What a book!

April 6, 2011

Review: Echo

Filed under: Science fiction — mike @ 5:02 pm
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Echo (Alex Benedict, #5)Echo by Jack McDevitt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The newest Alex Benedict/Chase Kolpath novel. Really, how much does McDevitt really have left in this series, considering the previous accomplishments of these two? It’s getting kind of hard to top.

So what McDevitt does here is try to shift the accomplishment from being a notable one to the Earthbound 21st century reader to a notable one for the readers in this future civilization (which is who the narrator is writing for anyway) and make the 21st century reader care just as much.

I won’t say this is the best or my favorite of the Benedict/Kolpath novels (that honor is reserved for ‘Polaris’), but it certainly is, as usual, enjoyable and a page-turner and second or third-best in the series (a series that you can, more or less, read in order or out of order if you want). I blasted through it on spring break. And while the previous novel in the series bogged a little down with some politics that seemed to go on a little too long, this one manages to move along well. I thought the appearances of the mysterious assassin mentioned in the plot summary were either too few in number or mentioned too far apart, but overall, another fine entry in the series.

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March 18, 2011

Review: Seeker

Filed under: Science fiction — mike @ 6:51 pm
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Seeker (Alex Benedict, #3)Seeker by Jack McDevitt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m not really sure why I bother recommending individual Jack McDevitt books. You should simply read all the Jack McDevitt books you can find. This third book in his Alex Benedict series is no exception.

‘Seeker’ won the Nebula Award for 2006 and it was well-deserved. The beauty of McDevitt’s books is that the story takes its time to build (without being slow, at least at this point in McDevitt’s writing) and then sudden;y kicks into a page-turning high gear.

Like the previous novel in this series, ‘Polaris,’ this one starts out as a lost/ghost ship plot and then switches to a ‘lost colony’ plot. Alex Benedict and his assistant, Chase Kolpath, once again try to unravel a long-abandoned mystery of the galaxy.

I liked ‘Polaris’ a little bit better than this one, but that by no means this one is a bad book. Like the blurbs on the book say, you really should be reading Jack McDevitt.

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December 29, 2010

Stephen King: “Under the Dome”

Filed under: Authors,Science fiction,Stephen King,Stephen King — ukmelia @ 11:31 am
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I have not read any new Stephen King novels for quiet some time. He sort of lost me with Tommyknockers and from then on out I just stuck with re-reading old favorites like The Stand and Eyes of the Dragon.

But Under the Dome caught my eye at the bookstore and the price was right and I vaguely remembered a positive tweet from author Neil Gaiman about Stephen King (at the time, I thought the tweet was about this book, but later learned it was for a newer one but by then, I was sucked into The Dome. So thanks Neil, for inadvertently getting me to read Stephen King again.) so I bought the monster-sized book and settled down to read.

Under the Dome is the King I love. The one who takes his time developing characters and adding layer upon layer into a story until you are so completely absorbed that you find yourself thinking about the characters when you’re not reading. You worry about some and hope others get their come-uppance in the end. Most of all, you want to find out what the hell is up with the Dome? He keeps you guessing on it for over a thousand pages but it’s okay, because there’s an entire town full of people who will keep you turning those pages.

The premise is really quite simple: What happens to a small New England town when an invisible-ish barrier is dropped onto it?

What I loved most about this book is it is not a full-on horror story like It or Pet Semetary. I’m not saying I don’t appreciate it when Stephen King gets freaky with the things that can scare you like clowns and zombified relatives. But as I’ve grown older, I’ve discovered what King is really – I mean really – good at is the character study. Stories like Shawshank Redemption and Stand By Me are where he really shines. Even The Stand, which is my all-time favorite King story is more about the characters than the God/Devil thing.

Under the Dome delivers on just about everything I used to love about King’s writing and I’m so happy I found him again.*

So from me, this book gets five out of five stars. Go find it if you haven’t already read it (it came out in 2009, so it’s not new or anything) and settle in for a good, long stay inside the Dome.

It also looks like the book may be getting the miniseries treatment which could be a good thing or a bad thing. King’s track record for his stuff translating well to the small of big screen is spotty. But for every Dreamcatcher, there is The Shining. For every Langoliers,  there is a Misery. So there is hope – especially since Spielberg may be attached to the project…

*Yes, I know he’s written much since Tommyknockers, including the Dark Tower series and other books I would probably enjoy if I gave them a shot. I was just so put off by by Tommyknockers that it took me a while to get over it.

August 27, 2010

Review: Pushing Ice

Pushing IcePushing Ice by Alastair Reynolds
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’ll be honest, I was sucked in by the cover. This just looked cool.

How refreshing to find it was hard SF too, which I have been neglecting of late. So what happens is this ship full of comet miners is sent to intercept Saturn’s moon Janus, which has suddenly left its orbit and is flying through space, directly for the star Spica, shedding ice as it goes to reveal a metallic surface. What is it? Who made it? The crew of the Rockhopper are sent to find out. But things go wrong, as they always do in novels, and this first-contact story takes some twists that you don’t always see.

The story, to me, was more about two strong people, who suddenly find themselves on opposite sides of an issue and what happens as a result. This novel could have easily been set in frontier America, Victorian England, modern Texas, anywhere really. But it’s the freeing from present-day restraints that science fiction allows that really makes a story like this engaging (see ‘The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress’ by Robert A. Heinlein) as it explores its ideas.

About the hard SF part: Reynolds is an astrophysicist, which keeps the science and even the geopolitical parts of the story fairly well grounded in some kind of plausibility. Character-wise, well, I would have liked to have seen a little bit more from some of the characters, but I will say there is no confusing characters in this book. Each is distinctive.

Some people may find the fact that some basic questions a reader might ask aren’t answered. But I think that’s part of the point. The Earthlings who are finding their way in this book don’t have all the answers, and they find them, some of them anyway, at the same speed as the rest of us.

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July 16, 2010

The Unreality of Reality: When Cyber-Punk Goes Noir

Hey all. Long time, no read.

With Christopher Nolan’s Inception opening this weekend at a theater near you, it brought to mind a fantastic novel I’d read many moons ago that mined the same, lucid shared dream vein called The Night Mayor.

In the not to distant future, since movies and TV are a thing of the past, people look to virtual reality, where a person can be projected into their own movie inside their own head, for their entertainment. Things go a bit awry when master criminal Truro Daine tries to make this unreality a reality, with himself in control of everything, and its up to two cyber-sleuths to tune-in to his wavelength and put the kibosh on his nefarious schemes…

Author Kim Newman is a huge film buff and has written several reference books on said subject. The Night Mayor is his fictional debut and it’s a real treat for his fellow film fanatics. See, Newman’s master-criminal bases his cyber-kingdom on the shadowy, rain-soaked streets and neon-lights of vintage hard-boiled Hollywood noir movies, and it’s populated with several familiar characters, scenarios, actors and femme fatales of the same era — Bogart, Powell, and Tierney — one of them being Daine in disguise. Which is why the authorities bring in an outside expert on the genre (– a surrogate for Newman, perhaps?) to help the lead detective smoke him out. And with this being based in virtual reality anything goes, right?  And when our heroes start tweaking things a bit, movie-genres start to get cross-pollinated — and if you think Lon Chaney Jr. showing up and sprouting whiskers in the middle of all this is wild, just wait until you see what comes stomping out of the harbor.

Of course knowledge of vintage films will help your enjoyment of this book but even a cursory film fan will recognize most of the cameos, winks and nods in Newman’s book. The science part of the equation takes a bit to slog through but it’s well worth it to get the fiction.

Highly recommended.

June 20, 2010

A Father’s Day story without a ball or tank in it

OK, so I’ve never really been into sports. I like watching sports (live, rarely TV), I play golf, but really, the only time I imagereally enjoy playing sports is when there’s an “EA” or “Wii” in front of it (and still, that doesn’t happen often).

So what happens every Father’s Day? People trot out “Shoeless Joe” (a k a “Field of Dreams”) or something like that.  Sometimes it has nothing to do with Father’s Day, it just has to have a ball in it (hey, you know what says “Dad” to me, let’s show psycho Barbara Hershey shoot Robert Redford and throw herself out a window!).

And just as bad, there’s always some literary brick full of sturm and drang and meth and self-mutilation, often taking place in Manhattan, that just makes you so miserable for no good reason. And did I mention it’s a brick? Suddenly, you need to read this on Father’s Day. Are you really going to? Cuz by Tuesday you’ll have forgotten all about it.

And don’t even get me started on all the books with a tank or a jet or a red star on the covers.

And there’s not a whole heck of a lot wrong with either of those. If you like them, great. But it just a kind of lazy, fall-back marketing. Even sports head or literary or sports-head-literary dads are into other imagethings.

So what I offer is neither of those. No playing catch, no matchup zone, no I formations, no meth. And you can read it  right now, right here (page 16). I give you “The Rocket” by Ray Bradbury, which pretty much sums up the manic, angst-ridden, joyful, needy, hare-brained and moronic minds that fathers have that delights children but confounds and befuddles mothers while totally making them look awesome to all of mom’s hot friends.

June 8, 2010

A book that should not have taken me 25 years to read, ‘Shadowline’ by Glen Cook

I first bought Glen Cook’s “Shadowline” back in high school in the ‘80s at my local bookstore and it sat on my bookshelves from Vermont to Boston to four cities in Indiana.

Back then I was buying (and reading) a book every few days during downtime in class, during slow shifts at work, at night, on weekends, on trips and I bought book after book after book.

imageSo of course, not everything I bought was necessarily good, but if I thought a book looked cool, then I bought it. Such was half the case with “Shadowline,” book one of a trilogy (of course) called The Starfishers Trilogy. Half the case as in it looked cool.

Flashforward 25 years or so. I finally picked it up to read after seeing this interesting post about the failings of most “military science fiction.” The post mentions “Shadowline” a being one of the better examples of a writer showing how combat might realistically evolve into the time period of the story instead of being stuck on World War II tactics. So I immediately headed downstairs to the giant bookshelf and grabbed this, as, I found after a brief Twitter exchange with the author of the post, the Starfishers Trilogy is being distributed again (which is good, because I only just recently found only a copy of Vol. 3 at Von’s at Purdue despite looking for them all these years).

Wow, what a great book and one I wish I’d read before. Interesting characters, almost none of whom you’ll really like, but you won’t really dislike. They are products of their time and environment and station in life. In fact, it’s amazing that some of them have even succeeded in their lives at all.

The main action of the plot takes place in 3031, with flashbacks, and an occasional flashforward, to different points in the main characters’ lives, slowly filling out the developments in the main story.

After a series of wars between humans and human-like alien races, corporations and private mercenary armies pretty much run the galaxy, with a distant federated government keeping a distance, only getting involved, and devastatingly so, when it can no longer ignore a problem or conflict. The focal planet is Blackworld, a planet where one side is in permanent darkness (which is the habitable side) and blazing deadly starlight (which is where a lot of the valuable minerals are). Mining interests jockey back and forth for profitable dominance of Blackworld. Into the mix comes the Storm family and all its dysfunctional, harsh, violent, cold members. It’s their saga the book mostly follows, as well as an alien, named Deeth, who has for some reason sworn vengeance on humans, the Storms in particular.

Occasionally in this story we see the Starfishers, who just seem to be these mysterious badasses that everybody fears, although we’re not shown why. That is one of the particular shortcomings of this book: There is a lot of backstory that you want to know that you aren’t shown. I’m sure more will be revealed in subsequent books, but there is much I fear may not be, although I could be wrong. Cook mixes actual Earth historical and cultural references — planets have names like The Big Rock Candy Mountain, and fictional future wars are named right alongside actual historical Earth conflicts – that hint at a richer story than is included here.

Still and all, this is a great book and one that doesn’t deserve to be overlooked in the sci-fi reader’s library for 25 years.

If you like: Military science fiction, military fantasy or flawed character stories (a la George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire although not nearly as complex), you’ll like this.

April 20, 2010

The Road Less Taken

Filed under: Fiction,Science fiction,Thriller — WB Kelso @ 1:31 am
Tags: ,

bleak (blk) adj. bleak·er, bleak·est

1. Gloomy and somber

2. Providing no encouragement; depressing: no prospects.

3. Cold and cutting; raw.

4. Exposed to the elements; unsheltered and barren.
Yeah, that pretty much sums up Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. In a clinical sense, mind you.
Quick and Dirty: Through some unexplained global catastrophe, the world has burned and been reduced to nothing but ash. The sky is clogged with it, the sun barely breaking through, and night brings absolute darkness, meaning nothing more will grow. And once the vegetation went, all the animals soon followed, with those not poisoned consumed to extinction. Now, there are only a few bands of humans roaming this lunar-scape and dilapidated husks of civilization, looking and scrabbling for any kind of sustenance, and avoiding each other to make whatever rations found last a little longer, and yes, to keep yourself off someone else’s dinner plate. Among them, a father and son, making their way along our titular road in a desperate journey toward the sea, hoping against hope that things will better over the horizon.
Now, I’ve read a lot of post-apocalyptic literature in my time but none were more sobering, disheartening and dire than what was represented in these pages. The author hints at some pretty awful things to show how far mankind has fallen, with roving bands of hooligans gone cannibal, which is bad enough, but when you also realize there is only one sustainable and replenishable food source left on the planet, and a lot of these bands consist of women in various stages of pregnancy — yeah, when that was finally and explicitly laid out for me, I had to put the book down for awhile. But, if you’re still with me, here, in these very same pages is a solid and reaffirming story of  familial love, a lasting bond, that survives some astronomical odds.
It took me about 50 pages before the stark and offbeat cadence of McCarthy’s prose gelled properly; prose that is as raw and clipped and emaciated as our weary travelers. (The recent film adaptation stars Viggo Mortenson, and it’s easy to hear him in your mind’s ear narrating the whole thing.) But once you get the beat of it, it works wonderfully as he conjures up such a gloomy and queasy picture — however, this also really helps to punctuate the novels few bright spots, where things actually go well for our troupe. However, those of us who’ve been corrupted by watching too many George Romero flicks know these reprieves won’t last long, and I often found myself at unease, and encouraging them to get moving again before things inevitably go haywire and all is lost. And on the same stroke, to contrast this obviously hopeless journey, the author welds the bond between the man and the boy that helps disperse the darkness.
At least for a little while…

March 14, 2010

Impact by Douglas Preston

All right, last Douglas Preston book (since it’s his latest and I’m now caught up).

Remember what I said about thrillers being silly? This one can be silly. Once again, just shut up, read and enjoy the ride.

That ride started out a little slowly for my taste. In fact, the image book, which once again features former CIA operative/monk Wyman Ford, is divided in two parts, and the setup part, Part I, seemed to go a little slow, even introducing some characters that I didn’t see too much point for having, while not developing other characters who eventually figured prominently in Part II.

Speaking of Part II, the book picks up considerably, with the last 150 pages or so written so you’ll be pushing lights out at night, repeating “Just one more chapter, just one more chapter.”

As usual, Preston mixes action with science and even ventures into sci-fi territory. But like I said, just relax and enjoy the ride.

I’m still not sold on Wyman Ford as a main character yet. He still seems kind of thinly drawn after three novels, two of which belong to him. Perhaps that’s the intention, as he’s a CIA guy, designed to blend in and play any role.

Also in this book, the final reveal of who the actual villain seemed a little too last minute and tidy, kind of a villanus ex machina, I guess.

But that said, this is still a fun read. Also interesting is the story of a trip he took to Cambodia for National Geographic that helped inspire this story.

Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s website.

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