Buddy Reading with My Dad

My father recently stayed with me for two months. He’s retired now, so can visit for longer—which considering the time it takes to fly from Australia to the US is a very good thing. One week is a jet-lagged fever dream, two weeks just isn’t long enough, and three weeks allow one for recovery, one for the holiday, and one to get ready to fly again. Four weeks is good. Longer is even better.

One of the pleasures of having my dad visit is that, like me, he loves movies and books. We generally have a movie to watch every night, and will sit side by side with our phones out, checking facts on IMDb. Where else we’ve seen that actor, what other movies the director has made, who wrote the script, and who did the music. Invariably, this exercise adds another movie or ten to the queue. This visit we did a mini Samuel L. Jackson retrospective and sought out any Jackie Chan films we may have missed. We watched the Cornetto Trilogy (Edgar Wright) and were pleasantly surprised by how good John Wick 2 was. Previous visits have included Fast and Furious marathons and all Jason Statham’s films. We’ve spent an entire weekend on the couch watching back to back disaster movies on SyFy.

My dad also likes to read and unfortunately it’s not a hobby he indulges much while at home, even now that he’s retired. He’s got a dozen other hobbies, he’s always helping someone do something else, and he’s renovating a house. While living in it. One of the reasons I like having him here is that he gets a chance to rest. He sleeps in, surfs the internet for pleasure, takes naps, and reads. Naps again. Reads some more. He reads a lot. I save up books for him before each visit so he has a stack to get started with, then—as we do with movies—we tend to get on a theme and will read several books together, or one after the other, and talk about them when we’re done. It’s the best kind of buddy read because he’s RIGHT there. I can walk into the kitchen, see he’s two thirds of the way through a particular book and say, “Who do you think the headless corpse in the woodshed is?”

Or he can say, “You have to read book two because we’ve got to talk about Jack’s brother.”

So what did my dad and I read this visit? Well, I’m so glad you asked. Mostly mystery. It’s his favourite and I’m pretty fond of it. We also tried a couple of new authors, found him a new favourite, and got in a Jack McDevitt science fiction adventure toward the end.

 

The Mountain Between Us, Charles Martin

8477868I had this book on the table waiting for Dad because I knew it would be one he’d enjoy. It’s a story of adventure in the remote wilderness of Utah with a wholly unexpected thread of romance woven through. I didn’t tell my dad about the love story part as I was unsure of his perspective on romance, and because I felt the adventure was enough of a draw. It was for me. I loved this book and wanted him to love it too.

He did. He read it in about a day and a half—only interrupted by me asking where Ben and Alex were. “Have they found the lake yet?” “Did Ben make his big mistake yet?” “Do you think they’ll eat the dog?”

After he finished, we pulled the book apart chapter by chapter and then discussed the film adaptation—which he hadn’t seen—why it wasn’t the same story, and why it really didn’t work for me. I don’t know if Dad will read Charles Martin again. I know I will, but he might require more adventure than some of the other books on Martin’s list seem to promise.

 

Friction, Sandra Brown

25114548I sort second hand book donations for the library and one of the names that pops up over and over again is Sandra Brown. I had an idea she wrote mystery but wasn’t really familiar with her work. I have my small cadre of writers that I turn to when I want a mystery and I’ve stayed fairly loyal to them for a number of years now.

While Dad was visiting, we went to Book Con in NYC. (Of course we did.) One of the panels we attended was called “Novel Suspects” and featured Brad Meltzer, Walter Moseley, Sandra Brown, and David Baldacci. Dad’s a fan of Baldacci’s and I’ve read Meltzer and Moseley, so we went along to hear them talk. It was one of the best panels I’ve ever attended. All four authors were wonderfully entertaining, mixing personal stories in with banter. They seemed to regard one another with great respect and were really fun to listen to. We had a great time. Afterward, my dad asked if I’d ever read Sandra Brown. I hadn’t. The next day, we bought our first Sandra Brown book.

Dad read it first. Devoured it. I think he came up for air once. He might have eaten something. The best part, though, was when he looked up after the first few pages and said something like, “I haven’t read a female author before, or a book with a female main character.”

He wasn’t sure why, except that maybe he’d fallen into the same rut I have with mystery authors and had a handful he liked and rarely moved away from. He said he used to like reading Nancy Drew, but didn’t remember reading a book with important female characters since then—and he really felt as though he’d been missing out. He liked the perspective of a female character. He was enjoying it. He also liked the thread of romantic tension Sandra Brown adds to many of her books.

I read the book next and I really, really enjoyed it. I loved Sandra Brown’s writing. I enjoyed her characters and the mystery kept me guessing. I’m happy to report that Sandra Brown has been added to my mystery author roster. Dad went on to read three more of her books.

 

Zero Day and The Forgotten, David Baldacci

19054808We read one each of his books: me the first in the series, Dad the second. He’d already read the first. We chatted about the books, but mostly we cyberstalked poor Mr. Baldacci. (We’re not coming to visit, don’t worry.) (Not this year, anyway.)

During the “Novel Suspects” panel, David Baldacci had some of the funniest stories to tell, including his “best” one star review and the time his favourite table wasn’t available at the lunch spot he frequents way too often. We used the latter to narrow down his location, along with facts gleaned from several online interviews.

We might have scanned the area with Google Street View looking for his house.

We talked about a road trip and how many restaurants we could visit a day looking for him.

(Dad is safely on a plane back to Australia and I’m way too busy editing my own books to visit random restaurants. This year, anyway.)

The books: what we loved about the series we started was the similarities to Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series, and the proximity to Maryland, where we used to live. The mysteries were great and the characters just the sort we enjoy. Baldacci has been added to our list!

 

Lee Child

33118488So, we’re both HUGE fans of Lee Child. We love Jack Reacher. Neither of us understands how Tom Cruise got cast in the movies, but we watched them anyway because we love Jack Reacher. We’ve read about a dozen of Lee Child’s books each, and Dad managed to get through five while he was here. I read two. I had one waiting for him and we chose the others based on our mutual interest in stories that include mention of Reacher’s brother, Joe.

The biggest surprise for both of us was how much we enjoyed No Middle Name, which is a collection of short stories ranching from Reacher’s childhood until well into his career as a trouble-seeking former MP.

Again, the one that featured Joe most prominently was our favourite. We’d like to respectfully submit a request for more books about Joe. Joe could easily have a series of his own.

 

Infinity Beach, Jack McDevitt

352778Jack McDevitt is one of the few authors on my preorder list. Not only do I preorder his books, I preorder hardcover editions because I know I’ll want a copy to put in my library afterward. I always enjoy his stories—both the Alex Benedict series and The Academy novels. What I love is his exploration of big ideas, his characters, and his point of view—all of which combine to make Infinity Beach such a great book. Another aspect of McDevitt’s books I like is his preference for female leads.

I generally don’t pay a lot of attention to the gender of an author. They’re mostly a name on book until I get to know them a little bit. I do pick books based on the gender of the lead characters, though, and in the past, when reading science fiction and fantasy, I more often chose books with male leads. The why of it was pretty simple: male leads got to do the fun stuff. They were the warriors, the adventurers, the risk-takers. They were the kings, and the character that got to stand at the edge of the cliff with the fate of the entire world tied up in their balance.

Thankfully, there are now thousands of books where female characters get to do all of this. But I’m fifty years old. I grew up reading about men going on adventures and women supporting them. If a book appeared with a female hero, she was more usually going to wield magic than a sword, or be compromised in some way by her male counterparts. I wanted female assassins, ship captains, and barbarians. Choosing a book with a male lead became a shortcut to getting what I wanted out of a story.

So it’s not hard to figure out why Jack McDevitt has long been on my list. He writes wonderful female leads. They are the adventurers as well as the support structure. They get to make the decisions that change worlds, and they save lives. And they read like real women, too. Not just dudes with boobs. McDevitt’s books also have a wide range of other characters, embracing the diversity that has become so important to me over the past decade.

Did Dad enjoy this one? He did. It took him a while to get into McDevitt’s voice, but he loved the concept of the novel and really enjoyed reading another female lead. By the time he’d reached the halfway point, a virtual “Do Not Disturb” sign had been hung in the sunny corner of the kitchen he’d claimed as his favourite reading spot.

I’m happy to report that Jack McDevitt now has another fan.

Review: Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse

Wastelands by John Joseph Adams

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Wastelands is not a door-stop of an anthology. The weight of the book did not numb my fingers or weary my arms. It is still a substantial collection, however, heavy with authors whose names are more than familiar and stories with ponderous themes. But, unlike my experiences with similar anthologies, I did not feel utterly hopeless by the end. This is a very modern collection, most published within the last twenty years, and while every tale does, indeed, explore the end of the world as we know it, there is a sense of complacency and despondency rather than outright horror. Most of the time. After some thought, I decided this theme is very appropriate to our more modern attitude toward apocalypse. There is less focus on the fiery explosion (if that’s how it happens), less a feeling of desperation (how will we stop it?) and more a sense of the inevitable. And, of course the question that produces such stories: What comes next?

With that in mind, some of the stories did acquire a sameness or blandness, but I enjoyed the majority of them and relished adding to my experience of some of my favourite authors. Rather than risk offending anyone by naming just a few of the authors as an example of what waits between the covers, though, I’ll append a full list to the bottom of my review and, here, will simply mention those I looked forward to reading: Jack McDevitt, George R. R. Martin (whose science fiction I enjoy), Tobias Buckell, Cory Doctorow and Elizabeth Bear.

The introduction by editor, John Joseph Adams, is entertaining. Adams is an editor I look for when perusing anthologies. He is always engaged by his subject and enthusiastic about the authors whose work he is presenting. Wastelands is no exception. Every story has a beginning blurb and there is a great appendix at the back of the book for further reading.

The End of the Whole Mess by Stephen King clearly illustrates Adam’s point about finding the right story to lead an anthology. A big name catches the eye and Stephen King certainly has that, even for those who don’t normally read speculative fiction. The story should also encompass or embrace the theme of the collection, which this one does. It’s about two brothers. The younger is a genius, one of those scarily intuitive kids who want to do everything and does, obsessively, in a search to find what he’s best at. During this search, he discovers a statistically peaceful place, pulls the water from the aquifer there and distills it. After this palliative for the modern condition is distributed, he discovers why that small town in Texas was so peaceful. Clue: It’s not good. This is a typical Stephen King story, which means it is good. It’s thought provoking and quite chilling. I always find his short form fiction to be his best.

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Review: The Cassandra Project

cassprojectThe Cassandra Project by Jack McDevitt

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One leaked audio file ignites a controversy that involves NASA, private enterprise, the President of the United States, present and past, and a decades old scandal. One question, who was the first man to walk on the Moon?, sparks many more questions and piece by piece the Cassandra Project is revealed. The idea another mission, half a year before Apollo XI and another man, Sydney Myshko, might have landed on the Moon before Neil Armstrong seems like fiction and many regard it as just that. But a handful of men want to find out the truth, one because he can, the other because it’s his nature and the President because, well, it’s his job.

Morgan ‘Bucky’ Blackstone is a billionaire several times over. He is planning his own mission to the Moon and when he learns there is a mystery to be solved, he sets out to solve it. Jerry Culpepper works for NASA. He also wants to know the truth, but fears revealing it will end his career. As it turns out, simply pursing it is enough. When Bucky and Jerry join together, the facts begin to unfold, but without the aid of a President who feels betrayed by them both, they will never find the final puzzle piece.

‘The Cassandra Project’ by Jack McDevitt and Mike Resnick reads like a Jack McDevitt novel. It starts with a cover-up and one clue, just one, a mere snippet of information. Then, throughout the course of the novel, deft fingers pluck at the corner of the wallpaper, pulling it away scrap by scrap. Some pieces are too tattered to be useful, but others come away in sheets. What’s hidden beneath doesn’t always make sense. But when it does, when everything is revealed, it’s pretty awesome.

I am not as familiar with Mike Resnick’s work, having only read one of his novellas. His influence was clear, however. There are more voices in ‘The Cassandra Project’. More players. This particular mystery required a team, both on the page and behind the book.

Whoever was responsible for ‘Bucky’, well done. He was endearing. Jerry proved himself worthy of both Bucky and the reader’s respect and the President read just as he should have, a man trying to do the right thing. Behind the characters and the mystery is a clever commentary on the state of NASA today and timely questions regarding the present and future directions of science, in all fields. I enjoyed absorbing that as much as the story itself.

I would love to talk about the conclusion, which may strike some as both a reach and controversial. So as not to spoil potential readers, I will be circumspect in my comments. I loved the way the ultimate reveal was handled. An assumption is hinted at, but not outright ‘claimed’. It’s up to the reader to decide. The enormity of the assumption is pretty stunning, though, and long after I put the book aside I thought about the implications.

If not for Jack McDevitt’s name on the cover, I may not have picked up this novel. There are certain authors, however, whose work I will read without reservation, regardless of whether the subject matter interests me or not. Yes, I have had to put aside some books and I have valiantly struggled to read and understand others. But occasionally I’ll stumble across a gem. ‘The Cassandra Project’ falls into the latter category. It has also inspired me to look into more of Mike Resnick’s work, which is a win for both authors. Ultimately, however, a good book is just a good book and I highly recommend this one.

Written for and originally posted at SFCrowsnest.

Review: Firebird

Firebird, by Jack McDevitt
(Ace, November 2011. Hardcover, 384 pages)

‘Firebird’ by Jack McDevitt starts in much the same way most ‘Alex Benedict’ novels do. Alex and his assistant, Chase Kolpath, come into possession of some artefacts and prepare to sell them. Alex Benedict is no ordinary antiquities dealer, however. He has an insatiable curiosity and he’s a salesman. While investigating the estate of the renowned physicist Chris Robin, Alex stirs up the mystery surrounding the man’s disappearance. This has two predictable effects. One, the price of the modest collection of books and artefacts climbs, which is good for business. Two, Alex gets involved, which is not so good for business. Without Alex Benedict’s propensity for getting involved, however, we’d have nothing to read.

Accompanied by Chase, who again issues warnings regarding his involvement and the danger to himself and his reputation, Alex chases clues in an attempt to unravel the mystery for himself. He and Chase visit Villanueva, a planet occupied only by abandoned and arguably sentient AIs, and rescue one. This act kicks off a chain of events that both demonise and humanise Alex Benedict in the eyes of the public and perhaps the reader. The true sentience of AIs is brought into question and explored from many angles, from cult-like groups bent on proving machine intelligences are real beings and should have all the rights and privileges of humans to the other end of the spectrum, the non-believers. In the midst of this, treasure hunters flock to Villanueva to attempt their own rescues and many of them die at the hands of psychotic AIs.

Separately, the mystery of Chris Robin’s disappearance deepens. The notoriety gained by previous events hinders Alex’s effectiveness, however. Basically, many who previously respected Alex now blame him for the deaths of idiots. They refuse to help him when help is needed and an important mission all but fails. A humanist to the core, Alex is deeply affected by all of this. But he perseveres, because finding Chris Robin might help him find Gabe, his long lost uncle.

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