Sunday, March 31, 2019

Just One Damned Thing After Another

Jodi Taylor
Completed 3/31/2019, Reviewed 3/31/2019
3 stars

This was a fun, light, time-travel novel.  The author is British and the humor is quite snarky.  I enjoyed it for the most part, but I liked Connie Willis’ time-travel books better.  This is the first of a fairly long series, but I don’t think I’ll be reading any more of them unless I see them on sale, or I’m in dire need of something light. 

The story revolves around Dr. Maxwell, a woman fresh out of her doctorate studies in history.  She meets an old elementary school teacher who gets her an interview at a history institute.  All things are hush-hush about what the job actually entails until she signs some pretty serious non-disclosure statements.  She finds out that the job involves going back in time to do research that is then used by the parent university.  She enthusiastically agrees and begins an intensive training program.  Her first assignment is to go back to the Crustaceous Era and film and study the flora, fauna, geology, and night sky.  At the end of the trip, things go horribly wrong, and then it’s just one damned thing after another.

The best thing about the book is that it is generally fast-paced and action-packed.  Five years goes by rather quickly.  I wasn’t quite sure when the five years had passed.  That was pretty unclear, but the book kept me reading anyway and I just ignored the timeline (pretty ironic for a time-travel novel).

The characters were also pretty fun.  The main character, Maxwell, was fairly well created, but most of the other characters were less than three-dimensional.  But this one- or two-dimensionality was part of the fun.  It made for a goofy cast with clear-cut bad guys. 

There is one part I definitely didn’t like.  At one point, the plot gets rather soapy, as Maxwell falls in love with someone she works with closely at the institute.  While the relationship was okay, I didn’t think it was necessary to add what amounted to a melodramatic twist. 

I don’t have too much more to say about this book.  If I did, it would give away a lot of the twists and turns in the plot.  And it’s just not the kind of book you want to analyze too closely.  I believe that to enjoy it, it’s best to take it at face value.  I give it three out of five stars.  It’s good, it’s fun.  I recommend it as light fluff to almost everyone. 

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Passing Strange

Ellen Klages
Completed 3/27/2019, Reviewed 3/27/2019
5 stars

Last year, I read 94 books and gave out ten five-star ratings.  The last one was in September.  This year, it took 24 books and nearly three months before awarding another five stars.  I was so moved by this novella that I had to walk around the apartment to work off the emotions that had settled in my gut.  I loved this story about queer women in 1940 San Francisco.  It tells of lesbian love in a time rife with homophobia and racism.  And there’s a little magic thrown in the mix.  If the magic were more subtle, I would have called it Magical Realism, but really, it’s fantasy.  The book won the Gaylactic Spectrum Award for positive LGBTQ content in speculative fiction, won the World Fantasy and British Fantasy Awards for Best Novella, and was nominated for the Nebula Award for Best Novella and the Mythopoeic Award.

The story begins with Helen, an old lawyer with a terminal illness who possesses the last painting by the acclaimed artist Haskell.  She spends her last day selling the painting and divvying up the proceeds among friends and charities before taking pills to end her life.  This is not a spoiler; it’s the first chapter.  The book then goes back to 1940 where a circle of lesbian friends gathers for a dinner party.  There we meet Helen as a young woman, Franny, Babs, Haskell, and newcomer Emily.  The group regularly hangs out at Mona’s, a bar where women dress as men, and is frequented by the lesbian community as well as straight Midwest couples who come to gawk and be amazed at the drag kings show.  One night after the dinner party the group goes to Mona’s where Haskell is astounded to find that Emily is the star of the nightly show as her alter ego Spike.  Haskell and Emily fall in love and the two become a couple.  Of course, life for lesbians is not easy in 1940, even in San Francisco.  It’s even more complicated by the fact that Haskell is still married to a man.

As I mentioned above, this is a novella, under 220 pages.  Yet it finds a way to encompass a romance while presenting hard facts about homophobia and racism.  There’s a scene where Spike’s female piano player is roughed up and arrested by the police for wearing men’s clothing without wearing the required three articles of women’s clothing.  There’s also a scene in a Chinatown supper club that caters to whites where the host is chock full of racist jokes at the expense of the Asian performers.  Times were hard for people of color and for the queer community.  The author did a lot of research on old San Francisco and it’s evident in how she captured these issues in these scenes.

I can’t really discuss the magic in the story as it comes to play at the climax of the story and would be a spoiler.  And if there’s any criticism one could have for the book, it would be that the magic system is not fully elaborated upon, except for the fact that it’s old-country magic.  In that sense, it is a bit like Magical Realism, that is, magic in a real-world or mundane setting.  But I think Magical Realism often uses myth or allegory, and this book does not.  Still, it’s wonderful how it’s presented.

One of the best things about the book is how it portrays this group of friends.  It captures a common occurrence in the LGBTQ community, where friends become family when biological families reject them.  The whole middle part of the book is about Haskell and Emily, but we get enough of a sense of who the others are so that it is only natural that they all come together to help the lovers in their time of need.

My requirement for giving a five-star rating is that the book is excellent AND moves me emotionally in some profound way.  I didn’t cry at the end, but the book made my whole insides quiver.  The prose was elegant without being overbearing.  The dialogue was realistic and natural.  At the end, I wished I could have stayed with these women longer, gotten to know them all much more deeply.  But if it were longer, it may not have been the perfect little book that I won’t be able to stop gushing about for days. 

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Fire Logic

Laurie J. Marks
Completed 3/23/2019, Reviewed 3/24/2019
3 stars

Most of the fantasy I’ve read is high fantasy, urban fantasy, and other common subgenres.  This was what I guess could be called low fantasy.  There are no kings, elves, fairies, or fantastical magic.  This book was a gritty story about more or less everyday-type people trying to make a difference in their world.  There’s a little magic, elemental as the title implies, but it’s very fundamental, organic, and appears mostly by way of healers and seers, at least in this first book of the Elemental Logic series.  It won the 2003 Gaylactic Spectrum award for positive LGBTQ content in SF/Fantasy, as did its sequel in 2005.  But despite good writing, I found it hard to follow where the author wanted to go with the plot.  It had many moments, but they didn’t sum up to a great whole. 

The book revolves around characters in the country of Shaftal.  It’s been invaded by the Sainnites.  Zanja’s tribe was wiped out; she’s the only survivor.  She’s a fire elemental and a lesbian person of color (Note: the book cover is whitewashed, sigh).  Most of the story is told from her perspective.  She meets and falls in love with Karis, a half-giant who is addicted to a deadly drug called smoke.  Karis is an earth elemental, a metalsmith, and a powerful healer, but the drug is slowly taking its toll.  Zanja also meets Emil, a gay officer fighting in the Shaftal resistance.  At one point, she joins Emil’s paladins on a guerrilla quest to route the Sainnites from part of Shaftal.  The story is also told from Karis’ and Emil’s POV, but the majority of our experience of them is through Zanja’s eyes.

The character development is quite amazing.  I really felt like I was in the skin of the three main characters.  Most of the time we are in Zanja’s head.  One of the most interesting things about her is that she gets hurt in battle and once by the other paladins.  She gets healed physically, but it takes time to recover from the psychological damage done by the hurt.  Karis’ character is also quite a revelation.  Her descent into oblivion from smoke is devastating.  The author did a terrific job getting addiction down as well as the dangerous withdrawal from it.  Emil is great as Zanja’s guardian and cheerleader.  He’s also a scholar who treasures books. 

The part of the book that baffled me was the main plot arc.  It didn’t seem to have a specific direction.  I thought it just meandered with Zanja first surviving her people’s holocaust, then meeting Karis, then joining Emil’s paladins, and so on, until the end.  I felt like I was on her journey, but I didn’t know why.  This made the book sometimes tough to get through.  The ending was pretty good, even exciting, but I wasn’t sure how I really got there.  Despite all this, the prose was stupendous.  There were moments that were simply inspired, and I enjoyed reading it.  But again, I felt like I didn’t know the reason we were on this journey. 

I give the book three stars out of four.  It had all the makings of a four star book, but in the end, I didn’t know how I had gotten there.  I’m still going to read the first sequel, as it is an award winner and on my LGBTQ Speculative Fiction Resource List on Worlds Without End.  But unless the second book has a stronger plot, I don’t think I’ll finish the series. 

Friday, March 15, 2019

Norse Mythology

Neil Gaiman
Completed 3/15/2019, Reviewed 3/15/2019
3 stars

This is a collection of short stories about the Nordic gods.  The stories are based on Prose Edda and the Poetic Edda, the two existing ancient books on the gods.  I know very little about Norse mythology, and this was a good introduction to it.  It focuses on Odin, Thor, and Loki, but also has some of the other gods as well as many giants.  The book is very easy reading.  In fact, I would almost consider it YA based on the writing style.  I love Gaiman’s writing, even when he writes to younger audiences. 

Normally, when I review a collection, I give a brief description of a few of my favorites.  This time, however, none really stood out, except some of the last few, which is probably because I read them last.  All the stories were good, most containing a little humor and a lot of action.  Thor really stands out because he is a big lug who almost always wants to kill someone or something with his hammer.  Of course, Loki also stands out because he is the trickster and certainly the source of most of the conflicts and problems that occur amongst the gods. 

The stories more or less follow a time line, with the beginning recounting of the creation of the world and end about Ragnarok, the end of the gods.  We hear the stories of how Odin gained his wisdom and lost an eye and how Thor got his hammer.  Giants play a large part in the stories.  They are almost always the nemeses to the gods, even though some of them are children of giants and some have children with them.  Unfortunately, there are only a few mentions of dwarves and elves.

Despite the focus on the three gods, there is very little characterization.  I didn’t really feel that I got to know who they were, just what they did.  I don’t know the source material at all, but I’d bet there wasn’t much characterization in them either.  This is the one area where I think Gaiman could have done a better job, enhancing the characters so that they were more than mere cardboard cutouts. 

The prose is really good.  The flow of the simple language made for an enjoyable reading experience.  It’s an easy book to pick up at any time and begin reading.  I never felt like, ugh, I don’t want to read this.  Even when I was tired, I always felt like I wanted to keep reading and not put the book down.  I think it’s because each story was entertaining, even the darker ones.  When I was young, I enjoyed reading Greek and Roman mythology.  Perhaps it was the books I had available to me, but sometimes they felt so heavy handed, much like reading the Bible.  Gaiman’s touch was light and never failed to make me glad I picked up the book.

I give this book three stars out of five.  Even though I enjoyed it, at the end, my response was, “Gee, that was a nice book” rather than “Wow, that was a great book”.  I was certainly glad I read it, as I always am with a Gaiman book.  I would recommend this book to anyone who wants an introduction to the Norse gods. 

Saturday, March 9, 2019

The Fire’s Stone

Tanya Huff
Completed 3/9/2019, Reviewed 3/9/2019
3 stars

This was an okay book.  It’s very standard fantasy.  It’s about three young people on a quest to save a city.  There’s nothing that remarkable about the quest or the characters except that two are bisexual males, one is an asexual female and they all have baggage.  The most interesting thing about them is how they find each other.  There’s a fair amount of action in the book which keeps it moving, but nothing really kept me that interested except wondering if the two bisexuals ever get to admit that they love each other. 

The plot revolves pretty equally between the three characters.  Aaron was born a clan chief’s heir, but is on the outs with his father.  He ran away from home after his father beat his cousin to death.  He’s now an accomplished thief in the city of Ischia.  He decides to steal the emerald on the king’s staff, but is caught.  That is how he meets the next character.  Darvish is a prince, the third in line to the throne of Ischia.  Being third in line means he has nothing to do except drink, practice swordplay, and sleep around.  He’s been betrothed to Chandra, our third character, for political reasons though neither of them wants the marriage.  Chandra is a princess who is a very powerful wizard and wants to remain unmarried to hone her skills and retain her power.  She secretly travels to Ischia to try to convince Darvish not to marry her.

The city of Ischia sits on the edge of an active volcano.  There is a magical stone that took nine years to create by nine powerful wizards which keeps the volcano at bay.  Someone steals the stone and Darvish is assigned the task of finding and returning it.  Aaron and Chandra accompany him on the quest.  On the way, the are confronted by guards, pirates, and other wizards.

Even though the characters were fairly cardboard, the one that really stood out for me was Darvish.  He’s a terrible alcoholic.  On the quest, he is forced to sober up.  The description of the DTs he experiences is very vivid.  His battle against drinking afterwards is very realistic, because as one might assume from a standard fantasy, wine is everywhere.  He has to constantly struggle with the thought that he deserves a drink and the fight against that is torturous.

Aaron is the most wooden of the three.  He has completely closed off his feelings for Darvish because of the religious sexual oppression beaten into him from his childhood.  As a result, he is stoic, but tortured by the tapes of his father in his head.  This got very old after a while.  Chandra, on the other hand, is a little more three dimensional.  Her baggage is less traumatic and she doesn’t wallow in it.  She’s the most level headed of the team, and also the most insightful.  It’s fun to watch her roll her eyes every time Aaron and Darvish can’t bring themselves to express their love for each other.

I give this book three out of five stars.  I can’t think of a better adjective for this book than okay.  The plot is okay, the prose is okay, and the characters are okay.  Nothing is really remarkable about the book except the realistic account of Darvish’s alcoholism.  I have one more Tanya Huff book to read on my quest to finish the Worlds Without End LGBTQ reading list.  It’s another fantasy and gets higher ratings than this book.  I’m hoping it will have a little more substance than this one.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Sea of Rust

C. Robert Cargill
Completed 3/2/2019, Reviewed 3/3/2019
4 stars

This is the third robot book I’ve read this year.  It’s a book club selection.  It’s sort of an apocalyptic western where all the humans have died or been killed by robots and now the robots rule the earth.  It’s a tremendous novel with spare prose and just the right amount of action.  I was riveted by the first chapter and the author maintained a decent pace through the rest of the book. 

Brittle is a Caregiver robot.  She roams the Midwest, the Sea of Rust, looking for other robots who are near death, culling their parts to then sell to other robots.  She’s sort of a gunslinging organ harvester trying to survive in a harsh world.  One day, Brittle is attacked by another robot looking for parts.  She escapes but is badly damaged.  On her way to find parts for herself, she meets several other robots who ask her to guide them to an undisclosed location.  However, on the way, they are attacked by facets, robots who have given up their individuality to a massive hive-mind consciousness.  Afterwards, they are on the run, trying to remain freebots in world that is quickly becoming a dystopian nightmare. 

Interspersed through the main plot, Brittle tells the story of how the robots exterminated humanity and came to rule the earth.  She also talks about her role as a Caregiver before the robopocalypse, and the state of the world at that time.  At first, I felt it was a little like I, Robot, with the running thread of the history of the world during the robot era, but the flashbacks are much more cohesive than the short stories of Asimov’s collection. 

I thought the conflict of the freebots versus the hive-mind consciousness was pretty cool.  The basic idea been done before, but not necessarily with robots to my knowledge.  It also reminded me of stories about revolutions where the new guard is just as dysfunctional as the old guard.  A few powerful beings with some power try to grab more power and end up creating the same world they overthrew, just with different characters.

I really enjoyed the first chapter which describes Brittle coming across a robot that has gone four-oh-four, a failure code which most surfers of the internet have probably come across.  It rings a little like a standalone short story, but it sets an awesome mood for the rest of the book. 

The characters were really well done.  The book is narrated in first person by Brittle, so we get to know her the best.  The remaining characters never feel wooden.  When we come across good guys and bad guys, we find that the terms good and bad are relative.  The morality is not black and white.  This adds depth to all the characters, keeping them from being cardboard charicatures.

I give the book four stars out of five.  I found it a refreshing take on an old trope.  The prose was spare, conveying the bleakness of the world.  It had just the right amount of action for me.  The flashback historical exposition did a lot to break it up so it did not seem excessive.  I highly recommend this book.