Monday, October 19, 2020

Book Review: Glory Season

book cover for Glory SeasonYoung Maia is fast approaching a turning point in her life. As a half-caste var, she must leave the clan home of her privileged half sisters and seek her fortune in the world. With her twin sister, Leie, she searches the docks of Port Sanger for an apprenticeship aboard the vessels that sail the trade routes of the Stratoin oceans.

On her far-reaching, perilous journey of discovery, Maia will endure hardship and hunger, imprisonment and loneliness, bloody battles with pirates and separation from her twin. And along the way, she will meet a traveler who has come an unimaginable distance—and who threatens the delicate balance of the Stratoins' carefully maintained, perfect society....


I'm 240 pages in and DNF-ing this one out of boredom.

Statoin is a colony founded by feminists who have bioengineered humans to give women the upper hand in their society. This was accomplished by dampening the sex drive in men such that they were only sexually active during summer and enabling a form of parthenogenesis in women during winter. It isn't true parthenogenesis as sperm were still required to initiate embryo development though no genetic material was transferred. Sexual reproduction in summer led to typical offspring as one would expect on Earth, but winter reproduction led to clones. But since the sex drive of men in winter was very low, women needed to coax men into having sex. Thus it forced both sexes to work together in good faith if either side wished to get what they wanted.

It's certainly an intriguing premise with a host of potential storylines, but sadly, it goes to waste.

Brin spends way too much time delving into the main character's thoughts, going on and on for pages as she overthinks situations, dives into flashbacks, or over explains another aspect of her world. To get an idea of the writing style employed, check out Zach's review. By the time Brin gets back to the matter at hand, one could be forgiven for forgetting what was actually happening before the detour. The plot is barely a whisper. We're given hints that something sinister is going on with the world's sexual balance, but then we get pages worth of flashback or world building after which the protagonist moves on.

I'm a fan of Brin. I've read nine works of his and enjoyed all of them. His Uplift books are among my all-time favorites. But this one was a disappointment. I think if this book were about half its size (772 pages), it would be much better. Too much world building and navel gazing and not enough execution of the plot. If you're good with stories that take a really long time to get going, then maybe this one is for you.

2 stars.

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DED

Friday, October 2, 2020

Book Review: The Last Wish

book cover for The Last WishGeralt the Witcher—revered and hated—is a man whose magic powers, enhanced by long training and a mysterious elixir, have made him a brilliant fighter and a merciless assassin. Yet he is no ordinary murderer: his targets are the multifarious monsters and vile fiends that ravage the land and attack the innocent.

But not everything monstrous-looking is evil and not everything fair is good...and in every fairy tale there is a grain of truth.


I watched season one of the Netflix series and thought that this might be a fantasy series worth checking out. I wasn't wrong.

First off, cool looking cover! Like maybe something out of the video games (that I haven't played) inspired by this series. Alas, the scene is not depicted in this book. There are no epic battles here, although Geralt has to fight off some monsters.

Having watched season one of the Netflix series, I recognized a few of the stories that were used to draw up part of the episodes. However, there were some major alterations to what was in the book versus what was seen on the screen. The worst part of the Netflix series was knowing when things were happening. This book didn't help much as only one story, "The Voice of Reason," was current. It was broken up into seven parts with the rest of the stories existing as flashback interludes. After consulting this map and timeline, it would seem that it was a 56-year span, but I digress.

Much has been made of the re-written fairy tales that appear in this book. Suffice it to say that the reinterpretations bear little resemblance to the originals, containing only the most basic elements. While done well, what was more satisfying to me were the elements of humor that were injected into the stories.

This is a character-driven work with each story meant to provide insight into Geralt—his skills, his morals, his outlook on the world. We learn that witchers were once men who were subjected to alchemical experimentation to enable them to fight the monsters of the world. But their collective success has reduced the survivors to mercenary status, traveling from one village to the next, asking, "Hey, ya got any monsters ya need killin'?" We're also introduced to Yennefer the Sorceress and Jaskier Dandelion the Bard. Both challenge Geralt in some way. Jaskier is a foil to Geralt's dour disposition while Yennefer's strength attracts him, forcing him to deal with...feelings.

One interesting thing to note is that in all but one of the flashback stories, women are the antagonists. While a couple were actual monsters, the other times they were just strong women. That's not to say that Sapkowski was expressing misogyny. Each of the three women had been dealt a rough hand in life and had to be tougher than their circumstances just to survive. Some people resent that, prefering women to be submissive no matter the circumstances. As such, they're unfairly demonized. Sapkowski puts Geralt into a confrontation with each of them, and he must negotiate his way through these encounters to see the truth. He isn't always successful.

Worldbuilding was scarce. Sure there were plenty of references to monsters that inhabited the places Geralt was visiting, but they were just lists of names, most of which carried no weight. Places were obscure with no explanation for where they were in the world. Did it matter? No, I guess not, but the randomness of it all left me feeling rudderless.

3.5 stars

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DED

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Book Review - Die Empty

book cover for Die EmptyLance is a middle-aged man stuck in a loveless marriage and a life with no meaning. His sedentary existence has packed on the weight, both physical and mental, and he envies his successful and fit neighbor who may be banging his alcoholic wife on the sly. The Grim Reaper shows up to recruit Lance into brainstorming new ways for people to die.

Kirk Jones tells the story in second person, thus forcing you to take on the role of Lance. In chapter one, Jones dumps you into Lance's life. Jones systematically tears down Lance's pitiful attempts to find meaning in a world of soulless consumerism. Lance knows that his life is pathetic, but he lacks the self-esteem—or even friends—to find a way out of it, so he trudges on, looking for something, anything, to jolt some life back into him.

Fortunately for the reader, the Grim Reaper shows up in chapter two to give Lance a way to escape what author Danger Slater perfectly describes as "suburban ennui." Seeing this as an opportunity to escape his misery, Lance accepts.

The pace picked up, and it seemed like the story was headed in a direction I was hoping it would go, but then it veered off into a different direction. While Jones does a fine job with second person storytelling, I could never connect with Lance. Jones would write that you (Lance) would do something and my reaction was always, "I wouldn't do that." All I could do was shake my head and hope that Jones would have the Grim Reaper show up because those were the best parts.

3 stars.

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DED

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Book Review - Exit Strategy

book cover for Exit StrategyThe GrayCris Corporation thinks that Dr. Mensah ordered Murderbot to investigate their shenanigans at the terraforming facility in Rogue Protocol, so they take her hostage and hold her for ransom. This is unacceptable to Murderbot.

Murderbot travels to the space station—basically the size of a small city—where Mensah is being held captive and has to figure out how to rescue her without getting her killed and it caught. Dying would be fine for Murderbot so long as Dr. Mensah gets away. Actually, dying would be preferable to getting caught.

Along the way, Murderbot is forced to confront its feelings. Those damned interminable feelings.

Exit Strategy is a fine conclusion to the story arc that spanned a quadrilogy of novellas/short novels that opens the Murderbot Diaries series (Yes, book five, a standalone novel, is already out). There's bot vs. bot action, lots of hacking, and overloading of processor memory buffers. Murderbot's biting sense of humor is in full swing, and the humans who care about Murderbot have learned how to give it space. Ultimately, the question of Murderbot's personhood status is finally resolved.

If you've made it this far into the series, you know what to expect and won't be disappointed.

4 stars

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DED

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Book Review - Hideous Absinthe

book cover for Hideous AbsintheAdams has crafted a thoroughly researched tome that explores the history of absinthe use in society with emphasis on its peak use in the late nineteenth century. While it runs from ancient Egypt's medicinal uses up to today's connoisseurs on the web, the focus of the book is on its peak usage period from mid-19th century Europe to its eventual banning in the early 20th century.

I'd heard about absinthe some thirty years ago, and its purported mind-altering effects were the stuff of urban legend. When something is banned, all people have to go by are tall tales meant to keep a firm grip on the listener's attention. Adams explores that aspect. How much of absinthe's legend is true; how much is hype? He focuses on the poets and painters who were associated with absinthe. He goes into great detail about the lives of famous artists (Van Gogh, Gaugin, Verlaine, Degas, Dowson, Wilde, etc.) to determine how much of their work's success, moral shortcomings, and health failures can be attributed to "the green fairy." In fact, he goes into so much detail that I feel he got sidetracked. The book becomes less about absinthe and more a study of the Decadent Movement and its propensity for creating alcoholics.

After absinthe becomes a victim of its own hype, the narrative rushes to modern day. Contemporary accounts note that absinthe tastes like crap, and Adams barely questions why that may be. A few scientific accounts are brought up, but it seems that biochemical analysis was a bit lacking at the time of publication. We know that thujone is the active ingredient in wormwood oil that gives absinthe its claim to mind-altering fame, but there doesn't seem to be any consensus on anything other than toxicity levels. As for why its taste doesn't hold up? We're met with a shrug, which isn't a great way to end a book.

3.5 stars

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DED

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Book Review - Kaufman's Field Guide to Insects of North America

book cover for Kaufman's Field Guide to Insects of North AmericaWhen my son was little, he developed a curiosity about bugs. He'd ask me what a particular one was, but most of the time I didn't know. We'd then try to look them up on the internet (BugGuide.net is a good source). So one Christmas, his mom got us this book.

It's a great introduction to the world of insects (and select arthropods often misidentified as "bugs"). It's broken down by class and order with color photos and relative sizes of select species that are either common or of notable interest. After a general introduction about the particular group on a page, there's often another paragraph about a sub-group followed by a sentence or two about featured species or genera, typically the pictured individuals.

And so this has fueled our continuous drive to identify every insect we observe in our yard.

Who's that butterfly that keeps landing on Alex? Red Admiral

Do I need to worry about this beetle? No, it only eats decaying wood.

Is this bee going to sting me? No, it's just a yellowjacket that smelled the sugar in your drink. Don't kill it because it eats the bugs that eat our crops.

These ladybugs have different spots. That's because they're different species.

Dragonflies, damselflies, katydids, fireflies, soldier beetles, paper wasps, weevils, stink bugs, owlet moths, robber flies, ants, butterflies, and bumble bees. On and on.

One of the most useful features of the book is learning who's a pest and who's an ally. The pest identification part is obviously important, but even more so the ally. While I knew that ladybugs were awesome, they didn't have any biting or stinging parts to worry about. And they're cute. Insects that we were taught in our childhood to fear for their nasty stingers are actually our allies (wasps, hornets), too. I even let some paper wasps build a nest under my deck one year because of what I learned here. Spoiler alert: No one got stung.

Even at just shy of 400 pages, there are limits to what this book can cover as there are nearly a hundred thousand species of insects in North America alone (11,000 moths; 16,000 flies; 24,000 beetles, and so on). As such, sometimes we were left wanting more information on either a bug we'd found or clarity on a particular type of beetle. But I guess that's where the internet comes in handy.

Definitely recommended for those wanting to get to know more about whom they share their yard with.

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DED

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Tropical Storm Isaias

A month ago, Tropical Storm Isaias ploughed into the northeast. Connecticut took a pounding. Eversource, the deliverer of my electricity, claimed they were ready, but judging by the number of people without power and the length of time we were out, it would seem that they weren't.

We were without power for seven days and 22 hours. I bought a new generator the next day (the old one was on the fritz), so we were able to keep the food in the fridge. I grilled a lot. We flushed the toilets with water from the rain barrel. I keep five gallons of potable water on hand at all times, but even this time we ran out and had to get more.

Here's why I was without power for eight days:

two trees on the power lines
It's always here. Irma, Sandy, the October Snow Surprise. There's a rock shelf where several trees staked their roots down decades ago, but the shallow soil has left the trees that grow in this spot vulnerable to high winds. And so, they come down in the big storms.

Fortunately, my home and family were spared. But it was terrible to watch. The winds came out of the south and battered the trees like waves crashing on a beach. This grand red maple in the backyard (picture taken from my garage shortly after it happened) is the closest the damage came to my house.

red maple damaged

A cottonwood crashed across two of my neighbors' yards.

cottonwood down

An ash tree fell from a neighbor's backyard into mine.

ash tree down on rock wall
Two other trees, a maple and a birch, were severely damaged. I don't have pictures at the moment, but if I take them, I'll post them later. A leader on the maple was snapped about fifteen feet off the ground, sending it into a v-notch on a nearby tree. The crown on the birch broke off about forty feet up. It's now dangling by a fragment of xylem.

And yet this is nothing. Hurricane Laura, a category four storm, just tore up Louisiana. Many of those poor souls have nothing left. So for all my griping, I am thankful things weren't worse. If a storm like Laura came through here, the damage would've been incalculble.

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DED

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Book Review: Xenozoic

book cover for Xenozoic
A global ecological cataclysm has forced mankind underground to ride it out. Five hundred years later, they return to the surface to find it greatly altered. Now dinosaurs, Pleistocene mammals, and things never seen before are roaming the Earth. The survivors have rebuilt old cities or built new ones on top of the ruins of the old. Will they survive in this new age or repeat the mistakes of the past?

I first heard about Xenozoic from the old RPG Cadillacs and Dinosaurs, though I admit that I'd never played it. Still, it looked pretty cool. It was decades later before I found this collection, and it collected dust on my nightstand for a few more years after that. I can't offer a good reason why.

The artwork is all done in black ink. Schultz's talent improves with age, going from very good to fantastic over the course of this collection (1986 - 1996). And if you don't believe me, he won five Harvey Awards with this series, three times for Best Artist or Penciller.

There are two main characters: Jack "Cadillac" Tenrec and Hannah Dundee. Jack has chiselled good looks and a physique to match. He's a mechanic very much in love with 1950s era automobiles (preserved among other things in vaults beneath the surface) and has figured out how to run them on dinosaur guano. He lives in a large garage complex on the mainland and assists the people of the "City in the Sea" (a flooded Manhattan) when he can. But he also has a bit of Tarzan and Henry David Thoreau mixed in. He concerns himself with the balance of nature in this new world, but rather than taking a thoughtful approach, he charges into action because he thinks he knows what's best. Outside of his faithful team in the garage, he tends to alienate others (and annoy this reader).

Hannah Dundee is an ambassador from Wasson (built on the ruins of Washington D.C.). She arrives in the City in the Sea to address a matter of poachers and to foster better relations between the two cities. While she is incredibly attractive, Schultz never stoops to cartoon proportions that are often seen in works tailored for a cis-gendered male audience. She's smart, keenly interested in the scientific potential locked away in the city's library, and politically savvy. She's no damsel in distress either. She rescues Jack from peril just about as often as he rescues her. Their relationship is full of friction as they butt heads over which actions to take in this world. Of course there's also the sexual tension, and one wonders if they're ever going to hook-up.

The world building has some holes in it. For example, dinosaurs in just 500 years? Schultz tries to explain this and other oddities, but the answers don't really work for me. I'd recommend not looking too much into these conundrums and just enjoy the ride. The stories are good, but the artwork is the main attraction here.

Unfortunately, just as the overall storyline was building to confrontation, it went into hibernation. Schultz went to work on other comics and has been working on the Prince Valiant comic strip since 2004. Schultz is 65, so I'm hoping that he returns to Xenozoic someday soon, but there is the possibility that we may never know how it ends.

4 stars.

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DED

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Book Review: Children of Time

book cover for Children of TimeThe epic story of humanity's battle for survival on a terraformed planet.

Who will inherit this new Earth? The last remnants of the human race left a dying Earth, desperate to find a new home among the stars. Following in the footsteps of their ancestors, they discover the greatest treasure of the past age – a world terraformed and prepared for human life.

But all is not right in this new Eden. In the long years since the planet was abandoned, the work of its architects has borne disastrous fruit. The planet is not waiting for them, pristine and unoccupied. New masters have turned it from a refuge into mankind's worst nightmare.

Now two civilizations are on a collision course, both testing the boundaries of what they will do to survive. As the fate of humanity hangs in the balance, who are the true heirs of this new Earth?


The "disastrous fruit" are sentient spiders, ok. Let's get that out of the way right now otherwise this review becomes difficult to write. And this book has been out for five years, so the spoiler window has long been smashed.

There are two storylines here: the spiders and their struggle to evolve from their animalistic origins—thanks to a genetically engineered nanovirus—to building a civilization and human refugees fleeing an ecologically ruined Earth. When telling the story of the spiders, Tchaikovsky adopts the voice of nature documentary narrator as he highlights pivotal moments in spider evolution, biological and cultural. The spiders get names, although these are recycled. Once they're capable of communication, the narration takes a back seat to their conversations. While never abandoning their spiderness, Tchaikovsky imbues the spiders with individual identities, making for reasonably sympathetic characters regardless of one's level of arachnophobia.

Tchaikovsky isn't the first author to craft a sentient spider civilization. One previous story that I've read was A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge. I read it 15 years ago and don't have a review to refer back to so the details are a bit fuzzy. It was a different first contact story, the spider civilization being something that evolved on its own and the humans visiting their world were there as traders, not colonists. In that book, you saw the spider civilization through their eyes, and it seemed to me like the characters were a bit too humanized with their speech. However, I enjoyed their storyline over the humans. Much like this book.

The human storyline is told through Mason Holsten, the ark ship's "classicist", something of a historian/linguist. He seems disdained by most of the "key crew" as being useless until his skills are needed, and even then he fails to gain much favor, save some grudging respect from the ship's chief engineer, Isa Lain—their relationship was the highlight of the human storyline. The humans spend most of their time in cryosleep as crawling across the galaxy at roughly 1% the speed of light takes a while. Holsten goes in and out of cryosleep over the ship's millennia of travel and witnesses dramatic changes in the ship's personnel with each waking. We're forced to share his disorientation while he gets up to speed. I had some difficulty with him being the protagonist of the human storyline. While I didn't need him to be heroic, I needed a little more moral backbone from him. And maybe some common sense too. He could really be befuddled at times. But while he wasn't the protagonist I wanted, maybe he was the protagonist the human storyline needed.

The "hard choices" that the humans make throughout their storyline really had me rooting for the spiders. I think that was Tchaikovsky's intent. Root for the creepy crawly things because maybe they'll make the right choices because humans really don't seem to know how to do it as they keep making the same mistakes over and over. There are times when Tchaikovsky really drives home this point, offering us a warning that we are really screwing up the planet and ourselves with our behavior.

Initially, I was suspicious of how the ending came together, but after re-reading the points the author made in the narrative through one of the spiders, it made sense. There was a pattern to how the spiders conducted themselves in times of conflict. The final battle between spiders and humans was no different really. That consistency of behavior made it work for me. I think it's hard for us as human beings, the fallible creatures that we are, to accept such an outcome from creatures that we too easily view as monsters. But since we view our own kind as monsters, is it really that surprising?

If there had been some tiny bead present in the brain of all humans, that had told each other, They are like you; that had drawn some thin silk thread of empathy, person-to-person, in a planet-wide net—what might have happened?

4.5 stars

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DED

Friday, June 19, 2020

Book Review: Monstress, Vol. 1: Awakening

boo cover for Monstress Volume 1 AwakeningThe story starts off with a young woman, missing her left arm below the elbow and with a strange tatoo on her chest, being auctioned off to slavery. But rather than getting sold off to some old man for his sexual fantasies, she becomes the property of the Cumaea, an order of women who plumb the boundaries of magic and science. We soon learn that this is part of the young woman's plan. For she has come here seeking answers and a bit of revenge.

The young woman's name is Maika, and she's come to learn what her mother was researching before her death and why she was killed. Maika is an Arcanic, the hybrid offspring of Humans and Ancestors or one of their descendants. Ancestors are familiar earthly animals with humanoid form, blessed with immortality and magic. Their appearance reminded me of the Egyptian pantheon of gods. Some Arcanics like Maika look fully human, but the majority of them have some animalistic traits (ears, tails, wings, etc.) which belie their parentage. Humans consider them to be abominations. There was a savage war between Humans and Arcanics not too long ago, which Maika took part in, and ended in stalemate after a pitched battle near the city of Constantine left over a hundred thousand dead.

There are also talking cats with multiple tails. Some of them wield swords.

This dark fantasy takes place on a world that mixes magic and steampunk technology. Matriarchal societies are in power and wield it ruthlessly, each trying to gain the upper hand on the other. And, of course, there are whispers of "the old gods," cyclopean horrors bent on submitting the world to their appetites. As befits the title, Maika factors into this last one.

The artwork is fantastic. The nuances in facial expressions from one panel to the next convey so much buried emotion. Art deco influences palacial homes, laboratories, and weapons. It's blended with Egyptian heiroglyphics to adorn subterranean tombs. While some of the Arcanic kids are drawn a bit too anime style for me, Takeda makes up for it with the exquisitely rendered monsters and forbidding forests.

Just as there's a wonderful level of detail in the artwork, Liu matches it with character depth. While this is Maika's story, so many other characters are there to provide other POVs to carry the story along. But none of them seem wasted. Each provides some window into this cruel world whereupon we can learn more of its backstory. There are no good guys here, save for the children. Every adult is capable of terrible things, but to balance it out, Liu grants all but the most irredeemable some way to express their better natures.

5 stars.

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DED

Friday, June 12, 2020

Book Review: The Liminal Zone

book cover for the Liminal ZoneNina Buraca, investigator of possible signs of alien life, has heard tales of mysterious events on Pluto's moon Charon, where a science outpost studies extrasolar planets. Facing opposition from her colleagues, she nevertheless travels from Earth to uncover the truth. Once there, she finds herself working with a team of people who have many secrets. To make progress, she has to take sides in an old dispute that she knows nothing about. Can she determine who – or what – is really behind the name "selkies" that the station's staff have given to this uncanny phenomenon?

The Liminal Zone is the third book in Abbott's Far From the Spaceports series, and like the others, it's a standalone. While the first two books (Far From the Spaceports and Timing) featured the same characters, this one introduces us to a whole new cast with a completely unrelated plot. It isn't necessary to read those first two to read this one, but if you like The Liminal Zone, you should check out the others.

For those unfamiliar with this series, humanity has colonized the solar system, and artificial intelligence (AI) has come to fruition. Space travel has improved, it still takes weeks, sometimes months, to travel from one celestial body to another. As such, there's a bit of self-governance each place enjoys, and adults are very much in charge. No dystopia here.

AI entities work alongside humans and have personalities that are barely distinguishable from them. Just as the gods of Mount Olympus suffered from the same emotional shortcomings as humans, so too do Abbott's AIs. As such, people and "personas" work together, live together, and form friendships. They're each other's besties. When Nina announces to her persona, Aquilegia, that she's headed to Charon to investigate the Selkie mystery, the latter balks at going. A fight ensues, and the two of them break-up. As theirs had been a six-year relationship, Nina is devastated and feels very much alone.

All the while that Nina investigates the mystery, her encounters with other people and personas and exploration of the Charon settlement and surface, she can't help but reflect on her feelings. She's the outsider trying to fit in among a group of people. Some are paired up; some work alone. Some are friendly; some stymie her every move to make progress on either the mystery or fitting in. The story is very much an introspective journey as well as an investigative one.

Having a character journey over 30 AUs to find herself may seem unusual, but is it really any different than someone traveling halfway round the world? You go where the path leads you. I confess that I was more interested in the secrets Nina strove to uncover than her personal journey, but I chalk that up to being in a healthy relationship for 26 years. One last thing I'd like to point out is that I haven't read this much about characters drinking tea since Ancillary Justice. I kid. All of this makes for a charming read. Having taken us to the asteroid belt, Mars's moons, and now distant Charon, I'm wondering where Abbott will travel to next.

4 stars

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DED

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Book Review: Rogue Protocol

book cover for Rogue ProtocolMurderbot learns from the newsfeeds that the case against the nefarious GrayCris Corporation is floundering. It decides to help out Dr. Mensah from afar by digging up more dirt on GrayCris at an abandoned terraforming project. Once there, it encounters a team from GoodNightLander Independent (GNL) trying to salvage the terraforming station before it crashes into the planet. Unfortunately, GrayCris doesn't want that to happen.

Murderbot encounters a child-like bot named Miki who works with a bunch of humans that actually seem to care about it. Too used to humans that treat anything synthetic as disposable, Murderbot isn't so much conflicted as nauseated. Oh sure, Murderbot can't help its programming: It needs to save humans, at least the ones who aren't murderous jerks, but the lovefest between Miki and its humans is too saccharin for Murderbot.

There's plenty of action and tension as Murderbot works with Miki's group to deal with the surprises that GrayCris left behind. The security team hired by GNL to protect Miki's group don't trust Murderbot, but the feeling is mutual. The security team recognize that Murderbot is a SecUnit, a very effective killing machine. Not wishing to have its independence discovered, Murderbot fakes being an additional security hire from GNL and has to rely on Miki to convince its owner to trust Murderbot. A bit like hoping the dog you've befriended can convince its owner, the guy with the shotgun, that you're ok.

One thing that I've noticed in this series is women have been given leadership roles in every book up to this point. And it's not like the women leaders are the "good guys" and men are the "bad guys." Women have been given all the leading human roles. Even the hired security in this story is a two-woman team. It's refreshing.

I enjoyed this one. It had the right blend of Murderbot snark, humans in peril, and action. Murderbot may have even learned a thing or two about human-bot interaction.

4.5 stars.

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DED

Saturday, May 9, 2020

Book Review: Jar City

book cover for Jar CityWhen a lonely old man is found dead in his Reykjavík flat, the only clues are a cryptic note left by the killer and a photograph of a young girl's grave. Inspector Erlendur discovers that many years ago the victim was accused, but not convicted, of an unsolved crime, a rape. Did the old man's past come back to haunt him? As Erlendur reopens this very cold case, he follows a trail of unusual forensic evidence, uncovering secrets that are much larger than the murder of one old man.

I bought this book as a gift for my wife. We'd visited Iceland to celebrate our 20th anniversary, and I thought that it might be cool to read a murder mystery that takes place there. She enjoyed it and, although I'm not much of a mystery reader, suggested that I give it a try. While the names of places—not to mention the bloody weather—stirred up fond memories, it didn't veer off into nostalgia porn.

Originally published in 2000, it was a bit weird encountering police detectives who were new to the Internet and all that it had to offer back then. By contrast, the whole gene sequencing angle still felt fresh.

Unfortunately, too much of the story was "told" rather than "shown." For those of you unfamiliar with the "show, don't tell" advice given to writers, it's a bit like the difference between attending a concert and having someone tell you about it because you couldn't go. I wanted the author to bring me into certain scenes so I could experience what was going on between the characters rather than being given a summary of what happened. And these were interesting characters! I really wanted to get to know them and their relationships with each other, but Indriðason kept me at a distance too often. It left me feeling a bit disengaged from the story.

3 stars.

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DED

Friday, April 24, 2020

Revised Armistice Day now Available on Nook and Others

New book cover for Armistice DayThe revised version of Armistice Day is now available on the Nook and other devices. Smashwords has a large number of those formats including: epub, pdf, rtf, lrf (older Sony ereaders), and pdb (Palm OS readers). I'm told that it is, or will soon be, available at Kobo, Apple, Scribd, OverDrive, and other platforms that I'm too unsure of to mention. It might even be available at your library. [shrug] Who knows? I saw the old cover on a couple of those sites this morning, so clearly eBook distribution isn't as fast in some corners of the internet as others.

The Smashwords Meatgrinder seems to be ok this time around. With any luck, all of the changes that I made to the kindle copy were ported over. If you spot a mistake, please let me know in the comments.

My cover designer is on vacation right now (he had Covid-19 so I think he deserves the time to recuperate), but when he gets back, I'll be talking to him about the print cover.

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DED

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Revised Armistice Day now on Kindle

New book cover for Armistice DayI'd forgotten how much I hate formatting a manuscript for publication. Nevertheless, the new version of Armistice Day is now available on the Kindle.

How much has changed? The cover is the major difference. A couple of paragraphs changed, but there was some capitalization issues with the phrase "my lord" that I finally got figured out. There were some layout issues encountered when I re-uploaded the manuscript. I don't know if they existed before.

Other eBook versions are in the process of being made. Once they're set, I'll be commissioning the print copy of the cover.

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DED

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Book Review: The Pluto Files

book cover for The Pluto FilesBasically, this book explores the history of humanity's relationship with Pluto. From discovery, to Disney's hopping on the new planet (at the time) bandwagon, to the AMNH's scandalous reclassification in its exhibits, and eventual demotion to dwarf planet. Offers a look into how people can get let emotion get the better of them on even such mundane matters as the scientific definition of celestial bodies.

As this book was written and published several years before New Horizons' encounter with Pluto, you won't get any of the really cool photos that probe produced nor speculation as to what it all means.

This is the first book by Tyson that I've read despite my enjoyment for how he talks about science. His normally prolific enthusiasm seen during interviews is tempered here, though you can catch glimpses of it from time-to-time, including the essay he wrote defending the AMNH move that landed him in hot water with Plutophiles. The addition of the satirical cartoons was a good move.

3 stars

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DED

Friday, April 17, 2020

New Cover for Armistice Day

Hi all,

I hope everyone is healthy and safe.

Here's the new cover for Armistice Day!

forthcoming book cover for Armistice Day
It was designed by the good people over at Goonwrite.com. It's a legal adaptation of a work done by the fabulous artist Tithi Luadthong.

Next week I hope to get the cover uploaded for all of the ebook formats so that all new ebooks will have this cover. After that, I'll pony up the dough for the dead tree version.

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DED

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Book Review: Artificial Condition

book cover for Artificial ConditionIt has a dark past—one in which a number of humans were killed. A past that caused it to christen itself “Murderbot”. But it has only vague memories of the massacre that spawned that title, and it wants to know more.

Teaming up with a Research Transport vessel named ART (you don’t want to know what the “A” stands for), Murderbot heads to the mining facility where it went rogue.

What it discovers will forever change the way it thinks…


Artificial Condition picks up right where All Systems Red left off. Murderbot has a need to know what happened that fateful day on RaviHyral when it dubbed itself with that moniker. It hops from one transport to another until it encounters ART, a transport AI who sees through Murderbot's thin disguise. The two are initially suspicious of each other's motives. Their back and forth quips and probings takes up a good chunk of the beginning of the story.

Murderbot needs a pretense and a better disguise to get to the surface of RaviHyral as the news is filled with reports of a "SecUnit gone missing." It answers an ad for a group of researches in need of a security consultant/bodyguard as they're dealing with a local corporation that's stolen their data from a parallel project and bilked them out of their pay. We know that Murderbot is a softie for naïve humans who are in grave peril and can't help but take the job to make sure they don't get slaughtered.

Unlike All Systems Red, which hits the reader from the start, the pace starts slow and doesn't really get going until Murderbot reaches RaviHyral. Once there, the pace picks up as Murderbot has to simultaneously conduct its investigations into its murky past and keep its clients from walking into traps.

There's an interesting peek into the hierarchy of individual freedom based on levels of physical augmentation or processing power. SecUnits (murderbots) and ComfortUnits (sexbots) are at the bottom of that list, not really more than property. Even an emancipated bot like our protagonist doesn't truly enjoy freedom the same way that heavily augmented humans have. Even AIs, with vastly more processing power than shuttle pilots (a task handled by computers not humans), are constrained to an extent by their programming. For example, while ART is free to interact with Murderbot and others through the feed and is entirely capable of many things, being a transport ship for humans is still its raison d'être.

The interactions between Murderbot and other machines (a lump all term I'm using here for anything not mostly human) is notably different than the first story. Every computer or machine in All Systems Red were things for it to hack, which it did with ease. Other SecUnits had to be defeated in combat. In Artificial Condition, Murderbot has to actually converse with other machines. Murderbot needs to know why the sexbot is following it. What does it know? And ART is way too powerful for Murderbot to attempt any violent act. It has to negotiate from a position of relative weakness, albeit a bit sullenly. It was refreshing to see that Murderbot could have complex, non-violent encounters with other machines.

While this one didn't have the feels of the first, it was still a highly enjoyable story.

4 stars.

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DED

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Facelift

I confess that the cover for my 2010 novel, Armistice Day, looks dated. It was the best cover I could commission back then. I have no regrets about it (My regrets only pertain to my lack of publishing, but that's another matter).

These days, one's dollar goes so much farther as accessibility to high quality pre-made covers has greatly improved and the price for commissioned book covers has come down. Yes, there's still garbage out there, but the market has improved by so much.

In the days ahead, I'll be posting the new look for Armistice Day.

In other news, I've now launched a Facebook page for my writing news. Marketing, cross promotion, yadda yadda yadda. But if you already read this blog, there really won't be anything there that isn't posted here. I have plenty of complaints about Facebook's content, but I'm also not a fan of the layout/interface. But that's where everyone is so what choice do I have?

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DED

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Book Review - Great Sky River

book cover for Great Sky RiverGalactic Center series book #3.

According to the timeline in the back of my copy of the book, 35,000 years have passed since the events in Across the Sea of Suns. The survivors of that book were joined by expeditions from Earth in the central region of the Milky Way. Humanity enjoyed a second Renaissance that lasted thousands of years, but it ultimately caught the attention of the Mechanicals, who proceeded to methodically fight a war of attrition against them. Six years ago on the planet Snowglade, where this story takes place, the Mechanicals overwhelmed the Citadels and forced the survivors into a nomadic lifestyle, feeding off the scraps of the fringes of Mechanicals' civilization.

The humans on Snowglade are augmented, their bodies implanted with and connected to so many cybernetic parts that they're vulnerable to electromagnetic attacks and computer virus infections. To compound the problem, the humans on Snowglade have been regressing over the centuries. They've become so dependent on their technology to do everything for them that they no longer possess the knowledge to create anything new. Sure, they can fix some things, but they typically don't seem to be much more than cybernetic cavemen. They can't even understand the information that appears in their HUDs. Distant dead ancestors were digitized, and its every adult survivor's responsibility to carry their share of these personalities around with them in their personal computer memory. But rather than make the most of the knowledge that these digital ancestors still retain, they're often brushed aside because they're annoying.

The story is told from the POV of Killeen, a member of the Bishop family (tribe). His father and wife died when their citadel was destroyed. His son, Toby, is all he cares about now. We witness the raids on Mechanicals' manufacturing outposts and attacks on the family by Marauder machines through his eyes. He comes to realize that the nature of the attacks is changing. There's a machine out there that possesses a cunning, ruthless intelligence that is unlike any Marauder. He names it the Mantis.

The Mantis has taken a perverse interest in humanity, and it is up to Killeen and his tribe to figure out its motives.

Benford has made some dramatic improvements in this series. First off, the arrogant protagonist of the first two novels, Nigel Walmsley, has been pushed into the historical record. Secondly, but no less important, female characters are finally treated as equals. Fanny is the captain of the Bishop tribe at the onset of the story, and Killeen greatly respects her leadership. Shibo is a survivor from another tribe who impresses Killeen with her knowledge and skill. No damsel in distress here.

The dialogue took some getting used to. Benford grants the Snowglade denizens a dialect that comprises several slang words and new terms ("yeasay", "suredead", "mechtalk", etc.) and modifies their grammar to help craft an image of them as hillbillies. That's not meant to be an insult.

There are some scenes in the lair of the Mantis that appear to be inspired by H.R. Giger. In many of his works, Giger blended humans and animals with machines to create disturbing biomechanoid images (the creature in the movie Alien being his most famous work). Benford puts his own spin on the concept. Whether or not the descriptions will disturb the reader is up to said reader's ability to visualize what Benford writes. I give him points for the effort.

While not a reboot of the series, Benford in effect wipes the proverbial slate clean. With a new protagonist and solid supporting cast of characters, the Galactic Center saga takes on a fresh new look.

3.5 stars.

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DED

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Book Review - Woken Furies

book cover for Woken FuriesIn a world where real and virtual are one and the same and the dead can come back to life, Takeshi Kovacs was once a galaxy-hopping Envoy. Now he battles against biomachines gone wild, searches for a centuries-old missing weapons system, and endures the betrayal of people he once trusted. But when his relationship with an imperiled woman pits him against an enemy specially designed to destroy him, he knows it's time to be afraid. After all, the guy sent to kill him is himself: only younger, stronger, and straight out of hell.

When we reunite with Kovacs, we find him back on Harlan's World, the place of his birth. He's hunting priests of a local patriarchal religion—Knights of the New Revelation—in a damaged synthetic sleeve, but we don't know why. After the events in Broken Angels, it seemed like Kovacs was done with the mercenary life. But things spiral out of control pretty fast. Soon Kovacs is so hot from pissing off the New Revelation crowd and the Yakuza that he's in the outback fighting rogue biomachines with a local mercenary outfit. That's his way of laying low.

After re-sleeving, he learns that a centuries-old backup version of himself has been illegally acquired by the planet's ruling family and is on the hunt for him and Sylvie, the tech-head leader of the mercenary group. She apparently caught a computer virus and has been steadily getting worse. They split off from her merc band and hide somewhere else. That doesn't go well either, and now Kovacs is hanging out with some surfers looking to get the revolutionary band back together again.

There's also stuff dealing with the Envoys, the lethal Martian orbital stations, and Quellcrist Falconer—the long dead philosopher leader of a rebellion three centuries ago. Confused? Yeah, I was too. However, I can assure you that by the end of the book, the convoluted plot and storylines all make sense. The pieces start to come together midway through when Kovacs finally explains why he's hunting down priests. I'm not going to spoil it for you, but I'll give you a hint: It's not business; it's personal.

Kovacs has learned the hard way that you can't go home again. He's been gone too long. Places are familiar, yet different. People change; friendships falter. As for ideologies: "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss." Kovacs is angry at everyone and everything, especially himself. The internal dialogues with himself reveal a level of inner conflict that wasn't present in the previous two novels. A particularly cathartic moment comes when he's forced to fight the younger version of himself. The younger Kovacs is highly critical of the choices that the elder Kovacs has made in his life. Nearing exhaustion from all of the mental and physical battles, he responds, "You know what, let's see you do it better."

But before we get there, we have to endure a whole lot of aimless wandering, a lot of misplaced anger, too many disposable minor characters, questionable sexual choices (and graphic sex scenes that neither reveal hidden plot clues nor develop character), and one betrayal after another (What happened to all that Envoy intuition?). There was little in the way of rewards along this journey, and the end payoff was a bit lacking. With the success of the Netflix adaptation of Altered Carbon, Morgan has hinted that he's thinking about revisiting Kovacs. If it means a better send off for the character, I hope so.

3.5 stars

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DED

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Book Review: Black Dog - The Dreams of Paul Nash

book cover for Black Dog: The Dreams of Paul NashI confess to not knowing who Paul Nash was. However, I know Dave McKean from his artwork on Sandman and various album covers and consider myself a fan. The book jacket informed me that Nash was surrealist painter that served in World War 1. As I'd recently seen 1917, I was intrigued.

Nash made notes of his dreams, which are included in the text, and are arranged in a mostly chronological fashion among the events that shaped his life. Even before experiencing the horrors of war, Nash grew up having to cope with his mother's mental illness. And boarding school with its sadistic and liberal application of physical discipline for failure only made matters worse. Of it, he wrote that it:
"...was ideal training for an infantryman's life in the trenches. It taught me nothing worth speaking of, it answered none of my questions, it required only a kind of desperate obedience, and a stoic acceptance of the constant threat of sudden and terrible violence."
The book is heavy on observation, interpretation, and introspection. One passage that really resonated with me was this:
Peel away the layers
Strip away the nerves and the synapses and senses
Cut away the skin and these paper-thin defenses
Underneath the son is the father
I'm defined by him
And in opposition to him.
I've tried to make judicious changes
Cut down the anger, add a little patience
I've tried to wash some colour through his pages
Swimming against his genes
His influence in my bloodstream.
The artwork is fantastic. Comparing McKean's previous work to Nash's, I can see the influence. In this collection, McKean pays homage to Nash's work, but takes on a darker tone as befitting the subject matter. The sketches range from hyper-real to abstract to surrealistic. Most of the color palette is dominated by earth tones, both dark and bright, to convey scenes ranging from ominous dread to natural tranquility. McKean saves sharp color contrast—most notably his use of red—to draw the eye in to evoke heightened emotional response to danger, violence, and horror.

Recommended for McKean fans and introspective types.

5 stars

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DED

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Book Review: Transmetropolitan, Vol. 4 - The New Scum

book cover for Transmetropolitan volume 4It's the last two weeks before the election. Spider Jerusalem is still coping with Vita's death and disgusted by how her death has been used by Senator Callahan to rise in the polls. He interviews both the senator and the President. The latter being a chance for Robertson to vent at some past politician, but the vitriol seems quite relevant for the current occupier of the White House, though the two men are vastly different in their respective outlooks.

In the other storyline, Channon discovers that Yelena had drunken sex with Spider and won't let it go. Yelena hates herself for doing the deed and Channon for constantly being on her case about it.

It reads very much like an interim chapter in the overall storyline. No big revelations to see. What it does it set the stage for what's to come. Good to read if you're looking for Spider's one-on-one with the candidates.

Bonus issues: "Edgy Winter" and "Next Winters." Both of these stories are standalone and show Spider in full rant. The former shows Spider in a rare moment of regret. The latter provides some background on how the world of Transmetropolitan functions.

3 stars.

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DED

Friday, January 17, 2020

Book Review: The Difference Engine

book cover for The Difference Engine1855: The Industrial Revolution is in full and inexorable swing, powered by steam-driven cybernetic Engines. Charles Babbage perfects his Analytical Engine and the computer age arrives a century ahead of its time. And three extraordinary characters race toward a rendezvous with history—and the future: Sybil Gerard—dishonored woman and daughter of a Luddite agitator; Edward "Leviathan" Mallory—explorer and paleontologist; Laurence Oliphant—diplomat and spy. Their adventure begins with the discovery of a box of punched Engine cards of unknown origin and purpose. Cards someone wants badly enough to kill for...

TL;DR version: Gibson and Sterling combined their skills to craft an exquisitely detailed world, but failed to come up with a story worthy of the setting.

Ugh! What a disappointment! I should've just abandoned this early on. I kept going with it, hoping that somewhere along the way it would improve, but it didn't. I can't believe that these two put all this effort into creating this world—every, and I do mean every, single detail gets some kind of mention even if it's a list of items on a table or how each and every single person is dressed—but forgot to write a cohesive storyline. The world itself requires some suspension of disbelief, but that isn't the problem here. The storytelling is the problem.

The blurb informs us that we have three main characters in this book. But don't assume that their stories are told co-currently or are entwined in such a way as to reach a dramatic climax. Their stories are told one at a time, but they don't flow into one another. In fact, they seem like they could've been three different ideas for how this novel could've been approached. Rather than picking one or finding a way to tie them together, they're just carelessly pasted into the manuscript.

Sybil is up first. He story slowly builds up to a dramatic conflict and then she fades off the stage, with only a fleeting encounter with the McGuffin (the box of punched Engine cards), and we're told that she spends her days from here out in Paris.

Mallory is up next. Early on, he stumbles into the McGuffin after a brief altercation with a thug at the racetrack. Said thug turns out to be Mallory's antagonist and later develops offstage into some kind of Moriarty-type villain. Meanwhile, Mallory puts the McGuffin somewhere safe and we don't hear of it again. We're introduced to Oliphant, whose purpose seems to be to warn Mallory that he's messing with some serious people, but Mallory...I don't know where his head is. He seems to be incredulous all the time that these things are happening. His story climaxes during the "Great Stink," a real eco-disaster. Then Mallory's story is done and we're told how he dies decades hence.

Finally, Oliphant takes control of the narrative. He's investigating something and lets it be known that Mallory is over in China digging up fossils. We kinda learn the fate of the McGuffin and Oliphant is off to Paris to recruit Sybil into taking down a politically dangerous man whom she has a personal vendetta against. And then that's it; Oliphant's story is done. The story ends with a whimper.

The last thirty pages of the book are a collection of narrative chunks of various topics that amount to nothing more than discarded bits of backstory, character development, and storyline. Did they not know how to weave this into the story, or is it filler to bump up the page count?

All-in-all, a complete waste of time, unless you're researching a steampunk setting and need help with the details.

1.5 stars

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DED