Tag Archives: science fiction

Mystery Train Wreck

time-of-departure

Time of Departure: A Novel by Douglas Schofield (Minotaur Books, $16.99, 323 pages)

This debut novel began as an excellent criminal investigation story. It’s about a Florida state prosecutor, Clair Talbot, who is promoted to head the Felony Division Unit. But just as soon as she starts her new job a retired police investigator drops a cold case on her lap. Several women were killed decades earlier and he wants her to solve the crime.

On the front cover blurb, author James Renner (True Crime Addict) calls this, “A hard-boiled detective story with a dash of fantasy… a clever read. Daring, even.” Unfortunately, it’s more than a dash of fantasy. A huge load of fantasy and science fiction is unceremoniously dumped on the reader about 75% of the way through the tale. Not to reveal any spoilers, but it involves time travel. Oh, yes.

The story moves from 2011 back to 1978. Why? I have no idea but it turns an “A”-level read into something that might have been written by a middle school student. In fact, the excellent writing style of Schofield turns into nearly unintelligible mush once he detours onto the time travel lane:

“Maybe the whole point of my life is to change the future! But if that’s true, and if we decide today to change history, logic says I will no longer exist. At least I will no longer exist here and now with you. Maybe another version of me will be born next year and live a life entirely different from the one I remember. Maybe I’ll disappear into some parallel existence. I don’t know. But your memories of me will surely disappear. How could they not! You’d have no reason to have them.”

Yes, it’s that painful to read. Schofield’s strange venture into Back to the Future territory – and, naturally, our protagonist meets her mother back in the past, made me wish I could disappear into a parallel existence. I have no concept of why this author threw his story away, except that there’s a train wreck that sets off the time travel; which results in an otherwise promising work devolving into a train wreck.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

The trade paperback version of Time of Departure was released on November 1, 2016.

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Worth Waiting For

Tomorrow and Tomorrow (large)

Tomorrow and Tomorrow: A Novel by Thomas Sweterlitsch will not be released by G. P. Putnam’s Sons until July 10, 2014. But you might want to put it on your to be read/purchased list now. This is an extraordinarily unique science fiction-like work set in the future. It is a time when each person in the United States has an Adware personal computer system installed, literally, in their brains. And everything that happens in this brave new world is captured on camera – including every transaction at every Starbucks, allowing persons to magically visit the cities and people of the recent past via fully interactive, 3-dimensional hologram-like, digitally stored recreations.

It’s been a full decade since the entire city of Pittsburgh was destroyed in a mysterious explosion, with all of its residents killed. John Dominic Blaxton survived because he was attending a conference in Columbus, Ohio at the time. He lost his wife in the tragedy and his mourning has led him to battle the demons of depression and drug abuse.

Blaxton, who investigated mysterious deaths for State Farm Insurance, comes to lose his job and enters a court-ordered rehabilitation program. He eventually gets the chance to become a respectable citizen again, but only if he can find the missing daughter of a very rich, successful and powerful figure. Unfortunately, someone has been working very hard to delete all evidence of this young woman’s existence. Can Blaxton find her and save her, in the process saving himself?

Joseph Arellano

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Asked and Answered

How Long is the Average Book?   A Concrete Answer to a Longstanding Writing Frequently Asked Question

“How long should my book be?”   This is a question that comes up fairly often when working with early writers.   It is a deceptively simple question that’s historically had very little data to help answer it.

A common and generally unhelpful answer is, “As long as it needs to be.”   It’s an answer that is not only hard to implement, but I believe it is also built on the somewhat flawed assumption that if you have to tell an author how long the book is supposed to be, they’re asking the wrong questions.   Another common reference you’ll hear is that the average novel is roughly 100,000 words long, which is sometimes even true.   In reality, book length is dependent on the genre you’re writing in.   100,000 words is about right for Literary Fiction, but is substantially off for Romance, and totally wrong for Humor.

Given the data that we work with every day, I wanted to contribute some concrete, objective data points to the conversation.

Below is a self-contained graphic (in case it needed to be printed) containing the average length of a book in several common genres contained in the 85,000+ titles in the Book Genome Project, such as Literary Fiction, Science Fiction, Romance, Fantasy, and Biography.   These are objective data points regarding the average length of books on the market today, as represented by the Genome database.

So there you have it.   Of the 16,284 Romance titles in our corpus, the average length is 76,000 words.   Fantasy is the longest genre, on average, with 122,000 words per book.

First Person vs. Third Person Perspective

We also pulled up a breakdown of those same genres by perspective, as you can see in the graphic, as well.   This is another interesting writing style difference.   The data we use is not really binary, but most books tend to be either overwhelmingly 1st person, or overwhelmingly 3rd person.   Rarely do they fall in the middle (although it is possible).

In general, third person (he said/she said) is a more common form of perspective than first person (I said).   Across the entire corpus (regardless of genre) 69% of the titles in our corpus were mostly or entirely third person, with only about 31% being first person.   What is most interesting to me, though, is that there appears to be a strong genre preference/bias.   Autobiographies & Biographies, for example, understandably contain more 1st person titles than any other genre.

The first person Romance title appears to be particularly rare, for example.

On a final thought, I’ll reiterate that this is NOT a statement of what length or perspective a book should be written in.   We’re not making any qualitative statements in this data, only quantitative.   It’s clear that more books in our database are written in third person perspective than in first person perspective, but we consider this more a statement of a genre’s expectation than anything else.   If a Fantasy fan picks up a novel at random, it’s a fair expectation that it will be in 3rd person more often than 1st.

That said, as an author, it doesn’t hurt to be cognitively aware that your 1st person, 150,000 word Romance epic is going to be breaking the mold of what most Romance readers are used to.   Way to think different.

Aaron Stanton – Founder and CEO, Booklamp.org

You can see more articles like this at http://booklamp.org/ .

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My Book Review Rules

I first posted my Lucky 13 book review rules and policies on July 31, 2009.   I am now reposting them with a few revisions and applicable updates.

The Lucky 13 Rules

1.   I am interested in receiving review copies on most subjects but especially biographies and memoirs; music; poetry; sports; science fiction; business books; nonfiction survery books; inspirational books (but not directly tied to religion); popular fiction; crime dramas; mysteries and suspense thrillers; family novels; Young Adult (YA) novels; children’s books and stories involving animals.

2.   I am not interested in vampire or zombie books; conspiracy theory books; political tracts; books promoting racism or hatred; books laden with philosophy or religion (been there, done that); overly simplistic self-help books (of which there are many); or books in which the author says the same thing on every page!

3.   If the reference to popular fiction was too vague, let me be clear:  yes, I will and have read “chick lit” (distinct from bodice rippers or old-fashioned romance) books.

4.   Whenever possible, I like to receive early stage review copies – paper bound galleys or ARCs, even if they are subject to final review, editing and corrections.   No one wants to write the last review of a new book.

5.   Yes, I do want to review books that are being re-released in paperback – especially in trade paperback form.   In this economy, paperbacks are often the only books on the radar screen of economy-minded readers.

6.   I finish around 80 percent of the books I start, but if I can’t finish it – meaning that attempting to do so is  more painful than dental work, I’m not writing the review.

7.   I’m a speed reader but it nevertheless takes me forever to read pages that have not been editing by someone in the world!

8.   Send an e-mail to me at Josephsreviews@gmail.com if you want to know if I’d like a copy of your book.   My receipt of your book does not equate with an automatic positive review (I simply try to be honest) nor a guarantee that I can or will finish it.   Again, I cannot guarantee that I will post a review of your book because you have sent it to me.   Also, please do not send me follow-up e-mails asking when I will be reading/reviewing your book.

9.   Some authors want me to not only review their book but to include a link to their website, or their Twitter account or other online address.   Sorry, I don’t do that.   Readers who have seen my review(s) and are interested in more information on an author can do a Google search.

10.  I do not read/review digital or e-books or pdf files.   (I have nothing against technology, it’s simply a matter of eye strain.)

11.  I love audiobooks on CDs, so if your book is available in this format and you or your publisher can supply me with an audiobook copy, it’s a big plus.

12.  Publishers, if you send me a book, please do include a P. R. sheet with some background information on the book and the contact information for the assigned in-house publicist or contact P. R. staff person.   If I post a review, I will be sure to let the contact know when it is posted.

13.  New authors – especially of nonfiction or self-published books, please have an experienced editor vet your work before submitting it for review.

That’s it.   Good reading to all!

Joseph Arellano

Note:   Some self-published books are reviewed on this site, although they remain the exception to the rule.

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Radar Love

Gateways: An Anthology, edited by Elizabeth Anne Hull (Tor Books, $15.99, 416 pages)

“The Federation is old, and it had gotten old by minimizing change…  The emergence of humans had disturbed the Galactic balance; change had occurred, and the Federation didn’t like change.”

This is quite simply a feast for science fiction fans!   Gateways is a collection of new science fiction stories and tributes – including essays and poetry – by 18 authors in the style of Frederick Pohl.   Pohl long ago wrote a seminal creative novel called Gateway, and he was perhaps the first to predict the current day realities of personal computers and mobile phones.

Many of the tales in this collection focus on futuristic space travel and wars between alien cultures.   One of the best, and clearly unique, stories (Shadows of the Lost) is about an encounter between very early humans and Neanderthals.   It’s an unexpected twist.   Another (Chicken Little), about a future in which only billionaires can afford to extend their natural life spans, is eerily effective.

Not all of the stories work, however.   Gunn’s Tales – about spaceship travel – is one that goes on far too long and fails to arrive anywhere.   Star Trek it is not.

Frederick Pohl is now 90.   He was a contemporary of Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and Kurt Vonnegut.   In his day, he won all of science fiction’s major awards (Hugos, Nebulas, the SFWA Grand Master Award) for his writing.   This worthy tribute compilation should put Pohl’s name on the radar for younger readers who are just coming to appreciate the many textures and flavors of science fiction.   Welcome!

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

Reprinted coutesty of San Francisco Book Review.   Gateways was released in trade paper form on July 5, 2011.   “…a must-buy for science fiction readers of all tastes,  from the traditional to the cutting-edge, from the serious to the laugh-out-loud funny.”   Amazon

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100 Years

Click on the link below to read the story Chicken Little by Cory Doctorow, excerpted from Gateways, an anthology of original science fiction stories inspired by Frederick Pohl.   (“No wonder they all stayed away from the office.”)

http://www.tor.com/stories/2011/04/chicken-little

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Two of Us

The Last Will of Moira Leahy: A Novel by Therese Walsh (Three Rivers Press; $15.00; 304 pages)

Therese Walsh’s first novel is a story of twins; a pair of near mystical sisters who call to mind the twins in Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger.   The twins share thoughts, a unique language and their lives until an accident with tragic consequences for the piano-playing prodigy Moira.   Maeve, the narrator, must then find the means to continue her life on her own.   She’s assisted on her journey by finding a magical keris sword, and this leads her to Europe, where she finds out special things about her life and her sister’s life.

Maeve blames herself for the accident involving Moira and the journey that she takes provides her with a new perspective and much-needed forgiveness.   This is a well-told and very entertaining read from Walsh, although the reader must be willing to suspend reality as parts border on magic and science fiction.   There’s also a tremendous amount of jumping around, jarring the reader’s patience with the lack of chronological order.  

Sticking with the story until the end will, however, reward the reader with a satisfying conclusion to this unique tale by a very promising writer.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

   “This tender tale of sisterhood, self-discovery, and forgiveness will captivate fans of contemporary women’s fiction.”   Library Journal

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Ballad of a Thin Man

The Vaults by Toby Ball (St. Martin’s Press; $24.99; 307 pages)

“Something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is.   Do you, Mr. Jones?”   Bob Dylan

Toby Ball’s debut novel starts off with the feel of John Verdon’s excellent debut, Think of a Number.   That’s the good news.   The bad is that Ball’s story is far more complicated, involving more protagonists and characters – perhaps too many.   “The City,” unidentified in The Vaults, may be a windy Chicago or a mean Philadelphia or an old Los Angeles (“The purple light above The City…  And those searchlights beaming from the top of City Hall…”), but it sometimes felt as if Ball was attempting to populate the novel with every one of its inhabitants.

There are three male protagonists, each of whom happens to be accompanied by a female or male partner or colleague, and there are several political, labor and law enforcement officials who have notable roles.   Oh, and I have yet to mention the criminals – guys with names like Blood Whiskers and Otto Samuelson – who become key players.   This reader knows that a story has become complex when he needs to take out the old legal note pad to chart the characters.

Set several decades in the past, The Vaults begins with a criminal records archivist named Puskis, who comes to fear that someone is tampering with the files under his control.   Some of the conviction records contain the notation “PN,” which stands for something unknown to Puskis.   This is where we begin to suspect that corruption is going on in The City run by the power-hungry mayor Red Henry.

Puskis is not alone in his quest to find out what’s going on.   There’s also an investigative newspaper reporter, the well-known Frings, and a P. I. named Poole who smells something wrong as he searches for a missing child.   Puskis collaborates with his predecessor Van Vossen; Poole with his union-based activist and lover Carla; and Frings with his girlfriend and popular jazz singer Nora.   (Together they will learn that PN stands for something known as the Navajo Project – therein lies the tale.)

With all of these figures on-stage and off, I began thinking of Robert Altman’s film Nashville, which had a cast of myriad characters.   As with Nashville, you know here that the characters are going to come together at the story’s resolution.   This is not a surprise and, at about four-fifths of the way through the novel, the reader can see the ending that’s in sight.   The ending was logical, predictable and preordained; not the type of conclusion one would expect in a mystery.

With some mysteries the end is opaque until the final pages, which is perhaps as it should be.   For example, with the sci-fi mystery novel Everything Matters! the author needed not one but two endings to come to a conclusion.   Even then, some found the conclusion discomforting.   I loved Everything Matters! specifically because I didn’t see either ending coming, the fake one or the reprise that constituted the true ending.

Toby Ball has a tremendous imagination, and possesses what appears to be a great deal of knowledge about the criminal justice system.   Because of this, The Vaults is unique and is worth reading.   This reader, however, would love to see Ball’s skills applied the next time around to a tighter-woven and simpler story.   One that feels more natural.   The Vaults sometimes struck me as a type of engineering-as-writing exercise – “If this piece goes here, then this other piece must go there.”

“…it is all chaos.”

Reaching the end of this review, we must come to a conclusion.   We’re rating this novel as Recommended – but with a caution.   Those who like big cinematic stories with a mega-cast of characters are going to be carried away by The Vaults and they’ll enjoy the time they spend in The City.   But those who like smaller stories – micro rather than mega, human scale rather than I-MAX – would be advised to instead pick up a calm and concentrated family novel.

Take Away:  This novel starts off in third gear before moving quickly into fourth and skirting with overdrive.   However, the excitement and originality of the first half of the book was lacking in the second – the latter part seemed to lag in second and first gear.   Overall, more pluses than minuses.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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The Twelve

While The Twelve by William Gladstone seemed slightly reminiscent of Ron Currie, Jr’s excellent Everything Matters!, this is not that book.   As with Everything Matters!, this book deals with a man who knows when “the end of time” will arrive.   Max acquires his knowledge at the age of fifteen when he also sees the names of twelve individuals.   Are these persons, all unknown to him, future apostles?

An interesting setup, but the writing from first-time author William Gladstone leaves much to be desired.   At times, it feels like a children’s book with somewhat squirrely language that explains too much of the obvious:  “Max accepted that wherever he was, he was exactly where he was supposed to be…  he always seemed to be in the right place at the right time…  the idea of making an error never occurred to him.   He expected himself to be perfect in everything he did…  and so he was.”  

Enjoying The Twelve will also require acceptance of many implausible events and the over-use of certain words such as “vivacious.”   Maybe there’s a fine tale buried here, something that a quite talented editor might unearth, but it was simply not for this reader.

Vanguard Press, $19.95, 266 pages

Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.

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A Turbulent Flight

There are certain books that begin with a great premise and a great main character but which are simply unable to deliver on the promise of a well-told story.   This is one of those books.   This 303-page tale of a modern airline traveler loses its interest, its energy and its wings at about the 200-page mark.   From then on, the engines are stalled and the story glides awkwardly to a crash landing on a foam-filled runway.

Up in the Air is the story of Ryan Bingham, a so-called Career Transition Counselor, who is hired to help downsizing companies get rid of employees without having them go postal.   Bingham must be part psychologist, part upward mobility trainer and – to a large part – a fraudulent New Age guru who’s supposed to convince the terminated workers that its all for the best.   Of course, Bingham (who views himself as a type of glorified and special purpose accountant) never has to stick around to view the actual damage – the failed marriages, lost homes and suicides.   He convinces himself that he does more good than harm as he flies every day or two on Great West Airlines circa 2001.

As we meet the not-very-likeable and self-absorbed Bingham, he’s submitted his resignation because he is about to accomplish the main goal of his life.   His primary objective is to be the tenth person in the domestic carrier’s history who has flown 1,000,000 miles without leaving the U.S.   Bingham travels so much that he has no home or apartment, he lives in the thin atmosphere land he calls “Airworld.”

There’s a lot of inside baseball talk that frequent flyers and frequent lodging chain sleepers will find entertaining…   For example, there’s much debate about the merits of Hilton-owned Hampton Inns versus Marriott Courtyards.   Which one is the best base for corporate warriors, and why is it that a traveler feels almost invisible at the larger Marriott and Hilton properties?   (And why is it that frequent travelers come to need Sound Soothers to sleep?)   Bingham also has this marvelous machine called the Hand Star, the apparent precursor of today’s BlackBerry smartphone.

The first problem with Air is the realization that Bingham is the only character that is remotely believable or plausible, and even this is a stretch.   The next problem is that the once-serious story turns into a hybrid science fiction-dark satire two-thirds of the way through its telling.   A lot of paranoia emerges among Bingham and those he encounters, which may mean that he’s gone insane…   Worse, it may signal that this tale was a put-on from page one.

I prefer to think that author Walter Kirn came up with a great start but had no finish.   (Nevertheless, he’s received a very large check from George Clooney’s people who are turning this into the star’s next film.)   Not recommended; simply not worth the time or effort required to get through it.   There’s just no payoff on arrival for frequent readers.

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