Friday, July 8, 2016

Imperial Earth

Arthur C. Clarke
Completed 7/4/2016, reviewed 7/5/2016
3 stars

Couched in a travelogue story about a man from Titan visiting the earth to help celebrate the U.S.’s quadricentennial, this novel is a look at where we can be in another two hundred years.  It predicts a future where being bisexual is the norm and technology has advanced us to a non-aggressive, relatively peaceful world.  It is great reading, though in place of much action, Clarke’s writing fills you with a sense of scientific wonder. 

Duncan Makenzie is the second clone of the family which administers what passes as government on Titan, Saturn’s largest moon.  He is chosen by his “parents” to represent Titan at the U.S.’s quadricentennial and to “father” a new clone for the family from himself.  The story is predominantly about his travel to Earth, his exploration of what Washington and New York have become, and his finding out about what happened to the two loves of his youth, Calindy and Karl.

The plot is dotted with scientific and social predictions.  Clarke spends a lot of time talking about space travel using hydrogen.  Titan is primarily a hydrogen mining colony for this purpose, holding up its economy with this industry.  He also talks a lot about the search for extraterrestrials and the technology needed to accomplish this. A little more closer to today, Clarke predicts the internet, hand held devices, and Skype, although their use is still command line oriented rather than graphical interfaces.  And granted, picture phone calls have been predicted for a long time. 

Clarke predicts that technology has made the world a better place, more peaceful, with very little violence.  This is a dream that many writers have fantasized about, but we never seem to accomplish.  Looking at life today, the growth of technology has done nothing for peace.  Even the work week for many of us has stretched beyond forty hours rather than shrinking it, increasing stress rather than reducing it.  Today, it is still a pipe dream, but perhaps it can still be something to hope for.

Also on the social level, I found it very interesting that Clarke did a terrific job writing about a bi-normative society with minimal propaganda.  He doesn’t beat us over the head with it, it just is.  Duncan simply loved both Karl and Calindy when he was younger.  This is very refreshing and amazing for a book published in 1976.

There is one part that is disturbing, the cloning process.  Successfully cloned embryos are gestated by a farm of women who want to have children.  The disturbing part is that they are mentally or physically disabled in some way.  It’s like Clarke is saying that these women have no option for having children other than by joining a baby making farm.  He’s also saying that these women want to have children for the sake of the birthing of children and giving them away, not for the sake of loving and raising them.  I can’t imagine where he got this idea. 


I give this book three stars out of five.  Really, it’s a four star book, but I took off one star because of the baby farm concept.  That was too disturbing to ignore in rating the book.  Otherwise, it was very readable despite the hard science.  The chapters are short, making the technology easy to follow, rather than being overly long complex descriptions.  The character of Duncan is extremely well developed, and the distinction between himself and his “fathers” is subtle but tangible.  The plot may be a little thin, being primarily a travelogue, but it is a very good, interesting read.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Palimpsest

Catherynne M. Valente
Completed 6/24/2016, reviewed 6/30/2016
2 stars

This is another book I listened to on CD.  It was reviewed by io9 as a story about a sexually-transmitted city.  And that’s about the gist of it.  It’s a very ethereal book about a city on the edge of reality that can only be visited by having sex with someone who has a tattoo of a part of the map of the city on their body.  It follows four strangers who all have an encounter that takes them to the city of Palimpsest and their quests to return.  Despite the interesting premise, I didn’t enjoy it.

My biggest problem with the book was the prose.  It’s beautiful, poetic, and completely distracting.  I think there is a fine line between great and gratuitous prose, and this was the latter.  It’s the type of prose that’s great for a short story, but simply too much for a full length novel.  I found myself bored listening to it, and constantly losing my place.  I had to read through lots of other people’s reviews to try to get parts of the plot I missed.  It made me wonder if I would have appreciated it more if I read it instead. 

Another problem I found with the book was the plot.  There isn’t much of one.  The book is all about the premise.  It’s basically about four people who are constantly trying to have sex to get back to Palimpsest and figuring out a way to stay permanently.  I guess you would call this a character study.  I have to say they were somewhat interesting people, all damaged in some way, all looking for something better.  But there just didn’t feel like there was any movement to the book.

The best part of the book was reader.  She did an excellent job with the accents of the characters.  Besides an American, there were Japanese, Russian, and Italian characters.  Her inflection was also quite good.  It was the only thing that made the prose tolerable.

I give the book two stars out of five.  I toyed with giving it three stars for the effort, but I just didn’t enjoy the book.  Again, I wonder if I would have liked it more if I had read it instead.  It’s too bad there was little plot and the prose was so distracting because I really liked the premise.     

Friday, July 1, 2016

Bending the Landscape: Horror

Nicola Griffith and Stephen Pagel, ed.
Completed 6/26/2016, reviewed 6/30/2016
4 stars

“Bending the Landscape” is a series of original collections of gay and lesbian short stories in different genres:  Horror, Fantasy, and Science Fiction.  This edition is Horror.  I found it very interesting.  As in the title of the book, the landscape of horror is bent a bit.  Only a few stories are what I would call classic horror.  The rest are more like speculative fiction of horrific things.  They didn’t evoke outright fear and loathing as much as sadness and despair.  Most are very disturbing and some are even surreal.  

My favorite story was the very first.  “Coyote Love” bends the notion of “coyote ugly” and turns it inward.  A straight man wakes up to find himself in bed with another man.  But instead of finding his partner ugly, he attempts to deal with the ugliness inside. 

The second story, “Explanations Are Clear” was also quite good.  The main character’s partner has a habit of “getting lost”.  At first, we are led to think it’s directional, but the reality is that she changes, adapting to her environment.  It really hit home for me, making me reflect on my own chameleon-like tendencies, not being true to myself when confronted with different interpersonal environs.

One thing that has always struck fear in my heart has been the pink triangle.  In the story “Triangle”, a man finds an original pink triangle at an antique store while on a business trip.  He buys it for his partner who is writing a novel about gay men in the holocaust. The twist in this story is that this little patch of cloth might be endowed with a supernatural power. 

A few of the stories are near-future stories.  The one that really got to me was about a future where gays and lesbians are hunted down and executed.  One gay man hides in a marriage to a woman and takes pills to destroy his libido to survive.  In addition, he’s a police photographer who accompanies squads on raids and photographs the executions.

All the stories are well written.  They are provocative and horrifying in sometimes very subtle ways.  Even though I was hoping for cheap fluff horror, I enjoyed the book enough to give it four stars out of five.  Except for some graphic scenes in “Coyote Love”, I think people who don’t enjoy standard horror would appreciate this book.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Storm Front

Jim Butcher
Completed 6/18/2016, reviewed 6/21/2016
4 stars

“Storm Front” is the first of The Dresden Files books.  I had been meaning to read some of these books for a long time, but never quite got around to it.  Now it’s the October selection for Book Club.  I didn’t mean to read it so early, it’s just that I was house sitting for my mother-in-law, she had the book on mp3, an mp3 player, and I wasn’t into reading anything else I had brought with me.  It turned out to be a fantastic experience.  First of all, it’s easier to listen to a book when you’re doing something other than driving.  Secondly, the book lived up to all the hype that I’d heard. 


Harry Dresden is a wizard-for-hire in Chicago.  He’s called by the police to investigate a murder with black magic written all over it.   Shortly after, he takes a private missing persons case because, well, he needs the money.  He may be a wizard, but he’s not exactly rich.  While trying to solve these two cases, Harry finds out that his life is also in mortal danger.  A dark, gritty, noir novel, with lots of tongue in cheek humor, this is perhaps the first urban fantasy that I really enjoyed. 

While I enjoyed the book itself, the experience was amazingly enhanced by the narrator, James Marsters of Buffy fame.  He read it like the narrator of a 1940s black and white Bogie movie.  Written in first person, Marsters drew me into Dresden’s personality and kept me locked into the world that Butcher created.  I particularly liked the breath-work.  Marsters sighs a lot as he’s reading Dresden, adding an extra dimension to the character. 

One of the most fun parts of the book is Bob the skull.  He’s a spirit that lives in a skull in Dresden’s sub-basement laboratory.  He’s been around for hundreds of years.  Bob helps Dresden with making potions and other magical activities.  Marsters reads him rather foppishly, making all the interactions with him quite humorous.   There’s also a faerie named Toot-Toot who helps Dresden, although the scene with him is rather short.  I expect Toot-Toot shows up more in later novels as I understand the fae aspect grows in importance as the series progresses.


The book is not particularly deep or profound, just terribly fun.  As soon as I was done, I wanted to listen to more.  I give this book four out of five stars.  I give James Marsters’ performance five stars.  I’m sure reading the book is great, but listening to this performance was a tremendous experience. 

Friday, June 24, 2016

Uprooted

Naomi Novik
Completed 6/12/2016, reviewed 6/20/2016
4 stars

“Uprooted” is a marvelous twist on the tales of the magic forest.  There are good forests and bad forests.  Here, it’s The Wood that harbors evil, is full of monsters, and seems to have a malevolent spirit all its own.  The only power that protects the townspeople from this evil is the wizard known as the Dragon.  In exchange for his protection, he takes one young woman from the town every ten years.  “Uprooted” is the story of one such woman, Agnieszka, and her journey of coming into herself and her own powers.  It’s full of action and suspense and is a fun read.

The story is told from the first person perspective of Agnieszka.  Being the narrator, her character is the best developed.  She’s young, naïve, and stubborn.  She first thinks she’s the captive of the Dragon, but slowly realizes she’s his apprentice, that she was chosen because of her budding magical abilities which even she didn’t know she had.  As she develops, she realizes she has a much more organic approach to magic, as opposed to the more academic style of the Dragon.  It makes for tense and sometimes humorous moments with him. 

I’ve read some reviews that claim that Agnieszka is a Mary Sue.  As I read through the criticisms and the descriptions of what a Mary Sue is, I can see that somewhat.  A Mary Sue is a young or low-rank person who saves the day with unrealistic abilities (thanks Wikipedia).  But I think Agnieszka is a little more complex than that.  She’s not the pretty little ingénue.  In fact, her best friend is, but the story revolves around Agnieszka anyway.  She struggles with everything and everyone around her, and she’s not always right. 

Besides the fact that this book is the July selection for my book club, what drew me to it was that the author’s inspiration was Polish fairy tales and the Baba Yaga myth.  Soooo, I don’t know any Polish tales, but I am a little familiar with Baba Yaga.  She appears in the form of a journal of magic spells that Agnieszka finds.  And the story basically takes place in a variant of Poland and the characters all have Polish names.  The one thing that perturbed me a little, though, was that sometimes the author transliterated the characters' names, like using the letter V, which is a W in Polish, or using Stashek instead of Stasiek or Staszek (the diminutive for Stanley).  Well, you can’t have everything.

A special mention needs to be made of the Wood.  The author imagined quite a wondrously malevolent forest that is not just full of evil things, but is evil itself.  It is basically a character unto itself.  I haven’t read anything else by Novik, but I think it speaks to her world-building ability. 


I give the book four stars out of five.  It’s a well-written fantasy with a strong heroine in an imaginative universe.  It’s a lot of fun and some of the sequences were intense page turners.  The only reason I did not give it five stars was because I thought it lost a little steam in the end.  It was complicated, almost esoteric.  But in all honesty, I had several things come up in my personal life with less than fifty pages to go which made it difficult for me to concentrate on the ending.  I had to read it twice to make sure I understood it, and I lost my emotional involvement with it.  It was still well worth the read and I look forward to the discussion of it in book club.   

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The Tower of Swallows

Andrzej Sapkowski
Completed 6/5/2016, reviewed 6/7/2016
4 stars

This is the fourth book of the Witcher Saga, and the seventh book of the Witcher series.  Unlike the other books, the prose and form of this book are wondrous.  It felt like Sapkowski finally honed his writing ability and came up with a much more mature storytelling style.  It created a tone that is much more serious and less straight-forward swashbuckling adventure, lending a gravity to the plot which wasn’t as evident in the previous books.


The form that Sapkowski uses is to have multiple narrators telling the story.  The perspective changes depending on the narrator.  But the narration isn’t told in big blocks.  It bounces back and forth between the perspectives to pull all the different emotions and tensions out of the story.  It doesn’t rely on a single third person omniscient thread.  Rather it makes a linear story out of multiple threads.  The result is a much more powerfully developed universe that the previous books only hinted at.  One could argue that the universe of the Witcher was already well developed by the scope of the saga.  However, I feel that this book fleshed it out in a piece of fine literature.

Be aware that giving a plot summary here is a spoiler if you haven’t read the previous novels.  As usual, I’ll keep it brief so that it doesn’t give away too much. 

The story continues with the Witcher searching for his ward, the apprentice witcher/sorceress Ciri.  Up to this point, she has been escaping capture by the hordes of bad guys who have been after her.  In this installment, she finally succumbs to a powerful bounty hunter.  The main plot of this book is the telling of how she gets captured and plight after that, while the witcher and his company traverse dangerous roads in their search for her.

The story is also much more adult, in that Ciri has a relationship with another young woman in the ragtag group of outlaws she had fallen in with in the last book.  It’s handled really well, not going into a lot of detail, but allowing it to have a profound affect on her.  This makes up for Sapkowski’s use of the word “sodomites” which made me bristle when he plopped it into the first book. 

I again give this book four out of five stars.  This time, it’s not because it’s as fun to read.  It’s not.  It’s because it is much more serious in tone and mature in style.  It should be noted that this book has a different translator which may have had an influence on the word and phrase choices.  Overall, I feel this is the strongest of the books, except perhaps for the “The Last Wish” which introduced the Witcher in a series of short stories.  

Friday, June 17, 2016

Heart-Shaped Box

Joe Hill
Completed 6/1/2016, reviewed 6/1/2016
3 stars

Most people recognize heart-shaped boxes from candy packaging.  In this book, the box is big and contains the suit of a dead man, and his ghost.  Judas Coyne buys this suit because he collects souvenirs of the macabre.  What could be more tantalizing than buying a ghost?  Unfortunately, the ghost is real and wants to murder Jude and anyone who tries to help him.  Although I had trouble with the first third of the story, the suspense stayed tight throughout the rest and had a pretty pleasing horror novel experience.

Don’t let the name of the main character make you groan.  Judas Coyne is a death metal rock star who changed his name to cut himself off from his past.  He left his real name behind to disassociate himself from his abusive father.  Since his divorce, he’s had a string of young girlfriends, even though he’s now 54 years old.  Despite the predilection towards younger women and things macabre, he is actually a decent character, much more relatable than I thought he’d be. 

I should explain my comment about the first third of the book.  I was initially turned off by the book because a lot happens in the beginning, including the appearance of the ghost.  This made it seem that Hill was playing all his cards up front in the first section, pulling out all the stops.  When the first section was done, I couldn’t figure out how he could keep the story at such a high level of suspense for the rest of the book.  Fortunately, he didn’t have to.  The plot after the revelation of the ghost kept my interest.  This was a surprise because I didn’t feel like his writing was that strong.  And it really isn’t that great, but it was good enough to keep me reading. 

Despite the adequate prose, I have to say that Hill was very good at describing the creepy supernatural stuff that occurs towards the end of the book.  No spoilers here.  I just wanted to note that it was good, strong imagery.  It would be easily translatable into  good special effects in a movie.


I give the book three stars out of five.  It’s a decent horror novel with enough creepiness to give me the willies, particularly in that first third.  I should note too that Joe Hill is Stephen King’s son.  It’s been a long time since I’ve read any King, but I felt that Hill was writing with his own style, not trying to emulate his father, or at least not emulating how King wrote up through the mid-nineties.  I don’t know if Hill will attain a level of stardom like his father, but he’s a good enough story teller that I’m interested in reading more of him.