Sunday, May 21, 2017

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet

Becky Chambers
Completed 5/21/2017, reviewed 5/21/2017
4 stars

I don’t think I can say I hate space opera anymore.  I’ve enjoyed too many in recent months.  Here’s another.  What sets this apart though is that it is more of a character study than a plot driven story.  The book tells the tale of the crew of the Wayfarer on its year long journey to a new planet in the galactic alliance, where it will punch a new wormhole into the fabric of space.  The episodic chapters are little vignettes, almost like short stories, which give us a little more insight into the characters of the crew.

I’ve read quite a few reviews of the book, many of which compare it to Firefly or Farscape.  What I think promotes this view is that the book is written, as I mentioned earlier, episodically which makes it feel like your reading the script for a season of a TV series.  There may be more similarities to these programs, but I don’t know those enough to compare.  What I do know is that I enjoyed the book and I enjoyed the characters. 

What surprised me the most about the book is that most of the characters are nice.  They have become like a family in their closeness.  There’s one character who’s very ornery, but even he comes around through the episode where he’s featured.  It’s quite a change from your standard space opera where everyone is dark, where even the good guys have a dark edge to them.  I’m not saying they are Mary Sues’, but it made me feel good to get involved with the characters.  And, okay, one of the characters is rather perky.  Along the same vein, there is a surprisingly little amount of blood and guts. 

Perhaps most interestingly, there are some inter-species relationships.  I think they are handled very well.  The crew is a diverse collection of human and non-human members.  The aliens are particularly well drawn.  Sissix was my favorite of all the aliens.  Sissix has scales and claws and comes from a culture with complex family groupings.  This world building was very interesting and Sissix just stuck out for me as the best of the bunch. 


I give this book four stars out of five.  I read this book because its sequel was nominated for a Hugo, and I’m on a kick to read the Hugo nominees this year.  So of course I have to read the first book before the sequel, right?  I obviously haven’t read the second book yet, but I’m surprised this book was not nominated for a Hugo, though who’s to say what might have been if the rabid puppies hadn’t hijacked some of the nominations.  I think this book should have been a contender.   It’s a fun read with great charactes, aliens, and world-building.  

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch

Philip K Dick
Completed 5/13/2017 Reviewed 5/15/2017
4 stars

Another wild book from Philip K Dick.  The world has become hot and crowded.  The UN drafts people to relocate to other planets and moons to alleviate the population and environmental crisis.  But life on the alien worlds is tough and degrading.  To avoid despair, people use a drug called Can-D which creates the illusion that you are on earth via a tableau of Barbie- and Ken-type dolls and accessories.  Palmer Eldritch returns from a ten year trip to Proxima Centauri with a potential rival product called Chew-Z which doesn’t require the tableaus.  The makers of Can-D are threatened by Chew-Z, but find a much more sinister relationship between the new drug, its users, and Eldritch. 

The book is short, only about 230 pages, but it is chock full of weirdness.  The above synopsis just gives you a taste of the plot.  There is so much going on, like the main character Barney Mayerson who is a procog, that is, he can see the future, who works for the Can-D company predicting what products will become good sellers for the Perky Pat tableaus.  He’s having an affair with another precog, but regrets leaving his wife.  His character is really well drawn.  While some of the other characters are a little bit like cardboard cutouts, like Barney’s boss Leo, a cigar-chompin’ stereotypical boss from the ‘50s, they are still interesting and infused with lots of detail. 

Once again, Dick tackles religion and God as he did in the last book I read, Deus Irae.  Here, it comes in various forms, including the religion that pops up around the Perky Pat and Can-D experiences.  But the big theological question surrounds the nature of Palmer Eldritch.  Is he really still Palmer Eldritch, or had he been taken over by an alien on his space trip?  And for that matter, is he now a god, or some type of supreme being?   And does Chew-Z create a spiritual experience or is it just a hallucination? 

The questions are tough and not so easily answered.  As the book progresses, the blur between reality and hallucination becomes more and more confusing.  The beginning is fairly straight-forward: you know when you are in reality and when you are in a hallucination.  Or maybe you don’t know.  I have to say that Dick is an expert at playing games with reality.  It made for a great read, though I must admit I felt a little lost towards the end.  However, I really enjoyed it the ride it took me on.  I give it four stars out of five.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Deus Irae

Philip K Dick and Roger Zelazny
Completed 5/7/2017, reviewed 5/7/2017
4 stars

I picked this book to read for a theology in SF/F reading challenge, and boy did I pick a doozey.  At 180 pages, this has to be one of the most complicated little books I’ve read in a long time.  I really enjoyed it, but it is heavy on the theology and has a crazy plot.  My understanding is that Dick started the book, but put it down and offered it to another writer because he didn’t know enough about Christianity to finish it.  Zelazny saw it at the other writer’s house and offered to finish it for Dick.  So part of the fun of this book is trying to guess who wrote what parts.  This only being the second book by Dick I’ve read, but the fifth by Zelazny, I still had fun playing guess the author.  But the real fun comes in the crazy plot these guys dreamed up.

After WWIII, a new religion has formed.  Its god is the God of Wrath (hence the title) and in human form is Carleton Lufteufel who made the decision to drop the bomb that destroys most of mankind.  By the way, Lufteufel means “air devil” in German.  Tibor McMasters is an “inc”, an incomplete person because he was born without arms or legs and has bionic limbs instead.  He’s also possibly the world’s greatest living painter.  He is asked by the Servants of Wrath (SOWs) to paint Lufteufel’s image in a murch, a mural in their church.  Not content to use a pre-war photo which makes Lufteufel look human, he goes on a pilgrimage to find the real Lufteufel to capture his godliness.  Tibor is followed by Pete Sands, a devout Christian who seeks God through the use of psychedelics, and who wants to sabotage the pilgrimage.  On the way, they meet the mutants created by the bomb:  talking lizard people, sentient bugs, worms, birds, and some dying AIs. 

See, the plot is pretty wild.  However, it’s fairly eash to follow.  Part of it is because the characters are developed pretty well, especially for just 180 pages.  So you get the characters quickly and jump right into the craziness that is their missions.  I really like Tibor and Pete even though they are both rather flawed.  Tibor gets sick when it’s time paint.  And he really wants out of painting Lufteufel.  He even considers converting to Christianity just to get out of it.  Pete has taken his parish priest’s advice a little too much to heart and is willing to do anything to stop Tibor. 

There’s a lot of humor as well, particularly with the mutants and AIs.  I particularly liked Pete’s encounter with the autofac, the underground automatic factory, that tortures Pete by “repairing” his bicycle.  And the book is kind of a sausage fest.  There are only three women, but two of them add humor as well.  One is the long-suffering wife of a SOW priest, the other is the long-suffering pipe smoking girlfriend of Pete.  As I write this, I realize that despite his nefarious mission, Pete does seem to be at the center of much of the comedy. 

The theological part comes into play in several ways that are pretty integral to plot.  To say too much gives away a lot.  However, I will say that the theme is that over time, we lose the authentic records of faith and come to rely on that which was artificially created.  It’s sort of like the game of telephone.  Go through enough people and the original message is replaced by the wrong message.  That which is authentic is lost forever.

I give this book four out of five stars.  It’s a lot of fun, particularly if you know a lot about Christianity.  It also helps if you know a little German (which I don’t).  Dick uses some German phrases and poetry, not all of which is translated.  And it might require some forays into Wikipedia like when he talks about some heresies.  Okay, some caveats to getting it, but I got it and enjoyed it.  I think the average person will too.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

The Obelisk Gate

N.K. Jemisin
Completed 5/6/2017, reviewed 5/7/2017
4 stars

There’s something about Jemisin’s writing that is absolutely amazing.  Even though this book suffers from second book in a series sag, the writing is still brilliant and some subplots that seem, well, plotless, are still wonderful to read.  The book is a continuation of The Fifth Season, with the adventures of Essun, an orogene.  As I noted last time, think of her as an earth bender, for those who may be familiar with the “Avatar: The Last Airbender” animated series.  The book also follows what happened to her daughter, Nassun, who from the first book, we know was kidnapped by Essun’s husband after he killed their son.  Essun is still searching for Nassun.  By the way, since this is a second book, there are some spoilers from the first book, but I’ll try to keep it minimal.

The most masterful part of this book is once again the person of the narrator in each section of the book.  There are short first person segments.  The story of Essun is told in second person.  The story of Nassun is told in third person.  While still a difficult way to read a story, the second person parts are very natural.  While I think it is only the third book I’ve read employing second person (though I’ve read a couple of short stories employing it as well) I have to say it is the most amazing writing I’ve ever experienced.  Only occasionally did it bog me down, sometimes losing my stamina for maintaining the story.

Like the first book, there is a mystery to who the narrator is.  This time the narrator is a different person from the first book.  I think it’s revealed about halfway through the book, but I believe I missed it and didn’t figure it out until the end.  But figuring out who the narrator is helps explain a plot hole, that being the use of the word “magic”.  In Essun’s story, we find out that “magic” is a secret word from the past that is no longer used today.  Yet it appears in Nassun’s narrative.   But once you find out who the narrator is, you get that Nassun can think about things in terms of magic because the narrator is a little omniscient. 

Essun and Nassun are both wonderful characters.  Surprisingly, they are both anti-heroes.  As much as you want to like them, you can’t completely because they do harm with their powers.  Nassun really stole the show for me in this book.  Essun’s story line of settling in an underground community was a little slow.  Nassun’s story line of going on the lam with her murderous father is much more riveting.  It was very interesting following her process of loving her dad to realizing that he is anathema, trying to get her cured of her orogene powers rather than supporting her growing into them.  Of course, the father is only reacting as badly as most of the population does toward the orogenes.  It is why he killed his son.  But she is daddy’s little girl and he’s going to get her fixed. 

As with the first book, this one is very diverse, with all sorts of persons of color and different orientations.  There’s even a different race, the stone eaters, who we don’t even know for sure that they’re human, but are perhaps more human than either “stills” or the “roggas”.  The stone eaters come more into play in this book as well with Hoa playing a larger role.


Even though I note that there is a sag to this book, namely in the slowness of the buildup of Essun’s plotline, I give this book four out of five stars.  It is the second of perhaps the most imaginative series I’ve ever read.  

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Tinker

Wen Spencer
Completed 4/27/2017 Reviewed 5/4/2017
2 stars

I’m just dying to say “Tinker” is a stinker, but it’s a tad more complicated.  I went in thinking the book was going to be fluff, but it turned out to be partly fluff, partly really heavy.  Unfortunately, the heavy parts were taken lightly which I found very disturbing.  There’s going to be some spoilers in this review, so don’t continue if you think you’re going to read it. 

Tinker is a young woman, just turned eighteen, who lives in Pittsburgh.  However, it’s a Pittsburgh that mainly exists in another dimension.  You see, the Chinese built an interdimensional gateway and they don’t know exactly how it works.  A side effect is that the city of Pittsburgh spends most of each month in a dimension of elves and magic and monsters.  Once a month, for a day, it exists back in our dimension in its normal location.  Tinker has lived in this travelling Pittsburgh her whole life, running a junkyard, building contraptions, and just being brilliant and pretty.  Of course, she doesn’t know just how brilliant or pretty she is, because, well, she’s a Mary Sue.

For those that don’t know, a Mary Sue is a character that is usually young, pretty, and smart, sort of an idealized and perfect fictioinal character.  Flaws are usually minimal.  Think Wesley Crusher from Star Trek Next Gen.  When this is the main character, the book can become a bore because the character lacks in realism. 

One day, while being chased by wargs, an elf comes to her rescue, but is badly injured.  In the process of getting him healed he falls in love with her, though.  She’s oblivious to this though does find him exceedingly attractive.  In fact, she’s naïve about most things.  Thus begins a journey which forces her to confront who she is and where she’s going. 

The plots are the subplots, and vice versa.  The story is really about who does Tinker love.  The action and everything else are really the subplots to Tinker’s love life.  It’s sort of the opposite of how most science fiction and fantasy books work.  But even more problematic is the nature of her love life.  It’s full of non-consensual acts.  Okay, two.  I think it’s okay to have story lines like these in a book, but they need to be dealt with in realistic ways.  In this book, they don’t have the drama that comes after the act.  It all kind of “goes away”.  In fact, one of the perpetrators actually disappears from the story.  I have to assume he comes back in a later volume.  I guess what I’m trying to say is that if you’re going to have mature devices, there has to be a level of maturity to the story.  “Tinker” doesn’t have that. 

There’s another scene which is pretty horrific that involves one of the bad characters.  Again, it seems that it just isn’t done well.  I think a good example of how it could be handled well, while still being deplorable, is in Richard K. Morgan’s The Cold Commands, a dark fantasy where the lines between good and evil are blurry, and it solidifies the main character as an anti-hero. 

As far as everything else in the book, there are some interesting characters.  I particularly liked Oil-Can, her cousin.  Yeah, the names get to you after a while.  The world building is pretty good, mixing science and magic.  But again, I’ve seen better mixes of science and magic, for instance, N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season


Maybe I’m just over sensitive, or maybe it’s because I was expecting something different, but I didn’t like this book.  The last quarter became a chore to read.  I’d like to see how other people respond to this book.  This was a book club selection, so I’m interested in seeing where the lines are drawn between the likes and the dislikes.  Two out of five stars.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

The Dark Forest

Cixin Liu
Completed 4/22/2017, Reviewed 4/23/2017
4 stars

I picked this book up at the library when I realized that all the Hugo nominees except the one I was holding in my hand were checked out.  I got this crazy notion up my butt to read all the Hugo nominees this year.  As I looked through the list, I realized some were the second books of series of which I hadn’t read the first book, and one of the nominees was the third book of a trilogy of which I only read the first book.  That first book was The Three-Body Problem which I read for book club and gave four stars.  So since the library had the second book, I decided to pick it up and give it a try.  It was better than I expected for the second book of a trilogy.  Usually, I find the second book to be a coasting, a long setup for the denouement of the third book. This book, though a tough read, was nearly self-contained and had a very interesting plot. 

The story continues with earth reeling from figuring out that it will be invaded by the Trisolarans in 400 years.  Any attempts to come up with a resistance or solution is undermined by the existence of sophons, particles with the dual role of spying on humanity and suppressing technological development.  Because of the eleven-dimensional sophons, the Trisolarans know instantaneously what kind of resistance Earth may be devising.  So it comes up with a plan to choose four individuals to devise counter plans that only they know the full extent of.  Called Wallfacers, the plans are safely locked in the minds of these people, unshared with anyone.  Three of the four are well-known leaders.  The fourth person is Luo Ji, an astronomer and sociologist who doesn’t want to be a Wallfacer.  The book mostly follows Luo in his attempt to come up with some kind of plan to repel the invaders.

I found the plots of the Wallfacers to be very interesting and entertaining, in a very dark way.  Each Wallfacer is given all the resources and power they want to setup their plans.  Their only resistance is the Wallbreakers, people chosen by the ETO, the Trisolaran sympathizers, to figure out and reveal the secret plans.  Each Wallfacer has a Wallbreaker, except for Luo.  He is his own self-destructive Wallbreaker.  In addition, for some reason, it appears that out of the four Wallfacers, the Trisolarans want Luo dead.  Is it true, or is it just the paranoia of the narcissist that Luo is?  With everything stacked up against the Wallfacers, is there any hope for Earth at all?

What I didn’t like about the book is my same criticism from the first book, characterization.  I felt that I didn’t get to know most of the characters, and what little I knew about them told me what they were doing, but not really who they were.  The only characters I really felt I knew were Luo Ji and his sidekick, Shi Qiang, aka Da Shi, a cop who takes a liking to Luo.  Despite being a narcissist and misogynist, I liked Luo as he became a reluctant messiah, multiple times, grew to love a woman for who she is, and learned to have some compassion for the people of Earth.  And there was something warm about Da Shi, who reminded me somewhat of Jiminy Cricket, a sort of moral guide to help ground Luo. 

There was another character who I didn’t get, Zhang Beihai.  He was a naval officer that became an officer in the resistance space military effort.  His storyline was a hard, military SF plot that had me lost through most of the book.  Whenever I got to a Zhang section, my mind fuzzed over and I lost interest.  Finally at the end of the book, his plot came together, but the reading of his plotline before the end was just painful for me.

The biggest criticism I have of the book is that there are no major female characters.  There are only a few women in the books and they have secondary or nearly non-existent roles.  They don’t interact with each other, breaking the second part of the Bechdel test.  This was disappointing considering one of the major characters in the first book was a woman. 

Lastly, there were quite a few times in the book where there was info dump.  Some of those were tough reading.   Even the part that explains the significance of the title was a long, tedious passage.  


Still, I give the book four stars out of five.  I was surprised at how engrossed I was in the book despite the problems.  It was a heavy, tough read, and the third book is longer by another hundred pages, which is daunting.  But I look forward to reading it and seeing if it is really Hugo worthy or not. 

Sunday, April 16, 2017

All the Birds in the Sky

Charlie Jane Anders
Completed 4/15/2017, reviewed 4/16/2017
3 stars

I really wanted to like this book, and I began really liking it. But about halfway through, it dissolved into an uneven plot that got less and less believable and interesting.  It’s been nominated for several awards as of this writing and I’m not sure it’s deserving.  There are a lot of great reviews for this book and a fair number of haters.  I’m just mixed.

The story begins with the young Patricia and Laurence.  Patricia is a witch, Laurence is a brilliant techie.  Both have families that don’t understand them.  Both are outcasts at school.  They meet up and become friends, until Laurence realizes that Patricia really does have powers, abandoning her.  They meet again in San Francisco as adults, both trying to do something for the world that is collapsing around them, each using their own talents. 

I really liked the two main characters, particularly as children.  It is easy to like outcasts, feeling sorry for them, identifying with them.  Right from the start, you cheer for them even though you know that everything they do will be interpreted wrong.  And as the plot becomes more convoluted, you still cheer for them, hoping that they will find each other and fall in love.

It’s roughly the second half of the book that is its downfall.  Patricia has grown up to be a gifted healer.  Laurence is working on a wormhole generator.  The world is being devastated by superstorms and earthquakes. The plot gets convoluted with story lines like destroying the generator, giant robots, the “unraveling”.  It actually got hard to follow, even though the book is really an easy read.  Maybe I wasn’t willingly suspending enough disbelief, but it just seemed like subplots were thrown in to create as much difficulty as possible for Patricia and Laurence to get together and be in love, rather than for what should be the plot of the book, saving the earth and the falling in love being a natural outcome. 

I also didn’t like the grammar.  There were a lot of sentence fragments.  That might have been an editorial choice, or maybe not.  I found it really distracting.  I find sentence fragments to be useful when you want to slow the reader down to make a point.  I found as the book went on, I noticed them more and more and felt like they were stylistically pretentious rather than organic to the overall writing style.


There are a lot of good things about the book, mostly in the first half.  And the very end pulls everything together nicely.  It’s just everything else that I found difficult.  I’m giving the book three stars out of five on the strength of the first half.  It just could have been so much better.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Miniatures: The Very Short Fiction of John Scalzi

John Scalzi
Completed 3/24/2017, reviewed 3/26/2017
3 stars

“Miniatures” is a fun little book.  As described in its title, it’s all very short fiction, about ten pages max.  Most of the stories are goofy fun.  I don’t really have a more mature way of putting it.  Almost every story is fun in some way, and they all have the goofy humor that I’ve come to appreciate from John Scalzi.

I’ve only read one other book by Scalzi, “Redshirts”, which won the Hugo some years back.  It too was goofy fun, although I didn’t call it that in my review of it.  Where I really got to know Scalzi was at Westercon last year where he was the Guest of Honor.  I went to most of the panels he was on and he was a hoot.  He has a great sense of humor. 

That sense of humor is on display in “Miniatures”.  It opens with a story that made me chuckle out loud, “Alien Animal Encounters”.  It’s about people describing their most interesting encounter with an alien animal species.  Another good one was “Pluto Tells All”.  That has Pluto describing what it was like being demoted to dwarf planet.  A third fun story was “The AI are Absolutely Positively Without a Doubt Not Here to End Humanity, Honest”.  That was about machines becoming intelligent and doing an interview to explain that, well, as the title describes, they are not here to end humanity. 


Almost all the stories are tongue in cheek, sharply humorous.  He mentions a few times in the intros for the stories, that these are the sort of pieces he would use on book tours to warm up the audience.  And they do, they give you a chuckle and lighten your mood.  I give this book three stars out of five because it’s basically fluff, a quick, easy read, meant to make you laugh rather than pause and reflect.  A few of the stories didn’t work for me, but that is often the case in a collection like this.  Usually, not every story is going to grab me.  But it’s a great book to read after a heavier tome. I highly recommend it.  

Monday, March 20, 2017

Gossamer Axe

Gael Baudino
Completed 3/19/2017 Reviewed 3/20/2017
5 stars

How do I describe a book that’s both corny and wondrous at the same time?  It’s kind of corny because it’s about an ancient woman living in late 1980s Denver who uses heavy metal music to fight for the release of her lover from a dark, magical place.  It’s wondrous for the exact same reason.  Christa is a harpist from pre-Christian Ireland.  The music she creates is her source of magic.  She lost her lover in a land of immortals in the 1700s, controlled by a bard who is a greater harpist than Christa.  Now she has discovered that heavy metal just might be the magical weapon she can use against the bard to rescue her lover Judith.  So yes, it sounds corny, but I was completely pulled into the plot and characters.

The majority of the book is about Christa discovering heavy metal and her forming her own all-woman heavy metal band.  She’s in Denver because she’s been following the portal between our world and the immortal world where her lover is being held captive.  She teaches the harp and one of her students invites her to a metal concert.  At the concert Christa begins to realize that metal has the same characteristics as her magical harp playing, and she just might be able to use it to save Judith.  Having played the harp for over a thousand years, she understands music so well that she picks up electric guitar in a matter of days.  First she joins a metal band, but soon realizes that she’ll have to form her own band to make the magic work. 

The best part of the book is the forming of the band.  Christa pulls together women musicians who have crossed her path, all damaged souls who play terrifically.  The characters are well-defined and have interesting back stories.  Part of the greatness comes from describing what it’s like to be a woman in a music genre dominated by men.  Even once the band has formed and shown how awesome they are, they still have to battle the issues of being a girl band rather than a band made of talented women.  In addition, they all must battle their own personal demons that could derail the band, professionally as well as from its purpose of saving Christa’s lover. 


This book won the Lambda Literary Award in 1990, and I can see why.  It’s a terrific telling of a story that could have just been corny and even soapy.  But I found it executed marvelously.  I was completely drawn in and even though the ending was pretty predictable, I still found it exciting.  I give this book five stars because of this, and because I got emotionally involved with the characters and the outcome.  I’ve only given one other five star rating recently.  Reading as much as I do now, I find it harder to give five stars, but this book really moved me.  And it wasn’t because I paid a premium for this out of print book at a used book store.   If anything, it should have added pressure that I normally would have rebelled against, feeling that the book wasn’t worth it.  Perhaps it’s because I was in several bands, so I understand some of the experience.  Mostly though, I think it’s just a well told story that’s different and exceedingly satisfying. 

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Affinity

Sarah Waters
Completed 3/13/2017 Reviewed 3/14/2017
3 stars

This was a peculiar book.  I found it relatively boring and uninspired through most of it.  The story is about a Victorian lady who visits a women’s prison on a regular basis.  She eventually forms a bond with a spiritualist who is imprisoned for fraud and assault.  Then in the last 50 pages or so, it starts to get interesting, ending with a great twist.  But is it enough to make the book a worthwhile read?  Well, not really.

The book is not badly written.  The prose is decent.  I simply found the basic story very boring.  Miss Prior, the Victorian lady, is a spinster who has been suffering from depression.  I never found it clear why she decided to become a Lady Visitor at the women’s prison.  Was it supposed to lift her from her depression?  Going to a prison, even as a charitable deed does not seem like the sort of thing that one would do to feel better.   Miss Prior goes to the prison, but because of her growing relationship with the spiritualist, becomes more morose and rebellious at home.  Of course, rebellious for a Victorian lady is relatively mild by today’s standards.  But it causes conflict with Prior’s mother.  It should be noted too that Prior is basically already a spinster at age 29.  Her brother is married, and her younger sister is getting married.

The book is written as two diaries, told through alternating chapters.  One diary being Miss Prior’s, the other being Dawes, the spiritualist.  I think the diary form is part of why it’s boring.  Prior is not a great story teller.  Dawes entries are short and informational.  We don’t really get much character development out of them.  We get all the character development from Prior’s entries, and it’s just, well, I’d say “Nice”.

Eventually, we are told that Prior was in love with her sister-in-law before she married Prior’s brother.  This adds a little spice to the story, but not too much.  Later, it becomes clear that she also falls in love with Dawes, who seems to truly have the gift to contact the dead.  Through this relationship, Dawes schemes to escape and run away with Prior.  It’s here that the story starts to finally pick up.  But it is so close to the end, you wonder what the purpose of the previous three hundred pages were.  Maybe I missed some unspoken sexual tension, but the relationship building went at a snail’s pace. 


All I could think through most of this book was, what’s the point.  The prose is nice, but I felt like nothing happened for about 300 pages.  The book is 351 pages.  All the intrigue happens at the end, and it was way too long to wait for me.  However, I’ll give this book the benefit of the doubt with a three star rating out of five, because of the prose and the end.  If you read this book, I think it will help you that you know that you’ll be coasting for a long time.  So try to enjoy the prose, and if you get bored, rest in the knowledge that the payoff at the end is pretty good.  

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Smoke and Shadows

Tanya Huff
Completed 2/11/2017 Reviewed 2/21/2017
4 stars

“Smoke and Shadows” begins a series by Tanya Huff that follows a supporting character from the Blood novels.  Tony, an ex-junkie and hustler, has gotten clean and sober with the help of vampire Henry and is now working as a production assistant on a Canadian TV series about a vampire detective.  Despite all the inaccuracies, considering he was in a relationship with a vampire, he likes his job.  But strange things begin to happen around the studio.  First he notices that the shadows seem to have a mind of their own.  Then there is a death on set.  And suddenly, Tony is in the middle of his own paranormal investigation.  With Henry and a wizard from another dimension at his side, Tony tries to subvert a takeover from the Shadowlord. 

This is another fluff novel from Tanya Huff.  But I have to say it was very entertaining.  First off, I really liked the meta-scenario of a guy who knows about vampires working on a TV series about a vampire.  The show, “Dark Night”, reminded me of the Canadian syndicated series “Forever Knight” from the 90s.  It wasn’t a great show, but it was fun fluff.  Like this novel. 

One of the best things about the book is that it is self-contained even though it’s part of a series.  It seems like I’ve been reading a lot of books lately that are part of a series and are not self-contained.  I don’t mind it as much anymore, and don’t begrudge authors writing trilogies.  After all, my favorite book is LOTR, a trilogy.  But for the most part, these days, I want to read a book that ends.  This one did.  I was so happy at the end of it.  I think that’s part of why I gave it a high rating.

As far as characterization goes, Tony is great.  He’s gay and has a crush on a one of the stars of the series who is apparently straight, but gives off mixed signals.  He also goes on a comical date with the show’s music director, who has a crush on him.  All this, though, creates some conflict because Henry is still in the picture.  Tony is no longer in a relationship with the vampire, but he still helps Tony out throughout the story.  There’s a few interesting instances where we understand why Tony wanted out of the relationship when we learn of Henry’s possessiveness.  It’s not just normal possessiveness, but the kind that a vampire has for his prey, and it’s intense.

I found Arra, the wizard from the dimension of the Shadowlord to be a bit annoying at times.  She has a great setup.  She’s the special effects director for the show.  Of course she uses her powers to create great effects on the show’s low budget.  Unfortunately, she does not want to help our hero subdue the Shadowlord.  It’s understandable that she’s reluctant considering she barely escaped destruction in her own dimension.  However, I would have liked to have seen her have more backbone throughout the story rather than just near the end.


I gave this book four stars because I had a lot of fun with it.  It’s not a great book, but I really enjoyed it.  At some point in the future, I would consider reading the other books in the series, just not now.  Tony’s a great character and I’d like to see him have success in life, amidst all the supernatural urban fantasy that he gets into.  

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Ethan of Athos

Lois McMaster Bujold
Completed 1/29/2017 Reviewed 1/30/2017
4 stars

I’ve been hit or miss with Bujold, particularly the Vorkosigan Saga.  The book was a hit.  The plot is a little off the main line of the Saga, more like an offshoot.  It revolves around Ethan of the planet Athos, a world of men.  It turns the meme of a female utopia on its head.  Children are born from uterine replicators, which is not unheard of in this universe.  With a planet of only men, the replicators wear out and new organs are needed.  Ethan, a doctor who works with the replicators, is chosen to go in search of a new supplier after the previous package of ovarian cultures is sabotaged.  It forces him to go out into space and deal with the rest of society for the first time ever, including women.  It leads to some comical moments.  Of course, this being part of one of the more famous space opera series, Ethan ends up in the middle of espionage with the evil Cetagandans.

What’s surprising about this book is that it was written in 1986 but is a mainstream novel that deals with gay issues.  Many of the men on Athos are in M/M relationships, though not all, mostly those who raise children.  Being a planet of only men, all the children are sons.  Now it should be noted that the gay issues are quite tempered.  But there’s a bashing scene that was really traumatic to me.  And just the fact that it exists in this book from such a long time ago is quite stunning to me.

The culture clash between Ethan and the rest of the universe is embodied in Elli Quinn, a female mercenary who is after the same Cetagandans that are after Ethan.  She keeps on popping up on Ethan, causing a lot of cognitive dissonance.  The scenes are humorous even though the circumstances become direr.  It’s fun to watch him slowly back away whenever she approaches him.  You see, the planet of Athos is actually rather misogynistic.  It is incorporated into its religion and morality.  Women are seen as the embodiment of sin.  So whenever Ethan interacts with Elli, he’s concerned that her immorality will rub off on him.  At first the misogyny is disconcerting, but Ethan comes to understand and appreciate Elli, and of course the lessons are learned.  The best part is watching all that develop and unfold for Ethan.


I give this book four stars out of five.  It’s a surprisingly fun, fast-paced space opera romp.  It’s a quick read yet has enough depth to contain messages about tolerance and acceptance.  The book is self-contained in this epic multi-book saga so it can be read without having read any of the other books, which I always find a plus.  

Friday, February 3, 2017

The Devil You Know

KJ Parker
Completed 1/26/2017 Reviewed 1/30/2017
5 stars

It’s been a long time since I awarded a book five stars.  This one did it for me.  It’s about Saloninus from “Blue and Gold”, the philosopher/alchemist who lies a lot, and I mean, a lot.  He’s now in his 70s.  He decides to sell his soul to the devil, in grand Faustian tradition, for another 20 years to finish his life’s work.  But the question is can the king of lies outwit the father of lies?

It just so happens that the demon sent to Saloninus with the contract and to watch over him for those 20 years is a fan of his philosophy.  Saloninus’ arguments prove the lack of existence of God and prove that morality is relative.  But does he really believe his own writings.  The demon comes to realize this as he comes to realize that his brilliant ward probably has a loophole to get out of the contract at the end of the 20 years.   

The book is short; it is just a novella.  The narration switches a lot between the demon and Solaninus, which at first is a little disorienting.  It quickly got the two voices down and had no problem with the switches between scenes versus the switching between narrators, making it and easy read.   As I noted at the top, I gave this book five stars because I was completely caught up in the question of what Solaninus had up his sleeve, and the demon’s attempts to figure it out.  

Monday, January 30, 2017

Titan

John Varley
Completed 1/22/2017 Reviewed 1/24/2017
4 stars

The captain of a spaceship and her crew are on an exploratory mission to Saturn.  They discover a new moon and quickly realize that it appears to be a generations ship.  When they approach the moon-ship, it seizes them, destroying the ship and burying them.  Sometime later, the crew emerges from the ground in what is reminiscent of birthing.  They are not near each other when they emerge, and they are naked and hairless.  Eventually they find one another as they explore this strange world, meet its inhabitants, and search for its creators.

I was pretty surprised by how much I enjoyed the book.  Written in 1979, the book has a vintage feel to it, where the emphasis is more on discovery and exploration.  If this were a film, there would be a lot of scenes requiring the actors to have a look of awe on their faces.  But as a book, it worked really well.   It reminded me of some of Arthur C. Clarke’s work, where the emphasis is on the wonder, and a little less on the plot. 

Perhaps the most fascinating thing about the book is its progressive approach to issues of gender, race, and sexuality.  The captain is a woman, Cirocco “Rocky” Jones.  For 1979, I thought this was quite surprising.  There are also lesbian relationships in the book.  To be fair, there are a lot of relationships in the book.  It takes the premise that on a long distance, long term mission, there’s going to be some coming together of people on the ship.  In fact, the whole beginning seems to be about the different permutations the crew had gone through.  At first, it seemed a little off-putting, but it certainly added to the back story of the crew and set the reader up for the later interpersonal conflicts. 

The author looks at race relations through the intelligent beings that inhabit this place.  Specifically, there are two creatures, centaurs and angels, who for some unknown reason, engage in battle whenever they come across each other.  It’s almost as if it’s in their DNA.  To say more would be a spoiler.

The book is told through Rocky’s perspective, so of course her character is the most fleshed out.  Still, most of the characters get good scenes and are more than cardboard cutouts.  What’s really cool is that each of the characters gets something akin to a special power having gone through their rebirthing.  Several of them can communicate with one of the several intelligent species.  One actually turns into one of the species.  For the most part, these powers are benevolent, but it does cause for some problems among the crew. 


I give this book four out of five stars.  It is also the first of a trilogy, though the book stands on its own.  I liked that.  I don’t think I’ll be reading the rest of the trilogy any time soon.  But this book was a cool, mostly fun romp through Varley’s imagination.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Blue and Gold

KJ Parker
Completed 1/16/2017, reviewed 1/16/2017
3 stars

Blue and Gold has the most unreliable narrator I’ve ever read.  And the narrator tells you on the second page that he lies.  How much does he lie?  A lot.  So much so that it’s hard to tell when he’s telling the truth, if at all.  It makes for an interesting and entertaining read.  But in the end, you wonder if the point of the whole novella is that it’s a shaggy dog story.  Well, the last sentence isn’t a pun, but it is the punchline. 

As I mentioned, this is a novella.  It’s only about a hundred pages.  I was surprised at how much character development there was, particularly of the main character, just by being the first person unreliable narrator, even though sometimes, he spoke of himself in third person too.  You don’t get any descriptions of the characters, just their general dispositions from the dialogue.  And the dialogue and narration is pretty good.

The premise of the book is that Saloninus is an alchemist, and possibly the best alchemist ever.  He’s been commissioned by his friend the prince to create an elixir of eternal youth and to turn base metals into gold.  In the process, he accidently kills his wife and goes on the run.  Allegedly.  As the book progresses, the lies change a bit and you don’t know when you’re getting the truth.  And Saloninus jumps between the past and present quite a bit, which keeps the keeps the reader off balance as well.

For a hundred pages, the effect works well.  If this were a full length novel, I think it would have been too much.  There’s a sequel which I have from the library which I think I’ll read after a respite with another book first. 


While not a brilliant book, the effect of the unreliable narrator was fun.  I recommend this for a fun read, keeping in mind that the whole thing is basically a gag.  I give the book three out of five stars.  Just remember to keep in mind what has blue got to do with gold….

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Girl Meets Boy: The Myth of Iphis

Ali Smith
Completed 1/13/2017, reviewed 1/13/2017
4 stars

Girl Meets Boy is part of a series of books that are retellings of famous myths.  There are books in this collection by A.S. Byatt and Margaret Atwood, among others.  This book is a riff on the myth of Iphis and Ianthe from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.  While not exactly a retelling, it plays on the story of a girl raised as a boy until her wedding day.  In the story, we get girl meets boy, girl meets girl, and girls take on corporate greed.  It’s interesting, interestingly written, and very satisfying.
  
The myth of Iphis is a little more complicated than my one liner in the opening paragraph.  It’s the story of a poor couple.  The woman gets pregnant.  As she approaches delivery time, her husband tells her that if the baby is a boy, that would be great.  If it’s a girl, he’ll have to kill her because they can’t afford a girl.  The woman prays to Isis.  The goddess’s response is to bear the child and if it’s a girl, raise it as a boy.  The woman does, naming the girl Iphis which is both a boy and a girl’s name.  All is well for the longest time.  Iphis develops a friendship with a beautiful little girl named Ianthe.  They fall in love.  Then their fathers arrange a marriage.  At the news, Iphis panics because she can’t truly meet Ianthe’s needs as a woman.  She prays to Isis who hears her pleas and changes her into a man in time for the marriage to be successful.  This is the metamorphosis of this story in Ovid’s collection.

Girl Meets Boy is the story of two sisters.  Both work for Pure, a company the sells overpriced bottled water.  Anthea is a dreamer, she hates her corporate job.  Imogen, the more pragmatic sister, loves her job and helps develop the name for the product.  Their company is threatened by a person who goes by the name of Iphis, who writes anti-corporate graffiti slurs that are the bane of Pure.  Anthea falls for Iphis and Imogen is threatened by her.  The rest of the book is about how the sisters resolve their issues around Iphis and Pure. 
  
The book is written in an avant-garde sort of style, without quotations, with a lot of inner dialogue, with the narrative bouncing between the sisters.  It’s a little disconcerting at first, but easy to adapt to.  The style set a tone for me that the story was a little different itself, where gender and gender identity may be fluid.  Smith does a wonderful job turning stereotypical gender roles on their heads.  She also does an incredible job describing the homophobia that goes on in Imogen’s head while she goes out for a jog.  


I give this book four out of five stars.  The writing is really terrific and the character development is masterful for such a short book.  It’s not exactly fantasy, but it is an interpolation of a fantasy.  It was nominated for a Tiptree award and ended up on many best of lists for gender studies and LGBTQ content.  While it doesn’t make me want to run out and read the other myth books in the series by this publisher, it does make me want to read more by the author.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

The Skull of Truth

Bruce Coville
Completed 1/11/2017 Reviewed 1/12/2017
4 stars

This juvenile fantasy novel is a delightful story chock full of social issues.  Predominantly, it is a tale about lying and telling the truth.   Charlie is a boy who lies all the time.  One day, he steals a magic skull, although he’s never stolen anything in his life before this.  The skull forces the people around it to tell the truth.  Of course, telling the truth gets him into as much trouble as lying did, especially since no one really believes him.  The skull’s influence also rubs off on the people in Charlie’s life, like his family.  So Charlie must navigate his life until he can find a way to part with the skull.

What amazed me most about this book was its level of sophistication.  Besides the lying theme, the story also deals with cancer, the environment, and gay issues.  It made me wonder if this book wouldn’t be better suited for a tweener than juvenile.  But I applaud the author for an excellent job writing a book that deals with these issues.   He uses humor and compassion, creating a wonderful learning opportunity for the main character and the reader. 

SPOILER ALERT:  The one issue discussed in the book that I had a problem with was when at a family dinner, with the skull nearby, everyone begins speaking only the truth.  The great-grandmother blurts out that she was a stripper.  While really comical, this is the primary reason for thinking the book should be read by tweeners rather than younger children.  But it made for a terrifically funny scene, which eventually lead to the poignant part with the gay uncle coming out. 


I give this book four out of five stars.  It had terrific characters and was wonderfully written.  I read it in a day and enjoyed every minute of it.  It’s funny but teaches important lessons.  It was a joy to read after the couple of really heavy books I just finished.  

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Daemon

Daniel Suarez
Completed 1/8/2017 Reviewed 1/9/2017
3 stars

This book is a high-tech thriller about a computer application that threatens to take over the world.  A daemon is an application that runs in the background and performs a function without human intervention when certain conditions are met.  In this story, the daemon waits to see the online obituary of its creator, Matthew Sobol.  Once seen, it begins a process of recruiting disenfranchised computer hackers and gamers and penetrating corporate networks to create a new world order.  It’s a fast-paced book which I nearly found exciting.  However, I couldn’t completely engage with it, leaving me feeling rather empty for having read over 400 hardcover pages of it.

The book is kind of an ensemble piece.  There are a fair number of relatively main characters.  The narrative jumps between them and a lot of other minor characters, some of which only exist for a chapter or two.  The book reads very much like a movie script, with lots of jumping between scenes with changing points of view.  At least it shows you what’s going on rather than discussing it in long exposition scenes.  However, there are a fair number of scenes where the computer technology is explained, making this a relatively hard science fiction book. 

It reminded me of the early ‘70s film, “Colossus: The Forbin Project”.  That film was about two computers, one in the US and one in the USSR, which sync and take over the world.  In this book, rather than two mainframes, the means of world control comes through the internet.  It happens insidiously.  The daemon is distributed all over the internet, emulating a MMORPG, i.e. a massive multiuser online role playing game.  In fact, the daemon’s creator is also the creator of the two most successful MMORPGs in history. 

The concept is quite masterful, but the book left me tepid.  The characterization was mediocre.  Most of the characters had little depth.  They were there simply for the plot.  For some reason, I was really aware of the Bechdel test.  There were a few women characters, but no two of them talked to each other.  In fact, one of the few times a woman appears in the story, it’s to demonstrate how deplorable one of the main bad guy characters is.  She is given a drug to reduce her inhibitions at a dance club.  The scene is pretty awful.


I give this book three out of five stars.  It’s readable, but just didn’t have anything for me to grab onto and no characters to identify with.  It plays out a lot like an action movie and the premise is really good and scary.  I put this book in the category of fluff.  Hard fluff, as some of the technobabble gets quite intense at times.  This was a book for my s.f. book club, and some people loved it, some thought it was meh, nobody hated it.  I didn’t hate it, I just found it lacking.    

Thursday, January 5, 2017

The Lost Road and Other Writings

JRR Tolkien
Completed 1/1/2017 Reviewed 1/3/2017
3 stars

This is volume 5 of the History of Middle Earth (HoME) Series.  “The Lost Road” is Tolkien’s first writings of the tales of Númenor.  There are only four chapters along with some fragments.  It was the product of a challenge Tolkien made with C.S. Lewis.  Lewis was to write a space travel novel and Tolkien was to write a time travel novel.  Lewis’ novel became “Out of the Silent Planet”.  Tolkien’s book floundered, as did many of the works he started, but the idea was that a philologist and his son travel back through time to an Atlantis-like society.  Instead of being finished and published in its own right, story lived on in the tales of Númenor, the kings of which Aragorn is descended from. 

One of the most interesting things about this is that Tolkien had an obsession Atlantis.  He had recurring nightmares of the waves overtaking the land as it sank into the ocean.  Little did he know, one of his sons had the same recurring nightmare.  So eventually, the Atlantean myth made its way into Tolkien’s universe, as the tale of Númenor.  The lives of humans on Númenor comprise the second age.  But the story is never completely fleshed out.  Even in the published “Silmarillion” it is only about thirty pages of text (if I remember correctly).

In addition to “The Lost Road”, this volume contains the “The Silmarillion” in the closest form it came to being published in the 1930s.  The timing of it is interesting.  Tolkien was writing this as “The Hobbit” was being published, but just also as he was beginning to write his sequel, which was to become “The Lord of the Rings”.   You get the sense that at this time, “The Hobbit” wasn’t connected yet to the rest of the mythology.  This comes predominantly from Tolkien’s discussion of dwarves.  There seems to be no correlation between the dwarves in “The Hobbit” compared to the dwarves, particularly their creation, in “The Silmarillion”.  Specifically, it is believed by the elven author of “The Silmarillion” that dwarves have no soul.  But anyone who has read “The Hobbit” could successfully argue against this notion. 

I give this book three out of five stars.  I’m not giving it the standard four stars because it was perhaps the toughest of the HoME books to read so far.  Despite following along with The Tolkien Professor’s podcasts of his textual analysis of the book, I found myself confused by yet another version of these stories.  I think that even being the fanboy that I am, I found something missing, particularly in “The Silmarillion”.  There’s a warmth that’s missing from the published S (I’m just going to use the abbreviation now).  This may sound weird to the people who didn’t like the S, but there is something that I really got with the S upon my first reading of it, the depth of the myths, perhaps.  This version, while fleshed out more than ever before, read more like a history to me than a collection of mythological stories.  This is perhaps because its writing came on the heels of the Annals, which are also included in this book, and are very much like a history book with names and dates.


So because of this, I knocked off a star.  It’s still good for the fanboys and fangirls out there, but a little heavier than the other books have been.  I think I’m ready for the next book in the series, the first of four books that documents the history of LOTR.  It will be nice to get away from the S mythology for a little while.