The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet
by Becky Chambers
Ashby Santoso is the owner and captain of a space-boring ship, he's the contractor folks call when they need a wormhole drilled.
Ashby is a human, a minor race recently admitted to the Galactic Commons (GC). His crew is a melange of species that make up the GC. Their latest, very lucrative contract: a long normal-space haul to the distant Toremi territory to bore a wormhole back. But not all the Toremi are in favor of this new alliance and space, particularly out in the sticks, can sometimes be deadly.
Angry Planet is a character-driven story about an ordinary, likable crew doing an ordinary, yet kind of thrilling spacer job. The depictions of different species, their viewpoints, and how they manage to get along and function together is very well drawn; Chambers is an excellent writer, delightful to read. The story is quite human-centric, and so we get a skewed view of this Galactic Commons, in which the human species is but a minor player, but this is a small quibble.
Thoroughly enjoyable and highly recommended! 4 out of 5 stars.
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The Diary of an Immortal
by David J. Costello
A medic involved in the liberation of Dachau concentration camp discovers a cache of pills with the astonishing claim that, taken daily, they will confer immortality.
Steven begins taking pills as a panacea to the brutal reality of war and the camps.
From Germany to New York to to China and Tibet, Diary of an Immortal takes us on a greatest-hits tour of many of the major historical happening post WW2, as the protagonist seeks first the truth behind the immortality formula and its origin, and then to stop the forces that seek to use it to unleash another evil messiah unto the world.
Early on the novel asks "How does it change one's perspective and reality to become immortal?" and a connection between music and extra-sensory states of awareness is postulated, but these fertile novelistic questions are soon abandoned for what is essentially a cops-n-robbers tale with an overlay of eastern mysticism.
The author is a talented writer and the storytelling compelling enough, but I was disappointed by the theme tease: 3 out of 5 stars.
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The Baron in the Trees by Italo Calvino
In an act of rebellion the son and heir of an 18th century Italian nobleman climbs into the trees of his family's estate and refuses to come back down. Thus opens Italo Calvino's The Baron in the Trees.
Aided by his brother Biagio who narrates the novel, Cosimo spends the rest of his life off-ground. He scouts arboreal routes throughout the surrounding countryside, interacts with townspeople, befriends a brigand, adopts a dog, fights pirates, becomes baron himself, has love affairs, reads widely, finds and loses the love of his life...
It is the time of Voltaire and Rousseau, the age of enlightenment, and Cosimo is enthralled with the new ideas of equality, fraternity, liberty and reason. These emergent ideals, as it turns out, are unequal to transforming human nature and society, but Cosimo has been changed, and throughout his life, and death, he defies convention and remains that rarest of birds, an individual. ("'I too,' replied Cosimo, 'have lived many years for ideals which I would never be able to explain to myself; but I do something entirely good. I live on trees.'")
Fantastical and yet mundane (after all, a life is a life, full of the usual ups and downs, even when that life is lived in the trees!), Baron is a celebration of the individual in the sense we think of that, as sovereign of one's own life.
Although very different in style, in Italo Calvino and Jody Scott, born the same year, I detect a similar moral compass, for Baron is morality tale (as perhaps all fairytales are), but one that can also be read and enjoyed just for its sheer quixotic whimsy. Highly recommended.
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War With the Newts by Karel Capek
(Trans. by M. & R. Weatherall)
Giant Newts are found in the south seas. It's observed they're intelligent, capable of speech and using tools. How to exploit the Newts for human gain is soon discovered. Said "discoveries" spread across the planet and a period of unprecedented prosperity for humans ensues, "The Age of Newts." Various societies to improve the lot of the Newts spring up, schools for Newts are opened. Newts multiply and multiply, eventually finding themselves requiring more habitat to support their growing population. Newt habitat are the shallow coastal shorelines of the world and Newts begin a campaign to increase those. It doesn't end well for humanity.
Capek is a social satirist in the same vein as George Orwell, Jonathan Swift and (yes) Jody Scott, but very much a pessimist. The only ray of hope, of redemption in Newts is the postulated possibility that the Newts too will eventually destroy their civilization, for reasons similar to the cause of humanity's downfall, namely "human nature."
In the concluding chapter, The Author Talks with Himself, Capek summarizes the internal dilemma of his own pessimistic prescience, and makes the moral case for social satirists:
"Don't ask me what I want. Do you think that through my will human continents are falling to bits, do you think that I wanted this to happen? It is simply the logic of events; as if I could intervene. I did what I could; I warned them in time... They all had a thousand absolutely sound economic and political reasons why it's impossible. I'm not a politician or an economist; I can't change their opinions, can I? What is one to do? The earth will probably sink and drown; but at least it will be the result of generally acknowledged political and economic ideas, at least it will be accomplished with the help of the science, industry and public opinion, with the
application of all human ingenuity! No cosmic catastrophy, nothing but state, official, economic, and other causes. Nothing can be done to prevent it."
Written in 1936 War with the Newts may seem a tad slow in places for readers of today, weaned as we are on multiple, simultaneous, attention span-eroding streams of constant external input, but the reader willing to enter into the pace of Capek's novel will be rewarded with a story that is funny, sometimes horrifying, often thought-provoking, richly satisfying and still very much relevant, Recommended!
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I am not a fan of books in a series that do not also work as stand-alone novels, which Freshmen (The Felix Chronicles Book 1) doesn't quite. But up to that disappointing fact at the very end, and after the too-long prologue, I enjoyed it very much.
Felix Chronicles is a YA novel about Felix and his gang of pals during their freshman semester at Portland College. Felix, who recently lost his parents in a tragic accident, discovers his true identity as the Belus, a mighty sorcerer charged with saving the world from the evil Drestianite sorcerers and the Protectors, assassins pledged to destroying all sorcerers. Add to this the pressure of finals, a serial killer stalking only children, a crush he's afraid to pursue and the mystery of nearby Ashfield Forest, where people go in but they do not come out, and what a semester it turns out to be!
That may sound overwrought, but author R.T. Lowe (@TheRTLowe on twitter) is a skilled writer and manages it all well, the story carries one along and the characters are likable. With the caveat mentioned above, recommended.
(I received a free copy in exchange for writing an unbiased review.)
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This satire was first published in 1977, but its biting commentary still registers strongly today. Aliens trained in Western pop culture disguise themselves as well-known figures and embark on two intersecting tasks: judging humankind’s readiness to join the interstellar community, and searching for a ruthless criminal. Scott carries on the tradition of Mark Twain, using outside observers to remark on society. While the treatment of women is the primary focus, other targets include consumer culture and the general human willingness to be led by the nose by a charismatic figure. The narrative drags at times, but the speculative elements are well written and give a good sense of physical and cultural differences. A light touch keeps the moralizing from getting too ham-fisted, and this cautionary tale calling for a better world is a message needed now more than ever.
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Outlaws (Rebel Star Book 1) by Edward W. Robertson
Humanity is space-faring, but only within our own solar system. Everything, human or machine, sent to beyond vanishes without a trace. Jain has been investigating this mystery and is on to something but before she can divulge her discovery she is murdered.
Rada and Simm, operatives for a rival corporation are determined to find why and by whom, with the help of some space pirates, a sort of think tank called Lords of the True Realm and Jain's son who faked his own death.
Outlaw is basically a murder mystery set in space, and our protagonists traverse the solar system in pursuit of whodunit and what Jain discovered. The quotidian details of life aboard spacecraft, on stations or off-earth bodies is well drawn and enjoyable. The writing is good, the imagining of a reality where gender is irrelevant is impressively accomplished, but the characters are stock and the ending is a bit abrupt.
I find the idea of humanity becoming space-faring exciting and inspiring, so Outlaw checked enough boxes for me that I enjoyed it and will probably check out the next book in the series.
Headhunters From Outer Space by Bret A McCormick
Humor, nostalgia, metaphysical philosophy, oddball characters ... Headhunters From Outer Space is a thoroughly enjoyable read.
Zed and Fred, the titular headhunters, are talent scouts of a sort, that show up in Alvarado, Texas to recruit talent from the the performers and artists that gather at the club of Big Daddy Bostwick, 60's counter-culture icon. Also there to do a piece on the legend are a cynical reporter, uptight editor and photographer from a major news publication. The headhunters' recruitment methods are unique and what follows is a reality-expanding romp with the alien visitors.
It starts out a little slowly and there a few typos that proofreaders missed, but once Fred and Zed show up on the scene, it's all groovy man!
Recommended for those who appreciate the quirkier corners of speculative fiction that Douglas Adams, Kurt Vonnegut and Jody Scott inhabit.
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