Book Review: Recursion

By Robert Drinkwater

One of the latest bestsellers of 2019, I felt myself immediately drawn to Recursion by Blake Crouch. A novel about memory and time travel that is sure to grip you from the start. This story has two point of views, Barry a detective who is investigating this new disease going around called False Memory Syndrome, or FMS. A condition in which people have false memories of a completely different life. One woman for instance has vivid memories of the last ten years being married to a man and living in a completely different location. After realizing that thee ,memorizes are false, she has a mental breakdown and commits suicide. The other point of view Helena, is a scientist who has worked nearly her entire life to build a memory chair. A device in which you can go back in time to any vivid memory you have and relive your life from that point.

This was a compelling story from start to finish. Both Helena and Barry were likable characters with realistic goals and motivations. Eventually these two characters stories connect with each other and there is a bit f a doomsday vibe to it. It is up to them to save the the world from destroying itself. This novel involves time travel and a lot of times I feel like this idea gets stale, but in this case, it was intriguing and it made for a compelling plot.

While FMS is a focal point in this novel, it is not the main plot. I thought the source of this disease would be the main mystery throughout the novel. However, FMS does play an important role as it is seen as this new disease that hits people at random (or so it seems). We see this with Barry towards the beginning as he becomes paranoid of what is real and what isn’t. He begins to question the things happening around him. This happens to more people later on in the sory as we soon find out what is causing FMS.

One of the main themes of this novel was the dangers of technological advancement. While Helena’s motivations were to help people like her mother who were suffering from dementia, there were others who wanted to use the chair for their own personal gain. At times, this reminded me of something that would be on Black Mirror, portraying technology in a bleaker viewpoint with thought provoking ideas. We explore concepts such as ‘what if we could go back in time and save a family member or do something in you life differently’. In this case going back in time has drastic consequences.

Overall, I felt like this novel had a unique approach to time travel. Without going into too much spoilers, I’ll just say that multiple timelines were involved, a concept that was both fascinating and confusing at times. I also felt like there was decent development with the two main characters and their relationship. This is a book that I would recommend for anyone who is into science-fiction, speculative fiction, or just a fan of Netflix’s Black Mirror. Recursion is a fast paced novel that deals with time travel and it is sure to make you wonder what would happen if advanced technology such as the memory chair got into the wrong hands.

You can buy Recursion on Amazon for 13.99: https://www.amazon.com/Recursion-Novel-Blake-Crouch/dp/1524759783

Where The Crawdads Sing Book Review

By Robert Drinkwater

Where The Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens was a poignant coming of age novel that centers around Kya, a young girl who lives in the swamps of North Carolina. This story follows her as she grows up in the swamps, isolated from the community and known as the Swamp Girl. At the beginning, we know that a young man, Chase Andrews has been killed, and a lot of the townsfolk think that Kya had something to do with it. As the story progresses we see Kya grow up and learn more about the world around her.

Going into this book, I wasn’t really sure of what to expect. I knew that it was popular. This is a coming of age story because, the main character Kya grows up and changes. One of the most striking features of this novel is the fact that the description of the nature is so vivid. It feels like we’re in the swamp with her as she is observing the wildlife around her. This book was written by someone who was a biologist and it really shows as we see the deep descriptions of the animals and wildlife in this novel. It is beautiful and at times I felt like I was in that swamp catching fireflies at dusk.

The poignancy comes into play when we see Kya grow up as one by one each of her family members leaves. She does have a few friends, such as Jumpin’ and his wife Mabel, and Tate whom was a friend of her older brother and she forms a close bond with him as the story progresses. The majority of the story is told in two different timelines; the one where we see Kya grow up and the the one in which the sheriff is investigating the death of Chase Andrews. Many of the town residents believe that it was Kya who killed Chase. This story is set in a small town in North Carolina, and Owens does a fantastic job at portraying that. I saw that with both the dialogue and colorful description of the town. Everyone knows one another. Everyone seems to have some sort of reputation, and everyone thinks that Kya “The Swamp Girl” had something to do with Chases death.

Owens does a fantastic job at portraying a story of isolation and discrimination as we see Kya grow up as an outsider in this community. I empathized with this character who closed herself off from the rest of the world due to the treatment that she receives. We see Kya grow into her own as she experiences love, loss, and pain. She overcomes obstacles that make her more resilient as a result. Kya just wants to love in her swamp and study the nature that she lives in, but she gets thrown in situations causing more hardships along the way.

Overall, this is a character driven novel that follows a girl who is an outcast in her community, who finds solace in the environment that she lives in, as she grows up and becomes tangled up in the murder of Chase Andrews. We see through her eyes, her experiences and why she thinks the way she does, living a reclusive life and trusting only a handful of people. Where The Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens portrays a poignant tale of love, loss, abuse, isolation, friendship, and overcoming challenging obstacles.

You can buy Where The Crawdads Sing on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Where-Crawdads-Sing-Delia-Owens/dp/0735219095

I’m Thinking of Ending Things Book Review

 

I’m Thinking of Ending Things is a book by Iain Reid. It’s suspenseful, often toying with the reader to make them wonder what is reality, and what is illusion. I’m actually lucky I even read this book, because it wasn’t my first choice. I had a slew of other books I was considering, but my sister pointed this one out to me. I wasn’t initially intrigued, because I figured I couldn’t get the same effect I would in a book that I would from a movie-format psychological thriller. I also thought the cover was trying too hard to be edgy. However, I was incorrect in my hypothesis about the suspense and horror.

We start the novel off with an ominous phrases. Could be taken as many things. “I’m thinking of ending things” occurs so often in the book, and it’s generally thought that our narrator is considering ending her relationship with her boyfriend, Jake. Our narrator, nameless, is going to go on a long trip with him to visit his parents. That’s where a lot of her thoughts about terminating things culminate. We get a lot of her inside thoughts, and things turn a little ominous. We hear about another character, The Caller.

The Caller is a secret that she’s keeping from Jake. This person calls late at night, leaving eerie voicemails. Whenever the call is picked up, there’s either breathing or an instant hang up. Her thoughts seem to flow back to Jake, and she thinks about how they met at a trivia night at a pub near their college campus. Jake is some kind of scientist, working in a lab. It’s not exactly said what kind of scientist, or what kind of lab. He uses big words and has an expansive vocabulary; his intelligence is referenced all the time.

At the end of the second chapter, we get a page of what seems to be a conversation between two nameless individuals. Not the narrator nor Jake, and it’s separate from the story the narrator is telling. It alludes to some kind of man that did something horrific. It’s not specific in who they people are talking about, or what exactly he did.

We then hear a memory that the narrator has that is particularly unsettling. Late at night, she woke up and looked out the window. There was an extremely tall man outside, she could only see his torso. He was evidently quite tall, and simply stood there. He did weird things with his hands, like rub them together every so often. But he just stood and seemed to be watching, even though he was taller than the window. Music was playing outdoors in addition to him standing there. And then he waves. That’s what makes it so weird, is that it’s not even a malicious gesture. Just a wave.

As they get to the parents’ house, things are even stranger. They live way out in the middle of nowhere, miles from much civilization. There isn’t really any introduction, no exchanging of names or anything that would be expected from a son bringing home his girlfriend from college. Actually, over dinner, the mother talks a lot about how she hears voices and her hearing is going. Then the mother wants to play a game, about impersonating someone. Jake has been quiet through most of the dinner. The mother insists our narrator impersonate Jake. It seems to irritate him, and then Jake imitates the narrator. She explains it as horrifyingly accurate, as if he were a real impersonation of her. After dinner, she goes to the bathroom, and ends up exploring the dark house.

She stumbles across the basement door, covered in scratches. Obviously, since this is a thriller story, she’s going to explore a place she knows she shouldn’t. She comes across weird paintings, girls with claw-like fingernails. She overhears the parents upstairs talking about how they were upset that someone had lost their job at a lab, hadn’t had a job in a long time. The narrator can’t hear them clearly, since they’re upstairs, but thinks they’re talking about Jake. She knocks over a few cans of paint and runs upstairs.

Deciding it was time to leave, the narrator says her goodbyes to the parents. The dad ends up not being around, and the mom seems like she’s almost pleading for her to stay. A little weirded out, she ends up deciding she has to go home. She has a really bad headache and just wants to get home, plus Jake was supposed to have work in the morning. Jake talks about how he had a brother with mental issues, he would follow people and make weird hand gestures, generally stalking people.

They stop at a Dairy Queen, and the girls inside seem like they’re less than pleased to be there so late at night, working. One girl mumbles how she’s scared for the narrator, that she doesn’t have to go anywhere if she doesn’t want to. The narrator doesn’t really understand.

As if the whole story wasn’t weird, they end up stopping at a school, still in the middle of nowhere, to throw out the cups. Jake gets out the car, it’s pitch black and snowing. He comes back and the narrator and him start to make out. Jake freaks and says there’s someone staring at them from inside the school, the janitor working over winter break. Jake gets angry and runs inside to confront the creepy watcher. The watcher also waved. After a while, the narrator gets scared and tries to go in to find Jake. She hears something like rubber boots, and finds an eerie message, the same message she’d been getting on her phone from The Caller. She runs throughout the school. But then the “I” narration switches to “We”. The narrator isn’t a girl. The narrator is Jake. The Caller is Jake. Jake’s parents aren’t still alive, they’d been dead for some time. “What are you waiting for?” in response to the voicemail message is repeated for four pages. The narrator comes to terms that they are Jake, they are unstable, and decides they want to end things. They use a coat hanger and jam it into their neck several times and bunch up in the closet.

I found this book very unsettling. I loved every minute of it, though. I sat down and read it in a few hours, at nighttime. Night is the best time to read or watch something scary, it enhances the whole experience. I think this book could be suited for maybe high schoolers and college students alike, maybe older. Not middle school, there are some dark themes in it that might be kind of a lot. I think that the twist of the narrator not existing and the parents being dead was executed just right, better than I’m describing it. It’s not tacky, and it doesn’t leave the reader feeling like they were cheated. I’d really recommend it to anyone looking for a spooky book to read!

 

I’m Thinking of Ending Things

Iain Reid

210 pages. Published by Scout Press. $14.99

Like a Cranky Old Fascist (A Review)

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Review by Curtis Cole

With the ascension of Donald Trump to the presidency, and what many suspect is his imminent declaration of immortal god-hood— the One who will unite and lead humanity to the stars where, ultimately, they will confront the Chaos Gods in the Galaxy of Terro—sorry, wrong franchise; *clears throat*, at any rate, I thought an appropriate way to commiserate Trump’s electoral ‘March on Rome’ would be to delve back into the proto-fascist fiction of Nick Webb—resident punching block for my reviews here.

Independence, book one of the Legacy Ship trilogy, opens with an appropriate enough setting: university. Here we see Admiral Proctor, now retired, teaching full time to pay the bills; teaching doesn’t seem to be her vocation, though, since she spends most of her time being an Ageist cliché; her students look younger and ‘stupider’ every year, and their habit of wearing arcane dressings, becoming ‘micro-aggressed,’ and, in general, disrespecting her Pro-genocide stance, makes her one irate former militarist.

(And before I move onto said genocide, I also want to mention that early in the book there is a spectacular moment of Transphobia; a character is describing the benefits of the newly developed ‘T-Jump’ for interstellar travel, and one character refers to it as a ‘Tranny-Jump’. Though there is a mild level of encoding happening concerning the character who utters the comment, thus setting him up as a sort of immature hot-head, the very fact that Webb actually had the audacity to include it in the first place, merely as a point winner for his Neocon audience, is shameful.)

Let us slow down for a bit—genocide? Yeah, that got me confused as well.

At the end of the previous book in Webb’s sequence, Victory, we see the Swarm despoiled ((de)spoiler alert?). Their meta-space signal—something which they used to control the alien races which our human protagonists thought were the Swarm-proper, has been severed; those species which had been hijacked went on to lead a fulfilling life. Not being controlled by communistic space… signals, will do that to you. And yet, in none of that do I remember genocide; one cannot commit genocide by blocking an interdimensional signal, not unless you have an unconventional definition of the word ‘life’ (which considering Webb’s Pro-Life views, I initially strongly suspected). Regardless, it turns out that Proctor, after the events of book three, was ordered to hunt down the remnants of the first alien race which the Swarm-signal contacted and eradicate them, just to be safe. Nothing wakes you up like genocide in your cup!

Insipid references to old coffee commercials aside, though, this was a mildly confusing opening to a moderately confusing book. In hindsight, it represented in microcosm everything which was wrong with the book as a whole. But we will get there. First, Proctor’s fascism.

If you thought that Proctor’s actions post-Victory were trite and something only added to force  what is generously called character development, then hooray, you and I are on the same level. It is extremely artificial and shows a juvenile understanding of morality, chiefly due to how it forces an immature understanding of how people act in desperate situations. In turn, I have no qualms about using an equally forced analogy—Nazism.

Webb wants Proctor’s decision to hunt down the remaining Swarm ships to sound like a lose-lose situation, something that she did not take pleasure in doing but did anyway because she temporarily lost focus of her moral compass and subsequently lacked conscious. This fails—horribly.

If you are like myself and a skilled abstract thinker, then you can disassociate yourself enough to where it did almost seemed like Proctor had a tough decision on her hands; reinforced early in the book when she validates that uppity college student (the one that became ‘micro-aggressed’), it seems like Webb is taking a talking point from A Patriot’s History of the United States: give some credence to the opposing opinion while building an elaborate strawman based on historical revisionism. The end-product almost sounds fair and balanced, but it is not. Once you take a few steps back, Webb’s take on Proctor becomes less noble. In fact, it becomes revolting.

Why it was possible for me to concretize an understanding of Proctor’s fascistic tendencies without wholly despising her character was because of how the idea of mass-slaughter was being juxtaposed against a non-human species; Proctor’s actions are described in but only a few places throughout the entirety of the book and in a lukewarm condemnatory manner. She berates herself some and whines about not having a moral compass. This, while the reader understands that her actions came after a civilization shattering war for humanity’s survival. This situation hardly seemed similar to anything which came before it in human history.

Except, that is not true: Proctor’s situation is, in fact, depressingly common.

Once you bring genocide back down to the human roots—and really consider morality in more than a black and white perspective, then Proctor’s actions are nothing less than despicable. Indeed, perhaps the only thing more horrid is Webb’s pathetic attempt to legitimate such blasé existential outlook.

Consider: if we were to replace Proctor with a German officer in Hitler’s army, and to replace the Swarm remnants with Jews or homosexuals (or any number of the persecuted groups which Hitler terrorized), then would we be able to abstract ourselves from Proctor’s offenses? Would we be able to give her some benefit of the doubt in regards to the morality of her actions? No, we would not; why not is simple—because genocide is not excused because some stressed out protagonist had a momentary ‘lapse’ in judgement; mass slaughter of innocent lives is not excused because this same protagonist lost her moral compass. Genocide happens because institutional racism and conspiracy theory combine with desperate economic conditions to legitimate mass-extermination as a means to scapegoat the Other; it is the bourgeoisie’s last desperate attempt to sweep class contradictions underneath the rug. It does not happen because some great (wo)man was too paranoid to think clearly. The entire situation is odious in the extreme (especially if we want to get into the text’s gender essentialism). Moreover, it shows just how extreme Webb is willing to go in order to try and win some points for nationalistic-jingoism.

Independence is like a Neo-Conservative building block play-set. You have pieces which you can arrange in any order; each piece, of course, is a reactionary belief: anti-academicism, pseudo-science, racism sublimated as an anti-alien speciesism, and more all directed underneath a thin layer of White Man’s burden (in this installment, for example, I found myself continuously considering the non-human aliens as non-White imprints since they not only do jack-crap for the entire book, but appear to exist solely on the sidelines to become ravaged by the antagonist, all while humanity takes the bold defensive leap to their defense). Coupled with a decrepit morality system, a convoluted techno-thriller pseudo-Space Opera plot, and shallow characterization, Independence shows Webb’s increasing inability to write compelling fiction. Indeed, though this is, I believe, the shortest of the four books set in the ‘Swarm Universe’, it took me far longer to read this installment than any previous entry.

Why it took me longer to read this entry goes beyond theory and philosophy; it comes down to style. Webb is clearly setting up Big Things for future entries, but it all feels forced. The great antagonist is a hyper-advanced alien ship which came out of no-where and started decimating whole worlds; Proctor, aged thirty-years, is a lionized war hero; all the while, throughout Human Space there is a Galactic People’s Congress, who turns out, in fact, to be somewhat cult-like, itching for freedom from increasingly tyrannical human states. In short, there is a lot to work with, but it just doesn’t lead to any satisfying conclusion.

The finale is predictable, the double-agents hardly shocking, and even the twists and turns simply un-compelling. The plot, as I said, is basically a techno-thriller mixed with hefty amounts of politicking and some space combat. The hyper-advanced alien ship, outside of a last-ditch narrative push, does literally nothing for the whole book; Proctor remains a bad-ass, take-no-prisoners leader and… that’s about it. One understands that Webb wanted to write about frustration with the world as one ages, hence Proctor’s angst. What he ended up, however, was just a series of shallow vignettes which hardly serve a purpose outside making Proctor sound like a cartoon character.

Independence could have been a deep exploration of what it means to be on the edge of no longer being socially-useful yet not be able to understand how to make the transition to respected elder; it could have been about how capitalism-imperialism continues to haunt humanity, even after great devastation; it could have been about the machinations of society and what it means to serve—that the upcoming generations perspective is one only obtained from the sacrifice of uncountable people before their time and how the dialectical tug-and-pull between total war and total peace. Unfortunately, Independence is none of these things. Instead it settles for predictable plots, vapid characters, and an unamusing reactionary core. Pity. Not unexpected, though.

Independence: Book One of the Legacy Ship trilogy.

Nick Webb

283 pages. Published by Nick Webb. $16.99 (Paperback), $4.99 (Kindle), $1.99 (Audible audiobook). 2016.

The Elements of Victory (Review)

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To deliver a satisfactory conclusion to a trilogy, an author needs several skills: the ability to write in clever twists which keep the reader guessing, a footing which rejects the stale machinations of dues ex machinia, and a finale which addresses the writing project’s central conflict in a believable, cogent manner. Nick Web, to this credit, manages to deliver on these demands and more with his final installment in the Legacy Fleet trilogy, Victory.

Captain Granger returns to bring the fight to the Swarm foe. The hallmarks of his command—daring tactics, saucy politicking, and more—make an impact in the typical conservative niche which Webb is known. So Victory does not deviate from previous books in the trilogy. By Granger’s side is his second in command, the deadly Shelby Proctor, and the whole crew of hardened soldiers and pilots. United Earth president Avery and the sneaky Isaacson make a return as well. This time around, however, things get real as the Swarm horde bears down on Earth with everything they have as Granger and crew race against time to stop a cataclysmic disaster from wiping out all life.

To rephrase: in terms of plot, there is nothing new in Victory. Thankfully, as far as conclusions to trilogies go, however, Webb manages to stay on the bright side of writing. While there may not be anything new in Victory, the old manages to hold up just fine.

What Webb does here is a refinement of his previous two installments. The short, engaging chapters which his fans love, that which keeps the pace lively, and the earthly, stout characters which speak to the traditionally minded all make a return. He fuses the plot into the action well while making both central parts of the reading experience; indeed, the narrative and combat are inseparable yet are able to not draw attention to themselves as being inseparable. For military science fiction, this is vital, and Webb’s skill in this matter speaks volumes.

One reason why this facet of Victory is so important is because it is a concluding part to a sequence of writing. What transpires here is supposed to wrap up a narrative spread out over the course of two other books. Victory concludes a trilogy which sets up a new trilogy set in the same universe with many of the same characters. Readers, after all, will not be happy if the thrilling conclusions turned out to be not too thrilling. But on this end Webb delivers. Such deliverance is managed without the author diving too deeply into obscene plot stretches.

All though I cannot speak of the epilogue’s twist ending, I can say that it tints in a new light the whole series of events that had begun in Constitution. Furthermore, it is an ending which, despite the twist, feels believable, not overly sentimental or clichéd (though it is, of course clichéd, but only just). What comes to mind when I think of the ending is that it respects the reader; meaning, the primary antagonist is dealt with, the catalyst which begun the narrative concludes with enough of a definitive tone, while also retaining just enough mystery to allow the reader to anticipate the next trilogy in Webb’s sequence. Webb’s ending reassures the reader that the plot— the central quandary—has been resolved with just enough ambiguity so as to still imbue the world with a sense of unease.

I lay emphasis on the nature of this conclusion because, despite my differences with the author’s conservatism (as revealed in this installment via his nascent indulgence in Pro-life ideology), he manages to set up compelling tales and to wrap up those tales without—and forgive me for being blunt, screwing the audience: he is honest about his views and he does not pull punches or half-bakes his ideas (something which progressive writers cannot seem to get enough of). Everything is there and planned; indeed, one of Victory’s vital narrative moments was established well in the first book—it being brought to maturity over the course of the trilogy, while having only a few gentle nudges in the right direction, makes the methods of conflict resolution satisfying because it was always extant in the universe and just needed other aspects of the plot to advance alongside it. Because this is not something seen in a great deal of the fiction I read, as unfortunate as it sounds, I can appreciate it here since what does weigh down Webb’s writing (ideologically) is not so overbearing as to render any strength in authorship as mute. At the end of the day, Webb delivers a solid product to a solid trilogy, and fans ought to enjoy every page as they will enjoy hearing that there is another trilogy planned to continue this story. Is it stellar, original reading? No. But it is also far from much of the insipid drivel I have gorged myself on while writing these reviews, and if that is good for anything then it shows itself here, in Victory.

Victory

Nick Webb

377 pages. Published by Nick Webb. $5.99 (Kindle), $16.87 (Print), $11.95 (Audible audiobook). 2016.

Enter Enoch: Reviewing Cameron Dayton’s “Etherwalker”

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Review by Curtis Cole

The typical high fantasy story unfolds something like this: an ignorant and naïve youth, usually a farm hand or other such rural occupant, and almost always a White cis-heterosexual male, discovers something grand and unique—something which is precious and so must be protected (Lord of the Rings, Eragon) or that he himself is the precious something (i.e., the ‘chosen one’) whom, embedded with special powers, is destined to win the day from Evil (Harry Potter, the Wheel of Time series, countless others); following this, his blissful life is disrupted by tyrannical forces (because, you know that there is an evil dictator milling about) who raze his village/home/family. Should there be a mentor-figure by the lad’s side he is usually either killed at the get-go or dies in some hopeless, yet heroically Ur-fascist, confrontation in order to buy the hero time to escape. Then the young hero flees, finds new friends, continues along in his quest, and saves Middle-Earth from the armies of Mr. Dark Side Voldemort… or, whatever. Point is this is the standard fantasy plot par excellance and is the exact paradigm used in Cameron Dayton’s Etherwalker; the result of this is read was, for me, tiring and… well, tired writing is a mixed bag which, although far from bad, nonetheless could have been much better.

Story wise, the plot concerns young Enoch: a teenage boy trained in the ancient arts and lore by his master to one day (unknowingly) confront the evil of the land, a land drowned in chaos after the fall of humanity’s golden age. One day, upon accidentally activating a terminal, which his guardian had, eye-rolling, kept in their remote home as a study console, Enoch’s presence is announced to his enemies who had previously thought his kind—a race a beings called Pensaden blessed that hold the ability to manipulate technology—had long been extinct. So begins a grand hunt to murder Enoch; in short order Enoch’s village home is attacked and he and his master are driven into the woods where, surprise-surprise, they are assaulted by vile insect-men, the clichéd orc of this world; Enoch is forced into the wild world by himself, but thankfully, finds a motley crew of new friends and begins his training to… save the world, one can only assume, since Enoch’s exact purpose is never properly explained.

Part of the issue I have with Dayton’s book is not in his choice of clichéd beginnings but rather in his clumsy manner of assembly. Although far from the most original set-up to a teen fantasy book, Dayton’s weakness lies in his inability to present a strong narrative structure capable of remedying his shortcomings; by this I mean much of the book feels rushed, and subsequently, incomplete. Between the great jumps in time, sudden character developments and regression, and unexplained, or barely explained, plot points, by the end, the reliance on dues ex machinia becomes noticeable and drags the experience down. While reading, I constantly felt as though there was missing chapters extrapolating why Enoch performed certain actions or how [so and so] happened to some ancillary character. During the conclusion I felt as though there were at least a couple hundred pages on the cutting room floor, pages which desperately needed to be included in the final product.

Thankfully, however, not all of my opinions on Dayton’s effort are negative, for there is a great deal to like about this book, so I will mention two: one is the splendid world building; combining post-apocalyptic Anime inspired sci-fi with traditional high-fantasy is not an easy task, and yet, Dayton succeeds at sketching a world which have imprints of our own, while still being far enough removed into the future that upon the fall of humanity, the ‘fantasy’ divergences not only make sense, but seem like a natural outgrowth of the technological era. The second great strength Dayton manages is the characters themselves: while there are crucial points in the book where a character should have received more attention, or a certain event should have been explained better in order for the reader to gain a better insight into a cast member, the characters as they are written are both believable as well as engaging; their archetypes: farmboy, beast, fem fatal… are well penned and breathe life into the archetype to such a degree that they do not feel too hollow or pointless to pay attention to. Enoch especially, I am glad to see, brings a layer of depth in how his interpersonal interactions are rarely seen with his often vulgarly used archetype. Dialogue is often humorous and informative without wasting effort on needless description. So Dayton strikes a good balance between banter and plot, if at times relying heavily on long strings of exposition.

So is Etherwalker a perfect book? No, of course not, few such teen books reach such lofty heights. Is it original? Not at first, but once dug into it blossoms with creative renderings of beloved ideas and heroes. Dayton makes missteps, but overall, I think he makes an admirable job at redemption through the kind of ambition is he attempting to undertake in such a condensed space. While anyone hardened in the sci-fi and fantasy genres may remain unimpressed with Dayton’s product, any youth which finds their selves devoid of reading material yet interested in Anime, science-fiction-fantasy cocktails, will want to give this spiffy tale a try and come to their own opinion.

Etherwalker: Book One of the Silicon Covenant

Cameron Dayton

293 Pages. Published by Future House Publishing. $2.99 (Kindle), $13.95 (Paperback)[1]. 2015.

[1] Page number estimates and prices taken from Amazon.com and were accurate at the time of writing.

Stalin: an Anti-communist Spectacle (A Review)

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Cover art via Amazon.com; all rights reserved to their respective owners.

Review by Curtis Cole

When reading biographies of so-called ‘Great Men,’ it is vital to remember that they are an industry; such a vast amount of material has been produced from both speculation and archival releases that every new rumination or new tid-bit demands, in turn, another huge book—something to commemorate the release of new artifacts giving credence to an ever abounding literary substance. And so it is with Stalin: leader of the Soviet Union following Lenin’s death.

Stephen Kotkin’s Stalin, a biography of the most spectacle fair, is one such book in an ever expanding industry of the famed ‘dictator.’ One of the thickest, meticulously researched, and highly anticipated biographies in recent years, Kotkin’s effort is an impressive one, as any reader will note; between the fact that this book, though only the first volume, comprises nearly a thousand pages and is researched to the extent that nearly every other sentence bears a citation mark, we hold in our hands a tome of a text—something which can both elucidate, as well as squash conspicuously oversized bugs (if the need be).

‘Bravo,’ you might be saying as you read these facts; surely such a biographical epic is not only worth reading, thanks to its tenaciously researched qualifications, but also provides the much needed ambiguity of the Stalin-period. Unfortunately, you would be wrong. Kotkin’s tediously overblown affair fails on all fronts and becomes a case-study in how not to write a biography.

Let us eschew the anti-communist subtext for a moment and focus on more pressing demands: the biography length.

As a reader, I have no qualm with consuming page after page of a book well worth consuming; if a biography contains a decadent number of pages and all of those pages help build an image of the subject matter which has never before been seen, then fantastic! Let’s read that biography with gusto. But this is not what Kotkin’s waste of paper accomplishes: instead of presenting a biography, Kotkin present a Russian history which features Stalin more than the average Russian history would (an odd observation to make considering Stalin’s place of paramount importance in the Russian historia).

I will be curt: massive amount of this book need not exist. One could easily wipe out three-quarters of this biographical travesty and still be able to understand the life-events of Stalin, the Russian Revolution, and the backstory behind Stalin’s policies. Indeed, this fact exists because Kotkin spends entire chapters where Stalin is either mentioned only in passing or not at all; he does this in order to extrapolate on Tsarist policy and important Tsarist figures and their plots. Why this diversionary extrapolation exists becomes evident later where Kotkin abandons all pretense to academic neutrality and unrelentingly hammers Stalin’s policies and practice of Revolutionary Anti-capitalism. The filler chapters on Tsarism served little more than to provide narrative fat: we see this later, when Kotkin reveals himself as an intellectual charlatan and servant of counterrevolution. How? Precisely through the age old practice of smoke and mirrors: he writes as Bolshevism as inheriting the Tsarist legacy, of betraying the principals of their own ideology, of having a conspiratorial worldview, and acting with hypocritical intent—in short, nothing but a mirror image of Tsarism, albeit with greatly different ideological differences. Had Kotkin not devolved into his great sophistry on Tsarism (which, together with his later upholding of Mussolini’s economic policies, reeks of fascist apologia), then his later anti-communist onanism of heralding the Bolsheviks, but Stalin more generally, of a diabolical anti-social stance, would have made no sense and shattered the attempt to equate Bolshevism and fascism as separated yet fraternal twins.

What’s worse, perhaps, is Kotkin’s mystifying commentary on the Stalin’s life, but also of the wider happenings of the Soviet state. In truth, much of the cited reports which make up the narrative that Kotkin spins are solid—they tell an informative, albeit rather dry, procession of political intrigue; combing sources from many walks of life, Kotkin manages to bring together an impressive array of citations into a well-worked fantasy. What differentiates Kotkin’s rehashed anti-communism is not so much the sources he cites—though that is too the case with copious references to hardline anti-communists and Trotskyist sympathizers—as much as it is the eye-rolling level of condescension present in his writing.

In short, Kotkin presents factual evidence—the scandals, plots and counterplots, policy formation, and relationships among the Bolsheviks, as history had it unfolded; facts, after all, do not lie. What does lie, however, is Kotkin’s commentary. Throughout his book, Kotkin continuously destroys his own narrative; the only thing which saves his narrative—that Bolshevism had a conspiratorial mindset, Stalin as a master manipulator and ruthless dictator, the innocence of the Kulaks and lack of White Guard terrorists, the utterly deficient need for collectivization, and so on—is Kotkin’s own commentary, his own opinion; something that he recycles over and over again.

Time and time again Kotkin presents evidence of the Bolsheviks as well as Stalin’s rigorous moral and political fiber. And yet, time and time again, he is quick to throw in a jibe, a sarcastic remark or ironic allusion, something to sow discord in the ideological thread which ran through early Russian Bolshevism. Why is it that every time Stalin offers to resign from his post—relinquishing the supposed ‘absolute control’ of his position of General Secretary—it is merely another feint, something to throw off the opposition? Why were party purges always-already a sign indexing Stalin’s ruthless self-aggrandizement and need for power instead of an upholding of Lenin’s vision (of the need for party purity and unity)? Why does Kotkin cite evidence of counterrevolutionary (fascist, Monarchist, and the like) plots and actual terrorist activity, only to turn to the tables on the Bolsheviks when they ferret out the fifth column in their ranks, calling those reacting against said plots (again, cited by Kotkin himself), as paranoid and conspiratorial oriented? To Kotkin, to the reactionary mind, there is a lacuna of honesty within communist practitioners since its lacks the logic of bourgeois exploitation; without that distillation of man reaping the labor-surplus of his fellow man, without the grand imperial logic of monopoly, without the cruel competition of the market and its manifold bigotries and prejudices, there is simply no room for honesty—not in a system which posits the negation of the old world. Heresy, after all, is always suspect.

Miraculously, however, all of this is not to say that every shred and morsel of Kotkin’s undertaking is trash, merely most of it. There is a kernel of value within this mountain of mental dung, namely, in how Kotkin treats Stalin’s childhood.

Many biographers treat Stalin, along with many other so-called ‘Great Men,’ under a bastardized Freudianism: their faults, quirks, mistakes, fits of violence or misogyny, and so forth, are traced back to childhood abuse or absent parental figures. In other words, they present the base Freud; neutered of intellectual value so as to be offered up on the pop culture altar, such depictions are easily digestible for an audience uneducated on the nuance of political violence. To Kotkin benefit, he fights against this blasé psychoanalysis. He situates Stalin’s childhood in the wider history of Russia’s leaders as well as in the local—regional—context in which Stalin’s peers were raised. His conclusion is that Stalin fared no better or worse than his classmates and that to conclude that it was Stalin’s upbringing that made him into a ‘ruthless, bloodthirsty, monster’ is utterly fallacious. Of course, Kotkin only accomplishes this in order to secularize his alleged barbarism, but taken in the wider historical context of the corpus of texts exploring Stalin’s existence, it is ultimately a net-plus for knowledge (however pathetic such a ‘plus’ may in fact constitute).

So, to conclude this rambling rant—is Stephen Kotkin’s biography of Stalin worth reading? No, it is not worth reading in the slightest. For the myriad of reasons listed above as well as those left unmentioned, Kotkin’s undertaking is simply absurd, from beginning to end. If you want to read a textbook of Russian history, then there is many such books available and one would not need to lug around this brick; if one is a Leftist, then Kotkin’s anti-communism and predisposition to meander, will isolate; if one is an anti-communist then, depending on the severity of reaction, Kotkin is either giving Stalin and the Bolsheviks too much ‘benefit of the doubt,’ or he simply spends too much time yammering on about non-Stalin related activities—ergo, it is not worth reading if your goal was to propagandize. If one wanted a concise and informative biography of Stalin, I would recommend Ian Grey’s Stalin: Man of History, which, though not without his serious faults, is a far better selection than Kotkin’s murky deluge.

Stalin: Volume 1: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928

Stephen Kotkin

976 pages. Published by Penguin Press. $26.66 (Hardcover), $17.00 (Paperback), $19.99 (Kindle), $26.94 (Audible audiobook)[1]. 2014.

[1] Prices were taken from Amazon.com and were accurate at the time of writing.

Galactic War… again: Reviewing Nick Web’s ‘Warrior’

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Review by Curtis Cole

                Lo and behold: the second installment to the Legacy Fleet trilogy. Reader, you and I are both sailors on the galactic sci-fi winds, we know how these military sci-fi affairs go: mostly, they are reactionary patriot gore fests. As my previous review illustrated, I was none too happy with Webb’s less than progressive diatribe, and yet, I enjoyed the tale with enough machoistic fetish to not only finish reading it in short order, but also review its offspring. Previously, I took offense with the author’s unbridled Ageism, militarism, and xenophobia. Does the sequel add up? Does it quell some of the more nauseate rumblings in my literary tummy? The answer is no.

Why the sequel leaves a bad taste in my mouth is that even though, over all, the intensity for its backward thinking has been dialed down a couple notches, in the narrative places which matter, it compensated by ratcheting it up by twelve degrees. While some of the Ageist sentiment has waned and overt racism slackened, the author revives tired old traits to make up for the supposed lessening, namely, his waxing eloquently on bodysnatching and political fascism.

Spoiler alert(s): the communistic aliens are able to ‘condition’ people through the use of a virus which hijacks their immune and nervous system. Essentially becoming organic machines for the alien foe known as ‘the swarm,’ these converted people attempt to ‘befriend,’ infect, others and so act as sleeper agents for the anti-human enemy, double-agents forced to betray their people. This is, of course, reminiscent of the classic film critical of the anti-communist hysteria in which ‘bodysnatching’ became the concern of the day. (Of course, it would seem the democratic emphasis of the film is lost on Web, as he promotes the witch hunt mend-set) Conveniently for Web, this fits in well with the xenophobia concerning the stereotypical Western punching bag—the big bad Russians. As a not so subtle twist reveals, the Russians were hardly neutral parties. Why such a putrid and lazy form of national chauvinism still exists is beyond me, but as in the first volume, I am deducting points for its inclusion.

Not to be outdone in the political arena, Webb continues his tradition of apologizing for capital by clearly depicting the trappings of a fascist order as something which, if not entirely desirable, is at least necessary in order to starve off decimation; he speaks of how “entire industries [were] coopted by the government and re-geared to produce capital ships and fighters… instead of [civilian articles]” (68[1]), how warmongering politicians conspire behind the public’s back to produce weapons of mass-destruction so as to attack human allies (161), all while rallying the working and middle classes (135) to a banner of total war, in defense of human values and civilization; truly, one only needs replace ‘the swarm,’ with ‘Jew’ or ‘communist’ and the depths of Webb’s diatribe becomes evident. Obviously, Web’s writing is not to overt, but the ideological underpinnings (ultra-nationalistic paleoconservatisism), shine through and suggest much.

Side-stepping the politicalized content, however, Webb’s book is as well as one can expect from a right-wing rip-off of Battlestar Galactica: it has epic space battles, political intrigue, and plots within plots, conspiracy, and a battle hardened captain fighting for what he believes in against overwhelming odds. The writing remains fantastic, as this entry I finished in a single day. The writing is not bad, it is just reactionary and vapid. Picking up right after the conclusion of the first installment, the action picks up from the first few pages onward and does not relent. Fans of military science fiction in the vein of the lowest common denominator will be sure want to pick up a copy of this treat, if only for the cavity inducing side-effects.

Warrior: Book 2 of the Legacy Fleet trilogy

Nick Webb

368 pages. Published by Nick Webb/CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform. $5.99 (Kindle)[2], $14.58 (Paperback)[3]. 2015.

[1] All page citations taken from the Kindle version of the book.

[2] All prices taken from Amazon.com and were accurate at the time of writing.

[3] Page numbers taken from the Kindle version, with estimates provided by Amazon.com.

The Road of Cliches: Reviewing book one of ‘The Safanarion Order’

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It may be unexpected, but while reading Ken Lozito’s first installment in the Sanfanarion Order series—Road to Shandara—I was reminded of Japanese Role Playing Games (or, JRPGs). Much like JRPGs, Lozito’s plot is predictable: there is a young hero discovering his powers, a princess in disguise, and the land needs to be saved from a malicious evil, but only if the hero can unite the disparate forces through the power of friendship. The narrative functions in much the same predictable way. With moments of action interspaced between moments of travel, moments in which the protagonist learns new skills to use in battle, the whole narrative feels lifted straight out of a video game (an unremarkable one, too); honestly, from the uneven pacing to the airship and the general developments, plot-wise, Lozito’s entire effort feels like a cobbled together tale imitating high fantasy. Poorly.

For a protagonist we have Aaron Jace, a university senior looking forward to graduate school (also known as Generic White Bourgeois Hero ripe for adolescent reader projection); unfortunately for our Mr. Jace, he is suddenly thrust into an inter-dimensional battle against the forces of evil when his grandfather dies and he learns that he is descended from a long line of powerful rulers who immigrated to Earth after their kingdom fell to an invading army of demons. (It must suck to live in Tolkein’s nightmare.) Now, armed with familial swords—AKA generic phallic symbols legitimating dude-bro violence— and the training his grandfather drilled into him, he crosses over into the land of his ancestors so as to make his way to the defunct capital—Shandara (roll credits!)—and liberate the imprisoned spirit of a family servant sworn to protect and help Aaron on his path to restoring the land; for you see, the land has fallen into decay after the ascension of some misbegotten tyrants. Along the way Aaron meets allies who flock to his banner, including a love interest and some best bros. This is the gist of Lozito’s plot.

But let’s pause and consider: uneven pacing. Aside from the cannibalization of other text’s ideas, most notably the obvious pilfering of Arthurian minutia, my biggest issue with Lozito’s book is that the pace moves absurdly fast and features hardly any character development. The one dimensional figures gain little, if any, depth while the protagonist’s fighting and survival abilities, not to mention his love interest, are festooned to his personage with mastery in the space of but a few short chapters; if there was ever a moment of ‘Zero to Hero,’ then this is it. Said again, the book explains nothing; events move in a linear direction without any idea of what the protagonist is experiencing: sometimes we get some vague idea of what he is thinking about or going through, but most of the time we just see things happen… boring things, too. To take an example textually paradigmatic: his romantic interest—she and he fall in love, literally, in the space of a few chapters and are married shortly after. This is not only unrealistic by any normal standard, but also confusing, since one would imagine that the protagonist would have hang-ups on finding a new love so quickly following the murder of his Earth-bound girlfriend. And yet, Aaron makes, again, literally, no mention, not so much as a single serious mental peep, concerning his previous engagement and hurls himself full throttle at this new woman without even so much as an acknowledgement at what drove him to move on so quickly or how and why he fell so madly in love with this new paramour; the best that I can come up with is that Lozito wrote the start of this book and the middle and end parts at different periods, possibly even part of different writing projects which were then later sown together in this later stage. As I said, this sort of void in character development, is poor writing; it shifts without explaining the subtending rational. Moreover, it is endemic to every part of the text.

All that I can say is that this is a shame since I can imagine how captivating this adventure would be had it been constructed with a more meticulous eye; should the author spent more time explicating the world and its inhabitants, and devised more intriguing methods of description and dissemination concerning his representation of the hero’s journey, this could have been a powerful read. I do not mind when fantasy authors borrow ideas from popular culture as Lozito does (ranging from the Lord of the Rings to even some Anime like Naruto), as I understand the fantasy-science fiction nexus only as good as the ideas each contributor is able to meld. But as it stands, this installment is anything but interesting: shot through with shoddy grammar, redundant phraseology, and poor story-telling mechanics, this effort, though not terrible, is far from the sort of material fans of fantasy enjoy; Lozito may make a valiant effort, but I cannot recommend this book.

Road to Shandara: Book one of the Safanarion Order

Ken Lozito

412 Pages. Published by Acoustical Books LLC. $0.00 (Kindle), $14.99 (Paperback)[1]. 2013.

[1] Page estimates taken from the Kindle version of the book and were provided by Amazon.com. Prices, likewise, were taken from the same source and were accurate at the time of writing.

‘Hermeneutics: A Very Short Introduction’ (A Review)

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Oxford does it again! Once again the good folks over at the Oxford University Press release a well written, cogent, and exemplary ‘very short’ introduction to a topic which is vital to furthering the capture of knowledge. Jens Zimmerman’s introductory primer to the act of interpretation is not only a bonafide guide to the field as it is practiced in its various disciplines, but also a text which should be in any Humanities’ student library.

Told across seven chapters, Zimmerman’s book informs the reader on the nature of interpretation, also called ‘hermeneutics,’ hence the namesake’s title; these chapters explore the history and practice of interpretation as it pertains to the fields of philosophy, the humanities, law, religion, and the sciences, with a couple of chapters acting as a brief overview of what hermeneutics is and a brief history of its application.

Each chapter holds true to the name of the parent series: in a ‘very short introduction’ you will receive a very short chapter. Each chapter functions as a speed teacher whose only goal is to get you caught up the bare bones essentials. Generally, the outline is as follows: you are introduced to why interpretation in a certain field is relevant and needed, the major proponents of certain theories of interpretation as it relates to that field, and then you are introduced to some controversies or problems and the subsequent current research which attempts to articulate and overcome the problem.

Soon after you are sent off onto the next chapter to repeat the process all over again. It is a tried and true formula to educational guides and it works well in this volume. More so since Zimmerman manages to squeeze in a short appendix of major hermeneutic debates; inserted at the end of the primary chapters, the appendix expands upon the major ideas of the text without bogging down the initial reading. It is an ideal set-up and allows for learners to take the new information and re-read previous chapters with a newly deepened understanding of specific chapter controversies. If you wanted to go a level lower, you could even say that such a reading prompts the reader’s own inclusion in Hans-Georg Gadamer ‘hermeneutic circle.’ But perhaps this would be reading too deeply.

As a very short introduction, I still managed to learn ideas which I did not already know, despite having some familiarity with many of the concepts before I started my read through. Specifically, the chapters on philosophic hermeneutics, and hermeneutics in the legal and scientific fields, offered some food for thought and pushed what I already knew into new territories. Something which many introduction are only able to accomplish with an expanded number of pages.

The reason Zimmerman is able to accomplish so much with so little pages, however, is because they write in a clear and concise style. Academic writing is not always so easy to follow—anyone who has read Derrida can attest to this—but Zimmerman’s straight to business, no nonsense prose manages to cover a lot of ground in not a lot of time. So, new readers will trust that they will be softly led by the hand as they cover each new chapter and its unique approach to how we, as humans, interpret in order to understand and order our world.

In the end, I enjoyed Zimmerman’s introduction. It helped me. It expanded what I already knew and filled me in on what I did not know. It was not a hassle to read and it remains a sleek and elegant addition to my library of titles. So, even as their Heidiggerian approach may alienate some philosophically minded individuals, I was able to overlook such discretions and focus on the informative center, the educational nougat. Zimmerman’s miniature book manages to do what it promises—educate, inform, and do so without a headache. Any student searching for a means to help them understand ‘hermeneutics,’ the practice of interpretation, should look no further.

Jen Zimmerman

Hermeneutics: A Very Short Interpretation

159 pages. Published by Oxford U.P. $10.75 (Print), $6.15 (Kindle)[1]. 2015.

 

[1] Prices were taken from Amazon and were accurate at the time of writing.