My Cultural Diet

Quick reviews of movies, TV shows, books, restaurants, etc., as I enjoy them. My own private Goodreads, Letterboxd, and Yelp all rolled into one (more info here). Ratings are 100% subjective, non-scientific, and subject to change. May contain affiliate links. 

Like Andy Weir (Project Hail Mary, The Martian), Blake Crouch writes sci-fi that’s intellectually stimulating thanks to the science involved, but at the same time, real page-turners. (I think I read Upgrade in two days, total.) That said, Upgrade may have been too much of a page-turner; it felt perfunctory given the heady topic involved (genetic engineering). As for the ending, I get why Crouch wanted to end the novel on an optimistic note, but it rang a bit false to me and left a bad taste in my mouth.
The High King by Lloyd Alexander (The Chronicles of Prydain, Book Five)
The final book in Alexander’s Prydain series. Elegant storytelling steeped in Welsh mythology. What strikes me the most is how elegiac and melancholy it is, from the various sacrifices that each main character has to make, to the bittersweet ending. And it’s all the better because of it. It affected me as an adult; I can only imagine how it would’ve affected me had I read it as a kid.
The Sandman: The Dream Hunters by Neil Gaiman and Yoshitaka Amano
Allegedly based on a classic Japanese folk tale, Gaiman’s story is a joy to read. Even better, though, is Amano’s incredibly lush and vivid artwork. His dreamlike imagery is a perfect match for Gaiman’s prose.
Blackout is billed as a “gripping WW2 thriller,” but while I enjoyed it well enough and found its Nazi Germany setting interesting, I wouldn’t exactly call it “gripping.” It moves at a brisk pace but I was never on the edge of my seat. What’s more, the protagonist’s angst — to be fair, he’s in a pretty unenviable position — and stricken conscience both become rather on-the-nose by the novel’s final act.
Given that it’s basically a Lovecraftian spy thriller, I expected to like this a lot more than I actually did. However, the nonstop snarky tone got tedious after awhile, as did all of the spy lingo and technobabble. There are apparently a dozen novels in Charles Stross’ Laundry Files series, plus various novellas and spin-offs. But I’m good after just this one.
Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Curse of Chalion is one of my favorite fantasy novels of all time. This novella is set in the same world, though a century earlier. It’s a nice return to the World of the Five Gods, but does pale in comparison to Bujold’s novels set in that mythical world.
While reading this psychological thriller about a mother who’s concerned about her daughter’s bizarre behavior, I kept waiting for it all to come together. But after I finished reading it and described it to my wife, the more preposterous and nonsensical it seemed, including the twist in the final pages. You know how some things are greater than the sum of their parts? This is the opposite of that.
The Broken God by David Zindell (A Requiem for Homo Sapiens, Book One)
David Zindell’s Neverness is one of the more interesting sci-fi novels I’ve ever read, and The Broken God picks up where it left off. Zindell’s prose is often breathtakingly beautiful and his world building is ambitious but he’s also prone to heady philosophizing and meandering narratives that can pretentious.
The Wounded Sky by Diane Duane
I love this utterly bizarre and super-metaphysical Star Trek novel in which the Enterprise uses an experimental engine built by a singing glass spider to travel to another universe where there’s no entropy, the crew’s thoughts all start to run together, and a proto-god threatens both universes. Written way back in 1983, it feels unique and blissfully free of any franchise “baggage.” (Read my review)
This collection of short stories and novellas isn’t necessary reading if you enjoyed the Expanse novels, but it does flesh out some of the characters, both main and secondary. I think my favorite story was probably “The Churn,” a dark and disturbing tale from Amos Burton’s younger days, followed by “The Vital Abyss,” which explores Paolo Cortázar’s research into the alien protomolecule.
Taran Wanderer by Lloyd Alexander (The Chronicles of Prydain, Book Four)
I’ve been slowly making my way through Alexander’s Prydain series over the last year or so. I never read them as a kid, but given how much I like them as an adult, I think 11-year-old Jason would’ve loved them. This book, in particular, contained some poignant ruminations on honor, duty, and freedom.
Well, Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck pulled it off. After nine books, they wrapped up The Expanse in a way that’s both very fitting and rewarding, but also leaves behind some interesting ethical/philosophical questions about the character’s actions. And I appreciate how the book jumps back and forth between cynicism and optimism concerning humanity right up until the final pages.
These books just keep getting better and better. The invasion of Laconia was thrilling, there were several moments that practically had me cheering, and though some of the revelations could be seen coming from a mile away, they were no less enjoyable for that. I also loved the vivid imagery used to describe the various weird alien phenomena. Can’t wait to dive into the final book.
Set in the distant future à la Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun, The Pastel City jumps back and forth between sci-fi and fantasy with a pulp-y style. As a fan of both Wolfe’s stories and Michael Moorcock’s Elric saga, The Pastel City hit a sort of weird sweet spot for me.
The thirty-year time jump took a little getting used to, but the updated character relationships and revelations of the Laconian Empire made up for it. Given that I watched The Expanse before reading the novels, it was nice to finally start reading a story that I hadn’t already seen in some way, shape, or form.
Always interesting to compare these books to the TV series, especially re. character changes. Perhaps the best example is Michio Pa, who’s the basis for TV’s Camina Drummer. Also, Marco Inaros is just one of those characters that you love to hate. I’m consistently impressed with Corey’s ability to balance the horrors of war with an underlying optimism.
Nemesis Games by James S. A. Corey (The Expanse, Book Five)
This Expanse novel takes a break from the vast space opera/alien stuff to focus on individual stories for each of the Rocinante’s crew. Amos Burton is one of my favorite Expanse characters and I liked his story the best.
Pretty much what I’ve come to expect from Scalzi: nothing earth-shattering, but light, clever, and very entertaining nevertheless. (I finished it in less than two days.) He likens the novel to a fun pop song, which is pretty accurate.