Sunday, March 26, 2017

Miniatures: The Very Short Fiction of John Scalzi

John Scalzi
Completed 3/24/2017, reviewed 3/26/2017
3 stars

“Miniatures” is a fun little book.  As described in its title, it’s all very short fiction, about ten pages max.  Most of the stories are goofy fun.  I don’t really have a more mature way of putting it.  Almost every story is fun in some way, and they all have the goofy humor that I’ve come to appreciate from John Scalzi.

I’ve only read one other book by Scalzi, “Redshirts”, which won the Hugo some years back.  It too was goofy fun, although I didn’t call it that in my review of it.  Where I really got to know Scalzi was at Westercon last year where he was the Guest of Honor.  I went to most of the panels he was on and he was a hoot.  He has a great sense of humor. 

That sense of humor is on display in “Miniatures”.  It opens with a story that made me chuckle out loud, “Alien Animal Encounters”.  It’s about people describing their most interesting encounter with an alien animal species.  Another good one was “Pluto Tells All”.  That has Pluto describing what it was like being demoted to dwarf planet.  A third fun story was “The AI are Absolutely Positively Without a Doubt Not Here to End Humanity, Honest”.  That was about machines becoming intelligent and doing an interview to explain that, well, as the title describes, they are not here to end humanity. 


Almost all the stories are tongue in cheek, sharply humorous.  He mentions a few times in the intros for the stories, that these are the sort of pieces he would use on book tours to warm up the audience.  And they do, they give you a chuckle and lighten your mood.  I give this book three stars out of five because it’s basically fluff, a quick, easy read, meant to make you laugh rather than pause and reflect.  A few of the stories didn’t work for me, but that is often the case in a collection like this.  Usually, not every story is going to grab me.  But it’s a great book to read after a heavier tome. I highly recommend it.  

Monday, March 20, 2017

Gossamer Axe

Gael Baudino
Completed 3/19/2017 Reviewed 3/20/2017
5 stars

How do I describe a book that’s both corny and wondrous at the same time?  It’s kind of corny because it’s about an ancient woman living in late 1980s Denver who uses heavy metal music to fight for the release of her lover from a dark, magical place.  It’s wondrous for the exact same reason.  Christa is a harpist from pre-Christian Ireland.  The music she creates is her source of magic.  She lost her lover in a land of immortals in the 1700s, controlled by a bard who is a greater harpist than Christa.  Now she has discovered that heavy metal just might be the magical weapon she can use against the bard to rescue her lover Judith.  So yes, it sounds corny, but I was completely pulled into the plot and characters.

The majority of the book is about Christa discovering heavy metal and her forming her own all-woman heavy metal band.  She’s in Denver because she’s been following the portal between our world and the immortal world where her lover is being held captive.  She teaches the harp and one of her students invites her to a metal concert.  At the concert Christa begins to realize that metal has the same characteristics as her magical harp playing, and she just might be able to use it to save Judith.  Having played the harp for over a thousand years, she understands music so well that she picks up electric guitar in a matter of days.  First she joins a metal band, but soon realizes that she’ll have to form her own band to make the magic work. 

The best part of the book is the forming of the band.  Christa pulls together women musicians who have crossed her path, all damaged souls who play terrifically.  The characters are well-defined and have interesting back stories.  Part of the greatness comes from describing what it’s like to be a woman in a music genre dominated by men.  Even once the band has formed and shown how awesome they are, they still have to battle the issues of being a girl band rather than a band made of talented women.  In addition, they all must battle their own personal demons that could derail the band, professionally as well as from its purpose of saving Christa’s lover. 


This book won the Lambda Literary Award in 1990, and I can see why.  It’s a terrific telling of a story that could have just been corny and even soapy.  But I found it executed marvelously.  I was completely drawn in and even though the ending was pretty predictable, I still found it exciting.  I give this book five stars because of this, and because I got emotionally involved with the characters and the outcome.  I’ve only given one other five star rating recently.  Reading as much as I do now, I find it harder to give five stars, but this book really moved me.  And it wasn’t because I paid a premium for this out of print book at a used book store.   If anything, it should have added pressure that I normally would have rebelled against, feeling that the book wasn’t worth it.  Perhaps it’s because I was in several bands, so I understand some of the experience.  Mostly though, I think it’s just a well told story that’s different and exceedingly satisfying. 

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Affinity

Sarah Waters
Completed 3/13/2017 Reviewed 3/14/2017
3 stars

This was a peculiar book.  I found it relatively boring and uninspired through most of it.  The story is about a Victorian lady who visits a women’s prison on a regular basis.  She eventually forms a bond with a spiritualist who is imprisoned for fraud and assault.  Then in the last 50 pages or so, it starts to get interesting, ending with a great twist.  But is it enough to make the book a worthwhile read?  Well, not really.

The book is not badly written.  The prose is decent.  I simply found the basic story very boring.  Miss Prior, the Victorian lady, is a spinster who has been suffering from depression.  I never found it clear why she decided to become a Lady Visitor at the women’s prison.  Was it supposed to lift her from her depression?  Going to a prison, even as a charitable deed does not seem like the sort of thing that one would do to feel better.   Miss Prior goes to the prison, but because of her growing relationship with the spiritualist, becomes more morose and rebellious at home.  Of course, rebellious for a Victorian lady is relatively mild by today’s standards.  But it causes conflict with Prior’s mother.  It should be noted too that Prior is basically already a spinster at age 29.  Her brother is married, and her younger sister is getting married.

The book is written as two diaries, told through alternating chapters.  One diary being Miss Prior’s, the other being Dawes, the spiritualist.  I think the diary form is part of why it’s boring.  Prior is not a great story teller.  Dawes entries are short and informational.  We don’t really get much character development out of them.  We get all the character development from Prior’s entries, and it’s just, well, I’d say “Nice”.

Eventually, we are told that Prior was in love with her sister-in-law before she married Prior’s brother.  This adds a little spice to the story, but not too much.  Later, it becomes clear that she also falls in love with Dawes, who seems to truly have the gift to contact the dead.  Through this relationship, Dawes schemes to escape and run away with Prior.  It’s here that the story starts to finally pick up.  But it is so close to the end, you wonder what the purpose of the previous three hundred pages were.  Maybe I missed some unspoken sexual tension, but the relationship building went at a snail’s pace. 


All I could think through most of this book was, what’s the point.  The prose is nice, but I felt like nothing happened for about 300 pages.  The book is 351 pages.  All the intrigue happens at the end, and it was way too long to wait for me.  However, I’ll give this book the benefit of the doubt with a three star rating out of five, because of the prose and the end.  If you read this book, I think it will help you that you know that you’ll be coasting for a long time.  So try to enjoy the prose, and if you get bored, rest in the knowledge that the payoff at the end is pretty good.  

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Smoke and Shadows

Tanya Huff
Completed 2/11/2017 Reviewed 2/21/2017
4 stars

“Smoke and Shadows” begins a series by Tanya Huff that follows a supporting character from the Blood novels.  Tony, an ex-junkie and hustler, has gotten clean and sober with the help of vampire Henry and is now working as a production assistant on a Canadian TV series about a vampire detective.  Despite all the inaccuracies, considering he was in a relationship with a vampire, he likes his job.  But strange things begin to happen around the studio.  First he notices that the shadows seem to have a mind of their own.  Then there is a death on set.  And suddenly, Tony is in the middle of his own paranormal investigation.  With Henry and a wizard from another dimension at his side, Tony tries to subvert a takeover from the Shadowlord. 

This is another fluff novel from Tanya Huff.  But I have to say it was very entertaining.  First off, I really liked the meta-scenario of a guy who knows about vampires working on a TV series about a vampire.  The show, “Dark Night”, reminded me of the Canadian syndicated series “Forever Knight” from the 90s.  It wasn’t a great show, but it was fun fluff.  Like this novel. 

One of the best things about the book is that it is self-contained even though it’s part of a series.  It seems like I’ve been reading a lot of books lately that are part of a series and are not self-contained.  I don’t mind it as much anymore, and don’t begrudge authors writing trilogies.  After all, my favorite book is LOTR, a trilogy.  But for the most part, these days, I want to read a book that ends.  This one did.  I was so happy at the end of it.  I think that’s part of why I gave it a high rating.

As far as characterization goes, Tony is great.  He’s gay and has a crush on a one of the stars of the series who is apparently straight, but gives off mixed signals.  He also goes on a comical date with the show’s music director, who has a crush on him.  All this, though, creates some conflict because Henry is still in the picture.  Tony is no longer in a relationship with the vampire, but he still helps Tony out throughout the story.  There’s a few interesting instances where we understand why Tony wanted out of the relationship when we learn of Henry’s possessiveness.  It’s not just normal possessiveness, but the kind that a vampire has for his prey, and it’s intense.

I found Arra, the wizard from the dimension of the Shadowlord to be a bit annoying at times.  She has a great setup.  She’s the special effects director for the show.  Of course she uses her powers to create great effects on the show’s low budget.  Unfortunately, she does not want to help our hero subdue the Shadowlord.  It’s understandable that she’s reluctant considering she barely escaped destruction in her own dimension.  However, I would have liked to have seen her have more backbone throughout the story rather than just near the end.


I gave this book four stars because I had a lot of fun with it.  It’s not a great book, but I really enjoyed it.  At some point in the future, I would consider reading the other books in the series, just not now.  Tony’s a great character and I’d like to see him have success in life, amidst all the supernatural urban fantasy that he gets into.  

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Ethan of Athos

Lois McMaster Bujold
Completed 1/29/2017 Reviewed 1/30/2017
4 stars

I’ve been hit or miss with Bujold, particularly the Vorkosigan Saga.  The book was a hit.  The plot is a little off the main line of the Saga, more like an offshoot.  It revolves around Ethan of the planet Athos, a world of men.  It turns the meme of a female utopia on its head.  Children are born from uterine replicators, which is not unheard of in this universe.  With a planet of only men, the replicators wear out and new organs are needed.  Ethan, a doctor who works with the replicators, is chosen to go in search of a new supplier after the previous package of ovarian cultures is sabotaged.  It forces him to go out into space and deal with the rest of society for the first time ever, including women.  It leads to some comical moments.  Of course, this being part of one of the more famous space opera series, Ethan ends up in the middle of espionage with the evil Cetagandans.

What’s surprising about this book is that it was written in 1986 but is a mainstream novel that deals with gay issues.  Many of the men on Athos are in M/M relationships, though not all, mostly those who raise children.  Being a planet of only men, all the children are sons.  Now it should be noted that the gay issues are quite tempered.  But there’s a bashing scene that was really traumatic to me.  And just the fact that it exists in this book from such a long time ago is quite stunning to me.

The culture clash between Ethan and the rest of the universe is embodied in Elli Quinn, a female mercenary who is after the same Cetagandans that are after Ethan.  She keeps on popping up on Ethan, causing a lot of cognitive dissonance.  The scenes are humorous even though the circumstances become direr.  It’s fun to watch him slowly back away whenever she approaches him.  You see, the planet of Athos is actually rather misogynistic.  It is incorporated into its religion and morality.  Women are seen as the embodiment of sin.  So whenever Ethan interacts with Elli, he’s concerned that her immorality will rub off on him.  At first the misogyny is disconcerting, but Ethan comes to understand and appreciate Elli, and of course the lessons are learned.  The best part is watching all that develop and unfold for Ethan.


I give this book four stars out of five.  It’s a surprisingly fun, fast-paced space opera romp.  It’s a quick read yet has enough depth to contain messages about tolerance and acceptance.  The book is self-contained in this epic multi-book saga so it can be read without having read any of the other books, which I always find a plus.  

Friday, February 3, 2017

The Devil You Know

KJ Parker
Completed 1/26/2017 Reviewed 1/30/2017
5 stars

It’s been a long time since I awarded a book five stars.  This one did it for me.  It’s about Saloninus from “Blue and Gold”, the philosopher/alchemist who lies a lot, and I mean, a lot.  He’s now in his 70s.  He decides to sell his soul to the devil, in grand Faustian tradition, for another 20 years to finish his life’s work.  But the question is can the king of lies outwit the father of lies?

It just so happens that the demon sent to Saloninus with the contract and to watch over him for those 20 years is a fan of his philosophy.  Saloninus’ arguments prove the lack of existence of God and prove that morality is relative.  But does he really believe his own writings.  The demon comes to realize this as he comes to realize that his brilliant ward probably has a loophole to get out of the contract at the end of the 20 years.   

The book is short; it is just a novella.  The narration switches a lot between the demon and Solaninus, which at first is a little disorienting.  It quickly got the two voices down and had no problem with the switches between scenes versus the switching between narrators, making it and easy read.   As I noted at the top, I gave this book five stars because I was completely caught up in the question of what Solaninus had up his sleeve, and the demon’s attempts to figure it out.  

Monday, January 30, 2017

Titan

John Varley
Completed 1/22/2017 Reviewed 1/24/2017
4 stars

The captain of a spaceship and her crew are on an exploratory mission to Saturn.  They discover a new moon and quickly realize that it appears to be a generations ship.  When they approach the moon-ship, it seizes them, destroying the ship and burying them.  Sometime later, the crew emerges from the ground in what is reminiscent of birthing.  They are not near each other when they emerge, and they are naked and hairless.  Eventually they find one another as they explore this strange world, meet its inhabitants, and search for its creators.

I was pretty surprised by how much I enjoyed the book.  Written in 1979, the book has a vintage feel to it, where the emphasis is more on discovery and exploration.  If this were a film, there would be a lot of scenes requiring the actors to have a look of awe on their faces.  But as a book, it worked really well.   It reminded me of some of Arthur C. Clarke’s work, where the emphasis is on the wonder, and a little less on the plot. 

Perhaps the most fascinating thing about the book is its progressive approach to issues of gender, race, and sexuality.  The captain is a woman, Cirocco “Rocky” Jones.  For 1979, I thought this was quite surprising.  There are also lesbian relationships in the book.  To be fair, there are a lot of relationships in the book.  It takes the premise that on a long distance, long term mission, there’s going to be some coming together of people on the ship.  In fact, the whole beginning seems to be about the different permutations the crew had gone through.  At first, it seemed a little off-putting, but it certainly added to the back story of the crew and set the reader up for the later interpersonal conflicts. 

The author looks at race relations through the intelligent beings that inhabit this place.  Specifically, there are two creatures, centaurs and angels, who for some unknown reason, engage in battle whenever they come across each other.  It’s almost as if it’s in their DNA.  To say more would be a spoiler.

The book is told through Rocky’s perspective, so of course her character is the most fleshed out.  Still, most of the characters get good scenes and are more than cardboard cutouts.  What’s really cool is that each of the characters gets something akin to a special power having gone through their rebirthing.  Several of them can communicate with one of the several intelligent species.  One actually turns into one of the species.  For the most part, these powers are benevolent, but it does cause for some problems among the crew. 


I give this book four out of five stars.  It is also the first of a trilogy, though the book stands on its own.  I liked that.  I don’t think I’ll be reading the rest of the trilogy any time soon.  But this book was a cool, mostly fun romp through Varley’s imagination.