23 September 2016

Books: Star Trek: Legacies: Purgatory's Key By Dayton Ward and Kevin Dilmore (2016)

“Eighteen years ago, the Starship Enterprise thwarted an alien invasion from another universe, and Captain Robert April took possession of the interdimensional transfer device that made it possible. Since then, each captain of the Enterprise, from Christopher Pike to James T. Kirk, has guarded this secret with his life. Now, Romulan agents have succeeded in stealing the device and using it to banish Ambassador Sarek and Councillor Gorkon to an unknown realm in the midst of their groundbreaking Federation-Klingon peace negotiations. With time running out as interstellar war looms in one universe—and alien forces marshal in another—will Captain Kirk and his crew preserve the tenuous peace and reclaim the key between the dimensions?”

While Purgatory’s Key, the third book in this Legacies series, has some great science fiction elements to them -indomitable and slug like foe the Jatohr- the book is somewhat of mess and highlights why (at least to me) modern Star Trek is caught in a rut. 

Part of the problem lies in the story itself, which would’ve made a great one-off book (even if the ending was already known) but was ballooned out to three novels. Again there is some complex ideas here, but like every other modern Trek TV series, is bogged down in techno-babble and unflappable notion that luck does indeed protect fools, small children and ships named Enterprise.

What is detracting here is that both Klingons and Romulans are more or less the same thing. And while book two focused on Romulans and their ship and the drama that unfolded there –leading to a mutiny of sorts, the same exact thing happens here, but instead it’s the Klingons. Despite honor, despite that both the Romulans and Klingons value honor and hate the Starfleet and the Federation, both (conveniently and coincidently) have soldiers who go against the grain. This speaks –maybe- of modern Klingons, but in a series of novels set during season two of the original series run, these Klingons are reflecting modernistic Star Trek notions. It’s the retcon aspect that has pissed off hardcore Trek fans concerning not only TNG and later series, but JJ Abrams reboot. 

My conclusion has come that Star Trek books have a place today still, fifty years later. But until a writer –perhaps even David Gerrold himself- can write a book that actually takes some risk, then I’ll need to stop reading them for a while. I need to focus on stuff that stirs my brain and not rote books that puts beloved characters in danger only for the reader to know that all will be wrapped up in a neat bow by the end.

Finally, I made note in my last post concerning this series, that featuring Joanna McCoy –Bones daughter- was (again) too convenient. As it happens, back in 1987, Pocket Books released Crisis on Centaurus by Brad Ferguson that was set sometime during the fourth year of Enterprise's five year mission (though, as the Star Trek Wiki points out, “the stardate in the book implies these events took place after Star Trek: The Motion Picture. But that’s nitpicking). The point is, a previous novel, nearly 20 years old and set some two years after this series, had established that Joanna McCoy living on Centaurus. My bad. 

20 September 2016

Books: The Nix By Nathan Hill (2016)

There is nothing like a great novel about families to bring out the drama and dysfunction inherit within them. A lot of great novels use this conceit in concocting identifiable situations that mixes identifiable characters with ones that are very hard to like.

We get a great slice of this in The Nix, the extraordinarily deft debut novel by Nathan Hill. 

“It’s 2011, and Samuel Andresen-Anderson—college professor, stalled writer—has a Nix of his own: his mother, Faye. He hasn’t seen her in decades, not since she abandoned the family when he was a boy. Now she’s re-appeared, having committed an absurd crime that electrifies the nightly news, beguiles the internet, and inflames a politically divided country. The media paints Faye as a radical hippie with a sordid past, but as far as Samuel knows; his mother was an ordinary girl who married her high-school sweetheart. Which version of his mother is true? Two facts are certain: she’s facing some serious charges, and she needs Samuel’s help.  To save her, Samuel will have to embark on his own journey, uncovering long-buried secrets about the woman he thought he knew, secrets that stretch across generations and have their origin all the way back in Norway, home of the mysterious Nix. As he does so, Samuel will confront not only Faye’s losses but also his own lost love, and will relearn everything he thought he knew about his mother, and himself.”

The book is a drama between mother and son, one that adds politics and family mythology to the mix. But it contains some sharp humor, and at times almost satirical look at today, with jabs at Millennial’s and their inability to take personal responsibility, and our whole political system which has done away with facts, making true and false a relic of some mysterious past time. It often reminded me of John Irving, something that many reviewers noted (though Irving himself claimed this story reminded him of Charles Dickens –ironically something Irving is often compared too). Hill’s tale, released a few months before 2016’s most divided election, could prove what a genius the writer could be. His wry at time take on 2012 election, mirrored with the 1968 one, and you wonder how he could be so spot on. 

So yes, The Nix delves into the 1968 Chicago Democratic National Convention, which remains a huge historical moment in that town, one that reiterated the fact that the Windy City could be ruthless and mean. If you watch Youtube videos of that time period and watch what is happening in 2016, you see a striking similarity. You understand, as I’ve always have, that nothing in politics changes, the faces, the themes, the schisms designed to alienate of America have always been there (and I’ll argue since the dawn of this nation 240 years ago). 

But while that’s fun and depressing to realize, The Nix is not about politics as a whole. Samuel’s mother Faye is not much of a sympathetic character, even as her history unwinds and you learn more about her past. Like many of us, she is caught in an odd time of life, coming of age in the turbulent 1960s, a time that effectively divided America and continues to do so. Her issues are complex and yet simple, and as the book comes along, you are forced as a reader to see her and have empathy or dislike her for never being a mother one expects she should be. 

The book abounds with a strong prose of a writer who’s been publishing for years, and it’s astounding to me to think that Nathan Hill accomplished a rarity today: a fully realized Great American Novel™ on the first try. This book towers over last year’s most touted new book by a first time writer, City of Fire, and yet has not gotten the press (I think it) deserves. 

And much like City of Fire, we're getting a limited TV series version of The Nix in the near future, though why they don't call is a miniseries is beyond me. New minds, fresh ideas some might say. But those ideas are never new, just repackaged.

06 September 2016

Books: Star Trek: Legacies: Best Defense By David Mack (2016)

Star Trek: Legacies: Book 2: Best Defense by veteran Trek author David Mack is the middle installment in the Legacies trilogy commemorating 50 years of Star Trek.

“A debt of honor: One brave woman ventures alone into a parallel universe to save her old shipmates, exiled there decades earlier by a mysterious device called the Transfer Key. She soon learns the alternate universe harbors not just an alien invasion force, but a secret that underpins its very existence. A mission of peace: A long-awaited Klingon-Federation peace conference convenes, led by Ambassador Sarek of Vulcan and Councillor Gorkon of Qo’noS. But both sides have enemies who would prefer the two great powers remain at war—and who will do anything to make certain hate wins the day. An errand of justice: Captain Kirk and his crew seek the stolen Transfer Key that opens a door between universes, but their hunt is cut short by Ambassador Sarek’s plea for help. The Enterprise crew soon becomes targets in a deadly crossfire—one whose outcome will decide the fate of two universes.”

While this book builds on story elements from book one, it leaves a lot of the alternate universe stuff –where Una went to at the end of book one- as subplot (which is actually a good thing and a bad one) as it focuses on negotiations of a treaty between the Federation and the Klingons. Once again, a novel in the Pocket Book line-up uses a previous TV series episode as springboard to extend Errand of Mercy (among others) plotline, where the Romulans attempted to cause a war. And while this is a logical extension –if you can excuse the phrase- of that story, I find the adding of Joanna McCoy to the story as too much convenience and coincidence.

I mean, yes it makes sense Ambassador Sarek and his human wife Amanda our on Centaurus for these negotiations, and maybe it’s even logical Gorkon, only a Klingon Councillor here, is present also, but the happenstance Centaurus being a medical training facility and Joanna McCoy studying there is just too annoying for me. Yes, it adds drama to the story, yes it gives Doctor McCoy something more to do than trade bards with Spock, but it’s also bad storytelling.

I’m also annoyed at both the Romulans and the Klingons, as there is no subtly to them. It’s all very black and white with them, and it amazes me that they’re not on the same side (or have been destroyed by their stupidity). Sure, the Romulans are sneakier in their strategy, while the Klingons are openly aggressive, but both believe in honor. At some point, I’m saying, they could put some of their difference aside and work together, for both have the same goal: destroying the Federation alliances. There were passages in this book that made me roll my eyes, especially with the Romulans and their human Tal Shair officer –something that seemed out of place.

Meanwhile, the events in the alternate universe function as a subplot this time, as it appears its all set up for the final book in this trilogy. Which, I noted was good and bad. Part of the problem is that Mack was obviously hobbled by an uninteresting plotline. The events happening on Usilde are not very interesting to say the least and not spending much time there is good thing. The bad part, of course, is the reader assumes on the books blurbs that we’ll be spending time in this different universe. Which we don’t.

As I pick up the third book here, I’m hoping for an exciting adventure, even if I already know how this is going to end. Once again, this is another issue with these extended universe books of Star Trek (and Star Wars). You know how they’re going to end, you know that none of the main crew is going to die; you know that Joanna McCoy is going to survive and I can probably guess Una is going to sacrifice herself in the last book.

These books are fine to read between better novels, I guess, but I’m still hoping for a Star Trek book that tries to be different, original, and less dependent on any previous episode for the TV series. But I also know that won’t happen. So I may end up just stop reading them again.

04 September 2016

Books: Harry Potter and The Cursed Child By Jack Thorne, JK Rowling, John Tiffany (2016)

"It was always difficult being Harry Potter and it isn’t much easier now that he is an overworked employee of the Ministry of Magic, a husband and father of three school-age children.While Harry grapples with a past that refuses to stay where it belongs, his youngest son Albus must struggle with the weight of a family legacy he never wanted. As past and present fuse ominously, both father and son learn the uncomfortable truth: sometimes, darkness comes from unexpected places."

Despite some negative views from long-time fans who felt the magic and fantasy of the original seven books in the franchise is missing in Harry Potter and The Cursed Child, I really liked the story. It is defiantly more adult and darker than Rowling’s other books (though by The Deathly Hollows, the series had grown up), but this rehearsal edition script of the new play, written by Jack Thorne and based on an original story by Thorne, JK Rowling and John Tiffany, works fairly well here.

Mostly because I believe this is probably the next logical step in the evolutionary life of Harry Potter, which makes the risk of doing this as play much smarter than doing another novel. Cursed Child is, of course, different than a movie, as it’s more character driven (well, it is a play, so like all plays, it relies on the visual effect of the actors performance and not some people behind a computer) than films. It also takes on a lot of different emotions that Rowling avoided in seven book series, such as the believable relationship baggage that sometimes happens between a father and son -and those scenes could be the most decisive for fans, I think as well. While it’s clear Rowling did not write the book, Thorne’s style is not horrendous as some might say, just different. But he still is able to bring right bit of mischief to Albus that harks back to the original novels. I also adored Scorpius, the son of Draco Malfoy, and his obvious puppy love for Albus (who possibly has some mixed feelings as well) along with returning favorites.

The story is somewhat muddled though, using time travel as a plot device. This allows for these new characters introduced here to (sometimes) interact with action and scenes from the previous seven novels, but it also creates a few paradoxes that befall any story that relies on this conceit –and which everyone conveniently ignores for the best. But while I had no real issue with this, those scenes packed an emotional wallop for me when we get to see Severus Snape again, which makes me hope they never try to make a movie of this play. Alan Rickman can never be replaced. 

Mischief managed!

02 September 2016

Books: Stiletto By Daniel O'Malley (2016)

Stiletto is the follow-up novel to Daniel O’Malley’s 2012 The Rook. While I generally enjoyed that novel and appreciated this sequel, I’ve found myself finally realizing that writers have nothing new and are just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

What I mean is that O’Malley’s book resembles Ben Aaronovitch’s River of London series, and Aaronovitch’s series resembles Paul Cornell’s Shadow Police books and (and probably many other Urban Fantasy’s)  all  borrow themes from each other at an alarming rate. This has made me feel like not reading anymore, because it’s obvious that publishers no longer want original or risky novels –they just want a variation on a theme (The Hike, the previous book I read, is a prime example of a publisher letting a writers imagination out, so hope is not all lost that novels can break down the wall of conformity). 

When secret organizations are forced to merge after years of enmity and bloodshed, only one person has the fearsome powers—and the bureaucratic finesse—to get the job done. Facing her greatest challenge yet, Rook Myfanwy Thomas must broker a deal between two bitter adversaries: The Checquy—the centuries-old covert British organization that protects society from supernatural threats, and The Grafters—a centuries-old supernatural threat. But as bizarre attacks sweep London, threatening to sabotage negotiations, old hatreds flare. Surrounded by spies, only the Rook and two women, who absolutely hate each other, can seek out the culprits before they trigger a devastating otherworldly war.”

While I sort of enjoyed the first book in The Checquy Files, Stiletto isn’t nearly as persuasive a story (and if possible, even slower than The Rook). It’s overlong (a problem that is increasingly a bad development in multi-volume series), and goes off in often dull tangents -O’Malley has a tendency to create some favorable action buildup only then to have the him “take me out” of flow of that action by focusing on unnecessary history lessons (that go on for pages and pages) and dense exposition that do sometimes later bear fruit, but seem ridiculously arrogant and pointless when you are reading them. There are too many subplots –like a guy who suddenly develops the ability to instantly grow huge crystals out of any hard surface, and is murdering people for no real reason- that a better editor would’ve told the writer to dump, because it really has very little to do with main narrative. The book can be a bit complex, yet it reveals nothing new, just rehashing of themes we’ve seen before (it is, essentially, a British version of The X Men, even though the writer is Australian)

There are many strengths to the book, though, as O’Malley has created some very strong female characters. Even though this book does on focus on Myfanwy (rhymes with Tiffany –the “w” is silent) Thomas, Odette is a wonderfully three dimensional woman. Still, regulating Thomas to a supporting role was disappointing.  And his humor remains sharp and often times, laugh out loud funny, but like The Rook, the writer cobbles together a lot of other people’s ideas and sews together a paint-by-numbers thriller that should’ve been better.