Thursday, November 28, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: Recursion by Blake Crouch

Blake Crouch is the author of multiple, best-selling, mind-bending thrillers; his atmospheric novels in the Wayward Pines trilogy were adapted into a television show for Fox. I enjoyed his previous book Dark Matter (2016) but have not read any of his other work.

The buzz for Recursion (2019) is even higher than for Dark Matter so I was greatly looking forward to reading it. Not much is given away in the blurb (“A breath-taking exploration of memory and what it means to be human.”) but it was clear to me even before I started that the story must have something to do with time travel.

Crouch has a very direct, visual and propulsive writing style. At times this book reads like a screenplay instead of a novel. The story develops very quickly and moves ahead even faster. The main characters are Barry Sutton, a NYPD detective, Helena Smith, a neuroscientist, and Marcus Slade, a billionaire investor. Slade invests in Smith’s nascent technological invention, a way to map, store and transfer memories.

The book switches into high gear when Slade hijacks the development of Smith's technology, turning it into a world-altering device. This is where Crouch fundamentally loses me. The thing Smith has invented allows a person not to recover their memories, instead it allows them to go back in time to the moment when that memory was created. (In order to do so they have to use Smith's memory-mapping technology and then die immersed in her device, which produces huge amounts of a brain chemical which spurs the person in the tank to alter reality itself to conform with their saved memory.) Crouch never uses the term “time travel” but that is really what Recursion is about at its core. It is uni-directional time travel, only back in time. Eventually, when the time traveler lives long enough to get back to the time when the timeline was split EVERY PERSON IN THE WORLD suddenly becomes aware of the events in the removed timeline (the timeline the time traveler was from) as “false memories.” They also have sudden nosebleeds and a sudden splitting headache. This is where Crouch completely lost me and I ceased to enjoy the book. It’s so obvious at this point that the impact on world events would be so extremely significant that what happens from that point in the story on just devolves into nonsense.

What kept me going was my investment in the characters of Helena and Barry. I was also somewhat curious how Crouch would write himself out of the pretzel plot he had created. For awhile it seemed like he actually would let it spiral out of control but in the end he resolved it satisfactorily.

In fact I wouldn’t be surprised that when Crouch was writing the book he “saw” the final scene in his mind’s eye first and the entire book was written to get there. It’s a great scene in the context of what went before but it was not enough payoff for me.

Title: Recursion.
Blake Crouch.
Paperback: 336 pages.
Date Published: June 11, 2019.
Date Read: November 26, 2019.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★½☆☆  (3.5/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: B (3.0/4.0).


Tuesday, November 19, 2019

2019 ATP YEC: Tsitsipas Wins Biggest Title Of His Young Career

Surprising many, Stefanos Tsitsipas finished his breakout 2019 season by coming from behind to win his first ATP Tour Finals title over Dominic Thiem 6-7(6) 6-2 7-6(4). The 21-year-old Greek player is the youngest player to win the  year-end tour championship since Lleyton Hewitt in 2001 and the seventh player to win it in his tournament debut (Grigor Dimitrov did that in 2017).

Tisitsipas finished the year with wins over every member of the top 10, including the big 3: Nadal, Djokovic and Federer.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

2019 ATP YEC: Tsitsipas-Thiem Final

For the fourth consecutive year, the ATP Finals will be won by someone new, i.e. someone who is not a previous champion of the event. This sequence started in 2016 when Andy Murray defeated Novak Djokovic to become World #1 for the first time, then in 2017 Grigor Dimitrov defeated David Goffin, last year Alexander Zverev beat Djokovic to win the biggest title of his career and tomorrow either 26-year-old Dominic Thiem or 21-year-old Stefanos Tsitsipas will win their biggest title. On paper one has to give the edge to Thiem, who has played in two major finals but only won one Masters series shield (defeating Roger Federer in the 2019 Indian Wells final). Plus Thiem leads the head-to-head with Tsitsipas 4-2.

Despite my predictions of a Federer-Thiem final, Tsitsipas was able to blast past Federer in a thrilling 6-4 6-3 win while Thiem dispatched defending champion Zverev 7-5 6-3.

MadProfesah's prediction: Thiem d. Tsitsipas.

Friday, November 15, 2019

2019 ATP YEC: Federer-Tsitsipas, Thiem-Zverev Are Semis As Djokovic and Nadal Are Eliminated

The semifinals at the Nitto ATP Finals are now set: Roger Federer will face Stefanos Tsitsipas while Dominic Thiem versus 2018 champion Alexander Zverev. Both the World #1 Rafael Nadal and World #2 Novak Djokovic were eliminated via different paths in the last two days.
In a blockbuster showdown between Federer and Djokovic (their 49th career meeting) for the semifinal slot, Federer shocked Djokovic by defeating his rival in straight sets 6-4 6-3 to bring their head to head of 23-26 in favor of Djokovic. Interestingly, the result of this match also decided the World #1 race for 2019. Nadal claimed his 5th yearly World #1 (2019, 2017, 2013, 2010, 2008), matching the other members of the trivalry: Djokovic (2018, 2015, 2014, 2012, 2011) and Federer (2009, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004). The significance of the Federer-Djokovic match was set up after Dominic Thiem beat Djokovic in one of the best matches of the year: 6-7(5) 6-3 7-6(5). Thiem's victory meant that Djokovic wouldn't gain undefeated ranking points in the ATP Finals, thus making his task to reach the #1 spot that much more difficult.

In fact this year's ATP Finals was one of the most thrilling in years. In addition to Thiem-Djokovic and Federer-Djokovic there was another notable match in Medvedev-Nadal. Medvedev was up in the third set 1-5 3-40 on Nadal's serve and the Russian twice served for the match at 5-2 and 5-4 but eventually he lost in a third set tiebreak. Other important wins were Zverev's first win over Nadal and Tsitsipas's first win over Medvedev. In the end, despite winning two matches in the round robin round (both 3 set victories, against Medvedev and Tsitsipas) Nadal was eliminated when Zverev defeated Medvedev in straight sets, claiming the final semifinal slot to join Thiem, Federer and Tsitsipas.

MadProfessah's prediction: Federer d. Tsitsipas and Thiem d. Zverev.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: Velocity Weapon (The Protectorate, #1) by Megan O'Keefe

Velocity Weapon is the first book in a new space opera trilogy called the Protectorate written by Megan E. O'Keefe. Since space opera is my all-time favorite I had placed this book on my TBR (to be read) list a while ago and recently moved it to the top and I'm very pleased that I did.

The story in Velocity Weapon is told in multiple timelines and in multiple locations simultaneously. The primary plot follows Sanda Greeve, who wakes up in a life preservation module apparently 200 years after her last memory which was of the beginning of a war between two human societies that have colonized the planets Ada Prime and Icarion. Sanda awakes naked and missing part of a leg on a sentient Icarion warship  called The Light of Berossus capable of accelerating up to 8% of the speed of light and interstellar travel. The second timeline takes place 2 years after the start of the Prime-Icarion war and features Biran Greeve, Sanda's younger brother, who is also Speaker of the Keepers of Ada Prime. Keepers are people who are selected to serve as the keepers of the secret of Ada Prime's greatest technological achievement: the construction of Casimir gates which allow instantaneous interstellar hyperspatial travel. The third timeline takes places some 3500+ years before the first two, depicting the dawn of the Prime area, in which Alexandra Halston, the billionaire CEO of a globe-spanning corporation called Prime who created the very first Casimir gate (after discovering a curious artifact possibly of alien origin) and is credited with humanity's colonization of interstellar space.

The main characters in the book are the artificial intelligence running the warship The Light of Berossus (who likes to be called Bero), Sanda, and Biran. There are multiple other important characters as well: Tomas Cepko, a spy who is hired by Biran (at the usurious price of 90% of all his future earnings!) to try and find Sanda and rescue her; Jules, a small-time criminal who comes across a mysterious cache of military-grade tech that puts everyone she knows in danger while simultaneously providing her with possibly super-human powers of recovery and reflexes and whose connections to the other main plots are mysterious and unclear; Sanda and Biran's two dads Graham and Ilan.

One of the very appealing aspects of Velocity Weapon to me is the author's clear and consistent approach to (re)presenting a diverse and inclusive cast of characters in this space opera. Sanda and Biran are two straight characters who have been raised by a gay male couple that they love very much. One of Jules' main contact is a non-binary character named Arden who is described by all the other characters using the pronouns they and them. The description of most of the characters makes it VERY clear that they are not white (there's an explicit back-story exposition that most of the people in both Ada Prime and Icarion can trace their heritage back to the country of Ecuador on Earth). If that wasn't enough, there are multiple examples of descriptions of the skin tones of characters which are compared to various shades of brown (e.g. coffee with milk, coffee without milk, etc) and most people's hair is dark and curly.

Overall, I was very impressed with Velocity Weapon. As the blurb says, it is an "epic of intergalactic politics, war and rogue A.I." This is right up my alley, and I am confident that readers who like the work of Peter F. Hamilton, Alastair Reynolds and James S.A. Corey will enjoy this first book in The Protectorate as much as I did. I am eagerly awaiting the following books in this series!

Title: Velocity Weapon.
Megan E. O'Keefe.
Paperback: 544 pages.
Date Published: June 11, 2019.
Date Read: November 4, 2019.

★★★★  (5.0/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A (4.0/4.0).


Wednesday, November 13, 2019

TENNIS TUESDAY: France Wins Fed Cup Merci A Kiki; Zverev, Thiem and Tsistipas Get Surprising Wins at #ATPFinals

Much to the surprise of many observers, France defeated Australia in the Davis Cup Final held in Perth, Australia last weekend. After the first two matches were 6-1 6-1 France (Kiki Mladenovic d. Ajla Tomljanovic) and 6-0 6-0 Australia (Ash Barty d. Caroline Garcia), most people expected the World #1 to lead her team to their first Fed Cup in 45 years. But after leading 6-2 against Mladenovic Barty's game went off and eventually she lost in a 3rd set tie-break. Amazingly, Tomljanovic was able to win her match to even the tie at 2-all but then Garcia and Mladenovic teamed up to win the decisive doubles tie against Barty and Samantha Stosur and victory for France.

The ATP Year-End Championship is happening now in London. Currently called the Nitto ATP Finals, it will be moving to Turin, Italy in 2020. Although it started off slowly, there have been some surprising results. Dominic Thiem has defeated Roger Federer for the third time this year. He followed up that win with a 3rd set tiebreak victory over Novak Djokovic which many people are calling the best 3-set men's match of the year. However, in the even more surprising results section is the fact that both Alexander Zverev and Stefans Tsitsipas defeated players whom they had 0-5 head-to-head records against in straight sets. Zverev defeated World #1 Rafael Nadal and Tsitsipas defeated Daniil Medvedev.

Thursday, November 07, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: Age of Legend (Legends of the First Empire, #4) by Michael J. Sullivan

I have been a huge fan boy of Michael Sullivan’s work ever since I discovered his Riyria books a few years ago. I’ve read both Riyria trilogies (I think the later one, with Theft of Swords, Rise of Empire and Heir of Novron is absolutely brilliant).

So I was very psyched when he announced he was writing a new 5–part series called “Legends of the First Empire” set thousands of years before the events of the Riyria Revelations and Riyria Chronicles. The great thing about Sullivan is that he completely writes out a series before he publishes the first book so there’s no angst wondering if the series one is hooked on will actually be completed.

The new series is very different from his Riyria books. Instead of revolving around two main characters (Hadrian and Royce) the new books have multiple primary characters: Persephone, Raithe, Brin, Arion, Suri, Mawyndule, Malcolm and Nyphron. The books tell the stories of how Fhrey (long-lived, magical elves) and Rhunes (short-lived, technologically unsophisticated humans) interacted with each other way in the past. This provides real-time perspectives on events which are viewed as legends or fairy tales in the later Riyria books.

In my opinion the second and third books (Age of Swords and Age of War, respectively) have been the best of the series so far, in my humble opinion. Sullivan has not shied away from ending the lives of some of the characters in the series we have gotten to know over the course of multiple books. This means that one never is really sure that any of your favorite characters are safe, which heightens suspense and builds dramatic tension.

In Age of Legend the war that began in the previous book between men and elves (and that one would have expected to be a massacre and rout in favor of the Fhrey ends up surprisingly to be something of a stalemate due to the Rhune's much greater numbers and ability to counter elven magic with human ingenuity and innovation.

We are now into Book 4 of a 6-book series so the end of the story is approaching. The primary animating plot point is trying to figure out “what and who” Malcolm is and realizing that his plan for humankind is probably their greatest hope, because he has demonstrated he can see the future and the past pretty clearly. The problem is that his plan is dangerous and involves treating things and people who are legends in old wives’ tales as real. And there’s that whole suicide and visiting the underworld thing.

Anyway, there’s a reason why the 5th book is called Age of Death (But it is still very curious why the 6th and last book is called Age of Empyre). Book 4 ends with a number of our most important characters facing mortality head on. Presumably this will all be resolved in the next book. Some people have complained that Book 4 basically ends on a cliffhanger, which is true, but even so I felt that there was enough story in Age of Legend to satisfy me and I'm looking forward to the last two books coming out in 2020!

Title: Age of Legend.
Michael J. Sullivan.
Paperback: 480 pages.
 Grim Oak Press.
Date Published: July 9, 2019.
Date Read: October 26, 2019.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★★★☆  (4.0/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A- (3.67/4.0).

Tuesday, November 05, 2019

2019 WTA YEC: Barty Defeats Svitolina To Win Biggest Paycheck in Tennis

Ash Barty this weekend won the biggest paycheck in women's tennis history when she won US$4.42 million for winning the Shiseido WTA Finals Shenzhen by defeating 2018 WTA Finals champion Elina Svitolina. Barty has had an amazing 2019 tennis season (which technically is over because she is playing in the 2019 Fed Cup final next weekend against France in Perth, Australia). In 2019, after never being ranked higher than #15 in the World or reaching a major semifinal, she won the 2019 Roland Garros title and ascended to World #1, eventually earning the end-of-year #1 ranking for 2019.

At the WTA Finals (which she qualified for the first time this year, becoming one of the very few players to win it in their debut) she was able to come from behind against World #2 Karolina Pliskova in the semifinals to win 4-6 6-2 6-3 (as I predicted). Svitolina  had a  lot more trouble with Belinda Bencic than I expected, with the Swiss player becoming the 4th(!) to withdraw from the tournament, following the heels of Naomi Osaka, Bianca Andreescu and  Kiki Bertens. Bencic won the first set 7-5 against Svitolina but then had an injury in the second set, lost that 6-3 and finally withdrew from the match and tournament trailing 1-4 in the third.

I suspect Barty's year will come to a perfect end when she powers Australia past France in the Fed Cup.

Friday, November 01, 2019

2019 WTA YEC: Barty versus Pliskova, Svitolina versus Bencic

The semifinals of the WTA Year-End Championships, now called the Shiseido WTA Finals Shenzhen, are set for Saturday. They feature World #1 Ash Barty versus current World #2 Karolina Pliskova and 2018 defending champion Elina Svitolina versus Belina Bencic. Svitolina is now 8-0 in the last two year-end championships; she has never lost in the tournament so far and she is the first player to reach the semifinal stage without dropping a set since Serena Williams achieved that feat in 2014. Svitolina has beaten Simona Halep, Karolina Pliskova and (2nd Alternate) Sofia Kenin all in straight sets to reach the knockout stage.

Barty leads Pliskova 3-2 and Bencic leads Svitolina 2-1 in the head-to-head matchups.

MadProfessah's predictions: Svitolina defeats Bencic (in 3) and Barty beats Pliskova (in 2).


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