Amateur Reviews and Reader Bias

The most recent issue of Vanity Fair had an interesting article about why certain book critics are dismayed about the recent Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Goldfinch. Reviewers from The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, and The Paris Review are highly critical of Donna Tartt’s last novel, using words like marred, overwritten, and cliche. Meanwhile, more mainstream media outlets, like Time and The New York Times, feature reviews that give The Goldfinch the highest accolades. While the various reviewers have addressed their discrepant opinions, there seems to be a loose agreement that in today’s book culture, story is king and quality of writing is secondary.

To high-brow book critics (which I don’t mean in any derogatory sense), this stubborn fact doesn’t sit well. If an author’s writing skill has a lower value in the eye of the reader, whatever amount of objectivity in what makes a book good is lessened. There are still elements of plot and characterization that can be judged, but if story is truly king, then quality becomes a mark more of subjectivity than anything else.

I have been reviewing books for a couple of years now, mainly as a learning experience. I was an amateur when I started and despite my efforts at self-teaching myself about the art of reading, I remain an amateur now. Visit sites like Amazon and Goodreads and you will find drive-by reviews of little substance and strong opinions, reflecting what many critics have feared for many years now: the dumbing down of book culture.

Slate also published a damning article of adults who prefer to read YA novels. Particularly, the article suggests, “YA readers… are asked to abandon the mature insights into that perspective that they (supposedly) have acquired as adults.” Several rebuttal blog posts followed, once again setting a divide on what various people consider good fiction.

I have found my own personal reading tastes are inversely proportional to how busy and stressful my life is. When life is under control and I have quiet moments to sit and read a book, perhaps with a nice cup of coffee on the end table next to me, I tend toward the literary end. I would be much more likely to pick up a Gene Wolfe, Cormac McCarthy, or Samuel Delaney novel than I would pick up something like a Star Wars tie-in novel. On the other hand, I am currently in the middle of a job transition and move overseas and find myself leaning toward lighter fiction and graphic novels. Frankly, it’s not that my tastes are changing — it’s that I do not have the intellectual or emotional capacity to read anything deeper. If I were to pick up a literary novel that was more challenging I would likely be bored with it. Not because the writing is bad, but because I would miss the critical details and under-appreciate the well-crafted prose. And if I were to review a book like this, what could I even say? I would be left with surface-level criticisms and an overall generic and uninspiring review.

From my personal experience, I have found that for amateur reviewers, it is not an objective opinion or really even a subjective opinion that leads to a reader’s response. Readership bias plays perhaps the largest role in whether or not a book is deemed good. I will use Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie as one of these examples. First of all, I found it to be a fine novel and would probably cast my vote for it in the Hugo’s for best novel of the year, largely because the contenders are uninspiring in a year that actually had some very good fiction. Despite my own favorable opinion, I think a reviewer would be remiss to mention that the book had many problems of a debut novelist. The flow of the novel, the pacing, and how information was given to the reader (too little at first, then repetitive later on) were problematic and are aspects of novel writing that come as many writers progress in their careers. What Ann Leckie did extremely well, however, is her use of gender pronouns. This theme alone struck a chord with many readers. In fact, it struck such a chord that reviewers gave it flawless reviews, even calling it the best science fiction book of the decade. The highly positive reviews also seemed to parallel reviewers who particularly care or are activists for gender equality in science fiction (I don’t mean this as a slight on any reviewers, nor do I want to downplay the issue of gender parity. I’m sure there are subjects that would influence my opinion on how “good” I think a book is as well).

My conclusion in my meandering is that in the age of social media, amateur reviewers have a louder voice than ever. And if my hypothesis that book quality is more of a reflection of the personal bias and possibly even temporary circumstances of the reader, we have little to measure what makes a good book. Certainly the seemingly random best novel titles on the Hugo ballot reflect this notion. I don’t know if there is a solution to this or even if this is a problem to solve. I think the only thing a reader can do is find a reviewer whose tastes are most similar to their own and hope that the reviewer isn’t going through a particular season that can shift their perception of the book. Ultimately, each reader will have to decide on their own whether a novel is good.

 

Review of Trillium by Jeff Lemire

TrilliumTitle: Trillium

Author: Jeff Lemire

Illustrator: Jeff Lemire

Publisher: Vertigo

Format: Electronic

Where I got it: Netgalley

Review:

 

I have long been a fan of Jeff Lemire’s work, particularly his creator-owned stories like The Underwater Welder and Sweet Tooth. His art — while perhaps not as visually stunning as some of the exciting illustrators in the field such as Fiona Staples, Sean Murphy, or Greg Capullo — provides a sense of unity to his comics. He is a true master at understanding the sequential nature of comics and his images evoke the right emotions and pacing that are hard to nail down.

Catching on the science fiction bandwagon with contemporary hits like Saga, Preacher, and Sex Criminals, Lemire pens a love story with the plot devices of time travel, alien cultures, and a sentient disease. One of the featured characters is a botanist named Nika Temsmith, who lives in the year 3797 when a disease has killed off all but four thousand people. Their only hope is the trillium flower, which grows wild on a planet where some mysterious aliens await Nika’s arrival. They stand guard around an Incan temple, which Nika comes to realize is more than just a pyramid of stone.

Screen Shot 2014-05-31 at 1.45.19 PMIn the year 1921, WWI vet and English explorer, William Pike, also makes an expedition in search of the lost temple of the Incas. When natives attack his group, he finds himself face-to-face with Nika, completely unable to understand her language. Their encounter does not seem accidental and both experience a sense of deja vu, feeling as if they should know the other.

With the help of Trillium, William and Nika learn to communicate and find themselves sharing a bond with one another, leading to an adventure where their biggest adversaries are the very teams they were working with.

Trillium was released by Vertigo as an eight-issue story arc and binge-reading it in one collected volume (my preferred method of reading comics) made the story feel as connected and whole as Lemire’s recent work, The Underwater Welder. The illustrations are typical of Lemire’s style, with a sort of rough-sketched appearance. The panels are fully colored, blending a colored-pencilled and water-color appearance. There is an artistic quality to the drawings, but Lemire’s true art is in how he uses images to tell a story. Few writers understand how to use layout as well as he does and there is some good variation, ranging from templated-panel layouts to full page images with inset pictures to pages that need to be turned sideways to orient one’s self properly.

Screen Shot 2014-05-31 at 1.47.37 PMThe main characters were rich. Nika, the altruistic and fearless scientist, was willing to disobey orders if necessary to achieve the proper ends. Yet her willingness of self-sacrifice should not be confused with a suicide mission. She is thoughtful and contemplative — empathetic to other cultures and open to love. William, suffering post-traumatic stress syndrome from the war, questions his own mind, but is willing to follow what he believes is right, even if his closest friends question his sanity.

Jeff Lemire’s venture into science fiction was a welcome one. He remains true to his style, while appealing to fans of  Arthur C. Clarke or Philip K. Dick. The plot was reminiscent of other science fiction stories and the use of an ancient pyramid for traveling through space and time bore resemblance to Stargate. Nonetheless, the story felt new and original and was executed beautifully.

For fans of science fiction — and particularly those who want a shorter story arc — Trillium is a good choice. Lemire is one of the great writers in the industry today and I found this to be an exciting read that can be enjoyed in one complete and satisfying sitting.

 

 

Review: The Martian by Andy Weir

The MartianTitle: The Martian

Author: Andy Weir

Publisher: Crown Publishing

Format: Hardcover

Where I Received the Title: Library

Review:

There was a lot of hype when The Martian was published earlier this year. It had escaped my radar two years ago when Andy Weir self-published the title. Needless to say, good works gather praise and after good sales and word-of-mouth, the previously rejected novel soon had the attention of publishers. Just one year after releasing this novel for free on his website, Andy Weir had a six-figure deal with Crown to publish The Martian.

The premise of The Martian is that an astronaut by the name of Mark Watney is left for dead on Mars after he and his suit are impaled by an object during a sandstorm. He is knocked unconscious and his life support monitor is destroyed, leading his five crewmates to believe that he is dead. Mark awakens to find that his crew has left and he is left alone on the red planet with some damaged equipment and a suit that is barely held together by his coagulated blood.

Most men wouldn’t last an hour in these circumstances, but Mark Watney is no ordinary man. He is one of Earth’s most brilliant botanists and has the survival skills of a Robinson Crusoe or Macguyver. Using the limited resources left on Mars, Watney develops a livable habitat and a sustainable nutrition plan with one goal in mind — to live until a rescue team returns to Mars.

Let me just say that this book was fantastic. I was hooked from the first paragraph with Andy Weir’s great sense of voice and perfect blend of humor, action, and technical savviness. It is very much a hard science fiction novel, with mathematical calculations and engineering know-how, yet it doesn’t read like one. The character of Mark Watney is rich and likable — the kind of guy you’d love to have a beer with, just to hear his thoughts on any subject matter, be it science, baseball, or the best of seventies sitcoms.

The book starts off as a diary-style narrative, with Mark chronicling the happenings of the day with a lot of side commentary that helps paint Mars’s climate and terrain with a sense of realism. Nearly every page is filled with some witty comment or remark that will crack a smile on your face. As the novel progresses, we also find viewpoints from NASA scientists and Mark’s crewmates, bringing the story together.

The Martian reminds me of why I love science fiction. Like Kim Stanley Robinson’s fiction, I would classify The Martian as utopian SF — demonstrating how man can achieve success against great adversity. Mark Watney is in dire circumstances and Mars is relentless and unforgiving in how it punishes the astronaut. But ultimately, this novel is a triumph of the human spirit, demonstrating how the greatest challenges and impossible odds can be overcome with ingenuity and resilience.

Where movies like Castaway left me somewhat bored, The Martian is anything but tiresome. Each challenge Mark faces requires unique solutions and the pacing of the novel is quick, but balanced well with brief moments of planning and recreation.

The SF field has been inundated with pessimistic dystopias, blaming man’s selfishness and ignorance for dooming future generations. The Martian is a cool reprieve from these heavy-handed plots and it was a true delight to read. I would not hesitate to recommend this novel to people outside of the genre and think SF fans will like it equally. It truly was a wonderful book to read.

What Makes Haruki Murakami’s Writing so Compelling?

harukimurakamiHaruki Murakami is not what one would consider a genre writer, but he writes with such a deep sense of surrealism that one cannot help but compare his writing to urban fantasy novels. His novels feature gateways to other worlds, ghosts, monsters, and ordinary characters that embark on their own form of the hero’s quests.

The plot summaries of his books are not enough to solicit my attention, but there is some quality to his writing and story-telling that grabs me by the collar and never lets go.

In his memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Murakami writes of three qualities that are most important for a novelist to have. He claims that the first and obvious quality is talent. “No matter how much enthusiasm and effort you put into writing, if you totally lack literary talent, you can forget about being a novelist.” The next most important quality, Murakami deems is focus — “the ability to concentrate all your limited talents on whatever’s critical at the moment.”  Later, he notes that the third most important quality for a novelist is endurance. “If you concentrate on writing three or four hours a day and feel tired after a week of this, you’re not going to be able to write a long work.”

I mention Murakami’s philosophy on writing because it is so clear that these traits pervade his writing and his life as a whole. He is regimented at waking in the early morning hours to write and is an avid long-distance runner, completing several marathons and other more-challenging races. While his novels do not conform to any common structure, there is a sense of discipline in his writing. The complete absurdity to the magic in his novels has strict limitations as do the characters in following their pursuits. This tempered approach gives the novels — as other-worldly as they may be – a sense of control and grounding. Murakami keeps us at bay as his characters experience the fantastical with every twist and turn.

Murakami’s writing is also very effective in controlling pace. He delivers all of the right beats during dialog exchanges and his prose is effective in changing tempo. Take for example, the following exchange from Kafka on the Shore:

“Just one thing,” she says, raising her head and looking me straight in the eye. “I want you to remember me. If you remember me, then I don’t care if everybody else forgets.”

Silence descends on us for a time. A profound silence.

A question wells up inside me, a question so big it plugs up my throat and makes it hard to breathe. I somehow swallow it back, finally choosing another. “Are memories such an important thing?”

“It depends,” she replies, and lightly closes her eyes. “In some cases they’re the most important thing there is.”

This scene takes place between the story’s main character, Kafka, and a woman whom he has a close relationship with named Miss Saeki. Contextually, this dialog takes place at a very key point in the novel — a point where the reader’s natural tendency is to start scanning in anticipation of what is to come. Murakami slams on the brakes. He describes the silence in two sentences and then spends another couple sentences describing the question that wells up inside of Kafka. As emotional and powerful as this moment is between Kafka and Miss Saeki, the real-time events occur slowly. Without telling us in so many words, Murakami controls the pace with repetition and by showing us the heaviness Kafka feels at that moment. Lesser writers will not change sentence length or the amount of description to get the reader to move at a speed that complements the narrative. Murakami is a master at this.

Many readers have a natural attraction to foreign writers because of the unfamiliar elements they bring, even if the fiction is completely realistic. Certainly Khaled Hosseini’s, The Kite Runner, enjoyed success not only because it was an excellent novel, but because it gave Western readers a glimpse into Afghan culture. I’m not so certain it is the same with Murakami. Even though his novels take place in Japan, I don’t get as strong of a sense that he is trying to reveal Japanese culture to his readers — especially Western readers. In fact, I’m not so certain his novels are written to a particular audience at all. There may be an autobiographical sense to his writing, as his novels feature protagonists that rarely achieve even moderate success by cultural standards. Murakami, who now will get stopped while running by an adoring fan, was not always the literary figurehead he now is. He was married early in life and ran a jazz club, only to decide that he was going to give up the club to focus on writing full time. This decision turned out to be a good one, but it came at the chagrin of his friends and family. Murakami chose a path that was criticized by societal standards. It was a choice to pursue a path that would likely end in poverty and failure. Fortunately, it ended up being a good one.

Above all else, what I think attracts me to Murakami’s writing is the weirdness of it. I love the fact that if a person is walking down the road and sees a cat, the cat may speak to that person. Is the person crazy or is it a talking cat? Or is it even a cat at all? These are the kinds of questions I ponder while reading Murakami, knowing that anything is possible. Beloved characters can live or die — succeed or fail. They can speak to people through dreams, visit them in the afterlife, or discover them, lost in a parallel universe. Murakami raises the tension, be it sexual, emotional, or physical, only to break it down in new and unexpected ways.

In many ways, Murakami’s writing is a paradox. He is a writer with great discipline, but limitless worlds. His novels feature powerful magic that is used to solve mundane problems. His characters act with a great sense of purpose, but often pursue trivial goals.

I have only read a few of his novels and have found The Windup Bird Chronicles to be the most endearing. You can scan best-of lists and find many conflicting recommendations of where to start. It probably doesn’t matter where you do, because each novel is special in its own way. But I will warn you — if you haven’t read Murakami before, his novels are like a bag of Doritos — “Bet you can’t eat just one.”

 

 

Thoughts on Star Wars Reboot

The Death Star has been aimed at the Star Wars Expanded Universe. This comes to little surprise to those who have been following Disney’s acquisition of the George Lucas franchise, especially considering that three new movies are in development.

A New DawnAs mentioned on the official website, George Lucas has never beholden to the EU and only the six films and Clone Wars animated series are considered official cannon. This means classic works like Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn Trilogy will be erased from future histories, although I doubt that they will be forgotten.

Anyone who is a fan of superhero comics or films should be well acquainted with the infamous reboot of a series. In fact, works like Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy are considered not just the best reboots, but the best superhero tales that their mediums have to offer. Putting Star Wars in a similar perspective, I think Disney is doing a good thing. And let’s be honest — the last few years have not been too exciting as far as Star Wars novels go. Even enormously talented writers like James S.A. Corey have stepped into the universe to release titles that feel overly constrained.

LordsoftheSithThe Star Wars reboot will be headed off with the new animated series, Star Wars Rebels, and an introductory novel by John Jackson Miller appropriately titled, A New Dawn. Other forthcoming novels include Tarkin by James Luceno, Heir to the Jedi by Kevin Hearne, and Lords of the Sith by Paul Kemp.

It is of little surprise that these titles will be closely approximated within the timeline of the original trilogy. This is the heart of the Star Wars universe and there are even those who refuse to acknowledge the prequel trilogy as part of the cannon. While my view of the latest three movies is not as cold, my feelings are lukewarm at best. I am hoping among the writers of the new EU have a tacit understanding that characters like Jar Jar Binks and terms like midichlorian will not be mentioned here on out.

A thought also occurred to me over the weekend (not for the first time) that I would be curious if there would ever be any edgier stories in the EU. I’m thinking Game of Thrones meets Star Wars, with bounty hunters, smugglers and Sith becoming even more detestable. I also think that George R.R. Martin’s universe is as interesting as it is because of the many shades of gray that exist in the characters’ morals. This differs from the stark contrast between good and evil that is often seen in Star Wars novels. I sort of expect the new novels to continue with the PG or PG-13 rating; however, it would be cool to see a maturer version of Star Wars – sort of like the Vertigo imprint of DC Comics.

I was probably at a point where my Star Wars reading was going to go the way of the Empire, but I am now actually interested in picking some of the new titles up again. Aside from Heir to the Jedi, which I believe was originally going to be part of the thematic trilogy with Martha Wells’ Razor’s Edge and James S.A. Corey’s Honor Among Thieves, the new novels should be showing us new characters and hopefully a different flavor to the universe. My only hope is that this reboot will be something new and inventive rather than just a move done to accommodate the new film trilogy.

Time will tell if the reboot is news or not. Miller’s novel comes out on September 2nd and the new animated series will run this fall. As for the new movie, we’ll have to wait until the end of 2015 for that.

Review: Ubik by Philip K. Dick

pkd setTitle: Ubik

Author: Philip K. Dick

Publisher: Library of America

Format: Hardcover

Where I Received the Title: Purchased

Review:

I have long-been a fan of Philip K. Dick, but I am ashamed to say that this is my first read of his wonderful novel, Ubik. It is one of his more popular titles and certainly one of the highest rated — and for good reason. Ubik is a psychological science fiction novel that crams so many ideas into a weird and mind-bending narrative that leaves you slack-jawed the whole way through.

The novel is about a technician by the name of Joe Chip who works with an organization that employs people with the special ability to block spies with parapsychological talents (such as telepaths and fortune tellers) in the sake of privacy. Chip is nearly broke when a woman by the name of Pat comes to his door, offering an unprecedented talent — the ability to change the past. Chip is wary of her, but is pressured to agree that her talents are too great to ignore. Shortly after their encounter, a large contract comes through, sending some of the corporations most-talented “inertials” to luna. Their trip results in a disaster and Joe Chip finds himself lost in time, not knowing who to trust or if the reality he is experiencing is even real.

I really can’t say enough good things about this novel. I LOVED it. I loved how every step of the way — just when I thought I understood what was going on — PKD peels back another layer, revealing a twisted and intricate world that Joe Chip has no prayer of figuring out. His friends around him are dying and the world and its contents are devolving from a “futuristic” 1992 to regressed and often useless products in 1939. Joe Chip’s discernment is top-notch, but he struggles at every turn to know who to trust. Heck, he doesn’t even know who is alive and dead.

I often see criticism of PKD’s prose, with a back-handed compliment applauding his story-telling while remarking that it’s no great literary work. This is a completely unnecessary comment and is as relevant as when I hear that epic fantasy writer, Brandon Sanderson, isn’t a great stylist. Some writers seek to wax poetically, describing vivid settings with lurid prose and alliteration. PKD cranked out fiction at a manic pace, throwing in so many great ideas that were harmonious in his story telling and he did this as a very capable and talented writer. I enjoy his prose — making use of quick scene changes and off-the-cuff dialog — which he demonstrates effectively in Ubik.

There are few writers who can pull off this mash-up of ideas. Iain M. Banks comes to mind, blending diverse future technologies in his Culture novels. Neal Stepehenson may be another. But more often, science fiction posits a future that could be, rather than bending reality and technology to make a story that barely leaves the reader with any familiarity to hold on to. This is my kind of story. One that tiptoes the line between utter confusion and brilliance. I haven’t decided if Ubik is my favorite novel of PKD’s works, but it’s darn near close.

Review: Peacemaker by Marianne de Pierres

peacemakerTitle: Peacemaker

Author: Marianne de Pierres

Publisher: Angry Robot

Format: electronic ARC

Where I Received the Title: NetGalley

Review:

In a world that has been over-consumed by civilization, Virgin “Ginny” Jackson presides as ranger over the last standing natural park — reminiscent of the Outback (or an Old West-themed desert). Drugs and murder lead to the recruiting of US Marshall, Nate Sixkiller, who is part of an agency that polices mystical events. His experience proves timely when Virgin receives an omen from a supernatural creature from her childhood. As expected, the two law enforcement agents clash, but work together through a series of calamities to bring justice with their peacemakers in hand.

This book truly defines genre blending. It certainly is the space western that is implied with the book’s cover, but don’t expect to find a Firefly spin-off inside. In fact, this book reads much more like an urban fantasy/mystery than a futuristic six-shooter. While the mashing up of genres has become common-place in the last decade, I find it often comes at the expense of the story. In Peacemaker, de Pierres weaves her Sprawl-like setting with the supernatural without jarring the reader.

The prose is sharp and the book is what you would expect from Angry Robot. The short sentences, active voice, and pulpy jargon reminded me of a science fictiony noir novel..

The characters are what help this novel shine the most. Aside from the diverse personalities in Virgin and Nate, Virgin’s friend, Caro, is a bridge between the law enforcers and the law breakers (of which there are many that work with and against Virgin). The individuality of these characters broaden the world that is very different from the one we know.

I found the book enjoyable and fast-paced, but it would be an exaggeration to say that I loved it. There is a lot of action, but ultimately I didn’t form an emotional attachment to the characters and the mystery wasn’t intriguing enough for the plot alone to carry it through. This comment may be a reflection on me as a reader more than on the novel itself, since I am unable to pinpoint any flaws that left my reading experience to be any less than stellar.

But don’t be dissuaded in the least by my favorable, albeit tepid response. Angry Robot continues to put out good fiction and Marianne de Pierres demonstrates in Peacemaker her ability to write engaging fiction that seamlessly spans the entirety of what science fiction and fantasy have to offer.

Must-Read Manga: Naoki Urasawa

I go through Manga spurts — typically gravitating toward the SF story lines with titles such as Akira, Ghost in a Shell, and Cowboy Bebop. But SF fans would be remiss to pass over Naoki Urasawa. He interweaves intricate plot lines, has deep characters, and has a skill at writing with suspense. They are the kind of stories that leave you thinking about the psychological thrill-ride that Urasawa brings you on.

There are two series in particular that are, in my mind, required reading — and a third that I hope to start shortly:

monster

Urasawa kills it in his manga, Monster. Forgive my pun, for it’s the suspenseful tale about a serial killer and an altruistic doctor who is on the run, accused of committing the killer’s crimes. The characters, the plot, the pacing, the art, the suspense, the dialog — every element of this manga — is just spot on. I am only four volumes in, but am completely addicted to this series.

Dr. Kenzo Tenma is a Japanese surgeon who goes to make a name for himself in Germany to avoid working in the shadow of his adept, but older brother. His talents are unmatched in his new hospital and he soon finds himself operating on people deemed more important rather than those in the greatest need. This conflict of morals come to a pass when he saves a young boy against the administrations direction, leaving the mayor to die fatally in the hands of a lesser surgeon. The outcome of this decision has grave consequences for his life, his career and for a stream of future events.

This is a brilliant piece of work that deserves to be read by anyone with even a slight interest in manga.

20th century boys

For those with a bit more patience and a penchant for the strange and speculative, Urasawa’s 20th Century Boys is nearly equal to the much more straight-forward story arc of Monster. The story flashes between the late sixties, when a group of friends formed a secret club, to the nineties, when their childhood comes back to haunt them. It’s a story about how these boys band together to save the world, although the apocalypse and their role in it are in the early stages little more than a conspiracy. I’m still early into this series and it wasn’t until the end of the first volume that this one started to resonate with me.

pluto

I haven’t read Pluto yet, but I figured I’d toss in another popular series by Urasawa. This is on my to-be-read pile, with even a deeper sci-fi element about a future where robots pass as humans. Given that I am a big fan of books like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, I expect that I will love this series as well.

Review of Star Wars: Honor Among Thieves by James S.A. Corey

18209565Title: Star Wars: Honor Among Thieves (Empire and Rebellion #2)

Author: Joe Schreiber

Publisher: LucasBooks (Random House)

Format: electronic ARC

Where I Received the Title: NetGalley

Review:

I have long been a fan of Star Wars and the expanded universe and have also been diligent and enthusiastic in reading both James S.A. Corey’s The Expanse space opera series and Daniel Abraham’s epic fantasy series, The Dagger and the Coin. So to say I have been anticipating Honor Among Thieves is an understatement.

To make things even more compelling, this novel is about Han Solo. A man’s man. An I-shot-first, fearless rogue who if given the chance, every 1980′s kid would want to be if it wasn’t for Boba Fett’s sweet mech armor. So here I am, finally with an electronic copy in hand, ready to don a set of Star Wars jammies, with a Han Solo action figure to my side, and read this novel in one sitting.

The first thing that jumped out at me was the writing was not quite typical of the Daniel Abraham/Ty Franck duo that penned the wonderful novel, Leviathan Wakes. The punchy dialog that I am used to reading in Jim Holden seems almost artificial when it is transplanted on Han Solo. The Star Wars favorite talks tough, but seems completely unsure of himself in his head, which in a way is inconsistent with the Han Solo character of the expanded universe.

From my viewing and reading, I see Han Solo as a hardened, but still intrinsically good man. A.C. Crispin fleshed out his character beautifully in a trilogy that told of a young boy who had to deal with death and losing a mother figure and then later, a lover that he would have spent the rest of his life with. This portrayal of Han Solo showed how his character struggled to deal with the feelings of loss and how it led to a life as a smuggler and nearly a life-long bachelor. Timothy Zahn also captures his essence well in Scoundrels and Choices of One, giving us some filler adventures from the same period as Honor Among Thieves. And then of course, the original film trilogy first captured Han in his many shades of gray, showing his allegiance first to himself, and then to the Rebel Alliance. It finally took a princess who could match his courage and wits to open his heart to others beyond himself.

In the first book of the thematic trilogy, Razor’s Edge, Martha Wells brought Leia further into the spotlight, showing us her undeniable courage and intelligence. Good characters often struggle to make difficult decisions and Wells put Leia in these types of situations, allowing her leadership abilities to shine. It had an exciting plot with lots of action.

In contrast, Honor Among Thieves was at times dull, with very short action scenes. The book failed to draw on the expanded universe and ultimately left me with a forgettable story that I could barely finish. I really hate to write negative reviews, but given that this book will likely be one of the highest selling science fiction books this year, I feel compelled to mention that science fiction novels can achieve so much more. As can James S.A. Corey (an author combo I still will continue to read without reservation). Maybe my expectations were too high or maybe I was too tired/distracted when I read it, but each page was a chore and much of the story is already lost on me. If you are going to read a book in this series, pick up Martha Wells’ book first. If you are new to the expanded universe and are longing to read of Han Solo, pick up A.C. Crispin’s trilogy. This book is probably good for Star Wars or James S.A. Corey completists, but you will be much more satisfied if you delve into The Expanse series that the duo is writing. In fact, I highly recommend you do — it’s one of the best space operas being written today.

New Books in my TBR Pile

While I prefer paper over plastic, most of my reading these days is on my iPad. In a sense, this is convenient. I can pick up the light-weight device and hop from title to title without moving more than a finger. Four new titles have recently been added to my eReader, making my ever-growing TBR pile even taller (so to speak). Here are the titles I have received recently:

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Robert Jackson Bennett gets a lot of love around SF book-blogging circles. Most of it is justifiable and when I saw this was available on NetGalley, I made it a point to request it immediately. The only novel I have read by Bennett is The Troupe, which I found to be a very good read. I know nothing about City of Stairs and I made it a point not to read the publisher’s description (if one has even been released). This is exactly how I like to go into books and I plan on reading this novel shortly.

peacemakerI spy a Joey Hi-Fi cover! While he is easily one of my favorite cover artists in the biz, this cover leaves something to be desired. The artwork is well-crafted and aesthetically pleasing, filled with the classic Joey Hi-Fi image overlays. But… The western, pistol-wielding woman comes across as cliche and the juxtaposition of an eagle over a futuristic city leaves the cover a bit discombobulated instead of harmonious. The very fact that I am discussing the cover means it is doing something very right.

I have been a fan of the publisher, Angry Robot, for a while now and when I see titles from them come out, I pay closer attention. Sci-fi Westerns have been around for a while and there is a sense of nostalgia that I enjoy, whether it is reading a novel or watching Firefly or Cowboy Bebop. I am not familiar with Marianne De Pierres, but I intend on giving this one a shot too.

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Rob Steiner, an author who I learned is a fellow-Michigander, sent along his novel that blends Roman history and space opera. Umm. Yes, please. While I haven’t read Dan Simmons’ (one of my favorite authors) books Ilium and Olympos, this novel’s description sort of reminded me of a Roman version of Simmons’ Greek dualogy. Ugh — too much to read, but I want to get to this one as well. It only has a few reviews on Goodreads, but they all are really good. Hopefully I can add another one to the mix.

Earthbound 1Earthbound 2Despite my 2014 reading list being filled with Urban Fantasy, this is not typically a sub-genre I gravitate toward.  I received two titles in the Earthbound Angels series by Elizabeth Corrigan and thought it would be worth looking into them. I had just finished a good angel-themed noir fantasy, Something More than Night by Ian Tregillis, when these books came to my attention. The Earthbound Angel series takes place in a world where humans interact with angels and demons and the first two books have received good reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. From the description, I am getting the vibe that it is more adventure than paranormal romance (a genre I try to avoid with my engineering-minded tin heart). I’m a little on the fence on these titles, but may give them a chance in the coming weeks.

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