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).



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