Sunday, October 15, 2017

Review: Artemis

Artemis Artemis by Andy Weir
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received a free advance copy of this for review from NetGalley.

M-O-O-N. That spells Andy Weir’s new novel. (OK, if you haven’t read Stephen King’s The Stand that joke won’t make sense to you, but rather than think that’s a failure of my review I’m going to say that it’s your own fault for not having read The Stand. Serves you right.)

It’s the near future, and there’s a city on the moon called Artemis. Jazz Bashara is a young woman who has grown up there, and knowing the place like the back of her hand makes it easier for her to hustle a living legally by being a porter who hauls stuff around. Illegally, she makes money on the side with a smuggling business. If she could get her EVA certification she could make a lot more money by showing tourists the sights outside, but a hardware problem makes her fail the test as well as nearly killing her. So when a rich guy offers her a huge payday to perform a dangerous act of sabotage on a business rival Jazz takes the gig. Things don’t go quite as planned and soon Jazz is in danger of being deported back to Earth or murdered, and she isn’t sure which one would be worse.

Just to get this out of the way: No, it isn’t as good as The Martian. But it’s still a pretty fun read and got a lot of the stuff I liked about that one so no shame there.

Weir has built up a lot of detail about life on the moon from the nuts-and-bolts stuff science stuff as well as how the Artemis society functions. One detail I particularly liked is that the moon citizens trade in ‘slugs’ which stands for ‘soft landed grams’ which is a weight based credit system to have things shipped from Earth.

We’ve also got another likeable lead character in Jazz just as we did with Mark Watney in The Martian. Jazz is a borderline criminal, not an astronaut, but like Mark she’s got a can-do attitude mixed with a fun way of explaining all the technical stuff to the reader. She’s also got a similar smart-ass nature, and that could have gone wrong because snarky leads can turn into annoying joke machines if not done well. Yet Weir never lets it get away from him and keeps it funny.

So why not as good as his first book? While it’s great that Weir made his main character a young woman who is a lapsed Muslim he didn’t exactly do anything with those traits. Jazz could have easily been a young male of any religion so it seems like an easy nod to diversity rather than incorporating anything that might have deepened her. Also, while this one has Jazz getting into plenty of predicaments it lacks the tension that The Martian had its best. Granted, one is a survival story and one is more of a sci-fi thriller so it’s comparing apples to giraffes to some extent, but I just never felt like Jazz was in any real danger whereas I legitimately didn’t know if Watney would make it off Mars.

Still, it’s got the same kind of enthusiastic attitude of his first book, and it’s nice to read about smart people doing smart things. This isn’t great literature, but Weir has an entertaining style. He’s also great at blending science, story, and humor into a nice little sci-fi stew.

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Monday, October 9, 2017

Review: Fatherland

Fatherland Fatherland by Robert Harris
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sometimes it seems like every Tom, Phillip K. Dick, and Harry Turtledove wrote books that asked what would have happened if Hitler won the war.

It’s 1964 and Germany is preparing to celebrate Hitler’s 75th birthday. Police detective Xavier March is called in when a body is pulled out of a river, and he soon discovers that the dead man was a prominent member of the Nazi party. March’s investigation eventually leads him to secrets going back to the war that his government is desperate to keep buried.

So yes, this is another book about the most asked question in alternate history: What if the Nazis won World War II? But by framing this as mystery thriller Robert Harris has taken a different approach to it by using March as tour guide of a victorious Germany. We eventually have the bigger picture of what the rest of the world is like, and there are some interesting elements like the US did fight and defeat Japan yet Europe is Nazi controlled so that America and Germany have had an extended Cold War.

While the details of the world are well done this is really more of a story about what life would be like in this society. It’s all well-ordered prosperity on the surface, but the police state nature of it all lurks just below the surface with the average citizen’s paranoia encouraged by the government to keep them fearful and obedient.

March is an interesting character in this as a man who did his part in the war on board a U-boat, but he doesn’t much like the SS uniform he wears now. He reminded me a lot of the series by Martin Cruz Smith about Russian detective Arkady Renko. Like Renko, March is a basically good man who knows he’s working for a bad system, but he’s too cynical to think of trying to change it. Instead he just tries to find what justice he can even as he still has too much integrity to entirely go along with the program which is something that the true believers can sense and hate.

This all sounds like a 4 or 5 star book, especially in the capable hands of Robert Harris, but unfortunately it’s one of those where I liked the idea of it more than the actual finished product. This alternate world is intriguing and well thought out, and March is an interesting lead character, but the actual plot just seems kind of flat and obvious. You can tell much of what’s coming for a good long while so there’s not much suspense or shock to it.

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Friday, October 6, 2017

Review: Walter Hill's Triggerman

Walter Hill's Triggerman Walter Hill's Triggerman by Walter Hill
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Filmmaker Walter Hill has written a comic. Can you dig it? CAN YOU DIG IT?!!? CAAAANNNNN YOUUUU DIGGGGG ITTT??!!!??

Unfortunately there’s not that much here to dig.

In 1932 professional gun man Roy Nash gets creatively sprung from prison by the mob in order to track down three hoodlums who double crossed them after a bank heist and killed the boss’s nephew in the process. After Roy tracks them down and kills them he can keep any money left from the robbery he comes across in the process, but his main motivation is finding the old girlfriend who ran off with one of the thieves. When his desire to find her conflicts with his mob mission Roy runs afoul of all kinds of gangsters and crooked cops.

This is a perfectly fine set up for a crime comic, and it’s done well enough. But you’d think the guy who came up with movies like The Warriors and Streets of Fire would have done something with some visual flare and memorable characters. Really, it’s just a series of bland panels in which guys with fedoras and trench coats punch and shoot each other. It’s not entirely fair to blame Hill for this since he didn’t draw it, but on the other hand it all looks very much like his lackluster Bruce Willis Prohibition-era shoot-em-up Last Man Standing so it seems like he just gave some of those old storyboards to the artist and called it a day. Plus, the story is just your standard anti-hero tough-guy killing people for personal reasons rather than for money.

It’s not terrible, but it’s not anything particularly great either.

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Sunday, September 24, 2017

Review: Deep Freeze

Deep Freeze Deep Freeze by John Sandford
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received a free advance copy from NetGalley for review.

I got sneak preview of this one last spring when I made a long drive to attend a John Sandford signing, and he told us about the current book he was fighting a deadline on that he was going to have to spend the evening working on when he got back to the hotel. All work and no play may make Jack a dull boy, but it makes John one of the best and most productive thriller writers on the bestseller list.

It’s another hard Minnesota winter in the small town of Trippton, but there’s spot near the sewage treatment plant where the river doesn’t freeze. That’s where the body of the lady who owned the local bank pops up, and soon state cop Virgil Flowers is on the job. Virgil is familiar with Trippton because his fishing buddy Johnson Johnson lives there, and he also worked another case there just a few books back.

Complicating the murder investigation is the side gig his bosses want Virgil to help with that involves a ring of the locals adding sound chips to Barbie dolls that make it sound as if their having orgasms and selling them on the web. The Mattel corporation has no sense of humor about these aptly named Barbie-Ohs and has dispatched a private detective to serve cease-and-desist orders, but the hard boiled lady gumshoe is having no luck tracking down the people involved. Virgil isn’t happy about such a silly distraction, but he finds out the hard way that times are so tough in this struggling small town that the people involved are desperate to keep anyone from interfering with the income they make from selling the dolls.

This is pretty typical Sandford in a lot of ways. Virgil gets a case in a rural Minnesota town, and he tries to solve it using his sneakily low key way of chatting up people and tapping into local gossip. Like most of his books we know right from the start who the killer is, and the tension comes from the cat-and-mouse game between the cop and criminal. Sandford often holds back some info from the reader that is a critical part of how the bad guy will be found and figuring that out provides the mystery element to his books rather than a straight-up whodunit. He adds a new wrinkle to that in this one because while we know who killed the woman we also know that he left he body in her house after trying to make it look like an accident. One of the interesting aspects in this one is that the killer is as confused as we are as to how her body wound up in the river.

There is also all the typical Sandford stuff about Virgil having funny conversations with people, and one of the better running gags in this one is that everyone he asks about the leader of the Barbie-Oh gang acts as if they’ve never heard of her though he knows damn good and well that every one of them knows exactly who she is.

There’s one potential problem here with a huge unresolved plot thread. Sandford doesn’t always wrap everything up neatly, but even if the cops don’t know everything by the conclusion the reader always does. It’s also possible that he’s leaving a loose thread for a future book, but that's not really his style so it’s odd that it isn’t even mentioned in the wrap-up as a loose end. It really does seem like something that Sandford just forgot to address, but I’m also reading an advanced copy so it’s possible that it might get fixed in the final published version. But Sandford’s plotting is usually air tight so it really made me scratch my head at the oversight.

Overall, it’s still another satisfying thriller from a writer whose casual readability masks how well conceived and executed his books really are.

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Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Review: The Dead Zone

The Dead Zone The Dead Zone by Stephen King
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Johnny Smith is one bad-luck bastard.

He starts off well enough as a nice guy with a talent for teaching and is in the early stages of what looks to be a very promising relationship with Sarah. However, a car accident leaves Johnny in a coma which nobody thinks he’ll recover from. Miraculously, he wakes up 4 years later, but he finds that Sarah has married someone else, his mother has turned into a religious lunatic, he’s got a long and painful rehab to endure, and he faces a mountain of debt from his hospital bills. Oh, and he now has psychic ability to learn details about a person by touching them or personal objects as well as sometimes seeing their futures. This might seem like a gift, but as Johnny quickly learns it’s really a curse that eventually puts him on a collision course with a dangerous politician named Greg Stillson.

I’ve always thought this was one of King’s better books but hadn’t read it for years. A new audio version with James Franco narrating and doing a pretty good job of it got me motivated, and I’m pleased to find that it mostly lives up to my memory of it.

The elephant in the room on this one is that even thought it was published in 1979 the Stillson plot is about a populist demagogue who manages to rise in politics despite being a crazy and corrupt piece of shit just because he has talent for making rubes think that he’s a maverick who tells it like it is even as they willfully ignore the obvious warning signs. So it’d be easy to say that King is a prophet these days. Yeah, he hit the mark with that one, but on the other hand there’s plenty of writers who have done stories about shady politicians.

What I found more interesting here is what King did with Johnny’s mother, Vera. She starts out as someone with strong fundamental religious beliefs, but Johnny’s accident sends her over the high side and into the realm where she starts believing tabloid stories about Jesus living underground at the South Pole. She’s completely immune to facts and logic, and she’d rather rely on prayer than medication to handle her high blood pressure.

It’s fascinating to read a character like this in the ‘70s setting where tabloids and poorly printed tracts are how Vera gets her crackpot theories, and how even then she uses them to create her own view of the world because reality doesn’t suit her. Fast forward to the 21st century where some people pick their news web sites based on how it conforms to what they want to believe as they spread rumors on Facebook about child sex rings in the basement of pizza restaurants that don’t even have a basement, and you realize that King had tapped into something that was on the rise even then.

Leaving aside the eerie similarities to America today, what sets this apart from his other novels is the way that King focused on John Smith and made his story a genuine tragedy. Johnny just wanting to try and resume some kind of normal life, but unable to stop himself from using his power to help people and put himself in a media spotlight is incredibly compelling.

Uncle Stevie takes his sweet time with this so that it comes across as more a slow burn, and it’s not really a horror novel although it can be creepy at times. You can see where the bigger plot involving Johnny and Stillson is headed for a good long while although King still makes the journey there worth the trip, and Johnny is one of his characters who haunts me the most.

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Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Review: The Blinds

The Blinds The Blinds by Adam Sternbergh
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Somewhere out in the vastness of west Texas is an entire town with amnesia.

Officially it’s called Caesura, but the locals refer to it as The Blinds. The residents are either criminals or witnesses in hiding because all have undergone a process which removed their personal memories, and none remember which they are. The entire town is kept secure and hidden from the world, and most inhabitants go about their business quietly wondering what might have put them in a position to completely surrender their identities, and whether they were guilty of horrible crimes or an innocent who got caught up in something. However, two violent deaths shatter the quiet routine and set the entire town on edge. While Sheriff Calvin Cooper is technically a guard and not a resident, he’s got his own secrets even as he investigates and tries to keep everyone calm.

Author Megan Abbott brought this one to my attention by praising it on what the kids these days call social media, and when Mighty Megan talks, I listen. That policy paid off nicely with this one.

Aside from a humdinger of a set-up the writing is a cut above what you’d normally get in a crime/sci-fi thriller. There’s a lot top notch characterization, and the imagery of this small town out in the middle of the barren Texas landscape gives the whole thing an excellent tone of isolation. The plot has plenty of solid twists and turns, and the ultimate revelations are satisfying. However, what the novel really excels at is how it weaves together all these characters with pasts hidden even from themselves.

It combines the elements of a great page-turner with some deeper thoughts on identity and memory with a unique setting. Overall, it’s one of the better books I’ve read this year.

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Saturday, August 26, 2017

Review: The Right Stuff

The Right Stuff The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Treasure of the Rubbermaids 24: Rocket Men

The on-going discoveries of priceless books and comics found in a stack of Rubbermaid containers previously stored and forgotten at my parent’s house and untouched for almost 20 years. Thanks to my father dumping them back on me, I now spend my spare time unearthing lost treasures from their plastic depths.

If you, a 21st century person, ever sees one of the old Mercury space capsules in a museum you’ll probably be amazed at how small and primitive it seems. (Whatever device you’re reading this on right now has more computing power than all of NASA had at the time.) It looks more like a toy, something that a kid might have in his backyard to play rocket ship, rather than a vehicle that actually took men into space. Your next thought might be, “What kind of fool would have volunteered to strap himself into that on top of a giant cylinder filled with highly combustible fuel and ride it out of the atmosphere?”

To understand that you can read The Right Stuff.

This isn’t some dry account of the early days of America’s space program filled with dates and scientific facts. In fact, if that’s the kind of history you’re looking for then you’d probably find this disappointing. What Tom Wolfe did here is try to convey the mindset of an America panicked by suddenly finding itself behind the Soviet Union in the space race, and how in its desperation it turned seven pilots chosen to be the first astronauts into national heroes. Those men would find themselves in a media spotlight where the image they presented was often more important than their actual skills in the cockpit.

Wolfe starts by explaining what the ‘right stuff’ is by taking us back to late ‘40s when a hotshot test pilot named Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier. The fact that Yeager did this with broken ribs and used a length of sawed-off broom handle as a lever to close the hatch on his X-1 rocket plane because he was in too much pain to lean over made it that much more impressive. What adds to his legend is that he got the injury in a drunken horse riding accident the night before and hid it from his superiors for fear they’d replace him on the flight. That’s the kind of thing that shows that Yeager had the right stuff practically dripping out of his pores and put him at the top of the test pilot pyramid.

Yet when the Soviets launched Sputnik and America scrambled to catch up Yeager wasn’t seriously considered as an astronaut candidate, and to many of the other test pilots who were setting speed records and pushing the boundary of space anyhow in their rocket propelled aircraft it was only a matter of time until they'd be flying into space anyhow. To them the Mercury program was a publicity stunt in which the astronauts would only be sealed in a can and shot into space without really flying the ship at all. Hell, it was so easy that a monkey could do it, and a couple actually did.

Yet after the media declared the Mercury 7 as the best and bravest that America had to offer everyone started forgetting about the test pilots and put all the resources and attention on the astronauts. The seven men themselves would start pushing back for changes that gave them more control of their spacecraft, and while they may have started out as a little more than guinea pigs they used their popularity to get more power and control within the fledgling NASA. This led to the egghead scientists taking a backseat while a more military mindset of operational performance became the yardstick that determined a mission’s success. More importantly to them, it would show the world that they really did have the right stuff.

This is all written more as a novel than a history. For example, rather than tell us what was happening on the ground during flights Wolfe sticks to what was going through the astronaut’s head at the time so that something like John Glenn finding out that his heat shield may have been loose comes to us as a realization that he had rather than giving us the full picture of what was going on. It also delves into the personal lives of the astronauts where they and their wives would try to present an All-American image even as some of the men were taking full advantage of the new celebrity they had attained.

It’s also frequently very funny. There’s a great sequence near the beginning about how if you find yourself on an airline flight with a problem and the pilot on the intercom explains how there is nothing to worry about in a calm southern drawl it’s a direct result of generations of pilots imitating Chuck Yeager’s accent over the radio to mimic his understated sense of calm.

As a space geek and historical stickler I do find it lacking at a couple of points. Wolfe doesn’t give you any details about what happened to these men later so that you wouldn’t know something like Alan Shepherd would eventually be one of the men who walks on the moon after being grounded with an inner ear problem after his first flight. I also think he also does a disservice to Gus Grissom whose mission nearly ended in disaster after splashdown when his capsule door unexpectedly blew open. Grissom nearly drowned at the capsule was lost at sea. (It was recovered almost 40 years later. It has been restored and can be seen at the Cosmosphere in Hutchinson, KS.)

Wolfe uses Grissom’s heart rate which was higher than any other astronauts during their mission to strongly hint that he was in a state of near panic during his flight, and that he probably did blow the hatch despite his claims that he had done nothing wrong. In other words Grissom didn’t really have the right stuff after all according to Wolfe. It’s still unclear as to why the hatch did blow, but even back then on a subsequent mission Wally Schirra had deliberately blown his own hatch as a test and showed that the force required to do it left visible bruises on his hand while Grissom had no marks at all. I’ve also read other accounts and seen various documentaries in which other astronauts and NASA officials adamantly claim that it must have been a technical failure, not anything that Grissom did wrong. Wolfe omits all of this to leave a reader with a very strong impression that Grissom ‘screwed the pooch’. This seems especially unfair in that Grissom wasn’t alive to defend himself when the book came out since he had died in the Apollo 1 launch pad fire which also killed two other astronauts. (It’s a bitter irony that they couldn’t get out because the hatch of that spacecraft was badly designed so that it couldn’t be opened when the fire occurred.)

Despite some flaws, it’s still a fantastic read that really digs into the idea of how the macho code of these men was sometimes a crippling burden, it was also maybe exactly what was needed to get a bunch of guys to willingly climb into rockets. I also highly recommend the movie adaptation although it’s more of an emotional story than historically accurate.

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