Injection Burn, by Jason M. Hough

Injection Burn, by Jason M. Hough

A high concept Space Opera full of huge ideas; instantly readable, and a hell of a lot of fun. I have been reading a bunch of really heavy non-fiction lately and this was just the right fun SF to break out of that over the last few days. It’s been such a ride reading this.

I am extremely impressed with the pacing of this novel. It builds and builds and builds, and just never lets up. A real page turner like James S.A. Corey’s The Expanse series, but exploring loftier themes similar to some of those covered in Iain M. Banks’ The Culture novels. I’m a big fan of both, so this resonated with me on nearly every level.

Jason M. HoughThe cover is extremely action/military Scifi looking, and there is a lot of that toward the end, but I’m extremely happy that it’s not just an action story. There is a lot of classic, high concept, creative idea science fiction going on here as well. If you’ve read last year’s fantastic Zero World, you know this is something that Jason M. Hough is particularly fantastic at. At the risk of diverging a little here, I’m just going to say that Zero World needs a lot of sequels. It’s absolutely crying out for them.

This book is technically both the fourth Dire Earth novel, and the first in a new duology. I had previously read about the first hundred pages of The Darwin Elevator, the first Dire Earth novel, and couldn’t really get into it. So, I was only slightly familiar with the concept of the series going in, but never felt like I missed anything. I’m happy to report that this could absolutely be read without having to read any of the other Dire Earth books first; I have a feeling there are some small moments of payoff for longtime fans of the series sprinkled throughout though. I’m always really impressed with books that are both standalone, and a part of a larger series like this. That takes some serious writing chops to pull off, which Jason M. Hough obviously appears to have.

It is definitely half of a much bigger story, and ends on a cliffhanger of sorts. Thank god that Del Rey is publishing them less than a month apart. I think I would lose my mind if I had to wait much longer than that to finish this narrative. Del Rey, if you’re reading this, please send me a copy of Escape Velocity ASAP. I kind of need it.

Injection Burn is out now, and the follow up Escape Velocity will be out June 27th.

 

Skyler Luiken and his ragtag crew of scavengers, scientists, and brawlers have a new mission: a long journey to a distant planet where a race of benevolent aliens are held captive behind a cloud of destructive ships known as the Swarm Blockade. No human ships have ever made it past this impenetrable wall, and Skyler knows not what to anticipate when they reach their destination.
Safe to say that the last thing he expects to find there is a second human ship led by the tough-as-nails Captain Gloria Tsandi. These two crews and their respective captains initially clash, but they will have to learn to work together when their mutual foe closes in around them and begins the outright destruction of their vessels along with any hope of a return to Earth.


Man of the Year, by Lou Cove

Man of the Year, by Lou Cove

“Howie is right: if we’re all going to get whacked, what matters is who is standing beside you when the universe speaks your name. And it matters that you stand with them.”

Synopsis:

In 1978 Jimmy Carter mediates the Camp David Accords, Fleetwood Mac tops charts with Rumours, Starsky fights crime with Hutch, and twelve-year-old Lou Cove is uprooted from the Upper West Side of Manhattan to Salem, Massachusetts– a backwater town of witches, Puritans, and sea-captain wannabes. After his eighth move in a dozen years, Lou figures he should just resign himself to a teenage purgatory of tedious paper routes, school bullies, and unrequited lust for every girl he likes.

Then one October morning an old friend of Lou’s father, free-wheeling (and free-loving) Howie Gordon arrives at the Cove doorstep from California with his beautiful wife Carly. Howie is everything Lou wants to be: handsome as a movie star, built like a god and in possession of an unstoppable confidence.

Then, over Thanksgiving dinner, Howie drops a bombshell. Holding up an issue of Playgirl Magazine, he flips to the center and there he is, Mr. November in all his natural glory. Howie has his eye on becoming the next Burt Reynolds, and a wild idea for how to do it: win Playgirl’s Man of the Year. And he knows just who should manage his campaign. As Lou and Howie canvas Salem for every vote in town – little old ladies at bridge club, the local town witch, construction workers on break and everyone in between – Lou is forced to juggle the perils of adolescence with the pursuit of Hollywood stardom.

Man of the Year is the improbable true story of Lou’s thirteenth year, one very unusual campaign, and the unexpected guest who changes everything.

You simply must read this memoir. It was fantastic, and genuinely one of my favorite reads of the year. It’s endearing and thought-provoking, and a great conversation about the differing degrees of honesty and openness required in different relationships.

Being a child of the mid eighties, and growing up in a tiny little (population ~2000) tourist trap meets hippie haven town in Northwest Arkansas in the nineties, I knew nothing of late seventies Salem, MA when I cracked the spine on this. My ignorance of the time period and the area, mixed with a killer synopsis established my initial intrigue, and the universal coming-of-age themes present in the narrative sucked me the rest of the way in. I ended up absorbing the book in a couple sittings.

Lou CoveThe cast of characters in the Cove family and extended family — as well as Lou’s childhood friends — are odd, vibrant and alive. Louis’ family and upbringing could not be more different than my own, but there are some things that are universal to all childhoods. As each event occurs in the story, I found myself comparing the reactions that my family would have had with the ones that Louis’ did. It’s great to read about people so different from myself and those I’m familiar with, but so similar in other ways.

A handful of times throughout the book, late nineteen-seventies Salem is compared to the Salem of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s day by way of some quotes from him regarding the city he loathed, and characters mentioning him and his works. What a brilliant way to contrast the seventies conservative crackdown on “smut” that was sweeping the area (and the country) at the time, with the narrative witch hunt of Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, as well as the more literal witch hunt that is nearly eponymously associated with the word Salem.

It reads a like a first person novel, written from the perspective of a boy in his twelfth year. There is a tiny bit of unreliable narrator going on here as well, since a large portion of the story is about the goings on of the adults in Louis’s life, but told from a perspective that doesn’t quite yet understand that adult world. The hinting at the reality of each situation is handled with skill and finesse.

Ultimately, it’s a story about Louis having an adventure, growing up, or rather being forced to confront the adult world and coming out the other side a changed person.

D’Arc, by Robert Repino

D'Arc, by Robert Repino

This sequel to Mort(e) picks up right where we left off and then propels itself forward. It feels like a few different genre novels married to each other: A western, a murder mystery, and an action/adventure story. I’ve always enjoyed that approach in speculative fiction. You take something fantasy or scifi, and write a story in that world from a different genre.

I thought it did a great job building up a mystery, while expanding on the mythology and worldbuilding quite nicely. In some ways it’s also a coming of age novel; a moral tale about choosing your own path, and writing your own story.

Robert RepinoRepino’s writing is extremely clean and tight. It reads effortlessly, and never gets in the way. Simple declarative sentences lay it all out for the reader. When the story really starts to get going, it’s almost like the writing entirely disappears, and you’re just… in it. I have to applaud him for that. I’m not even sure how one accomplishes something like that, but it’s impressive.

There was some fun closure for secondary and tertiary characters from the first novel, particularly Wawa. I really loved her arc in this. She was one of the better developed characters in Mort(e), so it was nice to see her get something good to chew on again in this one.

The last third, and the conclusion to the story didn’t really work for me. Early on there were a few big questions that were set up, and a great antagonist built through his own POV chapters, but those questions were mostly sidestepped, and the antagonist just fizzled out. I suspect that there will be more novels that may resolve my questions, and in fact, there was quite a bit of setup for what may be coming next. I have to admit it sounds very interesting. The world really is ripe for more stories.

All in all, it’s a fun continuation of the story that began in Mort(e), but it feels much less it’s own thing, and more an interstitial chapter in a continuing saga; something that needed to happen before the next part can occur. I’m still very excited for that next part though!

Void Star, by Zachary Mason

Void Star, by Zachary Mason

I’m notoriously picky, and it’s hard to find something that checks every one of my boxes: worldbuilding, prose, characters, and story. Usually I’ll find something that hits 2 or 3 of them; a great story, written well, but with weak worldbuilding or characters. Or a top notch world, with vivid characters, but only serviceably written. Void Star nails them all. It’s true literary Speculative Fiction, and a rare find.

It not only has that famous sense of wonder that only SF can do so well, but also elegant prose evidencing an author well acquainted with the great works of literary fiction, solid worldbuilding, an engaging story, and well developed characters that feel like they’ve genuinely lived their lives. It’s a novel of ideas, a hugely ambitious narrative, and a character novel all rolled into one. If elements of Neuromancer and The Diamond Age merged with an epic mythology poem and in the process became more than the sum of their parts, you would have Void Star. I’d call it post-cyberpunk, minus the noir element. There is a mystery present, but no tropey, down on his luck detective piecing it all together while chewing the scenery.

Zachary MasonInstead we have three main POVs, which build the narrative like three avalanches, accelerating as they accumulate, eventually converging violently and spiraling out in interesting and unexpected directions. The chapters are very short, often only five or six pages, seventy-seven chapters total in just under four hundred pages, which makes it really approachable. I would often sit down with not much time, intent on only reading a chapter or two, but the short chapters gave it a forward momentum that made it difficult to put down. The conclusion satisfies immensely, and I have a strong feeling that it’s even better on subsequent readings. If I didn’t have a few novels and novellas I still need to read before the Hugo vote this year, I would reread this one right now. I’m considering it a strong contender for the Hugo or Nebula awards next year. I do think it’s a little better suited for the Nebula though, as that award usually embodies novels with terrific prose.

Mason’s prose has an inherent beauty to it, and is a joy to read. It is poetically descriptive in a clever, nebulous way. He describes only just enough to jumpstart your imagination, leaving the hard-edged details for the reader to incorporate into the world themselves. You meet the novel halfway. It makes it highly engaging. It’s an approach that can backfire if handled by a less steady hand, but it’s wonderfully executed here. To me it’s a little reminiscent of Jeff VanderMeer’s prose.

The worldbuilding is so thorough: favelas that are nearly alive with their continually evolving construction by drone, layers of society and culture, poverty and wealth all clashing at their intersections, powerful corporations pulling strings, artificial intelligences that are as distant from us as we are to bacteria. It’s near(ish) far future, but the tech isn’t all state of the art. It’s presented in a much more realistic way; the way things have always been. You might have some tech that is cutting edge (your phone, or tablet, etc), but you still interact with other bits of technology that are nearing their obsolescence (maybe you drive an old carbureted pickup truck, or an antique motorcycle, maybe you use an ancient fax machine at work). In this world there is tech that is still far in the future for us, but to the characters using it, it’s a bit obsolete. This small detail makes all the difference in my suspension of disbelief as a reader, and makes this world that much more comprehensively thought out and impressive.

I love novels that tell a huge, satisfying science fiction story in a relatable world like this. Highly recommended.


Little Sister, by Barbara Gowdy

Little Sister, by Barbara Gowdy

“Get your own head straight before hanging around in someone else’s.”

Little Sister has a setup that hooked me in the first handful of pages. There is a well crafted, subtle symmetry at play in this novel. The story is teeming with thematic intrigue, and these themes mirror each other in creative ways as the story progresses. You could describe it as a feedback loop of sorts; the matching elements bouncing off each other and informing different areas of the story, creating a prism that resolves as it all comes together. It’s masterfully done. I’d call it a summer literary thriller with a touch of magical realism, and a lot of substance.

Our protagonist is a woman who never really got a chance to know herself. She’s been drifting through her own life as a passenger; never really taking an active role. She’s stuck in a lot of what I would call soft-traps: caring for her mentally deteriorating mother, running the family business: a movie theater that screens classic films, and then there’s her adequate (but never exciting) romantic relationship that she settled for after a string of bad ones. She has large choices to make, but she can’t see them yet. I really think it’s a novel about escapism, the many different ways we deal with and process grief, and what we can learn from each other if we could only walk a mile in their shoes. Reading between the lines a little, I also think it’s about how important fiction can be for our personal development.

Barbara GowdyInstead of escaping into reality tv, soap operas, or novels, Rose’s escape is the main fantastical element of the story: during a string of summer thunderstorms she loses consciousness and finds herself inhabiting a different body. She has no control over this body, but feels and experiences everything that it does. These “episodes” as she calls them, have the feel of a mythological God toying with its creations. The woman she inhabits lives a much more exciting, soap operatic life, full of ups and downs that Rose has never experienced in her own life. She finds herself enraptured and confused, unsure whether she’s dreaming, losing her mind like her mother, or if something truly fantastic is happening. She becomes very invested in this other person, and begins a quest to confirm or deny this mystery woman’s existence, and regain her sanity.

In addition to the main narrative, there is a secondary story that unfurls in Rose’s past, involving her sister and a tragic accident she feels partly responsible for.

The prose is sober and clear; the story utterly captivating, and the characters well developed. There is a general sense of unease, making it suspenseful in the same way a good horror movie can be, without ever fully submerging into the horrific. For me, some of the main themes in Little Sister are reminiscent of the motifs of duality present in the best Christopher Priest novels, and Gowdy writes dialogue like a more reasonable DeLillo in his prime.

Little Sister is out May 23rd from Tin House Books.