Sun of Suns (Virga I) – Karl Schroeder

This novel certainly has a very cool and well imagined setting. A hollow sphere the size of a small planet, filled with air. In the center is Candesce, a fusion powered artificial sun. Dotted around the place are lesser artificial suns. Around the suns low G human civilizations cluster for warmth, building giant wooden wheels to create their own gravity strongly tainted by coriolis force. Weather systems are logical extensions of the environment, with convective currents driving everything from icebergs to clouds to whole civilizations around the place.

Unfortunately it all quickly becomes rather tedious. The novel attempts to recreate the feel of an adventure novel set in the age of sail. A young man who, years ago, saw his nation conquered and his parents murdered infiltrates the highest levels of the enemy nation command structure. Said enemy nation sends a fleet (yes, cool flying ships) on a pre-emptive strike. And that’s where I called it quits. Despite the cool gadgets, I found the characters less than engaging. I didn’t give a rat’s ass what happened to any of them. After the fabulous premise was well established, it was disappointing to find the story itself so trivial, and the characters so mundane. This story needed a co-author with a better hand at dialogue and characterization, not to mention combat.

Fast Food Nation – Eric Schlosser

Non-fiction about “the truth” behind America’s fast food industry and its role in shaping American culture. Fascinating reading that goes through the history of fast food, then continues with the labor practices and the food itself. Schlosser is neither a vegan nor an anti-globalist. He just wants a healthy burger. Some of the facts revealed are pretty scary and it can be enough to put you off fast food forever. But this should not be seen only as a book about fast food, It also examines fast food as a metaphor for modern American (and global) society. If you have ever eaten fast food, you might want to read this book.

The Android’s Dream – John Scalzi

Earth is very low on the pecking order of the galactic stage. Our closest associates are the Nidu, who are pretty much low-lives themselves. After a diplomatic incident caused by a disgruntled and vengeful State Department employee, the Nidu have Earth in their sights in a Machiavellian scheme involving a coup d’état and a sheep. The sheep, a very special breed, is to be used for the Nidu succession ceremony. Enter Harry Creek, war veteran and problem solver, who now has to find the sheep and keep it and himself alive while being chased by both the Nidu and the Department of Defense, the latter having its own plans.

Confused yet? I was. The first hundred pages introduce a plethora of characters, motivations and subplots. It is almost overwhelming. Thankfully, Scalzi’s trademark humor is out in force. Once the plot gets going the numerous twists and turns have you guessing, but the fun never stops. It is an action comedy, and a very good one. With a dry wit and a well-tuned sense of the absurd and the cliché, Scalzi deftly maneuvers the story to a momentous, unexpected and hilarious conclusion.

Zoë’s Tale – John Scalzi

This is a parallel book to The Last Colony, retold from the viewpoint of Zoë, the adoptive daughter of John Perry and Jane Sagan. If you’ve read The Last Colony, you know the basic framework of the story. The colony of Roanoke is established as a secret holdout (and bait) against the Conclave. The Conclave must be stopped, but the Colonial Union isn’t playing fair.

I enjoyed the first half of this book more than the second. Zoë is a bubbly, sassy teenager with a sharp wit. Scalzi excels at putting a smile on the reader’s face even when recounting everyday events. He has also succeeded in making it sound as if the story is indeed told by a teenager, albeit an intelligent and precocious one. Unfortunately, the book bogs down in the second half, with long stretches of heavy handed dialogue ponderously moving the story forward. Scalzi painted himself into a corner with the very convoluted plot. On the whole, it is an enjoyable book, but nowhere near as good, or as much fun, as Old Man’s War.

The Last Colony – John Scalzi

In this second sequel to Old Man’s War. John Perry is back centre stage. He is married to Jane Sagan, the special forces soldier created from the DNA of his dead wife. They have adopted the daughter of Charles Boutin (see The Ghost Brigades) and have retired from the military and live on a quiet colony. The Colonial Union has other plans for them, however, and they are more or less drafted as leaders of a new colony. The catch is that the Conclave, a federation of races to whom humanity does not belong, has forbidden the creation of new colonies. And so their new colony, Roanoke, is hidden away. They are forbidden from using modern equipment. But the depth of the Colonial Union’s deception is hidden even from them. To add insult to injury, their information about the Conclave is flawed at best.

I enjoyed this one just like the previous two books. Scalzi is very good at characters, and the first person narration through Perry gives the book a light hearted, humorous sense. The plot is convoluted, perhaps too much so. Scalzi is good at keeping track, but this reader felt that all the plot twists required too much exposition. The novel lacked the sense of immediacy so present in Old Man’s War. A solid conclusion to the series in any case.

The Ghost Brigades – John Scalzi

This is the sequel to the excellent Old Man’s War. John Perry, our hero from that book, is absent though mentioned. This novel deals with the genetically engineer supersoldiers of the Ghost Brigades, which comprise the Special Forces of the Colonial Union. Jared Dirac is created to house the recorded consciousness of Charles Boutin, a traitor to the Colonial Union. But the consciousness doesn’t take. He becomes just another Special Forces soldier, until the traitor’s memories and personality start emerging.

While a good read, this book has a problem. The macro story of political intrigue is rather dull and stretches believability. The first half, where most of the action deals with Jared’s development as a soldier and person, is excellent. Scalzi is playing to his strengths here, just as he did in Old Man’s War. There is lots of humor and focus on character. The second half is less enticing. While Jared is still an interesting character to follow, the background story is both abstract and dull. There is a great message in the plotline involving Boutin’s daughter, but it gets bogged down in Boutin’s evil genius posturing. While crazy geniuses with convoluted plans work fine in a James Bond movie, the whole thing falls a bit flat here. A decent read, but not as good as its predecessor.

Cold Granite – Stuart MacBride

A serial killer is on the loose in Aberdeen (the one in Scotland), and our hero Detective Sergeant Logan McRae is on the case. He is just back from leave after being badly stabbed in the belly. He is working for the constantly candy eating Detective Inspector Insch.

The afterword ends with “Aberdeen’s really not as bas as it sounds. Trust me.” I certainly hope so. It sounds like a grey, wet, frozen hellhole full of criminals and never-have-beens with no future in the book. The views into people’s seemingly hopeless, prospectless, grey lives don’t help.

This is a very competent police procedural. The characters are excellently fleshed out, colourful and quirky. Logan McRae himself is by no means perfect and does not always do the right thing. In fact he is full of insecurities. MacBride’s prose is packed with sarcastic and colorful understatement that made this reader chuckle. The one gripe I have is that there are perhaps a few too many twists. Certainly the portrayal of police work as tedious and repetitive seems much closer to the truth than the streamlined view of anything on small or big screen. Our hero’s life is dullness and mind numbing tedium, punctuated by moments of action and terror. Not to mention an amazingly unhealthy lifestyle of broken sleep and terrible eating habits.

Old Man’s War – John Scalzi

Earth is a backwater, kept in a sort of information embargo about humanity’s various off world colonies. Developing countries send colonists in droves, but in America the only option if you want to leave is to enlist in the Colonial Defense Force (CDF). There’s a catch, though. You can only enlist when you turn seventy-five. Details of what awaits the recruits are scant, and all ties to Earth are severed after enlistment. The whole thing is more or less a leap of faith. As it turns out, the Universe is a scary place and the CDF is more or less constantly at war. The recruits are rejuvenated, trained and sent out.

Our hero John Perry is one of these recruits. It is very interesting to see the story told from an old person’s viewpoint. All the recruits are old, and they don’t see things like youngsters do. It certainly makes a change from young people going to war. Perry does not know what to expect, and what he finds out there is far stranger than he ever imagined.

I enjoyed this book immensely. The main character is very likeable. He is basically Mr. Middle America (in the good way), but with the usual quirks to be expected after a lifetime. The pacing is excellent, unhurried but without bogging down. It is very strongly inspired by “Starship Troopers”, and as inspirations go one could do worse.

Calculating God – Robert J. Sawyer

An alien lands outside the Royal Ontario Museum in Ontario and asks to see a paleontologist. This is the first alien contact. The alien says that on his world, and on the world of another alien race, the fossil record shows that five mass extinctions have occurred at the same time as they did on earth. The alien races see this as evidence that God exists, and is tampering with the development of intelligent beings. The human paleontologist, Tom Jericho, is skeptical at first, but the evidence is compelling.

I was prepared to hate this book because the premise seemed stupid at first, but Sawyer deftly weaves together known elements of paleontology, genetics, cosmology and other disciplines. There are a couple of small factual errors, such as the fact that Hubble could not immediately be trained on a supernova. And even if it was the optics would be burned out. But I’ll attribute those to dramatic license.

The message of the novel, if you will, is that if there is a supreme being, then he/she/it is not mystical, but encompassed by the scope of science. The interaction between the dying Jericho, as he struggles with his incumbent mortality, and the alien Hollus, is very well written. Sawyer shows their friendship during the events of the novel in a very poignant way. The climax of the novel is unexpected and massive, as the scope of the novel changes dramatically.


The Demon-Haunted World – Carl Sagan

The great Carl Sagan explains how science works and how it can rescue us from harmful ignorance. The way in which he debunks myths of all kinds is great. Well written and accessible, I would recommend this to anyone who wants to annoy people fascinated by the occult. Jokes aside, this is a very important book that I think everyone should read.

The Harry Potter Series – J.K. Rowling

The series consists of seven books but I have only read the first five:

  • Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone (US edition is titled Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone)
  • Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
  • Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
  • Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
  • Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

As the series progresses, it becomes darker and darker. The dark lord Voldemort, and his ties to Harry Potter’s past, take on ever greater importance. While Harry’s schooling is always at the center of the story, it is clear that great events are afoot in the magic world. The paralells to today’s distrustful world are readily apparent.

This is delightful fantasy. Although aimed at a younger audience, it works very well for adults. What starts as the story of children going to a school for magic ends up as a life and death struggle between good and evil. The themes developed in the books go much deeper than the plot, especially the conflict between “Muggles” (normal people) and those who practice magic. The growth of Harry Potter into adulthood is very well described.

Rowling is a masterful author, with beautiful style and characterization.

The Prophet Muhammad – Barnaby Rogerson

A biography of Muhammad. I should qualify that: A rather short and basic biography of Muhammad. Since I knew next to nothing of the man or the birth of Islam, this served as a good primer. Rogerson has been a guide in the Middle East for over two decades, and it shows in his writing. Lots of details of places, just like a guided tour. However, it is not terribly engaging reading once you get past the places to descriptions of people and events. Rogerson treats the issue of mystical revelation rather well, without judgement. He simply describes Muhammad as having visions. He focuses more on Muhammad’s reactions to the visions that on the visions themselves.

Nimitz Class – Patrick Robinson

Patrick Robinson’s debut is a passable technothriller about a Nimitz class carrier getting destroyed. While it has many Clancy-like traits, it fails when it moves out of the military and into the political and administrative arenas. Cool submarine stuff though.

Antarctica – Kim Stanley Robinson

This book reprises much of the feel the Mars Trilogy. Once again, this is a story about grass roots insurrection, freedom and societal evolution. But no real plot, or did I miss it again? I derived my enjoyment purely from my interest in Antarctica. It is forgettable otherwise.

The Mars Trilogy – Kim Stanley Robinson

Consisting of:

  • Red Mars
  • Green Mars.
  • Blue Mars.

This series on the colonization of Mars is spectacularly wide ranging and epic. It is very well written and researched. While it is enjoyable, my big gripe is that Mr. Robinson leaves no stone unturned. He wants to explore so many things that the main push of the story gets lost. Or maybe this is less of a story and more of a chronicle. But even so, there is too much stuff going on. Admittedly most of that stuff is interesting but the whole thing just too ponderous.

The Gold Coast – Kim Stanley Robinson

This is one of three novels in a set that examines three possible future Californias, specifically Orange County. The Gold Coast is the dystopic one of the set. While it has some very interesting imagery, it failed to capture my interest.


Von Neumann’s War – John Ringo & Travis S. Taylor

In the beginning of this book, various professional and amateur astronomers notice that Mars is changing color. It is becoming slowly less red and more grey. Eventually, they figure out that it is being consumed by Von Neumann machines. For those who aren’t familiar, these are machines capable of replicating themselves. A team of Very Smart People in Huntsville, Alabama ends up developing the concepts for and leading the defense. If the location sounds familiar, it is the site of the Marshall Space Flight Center and the Redstone Arsenal, some of the premier rocket design locations in the United States. The book starts fast, and gets faster, as a reconnaissance probe is sent to find out more about the Von Neumann “probes” and then these attack Earth. The “motivation” of the probes is interesting. They only kill as a side effect. Mostly they just grab anything metal, including dental braces, cars, metal eyelets out of shoes, dog tags and rebar out of buildings, to make more of themselves. The story focuses on the Very Smart People, and they are quite a fun bunch of rocket scientists.

This is what happens when you combine Ringo, known for fast moving prose and a twisted sense of humor, with Taylor, who can write one heck of a fast moving plot. Hold on tight! Just like in his other works, Taylor’s story creeps up on you. It starts very small and by the end the fate of the world is at stake and the action scenes crowd each other out on the page. The initial alien attack conveniently lands near Paris. I say conveniently because the US can act as the Last Citadel. I suspect it also gave our authors a chance to destroy France. This book is great fun, the science is fascinating and the main characters sound like a group of people I’d like to have a beer with.

Princess of Wands (Special Circumstances I) – John Ringo

An ordinary Southern homemaker, Barbara “Barb” Everette has three kids and a full life. She is the epitome of the churchgoing soccer mom, with the only slight quirk her prowess at martial arts. But on a weekend off, she ends up foiling the attempt of a demon to take over a village in the Louisiana bayou. And then things get even weirder as she is recruited into a super secret organization that battles supernatural beings as they manifest on Earth.

Once again Ringo has managed to write a page turner. The prose and action are excellent as usual, and peppered with the author’s dry humor. Just like Ghost, the novel is episodic, although the characters could hardly be more different. Barb is a very unusual Fantasy heroine, being a deeply religious woman who deems men masters of the household, even her useless one. It is interesting to see how Ringo makes this trait her very strength in her battles against the forces of darkness. There is a also quite a bit of fanservice, as Ringo drops Barb into a typical SciFi convention replete with the requisite authors, geeks and role players. Making the villain a thinly disguised David Drake who hates and envies a thinly disguised Robert Jordan is a nice touch. Unfortunately the convention is also the novel’s weaker section. Too many characters are introduced at the event, and the plot does not flow very well at this point.

While it is not the best Ringo plot wise, the quality of the writing is high as usual. Very entertaining.

The Hero – John Ringo & Michael Z. Williamson

This story is set about a thousand years after the events in the Posleen War series. The titular hero is a Darhel. The Darhel are known as being the puppetmasters of humanity a millennium earlier, and also for being incapable of killing. He is assigned to a Deep Reconnaissance Commando team due to his psychic ability to sense living beings. The rest of the team is made up of humans. They are sent on a scouting missions to a planet held by the “Blobs”, a mysterious enemy. While there, they find an Aldenata artifact, and the team sniper betrays the team, killing almost all of the members in a bid to secure the valuable artifact for himself. The Darhel now has to evade the sniper and eliminate him as a threat, despite his racial inability to kill.

This book is a very tight knit drama of a few individuals. The psychological aspects are very interesting, delving into motivations and character. The story itself was unfortunately somewhat weak. The first half is basically a set up for the chase in the second half. The chase, though interesting, felt a bit long-winded. If you are interested in special forces and sniper operations, it is a decent read, but despite its exposition on Darhel physiology and psychology, it does not add very much to the Legacy of the Aldenata universe.

Cally’s War – John Ringo & Julie Cochrane

This book is part of Ringo‘s Legacy of the Aldenata universe. Set about fifty years after the Posleen War, its main character is Cally O’Neal, daughter of Mike O’Neal. Her father believes her dead, but in fact she is an assassin and intelligence operative for a secret organization known as the Bane Sidhe. The purpose of the organization is to resist the autocratic rule of the Darhel. But that’s just the backstory. This novel deals with how Cally has to assassinate a counterintelligence officer. And how she falls in love with a rival agent. It’s complicated.

There is much to like about this book. Cally herself is deeply flawed mentally and she wears different identities like personae. She is probably over 70, but with rejuvenation the body is young, and she lives like a twenty year old. The bad part is the very long introduction. Before we get to the main action, half the book is spent on what is basically a tangent. While it neatly sets up Cally’s character and backstory, I still felt that it could have been trimmed. To add insult to injury, the conclusion feels hurried, with some characters barely getting a personality before playing important parts.

If you have read the other books in the series, you may like this one. But note that there are no Posleen to fight and it’s not really about combat.

Watch on the Rhine – John Ringo & Tom Kratman

This book is part of Ringo‘s Legacy of the Aldenata universe. It deals with the defense of Germany during the Posleen War. In what initially seems like a Faustian bargain, the Germans rejuvenate a whole bunch of old SS soldiers to form the cadre for their elite defense forces. They even resurrect the SS unit names and eventually the infamous double flash insignia. Much thoughtprovoking discussion ensues. The authors treat the subject matter in an adult manner. It’s a tricky subject, but they pull it off.

The action contained is great. The combat scenes are, as expected, intense and well written. The characters, major and minor, are all well fleshed out. The flashbacks into the past of various SS officers, especially Brasche, are excellent and used well throughout as a backdrop to the main action.

If you like the other books in the series, you will like this one. But it stands well on its own. No doubt many will loathe this book for the hated symbols it portrays and the notion of reawakening a buried evil. But as discussed in the text, symbols are not absolute. I urge readers to approach the text with open minds.

Claws That Catch (Looking Glass IV) – John Ringo & Travis S. Taylor

The third mission of the Vorpal Blade, now actually Vorpal Blade Two, has the crew looking for an ancient artifact. Far from stagnating, the plot thickens as a new commanding officer and various crew members enter the mix. The just don’t “get” the Blade and its odd denizens. The ensuing conflicts and madcap hijinks are central to character development.

After finishing this one, I find myself wanting more. As mentioned in the Manxome Foe review, these books are just plain fun. The characters are likeable, the humor is dry and the pages just want to be turned.