Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Book Review: The Negative’s Tale by R. Leib

A Story in a Story and Both Are Good

OK, it’s not really a story in a story, but rather, a story with some extended flashbacks.  But the last flashback nearly stole the show for me – thus the title.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.  The Negative’s Tale is the story of Allon Wu, a rare ‘negative’ who can tap into the psychic abilities of others, e.g., their clairvoyance, telepathy, etc.  When the Vice Admiral of the Space Guards, Allon’s wife, can trust no one else to unravel a mysterious death on the Kostya station, she calls on her reclusive, somewhat burned-out husband for help.

One of the early flashbacks develops Allon’s character and introduces us to his world by way of his psychic skills, martial arts, and science training.  I found it fascinating.  But as I said above, it was a final flashback that rivaled the main plot.  It involves Allon’s exploits on a hostile planet inhabited by a psychic, crustacean-like species.  It is a fast, fun, and highly descriptive sequence, bound to leave the reader with some strange and entertaining images.

The primary plot – investigating the death of Bertie Lindermann – is a more traditional murder mystery.  It even ends with a scene in which Allon confronts the suspects in a big reveal.  But like the flashbacks, the author has saved a few twists for his primary story-line, just to keep us readers guessing.

For me, the integration of science fiction and mystery in The Negative’s Tale was handled perfectly, with enough touches of advanced technology, the paranormal, and ethical/cultural issues to appeal on many different levels.  It’s a story well worth the read.

Friday, May 19, 2017

What books are on your summer reading list this year?

This question popped up on my Goodreads author dashboard recently.  I’m not sure if it was distributed widely or if they targeted a few of us recalcitrants who ignored months of prompts to sign up for a reading challenge.
Hey, Goodreads, I’ll be reading some books, but do I need to give a figure?  I do?  OK, how about…23?  It wasn’t that I didn’t want to give a number, but rather, I didn’t want to explain it.  So, here goes.
First, there’s The Obsidian Chamber, number 16 in the Pendergast series by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child.  Yeah, guilty.  I’ve read the other 15, plus the short story, Extraction.  So, that makes Special Agent Aloysius Xingu L. Pendergast one of my oldest acquaintances, along with Jack Reacher, Harry Bosch, Jack Ryan, Oliver Stone, and Lucas Davenport…among others.
Then, I have my eye on a few works by rising stars.  I have to get the sequel to Body on the Barstool by Lolli Powell, which I understand will be called Whiskey Kills.  The original cracked me up.  And Lincoln Cole’s World on Fire series (Raven’s Peak et. al) was some great storytelling, but it’s a post promising a book in the technothriller genre that has me waiting impatiently.  That’s my preferred genre.  And of course, there’ll be a dozen new, yet undiscovered favorites along the way.  (I’m not into planning my reading life too carefully.)
So now, if you’re counting, you’re thinking I’m about 10 books short…but not really.  I’ll make up the difference reading my own words.  Actually, it’ll add up quite quickly, with me re-reading and re-working those the sections of the next manuscript that come together well only 3-4 times, and the parts that don’t, like 63 times. 
There, like I said, 23 book equivalents…but who’s counting?
So, what’s on your summer reading list?
Image by Ramchand Bruce Phagoo (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Book Review: To Conquer Heaven by Felix Long

An Outstanding Story, but It Takes Some Persistence

College buddies Jeremy Wang and Brett East team up with Dr. Saffiyah Halcyone, Egyptian archaeologist, to search for the lost tomb of the first emperor of China, Shi Huang Di.  Joined by the mysterious Jin, the threesome face the perils of rivers of mercury, terracotta warriors, and a quicksilver dragon in order to stop the emperor before he can rise again and continue his quest To Conquer Heaven.

I found this story nothing short of outstanding in the way it weaves history, folklore, science, and magic into the plot.  Desperate to conquer death, the first emperor of China calls upon the Egyptians and their expertise on the afterlife.  That, in turn, brings into play stories such as the curse of the Pharaohs and historical characters such as Howard Carter and Aleister Crowley.  Coupled with the mythical figure of the Monkey King in Chinese folklore and the tyrannical legacy of Shi Huang Di, author Felix Long has a great deal of violence, magic, and mystery with which to work.  And he weaves all these threads into a conclusion, a feat I was not certain was possible mid-story.

Writings from the Tao Te Ching, the foundation of Taoism, introduce each chapter.  It’s basic form of declarations, followed by contradictions to stimulate thought, seemed to be continued into the novel.  The chapters when our explorers first enter the tomb are filled with contradictory situations, with Jeremy, a doctoral student, and Saffiyah seeking science-based explanations for what appears to be magic.  In some cases, science gets them out of a jam.  But when it doesn’t, magic is there as the backup.  It’s a fascinating interplay.

Character development in the story gave me some pause.  For an Egyptian archaeologist and a doctoral student, there was not much planning and forethought for their adventure.  And giggling and ‘horseplay’ were more common than I would have expected.  Even the budding romance seemed to come out of nowhere.  But overall, these were secondary issues.

More troubling for me was the writing style.  Clearly, there are passages that are beautifully worded and highly evocative.  Take for example: “The sheer delight of survival was trickling away behind her, like a melting candy coating revealing a seed of cold panic in her breast.”  Very expressive, but any technique can be over-worked.  And analogies are.  Then, there are phrases that seem complex for no apparent reason, e.g., ““There was a subliminal susurration on the edge of the audible spectrum.”  As far as I can tell, that just means there was a soft rustling.  It’s clearly a matter of taste, but for mine, the prose was unnecessarily dense, requiring some persistence to complete an otherwise outstanding tale.

If you’re drawn to adventures that cleverly mix history, myth, science, and magic, especially when they are of a Chinese and/or Egyptian origin, To Conquer Heaven is a treat.  You just need to be a bit persistent.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Mind in the Clouds Countdown Deal

In 2015, the top minds in science warned us about AI in weapons.  

Most think that threat is far in the future.

We’re wrong.

On Sale for $0.99 (regularly $2.99)
Now through May 17th Only

http://www.amazon.com/Mind-Clouds-Sleuth-Book-ebook/dp/B01BYRX220/

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Book Review: Through Shade and Shadow (Shades and Shadows Book 1) by Natalie J. Case

Stage Setting, with a Fair Dose of Action

Through Shade and Shadow felt very much like setting the stage – that is, establishing the characters and building parts of the fantasy world before the protagonists become engaged in the main conflict.  But as stage setting goes, this book did pretty well as the action was fast, although it was not always as immersive as I might have liked.

The violence in Through Shade and Shadow was the result of bigotry and intolerance, after a mass murderer was identified as a Shade.  Shades were previously considered a mythical species with supernatural healing capabilities, so the hatred that erupted was from a fear of those who are different.  To reinforce that idea, the author had the persecution extend well beyond the Shades and the other fantasy species (Shadows, Shifters, Sages) to many other groups and organizations.  Over the course of the story, blacks, immigrants, synagogues, gays, Planned Parenthood, and others were attacked, often with horrific results.  While the use of these examples brings to mind real world events, the breadth of the persecution seemed generally unrealistic.  Even the story’s references to extreme religious close-mindedness, hatemongering on the political front, and violent military stereotypes did little to make these events seem more than a listing of historical intolerance.

The book spends some considerable time developing the lifestyle and gifts of the two primary characters, Mason Jerah, a Shade, and Alaric Lambrecht, who is a Shadow.  Both are being thrust into roles much greater than anything they had experienced before and it is easy to feel their growing pains.  Beyond these two individuals, the author expounds on a variety of other fantasy species and their gifts – the ability to feel another’s emotions, to see another’s thoughts, to plant thoughts, to create false appearances, to control fire, to control light, and so on.  While variety may generally add interest to a story, when so many supernatural capabilities are available in a fantasy world, creating obstacles becomes a matter of explaining why a gift doesn’t work and eliminating problems just takes the right gift at the right time.  The creation of tension and its resolution starts to feel artificial, subject completely to the stage of the story.

So, while the plight described in Through Shade and Shadow will, unfortunately, bring to mind many real-world events, the breadth of the persecution and the lack of boundaries on supernatural gifts tends to render the story somewhat strained.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Will Nanobots Make Me Funnier?

A couple of months ago, I was reading predictions from the noted Google futurist, Ray Kurzweil.  Among them was the prediction that nanobots would make people funnier.  No, they’re not going to help you channel George Carlin or Richard Pryor.  They’re going to connect you to the Internet.

That notion, to me anyway, is both awe inspiring and terrifying.  Wouldn’t it be great to have the vast information reserves of the cloud at your mental fingertips?  But wouldn’t it be horrific if that information feed fell into the wrong hands?
 
There are, of course, major hurdles in establishing a brain-to-cloud interface.  One is knowing just where to insert these nanobots into the brain so that their signals will be meaningful.  Or maybe precise location is not required and what is inserted is a mesh, much like the ‘neural lace’ being proposed by Elon Musk’s new company, Neuralink.  And of course, the brain will be helping in this endeavor, making changes in its structure to accommodate these new inputs – a capability known as plasticity.

When might we expect this revolution?  A special edition of the NY Times, Science Times crowd-sourced that question (http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2011/12/06/science/20111206-technology-timeline.html).  And after 1537 moves (when I visited on May 2, 2017), the readers settled on 2034 as the date when “Enhanced intelligence will be available to most people through a combination of nanotechnology and embedded processors.”

I’d like to see that.  But in the meantime, I can simulate nanobots making me funnier with a manual search of the Internet.  Here was what I found.

Question:  Why was the nanobot bankrupt?
Answer:  Because it had used all its cache.

I consider this proof positive.  Nanobots won’t make me funnier, at least until there’s better material in the cloud.

Image from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3471287/ [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Book Review: As Wings Unfurl by Arthur M. Doweyko

SciFi Action with Meaning on Several Levels
When the reader first meets Applegate “Apple” Bogdanski, he is “…looking forward to nothing and hoping it will arrive soon,” as the author’s synopsis puts it.  But then, he and two other reluctant heroes become involved in a battle with an alien race for no less than the survival of humanity.  Despite how trite that may sound, As Wings Unfurl has enough action, differing themes, and twists in the nature of the combatants to make it an interesting read.
As Wings Unfurl is on the high end of the action-and-pacing scale.  From the first scenes in which Apple stops a mugging, only to wake up later to be hailed as a hero, the fights come fast and frequent.  And they’re battles that can be viewed from multiple perspectives – as a war between good and evil, including some with religious overtones; a battle between humanity and aliens; a fight within a person for self-respect; and a battle to prove that mankind can evolve to something worth saving.  The last battle ground, in particular, is mentioned frequently and started to feel a bit overworked by the end.  There is also the issue that the physical battle left casualties, but too often, these dead returned to fight again.  That type of misdirection is better not repeated as often as it was in this book.
Part of the pace of the book is driven by changes in setting, with the story taking place in New York, Tibet, and London.  But while the author does an admirable job of crafting vivid descriptions of each locale, the movement often seemed abrupt and haphazard.  When flashbacks to other areas, e.g., Vietnam, were added, shifts in the setting became difficult to follow and on occasion, jarring.
The characters were developed gradually throughout the story, and Apple becomes fairly well-defined as the war hero who can’t accept his failures along with his valor.  Other supporting characters – Shilog, Yowl, and Angela – are less well developed, perhaps in part because they represent cultures/species with which most readers will be less familiar.  This fact may also be partially responsible for why the attraction between Apple and Angela felt rushed and poorly founded.  But whatever the reason, it felt underdeveloped.
So, for a SciFi tale with lots of actions and some interesting twists on the characters involved and the nature of the battle, As Wings Unfurl makes an enjoyable read.