Ballistic (The Palladium Wars II) – Marko Kloos

Under the threat of an unknown aggressor, the system slowly moves towards war again. Aden finds himself unwittingly embroiled in a terror plot and again at the mercy of the Rhodian military, running into Dunstan. Idina struggles with insurgency on Gretia.

The series is still on a slow burn, but Mr. Kloos’s characters are engaging to read about, and just spending time with them is nice.

Aftershocks (The Palladium Wars I) – Marko Kloos

Five years after waging a system-wide war of aggression, the planet-nation of Gretia is still under occupation by the victorious powers. Prisoner of war Aden Jansen, a former elite soldier from the losing side, is released from captivity on Rhodia, and must start rebuilding his life. On Gretia itself, Idina, a sergeant with the peacekeeping forces, contends with increasing violence. Dunstan, a military spaceship captain, sees an increase in piracy and other events. Finally, on Gretia, young corporate scion Solveig is being groomed to take over the Ragnar corporation.

The dialogue and the fast-paced action scenes are on point. The four narratives don’t really meet in the first instalment of the series, but it works anyway, as Mr. Kloos progressively illustrates out the political and social layout of the Gaia system. A great start.

A Cook’s Tour – Global Adventures in Extreme Cuisines – Anthony Bourdain

Chef Bourdain travels the world looking for the “perfect meal”.

Entertaining but very varied both in quality and flavour. The trip to France with his brother seeking out their childhood haunts is heartwarming. The Vietnam stories are colourful. The Russian trip is at once terrifying and hilarious.

Not as focused as Kitchen Confidential, and Mr. Bourdain does admit that after the sucess of that book he was a man looking for a purpose, which shows. Nevertheless, the writing is humorous, tight, and pithy.

Machine Vendetta (Prefect Dreyfus Emergency III) – Alastair Reynolds

The final book in the trilogy concludes the arc that started in Elysium Fire. A lone prefect dies under mysterious circumstances, and her legacy turns out to be more mysterious still. A rogue faction within Panoply attempts to capture the Clockmaker and Aurora distributed artificial intelligences, which up to now have been more or less balancing each other out. Their capture effort has unintended and disastrous consequences.

The characters are stellar and Mr. Reynolds’s writing is solid as ever, but the plot feels weak and the pacing slow, making the book a slog in parts.

Kitchen Confidential – Anthony Bourdain

Chef Bourdain’s outrageous and allegedly accurate memoir of a life in the kitchens of New York and environs. Sex, drugs, rock and roll, deceit, mob connections, and of course food. And almost more importantly, the mindboggling logistics of food, from supplier to plate.

Mr. Bourdain’s voice is irreverent, often outrageous, but always entertaining. A book to devour. At times poignant, peppered with dark humour, and often laugh out loud funny, this is a fascinating and very entertaining book.

The Time Traveler’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger

Clare and Henry are star-crossed lovers who meet occasionally. Henry is an inadvertent time traveler, dropping into Clare’s life at what from her perspective are predetermined times.

I made it about a quarter of the way in. The novel is well written. The characters are likable, nuanced, and intense. The trauma of their present and past lives is apparent. Unfortunately, I found the whole narrative rather boring. While the time travel aspect is central to the story, the events depicted came off as very bland. Put another way, apart from the time travel aspect, the lives of Clare and Henry didn’t interest me one bit.

Through the Storm (Transdimensional Hunter II) – John Ringo & Lydia Sherrer

Raven’s adventures in the augmented reality game Transdimensional Hunter continue. Meanwhile, her high school life brings new trauma as she navigates what for her is the very uncomfortable real world of relationships and fame.

While fairly entertaining and an easy read, the second installment doesn’t really bring anything new to the table besides new expressions of teenage angst. Hints at a larger narrative, with Raven being groomed for foreshadowed events, are prominent. Perhaps in a future installment, the story will move forward in a more decisive manner.

Monster Hunter Fever – (Monster Hunter Memoirs IV) – Larry Correia & Jason Cordova

On the surface, Chloe Mendoza is a young and small Latina woman. But her father is a mythical Mesoamerican god and she harbours a fierce and vicious beast inside herself. Nevertheless, she works as a Monster Hunter. After a long time overseas, she returns to Monster Hunter International and is part of the first team to set up in the Los Angeles Area.

Set in the late 1970s, this novel is part of the Monster Hunter Memoirs spinoffs, but separate from the Chad Gardenier Trilogy that made up the first three Memoirs books. It is a fun outing in the Monster Hunter universe, with some familiar characters making cameos appearances. Chloe’s conflicted character and complicated heritage make for some intriguing storytelling, but overall it’s just good fun.

Termination Shock – Neal Stephenson

As with many other of Mr. Stephenson‘s books, it is difficult to summarise this one in a brief paragraph, as there are several rather disparate threads. The main ones involve the Queen of the Netherlands being invited to a secret meeting involving a geoengineering project in Texas to cool the planet, thus counteracting climate change. Another thread is about a Sikh youth from Canada who finds himself entwined in geopolitical strife in the Himalayas. And yet another threat is about a US Army veteran who is on a crusade against marauding wild boar in Texas. Counseling the Queen is an interesting character with Indonesian and Chinese origins. As events unfold and the climate does indeed start changing, clandestine climate wars silently begin, while on the India-China border, performative war is already happening.

Some books manage to change your view of the world. This is one of them. As climate change pushes humanity into an uncertain future, Mr. Stephenson explores some of the possibilities. One of the key takeaways is that stability is an illusion. Don’t hold on to thiings, material or otherwise, if doing so is harmful to your wellbeing. This was as true for Dutch colonists in Indonesia during World War Two as it is for those holding on to their houses in the face of repeated catastrophic weather events. A captivating read, beautifully written in Mr. Stephenson’s trademark ironic tone.

Escape Orbit (Eccentric Orbits II) – Patrick Chiles

At the end of Frozen Orbit, Jack Templeton went into hibernation on board the Magellan and launched himself towards the outer reaches of the solar system, in a quest to reach a mysterious object with a strong gravity well. Meanwhile, former crewmate Traci Keene is back on earth in bureaucratic hell. Eventually Jack reaches the object, which is much more mysterious than he suspected. And a rescue mission involving Traci is launched.

While a serviceable sequel to Frozen Orbit, the novel suffers from a less engaging setting. Frozen Orbit was real deep space adventure. Escape Orbit has too little deep space and too much bureaucratic machination. The real action doesn’t start until well into the second half of the book. The AI elements are interesting but not groundbreaking.

Earthside (Quantum Earth II) – Dennis E. Taylor

In the immediate sequel to Outland, our heroes continue to deal with the aftermath of the Yellowstone eruption, and the challenges of setting up a colony in the alternate timeline of Outland. Given that the majority of the existing inhabitants of “Rivendell”, as the refuge has been named, are of university age, a sudden influx of older refugees creates significant tension. The older generation feels that they should take over what they see as an amateur operation run by youths. Additional subplots include a sociopathic killer, and research to find other potential timelines that might offer escape hatches or resources.

While the second installment is still entertaining, it doesn’t have nearly the same punch as the first book. Mr. Taylor skillfully weaves the plot, but some of the elements seem tacked on as filler. It lacks a definite direction, and seems more like an extended coda for the first book.

Outland (Quantum Earth I) – Dennis E. Taylor

University engineering students Mike and Bill are approached by physics students who need their expertise to continue experimenting with quantum tunneling and parallel universes. The experiments turn out to be more successful than expected, opening up a big can of worms. They can now open portals to alternate timelines, with different conditions, for example, one where dinosaurs did not go extinct, and one, which they name “Outland”, where mammals are prevalent but humans seem absent. A pastoral paradise of sorts. Meanwhile, Erin, a geology student, and Mike’s girlfriend, is caught up in unprecedented events at the Yellowstone caldera, which seems poised to erupt, potentially causing widespread destruction. Due to university politics, the quantum tunneling team decide to clandestinely move their research off-campus, while disassociating themselves with the university funding stream. What started as an academic project becomes a get-rich stream, and then rather unexpectedly morphs into an escape hatch for refugees.

The concept and usage of the portals is very well realised, with a slew of interesting applications that have to be improvised as conditions “Earthside” change dramatically. The adventure story parallels to Stargate SG-1 are obvious, and references by the characters themselves. While the protagonists are likable and it is easy to root for them, they are not very three-dimensional. On a side note, this is very much the young white American apocalypse, even if one of the main characters is Indian. I suppose it can be explained away since the setting is a university in Nebraska. That criticism aside, I found this to be a real page-turner just like his other books, with Mr. Taylor’s fast-paced plotting and the constant witty snark highly entertaining.

Gigi Make Paradox (Where the Hell is Tesla III) – Rob Dircks

The third installment of the series sees Chip and Pete in charge of their respective toddler daughters as their wives go out. An outing to see “old man” (Nikola Tesla) quickly turns nasty as Chip’s daughter Gigi inadvertently creates a paradox that threatens the multiverse.

This is by far the weakest of the three books. The books were never meant to be hard science fiction with internal consistency, but the meandering plotlines and repeated deus ex machinas quickly lost me. The recurring theme of Chip and Gigi’s love for each other lends a great deal of heart to the book, as does, again, Chip’s voice as the narrator. Pete’s adorable badass great-aunt is also a great addition. However, in the end, there was no feeling of dramatic tension, even with the ostensible stakes. While this final (?) installment ties up many of the threads, it was not a satisfying conclusion.

A Prayer for the Crown-Shy (Monk and Robot II) – Becky Chambers

With Dex’s ostensible quest to the Hermitage in the wilderness completed, they and the robot Mosscap venture into human lands, where a robot has not been seen in generations. They are met everywhere with curiosity and wonder as Mosscap asks anyone he meets what they “need”. But the answers are not what it is expecting.

As in the first novella, the characters are on quests that lead them to unexpected places. The second book bookends the story neatly, with the robot as a stranger among humans, while the first book was about the human as a stranger in the wilderness. The story further explores how wonder at the nature of the Universe and existence seem universal regardless of what form consciousness takes. The reader is left feeling happy and full of ponderings.

A Psalm for the Wild-Built (Monk & Robot I) – Becky Chambers

On the moon Panga, human society is a well-ordered, pleasant, and supportive idyll. Part of a monastic order, Sibling Dex finds themselves yearning for something more, something wild. They obsess over cricket sounds. They abandon the order to become a “tea monk,” traveling around Panga, dispensing tea in return for listening to people’s concerns, fears, and thoughts. A sort of traveling therapist, shoulder to cry on, or friend-on-call. But the wild still calls to Dex, who decides to strike out into actual wilderness. Here he encounters a robot. But robots haven’t been seen in many generations, after they were freed and subsequently left human society entire to live in the wild.

This novella isn’t one of great action or momentous events, but instead an exploration of what it means to be human, and in a wider sense to be alive at all. The interactions between Dex and the robot Mosscap are sublime, as they traverse from awkward metting to awkward companionship to tentative friendship, all the while discussing and debating what it means to be natural versus manufactured, and the purpose of existence. A feel-good story that makes the reader sense a deeper meaning.

Roadkill – Dennis E. Taylor

Jack Kerrigan has been expelled from MIT for something he did not do, and now he’s back in the small rural midwestern town where he grow up, working in his father’s general store. On a delivery run, he hits something with his pickup truck. But he can’t see it, as it is invisible. It turns out that Jack has hit an alien wandering across the road. As things unravel, Jack and his friends find themselves embroiled in a plot involving aliens meddling in humanity’s future, as well as the interstellar political implications.

While the premise itself, apart from the starting incident, is not terribly original, the story is great fun. An adventurous romp with many funny moments and often hilarious dialogue. The dynamic between the three childhood best friends turned young adults is fabulous, elevating the story from what the tired “aliens among us” to something much more engaging.

Time Trials – M.A. Rothman & D.J. Butler

Linguist and Egyptologist Marty Cohen has been pushed out of academia for spurious reasons and now runs a custom furniture store. An old colleague begs him to come to a new dig in Egypt where very curious writing has been found. At the dig, Marty and a few of the team are transported back to pre-dynastic Egypt. But things take an even stranger turn as mythical creatures turn out to exist, at least in this version of the past.

The novel is a serviceable and enjoyable Alternate History adventure, especially if you have some interest in Ancient Egypt history. It never becomes really epic, focusing instead on the dynamics of the small group of time travelers.

How It Unfolds (The Far Reaches I) – James S.A. Corey

Ray Court is part of an experimental programme, in which his mind, and those of the other programme members, will be scanned and sent out to candidate planets in the galaxy. Machines will construct habitats and then copies of Ray and the others, scattering humanity amongst the stars.

The concept of this novelette is simple, but the execution is both clever and thought-provoking. Complicating things, Roy’s ex-wife is also one on the programme, and he believes he may be able to win her back in “another life”. Multiple copies of Roy and the others end up in different circumstances, with different biomes, and their choices are sublty or greatly different. The story rapidly grows from small personal themes to awe-inspiring and humbling ones involving the deep future.

Critical Mass (Delta-V II) – Daniel Suarez

In the sequel to Delta-V, James Tighe and his companions are back on Earth, trying to figure out how to save their two friends still stranded on asteroid Ryugu. A relatively simple problem requiring an increasingly complex plan involving bootstrapping a space economy by building a mass driver on the Moon. The mass driver can launch resources extracted from the Lunar regolith at a fraction of the cost of launching them from Earth, enabling construction of a rescue ship. National and corporate interest on Earth try to get in on the economic and geopolitical frontier, while humanity and Earth suffers increasingly acute social and economic issues due to worsening climate change.

While Delta-V is a more straightforward space thriller, the sequel expands the context, posing important questions such as how to prevent space from becoming just another exploited colonisation boundary for the powerful, while most of humanity remain have-nots. The pace is slower, but the payoff ties it all together. The protagonist as something of a naif in context is a nice detail, illustrating how most people live their lives, even lives doing great things, with little understanding of the bigger picture.

He Who Fights With Monsters (He Who Fights With Monsters I) – Travis Deverell, a.k.a. Shirtaloon

Jason Asano, an Australian with a Japanese parent, is magically summoned to a different world, and finds himself, without warning, naked, in a cage. After much initial confusion, and after escaping a cult that is trying to use him as a blood sacrifice, he makes some friends and starts establishing a name for himself as a beginning “adventurer” in the city of Greenstone. The world in which he has landed works, at least for him, like a role-playing game, inclusive of magical storage, character statistics, attributes, and ranks.

The trope of a human taken from Earth and put in an unfamiliar world is hardly new, but the role-playing wrinkle is interesting. Jason as a character is almost stereotypical of the trope. He was something of a misfit on Earth, and now has the chance and the boldness to shine based on his unconcern for social hierarchy, his innate cleverness, his charm, and his often infuriating wit. Nevertheless, it is hard not to root for Jason, especially given the wry humour infused in much of the dialogue.

The Shattered Skies (The Cruel Stars II) – John Birmingham

In the sequel to The Cruel Stars, Princess Alessia, Commander Lucinda Hardy, Admiral McLellan, and L’trel make their way into Javan space. Their self-imposed mission is to find more survivors of the Sturm attack. As they arrive in a system where they believe allied forces may be operating clandestinely, they discover that criminal elements aboard a freeport habitat have conspired to capture warship crews. Furthermore, the surviving Javan foces have entered into an uneasy alliance with the corporate Combine. The Sturm is fast approaching, and in the face of this threat Admiral McLellan takes command, while L’trel attempts to rescue the prisoners on the freeport. The makeshift task force soon falls apart in the face of the enemy, and L’trel’s crew seems to have bitten off more than they can chew. Mayhem ensues.

With the main characters now well established, this second installment contains many fine action scenes and stellar dialogue like the first book, while keeping a sharp focus on the characters. Alessia is maturing quickly, under the tutelage of Lucinda, L’trel, and Admiral McClellan. McClellan himself, and his artificial intelligence foil Hero, continue to be as profane as they are hilarious.

Fall or, Dodge in Hell – Neal Stephenson

Billionaire video game designer and tech magnate Richard “Dodge” Forthrast dies while having a routine surgical procedure. Unbeknownst to his family and friends, he has long since signed up for cryopreservation, then probably forgotten about it. His will contains detailed instructions about possible reanimation when the technology exists. As it turns out, waking the dead in a computer-generated virtual reality seems to be the way forward. After many power struggles and discussions, Dodge finally wakes in a primitive computer-generated world, soon starting to shape and mould it to his desires. At first a trickle, and then a flood of other dead begin to join him, many with their own ideas about the virtual afterlife, in conflict with Dodge’s own.

There are some significant connections to other works by Mr. Stephenson. Richard Forthrast and his adoptive daughter Zula are prominently featured in Reamde, whilst Enoch Root was a character in Cryptomonicon, as well other works. Those were good novels. This is not. After a promising start, most of the action moves to the virtual world, and it is really boring. From Dodge’s initial efforts to shape the world to his desires, to his building of a pantheon with himself as the prime god, to his downfall at the hands of a rival, it is mainly a tedious slog to read. The final part is written as fantasy, and is slightly better, but by this point I just wanted it to be over, and skimmed large parts.

The concept itself is very interesting, and I had high hopes the plot would continue along the lines of the first quarter. However, the shift to the virtual world kills all interest in the main characters, and for that matter in the concept itself. At that point, it’s just a creation myth that has no need for its own backstory. It is a real shame, because there are so many interesting ideas to explore at depth, not least the societal impact of humans being able to live on, in a certain form at least, after death. The ending is mildly satisfying, but the journey to get there is not, especially as this book, while not overly long by Stephenson standards, is a solid tome by any other.