Sunday, May 31, 2020

Salt Fish Girl

Larissa Lai
Completed 5/26/2020, Reviewed 5/26/2020
4 stars

I loved this book up to the end, when everything seemed rushed.  It has great world-building, great characterization, and an intriguing double story line which comes together in a fascinating but clunky way.  There’s science fiction, Chinese creation mythology, and magical realism.  And it uses the odors and the sense of smell as its primary descriptors, specifically, the urine-peppery smell of the durian fruit.  Lots of interesting ingredients that made for a wholly odd and mostly satisfying story.  The book was nominated for several awards including the Otherwise Award for its focus on gender issues in genre fiction.

The first plotline is about a god-like fish/snake/woman entity that changes shape and is rebirthed into different people.  In the beginning, she creates humans out of clay.  Later she is bifurcated and becomes human.  She falls in love with the daughter of a man who sells salt fish (hence the title).  The second plotline, told in alternating chapters, tells the story of Miranda, a girl in a future Canadian city who is born smelling of the durian fruit.  She is ostracized for it in school, her mother tries to ignore it, but her father has her try Chinese medicine to cure it.  It turns out that there is a dreaming disease that is spread through the feet that causes people to have strange odors and dreams of past lives.  The corporate controlled world tries to ignore it, but Miranda is also having dreams of being someone else.  Thrown into the mix are clones, virtual reality, and a mad scientist who is studying the dreaming disease phenomenon.

The beginning is a little tough to get into.  It’s hard to see where it's going for the first thirty pages or so.  Then it all comes together as Miranda gets older and when the ageless female character meets the salt fish girl.  Then I was hooked.  The stories are interesting in themselves even though you can’t necessarily see how the two will come together until about halfway or so through the book. 

Miranda is a strange character.  She’s likable but makes a lot of bad choices.  By about halfway through her narrative, you realize that she is going to continue to make bad choices and you just kind of accept it.  She keeps running away from the repercussions, but always comes back to family.  Eventually, she meets Evie, a clone who she seems to know from her dreams of a previous life.  That relationship leads to more bad choices, but ultimately brings both plotlines together in the end. 

I thought the world-building was quite interesting.  In the future, corporations control everything, including where people live.  The middle class has jobs that they perform using virtual reality.  Miranda’s father is a virtual tax collector and is regularly captured and beaten for giving money to the poor.  Her mother is a former cabaret singer.  Both parents cowrote songs that made an impact in Serendipity, one of walled cities controlled by a corporation.  Those who do not have corporate jobs live out in the Unregulated Zone.  They are relegated to factory work, if they work at all.

This book tackles a lot of issues: gender, love, sexuality, family, and the fight against biotechnology.  It’s all grounded in Chinese mythology and tradition.  I think that huge combination is what made it so intriguing for me.  I basically read the book in a day.  It’s short, but I read it all last evening, in the middle of the night, and this morning.  The only unsatisfying part was the ending.  It all comes together too quickly.  I still give the book four stars out of five, but I think it could have had about fifty more pages to make the ending less abrupt and enhance the magical realism. 

Friday, May 29, 2020

King of Elfland's Daughter

Lord Dunsany
Completed 5/25/2020, Reviewed 5/25/2020
4 stars

This book was published in 1924 and is considered a classic of fantasy literature.  Like the early classics of science fiction, it may not be as accessible to modern readers.  I found it hard to get into because of the language and style, but after about twenty pages, it just flowed.  It has been described as poetic, and indeed it has a lot of beautiful language.  It is rather short on plot and characterization.  Critics have said that his style was better suited to short stories.  I would agree with that statement.  Nonetheless, it is a beautifully written work with just enough magical subplots that it kept me going until the end.

The people of the all but forgotten land of Erl asked their lord that their land be ruled by a magic lord.  In response, he sent his eldest son Alveric to Elfland to win the hand of Lirazel, the King of Elfland’s daughter.  He steals her away, but as time is different between Earth and faerie, the lord has died and Alveric becomes the new lord and Lirazel his lady.  Together they have a son, Orion.  Lirazel, however struggles with the fact that she must worship the same god as Alveric.  So she practices on the stars and stones.  Thinking this is heathen behavior, Alveric constantly reprimands her.  She despairs.  In the meantime, her father, who was not happy that she left Elfland, has sent her a rune that would whisk her back.  In her despair, she says goodbye to her son, reads the rune, and is blown back to Elfland.  Distraught, Alveric begins a search for her, leaving Orion to grow up under the care of his nurse, who is a witch, and under the influence of two hunters.  Orion becomes a skilled hunter, but longs for his mother.

The best part of the book is the prose.  It is perhaps the most beautiful prose I’ve ever read.  However, I felt the prose got in the way of the plot.  There are many times throughout the book where nothing much really happens.  For example, there’s one whole chapter about a troll who sits up in the pigeon loft of the castle, feeling lonely, looking down upon Erl and its people, and wishing he could communicate with the pigeons.  It was a little tedious.  But hey, there is a troll.  There’s also a witch, a unicorn, and a magic sword.  It’s all these magical things that make keep the prose from becoming too oppressive.

Even though the plot description above sounds like it could be exciting, it really isn’t.  There isn’t much that happens between Lizarel blowing away and the ending.  Life simply goes on.  Orion becomes a great hunter like his fathers before him.  He hunts stags, and later unicorns.  He befriends the troll who becomes part of his hunting party.  Lizarel pines for Alveric and Earth.  Alveric hunts for Lizarel.  There aren’t many perils along the way for anyone.  There’s no real action to speak of.  And there’s no real character development.  Everyone just is.  I liked the witch though.  She has a good soliloquy about using magic against magic. 

I give this book four stars out of five.  I was going to give it only three, but it is too beautifully written.  You have to remember that this was published a few years after Tolkien had started writing his Lost Tales.  If you read that and the Silmarillion, you can see the style isn’t all that different, although Tolkien’s stories had more plot and character development.  Still they are tough reads, though written beautifully, as this book is.  I think when you read this book, you have to wipe your mind of everything you know about fantasy and let it be a new experience.  Try not to think of who was influenced by Lord Dunsany, and try not to criticize it for being boring.  Fantasy at this point wasn’t even a genre yet.  If you cut it some slack, you’ll better be able to appreciate it.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

The Song of the Earth

Hugh Nissenson
Completed 5/24/2020, Reviewed 5/24/2020
5 stars

This book tells the story of a genetically engineered manual artist through interviews, correspondences, and journal entries.  By manual artist, the author is differentiating from those who create digital art.  The book includes black and white pictures as well as thirteen color plates of the artist’s work.  The art is interesting and evocative.  The combination of words and art created an emotionally charged book that I could barely put down.  Though not usually a genre fiction writer, Nissenon really captured a bleak future as well as a portrait of, well, an artist as a young man.  This book won the Gaylactic Spectrum Award in 2002 and was nominated for an Otherwise Award (formerly the James Tiptree, Jr. award)

The plot is given away at the beginning of the book.  It is sort of a book with a book, as it’s written by a fictional art journalist ten years after John Firth Baker is murdered at the age of nineteen.  She recounts his life through the journal of his mother, a pre-mortem interview with Baker himself, interviews with family, friends and lovers, and correspondences with them.  His mother, who lives in Nebraska, decides she wants to have a child who is a manual artist.  She goes to Japan to be artificially inseminated with genetically enhanced DNA, which is illegal in the US.  Of course, this must be kept a secret lest she goes to jail and is heavily fined.  The child, Johnny, initially has a tough time with art, but eventually discovers ways to communicate through drawings and collages.  Like his mother, he is a gynarchist, in a world torn apart by a war between the genders.  He meets up with a Gaian cult and longs to be the lover of the leader.  To do so, he must forsake his art, which he does until his mother commits suicide.  In response, he goes back to art to release his inner demons.  But his life is cut short at the age of nineteen.  After his death, he achieves cult status as an artist inside and outside the Gaian cult he was a member of. 

I loved this form.  I thought it really worked well as a method of biography.  It’s reminiscent of the journalistic form of World War Z by Max Brooks.  It made for very quick reading and created a sense of urgency to the book.  The urgency wasn’t derailed by the introduction giving away the whole plot.  I found myself really engrossed in Johnny’s development as an artist through his young and middle teen years.  His mother had a mental illness which is also documented by her journals.  That made for a very interesting and intense dynamic between the two.  The form of the book also does well in developing the characters as you get first and third person perspectives of them. 

This book is very politically charged as it tackles issues with the environment, gender, religion, and art.  This is a near future where global warming has caused the sea level to rise three feet.  Many people live in domed “keeps” which are climate controlled.  Outside the keeps, the temperature often reaches and stays over a hundred degrees.  At the same time, there is basically a war between the genders.  The male patriarchy has become more oppressive, and is currently trying to pass legislation to allow polygamy.  The government and the established religions are against genetic manipulation in the US as well as in many other countries, but people go to places like Japan and France in order to bear children who are gifted, e.g. artistically or mathematically.  And there are new religions popping up, such as the Gaia Consciousness cult that Johnny joins.  The world building is very effective and surprising for such a short book (about two hundred forty pages).

I give this book five stars out of five.  I became emotionally involved with the book and the character of Johnny, even when he was doing things that irked me.  I knew he was going to die, but still got choked up when he was murdered.  I think having the art accompany the book also made for an emotional experience for me, as it was very creative and very personal to the character.  It’s very modern, or perhaps post-modern, and it’s right up my alley for the types of art I appreciate.  The combination of the art, the plot, and the book’s form made for an interesting, deeply engrossing experience.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

No Sister of Mine

Jeanne G’Fellers
Completed 5/22/2020, Reviewed 5/22/2020
4 stars

The title of this book is a little misleading.  It doesn’t signify that it’s science fiction when, in fact, it’s very much science fiction.  It just sounds like regular lit.  I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I was pleasantly surprised by the book.  It’s fun, exciting, and romantic.  It’s very well written.  Even though some of the scenes at the very end are a bit laughable, I found it very engaging.  In the course of reading so many LGBTQ+ books, I’ve been surprised at how many of the books written by lesbians for the lesbian community I’ve been able to enjoy and appreciate.  A few have been not very good, but this one was a real joy to read.  I loved the protagonist, found the antagonist to be deliciously evil, and thought the plot was pretty original.  This book was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award for Sci Fi/Fantasy/Horror in 2006 and won another award for lesbian literature. 

On a distant planet, human colonists intermixed with the indigenous humanoids, the Autlachs.  The new race was successful, but sometimes an albino girl with telepathic powers would be born.  Deemed a witch, the girls would be shunned.  Eventually, they formed their own community, the Taelachs, and would gladly take every new albino child born from an Autlach family and place it with a loving Taelach couple.  LaRenne is one such child.  She’s raised by two Taelachs, one of whom is the powerful ruler, the Taelach of All.  When she grows up, she joins the Kimshees.  (Yeah, I know it sounds like Kimchi) They are a bit like a Taelach army.  Her first mission is to do reconnaissance on two renegade Taelachs who have escaped from prison for committing atrocities and are hiding on the planet’s moon.  There she finds unexpected love and terrible danger.

I loved LaRenne.  She had a very quirky personality.  She’s very young and short for a Kimshee.  She’s pretty headstrong and has a lot to learn.  However, she’s assigned to a very dangerous first mission where she has to go undercover as an Autlach.  She’s quick tongued and sassy, which makes her fun.  But then the danger escalates, forcing her to survive on her wits and her unusually strong but unrefined telepathic powers.  Just as interesting is her mentor and eventual love, Krell.  (This isn’t a spoiler as part of their first encounter is excerpted on the very first page of the book).  Krell grows from being a harsh teacher to impassioned lover through the course of the book.  So by the time you get to the climax, you are right there with the immediacy of her love.  I found it very romantic.

On the baddies’ side, Cance and Brandoff are pure evil.  Cance is the more developed of the two, having a larger role in the book.  Brandoff is a vicious amoral, but Cance is the real psychopath.  She’s much more calculating and delusional than Brandoff.  When LaRenne goes undercover to find the two of them, you know things are going to go awry.  Cance is just too intelligent and paranoid for things not to unravel for LaRenne.

I thought the plot was pretty imaginative.  It’s basically a space thriller and love story.  The thriller part is exciting.  The love story gets a little hokey in the end, but enjoyed it.  Still, I found it to be original in its concept and well done in its execution.  It’s not very prosy; it’s mostly dialogue driven.  I thought the dialogue was realistic for the most part, and conveyed the thrills and the horrors very well.

I give this book four stars out of five.  The year it was nominated for the Lammy, it had tough competition.  I read four of the five nominees and I think I gave all four of them four stars.  It was a good year for lesbian genre lit.  I think this is a good beginner novel for someone just starting to read science fiction written specifically for the lesbian community.  Trigger warning:  there is a very realistic rape scene.  Even though it’s not graphic, it’s violent and disturbing. 

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Houston, Houston, Do You Read

James Tiptree, Jr.
Completed 5/21/2020, Reviewed 5/21/2020
4 stars

This is the first story I’ve read by James Tiptree, Jr, whose real name was Alice Sheldon.  Like several female authors of her time, she wrote under a male pseudonym to have more opportunity to be published.  As Tiptree, she was a critical success, and ironically, set as an example of how men are superior to women in the genre of science fiction.  She often wrote about gender and sexual issues, and an award was named after her for excellence in books that deal with gender and sexuality.  This novella is one such book.  It looks at a post-apocalyptic world where only women remain, and three astronauts from the past who encounter them.  The novella won both the Nebula and Hugo for that category.  I really enjoyed it.  It had an almost Twilight Zone quality to it.  It makes one think of the nature of men and women, particularly in light of 1976 social attitudes, when the story was written.

Three male astronauts on a trip around the sun are caught in a solar storm that propels them two hundred years into the future.  They don’t realize it and try to call into Houston Control.  Instead they hear women on the frequency.  The women figure out who they are, that they are from the past.  They send a nearby spaceship to intercept them and rescue them, as the three cannot make it back to Earth.  Once on board, the three struggle with the news of what happened to the Earth and their innate prejudices against women soon come to the forefront of their behaviors.

I’m always impressed when an author does excellent world-building in a short piece of fiction.  The same goes for good characterization.  This novella had both.  The three male astronauts represent three different stereotypes of men:  the religious fanatic who believes men should dominate women, the narcissist who believes that the sole purpose of women is to give him pleasure, and the intellect trying to make sense of it all.  The female characters are a little less defined, as there are many of them.  They tend to be a little naïve, never having seen men before.  The women give the men drugs to reduce their inhibitions in order to study their behavior, leading to some terrifying consequences.

This wasn’t quite a lesbian utopia/dystopia novel, at least it’s not like the many I’ve read.  It’s really about the behavior of men, reflecting the time period when the book was written.  But it is revealed that the women have relationships with each other.  Of course, this causes consternation in the men, particularly the narcissist and the religious fanatic. 

I give this book four stars out of five.  It’s gripping and immediate.  The attitudes toward women, though old, are still timely in today’s society.  It makes one reflect on where we were and how far we may and may not have come in attitudes and behaviors. 

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Darwin’s Radio

Greg Bear
Completed 5/20/2020, Reviewed 5/20/2020
3 stars

This book was quite a mixed bag.  It’s very hard science.  There’s also a lot of politics.  And it reads like a best seller science thriller, almost like a cross between Michael Crichton and James Patterson.  I didn’t care for the first three hundred fifty pages.  There were several times I wanted to put the book down, but I was reading this for my book club in exile, so I plowed through.  Fortunately, the last hundred fifty pages were much better.  There was less science and more thriller.  And I finally began to care about the main characters.  The premise is good: a pandemic which activates genes causing the next phase of human evolution.  I just didn’t think the book lived up to all the hype I had heard.  It was nominated for a bunch of awards, winning the Nebula in 2000.

Mitch Rafelson, an archeologist with a bad reputation, discovers three ice mummies in the Alps.  There’s something about them that makes them seem to be Neandertals.  Back in the states, strange pregnancies are beginning to occur.  First, a woman is pregnant, then miscarries, then is immediately pregnant again, but the baby dies at birth, usually with severe deformities.  Kaye Lang, a brilliant biologist, starts making a connection between the births and a virus and genetic mutation.  She is asked to join a Taskforce to study the issue before the phenomenon becomes a pandemic.  In the meantime, Mitch is developing his own theories, based on research he’s gotten from the University at Innsbruck in Austria, the group who confiscated the mummies.  He has dreams of the lives of his mummies, which is how he pieces together his theories of what happened to them.

Then, the pandemic happens, panic ensues, and the government struggles to deal with it.  People grab for power and politics often wins over science.  Amidst all this chaos, Kaye and Mitch do their best to stay true to their selves and their theories, eventually working together to come up with an explanation of what’s really going on.

The plot is pretty decent, but in those first three hundred fifty pages, I often lost sight of it because of all the hard biology.  Bear is known as a master of hard science fiction.  I would even say that the book satisfies a parochial definition of the science fiction, i.e. fiction with real science.  There’s just so much of it, though.  I often found my head swimming trying to understand it all.  I think I would have enjoyed it more if it was written by someone else, someone who could have softened it enough for the layperson to follow better.

 I also found the politics very hard to follow.  There are a lot of characters introduced in the political arena, and I found it hard to remember who each person was and what they were doing.  They added to my trouble keeping the plot straight in my head.  Fortunately, the major players in the politics are a little less than three dimensional, being narcissistic and power-driven, and it became easier to remember who they were, while the lesser characters simply settled into a tangled mess in my head known as “other”.

The main characters, Mitch and Kaye, were both written pretty well.  However, I felt even they didn’t get good development until the last third of the book.  Sure, they were featured often and had extensive back stories, but I didn’t really begin to care about them until that last third. 

The writing is decent as well.  It reminded me a lot of the bestsellers I was reading in the ‘90s, with almost a journalistic approach.  There’s prose, but it’s very cold.  At times, I felt like it wasn’t even necessary, that the book would have been better off being sparser in its descriptions of the environment and the people. 

I was going to give this book two stars, but my enjoyment of the last third kicked it up to three stars out of five.  If you like hard science or are a microbiologist, this book is for you.  As a layperson, I found it tough going.  However, I have a feeling that when my book club in exile meets virtually next month, there will be a lot of people who disagree with me. 

Monday, May 18, 2020

The Temple at Landfall

Jane Fletcher
Completed 5/16/2020, Reviewed 5/16/2020
4 stars

This book was a real surprise.  It starts out as a slow, mediocre fantasy and quickly turns into a fast-paced, action-packed, lesbian science fantasy dystopia.  Yeah.  I found it gripping and very well written.  It’s about a planet of all women who have developed psychic gene splicing by special gifted women called imprinters.  They also do psychic cloning of animals and psychic healing.  A strange religion has grown up around the imprinters, a sisterhood, which was reminiscent of my Catholic school experience with a few evil nuns.  There are battles with snow lions, conflict between factions of soldiers, and cynical heretics to add adventure, excitement, and humor to the book.  You just have to get past the first twenty or thirty pages for it to get exciting.  This book was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award in 2006.  It’s part of a series of five books and there are several ways you can order your reading of the books.  This one is the first published. 
Lynn is an imprinter.  She is one of the most gifted imprinters the local temple has ever had, splicing the genes of women couples who want to bear children, performing more efficiently than any other imprinter.  She makes a lot of money for the temple.  And she is celibate, as dictated by the holy books governing the role and behavior of imprinters.  She hates the isolation of being an imprinter and longs for her distant past where she grew up in the mountains without restrictions.  Soon, a small contingent of sisters from the Temple at Landfall, the central and largest temple in the country, come to take her away, citing as motivation the Goddess’ will.  On the way to Landfall, the carriage is attacked by snow lions.  Most of the temple guards are killed, but Lynn is rescued by the rangers who accompanied them over the dangerous pass.  Lynn falls in love with one of the rangers, and is caught kissing her, causing a fury among the sisters and guards back at Landfall.  Kim, the ranger, is stripped of rank and punished.  Lynn gets a new over-pious, arrogant, and just plain mean mentor.  But she longs for an escape from her fate and for the love of Kim.  Lots more ensues, but that gives away too many of the exiting details.

Lynn and Kim are the main characters.  Lynn is young and naïve, sadly given to her fate of life-long celibacy.  She’s a good character, but Kim really steels the show.  She is much more earthy and has a lot more character development.  Her adventures are wide and varied, she and grows from being a typical promiscuous ranger to longing for the single true love of Lynn.  Some of the evil characters are typically one-dimensional, like the two mentors Lynn has, but they are deliciously evil at that.  You just hate them in their sanctimonious smugness.  And the evil major of the Guards of the Sisterhood is also wonderfully hateful and single-purposed.  One character I really liked was Gail, the head of the heretics.  She adds a lot of wry humor to the story.  

The heresy is a wonderful story in itself, bringing doubt on the whole social structure that has developed in this society.  It’s part of what makes this story more science fiction than fantasy.  At the end of the book, there’s an appendix that’s the diary of one of the first elders that’s a revelation.  Although the trope of this heresy has been done before, I found it exciting nonetheless, mostly because it’s framed as a heresy, rather than a simple discovery of the ancient past. 

I give the book four out of five stars.  It was a delight to read, with beautiful prose which did not distract from the plot or the action.  I might eventually read the others, after I get through my huge TBR pile. 

Saturday, May 16, 2020

A Paradigm of Earth

Candas Jane Dorsey
Completed 5/13/2020, Reviewed 5/13/2020
3 stars

This book had a lot of things going for it:  interesting concept, interesting characters, decent plot.  Where it failed for me was in the pacing.  It was too slow for me.  It spent a lot of time in the main character’s head.  Granted, the book is about depression, among other things.  I think judicious editing could have made it seem less plodding.  The book was nominated for several awards, including the Gaylactic Spectrum Award in 2002. 
 (Sorry, the text wrapping function seems to be broken)

The setting is near-future Canada, where the political tide has turned very conservative.  In particular, women, minorities, and the LGBTQ+ community have lost many of their social gains.  In this tense world, Morgan has inherited a very large home in a Canadian Plains town.  To pay the bills on the house, she rents out the rooms to a group of social and sexual misfits.  She also answers an ad for a child care facility which turns out to be a local government center where they have an alien held.  This alien is one of thirteen scattered around the globe.  The alien is an open book and needs to be taught about Earth.  It bonds with Morgan and begins learning to speak and read.  They find out that these aliens have come to learn about Earth and take that knowledge back to their planet.  After a while, the alien runs away from the facility only to end up at Morgan’s doorstep asking if s/he can live there. Together with her eclectic roommates, the alien gets a deep understanding of what it is to be human.

There’s a subplot of a murder mystery amidst all this.  People around the alien turn up dead.  It sort of fits into the book, but it’s not a driving force in the action.  It’s almost as if the author was looking for a little harder edge for the book.  But it too suffers from the slow pace of the book.

The characters that make up the house are an interesting group.  Most are bisexual or gay.  One is in a wheelchair.  Only one is completely straight, and he’s an arrogant asshole.  The local police force also plays a big role in this book, keeping the house secure so that no harm comes to the alien.  The police characters are also an interesting bunch.  It’s never really clear whether they are the enemy or not, but they do keep the place relatively free of “vidarazzi”, the video paparazzi.

The stars of the book are Morgan and Blue, the alien.  Morgan loses both parents at the beginning of the book.  She never really grieves sufficiently, leaving her in a state of depression.  It keeps her from having real relationships with her roommates, who are constantly trying to reach through her despair.  The only real light in her life is her work with Blue.  The depression is where the book often gets derailed.  There are long passages inside Morgan’s head dealing with the depression.  To me, they were too long and too philosophical.  This is where I think the editing could have really helped.  I often found my mind wandering during these passages, and occasionally falling asleep. 

Blue, as a counterpoint to Morgan, is full of life. S/He begins as a child, learning everything about life on Earth from scratch, including language and boundaries.  In much of the book though, s/he is developmentally a teenager.  Between Morgan and the internet, Blue develops mentally much more quickly than emotionally.  And Blue’s ultimate question of life on Earth is “what is love”.

So the book is not as much about aliens as much as it is about love, depression, and being human.  Blue is merely the medium through which these ideas are explored.  It is very much soft science fiction.  I give it three stars out of five.  There were simply too many long sections inside Morgan’s head that derailed the plot.  This isn’t an action-packed book, but when there was activity between the characters, it was much more interesting.  By all rights, this could have been a four-star book if it just moved along better.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Bending the Landscape: Science Fiction

Nicola Griffith, Stephen Pagel, eds.
Completed 5/10/2020, Reviewed 5/10/2020
4 stars

I loved this trilogy of anthologies, the other two being BTL: Fantasy and BTL: Horror.  This one was twenty-one short stories which create “worlds where time and place and sexuality are alternative to the empirical environment”.  Most are pretty straight-forward science fiction while a few are more generally speculative fiction.  Almost all the stories have terrific prose and of course all feature gay or lesbian characters.  This book was nominated for several awards, winning the Gaylactic Spectrum Award for Best Other Work and the 1999 Lambda Literary Award for SciFi/Fantasy/Horror. 

There were many good stories.  I didn’t care for only a few, which I think is how I felt about the other two volumes.  Here are a few of my favorites:

“Time Gypsy” by Ellen Klages – A lesbian physicist, Carol McCullough is asked to travel back in time in a newly created time machine.  It’s requires so much energy, it can only do one round trip.  She is asked to go back to 1955 to obtain a paper by a brilliant female physicist, Sara Clarke who supposedly devised a low energy time machine.  The paper was never presented because the physicist was killed.  Carol is asked to go because she wrote her doctoral thesis on Clarke.  Carol also worships the ground Clarke walked on.  It’s a powerful story of life for women in academia as well as for gay and lesbian people in the 1950s.

“Silent Passion” by Kathleen O’Malley – Joshua, a gay man from a radical fundamentalist enclave on a different planet plans to leave his partner Ray to return home to his see dying mother.  There he will be force-married to a woman and forced to have sex with her to produce children, according to the laws of the town.  However, before he leaves, he visits where his partner has been doing research on the local sentient life forms, the Grus.  His partner is deaf.  With the Grus, Joshua must wear heavy duty ear plugs to protect himself from the high-volume screeches of the Grus.  There he gets close to one of the Grus, trying to explain why he has to leave Ray.  The Grus doesn’t understand, as he is also gay, and he and his partner are raising their 26th baby. 

“Love’s Last Farewell” by Richard A. Bamberg – The last gay man in the solar system is being interviewed by an insensitive journalist as he is about to take his husband off life support.  It takes place in a future where the gay gene has been identified and procedure has been discovered for “correcting” it. 

“On Vacation” by Ralph A Sperry – A gay alien couple vacation on Earth.  They are “disguised” as humans.  However, the house they are renting in Cape Cod has already been rented by a man with his seven year old son.  In order to stay there, the man pretends to be the hired help.  He bonds with one of the aliens while his son bonds with the other.

“A Real Girl” by Shariann Lewitt – An AI figures out she’s a woman and a lesbian.  Over two hundred years, she falls for several researchers who have worked with her, but eventually deeply falls for one.  This one is willing to help make a human body for the AI’s brain so that the AI can experience true love from a human perspective.

There are quite a few other stories I really liked as well.  These were just the five star and better four star stories.  I give this book four stars out of five.  It’s an excellent anthology, but it didn’t move me quite as much as the Fantasy volume did.  As much as I liked this book, there was a kind of coldness to the prose of most of the stories.  I just felt a little disassociated from it.  Still, some of the stories were quite moving.  I recommend this whole series as a good overview of gay and lesbian genre fiction in the short story medium.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

The Dark Beyond the Stars

Frank M Robinson
Completed 5/9/2020, Reviewed 5/9/2020
5 stars

This is the first book in a long time where I felt sad to see it end.  I became emotionally involved with the main character.  Needless to say, I loved this book.  I had read other books by Robinson when I was a teenager, namely “The Glass Inferno” and “The Prometheus Crisis”.  But I read this book because it won the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Sci Fi/Fantasy in 1992.  However, it doesn’t have much gay content.  In fact, the characters are bisexual and the predominant long-term-pairing is straight.  So I’m not sure why the book was even nominated in this category.  However, it was a fantastic book about a generation ship with mutiny on the minds of some of the crew. 

Sparrow is a crewmember on the Astron, a generation ship in search of life on other planets.  He has just had a bad fall while on a scouting team on a candidate planet.  Besides the broken bones, bruises, and cuts, he suffers from amnesia.  He must relearn that he is on the Astron, that it has been away from Earth for two thousand years, and that the captain wants to take the ship into the space between the arms of the galaxy, “the dark”.  This last part is the source of conflict on the ship, as it is old and falling apart, and because no one believes they have the resources to last the journey into the next arm.  This thrusts Sparrow into the midst of mutinous talk while he is still trying to put back together the missing pieces of his life.

As far as space operas go, this was one of the best I ever read.  It’s told from Sparrow’s point of view, so it has a fairly straight forward narrative.  It doesn’t get convoluted with multiple story lines and multiple sub-plots from multiple points of view.  Nonetheless, we do get the motivations of all the major characters in the book, including that of the ruthless, driven Captain Mike Husaka.  Husaka is nearly immortal, having been engineered to never grow old and never fall ill.  So over the two thousand years they’ve been searching for extraterrestrial life, he has become more and more obsessed with finding it, despite the failure to find any trace of life on the hundreds of worlds they’ve already searched. 

I really liked the whole amnesia trope as a way of unraveling the history of the ship without relying too much on info dumps and exposition.  It makes for some great tension between Sparrow and the other characters as he develops a mentor-worship-like relationship with the captain, when clearly, he had a role in the mutiny discussions in his pre-amnesia life.  It makes for great character development of Sparrow as basically evolves from a clean slate to someone of great importance on the ship.  Overall, I thought the character development was pretty spectacular considering there were an awful lot of characters in the book.

I thought the writing was marvelous.  It was great prose without being overly flowery and had believable dialogue.  The author was in his heyday in the ‘70s, and it really showed in this book.  It reminded me of the types of books I read back in high school during that decade, like “Trinity” by Leon Uris and “Centennial” by James Michener.  It had a great concept with lots of interpersonal interaction for character development. 

I give the book five stars out of five.  I think it’s because the book evoked the warmth of those novels I read in the ‘70s.  But it’s also because I became very involved in the journey of Sparrow and the recovery of his memory.  I just saw a meme about crying at the end of a book that you loved so much because you got to the end.  That’s how I felt about this book. 

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Zeta Base

Judith Alguire
Completed 5/6/2020, Reviewed 5/6/2020
1 star

Wow, this was a lousy book.  The characters were one-dimensional, the plot convoluted, the science terrible, and the prose, well, nearly non-existent.  It’s another short lesbian sci fi novel from the early ‘90s, but this one had no redeeming qualities.  Usually I can see some good in a book.  Even some of the ones I’ve read recently, while amateurish, were still fun.  This one wasn’t fun, or even so bad you’d call it campy.  Somehow, this was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Sci Fi/Fantasy in 1992, back when the gay and lesbian categories were separate.  It must have been a dry year for this subgenre.

Five hundred years in the future, humans have colonized many worlds, and have even created a synthetic new Earth called Zeta Base.  Antiquity, a science-philosopher, has discovered using old technology that the sun has begun cooling, which will destroy the Earth.  She has a plan to detonate a bomb in the sun to start up the neutrino production again.  The President, who is from the outer colonies, and Marcus, a lead technician at SOLCOM, the solar computer, have been ignoring Antiquity’s request to be heard regarding her research, citing the outmoded technology she’s using, and the mental decline.  Antiquity had recently been diagnosed with quickly advancing memory loss.  When they finally do bring someone in to check SOLCOM’s system, she uncovers a conspiracy to abandon Earth regardless of the ability to rejuvenate the sun.

In the meantime, Antiquity’s protégés have returned to Earth for the half-millennium gala of the galaxy:  Morgan, a daredevil performance artist; Deidre, a caretaker of animals; and Jaffey, a brilliant engineer who does the system check of SOLCOM.  Deidre and Morgan have some kind of relationship.  Jaffey had one with Deidre back when they were much younger.  Now, after all these years, Jaffey wants Deidre back.

There’s not much more to discuss.  I summed up my opinion in the first paragraph.  I give this book one star out of five.  I did not enjoy it at all.  At times the dialogue was beyond clunky.  And the villain had some of the cheesiest info dumps I’ve ever read.  This is definitely one book to avoid.

Friday, May 8, 2020


Michael Jensen
Completed 5/5/2020, Reviewed 5/5/2020
4 stars

This was an exciting horror novel featuring a gay protagonist and a wendigo set in the American Frontier in 1799.  In fact, it was so exciting I stayed up most of the night to finish it.  It’s the second book of a series called “The Savage Land” though I didn’t realize it until I read up a little more on it afterwards.  The main character of the first book is a supporting character in this book and the Firelands reads as a standalone novel very well.  The prose is sumptuous without interfering with the movement of the plot.  I don’t know if the gay experience is authentic for the time and place, as I doubt if there is any real record of it from that time period, but I found it believable.  It also gives us some perspective of the Native Americans living near the white settlements, as well as that of a gay Native American.  This book was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award for Sci Fi/Fantasy/Horror in 2005. 

The plot follows Cole Seavey, a young trapper making his way through the Ohio territory.  He’s attacked by a cougar which then appears to transform into a strange giant monster.  Eventually Cole outruns it by making his way through a cave, then collapses.  He wakes up to find himself having been saved by the Native American brave Pakim, and recovering in the bed of John and Palmer, two frontiersmen.  He is near the town of Hugh’s Lick, where his elder brother settled.  Upon recovering he finds that his brother is dead and has left a wife and baby.  He vows to marry his sister-in-law, as is the custom of the period, but gay awareness has awakened in him because of his attraction to Prakim.  In Hugh’s Lick, he finds that there have been other strange happenings which the locals blame on the Native Americans.  But as the body count piles up, it becomes evident that something else is going on.  They begin to suspect it is a wendigo, a demon of the northern tribes of North America that is created from the soul of a cannibal.  Together, Cole and his compatriots try to find and destroy the wendigo while facing racism and homophobia from the townspeople. 

I really liked the writing.  The narrative is first person from Cole’s perspective.  He’s well spoken.  The book isn’t filled with “ain’t” and other colloquialisms.  I don’t know how accurate that is, but it makes for very smooth reading.  There are sex scenes in the book, mostly what you might call fade-to-black, and they are very romantic, but it doesn’t read like a standard romantic novel.  That’s probably because of the underlying tension of Cole’s coming out process as well as the immediacy of the danger from the wendigo.   

Cole is a very likeable character.  He prides himself in being called Cold-Hearted Cole, but the book is about his coming to know himself and owning his emotions.  He’s become a frontiersman because he generally doesn’t get along with people and he’s running out on the woman he’s supposed to marry.  At the beginning of the book, he doesn’t realize he’s gay, he just knows he’s not attracted to women.  But meeting Pakim, as well as John and Palmer, and the hunt for the Wendigo brings all his issues into focus.  Pakim as his love interest is also very likeable.  He himself is conflicted because he has a duty to his clan to bring forth children even though he is gay.  And falling in love with a white person is of course not looked upon well. 

The characters of John and Palmer are interesting as well.  They were introduced in the first book, although they are well developed here as supporting characters.  They live on the outskirts of Hugh’s Lick, keeping mostly to themselves while the townsfolk gossip about them.  They are friends with Pakim and a Native American woman, Gwennie, who has been shunned by her people for being “white on the inside”.  Gwennie is a pretty cool character, maybe a bit stereotypical as stoic and terse, but adds a certain amount of levity to the story without being offensive. 

I give this book four stars out of five.  It’s fun, engrossing, suspenseful, and makes you think.  I didn’t give it a five star rating because of a twist at the end which I thought was a little bit of a let-down.  However, after that, the suspense did recover and kept me going.  Many of the books I’ve been reading are not well-known and most are out of print.  Some are not even available in e-format.  I got this one used, although it is also available as an e-book.  Some of these books have been okay, some good, some great.  This one falls in the great category. 

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

Jules Verne
Completed 5/3/2020, Reviewed 5/3/2020
3 stars

I haven’t read many classics in my life.  Since beginning my genre fiction immersion about seven years ago, I’ve read several of its classics.  But this is my first Jules Verne read.  I read it for the ad hoc online book club that’s been replacing the Powell’s Science Fiction Book Club which has been suspended due to the pandemic.  I’m sorry to say that for the most part, I found it rather boring.  It’s told in an episodic manner featuring short scenes of action with lots of “wonder” filler in between.  By that I mean that in between the action, the narrator spends enormous amounts of pages describing undersea life, both inside and outside the Nautilus, but mostly outside.  The narrator is constantly describing the marine biology: fish, mammals, vegetation, crustaceans.  In my opinion, I’d say this was exceedingly popular when it was first published because it was a relatively easy way for the general population to consume marine biology and engineering.  As a novel reading this one hundred fifty years later, I have to say it’s not as exciting as I expected it to be.

The plot is straight forward.  A scientist from the museum of natural history is invited to join a ship in search of what is assumed to be a giant narwhal, the species of whale with the unicorn-like horn.  It has been sinking ships, causing near-panic around the world.  During the scurry that ensues between his ship and the presumed narwhal, the narrator Pierre, his manservant Conseil, and the Canadian harpoon shooter Ned are thrown overboard.  They are saved by the narwhal, which turns out to be Captain Nemo’s Nautilus.  Then they proceed to circumnavigate the globe, seeing the wonders of undersea life.  Along the way, they encounter giant squid, icebergs and ice sheets, a hurricane, an undersea tunnel, and other such exciting things.  However, our trio are told they can never leave the Nautilus lest they divulge the secret of Nemo.  Most of the second half of the novel is our trio, particularly the impatient, aggressive Ned, looking for opportunities to escape. 

The narrator is interesting.  We learn that he is quite a scholarly person, as he documents everything he sees on this trip around the world.  However, we don’t really get much depth to his personality despite his narration.  Ned, the Canadian harpoonist is much more interesting.  He’s a little hot-headed, though he really doesn’t get into much trouble.  But we are told he is prone to violence.  This makes any interaction with him intriguing.  I was always wondering when he was going to go off on Nemo.  I also liked Conseil.  He was sort of like Samwise in The Lord of the Rings.  He was devoted to his master.  We don’t spend much time with him, or with Ned for that matter, but I enjoyed the scenes with them. 

Captain Nemo is distant and enigmatic.  We don’t really learn much about him except that he hates the world and has chosen to live life under the sea to avoid people.  His crew is also made up of misanthropes.  In the end though, we do get a glimpse of what caused his misanthropy.

The translation I read may not have been the best.  It was 288 pages long and was the free version from the Gutenberg Project (though obtained through Amazon).  I don’t know who the translator was.  This translation though is said to be older and had parts left out that the translator thought was boring or irrelevant.  It used some archaic words like poulp, which is a cephalopod such as a squid, octopus, or cuttlefish.  It also had strange turns of phrases, like “the disagreeable territory of Nebraska” which was later translated as “the Nebraska Badlands”.  I thought this was rather funny.  Having driven across Nebraska both south to north and west to east, I’d say its badlands were rather disagreeable.  Hehe.  But overall, I didn’t mind the translation and since I thought the book was on the boring side, I was not interested in reading the parts that had been excised. 

I give this book three stars out of five.  It was fairly easy reading and wasn’t really too bad.  If Verne had written it today, I think it would have had a much different form, rather than action – wonder – action – wonder – action.  I think there would have been a healthier plot.  Verne was definitely prophetic in that he saw submarines not powered by steam but by electricity.  I’d be interested to read his other books to see if they’re all the same format, like “From the Earth to the Moon”.  But that’ll be after I get through my massive TBR pile. 

Monday, May 4, 2020

The Ordinary

Jim Grimsley
Completed 5/1/2020, Reviewed 5/1/2020
3 stars

This book takes place in the same universe as Kirith Kirin, though it is not a sequel.  It has some of the same strengths as its predecessor and suffers from some of the same faults.  Specifically, its prose is outstanding, but too much so.  In place of suspense and emotional depth, we get paragraph after paragraph of wordy world-building.  It becomes a snooze-fest.  It’s a shame, because the concept of the book is inventive.  There are two worlds on a distant planet joined by a portal.  The two worlds are very different: one is based on science and has developed from an Earth colony ship, and the other is based on magic and seems to have been there forever.  Unfortunately, it’s just not gripping.  Nonetheless, the book was nominated for the Gaylactic Spectrum Award, and like its predecessor, it won the Lambda Literary Award.

The story begins with Jedda, a translator from Senal, the science world, taking a delegation through the portal to Irion, the magic world, under the guise of enhancing trade between the worlds and bringing more people from Senal to Irion.  They are to meet with Malin, the Thaan of Irion.  Eventually Malin shows up and accuses them of actually being a scouting team in advance of a war force.  Tensions build and the team is poised to be sent back to Senal.  But Jedda and a few others remain.  And Jedda, who has just been a simple translater, trader, and observer up to this point, has a destiny that puts her at the center of the conflict, and in the middle of the history of Irion itself.

Like the world-building, the plot is decent.  When the plot advances, the book is engrossing.  Unfortunately, the prose gets in the way of the plot.  There is simply too much description for the book’s own good.  Initially, the prose seems gorgeous.  After a while, it becomes extraneous.  You just want something to happen, and it feels like it takes for ever for actions to complete.  I found myself alternately reading aggressively and falling asleep through the whole book.  Even the ending feels like it takes way too long. 

The character development isn’t too bad.  It’s easy to like Jedda.  She’s pretty easy going and a bit cynical.  She loves languages and does a good job as translator.  My biggest problem with her is that I don’t ever get very attached to her.  Again, the prose gets in the way of developing an emotional relationship with her.  Jessex/Irion is a decent character as well.  He was the lover of the late king and is the greatest magician in Irion.  Yes, the land and man have the same name.  His origin story is told in Kirith Kirin.  Malin actually gets a bit more character development.  She starts out as an aggressive ruler.  Then, late in the book, we get a section wholly devoted to her backstory.  I still didn’t feel any emotional connection to her, but she has some more depth to her than Jedda and Jessex.  I think the depth comes from the fact that her backstory is told a lot more quickly than the rest of the book.  There is less prose to muddy it up.

The form of the book is interesting.  It is divided into four parts.  The first two parts are told from Jedda’s point of view.  It bounces her back and forth through time.  She meets Malin in the present, then meets her again in the past.  Then the third part is Malin’s backstory.  It’s relatively brief but gets her from being a teenager up to the time Jedda is sent back to the present.  Then the two come together for the fourth part.  Unfortunately, there’s no climax.  The end fizzles rather than pops.  Any excitement I had at the end of the third part, waiting for the two points of view to come together, just dies anticlimactically.  It was very disappointing.

I still give the book three stars out of five.  It’s not a bad book.  It’s just boring.  When I look at the quality of the prose, I wonder how can I give this book only three stars compared to other books I’ve given three stars to that have lesser prose?  That’s actually a trap I don’t necessarily want to get caught in, i.e. comparing books by their ratings.  I did think about it this time, though, and decided to stick to my initial assessment.  Some books are not well written but are still fun to read.  Other books have great ideas that are poorly executed and can be equally fun to read.  This book had excellent prose and world-building but was not fun to read.  Different kind of mess; a definite three stars.