Monday, January 27, 2020

Time and Again

Jack Finney
Completed 1/25/2020, Reviewed 1/25/2020
4 stars

The second book club selection of the year, this book was a pleasant surprise.  It is a very readable take on time travel.  It is prosy and full of adventure, a little like a Jules Verne story.  It is also a romance and something of a mystery.  It takes place in the present, 1970, and 1882 New York City.  I found the copious descriptions of the past very interesting, despite taking up almost the whole first half of the book.  It didn’t win any awards, but I thought that this was well-written and easily accessible. 

Simon “Si” Morley is an artist who works for a small advertising agency in NYC.  One day, he’s approached by a man promising a thrilling but secretive experience.  The man expects Si to commit even though he doesn’t give him all the details.  Thinking he doesn’t really have much to lose, Si accepts and soon learns that the man is an agent of the government involved in a highly confidential experiment in time travel.  There are already some people trying to travel to the past, but none are yet very successful.  Si is given the training, consisting mostly of psychological tricks to believe he is in the past.  It’s not very scientific.  It’s almost like “if you believe really hard, it will come true”.  And it does.  Soon, Si masters the technique and travels back almost one hundred years. 

The reason he goes back to 1882 NYC is because his girlfriend has a slightly destroyed letter from a past family member with a mystery.  He convinces the project to let him go back to this specific time to witness the mailing of the letter.  They agree and Si gets his wish, and more.  He meets a young woman who is a lodger at her aunt’s boarding house.  She is connected to the letter via the man who wants to marry her.  He slowly falls in love with her, possibly changing the course of history.

My biggest surprise of this book was that I enjoyed Si’s description of the past.  The author goes into great detail describing the people and architecture of NYC, complete with photos and drawings.  I’m not big on architecture, but Finney’s prose simply made it very interesting, making me feel like I was right there discovering it with Si.  The exploration of NYC goes on for quite a bit, over a quarter of the book, but I never really got bored with it.  Just when I began wondering when the mystery was going to kick in, it did, and made up the last half of the book. 

The characterization was very good, breathing life into the disaffected Si, the people on the project, and the people in the past.  Julia, the woman he falls for in the past, is a particularly good character.  She’s a feisty young woman, but definitely a product of her time.  So is her extremely jealous, vindictive, and possibly bipolar suitor, Jake.  Si is also a product of his time, the early 1970s, being a bit misogynistic, sexualizing all the women he comes across.  It was much like a television or the movies of the late 60s, early 70s, where women might be strong characters, but ultimately, they are present for the pleasure of the men.  This is noticeable throughout the book. 

I give the book four stars out of five.  The prose is simply a delight, despite the sexualized descriptions of the women.  It’s not pornographic, but annoying and obvious.  I’ve never read a book where I was interested in the architecture and geography, but I’m originally from the NYC area and often went into the city.  Perhaps this is why the descriptions were so fascinating to me.  Some people may find the book a bit of a slog to get through because of this, so be forewarned.  But I found it interesting and exciting. 

Monday, January 20, 2020

Restaurant at the End of the Universe

Douglas Adams
Completed 1/19/2020, Reviewed 1/20/2020
4 stars

I think I finally got back into the spirit of the humor with this book.  I enjoyed it much more than Hitchhiker’s, probably because I didn’t remember all the jokes.  It seemed fresh and inventive.  I thought the plot was great, allowing for a little more character development.  My only big complaint was that the one female character, Trillian doesn’t get much to do or say. 

The team decides to go to the restaurant at the end of the universe because they’re so hungry from their previous adventures.  On their way, they are attacked by Vogons looking to kill Arthur and Trillian, the last remaining humans, after they destroyed the earth in the previous book.  They attack the ship, but it has no defenses because all of its resources are going into trying to figure out how to make a cup of tea for Arthur.  When all hope seems lost, the ship transports them to the restaurant.  After eating a meal of an animal that wants to be eaten, they steal a ship that’s autopiloted to crash into a star.  The improbable antics keep adding up until Arthur and Ford find themselves on a planet with nothing but middle-men, no intelligentsia, no workers.

The plot is absurd, a device to take the team from one crazy scene to another.  I was lots of fun.  At the same time, a lot of the scenes were quite poignant.  Adams is definitely poking fun at a lot of things, like the middle-men who are unknowingly exiled from their planet, including telephone sanitizers for example.  They are all oblivious to what’s happened to them.  The joke seems pretty cruel until we find out that their home planet is wiped out by a virus caught from an unsanitized phone. 

Underlying all the absurdity, there is a conspiracy plot that’s a bit more serious.  Zaphod Beeblebrox, the now former president of the Galaxy, doesn’t remember a mission he was party to.  There are powerful people trying to stop him.  It leads the team to the ruler of the universe and to the realization that people who want to be in power shouldn’t be.

The book, like all the books in the series, are not meant to be taken seriously.  It’s basically a collection of crazy skits thrown together to make some sort of linear plot.  It is much like an episode of Monty Python, which had crazy skits that segued into each other.  Some of the skits are more memorable than others, but they are all funny.  I give this book four stars out of five.  This was a welcome relief after the last book I read which was very heavy and dark.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Heritage of Hastur

Marion Zimmer Bradley
Completed 1/18/2020, Reviewed 1/18/2020
3 stars

This is my first MZB novel, and I was reassured by a lot of the reviews I read that although this is book nine in the Darkover series, this was the one to start with.  It did stand on its own, with a fairly self-contained story, and characters introduced as if it were a stand-alone novel.  The world building is also quite exceptional and the plot complex and interesting.  Yet I didn’t feel that the sum of its parts added up to a satisfying whole.  I chose this book because it is considered important in LGBTQ speculative fiction history in its portrayal of a gay main character in mainstream speculative literature.  (I use “speculative” here because it’s something of a cross between science fiction and fantasy).  The book is good, but not as great as I was expecting, or hoping, it would be.

The story is about two young men on the planet Darkover who are frustrated with the traditional ways of their society.  Regis Hastur is the heir to the Hastur domain, the strongest domain of the seven domains on the planet.  He doesn’t want to be.  He wants to travel the stars and see the Terran galactic empire.  Besides, he doesn’t seem to have the gift of psychic powers, known as laran, which is practically a necessity for a ruler.  His grandfather, the regent, says he will allow him to go if Regis spends three years in cadet training.  Regis agrees.   The other young man, Lewis Alton is heir to the Alton domain, Regis’ childhood friend, and an officer in the cadets.  The book tells of their time in the cadets, and then segues into a tale of the matrix of Sharra, a potentially evil power that a renegade domain wants to wield to overthrow the Terran presence and the Darkover power structure.  Lew is initially seduced by a veil of goodwill by the domain, but he and Regis eventually must find a way to stop this power. 

Regis is a fiery character, full of unrealized privilege.  Going into the cadets knocks down his ego and helps to round him out.  There he meets and is befriended by Danilo, a young man from a poor family who has a history of the men being right-hand men to the Hastur heirs.  It is with Danilo that Regis’ homosexuality is brought to the surface.  We also find that Regis’ closetedness is what’s holding back his laran powers.  However, Regis is afraid of professing his love because Danilo is being sexually and psychically harassed by a commanding officer and also because Danilo comes from a conservative religious tradition.  This causes a lot of conflict for Regis.  It makes him a very well fleshed-out character.

Lewis is also a strong character, fighting with his own coming of age.  His father tries to prepare him to take over the domain, initially by matchmaking, and eventually by sending him as emissary to the renegade domain.  There, Lewis falls in love with their ruler’s daughter.  But their love is taboo as she is made a Keeper, that is the central figure of the circle that controls the power of a matrix, which demands being chaste.  Again, we have unrequited love, but in a different context.

If all this sounds confusing, it kind of is.  The book is very complex, but highly readable.  Everything from the traditions to the matrix is explained in great detail.  I didn’t feel that I had needed to read any of the previous books to understand it.  My main problem with the book was that in the end, I wasn’t satisfied with it.  The characters were well-drawn, the world-building was tremendous, and the plot well thought out.  But by the end, I was exhausted from it.  I think MZB packed too much into it.  At only 350 pages, the book felt a lot longer.  Towards the end, I just wanted it to end.  I was becoming bored with it, tired of waiting for Regis to come out to Danilo and tired of Lewis being trying to subvert the renegade domain’s use of the matrix of Sharra.  That’s why I felt the whole didn’t match the sum of its parts.  The tension just didn’t hold my interest.

I give the book three stars of out five.  I felt it was a good book but would have been better if it could have held my attention better in the last quarter. 

Friday, January 10, 2020

Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Douglas Adams
Completed 1/9/2020, Reviewed 1/10/2020
4 stars

This is a reread for my book club.  The last time I read this book was after the BBC series was aired on PBS way back in the early ‘80s.  I loved the series and I loved the book.  Almost forty years later, I thought the book was okay.  I think there are several reasons for that.  For one, I loved the British humor of the time, specifically Monty Python and Doctor Who.  Douglas Adams actually wrote several of the Tom Baker Doctor Who episodes.  Second, it was new.  Every absurdity was a surprise.  I couldn’t believe the things that Adams could come up with:  the dolphins, the white mice, the sperm whale.  Now, absurd British humor seems old hat.  It rarely seems fresh anymore, only derivative.  Also, the jokes in this book are so iconic that nothing surprised me.

Arthur Dent is a hapless, very British human who is whisked off the Earth by alien Ford Prefect seconds before the Earth is destroyed by a Vogon construction fleet to make way for the Pan-Galactic Super Highway.  Using their hitchhiker device, the pair are eventually picked up by Zaphod Beeblebrox, the president of the Galaxy, and Trillian, an Earth woman Arthur tried to pick up at a party once.  Zaphod is on the run for stealing a spaceship and in search of the greatest treasure in the universe.  In their search, Arthur learns of the real purpose of the Earth and of the secret hidden in his brain.

As I read the book this time, I still thought the plot was very imaginative.  It has numerous twists and turns and was not predictable at all.  I have not read a book outside the Hitchhiker series that had this much creativity since.  Yes, there have been funny books, but this has an extreme level of absurdity surpassed only by the non-linearly connected skits of Monty Python. 

The characters are not wooden, but they are not fleshed out too well.  The book is (as are all in the series) quite short, so there is not enough time to really make you feel like you know all the characters.  You eventually pick up their personalities by their reactions to all the crazy situations they get into.  Arthur is great.  There’s nothing more enjoyable than the staid Brit who is confronted by absurd situations.  I thought Ford Prefect (named after a model of the Ford automobile) was a little lackluster, not really the perfect counterpoint to Arthur’s exasperation that I remember.  And while Zaphod and Trillian are also major characters, I didn’t think they were really fleshed out.  Perhaps they will be as I get through the series.

I had a hard time appreciating the jokes.  I think that’s because they are so iconic, as I pointed out above, that I remembered almost all of them.  I guess that’s a testament to the humor, that these jokes entered the cultural zeitgeist and remains permanently etched in my mind.  I remember some of the obscure things, like the optimum number of buffers in DOS 2.0 being 42, a number chosen because the developer loved the book.  In the intro to the edition I read, Neil Gaiman provides a list of the references that have entered the culture.

I’m quite sure that when I first read the book, I would have given it five stars.  Now, on the reread, I wanted to give it three stars out of five.  I don’t know if that’s fair, because I think after all this time with the book permanently etched in my mind, I couldn’t appreciate how original this was when it first came out.  So, I’m giving it four stars to honor my original reaction to the book averaged out with my current experience.  I’ll still read the rest of the series, as I have acquired the digital omnibus edition of all five books, and even though I had books four and five, I never read them.  His books are quick reads so I’m sure I’ll get through them all in the next couple of months, in between a bunch of other books on my TBR list.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Death by Silver

Melissa Scott & Amy Griswold
Completed 1/4/2020, Reviewed 1/7/2020
4 stars

I was surprised by this book.  I haven’t liked the Melissa Scott books I’ve read in the past, and I’m not a big fan of the murder mystery genre, but I really enjoyed this.  It was interesting, suspenseful, and had a little magic in it.  It’s an alternative history Victorian London where magic is taught in schools and everyone has at least some access to it.  The murder mystery plot was well-devised and even though I guessed who it was early on, I enjoyed the journey in getting to the big reveal.  It won the Lambda Literary Award for Sci Fi/Fantasy/Horror back in 2014. 

Ned is a metaphysician who is approached by the father of an old boarding school bully who tortured Ned in high school to discern whether or not his silver possessions are cursed.  After Ned finds that they are not, the man is murdered by an enchanted silver candlestick.    The man’s son, the bully, hires Ned to find the killer.  Ned brings in his old private investigator friend, Julian, who was also bullied by the man’s son, to help him with the investigation.  Sure enough the candlestick is enchanted and now Ned and Julian must find out how it was made so, after Ned originally found it to be clean, and who the murder is.  In the meantime, Ned and Julian are friends with benefits, each with deep feelings for each other.  Of course, they are very Victorian British and can’t quite get to the point of broaching the subject, causing all kinds of miscommunication.  Somehow they still work together, getting through their uncomfortableness with each other and their torturous memories of adolescence to solve the mystery.

The plot was really fun.  Many reviewers liken it to classic murder mysteries like the works of Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  What kept my interest is that the investigations were peppered with Ned and Julian’s memories of the torture they endured in school from the bully, and the anticipation of the two trying to get over their Britishness and admit that they love each other.  And even though I figured out who the murder was, there was still some doubt because many of the suspects had their own motives.

There weren’t a ton of character.  There were just enough to really flesh them out.  Ned and Julian are marvelous, with depth behind their staid exteriors.  Even the bully, who begins the story on one note, develops through the story. 

I find it difficult to review a murder mystery because everything I want to say gives away key points in the plot.  So I’ll just leave this a short review.  I give the book four stars out of five.  I enjoyed it so much, I will probably eventually read the sequel, of which there is just one as I write this review. 

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

King Maker

Maurice Broaddus
Completed 12/31/2019, Reviewed 12/31/2019
3 stars

This is an urban fantasy reimagining of the Arthurian legend set in African-American ghetto of Indianapolis.  It basically works and I basically enjoyed it.  It’s the author’s first novel, so I could forgive him for the problems I had with it, and there are some.  But overall, it was a lofty idea and I give him kudos for the attempt.  The book won the Kitschies Golden Tentacle Award for debut novel in 2010, an award for progressive, intelligent, and entertaining genre fiction. 

The plot is relatively simple.  A street hustler named King tries to bring together the drug dealers and gangbangers of the neighborhood to fight for a common good.  What’s complex is all the background stories of all the characters, and there are a lot of them, as there are in the Arthurian legend.  And Broaddus does a good job of making their names more contemporary.  There’s Lady G (Guinevere), Percy (Percival), Merle (Merlin), Lott (Lancelot), Wayne (Gawain), and many others.  There are prostitutes, heroine addicts, crack heads, drug lords, dealers, and assassins.  Some are adults and some are teens.  They all come from the same basic neighborhood, Breton Court, so their stories intertwine.  No one has a good life in the hood, so King fights an uphill battle.

My biggest problem with the book is that there is very little fantasy.  It’s there, but it’s limited to short sections and the end.  It involves a little magic from Merle, some faeries, ley lines, junkie zombies, a dragon, and the evil Green, as in the Green Knight.  But it doesn’t all come together too well.  It doesn’t flow naturally.  You wait for almost the whole book for the fantasy to kick in, but when it does, it just doesn’t seem right.

There is some time line jumping that gets kind of confusing.  It’s in a different typeface so you know something’s different, but the timeframe isn’t very clear.  The character development is uneven as well.  I got a little confused by the bad guys and their stories.  It took most of the book for me to keep straight who was who and who they were working for.

On the plus side, the world building is very good.  I felt immersed in the environs of Breton Court and the surrounding slums.   The language is realistic and the interactions of the characters seem very authentic.   Everyone has a hard edge and is suspect of one another, even the “good guys”.  They grew up in a terrible situation and have little trust in humanity.  Yet, they strive to the right thing. 

I give this book three stars out of five.  I found it hard to put down, but at times, I also found it hard to keep track of things.  Perspective of the narration changes a lot and doesn’t always work well.  But the attempt to place Arthur and his knights in the modern slums of the inner city is well done.  I think a few more rewrites or better editing would have made this an outstanding book.