Completed 8/9/2014, Reviewed 8/11/2014
Just a few days ago, another reviewer whose blog I
frequently read noted that his taste in genre fiction has migrated to what he
calls “Disturbing Fiction”. This book
is definitely disturbing. Every scene,
every relationship, every subplot made me feel uncomfortable. But I didn’t find it disturbing in a good
Eddie Alley grew up in rural Virginia with an alleged witch
for a mother. She seems to be a
shape-shifter of sorts, finding pleasure by removing her skin and riding the
men of the town at night like horses. In
a strange twist of fate, Tucker, a writer and Sonia, a photographer from the WPA
hit Eddie with their car while driving down a dirt road. While staying to make sure he’s okay, Eddie
quickly becomes attached to strangers.
They become enmeshed in an odd relationship with this family, and then
As an adult, Eddie hosts a schlocky horror movie show as
Captan (sic) Casket, a la Vampira and Eliva, Mistress of the Dark. He and his wife take in Jasper, a street
urchin who’s infatuated with Eddie’s TV persona. Instead of creating a healthy environment for
the boy, the household becomes a battleground with Jasper at the center. In response, Eddie’s daughter Wallis follows
in the footsteps of her grandmother. Now
dying with cancer Eddie wants to reconcile with his Wallis.
The only character I really liked was the writer, Tucker. Steeped in the witchery, he seemed the only
character to have and express realistic, complex emotions. But the main character is Eddie.
You would think that as a horror show host and with a witch
for a mother, Eddie would be ripe for complexity. But, in the scenes where Eddie as an adult is
trying to keep Jasper in the family, you get no real insight into his
motivation. There’s the simple
explanation of his childhood attachment to the writer who never returns, but
it’s not sufficient. It felt like the
author took the easy way out by not giving Eddie more complex. That simplicity makes his daughter’s
dysfunction seem like nothing more than the ignored child acting out. I found myself wanting to reach into the
book, wring their necks, and shout, “You’re not deep enough to have responses
like that! Get over yourselves!” There are books where the dysfunction of the
characters propels the plot, and there are those where it just becomes
I was disappointed in “Witches”. The title, the synopsis, the award, all
indicated something more profound than what was offered. Everything is disturbing, the skin-sloughing
witch; the rural children; the creepy relationship between Jasper and Wallis; the
even creepier relationship between Jasper and Eddie; and Wallis’ acting out as
an adult. But it didn’t add up to the
horror I was expecting. Instead, it felt
like a pop psychology exercise on an afternoon TV talk show. 2 out of 5 stars.
Completed 8/4/2014, Reviewed 8/11/2014
I’m not usually a short story fan, and I always have an
initial negative reaction to books selected by the SF book club I attend. So of course I was predisposed to disliking
this collection of Nebula winning and nominated stories from 2012 for the
August selection. But this book was a
revelation. The stories included here
are full of literary genre-bending speculative fiction that I have barely
sampled in limiting myself to the novel format.
What I thought would be two weeks of teeth-gnashing drudgery became a
four day marathon of wonder.
The standout story was “The Paper Menagerie” by Ken
Liu. It was the first story of any
length to win the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy Awards. It’s about a Chinese-American boy whose
mother makes magical origami animals that come to life to be his friends. It’s also about love, identity, and
self-acceptance. This is one of those
gems that makes you understand the power literature can have on society and
understanding. When you get this book,
go right to this story and read it first.
Some other favorites include Connie Willis’ “Ado”, about political
correctness and censorship taken to the extreme; “The Axiom of Choice” by David
W Goldman, told like an interactive story about a musician down on his luck;
“The Sea King’s Second Bride”, a poem by CSE Cooney; and “Sauerkraut Station”
by Ferrett Seinmetz, about a young girl growing up on a space station known for
its amazing sauerkraut in the middle of a galactic revolt.
Two stories that I found quite wild were “The Migratory
Pattern of Dancers” by Katherine Sparrow and “The Cartographer Wasps and the
Anarchist Bees” by E Lily Yu. These
stand out as being incredibly inventive.
I wasn’t exactly happy with the ending of “Dancers” but I was still very
impressed by the concept, and really liked the prose.
That sort of sums up how I felt about this book. Even if I didn’t care for a story, I was
still enthralled by some aspect of it, the writing, the concept, a
character. And with stories of these
sizes, from short to novelette to novella, you get an amuse bouche, something
that delights the palette.
I’m not great at reviewing collections of stories that are
not related. So I hope I conveyed that
this is a great collection. Some stories
are profound, some wild, some traditional.
If you read a lot of full length novels, or generally don’t care for
short stories, I recommend testing your palate with this book. 4 stars out of 5.
Completed 8/1/2014, Reviewed 8/15/2014
“Slow River” is set in the near future where all water is
controlled by a few powerful corporations who recycle it with advanced
biochemical technology. Lore’s family
owns one of those corporations.
She wakes in the rain in an alley, left by kidnappers who
had held her for a huge ransom from one of the most powerful and richest
families in the world. Badly hurt,
exhausted, and without her ID chip, she is found and taken in by the thief
Spanner. She stays with Spanner, living
with the identity of a dead woman, and joining her in a life of illegal scams
and prostitution. It’s either this, or
return to her privileged life in a dysfunctional family of sexual abuse.
“Slow River” is a powerful book about coming to grips with
the past and figuring out that we have choices.
Lore’s journey is one of self-discovery, making some bad choices and
trying to rectify them. Spanner is
locked into a destructive lifestyle.
Their relationship is also destructive.
As Lore takes control of her own life, she realizes she has to leave
Spanner, and the financial safety net that comes with their dysfunction
I really liked the fact that Lore’s sexuality is not an
issue. The issue is overcoming sexual
abuse and breaking out of unhealthy relationships so that she can learn real
trust and love. Her sexuality is as central
to the plot as it would be if the main character was an abused heterosexual
This book is rather slow, perhaps an allusion to the
title. I found myself not really liking
any of the characters at first, nor being interested in what they were
doing. It really didn’t pick up steam
until the middle of the book, when I found I was caught in its current. I was pulled into Lore’s struggle for
self-actualization and awareness. I felt
like I was trudging through the book, but I was doing it happily. By the end, I realized I had read an
important novel and was glad I didn’t give up on it.
Looking back on this review, I realized this is one of my
shorter reviews. I think it’s because
the book took me by surprise. The whole
was bigger than the sum of its parts. So
I don’t have a great analysis, just a few observations with a very strong
endorsement. 4 out of 5 stars.
Completed 7/4/2014, Reviewed 7/18/2014
“Children of God” is the glorious sequel to one of my
favorite books of all time, “The Sparrow”.
It is one of the few sequels I’ve read that is on par with or perhaps
even better than its predecessor. While
the first book explored deep existential questions with despairing and hopeless
answers, “Children” provides the redemption that often comes when we walk
through fear, either on our own or by being dragged kicking and screaming.
Warning: there are
some spoilers for “The Sparrow” in my review since this is a direct sequel to
Russell picks up the story of Jesuit Father Emilio Sandoz soon
after the trauma of being the only survivor and returnee of humankind’s first mission
to Rakhat, a planet inhabited by intelligent life. He made a breakthrough in dealing with the
horror that the Jana’ata perpetrated on him, but still finds nearly no joy in
life. This begins to change when he
decides to leave the priesthood and finds he might be falling in love with a
woman. But the Jesuits can’t leave Rakhat alone, and want to launch a second
mission. This time, the mission is also
political; the Vatican is involved. The
Pope will back the mission financially and even reconcile its rift with the
Jesuit order on the one condition that Sandoz accompany the new team. The question is how do they get Sandoz to
agree to this, and if he does, will he sink into insanity or find salvation.
The most amazing thing about this book is its nearly seamless
transition from its predecessor. It’s
been nearly a year since I read “The Sparrow”, but I felt like there was no
time lapse at all. “Children” picks up
the story with some summation but it’s not obtrusive in the least. We immediately return to the broken psyche of
Sandoz, and his attempts to have a normal life.
Again, Russell interweaves her locations and timelines. This time it alternates between Sandoz on Earth
and the lone survivor on Rakhat, Sophia, dealing with the two sentient species,
the carnivorous Jana’ata and the Runa, the herbivores who are the Jana’ata’s
servants, concubines, and food source.
Russell fully fleshes out the world she had already created, bringing us
deeper into the societies of the two species, and the seemingly insurmountable
problem of normalizing a civilization after its core belief and organization is completely
The narration is no longer just from the human point of
view. It is now also told from the point
of view of the Runa and Jana’ata. Through
these characters, we learn more about the politics and social structure of the
two species since the arrival of the first Jesuit mission. One of these voices is Supaari VaGayjur, a
Jana’ata merchant we met in the first book, whose life and livelihood has been
destroyed. He is in exile with his
daughter Ha’anala. Eventually, he finds
Sophia, now with her own child, Isaac.
Together they continue the legacy of the act of defiance of the Runa
that is turning the whole planet upside-down.
In an interesting sub-plot, Sophia’s son Isaac is
autistic. Russell did a lot of research
on autism to create this character, including reading the works of Temple
Grandin, who I’ve also read and admire.
She did a fantastic job of portraying the difficulty of a mother trying
to relate to her autistic child. As his
name implies from the Biblical reference, he becomes a sort of patriarch of a
new community where both the Runa and Jana’ata live together in peace. Though more of a cryptic ascetic than one
normally might assume from the name of one of the fathers of Jewish people, he
becomes the force that helps build the new society out of the rubble of the
Like the first book, “Children of God” moved me
profoundly. I found myself inside many
of the characters heads, feeling the abandonment, fear, and eventual redemption
in their journeys. I wished the book
didn’t end, but rejoiced in the resolution.
Mary Doria Russell has written two of the greatest books I’ve come
across in the 100+ I’ve read in the past two to three years. Five stars out of five.
Completed 7/21/2014, Reviewed 8/3/2014
Ghyl lives on Halma, a planet of artisans and craft workers
whose products are treasured galaxy-wide for their hand crafted beauty. The use of any sort of technology in
producing these prized works is illegal.
Ghyl’s father, Amiante, is a wood
carver, who constantly butts his head against the trade unions that run
everything in lieu of a powerless puppet government. Amiante instills his son Ghyl with the trade,
but also with the myth of Emphyrio, a legendary hero who died speaking the
truth and thus changed the world. After
Amiante’s death by the trade union powers for multiple uses of modern
technology, Ghyl goes on a quest to find the truth behind the legend of
Emphyrio. Besides the legend, he
discovers the truth about his world, and he himself is confronted with the
decision to speaking the truth and risking the inevitable outcome.
It’s obvious the story is an allegory, but for what, I
couldn’t pin down. There were times that
it seemed to be the evils of communism.
Considering the book was written in 1969, it probably is. There is no real government and the trade
unions run the lives of its members, even to the point of executing
dissenters. At other times, it seemed to
be about corporate oligarchs riding on the backs of the poor. Reading it in the context of today, I can see
this more than communism theme, with the destruction of democracy and justice
by enormous and powerful corporate structures.
I think this speaks to the timeless nature of the story. Just about any social injustice can project
onto the theme, depending of the current context of the reader. It’s also a messiah story, with Christian myth
overtones. Amiante is a woodworker and
Ghyl makes a decision to risk his own life to speak the truth and possibly
change the world.
Vance uses the concepts of puppets throughout the
story. There is a race of genetically
engineered creatures called puppets.
They act out fairy tales, and in this story, the tale of Emphyrio. Interestingly, when the puppets begin to
become self-aware, self-deterministic, and thus troublesome, the puppeteers can
easily dispose of them by executing them in the little dramas. Throughout the
book, once can easily see how everyone is a puppet of someone, expected to
perform their roles without question.
Some follow their roles blindly while others, like Ghyl, face the
inevitable for their exertion of self will.
I enjoyed this book immensely. It’s a fast-paced story of an oppressed boy
searching for truth and justice.
Regardless of the theme, it’s a terrific story. Despite the shortness of the novel, the
characters are well-drawn, the plot is tight, and Vance’s world is
well-built. 4 stars out of 5.
L. Sprague de Camp and Terry Fletcher
Completed 7/18/2014, Reviewed 7/23/2014
This is a collection of the five comical stories which deal
with magic by sending psychologists into parallel dimensions which are based on
mythologies. It’s about 400 pages of
entertaining fluff, grounded in the details of our epic fantasies. It’s an early forerunner of other genre
parodies like “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”, the “Myth-Adventures”, and
many of Terry Pratchett’s works. While
not quite as satirical as more current parody literature, it’s loads of fun.
Of the five stories, my favorites were:
“The Roaring Trumpet” – based on Norse mythology,
“The Wall of Serpents” - the Finnish mythology of the “Kalevala”
“The Green Magician” - Irish mythology.
The two I didn’t like as much were:
“The Castle of Iron” - Ludovico Ariosto’s “Orlando Furioso”
with a little “Kubla Khan”
“The Mathematics of Magic” - “The Faerie Queen”
The two I didn’t care for as much felt too drawn out. In “The Castle of Iron” and “The Mathematics
of Magic” I thought the authors got bogged down in trying to make the languages
too realistic and at the same time funny.
I often found it hard to follow.
But according to the forward, it had to do with the authors’ making fun
of the belief that fantasy always had to be told in medieval wording, and this
was their response to that criticism.
I liked the other three because I felt like they were having
more fun creating these universes. For
example, a fun part of “Trumpet” is that all the Norse giants speak like New
York thugs. Or perhaps, it was because I
know less about Irish, Norse, and Finnish mythology and thus find them more
interesting than standard medieval English and Arab fantasy.
The basic plot is that Harold Shea, a psychologist at a
research institute, with his colleagues discovers you can travel to parallel
worlds by using mathematical logic equations, the “magic” of our universe. However, once in a different universe, you
can perform the “magic” of that universe, as defined in the mythologies it’s
based on. To return to our universe, you
must use the magic of that universe.
There’s an ongoing sub-plot of what’s happening in the real
world, which involves the constant disappearance of these people, and the
subsequent missing persons investigations by the police. One of the most fun characters is one of the
detectives, who accidently ends up in the third story in complete denial of
what’s going on, but ends up completely buying into it by the fifth story.
Another fun sub-plot is that Harold, and basically all the
other psychologists, are socially inept, but by going to these parallel
universes, they have a chance of meeting their dream girls. In one of the stories, Harold meets Belphebe,
which adds the humor of an American having a relationship with a medieval
maiden archer. With the first story
being published in 1948, you’ll find some archaic, sexist language and roles. But to the authors’ credit, Belphebe is quite
a strong and independent female character.
This collection of stories is quite a fun read. It’s a great concept, a bunch of socially
awkward, analytical psychologists bumbling with magic in our cultural
mythologies. Having always been a fan of
parody, I enjoyed my time with it. And I love when you can tell that authors were
having fun when while they were writing their books. Four out of five stars.
Completed 7/25/2014, Reviewed 7/28/2014
The hardbound edition cover of “Remnant Population” has a fraught,
middle-aged woman gazing into a wood filled with spying tribal owl-like
aliens. It’s one of those covers that as
a kid, would suck you in, but as an adult, makes you scowl with disdain and put
it back on the shelf. When I found this
edition at the library, my first thought was “How bad can this book be?!” After finishing the book and looking at the
cover, with tears streaming down my face, I thought “Never, ever, EVER, judge a
book by its cover”.
Ofilia is a colonist a distant planet. She spends most of her time in her garden,
raising vegetables and avoiding her condescending son and daughter-in-law. After nearly forty years on the planet, the
conglomerate they brought them has lost the colonization contract and must
evacuate and reassign everyone in thirty days.
At seventy, widowed, and having had so few children, Ofilia is a special
case. She must be “retired”, and her son
and daughter-in-law will be forced to pay the fee to transport her back to
Having lived there so long, and with so many people bossing
her around, Ofilia decides she’s going to stay and live out the rest of her
days in peace and solitude. She hides in
the forest until the last shuttles leave.
Finally, peace, quiet, and control of her own destiny. It lasts for about a year, then the aliens,
or rather, the indigenes appear. So much solitude.
“Remnant Population” is an uncomplicated novel, with a
simple story line and a simple moral. It’s
a twist on the Robinson Crusoe tale. It’s
about the value of the elderly and the wisdom they offer. It’s about not taking for granted that just
because we’re the dominant culture, we know all the answers.
What makes this book amazing is that Moon can tell an
excellent story with almost no pretension.
Everything in the story supports her theses. There are no asides, no subplots, nothing to
distract you. Throughout most of the
book, Moon keeps the reader inside Ofilia’s head. By the time she meets the indigenes, I found
myself completely identifying with her, her fears, annoyances, and joys. At one point, I thought the long process of
trying to communicate with the indigenes and showing them the technology of the
colony remnants and her daily life might be excruciating to some, but I was
completely enrapt. Ok, so I’m
fifty-three, but I could feel the aches, tiredness, and impatience as if there
in the pages of the book with her.
There are some points that might be considered a little
trite. For example, when the investigative
mission from earth appears, the stereotype of the wise, all-knowing, old woman
goes a little further than it should. And
the end wraps up a little too nicely.
But I bought it, hook, line, and sinker.
As I noted at the top, this book made me cry
uncontrollably. Okay, so it was past
midnight and I was really tired. But I
was walking around the apartment, going to the bathroom and getting a drink of
water, and I couldn’t stop the tears from streaming down my eyes. This is my classic definition of a five star
book: one that moves me profoundly on an emotional level.
Completed 7/27/2014, Reviewed 7/28/2014
I seem to be developing a pattern: Read a book.
Love it. Read an earlier book by the same author. Feel nonplussed. This happened with Helen Oyeyemi’s “White is
for Witching”. As with “Mr. Fox”, which
I loved, Oyeyemi takes a subgenre, this time the haunted house, kneads it with
her amazing prose and dark imagination, sprinkles in some magical realism and voila,
you’ve read something you never expected.
Unfortunately, when I tasted it, the ingredients were better than the
Miranda is a near-college age teen with a rare disorder
called pica. She craves inedible things
and has to force herself to eat normal food.
She lives with her enabling twin brother and her exasperated, foodie father
in a house inherited from her deceased mother, which they’ve turned into a bed
and breakfast. Pica is genetic, and can
be traced back through several generations of women on Miranda’s mother’s
side. After her mother’s death, Miranda
had a mental collapse, and since then has ghostly encounters with her dead
The narrative is told through several characters around
Miranda. Most interestingly, one of
those voices is that of the house. The
house wants to have the same relationship with Miranda as it did with her
ancestors, which seems to include making her a permanent part of the
house. The house uses Miranda’s female
kin to achieve this end. Of course, no
one else experiences the house this way, except for the immigrant housekeepers
and some of the bed and breakfast guests.
With Miranda’s bizarre illness, food and consumption are the
dominant themes, from a poison apple to the house’s hunger for Miranda to
cannibalism. It was only in retrospect
that I realized how many different ways Oyeyemi worked the variations of
consuming into the story. The
realization made me wonder how much I probably missed in my initial reading.
The prose is lovely, but instead of enhancing the story, I
found it distracting. Combined with the
narrative style, and some toying with form, I often found myself confused as to
who was talking and when. The book is
divided into two parts, and this was particularly true in the first part. The second part was more linear and
decipherable, and downright riveting. In
reflecting on it, I had to wonder if that was the intent: a first part that
conveys the mood and setup by disorienting you, and then coming together in a suspenseful
This is definitely a worthwhile book to read. There
are many delicious quotables, for example, “…maybe ‘I don’t believe in you’ is
the cruelest way to kill a monster.” I give this book three stars, which by my star system, is still a good
book. It just didn’t meet my
expectations after a great book like “Mr. Fox”.