Sunday, April 30, 2017

April Site Update

The previous five book reviews are now archived and cross-linked on the main site.


Friday, April 28, 2017

Abaddon's Gate (James S. A. Corey)

Abaddon's Gate
(The Expanse series, Book 3)
James S. A. Corey
Fiction, Sci-Fi
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: After nearly destroying Earth and taking over Venus, the alien protomolecue seemed to have completed its "program" when it sent a mysterious, self-assembling Ring out to the orbit of Uranus. Surrounded by curious scientists, the vast artifact hung inert, and may have stayed that way until an errant thrill-seeker's ship plunged into its depths - and vanished. Now the race is on to explore the unknown, starless void beyond the Ring, a race of science and power that once more raises tensions between Earth, Mars, and the recently-legitimized Outer Planets Alliance... and, once more, Captain James Holden and the crew of the Rocinante find themselves in the thick of things. Further complicating matters are a new OPA warship whose crew are already at each others' throats before they leave Tycho Station, a ship full of artists and politicians and priests of various denominations whose original goal - publicity and a show of power - becomes dangerously complicated, a woman with a single-minded agenda who might endanger everyone... and visions that haunt Holden, the image of the deceased Detective Miller as co-opted by the protomolecule, who seems to be trying to tell him something important about the Ring and the unknown race who built it. As these forces collide, humanity may stand on the threshold of its greatest discovery - or on the edge of its extinction.

REVIEW: The third installment of the Expanse series just barely pulled off its four-star rating. It seemed to take a little longer to get moving, with new characters who were occasionally hard to care about (particularly Clarissa/Melba, the overlooked daughter of the disgraced and imprisoned magnate Mao, who has bent her entire life on exacting vengeance for the downfall of her father's empire.) Once the book finds its footing, though, it's once again off and running in a fine spacefaring romp full of new wonders, escalating danger, and the complicated nature of the human animal as it reaches beyond its native habitat to grasp at new toys. I'm a little concerned at the increased religious presence and tone in this book; I hope it isn't going to turn into "inspirational" fiction, because that's really not my cup of cocoa and it would rather spoil the series for me to shoehorn God, particularly a human vision of God, into this space opera. Between that and Clarissa, whom I really didn't care for, it came very close to losing marks, but a sufficiently enjoyable finale managed to keep it afloat in the ratings. I hope things improve a little for the fourth book, though.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Ender's Game (Orson Scott Card) - My Review
Deathstalker (Simon R. Green) - My Review
Dune (Frank Herbert) - My Review

The Curious Garden (Peter Brown)

The Curious Garden
Peter Brown
Little, Brown Books
Fiction, YA Picture Book
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: In a dreary, dark city, curious Liam discovers a weedy tangle of a garden... and a curious garden discovers the city.

REVIEW: Another quick read during a slow stretch at work - a sadly ironic one, given recent actions intended to reverse protections for the environment and national lands, but I digress. Inspired by a real-life reclamation effort on an abandoned stretch of elevated train tracks in New York City, this is a story of one boy helping nature, and nature helping the boy - and, in turn the whole city. It's a quick, inspiring read.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Trouble with Dragons (Debi Gliori) - My Review
Sector 7 (David Wiesner) - My Review
What Do You Do With an Idea? (Kobi Yamada) - My Review

Monday, April 17, 2017

Finishing School (Cary Tennis and Danelle Morton)

Finishing School
Cary Tennis and Danelle Morton
Tarcher Perigee
Nonfiction, Writing
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Many people have unfinished stories in their drawers, attics, or computer hard drives. The mystery novel started in college, the memoir of a family tragedy, the articles on your hometown history, the short story stubs you meant to follow through on... even professional writers often have those projects that never seem to get done. Simple logic tells you that, if you don't write your stories, nobody else ever will - but simple logic doesn't make it any easier to pick up a dusty manuscript, or clear time in a too-hectic schedule, or overcome the obstacles like fear and shame that grow like thorns around unfinished projects over time. To help, authors Tennis and Morton present a method that has helped them, and countless others, organize their time and get the motivation they needed to put the final period on that long-neglected project.

REVIEW: As a writer myself, I know my proverbial trunk is packed far too full of novels, story stubs, and free-range ideas, so when I saw this title I figured it could help. The concept of "Finishing School" involves committing to smaller steps and holding oneself accountable via a group and the "buddy system" - not to critique or judge, as many writing groups do, but simply to have that outside person to answer to for doing (or not doing) what you need to do. It needn't even be active writing; just committing time to get back to an old or thorny project and look it over, to decide what the next step is, is invaluable. The idea gels with other material I've been reading lately on time management and thinking of projects in terms of just "the next step." Both authors came at the subject with different backgrounds and approaches to writing, each adding a different voice in favor of the Finishing School method. They start with a section on the reasons people commonly abandon projects (many of which ring true, though a few felt like they struck just to the side of the bullseye from my experiences), followed by a description of the process and its results for themselves and others. It's an interesting idea, one I intend to try - though I may have to hybridize it, as I have notoriously poor luck with group activities.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Write That Book Already! (Sam Barry and Kathi Kamen Goldmark) - My Review
The Habit Fix (Eileen Rose Giadone) - My Review
You Are a Writer (So Start Acting Like One) (Jeff Goins) - My Review

Monday, April 10, 2017

11/22/63 (Stephen King)

Stephen King
Pocket Books
Fiction, Sci-Fi
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: In 2011 Maine, schoolteacher Jake Epping never dreamed time travel was possible - until his friend Al Templeton, dying of cancer, lets him in on a secret. In the back of Al's diner is a portal to 1958, always the same moment - and no matter how long one stays in the past, one always returns just two minutes later in the present. For years, Al just used the local market and 1950's prices as a cheap source of meat for his burgers, but then he realized he could do more... much more, such as prevent the national tragedy due in November 1963: the assassination of President Kennedy. Al tested his theory by preventing smaller tragedies, then meticulously stalked killer Lee Harvey Oswald, but his ill health caught up to him before he could act. Now he passes the secret and his notes to Jake. But time travel is tricky, and time acts to protect itself from even the best-intentioned meddlers...

REVIEW: I've read a couple books and the odd short story by Stephen King, and while they weren't bad, I never got the huge hype surrounding him. Still, the subject of this one intrigued me (and I had a coupon to burn off at the bookstore that day), so I picked it up... and was very impressed. This is the writing that I hadn't encountered before, the stuff that elevated King to his near-cult status.
Jake isn't a perfect hero, struggling to do what he thinks is right against increasing resistance from various sources. His exploration of the past reveals the good and the bad of history, a world often viewed through the glow of nostalgia but which was every bit as contradictory as modern times, where attitudes may be (slightly) different but humans remain human, for better or worse. Time itself becomes a character, a stalking force that feints and strikes and tempts Jake off his course. His ultimate goal may be to stop assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, but even as he pursues that goal he must live his own life in the past, a life where even the best plans and truest loves are seemingly doomed for being built on lies. The story is a bit of a slow burn, but interesting enough to keep me reading, building at last to a tense climax - but what comes after the climax is even more powerful. King's extensive research makes both the "Land of Ago" and the characters come to life, turning the cast into much more than names in a history book or conspiracy theory essay. Reading this book in 2017 is a very different experience than it would've been just a few years ago; much of the ugliness of the past that Jake saw, the ugliness so many of us thought was slowly receding in the rear-view mirror, has come back to threaten our future, casting a bit of a pall over the ending. Nevertheless, I found it an eminently satisfying read, riddled with interesting details and recurring themes and moments that kicked it up a half star in the ratings.
(As a closing note, I still say the best-ever explanation for the JFK assassination was the one posited in the British sci-fi comedy series Red Dwarf, in the episode "Tikka to Ride".)

You Might Also Enjoy:
Sky Coyote (Kage Baker) - My Review
Timeline (Michael Crichton) - My Review
The Time Machine (H. G. Wells) - My Review

Monday, April 3, 2017

Mythology: Visual Reference Guide (Philip Wilkinson and Neil Philip)

Mythology: Visual Reference Guide
Phillip Wilkinson and Neil Philip
Dorling Kindersley
Nonfiction, YA Mythology
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: A quick-reference guide to myths and gods from around the world.

REVIEW: This portable overview of global myths and deities earns marks for covering a wide array of cultures, from the oft-retold Greek and Roman tales to less common myths from Africa and Oceania. It divides itself by region, then includes a quick-reference at the back grouping gods by basic roles (war, love, and so forth.) However, it also glosses over major chunks of mythology (such as chopping off often-tragic endings to Greek hero myths), and its summaries sometimes feel frustratingly incomplete. This is, naturally, one of the trade-offs required to keep this visual reference guide from becoming a multi-volume oversized encyclopedia set, but I still wondered if more could've been done to preserve some cultural touchstones or relevance; many of these stories lose a lot simply by being translated, with connections that seem obvious to the original tellers lost to those of us reading it in a different language and culture. Like most DK titles, there are numerous illustrations from various sources. In the end, I went with a Good rating, considering it as a simple introduction to world mythology.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Voices of the Winds: Native American Legends (Margot Edmonds and Ella E. Clark) - My Review
The Encyclopedia of Things That Never Were (Micheal Page and Robert Ingpen) - My Review
Eyewitness Books: Mythology (Neil Philip) - My Review