Friday, April 29, 2016

2010 Hugo Winner - The City and the City

China MiƩville
Completed 4/19/2013, reviewed 4/19/2013
3 stars

The City and the City is about a pair of amazingly constructed cities.  While they are two separate cities, both of them occupy some of the same physical space.  In some places, there are parts of one city totally existing in the other.  The citizens of the two cities must “unsee” the other city.  This separation is kept in place by Breach, an organization which makes sure the two cities are kept mentally separate by their citizens.  In addition, there are strict rules about crossing the borders of the two cities, even though separation is not purely physical. 

The plot surrounds the murder of a woman and may involve a breach.  The investigation of the murder brings in the theory that there may be a third city, which is hiding in between the two cities, i.e., it appears to one city’s citizens as part of the other city, and vice versa.  Thus it exists in plain sight, but the citizens of each city ignore it thinking it is part of the other city. 

This premise is awesome.  I began the book, voraciously waiting for the descriptions of the cities’ separation and its social implications.  I was even more drawn in by the “secret city.”  I was most excited when the details of the conspiracy of keeping the third city secret were revealed, and when they related to the unfolding of the plot.

Unfortunately, I found the plot eventually unsatisfying.  It turned out to be just another detective potboiler.  The great revelations about all three cities took place in the course of the book.  Somehow, I was hoping that there would be something more earthshattering about three cities in the solving of the murder.  But there wasn’t.

I also found the dialogue very often to be choppy.  Maybe I just don’t read enough noir.  I felt that dialogues were hard to follow.  I was happiest reading the descriptions and long revelatory dialogues about the cities. 

SPOILER ALERT 1: I also didn’t like the last minute pulling in of the corporations as part of the conspiracy.  They were not part of the story.  They felt introduced merely to throw you off before the big reveal of the actual murder.  It almost felt like a mechanism for making the story longer.

SPOILER ALERT 2:  I had a hard time with the ending.  It’s revealed that the only thing that keeps the two cities separate is the belief by their citizens that they personally must keep them separate.  The organization known as Breach can only exist because the citizens need them to exist to keep up the charade of separation.  However, the story is told in first person by the main character.  In the end, he becomes part of Breach.  So in his telling of the story, he creates his own breach by revealing the fallacy of the realness of the separation.  The existence of the story by Breach is a breach.  It brings to the citizens’ consciousness that there is no real separation, beginning the destruction of the separation.  This is a contradiction.  Breach should censor the breach and not allow us to read the book. 

I gave the book three stars for the inventiveness of the universe created and for the advancement of the plot through the first 2/3s of the book.  

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

2010 Hugo Winner - The Windup Girl

Paolo Bacigalupi
Completed 5/27/2013, reviewed 5/27/2013
3 stars

This book was quite a huge disappointment for me.  Based on the little blurb on the back cover, it seemed to have some interesting plot points.  It barely had one.  The Windup Girl aspires to being a dystopian classic.  I found it rather boring.

The story takes place in apparently near future Thailand, in a world where food companies (calorie companies) control all food creation and distribution.  They even create blights which destroy normal food so that people and nations rely on their genetically modified food.  Agri-business.  It should be intriguing, right?  With all the underhanded influence Monsanto has on the world, why wouldn’t this plot be intriguing?

Bacigalupi transforms Bangkok into a dystopian city, akin to New York in Blade Runner.  Dirty, humid, hot, corrupted, crawling with the poor, and run by government organizations trying to keep the calorie companies from taking over completely.

One of the biggest disappointments to me was the concept of calorie currency.  If it wasn’t on the back cover, I never would have known calories were supposed to be currency.  If it really is, it’s hard to tell with all the normal money floating around for bribes.  So don’t be confused.  The currency is the baht, the Thai unit of currency.  That is the only thing that flows.  If calories are currency, Bacigalupi didn’t take it to where it would be obvious.

The only character I liked was the wind-up girl, Emiko.  Her characterization was quite elaborate.  Unfortunately, she was hardly in the book.  The evil calorie lord, Anderson, began interestingly, but quickly seemed to become a supporting character.  Anderson and Emiko had a relationship.  However, the development of the relationship was not described.  It was inferred by the reflections of the main characters.  I would have liked to have gotten a more detailed look at how their relationship progressed.  It would have created a better basis for the plot twist later in the book.

I think the reason I didn’t care for the main characters was that we spent too much time in their pasts.  We only learn about them through their reflections on their lives, not in their present.  There really isn’t much action.  This is a book about setting moods.  The action only really happens at the end.  The rest of it is about the main characters spending lots of time running, hiding, or pursuing, while thinking about their past.

As I mentioned, most of the action happens at the end.  That’s where the story finally gets gripping.  But it is too much too late.  Even the revolution that happens in the middle of the book is only another device for character reflection.

I gave this book 3 stars.  It is like much of the previous noir winners, but at least I felt like the prose was readable.

Friday, April 22, 2016

The Shaping of Middle Earth

JRR Tolkien
Completed 4/21/2016, reviewed 4/21/2016
4 stars

This is the fourth book in the History of Middle Earth series.    This book gives us the early development of Tolkien’s thoughts on The Silmarillion.  At this point in time, Tolkien was moving away from the framework he used in The Lost Tales.  It still contains the same mythology but is being constructed and rewritten differently.   Once again, I followed along with The Tolkien Professor’s analysis to help me understand the text and commentary.  As I progress through the series, the stories are becoming very familiar.  It’s the commentary that’s much drier.  Christopher Tolkien spends most of his time detailing the evolution of the names as well as pointing out the detailed differences between all the versions of the stories from The Lost Tales up to the ‘30s, when much of this text was written.  I still find all this fascinating even though it is often dry as dust. 

The book begins with some fragments from the Lost Tales, but moves into full swing with Tolkien’s first outline of the Silmarillion, referred to as the Sketch.  This is followed by an initial fleshing out of the outline, called Quenta.  The Quenta is basically the first prose version of the Silmarillion that Tolkien ever produced.  It has most of the stories from Lost Tales, though they have evolved by about 10 to 20 years.  The prose is often delicious. Now that I am as familiar as I am with these stories going through the History, I’m finding myself really paying attention to the prose to see how he retells these immensely tragic stories. 

The next two chapters are related.  The first shows maps of the construction and evolution of Middle Earth, the second is the Ambarkanta, the prose cosmology.  Tolkien discusses the makeup of the atmosphere and the shape Middle Earth, beginning as a flat, uniform earth and eventually becoming round and turning into continents looking vaguely like Europe, Asia, and Africa. 

The final chapters are annals of the Silmarillion.  They are breakdowns of the stories of the Silmarillion by year.  There are two sets of annals.  It’s interesting that one of them, the Annals of Bereliand, reads like you’d expect, terse outlines by year of events.  The other, the Annals of Valinor, is almost like another go at a prose version of the stories.  It is quite readable.  Included in these chapters are Anglo-Saxon versions of the annals.  Needless to say, don’t understand Anglo-Saxon, but it shows that Tolkien still had the idea that the point of his stories was to create a mythology for England.   

As I always say, this book is for the hard-core fan that wants to see how Tolkien’s stories evolved over the years.  You have to be quite the fan to read for a fifth time the tragic tales of Turin Turambar or Beren and Luthien.  But I find it interesting to see how the stories changed and grew over the years and look forward to rereading the Silmarillion again at some point with all this additional background swimming around in my head.  I give this book four out of five stars.  

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

An Anglo-American Alliance

An Anglo-American Alliance:
A Serio-Comic Romance and Forecast of the Future
Gregory Casparian
Completed 4/9/2016, reviewed 4/11/2016
2 stars

I decided to read this book because, the SF blog, hailed it as possibly the first lesbian SF novel, being published in 1906.  It’s been reprinted by a company called Forgotten Books.  It’s about two women in their senior year at a seminary college in 1960 who are devoted to each other.  The plot sets a scenario for the author to espouse his predictions for the future in the form of a lecture highlighting the major events of the period from 1906 to 1960.  It’s an interesting book with lots of progressive ideas, but unfortunately has several scenes that from today’s point of view are offensive. 

The lesbian romance is interesting.  The two women, Margaret, an American, and Aurora, a Brit, are dorm roommates and become quite fond of each other.  As the senior year is coming to an end, they realize that they will be separated and make a vow to remain unmarried in deference to their devotion to each other.  Senior year ends and they must part, and it is heartbreaking. 

Warning:  spoilers follow.

Margaret happens upon a doctor from India who has found a way to transform a woman into a man.  She goes through the procedure and makes her way to England where she and Aurora live happily ever after. 

The review on io9 pointed out that it was too bad that Margaret had to become a man for the couple to end up happy, that it couldn’t be left as a lesbian relationship.  On the other hand, this could also be seen as a transgender relationship.  It’s rather confusing because I can’t tell for sure if Margaret becoming a man is a cop-out by the author and if this is the supposed to be the comic aspect as described in the subtitle, “A Serio-Comic Romance”, or if Casparian was unknowingly progressive in that Margaret was really a trans man and gets to live her life as she felt inside.  This being 1906 and Casparian being a straight male (presumably), it’s hard to tell if I’m reading more into the story than there is. 

The other half of the subtitle is “Forecast of the Future”.  This takes the form of a lecture by one of the professors at the seminary under the guise of being a history of the past sixty years.  A lot of it is wishful thinking: peace, harmony, and everybody making compromises.  This basically comes in the form of an alliance between Great Britain and the U.S.  There’s a couple of racially offensive statements, which the io9 reviewer conveniently left out.  He never uses the n-word, but does use “dago”, shows an offensive caricature of an all-black singing group, and decides that a woman’s place is best in the home.  I don’t know if it would have been offensive back in 1906, but it is today.

I have to wonder if this book needed to be published today.  If nothing else, it is a document of the sort of thinking from the turn of the last century about the issues of the day without the filter of today’s political correctness.  If there wasn’t the offensive nature to the book, I would have given it three stars instead of two.  It’s not great literature, but it isn’t horribly written.  Would I recommend it?  Only if you were interested in early LGBT content in SF.    

Friday, April 15, 2016

The Eyre Affair

Jasper Fforde
Completed 4/8/2016, reviewed 4/11/2016
3 stars

I was disappointed with this book.  It had such a strong buzz for being comical like Monty Python and Douglas Adams, and for being meta- with people walking in and out of novels.  However, I found the humor to be sporadic and mundane and the meta- aspect to be rather boring. 

This is basically a mystery set in an alternative past England where corporations hold the power, the Crimean War has lasted over 100 years, and society revolves around literature and the arts.  People know Shakespeare’s works by heart and go to Rocky Horror-like productions of Richard III.  There are Baconians who go door to door passing out pamphlets about Francis Bacon being the real author of Shakespeare’s plays.  And some people get magically transported in and out of the great works of English Literature.

Thursday Next is a Literatec, a literature detective.  She’s on the trail of Ascheron Hades, a Voldermort-like evil-doer who is deleting characters from the original manuscripts of great works, thus removing them from all copies of the works.  Can she stop Hades in time to save Jane Eyre from being permanently removed from Bronte’s book?

The summary makes the book sound like it should be a lot of fun, and it is at times.  However, the writing style is not very good.  It’s mostly told in first person by Next, but there are too many third person omniscient scenes that throw you off balance when you’re reading it. 

There doesn’t seem to be much tension buildup either.  Nothing gets exciting.  I think that has to do with the character development.  I feel like I never really get to know Next.  I know what happens to her, but nothing much about her.  I tried to convince myself that she was supposed to be a hard-boiled detective, but her narration is too plain.  I found the most interesting scenes to be the ones where the Shakespearean authorship conspiracies are discussed, rather than the action.  Even when Next’s aunt and uncle are kidnapped by Hades, she’s rather nonplussed about it. 

This is just a personal taste thing, Jane Eyre isn’t in peril until well into the second half of the book.  If I were the author, I would have entitled it something else, or brought the Eyre plot further to the front of the book.  Because the book is titled “The Eyre Affair”, everything in the first half of the book feels like treading water, waiting for the main plot to begin.  Again, this is personal taste, but the title set up my expectation and left me hanging for two hundred pages.

I give this book three stars out of five.  The saving grace of the book is that the end is pretty exciting.  I was worried that with the boredom I felt through most of the book, I wouldn’t care about the ending, but it proved me wrong.  I just wish rest of the book had the immediacy and tension that Fforde conveyed so well at the end.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Point of Dreams

Melissa Scott and Lisa A Barnett
Completed 4/3/2016, reviewed 4/4/2016
3 stars

“Point of Dreams” is the second in the Astreiant series.  In this installment, there are a series of murders associated with a play to be staged at a great masque for the queen.  Nicolas Rathe is once again called on to get to the bottom of this mystery.  His leman, or lover, Philip Eslingen, is involved with the play and helps Rathe investigate the murders.  This book won the Lambda Literary Award for LGBT Science Ficton/Fantasy/Horror novel.  I found it to be a fairly good book, with some interesting fantasy, and much more readable than the first book, “Point of Hopes”. 

What I liked most about the book was the search for the murder weapon of several of the victims.  All the murders seem to be tied to a book called the “Alphabet”, a compilation of flowers that when arranged in specific ways have magical properties.  I found this to be highly imaginative, taking something like flower arranging and infusing it with the power to heal, kill, and everything in between.  On top of that, because the Alphabet is being referenced in the play, people are going crazy over buying flowers bulbs.  It seems inspired by the tulip craze in Holland when the tulip effectively became the currency of the country. 

Another very interesting aspect of the book is that it takes place at the time of the year called “ghost-tide”, when the spirits of those who have died normally and moved on are close.  This is different from the rest of the year when only those spirits who are bound to the earth for some reason can be seen or felt.  It’s reminiscent of the original concept of Halloween, Samhein, when the veil between our world and the spirit world is thinnest.  And it provides us with an unusual side investigation for Nicolas.  It seems that a lawyer’s deceased leman’s spirit is not around during this time when he should be.  This implies that the leman did not die a natural death, but was murdered. 

The relationship between Nicolas and Philip is further developed as well.  What I found out through a little research is that there’s a novelette that was written after this book that goes back to fill in the gaps of how the two men move from being thrown together for the mystery in the first book to being lemans (yes, that’s the plural) in this book.  It’s kind of cool that the relationship is still understated, reinforcing the fact that gay and lesbian relationships are just a normal part of the society. 

This book gets another three star review from me, although the quality was much more even throughout the book.  I didn’t have the trouble I had in the first volume.  This one pulled me in right from the start.  But basically, it is mystery fluff, and good fluff.  It keeps me wanting to continue the series:  the connector novelette, and the Spectrum Gaylactic Award-winning most recent volume “Fairs’ Point”.  

Friday, April 8, 2016


Thomas Disch
Completed 3/27/2016, reviewed 3/28/2016
3 stars

This is the first time I read a book where I thought the prose was great but the story was hard to follow.  Based on this one book, I feel Thomas Disch is one of the best writers I’ve read in a while.  Unfortunately, the structure of the book is what threw me into general disarray.  The book is actually a collection of interrelated short stories about people, particularly the members of one family, who live in the population controlled near future in subsidized housing with the numeric address of 334.  It’s faintly reminiscent of the interrelatedness of J.D. Salinger’s Wise Child stories (“Franny and Zooey”, “Seymour”, “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters”, etc).

The first half of the book is composed of actual short stories.  They are fairly easy to follow.  My favorite was the first story, about a young man madly in love with a young woman who finds out he doesn’t score high enough in his life analysis to qualify for having children.  It sets the mood for the government-controlled near future that the rest of the stories take place in.  The story also gives us a sample of one aspect of the future which is positive.  Same-sex and interracial relationships are normal and unremarkable.  But in general, many of the sexual relationships, as well as interpersonal relationships are dysfunctional, if not downright depraved.  And racism still abounds despite the normalization of the relationships. 

The last part of the book is entitled 334 and follows the lives of several members of one of the families in the building.  It was very confusing to me despite the fact that I did a little research on the book before reading it.  It follows Mrs. Hanson and two of her daughters over seven years.  The chapters are arranged so that you bounce back and forth in the time line and it’s difficult to tell if it’s fantasy or reality.  Looking at it from the outside and contemplating the structure, it’s pretty brilliant, but the reading of it is not pleasant experience.  This is where the conflict arose for me between the prose and the form.  Disch provides a graph to help you navigate through the stories, but I still found it very difficult to figure out what was going on.  Simultaneously, reading the prose was still enjoyable.  I just couldn’t piece it all together.

I should give a warning that some of the stories in this book pretty depraved.  There’s one story about a morgue worker who sells the hospital’s unclaimed dead to a necrophiliac agency.  There’s also a story about a group of pre-teens who plan a murder.  On a less depraved but just as strange note, there’s a story about a couple whose life is meaningless without children, but it’s the husband who needs to have the maternal experience. 

There’s a lot going on in this book and the best thing about it is that it’s well-written.  It’s just not the most pleasant book to read from the content and form perspectives.  This is a book I’d like to read again at some point, to see if I understand it better.  So from my initial experience, I can only give this book three stars out of five.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

The Color of Magic

Terry Pratchett
Completed 1/16/2016, Reviewed 1/21/2016
3 stars

I’ve been meaning to read the Discworld series for a long time.  With Pratchett’s passing last year, I decided that this year would be the year to begin it.  “The Color of Magic” is the first book in the series.  Some people had warned me that the first book wasn’t that good and to start with the second book.  Since “Color” is the only book in the series I have, I read it anyway.  It started a little rocky for me, but once I got through the first chapter, the rest of the book went pretty smoothly.  I enjoyed it.  It left me wanting more for the reason that the books get better as the series progress.

The book is basically 4 short stories or novellas rather than a fully linear plot.  The first story introduces Rincewind, a failed magician, and Twoflower, Discworld’s first tourist.  They meet in the capital city where Twoflower inadvertently causes an innkeeper to burn down his inn, and the fire spreads throughout the city.  Now on the run, they go on a journey which is actually controlled by the gods.  The journey takes them first to a town with a Lovecraftian secret, then to an upside-down mountain of dragons and their riders, a clear parody of “The Dragonriders of Pern” series.  Lastly, they go to a land of hydraphobes who want to send a rocket to the underside of Discworld to find the gender of the giant Turtle that supports the elephants that hold up the Disc.  The whole way, Rincewind is pursued by Death, who of course is a hooded skeleton carrying a scythe.

Perhaps the most fun part of the book is looking for the jokes.  They are most obvious with some of the names, like the capital city of Ankh-Morpork.  Some are more subtle, like the dragon rider names with punctuation in the middle of them, parodying the Pern names like F’lar and J’xom.  I’m sure there are many jokes I missed, but what I found was often laugh out loud funny.

However, I’m giving this book only three stars out of five, which still means I think it’s good.  It just wasn’t that remarkable for me.  Maybe I’m getting more cynical in my old age, or perhaps I’m just reading too much and it takes more to actually draw me in.  I’m hoping that subsequent books are better, mostly because I know that this is a beloved series, and I want to be on the Discworld bandwagon.  I look forward to the next books, knowing I need to read at least a bunch more before I decide on the whole series.  

Friday, April 1, 2016

Empire of the Senseless

Kathy Acker
Completed 3/23/2016, reviewed 3/24/2016
2 stars

I never had a class in postmodern literature, so my ability to understand it has been hit or miss.  “Empire of the Senseless” is a miss.  It’s sort of a novel about a post-apocalyptic Paris narrated by Thivai and Abhor, a pirate and a half- robot.  But it isn’t really a novel.  It’s a dark, transgressive, deconstructed look at society told in something akin to stream of consciousness narration, made to shock rather than entertain.  It’s a very hard book to read.  I found myself trying to simply take in the words and sentences as images and not worry myself with the nearly non-existent plot.  In the end, I didn’t get it.

Kathy Acker was big in the underground art scene of New York in the 60s and 70s.  She was a playwright, novelist, essayist, and punk poet.  Some of her works are semi-autobiographical, drawing on experiences ranging from the suicide of her mother to a brief stint as a stripper.  She taught classes at universities and she is taught in post-modernism English classes.  Her point is to traumatize the reader into thinking about society, politics, money, language, and sexuality.  In reading the reviews of this book, I find that what some people hate about the book is what others find brilliant. 

The plot of course is thin.  Thivai and Abhor narrate the book.  They are sometimes lovers, sometimes not, who traverse Paris after it is overthrown by a revolution by Algerians.  The story is told with lots of references to sex, death, suicide, and scatology.  It had the most impact for me when the characters tell the stories of their dysfunctional childhoods.  The language is bizarre, it’s hard to tell what’s real and what’s hyperbole.  The style ranges from non-sequitor to alliteration.  And there’s a lot of profanity.  Again, the point is to not make for a pleasant read, but to force the reader to think about life from different perspectives. 

Unfortunately, I didn’t find the experience to be as profound as it’s supposed to be.  As a wordsmith, I thought Acker was quite lacking.  At times I thought that this is the kind of book John Waters could have written if he tried to be serious and wanted to emulate Jean Genet.  Most of the time, I thought that Waters was the better literary wizard. 

I know that there are many people who would disagree with me, as is evidenced by the glowing reviews that are out there.  There are also many people who would say I went too light in my review.  But I can appreciate the author’s intent.  That’s the one part of post-modernism I do understand.  What I don’t get is the execution.  I have yet to read Burroughs, Genet, and “Ulysses” so I don’t have anything to compare (though I have seen a Genet play that I sort of got).   

I give this book two stars out of five.  I only recommend it for people who want a literary experience or were English majors, and aren’t easily shocked.  I’m glad I read it, mostly because it took me out of my reading comfort zone.  But I still feel John Waters is my preferred master of shock.