Category Archives: review

Review: Together We Will Go by J. Michael Straczynski

Together We Will Go

Over my course of following the creative output of J. Michael Straczynski, one of his strengths has been the creation of diverse characters who form a connection with his audience. So, the highest compliment I can pay his latest offering Together We Will Go is that it continues that trend in the best possible way.

After suffering the latest in a long string of rejections, writer Mark has landed on his next project — an epistolary tale of a dozen strangers who have decided for one reason or another to end their lives. Renting a bus, Mark places an online ad to find people to join him on his final journey across the United States, planning to culminate the trip by everyone driving off a cliff near San Francisco. Riders earn their spot by agreeing to upload journal entries to a central server and occasionally having the audio transcript of dramatic moments archived and uploaded.

What Mark doesn’t count on is the diverse group of people who will join his cross-country trek and the ways various personalities connect and clash. He also didn’t count on the authorities in some of the states he’s crossing having an issue with a group of people on their way to commit suicide. Continue reading

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Audiobook Review: Foundation by Issac Asimov

Foundation (Foundation, #1)

One of my reading goals for 2021 was to re-read or experience anew the classic sci-fi series getting pop-culture adaptations — Foundation and Dune.

Halfway though 2021, and I’ve made good on part of that with my listening to Issac Asimov’s Foundation. I have to admit that listening to the novel was a different way of experiencing one of the giants of the science-fiction genre and one of the pillars (notice I didn’t say foundation) that all of science-fiction is built upon.

The good news is that Foundation still holds up. It’s a rich, episodic novel that is less concerned with space battles and space opera and more on having characters debate big ideas and moments. The Galatic Empire is failing and historian Hari Seldon says there is nothing that can be done to stop it’s fall. However, the length of the coming Dark Ages can be shortened if all of humanity’s knowledge is collected together on a single planet in a single resource.

Early on, humanity looks to Seldon to guide them through various crises, before realizing that Seldon has pulled a bait-and-switch. There is no intention of publishing an encyclopedia with all of humanity’s knowledge included. Instead, Seldon has created a group to be a beacon of light in the dark times and to possibly consolidate and wield power. And so, over the course of several thousand years, Asimov details the men who will come to power and the crises that will face civilization continuing.

It’s a fascinating series of stories — ones that never fail to intrigue me or hook me. I will go out on a limb here and say that I don’t think Foundation is quite as solid as Asimov’s robot novels, but that’s probably because I read the Robot novels first. The first entry holds up well, though it does concern me how this might be adapted for the screen since most of (OK, all of) the huge dramatic action tends to take place off-screen and we’re treated to various characters talking about what happened and the ramifications of those actions.

I’ll still be tuned in for the upcoming series, though based on the previews, it looks like they’re adapting the first two books for season one. But after listening to this one again, I don’t hold out much hope that the series can and will be as good or as impactful as the book.

Now, time to keep that resolution and start the second installment….

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Audiobook Review: Doctor Who and the Underworld by Terrance Dicks

Doctor Who and the Underworld: 4th Doctor Novelisation

This is one of the few novels from the Tom Baker/Louise Jameson era of classic Doctor Who I had in my original Target books collection. It was only because I somehow kept missing the serial — whether it was my PBS station skipping it in the rotation or just plain not setting the VCR right to catch it when it was repeated (ask your parents, kids).

So, for a long time, my only impression of this story came from Terrance Dicks’ adaptation of the Bob Baker and Dave Martin scripts. And that probably helped things a good bit because, quite frankly, Dicks seems a bit more invested in this fourth Doctor story than he is in many of the others he adapted. Continue reading

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Review: Ready Player Two by Ernest Cline

Ready Player Two (Ready Player One, #2)

While I loved Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One upon first reading, a subsequent reading didn’t do it any favors.

So, I have to admit I was a bit wary when I heard Cline was headed back to that RP1 universe with Ready Player Two. I wanted to believe that Cline could somehow capture the lightning in the bottle of my first reading of RP1.

Alas, I’m here to report that he couldn’t.

In many respects Ready Player Two is just a retelling of the story from Ready Player One. Yes, the stakes (such as they are) have been raised a bit, but it’s essentially the same story one more time — Wade Watts is given a task in which he must save civilization as we know it, via a contest put in place by Oasis founder, James Halliday. But where the first third of Ready Player One was about world-building and getting us to like Wade, the first third of Ready Player Two is about transforming Wade into an insufferable jerk, who by the time the quest begins I found myself wishing that something terrible would happen to him. Where Wade was relatable in the first book, he becomes unbearable in this one, with long passages that seem simply put in to prove he’s the world’s biggest expert on everything that has ever existed in pop culture.

At several points, I felt like I’d wandered down a bad sub-Reddit or YouTube thread, inhabited by those who believe they know better than the creative people creating content about what a particular franchise needs or wants instead of reading a novel. This may be why it took me so long to wade through the book (pun fully intended here) and why finishing it seemed like such a chore. Look, I wanted to believe in this book and to enjoy it. It just never happened.

This makes two novels in the last few months that I picked up on the basis of the author’s first book and came away disappointed by. At this point, it may be best to relegate Cline and Andy Weir to the status of one-hit wonders and not on the automatic “must-read” lead I placed them on after their first offerings.

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Audiobook Review: Early Morning Riser by Katherine Heiny

Early Morning Riser

Locking herself out of her home, new-in-town second-grade-teacher Jane calls for a locksmith. When Duncan shows up, he not only finds a quick and easy way into Jane’s house but also her life.

From their first weekend together, Katherine Heiny’s Early Morning Riser chronicles the ups, downs, and everything in between Jane and Duncan’s relationship and the community they build in the small town of Boyne City, Michigan. Checking in and out every few years, Heiny gives us brief insights into Jane’s world and the changes (or lack thereof) within it.

The novel is a remarkably low stake one in the best possible way. While the decisions Jane faces are momentous ones, often brought about by the slings and arrows of life, there aren’t any stakes like saving all of civilization as we know it. Instead, there’s Jane’s coming to grips with just who Duncan and is what he brings to the table as a romantic partner and friend. (At one point, Jane dumps Duncan because she realizes he has little interest in getting married again).

And yet, I couldn’t help but become invested in Jane and the cast around her over the course of this novel. The episodic nature helps a great deal and Heiny rarely leaves out detail for too long when jumping from one episode to the next. An early episode finds Jane ready to marry someone else until a tragedy strikes her community and we jump forward in time. Heiny teases the reader just long enough about whether or not Jane went through the wedding without feeling like she’s withholding for the sake of withholding.

Over the course of this story, it’s easy to become invested in Jane, Duncan, and the quirky cast surrounding them. Late in the story, when Jane worries that Duncan might be getting too close to his ex-wife while attending a funeral and their high school reunion, I couldn’t help but feel angry at Duncan for his possible betrayal and hopeful that he wouldn’t or couldn’t be doing what Jane suspects of him. Again, it’s low stakes (unless you’re Jane, and then it’s a hugely emotional stake!) but by this point, I was so invested in Jane and company that I found myself caring about them as if they were real people instead of characters in a novel.

In fact, the last episode finds Jane and company in 2019 and I’ve spent a couple of days since then wondering how Jane and her crew responded to the pandemic and what impact it had on their lives.

This is the best endorsement for Early Morning Riser that I can think of — the wanting to spend more time and see what the characters are still doing today. And yet, I didn’t walk away feeling like the book was unsatisfying. It just creates such a relationship with these characters that you wouldn’t mind spending a few more pages with them.

A favorite novel I’ve read this year.

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Review: Later by Stephen King

Later

There are plenty of drawbacks to being a kid; check it out. Zits, the agony of choosing the right clothes to wear to school so you don’t get laughed at, and the mystery of girls are only three of them.

While it may be part of the Hard Case Crime series, Stephen King’s narrator Jamie keeps reminding us that it’s really a horror story.

Take Jamie at his word.

Jamie sees dead people — not like the kid in The Sixth Sense mind you. In Jamie’s case most of the people he sees know they’re dead and gradually begin to fade away. Jamie’s has this gift since he was a young boy, using it to help a woman tell her husband where to find her misplaced jewelry and talking to the spirit of a dead author her mother works with to get the details on the final book in a best-selling series that the author died before finishing.

Those things may seem a bit tame in the world of ghost stories. But, again, Jamie keeps reminding us that bad things happen Later. Continue reading

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Review: Marvel-Verse: Venom

Marvel-Verse: Venom

I should preface this review by saying I’ve never been the biggest fan of Venom. The character is an interesting idea, but I honestly think he’s been overused and overexposed by Marvel since his creation.

So why, then, would I pick up this collection of stories focusing on Venom?

Call it an impulse check-out from my local library.

After reading this collection of five comics, I find myself wondering just who the target audience is for this collection. Is it young readers to introduce them to the character of Venom (in case you’ve just discovered comic books, I guess)? Or is it older readers to give a quick overview of Venom’s origin? I don’t necessarily think it’s anyone who has only seen the big-screen, live-action version of Venom with Tom Hardy because that storyline doesn’t include Spider-Man as part of Venom’s origin. Continue reading

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Review: The Last Best Story by Maggie Lehrman

The Last Best Story

Defenders of high-school journalism, Rose and Grant were inseparable — until one fateful day a few months before the end of her senior year when Rose walked away from the paper and Grant. Now, it’s the night of prom and Rose is there with someone else while Grant continues to wonder why Rose walked away from the paper and the dream of becoming a journalist. When the school is put under lockdown, it’s up to Grant and Rose to get the real story of what’s going on at the big dance out to the world.

The Last Best Story wants to a hybrid of romantic-comedy, thriller, and ripped from the headlines social commentary. Unfortunately, these elements aren’t as well-blended as they could or should have been and the entire novel comes off feeling like it’s treading water for far longer than it should have.

Part of this is how entirely clueless Grant is about his role and influence over Rose. The obvious simmering attracting between the two occasionally bubbles over in flashback, but it feels a bit like watching Who’s the Boss where it felt like every sweeps period, we’d get something that might push our leads into a romantic relationship, only to see it backed off and the status quo reset by episode’s end. It was frustrating then and it’s frustrating here — especially given that the book is trying hard to give Rose a character arc. The question of whether Rose loves journalism or loves that Grant loves journalism and it’s rubbed off on her is an intriguing one that’s brought up, but never reaches a satisfying conclusion.

Add in an almost Scooby Doo level of “I’d have got away with it if not for these darn kids” level thriller plot and you’ve got a novel that just doesn’t quite add up in the final analysis.

One of the most disappointing novels I’ve read this year.

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Review: The Lake Wobegon Virus by Garrison Keillor

The Lake Wobegon Virus

It’s rare for a new book by one of my favorite authors to sneak up on me, but somehow Garrison Keillor managed to publish The Lake Wobegon Virus with little or any fanfare last year.

Maybe it was because fans (well, at least this one) were disappointed by Keillor’s last journey to Lake Wobegon. Or maybe it was that his autobiography warranted a bit more of the marketing push and resources. Either way, it made it feel like reading The Lake Wobegon Virus is like discovering an episode of an old favorite TV show that you’d somehow missed through all the times watching and rewatching that show — comforting and familiar with a reminder of what you love about the property without necessarily stoking or diminishing the flames of your fandom.

A virus is sweeping through the small town that time forgot and the decades cannot improve with people acting strangely and being ruthlessly honest with each other. Some chalk it up to unpasteurized cheese getting out into the population while others think that mysterious billionaire buying up large chunks of real estate might be the culprit.

The thing that took me out of Keillor’s last several visits to Lake Wobegon was a feeling that he’d become too cynical for his own good — we were no longer laughing with the characters but at them. With The Lake Wobegon Virus. Keillor inserts a fictional version of himself into his fictional town and the novel feels like early works. There were moments that brought a smile to my face and a chuckle while reading that were, quite frankly, not present in the last few novels.

Keillor’s fictional doppelganger makes repeated references to avoiding writing his memoirs — which makes me think the real-life Keillor was having fiction reflect reality a bit. I could see Keillor using this novel as an escape from writing his memoirs or maybe as a warm-up to doing the work of examining his own life and putting down those details on the printed page.

The storytelling is very episodic in nature, feeling like Keillor is tying together some of his monologs from the waning days of his hosting The Prairie Home Companion. And while there is the pervading threat of the bad cheese hanging over things, it’s the stories of the lives of the people and the town that kept me going.

In many ways, this one feels like Keillor putting a final bow on his fictional small town — and I’ve got to admit that had me feeling a bit sentimental as the final page flipped by. I came away from the novel feeling a bit like I’d spent the last few moments when one of my favorite writers in the fictional world of his that I loved so much. If this is the end, it’s a nice way to go, reminding me of what I feel in love with Keillor’s writing and the town of Lake Wobegon all those decades ago.

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Big Finish Audio Review: Doctor Who, Time Lord Victorious: The Enemy of My Enemy

Doctor Who: Time Lord Victorious: The Enemy of My EnemyChris Chibnall owes James Goss a thank-you note for giving Doctor Who fans something besides the implications of the Timeless Child to focus on during (yet another) gap year in new installments.

The second installment in the Paul McGann entry of the “Time Lord Victorious” arc features the Daleks (because, of course, we can’t not have the Daleks in there somehow) and builds on the foundation provided by “He Kills Me, He Kills Me Not.” “The Enemy of My Enemy” is a bit more successful and entertaining of a story than the previous installment, though I couldn’t help but feel there was some potential overlooked here. Some of the connections to the larger story come through here — especially the weapon held by the Wrax. There are probably Easter eggs to other installments of this series that I’m either not getting because I haven’t experienced them yet or I wasn’t taking notes as I listened to/read other parts.

McGann is up to his usual standard of excellence here, proving once again that he would have been a great on-screen Doctor if he’d been given the chance. Nicholas Briggs once again gives us an impressive array of Dalek voices and he even manages to make most of them distinctive enough that this listener could tell which Dalek was speaking. I will admit that years of watching classic Who has me expecting Davros to turn up at some point, but I am thinking that’s more and more unlikely.

The story builds to a point and then ends of a cliffhanger. As the middle installment of a trilogy, a lot of what we’re getting here is moving pieces into place for the end game to come. I’m interested enough that I will listen to part three.

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