Book Review – Planetfall

3 stars. Emma Newman’s Planetfall does a lot of things right–interesting world, great characterization, thought-provoking themes–yet wound up only garnering a middling reaction from me, thanks to a muddled ending and too much emphasis on the theme of mental illness.

A group of colonists, bound together by the personal charisma and vision of Lee Suh-Mi, undertook a pilgrimage away from polluted and over-populated Earth, establishing a community at the base of so-called God’s city. The founding of the town was marred by the loss of several colonists. Suh-Mi ascended into the city, where she communes with a higher power, sending yearly messages to the group. Out of the jungle, Suh-Mi’s grandson emerges, threatening the secret that has held the community together.

The greatest problem that I had with this book is that it requires stringing the reader along with a Mysterious Secret Buried in the Past–normally, a pretty effective trope. The first-person narrator, Ren, is one of the two colonists who is privy to this secret, but the author chooses not to reveal it until long after its concealment has crossed the fine line to melodrama. It’s being withheld simply to artificially preserve the suspense. Had this volume been third person, this would have worked much more naturally than the first-person narration allows.

I also never really connected with Ren. I sympathized with her mental illness, but never felt empathy for her–she made her own bed by taking the path of least resistance at virtually every opportunity. The ending further perpetuated my disconnect with Ren. She never grew as a character, just kept doing her best to conceal her mental illness until the deus ex machina (or more accurately, deus ex planta!) ending dissolved all the conflicts to nothingness.

The ending is abstract, non-explanatory, and seemed out of place. I suppose it’s one of those things that the author chose to leave open to the reader’s interpretation, but it didn’t seem to serve a purpose in either storytelling or character development.

Despite all this, Planetfall was still a worthwhile read. Newman’s imaginative colony and the rich cast of personalities worked well, and the science fiction parts of it were realistically created. Perhaps much of my faint praise is due to the unsatisfied feeling I had at the last page; I expected something great and was left with merely good.

Book Review – Witches: The Absolutely True Tale of Disaster in Salem

4 stars. I picked up Rosalyn Schanzer’s Witches: The Absolutely True Tale of Disaster in Salem after a visit to the Salem Witch Museum (interesting, despite being too much dramatic attraction and too little museum for my taste, but that’s another story). This slim, no-frills account factually narrates the 1692 witchcraft hysteria that led to the executions of 20 and the deaths of another 5 in prison. The tone is very straightforward, with no sensationalism whatsoever.

It’s sign of progress that so much of the legal system of the day feels foreign to us: the admissibility of spectral evidence, the fees that the accused had to pay for the “privilege” of being jailed, even if they were found not guilty, and the way the judge ordered a jury that delivered a non-guilty verdict to reconvene and deliberate again (they then returned a guilty verdict). Reading about these abuses of law made my skin crawl!

Schanzer masterfully lays out the events in appropriate detail for young readers, and she wisely lets the themes speak for themselves, especially about judicial corruption, the way property was seized from the accused, and how, in many cases, the accusers benefited from the plight of the accused.

The illustrations accompanying the text are absolutely perfect, done in a period style to convey the feel of black-and-white engravings, with occasional shots of red. Though fairly simply done, there is a depth and resonance to them that makes this book come to life.

A well-done example of how history should be written for young readers, with plenty that adult readers will find appealing as well.

Book Review – No Dream Is Too High: Life Lessons From a Man Who Walked on the Moon

BuzzAldrin 4 stars. An easy, breezy read by one who has long been my hero, No Dream Is Too High is wisdom from moonwalker Buzz Aldrin. Through each chapter, he presents a precept that has guided him and discusses events where that lesson was learned or used. We gain some glimpses into his life and mind.

Dr. Aldrin was signing this book at my local bookstore, so I bought a copy and waited in line. And waited. And waited. Fortunately, that was pretty good reading time, so I was halfway through the book when I finally got mine signed.

Normally, I’m not a huge fan of inspirational work; it’s too often an exercise in either the author’s vanity or blowing sunshine up the reader’s posterior. I found his precepts moderately cheesy. What made this book interesting for me was his stories–he’s quite a character! Most of the narrative is told with warmth and humor, and more than anything else optimism and enthusiasm for science, learning, and exploration.

Dr. Aldrin cannot be accused of being a shrinking violet–occasionally he’s pretty full of himself! That’s tempered by his willingness to laugh at himself, such as when he was trying to get into a frequent flier lounge at an airport and finally resorted to trying to use his celebrity for access. The receptionist replied that she knew who he was, but she was not going to let him in without paying. He laughed it off and moved on to McDonald’s!No Dream Is Too High

By far the best stories dealt with his Gemini and Apollo days, and the intense competition/cooperation between the astronauts. His recounting of the Apollo 1 tragedy was heartfelt and touching. The rivalry with a purpose between the astronauts perfectly illustrated his point about one’s friends and associates being such important factors in life. I also particularly enjoyed his passionate advocacy for a Mars landing.

No Dream Is Too High: Life Lessons From a Man Who Walked on the Moon was an entertaining read presenting an entertaining look at a true hero.

Book Review – The Phantom Tollbooth

4 stars. The Phantom Tollbooth is the tale of Milo, a young boy who embarks on an adventure in a strange land when a mysterious tollbooth appears in his room. What follows is a rollicking journey through two kingdoms abandoned by Rhyme and Reason.

Norton Juster’s wordplay is the main star of this book. He is a master of both the literal (Milo lands on the Island of Conclusions after he makes an unfounded statement) and the pun (Milo’s faithful companion Tock is a watchdog–a dog with a clock face on his side). The dialog rewards attentive readers with a love for words with witty and pithy observations, making it a delight to read. Even when the book is at its silliest, there are plenty of subtle jokes to be found.

If I have a small complaint about The Phantom Tollbooth, it’s that the story is definitely secondary to the wordplay. Occasionally it felt like characters and events were contrived to make the next joke, sometimes making it feel like it was an endless string of “go here, have a witty conversation, repeat” events.

There’s plenty here for both adults and children. I’m sure I would have adored this book had I read it as a kid; instead, I merely enjoyed it for the razor-sharp wit.

Book Review – Cloud Country [Special Sin #2]

4.5 stars. Andy Futuro’s Cloud Country continues his story of hard-boiled private investigator Saru, whose exploits at the end of No Dogs in Philly led to world-shaking results. She’s trying to cope with the aftermath of the previous volume, on the run and unsure of what to do next.

The strength of the series continues to be Saru; she’s a fantastic anti-heroine who is easy to like even when she does very unlikable things. Her no-nonsense attitude is refreshing and searing, and kept me riveted all the way through.

The story of Cloud Country is far more dissonant from reality than No Dogs in Philly; where the first volume parodied our day-to-day life, this volume skewers our beliefs and religion, especially at Saru’s ongoing Dante’s Inferno meets madcap The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy romp through a funhouse mirror version of the universe. There’s no way at all to predict where the plot will go next, so don’t even try–just sit back and enjoy the ride.

The metaphysical mind-screw is tempered by Futuro’s dark sense of humor, which keeps the book lively and entertaining throughout. Black satire is the perfect tone to keep the weighty subjects from taking over the solid story and themes.

As with the first volume, I was very satisfied by Cloud Country, and I can’t wait to see what Futuro comes up with next.

Review copy kindly provided by the author.

Book Review – The Dogs

4.5 stars. Allan Stratton’s The Dogs is a nicely paced and well-written YA thriller, part ghost story, part murder mystery, and part story about coping with an abusive father. Cameron Weaver and his mom are on the run from his father, and their latest move is to a farm house in the middle of nowhere. Cameron begins to see apparitions and hear voices, and finds himself caught up in a decades-old tragedy that is inextricably tied up with his own story.

The level of suspense is just right for a young teen audience, with very creepy twists and turns. One of the aspects of The Dogs that I appreciated the most was how Cameron’s visions blurred the line of reality, leaving the reader uncertain as to whether he was truly seeing what he saw or completely losing his grasp on his sanity.

Characters and reactions are believable. Cameron’s voice is especially well-done, as a teen who is questioning both his own world and his understanding of adult relationships around him in a sometimes petulant and sometimes endearing way.

The plot is nothing particularly ground-breaking for a suspense tale, but uses the elements well. I appreciated that Stratton left me hanging as to whether the supernatural elements were friendly or diabolical in nature. The ending is particularly satisfying as well.

A great little read that I’m very glad I bought on impulse off the Kindle monthly specials.

Book Review – Tracer [Outer Earth #1]

2 stars.  “ZOMG Parkour on a Space Station with the Survival of the Human Race at stake!!!”  Rob Boffard’s Tracer is set in Outer Earth, a rapidly decaying station orbiting our home planet laid waste by nuclear war.  Riley Hale is a tracer–one who couriers cargo throughout the station.  But today’s delivery lands her chin-deep in a plot to end the ragtag remnants of the human race.  Can she save us?

The primary problem with Tracer is that the focus is on detailed play-by-play of events rather than the story or the characters.  Parkour moves are recounted in exquisite detail:

Five seconds later, I collide painfully with the wall of the shaft.

I bounce right off, flying across the gaping centre of the tube towards the opposite wall. I flip my body around in the air, so my legs are facing the wall.

This time, instead of smashing into it, I let my legs take the impact, then push upwards, launching my body up the shaft. Not hard enough. I shoot out a few feet, and then the wall catches up with me. I bend my legs again, then push upwards even harder. This time, I propel myself into the middle of the shaft.

(Incidentally, a practitioner of parkour is a traceur or a traceuse, in case the title needs explanation.)

tracerInjuries are similarly recounted in full detail–and do the denizens of Outer Earth ever get cut, shot, beaten up, stabbed, suffocated, frozen, injected, bitten, and more!  Often it felt like injury porn.

The climactic scene of Riley in the control room bogs down in the minutia of her going through menus on a computer system, tapping an option, reading an error message, searching for the menu to correct that, repeat.  Riveting stuff. (It’s a UNIX system, I know this!)

The “bad guys” are mostly shallow and unbelievable, and are ultimately foolish.  Oren Darnell is the ringleader of the plot to end humanity as punishment for destroying the Earth.  How to do it?  Place the space station in an easily escapable situation involving an overly elaborate and exotic death, of course!  Not to mention the “you’re about to die, so here is the wicked plan you cannot possibly stop now, MUWAHAHA!” segment at the end from one of his cohorts…

Darnell at least is the most fun and interesting character in the book, and has a sound motivation for doing what he’s doing.  His co-conspirators (I won’t name them here to avoid spoilers), not so much.  I can’t discern any reason they have to join Darnell, other than to fulfill the “Things Are Not What They Seem” and “Inevitable Betrayal of a Trusted Friend” roles.

Riley herself is a plot trope–she seems like just another occupant of Outer Earth, but really who she is and the secrets of her past makes her the only one who can save us all!!!  If Darnell had a modicum of common sense, task #1 on his checklist titled How to Blow Up Outer Earth and Save the Wrecked Planet by Destroying What’s Left of Humanity would have been to eliminate Riley Hale.  The rest of his dastardly plot would have gone down without a hitch.  Instead, he involves her in the events repeatedly, because, well, I guess there wouldn’t have been parkour to talk about without her… ?  It’s clear that all involved knew who she was, so it was rather stupid to have her play a role in their plot.  Heck, had they simply ignored her, it probably would have been lights out for homo sapiens!

The plot twists are rather silly, and in the case of the final one, so melodramatic that any emotional impact it might have had is lost.

Changing point of view narration works occasionally, but is far too often jarring and provides no added insight, as is the case here.  It’s even more jarring when the POV switches between Riley’s first-person voice and third-person limited for everyone else.  This would have been a stronger book had it been told only from Riley’s POV, or better yet, Darnell’s.

The world of Outer Earth is so shallow that it felt only matte painting deep.  Kudos to Boffard for avoiding a big info-dump, but his world felt like a collection of random details that serve only as backdrop rather than a compelling environment that a derelict space station should be.

Ultimately, Tracer reads like a movie script, words without life behind or around them.  Perhaps it was written to be made into a movie.  There is a sequel, but I do not believe that I shall read more of Outer Earth.