Paul’s Book Reviews: Fiction, Science Fiction, Mystery

Roddy Doyle

A tale of memory and confronting the past. The ending prompted me to reconsider everything I’d just read and see it in a new light. I note many reviewers saying they did more than that: upon finishing, they went back to page one and began again. I didn’t go that far, but only because there’s a stack of library books with pressing due dates on my coffee table.

I was lucky, I guess, in that I got through childhood and school without anything awful happening to me. But I know several people who didn’t, and while one can never know another’s inner turmoil, they seem well-adjusted in adulthood. There’s a great body of literature about the horrors of boys’ schools in the UK and Ireland, and I daresay most British and Irish boys who lived through the experience turned out okay as well. Victor’s mileage, clearly, varied. And I accept Roddy Doyle’s premise that it did.

Of interest to me, as a reader in post-Roe America: the frequent references to Irish opposition, 30 & 40 years ago, to abortion and even contraception, which were in fact illegal there in those days, a generally unquestioned popular embrace of the Catholic church’s position on same. More fun: Radio Luxembourg providing a soundtrack to young people in Ireland (and Britain, and most of Western Europe) in the 1960s and 70s.

across the sandAcross the Sand (The Sand Chronicles #2)
Hugh Howey

I waited impatiently for “Across the Sand” to be released, then held off starting it until my read-now list was clear. A few pages in, I realized I needed to read the first book again, the collected stories that make up “Sand” (Sand Chronicles #1), which I read & reviewed almost 7 years ago. I didn’t mind the detour: when it comes to Howey, one has to be patient.

So was “Across the Sand” worth the long wait? Yes, although to me the shine of earlier Howey works has lost some of its luster. This novel picks up exactly where the first collection of stories ends and follows the same structure, as if it, too, is a collection of stories. The reader finally sees the mysterious city to the east, meets some of its residents, learns the fate of Springston and Low Pub sand dwellers who crossed No Mans Land to get to it, and learns much more about the lifestyle and technology of sand diving. There’s a central conflict between the agents of Agyl, the city to the east, and the people of the sand-covered wastes, and this is the heart of the story, along with lesser conflicts between sand dweller factions and a third group, nomads.

I was frustrated with the science fiction technology of sand diving. It seems impossible, contrary to the laws of nature and physics, but you have to buy into it to enjoy the story. I tried, but disbelief stayed with me, chapter after chapter, and I can’t rate this book as highly as earlier Howey works. The characters, though, seem real; so do the details of their lives and the day to day work of survival in a harsh environment. The world building, apart from the technology of sand diving, is solid.

Along with other reviewers, I’d like to know more about how the world of the Sand Chronicles came to be. What happened to bury Denver, along with most of Colorado, under hundreds of meters of sand dunes? Why are the easterly winds constant? What about the empire to the east of Agyl, or what lies west of the Rockies? What’s the story of the nomads, and is there anything to the rumor of cannibals? Howey leaves a lot of possibilities open, and I expect his fans will be on him to continue the Sand Chronicles.

spare manThe Spare Man
Mary Robinette Kowal

In “The Spare Man” by Mary Robinette Kowal, a stylish couple and their dog solve a murder mystery, à la the Thin Man movies of the 1930s, aboard an interplanetary cruise liner bound for Mars.

One hopes future us will be less discriminatory toward, and less hung up on, gender. Contemporary science fiction writers take different approaches to the issue. The authors of “The Expanse” do it by building a future in which men and women (and races, and ethnicities) are equally represented in all professions and levels of government. The author of “The Spare Man” does it by bludgeoning the reader with preferred pronouns, even when the person who prefers to be addressed as ze/zim isn’t present on the page. To me at least, Ms Kowal’s approach comes across as forced, unnatural, propagandistic.

In an earlier science fiction novel, “The Calculating Stars,” Ms Kowal included woman, minority, and gay characters in key roles, explaining in an afterword that while women, minority, and gay scientists and engineers in fact make significant contributions to space exploration, they’re mostly written out of the histories. Her goal, she said, is to write them back in. I love her for that — and wish she’d taken a similar approach to gender in this novel.

As for the story, I share other reviewers’ iffiness toward Tesla Crane. She’s not particularly likable, and the sexually-charged banter between her and Shal is annoyingly cutesy (but very like that of the cinematic couple they’re modeled on). I’ll have to watch some of those movies again … did Nick and Nora really drink that much?

Blake Crouch

I came back to Blake Crouch after reading “Recursion” and “Dark Matter.” Here’s the gist of my reaction to the earlier novels:

“Recursion” pulled me in, but the second half of the story went on and on. Then it went on and on some more.

“Dark Matter” was more enjoyable but the resolution was too obviously contrived. Most of the author’s themes have been explored in other works of science fiction and there was nothing ground-breaking here. I was entertained, not blown away.

“Upgrade,” in the end, is a superhero story. Superhero stores are fantasy, not science fiction. Just because Arthur C. Clarke said “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” doesn’t mean you can call fantasy science fiction. Not with me, anyway.

The sufficiently advanced technology here is gene modification. Logan’s mom gives him a genetic upgrade. Logan becomes a superman with great strength, enhanced perceptions, perfect memory, instant reflexes, speed reading abilities, and on and on. But he meets his match in his sister, also upgraded. No sweat, he’s so smart now he can just upgrade himself even more. Nothing can stand in his way, at least for long. Blah blah blah.

You can drive a fleet of trucks through the plot holes. But no spoilers. As with the earlier books, the first chapters pull you in, but after a while you’re tempted to start flipping ahead, looking for something that isn’t the same old same old.

beyond the burn lineBeyond the Burn Line
Paul McAuley

Unlike other readers who reviewed “Beyond the Burn Line,” I was more drawn in by the first half of the story than the second. Not having read the publisher’s synopsis, I was left on my own to figure out who Pilgrim and his people are, and, via geological cues, where their adventures take place. I had settled on evolved raccoons and the Americas and am pleased to learn I was right. The story of Pilgrim Saltmire’s ultimately frustrated quest for information on the origins of an artifact from the age of intelligent bears was engaging and kept my interest. This half of the novel can stand on its own, and perhaps should have.

My interest flagged during the novel’s second half, when the POV switches to that of Ysbel Moonsdaughter, a post-First Contact human searching for the same artifact, in cahoots with Goodwill Saltmire, a nephew of Pilgrim’s, and the mysterious Mother, a powerful artificial intelligence which turns out to be quite in the dark about any history outside its own immediate purview. There are a lot of characters, human and raccoon, in this half of the novel, which goes on and on, with lots of repetitious self-examination on Ysbel’s part.

The novel ends on a bit of a cliff-hanger, which may be McAuley’s way of signaling more to come.

I like world-building in science fiction and in this “Beyond the Burn Line” does not disappoint.

station eternityStation Eternity (The Midsolar Murders #1)
Mur Lafferty

I looked forward to reading “Station Eternity,” but found the actual experience frustrating to the point of unpleasantness. Somewhere around the halfway point the level of complexity increased beyond my capability to keep up, and what at first seemed an intriguing premise — a closed room murder mystery on a space station with human and alien suspects — became buried under a seemingly unending series of newly-revealed connections between characters and events, slowly dribbled out, each one changing everything, and a bewildering number of shifts in points of view.

Mur Lafferty had an intriguing idea, but I think she erred in jumping into the minds and motivations of too many characters while shuffling Mallory off to one side. Mallory starts out as a well-developed character but later becomes a paper cutout, a progression in reverse. Only at the end does she step back into the limelight, but by then I no longer cared and was only reading because I’d gotten too far to abandon the book.

I don’t expect any author to be able to imagine the truly alien, so I won’t criticize Mur Lafferty for giving us aliens who, weird as they may physically appear, are understandable and relatable, with thoughts and motivations any human can easily grasp. And besides, no matter what outlandish detail the author introduces, it’s only there as part of the mystery, its purpose to be revealed at the end. I thought it telling, for example, that the first two humans to enter into symbiotic relationships with aliens … Xan with the Gneiss, Mallory with the Sundry … remain basically unaltered by the experience. Xan is able to communicate with a Gneiss who has turned itself into a spaceship; Mallory is able to access data observed by the Sundry … convenient assists in solving the mystery but not any sort of meaningful experience with the alien.

Too many characters, too many connections … I got bogged down and lost interest, hence my low rating.

no plan bNo Plan B (Jack Reacher #27)
Andrew Child

As with the two previous Reacher novels written by Andrew Child, while the structure and feel of Lee Child’s original novels are here, everything comes out flat. Reacher is mechanical. The fight scenes are identical. The big reveals, dumped in a clump in the final three pages, are laughably far-fetched.

Did an AI write this? Damn, AI’s come a long way. But it still has a long way to go.

2 thoughts on “Paul’s Book Reviews: Fiction, Science Fiction, Mystery

  • Yes, Nick and Nora basically stayed drunk all the time, at least in the movies.
    I cringe when I see cute fluffy talking raccoons washing their food. If you’ve ever had a pair of these big dirty animals banging around your attic, smashing down the insulation, peeing in the corners, shitting in big piles, chewing up your electrical wiring and HVC ducting and birthing a bunch of babies to die in the walls up there then you won’t find them cute in the slightest. We need more 23skidoo raccoon coats.
    I’m with you on the difference between SF and fantasy, which I generally don’t read except for the scarce worthwhile fantasy from Larry Niven, and of course Ursula K Leguin. SF has to follow some rules while in fantasy anything can occur at any time. Making it silly.
    Tod recently posted…Old Town Wahoo Sailing Canoe Project.My Profile

Leave a Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

CommentLuv badge