Tuesday, February 24, 2015

A Night in the Lonesome October

Roger Zelazny
Completed 2/2/2015, Reviewed 2/18/2015
2 stars

My track record for Zelazny is not looking too good.  This is the third novel I’ve read by him that I felt was so-so.  I think I’m not reading the right books.  This one has an interesting premise.  Something is going to happen this Halloween, something that only happens when it falls on a full moon.  A group of people are preparing for a “game” that night.  These players are all notorious in some way in history or literature:  a witch, a druid, Sherlock Holmes, Rasputin, Dracula.  They seem to be dividing into two teams, the good guys and the bad guys.  Each player has a familiar, an animal who helps them with their preparatory tasks.  The story is narrated in diary form by one of the familiars, Snuff, a dog who recounts the events that end in a battle of Lovecraftian proportions.

Unfortunately, the book never quite came together for me.  I think the biggest problem was the slow buildup.  There are thirty-one chapters, one for each day in October, and the game isn’t revealed until October 26th.  Everything before that is a confusing string of events as perceived by Snuff.  Though there were some amusing moments, it generally dragged.  And Snuff is cute, but I could not get into his character.  All the supporting animals had interesting little encounters with Snuff, but they left me cold as well. 

Only knowing a little about the Cthulu mythos of Lovecraft from movie references rather than from his actual literature, I found the actual horror to be the most intriguing and exciting parts of the book.  You get a taste of it early in the book when Snuff must keep a watch on some terrifying creatures imprisoned in Jack’s house, and it goes into full throttle at the end.  There’s just no tension to keep you interested in between.

I felt that Zelazny couldn’t decide what kind of book he wanted to write: satire, comedy, or horror; or worse yet, he made an unsuccessful attempt at bringing all three together.
I read this book for my SF book club.  The discussion in the group really helped me understand it and actually appreciate Zelazny’s attempt.  However, it still didn’t bump me up into feeling like I really enjoyed the book.  The book has a large cult following, with its fans annually reading it a chapter a day in October.  Between the book club discussion and the knowledge of the fan base, I feel I need to give this book a second chance.  I plan to reread it like a fan, making it my Halloween literary event.  If I decide I really like the book after that, I’ll rewrite this review.  For now, I’ll settle with giving it two stars out of five.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

LOTR: The Fellowship of the Ring

JRR Tolkien
Completed 2/16/2015, Reviewed 2/17/2015
5 stars

This is my fourth reading of The Lord of the Rings.  This is perhaps the most challenging.  Let me begin by saying I love the Peter Jackson films.  Despite the omissions and liberties he took, I thought he did a tremendous job capturing the essence of the films.  In fact, I just recently finished a day-long marathon of the Blu-Ray extended edition, from about 11 a.m. to almost 1 a.m.  My last reading of LOTR was back around ’83, so my memory of the details are not very sharp, and I’ve been able to watch the films without saying, “But what about…?” every few minutes.  Now in anticipation of reading the books with the imagery of the films in my head, I wasn’t sure how I’d be able to appreciate the books as I had during my first readings.  Fortunately, I didn’t have a problem.  Instead, my mind went back to my own images I remember from all those years ago, peppered with the art of the Brothers Hildebrandt’s Tolkien calendars of the ‘70s.  And my experience of the actual reading has been more of a “Oooh, I remember that!” and “I don’t remember that!” and finally a “Why am I not one of those people who rereads this every year!”

The story centers on Frodo Baggins, a hobbit from the Shire in Middle Earth.  He inherits a magic ring from his uncle, Bilbo, who stole it from a creepy creature named Gollum in “The Hobbit”.  Gandalf the Grey, a wizard and great friend of hobbits, concludes that the ring is the one Ring of power, belonging to Sauron, the Dark Lord.  Realizing that Frodo is less subject to the seducing evil of the Ring than he himself, Gandalf sends Frodo with the Ring to Rivendell, home of Elrond and a community of Elves to discern what to do with it.  At Rivendell, a grand council decides the ring must be destroyed in the volcano in Mordor.  Frodo volunteers for the task, along with Gandalf, three other hobbits, two men, an elf, and a dwarf.  But the fellowship is doomed, leaving the future of Frodo and the Ring, as well as the whole of Middle Earth in question.

Tolkien’s prose is really lush without being pretentious.  I was quite amazed at how detailed his landscapes are, describing what we can see from all four directions.  Being a bit directionally impaired (just take a drive with me on windy roads), I often got turned around with what I should be seeing where.  But by the end, I felt like I had successfully merged the map of Middle Earth with the descriptions pretty well.  I have to say that speaks a lot to the prose.

I couldn’t find much fault in the book.  I do have a few complaints, as usual, but they are pretty nit-picky.  I was first struck by how much Fellowship relies on exposition.  Perhaps I am more accustomed to modern fantasy narratives that follow multiple characters contemporaneously, much like the films, and films in general do.  I actually didn’t mind the regressions though.  Tolkien tells stories, and the exposition scenes allow Tolkien to tell stories within the story, and the exercise provides us with a better sense of the major characters as they recount events through their point of view. 

Another point that bothered me had to do with some of the characterization.  I didn’t feel the tension between Gimli and Legolas at the beginning of the fellowship.  When they become best buds after leaving Lothlorien, I felt like I missed where they were less than friendly towards each other.  The seduction of Boromir by the Ring also left a little to be desired.  It seems like we get to see it briefly at the Council of Elrond, but we don’t see its progression.  When he tries to take the Ring from Frodo, it seems a little out of the blue, and the only reference to Boromir’s change is Sam saying that he’s been a bit queer lately.  As a counterpoint, Aragorn has a much stronger presence.  At times he despairs and is even self-deprecating; other times, he bears the kingly confidence that is his destiny.  But at this point in the book, Aragorn is a major character, whereas Gimli, Legolas, and Boromir have supporting roles.  Still, I think I would have like to have seen a little more out of them.

Lastly, I cringe at Tolkien’s use of adverbs.  Having taken a creative writing class, being exposed to people learning technique, and reading a lot of more literary novels has made me hyper-aware of their use.  While not Tom Swifties (“I’m thirsty,” said Tom dryly), it still raises my hackles.  It makes me wonder about older writing, if sprinkling adverbs through your verse was less problematic than it is now.  While I’ve read a lot of literature, I have not read much classic literature, something I hope to slowly correct.  So I don’t have much to compare against.  Contextless, I suppress my gag reflex and push on.

Despite these issues, reading Fellowship has been a calmly-paced respite from the realities of daily life.  I just love reading it.  I love the characters, particularly Galadriel.  It never feels pretentious, difficult, or terse.  Perhaps I can’t honestly review any of the books in the trilogy because I was so obsessed with it as a teen (I even gave myself and some of my friends LOTR-based names.  Mine was Frodo Muffinbuck).  Perhaps having an Alan Lee illustrated, glossy-paged, oversized hardbound edition adds a pleasure I may not have had with a mass market paperback edition.  Whatever it is, it makes me love this story even more.  Of all the great fantasy books I have read over my life, there’s nothing like LOTR.  Five out of five stars. 

As a post-script, I do want to mention, for readers of this blog who may not know, “The Lord of the Rings” is a single book.  The breaking up of it into a trilogy was forced upon Tolkien by the publisher.  So rating Fellowship by itself feels a little odd, almost sacrilegious.  I remember from my first reading feeling that “The Two Towers” lagged a bit, like many second books in fantasy and SF series these days.  I remember giving it three out of four in high school (yes, I was rating books back then too).  I’m about forty pages in now, and it doesn’t feel that way yet.  It feels like I really am reading just one book in three, easy-to-hold containers.  I think I’ll be able to keep this perspective because rereading it at this point in my life…well, just feels right.  

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

1984 Hugo Winner: Startide Rising

David Brin
Completed 4/22/2013, reviewed 4/22/2013, edited 2/10/2015
3  stars

This is a fun book.  It is feels like it comes out of the tradition of Star Wars storytelling, a space opera, or a space western.  Complete with talking dolphins and chimps, and cartoonish aliens, it is an easy read and full of action.

This is the first book of the Uplift series I’ve read.  I was initially concerned about not reading the first book of the series, but subsequently found that its predecessor is not necessarily needed to enjoy this book.  There is a lot that happens before the beginning of the book, but it is not actually described in “Sundiver,” the first book.  “Startide’s” opening chapter sufficiently preps you for the rest of the story.

There are several interesting themes surrounding Uplift which are very interesting, specifically as it is applied to humans.  There are the ideas of helping sub-sentient species to sentience without enslaving them for 100,000 years, as is the normally agreed repayment for the “service,” and being caretakers of the planets which humans colonize and find species for uplifting.  These themes provide a backdrop to the plot, but help to explain the conflict with the aliens, and between the humans and those they uplift, namely the dolphins and chimps.

At first, I was a little annoyed by the language of the dolphins.  It sounded childish and cartoony.  The poetry/haiku of their language also seemed strained.  Lastly, I was easily confused by their names.  I didn’t feel like their characters were as developed as the humans.

Halfway through the book, I realized how essential the poetry was to convey feelings as well as information.  I found myself having accepted dolphin’s language and the characterization and differentiation of the dolphin’s became much more clear.  After finishing the book, it was suggested by another reviewer that the simplicity of the language may have a correlation to the recentness of the uplift of the dolphins, and that their genetic manipulation is still in progress.

I have found that while I like action in a book, I don’t like too much technical or hard science fiction action.  “Startide” had a lot of this and I found it occasionally hard to follow.  However, in general the action was engaging and often found myself having a tough time putting the book down.

I had a tough time deciding between three stars or four out of five.  I settled on three, which means good, but not great, because I generally need a lot more depth in a space opera to push it to four stars.  But I highly recommend this book.  It’s fun and satisfying, and more importantly, drops you warmed up for its excellent successor, “The Uplift War.”