Holdout – Jeffrey Kluger

Astronaut Walli Beckwith is conducting an experiment on the International Space Station when an imminent collision leads to an evacuation order. Walli, however, refuses to leave, for reasons unknown to her two crewmates. As they return to Earth, she remains as the sole occupant on a damaged station. Meanwhile, in the Amazon, her niece is conducting aid work in response to a humanitarian crisis. The Brasilian government is ruthlessly chasing native populations from their lands in order to make space for industrial farming and deforestation. The Amazon is on fire.

The plot soon evolves into a very competent action-thriller. Most impressively, Mr. Kluger does not take any drastic shortcuts on realism; events are solidly underpinned by existing science and technology. The characters do feel a bit flat, unfortunately, but this is a page-turner nonetheless.

Chickenhawk – Robert Mason

As a young Warrant Officer in the US Army, Mr. Mason spent a year flying helicopters in Vietnam. This memoir chronicles his journey from wet-behind-the-ears newbie to grizzled veteran with PTSD. The perspective is very much that of soldiers who are just doing the job, far from any decision-making. They can see the futility of their efforts, but they still go out and fly, despite their fears, facing daily the horrors of mutilation and death.

Chickenhawk is a seminal book about the Vietnam War experience, and also about flying helicopters in combat. The author uses irony and self-deprecating humour to good effect, describing in starkly clinical terms the compendium of horrors he witnessed. The feelings of helplessness and futility from flying the same missions over and over again with little effect on the war effort, while at the same time the generals and politicians spout empty words claiming success is imminent, are explored not directly, but through the naively portrayed eyes of the narrator. A fascinating read whether you are into aviation or not.

Into the Real (TransDimensional Hunter I) – John Ringo and Lydia Sherrer

Lynn Raven is a rather reclusive high schooler in a society that encourages virtual interaction. She is overweight and has self-esteem issues. She is also secretly “Larry Coughlin,” one of the top players of Warmonger, an online first-person shooting game, and makes good money playing it. She is contacted by Warmonger’s developers to be part of testing for a new augmented reality (AR) game called TransDimentional Hunter. But this would require her to get out there “in the real”, since the game is played in real locales using virtual reality technology. For Lynn, being visible at all causes anxiety. Things get worse when she has to become part of a team.

This is not a typical John Ringo book, as it is firmly seated in the Young Adult arena. An entertaining romp and coming of age story, with a darker and deeper background story, no doubt to be explored in future installments, being strongly hinted at.

The Apollo Murders – Chris Hadfield

In an alternate history, the Apollo program flies one more mission, the all-military Apollo 18. At the last minute, the mission parameters change as the Soviet Union launches a spy space station equipped with cameras capable of unprecedented resolution. The astronauts are tasked with disabling it before departing Earth orbit for the Moon.

This is a technothriller with a solid grounding in the technology of the time. The technical details are accurate, hardly surprising as the author is a former astronaut. The plot itself is rather far-fetched, but plausible, and exciting in itself, especially for the space exploration buff. Unfortunately, the plot is often bogged down with overly complex sequences of events as one or another character seeks an advantage or makes a complicated plan. The characters themselves, a mixture of historical figures and fictional ones, are not very nuanced, and sometimes relationship events seem to be created purely without much story purpose. For example, the protagonist’s romance with one of the scientists seems tacked on unnecessarily.

Fighter Pilot: The Memoirs Of Legendary Ace Robin Olds – Robin Olds, with Christina Olds and Ed Rasimus

Robin Olds was the consummate fighter pilot. Bold, brave, decisive, inspiring, and impatient with bureaucracy. His career began in World War Two, flying Lightings and Mustangs, and was capped off with a legendary tour in Vietnam, flying Phantoms.

The events recounted are historically very interesting, especially the Vietnam War narrative. Unfortunately, though, Mr. Olds and his co-authors are not very inspiring writers. It is all quite plain, gruff and direct, probably much like the man himself. There is also a lot of fighter pilot jargon that goes largely unexplained, making many passages difficult to decipher. This book could have used an editor, or a helpful collaborating ghostwriter, to make the prose and structure more interesting. It turned into a slog of a read despite content that should have been riveting.

Rich People Problems (Crazy Rich Asians III) – Kevin Kwan

Nearing the end of a long and storied life, “Ah Ma” Su Yi becomes ill, and it is apparent she does not have long to live. The extended family flocks to Tyersall Park, ostensibly to pay their respects, but in many cases to vie for part of the inheritance. Eddie Cheng in particular is scheming deviously to outmanoeuvre the still estranged Nick. Nick himself isn’t particularly interested in inheriting the house, but Rachel convinces him to return home and try to make peace with his grandmother.

The third and final instalment neatly ties up the plot threads, but still holds a few surprises. There are also some particularly hilarious scenes, with Eddie Cheng taking pride of place as the fool. A worthy end to a trilogy that made me smile and laugh.

China Rich Girlfriend (Crazy Rich Asians II) – Kevin Kwan

Rachel and Nick, after having broken with Nick’s family, live happily in New York. But a luxury car accident in London involving the son of a prominent Mainland Chinese politician brings their Asian roots to the forefront again. It turns out that Rachel’s long-lost father is alive and well. In separate developments, Kitty Pong desperately wants to climb the social ladder of Hong Kong society.

While the story is not as focused in this second instalment, Mr. Kwan’s dry with is perhaps even sharper, with plenty of chuckles, and some laugh-out-loud funny scenes. The stakes are higher, but it feels like they are also somewhat more abstract.

Crazy Rich Asians (Crazy Rich Asians I) – Kevin Kwan

Rachel Chu, a Chinese woman who grew up in America, and Nick Young, a Singaporean, are a few years into a relationship while teaching in New York. Nick’s best friend Colin is soon to tie the knot, so he asks Rachel to come to meet his family and tour Asia with him during the summer break. Little does Rachel realise that Nick’s family is one of an elite few, immensely rich, interconnected Singaporean clans. Clans who put family and bloodline above all. Rachel is about to step into a situation she is woefully unprepared for, and Nick seems completely oblivious despite warnings from his cousin.

The novel reads like a love letter to Singapore in some ways, describing in loving and often hilarious details the intricacies of societal ritual, schooling, food, and social events. Nick’s extended family and the network of family connections beyond are scheming, devious, and often plain mean. They commit unscrupulous and cold-hearted acts in the pursuit of longstanding ambitions and goals, plotting over decades to build and maintain their dynasties. Mr. Kwan’s dry wit serves the story exquisitely as it elevates characters with seemingly little connection to reality from mere punchlines into the sublimely tragicomic.

There is a darkness at the core of this story, as Rachel slowly realises that all the family goings-on that Nick sees as normal, are shockingly cruel to someone who, like her, is seen as lacking in the “bloodline” department. That being said, this is, at heart, a romantic comedy, with frequent hilarity and heartwarming moments.

Onward, Drake! – Mark L. Van Name (Editor)

Short story collection celebrating the seventieth birthday of science fiction luminary David Drake, by many considered the father of modern military science fiction.

Somewhat in character, Mr. Drake provided the two longest stories for the collection himself. The rest vary from pure tribute, to tuckerization of Mr. Drake himself, to various forms connected thematically somehow. The afterwords provided by the various authors are charming, with insights into how Mr. Drake’s work and personality affected them personally and professionaly.

That was Now, This is Then (Temporal Displacement II) – Michael Z. Williamson

In the sequel to A Long Time Until Now, a new displacement occurs, with a neolithic youth appearing in modern day Afghanistan. The same team as before is contacted for a new mission, but not all are keen to go. A pair of scientists are added, much to the dismay of the future humans, who would rather not see too much technology transfer as this could lead to timeline disruption.

The characters are well fleshed out, and there author uses the setting to delve into issues of post-traumatic stress, separation, obligations of marriage, and other things common in deployments. The conflict in the book is not about an external enemy, but rather about the challenges faced by individuals. Much of the book has to do with the strictures and traditions of organisations, and it helps that Mr. Williamson can make discussions on logistics and camp setup interesting reading.

Spectre Rising (Spectre I) – C.W. Lemoine

F-16 pilot Cal “Spectre” Martin was ousted out of the Air Force after a friendly fire incident in Iraq. He now works in southern Florida at a gun shop. His fiancé, also a fighter pilot, has just broken up with him when she disappears during a training mission. Specter determines to find the truth, which turns out to involve more than one foreign intelligence agency.

The story, while occasionally somewhat contrived, is engaging, especially if you are into aviation. The flying parts in particular are well written, obviously accurate but still accessible as the author, a former fighter pilot himself, does not delve too deeply into the arcana of the profession. The characters are rather two dimensional but serviceable.

The Sins of Our Fathers (The Expanse IX½) – James S.A. Corey

After the collapse of the gate network, humanity’s worlds are isolated. On a backwater planet, Filip Inaros must deal with a bully who is trying to bend a small settlement to his will, even if it comes with a high personal price.

In a fitting coda to The Expanse, Filip must come to terms with what he did in the name of his father. His act may be small on the cosmic scale, but for him it is significant.

Leviathan Falls (The Expanse IX) – James S.A. Corey

The Laconian Empire is in disarray as its leader, Winston Duarte, has disappeared. Colonel Aliana Tanaka, a particularly cold, and coldly effective, servant of the Empire, is tasked to find him. Meanwhile, the crew of the Rocinante races to stay ahead of Laconian forces. The fabric of reality is tearing as intruders from outside the Universe try to reassert control.

The final instalment of The Expanse is in many ways a fond farewell to the crew of the Rocinante and their associates. Even those no longer alive, like Avasarala and Bobbie Draper, are mentioned and celebrated. While Leviathan Wakes was about a family, a crew, coming together, this book is about how all good things must end, and the family, the crew, eventually sees its members going their separate ways. A solid ending to the series.

Grunt – The Curious Science of Humans at War – Mary Roach

Exploring such varied subjects as developing crash test dummies for IED simulation, stomach upsets in a war zone, sleep deprivation, and submarine rescue, this is a fascinating and oftentimes hilarious book.

Ms. Roach’s signature dry humour is very much on display as she asks pointed questions that unravel the ostensibly serious subject matter. Interesting whether the reader is into military science or not.

The Great Santini – Pat Conroy

Marine Lieutenant Colonel “Bull” Meecham, AKA The Great Santini, is a stereotypical Marine and fighter pilot. Loud, brash, driven to excel, and with a gigantic ego. On the family side, however, he is a bullying parent who tries to handle his kids like raw recruits. He teases and cajoles them constantly; sometimes he beats them. His Southern wife keeps up appearances. As the family moves to the town or Ravenel, South Carolina, tensions brew after Meecham has been away on assignment for a year.

While it is a somewhat interesting exploration into extreme family dynamics in the shadow of a truly gigantic ego, I could not bring myself to finish more than about a third of the novel. Not much really happens and I had little empathy for even the bullied protagonists. Mr. Conroy revels in admittedly lovely, but long, descriptions of family life and life in the South. His characters are deep and rich. And yet, this one failed to maintain my interest.

Inhibitor Phase (Revelation Space IV)

Along with a few thousand other refugees from the Wolves, or Inhibitors, Miguel de Ruyter has quite literally carved out a life on the airless world of Sun Hollow. Humanity’s starfaring civilisation is lost, and the remains hide in the shadows, hoping not to be noticed. Sun Hollow’s inhabitants do not really have a plan beyond surviving the morrow; this is a bleak and rough existence. A ship has entered the system, and Miguel must intercept and destroy it at great risk to himself, for even potentially friendly humans may be Wolves in disguise. Out of this encounter emerges Glass, a mysterious woman who steals Miguel away to a reckoning with a past he has purposefully forgotten, and with humanity’s only hope of escaping extinction.

Published almost two decades after the Revelation Space trilogy, this serves as something of an epilogue. Human civilisation has waned into blackness, and there is an accepting despair about things. Not even the Ultras travel between stars anymore, because even small emissions could lead the Wolves to the door, and there is no weapon that can combat them.

The concepts of Miguel and his past self reintegrating, and of Glass herself and her connection, are superbly intriguing. Unfortunately though, the novel is far too long. Many pages are spent on meandering explorations of the sense of self, or the sense of other-self. While the quest for a weapon to fight back against the Wolves is interesting in itself, this excessive length detracted very much from my interest, and I struggled to finish the book.

A Change of Plans – Dennis E. Taylor

Earth is dying, and a desperate interstellar colonisation program is in progress. As the starship Ouroboros reaches its target system, it is soon apparent that the planet has undergone a catastrophic event in recent history, transforming it from a balmy Earth-like planet, to a frozen desert. The crew must leave the colonists and return, as per their contract and family obligations. The colonists are faced with an uncertain future and take matters in their own hands.

This is an entertaining short story, with strong characters and a clever, unexpected conclusion.

Monster Hunter Bloodlines (Monster Hunter International VIII)

During a mission in Atlanta to recover a protective ward built by Sir Isaac Newton, Owen and the team encounter an unexpected host of organisations vying for the same artefact. As the dust settles, it becomes clear that a greater threat is emerging than Monster Hunter International was aware of. Stricken is back, with his own agenda, and now they must work together. An unexpected player, with a link to the Monster Hunter Sinners trilogy, is also introduced.

This instalment brings us back to Owen’s narrative point of view, and that is a good thing. The signature self-deprecating humour and snide comments make for a fun read. The action scenes are of typical intensity. The new character of Sonya, while immensely annoying, is rather funny and makes for a fine foil to Owen’s straight man. Note that this is the first part of a new storyline and it does end in a cliffhanger.

Light Chaser – Peter F. Hamilton & Gareth L. Powell

Amahle is the captain and sole occupant of the starship Mnemosyne. She is a “light chaser”, travelling on a thousand-year loop to inhabited star systems, the scattered colonies of humanity. She brings “memory collars”, to be worn by selected people and their descendants, until she returns on her next loop to collect them. These gather the life experiences of the wearers for her employers at the end of the loop to enjoy as entertainment. The human worlds are at varying degrees of technological development, but societies seem oddly stable, to the point of stagnation. It eventually dawns on Amahle that things are not as idyllic as they seem.

The premise is clever, intriguing, and novel. The novella format suits it perfectly. Amahle is excuisitely characterised as an aloof de facto demigoddess who slowly realises the truth about her existence. Her sense of betrayal is palpable and visceral. The story is not overlong, and superbly edited to maintain momentum.

Absolution Gap (Revelation Space III) – Alastair Reynolds

In the last book of the Revelation Space trilogy, humanity is in disarray as the Inhibitors ravage space. But there is a glimmer of hope, a young child named Aura seems to have a connection with entities that can help. As the story unfolds on the refugee world of Ararat, and the religious pilgrimage destination Moon of Hela, tired remnants of humanity must make fateful decisions about how to approach the resources presented to them. Who can be trusted?

This is a long and sprawling book, and it feels rather ponderous. Mr. Reynolds’s prose is as engaging as ever, but many digressions, tangents, and diversions are overlong. The obsession with Scorpio’s mortality, the machinations of the Quaicheist church, the extensive details on the madness of Quaiche himself, to name a few things, are explored somewhat excessively at the expense of moving the story forward. For much of the novel, it feels as if nothing is really moving, or perhaps things are moving as slowly as one of the cathedrals on Hela. The Inhibitors themselves seem like a distant threat, so it is hard to work up a real sense of dread for them, even if the survival of humanity itself is at stake. As a conclusion to the trilogy, it is somewhat unsatisfying, even if the personal journeys of the characters come to a conclusion.

Sixteenth Watch – Myke Cole

The Coast Guard is called in to deal with a dispute turned violent between Chinese and American miners on the Moon. Soon, the Navy shows up, and things escalate.

I lots interest after a few pages, and could not get past the prologue. It all seemed very bland. Also, the constant footnotes with definitions of basic nautical and military terms were disruptive and gave a condescending impression.

Frontier – Patrick Chiles

Humanity’s presence in space is expanding, and with it come geopolitical interests. The United States spaceship Borman is dispatched to assist two billionaire explorers with whom contact has been lost. Meanwhile, a vast conspiracy to disable space assets is unfolding. As the Borman herself runs into trouble, the People’s Republic of China enters the fray.

As in the earlier Farside set in the same universe, Mr. Chiles expands the scope of the story beyond a mere rescue mission into a technothriller set in space. The protagonists are easy to root for, though they fall into stereotypes rather too readily. The Chinese crew members are almost laughable cardboard cutouts. The story is well crafted, with a good pace apart from an excess of expository dialogue in the first half, and the political tensions eminently plausible.

At the End of the Journey (Black Tide Rising VIII) – Charles E. Gannon

Following the events in At the End of the World, Alvaro and the now augmented group continue towards their mission, penetrating the Guiana Space Centre launch facility at Kourou in French Guiana in order to prevent the rapid deterioration of GPS. There’s just one catch, Kourou is overrun with infected.

Like the first book in the couplet, this provides decent action without much originality or depth. It is easy to root for the protagonists and to mourn their losses. A quick and easy read if you enjoyed the rest of the series.

At the End of the World (Black Tide Rising VII) – Charles E. Gannon

Geeky late teenager Alvaro is sent off on a long sailboat cruise, more akin to a youth camp. He joins a motley group of peers on the Crosscurrent Voyager, an oceangoing ketch. The captain is an enigmatic and dour Englishman, with a past in the special forces. The group is mid-journey in the Southeastern Pacific at the time of The Fall. As the world descends into zombie-fed apocalypse, the captain decides to press past Cape Horn to South Georgia Island, hoping for a temporary respite.

While the novel is reasonably entertaining if you enjoyed the previous books in the series, there is not much originality on display. The concept of teens left alone in a crisis is well utilised. However, these youngsters seem unusually rational and insightful for their age. A fun diversion with some action thrown in.