Sunday, May 31, 2015


Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Completed 5/20/2015, Reviewed 5/21/2015
4 stars

I usually don’t buy books anymore, but somehow lately, I’ve accumulated a few stacks of used books.  I found this slim work in a nice little used book store at the coast.  Only having seen the title in The Guardian’s list of must read Science Fiction and Fantasy, and not being an English major, I had no idea that this was written by the author of one of the greatest short stories of all time. 

“Herland” is not traditional genre fiction.  It’s a one hundred year old utopian story couched in the forerunner of science fiction, the adventure yarn.  Three young men bemoaning the fact that there is nothing left to explore come upon a secluded land inhabited solely by women.  They are captured by the women but treated with respect and kindness.  Over the next year, the three men learn about this utopia, reacting with everything from disbelief to worship. 

This book is really a treatise on a female utopia couched in an adventure story.  Interestingly enough, I found the adventure aspect not nearly as interesting as the description of the utopia.  The society began two thousand years before, when all the men died, leaving only women, trapped in a huge valley whose only outlet was sealed by a volcanic eruption.  One woman spontaneously becomes parthenogenic bearing daughters, who in turn reproduce asexually.  These virgin births eventually replenish the population.  In the struggle to survive, the women work together to form an active, progressive civilization without men.

Gilman explains this utopia through a very basic plot device.  The society remembers men and knows they exist in the outside world.  They believe it is only time before they are discovered and have been looking forward to learning about the world.  The coming of the three men is this looked for visit.  They spend the next year in a Q&A learning about each other’s worlds.  Gilman covers everything: religion, economics, reproduction, agriculture, and more.  But she does it in a great way.  The men ask questions and the women explain.  Then when the men explain our world, the women are amazed, analyzing it through their own cultural lens, and asking the “whys” that the men can’t answer because it’s not logical.  I found it an awesome way to present criticism of contemporary society.  And while some of it is dated, a lot of it is still relevant today.  Of course, the men omit a lot of the problematic issues, like war and disease, trying to make our world seem like the utopia it clearly isn’t. 

It’s a rather tough book to read, mostly because it is a lot of exposition, with lots of details of the logic of how the utopia evolved as it did.  I was engaged nonetheless.  As with any utopian essay, the social harmony is awesome, but the way asocial behavior is resolved always seems at least a little unrealistic.  Perhaps that’s because I’m a man indoctrinated in our greedy and individualistic society and that’s the point of the book.  Still, I give this book four stars out of five.  It’s smart, engaging, and particularly interesting for people like me who like reading alternative theories.  But being more of a treatise than a novel, it just lacks emotional punch.  

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Goblin Emperor

Katherine Addison
Completed 5/18/2015, Reviewed 5/19/2015
5 stars

The Goblin Emperor is being nominated for awards all over the place.  It’s a fairly basic fantasy plot of royal intrigue set in a steampunk-ish world of elves and goblins.  An elvish emperor and his three eldest sons die in a tragic dirigible accident.  Maia, the  emperor’s fourth son and the product of a despised political marriage to a goblin princess, unexpectedly assumes the throne of the elvish empire at age 18.  He is immediately met with disdain and outright hostility.  Somehow, he must keep his sanity while navigating coup attempts and murder plots to establishing himself as the rightful claimant to the throne.  What made this book stand out for me was the world-building and empathy for Maia that Addison created.  I loved Maia and related to his struggle for acceptance in a cruel world. 

I was totally sold on Maia right from the beginning.  His mother died when he was eight and was left to be raised by a cruel guardian, himself exiled to this life of raising the ignored, or more accurately, reviled son of the emperor.  When Maia is suddenly thrust into his new role, he simultaneously is relieved to be free of his abuser and terrified of a role for which he was never groomed.  He has to learn all the ways of the royal court, discerning his friends and enemies.  I’ve never been one for the complex politics often found in space opera and the like, and this book’s politics gets quite complicated, but I found Maia’s journey entertaining and very endearing, both in the successes and embarrassing faux pas (that’s the plural). 

There was only one time I got lost in the politics, and it highlights a part of the book that is both awesome and frustrating.  Addison developed a highly complex language of person and place names.  Maia has the easiest name.  Nearly all the other names are complicated and at times difficult to discern from one another.  There are first and last names, differentiation in last names based on gender and number, salutations based on social rank, and given versus taken first names.  Where I got completely befuddled was a dinner scene with Maia and his cabinet discussing the current issues of state.  If I really studied this, I believe it would have been a great scene for understanding the personality and motivation of each of the elf ministers.  Instead, I found myself rereading the same couple of pages over and over again, getting the gist, but missing the depth.  I did well with most of the rest of the names, though often, when a previously introduced character came into a scene, it took me a paragraph or two to remember who exactly it was.  The best thing about the names was that I picked up the pronunciation quickly.  She uses the same basic rules as Tolkien does in his elvish. 

I’ve read a lot of fantasy, though not much that had a lot of court intrigue.  I know it exists out there.  It made me wonder if the basic plot of this book hadn’t been done many times before.  But I think what makes this book standout is simply the level of detail Addison created in the language, clothing, culture, manners, and mythology.  I’m betting this will be the frontrunner for this year’s Mythopoeic Award.

But what set this book apart for me was the empathy which I felt for Maia.  I think that’s the lasting impression I’ll have from reading it.  I so wanted him to succeed in the way he approached his relationships and decision making.  Every rejection he gets is heart-breaking and every scene where a person begins to come around to Maia’s side is exhilarating.  And when the book was done, I felt that I had just said goodbye to one of the warmest, most deserving people I’ve ever met.  Five stars out of five.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Station Eleven

Emily St. John Mandel
Completed 5/13/2015, Reviewed 5/21/2015
5 stars

I have been reading way too many apocalyptic novels lately.  “Station Eleven” is another one.  The world comes to a screeching halt when the Georgia flu nearly wipes out the human population in a few weeks.  One young survivor, Kirsten Raymonde, is part of a travelling theater and orchestra, bringing rare moments of happiness to the enclaves left in the aftermath of the flu.  After becoming separated from the group, she is hunted by the leader of a dangerous cult.  This is just the barest of summaries of the book.  It’s actually much more, reminding me of the multithreaded films “Babel” and “Amores Peros” by Alejandro González Iñárritu, filled with the intertwining stories of multiple people before and after apocalypse comes.  It was riveting, and like a great end-of-the-world story, it made me have to regularly stop, take deep breaths, walk around, and remind myself that “it’s only a story”. 

It’s hard to say that the main plot follows Kirsten, because there is another major character, Arthur Leander, a former Hollywood star who dies onstage in the 4th act of King Lear just as the Georgia flu breaks out in North America.  Kirsten is a child actress in the play, and though we follow her travels twenty years later, the story bounces around, revealing Arthur’s past and the pre- and post-apocalyptic lives of some of the people with whom he came in contact.  The beauty of the book is in this bouncing device.  It reveals the course of the epidemic, adds insight to the characters, and creates surprising connections.

If the book is about anything, it’s about the need for art and culture to give meaning to our lives, even if it’s bad culture.  Kirsten carries with her two comic books in the “Station Eleven” series.  There’s no author, only initials.  And none of the survivors have ever heard of it.  She reads them over and over, finding solace in their stories.  She also collects clippings of Arthur from tabloid magazines that she comes across in her travels with her company.  Her obsession with him stems from his kindness to her right before he died.  Having been only eight years old when the flu struck, these are the few connections to the past that give meaning to her present.  However in an ironic twist, one of the things that brings joy to Kirsten spurs another character into a world of evil. 

As I mentioned at the beginning, reading a lot of end of the world scenarios has really affected me.  It makes me wonder if my love of the book was predetermined by the compounding effect of “The Last Policeman” trilogy and “Alas Babylon.  And I’ve always been a sucker for good disaster porn (Irwin Allen was one of my childhood favorites).  But unlike “The Towering Inferno”, “Armageddon”, and “2012”, this isn’t soapy or silly.  It’s never melodramatic.  It’s a character study of ordinary people in extraordinary times.  It left me very shaken and wearily exhilarated.  Five stars out of 5.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Boy, Snow, Bird

Helen Oyeyemi
Completed 5/3/2015, Reviewed 5/7/2015
4 stars

“Boy, Snow, Bird” is a modern deconstruction of the Snow White and evil stepmother fairy tale.  In the ‘50s, Boy is a young woman who escapes from an abusive father to create a new life in Massachusetts. Although not very adept at or desirous of having a relationship, she falls in love with a local widower who has a daughter, Snow.  They marry and have a happy family, although Boy’s relationship with Snow is both great and strange.   They have a daughter of their own, Bird, but the child is very dark-skinned.  Her husband and his family have been keeping a secret.  They are light-skinned African-Americans passing as white.  In a strange twist, Boy sends Snow to live with her sister-in-law and raises Bird, protecting the child from the prejudice of her in-laws amidst the civil rights era.

I fell in love with Oyeyemi last year when I saw her at Powell’s on her tour for this book.  She’s a charming person.  She’s was born in Nigeria, but raised in England.  I was just riveted to her as she read from the book.  I could listen to her all day.  Her books aren’t necessarily fantasy.  She takes myths and genres and juggles their components in wild ways.  This book is probably the most like a true deconstruction.  There’s no magic, but there are mirrors.  They show you strange things, including the fact that you might just be “invisible”.   And is Boy an evil stepmother?  It’s hard to tell.  But I think that’s the point.  The morality is really quite ambiguous throughout the book, just as it often is in fairy tales.  We’re used to happy endings in animated retellings, but many fairy tales and legends are tragic.  Nobody is ever really completely good or completely evil.  And their decisions and actions can be quite questionable. 

The best part of any Oyeyemi novel is the prose.  Sometimes, her word and phrase choices leave me breathless.  Knowing the difficulty I have trying to not repeat myself and overuse superlatives, she astounds me with the deliciousness of the language.  Once I pick up one of her books, it’s tough to put it down because I want to consume it.  I did not have the emotional response to this book for which I usually award five stars, but it is pure literary treasure.

I really liked the choice she made in telling different parts of the story from two perspectives, Boy’s, Bird’s, and then back to Boy’s.  The voices are very different.  Boy’s leaves you nervous and suspicious, while Bird’s is softer, though her juvenile insight is both amusing and unsettling.  The juxtaposition of the two provided a great contrast in their perspective of their world and relationships.

I only give this book four out of five stars for the reason I gave above, lack of an emotional response.  I’m concerned that it’s because at the reading at Powell’s, a woman in the audience cried as she described to Oyeyemi how it so profoundly moved her.  I think this may have set up my own expectation that this book should move me to tears as well.  That probably tainted my perspective.  Still, I fully appreciated the magic of the story, and its important message about self-loathing, acceptance, and reconciliation.  

Thursday, May 14, 2015

World of Trouble

Ben H Winters
Completed 5/1/2015, Reviewed 5/7/2015
4 stars

“World of Trouble” is the final book in Winters’ “The Last Policeman” trilogy.  It still features Henry Palace and the end of the world due to an asteroid impact.  With only a little over a week to go, Hank’s last case is finding his sister who has disappeared with a conspiracy theory group who are trying to find a detained scientist who knows how to successfully deflect the asteroid.  This trilogy been a journey for me.  I started thinking it was pretty good, then more exciting in the second book, and with this one, I was totally enrapt.  I could not get to the end of it fast enough. 

Like in the second book, the familiarity of the scenario and the characters enhanced my experience of this one.  Palace’s drive for closure is now an expectation.  His relationship with his sister had always been one of love and chaos.  And with the end approaching, of course he’s going to make one last desperate attempt to find her.  I could completely appreciate and relate to him.  If I knew the end of the world was coming, I think I would do everything possible to be with my brothers. 

There are some additional heartstrings tugged in the trilogy.  In the first book, he acquires a dog from a drug dealer one of his fellow officers killed.  As the trilogy progresses, he becomes closer to the dog.  ‘Natch.  At one point, he leaves the dog on a farm to let him end his days in a happy environment, and the scene nearly brought me to tears.

Winters continues the exploration of the desperate acts of a hopeless society.  The world is rapidly spiraling out of control.  Again, there are the crazies, but this time, there’s a surprisingly cheerful red-neck-ish couple camped out behind a Taco Bell who take Henry in for a day, the crazy last days of the conspiracy theory group, and an Amish family whose patriarch tries to protect them spiritually by telling them there’s a plague and keeping them from contact with all their neighbors.  That was probably my favorite part of the book.  It provided for some interesting and heartbreaking scenes between Hank, the patriarch, and one of the granddaughters. 

I have to give this book one more star than I gave the other two, so four out of five.  I thought Winters created a great world, and a detective I came to really care for.  It’s a very good book.  All three are relatively short, easy reads and make for a great diversion.  Are they profound?  No, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying them.  I recommend that even if you find the first one just okay, give the others a chance.  I think it’s worth it.

Friday, May 8, 2015


Frank Herbert
Completed 4/27/2015, Reviewed 4/29/2015
4 stars

 “Dune” is the greatest space opera I’ve ever read.  That says a lot because space opera is not my favorite genre.  Its messages about the environment and the rise against genocidal oppression really stirs me.  Of course, the mystical, prophetic nature of the plot really tugs at my love for theological SF.  But for some reason, I couldn’t completely put on my golden age of SF blinders and ignore the representation of women and homosexuality, something I’m usually able to do.  So instead of re-experiencing the profound effect I had when I first read this in college, I found myself looking at the book as an outsider, only sporadically losing myself in the otherwise amazing story that “Dune” is.

What I loved most about “Dune” is the messianic premise:  Paul Atreides, the son of a Duke, escapes a death plot on their new home planet to be taken in by native Fremen.  He and his mother, Jessica, seem to fulfill a prophesy, with Paul becoming the messianic leader and Jessica the mystic destined to overthrow the empire and lead the Fremen toward making Dune a “green” planet.  It mixes medieval and Arabic social structures, Greco-roman oracles, Buddhist principals and Christian messianic tradition into a complex future of haves and have nots.  Then throw in a race of people being systematically slaughtered by the forces of an evil baron, and you have the makings of an amazing universe. 

My hackles were first raised with the evil baron.  Vladimir Harkonnen is the conniver trying to get tighter with the Emperor.  He sets the ball rolling to destroy the House Atreides.  As it turns out, he’s a pedophile, having a thing for young teen boys.  There are no positive or even neutral gay characters to offset the perversity of Harkonnen.  It’s the old trope of gays in literature: they are either child molesters or tragically suicidal.  It brings me back to my youth, thinking I was doomed to a miserable life because that was all I read in books or saw in films.  Of course, the argument can be raised that Harkonnen is not gay, since he shows no interest in adult males.  He pretty explicitly seems to have lost interest in his heir-apparent nephew as an adult towards the end of the book.  But the equation of gay = pedophile is already made, and readers like me instantly put up a wall.

The portrayal of women is even worse.  They are all basically witches, concubines, or both.  Nearly every female character is associated with the Bene Gesserit, the order of mystical women who seem to have a controlling interest in the fate of the human race.  It signifies that women only have power through sex or magic.  They have no power in and of themselves.  Whenever two women in the novel have a conversation, it’s about a man, usually Paul (So, yes, it fails the Bechdel test).  This is par for golden age science fiction.  In a sense, it’s better than many books which have only one or no female characters.  Still, I felt constantly hit over the head with the concept that the women’s only purpose in life was based on their relationship to men.  Maybe it’s just me, but I have a hard time believing that 8000 years from now, even if we have an emperor of the universe, we’d revert back to women being solely tolerated for their role as lovers, child bearers, and nuns.

Despite these glaring issues, the book remains one of the greatest science fiction epics I’ve ever read.  I think if the Mythopoeic Award existed at the time, it would have been another award in its pocket.  Herbert created not just an incredible universe, but one filled with a complete mythology and history.  He had the foresight to write soft SF, coming up with an anti-computer jihad in the universe’s history, and not giving details of spacecraft, allowing the book to remain technologically timeless.  I still give “Dune” four stars out of five, but even allowing it the benefit of the doubt as being the product of a man born in 1920, it failed to move me in that profound way that a true timeless classic should have.  

Friday, May 1, 2015


Barbara Ashford
Completed 4/21/2015, Reviewed 4/22/2015
3 stars

This book took me by surprise.  It started out slow, almost tedious.  Bah, I thought, this is nothing but a typical romance novel with a little magic thrown in.  A woman gets fired from her job, ends up doing summer stock in Vermont, falls for the mysterious brooding director who’s hiding some magical secret, and it ends happily ever after.  Humbug!  Then about a hundred pages in, something happened, and I was completely hooked.

So it reads like a romance novel, or at least what I think a romance novel would read like.  (Okay, I admit, I read “The Thorn Birds” when it first came out in paperback, so I kinda know that they’re like).  And it’s not really all that deep. In fact, it’s rather soapy.  It just has a lot of good hooks.  I think my favorite was the main character.  It took me most of the first hundred pages to realize that she was not a stereotypical damsel in distress.  Maggie Graham is a 32 year-old overweight ginger with a lot of baggage who can’t hold down a job.  For some reason she is drawn to audition for summer stock theater in a tiny Vermont town she happens to be passing through.  She’s acted a little before, but nothing professional.  She gets parts in all three productions, begins rehearsals, and then things get weird, and then weirder.  But she’s no great heroine and quite insecure.  That’s what made me like her.  At times, I felt that Ashford stretched out the melodrama a little too much, but it still worked.  I still liked Maggie.

The whole premise of a magical theater company was quite fun too.  Ashford must have acted before, because her descriptions of the acting experience, during rehearsals and the performances, are quite exquisite.  I found myself really feeling part Maggie’s experience on the stage.  I’m sure it tugged at the acting seeds that were planted when I did a couple of high school musicals.  These sections are perhaps the best written parts of the book.

The hardest thing to get past was the trope of the dark, brooding director.  Actually, he’s quite pale, but “dark, brooding” sounds better.  Rowan has something magical about him, but is aloof and intense.  And of course, there’s some deep hidden secret that keeps him from allowing himself to get too involved with Maggie.  There were times all I could see was the cover model of a Harlequin romance at the grocery store, pining.  And the whole get too close, stay too distant thing got a little annoying at times.  But the payoff in the end was pretty satisfying.

The sex, well, it’s a tad disturbing.  I’ll leave it at that because it’s too much of a spoiler to pursue here.  I’m not a prude, but Geez Louise!

This book is no classic, but it’s really fun.  I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it and was satisfied by the ending.  I don’t know if I’ll read the sequel.  At least there’s only one so far.  I give this book three stars out of five.  For my loyal readers, you know this means it’s good, and worth a read.  It’s the kind of fluff that’s great to read between heavier books like Tolkien’s posthumous works and Dune, or during the summer at the beach down the shore, which is where my mother read all her romance novels.