Sunday, September 25, 2016

Spaceman Blues: A Love Song

Brian Francis Slattery
Completed 9/3/2016 Reviewed 9/13/2016
4 stars

This is one strange book.  It’s about Wendell Apogee who is trying to find his lover who has suddenly disappeared.  His search takes him through the underbelly of New York, where he encounters parties, cockfights, aliens (illegal and extraterrestrial), and a city below the city.  It’s fantastically imagined and quite well developed for such a short book.  And it has a wild ending you don’t see coming. 

Wendell is a pretty good character.  He starts off rather blandly, but then happens to become a sort of superhero.  It’s rather strange and quirky, but the development is satisfying.  There are also several Latino characters, which is quite rare for a science fiction book. 

The one thing I didn’t care for in this book was the prose.  I found it at times to be too much, to over-descriptive, sometimes causing me to lose my focus on the story.  It’s like losing the forest for the trees.  But if you can push past the prosy parts, the book is quite readable.


I don’t have a whole lot else to say about the book.  If I go into much more detail describing it, it gives away too much for this short book.  And my creative juices just are not flowing enough yet.  Suffice it to say, I really enjoyed it, despite the prose.  The quirkiness of the plot and the little universe Slattery creates really kept me going.  Four out of five stars.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Mistborn: The Final Empire

Brandon Sanderson
Completed 8/25/2016 Reviewed 8/25/2016
4 stars

Mistborn is another book club selection.  I didn’t vote for it, but I didn’t mind it winning.  It has always been one of those books I should get around to reading.  I knew it had a lot of praise, so I guess my expectations were a little high.  When I actually opened the books, I found it difficult to get into, to the tune of about a quarter of the book.  Finally, I started to like it, adventure revved up and most importantly, I felt like I was getting into the head of Vin, the main character.

Vin is an orphan, half noble, half skaa (lower class).  She survives as a thief, running around with gangs.  She has a gift for luck, making things go her way.  Then she stumbles upon a gang that shows her that her gift is much larger than she thought.  And this gang has a much larger mission than just stealing.  They want to overthrow the tyrannical government that keeps the skaa as slaves to the nobility.  She joins the group, growing in her powers and trying to help with the coup. 

The book is clearly a statement on the evils of slavery and classism.  But it also touches on the seduction of money and power.  The best parts of the book for me were the scenes where Vin is disguised as a noble woman, attending balls, and trying to spread and gather rumors as to the state of the nobility.  She often reflects on the comforts of having money to dress and eat well versus where she was before this mission, sleeping in alleys and eating what she could find. 

The book is also quite a complex universe.  Sanderson imbues this world with magic, but it’s a very specific kind.  It uses metals to produce a desired effect, including having sway over people, seeing into the future, and travelling at the speed of racing horses.  Called Allomancy, it is the gift that Vin has.  One problem I had with the book is that there’s a lot of description of the different aspects of Allomancy.  I found this to be fairly boring.  However, when Vin is using it, the action soars, reminiscent of the film “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”.  There are times when she’s following Kelsier, her mentor, and times when she’s actually doing battle.   Both types of scenes are riveting, as is being inside Vin’s head during these scenes. 

As I mentioned, the book goes through a lot of exposition with the Allomancy.  It also goes into great details in the plot to overthrow the government.  I found the details to be rather dry and my mind wandered a lot here.  Unfortunately I think the dryness is necessary because it all does make sense when the status quo does begin to unravel and when the magic is in use.  But at 650 pages, I thought some judicious editing could have disposed of some of the extraneous exposition. 

There are a lot of characters in the book as well.  I felt that I couldn’t get into the heads of the other characters as much as was available to me.  Particularly, Kelsier, Vin’s mentor and the leader of this group of revolutionary thieves, is basically a second main character.  There are a fair number of scenes where he is the point of view.  But I never felt him the way I felt Vin.  Kelsier was more like a major secondary character, and the scenes with his POV were somehow out of place when we should be focusing on Vin. 


Even with the complex magical system, I was only going to give this book three stars.  Fortunately, the ending is quite a page turner.  It makes up for the unnecessary length of the book and the lack of empathy I felt for Kelsier.  I also appreciated the fact that the book wraps up nicely considering there’s five more books in the series.  So I settled on four stars out of five.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Cinder

Marissa Meyer
Completed 8/7/2016 Reviewed 8/22/2016
Three stars

It took me a long time to get around to writing this review.  Not because the book wasn’t any good.  I just didn’t have anything really original to say about it.  The book is yet another play on the Cinderella theme, this one is science fiction rather than fantasy.  Cinder is a cyborg, and because of that, she is lower class.  She has a stepmother and stepsisters, there’s a handsome prince, and she even has a pumpkin colored car.  A lot of these parts are fun.  But there is a whole second plotline that could almost have been told without having to rely on the Cinderella tropes.  They felt good enough that I think they could have been expanded without the fairy tale parts and been a successful standalone story.

I have to say that I really enjoyed the first half of the book.  It was an easy read, having just finished a much more difficult book.  But once I figured out the big plot reveal, I got bored with it and simply wanted it to end.  There’s a plague decimating the population.  The Queen of the Moon promises to give the prince the cure if he marries her.  The problem is that the Queen of the Moon is evil and can exert her will over people to keep them in line.  Marrying the prince would bring a huge segment of Earth’s population under her control. 

Okay, so now that I write it out, the book sounds pretty juvenile.  And it is.  The book was recommended for grades six through eight.  I often like juvenile fiction.  But I felt that the plot reveal is too easy.  I also wondered if we needed another fairy tale retold with a twist.  In fact, this book is one of a series of fairy tale retellings.  And in this book, when you get to the end, it leaves you just hanging.  Even if it is a series, I’d much rather have a book be more self-contained, unless we know it’s simply a large book cut into parts by the publisher, like LOTR.


I give the book three stars out of five.  It’s light fluff and fun if you let it be fun, not expecting too much out of it.    

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.