Tuesday, October 30, 2018

The Wanting Seed

Anthony Burgess
Completed 10/27/2018, Reviewed 10/27/2018
2 stars

I did not like this book.  Written in 1962, it’s a “comedy” about overpopulation and the resulting in a degradation of society: famine, reproductive control, cannibalism, and war.  This is known as a Malthusian comedy, derived from the theories of population versus resources by Thomas Robert Malthus (Yes, I had to look it up, though I did remember it from high school social studies after reading a few sentences about it).  I didn’t find it remotely funny, not even in a satirical sense.  Being nearly sixty years old, this book is full of the prejudices against race and sexuality, using them for satirical purposes, but ends up coming across as racist, sexist, and homophobic. 

The story is set in a dystopian future.  It’s about Tristram and Beatrice-Joanna, a married couple living in an overcrowded world with strict rationing of food, propaganda against having more than one child, and government promotion of homosexuality as a further means of birth control.  Tristram and Beatrice-Joanna’s first child has died.  Now officially, they can’t have any more children.  Beatrice-Joanna is having an affair with Tristram’s brother Derek, who is posing as gay man to advance in the government.  She gets pregnant by him causing a rift in the marriage.  Tristram, a social studies teacher, goes out for a drink, for what passes as alcohol.  He ends up in jail after happening to be at worker’s strike that turns violent.  From there his life goes from bad to worse.  He then escapes from jail, only to be tricked into conscripting with the British Army.

I thought the characters and basic plot were rather soapy and were merely present to convey the message.  No thought was put into making the characters anything but cardboard stiff upper-lip Brits.  Tristram’s experience is Kafkaesque, but it doesn’t have any of the profound absurdity of Kafka’s “The Trial”.  It’s simply tedious.  Beatrice-Joanna is just a character out of a soap opera.  Her life is simply being a wife, mother, or a lover.  Not that that’s a bad thing in and of itself considering the time it was written, but she has no depth and nothing else defining her except that she goes for walks and talks to the sea. 

I found the homosexual content of the book to be deeply insulting.  It’s meant to be a joke that the world is promoting homosexuality as a means of birth control.  It implies that it is a choice rather than an orientation.  It’s lumped into the same category as the cannibalistic content of the book.  And once the government falls, the people go crazy sexually, with heterosexual orgies and bizarre fertility rites.  Even Derek, Tristram’s brother, “switches” his sexuality to maintain his position in the new government.  It’s all rather disgusting and I was pretty deeply offended by it.

By the same token, racism is rampant throughout the book as well.  Black, bi- and multi-racial people abound in the book, but they are the butts of the joke as much as the sexuality is.  I think it would have been less offensive if the book had no people of color at all, rather then use them to get a satirical point across.

I give this book two stars out of five.  I don’t think this book could have been published today.  It’s supposed to be satire.  I get that.  But I found it merely offensive.  This is an example of the sort of novel that would be widely read for its scandalous ideas, setting any sort of human rights struggle back fifty years.  I gave it two stars instead of one because at least the prose was decent. 

Saturday, October 27, 2018


Jaida Jones and Danielle Bennett
Completed 10/25/2018, Reviewed 10/27/2018
3 stars

This was a novel about mechanical dragons that run on fuel and magic.  It was pretty good, though the relationships between people were far more in the forefront than the dragons were.  I read this book because it was nominated for a Gaylactic Spectrum Award for positive LGBTQ content in SF and Fantasy.  It had decent prose, character development, and plot, but there was nothing really new or outstanding about it.  It was sort of a steampunk take on “The Dragonriders of Pern” crossed with Victorian England in a magical setting with a gay romance. 

The plot follows four characters, Royston, Thom, Hal, and Rook, as their lives intersect during a lull in a hundred years war.  Royston is a magician who is exiled for having had an affair with a neighboring countries crown prince.  Hal is a tutor to the children of Royston’s brother, where Royston has been exiled.  Hal and Royston fall in love.  Rook is the best dragon rider on the ruler’s Dragon Corps, but has been reprimanded for having had an affair with another country’s ambassador’s wife.  Thom is the university student who is brought into the Dragon Corps to give the rowdy riders sensitivity training.  Their lives cross when Royston is called back to the capital to help with the war.  He brings back Hal with him.  At the same time, Rook and the other riders begin noticing strange things happening to their dragons as fighting begins erupting again with their enemy.    

The book is told in first person narrative alternating between all four characters.  At first this was tough to follow, but each character was developed pretty well.  I’m guessing that each author had two characters and they wrote around each other.  It worked, and moved the plot nicely.   

I liked all the characters except Rook.  He was a vile, amoral person with no redeeming qualities.  Even as an antagonist to Thom, he was just way too over the top.  It was actually hard to read his passages, because he was so distasteful.  My favorite character was Hal.  He was a country bumpkin who is just coming into his sexuality.  He’s meek, honest, and wears his heart on his sleeve.  Thom was also good as the university student trying to make the Dragon Corp palatable to society.  Royston the magician was rather lackluster.  There wasn’t too much to his character to make him outstanding.  The one thing that’s really noticeable about the book is that there are no female characters to speak of.  It gives the book an unbalanced feeling as there is no female perspective to anything going on.

There isn’t much more to say about the book because there isn’t that much to it.  It’s kind of fluff, but I found it entertaining.  I give the book three stars out of five.  I think the book would have benefited from having a little more action interspersed through the first half of the book, which is almost exclusively about the relationships between the characters.  Considering the book has magical mechanical dragons and is entitled with the name of Rook’s dragon, there isn’t all that much going on with them. 

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Full Fathom Five

Max Gladstone
Completed 10/21/2018, Reviewed 10/22/2018
3 stars

I read this book because it was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award, even though it’s the third in a long series.  The story is fairly self-contained.  There are some characters who appeared as secondary characters in one or both of the first two novels, but you don’t really need to know that to appreciate them.  Its world building, however, depends a lot on the history already described in the first two books, which I gleaned from reading synopses and reviews of the first two.  Still, it was enjoyable on its own.  I didn’t think it was great, but it was a decent mystery-fantasy.

Kai makes idols for people.  They are non-sentient entities which people use sort of like talismans.  Kai is a priestess and worships them for her clients.  The novel opens when one the idols is dying.  Kai attempts to save it, but is badly hurt in the process and rescued by her boss and coworkers.  She is labeled as unstable because she heard it speak, which these non-sentient idols are not supposed to do.  She tries to get to the bottom of this strange occurrence to prove she’s not going crazy and uncovers a plot to keep control of the idol industry in the hands of a sinister force.

The narrative is third person Kai, and interwoven by another perspective, that of Izza.  Izza is a young runaway who worships a goddess that apparently has died.  She was the storyteller for the goddess for a group of street urchins who are all devastated by the goddess’ death.  Eventually Izza and Kai’s paths cross and together they try to get to the bottom of the mystery of the dying idols. 

The characterization is good.  I liked both Kai and Izza.  I got into both characters and the supporting characters were all pretty well created as well.  Everyone was believable and didn’t seem cardboard at all.  I appreciated that the author created two lead female characters.  Kai is actually transgender, though I thought that it was mentioned too passingly.  The fact could easily have been missed if you were not reading carefully.  

The world building is actually pretty awesome, despite not having read the first two books.  The world of gods and idols is very interesting.  There was also a form of punishment for criminals called penitence.  The criminal is put in a golem-type creature where they are tortured until their will becomes the will of the golem.  Called the penitents, they are a sort of strong arm police force that chase after other criminals, bringing them in for punishment.

My biggest problem with the book was that it was a slow burn.  It took a long time for plot to kick into gear.  The start is supposed to be exciting, but I thought it was confusing.  And I was confused during the middle where it made references to Deathless Kings and God Wars.  I think that’s where not having been immersed in this world before was really detrimental.  The book finally picks up steam in the last eighty pages or so. 

I give this book three stars out of five.  It was a good mystery within a fantastical world. 

Friday, October 19, 2018

Kirith Kirin

Jim Grimsley
Completed 10/17/2018, Reviewed 10/17/2018
3 stars

This novel is a high fantasy that is driven by its world building, to the detriment of the plot.  The magic system, the religion, the languages, and the map are examples of the intense thought and planning that went into this book.  The plot, however, is simple.  I began reading it, enjoying the prose, and the excitement of the beginning.  But the prose soon became a snooze, with long descriptions of every place, the travelling of the main character, the tons of back stories.  Normally, all these things would have made this a great book, but somehow it just didn’t come together for me.  Still, it won the Lambda Literary Award for SF/Fantasy/Horror in 2001, and it has a pretty big fan base.  I’m just not one of them. 

The plot follows Jessex, a farm boy who is prophesied to be a shrine attendant for the exiled prince, Kirith Kirin.  His uncle arrives to convey the prophesy and escort him to the forest where Kirith and his host are hiding from the queen and her evil magician.  Religion is outlawed in the land, hence the hiding.  He joins Kirith’s band and soon learns of another calling for himself, that of magician.  He is taken under wing by three sisters who teach him the ways of magic in preparation for the arrival of a great magician, Yron.  Soon, the evil magician’s forces are on the move to eliminate Kirith, and Jessex must decide whether or not to use his newly acquired powers before Yron arrives. 

The narration is first person Jessex, but he is telling the story many years in the future.  So even though he is fourteen when the story begins, the narration is that of a mature adult recollecting times long past.  I think this is the downfall of the book.  Though there is detail in the prose, there isn’t much in the way of emotional descriptions.  The emotions are muted by time.  We get to know Jessex, what he did and what he thought, but not truly what he felt.  I had a hard time connecting with him because of this.  Even when he falls in love with Kirith, we don’t get the full impact because we only get very small doses of his feelings.  The same goes for the other characters, including Kirith.  There wasn’t much emotional depth to them.  They were simply place holders for action for the most part. 

As I said in the beginning, the world building is phenomenal, sometimes too much so.  There were so many names for persons, places, and things that I often got lost in the language.  The names were complicated as well, and many of the names sounded alike.  Only after getting through the whole book did I discover that there was a glossary at the end.  In addition to the glossary, there are multiple appendices covering the religion, the calendar, the wars, and more.  The world was very well thought out.  But by the time I got to the appendices, I was more or less over the book, and didn’t read them too deeply. 

I give the book three stars out of five.  I recognize that there was a lot of energy that was put into the book and it shows.  However, the plot wasn’t very complex and I found the prose to be boring.  Particularly, the magic battles should have been a lot more engrossing than they were.  Also, I believe the book would have benefited from less description of Jessex’s travels and more dialogue among the characters, we would have gotten a lot more character depth and I would have cared for them more.

Sunday, October 14, 2018


Cory Doctorow
Completed 10/10/2018, Reviewed 10/10/2018
2 stars

The only Doctorow I read before this book was Little Brother.  It was a fast paced, easy read that drew me in quickly.  Granted, it was considered YA, but I really enjoyed it.  This book, his first “adult novel” in eight years, was a slog to get through.  With not much plot, it was a jargon-filled, idea-driven novel that regularly lost me throughout the book.  At times, it was like reading non-fiction in dialogue form.  Sprinkled in were heavy battle scenes with acronyms and futuristic tech.  By reading other reviews, I found out that a lot of the jargon and acronyms came from video games.  Even having finished the book, I still don’t know what pnwing means.  And he used it a lot.  I guess I wasn’t Doctorow’s target audience. 

The plot is basically simple.  Three people decide to “walkaway”, that it, basically drop out of society.  This is easy to do because in the near future, everything can be had with 3D printers:  food, clothing, shelter, medication, etc.  They go to live in communes with other walkaways.  These people aren’t completely off the grid, they still have some electricity, some form of computers and are on the net.  In their communes, they have found a way to upload human consciousness onto the net.  It’s not perfect, but it’s getting there.  The whole walkaway paradigm and specifically, the upload ability freaks out mainstream society, called the default, because basically, they can live without consumerism and capitalism, and not fear death.  The corporations and governments led by zottas, the uber-rich, declare war on the walkaways, causing them to regularly scatter and regroup. 

 The idea of the walkaway is noble and of course has profound effects on society, especially in a near future which basically has no jobs and no hope for the non-rich.  It’s pretty much an extrapolation of the where society has been going, taken up a few notches, though not much.  When one of the walkaways is an heiress to a powerful zotta, the tension escalates as he tries to get back his daughter.  Of course, she has found the joys of being a walkaway and doesn’t want to be found.  He goes after her by force, attacking their settlements, killing and scattering her friends. 

I guess because I’m not a video game player, I had no hope of understanding all the jargon Doctorow used.  I’m just not plugged in enough.  It made what could easily have been a fast-paced novel a slow slog.  For only 384 pages, I spent hours and hours trying to get through it. 

The other big downfall to the book was the sermonizing of the characters.  They had lengthy discourse on the evils of the zottas and society and the benefits of walking away.  I was very repetitive.  Yeah, I get that they’re angry, but after a while, I found myself skimming through it because it became boring.  Nothing new was being said. 

I actually liked most of the characters.  Most of them were relatable.  They all had chosen names, like Etcetera and Iceweasel, which sounded stupid in the beginning, but grew to be endearing after a while.  They ran the gamut of races, nationalities, and sexualities, which was applaudable.  Their only problem was that they were too verbose. 

I give this book two stars out of five because I did not enjoy it.  I trudged through it, mainly because I have a hard time not finishing a book.  In reflecting on the book, I think it probably deserves a higher rating for the ideas presented.  I think Doctorow has a faith in people that is profound.  I just got too bogged down by all the language I didn’t understand. 

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Six Wakes

Mur Lafferty
Completed 10/3/2018, Reviewed 10/7/2018
3 stars

As I said in a post just about a week ago, I don’t read many mystery novels.  However, here’s another.  This time it’s set in the science fiction genre of a generations ship.  It was an easy read, and very entertaining.  It had a cool premise, that people could serially clone themselves and reload their full memories into their clone so they can achieve a sort of immortality, going from one life to the next as needed.  And what better way to staff a generations ship than with such clones.  But this one has a twist in the beginning.  All the clones are murdered and their replacement clones are awakened, but with no memory of the time they were on the ship.  So you have to find out who the murderer is with little or no clues.  It was a good read, but in the end, it basically felt like fluff.

Now for more detail on the plot.  Six clones awaken on a spaceship bound for the new world of Artemis.  The ship carries 2500 passengers in cryosleep.  The clones are only supposed to awaken when their previous clones have died.  They wake up to a literal blood bath.  All the previous clones are dead, several by stabbing wounds.  They are floating around the clone bay because the ship’s AI has been set off-line as well, resulting in zero gravity on the ship as well a deviation in the ship’s flight path.  Besides cleaning up the mess, they try to discover who the murderer is to prevent this from happening again.  The clincher is that the crew of six are all criminals who were given the opportunity to redeem themselves by signing up for this mission, so they are all capable of murder.  However, instead of having memories up to the point of their deaths, their memories only go up to the beginning of the flight.  All other backups of themselves have been destroyed.  And with the ship’s AI offline, they have no clues as to who the murderer might be. 

I thought the form of the book was well done.  The clones don’t know each other’s criminal pasts.  In fact, they are not supposed to tell each other what their crimes were.  We find out their pasts slowly in flashbacks interspersed throughout the book.  Some of their pasts are very surprising, given how they act on the ship.  I won’t go into more details because that would be a spoiler.  Suffice it to say, Lafferty came up with some very interesting characters.  Even the AI, called IAN, is interesting. 

What I thought was lacking in the book was good prose.  It’s almost all dialogue, which is what makes it such easy reading.  While it was good for characterization (the dialogue and the flashbacks), it wasn’t great for overall effect of the book.  It read like a screenplay for a movie.    In fact, I think it would make a great movie, but it only made for a good book. 

The science is pretty interesting.  3D printers are used to produce food from a product called Lyfe.  3D printers are also used to manufacture the clones from the same substance.  This way, rather than having to be born as an infant and going through childhood and puberty again, the clone is created as an adult and the clones past lives are downloaded into its brain.  And of course, there are hackers who can change the clones’ personalities and even rewrite the DNA to avoid serious long term illnesses, like MS for example.  However, there are laws and codices regulating the manufacturing of clones and hacking is illegal.  But that doesn’t mean it’s not done.

I give the book three stars out of five.  It’s very entertaining, but left me wanting more.  I think if there was a little more prose and it was a little more mature, I think I would have liked it better.  But the concepts are great, and the characters interesting.  Oh yeah, the book passes the Bechdel test with flying colors.  There are at least two women (three actually, as well as one in the flashbacks), they talk to each other, and it’s about something other than a man. 

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Green Thumb

Tom Cardamone
Completed 10/5/2018, Reviewed 10/5/2018
4 stars

What a bizarre novella.  This short book is a Lambda Literary Award winner for 2013.  It’s a post-apocalyptic coming of age tale about a gay boy who is changed into a plant-human.  The prose is gorgeous, but the story is very surreal.  It doesn’t have much of a plot.  It’s mostly a reflection mutation and growing up.  There are environmental overtones to the story, but not it doesn’t really hit you over the head with it.  I liked the story a lot mostly because of its weirdness and its beautiful language.

The story takes place after the Red Wars.  There is very little description of the wars, only that it devastated the environment.  Leaf is a baby when the wars begin.  He is touched by a genie box wand and becomes transformed into a plant-based human.  He is green, feeds on sunlight, drinks dew, and is cared for by his nanny on what’s left of a Victorian house on a small island in the Florida Keys.  You get the impression that both his parents were killed in the wars.  He has one friend, a manta ray boy, Skate, who lives in the sea around the Key.  After his nanny dies, he lives alone, until a strange black boy with some reptilian scales shows up on the Key.  Named Scallop, he becomes good friends with Leaf and Skate.  One day Scallop’s father, a fisherman, disappears, possibly taken by pirates.  The boys go in search of him, eventually leading them to what’s left of Miami, a home of pirates and their slaves. 

The basic plot is very straight forward, but the science fiction/fantasy aspect is very surreal.  As a matter of fact, I’m not sure if this is really SF or fantasy, or a fusion of the two.  It’s dystopian, post-apocalyptic, which makes it SF, and the science of Leaf as a plant boy is very well thought out.  Leaf can make tea out of the petals growing out of his neck.  His green blood and pollen have healing properties.  And he can grow new body parts out of cuttings of himself.  But how he became a plant boy, via the magic genie box, seems more like fantasy, even though it is about altering DNA.  The adventures the boys go on are very surreal, more like a fantasy than SF.  I won’t give away any spoilers, but the last chapter and coda are also very surreal, more fantasy or even magical realism.  It’s worth reading slowly because it’s very strange.

One thing I didn’t like about the story was that there wasn’t much dialogue.  So we don’t really get to know Leaf and Scallop very well.  It’s all described third person from Leaf’s point of view, but the characterization is lacking.  Still the story is quite beautiful, even when it takes you to decaying communities where people are living a dire existence.   Specifically, the tribal dance and the drunken hotel scenes are quite descriptive and emotionally gripping. 

The gay content is there, but it’s not overwhelming.  I felt it was portrayed quite normally, although Leaf’s reproductive organs are anything but normal.  He doesn’t have a penis, he has a stamen.  Despite this strangeness, the two boys love each other. 

I give the book four stars out of five.  I loved the prose and although the surreal qualities were at times mind-boggling, especially at the end, it was brilliantly done.  I think the one thing that could have made it better would have been more dialogue, and I think a writer like Cardamone could have easily added some without destroying the mood of the book. 

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

The German

Lee Thomas
Completed 9/30/2018, Reviewed 9/30/2018
5 stars

What a powerful book.  This is the second book of Thomas’ to win the Lambda Literary Award for SF/Fantasy/Horror.  It's the tale of a serial killer.  There's a little supernatural thrown in there as well.  It mixes the thriller with a coming of age story and a gay, apparently immortal German refugee in World War II era Texas.  It’s well-written, poignant, and thrilling.  I’m not much of a reader of thrillers, so I’m not used to the emotional rollercoaster that these sorts of books can put you on.  This book had me gripped from beginning to end.  A few of the thrillers I’ve read have lulls in them as the detective or PI tries to put together the clues to try to solve the mystery.  But I never felt like there was a lull in this book.  Even when the focus wasn’t on the murders, it was interesting and emotionally charged. 

In 1944, Tim Randall lives in the small town of Barnard, TX.  It has a fairly large minority of Germans living there, many who just recently emigrated there to escape the Nazis.  This sleepy town is awoken by the brutal murder of an older teen and the evidence indicates it’s a Nazi sympathizing German resident.  The note left by the murderer indicates this is the third in a string of murders.   Tim lives across the street from a German immigrant, Ernst Lang.  While the town becomes suspect of all the Germans living there, a string of events leads Tim to believe that Ernst is the murderer. 

I liked the form of the book.  It’s written from three perspectives:  first person from Tim’s point of view, first person from the journal of Ernst, and third person from the sheriff’s point of view.  The plot unfolds through the interweaving of the three different narratives. 

Tim is twelve years old.  Summer has just begun.  He spends the days with his best friend Bum (his real name) trying to escape the heat.  His father is in France in the war and his mother works an evening shift at the factory to support the family.  Through an act of kindness on Ernst’s part, Tim befriends him, despite the public opinion that the young people should stay away from the Germans in case one of them is the murderer.

Ernst is the German.  He seems to have survived being executed in Germany, having died but finding himself outside his grave, then escaping to America.  Ernst is gay.  He keeps to himself, but makes no bones about it if asked directly.  He has a dark past from his days before emigrating, but generally lives a quiet life making rocking chairs and selling them at a local store, and having quiet liaisons with the closeted men in the community.  

Tom Rabbit is the sheriff investigating the murder.  He struggles to stay sane and focused while the whole town goes crazy over the events that are unfolding.  A second boy is found murdered, and a third goes missing. 

This book is about racism and scapegoating.  It may be about the Germans, but it also is representative of all the racism and scapegoating that comes with war, like that of the Japanese and now the Muslim communities.  It’s also about homophobia, and the atrocities that come from that as well.  And being 1944, homophobia is cast in stone by sodomy laws and the medical community.  It’s a time of intolerance, fear, and misplaced patriotism.  From many angles, it’s not much different than today. 

“The German” is equally exciting and poignant.  I liked the way story unfolded through the three narratives.  Most specifically, I enjoyed reading the sections from Ernst’s journal.  We get to see a slice of life living as a gay man in a tough time and place.  We find out about Ernst’s life in Germany during the rise of Hitler.  I was also really caught up in the mystery, not figuring out who the murderer was until near the end.  The good thing though was that it was not a police procedural.  It was more about the psychological effects on the townspeople, as experienced by Tim, Ernst, and the Sheriff.  I give this book five stars out of five because I read this book in a day.  I simply couldn’t put it down.  It’s about the most engrossed I’ve been in a book for a long time.  It had a strong emotional impact on me, mostly because of Ernst’s journal entries, and that’s what pushed it up from a simple four star book to a five star experience.