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.