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Curmudgeonly Reader

Reading too much daily

Ink Mage

Ink Mage (A Fire Beneath the Skin), by Victor Gischler

An army is invading the land. Rina Veralin and her parents, the duke and duchess of Klaar, believe their city is safe. This force, however, is cruel and cunning and despite centuries of safety the city falls. Rina, who has received warrior training all her life, manages to escape with the help of her bodyguard and trainer Kork.

Wanting the city returned and also desiring revenge, Rina and Kork seek out an ancient ink mage, a practitioner of magic whose power is from unique tattoos. Near death, the ink mage creates a magical design on Rina giving her tremendous power, the first of several she’ll receive.

There are others with their own unique body art and powers, and at least two are on the side of Rina’s enemies. Now Rina must gather together a small force to take back Klaar, with the hope that her magic will be powerful enough.

Rina is a wonderfully heroic character, and her magical powers turn her into a killing whirlwind as she leads the group to try to take Klaar back. Even so, using magical powers takes a toll on the user, and Gischler allows Rina to be a powerhouse but with some frailties that make it a fun nailbiter to the very end. She’s surrounded by a group which has several who are completely loyal to Rina, and some others that have suspicious motives. This sets up some challenges for the next volume The Tattooed Duchess. This is fun and light reading with a good cast of characters and well-written action.

This first volume of A Fire Beneath the Skin was originally serialized on Amazon, now collected into the first of three books.

 

Autonomous

Autonomous: A Novel, by Annalee Newitz

Several themes weave their way through this unique and interesting book from Annalee Newitz, one of the founding editors of i09 and author of a dozen intriguing books.

The central theme is that pharmaceutical companies have manipulated patent laws in their favor, leaving a world where only corporations or the wealthy can take advantage new and important drugs. This has created an underground of drug pirates, chemistry specialists who work to reverse engineer drugs in order to make them available to everyone. A woman named Jack is one of these, and she has engineered a drug used by corporations to motivate their workers. The drug turns on pleasure centers when work is completed. This drives employees to complete assignments for an experience even more thrilling than sex. However, something has gone haywire. Some of those using the reverse engineered medications have become so obsessed that they cannot stop some tasks, leading one school girl to compulsively do homework and a man to be so focused that he refuses to eat.

This puts a pair of pharmacy patent police on her trail, introducing another theme. One is a human named Eliasz, the other is a cyborg named Paladin. In this future it was determined that cyborgs have rights, but their creators are owed a return on their investment. As a result cyborgs like Paladin are indentured for what is supposed to be a limited time, after which they earn their autonomy. Feeling left out, humans lobbied for the right to be indentured as well, so they now sell chunks of their lives to corporations. Because … corporations … the freedom and autonomy part of the bargain is often gamed to stretch for extra years.

Eliasz and Paladin begin to bond during their hunt for Jack, with Paladin forced to wonder if it (cyborgs have no gender) is growing closer to Eliasz due to true desire or programming.

The book is filled with ambiguous sexuality. Paladin allows itself to be called “she” for the sake of the relationship. Jack has a sexual relationship with another woman.

In a genre with so many cookie-cutter futures it’s a pleasure to read something that explores ideas in such a different framework. It also reflects on new ideas within materialism that there is no such thing as free will, only chemical responses to stimuli. Somehow our chemistry acts before we’re conscious of decisions. I look forward to digging deeper into the Newitz canon.

 

Heavier Than a Mountain

Heavier Than a Mountain: Destiny’s Crucible Book 3, by Olan Thorensen

This is the third book in the chronicles of Joe Colsco, the sole human survivor of a crash between a commercial jet and an alien spacecraft. Joe is healed and awakened by an AI who tells him that he has a choice. Since he knows that aliens are watching earth with invisible spacecraft he can’t return home. He can either opt to be painlessly eliminated or be placed on another world that had been seeded with humans by some unknown race. Joe chooses the planet. The previous two books were Cast Under an Alien Sun and The Pen and the Sword.

In other reviews I’ve compared the series to A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, by Mark Twain. An intelligent modern human (an engineer in Twain, a chemist in Thorensen) is dropped into a less advanced culture. That theme continues in book three. From the start Joe, known to the locals as Yosef Kolsko, has been a creator and entrepreneur. When a race known as the Narthani begin to raid various territories Yosef also begins inventing war strategies and technology to defend the people he befriended.

In this volume there are three new twists that may impact how the series continues. At the very start of the book one of the artificial intelligences that monitor the planet notes that there has been an increase of war activity on the planet. It doubts this could be the fault of the introduction of one new human. Still, it has decided this needs to be passed up the chain of command for consideration.

Another twist is that Yosef was placed on the planet with some enhancements. These were, in part, to help him deal with a change in gravity, but he was also given nanobots in his bloodstream to speed healing and an eidetic memory for some books that he read on earth. The locals are now beginning to wonder if he is somehow connected to the divine as a messenger. Yosef, not to his credit, exploits that growing rumor to get his way in important decisions.

Third, Yosef learns about smooth and indestructible egg-like stones that are found around the planet. He begins to suspect that these were placed on the planet by the ancient unknown race who seeded life on the planet.

To fight the Narthani, Yosef continues to introduce new military technology. This includes perfecting 6 and 12 pound cannons along with some shudder-worthy arms like landmines and napalm.

Part of the continuing charm of the books are Yosef’s relationships with various natives of the planet. He is now married with children and has built close friendships with people at all levels of the society. In this volume some of that gets set aside for some longer segments on how the new technology is being created. It distracts from the heart of the book. Then again it’s something of a throwback to Golden Age sci-fi in which a lot of literary quality was sacrificed for interesting science. Thorensen is generally a more astute writer than that, but here he does take some tedious side roads.

There are still threats and dangers ahead, though some issues get solved here. Enough unanswered questions remain for at least one or two more books.

 

 

Dark Matter

Dark Matter: A Novel, by Blake Crouch

Jason Desson is returning home from a party for a friend when, behind him, he hears the words “Are you happy with your life?” The next thing he knows he awakens in a  room with people wearing hazmat suits. One, a man he’s never seen before, smiles and says “Welcome back, old friend.”

This starts Jason on an extended voyage through many of the possible alternate universes that arise from his decisions. He has landed in a world in which he decided to put career ahead of family, choosing a path in which he’s a celebrated scientist who never married and thus had no beautiful wife and no loving son. In this new alternate universe he has created a device that makes it possible to jump from one life to another.

In jumping from universe to universe he finds lives in which he or his wife have died,or in which he and his wife were no more than friends and she has become a famous artist. Every possible change of decision forms a new split in these alternate realities. Now he needs to figure out how to navigate accurately from one to another because he’s running short on the drug that shuts off the observer portion of his brain long enough to allow a quantum change. He needs to find his original life and also to find out who stole it from him.

In some ways the core of this book is like It’s a Wonderful Life on steroids, but rather than some divine catalyst this is a human twist on Schrödinger’s Cat. Jason finds himself facing the outcomes of multiple decisions. Worse yet, he discovers that each trip he makes is creating another split universe so that near then end there are dozens of Jasons all trying to make their way back home.

It’s easy to get caught up in Jason’s emotional sense of loss, suddenly waking up in a world in which everything he values is gone. Blake Crouch works this well through the book and is also able to build a lot of tension between alternative Jasons who will do anything to be the one to have that life back. He also needs to contend with investors in the physicist version of his lives determined to keep him working to protect their investments.

It’s a well-written and emotionally compelling book. It’s filled with excellent characters, including nuanced versions of Jason, and ultimately tells a wonderful story of love and envy across multiple realities.

 

 

The Better Angels of Our Nature

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, by Steven Pinker

Steven Pinker intends this book as a positive remedy to a time and country in which most citizens grossly overestimate the amount and impact of violence and crime. And for the most part it does what he intends.

Pinker is a scientist (psychology) and he’s much happier working in the realm of statistics than in history or political science. He’s also Canadian, which may distort his view of the U.S. to some extent.

To extol the comparative humanity of our current world Pinker digs up a wealth of examples of just how horrible our ancestors were. He aso paints a picture of the gradual progress toward the current age. So for a considerable part of the early chapters we learn a great deal about ancient torture techniques, the high incidence of infanticide, the prevalence of lost noses from tavern knife fights, child abuse, and tales of village sport such as getting together to beat a pig to death before having it for a town meal. We also learn about medieval battles in which the main goal was to expand one’s personal fiefdom by invading a neighbor and killing as many peasants as possible. And don’t forget execution techniques, which included hanging children for theft. Or slavery.

Our ancestors were pretty horrible, and Pinker makes that point in case after case in nearly every part of the world. People killing other people was very common and far more common than what we see today.

This includes the waging of war. Despite the massive death tolls from war in the 20th century, Pinker points out that as a percentage of population wars have been far less deadly than in past centuries. He also lists body counts for dozens of conflicts, most of which most people have never heard of, for which historians can estimate fairly reliable body counts. He even digs into the Bible to point out the various genocides and events like David, before becoming king, happily collecting foreskins of Israel’s adversaries.

He tries to puzzle through what changed, and at times one gets the feeling that he’s not sure it has been a completely positive change. How did we get from a time of casual slaughter to a time in which it’s considered rude to make fun of another person’s race, gender, or national background? The terms PC and political correctness are used a lot by Pinker, usually in a pejorative way. He seems to fall along the conservative stance that political correctness is thought control, instead of being a way in which people can make a firm point about maintaining civility in a diverse culture, and that calling people “snowflakes” or humorless for having a reaction is a less-than-subtle method of saying “I’ll be as rude as I want and your disapproval takes away my free speech.”

Pinker also tries to probe the dramatic drop in homicides and violent crimes from the 1960s to today. He digs through dozens of ideas, some more convincingly than others. He points to changes in police work, such as New York City’s “broken windows” policy of up-close-and-personal neighborhood policing. Here he misses the point that this also led to “stop and frisk” and regular civil rights abuses, including the high proportion of black arrests for comparable crimes among other races. He makes false equivalencies from the 1960s between the “violent left” (Black Panthers and SDS) and those on the opposite extreme responsible for decades of lynchings, bombings, and “disappearances” of those with opposing ideas or different races.

Internationally Pinker seems to be of the opinion that many countries could do with a good dose of western civilization to make them less violent, because that’s worked so well since the 1500s.

These distractions aside, Pinker hits a positive stride in the last chapters of the book when he gets to work with statistics and failures by humans to make rational appraisals of the dangers around them. In a world in which the media focuses on incidents of violence, despite their decreasing numbers, it can be natural to make the assumption that the world is a violent place, more so than when we were younger. I don’t know that some media have changed that much in the past century. We do live with 24-hour news coverage, and violence is easier to report on than political subtlety. But the type of coverage just came in different wrappers in the past. Check out old copies of Police Gazette if you have the chance. Salacious and violent stories have always drawn our attention.

Pinker points out that our survival instincts lead us to overestimate dangers. So even though you’re more likely to be killed from a bee sting than by an “Islamic terrorist” we focus on the most unique danger as opposed to one that is more common and mundane.

On the whole, the book is filled with a ton of interesting and unique factoids, along with as clichê-strewn a prose style as I’ve read for some time. Whether he’s on-point or not regarding causes he does make a reasonable point that, for whatever reason, we are less violent and less tolerant of violence than even recent ancestors were. We, as a nation, could relieve a great deal of day-to-day anxiety simply by being more aware that we live in a world far more peaceful than other humans have had the opportunity to enjoy.

 

Paradox Bound

Paradox Bound: A Novel, by Peter Clines

Peter Clines authored the fun and unusual book 14 and it’s too-much-more follow-up  The Fold along with the fascinating Junkie Quatrain. This book brings him into time travel with a young man from the town of Sanders named Eli Teague.

Sanders is a place where nothing happens, but three times in his life, stretched over decades, Eli runs into a mysterious stranger named Harry Pritchard who drives a strangely modified Model A Ford, modified so that it runs on water as fuel. On the third visit Eli joins Harry on a search for the American Dream … the real one. A dream that is protected from harm and corruption by a terrifying group of faceless men. Using the modified Ford Eli and Harry are able to travel backwards and forwards in time chased by the faceless men.

Clines is excellent with plotting realistic worlds around bizarre themes. In his first two books he created an apartment building filled with a strange collection of people who have to fight off Cthulhu, the monster created by H. P. Lovecraft.

In this book Eli is teamed with Harry, a person born in the 19th century who travels in a tricorne hat and long blue coat. The American Dream was preserved by the nation’s founders and has, somehow, disappeared leading several time-traveling adventurers to hunt for it everywhere in America’s history and future. Cline manages to make it all seem both exciting and perfectly natural. The Model A is needed because only good-old American steel will pass through the spots where one can travel through time, all it takes is a good eye for the locations. The water-fueled engines are based on an old patent perfected in the future.

Harry is a dashing heroic figure cut from a steampunk design and Eli becomes Harry’s protege against Harry’s better judgment, all the same he saves them from disaster more than a few times. Further, Eli has a secret even he is unaware of until the story takes a particular turn.

It’s a fun and romantic adventure in which people appear multiple times in the book with new roles in different times. As twisted as he makes the timeline the author keeps it all sensible and easy to follow, always with a humorous undertone to the adventure. It’s a fun book for time travel or steampunk fans with a unique mix of both.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Don’t Let Go

Don’t Let Go, by Harlan Coben

Harlan Coben is one of those writers whose books I set aside for a reward. If I’ve pored through a box of dull books or finish up a long nonfiction book I pick up Coben to remind myself why I like reading. The books, even the ones written for a YA audience, always feature fun characters, interesting plots, funny dialogue, and enough musical references to keep me busy on YouTube during reading breaks. (I’ve even been introduced to a few new artists who now haunt my playlists.)

The plot of this book centers on New Jersey Detective Napoleon “Nap” Dumas, working on the police force of his home town. A dozen years earlier his twin and the twin’s girlfriend were found dead, apparently killed by a train while they were walking on the tracks after a school dance. Only a few days later his own girlfriend Maura disappeared. Already showing a cop’s instincts at 18, Nap went to Maura’s home and put some personal items in plastic bags. After joining the force he entered her fingerprints in the computer system.

Now a local patrolman has been killed after pulling over a vehicle. Found in that vehicle: The fingerprints of still-missing Maura. This sets him on a hunt for Maura and information about what actually happened to his brother. Signs are pointing to a mysterious government facility that had been active when Nap and the others were still in school, a facility that once held one of dozens of suburban missile sites active during the Cold War.

The book contains a deep mystery centered around something Coben says actually existed in his own New Jersey home town, a missile silo placed in a suburban location as a nuclear deterrent. In the book it is at the heart of the mystery, but there’s also a more sinister story Nap eventually uncovers.

Like all the Coben books I’ve read to date, this book is a finely-paced and fun read, with a boggling mystery solved by an entertaining and interesting lead character. Twists drag him back to his teens and a death that impacted his entire life, and additional twists bring some long-overdue romance into his life. It’s easy-to-read and involving entertainment that makes Coben a dessert reward for my broccoli reads.

 

 

American Ulysses

American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant, by Ronald C. White

So many rumors were passed around about Ulysses S. Grant, even in his lifetime, it’s difficult to separate myth from reality. Today we will have an image of Grant as rather shallow, a heavy drinker, a general who carelessly sacrificed soldiers, and an easily-manipulated politician. This new biography from Ronald C. White gives a more balanced and more positive perspective on a man who, when he died, was considered the equal of Lincoln and Washington.

Grant is shown as someone who was generally introverted and thoughtful, a lover of novels (especially Edward Bulwer-Lytton) and stage dramas. He was sent to West Point against his will after a request by his father to a congressman who nominated. him. Born Hiram Ulysses Grant, his army paperwork somehow showed him as Ulysses S. He accepted the name was was known by that name for the rest of his life. Grant wasn’t an exceptional student, ranking 21st of 39 cadets, and was best remembered for his horsemanship and hiding in the library to read. He graduated and, figuring that the government deserved some kind of repayment for his education, he accepted a commission as a second lieutenant.

He was stationed in St. Louis, Missouri, where he met Julia Dent, whom he would eventually marry. They courted by mail as Grant followed the army to Texas and Mexico to fight in the Mexican-American War. It was there he had his first exposure to death on the battlefield, used his nearly picture-perfect memory for terrain, and learned from both good and bad commanders some invaluable lessons in leadership.

After marrying Julia he continued his Army career in far-flung places like Vancouver, Washington, and the newly named San Francisco. He augmented his soldier’s pay with various side-schemes, most barely recouping his investments. No great fan of Army life and missing his family he resigned his commission and returned to Ohio where he took up an unsuccessful career at farming and eventually made a living by delivering wood. It was on one of these wood delivery trips that he met old Army friends who encouraged him to join up for what would surely be a short spell of soldiering in which the southern rebels would be subdued.

Grant saw quickly that the war would last longer than anyone had suspected. He spent most of first years of the Civil War either in logistics or leading troops in terrain with which he was familiar, especially along the Mississippi River and in Tennessee. As a general he developed strategies and tactics that are still used as models in military manuals. It was also in these campaigns that Grant developed a reputation as a drinker (he rarely drank) and as a blood-thirsty leader (his losses were less than or comparable to Confederate losses). Jealous officers and one particularly distorted New York Times report were the source of both myths about him.

Lincoln’s admiration for Grant’s willingness to finish the battles he started eventually led to his being named a Lt. General, the first to hold the position since George Washington. His direction of the remaining battles of the war finally helped overcome Lee’s forces and the final surrender at Appomattox.

His acceptance of Lee’s surrender set a tone for his later presidency, overriding the demands of some radical congressmen and allowing Confederate officers and troops to return home with their own weapons and horses.  No arrests. No hangings. Despite his reputation for having his initials stand for “unconditional surrender” Grant felt the best course was to let both sides move on and heal.

As president Grant was very aggressive in Reconstruction, pushing to encourage blacks to vote, hold office, and obtain education. He sent troops against the newly forming KKK and pressed for Constitutional amendments to ensure equal treatment. His work was almost entirely discarded by the presidents who followed.

His own memoir, written while stricken with throat cancer and completed just before his death, is considered the greatest presidential or military autobiography in English. It helped ensure his fame after his death and, with the help of financial negotiations and assistance from friend Mark Twain, also helped Julia live as a rich widow into the next century.

Julia Grant was able to preserve almost every letter she received from her husband, and he wrote her several times a week when they were separated. These letters weren’t published until within the last 50 years, and White makes excellent use of them to flesh out Grant’s thinking and emotions during key moments of his life. White also includes dozens of perspective from those who worked directly under Grant in military and political situations to make Grant come across as completely human.

This is a new and somewhat rehabilitated Grant, a better military leader than some negative portrayals, more intellectual than many political biographies, and a man who was able to listen without ego to conflicting advice and arrive at unique and individual decisions. He is a more admirable Grant than the drunken and thoughtless leader of modern myth.

 

Warcross

Warcross, by Marie Lu

I end up reading a lot of young adult books every year. The standout ones cross the line into good adult reading because of a dedication to character and plotting. Then there are others that, for one reason or another, fail to jump the gap.

In the case of Warcross the main problem involves a fairly tired basic idea and a plot twist that doesn’t quite pan out. In the book, Warcross is a game that is the centerpiece of new immersive technology developed by a computer prodigy named Hideo Tanaka who started at age 11. It’s now 10 years later and the game has only increased in popularity. More than VR the glasses for this game technology a sensory experience as if stepping into another dimension.

Emika Chen is now 21, the same age as Tanaka, and is tangentially involved in Warcross. She’s a player but she is also working as a bounty hunter who tracks down illegal Warcross gamblers. This is about the only job she has available to her because she can work on her own doing freelance work. As a teen in school she did some computer hacking that led to a conviction that remains on her record. Though she has considerable programming talent of her own the black mark makes her generally unemployable in the field she knows best.

During the annual worldwide tournament, an event that is followed by millions, she decides to try a hack of the game based on a security flaw she’s found. When she does execute it the maneuver ends up blacking out the entire game. Instead of getting in trouble Emika receives an invitation to Tokyo from Tanaka. On their first meeting she is able to display her keen eye for flawed software. Tanaka is so impressed that he offers her a huge amount of money to participate in the tournament and help find a player who is trying to infiltrate the game’s software. This puts Emika into a dangerous situation in which she has to try to defeat what seems to be a murderous worldwide plot. She also learns of new hardware being developed by Tanaka that could be more dangerous than the plot she’s been hired to fight.

There are some interesting and touching passages related to Emika’s family (dead but lovingly remembered) and Tanaka’s (living a simple life despite their son’s wealth). However, one of the problems with a story in which much of the action takes place within a video game is that it takes place within a video game. Someone nearly drowning is only virtually drowning and if they don’t manage to get air the worst that happens is that they use up one of their lives. Most of the people Emika has to compete against in the game feel like stock characters a la Hunger Games with not much more purpose than to give her antagonists. There’s a bit of romance between Emika and Tanaka, but that burns out when she begins to understand the new product he’s working on.

All in all a not very satisfying book for adults and maybe passably interesting for the target audience. Not as bad as some game-related plots that  have popped up recently but not really terrific as a whole.

 

 

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