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Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Lives of Tao by Wes Chu

I'll bet that Wes Chu's life motto isn't YOLO ("You Only Live Once"). In The Lives of Tao, the title character is a very old, somewhat snarky alien who has been stranded on earth for generations. Tao and his fellow aliens crash landed here many years ago and they can only survive in host bodies. When the host dies, they must move on and Tao has moved on many, many times.

The book opens with a bang, literally, as Tao and his host are in a spy-vs-spy caper that goes wrong. Bullets are flying and Edward, Tao's host, makes the ultimate sacrifice in a dive off the John Hancock building. Edward's body doesn't survive, but Tao lives on.

Tao doesn't have time to be too picky in selecting a new host and he settles into the body of Roen, an overweight, not overly ambitious IT technician. Now Roen has a voice in his head and a world of trouble headed his way.

The Lives of Tao is a fun romp. Combining the action of a James Bond movie with a secret history of the world worthy of it's own subdivision of the X-files, Tao and a cast of aliens and humans work to whip Roen into the shape he'll need in his new role as soldier/secret agent/spy. Because, you see, there are two factions of aliens and they're at war.

In a way, The Lives of Tao, is kind of the ultimate self-improvement book. Roen has to get fit or die. There's a lot he has to learn. Tao may live forever, but Roen's survival is always in doubt. In a way Wes Chu might have done too good a job in casting Roen as a hapless every man, I found the other characters, especially Tao, more compelling. But Roen improves as the book goes on and I found myself rooting for him.

The hidden history that gets revealed in The Lives of Tao is clever and sometimes teasingly referenced. The book doesn't get bogged down in heavy details, it blasts along as an adventure, the kind of thing that would make a fun summer movie, the kind that leaves the door open to host of sequels. I have no idea if The Lives of Tao will ever be seen on a movie screen (it should!) but that sequel book is already in the works.

There's no need to YOLO. You can have more fun and action than can fit in one life. The Lives of Tao is a complete story with heroes and villains, life and love and non-stop action. But Wes Chu has more to tell us about The Lives of Tao and that's a good thing.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Nexus by Ramez Naam

Ramez Naam astounded me with Nexus. In this novel Naam has not only extrapolated a very believable, very frightening, future world, he has populated his creation with interesting characters who don't just talk or info-dump to each other. They think, they feel, they doubt. Through these people, Naam tells one hell of a story.

Naam knows how to hook a reader. Consider this opening:




Friday 2040.02.17 : 2255 hours

The woman who called herself Samantha Cataranes climbed out of the cab and walked towards the house on 23rd Street.


The chapter title is definitely intriguing, the timestamp says "yeah, we're in the future here and by the way, we're on military time." And why exactly is this woman "calling herself" Samantha Cataranes?

A good writer tells a tale that draws the reader forward page by page and Ramez Naam is more than a good writer, he's a great writer. That's what surprised me. It's not that the writing is flashy, it's that the story telling is superb.

The story is one of consequence. In the future, people are augmented. Contact lenses are computer displays. Soldiers have genetically enhanced muscles and reflexes. Some people have developed a drug called Nexus that enables a kind of brain to brain techno-telepathic linkage. Nexus is illegal and the next generation of Nexus, Nexus 5, is extremely illegal, very sought after and very powerful. Because Nexus 5 lets the people run software in their heads.

Kaden Lane is a young scientist working on Nexus and the woman who calls herself Samantha Cataranes is working for people very interested in his work. And things get very interesting, very fast.

In describing Nexus as a novel, it's tempting to compare Naam's work to that of other, more established novelists. The book has the pace and technical depth of a Michael Crichton novel but in my opinion Naam does a better job with his characters. Ironically, despite their augmentation, they come off as very human.

The world of Nexus is slick and dark and paranoid, like the worlds described by folks like William Gibson or Cory Doctorow but even paranoids have enemies. Nexus is a very philosophical novel that is also a non-stop thrill ride. Naam manages to write believable gun fights and surprising effective scenes of software debugging and computer hacking. It's a neat trick. He has written an action thriller with a strong mental element and some very heroic Buddhist monks.

Nexus is Naam's first novel, but it reads like something written by a wise, assured master at the top of his game. Perhaps Naam himself has had an upgrade? Or maybe he's just amazingly talented and smart enough to learn from other great writers. In any case, I've got one inexpensive, legal prescription for anyone looking to upgrade their brain with a smart thriller that will make you think: Nexus.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

NOS4A2 by Joe Hill

I am a big Joe Hill fan. His previous novels, Horns and Heart-Shaped Box, proved that Joe is a masterful writer who creates not just great, pulse-pounding stories, but characters whose lives and deaths are really something the reader cares about. Those first two novels made me put Joe's latest, NOS4A2, on my "deliver to my Kindle the instant it's available" list. This was a very wise move on my part.

I'm not going to spend a lot of time recounting the plot of NOS4A2, there are plenty of summations of the story on Amazon and elsewhere. I will say that I found this tale of terror to be perfectly paced. At over 700 pages, it's a big book but it doesn't feel at all bloated. It's big and powerful and scary as hell, much like an old Rolls Royce Wraith being is driven by dead man.

Like all of Joe's books, it is the characters and pitch perfect dialog that make you buy into the fantastic world where the dead don't stay dead, evil smells like gingerbread and scrabble tiles can give you answers but never proper names. The good folks are flawed and the evil-doers have their own seductive logic to justify their actions and I am so glad I went along for this dark and wonderful ride.

It is a very rare thing that I find a book so good I buy it twice, but NOS4A2 is such a beast. After scarfing through the Kindle version, I saw the hardcover in the bookstore. The end pages and illustrations are both lovely and horrifying. And the final afterword, including a "Note on the Type" not included in the e-book, add an extra level of unease to a very haunting tale.