Monday, December 28, 2015

Stars in My Pocket like Grains of Sand

Samuel R. Delany
Completed 11/28/2015, Reviewed 11/28/2015
3 stars

I hate giving Delany’s works three stars.  His stories, characters, and prose are amazingly complex, almost academic.  “Stars in My Pocket…” deconstructs race, sexuality, and gender the way only Science Fiction can, turning it on its head and forcing us to look at our own society in fresh and perhaps transgressive ways.  At some point, very complex literature loses its appeal to me.  I like prose, but I also need readability, something that eluded me with this book.

The book begins with Rat Korga, a man who is tricked into a high-tech lobotomy and forced into institutionalized slavery.  As a Rat, he’s forced into terrible living and working conditions and is abused sexually.  On that planet, men are valued more than women, and a person’s whole value in life is based their job.  Homosexuality is forbidden to anyone under the age of 27, and the greatest transgression is for a short person to have sex with a tall person.  Then suddenly, the planet destroys itself and Korga is the only survivor. 

The narrative then changes to Marq Dyeth, an industrial diplomat who comes from a much different world than Korga.  On his planet and in many parts of the galaxy, there are two factions, The Family, which is conservative, valuing the nuclear family and trying to recreate what they think life was like on the original Earth, and the Sygn, which values multi-culturalism, where families may consist of aliens and humans of any gender.  Marq comes from an area controlled by the Sygn.

Korga it turns out is saved by a strange group called the Web.  One of the “spiders”, Japril, is on the mission that saves Korga.  They find a way to effectively reverse the lobotomy and try an experiment to match him with his perfect sexual partner, and it turns out to be Marq.  They are compatible to seven decimal places.  The web brings Korga to Marq’s planet where they fall in love, but his presence causes chaos, being a celebrity for surviving his planet’s self-destruction. 

I really liked the device where Delany made all references to people single gender.  All people and aliens are referred to as women.  She and her are used as pronouns.  Women are either male or female and Delaney doesn’t always tell you who is what.  Names and descriptions don’t necessarily give you any clues either.  With the preponderance of aliens who also have a neuter gender it gets even more confusing.  People are only referred to as he when they are sexual partners.  If you think about it, we rely heavily on knowing how to refer to characters in a book as men or women.  Of course, I found this confusing at first, but eventually, the differences didn’t matter that much as we got to know the characters by their actions and attitudes rather than by their gender.  And fortunately, the two main characters are described as male and gay, so we have some frame of reference.  I find it interesting that Anne Lecke won multiple awards a few years ago for her book “Ancillary Justice” trying to do the same thing with gender.  With her book, I found the device simply annoying.  I have to say as complicated as the prose was, Delany did a much better job with it. And he did it thirty years before she did.

I also really liked the conflict between the Family and the Sygn.  It is pretty clear when you see the date of publication that Delany was talking about the state of the U.S. in 1984 when the rise of the conservative Christian right was threatening all the social advances of tolerance and multi-culturalism, attempting to return to an arbitrary view of how the world is supposed to look rather than being open to understanding people as individuals, representing a plurality of viewpoints and ways of existing. 

Where the book really faltered for me was in the prose.  The sentences are often very long and convoluted.  He uses parenthetical asides, multiple commas, semi-colons, and dashes, making it often hard to figure out the basic subject and verb of a sentence.  I find this terribly hard to follow, requiring multiple reading of a sentence just to get the gist of it.  When I reflect on this kind of writing, I’m reminded of the biopic of Jacqueline Suzanne when her editor is trying to rewrite her prose into something more literary.  She responds with “People don’t talk like that”.  That’s what I thought throughout this book.  As I often say, I love prosy books, but sometimes it can get so terse you sit back and realize not only do people not talk like that, they don’t even think like that.

A device I didn’t care for was using meals and parties as modes of describing the politics of the world.  It seems like a fairly common trope of the golden-age authors to have a party or a big dinner to help you understand the complexity of the world.  I find this device difficult to follow, mostly because it introduces a lot of characters at once.  I have a tough time keeping the characters separated in my head, and usually, but the end of the scene, I’m rather lost.  I got the gist, but I lost track of who’s who.

So what should have been a four star book gets one star knocked off for being too complicated to really enjoy.  There’s a ton of greatness in the Delaney’s deconstruction of society and comparing and contrasting differing worlds and points of view.  Critics and other authors consider this his best work.  It probably is, but ultimately, I need a book that can convey its message without losing me in the sentence structure. 

Saturday, December 19, 2015

The Lays of Bereliand

JRR Tolkien and Christopher Tolkien
Completed 11/18/2015, Reviewed 11/20/2015
4 stars

First of all, a lay is a poem.  This book consists of several poems from the first age of Middle Earth.  The two major poems are “The Lay of the Children of Hurin” and “The Lay of Leithian”.  Both exist in “The Silmarillion” and the earlier works of the Middle Earth History series in prose form.  They are both unfinished works, but represent Tolkien’s love of poetry, words, and of course these two stories.  Being poems and not being a poetry person, these works were tough going for me, but after a while, I was able to follow the plots and appreciate the language used.  Of course it helped that I’ve become quite familiar with the stories from the prose versions.  After a rocky start where I thought I’d never finish this book, I found that I enjoyed it much more than I was expecting.

“The Lays of the Children of Hurin” is the tougher of the two peoms.  It is written in alliterative verse.  I have a much tougher time understanding what’s going on in this type of poem because I’m distracted by the alliteration.  To achieve the form, Tolkien usually plays with sentence structure so much that it is often tough to tell where the subject and verb are.  This poem took me the longest to get into the rhythm of before being able to follow the plot details.  Fortunately, I once again had a series of online lectures for this book by The Tolkien Professor at Mythgard Academy to help me understand the details. 

As mentioned in previous reviews, “The Children of Hurin” is particularly dark.  In a way, it was fortunate that the poem was left unfinished, because I didn’t have to go through the whole tragedy.  The poem only covers the capture and torture of Hurin, the giving up of his son Turin by his mother to live with the Elves, the accidental killing of one particularly nasty, bullying elf who had it coming, and the accidental killing of a brotherly elf.  So, yeah, that was already a lot of tragedy.  Despite that, I enjoyed the poem and really began to appreciate Tolkien’s love and mastery of words. 

“The Lay of Leithian” is the Beren and Luthien story.  Beren is a man who falls in love with Luthien, an elf.  Her father doesn’t approve and sends Beren to steal a Silmaril from the evil Morgoth.  This poem is in the much simpler rhyming couplet form.  I had an easier time understanding this poem and followed the details much better.  While still tragic, it’s also a love story and love eventually conquers all.  Most of the Beren and Luthien story is told here, so when you get to the end, it almost has a sense of completion. 

Both poems have shorter restart attempt Tolkien made.  It seems like he almost never went back and simply revised a poem.  He was compelled to rewrite it.  Though quite short, they provide additional insight to some details he overlooked in the originals.  There are also a few short aborted poems that are only several pages.  More than anything, they provide the reader with more exposure to Tolkien’s ability as a poet.

I don’t recommend this book to everyone.  As with all this whole series, it’s for the serious Tolkien fan.  It’s also for those who love the epic poetic form like the Edda or the Kalevalah.  I give it four out of five stars because it is masterful even if it is inaccessible to most readers.

Monday, December 14, 2015

China Mountain Zhang

Maureen F. McHugh
Completed 11/5/2015, Reviewed 11/10/2015
5 stars

This book is a collection of intertwining stories about life in a near future U.S where Chinese communism has taken over.  It follows the life of Zhang and some of the people who move in and out of his life as he tries to find himself career-wise and in his relationships.  He is an engineering tech, operating heavy equipment and he’s gay.  His journey takes him through his attempt to advance his education while trying to find happiness in a climate where he is considered a deviant.  The book is both moving and frightening.  Despite it being set in a mythical future, it’s a reflection of how difficult life was just a few years ago, and in places, is still today, for an LGBTQ or really, any person trying to find their place in the world.

What struck me the most about this book is how all the featured characters have low self-esteem.  For Zhang, it’s due to his career status and his sexuality.  For others, it’s a congenital defect making her ugly, a woman trying to make it alone on a Martian farm, and a man who’s lost everything except his daughter. Each person is trying to survive the difficulties of life with integrity and respect, but are often sabotaged by their own doubts and fears.  It’s something most people should be able to relate to, and I can particularly in my own current state in life.  It spoke to many of my own fears and the sabotaging tapes that play in my head. 

I really liked the form of the book.  It was basically a collection of short stories of each of the featured characters.  While they seem at first unrelated, they tie in together with Zhang’s journey, providing different peeks into the lives of people in this near-future dystopia.  Of course, what struck me the most was how not unlike the world was to our present.  People are still struggling, people are oppressed, and people make bad decisions.  But sometimes things come together and regardless of the circumstances, we can overcome our own self-destructive tendencies and eventually succeed.

The characters are all very likable, but my favorite was the tragic character of Zhang’s engineering tutor.  Zhang falls in love with this smart, confident man and they have a relationship.  It helps bring Zhang out of his loneliness while studying for his degree in China.  However, being gay is less tolerated there than in the U.S. and eventually the tutor succumbs to his own fear.  It speaks to the problems that many LGBT people still face today, struggling for societal acceptance as well as their own self-acceptance.  It’s still relevant and all too real for too many people.

I give this book five out of five stars.  I cared very deeply for the Zhang and the featured characters.  It’s one of the few books I’ve read recently where the characters really moved me.  

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Memory of Water

Emmi Itaranta
Completed 10/25/2015, Reviewed 11/3/2015
3 stars

The premise of the book is really interesting.  I was excited to get it.  It’s short, so I expected it to have tight prose.  Noria is training to be a tea master, following in the footsteps of her father.  They live in a world dominated by China, which tries to control all aspects of their lives, including water.  Global warming has made fresh water scarce, but the tea masters know of hidden springs whose waters create the best tea.  When Noria’s father dies, she carries the secret of springs, trying to safeguard them from the authorities.  Of course, secrets are hard to keep.

The biggest problem with the book is that nothing happens.  Noira becomes a tea master, her father dies, and the secret gets out.  There’s nothing more to the story.  There’s a lot of description of the tea ceremonies and a lot of tension over the secret spring.  But really, I spent the whole book rather bored by it all, waiting for the secret to get out and see what the ramifications were.

The prose isn’t bad.  The author is Finnish and the book was published in Finnish before being translated into English.  I don’t think that had any bearing on the book.  It would have been pretty but boring in Finnish as well.  The book has been nominated for several awards, but my sense is that the premise carried most readers, whereas for me it wasn’t enough.  I like good prose, but there has to be more than nice descriptions to get me through a book, even a short one. 

I give this book three out of five stars.  I’m giving the book the benefit of the doubt because of the prose and the premise. 

Friday, December 4, 2015


Carl Sagan
Completed 11/8/2015, Reviewed 11/10/2015
5 stars

Carl Sagan is one of my childhood heroes.  My dad used to wake me up at 1 o’clock in the morning to watch him when he was the last guest on an episode of the Johnny Carson show.  I read “The Dragons of Eden” in high school and thought Sagan was genius in making hard science very understandable.  I loved the movie version of “Contact” but never read it, until now that it’s the December selection for my book club.  And I loved it.

Ellie is a brilliant radio astronomer obsessed with search for extraterrestrial life.  When a signal finally turns up, there is a mad dash to make sense of it.  It’s eventually discovered that signal contains the blue prints for some kind of machine.  It appears to be some kind of spaceship, but no one knows for certain.  If they spend the trillions of dollars to build it, what will they find?  Will we finally have contact with aliens?

The best thing about this book is that it is very hard science fiction, but written so it’s quite understandable.  I should have expected this from my experience with “Dragons of Eden”, but it caught me off guard.  The explanation of things like prime numbers and layers of signal read very easily and clearly.  I actually had more trouble remembering who characters were than understanding the science.

There are a lot of featured characters.  Sagan does a great job of delving into the lives of most of them.  It adds a great depth to the characters, fleshing out the different kinds of people that become scientists.  Eventually, I started to get their histories a bit confused.  But I think the book is really well written.  It’s just a matter of how much different data you can remember.

Another great aspect of the book is that Sagan has a lot of discussions about religion as well as women in science that are very provocative.  They didn’t surprise me, as I’ve read his “The Demon-Haunted World” non-fiction work where he discussed science and religion.  I was impressed with how here he was able to create really good arguments and actually left it to the reader to draw conclusions on the issues in the context of fiction.

My only complaint with the book was that it lacked a sense of warmth.  The characters, including Ellie, despite having thorough histories, did not seem to have much emotional breadth until the end.  Granted, we’re talking about scientists who stereotypically are driven by logic rather than emotions.  I think perhaps I was picturing the actors from the movie speaking the dialogue, but just wasn’t getting the humanness that the actors created.  Despite this, I’m still going to give it five stars out of five.  I loved reading it, I thought it was well written.  It’s a terrific hard science novel that conquers important philosophical questions as well, which I think is very much reminiscent of what Arthur C. Clarke was often able to accomplish in his novels.   

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The Adventures of Crazy Liddy

Clayton J. Callahan
Completed 9/12/2015, Reviewed 9/14/2015
2 stars

Whenever I read a space opera or an action book, I always need to preface it with the statement that I generally don’t like these types of books, although I am starting to appreciate them more.  I do much better watching a movie of this sub-genre than reading it.  Fortunately, this book was short enough that it kept my attention and I could actually appreciate that it was a rather fun action-adventure novel.  Liddy is a smuggler.  Usually extremely cautious, she has one slip and is sent to a prison planet for twenty years.  After three years, the governor asks her to participate in a rescue mission to find her missing-in-action son in exchange for a full pardon.   Guess who’s on the mission:  Agent Reed who busted her in the first place.  Together with a crusty pilot and a couple of uber-religious telepathic engineer aliens, they must travel to an enemy solar system and fight ugly blue aliens to find the governor’s son and win Liddy her freedom.  Unfortunately, amid all this fun, I had some issues that made reading the book a less than pleasant experience.

The problem I had with the book was the writing style.  The book is told in third person past tense, but it reads as if an average person was recounting a story in a loud bar.  This level of informality of the prose made it a tough read for me.  I often had difficulty wrapping my inner reading mouth around many of the phrases in the prose.  I accept informality in dialogue or in a character’s mind, but I find that the rest of the narration needed to contain less colloquialisms and more formal word choices.  It would have helped offset and emphasize the informality of the characters.

There’s a sense that this book has the intended audience of a thirteen year old boy, or a reader looking for a teenage male action movie experience.  The descriptions of Liddy and her clothing often felt very self-conscious, like how I remember my friends talking about girls when I was a teenage boy, and how I tried to mimic them.  At the same time, Liddy is a very powerful, self-actualized female character.  Most of the other female supporting characters were powerful as well.  There’s definitely good intention with the portrayal of women, but the obsession with Liddy’s blond hair, makeup, bras, and cling pants was almost embarrassing.

There’s also an awkwardness to the approach to religion in the prose.  When it pops up, it’s very obvious.  It never feels organic to the characters.  It feels manually injected into the dialogues like propaganda, as if the target audience was Christian thirteen year old boys.  At the same time, along with the strong portrayal of women, there’s positive portrayal of other religions, races, and sexual orientations.  In fact, I was really moved by the gay theme towards the end.  The author’s intentions are excellent, but I think it all needed to be executed better in the writing style.

My last thought is that this book has a lot of action stuffed in a very short package.  The style and tone, and perhaps the cover art, made me think that this might have been an excellent graphic novel.  The right illustrator could have smoothed the clunky prose and made made the themes like religion and race seem more organic to the characters and ironically, less cartoonish.

I have to give this book two out of five stars.  There are a lot of problems with it, but there’s a lot of good intentions.  I think if it were workshopped in a critical environment or made into a graphic novel, it could have smoothed a lot of its issues, making it more palatable for an adult reader.  But I’d like to see how a teen boy would enjoy the book, just to prove my theory that he’s the target audience.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Bob the Book

David Pratt
Completed 9/9/2015, Reviewed 9/10/2015
5 stars

In “A Glossary of Literary Terms”, M. H. Abrams defines the beast fable as a short story or poem where animals talk.  It is a form of allegorical writing where human behaviors and weaknesses are scrutinized by reflection into the animal kingdom.  So what do you call a book about a book that talks to other books?  A book fable.  You see, Bob is a gay book, i.e. a book that is attracted to other books of the same gender.  He falls in love with Moishe, but a calamity separates them.  Through purchases and resellings, he begins a search to find Moishe.  On his way he meets Angela, a widowed book, and Neil, a gay book that survived a book burning in Alabama.  Together they reflect on life, relationships, and discrimination through their adventures as they pass from owner to owner.  Sometimes, they can even talk to humans.  Simply said, it’s a delight.

The brilliance of the book is in the characterization.  The books don’t just have human thoughts and emotions, they have the basic characteristics of the type of book they are.  Bob is an academic book about the male nude through the ‘60s and ‘70s from the cultural studies section of the book store, although he is often mistaken for soft porn because of all the photos.  However he is academic, mature, and possibly a little snooty.  Angela the widow is a warm, accepting English lady, as she is Jane Austen’s “Mansfield Park”.  There are self-help books that offer bits of daily wisdom, and self-absorbed Hollywood gossip magazines. 

Besides the books, there are human characters. The main ones are Ron and Alfred, roommates but not partners, although a relationship like this is never quite that cut and dried.  Through all the relationships, human and book, the author recounts and critiques the life experiences that many gay men encounter.  Hence, the book fable.

If there’s one thing I found a little problematic, it’s the number of characters.  With all the books and all their different owners as they pass hands, the names sometimes ran together for me.  I often had to go back to rescan passages to make sure I knew if the person speaking was a book or a human. 

Another thing to be aware of is that there is some graphic sex.  However, it is all very relevant to the story as it is fable about the gay male experience.  During those scenes, we experience joy and despair and sometimes horror, as do the humans and the books who of course are the unintentional witnesses and are just as affected by it as the humans.

I had a lot of fun with “Bob the Book” and was also very affected by the topics discussed.  That’s why I gave it five stars out of five.  Besides the basic reflections on life and the world, it makes you look at books a whole different way.  A good friend of mine summed it up nicely when she said upon finishing it, “It makes me feel bad for all the books I’ve sold or given away”.  

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August

Claire North
Completed 10/14/2015, Reviewed 10/15/2015
4 stars

I like time travel stories.  This one had a great twist on the basic trope.  Harry is an ourobaran, or kalachakra.  When he dies, he’s reborn back into his body to relive his life, keeping his memory.  What’s more, he’s a rare mnemonic, he remembers everything.  So do you take advantage of that to change your life, or do you change the whole future.  At the end of his eleventh life, Harry finds out that the world is ending, and it’s probably caused by a fellow ourobaran.  Harry must make his own decision of whether to come to the seduction of changing the world, or fight to let it evolve on its own. 

The first thing I thought of was the movie “Groundhog Day”, but instead of being doomed to relive the same day, it’s your whole life you’re reliving.  The first rebirth is traumatic.  Imagine being a 4 year old coming to understand that you’ve already lived a life and have all that knowledge.  Fortunately, there’s a secret society of other people like you to help you through this, assuming they find you before you go nuts. 

North has some pretty strong world building for this.  There are certain laws, like you’ll always die of the same thing, though the exact timing may vary.  The lives of the rest of the population known as the linears, and most world events will still happen with some minor variation unless with your knowledge, you begin to interfere.  That’s the source of the morality for the ouroboran, determining whether you use your powers for good or evil, and even that can be ambiguous and circumstantial.

The book is really well written.  If it wasn’t, it would have been a mess to understand.  North jumps between Harry’s lives in the narrative, the main thread following his first few lives, then from the eleventh life on, with anecdotal stories from his other lives.  I’ve seen reviews of people who were confounded by the timeline jumping, but I found it easy to follow.  The whole setup of Harry’s first few lives is quite a page turner.  Then when that started to slow down for me, the plot of saving the world from the rogue ourobaran kicked in and brought the pace right back up again.

I give this book four out of five stars.  I think the concept is excellently executed.  It’s fast paced and really interesting.  There’s a lot of really dark humor and smattering of existential reflection.  How could there not be when in your eleventh life, you’re over 800 years old.  That’s a lot of time to think.

Saturday, November 21, 2015


Geoff Ryman
Completed 10/22/2015, Reviewed 10/26/2015
2 stars

“Was” is an interesting premise.  It’s sort of a deconstruction of the “Wizard of Oz” tale.  There are several interrelated stories:  a tale of the “real” Dorothy as an abused orphan in Kansas, a young man who meets her in a county run asylum when she’s in her 80s, a glimpse at Judy Garland during her childhood and on the set of the film, and a man dying of AIDS who is obsessed with film.  Each story is interesting, but as whole book, it falls flat.

The story of the “real” Dorothy is the longest.  It’s a tough story with emotional, physical, and sexual abuse.  Through an odd coincidence, Dorothy meets Frank Baum and the rest is history.  It’s an interesting idea and brings to light the nature and result of abuse, disassociation, and inner fantasy life.  But as with most stories of abuse, it’s not an easy read.  I found the despair too overwhelming at times.

The other stories are interlaced throughout the book.  They are interesting in themselves, and I think would stand alone well as short stories.  Each story stands up with its own plot and character development.   However, in the end, the stories come together in a huge fantasy or perhaps magical realism scene.  I found it to be incredibly complicated and confusing.  For me, it made the book lose its purpose.  I think it would have worked better if the stories simply ended on their own. 

I’d say you have to read the book to understand what I mean by this.  But the ending lost me so thoroughly, I can’t say I’d recommend anyone to read this book in the first place.  I think I would have been happier with a compilation of short stories called “Variations on a theme by Baum”.  I’m giving it two out of five stars because as a novel, it just doesn’t succeed.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

A Monster Calls

Patrick Ness
Completed 10/16/2015, Reviewed 10/21/2015
5 stars

I didn’t know what I was in for when I picked this book for one of my challenges.  It’s a prize winning YA horror novel.  When I got the book at the library and read the flap jacket synopsis, I realized I might be in for an emotional ride.  The concept for the book was from Siobhan Dowd who passed away from cancer before she could write the book.  It was developed into a novel by Patrick Ness.  It’s about Conor, a boy whose mother has cancer.   One night, a monster visits him.  It’s not the monster from his recurring nightmares.  This one doesn’t scare him.  However, the monster makes Conor confront issues he does not want to face. 

The book is what I would consider psychological horror.  You question if the monster is real or in Conor’s mind.  Of course, one would think it’s in his mind.  Conor’s mother is dying of cancer, his father left the family, he hates his grandmother with whom he has to stay often, he’s bullied at school, and everyone else tiptoes around him, making him feel invisible.  These are the sort of things that make you believe he’s creating the monster himself.  But the monster leaves signs of its presence whenever it visits him.  So is it real or not?

I didn’t quite care for several of the last few YA novels I read.  They lacked what I called heart.  There was little emotional depth; the characters were little more than cardboard youths.  However, Conor had quite a depth to him.  He could have just been angry, but has more to him than that, more sadness, more pathos, more frustration.  I was completely pulled into his head, going through the emotions that he was experiencing.  The adults were also a little deeper despite the short amount of time we have with them. 

What really brings the book together is that it is heavily illustrated with black and white drawings.  It’s not really a graphic novel, but the illustrations add emotionality to the story.  They convey the fear, despair, terror and anger, perfectly complimenting the action and emotions in the text.

I give the book five out of five stars.  The combination of dying mother, scary monster, childhood isolation, and fantastic drawings creates a deeply moving experience.  If you read this book, it will come as no surprise that it’s won several awards and is almost always checked out of the library.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Burning Girls

Veronica Schanoes
Completed 9/9/2015, Reviewed 9/25/2015
5 stars

Short fiction at its best is like an “amuse bouche”, something that tastes wonderful even though it only lasts for a short while.  “Burning Girls” is a delicious novella on the shorter side that packs a literary punch in its short thirty-two pages.  The story is about a young girl at the turn of the century in a small Jewish village in eastern Europe.  Rather than learning a trade, she apprentices to her grandmother as a healer, or basically, a witch.  Her sister learns a more practical trade, sewing.  When the Cossacks all but destroy the village, she and her sister leave for America, bringing their talents to the new world.  However, long before they left, their grandmother made a deal with an evil spirit that now follows them to their new home.

The book is actually a retelling of a fairy tale with a modern twist.  It touches on multiple issues, unions and poor working conditions, women’s rights, religion, and sexuality, weaving them into the narrative seamlessly and without feeling like an “issues” story.  The characters are also really well developed, specifically, the main character.  She’s an outsider, feeling different, but finding her place in the village.  When she comes to America, she finds a way to continue her healing practice amongst the other immigrants, and of course is the one who must take on the evil that has followed them there.

But I have to be honest:  I don’t know what fairy tale this is a retelling of.  I’ve done a lot of searching on the internet to try to find out, but all the reviews I read made sure to avoid the spoiler.  What I do know is that it’s a terrific tale.  Telling much more would also be a spoiler, the problem with reviewing short fiction.  Suffice it to say, I really loved this story and was blown away by the ending.  It was the first time in a while that I had to actively breathe and relax upon finishing a book.  Five stars out of five.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

A Natural History of Dragons

Marie Brennan
Completed 9/30/2015, Reviewed 10/1/2015
4 stars

I first took notice of this book because of the title.  But I was a little worried about it being heavy on biology fiction.  Not to fear, this book is sort of a cross between a mystery and an autobiography of a scientist.  It tells the tale of a Victorian-like-era woman enamored with dragons, who becomes one of the most foremost authorities on the subject.  On her first expedition, she uncovers a mystery of a recent spate of dragon attacks, as she bucks the prejudice against women in science.  The book is a delightful read, told in style that almost reminded me of PBS British period series.

Isabella, the future Lady Trent, is a great character and narrator.  Writing as the old and acclaimed dragon scientist, she tells the tale of how she came to be infatuated with them.  She also gives us great insight on the problems she faces in a society where women are for marrying, not thinking.  Her parents worry how she’ll find a husband while she worries how she’ll be able to get up close and personal with dragons.  Fortunately, she meets a man who loves her because she is intelligent and curious, and he likes dragons too.  Soon they meet an explorer who’s willing to take them on an expedition and the rest is history, well, an alternate history anyway.

I should note that the book is pure fantasy in that there are fictional continents, countries, and religions.  However, because it has a Victorian sensibility, if feels more like an alternate history.  Looking closely at the map the author provides at the beginning of the book, one sees not just a made up world, but almost an extrapolation of Europe and western Russia if our continents drifted and collided a little differently.  The religions sound a little like Christendom and the pagan hinterlands.  And there are boyars and a tsar, even though there is no Russia.  The net effect is that the whole construct makes the reader very comfortable even though it is a very different world.

The prose is wonderful.  It’s the sort of book that begs to be read with a British accent in your head.  Because it is an autobiography of the narrator, there’s wonderful asides and commentary throughout the story.  The feel and tone of the book reminded me of “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell”, but warmer than the pseudo-documentary form.

I give this book four stars out of five.  I keep using the term warm, which is funny because much of it takes place in the cold mountains of a Russia-like country.  But it’s the best work I can think of to describe the place this book took me.  If it had been a bit colder out, I would have enjoyed reading this under a quilt with some hot cocoa.  

Friday, November 6, 2015

A Darkling Sea

James Cambias
Completed 9/26/2015, Reviewed 9/28/2015
4 stars

A research ship on the ocean floor of an ice covered moon, much like Io, is studying an intelligent species from afar.  Similar to Star Trek’s Prime Directive, the researchers are not allowed to have contact with the species.  When one man breaks the directive and gets killed by them, it erupts into an interplanetary incident causing a standoff between the research team and the Sholen, a race of aliens who figure themselves the enforcers of the directive.  Pretty much a standard space opera, but I have to admit, it was a very readable and entertaining novel.

My first thought with the book was that it could be considered derivative.  It’s very much like a Vernor Vinge novel with intertwining plots between the humans and the aliens.  Like Vinge, the aliens are really well described and developed.  In fact, Vinge endorses the book with a quote on the back cover.  But I thought they were much more imaginative, more along the lines of Clifford Simak.  The Ilmatar exist several kilometers below the surface ice of the moon.  Sort of a cross between lobsters and beluga whales, they have no eyes, seeing with sonar and touch.  They are modeled after our deep sea dwellers who live around thermal vents on the ocean floor.  The Sholen are a little more like us with a violent history but with sexuality and consensus as part of their normal interpersonal interaction.

The characters are not terribly deep, but following them as the narrative switches between a human, a Sholen, and an Ilmatar was really fun.  The most interesting part was how the understanding between the humans and the Ilmatar develops while it breaks down with the Sholen, even though the relationship between humans and Sholen is much older.  My favorite character was Broadtail, the Ilmatar.  Through him, we learn about his culture, and he provides a great perspective on how we would be perceived by an alien race at first contact. 

One of the best parts of the book is the very end.  There’s a twist that has spawned pages of discussion of its meaning on the net.  I won’t give it away here, of course.  Just suffice it to say it blew my mind.

I give this book four stars out of five.  This is a short review for a short book, but I think it’s enough to say it’s fun, exciting, interesting, and a fairly easy read.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Blood Price

Tanya Huff
Completed 10/8/2015, Reviewed 10/9/2015
3 stars

Vampires and detectives.  Always a good mix for pretty standard supernatural murder mysteries.  “Blood Price” is exactly that.  Vicki Nelson, formerly a highly decorated Toronto detective, is now a private investigator.  Late one night in the subway, she sees a flash of black and a body with all its blood drained.  Was it a vampire?  Do they really exist?  Well, turns out they do, but this murder, which was just the first of a series of brutal, blood draining attacks, was not caused by a vampire.  Henry Fitzroy the handsome vampire told her.  He is also trying to get to the bottom of the murders because he’s knows this is not how vampires operate in modern society.  He’s afraid he and his kind will be found out and wrongly accused of these murders and that there’s something more diabolical afoot.  Together, Vicki and Henry try to discover the source of these demonic crimes before an even greater evil is unleashed upon the world.

The book is pretty standard mystery stuff.  There’s nothing special about the book.  This is the kind of book a good friend of mine would call “fluff”.  However, it was written back in 1991.  What feels commonplace now could have been a little more original twenty five years ago.  Today, however, Vicki the PI, Henry the vampire, even the Norman the instigator of these demonic crimes, who we find out about early in the book (not a spoiler), are pretty cookie-cutter.  Henry is a little more interesting than the rest.  We get to find out who he was when he was alive, and how he became a vampire.  It adds a little dimension to him.

The best parts of the books are the murders, but I think it’s mostly because they’re, well, murders.  I don’t read many murder mysteries, so I find these scenes quite exciting and scary.  They’re not gruesomely described, perhaps the way Clive Barker would detail, but the suspense is quite fun.  The end of the book is quite exciting as well.  It’s fast paced and even though you know it has to end well because there’s four more books in the series, it’s fun to see how it actually resolves.

I chose this book for one of my LGBT in genre lit challenges.  The author is lesbian, and the series is recommended for its positive portrayal of LGBT characters.  This book however only has fleeting references, so if you’re looking for a stronger presence, you probably need to read further into the series.  But don’t let that discourage you.  The book is unremarkable, standard bestseller material, but it is fun.  For that, I give this book three stars out of five.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

Robin Sloan
Completed 9/18/2015, Reviewed 9/19/2015
4 stars

After reading a heavy Tolkien tome, I needed something fun.  “Mr Penumbra” fit the bill perfectly.  It’s a light romp through secret societies, ancient books, and Google.  Clay has been laid off from his web designer job and finds work at a twenty-four hour bookstore.  But it is no ordinary bookstore.  It has a quirky owner and quirkier clientele who check out odd old tomes with unintelligible text.  He quickly becomes obsessed with the books bringing in modern technology to unravel the mystery.  Soon he is in the midst of a 500 year old secret society that might have the key to immortality. 

The best thing about this book is that it is fun.  Clay is a 20-something who just kind of fell into his last tech job.  When that job goes away, he’s rather directionless.  A lot of people should be able to relate him because he’s reminiscent of those of us in the techie biz not knowing what to do next when one job goes away, and wishing we could just work in a bookstore or a coffeeshop.  Then when you do, you get intimately involved with it because you love it.  I myself had that experience when I got laid off from a great IT job and went to work at a coffeeshop.  That ended up being my favorite job ever. 

On a deeper level, the story is an obvious metaphor for the conflict between traditional and digital books.  There are people who love the feel and smell of a book, who love to go to a library or bookstore and walk among the stacks.  While I’ve taken to the e-reader (I’m unintentionally ironically reading this on one), there’s still nothing like the feeling of finishing a book and sitting with it in your hands as you ponder the experience you just had with it.  But like the album and the 8-track tape, books are probably doomed.  However, once digitized, there’s so much more that can be done with it, as even Mr. Penumbra finds out. 

At its heart it’s simply an enjoyable read.  It’s sort of like “The DaVinci Code” without the cheese and melodrama and a little more YA oriented.  I found it only dragged a little near the beginning when the author spent a little too much time talking about Google, but it does figure greatly in the rest of the story.   I was going to give this book three stars, but had to go with four to correctly reflect how much fun the adventure is.  

Friday, October 16, 2015

The Fall of Arthur

JRR Tolkien
Completed 9/13/2015, Reviewed 9/15/2015
3 stars

How do you review an unfinished poem in Old English style alliterative verse that’s about 45 pages long with 180 pages of commentary?  Carefully?  This is one of a group of books of alliterative verse that Tolkien never finished which his son published posthumously.  It’s about the last tragic scenes from King Arthur’s life, with Mordred usurping the crown and pursuing Guinevere, the exile of Lancelot, and the death of Arthur.  It’s told in alliterative verse, so it’s a tough read.  I chose this book because I thought it would be a break from Middle-Earth and an introduction to the alliterative verse style I will encountering in the next book in the History of Middle Earth series.  I’m glad I chose this over his longer poems.  It was just the right amount to be overwhelmed.

Alliterative verse means that several words in a line begin with the same sound, like the T’s in “Attend the Tale of Sweeny Todd”.  It was a common form of poetry used in Old and Middle English.  This being my first encounter with it, I found myself often becoming fixated on the alliteration rather than the content.  Add this to my already mediocre appreciation of poetry, and you can probably guess that I had to reread many verses to get what was going on.  It took a while, but I was able to appreciate the musicality of the poetry.

The commentary was difficult to follow.  I think one needs to be quite the bibliophile or at least have been an English major to appreciate the analysis that Christopher produced.  The one chapter compared the poem to other Arthur texts.  I found this quite confusing, only having read “The Once and Future King” in high school; my memory of the Arthur myth is very minimal.  The texts Christopher discussed were some of the earliest documents describing the Arthur myth.  I know it’s probably great analysis, but the bouncing between which text had what detail of the myth lost me.

Another chapter discussed the influence of the Arthur myth on the development of the Silmarillion, particularly Avalon, Numenor, and Atlantis. The third discussed the evolution of the poem from earlier drafts and notes.  In both of these, the concepts are interesting and I could follow part of the discussion, but eventually, my eyes would glaze over and I’d be lost.

I give this book three stars out of five.  It might be a brilliant book from the academic perspective, but that’s out of my realm.  I’d recommend reading the poem though because it is an experience.  Tolkien was quite the wordsmith.  Despite my lack of academic prowess in literary analysis, I’ll continue to read Tolkien’s posthumous works. I’m hoping that by the time I get to the last of his works, I’ll be able to appreciate, if not understand, the sorts of things Christopher presents in these tomes.

Monday, October 12, 2015

The Bone Season

Samantha Shannon
Completed 9/22/2015, Reviewed 9/23/2015
3 stars

“The Bone Season” has a terrific premise.  Paige is a Voyent.  That is, she and many others have clairvoyent powers that can manipulate spirits trapped in the ether.  They live an underground existence in gangs because the government has declared them unnatural, illegal, and the sentence is death.  Paige is captured but rather than facing capital punishment, she finds herself a slave to the Rephaites, an alien race trying to protect the world from an even greater terror.  This is definitely good buildup, but I thought it a little flat.  I found myself more preoccupied with the idea of Stockholm syndrome than the details of the story itself.

Before the text, there is a diagram of the hierarchy of the seven categories of Voyents and their sub-types.  In the back, there’s a glossary of slang.  Together, this peaked my interest in the world building of the book.  When I actually began reading it, I didn’t find it all that interesting.  It took me a long time to figure out where the problem lay.  It’s not the prose.  The book is quite readable, reminding me of the prose of “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell”.  The plot was decent enough, a dystopian future where mental control over the supernatural is becoming dominant but under attack, like a modern day witch hunt.

I think the problem lay in the character of Paige herself.  There’s something about her that just did not interest me.   The descriptions of her felt very wooden.  She’s angry about her gift, her captivity and the way she and the other Voyents are treated, we get that.  But there was little depth to her personality other than this anger.  The author provides us with her background, but there just seemed to be no heart, no warmth, nothing to make me care what was happening to her other than the general knowledge that this was a bad thing and she needed to get out of it.  As the story progressed, I became a little more involved with her, but actually felt that the supporting characters were much better developed, having real feelings and reactions to the situation.  Arcturus, aka Warden, Paige’s Rephaite guardian, was particularly intriguing in his conflict between his heartless role as her trainer and his compassion for humans, particularly her.  On the other hand, Nashira, the leader of the Rephaites was a two-dimensional evil queen. 

What intrigued me the most about the story was the whole concept of Stockholm syndrome.  The captive Voyents develop varying levels of faithfulness to the Rephaites, as they provide a safe, though second-class haven for their “unnaturalness”.  Those who give themselves over to the Rephaites are honored with better duties and status, while those who don’t are abused and humiliated.  Paige herself has varying degrees of hate and compassion toward her captor.  It made me wonder if the author realized she was playing with the syndrome when developing the characters’ personalities.

I give the book three stars out of five.  The book is basically entertaining but I was just not as engaged as I would have liked to have been.  It’s the first of a series, with more planned.  I’m not impressed enough with it to continue on.  The book has been optioned for a film, and I expect that this would make a good, strong young woman action/sci fi flick if they can produce the supernatural action well. 

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The Demonologist

Andrew Pyper
Completed 9/7/2015, Reviewed 9/8/2015
4 stars

I’ve always liked horror even though it gives me nightmares rather easily.  “The Exorcist” scared me so badly I hid the book in a closet until I had the courage to take it out and get rid of it.  I’ve read a lot of Stephen King and Clive Barker, among others, trying to re-experience having a book scare me that much.  When I saw the title for this book, it pulled me in.  With possessed people, disappearing children, and talking dead, this certainly seemed to fit the bill.  Well, it’s not “The Exorcist”, but it’s still pretty scary, and a darn well written book.

David Ullman is a professor of John Milton’s “Paradise Lost”, as well as other literature with demonic content, though he doesn’t believe in any of it.  His life is falling apart:  his wife is divorcing him and his best friend has stage four cancer.  So when out of the blue he is asked to come to Venice to observe a phenomenon, all expenses paid, he jumps at the chance to get away for a bit.  He brings his daughter for the couple day getaway.  What he sees is horrifying and has consequences for both him and his daughter.  Now he must piece together clues from Milton and random acts of horror around the country to save his daughter from hell.

Sounds like a great promo for a movie.  Well, it’s supposedly under development.  But the first thing you think when you hear this is how will it be made into a film.  Most of the terror is psychological.  Yes, bad and scary things happen, but most of the terror that happens takes place in David’s head and his head alone.  That’s where it gets you.  Is he sane or insane?  Is this happening because of tragedy in his childhood?  Is it because he and his daughter are “melancholy” souls?   That’s what really makes this book great and it makes you wonder if any of that can be captured on film.

Like all flawed characters, David tries to do this alone.  Told in first person present, it creates an immediacy to his fears and feelings through this ordeal, increasing the tension and anticipation of the climax.  By the way, this book was nominated for a Shirley Jackson award, for novels with psychological horror.  It totally deserves it.

It’s tough to go too far into this book because it is quite short.  Expounding on characterization and plot gives too much of a spoiler.  And sometimes I can’t exactly explain why I like a book.  I just liked it.  It scared me.  The important thing to take away from the review is that David gets into your head, and as flawed as his thinking may be throughout his journey, you’re right there with him, debating the reality of the demons he only ever believed in as a literary device, and coming to grip with the examples of their reality all around him.  I give this book four stars out of five.  It didn’t keep me up nights, but it gave me enough chills to know this is a well written romp through one of my favorite genres.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015


Malinda Lo
Completed 9/5/2015, Reviewed 9/8/2015
3 stars

There are a lot of retellings and deconstructions of classic fairy tales these days.  It seems to have its own subgenre designation, Fairytale Fantasy.  Perhaps the most well-known is “Wicked”.  Its author has also played with the Snow White and Cinderella tales.  Helen Oyeyemi has also become well-known for her deconstructions of myth and fairy tales.  Having read and loved both these authors, I went into “Ash” expecting more of the same.  It is, to an extent.  It’s Cinderella with a coming of age Lesbian twist and a more complex relationship with the realm of faerie than the normal fairy godmother.  But the majority of it lacked a certain warmth that could have really propelled this book into classic status. 

Ash is Aisling, beloved of her parents, and having an affinity toward magical awareness.  Her mother dies young.  Her father remarries and then soon dies, leaving her an unwanted ward and sole servant of her stepmother and stepsisters.  Then Ash meets the King’s Huntress.  Instead of the magic being used to meet the prince, its purpose is to bring Ash and the Huntress together despite the social gap between them. 

I think the lack of warmth comes from how Ash reacts to her predicament.  Like many LGBT youths, Ash disengages from her feelings, leaving her a cold shell that allows her to function in her deplorable predicament.  This is understandable, and should be relatable, but I didn’t attain the empathy that I could have.  Perhaps it’s because this is actually a YA novel.  My experience with YA novels is that they sometimes do lack a sense of depth even though deep feelings are being explored.  It may be the brevity of the book, or perhaps just a lack of skill of the author.  Even Ash’s falling in love, first with the mysterious faerie Sidhean, then with the Huntress didn’t quite gel for me.

The character I really liked was Kaisa, the Huntress.  She added the warmth to the novel that was sorely needed.  Like Ash, I spent all the time between scenes with Kaisa waiting for her.  She’s a strong woman, well-developed as a character.  She’s not simply a caricature, like the prince in many standard fairy tales, but a very human person.  I liked Kaisa so much, I’m considering reading the Lo’s prequel about her.

The book is short, which may be its flaw.  Perhaps if the author spent more time with Ash, allowing us to see the hurt more rather than just the cold husk, the book would have worked better for me.  I thought all the interpolations of the details of the story were well thought out, the magic, the relationship with the step-relatives, the more realistic immersion into a Victorian social structure.  But there was just that warmth missing that left me with a rather indifferent feeling at the end.  I should have wanted more of Ash, but instead, I wanted more of Kaisa.  Perhaps that’s why Lo wrote the prequel:  the readers of the book felt as I did.  I give the book three stars out of five.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Gilgamesh the King

Robert Silverberg
Completed 9/3/2015, Reviewed 9/8/2015
4 stars

The “Epic of Gilgamesh” is an ancient epic Sumerian poem about the exploits of Gilgamesh, the greatest king of Uruk in Mesopotamia.  It tells the tale of how he overworked his people to build a great kingdom, his friendship with the wild man Enkidu who was sent by the gods to distract him, his battles with the goddess Inanna, the earliest account of the great flood, and his journey seeking immortality.  Silverberg’s book is a novelization of the epic with some liberties taken, particularly the interaction with the gods.  The result is a highly readable retelling of what is considered the first piece of literature in human history.  I was completely engrossed in the book, both from an historical perspective and by the wonderful prose that Silverberg is known for.

Gilgamesh is an unreliable narrator.  This becomes evident as the book progresses.  Being told in first person, it paints him as a great, likeable hero, only eventually revealing to the reader that his perspective might be flawed.  This is a wonderful device drawing the reader into his personal struggles from his exile as a child to his claiming of the throne, then to his rebuilding of the kingdom.  But rumors abound that his people are exhausted from his seemingly unending supply of energy, his only distraction appearing to be his loneliness for intimate companionship.  That’s where the veneer of infallibility is first cracked.  Of course he has a harem of many wives, but we figure out he suffers from a few complexes.  To remedy this and to provide relief to his people, the gods send him a friend, Enkidu, a man who was raised by wild animals, the only man who can challenge him, and get him a little past his self-absorption. 

My one problem with the book is that Silverberg had to note that the relationship with Enkidu was not a gay relationship, but one of extreme filial love, and wrestling.  It’s like he had to appease the censors who thought the relationship was too homoerotic.  I mean, come on, they were always wrestling.  Considering they never engaged in sexual relations, I think it would have been fine to have left this statement out, leaving it ambiguous.  Considering Gilgamesh’s huge harem of wives and insatiable appetite for them, I think it’s much more believable to postulate that he was bisexual, and a similar book written today probably would have allowed that.

Dovetailing on this, one of Gilgamesh’s duties as king and representative of the consort Dumuzid, is to have an annual encounter with the priestess who is the representative of the goddess Inanna.  What’s significant about this is that this priestess is really the only woman he loves.  It creates a great sexual tension that permeates all of Gilgamesh’s thoughts and actions.  The introduction of Enkidu creates a triangle that sets the tone for the rest of the book and the tragedy that follows. 

Perhaps my favorite part of the book is Gilgamesh’s relationship to religion and the gods.  While he performs all the religious rituals necessary of a king, he also has a very modern, almost cynical view towards them.  It sets up a battle of the sexes and secularism, with religion represented by a women and the state represented by a man.  This multi-layered conflict is threaded throughout the latter half of the book, creating the exciting denouement that finishes the novel.  I know there is a sequel, where Silverberg pulls out more stories from the original Epic, including the journeys through the underworld, but this conclusion is quite satisfying.

I’ve only read one other Silverberg book, but considering he never won a best novel Hugo, he seems to be one of the more underappreciated writers of the golden era.  And I think that many SF readers are missing out one of the era’s best.  Silverberg’s prose is wonderful.  It never gets too haughty, but still feels literary.  Exemplified in this book, the words, plot, and images simply flow like water, making the reading experience a delight. 

Despite my one concern, I give this book four stars out of five.  I was completely engrossed in the book and the characters.  This was another one my used paperback purchases from Orycon with pretty small font, and I thought I’d have trouble with that as well as the fact that this is basically historical fiction with a little mythology thrown it.  But it proved me wrong and Silverberg remains one of the authors I just have to read more of.

Saturday, September 19, 2015


Samuel R. Delany
Completed 8/30/2015, Reviewed 9/1/2015
4 stars

“Nova” is a very complex little novel.  Part space opera, quest, political statement, and philosophical reflection, it’s also considered a forerunner of the nanotechnology sub-genre.  This is only my second novel of Delany’s and I found it quite gripping.  At times the hard SF left me a little dazed, as well as the changing points of view, but the brevity of the book and the tight prose kept me from being lost for too long.

My previous Delany work was his massive play with form, “Dhalgren”, which came a few years later.  I regularly found foreshadowing of the later work in various passages here, sometimes with the playing with form, and sometimes when the characters were having philosophical conversations.  In fact, there’s a “form surprise” at the end of the novel which actually made me laugh.  There are other similarities as well, like the character with one shoe.  But it didn’t distract me; it just gave me a feeling of familiarity. 

This book is about a spaceship captain from a powerful family who wants to fly into a star that goes nova and retrieve seven tons of Illyrion, which is very rare and is used to power spaceships and make hostile planets habitable.  His reason for doing this is for a vendetta against another powerful family whose control of the market and most of the galaxy would be destroyed by the massive influx of Illyrion into the market.   Captain Von Ray assembles a diverse and bizarre crew for this venture, travelling from planet to planet looking for clues to a star ready to blow.

Delany makes a lot of points in this book.  He grandly plays with diversity with the captain and other characters being bi- or multi-racial, a set of black twins where one is an albino, and a gypsy.  He also uses a special syntax for the characters from one part of the galaxy.  It’s tough reading at first, but is fun at the same time.  For the nanotechnology, people are given implants at an early age with which they can work and learn better and can then achieve a greater sense of job satisfaction.  At the same time, the tarot is accepted as fact and disbelievers are tantamount to flat-earthers.  One of the characters is writing a novel, a dead art form, and he gets to expound on art and culture with his crewmates.  It’s just amazing that Delany could pack so much into such a short novel and still keep it exciting. 

The characters are very well developed.  While the book begins with the gypsy, known as the Mouse, we get the most background on the captain when we hear the history of the vendetta.  But the Mouse is intriguing, particularly because he can play the syrinx, an instrument that creates visual and olfactory stimuli in addition to playing music.  It makes Mouse beloved by many minor characters as well as by the reader. 

This book was quite a ride for only being about 220 pages.  As you can probably tell from how much I jump from item to item in the review, there’s a lot to take in.  In fact, it’s maybe a little too much, which is perhaps why “Dhalgren”, his next major work, came seven years later and filled nearly 900 pages.  I give “Nova” four stars out of five.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Cosmic Engineers

Clifford D. Simak
Completed 8/27/2015, Reviewed 8/28/2015
4 stars

Every book of Simak’s I read reinforces that he’s my favorite author of the golden age of SF.  He created great stories without falling into the trappings of space opera.  His books are always thoughtful and thought provoking.  “The Cosmic Engineers” is no exception.  While on the surface, it has a plot that sounds like space opera, it’s much more, retaining a simplicity and sweetness that I’ve come to expect from him.  

Gary and Herb are journalists exploring the solar system to write stories on all the planets.  They get a message that they need to go to Pluto to stop someone who has built a rocket ship with a drive that will go faster than light, carrying him to Alpha Centauri.  On their way, they pick up a woman who’s been in floating in a ship in suspended animation, but mentally awake for a thousand years, keeping herself from going crazy by solving the universe’s problems.  When they all arrive at Pluto, they help the local scientist interpret a communication from alien beings, calling them cosmic engineers.  They find out the universe is about to be destroyed and the engineers need their help to stop it.

Like most of Simak’s works, this book is short, succinct yet prosy.  His writing style is almost comforting in how well it reads.  And in only 160 pages, he comes up with interesting characters who are multi-dimensional.  I like the fact that considering this book was written in 1950, he made Caroline a mathematical and scientific genius.  She was already quite the mind before her suspended animation, but having had a thousand years to ponder all of the universe’s mysteries, she’s the one that makes the intellectual breakthroughs. 

Another one of my favorite themes of his which he uses here is the bizarre alien.  Except for the engineers, they are not humanoid nor are they humanlike earth mammals with annoying names like Tigerishka.  They look like slugs and blobs and only sometimes have something resembling faces.  It reinforces the idea that just because we are the “advanced” species, other intelligent life will not necessarily look like us.

While not long enough to be a terribly deep book, he does offer some interesting 5th dimensional science, bizarre hyperintelligence on the edge of sanity, and a theory of who we are and where we are going.  I thoroughly enjoyed this book, wishing it was longer, unlike the long books which I believe would have been much more enjoyable if they were at least a hundred pages shorter.  Perhaps of all author’s I’ve read in these past three years of SF/Fantasy immersion, Simak is one in whom I never seem disappointed.  He always has a fascinating twist on things, and there’s always at least one intriguingly gooey alien.  Four stars out of five.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Web of the Witch World

Andre Norton
Completed 8/25/2015, Reviewed 8/26/2015
4 stars

“Web” was a bit of a surprise.  I liked “Witch World”, but didn’t love it.  I struggled with the prose and simply the act of reading.  The version of the book I had was a first edition paperback with a font that looks like 6 point on yellowing paper so old, it’s orange.  I could only read about twenty pages before getting tired.  It was nominated for a Hugo in 1964, but it didn’t generate the excitement in me I thought it would.  “Web” on the other hand, had me totally enrapt.  I ate it up despite the similar prose, tiny font, orange pages, and watering eyes.  I’m guessing that I needed to warm up to the world building with one book, so I could slide right into it with this one.

The first thing that struck me as great was how Norton recapped the first book through the first several chapters.  Sometimes recaps can be annoying, but it being a year and a half the first book, I found it put me right back into this weird universe.  You see, we’re not really sure we’re on earth, even Simon the main character doesn’t exactly know where he time-space travelled to, but he learned the language, integrated into their society, even marrying one of the witches.  Now a new crisis has emerged.  Loyse, who posed as a boy to flee her betrothal to the evil duke Yleth, has been returned to Karsten where she will be forced to marry him, despite being in love with Koris.  Simon and Koris undertake to rescue her, and Simon eventually falls once again into the hands of the Koldor. 

In putting together that summary, I realized it sounds soapy, but these stories are considered the predecessor to the contemporary subgenre of romantic fantasy.  In addition, the fantasy is layered with an unknown technology, bending the genre even further.  There are flying machines, submarines, and recording devices, but nary a steam engine or dirigible.  And it all works to create a fascinating world with likeable characters and exciting adventure.  And one more bend, Norton’s work is also considered YA, drawing young girls into a predominantly male genre even before it was commonly known that she herself was a woman.  Her given name was Alice.

The prose is still a little terse for me.  It reminds me of Tolkien’s style from his posthumous work, though not nearly as complex.  I found myself having an easier time reading it after about 20 pages in.  It’s a little like Shakespeare, at first you’re lost, then after a short while, you’re in the rhythm and groove of the words and it flows comfortably.

Simon is a great understated hero and I have a fondness for Loyse who breaks gender stereotypes left and right.  Jaelithe is interesting.  She had to give up her witch powers when she chose to marry Simon, reinforcing the old trope that women must choose between marriage and career, or that sex causes powerlessness.  To my relief, she discovers other magic within herself, turning the trope on its head.  I was happy to read in my research for this review that Norton often shook up this notion that women were powerless and that sex and power were mutually exclusive.  No wonder she was able to draw so many girls of the baby boomer generation into the genre. 

I think if I went back and reread the first book, I would probably rate it higher than I did, in light of my reaction to this book.  It’s a great adventure chock full of imagination.  I wonder if she isn’t just the founder of the romantic fantasy, but of dark fantasy as well.  Fantasy of course has always had a dark side, think Grimm and LOTR, but there were times I was confusing my memory of “Witch World” with the very dark universe of Richard K. Morgan’s “Land Fit for Heroes” trilogy (“The Steel Remains”, “The Cold Commands”, and “The Dark Defiles”), though those are darker places than most people probably would want to go.  I give “Web” four out of five stars.  

Friday, September 4, 2015

1998 Hugo Winner: Forever Peace

Joe Haldeman
Read 2012, reviewed 5/19/2013
3 stars

This book felt like two separate novels.  The first half is about the main character, Julian Class, and his role in the war as a mechanic for a weapon called the soldierboy.  The soldierboy is operated by a soldier connected through a mental link with the weapon.  It’s a great technological concept.  However, I was bored with the battle scenes.  I realize the point of the battle scenes is to give you an understanding of the theory of how the soldier becomes telepathically linked to the soldierboy and its effects on the soldier.  However, it quickly bored me.

Fortunately, the second half of the novel takes a very different turn.  Julian discovers that the same process used to link a soldier with a soldierboy, if carried further, turns humans in to peace-loving, non-violent beings.  And the government and crazed radical cults don’t like that.  I read through this part voraciously, loving the tension, and the race to find a way to make a permanently peaceful Earth.

Another aspect I didn’t care for in this novel was the story-telling technique.  It bounced between first person Julian, and third person observer.  It was quite distracting, and probably added to my dislike of the first half of the book.  It seemed more natural in the second half, but that may be because it took me reading through all the war scenes to get the narrative style down.

Once again, Haldeman has created a novel which demonstrates the futility of war.  Here he takes it one step further and parodies our current social conflict:  War may be hell, but the infrastructure won’t find a way to end it permanently, and there will always be crazy people who will always support violence and war as a means to their end.

I only gave this book 3 stars because of my problems with the narration, and my boredom with the first half.  I do have concerns that I read this book after reading “The Forever War” and was tainted because of it.  If I had read this book first, I might have liked it better.  But I do realize that in general I do not like reading war stories.  What saved this book was the second half.