Friday, April 28, 2023

The Book Eaters

Sunyi Dean
Completed 4/27/2023, Reviewed 4/28/2023
4 stars

Initially, I thought this book sounded like a bibliophile’s dream.  A race of human-like creatures eat books and absorb the contents.  But it is much more than that, specifically, more horrifying.  There are also brain eaters that suck out the consciousness of a brain and absorb the memory of that person.  There are family dynasties and secret societies, and we never find out where these creatures originated.  From space aliens perhaps?  Despite this and other lingering questions, this book is a fascinating, horrifying, and satisfying fantasy/horror novel.  It’s been nominated for a 2023 Lambda Literary Award for LGBTQ+ Speculative Fiction. 

Devon is a Book Eater of the Fairweather family.  She grows up thinking herself a princess, like in the many fairy tales she’s eaten.  As she grows, however, she becomes disillusioned with her life and the family’s expectations of her.  When it is time for her first marriage, made specifically so she can bear the first of two children, she’s devastated that she cannot keep her daughter.  Upon her second marriage so she can bear her second and final child who turns out to be a brain eater, she escapes with the boy, leading to a multi-level chase for a drug that can convert the boy to a book eater.

One of the most interesting things about this book is that everyone is a monster.  Even Devon is of questionable morality.  However, we still feel for Devon, her son Cai, and a few others she meets on the way.  The story is told in two timelines, one after she’s escaped the family, and one recounting the time before escaping.  It’s done very well without being too confusing and helps round out the character of Devon.  I didn’t really like Devon, but I empathized with her.  

My favorite concept of the book is the absorption of knowledge through eating.  Perhaps the brain eating part is more interesting because the eater displays personality quirks of those eaten.  This is horrifically comical in Cai.  He’s a five-year-old, but having eaten so many adults, he has the vocabulary and mental awareness of an adult.  Cai was actually very likeable.  He had his own moral crisis over his natural dietary requirements.

The prose is nice, though the world building is a little vague.  I read an FAQ on the author’s website where she explains her reasons for the light world building.  I actually didn’t mind it.  I was caught up in the mythology of the Book Eater and that satisfied me.  There were quite a few loose ends left.  Upon finishing the book, I thought it was ripe for a sequel, which the author admitted to hoping to get to, but not in the near future, which is too bad.  At a smidge under 300 pages, I thought there was so much more that could have been included.  It could easily have been a 400 page book and still be satisfying.

I give this book four stars out of five.  It surprised me with its originality.  The relationship Devon has with a woman is sweet even though it develops a little too quickly.  I think the thing to remember in this book is that Devon grew up eating fairy tales and everything is a take on fairy tale tropes, including the princess who falls in love at first sight, even though it’s with another princess.  But like the old original fairy tales, there is a darkness that isn’t necessarily overcome, and even a princess could become a monster.


Sunday, April 23, 2023

Jade City

Fonda Lee
Completed 4/23/2023, Reviewed 4/23/2023
5 stars

I loved this book.  It’s about the control of the jade trade, a magical stone that is only found on one island.  It’s a fictional Asia-based island that has recently achieved independence.  Although it has a government, the island is basically run by several families, not unlike mafia families.  The family with the main characters is mostly benevolent while its main competition is not as nice, illegally mining jade and dealing in a drug that counters the effects of the stone on those who aren’t born with the gift of using its power.  Reading the author’s notes, this book is a mish-mash of Mario Puzo and other mafia tales along with martial arts movies and other Japanese and Chinese influence.  Despite sounding like there’d be a lot of politics, and there is, I was completely engrossed in it.  I read this nearly 600 page book in six days and loved every minute of it.  This book won the 2018 World Fantasy and Aurora (Canadian SF) Awards and was nominated for several others.  

There are quite a few characters and the third person omniscient POV follows many of them.  The book begins with a street urchin, Bero, attempting to steal jade from a Green Bone, that is someone who has the ability to wear jade and use its powers.  He’s thwarted by Lan, the Pillar of the No Peaks cartel.  He’s the third Pillar since the island gained independence.  His brother Hilo is the Horn, the head of the group, some would say thugs, that keep the peace, handle crime, and fight the Mountain cartel.  Shae is the sister who renounced her jade and family responsibilities and left for the love of a foreigner and to go to college abroad.  She returns to the island at the beginning of the book, looking to live a life apart from the family.  The book begins with an uneasy peace between the No Peaks and the Mountain.  Soon however, there are clashes between the families that escalate to a near-war status.  

There are a few other characters worth mentioning.  Anden is the closeted gay teen, adopted by the Lan’s family as a “cousin”, who is finishing up schooling at the family’s academy.  He’s expected to take his place in the organization upon graduation.  Doru is the advisor to Lan and an original member of the No Peaks.  He fought in the war for independence along side the family’s grandfather, who founded the No Peaks.  Wen Is Hilo’s lover, a stone eye, that is, someone who is not affected by jade.  She refuses to live with Hilo because of her questionable parentage and because she is a stone eye and not a Green Bone.  Finally, Mada is the head of the Mountain cartel.  She is a very complex villain.

I spent a lot of time introducing the characters because the plot is very complex and rich.  I don’t know if I can summarize it better than the blurb in my first paragraph.  But the book is really about the relationships.  They are tense at the beginning of the book, between the families, within the families, and among siblings.  But things escalate about halfway through the book, throwing them all into an all-out turf war.  

Despite this being a gangster story, I really liked the main family of the No Peaks, whose family name (if I remember correctly) is Kaul.  The story is told from their point of view, so of course, we believe them to have higher morals than the Mountain.  They’re still gangsters, but you develop empathy for them as the events progress and tension escalates.  Lan, Shae, and Anden are easy to like.  Hilo takes some effort.  He’s a loose cannon that Lan is constantly reining in.  But by the end, I was fully dragged into the plight of the Kauls.  Needless to say, their characters are very well developed. 

The world building was tremendous, complete with gods, mythology, and of course, the magic jade.  However, the jade magic is not in the forefront of the story.  This is first and foremost a gangster tale.  But the jade magic naturally flows into the story so that by the end, I was fully accepting of it and its place in the book.  The prose was also great, not too flowery, with convincing dialogue and exciting action.

I give this book five stars out of five.  It had me hook, line, and sinker.  Even at nearly 600 pages, I never found it boring.  The pace was perfect with no low points.  And by the end I was as much a part of the family as any one of the characters.  If I was still on medical leave from work, I probably would have finished this in three days instead of six.  This book is the first in the Green Bones Saga, which is a trilogy.  I’m going to try to finish it before the year’s out.  Even if the second book suffers from sophomore slump, I really want to get back in and see what happens to the family.  


Monday, April 17, 2023

Radiance

Catherynne M Valente
Completed 4/17/2023, Reviewed 4/17/2023
3 stars

I have a mixed relationship with Valente.  My favorite book by her was In the Night Garden, my least favorite, Palimpsest.  This book is somewhere in the middle.  What stands out about the books of hers that I have read has been their structure.  This one was no different.  Told through interviews, films, letters, and flashbacks, it recounts an investigation into what happened to the daughter of a famous director on Venus.  It’s sort of an alternative universe, taking place in the first half of the 20th century, and assuming all the planets are easily reachable and inhabitable, like classic sci fi speculation.  In addition, film is mostly silent and in black and white because the heir of Thomas Edison holds the patent for color and sound and rarely gives permission for anyone to use that technology.  It’s an extremely interesting premise with lots of potential, but I found it mostly okay.  This was a book club selection.

Severin Unck is a documentary film maker from Luna.  Her father makes sweeping interplanetary romances and thrillers.  Severin takes a crew to Venus to find out what happened to a settlement there.  The only survivor is a boy she names Anchises.  Then one by one, her crew dies until only a few are left.  Severin disappears and the remaining crew and Anchises return to Luna.  Then the studio and her father try to piece together what happened to the crew and the fate of Severin.  There are interviews of the crew, letters from one of her stepmothers, treatments for a docudrama by her father, and the transcript of the few bits of film footage that remained from the Venus trip.  

The star of the book is the form.  There is no straight narrative describing anything.  You have to piece together the events from fiction and non-fiction with mostly unreliable narrators.  I found it both brilliant and annoying.  After reading most of the book, I just wanted to be told, straight out, what the hell happened out there.  

The prose is formidable.  Like the form, I found it both brilliant and distracting.  It often went on and on describing a scene or situation.  Sometimes it was wonderful, sometimes irritating.  I think the part of the book I liked the best was the interviews with Erasmo St. John, her sometime lover.  They were low on prose, high on content.  The treatments for the father’s movies were where it really bogged down.  He was trying to come up with a way to tell the story of Severin’s disappearance in a fictionalized form from the point of view of Anchises.  He does it initially as a noir detective film, then as a kind of fairy tale, finishing as a post-modern murder story.  This made it quite confusing, requiring the reader to change gears throughout the book.

It is difficult to say if I liked any of the characters because some were real while most of the others were fictional within the fiction.  I think that’s why I liked the Erasmo interviews.  They were “real”.  The characters do develop though throughout the book.  You get the sense that they were all authentic.  I wanted to like Anchises but he kept changing as the film he was in kept changing.  We get to know Severin as a child, but as an adult, only through the film footage from Venus.  The father, Percival, was kind of a jerk, having seven ex-wives as well as a lover or two.  In fact, we never know for sure who Severin’s mother was.  

I give this book three stars out of five.  I contemplated four stars because of the form, but I just couldn’t say I had gotten into the whole book.  Valente is quite a writer, though.  Even when she doesn’t succeed (from my perspective), the books are still forces to be reckoned with.  I have another book by her which I’ll probably get to in the next year or so.  We’ll see how that one pans out.


Saturday, April 15, 2023

The Dragon Waiting

John M. Ford
Completed 4/15/2023, Reviewed 4/15/2023
3 stars

This is an alternate history fantasy of the rise of Richard III of England, complete with wizards, vampires, and a dragon.  The setting is a medieval Europe where Rome has fallen, Christianity hasn’t become dominant, and the Byzantine empire is on the march to conquer western Europe.   It’s complex in its style and detail.  It seemed like many vignettes rather than one overriding plot.  There are four main characters and a myriad of others, including several Richards.  All of this made it difficult for me to appreciate.  I often found myself lost, trying to figure out where the arc was going, and often where it came from.  I read in several reviews that this book takes a lot of effort, and I think it probably requires several readings to really understand and appreciate.  It also requires some knowledge of history, not limited to the disappearance of the two young Princes in the Tower whose murders for which Richard was blamed.  This book won the 1984 World Fantasy Award.

The book begins giving you the backgrounds of the main characters, leading up to how they met.  There’s Hywel, a Welsh wizard; Cynthia, an Italian doctor forced to flee Florence after the death of several Medici’s; Gregory, a German mercenary vampire; and Dimitrios, exiled heir to the Byzantine throne.  After a chance meeting at a pub, they make their way to the British Isles to help Richard III gain the throne.  Most of the plot of this book after leaving the pub is intrigue amongst the many political factions, eventually leading to a war between Richard III’s forces and the Byzantium backed Henry Tudor (who would be Henry VII).

As you can guess by the tone of this review so far, I had trouble following this book.  It seemed to me that there are way too many short scenes which jump between the characters, making it difficult to follow any one subplot of the story.  And there are a ton of subplots.  That’s what made it such a complicated read for me.  Even though I read most of it in large blocks, I still had trouble following it.  Then when I went back to work part time, my reading blocks were shorter, making it even more difficult for me.  

I did like the main characters.  They all had good intentions.  I particularly liked Gregory the vampire.  He was thoughtful and gentle vampire who didn’t terrorize villages by drinking everyone’s blood and turning them.  I also liked Dimitrios who seemed to have some gay tendencies which were subtly alluded to.  Cynthia was a little tougher to get to know.  She was very guarded, but generally a strong female character in this mostly male dominated story.  Hywel was mysterious, generally good natured, but a tough read.

The world building was as complicated as the plot.  I did get a good read of each of the places the main characters came from, but after that, the scenes jumped around so much, I found it a tough task.  The prose was generally good and the dialogue realistic.  Even the secondary characters dialogue was fleshed out pretty well, believable and natural, making them seem as three dimensional as the main characters.

I give this book three stars out of five.  It has a lot going for it, but definitely needs to be read a second time, or perhaps studied in a group or class to really understand all the subplots and nuances.  


Sunday, April 9, 2023

Bid Time Return

aka “Somewhere In Time”
Richard Matheson
Completed 4/9/2023, Reviewed 4/9/2023
5 stars

I was really hesitant about this book.  I wasn’t up for a romance.  I never saw the film but I knew it had to do with time travel.  But I read it because it won the 1976 World Fantasy Award, so it was on my reading challenge.  Turns out I loved it.  It’s an amazing book about obsession and desperation.  The obsessive quality of the romance on the part of the main character, Richard Collier, made it a page turner.  And, as in his books I Am Legend and The Shrinking Man, the prose is simply phenomenal.  

It is 1971.  Richard has been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor.  He decides to travel across country, sort of as a bucket list adventure, finishing out his limited time as he wants.  He’s single, never married, never in love.  He stops at an old seaside hotel near San Diego and gets a room.  There he sees a picture of a famous actress from turn of the century.  He immediately falls in love with her.  He becomes obsessed, reading everything he can about her in old theater books.  He finds a clue that makes him believe that he went back in time and met her in 1896.  So he tries to devise a way to go back in time and fulfill that historical side note that might indicate that he really did accomplish this. 

The method of time travel is interesting, using a hypnotic self-will to accomplish this.  I had to remember that this is more of a fantasy than a science fiction novel.  That made the suspension of disbelief easier to accept.  I also had to buy into the notion of love at first sight, and in this case, obsession.  Something in the reading of this made that easy to buy.  

The book is told as journal entries, long journal entries, recounting the few days in 1971 and then in 1896 in which this all happens.  So the voice is first person present.  I worked well for me, adding the immediacy of the narrator’s plight and desire.  In a way, I became obsessed with him finding the actress, Elise and trying to convince her of his honest intentions.  And even though you know how it’s going to end, it’s still devastating.  

I was surprised by the character of Elise, the actress.  She was a strong, independent woman throughout the book.  I liked her because she approached this relationship with trepidation for quite a while.  Later, her reasons for giving into the passion were believable.  And I really liked her command over her mother and manager, even though there were still Victorian mores dominating polite society.  

I give this book five stars out of five.  Matheson is simply a master wordsmith.  This book was readable and lovely.  In contrast to the last book I read, Matheson knows how to use prose to move a plot forward, not derail it.  Now I’m interested in the film to see if it’s all schmaltzy or if they captured the intensity of the obsession.


Saturday, April 8, 2023

A Stranger in Olondria

Sofia Samatar
Completed 4/8/2023, Reviewed 4/8/2023
2 stars

I’m a sucker for good prose, but sometimes it can be overbearing, obfuscating the plot and its progression.  This book’s prose is the latter.  There was so much description of people and places that I regularly lost the point of the action or dialogue.  It’s beautiful but extremely distracting.  At times I thought the thin plot was just an excuse to write a poetic travelogue.  This book won the 2014 World Fantasy and British Fantasy Awards and was nominated for several others.  I have read three of the five other nominees for the WFA and would given this award to any one of them over this bloated book. 

Jevick is the son of a pepper grower and merchant.  His father brings in a tutor to teach his son the language and customes of Olondria, where he goes to sell his pepper.  Jevick becomes enamored with Olondria.  Particularly, it reveres books and language, unlike the island where he lives.  When the father dies, Jevick leaves the family farm to explore Olondria.  While there, he experiences an apparition of a sickly girl who was on the boat with him.  He’s terrified of this and tells no one.  The haunting eats at him and eventually he tells the owner of the inn where he is staying, who turns him in to the head of one of the religious sects of the land, one where belief in ghosts, or angels, is considered a mental health issue.  However, word gets out of Jevick as a seer and soon he is pursued by another sect, one that reveres those who can see angels.  The result is an exploration of the sects’ rituals and eventually a travelogue as Jevick tries to rid himself of the angel and return home.

I never completely connected with Jevick, only in the lightest of terms.  He’s a moody boy and na├»ve adult.  I was actually more interested in his older brother, who appears to have been on the spectrum, which resulted in their father passing over him as the inheritor of the family business.  I also found the tutor to be quite interesting and would have liked more exposure to him.  I didn’t really care for many of the other characters.  They all felt one dimensional, being there solely for Jevick to react to.  

The plot left a lot to be to be desired.  It felt flimsy with no real purpose other than to provide Samatar with something to expound upon.  I felt like every aspect of every person, place, and thing, was there solely for the purpose of writing prose to describe it.  There are multiple stories within the story, which are just more opportunities to write overbearing prose.  They do give some background to the characters and color to the places, but eventually, they become tedious.  Even the big background story about the angel was tough to take even though it is the crux of the motivation for the angel.

I give this book two stars out of five.  It was way too bloated for me.  I knew I was in trouble when in the early pages of the book, the paragraphs were more than a page long.  That’s often a warning signal that the writing may be hard to take.  It’s great for world building, but not for general enjoyment.  


Tuesday, April 4, 2023

Boy’s Life

Robert R McCammon
Completed 4/4/2023, Reviewed 4/4/2023
5 stars

I was completely blown over by this book.  I thought it would be another pseudo-autobiographical slog about being a young aspiring writer.  Instead, I found it one of the best of the pseudo-autobiographical novels I’ve ever read.  And it had some magical realism to boot.  The story takes place in 1964 rural Alabama and is written in a vignette-type form.  The characters are likeable and relatable, even for a city boy like me.  And I was surprised and drawn into the main plots running through the vignettes.  This book won the 1992 World Fantasy Award and the 1991 Stoker Award for horror, even though the supernatural elements are mostly fantasy.

Cory is eleven-years-old at the beginning of the 1964.  He and his three best friends ride bikes, read comic books, go to the local movie theater, and play little league together in the little town of Zephyr.  That March, life changes for Cory when he accompanies his dad on his milkman route and sees a car drive into the local super deep lake.  Cory’s father goes after it, hoping to save the driver, and finds a dead naked man handcuffed to the steering wheel, strangled with a wire, and beaten to a pulp.  When they report it to the sheriff, they find out that no one is reported missing.  It appears to be a cold case and life goes on.  However, Cory slowly gets small clues over the rest of year of who the killer might be.  Throughout the rest of the year, life goes on, but Cory begins to have magical experiences, like the bike with the all-knowing eye, encounters with the river monster, and flying with his friends.

The book began as a slow read, as I let me expectations get the best of me.  Then the scene with the body in the car happened.  I’m usually not a murder mystery guy, but this really grabbed me.  Then when I saw that it was a setup for some supernatural happenings, I found I couldn’t put it down.  The whole coming of age trope took on a new dimension this way, making it not just a rehash of books like Stephen King’s “The Body” (aka “Stand By Me”).  Taking place in 1964, there was also a strong Civil Rights theme running through, with Cory experiencing the racism and violence with this little town and it's mostly black suburb.  

I really liked Cory, who is the narrator, even though he grows up to be a famous author, like McCammon.  He’s believable, even if you struggle a bit with the supernatural elements.  He’s genuine and sincere.  Not everything goes his way throughout this book.  If it did, it would be boring and you’d have to say he’s an unreliable narrator.  But I really came to believe his experiences as authentic and valid.  The other characters in the book were colorful and interesting.  Even the bad people were drawn well.  Of note, I liked The Lady, a 106-year-old black woman from the neighboring hamlet who had a touch of the magical in her as well.  Cory’s father was well developed, as well as Cory’s small group of friends.

I give this book five stars out of five because I literally could not put it down until I was passing out.  I read this 600-pager in 3 days.  I’m glad I read it while home from work with this shoulder surgery recovery, because it would have taken longer to read.  Getting it in three days though kept it sharp and immediate.  The prose is excellent and the dialogue realistic.  Having read this book, I’m interested in what some of McCammon’s other horror fiction is like. 


Saturday, April 1, 2023

The Kaiju Preservation Society

John Scalzi
Completed 4/1/2023, Reviewed 4/1/2023
4 stars

This was the right book at the right time for me: a light romp which the author compares to a pop song.  Sometimes, we just need a pop song to lighten our day.  After reading so many heavy books, some of which were slogs to get through, I needed this book.  It didn’t win any awards, but it has a good rating on the different review sites.  Scalzi knows how to deliver an enjoyable novel, whether it’s heavy or fluff like this one.

Jamie Grey is an executive at a competitor of the big food delivery apps.  Right at the start of the COVID pandemic, he gets laid off and becomes one of the “deliverators” at the company.  By chance, one of his regular clients offers him a job with mysteriously little information.  Jamie takes it and ends up a member of a team whose mission is to preserve large animals.  What he doesn’t know until he’s there is that the large animals are Godzilla-like creatures who live in another dimension of Earth.  His primary job is as a grunt, mostly moving and lifting things.  Quickly however, he is tasked with being an emissary to government, military, and investor visitors, based on his previous background as an executive.  On his first day as a liaison, who would appear but the CEO of the company he used to work for.  And of course, his motives for investing are anything but pure.  Soon, Jamie and three other newbies are on an adventure to save one of the kaiju who has just laid a brood of eggs from the clutches of this evil investor.

One of the things I liked best about this book was that Scalzi knows it is for fun.  Whenever there’s a plot twist that the reader can see coming from a mile away, Scalzi includes the phrase, “because of course it is”.  That was great.  It helped keep me from taking the book too seriously.  I’m reading this for book club and I can already hear some of the members decrying plot holes and silliness.  But I thoroughly enjoyed it, and am not ashamed to say that.  

Jamie Grey is the narrator.  He’s a nice guy in a lousy situation who happens upon the opportunity of a lifetime, even though he doesn’t know that at the beginning.  There aren’t really a lot of deep emotions here, with Jamie or with other main characters.  In fact, the characterization is rather thin.  But I still liked Jamie and the rest of the characters in the KPS.  One thing I found interesting is that Scalzi has the main character meet three other characters who comprise a little posse, which if I remember correctly, was a gimmick he used in Redshirts.  And their names were all rather difficult to remember, being of different ethnic backgrounds.  But I forgave Scalzi all this as I realized how light the novel was going to be.  And there was enough interaction with the other characters that I got their personality differences down pretty well, although I didn’t really remember their genders.  

As for the other items I usually mention, it was all rather light.  The prose was not heady.  In fact most of the book is dialogue driven.  Scalzi didn’t go out of his way to really define what the Kaiju looked like.  He left that up to our imagination.  I let myself imagine Godzilla- and Mothra-like creatures be the source of the pictures in my head.  And the organic nuclear reactor concept was pretty weird, but suspension of disbelief comes a lot easier when you’re having fun with a book.

I give this book four stars out of five.  As far as fluff goes, it’s near perfect, totally enjoyable.  I think only a curmudgeon would not have a good time with this novel.  Now I must return to the heavy world of World Fantasy Award winners, the remaining eight of which all seem long and really intense.  I’ll probably have to throw a gay magical romp in there to lighten things up as I complete my challenge.