Dave's Free Press: Reviews

being why I think things suck and/or rock


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Thu, 11 Jul 2013

Breakthrough, by Michael C. Grumley

This is, I think, the author's first book, and is self-published. I have to be honest, it shows that it's his first, with some fairly elementary and annoying errors.

He says on his website:

[I] dreamed of writing action thrillers the way he thought they should be written; stories with unique plots that move and keep the reader guessing until the very end. Enter Breakthrough, a story with a fascinating plot which takes the reader on an exciting ride and makes it virtually impossible to guess the ending.

and he does a pretty good job of achieving that. This book's plot does keep moving and keep the reader guessing, it is an exciting ride, and the ending is unexpected. He's definitely got the right idea, but needs to work on the execution.

Here are some of the execution errors that I noted in the first few pages.

Much of the action occurs near the Bimini islands of the Bahamas. The Bahamas are not in the Caribbean, but in the North Atlantic, but I could live with that if he said they were in the Caribbean or in the Caribbean Sea. But we get the Caribbean Ocean. A speed is given in knots per hour, but it should be just knots. A vessel is described as a "nuclear class submarine", which is incorrect. There are many classes of nuclear submarine, which have class names like Trafalgar or Astute or (for the Yankees) Lafayette or Los Angeles. These are all little things. Tiny, even. But they're like midges - tiny, obviously wrong, and bloody irritating. An editor should have spotted them.

I have a much bigger bone to pick with some of the science. One of the characters has her scientific reputation besmirched because people don't believe her "calculations" that sea level is dropping. It really is dropping in the story, dropping substantially, and it would be utterly trivial to measure it, but apparently no-one thought of, oh, I don't know, looking at a tide gauge. What happens near the end at Tristan da Cunha is ridiculous in itself, but its effects are even less believable. But my biggest beef is with a couple of little aspects of the story itself. The main bad guy is a silly cardboard cut-out. But worst is (and I can say this without actually giving away anything that matters) the way all the dead good guys come back at the end. Laughable.

So, having ranted and moaned for 400-odd words, what do I think of the book? I think surprisingly well of it actually, partly because I didn't spend much money on it. It's only £2 on the Kindle. And for your coupla quid you do get a decent story that whiles away a few hours, which is the raison d'être of fiction. I hesitate to recommend it, but neither can I say you should avoid it. And, in the hope that the irritations will go away as Grumley gains more experience as a writer and publisher, I'll keep an eye out for his next book.

Posted at 00:09 by David Cantrell
keywords: books | sci-fi | thriller
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Thu, 4 Jul 2013

Intrusion, by Ken Macleod

This horrible dystopia sits firmly in the tradition of British science fiction from the 1930s to the 50s. It's an exploration of a society that, while being on the surface far less intrusive, is actually as controlling and conformist as anything Huxley imagined in Brave New World. And while there's no Armageddon, it's concerned with the little people, the middle class, their family life, and their un-looked-for struggle to survive against overwhelming events, in the vein of John Wyndham and John Christopher's "cosy catastrophes". And to cap it all there's even a touch of Orwell's 1984 as the protagonists are tortured into conforming.

One of the most important things to take from it is the idea that what might seem like restriction and control of just one section of society and so not something for everyone to be overly concerned about is actually a symptom of a far deeper rot and so we should all care. In this case it's women who are most obviously repressed, with an alarming lack of bodily autonomy and restricted from most workplaces because of the "dangers" of "fourth hand smoke" leeching out of the walls having been put there by smokers decades ago. The restriction is for the sake of their unborn, nay as-yet-unconceived children. This is, of course, justified. Using science! And that is my biggest gripe with the book. The justification is nonsense, and Hope, the protagonist, is supposed to be well-educated but blithely accepts it:

'But working in offices where people once smoked thirty years ago doesn't seem so risky [as compared to mining].'

'Oh, it isn't', said Crow. 'But it's still risky. That foul stuff leaks out of the walls and floors for decades.'

'Only in tiny amounts,' said Hope.

'Yes!' said Crow. 'That means it's actually riskier than smoking itself, because the amounts are so tiny. I mean, we're talking about femtograms per cubic metre. You know how small that is? It's smaller than a subatomic particle! When you had actual smoke particles in the air, you could at least cough ... these nano- and femto-particles can slip right between the molecules and into your lungs and bloodstream.'

'Yes, well I do understand that', said Hope.

This is especially ridiculous when we see that the society of the novel has a good grounding in physics, physical chemistry, and the behaviour of atomic and subatomic particles.

As the story unfolds we see that while the repression of women is the most visible repression - official policy even (although, of course, the state wraps it all in a veneer of deep concern for womens' welfare just as in the 19th century) - everyone else who dares to rebel even a little bit is also targetted eventually.

So much for the synopsis and my political ranting. I suspect that, as is often said of Sir Thomas More's Utopia, you can find something to suit your own pre-conceived notions (I'm too polite to call them prejudices) in any dystopian or utopian novel.

Of course, to be a good novel we need more than a sound political basis and auspicious antecedents. We need an entertaining story whose world and plot make sense, and we need it to be inhabited by people. Macleod, as expected, does just fine. I have minor quibbles about a couple of points in his world - the unwarranted acceptance of ridiculous pseudo-science mentioned above, and the efficacy of "The Fix", the seemingly magical pill whose acceptance the whole story revolves around. And, again barring the above, the characters are people, not just puppets obedient to their master's will. They have doubts, fears, love and joy, and they behave and speak believably.

I have no hesitation in giving this book top marks.

Posted at 22:49 by David Cantrell
keywords: books | fantasy | sci-fi | thriller
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Mon, 14 Jan 2013

Bitter Harvest, by Michael R. Hicks

Bitter Harvest begins a year after the end of Season of the Harvest, with little in the way of introductory material for a reader who didn't read the prequel, and follows the same heroes as they find that they weren't quite successful enough in the previous book. This time round there's more action - a lot more shooting and blowing things up, at the sort of level that you might expect in a Hollywood vehicle for washed-up actors who need to come out of retirement to pay an unexpected tax bill. Something like The Expendables.

And like The Expendables, it requires very little mental effort to consume, probably required little to write, and after a while starts to feel as if you've read this page before. There's just too much shooting and blowing stuff up. Unlike The Expendables, however, I doubt it'll be much of a crowd-pleaser. That dreadful film did pretty well at the box office, but yer typical cinema-goer has lower standards than yer typical reader.

Even at £2.49 on the Kindle I can't in good conscience recommend that you read this, although I hesitate to tell you not to read it unless you've also not read the prequel. There's a third installment on its way called "Reaping the Harvest", according to the author's website but I'm not sure I'll bother. This installment in the trilogy left some unfinished plot lines, of course, but I wasn't left panting for more.

Posted at 18:56 by David Cantrell
keywords: books | sci-fi | thriller
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Season of the Harvest, by Michael R. Hicks

Mr. Hicks is another of those self-published authors that the Kindle is so good for, and, as many of them do, he has released this, the first book in a series, for free. He has a few other series too, which also have the first installment available for free.

Season Of The Harvest starts off as a crime thriller, in which a policeman's best friend - another policeman, of course - is killed while investigating a subversive group. Our Hero is told not to investigate the crime - he is, of course, too emotionally involved. But predictably, he does, he unearths corruption and then conspiracy, before being rescued from The Conspiracy by the very group he thought he was investigating. Of course, it turns out that that group are the good guys, he joins them, and saves humanity.

So far, so not particularly original.

It turns out that The Conspiracy that they are fighting against is very old, very evil, very powerful - and infeasible. There are only a dozen or so in the inner circle, with a large number of useful idiots working for them, and I do not believe that such a setup can be stable. Conspiracies always fail, because people are no damned good at keeping secrets, and doubly so when they know - and they know because they are being bribed or blackmailed - that the secret they are keeping is Bad and Naughty.

But I can brush that under the mental carpet, as Hicks tells his story so very well. It's a real page turner, running at just the right pace to make you want to keep turning the page until oh dark thirty in the morning without resorting to vast amounts of spurious shooting and explosions, and even though the nature of the conspiracy, and much of the science underpinning it, is preposterous (the science is so silly that I thought quite hard before tagging this review as sci-fi), I very much enjoyed this book. It's trash, quite predictable, but it's very enjoyable trash, and at the price you'd be a fool not to read it.

So why not five stars? The science. And more particularly, the anti-science diatribe in an afterword, in which he attempts to paint genetically modified organisms in the blackest of black, and of course wants to associate them with the fictional evil conspiracy his heroes have just averted. I don't particularly object to science and technology being a bit silly in a fictional work, but I do object when it is either so wrong as to mislead people about the real world, or the author is trying to push a (wrong) agenda. Here, he does both. And for that, just like I did a while ago in my review of Nevil Shute's "On The Beach", I deduct one star.

Posted at 00:02 by David Cantrell
keywords: books | sci-fi | thriller
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Thu, 8 Nov 2012

Wired Kingdom, by Rick Chesler

I'd never heard of Mr. Chesler until some random stranger started "following" me on Twitter. I have no idea how he heard of me, I suppose that he reads the blogs of other independently published authors, one of them mentioned my book review. I often talk about how much I love reading some of the cheap self-published sci-fi that the Kindle Revolution has sparked, and so I guess that explains things. Anyway, I wondered who this random stranger was, followed a few links, read a description, and moments later, I had a book to read.

And a jolly interesting book it was too. Now, let's get the bad bit out of the way first. The technology is a joke. To take just two examples: first, small portable satellite communications systems require a lot more power than would be available in the system described and have nothing like the required bandwidth; and second, water is opaque to GPS.

But, despite some people saying that it's sci-fi, it ain't, and so I won't criticise the author for his bad science and engineering. It's really a crime thriller. It has all the right ingredients - a seemingly unsolvable crime, then shocking evidence that emerges, a race between the bad guys and the good to get hold of it, action, hidden motives, and of course some great deception so that both the good guys and the reader go down utterly the wrong route in trying to figure out whodunnit. I'd give it five stars out of five, but for one thing.

The rabid animal-rights terrorist just doesn't fit quite right into the plot. Some of his actions are significant, it's true, but I think he could be fairly easily swapped out for a more believable character. His attempts to harpoon a whale[1] - to be the first sail-powered whaler in decades, as he points out - as a mere publicity stunt to draw attention to the plight of whales is not in the slightest bit believable. Sure, we all know that animal rights extremists are mad, but they ain't that mad. In reality they know that they can get away with murdering people to draw attention to their cause, but the moment that they start strangling bunnies with their bare hands they know they'll lose both any future converts and their current members.

So I deduct one star, and recommend this book.

[1] Grrr. There are many species of whale. The current whale species are as diverse as all the species of cows, sheep and deer are from each other. You wouldn't order some sheep meat in a restaurant and be satisfied with cow, and it's just as silly to talk about "saving the whale". And the particular species that stars in this book isn't hunted today. At all. Not by anyone. It isn't even sensible to talk about "saving the whales", plural, because many species don't need saving and could be sustainably exploited. It makes about as much sense as "saving the ruminants", only some of which are endangered.

Posted at 22:10 by David Cantrell
keywords: books | crime | thriller
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Wed, 30 May 2012

Gentle Reminders, by Martin Perry

Let me start with a very brief precis. While the good ship Annie is docked and undergoing repairs, a small group of the crew go and get drunk. One of them Mysteriously Disappears, and wakes up to find he has been kidnapped and tortured, but he has no idea why or by whom, and no memory of the event. He escapes from his kidnappers' underground lair through the sewers, is found by a crewmate, and returns to the ship. There is a brief flashback showing us why the ship is undergoing repair - it was attacked by pirates. Just before our brave crew continue on their journeying, the same group head into town to pick up some supplies, and to try to find out what happened earlier. They are ambushed, have a fight, win, and find out a Clue. They set off with a cargo to deliver to another port, which they do, but when they leave that port they are sabotaged by a stowaway, are wrecked on an unknown shore, and have to contend with Monsters. They learn from the stowaway that The Conspiracy is after something that the first crewman unwittingly has, and that his family are now in danger. The crew is like family, so they head off to defend their crewmate's family, discover what it was that the conspiracy was after, and beat off an assault by The Conspiracy that was chasing close on their heels. The End.

Now, what genre do you think this falls under? Sounds like a maritime thriller to me.

Well, I lied, just a little bit. One word of my precis is untrue. Change 'shore' to 'planet' and it's bang on. So while the setting of Gentle Reminders is indubitably science fictional, this is really quite a traditional tale of derring-do on the high seas space lanes, and it's a jolly well executed one too. It's a simple tale that is nice and evenly paced with a good mixture of page-turning excitement and character development, and the stars of the show are allowed the space to have personalities and relationships. There are a few lovely turns of phrase - one that particularly sticks in the mind is "they lay giggling in a pool of their own disgraceful behaviour". The only significant criticisms I have are that the antagonist organisation, and especially their leader, are a bit too cartoony and stereotyped; and I feel that the superhero ending was completely unnecessary. I understand, however, that there are sequels that are specifically to do with the superheroism and that this was just an introduction.

There were, as I moan about with just about every cheap Kindle book, a few minor spelling mistakes and other linguistic errors that jarred a bit, but I can let those go. At just £1.02 for the equivalent of 400-ish pages, it's an enjoyable bargain.

Posted at 22:49 by David Cantrell
keywords: books | sci-fi | thriller
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