Sunday, December 30, 2018

Wild Seed

Octavia Butler
Completed 12/30/2018, Reviewed 12/30/2018
4 stars

This is the first book chronologically in the Patternist Series, although it was the third written.  It follows two immortals with special powers who breed others like themselves.  The relationship is less than healthy.  It’s a fairly complex plot, but it’s very intriguing and highly readable.  The prose is gorgeous and the character development is marvelous.  I purchased this ebook and the rest of the series from the Amazon deal of the day, so it was very inexpensive.  I’ve been wanting to read more Octavia Butler and this was the opportunity.  So far, I believe this was a wise purchase.

Doro is an immortal who has been around for about four thousand years.  He does this by jumping from body to body, effectively killing the person whose body he steals.  He has been finding people with special gifts like mind reading and psychokinetic power and breeding them with himself and intermarrying their children.  He calls the people who have gifts but are not his progeny Wild Seeds.  Some of children grow into their gifts, some go insane.  He is African, but has created a set of communities in the New World in the 1600s, consisting mostly but not exclusively of African people.

Anyanwu has been around for about two hundred years.  She is a shapeshifter, a healer, and has amazing strength.  Some of her children have gifts, some don’t, but none of them are immortal.  She lives a relatively simple life in Africa.  Doro finds her and proposes that they live together and have children to try to come up with the perfect beings.  He uses force, telling her that if she doesn’t obey, he will kill her.  That is how he controls all his wild seeds and progeny.  Anyanwu reluctantly agrees and follows him to the New World.  There, they spend two hundred years in a constant battle of wits, with Doro building his little empires and killing people because they outlasted their usefulness, while Anyanwu resents Doro for his killing sprees and his control over her. 

The two main characters are extremely well drawn, as are Isaac who is one of Doro’s sons, and a slew of supporting characters.  Everyone felt very real; there were no cardboard characters.  I really liked Isaac, who loved both Doro and Anyanwu.  He was the only person who could criticize Doro without fear of death.  Doro is pretty loathsome.  Basically, he’s a narcissist who plays god.  It is never made clear if he is a spirit or a demon or something else.  Anyanwu plays antagonist to Doro.  She is very likeable, although I could not really identify with her.  She never experiences any form of Stockholm Syndrome, but since she agrees to be Doro’s wife, she tries to make the best of a bad situation.

There are themes of gender, race, and slavery in this book.  Since most of the book takes place in three years, one each during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, slavery features heavily, though not necessarily in the classical sense.  Many of the wild seeds he chooses from Africa are saved from the traditional slavery in the U.S.  Doro can jump into the body of another man or a woman, regardless of race.  So some of his children he bore, and some are white.  Anyanwu can change form into a man and can also be white or black.  She can also change form into an animal. 

The prose is gorgeous.  It is clear why Butler is considered one of the greatest science fiction writers of her generation.  She does really well choosing strong nouns and verbs.  She doesn’t get too flowery, but she still builds excellent worlds.  I would compare her positively to Ursula Le Guin in this aspect.  Specifically, this book is short, but it is densely packed with simple description and dialogue.  Even her long passages are wonderful and fairly easy to read.  I give this book four stars out of five. 

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Kissing Behind the Bathhouse

David Holly
Completed 12/26/2018, Reviewed 12/26/2018
3 stars

This was a fun little book.  It’s quick read and I finished it in a day.  It’s a gay romantic romp with some serious statements about homophobia and religious persecution.  The writing is good and the dialogue believable.  There’s a little suspense which kept me on my toes and dark secrets that kept me guessing.

The plot centers around Dave Ankeny, heir to the Ankeny lumber fortune and a college student majoring in English Lit working on his senior thesis.  Everyone around him thinks he works too hard, including his super-supportive dad who buys him a year’s membership to a local bathhouse.  Aghast and embarrassed but intrigued, Dave goes to the bathhouse and immediately falls head over heels for Chris, one of the employees.  Although it goes against company policy, Dave gets in a relationship with Chris.  But Chris comes with his own baggage.  His parents are born-again Christians and specifically, his evil step-mother is on the City Council and runs the police department.  Dave is determined to make it work, despite a sinister plot to end the relationship.

I have to admit I had problems with Dave’s character in the beginning.  He was too much of a golden boy: a rich, good looking, super smart, overly fashion-conscious bicycle enthusiast who had only basically dated one man by the time he was twenty-two years old.  I found him a little too good to be true.  But eventually, I warmed up to him and was rooting for him despite making a bad choice, that being falling in love at first sight.  He basically wants to save Chris from himself.  I found myself identifying more with Chris, who’s sort of a tortured soul because of his upbringing, and with one of Dave’s friend’s Alex, who has an unrequited love for Dave.

I also liked Dave’s dad.  Granted, he’s a little too good to be true.  The patriarch of the rich family, he’s a widower trekkie who’s also head of the local PFLAG chapter.  Fortunately, he has a dark streak himself.  He’s carrying on with the neighbor’s wife.  This makes him a little more human and less of a superman.  But he supports his son at any cost and that is quite refreshing.  It also adds a counterpoint to the deplorable situation that Chris is in with his family.

The story takes place in Portland, Oregon.  To me, it’s always fun to have a story take place in a city that you know, even if some of the specifics are fictional.  I’m not a bicyclist, but I could easily imagine paths of some of the rides Dave and his friend Becky take.

The one thing I didn’t like about the book was the Dave a little shallow.  He knows all the designer brands, falls in love with the most gorgeous guy in the bathhouse, has a serious distaste for older gay men, and despises facial hair.  When his friend Alex grows a mustache, he’s disgusted.  He always notices Alex’s bargain store clothing, as well as comments on everyone’s clothing, including his professors’.  I found this to be a little disheartening and stereotypical.  Not everyone can afford expensive labels, especially college professors and students paying through the nose for their college education.  And some people like facial hair.  There are some things that are more important than outward choices.

Aside from this rant, I really did like the book.  I was very engrossed in it and loved the fact that I was able to read it in one sitting on a day off from work.  I give the book three stars out of five.  To remind my readers, that’s a good rating and quite a typical score for a good romantic comedy.  It was a refreshing book after reading so many Ursula Le Guin novels in a row. 

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

City of Illusions

Ursula K. LeGuin
Completed 12/25/2018, Reviewed 12/26/2018
4 stars

I had trouble rating this book.  It’s a very complex short novel, the third in the Hainish Cycle.  It follows a man who has lost his memory.  It’s an interesting way to write a story about a dystopian Earth, by following his journey across what’s left of North America.  We get to discover its secrets and complexities through the main characters own discovery.  It was very confusing at first, but slowly came together, culminating in an exciting climax.  I didn’t really enjoy it until the end, when it all came together and made sense.  Then it blew my mind.

Falk’s on Earth, basically being raised by a forest dwelling clan.  They teach him the language and their culture over six years.  But he longs to get back the time that he lost.  As I mentioned above, Earth is a dystopia and seems to be controlled by a conquering group called the Shing.  It’s not clear if they are human or alien, and it is not revealed until the end.  But Falk decides to travel to their main city, Es Toch to find out who he is, or was.  He travels the country, eventually with a female companion, trying to avoid other barbarian clans who eschew strangers.  Eventually he completes the journey, only to find out that the truth is stranger than anything he imagined.

The description of Earth as a dystopia is slowly revealed as he travels the country.  I have to say it was a brilliant idea to introduce us to the Earth of the future this way.  But at the same time, it was confusing.  However, it is also confusing to Falk, so it was revealed to us the way he was experiencing it.  He wasn’t the narrator, but the narration played it out with the same ambiguity as Falk saw it.  It was also hard to be trusting in the story because Falk was warned not to trust anyone or anything.  Still, he trusts one woman to journey with him, and even that relationship is tenuous.

When he gets to Es Toch, he meets Orry, a young man who claims to have travelled with him from a distant planet.  I won’t go more into the details of that plot point because it reveals too much.  But I bring it up because I liked Orry.  You get the sense he has Stockholm Syndrome, and uses the Shing’s hallucinogenic drug to cope with his life over the past six years.  He’s young, na├»ve, and seems to worship Falk.  And even though he’s trusting of the Shing, you feel like he’s the only one who seems authentic in this whole city of illusions. 

I give this book four stars out of five.  I toyed with giving it three, but the ending clinched it for four.  It’s a heart pounding reveal that had me riveted.  It helps to have read the previous book, Planet of Exile, but it is not required.  It just gives a little background for the ending.  It’s easy to see the progress of Le Guin’s prose in these first three books of the Hainish Cycle and then makes the dramatic leap to the brilliant Left Hand of Darkness a few years later. 

Monday, December 24, 2018

Planet of Exile

Ursula K. LeGuin
Completed 12/22/2018, Reviewed 12/24/2018
4 stars

This is Le Guin’s second published novel and the second in the Hainish Cycle.  It’s a short easy read.  It’s also the first book that feels like her prose has come together for her.  I didn’t care so much for her prose in her first book, but this one felt like a Le Guin novel.  I also found the ending in this book to be a little flat, ending abruptly.  However, my overall reaction to the book is much more positive, with the plot and the prose working to create a decent novel. 

This book takes place on the planet Werel, seeded by the Hainish millennia ago.  It is a pre-wheel society with multiple races, the barbarians in the north and the more culturally advanced Tevarans in the south. The planet has a large, highly eccentric orbit where their year is equivalent to 60 of our years, and their seasons are like ours, but last fifteen years each.  Modern humans have come to Werel, but have been stranded on the planet for 10 Years.  That’s 600 of our years.  They are the aliens, called “farborns” by the Tevarans and are looked upon with suspicion as witches.  However, they are dying out, with low birth rates and failing technology.

Even though the relationship between the Tevarans and the aliens is tentative at best, they both have a common enemy, the Gaals, the barbarians of the north.  Instead of their normal raids as winter approaches, they have all united into one mighty army to conquer the Tevarans and the aliens.  The only chance the Tevarans and farborn have is to unite and fight together.  But because the Tevarans look upon the farborn with suspicion, the alliance is very tentative and the slightest breach of etiquette could destroy it.  So when the leader of the farborn and a granddaughter of the Tevaran ruler get together, they walk on dangerous ground.

While the book is about the relationship between Jakob Agat and Rolery, it is much more an anthropological study about the coming together, though not quite clashing, of different cultures.  The farborn mandate is not interfere with the development of the native peoples.  Thus for six hundred years, the aliens have watched as the Tevarans struggle without the wheel or almost any technology.  Of course this becomes problematic as the Gaals approach. 

I give this book four stars out of five.  Even though the ending wasn’t exactly satisfying, the prose really was.  The world building was also pretty amazing, with its seasons and interplay between the various strains of humanity. 

Friday, December 21, 2018

Rocannon’s World

Ursula K. LeGuin
Completed 12/18/2018, Reviewed 12/20/2018
3 stars

This is Le Guin’s first published novel, and the beginning of what later became known as the Hainish Cycle.  It has a prologue which takes place many years before the rest of the novel.  The prologue was originally released as a short story, and reads like one.  The book as a whole is not a great book, but it is entertaining, sort of a mix between fantasy and science fiction.  It has a mythic journey with beings that are like elves and dwarves, and introduces such concepts as the Ekumen, known here as the League of All Worlds, and the ansible, the instantaneous faster than light communication device.  I enjoyed the book, but this was not her best.  This book was part of a collection of her first three Hainish books. 

The book begins with Semley, the queen of her race, one of three races of intelligent beings on the planet known only as Formalhaut II.  She and her husband are no longer wealthy, but she remembers an heirloom necklace that belonged to the family many years before.  She decides to search for it among one of the other races.  She finds it in the most amazing of places, but its discovery also leads to heartbreak later. 

Fast forward a generation, and Gaverel Rocannon, a Hainish scientist, is shipwrecked on Formalhaut II.  The planet is being attacked by a planet that is rebelling against the Ekumen, unbeknownst to the League.  Rocannon wants to warn the Ekumen, but the only way he can is to infiltrate the enemy’s base and use their ansible.  He embarks on a journey to the base, taking along Semley’s grandson, and several other companions from the other races.  They fly on creatures that are a sort of winged tiger for most of the trip.  As the journey progresses, Rocannon becomes a mythic figure himself to the planet and to the Ekumen. 

The plot moves along at a fairly decent pace.  There’s action in this book.  The journey is not simply an opportunity to reflect on concepts, but things actually happen.  For example, Rocannon gets separated from the team and gets captured by a group of barbarians.  They try to behead him and burn him at the stake, believing him to be a spy of the north.

What this book is lacking is Le Guin’s signature prose.  It’s evident in the prologue, but not so much later on.  It felt choppy in parts.  At times, it didn’t even feel like a Le Guin novel, but rather a pulp novel from the fifties.  I blame that on this being her first novel.  I’m already reading her second novel and the prose in that book is leaps and bounds better.

I give this book three stars out of five.  It’s decent, but not her best.  Perhaps the best thing about this book is that it gives you the foundation technology for the science in the rest of the Hainish Cycle.  While each book I’ve read so far in the Cycle is a standalone story, it was interesting to see how the concepts were initially introduced.  Since a lot of people have already read “Left Hand of Darkness” and/or “The Dispossessed”, suffice it to say that the books can be read in any order.  While I only thought the book was okay, it was fun to see where it all started. 

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

The Telling

Ursula K. Le Guin
Completed 12/15/2018, Reviewed 12/15/2018
3 stars

“The Telling” is the last book Le Guin wrote in the Hainish cycle, a group of eight books that share a common universe, but can be read separately and as standalones.  The few terms that may be unfamiliar, like Ekumen and ansible, can be found on the internet easily, so you don’t really need any background from the other books.  Despite my love of Le Guin, I didn’t enjoy this book that much.  It’s soft science fiction in the classic sense, that is, more anthropological than the hard science.  Normally, this is where Le Guin shines, but I found the world she built to be not that interesting.  She says a lot of interesting things about books and religion and theocratic oppression.  However, it simply didn’t grab me as much as I would have thought these topics would have. 

As usual, there isn’t much plot.  Sutty is from India in the distant future.  She’s chosen to go to the planet Aka as an observer from the Ekumen, a confederation of planets of which Hain is the originating world.  When she arrives, she finds that the culture she has been sent to study has been usurped by a corporation government that is trying to raise the level of technology to match the alien visitors.  Rather than absorb the new technologies and sciences, the corporation has chosen to outlaw and purge the old culture, including books, religion, and people.  After finding almost nothing in the big city on Aka, Sutty gets to go to small village where the last vestiges of the culture are still alive.  However, she is closely watched by the Monitor, a corporate agent who is also looking to rout out the remnants of the old ways. 

My biggest problem with the book was that nearly nothing happened.  While this isn’t unusual for a Le Guin novel, I found it problematic here.  In the place of the action, there’s a lot of research of the old culture.  Sutty spends a lot of time trying to figure out the old religion.  Specifically, she realizes that it’s not really a religion at all, but a way of being and remembering and sharing stories.  That’s all well and good, and normally, I would really embrace that.  However, I found it to be very meandering to the point of being confusing.  Sure, Sutty is confused as she studies the religion and traditions and stories, but the way it was written, I felt like Le Guin never really had a firm grip on it either.  She wrote all around it, giving Sutty and us a sense, but never a good solid grip on the culture.  On the other hand, this non-religion which Sutty calls The Telling does not fall into the trappings of religion that we have here on Earth, like forced duality, fear of the other, and bigotry.

I found the prose to be not nearly as beautiful as I found it in Le Guin’s other books.  It was at times muddled, especially in trying to relate Sutty’s research.  I found the readability to be tough. 

On the positive side, Sutty is an interesting character.  She’s a lesbian, which I think is a first for Le Guin.  Her sexuality is not in the forefront, but it creates a well-rounded background for Sutty, and conflict with the rightist corporate regime on Aka.  The Earth itself is also an interesting character.  It parallels to the experience of Aka, with an oppressive world theocracy that also destroys books and culture.

I give the book three stars out of five.  It’s a decent book, but probably one of the weakest books by Le Guin I’ve read.  It has a lot of interesting concepts and great moments, but it’s bogged down by muddled prose and less than stellar execution.  My next Le Guin read will be her earliest Hainish book, written over thirty years before this one.  It will be interesting to contrast the style of an earlier work with her later style, which I’ve read a lot of lately.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

The Shrinking Man

Richard Matheson
Completed 12/13/2018, Reviewed 12/15/2018
3 stars

This is the second book by Matheson I’ve read, and I have to say that his prose is the star of his books.  He writes gorgeously, making for easy, delightful reading of very dark concepts.  That being said, I didn’t care much for this book.  I found the main character very unlikeable.  But the concept is great and the execution remarkable. 

The main character is Scott Carey.  After being exposed to a radioactive mist with pesticides in it, he begins to shrink a seventh of an inch a day.  In the process, he becomes disaffected towards his wife and daughter, and becomes more and more bitter at his plight.  The story follows him in his last week and inch of life, trapped in the basement of his house, in a constant battle with a black widow spider and hunting for food and water.  The story of his shrinking from a grown man to this tiny state is told in a series of flashbacks. 

As I mentioned at the beginning of this review, I didn’t like the main character.  His increasing bitterness came off as whiny and narcissistic.  I don’t begrudge someone being bitter, but to read it for almost a whole book, and a short book at that, was simply painful.  Fortunately, the flashbacks became more and more creative and interesting as he shrank.  Perhaps the most memorable scene is when he convinces his wife to let him sleep with a little person billed as Mrs. Tom Thumb at the sideshow of a carnival they attend. 

While reading this book, I wondered if this was an allegory for the de-masculinization of the American male in the 1950s, or at least men feeling less than after the machismo of the Second World War, the growth of desk jobs in the American workplace, and the feeling of powerlessness in the Cold War.  I might be reading too much into this, but it seems to be really visible in the constant battle with the black widow spider as he continues to shrink.   

I give this book three stars out of five.  It’s really well written, but the constant whining and bitterness was a sour note for me.  Granted, he’s facing extraordinary circumstances and has a metanoia at the end, but it just made it hard to read, despite the elegant prose. 

Saturday, December 8, 2018

The Other Wind

Ursula K. Le Guin
Completed 12/6/2018, Reviewed 12/8/2018
4 stars

This is the sixth and final novel of the Earthsea Cycle.  It has the same tone and form as the previous books.  It’s short, contemplative, and wonderful.  The basic plot is saving the world of Earthsea, this time from a breach in the wall between life and death.  All the characters from previous books come back to join a new sorcerer in the battle.  It moves a little more quickly than the previous books, but still, the star is the prose, not the action.  It is a fine conclusion to a wonderful set of fantasy stories.

Alder is a sorcerer who mends things.  Not a trained mage, he does not have a lot of the power that we’ve seen other mages attain in the previous books.  However, for some reason, he is having dreams of the divide between life and death in the far west where the wall that separates the two is being torn down by the dead.  If the wall comes down, the dead invade Earthsea.  He is sent to Sparrowhawk, the former Archmage, who spent all his magic in book three in the land of the dead and now lives an unassuming life as a farmer.  Sparrowhawk listens to Alder’s dreams and sends him to King Lebannen where his wife Tenar and daughter Tenahu are helping the King.  In addition, there is a rise in the attacks by dragons throughout Earthsea.  The four of them, together with Dragonfly, the dragon-woman from the last book, and other mages from the Council of Nine at Roke come together to figure out how to stop the dragon attacks and to solve the crisis at the farthest shores of Earthsea. 

This book felt like it had more action and movement than its predecessors, even though there is a lot of discussion of what to do and how to do it.  There was only one part that dragged a little toward the middle of the book.  The rest was rather quickly paced for an Earthsea novel.  There detail isn’t so much in the journeys and the settings, it’s in the dialogue, which is riveting at times.  The plot is a little more complex in this book as well, with several things going on to keep the book moving. 

The contemplative nature of the book appears in that it still examines many of the questions that were raised in the previous books:  mage versus sorcerer/witch, men versus women, and dragon versus human.  All these are explored in this book, perhaps tying up loose ends from the discussions that appeared in the previous volumes, but coming together to solve the crisis at hand.

I give this book four stars out of five.  I feel like I’ve already used up all my superlatives in my reviews for the other books, repeating myself.  It’s a wonderful conclusion to a wonderful series.  I’m glad I finally took the time to reread the first three as well as discover the last three.  Next, I will be reading several of her Hainish cycle books, the last and the first few and will see how these compare to the greatness that is Earthsea.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

The Picture of Dorian Gray

Oscar Wilde
Completed 12/1/2018, Reviewed 12/1/2018
3 stars

I haven’t read many literary classics.  I chose to read this book because I included it on the LGBTQ SF resource list on the Worlds Without End site based on my research on the history of LGBTQ themes in SF, Fantasy, and Horror.  In reading it, I wanted to verify that this was a good book to keep included on the list.  Now that I’ve read it, I think it should stay on the list.  There is gay subtext throughout the novel.  However, I didn’t really enjoy the novel.  I thought it was quite dense and too philosophical for me. 

The novel begins with Dorian Gray’s portrait being painted by the artist Basil Hallward.  The portrait is Basil’s finest work, inspired by his homoerotic obsession with Gray.  And Gray is such a notably beautiful youth that everyone wants him for their parties and all the women just plain want him.  At one of his sittings for the portrait, Basil introduces Gray to his friend Lord Henry, a cynical narcissist.  The two becomes fast friends, and Lord Henry introduces Gray to his narcissistic philosophy.  In a strange moment, Gray wishes he always maintains the youthful beauty that has been captured by the portait.

Gray falls for a young actress.  At one performance, she realizes that being an actress is nothing compared to being in love with Gray.  Her performance is terrible.  Gray feels betrayed and disavows his love for the actress.  Distraught, she commits suicide.  This is the beginning of Gray’s conversion to a terrible, “sinful” person and the first time the portrait changes to reflect this sin.  As time goes on, he turns to a life of narcissistic debauchery and his portrait continues to degrade.

There are several things I didn’t care for in the novel.  The first was that beauty implies goodness and sinful people are ugly.  It’s not just the aging that happens in the portrait, but that Gray’s sins are revealed by the ugliness, and that if Gray’s wish hadn’t come true, he himself would have turned ugly by his life of debauchery.  I’m thinking this might have been a commentary on English morality, but maybe it’s not.  It’s hard to guess what Wilde was thinking when he wrote this over a hundred years ago. 

I also didn’t like that Gray ruined the reputation of a long string of young men.  To me, it implied that Gray was having affairs with all these upright young English high society men, bringing them down with sexuality.  Granted, it shows the depths of Gray’s debauchery, but the implication is that homosexuality is a choice and a weapon.  Again, maybe Wilde was creating a satire on English mores in light of their horrific sodomy laws, which were only repealed in 1967, and maybe I’m just looking at this book with a too modern pair of eyes. 

On the other hand, the book is quite a good early horror novel and it definitely satirizes the hypocrisy of English morality.  Lord Henry is sort of the bad angel on Gray’s shoulder.  Almost everything he says is morally deplorable; most notably he’s misogynistic.  On the other hand, Basil is the good angel.  His love for Gray is I think a purer form of love.  There’s a line of thought that the book is autobiographical and Basil represents Wilde and Gray is his lover.  I can kind of see this, but I don’t know enough about Wilde’s life, other than his imprisonment and tragic death a few years after his release. 

Gray is a deplorable character, but I didn’t feel any empathy for him.  When he commits his final atrocity, I really didn’t care.  I was more disturbed by Lord Henry who seems to get through life unscathed as a narcissistic amoral.  I did feel empathy for Basil because he seemed an innocent and was looking out for Gray’s best interests. 

I give this book three stars out of five.  There’s just too many long passages of philosophy and archaic references, particularly in the middle of the book.  And my lack of empathy for the main character added to my knocking down of stars.  I would have preferred reading this novel in a class environment.  Like many of the older classics, I think the discussion would have enhanced my understanding of the book.