Thursday, March 31, 2016

Wool - Hugh Howey

   2012; 510 pages.  Full Title : Wool Omnibus Edition (Wool 1-5)  New Author? : Yes.  Books #1-#5 (out of 9) in the Silo series.  Genre : Post-Apocalyptic Science Fiction; Dystopian Fiction.  Overall Rating : 7*/10.

    In a post-apocalyptic world, evidently as a result of a nuclear holocaust, the descendants of the few who survived now live underground.  More specifically, their habitat is a huge silo (think “farm” silo, not “missile” silo), with more than 130 levels in it.

    There is a rigid caste system in place detailing who lives in which section of levels, but anyone can walk to the topmost level and gaze out onto the bleak landscape via a huge viewing-bubble window.  Of course, if you happen to live 130 levels underground and want to see what’s outside, you better have good legs, since there are no elevators in the silo, only stairs.

    The scene from the window is haunting – a ruined city in the distance, and dust-covered hills nearer to the silo.  Unfortunately, the dust gradually builds up and collects on the bubble, obscuring the view.  Someone needs to periodically go out and clean off the outside of the bubble with wool.  But it is a one-way mission, since the air is toxic outside and the suits the cleaners wear last only a couple minutes before the fatal leaks occur.  It’s long enough to clean the window, but no one ever makes it back inside afterwards.

    So the question is – how to determine who gets to do the suicide cleaning?

What’s To Like...
    Wool is divided into 5 parts, each of which gets progressively longer.  The first part, titled “Holston”, is actually a standalone short story, but is a compelling read despite only comprising 7% of the e-book.  The other 4 parts develop the story further and were reportedly written after a large number of readers clamored for sequels.

    Part 2 is another standalone, featuring a sheriff and a mayor traipsing from top to bottom of the silo, and back up again.  I got the feeling its main purpose was to give the reader a feel for how the silo was structured.  The main protagonist, Juliette, appears starting in Part 3, and her story continues through Parts 4 and 5.

    The characters are all unique and well developed.  Even the bad guys have at least one or two redeeming qualities.  The world-building is impressive in its detail, and the concept of living in silos after an apocalyptic event is original.  Although Hugh Howey doesn’t explain exactly what happened to destroy civilization (I blame Cormac McCarthy for popularizing that habit),  I gather that's dealt with in the next book, where the sequel is a prequel.

    The book is 500+ pages long, but has 81 chapters and an epilogue, so there’s always a good place to stop.  It ends at a logical spot, and leaves the reader thirsting to know what happens next.  If you liked George Lucas’s early film, “THX 1138”; and or Shirley Jackson’s short story, “The Lottery”, you will likely enjoy Wool.

Kewlest New Word …
Wicking (v.) : absorbing or drawing off (a liquid) by capillary action
Others : Gyred (v.)

Kindle Details...
    Wool sells for $4.99 at Amazon, which is an excellent price to introduce you to this series.  The other books in the series all sell for $5.99 apiece, and that's still a great price.

    But then, the lowering of the body and the plucking of ripe fruit just above the graves was meant to hammer this home: the cycle of life is here; it is inescapable; it is to be embraced, cherished, appreciated.  One departs and leaves behind the gift of sustenance, of life.  They make room for the next generation.  We are born, we are shadows, we cast shadows of our own, and then we are gone.  All anyone can hope for is to be remembered two shadows deep.  (loc. 2210 )

    He leaned back and peered under the table at the dog, who was half sitting on one of his boots and looking up at him with its foolish tongue hanging out, tail wagging.  All Knox saw in the animal was a machine that ate food and left shit behind.  A furry ball of meat he wasn’t allowed to eat.  He nudged the filthy thing off his boot.  “Scram,” he said.
    “Jackson, get over here.”  McLain snapped her fingers.
    “I don’t know why you keep those things around, much less breed more of ‘em.”
    “You wouldn’t,” McLain snapped back.  “They’re good for the soul, for those of us who have them.”  (loc. 4005)

 “We get no credit for being sane, do we?”  (loc. 4354)
    I’ve been eager to read Wool for quite some time, particularly since it is almost always checked out at my local library, both as an e-book and in hardcover.  And while it was a worthwhile read, there were some disappointments.

    First and foremost, in most post-apocalyptic tales, the reader looks forward to seeing what kind of life –human, critters, mutants, or otherwise – somehow survived and now inhabit the ravaged planet.  And while there is a bit of a “life beyond the silo” encounter here, it is rather limited in scope.

    Secondly, this cannot be described as an action-packed story.  Yes, there is eventually a rebellion, but let’s face it, there’s always a revolt in a dystopian novel, and here it is late in arriving on the scene.  Also, a lot of what action there is happens off-screen.  The undoing of the bad guy?  We’re told about it later.  The heroic climax of the rebellion?  Yep, off-screen.

    Overall, I wouldn’t say Wool is a bad story or a waste of time.  But it didn’t live up to my admittedly high expectations.

    7 Stars.  Add 1½ stars if your favorite machine at the gym is the stairmaster and you just love the idea of trudging up and down steps.  You'll be walking on air here.

Monday, March 21, 2016

The Girl In The Spider's Web - David Lagercrantz

    2015; 400 pages.  New Author? : Yes, kinda.  Book 4 in (the late) Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series, aka the Lisbeth Salander series.  Genre : Thriller.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    Frans Balder is turning his life around.  Once a deadbeat father, he’s now determined to give his son, August, a stable life.  It won’t be easy; August is an autistic child.  And it will be a full-time undertaking, so he quits his lucrative job at Solifon.  But anything is better than leaving his son with his ex-wife and her has-been movie-star boyfriend.

    Ah, but Frans’ work at Solifon was both confidential and ground-breaking.  And his ex-employers have a sneaking suspicion that when he walked away, he took some of his top-secret notes along with him.

    Those notes are worth retrieving, no matter what the cost.  They might even be worth killing for.

What’s To Like...
    The Girl In The Spider’s Web is the long-awaited fourth book in the Lisbeth Salander “Millennium” series, and the next installment after the initial trilogy finished up in 2010.  Stieg Larsson is dead, of course, but David Lagercrantz does an admirable job of taking over the authorship.

    The storyline is complex.  Mikael Blomkvist is trying to revitalize his career by finding something riveting to investigate.  The NSA’s computers are hacked (wanna guess who did it?) and they’re not going to rest until they find the perp and figure out how the hacking was done.  Frans is caring for his autistic son, and the Millennium magazine is trying to figure out if their takeover by Serner is a good thing or a bad thing.  And last but not least, there’s a second hackers' group called the Spiders, hence the title of the book.

    There’s a Cast of Continuing Characters at the front of the book in case this is your first Lisbeth Salander book, or if you’ve forgotten who’s who in the last five years.  It’s actually been 4 years since I read Book 3, so this was a handy resource.  Lagercrantz also spends a lot of time filling in the backstory, which is necessary, but slows down the storytelling somewhat.

    Autism is examined in depth, and I found that enlightening, although it is used in the usual clichéd way.  The (translation of) the book is written in sort of a blend of “English” and “American”, and I was amazed to find a couple of typos - “wonting to know” and “empty reads” (empty roads) – that made me feel that the editor just loafed on the job by running the manuscript through Spellchecker.

    All the characters – new and continuing – are developed thoroughly.  I especially liked the treatment of Ed The Ned and Camilla.  The tension builds steadily to a good, but somewhat hurried ending.  The storyline stops at a logical place, and also sets up the next book in the series.  As with the first book in the initial trilogy, the UE lives to fight another day.  Nevertheless, this is a standalone novel, and the last few pages are a way-kewl epilogue of sorts, letting you know what happens next to the various characters.

Kewlest New Word...
Scupper (v.) : to cause to stop; to put an end to something.
Others : Stroppy (adj.).

    Hi, Richard, nice to hear from you,” Bublanski lied.  “But I’m afraid I’m busy.”
    “What … no, no, not too busy for this, Jan.  You can’t miss out on this one.  I heard that you’d taken the day off.”
    “That’s right, and I’m just off to” – he did not want to say his synagogue.  His Jewishness was not popular in the force – “see my doctor,” he went on.
    “Are you sick?”
    “Not really.”
    “What’s that supposed to mean?  Nearly sick?”
    “Something like that.”
    “Well, in that case there’s no problem.  We’re all nearly sick, aren’t we?”  (pg. 142)

    “You think you’re pretty tough, don’t you?” he said.
    “I don’t like surprise visits.”
    “I don’t like people who break into my sytem, so we’re square.  Maybe you’d like to know how I found you?”
    “I couldn’t care less.”
    “It was via your company in Gibraltar.  Not too smart to call it Wasp Enterprises.”
    “Apparently not.”
    “For a smart girl, you make a lot of mistakes.”
    “For a clever boy, you work for a pretty rotten organization.”  (pg. 385)

“How come all lunatics and murderers are religious these days?”  (loc. 450)
    The Girl In The Spider’s Web is a decent, but not spectacular continuation of the Larsson's series.  When I made it to about page 100, I realized that there had been almost zero thrills and spills, and that Lisbeth, who's the main reason we all read these books, had gotten hardly any ink at all.  But looking at my reviews of the first three books, I was surprised to see that this was true of all the Larsson-penned books as well.  Being able to deftly copy the first author’s style is a worthy goal, but it's not always a good thing.

    Also, as mentioned earlier, the main storyline could’ve ended better.  After raising the tension to page-turning heights, we are left with a telephoto view of the climactic ending, which for me fell somewhat flat.

    But don’t let the negatives stop you from picking up this book.  If you make it to page 100, all hell breaks loose, and it's non-stop action from there to the final page.  Most Salanderholics will be happy they read it.  It’s not perfect, but frankly, neither were Larsson’s offerings.

    8 Stars.  Add 1 star if you liked Larsson’s habit of slowly setting the scene before unleashing the excitement.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Split Heirs - Lawrence Watt-Evans and Esther M. Friesner

   1993; 317 pages.  New Author(s)? : Yes and Yes.  Genre : Fantasy; Spoofery.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    King Gudge, the Lord of Hydrangea and chief of the Gorgorian hordes, is about to become a father. So comes the tidings from the Queen’s birthing chamber.  And it’s a son!  The news couldn’t be better.

    But Queen Artemisia is having triplets; two sons and a daughter.  And in Hydrangea, it is generally believed that the only way to have triplets is via three fathers.  King Gudge isn’t going to be thrilled about that, and he has a decapitating way of dealing with things he doesn't like.  The news couldn’t be worse.

    There’s only one thing to do – give two of the newborns –the daughter and one of the sons -  to the Queen’s trusted servant, Ludmilla, and have her spirit them away before anyone counts newly-arrived noses.  That will solve everything.

    But all babies look alike, and when Ludmilla mistakenly departs with both of the boys, desperate times call for desperate measures.

What’s To Like...
   The aptly-titled Split Heirs is a lighthearted fantasy tale that basically revolves around a single theme – the hilarious confusion and mix-ups that occur when three identical triplets go wandering around in the same general area.  One is a princess disguised as a prince, one is an apprentice sheepherder, and one is an apprentice magician.

    There are lots of way-kewl secondary characters to meet, including a wizard-in-hiding, and a rebel leader with his not-so-merry band of youthful thrill-seekers.  You’ll cross paths with a dragon or two, but that’s pretty much it for fantasy beasties.  There is some magic, but it doesn’t overwhelm the storyline, and the transform spell is neither reliable or reversible, which leads to some chuckle-inducing situations.

    There’s a small amount of mild cussing (“slut”, “to hell with”, etc.), and while there’s nothing overtly lewd here, there are some double entendres and allusions to adult situations.  Indeed, you may have to field awkward questions about Bernice and Dunwin’s relationship if you let little Susie or Billy read this.

    The first 50 pages seemed to meander to me, but that’s only because Watt-Evans and Friesner are getting everyone in place for the who’s-on-first-what’s-on-second shenanigans.  In time, things straighten out nicely, and the storyline builds steadily to an clichéd, yet exciting ending.  This is a standalone book; I don’t see that anyone has tried to develop it into a series in the 20+ years since it was published.

Kewlest New Word. . .
Doss (v.) : to sleep in rough or inexpensive accommodations.  A Britishism.
Others : Skrink (v.); Fillip (n.)

    “You were wrong before, you know.  Of course, arithmetic never was one of your strengths.  I remember saying to your dear, departed, decapitated da, King Fumitory the Twenty-Second, I said to him, ‘Our Missy-mussy has her charm, but she couldn’t add a wolf to a sheepfold and get lambchops.’  That’s what I said.”
    “And I say -”  Queen Artemisia’s clear blue eyes narrowed, “- I say that if you call me ‘Missy-mussy one more time, I shall ask my husband – may his skull crack like an acorn under a millstone – to give me your liver roasted with garlic, as a childbirth gift.”   (pg. 13)

    “Who are your parents?”
    “Well, my father’s Odo, he’s a shepherd.  And my mother’s name was Audrea.  She was a ewe.”
    “A me?”
    “No, a ewe.  A sheep.”
    Startled, Phrenk asked, “Your mother’s a sheep?”
    “Well, she was.  She’s dead now.”
    “You don’t look like a sheep.”
    Dunwin shrugged.  “I guess I take after my father.”  (pg. 98)

 “He’s a few vermin short of a plague, if you know what I mean.”  (pg. 145)
    Lawrence Watt-Evans and Esther M. Friesner have both written a prodigious amount of Sci-Fi and Fantasy novels, so it is somewhat of shock for me to day I had never heard of either one before reading Split Heirs.  Both have lots of e-books available at Amazon, and a my local library carries a couple of their book-books to boot.

    Wikipedia has articles on both of them, and Watt-Evans seems to lean towards a role-playing style of storytelling, while Friesner is more of a comedic sci-fi writer.  Split Heirs appears to be their only collaborative effort, which is too bad, since I found it to be a witty and fun read (you’ll love Weeping Cheeses and Remulo & Rommis) and a plotline that held my attention.  My only question was who was the target audience, since this was a strange-yet-clever combination of vaudevillian and adult-themed hijinks.

    8 Stars.  Subtract 1 Star if you find no humor in the one-liner, “Welcome to Wyoming.  Where the men are men and the sheep are scared.”

Sunday, March 6, 2016

The Ultimate Inferior Beings - Mark Roman

   2012; 291 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Spoof; Science Fiction.  Overall Rating : 7*/10.

    Something dreadful has happened to the spaceship The Living Chrysalis.  She’s arrived back at the interstellar spaceport six months sooner than is quantum-physically possible, with her entire crew dead from aging too rapidly.

    Someone needs to figure out what happened.  Someone needs to retrace the last voyage of The Living Chrysalis and determine where and when she had her fatal encounter.  And that someone (or those someones) needs to be expendable, since they probably will die from the same thing.

    jiiX is happy being just an ordinary landscape architect, so he is astounded when it is announced that he’s been promoted to being a spaceship captain, and given his very own ship.  And his own sparse and equally befuddled space crew.  And his own mission: To boldly go where one other spaceship has gone recently.

    But jiiX is given no other details.  After  all, suicide missions are usually top-secret projects.

What’s To Like...
    The way the names are formed (jiiX, twaX, flux, sylX) should clue the reader in that the emphasis in The Ultimate Inferior Beings is going to be on silliness and sci-fi spoofery.  jiiX’s crew contributes nicely to this motif – flux is a behavioral chemist trying to prove the existence of God, twaX is a carpenter, who dreams of chopping up trees, and anaX is a gynaecologist, and we all know every spaceship crew needs one of those.

    The book is written in “English” (as opposed to “American”), and that’s always a plus for me.  Mark Roman adds in all sorts of hilarious details – such as the book “Prgnancy and the Female Crewmember”, which gives us four helpful methods to prevent becoming “with child” in space.

    We don't visit a lot of extraterrestrial places, just jiix’s home planet “Tenalp”, Earth, and the Mamms’ planet, with its unimaginative name, “Ground”.  The story centers on jiix and his crew making contact with the Mamms, who are these cute little green blobs, as shown on the book cover above.  Their method of braking on the high-speed Pulseway is memorable.

    But beyond all the silliness, there is also some keen insight on the subject of prophecy and religious fanaticism.  The author avoids the pitfall of betting preachy, and the result is food for thought regarding how to interpret prophetic scripture.

    There’s only a smidgen of cussing in the book, and nothing that I found lewd or offensive.  The story ends at a logical spot, although I wouldn’t call this a standalone novel.  There’s a fairly extensive appendix at the end of the book.  It includes a glossary, and several discourses on Mamm evolution and history, plus a proof of God.  To be honest, I skipped all of that.  But not not be skipped is the way-kewl video blurb for this book on its Amazon page.

Kindle Details...
    The Ultimate Inferior Beings sells for $2.99 at Amazon.  INAICT, this is Mark Roman’s only novel, although he did also contribute a short story to an anthology titled A Turn Of The Wheel, and which sells for $0.99.

    “Maybe it’s because I’m new to this job, LEP, but those professions don’t strike me as being terribly relevant.”
    “Not relevant??”
    “Let’s take the behavioral chemist,” started jixX, speaking calmly and patiently.  “What ‘skill set’ does he bring to the mission?”
    “He’s a scientist,” said LEP after a hesitant pause.  “Technical knowledge, analytical skills, eccentricity bordering on madness… er… rotten dress sense…”  (loc. 502)

    “Life’s a funny old game,” said jixX philosophically.
    “Yes,” agreed the stowaway, with equal philosophical insight, placing the brick on her armrest.  “I wonder what will become of us.”
    jixX shrugged.  “I suppose we’ll end up getting married and living happily ever after,” he said.
    And, of course, they did.
    Though not to each other.  (loc. 5295)

 “We slimy green blobs are immortal.” … “Apart from the ones that die, that is.”  (loc. 3775)
    The Ultimate Inferior Beings struck me as aspiring to be like Douglas Adams’ opus, the Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy.  That’s as ambitious goal, and while it is fair to say TUIB doesn’t attain it, it also merits remembering that neither did any of Adams’ subsequent books in his series.

    My biggest issue with TUIB is the storyline itself.  The basic premise – finding out what befell The Living Chrysalis – is never even explored, let alone answered.  And when one of the key blobs suddenly loses his voice, I don’t recall any reason being given for this timely bout of silence.  Also, one of the crew members inexplicably runs off, is presumed dead, and is later found by others.  Surely there is a storyline thread  there, or at least a reason.

    Perhaps all of these issues are to be cleared up in a sequel, but alas, even after 4 years, none appears to be forthcoming.  It’s hard to get too excited about Book 1 in a series, when there is no “rest of the series”.

    7 Stars.  The storytelling drawbacks aside, I still found TUIB to be a fun read, with interesting characters and chock full of chuckles.  Add 1 star if a sequel to this should ever come out.