Monday, July 21, 2014

The Catch, by Taylor Stevens

I have enjoyed Taylor Stevens's Michael Munroe novels.  Munroe is tough, deadly, smart, brilliant at learning languages, and compassionate.  Her troubled past and inner demons elicit compassion for her.  She doesn't go looking for trouble, but sometimes her friends, circumstances, and desire for revenge get her into perilous, no-win situations.  Of course, she survives the peril and ultimately wins.

The Catch opens with Michael working with a private security firm in Djibouti.  While providing security on a ship, Michael discovers that there are smuggled weapons on board, and she is the only member of the team left in the dark.  Then when pirates board, she decides to escape with the captain of the ship.  She hides the captain, tries to find out the real reason for the ship's hijacking, and plots to take the ship back.

Michael spends the bulk of the book trying to survive and stay hidden in Africa, keeping the captain alive but restrained while she tries to discover why he is being hunted.  To be honest, I got sort of tired of her cat and mouse games, and found that I couldn't care less about the captain or his pursuers.  Or anyone else, for that matter.  One of the characters, anticipating the recapture of the ship, puts it well: "The anticipation is the worst, you know? Misery in the waiting."

The Catch has plenty going for it--interesting details about cargo ships, life in Africa, some cool fighting scenes--but not enough for it to measure up to Stevens's earlier books.  Here's hoping for a rebound in the next one.

Thanks to Edelweiss and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Friday, July 18, 2014

The Caves of Steel, by Isaac Asimov

Classic sci-fi doesn't get more classic that Isaac Asimov, and Asimov classics don't get more classic that his Robot trilogy. I recently listened to the audio version of The Caves of Steel, book 1 of Asimov's Robot Series.  I had read it years ago, and was not disappointed in the audio update.

On one level, this is a simple detective story.  New York detective Elijah Baley is teamed up with a new partner, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve the murder of a robotocist.  The twist: Daneel is a robot himself!  As Elijah and Daneel track down leads and learn to work together, Asimov builds a future world that is both imaginative and prophetic. 

This audio version is great.  It's a straight, single-actor reading, not a dramatization, but William Dufris pulls off the narration perfectly.  His voicing of Daneel brought to mind Star Trek's Data, which is appropriate, as Data is clearly modeled after Asimov's vision of a robotic future.

If you've never read Asimov, this is a great place to start.  If you have, he's always worth returning to!

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Extinction, by Mark Alpert

When mind and machine become one--the singularity--machine may decide that ordinary humans only get in the way.  That is the scenario in Extinction, Mark Alpert's latest foray into realistic science fiction.  Using technology that enables human minds to be linked together like a large computer network, a group of Chinese scientists has created "Supreme Harmony," several dozen lobotomized humans whose collective consciousness learns to manipulate the world they were designed only to observe and analyze.  As their awareness and abilities grow, they reason that humans are a threat to their ongoing survival, so they must expand their network and ultimately destroy the human race.

Those machine/minds underestimate the human will for survival.  When they abduct computer hacker Layla Pierce, they attract the attention of her estranged father Jim Pierce, a former military intelligence officer, now a pioneering robotics developer.  In a globe-trotting pursuit, Jim tries to track down his daughter and as they both learn about Supreme Harmony, they have to work together to thwart the collective mind's evil plans.

The full title is Extinction: A Thriller, and Alpert aims to live up to that "thriller" label in spades.  There are so many edge-of-your-seat impossible close calls in Extinction that the thrills become, shall we say, a little less thrilling.  Another hair's breadth escape, and another, and another, etc.  But the comic book/ popcorn action movie tone is backed by some pretty realistic science, keeping it pretty interesting.  Sure he takes it too some extremes, like when Pierce operates his detached prosthetic arm from across the room, but I'm interested to see how much of this robotic/prosthetic technology is real, or will be soon.

Fun to read and fun to imagine on the big screen, Extinction may not make Alpert "truly the heir to Michael Crichton," but he at least fits in the same ballpark.  Just pop the popcorn and enjoy it!

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Curiosity's Mission on Mars, by Ron Miller

The Red Planet has captured the interest of Earth-dwellers for centuries, the destination of many fictional voyages and the home of many hostile and friendly alien races.  No human has set foot on Mars--yet!  But as we gather more and more knowledge of Mars, the possibility of a manned mission to Mars, and perhaps even a long-term human presence there, becomes more and more real.

Ron Miller's book Curiosity's Mission on Mars: Exploring the Red Planet introduces the Curiosity rover, which has, for almost 2 years, been roving about Mars gathering data and increasing our knowledge of Mars.  The Curiosity is the latest in a series of Mars missions, which has included rovers and orbiting vessels.  None of the predecessors, however, have gathered as much or as important information as what Curiosity has an will continue to do.

Although Curiosity's Mission on Mars is written for older elementary school and middle school students, and will surely find a home in school libraries, there is plenty here to interest readers of all ages.  Younger readers may be put off by some of the more technical sections of the text, but the book is arranged with plenty of sidebars, photos, and illustrations to invite the casual reader who might not read the book straight through.

I enjoyed the accessibility of the content that did not insult the reader.  Clearly Miller is appealing to readers interested in space exploration, and doesn't skimp on basic scientific information.  Hopefully his young readers will be inspired to work towards the ultimate goal: terraforming and colonization of Mars.  With all that we are continuing to learn from Curiosity, science fiction is moving closer and closer to science fact.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Friday, July 11, 2014

Daimones, by Massimo Marino

What would you do if you woke up one morning and everyone, except for you and your family, had died, all at once?  That's the scenario that begins Massimo Marino's sci-fi novel Daimones, volume 1 of  his "Daimones Trilogy."  On an otherwise normal morning commute, Dan Amenta discovers that seemingly everyone around him, except his wife and teenaged daughter, has mysteriously died.  A scientist by profession and training, Dan responds rationally and meticulously, provisioning his family and making plans for this new world they find themselves in.

I appreciated the contrast to so much post-apocalyptic fiction.  There are no marauding mobs or tyrannical warlords here.  Dan keeps thinking of the Mad Max movies, and wondering if or when such scenarios would play out.  But Marino's tone is much more level, and his view of human nature is much higher.  For the first half of the book, Dan and his family are virtually alone.  The story is meticulous and a little dull, matching Dan's personality and plans.  The gnawing mystery of the mass die off stays quietly in the background.  When they finally make human contact, and when they finally begin to understand the reasons and reality of what has happened to them and to the human race, the curtain is pulled back and all that leads up to the revelation begins to make much more sense.

Marino has a unique voice in sci-fi, placing human interactions and motivations at the center of the story, while not neglecting the science behind the fiction.  The alien encounter and alternative human history they reveal adds a pretty wild twist to the story; it will be interesting to see where that twists to in the remainder of the trilogy.

Thanks to the author, who provided a complimentary electronic review copy in exchange for an honest review!

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Rich Kids of Instagram, by The Creator of Rich Kids of Instagram and Maya Sloan

I've heard it said that wealth doesn't change a person's basic personality. Rather, it amplifies traits that are already in place.  So if one has a tendency to be kind and generous, wealth amplifies kindness and generosity.  If a person is mean and selfish, those traits are enhanced by wealth.  In Rich Kids of Instagram: A Novel, this principle is demonstrated with regard to vice.  Many young people in their late teens and early twenties have tendencies toward getting drunk or high, being sexually promiscuous, and treating people around them like dirt.  In RKOI, we see the Rich Kids taking their vices to extremes that most people couldn't dream of.

The novel, inspired by the popular web site/ tumblr feed, evokes a mix of revulsion (are there really people that depraved in this world?), envy (wouldn't it be nice to have access to that kind of lifestyle!), and pity (these people's lives are so empty and aimless!).  The anonymous creator of the RKOI web site teamed up with Maya Sloan, a bona fide writer, to capture the lifestyles of the rich and depraved within a well-written story.

In RKOI, we meet a line up of characters who, thanks to their parents' enormous wealth and unmatched influence, feel like they rule the world.  Along the way, they indulge in plenty of drinking, drugs, and sex, while spending wads of cash.  Each chapter is told from the perspective of on of the Rich Kids.  Their paths cross and intermingle in amusing and appalling ways.  Along comes a sort of impartial observer, a tech genius who has entered the upper stratosphere of wealth by selling his startup to one of the Rich Kid's media mogul father.  The other Rich Kids open their lives and lifestyles to him, but have no idea that he doesn't share their Rich Kids desires and attitudes.

RKOI is an entertaining, sickening read.  It will reinforce any negative stereotypes you might have about how the .01% live.  There's not a single character that I could like or find sympathy for.  Surely some of the children of the elite are admirable and moral, but their lives, according to the authors, must be much less entertaining.  Neither should you look for a moral message here, other than, perhaps, immorality begets immorality, whatever tax bracket you're in.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Monday, July 7, 2014

How to Be a Christian Without Going to Church, by Kelly Bean

It's no secret that church attendance in the U.S. in on a downward trend.  Even the mighty Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant denomination, has seen several years of decline in attendance and baptisms.  Prominent megachurches have seen some growth and success, but overall numbers for the church at large are down.  Some view this as a problem.  Kelly Bean says, not so fast!  Many Christians are leaving traditional brick-and-mortar churches to find community, worship, and discipleship outside the walls of the church.

In How to Be a Christian Without Going to Church, Bean describes the ways "non-goers" live out and express their faith.  Bean herself co-founded Urban Abbey in Portland, Oregon, where, true to the culture of the region, alternative Christian communities thrive.  Many of her examples are found there in the Pacific northwest.

Here are some things that Bean says non-goers do:
  • Get to know their neighbors. 
  • Cultivate intentional relationships.
  • Spend time in "meditation, prayer, study of sacred texts, devotional activities, group discussions."
  • "Maintain healthy, well-balanced support systems and opportunities to share . . . gifts with others." 
  • "Go outside of their comfort zone to learn and be changed."
  • "Listen for a sense of call, join others with similar vision, . . . and make room for everyone to use their gifts."
  • "Incorporate hands-on participation, experiential touch/taste/feel comfort, and a sprit of welcome as you worship."
All of these are great suggestions.  I do not contest any of them.  But Bean's implication that these can be better accomplished outside a traditional church setting, or without regular weekly worship in a building, doesn't hold up, in my opinion.  Every time she says, "Non-goers can . . . ," I thought, "Well goers can, too!"  Bean is right in calling for a "shift from 'going to church' to new, life-giving practices of 'being church.'"  But I think she's wrong to say that this can be done more effectively outside of and apart from a traditional church.

My biggest problem with Bean's position is that one might be left with the feeling that declining church attendance is a good thing for the health of Christianity.  "Great!  All those people who are leaving the church are embracing these community-based, organic expressions of faith and living!"  I don't have any stats, but I think that would be wildly optimistic.  An informal survey of Facebook friends who no longer attend church cited reasons such as disagreements with church leadership, the kids have graduated from all the programs, a preference to worship at home, including services on TV or online, etc.  But I think a larger portion, culture-wide, of leavers leave for "Church on the Dock," or "Bedside Baptist," and many leave the faith altogether.  Very few are actually engaged in community, corporate worship, and service.

That is Bean's word of encouragement, and the core message of her book.  She doesn't completely reject the institutional church; in fact, many of her examples are from churches with buildings.  But she wants to recognize that church is not limited to life in a building with a regular weekly schedule of activities.  Even more than that, she wants to encourage Christians who have, for whatever reason, left the church, to pursue community and discipleship in their own ways.  The examples she gives will inspire the goer and non-goer alike.

I remain biased toward the strength of the institutional church for many reasons, including but not limited to: historical precedent, spiritual and theological accountability, inspiration derived from multigenerational interactions, formal and informal teaching and preaching, and a structure that can opportunities for participation in and provide funding and support for missions, community involvement, theological education, and charitable works.  Not every church provides all of these things, of course, and all of these can be pursued outside of church.  Whether in a church or out of it, Bean's book can give you ideas and be a catalyst for making some changes, so that you don't settle for going to church but think about being the church.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!