The Collapsing Empire, by John Scalzi

The Collapsing EmpireGUYS JOHN SCALZI HAS A NEW BOOK OUT! I mean, did. Like three and a half months ago. But I am behind on my reviews, and maybe you are behind on your John Scalzi books, and if so, we can meet together here!

If you’ve read even one John Scalzi book — well, maybe two, there’s one that’s very different and I never finished it — you know the Scalzi oeuvre: One part science fiction, one part snarky humor, and a dash of F-bombs. This first book in a new series follows that formula pretty well, except for the F-bombs. There are a LOT of F-bombs in this book, such that even I, with my mouth resembling a sailor’s, was like, dang, dude, can we dial that back a bit? So. Forewarning.

If you’ve read any of the Old Man’s War series, you’ll be even closer to this new series, which includes much of OMW’s military style and crazy intrigue and crazier subterfuge, but in a whole new universe with new exciting characters to get to know and a fascinating quasi-scientific plot.

On one end of this universe you have the capital of the planetary system, where a new and rather reluctant Emperox is being crowned. She is meant to keep the Interdependency working smoothly, but from the time of her coronation it is obvious that that is going to be rather difficult, what with warring noble houses and also a terrible scientific secret.

On the other end of the Interdependency, at a planet smartly called End, you have the man who discovered this secret, living with his kids and trying to stay under the radar. When a member one of those aforementioned noble houses on End starts doing some odd political machinations that don’t make a lot of sense, the scientist realizes it’s time to send his son to the capital to explain just what exactly is going on with the space highways (vast oversimplification on my part) that rule the system.

In between these places we meet an F-bomb-loving noble-house type who really just wants to sell her dang plants but who gets drawn into the plots on both ends of the system when she takes the scientist’s son aboard her ship.

Put these all together and you have the beautiful space opera brain candy with a little bit of social consciousness thrown in that I love from John Scalzi. It’s super fun, kind of ridiculous, and I already can’t wait for the next in the series.

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Weekend Shorts: Serious and Less Serious Business

Normally I like to at least try to theme my Shorts posts, but this week the offerings probably could not be more different. We’ve got one super-serious and fascinating look at race in America, and one relatively lighthearted fantasy crime story. Let’s start with the serious.

The Fire This Time, by Jesmyn Ward
The Fire This TimeI was pleasantly surprised by how good Ward’s novel Salvage the Bones was a few years back, so when I saw her name on a Brand New Thing I wanted it. When I saw that it was a collection of essays from different authors about the Black/African-American experience in America, I was even more intrigued.

This book is divided into three parts. The first part, Legacy, covers the past: the history of a person, of a people, of a family, of noted and obscure figures. The longest of these essays, “Lonely in America”, talks about how even in history-obsessed New England there is a giant slavery-shaped gap in the common knowledge. It also talks a lot about libraries (not always nicely), so you know I liked it best.

The second part, Reckoning, covers the present, from pop culture to civil unrest and often both in one essay. My favorite of these essays is “Black and Blue”, a look at one man’s love of walking in Kingston, Jamaica; New Orleans; and New York City. As you might guess, his experiences in each place are equally dangerous but for different reasons. As a person who loves to walk and who has walked in some pretty shady situations, this piece really resonated with me.

The third part, Jubilee, covers, of course, the future. Daniel José Older writes a letter to his future children, and Edwidge Danticat one to her daughters, using the facts of the present to create hope for the future.

Not all of these essays are especially polished or organized or straightforward, but all of them are true, and I definitely recommend this collection to anyone looking to make sense of the world today.

The Dispatcher, by John Scalzi
The DispatcherOkay, now that we’re done with the serious, let’s get to the brain candy. The Dispatcher came out on Audible on Tuesday, and it’s 100% free until the beginning of November, and it’s like two hours long so I don’t know why you haven’t already downloaded it. It’s an audio-first experiment, but if you like what I have to say about it and hate listening to things, there’ll be a print and ebook version out next year.

I downloaded it because free, of course, but also because Scalzi and because the description was intriguing. It’s a story set in a world where people who are intentionally killed come back to life, but those who die unintentionally don’t, so there are people called Dispatchers who are hired by insurance companies and the like to intentionally kill people who are dying in surgery or performing crazy stunts or whatever so they can come back to life and get a second try at whatever they were doing. In this story, Zachary Quinto plays our Dispatcher narrator, who gets recruited to play consultant for the… police? FBI? someone… when a Dispatcher acquaintance of his goes missing.

It’s along the lines of Lock In in that it’s a pretty basic crime story with a fantasy wrapper, but unlike Lock In, whose backstory came in a separate novella, it is a super quick story and the exposition ends up taking up the majority of the story’s time. And then the plot was basically put in the box from Redshirts to produce a nice, tidy, but kind of unsatisfying ending.

BUT it has the line “You have Resting Smug Face” in it, and is two hours of pure Scalzi goodness, so, I mean, it’s a win overall.

The premise is great, the writing is great, the story is fun, but the novella length is no good. I could easily have read a novel’s worth of this, and maybe I’ll get to if enough people find this story as perfectly acceptable as I did.

Sleeping Giants, by Sylvain Neuvel

Sleeping GiantsAfter our previous dispiriting road trip audiobook, Scott and I were in the mood for something a little more engaging. Sleeping Giants came highly recommended by my bookish bestie and so I was thrilled when it came in on Overdrive just before our trip back to Florida. And I’ll tell you this: it is a GREAT road trip listen.

It’s a great audiobook primarily because of the style — like World War Z before it, it’s written as an oral history and narrated by a full cast, bringing some much-appreciated variety to the audio. Here I have to admit that I didn’t terribly much like the main, unnamed narrator and his awkward speech style, but in service of the story I was willing to put up with it.

And what a story it is. It starts with a girl who falls into a hole and lands on a giant hand, as one does, and then that girl grows up and studies physics and ends up, coincidentally (or is it?), on a team studying said giant hand. Soon enough, another giant body part shows up and the military gets involved, and then the unnamed narrator and his shadowy organization get involved and it becomes a whole big thing, looking for giant body parts and figuring out how they fit together.

That’s the big story; the small story is the team that’s working on this body part rescue mission and how they interact with each other. There’s some predictable and predictably sexist love triangle crap, but there’s also a lot of legitimately interesting interactions between the team members.

But let’s be real, the big story is more interesting. Giant body parts! Shadowy organizations! Aliens?! Mutually assured destruction! It is completely crazypants bonkers and delightful. And then, spoilers, there’s a fascinating cliffhanger ending that had better mean there’s another book coming.

Other reviews I’ve seen of this book compare it to World War Z, obviously, and then also The Martian, which I see a little less. I would place this more with The Three Body Problem for its big ideas and its ridiculous science.

It’s not a really good book, but it is really good brain candy and a great way to pass eight and a half hours in a car. If you’re in the market for action, adventure, and excitement, this ought to do the trick.

Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman

NeverwhereA while back I got a great deal on an Audible membership, $7 for three months instead of $45. Winning! At the end of the three months I had credits to spend before I could cancel, and so into my collection went the radio adaptation of Neverwhere because Benedict Cumberbatch and because I couldn’t find it for free (legally) anywhere else.

I waffled about whether to listen to it immediately (see: Benedict Cumberbatch) or finally get around to reading this book, and I might still be waffling about it except that in a room full of my sister-in-law’s books, this one was sitting on top of a precarious pile, just waiting to be read. So I did.

It was… not what I was expecting. I was thinking it would be American Gods-like, maybe, or, better, Good Omens-y, but it reminded me more of Stardust than anything else. It has that sort of slow, dreamy, fairy-tale quality to it, as well as some very obvious morals and dubious motives.

It’s not quite what I wanted, but I still liked it, for sure. I was drawn into the weird world of Richard Mayhew, your standard bumbling British fellow with terrible girlfriend and improbable lack of any social graces, and moreso of Door, your standard, uh, magical creature slash creator of portals to other worlds. As one is.

Richard, having done an exceptionally good deed, is punished for it because magic is rude like that and finds himself rather unmoored from reality, no longer welcome in our regular world and yet not welcome in the world of London Below, where things are magic and danger is lurking in every corner, especially for Door. But, having almost literally nothing to lose, he bumbles his way into Door’s quest for answers and revenge, and, probably not a spoiler, learns some stuff about himself along the way.

It is kind of an epically standard boy-meets-magic story, but of course Gaiman sells it with his writing, which is as ever poetic and darkly humorous and full of the tiniest and most important details. I hadn’t realized when reading it how early it falls in Gaiman’s writing career, so much earlier than almost anything of his I’ve read save Good Omens and Sandman that it’s hard to adequately judge this book on its own merits. I am definitely more inclined toward his more contemporary novels and stories, but I can see the bits and pieces in this novel that, twenty years later, make a Gaiman book a Gaiman book and that’s always a cool thing.

And, of course, now I’m ready to bust out my radio adaptation and see what can be done with this book with four hours and a bevy of amazing voices. I am looking forward to reporting back on that!

Recommendation: For fans of Gaiman and weird London-based fantasy stories.

Weekend Shorts: The Spire and MaddAddam

I bring to you today one comics mini-series and one audiobook, not chosen for their similarities but which are similar nonetheless. Fascinating worlds, interesting characters, and flashbacks abound in both of these stories, and there’s definitely some crossover of themes. Clearly I have a type when it comes to my stories.

The Spire, #1-8, by Simon Spurrier and Jeff Stokely
The Spire #1I picked up this series just about a year ago when issue #3 came out, also picking up #2 that day and then waiting a couple weeks for #1 to make its way between stores. I had intended to buy all of them and read them as they came out, but I only did the first part — I couldn’t not own all these amazing covers, but apparently also couldn’t stand waiting for more story. But once I had all eight delightful issues in hand, it was time to binge!

And seriously, wow, this series is good. I came for the artwork, but I stayed for the story. Said story follows Commander Shå of the City Watch (City Watch!), a sort of offshoot of the regular police force comprised of “skews” — a derogatory term for beings who are not quite human and who therefore generally creep polite society out. Shå gets caught up in the investigation of a pretty brutal murder, and then several pretty brutal murders, all of which point back to a strange history between the city and the people and skews who live outside its walls.

It is… I can’t stop saying that it’s really good. There’s a lot of stuff going on in the series, and it’s all intriguing. Besides the murders you have of course the prejudice against skews to work with, Shå’s secret relationship with someone she really shouldn’t be dating, flashbacks to the current ruler’s venture outside the city wall’s, a power trip by a future ruler with ulterior motives, a mysterious and powerful being that some people want to murder, fighting, magic, love… I’m not really sure how all this fits into eight issues but it does, perfectly.

Also, the artwork. I want so many of these covers and pages and panels blown up to ridiculous size and plastered on all my walls. The style and the colors are totally my jam.

I am only sad that that’s the end, but maybe if I’m lucky these guys will pair up again and make something equally fantastic. At the very least, the good thing about comics is that people make SO MANY of them that I’m sure to find either the writer or the artist somewhere else soon!

MaddAddam, by Margaret Atwood
MaddAddamTrue story: I was absolutely convinced I had read this book already, to the point where I had to page back through my Goodreads “read” list to discover that no, Scott and I had only listened to the first two books in this series on our various road trips. Conveniently, a road trip cropped up shortly thereafter and I downloaded this right quickly.

As a book, it’s great. It takes place right after The Year of the Flood and catches us up on what’s going on with our God’s Gardeners and our Crakers and our Jimmy/Snowman/Snowman-the-Jimmy. It’s not terribly good news, as the Painballers are loose and the pigoons are in fighting form and the Crakers continue to be the most annoying four-year-olds. But, on the plus side, while our friends are dealing with this mess we get to have some more backstory, in the form of flashbacks from Gardener Zeb about his life and that of his brother, Adam One.

Unfortunately, it was kind of a dud road trip book. It was so similar in tone and even story to the others in the series that it was very easy to zone out during the audio, and there wasn’t a lot of really new information to keep our attention. Even in the “fight scenes”, there wasn’t a lot of action going on, and those were few and far between. Scott was willing to let me listen to the book, because I was actually interested in it, but he slept through a lot of it and missed the parts I listened to on my runs and when it came time to summarize what he’d missed it was a lot of, “Well, Zeb told some more stories about Adam One and also there’s this chess piece with drugs in it”, or “Well, the Crakers were annoying and also the pigoons came and made a truce with the humans so they could all go kill some Painballers.” So, lots of nothing with some exciting punctuation.

I still liked it a lot. I love this world that Atwood’s made and I would probably read several more books set in it because there’s still more to know. But it’s definitely a book that should be read when you have lots of time and attention to pay to it.

Weekend Shorts: Wayback Machine Edition

So, this summer went kind of insane on me, and I ended up reading a bunch of comics and then not blogging about them. So this post is about things I read, uh, two or more months ago and am just now getting around to writing about. Please forgive me for everything I am about to forget to mention!

Locke & Key, Vols. 2 & 3, “Head Games” and “Crown of Shadows”, by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez
Locke & Key Vol. 2Man, I really do love Locke & Key. The art is amazing, the colors are amazing, the stories are amazing… it’s a complete package.

In Volume 2, our creepy ghostly Bad Guy, Zack, has failed to think about the fact that teachers remember their students, especially when said students show up in the exact same high-school age body decades later. While Zack’s cleaning up that mess, Bode finds a key that literally opens up a person’s head and lets you put things in and take them out. This is useful for both studying for a test and for removing debilitating fear, but of course these benefits don’t come without consequences.

In Volume 3, we get an awesome Bad Guy Spirit Fight to start things off, which, awesome. Then we see Kinsey making some new friends who lead her off to see some weird and dangerous stuff for funsies, and we see that Nina’s alcoholism is both out of control and maybe possibly kind of useful in this strange house. But mostly out of control. Also, even better than the Spirit Fight, we get a creepy-ass Shadow Fight, which is really kind of horrifying if you stop to think about it too long.

I’m going to stop thinking about it right now, and maybe go grab some more of these trades off hoopla. Love!

Giant Days, #13-14, by John Allison and Max Sarin
Giant Days #13After the Great Binge of Spring 2016, it took a while for new issues to show up on hoopla. But when they did, I grabbed them! (Of course, now there are a bunch more and I must go get them all!) Issue #13 is a day in the life of Esther — she’s run away from university back to mum and dad, and although it seems like a great adventure at first, it’s not uni and therefore is the worst. Luckily Susan and Daisy are on the case! Issue #14 covers the college student’s worst nightmare — putting off housing so long that there’s nothing left to find! A mad dash and a secret app may or may not get my favorite girls a home in the end. Can’t stop, won’t stop, loving this series.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the GalaxyThis one’s not a comic, but an audiobook. One of my book-club-mates picked this one out as an easy summer read, which, yes, but after my discovery, uh, seven years ago (so ooooold), that the series doesn’t really hold up to a second reading, I was not terribly excited. Then I discovered that I had the option to have Stephen Fry read the book to me, and I was like, oh, well, that’s all right then.

As I said oh those many years ago, a lot of this book relies on its unexpectedness, so again, it wasn’t really the most exciting re-read. But! If you have the chance to talk about the book with a bunch of people reading it for the first time, it’s totally worth it, even if the book club meeting is just people going, “42! Slartibartfast! Vogon poetry! Fjords!” Also, Stephen Fry.

Authority, by Jeff VanderMeer

AuthorityHmm. This book. I was prepared to be all sorts of excited about it, but my reaction when I realized this was next in the queue to be reviewed (to wit: “Ugh, that book?”) shows approximately my level of actual excitement at reading the thing.

Authority is one of those novels that I probably would have put down “except”. In this case, “except” was a… let’s call it an unplanned and very depressing vacation, and let’s call Authority a terrible book to read during such a vacation, especially when surrounded by lots of other books that could be read. But I didn’t have the brain power to pick a different one, so this was it.

So… yeah. In my review of the first book in this series, Annihilation, I mentioned that I had a lot of questions and no answers and I hoped the other two books would give me some of those answers. On the plus side, this book is chock full of answers. So many answers. I kind of hate answers now.

This is possibly by design, as the book is almost a love letter to bureaucracy. The story takes place just after the events of the first book, but from the point of view of the Southern Reach rather than its scientists. After the very strange return of the first book’s scientists, the Southern Reach wants its own answers, so they send in a new guy to take over the office and get them. But you soon come to find out that the new guy is more or less terrible at his job, that he has no idea what’s going on, that no one else has any idea what’s going on, that Area X probably doesn’t know what’s going on, and that nonetheless there are people to report to and paperwork to file. Exciting?

The interesting bits of the story are our new guy’s interactions with the returned biologist, who is acting oddly even for the Southern Reach and who creates the few intriguing questions this novel contains. I wanted to know so much more about her story and so much less about basically anyone else, but no, of course I can’t get the answers I want out of this series. Siiiiiiigh.

The answers we do get are less exciting, as they largely pertain to the overall scope of the Southern Reach and to the running of the outpost and to the history of new guy who I sooooo didn’t care about.

And yet, I do still want to read the third book in this series, which I think is largely attributable to VanderMeer’s writing, which is lush and poetic and lovely even when it’s actively not be used to tell me anything of value. So rude. I did cheat and check the description of the next book, and it does not seem to have anything to do with bureaucracy, so I will probably, some day, eventually, get it from the library and move on with my life. If it’s more like the first book than the second, it’ll probably be worth it.

Recommendation: I hate to say skip it, but I really probably would unless you’re reading the whole trilogy in one sitting. And definitely don’t read it if you haven’t read Annihilation.