Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Spider and The Fly - C.E. Stalbaum



    2012; 370 pages.  Book #1 of the Spiderverse Saga series.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Science fiction; Space Opera.  Overall Rating : 9*/10.

    Jenavian “Jen” Vale is a psychogenetically enhanced “spider”; her job is to seek out “flies”, humans who exhibit psychic abilities.  Careful, careful, little flies.  If the Spider catches you, you’ll be taken to see The Widow, where your only choices are to be reprogrammed or to be put to death.

    Markus Coveri is the foremost fly on the run, because he’s a Spider who’s “turned”.  He’s also Jen’s ex-partner, so she is particularly determined to bring him in.

    When their paths cross and Markus tries yet again to “turn” Jen, you know sparks will fly.  And arguments.  And lots of shots.

What’s To Like...
    This is a fine piece of Sci-Fi Space Opera, if you’re familiar with that sub-genre.  There are a whole bunch of planets, creatures, and characters to get acquainted with.; the pace is fast, and the action is plenty.  There is some cussing, but that’s also an integral component of most Space Operas.

    The Spider and The Fly is the first book in a series (a trilogy, perhaps?) as well as a standalone novel.  The Amazon blurb lists it as being 370 pages in length.  It felt longer than that, but I mean that in a positive way.

    The characters are well-developed.  I wouldn’t call them “gray”, but none of them are pure black or white either.  You'll probably grow to like Thexyl, Jen’s current partner.  Everything builds nicely to an exciting and satisfying climax.

    You mght detect some outside  “influences” here.  Thexyl comes off as a reptilian hybrid of Spock and Data.  The concept of psionic spaceships is quite akin to Peter F. Hamilton’s Night’s Dawn trilogy.   And the ending is very Star Wars-ish.  But these are just herbs-&-spices added to an original universe and storyline to enhance its flavor.

Excerpts...
    “What the hell is that?”
    Markus glanced over his shoulder and noticed Mira lurking behind him on the headrest.  She was still scrunched up in a ball, her green eyes locked directly on Jen, and her tail twitching ever so slightly.
    “That’s Mira,” he said.  “It’s her apartment, really.  I just borrow it from time to time.”
    Jen’s lips twisted in disgust as she turned back to him.  “Why?”
    “I assume you mean ‘why do I have a cat?’  I think if I have to answer that, you’re not going to understand it anyway.”  (loc. 3969)

    “Think of it this way, Henri,” Foln said, forcing a smile.  “If I die, you get to take over.”
    “Wonderful,” the doctor grumbled.  “You know how much I’ve always wanted to be a politician.”
    Foln shrugged.  “Thirty years ago you seemed quite fond of the idea of being a revolutionary hero who’d inevitably go down in a blaze of glory.”
    “That’s because it got women to sleep with me.  At this point, it will take a lot more than false bravado to get one into my bed.”  (loc. 5843)

Kindle Details...
    The Spider and The Fly sells for $3.99 at Amazon.  Its sequel, Rebellion, sells for $5.99.  C.E. Stalbaum has four other books available for the Kindle, with prices ranging from free to $4.99.

“The galaxy doesn’t need a bunch of untrained telepaths running around.”  (loc. 395)
    Science Fiction has evolved considerably since its “golden days” of the 1950’s.  You can now choose among “hard” sci-fi, “speculative” sci-fi, “fantasy” sci-fi, and a slew of other sub-genres, including Space Opera..  While I enjoy the “sci-fi classic” authors (H.G. Wells, Andre Norton, etc.) their works sometimes become “samey”.  I for one am happy that today’s science fiction authors have a much wider vista to choose from.  We the readers are the real winners because of this.

    9 Stars.  If you’re a veteran Space Opera reader, you will find this to be fine example of it.  If you’re new to Space Operas, The Spider and The Fly is a great place to start.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Finn Mac Cool - Morgan Llywelyn



   1994; 528 pages.  New Author? : No.    Genre : Historical Fiction.  Overall Rating : 10*/10.

   Finn Mac Cool is a mythical warrior in pre-Christian Ireland. You can read the Wikipedia article about him here.  Legendary he may be, but stories such as his often arise from historical events and real people.

    But how do they “grow” into larger-than-life characters?  In Finn Mac Cool, Morgan Llywelyn weaves a fascinating hypothesis about how just such a thing might have come about.

What’s To Like...
     As always, Morgan Llywelyn’s writing is breathtaking and the characters are all richly three-dimensional, “gray”, and continue to develop as the story progresses.  There are unexpected plot twists, despite the author having to stay within the confines of the established legends.  There is Romance, Action, Drama, History, and perhaps even a bit of Magic courtesy of the Tuatha de Danann.  So no matter what genre you’re in the mood for, you’ll likely to find it here.

The book explores numerous themes, some of which are :
    How history can evolve into legends.
    Heroes grow old, and so do kings.
    Compensation (think ‘karma’) can be brutal.
    A caste system can be brutal as well.
    Oaths and duty are sacred obligations.

    The ending is both logical and surprising, and I found myself constantly changing my guess as to how Finn’s relationships with Goll, Cormac, and Oisin would be resolved.  Celtic Ireland is beautifully portrayed, and my only quibble is with the mention of chess.  Sorry, Ms. Llywelyn; chess came out of ancient Persia, and would not have spread this far by Finn’s time.

Kewlest New Word. . .
Coibche (n.)  :   the bride-price a man had to pay to a woman for the right to marry her.

Excerpts...
    The thudding sound was not so muffled now.  Accompanied by a curious hiss and slap, it echoed along the waterway.
    “Did you ever hear anything like that before?” Finn asked Goll.
    “Never.  Be ready; it could be danger.”
    Finn grinned.  “Is that a promise?”  (pg. 64)

    “His are splendid tales for telling around a campfire, but I cannot vouch for their accuracy, and our children’s children might not be well served if the more outrageous stories were made part of our history.”
    The chief historian,  a thin-legged, round-belied man with a prodigious memory, found this an astonishing conversation.  “Are you telling me Finn Mac Cool would lie about the achievements of himself and the Fianna?”
    “He would not lie, I think.  But he . . . adds colour.  A great deal of colour.”  (pg. 342)

 “Finn doesn’t know how to talk to a woman.  His mother was a deer.”  (pg. 102)
    As a piece of historical fiction, Finn Mac Cool is superb   There are a couple ‘adult situations, but that’s in keeping with the times.  Finn and his band of warriors are mighty and brave, but the women here are strong as well.

    This is my third Morgan Llywelyn novel.  The other two are reviewed here and here.  Each one has been a literary delight, and Red Branch is sitting on my TBR shelf.

    10 Stars.  Add 1 star if . . . well, 10 Stars is as high as we go here.  Highly Recommended.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Time Machine - H.G. Wells


   1895; 128 pages. New Author? : No.  Genre : Classic Science Fiction.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    Is Time really the fourth dimension?  If so,  can we move back and forth in it, just like any other dimension?  Nowadays, this is a major topic in Quantum Physics.  But H.G. Wells was contemplating it way back in the 1890’s.

    Of course, the big question is what kind of world we’d find by traveling forward in time.  Super geniuses hopping around in flying cars?  World peace?  Or something else that’s a bit less advanced?

What’s To Like...
     This is a groundbreaking book.  It isn’t the first novel to deal with Time Travel (the Wikipedia list is here), but it is the first one with this topic to be a major bestseller, and it is fair to say it spawned the whole time Travel genre.

    If you don’t like books with a gazillion characters to keep track of, The Time Machine is for you.  There is the Time Traveller himself (his name is never given), and Weena, his love interest in the far-flung future (802,701 years, to be exact).  That’s about it, except for the TT’s present-day companions, and the various unnamed Eloi and Morlocks.

    The Time Machine starts a bit slow, opening just as the Time Traveller makes it back to our time, and his friends and acquaintances greet his chrono-hopping claim with understandable skepticism.  But as he begins to tell his tale, things get interesting and zip along at a nice pace up through the very end.

    The two things that surprised me about the book were its shortness (128 pages) and the political undertone to it.  H.G. Wells sided squarely with the working class, and the inherent separation between Labor and Capitalism is the basis for his predictions of the future in The Time Machine.

    The main time-jump is the first one, from now to 802,701 years from now.  But the Tme Traveller also makes some further jumps, ending up 30 million years in the future.  Those “end-times” scenes are powerful.  The storyline’s ending (the Epilogue, actually) is superb.

Kewlest New Word. . .
Cicerone (n.)  :  a guide who gives information about antiquities and places of interest to sightseers.

Excerpts...
    “At last, hot and tired, I sat down to watch the place.  But I was too restless to watch long; I am too Occidental for a long vigil.  I could work at a problem for years, but to wait inactive for twenty-four hours – that is another matter.”  (loc. 493)

    But to me the future is still black and blank – is a vast ignorance, lit at a few casual places by the memory of his story.  And I have by me, for my comfort, two strange white flowers – shrivelled now, and brown and flat and brittle – to witness that even when mind and strength had gone, gratitude and a mutual tenderness still lived on in the heart of man.  (loc. 1213)

Kindle Details...
    The copyrights have expired on a number of pieces of classical literature, including The Time Machine.  So you can download it for free at Amazon, anytime you want.

 “But is it not some hoax?  Do you really travel through time?”  (loc. 1189)
    The bulk of the story is told in first-person narrative, which is not the most exciting way to tell a tale.  You are assured that the Time Traveller will survive because, well, he’s back here telling you about it.

    I read The Time Machine because I have a modern-day sequel to it – Stephen Baxter’s The Time Ships – sitting on my TBR shelf, and it seemed logical to read the “Book One” first.  Allowing for the fact that it is “early days Science Fiction” (the genre has evolved considerably since then), it was a pleasant, ahead-of-its-time read, with lots of good points to ponder.

    8 Stars.  Subtract 1 star if you like your Science Fiction with lots of gratuitous violence and/or sex.  This is speculative sci-fi, not Space Opera.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Impact - Douglas Preston


   2009; 416 pages. New Author? : No.    Genre : Action-Thriller.  Overall Rating : 7½*/10.

    On the Maine coast, an extremely bright meteor flashes right over Abbey Straw’s head before disappearing over the Atlantic.  In California, scientist Mark Corso is working on an ambitious Mars-mapping project when he receives an unexpected package from his recently-deceased mentor.  And in Washington, the government sends Wyman Ford on a covert mission to Cambodia, to check out a radioactive gemstone mine.  He doesn’t have to do anything; just observe.

    Three disparate storylines, without any apparent connection.  So why does someone now want to kill all three protagonists?

What’s To Like...
     Douglas Preston wrote it, so you know that the action will be non-stop and that there will be a Crichton-esque science twist.  But Impact also has a human angle, involving the generation gap that separates Abbey and her father.

    Most of the characters are “gray”.  Abbey and her friend Jackie are potheads; Corso is ambitious but rash.  And Abbey’s dad has to cope with her proclivity for wrecking boats.  Wyman is a bit too “white hat”, and Randall Worth is utterly “black hat”.  The killer is resourceful, alert, and catches some lucky breaks.  I like my baddies that way.

    The language is occasionally R-Rated; but that makes it real-world.  This is a standalone novel, although I gather Preston has written several books featuring Wyman Ford.  There isn’t a hint of romance; this is a guy-book.

    The “action ending” is superb;  The “science ending” is a bit contrived.  It would’ve been edgier to leave the world dangling as to the possibility of outer space interaction.

Kewlest New Word. . .
Tuk-Tuk (n.)  :  a three-wheeled motorized vehicle used as a taxi.  (Google-image it)

Excerpts...
    ”Abbey, what’s in the box?”
    Her father stood in the doorway of the kitchen, still wearing his orange rubber boots, his checked shirt stained with diesel fuel and lobster bait.  His windburned brow was creased with suspicion.
    “A telescope.”
    “A telescope?  How much did it cost?”
    “I bought it with my own money.”
    “Great,” he said, his gravelly voice tense, “if you never want to go back to college and stay a waitress the rest of your life, blow your paycheck on telescopes.”
    “Maybe I want to be an astronomer.”  (pg. 3)

    “A few years ago the Hubble Space Telescope stared for eleven days at an empty spot of night sky no bigger than a dust speck.  Night after night it collected the faintest light from that pinpoint of sky.  It was an experiment to see what might be there.  You know what it saw?”
    “God’s left nostril?”
    Abbey laughed.  “Ten thousand galaxies.  Galaxies never seen before.  Each one with five hundred billion stars.  And that was just one pinprick of sky, chosen at random.”  (pg. 120)

“Ah, well.  A boat’s just a boat.”  (pg. 182)
    There are some weaknesses.  Wyman’s “plan” for dealing with the Cambodian labor camp is a royal WTF, and all of the Southeast Asians are stereotyped.  Ditto for the depiction of Muslims towards the end of the book.  Some of the science is apparently flawed, and the overall plotline, while action-packed, doesn’t have any “twists” to it.  The killer chases our heroes, eventually catches them, and the exciting-but-predictable outcome ensues.

    OTOH, if you’re not an astronomer or a radiation expert (and I’m not), and you’re just looking for a thriller that will keep you turning the pages, Impact serves just fine.

    7½ Stars.  Add 1 star if you’re really in the mood for a beach/airport novel.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Success of Suexliegh - Zack Keller



    2012 (but recently revised and reissued); 216 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Humor.  Overall Rating : 7½*/10.
 
    Suexliegh (pronounced “Swoo-Lee-Ay”) is a man who has it all – virtually unlimited riches, unbelievable luck, supreme self-confidence, a blue-blood pedigree, and a devoted and perfect butler named Quincy.

    Quincy considers it an honor to be in Suexliegh’s employ.  It would be a great legacy to pass on to his son, Quincy Junior, who is an eager trainee.  It would be a job of a lifetime, and a lifetime job; if only Suexliegh had an heir.  But for that, a Mrs. Suexliegh is required.

What’s To Like...
    The humor is madcap, and initially plentiful.  When Suexliegh finds himself under house arrest, his fondness for the horse races is jeopardized.  So he simply buys all the houses between him and the racetrack, and expands his property lines accordingly.  Sheer genius.

    For all his assets, Suexliegh is a pompous antihero.  I like antiheroes.  And for all his gentility, he is a bundle of stress when it comes to wooing the opposite sex.  Ah, but butlers can serve as mentors when needed.

     The chapters are short – James Pattersonly short, but it works nicely.  The writing is good, but I struggled with the storytelling.  It seemed “segmented”.  We’d follow one plotline for a while – the races, the jail, the wooing, Dmitri the Painter, the Burgundy Scoundrels, etc, - then that would get unceremoniously dropped, replaced by a different plotline, and off we’d go in a different direction.  It didn’t “flow” right for me.

    The “tone” of the book also changes as the story progresses.  The humor becomes sparser and the emphasis shifts to the development of Suexliegh’s character.  Maybe this is inherent to moving the story along, but I for one missed the yuk-yuks.

    The ending was a mixed bag.  There was no surprise in resolving the girl issue, other than wondering why she didn’t choose “none of the above”.  But the resolution of the Quincy/Quimcy Jr. plotline was masterful.

Excerpts...
    He recognized many of them either by acquaintance or front-page scandal.  Verne Dempsey made a fortune when his company, claiming to have cured the common cold, went public until the FDA realized he was just selling ground up Skittles.  Jules Reneau eliminated his competition at a French newspaper by tossing him into the paper press while it was running.  Needless to say, the story was all over the front page.  (loc. 456)

    “Quincy, what should I do?  I know nothing about women except that they can vote.  They can vote, yes?
    “Yes.”
    “Of course, of course.  Separate but equal and all that.  They’re such an enigma to me, what with their long hair and all.”  (loc. 674)

Kindle Details...
    The Success of Suexiegh sells for $2.99 at Amazon.  Zack Keller's other offerings appear to all be short stories, but a second full-length novel, Penwell, is said to be close to being published.

A greyhound race without wagers is much like a deviled egg without paprika.  Decent, agreeable, but not thrilling.  (loc. 587)
    Don’t let my quibbles scare you off – The Success of Suexliegh is a delightful read for anyone who enjoys the antihero more than the hero.  The humor was great, and if Suexliegh isn’t fully rehabilitated by the end of the book, at least he’s no longer a complete butthead.  Besides, his “needs improvement” status justifies developing this into a series.

    7½ Stars.  Add 1 star if you enjoy it when antiheroes evade their deserved comeuppance.  You might enjoy  George MacDonald Fraser’s “Flashman” series.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Kavalier and Clay - Michael Chabon



   2000; 636 pages. Full Title : The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.  New Author? : No.    Genre : Contemporary Literature.  Laurels : Pulitzer Prize winner – 2001.  Overall Rating : 9½*/10.

   19-year-old Joe Kavalier has just arrived in New York City from Prague, fleeing Nazi persecution.  He can do marvelous drawings, but obviously knows only fragmentary English.

    He’s staying at his aunt’s house, rooming with his cousin, 17-year-old Sammy Clay.  Sammy’s artistic talent is marginal, but he has a way with words, and has an inexhaustible trove of catchy plotlines.

    They have the talent and potential to be a top-flight comic book team, and rake in some big bucks.  But it’s a jungle out there for a pair of na├»ve teenagers, and life will throw a lot of distractions at them.  Can they stay focused and overcome the challenges?  Come on, they’re teenagers.

What’s To Like...
     The writing is elegant, and it’s easy to see why Kavalier & Clay won a Pulitzer Prize.  The character-development is wonderful, and the three main characters – Joe, Sammy, and Rosa – make for an a surprisingly original love triangle.

    There are a bunch of themes running throughout the book – Houdini-esque magic tricks, business deals, anti-Semitism, love, hatred, the challenge of emigrating to a new country – but the main ones are life in pre-WW2 America in general (especially for its Jewish citizens), and the golden era of comic books in particular.  They are all superbly done.  Oh, “gayness before it was acceptable” is also dealt with, so if you’re a homophobe, you probably won’t like this book.

    There are a few adult situations and language, but really not enough to call it R-rated.  There is some, but not a lot, of action; and just enough humor (primarily Sammy’s remarkable wit) to season the story properly.

    It took me about 100 pages to get used to Chabon’s writing style, but once I did, this became quite the page-turner for me.  And character-driven stories are generally not my genre.

Kewlest New Word...
Aetataureate (adj.)  :  of the “golden years”.  Here, the phrase is “the aetataureate delusion”, which seems to refer to the (apparently false) notion that old age is fun.

Excerpts...
    Although Joe had never forgotten the girl whom he had surprised that morning in Jerry Glovsky’s bedroom, he saw that, in his nocturnal reimaginings of the moment, he had badly misremembered her.  He never would have recalled her forehead as so capacious and high, her chin so delicately pointed.  In fact, her face would have seemed overlong were it not counterbalanced by an extravagant flying buttress of a nose.  Her rather small lips were set in a bright red hyphen that curved downward just enough at one corner to allow itself to be read as a smirk of amusement, from which she herself was not exempted, at the surrounding tableau of human vanity.  (pg. 237)

    “So,” said Bacon, what’s he so hot to trot about?”
    “His girl,” said Sammy.  “Miss Rosa Luxemburg Saks.”
    “I see.”  Bacon had a little bit of a southern accent.  “She a foreigner, too?”
    “Yeah, she is,” Sammy said.  “She’s from Greenwich Village.”
    “I’ve heard of it.”
    “It’s a pretty backward place.”
    “Is it?”
    “The people are little more than savages.”
    “I hear they eat dogs there.”
    “Rosa can do amazing things with dog.”  (pg. 302)

“Praise means so much when it comes from a lunatic.”  (pg. 539)
    The first half of the book – from Joe’s arrival in NYC in 1939 until December 7th 1941, borders on being perfect.  Then the storyline gets a tad disjointed, as we jump instantly to Joe’s tenure in Antarctica, and his subsequent going to ground.  The ending takes place in 1954, and is somewhat contrived, but frankly, I don't think there’s any adequate way to end a complex story like this.

    You can tell Chabon did a lot of research into the time period used and the world of comic books.  The result is a detailed, authentic-feeling, including real people like Salvador Dali and Orson Welles making cameo appearances.

    9½ Stars.  10 Stars for the first half; 9 stars for the second half.  This is truly a masterpiece.