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.

Artifact Space (Arcana Imperii I) – Miles Cameron

Patrician family scion Marca Nbaro is on the run from “The Orphanage”, a cruel school for those without protectors in The City. She is not only running away from the Orphanage, which she betrayed for good reason, but also towards the merchant marine of the mercantile society of the Directorate of Human Operations (DHC). She is indeed trained as a Midshipper, hurrying to join the company of the greatship Athens before she is caught. The ship is ready to depart on a four-year voyage of trade, culminating in contact with the enigmatic aliens dubbed Starfish. It takes Nbaro some time to adapt to the fact that her crewmates on the Athens aren’t sadistic predators or victims, but mostly courteous and helpful professionals. As she slowly integrates and drops her guard along the voyage, vast conspiracies aimed at destabilising the very DHC begin to unfold.

Explicitly inspired by mercantile Venice of the Middle Ages, and European voyages along the Silk Road, the great adventure of the Athens and her crew paint a gorgeous backdrop for the characters and story. Trade stops are lavishly described in generous tangents without removing the reader from the story. The development of Nbaro’s character is profound and interesting, with the Athens populated by an eclectic and entertaining cast of supporting characters.

Pattaya Youtuber: And Other True Stories from Thailand – Walt Gleason

The seven short stories in this collection about Westerners in Thailand range from the sordid to the humorous. Several are cautionary tales featuring culture clash, drug use, and girlies bars.

The stories themselves are quirky, with an often interesting take through the viewpoint of both jaded and more innocent visitors to Thailand. Unfortunately, they somewhat lack in hooks to draw the reader in and rely too much on rather unsurprising twists. The prose, structure, and often even the spelling, could have been significantly improved with some professional editing. A vaguely interesting and quick read for those interested in the subject matter, but not much further.

Private Dancer – Stephen Leather

In 1990s Bangkok, thirty-seven-year-old British travel journalist Pete walks into Zombie, a go-go bar in the infamous Nana Plaza red-light district. Dancing naked on the stage is Joy, a twenty-one-year-old girl from Isaan, the poorest region of Thailand. Pete is immediately smitten. He barfines Joy, and from that moment on they are drawn into a passionate relationship which they both misunderstand. Joy sees Pete as someone who can take care of her and her family financially. Pete is attracted to Joy the bar girl, but he also wants Joy the innocent and cute girl he can spend the rest of his life with. Despite being able to act all cutesy, whether Joy can fit into the latter stereotype is an open question. Pete doesn’t like that Joy sleeps with other foreigners for money, but he seems unwilling to commit to the relationship fully, wanting her to wait until he can figure stuff out. Joy does not see the problem with constantly asking for money from Pete, as being well-off confers status, and besides, she has no sense of fiscal responsibility, spending money as soon as she gets it. Under the cynical eye of friends, relatives, and acquaintances on both sides of the cultural divide, Joy and Pete dance around each other, love, argue, fight, and reconcile, in a vicious and tragic cycle.

The novel is a fascinating study of cross-cultural communications and interaction. Despite spending a long time in the country, and speaking some Thai, Pete misunderstands Joy’s point of view from the start. His jaded friends more or less correctly point out that as a bargirl, Joy is only interested in him as a means of financial security, and how can he expect a girl who has sex for money to be trustworthy. On the other hand, Joy does not understand why Pete is being so obtuse and often feels offended about him trying to control her, with his apparent view that he should “save” her from sex work, something that has been extremely lucrative for her. She is clearly fond of him but fondness and love do not mean the same things for her as they do to him. Growing up in abject poverty, and working as a sex worker since she was a teenager, she sees love as a man taking care of her financially, and she in return taking care of him. Romantic emotional attachment is not necessary for her, or perhaps more accurately is not bound to some Western ideal of star-stricken lovers. She seems quite ready to confer her affections to someone who treats her well and brings her security, though it is hinted that Pete is indeed special to her. Pete, a blundering water buffalo by Thai cultural standards, misinterprets Joy’s loving behaviour as that of a Western girl. But in Thai culture, the subtext is supremely important. A person may be smiling and positive, but the real meaning of their behaviour is tucked away in a complex set of cues readily accessible only to those with the background to interpret them.

The tragic core of the story is that Joy and Pete really do love each other, in their own ways, but seem unable to resolve their differences and move on to a future together. This despite the often unexpectedly helpful and understanding advice from Pete’s Greek Chorus of friends, a collection of “old Thailand hands”.

The story deals with a particular subset of Thai society, the dark world of sex work and related crime, and is not necessarily representative of Thai culture as a whole. That being said, it is a case study in cultural misunderstandings, many of which regularly occur in the wider interactions between Thais and Westerners. Some book critics suggested, rather seriously, that this book should be given out for free to young tourists arriving in the country, and it is easy to see why.

The use of multiple narrators with varying backgrounds works extremely well for the narrative. Some old Thailand hands are cynical almost beyond belief about Thailand, but you can see their point of view. Others, especially Joy’s older sister, are also cynical almost beyond belief about foreigners, but again, you can see their point of view. Pete and Joy typically see the same events in completely different ways. The narrators’ understanding of events is often incomplete, jaded, and even perhaps unreliable, but it all weaves a complex web of what, in the end, is a story of two lovers that the reader would love to end up together.

Blindsight – Peter Watts

In a not too distant future, Siri Keeton is a synesthesist, a trained observer who neither judges not suggests. His professional aim is to be the chronicler of events, the dispassionate eye of posterity. Years have passed since “Firefall”, a still-mysterious event in which extraterrestrial intelligence interacted with Earth without obvious intent, or even obvious meaning. As part of a small crew, Siri has hibernated for years to arrive at a massive planet in the Oort Cloud. Here, they must confront the mystery of an entity that calls itself Rorschach. On a deeper level, the crew faces questions of what it means to be human, or even sentient. The answers are no longer obvious once faced with this alien life that does not seem to conform to any human-centric norm.

While there is no shortage of action sequences, these are not the central impetus of the narrative. Mr. Watts takes the reader on an exploration of the crew’s personalities; the cranky biologists, the split-personality linguist, the duty-bound soldier, and the calculating leader; all through the eyes of Keeton, and as a backdrop to an exploration of sentience and intelligence. It also becomes increasingly clear that Keeton may not be seeing things in an entirely rational or reliable fashion. Out at the very edge of human exploration, in an environment of uncertainty and danger, the veneer or civilization slowly wears away, revealing truths that are as uncomfortable as they are sincere.

As a first contact scenario, the novel certainly breaks new ground, with a central conceit about life that is both controversial and alarming. The alien is nothing like us, and its mode of existence brings into question the very nature of humanity, and of life.

Delta-V – Daniel Suarez

Extreme cave diver James Tighe has just returned from an accident-plagued expedition when he is invited to an interview with eccentric billionaire Nathan Joyce. The latter is planning a mining expedition to an asteroid, and is recruiting suitable candidates. A rigorous selection process follows. The expedition is shrouded in secrecy, with layer within layer of intrigue at every step.

The novel is solid near-future science fiction, elevated beyond the pure adventure aspects by an intricate, if somewhat implausible, technothriller foundation. It seems somewhat beyond belief that thousands of people could keep such a large project a secret for so long, especially given the money involved. The space travel aspects are well developed and quite plausible. The inclusion of secondary characters based on NewSpace luminaries such as Musk, Bezos, Branson and Bigelow is rather entertaining and provides a connection to what, in the real world, is shaping up to be a fierce competition for the space economy. The protagonists themselves, unfortunately, are not very well rounded, down to their stereotypical backstories. That being said, they are easy to root for, throughout their tragedies and triumphs.

Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys – Michael Collins

Michael Collins was Command Module Pilot during Apollo XI, the NASA mission that included the first Moon landing. He did not himself land, but kept lonely vigil in Lunar orbit as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made their famous landing. As is common with astronaut biographies concerning the early NASA era, this one also begins with an early career in the military. Mr. Collins was an accomplished test pilot, who was accepted by NASA on his second attempt, joining the third group of astronauts. He also flew on Gemini X, performing a spacewalk and perfecting docking manoeuvres.

Mr. Collins’s book stands out from other similar autobiographies I have read, in that it is written in the author’s own voice, as he explicitly states. His love for the English language, perhaps a product of rather a classical education, shines through in poetic passages, and even some poetry. This is not the voice of a clinical and technical test pilot, even though there is a fair amount of technical detail. This is the voice of a poet who lays bare his troubles, annoyances, fears and tribulations like no other astronaut I have read, elevating the text from documentary to something that seeks a deeper significance. We see the inner Collins, or at least more of the inner Collins that I really expected. Other astronauts are treated candidly, and sometimes with a brutal honesty about what the author sees as their character weaknesses. There is no bitterness in these passages, merely observations from a man who long since has gotten over the time when such concerns perhaps seemed all-encompassing.

The epilogue is particularly interesting to read today, almost fifty years after publication. Without rancour and with a great deal of patience, Mr. Collins laments the myopia of politicians, the ongoing damage to our fragile planet, and the general short-sightedness of humanity. He also takes issue with the perceived, but fictitious, conflict between resources devoted to space exploration, and spending on “problems at home”. With only a few detail changes, this chapter could have been written today, as humanity seems to have progressed no further, and such debates continue.

The Galaxy, and the Ground Within (Wayfarers IV) – Becky Chambers

In the fourth and final Wayfarers book, three travellers from different species are temporarily stuck at a quaint waystation along with the owner/operator and her son. There has been an accident and no ships can arrive or depart, nor is outside communication possible, for a few days while the situation is resolved. Each individual has his or her own backstory and ethnic peculiarities, slowly being uncovered as they become acquainted. Those lasting friendships of a disparate group sharing an ordeal are formed, along with the inevitable friction.

Though there isn’t much actual action, the novel is charming and the characters are endearing. Interestingly, there are no humans amongst the protagonist, and only a brief cameo to show the flag. The mother-son relationship of Ouloo and teenage Tupo feels resoundingly authentic, with its rapid swings between hilarity, love, frustration, and exasperation. This book leaves the reader with a faint smile and a sense that even if the world has problems, these can be solved with some politeness, understanding, humour, and plenty of cake.

To Be Taught, If Fortunate – Becky Chambers

Ariadne and her three crewmates wake at a distant star system after years of transit in slumber aboard the starship Merian. Their multi-year exploration and survey mission takes them to different worlds in the system, each with its individual features and biome. They have dedicated their lives to this mission, for when they return to Earth they will be decades older, and over seventy years will have passed back home. They are a family of sorts, with intermeshing sexual relationships and a strong bond in their motivations. Some time into their mission, news updates from Earth stop arriving. As they are left in limbo, Ariadne and the others must more carefully examine the ethics and significance of not only the mission itself, but also of humanity’s place in the Universe.

Written in Ms. Chambers’s by now trademark gorgeous contemplative prose, the plot is acted out as much in Ariadne’s inner dialogue as in actual action. The drama is intimate, personal, and thoughtful, making the ending that much more poignant. The characters are likeable, pleasant, and very human in their different ways. The lack of interpersonal strife is an interesting narrative challenge, which the author handles with seeming ease. A delightful read.