Archive for the 'Books' Category

Short takes: ‘The Last Stone,’ ‘Bird Box’ and ‘The Lost Causes of Bleak Creek’

March 27, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
March 27, 2020

Lloyd Lee Welch, the prisoner at the heart of Mark Bowden’s 2019 true crime book The Last Stone, is a repellent figure. A seventh-grade dropout who spent years abusing alcohol and drugs, Welch is a chronic liar who insists that the lengthy sentence he’s serving for child molestation is largely the result of bad luck.

And yet it’s almost impossible to turn away from Welch, a member of an impoverished Southern clan rooted in the Virginia mountains. As an 18-year-old, Welch had spoken to police about what he’d seen on March 25, 1975, at a popular Maryland mall from which 12-year-old Sheila Lyon and her 10-year-old sister, Kate, had vanished. The disappearance, presumably a kidnapping, remained unsolved for more than three and a half decades.

Near the start of The Last Stone, members of the Montgomery County, Md., police department travel to Dover, Del., in the fall of 2013 to speak to the then 56-year-old Welch. Although local police had deemed the information they got from Welch on April 1, 1975, to lack credibility, the county’s cold case squad now wanted to question him about the man with a limp whom he’d reported seeing at Wheaton Plaza on the fateful day. And after some initial evasions, Welch indeed confirmed to questioners that Ray Mileski, a known pedophile and murderer with a permanent leg injury, had been at the mall the day the Lyons were abducted.

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Humanity prepares for a looming life-or-death struggle against a superior foe in Cixin Liu’s ‘The Dark Forest’

March 10, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
March 10, 2020

Author’s note: Beginning in the second paragraph, this post has spoilers for the novel The Three-Body Problem; these were inescapable in discussing the book’s sequel. MEM

Chinese writer Cixin Liu made a splash at home and abroad with his novel The Three-Body Problem, which originally was published in serial form starting in 2006 before appearing in an English-language translation in 2014. The Dark Forest, the second volume in the trilogy, was published in English the following year, with Joel Martinson replacing Ken Liu as translator.

The sequel opens with a prologue set during the action of the first novel but soon forges ahead into new territory. At a moment in the first half of the 21st century, all humanity has been alerted to the threat of the Trisolarans, an advanced alien civilization that evolved around a nearby solar system despite radical temperature swings caused by exposure to the system’s multiple suns. The Trisolarans have launched an invasion fleet; it’s purpose is to eradicate Homo sapiens and install their own species on our very hospitable planet.

Humanity has ample preparation time, since the aliens will need centuries to reach Earth. But that edge is severely blunted because our enemies have sophons. These essentially invisible and massless multidimensional particles allow the Trisolarans to hear or see anything and everything, even though they’re physically separated from Earth by more than four light-years. The sophons, which can hold conversations with willing human collaborators, were responsible for blocking the progress of scientific research in a strange plot that the protagonists of the earlier book were able to uncover.

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Yoko Ogawa’s ‘The Memory Police’ is a simply written novel that limns the ways that people and societies deal with loss

February 26, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
Feb. 26, 2020

The basic premise of Yoko Ogawa’s short allegorical novel The Memory Police is utterly fantastic: On a large unnamed island, possibly part of Okinawa Prefecture, items and concepts vanish at sporadic intervals. But this foundation comes with a nasty twist: A paramilitary organization, the eponymous Memory Police, enforces these disappearances, destroying objects and imprisoning people who perpetuate any reminder that these things once existed or may still exist elsewhere.

Ogawa, in a 2019 translation from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder, renders this story in plain, straightforward prose. Her narrator is an unassuming young writer living in isolation in the home where her late parents raised her. Aside from an unnamed elderly man, the husband of her late nanny, and R, her editor, the writer has no friends; she only rarely talks with her neighbors.

The old man and the local library collect copies of her books, but they arouse no excitement and evidently go unread by anyone other than R. The writer does nothing to draw attention to herself, and she has no sense that anything about her life might be lacking.

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Short takes: ‘The Devil in Silver,’ ‘The Third Lynx,’ ‘Odd Girl Out’ and ‘The Eagle Has Landed’

February 21, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
Feb. 21, 2020

Victor Lavalle’s 2012 novel, The Devil in Silver, begins in the early weeks of 2011 with a large, powerful man named Pepper being committed to Northwest, the psychiatric inpatient unit of the fictitious New Hyde hospital in Queens. Pepper isn’t really crazy; he’s just hot-tempered, and a little socially isolated. Three cops bring him to the hospital because it allows them to bypass an hour or two of unpaid overtime that they’d need to book him in jail for scrapping with them.

The system is hard to escape, Pepper discovers, especially after two altercations indefinitely extend what could have been just a 72-hour stint in the psych ward. He loses two months after being heavily medicated; even when his mind has fought off the drug-induced fog, the 42-year-old professional mover still thinks and moves and talks like an unsteady nonagenarian.

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Short takes: ‘Anvil of Stars’ and ‘Roadside Picnic’

February 5, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
Feb. 5, 2020

I generally try to avoid reading books that are part of a series, because I fear the time and effort it might take to finish the entire cycle. So when I checked out a digital copy of Anvil of Stars, the 1992 science-fiction novel by Greg Bear, it was without knowing that it was part of a duology. And I definitely didn’t realize that it was the back half of the pair.

There was certainly some back story, and presumably some resonance, that I missed due to not having read The Forge of God, the 1987 initial entry in what Fantastic Fiction dubs (simply enough) Bear’s Forge of God series. But I trust that I got enough of the information I needed, especially given that Anvil evidently executes a very different shift in setting and story.

From what I gather, the earlier book — set during or a short while into the future of the time the story was published — chronicled humanity’s first encounter with aliens. The visitors, who mostly take the form of self-replicating needle-shaped vehicles, turn out to be very mean; by the end of the volume, they’ve destroyed Earth.

Fortunately for us, another set of robots is nipping at the heels of the Killers. These represent a set of aliens known as the Benefactors, who save a relatively small group of survivors. Most of these (fortunate?) souls live aboard an Ark orbiting Mars as they wait for the planet to be terraformed into a hospitable environment.

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Short takes: ‘Famous Men who Never Lived’ and ‘Meddling Kids’

January 28, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
Jan. 28, 2020

The New York City that Helen Nash and Vikram Bhatnagar travel through is not the one they knew. The two main characters in K. Chess’s 2019 debut novel, Famous Men Who Never Lived, are UDPs, or universally displaced persons. Their New York City has been destroyed; they are permanently cut off from everyone and every place they ever knew.

The protragonists are among about 160,000 New Yorkers from an alternative timeline who escaped nuclear catastrophe through a sort of one-way dimensional portal. Their timeline diverged from ours about 11 decades ago, in 1910. Some landmarks and neighborhoods in the new New York City are familiar; others are entirely different.

The same is true of the linguistic, political, cultural and technological landscapes for the UDPs. Back home, the refugees used ordinators, not smartphones; a world war in their 20th century saw America besieged by a hostile Latin American power; gay people there were called verts and hadn’t won marriage equality.

It’s no wonder that so many UDPs are lost in the new world — although to be fair, Hel (who plays a more prominent role than Vikram, her lover), didn’t fit in so well back home. She was a cancer surgeon there who’d ceded custody of her son to her ex-husband; here, she’s an unemployed layabout.

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Ted Chiang puts societies to the technological test in his new collection of science fiction stories, ‘Exhalation’

January 27, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
Jan. 27, 2020

Writer Ted Chiang has a relatively slender publication history. His debut book was the 2002 anthology Stories of Your Life; last year, he published a second volume of stories, Exhalation. The website Fantastic Fiction lists the New York native as having stories in four annual genre-fiction anthologies and in 1998’s The Mammoth Book of Fantasy All-Time Greats.

Despite this, Chiang is prominent enough to have merited a 2017 New Yorker profile. This was due in no small part to Arrival, the splendid 2016 Denis Villeneuve movie about first contact with aliens, which is based on the 1999 Hugo and Nebula award–winning novella “The Story of Your Life” from Chiang’s first collection.

I’m happy to report that Chiang’s second book, Exhalation, is full of engaging, thought-provoking tales. The title story is a monograph written by, it soon emerges, a member of a race of robots that breathes not oxygen but argon. “Every day,” it writes near the start of the second paragraph,

we consume two lungs heavy with air; every day we remove the empty ones from our chest and replace them with full ones. If a person is careless and lets his air level run too low, he feels the heaviness of his limbs and the growing need for replenishment. It is exceedingly rare that a person is unable to get at least one replacement lung before his installed pair runs too empty; on those occasions where this has happened — when a person is trapped and unable to move, with no one nearby to assist him — he dies within seconds of his air running out.

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Daniel H. Wilson builds on Michael Crichton’s first technothriller in ‘The Andromeda Evolution’

January 15, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
Jan. 15, 2019 2020

The Andromeda Strain pitted a small team of scientists against a mysterious virus that has killed all but two residents of Piedmont, Ariz. The 1969 Michael Crichton novel culminates in a desperate race against time. Its protagonists exhibit feats of intellectual prowess as well as a few acts of bravery. One might argue that the book is the original technothriller.

The Andromeda Strain inspired a 1971 movie version directed by Robert Wise, who had previously helmed West Side Story and The Sound of Music, and who would later bring Star Trek into the cinema; a miniseries adaptation with Ricky Schroeder and Viola Davis aired in 2008. Given corporate America’s propensity to recycle and reboot ideas, it’s mildly surprising that The Andromeda Strain had mostly lain dormant for years.

Enter The Andromeda Evolution, published late last year, which has Crichton’s name emblazoned on the top third of the cover. Although Crichton is listed first in the book’s author biographies, he seems to have had nothing to do with the plotting or writing of this volume, which is labeled “A novel by Daniel H. Wilson” in much smaller type on the bottom of the cover.

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Michael Crichton and the origins and nature of the technothriller

January 14, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
Jan. 14, 2019 2020

Any history of the technothriller subgenre is bound to include Michael Crichton, the Harvard-trained physician who penned multiple bestsellers and created the hit television drama ER. For the last three decades, Crichton has been best known for his pair of dinosaurs-run-amok novels, Jurassic Park and The Lost World.

The splashiness of Steven Spielberg’s 1993 movie adaptation and its four (!) sequels (not to mention three pinball tables) makes it easy to forget that Crichton’s flair for combining science and thrills has been on display ever since 1969.

That’s the year that Crichton, who died in 2008, published The Andromeda Strain. This story of a research team desperately trying to stop the spread of a mysterious disease was both the first book to appear under Crichton’s own name and his first bestseller. But it represented an important commercial — and dare I say literary — development in its own right.

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Parents just don’t understand the number of the beast in Grady Hendrix’s sprightly horror novel ‘My Best Friend’s Exorcism’

December 13, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 13, 2019

Abby Rivers, the heroine of the comedic horror novel My Best Friend’s Exorcism, bonded with her new classmate Gretchen Lang in December 1982, when they were both fourth graders. The bulk of Grady Hendrix’s 2016 novel takes place during the fall of their sophomore year, in 1988. That gives the author, who seems to have grown up around the same time as his characters, an excuse to reference a whole bunch of 1980s pop culture that many readers may have forgotten, or never known in the first place.

An early chapter about Abby and Gretchen’s budding friendship reminds us, among other things, that Madonna’s early music and the miniseries The Thorn Birds were considered to be very scandalous at the time, at least in certain quarters. That’s not the only appeal to nostalgia here; in a clever touch, each chapter title is borrowed from period pop songs: “The Number of the Beast,” “King of Pain,” “Missionary Man” and so on.

This eighties homage will obviously appeal to members of a certain generation. But that needn’t limit the book’s appeal. Hendrix, a prolific author with a deep love of horror, trashy novels and Asian movies, has crafted an appealing story about teenage friendship that should resonate with people of almost any age.

Gretchen’s sophomore year goes awry shortly after it begins, when she, Abby and their friends Margaret and Glee take tabs of acid over a September weekend at Margaret’s family’s beach house outside Charleston. The drug doesn’t seem to have much effect, but Gretchen wanders off and disappears into the woods until dawn.

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Adventure and intrigue await a small party of climbers at the top of the world in Dan Simmons’s ‘The Abominable’

December 6, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 6, 2019

1924. Europe is recovering — some parts more quickly than others — from the Great War. The world’s highest summit, Mount Everest, has yet to be scaled, although the Royal Geographic Society and other adventurers are keenly interested in doing so. Mountaineering in general is a hazardous endeavor, even as some climbers have begun using bottled air to battle the oxygen deprivation that is endemic at higher altitudes.

Near the beginning of The Abominable, Dan Simmons’s 2013 novel, a 37-year-old English war hero secures backing from the family of a British aristocrat who’s disappeared on the perilous slope. Together with two fellow climbers — Jean-Claude Clairouox, 25, certified by the world’s oldest association of mountain guides, and the narrator, Jacob Perry, 22, a recent Harvard graduate and member of an esteemed Boston clan — Richard Davis Deacon gathers the equipment and expertise that the trio will need to find a body high up on the colossal peak.

“The Deacon,” as his friends call him, wishes to conduct the trip in secrecy in an effort to avoid interference from potential rivals. Deacon has other reasons for the clandestine approach, as Perry and the readers will discover in the course of events. Together with a party of Sherpas, a cousin of the missing Lord Percival Bromley who operates a Darjeeling tea plantation, and a hardy doctor with an unusual background, the climbers confront a variety of antagonists, not least of which is the massive mountain’s challenging terrain and formidable weather.

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Conflict echoes even through decades of peace in Mark Obmascik’s fascinating World War II history ‘The Storm on Our Shores’

December 1, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 1, 2019

Dick Laird was the fifth child born to a dissolute father. Frank Laird’s gambling and drinking led him to squander a modest inheritance. The Lairds moved from one coal town to another during Dick’s childhood, sometimes because there was no work for his father, sometimes because the locals forced the family out.

At age 14, not long after the start of the Great Depression, Dick quit school and went to work in a coal mine. It was a physically punishing way to make a living, assuming one was able to stay in the bosses’ graces and keep a job in the first place. It was also wildly dangerous: In the early 1930s, about one in 340 mine workers were killed on the job.

Laird, as he was widely known, was a strapping lad; at age 18, he was six feet tall and a well-muscled 160 pounds. He would have pursued a career as a boxer had not a doctor discovered a heart murmur that disqualified him from competition. At a buddy’s urging, he decided to join the U.S. Army. In the words of Mark Obmascik, author of the 2019 book The Storm on Our Shores: One Island, Two Soldiers, and the Forgotten Battle of World War II: “Could his odds of being killed in the peacetime Army really be any worse than his 1-in-340 chance at the Powhatan mine?”

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Short takes: ‘Oblivion,’ ‘Redline’ and ‘Lifeforce’

November 9, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
Nov. 9, 2019

One could be forgiven for having forgotten Tom Cruise’s 2013 action vehicle, Oblivion, which sank into — well, you know — seemingly within days of its release. This was somewhat unjust, as the movie turns out to be a pretty zippy science fiction actioner.

Cruise stars as Jack Harper, technician for — tower? sector? something, anyway — No. 49 on post-apocalyptic Earth in 2077. As he explains in the opening narration, humanity has survived an invasion by a mysterious alien race, but only barely. Earth is in shambles, in part because the aliens smashed the moon, causing immense earthquakes and tidal waves, and in part because humans used nuclear weapons, converting vast swathes of the planet into radioactive wastelands.

What’s left of the population has decamped to the Saturnian moon of Titan as massive hovering machines rehabilitate the home planet. Harper and his communications officer/controller, Victoria (Andrea Riseborough, also of Birdman and the Nicholas Cage vehicle Mandy), who have had their memories wiped, help guard massive installations that convert seawater to energy. These facilities and the hovering armed drones that patrol the area are occasionally pestered by scavengers, menacing remnants of the alien force who tend to stick to the shadows.

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Short takes: ‘The Heavens,’ ‘The Psychology of Time Travel’ and ‘The Outpost’

November 5, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
Nov. 5, 2019

Sandra Newman’s The Heavens is classified by the digital media service from which I borrowed it in audiobook form as horror. That’s not particularly accurate; although this 2019 novel has some touches of horror, it also incorporates elements of romance, historical dramas and science fiction.

The variability is fitting, because the main character, Kate, lives multiple lives. In what the people around her very sensibly call reality, Kate is a sweet but feckless twentysomething American artist with Iranian roots. In her dreams, however, she is Emilia, a married young musician of Jewish and Italian extraction with ties to the royal court of a strange preindustrial land called Albion. But she — “she” being both Kate and Emilia — also has dreadful visions of a post-apocalyptic city where nothing stirs but the air. Gradually, the two-faced protagonist comes to feel that her actions may play a role in preventing this augury from occurring.

This is no easy burden to assume, not least because Kate and Emilia don’t know just which actions might stave off disaster. With Albion’s capital stricken by plague, Emilia embarks upon a peripatetic excursion across the land, where she encounters her disaffected former patron, an obscure but aspiring poet and a handsome young lord.

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K.J. Costello returns to lead Stanford to a 41-31 homecoming victory over Arizona

October 28, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
Oct. 28, 2019

K.J. Costello threw for 312 yards and three touchdowns to lead the Stanford football team to a 41-31 win over Arizona on Saturday amid reunion festivities on the Farm.

The Cardinal, who moved to 4-4 overall and 3-3 in the Pac-12, also got outstanding efforts from their most reliable offensive player, redshirt senior running back Cameron Scarlett (two scores and 102 yards on 19 carries), and their emerging star at wide receiver, sophomore Simi Fehoko (two touchdowns and 97 yards on just three catches).

Costello’s 30 completions on 43 throws went to an even dozen players, including himself on a curious play. In all, the offense rolled for 472 yards, a number second this season only to the 482 yards they compiled in their upset victory over Washington.

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Stephen King’s 2015 collection ‘The Bazaar of Bad Dreams’ is a mixed bag

October 14, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
Oct. 14, 2019

It was with no small interest that I began reading The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, Stephen King’s 2015 short story collection. His 1978 anthology, Night Shift, gave me chills when I first read it back in the… well, a long time ago. And I found that it held up just fine when I reread the volume earlier this year.

Unfortunately, The Bazaar of Bad Dreams is a bit of a mixed bag when compared with its predecessor. There are some definite hits here, but also some big whiffs.

King is not just one of the most successful authors alive today; he’s one of the most successful in the history of the world. He’s also a vital presence on social media, especially if you enjoy reading sassy left-wing commentary.

But he often gets in his own way in The Bazaar of Bad Dreams. His introduction struck me as rather silly:

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Sworn enemies exchange love notes in the sci-fi romance ‘This is How You Lose the Time War’

October 12, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
Oct. 12, 2019

This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone is a new novella that offers a science-fictional update on Romeo and Juliet.

The star-crossed lovers here are Red and Blue, specially equipped and trained time warriors. They respectively champion the Agency and Garden, organizations that are attempting to ensure that their and only their timelines — or strands, in the book’s terminology — survive. When Red, a hyper-advanced cyborg, catches the eye of organically inclined Blue, the latter sends a covert message that launches a romance conducted entirely through letters.

These are not letters or messages as you or I might conceive. Here, Red discovers one while embedded in a Mongol army:

Ten years into deep cover, having joined the horde, proven her worth, and achieved the place for which she strove, she feels suited to this war. 

She has suited herself to it. 

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Short takes: ‘The Final Frontier,’ Denis Johnson’s ‘The Largesse of the Sea Maiden’ and Poul Anderson’s ‘Tau Zero’

October 4, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
Oct. 4, 2019

The 2018 book The Final Frontier is a collection of 21 stories that share the topic of deep-space travel. My favorite entry in the book was the final one, which I’d read before: Peter Watts’s “The Island,” which is essentially a three-character narrative.

The tale is set aboard Eriophora, a deep-space vessel that set out millennia ago and whiles away the centuries ceaselessly building a network of teleportation gateways. Each gate empowers not its builders but the offshoots of whatever civilization launched the ship; each one also destroys anything near it, which is among the reasons why the vessel cannot slow or even change course by more than a tiny degree.

The unnamed narrator, like all of her crewmates, is carrying out a limited rebellion against Chimp, the deliberately hobbled artificial intelligence that ruthlessly hews to the ship’s original mission. Make that most of her crewmates — the third player in the story is Dix, the 20-something son she’s never met, who is suspiciously loyal to Eri’s brain.

‘The Final Frontier’ edited by Neil Clarke.

The narrator and Dix are awakened as part of a seemingly random rotation of personnel who shepherd the assembly of each new gate. As so often is the case, there’s a wrinkle, which is precisely why the ship has a crew. Chimp has detected an anomaly and wants to know if it will affect the build. The narrator discovers something amazing, something the AI likely would not have perceived on its own. In the end, though, she finds that her intuition — her uniquely human wisdom — may not be as well geared to comprehending the immensity and variety of the universe and its strange creations as she initially believed.

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Short takes: John Darnielle’s ‘Universal Harvester’ and Kim Stanley Robinson’s ‘2312’

September 1, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
Aug. 31, 2019

The Mountain Goats released their debut record, Sweden, in 1995, and have gone on to make 15 more albums. One of its members is a Durham resident, John Darnielle, who is described in part in his publisher’s biography as “the writer, composer, guitarist, and vocalist for the band.” His first novel, Wolf in White Van, debuted to critical praise in 2015.

Darnielle’s second book, the horror novel Universal Harvester, came out two years later. Genre fans should be aware that this is horror is literary, not lurid; the volume is far more reminiscent of the painting “American Gothic” than, say, a slasher film or the science fiction/horror movies of which I’m fond.

That 1930 work by Grant Wood may well have served as inspiration for the novel, which takes place almost entirely in small Iowa communities. Universal Harvester’s characters are as repressed as the Iowa couple — in reality, a dentist and the artist’s sister; in Wood’s depiction, a farmer and his daughter — that peers out of the canvas.

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A German officer and patriot recalls his service — loyal and otherwise — in the World War II memoir ‘Valkyrie’

August 27, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
Aug. 27, 2019

Philipp Freiherr von Boeselager, born in 1917, was the fourth of eight children of a prominent and monied German Roman Catholic family. He served as a cavalry officer during World War II and was part of an Army cabal that unsuccessfully attempted at least twice to assassinate Adolf Hitler, the Nazi dictator. Boeselager died on May 1, 2008, almost eight months before the release of a Tom Cruise movie about the conspiracy, Valkyrie.

Nearly a year to the day after the former cavalryman’s death, his wartime memoir, also titled Valkyrie, was published in English. The book is subtitled “The Story of the Plot to Kill Hitler, by Its Last Member,” but this turns out to be somewhat misleading: Ewald-Heinrich von Kleist passed away in 2013 at age 90. (In fairness to the publishers, I found at least two Boeselager obituaries calling him the last or “almost certainly the last” surviving plotter.)

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Iain Banks considers the morality of force in his third Culture novel, ‘Use of Weapons’

August 3, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
Aug. 3, 2019

Iain Banks’s 1990 novel, Use of Weapons, is the third entry in his Culture series, which revolves around an immensely advanced human civilization that dominates the galaxy in the far future. Superficially, the subject matter here has more in common with the series’ initial volume, Consider Phlebas, which followed the exploits of Horza, a mercenary fighting on behalf of the Culture’s enemies.

The protagonist this time around is one Cheradenine Zakalwe. Like Horza, the main character of Use of Weapons is a mercenary born into a society outside the Culture. However, Zakalwe generally fights on behalf of the Culture, even if he doesn‘t always understand or agree with its aims.

The book’s core has an interesting structure. Chapters numbered 1 through 14 relate what I think of as the main narrative, detailing Zakalwe’s most recent exploits; they alternate with chapters, counting down from XIII through I, which chronicle earlier parts of Zakalwe’s life. This is sandwiched between several short items: at the front, a song and a prologue; at the end, an epilogue, a poem and a separate epilogue that I initially skipped because I mistook it to be an excerpt from a separate Banks novel. (This last section’s title, “States of War: Prologue,” was not helpful.)

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Short takes: China Miéville’s ‘The Last Days of New Paris’ and Ursula Le Guin’s ‘Nine Lives’

July 31, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
July 31, 2019

I generally try to review each book that I read. Here are two recent ones that fell through the cracks.

The Last Days of New Paris is a 2016 (spins wheel) novella by China Miéville, a London author with a penchant for exotic subjects. The bulk of the narrative is set in 1950 Paris — but this is neither a year nor a city that you or I would recognize.

24-year-old Thibaut, the cynical main character, inhabits a quarantined city divided among Nazis, Resistance fighters, armed Surrealist irregulars and paranormal phenomena. The latter category includes literal devils as well as “manifs,” which are animated works of literature and art that have somehow become tangible.

Amid this chaotic metropolis, Thibault encounters Sam, an American photographer. She claims to be researching a book about the devastated French capital and the weirdness that infests it. Thibaut suspects that his new friend is concealing something, not least because the Germans are hell-bent on killing her.

This is all quite fantastic. Unfortunately, it was challenging to figure out just what was going on in any given scene, let alone in the overall narrative, and I never got invested in either Thibaut or Sam.

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How long is long enough? A very short inquiry into the lengths of works of literature

July 30, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
July 30, 2019

Author’s note: This post briefly refers to concepts of a sexual nature; it also includes a hyperlink to a rather dry 25-page law journal article related to this. Consequently, the post may not be appropriate for all readers. MEM

How does one distinguish among the short story, the novelette, the novella and the novel? In contemplating this question, I was tempted to paraphrase Supreme Court Associate Justice Potter Stewart’s famously nebulous 1964 definition of obscenity: “I know it when I see it.


The open-source educational website Owlcation features a helpful short article that categorically divides these narratives by word count. According to Syed Hunbbel Meer, a Pakistani writer who’s contributed more than 100 articles to the site, a short story ranges from 3,500 to 7,500 words; a novelette, from 7,501 to 17,000 words; a novella, from 17,001 to 40,000 words; and a novel is any piece of fiction that exceeds a novella in length.

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At once frustrating and fascinating, Cixin Liu’s ‘The Three-Body Problem’ explores an outlandish plot against science

July 29, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
July 29, 2019

The Three-Body Problem, Cixin Liu’s fascinating but uneven science-fiction novel, opens in 1967 as internecine battles rage across Beijing. The scene becomes even direr as the author, a Chinese native and former power plant engineer, focuses on an intellectual clash at Tsignhua University, where a physics professor refuses to renounce his scientific approach when called upon to do so before an audience of frenzied revolutionary diehards. China is in the grips of the Cultural Revolution, a period that saw spouses, siblings and friends turn against each other in the name of ideological purity.

By the end of the chapter, which is titled “The Madness Years,” a young physicist named Ye Wenjie has seen a beloved relative killed, partly at the instigation of other family members, and discovered the corpse of a revered mentor. An emotionally devastated Ye is exiled to a remote mountain range in Northeast China, but despite her disinterest in bucking authority, troubles flock to her like moths to a flame.

Salvation of sorts arrives in the book’s third chapter, which sees Ye’s services coopted by administrators at a secret alpine communications facility known as Red Coast Base. When she enters the installation, Ye expects to remain there for the remainder of her life. In fact, the disgraced physicist encounters multiple situations that will shape not just the rest of her existence, but potentially those of her nation, species and planet.

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A family of frustrated science-lovers is caught up in a bizarre disaster in Erika Swyler’s ‘Light from Other Stars’

July 23, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
July 23, 2019

At the opening of Light from Other Stars, Erika Swyler’s 2019 new novel, the main character awakens to birdsong. But this seemingly commonplace occurrence is anything but; not only is Nedda Papas listening a recording of a species that’s been extinct since 1987, she is part of a four-person crew taking a one-way voyage aboard the starship Chawla to establish a colony on a far-flung planet. The mission is critical; without the colony, humanity will be unable to escape a homeworld that’s increasingly being devastated by climate change.

The book’s main action is staged in a very different setting: The (evidently fictitious) town of Easter some 32 years in the past. This community nestled on Florida’s space coast seems like a hamlet typical for its time and location, but the events Swyler chronicles are anything but.

That’s because on the morning of Jan. 28, 1987, a shockwave from the nearby Challenger explosion jostles a highly advanced but all-too-fragile experimental device that Nedda’s father has built in a lab at the local college. As Theo explains to his daughter, the prototype is designed to produce some incredible effects:

“Let’s say I have a bowl of marbles, half red, half white. Red on one side of the bowl, white on the other. Now, you come along and shake up the bowl. Do those marbles stay divided or do they get mixed up?” 

“They mix.” 

“Right. Entropy is you, shaking up the bowl, that progression of things. Entropy is how things move from order to disorder. It’s also one way of thinking about and measuring time.” 

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