book cover for Last Apprentice, A coven of witches
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Book Review: The Last Apprentice – A Coven of Witches

This is one of those instances where I jumped into a book without knowing much about its history. It turns out this is the 7th book in The Wardstone Chronicles series, which I didn’t know until after I finished it. But it wasn’t a problem because the book feels like it could be a first book of its own series, so I didn’t feel lost or like I was missing something.

The book has a simple structure: each section is told from the point-of-view of a different character, either a witch or a witch hunter. The stories are only loosely related to each other, so the stories don’t get stale and you’re always discovering some new aspect of the world that author Joseph Delaney created.

I liked this book for its interesting chapters told from the perspective of witches both young and old, alive and dead. The mythology here is rich and fitting for the time period, and each witch exposes the reader to a different part of what it means to be a witch. Sometimes you sympathize with them, sometimes you just want to throw that witch’s ass in a bonfire.

What I didn’t like so much was the chapters told from the perspective of the Spooks, the witch hunters. Compared to the witches, they’re a drab bunch who don’t add much to the book. I would’ve enjoyed this much more if the spooks had more depth of character.

Still, it’s a good read if you’re a fan of fantasy, witches, and modern retellings of old folklore. I’m not sure I would need to read the other books in the series though; I feel like I’ve already gotten enough of these tales, and too much of a good thing can indeed be a bad thing.

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Book Review: Dreams and Shadows

I love modern fairy tales. I love them so much I’ve even started writing my own (check out my novel Clockworkers). Dreams and Shadows was like something I’d written myself, which is perhaps why I enjoyed it so much.

The novel tells the story of Ewan and Colby; two little boys who have very different upbringings but end up having the same experiences with fairy folk. But these aren’t the friendly, pretty fairies of Disney tales. These are the dangerous sprites, redcaps, goblins, and other supernatural beings who exist in a magical world just outside of ours.

It’s a dark story, for sure. The book is mostly about the unfortunate and tragic events that occur when the fairy world and the human world meet. There are lots of deaths, and Ewan and Colby end up seeing far more tragedy than 8-year-olds should ever know. But there’s also the wonderful innocence and naivete of youth that keeps the story from being wholly depressing. Ewan and Colby are often saved by the fact that they don’t know they should be scared. Author C. Robert Cargill really captures the pure, unbridled power of the imagination that little boys have. There’s a beautiful line near the beginning of the book that sums it up well:

“There is no place in the universe quite like the mind of an eight-year-old boy. Describing a boy at play to someone who has never been a little boy at play is nigh impossible.”

And our plucky young leads, combined with the carefully-crafted magical worlds they find themselves in really make the first half of the novel quite enjoyable. But when Ewan Colby grow up, I felt the book lost some of its magic. Suddenly the joys of youth were replaced by the doldrums and depression of adulthood. This is a great thematic element of the story, as it reflects how the things we learn as we mature take much magic out of the world, but it also makes the story less fun.

Still, Dreams and Shadows is a fun read with lots of interesting mythical lore based on age-old tales, combined with a modern setting and modern sensibilities. Definitely worth a read if you like your fairy tales dark and melancholy, mixed with some childish glee.

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Book Review: The Giver

The Giver is one of those books I really, really should have read a long time but never got around to it. When it was released in 1993 I was already a teenager and there was no way in hell my school district was going to put it on the reading list so, unlike many fans of the work, I wasn’t aware of the story as a child. But it’s never too late to read a classic, and I have to say I enjoyed the book even though I’m far beyond the age of the target audience.

The book exposes us to the future world of Jonas, a soon-to-be twelve-year-old boy in a community that seems perfect at first. Everyone gets along. There are no wars, no crime, no fights, no unemployment. Everyone is fed, children have loving homes, and the elderly are respected and taken care of. But it all comes at a terrible cost, as the “Sameness” that brought this peace also drains the community of what we consider the joys of life, and love.

I won’t call this a dystopian novel, because the world it portrays isn’t necessarily a horrible one. It’s just very different. Jonas is not genetically related to his parents and sister; he was given to his parents after he was birthed by a designated birth mother, as all children in the Community are. His parents don’t even have sex. No one in the Community does. It is a culture marked by sterilization and predictability. But, initially, this doesn’t seem particularly insidious. There are actually some ideas that seem great on the surface. Family units (that’s actually what they’re called) in the community talk about their feelings to each other. It creates an environment where things are shared openly. Young children in the Community wear jackets that button up in the back so that others must help them dress; this creates a sense of community interdependence, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s only when you learn that these things are required by the powers that be, and adherence to The Rules is closely monitored, that these ideas become dark and foreboding. You can easily see how these concepts might have started with the best intentions but evolved into a system that snuffed out personal freedom. But, for the most part, the people in the community live safely and soundly, and since we’re not given a complete view of the world outside, it’s hard to say that The Community setup wasn’t borne out of necessity in a world that was going mad.

The other element that adds a sense of wrongness to the world is the concept of “release” from the community, which usually happens when people reach advanced age, but rarely is used as punishment and even more rarely used when infants don’t develop as healthy as The Community dictates is required. For the sake of a spoiler-free review, I won’t go into detail here. But when reading the book, I think most adult readers could easily come to a conclusion about what was really going on. There are no real plot twists in this book, but if you read it as a kid you might have been surprised, just as Jonas was. And that’s the beauty of the book, really; the end of childish naivete through knowledge. This theme kicks into full gear when Jonas meets The Giver, the only caretaker of memories from the past world, before The Community system whitewashed everything in the pursuit of perfection.

Still, the young age of the protagonist was a key factor in what made the story’s themes so powerful. Jonas just turned 12, yet The Community deems that to be the age where all citizens enter adulthood and assigned the careers they’ll have for the rest of their lives. This concept works because on one hand, it does make a bit of sense, but on the other hand it completely disregards the maturation process between the teenage years and adulthood. It’s a concept that seems alien and wrong, but for The Community it is normalcy.

That’s why I was disappointed to learn that the upcoming movie version of The Giver increased the ages of Jonas and his friends from 11/12, to 16. There’s a world of difference between those pre-teen years and mid-teens, and it seems like the entire tone of the story would change and lose much of its magic. But I will refrain from judging until the movie comes out, and with Oscar award winning cast members like Meryl Streep and Jeff Bridges there’s a chance the movie will still be good (although the movie also has Taylor Swift cast, which should be…interesting).

I’m sure there will soon be much media attention given to this story because of the film, but I encourage everyone to read the book first (and it’s a short, easy read). The Giver is a well-crafted book that took a bold approach of introducing difficult and challenging societal concepts to kids. It’s the kind of thought-provoking modern literature that teaches lessons relevant to today’s world. It’s meant for kids, but adults can certainly get something out of it as well.

Book Review – I Could Pee on This: And Other Poems By Cats

If you know me, you know I love cats. I often get cat-related gifts for birthdays and holidays, and I keep every single one of them. But I also like poetry, so when a friend gave me a cat poetry book for my birthday, it was a beautiful match.

With a book title like I Could Pee on This, you know what you’re in for before you even pick it up. Cat owners (and I use the term lightly, because can anyone truly own a cat?) will immediately understand the snark and quirky humor in these odd little poems. The selections range from free-form to haiku to nothing more than an odd collection of sentences. But everything perfectly reflects the seemingly odd, apparently self-absorbed thought patterns of our feline friends. A good coffee table book, and a nice treat for kids and adults alike.

The book’s title is borrowed from one of the poems within, and it’s one of my favorites. There are also plenty of cute cat photographs to go with the poems, which makes it even more entertaining. It’s a short book, but one that can keep you and your guests entertained for years.

Book Review: Fringe – The Zodiac Paradox

As a Fringe book, and a “prequel” version of a TV series that’s no longer on-air, this story works pretty well and gives fans what they want. But as a novel taken on its own merits it’s fairly average.

If you’re a fan of the show (and you’d have to be to have any interest in this book at all), the main thing you’ll be interested in is the portrayal of Walter Bishop. I can say for certain that Faust’s characterization of Walter is very much in line with what you saw in the TV series. This is understandable, given the nature of this novel and its intended audience; the directive was probably not to mess with the formula too much. But part of me wishes that the author took more liberties with Walter’s youth. Everyone changes as they mature, but in this book Walter in his late twenties is pretty much exactly the same as Walter in his sixties (even the way he dresses).

William Bell and Nina Sharp also figure prominently in the story. Bell’s characterization is fairly unremarkable and straightforward, and he lacks the deviousness and outside-the-box thinking we came to associate with the founder of Massive Dynamic. Again, there was opportunity to break fascinating new ground with these characters, but the story plays it safe in that regard. Nina actually comes out as the most interesting character of the bunch. She’s young and feisty and much more daring and clever than either Bell or Walter. Nina was the main aspect of the story that kept me reading.

As the book title suggests, the story follows our intrepid trio of Sharp, Bell, and Bishop as they hunt the famed Zodiac Killer in the midst of his reign of terror. But there’s a Fringe-y twist: the Zodiac is actually from the parallel universe, and he was brought here by Walter and Bell during a trial of a special blend of LSD that would eventually become cortexiphan. There are many subtle and not-so-subtle references to both major and obscure aspects of the TV show. The story does often feel like an overlong standalone episode of the series (in both good ways and bad). It’s a good concept, and one that fits into the Fringe lore.

But a great concept needs great execution, and this book has a few issues. These supposedly genius-level characters often do fairly stupid things, and although Nina comes off as the “sharpest” of the bunch, she and William Bell are still lacking the cunning minds we came to know in the series. Also, the author does a little too much description for my tastes. She often delves into long descriptions of minutiae about side characters who barely appear for a few pages, and places that are just briefly visited. I’m don’t mind descriptive, rich world-building, but sometimes it should be done with a light touch so the main story can flow. Far too often, the descriptions got in the way of the story and I found myself fighting the urge to skip over paragraphs. But, I’ll readily admit this is a matter of reading taste and others may find this style to their liking.

If you really, really liked Fringe and you felt the series ended too soon, this book will definitely give you your fix. If you were a more of a casual fan, you might not like this as much.

disclosure: I received a free ARC copy from the publisher

Star Trek: Into Darkness Review. Spectacle is Irrelevant

I’ve seen the latest installment of the Star Trek franchise and, to my surprise, I found it quite enjoyable. It’s a good movie. Not a great movie, but a good movie. Star Trek is the hot thing again. But what’s most important to me is that it shows signs that J.J. Abrams and his producers might be taking Star Trek a bit more seriously, and trying to make the franchise mean something more than dollar signs.

For the most part, Into Darkness is a typical summer action blockbuster that plays it safe and hits all the right money-making notes. It’s good old-fashioned, adrenaline-invoking, explosion-laden fun. It’s an enjoyable movie, and even more enjoyable if you check your brain at the door and don’t question the numerous things that just don’t hold up to logical scrutiny (the same method was required to get the most enjoyment out of the first movie). But, unlike its predecessor, Into Darkness goes a little further in trying to make this new generation of Star Trek more solidly connected to the wonderful material that made this franchise worth rebooting in the first place. Most of all, and I think this is key, there are signs that Abrams and his cohorts took some of their past criticisms to heart, and actually tried to add story elements that went beyond the pretty graphics and constant action.

I like the Star Trek franchise…well “like” may not be a good enough word; perhaps “venerate” is more accurate, but still inadequate. Let’s just say that I’m quite familiar with Star Trek lore going all the way back to the original 60s pilot episode, and I credit the series with spurring my interest in engineering, science, and science fiction. So I’m a tough, but fair, critic when it comes to new material in the franchise.

One of my favorite aspects of Star Trek was that, although it featured a futuristic military organization, it wasn’t really about the military. It was about exploration; it was about pushing and exceeding the boundaries of the human experience. It was about asking tough moral questions and painting a vision of a fantastic future that made our present seem juvenile and petty. Gene Roddenberry created an egalitarian and peaceful future Earth in a time when the real Earth was mired in racism, sexism, poverty, and war. Star Trek meant something. It stood for something. It told stories that mattered, and it never dumbed down for anybody.

The Abrams version of Star Trek has eschewed much of that philosophy, and instead Abrams (who admits he was never a fan of the franchise’s various series and movies) capitalized on the circumstances of Starfleet as a peaceful-but-militaristic-when-it-has-to-be entity. Abrams used the military aspect as a good reason to create pretty explosions and grand fight scenes in space. I can’t blame Abrams for that; this method is bankable, and his job is to sell tickets after all. But there was much anger and consternation among the longtime Trek fans. They felt that Abrams didn’t “get” Star Trek; they believed he’d made a shallow, meaningless movie that was aimed at the lowest common denominator and only good for cheap thrills. Add to that the hasty ending of the first movie, and Kirk’s hurried promotion to captain after literally just graduating from the academy, and critics had plenty of justification for saying the movie was short on artistic ambition. The movie was fun, but it had little regard for the art of storytelling. It was cinematic junk food; popular, easy, and profitable…but ultimately unhealthy and a poor substitute for more artisanal fare.

But there’s something different about the sequel. It has a more mature prevailing theme: Starfleet can’t be a ruthless military organization. That’s not what it was founded on, and it’s not the right direction for its future. It’s the great realization that Kirk comes to during the course of the film, and it’s the main theme of his speech at the end of the movie. It’s all very “meta”, because it’s almost like the movie is talking to itself; Star Trek films can’t be all explosions and phaser fights and horrible, horrible lens flare. It has to be something more than that. I think Abrams realized this, and he tried to change. It didn’t quite work out this time, but there’s definitely effort.

Right before Into Darkness was released, Abrams had an interview with the L.A. Times, in which he said:

“There was never going to be any shortage of spectacle, but the thing is, spectacle is irrelevant. The big, giant special-effects stuff, as much fun as it is and as cool as it can be in a movie, it never matters if you’re not loving, caring, relating to the dynamics of the characters that are in that spectacle.”

That’s exactly want you want any director to say, especially one charged with one of the most beloved and influential franchises in history. And Into Darkness really does try to get past the spectacle. It is emotional in ways that are quite effective, and there are glimpses of a story that could be there in the future — the story of an Enterprise whose primary mission is to explore, not make things explode.

And the character development is there. Kirk faces tremendous personal questions after Admiral Pike, the closest thing he has to a father, admonishes him for being reckless and thinking that he’s hot shit. Pike tells Kirk the truth; he’s been the beneficiary of “blind luck” and he’s just not ready to be a captain. That hasty promotion at the end of the first movie proves to be as foolhardy as many fans thought it was. Spock also goes through a bit of transformation as he realizes how strong of a friendship he actually has with Kirk, and for the first time in this reboot we truly see the legendary “bromance” that existed long before bromances were even a thing.

This stuff is great, but it relies heavily on what came before it; it relies on the decades of lore and emotional investment that people have with these characters because, frankly, Abrams isn’t a good enough director and Lindelof isn’t a good enough screenwriter to create that kind of character bond on their own in a two-hour movie. Therein lies the problem, because it’s a battle of two competing goals: to implement J.J’s vision while staying true to the franchise’s ideals. In that aforementioned LA Times article, Abrams also said:

“I was never a fan of “Star Trek,” […] I knew that when we started doing work on the first movie, we needed to come up with a way that this wasn’t just a “Star Trek” movie, meaning we couldn’t make it for fans of “Star Trek.” I’m not saying it might not have been better if that had been the case, but I couldn’t do that. It would have been disingenuous.”

This is where Abrams’ lack of connection with the source material really shows. It’s great that Abrams realizes that the movie needs to be more than just spectacle, but he doesn’t have the background to know what really works for this franchise and these characters because he doesn’t “get” what makes Star Trek special. This is ironic because a lot of the movie’s best scenes rely heavily upon knowledge of the franchise lore since there’s no on-screen explanation to help the uninitiated. There’s a tribble in this movie, and there’s no explanation of what it is. You have to be a fan of the show to get that. The movie’s antagonist has much more weight and effect if you get the references and hints that are never explained in the movie itself. Even the most emotional moment between Kirk and Spock only really hits home if you know the history of that scene, and how poetically different it is in this version. Into Darkness succeeds most when it borrows from what came before it, but Abrams doesn’t always do it effectively. I suspect his co-producers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman are the ones really responsible for keeping this movie true to its roots, or as true as it can be while still implementing Abrams’ vision.

The movie ends with the famous speech that preceded the opening credits of each episode of the original Star Trek series and The Next Generation.

“These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.”

I sincerely hope that the creative team behind the third rebooted Trek movie take these words to heart, and give us something bolder, more inspirational, and more enterprising.

Starfish Novel Cover
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Book Review: Starfish by Peter Watts

If you like your sci-fi hard and your main characters psychologically disturbed, this is the book for you. Peter Watts takes a mission on the floor of the ocean and turns it into a crucible where some mad beings are formed. But, as Dickinson once said, much madness is divinest sense. The crazies aboard deep-sea station Beebe are smarter than their masters on the surface think they are, and they uncover a government plot with mistakes that would be comical if the circumstances weren’t so dire.

The first thing that struck me about this story is how detailed the science is. Peter Watts went through a lot of effort to recruit the help of scientists and military experts to get all the details as close to right as possible. Much of the science is speculative (and still is 14 years after the book was first published) but it’s all based on actual research and Watts is nice enough to include the names of the journals he referenced in the acknowledgments.

But what drives this story isn’t the science, nor the events, nor the odd setting of the bottom of the Pacific, where bioluminescent creatures roam with giant scary fish. The real engine of this story is the cast of characters, each with their own flavor of psychosis and history of abuse. The rigors of life on the deep-sea station Beebe would drive you mad, so it helps if you were already pretty crazy when you got there.

The first three quarters of the novel were riveting, but the ending leaves you hanging. That’s not a major issue since this is the first of a series, but if you like your stories to have endings with everything neatly tied up, or you don’t have the patience to read the whole series, the ending might disappoint. But if you’re looking for a different kind of sci-fi series with absolutely fascinating characters, Starfish is a good place to start.

Buy Starfish by Peter Watts on Amazon