Friday, March 25, 2011

Leviathan Wakes, by James S. A. Corey--Book Review

Hachette Books Group/Orbit, ISBN 9780316129084, June 2011

Leviathan Wakes is a wonderfully satisfying space opera, set in the asteroid belt a few centuries from now. Earth is old, wealthy, powerful, but maybe not so energetic and innovative anymore. Mars is younger, poorer, but more vigorous, innovative, and on the rise. The Belt--it's a very working class area, mostly owned by Earth-based or Mars-based corporations, but with its own emerging culture. They make do, waste nothing, live inside converted asteroids, and call their homes holes. Ceres, Eros, Tycho, and the ships we see are all very lived-in, well-used by people who mostly have never lived anywhere that air can be taken for granted. The beginnings of an independence movement, the Outer Planets Alliance, or OPA, exists, but the dangers of disrupting the status quo are obvious to Belters, so there's a somewhat tense and uneasy balance. There's no interstellar travel, but the first generation colony ship is preparing to leave within the next couple of years.

Our two viewpoint characters are Joe Miller, a police officer on Ceres, and Jim Holden, an Earth man serving as the XO of a Belter ice miner, the Canterbury. They have very different worldviews and values, and we get their stories in alternating chapters.

It's against this background that Miller gets a extra assignment: find Julie Mao, daughter of a wealthy shipbuilder on Luna, and ship her back to her parents--involuntarily, because she's not going willingly. Meanwhile,  XO Jim Holden leads the boarding party to investigate a derelict ship called Scopuli. It's abandoned, and while there's evidence of a struggle, the motive clearly wasn't robbery. Scopuli's own distress signal had been disabled, and the signal Canterbury picked up was added by whoever boarded, and is powered by a Martian battery.

Scopuli is bait in a trap, and with terrifying speed, Jim Holden finds himself the captain of Canterbury's shuttle Knight, and of the few surviving crew. And shortly after that, having broadcast events and what they think they know about them to the entire listening solar system, they're prisoners aboard a Martian military ship.

After that, things start to get complicated and disturbing.

Julie Mao, the missing Earth woman Miller has been assigned to find, kidnap, and send home, was part of the crew of Scopuli. They'd stumbled onto someone's very nasty plan to set up a little experiment. As the political situation in the Belt gets rapidly more dangerous, Miller is first pulled off the search for Julie Mao, then fired, then takes off on his own to track her down. The Martian ship is attacked, and destroyed, by heavily armed stealthed ships, and the last thing the Martian commander does is send a couple of officers to get Holden, his crew, and the evidence out and away.

Miller and Holden each separately follow the evidence they have to Eros, and become uneasy allies in the face of a truly evil plot involving a very dangerous, very alien piece of biotechnology. And while Earth, Mars, and the Belt blame each other for the growing incidence of disappeared or destroyed ships and the system rushes headlong toward war, Miller and Holden discover another hand at work, engineering the war as a distraction from what they're really up to.

Attempting to say any more risks far too many spoilers. I'll just add that the politics of the solar system feel real and complex, with no improbably good Good Guys, and legitimate interests and natural greed on all sides.

Leviathan Wakes has all the Good Parts of space opera of the forties and fifties, a lived-in universe, adventure, intrigue, and sense of wonder. At the same time, James S. A. Corey, or rather, Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, whose pen name this is, didn't grow up in that era, and write smart, tough, capable female characters with no more apparent conscious effort than when they do the same with male characters. It's apparently the first of a series, The Expanse, but while the set-up for the rest of the series is there, and quite obvious, this particular story is satisfyingly complete in itself. With or without the later volumes, this one is worth reading, and is a lot of fun if you like good space opera.


I received a free electronic galley of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Killer Pancake (Goldy Bear Culinary Mystery, Book 5), by Diane Mott Davidson--Review

New Millennium, 2003 [1995], Audio CD, ISBN 9781590074398

Goldy Schultz, owner of Goldilocks Catering, has with some reservations, agreed to cater a low-cal lunch banquet for Mignon Cosmetics. It could open up a new market, and her assistant, Julian, is dating one of the Mignon sales associates, Claire Satterfield. And it's only one afternoon. How bad can it be?

Her doubts come rushing back when she has to run a gauntlet of animal rights activists calling themselves Spare the Hares, who even have dead rabbits to wave around. Then Claire Satterfield is killed in the mall parking garage by a hit-and-run driver before they even have all the food inside. Goldy calls 911, and she and her homicide detective husband Tom have to break the news to Julian.

Even more disturbingly, Goldy discovers the police don't think it was an accident.

This is an intricate story involving illicit affairs, commercial espionage, cutthroat competition and fraud between Mignon sales staff, and an old, well-buried scandal of terrible injuries caused by cosmetics testing. Goldy learns more about her neighbors and potential clients than she really wanted to know--and all while there's drama enough in her own family and household. It's not just Julian losing Claire. Marla, Goldy's best friend and the other ex-wife of her abusive ex-husband John Richard Korman, has had a heart attack. Do I need to say that John Richard is not staying away, and that Goldy has some difficulty letting the fancy security system Tom has installed do its thing? No?

This is a fun, fast-paced mystery with the main secondary characters just developed enough to make an engaging story.


No free galley to declare on this one; I borrowed it from the library.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Bed of Roses (Brides Quartet #2) by Nora Roberts--Review

Berkley, ISBN 9780425230077, 358 pp., October 2009

MacKensie, Emma, Laurel, and Parker spent many childhood moments playing Wedding Day, and as adults have built a business around providing perfect wedding days for others. Now, one by one, they're finding their own mates.

In Bed of Roses, it's the turn of Emmaline Grant, the talented and dedicated florist for Vows. Emma loves romance, loves men, and has an active social life, but she's never met that one man who could give her the true, lifetime romance she dreams of. Or rather, she has, but she hasn't allowed herself to realize it. Jack Cooke is too determined not to repeat his divorced parents' mistake of getting married, to ever commit to the lifelong relationship she wants, and too close to all four of the friends to risk the messiness of a relationship that might end badly.

Then circumstances throw them together repeatedly, and they find themselves embarking on a relationship they both regard with trepidation. Mirroring Mac & Carter's relationship, it's Emma that has the faith and confidence to trust to love, and Jack who resists, denies, panics as he realizes what's happening. As usual, Roberts does a wonderful job in developing the characters and letting their relationship unfold, progress, and build to a crisis.


No review copy this time; I borrowed this book from the local library.

Enchantment: The Art of Changing Hearts, Minds, and Actions, by Guy Kawasaki--Review

Penguin, March 2011, ISBN 9781591843795, 224 pp.

This is a business book for people who really want practical advice on how to become a better, more successful, happier business person.

Unlike many business books, it's neither a relentlessly detailed case study that wears you out trying to absorb lots of detail that may or may not be relevant to your industry and organization, nor a light'n'fluffy "how I inspire everyone around me with platitudes" book. Instead, Guy Kawasaki focuses on practical advice on how to sell your "cause" and how to be someone people want to do business with--how to be "enchanting" to customers, investors, employees. He's a former jeweler who joined Apple in 1983, when he got an early demo of the first Macintosh and was, in his chosen word, enchanted. He uses his own experience and well-chosen anecdotes from others to flesh out his message and illustrate the practical application of his advice.

The ten-cent version of that advice, after "have a product, service, or cause that's really worthwhile," can be summed up as: 1. Be likable. 2. Be trustworthy. 3. Be a mensch. Some of the specifics: Smile--a real smile, that moves the eye muscles and not just your lips. Approach people you meet with a goal of helping them first. Tell the truth. Don't shade it to downplay perceived weakness of your position. Instead, address those weaknesses and find a way to meet the real needs of the person you're dealing with. Do that, and you can make a loyal customer for life, not just one sale. Deliver bad news first--because the people you want to work for or do business with want to know the bad news so they can deal with it effectively. Someone who only wants good news is someone to be avoided, in business and in life.

Much of this book is applicable to almost any setting, including, as he points out in a few comments, marriage and parenting. The last third of the book is focused more specifically on working inside a corporate or organizational structure, on how to  be a good employee and how to be a good boss. There's a short and helpful section dealing particularly with managing volunteers in a non-profit setting.

All of which covers the basics of the book, but doesn't capture the experience of reading it. Enchantment really is enchanting to read, enjoyable, enlightening, surprisingly practical, and a book you won't want to put aside until you're finished.

Highly recommended.

I received a free copy of Enchantment for review, from the author.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Invasion (C.H.A.O.S. #1) by Jon S. Lewis--Review

Thomas Nelson, ISBN 9781595547538, January 2011

Sixteen-year-old Colt McAlister is living the dream in San Diego, surfing by day and playing guitar with his friends by night, when his parents are killed in a freak car accident. The youngest of eight, several of his older brothers offer him a home, but recognizing the demands they face with their own young families, he chooses instead to join his Grandpa McAlister in Phoenix, AZ. The only person he knows at his new high school is Danielle Salazar, a childhood friend, but he quickly meets and becomes friends with Oz Romero--whom he's sure he's never met before but who seems oddly familiar.

This is a fast-paced and mostly tightly plotted novel, so it's not long before we know there's something fishy about the accident that killed Colt's parents--and about Trident, the company that his investigative journalist mother was investigating. We also learn that Colt's grandpa has a fascinating history of his own: A World War II veteran, he's believed to be the basis of the comic book superhero the Phantom Flyer, who played a key role in defeating the Nazis' alien reptilian allies...did I forget to mention that? Yes, it seems there are gateways between our world and others, and some pretty startling beings have come through them, including the reptilian Thule, who want to wipe us out and take Earth for themselves.

So when Colt overhears his grandpa and Sen. Bishop discussing the fact that his parents' accident wasn't exactly an accident, and he and his friends decide to investigate, it doesn't take long before they're in very hot water. Trident is controlled by the Thule, the reptilian invaders behind the Nazis, and is the major threat that the secret government agency, the Central Headquarters Against the Occult and Supernatural, a.k.a. CHAOS, exists to fight. Colt, Dani, and Oz quickly find out just how much of a beating they can take and keep on ticking, and how tough, smart, and resourceful they can be when their own and the world's survival depends on it.

I really did enjoy this book. It's a solid young adult science fiction novel, firmly in the camp of the "Heinlein juveniles" of cherished memory (and still available in your local library and bookstore, by the way.) It does have a couple of oddities and weaknesses, though. One is that, although the female characters are in fact presented as tough, smart, and resourceful, it certainly appears that there are no female CHAOS agents. This seems terribly unlikely, and maybe the next novel in the sequence will reveal that that appearance is not correct. The other problem is an annoying plot hole. We're told that the biochips that make it possible for Trident to control unwitting sleeper agents, and which cause their eyes to glow red when the chip is activated, were invented in the past few years by a minor character whom we do meet. Unfortunately, we're also told that the Thule and Nazis were using the same control technology during WWII. Can't have it both ways!

But those are minor issues, and this is a solid, enjoyable YA science fiction novel.

I received a free electronic galley of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.