Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Hugo Winner 2009: The Graveyard Book

Neil Gaiman
Completed 3/2013, reviewed 5/24/2013
5 stars

The Graveyard Book is a wonderful horror novel for young teens.  The story follows the young life of an infant whose parents are murdered.  He is found, reared, and protected by the ghosts of a graveyard.  At various times in my reading of it, I thought the premise of the book was too dark for the targeted age group.  But not being a parent, I eventually gave up my concerns and just enjoyed a great story.

The ghosts in the graveyard are wonderfully endearing.  They work together to protect and raise Bod.  They are an eclectic group from different eras, different classes, and different temperaments.  They are a joy to meet.  I wished the book was longer so we could spend more time with the ghosts and get more development of their stories. 

I have to say I loved every chapter of the book.  I want to particularly mention the Danse Macabre.  It is an incredibly bizarre and engrossing sequence.  It reminded me of some of the bizarre scenes from Clive Barker.  Now that I am writing about it, I don’t quite know what to say about it.  I think I just loved the bizarreness of it, how the living and the dead can be bewitched into a dancing frenzy, and afterwards not be remembered by living, or spoken of by the dead.

I loved Bod’s attempts to become integrated with the living, walking through town, going to school, and meeting a girl.  Yeah, it’s kind of the typical disaffected teenager story, but I really enjoyed it.

It’s been a while since I read the book, so I don’t have that many specifics anymore.  What comes to me when I reminisce about the book is the warm feeling I had while reading it.  It is easily a 4 star book, with great characterization and imaginative scenarios. 

Postscript 3/1/2016:  A few months after writing this review, I had the opportunity to listen to the book on CD read by Gaiman.  When we got to the end, I had tears rolling down my eyes.  I had to be careful though because I was driving back from Alaska, and simply breaking down wasn’t an option.  Because of this I elevated the rating from 4 stars to 5.  Now when I think back on the book, I just don’t get a warm feeling inside, I get a very powerful emotional response.  

Friday, March 25, 2016

Point of Hopes

Melissa Scott and Lisa A Barnett
Completed 3/20/2016, reviewed 3/21/2016
3 stars

“Point of Hopes” is the first in a cross genre series.  It is a mystery set in a fantasy world where astrology is real.  It plays an important role in everything from the politics of kingdom to helping people determine the job best suited for them.  It also can be used to help Nicolas Rathe find the missing children of Astreiant.  I picked this book up because the sequel, “Point of Dreams” won the Lambda Literary Award, and the fourth book “Fair’s Point” recently won the Spectrum Award.  I had high hopes for this book, but I had a lot of trouble getting started with it, leaving me with a mediocre experience.

I often have trouble getting started in books.  It’s partly why I’ve had problems with short stories:  it takes too long to get into the story, then its over.  “Hopes” took a lot longer than usual.  There was a prologue that was incomprehensible.  It was vague and too out of context to give me any hint as to what was coming next.  When I got to the first chapter, I felt lost, disorienting me for the rest of the book.  Once the story started, the authors throws tons of minor characters at you in a short period of time.  Everyone has a first and last name, and most are hard to pronounce.  Then, referring to the characters by either the first or last name made it hard to follow conversations as well as develop decent pictures of the characters.

Another problem I had with the book was the prose.  It was quite dense in many places and broke a rule I have for decent writing.  The rule is not to break up short sentences with line upon line of description and simile.  If you read my review of Michael Chabon’s “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union”, I give an example of this (which I made up myself and of which I am very proud).  Basically, it’s:  Begin a statement comma lines and lines and lines of descriptions and similes comma end the statement.  It’s one of my pet peeves.  After reading a few pages of that, I often had to go back and read only the dialogue just so I could follow it better.  About halfway through the book, either I got into a better groove or the authors were doing it less, but I didn’t have to go back and reread nearly as much. 

Having gotten about halfway through the book, I started to enjoy it.  It seems pretty obvious who is stealing the children, but the why and who’s behind it all is the greater and more fun part of the mystery. At the same time, I also began to care about the main characters and some of the minor ones.  The series touts a gay romance between the main characters, but it barely even buds in the first novel.  There’s just a hint of interest between them.  But there are same-sex relationships in the culture and they are simply matter of fact and unremarkable, which is a good thing. 

I give the book three stars because it got good after the tedious two star start.  I’m looking forward to the second book because it is the award winner, and I’m hoping that means it is written better.  

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Hugo Winner 2008: The Yiddish Policeman’s Union

Michael Chabon
Read early 2013, reviewed 6/1/2013
2 stars

What a tedious book!  I had not read Chabon before this.  But I was aware that he was quite a critical darling, and had won a Pulitzer.  I had high expectations for the book, and was utterly disappointed.  After reading, I came to the conclusion that the only reason this book won the Hugo was because fans thought they needed to jump on the Chabon bandwagon, that they wanted to have at least one Hugo winner also be a famous literary prize winner.

This is another noir genre book.  The basic premise is really interesting.  Israel is never formed after WWII, and Russia allocates a part of the panhandle, Sitka and its surrounding area, for the Jews as a temporary homeland.  There is a murder in the eve of the Jews losing their lease on Sitka, and a local police officer must investigate the seamy side of Sitka to find the murderer.  You would think this has the makings of a great alternative universe.  But it doesn’t.

What kills this book is the prose.  The prose is so overwrought, at the end of every paragraph, all I could imagine was Chabon at his computer, looking at the paragraph and saying to himself, “Wow, I’m such a good writer!”  or “I bet you never saw anybody ever described a scene like this before, eh, eh?”

Here’s my perception of Chabon’s formula for each paragraph.  A character begins a statement.  This is followed by some crazy non-sequitor prose.  The character finishes the statement. It made all the dialogue in the book very difficult to follow.  And the prose added nothing to the statement.  It only takes a few pages to get the mood and setting of the book.  But Chabon pounds this over your head with every paragraph he writes.

There was a lot of potential in the book, the universe, the characters, the plot.  But I felt derailed by the prose every step of the way.  I just couldn’t get interest in anything because I wasn’t allowed to sit with anything without being interrupted by the prose.

I created a Chabon-homage paragraph which I am quite proud of:

He nods his head and smiles, with teeth like peppermint chicklets chewed in twos, threes, or whole packs by young children trying to blow bubbles as if it were a piece of bazooka, gum which only could be obtained from boutique candy stores in quaint old-fashioned purveyors of discontinued candies, in mountain towns now dwarfed by casinos converted from renovated antique stores, which gamblers only visit to reminisce over long forgotten brandless penny candies, when leaving one parlour of despair believing the next parlour would be one of hope, and says, "My ex-wife," with sadness entering his grey cloudy eyes as he remembers their days of sex, constant and daily, in any room, at any time, on the stove, on the kitchen table, in the bathroom, in the closet, in the park among the forsythia bushes, in the bus station toilet, even on that couch in the station, "left town."

Two stars, because of the concept.  And I liked the main character and the murder victim.  No other reason.

Friday, March 18, 2016

My Real Children

Jo Walton
Completed 3/11/2016, reviewed 3/11/2016
5 stars

The more of Jo Walton I read, the more I think she is one of the best writers in genre fiction today.  “My Real Children” is about an elderly woman with Alzheimer’s disease.  She forgets a lot of things especially the recent past and she is often confused, but remembers most parts of her life.  The problem is she remembers two distinct pasts and can’t tell which one is real.  Her children from both her pasts come to visit her regularly in two different hospitals which keeps her wondering which life is her real life and which children are her real children.  It makes for a wonderful novel of alternate history, both personal and global. 

Patricia Cowan remembers only one youth.  The split seems to happen when her fiancĂ© asks her to marry her suddenly.  In one history, she says yes, in the other she says no.  Her two lives divulge from there.  Her marriage is loveless and abusive.  She has four children with him and doesn’t work.  In her other life, she falls in love with a woman, together they have three children.  She works as a travel writer and despite many obstacles, has a wonderful love-filled life.

These two stories told in parallel would be a wonderful story in itself, but the alternate history doesn’t end there.  World events are also different in both time lines.  You would think that the reader would be able to guess which life is real based on the historical events in each life, but Walton comes up with two alternate histories, so readers can’t tell which is real either.  Where her life is full of marital anguish, the world is a relatively nice place to be.  Where her life is better, the world is dangerous and violent.  It’s a great device and works well to keep the reader from coming to any conclusions on their own. 

The highlight of the book for me was the prose.  It was simply beautiful.  Walton was able to describe the lives of Patricia in alternating chapters with overlapping time frames and yet keep the story and emotional impact of each separate and easy to follow.  Patricia lives a long time, so there are over sixty years to cover twice in only a little more than three hundred pages.  Walton does it and still delivers an emotional tour de force.  I know “tour de force” is rather hackneyed, but it sums up well how it affected me.

I save five star ratings for books that I feel are excellent but affect me at an emotional level in some way, whether it’s tearing up or feeling emotionally exhausted or exhilarated.  This book did it for me.  Sitting down to read it every evening was a pure joy, even the devastating subplots.  I highly recommend this book, even for non-genre readers.  

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Unicorn Mountain

Michael Bishop
Completed 3/14/2016, reviewed 3/14/2016
4 stars

“Unicorn Mountain” falls under the category of fantasy.  I would call it rural fantasy (as opposed to urban fantasy) because it deals with the gritty reality of life in a rural setting with some magical elements woven through.  The gritty realities are AIDS, circa 1988, when life expectancy was low and quality of life was even lower, the plight of Native Americans and their life on reservations, and a divorced Anglo woman running a ranch in rural Colorado on her own.  All three of these threads come together in a pretty powerful story surrounding the appearance and plight of unicorns.  It’s no wonder the book won the Mythopoeic Award in 1989.  I found the book engrossing and satisfying even though it deals with the homophobia, sexism, and racism of thirty years ago.  I’d like to think we’ve made some headway on all three fronts, but it’s hard knowing that a lot of it still exists and is finding a loud voice in the politics of 2016. 

The story is about Libby, a divorced ranch owner who takes in Bo, her gay ex-cousin-in-law who is dying of AIDS with Karposi’s sarcoma.  She has a Native American ranch hand, Sam, with an estranged daughter, Paisley, who seems to be on the verge of becoming a shaman for her Ute tribe.  Above the ranch there is a herd of unicorns that seem to have appeared from another dimension.  The unicorns are dying from their own illness, something resembling the KS that is afflicting Bo.  Together they try to find a way to heal unicorns, as well has heal the relationships between them all.

Reading the book was hard, but I don’t mean the writing.  It takes place in an era of fear and persecution, when AIDS was an instant death sentence and there were nearly no drugs to provide the longer, higher quality of life that Persons with AIDS have today, assuming they have the insurance to pay for the drugs.  Bishop had extensive interviews with a PWA, and it shows in how well he captures the fear and dread of the disease, the myriad of reactions from the supporting characters, and their subtle and not-so-subtle homophobia.  Some of the homophobic dialogue is so accurate, it’s cringe-worthy.

The book is actually written pretty well.  It has the feel of a standard contemporary novel, not too prosy, not to terse. The characters are very strong.    Despite almost all of them being sarcastic and impatient, I liked them and was rooting for them.  Bo specifically reminded me of a number of people in my past who had a quick sharp wit.  Sam was also a really well drawn character, full of the despair of having been estranged from his daughter for so long.  Paisley and Libby were both tough and self-made.

In a way, the unicorns didn’t even have to be in the story.  The characters were that good.  But they provided a not so subtle metaphor for PWAs, as well as a totem of rebirth and strength for the Native Americans, and plot for the main characters to rally around.  Bishop did a great job coming up with his own mythology for them and it’s easy to see the appeal to the Mythopoeic voters.

I give this book four out of five stars.  It is a powerful reminder of a terrible time in our recent history, of how badly we treated each other.  Even though the specifics are a bit dated, I think it is relevant to the culture of hate that seems to be on the rise this year.  

Friday, March 11, 2016


Yevgeny Zamyatin
Completed 3/7/2016, reviewed 3/8/2016
3 stars

“We” is the root of the modern dystopian novel.  It was the inspiration for “1984”.  It was written in 1921, only a few years after the Russian Revolution, and it was already predicting life under Stalinism.  The story is about the designer of the spacecraft, the Integral, which will carry the message of the “One State” to the universe.  The designer, D-503, is the perfect citizen of the “One State” until he meets and falls in love with the subversive I-330.  Through her, his precise model world slowly unravels and he discovers to his horror that he has a soul and that life is messy.  It’s a good book, but a tough read. 

What makes this book a tough read is that it is written almost in stream of consciousness style.  The premise is that this is the journal of D-503.  He is writing it as a document of life in the “One State” for the otherworldly beings the Integral may come into contact with.  Being a believer in the truth, he writes down everything, including non-sequitors and partial thoughts.  This makes it hard to follow, but gives you the feeling that you are actually in the character’s head. 

Zamyatin’s writing style includes a lot of color to describe things.  He constantly refers to things and people and parts of the body with colors, particularly he uses pink a lot.  It’s been noted that Zamyatin may have had a condition known as synesthesis, in which he attributes qualities to letters and sounds, particularly colors.  That may be why he referred to the character I-330 as pink so very often. 

This book is very soft SF, that is, it deals more with the social sciences than it does with technology and hard science.  People are referred to as numbers.  Hence the characters are D-503, I-330, etc.  People live in glass apartments so that they can be observed at all times.  The only time they are allowed privacy is when they have their scheduled times for sex.  And sex is interesting as well.  There is no more marriage.  People present each other with pink cards indicating that they want to have a sexual encounter.  It’s all very logical and ordered.

I can’t help but make the comparison to the adage that people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.  While not a direct analogy, I-330 is D-503’s stone.  When she comes into his life, his world-view shatters and he realizes he has a soul.  He compares it to the mathematical number “i” or the square root of negative one.  It’s an imaginary number that threw him into disarray in school, as does I-330 in his life now.  It eventually leads him to the Green Wall, a wall that surrounds the One State, which locks out the rest of the world.  Outside this wall are plants, animals, birds, and the humans who were left out after the revolution. 

There is a lot of imagination in this story, which makes it very interesting.  It’s just the form and the odd adjectives that makes it very tough to read.  I give this book three out of five stars.  It’s also important to remember that this books was translated from the Russian.  I have not read a lot of Russian literature, but I whenever I have, I’ve found it difficult.  

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

In the Garden of Dead Cars

Sybil Claiborne
Completed 3/4/2016, reviewed 3/4/2016
4 stars

“In the Garden of Dead Cars” is a post-apocalyptic novel about humanity after a plague that actually worried me back in the ‘80s, that the AIDS virus would mutate and go airborne.  I imagined the world coming to an end a la Stephen King’s “The Stand”.  Claiborne imagines something less cinematic but just as dramatic, as the world’s population is cut in half and a fascist government outlaws sexual contact. 

The plot centers on Emma, a young woman in future New York City whose dream is to rebuild a Subaru from the parts of dead cars in the giant dead car lot of Central Park.  She is a product of her times, eschewing contact, and refusing to even reproduce in the sterile, artificial insemination clinic, though it is required of all women.  She lives and argues with her mother who reminisces fondly and fiercely of the time before the plague.  Much of the book’s conflict comes from the two of them arguing about living in the past and how to live in the present.

Society is kept in place by the evil comedians, formerly, the police.  It was decided that society needed to laugh after the plague, and bullets were becoming rare.  So they trained the police to add humor to people’s lives.  At first it worked, but it quickly devolved into a sadistic vigilante group, using fear to keep people from human contact or other subversive thoughts.  Besides the comedians, the government uses terror to keep society down by regularly televising executions of sexual outlaws. 

There are two types of sexual outlaws.  There are the regular citizens who become outlaws when they have sexual contact and procreate.  They are pursued by the comedians and sometimes executed.  However, there’s a second group, the “carnals”.  They are people who remained coupled even when being in a relationship was outlawed.  They are the new lower class.  The government labels them a dirty subspecies to help whip up public sentiment against them.  But these carnals are effectively invisible, dropping out of society to live in squalor so that they can have what we consider “normal sexuality”. 

The book is beautifully written.  There is an ease and gentleness to the prose despite the horrible environment it describes.  Emma herself is a hard person, as described by her mother and her co-worker.  She’s a product of the new society and rebels against her mother’s reminiscing of the past.  However, her reality is chipped away slowly as she becomes more aware of the oppression and subversion around her, even finally realizing that her mother is not just living in the past, but radically trying to change the present. 

I give this book four out of five stars.  Reading it was a delight, which was very welcome after just finishing a book that was terribly written.  Claiborne took some interesting worst case scenarios and weaved it into a very readable book.  The plot is fairly straight forward.  Halfway through the book, you know what’s coming.  But that’s not quite as important as Emma’s journey through this fascist world extrapolated from the concept that sex is bad.  

Friday, March 4, 2016

Hugo Winner 2007: Rainbows End

Vernor Vinge
Completed 3/2013, reviewed 4/16/2013
2 stars

(Warning:  This review has some spoilers)

I did not like this book.  I found it overly wrought.  All of the characters have serious issues.  Most significantly, the main character, Robert Gu, is simply annoying.  Granted, he’s recovered from Alzheimer’s because of a futuristic cure.  But he is so extremely bitter about his past, his divorce, his children, society, and life, that you can’t really like him.  The only aspect of him I did like was his luddite-ness.  I could relate to his disdain of technology.  However, it was really just another brick in his wall of abrasiveness.  There were times when I could almost relate to him, but then the scene would quickly change and would return to just being annoyed with him.

One aspect of Gu’s character which could have been redeeming was his relationships with his granddaughter and the young teen who is his class project partner.  Unfortunately, his grouchiness prevents the relationships from growing at would seem to me to be normal rates through a novel.  Instead, he has his metanoia so close to the end, that when it happens, I didn’t believe it.

The overriding plot is a massive global conspiracy being perpetrated by a scientist who is double-crossing his colleagues.  His plot begins rather interestingly, but quickly becomes overly complex.  I found myself really bored whenever the story returned to the scientist, because I just didn’t really care about the angst that was driving his motivation.  At some point, his plot involved using a subplot of sabotage instigated by Gu and some of his old academic acquaintences.  But I never fully realized how it really related to the scientist’s plot.

One thing I did like about book was the complex blending of the campus demonstration and the sabotage by Gu and his academic gang.  Its vivid blending of the concrete and virtual reality was quite fun and surprising.  I won’t give it away here, but it was the only bright spot in this tedious book.  However, when it was over, I still couldn’t see how it was supposed to have furthered the crazy scientists plot.

Another unfortunate aspect of this book is that it is the first of a series.  What disappointed me the most was that we don’t find out who the White Rabbit is.  Clearly, s/he is needed for future books in the series, but since I didn’t really care that the crazy scientist’s evil plot was thwarted, or that Gu’s bitterness was beginning to lessen, not revealing the identity of the rabbit made the ending of this book quite unsatisfying.

I gave this book two stars for the strength of the technology wonder devised for the story.  

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

The World of Null-A

AE Van Vogt
Completed 2/27/2016, Reviewed 2/29/2016
1 star

This has to be one of the most complicated novels I’ve ever read.  There’s way too much going on.  The writing is terrible, nothing is explained well, and the characters are almost as incomprehensible as the plot.  I can’t believe this book was even nominated for the Retro-Hugos, the awards given for books published before the Hugo Awards came into being, let alone came in second.  The only reason I kept reading it was because I find it hard to abandon a book, even if it’s mess like this one.

The Games Machine determines how well you live a non-Aristotelian, or Null-A, existence, and therefore how successful you will be in life.  The winners of the games get to emigrate to Venus which has only the best Null-A thinkers.  Gilbert Gosseyn is about to play the games, but finds out he has false memories.  He also has extra bodies, so that if he dies, his consciousness transfers into another body.  In other words, he’s immortal.  Oh yeah, and he has an extra brain that could make him psychokinetic if he could just figure out how to use it.  And amidst all this, he seems to be the only person who can stop an intergalactic race of humans from invading Earth and Venus.  Too much?  Yeah.

The book actually reminded me of “The Forever Machine” aka “They’d Rather Be Right” which came out a few years later.  Not just because of the terrible writing, but because of the Games Machine.  Doing some research, I found out that van Vogt was involved in the Dianetics movement of L Ron Hubbard in 1950.  This is a few years after the publication of this novel, but the influence is basically there.  Van Vogt was also a believer in General Semantics, a sort of early version of Neuro Linguistic Programming, the idea that language affects behavior, another theme that runs through the book.  However, it was really hard to follow the themes because the plot is so scattered.

Perhaps my biggest complaint with the novel was that I couldn’t follow the other characters.  There was a group of men and one woman who seemed to be sometimes enemies, sometimes allies.  In one scene, they’re tying Gosseyn up and he has to escape.  Then in the next encounter, they’re talking to him like he’s no threat.  And Gosseyn seemed to like to tie up Patricia the one female character a lot too. Of course, I hardly even need to mention the outdated nature of a sole female in the book.  It’s one of those things about golden age SF, that we should feel lucky there even was a woman in the book. 

I didn’t mind the outdated science.  The computers have tubes and they still think Venus is habitable.  At least phones had video.  I’ve come to expect golden age SF to be outdated.  The technology is not nearly as important as having a well-executed story with it.  “Null-A” just doesn’t have that.  Last year I read a collection of van Vogt’s short stories.  They were not brilliant, but were generally better being smaller and having only one idea.

The plots were too numerous and complex for a single book.  I think if van Vogt was a better writer, or perhaps if he had a better editor, and some subplots were cut out and made what remained more robust, this would have been much better.  I started the book thinking this might get two stars, but by the end, I was praying for the end, hoping that it would all become clear but never happening.  Even the twist at the end wasn’t satisfying.  So I decided to go with one star and recommend staying away from the book unless you’re a hardcore golden age reader.