Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Review of Last Year by Robert Charles Wilson

It’s normal enough to open a book review by making a general observation about the common nature of this or that trope in fiction, and then go on to introduce a book that twists said trope in some fashion. Perhaps there are too many notches on my reading belt, but many a time I have read such reviews, read the book in question, then thought to myself “In fact there is nothing really unique about the novel…  It is a blatant representation of the trope, only the details of setting or character differ slightly….”  Thus, while no two grains of sand may be alike, standing on a beach they all look the same.  Robert Charles Wilson’s time travel novel Last Year (2016) is standing on the beach—the perfect metaphor for the most appropriate place to read the book.

Jesse Cullum is a strapping young man employed as security by The City, a specialized urban area constructed in the Illinois prairie in the mid-19th century by 21st century tycoon August Kemp.  Kemp having constructed a time portal between 2016 and 1877, The City contains hotels and other accomodations for people from the future to visit the past, and likewise provides tourist attractions for locals to come and see wondrous things from the future, such as helicopters and smartphones.  Cullum saving the life of President Ulysses Grant from a would-be assassin in the opening pages, the follow-up investigation reveals a trickle of illegal guns from the future, somehow being trafficked through the time portal.  Cullum a hero as a result, he is given a raise and assigned the task of finding the source of the guns.  Meeting 21st century agent Elizabeth DePaul in the process, together the two get to the bottom of the smuggling ring.  But that is only the beginning.  Political agitators and Kemp’s secret ambitions, as well as ghosts from Cullum’s past rising to the surface, things heat up for Cullum, and fast.  Time seems to hold no influence on greed and payback.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Review of Moonglow by Michael Chabon

Michael Chabon’s 2000, Pulitzer Prize winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, is a brilliant piece of Americana.  Telling the story of two immigrants through the lens of the mid-20th century comic book binge, the only thing topping the prose was the earnestness and relevancy of the humanity portrayed to the culture it sprang from.  Sixteen years later, Chabon proves the 20th century is still a major go-to for his work.  Moonglow published in 2016, it brings to the table every ounce of Chabon’s prose talents and understanding of the human soul through the lens of a country’s history which helped shape its today. 

A personal, largely biographical parallel to his own grandfather’s experiences and adventures growing up in the US throughout the 20th century, dying in the 80s, Chabon once again uses language in rich, clever fashion to tell a story with whole heart.  Moonglow is character and story driven.  Switching time frames between brilliantly detailed set pieces, the reader gains a patchwork understanding of what made grandpa Chabon tick, his effect on the future generations of his family, and the cultural and social spheres encountered just beyond the personal.  Grandpa’s obsession with spaceship models, his meeting with a rector in Germany amidst the final days of WWII, his hunting of a python at an old age community in Florida, the first time he met his future wife, his throwing of a cat from an upper floor window—these and many other scenes show a truly talented writer at work.  Taking the quotidian and making it uniquely human for the delicate quirks of the people involved, indeed, Chabon’s talent is one many writers dream of but so few have.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Review of Metronome by Oliver Langmead

Likely the most common first impression of Oliver Langmead’s debut novel Dark Star is the fact it is written in epic verse. But surely what keeps asses in the seats is the strong story complemented by stronger visuals. A dark backdrop offset by flashes of neon and static as the detective noir spins its web, it is a book that can be enjoyed from several angles. Not giving in to gimmick (thankfully), Langmead, for his follow up novel, abandons epic verse but sticks to his strong suit. Evoking image and scene splashily, Metronome (2017, Unsung Stories) features adventures and quests through dreams, the aesthetics continually inching toward fireworks.

But Metronome begins innocently enough. James Manderlay is a client at a home for the elderly. A former songwriter, he collects paltry royalty checks while trying to keep his sanity in a place seemingly full of people off their rockers. The age and steadiness of his hands betraying his daily tasks, it seems only in dreams do they respond completely to his commands. Nightmares lurking in dark corners, his travels through dreams seem more often escapes rather than journeys. That is, until he meets a man killing nightmares, and is given a strange but useful compass. The dreams taking more concrete shape in the aftermath, nights become less dark and more adventurous.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Review of The Red Tree by Caitlin R. Kiernan

If ever there is a novel to ignore the cover, one would most certainly be Caitlin R. Kiernan’s 2009 The Red Tree.  What’s depicted seeming to indicate the novel is a faceless drop in the contemporary fount of YA slush, in fact, it is anything but.  A mature offering without the teen angst portrayed on the cover, Kiernan takes her novel to the next level by bringing to bear writing chops she had primarily been known for in short fiction into her long fiction, telling a very personal, human story in the process.  Any homage to horror or Weird, or acts of poignant catharsis, are just icing on the cake.

Sarah Crowe has moved to Rhode Island in an attempt to escape a disastrous relationship and kick start a long overdue novel.  Renting an apartment in an old, creaky farmhouse, Crowe has trouble settling in from the beginning.  The shadows in the basement are dark, and something in the air doesn’t feel right.  Making matters worse is Crowe’s discovery of an unpublished manuscript amidst the farmhouse’s clutter describing the history of a seemingly malevolent tree on the property.  A massive red oak, the author of the manuscript, in fact, eventually hung himself from it.  But pushing things over the top is that an artist takes up residence in the farmhouse’s attic.  The new novel may never get written given the circumstances, so best to pick up pen and paper and write down one’s thoughts and experiences, as strange as they are around the red tree.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Review of Hull Zero Three by Greg Bear

Brian Aldiss’ 1958 Non-Stop (aka Starship) is a landmark novel in generation starship stories.  Featuring a broken down ship hurtling through the blackness of space to destinations unknown, the humanity on board has reverted to various levels of primitivism, the corridors and rooms of the massive ship almost unrecognizable in an overgrowth of weeds and bushes.  The novel about one man’s journey through the layers of civilization (for lack of a better term), and ultimately the enlightenment awaiting at the end, Aldiss wrote an engaging story imbued with enough profundity to make the novel worth some merit.  In 2010 Greg Bear returned to the theme of a broken down generation starship to tell his own story, the dynamic Hull Zero Three the result.

Awaking from a dreamtime infused with visions of life on Earth, a man, dubbed Teacher by the little girl who frees him from his sac, emerges into the chaos of a ship filled with floating debris.  Gravity coming and going in erratic ship spin-ups and spin-downs, he and the girl try to survive the various dangers hidden in the debris, as well as the strange creatures, not all of which are entirely malevolent.  Losing and gaining knowledge in the form of books, their survival quest takes them slowly toward Hull Zero Three, and the bizarreness that awaits them there.

Review of Halcyon Drift by Brian Stableford

Shorter review: Vanilla sf, i.e. story matches cover image.

Longer review: Halcyon Drift (1972) is the story of Grainger, a man stranded on a distant planet after his spacecraft has crashed and his partner died.  Eventually rescued, he’s not without debt: firstly in money to the group that rescued him, and secondly to the mind parasite that took up residence in his brain while he was stranded.  Back among civilized systems, he must find a way to repay the people he owes.  A chance encounter, however, changes his fortunes: a pilot is needed to fly a very new, highly experimental spaceship.  And where to?  None other than the Halycon Drift, an uncharted nebuli where a treasure awaits to be recovered.

While Stableford’s on-point prose makes this story readable, overall it has serious trouble distinguishing itself from the myriad of other space operas.  If you are a fan of such works, then for sure Halcyon Drift will scratch your itch.  Otherwise, nothing special here.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Review of Precursor by C. J. Cherryh

The following review is of the fourth book in a series of n books. (Cherryh just keeps pumping them out, the latest count seventeen.)  Therefore, I will skip the series intro and assume if you’re reading this, you are familiar with the first three Foreigner books, Foreigner, Invader, and Inheritor, and will jump into the review of Precursor (1999).

Three years have passed since the events of Inheritor.  Bren still lives among the atevi as chief human ambassador, with Jace working closely at his side as translator and linguistics expert.  The atevi have made huge strides in the three years to develop technology, including a functioning space ship.  With things going smoothly in the intervening time, and violence with the Mospheirans and orbiting station essentially non-existent, it comes as a major surprise to Bren when in short order he’s informed by Tabini of three things: Jace is being pulled from his staff and sent back to live with other humans in the orbiting station, secondly that Bren too is in for a space ride, his presence also required in the space station to find out why Jace was recalled, and thirdly Bren needs to take advantage of the trip to broker key trade agreements so that the personnel aboard the station get the resources they need and the atevi get access to the technology they desire.  Negotiations initially going smoothly, when an appointed meeting doesn’t take place, and no word is sent about a re-schedule, Bren starts to get suspicious.  But with rumors floating around that hostile aliens have been found in a nearby star system, things start to get tense.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Review of The Grain Kings by Keith Roberts

Certainly one of the names of science fiction from not so long ago that the current glut (aka Age of e-pulp) is quickly eliding, Keith Roberts was once one of the most formidable forces in British sf. Style dense and evocative, his inclination to the visual arts came out strongly in his work, almost as much as his dark, wary visions of humanity and civilization paved the way thematically. Bringing together seven stories from a spectrum of Roberts’ styles and settings, The Grain Kings (1976) is a solid collection worth the reader’s time—certainly more than the majority of science fiction appearing today. (I can’t even write ‘published today’ as much of it is self-generated, independently put out…)

Opening the collection is an alternate history wherein the UK made peace rather than carry on WWII with the Nazis. “Weihnachtsabend” tells of the ‘glitter and glamour’ of Europe after the Nazi’s triumph. A vividly etched story, the imagery has sharp edges even as the storyline dissolves into pure, purposeful bizarreness made all the more surreal by being Christmas Eve. The story bookending the other side of the collection likewise containing strongly surreal material, “I Lose Medea” tells of a man and his girlfriend who, attempting to go camping near a beach one day, encounter an army of old. Cannons set up and fired, the story shifts in and out of transparency, all as tragedy looms for the man and his girlfriend.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Review of Luna: New Moon by Ian McDonald

Arthur C. Clarke’s 1955 Earthlight is a Silver Age classic. A light spy thriller plot draped over descriptions of what life on the moon might be like, for as subtle (save the fireworks of the conclusion) as the storytelling is, the novel builds most of its bulk in describing monorails, sports in light gravity, underground mining operations, and other potential aspects of life on the moon. Taking the lunar baton and running with it a half century later is Ian McDonald’s 2015 Luna: New Moon. Oh, and plot comes a lot more enhanced…

McDonald himself dubbing the novel “Game of Domes“, I must admit Luna: New Moon is the best space opera I’ve read since Dan Simmons’ Hyperion (30 years later!!), not to mention a perfect three-word elevator pitch. Starks, Greyjoys, and Lannisters set aside, McDonald populates his moon with Cortas, Mackenzies, Suns, Asamoahs, and Vrontsovs—five families which have industrialized Earth’s largest satellite and settled into their own pitch and heave of feuds and competition. Called the five dragons, the novel is told largely from the perspective of the Cortas family, as their main rivals, the Mackenzies, try to stay one step ahead in the game of resource control, technology, and naturally (this is space opera), power.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Best Reads of 2016

Regardless of year published, the following are the books I read in 2016 that stuck out for one reason or another.  (The best of only books published in 2016 can be found here.) The gods know I am horrendous at doing my 21st century duty and reading as many female writers as male, homosexual as hetero, three-eyed as two.  My ratios are bad.  But when looking through the reviews I posted, this might have been one of my better years for diversity.  In no particular those that lingered are:

Breathmoss & Other Exhalations by Ian Macleod – Containing some of the best short fiction of Macleod’s career, this is a collection that can be read several times to discover the details of setting and character, in a wide variety of sub-genres, and all the while drooling over Macleod’s glorious prose.

The Atrocity Exhibition by J.G. Ballard – Not for the faint of heart, Ballard's collage—sorry, collection—sorry, tableaux—sorry, mosaic—sorry, I don’t know wtf to call it—tests the limits of what precisely fiction is.  A visual/ideological experience in the least, Ballard combines and recombines imagery of the 70s into a vision both political and artistic that will not be to everyone’s liking, but it is very much mine.

Distraction by Bruce Sterling – Quite possibly Sterling's best novel, Distraction is the purest distillation of his unique brand of satire.  Politicized, Sterling takes more than one crack at American politics, effortlessly cutting it off at the knees all the while asking humorously posed questions in scenarios having one foot in comedy and the other all too reality.