#Review: MJ-12: ENDGAME, by Michael J. Martinez

510yHfinWeL._SX314_BO1,204,203,200_The usual set of disclaimers before I review any Michael J. Martinez book:  I’ve reviewed nearly everything he’s written on this blog somewhere, and not only did he thank me by name in the afterword of one of his earlier books, my review of MJ-12: Shadows is actually excerpted inside MJ-12: Endgame.  On top of that, he was nice enough to provide a book blurb for Tales: The Benevolence Archives, Vol. 3which I have featured right on the front cover.  I’ve never met the guy but if I ever do he’s gonna get a hug and there’s nothing he can do about it.

(Well, okay, there probably is.  But I’m hoping the police don’t get involved.)

Now, that said: I bought this book all by myself with my own money on purpose and there is no universe where I’m gonna write a fake positive review just to curry favor.  If I hadn’t liked it, I’d just never mention reading it on the site.

We good?  Okay.

One way or another it probably won’t surprise you to learn that I really liked this book.  MJ-12: ENDGAME is the third and final book in the MJ-12 trilogy, an alternative history book about CIA spies with superhuman powers (called Variants in this series) during the Cold War.  As usual, the premise all by itself earns the book a read for me, and this particular novel begins with the death of Stalin in 1952 and basically covers the CIA’s machinations to make sure that the head of Stalin’s secret police, Lavrentiy Beria (go ahead, click the link, I’d only barely heard of him too,) doesn’t end up in charge of the USSR.

Only, minor twist: Beria is a Variant, and can sorta shoot flames out of his hands, and he’s also in control of the Soviet Union’s still-very-much-a-secret Variant program.  MJ-12: Shadows sent me to Wikipedia to check up on stuff after I read it.  Endgame had me doing research damn near immediately, because I wanted to make sure the minimal stuff I remember from the couple of books about Stalin I’ve read was mostly accurate.

So you can read Endgame on a bunch of levels.  If you’re a history buff, you’ll enjoy it because the Cold War is interesting enough on its own and the Soviet Union immediately post-Stalin was, uh, a bit more volatile than most of the time.  If you like spy novels, you’ll get a great old-school spycraft novel, only with people with superhuman abilities instead of James Bond-style fancy gadgets.  And if you like superheroes, well, you won’t exactly get superheroes per se– these folks are spies, with all the moral gray areas that implies, and some of them make some, uh, rather cold decisions over the course of the book– but the range of powers Martinez’ characters have and the various drawbacks and limitations of those powers are fascinating.  There’s a great balancing act going on in this book– there are a lot of characters, and while the book does a decent act of standing on its own I’d strongly recommend reading the first two first, because there are so many moving pieces, such as an entire subplot going on involving the Korean War.  The end result is an elegantly-written, complex novel that still manages to clock in at just barely over 300 pages.  There’s not a wasted page anywhere in this book, guys; it’s that well-done.

My only complaint?  I want more, and while Martinez doesn’t exactly tie the universe up with a bow on it the ending makes it clear that while there is definitely space for future books in this universe they will take place in an entirely different status quo.  That said, this series is radically different in tone and genre from the Daedalus series, Mike’s previous trilogy, and I genuinely can’t wait to see what he’s got coming next.

All available stars; would read again; you should go read now.

I been readin’: some reviewlets

4169sZXxF0L._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_I spent a lot of time reading this weekend, which is the best way to spend a weekend; I managed to read two complete books cover to cover basically before even getting into the shower yesterday, and knocked out another one this afternoon.  I know I keep saying it, but it’s nice not working weekends.  I didn’t even put my watch on today!  That’s how awesome this weekend has been.

At any rate, seeing as how I really enjoyed all four of the books I’ve finished, but I don’t want to write four full book review posts, y’all get some quick reviewlets instead of a solid week of book posts.

We’ll start with Into the Drowning Deep, by Mira Grant, who is also Seanan McGuire.  I’m a big goddamn fan; I know I’ve talked about her under both pen names around here repeatedly, so I’ll cut to the chase on this one: it’s her best book.  ITDD is kind of a book designed to push my buttons in a lot of ways; all of the characters are scientists (and damn near all of them are women scientists, which is even better) and the book is a great mix of research-intensive oceanographic geekery, cryptid speculation, and gut-wrenching horror.  It takes a lot for a book to scare me, to the point where I can only recall praising one book in the past for how scary it is.  This is right up there.  It’s also insanely movie-friendly.   I want to see this movie on the big screen so bad I can taste it, and some Hollywood bastard needs to shovel a ton of money at Seanan and get this on screen now.

410o6yuEykL._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_ My love for Tor.com’s novella line continues to grow with every book they release.  I have damn near an entire shelf of them by now, and I’m at the point where I’m putting them on my Amazon wish list the second I find out about them regardless of who the author is or the subject matter.  That said, P. Djèli Clark’s The Black God’s Drums is a perfect exemplar of what I love about the line: an author I’ve never heard of (I have found so many good authors through these novellas!) writing an alt-history featuring characters that are generally underrepresented in genre literature.  In this case, the book is set in an antebellum, independent New Orleans, in an America that is split into at least three or four different factions, with airships and steampunk and, oh, right, orisha magic.  The main character, a young girl named Creeper, is possessed by Oya, an African god of wind and storms, and occasionally is able to manifest magic powers.

Oh, and there are nuns who are basically spymasters, which kinda rocks.

51UnBCky8WL._AC_US436_QL65_I have actually already read most of Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins mysteries, but it’s been a really long time and I’ve been slowly working my way through his books over the course of this year.  This is the third one I’ve read and the second of the Rawlins mysteries.  It’s weird; the last time I read a lot of Mosley was in college, and for years I’ve been telling people that he was an author where I was really fond of his sentences and paragraphs but that I didn’t necessarily love his books.

College Luther was kinda dumb, I guess.  Or he was half right, at least, since Mosley remains a brilliant craftsman as far as the beauty of his writing goes, but I really wasn’t giving his skills with plot and story enough credit.  I’ve been enjoying these books much more on the second pass-through than I did when I first read them, and even back then I recognized how good the guy was.  There will be more Mosley to come this year, that’s for sure.

81LZP9WQ7yL-1I encountered Ismail Kadare’s The Traitor’s Niche through Twitter, and specifically through my friend Anne Leonard, who Tweeted out a link to this New York Times profile of the book.  It caught my interest as well, and when Barnes and Noble actually had the damn thing when we popped in on Saturday I took it as a sign and bought it.  Kadare’s book is the one I’m most conflicted about out of everything I read this weekend, mostly because I feel like I didn’t quite get everything that was going on: the book was written in 1978, and only recently translated into English, and while it’s supposedly about the nineteenth-century Ottoman Empire, it’s actually about Albania in the 1970s.  Albania in the 1970s was a client state of Russia and controlled by a dictator.  This is therefore not only literally translated from the Albanian it was written in, but is metaphorically complicated as well; the book demands to be read on a couple of different levels and the simple fact is that I’m not in possession of the necessary background knowledge (I just told you everything I know about Albania) to be able to read the book with the understanding and background knowledge that it probably deserves.  I four-starred it on Goodreads, but it could have been a five and it might end up in my 10-best list at the end of the year anyway.  It’s just kind of a rough book to form a snap opinion on.

What’s it about?  Severed heads.

Just trust me.  🙂

A slightly unfair early review of my new Chromebook

Chromebook-15_gallery_03Eh.  It’s fine.

Okay, I can probably come up with more to say than that– since I was specifically asked in comments yesterday to provide my thoughts on the new toy, and since hell if I know what else I might blog about tonight otherwise.  I’m going to be spending a lot of time this year messing around with, learning, and teaching Google tools (along with a lot of other stuff) and it didn’t take a whole lot of effort to talk myself into buying a Chromebook so that I can see what Google’s tools look like on hardware Google crafted especially for them.  Plus I got paid $200 for the training I was at over the last couple of days, so I figure that paid for the computer.  Yes: I bought a laptop that cost $200.  The point of Chromebooks is that they’re supposed to be cheap, and while my easily-available options ranged up to $750 and I actually looked pretty hard at one in the $450 range, I did actually end up buying the second-least-expensive one I could.  It’s an Acer Chromebook 15, and not the one that’s a two-in-one and can be folded into a tablet and that comes with a nicer screen.  The tablet mode is utterly useless to me and I don’t need a high-def screen for something that will be used purely to handle non-computing-intensive, non-video-related tasks.  The one I bought supposedly has a touchscreen; I have not touched it and it’s entirely possible that I never will.  I don’t know why a laptop would have a touchscreen and I don’t want one.

However: in general, I’m pretty pleased with it despite the lack of enthusiasm in the first paragraph.  The monitor is huge, the laptop is reasonably light, and most importantly after eight hours of basically constant use today the battery was still at 70%, which impressed me, particularly since working on documents that other people are editing at the same time has been murdering the battery on my Macbook Pro.  The keyboard isn’t all that much different in responsiveness and feel than my Macbook (which surprised me; I’m picky about keyboards) and in general the build quality feels pretty nice for something I only dropped $200 for.  I would expect it to be built from cardboard at that price.  I have some concerns about the power supply– the plug that actually goes into the laptop feels kinda dodgy– but I noticed no other obvious issues in a day of pounding on the thing.  It could definitely be a bit faster, but again: $200.  If you’re deeply or exclusively tied into the Google ecosystem, you could do worse than this little machine to navigate through your day.

If I hate it in a week, I’ll make sure to let y’all know.

#REVIEW: THE OUTSIDER, by Stephen King

9781501180989_p0_v4_s550x406I didn’t want to buy or read this book at first.  That’s not my normal approach with Stephen King; the man has written approximately 5000 books, but I have damn near all of them.  I can only bring two of his books to mind that I know exist and have not read yet: his novel about the Kennedy assassination, which rubbed me wrong from the beginning and which I never started, and the third of his three Finders Keepers books, which I cannot explain why I have not read yet.  I’m gonna get to it eventually!  I promise!

So, yeah: I’m a fan.  I have been a fan since I was, I dunno, however old I was when Misery came out and I found my grandmother’s copy when staying the night at her house and managed to read most of it before she realized what I was doing.  Honestly I don’t remember if anyone tried to stop me or not, but it wouldn’t have done any good if they had; nobody was ever any good at keeping books away from me.

But I didn’t want to read this book.  The main reason?  The premise, as explained by most of the pre-release stuff, is white dude is accused of heinous sexual assault, turns out to be innocent.  And if I’m being honest, white dude turns out to not be a sexual abuser after all! is not really something I’m super interested in reading about too much right now.  There are entirely too many white men getting away with sexual assault and rape right now– some of them being elected fucking president, no less– just put me off the book for several weeks.  My wife read it in the meantime, and told me to go ahead and read it anyway, and I did.

Which was the right call, because once I started The Outsider I had the damn thing finished in two days– a hundred pages the first night, another hundred the second, and then I picked it up when I got home from work yesterday and didn’t put it down until I was done with it.  And it’s a big damn book.  Stephen King, after all.  The reason I wrote such a short post last night?  I got caught up in reading and didn’t want to put the book down to write a post.

So, a couple of things: this is King’s darkest work in years, if not in his career, to the point where I’m not even sure right now what I’d suggest its closest competition is.  The book begins with a man being arrested for an absolutely heinous act of rape, sexual torture, and murder, and despite his innocence being such a plot point that I can’t even honestly call it a spoiler to mention it, the book keeps you wondering what the fuck is going on anyway, and then at about the 200-page mark it throws a massive curveball at you and runs off to be an entirely different book than the police procedural you thought you started with.  And even before that curveball, King does an outstanding job of whipsawing you back and forth between this man is absolutely guilty and this man cannot possibly be guilty, sometimes in the same chapter, and the cops don’t always make great decisions on how to prosecute the case and when the book finally does tie everything together and explain what’s going on I feel like it earned its ending in a way a lot of books– including a handful of other King books– really don’t.

This is also his scariest book in a long, long time.  I will admit that being the father of a young son didn’t exactly help me with that, and if you aren’t a parent your mileage may vary a bit.

One gripe, though: I have always thought that one of Stephen King’s greatest gifts as an author was his ear for voice and for dialogue, which makes it weird that this book has such really weak dialogue throughout.  There are so, so many sentences in this book that no human being has ever uttered before and never will.  He does this thing at the end where he sort of thanks the people of Oklahoma and says that if he got anything wrong, he’s sorry?  And I feel like maybe he’s doing this weird thing where he’s trying to capture something he thinks is Oklahoma Folksy and instead he’s landing on Abraham Simpson:

This is especially bad in the earliest parts of the book, where a fair part of the text is interview transcripts, meaning that they’re nothing but dialogue and people telling stories.  The various cops in the book generally aren’t prone to rambling, but any time someone else is talking– again, especially in that early part?  God.

But yeah.  If you can push past that one rather notable weakness, this is excellent King and a great recovery from Sleeping Beauties, which I didn’t really like much at first and has not climbed in my estimation since then.