Thursday, July 30, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: In The Cold Dark Ground (DS Logan McRae, #10) by Stuart MacBride

In the Cold Dark Ground is the tenth in the long-running, police procedural, crime thriller series written by Stuart MacBride starring Detective Sergeant Logan McRae and set in Scotland. What sets this series apart (and frankly makes it one of my favorite reads in the genre) is the sly humor and wry social commentary MacBride brings to the familiar British mystery story. Additionally, the supporting cast in the series is quite strong, even as it has changed (but not matured!) over the years it has taken me to read the first ten books. Detective Chief Inspector Roberta Steel is a singular invention: an openly lesbian, probably alcoholic, always inappropriate, slovenly terror of a boss. One of the long-running gags is that Steel as been promoted multiple times while Logan is still a lowly DS despite having captured 2 or 3 serial killers and solved countless other major crimes, in spite of DCI Steel's presence and "leadership."

Bizarrely, Logan doesn't feel "hard done by" his lot in life despite having been booted from his original stomping grounds of Aberdeen to a rural suburb of the city in Aberdeenshire, having a girlfriend who has been in a persistent vegetative state for nearly 5 years and still being a DS despite multiple decades in uniform. (Actually, he was promoted to Detective Inspector a few books ago and he really didn't seem to like or appreciate the increased level of responsibility and administrative red tape that accompanied the title change, so that was one reason he decamped to the rural outskirts from the big city.)

One of my complaints about the series has been how much **** Logan has been put through over the years. This is also a running theme of the series. The first book begins with Logan returning to duty several months after he nearly died from of stab wounds to the stomach (technically he did die briefly while on the operating table but surgeons were able to save him) and this near-death experience is why Steel calls him "Laz" (short for Lazarus). But since then Logan has been stabbed repeatedly, fallen multiple times from great heights, nearly drowned, been almost incinerated, unwittingly feasted on human flesh, been beaten up countless times by criminals and seriously injured himself pursuing fleeing criminals on foot and by car. MacBride treats Logan like an indestructible cartoon character.

None of that litany of violence prepared me for what happens to Logan In the Cold Dark Ground where it seems like the author is just being masochistic towards his main character. The difference this time is that in addition to the extreme physical violence of not one but three attempts in his life, a lot of the violence is emotional and mental (which definitely does not make it less traumatic). In fact, the way the book ends it made me wonder if MacBride had contemplated ending the series and focusing on his other series starring DC Ash Henderson. (I hope not! I haven't read the two entries in that series yet and find it hard to believe they will be as good as the Logan series.)

The primary mystery/crime to be solved in In the Cold Dark Ground is just one of the many plot threads in the book. Logan makes an astonishing discovery about his family life (which also impacts his professional life) and he is faced with not one, but two agonizing dilemmas which force him to choose between his current ethics as a policeman and his prior questionable choices/compromises. I'd say he makes the right choice in both cases this time but the ramifications will reverberate for a longer time than the depicted in this book.

There's a lot of resolution for Logan in In the Cold Dark Ground. Most of his primary relationships that have been huge features of prior books (with his girlfriend Samantha, with Aberdeen's crime kingpin Wee Hamish Moffat and even with DCI Steel) go through massive "phase transitions" which will mean the subsequent books in the series (so far there are only two more, The Blood Road (2018) and All That's Dead (2019)) will need to deal with the repercussions. And I can't wait to read them!

Title: In The Cold Dark Ground.
Stuart MacBride.
Paperback: 400 pages.
Date Published: January 16, 2016.
Date Read: July 11, 2020.

★★  (5.0/5.0).

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


Thursday, July 23, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Shadow Captain (Revenger, #2) by Alastair Reynolds

Shadow Captain is the second book in British SF author Alastair Reynolds’ YA space opera Revenger trilogy. The series follows two teenaged sisters, Arafura and Adrana Ness, as they have adventures after running away from home to escape the smothering rules of their widowed, tradition-minded father. The Revenger trilogy is set in a solar system where space piracy is rampant and humanity is scattered across twenty thousands artificial habitats which have been created (thousands of years ago by unknown entities) by repurposing the mass the original eight planets.

The Ness Sisters were separated early in Revenger, due to events I don’t wish to recount here to avoid spoiling them. The first book was centered around the story of the younger sister, Fura Ness, as she made incredible efforts and indelible sacrifices to eventually reunite with her sister. In the second book, Shadow Captain, Adrana is the primary first-person character but since the sisters spend most of their time together, Fura has a major role in the story.

The two Ness sisters are co-captains of a very small crew on a space ship they have named “Revenger.” Due to some unfortunate circumstances, they are forced to take the crew to a small artificial habitat in order to seek treatment for an injured crew mate and re-stock the ship with diminishing supplies.

On the habitat, Fura and Adrana meet a dangerous and powerful man who may or may not have ulterior motives for helping them. They also are forced by their burgeoning reputations (as a result of things that occurred in the first book) to take drastic actions which have significant consequences for their futures, and the future well-being of humans all over the solar system (which is called the Confederation).

The series is a curious mix of space opera (the story contains aliens, ship-to-ship battles, mysterious communication technology and an overarching mythology about how the solar system cane to be the way it is) and steampunk (the space ships use solar sails as the primary form of propulsion, most weapons are projectiles or curious “energy rays” and the language used by most characters is somewhat archaic and reminiscent of 19th century pirate novels).

The primary strength of the book is the Ness sisters, and especially their relationship. Although they love each other, they are often keeping secrets from each other and this can lead to tension and conflict. The world(s) in which the story is set has many unusual and intriguing features that pique my interest. (The main form of currency is something called a quoin which is managed by aliens but has been rumored to have secrets which have yet to be revealed through two books.)

Overall, the plot of Shadow Captain is slightly less engaging than Revenger (I think Arafura is the more compelling character of the two sisters but this book is told mainly from Adrana's perspective). However, the more we are exposed to the overarching aspects of the story, the more interested I become. I look forward to seeing how Reynolds ties all the threads together in the third book, Bone Silence.

Title: Shadow Captain .
Alastair Reynolds.
Paperback: 432 pages.
Date Published: January 15, 2019.
Date Read: July 2, 2020.

☆  (4.0/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A-/B+ (3.50/4.0).


Thursday, July 16, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Eeny Meeny (DI Helen Grace, #1) by M.J. Arlidge

Well I devoured this award-winning, best-selling thriller quite quickly! It’s a British police procedural with a female protagonist with multiple relatively well-drawn (if not very likeable) supporting characters. DI Helen Grace is the main character who is trying to solve a series of bizarre murders where the killer abducts two people and then places them in an impossible situation with a loaded gun where either they have to kill the other abductee or they both will die of dehydration or starvation. Early on it becomes clear there’s a female serial killer on the loose. Even if one of the victims “survives” their lives are forever ruined since they have revealed themselves to be capable of killing (albeit in a kill or be killed situation).

It must be acknowledged that Eeny Meeny  has an amazingly brilliant premise so I can see why the book was a hit. However DI Grace is a huge mess. She’s a single woman, completely obsessed with her job. The structure of the book is that the story is told in very small, bite-sized chapters, rarely lasting longer than a handful of pages. We slowly find out more about Helen's demons, even as chapters about Helen are interleaved with what appears to be  flashbacks of some horrific child abuse and some current masochistic behavior, both of which we (as the reader) hope is not describing Helen.

Although I gave Eeny Meeny 4 stars I’m not a huge fan of the book. The serial killer has almost magical powers as she stalks her victims, finding abandoned inescapable locales she can hold the abductees (and this last bit was the most problematically unrealistic part) impeccable timing so that within minutes after one of the victims cracks and kills the other, she’s able to let the “winner” go.

Another feature of the book which is both attractive and repulsive is the writing style. The author MJ Arlidge was a successful TV writer and it shows. Each chapter is basically a vignette, usually no longer than 3-4 pages, often ending with a suspenseful cliffhanger. This makes Eeny Meeny very exciting to read and hard to put down, but in my opinion it also “cheapens” the reading experience. It feels like the book is a series of very tantalizing but nutrition-free addictive snacks. By the end, you realize you ate the entire bag of chips in a surprisingly short period of time and while you enjoyed doing it until the very end, the realization of the effects the hollow calories you just consumed will have on your figure is distressing.

That being said, Helen is a very interesting (if severely flawed) main character, the team of detectives around her is also interesting and the premise and plotting  in this first entry were top notch. I’ll almost certainly read a few more Helen Grace thrillers, but I don't think I'l respect myself in the morning afterwards! 

Title: Eeny Meeny.
M.J. Arlidge.

Paperback: 400 pages.
 Minotaur Books.

Date Published: May 20, 2014.
Date Read: May 17, 2020.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★★★ (5.0/5.0).

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


Thursday, July 09, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: The Light Brigade by Kameron Hurley

This is the first book written by Kameron Hurley that I have read, which I did because it is nominated for the 2020 Best Novel Hugo Award and 2020 Best Novel Locus Award. I have noticed that most people have a bimodal reaction to her work, i.e. either they love it or hate it. However, that doesn't include me because although I didn't love The Light Brigade I didn't hate it either. To me it is flawed, in that it has one central idea, which it repeats over and over (and over) again. (I myself won't repeat the idea because it would be something of a spoiler.) This repetition becomes a bit tedious for the reader. The Light Brigade is also clearly a military science fiction novel, which is most definitely not my favorite sub-genre of SF.

The book definitely has multiple strengths. I really appreciated the way the gender of the main character is not revealed explicitly until VERY late in the book (I am pleased that I picked the correct one). By constantly referring to the main character as Dietz in a way where the character's gender is unclear, and also providing the inner monologue of Dietz also without referring to their own gender (and having them be attracted to, and couple with, both men and women) is an interesting commentary on gender (and sexuality), especially in the context of a militaristic novel. There are multiple references and descriptions of Dietz's hair but this is not enough to answer the question if they are male, female or non-binary.

Another strength of the book is its commentary on capitalism and citizenship. The central feature of life in the world of The Light Brigade are the corporations (or corps) and citizenship. People are either citizens, residents or "ghouls" (basically stateless non-persons). Dietz is a resident (due to the sacrifices of her parents--she grew up as neither a resident or citizen) and has volunteered for service in order to become a citizen after 10 years of service (although very, very few people survive the war that long!

The war that Dietz is fighting is against Martians--but those "Martians" are humans who have colonized Mars and terraformed it, establishing their own society without the influence of the rapacious corps. The media is completely controlled by the corporations and they do their best to turn Earth's popular opinion against Mars. They claim that recent atrocities (like a portion of the Moon being obliterated in a mysterious explosion and the fact two million squatters near Sao Paulo, including Dietz's own family members, disappeared in a Blink of light several years ago) are the work of Martians. There's no way of visually distinguishing Martians and Earthers but Hurley demonstrates to us through Dietz's thoughts the many ways that war relies on the dehumanization of the Other.

The Light Brigade goes into extensive detail about basic training and describes the process by which Dietz is transformed from a new recruit turns into a fresh-faced soldier and then a jaded survivor. This is nothing one has not read dozens of times before, in the work of Haldeman, Kloos, Clarke, etc although I will note that Hurley does a decent job here, it's not distinguished.

Overall, I am glad that I read this book so I have a first-person impression of Hurley's work. It's important to know what works for one's taste and what does not. I would definitely not vote for it to win the Hugo (my choice would be Arkady Martine's A Memory Called Empire) but I don't begrudge it's position among the nominees.

Title: The Light Brigade.
Kameron Hurley.
Paperback: 369 pages.
 Saga Press.
Date Published: March 19, 2019.
Date Read: June 21, 2020.

★★☆☆  (3.0/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: B+/B (3.25/4.0).


Thursday, July 02, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Revenger (Revenger, #1) by Alastair Reynolds

Revenger is the first entry  in a trilogy by Alastair Reynolds, who is most well-known for his immersive brand of hard SF space opera books like Revelation Space, Chasm City, The Prefect and Blue Remembered Earth among many others. I had been reluctant to read Revenger even though Reynolds is one of my favorite authors (I own at least a half-dozen of his books in hardcopy and generally list either Chasm City or The Prefect (later renamed Aurora Rising) as in the top 10 of my favorite SF books of all time. My reluctance was based in the fact that Revenger has been characterized by some as Young Adult fiction. I’m not opposed to YA (I’ve read all the Harry Potter books and even the Hunger Games books) but the unexpected genre switch lowered Revenger on my TBR (to-be-read) pile.

However, with all that said it is not clear to me that this book is YA. It is true that the two main characters are two teenaged sisters, Adrana and Arafura Ness, but the topics covered in the book are dark, and I would argue not for very young adults. But it’s true that there’s no sexual themes, but that’s often been the case previously in Reynolds' work. Revenger contains kidnapping, violence, torture, profanity and betrayal.

The story begins with the Ness sisters running away from home to try and make money for their single parent father (their mother died many years previously). Adrana is over age and Arafura is just under but they manage to talk their way on to a space ship leaving their home planet of Manzarile because they have the rare mental aptitude to “read the bones” (use ancient technology called “skulls” to communicate across the vastness of space). In this universe typically late teens are able to be "bone readers" although the ability generally goes away as they age into their twenties.

Another interesting aspect of the universe Revenger is set in is that humanity is basically distributed across a vast collection of several thousand planets and artificial satellites or habitats called the Confederation. These habitats have been created and occupied for thousands upon thousands of years by multiple waves of intelligences, called Occupations, some of which have been done by aliens or at least by people (or creatures?) who had more advanced technology than is available to be created nowadays. The primary source of commerce in the Confederation is space ships harvesting and selling materials from these  “baubles” (the ancient abandoned habitats). Bizarrely, the primary currency humans use is something called quoins, which are exclusively managed by an alien race (called Hardshells or Clackers). The mysterious nature of quoins is something I think will play a larger role in the future books.

Adrana and Arafura are separated pretty early in Revenger  and the main storyline follows the younger sister or Fura, as she starts calling herself. The story is mostly told in first-person and she’s portrayed sympathetically, if a bit naively. She has numerous traumatic experiences but her primary motivation is to try and reunite with her sister, who has been kidnapped by Bosa Sennen, a very notorious space pirate.

I don’t want to reveal any spoilers so I’ll stop any further discussion of the plot. Overall, I will say I was impressed (and suprised) with how compelling a read Revenger  is and since I am invested in Fura’s future I will likely read its two sequels Shadow Captain and Bone Silence.

Title: Revenger.
Alastair Reynolds.
Paperback: 411 pages.
Date Published: Septmber 20, 2016.
Date Read: June 19, 2020.

★★★★☆  (4.0/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A- (3.67/4.0).



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