Review: Moonglow by Michael Chabon

Review: Moonglow by Michael ChabonMoonglow by Michael Chabon, George Newbern
Format: audiobook
Source: purchased from Audible
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, literary fiction
Pages: 430
Published by HarperCollins Publishers on November 22nd 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Following on the heels of his New York Times–bestselling novel Telegraph Avenue, Pulitzer Prize–winning author Michael Chabon delivers another literary masterpiece: a novel of truth and lies, family legends, and existential adventure—and the forces that work to destroy us.
In 1989, fresh from the publication of his first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Michael Chabon traveled to his mother’s home in Oakland, California, to visit his terminally ill grandfather. Tongue loosened by powerful painkillers, memory stirred by the imminence of death, Chabon’s grandfather shared recollections and told stories the younger man had never heard before, uncovering bits and pieces of a history long buried and forgotten. That dreamlike week of revelations forms the basis of the novel Moonglow, the latest feat of legerdemain in the ongoing magic act that is the art of Michael Chabon.
Moonglow unfolds as the deathbed confession, made to his grandson, of a man the narrator refers to only as “my grandfather.” It is a tale of madness, of war and adventure, of sex and desire and ordinary love, of existential doubt and model rocketry, of the shining aspirations and demonic underpinnings of American technological accomplishment at mid-century and, above all, of the destructive impact—and the creative power—of the keeping of secrets and the telling of lies. A gripping, poignant, tragicomic, scrupulously researched and wholly imaginary transcript of a life that spanned the dark heart of the twentieth century, Moonglow is also a tour de force of speculative history in which Chabon attempts to reconstruct the mysterious origins and fate of Chabon Scientific, Co., an authentic mail-order novelty company whose ads for scale models of human skeletons, combustion engines and space rockets were once a fixture in the back pages of Esquire, Popular Mechanics and Boy’s Life. Along the way Chabon devises and reveals, in bits and pieces whose hallucinatory intensity is matched only by their comic vigor and the radiant moonglow of his prose, a secret history of his own imagination.
From the Jewish slums of prewar South Philadelphia to the invasion of Germany, from a Florida retirement village to the penal utopia of New York’s Wallkill Prison, from the heyday of the space program to the twilight of “the American Century,” Moonglow collapses an era into a single life and a lifetime into a single week. A lie that tells the truth, a work of fictional non-fiction, an autobiography wrapped in a novel disguised as a memoir, Moonglow is Chabon at his most daring, his most moving, his most Chabonesque.

My Review:

I listened to Moonglow, and finished a few days ago. Since then, I’ve been mulling it over. It’s a book that makes the reader think. And in my case, feel.

One of those sets of thoughts regards belief, particularly the reader’s belief in how much of this narrative is true, and how much is fictional. And possibly where that blurry line is in the middle.

If, as the quotation says, “Fiction is the lie that tells the truth” then which parts are relatively factual and which are stitched up out of the ‘whole cloth’ doesn’t really matter. The story as a whole still feels true.

It’s a story about the ongoing costs of World War II, particularly on the generation that fought and survived that brutal war. It is also a story about one particular family, a family for whom, as the narrator says, “Keeping secrets was the family business. But it was a business, it seemed to me, that none of us had ever profited from.”

This is the author’s attempt to profit from that family business, both in the literal sense, the hope that the book is a success (which it is), and in the figurative sense of finally laying some of the family ghosts to rest. Or at least of getting the family skeletons out of their hidden closets and finally burying the old bones.

Escape Rating B: On the one hand, I got caught up in Moonglow. On the other, I set it aside for an entire week while on a trip where I didn’t have the chance to listen to it. On my alien third hand, I was able to slip right back into it when I returned.

What made that easier was that the story is not told in a chronological narrative. Instead, the bits and pieces of the life of the author’s grandfather (we never do hear his name) is told in flashes and slightly loopy flashbacks. The man is in the final week of his life, dying of cancer, and pumped up with some major drugs to alleviate his pain. Or make it at least bearable, yet still something that they don’t always seem to accomplish.

But the drugs open the floodgates of memory, not because the man has forgotten anything, but because he was never one to tell stories, and certainly not about himself. It is a fascinating story, one that moves to and from the old Jewish neighborhoods of Philadelphia to the concentration camps of WW2 to NASA to a retirement community in Florida, with stops along the way in Operation Paperclip, space booster conventions, Wallkill Prison in NY and the meteoric rise and catastrophic fall of Chabon Scientific Company, where his grandfather crisscrossed the country attempting to pick up the pieces of his son-in-law’s misrepresentations and lies as a way of helping his daughter get back on her feet. He certainly didn’t do it for his son-in-law.. The author’s grandfather was a very busy man.

The parts of the story that stick in the mind, or at least my mind, were the parts about Operation Paperclip and its aftermath. The author’s grandfather was part of what was then a top-secret mission to sweep up as many of the Nazi scientists as possible and give them safe homes and sanitized backstories in the U.S. The intent, of course, was that they could continue their work, and do it for the U.S. and not the Soviet Union. Operation Paperclip, and its “capture” of Wernher Von Braun led directly to the U.S. Space Program. And also to lots of questions later about whether the ends justified the means. Those questions remain unanswered.

The harrowing scenes from this part of the story reminded me a lot of Slaughterhouse-Five. War is always hell.

But unlike in Slaughterhouse, we see more of the story after the war. And somehow the author makes what should have been a mundane life emblematic of the post-war years. It helps that the life he chronicles seems to have been anything but mundane.

And what he learns about his family, and himself, makes him re-think so much of what he always assumed to be true. So do we.

Although I can describe the plot, well, more or less, the power in this book was that while it told me the author’s hidden family stories, it also made me think about my own family. Some of the stories, and certainly some of the circumstances, parallel a tiny bit. And there are hidden stories that changed things upon their reveal. And it made me wonder how much of the circumstances of his grandfather’s life would parallel that of my own parents.

And the Chabon Scientific debacle, whether real or a metaphor, made me dredge up an old memory. The author’s references to the less than savory actions of both his father and his mother’s uncle made me think of something that my family would have said. In the end, they both turned out to be “no-goodniks from no-goodniksville”. And I hear those comments in voices that I have not heard for decades.

As I said at the beginning, the story made me think, and it made me feel. And it made me remember.

Review: The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi + Giveaway

Review: The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi + GiveawayThe Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi, Wil Wheaton
Format: audiobook, ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon, purchased from Audible
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, space opera
Series: Interdependency #1
Pages: 334
Published by Audible Studios, Tor Books on March 21st 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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The first novel of a new space-opera sequence set in an all-new
universe.

Our universe is ruled by physics and faster than light travel is not possible -- until the discovery of The Flow, an extra-dimensional field we can access at certain points in space-time that transport us to other worlds, around other stars.

Humanity flows away from Earth, into space, and in time forgets our home world and creates a new empire, the Interdependency, whose ethos requires that no one human outpost can survive without the others. It’s a hedge against interstellar war -- and a system of control for the rulers of the empire.

The Flow is eternal -- but it is not static. Just as a river changes course, The Flow changes as well, cutting off worlds from the rest of humanity. When it’s discovered that The Flow is moving, possibly cutting off all human worlds from faster than light travel forever, three individuals -- a scientist, a starship captain and the Empress of the Interdependency -- are in a race against time to discover what, if anything, can be salvaged from an interstellar empire on the brink of collapse.

My Review:

My first thought upon finishing The Collapsing Empire was “Oh…My…GOD

The second was that rolling your eyes while driving is a really bad idea, especially if you do it OFTEN. Actually I had that though much earlier in the book, when I was doing a LOT of eye rolling. The ending is far from an eye roll situation, but the advice still stands.

So i’m back to the Oh My God reaction, which I’m still hearing in Wil Wheaton’s voice as the reader of The Collapsing Empire. Which I listened to, pretty much everywhere, sometimes rolling my eyes, often smiling or even outright laughing, from the surprising beginning to the even more astonishing end.

Which isn’t really an end, because it’s obvious that this is just the beginning of a much bigger story, which I hope we get Real Soon Now, but don’t actually expect for a year or more.

So what was it?

The title both does and doesn’t give it away. The Empire, in this case the human empire that calls itself the Interdependency, is about to collapse. Not due to warfare or anything so prosaic, but because, well, science. The interstellar network that keeps the far-flung reaches of the Interdependency interdependent is on the verge of an unstoppable collapse.. So what we have at the moment is the story of the maneuvering and machinations as what passes for the powers that be, or that hope to be the powers that become, jockey for position (and survival) in the suddenly onrushing future.

And humans being humans, while some panic there are a whole lot of people who remain so invested in the status quo that they are unwilling to act because any actions upset their positions now, and they hope, very much against hope, that the predictions are wrong. Not because they really believe in their heart of hearts that they ARE wrong, but because they want them to be wrong so very badly.

Any resemblance between the Interdependency and 21st century America is probably intended – but agreeing or disagreeing with that statement doesn’t change the sheer rushing “WOW” of the story.

That story of the empire that’s about to collapse is primarily told through the eyes of four very, very different people (not that the side characters aren’t themselves quite fascinating). But as things wind up, and as the empire begins to wind down, we get our view of the impending fall mostly from these four, or people who surround them.

The first is Ghreni Nohamapeton, the most frequent source of my eye-rolling. Ghreni is a slippery manipulative little bastard, but he is about to be hoist on his own petard. Or possibly not. He thinks he knows what’s coming, and of course, he doesn’t. Or does he?

Kiva Lagos may possibly be the most profane character it has ever been my pleasure to encounter, in literature or out of it. And her constant, continuous cursing sounds a bit much in an audiobook, but perfectly fits her character. Kiva is also manipulative as hell, and mercenary into the bargain. But somewhere between the hells, damns and f-bombs, there’s a heart. Or at least the desire to one-up Ghreni that provides some of the same functionality.

Marce Claremont is about to be the bearer of very bad tidings – if he can survive being the chew toy between Ghreni and Kiva long enough to deliver his message. And even though he knows that the delivery of it means that he really, really can’t go home again. Ever.

And finally we have Cardenia Wu, the recent and very reluctant Emperox of the Interdependency. A woman who is about to experience the very extreme end of that old saying, “be careful what you wish for, because you might get it.” As a great man once said, “Some gifts come at just too high a price.” And that’s true whether you have to dance with the devil to get them, or just roll dice with fate.

Escape Rating A: I listened to this, and also have the ebook. I expected to switch between, but in the end just couldn’t tear myself away from Wil Wheaton’s marvelous reading. He does a terrific job with all of the voices, and adds even more fun to a book that was already fantastic.

But I need that ebook to look up all the names. It seems as if none of them are spelled quite the way they sound. And the ship’s names are an exercise in absurdity from beginning to end. (This aspect may be an homage to the late Iain Banks’ Culture series). But the first ship we meet is the “Tell Me Another One” which is this reader’s general response to Scalzi’s work. I want him to tell me another one, as soon as possible. But also, and as usual, everyone’s leg is getting pulled more than a bit, and not from the same direction.

Lots of things in this story made me smile, quite often ruefully. The scenario is painful, and as this book closes we know that the situation in general is only going to get worse, and possibly not get better. But for the individuals, life is going on. And the characters exhibit all of the sarcasm that this author is known for.

Some of it has the ring of gallows humor to it, and that’s also right. No one is likely to come out of this unscathed by the end, and that’s obvious to the reader from the beginning, even if not to the characters.

This is also a story of merchant empires and political skullduggery. And yes, there is plenty of commentary on that aspect to chew on for a long time, quite possibly until the next book in the series. Like so much of Scalzi’s work, The Collapsing Empire makes the reader laugh, and it makes the reader think, quite often at the same time.

Ghreni and Kiva both represent different ways in which the current systems of the Interdependency have been taken to their extreme limit. But Marce and Cardenia are the characters that we sympathize with. They are both operating against impossible odds, and we like them and want them to succeed. Whether they will or not is left to the subsequent books in this series.

And I really, really, really can’t wait to see what happens next.

~~~~~~ GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

Because this is part of my annual Blogo-Birthday celebration, I want to share the love. And the books. John Scalzi is one of my favorite authors, and I hope he’ll become one of yours too. To that end, I’m giving away one copy of any of Scalzi’s works, (up to $20) to one lucky commenter on this post. This giveaway includes The Collapsing Empire, but if you haven’t yet had the pleasure of Scalzi, Old Man’s War is probably the best place to begin.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Review: Hounded by Kevin Hearne

Review: Hounded by Kevin HearneHounded (The Iron Druid Chronicles, #1) by Kevin Hearne, Luke Daniels
Format: audiobook
Source: purchased from Audible
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: urban fantasy
Series: Iron Druid Chronicles #1
Pages: 292
Published by Brilliance Audio on October 28th 2014
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Atticus O’Sullivan, last of the Druids, lives peacefully in Arizona, running an occult bookshop and shape-shifting in his spare time to hunt with his Irish wolfhound. His neighbors and customers think that this handsome, tattooed Irish dude is about twenty-one years old—when in actuality, he’s twenty-one centuries old. Not to mention: He draws his power from the earth, possesses a sharp wit, and wields an even sharper magical sword known as Fragarach, the Answerer.
Unfortunately, a very angry Celtic god wants that sword, and he’s hounded Atticus for centuries. Now the determined deity has tracked him down, and Atticus will need all his power—plus the help of a seductive goddess of death, his vampire and werewolf team of attorneys, a bartender possessed by a Hindu witch, and some good old-fashioned luck of the Irish—to kick some Celtic arse and deliver himself from evil.

My Review:

Because I love urban fantasy, friends have been recommending the Iron Druid series to me for years, and because I get perverse when people push too hard, I haven’t gotten around to it. Until now. And one of these days maybe I’ll learn to ignore that particular quirk of mine, because just like other books that friends have frequently and heartily recommended (I’m thinking of Legion and Thieftaker here), the Iron Druid series, at least on first introduction, is absolutely awesome.

Hounded is just full of the kind of irreverent snark that I expect from the best urban fantasy, while telling a great story that is anchored in the real world. And as the first book in the series, it introduced me to a fantastic character (in multiple senses of fantastic) in Atticus O’Sullivan, the last remaining druid.

Atticus claims to be 21, and looks the part, as the cover pictures indicate fairly well. But Atticus isn’t 21 years old, as he lets people assume. He’s 21 centuries old, and was born in Celtic Ireland a millennium before the Common Era began.

And all the gods are real. Not just the Celtic pantheon to which Atticus still owes some allegiance, and to some of whom he still bears some grudges. But ALL the gods of all the pantheons either existed or have existed. (If this reminds you a bit of American Gods, it does me, too).

But speaking of those grudges, one of those Celtic gods is still harassing Atticus, centuries after losing a famous sword to the Druid in an epic battle. It turns out that the Celtic god of love is actually a selfish, self-centered and manipulative arsehole. And I just insulted arseholes, but in a way that Atticus would probably have approved.

So the short version of this story is that it is all about Angus Og manipulating people and events in order to finally get the great sword Fragarach back from Atticus. The long version of the story is much, much more interesting, as it introduces us to Atticus and all the people in his world, from his werewolf and vampire lawyers (all Vikings) to his slightly dotty old neighbor, to his absolutely marvelous Irish wolfhound, Oberon, who always has his eye on his next sausage breakfast and dreams of harems of French poodles.

Along the way, we meet witches and demons, and get introduced to the gods of the Fae who still deign to mess with the lives of mortals, or at least with the life of Atticus O’Sullivan. Whether that’s for his good or his ill, or even a bit of both, is just part of the wonder of this story.

Escape Rating A: I loved this. And I can’t wait to go back. But this was such a marvelous treat, that I know I need to space them out a bit. Like Halloween candy. But even better, because no calories.

The story is told from the Atticus’ first-person perspective, something that worked particularly well in the audiobook. We hear what he hears, and we also hear what he thinks inside his own head, which is usually much snarkier than what comes out of his mouth – but not always. Listening to the book is like listening to Atticus’ own voice inside his head. It works.

One of the things that works really well is that Atticus is able to communicate with his dog Oberon. And Oberon, while slightly more intelligent than the average, is still very “doggy”. Oberon mostly lives in the now, and that’s a perspective that the 2100 year old Atticus needs to be reminded of every so often, and he recognizes it.

Also, Oberon’s comments on the events are frequently laugh out loud funny, and it’s impossible to resist smirking along with him. This can be a bit problematic if one is listening in public. Or at work.

As much as I enjoyed Atticus’ interesting blend of snark and sweet (his relationship with his elderly neighbor is precious – at least when they aren’t hiding dead bodies together) it is the action and adventure of the story that kept me on the edge of my seat, or sitting in my car waiting for Atticus to find his way out of whatever mess he’d just been dropped into. He’s been hiding in Tempe Arizona for years, and is none too happy when the Morrigan comes to tell him that Angus Og is after him yet again. But this time he decides to stand and defend the life he’s made, and it’s a marvelous tale from beginning to end.

Hexed is up next. Atticus doesn’t trust witches. And there’s a good reason. Again. Fantastic!

Review: Murder on the Ballarat Train by Kerry Greenwood

Review: Murder on the Ballarat Train by Kerry GreenwoodMurder on the Ballarat Train (Miss Fisher's Murder Mystery #3) by Kerry Greenwood
Format: audiobook
Source: purchased from Audible
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery
Series: Phryne Fisher #3
Pages: 151
Published by Poisoned Pen Press on November 3rd 2015
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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When the 1920s most glamorous lady detective, the Honourable Miss Phryne Fisher, arranges to go to Ballarat for the week, she eschews the excitement of her red Hispano-Suiza racing car for the sedate safety of the train. The last thing she expects is to have to use her trusty Beretta .32 to save lives.
As the passengers sleep, they are poisoned with chloroform. Phryne is left to piece together the clues after this restful country sojourn turns into the stuff of nightmares: a young girl who can t remember anything, rumors of white slavery and black magic, and the body of an old woman missing her emerald rings. Then there is the rowing team and the choristers, all deliciously engaging young men. At first they seem like a pleasant diversion ."

My Review:

I’ve watched Phryne, I’ve read Phryne, and now I’ve listened to Phryne, and she’s utterly marvelous no matter how she is experienced.

I’m absolutely certain that the “beautiful young man” in Murder on the Ballarat Train would wholeheartedly agree. Although his roommate probably would not.

That Phryne refers to the man she seduces, vamps and ravishes in this book as “the beautiful young man” multiple times is part of the reason that the character of Phryne seems much older than the 26 or so that the author purports her to be. Your mileage about Phryne’s mileage may vary.

The story in Murder on the Ballarat Train is possibly the opposite of Murder on the Orient Express, despite the similarity in titles. While everyone on the Orient Express wanted to murder that awful man, it seems that no one on the Ballarat Train hated Mrs. Henderson enough to murder her. Not even the adult daughter she regularly picked on and railed at.

It is, however, abundantly clear that the rather elderly Mrs. Henderson did not throw herself off the train, hang herself AND beat her own body to an absolute pulp afterwards. Nor did she fill the entire first-class carriage with sleeping gas. Somebody murdered her, even if Phryne can’t at first figure out how or why.

Neither can Phryne figure out who is responsible for the young girl who was hiding in the first-class toilet on that same train. The girl herself doesn’t even remember how she got there, why she hid there, or even who she is.

Phryne has multiple mysteries to solve. She’s just certain they must tie together somehow, even if she can’t determine exactly how that might be at the outset.

And she’s equally determined that no one will either abuse the young girl, or threaten the adult Miss Henderson, every again. Not while Phryne is on the case.

Escape Rating B+: In any format, the Phryne Fisher mysteries are an absolute lark from beginning to end, in spite of any of the dark corners of Melbourne or the human heart that Phryne might be forced to invade during the course of her investigation.

And it is those dark corners that keep Phryne, and the reader, on their toes. While the series is set in the 1920s, it was written in the 1990s. As much research as the author appears to have done to make sure that Phryne’s life and attitudes are those of a woman of her time, albeit an unusual and extremely adventurous one, the issues that Phryne runs into feel as contemporary to our time as they do to hers.

There are two villains in this story, and the one she finds by accident is much more evil than the one she hunts down deliberately. And while “white slavery” was often used as a scandalous threat of whispered evil in the gutter-press, it probably wasn’t as prevalent as yellow journalists made it out to be. Phryne’s investigation has nothing of the scandalized and salacious tone one might have expected in the 1920s. Instead, her pursuit of justice is coldly calculated to extract the maximum vengeance. The mesmerizing angle speaks of the 1920s, but Phryne’s reactions feel contemporaneous both to her time and our own.

I enjoyed this method of “reading” Phryne’s story just as much as I did reading it. I will, however, make one final note about the audio performance. In any audiobook where a single narrator attempts to voice multiple characters, some characters work better than others. That problem is made more difficult in the case of Phryne, as those of us who have watched the TV show already have a fixed idea of what these characters are supposed to sound like. The narrator of Murder at the Ballarat Train did an excellent job portraying Phryne, and surprisingly a fairly good job of making the male voices sound at least OK. But for some reason my ear kept telling me that Dot’s voice was completely off.

Which didn’t stop me from enjoying the whole thing immensely. I’m looking forward to picking up the next book in the series, Death at Victoria Dock, at my earliest opportunity.

Review: Skin Deep by Brandon Sanderson

Review: Skin Deep by Brandon SandersonSkin Deep (Legion #2) by Brandon Sanderson, Oliver Wyman
Format: audiobook
Source: purchased from Audible
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, science fiction, urban fantasy
Series: Legion #2
Pages: 208
Published by Audible Studios on November 24th 2014
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Stephen Leeds, AKA “Legion,” is a man whose unique mental condition allows him to generate a multitude of personae: hallucinatory entities with a wide variety of personal characteristics and a vast array of highly specialized skills. As the new story begins, Leeds and his “aspects” are hired by I3 (Innovative Information Incorporated) to recover a corpse stolen from the local morgue. But there’s a catch. The corpse is that of a pioneer in the field of experimental biotechnology, a man whose work concerned the use of the human body as a massive storage device. He may have embedded something in the cells of his now dead body. And that something might be dangerous…

What follows is a visionary thriller about the potential uses of technology, the mysteries of the human personality, and the ancient human need to believe that death is not the end. Legion: Skin Deep is speculative fiction at it most highly developed. It reaffirms Sanderson’s place as one of contemporary fiction’s most intelligent—and unpredictable—voices.

My Review:

Skin Deep is the sequel to Legion, and is set in the same universe with most of the same characters. Of course, most of those characters are Stephen Leeds’ aspects – the parts of his genius (and his psychoses) that he envisions as separate people that only he sees.

Like its predecessor, Skin Deep is also science fiction as mystery, and again, the science fictional element is in the case and not the setting. While the method that Stephen uses for dealing with his mental issues is unusual if not unique, there’s nothing particularly science fictional (or fantastic) about it. His aspects are, after all, all in his head.

Even if he does provide separate rooms in his mansion for each of them.

But the MacGuffin he has to find in this case is definitely SFnal. Or at least, I think it still is.

Stephen has been hired (read as slightly coerced by an unscrupulous friend) to find a corpse. But not just any corpse. In this case, it’s the corpse of a scientist who was experimenting with ways to use the human body as a computer. And like so many scientists, mad or otherwise, this one used his own body as his test subject.

Now that he’s dead, everyone wants to make sure that the code he embedded into his cells does not get into the wrong hands. Of course, there are several factions involved in the chase, each of whom believes that all the other parties constitute those “wrong hands”.

The body has disappeared. And it’s up to Stephen to locate it and make sure its secrets can’t be misused. Secrets that range anywhere from industrial espionage to a virus that causes cancer – and makes it a communicable disease into the bargain.

Everyone has an agenda. Including the assassin who has been hired to keep Stephen from finding that body – at all costs.

Escape Rating A-: In the end, I found a work task that I could do without much thinking, just so that I could finish this book. I couldn’t wait any longer to see how it all played out.

One question for readers is just what you think of Stephen Leeds’ aspects. How do they relate to both his genius and his coping skills? And just how crazy is the man, anyway? He sees his knowledge, both of technical and scientific topics and just plain people-skills, as being embodied in one or more of these hallucinations. Which means that he also believes that if a particular aspect is not with him, he doesn’t have access to the skills and abilities they represent. Even more telling, or confusing, when one of them ‘dies’ he loses all access to whatever knowledge they possessed. Or that he believed they possessed.

It sounds confusing, but it is a fascinating way of dealing with the world. Many introverts probably will wish they had an ‘Ivy’ who is a psychologist but also seems to represent what few social skills Leeds possesses.

He’s actually a really nice guy, but his ability to interact with people is more than a bit geekishly ‘off’. We all have days when we could use an ‘Ivy’ to help us interact.

One of the more fascinating bits of the story was the point where Stephen and all of his aspects retreated to the ‘white room’ to work on the case. It is easy to fall into Stephen’s way of thinking, that all of the aspects are separate individuals, when we see all of them seeming to work independently. They aren’t real. Stephen knows they aren’t real. But some of them have difficulty believing that fact. And when they are investigating things he isn’t actively looking at, or interacting with each other to the point of having romantic relationships, it’s difficult for the reader not to fall into the trap of believing that they are real.

That way lies madness.

But the fun of this story, along with the suspense and the marvelous plot twist at the end, revolve around Stephen’s search for the corpse. A search in which, of course, nothing is as it seems.

It is the first time I’ve ever read of an assassination plot foiled by a hostile takeover. But the real solution to the mystery eluded me until the very end. As it should. Skin Deep was absorbing and a tremendous amount of fun. I sincerely hope that the author returns to these characters, because I really want to see what happens next!

Review: Legion by Brandon Sanderson

Review: Legion by Brandon SandersonLegion (Legion, #1) by Brandon Sanderson
Format: audiobook
Source: purchased from Audible
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, science fiction, urban fantasy
Series: Legion #1
Pages: 88
Published by Audible Audio on October 2nd 2012
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

"Stephen Leeds, AKA 'Legion,' is a man whose unique mental condition allows him to generate a multitude of personae: hallucinatory entities with a wide variety of personal characteristics and a vast array of highly specialized skills. As the story begins, Leeds and his 'aspects' are drawn into the search for the missing Balubal Razon, inventor of a camera whose astonishing properties could alter our understanding of human history and change the very structure of society"--From publisher's description

My Review:

I was looking for another relatively short audiobook, and a friend recommended this one to me. I’ve never read anything by Brandon Sanderson before, but always meant to. And after Legion, I certainly will again.

Legion is partially SFF as mystery, and partially a fascinating character study. Or perhaps I should say “characters study”. Because one of the central questions of the story is just how real each of Stephen Leeds ‘aspects’ is. Or isn’t. He treats them as real, but he is also aware that they are hallucinations.

At the same time, he insists that he’s not really a genius. That all of his supposed insights are due to the intelligence and efforts of those ‘aspects’. He just provides the synthesis. And the body that gets them around.

But he insists that most of them believe that they are real, and he doesn’t like to upset them. That he has managed to hire and actually KEEP a butler who is willing to go along with all of this is a testament to the essential sweetness of Stephen’s nature, as well as the depth of his pocketbook.

Stephen Leeds is rich. Seemingly, as they say, beyond the dreams of avarice. Whether the genius is his or belongs to his aspects, the use of that genius has brought him a lot of money in consultant fees. Also an endless stream of annoying psychology students who regularly attempt to breach his privacy by obvious trickery. The aspects catch the fakers every time.

But his new client is no faker. She presents him with a series of black and white photographs that appear to have been taken with a time machine. A photograph of Shakespeare. Another of George Washington, shaving. And the real draw for Stephen – a photograph of the woman who taught him how to manage his crazy genius and then left without a trace.

His aspects insist that the photos are real and not faked, even though the historical ones were taken long before the invention of photography. And his client, Monica, insists that her company has discovered the secret of taking photographs of historic events as they happen – but that they’ve lost both the photographer and his magic camera.

From there, it’s off to the races, as they attempt to track down the missing photographer before someone steals his invention, and before someone uses him and it to unbalance the world.

Escape Rating A-: This was incredibly fun. I found myself driving around a bit more than usual, just so I could finish it. The premise was unique and interesting, and the mystery that it wraps around was quirky and absorbing.

There’s so much to unpack in this short novella. It does lie on that cusp between science fiction and fantasy. The time-traveling camera is technology, so science fiction. But the way that Leeds ‘aspects’ act and react feels a bit more like fantasy. How do they do what they do, especially when he is not present?

But the science fiction and fantasy bits, while not window dressing, feel more like the way the author gets to the heart of the story than the actual story. At heart, this feels like a mystery. Leeds has a missing persons case to solve, he just uses a slightly more ‘out there’ cast of irregulars than is normal.

legion skin deep by brandon sandersonWhich he insists that he is. Normal, that is. Stephen Leeds believes that he is sane and that his aspects are the various forms of crazy. But whatever they are, they do have personalities and specialties of their own, and without the correct specialist Stephen doesn’t think he has access to parts of his genius.

How much the reader falls into his way of thinking is part of what makes this story work so well.

I’m very glad that I picked up Legion, and I’m looking forward to listening to the second book in the series, Skin Deep. I hope the author returns to this world to bring us more of Stephen Leeds’ adventures.

Review: The Dispatcher by John Scalzi

Review: The Dispatcher by John ScalziThe Dispatcher by John Scalzi, Zachary Quinto
Format: audiobook
Source: purchased from Audible
Formats available: hardcover, audiobook
Genres: mystery, science fiction
Pages: 128
Published by Audible Studios on October 4th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
Goodreads

One day, not long from now, it becomes almost impossible to murder anyone - 999 times out of a thousand, anyone who is intentionally killed comes back. How? We don't know. But it changes everything: war, crime, daily life.
Tony Valdez is a Dispatcher - a licensed, bonded professional whose job is to humanely dispatch those whose circumstances put them in death's crosshairs, so they can have a second chance to avoid the reaper. But when a fellow Dispatcher and former friend is apparently kidnapped, Tony learns that there are some things that are worse than death and that some people are ready to do almost anything to avenge a supposed wrong.
It's a race against time for Valdez to find his friend before it's too late...before not even a Dispatcher can save him.

My Review:

The Dispatcher was the inaugural audiobook for my new car. I love audiobooks, but it’s been a while since I had a car that could play them. I also don’t have a very long commute, so I wanted to ease back into things with a relatively short book. The Dispatcher was perfect for that.

It was also very, very good.

The Dispatcher was written by John Scalzi, one of my favorite science fiction authors. But except for the science fictional nature of the device that makes this whole story possible, The Dispatcher really isn’t SF at all. It’s a mystery. Specifically a missing persons case, solved by a savvy Chicago police detective and her reluctant consultant.

The device that makes this whole story possible, and gives it many of its twists, is a change to the world we know. Murder has become impossible. Death is still very possible, but murder doesn’t happen anymore. Not exactly.

About 8 years before this story begins, someone was murdered. And instead of being permanently dead, they went poof, and found themselves alive, well and naked, on their bed at home, in the same condition they were in a few hours before the shot that was intended to be fatal.

And it kept happening. Murdered people didn’t die. They poofed back home instead. Every single time. Well almost.

1 person in 1,000 doesn’t poof. Still, that’s way better odds than before the poofing began. Whatever the cause of said poofing.

Of course, people being people, this creates all new avenues for abuse. And all new bureaucracies to license the folks who become, effectively, professional murderers. They call them “dispatchers” because they, well, dispatch people.

And it all seems to be going reasonably well. At least until one dispatcher goes missing, and that detective and her reluctant consultant, the dispatcher of the title, investigate the disappearance. With a clock ticking in the background. Because while the missing man hasn’t been murdered, that doesn’t mean he can’t turn up dead.

Unless they find him first. And to do that, they’ll have to unravel a Gordian Knot of illegal side jobs, private medical “remediation” and old school ties between business and the mob.

Even with murder officially off the table, Chicago is still Chicago.

Escape Rating A-: As a story, this is great fun. And it does lead the listener on a very merry chase, because nothing is exactly as it seems.

Our hero, Tony Valdez, is a dispatcher. He’s never had a failed dispatch, so what he does doesn’t feel like murder. So far, at least, everybody lives.

He’s a very reluctant hero. He wants to help find his friend, the missing Jimmy Albert, but he doesn’t want the police to get too close to his business. He’s currently legit, but there are plenty of gray areas in the dispatching business. And once upon a time, Tony seems to have explored all of them.

As the cop says, it’s a shit show. Or it can be. Legit is safer, and a bit easier on the conscience.

The way that the story unwinds is fascinating, and incredibly fun to follow. We see what the world has become, and that it isn’t that much different from now. But the differences represented by Tony’s job open up all sorts of possible ways to talk about the way things are then, and the way things are now.

People, after all, are still people.

And the conclusion is a “people” conclusion, not a technical or an SFnal one. What happens happens because of human nature, love and hate and fear and a rage against that dying of the light.

About the audio performance. The Dispatcher is currently only available in audio, and was scripted for that format. There’s a hardcover coming out in May for those who just don’t do audio (or want to have something for the author to sign), but this is a marvelous place to start if you are curious about what it is like to listen to a story instead of reading it.

The story is performed by Zachary Quinto, of Heroes and Star Trek reboot fame. He does an absolutely terrific job, not just in voicing Tony, but also in portraying the female police detective and the elderly suspect, as well as all the other characters who pass through the story. His performance, particularly his world-weary voice for Tony, add a great deal to the pleasure of this story.

There was a brief period when the audio of The Dispatcher was available free on Audible. I missed that window, so I paid for my copy. And it was so worth it.

Book Review: First Lord’s Fury by Jim Butcher

Format read: audiobook purchased from audible, print book purchased from Barnes & Noble
Formats available: Hardcover, Mass Market Paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genre: Epic Fantasy
Series: Codex Alera #6
Length: 465 pages
Publisher: Ace Penguin
Date Released: November 24, 2009
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Book Depository

For years he has endured the endless trials and triumphs of a man whose skill and power could not be restrained. Battling ancient enemies, forging new alliances, and confronting the corruption within his own land, Gaius Octavian became a legendary man of war-and the rightful First Lord of Alera.
But now, the savage Vord are on the march, and Gaius must lead his legions to the Calderon Valley to stand against them-using all of his intelligence, ingenuity, and furycraft to save their world from eternal darkness.

I’ve had the hardcover of First Lord’s Fury on my shelves since it was first released. I’m astonished to see that I’ve been carting it around for three years. I think I didn’t want the Codex Alera series to end. It’s been a big sprawling mess of fun.

And that turned out to be kind of a problem. There are a lot of crow-begotten politics involved in the Codex Alera, and it took me a while to catch up to who was still backstabbing whom–while the Alerans were literally in a fight to save, not just their kingdom, but their entire species. Talk about “fiddling while Rome burns”. And an apt cliche, Alera Imperia owes a lot to Roma Imperia, including its legions.

But the Roman Empire didn’t have magic, at least as far as we know. Alera certainly does.

The center of the series has been Gaius Octavian, but at the beginning, we don’t know that’s who he is. He’s just Tavi. And that was the point. He learns to be First Lord very differently from his predecessors by growing up without the knowledge of who he is, and without the ability to furycraft, to do magic.

He works his way up through the ranks, as a furycrafter, as a legionnaire, as a man. He deals in what is, with or without power. He makes allies that someone who is used to being at the top of the heap would never think of.

The “powers that be” wish that he were anything but what he is. But then, his times demand someone like him. Because the enemy is not another race like the Alerans. They’re not human. They’re not even the Aleran’s ancestral enemies, the Canim. Who are, in truth, intelligent canines. The Alerans and Canim turn out to have common ground.

The enemy is the Vord. And they are insect versions of Star Trek‘s Borg. Just as implacable, just as absorptive  and just as deadly. They do not negotiate, they consume everything in their path.

Tavi has returned in defeat from the lands of the Canim, with the last of the Canim host as his allies, to Alera. The Canim were supposed to kill him. Instead, they’ve returned to bring down the Vord or die trying. Because if they don’t, the Vord will cover the land and there will be nothing left of people or Canim or free will. Only slaves and death.

He’s not supposed to make it. He’s not supposed to reach the last stronghold in time. There’s not enough time and too much ground to cover. But he has more power, and more allies, than anyone expects.

Because Tavi knows how to bring down a foe when they have all the power and he has none. It’s what he was trained for.

Escape Rating A-: Rating this is difficult. It took me quite a while to get back into it, because the politics are very complex. This series is meant to be read from the beginning. Start from Furies of Calderon. Everything is layered, one piece on top of another. Everything matters.

Once I got into it, I couldn’t stop. There were so many different threads, and they were all fascinating to follow. Tavi’s final maturity, in some ways, wasn’t as interesting as the other things that were going on. You knew he was going to get there in time. The only question was, how? His handling of the situation with Valiar Marcus was beautifully done, but I don’t want to spoil it.

Kitai is a terrific, absolutely magnificent example of a female warrior who is different and equal. She represents the outsider’s point of view so well. Her people are less civilized, for certain values of civilized, than the Alerans, so she is able to comment on Tavi’s society in a way that he can’t see.

The Canim are fascinating because they are not human, yet Tavi makes common cause with them. Any warm-blooded, free-thinking race has common cause with him against the Vord. How he works past ages of prejudice and war was, not just interesting, it was often slyly amusing.

The Vord, however, were just a bit too much like the Borg. Really. Plant-based Borg, complete with queen.

About the audiobook. The reader, Kate Reading was great. She voiced all of the parts, including the Canim, who have incredibly rough bass voices that must have been absolute hell to do. However, there were horns blaring at the end of every chapter that drove me nuts. I could seriously have done without the horns, but that wasn’t what made me stop the audio and switch to print. I just couldn’t stand the suspense by the last 50 pages and had to find out how it ended.

If you like epic fantasy and have somehow missed Alera, you’ve missed out on something terrific. And the series is complete, so you can read the whole thing all at once without having to wait. Treat!!!

***FTC Disclaimer: Most books reviewed on this site have been provided free of charge by the publisher, author or publicist. Some books we have purchased with our own money and will be noted as such. Any links to places to purchase books are provided as a convenience, and do not serve as an endorsement by this blog. All reviews are the true and honest opinion of the blogger reviewing the book. The method of acquiring the book does not have a bearing on the content of the review.

Review: Local Custom by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller

Format read: ebook purchased from Baen Books, audiobook purchased from Audible
Formats available: Mass Market paperback, Trade Paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genre: Space Opera, Science Fiction Romance
Series: Liaden Universe #4
Length: 320 Pages
Publisher: Baen Books
Date Released: February 2001
Purchasing Info: Authors’ Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble

Master trader Er Thom knows the local custom of Liaden is to be matched with a proper bride, and provide his prominent clan Korval with an heir. Yet his heart is immersed in another universe, influenced by another culture, and lost to a woman not of his world. And to take a Terran wife such as scholar Anne Davis is to risk his honor and reputation. But when he discovers that their brief encounter years before has resulted in the birth of a child, even more is at stake than anyone imagined. Now, an interstellar scandal has erupted, a bitter war between two families–galaxies apart–has begun, and the only hope for Er Thom and Anne is a sacrifice neither is prepared to make…

I have been meaning to re-read the Liaden Universe books for a while now. I loved them when I initially read them (meaning I swallowed them whole) in 2005-2006, but haven’t kept up with the newer ones. That “so many books, so little time” problem rears its ugly little head yet again.

When I heard that Audible was releasing the entire series in audio, I decided that was my opportunity. I could listen to everything! “Foolish Terran!”as the Liadens might say.

Sometimes when we revisit a beloved book we remember fondly, the re-read makes us wonder what we saw in it the first time. Memory does not hold up on close re-inspection. This was absolutely not the case with Liaden.

I started with Local Custom, because that’s where I started the first time. There are multiple possible entry points for the Liaden Universe, but two of the traditional ones are Local Custom or Agent of Change. (Agent of Change was written first but Local Custom occurs first in the internal chronology with most of the same cast of characters.)

The story is every bit as marvelous the second time around as it was the first time. Possibly more so, as I understand the background without remembering every single detail of each individual book.

Local Custom is both space opera and romance. Er Thom yos’Galan knows his duty to his clan is to take a contract wife and provide his clan with an heir. Duty to the clan is everything to a Liaden. But his heart is still fixed on the Terran scholar Anne Davis, a woman he met while overseeing his clan’s far-ranging business as a Master Trader. He should have let the thought of her go long since, but he cannot. So he takes leave of all his obligations, and they are more than Anne Davis ever knew they were, to see her one last time, and say a final “Goodbye”. Only to discover that she has already given him his heir, not knowing that the Master Trader she loved is actually heir to the richest clan on Liaden. And that she and her son are now pawns in a deadly game.

Escape Rating A+: I wish I had more pluses to give. I started to listen to the Audible recording, and became so caught up in the story that I found myself hunting for excuses to do things that would let me listen longer. I wasn’t getting anything else done!

I gave up and bought the entire ebook bundle from Baen, and finished the book that way. I enjoyed the audio, but it was just taking too long. My only regret about the audio is that Audible wasn’t able to get the rights for the original audio recording by Michael Shanks. I would love to hear him read the story as Er Thom.

If you enjoy space opera, and have never read the Liaden Universe books, start now. If you like romance in your science fiction, start with Local Custom. If you prefer more adventure and intrigue in the mix, choose Agent of Change as your starting point. But start now.

(If you do read ebooks, Baen is very reasonable about ebook prices. Everything is either $5 or $6 and they have downloads for every format you can think of: Kindle, EPUB, RTF, HTML, Read Online! Baen also does not use DRM.)

***FTC Disclaimer: Most books reviewed on this site have been provided free of charge by the publisher, author or publicist. Some books we have purchased with our own money and will be noted as such. Any links to places to purchase books are provided as a convenience, and do not serve as an endorsement by this blog. All reviews are the true and honest opinion of the blogger reviewing the book. The method of acquiring the book does not have a bearing on the content of the review.

Review: Deadlocked by Charlaine Harris

I just finished, and by that I mean I finished it about an hour ago, Deadlocked by Charlaine Harris. Deadlocked is book 12, for anyone who doesn’t already know, in Harris’ quirky tale of the telepathic waitress in the fictional small-town of Bon Temps, Louisiana. It’s also a slightly alternate world where vampires are not only real, but everyone knows they’re real, because some enterprising inventor created a synthetic substitute for blood that allowed them to come out of the coffin.

And that’s where the fun began, in 2001, with Dead Until Dark. It has been mostly fun for those of us reading the series. It has not been fun for the heroine of this little tale, that telepathic waitress, Sookie Stackhouse. Sookie’s journey has been one crisis after another. The more she has learned about the world of the supernatural, the darker and more dangerous her life has become.

Be warned, Deadlocked is book 12 in an ongoing series. I will do my best not to include spoilers for Deadlocked, but there’s no reasonable way to say much about book 12 without spoiling something in books 1-11.

Deadlocked is the perfect title for this book, because Sookie’s life is deadlocked as the story opens. Eric Northman, her vampire lover, is the vampire “sheriff” of Shreveport and the surrounding area, including Bon Temps. However, his sire promised the Queen of Oklahoma that Eric would marry her, not long before the waste of space (I can’t type something disgusting enough) was killed. On Sookie’s front lawn.

Eric, Sookie, and Pam, Eric’s second-in-command, murdered the deputy of the King of Nevada. The man who Eric owes fealty to. The fact that the bastard was trying to kill them doesn’t matter. They should pay for his death. The King is in Shreveport to collect.

Sookie’s boss, and best friend, Sam Merlotte, is a were, a shapeshifter. His current girlfriend is second-in command of the local pack. Jannalyn hates Sookie, for no reason that Sookie can understand, except that Jannalyn thinks Sam and Sookie might be more than just friends. They’re not.

Then a girl dies. On Eric’s front yard this time. In the middle of a party. Just after he drank from her. It shouldn’t have anything to do with Sookie. But it does.

Her fae grandfather left her with a gift. It grants one wish, the wish of her heart. And everyone wants it. Or want her to use it.

Or wants her to die.

Escape Rating B: Too much of the first 2/3rds of the book is setup, and a lot of that setup involves Sookie’s situation just getting more and more, I want to say pitiful but that’s not quite it, let’s say worse, by the hour. Things shouldn’t be able to sink any lower, but they just keep heading downhill.

It is pretty obvious who the responsible parties are for everything that’s going wrong in Sookie’s universe. Why Sookie can’t see it, we’ll say dramatic license. The clues were pretty obvious and the herrings were very, very bright red.

On the other hand, the last third of the book saw the loose ends being knitted together. Every person, or at least every supernatural creature, who ever crossed Sookie’s path seems to be making a final appearance, a curtain call, one way or another. The author has announced that the next book will be the last in the series.

Lucky 13. How appropriate for a book about the creatures that go bump in the night. Or considering this series, maybe hump in the night is a better phrase.

A few notes on the audiobook version, read by Johanna Parker. Because the story is told from Sookie’s perspective, Ms. Parker is primarily voicing Sookie, although she does deepen her voice or drop her accent to represent the other characters when they speak. Her narration works because she is able to make herself sound like Sookie, at least to this listener. It sounds like Sookie is telling me her perspective on events as she is witnessing them. It’s marvelous. Occasionally, you want to slap her for concentrating on the wrong things, because you’re caught up in her telling you her story.

I just wish Sookie had gotten her act together sooner. She spends way too much of the book being passive. The narrator has a good handle on voicing Sookie’s inner dialogue. It would have made a better story if Sookie had less inner dialog and more outer action the first two thirds of the book.