Thursday, January 17, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: Ball Lightning by Cixin Liu

Ball Lightning  is another science fiction novel by Chinese author Cixin Liu whose excellent Three-Body trilogy (The Three Body Problem, The Dark Forest, Death's End) won the Hugo award for Best Novel in 2015. Liu is the first Chinese-language science fiction author to win the Hugo award and thus I was quite excited about reading Ball Lightning which was actually written before the Three-Body trilogy (which is officially known as Remembrance of Earth's Past) but has been translated and released in the United States well afterwards.

One of the features of Liu’s science fiction is his inclusion of real science and mathematical concepts along with his whimsical adaptation of these ideas in creative and mind-expanding ways. This is a central feature of Ball Lightning which is about a form of spherical lightning that kills the parents of Chen, the main character, in the first chapter and ignites a lifelong obsession with the topic.

In Ball Lightning, Liu again impresses with his imaginative use of science in the service of plot, perhaps at the expense of characterization. Chen is almost a cipher. The much more interesting characters in the book are Lin Yun, a female Army captain who is obsessed with finding and using scientific discoveries to produce paradigm-shifting weapons to benefit the Chinese nation, and Ding Yi, a brilliant but eccentric male scientist who makes mind-bending discoveries about the nature of the Universe.

Unfortunately Ball Lightning is not as effective or fascinating as the books in Remembrance of Earth's Past. I think some aspect of that may be due to the nature of the translation. Some of the language in this book seems somewhat stilted, in a way that reduces the impact of the many creative ideas Liu deploys. Another aspect of the book which contributes to my dissatisfaction is my lack of connection with the characters. As I said before, Chen has almost no personality. Both Lin Yun and Ding Yi have almost too much but none of the characters can be said to be appealing. This is not unusual in a Cixin Liu novel, but usually the creativity of the ideas and elegance of the plot counteracts this aspect of his writing (or at least it did in the Remembrance of Earth's Past trilogy).

Overall, I would say that Ball Lightning is a solid 3.5 stars, because it fails to meet the sky-high expectations set by the brilliance of the other work I have read by this author, but that still means it is well above the median of most work published in the genre of hard science fiction.

Title: Ball Lightning.
Ann Leckie.
Paperback: 384 pages.
Date Published: August 4, 2018.
Date Read: December 8, 2018.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★½☆  (3.5/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: B+ (3.33/4.0).


Monday, January 14, 2019

EYE CANDY: Adrian Conrad (4th time!)

Adrian Conrad is a new favorite of mine, having appeared as Eye Candy three times before (January 22,2018December 11 2017November 27, 2017). He's obviously liked by other as well, with 150,000 followers on Instagram (@adrianconrad_).

You're welcome!

Saturday, January 12, 2019

01/12/19: 28th Anniversary In Mexico City

Today is the 28th anniversary of the first date with my future husband. This time we are spending it in Mexico City, Mexico. This is in front of the Palacio de Bellas Artes on January 12, 2019!

Thursday, January 10, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: Thin Air by Richard K. Morgan

Thin Air by Richard K. Morgan is the latest book by the author of the Takeshi Kovacs trilogy (Altered Carbon, Broken AngelsWoken Furies) and especially Thirteen/Black Man, the last of which is set in the same universe as Thin Air. Morgan is known for his futuristic, noir, sci-fi thrillers featuring ultra-violent, surgically enhanced, anti-heroes who often have a weak spot for the underclass in society. He is one of my favorite authors and I have wanted to read Thin Air since I learned this book was in the work in 2015. I bought it on Amazon and it arrived on its publication date but I delayed reading it until the holidays.

In Thin Air the protagonist is named Hakan Veil, an Earth-born mercenary who has been trapped on Mars for over a decade (earth years) after his last job protecting a space ship for a mega-corporation ended in a way displeasing to his bosses and almost fatally for the nearly indestructible Veil.

One notable feature of all Morgan’s work, which is one reason that it is catapulted to the top of my must-read lists, is his ability to convey a sense of place, culture and history in the settings of all his books, regardless of genre. Typically this feature of novels is referred to as “world building” but with Morgan the term doesn't do justice to the immersive nature of his writing. Although he is primarily known for his hard science fiction, he has also written an epic fantasy trilogy called A Land Fit For Heroes (The Steel Remains, The Cold Commands, The Dark Defiles) which also has a fascinatingly complicated backstory and setting.

The Mars of Thin Air is a compelling, technologically advanced, market-driven dystopia, with a rich history and multicultural, multi-ethnic populace struggling under the stewardship of staggeringly corrupt political and juridical officials. Morgan embeds his story in the long colonial history of the red planet under the forces of COLIN (the Colonization Initiative), an entity which has appeared in several of Morgan’s science fiction works set in the far future of humanity. COLIN is the organization which is responsibility for the expansion of humanity into the solar system and beyond. The author also describes a civilization on the red planet which is buffeted and sculpted by the amorality of corporate greed, organized crime and unregulated capitalism.

Morgan begins Thin Air in medias res as he thrusts the reader into a setting where Veil immediately maims and kills people, some of whom appear to be innocent bystanders but some who are also clearly responsible for horrible acts themselves. The effect is that we as the reader are not really sure if we are to identify positively or negatively with Veil as the protagonist of the story. Is Veil a hero or a villain? Morgan likes his characters to be morally nuanced, with situational ethics and malleable loyalties, and Veil is another example of this type.

Another feature of Morgan’s work are his bewilderingly intricate plots and Thin Air is no exception to this rule. The primary plot is centered around Veil’s task of protecting a COLIN Earth functionary who has come to Mars to investigate the curious case of an Earthbound lottery winner who disappeared before he could collect his prize. This reveals some obvious corruption (cui buono?) and the fact that several powerful forces are trying to control and dominate the future of Mars society. Of course, at some point Veil loses contact with his charge and it becomes clear that she may not be who she appears to be and that there is far more to the disappearance of the erstwhile lottery winner than meets the eye at first blush.

Overall, Morgan’s Thin Air  is an exciting, action-filled and intelligent take on a suspenseful mystery thriller set in a dystopian future society on Mars. If you like any of Morgan’s previous work (especially Thirteen) you will almost certainly also enjoy Thin Air. A lot.


Title: Thin Air.
Richard K. Morgan.
Paperback: 544 pages.
Date Published: October 23, 2018.
Date Read: December 30, 2018.

★★★★  (5.0/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A (4.0/4.0).


Sunday, January 06, 2019

2019 Vacation: Mexico City, Mexico (Jan. 7-13)

I'll be on vacation from January 7-13, 2019, visiting Mexico City, Mexico to celebrate my 28th anniversary. Mexico City which is in the most populous metropolitan area in the Western Hemisphere (approximately 21 million people). Posting on the blog will be relatively light, but you can see more of my adventures on Twitter (@madprofessah) and Instagram (@ronbuckmire).

Thursday, January 03, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: The Witch Elm by Tana French

Wow! Tana French proves yet again why and how she is the Queen of Literary Mystery Fiction. After writing six (ok, maybe five) exquisite entries in what is now known as the Dublin Murder Squad series, French decided to release a standalone mystery The Witch Elm (or The Wych Elm) which is not even indirectly connected to her much-celebrated prior works. When I discovered in late September that Tana French had a new book coming out soon, I pre-ordered the hardcover from Amazon instantaneously. There are a handful of authors for whom I do that for (Peter F. Hamilton, James S.A. Corey, Richard K. Morgan come immediately to mind) and there are none others in the mystery fiction area (although new books by Ian Rankin, Louise Penny, Adrian McKinty and, more recently, Val McDermid are all on my must-read-as-soon-as-I-can list).

The Witch Elm  is very different from French’s other books, which are generally police procedurals set in the context of murder mysteries and generally have police detectives on the Dublin Murder Squad as the main character for whom we get first-person perspectives.

Instead, The Witch Elm has Toby Hennessy as the main character, and for an extraordinarily long period of time (well over 100 pages, possibly close to 200) there is no sign of a dead body and no sign of anyone from the Dublin Murder Squad. There goes Tana again, breaking those genre rules and upending her readers expectations!

Toby is a very odd choice for a main character of a book that ends up being an intricately plotted murder mystery, since he’s a 20-something, blonde, attractive, upper class white guy who begins the book basically bragging about how lucky he is. His charmed life is shattered by a scene that happens very early in the book, where sudden violence befalls Toby, leaving him injured and potentially permanently incapacitated (due to a vicious blow to the head).

French is deploying and deconstructing the literary device of the unreliable narrator as a central trope of the book. Toby potentially has permanent brain damage which affects his perception of events around him as well as his memory. We the reader literally can not believe what Toby perceives to hear and see. But it also becomes clear that Toby has always been oblivious to what goes on around him due to his inability to perceive the effects of marginalization on people who do not share his class and gender.

As the plot develops (and the dead body finally arrives) we are engulfed by a complicated and multifaceted network of familial relationships that involve jealousies, slights and resentments which are sourced from events in the characters’ pasts. Toby is the only child of a pair of well-to-do parents (mom is a professor and dad is a barrister) and has grown up with two other similarly situated cousins, Susanna and Leon, who are about the same age and attended the same secondary schools as Toby. They have literally known each other their entire lives and in some sense are closer than some siblings. Their parents all vacationed together and  would regularly leave the 3 kids for weeks at a time during holidays at the home of their parents unmarried brother Hugo, at a grand old house called The Ivy House. Even now, when Toby, Susanna and Leon are nearly 30 and their grand-uncle Hugo is nearly 70 the extended family (Susanna is married and has 2 kids of her own, Toby has a longtime girlfriend named Melissa) attend weekly Sunday dinner at The Ivy House, which  almost serves as another character in the book. French delights in using her command of the language to describe its coziness and provides the reader with a real sense of place. It’s during one of these Hennessy family gatherings that a human skull is discovered in the wych elm on the grounds of the Ivy House, leading to multidirectional finger pointing and eventually actual suspicion between various pairings in the trio of cousins about how much and what each of them knows or remembers about the past and the supposed suicide of a teenaged classmate 10 years before. The notion of suspecting and being an object of suspicion of the people whom you have literally grown up with animates the emotional resonance of the book.

French uses the evanescence and plasticity of memory as another trope with which to redirect the suspicions of Toby, our unreliable narrator and the reader towards various possible suspects. She also (somewhat rashly) seizes the opportunity to conduct another anthropological survey of the social lives and mores of Dublin teenagers. This was at the heart of what I think of as her worst book, The Secret Place, which revolves around the discovery of the body of a teenage boy on the grounds of a posh private girls school. Happily, I think she’s more successful and insightful at the portrayal of modern-day teenage life in The Witch Elm. I am curious as to why French wanted to return to depicting that particular milieu when there are so many others to choose from.

Typically, for me, the joy of reading a Tana French novel has been sourced in her mellifluous, oftentimes  surprisingly piquant prose as she describes conversations between characters who are usually experiencing the worst times of their lives, either during a police investigation into the death of a loved one or recalling situations that dredge up the emotions and feelings that led someone they knew to commit (and/or conceal) a murder. Happily, that Tana French is well represented in The Witch Elm. What is missing this time is the voyeuristic perspective she usually provides the reader by allowing us to see the discovery, detection and resolution of crime(s) through the eyes of a member of the Dublin Murder Squad. Surprisingly, this is a minor loss.

Another feature of a French novel is her penchant for breaking the rules of the detective mystery form she is writing in. From the unresolved issues in her brilliant debut novel In the Woods and the stunning audacity of The Likeness to her clever refusal to center multiple books on the same detective(s) in her ongoing mystery series, to the disastrous dabble with the supernatural in The Secret Place, French has blazed her own trail in the British police procedural genre. In The Witch Elm she goes even further, by centering the book around Toby, a self-centered, entitled “git” who is oblivious to his own privilege (and prejudices). French is (I think) trying to reveal and skewer the perspective of the Tobys of the world, while she simultaneously uses his lack of awareness to misdirect the reader to the central mystery at the heart of the novel. 

In the final chapter of the book, after the major reveal of “whodunnit,” she breaks the rules of the genre again (multiple times!) so successfully that I was forced to give her my top rating and applaud her daring. This is the case, even though early in my reading of the book I had harbored disappointed misgivings about The Witch Elm’s eventual place in French’s oeuvre (“uh-oh, I think this may be another misfire like The Secret Place!” to “Oh my goodness what just happened? I have to re-read that entire section!”). By the end I felt she had surpassed the cool, precise excellence of The Trespasser, which up to that point was in a statistical tie in my heart with Broken Harbor for my designation as her best book. The Witch Elm, in my opinion, is another example of French operating at the top of her game, expanding and demonstrating what a literary genre novel can and should be. Another triumph.

Title: The Witch Elm.
Tana French.
Paperback: 509 pages.
Date Published: October 9, 2018.
Date Read: December 18, 2018.

GOODREADS RATING: ★  (5.0/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A+/A (4.16/4.0).



Blog Widget by LinkWithin