Monday, January 30, 2017


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, January 23, 2017

Blue and Gold

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Girl Meets Boy: The Myth of Iphis

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

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

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

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

Sunday, January 15, 2017

The Skull of Truth

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, January 12, 2017


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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, January 5, 2017

The Lost Road and Other Writings

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

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

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

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

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

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