Favorite Books: April & May 2014

hornsHorns by Joe Hill

There are great books leave me thinking, “Wow, that was great. I’ll never be able to write a book like this.” Then there are a few really good books that leave me thinking, “That was really good. If I keep at it, one day I can write a book like that.”

Horns falls into that second category: accessible and inspiring. Horns isn’t perfect, and that’s probably one of the reasons that the book seemed so encouraging and energizing to me. (I don’t imagine I’ll ever be a perfect writer.) The other reason is it’s multiple flashes of brilliance. Hill plants hints and callbacks throughout the book, bringing them together in wholly satisfying ways. A girl to fall in love with and grieve over. A villain who’s repellant and fascinating. A genuinely touching ending. Yeah, this book was REALLY good.

 

blowingmycoverBlowing My Cover by Lindsay Moran

Imagine that Lena Dunham goes through CIA training, works as a case officer for a few years, quits and writes a tell-all. That idea probably either intrigues you or offends you, depending how you feel about Dunham or the sanctity of American clandestine services.

Yes, the author of this memoir often seems shallow, boy-crazy, self-centered, and flaky, especially in light of such a serious undertaking. But I imagine that most CIA officers—along with everyone else—have thoughts like these. Only a very few are brave enough to honestly explore and share these parts of themselves. Moran’s inner struggle with ethics and ennui—and her concise and personalized details of CIA training—had me hooked from beginning to end.

 

calibanswarCaliban’s War by James S.A. Corey

I finished the second book in Corey’s Expanse saga, which is slated to become a TV series on the Syfy network. Once again I enjoyed the smooth prose and a vibrant, crackling emphasis on characterization (which is precious thing among most space opera books).

The plot starts a year after the events of the previous book (Leviathan Wakes), so we’re dealing with familiar characters and similar types of technology. The story drags a bit, and I felt the book was missing a true ‘holy crap!’ moment. By comparison, Leviathan Wakes had three or four incredible set-pieces anchoring its plot.

I did really like the brief introduction to everyday life on Earth. Instead of  overpopulation, the rise of the oceans, or income stratification, the biggest change on Corey’s Earth is society’s segmentation of two classes: the engaged and the apathetic. It’s an interesting way to think of how society may change in the next 100 years.

Favorite books: Winter 2014

Apparently, for me, this winter was all about sci-fi space operas. I read three novels, and they were all great.

2312

2312

2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson 
This book and the next focused stuck to action within the boundaries of our own solar systems. Robinson in particular seems very pessimistic on the idea of humans EVER making the jump to interstellar travel. A complaint that I saw again and again about this book is that it skimped on character and plot in favor of developing incredible set pieces. I can understand this complaint, but that doesn’t change the fact that the set pieces are INCREDIBLE. You’re got:

– Ecospheres on the tubular insides of spinning asteroids. (Imagine standing inside a rolled up map—except the fields and cities and lakes that are around and above you are all real.)
-Astronauts bodysurfing in a wake of ice-chunks in the rings of Saturn
-A flooded New York that’s become a Venetian utopia (Who says all climate change is bad? Not Postal Service!)
-A city-on-rails that constantly moves to straddle the line between the shady and the (brutally) sunny side of Mercury. That line is called a terminator. I did not know that.

A volcanic planet. A sea planet. A dust planet. Who needs warp drive when we’ve got so many amazing (and real) locales right here in our own ecliptic? Robinson explores them all, and the result is awe-inspiring. Also, there’s something about evil terrorist computers who like to play bocce balls? That part was OK too.

leviathanwakes

Leviathan Wakes

Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey
This book has two protagonists who start off (at least in my mind) being nearly indistinguishable. Both are bright guys who are too independent-minded to advance to the upper-tiers of their profession (one is an executive officer on a commercial spacecraft and the other is a police detective). Like most average-joe types in a sci-fi/fantasy book, these guys are swept up into extreme, world-shaking events, and this is when each character’s unique flaws are exposed. At the point when the crewman and detective meet, they are already on diverging, well-developed character arcs. One of them clings to his idealistic principles (sometimes to the point of foolishness); the other descends into obsession and ruthlessness.

The action really pops, and the story never meanders, which tells me the author(s) are really strong at outlining their plot. I’m looking forward to seeing what Corey has planned for the rest of the series.

surfacedetail

Surface Detail

Surface Detail by Iain M. Banks
This was my first time reading a novel by Iain M. Banks, and I have to say at first I felt like I had missed something. The first five chapters of this book gave me whiplash. The stabbing of a sex-slave! A medieval castle siege! A terrorist attack in space! The resurrection of said sex-slave! And Hell-ephants! (Of course, those are an alien species of elephants who been banished to their own alien version of Hell)!

After a while, all of these trippy plotlines coalesce around a central concept: The idea that (with enough advanced technology) a person’s consciousness can be copied and downloaded into something else. You’ve probably seen this before (Lawnmower Man, Freejack, Avatar, Inception, and perhaps most horrifically, in the Kirk Cameron vehicle Like Father Like Son). But Mr. Banks takes this idea one step further: Why not copy everyone’s psyches so that we all can live on after our physical bodies fail? And if you’re really into the idea of spiritual retribution, why not send (un)deserving souls to a virtual-reality version of Hell?

Some alien societies see these virtual Hells as a logical manifestation of their religion. Others think they’re the equivalent of eternal concentration camps. Hmmm. Lxet’s have a galactic war about it! Awesome! The ideas, action, dialog, and descriptions in this book were all brilliant. Surface Detail might not have been the most noob-friendly introduction to Bank’s ‘Culture’ world, but it definitely hooked me. Now I just have to figure out who is Mr. Zakalwe. The Culture’s version of Ron Burgundy?