16 April 2014

Review: The Word Exchange


The Word Exchange
The Word Exchange by Alena Graedon

My rating: 0 of 5 stars



When it comes to what's new and hot and awesome in dystopian fiction as of late, it usually centers around fascistic governments or a world recovering from a major war or disaster, or simply becoming some sort of post-apocalyptic survival story. Rarely is it one that, instead of attacking people directly, it chooses instead to attack language. Thus Alena Graedon's The Word Exchange.

There are a good deal of books that have been published over the years that deal with language and the written word as a major point, whether it be fantasy like Blake Charlton's Spellwrite trilogy, or the somewhat fantastic/paranoid like The Raw Shark Texts. In The Word Exchange, it's a computer virus that turns real, it's people getting sick (sort of like The Flame Alphabet from a few years ago) from the technology designed to help them communicate. It's technology turning on us.

The story is based around a gadget called The Meme. It's like a smartphone equipped with Google Now except it can do so much more, and one of those things is helping with word replacement. Don't know a word being used? It will explain it to you. Have a word at the tip of your tongue? The Meme can help. Not surprisingly, the world becomes significantly reliant on these things, and then language slowly starts falling apart. Nonsense words become recommended, language radically shifts, and people are slowly losing their ability to sleep, write, and basically communicate at all. Part of the story is one man's descent into language madness, and the other half is someone who has, to this point, avoided what they're calling the "word flu" and is working to try and fix the problem.

The book, as noted, is somewhat derivative in the sense that books about language being manipulated or gone bad is not a unique trope. It is, however, rare enough to end up feeling like a unique read. The technological aspects are cautionary and interesting without suffering from the sort of gadget fear that some books tend to engage in. While there is a message in here, it's not so overpowering as if you cannot enjoy the book without agreeing with the underlying premise or buying into the mentality. It's not realistic, but that's okay - it is a pretty fun, well-paced science fiction tale.

Where the book does fail a bit is that it may not follow through with the expectations you have. You only get an inkling of the type of verbal meltdown being experienced, and I was always wanting more from it. More examples, more evidence, more story from outside of the two main characters. The world built for this story was so interesting and vast that it felt unfortunate that the story of society wasn't being told more.

Overall, though, a small price to pay for an excellent read on a whole. Definitely recommended for those who enjoy language, enjoy different dystopian fiction, or are looking for something different to fill the bookshelf.



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15 April 2014

Review: The Man from Mars: Ray Palmer's Amazing Pulp Journey


The Man from Mars: Ray Palmer's Amazing Pulp Journey
The Man from Mars: Ray Palmer's Amazing Pulp Journey by Fred Nadis

My rating: 4 of 5 stars



I guess it's not too strange that, while I tend to dislike biographies, the ones I'm most drawn to are ones about outsiders, about those on the fringes, and/or those who aren't afraid to upend the standard conventions of the time. I can't remember when I first heard of Ray Palmer, science fiction publishing forefather, or of The Man From Mars which tells his tale, but it's a solid workmanlike reading about a man who deserves more acclaim than he got.

The book is very straightforward, taking us from Ray Palmer's childhood throughout his professional activity, from publishing weird tales and pulpy science fiction to his social polemics. The story does a decent job covering them, and is not afraid to present many of the personalities as they were in terms of the more paranoid types that Palmer appealed to and drew in.

If I have one complaint, it's that it almost feels as if Nadis has taken the more real-world conspiratorial beliefs toward the end of Palmer's life (he was especially fond of many right-conspiracy theories as he got on in years) and applied that same sort of paranoia to his earlier life. Palmer, at his core, seemed to be a Babbian showman in a sense, and was willing and able to go along with any claim or belief in order to get more stories and sell more periodicals. Without being able to significantly examine the cited works, it almost feels as if Nadis, at times, actually came to believe a lot of what he was publishing in these fictional magazines. If Palmer truly did, the book doesn't do a great job showing that shift in belief. If Palmer didn't, as I suspect, Nadis has done Palmer's legacy at least one disservice in not making that expressly clear.

Regardless of my complaints, this is a really solid, worthwhile history of a man deserving of a lot of attention. A mandatory read for people interested in the history of science fiction, of sci-fi publication, or of the odd forgotten types of popular culture history.



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01 April 2014

Review: Proven Guilty


Proven Guilty
Proven Guilty by Jim Butcher

My rating: 0 of 5 stars



Proven Guilty might be the first time I've felt a misstep of sorts with the series.

I need to preface this: Proven Guilty is not a bad book. It's still better than most of the urban fantasy I've read up to this point, and having now invested considerable time and energy into the series and characters, there's plenty here to like.

The issue with this book, I suppose, is just that it felt like it was floundering up until the last 100 pages, that sort of justified the first 300. I get the feeling that Butcher was knee-deep in convention culture by the time he started writing this book, because a lot of it takes place at a convention, and that's where the meat of the plot sits. Instead of it being a fun supernatural story, it spends a lot of time being a procedural novel with a supernatural bent. Less about Harry, less about him dealing with what he's done to himself, more about trying to solve the mystery of a supernatural murder.

I don't think that's what these books are.

The good news was that the last parts of the books redeemed it a lot. We see some of the classic Dredsen fallibility, some excursions into other universes, and a pretty great ending that sets up a nice wrinkle for future books. I didn't see that coming, but it made the book feel both important as well as transitional. I guess one has to expect some sort of slowing of the plot a bit when it comes to what is a 15+ book series up to this point, but considering how solid the more recent books were, I guess my expectations have risen with the quality.

Definitely not bad, just far from excellent. Considering how this one ended, I'm pretty excited to see where we're going from here.



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30 March 2014

Review: The Book of Jonah


The Book of Jonah
The Book of Jonah by Joshua Max Feldman

My rating: 3 of 5 stars



Retellings of classic/historic stories can always be hit and miss, especially when they're Biblical retellings that are both based on somewhat short texts and when the subject of the text is basically known for one key plot point popularly. If you're someone who isn't familiar with the details of the Jonah story in the Bible, you'll probably spend most of this story wondering what, exactly, the whale is supposed to be.

Anyway, one plotline is Jonah, a lawyer in New York who's career trajectory is followed alongside the secondary plot of Judith, a girl who ends up at Yale and loses her parents in the September 11 terrorist attacks. The first almost two-thirds of this book are an almost nihilistic, certainly dark tale of a lot of unlikable people and things across the board.

The final third is a redemption story of sorts for all involved, even if there's a lot of somewhat unreasonable maneuvering to get there. There were honestly times I was wondering what the point was until it finally got there, and, even then, I'm not really sure as to whether things needed to head in the directions they did. Never really a good sign.

I don't know if I can recommend this. On one hand, if retellings are your thing, it's worth a look. As a modern character study, eh. As a fun read? Not really. Had a not gotten a copy for review, I likely might have tossed this aside a little earlier (even if the payoff was okay).



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26 March 2014

Review: The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon


The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon
The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon by Brad Stone

My rating: 4 of 5 stars



The Everything Store is basically a biography of Amazon.com from the inception of founder/CEO/owner Jeff Bezos up until a few months ago. As Amazon is arguably one of the most important stores on the planet right now, never mind the internet, I was looking forward to reading this.

The good is that it is very detailed. It's a straightforward account, lines itself up very well, and doesn't pull many punches. It's straightforward in noting both the good and the bad of the company, and doesn't seem to have traded access for a hagiography.

The downside is that it's almost too journalistic in tone sometimes, with a lot of repetition and lacking a lot of soul or wit to go along with it. That's not always a bad thing, but it takes a little bit of the fun out of it, making it seem like a more readable long magazine article.

As someone who is fully and completely in on the whole Amazon thing, I'm glad I read it. It sounds like the company is even more innovative and fascinating than I recognized, and yet I don't think I'd want to be anywhere near it in other respects given my own personality. Your mileage may vary on that, but as for me, a solid read and I learned a lot.



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20 March 2014

Review: Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made


Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made
Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made by Stephan Pastis

My rating: 3 of 5 stars



I was a longtime reader of Pearls Before Swine back when reading newspaper comics was A Thing We Did, so Stephan Pastis's foray into middle grade literature was something I was happy to jump into. The end result is a little more questionable.

Yes, the kid's name is really "Timmy Failure," a misspelling of a name via immigration. Along with being a kid detective, he's also got a polar bear friend and is actively delusional to often funny results. This book deals specifically with Timmy's interactions with his classmates, his "detective work," and a stolen Segway.

It's absolutely another Wimpy Kid clone, and doesn't really try to be Greg Heffley as much as a more absurdist take on the genre. I'm an adult and I'm not entirely sure as to whether I should take Timmy at his word that there are domesticated polar bears and teachers who send taunting postcards to bad students or not. The lack of clarity on this matter threw me off a bit, and perhaps a kid reader won't have that same sort of struggle (or even care that much). The other flaw, which is minor, is the "weird for the sake of being weird" aspect, which is a clear choice being made and isn't a bad thing, per se, but it often feels forced. Timmy isn't a weird kid, he's a kid being weird, and there's a subtle but significant difference there. Suspension of disbelief and all that, but I find it more curious than anything else.

Overall, a decent read, although nothing that really stands out to me as essential. The right kind of reader will get something out of this, for sure, but if you're looking for something similar to Wimpy Kid, you might want to look elsewhere.



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17 March 2014

Review: Don't Let Us Win Tonight: An Oral History of the 2004 Boston Red Sox's Impossible Playoff Run


Don't Let Us Win Tonight: An Oral History of the 2004 Boston Red Sox's Impossible Playoff Run
Don't Let Us Win Tonight: An Oral History of the 2004 Boston Red Sox's Impossible Playoff Run by Allan Wood

My rating: 4 of 5 stars



There is no lack of books about the 2004 Red Sox World Series win. As someone who essentially remembers none of that October outside of the baseball games (and quite vividly at that), I've found myself very willing to pretty much revisit that Sox year any opportunity I get. Allan Wood, who has run one of my favorite Red Sox blogs for as long as I can remember, has collaborated on a great entry into the canon with Don't Let Us Win Tonight.

My favorite part of Wood's blog is that it's often very matter-of-fact and workmanlike in its approach while also having a good deal of levity behind it. That model is also apparent in this book, which intersperses quotes from news reports and interviews with personal interviews with the players and personalities themselves with the narrative of how the three playoff rounds went. It's a very straightforward affair, and it doesn't spend a lot of time musing on much, leaving those sorts of thoughts to the players instead.

If I have a complaint, it's that it feels very reliant on existing quotes. I feel as if I've read a lot of Schilling's quotes on the matter a thousand times already, making much of the book feel like a retread from time to time. This, of course, is due to me pretty much mainlining baseball from March to October most years, and for a reader coming at this blind, or at least after a time away, the issue will be less apparent.

Overall, a great entry. Perfect for those new to the Sox or who aren't old enough to remember it first hand, and a great reminder of one of Boston's all time greatest sports moments.



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13 March 2014

Review: The Heartbreak Messenger


The Heartbreak Messenger
The Heartbreak Messenger by Alexander Vance

My rating: 4 of 5 stars



Closer to a 3.5 only because of the massive dangling threads at the end of the story. Spoilers in the third paragraph, everyone.

The book is a great conceit about a kid who learns he can make money by breaking up with people for them. Soon, he's created a little universe for himself where he can make money doing these breakups and maybe help his mom pay a few bills along the way. Of course, he's oblivious to his female friend's desires, and he sees how his divorced mom is hurting, so things are complicated.

This is a cute, quick read for sure. It doesn't waste a ton of time, and balances the funny slapstick with more serious stuff very well. My one problem was how he had some opportunities to explain himself to his best friend he never took, and we never find out how his mother handles the situation either. It feels incomplete as a result, which frustrated me a lot.

Overall, though, a definitely worthwhile read. It has a lot of good depictions of relationships from the teenage male perspective, and handles a lot of different ideas about identities and finances and such that other books either avoid outright or tend to get preachy with. I just wish it ended better.



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12 March 2014

Review: The Night Gwen Stacy Died


The Night Gwen Stacy Died
The Night Gwen Stacy Died by Sarah Bruni

My rating: 3 of 5 stars



This is a confusing book.

It's not confusing because it's difficult to read or anything like that, but because the point is a little lost. Those looking for a comic book analogy of sorts will probably be disappointed, because, at its surface, the book is a story about a teenage girl who meets a man, and they run off together after staging a kidnapping. The man has taken the name of Peter Parker, Spider-man's real name, and he sees Sheila, the teenager, as Gwen Stacy, Spider-man's love interest early on before she dies. The story is a lot of dealing with our two protagonists, as Parker had a rough childhood and thus uses the Parker name to distance himself from it, and Sheila forces herself to play along with it a bit.

If that's it, it's a perfectly serviceable story. It moves along quickly, doesn't try to do too too much. This might also be a story about mental illness, or about mental detachment from the past, or about teen angst if you see Sheila as the chief point. There's a lot of weird stuff to go along with the story, and it never becomes fully clear where it's going. There are often pros and cons to that sort of thinking, but it didn't always work here and I can't tell if it's me thinking too much about the story or if the story itself didn't 100% succeed at what it was trying to do.

Overall, an okay read. Not sad I finished it, not sure I'd recommend it, either.



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10 March 2014

Review: Words of Radiance


Words of Radiance
Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars



I'm someone who typically reads 2-3 books a week. It took me a good six days to get through the second book in Brandon Sanderson's epic fantasy series Words of Radiance, and it dawned on me that it's a pretty decent clip to read nearly 1100 pages in a five day span. The book was so good, though, that the time spent was far from a chore and more of an overall experience.

The book takes place basically right where Way of Kings ended, so be aware of spoilers for a lot of Sanderson's books from this point on.

The book is mostly Shallan's to carry. She is now travelling with Jasnah and has a plan in place. Kaladin is no longer a slave and Bridge Four, his bridge crew, are members of the army. We get more points of view from Dalinar as well, who has been essentially set up with a betrothal to Shallan for political and financial purposes. The run-up to what we're getting at is really solid, and it truly left me guessing as to where this was heading.

What I really enjoyed about this volume, however, was beyond the fact that it doesn't suffer from middle book syndrome like so many long series do. It's also not suffering from the type of hangover that The Wheel of Time suffered from. Every scene feels like it has purpose, and Sanderson continues to be a master of scenes that contain lots of action. In particular, an epic scene toward the end in particular, while definitely reminiscent of some of his work on the Jordan series, is among some of the best stuff he's ever written.

Also, if you're a Sanderson fan, there are multiple callbacks to a few other books. The final scene in particular is surely a link at his book Warbreaker, and there are hints of Mistborn in a few key spots as well. This is really top notch worldbuilding, and if that's why you read fantasy, you're absolutely going to find something to love here.



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03 March 2014

Review: Dead Beat


Dead Beat
Dead Beat by Jim Butcher

My rating: 5 of 5 stars



After being somewhat underwhelmed with book six, I'm extremely happy that book seven not only got us back on track, but is now probably my favorite of the series. How does this keep getting better?

So this one is really a lot of fallout, a lot of dark stuff happening, and, yeah, Harry's in trouble again. This one got really dark in places, with Necromancy and death and bindings and such, and it's really a somewhat fascinating shift even though we've previously had vampires and such. I didn't expect that, but it all really works.

What's interesting is that Butcher isn't afraid to bring the camp on this one, either. I mean, and I assume there's no spoilers for a book this old but just skip to the next paragraph if you're worried, the end climax point with Sue is both genius and ridiculous all at the same time. HUGE grin on my face when that occurred.

Again, however, Butcher does a great job of putting Dresden in what appears to be a rough, insurmountable spot, and somehow our wizard wriggles out of it. It's both great and probably the one massive flaw in the series to this point where I feel as if Harry's going to always find some weird deux ex machina of some sort. It's becoming enough of a trope where it's still fun, but I can imagine if we were reading these as they came out, I wonder how long I'd be able to tolerate the lack of real danger for our hero.

Overall, though, I really liked this book. Tore through it like I haven't with any other one so far, and it's a testament to the continuing quality, especially the increases in quality as we move forward. Yes, The Wheel of Time is still wounding me more than a year later...



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24 February 2014

Review: Tin Star


Tin Star
Tin Star by Cecil Castellucci

My rating: 4 of 5 stars



I've been a fan of Cecil Castellucci for some time now. I haven't read everything she's done, but she's always had interesting takes on the things that I have read. Noticing that she was taking a dive into science fiction was an exciting opportunity for me, and so I looked forward to seeing what she was going to do with the genre. The great news is that the book is pretty solid, but it's a lot darker and starker than one might expect.

The story itself is both fairly typical and still feels unique. Tula is beaten and left stranded on a space station during a colony ship's diversion. She has little to her name and less ability to get much of anything accomplished, and all she can do now is try to survive. She befriends a winged alien, becomes part of the station's scavenger culture, and the story is pretty much a survival tale in a diverse city landscape with some plans for revenge.

What worked best for me here is partially because there's so little competent, solid science fiction we get for the young adult age group. It's refreshing to read a science fiction YA book that isn't just another dystopia, as well as one that doesn't have a love triangle at its center. Tula's interactions with the society around her, as well as the space station itself, is a bold and different direction that reminds me of a lot of good science fiction reads, and it can absolutely be taken as an allegory for diversity and acceptance on its own as well. There's definitely a little bit for everyone here.

If there are flaws, it might be its overall accessibility. Part of it is the little niche Castellucci has carved out for herself - I went in with a certain expectation, and the result didn't match. Part of it, though, is that this really reads more adult than young adult in many ways, up to and including some of the ways she tries to get by and survive. It's realistic, for sure, but I question whether this would appeal the same way to the intended audience.

Overall, a great read. Dark and creepy, sometimes unsettling, but a fast-paced, interesting ride nonetheless.



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22 February 2014

Review: Fangirl


Fangirl
Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars



On a bit of a Rainbow Rowell kick after the excellent Eleanor and Park, Fangirl is another solid entry, but is also very different from Eleanor in a lot of ways.

The story follows Cath, a freshman in college and a severe introvert, who also happens to be a superfan of the extremely popular Harry Potter/Twilight mashup in this world. And, oh year, she writes one of the most popular fanfictions for the books in the world. Meanwhile, her family is continuing to fall apart a bit, she has her roommate's boyfriend around all the time, and she's just trying - and struggling - to navigate the world she's in.

It's a touching story, albeit one with a lot less gravity than Eleanor, but still ends up being a love letter to fanfiction and embracing who you are in spite of the challenges often inherent in being part of something frowned upon in polite society or being more naturally introverted. The book doesn't always work (as someone who's never been able to get into fanfiction, the fanfiction bits were a little rough for me), but it works most of the time, and the overall experience is what ultimately matters.

A definite quality read, and I'd certainly recommend it. It's got a ton of solid things to work with.



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16 February 2014

Review: Batman, Vol. 3: Death of the Family


Batman, Vol. 3: Death of the Family
Batman, Vol. 3: Death of the Family by Scott Snyder

My rating: 5 of 5 stars



Oh my.

So I've been thoroughly enjoying the Snyder run on Batman, a superhero I've never really been a fan of. Snyder's taking it into territories I didn't expect, and I'm really loving it. Thus bringing us to Death of the Family, which is largely a Joker-focused arc.

My experience with the Joker is almost entirely based on the old television show, the more recent movies, and a handful of trade arcs prior to The New 52 that ended up portraying the Joker as pretty crazy but not necessarily dangerous due to having focus. The point, at least from my perspective, was more of how unpredictable and crazy the Joker was, not so much that he could develop a plan, put it in action, and largely succeed based on those merits. I could be way off on my perception of the character, I admit - I base this fully on my limited exposure and little else.

New 52 Joker is certainly nuts. His tendencies are off the wall, he clearly has something wrong with him (why else would he be wearing his stripped-off face around all the time), and even Harley Quinn sees that there's something really wrong about him. Thus, we have a five issue arc that really makes the Joker into the insane-yet-calculated personality that one might expect. This Joker is possibly closer to the Heath Ledger Joker, but even that Joker is not as sadistic and unpredictable as Snyder's. Snyder's Joker leaves you uncomfortable. Creeped out. You truly believe he can and will do anything to achieve his goals, even if you're not 100% sure you understand what his goals are.

And Batman, in this universe at least, is far too sane and logical to quite know how to handle it. That's what truly makes this arc special - we all know what it feels like to seemingly be trying to work with/against/in tandem with someone we're simply not able to figure out. Someone acts in a way you can't explain, you don't know what to do or how to really respond? That's Snyder's Batman/Joker relationship. Rather than being an adversarial relationship, two sides to the same coin, Snyder pits the logical, well-grounded, successful Batman against the ultimate wild card, a wild card that isn't afraid to kidnap everyone you love and make you think the worst things have happened to them. A wild card who isn't afraid to make you crack, to break you down mentally for good, and for seemingly no reason at all. Plus, there's a great scene at the very end that really calls into question who is truly responsible for what, and it becomes not only a question of sane versus insane, calculated versus crazy, but also about our own responsibility to our own adversaries, internal or external.

I felt Court of Owls was brilliant because it took the Batman I thought I knew and put something really special and different in its place. Death of the Family is better than Court of Owls because it truly uses the comic art form and the traditional superhero story as a lens for the rest of the world around us, and succeeds brilliantly in doing so. It's more than a Batman story, it's more than a superhero story, and it's more than a comic. It's a real demonstration of who we all are, and the different personalities we fight with, both inside and out. At the end of the story, you forget that Batman is wearing a mask because he always is, but there's a very sharp reminder that, really, the Joker is wearing one, too. Literally and figuratively.

Just read this. Find all the New 52 main Batman arcs and read them. You'll be better for it.



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13 February 2014

Review: How Music Works


How Music Works
How Music Works by David Byrne

My rating: 4 of 5 stars



I should preface this by saying that I'll likely give anything David Byrne does a shot. I am a fan of him even if all of his endeavors, musical or otherwise, don't always do the trick. This book is pretty much exactly what's advertised on the cover: David Byrne telling us how music works. And that's not a bad thing.

The book is part history, part biography, part polemic. It covers a lot of Byrne's experience as a recording artist and collaborator, a good deal about the machinations of the music industry, a lot of the research domestically and worldwide about music production and enjoyment, and so on. There's a lot he covers over 300+ pages, and his voice is distinct enough where, even as someone who has some background in this, it's a nice recollection/reminder/resource.

If I have a complaint, outside of its overall lack of focus, I'd be really curious as to who this is intended to reach. There's not enough biographical stuff to be a story about Byrne, the people who would grab this for the historical elements probably already know what's here, and it's through the McSweeney's group which means most of the people who would find this would already be well-read. I spent more time than I thought I would wondering who, exactly, he was writing for.

Overall, it's a solid read that I think should be read by people who see this and say "yeah, I might want to read this." It's one of those books I'm glad exists, even if it has its flawed moments.



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10 February 2014

Review: The Gunslinger

The Gunslinger is a lot like what you'd expect Stephen King writing fantasy to read like.

This seems pretty obvious to say in many regards, but it's almost jarring to have King working in this realm. As I'm still somewhat new to the King library, and my first exposure being On Writing, his voice is very distinctive to me for whatever reason, and this has been the case for everything of his I've read.

This is not typically a bad thing, but it did really make me question The Gunslinger quite a bit. On one hand, it's a well-written book with some really good worldbuilding and a good balance of exposition and action. The book feels almost pulpy at times, being equal parts western and more traditional fantasy. All these things come together for a solid, coherent narrative that reminded me very quickly why King is so popular and held in such high regard.

The issue with The Gunslinger, I suppose, is just that, at least in this volume, it's a standard story that has a pretty straightforward trajectory and doesn't take a lot of chances. Granted, part of it is due to the serialized nature of its initial publication, which required a different type of storytelling, but when I think of a more grandiose epic that spans seven books and thousands of pages, this is not it. The story is almost so tight that there's little reason to get invested in the characters or the world or the story itself, which I didn't expect. That so many think so highly of this book (and The Dark Tower in full) is an indication that I may need to plow ahead a bit with it, but for now, my expectations and the reality didn't match up.

Overall, a disappointing read for me. Hopefully the next volume, whenever I get to it, will perhaps bring me around.

08 February 2014

Review: Tesla's Attic

Closer to a 3.5. Tesla's Attic is what you get when you get a well-known, experienced author like Neal Shusterman to tap into the resurgence of popularity of Nikola Tesla while offering up a science fiction adventure for a middle grade audience. The results, honestly, are mixed, but the good is solid enough to make up for the missteps along the way. The story is about kids who find some of Tesla's old inventions in the attic of a Victorian house and sell them at a yard sale. The inventions turn out to be part of a larger set, do some strange things to those who possess them, and are actually part of a much larger conspiracy called "The Accelerati," thus requiring the kids to retrieve the sold items and keep them out of the hands of the Accelerati. The science fictional elements of the story are very solid. The gadgets are fun and inventive, and Tesla-esque enough to spark some interest in a man that the target audience almost certainly wouldn't know. The downside to the book is that the story feels like it slows down very quickly once things are established and we reach the second half of the book. In a section where the plot's pace should be scrambling forward, it instead lumbers, and that's a shame for a book that's looking to be a series. Overall, a decent, but flawed read. Certainly worth a look for the right reader.

30 December 2013

Review: Fortune's Pawn


Fortune's Pawn
Fortune's Pawn by Rachel Bach

My rating: 3 of 5 stars



I've read a lot of flawed science fiction over the years, and rarely are the flaws outright avoidable. Sometimes it's a concept, sometimes it's just an execution, sometimes it's just that it doesn't work for me. Fortune's Pawn has a lot going for it, and when it succeeds it soars. Much like a malfunctioning robosuit, however, when this book stumbles, it falls hard and leaves a pretty bad taste in your mouth.

Taking a little from Alien, a little from standard mercenary tropes, and a little from the internet, Fortune's Pawn is the adventure of Devi, a mercenary-for-hire who is brought in to a somewhat derelict ship for a year's worth of a security detail. The crew is all fairly unique, each with their own quirk, and some more deadly and illegal than others.

The first book in a three book series, the positives on this is that the story does take a pretty interesting urban fantasy attitude to a straight sci-fi tale. The story is cohesive, but brought together with smaller vignettes rather than a firm focus on one significant story. This means a lot of action in small sections, it means just enough exposition to get the idea without being bogged down too much in details, and there's a little bit for every sci-fi fan, from focus on technology to alien cultures.

The glaring issues, however, are noteworthy. One, this definitely has a "written-for-an-agenda" feel to it. Devi is a strong, independent, flawed, normal female hero, which is surely a breath of fresh air in a male-dominated genre. The problem is when the story won't let you forget how much of a breath of fresh air it is, hanging itself on being so progressive that it almost feels tacked on as opposed to organic. Alien comes to mind on this, where Ripley begins being a hero because she has to be, not because they needed to check a box. Devi, far too often, appears to come across as a "female hero" as opposed to a "hero that is female," if that makes sense. The arbitrary statements that come across as if they were lifted from a Tumblr screed rather than from a place where the narrative needs it. There are ways to do genre fiction without being preachy, and in an attempt to be inclusive it too often felt alienating.

The other big issue is more one of preference. The structure of the narrative, being more episodic than overarching, results in a lot of sections that do little to advance the plot beyond characterization that could have worked within a broader narrative. This is where the urban fantasy feel comes in, as the patchwork plotting adds to the story in some ways and detracts in others. Too often I was getting frustrated with scenes that kept me from learning more about the overall story, which shouldn't happen.

Overall, not a bad read, but not as good as it could (or should) have been. Will definitely appeal to a number of readers (especially fans of Jim C. Hines), but may turn off a lot of others in the process.



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23 December 2013

Review: Roomies


Roomies
Roomies by Sara Zarr

My rating: 4 of 5 stars



I've never read anything by either of these authors, but Sara Zarr in particular is held in high regard in many of my circles, and the idea of a team book about two girls who are headed to college and will be roommates was something that sounded pretty great.

The story alternates between the two girls. One, a more upper class girl looking for a good college time, the other a more middle/lower class girl from a large family who really wanted a single so she could escape from her life a bit. The two strike up a friendship over email as they get to their move-in day and experience each other's lives a little bit through each other in the process.

I liked a lot about this book. Everything felt realistic, and having it be written by two separate people meant that the two voices sounded distinct, which is often difficult to do. Overall, I have no complaints on the whole, but I did feel it ultimately got a little long, and perhaps didn't quite hit the mark emotionally with a lot of the ways the girls handled their individual situations.

These are all minor flaws in what should be a great read for most, and one I can wholeheartedly recommend.



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18 December 2013

Review: S.


S.
S. by J.J. Abrams

My rating: 5 of 5 stars



I remember reading some column earlier this year about being older and not having your mind blown as often when it comes to music or books or general experiences because you've gotten so much experience and so much time with your surroundings that it becomes more difficult to be fully impressed. I found that pretty compelling, in part because it's true - my own personal mental exhaustion on a lot of things I used to have all sorts of energy for back in the day has certainly made it harder for me to truly be wowed by something the way, say, Kid A or High Fidelity or Sideways resonated with me years earlier.

I've read well over 300 books this year. A few, most notably Night Film and 2012's The Mirage, really impressed me beyond being simply enjoyable reads, but nothing I've read for quite some time has really stuck with me in a while.

Then came S. The product of a collaboration between media mastermind JJ Abrams and author Doug Dorst, it's a love letter to research, to conspiracy theories, to actual physical books. It's pretty brilliant.

There is not one story here. The book itself is by a fictional author, mysterious in an of himself. The book is a full, 400+ page novel called The Ship of Theseus, a frankly meandering tome that kind of goes all over the place. The story that goes along with it, however, are the margin notes of Eric and Jen, the former a disgraced graduate student who has spent nearly a decade on the authorship conspiracy and the latter a senior at the college looking to graduate soon but gets involved with Eric and the authorship issue.

Oh, and the authorship question? It may or may not be involved with a major international conspiracy .

Every inch of the book is a hint. The book itself is supposed to be a translation with coded references, the story of Jen and Eric takes place in the form of changes in the color of the ink in the margins, meaning we're watching two separate timelines unfold along with their relationship to the text and each other. They also litter the pages quite literally with different notes, printouts, postcards, pictures, and so on. All of these things add to the entire story as weird little found materials along the way. As someone who loves finding little funny quirks in research, having these little extras around was an absolute joy.

The book is certainly an all-time favorite for me. I grabbed it from the library, but I had bought a copy before I was even halfway through this read. It's not without its flaws, of course - the conceit requires a significant suspension of disbelief to start, and the timeline issue (there are occasionally four different tales happening at the same time on the same page) can be confusing from time to time. With that said, there's so much happening with it that I'm tempted to read the whole thing again when my own copy comes in the mail right away. It's that good, and I'm not one to reread books often at all.

A word to the wise - if you have an opportunity to get this from a library, be careful, as your library edition might have the pieces taken out of the book and thus they won't make a lot of sense unless you know what they're referencing. If you do, however, have an opportunity to read this at all, don't pass up the opportunity. I'm positive it's not for everyone, but this is one that's going to stick with me in terms of a fun, crazy read for a long, long time. Don't miss out.



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14 December 2013

Review: The Circle


The Circle
The Circle by Dave Eggers

My rating: 3 of 5 stars



Closer to a 3.5.

I might just be perceiving things differently, but I never considered Dave Eggers to be the type of author who is... direct. There's usually a lot of odd pseudo-stream-of-consciousness stuff or more experimental ideas, but the idea of a Dave Eggers novel that feels both modern and accessible feels kind of foreign.

The Circle is effectively Dave Eggers making an attempt at 1984 for the Google age. It's equal parts near-futurism, social commentary, and scaremongering cautionary tale, which means it's inherently readable and also kind of infuriating at the same time.

The story is mostly about Mae, a woman in her mid-twenties who is recruited to work at The Circle, a tech company in California best known for its search engine but is expanding into a bunch of different markets. Very quickly, Mae learns about how all-encompassing working at The Circle is - it's less a job as much as it is a way of life, and it's a way of life that The Circle wants to expand into the general population. During the course of the story, we see these thoughts, ideas, and intentions expand and see their impact on society as well as Mae's family and friends themselves.

The issue with this is that Eggers is very clearly aping 1984 in that The Circle is essentially how he views Google in a nutshell. We fear the dystopia of 1984 because it's people with actual control over us, but the fear from The Circle is less pronounced, so he essentially has to create it differently in order to make his point about voluntary surveillance. In Eggers's world, there aren't a lot of privacy-minded people, there basically aren't any internet trolls to speak of, and companies of tens of thousands inspire cultish devotion as opposed to dissent and discussion. It's not realistic - 1984 worked because we knew it was an extreme caricature of a possible future, while The Circle, at least in its own tone, feels as if it's describing an actual probable future, doing so with often-clunky dialogue and inorganic scenes that pulled me out of the narrative almost as quickly as I fell into it.

Overall, it's a good read in part because it's Dave Eggers, but it's a read that doesn't work because of a lot of its fatal flaws. Were it 300 pages and less preachy, maybe it would be more successful for me. As it stood, though, there was a lot to take issue with that dragged the whole narrative down.



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04 December 2013

Review: Slimed!: An Oral History of Nickelodeon's Golden Age


Slimed!: An Oral History of Nickelodeon's Golden Age
Slimed!: An Oral History of Nickelodeon's Golden Age by Mathew Klickstein

My rating: 4 of 5 stars



In terms of my television consumption, I pretty much grew up on Nickelodeon. I loved Pinwheel when I was really little, ate up Rugrats and Doug and Hey Dude and Clarissa Explains It All and You Can't Do That on Television and Danger Mouse and...I could go on and on.

I was a big Nickelodeon fan.

Slimed is a book chock-full of interviews with pretty much everyone alive who was involved with the creation of the network as well as the actors and showrunners involved with all the classic shows. It's rather epic and exhaustive in its ability to find people involved, and it's a pretty solid oral history up there with the Live From New York oral history of Saturday Night Live from a few years back.

In terms of insider information, there's plenty there for everyone. Discussion of growing up on television, how people got paid, how Double Dare worked, the slime, the awards...one could go on and on and on with how much information is in this book, which is pretty great as a first-hand account.

The downside is that the book doesn't detail who does what until the end, which makes following the narrative a pain. Chances are you know who Melissa Joan Hart played. But do you really know the name of the actor who played Donkey Lips on Salute Your Shorts? Or even the showrunners for some of these programs? I didn't, and having to flip around constantly was frustrating.

Overall, a pretty great read. Definitely perfect for television buffs and nostalgia lovers alike.



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02 December 2013

Review: Summer Knight


Summer Knight
Summer Knight by Jim Butcher

My rating: 5 of 5 stars



I continue to be absolutely shocked at how much more I'm enjoying this series from book to book.

Summer Knight takes place a year after Grave Peril, and Harry's not in a good place. He's still trying to sort out the negative repercussions of the end of the previous book, and now even the Wizard Council is more than a little upset. Harry's got a massive, massive target on his back both professionally and personally, and it's not really clear how he'll work it out.

What I Liked: The unpredictability, because so many of the situations Dresden ends up have no obvious exit. It's continually impressive that the situations work out the way they do, good or bad. Plus, there continues to be real danger. People have struggles, Harry seems very mortal still, and so on. I also liked that we got a lot of background regarding the warring factions, as well as some good internal politics. I love me some internal politics.

What I Didn't Like: For as much as I can praise the series for making Harry fallible and experiencing consequences for his actions, it's becoming kind of standard that he finds some bizarre, unique way to weasel out of every situation. For the sake of my sanity at this point, I hope that improves.

Overall, another quality volume in what's fast-becoming a favorite series for me. I hate that I've decided one a month is enough for me, because I really would just mainline all of these at this point.



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25 November 2013

Review: The Squared Circle: Life, Death, and Professional Wrestling


The Squared Circle: Life, Death, and Professional Wrestling
The Squared Circle: Life, Death, and Professional Wrestling by David Shoemaker

My rating: 4 of 5 stars



In the last year, I've been roped back into the world of professional wrestling. A rite of passage for any preteen boy as is, it's decidedly uncool as a thirtysomething, but being older now I've come to appreciate a lot of the unique storytelling aspects that go along with the goofy lowbrow craziness that comes with the sport format.

David Shoemaker is best known for his Deadspin "Dead Wrestler of the Week" pieces as well as writing a regular column for Grantland on the ins and outs of the WWE. It's probably my favorite feature on Grantland these days if only because he appears to be the only mainstream writer taking wrestling seriously, and giving him a full length book opportunity to discuss the topic was something I had to jump at.

The book follows two parallel paths. One of the paths is a detailed history of professional wrestling in America, running from the early stages of the genre through the territorial system and in through the Attitude Era of the WWE. The book is near perfect in this regard - it takes a very straightforward, sober look at the ups and downs of the industry, staying serious while being unafraid to come down on some of the more ridiculous or negative turns. While not fully exhaustive, it is surprisingly detailed and might very well be the best printed piece on the subject we have.

The other portion of the book is a series of reprints, contextually located in the era the book is covering, of the "Dead Wrestler" columns from Deadspin. Seeing as I hadn't read these again since my return to the wrestling fold, they were an interesting look back, but they were also pieces I had already read. As Shoemaker may be catching an audience that he didn't previously have, I'm not completely against the reprints here, but, in this case, it felt less like a value add and more like padding for a book that would have understandably been shorter without them.

Really, though, the strength of the book is the context. There's a wealth of information here for anyone who isn't versed in the history of wrestling promotions, and it's a book I can see lending to a number of people who are interested more in the bigger picture than just a bunch of oversized men fake fighting on television. It would benefit from some more information from the last few years, but, as a whole, an excellent read anyone who has had any interest in wrestling, past or present, to give some time.



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24 November 2013

Review: The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals


The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals
The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars



Closer to a 3.5, I'm as surprised as you are.

Michael Pollan is one of those food types who has spent a lot of time pushing a lot of anti-scientific ridiculouslessness, especially about genetic modifications of food. It makes it difficult to take a lot of what he has to say at face value, as well as his approaches on issues of food and the "right" way to do agriculture and food gathering.

On the other hand, there's nothing inherently wrong with his point of view regarding the moral, ethical, or even preferential issues with food collection and production. You don't need to be a slave to science while still being uncomfortable with some of the practices in agriculture and meat production. Pollan truly spends more of his time in this book on those issues than real science.

So The Omnivore's Dilemma, in a sense, is a great book when you look at it through the lens of someone who is interested in understanding their food. The production aspects (good, bad, or indifferent), the historical contexts of agriculture, and so on, they're all really interesting reads.

Where Pollan falls flat, beyond his lack of credibility on the scientific aspects, is his connections. He spends a significant amount of time with Joel Salatan of the Polyface Farm, someone who is one of those crunchy libertarian types, but you'd never really understand that most of his problem is regulatory rather than about the actual food supply. He spends some time with ethicist Peter Singer, who is extremely controversial with some questionable points of view on everything, although you'd never know it reading the text. Even nods to PETA and such along the way certainly pulled me out of the text a bit - you can have a serious nonfiction read about food, or you can go along with unserious sources and points of reference. You can't have both.

Overall, I'm surprised to say that this is worth reading. Whichever direction you fall in the basic debates, you'll probably find something of value. There is a "reader beware" concept to go along with it, but it's not enough to toss this into a pile, never to be seen again.



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06 November 2013

Review: Grave Descend


Grave Descend
Grave Descend by John Lange

My rating: 4 of 5 stars



I was a freak of nature of sorts growing up. I learned how to read before I was three years old, and I was reading books for "adults" by the time I hit third or fourth grade. While the first true "adult" book I read was The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks, the first mainstream adult fiction I read was actually Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park. Right around when the movie came out, I became a full-on Crichton addict, tearing through pretty much everything he had under his name (yes, that included fourth grade me reading Disclosure and learning much more about sexual harassment than I needed to). I'm not sure if I ended up liking The Andromeda Strain or Sphere more when it was all said and done, but there was a fair amount of time where I would have considered Crichton my favorite author.

Crichton passed away a few years ago, and Titan Books is re-releasing a number of his pulpy adventure novels he wrote under the pen name John Lange as part of their Hard Case Crime imprint. Grave Descend takes us on an expedition to the sea with a man who is an explorer of sunken ships. He has been hired on to explore the wreckage of the yacht Grave Descend, but there are a lot of conflicting stories surrounding the wreck. To make matters worse, the competing interests seem pretty angry, and there may be some cargo on the ship that is causing a lot of the grief.

The story is extremely simple, which is kind of the point. It's a pulpy, fast-paced thriller of a book that wastes little time with exposition or unique dialogue, instead going straight for the point. This might not sound entirely enjoyable, but in terms of it being a novel from a certain era looking at a certain type of motif, it works really well. It actually reminded me a bit of the beach-type stuff in the Daniel Craig Casino Royale, if that makes any sense - just a rollicking, punchy good time.

Having read a number of the Hard Case Crime books from Titan at this point, this isn't better than the Stephen King Joyland publication from earlier this year, but is miles ahead of the Harlan Ellison piece. Crichton, even with his faults, was a talented writer, and it's a nice historical piece here to get an idea of what his writing was like outside of the scientific/biological thrillers he's known for. If you're picking these up for the writing, you're doing it for the wrong reason, as they're not really great stories. They are, however, fun, short diversions with the added benefit of the writer being a well-known legend in the community.



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Review: Grave Descend


Grave Descend
Grave Descend by John Lange

My rating: 4 of 5 stars



I was a freak of nature of sorts growing up. I learned how to read before I was three years old, and I was reading books for "adults" by the time I hit third or fourth grade. While the first true "adult" book I read was The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks, the first mainstream adult fiction I read was actually Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park. Right around when the movie came out, I became a full-on Crichton addict, tearing through pretty much everything he had under his name (yes, that included fourth grade me reading Disclosure and learning much more about sexual harassment than I needed to). I'm not sure if I ended up liking The Andromeda Strain or Sphere more when it was all said and done, but there was a fair amount of time where I would have considered Crichton my favorite author.

Crichton passed away a few years ago, and Titan Books is re-releasing a number of his pulpy adventure novels he wrote under the pen name John Lange as part of their Hard Case Crime imprint. Grave Descend takes us on an expedition to the sea with a man who is an explorer of sunken ships. He has been hired on to explore the wreckage of the yacht Grave Descend, but there are a lot of conflicting stories surrounding the wreck. To make matters worse, the competing interests seem pretty angry, and there may be some cargo on the ship that is causing a lot of the grief.

The story is extremely simple, which is kind of the point. It's a pulpy, fast-paced thriller of a book that wastes little time with exposition or unique dialogue, instead going straight for the point. This might not sound entirely enjoyable, but in terms of it being a novel from a certain era looking at a certain type of motif, it works really well. It actually reminded me a bit of the beach-type stuff in the Daniel Craig Casino Royale, if that makes any sense - just a rollicking, punchy good time.

Having read a number of the Hard Case Crime books from Titan at this point, this isn't better than the Stephen King Joyland publication from earlier this year, but is miles ahead of the Harlan Ellison piece. Crichton, even with his faults, was a talented writer, and it's a nice historical piece here to get an idea of what his writing was like outside of the scientific/biological thrillers he's known for. If you're picking these up for the writing, you're doing it for the wrong reason, as they're not really great stories. They are, however, fun, short diversions with the added benefit of the writer being a well-known legend in the community.



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05 November 2013

Review: The In-Between


The In-Between
The In-Between by Barbara Stewart

My rating: 3 of 5 stars



If I have a complaint about current young adult trends, it seems like it's that things go dark not because they have to, but because the author wants to. The In-Between is one of those books that I liked less the longer I thought about it, and introduces a lot of stuff that didn't really feel necessary to get to its point.

Our lead character is a girl, Elanor, who failed in a suicide attempt. She meets another girl who is an interesting influence on her, and Elanor's life becomes obsessed with this new girl at the center of it. Things go darker and darker, and questions start to rise about this new girl and her impact on Elanor's well-being.

There's a part of me that wants to blow the whole plot open to explain why this book was so strange and unsettling. A lot of the plot points felt like they were trying to be deliberately shocking as opposed to a good reason for character development. They went to a lot of places they didn't have to go in order to get there, and it just didn't work well for me.

I know a few readers who would probably really enjoy this. It has its audience, but I'm not convinced at all it's good for a discerning reader who will likely see through the contrived plot steps along the way. Not something I can actively recommend.



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04 November 2013

Review: Grave Peril


Grave Peril
Grave Peril by Jim Butcher

My rating: 4 of 5 stars



Closer to a 4.5, but the short answer for Grave Peril is that I ain't afraid of no ghost.

The plot of this volume gets a little more complicated than previous volumes. On one hand, we've got vampires. Lots and lots of vampires. A vampire court. Vampires. I wasn't initially excited about the prospect, because vampires, but Jim Butcher hasn't steered me wrong yet, and it wasn't long before we got to the other hand: crazed ghosts wreaking a lot of havoc and problems throughout Chicago.

The one negative I've found with The Dresden Files so far is the way Butcher establishes his world. There are rules and issues to follow, and occasionally we'll be pulled out of the narrative, often by Harry himself, to explain them. That sort of establishment is not very organic at times, and falls into the key issue I've had with urban fantasy to start - the almost automatic need to make sure the worldbuilding is secure because it's not standard majestic sword and sorcery.

This isn't always a bad thing. Part of what makes Dresden work is Harry's need to follow the arcane rules of the magical world around him, and it introduces a lot of danger not only for him, but now for others around him. Could they be introduced in a better way in the narrative? Sure, why not? With that said, the only urban fantasy I've read so far that hasn't gotten hung up in that sort of descriptive speedbump is Max Gladstone's Three Parts Dead, which is arguably not a traditional urban fantasy anyway. It might just be part of the genre, and that's okay.

With all that said, my criticisms feel a little empty because this book was even better than the first two, and watching the trajectory of these stories continue to rise even as things get a lot more complicated? It's great, especially in comparison to my last readthrough of The Wheel of Time, which could charitably be called painful at some times. At 340 pages, it never felt overdone, the last 100 pages may as well have been pure action, and it's fun to see smart, heroic characters making choices that you expect smart, heroic characters to make, even when they don't necessarily work. Kudos to Butcher as well for continuing to put his characters in real danger and giving real consequences to the actions made. A great gut punch occurs in this book that wasn't anticipated for me at all, and it was both stunning and refreshing.

I am so glad I'm reading these, and moreso that I'm enjoying them as much as I am. I actually can't wait for the next volume at this point.



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Review: Burning Paradise


Burning Paradise
Burning Paradise by Robert Charles Wilson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars



A lot of times, we read science fiction for the escapism aspect or the cool futurist ideas, or even just as a reflection on current society. It's a much more simple exchange for me, where I enjoy science fiction more for the ideas and worldbuilding than I do for a specific message. When a book that has something to say comes along while also filling in a lot of those gaps for me, all the better. Robert Charles Wilson is probably best known for his modern sci-fi classic Spin, but I became a big fan following his alternate history/science fiction end-of-oil society mashup Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America from a few years ago. Seeing that Burning Paradise was coming soon, I looked forward to reading it. The book spends a lot of time on communications, but it actually feels more analogous to what we know so far about the upcoming Almost Human television show.

In the world of Burning Paradise, pretty much all the negative stuff that happened in the twentieth century of the United States didn't happen. No World Wars, society is in great shape, and so on. The problem is that the situation is entirely manufactured, as there is some sort of life form in the atmosphere that has been impacting our relationships on earth with subtle changes to our memories, our actions, and our future. When this was discovered, most of those who discovered it were killed, and the rest scattered into hiding. Unfortunately for them, this life form is now on earth in humanoid sim form, and they're out to make sure the secret stays intact.

I couldn't stop thinking about Almost Human while reading it, only because the themes of distrust of simulated android-type beings was kind of jolted into me from the constant commercials for the show. It's not the fairest comparison, though, because the story Wilson tells is one more of worldwide conspiracy and trust than a science fiction police procedural. The book is imperfect, but it works in that regard - it's an interesting, albeit unoriginal, concept told in a very engaging way. It puts all its cool ideas up front and mixes them in well with a plot that's surprisingly action-oriented.

I think my issues with the book, overall, come more from the expectation Wilson brings to his work than anything else. This wouldn't feel so pedestrian coming from an unknown, and while the book is very good, I've come to expect bigger and broader ideas at this point. If anything, this might be a good alternative entry point for Wilson's works than Spin, especially for readers who may be adverse to harder science fiction. Without a super-high concept or significantly unrealistic settings, it's a nice tweak to an existing formula.

Overall, definitely recommended. Will rightfully be heralded as one of the better science fiction books of 2013, and a fine addition to Wilson's body of work so far.



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