Pick the Plot

August 1, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

plotPick the Plot by James Riley

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The whole Story Thieves series has been pretty clever so far, but Riley raises that cleverness a notch by turning the fourth novel into a choose-your-own-adventure story. Since the series frequently breaks the fourth wall for Owen and Bethany’s adventures, Riley brings the reader in as an important character in the story, which makes sense, since most of the CYOA books were written in the second person. Pick the Plot, though, is not.

This time around, Owen is trapped in a time prison back in prehistoric times, and the prison is set up so that it resets at the end of each day, putting the prisoners back on their first day there, with no memories of what happened in the previous day. Since the story sometimes sends the readers back to the beginning of the story to pick the next choice in a situation, the conceit works well, even if it means the story is pretty much on rails. As I was reading, I cheated with some choices so I could make sure I read the whole book, but it turns out that Riley will still steer you in the direction he wants you to go. There is a divergence in the story that alters part of the plot, but it reconnects with the ending so there’s still only one complete plot. For a book in a series, though, this is to be expected; if there were different endings, it would affect the next book.

Speaking of which, it looks like Story Thieves is coming to an end with the next book. While I wouldn’t mind seeing more stories set in this universe, I’m glad that Riley is working toward a known ending, instead of carrying the series out through too many books. It’s been a fun ride, thanks in part to how clever it’s been, but it feels like it will be going out on a good note. I’ll be starting the final book immediately after this one, so I’ll let y’all know.

Started: July 15, 2018
Finished: July 17, 2018

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Return of the Jedi

July 26, 2018 at 4:25 pm (Reads) (, , )

jediReturn of the Jedi by James Kahn

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Return of the Jedi is my least favorite of the original trilogy of movies. I’ve never been convinced that Vader showed any signs of having good in him before this movie, and the way Luke keeps telling everyone that he does never made much sense to me. It’s a sticking point for me, and I have yet to see anything in the movies that resolved it for me. When I started this novelization, I was hoping the book would give more insight into how Luke knew that about his father.

Unfortunately, the novel sheds no additional light on on Luke’s revelation. Instead, it makes Vader out to be even more cold blooded, enough so that he struck me as a character who was less likely to have any good in him than in the movie. The novel does go into a little more depth, adding dialogue that was likely cut from the script before filming, but it doesn’t resolve that central issue I had with the book.

The novelization is a bit tell-y, and the characterization feels weaker since Kahn appears to rely on readers being familiar with the characters from the movie instead of developing them in the story itself. It’s a decent enough read, and would entertain someone looking for a quick read, but I don’t see why anyone would choose to read the book over seeing the movie. It doesn’t add enough to make it a necessary read.

Started: July 6, 2018
Finished: July 14, 2018

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The Door into Summer

July 24, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

doorThe Door into Summer by Robert A. Heinlein

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I still haven’t read enough Heinlein to be an expert on his fiction, but I’ve read enough of his fiction and people writing about his fiction to know what to expect from his books. There seems to be a divide in his ouevre, separating his juvenile works from his adult works, with the consensus being that his juvenile books represent his best work. The Door into Summer feels like it’s a hybrid of the two; it feels like he’s still writing in his juvenile style, but starting to write for and about adults.

Because it’s Heinlein, you get the standard sexist and anti-government stances, though he hasn’t quite yet reached the point where that’s the point of the book. Unforunately, it also means that the book will feature a male main character in an inappropriate relationship with a female minor who is also related to the main character. I wouldn’t have expected that to be a standard thing in a Heinlein novel, but both Time for the Stars and The Door into Summer have featured such a relationship. In both cases, the relationships are instigated by the minor, but that doesn’t make it any less inappropriate or icky. It’s hard to defend the rest of the book due to this one aspect of it, but it reads so well that I’m going to try.

I read an article by Jo Walton where she noted that no one could write a sentence that compelled you to read the next one like Heinlein, and I get that. The stories are wildly compelling, though I’d be hard pressed to say why. They just work, in an organic kind of way that defies explanation. I’m hesitant to read any of his later works, since I understand they veer off into blatant crazy-man philosophies, but these earlier works make me want to read all of his stuff. I have another audiobook to finish before I begin tackling the rest of his earlier books, but I’m looking forward to reading them.

The later stuff, though? I feel like I’m going to have to ease my way into them.

Started: July 2, 2018
Finished: July 8, 2018

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Tales from Jabba’s Palace

July 20, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

jabbaTales from Jabba’s Palace, edited by Kevin J. Anderson

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One of the things I like about these anthologies edited by Anderson is how the stories interweave to tell a larger story concerning the scene from the movie. These aren’t standalone stories about each character; they’re stories that, together, form a larger picture about what’s happening behind the throne room. It’s a clever idea, made admirable by how Anderson had to work with the authors to make sure the stories worked together. It makes me wonder if Anderson came up with the backstory, or if the authors worked together to create it.

Like any anthology, though, the stories are mixed, with some good ones (A.C. Crispin’s take on Yarna was especially good) and some bad ones, with a lot of them just being mediocre. They do a lot to fill in backstories, which seems to be the primary purpose of a lot of the Expanded Universe books, but as stories, they’re not always the best. It doesn’t help that some of the more notable characters, like Boba Fett and Oola, don’t get the kind of attention one would expect. There’s more opportunity for comedy with these characters, though, which isn’t something you see too often in the books. Salacious Crumb’s and the Gamorrean guard’s stories stand out in that respect.

Despite liking Crispin’s story, I had issues with it being the tale of the “Fat Dancer”. I mean, the frog-thing from that one two-second scene gets his own story, and is named in the title, but here we get “Fat Dancer”? She has a name, folks. Why reduce her down to one characteristic? Given that the story was written by a woman, I was surprised this was the approach taken to it. It was disappointing.

So, it’s a little good, and a little mediocre, though none of the stories were bad. This is part of the reason I’ve stopped reading anthologies, save for ones where I have a reason to feel all the stories are of high quality. I just prefer stories with more room to breathe, and written by authors I know and trust to take me on a good ride.

Started: June 22, 2018
Finished: July 1, 2018

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Time for the Stars

July 18, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

starsTime for the Stars by Robert A. Heinlein

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I’m not new to Heinlein, but it’s only been recently when I decided to read more of his work. I recently listened to Sixth Column on audio, and found it to be decent, but nothing spectacular. That one isn’t considered to be one of his juvenile novels, though, and Time for the Stars is. I was surprised with how much I liked this book, though I guess I shouldn’t be; everyone else has known for decades how good a storyteller Heinlein was, so it’s finally time for me to discover him.

Time for the Stars is about a pair of twins, Tom and Pat, who learn they’re psychic after they’re tested for a long-term science experiment. See, speaking psychically happens instantaneously, which makes it easier for communication to take place between Earth and deep-space ships. The two of them are recruited for a space journey to look for other planets to populate, one of them to travel into space, the other to stay at home to receive their messages.

Heinlein captures character and setting well, and the story features an interesting interplay of science and psychology. The story is compelling, namely because of the characters, but it has a strong “What’s going to happen next?” feel to it. Heinlein examines the time dilation that occurs in ships traveling near the speed of light, so as Tom, the space twin, only ages a few years through the story, Pat ages decades. Heinlein’s themes work well, too, especially considering this book was published over sixty years ago. He looks at the bonds of family, and how loving and liking your family are two different things. This being a Heinlein book, it starts off with a strong anti-tax, anti-government angle to it, but luckily that’s not the point of the story.

Of course, the biggest critcism of Heinlein is his view of women. They may be smart, capable, and strong in his stories, but they’re still evaluated first and foremost on their attractiveness. This could be a product of the time in which the story was written (women are also relegated to roles of cooks, caretakers, seamstresses, etc., even on a space ship), but for Heinlein to be progressive in other ways, it’s disheartening to see him be backward in this one.

I’m eager to read the rest of Heinlein’s juvenile works. Oh, OK, I’m interested in reading his non-juvenile books, too, but given how I remember Stranger in a Strange Land as a ponderous, overwrought, male sexual fantasy story, I’m more interested in the juveniles right now.

Started: June 19, 2018
Finished: June 25, 2018

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Tales from the Empire

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

empireTales from the Empire, edited by Peter F. Schweighofer

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Before Timothy Zahn restarted the Expanded Universe with the Thrawn trilogy, West End Games did a lot of expanding themselves, not just with their Star Wars RPG. They published stories in their own magazine, with the intention of shedding more light on characters, settings, and races that were featured in the game materials. Tales from the Empire is the first of two collections Schweighofer put together using some of those stories.

Like any anthology, Tales from the Empire is a mixed bag of quality, with some well-written stories (Patricia A. Jackson’s “The Final Exit” and Michael A. Stackpole’s “Missed Chance” stand out) and some other stories that are less interesting. In his foreword, Schweighofer discusses how he collected stories by well-known authors (Timothy Zahn and Stackpole, for example), but he also collected stories by lesser-known authors. I liked Erin Endom’s “Do No Harm”, since it was written by a medical doctor, and had a lot of medical detail, but the other newbie stories were just OK. I didn’t actively dislike any of the stories (save for Side Trip, a novella co-written by Zahn and Stackpole; it just didn’t live up to its potential), but there were only a few stories I expect to remember years from now.

One thing I did like about the anthology is how the stories focused on characters outside of the Skywalkers. There might have been a reference or two here and there, but for the most part, we had a chance to see other people who played an important role in the universe. By the same token, the stories weren’t able to rely on character development from other sources, so it took longer to get a sense of them, in what were already shorter works. Still, I like that the authors recognized that there were other characters in the universe worthy of their own stories.

I can appreciate what West End and Schweighofer did for the Expanded Universe, especially in keeping the license alive, but I can’t help but feel like these stories would be better for players of the RPG. They rely so much on material created by the company, other readers will miss some of the references. Plus, unlike the anthologies edited by Kevin J. Anderson, the stories aren’t based on a famous event, making them more esoteric. As a result, it felt like the collection missed the mark with me.

Started: June 10, 2018
Finished: June 20, 2018

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Sixth Column

July 12, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

sixthSixth Column by Robert A. Heinlein

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First written in 1941 and then revised in 1949, Sixth Column is a product of its time, and it’s important to keep that in mind while reading it in the 21st century. The bulk of the US’s involvement in WWII makes up a large part of the time in which the story was written, so the idea of the country having been taken over by Pan-Asians was a threat in that time. The perception of Asians at the time would lead to the perception of them that exists in this novel. That being said, it doesn’t handle that threat with any subtlety or grace. If there’s a pejorative word to describe Asians, it’s used in this novel.

Aside from the language, the representation of Asians in the novel is a little disturbing. They’re regarded as savages and animals by the main characters, blue-blooded Americans with the savvy and intelligence to fight back against the invasion of the Red Menace. It’s very much a US-centric, “God Bless America” kind of story, with anyone opposing the country being nothing more than vermin to be exterminated. To be fair, the Pan-Asians have a racist view of White America, but the book is a conservative’s wet dream.

Surprisingly, there’s an interesting story buried beneath the racism and xenophobia. The surviving military regiment (all six of them) take to creating a new religion as a smokescreen for a revolution against the occupying Pan-Asians. Heinlein uses that as a means to make commentary on politics, religion, human nature, and survival, while still pushing through his own agenda about libertarianism and Constitutionalism. I sort of expected that, based on all I’ve heard about Heinlein and his writings. This isn’t my first Heinlein book, but it’s been thirteen years since I’ve read Stranger in a Strange Land, and twenty-three since reading The Puppet Masters.

I listened to this on audiobook, and the narrator did a good job with the reading. He used accents to designate characters so I could differentiate between them, and he presented the story more than he read it. Unfortunately, the voices he used for the Pan-Asian characters were unfortunate in how stereotypical they were. On the one hand, he was capturing the characters in the same way Heinlein wrote them; on the other hand, they sounded offensive. I’m not sure if he could have managed them any other way, but it made me cringe.

Not being familiar enough with Heinlein’s greater body of work, I don’t know how this book compares to them, but I don’t know if I would recommend it. Conservatives would probably love it, but for the wrong reasons. For those looking for a mild skewering of religion (and possibly L. Ron Hubbard, who was a contemporary at the time this was written), though, it’s entertaining. You’ll just have to overlook the more unfortunate aspects of the story.

Started: June 14, 2018
Finished: June 17, 2018

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Time Was

July 11, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

timeTime Was by Ian McDonald

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I’ve seen a lot of reviews that gripe about how the story of this novella doesn’t match the blurb on the back of the book. I get that — you want to read about what’s on the box — but I went into this without knowing what it was about, other than a good introduction to McDonald. What I found was a fantastic story about love, history, and time travel, told as a mystery in some of the most beautiful language I’ve read. I can’t help but feel like those reviewers are missing the forest for the trees for not examining the story on its own terms, instead of how it was sold to them.

I’m very much a function over form reader, though I can appreciate good narrative when it doesn’t overwhelm the story. McDonald is a poet, creating succulent sentences that force you to slow down to appreciate them. He’s also a great storyteller who creates vivid characters to drive a compelling plot. In Time Was, he tells the story of a bookseller who stumbles across a letter in a book of poetry, which in turn leads him down a rabbit trail of history and science.

This is my first time reading Ian McDonald, but it won’t be the last. I’m curious to see what he can do with a full-length novel.

Started: June 14, 2018
Finished: June 17, 2018

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Altered Carbon

July 4, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

carbonAltered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan

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Altered Carbon is one of those books I’ve had for a while, based on its reputation. Once Netflix announced they were working on a show based on the book, I decided to bump it up my list so I could be familiar with the story before the show began. It took a while to read, in part because it’s lengthy, in part because the plot is complex, and in part because it’s very, very dark. It’s hard to be eager to return to the world of Altered Carbon when it’s so full of torment, torture, and cruelty.

The story is tightly plotted, with every detail from the story playing some role in its conclusion, and Morgan captures the characters and the mood of his story very well, so it’s not that this is a bad story, or even a good one that’s poorly written. It’s clear that Morgan is a talented writer, but this book isn’t comforting in any way. I saw one review of the book that praised it as a return to cyberpunk, but if this is what cyberpunk is about, then I might have to write off the genre all together.

Of particular note is that I started this book shortly after finishing Lafferty’s Six Wakes, which also handled cloning and transferring consciousness to new bodies, so I kept imagining that system whenever the process was referenced in Altered Carbon. It didn’t hurt the book, but I do wish I had waited a bit longer between books to let one technology settle in my mind before tackling another one. Then again, I don’t read a lot about books I want to read, so I didn’t even realize that was a core part of the story.

I waffled between three and four stars for this book, and I settled on three, because the book wasn’t a “good time” read. I’ve read dark, nihilistic fiction before and liked the stories (Chalk by Paul Cornell is one), but Morgan’s angle is a bit too dark for me. I had intended on reading the other two books in the Kovacs series, but after the dismal look into the future that is Altered Carbon — and the similar hopelessness of Market Forces and Thirteen — I think I’ll quit after the first book. I just don’t want to have to enter that world again.

Started: May 13, 2018
Finished: May 30, 2018

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Shadows of the Empire

June 27, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

shadowsShadows of the Empire by Steve Perry

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I have a vague memory of when this book came out, thanks in part to being a LucasArts fanboy for many years. I remember it was a major multimedia release, with the game, the book, the comic book, and probably some other materials all tying together to tell the whole story. I remember playing the game, but I never delved into the other material.

Shadows of the Empire was among the first of the Expanded Universe releases after Timothy Zahn rekindled interest in it with the Thrawn trilogy, and it shows. It’s a solid read, with enough throwbacks to the original trilogy, along with new characters to breathe new life into the EU. This was the first novel that addressed what happened between Empire and Jedi, and it introduced Prince Xizor, a character who is still prominent in the new canon.

In the story, Xizor is making a play to replace Darth Vader to become the Emperor’s right hand through a plot to kill Luke Skywalker. At the same time, Leia is trying to track down Boba Fett and rescue Han from Jabba, and Dash Rendar signs on to help them. Dash is a stand-in for Han, which is unfortunate since he comes across as a carbon(ite) copy of Han in some parts of the story. I’m not sure how much that decision came from Perry, and how much of it came from Lucasfilm.

This is one of the stronger titles in the EU, and is definitely among the must-read books in the universe. I might have to see if I can find the game to see if I can get any more details about the larger story.

Started: May 5, 2018
Finished: May 12, 2018

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