Thursday, November 26, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Bone Silence (Revenger, #3) by Alastair Reynolds


Bone Silence is the third and final book in Alastair Reynolds' Revenger trilogy, a dark, steampunk-inspired, YA space opera series centered around two teenaged sisters. Adrana and Arafura Ness  have adventures together and separately that are dangerous and diverting, in a reimagined dystopian solar system where humanity exists on twenty thousand habitats formed from the materials of the Eight Original Planets.

The most compelling aspect of the books is, unsurprisingly, the Ness sisters. Somewhat surprisingly, however, they are not completely likable characters. In retrospect, this is a strength and a weakness of the books. They are often placed in complicated situations, interacting with people who often have complicated allegiances and motivations and thus they often have to make complicated decisions. In Bone Silence, the sisters are co-captains of Revenger, a technologically advanced ship which was previously owned by Bosa Sennen, the most notorious (and ruthless) pirate in the System. In fact, due to actions that occurred in Book 2's Shadow Captain (which I won't recap here because spoilers!), many people believe that either Arafura or Adrana (or both) are either in alliance with Bosa Sennen or have taken her place and are continuing her reign of terror (after all, the Ness sisters are using Bosa's ship).

Another important aspect of the Revenger books is the setting. I'm generally not a fan of steampunk or YA and these books haven't changed my mind. But I am a huge fan of Reynolds, though, so that's what made me start reading these books; the characters and plot made me continue and finish them. Reynolds is an experienced hard SF author who has previously created brilliant, captivating space opera tales like Revelation SpaceChasm City, The Prefect, Blue Remembered Earth and many more. Although initially skeptical, I did get caught up in the story and following the fortunes of Adrana and Arafura made me want to continue the series to its conclusion. The setting of the books is in a future where technology is both advanced (it takes place on space ships after all) and backwards (even though it is millions of years in the future there’s no technology they have which we currently don’t have). The primary source of locomotion of ships is the harnessing of solar radiation through the use of huge solar sails, and the language of space travel is described in such a way that it could be referring to nautical journeys of the 1800s. The units of distance are "leagues." (These are all steampunk elements that I generally regard as annoying affectations. Additionally, although there are aliens, they are referred to by infantilizing names such as "Clackers," "Crawlies" and "Hard Shells." The form of currency are "quoins" and the provenance of quoins is one of the key mysteries of the series. The backwardness of the technology is also reflected in the fact they refer to the air that is in the ships as "lungstuff" and there is almost no automation of any tasks. (Although there are robots who most humans treat unseriously as toys or amusements, there are no handheld devices, no sense of a universal cyberspace and no artificial intelligence.) Everything is done by hand, by "sailors" who have specialized skills. Humans don't create technology, they find and re-purpose alien (or "Ghostie") technology in the form of artifacts that they find in ancient, abandoned habitats called "baubles" that often have artificial gravity due to black holes (called "swallowers") at their center. Navigation is by using star maps and observations of the stars. Communication from ship to ship is done primarily by "squawk" (the equivalent of radio) and by "bone." Bones are ancient alien technology which uses "twinkly" to allow certain individuals to communicate telepathically with other individuals using bones, with relativistic effects ignored. It's somewhat amazing that as a (former) physicist, Reynolds has written a series where modern physics is almost entirely absent.

Overall, I liked the series as a whole more than I liked the last book, but I am glad I read it because I really wanted to know what happened to Arafura and Adrana in the end! Bone Silence seemed overly long, as numerous plot threads that had developed over the first two books Revenger and Shadow Captain needed resolving in the third. Generally, most of these were resolved in a way that was relatively satisfying. Additionally, many of the characters that we had come to know for at least one book and sometimes two, did not make it to the end of the third book. Hey, I said it was dark! 

While this is a YA book and there is absolutely no sexual situations in the book, there is lots if violence and cruelty and death. It is a dark, dystopian solar system the Ness sisters are in, and they have to adapt and reflect their surroundings in order to navigate through it. Bosa Sennen was the main villain in Book 1 and Book 2 but in Book 3, a new villain is introduced and the narrative tension and suspense created by the struggle for dominance between the new villain and the Ness sisters, and sometimes between the Ness sisters themselves, animates the last book just enough to sustain interest to the very end. If you haven’t read any Reynolds before I would recommend starting with his hard science fiction works like Revelation Space, Chasm City, The Prefect or the Poseidon's Children trilogy.

OVERALL: 3.5-4 STARS,

Title: Bone Silence (Revenger, #3)
Author: 
Alastair Reynolds.
Length: 432 pages.
Publisher:
 Orbit.
Date Published: February 4, 2020.
Date Read: November 1, 2020.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★½☆  (3.5/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A-/B+ (3.5/4.0).


PLOT: A-.
IMAGERY: A-.
IMPACT: B+.
WRITING: B+.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Interference (Semiosis, #2) by Sue Burke


Interference is the sequel to Semiosis, and the two books form a duology that recounts the story of the colonization of a planet called Pax, located some 55 light years from Earth. Pax is a fertile, beautiful, Earth-like planet inhabited by numerous forms of life, indigenous and alien.

Semiosis told the story of how a small group of refugees from an Earth ravaged by ecological disaster and intentional genocide enters into a symbiotic relationship with (at least) two sentient alien species on Pax. Interference continues the tale, told brilliantly in the form of self-contained chapters of lengths varying from short story to novella, of the development of the humans on Pax, now ten to eleven generations beyond first contact. One key difference between the books is that in Interference, Earth plays a much larger role, because a new delegation of humans arrives to Pax, to follow up on and study the society the original colony has become. Just like the first group of human colonists, some of the new arrivals are motivated by desire to flee Earth in addition to curiosity about Pax.

Another key difference between Interference and Semiosis is that while the first book was centered around the characters of the protagonists of the chapters, the second is more plot-driven, with the narrative thrust being sourced in a series of questions that are eventually answered. These include: “How will the arrival of humans with advanced technology impact (and interfere with) the delicate power balance between the humans and the Glassmakers? How will Stevland, the sentient plant which dominates most living things on Pax, react to ( and survive) the arrival of a second set of humans from off-world? Will the new humans really return to their ravaged Earth, one that will be 200-years older than when they left? And what and who will from PAC will they take either back to Earth?

All these questions are answered by the end of the book, satisfyingly so, in my opinion. The main reason why Interference is as at least as good as Semiosis are the thought-provoking depictions of mutuality and “civilization.” Stevland really believes that he(?) is in a mutually beneficial relationship with the humans and Glassmakers (and other life on Pax) but it is also clear that he is the most intelligent (and most powerful) entity on the planet. The humans think they’re in a mutually beneficial relationship with the Glassmakers, but the new humans observe that when they want to, the Glassmakers can assume control over human society, despite being outnumbered 4:1. The new humans think their technological advantages and scientific knowledge means they are superior to all Pacifists (residents of Pax) but events demonstrate the frailty of that belief. Interference posits the hypothesis that mutuality and "civilization" (or domestication) may simply be a function of perspective.

Overall, if you liked Semiosis you will almost certainly enjoy Interference. The prominence of ecology and biochemistry in the first book is replaced by psychology and sociology, but both are engaging, exciting and excellent!

Title: Interference.
Author: 
Sue Burke .
Length: 304 pages.
Publisher:
 Tor Books.
Date Published: October 22, 2019.
Date Read: October 25, 2020.

GOODREADS RATING: 
★★  (5.0/5.0).

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

PLOT: A-.
IMAGERY: A-.
IMPACT: A.
WRITING: A.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Semiosis by Sue Burke

Semiosis is the first book in a duology by Sue Burke about a small group of around 50 human colonists trying to survive on a planet they call Pax which is populated with exotic fauna and flora, in particular a sentient plant.

The story is told in a series of chapters, each of which serve as independent short stories or novelettes. They are often set a significant distances in the future, centered around subsequent generations, so characters from one chapter can be aged in another. Slowly, the outline of the overall act of the story becomes clearer to the reader. During this time, we start to get the perspective of the most dominant intelligence on the planet, which is Stevland, the sentient rainbow bamboo plant.

The book is strikingly original, with prominent sociological, ecological, biological and psychological themes. The colonist left earth to attempt to recreate a new, utopian Pacifist society, but it becomes very clear early on that the rigors of survival threaten to upend or warp their intended principles. Humans are humans, and the full range of human foibles, failures and fortitudes are displayed. The author does an outstanding job of moving the story forward rapidly and deftly by focusing on character development, which is surprisingly effective since almost in every case, we are basically introduced to a new set of characters and situations, but in almost every case these are compelling and engaging. (And if the reader isn’t that interested in the current batch, they know that this chapter will be over relatively soon, so there’ll be a reset into a new part of the story shortly.) The book combines the strengths of a short story collection with those of an entire novel.

That Semiosis is able to do this while simultaneously being funny, suspenseful, romantic, exciting and thoughtful is truly impressive. There’s a shocking amount of chemistry, especially biochemistry in the book, but even if you can’t distinguish between an acetone and an acid, you can still enjoy different aspects of the book. It works on very many different levels. Overall, I’d say it’s about a 4.0-4.5-rated read, but I’m rounding up to reward it for its creativity and effectiveness of implementation. I’m going to start the sequel right away!

Title: Semiosis.
Author: 
Sue Burke .
Length: 336 pages.
Publisher:
 Tor Books.
Date Published: February 6, 2018.
Date Read: October 20, 2020.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★  (5.0/5.0).

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

PLOT: A-.
IMAGERY: A-.
IMPACT: A.
WRITING: A.

Thursday, November 05, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Trophy Hunt (Joe Pickett, #4) by C.J. Box


Trophy Hunt
 is the fourth book in the long-running, best-selling mystery series written by C.J. Box starring Joe Pickett, Wyoming Fish & Game warden and his family. These books are both similar and different from the typical books I  read in the murder-mystery, police-procedural, suspense-thriller genres. Yes, there’s usually a dead body to start the action (although in this one the first body is not human, it’s a dead moose that has been bizarrely mutilated) and the reader definitely gets a first-hand view of what Joe does to try and solve the crimes he comes across. But Joe is not a police officer, so the camaraderie with a team of detectives is missing, and the familiar details of police procedure such as forensics, canvassing the neighborhood, and trawling for leads by phone and Internet is not nearly a large feature of the Pickett books.

Instead, in Trophy Hunt (like in the earlier books) we have Joe on his own, trying to solve crimes, but this time as part of an inter-agency task force he’s been grudgingly added to (there have been multiple animal mutilations in addition to dead bodies found), while he’s being looked down upon for not being “real” law enforcement. However, instead of detective colleagues as secondary characters, Joe has his family (wife Marybeth, pre-teen daughters Sheridan and Lucy and trusted canine companion Maxine), friends (Nate Romanowski, a former Special Forces vet who now spends most of his time communing with nature, especially his falcons) and neighbors/associates who live and work in Twelve Sleep County (his nemesis, Sheriff Nate Burman; assorted other law enforcement contacts; and various colorful characters who populate the town). I have said before that a genre book centered on a main character basically succeeds on the quality and characterization of the secondary characters and in this respect the Pickett series shines. The landscape of Wyoming is an unusual but evocative setting for the mystery series and Box uses it often for maximum effect.

In Trophy Hunt, the mystery revolves around money, real estate and family. Amazingly, the area around Twelve Sleep is beginning to boom due to the presence of rich pockets of natural gas. This is resulting in a real estate boom and potential huge profits. Of course where there’s money to be made there’s criminals ready to do whatever it takes to get it. It takes awhile for Joe to figure out what’s going on. (This is a repeated theme of the series. Joe is a cloistered, solitary figure without much worldly exposure. But his lack of knowledge about something or inexperience doesn’t stop him from trying to find out the truth if he thinks something bad or criminal is going on, and that’s fun to watch.) Mary Beth actually plays a significant role here, because she has started working as an accountant for a real estate firm. She is really the brains of the couple and they both are growing more concerned about their finances as the girls grow older and Joe’s meager state salary becomes increasingly insufficient.

Overall, Trophy Hunt is another engaging and exciting entry into the Joe Pickett series. After four books, there’s a familiar rhythm to these books (which is another appealing element of most genre series) and that’s not a bad thing. If you liked any of the first three books you’ll like this one. Another (slightly unusual) feature of the Pickett books is that they are not strongly sequential, so one could read them out of order if you wanted to. This is an impressive authorial feat by Box. I am definitely going to read them in sequential order, because one can follow the characters change and grow, which provides an extra element of enjoyment to these already quite enjoyable books.!

Title: Trophy Hunt.
Author: 
C.J. Box.
Length: 348 pages.
Publisher:
 G. Putnam's Sons.
Date Published: 2004.
Date Read: October 15, 2020.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★ (5.0/5.0).

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

PLOT: A.
IMAGERY: A-.
IMPACT: A-.
WRITING: A.

Thursday, October 29, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Case Histories (Jackson Brodie, #1) by Kate Atkinson



I had heard about Kate Atkinson and her Jackson Brodie novels for a long time before finally picking up the first in the series, Case Histories. I’ve been a Tana French fan since her very first book, and I can see why/how people often compare these two writers.

First, while it’s clear the two are writing in the crime/mystery genre, they are simultaneously subverting and reifying it. French has famously done this in her entire career. She refused to center her series f crime/mystery novels around a central character, instead using assorted characters from the Dublin Murder Squad as her protagonists, and that's just the most obvious way her mystery novels are not like others. Atkinson also does this in Case Histories in a way that even though you know you’re reading a mystery novel (it starts off with 3 vignettes depicting horrible crimes) the language is so pellucid while the pacing is so languid you’re constantly questioning—wait, what’s the mystery to be solved here?

Atkinson is so skilled a writer she is able to deploy humor effectively in what is, at its heart, a police procedural featuring her private investigator Jackson Brodie. This is something I think only Stuart MacBride has been able to do consistently well in his Aberdonian crime novels featuring Logan McRae that can sometimes veer into farce or outright hilarity. Atkinson's humor is much more sly and subtle but just as enjoyable (and welcome).

The centrality of Atkinson's work in Case Histories  is character and the human experience. Jackson Brodie is such an interesting main character! But Atkinson gives us insightful looks into the internal worlds of many, many characters in the book, some who are criminals and some who are victims. And often it’s not clear who is suffering more. The overall theme seems to be, "life is suffering" and here’s another slice of life.

I’ll definitely be looking forward to seeing what happens next with Brodie (and his precocious daughter Marlee!!) and I’m slightly curious about what Atkinson’s non-genre books are like, since they all seem to be popular.

Title: Case Histories (Jackson Brodie, #1).
Author: 
Kate Atkinson.
Paperback: 434 pages.
Publisher:
 Little, Brown.
Date Published: October 15 2007.
Date Read: October 3, 2020.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★ (5.0/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A (4.0/4.0).

PLOT: A.
IMAGERY: A.
IMPACT: A.
WRITING: A.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Looking Good Dead (DSI Roy Grace, #2) by Peter James

Looking Good Dead is the second book in author Peter James’ series of best-selling, long-running, British police procedural, suspense thrillers featuring Detective Superintendent Roy Grace, set in the environs of Brighton and Hove. I was quite impressed with the premise and the execution of the first book, Dead Simpleand have been looking forward to continuing the series.

The second book is clearly set in a time period after the first but I think one could enjoy them both reading them in either order. DSI Grace (or “Roy” as he prefers) is an intriguing character and a good leader of an interesting team of fellow officers. One of the things I constantly repeat in my reviews of books in the mystery/thriller/police procedural genre is a significant fraction of my enjoyment of these books is in the interactions between the main character/protagonist and the supporting characters. His best friend and colleague is Detective Sergeant Glenn Branson, a younger, hip, muscular Black guy and there are multiple women with personalities not rooted in their physical appearances in the book as well. These are significant strengths in my opinion.

Grace’s personal circumstances are somewhat tragic; his wife Sandy disappeared more than nine years ago on his 30th birthday and he really hasn’t moved on (he still has her slippers and personal items in his/their bedroom!). The Sandy situation doesn’t get resolved in this book (from inadvertent Google searches it seems like she does show up in a future book but it’s not good news). However, Roy does have positive developments in his romantic life which portends this will be a smaller element in the future.

The strongest aspect of both books by James that I have read so far are the premise/set up of the story and the pacing of the plot. In Looking Good Dead the premise is that a “regular bloke” named Tom Bryce has his life ruined by picking up a CD some idiot leaves on his commuter train and when Toom puts it into his computer he witnesses a live snuff film (a woman being murdered on camera for the sick pleasure of voyeurs). It takes awhile for Grace’s team to connect the headless dead body they have found in a local field with the murder Tom Bryce inadvertently saw on his computer. By the time they do we have learned more about the producers of the snuff film as well as the existence of other victims and Tom's life is starting to unravel as the criminals have discovered Tom's unauthorized access to their website.

The primary narrative tension in Looking Good Dead is whether Roy and the police will find the perpetrators before the evildoers punish Tim and his family for exposing their activities. Roy has a problematic penchant for the supernatural but here it plays an almost minimal role in the story, although one of the mediums he interacts with gives Roy some information which could be considered useful.

Overall, I’d say Looking Good Dead is a top-notch suspense thriller and satisfying British police procedural. For people who have appreciated following the cerebral crime-solving of Peter Robinson’s DCI Alan Banks or the psychological thrills of Val McDermid’s Carol Jordan/Tony Hill, Peter James’s Roy Grace is a name you should add to your “to-be-read” list!


Title: Looking Good Dead
Author: 
Peter James.
Length: 406 pages.
Publisher:
 MacMillan.
Date Published: 2006.
Date Read: September 21, 2020.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★ (5.0/5.0).

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

PLOT: A.
IMAGERY: A-.
IMPACT: A-.
WRITING: A.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: A Room Full of Bones (Ruth Galloway, #4) by Elly Griffiths

 A Room Full of Bones is the fourth book in author Elly Griffiths' murder-mystery series starring Dr. Ruth Galloway, head of Forensic Archaeology at the University of Northern Norfolk and DCI Harry Nelson, head of the major crimes squad of the Norfolk Police Department.

This book is a bit unusual in the murder-mystery genre because the putative main character, Ruth Galloway, is almost a supporting character in A Room Full of Bones. The primary mysteries in the plot involve the death of a young museum director whose body Ruth discovers collapsed near a recently-unearthed coffin containing the skeleton of a centuries-old Bishop as well as the suspicious death of the young man’s boss (and the owner of the museum and a prominent racing horse stable) a few days later.

Ruth’s relationships and domestic circumstances have been key to the plot of the first three books in the series (
The Crossing PlacesThe Janus Stone ,The House at Sea's End), often being detailed in parallel to the mysteries as she investigates the discovery of old bones and/or new corpses. However, in A Room Full of Bones Ruth has almost no role in the solution of either of the central mysteries and neither does Nelson.

Instead, it’s the supporting characters from the earlier books, namely DS Judy Johnson and Cathbad, who lead the reader to the solution of the mysteries, while Nelson is out of commission for a significant fraction of the book and Ruth’s primary responsibility is being a caring mother to her now 1-year old daughter Kate.

It’s a curious, confident choice by the author, and (surprisingly) it works really well. To me this book is no less interesting and compelling than the prior books, and Ruth is still the protagonist. What is becoming clearer is that these books are not just about the mysteries but are really serials about the cast of characters who are involved in investigating them. Another curious choice by Griffiths is the explicit inclusion of supernatural elements into the story, through a “curse” deployed by an Indigenous Australian character and Cathbad’s drug-induced foray into “dream walking.” I am typically quite negatively disposed towards the inclusion of supernatural elements in the murder-mystery, police procedural books I read. (If “magic” is real then how can the reader have any chance of solving the mystery if characters can defy the laws of reality whenever they want?) But Griffiths makes it clear that there’s a plausible non-supernatural explanation for the supernatural interlude in such a straightforward way that I was actually fine with how things played out in the book. (I am quite surprised by this myself!)

Overall, A Room Full of Bones is an enjoyable, light mystery novel where the interactions and relationships (both new and old) between the characters is the main attraction. This entry has made me very intrigued to learn how the series develops in the future, especially since at this point there are at least 8 more books that I haven’t read yet. So, in that very basic sense (convincing the reader they want to find out what happens next), A Room Full of Bones is a success.


Title: A Room Full of Bones.
Author: 
Elly Griffiths.
Paperback: 352 pages.
Publisher:
 Quercus.
Date Published: December 21, 2011.
Date Read: September 10, 2020.


GOODREADS RATING: 
★★½☆  (3.5/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A- (3.67/4.0).

PLOT: A-.
IMAGERY: A-.
IMPACT: A-.
WRITING: A-.

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