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.

Welcome Home/Go Away (Kris Longknife IX½) – Mike Shepherd

This “companion novella” takes place between Kris Longknife – Daring and the upcoming Kris Longknife – Furious. It is not a fantastic piece but serves as a good way to bring readers up to date. The story focuses on General “Trouble” Tordon, one of Kris’s great-grandfathers, and his involvement in the events on her homecoming from the mission in Daring.

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

A Storm of Swords (A Song of Ice and Fire III) – George R. R. Martin

The third book in A Song of Ice and Fire flows seamlessly from A Clash of Kings. The Seven Kingdoms of Westeros are in chaos due to the “War of Five Kings”. While a lot of the “issues” are resolved, new and bigger issues crop up. And an even greater threat is looming. This has been foreshadowed since the very start of the series, but is very concrete now.

While still a great read, this one was a bit more of a slog in the first half. The seconds half is where everything really goes to hell in a handcart, and is much faster paced.

The characters are more and more scattered, and the stories often do not intertwine. For example, where the heck are Arya and Bran going to end up? They certainly have no interaction with any of the other point of view characters. Even though things are quieter than after book two, many questions remain unanswered.

A Clash of Kings (A Song of Ice and Fire II) – George R. R. Martin

The sequel to A Game of Thrones picks up right where the previous book left off. Westeros has been plunged into civil war, with five kings clashing for the Iron Throne and for the North. Meanwhile, Daenerys Targaryen continues her quest to find supporters in her bid to return her dynasty to the Iron Throne.

While A Game of Thrones perforce had to spend quite some time detailing background, A Clash of Kings dives straight into the action. Without giving away the story, suffice it to say there are many clever and unexpected twists and turns.

Martin is certainly not afraid of taking characters in a bad situation and making their fate even worse. This is in fact an integral part of what makes the series so good. No one is safe and nothing is holy.

Another interesting aspect is how some characters that seem like “bad guys” in the first installment, most notably Tyrion, now seem quite reasonable. Certainly the reader can root for them. Conversely, “good guys” have very dark sides. Martin, through his clever use of point of view characters in the narrative, allows the reader to “back” opposing sides in the conflict.

Certainly nothing much is resolved in this volume, and so it is on to book three.

Kris Longknife – Daring (Kris Longknife IX) – Mike Shepherd

United Sentients, led by Wardhaven, takes action to find the cause for the Iteeche ships that are disappearing, a topic introduced in Undaunted. Kris, as commander of a patrol squadron, is ordered to lead an exploration into very deep space. Various other states, prominently including the Greenfeld Empire, decide they need to go along. Kris finds herself in the lead of a rather large fleet of exploration, though not in command. The political machinations make her life complicated. The main action starts when the fleet actually finds a race of aliens who devastate and plunder other civilizations. Any attempt at contact is met by immediate aggression. Kris must now save a race that is not even aware of humanity’s existence, and survive in order to report her findings.

This is the first time since Defiant that the series has set our heroes with their backs to the wall in a real win or die situation with immense stakes. Kris must battle the demons of her past to do the right thing, even if her actions will likely lead to condemnation on her return to base. Shepherd skillfully continues developing Kris as a heroine who deserves happiness but whose background and sense of duty prevent it. Unlike many other long series, Shepherd dares to reinvent this one and kill off key characters, keeping the whole thing fresh and exciting.

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

Kris Longknife – Training Daze (Kris Longknife III½) – Mike Shepherd

This novella fills in some of the events following Kris Longknife – Defiant. Kris and her cohorts are tasked to set up a training command for foreign navies buying Wardhaven’s fast attack boats.

It’s a cute little piece with plenty of banter between the now familiar main characters, in particular Kris and Jack. How the latter was drafted into the Marines is explained in humorous detail.

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

Born to Run – Christopher McDougall

The book is subtitled “A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World has Ever Seen.” Part journey of self-discovery, part chronicle, part medical exposé, this extraordinary book starts with a quest by the author to figure out why it hurts when he runs. Thus begins a tale so incredible it seems like fiction, populated by weird and wonderful characters like La Brujita (The Little Witch), El Lobo Joven (the Young Wolf) and the incomparable Caballo Blanco (White Horse).

As he digs deeper into the ultra-marathon world, McDougall finally finds his answers in the remote Copper Canyons of Mexico, where a reclusive tribe called the Tarahumara have honed the art of running on rocky, mountainous trails to perfection. In sandals.

The insights into running from an evolutionary and physiological standpoint are fascinating. Human beings are built to run, and they are not meant to do it in running shoes. Running should be fun and natural, not a slog or a chore. Children know this, so why do we forget as adults?

As my fortieth approaches, I have incidentally started to understand what the author is talking about. About a year ago, I started doing serious exercise including lots of running. A few months later, I chucked my running shoes in favor of a pair of Vibram Five Fingers, which have no cushioning at all. My aches and pains are gone and I run faster and better than I have ever done.

The author’s easy style and unobtrusive humor make this fascinating story a pleasure to read. If you’ve ever run or wanted to run more than a few metres, you should read this book. It may well change your life.

 

Kris Longknife – Undaunted (Kris Longknife VII) – Mike Shepherd

The seventh book in the Kris Longknife series has Kris still in charge of the exploratory ship Wasp. She blunders into an encounter with an Iteechee vessel. The Iteechee are a race with which humanity had a war 80 years previously. They are so mysterious that the causes of the war are still essentially unknown. Naturally, Kris’ great-grandparents Raymond Longknife and “Trouble” were involved at the time.

This is one of the better installments. Good strong plot even though it does take a massive detour in the middle. Lots of conversation, as per usual, but it doesn’t seem forced. Shepherd has collected an enjoyable cast of characters to play foil to Kris.

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

Kris Longknife – Intrepid (Kris Longknife VI) – Mike Shepherd

In Intrepid, Kris finally has her own ship command. She is on a mission to explore the outer rim and show the flag of Wardhaven/United Sentients. She discovers a plot against her arch enemies, the Peterwalds, and also a plundering expedition launched on an agrarian colony. Lots of ground pounding action anchors this book, with the Marines picked up in Audacious playing a starring role.

This may be my favorite thus far. Any hint of the tentative beginning of the series is gone. The characters are well fleshed out and the plot is interesting. Shepherd has also managed to round out the political background and it is no longer quite as vague. The “we are so clever” conversations are toned down in favor of action; a good development. This one is a real page turner.

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