Friday, March 30, 2018

The Buried Giant

Kazuo Ishiguro
Completed 3/30/2018, Reviewed 3/30/2018
2 stars

This book was kind of lost on me.  It seemed like there was supposed to be layers of meaning, but I didn’t really get it, I don’t think.  It’s fairy tale about memory, love, loss, and conflict.  The prose is pretty, and subtle, and also boring.  There were times I enjoyed reading it just for the awesomeness of the prose, and other times it nearly put me to sleep.  I guess it really depended on my mood and what time of the day I was reading it.  But in the end I felt like it was too subtle for me to enjoy.

The premise is that an old Briton couple decides to go on a journey to see their long-estranged son.  However, Axl and Beatrice realize that there’s a strangeness in the air.  They, and everyone around them, seem to have forgotten almost everything.  They go on with their lives as if there is almost no past.  Even our couple seems to have forgotten the events of the recent past, let alone important things like why their son left them.  Along the way, they meet up with a Saxon warrior and his young ward, and Sir Gawain from King Arthur’s court, whose purpose it seems is to slay a dragon. 

The biggest disappointment with this book is the character development.  It really felt like there was none.  The characters are flat, having little range of emotion.  Beatrice seems to be ill; the journey exhausts her.  Axl seems to carry her physically or emotionally the whole way.  He calls her princess all the time.  And because of the rampant memory loss that everyone has, even Axl and Beatrice can’t remember either the good times or the bad times of their past.  So their lives are one note.  There’s no color to their lives, or for that matter to the story.

Even the introduction of the other characters does little to enhance the story.  All it does is make the plot a tad more complex.  They do not have much depth to them either.  We get a few flashbacks that fill in some holes in their history, but nothing of much emotional value. 

I don’t have much else to say about this book, only that it was pretty but boring.  Nothing much happens.  There is very little depth to either the plot or the characters.  Even the ending was unsatisfying.  There are some revelations, but it feels just as milquetoast as the rest of the book.  When I was done, I thought, “That’s it?” and let out a long sigh.  I don’t feel as if I wasted a week’s worth of reading, but certainly felt unfulfilled having read it.  I give the book two stars out of five.  At some point, I’ll have to attempt some Ishiguro’s more acclaimed novels to help understand why he won the Nobel Prize for Literature.  It sure wasn’t for this book.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

I Sing the Body Electric

Ray Bradbury
Completed 3/25/2018, reviewed 3/25/2018
4 stars

I haven’t read a short story collection in a long time.  When I saw this Bradbury collection for $1.99 on Amazon, I had to get it.  At first, I was a little disappointed.  The stories are mostly non-genre and I wasn’t expecting that.  As I read more and more stories, I appreciated them more as well.  The following are some of the stories I liked the most:

Tomorrow’s Child – a truly weird story about a baby that’s born into an alternate dimension and so appears as geometric shape in ours.  The parents struggle with how to raise the child until the doctors and scientists come up with some solution for them.

I Sing the Body Electric – the title piece, it’s the story of a father who buys a robot grandmother for his three children after their mother dies. 

Any Friend of Nicholas Nickleby’s Is a Friend of Mine – a border moves into a boy’s house.  The border’s name is Charles Dickens and the boy helps him write his stories.  The town barber isn’t so welcoming, refusing to acknowledge that the border’s real name is Dickens. 

Heavy-Set – a creepy story about a body building thirty-year-old who still lives at home with his mother.  He doesn’t date, doesn’t really have friends.  Finally, he puts together a Halloween party, inviting about twenty people.  It doesn’t turn out too well. 

The Blue Bottle – Two men are on a search for a mythical blue bottle that contains what your heart desires most.  Great twist at the end.

The Burning Man – A boy and his aunt pick up a creepy hitchhiker on a really hot day on the way to a lake.

The Messiah – Some priests, ministers, and a rabbi on Mars talk about their dreams of meeting the Messiah.  In the meantime, a Martian has wandered into the human colony. 

Punishment Without Crime – A man goes to a puppet company which recreates people as puppets so you can murder the puppet instead of the real person. 

There were twenty-eight stories in all, plus a poem.  In the end, reflecting on what I had read, I realized there was a lot of stories I liked, and only a few I didn’t care for.  I give this collection four stars out of five. 

A funny note, in reading other reviews for this collection, I found someone who listed all the stories with a star rating for each one.  My list above were all two and three stars, and my least favorite she gave four and five stars.  I guess it just goes to show that different people have different tastes. 

Sunday, March 18, 2018


Philip K Dick
Completed 3/18/2018, reviewed 3/18/2018
4 stars

Ubik is quite the strange, complicated book.  I’ve been told it’s not for PKD beginners, and that may be true.  It’s about layers of reality and life after death, and the ending isn’t straight-forward.  I found it engrossing and confusing at the same time.  That, I think, is its strength.  PKD is a damned good writer who makes you question reality and doesn’t leave you with any tidy conclusions. 

The book is about Joe Chip, a guy who is doing well for himself but doesn’t seem to ever have enough money for the simple things in life.  He works for Glen Runciter, who runs a business of anti-psychics and precogs, selling their services to companies to protect them from corporate espionage.  Runciter takes Joe and eleven other anti-psis to Luna for a contract with a company that is experiencing such espionage.  But it turns out to be a trap by a competitor and Runciter is killed in an explosion.  Joe and the others soon begin to experience a time regression that sends them back to 1939, and they begin to wither and die themselves.  Can Joe find out what it will take to stop the regressions and deaths?  Is Ubik the answer?

The world building is really interesting.  In this future, you have to pay for everything.  For example, it costs a nickel every time you want to open your front door.  Since Joe doesn’t have much money, he stays at home a lot. 

Also in this future, the dead don’t really die.  Physically, they do, but their minds are still active in a half-life state.  The living can go to moratoriums (not mortuaries) where they can visit the dead and talk to them.  Runciter’s wife and business partner, Ella, is in the half-life state, but her mind is in danger of being overtaken by an aggressive half-life teen named Jory.  When Runciter gets killed in the explosion on Luna, they can’t get his body to the moratorium in time to access his mind and keep him in half life.  However, strange messages reach Joe indicating that he really is in half-life, or maybe even alive.  This is just a small part of the multi-layered reality puzzle that Joe must solve.

The character development is pretty good for having so many characters.  Joe of course gets the most characterization.  We know him pretty well.  But PKD does a pretty good job of creating a cast of supporting characters, particularly the other anti-psis.  For a relatively short book, I was surprised the characters didn’t all just run together.  More than a few stood out has having their own personalities. 

The real genius in the book is trying to figure out what’s real and what’s not, who is in half-life and who’s not, and what is Ubik anyway.  Just when you think the book is finishing and you know the answers, there’s one more really short chapter that tosses all your conclusions out the window.  I give the book four stars out of five.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

The Archer’s Heart Book 3

Astrid Amara
Completed 3/11/2018, reviewed 3/11/2018
5 stars

What a terrific series!  Book 3 lived up to its predecessors, Book 1 and Book 2, making a great ending to the trilogy.  It is full of tragedy, war, betrayal, and of course, love.  It’s epic in scope and an exhausting read.  I loved it.  And as I mentioned in the last review, if you continue on with this review, there will be spoilers to the previous books.

The story picks up with the Paran family in the service of a nobleman.  Keshan has a vision that his lover, Jandu who is cursed to live one year as a woman, is in danger from one of the family’s enemies.  He intervenes which breaks the terms of the exile, giving aid to the family.  When the family returns from exile and Jandu is turned back into a man, the Parans present themselves to the king who rejects their penance, demanding three more years of exile, and casting Keshan to the untouchables caste.  Jandu’s brother, who should be king of half the kingdom, rejects the exile and declares civil war.  Can Jandu and Keshan’s love survive the despair and war?

The world building of the series is tremendous.  It creates quite a world of this nation, the rivalry of two clans of the same family, the caste system, the magic, and the demons (who I think I called gods in the last review).  The magic and the demons really come into play here during the war, after there not being as much in the first two books. 

The character development is also tremendous.  The main character, Jandu, who is cocky and rather obnoxious in Book 1 becomes a paragon of virtue.  Tarek remains obsessed with the straight king rather than turning to the man who could fulfill him.  Keshan goes from being so strong to so unsure.  It’s all so well done and if I go into any more detail, I’ll give too much away.

I give this book five stars out of five.  It’s sort of a delayed five-star award for the whole series.  I really loved it.  The ending is actually bittersweet but ultimately incredibly satisfying.  It’s a short book and I read it on a Sunday.  It was literally hard to put down. 

Saturday, March 10, 2018

The Stars My Destination

Alfred Bester
Completed 3/10/2018, reviewed 3/10/2018
4 stars

The only previous Bester I had read was The Demolished Man, his Hugo winning novel.  I liked it but wasn’t thrilled.  I much more enjoyed The Stars My Destination.  I felt the prose was much better and the story overall was much more interesting.  It’s strange because this book has been called a proto-cyberpunk version of The Count of Monte Cristo, and I usually don’t care for cyberpunk.  Somehow, this book grabbed me in the prologue and kept me glued to it to the end.

The plot is pretty complex.  The time is the future, where teleportation, or jaunting, is the main means of travel.  People can jaunte up to 1000 miles at a time.  Space and time jaunting has not yet been discovered.  This has disrupted the economy so badly that war has erupted between the Inner Planets and the Outer Satellites.  It’s in this time of the turbulence that Gulliver Foyle, low ranking gutter trash on the spaceship Nomad, is marooned in space after what was probably an attack by the Outer Satellites.  An Inner Planets ship, the Vorga, comes close enough to rescue him, but doesn’t.  From then on, Gully Foyle develops a mad obsession to destroy the Vorga.

In addition to this story line, it turns out that the Nomad was carrying a secret cargo that has the potential for ending the war.  There is also some secret about the Vorga that people are dying over.  Lastly, Gully himself may have a secret that could be even more important than ending the war.

Gully is an anti-hero, a protagonist that will rape, torture, and murder to see his plan of vengeance succeed.  He has such a one-track mind, that he cannot be tortured into revealing what happened to the Nomad.  Despite being so morally depraved, I really liked Gully.  I especially liked him when he was speaking in gutter slang.  I didn’t like what he did, but his character develops as the plot moves along, and he does get a sort-of redemption in the end.

While this book doesn’t pass the Bechdel test (I’m pretty sure none of the female characters ever speak to each other), the female characters are rather strong for a novel from the ‘50s.  They all have or had some type of career, for good or for bad, and all play a part in Gully’s redemption.

I find it interesting that Bester again plays with form like he did in The Demolished Man.  He uses different patterns of text and strings of characters to get across a situation where Gully’s senses become crossed.  It’s difficult to describe here.  It has to be read. 

The prose is tremendous.  As I mentioned earlier, it really shines in the beginning until the plot grips you and keeps you going to the end.  Different layers of the plot keep the story from devolving into a simple adventure story, and the climax is very satisfying.  I give this book four stars out of five. 

Friday, March 9, 2018

The Archer’s Heart Book 2

Astrid Amara
Completed 3/9/2018, Reviewed 3/9/2018
4 stars

I continue to surprise myself by how much I like this series.  I guess one would call it fantasy opera because it is a fantasy replete with magic and magical beings, though used sparingly, and full of court maneuverings and intrigue.  As my regular readers are already aware, I’m not a fan of space opera in general, but this has me hooked.  Be aware that the summary and discussion of this book constitutes a spoiler for the first book, so don’t read further if you want to avoid the spoilers.

Book Two follows the Paran family as they are exiled from the kingdom.  They are forced to live in hiding for three years, avoiding all contact with anyone who would know them lest their exile be extended another three years.  I addition, anyone who would give them any aid would be cast down to the lowest caste, that is, be made an untouchable. 

This of course creates a terrible situation for Jandu and his lover Keshan.  They will not be able to see each other for three years.  Secretly, though, they find a way to send letters to each other.  All the while, Jandu tries to hide this relationship from his family, as homosexuality is forbidden in the kingdom and at least his eldest brother, the man who would be king, is not tolerant.  After two years of hiding in the jungle, the family is discovered by one of their arch enemies who is spying for the king.  Jardu kills him and the family is on the run again.  This time they hide as servants in the household of a neighboring lord, taking pseudonyms, hiding in plain sight.

Back in the kingdom, Tarek, the king’s new judge still has unrequited love for the king.  He too keeps his love a secret lest he be put to death.  Still he finds ways to find quick encounters, particularly with one of his army’s commanders.  In the meantime, Tarek makes his way around the kingdom enforcing new laws and fealty to the king.  When a lord exhibits rebellious behavior, Tarek goes in and squashes him. 

Despite being a second book in a trilogy, I found it to be riveting.  You’d think that a book primarily about living in exile would be boring, but it wasn’t.  It’s full of interesting twists and turns and encounters with magical beings.  In an interesting turn of events, Jandu is cursed by a goddess to turn into a woman.  Jandu prays to the head god and gets a reprieve:  he only has to live one year as a woman.  The family uses this to their advantage when they become servants of the neighboring lord.  Jandu, now a woman, poses as a music teacher, teaching the lord’s youngest son to play the flute. 

The character development is great.  All the characters become much more fleshed out in this volume.  I felt like I had empathy for most of them.  And I think that’s the point, creating moral ambiguity among the characters.  Even the bad king isn’t so bad.  He’s doing some bad things, but at the same time, slowly working to end the caste system and creating a more just kingdom.  But his obsession with finding the Paran family supplants all his good works. 

I give this book four stars out of five.  It’s a short book, and pretty easy reading.  Having the series be three short chunks rather than one long book was a smart idea.  It makes it like a serial where you can’t wait to get to the next part.  You can find the review for Book 1 here.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

The Dark Light Years

Brian Aldiss
Completed 3/6/2018, reviewed 3/6/2018
3 stars

What is civilization?  What is intelligence?  Will we know when we make first contact?  These are the questions that are asked in this book by Brian Aldiss.  The earthlings in this book define civilization as the distance that man has placed between himself and his own excreta.  When first contact is made, it’s with a race of beings that wallow in dirt and their own excreta.  They look like hippos, even though they are called rhino-men.  They have six appendages with hands with two opposable thumbs.  They don’t experience pain.  They make sounds out of multiple orifices.  Their spaceship is made out of wood and is covered in their filth.  So, are they intelligent?  Is this civilization?  Or are they lowly animals?

This book makes one pause to reflect on these questions.  The basic plot of this short novel is that we may not be able to tell when we make first contact because of our own cultural biases.  This may also apply vice versa.  Will aliens recognize us as intelligent and having civilization? 

I liked the plot of the book very much.  I didn’t care for the characters, though.  The humans, that is.  There was no one I was able to identify with or empathize with.  Everyone was too, well, human.  Maybe I’ve just been exposed to a lot of first contact novels, but it seemed that there was no one who really understood how to approach contact with alien life.  Almost everyone’s approach was shoot first, try to establish contact later.  It reminded me of the South Park episode where Uncle Jimbo takes the kids hunting and tells them to shout, “He’s coming right at me”, then shoot, regardless of what the target was actually doing.  But I think that was the point, to show the inhuman nature of man.  Still I would have liked to have seen a character who would have taken more issue with how they were treating the aliens.   

The best part was when the narrative was told from the aliens’ points of view.  The story became very creative in these parts.  I wished there was more of it, but what we get was enough to understand their behavior and to realize they were just as confounded by us as we were of them. 

One minor complaint I had with the book was that it was very British.  In this, I mean Aldiss used a lot of British argot which went over my head.  There were occasionally sentences that I had no idea what they meant.  I don’t think I missed anything of importance, it was just my lack of understanding of certain passages. 

Overall, I liked the book.  I give it three stars out of five.  I think I could have given it four stars if there was one character for whom I had some empathy. 

Sunday, March 4, 2018

The Archer’s Heart Book 1

Astrid Amara
Completed 3/3/2018, Reviewed 3/4/2018
4 stars

I actually liked this book of court intrigue.  At first, I found it pretty dry despite the gay love story subplot.  But soon I found myself caught up in the decision of who will be king.  Even the gay subplot becomes more intense as we find out homosexuality is punishable by death.  This Lambda Literary Award nominee for SF/Fantasy/Horror kept my attention.  It’s the first of a trilogy, so now I have to decide whether or not I’m going to read the rest of it.

The plot is actually quite complex.  Marhavad is a kingdom ruled by a regent.  There are two princes vying for the throne, both sons of the king, but half-brothers.  They are now of age and the regent has to choose one of them.  The people of the kingdom have taken sides as well, and the choosing of one over the other may cause civil war.

Enter Keshan, a lord who has prophetic visions.  He has foreseen himself bringing down the caste system that governs the lives of the people of Marhavad.  He supports the prince who says he will help dismantle the caste system.  But Keshan becomes distracted when he falls in love with the other prince’s younger brother, Jandu.  Jandu is not part of the court intrigue.  He is perhaps the greatest archer in the kingdom, rather full of himself, and quite closeted. 

The plot takes more twists and turns and has more major and minor characters, too many for a summary.  I found it quite interesting after a while.  Everything becomes more immediate and profound when Jandu witnesses the execution of two men found guilty of sodomy.  But it was hard to take sides when both princes have their good and bad points. 

Keshan and Jandu are the best drawn characters.  Since their subplot takes most of the book, they get the page time to be the most well-developed.  There’s another character Tarek, who is also well-developed.  Tarek is from the second caste while all the other characters are from the highest caste.  Tarek has no love of Jandu’s brother, and aligns himself with the other prince.  If this prince becomes king, Tarek is promised to be elevated to the top caste in return for his loyalty and service.  But Tarek has a secret too.  He has an intense self-loathing for his own homosexuality. 

There is also a system of magic and a race of magical beings which come to play in the book.  The magic is complex, based on spells, which in turn are actually invocations of the magical beings.  While we get to see some of this, I’m guessing it comes more into play in the later books. 

I was going to give this book three stars, but I found myself totally enrapt at the end.  Even though you know what is coming, I thought it was written well.  Especially knowing that it’s a trilogy, you know it can’t end well.  But I really liked the journey.