Saturday, April 28, 2018

Minions of the Moon

Richard Bowes
Completed 4/28/2018, Reviewed 4/28/2018
3 stars

This book started out as a novella which won the World Fantasy Award in 1998.  Bowes expanded it into a full novel and it won the Lambda Literary Award for SF/Fantasy/Horror in 2000.  It’s sort of an urban fantasy about a man with a shadow self or doppelganger.  It was a strange story.  I felt like the author couldn’t make up his mind on whether the doppelganger was real or imaginary.  At times nobody saw it; other times people would report to Kevin, the main character, that they thought they had seen him somewhere where Kevin wasn’t.  Other times people saw the two of them together.  It was very confusing, and although I have a good suspension of disbelief, I couldn’t tell what was real outside of Kevin’s frame of reference and what wasn’t.  Maybe that was the point.

The basic plot is that Kevin grows up in ‘50s with an alcoholic mother in an extended Irish family in Boston.  She has a shadow.  He can tell the difference between his real mother and the shadow.  His grandfather had this ‘gift’ and it turns out, so does Kevin.  He starts abusing drugs and alcohol.  He sells his body to lecherous men at the YMCA for money to fuel his addictions.  Eventually he goes to New York where his lifestyle nearly gets him killed a few times.  The theme of the story is can Kevin’s real self and shadow self ever become reconciled.

The book is basically very good.  It is really well written, that is, the prose is very readable and fluid.  It begins in the book’s present, with Kevin in his fifties.  He hears that his doppelganger has been spotted again and he realizes that it’s time to have showdown with it.  As he approaches the meeting, he reflects back on his life and his relationship with his shadow.  It begins when he is a youth, progresses through his teen years, college, and eventually adulthood in New York City.  Of course, his youth and teen years are troubled.  College isn’t too bad.  He even lands a job and a cheap apartment in NY.  But drugs and alcohol rule his life and always ruin a good thing.  He continues to be a victim, especially sexually.  Then he meets a man who works with addicts and brings him to sobriety. However, his shadow is still out there living fast and hard. 

That’s where I faltered with the premise.  I understood the concept of the doppelganger when he was drinking and using.  There were times the shadow saved him from potentially deadly situations.  However, the shadow was like a real person in that it was living out there on the streets while Kevin was sober as well.  I didn’t make sense to me.  And I even understand, being in recovery myself, that even when you’re sober, your disease is still out there waiting for a chance to jump back in if you’re not always working on your sobriety.  Still it had to do with the reality of the shadow, not the concept of the active disease of addiction. To keep from being totally frustrated, I had to suspend not just disbelief, but logic as well.  Usually, fantasy worlds have their own internal logic.  But this didn’t seem to have any internal logic.  It was like Schrodinger’s shadow:  it both existed and didn’t exist at the same time.  Once I could accept that, I was able enjoy the book.

If I were a half star reviewer, I’d give the book three and half stars.  Technically, it’s very good.  Good writing, good plot, good premise, good characters.  But the details of the reality of the shadow keep it from being four stars.  So being a whole star guy, I give the book three stars.

Monday, April 23, 2018

The Door into Fire

Diana Duane
Completed 4/23/2018, Reviewed 4/23/2018
4 stars

I really enjoyed this book.  It was filled with gorgeous prose and world building.  All the characters are bisexual and polyamorous and the main relationship is between two men.   None of the sex is overstated and the love is genuine.  The characters are very real and the magic is wonderfully devised.  I chewed this up in two days and look forward to eventually reading the rest of the series.

The story is mostly about Herewiss, a sorcerer who is the first male in many years to possess the power of the Fire.  However, no teacher has been able to help him grow into this power.  But they are used to training women, wielding the Fire as Rodmistresses.  Not able to focus the Fire with a rod, Herewiss tries to construct a sword as his focus, to no avail.

In the meantime, he must rescue his lover Freelorn and his companions from a keep where they are held as prisoners.  Freelorn is the exiled heir to the Arlen throne.  Herewiss frees him, but must make a decision, whether to go back with Freelorn and try to help him win the throne or go to a keep in the Waste which may hold the key to his finally developing the power of the Fire.

The prose was simply astounding.  There are times when prose seems overwrought and hard to read.  But this I found wonderful, easy to read, and very vital to the story telling.  Tied directly to the prose is the world building.  In just a short 260 pages, Duane builds a world with magic, religion, and complex but very human relationships.  Magic doesn’t come without cost.  It exhausts and rebounds.  It is affected by the temperament, history, and relationships of the wielder.  Spells can be broken by a change in one of these factors.   But even more important, the Fire, when harnessed, can give a sorcerer even greater power.

The religion in the book is goddess based.  She of course is life and love.  Everyone experiences her in their own way.  For Herewiss, Freelorn, and their companions, they get to experience her directly.  I won’t give the scene away but it is very amusing and profound. 

The characterization is also marvelous.  The characters all develop over the span of this short book, something I found remarkable.  Even the elemental being grows over the course of the book.  And most interesting of all is their relationships.  Everyone is free to choose who they love and may love multiple persons.  Done poorly, this could have been a quagmire of nothing but sexual escapades.  Here, Duane handles it with extreme tenderness and sensibility.  She uses the word share as a euphemism for sex, and it works really well.

I give this book four out of five stars.  The plot is fairly straightforward.  It has been done before and since.  But the world building is just wonderful and the storytelling is a delight. 

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Point of Knives

Melissa Scott
Completed 4/21/2018, Reviewed 4/22/2018
2 stars

I just don’t find these novels of Astreiant very satisfying.  They are police procedurals set in an alternative Renaissance-ish period with mages and necromancers.  I don’t quite know if it’s the police procedural part or the period, but I found this book very boring.  Even the gay relationship in it doesn’t help.  I figure I must be missing something because these books have a lot of fans.  I’m going to keep trudging through them though to get to the book that won the Gaylactic Spectrum award for best novel.  Hopefully, I’ll be so familiar with the universe that I might actually start to like it. 

The book takes place in between the first two, mostly to bridge the gap between the relationship between the two main characters, Nico Rathe and Philip Eslingen.  I really don’t remember the other two books too well, but in the first book, the two of them meet, and in the second book, they are already in a relationship.  In this book, they’ve already had a summer fling and now they are winter-lovers.  I didn’t quite get what that meant, other than having a relationship that lasts only for a season. 

The plot is a straight forward one, as this book is really a novella, only about 120 pages long.  Grandad Steen and Old Steen are both murdered.  They used to be pirates.  Young Steen tries to claim the bodies and the inheritance, but a woman shows up claiming to be Old Steen’s wife.  She lays claim to all Old Steen’s possessions.  Nico, who discovered the bodies, is brought in to investigate.  Philip, who is a knife for the gangster Caiazzo, is also brought in to represent the gangster’s interests.  And all the interest is in a hidden treasure of untaxed foreign gold, that is, buried treasure. 

I don’t know why I didn’t like this book.  I just found it very boring.  Nothing about the case was interesting.  The only parts I liked were the beginning where they find the bodies, and the ending where they catch the murderer.  I think it’s because you know who the murderer is; you’re just waiting for the confrontation.  There’s no real big reveal.  I don’t think it could have had one because it was such a short book. 

I give this book two out of five stars.  Maybe I’m not a fan of police procedurals, but it simply didn’t grip me.  I’m hoping next book, Fairs’ Point is better.  Perhaps it being a longer novel will make it better.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Gifts (Annals of the Western Shore #1)

Ursula K. LeGuin
Completed 4/19/2018, reviewed 4/19/2018
3 stars

I was a little disappointed with Gifts.  It’s a very simple story, told simply.  It is considered YA, so I have to factor that into it.  Still, I think the story could have been much more interesting.  This book is the first in a trilogy, the third having won the Nebula, so I’m hoping the story gets more interesting as the series progresses. 

In this world, among the clans of the Uplands, the people possess gifts.  Each family group possesses one gift.  Orrec’s family can unmake things.  Gry’s family can summon animals.  Other clans can do things like cause a wasting disease or twist your limbs like a corkscrew.  Orrec and Gry don’t like the uses of their gifts.  Orrec doesn’t want to kill people.  Gry doesn’t want to call animals to make them easy prey for the hunters.  Yet if they don’t embrace their gifts, they might be overrun by the other clans. 

The main character is Orrec.  His characterization is actually quite good.  I really enjoyed the story of him growing up and deciding to blindfold himself when he realizes his gift is out of control.  You see, to execute this gift, you need the will, the word, the hand, and the eye.  But when he unwittingly starts killing things without realizing it, he figures the only way to control it is if he blinds himself, as did his ancestor who also had the wild gift.  It was an interesting spin on the psychic abilities trope. 

However, the story left me wanting more.  It felt all too simple and straight forward.  Even the themes were simple:  using talents for good rather than evil, teen angst.  But as one reviewer pointed out, after reading quite a bit of LeGuin, you just feel like she can’t write a bad sentence or a bad story.  However, I felt like she didn’t put a lot of energy into this book. 

I give this book three stars out of five.  I’m hoping the next books have a little more oomph to them. 

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

A Different Light

Elizabeth A. Lynn
Completed 4/17/2018, Reviewed 4/18/2018
3 stars

This book was written in 1978.  It was at the forefront of LGBTQ science fiction in that it depicted a relationship between men without much fanfare or sensationalism.  It was so celebrated in its time, a small chain of bookstores was named after it.  It’s a short book, rather light on plot.  Its strength is in the prose and the relationships between the characters.  It’s one of the few books I wish was a little longer, with more time spent on the characters. 

Jimson is an artist, one of the most renowned in the known galaxy.  He lives in a future where cancer has been eradicated, except for him.  If he stays on his home planet, he could live another twenty years.  If he leaves, without access to his needed medication, he’d only have about a year to live.  But he wants to see other worlds, experiencing them in a different light, that is, the light from different suns.  He also wants to find love, particularly his lover of fourteen years ago, Russell.  Now a spaceship captain, Russel finds Jim, and Jim begs him to take him on his next adventure.  Together with a small crew of two others, they go on a mission to retrieve a beautiful mask from a distant planet. 

Jimson is bisexual.  He’s currently having a relationship with Leiko, a woman who is also a starship navigator.  She knows Jim is looking for Russell.  When Russel finds Jim and puts together a crew, he brings Leiko on as the ship’s navigator.  He also brings on Ysao as the engineer, who Russell also had a relationship with.  That’s what makes the book’s relationships so interesting.  They are not actually love triangles, but rather they build on the relationships they already had.  It’s also not really a romantic novel, just as it’s not a full blown space opera.  It’s sort of a light combination of the two.

I wished the book was longer.  At 169 pages, the adventure that the four of them go on seems more like an episode in a larger novel rather than a plot to support a whole book.  I think that if the author had spent more time developing the space adventure, it could have been a better longer book.  Instead, what we get are almost a series of vignettes rather than a continuous tale.  One thing that threw me while reading was that Jim’s location changes between chapters and the succeeding chapter doesn’t really give you any indication that the location has changed until you are a bit into it.  So for a while, at the beginning of each chapter, I was confused as to where Jim actually was, on his home planet, on Nexus, on the spaceship.  While I eventually caught on as to where the characters were, I thought the chapter transitions could have been a lot smoother.

I liked the book.  I wanted to love it because it is considered a classic in the LGBTQ world.  I only give the book three stars out of five, which means good.  I think it would have been a lot better if the author spent more time and wrote more words.   I think she’s a good writer.  I did enjoy the prose.  I just wanted to spend more time with the characters and go on more adventures with them. 

Monday, April 16, 2018

The Parable of the Sower

Octavia Butler
Completed 4/16/2018, Reviewed 4/16/2018
5 stars

This was a dark, depressing novel.  It’s a dystopian tale of a future US where society has broken down, crime is rampant, and survival is tenuous.  I could only read it in small chunks, a few chapters at a time at the most.  Nonetheless, it was an excellent story about survival in a terrible time.  I’ve seen some reviewers categorize this book as YA, and the prose somewhat reads as YA, but I think it’s really a story for adults about a young person with a personal faith and the will to survive. 

The book is about Lauren, a young African-American girl growing up in an LA suburb in the 2020’s.  Society has broken down and her little cul-de-sac has built a wall around the eleven houses on the street to protect itself.  Money is practically worthless and few people have jobs that pay actual money.  Crime is rampant, with desperate people stealing to survive, and people addicted to a new drug called pyro are burning everything in sight.  Lauren’s little community has banded together to learn survival and defense skills.  They help each other out, even if they don’t like each other.  Her mother acts as a teacher of the local children.  Her father is a preacher and a professor at the local college. 

Lauren however is different.  She an empath, she can feel other people’s physical pain and pleasure.  She’s basically rejected her father’s Baptist faith and devised her own religion, which she calls Earthseed.  She also feels that the key to her survival in this terrible world is to try to travel north to a safer land. 

One night, extreme violence invades the community.  She’s forced to leave before she was ready, but decides it’s the only choice she has.  On her way north, she picks up a ragtag group of others who she slowly converts to Earthseed. 

Butler’s vision is astounding.  This dystopia is about as well-devised as some of the post-nuclear apocalypse stories of the fifties and sixties.  And yet she leaves it vague as to exactly what the cause was, other than the inevitable collapse of things based on where we seem to be going.  The little community that the first half of the book takes place in is what I would call excellent world-building, even though it’s only eleven houses.  From target practice to martial arts training to what dinner consists of, Butler gives us an amazingly intimate portrait of what life would be like in a terrible time.

The character development is also astounding.  Despite there being a lot of characters throughout the story, I felt like Butler did a really great job of creating distinct personalities.  It says a lot when I can keep myriads of characters straight in my head. 

But as I mentioned above, it was a really difficult book to get through.  The world-building is so good, that I could only read small portions at a time lest I get too depressed, and convinced that this is where we are going to end up if things don’t change.

I’m both excited and hesitant about reading the next book, because I know it will be more of the same.  I think I’m going to read a few other books in between so as to break up the feelings of hopelessness that one could get from reading a book like this.

I have to give this book five stars out of five because of my definition of my star system. It’s a book that I would give four stars to but I had a deep emotional response to it.  Usually, that feeling is joy or sorrow.  This time it was depression and despair.  For a book to evoke that much emotion in me says something about how terrific it is.  Granted they were emotions that I would rather not have but they were deep nonetheless. 

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

The Lathe of Heaven

Ursula K. LeGuin
Completed 4/10/2018, Reviewed 4/11/2018
4 stars

I enjoyed this book tremendously.  It was particularly fun because it takes place in Portland, Oregon, which is where I live now.  Aside from that, it was a great story concerning the nature of dreams and playing God.  It asks the question if you had the power to change things for the better, could you do it, and should you do it.  Specifically, will there be side effects to doings that, that without being omniscient, would cause harm rather than good.  It makes for an interesting morality story.

George Orr is an effective dreamer.  That is, sometimes he has dreams that change the present.  Being dreams, he has no control over them.  When the present is changed, it also changes the past and how everyone else experiences the world.  For example, George has an aunt who comes to live with his family when he is young.  He dreams she’s killed in a car accident.  The next morning, she’s gone and everyone in the family is aware that she was killed moths before.    George overdoses on meds to try to keep himself from dreaming.  He gets sent to a voluntary psychiatric analysis to avoid going to jail.  The doctor who treats him realizes that he can manipulate George’s dreams to change the world, and begins to do so. 

So it’s Doctor Haber who has the dreams of becoming a god and solving the world’s problems.  George simply wants the effective dreams to end.  Dr. Haber puts George under hypnosis with an experimental dream state enhancement device and suggests to George different things like reducing the overpopulation.  But just as all dreams are uncontrollable, the way the population reduction happens ends up a terrible calamity.  George goes to a lawyer for help, and she comes to believe he actually has this power and it is being manipulated by Haber.  Together they try to stop Haber and put an end to George’s effective dreaming for good.

I liked George’s name, reminiscent of George Orwell.  I don’t know if this was intentional, but it invokes the idea that you can try to create a utopia, but will end up with a dystopia if you are not careful.  He’s an interesting character, despite being rather milquetoast.  It is noted at one point that he’s the ultimate normal guy.  He tests at around the fiftieth percentile on all scales.  All he wants to do is stop dreaming, but doesn’t have the aggressiveness needed to combat the doctor on his own.  Haber, on the other hand, is a megalomaniac, giving himself more power through George’s dreams. 

The book is quite exciting.  I enjoyed listening to Haber’s hypnotic suggestions and trying to see what terrible variation George’s dreams were going to produce.  And the final scenes are terrific.  I could see this being made into a movie with terrific special effects like “Inception”.

I give the book four stars out of five.  Despite being written in 1971, it has aged well.  Anyone familiar with Portland will recognize that LeGuin did a terrific job of making it rather timeless, to begin with, that is.  It’s exciting, but still has the reflectiveness and subtlety that I’ve come to appreciate in LeGuin’s novels. 

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Call Me By Your Name

Andre Aciman
Completed 4/8/2018, reviewed 4/8/2018
5 stars

A book hasn’t touched me like this in years.  It brought up so many emotions for me.  I felt like I had connected deeply with Elio, the main character.  The first half of the book is much like the movie.  But the second half is very different.  And it’s the last chapter that really got to me.

The book is about a 17-year-old boy summering in Italy with his family on their estate.  The family has a tradition of inviting a grad student to come stay with them for six weeks during the summer to work on their publications in exchange for helping Elio’s professor father with paperwork.  This year Oliver is the graduate student and Elio develops a crush on him. 

The book is told in first person by Elio.  Much of it is his obsessive thinking about Oliver, as well as on life and love.  There isn’t much dialog.  There’s a lot of very long sentences that signify the obsession.  It delves into the personhood of Elio and what he’s going through being in love with Oliver and not knowing how to convey this to him. 

I guess the reason I so deeply related to the book was because I had a relationship with a graduate student when I was 19.  He was about four years older than me and straight.  I guess technically, he was bisexual.  He wasn’t my first, and unlike Elio, I already knew I was gay.  I fell head over heels for him, even though he couldn’t give me what I wanted, that is, a long-term gay relationship.  This book reminded me of that time in college, even though the comparison to my life and the book is not that close.  It was still a time of confusion and crush and at times obsession. 

I can’t give this book anything but five stars.  It speaks very honestly about first love and all the emotions that come with it.  It touched me in places I wasn’t aware I’d be revisiting after all these years. 

Saturday, April 7, 2018


(original title "Black Man")
Richard K. Morgan
Completed 4/7/2018, reviewed 4/7/2018
4 stars

I must say I like Richard K. Morgan’s prose.  That’s the first thing I noticed in this book.  Morgan writes with a smooth fluidity that is simply remarkable.  He doesn’t just write a lot of similes.  He uses lots of strong nouns, verbs, and adjectives.  It makes for very easy reading.  I screamed through this five-hundred-plus paged book in just a week, mostly because of the writing.  And of course, because it’s filled with lots of action.

I’m not always a fan of thrillers.  I like a little action in a book, but generally, I don’t go for dark, cyberpunk action novels.  But this one I liked a lot.  There were parts of the middle that seemed slow going, but they generally built up to something exciting.  While this was hard science fiction, it wasn’t too heavy on the cyberpunk themes.  Usually I get lost in the terminology, but I didn’t here.  There was just enough to feel futuristic but not to be lost in the technology.

The plot revolves around Carl, a thirteen.  He’s a genetically modified human who is generally dangerous to the public.  Most thirteens are either ensconced in camps or sent to work on Mars.  Carl however is an assassin whose mission is to kill renegade thirteens.  He’s hired by agents to help track down one such renegade thirteen who has escaped from Mars on a shuttle back to earth and has tortured and eaten his co-travelers on the long journey.  Since crash landing in the Pacific, he has since been leaving an undecipherable trail of blood across the country.  Carl must contain his own violent urges to work with the agents to get this renegade.

Yes, the book is pretty violent.  There’s enough gore for an R-rated movie.  But throughout the violence there’s some pretty terrific world building.  Carl is British, but the majority of the book takes place in what’s left of the US.  There was a great secession.  The Northeast is now one country.  The Pacific rim is another.  What’s left is the Republic commonly referred to as Jesusland, where religion and white supremacy reign.  The Rim and the Northeast generally work together, but their relationship with Jesusland isn’t too great.  In one section, Carl is incarcerated in southern Florida without charges or a trial.  Carl, by the way, is black.  It is reminiscent of the violent prison drama Oz and it gives a real flavor of what the Republic is like.

I have to hand it to Morgan for writing about a lot of topical things like racism, bigotry, and general intolerance.  He doesn’t shy away from the dystopian multicultural society.  Like his other books, there’s a lot of moral ambiguity in his main characters.  Carl is definitely an anti-hero.  He gets the bad guys, but his tactics are questionable at best.  After all, he was bred to be a killing machine. 

I could see this novel being made into a successful film, although one I wouldn’t necessarily want to see.  Morgan creates a dark, gritty, violent world that in a film would would make Sam Peckinpah proud.  It’s one thing to read it, it’s another to see it on the big screen.  Still, I enjoyed the heck out of this book.  I think Morgan is a terrific writer.  This is the fifth novel of his I’ve read.  It was another 1.99 purchase at the Kindle store.  I give the book four stars out of five, but don’t recommend it for the squeamish.