Tag Archive: book review


Have you ever wondered if our world made a wrong turn somewhere? Sure, we have computers and smartphones and shiny video games, but what happened to the yesteryear dreams of jetpacks and space travel and flying cars? Well, now we know whom to blame: Tom Barren, the world’s worst time-traveler and the protagonist of Elan Mastai’s debut novel “All Our Wrong Todays.”

As it turns out, the most important event in human history happened on July 11th, 1965, when an eccentric scientist named Lionel Goettreider launched a device that harvested a new type of energy. The Goettreider Engine revolutionized everything, solved the energy crisis and turned the world into a utopia. Goettreider himself dies during the experiment (taking 16 fellow scientists with him), but that just helped cement his status as the new messiah of the utopian world. (The unfortunate scientists are remembered as “the 16 witnesses.”)

The story begins when our hapless protagonist, the scion of a famous physics professor, gets picked as a backup in the first ever time travel expedition. The grateful people of the futuristic 2015 want to go back in time (and space, accounting for the planetary movement) to witness the famous 1965 experiment. The end result is Tom waking up in our timeline, in our 2015, which to him seems like a dystopian nightmare. The Goettreider Engine doesn’t exist; buildings aren’t organically grown from smart materials; we use gas-guzzling cars instead of the fancy flying ones; worst of all, you have to pay other adults to pay your hair! And, on top of all that, the world he grew up in has ceased to exist, along with all his friends and relatives. Meet Tom Barren, destroyer of worlds.

As a self-proclaimed sci-fi junkie, I have to say – this book is probably the best time travel book I’ve had the pleasure to encounter. (The runner-ups are “How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe” by Charles Yu and “Rant: The Oral Biography of Buster Casey” by Chuck Palahniuk.) It deconstructs just about every time travel trope out there, flirts with a few that are either brand new or downright extinct, and provides dozens of quotable zingers and assorted deep thoughts.

The 380-page story is told from a first-person perspective, and we get to know Tom Barren well: an aimless 32-year-old who grew up in the shadow of his father, never had a lasting relationship and, despite being smarter than an average bear, has a remarkable talent for ruining things. (The fact that he has to share his mind with his alternate-universe self doesn’t help.) The ongoing, unceasing mental narrative reminded me a lot of the aforementioned “How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe,” expect much more so.

“All Our Wrong Todays” offers something unique for fans of both hard sci-fi and human interest stories. On the one hand, the book goes into quite a lot of detail regarding the plot holes of most time travel stories. (A recurring plot point is having to track down the exact spatial coordinates – miss by 3″ and you’re done for.) On the other hand, a huge part of the plot is dealing with the impossibly large implications of wiping out an entire timeline. On top of that, there’s time travel ethics: if you change history and end up accidentally getting a new relative, would reversing the change count as murder? If you liked “Safety Not Guaranteed” (probably the best human-interest time travel movie out there), you’ll love this book because it’s just like that, but amplified tenfold.

It’s hard to believe this is a debut novel: there are plot twists you won’t see coming, turns of phrase that will stick in your mind long after you finish the book. It sets a high standard for all the other sci-fi writers, newbie or otherwise, and should be on every sci-fi fan’s bookshelf.

I give this book five out of five stars.

Full disclosure: I received an advance reader copy of the book in exchange for an honest review – but then loved it so much that I pre-ordered a hardcover copy.

Pre-order “All Our Wrong Todays” on Amazon. (Release date: February 7th, 2017)

I rarely read non-fiction. I’ve never read a travelogue. And yet I was pleasantly surprised by Tom Lutz’s latest book, “And the Monkey Learned Nothing: Dispatches from a Life in Transit.” At first, the book grabbed my attention with its title, followed by the synopsis. After I read the first few chapters, I knew I was hooked.

Lutz is a solo traveler who dreams of visiting every country in the world. He’s also a great and introspective writer. Each chapter is a short account of his personal experience in a new foreign country. They range in length and topic: walking through an empty Middle Eastern town; being stalked by an aloof young woman in South Korea; infiltrating the secret tango scene in Buenos Aires…

Like every other travelogue out there, this one is subjective. It reveals a fair bit about the author himself, while also describing the way others reacted to him. It also adds a great deal of cultural context or just funny (and occasionally disturbing) anecdotes.

Just about the only flaw I could find in the book is the dry nature of some chapters that discuss local politics. Those chapters, however, were outnumbered by the ones that gave great travel advice, made me reconsider visiting a few places (sorry, Cambodia) and taught me to avoid monkeys in tourist-heavy areas. (“They are sociopaths, like particularly nasty juvenile delinquents.”)

This book was a genuine pleasure to read. It would make an excellent present to anyone that’s curious about travel, the world, the universe and everything. Most and foremost, it’s a must-read if your wanderlust has overgrown the confines of your own country and inspired you to travel abroad.

I give this book five out of five stars.

Full disclosure: I received an advance reader copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

Buy “And the monkey learned nothing” on Amazon.

“The Hatching” by Ezekiel Boone aims to capitalize on two successful trends of science fiction and fantasy: serialized novels and the “oral history” format of “World War Z.” The result is mixed and, to be fair, perfectly average.

The premise is simple, though not very scary, unless you happen to be an arachnophobe: all over the world, ancient spider eggs start hatching and producing spider-shaped weapons of mass destruction that devour everything in their path. A lot of the book follows a female scientist specializing in spiders, a female US President (whose name is not Hillary, just in case you were wondering), and an assorted cast of ex-boyfriends, grad students and an occasional cop, with a few secondary characters thrown in.

The narrative is interspersed with “Word War Z”-esque dispatches of waves of tiny spiders devouring entire villages and then cities. That’s where the book fails to meet expectations. There are only so many ways you can describe a giant black wave of cannibalistic hive-mind creatures without being redundant, and in a lot of cases, there is no background on our temporary protagonists – sometimes we don’t even know their name.

I’m mixed on this book: on the one hand, main characters are fleshed out quite well for a sci-fi/horror novel. They all have their own lives, and the subplot about two pairs of survivalists in a small desert town is fun to read. (I think that’s the first time any work of fiction had a gay survivalist couple living in a bunker – well played!) On the other hand, the names are corny (one family has Annie, Frannie and Manny) and most of the characters spend at least half their time thinking about sex and/or hooking up with their former partners.

The book has some interesting trivia about spiders, but at the same time spiders make for the least convincing horrifying creatures imaginable. (Unless, once again, you’re a raging arachnophobe.) Hitchcock’s 1963 movie “The Birds” did not age well for that precise reason – if your main plot device requires willful suspension of disbelief in order to work at all, it may be a good idea to go with zombies instead.

Overall, “The Hatching” is a perfectly decent novel – not perfect and not terrible, but somewhere in between. In terms of pacing, it might have worked better to release 1 long book instead of starting yet another series with 3 average-sized books, where the plot slowly moves through the paces. Then again, if you’re just looking for a fun book to devour during your flight or while commuting to work, this is a perfectly good choice.

Final score: three out of five stars

Order “The Hatching” now on Amazon

Full disclosure: I received an advance reader copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

Robert Kroese is a funny guy and one of those improbable entrepreneurs that keep the Internet interesting: he’s a blogger, a philosopher, a prolific Kindle author, and now he just might become my favorite mystery writer.

“The Big Sheep” is a hilarious twist on the established archetype of Holmes and Watson – or, in this case, Erasmus Keane and Blake Fowler. The former is an eccentric, brilliant, occasionally charismatic and frequently quotable private investigator with a shady past. (Or “phenomenological inquisitor,” as he prefers to be called.) The latter is his sidekick and bodyguard – an average guy with a knack for guns and hand-to-hand combat, on a never-ending quest to find his missing girlfriend.

This dynamic duo works in Los Angeles in 2039, 11 years after the Collapse of 2028. The origins of the Collapse aren’t explained, but it ended up dividing the country, creating demilitarized “DZ” zones (essentially, feudal kingdoms for aspiring warlords) and inspiring a hit TV show, DiZzy Girl.

The book begins with Keane and Bowler taking the case of a kidnapped hyper-intelligent sheep, followed by another case from the DiZzy Girl’s starlet, one Priya Mistry, who is convinced her life is in danger. How are the two cases connected? Read on and find out for yourself!

The book’s dialogue, that “make it or break it” element of every detective novel, is brilliantly written. The plot is original, the setting is mysterious and sufficiently noir-like, the narrative is funny, and action scenes are written well enough to grab your attention. The only downside I can think of is the lack of character descriptions. We never learn what our two heroes look like, aside from the fact that they’re adult human males, and that was a bit of an oversight, in my opinion. Fortunately, that’s the only flaw the book has. I highly recommend it for your reading pleasure and eagerly await more books in this great new series.

I give this book five out of five stars.

Order “The Big Sheep” now on Amazon

Full disclosure: I received an advanced reader copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

Justin Cronin’s “The Passage” trilogy reminds me of DC’s comic book movies: the premise is great, but each new installment is grittier, darker and makes less sense than the one before it.

I’ll start with a warning: if you have any sort of trauma-related emotional triggers, the first 60 pages of “The city of mirrors” will pull them, seemingly just for the fun of it. In the very first chapters of the book, we encounter (in no particular order) a stillbirth, a series of rape-related flashbacks, a man telepathically cheating on his girlfriend, a sexually abused little girl, and a religious hermit who goes to wander in the desert and then either gets extremely lucky by finding a bona fide treasure or loots an emergency supply station while presumably leaving the next stranded traveler to die.

I honestly can’t tell why Cronin chose to assault his readers like this. It’s possible that he tried to shove as much potential shock value as possible to make the book more memorable (though not in a good way) – at one point in the book, there’s a fairly detailed description of live birth. (Not quite what one expects in what’s supposed to be a vampire book.) On the other hand, it’s possible he was just trying to pad the page count. “The city of mirrors” appears to be the shortest book in the trilogy, and that’s after all the shameless padding and all the hundreds of pages spent describing nothing in general.

In the middle of the book, there’s a 200-page novel in which Zero, the original viral, corners one of our plucky heroes and shares his origin story in a very unexpected, out-of-context way. Is it possible that Cronin always wanted to write a “coming of age” story and decided to force-feed it to his readers? Or was it just something gathering dust in his desk drawer that seemed good enough to turn a 400-page book into a heavy 600-pager?

Regardless, the notion of a 150-year-old vampire moaning about his lost college girlfriend is ridiculous, especially considering that his audience consists of a single person who grew up with only the most basic education and who wouldn’t be able to grasp even the most basic concepts – things like tenure or airplanes or upper-class socioeconomic class. The story would have been much more realistic and fun if Zero would have to stop every 5 minutes and explain what things meant, but nope, we’re all subjected to a ridiculously out-of-place stream of consciousness. (Can you imagine tracking down a rural bumpkin from the year 1900 and telling them about your computer problems? Yeah, it’s *that* ridiculous.)

I might have been able to overlook all of the above and give the book a weak 4-star rating, but there are far too many plot holes and, dare I say, poor writing for a book that’s been in the works for 4 years. Just a handful of examples off the top of my head… A 35-year-old horse can run as fast as a group of virals. A character goes for a long swim and produces a perfectly dry book of matches from their pocket. A deaf person devises their own sign language – so advanced that even “War and peace” can be translated into it. Automatic rifles last just fine for 120 years before suddenly starting to break down due to advanced age. Two people that discover potentially world-ending piece of news choose not to tell everyone but instead launch a sociopathic murderous cult that involves dozens of people over the course of 21 years, none of whom say a word to anybody. (Every spy agency’s dream!) A person that’s never been on a boat learns how to operate a cruise ship in less than a month. People of the future can’t tell the difference between 870 and 1,000 years. After restarting civilization, 870 years later the pinnacle of their technological achievement is dirigibles and flashbulb cameras. (Must have been all the inbreeding.) Virals discover brand new powers that can’t be explained by any virus and turn into shapeshifters. Half the characters in the book develop superpowers – either telepathic abilities that are ever so convenient, or the ability to run for 30 minutes while bleeding from an artery without any lasting damage.

If I sound just a little bit upset, it’s because I’ve spent 2 weeks of my life struggling to finish this book, waiting for a payoff at the end, but it never came. I downgrade the book to 2 stars for the most ridiculously stretched-out ending I have ever had the displeasure to read. It’s yet another novella about people we don’t know, doing things we don’t care about, who end up lecturing us about the things we already know and, in the end, do something so extremely stupid (but pretty and sentimental – yay!) that the entire struggle appears to have been for naught.

On the upside, the language of the book is occasionally moving and often beautiful. That is, of course, when it’s not talking about child rape, stillbirths, murderous cults, shapeshifting vampires, shapeshifting humans, shapeshifting vampires that become humans or shapeshifting humans that become vampires but then change their minds and switch back to being humans.

I give this book 2 out of 5 stars.

Pre-order it on Amazon here, if you’re so inclined. (Release date: May 24, 2016)

Full disclosure: I’ve received the advanced reader copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

Writing funny science fiction is not easy. The seminal classic, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, more or less set the standard for the funny sci-fi subgenre when it was created all those decades ago. Ever since then, it’s been held as the standard against which other funny sci-fi novels would be judged.

There are pleasant exceptions, such as John Scalzi’s novels. (Unfortunately, his more recent work has gotten too snarky, to the point where every character sounds exactly the same.) Another happy exception is a brand new novel by Gene Doucette – “The Spaceship Next Door.”

The premise itself is interesting enough: a spaceship lands in the town of Sorrow Falls, Massachusetts, and proceeds to do absolutely nothing for three years. There are no dramatic “first contact” scenes, no enigmatic aliens, no interplanetary romance – just your typical alien spaceship, hanging out in the middle of a field, minding its own business and keeping people from getting too close with its alien forcefield.

Eventually, the government sends a bright (though not very experienced) young man to investigate his pet hypothesis. He meets a quirky, precocious 16-year-old girl who knows everyone and everything in her town, and together they join forces to figure out what’s what and save the world while they’re at it. Along the way, they bump into enigmatic locals, bored soldiers (who spent the last three years waiting for an alien invasion that never came) and a wacky assortment of UFO groupies that created a trailer park community next to the flying saucer.

The book is intelligent, well written and has quite a few laugh-out-loud moments. The characters are beautifully developed and not just used as cardboard cutouts whose only purpose is to move the plot along. (I’m looking at you, Mr.Asimov.)

That said, “The Spaceship Next Door” falls a bit short of perfection in its action scenes. Some of them are explained in overly elaborate details: a certain scene involving a car and a ravine is stretched out over an entire page, even though the action is only 10 seconds long, if that. The pacing is somewhat uneven throughout the book. The first half of the book is slow – almost too slow. The second half is much more fast-paced, and the two don’t mix too well. (Think “Hot Fuzz” with Simon Pegg.) The end result is pretty, but I daresay it could have used a bit more editing around the edges.

Overall, “The Spaceship Next Door” is a decent sci-fi book that works equally well as a detective mystery (some of the plot twists were excellent), a comedy, a sci-fi novel and even a young adult book. It’s not perfect, but it’s a great experiment and a brilliant reversal of the all-too-typical “first contact” trope that’s all too common in science fiction.

Final score: four out of five stars

Full disclosure: I’ve received a free ARC from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Buy it on Amazon

Some books are impossible to put down. Some books make you call in sick to work because you simply can’t stop reading. Some books change your life forever. Max Wirestone’s “The Unfortunate Decisions of Dahlia Moss” is not one of those books.

The premise is fairly interesting: a broke, unemployed geeky girl gets hired to investigate the theft of a certain unique item that went missing in an MMORPG (Massively multiplayer online role-playing game). Pretty soon, however, a real-life crime occurs, and our hapless heroine gets to investigate it too.

There’s a wide variety of wacky characters, a strange online game world and, well, not a whole lot else. Our protagonist, Dahlia Moss, is described in the vaguest possible terms: chronically unemployed, still recovering from a bad breakup over a year ago, suffering from body image issues. That doesn’t stop her from body-shaming other female characters, however (“exceedingly flat. Not just her chest – everything”). I found it hard to feel sympathy for the protagonist when she uses such language against other women, goes to job interviews without any idea what she’s interviewing for, criticizes her charitable roommate who lets her live in the apartment for free, etc.

I’ve seen this book compared to “Scott Pilgrim vs the World,” and it looks like Wirestone had deliberately set out to write a gender-reversed homage. The fact that every character addresses the protagonist by her full name (“Dahlia Moss!”) almost every time they meet her is a rather strong giveaway.

The book tries to be funny, but it didn’t get more than a few chuckles out of me. The in-book continuity is odd: the narrative takes place over the course of about a week, with every day described in detail, yet at one point Dahlia mentions all the detective books she’d read since she started the case. A bad cop shows up for one scene, never to return again, while a good (and secretly geeky) cop inexplicably puts his job on the line by providing Dahlia with very thinly veiled clues about the case.

Normally, I’d give a book like this only 2 stars, but some parts of it were well written and rather quotable. (“My refrigerator is best described in terms of stark minimalism.”)

I wish Max Wirestone better luck with his future (and hopefully less ambitious) endeavors.

Score: 3 out of 5 stars

Pre-order on Amazon (release date: October 20, 2015)

Most self-help books are notoriously vague and wishy-washy, with one-size-fits-all recommendations and generic assurance that everything will be okay.

“Superproductive” by Chobi Grace is not one of those books. Unlike most other works in that genre, it gives plenty of practical advice (throw your TV remote in a drawer!), psychological insights into why you do the things you do, and nifty ways to hack your daily routine to make it more productive without using up too much of your resources.

At just 50 pages, the book contains all the useful information without the fluff that one usually finds in self-help books. The stories and parables in the book are short, sweet and to the point (the parable about angels was particularly amusing). The book’s illustrations and design make it a lot more appealing than most self-published books on Kindle, which makes it both a visual and an intellectual treat.

If you’ve ever wondered where all your free time goes, or if you’ve always dreamed of writing that Great American Novel, you should give “Superproductive” a chance – it will not disappoint you.

Score: five stars

Buy it now on Amazon

“Time Travel: Recent Trips” is yet another sci-fi anthology edited by the prodigious Paula Guran. While this book has some remarkable stories, it appears that the volume’s motto was “quantity over quality.” Some of the stories are downright tedious, while others have almost nothing to do with time travel and serve as a filibuster platform for their author. Because of all that, the book ended up being an average, run-of-the-mill anthology that gets only 3 out of 5 stars.

“With fate conspire” by Vandana Singh: in a dystopian, drowning world of the future, an illiterate refugee gets rescued because her brain is uniquely tuned to a machine that can look into the distant past. When she’s not being haunted by ghosts of people from the past, she sabotages the project because of her feelings. And more feelings. With some feelings on top. A sad weepy story if you’re into that sort of thing.

“Twember” by Steve Rasnic Tem: a middle-aged man living in a small town reminisces about the past while giant mysterious escarpments roam the world and alter the time-space continuum when they pass. Yet another “human interest” story that doesn’t exactly revolve around time travel.

“The man who ended history: a documentary” by Ken Liu: not so much a sci-fi story as a 46-page-long (the longest in the anthology!) NC-17 history lesson about Japan’s Unit-731 from World War II. A Chinese-American historian uses his Japanese-American wife’s invention to experience the past and relive old atrocities, which reopens old wounds and changes the way people view history. Great potential for a great story, but it ended up being rather dry.

“The carpet beds of Sutro Park” by Kage Baker: a glitchy immortal cyborg (see Kage Baker’s “The Company” series for more information) falls in love with a woman while he records her hometown for posterity. Original but depressing.

“Mating habits of the late Creaceous” by Dale Bailey: a magnificent story about a married couple that spent all its money on a time travel to see dinosaurs. A great combination of science fiction, giant lizards and the human element.

“Blue ink” by Yoon Ha Lee: a very clever story about a schoolgirl who gets recruited to help fight the battle at the end of time. Short, beautifully written and with an unexpected ending.

“Two shots from Fly’s photo gallery” by John Shirley: a historian who specializes in the Old West time-travels to the gunfight at the OK Corral to save the woman he loves. A thoroughly researched and excellent story.

“The mists of time” by Tom Purdom: an engaging story about a wealthy man who goes back in time to shoot a documentary about his great-grandfather liberating a pirate ship full of slaves.

“The king of Where-I-go” by Howard Waldrop: a strange story set in the 1970s – a Texan guy’s younger sister gets recruited into a paranormal research project. Curious premise, but the story itself meanders – more about life in the 60s and 70s than anything else.

“Bespoke” by Genevieve Valentine: a cute short story about a post-time-travel world, where a young seamstress helps create authentic period clothing for wealthy tourists going back in time.

“First Flight” by Mary Robinette Kowal: a little old lady goes back in time to 1905 to record one of the Wright brothers’ flights. A feel-good story where, for once, interfering with the timeline doesn’t cause a disaster.

“The time travel club” by Charlie Jane Anders: a quirky story about a group of friends who meet each week in the basement of a Unitarian church and share their made-up stories about time travel, until a real time traveler shows up… Fun and creative.

“The ghosts of Christmas” by Paul Cornell: science fiction meets Lifetime channel in this story about a woman who uses an experimental time travel device to haunt her own past and future, her mather and her daughter. A lot of monologues about feelings, not a lot of science…

“The Ile of Dogges” by Elizabeth Bear & Sarah Monette: a very Kage Baker-like story about a time traveler rescuing a play that would have been destroyed otherwise.

“September at Wall and Broad” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch: an excellent story that combines the inefficiency of federal bureaucracies (the Time Department), the highly believable description of what it would be like to be a timestream operative, and the little-known Wall Street explosion of 1920. Highly recommended.

“Thought experiment” by Eileen Gunn: an engineer invents an unusual way to time-travel, but fails to consider the consequences. A goofy and entertaining story.

“Number 73 Glad Avenue” by Suzanne J. Willis: A woman and her magical tiny android sidekick steal time from people attending their parties. An unusual concept, though the story itself is a bit confusing.

“The Lost Canal” by Michael Moorcock: an unsuccessful and far too lengthy homage to Edgar Rice Burroughs’s “John Carter of Mars” novels. Apparently, a million years from now people will still speak English and remember what happened in the 20th century and what happened in the 23rd.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review

Amazon link

The third and final book in the Immortal trilogy is fun to read and hard to put down. Adam, the immortal with a snarky attitude and a penchant for alcoholism, gets in trouble once again, but this time the enemy isn’t someone he can track down and stop. Between the CIA, the goblin assassins and very nearly omniscient international conglomerates, there’s not a lot he can do to get out of his predicament.

“Immortal at the edge of the world” ties up some loose ends from the first book (while featuring a couple of characters introduced in the second book) and, most importantly, reveals the identity of Eve, the immortal red-haired woman from Adam’s past. Just about everything that takes place in this book was directly caused by the events at the end of the first book in the series, which only goes to show you – just because you slaughter an entire compound full of bad guys, doesn’t mean you’ll get away scot-free.

The book follows the same formula as the two before it: flashbacks at the beginning of each chapter (fortunately not typed in ALL CAPS, like they were in the second book), snarky observations about today’s world, wacky adventures involving mythological creatures, and action. Lots and lots of action. The immortal man is particularly vulnerable in this book…

That said, the book is not without flaws. The big revelation about Eve at the very end isn’t something you’d ever be able to guess, and the way it’s played out is rather unexpected and anticlimactic. (Much like the ending of Patrick Lee’s “Breach” trilogy.) Also, despite all of his experience and knowledge, our hero is still a bit of a dummy: when given an important, allegedly magical artifact, he goofs around with it for months before finally giving it his undivided attention at the very last possible moment. While the book is overall enjoyable, those two things are why I’m giving it four stars instead of five.

Score: four stars

(Disclaimer: I received my copy from Net Galley in exchange for an honest review.)

Order it on Amazon