Two from the TBR

I just knocked two more books off my TBR Pile Challenge list. Both were a bit on the”pulp” side, and each is part of longer loosely-connected series.

Title: The Roads Between the Worlds
(Eternal Champion Series, Volume 6)
Author: Michael Moorcock
Genre: Sci-fi
Pages: 391
Rating: 3 of 5

This volume in the Eternal Champion series does not  feature any of the better-known iterations of the Champion (e.g. Elric, Corum, Hawkmoon). In fact, other than the concept of the multiverse and preachy idealizing of anarchic government, most of the plot elements that pop up in Eternal Champion stories are absent or receive only the subtlest of nods.

The three novellas that make up the volume are on the more sci-fi side of Moorcock’s writing and largely involve political maneuvering and/or revolution on alternate versions of the earth. As is usual with Moorcock, the plots are an odd blend of pulp sci-fi and preachiness. If you’re really into the Eternal Champion series, this is probably worth reading, but for casual readers something featuring Elric, Corum, or Hawkmoon would be a more entertaining introduction to Moorcock’s style.

The Case of the Velvet Claws (Perry Mason Series Book 1) by [Gardner, Erle Stanley]Title: The Case of the Velvet Claws
(Perry Mason, Book 1)
Author: Erle Stanley Gardner
Genre: Mystery/Crime Fiction
Pages: 193
Rating: 3 of 5

My past exposure to Perry Mason was the older, fatter, gentler version in the later TV shows; this book features the hard-boiled original. Perry Mason’s code of ethics dictates that he works for the interest of his client regardless of how nasty (or even guilty) they might be, and this client is as dishonest and manipulative as they come. The plot twists and turns through a pretty middle-of-the-road pulp mystery. There’s none of the snappy snark that you get from authors like Raymond Chandler, but it’s a decent tough-guy detective/lawyer story.

Bob the AI

Title: We Are Legion (We Are Bob)
(Bobiverse: Volume 1)
Author: Dennis E. Taylor
Genre: AI/Space Exploration Sci-Fi
Pages: 308
Rating: 4 of 5

The feel of this book reminds me of Andy Weir’s The Martian, but with slightly less believable science, a lot less profanity and a lot more hating on Christians. All religious people in the book are caricatured as fanatical proponents (or cowed followers) of anti-intellectual dominion theology with atheism being apparently the only viable opposing viewpoint. Shallow, broad-brush characterization of viewpoints other than the protagonist’s/author’s is a fairly pervasive element, but if you can look past that it’s a pretty fun book.

Our geeky, sarcastic protagonist (Bob) dies, having just signed a contract with a cryonics corporation. He wakes up 117 years later as an AI copy of “original Bob’s” brain, that is made into a self-replicating space probe. The storyline fragments as we get more Bobs, each with his own variations in personality and interests. Plot threads include survival, exploration, politics, warfare, terraforming, social engineering, etc.

I listened to the Audible edition read by Ray Porter. Some of his accents and voices were a bit off when they were supposed to represent other nationalities or TV/movie characters (e.g. his Admiral Ackbar sounded more like Sean Connery at first), but overall his narration gave each of the Bobs their own personality and brought out the frequent humor/irony/sarcasm without overplaying it.

If you like your stories to have a tight plot and/or are easily offended, you should probably give this a miss. If that doesn’t describe you, this book is a fun semi-scientific look at some possible challenges and discoveries in the areas of AI and space exploration.

Glorified Fan Fiction

Firefly - Big Damn Hero by [Lovegrove, James, Holder, Nancy]Title: Firefly: Big Damn Hero
Author: James Lovegrove & Nancy Holder
Genre: Glorified Fanfiction
Pages: 336
Rating: 2.5 of 5

What geek wouldn’t jump at the chance for another dip into Joss Whedon’s Firefly universe? This book gives you that opportunity… kind of.

The plot takes place sometime during the original series, so all the main characters are alive. I was going to say “alive and well,” but they all seem to be in especially foul moods and even more prone to violence than usual. Sometimes they act and sound like themselves, but the authors seem incapable of sustaining the right tone (or any kind of consistent tone), jumping from overly-folksy to properly snarky to very vanilla in both dialogue and narration.

Add to this an overlong plot that takes forever to get off the ground as the authors work in references to half the episodes in the original show, and the whole thing feels like glorified fanfiction. Halfway decent fanfiction that offers some interesting backstory and avoids pervy wish-fulfillment, but fanfiction nonetheless.

Catch-up with Mini Reviews

I’m starting to fall behind on reviews, so it’s time for a bunch of mini-reviews! No unifying theme…this is just the order in which I read them.

Title: Enforcer:
The Shira Calpurnia Omnibus
Author: Matthew Farrer
Genre: Military Sci-fi (Warhammer 40,000 universe)
Pages: 859
Rating: 3 of 5

Space marines bore me, so if I’m going to read a Warhammer 40K book, I usually go for the stories featuring other kinds of characters. This trilogy omnibus features Shira Calpurnia, an “adeptus arbites” – basically a combination of detective, SWAT, and judge. For me, the main interest in these stories came from their exploration of the inner workings and politics of groups like rogue traders, the ecclesiarchy, and the arbites themselves. At times Shira Calpurnia all but disappears from the stories as the scheming going on around her is far more interesting than anything she does in response to it. I never expect Warhammer 40,000 books to be anything more than pulp-y escapist sci-fi, and by that standard this was a decent read.

The Ministry of Fear by [Greene, Graham]Title: The Ministry of Fear
Author: Graham Greene
Genre: Thriller / Espionage
Pages: 226
Rating: 3.5 of  5

In this classic thriller Graham Greene weaves an improbable but entertaining spy yarn. He mixes in all the ingredients of an over the top “ordinary man accidentally caught up in a vast conspiracy” story and a “man with a guilty conscience due to past transgressions” story, all set during the London blitz…and somehow it works. It does have a good dose of Graham’s usual bleak cynicism as well, but it is well worth reading if you like that kind of espionage tale.

Title: A Biblical Answer for Racial Unity
Authors: H. B. Charles Jr., Danny Akin, Juan Sanchez, Richard Caldwell, Jim Hamilton, Owen Strachan, Carl Hargrove, Christian George
Genre: Theology/Philosophy, Race Relations
Pages: 122
Rating: 3 of 5

This is essentially a lightly edited version of nine sermons/speeches given at a conference on racial unity. If you want a very basic survey of some general biblical principles that apply to racial unity, this is worth your time. However, if you are looking for actual “where the rubber meets the road” applications, you won’t find many here other than the most basic and generalized.

1000 Years of Annoying the French by [Clarke, Stephen]Title: 1,000 Years of Annoying the French
Author: Stephen Clarke
Genre: Anglo-French History / Humor
Pages: 506
Rating: 4 of 5

In this humorously biased history, Stephen Clarke chronicles the long history of mutual antagonism between France and England (starting with the Norman Conquest). Along the way he delights in pointing out French self-sabotage and does his best to suck the grandeur out of any French accomplishments. The book is a lot of fun to read and contains a lot of great trivia…just don’t use it as a main source for serious research.

Title: Dear Committee Members
Author: Julie Schumacher
Genre: Humor/Satire
Pages: 192
Rating: 4.5 of 5

Last year Julie Schumacher’s The Shakespeare Requirement came in 6th on my Top 10 list.  That was the sequel to this book, which was just as enjoyable. As I said with The Shakespeare Requirement: if you’ve ever been involved in academia and/or some similar buzz-wordy bureaucratic job, you should really read this book. This one is in the format of dozens of letters of recommendation written by a harassed English professor in a struggling university. Cleverly mixed in with the recommendations is the story of his rather pathetic personal and professional life and ongoing battle with the all-powerful economics department.

Title: Superheroes Can’t Save You:
Epic Examples of Historic Heresies
Author: Todd Miles
Genre: Theology (Christology)
Pages: 208
Rating: 4.5 of 5

Theology professor and self-professed comic book aficionado Todd Miles uses seven different superheroes to illustrate various Christological heresies (wrong beliefs about Jesus Christ according to classic Christian theology). For example, Ant-Man illustrates modalism in which rather than the Trinity being three separate co-equal co-eternal persons, it is simply one person who presents himself in three modes. For each heresy Miles gives a brief survey of its history, a biblical explanation of why it is unscriptural, and a warning as to why (even though this makes for a cool superhero) a Jesus with this nature would be insufficient to provide eternal salvation. This is fairly basic theology, but it’s a fun way to be exposed to the classic Christian understanding of who Jesus is.

Title: The Red Record
Author: Ida B. Wells
Genre: History of Lynching
Pages: 102
Rating: 4.5 of 5

This book/pamphlet was an emotionally difficult read but it is historically important. Ida B. Wells records (sometimes in heartrending detail) many instances of racially motivated lynchings in the late 1800’s and pleads for people to take notice and speak out against it. For me it was a painful reminder that far too many white Christians have been (and sometimes still are) shamefully complicit in racial injustice either actively or through passively standing by and doing nothing while mumbling some variation of “they brought it on themselves.” The writing itself is a little repetitive and spends maybe a bit too much time on the feud between Ida Wells and the head of the Christian Women’s Temperance Union, but that does not detract from its importance.

Time Travel & the Fear of Death

Title: The Psychology of Time Travel
Author: Kate Mascarenhas
Genre: Time Travel Sci-Fi
Pages: 336
Rating: 3.5 of 5
Future Release Date: February 12, 2019 (Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of the review.)

I have always been fascinated by time travel stories in which time travel cannot create reality-altering paradoxes (e.g. To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis). As this book’s title suggests, it explores what kind of psychological effect this sort of time travel might have on people. The author does so with a degree of thoughtfulness and complexity that I don’t think I have seen before in time travel sci-fi. Topics explored include crime & punishment, romance, mental illness, bullying, fate/fatalism, and especially the fear of death.

What makes the plot great isn’t the solution of the mystery (the “whodunnit to whom?” is obvious well before the end). Rather, the fun is in watching the characters figure it out and seeing how the three different story arcs (starting in 1967, 2017, and 2018) fit together. The actual narration of the story was a bit flat (e.g. sometimes something momentous would happen and it would be stated so blandly that I would have to go back and reread to make sure I read correctly), but the plotting and worldbuilding more than made up for it.

To me, the characters seemed a bit contrived to check as many “strong, diverse female character” boxes as possible (e.g. black, immigrant, lesbian, mentally ill, aristocratic…). All the primary and secondary characters are women with a handful of men putting in very brief whiny, overprotective, or leering appearances. Though it felt a bit overplayed, if you are looking for sci-fi with strong female characters, this is it.

Overall, the plotting, worldbuilding, and psychology mostly made up for any bits that felt flat or contrived.

Ender’s Hunger Games

Apocalypse Five (Archive of the Fives Book 1) by [Rourke, Stacey]Title: Apocalypse Five
Author: Stacey Rourke
Genre: Dystopian Sci-Fi
Pages: 252
Rating: 2 of 5
Future Release Date: 2/12/19 (Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC. This in no way affects the content of the review)

Smoosh together Ender’s Game and The Hunger Games, tack on Children of Men for good measure, and you have this book. I’m not sure if I have ever read such derivative sci-fi. It went straight past cliché and into aping popular franchises while stopping short of actual intellectual property theft. There were a few clever twists on the concepts involved, but not enough to raise this above a “seen it all before and the other guys did it better” 2.5-3 stars plot.

The physical descriptions knocked this the rest of the way down to 2 stars. There was way too much “flexing pecks” “chiseled abs” “ebony locks” “tangle of lashes” “mahogany stare” etc. for me. And only about half of those descriptions came in the (frequent) lusting-after-each-other scenes!

Between the Harlequin Romance-esque vocabulary and painfully derivative plot this book did not work for me at all.

(There were also way too many misused/misspelled words – repel instead of rappel, alude instead of elude, toe-head instead of towhead, etc. – but hopefully those are due to my reading a proof copy and won’t remain in the published edition)

Info-Dumping Trumpian Sci-Fi

Robot Depot by [F. Moran, Russell]Title: Robot Depot
Author: Russell F. Moran
Genre: Sci-Fi
Pages: 202
Rating: 1.5 of 5

I seldom accept requests to review self-published books because of their tendency to be lacking in quality (professional editors and publishers’ rejection letters exist for a reason!). However, the premise to this one (ISIS must be stopped from using consumer-grade robots to deliver bombs) sounded interesting enough that I decided to risk it…that risk did not pay off.

Stylistically this was amateurish. The dialogue was stilted and little more than over-explained info-dumping. The narration switched erratically between first and third person. Most of the characters were so flat as to be virtually indistinguishable.

The actual plot of the story involving ISIS didn’t really begin until almost halfway through the book. The first 88 pages was a little setting and lots of meandering regarding current and near-future breakthroughs in robotics & AI technology and their implications for economics, politics, ethics, etc.  Most of the plot threads in this first half became completely inconsequential or remained unresolved once the actual story started.

The actual story lacked believability. Like most people who were alive in 2001, I remember the national fear, anger, and bravado that followed the 9/11 attacks. I sense very little of that here even though the attacks are of a similar magnitude. Our plot is mostly about the CEO of Robot Depot sitting around with his lawyers, PR people, and the FBI and discussing how to save his company (and stop further attacks, of course). There is little sense of a nation in crisis outside the boardroom, and it just doesn’t ring true. Then, in the last few chapters this becomes a completely different style of book and it all ends in sadistic vigilante “justice” to which the government turns a blind eye.

If that’s not enough, the author’s Trumpian political opinions drive the book’s main conflicts. I’m not a fan of politically preachy books in general whatever the politics, and this one was particularly cringey. Just look at the cast of characters –

  • Good guys: our billionaire CEO and his potty-mouthed wife (both veterans), his lawyers and PR people, a couple Arabs who we are clearly informed are definitely not Muslims, and students who beat down violently protesting “lefties” and “academics” and thus provide “a win for Western civilization.”
  • Bad guys: “Academics,” left-wing protestors (most of whom “don’t even know what they’re protesting”), ISIS, “Islamic culture and the ‘Religion of Peace'”

In summary (since I’ve already gone on way too long), I seldom give a book fewer than 2 stars, but this one is so lacking in style and plot that it richly deserves 1.5 (the extra .5 is because some of the economic and ethical questions raised in meandering bits were somewhat interesting).

Final Killer Robot Noir

Title: I Only Killed Him Once
(Ray Electromatic Mysteries: Book 3)
Author: Adam Christopher
Genre: Sci-Fi Noir
Pages: 224
Rating: 4.5 of 5
Future Release Date: 7/10/18 (Thanks to the author and publisher for a free eARC through NetGalley. This does not affect the content of my review)

The concluding book in Adam Christopher’s LA Trilogy pulls together plot threads from the previous 2.75 books (one short story + one novella + two novels…reviews here) and ties them up in a nice pretty bow. You could probably read this on its own and be able to follow the plot since there is plenty of recapping (too much in my opinion), but why would you deprive yourself of the joy of reading the full version of what came before?

This final tale of the robot PI-turned-hitman in alternate 1960’s Los Angeles contains some fun twists and turns. Admittedly, most of them you can see coming a mile away as they have been pretty heavily hinted at, but the big one caught me by surprise without feeling completely random. Not too many books do that to me, so that (plus some clever Raymond Chandler in-jokes) made this the highest rated book in the series for me. I don’t want to say much more than that so as to avoid spoilers.

Overall: I highly recommend this series! There are some areas where you have to suspend disbelief and go with the flow (but classic noir is always a bit hackish anyway), and you have to realize that the books are not as self-contained and stand-alone as classic noir fiction, but this series is just a lot of fun, and this book was a great wrap-up to it.

Ode to Our Future Overlords

Title: Robots vs. Fairies
Editors: Dominik Parisien & Navah Wolfe
Genre: Sci-fi & Fantasy Short Story Anthology
Pages: 373
Rating: 4.5 of 5

The introduction to this collection assumes that we will eventually be ruled by either robots or fairies and includes ample flattery of both sides. After all, we wouldn’t want to anger our future overlords. Each story features robots, fairies, or both (and a couple with robotic fairies). After each story the author takes a page to tell why they are “team robot” or “team fairy.”

As with any short story collection, the tone and quality varied quite a bit between stories. There was only one that I actively disliked (“Ironheart” by Jonathan Maberry was just whiny and depressing). Some of the cleverest ones riffed on classic fairy tales (e.g. PinnochioThe Tempest, A Midsummers Night’s Dream), but my favorite was the hilarious “Three Robots Experience Objects Left Behind from the Era of Humans for the First Time” by John Scalzi. Only one story featured an actual robots vs. fairies conflict, which I found surprising given the title, but the variety that was present made this a highly entertaining collection that was greater than the sum of its parts.

In unrelated personal news, the move up to Michigan is moving steadily along…just put in an offer on the house (5 minutes from the beach!) and should have a definite move date by Tuesday.

Ascend Higher

Title: Arm of the Sphinx
(The Books of Babel – Book 2)
Author: Josiah Bancroft
Genre: Kafkaesque Steampunk
Pages: 448
Rating: 4 of 5
Future Release Date: 3/13/18 (though I’m pretty sure it has been previously released self-pub – thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for a free eARC)

The first book in this series, Senlin Ascends, was one of my favorite reads last year (review here). Senlin, now an aerial pirate captain of sorts, continues to search for his lost wife in the Kafkaesque “ringdoms” of the Tower of Babel. His mechanical-armed first mate, Edith Winters (a major secondary character from the first book), becomes at least as much of a main character as Senlin, and the other three members of his crew are sympathetically fleshed out as well.

As in the first book, the plot is a bit episodic, but builds toward a better understanding of the characters, the Tower, and, most importantly, the mysterious Sphinx whose name appears on most of the mechanical devices found in the tower. The narration continues to be light (but not farcical), and the worldbuilding and developing plot are fascinating.

Unfortunately for my personal enjoyment, some elements of the plot seem to be turning in directions that I really don’t like – highlight for *MILDLY SPOILER-Y SPECULATION*:

I can’t stand “I’m on a quest to rescue/return to my wife/lover but am going to go ahead and commit adultery along the way” stories, and we’re definitely headed that direction if nothing changes. Also, I’m not a fan of taking biblical stories/concepts and flipping them around to make God (or his analog) the evil tyrant and we might be heading in that direction.

*END MILDLY SPOILER-Y SPECULATION*

I’m more than willing to keep going with the series once the next book comes out, but I really hope it doesn’t go the direction I think it will.