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Dual book review: This Way to the End Times and The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter

This Way to the End Times: Classic Tales of the ApocalypseThis Way to the End Times: Classic Tales of the Apocalypse by Robert Silverberg

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A diverse collection of short stories covering a wide variety of ways the world may end, or the aftermath thereof. I’m a sucker for apocalyptic fiction, and this was right up my alley. As with all short story collections, some were better than others, but all were worth reading. Presented in mostly chronological order by date of publication beginning with the early 20th Century, the reader can see how the apocalypse changes as technology advances. That all by itself makes for fascinating reading.

The Heart Is a Lonely HunterThe Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A book I read because it’s on a bunch of lists of “Books You Must Read Before You Die.”

I won’t say it was a waste of my time, but truly, I didn’t care that much about John Singer, the fellow identified by cover copy as being the main character. I was much more interested in Mick Kelly, the young girl whose family owns the boarding house in which Mr. Singer resides. Maybe that’s because I remember reading The Member of the Wedding when I was a teenager and was expecting something similar.

Maybe I’ll just reread that book.

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Book review: The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin

The Three-Body Problem (Remembrance of Earth’s Past, #1)The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m going to quote the Publisher’s Weekly synopsis here: “…[an] intricate and imaginative novel by one of China’s most celebrated genre writers. In 1967, physics professor Ye Zhetai is killed after he refuses to denounce the theory of relativity. His daughter, Ye Wenjie, witnesses his gruesome death. Shortly after, she’s falsely charged with sedition for promoting the works of environmentalist Rachel Carson, and told she can avoid punishment by working at a defense research facility involved with the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. More than 40 years later, Ye’s work becomes linked to a string of physicist suicides and a complex role-playing game involving the classic physics problem of the title.”

Excellent work. That complex game and the detailed description of its play take up several chapters of this novel. They were probably the hardest for me to get through — I am not a gamer and I don’t care about video games. At. All. But these chapters serve to advance the plot, they’re relatively interesting (I’m aware some folks find them “awesome”) and, eventually, the implications of each game-playing session become clear.

I am not a scientist by any stretch of the imagination. But the author and translator did an excellent job of explaining astrophysics to the unwashed masses (that means me), and I was able to follow enough of the science and reasoning to make sense of the direction of the plot. Plus the sheer educational value of the history of the Cultural Revolution, of which I knew nothing, made this a worthwhile read.  I’m looking forward to the second book of the series, as soon as it becomes available at my library.

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Book review: The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

The Essex SerpentThe Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Not your usual love story. Not your usual happy ending.

Cora, recently widowed — and frankly, quite pleased to be free of her marriage — decamps to the Essex countryside with her companion Martha and her son Frances for a change of scenery after her abusive husband is laid to rest. There she meets Will Ransome, the local vicar, and his angelic wife, Stella. Cora and Will immediately take to each other in an intellectual sense, debating matters of biology, naturalism, and faith with vigor and passion; Stella looks on in bemusement and a secret delight that Will has met someone his intellectual equal. Stella is ill, although she hasn’t told anyone; as the novel wears on, one suspects she doesn’t object to Will’s friendship with Cora because she expects Will to turn to Cora after Stella passes on.

In the meantime, Aldwinter (the village) is roiled by the rumor that the Essex Serpent of the title has resurfaced after an absence of some 200 years. Cora is thrilled at the story and believes the Serpent may be a prehistoric creature. Will believes the story is stuff and nonsense but is pleased church attendance is up. Still, he is unsettled by the reason: many in town believe the End Times may be at hand, or at the very least, God is unhappy with the town and is punishing them with this beast. The townsfolk are skittish and superstitious; they keep their children in and their livestock tied, and hold vigil at the edge of the river, watching for any sign of the creature so Aldwinter can be warned and ready.

As the year rolls by, passions rise and fall; quarrels come and go; people leave and return; letters are written and exchanged; the Serpent lurks; death stalks; love awaits; and peace, while elusive, is eventually found.

Lovely writing, lovely story.

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Book review: The Grave’s a Fine and Private Place by Alan Bradley

The Grave's a Fine and Private Place (Flavia de Luce #9)The Grave’s a Fine and Private Place by Alan Bradley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Six months after the death of their father, Flavia de Luce and her sisters, Daphne and Ophelia, are on a summer boating holiday with family retainer Dogger, in a desperate attempt to jolt themselves out of their gloom and come together as a family once again. As luck would have it, and as one has come to expect when 12-year-old Flavia is involved, a body turns up — in this particular instance, it’s snagged by Flavia herself as she trails her hand in the river while they are punting along.

The boating party pulls ashore and Dogger goes off to fetch the local constabulary. While Daffy and Feely stand watch on either side of the soggy corpse, a delighted Flavia begins her investigation. And thus we’re off on another romp through our intrepid sleuth’s thinking process as she sifts clues and calculates advantages and outcomes.

Lots of lovely secondary characters here: I was nearly as enamored with Hob, the undertaker’s son, as Flavia was. He seems to be cut from the same jib as our young heroine: determined, spunky, and with a little larceny in his soul.

Yes, with each book, Flavia becomes a little more devious, I think, in the sense that she recognizes there are certain things the adults mustn’t know or they won’t let her continue with her favorite hobby. She generally wracks herself with brief moments of guilt over these little deceptions, but the ends always seem to justify the means. She’s more than a little frightening, actually. But she’s also starting to grow up here: she’s seeing her sisters in a more forgiving light, which is a good thing since they’re orphaned and have only each other now (leaving aside Aunt Felicity, of course).

Oh, almost forgot. Of course Flavia solves the mystery. Because she wouldn’t be Flavia otherwise.

I look forward to the next installment.

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Book review: The Gates by John Connolly

The Gates (Samuel Johnson, #1)The Gates by John Connolly

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Samuel Johnson is a curious kid, in more than one sense of the word. Curious as in inquisitive, and curious as in just a little bit odd. This year he decided to get a jump on Halloween by trick-or-treating a few days early, to beat the rush and maybe get the best candy. Unfortunately, the adults in his neighborhood didn’t find his initiative as charming as this reader did, especially the Abernathys. Mr. Abernathy shooed Samuel off the front stoop as quickly as he could; and then returned to the spell-casting in which he and Mrs. Abernathy and another couple were engaged in the basement. When their spell is an unexpected success and they accidentally open a portal into Hell (simultaneously causing an issue with the Large Hadron Collider), Samuel, still lurking about outside the house, noticed. And the demons who jumped through the portal noticed Samuel noticing.

And then all Hell proceeded to break loose.

Written in a light quirky child-like voice, this is a quick, fun read filled with humor and memorable characters. First in a series, aimed at a YA audience, but entertaining enough for adults.

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Book review: Olympos by Dan Simmons

Olympos (Ilium, #2)Olympos by Dan Simmons

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

MARS: Paris is dead. Hockenberry and Helen are lovers. Achilles and Hector have joined forces against the gods while the gods fight amongst themselves. Mahnmut and Orphu discover the quantum energy they’ve been tracking emanates from Earth rather than Mars, and it’s about to destroy both worlds.

EARTH: Meanwhile, Odysseus travels with Harman and Ada, seeking an end to Setebos. Daeman travels alone, seeking the same end. And the voynix drop their pretense of servitude; humanity’s continued existence is precarious.

Dan Simmons juggles many plates in the concluding volume of this epic duology. I admit to being a little lost at times, and occasionally needing to trudge my way through chapter 2017SFFReadingChallengeafter chapter in dogged determination. Yeah, the story bogs down now and then. So many moving parts! But stick with it, and you’ll be rewarded in the end.

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Book review: Ilium by Dan Simmons

Ilium (Ilium, #1)Ilium by Dan Simmons

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Allosaurs, Greek gods, and space-going Shakespeare enthusiasts? Dan Simmons must have read my Christmas wish list.

Troy is at war. The Greeks, led by Agamemnon and Achilles, and the Trojans, led by Priam and Paris, wage pitched and pitiless battles, aided by the gods and observed by humans. These humans — the scholics — were once experts on Greek poetry and ancient history. They were reconstructed by the gods from their DNA, and then brought back to make sure the path of the war follows the path of the Iliad as laid out by Homer. Thomas Hockenberry is one such scholic, tramping around the battlefield in the guise of various soldiers, making notes and reporting back to the Muse. One day, after nine years of such a life, he is summoned by Aphrodite and told he is to alter the course of things. He is to kill Pallas Athena.

On Earth, humans live in an idyllic setting, pursuing a sybaritic lifestyle. The world is a constant round of dinner parties, picnics, long walks through the woods, and casual sex. No work, no worries, no schooling, no commitments, their every need is seen to by the voynix, mechanical servants who cook, clean, and care for them in their Eden. Daeman, who, like most others of society, is spectacularly incurious about the whys and wherefores of his world, and who collects butterflies and bed partners with equal vigor, arrives at the estate of his cousin, Ada, for a birthday party. He is shocked to discover that the party is not in celebration of someone’s 20th — after which they will be whisked away to the Rings and then returned after rejuvenation — but of Harman’s 99th. In essence, it’s Harman’s going-away party, for he has only one more year of life. But a chance encounter with an allosaurus changes everything.

On Europa, the Five Moon Consortium, a conclave of biomechanical beings, gathers to discuss the 600-year lack of contact from the post-humans and the more recent (in the last 200 years) apparent terraforming of Mars. The consortium is especially concerned with unusually massive amounts of quantum-shift activity centered on Mons Olympus, and decides to send an expedition to investigate. Mahnmut, a Europan moravec, is excited to be included in this expedition with his friend Orphu, an Ionian moravec, and looks forward to continuing their discussions of Shakespeare and Proust and literature in general.  The expedition sets off well enough but soon suffers a severe setback, leaving Mahnmut and Orphu to make the best of what may be a fatal error.

Simmons adopted three different voices to tell these stories. The Trojan saga echoes Homeric prose, to the point of opening the novel with a paraphrase of the opening lines of the Iliad itself; and it is in this opening paragraph that we first begin to understand the sorrow and tragedy of the scholic Hockenberry and the rest of the cast of characters Simmons introduces. The story of Daeman, Ada, and Harman is told in simple descriptive language akin to the childlike outlook of the humans themselves; while the conversations of Mahnmut, Orphu, and the rest of the moravecs are full of technobabble and high literary analysis. This narrative trick is effective, if occasionally jarring when 2017SFFReadingChallengemoving from artless human idyll to high Homeric tragedy.

Three settings. Three stories. Three disparate and wandering paths that lead to the same destination? We’ll find out when I read the sequel.

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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.

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Book review: Neuromancer by William Gibson

Neuromancer (Sprawl Trilogy, #1)Neuromancer by William Gibson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

So, maybe cyberpunk is not my thing.

More specifically, maybe the inventor of cyberpunk, Mr. William Gibson himself, is not my thing. This is the second Gibson under my belt. I realized belatedly that the first, Count Zero, read nearly 10 years ago, was the sequel to this novel. I enjoyed it more than Neuromancer, but not enough to keep it or consider reading it again. And, even though the title fascinates me, I’m fairly certain I’ll pass on the third entry in this series, Mona Lisa Overdrive.

Okay, the review part:

Case, a hacker, down on his luck and scrounging for ways to feed his addiction, receives an offer to repair the neurological damage caused by his last employer and the physical damage caused by his addiction in exchange for diving back into the Matrix (a “Deep Web”-type virtual space where the hacker’s disembodied consciousness runs free amidst corporate and personal data in search of booty to pirate) and stealing some very particular data for a very particular client. Desperate, he agrees, even though the repair job is temporary unless he successfully completes his assignment. Much world-hopping, bed-hopping, and cyberspace-hopping ensue.

This 1984 novel is notable for its prescience and coinage of words now in common use — Gibson foresaw the coming ubiquity of the internet, and gave us the term “cyberspace”. For that reason alone, it’s worth reading. And I won’t argue that it well deserves its Hugo and Nebula awards: at the time of its publication, Neuromancer was a uniquely fresh take on the whole SF genre, while at the same time creating a whole new subgenre.

What I will argue is that for readers who are not technically-minded (yours truly as case in point), it’s easy to get lost in the complexities of Gibson’s vision. While I ended my trip through the Matrix with a general feeling of resolution (in the sense that I understood the basics of the story and its ending), I was also rather confused — perhaps dizzied is a better word — at several points during the story. For example, I’m not entirely clear on what happened to Linda or why she kept showing up in odd places. The whole bit with why the Marcus Garvey was integral to the scheme to steal the data escaped me. And with so many characters and their inter-relationships to keep track of, I felt like I needed a flow chart.

Part of this confusion may stem from the fact that I read this book on my daily commute train, so perhaps my concentration wasn’t fully focused. Regardless, I am not a novice SF reader. I understand SF, especially good SF, can be complex and dizzying and character-heavy. (Witness my thorough enjoyment of Seveneves by Neal Stephenson and Perdido Street Station by China Miéville.) My conclusion, therefore, is that stated at the top of this review: cyberpunk is one sub-genre that doesn’t suit the way my brain operates. Too bad.

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2016SFFChallengeThis review was written as part of the 2016 Award-Winning SFF Challenge. This challenge is now over, but you can find the sign-up for the 2017 Challenge right here.

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