Friday, August 24, 2018

Review: Star Trek: The New Adventures: Volume 3

Star Trek: The New Adventures: Volume 3 Star Trek: The New Adventures: Volume 3 by Mike Johnson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was in the middle of reading this volume when I the news broke that Chris Pine is not going to do the next movie so now I’m left wondering if these comics are the only new stories I’m going to get set in this version of Star Trek. It’s like 1969 all over again! Except I guess I still have Discovery. And this new show that they announced with Patrick Stewart coming back as Picard. OK so it’s not all gloom and doom as far as the future of the Federation goes.

This is another pretty solid volume. It relies less on retelling new versions of the TOS stories, and that makes it more interesting. There’s one decent arc that plays off the fall out of the first two movies that involves Section 31. Then there’s several other shorter side adventures that would all make pretty good episodes like the Enterprise itself being given a humanoid form after an encounter with advanced alien tech. My favorite involves a crossover to an alternate universe in which the entire crew has been gender swapped so that we get to see Captain James T. Kirk meet Captain Jane T. Kirk. (And no, they don’t have sex although I’m pretty sure they were both thinking about it.)

Getting away from just retelling the TOS adventures and building off the alternate timeline helps this a lot, and the writers are coming up with some fun new ideas that feel like Trek stories.

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Monday, August 20, 2018

Review: Some Die Nameless

Some Die Nameless Some Die Nameless by Wallace Stroby
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What if Rambo and Lois Lane teamed up to take down a bunch of corrupt mercenaries?

OK, that would probably suck. But Wallace Stroby came up with a more realistic story along those lines that’s actually good.

Ray Devlin is a retired soldier-of-fortune living quietly in Florida that gets a visit from an old war buddy. Unfortunately, their reuntion takes a dark turn when that guy tries to murder him, and Ray has to go looking for the reason why. Meanwhile, Tracy Quinn is an investigative reporter Philadelphia  trying to survive lay-offs and fend off the editors who want her to just write click bait articles instead of performing actual journalism. Tracy covers what seems to be a routine homicide, but then her path crosses Devlin as part of the story. When the two start sharing information they begin seeing a pattern with Devlin’s old employer at the center of it all, and digging into the secrets of a company that has trained killers on the payroll is a dangerous game.

I’m a big fan of Stroby’s series about a professional thief Chrissa Stone but hadn’t read any of his other books. After this one I’ll be making more of an effort to track them down because he’s got a knack of mixing thriller elements with a more grounded perspective with real tension to it.

That starts with the two main characters who are at the heart of the novel. Both are well drawn and have a true sense of verisimilitude to them. Devlin really feels like a middle-aged ex-soldier haunted by regrets. While you do get a bad ass vibe from him he’s no action movie killing machine either. Unlike many a bad portrayal of reporters in fiction, Tracy shines as a journalist who loves her job even as it seems to be dissolving around her. There’s a nice attention to detail with the stuff at the newspaper that rings true.

I also enjoyed how Stroby sets up a plot that seems like your standard conspiracy deal at first. However, once it’s rolling he does a pretty sly subversion of not having it go like you expect. There’s a lot of solid surprises and twists here, and it really doesn’t end up where it obviously seems to be going at first. Overall, this is an extremely well written thriller that’s a cut above your standard beach read.

I’ve also had a few brief interactions on social media with Wallace Stroby in the past for good reviews I gave to his Chrissa Stones books, and I was delighted to see that the main bad guy here is named Kemper. I checked with him to see if I was the inspiration for that, and he tried to burst my balloon with a logical story about a last minute character name change with the inspiration probably being seeing the story of serial Ed Kemper on Mindhunter. But I think we all know the truth. Who are you going to believe? Me or the guy who wrote the book?

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Friday, August 3, 2018

Review: The Long and Faraway Gone

The Long and Faraway Gone The Long and Faraway Gone by Lou Berney
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book may be the perfect example of a character driven crime story.

In 1986 two major crimes occur in Oklahoma City. A robbery of a movie theater turns into a massacre. A beautiful teenager goes missing while attending a fair. Both events are major news, but as with most things time passes and eventually they’re forgotten. But not by Wyatt and Julianna.
Wyatt was the sole survivor of the movie theater staff, and 25 years later he’s changed his name and moved to Las Vegas where he’s a private investigator doing background checks for casinos.

When a major client ask him to go to Oklahoma City for a case Wyatt is reluctant to revisit his old hometown, but soon finds himself caught up in the memories of that fateful summer. Julianna is still obsessed with learning what happened to her sister, and she desperately latches on to any slim clue that might offer her answers.

This book is a little bit tricky in that its style and tone at first read like a PI novel with Wyatt being a cheerful guy whose style comes across as smart ass even when he doesn’t mean to. His investigation into the harassment of a woman who inherited a bar at first seems like a major plot that you assume will somehow eventually intersect with his and Julianna’s story somehow.

What you eventually realize is that what’s really important here are the parallel stories of Wyatt and Julianna’s trying to deal with the aftermath of what they went through. They took completely different approaches. Wyatt fled his old hometown and has done everything he can not to think about it, but as he revisits his old haunts in OKC the old survivor’s guilt and questions begin to bubble up. Julianna has actively been looking for the truth for over two decades, and her behavior has become obsessive and self-destructive. Even though they’ve taken different paths in dealing with their pain what becomes clear over the course of the story is that the unanswered questions have haunted them all along.

The book didn’t go where I expected at all, and if you’re looking for some kind of thriller where it all dovetails together nicely, you’d probably be disappointed. Instead what we get is a more realistic thing where the two stories intersect in the small random ways that would happen in a small city. Some mysteries are solved, some aren’t, and some new ones arise. The real question here isn’t whether Wyatt and Julianna will ever know exactly what happened and why, it’s if they can ever get over the guilt and grief to get on with their lives.

Also, as a lifelong resident of the Midwest it’s also nice to get a work of fiction that portrays characters from somewhere other than New York or Los Angeles as real people rather than just stereotypical jokes or rubes in flyover country.

Great read, and I’m happy to hear that Lou Berney has a new book coming out this fall. I’ll definitely be checking it out.

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Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Review: Star Trek: The New Adventures: Volume 2

Star Trek: The New Adventures: Volume 2 Star Trek: The New Adventures: Volume 2 by Stephen Molnar
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The new/old adventures of the starship Enterprise continue…

The focus in this volume is mainly on filling in the backstory of many of the supporting characters although there’s still some re-telling of classic TOS stories in the Abrams timeline along with it. Most of it’s OK, but nothing that’d breach anyone’s warp core. The one I enjoyed most was about Keenser, the little alien that is Scotty’s pal in engineering.

The odd thing here is that even though this is a thick volume with a dozen issues of the main comic that several of the stories are based on other spin-off projects that aren’t included, and there’s little explanation provided as to the background. So even though I’ve read both volumes so far I was clueless on some things about Kirk dealing with some crooked Starfleet guy who was in some Into Darkness side story they did. And I apparently missed them meeting the Gorn race for the first time. Which is just wrong. If I’m reading a rebooted Star Trek line of comics you gotta give me that Gorn intro!

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Thursday, July 19, 2018

Review: Star Trek: The New Adventures: Volume 1

Star Trek: The New Adventures: Volume 1 Star Trek: The New Adventures: Volume 1 by Mike Johnson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise.

But which one? ‘Cause you’ve got the original Enterprise from TOS, then came the renovated one in the first couple of movies. But that one got blowed up real good so then we had the Enterprise-A. Of course there’s Next Generations which had the Enterprise-D and E versions. Oh, and we got to see the Enterprise-B and C, too. Then there’s the Enterprise from the prequel series of the same name. So exactly which Enterprise are we talking about here? Kirk’s original Enterprise? Cool! Wait, it’s the one from the rebooted Abrams timeline though….

This is why nerds eventually lose their minds.

So yeah, this is a comic that takes place after the events of the 2009 Star Trek reboot featuring a young Captain Kirk and his original crew, and a lot of the stories are retellings of TOS like Where No Man Has Gone Before, The Galileo Seven, and The Return of the Archons. The twist is that since we’re in an alt-timeline things play out differently than the original versions.

This is a tricky proposition. If you don’t change things enough then you’re just doing a boring pointless remake. If you change to much then you risk messing with something that fans might feel very strongly about. (Into Darkness ran into this when they tried to do another version of the Khan storyline.)

Overall, these are pretty fun that come up with interesting changes based on the way things have already been shifted because of the events of the first movie. For example, McCoy isn’t in the episode Where No Man Has Gone Before but here he’s already on the ship so his presence changes how it all goes even if much of it is still familiar. The Return of the Archons takes this even further because it seems like even the backstory of the events there are altered which would have taken place long before the timeline was changed. So that’s the writer essentially rebooting a piece of Trek history which is then used to set up a whole new plot thread going forward. Their version of The Trouble With the Tribbles also happens very differently, and there’s another story that’s entirely new and based off the events of the first movie so they aren’t just doing updates of old stuff.

The artwork is very good and really helps sell all this. They’ve got the look and feel of the new cast and Enterprise down exactly, and then they introduce other cool sci-fi action. A comic book adaptation is never going to be as satisfying as the move or TV show its based on, but this one does provide some fun supplemental action if you liked the Abrams version of the characters. (And if you don’t, I really don't want to hear about it.)

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Monday, July 16, 2018

Review: Murder on the Orient Express

Murder on the Orient Express Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

All aboard the murder train!

A long time ago when I was in high school and dinosaurs still roamed the earth I read a whole bunch of Agatha Christie novels. The weird thing is that I was never that big of a fan of hers. I was getting into mystery novels, she’s one of the best known writer in the genre, and the local library had a whole bunch of her stuff. At some point I realized that I prefer my murders to be a bit less civilized, and I moved onto other styles of the genre without giving much thought to ole Agatha after that. However, I recently watched the latest film adaptation done by Kenneth Branagh and even though it’s just OK that gave me the urge to check this out again. And it reminded me that classics are very often classics for a reason.

Belgian detective Hercule Poirot is on-board the Orient Express along with an assortment of travelers and their servants. An American named Ratchett is stabbed to death in his compartment just as the train is stopped by snow. Circumstances make it seem that whoever killed Ratchett is probably still among the people in the first class car that night. As Poirot sorts through the evidence and questions suspects he finds contradictions that make solving the murder a very complex task.

One of my reasons I stopped reading Christie was the impression that she didn’t play fair in her whodunits. (And since I’m going off very old memories I could certainly be wrong about that.) By that I mean that it seemed like the solution depended on some kind of in-story background information that a reader couldn’t possible know. There’s a touch of that here with a big piece of the plot involving a link to a famous fictional crime. (Although it’s obviously inspired by a famous real one.)

Yet, that’s set up as background info that’s pretty much given to us as soon as it’s revealed so it doesn’t feel like Christie was just cheating by springing the unknown on a reader as a way to hide the killer. In fact, since the murder took place in a confined space where people were coming and going that everything you need to know is given to us as Poirot builds a timeline and uses a diagram to place the location of people in the train car at various times. One of the great things about this book is the way that Christie uses the logistics of this to actually give you all the clues while also obscuring the solution in the details.

I’d also had the idea that her writing was very dry and boring. There’s actually a lot of touches of humor that I missed as a young idiot. Even though there’s a lot of dated things in terms of race, sex, and class it also felt like she was often making some sly commentary on attitudes of her time. For example, the guy working for the railroad is positive that an Italian passenger must have killed Ratchett since it was done with a knife, and while Poirot often seems to agree with him that circumstances make him a good suspect you also note that he begins outright mocking the guy for sticking with this theory as things evolve.

I also very much liked the ending which again goes against my idea that these were very proper books that believe in strict law and order when the resolution here is a lot more interesting and complex.

I may have to try some more of these books to see exactly what else I was wrong about.

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Review: The Stars My Destination

The Stars My Destination The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

You ever have a novel that you know is considered a classic of its genre yet you know absolutely nothing about it other than the title? This is one of those for me. I knew nothing about it other than the vague notion that it was an important sci-fi novel, but when it popped up as a deal on Audible I took a chance on it and went in cold.

How’d it work out? Pretty well.

A couple of centuries from now humanity has developed the ability to teleport themselves using only their minds in a practice called jaunting. While it has revolutionized society in many ways it’s limited to just a few hundred miles at most so spacecraft are still needed to ferry people and goods around the solar system. Because people are always gonna be assholes there’s a war raging among the Inner Planets and Outer Satellites.

Gully Foyle is just a working class grunt with little education and even less ambition who had the bad luck to be on a ship that got blowed up real good as part of that war. For six months he survives by staying in a small storage lock and scavenging supplies in the wreckage using a damaged space suit. Deliverance seems at hand when he sees another ship named Vorga passing close by, but even though Gully sends out plenty of distress signals that couldn’t be missed the other ship simply passes him by. Enraged at being abandoned, Gully begins to show more gumption than he ever has as he first manages to save his own life and then embarks a campaign to find and kill the people who left him to die. When he finds himself caught in much larger schemes of powerful people his obsessive need for revenge puts him beyond any attempts to bribe or bully him.

There’s a lot of interesting stuff here that gets into some really big trippy sci-fi concepts that seem way ahead of their time in many ways plus there’s a kind of Count of Monte Cristo style story embedded in it too. It’s easy to see why this is so highly regarded and is considered a forerunner to cyberpunk.

Gully Foyle is also an interesting bastard of a character. He starts out as this crude and violent man fully capable of crimes like murder and rape, and his journey eventually turns him into something much more than that. Yet because it’s his unswerving desire for simple revenge driving him he’s always got that primitive core just below the surface.

Despite being published over 60 years ago it doesn’t come across as that dated either. Alfred Bester did a lot of well thought out world building as to what this space faring society that has also mental powers like telepathy and the ability to teleport would be like. Some of the stuff he did here like a conflict between factions fighting for the resources of our solar system are still used today in sci-fi like The Expanse series, and the idea of powerful corporations being as much a force as government has been used countless times as well. The ending also seems like a leap forward to a kind of sci-fi that something like 2001 would do a decade later.

It’s a bold and ambitious story that seems ahead of its time in many ways, and I’m glad that I took the opportunity to fill in a gap in my sci-fi reading.

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