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Review of “Leviathan Wakes”

Leviathan Wakes

Leviathan Wakes

Review of Leviathan Wakesby James S. A. Corey. There are no spoilers in this review.

I've had this book in my shelf for at least two years before finally getting around to reading it. To be honest, the cover of this book put me off. While the pink title certainly stands out, it’s discordant with the rest of the design, which is, frankly, a somewhat generic space opera cover. So every time I looked at it, I’d think, "Meh."

But then I read about a SyFy show called The Expanse based on Leviathan Wakes that had been canceled and subsequently picked up by Amazon. Also, although I'd never heard of James S. A. Corey before, the cover had a complimentary blurb on it from George R. R. Martin. I was curious how someone I’d never heard of had gotten such a big-name recommendation.

So I looked up the author and discovered it’s actually a pen name. The real authors are Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, the latter of whom is a former assistant of...George R. R. Martin. Ahhhhh... 

All that aside, I really liked this book. It's not, as NPR put it, "the science fiction equivalent of ‘A Song of Fire and Ice,’" but nonetheless it's very good. It switches points of view each chapter between two primary characters - Jim Holden, the executive officer (XO) of the ice-hauling space ship Canterbury, and Joe Miller, a detective working for a private security firm on Ceres Station. Ceres is a spaceport and the destination of the Canterbury when it receives a distress call from a ship out in the middle of nowhere. The Canterbury is the only ship remotely in the vicinity, and Holden, going against his commanding officer’s order, has the Canterbury respond to the call. What they find, and the events that follow, lead Earth, the human military colony on Mars, and humans living in the asteroid belt (known as "Belters") to the brink of war. But then, a much bigger problem soon appears. 

This book was solid across the board on plot, character development, world-building, technological concepts, and writing quality. Plot-wise it’s a neo-noir with an unexpectedly dark turn halfway through the book, and Miller was a very effectively done antihero. It was a good page-turner too, with medium-length chapters that always had a twist, interesting question, or small revelation at the end of each one that made you want to keep reading. The ending was satisfying while clearly leaving lots of room for future stories. In fact, it has become a long-running series, with 8 books to date and book 9 currently in development. 

I’ve started watching The Expanse, and so far it’s been a solid adaptation, although I’m only four episodes in so far. There are a few characters that didn’t appear in Leviathan Wakes, but overall it's faithful to the book and the differences are working for me so far. Overall it is definitely a 5-star read. While I think NPR’s assessment was a considerable exaggeration, but I would agree with Mr. Martin’s opinion that Leviathan Wakes is "a really kickass space opera."

Review of “The Incredibles 2”

There are no spoilers in this review. 

The Incredibles is one of my favorite movies ever, be it animated or live action. The scene when Elastigirl turns herself into a boat while Dash serves as a human propeller and Violet sits in the boat and sulks is the only time I literally couldn't stop laughing while watching a movie in a theater. Like so many other people, I've been wondering why Pixar/Disney has managed to turn out two sequels to both Toy Story and Cars without doing one for The Incredibles after almost a decade and a half. 

In fact, it's been so long they had the main actors (Holly Hunter, Craig T. Nelson, and Samuel Jackson) offer a mea culpa intro before the actual film in which they apologized for the delay but promised that it would be worth the wait. A bold statement to be sure, but if any company could make such a claim, it's Pixar. And after watching it I have to admit, happily, they were right. I can't go into too many details without giving away spoilers, but the film touches on a number of important current themes, including female empowerment and our growing enslavement to our phones and laptop. It manages to make adjustments to the cast of characters from 14-years ago in ways that totally works for the present moment without feeling forced in any way. 

Plot-wise it picks up right where the first movie left off, with the arrival of the Underminer after Dash's track meet. Soon after it makes the central plot twist relative to the first movie to have Elastigirl, rather than Mr. Incredible, take center stage. It does so in a totally believable way while continuing to deliver the emotional impact and technical excellence of its predecessor. Regarding the latter aspect, an early scene involving Elastigirl chasing down a runaway train has yet again steamrolled my expectations for what can be achieved through animation. The wizards at Pixar somehow keep churning out movies on a regular basis while resetting the bar for what's possible every time. 

I won't go so far as to say that Incredibles 2 is better than the first movie, but I will go so far as to say it's 95% as good. If I have any complaint it's that the movie's pace is a bit unrelenting, although never to the point that it distracted me from the story. Also, some new superheroes were a bit dorkier than I would have preferred, but not a big deal. Other than those quibbles I had no complaints. 

One safety disclaimer: if you or any of your children have epilepsy (as one of mine does), you might want to wait to see this movie at home, or perhaps (I hate to say this) avoid it altogether. There are a number of scenes in which full-screen stroboscopic effects are used and I've read some articles saying it has triggered seizures in some viewers, so please be forewarned.

Review of “American Gods” by Neil Gaiman

Review of American Gods, by Neil Gaiman

There are no spoilers in this review. 

I'd heard of Neil Gaiman before but had never read anything by him before. What I'd heard was fairly limited; he did something along the lines of dark fantasy, and the people I had talked to about him seemed to either love him or not really care for him. I also knew that he'd recently been on the TV show Big Bang Theory, which elevated my expectations for this book a bit since that show generally gets pretty big-name nerds, er, guest stars. But for the most part I went into listening to the Audible version of this book largely not knowing what to expect.

What I got was one of the best books I've ever read.

The writing in this book was simply fantastic. The bar for the kind of writing I admire had previously come from people like Hugh Howey (Wool) and Justin Cronin (The Passage). Now, however, another tier has been revealed, courtesy of Mr. Gaiman.

The plot, while not the page-turner that another recent favorite of mine (Mistborn) was, was still very engaging. A mysterious character named Shadow gets out of prison after three years, only to find the life he expected to resume with his wife on the outside completely turned upside down. He falls in with a strange man named Wednesday, who seems to know as much or more about Shadow as Shadow knows about himself. Shadow goes on a series of adventures with Wednesday, and encounters a number of strange but compelling characters.

Character development and establishing setting are what Gaiman does best, and several of the characters appeared in vignettes that were tangential to the main story but that did a wonderful job of establishing the overall tone of the book. In fact, a few of the vignettes had some of the most compelling, memorable writing in the book. I'll definitely be referring back to American Gods when I tackle writing my first short story (which I plan on doing soon). Within two or three pages I found myself caring deeply about the characters and what was going to happen to them next. The pacing was extraordinary, unhurried but never feeling too slow to me.

I do have one caveat, namely that people who don't care for a fair bit of what I guess I'll call "kinky sex" should probably pass on this book. Calling it kinky isn't quite right, though, a word like "phantasmagorical" would probably be more accurate. In fact, there was a scene near the beginning that was so weird and off-putting for me that I almost gave up reading. Fortunately, I persevered. The scene turned out to be the weirdest one, and it came to make some sense later on once more context had been established.

The only negative I have to mention, and it is a mild one, was with the ending, which for me was a bit of a letdown. For some reason, I expected a slam-bam big action finale, but that turned out not to be the case. But it was still a satisfying conclusion, and far, far better than almost any other book I've read with writing this good.

I learned after the fact that American Gods, which came out in 2001, won not only the Hugo and Nebula science fiction awards, but also the Locus award for fantasy and the Bram Stoker award for horror. This cross-genre acclaim reflects what I felt while listening to it, namely that it was a textbook example of why the term "speculative fiction" was developed. It's a book that goes outside the bounds of reality but doesn't fit cleanly into any of the standard genres for books of that type. So it makes perfect sense that it won a whole mess of different awards.

Part of what made this book so enjoyable was the spectacular narration by George Guidall. I have only two other audiobooks to compare it against, but even from this tiny sample size I'd have no trouble believing it—his work blew the other two away. It was like being thrown without warning into a show on Broadway when all you'd heard up until that moment were high school musicals. It was so good that after I finished it, I felt sad and empty for the next several days on my morning commute. I realized how much I'd looked forward to hearing the next quarter-chapter each time I got in the car. When I read up about him afterward, I learned Mr. Guidall is considered by some to be the king of audiobooks, having narrated over 1,300 of them! I went ahead and ordered Mr. Guidall's version of Don Quixote for my dad's birthday; we'll see if he thinks as much of Mr. Guidall's work as I did.

I'll definitely be reading some more of Mr. Gaiman's novels in the future, with Neverwhere sounding the most interesting at the moment. Apparently, he took a rather circuitous route to finding success as a novelist, starting out first as a reporter and then, after discovering Alan Moore's work, diving head-first into graphic novels. He helped create the very successful Sandman series, which won him the World Fantasy award, so I think there are not many literary awards left for him to win at this point.

American Gods, by Neil Gaiman

“Sleeping Giants” by Sylvain Neuvel

Sleeping Giants, by Sylvain Neuvel

There are no spoilers in this review. 

First of all, I love this book cover! I love the turquoise sidebars, they really catch your eye when you're scanning over a hundred tiny thumbnail images on Amazon. I also love the font. And I love how the design of the covers for the two sequels fit seamlessly with the design of this cover. I love this cover so much I looked up who the designer was. His name is Charles Brock and unsurprisingly he has done a lot of other great covers as well. 

As far as the book itself goes, I will say that I enjoyed it, but didn't love it. It was an interesting concept, but the writing quality just wasn't really there for me. This was another first contact story, done in an epistolary format, in which the entire book is presented through a series of documents. About a year or two ago I read Robopocalypse, which also used this approach. I thought it was done very effectively in that book, lending a "found footage" feel to the story that was entertaining. However, in this case, it didn't work as well. 

Most of the documents were government reports made by an unnamed person working in some shadowy capacity to explore a massive metal hand found buried in the earth near where a young girl accidentally rides her bicycle into the huge hole in which it appears. The girl survives the fall and, in a strange turn of events, two decades later becomes the lead scientist charged with trying to understand what it is. Other characters are pulled in here and there, but eventually, it turns out the secret government operative guy is the real protagonist, not the female scientist. There was a switch in focus from the scientist to other characters which I didn't like because the author had done a good job of developing the scientist's character and not much with the other characters.

The high-level plot was interesting enough, but I felt the author could stand to take some writing tips from Mr. VanderMeer, particularly on how to do settings. Many descriptions of places were very superficial and generic and I didn't feel immersed in scenes like I did in Annihilation. The dialog was effective though, snarky in the style of The Martian. But like I mentioned earlier, I didn't really care about any of the characters outside of the first one all that much. I felt as though the government document-style format served as a crutch, as a means of escaping some of the more difficult aspects of writing a really good story. 

Also, there was one core technical detail that vastly exceeded my threshold for suspension of disbelief, and it kicked me out of the story mentally into "that's totally unrealistic" mode. I never really recovered from that and wound up not being nearly as engaged in the second half of the book as I was in the first half. While there was some interesting action in the middle of the book, the ending was unfortunately even more anticlimactic than in Annihilation

In the end, it was a solid three stars and I'm glad to have read it, but frankly I'm a bit surprised it's done as well as it has (over 700 reviews on Amazon!). Personally, I think it's the cover. 🙂

 

Sleeping Giants, by Sylvain Neuvel

“Annihilation” by Jeff VanderMeer

Here is my spoiler-free review of Annihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer.

I had heard a great deal about Annihilation and was very curious to read it. In some ways, the book really delivered. But in others, it fell disappointingly short, particularly the audiobook version. In the end, it wound up being a 4 because of the writing quality. However, when it was over I felt a bit disappointed, that it had the bones to be a 5-star story but somehow missed the mark.

To start with the positive, I thought that overall the writing in this book was very high. I really enjoyed Mr. VanderMeer's description of settings, and the use of introspection on the part of the main character, the biologist. I found the overall concept was really interesting as well. This is a first-contact story, in which the four main characters, all women, were known only as "the biologist," "the psychologist," "the archeologist," and "the surveyor," are sent to investigate a place called "Area X," which only the U.S. government knows about and that has been exhibiting paranormal phenomena for many years. 

The current four-woman team is the twelfth expedition into Area X (which I thought was a rather lame play off of Area 51) to explore the goings-on there. The previous expeditions, by and large, have all met a variety of untimely demises, whether group suicide, killing each other, or mysteriously returning to the outside world as shells of their former selves before dying of cancer a few months later. To be honest I found the basic premise of the book ridiculous, namely that the government would choose to send in only tiny teams of people into an area they knew might be harboring some form of extraterrestrial life. But overall, I thought the book did an excellent job setting the scene and getting the reader curious about what was happening inside Area X, and what would happen to this particular expedition.

However, I listened to the audiobook version of this book, and unfortunately, this turned out to be a big part of what didn't work for me. I'm still new to audiobooks, having only listened to Wil Wheaton's narration of Ready Player One before this one. I really enjoyed the audio version of RPO, and so was eagerly anticipating Carolyn McCormick's reading of Annihilation. She had narrated the Hunger Games series, and so had great credentials. But whether it was the sound of her voice or the way she read the story, by the time I was halfway through the book I found the narration really getting on my nerves. 

I was also bothered by the frequent interruption of the plot, particularly in the second half, with flashbacks or long introspective asides. Initially, I found the flashbacks non-intrusive and providing helpful context for how the main character got herself involved in the expedition. But over time they provided less and less useful information and just got in the way of the story. I would have skimmed over them had I been reading. Similarly, the main character engaged in near-continuous introspection. At first it was interesting, but later on, when things started happening it seemed an unrealistic way to react and also slowed things down.

Finally, I found the climax to be a bit, well, anticlimactic. It was still cool and brought to mind a couple of my favorite books, Contact and Roadside Picnic. But the subtle ending of Contact didn't deliver the goods for a lot of people (although it did for me) but I had a similar reaction to the ending of this book. 

I'm probably being a bit harsh, but it's because my gut tells me this book had the potential to be awesome, but somehow didn't hit the home run I was looking for. But it was very interesting and engaging story overall, and for much of the book, the writing was excellent. I'm looking forward to seeing the movie because I have a feeling it may be one of those relatively rare cases where the movie turns out better than the book.

 

Annihilationby Jeff VanderMeer

ebook $9.94 on Amazon

Review of “Ready Player One” (Movie)

I'll cut right to the chase: I haven't been this disappointed in a movie in a long time. The picture to the left above, while of the main character, Wade Watts, is also probably what I looked like while watching the movie and realizing most of what I'd been looking forward to about the movie had been unceremoniously thrown out the window. Being a child of the 80s and a pop-culture junkie, I loved the book by Ernest Cline. I recently listened to the audiobook version, narrated by Wil Wheaton, which I have to say I enjoyed even more than reading the book. So everything was fresh in my mind, and I went into the movie with high expectations. Unfortunately, team Spielberg threw out 80% of the pop-culture nerdiness that was the heart of the book. In it's place they plopped a generic Hollywood sci-fi action movie (with admittedly very well done visual and sound effects). 

For those who haven't read the book (no spoilers), 
about 30 years in the future most people in the world spend the bulk of their time in a worldwide virtual environment known as the Oasis. The creator of the game, James Halliday, has died a few years earlier, and left three keys hidden in the Oasis. Whoever finds the three keys (and in the book, solves a puzzle in order to pass an associated gate), wins Halliday's fortune of half a trillion dollars and, more importantly, control of the Oasis. A nasty multi-national company is trying to win the game through brute force by assembling an army of gamers and scholars in an effort to win through sheer resource superiority. However, at the time the story starts, no one has managed to find even the first key. 

What I found so disappointing was this was a book that begged for a movie adaptation to adhere to its details as much as possible. While it's always a problem for movies to live up to the expectations of the people who read the book, the entire plot of Ready Player One centered around characters slavishly mining every nugget of 80s trivia, be it video games, movies, TV, or music, in hopes of uncovering clues to the whereabouts of the three keys. (Which is kind of an insane plot when you think about it, as this excellent review by Lili Loofburrow points out). Geeking out on specifics was at the heart of RPO, so it stood to reason that a screenplay should pay careful attention to the details of the book. 

But this movie changed just about everything, and in my opinion, 90% of the changes had nothing to do with the standard challenge of turning a book into a movie. They simply seemed to be change for change's sake. Spielberg threw out many of the specific in the book and replaced them with other ones for no particular reason. There were several arcade games in the book that were critical to the plot, including Joust, Tempest, and especially Pac-Man, but none of them showed up in the movie. Also in the book, the protagonist Wade Watts had to re-enact various roles in movies like Ferris Bueller's Day Off and Monty Python and the Holy Grail in the Oasis in their entirety, but the movie decided to pay an extended homage to The Shining instead. Spielberg may have been trying to pay tribute to Kubrick and arguably his greatest movie, but the pace of it is completely different than the action-blasting scene in RPO they attempted to inject scenes from it into. For me the result fell completely flat. They also spent next to no time on character development, another thing the book did very well, so I didn't really care about any of the people in the movie. 

If I was Ernest Cline, the author of RPO, I would be frustrated and borderline horrified at this adaptation, particularly when you look at the faithfulness with which Ridley Scott brought another recent breakaway sci-fi bestseller, The Martian, to the big screen. Part of me wants to say the creators of this movie did a marketing bait and switch, in which they knew all of the Gen X people who read the book were lock-ins to come to see it, so they decided to treat our loyalty cheaply and reach for a wider audience by clearing space for later references that Millennials would appreciate. But really, there's not much in terms of more references added to the movie. They just changed stuff for reasons I frankly don't understand, and in the end produced an inferior result for having mucked around with it. 

Having said all that, if you haven't read the book, the movie version of Ready Player One would probably be fine. I enjoyed I Am Legend because I never read the book but people I talk to who loved the book get apoplectic when you bring the movie version up. But if you read and loved the RPO book, I think you'll wind up feeling they made a mess out of what could have been a fantastic, fun movie you could watch over and over again. Sadly, my recommendation is to skip the movie and go listen to the audiobook version instead, so you can enjoy this story the way it was meant to be experienced.

“Mistborn,” by Brandon Sanderson

One of the podcasts I listen to is called "Writing Excuses." It's a weekly podcast hosted by Brandon Sanderson and a rotating group of other authors who give writing advice on a variety of different topics. The podcasts are only 15-20 minutes long, and they are excellent: short, jammed full of good information, and entertaining.

Sanderson writes epic fantasy, which isn't a genre I'm normally that interested in, but over this past Christmas, I saw he had written a book called "Oathbringer," which Amazon dubbed the most "unputdownable" book of 2017. Well, this piqued my interest, because what author doesn't want readers to be unable to put their book down, right?

So I went to Amazon and discovered "Oathbringer" is priced at $16.99. For the e-book. 

Riiiiight.

So, rather than fork over 0$17 to Macmillan (sorry, Brandon), I went to my local library and was pleased to find they still have books you can borrow and read for free! Not surprisingly, Oathbringer was not available, nor were either of the previous two books in the series. However, I did find one book, called Mistborn, which he wrote in 2010. So I checked it out and read it while I was on vacation. 

Damn, it was good.

If Oathbringer is more unputdownable than this book, I may avoid it, because I don't think I can handle another string of sleepless nights like I went through with Mistborn. This book kept me reading until the wee hours of the morning for about five straight nights. I don't know yet what it was that turned me into the literary equivalent of a heroin addict, but I'm going to find out. I'm going to re-read the first fifty or so pages, break down the plot and character development in each chapter, and study the transitions between chapters because I have got to get some of what makes this book tick into my next book!

I will say I was a little bit disappointed in the ending. I won't give any spoilers, but when I finished it at 12:30 a.m. the last night, my initial reaction was "Yeeessss!!!!!" But after I woke the next morning and reflected on the ending, I realized there were three or four elements added at the end that didn't really stand up to close scrutiny. Partly this is because Sanderson did such a good job establishing the rules for how allomancy and feruchemy (superpowers granted through ingestion or possession of metals) work, as well as the physical characteristics of two types of people (terrismen and steel inquisitors). Because of this, it was pretty clear those rules got violated in a couple of big ways at the end. 

Nonetheless, the ending was still satisfying, if not perfect, and the ride up to that point was fantastic. What really distinguishes this book for me was that Sanderson's writing to me has no weaknesses. He does an outstanding job at world-building, character development, action, dialog, and setting. There were no dead spots where I got bored even though it was 650 pages long. It was all combined in a way that the book stood by itself even though it's the first book in a trilogy. In addition to rarely reading epic fantasy, I also rarely read books over 500 pages. Mistborn blew past both of these compunctions like they didn't exist. It will almost certainly do the same with another hangup of mine, namely, reading beyond the first book in a series. 🙂

Mistborn, by Brandon Sanderson

$8.99 on Amazon