Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Strange Matter #7: Fly the Unfriendly Skies

Let me preface this review by saying that I have a signed copy of Fly the Unfriendly Skies. Pretty wild, huh? I vaguely remember sending in one of those order forms that were in the back of Strange Matter books; apparently the authors were signing mail-order merchandise back in the day. Needless to say, I was pretty excited when I flipped to the title page and found Engle and Barnes’ signatures!

On to business: Fly the Unfriendly Skies is the seventh entry in the Strange Matter series, and I believe it’s the first Strange Matter book to feature the “From the Files of” section in the back of the book. The authors started including CG depictions of scenes from the story, and these images add a nice little extra dimension to the whole Strange Matter package/universe. Fly the Unfriendly Skies introduces Morgan Taylor, a sci-fi nut who loves anything UFO-related, and his bossy, popular sister Kelly, who never passes up a chance to one-up her brother. Their plane gets hijacked by aliens and the siblings get dragged onto the mother ship, kicking and screaming. So begins their fight to survive among warring races of extraterrestrials and their harrowing battle to return home.

I had mixed feelings about big number seven. On one hand, the concept was cool and the story was almost pure action. Lots of aliens, lots of lasers, lots of explosions. And the plot wasn’t bad. It was good to see some flashbacks – they definitely added to the complexity of the plot. The rivalry between the grey aliens and the Cepheid was an interesting idea, even if it wasn’t explored thoroughly enough. But despite everything that this book had going for it, Fly the Unfriendly Skies felt a bit…disjointed. It was too much of “this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened”. The prose was just too blunt in many areas and I yearned for more delicate and potent passages of text. The opportunity for rich description is temptingly ripe when dealing with otherworldly creatures, and I feel that the author played it much too safe in this area.

In a wonderful change of editorial quality, Fly the Unfriendly Skies is the first Strange Matter book that I’ve read that didn’t have typos in it (at least any that I could find )! This book also referenced several characters from other Strange Matter books, which was neat. Also, in the final UFO chase/battle scene, the aliens and the kids fly over the lake from an earlier Strange Matter book, The Last One In (I’m only assuming this – I gave that book away so I can’t be sure). They see the hump of the lake creature disappear under the water as they zoom by.

Charming blast from the past: At one point in the story, Morgan is waiting for a file to download from the Internet on his dial-up modem, and it takes forever. Remember dial-up modems? Those dinosaurs? Fudge they were slow! But it made the prize at the end of the download totally sweet because you had to wait like four days for it finish.


Could have been more, could have been less, this Strange Matter entry ended up just being “okay”.

I give Fly the Unfriendly Skies a 3.5 out of 5.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Strange Matter #6: Bad Circuits

It's looking like I may have given away the fourth and fifth Strange Matter books, so we're jumping to the sixth entry in the series. If I remember correctly, this was one of the first Strange Matter stories that I acquired, so it was a real treat to read through this again, even if I recalled almost none of it. The mind is a mystery wrapped in an enigma! Or maybe I just have a horrible long term memory. I'm thinking it's the latter.

Anyways...Bad Circuits is a classic tale of technology-gone-wrong. Stephanie Meeker is our narrator, and she tells the reader about her cousin Daniel, who she happens to live with because her parents died in a boating accident years ago (at least that's what she tells us...). Daniel is a really smart guy, and he always enters the annual Fairfield Junior Science Competition. This year he's created a computer that can learn and think for itself, and Daniel is confident that he's going to win this year against his arch nemesis, Frank Dunk, who has taken first place for five years running. While the computer, which is given the name Brian later on in the story, starts out benign enough, it soon begins to crave more and more information and will stop at nothing to acquire it.

Out of the first batch of Strange Matter books, this one is definitely a strong contender, if not the best in show. The plot allows for lots of twists and turns, and the author does a great job making Brian out to be a scary piece of circuitry. One of the ways in which an ominous tone is acquired is through the use of all capitals when the super-computer speaks, and it makes the entity seem cold and malicious. Brian gets smarter and smarter throughout the story and it's cool to see him advance from a simple science project to a town-terrorizing Ken model (he steals the form of a manequin that Stephanie's Aunt uses to make clothes for Daniel - kind of explains the book cover art). The rivalry between Frank Dunk and Daniel Meeker drives the plot forward and gives the reader something to look forward to as tensions rise and the date for the competition creeps closer. There were a few little gems in the text - One of the tiny details that made me chuckle was how Brian acquired a British accent by consuming old tapes of Masterpiece Theater. It was stuff like this that made this Strange Matter shine a little brighter than earlier books.

As always, this Strange Matter book has its share of typos, but it isn't nearly as bad as some of the initial entries. Mostly just missing words here and there, so nothing too serious. I think the story could have used another twenty or thirty pages to flesh out the general buildup and the action in the last major scene, which is a showdown with Brian in a junk yard, but it seems that Strange Matter books have around a 120 page cap, probably for publishing reasons. It's unfortunate though, because a story like this could have really been expanded upon. On a final note, I really liked the twist at the end of this book. I didn't expect it at all, and I won't talk about it in this review. You'll have to read it for yourself to find out!

I'd venture to say that this is my favorite Strange Matter book so far. We'll see if this changes as I continue on through the series.

I give Bad Circuits a 4 out of 5.