Category Archives: Novels

The Fold by Peter Clines

First off, if you haven’t read 14 by Peter Clines yet, no need to continue farther. Go read that book now! Yes, it is imperative. Then come back here, and we’ll talk about The Fold.

Good, now that we’ve got that over with you can understand why after reading 14, I quickly purchased a copy of The Fold. I had read a review that said that this book took place in the same world as its predecessor but wasn’t exactly a sequel. A “side-quel” I think they called it. That pretty much sealed the deal for me. I loved 14, but I didn’t know if I was ready for those characters to change a lot from where I left them. The story was so original; I wanted to keep it fresh for a while. So The Fold seemed like a perfect way to get more without spoiling the original. It sorta succeeded.

Mike Erikson has an eidetic memory – which means he can remember everything. Absolutely everything. His mind is a constant surveillance device through which not even the smallest grain of information can slip. And he’s a nice guy. Mike was a great character, and I would like to read other stories with him in it – especially if they had a Moriarty to his Holmes. Anyway, he gets convinced to go work on a secret DARPA project called the Albuquerque Door that could possibly be a way to instantaneous travel…but of course, things are not quite what they seem.

If you read 14 (and if not, didn’t I tell you to go do that now!), then let me just float out there that this is basically a retelling of the same story with a different cast, location, and doorways. I’m not saying this is a bad thing, but it’s basically 14: Round 2. The characters were good again – they make me like Peter Clines as a person and I know nothing about him. The story twists were fun. I really liked everything about it, but it kind of felt that I was living in the same dimensional gambit used by the two books. Don’t get me wrong, I liked this second helping, but part of the sheer power of 14 was the originality. This story, besides the details, was inherently unoriginal.

Peter Clines, if you read this (first – you’re awesome): I love this world that you’ve set up and I want more. Just next time, let’s not do a lovable bunch of interesting characters stumbling down the adventure of discovering some Tesla-like scientist’s secrets. I mean sure, it’s worked so far…okay maybe one more, but after that, let’s open up this world some.

PS. I’m about to get to your Ex-Heroes stories, I’m sure they’re good. Keep on writing!

Ok to recap, 14 – great, The Fold – good. And spoiler alert: yes, there are green cockroaches.

6.5 stars out of 10

photo: wikia.com

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On the Beach by Nevil Shute

“In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river”

-T. S. Eliot, The Hollow Men

I’ve been avoiding On the Beach ever since I became addicted to Nevil Shute’s novels. Partly because it’s his most acclaimed piece of writing (or at the very least, the most widely read) and partly because of the subject matter. The book takes place in the nebulous time of the late 1960’s after a nuclear war has devastated the world. Fallout has already rendered the Northern Hemisphere completely uninhabitable, and the radioactive cloud is slowly moving southward. The story follows a small group of friends in Australia as they live under the approaching inevitability of death. It is a powerful tale of hope and honesty and love.

I’ll be the first to say that if you are a reader and you’ve let a year go by without reading a Nevil Shute book, then you have missed out on a joy in your life. His books reveal the best parts of humanity in a way that doesn’t make them trite, but instead, noble. Not the kind of nobility that makes you want to rule and lead, but the kind that makes you want to live better and enjoy the every day. On the Beach excels at getting to the heart of who we are. Shute rarely has enemies in his books. It’s like each novel is a refutation of the belief that one must hate something in this world to prove their worth. Even at the end of all things, there is room for love to overcome.

The action follows several naval officers, both Australian and American, as they seek to find a solution to the catastrophe. Now that the world’s purpose can be wholly turned to survival, there is a turn from the day to day struggles of life. Relationships are real and vital. Enjoyment of each hour is what is looked for. It is like a quest for utopia in the darkest hour. The recent Seveneves by Neal Stephenson pushes for an idea that survival is the most important ideal. On the Beach, while not against self-preservation, posits that survival is not the highest ideal. In fact, maybe it’s integrity.

There are solutions to the world destroying itself, and Nevil Shute has done a service in making us think about it. While this book was extremely enjoyable in an eyes half full of water kind of way, I can see why one might not rush out to read it. It will move you if you do.

8 stars out of 10

photo: Forrest Cavale

The Fall by R.J. Pineiro

Every now and then, I like to take a chance on a book that I haven’t heard anything about. I’ll admit that cover shopping can play a big part of this. It’s probably what made me pick up R. J. Piniero’s The Fall. That and the tagline that read something like: “A man takes a jump from a weather balloon only to end up on another Earth where he’s been dead for five years.” Ok, probably not the premise of high brow literature, but hey, it does sound like fun.

I don’t know if it’s me, but I keep pulling up parallel dimensional travel books a lot lately. It’s definitely in vogue right now. And where it used to be confined mainly to space stories involving intergalactic anomalies like ST:TNG’s “Yesterday’s Enterprise,” now it seems like they happen in science fiction more and more on Earth. This probably says something about how self-absorbed we are with ourselves, or maybe it’s just to tell stories that are relatable. Either way, the dimensional travel aspect of this book is fairly basic and is really just a so-so plot device to create tension.

Jack Taylor, ex-Navy SEAL, is one of those “I can do anything” military MacGyver supermen that parade through throw-away action novels. He’s got some relationship troubles (so he’s not actually Superman); but all in all, he does whatever he wants however he wants. When confronted with his alternate Earth, he’s momentarily confused that this America uses the metric system, but ultimately he adapts in about a half hour to his surroundings. His brilliant wife – who happens to be part hacker, part biker chick while actually the lead scientist on big NASA projects – has her own adventures against a power obsessed general who is basically a one man Illuminati. Together this typical American couple has to try to get Jack back to his own Earth and real timeline.

I know suspension of belief is necessary for the rollercoaster rides of today’s action genre, but even though I thought I was in with the “balloon jump” premise mentioned above, this cliché-ridden construct was ultimately too much schlock for me. I don’t want to impugn Clive Cussler by saying this is Clive Cussler-lite, but that’s what I felt while reading this. If unstoppable heroes in pseudo-science stories are what you’re looking for – and you don’t want to travel to Mars with John Carter – then The Fall is the book for you.

4 stars out of 10

photo: jamesbrittin.com

14 by Peter Clines

Ok, so I’m a little late to the party, but I finally got here right?

14 by Peter Clines has been on the top of Top 10 Books lists (that I see) since it came out a couple years ago. Every time I’m looking for a new science fiction novel to read, it just waves its little hand and says, “Still here, pick me.” No, I’m looking for that “hidden” gem. If everyone likes it, it can’t be that good. Well after two years or so, I guess I can check out what all the fuss is about. Oh…the fuss is that this is a good book. It’s going on my top ten list – just a few years late.

The story starts innocently enough with Nate. He’s a regular guy that can’t find what to do with his life, has a crappy job, and is looking for cheaper rent. Someone recommends to him an older apartment building with too good to believe fixed prices. The place and the tenants seem nice enough at first blush – even if things do feel just a little odd. Well, after seeing that green cockroach, maybe things are more than a little strange. Some of the neighbors have noticed the “quirks” of the building. Nate assembles a small crew to discover what’s going on, but their amateur prying uncovers more than they bargain for.

The sheer genius of this book is its originality. The dialogue at the beginning is a little campy, but it grows on you. Something like – and this is intentional – a Scooby-Doo mystery. The reader wonders what they’ve gotten themselves into, but by the end, feel like they’re part of the gang. I thought at the start that I was getting a straight down the alley haunted house story. What I got in return was maybe the most original plot that I’ve read in the last 100 books or so. Science fiction is crowded with the same conceits: time travel, trans-dimensional travel, first contacts, interplanetary war. How ’bout something new? Now don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of the familiar in this book; where Peter Clines excels, is that he uses the old ideas with a fresh vision. And I’m thinking he may have the right kind of insight.

There will be no spoilers in this review besides what I’ve already said. (I’m already worried the black vans may pull up any second now.) Just read it. Don’t wait the years to try it. It’s fun. Let me know if it makes your top 10.

8.5 stars out of 10

Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

Neal Stephenson. Science Fiction. Palindromes. I’m in!

This was my thought pattern for about a month before this book came out. When it finally came I out, I pretty much devoured it as fast as I could. I’ve been a fan of Stephenson’s work since a friend gave me a copy of Snow Crash about 15 years ago. His works have gone up and down in story quality even if his writing has always been fairly top notch. Seveneves falls somewhere in the middle of the pack. If you like speculative fiction, you should love this book. If however, you’re looking for a plot that wows with its stunning climax drawing all the threads of the book together, keep looking. In fact, read Stephenson’s Anathem.

The main premise of Seveneves begins when the moon explodes for some uncertain reason. Why the moon has exploded doesn’t really matter that much when the protagonists realize that the moon fragments are going to burn up the Earth’s atmosphere in two years’ time. What matters is that most of the population of the Earth is going to die, and that to survive, a lot of people who are prepared to live for 5000 years off-planet need to get into space. Simple enough, right?

The first two-thirds of this book read like Apollo 13 for the whole human race. It’s fast paced, full of lots of really cool science and common sense. It gets the reader thinking about how they are going to survive massive calamities. Should I even take a toothbrush? Will my bad breath kill someone? Maybe the toothbrush can be a multi-purpose tool? Nah, just use your finger. But really, the author develops so many realistic scenarios that one believes that this exodus into space could really be accomplished. (Editor’s note: It can’t. We would all be toast.) The characters that are put in charge of this Herculean feat are alive and vivid – full of all the nuances you would expect out of them. The drama and suspense suck you in to turning page after page. Even when long explanations of things like “Lagrangian points” and “orbital mechanics” go on for way too long, it builds the intensity of what the extraterrestrial refugees have to go through. It becomes, literally, high drama. I found it very enjoyable.

The last third of the book is a denouement that wants to be its own story. It didn’t succeed. Without giving away any spoilers, it would be hard to divulge much, but the author gets involved in true speculation on a possible future. He develops a great world full of wonderful things, yet the storyline put forth here falls flat. It is if the plot is just a vehicle for world-building ideas. This reads more like a travelogue plus – “just a little bit of character interaction as I tour you around what I have thought up.” This is very unfortunate because up to this point the story had been quick and gripping. It becomes almost a quest of loyalty to the characters to finish the book. I would have felt better if the first part was released without the second part, and a follow up novel that was more thought out was written later.

Oh well, maybe Neal is trying to get some acclaim as a futurist like he did post-Snow Crash. He became renowned for his term Avatar and of his vision of an web-linked society presaging the Internet connected present. Maybe Seveneves will get more people to invest in asteroid mining. (I know I am.) However, my finishing thought was that a lot of really good conceptional work was done for a story that ended a little flat. It was solid writing throughout, it just needed a little more payoff to be top notch. A must read if you’re a Stephenson fan; otherwise, it might not check all your boxes.

5 stars out of 10.

photo credit: via photopin (license)

Pied Piper by Nevil Shute

If you’re not reading a Nevil Shute book from time to time, you’re missing out on one of the great joys of reading pleasure. Shute’s ability to fashion a story out of the lives of ordinary people has few modern rivals. However, it’s his knack for seeing the best in all people that makes his books completely enjoyable. Pied Piper takes place in France at the outbreak of World War II – a time when it would be easy to have Nazi villains abound. But, Shute’s books are always filled with grace. Even when his main characters run into “enemies,” he chooses to humanize rather than caricaturize them. (In this context, humanize does not mean to degrade to the lowest passions of human nature but rather to reveal the commonality of thought and love that every person feels.) His tales are solid and dependable. You can count on them.

Pied Piper follows the story of John Howard, an elderly British widower, who decides to take a fishing trip to the mountains of France in the summer of 1939. Though Germany is threatening war with all of Europe, the invasion of France is too unimaginable. Yet when it comes, Mr. Howard must return to England. Before he does, he’s persuaded to escort two children back with him. A long day’s trip with two children under eight seems daunting to the septuagenarian, but when the Nazi occupation comes faster than expected, the trip becomes much more arduous. Along the way, the group picks up more and more children until it becomes a roving orphanage seeking the safety of Allied ground.

In the typical treatment one would expect for this storyline, it would become a depressing, heart-wrenching melodrama. Shute, however, presents a story filled with humor, patience, and love. There are efforts of brave endurance and scenes of pathos, but through the lens of the protagonist, Mr. Howard, it is shown how individuals can overcome war with good character. Polemic made irenic. Never preachy or judgmental, the tale’s even course has comedy and suspense with a large dose of good feeling. This will not go down as Nevil Shute’s strongest piece, but like all his books, worth the read.

6 stars out of 10

photo: Associated Press

The Vorrh by Brian Catling

There is a dark place in the world.

Essentially this place has been captured by Brian Catling in his novel The Vorrh, an alternative history of a soul sucking forest in the midst of Africa in the early 20th century. I finished this somewhat plotless book that reads more as a descent into madness than a traditional novel while questioning myself the whole time, “Why are you going on?” In the end, I probably shouldn’t have, and you probably shouldn’t either.

There seems to be a lot to explain as to why I would not recommend you reading a book that for most purposes was well written and, at least if you believe the reviews, well received. I’ll try my hand a some key points.

Have you ever had a friend that thinks that he is so clever when he turns a phrase? Maybe like a non-sequitur or a simple play on words that gives his sentence an unintended, but to him, serendipitous meaning. Now imagine having to read a book full of these crafted sentences. Sure maybe one in five come off with some power, but honestly, it becomes a slog rather than the occasional moments of delight like they can be. The author is trying too hard to get a little nod of the hat with each phrase. Some may see this as lyrical, but hundreds of pages worth makes you long for the spartan description of Hemingway.

Now let’s talk about description or world-building or character development or anything else besides, say, a plot. This is what Mr. Catling offers to you in this tome – which is supposedly the first of a trilogy. I couldn’t tell you what the next volume could be about because I’m not sure I could tell you what the story of this one is. There are a bunch of fleshed-out characters and the world of The Vorrh is elaborately assembled with such dark intention that makes the reader ready to escape. A story, such as it is, more or less develops just because the characters kind of bump into each other – not because there is any direction to the tale. Several long “side” stories have virtually no relation to the main characters or the Vorrh at all. It’s almost as if separate stories were just cobbled into this novel because they exhibited the same mood as the others and it would thicken the book. I love world-building and character development, but there seems to be a sad tendency – especially in the fantasy genre – to substitute worlds with stories. I’m sorry, but give me an O. Henry short story every day that has a plot than 500 pages of an immaculate world with no point. It is like many modern authors are trying to be Tolkein but missing the point.

Finally I need to mention the evil. The Vorrh is a dark place. It turns everyone that goes into it a hollow shell of a person. Make no mistake: this is the intention of this book to those who read it. Every single character is a dark, twisted caricature of a person. There are no heroes, no good guys, no noble purposes. The one character who should be a bright spot is a woman who receives back her sight after being born blind. In such a gloomy, oppressive world, surely this one would find joy in her sight. Almost purposefully as soon as the reader thinks this, the author spends the time to show the ugliness of the sight of flowers in this character’s mind. The gift of sight is actually a curse – for really to all the people that inhabit this world, life is a curse. I rarely psychoanalyze authors, but Mr. Catling has presented a worldview that sees corruption and evil in all things. I don’t know if I know anyone who I think would like this book, and if I did, I would be scared to give it to them because it might sink them beyond hope.

I usually don’t bring up the Bible in non-Christian works, but the author has taken perverse pleasure at bringing up many illustrations of it and making them horrible. In Phillipians, Paul says “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.” I cannot think of a better antithesis to that statement than this book. It is a mire of thought. Avoid it.

2 stars out of 10

Photo: Antoine Beauvillain