First LightLieutenant James Shelley, who has an uncanny knack for premeditating danger, leads a squad of advanced US Army military tasked with enforcing the peace around a conflict in sub-Saharan Africa. The squad members are linked wirelessly 24/7 to themselves and a central intelligence that guides them via drone relay—and unbeknownst to Shelley and his team, they are being recorded for a reality TV show.

When an airstrike almost destroys their outpost, a plot begins to unravel that's worthy of Crichton and Clancy's best. The conflict soon involves rogue defense contractors, corrupt US politicians, and homegrown terrorists who possess nuclear bombs. Soon Shelley must accept that the helpful warnings in his head could be AI. But what is the cost of serving its agenda?

Back in my indie book reviewer days, I'd heard that this book was originally self-published before it was picked up by Saga Press (Simon & Schuster). Then the accolades poured in, and the story garnered three award nominations. So I made a note to pick it up once I had the chance. Now, having read it, I can see why. The writing is tight and polished. The opening hook grabs you ("There needs to be a war going on somewhere...") and pulls you in, the action is well-choreographed, and there's plenty of dramatic tension.

The military jargon and procedural actions ring true. The gear is well thought out and frickin' cool. Nagata provides mid-21st century soldiers with powered exoskeletons, "skullcap" computer interfaces that send signals to the body to adjust biochemical responses to the surrounding environment, and implants to connect with weapons and recon drones.

The story starts in the Sahel, and I enjoyed the way it unfolded, but then, in a major plot twist, Shelley gets injured and the story shifts stateside to focus on his recovery and rehabilitation. The time in the hospital gives him a chance to reconnect with his former lover, his father, and the journalist who fatefully led to his army recruitment. We learn more of Shelley's past and the dystopian world (similar to our own) he lives in. We also learn that there appears to be an AI that's gone rogue (The Red). It's intentions are unknown, but it seems very interested in Shelley.

I would've thought that a military thriller with cyberpunk elements would've been everything I needed here, but it didn't pan out. So what's the problem? Quite simply, me. The book had me hooked at the start, but then it lost me with the setting change. Developed characters were suddenly lost, irrelevant to the overall story. The pace slowed way down, too. I cut it some slack, feeling that Nagata was ramping things up for this new direction, but then the plot radically changed course again. The confrontation I expected was pushed back to another novel. I couldn't get on board with the new course.

As well written as the story was, I couldn't connect to it. I felt like I was reading the script to the Rock's next action movie. Once Nagata described Shelley, I couldn't not picture him in the lead. And that's fine. I think he's incredibly talented for a particular genre of films, and I've enjoyed every one that I've seen him in. It's just that Mr. Johnson's movies aren't something I want to read.

3.5 stars.


Monday, July 22, 2019

Book Review: A Princess of Mars

book cover for A Princess of MarsJohn Carter is out in the American West of the 1880s and, while being chased by bloodthirsty Indians (paraphrasing his description), stumbles into a cave whereupon he's mysteriously teleported to Mars, or Barsoom as the locals call it. He proceeds to have swashbuckling adventures as the planet's lower gravity gives him amazing strength and agility.

My interest in reading this book came from watching Disney's movie interpretation. Other than getting the title wrong, I thought that they did a fine job. My daughter loved it even more than me, particularly for the lovable woola. But I'm going to say something unpopular with the fans of the books: I liked the Disney version more. Blasphemy, you say? Well, here's the thing. This book was written in 1912 in first person diary mode. John Carter writes about how awesome he is at everything—which gets tired real fast—and we know he's never in any real peril as the diary was written years after his adventures, taking away any sense of suspense. The dialogue is weighed down by romantic writing, better suited for yearning hearts on the wastes of Scottish moors. I realize that that was the preferred style of the day, but it suits Poe and Hawthorne far better than the dry and dusty deserts of Mars, chock full of people fighting over dwindling resources.

Speaking ill of the classics is frowned upon. These people were literary pioneers, forging forward into territories no one had dreamt of before, well, published anyway. They inspired millions! For that, I give credit. But the thing is, first isn't necessarily best and doesn't mean the story won't age well. They need help in the modern age. I certainly haven't seen a Western where people talk this way. Look at it another way. Shakespeare's works are timeless, part of the reason is that they take place when, and often where, they were written. I don't see anyone mourning their broken iPhones, saying, "Alas, poor Siri! I knew her, Horatio; an AI of infinite search results, of most excellent fancy; she hath borne me great Yelp reviews a thousand times..."

Plenty of the writers that I enjoy were inspired by Burroughs (Bradbury springs foremost to mind), yet they broke away from stodgy writing to tell their tales in more modern terms using language that has a longer shelf life.

Were there elements that I liked? Sure! But I can't say that there was enough to truly enjoy it. Perhaps, if I'd read it a century ago...

2.5 stars.


Thursday, June 27, 2019

Book Review: Three Days in Moscow

book cover for Three Days in MoscowDon't let the title fool you. This book is about far more than that. It covers Reagan's adversarial relationship with the former Soviet Union and communism. There's quite a bit of background biography to explain how Reagan came to be the hardliner he was. It highlights the big four speeches he gave and the summits with Gorbachev.

Baier parked himself in the Reagan library (with Catherine Whitney's help) and interviewed many people who worked with Reagan through his political career. There's a ton of footnotes to back up things that were said and done. While it glosses over the uglier parts of Reagan's foreign policy and his anti-communist crusade (an observation, not a criticism), the book is really good when it focuses on the relationship between Reagan and Gorbachev. I was pleasantly surprised to find Gorbachev treated so well in the text.

As for Baier, it was clear that he was wearing his fanboy pants when he wrote this. That's clear from the introduction when he recalls "being struck by awe" during a visit to the White House for a special event when he was a senior in high school. The press were on the outskirts of the event and Baier remembers being pissed off (my words, his emotion) at Sam Donaldson for rudely interrupting the event. I think if the young Mr. Baier could've bopped him on the nose for it, he would've, not that I could blame him. Sam Donaldson was annoying. But Baier seemed a little obsessed, referencing him three more times, IIRC, each time negatively.

Another negative of the book was the last chapter. I think the effect was intended to bring the US-Russian relationship to the present day. After panning Bush-43 and Obama for their failure to properly address Putin's trouble-making, he went on to compare Trump to Reagan. The text is contorted with attempts to make Trump seem like Reagan while acknowledging some of the glaring differences. For someone who was so enamored of Reagan, I don't see how he could even think about equating the two in a positive context.

I was a teenager while Reagan was President. I had issues with authority back then (Ok, I still do), and Reagan's fiery rhetoric coupled with the cult-like fandom he inspired gave me nightmares. I didn't expect to live to see thirty. I was shocked when the Berlin Wall came down. Surprise! Reagan's strategy worked! Alas, the democratic principles he sought for the Soviet Union didn't survive Putin's thugocracy.

As I've gotten older, I've come to appreciate Reagan. While I still don't see eye-to-eye with plenty of his policies, I miss his congenial disposition, something sorely lacking in today's politics. I wasn't planning on reading this book, but a friend of mine insisted I read it, and I'm glad that I did. Well, most of it anyway.

4 stars.


Monday, June 3, 2019

Book Review: Across the Sea of Suns

book cover for Across the Sea of SunsGalactic Center Saga Book #2.

First, a bit of backstory. I actually started this series, not knowing it was a series, back in the 80s. I'd picked up this book 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. A couple of years ago I stumbled across the first book of the series at a library book sale and decided that I would read the series from start to finish. Review of the first book, In the Ocean of Night, can be found here.

Decades have passed since the events that transpired in the first book. The alien wreck on the Moon has been reverse engineered to provide humanity with interstellar flight capability (roughly 0.9c). Earlier, a radio signal had been detected from a world (Isis) orbiting Lalande 21185 (Ra). A hollowed out asteroid, dubbed Lancer, has been fitted the new technology from the alien wreck (basically a Bussard Ramjet). Nigel Walmsley, our "hero" from the first book, and his girlfriend, Nikka, have been selected to be on the mission to investigate the source of the radio signal.

Meanwhile on Earth, alien ships have arrived and landed in the oceans, releasing two alien lifeforms, Swarmers and Skimmers. The Swarmers, roughly the size of a great white shark and equipped with sticky proboscises attached to their bellies, are attacking shipping worldwide and, for some reason that I can't fathom, has managed to cripple commerce and stymied the world's navies through headbutts and sticky bio-rope. It's a premise that defies belief. Even if one continues the assumption in the first book that the global economy never recovered from the malaise of the 1970s, nearly a century has passed in the book's timeline (and this book was written during Reagan's first term). For a species to be able to reverse engineer an alien spacecraft and achieve interstellar flight to not be able to figure out a solution to its global energy crisis and provide for national defense against space sharks is just plain nonsense.

Anyway, back to the plot. Warren is a survivor from one of these attacks. After floating on a makeshift raft for weeks, he manages to make a discovery about the Skimmers that offers some clues about the invaders. Warren is a tough guy to like. While I applauded his exceptional resourcefulness (if more people were like him...sorry, going off topic again), he could be a bit of a jerk. It took me a while before I could root for him to succeed.

Back in space, Nigel and Nikka struggle with the most petty onboard ship politics and relationships (I hope this is the last of Benford's books with three-person relationships. It smacks of wish fulfillment.). Much is learned about the aliens on Isis, but mysteries remain. Nigel argues that based on their discoveries here, the Moon, and his encounters with alien craft back home, that there is an malevolent alien intelligence afoot. But since the guy's an arrogant jerk, people don't want to believe him. Lancer is run as a democratic socialist state with one elected leader, Ted, who calls the shots with input from section chiefs. Ted thinks that Nigel wants to run things and blocks him whenever he can justify it. Benford is clearly no fan of this command structure, writing:
It took a week to reach a shipwide consensus, then another to plan the raid.
Could you ever imagine that happening in Star Trek?

There's even more wrong with this book. For instance, whenever Nigel listens in to the shipwide communications channel, we get all of the voices coming at once without any real designation of who's talking. It's like being at a party and attempting to listen to every conversation at once with everyone talking over one another. While Nigel is supposed to be able to follow it because his mind was "touched by an alien" in the first book, we poor readers are stuck with pages of babble, presented in italics without punctuation or speaker identification. And for a group of people that are supposed to be among the best and brightest, they come across as so much rabble, thumping their chests in proud ignorance.

Benford also gives an inordinate amount of time to on-demand sex changes. I wonder what transgender folks think of his approach. Is he flippant for making it something done on a whim, or is he progressive for this society's attitude that it's not a big deal. Both Nigel and Warren have to deal with others who have gone through the change. In neither case does it advance the plot, but rather it serves to further alienate the men from their fellow humans. And neither transgendered person comes across better for it, merely petty. I think I have my answer.

The original ending to the book was the worst sort of cliffhanger. There was no sense of direction and far too much unresolved. Ten pages were added to the paperback edition (which I somehow seem to have acquired). There was enough there to resolve events that transpired in this book and offer a way forward for the series. It changed the tone of the story. Even Nigel managed to lead by example, rather than just being a curmudgeon.

So what's good here? Well, there are kernels of good plots here with the protagonists attempting to figure out who is responsible for the turmoil they're seeing. The world building is great, both scientifically plausible (ignoring the space sharks) and interesting. And the malevolent alien intelligence that takes shape promises to be a worthy villain for the series. Benford is a physicist, having had his Ph.D fifteen years before writing this book, and continued working in the field up until 2006.

2.5 stars.


Friday, May 31, 2019

Book Review: Saga - Volume 7

book cover for Saga Volume 7While en route to reunite Sir Robot IV (no longer a prince) with his son, the treeship has run out of fuel and makes an emergency stop on the war torn world of Phang. In previous issues, Phang has always been referred to as a terrible place. Sophie, who was a child when she was sold as a sex slave, was orphaned on Phang. Marko's unit had a rotation there. So it was with some trepidation that the ship touched down, though it was in a ruined city far from the front lines. They soon meet a tribe of simple meerkat-like people who lived among the ruins and spend the next six months taking care of them, making food for all these mouths greatly slows down the refueling process.

Sir Robot IV's emotional struggles return to the forefront. He projects his internal conflict upon Marko and Alana, hating them, yet admiring them on some level. He grows tired of the wait and plans on heading out to scout out a robot embassy for fuel. Isabel volunteers to go first to make sure the way is safe.

Petrichor, who took Klara's spot on the ship, maintains her vigilance. In many ways, she could be Marko's sister. She has all of Marko's mother's initial attitudes towards Marko and Alana yet remains protective of Hazel. It's as if Vaughn hit the reset button on Klara but took away the familial connection.

The Will continues to struggle with the loss of his girlfriend and his sister. Yeah, his story arc is tired as this "woe is me" crap has been going on since Volume 2. As bad as he was in Volume 6, he seems to find a new low. He goes in search of Gwendolyn and Sophie, who are working on a project that can bring the war on Phang to an end once and for all, in hopes that working with them again will help him get out of the gutter. Later, he encounters someone from his past that will hopefully do something to his storyline to make it less pathetic.

With The Will mostly incapacitated, a new freelancer has been hired to track down Alana, Marko, and Hazel. Alas, this person didn't make for a convincing character or villain. Nothing about this character seemed plausible, which is saying a lot considering the creativity employed thus far in this fantasy series. The character seemed more like a means to an end and wasn't properly thought out.

All of the past talk about Phang being such a terrible place was foreshadowing. Actual battle scenes are few, but terrible things happen.

Artwork continues to be excellent. While I really notice it in the color palette, the rendering of many a scene completely captures the emotions and thoughts of characters in events both mundane and charged.

4 stars.


Monday, May 6, 2019

Book Review: Abaddon's Gate

Book cover for Abaddon's GateFor generations, the solar system - Mars, the Moon, the Asteroid Belt - was humanity's great frontier. Until now. The alien artifact working through its program under the clouds of Venus has emerged to build a massive structure outside the orbit of Uranus: a gate that leads into a starless dark.

Jim Holden and the crew of the
Rocinante are part of a vast flotilla of scientific and military ships going out to examine the artifact. But behind the scenes, a complex plot is unfolding, with the destruction of Holden at its core. As the emissaries of the human race try to find whether the gate is an opportunity or a threat, the greatest danger is the one they brought with them.

I have to say that I'm glad the TV series only spent half a season on this book and only really dealt with half of the material. I get to the midway point of this one and I'm like, "All the important stuff is done, so what's the next two hundred plus pages going to be about? Really? That's how we're going to spend our time. Ugh."

Pieces of the characters from the book were taken apart from the book and re-combined for the TV show. If you didn't like Ashford in the TV show, he's unbearable in the book. Far less depth to him, too. I didn't like the character of Melba/Clarissa in either the show or the book. Her character's story arc ended differently in the book, but I'm not 100% convinced by it, even after 547 pages. Anna was fine, seemed solid. Bull's character was chopped up into pieces and divvied among the TV show. His scenes would've been too expensive to film in the second half. I didn't mind him either, but didn't feel like he contributed much to the story other than providing another POV.

Overall, I'm calling this one a letdown. I didn't really care for any part of the storyline that didn't include the Ring. Too much filler with Melba/Clarissa's angst-filled storyline and details about the physical effects of sudden braking on the human body. Even the Rocinante crew storyline, which was focused on Melba/Clarissa's revenge plot and its aftermath, was more annoying than entertaining. Knock off a couple hundred pages from this book and it improves.

3 stars.


Sunday, May 5, 2019

Book Review: Adulthood Is A Myth

Book cover for Adulthood is a MythI got this book for my daughter this Christmas. I'd checked out a couple of the cartoons and thought that it was a match for her. And, it seemed like I could read it, too, and then we could talk about it. Bonding with my daughter over a book. How cool is that?

It's a cute, quirky book full of daily comics about an introverted young woman's life and all that that entails. It covers the awkwardness of dating and dealing with people, the simple joy of curling up with a good book, the agonizing pain of conforming to social norms, and the mean-spirited whims of the menstrual cycle.

Being a fellow introvert, I could relate to a lot of the feelings Andersen tried to convey and actually chuckled out loud. It didn't matter that the character was easily less than half my age. And I understood the "girl stuff" humor just fine. It didn't matter that my biological hardware is different than hers. I'd recommend it to any dad whose daughter identifies in any way with this book.

My daughter has this book memorized. Last night, I'd give her the set up of one of my particular favorites, and she'd deliver the punchline. Now I'll have to buy the rest of the series. For her, of course. ;)

4 Stars


Friday, April 12, 2019

Book Review: What Does This Button Do?

book cover for What Does This Button do?Bruce Dickinson is best known for his role as the lead singer for Iron Maiden, but fans know that he's accomplished so much more than that. World-class fencer, commercial airline pilot, novelist, radio presenter, scriptwriter, beer brewer are just some of the occupations outside of music that the man has pursued through the years. This memoir explores the passions of a man with an insatiable curiosity.

I wasn't planning on reading this book. Biographies and memoirs really aren't my thing these days. However, a friend of mine who shares my Iron Maiden fandom insisted that I read it, going so far as to mail me his copy. In the end, I'm glad that he did.

This isn't the "aging rock star looks back to cash in with a salacious tell all." Yes, there's bits of Iron Maiden in here, particularly how he came to be in the band, why he left, why he came back. Notes about recording the albums are there, too, but serve more to mark the passage of time. Rather, this is a story about the pursuits of the man over the span of his life (so far).

"Nothing in childhood is ever wasted" is a phrase that's repeated throughout the book. Although his adolescent education may have been ill-suited to him (other than instilling his outsider POV), the curiosity that inspired him as a child was still with him as an adult. While out on his first world tour with Iron Maiden, he realized that if he didn't find something else to do besides party all the time that he'd wind up dead. For his mental and physical health, he'd need to find pursuits outside the band. He would need to apply that childhood curiosity into a lifelong pursuit of learning.

He knew nothing of fencing, but it intrigued him. He trained rigorously until he was good enough to compete. He knew nothing of aviation, but it fascinated him and he kept at it, stealing time away while on tour until he accumulated enough hours in the cockpit to qualify for a pilot's license. Not content with small aircraft, he continued his education, eventually seeing him piloting 737s.

The book's concluding chapter references his recent successful battle against throat cancer. From diagnosis to treatment, few details are spared. While initially terrified, he was determined to beat it, though he acknowledges that the treatment, a mix of radiation and chemo, took a toll on him.

Believe it or not, there's a lot that Dickinson has done that I'm not even touching on here in this review. If you're intrigued by the man, it's definitely worth reading, just don't expect your typical rock star memoir here because you'll be disappointed. It's been said that he's a polymath. This book is testimony to that.

4 stars.


Monday, March 25, 2019

Book Review: The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag

book cover for The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan HoagSix stories (five short, one novella) of Heinlein's that were published from 1941-59. I don't remember how it came to be in my possession, but it'd been on my nightstand for years. I got tired of looking at, so now seemed like a good time to read it.

My expectations were low, due to the publication dates of the stories. Typically, I've found that sci-fi doesn't age well. But I was pleasantly surprised by the overall quality. Only two of the stories really were sci-fi, though they all had speculative elements in them. Magic realism played more of a role in in the others. All of the stories would've made for solid Twilight Zone episodes.

The title track, a novella published in 1942, opens the book. Mr. Hoag can't remember what he does all day, so he hires a husband and wife private eye duo to figure it out. It was a surprisingly good mystery.

A widower recalls his salesman past, traveling the country with his wife in "The Man Who Traveled in Elephants" (1957). A bit shmaltzy.

"'—All You Zombies—'" (1959) is probably one of the strangest time travel stories that I've ever read. I can't say anything more without ruining it. Probably the best story in the bunch.

"They" (1941) is a tale of paranoia. Our unnamed protagonist thinks the whole world is a lie, a simulation meant to keep him preoccupied, from discovering some grand malevolent plot. Everyone is either a robot or one of the conspirators. Kinda predictable now, but maybe it wasn't back then.

"Our Fair City" (1948) is a whimsical tale of a reporter investigating corruption in the city's government with the help of his friend's domesticated dust devil.

An architect is looking for the next big thing in home design in "'—And He Built a Crooked House—'." Pretty speculative for its day (1941) as the architect tries to explain what a tesseract is to an investor.

Recommended for Heinlein completists, people who like Twilight Zone style stories, or those who either appreciate or are curious about the early days of speculative fiction.

3 Stars


Monday, March 18, 2019

Book Review: Saga - Volume 6

book cover for volume 6 of SagaA couple of years have passed since Volume 5. Marko and Alana have been searching for Hazel and Klara, not knowing where the surviving members of the Last Revolution cell took them. They finally discover their whereabouts and recognize that they're going to need the help of a frenemy if they're to have any hope of rescuing them.

Hazel and Klara have been in a Landfallian prison for non-combatants. Fortunately for Hazel, the prison has a school and the teacher actually cares about the well being of her students. At this point in the overall story, Hazel doesn't merely narrate the story, she's old enough to interact with the other characters. So we get not only the raw emotion and inquisitiveness of child Hazel, but also the older, seasoned Hazel reflecting back on that time in her life. I thought it was well done.

Meanwhile, the Will is out of the hospital, but one wouldn't say he's cured. Upset by the death of his sister and his ex-girlfriend, he resorts to drug use—a common theme in the Saga series—to cope. It's taken a toll on him both physically and mentally. Since leaving the hospital, he's been tracking down the man who killed his ex-girlfriend. Clearly, his progress is slow as his skills have been dulled by drugs and grief, but he eventually makes a discovery which threatens the lives of innocents.

And the reporters, whom we were introduced to in Volume 3, return to the scene. They haven't forgotten about Alana and Marko. Once the news of a certain character's death from Volume 5 makes it way to them, the investigation is on again.

One point that Vaughan has made in this series is that gender variation doesn't lead to stereotypes, bad or good. The reporters from Volume 3 are a gay couple, but their approach to their career is different. While the photographer is more inclined towards journalism shining a light on injustice, the writer is more egotistic, preferring to chase the big stories that'll grab them fame. There's also a transgendered Wreath woman in the prison who's just as racist towards the Landfallians as the cisgendered folk.

Staples' artwork is just as topnotch as ever. There were so many different settings for the story in this issue, yet each was uniquely rendered. The colors really make the scenes pop. Everything from realistic renditions of kindergarten artwork to intricate detail of a vault full of bureaucratic scrolls to the lush pastels of IV's hideaway world are great.

4.5 stars.


Monday, March 11, 2019

Book Review: Saga - Volume 5

book cover for volume five of SagaThe volume opens with background on how recruiting for the war effort for both sides has evolved over time. As the war front shifted away from the two worlds, native recruitment waned. An all-volunteer army from home combined with aggressive outsourcing enabled many from Wreath and Landfall to become emotionally detached from the conflict. It was "over there" and not something to really think about.

It's been three months since the events that concluded volume four. Dengo, the mourning robot father who took Alana, Hazel, and Klara (Marko's mom) hostage, not to mention kidnapping Prince Robot IV's son, has decided that he needs help in elevating the status of his cause. So, he contacts "The Last Revolution," a resistance group whose methods make them seem more like terrorists. Dengo insists that they're merely trying to end the war. Meanwhile, Marko, Prince Robot IV, Yuma, and Ghüs are still out searching for them.

Marko confesses to Yuma that he's concerned about his penchant for violence. She tries to help him work through it by offering him some Fadeaway, the drug that Alana got hooked on in volume four. When asked where she got it, Yuma replied that she got it from a veteran. Marko is surprised, but she counters, "Honestly, you're probably one of the only vets who's not using." She went further, stating that Alana used it to try and find "peace." It's a window into another aspect of the suffering that the war has caused.

In the third storyline, Gwendolyn, The Brand, Sophie, Lying Cat, and Sweet Boy are still looking for a compound that can cure The Will. It dawned on me that I'd forgotten to point out that this storyline is actually a few years ahead of the others. Sophie had grown into a tween. In both this volume and the last, she resents being treated like a child and strives for the others to take her seriously. She asks questions of the Brand which seem a bit too adult for someone her age and takes risks that she isn't quite up to task in accomplishing. The Brand tries to find middle ground between treating her like a child and an adult.

Ultimately, these storylines are resolved in this volume—though not without consequences—and the stage is set for new storylines in the next volume.

The artwork continues to be outstanding, particularly the scenes on the impossible world of Demimonde. Coloring remains brilliant yet realistic. And while there's the usual scenes of sex and violence, there's a particularly nasty look at a dragon that rivals the troll balls from volume one. You have been warned.

4.5 stars


Sunday, March 3, 2019

Book Review: Starfish

book cover for StarfishA huge international corporation has developed a facility along the Juan de Fuca Ridge at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean to exploit geothermal power. They send a bio-engineered crew—people who have been altered to withstand the pressure and breathe the seawater—down to live and work in this weird, fertile undersea darkness.

Unfortunately the only people suitable for long-term employment in these experimental power stations are crazy, some of them in unpleasant ways. How many of them can survive, or will be allowed to survive, while worldwide disaster approaches from below?

I wasn't sure what this novel wanted to be. It starts out with a character study of our protagonist, Lenie Clarke, as she adjusts to her surgically altered body and living on the ocean floor near a hydrothermal vent. Then it starts to turn into a bit of a soap opera as other damaged individuals are sent down to Beebe Station to work alongside her. Their personalities clash, people pair up, they argue over their treatment by "drybacks" with their jobs playing a background role. Finally, about 70% of the way through, the plot (the "worldwide disaster" referred to in the blurb) takes shape from a collection of scientific reports covering synthetic minds and ancient life.

Watts throws different POVs at us throughout the novel to advance the story. Unlike Clarke, who's there from beginning to end, these other characters come and go. I was surprised at first when the next character POV was introduced one-sixth of the way into the book. Thinking that he was going to be the counterpoint or pivotal in his relationship to Clarke, I was equally surprised when he was shuffled into the background at the one-third point. At first, I wondered what the point was in even having him in the first place, but reasons later revealed themselves in the story. And some of these other characters revealed elements of the overall story that Clarke wasn't privy to.

Can't say that I liked the post-climax ending. While I knew when I started this book that there were other books in the series, there was just a bit too much that was left unresolved. Viewed as a standalone, I don't believe it works. If Starfish is intended to be about Clarke's personal growth as she comes to work through the issues of her past (she's an abuse survivor), then I suppose that the worldwide disaster could be considered secondary. But her recovery is put on the backburner for the last third of the book while the plot is developed. Her dynamic change near the end is just too sudden. It almost seems like an afterthought. "Hmmm, gonna need more books to get the plot resolved. Better give Clarke an epiphany so I can end this phase of her story."

Still, I liked that Watts tackled several subjects and roped them together. Despite being twenty years old, the ideas presented here are still fresh. The real world internet could still wind up like the one postulated here. His radical approach to AI is untested and plausible. And given his background in biology, much of that aspect of the book is quite believable. The world-building is great. The descriptions of living at the bottom of the ocean splendid. Yes, it's a bleak story with little offered in the way of hope. Maybe that works for you; maybe it doesn't. If anything, it does a good job humanizing those whom society deems incorrigible or expendable.

3.5 stars.


Friday, February 22, 2019

Book Review: All The President's Men

book cover for All The President's MenMaybe you've read the book. Maybe you've seen the movie. Maybe you're old enough to remember the events as they happened. Regardless, it's difficult not to be aware of the Watergate scandal. In light of the current spate of troubles that plague the current occupier of the White House, it seemed like this was a good time to revisit this book.

The narrative is a bit dry. It takes a "just the facts" approach with very little attempt to provide any sort of color. No effort was made to heighten the tension surrounding the events they reported on. I suppose an argument can be made that Bernstein and Woodward didn't want to sensationalize the account of what was, at the time, developing into one of the biggest political scandals in American history. Need more drama? Watch the movie.

But what the book lacks in narrative, it makes up in thoroughness of details. We're with each reporter as they follow up on leads, real or false. Woodward's late night meetings with Deep Throat in the parking garage. The back and forth between the editors and the reporters as they decide whether or not they have enough evidence to run a story. The interviews with named and unnamed sources and the reporters efforts to protect them. Denials and backpedaling from people in the administration. The threats, real and implicit, made to the reporters, the editors, the Washington Post. While no one called the free press the enemy of the people, they were certainly considered enemies of the state.

Reading this book is a reminder that there was more going on than the break-in at the Watergate. This was a nationwide campaign of political espionage and sabotage. And the attempt to cover it up with denials, counterattacks on the press, and outright lies in the wake of an investigation yielding indictments and convictions sounds all too familiar with what we're hearing today.


Monday, February 18, 2019

Book Review: The Essential Scratch Sniff Guide to Becoming a Whiskey Know-It-All

book cover for The Essential Scratch Sniff Guide to Becoming a Whiskey Know-It-AllIf by "know-it-all" the author means a Cliff Clavin type, then yes, you'll be a whiskey know-it-all. I believe though that the title is meant as hyperbole because marketing demands it. That's not to say that the book isn't educational, far from it. There's a great deal of entry level information here, and I certainly learned a few things, and I'm sure that with what I gained I could certainly fake the rest (For the record, I have never considered myself a whiskey know-it-all).

The scratch & sniff tabs were a neat idea, but half of them didn't work. I found the wheel of whisky chart in the back of the book to be more useful, showing where various brands and varieties fit and thus leading to suggestions of others to try.

3.5 stars.


Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Book Review: Hellboy Volume 3 - The Chained Coffin and Others

book cover for Hellboy volume 3A collection of seven individual stores, one of which, "Almost Colossus", follows up the events that transpired in volume two. With the exception of the last one, the stories are folktales that Mignola has re-worked into the Hellboy mythos. They take place all over Europe, from spooky graveyards to ruins on lonely heaths, from catacombs to abandoned mountain villages.

I liked "The Chained Coffin" and "The Wolves of St. August" as they delved a little into Hellboy's past, revealing the good guy he is at heart. But I didn't care for "The Iron Shoes" and "The Baba Yaga" as they were too short, over before they got started. "The Corpse" was worth a few chuckles, revealing that people can be just as annoying dead as they were when they were alive. "A Christmas Underground" and "Almost Colossus" were ok. The latter was the one story where we're given the POV of someone else, the homunculus from volume two. It fills in the details that Hellboy and the rest of the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense (BPRD) were not privy to.

Speaking of the BPRD, Hellboy is joined by Dr. Kate Corrigan for two of these stories. Her role in both stories is to provide background information on the location they're investigating and someone to protect. Although she comes across as a damsel in distress, in reality she's just someone who isn't skilled in paranormal combat.

There were a couple stories where the artwork seemed a little on the sloppy side. I see it mostly in human faces, making them unnecessarily uglier. I also thought the coloration was off in those stories as well. But overall still good, particularly with "The Corpse" and "The Chained Coffin."

3.5 stars.


Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Book Review: Transmetropolitan, Vol 3

book cover for Transmetropolitan, volume 3The first two volumes got readers acquainted with Spider Jerusalem and the city that he loves to hate. The stories were primarily single or double issues with the overall narrative running in the background. Volume three gives us a story over six issues, "Year of the Bastard."

The presidential election is coming up, and the Opposition Party convention is in town. Spider is assigned to cover it. Two candidates figure prominently, and Spider wants to know if either is capable of taking down the current president, aka "The Beast". He interviews one and attends a campaign rally for the other. Neither of which make him feel good inside. As the convention convenes and a candidate is nominated, Spider smells a rat and digs until he finds the truth.

With the departure of his first personal assistant, Spider receives a new one: his editor's niece, Yelena. Spider's not exactly a charmer, so it doesn't take long for her to hate him. While resolving their conflict, Ellis gives a bit of insight into Spider. There's also a back-and-forth between Spider and Vita Severn, a political director for one of the candidate's campaigns. She recognizes the importance of having the press on her side, and he enjoys the access to the candidate that she provides. But there's more going on there.

Written over 1998-1999, it is just as relevant now as then. Besides the obvious oversaturation of media in our daily lives, there's the politics. This quote from Vita Severn about one of the candidates sounds like it could've been about the 2016 campaign:
"His Florida campaign for the candidacy rested entirely upon cultural and economic divides, the exploitation of tensions and the vestiges of prejudice. His appearance in Sanford looked like a Nuremberg rally."
Spider relies on the usual assortment of cigarettes, booze, pills, and sex to help him cope with his resurgent celebrity as well as sift through all the political bullshit. Inspiration is typically the result of intuition and amplified by the biochemical mixture in his system. After the binge required to write a column, there's always the comedown and hangover. Copious amounts of coffee and cigarettes get him through it. Going forward, it might take more than that. While this volume has concluded, it is clearly just the first act in a much larger story arc.

Darick Robertson's artwork continues to vividly convey the story. All of the characters' emotions, the action, the minutiae of city life, and the chaos of the political maelstrom are exquisitely rendered in fine detail.

4 stars.


Saturday, January 5, 2019

Book Review: The Quantum Thief

book cover for The Quantum ThiefThink of this as a post-Singularity heist story. The main character is modeled after Arsène Lupin, a gentleman thief from a series of stories by Maurice Leblanc. You don't need to know Lupin (or Lupin the Third) to appreciate the story—I certainly didn't.

Rajaniemmi does a superb job imagining what life could be like for our digital descendants. While there are several "interludes" that assist the reader in understanding this world, Rajaniemmi throws the reader in the deep end of the pool from the start, forcing us to gather the meanings of new words from context in order to swim through the story. I'd imagine that plenty of readers have drowned along the way.

The story starts with our hero, the gentleman thief, in a dilemma prison. Shortly thereafter, he's busted out of said prison, for a price, and whisked off to Mars to retrieve his memories. His rescuer/employer is Mieli, a woman who needs him to pull off a heist to rescue her lover, a secret she keeps hidden from him. The other major character is Isidore, a promising young detective in the mobile city of Oubilette on Mars. He starts off as a bit of a puppy dog, trying to please the tzadikkim, a group of highly respected vigilantes in the city, but gradually comes into his own.

While some futurists will have you believe that the Singularity will bring paradise, Rajaniemmi posits a future where that certainly isn't the case. Equality is a lie. Some of those responsible for forging Creation 2.0 have granted themselves far greater powers for their uplifted minds than others. Rajaniemmi's new gods are just as capricious as the ancient ones, and their struggle for power always leaves mere mortals as collateral damage.

The malleability of memory is an important theme running through the book. It seems that our digital descendants have a harder time with memory than our analog selves. While memories can be shared, it appears that they can be forged as well. While we've been struggling with disinformation on the internet the last few years, at least there's a way to uncover the truth. That doesn't seem so easy here when collective memories can be overwritten. The truth has never been so fragile.

There are many interesting elements that I'm not going into such as time as currency, personality pirates, multi-level privacy shields, matter shaped by thought, death as a time of public service, and so on. Recommended for sci-fi fans looking for something challenging and different.

A solid four stars.


Friday, January 4, 2019

2018 Ends; 2019 Begins.

Yep, I survived the 2018 holiday season. Three months of prepping for not only holidays, but birthdays as well. Woo boy, I'm exhausted. Still catching up on lost sleep, and now I need to lose ten pounds. Seriously. Twenty would be better.

Unfortunately, the fourth quarter of 2018 was a bust for writing. There hasn't been time. I completely understand why some writers run away to remote locations or hide themselves to get work done. I love my family and friends, but maintaining healthy, happy relationships requires time and presence. So, writing is neglected. And as I watch the pages on the calendar flip by on the breeze of time, I try really hard not to let it eat away at me.

Here's to a more productive 2019.