Book review: Time Was

Time WasTime Was by Ian McDonald
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This time travel novella zips along, taking the sorts of twists one often expects in stories of time travel, and McDonald’s facility with language elevates it. At the same time the brevity of the piece undermines the story to a degree, leaving some characters more as sketches than feeling like real, living people.

And like most time travel stories, if you pull at a thread you’re likely to unravel the entire thing.

The story takes place in the present, with Emmett Leigh, a book collector, coming across a mysterious collection of poems called Time Was. The volumes (there are multiple copies, though they come without any information regarding publication or any other kind of record) contain letters written by one lover to another during World War I. And World War II. And the conflict in Bosnia and so on. Emmett comes to believe they are jumping through time and becomes obsessed with learning all he can about them.

The two lovers, Ben and Tom, are featured both through the letters, and in separate scenes, with the story jumping between different eras and the present. McDonald does fairly well with the protagonist and the present-day characters but Ben and Tom never feel particularly real, perhaps in part due to the way they are presented in the story. This also happens to contradict the marketing push for the novella, which sells it as a love story. It’s more a mystery and the focus is very much on Emmett Leigh, not Ben and Tom.

Still, McDonald has tremendous fun with his prose and it buoys the story beyond the wobbly time travel shenanigans and thin characterizations. It’s a solid, if flawed, read, but one I’d still recommend to those who are suckers for time travel adventures (as I am).

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Book review: Acceptance

Acceptance (Southern Reach, #3)Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Southern Reach trilogy concludes with Acceptance, and it’s not a spoiler to say the title tips the author’s hand a bit.

As with the second book, Acceptance bounces between multiple characters, but here VanderMeer dives fully in, not just shifting perspective, but also switching between first, second and third person, as well as jumping between the onset of Area X 30 years earlier, the present day, and points in-between. Combining all this with the general enigma of Area X could lead to confusion, but VanderMeer keeps things focused. More than that, he begins stitching together different threads, by introducing and following characters hinted at or only briefly mentioned in the earlier books, such as Saul, the lighthouse keeper.

Again, it is difficult to say much without getting into huge spoilers, but what I enjoyed the most about the concluding book was the escalation of events and the contrast with the very ordinary and human characters swept up in Area X in its early days. There is a sense of unease running throughout this part of the story and VanderMeer works that unease well as unlikely alliances are forged in the face of increasing weirdness and the sense among some of the characters that humans can do little to stop the spread of Area X and its effects.

While the trilogy does come to an end of sorts, it also wouldn’t surprise me if VanderMeer returned to Area X at some point. He has created a deep and deeply weird place, and it’s one I would enjoy visiting again. After putting on my safety mask first, of course.

If you enjoy science fiction mysteries crossed with a bit of horror, you’ll likely enjoy the Southern Reach trilogy, but be warned–you will not have all the answers by the end. This is most definitely not a “pull back to reveal the man behind the curtain” type of story.

Recommended.

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Book review: Authority

Authority (Southern Reach, #2)Authority by Jeff VanderMeer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Book 2 of the Southern Reach trilogy changes gears, switching from the first person perspective of the biologist to third person and switching between several characters, though focusing primarily on John “Control” Rodriguez, the newly-appointed erstwhile director of the Southern Reach. While Annihilation explores deep within Area X itself, Authority focuses on the organization investigating the area.

Perhaps not surprisingly, much of the Southern Reach is as weird and off-kilter as Area X itself, the product of 30 years of mostly fruitless efforts to reveal its mysteries, along with the after-effects of excursions both official and unauthorized.

VanderMeer peels back the layers here, and where Annihilation is steeped in mystery and things out of reach, here things are a lot more pointed, right down to nearly every character having an ironic name. Control is rarely seen to be in any kind of control. The assistant director, Grace, is cold and ruthless. Severance, Control’s mother, is…well, you get the idea.

The strength of this book, for me, comes in two parts. One is the interaction between Control and the biologist (referred to here as Ghost Bird, a name originally applied to her by her late husband) as he tries to wrestle information from her and comes to sympathize with her instead, the other being the increasingly frustrating attempts to understand or, well, control, what is happening in Area X, coupled with the feeling that it could get a lot worse without any notice.

The book ends on another cliffhanger, with the fate of the biologist and Control seemingly intertwined.

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Book review: Annihilation

Annihilation (Southern Reach, #1)Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

While each book of the Southern Reach trilogy has its own feel, it’s hard to imagine anyone reading the first book and not pushing through all three to see how it ends (assuming they liked the first book). That said, while I view this as essentially one story split across three books, there’s enough unique in the approach of each to warrant separate reviews.

First, I’m a sucker for concepts like this. It’s simple and grabbed me immediately: Something weird has happened to a stretch of “forgotten coast” that the government is describing as an ecological disaster, but is far weirder than that. An organization called the Southern Reach sets up shop just outside the border of “Area X” to investigate. The first novel picks up about 30 years after the appearance of Area X, with the research team at the Southern Reach sending endless expeditions into the zone, but coming away with nothing to show but riddles, and for many of the expedition members, death.

Annihilation is told from the perspective of a biologist, part of an all-women team sent in as the “twelfth” expedition. None of the members of the team address each other by name, only by profession–the biologist, the surveyor, the psychologist. This detachment is meant to keep the group focused (and more easily malleable by the Southern Reach). The biologist serves as an interesting narrator, combining a cool, aloof attitude with passion for her work and fascination with the things she finds in Area X.

The story, told in the form of a journal kept by the biologist, details how things quickly go sideways for the team. To say more would be to enter spoiler territory and since all three books trade heavily on the mystery and enigma of Area X, it’s best to go in knowing as little as possible.

Suffice to say that by the end of Annihilation, the biologist has seen and gone through a lot. She urges everyone reading the journal to make no attempt to follow her into Area X. The cliffhanger ending all but has TO BE CONTINUED… on the last page.

And it worked. I was intrigued by the mysteries presented and keen to learn more in Book 2. VanderMeer writes with what is at times an almost lyrical style, which complements the strangeness of the setting the story takes place in. There’s also the open question of whether the biologist is a reliable narrator, but no hand is revealed in Annihilation.

Here I can say I would recommend the trilogy to those who love mysteries, especially ones involving fantastic or weird places. For those who love mysteries and even more love to see them neatly solved by story’s end…maybe not so much.

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Book review: And Then Begin Again: Six Tales of Hope

And Then Begin Again: Six Tales of Hope (Dark Collections Book 2)And Then Begin Again: Six Tales of Hope by Ann Christy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ann Christy’s second collection of six stories covers an eclectic mix of time travel, super powers, far-future doom and alternate history. Some spoilers ahead, so be warned.

“Sedge” puts together a young man and woman on a newly-settled world, each of them not quite fitting their own culture. There is an abrupt tonal shift due to a rather significant event happening right at the end, and I felt it was glossed over a little too readily, but it’s still charming to watch these two flirt on this new world before that happens.

“The Mirroring” is a weird story about a new counselor investigating some very strange self-worth issues some students at a private college are experiencing. A strong (and agreeable) Twilight Zone vibe here.

“Life/Time in the New World.” Alpha male business guy gets frozen for 300 years, pops out of his capsule and continues being an alpha male business guy in the future, which is part paradise, part sneaky Twilight Zone hell. All the pieces are here, but the story felt a bit perfunctory at times, and the character’s growth as an individual almost seems deliberately undercut by the ending.

“Unnatural” imagines an alternate history where Pope John Paul I doesn’t die after only 33 days and basically announces that births as a result of in vitro fertilization are A-OK, resulting in a future where natural birth is…illegal? Again, all the pieces here are put together well, but the basic premise, while a fun “What if?” exercise, doesn’t seem that plausible. Maybe this is just a reflection of the world we live in now.

“Yankari” tells the story of Olisa, an eight year girl in Africa who has some very potent abilities that she struggles to control and use to protect wildlife from poachers. I felt the ending broadened out the story in a way that was unnecessary, but this is still a tight, enjoyable tale of a little girl learning to harness some amazing abilities to do the right thing.

“Lulu Ad Infinitum” is an SF piece about a colony ship that suffers a catastrophic failure, forcing its lone survivor, the titular Lulu, to survive by cloning, then learning to live with, herself. Despite the grim backdrop, the tone remains surprisingly light as Lulu grapples with a possibly untrustworthy AI, the process of raising her clones and more. Christy does an excellent job here with the setting, fleshing it out in satisfying detail.

Overall, even the lesser stories were eminently readable and I enjoyed all six, just some more than others. An easy recommendation if you’re looking for a blast of SF/fantasy variety with a (mostly) hopeful theme.

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Book review: All Systems Red (The Murderbot Diaries, #1)

All Systems Red (The Murderbot Diaries, #1)All Systems Red by Martha Wells
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Can a story about a murderbot be funny, charming and even a tiny bit touching? Yes, it can.

In the short novel All Systems Red Martha Wells presents a story told from the point of view of a SecUnit–an android designed to protect humans who, in this case, are mapping out an unknown planet on behalf of their corporate masters. Events take a turn for the deadly when a neighboring habitat’s humans are found dead, victims of an unknown assault.

Despite the grim setting, Wells presents the partly-organic and sex organ-free (“If a construct has those it’s a sexbot”) android as a delightfully fretful being that really wants to protect its humans, even if it is kind of afraid of interacting with them (it prefers opaquing its helmet to avoid making eye contact).

The story, such as it is, is really just a stage for the murderbot to act on, and while it gets the opportunity to use its arm-mounted cannons, it spends most of its time consuming serials and other media it’s downloaded, and pondering what–or who–it is and what it wants to be.

It’s not as profound as it sounds. But it is consistently amusing, thanks to SecUnit’s droll telling of the tale.

My only real criticism is minor–the story ends a bit abruptly, setting up the next chapter of The Murderbot Diaries. Otherwise, very much recommended.

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Book review: The Fold

The FoldThe Fold by Peter Clines
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’d probably average the rating of The Fold to 3.5 stars if I could. Overall it tracks closer to 4, but parts of it bring it down a bit.

This is another “opening a portal to other dimensions maybe isn’t a good idea” story and I’m a sucker for them. The Fold is a quick, snarky romp filled with grouchy scientists, weird cockroaches and quantum donuts.

Anyone looking for a lot of hard science to chew on may be disappointed. The science, such as it is, is deliberately vague, even goofy. The main character is a high school teacher, not a scientist, albeit one with a genius-level IQ and eidetic memory (like photographic memory, but covering all senses, not just sight). Mike Erikson catalogues everything he experiences through metaphorical red and black ants that carry information back and forth, allowing him to essentially treat his mind as a computer with near limitless storage. This comes in incredibly handy as the story unfolds (no pun intended), though Erikson points out the downside to one of the scientists, namely that every horrible thing he witnesses also stays with him as vividly as if just happened.

Erikson is hired by a government friend to check out a secretive government-funded project working on a way to fold space and allow for instant travel over vast distances. Located outside San Diego, the small team of DARPA scientists working on what they call The Albuquerque Door treat Erikson as an interloper, though he assures them he is an impartial observer who would like to see them succeed. They assure him that The Door is very safe.

But things go wrong. Then they go very horribly wrong. Part of the fun in the second half of the novel comes from watching the team grapple with events spiraling out of their control and seeing how they react and adjust (or at least valiantly try to). Without getting into blatant spoilers, the story eventually heads off in a direction that feels more like fantasy, with the science feeling more like magic. It’s a little weird.

The banter between the characters is snappy and the pace never flags. There are no real subplots or distractions from the main event, so it’s an easy read to plow through.

Oddly, perhaps more than any book I’ve read in years, I kept imagining specific actors as the characters. The head of the project, a man named Arthur, brought to mind Morgan Freeman so vividly that I would confidently place a bet on Freeman playing the role in a movie adaptation. Or at least the casting director trying to nab him for the part.

Likewise, the engineer Sasha I saw as Sarah Douglas circa Superman II (1981). I’m not even sure why. The weirdest was probably the inevitable (and, IMO, unnecessary) romantic interest of Jamie, who made me think of Pam from the TV series Archer. Yes, she reminded me of a cartoon character.

The Fold is far from perfect, but the whole thing rolls along so smoothly it’s hard to get upset by what amounts to quibbles. As with most alternate dimension stories, it’s never too wise to spend a lot of time examining the plot, lest you find holes you could squeeze a mirror Earth through.

If you like these kinds of stories and you’re not fussed with the science being a bit flimsy, you’ll find The Fold well worth the ride.

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Book review: The Ways We End: Six Tales of Doom

The Ways We End: Six Tales of Doom (Dark Collections Book 1)The Ways We End: Six Tales of Doom by Ann Christy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The bland cover of The Ways We End (at least of the ebook edition) is unfortunate because it may turn away potential readers and they would miss out on a terrific collection of stories by Ann Christy that depict apocalyptic scenarios that deviate from or subvert the usual zombies/nuclear war/alien invasion tropes. Even the author’s notes at the end of each story are a delight, conveying the infectious joy Christy had in both writing the stories and their reception.

All six stories are well worth reading and are best without spoilers, so here’s some quick takes, in order:

“A Cottage of Hunger” puts together a rules-following protagonist, her quite mad mother and a lost teenage girl in a world where the sun is permanently blotted out in the sky. It raises interesting questions on how far some people might go to preserve a sense of order, believing they are doing the right–the proper–thing.

“The Mergans” is a story set in the far future, where descendants of Earth have formed a galactic “Peace Force” that uses its military might to intervene in corrupted cultures of planets colonized from seed ships, mostly by blasting everything to smithereens. The particular culture in “The Mergans” is especially ghastly in its treatment of women, but its liberators may not be quite what they seem, either.

“The Mountains of Five” follows the journey of a 12-year old girl exiled from her village and forced to find her way through a dystopian landscape. I found this story particularly evocative, its spare prose perfectly capturing both the spirit of the titular girl, Five, and her dangerous journey. There is a twist ending of sorts, but the astute reader will likely see it coming. It doesn’t make the story any less effective, though.

“The Bridge.” As Christy notes, this is a quick little “spooky campfire” story and it works nicely for what it is, but it is the slightest of the stories collected here. Still, trolls.

“Rock or Shell” is a time travel story that hints at larger mysteries while never fully revealing them, leaving the reader with a sense that there is a lot more to this depiction of a mist-like realm where thought alone can send someone off into nothingness, erasing them from time and space. Dashes of humor lighten the constant undercurrent of tension.

“A Mother So Beautiful” is probably the darkest and most disturbing tale of the collection. It eschews the body horror of “The Mergans” in favor of telling the story of a sociopath whose mother attempts to stamp out aggression through genetics and achieves horrific success. Watching the world disintegrate from the eyes of a profoundly unstable person is something that will stay with you well after the story ends.

Overall, a fine collection of doom, where some hope or happy endings are (usually) at hand. Recommended.

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Book review: All Our Wrong Todays

All Our Wrong TodaysAll Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m a sucker for certain story types and time travel is one of them. The plots in time travel stories are almost always of the “pull one loose thread and the whole thing unravels” variety, with the science ranging from sounding possible to being completely silly.

All Our Wrong Todays is a sometimes odd combination of extremes, with its tone shifting from being very light to very dark and back again. And again. The science is presented with a veneer of plausibility, even as the framing device (which in this case is an actual device, a kind of perpetual motion machine that produces endless free energy) seems wildly unlikely.

But this is ultimately more a story about a person–in this case a shiftless 30-something named Tom Barren–coming to grips with who he is and what’s important to him than it is an action-packed time travel adventure.

Though there is action. And time travel adventure.

Told from a first person perspective, author Elan Mastai does an almost too-convincing job presenting Tom as an irredeemable loser. A nice guy, sure, but also an unambitious, inept, unthinking clod. Since it’s Tom himself describing these qualities, the self-loathing threatens to smother the reader. At one point I nearly put the book aside. I stuck with it, though, and things pick up as Tom is forced out of his somnolent existence after he screws up time in a big way. As in many time travel stories, messing up timelines is pretty easy while fixing them proves much trickier.

For a first novel, Mastai has done a terrific job crafting an entertaining yarn. Yes, the science is wonky but watching the different players interact across different timelines–including Tom engaging in an epic internal battle with his other selves–is worth the ride.

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Book review: From a Distant Star

From a Distant StarFrom a Distant Star by Karen McQuestion
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Some spoilers ahead but nothing that should detract much from the story.

From a Distant Star is one of those books I bought because it was on sale and the premise interested me. I otherwise had no idea about what to expect.

As it turns out, it’s a Young Adult adventure, something I wouldn’t normally read, but I was captivated by the opening scene from the family dog’s perspective. After that the story shifts mainly to a first person narrative as told by 17-year-old Emma Larson as she recalls how her boyfriend Lucas gets stricken with terminal cancer, miraculously recovers and then, along with Emma, gets caught up in a lot of hijinks involving sinister federal agents, a “witch” and people who are clearly not fans of Ancient Aliens. Or any aliens.

McQuestion capably channels the neuroses and exaggerated, still-developing emotions of Emma, presenting her as resilient, dedicated and resourceful, but still very much a teenager, prone to behavior that seems perfectly logical to a teenage mind and…less so to an adult one. Her utter devotion to her high school sweetheart at times feels like puppy love gone off the deep end, but then again, high school sweethearts sometimes do get married–and stay married.

The character of Scout, a kind of teenage Starman, is handled well. Watching him adapt to Lucas’s body, to Emma and to his human “family” is amusing and offers up numerous opportunities to hold up a mirror on how humans act–usually to our detriment.

The book shifts gears fairly abruptly around the midway point, going from a fish-out-of-water tale to a more conventional on-the-run thriller, but it stays tonally consistent and once the pace picks up it steams along to the conclusion.

I am left wondering if the character of Mrs Kokesh was actually needed. More than any other, she seemed to exist to service the plot, fading into the background until the plot required her again.

Conversely, Lucas’s younger brother Eric, wise beyond his 14 years, felt under-utilized.

These are minor flaws, though. Overall, this is a quick, light and at times adorable read. I can’t say what the intended audience would think of this story, but I found it a cute diversion and a nice change-up from my usual fare.

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Book review: Blind Lake

Blind LakeBlind Lake by Robert Charles Wilson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Blind Lake is a near-future story that imagines a world where we have created powerful quantum computers without really understanding how they work or what, in fact, they might do. It also imagines that people will still print out copies of their email to read. :P

Author Robert Charles Wilson falls into the trap of trying to extrapolate near-future gadgetry and technology and having current technology (as of 2017) make the extrapolation look a little silly. While the quantum computers at the Blind Lake research facility that create video images of two distant worlds, one with sentient life, seem reasonably convincing–mainly because they are steeped in mystery–the references to “pocket servers” that all of the characters tote around feel outdated in a world overflowing with smartphones (the novel predates the iPhone by four years).

Still, the story, a combination of mystery and suspense on both human and cosmic scales, is well-told and builds convincingly toward a conclusion that slightly disappoints by feeling a bit disconnected, somewhat like most of the characters.

Those characters include a withdrawn eleven year old who sees a “Mirror Girl” that looks like her and may or may not exist only in her mind, Marguerite, the mother of the girl and a scientist who doubts herself and her ability to judge others after a failed marriage to a Ding Dong-munching and verbally abusive bully–who also happens to work at Blind Lake, a reporter named Chris who carries guilt over the role his book may have played in a person’s death. Nearly every character has some kind of emotional baggage and when the Blind Lake facility is sealed off from the outside world, with no explanation as to why, the various doubts, neuroses and obsessions escalate in parallel to the budding crisis caused by the quantum computers perhaps taking a little too much initiative.

In the end Blind Lake is a weirdly hopeful sort of story, albeit in an ambiguous way that may even lead to a sense of existential dread–as it does for at least one character. The detachment and relentless struggles of everyone is a bit wearying at time and Marguerite’s ex-husband Ray is an odd sort of pseudo-villain who never gets fleshed out enough to really resonate as well as he could.

Still, the escalation of tension and the unfolding mystery of both the observed alien race and just what the quantum computers might be doing, make Blind Lake worth visiting. Just be sure to leave before you feel the earth move. It’s definitely not romance.

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Book review: 2001: A Space Odyssey

2001: A Space Odyssey (Space Odyssey, #1)2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The novel of 2001 was written as the film was being shot and apart from the ultimate destination of Discovery being Saturn rather than Jupiter, it sticks close to the film’s plot (apparently they couldn’t get the look of Saturn’s rings quite right for the film).

The book is short, giving it more of a movie tie-in feel than one would normally expect in a Clarke novel. And–as Clarke admits in the foreword–the novel makes explicit a lot of what is otherwise left to the viewer to interpret in the film.

While I enjoyed the book, particularly the detailing of life aboard the Discovery before Hal goes bonkers, its brevity ultimately left it feeling a bit unfinished. That Clarke ultimately wrote a sequel (and then two more after) is not surprising, as the conclusion feels like the end of a first act.

As a companion piece to the film, it perhaps fares better, providing more explanation for those wanting it. The depiction of the enigmatic aliens helping to shape humanity is intriguing but again, cuts short at the end.

While this is not an essential work of Clarke’s, it’s still a solid read but may be best for those committing to the entire Odyssey quadrilogy or those interested in learning more about what was going on in the now-classic film.

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