Thursday, May 18, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: Planetfall (Planetfall, #1) by Emma Newman

Planetfall is the first book in the acclaimed  Planetfall series written by Emma Newman.  It is the fourth of her books that I have read; Newman has stated the Planetfall books are written to be read in any order. I read them in the order second (After Atlas), fourth ( Atlas Alone), third (Before Mars ), and first (Planetfall). It’s curious because all the books reference the main event of the series, which is the departure of the interstellar rocket Atlas with roughly 1000 colonists under the guidance of the Pathfinder Lee Suh-mi to a planet where Lee claims they will find God. So, one would think that the first book is about this seminal event in the series, but it’s not. Even the main events in Planetfall take place several decades after the seminal event (it turns out that all four books are set roughly in a time frame under a year or so from each other, just in very different locations).

In Planetfall, most of the events happen roughly two decades after the colonists arrive on the planet. They seem to be well acclimated to their extraterrestrial environs. They have deliberately engineered their living conditions to be such that it is sustainable and low-impact  or no-impact on the environmental resources of their new home world. However, at the point the reader enters the story this comfortable lifestyle is disrupted by the appearance of an outsider, someone who is the grandson of the Pathfinder herself, and bears a clear familial resemblance to her.

We are primarily told the story of events from the perspective of Ren (Renata Ghali) whom we discover was one of the chief engineers responsible for the successful Atlas mission to the planet and has served as one of the primary technological resources and fix-it mechanics for the colony since they landed.

Having read all of the four books in the series I realize now a common theme is that the protagonist/main character in each book  is an unreliable narrator; each one has either had mental health issues or a medical history is revealed that causes the reader to question the veracity and accuracy of what we are being told about events. Interestingly, in three of the four books this protagonist has been female. In Planetfall, it takes quite a while before the reader realizes the extent to which Ren has been hiding important information from the reader that reveals she has a serious mental condition. I don't want to reveal what it is but one of the most significant impacts of the book is when the reader is allowed to fully perceive reality from Ren's perspective as mediated by her mental condition; the effect is devastating.

However, Ren’s issues are really a side issue to the primary plot of Planetfall; the last 20 pages has multiple extremely significant revelations and stunning dénouements. Again I don't want to be too specific about details in order to spoil things but suffice it to say that we learn why the Pathfinder felt that she was bringing humanity to meet God, and we get information and see events that have potentially irreversible consequence for the long term survival of the colony (and thus humanity itself). In fact, it's the ending of Planetfall that makes this entry the most impactful of the books in the series in my opinion. I strongly hope that the author goes on to continue the story beyond where the events in Planetfall, After Mars or Atlas Alone conclude. Overall, that should tell you all you need to know about the Planetfall  books: they leave you wanting more!

Title: Planetfall.
Author: Emma Newman.
Format: Kindle.
Length: 328 pages.
Publisher: Scribner.
Date Published: September 6, 2015.
Date Read: May 1, 2023.

★★½☆ (4.5/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A- (3.83/4.0).


Thursday, May 11, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: A Dying Fall (Ruth Galloway, #5) by Elly Griffiths

A Dying Fall is the fifth 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. These books are known as the Ruth Galloway mysteries and they are generally cold case murders (Ruth is an archaeologist after all) with a smidgen of romance (the relationship between Ruth and Harry is complicated--they hooked up once and the married police detective is the unacknowledged father of unmarried Ruth's daughter named Kate.)

I read and enjoyed the first four books in the Ruth Galloway series in quick succession (The Crossing PlacesThe Janus Stone ,The House at Sea's End, A Room Full of Bones) but put the series on a backburner when supernatural elements became a bit too central to the story for my taste in Book 4. (Longtime readers will know I am not a fan of supernatural elements, especially in murder-mysteries, because of the way it revises the implicit contract between author and reader in a whodunnit mystery. (If reality is subject to supernatural revision then how can the reader have a chance of solving the mystery?)

Anyway, the primary appeal of the Galloway books has always been the no-nonsense personalities of Ruth and Nelson, who the reader generally gets first-person perspectives on in every book. The secondary appeal are the rotating cast of secondary characters, primarily Cathbad, the sensitive and strange Druid who always seems to be in the right place at the right time, Ruth’s obnoxious department chair Phil Trent, various police officers who work with Nelson (Judy Johnson, Dave Clough, Tanya Fuller, and his boss Gerry Whitcliffe).

In  A Dying Fall an old schoolmate of Ruth’s from university named Dan Golding is killed by setting his house on fire with all the exits locked and blocked, soon after he made what he thought could be a blockbuster archaeological discover in the Lancashire area near where Nelson grew up and used to serve in the Blackpool police department when he was much younger. Ruth decides to go north to Blackpool with her young daughter Kate and Cathbad as guest babysitter after she is invited by Dan’s department chair to serve as an expert evaluator of his potential discovery. Of course, coincidentally Nelson and his wife Michelle decide to take a vacation to his hometown around the same time to go on a long-delayed visit to see Nelson’s mum.

With Nelson and Ruth in the same area when more bodies start appearing there are multiple opportunities for awkward run-ins and suspicious behavior as they both try to solve their respective mysteries. Tensions run even higher when just as their separate investigations cross paths, Kate goes missing, after being left in the care of Cathbad while Ruth was sleuthing.

Overall, this is one of the better entries in the series, which is becoming even more familiar and likeable as I read more of the books. The supernatural elements were kept to a minimum, and primarily involved Cathbad, who is so weird and wacky it’s hard to dislike. I’m pretty sure I won’t wait another 18 months to read the next book, The Outcast Dead!

Title: A Dying Fall.
Elly Griffiths.
Paperback: 400 pages.
 Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Date Published: March 5, 2013.
Date Read: April 23, 2023.

★★★½☆  (4.5/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A- (3.67/4.0).


Tuesday, May 09, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: Fairy Tale by Stephen King

Although I am not a fan of the horror genre I have become a relatively enthusiastic fan of Stephen King after having read some of his books released in the last decade, like Billy Summers (2021), The Institute (2019), The Outsider (2018), 11/22/63 (2011), and of course the Bill Hodges Trilogy (Mr. Mercedes, Finders Keepers, and End of Watch). These books mostly eschewed the horror genre for the ones I typically read: speculative fiction, thriller, mystery, and science fiction. However, even when he's not writing horror, King does often tend to bring in supernatural elements, but in the books of his that I have read and enjoyed this has not been a fatal impediment to completion. 2022’s  Fairy Tale is one of King’s rare forays into epic fantasy which by its very definition allows for supernatural themes.

Fairy Tale has a story that can  be divided into three parts relatively easily. The three parts are very different from each other and  provoked very different reactions in me as a reader. The first part introduces us to the protagonist of the novel, 17-year-old Charlie Reade. Charlie is on the football team and has been raised by his alcoholic father alone since his mother died in a hit-and-run car accident about 10 years before. We also meet Howard Bowditch, an elderly gentleman who lives up the hill from Charlie with his elderly German Shepherd Radar. About 5 years ago Charlie made a promise to God that if his dad stopped drinking then Charlie would owe him a favor, and he thinks taking care of Mr. Bowditch (and Radar) after he suffers a near-fatal fall that leaves him with a broken leg is his way to repay his debt. This first part of Fairy Tale is a heart-warming tale about a teenaged boy falling in love with a dog and selflessly taking care of a senior citizen. It is absolutely delightful to read and an uplifting, enjoyable experience. Five stars.

The second part of Fairy Tale begins with the inevitable death of Mr. Bowditch several months after his recovery from the injury and his revelation to Charlie that the old man had many secrets, the most significant of which is that in his shed contains an underground portal to another land, a mystical and magical place where there is a source of eternal youth. (Bowditch had used the process himself and was well over 120 years old when he died.) Unable to bear the thought of losing Radar to die from old age, Charlie embarks on a mission to take her to the land of Empis to rejuvenate her. When Charlie reaches Empis he encounters several unusual people and places  that are reminiscent of or drawn from classical fairy tales. He also discovers that there is a horrible blight on the land called “the gray” which is afflicting the populace, causing pain and disfigurement to all it touches. However, there is a prophecy that a fair and true prince will come to Empis and restore it to its glory and destroy “the gray” which has been caused by someone called Flight Killer. Charlie succeeds in revitalizing Radar by exposing her to the age-reversal process Bowditch had used at great personal risk to them both. After that deed is done he tries to escape but he is caught (and Radar escapes) by a group of zombies  known as the Night Soldiers. The second part of Fairy Tale is less enjoyable than the first as we learn more about the impacts of the gray and the plot becomes more suspenseful as Charlie races against time to save Radar's life. The people and characters Charlie encounters in Empis range from the outré to the outlandish and odd. Between three and four stars.

The third and final part of Fairy Tale is really difficult to get through. It becomes a story of incarceration, torture, and violence. Charlie is held captive by the Night Soldiers and forced to fight to the death in repeated one-on-one gladiatorial combat sessions against his fellow prisoners  for the amusement of the Flight Killer and his claque of supporters. This section of the book is way too long, and full of death, despair, and disappointment. During this period, Charlie gets in touch with his inner violent self, and, mysteriously his dark hair and dark brown eyes mysteriously starts turning into a blonde, blue-eyed boy. (Part-way through the book I thought that Charlie might be Black or multiracial and that King was doing something interesting with racial assumptions but then this made it clear that Charlie is--and views himself as--a white guy.) Eventually, Charlie leads a successful escape of the few surviving (and strongest) prisoners and destroys most of the Night Soldiers in the process. After reuniting with some of the “good guys” we met in Part 2 (including the revitalized Radar), Charlie and others successfully kill Flight Killer and rid Empis of “the gray” forever. Charlie is gravely injured but manages to make it back to “the real world” with Radar. Through the magic of fairy tales, the time that he spent in Empis converts to only four months in our world, and he is happily reunited with his father in the end. In order to explain his whereabouts (and Radar’s miraculous transformation into a younger dog), Charlie shows his Dad Empis and then they concrete over the entrance to protect both worlds from future contact. The last sections is probably between one and three stars, so probably two stars.

Overall, it’s hard to give a summary evaluation of the Fairy Tale. The book starts off so bright and lovely but gets increasingly dark and difficult as it proceeds. It (amazingly) does end with a happy ending (Radar gets to be young again and Charlie survives), so that probably rounds up the score. It’s a hard book to recommend to others to read, although I would heartily recommend the first 150-200 pages or so to anyone.

Title: Fairy Tale.
Stephen King.
Format: Hardcover.
Length: 600 pages.
Publisher: Scribner.
Date Published: September 6, 2022.
Date Read: February 1, 2023.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★½☆  (3.5/5.0).

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


Thursday, April 20, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: Before Mars (Planetfall, #3) by Emma Newman

Before Mars is the third book in Emma Newman’s loosely related Planetfall series. Curiously, I still have not read the titular first book in the series, Planetfall. There are a  number of reasons for that, but the primary one is that despite having the most number of ratings (11,056) and reviews (1,654) on Goodreads of any of the books in the series, Planetfall also has the lowest average rating, 3.72, which is slightly lower than the 3.75 threshold that I typically use for deciding on whether to start reading a new book. With that said, since I have now read the other books in the series, curiosity will almost certainly lead me to conclude the series by reading the work that was written and published first.


Regarding reading order, the author herself says that the Planetfall books can be read in any order. I'm actually not sure I agree with this view that it would lead to the optimal enjoyment of the series. The events of Book 3, Before Mars, and Book 4, Atlas Alone, clearly happen after most of the events of Book 2, After Atlas, and the events of Book 3 and Book 4 overlap somewhat so that these two can be read in any order. Clearly, the events of Book 1, Planetfall, happen before the other three books, but since its primary event (the Pathfinder project leaves Earth on the Atlas spaceship on an interstellar journey to “find God” out among the stars) is referred to in each of the subsequent books in the series, this means that Book 1 can be read at any time. Books 2 and 4 are the ones where there's a definite causal relationship that precludes reading them in a different order. I know this is a bit long, but I think I have talked myself into recommending this reading order: 1, 2, 4, 3. (This is roughly the temporal order in which the events depicted in each book occur.) I also think that books 3 and 4 can be read in any order but must come after book 2. After I read Book 1 I will discuss whether it would be best read before or after the other 3. My reading order will have been 2,4,3,1.


This review is about book 3, Before Mars, which I think is the most effective of the four books. The story in Before Mars is told from the perspective of Anna Cubrin, a geologist and painter. Cubrin is the latest addition to a small group of specialists at a Mars base named Principia that is exclusively run and operated by people loyal to Stefan Gabor, a multi-billionaire who I'm pretty sure is one of the rare characters who has a speaking role in all four books.


Cubrin is the prototypical unreliable narrator; we discover that her father experienced some kind of mental collapse that led to a near-fatal attack on his wife/Anna’s mother and his subsequent incarceration. As soon as Cubrin arrives at Principia, strange things start to happen which causes her to question her grip on reality and it is during this period that her father’s mental problems are revealed to the reader, as well as Cubrin's fervent wish that the mental collapse that happened to him will not happen to her too. By centering Cubrin’s mental state so early, the author makes it clear that Before Mars will be more of a psychological thriller than its preceding books. The reader also begins to question whether how well Cubrin’s perception of events jibes with reality, which is what the character also does.

The vast majority of the content of Before Mars either takes place in Cubrin’s head or is communicated to the reader in her voice. Oftentimes, this literary device would be unappealing to me but the circumstances here are so unusual and the character is so unlike others that I have spent time with in the first-person in a science fiction story that this time it kept me engrossed in the book.

As the plot proceeds the reader gets more and more examples of things that are not what they seem at Principia, and we also learn more about the other members of the Principia team. We also learn more about Cubrin’s relationship with her husband and infant daughter that she left on Earth and spent 9 months traveling to the red planet to be on Gabor’s payroll to produce paintings of Mars that he intends to send exclusively to private collectors. When events come to a head towards the end of the book (reflecting the effects of events that happened at the end of Book 2), the emotional impact on the reader is immense.

Overall, I think Before Mars is the best of the three Planetfall books I have read so far because while it still contains the technological advances of the other books (machine-neural interfaces that allow artificial intelligence to directly monitor bodily functions and mental well-being; augmented virtual reality called “immersives”; and interplanetary space travel) it has a more compelling (if less likable) central character in Anna Cubrin than Book 2's Carlos Moreno and does a better job of being a psychological thriller than Book 2 did in being a police procedural murder mystery. However, I definitely am curious to see what genre categories Book 1 (Planetfall) straddles and to find out how well it is done.

Title: Before Mars (Planetfall, #3).
Emma Newman.
Format: Kindle.
Length: 352 pages.
Publisher: Ace Books.
Date Published: April 17, 2018.
Date Read: April 13, 2023.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★½☆  (4.5/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A- (3.67/4.0).

Thursday, April 13, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: Atlas Alone (Planetfall, #4) by Emma Newman

Atlas Alone is the fourth book in the Planetfall series written by Emma Newman. This unusual speculative fiction series is set in a near future where humanity has launched colony ships to the stars and technological advances have transformed human society in many ways, not all for the good. The series of books in the Planetfall universe are Planetfall (2015), After Atlas (2016), Before Mars (2018), and Atlas Alone (2019). Interestingly, the author says that the books can be read in any order, because the stories in each are only loosely linked to each other, although events do occur in line with the publication order. 

I chose to read After Atlas first because it is a police procedural set in an advanced technological future. One of my favorite thigs is reading genre mashups, and murder-mystery combined with science fiction technothriller is right up my alley. (See my A review of After Atlas.) 

The story in Atlas Alone takes place after the events of After Atlas but while many of the characters are in both books, their prominence changes. In After Atlas the protagonist and source of most of the first-person perspectives was Carlos Moreno, who is a detective working for the "gov-corp" (government-corporation) of  Norope (i.e. Northern Europe). Moreno is tasked with finding out who was responsible for the death of Alejandro Casales, the founder of The Circle, a religious cult formed after the departure of the Pathfinder mission to "find God" in orbit around a distant star (these events are depicted in Planetfall). Carlos' best friend is Dee, a fellow immersive gamer who understands and appreciates his personality quirks.

However in Atlas Alone, Dee is the main character. She, Carlos and Travis (another legacy character from After Atlas) are on Atlas 2, are on a spaceship headed towards the same star that the Pathfinder mission sailed to in the first Atlas when people start dying on the ship, apparently while connected to augmented reality gear. Dee has recently been given access to an advanced AR system on the ship so she can participate in an ongoing virtual reality competition with some of the most important people on the ship. As Dee does so she begins to find out more of the secrets behind the ship with the help of a mysterious person who doesn't appear on the manifest and seems to also have unfettered access to the ship's systems. The story comes to a surprising (and somewhat violent) end which resolves most of the questions raised in Atlas Alone but does lead to more questions about the future of the Atlas 2 mission, hopefully to be addressed in future books in the Planetfall series.

Overall, I didn't enjoy Atlas Alone as much as I had After Atlas. The first reason is that despite superficial similarities (there are dead bodies in both, a whodunnit plot thread, and an advanced technological setting) they aren't really the same genre of book. Atlas Alone isn't really a police procedural/murder mystery like After Atlas, it's more of a psychological thriller. We spend a lot (maybe too much?) time in Dee's consciousness as she grapples with some of the more serious ramifications of the some of the events at the end of After Atlas. Secondly, the commentary on corporate/capitalistic overreach that was a significant feature of After Atlas is simply not as pungent or salient in the later book.

I think I will eventually read the other two books, Planetfall and Before Mars in the series. The books tend to be relatively short (under 400 pages), peopled with a diverse cast of characters and often include interesting/thought-provoking questions. For people who are anxious to spend more time in the Planetfall universe, Newman is releasing a brief collection (161 pages) of 10 short stories called Before, After, Alone which are set there.

Title: Atlas Alone (Planetfall, #4).
Emma Newman.
Format: Kindle.
Length: 336 pages.
Publisher: Gollancz.
Date Published: April 16, 2019.
Date Read: January 22, 2023.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★ (4.0/5.0).

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


Wednesday, April 05, 2023

2023 OSCARS: The Winners!

The 2023 Oscars happened and the big winner was Everything Everywhere All At Once, which went home with Seven Oscars overall: Picture, Director, Actress, Supporting Actress, Supporting Actor, Original Screenplay and Editing. Netflix's All Quiet on the Western Front was not far behind with 4: Score, International Feature, Production Design and Cinematography. The billion dollar sequels released last year, Top Gun: Maverick and Avatar: The Way of Water did not go home emptyhanded, winning Sound and Visual Effects, respectively.

In my predictions post of the Top 8 categories at the 95th Academy Awards I only got 5 of 8 correct, missing Jamie Lee Curtis's upset win over Angela Basset, Brendan Fraser's Best Actor win over Colin Farrell and Austin Butler and The Daniels win for Original Screenplay over Tár and The Banshees of Inisherin.

Overall, this year  I ended up with only 15 of 21 Oscar wins correctly predicted. Anyway, here are the winners of this year's Oscars.

Best picture: “Everything Everywhere All at Once”

Best actress: Michelle Yeoh, “Everything Everywhere All at Once”

Best actor: Brendan Fraser, “The Whale”

Best supporting actor: Ke Huy Quan, “Everything Everywhere All at Once”

Best supporting actress: Jamie Lee Curtis, “Everything Everywhere All at Once”

Original song: “Naatu Naatu” from “RRR”

Film editing: “Everything Everywhere All at Once”

Best director: Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, “Everything Everywhere All at Once”

Best animated feature: “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio”

International feature film: “All Quiet on the Western Front” (Germany)

Documentary feature: “Navalny”

Live action short: “An Irish Goodbye”

Cinematography: James Friend, “All Quiet on the Western Front”

Makeup and hairstyling: “The Whale”

Costume design: Ruth E. Carter, “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever”

Documentary short: “The Elephant Whisperers”

Animated short: “The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse”

Production design: “All Quiet on the Western Front”

Music (original score): Volker Bertelmann, “All Quiet on the Western Front”

Visual Effects: “Avatar: The Way of Water”

Original screenplay: “Everything Everywhere All at Once”

Adapted screenplay: “Women Talking”

Sound: “Top Gun: Maverick”

Saturday, March 11, 2023

2023 OSCARS: My Predictions for the Top 8 Categories

Here is my annual prediction post for the 2022 Oscars, i.e. the 95th Academy Awards. I really just consider the Top 8 categories on the blog but I often play the Oscar prediction game like lots of other people (on other websites) where I think about all 24 categories. I generally split my predictions into who I want to win versus (i.e. who I would vote for) as opposed to who I think will win (i.e. who the Academy voters will vote for).

In 2020 I predicted 6 of 8 correctly and last year I predicted 7 of  8 correctly. This year I have seen 6 of the (bolded) 10 Best Picture nominees (haven't seen The Fabelmans, Triangle of Sadness or Women Talking as of this writing but I do intend to watch The Fabelmans eventually). 

Best Picture:
  • "All Quiet on the Western Front" 
  • "Avatar: The Way of Water" 
  • "The Banshees of Inisherin"
  • "Elvis"
  • "Everything Everywhere All at Once" 
  • "The Fabelmans"
  • "Tár"
  • "Top Gun: Maverick"
  • "Triangle of Sadness"
  • "Women Talking"

SHOULD WIN: Avatar: The Way of Water.
WILL WIN: Everything Everywhere All at Once.

  • Martin McDonagh (“The Banshees of Inisherin”)
  • Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (“Everything Everywhere All at Once”) 
  • Steven Spielberg (“The Fabelmans”) 
  • Todd Field (“Tár”) 
  • Ruben Östlund (“Triangle of Sadness”)
SHOULD WIN: Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, Everything Everywhere All at Once.
WILL WIN: Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, Everything Everywhere All at Once.

Lead Actor:
  • Austin Butler (“Elvis”)  
  • Colin Farrell (“The Banshees of Inisherin”) 
  • Brendan Fraser (“The Whale”)
  • Paul Mescal (“Aftersun”) 
  • Bill Nighy (“Living”) 
SHOULD WIN: Colin Farrell, The Banshees of Inisherin.
WILL WIN: Austin Butler, Elvis.

Lead Actress:
  • Cate Blanchett (“Tár”) 
  • Ana de Armas (“Blonde”) 
  • Andrea Riseborough (“To Leslie”)
  • Michelle Williams (“The Fabelmans”) 
  • Michelle Yeoh (“Everything Everywhere All at Once”)
SHOULD WIN: Michelle Yeoh, Everything Everywhere All at Once.
WILL WIN: Michelle Yeoh, Everything Everywhere All at Once

Supporting Actor:
  • Brendan Gleeson (“The Banshees of Inisherin”) 
  • Brian Tyree Henry (“Causeway”) 
  • Judd Hirsch (“The Fabelmans”)
  • Barry Keoghan (“The Banshees of Inisherin”) 
  • Ke Huy Quan (“Everything Everywhere All at Once”) 
SHOULD WIN: Ke Huy Quan, Everything Everywhere All at Once
WILL WIN: Ke Huy Quan, Everything Everywhere All at Once.

Supporting Actress:
  • Angela Bassett (“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever”) 
  • Hong Chau (“The Whale”) 
  • Kerry Condon (“The Banshees of Inisherin”)
  • Jamie Lee Curtis (“Everything Everywhere All at Once”) 
  • Stephanie Hsu (“Everything Everywhere All at Once”)
SHOULD WIN: Angela Bassett, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.
WILL WIN: Angela Bassett, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.

Adapted Screenplay:
  • “All Quiet on the Western Front,” Screenplay by Edward Berger, Lesley Paterson & Ian Stokell
  • “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery,” Written by Rian Johnson
  • “Living,” Written by Kazuo Ishiguro
  • “Top Gun: Maverick,” Screenplay by Ehren Kruger and Eric Warren Singer and Christopher McQuarrie; Story by Peter Craig and Justin Marks
  • “Women Talking,” Screenplay by Sarah Polley
SHOULD WIN: All Quiet on the Western Front.
WILL WIN: Women Talking.

Original Screenplay:
  • “The Banshees of Inisherin,” Written by Martin McDonagh
  • “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” Written by Daniel Kwan & Daniel Scheinert
  • “The Fabelmans,” Written by Steven Spielberg & Tony Kushner
  • “Tár,” Written by Todd Field
  • “Triangle of Sadness,” Written by Ruben Östlund
WILL WIN: The Banshees of Inisherin.

Thursday, February 09, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: Nighthawking (DS Adam Tyler, #2) by Russ Thomas

Nighthawking is the second book in the Detective Sergeant Adam Tyler series written by Russ Thomas. These British police procedurals are set in South Yorkshire, where the openly gay protagonist DS Tyler is a member of the Cold Case Review Unit (CCRU) of the Sheffield Police.

Nighthawking is set about a year after the events that transpired at the end of Firewatching. DS Tyler is working with (formerly PC) now DC Mina Rabbani on a cold case involving the disappearance of a young boy when the body of an unknown young Asian woman with ancient Roman gold coins over her eyes is discovered on the grounds of the Sheffield Botanical Gardens by a nighthawker, someone who uses metal detectors to seek out buried and hidden items of value on public lands.

DS Tyler is busy with and distracted by his obsessive investigation into a personally significant cold case: his own police detective father's suspicious death two decades ago when Tyler was a teenager. It thus falls to Mina to try and solve a case which is much more complicated than it first appears.

As with the first book in the series, the primary appeal of the story is seeing first hand how Tyler and Mina, both outsiders in the police force due to race, gender and sexual orientation, go about their jobs as police officers trying to solve crimes. In Nighthawking, there's less depiction of Tyler’s gayness but there’s more depiction of Mina’s intelligence and I’d say that’s a net positive. That being said, it’s a lot rarer to have an openly gay police detective than it is to have a smart female police detective in these genre books so I hope that the author doesn't shy away from depicting his protagonist's sexuality in future books, just as one would expect it to show up as one aspect of a heterosexual character’s life.

Another similarity Nighthawking has with Firewatching is the complexity of the plot, along with a veiled depiction of events from the perspective of the perpetrator. In Firewatching there were curious blog posts describing the work of a serial arsonist as intertextual elements between chapters. In Nighthawking we get brief reports from nighthawkers summarizing the results of their forays and searches. Both times we eventually realize that these elements are providing clues about the identity of the perpetrator.

There are many plots in Nighthawking. Tyler finds a lead which may lead to more information about his father’s death, and he also ends up cracking the cold case of the disappearance of the young boy, mostly inadvertently, as Rabbani does most of the work to identify the dead girl and whoever killed her. Of course, other dead bodies and near-fatal incidents also appear in the book along the way before we get a surprising resolution to the book’s primary mystery. The final scene of the book is a stunner; it presents the reader with new information about Tyler’s father’s death that will surely reverberate in the next book in the series, Cold Reckoning.

Title: Nighthawking (DS Adam Tyler, #2).
Russ Thomas.
Format: Hardcover.
Length: 384 pages.
Publisher: G.P. Putnam's Sons.
Date Published: February 23, 2021.
Date Read: December 21, 2022.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★  (5.0/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A- (3.67/4.0).


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).



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