Sunday, 29 December 2013

Book Review: First Lensman / E.E. Doc Smith

3 of 5 stars
In the not too distance future, while fleets of commercial space ships travel between the planets of numerous solar systems, a traveler named Virgil Samms visits the planet Arisia. There he becomes the first wearer of the Lens, the almost-living symbol of the forces of law and order. As the first Lensman, Samms helps to form the Galactic Patrol, a battalion of Lensmen who are larger than life heroes. These solders are the best of the best, with incredible skills, stealth, and drive. They are dedicated and incorruptible fighters who are willing to die to protect the universe from the most horrific threat it has ever known.

By far the best of the Lensman series that I have read so far--the most intricate plot and the most characters, though they are still pretty stereotyped.  One has to consider that this was published in 1940, when military men were heroes and equated with all that was good, against the forces of evil--pretty much the planet of Arisia vs. Eddore.

Once again, I am struck by the forward looking role of women in this novel.  When selecting people to go to Arisia to become Lensmen, the men unanimously choose their coworker, Jill, who accompanies them on the voyage.  She doesn't end up with a Lens, as it appears that the Arisians are less accepting than human men.  She comes back, reporting, "Women's minds and Lenses don't fit...Lenses are as masculine as whiskers...There is going to be a woman Lensman some day--just one--but not for years and years."  But Jill goes on to play a pivotal role in the plot and in the end, hooks up with one of the official Lensmen, Mason Northrup.  I guess Smith let the aliens be the chauvinistic ones!

I also enjoyed how politicians and elections get thoroughly run down as corrupt and unfair--much the same way that many people feel today.  In that regard, the book has a very modern sensibility, although I'm sure we would be suspicious of a military body of any kind over seeing an election to maintain its integrity.

Its fascinating to see the beginnings of the science fiction genre and too see where some of the enduring stereotypes come from--I wouldn't recommend the Lensman series to just anyone, but it you are interested in the history of the sci-fi genre, this series is required reading.

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Book Review: The Stainless Steel Rat Saves the World

3 out of 5 stars

Someone was tampering with time, altering the past to eliminate the present, fading people out of existence into a timeless limbo. One of the victims was Angelina, the wife of James de Griz, better known as the Stainless Steel Rat.
Another adventure of one of my favourite sociopaths.  Well before there was Dexter, there was Slippery Jim DiGriz.  He is completely incapable of being straight forward, even with his beloved Angelina, the reformed psychopath.

As per usual, Jim & Angelina are just barely sticking to the path set out for them by the governmental body which recruited and "reformed" them, the Special Corps.  (They go off the rails frequently, but always get welcomed back because they are the best at solving criminal cases--who would understand criminals better than other criminals do?)  Jim is attending yet another disciplinary meeting, when his boss suddenly goes transparent, then disappears.  While using the opportunity to help himself to expensive cigars, Jim also determines that some criminal mastermind has relocated to the past in order to change the present and Jim's world is disintegrating as a result.

Now Slippery Jim is very fond of his life and that of Angelina, so he allows the company scientist to fling him back in time 20,000 years to the ancient date of 1975 to a place called Dirt or Earth or something like that.  There is a certainly amount of amusement to be gained from his interpretations of  contemporary life, at least when the book was written.

These books are rather formulaic--and I know that I have whined about that with regard to the Elric series--but somehow, Harrison's Stainless Steel Rat manages to remain charming, perhaps because there is a strong dose of humour injected into every adventure.  I also enjoy Angelina, who saves Jim on a regular basis and obviously tolerates his chauvinism for reasons of her own.

Classics in the science fiction genre.

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Book review : Hild / Nicola Griffith

5 out of 5 stars

I am a sucker for historical fiction—I love reading novels set in the past.  And the less published evidence there is about the society in question, the better I like it.  For example, I adore King Arthur mythology and one of my favourite series ever is that by Mary Stewart (The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills and The Last Enchantment).  I’m also very fond of The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley.  Basically, bring on the archeological research and the mythology and let’s not let the facts stand too firmly in the way of a good, romantic story (by which I mean a historic tale, not necessarily a love story).

Hild, by Nicola Griffith, qualifies as a superior entry in this category for me.  Set in medieval northern England, it is the story of the woman who eventually becomes St. Hilda of Whitby, a powerful female voice in a male dominated world.  The author shares in her afterword that there is very little in written records about Hilda—Griffith absorbed the contemporary documents & tales plus publications about the archaeological research and set about to create this world in a novel.  The child, Hild, is introduced to the mix and then we watch what happens.

Magic is what happens.  I forgot that I was reading—instead, I was living along with the young Hild, learning how to be politically careful and quiet, watching the natural world, absorbing information without others being aware, cultivating sources of gossip and news;  all the talents that she will require to be the King’s seer.  

The attention to the natural world is extraordinary.  Being a bird watcher myself, I loved all the references to British birds, the chiffchaffs, the ravens and the shrikes (butcher-birds).  I enjoyed young Hild’s predilection for climbing trees and making her observations from on high.  Hedgehogs and hares, deer and horses, Griffith pays attention to all the animals in the vicinity.
I also appreciated the depiction of a young woman of an important family growing into her sexuality—what is allowed, what is not, how her impulses are dealt with—all very naturally and sympathetically portrayed.  A female author makes a big difference in this regard—male sexuality is also written realistically, in my opinion, and the differences between the two genders are dealt with matter-of-factly.  

If there are any drawbacks, they are some of the character names—difficult for those of us who are unfamiliar with Celtic or Old English pronunciation.  There are also a few scattered words of terminology given only in Old English, which one must divine the meaning of through context.  Not overly difficult, but sometimes a trifle annoying.  Still these issues did not detract from the lustre of the tale.

If you have any interest at all in historical fiction, the Middle Ages in Britain, the change from pagan religions to Christianity, the early church in Britain, the role of women in medieval times, etc., READ THIS BOOK.  It is well worth your while.

I understand from the afterword that there is a second book in the works.  I can hardly wait.  This one will be going to the nursing home with me (if I still have all my marbles) because it is a gorgeous read and I look forward to re-reading it repeatedly in the future.

Monday, 16 December 2013

Book review: The Sleeping Sorceress

3 out of 5 stars
"Elric of Melniboné. Traitor. Savior. Lover. Thief. Last king of a fallen empire whose cruelty was surpassed only by its beauty. Sustained by drugs and the vampiric powers of his black sword, Stormbringer, haunted by visions of a tragic past and a doomed future, Elric wanders the world in quest of oblivion."

I know that a lot of folk adore Elric. I've read 4 or 5 of these novels now, and I am finding them rather repetitive. There is only so much moody brooding that I can handle from a main character.

Written in the days before political correctness, Elric is an albino ruler of a mythical kingdom. He is naturally weak and has to use herbs and eventually a magical/demonic sword to perform the feats of heroism required of him. And of course, he is also a powerful sorcerer in his own right. However, it seems whenever anything untoward gets started, he needs another dose of herb, has misplaced his sword or has a sudden memory loss regarding useful spells. But he digs deep and finds what he needs in order to triumph. Over and over again.

The Sleeping Sorceress does not deviate from this pattern. In fact, she joins in, just managing to regain enough consciousness to tell Elric what he needs to do to free her, before sinking back into the sleeping spell again.

I was interested to read in the author's afterword that Elric is based on El Cid. It has been long years since I read that classic tale, so I hope to revisit it before tackling another Elric novel.

I keep thinking that I'm missing something--why don't I adore this series as so many fans do? I appreciate the dreamy, other-worldly atmosphere of Elric's world to some extent, I could enjoy the plot formula for a book or two, but I can't understand the demand for more of the same. Any one have any insights into Moorcock's work to help me appreciate it more?

Thursday, 12 December 2013

My Favourite Books of 2013

Every year should have a top 10 list, ne c’est pas?  Alors, here are my 10 favourite books of 2013.

1.       The Shining Girls / Lauren Beukes
A wonderful combination of two of my favourite things:  serial killers and fantasy.  (The mechanism of the time travel is never actually revealed, so I can’t really classify it as science fiction).  I don’t know why I’m twisted enough to enjoy books about serial killers, but I certainly do.  Punch-drunk on time travel, I found myself desperate to finish the novel, my feet making little running motions as I read.  And even when I reached the end, there was a feeling that I didn’t quite understand the ramifications of it all and the time travel paradoxes lingered in my mind for several days.  That’s the sign of a good book!

2.       My Beloved Brontosaurus / Brian Switek
A non-fiction pick for the year.  An easy, painless way to get caught up on the latest in dinosaur research in recent years, written by an author who obviously loves the subject matter.   I think all those of us of a certain age who love dinosaurs have fond memories of Brontosaurus. 

3.       Watership Down / Richard Adams
A bunny book!  Part of my science fiction/fantasy reading project and a true classic.  I have owned pet rabbits and appreciate the accuracy of bunny behaviour, as well as the epic nature of the story.  Adams doesn’t make them little humans in fur suits; they are definitely rabbits, engaged in life’s struggles on their own terms.

4.       The Mists of Avalon / Marion Zimmer Bradley
Also on my reading project list.  A wonderful reminder of how much I love the King Arthur cycle and how much I appreciate a female perspective on the tale.  MZB wrote some amazing stuff and I plan to track down more of her work in the future, especially the follow-up books to Mists.

5.       Hild / Nicola Griffith
Best historical fiction that I have read this year.  I’m in love with Old English and the Middle Ages and this books indulges my preferences so well.  I adore the dreamy feel of the language and find myself happily immersed in Hild’s world for hours.  A book that I will take to the nursing home with me if I still have my marbles!

6.       Food for the Gods / Karen Dudley
Best use of a classical education by an author.  Full disclosure, Karen is a friend of mine, but I would praise this book whether I knew her or not.  It treats the ancient Greeks like the fun and interesting people that they were, weaves in mythology in ways that make perfect sense to the plot and provides many giggles along the way.  Celebrity chefs meet ancient Athens!

7.       Fuzzy Nation / John Scalzi
The best re-boot of a beloved original.  I have adored H. Beam Piper’s books about the Fuzzies since I first discovered them in the late 1980s.  When I realized that Scalzi had penned a new version of this classic, I had to read it and I was pleasantly surprised.  Scalzi’s Fuzzies have considerably more edginess than Piper’s and there is considerably more snark in this incarnation, but somehow it works.

8.       The Juggler’s Children / Carolyn Abraham
The brave new world of combining genetics and genealogical research.  An engaging description of the author’s research into her own family tree, trying to sort out all the cultural heritage issues.  This book made me want to go right out and buy a genetic testing kit!

9.       Pride and Prejudice / Jane Austen
Best new discovery of classic literature.  I can’t believe that I had never read this book before this year.  It entertained my on the plane on my way to Japan and I can see myself reading it again at some point in the future.  I love Austen’s style.

10.   What’s Bred in the Bone / Robertson Davies
The most enjoyable re-read of my year!  I adore Davies’ writing and I consider this book to be his masterpiece.  Probably also the best Can Lit that I read this year.

Which were your best reads of 2013?

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Book review: The First Muslim

Having recently read Zealot, written by a Muslim author about Jesus, I felt it was only fair that I also read The First Muslim by a Jewish author about Mohammed.  Now I just need a book on Judaism by a Christian author to complete the hat-trick.

You need to be on the outside looking in if you want to write a unbiased biography of a religious figure.  Both books were good and gave me unexpected insights into each religion and sometimes all religions.

I knew next to nothing about the origins of Islam.  The First Muslim  has educated me about the tenets of that religion and given some insights into the psychology of its followers, in the same way that Zealot  gave me new ways to understand both Judaism and Christianity.  Suddenly, certain reactions and opinions by religious groups are explained. [Why were Muslims so upset by those Danish cartoons?  Why are the Jewish settlers so aggressive about building in Palestinian territory?]

It may be a historical book, but if you want to understand the conflicts of the 21st century, this would be a good starting point.  4 stars out of 5.

Monday, 9 December 2013

Book Review: Great North Road

2 out of 5 stars

This is an enormous door-stop of a book.  I read it while curled up at home, recovering from a throat infection while a snow storm raged outside, with temperatures below -20 C.  That made the snowy scenes in the book really come alive for me.

It's a interesting world, northern England in 2142.  On the plus side, travel to other planets has become easy.  Earth seems to have solved its energy and environmental problems.  On the negative side, absolutely everything of any significance seems to be run the the North "family,"  a series of clones of one man.  His three cloned "brother-sons" in turn have reproduced, creating a series of physically identical, but psychologically different "descendants."  The towering ambition of the original seems to have been inherited, but with varying degrees of competence.

Now, I am a fan of a good murder mystery.  And when North clones start dying in a very similar matter, it looks like there is a serial killer on the loose with a big grudge against the family.  Very promising.  But the murdering alien just fell flat for me--unconvincing and not nearly scary enough.

What partially saved the book for me was the addition of Angela, a very strong female character, who has done 20 years of jail time for the first set of murders.  She is freed when another, related crime happens while she is obviously unable to have committed it, with the stipulation that she must help to catch the real murderer.  Her back story is convoluted and interesting, with bits and pieces being learned all through the novel as certain circumstances prompt her memories.

There was certainly an interesting mixture of roles for female characters in this work.  There was a plethora of women who were interested in pursuing casual sex, which I found to be more a male fantasy fulfillment than true representation (at least among the women that I know).  There were also a certain number of sex workers.  Thank goodness there were also lots of competent police women, professionals, farmers, etc.  to counteract all the sex goddesses.

I think the book does pass the Bechdel Test (1. There is more than one female character, 2. The women talk to each other, and 3. They talk about something besides men.)  But I still didn't feel entirely comfortable with the depiction of female sexuality--it was reminiscent of Heinlein in that I was sure the author thought he was being very affirming for women, but was really grafting a male sexuality onto women and thinking that was a compliment.  Still, it was an interesting effort.

Saturday, 30 November 2013

Book review: The Shining Girls

Wow.  Just wow.

I'm amazed at the mixed reviews that this book has received.  I loved it.

A time traveling serial killer.  A girl who survived his attack.  She tries to put her life back together and to put an end to his murdering ways.

I felt deliciously drunk on time, as the chapters changed POV and year, but all clearly marked by the title heading.  During the last several chapters, my feet were making little running motions and I kept checking to see how many pages of tension were left.  That's rare.

What is also rare?  The killer doesn't come off as sexy or overly intelligent or all that slick.  In short, he is not glorified at all.  And the women/girls are truly shining ones--shining with intelligence, potential and determination.

I would recommend this novel highly.

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Book review: Russian Winter

My book club's selection for December.

I would recommend it for those who are really into ballet, as an aging Russian ballerina is one of the main characters.  Or for those who are really interested in life in the Soviet Union during Stalin's tenure.  The portrayal of life at that time felt really gritty and realistic to me, although its a time & place that I'm not really familiar with and an expert might disagree with me on that.

It would also be of interest if you have an inclination towards high-end jewellery or are intrigued by the workings of auction houses.  Another main character, Drew, works for such an auction facility and I enjoyed the research/writing aspects as she created the auction catalogue.

The third main character, Grigori, is a Russian language & literature professor with a personal mystery which brings him in contact with both of the above women.  As an adopted child, with a limited amount of information about his birth parents, he is struggling to find out more about his real roots.  This angle appealed to the genealogist in me.

Overall, a reasonably good book, but not likely one that I will ever return to.  However, I am always glad when my book club stretches me a bit, getting me to read outside my usual comfort zone.  3 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Not really a book review: Give Me Everything You Have, by James Lasdun

It was interesting to read a man's account of having an obsessed woman to cope with in everyday life.  I know that it happens, because I know a woman or two who have slipped towards that kind of behaviour when they felt wronged (and they were mightily offended when I suggested that their actions were stalker-ish).

In my experience, more women suffer stalkers than do men.  If you haven't read The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker, I would urge you to do so.  Women need the reassurance he offers (its okay to be on high alert under certain circumstances) and men need to realize the challenges that women face on a daily basis.  We may live in the same society, but our realities have significant differences.  As Margaret Atwood once said, "Men are afraid that women will laugh at them.  Women are afraid that men will kill them."  And this scenario is played out hundreds of times per week in North America by obsessed ex-husbands and ex-boyfriends.

There was a point in time a couple of years ago when I wondered what the hell had happened to my quiet life.  Suddenly I was surrounded by creepy guys no matter where I went.  At home, there was Creepy Smoking Guy in the next condo who was wayyyyy too interested in my life, plus Creepy Maintenance Man who can't seem to speak without making an inappropriate remark.  At work, there was Creepy Guy From Another Department who would spend wayyyy too much time standing around staring at me without saying a word.  At my volunteer position, there was Creepy Visitor who found me every week and started bringing me presents for no particular reason.  Thankfully, all of them seemed to lack the ambition or focus necessary to become stalkers--they were just creepers.  My sister, on the other hand, has had to deal with a serious stalker in her 20s and a stalker ex-husband in her 40s.  When you are in one of these situations, its really difficult not to become completely paranoid.  I'm pleased to report that CSG moved and I left my volunteer position and CV behind.  I'm still dealing with the other two, but I've got the creepiness in my world cut down by half.

In contrast, I'm struck by Lasdun's situation:  its his professional reputation that is one the line.  He worries about his physical safety or that of his family only tangentially.  It is his professional image that is being attacked and it is all done covertly on the internet.  Its the uncontrollable aspect that makes it such torture--if someone is showing up at your house, you can move.  If someone is shadowing your workplace, you can attempt to find a new job.  There are actions you can take.  But if you rely on the internet to provide your professional image, what the hell can you do?  There are very few concrete steps you can take, besides complaining to relevant web sites (as Lasdun did, getting Nasreen's reviews removed from Amazon) and explaining his unusual situation to his colleagues and potential employers.

I've been fortunate--when I reported to my volunteer co-ordinator that I was distinctly uncomfortable, he helped me make appropriate changes to my routine.  And my work supervisor promised to never leave me alone in the presence of the man whose behaviour concerned me.  I still have to check carefully before leaving my condo and sometimes take alternative routes, but I only have to watch for one guy now, not two.

Who would have thought, that a chunky, middle-aged woman would have to worry about crap like this?  I guess the main lesson is that stalking is not about attraction or sex, its about power.  Its about powerless people trying to find some kind of power by controlling the person that they are stalking.

Book review: The Dinosaur Hunter, by Homer Hickam

Read from Feb. 22 to 23, 2013

I found this book an excellent combination of mystery, paleontology, Montana and human relationships. Maybe because I come from a rural background, I really liked the depiction of the ranchers. To say they are rugged individualists would not be overstating it. It may (or may not, I haven't spent much time in Montana) be a reasonable characterization, but I know people who are very similar. That laconic style, where little is said, but much is figured out despite that. I found the paleontology to be well written (except for the flakey paleontologist in charge of the dig). In fact that's probably my biggest complaint--Dr. Pickford is a pretty dodgy dude and pretty lazy too. I have never known someone in charge of a dig to spent so little time working on it. And I don't think that any crew would actually follow someone like that either.

Was it entirely realistic? I'm not sure that the Russian mafia would actually end up in the ranch country of Montana, but it worked for me in this story. However, dig sites are not so easily found--three spectacular sites in one season? Not likely. However,when I briefly set down the book to get a cup of coffee this morning, I noticed that there was a fire truck in front of my condo complex--I never noticed it pull up. And when I returned to the book, I completely missed their departure too. Totally engrossed, I couldn't even bother to be a bit snoopy. And that's a rural habit too--keeping an eye on what your neighbours are doing!

This book hit all the high spots for me:   I was a horse-crazy kid, knew the names of all the dinosaurs by the time I was three, I love the outdoors and I adore murder mysteries. Throw in a vegetarian cowboy who is an ex-cop and it was like no mystery I had ever read before.

Review written in Feb. 2013. 

Friday, 1 November 2013

Book Review : The End of Your Life Book Club / Will Schwalbe

When I heard Will Schwalbe interviewed about this book on CBC radio, I scribbled down the title and decided that I must read it.  He and his mother decide to be a book club of two and spend her final months of cancer treatment reading and discussing their selections.  Books were an important part of my relationship with my mother and I could relate to that.  In fact, for me, when my mother was killed, I quit reading entirely for a while.  Then there were long years of reading predominately non-fiction.  I couldn’t face fiction without her to discuss it with.

So I was a little envious of his ability to spend a concentrated amount of time sharing this activity with his mother.  They could see the end coming and managed to talk about so many meaningful issues through book discussions.  I’m sorry he wasn’t with her when she died—I missed my mother’s death, too, but I was with my Dad a few weeks later, and it was a moving and powerful experience.  

My book club agreed to add this book to our roster and we’ll discuss it tonight.  Two months ago, we read So Much for That by Lionel Shriver.  One member of the club has already asked for no more cancer books—we decided that next year will be the year of reading fluff, so hopefully the deadly illness books are in the rear view mirror now.  

The contrast between the financial situations in the Schwalbe family versus the fictional Knackers (in SMfT) was striking.  The haves and the have-lesses.  There was never any question of whether Mary Ann Schwalbe would get her cancer treatments—plus she could afford regular trips to Florida and Geneva to visit friends and family, not to mention paying for the treatment of someone that she meets in line at the hospital.  The Knackers are financially tapped out by Glynis’ cancer treatments—solvency is only regained by playing the system and running away to Africa.  

I wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone who currently hates their career, either.  Will, who works for a publishing house at the beginning, is able to just quit his job and his life just goes on, apparently.  Very few of us have that option and it’s hard not to be just a teeny weeny bit jealous of his situation.  Even during the economic downturn of 2008, the Schwalbe family are very comfortable.  To Will’s credit, he does seem to involve himself in some other gainful adventures, but he also seems to have plenty of time to spend with his mother during her final months.

I enjoyed End of Your Life more that So Much for That—perhaps because Mary Ann’s treatment and death were so much less wrenching.  She and her family had plenty of time to come to terms with the situation and had the buffer of cash to make things nice.  Unlike Glynis Knacker, Mary Ann wants to spend time with the various circles of people in her life and doesn’t display much anger about her situation.  Both books do make me appreciate the Canadian health care system, where all of us get treatment closer to Mary Ann’s.  

I would recommend both books, although with caveats—don’t read SMfT without being prepared for its critique of the American health system and don’t read TEoYLBC if you have problems with well-off privileged folk. 

Friday, 18 October 2013

Book Review : Red Planet Blues / Robert J. Sawyer

(Read from April 29-30, 2013)

There was a period in my life where I spent a lot of time enjoying Humphrey Bogart movies—The Sierra Madre, The Maltese Falcon and Casa Blanca. Those were my salad days and I have fond memories of those years. Perhaps that’s why this book by Rob Sawyer appealed to me so much—it revived some of those old feelings. I loved this mash-up of the hardboiled detective and the science fiction genres (The Maltese Falcon meets Ray Bradbury). Plus I have always been a palaeontology fan, so it was enjoyable to have that science thrown into the mix.

I haven’t read many of Sawyer’s books (only four) and so far, this is the one which I have enjoyed the most. I was delighted that I recognized many of the references to other works of science fiction (of which there are many)—and particularly loved the name of one of the Martian fossils, Bradburia.

I’ve heard Sawyer speak—the man has an awesome grasp of many scientific subjects and must have a phenomenal memory. I’m willing to bet that when he was a child, many of the adults around him probably shook their heads and muttered phrases like “Too smart for his own good.” By which they generally mean that the child’s social development is lagging behind its intellectual development. I’ve found his characters in other books to be a bit hollow—their emotions not really ringing true (rather like Arthur C. Clarke in that regard). This is not to say that Sawyer isn’t a fabulous writer—just that intellect, rather than emotion, runs his stories. In the hardboiled genre, stereotypes work exceptionally well and as a result, this tendency towards intellectualism works. To my way of thinking, there are also flavours of Heinlein, especially regarding sexual matters.

So the shade of Humphrey Bogart stirred my emotions during the reading of this novel and the plot appealed to my intellect—resulting in an extremely enjoyable read. A tip of my invisible hat to Mr. Sawyer.