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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.

k

*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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For most of my life, if I was awake, I had a book in my hand.

Riding the bus, walking to school, in the quad between classes, lounging at home, I’d have a book open, thumb in the crease, my nose buried in its leaves. Novels, anthologies, treatises, memoirs, history, science, poetry.

Anything.

Everything.

I read it.

Then, about a dozen years ago, life went off the rails. Book deals dried up. Friends and family began to die (at least ten during this period). We fostered a young woman, giving her a place to live for a year. Work became a stress factory. The economy tanked, causing the Great Recession. Then along came Trump. And then this pandemic.

In response, my reading habits changed, radically. They became constrained, limited to news articles, political analyses, and works of non-fiction. Instead of a dog-eared book, I carried my tablet with its instant-on, 24×7 access to current events and a front-row seat to our increasingly divided society.

Even so, every now and again, I would return to my fiction books, the stacks of TBR novels that inhabit every room in this house. I tried, repeatedly, to read one of them, hungry for that immersive experience, that miraculous wash of words that would sweep away reality and bathe me in the light of a different sun.

But the miracle never came. I didn’t have the patience, lacked the power to focus., and was unable to drive away the here-and-now with worlds of what-if. Book after book I picked up, opened, began, and abandoned within a few days, the only evidence of my attempt, a bookmark left somewhere in the first thirty pages.

With all this as preamble, one might wonder why, during my recent time off, I decided yet again to pick up a novel and give it a try. I mean, there I was in the last month of the most turbulent election cycle of my sixty-plus years, with a pandemic raging beyond my door, a daily gush of political scandals and turmoil filling the airwaves, and everywhere people shouting and crying and grieving and protesting. Was it hope? Obstinacy? Desperation? Whatever compelled me, it was in this moment, amid this maelstrom of chaos, that I chose to try again, and opened up a 150-year-old book.

And I read it. Cover to cover, in record time.

And then . . . I picked up another book, and read it, too.

And now, here I am, wondering what to read next.

. . .

Do yourself a favor.

Turn off the television. Put down the phone. Leave the tablet in the other room.

Pick up a book. A real book. The one you’ve been meaning to read for so long.

Take a seat near the window, where the natural light will be over your shoulder. Settle in, book in hand.

Open it up. Stick your nose in it. Smell it. Feel the pebbled surface of the printed page, the tension of the spine.

Chapter One.

Read. 

I tell you, it’s like coming home.

k

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This past year, I’ve reviewed only three books. There are a couple of reasons for that.

The primary reason is that I’ve been reading a lot more news these days. Current events (and my often visceral reaction to them) have been consuming a great deal of my available attention. A secondary reason is that another main chunk of my reading time has been devoted to research—online and offline—for my work-in-progress, and while some of these research works are very good, they’re not titles that most (or any) of you would find interesting.

Through this, however, I felt the lack of fiction, not only as a needed escape from the real world, but also as part of my education and development as a writer.

With this in mind, last month I decided to devote time to fiction (the first of which resulted in this), and I’ve been continuing that trend by reading Raymond Chandler’s first novel, The Big Sleep.

But this isn’t about that; this is about reading. (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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This weekend I finished reading a book, the first one in a while. I enjoyed it a great deal, but it was an unusual read in that, from the book’s very first page, I felt a very real connection to it. You see, my library also includes a few stolen books.

On my “old/rare books” shelf lies an 1892 edition of The Lady of the Lake, by Sir Walter Scott. A family member—enamored of its exquisite etchings—checked it out from a library in the early ’40s and just “forgot” to return it. When it came into my possession, forty years later, it was agreed by all that returning it was unnecessary. Probably.

A few other books on my shelf have sketchy backgrounds, too. One is a Bible illustrated by Salvador Dali that I didn’t ask too many questions about, and another is a large-format book of the works Michelangelo that had been so obviously mismarked at a garage sale that paying the 50¢ asking price was nothing short of theft.

And so, when in the prologue to her non-fiction bestseller, The Man Who Loved Books Too Much, author and journalist Allison Hoover Bartlett describes how she came into possession of a book with a less-than-pristine provenance, I felt the echoed pangs of my own guilty conscience. (more…)

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Stack of BooksIt was my mother’s social ambition that taught me to love books.

My mother–the eldest of her siblings–had a hard-scrabble childhood. She experienced family disruption at an early age, knew it well in fact, as her mother (my grandmother) was widowed and abandoned by husbands and inamorati at a fearsome rate. Moving from city to city, home to home, dogged by the turmoil of constant change, their family suffered one “fresh start” after another (and for “fresh start” read “begin again, from nothing.”)

Smart, tall, and attractive, my mother wanted a better life than the one from which she came. She worked hard to better herself through schooling and difficult choices, and did not apologize when it meant moving on. Some–her siblings included–thought her haughty and snobbish. In my own time, I’ve been described as haughty, arrogant, and imperious, so maybe I get that from her. (more…)

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