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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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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Book Reviews: Multiple

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It’s 1:00 am and the road is lonely. Steady white lines play out into the endless blackness ahead and behind. The siren song of humming pavement promises cool sheets and a ceiling fan, if only I’ll close my eyes and forget the steering wheel.

Fortunately, I’m wide awake.  I’m not just driving home from Memphis. I’m doing research.

Audiobooks are the best caffeine.

Chronicles of the Black Company
Grimdark before there was grimdark. Read this if you like fantasy protagonists who are decent fellows but happen to be working for the bad guy. And know it. And rationalize it. There isn’t a lot of moralizing here, but it was an interesting approach to the fantasy genre. Black Company is not as violent and bloody as contemporary grimdark.

Snow Crash
Big ideas. Big characters. A fascinating read about a virus that can infect both computers and humans, especially those who have internalized the binary language of machines into the deep structures of their brain (i.e programmers and hackers).  There’s a fair bit of violence and profanity, and some sex, so buyer beware. The story felt jerky and jumped around a little, but that may just be a feature of Neal Stephenson’s approach to telling the story. Listening to this one was definitely a plus.

Off to be the WizardSpell or HighwaterUnwelcome Quest
Nerd fantasy. Reality is just a big computer program, and we’re all a bunch of subroutines. Of course nobody knows this except the lucky few who stumble across the program’s Rosetta stone, an innocuous text file stored on random corporate mainframes across the globe.  And by modifying this text file, the lucky can modify reality. Need some money? No problem!  Want to live in 11th Century England? Allons-Y! Want to change your Pontiac Fiero’s coefficient of entropy and take it back with you?

These books are fun and irreverent, and put the jocks of sci-fi and fantasy in the driver seat.  Fun read. Even funnier if you’ve ever been a 13-year old boy, but aren’t anymore.

Consider the Fork
 This is not science fiction or fantasy. It’s Bee Wilson’s treatise on the evolution of the kitchen technology we take for granted. Cleverly written, it almost always kept my interest, except around mile three of a four mile jog. . . I especially liked the tips about judging the “doneness” of a steak and the discussion of how eastern cultures  (not western) invented disposable chopsticks because a piece of someone’s essence stays with the used utensils even after it’s been washed. (Ingesting a piece of someone else’s soul isn’t sanitary.)

His Majesty’s Dragon
My favorite book this last quarter is His Majesty’s Dragon, by Naomi Novik, hands down. I am not a regency era expert (see my comparison of Jane Austen and J. R. R. Tolkien), but the banter  between characters, the careful phrasing, the pacing, and the social intrigue all felt very much like an Austen novel.  Then add intelligent dragons and the Napoleonic wars.  As with Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan and the general steampunk genre, I was dubious about this book. At first glance, mixing dragons and Jane seems like a stretch.

Or perhaps a pulled muscle.

But Novik’s style reduces the sensationalism without killing the magic. The characters have some depth, the dialogue is tasteful, and the action scenes are laden with layered meaning. The story sails by in a blink, and I didn’t bat an eye when my kids asked to listen in. Only the ending felt rushed, as if the regency muse stepped out for a tea break while Novik was penning the last few pages.

It’s 10:00 pm and small-gauge gravel sticks between the grooves in my running shoes, pressing into the pads of my feet.  Sweat drips down my face, my arms, and my everywhere. It pools between palm and mobile device. It coats the earphone cord I have to hold out of the way as I jog. Only an idiot runs this far in Houston.

But I have research to do, and a torn ACL to rehab. And miles to go before I sleep.

What books keep you awake at night?

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Book Review: Red Rising

Hunger Games baked in Divergent Sauce, with a sprig of Gattaca on the side.

GENRE: Science Fiction: Dystopian
MARKET: Not Young Adult
CONTENT WARNING: Violence, Some Profanity, Off-Scene Rape

Red Rising 3D
I won’t say I’ve been avoiding dystopian science fiction, but I have been struggling to find time to read lately. So a friend suggested that I try Red Rising, by Pierce Brown. “The audio version is excellent, Ben.”

So I bit the bullet, bought a few extra credits on Audible, and downloaded a copy of Red Rising.

First I noticed this: there’s a big difference between the Scottish lilt of the Leviathan audiobook and the narrator’s Irish brogue early on in Red Rising, but in some ways that made the world even more interesting and real. I guess I’m a sucker for accents, if they’re well done. Even if you take accents off the table, I still enjoyed Red Rising enough to spend the last few days wandering around in a daze, cleaning, over-washing my hands, and hunting for mindless house chores as an excuse to stay in the story.

While the Red Rising concept rolls out like a grown-up merger of Hunger Games, Ender’s Game, Gattaca, and Divergent, it offers an escape from those sometimes simplistic views of good versus evil. Red Rising starts in a subterranean mining colony on Mars, where “Helldivers” lead their drilling crews deep into the red planet’s crust in search of precious Helium-3, the core ingredient needed to turn the lifeless planet into a flowering oasis.

Darrow is the best “Helldiver” around. He’s got quick fingers and a sharp wit. He’s smart, capable, and driven to provide the best scraps he can for his beautiful bride, Eo. Darrow, his clan, and his caste, “The Reds,” think they’re preparing Mars for the rest of humanity, when, unbeknownst to them, humanity has already spread across the surface of Mars.

As this deception unravels for Darrow, a shady paramilitary group offers him a chance at vengeance if he will leave his clan beneath the surface and pledge himself to their cause. Because of his talents, Darrow is chosen to infiltrate the Gold caste and attend their elite “Institute.” Thrown into the deep end, Darrow struggles earn a position of influence that will help him instigate a successful rebellion.

Red Rising’s oppression feels authentic, which means that it probably isn’t appropriate for the Percy Jackson crowd. People die, and the characters, choices, and consequences feel real, albeit couched in a highly fictional setting. By the end of the book, the boundary of villainy moves beyond caste and into personal choice. It’s science fiction, but it’s more about the people than the science or technology.

I especially liked the author’s portrayal of conflicting viewpoints and priorities. Pierce Brown is unflinching in his assertion that certain choices preclude others. Darrow isn’t allowed to have his cake and eat it, too. His rational choices are some of the most poignant moments in the story.

I wanted things to move faster in first few chapters, but once that foundation was laid, there was no looking back. The twists kept me guessing about which avenue Darrow would take to achieve his goals, and his solutions often had realistic and unintended consequences.

It’s not hard science fiction, so don’t expect The Martian, but the tech is fun to think about and described only where it impacts the story. I especially liked the grav-boots and ghost cloaks, though iterations of these ideas are present in both Harry Potter and Percy Jackson and explained with an equally vague feel of “magic.”

Red Rising sits firmly in the dystopian sci-fi camp. It’s not written for younger audiences, though teenage boys will likely identify with the protagonist. If you don’t like seeing multiple sympathetic side characters meet an untimely fate, this may be one to pass on. If you don’t mind a slightly darker tale with the promise of redemption, pick up a copy of Red Rising. Darrow’s willingness to buck the establishment makes the ending especially enjoyable.

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Does this book suck?

Last week I posted about the underground market for fake-reviews (link) and the types of problems they might create for authors and readers. This week I’m interested in why real reviews are important, what makes a good review, and key elements for writing one quickly.

If this isn’t your cup of tea, check out now and come back next week for anecdotes and other fun. . .

bookstack(Compressed)

Why review at all?
I don’t often write product reviews. Seems like a waste of time, given that most products on Amazon already have a few clever comments stacked in the margin by the time I find them. Nor do I aspire to being the next big Amazon Vine or Goodreads Guru. But occasionally I stumble across (1) something so awesome that I want to tell everybody about it anyways [Leviathan, audio] and improve its credibility in the market. Or I get (2) so many questions about a particular work (The Martian, cough, cough) that it’s easier to articulate my thoughts once and hand out a link to anyone who asks. Or I’ll write a review because (3) I think I have a unique perspective. There are other reasons, but these are mine.

What makes a good review?
By “good” reviews, I mean helpful reviews. A review that demonstrates knowledge of the product, hits the highs and lows, and reads like it was written by a normal person goes a long way for helping me get comfortable with bringing a new product home. For writers, this type of review also provides valuable market information for developing future content. An author can improve future work based on what customers have said, providing a broader ample base for market research.

What are the core components of a useful review?
Useful reviews are usually pretty easy to spot (or write) with the previous thoughts in mind. My favorites include:

  • An original tagline
  • A synopsis or demonstrated understanding of product
  • specific likes and/or dislikes
  • keywords
  • referrals and warnings

Combined with last week’s “Bot-Review” tips, these items can go a long way towards promoting worthwhile fiction, improving your favorite indie authors, and defeating the robot army. For specific real and fake review examples, check out the Sample Reviews post. I’ll update this occasionally after reading a particularly helpful review.

In the end. . .
Most writers don’t really want to read a bad review, just like no mother wants to be told her baby is ugly. But when a reviewer, editor, or critic provides actionable data, it’s much easier to swallow the bitter pill and get down to brass tacks. In addition, when you review a favorite author’s work online, you heighten their internet presence and make that work more discoverable. It’s a small thing, but that adds up big. Last week during a free promotional, DARTS held the top spot in two of its categories for several days straight. Thanks to all who have provided feedback to my writing now or in years past. It really makes a difference.

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Bad Robot Reviews

It isn’t manly, but I had a good giggle last week when I stumbled across an unused line from an early draft of my 1-STAR REVIEW: ACCEPTANCE SPEECH:

STRUGGLING CRITIC: “Hard for Me to Classify…Sorry!“
BKHEWETT: “No apology necessary.  Amazon pre-classifies its inventory, so you really shouldn’t strain yourself.”

When I first wrote this, I worried my gut response was too harsh and softened things up a bit before posting. No need to be too harsh, I thought. Plenty of things to mock here without getting personal.

Turns out, I needn’t have worried.

Apparently, there is an entire ecosystem centering on fake reviews: companies that pay for them, companies (or individuals) that write them, and companies  that hunt down those fake-reviews and discredit them. This isn’t unique to Amazon. Yelp and Walmart are two other entities that cope with this problem daily. (I won’t go into the boring details, but PBS and Time will.)

In addition to the human-driven fake-reviews, sometimes entities create software programs to do this dirty work for them, scanning Amazon’s free content and making poorly written comments on select items in order to build internet presence.

But aside from being irritating and setting a bad example for our impressionable youth, bot-reviews (and other fake reviews) are a problem. Consumers use reviews to make purchasing decisions, and fake reviews lead to misinformed decision-making. In addition, retailers (and authors) generate new products based on feedback from reviews. Fraudulent feedback can lead companies (and authors) to invest resources unwisely in developing products that consumers don’t really want.

For fun and profit, here are some things to consider before using a review to make a purchasing decision or to develop content:

  • In Amazon, does the review have a “verified purchase” tag? If it doesn’t, it might mean that the reviewer wasn’t signed into when they wrote it, but the absence of this tag could also indicate duplicity. For fun, do an Amazon store search for “Uranium Ore” and scan through some of the reviews.  There’s a short one about four turtles and a rat that I found particularly interesting.
  • Does the review sound human? Are the fancy words used correctly? If not, there’s a good chance it was written by a bot. (Illegal drug use only accounts for a small percentage of poorly written reviews.)
  • Are grammar and punctuation standards used to an acceptable level? I generally accept fourth-grade as the standard of excellence for reviews, and all of my fourth graders (2004-2006) could punctuate better than my one-star reviewer. If it doesn’t meet that standard, it might be a bot.
  • Is the review really short, or really vague? Both brevity and ambiguity are a bot’s best camouflage, given the previous indicators. A bot-review will often use language that might apply to any number of books, or products. “I’m so glad I got this.”
  • Did your mom write it? If so, trust it. (Unless it exhibits previously-mentioned characteristics. . .)

So that laughably poor one-star review probably wasn’t legit, and I went through all that trouble to tease it. . . . On a lighter note, my 1-star (and 2-star) reviews are down 100% for RINGS, probably because I never offered it for free. I guess bots can’t afford the pricier fantasy and science-fiction titles.

But that brings me to my next point: What makes a good review?

To be continued. . .

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Bad Robot Reviews4

BOOK REVIEW: LEVIATHAN

GENRE:      Steampunk
MARKET:    Young Adult
RATING:     10 Genetically-Modified Airships out of 10
SWEAROMETER:  World-Specific. Beautifully done.

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I’ve been avoiding the steampunk genre for a long time, I’ll admit. The concept of grafting future technology into Victorian-esque settings has always seemed a bit . . . well, silly. Responding to a few pointed recommendations, I finally picked up an audio copy of Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld.

It caught me completely by surprise, and I enjoyed every moment of it. The book is about the Great War, but the Central powers wield imaginative machinery and the Allied powers meddle in massive genetically-engineered “beasties.”

The story maintains a lively pace, alternating  viewpoints between Aleksandar, an immature Austrian prince running from his political enemies after his father’s assassination, and Deryn Sharp, an exuberant girl who has joined the Royal British (air) Navy disguised as a boy. The exposition unfolds naturally amid the action, and the characters and setting are vividly rendered. I could smell the smoking flares and machine oil in Alek’s Stormwalker. I could feel the heartbeat of Deryn’s living airship, the Leviathan, as it lumbers through a strafing run, bleeding hydrogen. I could see the massive land dreadnoughts churning the snow beneath them and hear the thunder of their cannons. And the tension only heightens when these two worlds collide and Alek and Deryn meet for the first time. (Not to be forgotten, Westerfeld’s world-appropriate swearing  is spot-on. It fits, is fun for adults, and makes the kids laugh too.)

Leviathan is an experience. The whole book is alive. Perhaps it’s Alan Cumming’s Scottish accent: his spirited performance made me laugh and rewind for the exceptionally good bits. I’ve heard the print version doesn’t disappoint, either.  It may not have clever Scottish, English, and Austrian (German) accents, but it does have fabulous illustrations.

Read Leviathan if you like upbeat, quick-paced storytelling and hilarious dialogue. Read it if you’re ready for a change from classic science fiction. Start here if you’re looking for a primer on steampunk but haven’t had the nerves to pull one off the library shelf yet.

Skip Leviathan if genetic manipulation gives you the willies, or you’re looking for something with a dark, depressing ending.

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