Starsight (Skyward II) – Brandon Sanderson

Several months after the events of Skyward, the defiant humans of Detritus have gained a foothold on the orbital platforms surrounding the planet. Hyperdrive is a still a mystery, so they’re strategically stuck, with little intelligence about the Superiority which is keeping the humans trapped. One day, a mysterious ship carrying a previously unknown humanoid alien crash lands on Detritus, and Spensa must quickly set off on a covert infiltration mission she is ill-prepared for, to the enemy settlement of Starsight, a major Superiority settlement.

The bones of the story are fine, and carry the main arcs of both Spensa herself and the conflict forward. However, the books seems to drag for much of the middle. Interesting events occur but the pace is off, with perhaps too much exposition about Superiority politics and how they have led to this. The final section picks up, however, with a satisfying and action-filled conclusion.

What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions – Randall Munroe

What If? deals with the absurd questions that Mr. Munroe receives on a section of his website, which is primarily known for hosting his webcomic XKCD. Questions include what would happen to you if you started to rise at the rate of one foot per second and what would happen if the Moon disappeared.

While the questions themselves are absurd, Mr. Munroe works through the logic and maths in a serious way, which results in some surprising insights. His trademark irony and delightfully witty foodnotes make for a very enjoyable read.

How To: Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real-World Problems – Randall Munroe

How-To tackles seemingly mundane problems like “how to dig a hole”, “how to cross a river”, or how to move house”, but takes them to absurd and hilarious extremes. For example, the moving house chapter includes a calculation of how far you could fly your house if you mounted jet engines to it.

Mr. Munroe is the author of the famous webcomic XKCD, and he brings his unique perspective to this very funny book. One key aspect which makes this book transcend mere humour is that the underlying science is basically sound. While it may not be possible to deploy a field of teakettles to boil a river in order to cross it (yes, that is one of the solutions considered), the consequences of the heating are calculated and described with as much accuracy as possible.

Throne of Glass (Throne of Glass I) – Sarah Maas

The young assassin Celaena Sardothien is serving a life sentence in a forced labour mine when the Dorian, Crown Prince of Adarlan, retrieves her and takes her to the capital. She is to take part in a series of competition with a variety of soldiers, mercenaries, assassins and thieves. The prize is to be appointed Royal Assassin for four years, during which the winner would earn their freedom. Once at the Glass Palace, she is drawn into a web of intrigue, and dark magic is afoot in the bowels of the castle.

This young adult low fantasy tale is rather unevenly paced, and its strong romance traits work against it. Celaena’s story and background, and the bits where there is actually action and intrigue, are quite interesting. The drawn-out sections of love triangle, with trite expositions about feelings, are quite tedious. Celaena is one of those characters who is good at everything, so there is little suspense regarding the final outcome, especially since this book is followed by six more. The hints at her heritage being more than it seems are heavy-handed and far too obvious. Her only redeeming qualities are her temper and her unwillingness to be meek and submissive.

The Menace from Farside (Luna) – Ian McDonald

This novella is set decades before the events in the Luna Series., when the Moon was already on its way to losing its status as a frontier. Cariad Corcorian and her “siblings” are part of an arrangement known as a Chain Marriage. When one parent moves out and another is set to marry their “mother”, the teens and pre-teens decide to give them a wedding gift in the form of a picture next to the first footstep on the Moon. A foolhardy adventure ensues.

The story flirts with Young Adult fiction, but nevertheless displays the hallmarks of Mr. McDonald’s prose. Deep dives into the particularities of character, radical social structures, and a laying bare of the truth behind relationships.

Worms to Catch – Guy Martin

Mr. Martin’s third memoir continues to detail his doubts and tribulations over whether he should continue road racing. While he ponders that question, he manages to break the world speed record on a Wall of Death, finish the grueling Tour Divide ultra-distance bicycle race, and as usual spanner some trucks.

If you enjoyed the previous books, you will like this one. Mr. Martin bares his soul to the reader in refreshingly frank way. He doesn’t try to make himself look better than he is, and he freely admits that he can re-evaluate opinions and even change his mind completely on things. As we all should when circumstances change, I suppose.

When You Dead, You Dead – Guy Martin

Lorry mechanic, motorcycle racer and speed demon Guy Martin writes about his most eventful year to date. Including discussions about his inner chimp, Brian, and whether he should continue to race motorcycles.

An entertaining and interesting read, just like the first book. Behind the aw-shucks exterior is an intelligent, passionate and driven man who is still discovering what it is that makes him tick.

River of Night (Black Tide Rising VII) – John Ringo & Mike Massa

The sequel to The Valley of Shadows follows Tom Smith, Risky, Astroga and the rest after their escape from New York. The plan is to establish a settlement with adequate defenses, and also very importantly electrical power. However, a band calling itself Gleaners, set up by a scruple-deprived man called Harlan Green, has similar plans. And they lack the morals of Tom’s group.

The zombies are still around in this installment, but they act more like nuisance monsters than a major threat. Fittingly, the biggest danger to humans is other humans. There is some fine action as always, with a major set piece battle capping the book.

The Valley of Shadows (Black Tide Rising VI) – John Ringo & Mike Massa

In Under a Graveyard Sky, Faith and Sophia spend some time on Manhattan helping out their uncle Tom Smith. This book is the full story of how Tom and his security team at a major Wall Street bank handled the zombie apocalypse, from the first reports to the total collapse of civilisation.

Far from just filling out the story of a side character, Mr. Ringo and Mr. Massa tell a compelling story, firmly establishing Tom Smith as a major protagonist in his own right. While he naturally shares character traits with his brother Steve, he is not a carbon copy.

The story takes place against the backdrop of Wall Street, and the authors have really captured the feeling of the environment. Investment bankers tend to be smart, driven, and analytical. The response to a zombie apocalypse is rational, but also mired in internal politics. Inevitably, the situation devolves, meaning more action and less analysis, but that is not a bad thing. The action scenes are excellent and some of the ZAMMIEs (Zombie Apocalypse Moments) are hilarious.

The Flowers of Vashnoi – Lois McMaster Bujold

While investigating inconsistencies with a test site where gene-engineered bugs decontaminate the nuked Vorkosigan Vashnoi zone, Ekaterin Vorkosigan stumbles across some strange inhabitants.

An all too brief visit with the Vorkosigan family. Even with something as brief and uncomplex as this novella, Ms. McMaster Bujold nails it as usual.

 

Flying the Knife Edge: New Guinea Bush Pilot – Matt McLaughlin

Mr. McLaughlin started his aviation career in the Royal New Zealand Air Force, but washed out before completing his initial training. He then found work as a “bush pilot” in Papua New Guinea for a few years, notorious for some of the most dangerous flying conditions on Earth.

I have a soft spot for aviation memoirs, and I enjoyed this one more than most. Mr. McLaughlin writes with both sincerity and an entertaining dry wit. The humour starkly contrasts many of the events depicted, as in sections the book seems to be the chronicle of a succession of fatal crashes. Highly recommended for the aviation enthusiast, but perhaps not as quite as entertaining for those not enamoured with the field.

My Autobiography – Guy Martin

Guy Martin sees his profession as being a truck mechanic. On the side, he is a world-famous motorcycle racer, and a sometime TV presenter.  He is definitely something of a refreshing character among the divas of today’s media world.

This is his story, in his words.  Mr. Martin is almost brutally frank in his praise and criticism of people, including himself. he book makes you feel as if you’re having a cup of tea with the author while he is yammering away, stream of consciousness style. The man is seemingly not bothered by fame or by following a certain path in life. He simply wants to fix trucks, race motorbikes and take on any other project that tickles his fancy. The publicity around him seems to mostly make him uncomfortable. He comes from a humble background and has no interest in becoming more than a person who works hard and does things “proper”.

Wolf Moon (Luna II) – Ian McDonald

Following after the events of New Moon, the Corta Helio business empire is shattered, with the remaining family members scattered about the Moon seeking safety, solace, or escape into drug-induced oblivion. The Suns and McKenzies now rule the Moon’s business dealing. But Lucas Corta plans revenge.

Just like the first book, this one is a triumph of storytelling and characterisation. Where the first one was slow to start, this one hits the ground running as there is no need to establish the world. As cataclysmic events continues to unfold, the reader is starkly reminded that business is indeed war. The contrast with Earth also shows in an interesting way how new societies can seem utterly strange to old ones, even after only a few generations.

The World of Ice & Fire: The Untold History of Westeros and the Game of Thrones – George R.R. Martin, Elio M. García & Linda Antonsson

TheWorldofIceandFireThis is a companion volume to A Song of Ice & Fire, basis for the Game of Thrones TV series. It serves as a history and geography text for the world and is written from the viewpoint of a maester in the Citadel. Interestingly, it leaves a lot of ambiguity, which feels realistic because most historical “facts”, especially remote ones, are distorted by the passing of time, just as many geographical “facts” are distorted by distance. The “author” refers to this many times.

For any fan of the books or the TV series, this is an interesting read and an excellent reference. The maps and illustrations are gorgeous and greatly help set the scene not only for this book but for the other works in the Song of Ice & Fire universe. Reading on a Kindle doesn’t give the reader the full effect, but Amazon Cloud Reader can be referenced as needed.

4Rosbochs

 

A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms – George R.R. Martin

AKnightoftheSevenKingdomsThis short story collection is set in Westeros one hundred years prior to the events of Game of Thrones. The protagonists of the three stories are a hedge knight called Duncan the Tall, or more commonly just Dunk, and his squire, a boy named Egg. Egg is actually Aegon Targaryen, a royal prince who later (and beyond the scope of these stories) reigns as Aegon V. Dunk started life as an orphan in Flea Bottom, the notorious slum of King’s Landing, and makes his living as a hedge knight, taking service with various masters. The stories are set against the backdrop of a Westeros still reeling from the aftermath of the Blackfyre Rebellion sixteen years previously.

The stories and the protagonist are charming and enjoyable. Unlike the monumental A Song of Ice and Fire, there are no myriad storylines or complex rivalries. Simply the adventures of two people in a vast world. The macropolitics of the era do encroach on the stories, and this is both a strength and a weakness. They give the impression that the world goes on around our two heroes, but on the other hand the historical infodumps sometimes become overcomplex for such short tales.

4Rosbochs

New Moon (Luna I) – Ian McDonald

LunaINewMoonOver several decades, the Moon has developed from harsh frontier to thriving colony. The “Five Dragons”, five industrial dynasties, control the Moon under the aegis of the Lunar Development Corporation. There is no criminal law or civil law, only contract law, and everything is negotiable, including air, water, life and death. It is techno-anarchy or the furthest extreme of capitalism.

The Corta family was the last one of the Five Dragons to attain this lofty status, its company Corta Hélio monopolizing helium extraction and trade. They are seen as upstarts and cowboys. The founder of the dynasty, Adriana Corta, came to the Moon with nothing and now oversees a vast industrial empire. Her children are on the verge of inheriting the corporate reins, and their children in turn are being rich kids in an environment where rich kids can wallow in stylish decadence. But war is brewing as old grudges rise to the surface.

New Moon is an intricate tale set on a world that feels vibrant, alive and full of stories. Mr. McDonald’s world-building is spectacular in its detail and vividness. From the technical guts of Lunar cities to the socioeconomic and cultural consequences of the ultra-capitalist negotiation economy; from the cultural backgrounds of the Lunar immigrants and how they have interacted to create a new, uniquely Lunar culture, this story draws the reader into an immersive environment. The characters behave not simply as people from the Earth today who have been dumped into a science fictional setting, but as people “of the future”. There are many characters and many, many intrigues, but every scene feels immediate and alive. The tale deftly moves from the intimate to the epic and back again, tying the two scales together with the attitudes and experiences of the characters.

4½Rosbochs

 

Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen – Lois McMaster Bujold

VorkosiganGentlemanJoleandtheRedQueenThree years after the death of Aral Vorkosigan at the end of Cryoburn, Cordelia is still serving as vicereine of Barrayar’s Sergyar colony. Feeling a desire to have more children, she starts the gestation of embryo’s combining previously frozen ova and sperm from her and Aral. She also makes an unexpected offer to Aral’s former aide and now commanding Admiral of the Sergyar fleet, who also happens to have a very deep involvement with the family.

Any new Vorkosigan Saga novel is cause for loud squeals of delight from yours truly. True to form, Ms. McMaster Bujold delivers masterful prose and exceptional dialogue, leaving me chuckling on almost every page, and frequently re-reading selected passages.

There is not much action in this novel. It is really “just” about romance and moving on with life. I was conflicted as to whether this was necessarily a weakness. I certainly enjoyed it despite the lack of anything really happening. Ms. McMaster Bujold could write about the weather and still keep me entertained.

There’s also the matter of the somewhat blatant retcon of previous events, inserting a key character where before there was none. I’m willing to forgive the author for this one as well.

Perhaps the only key weakness of the novel is that it may be a hard read for anyone not at least vaguely familiar with the Vorkosigan Saga. Looking at in an uncharitable light, it is full of shameless fanservice. But fans should love it. I, for one, savoured every moment.

4Rosbochs

A Dance with Dragons (A Song of Ice and Fire V) – George R. R. Martin

ASongofIceandFire5ADanceWithDragonsThe narrative in A Dance with Dragons runs in parallel with the one in A Feast for Crows, this time mainly following Daenerys, Jon, Tyrion and Ser Barristan Selmy. Several other semi-major characters also feature as viewpoints, including Quentyn Martell and Theon/Reek. Daenerys must deal both with her dragons, and with the untenable situation in Mereen. Tyrion continues his travels eastward. Jon makes tough decisions regarding the defense of The Wall. Ser Barristan broods over his duty.

Unlike A Feast for Crows, this fifth book contains the juicier protagonists, and indeed the juicier bits of story. While the byzantine plots of King’s Landing are reasonably interesting, the real action is around Slaver’s Bay and The Wall. While the prose and characterizations is as good as in the previous book, the narrative events of A Dance with Dragon make it a treat. Things are rapidly going downhill in many ways, and a possible conclusion to the saga can be glimpsed. If you squint…

4½Rosbochs

A Feast for Crows (A Song of Ice and Fire IV) – George R.R. Martin

ASongofIceAndFire4AFeastforCrows

The War of the Five Kings is over. The Lannisters appear to have won, with only the mop-up remaining. However, the Seven Kingdoms are far from stable, with enemies both near and far conspiring to grab what power they can. If nothing else, winter is coming, and the war has meant little food has been harvested and stored for the expected coming cold. Brienne continues her quest. Arya seeks an identity. Samwell travels towards Oldtown. Jaime solves problems and Cersei acts as regent to young King Thommen.

Following hard along the heels of A Storm of Swords, book four in A Song of Ice and Fire takes things in a somewhat unexpected direction structurally. Instead of, as before, following the entirety of the storylines and characters, A Feast for Crows only has “main” viewpoint chapters for Sansa, Samwell, Cersei, Jaime and Brienne, as well as smattering of chapters for Arya, the doings of the Iron Men and events in Dorne. Tyrion, Dany, Bran and Jon are conspicuously absent, to be dealt with in book five. This decision probably made the narrative more focused, but unfortunately means that some of the more flamboyant characters are missing. While by no means a boring read, it is a bit of a mise en place, with characters somewhat too obviously moved forward in their arc to where they will need to be for the next stage in the story. Reinforcing this impression is the lack of grand defining battles and events like in the previous three books, making this installment somewhat anticlimactic. Mr. Martin can certainly write, and even when the story is a tad bland his prose is a pleasure, but I would have wished for a bit more action amongst the introspective internal dialogues. Even Cersei’s incessant scheming, no matter how wicked, gets old after a while.

4Rosbochs

Kris Longknife’s Bloodhound (Kris Longknife X½) – Mike Shepherd

KrisLongknifeX½KrisLongknifesBloodhoundThis  “companion novella” to the Kris Longknife saga is set at the same time as Furious and follows the efforts of Special Agent Foile to assist Kris Longknife in her efforts to stop her grandfather’s trade flotilla.

Note: Shepherd has previously written about our heroine’s great-grandfather Raymond under his real name, Mike Moscoe.

Fine reading assuming have read the Kris Longknife books up to this point.

3Rosbochs

Kris Longknife – Furious (Kris Longknife X) – Mike Shepherd

KrisLongknife10FuriousFollowing the events in Daring and Welcome Home/Go Away, Kris Longknife has been sent to metaphorical Siberia, nominally commanding a squadron of fast attack boats but in reality having to stay out of the way. She has fallen off the wagon and spends her nights consuming large quantities of whiskey. The details of the Voyage of Exploration have been swept under the rug.

Kris’s grandfather, billionaire magnate Alex, has decided to put together a trade fleet to make contact with the enemy at the other side of the galaxy. Oddly, the first half of the book is a caper story with Kris trying to get a face to face with grandpa. The second half is courtroom drama as she must answer for her actions.

I found the story itself to be very disjointed. The whole caper was absurd, though it had its moments of fun. Things picked up considerably in the second half, and I now once again look forward to the next installment. If nothing else, the ending of Furious is a bit cliffhanger.

Note: Shepherd has previously written about our heroine’s great-grandfather Raymond under his real name, Mike Moscoe.

3½Rosbochs

Proto Zoa – Lois McMaster Bujold

ProtoZoaCollecting five of McMaster Bujold’s early works, Proto Zoa is a lovely little gem, even though the stories have all been published before. “Barter”, “Garage Sale” and “The Hole Truth” are cute little vignettes in a suburban setting, one of which is not even science fiction. Bujold’s skill at finding the amusing and the ironic amidst the mundane shines in these three stories. The novelette “Dreamweaver’s Dilemma” is ostensibly part of the Vorkosiverse, but only in as much as Beta Colony is referenced. Aftermaths is a nice vignette about the dead and their relationship with the living (or is it the other way around?). It later formed the epilogue for “Shards of Honor” but started life as a short story.

As a big fan of Lois McMaster Bujold, I loved this book despite its brevity.

4½Rosbochs

Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance – Lois McMaster Bujold

In the latest book set in the Vorkosiverse, Miles is conspicuously absent barring an amusing cameo. The protagonist is instead Miles’s cousin and close friend Ivan Vorpatril, a favorite secondary character in many of the earlier books. Ivan is mostly known for his somewhat overbearing mother, social secretary to the Emperor, his high birth but unwillingness to get close to the corridors of power, and his many successive girlfriends, none serious. While on the planet Komarr assisting the Chief of Military Operations on an inspection, now Captain Ivan Vorpatril receives an unexpected and unwelcome visitor, Byerly Vorrutyer, a part-time spy and old acquaintance of Ivan’s who specializes in ferreting out corruption in Barrayaran high society. Byerly leads Ivan to investigate a young lady on the run from a hostile  takeover in Jackson’s Whole, the definition of a Machiavellian society. Unsurprisingly, things blow up in Ivan’s face and he is found saddled with the young lady as a bride in order to protect her from both local security forces and outsystem bounty hunters. What follows when Ivan takes her back home to an encounter with his mother, and subsequently when parts of the young lady’s past resurface, makes for a caper of epic proportions.

Bujold is in super form here. The little ironies woven into descriptions and conversations made me chortle with pleasure and re-read certain passages over and over. The decision to explore the character of Ivan is an inspired one. He was always known to have a spine, even though he lacked the propensity of his cousin Miles to bash people over the head with it. His growing intimacy with Tej after their sudden wedding is marvelously portrayed, sweet without romantic comedy movie cheesiness, as are the complex family dynamics on both sides. This novel was a great pleasure to read for this Vorkosigan fan, and it should also be easily accessible for new readers.

Swan Song – Robert R. McCammon

It is the nineteen-eighties and the world is on the brink of nuclear war. Various crises have combined to push the United States and the Soviet Union over the edge. It is the long dreaded nuclear holocaust. Survivors include an over-the-hill professional wrestler, a mysterious girl known as Swan, a homeless woman known as Sister Creep, and a band of survivalists. Death (or is it the devil?) also makes an appearance.

If this had been a straight post-apocalyptic thriller I probably would have liked it more. Unfortunately, just like The Stand, it quickly becomes filled with predictable supernatural elements. I’m not against supernatural stuff per se. in fact, it can very much enhance a story. But in this case the holocaust seems almost like an excuse to create the backdrop for the supernatural struggle. The decision to make this a horror story was, at least for this reader, not a good one.

The characters are cookie-cutter and the dialogue is not very good. The inner tribulations of the characters are predictable and long-winded. The holocaust itself is described in horrific detail, and actually very well.

I gave up about a fifth of the way in.