Tag Archive | religion

Book review: American Gods by Neil Gaiman

American GodsAmerican Gods by Neil Gaiman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

2003 Review

Neil Gaiman is one of the most original writers currently publishing. He defies category: how does one classify an author whose work ranges from SF to horror to social commentary to parable and back, all within the pages of one book? His style is reminiscent of Clive Barker and Harlan Ellison, perhaps with a touch of Lovecraft thrown in for seasoning.

AMERICAN GODS tells the story of the war brewing between the “old” gods of the United States — the piskies and brownies and vrokolaks brought over from the Old Country by immigrant believers — and the “new” gods of technology and progress worshipped by the descendants of those immigrants. One human, an ex-con called Shadow, is enlisted by a man calling himself Wednesday to help unite the old gods in resisting the new. Shadow, at loose ends after the sudden loss of his wife, agrees to work for Wednesday, and is plunged headlong into intrigue and strangeness, where people are not who they appear, time does not track, and even the dead do not stay in their graves.

A haunting tone poem of a novel. Highly recommended.

2017 Re-read

Although I had been intending to re-read this book for years, the impending debut of the Starz series (April 30!) finally got this book down from the shelf and into my hands in mid-April.

Seasons of ReadingIt’s funny how time can distort the memory of a once-read novel. I remembered this story as being mostly a road trip with Shadow and Wednesday. While there is definitely a great deal of travel involved, I had completely forgotten the events that take place in sleepy, quiet, wintry Lakeside. I had also forgotten the outcome of Wednesday’s machinations, and how truly noble Shadow turns out to be.

Now I’m prepared for the TV show. It better not be awful.

2017SFFReadingChallenge(Side observation: I expect researching this novel is what eventually led Gaiman to write Norse Mythology.)

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Read as part of the Spring Into Horror read-a-thon.  This is the only book I managed to finish during the time frame.  Join us next time!

Also read for the 2017 Award Winning SF/F Challenge.  You can still join in on that one.

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Book review: The Fireman by Joe Hill

The FiremanThe Fireman by Joe Hill

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

They called it “dragonscale”. And no one knew where it came from. It showed up as fine lines of black and gold, tracing the skin in loops and swirls and delicate patterns. Eventually, those who contracted the disease burst into flames and died, often taking buildings and other people with them. The uninfected feared the infected and began to set them aside in hospitals and camps and detention centers.

But some of the infected learned to control their fiery outbursts and channel them into a semblance of productivity or protection. Harper, a nurse, abandoned by her husband when she contracts the disease, is taken in by such a group in need of her medical abilities. They live in secret, hiding from the self-appointed Cremation Squads who scour the country looking for the infected. The group itself, however, is not ideal, and seems to headed down the path of becoming a religious cult. Harper and a few of her new friends begin looking for a way out.

I liked this well enough. It’s reasonably well-written; the story is engaging and the characters are mostly sympathetic; but the “…they would never do that/see each other/be here again” thing at the end of most chapters eventually became annoying. And the ending is a bit of a cliff-hanger, unless you’re like me and read all the acknowledgments, etc., at the end of the story. Because the real ending is hidden away back there.

Worth reading once.

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Book review: The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

The Windup GirlThe Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The heat is nearly unbearable.

The ice caps melted; the sea-level rose; the fossil-fuel economy collapsed; worldwide famine ensued; and Asia took the lead in science- and technology-driven solutions. Unfortunately, the genetically-engineered crops produced by the agricultural research companies also produced horrific diseases for crops and for people, further decimating global population and food supply. Riots, black markets, corporate espionage, ethnic cleansing…the world of 100 years or so from now is not a pleasant place, unless one is very wealthy.

And in Paolo Bacigalupi’s future vision, one is either very wealthy, or one is not. The only denizens of a nearly non-existent middle class are the calorie-men, like Anderson Lake, the manager of the factory where much of the action of this novel centers.

Anderson Lake prowls the street markets of Bangkok, hoping to find pure, unaltered food — a real canteloupe, an actual vine-grown tomato — that he can purchase and take back to his employer for gene analysis and modification. What he finds, eventually, is Enniko.

Enniko — the Windup Girl of the title — is a “New Person”, the genetically-engineered, vat-grown human-like plaything of a Japanese businessman, who left her behind in Bangkok when he grew tired of her. Her unaccompanied presence in the city is problematic, and she places herself under the protection of unsavory individuals for her personal safety.

Around both of them, Bangkok is aswirl with civil unrest, thievery, police corruption, political assassination attempts, and the outbreak of a new and mysterious disease. There’s so much going on in this story that it’s nearly impossible to synopsize.

It’s not an easy read: lots of characters and subplots to follow; lots of Bacigalupi-created neologisms; lots of untranslated Asian-language words (presumably Thai, but I could be wrong). The word meanings can be gathered from context, but it makes for slow going initially.

Have I mentioned that I loved it? I did. It’s fabulous. Gut-wrenching, heart-breaking, horrifying, and spectacular. Once I finally got into the story, I could hardly bear to put it down.

2017SFFReadingChallengeThis is not a story for everyone. But it was the story for me.

(If you like China Miéville, you will love this. Trust me.)

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This book was read as part of the 2017 Award-Winning Science Fiction/Fantasy Reading Challenge.  Click that badge on the right to see what other participants have read.

Book review: Wolves of the Calla by Stephen King

wolves-of-the-calla2016 Re-Read
2016 is the year I decided I was actually going to finish reading the Dark Tower series. Since I hadn’t read this book in at least five years, a re-read was deemed necessary. And that was a good thing, because I had completely forgotten ALL of the events of this story, including the insertion of ‘Salem’s Lot character Father Callahan, who somehow managed to fall into Mid-World after his humiliation by the Vampire Barlow.

Immediately after encountering “Oz” in Topeka, Roland and his fellow travelers Jake, Susannah, Eddie, and Oy continue on the Path of the Beam, eventually realizing they’ve left a plague-ridden Kansas behind and re-entered Mid-World.  Soon afterward, they are approached by the citizens of the farming community Calla Bryn Sturgis, who ask for their help in defeating marauders known as the Wolves.  Said Wolves raid their community once a generation and kidnap roughly half of the children, returning them severely brain-damaged several weeks later.  The people of Calla Bryn Sturgis want to put an end to the raids, and view the gunslingers as their only hope.

The gunslinger code to which our heroes have ascribed means not turning down such requests for assistance; thus they are honor-bound to take on this task, provided the majority of the town supports the endeavor and is willing to help themselves.  The townspeople do, and the ka-tet begins its preparation for battle, while simultaneously hatching a plan to return to Jake’s New York and protect the Rose.

RIP 9 Peril the Second

During all this, Roland and Eddie keep a weather eye on Susannah, who exhibits signs that she is not entirely herself.  Susannah, while vaguely uneasy and at times on edge, is generally unaware that anything may be wrong.  It is, however, and greatly.  The demon she distracted with sex [edited to add:  I had forgotten the circumstances of this “distraction”; in actuality, the demon raped Susannah, violently, brutally, and repeatedly] while her men “drew” Jake into this world (see The Waste Lands for that story) left Susannah pregnant; Susannah’s subconscious mind created another personality, Mia, to deal with the unwanted pregnancy.  Mia is dangerous and unpredictable and fiercely protective of her “chap”, as she refers to her baby.  Roland and Eddie fear she may disrupt, even ruin, their delicately-timed operation against the Wolves.  And Mia’s is not the only betrayal they fear.

As Dark Tower installments go, this one initially seems like a distraction, a step off the Path of the Beam that in no way furthers the overall story or the quest for the Tower. On its surface, it’s a re-telling of nearly every Western ever written: the ordinary law-abiding folk just want to farm their land and live in peace, but the bad guys are intent on shooting up the town at every opportunity; let’s recruit the Lone Ranger to get rid of the bad guys and earn our eternal gratitude.  (King acknowledges his debt to the Western in an afterword, so he is fully cognizant of his influences.)

But.  But.  This superficial interpretation does the story a disservice.  There’s far more than a simple Little Town on the Prairie tale to discover here.  With this novel, King appears to be setting up his end-game, with the introduction of the Wolves (who are far more and at the same time much less than we think); the repeated appearances of North Central Positronics technology; the side-trip describing Father Callahan’s journey to Mid-World, not to mention the mere existence of Callahan himself in Roland’s homeland; and the tension between Susannah, Mia, and the rest of the ka-tet.

2016SFFChallengeIf I have a quibble, it’s the same quibble I’ve had ever since Susannah was first introduced, and that is calling her a “schizophrenic”.  Susannah does not have schizophrenia; she has a dissociative identity disorder (formerly known as multiple personality disorder).  Back in the mid- to late-80s, when King originally wrote the character of Odetta/Detta Holmes, who became Susannah when her personalities merged, it’s possible he didn’t know the difference.  The idea that schizophrenia means “split personality” is common, albeit incorrect.  And since King started out with that interpretation, I guess he must follow it through in subsequent novels, if only for consistency’s sake.  Still irks me.

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This review was written for two reading challenges:  Readers Imbibing Peril (affectionately known as R.I.P.) XI, hosted by Carl at Stainless Steel Droppings; and the Award Winning SF/Fantasy Challenge, hosted by Shaunesay at The Space Between.  Click their respective badges to learn more about each.

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Book review, sort of: Wizard and Glass by Stephen King

RIP 9 Peril the Second

Call this a testament to the reason I keep books I love and re-read them again and again.

1081372For R.I.P. XI, I intended to read, finally, The Dark Tower, the last volume of Stephen King’s epic Gunslinger* series.  I got 65 pages into it and realized I remembered next to nothing about its immediate predecessor, Song of Susannah.  Okay, let’s get that one down off the shelf.  41 pages into Susannah, I realized I remembered nothing about its predecessor, Wolves of the Calla.  I picked Wolves up, turned to the last few pages and recognized….nothing.

Oh bother.

So I went all the way back to Wizard and Glass, looked at its last few pages, shook my head in dismay and started at the beginning.  After re-reading the first section, the nightmare trip with Blaine the Mono, and reading enough of the middle section, the flashback to Roland’s teenage travels, to sufficiently reacquaint myself with the high and low points, I then skipped ahead to join up with the ka-tet once more, where they sit by the side of I-70 outside Topeka, after the end of Roland’s tale of young love, loss, and exile.  A quick trip to Oz later (read it: you’ll see what I mean), and now we’re back on the Path of the Beam.

I love Wizard and Glass.  I love it.  And I love it for all the reasons other readers of this series hate it:  that novel-length interlude where Roland tells the story of his trip West to the Barony of Mejis when he was 14 years old, where he fell in love for the first time, and how that love led to unexpected consequences and set his foot on the path that will lead inexorably to the Dark Tower.  I don’t want to say much more about it because of spoilers, but here’s the truth:  Roland is who he is because of that fateful journey and the story of the Tower couldn’t be told without it.

RIP 11This non-review was written for the R.I.P. XI Reading Challenge.  Click that badge to learn more about it.  You’ve got a few more days to join in, if you haven’t joined us already.

2016SFFChallengeAnd it’s also part of the Award-Winning SF/Fantasy Challenge.  Click that other badge to find out about that challenge.  You have until the end of 2016 to join in.

*Yes, I know, it’s really “The Dark Tower” series, but I’ve always called it the “Gunslinger” series after the title of the first volume and the mythic characters King brought to life.

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Book review: The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber

The Book of Strange New ThingsThe Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“Blessed are you, Simon bar Jonah…you are Peter, and upon this rock will I build my Church, and the gates of Hell will not overcome it.” Matthew 16:17-18, excerpted

Peter, a Christian pastor from England — denomination unnamed but probably Anglican or Methodist — is selected out of many applicants to go to a distant planet as a missionary. After much discussion with his wife, Bea, Peter accepts the challenge and rockets away to Oasis to preach the Gospel to the natives.

Upon arrival, Peter quickly makes the acquaintance of the Oasans, as he calls them, and decides to live among them to better deliver God’s Word daily, rather than stay at the human settlement and visit the Oasans once or twice a week. He commences leading Bible studies; he oversees the construction of a church; he starts translating the Bible, known by the Oasans as The Book of Strange New Things, into the Oasan language; and he begins losing all but the most tenuous contact with his fellow humans, even his wife. Meanwhile, Bea is sending increasingly frantic and frightening messages from Earth, where all Hell seems to be breaking loose.

Let’s talk about Peter for just a moment. A former drug addict and alcoholic, he turned his life around when he met Bea; he became a Christian under her influence, and not just a Christian but an ordained minister. His name is no coincidence: like Simon bar Jonah above, he became a different person when he met Christ, and literally built a new church in a new world, despite facing opposition and misunderstanding and prejudice on nearly all sides.

Allegorical characterization aside, this is not a “Christian” novel by any stretch of the imagination and non-religious folks should not hesitate to dive right in. It’s a fish-out-of-water story. It’s a do-the-best-that-you-can-with-what-you-have story. It’s a character study of a man under extraordinary stress. The parts of the story that focus on Peter’s missionary work aren’t intended to evangelize the reader: this is simply what Peter does and who he is, and his story couldn’t be told without discussing the teachings of Christ.

Michel Faber leaves a few dangling threads in his narrative. For example, it seems odd that USIC, the multinational conglomerate funding the Oasis expedition, would want a minister as part of their team until one discovers that the native population of the planet in question demands it, and is withholding the food supply from the humans currently on the planet until said missionary arrives. So, Peter as replacement is easily understood, but why was a missionary — specifically, a Christian missionary — included in the first place? That question is left unanswered. And the grim foreboding that seemed to be building up about the planet, its climate, and its natives, was left completely unresolved. The plot didn’t take the direction I expected, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it did leave me wondering if I had misinterpreted all that foreshadowing. The ambivalent ending left me somewhat dissatisfied, even as I realized there was no other way to resolve the storyline: thus, the three-star rating rather than a four-star. Regardless, writing and characterization were excellent, and for a non-traditional SF writer, Faber did a pretty good job with his world-building. While I still regard The Crimson Petal and the White as Faber’s best work, The Book of Strange New Things showcases his versatility.

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Fallout

Rainbow Dishcloths

Photo Credit: Cathy Weeks, posted to her Flickr account

People who have known me for any length of time know that I unequivocally and wholeheartedly support marriage equality and equal rights (and have done for many years). And so I rejoiced and huzzah’d and cheered and had the biggest grin ever plastered on my face last Friday due to the Supreme Court decision making marriage equality the law of the land.

But along with the general rejoicing all over the social media and news sites I frequent, a peculiar and disturbing “my civil liberties have been infringed by SCOTUS” theme has emerged from some not wholly unexpected quarters.  Republican Presidential candidates, religious zealots, and conservative media dittoheads, as well as certain family members and a few friends — some long-term, some more recent — are spouting the fundamentalist party line that this decision means the next thing will be lawsuits to force ministers to gay-marry people, therefore Christianity itself is at risk, and we better gather up the womenfolk and chilluns because they’ll be coming for your guns and Bibles shortly.

What complete and utter bullshit.

News flash, folks.  The Obergefell v. Hodges decision affects your civil liberties not a whit.  Ministers are still perfectly free to not marry anyone who doesn’t meet their particular denomination’s dogmatic standards.  You are still perfectly free to believe whatever you like, worship however you like, and hold whatever opinions you wish. You are perfectly free to bemoan the “moral decay” you think you’re witnessing. You are perfectly free to rant and rave and quote obsolete and irrelevant Old Testament verses that support your views. And you are perfectly free to call for a Constitutional amendment to override a decision that you find abhorrent.

(Personally, I’d like to see a Constitutional amendment that overturns the Citizens United decision, but that’s a different rant. I wish us both good luck with that, by the way. This republic’s Constitution has been amended only 27 times in the 226 years since it was ratified, and the first ten of those amendments were done only two years after initial ratification, so essentially only 17 amendments have passed muster in over 200 years.)

However, what you are no longer free to do is discriminate against your LGBTQ brothers and sisters with respect to the legal protection of marriage. You don’t have to like it. That’s part of your freedom, as well.  But you have to understand that marriage has very little to do with religion, anyway.

*pause to insert earplugs to block the screams of outrage*

Yes, you heard me.  Marriage itself has nothing to do with religion.

Now I know a lot of people choose to get married in a religious ceremony, with prayer and talk of God and holy matrimony and so forth.  I did so myself;  it was lovely and moving and very special indeed.  But the religious service that constituted the saying of our vows has nothing to do with the facts of our marriage.  We could have just as easily walked down the hall to the office of the Justice of the Peace on the day we picked up our marriage license, had that fine worthy perform the ceremony, and been just as married.  Because what constitutes the fact of my marriage is this:  My husband and I went to the county courthouse, purchased a license, had a ceremony performed by an individual who certified on that license that he was authorized to perform marriage ceremonies. He then submitted that certified document back to the county for the marriage to be entered into county records as proof of the legally binding contract my husband and I entered into on that beautiful spring day many years ago.

Marriage in the United States is a legal contract, and thus it’s a civil matter, licensed, recorded, and sanctioned by the government.  The fact that many people celebrate their marriage vows with a religious ceremony is irrelevant. That means it’s also irrelevant if your religion says homosexuality is a sin, and therefore gay people shouldn’t be allowed to get married.  Marriage is a civil matter, and what your religion says has no bearing on the right of consenting adults to marry.

But here’s another thing you have to understand.  Marriage equality is no threat to your church. Hordes of gay folk clad in rainbow-colored wedding garments aren’t going to storm your sanctuary, demand to be married at your altar, and file lawsuits if refused.  Your church’s clergy are protected under the First Amendment and can refuse to perform a marriage ceremony for anyone who is perceived as not meeting dogmatic or doctrinal standards.  For example, a Catholic priest may refuse to marry a divorced person because Catholic doctrine says divorce is a sin. An Orthodox rabbi may refuse to marry a Jewish person to a non-Jewish person because Judaism generally frowns upon interfaith marriages.  Heck, my own pastor very nearly refused to marry my husband and me because my husband is an atheist.

As mentioned above, though, you’re perfectly free to believe homosexuality is a sin, although I would ask you to take a look at a little research on the so-called “clobber verses” that people with those beliefs generally quote to back their position.

And, because I don’t want to stop loving my friends and family who buy into this “my religious freedoms are being attacked” nonsense, I had to “unfollow” a few people on social media in the last couple of days. They aren’t de-friended or blocked, just not followed for a while, until their hateful, spiteful, inaccurate, or ugly status updates die down.

Book review: Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather

Death Comes for the ArchbishopDeath Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A meditative ramble through the lives of two French Jesuits sent to the United States to take over administering the New Mexico diocese in the latter half of the 19th Century, Death Comes for the Archbishop is filled with poetic descriptions of the mesas and the desert and peppered with bits and pieces of Native American religious belief. It’s difficult to describe how a simple novel that follows the quotidian existence of priests and their parishioners in a harsh, unforgiving land can be so lyrical and so profoundly moving, so maybe you can just take my word for it. And while the title is technically a spoiler, there’s really no surprise here. Truly, in the end, Death comes for us all.

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Book review: The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff

Three of five stars

Okay, book first:  Well written and readable.  Although initially I enjoyed the 19th century storyline, I got bored with Ann Eliza’s story about 2/3rds of the way through.  She struck me as whiny, strident, and self-serving, which is only to be expected in an autobiography detailing her struggles as a plural wife and attacking one of the (then) fundamental doctrines of the Latter Day Saints.  As the book wore on, I became more interested in Jordan’s contemporary fight to save his mother from a murder charge than in Ann’s 19th century fight against “celestial” marriage and the Mormon church.

And now, a brief meditation on the fundamental issue of this novel, plural marriage.

As an advocate of personal liberty, I don’t think plural marriage is necessarily evil in and of itself.  However, as it was practiced by the Mormon Church in the 19th Century (and is practiced still by its bastard offshoots today), in which the man has multiple wives and holds all the power, it is blatantly discriminatory, demeaning, and harmful.  That’s not marriage, that’s concubinage.  That’s slavery.

To me, plural marriage must mean all parties involved have multiple spouses.

In other words, a husband doesn’t just marry another woman, or man, for that matter.  His current partner must marry her or him also.  And conversely, if a wife wants to marry another man (or woman), her current partner must also marry him or her.  All parties involved are married to each other.  Any children that result from the marriage are the children of all.  In theory, such a family structure makes a certain amount of sense.  Several working adults contributing monetarily to the household while one or two nurturing types stay home and care for the children and the house?  Sounds prosperous, comfortable, almost idyllic.  In Caprica, a television series hardly anyone saw, just such a marriage was depicted.  And, other than one of the spouses being a spy and another one a murderer, it seemed to work just fine.

Look, if multiple consenting adults want to marry each other and raise a family, I see no reason why they shouldn’t.  Human nature being what it is, though, I don’t hold out much hope for such an arrangement actually working in the long run.  Jealousies and rivalries will develop, factions will evolve, power struggles will ensue….sheesh, it’s hard enough being married to one person.  I can’t imagine dealing with multiple spouses.  (Go ahead, watch Caprica and see what happens in the above-mentioned plural marriage.)  And when such a marital arrangement falls apart?  I can’t even begin to imagine the unraveling of that legal tangle in a divorce court.

On a personal note, if my husband ever came to me with the notion that he wanted to add another wife to our household, he’d find himself out the door in a hurry.  I just asked him what his response would be in the opposite scenario.  His response can’t be printed.

Given that most of the United States can’t even bring itself to allow consenting adults of the same sex to marry, I don’t see much chance of plural marriage as described above becoming permissible at any point in the future, so speculation on its nature and effect on family and society is simply that:  speculation.  We can only go by history, and thus far history shows us only one form of plural marriage.  As portrayed in The 19th Wife, it’s not a pretty picture.

Book review: The Carpet Makers by Andreas Eschbach

Three of five stars

On an unnamed desert planet in a desolate part of the galaxy, the people go about their lives in service to the Emperor. No one has ever seen the Emperor in person, but his visage is everywhere, and to question him or his instructions is heresy. An elite caste of carpetmakers provide the chief export, rugs woven and tied of human hair, made for the Imperial Palace and shipped offworld every year or so by Imperial Ships who come to collect them. Over the centuries, eons, millennia, society has evolved so that virtually every person on the planet supports this industry in some fashion. And those who choose to disregard their proscribed destinies and follow their own paths are ostracized, even killed…

But over the last several years, a constant rumor floats just beneath the surface…the Emperor is dead, has been for decades. And, if that is the case, some people ask, just who are we making these carpets for?

Told as a series of loosely connected vignettes, Andreas Eschbach unfolds his story in bits and pieces, a intimation here, a hint there, a clear direction over yonder, until the terrible truth of the Emperor and his hair carpets is finally revealed.

Not so much a traditional science fiction story as a meditation on the power of myth and the persistence of custom, Eschbach explores human strengths such as persistence and dedication, faith and curiosity, as well as human frailties such as greed, lust, and hunger for power, and gently suggests we take a good long look at ourselves and our ways, and ask ourselves, “Are we doing this because this is the right thing to do, or because this is how we’ve always done it?”