Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Ocean/Orbiter Deluxe Edition (Warren Ellis)

Ocean/Orbiter Deluxe Edition
Warren Ellis, illustrations by Chris Sprouse and Colleen Doran
Fiction, Collection/Graphic Novel/Sci-Fi
***** (Great)

DESCRIPTION: A special edition compiles two stories of space travel:
Ocean: United Nations Weapons Inspector Nathan Kane is sent on an urgent, top-secret mission to Europa, Jupiter's icy ocean moon. Here, a discovery has been made that could rewrite human history... or end it.
Orbiter: When the space shuttle Venture disappeared, it spelled the end of manned spaceflight and the world's dreams of exploring the solar system. Ten years later and without warning, the shuttle returns to the ruins of Kennedy Space Center, with peculiar modifications, one catatonic survivor - and, impossibly, Martian dust in the wheel wells.

REVIEW: Another pleasant find on Hoopla, the online lending service associated with many library systems. Ellis incorporates heavy science into his stories, but doesn't forget the sense of wonder that remains at the heart of the best sci-fi.
In the first story, Ocean, Kane and a small team of explorers discover humanoids suspended in sarcophagi under the Europan ice, along with weapons that could turn the Earth to a cinder in seconds... weapons systems targeted by a private exploration team, in an unsubtle dig at corporate ethics (or lack thereof.) It has the feel of a good (if slightly old-school) sci-fi action film, even using variable gravity to great effect.
The second tale, Orbiter, is more psychological, a study of what the space program means to individuals and the world, and why it's so important to keep pushing boundaries even given the risks. According to the afterword, Ellis wrote it as a tribute to the lives lost in the Columbia disaster, and it shows - as does the warning of where we'll end up if we let fear pin us down on Earth when we should be stretching our wings further. This is the good stuff, the sci-fi that uses science to open doors and ask questions and wonder "what if...?", not just brood and come up with new ways to blow up slimy aliens.
Taken together, these stories earn top marks for remembering what the genre can and should aspire to.

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Saturday, November 10, 2018

The Green Ember (S. D. Smith)

The Green Ember
The Green Ember series, Book 1
S. D. Smith
Story Warren Books
Fiction, MG Fantasy
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Young rabbits Heather and Picket grew up with stories of kings and warriors, of Whitson Mariner and Captain Blackstar, of battles fought against wolf and hawk and eagle. But one tale Father never told them was the Rise and Fall of King Jupiter, lord of a hundred warrens and protector of the Great Wood. Never, that, is, until the night before the wolves came, and their peaceful childhood ended in flames.
Fleeing for their lives, the siblings fall in with their estranged Uncle Wilfred and his ward Smalls, who take them to a hidden rabbit sanctuary. It looks peaceful, a place to rebuild hope and a future. But all is not as it seems, and the forces that brought down Jupiter and ended his legendary reign - the wolves and birds of prey and even traitors of their own kind - stand poised to snuff out even this small spark of resistance. Worse, Heather and Picket find themselves disliked almost from the start, for reasons nobody will tell them. As they struggle to unravel the mysteries of Cloud Mountain, the danger looms ever closer.
Of all the tales Father told them, the one he wasn't brave enough to tell may be the most important, and most tragic, of all...

REVIEW: Though the characters may be rabbits and the edges may be a bit blunted given the target audience, The Green Ember isn't a cutesy Fluffy Bunny story. This is very much an epic fantasy tale, if one dressed up in fur and whiskers, and if you come to this expecting nothing worse than hurt feelings you'll be in for a shock; the violence isn't graphic, but it is deadly, and grows moreso by the climax. Heather and Picket both have to do a lot of growing up in a short (and tragic) space, and don't always manage it without some wrong turns, though to Smith's credit I fully understood even the backslides; the author builds real, solid characters with sometimes-complicated inner lives and conflicted wants, not just in Heather and Picket but in much of the surrounding cast. Naturally, there's more to the story of King Jupiter's fall and missing heir that bears directly on them and their family, though not in the obvious way one might expect. The plot moves rabbit-quick, but never too fast to keep up with. I considered trimming for the old trope of evil wolves and predators, a subtle but persistent tendency to soften the female characters to stereotype roles of healers and sages, and the needlessly-sanitized illustrations (which, in my opinion, don't honor the tone or the characters, not to mention the young readers who can and will take them every bit as seriously as any Tolkienian creation), but in the end decided to give it the benefit of the doubt. It's a well-told tale suitable for younger readers, and if The Green Ember sparks an interest in the greater field of epic fantasy, so much the better.

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Wednesday, November 7, 2018

The Depths (Kirk Kjeldsen)

The Depths
Kirk Kjeldsen
Grenzland Press
Fiction, Adventure/Thriller
** (Bad)

DESCRIPTION: After three miscarriages, Marah's marriage to Eden was near a breaking point, but a Malaysian scuba vacation might help them start over. Things take a nasty turn, however, when kidnappers grab them and haul them off to an uncharted island. Marah was always the shy one, the reluctant adventurer, but she's going to have to find her own strength if she's to have any hope of survival.

REVIEW: The Depths is the written equivalent of those off-brand movies you sometimes find on TV on a Saturday afternoon. The characters are flat off-the-shelf plot enablers, the story nothing special, the dialog forgettable, and you honestly can't tell if it's been edited for broadcast or if it really was that bland originally, but it fills an empty house while waiting for something better to come on (and one can hope the checks didn't bounce, so at least someone got paid for making it.) Not much really happens (aside from the initial kidnapping and some generic roughing up), so mostly it's Marah in her own head rehashing her misery, her miscarriages, and her failed marriage. When she finally demonstrates some agency - at about 3/4 of the way through the book - it's so out of the blue it doesn't even seem in character, leading to a "surprise" plot twist that was telegraphed from the start. Then the story ends with a conclusion that dropped it below the Okay I nearly gave it. (No specific spoiler, but to be honest if you read the Description you can probably guess. Talk about a stale, stereotypical chestnut...) On the plus side, it reads fast. On the minus side, I was forgetting it even as I was turning pages. Next time a movie like this is on, I think I'll just pop in a DVD.

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Monday, November 5, 2018

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry (Neil deGrasse Tyson)

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry
Neil deGrasse Tyson
W. W. Norton and Company
Nonfiction, Science
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: Relativity theory, the Big Bang, pulsars, galaxy clusters, dark matter... Science news reports on all manner of new theories and discovered wonders in the universe these days, but to the average person, it can be more than a little overwhelming. Popular scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson breaks down the vast field of astrophysics for people who don't know where or how to start.

REVIEW: This title promises a quick, simplified "tour" of the vast (literally and theoretically) field of astrophysics and why it's so important. For the most part, it delivers. Starting with the "Big Bang" at the start of the (known current) universe, it touches on the terms, discoveries, and theories that inform our current understanding of reality as we know it... and how each breakthrough leads to more questions. From the stars at night to the very atoms that make up our bodies, we literally owe everything in existence to events billions of years ago. At the end, Tyson touches on why sciences like astrophysics, which seem to have no tangible short-term benefit, are really the most important of all if we're ever going to mature and survive as a species. (Given recent attitudes toward science by more than one developed country, I sadly suspect H. sapiens has chosen voluntary extinction over embracing the notion that we aren't the center of the universe, but I digress...) The organization can be a bit scattershot, and even in simplified terms some of the concepts are just too big to stuff into my undereducated primate gray matter, but it does live up to its title.

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Sunday, November 4, 2018

Heartstone (Elle Katharine White)

The Heartstone series, Book 1
Elle Katharine White
Harper Voyager
Fiction, Fantasy
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: When Aliza Bentaine met Alastair Daired, it was hate at first sight. Never mind that Aliza's younger sister had been killed by a horde of gryphons that had roosted near Merybourne Manor, and Alastair - scion of an ancient line of dragon companions - was one of the Riders sent to deal with the infestation. The man's arrogance and casual dismissal of any born lower than himself (most everybody in the realm of Arle, in other words) would try a saint's patience, and it's soon clear that he finds her headstrong ways even more irritating than most of the human race. But fate seems to keep throwing them into each others' paths, as the gryphons prove to be just one part of a much greater danger that will threaten the whole of Arle... one that will take more than dragonfire and Rider steel to defeat.

REVIEW: As one might surmise from the description, Heartstone is a fantasy riff on the Jane Austen classic Pride and Prejudice, transplanting the general story structure into an invented realm that vaguely resembles England. Some of the elements don't transfer as well as others; in White's world, women have more options for improving their lot than simply marrying well, so Aliza's mother's obsession with getting a good Rider match for at least one of her eligible daughters seems a little out of place. It also made parts of the tale predictable, such as the general arc of Aliza and Alastair's relationship and those of a few surrounding players. The fantasy trappings, though, made for interesting variety, not to mention more intense action sequences than Austen presented. (Then again, I think most classics would be improved with the addition of dragons, or at least gryphons, which is probably all you need to know about my literary taste - or lack thereof. But, I digress...) I also cared enough for the characters to keep reading; indeed, though the tale was fairly lightweight in many respects, it somehow drug me into a daylong binge. It was this ability to keep me turning pages that made me overlook a few forgotten loose ends and some over-complicated worldbuilding to give it a four-star Good rating. I might even read the second one, if I find it cheap enough (or, better yet, through the library.)

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Saturday, November 3, 2018

The Snow Queen (Joan D. Vinge)

The Snow Queen
The Snow Queen Cycle, Book 1
Joan D. Vinge
Popular Library
Fiction, Sci-Fi
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: The world of Tiamat is a world of two suns and two peoples. For 150 years, the Winter people and their Queens in white reign from the ageless capital of Carbuncle. Here, they enjoy the wealth of the interstellar Hegemony, who trade their technological wonders for a life-extending elixir made from the blood of a native species. But when the proximity of a rogue star makes the Black Gate unstable and equatorial regions inhospitable, the offworlders take their technology and abandon the world, while the rustic Summer people reclaim Carbuncle for the next century and a half under their Summer Queens. The ancient traditions of the Cycle ensure that the natives of Tiamat never gain enough independence to challenge the Hegemony, or threaten the flow of the "waters of life" to the other worlds... but Arienrhod, Winter Queen, tires of offworlders exploiting her people, not to mention the Change that sees the Winters revert to little more than primitives during the long summer. She and her consort Starbuck, lives extended unnaturally by the waters, have plans for independence - plans that may cost many lives on her world and beyond, and that have already cost her much of her own humanity and soul. Those plans begin with a single child in a distant land...
Summer-born Moon has known two things about her destiny since she was old enough to walk the island beaches of her home: that she would marry her halfblood cousin Sparks Dawntreader, and that she would become a sibyl, speaker for the holy Lady of the Seas. But when she finally hears the Lady's call, it tears her from Sparks's hands, setting her on a path that will lead her far from the islands, far from her homeworld - even as far as the palace in Carbuncle as Winter's reign ends. For the Winter Queen herself awaits the arrival of Moon, her chosen heir... and perfect clone.

REVIEW: The Snow Queen, a sci-fi story loosely inspired by the fairy tale of the same name, was first published in 1980. At the time, it was probably progressive - it makes a point of having women leaders resisting patriarchal societies - but it hasn't aged particularly well. For all the powerful women it tries to present, their motivations almost invariably boil down to a man. Moon's mutual bond with Sparks remains her driving need through the majority of the book, an inherent naivete that flattens her character and makes her come across as a teenager caught in puppy love... and more than a bit of a too-perfect character for whom anyone (particularly males) will do anything. Arienrhod has burned through lovers for her long life, part of her overall personality of using and ruining people for her own ends or mere amusement, but nevertheless becomes obsessed with the same man her clone covets, even as her former favored lover both seethes in hatred and pines for her lost affections. Commander Jerusha, the offworlder police captain who fought Hegemonic misogyny for her post, nonetheless discovers that her life is incomplete without a husband (not a strong subplot, but very much present.) There's even a minor female villain whose main problem is that she needs to be taught to coddle and nurture others ('cause you know a woman is incomplete without being Soft and Motherly.) Even when the characters discuss the unfairness of caste systems and patriarchal prejudices, those "all for a man" undercurrents - probably more glaring today than they were in the 1980's - drag things down.
Beyond that, the story itself has some decent moments, but too often loses itself in writing that tries too hard to be Writerly. Some of the dialog and descriptions, particularly toward the climax, almost had me laughing out loud at the melodrama, and Vinge's offworlder languages and cultures felt stilted. Though it starts at a decent pace, it soon bogs down, not helped by more than one predictable, borderline cliche turn. The final third feels unnaturally drawn out, even while leaving deliberate threads dangling for the next installment. For all that, Vinge presents decent ideas in Tiamat and the Hegemony. I can see how The Snow Queen won its cover-advertised Hugo in its day. Ultimately, though, I don't think time has been kind to this tale, and I doubt I'll pursue the rest of the cycle.

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Friday, November 2, 2018

Everyone Loves Bacon (Kelly DiPucchio)

Everyone Loves Bacon
Kelly DiPucchio, illustrations by Eric Wight
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
Fiction, CH Humor/Picture Book
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: When Bacon becomes the star of the diner breakfast menu, the fame goes to his head.

REVIEW: Another quick read during a slow stretch at work, this is an amusing cautionary tale about an unchecked Eggo- sorry, ego. Though Bacon starts out nice enough, he soon forgets his old friends, growing a mustache (everyone loves mustaches!) and appearing on all manner of merchandising... but fate and fame are equally fickle things. Some fun little side jokes in the illustrations add to the enjoyment.

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