Thursday, June 22, 2017

Walkaway

by Cory Doctorow
379 pgs

Cory Doctorow has described his latest book Walkaway (the first of his I’ve read) as a “utopian novel.” But the idyllic connotations that term evokes are far from what his story provides. The story is set in the future, in a time when individuals can digitally back themselves up in case their body dies, or they can choose to exist solely as digital constructs and abandon their bodies completely. Pollution and climate change have led to world-wide ecological disasters and the economic divide between the wealthy and the 99% has become so extreme that many have decided to “walkaway” from society.

Millions of people, including the laborers and the creative and intelligent ones, have “opted out” from society. They’ve abandoned cities, their jobs, and the ever-present surveillance they’re under by the super-rich, and they’ve instead chosen to build a new society on their own.    

The book centers primarily around three young people. Hubert and Seth are two friends who meet Natalie at a “Communist Party” she’s put together. Natalie is the rebellious daughter of one of the world’s wealthiest families, and together they decide to walkaway. But their decision puts them at the center of the escalating conflict between the walkaway world and the establishment they abandoned.

The book is highly intelligent and philosophical. Each page is dense with Doctorow’s own terminology and mind-bending ideas. He described the book as “utopian” because it’s his attempt to describe a society that has rebuilt and reinvented itself after the world has gone beyond its tipping point. Individually and collectively, the walkaways’ act in ways most beneficial to others and not themselves. Behavior atypical from what you would expect following the disasters they’ve survived.
   
I enjoyed the ideas and the philosophy Doctorow included in his book. But I would have enjoyed it more if it had also contained a more compelling plot. I felt like Doctorow was so focused on creating this wildly-imaginative idea of what the world could eventually become, that he forgot to include a plot that would tie it all together and make readers care about what ultimately happened to his characters.

★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Spirit of Steamboat

by Craig Johnson
146 pgs  (A Longmire story)

Spirit of Steamboat is a slight departure from Craig Johnson’s usual Walt Longmire story. This one is a novella, and instead of the usual mystery Johnson sets Sheriff Longmire out to solve, this time around it’s an adventure story from Longmire’s past he tells.

The story begins on Christmas Eve. A young woman shows up at Longmire’s office asking unusual questions about Lucian Conalley, Longmire’s predecessor as sheriff. Longmire takes the woman to the nursing home Lucian now resides at, but neither he nor Lucian has any idea who the woman is. It’s not until she says the word “Steamboat” that both men know instantly who she is, and they’re both transported back to an earlier Christmas Eve. This one in 1988, shortly after Walt became sheriff of Absaroka County, Wyoming.

A young girl had been seriously burned in a car accident and the medical helicopter that picked her up at the scene had had to make an emergency landing in Longmire’s jurisdiction because of a storm. The girl was going to die if she didn’t get medical treatment beyond what they were capable of giving her in the small Wyoming hospital and she needed to be transported to Denver. But the storm that had forced the helicopter to land was also preventing any airplanes from making the trip.

There was only one plane around that Longmire knew could make the trip, Steamboat, an old World War II bomber that hadn’t flown for decades. Fortunately, Walt also knew someone who had flown a plane very similar to Steamboat in the war and thought he could probably convince him to make the dangerous trip.

Spirit of Steamboat is a great story. It’s easily read in one or two sittings and Johnson keeps the action moving the whole time. But it’s not just an adventure story. Johnson seemed to pack more emotions and feelings into this one than he has in any of the rest of his books.

In hindsight, I wish I would have waited till December to read this one. It’s a great story with a message worthy of that time of the year.

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War

by Mary Roach
285 pgs

In Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War, Mary Roach applies her formula of delving into subjects the typical person finds taboo or off-putting, and then providing an account of her research and interviews that the typical person finds fascinating and entertaining, to keeping soldiers safe during war.

She chronicles the military’s historical efforts to develop an effective shark repellent to protect its soldiers serving in the Navy. She investigates the use of maggots to thoroughly cleanse wounds suffered from I.E.D.s. She recounts the medical efforts being developed to perform the most successful phalloplasty (look it up, if you can’t figure it out) possible. And she dares to ask hardened Special-Ops soldiers the difficult question of how they deal with diarrhea while engaged in dangerous operations. All things most people didn’t even know they wanted to know more about, until they find out Mary Roach has investigated.

Mary has a conversational and humorous writing style that most of her success can be attributed to. She’s not afraid to get irreverent and glib whenever she chooses, but she’s always respectful of the men and women who are willing to sacrifice their lives for their country.

The book is first and foremost entertaining, but it’s also very interesting and informative. I enjoyed it but at times wished she didn’t jump from subject to subject as quickly as she did. She would oftentimes point out a fascinating fact or tidbit of information, but then the chapter would end and she’d be on to her next topic.

★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Saturday, June 10, 2017

The Providence of Fire

by Brian Staveley
606 pgs  (Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne series #2)

In The Emperor's Blades, Brian Staveley set the stage for what is turning out to be an engaging and complex fantasy epic. The Providence of Fire picks up right where book one left off. Brothers Kaden and Valyn have briefly been reunited and are fleeing the traitorous Annurian soldiers, who raided the Shin monastery and killed all the monks Kaden had been living with for the past eight years in their attempt on his life. Their sister Adare has discovered that their father’s leading general, the man she’s been sharing a bed with, is behind her father’s murder and has fled to the Dawn Palace to try to raise an army to prevent an impending coup.

From there things start to get complicated. Separated by an entire kingdom and unable to communicate with one another, Adare has no idea whether her brothers are still alive, and Kaden and Valyn have no way of knowing whether she’s stayed true to their father’s legacy or joined forces with those who had him killed. When Kaden once again becomes separated from his brother, all three siblings find themselves on separate paths. Paths which they believe will help save their father’s kingdom, but which ultimately may put them on a collision course with each other.

One of the faults of book one was that I thought Adare’s storyline didn’t get nearly as much page time as her brothers’ did. Staveley corrects that with book two. Adare is central to this book, and the story as a whole is much better because of it. Staveley story is an excellent blend of political machinations, high-stakes action, and just the right amount of magic and the supernatural to make the series a highly-enjoyable one. I’m hopeful there will be many more books by Staveley to come.

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

The Black Widow

by Daniel Silva
528 pgs  (Gabriel Allon series #16)

I’ve enjoyed every one of Daniel Silva’s books featuring Gabriel Allon, the Israeli intelligence officer now slated to become the next chief of Israel’s intelligence service. But I don’t think I’ve enjoyed any of them as much as I did The Black Widow. For the last few books, I’ve wondered whether the series would lose some of its appeal once Gabriel finally made the transition to running operations from behind a desk at The Office instead of being an operative in the field. If this book is any indication of what’s in store, my fears have been alleviated.

The book begins with a bomb exploding in Paris, in an area known for its large Jewish population, followed soon after by another one in Amsterdam. One of the victims of the Paris attack had personal ties to Gabriel, which delays his announcement as chief of Israeli intelligence service, and compels him to run the operation after the mastermind of both operations, a former Iraqi officer now calling himself Saladin.

Gabriel and his team begin laying out the groundwork for an operation, an operation bolder than any they’ve pulled off before. They want to insert a Jew into ISIS. Their plan is to find a woman and transform her into a radical Islamist who ISIS will then recruit into the caliphate. It’s the only way they believe they can track Saladin’s movements and stop him before he’s able to carry out his next attack, this time in the U.S.  

This was an entertaining, compelling, and ultimately, unsettling story. Silva’s stories have often seemed inspired by real-world events, but this time it was eerie just how spot on he was. In the book’s foreward, Silva had this to say, “I commenced work on this novel before the Islamic terrorist group known as ISIS carried out a wave of shootings and bombings in Paris and Brussels that left more than 160 people dead. After briefly considering setting aside the typescript, I chose to complete it as originally conceived. . . . I take no pride in my prescience. I only wish that the murderous, millenarian terrorism of the Islamic State lived solely on the pages of this story.”

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Snapshot

by Brandon Sanderson
123 pgs

Some authors take long breaks in between writing their books. George R.R. Martin likes to attend every “con” taking place anywhere in the world, which has left his fans waiting for six years now for the follow-up to A Dance with Dragons. Patrick Rothfuss has his work with the Worldbuilders charity he’s very involved with. His fans have been waiting just as long for the follow-up to The Wise Man’s Fear (The Slow Regard of Silent Things doesn’t count). Thomas Harris…well, I don’t know what he’s been doing for the last 11 years, but it hasn’t been writing a book.

Brandon Sanderson, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to know the meaning of “taking a break.” In between writing the books in his various series, Sanderson chooses to write other books. Usually they’re shorter, novella-length stories, and they’re generally a slight departure in genre from what he’s best known for. I consider them literary palate cleansers between his larger courses. Others would do well to take a page from his book, so to speak.
Snapshot is one of those palate cleansing stories. It’s a sci-fi detective story set in the near future, at a time when it has become possible to “re-create” a particular day. The technology is used by law enforcement to solve crimes. When they know the time and place a crime has been committed, they’re able to re-create that day and send in detectives, who can hopefully witness the crime being committed, or at least follow the perpetrator and identify where they disposed of the weapon to use for evidence.

Detectives Davis and Chaz are the only two real people in the Snapshot version of May 1st. They’ve been sent there to find the location of evidence used in two separate crimes committed that day…10 days ago. Their task is to find the location of a weapon disposed of after a shooting, report it back to the real world, and then wait a few hours to witness the second crime that will take place a few blocks away. Normally Davis and Chaz would hole up in a safehouse in between investigations to minimize causing disparities, or unintended ripple effects, in the Snapshot.

But this time, instead of going to a safehouse, Davis decides to investigate a crime he knows was reported that same day, one that was never logged at headquarters. What he and Chaz stumble across could change everything.

I have the same criticism for Snapshot that I’ve had with Sanderson’s other shorter offerings, namely, it’s too short. Again, the world Sanderson creates is too intriguing to only get a 120 or so page story. I would have loved for this to be a full-length novel. But the 1100-page Oathbringer comes out in November, so I shouldn’t complain.

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Saturday, May 20, 2017

The Emperor's Blades

by Brian Staveley
478 pgs  (Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne series #1)

The Emperor’s Blades is the first book in an epic fantasy series that I’ve been meaning to read ever since my wife recommended it to me several months ago. It begins with the murder of the Emperor of the Annurian Empire, which leaves the Unhewn Throne temporarily vacant. His eldest son, Kaden, will become the next Emperor, but Kaden has been on the far side of the kingdom, at a remote Shin monastery for the last eight years and it will be weeks before word can reach him of his father’s death. Kaden has been training with the Shin monks since he was a small boy, trying to learn how to achieve a state of mental emptiness, strip away all his emotions, and enter the vaniate.

Kaden’s younger brother Valyn was likewise sent away at a young age. But Valyn was sent to train with the Kettral, the empire’s elite military forces that get their name from the giant warhawks they ride into battle--birds with a 70-foot wingspan.  Kaden and Valyn have an older sister Adare, who was not sent away as a youth, but instead, remained close to their father and became the Minister of Finances in her his court.

Separated for years and by great distances, the three siblings each learn that their whole family line is being targeted by the forces that murdered their father.

The book alternates between the three siblings’ points of view and Staveley does an excellent job of writing compelling stories for each of them. But I felt a little shortchanged with Adare’s storyline. She doesn’t get nearly as many chapters as either Kaden or Valyn do, and since the few that she did get seemed to be the most important ones to the overall story, I wasn’t sure why they were so few and far between. I’m assuming this was intentional and that Staveley will balance things out in the next book. 

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆