Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Bone Clocks

David Mitchell
Completed 9/21/2014, Reviewed 9/21/2014
5 stars

I was lucky enough to win an ARC (advanced reading copy) of “The Bone Clocks” from Tor, the publisher, on its website.  I wasn’t sure how I was going to fit it into my reading schedule, as I still had eleven books to read this year to complete all my challenges on the Worlds Without End site.  But I wanted to read it because my partner had been recommended Mitchell by a friend, and because Mitchell was coming for a signing at Powell’s in a few weeks.  And of course, I HAD to read it before getting it signed!  So I started.  I wasn’t sure what I was in for, but when I finished it, I cried uncontrollably for about five minutes. 

The story takes you through the life of Holly Sykes, who as a child heard voices, the Radio People, and was frequently visited by a mysterious beautiful woman.  In 1984, years after the voices and visions have disappeared, she’s grown up to be a bratty British teenager who runs away from home to move in with her adult boyfriend.  When she finds him in bed with her best friend, she continues running, adamant about not letting her mother win this latest battle.  She happens upon a strange old woman by the river asks her if she’d promise to give her asylum if she needed it.  Confused, she agrees, and begins a journey of strange coincidences over the next decades that lead her into the middle of a fantastical war between rival immortals. 

“The Bone Clocks” is a story about Holly, but it is told from the point of view of multiple characters.  All these characters have some connection with her and come with their own back stories and subplots, but they masterfully keep the main plot moving forward.  I have to admit that the plot development through the first several hundred pages is rather slow.  You only get to see glimpses of the supernatural events, and it is rather difficult to figure out what’s exactly going on until you’re nearly halfway through the book.

This may make it seem like the first half of the book is boring.  In fact, it absolutely is not.  The writing is brilliant, change of voice between narrators is masterful, the characters are fully developed, and the pace never drags.  I was completely engrossed with each narrator, their trials and tribulations, and how they intersected Holly’s life decade by decade. 

I only had two criticisms, and I think they are minor.  The first is that the book is very Anglo-centric.  I understood quite a few of the British slang and cultural references, but I know I missed an awful lot.  I’m sure the same is true in reverse, as Brits try to read US authors that rely heavily on referencing the current American culture.  So…minor.  The second criticism is that the ultimate battle between the immortals reminded me of something Clive Barker would write.  Specifically, I heard echoes of “Imajica”.  But as the suspense built, I dismissed these thoughts.  Mitchell is an incredible story teller in his own right.  Even if some elements were similar, Mitchell’s execution is brilliant, and this book stands on its own.

Lastly I have to admit I was shocked at how involved I became in Holly’s life.  Meeting her decade after decade through the eyes of different people threw me at first.  But when she returns as the narrator in the last chapter, I didn’t want her story to end.  I was completely invested.

And as I stated at the beginning, I cried my eyes out at the end.  This of course necessitates a five out of five star rating.  I give four stars to an excellent book, when I can say, “Hey, that’s a great book!”  I give five stars to a book that profoundly moves me, when my response is, “Oh…my…god!”  This was it.   I don’t read much new literature, relying on my local library to satisfy my SF and Fantasy needs.  But for 2014, I believe this is the book to beat. 

Addendum (written 9/28/14):  I saw Mitchell at Powell’s a few nights ago.  He quite a funny person, and did a great job reading from his book.  During the Q&A, he admitted that he much prefers writing novellas.  Since there isn’t much market anymore for the novella, he uses his strength to write groups of novellas with a common thread to create a full book.  So that’s his modus operandi, which explains the form of “The Bone Clocks”.  I read another blogger’s review criticizing the book as feeling like a collection of novellas.  So I guess he hit the nail on the head.  This revelation definitely helped me make more sense of the book, and made me appreciate its complexity even more.

Friday, September 26, 2014

New Amsterdam

Elizabeth Bear
Completed 9/13/2014, Reviewed 9/14/2014
1 star

I decided to read this book to complete the Elizabeth Noun challenge: read one book by each author named Elizabeth with a noun for a last name (the others being Moon and Hand).  The premise sounded great, a wampry (vampire) and an alcoholic magician join forces to solve murder mysteries in an alternative history where the American colonies remained parts of the British and Dutch empires.  Within ten pages, my mind numbed, my eyes glazed, and I wondered how I was ever going to get through it.

The book is formatted as a collection of short stories more or less advancing the plot of Abby Irene, a forensic sorcerer for the British Crown; Sebastian the wampyr; Jack, Sebastian’s companion, ward, and primary food-source; and Mrs. Smith, a well-to-do author of mysteries.  In New Amsterdam, recently ceded to Great Britain by The Netherlands, they become a little community of companions and mystery solvers, while confronting the corruption and oppression of the colonial and imperial governments.

The ideas are good, the characters full of potential, and the murder mysteries are, well, mysterious.  The problem with the book is that Bear is not a great writer.  The main characters are ripe for great development.  I was intrigued by all of them, but they are never really fleshed out.  They were rose above standard fare, cardboard and one-dimensional.  There are moments where their relationships attempt depth, particularly in the feeding scenes, but the intensity of these scenes does not carry through the rest of the narrative. 

Jack was my favorite character.  A foppish, flirty young man with lots of seedy connections, he is defensive and supportive of, and madly in love with Sebastian.  His scenes with the wampyr are some of the best, but the rest of the time, he’s either sullen or simply summarizing his investigations.  We get no other depth into the person of Jack, or much detail on his relationships with the lower class, the revolutionaries, and the other connections he makes with the people on the fringe of society.

Abby Irene, as the alcoholic magician, should be a great character, but she is perhaps the most flat.  Her story involves soapy, illicit, and ultimately boring relationships with some of the most powerful men of New Amsterdam.  I never really bought her angst, and her use of magic throughout the story is quite bland.  When she pulls out her wand, it always seems to be an afterthought.  I often found myself thinking, “That’s right.  I forgot she’s a wizard.”  Suzanne Clarke’s “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell” does a much better job of creating an alternate history where magic is an integral part of the reality of the setting and characters. 

Ultimately, the stories in this book feel more like episodes of a bad TV series on an also-ran cable network, with poor writers, mediocre acting, and only an occasional moment of inspiration.  There are a lot of good ideas, but the execution is poor.  It feels like Bear decided to write a book targeting the steampunk subculture, throwing in dirigibles, vampires, the dawn of electricity, a little magic, and a Victorian America, but really didn’t know how to meld it into something more than made-for-cable episodes. 

Throughout the reading of this book, my brain wanted to explode from the tedium of the prose.  I actually had to break it up, reading other books between each chapter.  Even by the end, when I decided I did like most of the characters, I was still bored by the writing style and execution of the story.  Having finally finished it, I don’t have any interest in picking up any other books by Bear.  This is my lowest rating of a book this year: one star out of five.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Altered Carbon

Richard K. Morgan
Completed 9/12/2014, Reviewed 9/13/2014
4 stars

After reading two books in his “Land Fit for Heroes” trilogy and loving his prose, I decided to try another Morgan book, this time, his first novel, “Altered Carbon”.  For it, he won the Philip K. Dick Award for best novel first published in the US as a paperback original.  I knew it was a noir-ish thriller, another sub-genre I’m not especially drawn to, but I thought I’d give it a chance.  To my astonishment, I can say that this is the first such book where I didn’t get terribly lost, but actually enjoyed it. 

Takeshi Kovacs is an ex-U.N. Envoy (read special forces) in the twenty-fifth century who died a particularly nasty death.  Like almost everyone else who has died, the cortical stack in his neck that contains his whole essence and memory is put in storage.  Bancroft, a very rich man, pulls Kovacs out of storage and re-sleeves him into a new body to investigate Bancroft’s death.  You see, the billionaire recently either committed suicide or was murdered, and his stack was destroyed. But since he was rich enough, he had an external backup of his stack.  So Kovacs tries to piece together the 48 hours between the last backup and Bancroft’s death event.  His investigation takes him not only through the seamy side of Bay City, but into the darkness of his own soul. 

Morgan really excels in creating characters with a dark edge.  Everyone has flaws, and Kovacs is no exception. He’s is not a nice guy.  He was accepted as an Envoy because he particularly violent and anti-social.  Throughout the investigation, he is in constant conflict, struggling between completing his mission and acting out in rage against anyone who crosses him.  Adding to the complexity, the body he’s inhabiting was the lover of a cop he must work very closely with during the investigation.  Needless to say, when your cortical stack gets placed in the body of someone else, some physical responses just can’t be controlled. 

As in Morgan’s other books, I really liked the prose.  I’ve read a lot of SF noir where I just couldn’t get into the author’s writing style.  Maybe because of my previous exposure to Morgan, I loved every simile and description.  I generally don’t like a lot of flashback and back story, but I found it really fleshed-out Kovacs and helped explain his motivation and responses. 

“Carbon” has a complex plot, but I really enjoyed it.  Morgan writes well, creating believable characters, a steamy atmosphere, and interesting science.  At times, I got a little lost, but never went past the point of no return, as I so often do in SF noir.  My excitement for this book has reinvigorated my anticipation for the final book in his “Heroes” fantasy trilogy, which I just got as an ARC (Advance Reading Copy) edition, all 638 pages.  I give “Altered Carbon” four out of five stars.  

Friday, September 19, 2014


Mira Grant (aka Seanan McGuire)
Completed 9/5/2014, Reviewed 9/13/2014
4 stars

Grant has written a terrific yarn about zombies, politics, and media.  It’s fast, exciting, and personal.  This is probably the fastest 600 pages I’ve read in a long time (three days).  Reading this after a couple of very literary novels, and while taking a break between chapters of a terrible book, “Feed” was a welcome breath of easy pop/best seller-SF air. 

Not really a genesis novel, the events take place about a generation after the zombie apocalypse.  Georgia (George) is a Newsie, a blogger who reports straight news, with little or no emotional content.  Her brother, Shaun, is an Irwin, a blogger named after the Australian croc personality because they entertain their readers by poking sticks at things, in Shaun’s case, zombies.  Buffy is a Fictional, a blogger who writes fiction based on real events, and she writes poetry.  Together, the form the core of an internet journalist team who report the news about life in the zombie present.  Their team is chosen by lottery for the opportunity to be the official bloggers of the campaign of Senator Ryman, a potential presidential candidate.  On the trail, they uncover a conspiracy that could rock the country and threaten their very lives. 

At its heart, “Feed” is a journalist novel, sort of a first-person “All the President’s Men” with zombies thrown in.  The team’s careers are based on the how blogging has become the standard for reporting the news, in all its forms:  straight, investigative, and entertainment.  George’s mission is to report the raw truth, with the hopeful side-effect of getting good ratings.  As Ryman’s campaign bloggers, they reach a new pinnacle in their career, and like many good journalists, they acquire some enemies.

The main characters are great.  I had some trouble with their likeability at first, George being brusque, Shaun being out of control, and Buffy being religious and a hopeless romantic.  They were a little two-dimensional.  That dissipated quickly as the action built and the conspiracy unwound.  Soon I was deeply involved with them, their relationships, and their adventure.  The presidential candidates are a bit too stereotypical: Ryman is the honest politician with a heart of gold while Tate is the gun-totin’, Bible-thumpin’, wimin and youngin’ hatin’ xenophobe from Texan.  But it was easy to dismiss these criticisms because the ride was just so damned exciting.

One of my favorite points about the book is that it makes director George Romeo, of the “Living Dead” movies fame, a prophet for his vision of zombies.  They stagger, they eat the living, and they’re killed by destroying the brain.  McGuire adds her own twist on his zombie mythology.  Her take is that the phenomenon was caused by two “cures” that crossed and mutated.  This new virus infects all creatures over forty pounds, but the pathogen does not take over the body until it dies, or is otherwise activated, as in being bitten by a zombie, or exposed to a large does of it.  It affects human by about the age of seven and large animals.  People don’t eat meat much anymore, and only cats are left as pets.  Life goes on, but with a shadow hanging over the human race, knowing that unless proper precautions are taken, a zombie outbreak can occur anywhere, anytime.

Zombies are really in right now.  The “Zombie Apocalypse” has become as much a part of our consciousness as the “Red Menace” was not too long ago.  A lot of people will admit they are bored with it, or downright hate the zombie craze, including the people from my SF book club.  After reading “Feed”, the majority of the group agreed it’s fun, exciting, and a worth the read.  I was shocked by the positive response.  If you’re a doubter, put aside your bias and give it a chance.  I loved it, and I think most people will too.  Four stars out of five.   

Sunday, September 14, 2014


Brian Aldiss
Completed 8/29/2014, Reviewed 9/1/2014
3 stars

Brian Aldiss is another Grand Master of Science Fiction.  He has a huge body of work, and deciding which one to read was quite a challenge.  I picked “Greybeard” because it has been republished in the MasterWorks of Science Fiction series.  It sounded like it was the inspiration for P.D. James’ “Children of Men”, and I do love a good post-apocalyptic yarn.  But after reading it, I was pretty sure I picked the wrong Aldiss book to read first.

After an atomic “accident”, the world becomes sterile, eventually leaving a world with an aging population.  Greybeard and his wife are two of the youngest people left, being in their fifties.  After living in a village run by a lunatic mayor, they decide to leave, along with a few others, to find a better community in which to live their and the human race’s last days. 

The story is basically a travelogue.  It’s about a few people in search of place to settle down in peace and safety.  The explanation of the atomic accident, and the story of how Greybeard got to the point of leaving, is told in flashbacks.  The travelogue wasn’t that interesting to me.  I thought it dragged, even though it was trying to convey the different types of societies and communities that evolved since the accident.  The real meat of the story was in the flashbacks. 

Greybeard is a very interesting character, and it’s revealed in the flashbacks.  You get to see what type of young man he was, and what his response to the accident was.  That’s where he, and his wife as characters are realized.  The storytelling in these sections is tight, and there’s constant suspense.  When the book reverts back to the present, it doesn’t get very interesting until the end.  And even there, it’s little unsatisfying. 

I think if I’m going to read anymore Aldiss, I’ll have to try the Hellconia series, which is considered his best work, and/or “Frankenstein Unbound.”  As for “Greybeard”, I give it three stars out of five.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Son of Man

Robert Silverberg
Completed 8/28/2014, Reviewed 9/1/2014
3 stars

“Son of Man” is a strange novel.  It’s about a present day man named Clay who goes through a time-flux, ending up millions of years in the future.  He meets all the species that descended from humans, the “sons of man”.   A group of six Skimmers take him on a whirl-wind tour of the planet, where he meets the other species:  the Eaters, Awaiters, Breathers, Interceders, and Destroyers.  He also travels through distinct areas: Slow, Heavy, Fire, Ice.  The Skimmers take him to distant planets and through wild rituals.  And every few pages, Clay has an orgasm.

I had to read several other people’s reviews to get a handle on the point of this book.  It’s sort of a post-modern science fiction deconstruction of Dante’s Divine Comedy.  Clay gets a guided tour of the future, with beings and concepts wildly extrapolated from the present.  Through it all, Clay experiences every aspect of the future completely through his whole being, which of course would include the sexual.

At times, the phallocentricity is overwhelming.  It reminded me of the episode of South Park where Mr. Garrison writes a romantic novel which turns out to be a huge gay literary hit because Garrison used the work penis 6,083 times.  While Silverberg doesn’t go to quite that extreme, I had to seriously think about the appropriateness of the sexual content in relation to the story.  The open, speculative part of me asserts that this book being from 1971, near the heart of the sexual revolution, of course an extrapolation to millions of years into the future would necessitate sexuality as being an integral part of the experience. 

However, in another segment, Clay changes into a woman, experiencing the fluidity of sexual identity that the Skimmers experience.  But he doesn’t take it well.  In fact, he runs into the forest ashamed.  I have to question Silverberg’s intentions here.  If he’s writing such a sexually liberated novel, why have the male character horrified to become a woman?  Wouldn’t it have been a better story to have him be as curious and exploratory as he is throughout the rest of the novel? 

So that, plus my own political-correctness, makes me wonder if the emphasis on Clay’s penis is a statement, an expression, or plain shock fiction.  I have to admit, the sexual references eventually does become normative.  I did find myself accepting it as part of the way Clay experiences everything revealed to him. 

Even though I only give this book three stars out of five, I have to say it is quite an experience.  It is incredibly written prose.  I found myself flowing through it with ease.  Silverberg gives you is a sensory journey through his uncensored imagination, and it is prolific, at times, unbelievably overwhelming.  The problem for me was that it got a little boring.  I needed a little more action, just to give a little more structure and movement to the story.  By the end, I felt a little empty, like I just had a one night stand, like there was no depth to my relationship to the novel.  It was simply a literary experiment in speculation.

At my SF book club, one of the members expressed his (rather parochial, to me) definition of SF.  “If you take the science out of the book, do you still have a book?  If you do, it’s not science fiction”.  I think it’s a stupid restriction since most SF can be said to be morality plays, disguised literature, or derivative of earlier genres. Well, this may be one of the few books where if you take the science out, you don’t have a book, so it’s definitely science fiction.  I have this cruel desire to torment this guy, by suggesting “Son of Man” to him, since it meets his definition, and ask him the real ultimate significant question, “If you take the penis out of the book, do you still have a book?”

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Turning On

13 Stories by Damon Knight
Completed 8/23/2014, Reviewed 9/1/2014
4 stars

“Turning On” is a collection of short fiction by Damon Knight, the author after whom the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America named their Grand Master award.  I’ve read in several places that his forte was short fiction, so I decided to read this book.  And in general, it lived up to my expectations.

What I love most about short fiction, especially in older science fiction, is that it’s built around a single twist, moral, or in Knight’s case, a pun.  The whole story drives to that one point.  In this collection, all those single points were great.  Almost all of them were profound, even when scatological in The Great Pat Boom, a story about an industry built up around selling cow patties to aliens. 

What I don’t love about short fiction is reviewing it.  So I just mention some stories I like, some I didn’t.  I loved “Eripmav”, about a vegetarian vampire, even though the final pun was a groaner.  “Maid To Measure” was also good for a guffaw.  “To The Pure” is a despairing tale about a man losing his wife to an alien.  “Auto-da-fe” was wonderfully tragic.  It had the last man on earth controlling the last dogs on earth.  “Night of Lies” was also tragic, about surviving a holocaust.  

I didn’t really dislike any of the stories, although there was one I didn’t quite get.  “A Likely Story” was an odd tale of a Nebula Award-like Christmas Party with a science fiction twist, almost meta-fiction.  The best part of this story is trying to figure out the authors Knight is lampooning with the slightly distorted names, like Akimizov (Asimov), Preacher Flatt (Fletcher Pratt), and L Vague Duchamp (L Sprague de Camp).  But the strange happenings at the convention fell flat for me.

After reading the whole collection, I wanted to run back to library and get every book they have by Knight.  (In the case of my local library system, they only have six.  Like many of the classic science fiction authors, they only have a few and generally not their best or most famous works).  The enjoyment I found with this collection made me decide to give it four out of five stars.    It’s well worth seeking out.  

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Tooth and Claw

Jo Walton
Completed 8/22/2014, Reviewed 8/25/2014
5 stars

I saw Jo Walton at Powell’s on the promo tour for her latest book.  She’s a warm person with a smart sense of humor.  Before the evening began I saw her with her trademark hat, perusing the novelty socks carousel in the non-book merchandise area, recognizing her from her profile on the Worlds Without End site as I nearly ran into the literary action figure display, rubber-necking like a star-struck tweener.  While of course there’s no reason an award winning author shouldn’t be looking at fun socks, the juxtaposition was startling and caught me by surprise, and so did her amazing novel “Tooth and Claw”.

The Agornins are a well-respected land-owning family of rank.  When the patriarch dies on his comfortable but not terribly large bed of gold, the family is thrown into turmoil as the eldest daughter’s husband eats a large portion of the patriarch.  The three youngest children finding this incredibly unfair in light of the patriarch’s wishes that they receive the majority of the estate, assuming he also meant to include his nourishing body, not just the gold.  The conflict arising from the son-in-law’s heinous breach in manners throws this Victorian family into chaos, threatening their already tottering rank in polite society.  Oh, did I mention the Agornins are dragons?

“Tooth and Claw” is a tale of manners transposed on a Victorian-like society of dragons.  It has all the elements of an Austin or Bronte novel but with a beautifully constructed universe where dragons live separate from humans in their own society with their own class system.  Walton does an amazing job seamlessly interweaving the dragon fantasy with all drama of the dowries, inheritance, and manners.  The dialogue is tight and the character interaction is so human, that you’re almost startled when a tear runs down Haner’s snout, when Selendra wakes from a restful sleep on her comfortable bed of gold, or when Daverak eats one of the servants.  It’s at points like these that you realize just how seamless the two genres have been blended. 

I have to admit that I’ve never read any Austin or Bronte…but I’ve seen “Sense and Sensibility” with Emma Thompson!  (The reviewer blushes, with eyes downcast)  Nor have I read any of the Quirk book sendups like “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”.  In fact, Walton’s book came out six years before the parodies.  But I don’t really consider this a parody.  It’s much more thoughtful blending of two genres, not just to get a laugh.  The story is dark with topics like the evils of the class system and questioning the true worth of a person.

At the same time, the book is fun.  There’s a lot of tongue in cheek humor that keeps the family dynamic from getting too soapy.  There’s a search in a great mountain for treasure, and there are often references to an earlier time when dragons were kidnapping princesses and fighting knights. 

I really loved this book.  When I was done, I had a physical rush, wanting to jump up and down and shout, “Hey, everybody, you HAVE to read this!”  It’s dark, fun, and terribly readable.  Having read two of her books now, I have come to regard Jo Walton as one of my favorite authors.  My mother-in-law has already downloaded her “Small Change” trilogy, so I’ll probably be diving into that soon.  5 stars out of 5.  

Monday, September 1, 2014

The Hallowed Hunt

Lois McMaster Bujold
Completed 8/20/2014, Reviewed 8/22/2014
3 stars

When I read a novel, I am often amazed at the phenomenon of how the whole of a book can be greater than the sum of its parts.  I believe it’s the magic of good writing.  The concept, the characters, the plot devices, the prose, all add up to not simply a book, but an experience.  On the other hand, I’m baffled at books that have a multitude of good ingredients, but then produce something that’s just not very satisfying.  Bujold’s “The Hallowed Hunt”, my second read in and the third book of the Chalion series is sadly one of the latter.

Each book of the series is more or less independent of the others, but all are part of the universe began in “The Curse of Chalion”.  I admit I haven’t read the first book, but have been assured that none of them are really dependent on the others.  Having read the second and third books now, I’m pretty sure the problem is not that I haven’t read the first, but rather, there’s always something missing to prevent the book from being a satisfying experience. 

The universe of Chalion is great.  It’s high fantasy, i.e., middle-age-ish, with kings and queens, nobles, priests, saints, and shamans.  They exist in a world of magic and spirits, overseen by the pantheon of the five gods: the Father, Mother, Son, Daughter, and the Bastard.  This mythology is well-developed, and really, the star of the series.  “Hallowed” has an emphasis on the Son, lord of autumn, though there are references to all the gods. 

The plot surrounds the moody Lord Ingrey, who must transport the body of Prince Boleso to its burial place.  He must also bring Lady Ijada, Boleso’s murderer, to receive justice for her crime.  The conflict is that Ijada was, unbeknownst to her, set up to be a sexual partner, and perhaps wife, of Boleso.  She killed him in self-defense while he was forcing himself on her, and received a leopard spirit into her soul, transferred to her from Boleso at the moment of his death.  Interestingly, Ingrey has his own spirit animal, a wolf, also received under dubious circumstances.  This mutual animal-spiritual experience is illegal, but it binds them together in a mystery involving the king, his successor, the dead prince, and the souls of four thousand ancient warriors. 

See?  The setup is great.  The characters are great.  The universe is great.  So what’s the problem?  After two books, I think I’ve pinned it down to Bujold’s prose.  There’s something about the storytelling that just isn’t gripping.  She feels the need to go into way too much detail describing scenes.  I would often find myself enrapt by a scene or two and then a few pages later, lulled into near-coma by excessive description and angst.  When there’s action, it is very slowly paced.  At times, it seemed she had to include every breath and blinking of eyes as she described an interaction between two people.  I’m not an action fan, and I often go on and on about an author’s prose, but I think a good editor could have cut out a lot of the uninspired prose, and kept the tension at a better level. 

I still anticipate reading the first book in the Chalion series.  It fulfills a few of my reading challenges this year, the trilogy, the book of firsts, and the twelve awards challenges.  And I look forward again to being in this brilliant universe.  I just hope that the first book is a little more tightly written.  Three stars out of five.