Zoe’s Tale (Old Man’s War #4)

Published Post author

Zoe's Tale Book Cover Zoe's Tale
Old Man's War
John Scalzi
Sci-fi
Tor Books
August 19, 2008
Paperback
335

How do you tell your part in the biggest tale in history?

I ask because it's what I have to do. I'm Zoe Boutin Perry: A colonist stranded on a deadly pioneer world. Holy icon to a race of aliens. A player (and a pawn) in a interstellar chess match to save humanity, or to see it fall. Witness to history. Friend. Daughter. Human. Seventeen years old.

Everyone on Earth knows the tale I am part of. But you don't know my tale: How I did what I did — how I did what I had to do — not just to stay alive but to keep you alive, too. All of you. I'm going to tell it to you now, the only way I know how: not straight but true, the whole thing, to try make you feel what I felt: the joy and terror and uncertainty, panic and wonder, despair and hope. Everything that happened, bringing us to Earth, and Earth out of its captivity. All through my eyes.

It's a story you know. But you don't know it all.

 

In a nutshell, Zoe’s Tale follows the same story as The Last Colony. But this time around the story is told from Zoe’s point-of-view. Scalzi is able to accomplish three things by doing this. One, it fills in some of the unanswered questions from the last book. Two, it gives Zoe more character development since she was a little sparse on that before. Three, Scalzi once again shows he is capable of writing very different points-of-view. Across this series, we have gone from standard soldier to spec ops soldier to ex-soldier civilian to teenage girl. And each time he switches up perspectives, it works.

Being written from a teenage girl’s POV, Zoe’s Tale reads very much like a YA novel. She is deeply embroiled in events that will determine the ultimate fate of humanity and countless alien races. At the same time, she is a teenage girl. She has normal teenage girl problems on top of the “save humanity” stuff. Not to mention her tragic background stretching back to the second book. All the while, the adults do not fully grasp what she is going through as they deal with the threats everyone is facing in their own way.

One of the key things about Scalzi’s writing is the lack of descriptions. Sci-fi concepts like unique aliens are barely described, if at all. The ideas are good but the writing is simple to follow. Characters are a bit of a mix between 2D and 3D. There is a big, bad but also “good” government in place to keep order despite committing atrocities. All of these factors are pretty common in YA books. Since Zoe’s Tale is more of a YA book than the rest of Old Man’s War, all of that writing is more in line this time around.

That being said, there is no reason to read Zoe’s Tale if you have not read the previous book. Certain key details from The Last Colony are not mentioned here. This is meant to be an expansion of the previous novel, not a story in and of itself. And while all the extra details are nice to have, it does not really advance the story any. Old Man’s War was originally written as a trilogy and everything past book three really feels tacked on. Not necessarily bad reads, but not on par with the original three novels.

April 21, 2019

Caina

Published Post author

Caina Book Cover Caina
Joe Albanese
Mystery
Mockingbird Lane Press
July 5, 2018
Paperback
174

Growing up, Lee Tolan was barely the shadow of his twin brother, Grant, and eventually grew to despise him. After ten years of not seeing him and in debt to multiple gangs, Lee has no choice but to crawl back to his estranged brother. Upon learning of Grant's untimely death, Lee assumes his twin’s identity to finally bask in his glory. But there, forced into deals with the mob, the DEA, and a drone delivery company, Lee finds that in the corners of Grant’s success are dark secrets that will finally show Lee the brother he never really knew.

 

A copy of Caina was provided to me by the author in exchange for an honest review.

Caina follows the story of Lee, a man with debts associated with the less-than-savory members of the Los Angeles community. With nowhere else to turn, he reaches out to his estranged twin brother, Grant. But Grant was not entirely the little-goody-two-shoes Lee remembered, and Lee’s problems soon go from bad to worse. For a little novella, Caina was pretty entertaining. It had its ups and downs but was overall a fun little story.

Personally, I am not used to novellas. Most of my reading comes from novels, so that does affect my judgment with Caina. This story seemed like it could have had more to it. The small page count keeps things fast-paced, with things like mid-chapter scene jumps between paragraphs. These transitions are a bit rough and can make it a little tricky to follow the story.

For the limited page count, the characters are very well developed. Lee is a deadbeat but grows throughout the story as he is forced to play the role of Grant. His friends/associates are pulled into this mess with him and none of them are quite the same by the end. Everyone gets a little growth and development instead of being 2D cutouts.

If you read the synopsis, you pretty much know what Caina is about. It follows a fairly by-the-book pattern for this type of mystery-crime story. The short length makes the novella feel more like an episode of a crime drama TV show than anything else. On the whole, it is a good little afternoon read with deeper, underlying tones. If Joe Albanese wanted to expand this into a full-fledged novel, he could do it. There is room here for a lot more, but as it is now the story is still good.

April 14, 2019

Storm Front (The Dresden Files #1)

Published Post author

Storm Front Book Cover Storm Front
The Dresden Files
Jim Butcher
Fantasy
Penguin ROC
April 2000
Paperback
322

Harry Dresden is the best at what he does. Well, technically, he's the only at what he does. So when the Chicago P.D. has a case that transcends mortal creativity or capability, they come to him for answers. For the "everyday" world is actually full of strange and magical things—and most don't play well with humans. That's where Harry comes in. Takes a wizard to catch a—well, whatever. There's just one problem. Business, to put it mildly, stinks.

So when the police bring him in to consult on a grisly double murder committed with black magic, Harry's seeing dollar signs. But where there's black magic, there's a black mage behind it. And now that mage knows Harry's name. And that's when things start to get interesting.

Magic - it can get a guy killed.

 

A close friend recommended The Dresden Files series to me, which was my main reason for picking it up. This particular friend is very familiar with what I like and do not like in fiction and knows urban fantasy is not really my thing, but he recommended it anyway. With all that in mind, I picked it up based on his suggestion and was happy to be proven wrong. Despite my current attitude towards urban fantasy, I used to love it. Storm Front is far from the first urban fantasy book I have ever read. That all being said, lots of things in this review are going to reflect my own experiences and biases with urban fantasy.

So more about the book itself and less about me. Harry Dresden, wizard and private eye, living in Chicago. Kind of like that one old HBO movie from back in the day, but with magic being low-key. Dresden himself is a somewhat typical urban fantasy protagonist. He is very powerful but shunned by his branch of the supernatural community because of <reasons>. Dresden is a loner, a smart aleck, a man caught up in trouble because of his innate need to do the right thing.

The world-building here is also pretty standard. Supernatural stuff is real and exists just under the surface of regular society. And the more well-known stuff is in pop culture, the better the odds of running into it. Tropes non-withstanding, it is easy to see why fans regard The Dresden Files to highly. The setting and characters are just complex enough. Nothing feels 2D but it is not difficult to follow either. On the whole, everything feels real. People are making decisions in a mix of emotion and logic, not just adhering to one or the other. Other characters are not as dynamic as Dresden himself, but they just have less face time so what are you gonna do?

Storm Front can read like a standalone book, which is true for most of The Dresden Files from what I understand. It will probably take some time before an overarching plot and villain appear. That being said, this is the issue I have seen with many urban fantasy series. They have strong starts but struggle to keep going. Oftentimes, the hero passes up opportunities to stop the villain and end the madness for moral or arbitrary reasons. I plan to keep reading The Dresden Files between other books, so hopefully, it breaks that cycle and holds my interest throughout. On the whole though, Storm Front is one of the best urban fantasy books out there.

April 7, 2019

Us

Published Post author

Poster for the movie "Us"

Us

Watch yourself

20191 h 56 min
Overview

Husband and wife Gabe and Adelaide Wilson take their kids to their beach house expecting to unplug and unwind with friends. But as night descends, their serenity turns to tension and chaos when some shocking visitors arrive uninvited.

Metadata
Director Jordan Peele
Runtime 1 h 56 min
Release Date 14 March 2019
Details
Movie Media Cinema
Movie Status Available
Movie Rating Very good

Let’s start by saying that Us is an absolutely terrifying horror movie. Easily within the top 10% of all horror movies in terms of scariness. That being said, it is a horror movie. You may be tempted to compare it to Get Out, but this is not a thriller like Peele’s previous film. This is a movie designed to invoke fear and get your heart racing. Is it a masterpiece of cinema? No. Is it a masterpiece of the horror genre? You absolutely bet it is. So, get that out of your system now before diving in.

Even at the beginning of the film when things are ordinary, things feel off. The main characters are not a perfect family and clearly have some issues while trying to keep it all together and enjoy their summer vacation. This is really driven home for the audience by the soundtrack. The music has just the right blend to leave you with a feeling of alien fear, a fear of the unknown as you know something that seems impossible is coming to hurt you. Some scenes are a little goofy, so the entire film is not deranged and dark. These bits provide a healthy sense of balance and moderation; a little light in the darkness.

On the other side of things, this is a movie that requires a sense of disbelief. It also requires viewers to pay close attention. There is a lot of foreshadowing and symbolism throughout the film; some things may be missed during the first viewing. It skims the realm of contemporary horror (Hereditary, The Witch, or It Follows), but just barely. While those types of films are beloved by critics and die-hard horror fans, they do not go over well with general audiences. Peele touched them just enough to be interesting but not turn most people off.

If you try to go too deep, Us is not a story that really holds up to critical analysis. There are a number of holes that require that sense of disbelief. If you think closely some can be explained while others cannot. But conceptually, that decision on Peele’s part really comes down to interpretation. If you like to have things explained and know everything about a story in detail, you may be disappointed. But if things do not quite make sense, if these horrible things that are happening seem illogical and inconceivable, that can make the fact that they are happening all the more terrifying.

March 31, 2019

The Last Colony (Old Man’s War #3)

Published Post author

The Last Colony Book Cover The Last Colony
Old Man's War
John Scalzi
Sci-fi
Tor Books
April 17, 2007
Paperback
320

Retired from his fighting days, John Perry is now village ombudsman for a human colony on distant Huckleberry. With his wife, former Special Forces warrior Jane Sagan, he farms several acres, adjudicates local disputes, and enjoys watching his adopted daughter grow up.

That is, until his and Jane's past reaches out to bring them back into the game--as leaders of a new human colony, to be peopled by settlers from all the major human worlds, for a deep political purpose that will put Perry and Sagan back in the thick of interstellar politics, betrayal, and war.

 

The Last Colony marks the return of John Perry from Old Man’s War, once again making him the central character. Having married Jane and adopted Zoe since the events of the last book, the family lives a peaceful farmstead life. Until the Colonial Defense Force makes them a new offer, filled with honeyed words and half-truths. Whereas the first book was about regular soldiers and the second followed special forces, this third installment focuses on civilians. Being the last book in the original trilogy for this series, The Last Colony has its ups and downs.

On the positive side, Scalzi once again shows people in different lifestyles and new situations. Once again, he demonstrates that he knows how to write more than one type of scenario. We see that while humans are not necessarily the good guys, humanity is much more fractured than most of the alien species. There is merit to what the mad scientist in the previous novel said about the CDF’s corruption. Overall, The Last Colony is a fitting end to the trilogy and a good story. Not quite a great story, but a good one.

The negatives of this book, and the trilogy as a whole, are what keep The Last Colony from being good rather than great. One key issue is the lack of descriptions. There are a fair number of aliens in this series and none of them get described in detail. Some just have a name put to them and that is it. The mental images readers can paint of these aliens is very, very limited. Tying into that, the world building is very light. The limited information is justified as the characters not knowing a lot in the grand scheme of things, but most other series find a way to fit more world building in.

On the whole, the Old Man’s War trilogy is one of the better space sci-fi series out there. Particularly the first book, which had a lot of unique concepts that were well executed. But the magic in that first book just lost momentum as the series went on. This last original installment, particularly, has some holes in it that the fourth book fixes later. And from there the quality of the series continues to dip further. Reading Zoe’s Tale after this book helps but after that, it is safe to stop with this series.

March 24, 2019

Goblin Slayer, Vol. 1

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Goblin Slayer, Vol. 1 Book Cover Goblin Slayer, Vol. 1
Goblin Slayer
Kumo Kagyu
Fantasy
Yen On
December 20, 2016 (English); February 12, 2016 (Japanese)
Paperback
224

A young priestess has formed her first adventuring party, but almost immediately they find themselves in distress. It's the Goblin Slayer who comes to their rescue--a man who's dedicated his life to the extermination of all goblins, by any means necessary. And when rumors of his feats begin to circulate, there's no telling who might come calling next...

 

Goblin Slayer is a very mixed bag. It is a “love it or hate it” series for the majority of readers out there. The range of reactions to the series mainly seems to do with audience expectations. If you are looking for something that is critical and serious with top-notch world building and character development, this is not necessarily for you. If you are looking for a combination of dark humor/shock value and humor, this can be a just-for-fun story. There are good and bad things about the book and how those factors rank, or whether you consider them good/bad yourself, will determine if this is a book for you.

Starting with the good, Goblin Slayer takes place in a genuine fantasy land. This is not a “trapped in a video game” scenario. By this point, everyone knows we have enough of those. The world here seems to run on D&D-type rules, with adventurers slaying monsters but not being too overpowered. People take quests, magic has limited uses per day, and so on. The other key takeaway is that this is not a “save the world” story. The stakes are rarely high, but they are personal. Goblin Slayer (the character) is driven by an unquenchable thirst for vengeance, not a sense of righteousness.

Now, for the bad bits. None of the characters have actual names. Everyone is referred to by whatever their role is. “Goblin Slayer”, “Priestess”, “Guild Girl”, etc. And their personalities pretty much match stereotypical fantasy roles for whatever character class they use. The other glaring issue is the writing. Saying the writing is bad is a bit of a stretch, but the author is no seasoned professional. It is a very basic style. If your interests lie in great works of literature, look elsewhere.

SMALL SPOILER BELOW

So, the last thing that must be addressed could be considered either good or bad. This one is really a matter of personal preference. And that is the extreme level of violence. Having watched the anime first, I knew what was coming in the book. The violence is not quite on the level of absolute extremes like Higurashi or Elfen Lied, but it comes close. It is dark, it is brutal, and it comes completely out of left field after the soft introduction. Some people are disgusted by it but for others that is the draw of Goblin Slayer. The decision there is up to you.

March 17, 2019

11/22/63

Published Post author

11/22/63 Book Cover 11/22/63
Stephen King
Historical Fiction
Scribner
November 8, 2011
Paperback
849

Life can turn on a dime—or stumble into the extraordinary, as it does for Jake Epping, a high school English teacher in Lisbon Falls, Maine. While grading essays by his GED students, Jake reads a gruesome, enthralling piece penned by janitor Harry Dunning: fifty years ago, Harry somehow survived his father’s sledgehammer slaughter of his entire family. Jake is blown away...but an even more bizarre secret comes to light when Jake’s friend Al, owner of the local diner, enlists Jake to take over the mission that has become his obsession—to prevent the Kennedy assassination. How? By stepping through a portal in the diner’s storeroom, and into the era of Ike and Elvis, of big American cars, sock hops, and cigarette smoke... Finding himself in warmhearted Jodie, Texas, Jake begins a new life. But all turns in the road lead to a troubled loner named Lee Harvey Oswald. The course of history is about to be rewritten...and become heart-stoppingly suspenseful.

 

11/22/63 is one of Stephen King’s non-horror books, demonstrating his mastery of many genres. Like most of his novels, 11/22/63 is a long book. There are also references to some of King’s previous works, further building the shared universe where his stories take place. The premise of the book is simple: a time traveler attempts to stop JFK’s assassination. In and of itself, that summary sounds like it could be a simple short story. But there are rules to the time travel, namely that protagonist Jake Epping can only go back to a certain date, 5 years before the assassination happens. If he wants to save JFK, he will have to wait out that time. And a lot can happen to a man in 5 years.

Throughout 11/22/63, Jake’s mission to save JFK is more of a motivational device than anything else. At first, he figures he can just wait out the 5 years for the most part. But sitting and just waiting is hard for even a little while, let alone 5 years. A man has to do something in that time to keep himself busy. He has to live life. And life has a way of moving things and changing people. In some ways good and in others bad.

Jake spends his time in the past keeping an eye on Lee Harvey Oswald. But as he lives a new life in the late 50s/early 60s, he begins to meet new people. He builds relationships with the people around him, making friends and enemies alike. There is pain and there is joy, forcing Jake to make hard decisions on whether he should focus on himself or his mission. Ultimately, 11/22/63 becomes a story as much about Jake’s growth as a person as his history-changing mission.

This type of story is hard to review because of its length. It may be a long story, but the page count is not wasted. The book is detailed and a bit of a slow burn, but not overly so. By the end, it comfortably covers the roughly 5-year period of Jake’s mission. There are some bits at the beginning of the book taking place in the town of Derry, which will only fully make sense if you have read IT. While a number of King’s other books end awkwardly, that is not an issue in 11/22/63. By the last page, the story feels complete, and it’s a hell of a ride through America’s heartland and history the whole way there.

March 10, 2019

Alita: Battle Angel

Published Post author

Poster for the movie "Alita: Battle Angel"

Alita: Battle Angel

An angel falls. A warrior rises.

20192 h 02 min

Alita: Battle Angel is based on a Japanese comic book (manga) series called Gunnm from the early 90s. There was also a 1-hour cartoon (anime) adaption around the same time. Now we get a live action adaptation by master of cinema James Cameron. With Cameron at the wheel, you know a movie is going to be good. Mostly (but in fairness, everyone has to start somewhere).

The key takeaway from Alita is that it is just a good movie. Nothing in the film feels objectively bad. Alita herself is a balanced character with a real personality. She is a young girl learning new things in a world that is alien to her. At the same time, she is a total badass who can put everyone else in the room on the floor. Throughout the story, there is pain as well as joy. She makes friends and finds love but also finds enemies who want to destroy her for what she is, regardless of who she is. By the end of the film, she is far from the person she was at the beginning.

This being a James Cameron film, it probably goes without saying the special effects are amazing. Cameron proved that CGI is one of his main things back with Avatar, and that has not changed. The fight sequences are incredible and none of them are shoehorned in. Even the city just as the background is an amazing visual setting, giving audiences the sense of a real living, breathing city.

The plot in the movie is nothing too crazy. There are no major twists or shocks as the story develops. But there does not really need to be. In the end, this is not some kind of high stakes save-the-world scenario. The story is ultimately about Alita; about her finding who she was before and who she is now. This is an origin story.

The movie itself follows one of the big rules for a potentially great movie: leave the audience wanting more. This is clearly part of a much, much bigger story. We have only seen a small piece of a big universe with this film. Having not read the original manga, I cannot say off-hand how much of the original story is covered in the film adaption. However, the original story from the 90s was followed up by two sequel series. The latter of which is still ongoing. If Alita: Battle Angel gets a sequel, which seems plausible with the box office results, there is a lot more source material to pull from.

March 3, 2019

The Trench (MEG #2)

Published Post author

The Trench Book Cover The Trench
MEG
Steve Alten
Horror
Pinnacle
July 28, 1999
352

In this thrilling sequel to Steve Alten's sci-fi thriller, MEG: Deep Terror, paleobiologist and Megaladon expert Jonas Taylor must face his deepest fears in order to save his job, his family, and himself.

Four years after the incident at the Mariana Trench that unleashed a pregnant Megaladon, Jonas Taylor now houses her one surviving offspring at the Tanaka Institute. Deep in debt, Taylor has turned to an eccentric billionaire to help keep the institute afloat, but it doesn't come without a price. Drawn into a web of deceit and lies, plagued by nightmares of his own death, Taylor must once again face frightening monsters of unimaginable power. Only this time, it's not just the sharks he has to watch out for.

 

The Trench picks up 4 years after the end of MEG. In that time, the surviving baby megalodon from the first book has grown to rival her mother. Trapped in the artificial lagoon of the Tanaka Institute, she has become an 8th wonder of the world. That being said, keeping a large thought-to-be-extinct creature captive as a habit of not going well. All the while there are evil, greedy rich people attempting to manipulate the situation to their own ends. And like the first book, this all kicks off in the style of a SyFy Channel original film.

First off, any good monster story has to have a fair amount of time dedicated to the monster. The Meg herself is not a malicious creature. She is an animal driven by instinct, nothing more and nothing less. But she is also an invasive species that could cause catastrophic damage outside of her natural habitat. This time around, however, the Meg is not the only monster lurking beneath the sea.

Following 4 years of lawsuits after the first Meg rampage, the Tanaka Institute fell on hard times. Until the eccentric billionaire Benedict Singer came along. And as we all know, “eccentric” is a synonym used to replace “crazy” when talking about rich people. While Singer is a stereotypical villain, from having a god complex to speaking Latin because it makes him feel smart, his wealth makes him truly dangerous. Accompanying him is Celeste, Singer’s arm candy who is more venomous than any viper. The pair makes dangerous foes that show true monsters often spring from humanity rather than the depths of the sea.

Like the Meg, this is by no means a serious book. If you like cheesy Sharknado-esque monster movies, you will enjoy The Trench. There is a big monster, made-up science, characters who behave kind of like real people, and other classic B-movie tropes. Water monsters are always scary since man is out of his natural element in the sea. And people are still scared of sharks over 40 years after Jaws came out. With stories like The Trench still being released semi-regularly today, that is unlikely to change anytime soon.

February 24, 2019

The Ghost Brigades (Old Man’s War #2)

Published Post author

The Ghost Brigades Book Cover The Ghost Brigades
Old Man's War
John Scalzi
Sci-fi
Tor Books
May 1, 2007
Paperback
347

The Ghost Brigades are the Special Forces of the Colonial Defense Forces, elite troops created from the DNA of the dead and turned into the perfect soldiers for the CDF's toughest operations. They’re young, they’re fast and strong, and they’re totally without normal human qualms.

The universe is a dangerous place for humanity—and it's about to become far more dangerous. Three races that humans have clashed with before have allied to halt our expansion into space. Their linchpin: the turncoat military scientist Charles Boutin, who knows the CDF’s biggest military secrets. To prevail, the CDF must find out why Boutin did what he did.

Jared Dirac is the only human who can provide answers -- a superhuman hybrid, created from Boutin's DNA, Jared’s brain should be able to access Boutin's electronic memories. But when the memory transplant appears to fail, Jared is given to the Ghost Brigades.

At first, Jared is a perfect soldier, but as Boutin’s memories slowly surface, Jared begins to intuit the reason’s for Boutin’s betrayal. As Jared desperately hunts for his "father," he must also come to grips with his own choices. Time is running out: The alliance is preparing its offensive, and some of them plan worse things than humanity’s mere military defeat…

 

The Ghost Brigades departs a bit from Old Man’s War, being the rare series that switches main characters between books. Whereas the first book was a narrow, Starship Trooper-esque novel, The Ghost Brigades starts to expand the world building. We get to see humans and aliens do much more than shooting at each other this time around. Politics both inside and outside human culture start coming into play. It becomes more apparent here that things are not as simple as “humans good, aliens bad”. This is like the Rogue One equivalent to the series, where we see the good guys doing some definitely unethical things in order to win.

New protagonist Jared Dirac is fairly different from John Perry in the first book, but still a fantastic character. Being able to showcase an equally good story using someone with a very different personality really showcases Scalzi’s writing ability. For reasons that would contain spoilers, Dirac starts out with an almost childlike personality. And is immediately thrust into the life of a special forces soldier. He picks up traits from his brothers-in-arms, but his core personality persists throughout the story. It adds a unique nature vs. nurture aspect to Dirac and to the story as a whole.

The first book highlighted that essentially all aliens (and humans) are in a constant, all-out war. Habitable planets are extremely rare (which itself is rare for a series like this) and everyone fights for real estate. But here we start to see that there is some trade and some aliens are willing to make alliances. Not forever, but long enough to crush a common enemy. And humanity has been successful enough in its conquests to make many, many enemies. At the same time, though, old hostilities and habits can make “allies” quick to turn on each other.

What really sets The Ghost Brigades (and Old Man’s War) apart is that it is pure, military sci-fi. There are hardcore action sequences, but there is also humor. Politics play a part and so do the everyday lives of characters who know they are cogs in the machine. Scalzi manages to write all of this around a host of interesting characters, some new and others returning from the first book. All the while, he keeps things focused without turning the book into a space opera or some other sub-genre. Not to say space operas and other genres are bad, but keeping that rare focusing is a large part of what elevates The Ghost Brigades from good to great.

February 17, 2019