Thursday, August 28, 2014

Witches on the Road Tonight

Sheri Holman
Completed 8/9/2014, Reviewed 8/11/2014
2 stars

Just a few days ago, another reviewer whose blog I frequently read noted that his taste in genre fiction has migrated to what he calls “Disturbing Fiction”.   This book is definitely disturbing.  Every scene, every relationship, every subplot made me feel uncomfortable.  But I didn’t find it disturbing in a good way. 

Eddie Alley grew up in rural Virginia with an alleged witch for a mother.  She seems to be a shape-shifter of sorts, finding pleasure by removing her skin and riding the men of the town at night like horses.  In a strange twist of fate, Tucker, a writer and Sonia, a photographer from the WPA hit Eddie with their car while driving down a dirt road.  While staying to make sure he’s okay, Eddie quickly becomes attached to strangers.  They become enmeshed in an odd relationship with this family, and then suddenly disappear. 

As an adult, Eddie hosts a schlocky horror movie show as Captan (sic) Casket, a la Vampira and Eliva, Mistress of the Dark.  He and his wife take in Jasper, a street urchin who’s infatuated with Eddie’s TV persona.  Instead of creating a healthy environment for the boy, the household becomes a battleground with Jasper at the center.  In response, Eddie’s daughter Wallis follows in the footsteps of her grandmother.  Now dying with cancer Eddie wants to reconcile with his Wallis.

The only character I really liked was the writer, Tucker.  Steeped in the witchery, he seemed the only character to have and express realistic, complex emotions.  But the main character is Eddie. 

You would think that as a horror show host and with a witch for a mother, Eddie would be ripe for complexity.  But, in the scenes where Eddie as an adult is trying to keep Jasper in the family, you get no real insight into his motivation.  There’s the simple explanation of his childhood attachment to the writer who never returns, but it’s not sufficient.  It felt like the author took the easy way out by not giving Eddie more complex.  That simplicity makes his daughter’s dysfunction seem like nothing more than the ignored child acting out.  I found myself wanting to reach into the book, wring their necks, and shout, “You’re not deep enough to have responses like that!  Get over yourselves!”  There are books where the dysfunction of the characters propels the plot, and there are those where it just becomes annoying. 

I was disappointed in “Witches”.  The title, the synopsis, the award, all indicated something more profound than what was offered.  Everything is disturbing, the skin-sloughing witch; the rural children; the creepy relationship between Jasper and Wallis; the even creepier relationship between Jasper and Eddie; and Wallis’ acting out as an adult.  But it didn’t add up to the horror I was expecting.  Instead, it felt like a pop psychology exercise on an afternoon TV talk show.  2 out of 5 stars.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Nebula Awards Showcase 2013

Catherine Asaro, ed.
Completed 8/4/2014, Reviewed 8/11/2014
4 stars

I’m not usually a short story fan, and I always have an initial negative reaction to books selected by the SF book club I attend.  So of course I was predisposed to disliking this collection of Nebula winning and nominated stories from 2012 for the August selection.  But this book was a revelation.  The stories included here are full of literary genre-bending speculative fiction that I have barely sampled in limiting myself to the novel format.  What I thought would be two weeks of teeth-gnashing drudgery became a four day marathon of wonder.

The standout story was “The Paper Menagerie” by Ken Liu.  It was the first story of any length to win the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy Awards.  It’s about a Chinese-American boy whose mother makes magical origami animals that come to life to be his friends.  It’s also about love, identity, and self-acceptance.  This is one of those gems that makes you understand the power literature can have on society and understanding.  When you get this book, go right to this story and read it first.

Some other favorites include Connie Willis’ “Ado”, about political correctness and censorship taken to the extreme; “The Axiom of Choice” by David W Goldman, told like an interactive story about a musician down on his luck; “The Sea King’s Second Bride”, a poem by CSE Cooney; and “Sauerkraut Station” by Ferrett Seinmetz, about a young girl growing up on a space station known for its amazing sauerkraut in the middle of a galactic revolt. 

Two stories that I found quite wild were “The Migratory Pattern of Dancers” by Katherine Sparrow and “The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees” by E Lily Yu.  These stand out as being incredibly inventive.  I wasn’t exactly happy with the ending of “Dancers” but I was still very impressed by the concept, and really liked the prose.

That sort of sums up how I felt about this book.  Even if I didn’t care for a story, I was still enthralled by some aspect of it, the writing, the concept, a character.  And with stories of these sizes, from short to novelette to novella, you get an amuse bouche, something that delights the palette.

I’m not great at reviewing collections of stories that are not related.  So I hope I conveyed that this is a great collection.  Some stories are profound, some wild, some traditional.  If you read a lot of full length novels, or generally don’t care for short stories, I recommend testing your palate with this book.  4 stars out of 5.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Slow River

Nicola Griffith
Completed 8/1/2014, Reviewed 8/15/2014
4 stars

“Slow River” is set in the near future where all water is controlled by a few powerful corporations who recycle it with advanced biochemical technology.  Lore’s family owns one of those corporations. 

She wakes in the rain in an alley, left by kidnappers who had held her for a huge ransom from one of the most powerful and richest families in the world.  Badly hurt, exhausted, and without her ID chip, she is found and taken in by the thief Spanner.  She stays with Spanner, living with the identity of a dead woman, and joining her in a life of illegal scams and prostitution.  It’s either this, or return to her privileged life in a dysfunctional family of sexual abuse. 

“Slow River” is a powerful book about coming to grips with the past and figuring out that we have choices.  Lore’s journey is one of self-discovery, making some bad choices and trying to rectify them.  Spanner is locked into a destructive lifestyle.  Their relationship is also destructive.  As Lore takes control of her own life, she realizes she has to leave Spanner, and the financial safety net that comes with their dysfunction lifestyle. 

I really liked the fact that Lore’s sexuality is not an issue.  The issue is overcoming sexual abuse and breaking out of unhealthy relationships so that she can learn real trust and love.  Her sexuality is as central to the plot as it would be if the main character was an abused heterosexual person. 

This book is rather slow, perhaps an allusion to the title.  I found myself not really liking any of the characters at first, nor being interested in what they were doing.  It really didn’t pick up steam until the middle of the book, when I found I was caught in its current.  I was pulled into Lore’s struggle for self-actualization and awareness.  I felt like I was trudging through the book, but I was doing it happily.  By the end, I realized I had read an important novel and was glad I didn’t give up on it. 

Looking back on this review, I realized this is one of my shorter reviews.  I think it’s because the book took me by surprise.  The whole was bigger than the sum of its parts.  So I don’t have a great analysis, just a few observations with a very strong endorsement.  4 out of 5 stars.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Children of God

Mary Doria Russell
Completed 7/4/2014, Reviewed 7/18/2014
5 stars

“Children of God” is the glorious sequel to one of my favorite books of all time, “The Sparrow”.  It is one of the few sequels I’ve read that is on par with or perhaps even better than its predecessor.  While the first book explored deep existential questions with despairing and hopeless answers, “Children” provides the redemption that often comes when we walk through fear, either on our own or by being dragged kicking and screaming. 

Warning:  there are some spoilers for “The Sparrow” in my review since this is a direct sequel to it.

Russell picks up the story of Jesuit Father Emilio Sandoz soon after the trauma of being the only survivor and returnee of humankind’s first mission to Rakhat, a planet inhabited by intelligent life.  He made a breakthrough in dealing with the horror that the Jana’ata perpetrated on him, but still finds nearly no joy in life.  This begins to change when he decides to leave the priesthood and finds he might be falling in love with a woman. But the Jesuits can’t leave Rakhat alone, and want to launch a second mission.  This time, the mission is also political; the Vatican is involved.  The Pope will back the mission financially and even reconcile its rift with the Jesuit order on the one condition that Sandoz accompany the new team.  The question is how do they get Sandoz to agree to this, and if he does, will he sink into insanity or find salvation. 

The most amazing thing about this book is its nearly seamless transition from its predecessor.  It’s been nearly a year since I read “The Sparrow”, but I felt like there was no time lapse at all.  “Children” picks up the story with some summation but it’s not obtrusive in the least.  We immediately return to the broken psyche of Sandoz, and his attempts to have a normal life.  Again, Russell interweaves her locations and timelines.  This time it alternates between Sandoz on Earth and the lone survivor on Rakhat, Sophia, dealing with the two sentient species, the carnivorous Jana’ata and the Runa, the herbivores who are the Jana’ata’s servants, concubines, and food source.  Russell fully fleshes out the world she had already created, bringing us deeper into the societies of the two species, and the seemingly insurmountable problem of normalizing a civilization after  its core belief and organization is completely dismantled. 

The narration is no longer just from the human point of view.  It is now also told from the point of view of the Runa and Jana’ata.  Through these characters, we learn more about the politics and social structure of the two species since the arrival of the first Jesuit mission.  One of these voices is Supaari VaGayjur, a Jana’ata merchant we met in the first book, whose life and livelihood has been destroyed.  He is in exile with his daughter Ha’anala.  Eventually, he finds Sophia, now with her own child, Isaac.  Together they continue the legacy of the act of defiance of the Runa that is turning the whole planet upside-down.

In an interesting sub-plot, Sophia’s son Isaac is autistic.  Russell did a lot of research on autism to create this character, including reading the works of Temple Grandin, who I’ve also read and admire.  She did a fantastic job of portraying the difficulty of a mother trying to relate to her autistic child.  As his name implies from the Biblical reference, he becomes a sort of patriarch of a new community where both the Runa and Jana’ata live together in peace.  Though more of a cryptic ascetic than one normally might assume from the name of one of the fathers of Jewish people, he becomes the force that helps build the new society out of the rubble of the old.

Like the first book, “Children of God” moved me profoundly.  I found myself inside many of the characters heads, feeling the abandonment, fear, and eventual redemption in their journeys.  I wished the book didn’t end, but rejoiced in the resolution.  Mary Doria Russell has written two of the greatest books I’ve come across in the 100+ I’ve read in the past two to three years.   Five stars out of five.

Thursday, August 14, 2014


Jack Vance
Completed 7/21/2014, Reviewed 8/3/2014
4 stars

Ghyl lives on Halma, a planet of artisans and craft workers whose products are treasured galaxy-wide for their hand crafted beauty.  The use of any sort of technology in producing these prized works is illegal.  Ghyl’s father, Amiante,  is a wood carver, who constantly butts his head against the trade unions that run everything in lieu of a powerless puppet government.  Amiante instills his son Ghyl with the trade, but also with the myth of Emphyrio, a legendary hero who died speaking the truth and thus changed the world.  After Amiante’s death by the trade union powers for multiple uses of modern technology, Ghyl goes on a quest to find the truth behind the legend of Emphyrio.  Besides the legend, he discovers the truth about his world, and he himself is confronted with the decision to speaking the truth and risking the inevitable outcome.

It’s obvious the story is an allegory, but for what, I couldn’t pin down.  There were times that it seemed to be the evils of communism.  Considering the book was written in 1969, it probably is.  There is no real government and the trade unions run the lives of its members, even to the point of executing dissenters.  At other times, it seemed to be about corporate oligarchs riding on the backs of the poor.  Reading it in the context of today, I can see this more than communism theme, with the destruction of democracy and justice by enormous and powerful corporate structures.  I think this speaks to the timeless nature of the story.  Just about any social injustice can project onto the theme, depending of the current context of the reader.  It’s also a messiah story, with Christian myth overtones.  Amiante is a woodworker and Ghyl makes a decision to risk his own life to speak the truth and possibly change the world. 

Vance uses the concepts of puppets throughout the story.  There is a race of genetically engineered creatures called puppets.  They act out fairy tales, and in this story, the tale of Emphyrio.  Interestingly, when the puppets begin to become self-aware, self-deterministic, and thus troublesome, the puppeteers can easily dispose of them by executing them in the little dramas. Throughout the book, once can easily see how everyone is a puppet of someone, expected to perform their roles without question.  Some follow their roles blindly while others, like Ghyl, face the inevitable for their exertion of self will. 

I enjoyed this book immensely.  It’s a fast-paced story of an oppressed boy searching for truth and justice.  Regardless of the theme, it’s a terrific story.  Despite the shortness of the novel, the characters are well-drawn, the plot is tight, and Vance’s world is well-built.  4 stars out of 5.

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Complete Compleat Enchanter

L. Sprague de Camp and Terry Fletcher
Completed 7/18/2014, Reviewed 7/23/2014
4 stars

This is a collection of the five comical stories which deal with magic by sending psychologists into parallel dimensions which are based on mythologies.  It’s about 400 pages of entertaining fluff, grounded in the details of our epic fantasies.  It’s an early forerunner of other genre parodies like “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”, the “Myth-Adventures”, and many of Terry Pratchett’s works.  While not quite as satirical as more current parody literature, it’s loads of fun.

Of the five stories, my favorites were:
“The Roaring Trumpet” – based on Norse mythology,
“The Wall of Serpents” - the Finnish mythology of the “Kalevala”
“The Green Magician” - Irish mythology.

The two I didn’t like as much were:
“The Castle of Iron” - Ludovico Ariosto’s “Orlando Furioso” with a little “Kubla Khan”
“The Mathematics of Magic” - “The Faerie Queen”

The two I didn’t care for as much felt too drawn out.  In “The Castle of Iron” and “The Mathematics of Magic” I thought the authors got bogged down in trying to make the languages too realistic and at the same time funny.  I often found it hard to follow.  But according to the forward, it had to do with the authors’ making fun of the belief that fantasy always had to be told in medieval wording, and this was their response to that criticism.

I liked the other three because I felt like they were having more fun creating these universes.  For example, a fun part of “Trumpet” is that all the Norse giants speak like New York thugs.  Or perhaps, it was because I know less about Irish, Norse, and Finnish mythology and thus find them more interesting than standard medieval English and Arab fantasy. 

The basic plot is that Harold Shea, a psychologist at a research institute, with his colleagues discovers you can travel to parallel worlds by using mathematical logic equations, the “magic” of our universe.  However, once in a different universe, you can perform the “magic” of that universe, as defined in the mythologies it’s based on.  To return to our universe, you must use the magic of that universe. 

There’s an ongoing sub-plot of what’s happening in the real world, which involves the constant disappearance of these people, and the subsequent missing persons investigations by the police.  One of the most fun characters is one of the detectives, who accidently ends up in the third story in complete denial of what’s going on, but ends up completely buying into it by the fifth story. 

Another fun sub-plot is that Harold, and basically all the other psychologists, are socially inept, but by going to these parallel universes, they have a chance of meeting their dream girls.  In one of the stories, Harold meets Belphebe, which adds the humor of an American having a relationship with a medieval maiden archer.  With the first story being published in 1948, you’ll find some archaic, sexist language and roles.  But to the authors’ credit, Belphebe is quite a strong and independent female character. 

This collection of stories is quite a fun read.  It’s a great concept, a bunch of socially awkward, analytical psychologists bumbling with magic in our cultural mythologies.  Having always been a fan of parody, I enjoyed my time with it.   And I love when you can tell that authors were having fun when while they were writing their books.  Four out of five stars.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Remnant Population

Elizabeth Moon
Completed 7/25/2014, Reviewed 7/28/2014
5 stars

The hardbound edition cover of “Remnant Population” has a fraught, middle-aged woman gazing into a wood filled with spying tribal owl-like aliens.  It’s one of those covers that as a kid, would suck you in, but as an adult, makes you scowl with disdain and put it back on the shelf.  When I found this edition at the library, my first thought was “How bad can this book be?!”  After finishing the book and looking at the cover, with tears streaming down my face, I thought “Never, ever, EVER, judge a book by its cover”.

Ofilia is a colonist a distant planet.  She spends most of her time in her garden, raising vegetables and avoiding her condescending son and daughter-in-law.  After nearly forty years on the planet, the conglomerate they brought them has lost the colonization contract and must evacuate and reassign everyone in thirty days.  At seventy, widowed, and having had so few children, Ofilia is a special case.  She must be “retired”, and her son and daughter-in-law will be forced to pay the fee to transport her back to Earth. 

Having lived there so long, and with so many people bossing her around, Ofilia decides she’s going to stay and live out the rest of her days in peace and solitude.  She hides in the forest until the last shuttles leave.  Finally, peace, quiet, and control of her own destiny.  It lasts for about a year, then the aliens, or rather, the indigenes appear. So much solitude.

“Remnant Population” is an uncomplicated novel, with a simple story line and a simple moral.  It’s a twist on the Robinson Crusoe tale.  It’s about the value of the elderly and the wisdom they offer.  It’s about not taking for granted that just because we’re the dominant culture, we know all the answers. 

What makes this book amazing is that Moon can tell an excellent story with almost no pretension.  Everything in the story supports her theses.  There are no asides, no subplots, nothing to distract you.  Throughout most of the book, Moon keeps the reader inside Ofilia’s head.  By the time she meets the indigenes, I found myself completely identifying with her, her fears, annoyances, and joys.  At one point, I thought the long process of trying to communicate with the indigenes and showing them the technology of the colony remnants and her daily life might be excruciating to some, but I was completely enrapt.  Ok, so I’m fifty-three, but I could feel the aches, tiredness, and impatience as if there in the pages of the book with her.

There are some points that might be considered a little trite.  For example, when the investigative mission from earth appears, the stereotype of the wise, all-knowing, old woman goes a little further than it should.  And the end wraps up a little too nicely.  But I bought it, hook, line, and sinker. 

As I noted at the top, this book made me cry uncontrollably.  Okay, so it was past midnight and I was really tired.  But I was walking around the apartment, going to the bathroom and getting a drink of water, and I couldn’t stop the tears from streaming down my eyes.  This is my classic definition of a five star book: one that moves me profoundly on an emotional level.

Monday, August 4, 2014

White Is For Witching

Helen Oyeyemi
Completed 7/27/2014, Reviewed 7/28/2014
3 stars

I seem to be developing a pattern:  Read a book.  Love it. Read an earlier book by the same author.  Feel nonplussed.  This happened with Helen Oyeyemi’s “White is for Witching”.  As with “Mr. Fox”, which I loved, Oyeyemi takes a subgenre, this time the haunted house, kneads it with her amazing prose and dark imagination, sprinkles in some magical realism and voila, you’ve read something you never expected.  Unfortunately, when I tasted it, the ingredients were better than the bread. 

Miranda is a near-college age teen with a rare disorder called pica.  She craves inedible things and has to force herself to eat normal food.  She lives with her enabling twin brother and her exasperated, foodie father in a house inherited from her deceased mother, which they’ve turned into a bed and breakfast.  Pica is genetic, and can be traced back through several generations of women on Miranda’s mother’s side.  After her mother’s death, Miranda had a mental collapse, and since then has ghostly encounters with her dead female ancestors. 

The narrative is told through several characters around Miranda.  Most interestingly, one of those voices is that of the house.  The house wants to have the same relationship with Miranda as it did with her ancestors, which seems to include making her a permanent part of the house.  The house uses Miranda’s female kin to achieve this end.  Of course, no one else experiences the house this way, except for the immigrant housekeepers and some of the bed and breakfast guests. 

With Miranda’s bizarre illness, food and consumption are the dominant themes, from a poison apple to the house’s hunger for Miranda to cannibalism.  It was only in retrospect that I realized how many different ways Oyeyemi worked the variations of consuming into the story.  The realization made me wonder how much I probably missed in my initial reading.

The prose is lovely, but instead of enhancing the story, I found it distracting.  Combined with the narrative style, and some toying with form, I often found myself confused as to who was talking and when.  The book is divided into two parts, and this was particularly true in the first part.  The second part was more linear and decipherable, and downright riveting.  In reflecting on it, I had to wonder if that was the intent: a first part that conveys the mood and setup by disorienting you, and then coming together in a suspenseful climax. 

This is definitely a worthwhile book to read.   There are many delicious quotables, for example, “…maybe ‘I don’t believe in you’ is the cruelest way to kill a monster.”  I give this book three stars, which by my star system, is still a good book.  It just didn’t meet my expectations after a great book like “Mr. Fox”.