Review: Cibola Burn

Cibola Burn Cibola Burn by James S.A. Corey
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'd had plenty of warning in advance that this book represents a low point in the series. Now that I'm finished, I can agree that it doesn't live up to the rest, but I still enjoyed visiting the world of the expanse. As other reviewers have said at length, this episode does very little to build on the previous books. It also lacks a lot of what made the first books so good: political intrigue, interesting side characters, and gripping action. I thought we might be in for some interesting debate about who has rights to undiscovered country, how true new frontiers are explored, examined, and colonized. Perhaps we might learn something substantial about the protomolecule, or at the very least get some interesting speculative science regarding this foreign world. Instead, we get a lot of empty posturing and an 'everything and the kitchen sync' apocalypse that conveniently dissipates as our heroes save the day. I'll keep reading the series, but I get the sense that this book could be skipped without missing anything of consequence.

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Review: Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal

Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal by Mary Roach
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Thank you, Mary Roach, for giving me so much interesting material to relay to my unfortunate family and friends! I'm a big fan of Roach's other works, so I had a pretty good idea what I was in for here. Mary is inquisitive, funny, ornery, and seeks out areas of study that most folks find taboo, or at the very least unmentionable in polite company. Gulp is an exploration of how we ingest, digest, and excrete. I think this provides for one of her most relatable books as these are all acts that we are intimately familiar with on a daily basis. If you haven't read any of Mary's books before, this is definitely where to start.

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Review: Avogadro Corp

Avogadro Corp Avogadro Corp by William Hertling
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Avogadro Corp is a cautionary tale of sorts. The corp, which is a not even thinly veiled pseudonym for Google, is the world's chief search engine and email provider. A group within the company has developed an add-on for gmail that can optimize the content for greatest success. When an engineer modifies the code to allow it to fully generate messages and gives it the goal of promoting the add-on's survival, it becomes incredibly successful to everyone's horror and fascination.

This story is on a seesaw between potential plausibility and utter ridiculousness. On the one hand, I can totally foresee a time when language analysis and processing leads to an engine that can analyze our messages and both effectively emulate our voice as well as assess the recipient and give guidance for best message reception. On the other hand, expecting any business arrangement, let alone government contacts, to be signed and completed in a week's time is completely unbelievable. Further, I can suspend belief that a language analysis engine might learn general topics that either improve or degrade the content of a message to a given recipient, but can't accept that the next logical step is that it would lead to that same engine understanding how to direct engineers to create an API to bridge security gaps and then utilize that bridge. I found the technical discussions of the concept for ELOPe to be mildly interesting, but much of the rest left me wanting.

The characters are bare sketches badly in need of color and texture. I'm not sure if this was the author's intent, but I get the sense that the central figures lacked a real sense of urgency when confronted with the rogue AI and it's actions. For instance, we find the team at a coffee house, espousing the quality of the bean just as they have gotten together to discuss how ELOPe has directed for it's own improvement. Perhaps this was intended to reinforce Mike's quirk of being a coffee fanatic, but it feels out of place. Gene is a Luddite in the most literal sense, and it grated on me that his interactions with others always used terms like 'boy' or 'kid' to help emphasize how out of touch and old he was. Worse was that in response he would get 'dude' from the coders, which was out of character from their other conversations.

In short, there's an interesting core to the story, but it is veiled in weak storytelling.

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Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane

The Ocean at the End of the Lane The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I had an amazing grandma, and this book reminds me of her. My Grandma Jones always had a refrigerator with chocolate syrup and cold milk, and I was welcome to as much as I wanted. She never made fancy meals, but the simple dishes she prepared were amazing, like beef and noodles with mashed potatoes. She made me feel loved and protected.

The Hempstead women exude those same characteristics. They are strong, confident, independent women who take in a wayward boy without any hesitation and immediately make him feel safe and cared for. I'm grateful to this book for sending me back in my mind to being at grandma's.

Outside of that nostalgia, there is also a wonderful short story of a man dealing with his grief by visiting a childhood place of wonder. He recounts his adventure with a marvelous neighbor girl that led him to fantastical experiences. Gaiman has an incredible talent for filling your mind with the wonder and magic of an experience through word alone.

This is an quick weekend or even evening read that can be easily recommended, especially to those who may not have read Gaiman before.

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Review: Abaddon's Gate

Abaddon's Gate Abaddon's Gate by James S.A. Corey
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I've really enjoyed the Expanse series so far. I like the pacing, the action, the characters. Even so, this third book feels like a well trod path. We're seeing a lot of the same sites on this third trip around; there's a Mao behind nefarious dealings, the protomolecule is enigmatic and deadly, there's a lovable new side character....yes, I've walked this path before. Of course, I like these things, so I'm not terribly put off, but I'm also finding I'm not as eager to pick up the book. I certainly get a lot of pages for my story dollar, but even with all of those pages the story arch is only advanced a tiny bit. More damning to me is that the new characters are starting to lose texture. Maybe I just chose not to see it earlier, but here Ashford is clearly a bad. Anna is clearly a good. Clarissa/Melba is clearly bad. I couldn't invest myself in these characters. Anna was terribly bland, especially appearing on the heels of Avisarala, who was so interesting.

All of that said, I'm definitely going to continue reading the series. It may be a well trod path, but I'm willing to continue walking it because I enjoy what I see along the way.

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Review: Ancillary Justice

Ancillary Justice Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'm of two minds with this book. I completely understand why this book is winning so many awards, but I think it is a really difficult book to appreciate. The story is told from the perspective of an artificial intelligence that managed a ship and the automated crew aboard that ship, referred to as ancillaries. The author does a superb job of creating the voice of that creature. It is precisely due to this voice, though, that I think many will be put off. One Esk is dispassionate, calculating, and struggles to socialize in a natural way. One Esk's observations of those around are often clinical, measuring the seconds between a verbal prompt and response, or observing facial ticks.

One Esk serves the empire of Radchaai or Radch for short. The Radch is a severe and uncompromising civilization that sees the purity of humanity as an ultimate goal. The Radch has spent millennia performing "annexations" where foreign worlds are either made to submit to the will of the Radch, or annihilated. The people of the Radch observe a system of heirarchy where prominent families maintain influence and power. Those aspiring to improve their station in life look for a more prominent family to offer them clientage.

It is very difficult to empathize or sympathize with any element of this story. It all feels very foreign and unlikable. The concepts presented, however, are incredibly interesting. I believe that if you pick up this book with the understanding that it isn't a typical action packed space opera you will have the right expectations. I do strongly recommend it, but with the reservation that you may appreciate it without enjoying it.

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Review: Morning Star

Morning Star Morning Star by Pierce Brown
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Quick summary: if you enjoyed the first two books you should definitely read the conclusion. It is everything you enjoyed in the first two. If you had reservations with either of the first books however, the third book will probably provide you with those same reservations.

In my review of Red Rising I had some specific gripes, and many of them carry through here:

1) Knights of the round table....IIIiiin SPAAAAAAAaaaace! The institute taught the golds to fight as medieval knights do; with lances, swords, maces, and other hand to hand combat weapons. We even had bow and arrow thrown in. Honest to God, in the era of space exploration, bow and arrow fights. Cue Indiana Jones with his pistol against the baddie with scimitars. Golden Son addressed that a bit by giving the kids pulse fists, grav boots, and other techie toys, but height of battle is still waged with razors in close quarters combat. Morning Star doesn't really add anything new here. We see some larger fleet battles, but it all strikes me as very Flash Gordon. I mean, we even get freaking Valkyries on gryphons!

Kavax au Telemanus!!!

2) It's hard to feel any sort of real suspense when it comes to Darrow. He is the protagonist. He is telling the story, first person. Any time he finds himself in peril the sense of suspense is dispelled by the knowledge that there are pages after the current one, and I'm pretty sure we're not going to see a switch from the Darrow first person point of view. Darrow has the answer for every situation, either through cunning or might. If he falters, his friends help him, or his enemies fail. When the situation seems most hopeless, DEUS EX MACHINA! He actually planned for that six months ago and through a very chancy set of assumptions, guessed exactly what his opponents would do so that he could perfectly counter them.

3) Red Rising had a clear separation of the good guys and the bad. I'm thrilled to say that this is one area that has seen tremendous improvement. The characters morph through Golden Sun and into Morning Star to be varied creatures. Sure, we still have a few villains that are just plain bad, and we have some noble heroes, but Darrow, Sevro, Mustang, and the rest are no longer simply good or bad. They are forced to make decisions that they know have consequences.

Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed this book. I really did! It put a nice tidy bow on the series. I think what rubs me wrong, and ultimately left me feeling like this was the least of the three book series, is how much this felt the same. The characters became very muddled for me. I felt myself caring less and less. Add to that my growing sense that this entire series was a monstrous bro-fest. I can't take another minute of Darrow looking longingly into Cassius, fist bumping sevro, or war crying with Ragnar. In many cases even the women are bro's. At points I started to mentally substitute Hulk Hogan into the narrative.

"What are you gonna do, brother, when Hulkamania comes for you?!?!?"

Sevro is something of a Macho Man Randy Savage and the Telemanus' are a clan of Hacksaw Jim Duggan's. Many conversations are just particularly wordy versions of:


Perhaps I'm being overly harsh. After all, I did enjoy the book. Maybe I just had bad expectations. I was entertained, and I would still recommend the series. I just can't be as enthusiastic about that recommendation as I hoped I could.

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Jade Mason