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Reading ListJeff Soyer on 28 Oct 2014 10:23 am

Curiosity Quills Press has a hit on their hands as far as I’m concerned, with Operation Chimera, by Tony Healey and Matthew S. Cox. (Amazon link.) This entry into the science-fiction field offers likable characters, a good plot, and non-stop action including one of the best (and longest) space-battle scenes I’ve read in quite some time.

Earth, along with some allies, is fighting an interstellar war against the Draxx Alliance, a reptilian race that believes the entire universe belongs to them. As a plot, there’s nothing especially original about this. What sets Operation Chimera apart from similar themed novels is the deft execution by the authors. First and foremost, the writing is excellent and the characters are believably well fleshed out — warts and all. They are carefully introduced during the opening chapters.

As part of the war effort, a dangerous and secret mission is proposed. The mission is so risky that the military asks for volunteers both from their own ranks, and from civilians. A new aircraft carrier style star ship is built for the voyage. The story details the adventures of six pilots fresh out of the officer’s academy. They comprise one of the fighter squadrons and their mettle will be tested all through the book. I enjoyed the fact that there’s no one “star” of the story. Rather, authors Healey and Cox gave all of the protagonists equal weight.

I’m not going to reveal spoilers. I will tell you that the main battle scene runs over a hundred pages and that there’s no way you are going to want to put the book down half-way through it. Plan your meals accordingly! The obstacles for both the squadron and the star ship are many, and they keep coming one after another and piling up, making Operation Chimera such a wonderful read. Incidentally, the authors give “hat-tips” to other SF authors throughout the book, including to Isaac Asimov and his robotic laws. Nice touch!

Fortunately for all of us SF fans, this is just the first book in what I hope will be a long series.

Reading ListJeff Soyer on 26 Oct 2014 10:07 pm

The first of a trilogy of novellas, The Whispers, by Lisa Unger (Amazon link) confronts us with the question of, “Why do bad things happen to good people,” and is there a purpose behind such events? Eloise Montgomery suffers the unthinkable, losing her husband and oldest daughter in a terrible automobile accident. She herself suffers injuries and awakens from a 6-week coma. Her youngest daughter suffered no physical effects but has withdrawn into herself by not speaking or responding to outside stimulus.

Thus begins this intriguing series following the new life forced upon Eloise. And then the visions start! Audible and visual phenomena of women being abused or worse. She finds herself successfully assisting the police in two investigations. She does not want this new “gift” and must reflect upon why it was given to her. Cryptic parts of the answer come from, shall we say, visits from her deceased husband and child.

Lisa Unger is a good writer and her characters are vivid and complete. Her descriptions of the mental anguish experienced by Eloise exert a powerful tug on your heartstrings. The story ends on an upbeat note. Naturally you are left wanting more. Fortunately, the next installment of this series is due out in November. I guarantee you I’ll be reading it.

Reading ListJeff Soyer on 15 Oct 2014 04:32 pm

I always enjoy stepping into one of David Weber’s stories. I know it will be interesting and well written. A Call to Duty, by David Weber and Timothy Zahn (Amazon link) doesn’t disappoint. Set in the Honor Harrington universe, but many years before she arrives on the scene, the people of Manticore are rebuilding, following a devastating plague. With no wars being fought, some of the politicians would like to dismantle the Royal Navy and dedicate additional resources to other endeavors. The process begins. Fortunately, it doesn’t get too far.

Enter a young man flirting with trouble, Travis Uriah Long. Finding no structure in his home life, he enlists in the Manticore Royal Navy. Travis doesn’t find as much discipline or structure as he was hoping, and falls afoul of certain senior officers. Fortunately, others are on his side, or at least give him the benefit of the doubt. Showing a talent for learning star ship mechanics, he eventually finds himself assigned to a ship reconstruction crew lacking — you guessed it! — discipline and structure. The story takes off from there, with Long serving on a star ship that goes on rescue missions, and later battles pirates. For the sake of brevity, I’m simplifying things in the extreme. The book is much more original than that.

Likeable characters, good action scenes, intrigue, and tough decisions all factor into a grand space opera and a welcome addition (as the start of a new series) in the Honor Harrington universe. Just don’t go looking for her.

Confession: I didn’t read the entire book in one sitting; I took a few minutes to grab a bite to eat.

You’ll enjoy A Call to Duty. I certainly did!

Reading ListJeff Soyer on 15 Oct 2014 03:18 pm

I’ve read and enjoyed two of James Wesley, Rawles’ other books in this series. Thus I looked forward to the latest, Liberators (Amazon link, due to be released October 21). Most of the action takes place in Canada during “the Crunch” when most of the worlds’ economies have collapsed, with ensuing disorder, scarcity of food and fuel, and governments in disarray. There are several books in the series, all taking place during the same years, but with different characters in different parts of the world. Liberators is certainly engaging. You just hope it never becomes non-fiction.

All of the books in the series can be classified as “prepper” novels in that besides providing you with a possible futuristic history, they also offer advice (via the characters’ actions) on how to prepare for an emergency, and the breakdown of government — be it at the local or national level.

I’ve rated the book slightly lower than previous ones for a few reasons. First, there seems to be more exposition rather than plot actions in contrast to previous works in the series. Fiction is best when it is of the “show, don’t tell” modal.

Secondly, the occupation of Canada, first by European U.N. forces is believable enough. However, once they are “sent packing” as it were, the occupation by China is a bit more far-fetched. I can’t see a country with little oil production of its own being able to transport so many troops and ships/planes or helicopters/ground vehicles overseas.

Liberators also seems to have an extra-heavy dose of Christianity infused in the characters, making them seem rather wooden. As a matter of fact, I don’t remember a single person of another religion (or lack of one) taking part in the story.

Still, it’s a fun read that I hope never comes true.

Reading ListJeff Soyer on 25 Sep 2014 10:42 am

The full title of this layman’s guide to understanding the theory of relativity is What is Relativity?: An Intuitive Introduction to Einstein’s Ideas, and Why They Matter. Published by Columbia University Press, author Jeffrey Bennett uses his young adult, classroom lectures to aid in understanding the profound equations and theories that revolutionized our picture of how the Universe works. I’d like to write that this is a welcome addition to the field. I can’t.

There’s nothing especially wrong, or inaccurate, about this volume, just that there’s nothing new or original about it. The gold standard of books explaining Einstein’s theories of relativity has — at least for me — been The Universe, and Dr. Einstein, by Lincoln Barnett, first published in 1948, and revised in 1950. Long out of print, but used editions readily available on eBay and other sources, it clearly made relativity accessible to the average reader.

While Einstein (and Barnett, in explaining Einstein’s work) use railroad trains as illustrative examples, Bennett has updated that by using rocket ships, instead. Other than that, the book adds nothing new to the discussion. On the plus side, he does give an original view of black holes, and what could happen if a spaceship ventured too close to one. On the minus side, he does little to illuminate the conflicts between the theory of relativity and the quantum theories. Barnett’s book touches on that, a bit.

Bennett’s writing style is okay, though not exciting, and the illustrations are nothing special.

Although Barnett’s book is out of print, might I instead recommend to you, Einstein’s Cosmos, by Michio Kaku, which does a much better job of presenting — at a ‘consumer level’ — both theories plus Kaku’s typically interesting speculations.

 

Reading ListJeff Soyer on 18 May 2014 12:22 pm

To add to your science-fiction reading list: This year’s Nebula Award winners have been announced.

Reading ListJeff Soyer on 20 Apr 2014 02:57 am

The full and official list is here.

Here are the novels:

Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie (Orbit US/Orbit UK)

Neptune’s Brood, Charles Stross (Ace / Orbit UK)

Parasite, Mira Grant (Orbit US/Orbit UK)

Warbound, Book III of the Grimnoir Chronicles, Larry Correia (Baen Books)

The Wheel of Time, Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson (Tor Books)

Reading ListJeff Soyer on 25 Feb 2014 06:37 am

Some 45-years ago, the Boyscout troop I was in went on an overnight camping trip in late November. It rained and then snowed and we were huddled in our tents, and half of us got the stomach bug. Thinking back on it, that was a walk in the park compared to what The Troop, by Nick Cutter (Amazon link) faces as the five of them and their scoutmaster begin a weekend camping trip on a small, deserted island off the coast of Prince Edward Island.

The short review: Frightening, relentless, graphically gory.

The long review: There are two ways to handle a horror story. One is with subtlety, the other is with head-on violence and gore. If you’re preference is for the latter, this is a disturbingly good read. If not….

All seems well as the troop settles in for their first night on lonely Falstaff Island. Then, an escapee from a military-financed biological research lab arrives. Gaunt, starving, and dangerous, the zombie-like character carries within him a genetically engineered, highly infectious parasite that will leave a trail of blood and guts.

Perhaps more creatively, is how the author has given the middle-school-aged boys not just a terrifying, but palpable danger to defend against, but also a quietly sadistic, psychotic from their own ranks to contend with. The portraiture of him is chilling and makes for pages of graphic prose that are almost too difficult to read. Of course, like commuters rubbernecking an accident on the other side of the highway, we have to look anyway.

Added to all of that, there’s the mystery of “why?” no rescue comes from the mainland, and you have a thoroughly scary read that will keep you turning pages.

The Troop is well written, if grim; don’t look for any humorous breaks in the tension. If graphic gore isn’t your thing, I don’t recommend this book for you. If it is, you will (as some of the characters do) feast.

Although the protagonists are young teens, this book is for adults.

Note: If you find my reviews helpful (either convincing you to buy or not buy a book) please indicate so on Amazon (where my reviews are cross-posted.

Reading ListJeff Soyer on 11 Feb 2014 05:55 am

When you die, you simply wake up in another world, possibly in another universe. It’s not reincarnation in the classic sense, since you usually arrive at the age you were at, at “death,” and your memories are intact. Earth is an original-born world, not one of the steps along the way. Eventually, when it’s time to really die — if you’ve “earned it” — you wind up on a strange, squalid world known as the City Unspoken. That’s the premise of The Waking Engine, by David Edison. This big book is a heady mixture of science-fiction, fantasy, and horror, with an ambitious plot: Something has gone wrong with the machine that actually allows the mix of creatures from various worlds to finally rest in peace. The City Unspoken is becoming overcrowded, out of control, and various forms of ennui, or insanity, are rising.

There are numerous subplots, and a remarkable array of characters; some human, some not so much. As a world builder, the author has excelled in The Waking Engine.

The main protagonist of the story — a young, gay man from New York named Cooper — awakes in this strange world and quickly becomes enmeshed as a pawn in the machinations of numerous different factions. He begins to develop some powers that aid his survival. He’s a smart aleck, but not so smart in other ways as he often ignores what precious little, good advice is given him.

Okay, a book review is supposed to be more than a plot summary. I wanted to like the book, but there are a few flaws in it that make that difficult. Firstly, other than Cooper, nobody in The Waking Engine is remotely likable. There’s a huge cast of characters whose only concerns are for themselves. There’s also a tremendous amount of cruelty in the story between characters — even those few that purport to be “good” and helpful. It’s not easy to read page-after-page about people you simply don’t care for. Even the two beings that initially find Cooper and take him in exhibit their worst selves when Sesstri kicks Cooper and calls him a turd, and Asher abandons him in the City. Later, they’ll regret that.

There are so many subplots that even scenes that should have moved along quickly get bogged-down in the details and keeping track of all the players is a full time task.

There are some good points. The descriptions of the various parts of the city are excellent and you find yourself in total immersion to this strange universe. The courtship scenes between Cooper and his poorly chosen, brief lover, Marvin, are nicely erotic without being pornographic (sex is at a very bare minimum in the story). Much of the book’s dialogue is well crafted.

In the end, I believe The Waking Machine would benefit if it went through another edit, and also if David Edison would inject a little more humanity into a few of the minor protagonists — regardless if they’re human or not. Three stars out of 5.

Reading ListJeff Soyer on 06 Feb 2014 06:42 am

Without trying to be political, it seems that as the mood of the country becomes more polarized and angry — and I’m not pointing any fingers — there’s been a large uptick in novels about a new civil war, or in this case, a second revolution. The Second Revolution, by Gary Hansen (Amazon link) is better written than many of them and presents a clear case where action is needed. Though there isn’t an actual revolutionary war involved, there is an uprising against a stunningly corrupt president.

The Second Revolution is a fun and action-packed read with some very likable characters. The main protagonists, a crime victim named Jake, his “sudden” girlfriend Monica and her preacher father, Clive, are fully developed and human. Nothing cardboard about them.

They get caught up in the events of the day and react as many would. The current President of the United States, a politician named Singleton, is trying to pass a draconian tax overhaul. Two congressional opponents are assassinated. Then, a reporter is murdered. All fingers point to President Singleton who — using the killings as an excuse — orders the confiscation of all handguns in the country.

I don’t give spoilers in my reviews but you can bet that half-the-country doesn’t like it one bit. The book raises the question of what are the moral limits to protest, to civil disobedience, and finally, to open revolt?

To his credit, the author does not pit one political party against another. In fact, no political labels are ever used in The Second Revolution, nor are ideological ones. Instead, there is simply a corrupt president violating the Constitution, and what are the American people going to do about it?

Gary Hansen’s The Second Revolution will keep you going. It IS fantasy, since I wonder if Americans have grown too complacent to even fight for their rights. When England and Australia confiscated its citizens’ firearms, there was nary a whimper. I would hope, should this tale come true, that it will be different here.

Just a reminder that if you find my reviews helpful, please indicate so on Amazon.

Reading ListJeff Soyer on 03 Feb 2014 04:58 pm

Short review: A superbly entertaining science fiction novel with a fascinatingly complex and well thought out plot.

Okay, you need more than that to pay the price of admission, right? I don’t blame you!

The long review: The Flight of the Silvers, by Daniel Price (Amazon link) is the type of novel that all science fiction authors should aspire to write. According to the author notes, Mr. Price spent three years writing this marvelous story and it shows; oh gosh it shows itself in the intimately drawn characters, with all of their flaws, insecurities, strengths, and especially their personalities.

The Plot: Here’s another thing that’s wonderful about this book; I can reveal much of the plot without giving out spoilers. That’s not easy to do with the average (in every sense of the word) SF book I’ve reviewed.

Chapter one: Our universe comes to an end! Trust me, that’s not a plot spoiler — it’s the beginning of a harrowing ride for six protagonists who are “saved” by a trio of mysterious . . . humans (”quote–unquote”) and are transplanted into an alternate universe, an Earth mostly like our own but also different in many disturbing ways. In this new, alternate universe, a “split” from our own, the inhabitants have discovered time manipulation through technology. However, our six characters don’t need this technology because each of them have an innate, or genetically programmed ability to shape, or read, or alter, or communicate with, or predict the future. Thanks to mysterious benefactors, they wind-up in a laboratory where they are the subjects. That’s a gross simplification that doesn’t do justice to what Mr. Price has written. They’re aliens in an alien Earth. (Thank you, Mr. Heinlein!)

Six young individuals who are torn from OUR universe and wind-up in another, scary one where they are not welcomed and are hunted down by many who want to kill them. Through the course of the book, their variously specialized skills are slowly realized and developed.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, there are a whole bunch of folks who would like to eliminate these intruders into their universe. You have the equivalent of (our) FBI regarding them as criminals and killers. You have a rogue (our universe) saved guy who is trapped in a time-loop and hates several of our story heroes and lives to hurt them. You have the mysterious “saviors” who help or hinder our gang-of-six. You have “tribes” in this alternate Earth with their own special powers, trying to kill them. You have someone who might be trying to help them, or might be the ultimate enemy. Man-O-man, they have almost everyone against them! Perfect plotting. Our friends from the original (our) world have more hurdles than horses in a steeplechase, maybe the highest one being themselves. They don’t get along that well with each other, or listen much to each others’ advice.

Flight of the Silvers is a wonderful accomplishment; great sci-fi with fabulous characters and a marvelously plotted story. Don’t “speed read” this book. Slow down and savor the whole story as you’ll benefit from carefully dropped clues. There are slow parts, where the characters interact with each other. That includes self-and other- hating, loving, introspective individuals trapped in an alterverse they don’t belong in, and illumination of their makeup. Other parts of this finely written story move along at break-neck pace. This is how great novels are supposed to be. Alternate universes, time travel and manipulation, paradoxes galore, and great story telling all in one large but fast moving tale.

This is a big book, satisfying in itself, but just the first part of a series. It ends at just the right place in that some momentary security for our six protagonists is reached. But, there is a whole lot more to come and I’m an impatient kind of guy. Please, Mr. Price, write the next chapter (book) swiftly and surely, because anyone who reads this first installment is (like me) anxiously going nuts to see what happens next in your alternate universes.

The Flight of the Silvers is a great read for any science-fiction fan, as well as anyone else who just enjoys a mind-expanding story.

Just a reminder that if you find my reviews helpful, please indicate so on Amazon, where I cross-post them. It helps my standing there. Thanks!

Reading ListJeff Soyer on 03 Feb 2014 03:26 am

The best offer you’ll have all day:

M. David Blake’s magnum opus, the 2014 Campbellian Anthology, is now available for download! This book attempts to collect in one volume representative works by most of the writers eligible for this year’s John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. We don’t have them all—there were a few we couldn’t get—but all the same, this book contains more than 860,000 words of fiction by 111 authors, and best of all, it’s not merely free, it’s DRM-FREE.

Download links at the link, for different file formats. Note that this is a limited-time offer.

Reading ListJeff Soyer on 21 Jan 2014 08:17 am

This series has become a staple purchase for me. The Eighth Science-Fiction Megapack is a terrific bargain for just 99-cents. Hours — and I do mean hours — of enjoyable reading. I wasn’t crazy about the very first one, but following that, these books have presented a very nice, representative mix of the genre. Some stories are older, but most are of recent vintage, culled from various sci-fi magazines and collections of originals.

Several stories deserve special mention:

The True Dark, by Pamela Sargent is really a horror story that reminded me of Serling’s “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street,” but it’s way scarier.

Robots Don’t Cry, by Mike Resnick, is a superb account of a robot that remains loyal to a child long gone. It might seem a bit dusty in the room you’re reading it in

Way Down East, by Tim Sullivan, is the story of honoring an alien’s last wish. A humorous, though melancholy story (there are several in the collection).

Consequences of Steam, by Michael Hemmingson, is a time travel story — always a favorite of mine — about needing more than one try to ‘get it right’ in a desire to live in the past.

Outside Looking In, by Mark E. Burgess, is an action tale of the old theory that our universe might just be a lab experiment in some other universe. Clever ending.

After All, by Robert Reginald, is a weird (but in a good way) post-post-apocalyptic story about a survivor and his unusual friends.

Monkey On His Back, by Charles V. De Vet, reminds us that you can’t escape your past, especially a mercenary one.

My favorite, and worth the price of admission all by itself, is The Survivors, by Tom Godwin. This is a harrowing account of abandonment on and having to survive on a hostile, alien world type of story, but very well done, and if it takes a thousand years — revenge is still sweet. Nearly novel length, if you enjoyed the Genellan series by Scott Gier, you’ll love this entry.

The Eighth Science-Fiction Megapack is a winner!

Just a reminder that I cross-post these reviews on Amazon. If you think these reviews are helpful, please indicate so on Amazon as that helps my “ranking” there.

Reading ListJeff Soyer on 21 Jan 2014 07:20 am

You’re just a teenage boy, doing the things boys love to do. Then, someone tries to poison you. You’re framed for a fire that injures your friend, and further attempts are made on your life. The killer? It’s you! Copied, by S.M. Anderson, from Curiosity Quills Press (Amazon link) is a first-rate thriller with science fiction overtones that explores several ethical questions including the issue of genetic engineering, human cloning, and the prospect that a corporation can “own” a clone because they own the DNA of that person.

More importantly, Copied also examines the theory of nature vs. nurture regarding two identical clones. The protagonists of the story — very likable ones — Alexander Mitchell (”Xan”) and his friend Lacey (a remarkably bright, teen girl) are determined to figure out just who and why someone would want Xan dead.

I don’t give spoilers, and there are plenty of clever plot twists and action that keep the story moving at a fast pace. Incidentally, while there is certainly room for a sequel, the story is self-contained and a very good read for all ages. I recommend it.

Incidentally, if my reviews help you decide to purchase a book, please do indicate so on Amazon, where I cross-post them.

Reading ListJeff Soyer on 02 Jan 2014 08:52 am

Having been laid-up with a bad back for a few days now, I can attest that at least it takes your mind off of other problems. But, the benefits don’t end there:

Being pulled into the world of a gripping novel can trigger actual, measurable changes in the brain that linger for at least five days after reading, scientists have said.

The new research, carried out at Emory University in the US, found that reading a good book may cause heightened connectivity in the brain and neurological changes that persist in a similar way to muscle memory.

Granted, the study was a small one, but interesting. Details of the “why?” at the link.

I am very thankful that my parents instilled in me a love of reading at an early age, with the entire Wizard of Oz series, The Hardy Boys, A dramatic history series whose name I can’t remember, and more. By my early teens I had discovered science fiction and was hooked.

Most of my apartment is crowded with (other than old computers) books. I love the feel, smell, touch of them. Having said that, I also love my Kindle. It’s so . . . portable.

Reading ListJeff Soyer on 23 Dec 2013 02:25 am

I haven’t given 5-stars to any book in several months. That’s about to change. The first of the Inspector Ian Drake series, Brass in Pocket, by Stephen Puleston (Kindle link) is superb. If you like your police procedurals to also feature high-tension, urgency, and action, this is the best 99-cent gift you can give to yourself (or others) this holiday season.

While (unfortunately) the killing of police officers is common in the United States, it isn’t, in Wales. When two of them are brutally murdered on a remote country road, the country is in an uproar. Worse, the killer leaves nearly incomprehensible messages to taunt law enforcement with the promise that there’s more to come.

Detective Inspector Ian Drake (along with his partner, Detective Sergeant Caren Waits) must try to figure out who the next victims are, but the killer always seems one step ahead of them. In addition, Drake must battle his own obsessive compulsive behaviors.

Plenty of red-herrings along the path, and many other surprises I won’t reveal, make this a super-fast-paced thriller with an ending that Agatha Christie would be proud of.

Brass in Pocket is the best novel I’ve read in quite some time and I look forward to the next book in the Inspector Drake series. Well done, Mr. Puleston!

Reading ListJeff Soyer on 21 Dec 2013 11:38 pm

Just released by Smithcraft Press, The Cleansing (Earth Haven) Book One, by Sam Kates tells a familiar story of a deadly virus killing off nearly all of the 7-billion people on Earth. What distinguishes this story is that the disease was intentionally spread by a group of 5,000 aliens who look just like us and are living amongst us. They’ve been on Earth for 5,000 years, waiting for a sign from their home planet that the rest of their species would soon be arriving. Hence, the need to cleanse the Earth of humans so it can become the haven for the soon-to-arrive aliens.

There are other, important factors to this story concerning us humans, but in the interests of not spoiling the read for you, I’m going to withhold it. It doesn’t matter to the review itself.

I have, in other reviews, said that I don’t worry myself too much over the validity of the science, in a science fiction novel. I just try to enjoy the ride. I DO — however — require some logic to the story line. What rubs me wrong?

First, the aliens can, by communing, exert some mental control over us (humans) as long as there aren’t too many of us . . . which makes me wonder why they didn’t do that 5,000 years ago when the population of Earth was a tiny fraction of what it is today and there were twice as many aliens (apparently they don’t reproduce much). The estimated population at that time (3,000 BC) was 14 million. About the same as the number who have survived this plague (according to the aliens, who designed the disease to spare .02% of the population).

For that matter, given that they had the technology to travel to our world, why wouldn’t they (in 3,000 BC) simply migrate to, say, someplace where there were few if any humans? They could have had North America to themselves.

Secondly, the leader of the aliens continues to say that “we abhor violence” yet has no trouble giving the command to wipe out 7-billion people with a deadly disease.

Small points, I suppose! The Cleansing is well written and focuses on two surviving humans as well as one pacifist (traitor) alien who befriends them. That was another peculiarity; how out of 5,000 aliens who have interacted with us for 5,000-years (I TOLD YOU — they live a long time!) only one took a shining to us or at least generated enough sympathy for us not to do his part in spreading death.

There are other characters profiled, but none of them are likable. The story is grim and ends without a lot of hope for the .02 percent of humanity that survived the aliens’ disease.

Since this is “Book One,” you can rightly surmise that the story will continue and it will be interesting to see what direction the author has chosen. I’ll give this installment three-stars out of five.

Reading ListJeff Soyer on 09 Dec 2013 06:06 pm

So, let’s say that the universe we live in had a place where all the space-emergent species, from all the scattered worlds in it, belonged to a structure run by an organization that was a cross between the United Nations and Las Vegas. And, Earth’s humans are the newbies. Welcome to the second novel in the Grand Central Arena series. Spheres of Influence, by Ryk E. Spoor, (Amazon link) is a joyous romp in an unusually clever sci-fi fantasy story that you and your kids can enjoy.

Firstly, I strongly recommend that you read the first book in the series, Grand Central Arena because while there is a summary in Spheres of Influence, it’s not quite enough to explain all that goes on, including the description of The Arena and Nexus Arena, where all of the aliens — species from different worlds, including Earth — interact, and work out their problems.

It’s the 24th century and Humankind is at peace with itself. Robots and AI’s do all the heavy lifting. Finally, an interstellar drive is invented and a daring few “jump” outside the solar system, only to be stopped in their tracks, as it were, and they discover The Arena. Each solar system is represented in a sphere at the Arena. When they arrive, they are granted “an embassy” within Nexus Arena, where they can interact with other aliens (species from other solar systems) and do trade, scheme, engage in intrigue and settle grudges. Wars can be fought outside, in the “real universe” but in the Arena, it comes down to “challenges” where a small few participants from each species duel in various ways (and other species can bet on the outcome) and the winner can demand everything from fuel to worlds. This is a simplification that is much expanded and explained in the story. For those of you who have read the first book, I’m not giving any spoilers. Let’s just say that some of the “factions” aren’t happy to have the newbie Humans around, and that some of the Humans on Earth aren’t happy that Captain Ariane Austin was designated the leader of the Human Faction.

Let me try to shorten this review. Ryk E. Spoor has created a wonderfully thought out plot mechanism that is sure to ensure many more novels in this series. Spheres of Influence is an addicting, fun, rated-”G” story that science fiction enthusiasts of all ages can enjoy. But wait; there’s more!

Spheres of Influence introduces what just might be the most enjoyable, likable, scene-stealing character I’ve ever read in a science fiction novel; a genetically engineered hybrid of a human, monkey, cat . . . I’m not exactly sure. But, Sun Wu Kung, the Monkey King, is absolutely a perfectly wonderful creation from author Spoor’s fertile imagination. A lovable warrior! He’s worth the price of admission all by himself and he’s the hero of an epic space battle.

Spheres of Influence is fun, mind provoking, and a terrific read. It’s an easy read, since science doesn’t get much in the way of the narrative. Sci-fi purists might fault me for that, but I like to get carried away by a story and not worry too much about whether the physics equations work out or not. Again, read the first book, and then savor Spheres of Influence. And, as I am, wait for the next installment!

Reading ListJeff Soyer on 03 Dec 2013 08:01 am

When I was much younger, I read We Are Not Alone, by Walter Sullivan. In the forty or so years since then, the search for life outside our own planet has become far more sophisticated, and yet we’re still at the point where we haven’t found any. Are we searching correctly? Do we need to expand our ideas of how and what forms of life might develop on other worlds? Where should we look?

Dr. Athena Coustenis and Dr. Thérèse Encrenaz, both renowned astrophysicists, answer those questions in Life Beyond Earth: The Search for Habitable Worlds in the Universe. (Amazon link.)

One of the highest compliments I can pay to a science book like this is that I learned new things, and I have read many “is there life out there” tomes that didn’t do that. It’s important here to state that, no, the authors are not proposing that there’s intelligent life (such as on Earth) on some of the other planets or moons of our solar system. But, given the right conditions, there might be, albeit very simple, life forms. It is certainly possible that organic or prebiotic molecules are in existence, especially anywhere there might be liquid water — which recent unmanned space missions indicate could exist below the surfaces of several of Jupiter’s and Saturn’s moons.

Life Beyond Earth carefully details how life can arise, where it can arise, and speculate on the likelihood of that happening. Dr. Athena Coustenis and Dr. Thérèse Encrenaz explore the possibilities of prebiotic, or life itself, existing under the (to us) unusual conditions on most of the planets and moons as well as outside the solar system.

This is a thorough and interesting survey of what we know and how we can learn more. Caution: This is written at, I want to say, a college level. If you are expecting the sort of easy, non-challenging read of a Carl Sagan type book, you’ll be disappointed. A certain amount of chemistry and physics knowledge — not graduate level mind you, just that you remember your senior High School courses well — is recommended.

Science fiction authors should make this a “must read!”

Lastly, Life Beyond Earth is profusely illustrated, along with many color plates; I strongly urge you to purchase the physical hardcover rather than the Kindle edition for full enjoyment of it.

Reading ListJeff Soyer on 01 Dec 2013 11:38 am

The Abominable Snowman. The Loch Ness Monster. Bigfoot. As a kid, I ate that stuff up. In fact, along with watching every monster movie I could, I also poured through the pages of Fate Magazine. Eventually one grows up — but, in my case, only a little. Authors Daniel Loxton and Donald R. Prothero have written a book, Abominable Science (Amazon link) about their investigations into such cryptozoological subjects.

Both authors are skeptics although as is quoted more than once in Abominable Science that, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” None the less, they are not believers that such critters as I’ve already mentioned, nor sea serpents or dinosaurs (in Africa,) exist at this time. Am I a believer? Not really, but I try to keep an open mind.

There are definitely two authors at work here with differing writing styles. Sometimes humor is shown, other times the prose is dry as a stick. There are numerous and often humorous anecdotes about the hoaxes foisted on the gullible public by pranksters. I enjoyed those sections quite a bit. In other parts, it’s slow going. Their research is exhaustive. At times, in fact, it’s exhausting; in a couple of chapters there’s simply too much of it that simply isn’t all that interesting. Incidentally, fully 40% of the book (according to my Kindle) is footnotes, references, etc.

For instance, the chapter on sea serpents recounts almost every single piece of historical writings about them. A few less examples would have moved things along, better. And yet, while I was reading the book a couple of months ago, two Oarfish washed up upon the western coast. These are snake-like creatures that can grow to be over 30 feet in length, with fearsome looking heads and could easily be mistaken as “sea serpents” and possibly have spawned such tales. Odd that THEY weren’t mentioned. Who knows what else lurks in the deep and hasn’t been discovered yet. Having said that, I’m more in agreement with them in other chapters.

Regarding Big Foot . . . Well, I think the authors are on sounder footing, pardon the pun. As they point out, with all the hunters and loggers and nature lovers tramping through the woods of North America, not one has come across a body or skeleton or even part of one that has tested positive as a new species.

Two points about the book rubbed me the wrong way. While it has nothing to do with the validity of what they are writing, the statement is made that such-and-such making claims about or went looking for a creature “had no training that would qualify him to undertake competent research on exotic animals.” This was regarding a biologist who mounted two expeditions to the African Congo in search of a supposedly not-extinct dinosaur. And, no, I don’t believe there are still dinosaurs roaming the veldt and yes, I believe that the scientist in question had an agenda. But, I also believe that plenty of non-professional enthusiasts have made numerous contributions to the sciences. All you need do is look to the field of astronomy for examples today.

Secondly, one of the authors, Donald R. Prothero, links belief in Big Foot, and cryptozoology in general, to the decline in science education in the United States. He goes on a tirade at the end of the book trying to link belief in sea serpents to belief in astrology, to creationism, to not-believing in man-made global warming, to the recession, to Republicans (because, I guess, no Democrat ever looked up their horoscope or believes in Big Foot) and finally to the wars in the middle-east. That’s quite a wide paint brush he wields in the final paragraphs.

Okay, if you’ve made it this far into my review, you want the bottom line: Parts of the book are interesting and the authors certainly take the wind out of the sails of some beliefs. Other sections are slow going and begging to be skipped over. I’ll grudgingly give it 3 out of 5 stars.

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