The Mandalorian Armor

August 16, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

armor The Mandalorian Armor by K.W. Jeter

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K.W. Jeter is supposed to be this wunderkind author, hailed by Philip K. Dick and other authors, so I had high expectations for this book. I mean, this was the guy who had been tagged to write the authorized sequels to Blade Runner! Of course this book had to be good, right?

Well, with that kind of set up, you probably know where this is going. I disliked this book. I didn’t hate it, but neither did I care about anything that happened in the book. This is the first book in The Bounty Hunter Wars trilogy, so I expected Boba Fett to feature here, because what book about bounty hunters wouldn’t feature Boba Fett? Instead, he’s a secondary character at best, since Dengar feels like the main character.

Now, to be fair, this isn’t the first book in the Boba Fett trilogy; this is about all the bounty hunters and the Bounty Hunters Guild. It’s also the start of a trilogy, so there’s a good chance Boba Fett is going to find his way back to being a main character. It’s just odd how Jeter approaches the telling of the story, since the opening scene of the book appears to be after the titular war.

The book opens with Dengar finding Boba Fett, battered and weak, outside of his armor, next to the remains of the sarlacc. He rescues Fett, and we settle in for a story set after the events of Return of the Jedi, but then the book flashes back to events that take place between Empire and Jedi. Jeter flips back and forth between the two timelines, but the bulk of the story takes place earlier, which just didn’t work for me. At the very least, it reduces the tension of the story, since we know some of the characters featured in the earlier timeline are going to make it to the later one.

Most of the book just felt so boring. It was hard to care about the characters, and the plot meandered enough that I had to force myself to come back to the book. At one point, Palpatine and Vader are having a conversation with Prince Xizor of Black Sun, and that conversation goes on for about forty pages. The conversation was important — it layed out much of the plot and hinted at the machinations that would take place ahead — but it went on way too long. The dialogue felt forced and insincere, in that it became more an infodump than a convincing conversation between a few characters. It was way too much speech and not enough action.

Speaking of action, what action there was always felt flat and unemotional. Maybe it was due to my lack of caring about the characters, but once things did get going, I always felt like a distant observer instead of being right there in the action with them.

This was a book with so much potential. I mean, I know someone who, after learning that Disney wasn’t going to do a Boba Fett movie, turned to this trilogy to get his Boba Fett kick. I’m going to have to tell him to skip it. On the one hand, I hate to do it, because he really wants a good Boba Fett story; on the other hand, I have to do it, because I don’t want him to subject himself to this book. Me? I at least have a reason to keep trudging on, but now my expectations won’t be so high.

Started: July 25, 2018
Finished: August 9, 2018

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Pandemonium

August 15, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, )

demonPandemonium by Daryl Gregory

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My first Daryl Gregory book was We Are All Completely Fine. By the time I got to the end of it, that’s pretty much what I thought of the book: just completely fine. It didn’t stand out to me or otherwise make that big of an impression on me. I went on to read Harrison Squared, though, since it was somewhat related to that novella, and man, did I enjoy the hell out of that book. It made me rethink Gregory all together.

In the world of Pandemonium, demon possession has been a thing since the 1950s. The demons jump from person to person, enough so that they become recognizable. There’s the Painter, the Captain, the Kamikaze, and more, including the Hellion, which possessed Del Pierce, our main character, twice in his youth. Del, however, is convinced his demon never left him, that it’s been penned up in his head since he was five years old. Now in his twenties, he’s ready for it to come out.

Pandemonium is a book that flows easily, keeping you reading long past the time you should have stopped. It’s a great example of how to tell a good story: it’s rich with detail without it overwhelming the story; it’s full of characters, complete with foibles, who are easy to like; and it has a plot that twists and turns and surprises without cheating the reader. It’s a book so well written that it’s impossible to see how he does it. With a bad book, you can see why it’s bad; with a good book, you’re so wrapped up in the story that you can’t bother to look for what makes it work so well.

This is an impressive book, more so when you realize this is Gregory’s first novel. I’d recommend it to anyone who’s interested in the premise, or anyone who like fiction a little offbeat, a little outside the norm. I see comparisons between Gregory and Philip K. Dick, and while I don’t exactly see it, I can see how Gregory’s characters pay homage to him (in more ways than the one obvious one in the story).

Started: July 31, 2018
Finished: August 9, 2018

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Whipping Boy

August 14, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

boyWhipping Boy by John Byrne

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In my experience, comic book writers don’t make the best novelists. M.R. Carey aside, their novels tend to be overly descriptive, making them overlong, and while they have a strong visual characteristic, the characterization tends to be lacking. Whipping Boy is no exception.

This is a long novel — nearly 500 pages of small type — and I feel like it could have been trimmed by at least 20% if Byrne had kept his descriptions under control. He also has a flair for the overdramatic: e.g., “From that awful, gaping, distended maw issued forth a cry that Clay Garber did not believe could have been equaled by the voices of a hundred souls pitched headlong into boiling tar.” It’s the kind of prose that makes you feel embarrassed for the writer.

The thing is, the story is fairly interesting, at least by way of its theme. The story is about Paul Trayne, a young boy who has the power to absorb the guilt, shame, and other negative feelings of people around him. The problem is that once he absorbs those feelings, the people are left with no moral compass, no way of knowing right from wrong. After unleashing his powers on a small town and leaving them in the chaos of not caring, he moves on to Chicago, where he plans to use his powers on a larger scale. It’s an intriguing premise, with an interesting theme, especially when, near the end of the story, Byrne has a character soliloquize internally about how it’s not the boy who did the terrible things, but the people. Sure, it’s a tired horror trope, but it’s effective.

The problem is Byrne doesn’t do anything with it but tell a story. He doesn’t capture the characters well enough for us to empathize with their dilemmas, instead presenting us with more and more graphic depictions of the horrible things people do to each other. We don’t get that unsettling feeling that, yes, we the readers could just as easily become the monsters if we were in the same situation. It feels emotionless and pointless.

The other issue is that Byrne doesn’t give us a compelling reason as to why Paul and his father are doing what they do. I think they’re just supposed to be evil (there’s a priest character who reinforces that idea), but it’s not enough to define their motivation, and it’s hard to feel engaged with their characters without it. Plus, in the final act of the novel, Paul’s character changes on us, and while Byrne explains why it changes, and it fits with the story, he doesn’t get us to feel it. As such, it feels flat and forced.

So, there’s potential here, but Byrne doesn’t bring it to fruition. For an Abyss book, it’s still a level above the other dreck they published (barring Tem and Koja), but it’s not so much that it stands among the best works from the line. It has too many cliches, it tells too much, and it doesn’t stick the landing well enough.

Started: July 17, 2018
Finished: August 8, 2018

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Letting Go of God

August 13, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

godLetting Go of God by Julia Sweeney

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This book (er … recording, I guess; this is only available on audio, since it’s a recording of her one-woman show, and was never published in print) was name-dropped a couple of times in Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. I didn’t receive Dawkins’ message as well as I had expected, due to his tone, but I was still interested in reading about others’ experiences with atheism, and I thought hearing about it through comedy would be the way to go. At the very least, I figured Sweeney’s tone wouldn’t be as abrasive as Dawkins’.

I’m so glad I did, because this is such an enlightening piece. Sweeney starts her story at age seven, as an Irish-Catholic girl who enters the so-called “Age of Reason”, when she’s no longer considered a child, and can now be accountable to God for any sins she may commit. From there, she takes us through her life as a Catholic, as a believer, and her life as a rationalist, where she tries to make sense of the God she worships. It’s a fascinating journey, told with equal parts comedy and tragedy, one that involves discussions with Mormons and priests, nuns and hippies, and even a stubborn believer in intelligent design.

Sweeney’s story is intensely personal, as anyone’s story of faith must be. Major events in her life dictate her faith, such as her brother’s painful death from cancer, and she relates those events with the emotion they deserve. Interestingly, when faced with the possibility that there is no God, she finds herself asking questions about those very events, and asking what they meant to her when she removed God from the equation. Some people would view it as pointless suffering; Sweeney viewed it as an impetus to do more in life to prevent those sorts of things from happening to other people. It’s a perspective I’ve never considered, even though part of me has come to that conclusion on my own, just without putting it into those words.

Something else that stood out to me from Sweeney’s story is how religion and faith forces people to look inward, and see the world as a very small place. Once that faith is removed, one looks outward, not just to other people in the world, but beyond, into space, where suddenly everything seems more glorious, more perfect, and more inspiring, even as it humbles us for being such a small part of the cosmic whole. When you look at all of existence as something that was built for us, it’s less impactful than when you look at it as something that developed through the complex building up of happenings that brought us to this point in time. Carl Sagan said something similar in The Demon-Haunted World, but where Sagan gives it to us as something to consider, Sweeney uses it as the point of her own story.

Letting Go of God is an insightful, well-written memoir of faith and identity, told in a charming manner that uses emotion and laughter to carry us through Sweeney’s struggles. More importantly, she tells us her own personal journey, without mixing it up into something that is supposed to be a guide for others, like Dawkins did in The God Delusion. As such, it’s a piece that has value for any listener, atheist or agnostic or Christian or anything else. I can see myself revisiting this work many more times in the future.

Started: August 7, 2018
Finished: August 8, 2018

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Tesla: Man Out of Time

August 10, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

teslaTesla: Man Out of Time by Margaret Cheney

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Many years ago, I owned this book because I knew enough about Tesla to want to know a bit more about all the mysterious inventions he created. I never got around to reading it, but when it came time to pick my next audio book, fresh off of all the Sagan and science books, this one rose to the top of the list. I’ve learned more about Tesla since then, and wanted to get a more complete picture of his life.

Man Out of Time is less an examination into his inventions and more an examination of his personality. This is fine — his personality and claims drew me more to the enigmatic figure than the formulae of his inventions — but I can see people being disappointed with how little it covers his inventions. That’s not to say that we don’t learn about his alternating current generators, the War of Currents, his remote controls, or his X-ray experimentation, but the focus here is on his quirky nature and how it played into all that research.

In short, though, Tesla was crazy. He was brilliant, no doubt, but so much of what he claimed was so out there as to strain credibility. Parts of it were verifiable — his acute senses were demonstrated without question at a young age — but other parts seem to be the source of legend. He claimed to hear a fly landing on a table as a loud, chair-shaking thud. I suppose it’s possible that Tesla knew how to trick people into thinking his senses were that acute, especially when you consider how much of a showman he was as an inventor, but there’s no way to test it with any veracity. Later in life, the inventions he claimed to have never appeared in public, and with no detailed notes left for later researchers to duplicate his results, no one seems to be able to duplicate what he claimed. How much of his legacy is science, and how much of it showmanship?

This is all known to a casual researcher, but Cheney pulls the details together into a cohesive narrative that’s roughly chronological. The narrative compartmentalizes Tesla’s achievements to make it easier to understand what he accomplished and how it had an affect on the world, so it jumps around a bit during his most productive years around the turn of the 20th century, but it makes more sense to organize Tesla’s story this way.

The most interesting takeaway from this book, for me, was how modern inventors continue to run up against the patents that Tesla filed during his lifetime. This was mentioned in a foreword to the book, written at least ten years after the book’s original publication, which is useful since high speed internet and wireless internet was still in its infancy when the book first went to press.

Less interesting was the afterword, where the author raises some questionable theories regarding the final resting place of Tesla’s research papers. There was definitely some scrambling for them after Tesla died, considering that Serbia wanted to claim them as much as the US, but Cheney writes about how the papers wound up in the hands of the US government before mysteriously disappearing. Despite claims that the papers were destroyed, she floats the theory that they still exist, and that the US is using them to develop questionable weaponry. For a thoroughly-researched and scientific book, it ends on a hint of a conspiracy theory, which is disappointing.

Overall, the book is informative, well-written, and engaging. Engineers, scientists, or researchers may feel frustrated at the lack of technical detail therein, but anyone interested in the life of Nikola Tesla will find this to be a comprehensive look at his life, as much as it can be (the author notes that details on his early life are hard to come by).

Started: July 20, 2018
Finished: August 2, 2018

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The Compendium of Srem

August 9, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads)

sremThe Compendium of Srem by F. Paul Wilson

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I’ve read a few books by Wilson over the years. I have fond memories of Sibs, and enjoyed Nightkill and Midnight Mass well enough, but he’s not a writer I’ve latched on to, despite my very much wanting to read the Adversary Cycle. His fiction is solid and entertaining, but somehow his style hasn’t grabbed me like other authors have. I thought this novella might be a way to jumpstart my interest in the author.

The story is set during the Spanish Inquisition, where a mysterious book falls into the hands of the Grand Inquisitor at a monastery. The book is bound in metal, is adorned with a pattern that changes whenever you blink, appears to the reader in their first language, and has moving pictures on its impossibly thin pages. The monks believe it to be evil, and set out to determine who made the book, and to ultimately destroy it.

The story reads like a mystery, which is no surprise since this novella is part of the Bibliomysteries series published by Mysterious Press, but it also has elements of science fiction, fantasy, and even horror. Parts of the story are glossed over, possibly for the interest of space, but also because Wilson feels like a non-nonsense author who wants to get quickly to the point. I’m not sure how I feel about that. I mean, I don’t want an author to spend ridiculous amounts of space describing details that aren’t important, but neither do I want an author who removes all subtlety of storytelling just to get to the end. I’m chalking it up to trying to hit a minimum wordcount for the format, especially since I remember his other novels being effective.

What does set the novella apart is its commentary on religion and the Inquisition. It’s not a subtle theme, since even one of the Brothers in the monastery comment on how they’re no longer viewed as spiritual advisers, but instead as people to fear, but it’s an unexpected perspective, especially coming from one of the Brothers. It’s not enough to push the story into literary canon, but it makes it more than just an examination of a mysterious book.

This novella is a curiosity, enough so that I wonder if it’s a part of either the Adversary Cycle or the Repairman Jack novels. If so, then this is likely the earliest story in those chronologies, which means I’ll be all set for those books once I get started on them. Maybe I ought to move them up on my reading list.

Started: July 31, 2018
Finished: July 31, 2018

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The Expert System’s Brother

August 8, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

brotherThe Expert System’s Brother by Adrian Tchaikovsky

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I’m a card-carrying member of the “Read Anything Adrian Tchaikovsky Writes” club. I regret getting into his fiction so late in his career, but after the brilliance of Children of Time and then the witty cleverness of Spiderlight, I went ahead and bought a full membership. The Expert System’s Brother is just the latest in a series of impressive books that play around with genre conventions to make an original, memorable story.

With this novella, Tchaikovsky drops us into a primitive yet futuristic world, and begins to parcel out what we need to know about the setting on a need-to-know basis. Oddly, it doesn’t feel forced, nor does it feel like Tchaikovsky is making it up as he goes along; instead, it feels realized in a way that suggests he is intimately familiar with the world and knows how to set the stage without having to reveal all of his tricks. In fact, as you read the story, the impenetrable title begins to make more sense, until you understand it well enough to understand the clue it gives you regarding the story.

Tchaikovsky injects the story with a questioning-authority theme by examining zealoutry and mob mentality. Two passages stand out to me in this regard:

When we surround ourselves with people who call evil good, how quickly we accept their definitions and speak them back, round and round until every way we experience the world is tainted by it.

It is a great poison, to know you have a destiny and that everything you do is right by default.

The latter quote is reminiscent of one from Spiderlight, but it’s poignant and thoughtful enough that I’m not going to complain about seeing it twice.

While the book didn’t wow me like Children of Time or Spiderlight did, it kept my interest and played with my expectations. I like books that do that, and the way Tchaikovsky manages to do that with all of his books keeps my interest piqued. Besides, Children of Time is just so damned good that I feel like I have to lower my expectations since it seems to be the story he was working toward from the day he started writing. This is probably a 3.5-star story, but I bumped it up to four because Tchaikovsky continues to impress me.

Started: July 24, 2018
Finished: July 30, 2018

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Worlds Apart

August 7, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, )

apartWorlds Apart by James Riley

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With Worlds Apart, Riley brings his Story Thieves series to an end. As expected, he takes the threads from the previous books and winds them back together into a single strand. Most of the characters from the previous books find their way into the story, and they interact in ways both expected and not. The book feels familiar in style and tone, but it isn’t as compelling as the other books, which surprises me, since this is the culmination of the series, and the stakes are high.

At the end of Pick the Plot, the fictional and nonfictional worlds had been separated, and Worlds Apart shows what happens when they no longer interact. In the nonfictional world, imagination is stifled, and people are boring. When Owen finds himself drawn back into fictional events, everything starts to come together as he risks everything — quite literally — to defeat Nobody and rejoin the two worlds.

The book brings the series to a satisfying close, but it wasn’t the BOO-YAH ending I expected. It didn’t help that Pick the Plot was creative and exciting, both in structure and story, and Worlds Apart seemed to plod along in parts. I found myself having to force myself to return to the book, when the previous book had been one I hadn’t been able to put down.

Obviously, anyone who’s come this far with the series will want to see how it concludes, and I can’t say that I didn’t like the book, but it wasn’t as fun as the previous books in the series. I’d still recommend the series to younger readers, and to older readers who enjoy the cleverness of books like the Thursday Next series. It falters a bit near the end (which is exacerbated by the Return of the King syndrome, where we get two endings too many), but the rest of the journey is a lot of fun, and it would be a shame to pass up the whole thing for that reason alone.

Started: July 17, 2018
Finished: July 25, 2018

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Come Closer

August 6, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

closerCome Closer by Sara Gran

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I’ve seen this novella described as literary horror, which is timely, since I just finished another novella that could be described as literary science fiction. In that review, I asked what made a story transcend genre to be considered literature, and I concluded that it has to do with how well the author depicts their main character with an everyperson quality. Gran doesn’t quite accomplish this here with her main character, Amanda, but she does capture the decline of a relationship as one person descends a downward spiral of madness.

Come Closer is about a woman, Amanda, who finds herself possessed by a demon. At first, it seems like Gran is using the possession to play with our expectations of the character. In the beginning, it’s easy to wonder if the possession is real or if it’s all in Amanda’s head, but as the story progresses, we realize that no, this is a genuine possession. By the end of the story, though, we’re left wondering again, though not in the way we might expect.

The story has a sense of inevitability about it, especially as you near the end of the book and realize there’s not much room left for Amanda to return from her possession. Things get worse and worse, and the story grows bleaker by the page, where you’re left wondering just how far Gran is going to take Amanda. The answer is “As far as she can.”

I enjoyed this book for its straightforward, no-nonsense style, which is steeped in doom but strangely lacking in atmosphere. Gran’s style makes the horrific stand out even more, like a blood spatter against a clean white sheet, and she excels at grabbing your attention without being graphic. This book is Good Horror, and anyone who wants a dark look into the human (or demon) psyche would be well advised to read it.

Started: July 21, 2018
Finished: July 23, 2018

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Prime Meridian

August 3, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

primePrime Meridian by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

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You might believe this is a science-fiction novella, and for good reason. It’s marketed as one, it’s set in a near-future Mexico City, and Moreno-Garcia is a known genre author. The story itself, though, isn’t a typical science-fiction story, though it doesn’t suffer for it.

Amelia, twenty-five and struggling to get by in Mexico City, dreams of going to Mars. She’s had the dream since she was younger, and even had plans to go, but life, especially for a young woman in Mexico City, gets in the way. An ailing mother, a weak job market, and an apathy born of lost opportunity conspire against her wishes. Working as a friend-for-hire as her means of support, she struggles to find meaning while living with her sister and children, but there’s none to be found.

Prime Meridian is a story that could exist as literature or science fiction, as the science fictional elements are all in the setting. The story is a character examination, looking at one lost soul who represents all the disadvantaged young adults looking for identity in a changing world. Remove or replace the science fictional elements, and you’re left with a story that could be published in a literary magazine.

Which, of course, begs the question of when a story crosses from genre fiction to literary fiction. Kazuo Ishiguro managed it with Never Let Me Go, and Margaret Atwood accomplished that feat with The Handmaid’s Tale (among others), so what sets them apart? It can’t just be the character studies, since there’s plenty of genre fiction that does the same. I think it has to do with how well the author can make their main character an everyperson, someone who captures the zeitgeist of that moment. Moreno-Garcia does so with Amelia, who represents the disillusioned Millennial generation.

The story is oddly compelling, considering that it’s not plot-driven. Moreno-Garcia knows how to pace her story to keep the reader reading, introducing more and more pieces of her story until she brings us to the end of this arc in Amelia’s life. It’s a gentle story, and while it doesn’t end with all the answers, it answers just enough to ease our curiosity. What happens next is up to us.

Started: July 20, 2018
Finished: July 21, 2018

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