20 August 2016

Books: The Hike By Drew Magary (2016)

“When Ben, a suburban family man, takes a business trip to rural Pennsylvania, he decides to spend the afternoon before his dinner meeting on a short hike. Once he sets out into the woods behind his hotel, he quickly comes to realize that the path he has chosen cannot be given up easily. With no choice but to move forward, Ben finds himself falling deeper and deeper into a world of man-eating giants, bizarre demons, and colossal insects. On a quest of epic, life-or-death proportions, Ben finds help comes in some of the most unexpected forms, including a profane crustacean and a variety of magical objects, tools, and potions. Desperate to return to his family, Ben is determined to track down the Producer, the creator of the world in which he is being held hostage and the only one who can free him from the path.”

Perhaps one the most oddly unique books I’ve read in a long time. 

This wonderfully bizarre, surreal, often hilarious tale takes the tried and true premise of a man on an extraordinary journey to get back to his family, and twists it into a genre bending novel that defies categorizing. It’s like H.P. Lovecraft, Salvador Dali, Stephen King, and Cormac McCarthy (along with doses of Alice in Wonderland) spewed out a kid named Drew Magary. 

The conceit of The Hike is built on the foundation of having Ben doing things the reader does not expect. And while you may think you'll see where it’ll go (because, surely the author will run out of ideas), Magary pulls the rug out from under you and takes the reader farther out than one might expect, especially in today’s world of contemporary fantasy where the ending is telegraphed long before the final page. However here, the ending is brilliant, perhaps the best ending I’ve ever read. So the book, at slim 278 pages, never wastes a page. 

While The Hike is made up of many genres, borrowing elements from The Twilight Zone, King’s Dark Tower series, and the dark fantasy of Margaret Attwood, it’s still one damn fine read; never boring, never predictable. A funny, thought provoking, and a very weird acid trip through the creative mind of Drew Magary.

This should be read by all.  

16 August 2016

Books: Just One Damned Thing After Another By Jodi Taylor (2013/2016)

British author Jodi Taylor’s Just One Damned Thing After Another started life a self-published series. Much like Michael J. Sullivan’s fantasy series I began to read earlier this year, there was several books out before a major publisher, Night Shade Books (a division of the independent US based Skyhorse Publishing ) began releasing the series for all of us to enjoy. While I find the premise interesting, on the whole, the book lacks direction, insomuch as much does happen (a lot of it off “stage”), and its heroine a bit two-dimensional.

“Behind the seemingly innocuous fa├žade of St Mary's, a different kind of historical research is taking place. They don't do 'time-travel' - they 'investigate major historical events in contemporary time'. Maintaining the appearance of harmless eccentrics is not always within their power - especially given their propensity for causing loud explosions when things get too quiet. Meet the disaster-magnets of St Mary's Institute of Historical Research as they ricochet around History. Their aim is to observe and document - to try and find the answers to many of History's unanswered questions...and not to die in the process. But one wrong move and History will fight back - to the death. And, as they soon discover - it's not just History they're fighting. Follow the catastrophe curve from 11th-century London to World War I, and from the Cretaceous Period to the destruction of the Great Library at Alexandria. For wherever Historians go, chaos is sure to follow in their wakes.”

While Madeleine “Max” Maxwell is appealing, she is dense, snarky, and maybe too clever for her own good, she is also has everything fall into her lap, and Taylor makes it easy for Max to solve the countless issues that pop up along the way. This may help if this was a TV series designed for a broad audience not bothered by internal logic, but as a book series, you expect the main protagonist to actually figure out the problems. Here, like whole idea of time travel, a lot of stuff is glossed over (we solved this issue a few days later. How?). Still, I give Taylor credit for not really explain how time travel works in this (I’m guessing) alternate universe of England (shades of Jasper Fford’s Thursday Next here).

 “How does it work?” she asks the Chief. 

He just looked at me. Okay then, stupid question.

Trying to come up with a creditable explanation of time travel is always convoluted. Even my beloved Doctor Who has only scratched the surface on explaining how he does it.

There is a nugget of a great idea here, unfortunately Taylor decides that to leave most of that for later in the book, including introducing a villain that shows up for all of a few pages and seems only designed to tell the reader there are more books to come. What we get in the meantime is a mixed up bag of broad humor, paint-by-number rivals, romance, science fiction, history lessons and British people doing what British people do when confronted by things:  drinking a lot of tea. It was as if Taylor decided that the only way her books might appeal to a wider audience was to throw every genre into the bowl and mix it up. It generally works, but not enough for me to continue on.

This is unfortunate, because while the book does read and appear like a self-published title, with a stronger editor and maybe a rewrite, the book could’ve been more than the sum of its basic parts.  

12 August 2016

Books: Dark Run By Mike Brooks (2015)

“In this debut space epic, a crew of thieves and con artists take on a job that could pay off a lot of debts in a corrupt galaxy where life is cheap and criminals are the best people in it. The Keiko is a ship of smugglers, soldiers of fortune, and adventurers traveling Earth’s colony planets searching for the next job. And they never talk about their past—until now. Captain Ichabod Drift is being blackmailed. He has to deliver a special cargo to Earth, and no one can know they’re there. It’s what they call a dark run…And it may be their last.”

Dark Run is formulaic, though that’s not a bad thing, but it did reminded me more of a Western than a true space romp the book is sold as. British author Mike Brooks apes a lot that has come before and could be described as the UK version of The Expanse series of books by James S. A. Corey or Joss Whedon’s Firefly. But where Corey’s tales involve a lot of politics and universe building, Brooks forgoes a lot of that for lean, often funny, but never really deep take on interstellar travel. But it never reaches the cleverness of Whedon’s beloved sci-fi western either, which makes it plowing through the book an effort, which is odd considering the praise on the front and back cover of this book. It really does not match what I just read which clearly means that I need to read some reviews from real readers and not be taken in by other authors who are looking for a nice return blurb on their book before checking out something new. 

Ichabod Drift is really a dumb name for our Han Solo/Mal Reynolds type hero mold that Brooks was going for here (though we also get Gideon Xanth, Annie Eclectic, and Nana Bastard, so subtly was not what Brooks was after), and while he shows some charm, the character vacillates between that lovable rogue aspect that girls swoon over to just being a plain ass. There are other things that I find odd, but now that I know there is a sequel out it explains why we don’t get too much back story on Drift’s crew –those will be forthcoming in later books; I really need to know why anyone would want to be on his ship, because as a leader, Drift’s methods are questionable at best and, again, sadly formulaic. 

And correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m almost assuming that a lot of characters and ships (the Serverus) that are in Dark Run were named after Brooks’ favorite author creations? For those that just want a pointless, sometimes fun romp that you’ll quickly forget after reading it, then this is the book for you. Otherwise, I’ll watch Han Solo in Star Wars and Mal Reynolds in Firelfy, or better yet, pray November comes fast enough for the next book in The Expanse series.

07 August 2016

Books: Star Wars: Aftermath: Life Debt By Chuck Wendig (2016)

“The Empire is in chaos. As the old order crumbles, the fledging New Republic seeks a swift end to the galactic conflict. Many Imperial leaders have fled from their posts, hoping to escape justice in the farthest corners of known space. Perusing those Imperial deserters are Norra Wexley and her team of unlikely allies. As more and more officers are arrested, planets once crushed beneath the Empire’s heel now have hope for the future. And no hope is greater that of the Wookies of Kashyyyk. Han Solo and Chewbacca have gathered a team of smugglers and scoundrels to free Kashyyyk from Imperial slavers once and for all. Meanwhile, the remnants of the Empire –now under the control of Grand Admiral Rae Sloane and her powerful, secret advisers- prepare to unleash a terrifying counterstrike.”

Star Wars: Aftermath: Life Debt by Chuck Wendig is rather dull and at often times, pointless. Much like I pointed out in my take on his first book in this new trilogy of Star Wars Expanded Universe 2.0,  Wendig’s novel seems like “a bunch of new ideas that will be filled out in other novels.” Not perhaps his, though, but other books. The biggest issue is the whole story is built on a shaky foundation that was weak to begin with, insomuch as the story is paper thin and most, if not all the stuff that happens here, could be condensed into a handful of chapters spread over twenty or so pages of a short-story. Every event, from the freeing of the Wookies, to entanglements with Imperials all happen swiftly, almost coming off as an afterthought. The good guys win, the bad guys lose. We get boring subplots with Wexley and her now found husband, Brentin (who I never expected to see alive, so I was rather pleased he did pop up, but Wendig does really nothing with him except to use him as one might expect him to be used) and Wedge. This potential three way love seems poorly handled and obvious. And Han Solo does not show up until about page 190 and then he sort of becomes a supporting character through the rest of the book. 

Then there are those random interludes which seem to add nothing to the narrative, and come out at you aimlessly just to flesh out the story, which as noted, was slim to begin with. The book is unfocused and haphazardly put together. It reads more like a modern screenplay than a novel, filled with moments, instead of characterization, or logic, or the writer making any attempt to make the story cohesive. 

This is why the novels related to Star Wars and even Star Trek has lost my interest. Perhaps I’ve grown, moved forward in my reading world and these books are no more or no less than science fiction version of a James Patterson “written” novel. They seem more interested in pandering to fans that moving the saga onward.

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.