Sunday, February 24, 2019

We Are All Completely Fine

Daryl Gregory
Completed 2/24/2019, Reviewed 2/24/2019
4 stars

I’ve been in a couple of group therapy settings in my life.  My participation in them ranged from very talkative to very quiet.  As I’ve grown older, I’ve had a harder time expressing my feelings about almost anything.  I’ve come to be known as the nice, quiet guy at group, work, and even the bar (where I only drink diet soda).  So reading a novella about a group therapy session was extremely intriguing.  Gregory got a lot of things right, from the one person who usually dominated the discussion, to the nice, quiet person who didn’t contribute much.  What made this extra intriguing was that the common factor among the participants was that all of them had some sort of bizarre or possibly supernatural experience.  Their therapist is the only one seems to believe their stories and thinks sharing them might begin to heal them.  This novella won a World Fantasy Award and a Shirley Jackson Award for horror/psychological suspense.

The therapy group consists of six people.  Harrison is known as the monster detective.  Stan survived having his limbs eaten by cannibals.  Barbara had her bones scrimshawed by the Scrimshander, while they were still in her body.  Martin wears sunglasses all the time, which allows him to play a video game that has evolved into seeing monsters not emanating from the game.  Greta has strange designs scarified into most of her skin.  And of course, there’s the therapist, Jan, who supposedly believes everyone’s story, and that they can heal from their experiences in a group setting.

What struck me the most was the character development.  In under two hundred pages, Gregory managed to make six believable and very different characters.  He gives you their stories within the context of the therapy so that it’s not all info dump.  This kept the pages turning without making you feel like you just wanted to get past a bunch of exposition.  Within the context of the therapy, we also come to find out that one of the participants seemingly is a monster.  The main plot of the book is discovery of the monster and how it is overcome.

The one thing I didn’t care for in the book was that although the story was told in third person, there were times when there was first person plural narration, i.e. “we” statements.  Now, I read this book over a week’s time because I couldn’t read it at work, and I was seeing a lot of movies at the theater in the evenings.  So I may have forgotten or missed who the “we” is in the story.  It seemed like it was no one.  Rather it was the voice of the group, as if it was its own character.  I found that a little confusing and distracting at times.

I give the book four stars out of five.  Aside from being confused by the change in voice, I found the story quite riveting.  The characters made the group therapy sessions come alive, and I was very involved with the participants’ ups and downs. 

Thursday, February 21, 2019

The Silver Lake

Fiona Patton
Completed 2/20/2019, Reviewed 2/21/2019
2 stars

I found the first book of the Warriors of Estavia series to be very standard fantasy fare.  It had thieving orphans, court intrigue, powerful gods, prophesy, and magic, but it was all put together in a way I found to be quite boring and a rather jumbled mess.  The were too many characters for my taste.  I found the bouncing back and forth between them to be disruptive rather than furthering the plot.  I think I would have enjoyed the story more if it had just followed two of the orphans without jumping through all the other characters. 

Brax and Spar are two youths in Anavatan, the magical city of the Gods on the shores of the Silver Lake. Their mentor is a thief, so naturally, the boys are thieves too.  They are the scattered minority who have not pledged their lives to one of the six Gods of Anavatan.  One day, their mentor is murdered by temple guards, though not without provocation.  The boys are on their own now.  The violent weather that separates the winter from the spring is upon them.  It is a time of danger for the unpledged, for it is three nights when the wild spirits of the outside try to break into Anavatan.  On one such night, to save themselves from the evil spirits, Brax pledges his life to Estavia, the God of Battles.  Now pledged, the boys go to the temple of Estavia where they are welcomed, given new mentors, and trained in the ways of the servants of Estavia.  Little do they know that another street urchin, Graize, was out on that dangerous night and has become a conduit for a new godling, one who is embraced by the enemies of Anavatan and just may be able to break through the city walls.

One of the biggest problems of the book for me was the prophesy.  Spar has the gift, but he is untrained.  It uses him more than he uses it.  Graize also has the gift as the result of his interaction with the new godling.  I often found it difficult to follow their visions.  Sometime they came through dreams, sometimes when awake, sometimes in italics, sometimes not.  I almost always found them confusing.

Another problem I had was technical in nature.  It was the first time I encountered garbled text.  There were three such spots with garbled text, one towards the beginning and two towards the end.  The garbling included incomplete words and letters scattered randomly amongst the word fragments.  It added to my feeling that the story itself was a jumbled mess, just like the text.

I liked the character of Spar.  While all the characters were more or less cookie cutter, he had an interesting progression.  Spar goes through a period after his first mentor’s death where he won’t talk to anybody.  He finds solace in his new mentor’s dog, something I found to be very unusual for a fantasy story and very interesting.  We got a taste of Spar’s PTSD and some of the therapy he had to overcome it.

I give this book two stars out of five.  I read another book by Fiona Patton, The Stone Prince, which I liked, so I had high hopes for this book.  This book even featured a gay male couple as the new mentors of the orphan boys.  While their parts were somewhat interesting, and their affection for their wards heartwarming, it wasn’t enough to carry the whole book.  I think I would have liked the book more if it just followed the perspective of Brax and Spar without jumping around to Graize, the mentors, and other characters.  Their stories could have been told through the eyes of Brax and Spar and maybe provided a little more continuity to the story, and better character development of the boys.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

The Gumshoe, the Witch, and the Virtual Corpse

Keith Hartman
Completed 2/15/2019, Reviewed 2/16/2019
4 stars

I had a lot of fun with this book.  It’s not perfect.  In fact, it has numerous errors that an editor should have caught.  The end leaves a lot of loose ends in the narratives.  There are way too many narrative POVs.  But I really enjoyed it.  It takes place in a near future where the US is so polarized by religion that it seems like civil war is about to break out.  The majority of schools are Baptist or Wiccan, and Wicca has grown to be almost as huge as Christianity.  The Christian right, specifically, the Baptists, have gained much political, military, and social power.  So when a series of grizzly ritualistic murders occur, the Baptists wave their flags and get on their high horses that Satan is gaining power and must be defeated.  The book won the Gaylactic Spectrum Award in 2000.

The plot is very convoluted.  You get the sense that the author hadn’t made up his mind as to what genre exactly he wanted the book to be:  a police procedural, a noir PI thriller, a Wiccan fantasy, a gay comedy.  It’s basically all the above and more.  The basic story line is that there are a series of murders which the police begin to investigate.  The circumstances indicate that black magic is the culprit.  The Reverend Senator Stonewall uses these murders on his immensely popular news network to cultivate fear in the American population and hate towards the Wiccan community, inciting violence between the communities.  A gay private investigator is searching for his missing business partner, who he discovers was investigating Stonewall for a popular Christian singer who believes the Christian right has the message of the Gospel all wrong.  There’s a fourteen-year-old boy who is being chased by what seems to be government agents.  He’s a Baptist, but his girlfriend is Wiccan.  There is also an old transgender Native American shaman who is involved with a movement to reclaim Georgia territory based on a 19th century treaty.  All these plotlines come together for a pretty exciting climax. 

The biggest problem with the book is that there are a lot of characters.  Hartman tells the stories of these characters with first person voiced chapters.  The first quarter or so of the book introduces all these characters.  My first thought while beginning the book was who is the main character.  It turns out that there are a couple of main characters, but the African-American police woman investigating the murders and the fourteen-year-old boy get the most print time.  This seemed rather odd because the gumshoe and witch of the title don’t get nearly as much coverage as the title might suggest.  Interestingly enough, the characters are all colorful enough that it’s not that difficult remembering who is who and what their background is.  Unfortunately, even though they are told in first person, there’s not much differentiation in the style.

The near future Hartman creates is an interesting place.  The gay gene has been found.  Even though abortion is considered wrong by the right-wing Christians, they all get abortions when they find that their baby is going to be gay.  Only the Catholics are still against abortions, so almost all the gay people in this world are Catholic.  The right-wing Christians build up militias, taking over some of the roles of police and military, when it is in their interest to do so.  Needless to say, this enhances the fear-mongering that the Baptists and the Reverend Senator Stonewall perpetuates.  On the other hand, the Wiccans just want peace.  They use their magic, which is real in this universe, promoting harmony and creating protection against the Baptist power mongers. 

I give this book four stars out of five.  It has its problems, but it was a really fun read, overshadowing the negatives.  I don’t read much mystery, so I don’t know how it plays out compared to other books in that genre.  But I was impressed that I followed the details and logic of the detective and the PI, something I sometimes struggle with in the mystery genre.  The book tells you who the murderer is about three-quarters of the way through, but the fun in the ending is how everyone and everything comes together. 

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

All Systems Red

Martha Wells
Completed 2/9/2019, Reviewed 2/9/2019
3 stars

This is a well-written, fast paced, action packed android novella, but I didn’t care for it.  It’s the first in the Murderbot Diaries, and is the February read for my science fiction book club.  It begins with a gripping scene that should drag you in, but I found it to be just tedious.  There are times I like high action space opera and times I don’t.  This was one of those times I didn’t.

The narrator is an android who secretly calls itself Murderbot.  It’s a security android, made up of human and mechanical parts.  It has hacked its governor chip so that it won’t accidently kill any humans.  The side effect is that it wants to figure itself out.  It doesn’t really like to be around humans and would just rather watch soap operas than work.  But it’s assigned as the security bot to a team of scientists on a planetary excavation expedition, so it has to protect its team.

The book opens with Murderbot saving two team members from some giant life form that tries to eat them.  The scene is well-written and should have been riveting.  I found myself not really caring.  I was bogged down by the jargon the narrator used.  Several reviewers have commented that they were apathetic toward the novel because the narrator was apathetic.  This may have been part of it for me too, although I think I should have liked Murderbot’s quirkiness.  It doesn’t take initiative, only doing things it’s asked to do.  It’s misanthropic.  However, its gut instinct to protect the lives of its wards is profound, and the saving of the two team members is heroic. 

The main plot of the book is that a neighboring expedition goes offline and Murderbot and its team go to investigate.  It finds all the researchers dead and the security androids are the murderers.  They find the androids have been sabotaged.  They deduce it is not their company, which is really cheap and could easily be infiltrated, but probably an outside organization.  Somehow, they must survive this organization’s attempt to eradicate all the expedition teams from the planet. 

I give this novella three stars out of five.  I recognize that it was written well and that the action scenes were probably exciting.   This book has gotten a lot of love from reviewers and critics alike.  It won both the Nebula and Hugo Awards for Best Novella.  I simply could not get into it.  However, I would recommend it to people who like military or hard science fiction. 

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Binti: The Night Masquerade

Nnedi Okorafor
Completed 2/9/2019, Reviewed 2/9/2019
3 stars

This is a wonderful conclusion to Binti and Binti: Home.  At just over two hundred pages, reads a lot more smoothly and feels more complete.  However, I felt this book showed Binti regressing rather than growing.  Granted, some pretty tragic things happen to her, but the way her emotions go wild doesn’t feel like she grew in the previous installments.  In general, I really liked it, but it didn’t have the same power as the first two.

The book begins with Binti still on Earth, having just been coming into the experience of finding out that she is not just part Himba and part Meduse, but she is also part Enyi Zinariya, the heritage of her father.  The Enyi Zinariya are a desert people looked down upon by the Himba for being savages, but in reality, they are a people who have been in contact with the Zinariya aliens and have received a gift of telepathy.  Meanwhile, the Khoush have attacked the Himba, looking for her and her alien companion Okwu, breaking the treaty that Binti established at Oomza Uni.  She returns home to find her family and many of her neighbors dead.  Being a master harmonizer, she tries to convince the Himba elders to work with her to end the violence of the Khoush and the Okwu.  They refuse, leaving it to the heartbroken Binti to broker the peace on her own.  Her only resources are Okwu and Mwinyi, an Enyi Zinariya who is a master harmonizer and can talk to plants and animals.

My problem with the book was that Binti does a little growing until the end.  Her biggest achievement is trying to broker a new truce between the Khoush and the Meduse.  But all around that episode, Binti is still rageful and at the same time whiny.  It doesn’t feel like she has grown from all her experiences of self-discovery, rather she fights it.  She is only seventeen, but I expected some maturity development by this time.  One bright spot in her life is Mwinyi, the Enyi Zinariya boy who acts as her guide during and after her time with those people.  There’s a spark of a love interest there and that plus his power of communicating with non-human things grounds her somewhat. 

My only other real complaint is that Okorafor does a lot of retelling during the story.  It feels like there’s a lot of repetition.  It’s not simply recapping, but multiple rehashings of the past traumatic events.  It got kind of tedious and I found myself skimming through those sections.

Overall, though, I liked the book.  I give it three stars out of five.  I give the series four stars out of five because as a whole, I found it very exciting, enjoyable, and creative.  It starts out like gangbusters and keeps the pace through most of the trilogy.  The only slow down is about the middle third of the last book.  It does pick up for an exciting, though rather expected ending.  It’s still very worth the read.  I am definitely an Okorafor fan after this. 

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Binti: Home

Nnedi Okorafor
Completed 2/5/2019, Reviewed 2/5/2019
4 stars

This is the second novella in the Binti trilogy.  At over one hundred sixty pages, it’s still short and I still wish it were longer.  This book has a theme of finding one’s identity.  That’s difficult for Binti who has already left her family and heritage behind to go to the prestigious Oomza University across the galaxy and has also acquired some alien DNA from her violent interations with the Meduse in the previous book.  The story also describes Binti’s struggle with PTSD from her traumatic experiences.  This book is once again very fast paced, but this time there are more characters and Binti grows a little more.  But instead of being a relatively self-contained piece, it ends in one heck of a cliffhanger. 

The plot begins a year after the last book.  Binti has now been at Oomza Uni for a few terms.  She takes classes there, as does her only real friend, Okwu, a Meduse who once nearly killed her.  Now she wants to go back home to see her family whom she abandoned and also to go on a spiritual pilgrimage which every Himba woman does.  Her friend Okwu decides to go with her, becoming the first Meduse to visit earth since the war between the Khoush and the Meduse ended.  Getting home, however, is a major obstacle because of her PTSD, as she is scheduled to travel on is the same ship on which she witnessed the murder of all its passengers.  Eventually, she makes it home, only to be confronted with the parochial mindset of her siblings and the shock of another new identity she never knew she had.

All the superlatives of the first book apply: prose, dialogue, action.  However, some things move a little more slowly and scenes feel a little more thoroughly explored, like her PTSD.  I was wondering why she hadn’t suffered any effects of the trauma she experienced in the first book.  It’s described here in good detail.  We also get to see firsthand the conflict between the decisions of the individual and the expectations of the community.  It’s a conflict that nearly tears her family apart.  The scene of the shouting match with her sister is quite vivid and cringe-worthy.  It’s a good example of how well Okorafor created the worlds she’s writing about. 

Binti continues to grow, but being seventeen, she still has moments of juvenility.  Specifically, Binti has a propensity to rage which she tries to suppress because she believes it makes her unclean.  It is part of why she wants to go on the pilgrimage, to be washed of its power over her.  But we find part of it also partly comes from the Meduse DNA which she acquired in the last book. 

I give this book four stars out of five.  I am completely engrossed in this series, probably because it moves so quickly.  The world-building, the prose, and the dialogue is just great.  I love Binti despite her juvenile nature.  She comes across as both mature and immature, but not annoyingly so. 

Monday, February 4, 2019


Nnedi Okorafor
Completed 2/4/2019, Reviewed 2/4/2019
4 stars

This was a wonderful little novella which won both the Hugo and Nebula awards in that category.  It is the story of a young black girl from Earth who finds herself in the middle of an interplanetary war.  It’s an intense, quick read, but Okorafor does not skimp on prose, smart dialogue, or action.  I found myself drawn in very quickly. 

Binti is a sixteen year-old from an isolationist desert people, the Himba.  They have little contact with others, one being the sale of astrolabes which Binti’s father makes and sells.  Binti has been accepted into Oomza University.  She is the first of her people to be smart and gifted enough for this honor.  She decides to go, against the wishes of her parents, siblings, and community.  She transports to the shuttle terminal where she encounters prejudice from the very white majority there, the Khoush.  They are appalled at her for her race, her hair, and the clay and oil mixture she spreads on her hair and skin.  You see, the Himba are the people of the earth, so they cover themselves with this mixture to honor it.  She manages to make it on the shuttle with only minor trouble and soon makes friends and even has a crush on a boy.  However, after the shuttle is launched, it is attacked by the Meduse, a race of aliens at war with the Khoush and Binti is the only survivor.

If I have any criticism with the book, it’s that it was too short.  I like short stories, but this could have been a full length novel.  It is packed with good ideas.  Everything happens very quickly, and you have little time to settle into it.  For example, the process of her making friends basically takes a paragraph.  It could easily have been several chapters worth of material.  At the same time, Okorafor pays attention to some details, like the otjize, the clay and oil mixture that Binti covers herself with.  It’s enough to draw you in, but you want more. 

Despite being less than a hundred pages, Binti’s character is very fleshed out.  She’s very sixteen, both mature and childish simultaneously.  However, she is the only major character, except for one of the alien Meduse.  Again, there could have been so many other minor characters, but in this short a book, this is all you get.

I give the book four stars out of five.  I really enjoyed it, wishing it were longer.  At least we get into Binti’s world two more times, as this is a trilogy.  And the next book is over a hundred and fifty pages, so here’s hoping. 

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Time Was

Ian McDonald
Completed 2/3/2019, Reviewed 2/3/2019
2 stars

First of all, like all the other reviewers have said, this book is not like the blurb provided by the publisher.  It’s a story about a book collector who tries to solve the mystery of two lost British WWII soldiers who were lovers but disappeared.  It is not a romance about the two soldiers.  That being said, the book is a disjointed mess with some beautiful prose.  I found it difficult to follow at times.  It’s a novella, only 144 pages and it took me half the book to get acquainted with its form.  If you’re going to read this book, go in knowing that it’s a time travel mystery and that the chapters are all first person POV, but alternate between the book collector and one of the soldiers.

The story begins in present time, with a book collector named Emmet finding a love letter stuffed in a small old volume of poetry entitled “Time Was” that was being thrown out by a book store that was going out of business.  The love letter was written by a soldier to his male lover during the second world war.  The book collector becomes obsessed with this letter and finding out who the men were.  He meets with some contacts and they find photos of them in WWII and also in the modern-day Bosnian war.  This initially leads them to believe they are immortal, but then more research and finding other letters in other volumes of “Time Was” reveal they are time travelers.  Emmet’s obsession grows, insisting that he try to find the time traveling lovers.

My first reaction to the book was that the prose was very rich.  McDonald writes really beautiful words and I’d like to read some of his more acclaimed novels.  However, my second reaction to the book was that I didn’t like the form, that is, the chapters alternating between characters, but both being in first person POV.  It created a disjointed feel because through at least the first half of the book, you don’t know who’s speaking.  And in this first half, the chapters all begin with lovely prose but no indication of the narrator.  This dissipates in the second half of the book as we become acquainted with the characters and they are referenced closer to the beginning of the chapter. 

The biggest disappointment with the book is that there is barely any romance between the two soldiers, Ben and Tom.  Yes, we get to read a few of the love letters, and we get the chapters narrated by Tom, but there is no buildup of the relationship.  It just sort of exists.  Then when they begin to time travel, they get separated, and the letters are clues to where they are in the world.  But that’s it, until we get to the ending.

My last complaint is that there was no real character development.  I didn’t feel like I got to know or could identify with any of the characters.  Even Emmet who is the main character, is very two dimensional.  And it feels like Ben and Tom are thrown in for good measure, rather than for developing two more characters.

I give this book only two stars out of five.  I really didn’t enjoy it that much.  I think if it was a longer book with a well-developed romance, I would have enjoyed it more.  It would also have benefitted by having clearer distinction of the voices of the chapters, so that I wouldn’t be two pages into one and then realizing, oh, this is Tom narrating.

Saturday, February 2, 2019

The Summer Isles

Ian R. MacLeod
Completed 2/2/2019, Reviewed 2/2/2019
4 stars

This beautifully written book started life as a novella, winning the World Fantasy Award for that category.  Expanded to novel length, it was nominated for several awards, including the Gaylactic Spectrum Award.  It is an alternate history story where Britain loses the First World War and descends into fascism.  Its prose is stunning, though at times, it felt a little too British, with some words and references I didn’t get.  Nonetheless, it was a joy to read despite its depressing content.

Geoffrey Brook (aka Griffin Brooke) is an instructor at Oxford in 1940 who finds out he has cancer.  He’s a closeted gay man, having lost the love of his life to the war.  His only contact is the occasional tryst with a married man in an abandoned shed.  Brook’s life is unremarkable.  He has a steady job, and has remained cautious in his relatively few sexual encounters.  One day Brook finds that the man and his family have been made to disappear.  Thinking it was because of his homosexuality, he fears for his own life.  It turns out it’s because the man was married to a Jewish woman.  Relieved but still concerned, he goes on a quest to find where they’ve been ensconced.  On the journey, he recalls his relationship with a young man named Francis twenty-five years earlier.

What makes Brook special, though, is that the dictator, John Arthur, claims that Brook was his tutor as a child.  Brook doesn’t remember him, but goes along with the story anyway.  He believes that that’s what got him his position at Oxford, not being university trained or a proper professor.  The rest of the book follows Brook as he returns from his failed quest to find his tryst partner and suddenly finding his path crossing with John Arthur’s.

The book never is never really fast-paced.  It’s slow and methodical doing a wonderful job of exploring Brook’s sexuality subtly while he remembers his short time with Francis.  At the same time, it explains the rise of fascism, nationalism, and sanctioned bigotry over roughly the same period in a very multi-dimensional light.  It shows how people in a situation do not recognize what’s going on around them until it hits close to home, like when you are the target of government condoned prejudice or when people begin to disappear.  The book is never preachy.  In fact, it was very subtle, just as the changes in society were subtle.  The book takes an exciting turn when Brook gets invited to John Arthur’s fiftieth birthday celebration, which also coincides with the national holiday of Trafalgar Day.  Still the pacing remains the same, but I definitely read it more quickly. 

I felt that the book is very soft science fiction in that it is an alternate history.  These types of stories almost can fall into the category of literature, especially this book with its wonderful construction and prose.  It reminded me of lonely, closeted gay man classics, particularly “Death in Venice”.  MacLeod, a straight man, really does a good job of describing the kind of sad life that many men were forced to live in the early twentieth century. 

I give the book four stars out of five.  It creates a vibrant portrait of a Britain that could have been, or perhaps even what life for an average person was like in Germany during the early rise of Hitler.  It also makes the life of an unremarkable person seem interesting and noteworthy.