Thursday, February 25, 2016

Unnatural Creatures

Edited by Neil Gaiman
Completed 2/14/2016, Reviewed 2/17/2016
4 stars

This is an anthology of some of Neil Gaiman’s personal favorite short stories about, well, unnatural creatures.  They range from werewolves to dragons, from killer inkspots to Death itself.  As a thematic whole, the book is quite good.  I found myself excited by each story, wondering how the creature would be presented and in what style and genre it would be written.  The stories are mostly fantasy, but also draw from horror and magical realism.  And the list of authors alone was enough to keep me turning the pages.

My favorite story was the first, “Inkspot” by Gahan Wilson.  It was really different; a proper gentleman finds a pesky inspot on his tablecloth.  In the blink of an eye, the spot has grown and changes location.  The gentleman calls in his butler to help.  After it continues to grow and move, he brings in a paranormal investigator.  And it keeps getting bigger and the story gets weirder.

Another favorite was “Flight of the Horse” by Larry Niven.  A time traveler goes back a thousand years to retrieve a now-extinct horse for a rich man.  What he actually comes back with is the sort of wonderful twist that I love in SF and Fantasy short stories. 

A third I want to mention is “The Compleat Werewolf” by Anthony Boucher.  It’s a rather pulpy take on the werewolf theme, with a magician and Nazi spies.  It also has an interesting angle, being that most people can turn into other things with the right predisposition and a magic word.  I fully expected not to like this story but found myself pulled into the goofy noir quality.

The only story I didn’t care for was “The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees” by E. Lily Yu.  I read this story in another anthology about a year ago.  I hoped a second reading would help my appreciation of it.  But it’s not so subtle metaphor for a predatory nation was really distracting. 

This anthology is definitely worth a try.  It pushes the envelope of what an unnatural creature could be, including the aforementioned inkspot.  There are classic authors like Samuel R. Delany and Peter S. Beagle and contemporary authors like Nalo Hopkinson and Nnedi Okorafor.  There’s even a story by Gaiman himself.  And all the stories range from a little weird to creepy.  I give this book four out of five stars because I fully expected to read a story here and there between other books, not really embracing it as a whole. Instead, after maybe four stories, I found myself looking forward to each subsequent one and was sad when I was finished.   

Sunday, February 21, 2016

The Castle of Crossed Destinies

Italo Calvino
Completed 2/7/2016, Reviewed 2/8/2016
3 stars

This was a complex, experimental novel about a group of people gathered at a castle, and later a tavern, telling their recent adventures not by speaking, but by using cards from a tarot deck.  The author uses the images and the patterns in which the cards are selected to produce probable narratives and gain insight into the lives and choices of the story tellers.  It is not a light read.  It is more like a collection of interrelated short stories dealing with archetypal themes and images.

The book is divided into two sections, the Castle and the Tavern.  At each location, the storytellers use a different tarot deck with different images which creates a variety of details and direction for the story telling, which adds a diversity to the stories.  The images for the cards are in the outer margin, so you can see the details besides just having the explanation.  This greatly helps the movement of the stories.

I got the impression that this was maybe supposed to be a little like “Canterbury Tales”.  However, I found that the stories quickly ran together.  Even though the stories are different, eventually the same cards are used, signifying similar situations.  It makes me wonder if this book is not meant to be read in one or two sittings, as I did, but rather, each story needs to be read and digested individually with sufficient time between the readings.  Perhaps a lot like the tarot itself.  It’s not particularly helpful to do reading after reading, but rather, to wait and see what insights came forth. 

What really stands out is the prose.  It’s well-written and begs the question of how this book reads in its original Italian.  This is a common question for me and many readers when confronted with a translation.  What is the experience like for the Italian reader, and how much am I losing in translation.  Or, if I was a native Italian speaker, would I also find the stories run together despite how beautifully written it is.  For me this is one of those times when the prose is not enough to carry a confusing jumble of narratives and by about halfway through the book, I just wanted to be done with it. 

The most interesting part of the book is the Note at the end.  Calvino discusses his process of putting the book together through the use of actual tarot cards.  This and the prose save the book from a two star rating.  I give it three stars out of five.  I’ve been told that Calvino’s books are very different from each other, so I definitely need to read something else if I’m to get a different and perhaps more complete perspective on his literature.   

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

2015 Hugo Winner: The Three-Body Problem

Cixin Liu
Completed 1/31/2016, Reviewed 2/1/2016
4 stars

This is the Hugo Winner for 2015.  It’s by the most beloved SF writer in China, translated by Ken Liu, an award winning author himself.  It’s the first of a trilogy that is somewhat reminiscent of “Ender’s Game” and “Contact”.  The novel is fairly complex, with a lot of setup to explain where some of the characters come from and the context of the society in which the search for extraterrestrial life begins in China.  The main plot follows Wang Miao as he tries to infiltrate a scientific organization, the ETO, for the government, and to explain why he is seeing a countdown first on photos he’s taking, then later in his field of vision.  In doing so, he comes across a game called Three Body.  Its primary goal is to figure out how a civilization can survive on a planet that revolves around three suns, a classic physics problem.   Through the game and his contacts within it, he discovers that the world is on a path of destruction abetted by the scientists playing the game.

Overall, the book is quite good, but the science fiction is very hard.  Even though I failed physics in college, I understood the concepts enough that I was able to follow the science heavy plot.  I think having it encapsulated in a game context kept me engrossed in the expositions that would probably be quite terse for many readers. 

But it’s not just the science and the game that make this book.  It’s the history of the effects of the Cultural Revolution on scientists that is really interesting.  The book begins with a famous scientist being publicly humiliated, beaten, and murdered for teaching subversive science.  It is a powerful scene and is almost unbelievable in today’s context.  However, it also calls to mind the anti-science movement running rampant today, and reminds us of how slippery the slope is between ignorance and all out witch hunts. 

The only failing I find in the book is the characterization.  The people are not terribly warm.  Now granted, most of the characters in the book are scientists, and one could argue that it generalizes their behavior.  Instead, I was wondering if it’s a combination of the politics and the culture.  We always see communism in the context of the coldness of the Soviet era.  The people are quiet, stoic, and cynical, as cold as the Russian winter.  Does this also apply to China?  Is it instead, or perhaps also, a cultural thing, the way Chinese fiction is written?  Or is it how Cixin writes?  I don’t really know the answer to any of these, but the questions swirl in my mind as I try to reflect on the characters.

I wasn’t expecting to like this book, but I did.  It was interesting and during the playing of the game, a real page turner.  I give this book four stars out of five, and would be interested in reading the rest of the trilogy.  

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Bad Unicorn

Platte F. Clark
Completed 1/10/2016, Reviewed 1/12/2016
4 stars

Whenever a book is compared to “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”, I’m always a little cautious.  So many books strive to have Douglas Adams’ quirky humor, but few achieve it.  “Bad Unicorn” is the closest I’ve seen anyone get in a long time.  It’s a YA novel about a magical robot princess unicorn that eats humans and the young boy that has to fight her to save the human race.  It was simply delightful. 

The premise is that there’s a boy in who is the last descendant of a great wizard that wrote the Codex of Infinite Knowability.  Max is a young gamer who doesn’t realize that this book contains the most powerful magic in all the parallel universes.  An evil wizard from the parallel universe of magic, the Magrus, wants to get the book.  He chooses Princess the Destroyer, the unicorn, to come to our universe, the Techrus, to find the book in exchange for having an unending supply of humans to feed on. 

Max is a great kid.  He’s a nerd, into role-playing games, and gets picked on by a bully, known as the Kraken.  After surviving a close call with the bully, he and three friends get whisked to our future where he must come face to face with Princess to save the world.  It’s the great trope of the unassuming kid who must find the power within himself to overcome a great evil.

There’s a lot of tongue in cheek humor, some of it I don’t think young adults will necessarily get, like the Gore-Fest, which turns out to be a festival where poetry by Al Gore is read.  But there are lots of other fun jokes like the frobbits, which of course are variations of hobbits that are peace loving, flower picking pacifists who make wonderful appetizers for Princess.  And there are lots of little asides that range anywhere from making you smile to having a full guffaw. 

The book is the first part of a trilogy.  It has its own self-contained main plot, but does have a cliff hanger at the end, which is a little frustrating.  I have so many books on my TBR list, I don’t know if I’m going to get to the sequels.  But reading this first book was well worth it.  It’s very funny and pretty fast paced.  I give it four out of five stars.  

Friday, February 5, 2016

Mind Switch

Damon Knight
Completed 1/11/2016, Reviewed 1/12/2016
4 stars

“Mind Switch” is the first novel I’ve read by Damon Knight, for whom the Grandmaster Award was named.  Previously, I read a collection of his short stories which I really enjoyed.  So when I found this used paperback at the SF convention last November, I had to get it.  And it did not disappoint.  It’s about a journalist and a zoo-kept alien biped whose minds switch bodies.  It’s sort of “Freaky Friday” set in the near future with no teens.  It was well written, fast-paced, and exciting.

What surprised me about the book was that it had several messages.  The most obvious one had to do with the treatment of animals in zoos.  As the human journalist trapped in the alien’s body, he experiences firsthand what it feels like to be kept captive and treated more or less like earth animals.  Even though the bipeds have intelligence and actually do typing from Dictaphones, they are still handled by their trainers as any other animal in the zoo.

Besides this message, it also had a theme of oppression of peoples not considered human.  There are several references to master race and subhuman species when discussing aliens.  The general feeling is that no alien species could ever be as evolved as humans.  So when the journalist tries to convince his captors that he’s really a human inside the alien, there’s almost no hope that they’ll listen.  The action takes place in Germany, which makes it seem like Knight is making a statement about World War II and the Nazi plan to wipe out the Jews and all other undesirables. 

The book is a terrific read.  The parts about Martin Naumchik, the journalist, are just heartbreaking as he tries to convince his captors that he is a human.  The parts about Fritz, the alien biped, are a little more humorous as he tries to navigate through Berlin in his new found human body.  Both weave together to make this relatively short novel a quick page turner. 

Like a good book from the golden age of SF, it has a few nice twists as well.  As is also typical of this era, there are almost no female characters in it.  Well, not exactly.  That’s one of the twists which of course I can’t give away.  And overarching the whole story is an interesting tale of an experiment gone awry that is the cause of the mind switch. 

Sometimes I think most books can be a lot shorter than they are.  Having read so many books in the past few years, I find some of these monstrously sized books overdo the complexity and subplots.  This book at 144 pages was just the perfect size for a tight little novel.  I give it four stars out of five.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Neil Gaiman
Completed 1/5/2016, Reviewed 1/6/2016
5 stars

Neil Gaiman’s prose is always wondrous.  I’m amazed at how much mood and emotion he can create with the relatively simple descriptions.  In this story, he takes the reader inside the mind of a seven year old boy, who is unnamed in the story.  A border commits suicide in the family, unleashing a terrible evil that only the boy can perceive.  His only ally is eleven year old Lettie and her family who live near a pond at the end of the lane.  Lettie Hempstock, her mother, and grandmother all seem to possess a power that can keep the evil at bay.    

The tone of this book reminds me of Gaiman’s “The Graveyard Book”.  Again he perfectly captures the mind of a young boy.  I was easily transported into his psyche, caught up in the terror he experiences when the evil seems incarnate in the form of a new nanny, and the protection from her that he finds with the Hempstock family. 

Also like “The Graveyard Book”, this can be considered a young adult novel although there are some very serious scenes.  It is basically a horror novel, although it has also been described as magical realism.  I don’t exactly agree with that categorization.  The book reminded me more of a tamer, less graphic or perverse version of Clive Barker, with crazy, imaginative creatures breaking through the fabric or our reality.

I don’t have a whole heck of a lot else to say about this book.  It’s very short and very direct.  It’s a quick read but explodes with beautiful language.  It never feels literary but it confirms for me that Gaiman is one of best writers I’ve ever read.  My experience is that he drew me in quickly, held me tightly through the whole book wringing me out emotionally, and laid me gently down at the end.  I would have loved to have heard the audio book version of this read by him.   I think it would have left me teary-eyed.  I give this book five out of five stars.