Tag Archive | speculative fiction

Book review: The Traveler by John Twelve Hawks

The Traveler (Fourth Realm, #1)The Traveler by John Twelve Hawks

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The following is the cover blurb: “In London, Maya, a young woman trained to fight by her powerful father, uses the latest technology to elude detection when walking past the thousands of surveillance cameras that watch the city. In New York, a secret shadow organization uses a victim’s own GPS to hunt him down and kill him. In Los Angeles, Gabriel, a motorcycle messenger with a haunted past, takes pains to live “off the grid” – free of credit cards and government IDs. Welcome to the world of The Traveler – a world frighteningly like our own. In this compelling novel, Maya fights to save Gabriel, the only man who can stand against the forces that attempt to monitor and control society. From the back streets of Prague to the skyscrapers of Manhattan, The Traveler portrays an epic struggle between tyranny and freedom. Not since 1984 have readers witnessed a Big Brother so terrifying in its implications and in a story that so closely reflects our lives.”

You are being watched.

Of course, in 2018, we all know that, and we willingly participate in the surveillance (Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, etc.). When this book was written (2005), social media was in its infancy, and, while cell phones were everywhere, smart phones were just beginning to penetrate the public consciousness. This book takes the idea of ubiquitous surveillance and runs with it, creating a multi-tiered society: the civilians — we ordinary folk who go about our daily business blissfully unaware or simply not caring how closely we are tracked and manipulated; the Tabula — a mysterious cabal of wealthy no-goodniks who do the tracking and manipulating, for the good of society, of course; the Harlequins — an equally mysterious class of bodyguards-cum-assassins whose only purpose in life is to protect… the Travelers — people with the ability to psychically travel to other parallel dimensions.

Over centuries, the Harlequins and Travelers developed an “off-grid” lifestyle: as far as the government knows, they don’t exist. They live “off-grid” under assumed names and false identities.

To live off the grid, one must be completely dedicated to avoidance of the usual comforts, such as an established residence, electricity, and running water; or one has sufficient wealth or knowledge to provide one’s own infrastructure for those comforts (e.g., paying cash for a home, buying solar panels and generators, digging wells and buying pumps, etc.); or one has a vast network of trusted acquaintances with access to stolen identities that enable one to hide in plain sight.

Their off-grid habits weren’t perfect: the Tabula hunted the Harlequins and Travelers mercilessly and have nearly succeeded in exterminating them. The few remaining Harlequins believe there are no Travelers left. They spend their time in hiding, protecting the knowledge of their class. Then they hear that the children of the last known Traveler are still alive. The ability to travel between realms is hereditary, and thus is launched a global search for these now-grown children. Unfortunately, the Tabula also become aware of their existence, and finding the potential Travelers quickly turns into a race between two warring enemies.

A decent story, as far as it goes. Not particularly well-written, but not a complete dud.

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Book review: Kindred by Octavia Butler

KindredKindred by Octavia E. Butler

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Giving this 3 1/2 stars.

You all know the plot by now: Dana, a modern black woman, is inexplicably thrust back into the antebellum South, time after time, where she is presumed to be a slave based on the color of her skin. Eventually she figures out she is drawn back to that particular plantation and that particular time to protect the life of the young son of the plantation owner. Said son is her ancestor — a twist on the Grandfather Paradox: she must keep him alive long enough to father a child with a particular slave or she will not exist.

Ms. Butler pulls no punches in her graphic detailing of the brutality of slavery. Said brutality makes this a difficult read. It’s a worthwhile read, regardless. If I have a quibble, it’s that the time travel mechanism is left completely unexplained — a trick of the cosmos, a spiritual connection, a genetic memory? Who knows? Although the “how” of Dana’s multiple trips to the early 19th Century isn’t relevant to the story Ms. Butler wanted to tell, I still wanted a bone to chew on, some pseudo-rational gobbledegook, however implausible, that my brain would accept as working within the confines of the story.

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Dual book review: This Way to the End Times and The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter

This Way to the End Times: Classic Tales of the ApocalypseThis Way to the End Times: Classic Tales of the Apocalypse by Robert Silverberg

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A diverse collection of short stories covering a wide variety of ways the world may end, or the aftermath thereof. I’m a sucker for apocalyptic fiction, and this was right up my alley. As with all short story collections, some were better than others, but all were worth reading. Presented in mostly chronological order by date of publication beginning with the early 20th Century, the reader can see how the apocalypse changes as technology advances. That all by itself makes for fascinating reading.

The Heart Is a Lonely HunterThe Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A book I read because it’s on a bunch of lists of “Books You Must Read Before You Die.”

I won’t say it was a waste of my time, but truly, I didn’t care that much about John Singer, the fellow identified by cover copy as being the main character. I was much more interested in Mick Kelly, the young girl whose family owns the boarding house in which Mr. Singer resides. Maybe that’s because I remember reading The Member of the Wedding when I was a teenager and was expecting something similar.

Maybe I’ll just reread that book.

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Book review: The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin

The Three-Body Problem (Remembrance of Earth’s Past, #1)The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m going to quote the Publisher’s Weekly synopsis here: “…[an] intricate and imaginative novel by one of China’s most celebrated genre writers. In 1967, physics professor Ye Zhetai is killed after he refuses to denounce the theory of relativity. His daughter, Ye Wenjie, witnesses his gruesome death. Shortly after, she’s falsely charged with sedition for promoting the works of environmentalist Rachel Carson, and told she can avoid punishment by working at a defense research facility involved with the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. More than 40 years later, Ye’s work becomes linked to a string of physicist suicides and a complex role-playing game involving the classic physics problem of the title.”

Excellent work. That complex game and the detailed description of its play take up several chapters of this novel. They were probably the hardest for me to get through — I am not a gamer and I don’t care about video games. At. All. But these chapters serve to advance the plot, they’re relatively interesting (I’m aware some folks find them “awesome”) and, eventually, the implications of each game-playing session become clear.

I am not a scientist by any stretch of the imagination. But the author and translator did an excellent job of explaining astrophysics to the unwashed masses (that means me), and I was able to follow enough of the science and reasoning to make sense of the direction of the plot. Plus the sheer educational value of the history of the Cultural Revolution, of which I knew nothing, made this a worthwhile read.  I’m looking forward to the second book of the series, as soon as it becomes available at my library.

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Book review: The Power by Naomi Alderman

The PowerThe Power by Naomi Alderman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Time: Five minutes into the future. Women, especially young women, have developed the unexpected ability to generate powerful electric charges, at first randomly when in danger, and then at will, as they learn to control their newfound talent. Over the course of several years, more and more women begin to make use of this skill — for protection, for power, or both — and some men begin to organize against them, leading to a grand showdown that is foreshadowed by the interchapter archaeological discussions of ancient artifacts.

A brutal and stark portrayal of a world being flipped on its head.

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Book review: The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi

The Collapsing Empire (The Interdependency, #1)The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Good science fiction is a joy forever. John Scalzi writes good SF.

In this first installment of a new series, humanity has spread across the cosmos, and each world is united with all others under a single umbrella called The Interdependency. Interstellar travel and the spread of humanity was made possible by the discovery of a force known as The Flow, accessible at designated points in space-time. The Flow changes and shifts, opening up new areas of the universe and, occasionally, cutting off others.

The Flow is currently in a period of flux, and this fluctuation seems to be more volatile than other previous shifts. In fact, it seems that The Flow may disappear entirely within a very short time, thus leading to the collapse of the empire of the title.

The house of the Emperox, the leader of the Interdepency, is also in flux.  The Emperox died suddenly and his daughter, the new Emperox, was not quite prepared to be thrust into leadership so soon.  That, and the expected Flow catastrophe, makes for an uneasy start to her rule.  As you may have anticipated, all the uncertainty leads to much political maneuvering — read that as plotting and backstabbing — among the rest of the ruling houses of The Interdependency.

So, politics, impending doom, human foibles, space travel, and lots of foul language. Vintage Scalzi. I can hardly wait for the next volume.

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Book review: Sleeping Beauties by Stephen King and Owen King

Sleeping BeautiesSleeping Beauties by Stephen King

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The sleeping women became enshrouded in cocoons and, without them, men tore the world apart.

This novel hinges on the premise that, without women’s civilizing influence, the human male is a brute savage, bent on destruction and domination. And while that might be true to a certain degree and for certain men, I simply can’t believe men in general would lose all sense of decorum and restraint within a three-day absence of their mothers, wives, and daughters, even given they don’t know if said absence is temporary.

I mean, give it at least a week, right? Maybe even two.

Two stars and “It was ok” is all the praise you’re getting from me, King père et fils. It was readable, at least.

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Book review: Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan

Altered Carbon (Takeshi Kovacs, #1)Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Truth: I forgot I had this book. I don’t remember when I picked it up, or where, but it was probably on a book exchange shelf at one of the local coffee shops. So when Netflix made a series out of it, the title languishing on the bookshelf upstairs caught my attention, prompting me to pick it up for a read-through before jumping into the TV show.

I won’t be jumping into the TV show.

Okay, it’s a good story, a well-written story, a cyberpunk take on an old-fashioned noir detective story: Takeshi Kovacs is an elite military operative, currently inhabiting the “sleeve” (read: body) of an incarcerated “Bay City” (read: San Francisco) police detective. Kovacs — well, his consciousness, at any rate — has been brought out of cold storage and sleeved into this detective at the request of an extremely wealthy individual who wants Kovacs to solve a murder: his own. See, the wealthy individual apparently shot himself in the head, and then was re-sleeved into one of his clones; once re-sleeved, he insisted his death had to be murder because he would never EVER have committed suicide, especially knowing that he had standing orders to be re-sleeved from his backup consciousness upon the demise of whatever current sleeve he was wearing.

Yes, there’s a lot of body-swapping going on here, and much discussion of the technology involved, which I found fascinating. It’s far-fetched, but it makes sense in the context of this world some 200 or 300 years in the future.

Anyhow, along the way to his discovery of the truth, Kovacs runs afoul of some very powerful and dangerous people. Much violence ensues. Much. Violence. And torture. Plus murder, rape, and other assorted mayhem. Thankfully, Richard Morgan leaves at some of the violence and mayhem to the reader’s imagination, but it’s graphic enough that I winced and grimaced and skimmed my way through those sections….thus bringing me to why I’ll skip the Netflix series. Because (according to friends who have watched it) the TV show took those scenes and made them graphic to the point of verging on torture porn. No thanks.

So if you’re sensitive to violence, rape, and torture, skip both the book and the series. If you can handle skimming certain passages of ultra-violence, read the book.

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Double book review: In Memoriam; The Borrower

In MemoriamIn Memoriam by Nathan Burgoine

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s nearly impossible to review this novella without spoilers, so let me just say this: James Daniels found a unique way to deal with the memory loss that accompanies his brain cancer, and said method is lovely and satisfying and heartwarming and sweet.

A beautiful piece of writing.

The BorrowerThe Borrower by Rebecca Makkai

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Lucy Hull has a favorite library patron, young Ian Drake. Unfortunately, Ian’s mother doesn’t approve of Ian’s reading tastes, nor of Ian himself, apparently. Early one morning, Lucy opens the library to find Ian camped out in the stacks, having run away from home. He convinces Lucy to take him somewhere else, and she obliges.

What follows is a haphazard road trip from somewhere in Missouri to Chicago and Pittsburgh and points northeastward, all directed more or less by the boy in the passenger seat, with Lucy’s passive acquiescence masking her inner turmoil at being led around by the nose by a 10-year-old. But this journey isn’t about Ian, really; it’s about Lucy coming to terms with her passive acquiescence of everything except her family legacy; and how family shapes who we are whether we like it or not; and how blood will out, regardless.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. The short chapters written in the style of various children’s books were amusing and poignant and sharply aimed.

Highly recommended.

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Book review: Olympos by Dan Simmons

Olympos (Ilium, #2)Olympos by Dan Simmons

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

MARS: Paris is dead. Hockenberry and Helen are lovers. Achilles and Hector have joined forces against the gods while the gods fight amongst themselves. Mahnmut and Orphu discover the quantum energy they’ve been tracking emanates from Earth rather than Mars, and it’s about to destroy both worlds.

EARTH: Meanwhile, Odysseus travels with Harman and Ada, seeking an end to Setebos. Daeman travels alone, seeking the same end. And the voynix drop their pretense of servitude; humanity’s continued existence is precarious.

Dan Simmons juggles many plates in the concluding volume of this epic duology. I admit to being a little lost at times, and occasionally needing to trudge my way through chapter 2017SFFReadingChallengeafter chapter in dogged determination. Yeah, the story bogs down now and then. So many moving parts! But stick with it, and you’ll be rewarded in the end.

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