Sunday, September 15, 2019

Time is the Simplest Thing

Clifford D Simak
Completed 9/2/2019, Reviewed 9/11/2019
3 stars

Not quite his best, but I still enjoyed this short novel by Simak.  Written in 1961, it’s a novel about intolerance and fear of the other, couched in a story about some people who have psychic abilities.  They are called witches and werewolves and strike fear and loathing in the people of the heartland of the U.S., a typical setting for many of Simak’s works.  It still has its relevance today; whereas when written, this was a metaphor for the racial issues of the day, it could be seen as representative of the many forms of intolerance and xenophobia present today.  Simak is one of my favorite authors, and this book confirms that, even though it is a little weaker than the others of his I’ve read.  It was nominated for a Hugo in 1962.

Shepherd Blaine works for the Fishhook company as a psychic astronaut, traveling to distant planets not with spaceships but with his mind.  It turns out that humans are too fragile to travel in space, being affected by the radiation belt around Earth.  But with psychics, humans can travel to distant planets in the galaxy, meeting aliens and bringing back alien technology.  On one mission, Blaine encounters an alien which mind melds with him.  So now he is more than human.  Fearing being discovered by Fishhook, he escapes and hitches a ride to South Dakota.  Along the way, he meets others like him, as well as people who are terrified of psychics.  He is nearly lynched in one town.  His journey brings him face to face with an evil preacher who was also a psychic employee of Fishhook, but now travels the country spreading his gospel of fear, hate, and violence.

Blaine is a decent character, although I felt that most of the characters were a little one dimensional.  He being the main character and the book being told from his point of view, we get to know the most about him.   My favorite sequence is when Blaine hitches a ride with a trucker who is so terrified of psychics he carries a gun with him and won’t travel at night for fear of the “witches and werewolves”.  Blaine handles him expertly, balancing his own fear of being found out with his need to get to South Dakota.  Along the way, they encounter a group of teens who are telekinetic and can fly, so of course the trucker is terrified of the witches and almost kills them.  Blaine prevents anything too major from happening, and makes a contact that can help in out of a jam later in the novel.

The opening scene with the alien is standard Simak.  Rather than being humanoid, the alien is a pink amorphous blob.  I like Simak’s aliens.  I think the fact that they tend to be very unlike humans lends an air of believability.  I also like that this one communicates psychically, for any audible form of communication would probably be terribly difficult to comprehend.

Overall, the book was satisfying, but felt like it was lacking in substance, despite the message.  It was initially published in serialized form, so the journey/chase format probably worked better with a couple of cliffhangers.  I enjoyed it, but I still think “Way Station” was his masterpiece.  I give the book three stars out of five.  I got it as an Amazon deal of the day, and for that price, it was well worth it. 

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

The Calculating Stars

Mary Robinette Kowal
Completed 9/7/2019, Reviewed 9/10/2019
4 stars

I was really impressed by this book.  It deals with sexism and racism in a 1950’s alt-history post-apocalyptic setting.  It was tight, fast paced, and well-written with a marvelous female lead.  I read this book on vacation and was listening to “Lucifer’s Hammer” on the road, which has a similar apocalyptic scene.  The books have some similarities, and a couple of times, I got the characters confused.  But while that book is a disaster novel, this book is more focused on the social issues of the day, with the disaster acting as a backdrop.  However, the disaster part of the book was one of the best I’ve ever read, being a small-scale narrative rather than trying to explain all the global details.  Kowal won both the Nebula and the Hugo Awards for this.

Dr. Elma York is a brilliant mathematician and WWII pilot.  She is with her husband Nathaniel in the Poconos when a meteor slams into Washington, D.C.  Most of the rest of her family is in D.C. and on the coast in Charleston and are wiped out.  She and her husband escape by small plane to a military base in Kansas which becomes the new capital.  There she discovers that the earth will experience climate events, first a global winter followed by a runaway greenhouse effect.  This discovery prompts the U.S. government to form an international effort to get people into space to begin colonizing other planets, as the earth slowly becomes uninhabitable.  Elma believes she has what it takes to be an astronaut, but meets intense opposition in the new space program.  While working as a computer (one who performs calculations) for the space program, she begins a crusade to get women including women of color who are qualified to be accepted as astronauts. 

The book is told in first person by Elma.  She is a great character with lots of guts and ambition.  She has one fatal flaw and that is she has terrible stage fright anxiety.  She freaks out and vomits whenever she must speak publicly or to a large group.  She has to deal with the social taboo of seeking help in this 1950’s world of unenlightenment on mental illness.  So in addition to sexism and racism, she has to fight that as well.  It makes for a wonderfully well-drawn character.  I really felt Elma’s drive to become an astronaut, despite everything that was blocking her.

Nathaniel, her husband, is also well done.  He was the lead engineer for U.S. aeronautics program and becomes the lead engineer for the international space program.  He’s great, almost too perfect, as the supportive husband, who is completely understanding of her and her issues.  But he does act as the foil to the misogynistic Stetson Parker, the bigoted and sexist lead astronaut of the program.  Parker is mostly a charicature until the second half of the book when he shows his humanity.  There are other women in the story who also fight for the right to become astronauts as well, but they take a back seat to Elma’s narrative. 

The disaster part of the book, the beginning, is really well written.  It doesn’t cover the details of the meteor slamming into D.C., but instead describes the shock wave and earthquakes that affect our main character.  So unlike “Lucifer’s Hammer”, it’s smaller scale in its disaster description, but it’s very effective.

I give this book four stars out of five.  The character development and plot are wonderful, and the writing is marvelous.  I was enrapt in the book, despite sometimes getting confused with “Lucifer’s Hammer”.  I haven’t read the other Nebula and Hugo winners, so I don’t know if it deserved to win, but it definitely deserved the nominations.  As a side note, this book is the first in a duology and there are other short pieces which are part of the story.  I’ve pretty much decided I’ll read all it eventually. 

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Orlando: A Biography

Virginia Woolf
Completed 8/27/2019, Reviewed 8/27/2019
3 stars

I haven’t read much classic literature.  I often find it difficult to read, being so different than contemporary writing.  Often I find the prose, while beautiful, gets in the way of plot and characters.  “Orlando: A Biography” is one such book.  It is beautifully written, with lush prose and imagery.  However, there is little to no plot, only a concept really, that the main character begins the tale as a man and halfway through the book, wakes up a woman.  Woolf acknowledges in the book that there isn’t a cohesive story.  Rather, it’s a biography, so it jumps from point to point in Orlando’s life.  It is a fantasy, though not in the traditional sense, but in that something fanastical happens and the characters react to it. 

The book has been described as a love-letter to Woolf’s lover, Vita Sackville-West, where VSW’s life is thinly recounted as the character Orlando.  There was an introduction, a preface, and annotation.  There is a little information about VSW.  Unfortunately, the notes weren’t noted with numbers in the text.  They were all just gathered at the end, seventy pages worth.  Bouncing back and forth between the text for that many notes would have been somewhat tiring, but it probably would have added a lot of understanding of VSW’s life as well as Woolf’s jokes, irony, and satire.  Needless to say, I think I missed a lot of this.

The story begins in the 1500s with Orlando is a nobleman.  It recounts some episodes from his youth, including an encounter with Queen Elizabeth I.  As he grows older, he falls in love with a Russian noblewoman during the Great Frost, when the river Thames froze over.  The relationship does not succeed, and Orlando takes a post as an ambassador in Turkey.  There, he one day wakes up to discover he’s become a woman.  She eventually returns to England where she lives for over three hundred years. 

The prose really is gorgeous.  It had a very pacifying effect on me, often making me sleepy.  Now, I do often fall asleep while reading, but the nature of this book was simply very lulling.  There is nothing really dramatic that happens to keep the adrenaline pumping, no action to speak of, just beautiful words and sentences.  Perhaps if I was more trained in the classics, I would have found this riveting in and of itself.

I give this book three stars out of five.  It’s good, but not exactly my cup of tea.  I’m not quite cultured enough to appreciate this type of literature.  Perhaps if I read this for a class, I would have gotten much more out of it.  I’m glad I read it though, if nothing else, as an exercise in the classics. 

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Maximum Light

Nancy Kress
Completed 8/17/2019, Reviewed 8/17/2019
4 stars

I’ve come to really like Nancy Kress.  This is the first full novel I’ve read of hers and I enjoyed it very much.  It packs a punch, much like her novellas.  The only problem I had with it was that the ending felt a bit dragged out.  It went on a bit too long after the big climax.  Otherwise, I’d say this was a terrific book.  It tackles the problem of the effects of the chemicals in plastics on our bodies.  In this book, the effect is that it has reduced human fertility, so that few children are being born.  This book was nominated for the Gaylactic Spectrum Award in 1999.

The book is told from the perspective of three main characters.  The first, Shana, is an army reserve grunt who wants to be accepted into the army itself.  I believe she’s nineteen in the story.  She’s a very rough character.  Her plans to get into the army are thwarted when she is assigned to help with a railway disaster, helping people retrieve their pets from the neighboring houses.  The man she’s assigned to escapes from her, but before he can get completely away from her, she sees him carrying cages with monkeys that have human faces and hands.  And they all have the same face.  Nobody believes her, giving her a black mark on her record and little chance of getting into the army.

The second character is Cameron.  He’s a relatively famous, young ballet dancer who has undergone a procedure to remove a major part of his memory.  The book begins with him falling in love with the guy with whom he previously had a relationship.  The problem is, everyone who knows why he had his memory deleted is sworn to not tell him the reason behind the procedure.

The third character is Nick.  He’s a wealthy and famous older scientist on the committee that reviews Shana’s perjury case.  He comes to believe in what she is saying.  He’s also dying of a strange type of cancer in the mucous membranes of his nose and sinuses.  All three characters come together, not necessarily willingly, in an attempt to find the cover up of Shana’s story.  The key seems to be Cameron and his missing memory.

I really like Kress’ writing.  She writes good, unobtrusive prose, telling a story without the writing getting in the way, but still producing a lush world.  Everything I’ve read of hers is very readable, with enough action to keep you interested.  My only issue with the book was the ending.  After the climax, the pace seemed really off.  It went on way too long tying up the loose ends.  It just wasn’t as interesting as the rest of the book.  However, the loose ends do get resolved, so in that sense, it is satisfying.

The characterization is really good.  Cameron is very likeable, Nick induces empathy, and Shana is a selfish brat.  Even most of the minor characters get a decent treatment.  I felt most for Cameron, as I think most readers do, because of the horrible things that happened to him, for which his memory was erased.  Revealing that however would be a spoiler. 

I give the book four stars out of five.  Except for the very end, it’s a taut mystery set in an all too believable near future.  Kress has been nominated for a lot of awards and won several, mostly for her shorter works.  She’s definitely someone who I am going to keep an eye out for in the future.

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Jack of Shadows

Roger Zelazny
Completed 8/11/2019, Reviewed 8/17/2019
4 stars

I really like Zelazny’s work.  He comes up with some really strange concepts.  This short but complicated novel was a mix of fantasy and science fiction, and though at times the execution seemed a little off, it was still a masterful work.  The book was nominated for a Hugo when it first came out in 1971, but has long since been out of print.  It’s recently been put on e-book and I was glad to pick it up as a cheap Deal of the Day. 

In this universe, the Earth doesn’t rotate.  One side always faces the sun.  That side is the land of science and technology.  On the side that faces away from the sun, it is a land of magic.  Jack of Shadows is a master thief who lives in both worlds.  He doesn’t have a soul, like the people of the dark side, and he has mighty powers that draw from shadow.  He can’t work his magic in the total light or total darkness.  He must have a shadow in which to use his powers.  The book begins with his execution.  He was recognized and captured while trying to steal a great treasure.  After dying, he’s resurrected like all dark-siders, though only a specific number of times, and takes his revenge on the people who did him in, including the powerful Lord of Bats. 

Jack is basically an anti-hero.  He’s not really that likeable, and by the end of the book, you question whether he is good or not.  But he is still an interesting character.  The book is basically about his journey from his resurrection point on the dark side in the dung pits to the light side, and then back to the dark side.  His only friend is what seems like an angel or demon captured and chained down by the gods who can foresee the future. 

This is a short book, as many of Zelazny’s books are.  He manages to cram a lot of plot into it.  He’s short on character development, though, with the other characters, especially the women.  There is one woman though who gets a fair amount of page time.  She’s a light side woman who has learned some magic and now lives on the dark side.  She’s an interesting character as well, having once been a love interest of Jack’s, but is now old.  Jack of course isn’t old because he gets resurrected repeatedly (although we know it’s only a limited number of times). 

The book has some flaws, like the two dimensional-ness of the other characters.  The whole second half seems like a different book from the first half.  It’s much darker and is the part where you really start to dislike Jack.  But the ending makes up for it.  I give the book four stars out of five because the despite the problems, I really enjoyed it.  Like most of the books of Zelazny’s I’ve read, it’s very unique, feeling like it’s nothing I’ve read before.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall

Nancy Kress
Completed 8/10/2019, Reviewed 8/10/2019
4 stars

This is my second novella by Nancy Kress, and I liked this one almost as much as the first, Yesterday’s Kin.  This one is a multi-threaded story that takes before, during, and after a cataclysmic event takes place that destroys most of the earth.  The three different parts progress until they all converge at the end.  It’s interesting, fast-paced, and gut wrenching.  It won the Nebula and Locus Awards for Best Novella in 2013, and was nominated for a slew of others.  I have another book of hers on the docket, a full-length novel, which I am now looking forward to on the strength of these two books. 

The book begins in 2035 where a small group of adults and teens are living in a bubble called the Shell.  They were put there by aliens called the Tesslies, named because they appear in a shower of sparks that look like those produced by a Tesla coil.  The problem is the adults are dying and the teens are deformed and infertile.  The Tesslies have provided them with the Grab machine which sends them back in time where they abduct children to bring to the future where they can reestablish the human race.  The narrative is told through the eyes of Pete, one of the deformed teens who travels back in time through the Grab machine.  The book also follows Julie, a mathematician in 2013 who has developed an algorithm that seems to predict the place and time of these seemingly mysterious abductions.  The narrative also has short chapters in 2014 that illustrate how the earth seems to be trying to cause its apocalypse. 

As I said in my last entry in this blog, I’m coming to love novellas.  They are longer than short stories, but generally faster paced than full length novels.  This one was no exception.  It was very fast paced, but still had time to flesh out the two main characters, Pete and Julie.  Pete is a very realistically drawn teenager.  At fifteen, he is obsessed with sex, filled with the drive to compete, and full of anger at the Tesslies.  He’s stubborn, yet cooperative, and still somewhat malleable in this near future world in the shell.  Julie is an academic who would prefer to be alone.  She’s on a special task force to get to the bottom of the disappearances of the missing children.  While on the force, she gets pregnant by a married coworker, but is determined to have the baby herself.  She has some friends who just don’t quite get her need for solitude. 

This novella being short, I can’t go into too much other detail, or I’ll be giving it all away.  Already with what I have described you can see where the story is probably going.  So I’ll just conclude here with my rating of four out of five stars.  Kress can write a terrific yarn and I hope to see how she fairs in longer works.  But if you see one of her novellas for cheap, which I did, it’s definitely worth the investment.

Saturday, August 10, 2019

In Calabria

Peter S. Beagle
Completed 8/8/2019, Reviewed 8/10/2019
5 stars

Beagle is known mostly for “The Last Unicorn”.  Here is another book about unicorns, written just two years ago.  This one takes place in present day Italy.  While it is not fantastical like “The Last Unicorn”, e.g., the unicorns don’t speak, it introduces the magical into the everyday humdrum of rural life.  It is also a love story between and middle-aged farmer and the twenty-three-year-old sister of his postman.  I loved this book.  It transported me to Italy about as much as Call Me By Your Name.  I could identify with the farmer whose pragmatic disposition tries to suppress his feelings for the young woman.  I could feel the suffocation he felt as he was barraged by news and paparazzi.  I felt a lot in this short book, which why I rated it so highly.

The story unfolds on Claudio Bianchi’s farm, a small farm he inherited from a distant cousin.  He works the land alone, with no hired hands, and having only been married once, and for a brief time.  He’s content to smoke his pipe alone in the evenings surrounded by his dog, three cats, and goat.  One day, a white unicorn takes up residence on his land.  It takes a while, but Claudio realizes the unicorn is pregnant is nesting in preparation for birth.  He’s determined to keep it a secret, but eventually, the unicorn is discovered by Giovanna, the sister of his postman who’s been delivering the mail on Fridays.  He binds her to secrecy, but of course, she tells her brother.  The brother also swears to secrecy, but soon, rumors start to fly.  Claudio is at first visited and then inundated by journalists, paparazzi, activists, and looky-loos all trying to find out the truth about this rumored unicorn.  Eventually the mob takes interest.  All the while, Claudio and Giovanna try to keep the unicorn secret and help prepare it for birthing.

I’m finding I’m really enjoying novellas.  I can get more emotionally involved than in short stories and I don’t get bored with the middle section as I sometimes do in full length novels.  And this one proves my point.  Especially now that I’m going through a bout of shingles, my patience and tolerance is quite low.  But reading this book in its peaceful pastoral setting and the subsequent invasion of the crazy outside world both relaxed me and grabbed my attention.  I was caught up through the magical ending.  At the end I wished the book were longer so I could stay in Claudio’s world, but then was glad it ended when it did. 

One of the amazing things about Beagle is that his prose is not flowery and bogged down by tons of similes, yet it creates a beautiful environment.  The characterization is great, though it is not overdone either.  You get to know Claudio and Giovanna through the dialogue more than their descriptions. 

So I give this novella five out of five stars, something I only reserve for books that move me deeply, and this one did.  I guess you could categorize this book as magical realism, because it imbues magical elements into a mundane setting.  And that’s what I loved about the book, the possibility of love and magic in a mundane world.