Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Arrival: Mostly Disappointing

Book Review: Arrival by Ted Chiang
Version: Library Paperback

I wasn't able to get to the theater to see the movie, Arrival, so when I saw that our local library had on order a new copy of the book on which the movie was based, I immediately requested it. Boy, was I surprised.

First of all, there were only two requests for the book, so I got it as soon as it arrived. I even got to safely stretch the binding for reading, to give longevity to the book.

Second, only a small sliver of the book is what the movie is about. The book was originally published as Stories of Your Life and Others, a compilation of short stories previously published by author Ted Chiang. The story on which the movie is based is "Story of Your Life." It's buried between the many others. The book was re-titled and relaunched for the launch of the movie, Arrival.

Chiang is supposed to be this imaginative science fiction author. He is imaginative. But much of his writing reminds me of the material from the 1950's. Mostly because of the language. Robots he calls automatons, for instance.

Other parts of his writing are quite interesting. He has a computer science degree and is a technical writer, and a couple of his stories reflect his breadth of knowledge and vision in technology. None more than in "Story of Your Life," where he details humans trying to interact with aliens and learn their very complex language. It was an interesting tale, although it ends abruptly when the aliens up and leave and the author does the same with the story. Very disappointing. I haven't seen the movie yet and I hope the movie has a more satisfying ending.

Others of his short stories have similar endings. The first story involves the Tower of Babel and the Babylonians hiring miners from other nations to climb their tower and break through the vault of heaven. It has a very dissatisfying ending, which extends from a very non-scientific view of the world. I might rather call it fantasy or mythology fiction rather than science fiction.

Part of my problem with this book is that I didn't understand that it was an unconnected collection of short stories. Titled Arrival, I thought it was a novel. As I read what I thought were chapters to a single story, I became confused when the stories didn't connect. I looked again at the book cover - at the back - and then realized it was an anthology.

What I found once I had read "Story of Your Life" was that Chiang isn't really my kind of science fiction writer. Perhaps you will like his stories and find him perfectly wonderful as a writer. I'll leave that up to you. All I can say is, I was disappointed in the way the book was marketed on the cover and in the works between the covers. It's his only work that I've read.

It is worth noting that Chiang has won multiple prestigious speculative fiction awards. Considering the limited number of works he has published (15 short stories, novelettes, and novellas as of 2015, according to his Wikipedia page), it may be worth delving into more of his works before making a final judgment. Let me know if you have had a different experience reading Chiang.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

The Silk Tree: A Story You Have to Read

Book Review: The Silk Tree by Julian Stockwin
Version: purchased ebook

For a long time, the origins of silk fabric was a deeply held secret by the Chinese. Many myths and legends were held to be true, deepening the mystery. Julian Stockwin's The Silk Tree tells the fictionalized tale of two intrepid souls who sought out the truth in the hope of returning to their homeland with seeds from a silk tree to make themselves rich beyond their wildest dreams.

It it set in a time of Byzantine Emperor Justinian, after the fall of Rome and the rise of Constantinople as the center of the western world, before the West had contact with China. Christianity had been established as a dominant religion, and our two heroes left the West as two intrepid monks in search of truth, seeking to learn of the lands to the east. At the time, little was known about how silk or spices got from the East to the West, or where they even originated. So our heroes were traveling purely in ignorance, not even sure they would find a route let alone complete their quest.

The Silk Tree takes you on a far reaching, wide ranging journey through mysterious lands and among strange people through the eyes of an educated Greek businessman and a forlorn Roman soldier escaping the invading hordes who have reached Constantinople but eventually find themselves down on their luck but come up with a brilliant scheme to tap the considerable resources of Emperor Justinian to fund their travel. In the process they find themselves where they never expect to reach, a land that considers anyone from the west a spy looking to steal their secret and deserving of death. And while there, they discover the real source of silk and a way to sneak some back. Their journey home is long and perilous and full of surprises. In their century, under such circumstances, it's not certain they will ever even reach home. And thus, your journey beside them is as much an uncertain adventure as it is for our two very likable heroes.

When I first learned of the book, I had one impression of what the story would entail. And so when I began reading the story I expected it to unwind quickly and solve the mystery, letting out the secret early and then resolving the conflict over time. Not so. Stockwin builds the mystery through a good portion of the story, letting you find the truth with the our two heroes and uncover the wonder of the world in their eyes as they journey. It's a wonderful telling of their discoveries. We all know where silk comes from (or it's easy to find out by googling it), so that's not the issue in this story. The question is, how did growing silk get from China to the West? Who brought it out of hiding into the light of the world? This is a telling of that tale.

Julian Stockwin always does meticulous research for all of his stories. While many of the characters in The Silk Tree are fictional, including the two main characters (our heroes), others are real. "In the West accounts generally agree that it was two monks who returned from China in AD 551 with the secret of silk," Stockwin told me in a quick chat as I prepared to write this review. "I have this from three sources. However these documents vary in their details, each providing tantalizing references and with no one version standing out as definitive. My tale is based on these." So this tale is authentic, although specific details may wander from fact as all historical fiction does. "Where we do have verifiable historical information I have taken some pains to ensure veracity. Many of the characters in The Silk Tree did exist and it was fascinating researching their lives."

Stockwin lived in the Far East and visited many of the places in the story. His details as in all the books he writes are vivid and lend authenticity and immediacy to the tale. You will find The Silk Tree an enjoyable read, a wonderful place to immerse yourself, whether it's on a cold winter night by the fire or on a hot summer day on the beach.

The Silk Tree has been available in the UK, Australia, and other markets for a while but just became available in the U.S. late this summer. Wherever you live or travel, it's worth picking up.

"The genesis of the story came from a visit to a bazaar in Istanbul," added Stockwin, "when Kathy (his wife) was haggling with a merchant over a silk scarf, and I idly reflected on just how silk came to the West. Then I did some research and realized I had a story I just had to tell." I think you'll find it a story you just have to read.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Inferno: Not What I Expected Yet I Was Still Pleased

Book Review: Inferno by Julian Stockwin
Version: Purchased

Inferno wasn't what I thought it would be. Author Julian Stockwin broke some expectations with this novel, but when I got to thinking about it, his decisions to break them were sensible. In the end, I was pleased.

Inferno is the seventeenth novel in the Thomas Kydd series, which has been an age-of-sail series about a British naval hero's rise from seaman class to captaincy and knighthood. They are tales of adventure as well as tales of personal experiences based on historical moments, which result from precise research. Thus, I was looking for another tale of Captain Sir Thomas Kydd doing great daring deeds.

However, the Thomas Kydd series is also about Britain's struggle against Napoleon's attempt to conquer all of Europe. And Inferno hewed true to that story line, involving Kydd but not focusing on him. In fact, other than that Kydd appeared at the beginning and end of the story, and briefly in the middle, this book was hardly about him at all.

Inferno really is a tale about Britain's struggle to keep Napoleon from closing the European commercial market to them and uniting with Russia to seize all of Europe's navies to finally beat the British Navy, which commanded the seas. Between defeating them on the sea and defeating them economically, this would have meant Napoleon finally conquering Britain, which was all that stood in Napoleon's way of world domination.

Central to Napoleon's plan was working with Russia to take the Danish navy, and Britain had a brilliant plan to ask the Danish government to temporarily hand over their navy to Britain to deny Napoleon the key final piece of his plan. But the Danish king wouldn't hear of it. Even when British soldiers landed and surrounded the capital of Copenhagen and threatened to reduce it to rubble.

Stockwin's brilliance is in using historical detail to bring authenticity to his stories, and he does so in Inferno. You will thoroughly understand both sides of the dilemma and the horror of this battle from this story. It is a riveting tale told through the eyes of his characters, involving both fictional and real people from those times.

While I will admit to being disappointed initially that this wasn't much of a Kydd story, I came to admire Inferno for being a fine piece of well-crafted historical fiction told in the Thomas Kydd universe. Kydd and Kydd characters do show up from time to time in the story, and Kydd fans can enjoy that while enjoying Stockwin's attention to detail and being true to history.

Monday, October 03, 2016

The Fever Code: The Well Rounded Back Story to The Maze Runner Series

Book Review: The Fever Code by James Dashner
Version: Public Library

I finally finished the series - the three originals and the two sequels, and it was all a great read!

The Fever Code (2016) takes off some time after The Kill Order leaves off. One character from the latter book survives that story (DeeDee), although you don't find out about who that is until about halfway through the former.

The Kill Order was about the initial purposeful spread of the Flare by government forces to reduce the population after the Sun flared and made the Earth unsustainable. But the virus morphed and ran beyond the government's ability to control it. The Fever Code is about the government's effort to find a cure for it. Or so you as a reader and the main characters are led to believe.

If you are a fan of The Maze Runner series (The Maze Runner, The Scorch Trials, The Death Cure), you likely wondered about the back story on all those interesting characters. The Kill Order tells that story, too. We meet Thomas, Teresa, Newt, Minho, Alby, Gally, Chuck, and others for the first time. Also Aris and Rachel. Jorge and Brenda, too. We also meet the minds behind WICKED for the first time. And it brings us right up to the moment Thomas emerges from the cage into the Glade. This is how the Maze was built, how Thomas and Teresa help create it, and how the kids got there.

Just as with its predecessors, The Kill Order is a well written, well paced, well told sci-fi thriller in the young adult genre pitting innocent teens against the scheming adults. The kids are made to believe they are part of an effort to find a cure for the Flare, but along the way they begin to wonder if they are just being manipulated, if this isn't all some sick effort by morbid adults to torture them. And one young man's acquiescence to help the adults to help save humanity becomes a drive to save his friends. This is the second prequel to The Maze Runner series, through which this theme eventually runs, but everything in this book is set up before Thomas's mind is wiped of its memories. And you learn here the subtext for Thomas's motivations for the story lines to follow.

I'm a big fan of Dashner's series. His characters are well rounded, the plot is well thought out and developed, and the setting is amazing. I read through it in a few quick days. While most of us began by reading The Maze Runner (because it was published first), if you're new to the series I would begin with The Kill Order and read it order that the story unfolds, following up with The Fever Code, then The Maze Runner, and so on. That way it all makes sense. However, if you want to make the adventure a bit more mysterious, begin with The Maze Runner series and then pick up the prequels to fill in the back story. Any way you do it, the five books are a great read. The Fever Code was the perfect bridge between.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Tom Clancy Commander in Chief: Powerfully Entertaining Read

Book Review: Tom Clancy Commander in Chief by Mark Greaney
Version: Public Library

The next novel in Mark Greaney's Tom Clancy/Jack Ryan series is Commander in Chief. When you look at the Russia of Vladimir Putin, you see a vivid reflection in the plot behind this spellbinding 2015 novel.

In this story, the Russian president is named Valeri Volodin. He has many ambitions, but many of his plans have failed, thanks to world economic sanctions and the dropping price of oil. The Russian economy is in free fall and the oligarchs who support him aren't happy - aren't happy enough to consider deposing him. This calls for drastic actions on his part.

Volodin begins a series of bold underhanded attacks around the world planned to boost the price of oil. Of course, they are made to look like the actions of others, but the United States has an inkling who is really behind them. And U.S. President Jack Ryan and independently his son, Jack Ryan, Jr., who works for a CIA-tied security consulting firm, work to figure out all the twists and turns and conflicts behind the actions to prevent more world chaos.

Knowing he hasn't much time to please the oligarchs who have threatened him, Volodin decides to hedge his bets by trying to secretly move his multi-billions in cash to offshore accounts. He hires a hedge fund manager he can trust and who doesn't work for the other oligarchs to move his money quickly and quietly, sending along his most trusted security agent to make sure his money stays his. But Jack Ryan, Jr., and a host of other security consultant characters, track them down with the goal of boxing in Volodin while they can still track his money.

The biggest contest, however, is a chess match Volodin has set up in Eastern Europe between members of NATO, as he threatens to invade Lithuania and Poland, recognizing the unwillingness of NATO members in Western Europe to defend its newest members against a battle they refuse to accept is certain to happen. And President Ryan must decide whether to commit U.S. troops alone in defense of NATO allies or give in to Volodin's misadventure. Jack Ryan, Jr., and his colleagues are sent in as intelligence assets, putting their lives further at risk, too.

Commander in Chief is detailed, well written, and suspenseful. The characters are well drawn and the scenes are vivid. As a political thriller, it's a top notch read and in today's geopolitical world, it's totally believable. If you've read Greaney's Tom Clancy Full Force and Effect, which preceded this novel, you will know what a powerfully entertaining read this novel is, too. I'm happy to say that I highly recommend it.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Tom Clancy Full Force and Effect: Relevant Riveting Read

Book Review: Tom Clancy Full Force and Effect by Mark Greaney
Version: Public Library

Tom Clancy novels have a habit of ringing true to the events of the day. As I read Tom Clancy Full Force and Effect, the North Koreans were testing more ICBMs and nuclear weapons, and here these very actions were appearing in the words I was reading in this excellent novel from October 2015, written by author Mark Greaney. (Note: Tom Clancy passed away in 2013.)

The main plot is a young North Korean dictator who wants to exert power and enhance his own prestige by building a bigger, better nuclear missile program. To do so, he must break through world economic sanctions and blockages of ships delivering parts, and he needs a new source of income to afford it all. His Chinese neighbors help him discover a wealth of rare earth minerals buried in the North Korean fields, and the dictator moves heaven and earth to extract it and refine it, with the help of a North Korean intelligence leader and a new minerals management official - both under threat of death by attack of hungry dogs, including their families, if they fail. U.S. President Jack Ryan knows he must thwart this effort at any cost to protect the U.S. West Coast from North Korean missile attack, and with the help of the CIA and a private consulting company of ex-CIA agents, including the president's son, they expose the dictator's scheme and foil the dictator.

This is one among several Tom Clancy novels in the familiar theme of CIA analysts and operatives living a life of danger preventing world chaos and imminent danger to American interests. They are good quick reads, well paced, and thoroughly believable owing to their detail and how closely they track to current events. In this case, it was a Tom Clancy franchise novel written by author Mark Greaney.

It isn't one of those thoughtful, feel-good books or even something you will leave thinking a great deal about afterwards. But it is a relevant, riveting read that, given free time, you can knock off quickly. I enjoyed what is likely a very good look at life inside North Korea and the thrill of the chase.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Nominations for the National Book Awards Announced

Nominations for the 2016 National Book Awards were just announced. There are four categories, with 10 nominees listed for each category:

  • Fiction
  • Non-fiction
  • Poetry
  • Young People's Literature

Winners will be announced on November 16. Congratulations to all the nominees. See the complete list at the National Book Foundation site here.