Sunday, March 26, 2017

Miniatures: The Very Short Fiction of John Scalzi

John Scalzi
Completed 3/24/2017, reviewed 3/26/2017
3 stars

“Miniatures” is a fun little book.  As described in its title, it’s all very short fiction, about ten pages max.  Most of the stories are goofy fun.  I don’t really have a more mature way of putting it.  Almost every story is fun in some way, and they all have the goofy humor that I’ve come to appreciate from John Scalzi.

I’ve only read one other book by Scalzi, “Redshirts”, which won the Hugo some years back.  It too was goofy fun, although I didn’t call it that in my review of it.  Where I really got to know Scalzi was at Westercon last year where he was the Guest of Honor.  I went to most of the panels he was on and he was a hoot.  He has a great sense of humor. 

That sense of humor is on display in “Miniatures”.  It opens with a story that made me chuckle out loud, “Alien Animal Encounters”.  It’s about people describing their most interesting encounter with an alien animal species.  Another good one was “Pluto Tells All”.  That has Pluto describing what it was like being demoted to dwarf planet.  A third fun story was “The AI are Absolutely Positively Without a Doubt Not Here to End Humanity, Honest”.  That was about machines becoming intelligent and doing an interview to explain that, well, as the title describes, they are not here to end humanity. 

Almost all the stories are tongue in cheek, sharply humorous.  He mentions a few times in the intros for the stories, that these are the sort of pieces he would use on book tours to warm up the audience.  And they do, they give you a chuckle and lighten your mood.  I give this book three stars out of five because it’s basically fluff, a quick, easy read, meant to make you laugh rather than pause and reflect.  A few of the stories didn’t work for me, but that is often the case in a collection like this.  Usually, not every story is going to grab me.  But it’s a great book to read after a heavier tome. I highly recommend it.  

Monday, March 20, 2017

Gossamer Axe

Gael Baudino
Completed 3/19/2017 Reviewed 3/20/2017
5 stars

How do I describe a book that’s both corny and wondrous at the same time?  It’s kind of corny because it’s about an ancient woman living in late 1980s Denver who uses heavy metal music to fight for the release of her lover from a dark, magical place.  It’s wondrous for the exact same reason.  Christa is a harpist from pre-Christian Ireland.  The music she creates is her source of magic.  She lost her lover in a land of immortals in the 1700s, controlled by a bard who is a greater harpist than Christa.  Now she has discovered that heavy metal just might be the magical weapon she can use against the bard to rescue her lover Judith.  So yes, it sounds corny, but I was completely pulled into the plot and characters.

The majority of the book is about Christa discovering heavy metal and her forming her own all-woman heavy metal band.  She’s in Denver because she’s been following the portal between our world and the immortal world where her lover is being held captive.  She teaches the harp and one of her students invites her to a metal concert.  At the concert Christa begins to realize that metal has the same characteristics as her magical harp playing, and she just might be able to use it to save Judith.  Having played the harp for over a thousand years, she understands music so well that she picks up electric guitar in a matter of days.  First she joins a metal band, but soon realizes that she’ll have to form her own band to make the magic work. 

The best part of the book is the forming of the band.  Christa pulls together women musicians who have crossed her path, all damaged souls who play terrifically.  The characters are well-defined and have interesting back stories.  Part of the greatness comes from describing what it’s like to be a woman in a music genre dominated by men.  Even once the band has formed and shown how awesome they are, they still have to battle the issues of being a girl band rather than a band made of talented women.  In addition, they all must battle their own personal demons that could derail the band, professionally as well as from its purpose of saving Christa’s lover. 

This book won the Lambda Literary Award in 1990, and I can see why.  It’s a terrific telling of a story that could have just been corny and even soapy.  But I found it executed marvelously.  I was completely drawn in and even though the ending was pretty predictable, I still found it exciting.  I give this book five stars because of this, and because I got emotionally involved with the characters and the outcome.  I’ve only given one other five star rating recently.  Reading as much as I do now, I find it harder to give five stars, but this book really moved me.  And it wasn’t because I paid a premium for this out of print book at a used book store.   If anything, it should have added pressure that I normally would have rebelled against, feeling that the book wasn’t worth it.  Perhaps it’s because I was in several bands, so I understand some of the experience.  Mostly though, I think it’s just a well told story that’s different and exceedingly satisfying. 

Tuesday, March 14, 2017


Sarah Waters
Completed 3/13/2017 Reviewed 3/14/2017
3 stars

This was a peculiar book.  I found it relatively boring and uninspired through most of it.  The story is about a Victorian lady who visits a women’s prison on a regular basis.  She eventually forms a bond with a spiritualist who is imprisoned for fraud and assault.  Then in the last 50 pages or so, it starts to get interesting, ending with a great twist.  But is it enough to make the book a worthwhile read?  Well, not really.

The book is not badly written.  The prose is decent.  I simply found the basic story very boring.  Miss Prior, the Victorian lady, is a spinster who has been suffering from depression.  I never found it clear why she decided to become a Lady Visitor at the women’s prison.  Was it supposed to lift her from her depression?  Going to a prison, even as a charitable deed does not seem like the sort of thing that one would do to feel better.   Miss Prior goes to the prison, but because of her growing relationship with the spiritualist, becomes more morose and rebellious at home.  Of course, rebellious for a Victorian lady is relatively mild by today’s standards.  But it causes conflict with Prior’s mother.  It should be noted too that Prior is basically already a spinster at age 29.  Her brother is married, and her younger sister is getting married.

The book is written as two diaries, told through alternating chapters.  One diary being Miss Prior’s, the other being Dawes, the spiritualist.  I think the diary form is part of why it’s boring.  Prior is not a great story teller.  Dawes entries are short and informational.  We don’t really get much character development out of them.  We get all the character development from Prior’s entries, and it’s just, well, I’d say “Nice”.

Eventually, we are told that Prior was in love with her sister-in-law before she married Prior’s brother.  This adds a little spice to the story, but not too much.  Later, it becomes clear that she also falls in love with Dawes, who seems to truly have the gift to contact the dead.  Through this relationship, Dawes schemes to escape and run away with Prior.  It’s here that the story starts to finally pick up.  But it is so close to the end, you wonder what the purpose of the previous three hundred pages were.  Maybe I missed some unspoken sexual tension, but the relationship building went at a snail’s pace. 

All I could think through most of this book was, what’s the point.  The prose is nice, but I felt like nothing happened for about 300 pages.  The book is 351 pages.  All the intrigue happens at the end, and it was way too long to wait for me.  However, I’ll give this book the benefit of the doubt with a three star rating out of five, because of the prose and the end.  If you read this book, I think it will help you that you know that you’ll be coasting for a long time.  So try to enjoy the prose, and if you get bored, rest in the knowledge that the payoff at the end is pretty good.