Tag: Book Review

I combine my experiences and emotions with a solid understanding of the literary craft to offer Science Fiction book reviews unlike any you have seen before. Here are honest reviews of the authors that have changed science fiction and my life.

Heart Breath Mind, Fail

Heart Breath Mind Cover

The promise is simple enough. A data driven approach to the benefits of meditation. The execution is a lot more complicated than the promise and will cost you hundreds of dollars in equipment. Equipment you will use a few minutes a day to calculate a nebulous score. The introduction to Lea Lagos’s Heart Breath Mind Train your Heart to Conquer Stress and Achieve Success makes a big promise:

The breathing exercises and peak performance strategies described in Heart Breath Mind will take you on a journey from merely surviving stress to thriving despite it. A critical part of our work together will be developing your somatic awareness—a heightened consciousness of how your body is feeling—so that you will recognize when you are stressed and can take action to shift yourself out of a state of stress and into what is called parasympathetic dominance.

At the core of Heart Breath Mind is a scientific process to systematically gain control over your heart, rewiring your stress response and unlocking your highest potential for performance and positive health.

Heart Breath Mind: Train Your Heart to Conquer Stress and Achieve Success

I discovered Lea Lagos’s Heart Breath Mind from the Star Talk Radio podcast. I used to listen to Star Talk Radio weekly, but when they maximized ad-revenue by pushing recycled content multiple times a week, I stopped listening. I dipped back in during the Covid-19 lockdown of 2020. I was happy to hear fresh content. But in my first new episode, Neil deGrasse Tyson downplayed the serious of SARS-Covi-2 and actually encouraged New Yorkers to go out and enjoy themselves. I was listening to This Week in Virology for a month at this point and was sorely discouraged by Neil and Chuck’s sarcastic approach to the pandemic. I had little else to do, so I continued to dip into the podcast to see if Neil corrected himself, or if he had become a mask conspiracy nut job. Eventually he said that he was “following the science,” and downplayed the earlier episode.

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Theme in a Brave New World of Coronavirus

Brave New World Cover

I try not to think about theme when I am writing. Falling in that pit is the quickest way to lose a story. In a literature class you were told that theme is what the author is trying to convey, a central idea or meaning to the story. In rare exceptions, that might be true. In truth, authors have no idea what themes will manifest when they start a work. A few will pretend they had a grand design to start, but I never believed it.

I view my writing as an argument I am having with myself. I am not writing to satisfy a theme, but to find one. When I am satisfied with the argument, I know I have finished, and I start editing and re-writing to strengthen the salient points.

The coronavirus pandemic makes writing without a theme difficult. Every word you write screams “you have missed the point. What about…” And that list is long, but familiar. The use of technology to control society, consumerism, the dangers of big government, individualism, and daily challenges our worldview are in every headline.

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Dreams and the White Gold Wielder

The White Gold Wielder Cover

As children all we have dreams. As infants we lack income, property, and choice and we are fragile and slow to grow compared to the rest of the natural world. As soon as we achieve enough independence to think and wander on our own, society dictates we get an education, attend church or temple, or at least recognize a higher power. Unable to chart our own course, dreams are all that remain.

When I was a child, daydreaming was a sin. A protestant farming community expects the children to contribute. I suppose it is better than the alternative, running and hiding from predators. Never mind that the daydreamers created the civilization and society that now shunned them.

I was a rebel. I daydreamed at every opportunity. A simple garden stake became a great overland vehicle that brought technology and hope to a post-apocalyptic world. A broken frisbee became an orbital platform where the wise retreated from a barbaric horde. A left-over sheet of parchment paper became a map to a world where men transformed themselves into dragons and forbid you to love.

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This Day All Gods Die

This Day All Gods Die

What life is valuable? More precisely, whose life is valuable? Is your life more valuable than mine? Does your position, title, salary, or family relationship make your contribution to this small planet more valuable than mine?

This is not a small question. We ask it in fiction yet ignore it in reality. On this globe, everyday decisions have determined that some lives are more valuable than others.

Last month the powerful cyclone Idai took aim at Mozambique. It promised to be one of the deadliest storms in history, yet I heard nothing about it. Trump being a spoiled brat had plenty of news. The 2020 Presidential field saw nightly coverage. A self-centered egoist faking his attack in downtown Chicago got wall-to-wall coverage.

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Despair and The Long Shadow of The One Tree

Stephen R. Donaldson's The One Tree

Have you been locked in despair for weeks while ignoring events around you? Have you looked up to find that it is a fresh spring day, the birds are chirping, and the air is crisp against your skin, then wonder how you missed it? That is what reading The One Tree is like. It is a deep dive into the character of Linden Avery, a character who never sees the spring day, or understands the events around her because the bitterness of her past consumes her.

The One Tree—more so than the books that went before it—shows the flaw in Stephen R. Donaldson’s writing. Here, at last, I can agree with those that say there is never anything good about Donaldson’s characters. Seen primarily through the eyes of Linden Avery, her miserable past, her inability to experience joy, weighs down this epic tale.

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Chaos and Order and Theme and Madness

Chaos and Order and Theme

Those “real-people” reviews on Amazon and Goodreads have difficulty finding themes in The Gap Cycle; imagining a more clueless lot is difficult for me. At the end of The Real Story Stephen R. Donaldson summarized his intent, his themes and—in broad strokes—outlined the story he prepared. The Gap Cycle is not an attempt to mimic the Wagnerian epic of Der Ring des Nibelungen, but it is about the moral conflict between humanity’s desire to survive as an individual or as a group. From The Real Story:

My original intentions were explicitly archetypal. What I had in mind was an aesthetically perfect variation on the basic three-sided story: the story in which a Victim (Morn), a Villain (Angus), and a Rescuer (Nick) all change roles. (This, incidentally, is the essential difference between melodrama and drama. Melodrama presents a Victim, a Villain, and a Rescuer.)

The Real Story by Stephen R. Donaldson

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The Collected Works of Arthur C. Clarke

The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke Book Review Featured Image

2001: A Space Odyssey was boring. There I said it. I know you were thinking it. After the chimpanzees smash bones to Thus Spoke Zarathustra there are about a hundred minutes of nothing until we get to, “Open the pod bay doors,” followed by a light show that requires the high of psychedelics to be appreciated.

That 2001 was boring did not stop it from becoming the most influential film made in my lifetime. The accurate (1968 accurate) depiction of space flight with ships matching rotation and a Pan Am stewardess clomping along in gravity boots were a needed reality check to Star Trek’s Enterprise and Lost in Space’s Styrofoam sets.

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The Nature of Evil, or The Wounded Land

The Wounded Land Featured Book Review

What is Evil? Does it exist? When you speak about the world, do you define an act, a person, or a group as evil? I have called Donald Trump Lord Foul since the 2016 Republican National Convention, by association, am I calling him evil? If evil does not exist, then what is that quality we identify as evil? Is evil a treatable sickness, disease, or mental condition? The question of evil is a foundation for good fiction. Science fiction and fantasy fiction settings provide a rich playground to study the question. Is a race of mammals that eats other mammals evil? Orc eats human, human eats pig; evil depends on your perspective.

The Wounded Land, the first book in The Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, introduces Linden Avery. She is the most tortured of Stephen R. Donaldson’s characters. As a doctor, she has a certain self-assurance that no matter what situation, what disease, or injury she encounters, she has the training and the equipment to treat her patient. Short of those things, she relies on the institutions she belongs to for support. Then she meets a beggar in the driveway to Haven Farm.

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Consumption, A Dark and Hungry God Arises

A Dark and Hungry God Arises The Gap Into Power

How much can humanity consume? Earth is a solitary realm. She has a long past, most of it devoid of humanity. Thanks to plate tectonics and the unique chemical ability of sediment and stone to record images of Earth’s past, we know that other creatures once roamed the plains and forests or swam the deep oceans of our world. The Kansas prairie is full of fossils from the Permian geologic period. The diversification of amniotes into mammals, turtles, lepidosaurs, and archosaurs was a key to our evolution. But 250 million years ago, a runaway greenhouse effect caused by an explosion of methane in the atmosphere caused nearly all life on Earth to vanish. It took thirty million years for Earth’s ecosystems to recover.

In A Dark and Hungry God Arises the third book in Stephen R. Donaldson’s The Gap Cycle humanity stands at the door of an extinction event that comes from the deep dark of space. In this book we get closer to the real story promised us in the first book of The Gap Cycle. Morn Hyland’s crisis aboard Captain’s Fancy becomes an existential fear of genetic mutilation by the Amnion. A personal horror that all of humanity faces if the UMCP cannot prevent it.

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Lord Mhoram’s Victory and The Power that Preserves

The Power that Preserves

A few dramatic scenes are etched onto the consciousness of the collected public. From cinema there is Indiana Jones running from a boulder only to land at the feet of his rival, or Lawrence crossing a desert on a camel. From television there is the intro to MASH, or Kramer entering Seinfeld’s apartment. “Neuman!” From literature there is the white whale sinking the Pequod, or Gandalf standing on the Bridge of Khazad-dum declaring that the Balrog “shall not pass!”

When I took a date to The Lord of the Rings movie, I discovered the last one was not yet etched into everyone’s consciousness. For my generation, Gandalf, Frodo, and Samwise were reserved for the nerds. So, when I said, “you shall not pass,” to someone who cut me off at the snack line, she didn’t get it. When I whispered, “Balrog” at the beginning of the most dramatic scene in The Lord of the Rings, she was clueless. But when we left the movie, and I was opening her car door, she raised her hands as if holding a staff and exclaimed, “You shall not pass!”

Another dramatic scene etched into the collective nerd brain of my generation is the most dramatic, most heroic, chapter of my childhood: Lord Mhoram’s Victory.

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First-Person Fail: The Extraditionist

Featured cover image of The Extraditionist

I grabbed The Extraditionist as a Prime Early Access Deal. I was looking for something outside my diet of science-fiction and fantasy. I figured a good crime novel was the way to go. I might have been right; this was just the wrong novel.

This is supposed to be a novel about a drug lawyer—they call them Extraditionist south of the equator—that is all slime but is looking for a way out. He needs one more score, and he will stop with his murdering, drug dealing, clients to live on a beach somewhere. A standard criminal wants out storyline.

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Reviews, Rape, and Forbidden Knowledge

Forbidden Knowledge The Gap Into Vision

Before the Internet, I did not read book reviews. Professional reviewers—those paid to churn out a weekly summary of the latest media—tend toward promotional hype—when the product is from their corporate overloads—to sanctimony—when the product is from a competitor. For science fiction, professional reviewers are especially complicit. The dullest, drawn out, un-stories get five-stars while the exciting, mind-bending stuff is never reviewed. The Internet has magnified the disease to a condition as accepted as pimples.

I used to choose books by their dust jacket summary and scanning the first, middle, and last chapters. A “New York Times Bestseller” sticker never swayed me to read a book. Most of the “sold” copies required to get such a sticker are sitting at the bottom of bargain-bins, unread.

My reason for scanning the middle and last chapters of a book is to identify the writer’s style, and to determine whether an actual story lies between the covers. Given a six-foot shelf of books, most are aimless blather. Those are easy to identify when you can scan the middle and last chapters. If you can’t spot a plot progression from ten or so paragraphs in the middle and end of a book, it is not worth reading.

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Hile Troy! The Illearth War

Stephen R. Donaldson The Illearth War fantasy book cover.

Hile Troy! Just kidding. Hile Troy, the character introduced in Stephen R. Donaldson’s The Illearth War is one of my favorite fantasy fiction characters. Sure, the name helps, but it’s his story arc that fascinates me.

Hile Troy, like Covenant, is summoned to the Land through the same magic that started the story. But his arrival was a mistake. Atiaran, (the woman that led Covenant to Revelstone in Lord Foul’s Bane) in an act of despair, attempted to call Covenant to the Land. Whether to get revenge for the rape of her daughter, or to save the Land is unclear because she is consumed by the power of the summoning.

The Lords of Revelstone, being Lords, do not share these facts with Hile Troy, a blind man. Like Covenant, Troy was damaged before his arrival to the Land. He was born blind. When hurtloam, the magic healing mud of the Land, cures Troy of his blindness, he follows a different path than Covenant. He chooses to save the Land from Lord Foul.

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The Real Story

The Real Story Science Fiction Book Cover

The first time I finished The Real Story I was tired from a stressful day at work. I had curled myself against a stack of pillows with my dog sleeping in the crook behind my legs. The plan was to read a couple of chapters, then turn in early. The thirteenth chapter spoiled my plans.

Nick bowed gracefully but didn’t move. “On the contrary, Captain Thermo-pile.” Except for his scars, his expression was bland. “I’m in no hurry at all. Please”–he gestured expansively–“after you.”

His gaze and his bow and his gesture were all aimed at Morn.

“There-mop-a-lee,” Angus retorted. “Ther-mop-a-lee. Get it right Succorso.”

The Real Story by Stephen R. Donaldson

Suddenly, the story had changed, again. From those nine sentences, I realized that the real story was yet to be told. I plunged into finishing the book like it was the deep-end of a pool. I finished that night, itching for the next book in the series.

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The Crisis of Lord Foul’s Bane

Lord Foul's Bane book review

I come to this review in a crisis. While chasing my dream of writing science fiction, I forgot my age. Stephen R. Donaldson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant lit my desire to write. I found Lord Foul’s Bane in the school library, a paperback fantasy on a shelf full of dusty, hard-covered tombs. Lord Foul’s Bane entered my world at another crisis point, high school. The story of a man rejected by his world was the life of every thin high school nerd in the early 1980s

I devoured The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. Donaldson’s writing was a revelation. He ignored that tired advice of the simple word is better. Lord Foul’s Bane forced me to read with a dictionary nearby. I loved it. With every beat of a sentence, I thought to myself; I want to write like this.

I tried, but divorce and households emptied of joy marred my transition from childhood to independence. A journey made more difficult by parents that were unable or unwilling to help. American culture is fertile ground for such stories. My story spans thirty years before I sat down to finish my fist science fiction novel.

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Children (Spiders) of Time

Children of Time is about the spiders.

Spiders and ants and human beings, Oh My! Adrian Tchaikovsky massive work of science fiction won the 2016 Arthur C. Clarke award for Best Novel. An award it deserved. This book is an important work for science fiction fans missing the fanciful, yet probable, speculation Arthur C. Clarke made famous. Children of Time both accepts the hard science of space travel and challenges your understanding of intelligence and awareness.

Reviews of Children of Time put it in the hard SF genre. I am not a fan of hard SF. I find it boring. The endless speculation of characters turns into pages of exposition to support the fanciful ideas of the author. Clouded story arcs vanish beneath the weight.

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First Person and The Good Girl

The Good Girl book cover and template

Here is another book I would have skimmed over or missed because the story is told with first person narration. Lucky for me, Audible was giving it away as part of their Twentieth Anniversary Celebration.

By lucky, I mean lucky-ish. By the end of the fourth or fifth chapter I knew how the story would end. It might have gone differently, I might have been kept in suspense, but once again a good author hoisted her story on its petard with the first person narrative style.

I know, I bitch about this all the time. I promise, when I write a review about The Handmaid’s Tale, or Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, I will praise their expert use of the first person, until then we have tropes, cliché’s, and The Good Girl.

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Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage

The story of The Trans-Antarctic Expedition

See my Covid-19 update of this post. Endurance and The Coronavirus.

Do you know the story of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition? It is an epic tale that challenges biblical fables. So much so, that the crew of the Endurance survives is the least amazing fact of the story.

Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage is an example of storytelling at its finest. It could have been just another retelling of Shackleton’s ill-fated Trans-Antarctic Expedition, instead it becomes a story about the crew of the Endurance, and how they managed as a team on the ice of the world’s most isolated continent. Alfred Lansing’s writing is simple and unadorned. He recounts the tale of the ill-fated expedition using the diary entries of the ship’s crew.

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Personal Study of Yang Tai Chi

Yang Style Tai Chi Chuan Book Cover

After discovering Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming’s original, yellow Taijiquan book, practicing Taijiquan became everything to me. I moved outside, eating, drinking, and practicing under a Pin Oak tree. At heart, however, I am a skeptic, and seeing Taijiquan through the works of a single author did not satisfy my need to study more broadly. I later learned that the most ardent practitioners of Taijiquan suffer through the same phase.

My early passion with Taijiquan coincided with the earliest days of the Internet. There was little material online. The big box bookstores had a few titles, but for more detailed instruction, you had to search the pages of Tai Chi magazine or other martial art magazines for VHS videos.

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Time Enough for Love: Heinlein’s Work

Time Enough For Love by Heinlein

I have started this task of reviewing every book I have read since childhood. It is a ridiculous notion. I can’t remember every book I have read. Just now, I thought of one; a bear, and I am pretty sure an otter, has an adventure or two (no, it’s not what you’re thinking). I think it was a series. I loved the books, but they were paperback, and I trashed them in a fit of organization. Still, I am an author now. The Fundamentals is moving to publication, and as for sharing my love of the written word I have been mum.

Reviewing my list, I decided that grouping the historical works by author would save time. Another problem with dredging up memories of old books is the desire to read them again before putting a finger on the keyboard. No problem, I have decided to cheat. I will piece together recollections from what others have said and make up the rest.

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On Writing Well

William Zinser's On Writing Well.

This book has become mantras I recite as I edit my work. I first turned to it when I worked for Cargill. After ten years in retail, I was rusty with the basics of a good paragraph. When you are heads down on a project, struggling with how to say it, the advice in this book grounds you to what is important: pulling weeds.

“Just because they’re writing fluently doesn’t mean they’re writing well.”

On Writing Well by William Zinsser

To revive my neglected blog and market of The Fundamentals, I found that my online presence was missing a recording of the books I have read in my lifetime.

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