If you’ve ever watched an episode of classic Star Trek, you’re probably familiar with the old adage, “Don’t wear a red shirt.” Odds are you won’t surv...moreIf you’ve ever watched an episode of classic Star Trek, you’re probably familiar with the old adage, “Don’t wear a red shirt.” Odds are you won’t survive until the first commercial break.
John Scalzi’s latest novel Redshirts delves into that old adage as well as several other tropes from not only classic Trek but many of our favorite genre series. On board the flag ship of the Universal Union the Intrepid, odds are that if you aren’t one of the five members of the command crew, your life expectancy can be measured in months, if not days or weeks. Crew members go out of their away to avoid any contact with the big five and has developed an elaborate system to disappear when any one of them comes looking for away team members.
Newly assigned to the Intrepid is Ensign Andrew Dahl. Dahl is part of the latest round of replacements for those crew members previously killed in action and it appears he and his friends are also doomed to a short life expectancy. But the life expectancy of the crew isn’t the only odd thing going on. There’s the miraculous ability of one of the senior staff to heal from virtually any injury or disease thrown his way in a matter of hours, if not days and then there’s the mysterious box that will give you the almost the right answer to any problem, provided there’s a ticking clock and you show the near answer to the senior show so they can show off their genius and/or technical prowess.
Dahl and his friends slowly discover there’s something more at work on board the Intrepid and they’re determined to put a stop to it.
As a satire of popular genre television series, Redshirts is a dead-on delight. The novel will have you smiling at times and laughing out loud at others. And if all Redshirts wanted to be was a parody of the tropes of classic Star Trek, it would be enough. But instead Scalzi goes for something more—a look at how character deaths can impact a novel, series or other form of popular entertainment. Between the moments of great satire and laughter, Scalzi will make you think and re-assess many of your favorite genre shows and look at the importance of getting the science right in science fiction.
Scalzi’s novel is one I’ve looked forward to since he first announced its title and premise on his blog last year. My anticipation reached a zenith point when I was able to get my grubby paws on an advanced reader copy and I could only hope that the novel would at least live up to the lofty expectations I had for it. The good news is not only did it live up to them, but it exceeded them.
Scalzi has shown in the past that he can write a funny novel. Last year’s Fuzzy Nation showed flashes of the funnier side of Scalzi and his The Android’s Dream starts off with a war between worlds started by flatulence. Redshirts is better than both of those (and they’re my two favorite works by Scalzi so far).
And that’s all before you get to the three codas Scalzi includes after the main story is concluded. Each one adds a unique twist to the Redshirts universe and while they’re not essential to the main story, they’ll add a lot to your enjoyment of the Redshirts universe.(less)
George R.R. Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" is everything epic fantasy should be--a richly crafted world, fascinating characters and no abandon when...moreGeorge R.R. Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" is everything epic fantasy should be--a richly crafted world, fascinating characters and no abandon when it comes to inflicting horrible fates upon the cast of what seems like thousands.
The third installment in the epic series is the longest, so far, and the best of the series. Building on everything set up in the first two books, "A Storm of Swords" delivers from the first page, grabbing you by the collar and never letting go. The story is an epic one and if you've heard that you shouldn't become attached to any character or set of characters, you've heard correctly. Bad things happen to a lot of the characters in this novel and Martin doesn't pause much to allow you to catch your breath as he moves from one revelation to the next.
There's not much more I can say about this book and series that hasn't already been said. It's epic, it's compelling and it's fantasy done exactly right. It'd be a shame to let one more second go by without reading it, if you haven't already done so. (Assuming you've read the first two installments, of course!) (less)
I should preface this by saying I've never read the original novel that Fuzzy Nation pays homage to, but...moreLeave it to John Scalzi to do a reboot right.
I should preface this by saying I've never read the original novel that Fuzzy Nation pays homage to, but after reading/listening to Fuzzy Nation the book will probably make its way onto my to-be-read pile in the near future.
Jack Holloway is a disbarred lawyer, working as a prospector on the distant planet Zarathustra. While surveying a local mountain with his companion Carl, a dog who can set off explosives, Jack discovers a rich vein of sunstones, the most valuable gem in the universe. Suddenly Jack is going to be rich beyond his wildest dreams, as will ZaraCorp, who own the mining rights to the planet.
That is until Jack comes home to find a new creature has broken into his jungle dwellings. Dubbed a "fuzzy" by Jack, the creature is highly intelligent and adaptive, which could be a huge problem for ZaraCorp. If the creatures are proved to be sentient, then ZaraCorp must give up all rights to exploit the new found mineral wealth of the planet and pack up shop.
Jack turns to his ex-girlfriend and ZaraCorp biologist, Isabel to help him look into the matter and to determine if the fuzzies are sentient.
Written in the vein of Scalzi's The Androids Dream, Fuzzy Nation is a masterpiece by one of the genre's best working authors. If you're only familiar with Scalzi from his military SF "Old Man's War" series, leave those expectations at the door. Fuzzy features the same kind of addictive, compelling writing but there's a lot of humor, fun and serious thought-provoking stuff at work here. In fact, I may even go so far as to declare this my favorite work by Scalzi to date.
The audio version is a delight as well. Read by Wil Wheaton, the story comes alive though Wheaton's delivery. In his introduction, Scalzi says he can think of no one better than Wheaton to read the audio version of his book. And having heard it, I heartily agree.
If you're looking for a thought-provoking, stand-alone sci-fi novel that shows the genre can still be fun, I highly recommend picking up a copy of Fuzzy Nation. (less)
There’s been a lot of buzz for Greg Iles’ latest novel “Turning Angel” and after reading it, all I can say is that it deserves every bit of it.
Dr Drew...moreThere’s been a lot of buzz for Greg Iles’ latest novel “Turning Angel” and after reading it, all I can say is that it deserves every bit of it.
Dr Drew Elliot seems to have it all-he’s the trusted doctor in the small town of Nachez, Mississippi. He’s successful professionally, he’s married with a family, he’s got the big house and all the trappings. But he has a dark secret-he’s been carrying on an affair with a 17-year old cheerleader and tennis phenom, who is bound for Harvard. When the girl’s body turns up in the river, Elliott’s love for her comes to light and he’s the prime suspect in the killing.
Elliot asks his good friend (whose life he saved), Penn Cage for help in representing him and finding the real killer.
But what could have been a simple who-done-it thriller becomes something more. Iles not only documents the mystery of who killed the girl but rips off the innocent veneer of the town of Nachez. We come to understand how Elliott could fall for the girl, carry on an affair with her and even plan to give up his life to be with her. There are no heroes or villians here, just real, breathing characters painted in shades of gray.
The case is pushed through by oportunistic politicians, one of whom wants to use the case as a springboard to the mayor’s office and beyond. Along the way, we find out about the underbelly of a small town and the frightening implications of the death of one girl.
Iles pulls no punches in his harsh, frank examination of the murder and the consequences and fallout from it. The book is close to 500 pages but it feels shorter than that becuase Iles prose is compelling and his characters fascinating. This is an absolute must read and it’s made me into a huge fan of Greg Iles.(less)
I can't quite recall how I first heard about the books of Donald Miller--whether it was through a friend or a web site recommendation. However, I do k...moreI can't quite recall how I first heard about the books of Donald Miller--whether it was through a friend or a web site recommendation. However, I do know that I read his book, "Searching for God Knows What" before the book for which he is best-known, "Blue Like Jazz." And while I like "Jazz" a great deal, it's always been "Searching" that has stuck with me and been my favorite book that Miller has written.
"A Million Miles in a Thousand Years" may have replaced "Searching" as my favorite book by Miller. It's certainly jumped up to the top of my list for one of the best books I've read all year.
"Million Miles" begins with Miller sitting down with two other guys to write a screenplay based on one his best-selling memoirs. In the course of writing, Miller realizes that he wishes his life could tell a better story and begins a journey into discovering how to do that. He learns about the elements of what makes up a story and relates those to his daily life and his response to God.
Miller utilizes a conversational style to his books so it feels less like you're reading words on a page and more like you're sitting across from him, sharing a beverage or meal and talking about things. Miller's books is one that will challenge, that will tug at your emotions and one that get you to make a serious evaluation of where you are in your life. It made me sit back and ask how I was telling my story and examine the vital scenes within my own life, wondering if I'm truly living the story I want to live and the one that I should be living.
Miller does this by bringing in examples from his own life. At several points, Miller talks about how writing can be hard for him, but it never seems that way reading his work. He peppers in stories, giving us the details of the story as needed to make his points. He weaves together a tapestry of stories, showing how one decision led to another and those went into a completely and totally unanticipated direction. For example, Miller decides to go hiking in South America to impress and spend time with a girl, which leads to his decision to get in better shape and leads to his meeting with the father he never really knew. It's a series of events that you'd have a hard time putting together in fictional novel, but told in the context of Miller's life and journey, it's a fascinating look at the points he's trying to make and challenge of making sure the story we're telling is the right one.
As always, Miller's book is a fascinating, compelling and interesting one. Yes, we did have to wait a bit longer than usual for this release, but it was completely worth it. If you're looking for a book that will offer you wit, wisdom and a challenge for your life, this is one to put at the top of your list. (less)
A blending of the four gospels into one single narrative by a Garrison Keillor and Dan Johnson and then read by Keillor in his own, unique voice and s...moreA blending of the four gospels into one single narrative by a Garrison Keillor and Dan Johnson and then read by Keillor in his own, unique voice and style. If you're looking for a new way to approach reading or experiencing the greatest story ever told, this is one great way to do it. Keillor's delivery is superb (as always) and hearing Jesus' life and events put into a chronological order is fascinating and fun. (less)
When Grace and John meet at a bar on Halloween, the attraction between the two is undeniable. Everything is going well, until the morning after Grace...moreWhen Grace and John meet at a bar on Halloween, the attraction between the two is undeniable. Everything is going well, until the morning after Grace mysteriously vanishes from John's apartment after John confesses he feels responsible for the death of his brother.
That's the hook for Charles De Lint's latest fantasy novel, "The Mystery of Grace." The novel is one part love story, one part fantasy story and one part fairy tale.
The romantic coupling of Grace and John has some problems before it. For one thing, they met two weeks two late. And not just in that typical romantic comedy, oh I'm with someone else now two weeks too late. Two weeks too late because Grace was killed in a convience store robbery two weeks before. She's stuck in a limbo world based around several blocks of the town she lived in before her death. She can revisit our world two times a year--Halloween and another day in early May. Grace has just come back when she meets John. The connection between the two is nearly instantaneous and helps propel the story for the rest of the book.
De Lint focuses on each character separately in alternating sections. De Lint goes back, filling in the details of John and Grace before they met and then moving the story forward after they meet and how the two work to overcome the obstacles before them. Along the way, we meet a wide variety of other, fascinating characters including one man on the ghostly side of things who is obsessed with finding out why he and other spirits are trapped in a couple of blocks of the small town. Why haven't they go on to the "other side" or wherever it is that people go after death. Eventually, Grace begins to question things and figures out what is holding her back from crossing to the next stage in her life.
"The Mystery of Grace" has elements of a lot of different types of stories, all woven together around the central characters of Grace and John. The novel is one that is full of magic, heartache and fascinating characters.
It's interesting to go back and read the first installment of Stephen King's magnum opus now that I know how the series all plays out in the other sev...moreIt's interesting to go back and read the first installment of Stephen King's magnum opus now that I know how the series all plays out in the other seven novels.
I read "The Gunslinger" when it was first released to the mass market in the 80s and recall being a bit perplexed by it. At the time, it was like nothing else King had written. And yet, as I read about the tale of the Gunslinger pursuing the Man in Black across a vast wasteland, I couldn't help but be intrigued and want more.
Little did I know I'd be devoting twenty or so years to the series and that I'd re-read the first installment multiple times. (I think I've re-read it at least once per new installment coming out and that doesn't even count the revised edition King released when he finally got around to finishing the Dark Tower novels a few years ago).
Yes, I'm an admitted Stephen King fan and his "Dark Tower" novels are among my favorite works by the author. And while "The Gunslinger" is a favorite book of mine, this re-read only helped convince me further that this is a strong prologue, but the real meat of the story is to come. In many ways, "The Drawing of the Three" is a better book, but you can't replace the raw edge of "The Gunslinger."
The story is an entry into the world, setting up the character of Roland and giving us a taste of what's to come. Reading the story now, it's fascinating to catch various elements and threads King will pick up on and run with in later installments of the series. And it's easy to forget that while King expands the cast list in later books that the series began with the long figure of Roland on an epic quest.
The novel is a fascinating blend of King's usual elements and yet also stands alone in the King oeuvre. It's a fascinating, compelling character piece that is the entry point into the larger, more complex and ultimately extremely rewarding story of the quest for the Dark Tower. (less)
A recent study indicates that reading literary fiction can help improve your social skills and help you be a better conversationalist.
As I pondered t...moreA recent study indicates that reading literary fiction can help improve your social skills and help you be a better conversationalist.
As I pondered that and glanced over at my (ever-growing) pile of books I want to read, Michael Chabon's The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay began to call to me. So, I decided I'd pick up the book, read a chapter or two and dazzle friends, family and myself with my improved conversational tone.
Whether or not reading this novel has made me a better conversationalist remains to be seen.
But I will say that I'm glad the study serves as a catalyst and finally got me to crack the cover of this book.
Simply put, this is an outstanding novel and one that I wish I'd read before now.
It's the story of the creative team of Joe Kavalier and Sammy Clay, Jewish immigrants who create a wide array of comic books and superheroes during the Golden Age of comic books. Early sections of the novel detail how the team comes together and looks at some of the characters they create, including their most popular and enduring creation The Escapist. The book unfolds into something deeper as you turn the pages, detailing Joe's increased frustration that is fame and fortune can't help him get his family out of Nazi occupied Europe and Clay's frustration with his own sexual identity.
The novel delves into how two men who appear to have everything they could want are fundamentally unsatisfied because they each can't have the one thing they most desire. The entire novel is a fascinating, compelling character study of these two men and the various people who come into their circle of influence.
That's not to say that the novel is dry or without humor. Chabon creates some nice asides and witty observations during the close to six hundred pages the novel runs. One running thread involves Joe's on-going and ever escalating feud with a group of anti-Semetics, all leading up to a cartoon bomb being planted in the headquarters of Empire Comics and Joe chained to a desk in his refusal to leave. (You may have to read it in order to fully understand and enjoy the implications of it).
Kavalier and Clay weighs in at close to six-hundred pages, but it's one of those books that is so absorbing and utterly readable that it feels like it's over far too soon. Yes, the novel is satisfying in every sense of the word and it's one that has struck with me in my thoughts long after the final page was turned. But it still felt like it had ended far too soon and I found myself wondering if and how the next book I picked up could live up to the high bar this one had set.
If you're like me and this one is languishing on the TBR pile, pick it up and start reading.
And for the record -- people who ask me for a recommendation of something good to read will be hearing this novel mentioned a lot for a long time to come. Highly recommended. (less)
Years ago, I joined a science-fiction and fantasy discussion group to try and broaden my genre reading beyond media tie-in novels and the giants in th...moreYears ago, I joined a science-fiction and fantasy discussion group to try and broaden my genre reading beyond media tie-in novels and the giants in the field. One of the books we read in the group was Iain M. Bank's "Excession," set in the Culture universe. The story was a dense, complex and fascinating one.
During the course of our discussion of the book, one particular group member kept saying that while "Excession" was good, "Use of Weapons" was better and that it was a damn shame the book had gone out of print in the United States. He kept hinting about the huge twist at the end of the story that took the entire novel to a whole new level.
Intrigued, I set out on a quest to find a copy of the book. I haunted used books stores for weeks and months (this was in the days before the Amazon marketplace and E-Bay was in its infancy), so when I finally found a copy of the book, I'll admit I was overjoyed. I immediately dropped the other books I was reading and began to devour "Use of Weapons."
And I'll admit, early on, I kept wondering why my fellow book discussion participant was so ga-ga over. Don't get me wrong--the book was good, but it wasn't great. But knowing there was something brewing in the novel's final pages, I kept on going. And I'll admit it--I got to the end, read the twist and was pretty much blown away by it. So much so that the novel jumped into my list of favorite books and one that I recommended to people when they wanted something more from their typical genre reading.
Fast forward to today and once again I'm in a reading group devoted to sci-fi and fantasy. I kept pushing for us to give "Use of Weapons" a chance, saying it was a major novel from a science fiction writer we'd neglected until now. I tried to keep my lips sealed that there a) was a twist and b)what it was in the hopes of my uninitiated friends finding out for themselves.
Reading "Weapons" again, I'm surprised at how well it holds up. It's not a novel that I'd call easy to read simply because it has the story unfolding backwards and forwards. Banks asks his reader to pay attention to things and doesn't spoon-feed the readers on what's going on within the story. And I think the novel is a stronger one for that.
In many ways, the Culture comes off a warped version of the Federation from "Star Trek" here but instead of non-interference, they definitely do interfere in things--for their own gain. The morality and implications of this are explored a bit, but during the course of the story Banks doesn't necessarily endorse whether pushing certain cultures in a certain direction is a good or a bad thing. As is the case in the real world, a case can be made for both sides of the equation.
Reading the novel again and recalling the twist in the final pages, it was fascinating to see how Banks sets up the final twist. It also shows how this story could only effectively work in the way Banks chooses to tell it.
It you're curious about the Culture series, this may or may not be the best place to start. The novels are fairly self-contained, meaning you can start at any point. But I'll be honest--this novel sets a pretty high bar for the series and if you start here, you may be disappointed by other entries in the series. (less)
I've been aware of Philip K. Dick as an author since I was 12 or 13 years old. That's not because I was reading novels by Dick at that age, but more b...moreI've been aware of Philip K. Dick as an author since I was 12 or 13 years old. That's not because I was reading novels by Dick at that age, but more because his novels were often placed close to the "Doctor Who" novelizations by Terrance Dicks in the sci-fi section of the bookstore and library.
It wasn't until I was a bit older and saw "Blade Runner" and "Total Recall" that I decided it might be time to sample a little bit of what PKD had to offer.
One of my first entries into the literary world of PKD was "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep." This is probably the case for a lot of people given how easily accessible it is--not only from a literary standpoint but because it's easy to find in multiple paperback editions at most new and used bookstores. "Androids" is very much an entry level PKD work and it's a good place to get your bearings and find out if you'd like to go deeper into PKD's world of questioning reality and paranoia.
Next up in my literary overview of PKD was his second most famous novel, "The Man in the High Castle." It was the selection of the month by a science-fiction book club I'd joined. I remember reading it at the time, feeling a bit perplexed by book and feeling like if there were an audio version of the book that George Takai should read it.
"The Man in the High Castle" is certainly a deeper PKD novel that "Androids" but it's one that I'd argue is just as accessible to readers. It's one of the first alternate histories published and it deals with what question of what would the world be like if the United States had lost the second World War. Interestingly, the novel doesn't really start off telling you what its premise is, but instead introduces this universe over the course of several chapters. There's no long infodump of how the universe ended up this way and where history took a different turn from the one we're used to. Instead, PDK fills in the details as needed throughout the story and even leaves it up to the readers to fill in some of the rest.
But make no mistake--while this is, on the surface, an alternate history story, many of the standard PKD themes are on full display here.
One is the question of what is real and what isn't. This is most evident in the story of Robert Childan, an owner of a shop that specializes in pre-War American "artifacts." Childan believes that his offerings are authentic antiques but finds out that some of what he's offering are cleverly forgeries. Childan than begins to question everything in his store and whether it's real or forged. Chidan has built a reputation on offering quality, authentic pieces and while he bears a great deal of ill-will to the totalitarian Japanese regime and people, he's still conflicted by his need to win their approval and possibly become part of their social structure. Several scenes with Childan trying to impress a young Japanese couple who has come into his store are intrigued as we watch his internal struggle to say the right thing and not offend them, all while wondering why he bothers because he also finds them inferior.
Of course, this being a PKD book, the question of what's real doesn't just extend to trinkets like a gun from the old West or a Mickey Mouse watch. (Both are pivotal to the story). The book ingeniously creates an alternate history within the alternate history in the form of the novel, "The Grasshopper Lies Heavy." The novel speculates on how the world would be if the Allies won World War II. And while it gets the broad strokes right, it still misses a few things. The book is banned in the Nazi dominated sections of the world and the Nazis have a plan to assignate the author.
Several of the characters read the book and are aware of it during the course of the story. The story within the story shows how some of the characters are deeply aware of how their version of history may not be the proper one, but they're trapped within it, unable to escape. This storyline is one that questions the essential nature of reality and is one that is prevalent in a lot of other PDK novels and short stories.
If there's one complaint that I can lodge with "Man in the High Castle" it's that the story isn't necessarily the most linear. PKD introduces a lot of characters, many of whom know each other but many of whom don't. The connections that come to exist between some of them is intriguing. The novel has a beginning and an end, but it's not necessarily following the conventional rules of story and structure we all learned in high school English classes. And yet, I'd say the book is stronger for that. It read less like a drug-induced ranting that many of PKD's later books become and it also is one that assumes the reader is intelligent enough to follow the threads and put pieces together. It's certainly a challenging novel, not only to read but also in its implications.
And that's what makes it a classic for me and one of my favorites books. It's also a story that rewards reading it again every couple of years. (less)
While "I, Robot" may be more recognized as the source for Asimov's famous three laws of robotics, it's his series of books about the partnership betwe...moreWhile "I, Robot" may be more recognized as the source for Asimov's famous three laws of robotics, it's his series of books about the partnership between a human detective, Lije Bailey and his android partner, R. Danell Olivaw, that are the more compelling and fascinating.
"The Caves of Steel" is the first (and best of the four) entry in the series, introducing us to Bailey, Daneel and a future world in which humanity lives inside massive, interconnected steel domes. Humans rarely venture outside and Earth is slowly dying due to overpopulation. A group of aliens called Spacers are colonizing other worlds, using robotic help but have limited how and where humanity can colonize.
When a Spacer is killed, Bailey is called upon to solve the case. Bailey must overcome his prejudice toward Spacers and robots to work on the case and with the robotic partner. It's the conflict between Bailey's dislike and distrust of robots and Spacers that drives a lot of the novel and makes it an utterly compelling, character-driven, world-building effort by Issac Asimov.
If you've only read his "Foundation" novels, you've missed out on one of the biggest pleasures in all of science-fiction by overlooking the Robot stories. Yes, later in life Asimov did work to tie these books into the Foundation series, but the first three in the series can be enjoyed purely on their own merits.
Add to all that world-building, a fairly well done murder mystery and you may have one of the most perfect gems in not only science-fiction but also all of literature. Asimov said that he could create a mystery within a sci-fi story without having to resort to a deus ex machine type of resolution and he does here. He establishes the rules for the universe early in the novel and doesn't change them to fit the ending or solution he wants or needs.
A fascinating book and one of my favorites. Definitely worth reading or reading again. (less)