11 July 2016

Books: Star Trek: Legacies: Captain to Captain By Greg Cox (2016)




Much like Doctor Who, the longevity of Star Trek has allowed much iteration with many stories, not only on TV, film, and fan made shows on the internet, but in novels as well. While Doctor Who waited until it was close to thirty years old before allowing original novels to be released, Star Trek has been giving us new (and non-conical) tales almost since the show ended its run back in 1969. And since 1979, there has been one continuous run of original novels.  

But Star Trek has a uniqueness to it that has allowed novelists to continue to release new adventures. What a lot of writers have done is take minor elements (and major ones) within the continuity of the franchise and go off in tangents both good and bad. They’ve been able to expand minor characters (both guest casts and other crew members who did get names) and give them a full back-story –whether you care or not.

Greg Cox’s Legacies: Captain to Captain is designed to tie-into the fiftieth anniversary of Star Trek: The Original Series, and is the opening story in a new trilogy that stretches from the earliest years of the Starship Enterprise under Captain Robert April to Captain Kirk’s historic five-year-mission, as well as one universe to another. Hidden aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise is a secret that has been passed from captain to captain, from Robert April to Christopher Pike to James T. Kirk. Now the return of the enigmatic woman once known as Number One has brought that secret to light, and Kirk and his crew must risk everything to finish a mission that began with April so many years ago. Nearly two decades earlier, April and his crew first visited the planet Usilde, where they found both tragedy and a thorny moral dilemma. Today, the legacy of that fateful occasion will compel Kirk to embark on a risky voyage back to that forbidden world—which is now deep in territory claimed by the Klingon Empire!

As always, the novels are not “official” Star Trek. But Cox, who has written a number of other titles in the franchise including the duology Rise and Fall of Khan Noonien Singh, does a fair job of exploring the unmade TV years of Captain April and Captain Pike (beyond the TV series first pilot) along with giving us a look into the Number One character that vanished in the re-writes the series went through when NBC gave Star Trek a second chance. In Cox’s tale, we learn that Number One is Illyrian who goes by the name Una. The moniker of “Number One” comes from the fact that she was a high achiever in everything she did, not only on her home planet, but in her rise through Starfleet. 

Of course, we get references of Kirk era stories, in particular Mirror, Mirror (even though the Captain and crew are more supporting characters here) and that mysterious Tantalus Device that the alternate Kirk used, which connects the plot along. Cox does spend an insufferable amount of time giving us minute detail about the landing party and them walking the six kilometers (and if Usildar is a rainforest, why do the original inhabitants of the planet need misters? They’re only beneficial in areas like a desert where there is low humidity) which, sadly, enabled me to skip a number of pages (and a reason I read it so fast -though having the day off from work helped). Then there is Una’s plan to rescue her fellow crew members, which is nearly the same plan as Older Captain Janeway from Star Trek: Voyagers series finale. 

It’s an okay book, but it is a reminder to me why I eventually gave up trying to read these them. Part of it, of course, there are so many novels, not only in TOS line, but The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise (but since I dislike the last two, I’ve never taken the time to read those spin-off novels). 

I have so much other stuff I want to read that I cannot lock myself into one series, one genre anymore. 

The other part of my issues with them is that these tales are always (well it seems) connected to past episode stories; at least when Bantam was releasing titles back in the early 1970s, they writers tried to do original science fiction stories. Now everyone seems to have its roots in previous television episodes.

I suppose there is some logic to that. Online fan shows, in particular New Voyages and Continues, are setting their stories within TOS TV run and usually feature some sort of continuation of tales started there. It’s comforting and familiar, I guess, to those old school fans. But current Star Trek, in whatever form it comes in now, seems more concerned with rehashing previous episodes than actually telling a great science fiction story with a moral dilemma.

10 July 2016

Books: Assassin's Apprentice By Robin Hobb (1995)




“In a faraway land where members of the royal family are named for the virtues they embody, one young boy will become a walking enigma. Born on the wrong side of the sheets, Fitz, son of Chivalry Farseer, is a royal bastard, cast out into the world, friendless and lonely. Only his magical link with animals - the old art known as the Wit - gives him solace and companionship. But the Wit, if used too often, is a perilous magic, and one abhorred by the nobility. So when Fitz is finally adopted into the royal household, he must give up his old ways and embrace a new life of weaponry, scribing, courtly manners; and how to kill a man secretly, as he trains to become a royal assassin.”

Robin Hobb’s debut novel, Assassin's Apprentice, sparkles with originality and a sense of reality. Here she fully creates a world of adventure, intrigue, and secrets. With a swift prose that gives much detail and depth, Hobb does not get bogged down in too much detail and languor in a genre known to spend twenty of thirty pages on a character crossing the road or exploring a room the size of a closet (yes, I'm thinking of you George R.R. Martin and Diana Gabaldon). And Fritz is an appealing, fully three-dimensional character. His relationship with Burrich and most importantly, the Fool, is wonderfully written.I do question the morality of turning a child into a killer, and we get some discussion of this in the book, but it is fantasy, so maybe I should just go with. I mean, after all, not one dies as horribly described in A Game of Thrones. By far, it's done subtly, and off-stage (so to speak).

While I’ve never been a huge fan of first person narratives, here the author is able show the reader the world through Fitz’s eye, which I find rare in many authors who use this creative devise. The book often reminded me of the old school style of David Eddings and even Terry Brooks (long before he let his Shannara books dominate his life). This is also but the first book in three trilogies, and it’s clear early on that Hobb knew what she was doing in crafting the story. She reveals little –the Red-Ship Raiders become the books McGuffin- but gives enough to want to continue on. I will read the much longer books two and three, but if the pace and the prose remain the same, I may continue onto the other two trilogies.  

07 July 2016

Books: Britt-Marie Was Here By Fredrick Backman (2016)




If there has been a theme that has been threaded throughout the three novels by bestselling Swedish author Fredrick Backman is that his fastidious protagonist are forced to navigate in a cold world that does not appreciate their ideals and thus forces them into a challenging bit of circumstance. Much like A Man Called Ove, Britt-Marie (who was a supporting character in My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry) is a bit compulsive in the way she believes things should be done, and uses the barometer of a well kept cutlery drawer to decide who is human and who is an animal. 

In Britt-Marie Was Here, we get a better look into what made her whom she is: the loss of an older sister that shattered her parents and tossed her into the wine dark sea of being neglected and restrained by those around her from that day forward. To compensate, she creates lists and follows them. She can’t stand messes, so she is endlessly cleaning things with baking soda and a cleaner named Faxin (the Swedish version of Formula 409?), she starts her day at 6am (because only lunatics stay in bed longer), eats dinner at precisely 6pm. Britt-Marie does not consider herself passive-aggressive, or even obsessive compulsive, just considerate. It's just that sometimes people interpret her helpful suggestions as criticisms, which is certainly not her intention.

But like all heroes, Britt-Marie is forced to act after walking away from her forty-year marriage; she’s grown weary of her husband infidelities (but still loves him). Seeking a job (which is brilliant in its own way), she ends up in Dickensian-like town of Borg –which can be best described as a “community built along a road.” There she finds a small municipality in the grips of a slow death (mostly from an economic downturn, but clearly Borg was failing before). Sent to run the recreation center (until closes in three weeks), she discovers a world of sullied and noisy lost children, muddy floors, and a potential new friend who is a rat. 

“As for the citizens of Borg, with everything that they know crumbling around them, the only thing that they have left to hold onto is something Britt-Marie absolutely loathes: their love of soccer. When the village’s youth team becomes desperate for a coach, and they set their sights on her. She’s the least likely candidate, but their need is obvious and there is no one else to do it.

“Thus begins a beautiful and unlikely partnership. In her new role as reluctant mentor to these lost young boys and girls, Britt-Marie soon finds herself becoming increasingly vital to the community. And even more surprisingly, she is the object of romantic desire for a friendly and handsome local policeman named Sven. In this world of oddballs and misfits, can Britt-Marie finally find a place where she belongs?”

Yes, the plot is a bit clunky and contrived (more so than his previous novels) that teeters on parody, but I found some interesting aspect of Britt-Marie that I could identify with. Her husband calls her “socially incompetent” and negative, which is why people don’t like her that much (especially her step-children) and does not want to spend time with her. After settling in at the center in Borg, she stares out the window, watching the children play soccer and sees the Sven: “For a short moment she was afraid that he was going to come over and knock on the door.” But when he leaves, Britt-Marie is “disappointed when he didn’t” knock. 

This is me in many ways. I want to be part of something, but know I have a tendency to speak my mind, which some feel is more negative than helpful. Perhaps in my mind, I see myself as being considerate, but I’m just being an asshole? I mean, I also will beg-off on things, only to feel jealous when I see postings on Facebook of my friends having fun. The same thing happens when they don’t call me (because they’re apparently done with my passive-aggressiveness and negativity) and I see them having fun without me and I can’t figure out why they didn’t even try to invite me. It’s a vicious circle of Hell I’ve fallen into.

Anyways, the town, the kids, and even the rat are as quirky as you can get without collapsing in on itself. It’s still charming, often amusing, and bitter sweet.

03 July 2016

Books: End of Watch By Stephen King (2016)




End of Watch by Stephen King brings to conclusion a trilogy of novels that started out as the author’s foray into the mystery/thriller genre with Mr. Mercedes and Finders Keepers and wraps up with some elements of the first two books, along with King’s patented doses of the supernatural that could remind many of his blockbuster first book, Carrie

Picking up about a year or so after the events of Finders Keepers, we find retired detective Bill Hodges, who now with his sidekick Holly runs their unauthorized private investigation, is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Given only months to live, he finds himself drawn into a recent spree of suicides. All the dead are connected by a common thread: each of them have in the past been in contact with Brady Hartsfield, the notorious Mr. Mercedes who, six years ago, plotted to blow up a rock concert venue packed with teenagers. Hodges and Holly thwarted Brady's plans and left the killer in a vegetative state from which he never recovered. However, many of the staff in the hospital where Brady now resides believe that he is recovering at an impossible rate, and that he may be faking his injuries to avoid trial...except that everyone who gets too close to proving this suspicion seems to disappear. After his head injury, Brady found himself gaining new abilities, including the power to move small objects with his mind and the ability to enter the bodies of certain people susceptible to his mental domination. Using these tools, Brady has been crafting a plan to finish his murderous work by creating a hypnotic video game app that heightens the user's susceptibility. Once the users are in Brady's control, he will use the app to dominate their minds and persuade them to commit suicide. The targets are the very teenagers who escaped death when Brady's plan to destroy the concert venue failed. Brady's ultimate goal, however, is to lure Hodges into the game and exact revenge. Brady uses the bodies of both a corrupt neurosurgeon and a hospital librarian (“he’s become a living Russian nesting doll”) as both puppets and red herrings to do his dirty work and to misdirect the police while he makes his final move to destroy Hodges, all the while unaware that Hodges is already racing the clock against his own death.

As noted, End of Watch borrows the telekinesis theme King used so effectively in Carrie, though while that novel used it as a metaphor for suppressed emotional issues, here it becomes more of a pretext to get Brady, whose body has been slowly atrophying over the years of his interment at Kiner Brain Injury Clinic, out of bed and free him from the confines of room 217. King does create a clever McGuffin which enables Brady to “leap” into the minds and bodies of his victims (“look inside Babineau and there is Dr. Z. Look inside Dr Z and there, pulling all the levers, is Brady Hartsfield”). Once “inside” he becomes like a computer virus, forcing people to do his evil bidding and slowly unleashing his master plan to get revenge on Hodges: he’s manipulates the kids through his mind control, the ones who survived his failed attack at the ‘Round Here Concert, to commit suicide. 

For me, the book is not as strong as the previous two (Hartsfield is not truly an evil character, more like a spoiled, petulant teenager, though the theme of teen suicide is a bit unseemly), and yet continues King’s tendency of late to write stories that feature characters and situations that mirror real life, with pain being one of many recurring subjects. There has also been a definite shift in his style since the van that nearly killed him in 1999. And while always prolific, his output since then (both good and bad) seems to mean something, as if he is seeing the finish line. 

27 June 2016

Books: Everybody's Fool By Richard Russo (2016)




“The irresistible Sully, who in the intervening years has come by some unexpected good fortune, is staring down a VA cardiologist’s estimate that he has only a year or two left, and it’s hard work trying to keep this news from the most important people in his life: Ruth, the married woman he carried on with for years and the ultra-hapless Rub Squeers, who worries that he and Sully aren’t still best friends. The there is Sully’s son and grandson, for whom he was mostly an absentee figure (and now a regretful one). We also enjoy the company of Doug Raymer, the chief of police who’s obsessing primarily over the identity of the man his wife might’ve been about to run off with, before dying in a freak accident. Bath’s mayor, the former academic Gus Moynihan, whose wife problems are, if anything, even more pressing; and then there’s Carl Roebuck, whose lifelong run of failing upward might now come to ruin. And finally, there’s Charice Bond—a light at the end of the tunnel that is Chief Raymer’s office—as well as her brother, Jerome, who might well be the train barreling into the station.”

Richard Russo’s Everybody’s Fool is set a little over ten years after the events of Nobody’s Fool (though twenty-three years have passed since the book was released), and like all sequels (and the first one Russo has done), you might begin to wonder if it’s as good as the original. Being this is only the third Russo novel I’ve read, and having recently finished the first book featuring the characters of Bath, New York, I found I enjoyed the book just the same. Russo’s wry look at human nature and their inevitable foibles it causes makes for a fun read. The writers ear for working class folks is strong and, much like Charles Dickens or John Irving or even Stephen King, you get a sense that these are real people, that they talk, eat, sleep, and move from one good fortune to tragedy much like everyone else does.  

There is a sense of forbidding death that clings to the book, also, from a lot of characters who’ve shuttled off this mortal coil to the town of Bath, which continues its slow collapse into death, to people like Sully who is facing mortality but unsure if he wants to leave or stay. 

The one striking aspect of Everybody’s Fool is that Sully is really not the main character of this story –he takes on somewhat of a supporting role here. And for some this might throw out the question of why Russo decided to return to them and not create different characters with the same story. But I know writers, and I can guess that this is where his muse took him.