Thursday, January 26, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: Firewatching (DS Adam Tyler, #1) by Russ Thomas

Firewatching is the first book in the Detective Sergeant Adam Tyler series written by Russ Thomas. This British police procedural is set in Sheffield (South Yorkshire) where the openly gay protagonist of the books is a member of the Cold Case Review Team. In the begining of Firewatching a body is discovered after a fire broke out during renovations of the country estate of dodgy financier Gerald Cartwright who had disappeared six years before. DS Tyler convinces his boss (and godmother!) DCI Diane Jordan to let him work the case even though it's now decidedly much more high profile than his typical cold case. When he does so, Tyler neglects to point out that he hooked up with Cartwright’s handsome 21-year-old son Oscar the night before the discovery of the body. Despite his own uncertain status on the force due to his sexual orientation and his policeman father’s suspicious death years before when he worked with DCI Jordan, DS Tyler nevertheless uses what pull he does have to get a fellow outsider, feisty Muslim Detective Constable Amina Rabbani seconded to him, and together they work with Tyler’s frenemy Detective Inspector John Doggett and the preternaturally lazy Detective Sergeant Guy Daley to try and discover how and why an unknown person sealed someone else inside the house and left them to die. 

Of course, as with most mystery novels, there’s more than just one puzzle to solve and in a small village almost everyone can (and probably should) be considered a suspect. In the case of Firewatching, the fire that led to the discovery of the body is just one of several recent suspicious fire events that seem to have clear connections to Gerald Cartwright. 

The strengths of Firewatching lie in the characterizations of the main characters. We get first person accounts from both DC Rabbani and DS Tyler (and often they are thinking about the other) which are both revealing and entertaining. Additionally, there are multiple subplots which are based around events that happened 20 and 40 years before, which demonstrates how the events and crimes of today are often sourced in the past. And then, of course, more bodies (and more fires) start to show up as the plot thickens and the mysteries deepen.

Eventually, DS Tyler does solve the main case of how the body got to be found in the Cartwright mansion as well as who's setting fires around Sheffield. Along the way he meets a handsome, very muscular firefighter who also happens to be Black, so in addition to the tension of “will they or won't they (have sex)” is the question of “is he or isn’t he a suspect?” As I have said before, the strength of a detective series is often in the supporting characters, and their relationship to the main character/protagonist. Here those relationships are intriguingly complex, and involve issues that are not often discussed in the British police procedural genre: homophobia/racism/xenophobia/sexism in policing, lingering effects of traumatic events from childhood, and work/life balance. If the two existing sequels, Nighthawking (2021) and Cold Reckoning (2022), are even half as well-written as Firewatching I look forward to reading them and hopefully many more after that!

Title: Firewatching (DS Adam Tyler, #1).
Russ Thomas.
Format: Kindle.
Length: 365pages.
Publisher: G.P. Putnam's' Sons.
Date Published: February 25, 2020.
Date Read: December 19, 2022.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★ (5.0/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A/A- (3.83/4.0).


Friday, January 13, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: After Atlas (Planetfall, #2) by Emma Newman

I have not read any books by Emma Newman before and I usually make a habit of reading the books in a series in story order but After Atlas is the second book in Newman’s 4-part Planetfall series. However, there are multiple reasons why I decided to begin with After Atlas: it’s got the highest average rating of the four Planetfall books (4.18 on a 5.0 scale), the author says that the books can be read in any order, and, most importantly, it’s a rare mystery-science fiction genre hybrid.

After Atlas is about a homicide detective named Carlos Moreno who is asked to investigate the mysterious and gruesome death of Alejandro Casales, the leader of a religious cult known as The Circle based in Texas. Moreno left The Circle at the age of 16 and his father is still a member of the organization. Forty years before the events of After Atlas, Moreno’s mother famously abandoned her family soon after Carlos was born. She left Earth as part of the original Atlas mission in which 1,000 of the planet’s most accomplished scientists and engineers created and successfully launched a spaceship at the behest of another cult leader known as The Pathfinder who claimed that she had been told the galactic coordinates of where to find God.

In the intervening years since he left the Circle, Moreno has had no contact with Casales or his father, for multiple reasons, but also because The Circle has a strong anti-technological philosophy towards the near-ubiquitous brain-embedded chips that have facilitated the underpinnings of modern society. Primary among these is the use of APAs, or Automated Personal Assistants (basically like a souped-up version of Siri powered with artificial intelligence and direct access to monitor all your bodily functions). 

One of the most interesting aspects of After Atlas is its depiction of the world in which the police procedural story takes place. It's basically a corporate dystopia where capitalism has run amok. There are no more independent nations, there are “gov-corps”--basically mergers of corporations and governments. Casales death happened in a fancy hotel in London in what is now known as Norope (i.e., Northern Europe). Because Casales was an American citizen who died in Norope there was a diplomatic standoff which was broken when the parties agreed to let Moreno (with his known previous ties to the Circle and knowledge of Casales) conduct the investigation into the suspicious death. We get to see how Moreno, who it turns out is basically an indentured servant to the Ministry of Justice due to the way he was exploited as a teenager soon after he escaped the Circle, conducts the investigation with all sorts of cool technological tools at his disposal: 4-D virtual reality walkthroughs of the crime scene captured by insect-sized drones, use of APA-enhanced senses during interrogation of witnesses, and access to vast amounts of surveillance data due to the universality of embedded-chips among the general public.

Another interesting aspect of After Atlas is the broad spectrum diversity of the characters. One of the key villains is a billionaire who has a beautiful trophy husband, and a non-binary person (referred to as a “neuter” using ze/hir pronouns) plays an important role in the plot. Clearly the main character has a Latino name and the author goes out of her way to often describe the physical appearance of minor characters to let the reader know that they represent different races and ethnicities.

The story in  After Atlas is an excellent blend of murder mystery and science fiction which is all too rarely done well. By the end we do find out “who did it” but like all good mysteries, the other aspects of the story are equally, if not more, interesting. In this case, Moreno's success at following the threads of the investigation leads to the discovery of corruption and crimes on a global scale and has a profound impact on the character’s future. This leads to quite a dramatic ending of the novel that has an indelible impact on the world we had been introduced to during the course of the novel.

Title: After Atlas (Planetfall, #2)
Emma Newman.
Format: Kindle.
Length: 369 pages.
Publisher: Mullholland Books.
Date Published: November 8, 2016.
Date Read: January 9, 2023.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★★★½☆  (4.5/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A (4.0/4.0).


Thursday, December 15, 2022

BOOK REVIEW:The Island by Adrian McKinty

The Island is the latest blockbuster suspense thriller from Adrian McKinty, the author of the best-selling The Chain  and six well-regarded police procedurals with titles based off of Tom Waits lyrics set in Northern Ireland during “The Troubles” era featuring a Protestant cop named Sean Duffy. The Chain is well-known for its killer premise, addictive pacing and plot twists; The Island shares several of these attributes.
The premise of The Island is apparently sourced from an actual incident experienced by McKinty that didn’t go as wildly wrong as what happens in the book: a car accident on a private island a short ferry trip from a major city (Melbourne in this case) where a single family has controlled life (and death) for multiple generations. In McKinty’s real-life version the accident was avoided and no one was harmed, but in the version in The Island a young deaf woman rides her bike suddenly into an oncoming car carrying a vacationing American family of four (a 40-something doctor named Tom, his 20-something second wife Heather and two kids, Olivia, 14 and Owen, 12). The parents, make the fateful decision to leave the scene of the accident in the hope they can resolve whatever consequences occur from the comfort and safety of the mainland. This turns out to be a spectacular bad choice that results in multiple violent deaths.

The Island turns into a suspenseful story of survival as the wife and kids are separated from their husband and father and are literally hunted by the few dozen inhabitants of the island. In such an extreme situation, everyone involved is forced to identify their limits and go beyond them in different ways. Olivia and Owen are recovering from the death of their mom, Tom's first wife and are resentful of Heather, who is much closer to their age then she is to their parents. Heather is still getting used to the idea of being responsible for two teenaged kids at the age of 24 and getting to know her new husband who views the world substantially differently from his perch of privilege and experience. That these emotional undercurrents have to be navigated and resolved while they are trying to escape a life-and-death situation on Dutch Island are the primary narrative fuel of The Island.

McKinty does many things quite well in The IslandFirst, he successfully gets the reader to invest in the fate of the characters. He provides the reader with the internal thoughts of multiple characters and uses this mechanism to help the reader connect emotionally with them, especially Heather. Second, he writes action scenes incredibly compellingly, and there is a LOT of action (and violence) in The Island. Third, he is not afraid to have real consequences for the characters for the decisions they make. Because, there are serious (and life-changing) injuries inflicted on multiple characters, this raises the stakes for the reader in speculating about the possible fates for the character or characters we are invested in knowing what happens to in the end.
That’s not to say The Island is not without flaws. It is so obvious about its intent to be breathlessly suspenseful that at times the plot becomes wildly unrealistic and shamelessly manipulative. But once the reader gives into the breakneck pace of the plot and accepts that The Island is going to be a roller-coaster, the book is an enjoyable bit of fluff (and its quite a quick read at 384 pages).

Apparently The Island is being made into a streaming “television” series for Hulu, which I think will work well. I could see it turned into an addictive suspense drama like Fox’s 24 where every hour/episode ends with a cliffhanger.

Overall, I would recommend The Island to anyone who read and enjoyed The Chain (which according to sales figures, critical acclaim and social media buzz, is a LOT of people!).

Title: The Island
Adrian Mckinty.
Format: Hardcover.
Length: 384 pages.
Publisher: Little, Brown.
Date Published: May 17, 2022.
Date Read: November 18, 2022.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★½☆  (3.5/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A- (3.67/4.0).


Thursday, December 08, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: Upgrade by Blake Crouch

Upgrade by Blake Crouch is the latest book from the author of other technothrillers such as  Recursion and Dark Matter.  I think I have read enough Crouch novels by now to notice a common theme: the main character is usually a straight white guy with a family who finds himself in an extraordinary situation (typically involving a technological advance that seems like or actually is science fiction) that he has to resolve through ingenuity and taking decisive (sometimes violent) action. Below I will provide evidence for my view by summarizing the three Crouch novels I have read so far.
 In Recursion, the main character is Barry Sutton, a straight white NYPD detective who got divorced after his young daughter was killed in a hit-and-run accident ten years before. Barry learns that the recent increase in FMS (False Memory Syndrome) is a result of a technological advance that allows certain people to reset reality for everyone else; the false memories people are experiencing are really memories of the previous reality which has been erased that somehow are lingering on in their consciousness. Barry has to figure out what he can do to restore reality, and decide if he can and should select a reality where his daughter doesn’t die.
In Dark Matter, the main character is a straight white guy named Jason Dessen, a former quantum mechanics scientist and physics college professor who has a wife Daniela and a baby son Charlie. One day Jason regains consciousness while stumbling out of a metal cube. He realizes that he is in an alternate universe where 15 years ago the alternate version of Jason (which he calls Jason2) decided NOT to marry Daniela and instead pursued his quantum mechanics research and ended up creating a device (the metal cube) that allows people to jump between parallel universes. Jason2 has swapped places with Jason in order to explore what his life would have been like if he had pursued Daniela instead of research. Jason has to figure out how to get his life back from a more ruthless version of himself, Jason2.
In Upgrade, the main character is Logan Ramsay, a straight white guy married to a female history professor who teaches at American University in Washington, DC and has a tween daughter who regularly beats him in their daily chess game. Logan works for the GPA (Gene Protection Agency), a federal agency tasked with enforcing the Gene Protection Act, which outlawed all gene manipulation and research in the United States. The GPA also authorizes universal, invasive  surveillance of all U.S. citizens in order to enforce the ban on gene research and resulted in the incarceration of most biotech scientists. The legislation is a(n over)reaction to “The Great Starvation,” a cataclysmic event that was triggered by the release of genetically modified locusts in China by Logan's mother Miriam Ramsay in order to try to improve rice production a decade before the events in Upgrade. Miriam Ramsay was well known as a brilliant scientist and one of the richest people in the world before her experiment resulted in the starvation deaths of hundreds of millions of people around the world. Logan’s mother killed herself soon after the magnitude of her mistake became clear and Logan went to jail for multiple years for his minor role in the event (as an assistant). During a routine raid to find a rogue geneticist Logan is infected with some biochemical agent which after a few weeks he realizes has upgraded and altered his genome, giving him all sorts of enhanced abilities like increased concentration and mental acuity, thicker bones, and speed and agility. Of course the GPA outlaws all gene modification so when the extent of his abilities becomes clear Logan is kidnapped by his own co-workers and taken to a secret site where they can observe him and monitor his changing body. He gets busted out of the secret prison by someone who has very similar upgraded abilities to him; this turns out to be his sister Kara. 
This somewhat brief summary of the beginning of Upgrade may seem like it contains spoilers but really this is just the initial setup to the main plot of the book and leaves several questions for the reader. Such as, who designed this upgrade? What will it mean for the future of society if it is effective, especially a society where gene enhancement is so prohibited and everyone’s actions are monitored so closely? Could Logan's mom be involved somehow?
One of the main features of Crouch’s writing is that the action is literally fast and furious. He’s also pretty skillful at depicting his main character in a sympathetic manner so that the reader is caught up in the circumstances that affect him and wants to see how or if he can figure out a way to survive them. This is especially the case in Upgrade, which like all the other books by Crouch I’ve read really seems like a spec script for a Hollywood blockbuster or hit streaming TV show. There’s thought-provoking technology in a world similar but significantly altered from our own, with a sympathetic protagonist facing long odds to succeed. What’s not to like? One quibble I have is that these books are starting to seem a little too glib and formulaic. As I’ve pointed out above, Crouch’s last three books have noticeable similarities. However, they have also all been huge hits and big bestsellers. The guy is good at what he does! There's also something plastic/uncompelling about his main character's relationships with other people. In Upgrade, Logan has a complicated (and slightly bizarre) relationship with his sister Kara. It's like Crouch's characters have facsimiles of relationships, not the real thing. I think this is what causes me to not connect emotionally with his books. (But they are still a delight to read.)
Overall, I’d recommend Upgrade to anyone who has read and enjoyed Dark Matter and/or Recursion.

Title: Upgrade.
Blake Crouch.
Format: Hardcover.
Length: 352 pages.
Publisher: Ballantine Books.
Date Published: July 12, 2022.
Date Read: November 23, 2022.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★½☆  (3.5/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: B+ (3.3/4.0).


Wednesday, November 30, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: The Shattered Skies (The Cruel Stars, #2) by John Birmingham

The Shattered Skies by John Birmingham is the second book in the space opera science fiction trilogy called the Cruel Stars. Birmingham has summarized the Cruel Stars trilogy as “Space Nazis invade and try to ruin everything, everywhere, all over the galaxy.” I quite enjoyed reading the first book in the series The Cruel Stars earlier this year and as soon as I finished it I wanted to read the next one in the series and was quite happy to see that it was available. Sadly, the third book in the series is not scheduled to come out until next year. Middle books in trilogies have a reputation for disappointing the reader but in this case The Shattered Skies bucks the trend and continues the story begun in The Cruel Stars in a way that is as exciting, entertaining and engrossing as the first book.
In addition to the five main characters from The Cruel Stars, Lucinda Chase, Frazer McLennan, Sephina L’trel, Princess Alessia and Booker, The Shattered Skies introduces two new POV characters in Captain Anders Revell, an aide-de-camp of a high-ranking Sturm military leader who is investigating the surprising defeat that befell the Sturm in the first book, and Sub-commandant Domi Surprarto, a underling suddenly promoted to captain of the Javan Navy ship Makassar after the Sturm malware turns the top brass into mindless zombies.
The Shattered Skies has the same frenetic action, snarky humor, political intrigue and social commentary of  The Cruel Stars. Additionally, the author uses the addition of the new characters to provide a more nuanced view about the two warring sides in the Sturm-Volume war. In the first book, we are basically introduced to the Sturm as galaxy-invading ideological zealots who want to kill everyone who is not a “pure human” if they have had any technological or genetic modifications. And so our assumption is that the people opposing the Sturm are the good guys. However, by giving us Revell’s POV we see that he is quite passionate about his belief that he’s fighting for the “good” side and we see that the Sturm are providing aid and comfort to people (like Lucinda’s father) who have been abused and exploited in a debtors prison planet that they liberated. The fact that the "good guys" support a system where debtors prisons are a real thing begins to raise niggling doubts about the righteousness of their cause. Also, by getting Suprarto’s POV we see that some of the “Allies” on the good guys’ team (like the Javan Army and the Yulin-Irawaddy Collective) have problematic characteristics (they’re extremely hierarchical, rife with corruption and selfish and self-centered). This makes for a more interesting read because as the stakes of the military conflicts go up, the reader starts to more seriously question who they want to win this battle. Which vision for civilization do we really want to prevail? The Sturm's neo-Luddite view of unaltered "natural" humanity? Or the competing corporate capitalist view where single families can own entire planets and control the lives of every sentient being on their "property"? How should the choice be decided? That the Cruel Stars books even raises these questions puts it above most other books in the military sci-fi/space opera genre.
Overall, The Shattered Skies is an excellent space opera, with interesting characters, well-depicted action sequences, neat technology and an exciting plot. Hopefully, the story will all be resolved in the third and final book of the trilogy, expected in summer 2023 (currently I have seen two proposed titles on the internet, The Forever Dead and The Empty Heavens). Whatever it’s called, this book will be on my must-read list!

Title: The Shattered Skies (The Cruel Stars, #2).
John Birmingham.
Format: Kindle.
Length: 432 pages.
Publisher: Del Rey Books.
Date Published: January 11, 2022.
Date Read: October 24, 2022.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★★★½☆  (4.5/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A- (3.67/4.0).


Wednesday, November 23, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: The Cruel Star (The Cruel Stars, #1) by John Birmingham

The Cruel Stars by John Birmingham is the first book in a space opera science fiction trilogy with the same name. Birmingham has summarized the Cruel Stars trilogy as “Space Nazis invade and try to ruin everything, everywhere, all over the galaxy.” This is the first book by this author I have read; I did so because a machine learning algorithm recommended The Cruel Stars to me because I have either read, bought or borrowed related/similar books (like The Expanse books by James S.A. Corey and The Final Architecture trilogy by Adrian Tchaikovsky) that led the computer program to extrapolate that I would also enjoy this one. And you know what, the code was right, people, because I completely loved reading The Cruel Stars!
The structure of the book will be quite familiar to regular readers of fantasy and science fiction. The story is told via chapters from the perspective of different characters, similar to the structure of George R.R. Martin’s The Song of Ice and Fire and James S.A. Corey’s The Expanse. The five main characters of the The Cruel Stars are Lucinda Chase, a newly minted war hero who gets a field promotion to captain of her ship when the enemy’s sneak attack decapitates the senior leadership of the entire Armadalen military; Frazer McLennan, a foul-mouthed military genius from Scotland turned archaeologist who killed millions of Earth citizens in order to save billions by almost entirely wiping out an invading  army over 700 years ago and by miraculous advances in medicine is still alive (but decrepit); Sephina L’trel, a foul-mouthed lesbian space pirate who leads a small team of violent mercenaries burning to get revenge on the people who killed their loved ones; Princess Alessia Szu Suri sur Montanblanc ul Haq, the 12-year-old scion of an incredibly rich and powerful family who owns and rules the entire planet of Montrachet as well as a galaxy-spanning financial empire; and Corporal Booker3-212162-930-Infantry, a human being who has downloaded his mind into software as a member of a belief system called The Source. 
Each of these characters gets their own POV chapters as the story progresses, demonstrating their importance to the plot. However my favorite character in The Cruel Stars is not one of these previously mentioned POV characters, it’s Herodotus, who is an “Armada-level Intellect,” which means he is a sentient artificial intelligence with technological powers that are near god-like (such as the ability to teleport or “fold space” at will and near-infinite data processing capacity and speed) along with an incredibly snarky attitude. (Come for the god-like computer, stay for the snark!)
In The Cruel Stars we discover that the Sturm, also known as The Human Republic, the group that McLennan defeated hundreds of years ago (and has not been heard of since) has returned to continue their genocidal war against all humans who have modified their bodies with either technological or genetic enhancements. In the beginning of the book we discover that The Sturm has launched a devastating first strike in the form of a successful malware attack that turns any humans with technological implants who were accessing the galactic equivalent of the Internet at the time into brain-devouring zombies. 
The return of The Sturm has life-altering consequences for all of our main characters. Lucinda becomes the captain of her ship, the Defiant, because all the higher ranked officers are struck down by the Sturm malware. Alessia becomes the sole living representative of her family, as the few remaining relatives who were not affected by the initial attack were killed in a grisly execution broadcast galaxy wide. McLennan is captured by the Sturm while conducting an archaeological dig at a site the Human Republic considers sacred but is rescued by Herodotus after only some mild torture has occurred. Sephina has a lucrative heist interrupted and then watches the love of her life slaughtered by Sturm weapons hours after the initial attack. The only person who is positively impacted by the return of the Sturm is Booker, who is in prison sentenced to be permanently deleted at the vey moment the malware attack strikes his penal colony. The warden makes a deal to allow Booker to escape and promises to put in a good word with future authorities if Booker uses his military expertise to fight back and save lives on the prison habitat. Booker agrees to the deal, keeps his end of the bargain and escapes into space implanted in the operating system of a huge security robot.
Overall, The Cruel Stars is a fantastically entertaining space opera with lots of action, humor and violence. The characters are compelling and world-building intriguing. It’s reminiscent of the very best work of Peter F. Hamilton; fans of Hamilton should also read (and I am confident will enjoy!) The Cruel Stars.

Title: The Cruel Stars.
John Birmingham.
Format: Kindle.
Length: 416 pages.
Publisher: Del Rey.
Date Published: August 20, 2019.
Date Read: October 17, 2022.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★★★½☆  (4.5/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A- (3.67/4.0).


Sunday, November 13, 2022

CA Now Has Two Black LGBT State Supreme Court Justices!

Martin Jenkins

Kelli Evans

LGBT History was made this week with the retention election of California State Supreme Court justice Martin Jenkins on November 8 and the approval of Kelli Evans to join the state's highest court by the Committee on Judicial Appointments on November 10. Jenkins, 69, was nominated to the California Supreme Court in October 2020 by Governor Gavin Newsom. Evans, 54, was nominated to the court by Newson in August 2022. The California State Supreme Court now has seven members and is amazingly diverse:
  • Carol Corrigan, 74, white female
  • Kelli Evans, 54, African-American lesbian woman
  • Joshua Groban, 49, white mam
  • Patricia Guerrero, 50 Latina/Hispanic woman
  • Martin Jenkins, 69, African-American gay man
  • Leondra Kruger, 46, African-American woman
  • Goodwin Liu, 52, Chinese-American man
The court is majority women, majority people of color (one-third Black) and two-sevenths LGBT!
Guerrero is the brand-new Chief Justice of the State of California. Guerrero, Jenkins, Groban and Liu were all successfully retained in the November 8 election.


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