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It may surprise some, considering past reviews posted here, that I deigned to read James Lovegrove’s Firefly: Life Signs, his fourth volume in the ongoing Firefly series, but I did.

I haven’t been shy with my disappointment in Lovegrove’s past entries (as seen here and here). In fact, my disappointment was so great that I didn’t even bother to review his third book in the series.

Thing is, though, it’s Firefly. I adore the show, the characters, the setting, the language. I’m a Browncoat for life, so I couldn’t not read it.

The book released just prior to this one, Generations, by Tim Lebbon, was an exceedingly pleasant change from Lovegrove, so it was disappointment layered upon disappointment when I learned that yet another Lovegrove entry was on the schedule. (FYI: the next in the series is not a Lovegrove title so, fingers crossed.)

With all that as prologue, I’m sure you’re asking: Why the hell is he reviewing this one?

The answer is two-fold.

First, Life Signs deals with a crucial bit of the Firefly canon: Inara’s terminal illness. As fans of the show, we knew about this part of Inara Serra’s planned story arc—plans cut short by the show’s abrupt truncation—so a novel that deals with that is worth exploring.

Second, this one wasn’t as bad as Lovegrove’s previous work. In fact, for most of its length, it was quite readable. (If you’re thinking I’m damning him with faint praise, that’s not my intent.)

The book is not without issues, but let me start with what works.

As Lovegrove demonstrated in previous books, he is able to evoke the pattern and rhythm of the Firefly ‘verse without reverting to caricatured patois. Rather than peppering us with g-less gerunds (e.g., fightin’ and stealin’), he leans more on the syntax and the language, which makes the dialog—and there’s a lot of it—much more readable. Once we read a few phrases like “I reckon . . .” and “Seeing as how . . .”, the g-less gerunds follow without us having to stumble over all those apostrophes. In other words, here, less is definitely more.

Moreover, his dialogue is exceptionally well-paced, which is good because, as stated, there’s a lot of it. Lovegrove successfully runs scenes of banter between three or four characters with ease, giving us just enough clues as to keep us straight on who’s talking without slowing things down. And though (once again) we have someone monologuing in the midst of a crucial action scene, this time it occurs during a brief lull so, while it’s not the optimal time for someone to explain their backstory, at least it’s not with bullets are whizzing by their heads.

The plot, while wholly improbable—and let’s face it, if you have an issue with improbable plotlines, you’re not a Browncoat anyway—is also straightforward: Inara is sick, and terminally so, but there’s a sketchy doctor who might be able to help, only, ruh-roh, he’s been incarcerated on a prison planet. (I’m not telling you anything that isn’t in the publisher’s blurb.) As expected, hijinks ensue.

The characters—canon and new—are pleasantly fleshed out. With the established characters, Lovegrove goes beyond what the series established, developing them and giving us emotional content that simply must be there, given the plot. (In this, I feel for the bind any author of these books must be in; the novels take place between the Firefly series and the movie Serenity, so with those as bookends, there’s only so much you can do.) For the characters specific to this novel, Lovegrove gives us sufficient context to understand the why of their actions, which was also a nice surprise.

However . . .

I’ve complained of this before, but Lovegrove is not great at world-building. I admit, it’s a pet peeve of mine, and it will not bother many (possibly most), but when (on the first half-page) I read of an alien world that has cicadas singing in the mesquite trees, well, that just seems a tad lazy to me. Even if we stipulate that it was a barren rock that’s been terraformed, who in their right mind is going to bring mesquite seeds and cicada larvae across interstellar space? This laziness permeates the book as much as any of his others. [sigh]

Past the first few pages, though, Lovegrove hit his stride, and I sped through the book. Some of this was illusory, however, as most of the chapters were only two or three pages long, meaning that, with a half-page for chapter header and a half-page (or more) for break to the next chapter, there’s a lot of white space in the book. Well, it’s one way to make your book a page-turner, I guess.

There are clunky bits of writing, mostly due to his use of adverbs. I’m not averse to using adverbs, in general, but Lovegrove often commits Classic Error #2, using esoteric or tongue-tying adverbs. Mostly, it’s fine, but when I hit three words like “despairingly,” “understandingly,” and “languorously” within a single chapter (did I mention how short most of the chapters are?), my mental Adverb-Overload switch flips and I need to put the book down until I reset.

Sadly, though, it’s in the climactic final sequence where Lovegrove (as usual) face-plants. If this was a one-off issue, I would grimace, make mention, and move on, as I did in previous reviews of his work, but this has now happened in every Lovegrove book in the series: to wit, he shows either a stunning disregard or an unforgivable ignorance of how things work, whether it be scientifically*, practically**, or (in this case) both. I mean come on! Doesn’t Titan Books hire editors? Shameful, mostly because they are fixable errors.

In summary, did I like it?

It’s a quick and mostly fun read with a stumbling start and a flawed finish that deals with a crucial part in the life of a beloved Firefly character, so . . . yes, I liked it, in spite of itself. And I will grudgingly (see? adverbs) recommend it to fans of the Firefly ‘verse. It has the standard Lovegrove issues, but it did pull me in for most of its length and, at times, touched my heart.

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*Newtonian physics and the laws concerning conservation of kinetic energy are tossed out the airlock as Lovegrove misapplies the Kessler syndrome (which deals with space debris travelling at high speeds in low-Earth orbit) to pieces of space junk that are stationary relative to one another. A nudge from Serenity on one rather small piece of space junk would not cause a cascade that makes every other piece of space junk, including much larger pieces of junk, to fly about like billiard balls on a pool table.

**In every aircraft (and, presumably, spacecraft capable of atmospheric flight), the steering yoke adjusts roll and pitch, the rudder pedals control yaw, and the throttle controls the thrust. Anyone who has flown a plane, played a flight simulator, or hell, just been relatively observant when watching film of someone doing the same, knows that if you pull back on the yoke, the plane goes up, and if you push it forward, the plane goes into a dive. In no aircraft does pushing forward on the yoke make it go faster; that’s the throttle. Different thing. Again, where are the editors here?

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As I mentioned a while ago, my mind is once again calm enough to allow me the enjoyment of reading fiction. In fact, I’ve read four novels in the past few weeks, which is about three more than I read in all of 2019.

Seriously. It was that bad.

The first books had been in my TBR pile for a while, but this latest one was a recent arrival, and it was a serious break from the “literary” works I’ve been reading. Written by Tim Lebbon, Generations is not only science fiction, but (gasp!) a television “tie-in” novel, the fourth novel set in the Firefly ‘verse.

The previous titles in this series, all written by a different author, were (to put it mildly) a tremendous disappointment. I reviewed the first two (here and here), but frankly, I didn’t see the point in bothering you with a review of the third one, so I read it and tossed it aside.

Seriously, they were that bad. (more…)

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Leonardo da Vinci has fascinated me for a very long time, so when I learned of Walter Isaacson’s biography of the quintessential Renaissance Man, I snapped it up. The hardcover edition is a hefty tome, not merely by virtue of its 624 pages, but also because of the heavy coated paper, employed to better display the many color plates and illustrations that are scattered throughout the book.

Isaacson’s analysis of Leonardo’s life, personality, virtues, and faults, is engagingly warm and human, bringing the deified icon of the Italian Renaissance back down to earth. That Leonardo was a genius is not in dispute—his wide-ranging expertise on everything from anatomy to optics to engineering to painting to architecture provide ample proof of his genius—but he was a flawed one, given to bouts of vanity, arrogance, self-doubt, and impatience. His reputation as a master of science and art was matched by his reputation for failure: commissions repeatedly went unfinished, and projects dragged on and on until patrons found someone else to fulfill their needs. (more…)

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My life and my brain have calmed enough that, for the first time in a long time, I was able to finish reading a book. I’d picked up a dozen or so in the last year, but either they were uninteresting (a lot of titles about adolescent angst…what’s up with that?) or I found them annoying (like this one). After so many failed attempts among the offerings of current fiction, I decided to try something that wasn’t waiting in my TBR pile.

The question was: What?

Fate intervened, and tossed a title my way. Bang the Drum Slowly is a title I’d been aware of, but never read. I am not a big sports fan — oh, I watch the Seahawks and I enjoy a baseball game, but I don’t follow any of it — so Mark Harris’s book about a mediocre catcher who is diagnosed with Hodgkin’s during a pennant race wasn’t high on my list. But a stray mention of it as a prime example of mid-20th century fiction caught my eye, and I figured, what the hell, give it a chance. It couldn’t be worse than some of the others I’d started this year.

What I found was something I did not expect: a unique voice and structure. Well, unique in my reading experience, anyway.

(more…)

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As regular readers know, I have what I call The 40-Page Dropkick Rule. When I begin reading a book, it has forty pages to grab me, draw me in, and make me want to keep reading. For exceptionally long books, the forty page limit can be extended to fifty, sometimes eighty. Regardless the limit, if I’m not hooked by that time, the book gets tossed aside.

I created this rule because, growing up, I had a hard time putting down a book, even if I wasn’t enjoying it. It took me six months to finally finish The Agony and the Ecstasy, a book I might very well enjoy now but, when I was sixteen, it really was a slog.

Six months! One book! That’s a long time, time during which I might easily have read several other books if I’d just allowed myself to put Mr. Stone’s opus to the side. But I couldn’t. With my completionist nature, my overriding urge to “see the job through,” I couldn’t not finish the book. As years passed, my self-confidence helped me override these urges, and thus was born my 40-Page Dropkick Rule.

Once in a while, though, a book passes the Dropkick limit, only to falter farther along. Such was my experience of The Goldfinch, the Pulitzer Prize winner by Donna Tartt. (more…)

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Book lovers never die; they just get carried away by a story.”

Stack of BooksYou may never have heard of her, but in the publishing world, Harriet Klausner was legendary.

This week, she passed away, aged only 63.

Harriet Klausner was the uncontested Queen of Book Reviews. A speed reader who easily consumed four to six novels a day, she was (and remains) Amazon’s #1 Hall of Fame reviewer, with over 31,000 reviews to her credit.

In 2006 (when she had only written around 13,000 reviews), Time Magazine listed her as one of the year’s most influential people. “Klausner is part of a quiet revolution in the way American taste gets made.”

Indeed. (more…)

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Recently, Roger Sutton (editor-in-chief of The Horn Book, a magazine that reviews children’s and YA books), declared in an open letter to self-published authors his reasons for not reviewing self-published books. The next day, Ron Charles (editor of The Washington Post’s Book World) picked up Sutton’s commentary for an article and interview, adding his own two cents of support at the end. Other editors and reviewers chimed in, echoing the comments and sentiments of both.

A few hours later, the self-publishing universe achieved critical mass and exploded.

Unfortunately, most folks involved in that explosion didn’t bother to read Sutton’s letter or the WP article. They just heard that their books had been interdicted, and that was enough send them into orbit.

Which illustrates a huge part of the problem: Self-published authors don’t understand the industry.

(more…)

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