Unexpected Book Reviews

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In August, I took an unexpected trip to Germany and the Nordic countries.  I hadn’t planned on going, but the stars suddenly aligned, and I found myself wrapping up projects and packing my bags for Hamburg.

I’ll save the details for another post, but spending time with professional writers got me thinking about some of the good books I’ve read recently, and want to emulate. I generally don’t review books I don’t like, so if you see it here, there was something special about it.

GHOST TALKERS
Mary Robinette Kowal
It’s World War I and the Allied Powers are taking intelligence reports  from the ghosts of dying soldiers. Pretty solid strategy until the Central Powers find out, and the cloak and dagger starts. This collision of ordinary and supernatural put a new spin on the themes of love and war. The entire story is enjoyable, but I particularly liked watching the deceased soldiers make their final report. The pathos of these moments—as the soldiers realize they have died and this is their last communion with the physical world—created a weighty texture for me, and begged the question, “What message would I send?”

THREE PARTS DEAD
Max Gladstone
Feels like science fiction, but is fantasy. Magical power is traded in contracts, and even the poorest villages rely on that power. When the biggest brokers fall, wielders “Craft” are called on to patch things up before nations tumble. But sometimes the contracts are complicated, and riddled with Craft-sucking parasites that don’t go quietly. Oh, and the biggest brokers of power are the gods.

The stakes are high, the characters well-drawn, and the plot is intricate and almost unpredictable. Gladstone borrows nothing from the fantasy tropes of yesteryear, except maybe the concept of “mostly dead.”

I especially liked the cigarette, though I don’t smoke.

PARTIALS
Dan Wells
Post-apocalyptic gene thriller for young adults. Partials is about surviving in a world where young adults aren’t the dominant life form anymore, about a disease that kills every newborn, and about the genetic experiment that doesn’t quite bring humanity back from the brink. There is an angsty teenager and the beginnings of a triangle, but even if YA isn’t your cup of tea, the story is pretty awesome. I’d recommend the beginning of the book for young adult readers, and the rest of the book for everybody.

LAMENTATIONS: PSALMS OF ISAAK
Ken Scholes
Reads like fantasy, but is science fiction… I think. Lamentations starts with the city of Windwir burning to the ground. Of its splendor and glory, only the mecho-serviteurs remain, caught between warring factions who arrive late on the scene to apportion blame and profit from the apocalyptic disaster. Magicked scouts (drugged men) move with such great speed and silence that skirmishes and battles are fought in the anticipated rush of wind and unseen tactical guesswork.  I enjoyed the character arcs for each POV, and the audio version’s multiple narrators. (I don’t usually enjoy multiple narrators. There’s something about that bass voice, though.)

HOUSES OF COMMON
Derick William Dalton
Houses of Commons felt like coming home. Ranyk works for an optimistic, government-run space agency hampered by red-tape and political interference. Ranyk just wants to do his job–terraform worlds for political refugees—but unfortunately, his entire team is caught in the cross-fire of conflicting conspiracies. And Ranyk’s crusty exoskeleton and sarcastic wit haven’t exactly improved the situation.

Some Amazon reviewers say Houses of Commons is “too smart,” but I really liked it. Not only was the humor right up my alley—“You named your helmet?  And its name is Helmut?”—but the science is plausible and the characters well-developed. I’d recommend Houses of Common to smart people, smart-mouthed people, and people who like NASA, xenobiology, and political intrigue. My one hang-up was the cliff-hanger ending. I’ve never been a fan of cliff hangers , but the brilliant sarcasm outweighs the discomfort of having to order the sequel.

MOTE IN GOD’S EYE  
Jerry Pournelle & Larry Niven
Landmark Science Fiction. Commander Roderick Blaine and the staff of INSS MacArthur are tasked with first contact to an older and more intelligent alien civilization. Inexplicably, these “Moties” have been stuck in their own star system for several millennia, despite the existence of faster than light travel (Alderson drives) and shields (Langston fields). During diplomatic exchanges, the MacArthur is destroyed, leaving Blaine and his crew on a political tightrope with no “good” solutions.

I loved reading The Mote in God’s Eye. Both humans and Moties demonstrate valid and persuasive competing interests. I liked both parties so much I found myself looking for a loopholes allowing each to succeed in spite of mutually exclusive competing interests. Many of the characters were equally complex, with several demonstrating both villainous and heroic agendas. I would recommend this story to everyone, but especially to those interested in landmark science fiction,  efficient storytelling, and deep conflict.

 

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Unexpected Book Reviews

Remote Working Arrangement

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It’s been a crazy few months. Extra hours at the day-job reading long and contentious documents. Late nights. A whirlwind July 4th holiday. More work.

As a consolation prize, I’m taking some time off and working for myself. Here’s a picture from the balcony of my new office.

Ill give a free print copy of DARTS (or another of my books) to the first five people who can guess the city.

Cheers!

Remote Working Arrangement

Three Hawk Aerial Combat

Dropped the kids off at their mom’s tonight. Was sitting with her and our daughter in my Toyota Sienna, doing the usual co-parent scheduling, windows open, because it didn’t feel like Houston in June.

And the hawks started screeching.

I stuck my head out the window and looked up to see three hawks wheeling, cursing each other. Down came something fresh, like two golf balls spinning on an axis, a bloody mess of feathers and meat.

Glad it hit the grass and not the pavement. . .

And then this hungry beauty was there, closing one claw around the kill, balancing awkwardly on her other foot. I say “her,” but I don’t actually know.

She spread her wings almost immediately to shield the kill (or steal?) from prying eyes.

“Nothing to see here folks.”

I took a picture anyways, my 11-year-old passing me a phone as quick as you can say “raptor.”

“Dad!”

Hawk

And then it was gone, friends in hot pursuit.

It’s not the first time something like this has happened. About a year ago another bird dropped a one pound mullet (fish) in my lap. The mullet was still alive after falling a hundred feet or more, but the seagulls weren’t as gutsy as this hawk, or maybe they figured we’d cook it up ourselves.

Instead, we put the it back in the water. . . It didn’t float, but it didn’t exactly swim either. Oh well.

It’s a beautiful—and sometimes weird—world we live in.

 

Three Hawk Aerial Combat

Don’t Do Drugs, Kids.

Evidently I’ve been pushing myself too hard these last few weeks.  A few late nights ago I was trying to put down lines of dialogue (argument) between two characters in an upcoming Paladin’s Thief book.

I could feel myself slipping, my brain lying to me that I could close my eyes and type this last brilliant line without looking at anything. Or it might have been the medication talking. The Doc put me on antibiotics, heavy duty cough syrup, and some kind of prescription steroid meant to knock down the strep throat, the feverish sleep, and the general sense of temporal inadequacy.

“One more line? Of course I can do that. . .” I thought sluggishly.  “No need to lose this last important thought over a few droopy eyelids.”

The morning after my first thought was to get off the drugs. Nobody wants to read this crap:

“@hq5 ir 5hq5 loyql5y 3s53ne3e 5o 3veryone in this big world?”

With a  few minutes of soul-searching, I realized this is the exact phrase you get when you misplace your left hand exactly one row too high on the keyboard and type the following phrase.

“What if that loyalty extended to everyone in this big world?”

Moral of the story. Don’t do drugs, kids. Or maybe just quit while you’re ahead. Bonus points if you can guess whose line this will be, assuming it doesn’t get cut.

 

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Drugs Collage 2

He-Man Calvin / Tiger-by-the-Tail Calvin

Don’t Do Drugs, Kids.

Closet Secrets.

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My son found them in my closet, stashed  behind my least favorite dress shirts.

I knew, because I caught him trying to sneak them out.

“Those are mine,” I said.
“I just want to read them.”
“I know. That’s why I hid them in my closet.”

This is the kid who—as a six-year-old—singlehandedly  loved my entire Calvin and Hobbes collection into oblivion. There’s a reason six-year-olds aren’t supposed to be good readers.  The parts of the books that  eventually made it back to the bookshelf were only spared the rubbish pile because I couldn’t afford to replace them, and because a house without a Calvin and Hobbes book (or scrap pile, as case may be) is a house not worth living in.

So it was normal for me to hide my newly-purchased Schlock Mercenary books in the master closet. A guy should be able to read a book at least once before the cover falls off. And my plan would have worked if the meddling kid hadn’t noticed the mailer-receipt I’d carelessly abandoned on the kitchen counter. After the hunt began,  no room was sacred.

I’m not a big connoisseur of comics, but this one has stuck with me.  I’ve followed the online iteration for several years now. Schlock Mercenary delivers a sci-fi punch line in every strip, and it’s written and drawn by one of the smartest people I know.  And I work at NASA.

Incidentally, I got to sit with Howard Tayler  and his chief of staff Sandra for an hour at LTUE in February and plug them about the do’s and don’ts of quitting your day job. They gave me some good advice, signed the previously-mentioned closet copies, and told me random stories about bog butter and what it takes to maintain the creative genius under duress.

Interviewing Howard and Sandra Tayler was definitely in my top three for the LTUE conference. (Getting there  in a Dodge Mkmsdmmhgmmhmr  ranks fourth.)

So there’s the setup.  I have a box of funny books in my closet from a funny cartoonist. I also now have a funny thirteen-year-old in my closet reading through the 700+ page collection because I told him the books don’t leave my closet until I’ve read them all. And while I still have a full-time job, he only leaves the closet to forage for Cheez-Its.

If you like medium-hard  (yes, I made that up) science fiction / space opera humor, check out Schlock Mercenary. The early cartoon drawings are “rudimentary,” Howard insists, but that makes them even funnier in my opinion, because I’m super mature.

I’m also super glad Howard quit his day job.

–Ben

Howard and Sandra Tayler1

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Closet Secrets.

Anecdote: Sports Car

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Enterprise Car Rental
Salt Lake City
9:37 PM

Oh. You.” her eyes say as she looks me over carelessly.  “Go stand over there.”

For a moment, I wonder if she’s going to do me like airport security, who didn’t actually frisk me, but made me feel naked just the same. Makes a guy want  another layer of protection for his next flight , like maybe some stretchy pants.

And the stretchy would double-up for warmth.  It’s like -40 degrees in SLC,  and I’m layered to the gills and still freezing.

My body’s gone soft, because there’s no such thing as winter in Houston, and now I’m in the middle of the Rocky Mountains with an improvised winter ensemble.

Dang it! Where is the Enterprise Attendant? She’s been gone for two minutes, and the people standing in the line behind me are all getting in their cars and driving away. They probably pulled  me from the line because I rented  the cheapest compact car available, and because I also fantasized about renting from Alamo.  And because I’m attending a writing conference instead of writing my next book.

And then she’s appears out of nowhere like some parking  garage opera phantom, scaring the imaginary stretchy pants off me and waving a pair of key fobs in my face. “Would you like a Dodge Mkmsdmmhgmmhmr?”

“Pardon?”

“ I got you a free upgrade.”

I still don’t know what she’s talking about, but I like the sound of an upgrade, especially one that’s free.”

“That sounds great! Thanks”

And then she’s gone again, gesturing vaguely into the  parking garage. “It’s just over there . . .”

It takes five minutes to figure out what a Dodge Mkmsdmmhgmmhmr is, because some idiot keeps pressing the unlock button on a black sports car three cars up and to my left, which distracts me from finding my own car. I don’t have time for this. I’ve got another hour to drive, an 8:00 am lecture to deliver to a class of graduate students, and a full day of writing panels to attend and interviews to conduct. I’m tired and I’m cold. In desperation I pop the trunk to my invisible vehicle, since the fob beeper system doesn’t seem to work.

The black V8 Hemi nods at me. “Maybe, ‘upgrade’ wasn’t the right word,” I think to my phantom fairy godmother.

And I can’t stop the wicked grin from spreading all over my face, across my neck, and into my hands and chest and feet. It’s going to be a great weekend.

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Anecdote: Sports Car