Moon, Elizabeth. Sheepfarmer’s Daughter. (The Deed of Paksenarrion, Book 1) NY: Baen, 1988.
Moon was a junior USMC officer for a short while back in the early ‘70s, which apparently is supposed to give verisimilitude to her storytelling, but I don’t think association is really necessary. She does a very workmanlike job with this first volume in a trilogy, a combination of military SF, medieval fantasy, and bildungsroman. Paks is a tall, strong young woman from a farm way out in the boonies who has no intention of following her father’s orders to marry the pig-farmer down the road, so she leaves home in search of glory and adventure by way of joining a mercenary company. There are good, honorable companies and very bad ones, but (of course) she ends up as a recruit in one of the best, gaining friends and respect as she learns the trade of an infantryman. But (also “of course”) there’s more in store for Paks than just life in the ranks, and as she passes from novice to blooded veteran to acting noncom, those around her begin to receive hints that she’s someone special, that there’s something uncommon in store for her — even though, being practical and hardheaded, she’d rather not think much about such things. Moon plays fair with the reader; the entire story (except for one slightly odd chapter late in the book) is told from Paks’s POV, so she doesn’t always appreciate the larger strategic picture. We, the omni-observant readers, see things happen in the development of a campaign that she doesn’t quite understand, and that’s the way it works in real life. And plans go awry, and friends get killed, but the hero survives, even if she sometimes wishes she hadn’t. A very enjoyable book. (6/29/07)
Willis, Connie. Doomsday Book. NY: Bantam, 1992.
Willis is one of the very best writers of our generation and she has half a dozen each of Hugos and Nebulas to prove it. This is far and away her best book yet, and it won both awards. The New York Times Book Review called it a tour de force, and they’re not wrong. The setting is the university community in Oxford in the mid-21st century, which hasn’t changed in its essentials since Victorian times. There are numerous casually mentioned technological gewgaws, but the academic world is still largely the same. The big change is that time travel is now available for historical research, which she first made use of in “Fire Watch.” Kivrin is an bright undergraduate who’s eager to travel back to the early 14th century; Mr. Dunworthy is a volunteer tutor from another college who has very grave reservations about the whole project, largely because the colleague in charge is pompous and arrogant and has no idea what he’s doing. But Kivrin goes through the “net”a few days before Christmas (there are ingenious reasons for the timing) — and there the story abruptly bifurcates to become two exciting and appalling parallel plotlines with numerous points and characters in common. Kivrin, though she’s had all her inoculations, is very ill when she arrives and is nursed back to health by a priest and the family of a minor knight who is away on legal business. Back in Oxford, the same disease strikes down the technician who sent Kivrin on her way, and the people he was in contact with begin dropping like flies. The world has already barely survived one pandemic a generation or two before (thirty million deaths just in the U.S., someone mentions) and the quarantine barriers are up almost immediately. Dunworthy’s good friend, Dr. Mary Ahrens, takes charge and quickly has her hands full; her visiting great-nephew, Colin, provides much of the comic relief in Willis’s dry style. About those parallels: Kivrin in her time and Dr. Ahrens in hers provide the medical expertise, such as it is, while Dunworthy and Kivrin’s friend, Father Roche, follow orders and lend a hand. Even Colin has a parallel in the two young girls whom Kivrin takes in charge. Even God has a role in both centuries — and not to forget the ancient bell tower and the modern bell-ringers from America. Willis is extremely skilled at making you care about her characters and you’ll feel a pang when things begin to happen to them. There’s comedy here to leaven the tragedy, just like real life. This is a book to re-read every few years, more for the fiction than for the science. (6/27/07)
Maxim, John R. Time Out of Mind. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1986.
This lengthy, complex novel doesn’t really fall into any category or genre, which makes it difficult to write a review. Jonathan Corbin is either personally haunted, or has genetic flashbacks, or has experienced reincarnations within his own bloodline. He shares a POV with his own great-grandfather, Tilden Beckwith, starting in New York City during the great killer blizzard of 1888 (no, it’s not a rip-off of Finney’s Time and Again), when he discovers not only that his putative son was actually the result of an affair his wife had while he was out of the country — he’s hazy on the actual length of human gestation — but that his wife (a real bitch if there ever was one) was also feeding business information to his enemies, especially Jay Gould. Then Tilden falls for a not-quite-prostitute named Margaret, which adds multiple layers of complication to his life and the lives of his descendants. The offspring of his (now late) wife’s affair get all the bad genes, and the family business as well. Jonathan is also physically the very image of Tilden, down to a scar on the eyebrow, and his own girlfriend appears to closely resemble Margaret. And the matriarch of the bastard side of the family (the other bastard side, that is) is the image of Tilden’s treacherous wife. So there are threads of corporate skullduggery, time travel, mysticism, thwarted love, police corruption, and bigotry to sort through. And baseball, don’t forget the baseball. The best character, for my money, though, is Lesko, the ex-cop (also corrupt, of course) turned PI and strong-arm, who gets many of the best lines and most of the action. An interesting book, but you really have to pay attention. (6/22/07)
Cherryh, C. J. The Faded Sun: Kutath. NY: DAW, 1979.
Wow! What a finish! This is the final third of the trilogy (don’t even think of trying to read them out of order), and it’s almost cinematic in the degree of slam-bang action the author includes to balance the sometimes lengthy psycho-sociological ruminations — which are fascinating nonetheless. Kutath is the planet of the mri’s origins before they went out into space as mercenaries, more than 100,000 years ago. Now, the last two survivors of that part that left have returned home and they’re determined this time to have “a place to stand,” the fears of humans and regul notwithstanding. And Duncan, fortunately for them, is a very large part of that. As in the first two sections, Cherryh shows us what each of the three species involved in this struggle look like from the viewpoint of each of the others, and this time the regul come up short in thinking they understand both humans and mri better than they actually do. A first-rate epic. (6/17/07)
Cherryh, C. J. The Faded Sun: Shon’Jir. NY: DAW, 1978.
Again, as with Kesrith, this is not a separate work, but merely the middle third of a very long novel about the postwar relationships between three very different species: the regul, non-warlike, physically unable to lie, who for two thousand years have hired the much more humanoid mri to fight their wars for them, and who have greatly benefitted thereby; the mri, psychologically as alien from humans as the regul, though they don’t look it, and who will always do everything their own way, even if it means personal death and the end of their species; and humans, who seem not to have changed much after centuries in space. At the end of the first volume, the two surviving mri had been taken into the care (and control) of the humans, newly in control of Kesrith. Now, for reasons of his own, the governor has turned them loose in a ship with a navigational tape taken from one of their holy objects, which humans believe may lead them to unknown mri bases, but which the mri know will take them home — back to the planet of their origins, which they had left apparently 100,000 years or so before. Accompanying them is Sten Duncan, a behind-the-lines tactical specialist who has become sympathetic to the mri. More than that, he finds that on this voyage he will not merely have to “go native,” he will have to become as much a mri warrior as it is possible to become. And in that he eventually finds his true self. Cherryh continues to show the reader what each of the three species looks like in the eyes of the other two, which makes this trilogy a near-masterpiece of psycho-sociological inventiveness and understanding. Be sure to have the third volume close at hand!
Cherryh, C. J. The Faded Sun: Kesrith. NY: DAW, 1978.
More so than most of Cherryh’s work, this is very much the first volume of a trilogy, quite unable to stand on its own. You’ll have to be prepared to read straight through the 750+ pages of the three volumes. It starts out with the end of a forty-year war between humans and the regul, an unpleasant but socially very complicated species, a war the regul — or, at least, the war-making faction — having signed a peace treaty. The regul, not being physically or psychologically capable of making war themselves, have for two thousand years made use of another, more human-like species, the mri, as their surrogates. The warrior caste of the mri, which is all that humans (or even most regul) have had experience with, are notably unyielding, uninterested in outsiders, unwilling even to consider change from their customs. They will suicide at the drop of a dishonorable gesture, they don’t take prisoners, they don’t understand mass-warfare, and even a single mri warrior is very, very dangerous. And now the species is nearly extinct. Sten Duncan comes to Kesrith, home world of the mri and a colonial resource of the regul, as aide to the new human governor and gets caught up in affairs beyond his understanding. The mri are his lifelong enemy, but he becomes closely acquainted with a young warrior in desperate circumstances and witnesses a genocide that changes him profoundly. That’s most of the plot of the first volume, right there. But, of course, this being Cherryh, the book is far more than that. The most fascinating aspect is the reader’s experience of each of the three species involved from the perspective of each of the other two. This author, like Le Guin, can be masterful when it comes to complex alien psychology, and there’s a great deal here to think about before you start on the second volume. (6/09/07)
Scalzi, John. The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies. London: Rough Guides, 2005.
I picked this one up because (1) I’m a fan of Scalzi’s fiction and (2) I’m a fan of science fiction films from way back. It turns out to be a very useful combination of obscure information, literary and cinematic theory, film history, and pure, unadulterated fandom. (I knew I was in the right book when the author paused at the very beginning to explain the difference, to fans, between “SF” and “sci-fi.”) He selects fifty films from the past century as his “Canon” and discusses them in detail, pointing out the many interconnections and derivations, and tossing off scores of highly quotable lines; of Buckaroo Banzai (one of my own favorites), he comments, “Don’t be ashamed to laugh at this movie; just be aware of what that laugh says about you.” But he also provides a “warp-speed” history of the science fiction cinema, which allows him to give brief mention of many other films, both good and bad (and very, very bad). Likewise, there’s an idiosyncratic chapter on the “faces of sci-fi film,” crossover films, the pseudoscience that backs them, and the state of SF film-making in various countries. There’s a great deal of good stuff here and I began making a list at the very beginning of films I hadn’t seen that I wanted to (not many of those) and those I’d seen in the past and now wanted to see again (lots and lots of those). It’s a shame, then, that the copyediting was so poorly done; it’s difficult to find three pages in a row without a horrendous typo, misspelling, or apparent missing word. (And, no, you don’t capitalize every single word in an italicized title.) (6/07/07)
Heinlein, Robert A. Double Star. NY: Doubleday, 1956.
This one isn’t really “science fiction,” since, with only a few changes, it could be set in the here-and-now, or in Ruritania — but it’s pure Heinlein, and better written than many of his earlier works. At only 128 pages, it’s also pretty short for a novel — but it works. Lorenzo Smyth (a/k/a Larry Smith) is an actor convinced of his own talent (which, as it turns out, is actually considerable) who is hired to impersonate the Good Guy leader of a major political alliance, who has been kidnaped on Mars by the Evil Opposition. Against his better apolitical judgment, Lorenzo takes the job because it’s a challenge, and almost immediately regrets it as the limited engagement spins itself out indefinitely. There’s a minimum of strident overwriting of the sort Heinlein was often guilty of in pursuit of his moral and ethical positions, with the quietly-made exception of a plea for racial tolerance. (6/03/07)
Heinlein, Robert A. Space Cadet. NY: Scribner, 1948.
Heinlein practically invented the sf juvenile novel (deliberately “juvenile,” that is), and they still read pretty well. Of course, after sixty years, there’s a bit of a culture shock — “Mom, what’s a slide rule?” — but you can ignore all that. The principles of physics haven’t changed, and you’ll pick up quite a bit, which is never a bad thing. Matt and Tex and their two off-world friends, after several days of grueling tests, are newly inducted cadets of the Solar Patrol, enforcement arm of the Solar Federation and this is the story of their first couple of years of education and training, and of the nature of friendship and morality. Sure, the notion of a “space cadet” is a tired old trope — but Heinlein invented it. Actually, it’s not even a four-year academy, nor is there a standardized curriculum, beyond the most obvious math and engineering courses. And they’re more guardians than military. Heinlein’s social ideas can sometimes be intrusive, but not this time, nor are the lessons he wants the reader to learn. In fact, there are a lot of interesting and thoughtful takes on what space-based training could be. Still a fun read. (6/02/07)
Dalmas, John. The Regiment. NY: Baen Books, 1987.
Not being a GI-Joe fan, most military sf doesn’t do much for me. But there are exceptions, and this is one of them. The author’s style tends to be stilted and the characters are all just a little too good to be true — in fact, there really aren’t any Bad Guys — but the originality of Dalmas’s ideas make up for all that. The backstory is that, a few centuries in our future, a group of ships flees what is probably Earth’s terminal war; the passengers of these ships are the only survivors of the race, and they’re heading out for parts unknown. On the way there — anywhere — they decide the only way to keep the species from destroying itself again is to get rid of scientific research and technological innovation, which they accomplish by purging the ship’s databases of relevant information and purging their minds (through some sort of traumatic hypnosis) of the relevant desires. And they eventually find a handful of worlds where they can survive. Cut to 20,000 or more years later. Iryala is the center of what passes for a modest interstellar confederation (or empire), keeping an eye on the lesser worlds, harvesting the resources of its “gook” worlds, and maintaining the ban on research and innovation by standardizing absolutely everything, and by brainwashing children at a very early age. Varlik Lormagen is a skilled journalist whose news agency sends him offworld to cover an insurgency on one of the resource planets, where a regiment of mercenaries from the heavy-gravity, hot-as-Hell world of Tyss have been engaged. The T’swa are completely tranquil, absolutely centered, and superior soldiers in every way. They aren’t the Dorsai, though. Tyss has the T’sel, a sort of Buddhist Way, that explains one’s natural mindset and chosen activity in terms of a matrix, . . . the highest level of which is “play.” And that’s why the T’swa are such amazing warriors. They approach war as artists (soldiers approach it as a job). The plot itself is secondary, involving a centuries-long conspiracy that the reader can see coming a mile away, but you should read this book with your “sense of wonder” fully engaged. There are some very thoughtful disquisitions here. I suspect Heinlein would have enjoyed reading it. (6/31/07)
Cherryh, C. J. Fires of Azeroth. NY: DAW, 1979.
Wow — what a climax! The final extended battle scene in this third volume of the trilogy, the summing up of all the threads of plot and character that began in Andur-Kursh months ago — or maybe thousands of years ago — all are brought together here. And Cherryh’s skill in laying out the scene is such that you don’t know what’s going to happen until it does. Where the first volume was set in a land of mountains and crags, and the second in a drowning, swampy world, Azeroth is a land of vast forest and vaster plains. The qhal in this world have become the best they could be over the centuries, guarding the forests and the villages of men, laying down laws that ensure peace, and protecting the Gates of their world. Unfortunately, this also makes them difficult to persuade of the need for violence to deal with the scores of thousands of invaders from Hiuaj and Shiun who came through the Gate from their dying home world at the end of the last volume. Vanye is separated again from Morgaine, to whom he is bound by an unbreakable oath, though it’s clear now that his regard for his mistress is far stronger than any oath he could take. The character of Roh, Vanye’s cousin, inhabited now by an ancient, shape-changing qhal, is also developed with great adeptness and considerable sympathy. Finally, the crescendo of the final chapters is nearly unmatched in fantasy or science fiction, even in Cherryh’s other works. (5/28/07)
Cherryh, C. J. Well of Shiuan. NY: DAW, 1978.
The middle volume of a trilogy is always a difficult animal: It lacks both the background and set-up material necessary to introduce the story, and the climax promised for the final third. Here, Cherryh forthrightly treats it as the “bridge” story it is, and it’s a rather depressing read — though necessary for what comes after. Where Andur-Kursh in the first book was a land of armed holds on crags and hard winters, Hiuaj is a slowly-drowning land of earthquakes under the thumb of the qhal halflings of Shiuan to the north. Jhirun is a young barrow-folk girl of the south, dangerously fey in the eyes of her family and neighbors, who rejects her home for the legendary prospect of safety in the north when Morgaine and Vanye, her sworn right hand, appear suddenly before her. But where Morgaine spent only a hundred years in the Gate between coming and going, the army she led in Andur-Kursh, and which disappeared into the Gate of Ivrel, landed in Hiuaj a thousand years in the past, and Jhirun is one of their distant descendants. Morgaine’s quest this time is to pursue Vanye’s cousin, Roh — who is no longer what he seems — in an attempt to close Shiuan’s Gate before Roh can use it for his own ends. It’s a much darker and much more unpleasant journey than the straightforward quest in the first book, but Roh is a fascinating character: How much of the original man is left, how much is now the body-changing qhal who inhabits him? You should have all three volumes lined up on your shelf so you can read straight through this one, put it down and pick up the third volume. The whole epic runs to 700 pages and it’s well worth your time. (5/26/07)
Cherryh, C. J. Gate of Ivrel. NY: DAW, 1976.
After her two “Hanan Rebellion” novels, the Morgaine trilogy, of which this is the first volume, was Cherryh’s first major project. It’s the story of Vanye, bastard half-brother of the heir to Morija, whom he kills in self-defense and finds himself outlawed as punishment. Now an ilin, a warrior without a clan or anything else to protect him, he is subject to Claiming by any lord who claims to put him under obligation for the period of a year. But Vanye, barely alive on a frozen mountainside, meets Morgaine as she exits a Gate — only a short time, subjectively, after she entered it, but more than a century has passed by Vanye’s calendar. Morgaine’s task, as the last survivor of a party sent out by the Science Bureau, is to close the Gates all across the universe, to prevent a time-change enacted in the ancient past from destroying the present and the future. All the story is told, though, from Vanye’s POV, so it has more of magic to it than science as he tries to understand what’s happening. And it’s a chase story from the first page, with Morgaine and Vanye, now bound to her to what he expects to be his death, forcing their way through a series of clan-chiefdoms as they try to reach the mountain upon which stands the Master Gate. Honor is a major force in this world and Vanye suffers greatly because of it, trying to balance the needs and demands of his liyo, Morgaine, his remaining half-brother, whom he crippled, and his cousin, lord of another territory nearby. Even this early in her career, Cherryh was a master at spinning a magical narrative and dialogue, and you will want to have the other two volumes of the trilogy close to hand before you finish this one. (5/24/07)
De Camp, L. Sprague. Lest Darkness Fall. NY: Ballantine, 1949, 1939.
De Camp has long been one of my favorite authors. Among the stars of the Golden Age, he’s not as didactic as Heinlein, and he’s a better fiction writer than Asimov (both of whom he worked with during the war). There weren’t many subjects he didn’t know something about, as anyone who was privileged to listen to him hold sway at a WorldCon room party can testify. And of his more than 100 books, both fiction and nonfiction, this delightful romp (one of his earliest) is perhaps my favorite. Martin Padway is an archaeologist visiting Rome in 1939 and when a bolt of lightning nearly hits him in the piazza in front of the Pantheon, he finds himself “falling through a trapdoor” and coming out still in Rome, but in the fourth decade of the Sixth Century. The Goths are running things, the Emperor Justinian off in Constantinople wants control of Italy, and the Franks up north are getting restless as well. Okay, I agree it’s not credible that a thirty-year-old archaeologist would know the details of double-entry bookkeeping, spinning copper sheet, casting bronze cannon, ballistics, building an electrical telegraph (to replace the semaphore system he’s already set up), designing a horse collar and a Grand Banks schooner, and enough military strategy to lead an army and to engage in swordplay personally — not to mention being so familiar with the dynastic details of half a dozen royal houses. (As it happens, I know quite a lot about that period, right on the cusp of the so-called Dark Ages, but I couldn’t match Martin’s fund of information without recourse to a few reference books.) But what the hell — he’s a Connecticut Yankee type, so suspend your disbelief and enjoy his struggles with religious argument and royal politics as he tries to keep civilization’s light from being snuffed out. (5/23/07)
Heinlein, Robert A. The Rolling Stones. NY: Ace, 1952.
Heinlein practically invented the science fiction juvenile — meaning written specifically for the young adult market — but that doesn’t mean they’re any less fun than his “adult” novels. This one, one of his best know, features the Stone family of Luna: Father Roger an engineer and ex-mayor of Luna City (and the author of a continuing adventure serial for Earth), mother Edith an M.D., grandma Hazel a Founding Father of the Lunar Revolution (she always packs a gun, though nowadays it’s just a place to carry her supply of cough drops), twin teenage boys Castor and Pollux who are mathematical prodigies and born mechanics as well as budding capitalists, and toddler Lowell who’s a chess whiz and possibly a mentalist. Only the daughter, Meade, is “ordinary,” being merely gorgeous and a fair singer. The twins want to head off Luna to make some money, one thing leads to another, and the whole family buys a used ship and takes off on a junket for Mars. Part of this yarn is adventure, part of it is sugar-coated science, and all of it is enjoyable, even the parts that are now half a century out-of-date. Not to mention that the Martian “flat cats” are the inspiration for “The Trouble with Tribbles”! Heinlein’s prose tries much too hard in some of his novels, especially the later one, but this one bounces right along. Read and enjoy! (5/21/07)
Niffenegger, Audrey. The Time Traveler’s Wife. San Francisco: MacAdam/Cage, 2003.
It’s a peculiar Boy-Meets-Girl. When Henry meets Clare for the very first time, he’s twenty-eight, a bibliographical specialist at the Newberry Library in Chicago. But Clare, now a twenty-year-old art student, has known Henry since she was six. That’s only one of the complications introduced by the fact that Henry is a Chronally Displaced Person — a time traveler. Actually, he more closely resembles Billy Pilgrim, in that he has no control over the when and where of his journeys, or the length of time he stays there. As he says, “Things get kind of circular, when you’re me. Cause and effect get muddled.” He always arrives completely naked, being unable even to transport the fillings in his teeth, which is why he tries to keep himself in top physical condition. He frequently has to flee upon his arrival somewhere and somewhen, and the past is fixed; nothing can be changed. But there must be some instinct guiding him, because after he meets Clare (in his own linear lifetime) he begins frequently traveling back to her earlier life, at first helping her with her schoolwork, later leading her through her intellectual development — and fending off her increasing adolescent hormones. But Clare has fallen completely in love with Henry before she even knew what the word meant. Her whole life is wrapped up in his. And Henry adores Clare absolutely. And if that weren’t the case, the strain of their strange shared life would probably have ripped them apart, what with Henry suddenly disappearing, leaving behind only a pile of clothing, and Clare worrying fruitlessly about what might be happening to him. The author has done an astonishing job of working out the world in which they exist, developing their characters in such a way that the reader will come to care profoundly about what happens to each of them. There are moments of joy that will leave you — even you guys, if you’re honest — with a lump in your throat, and there are moments of terrible pain (which are sometimes foreshadowed in a highly original meaning of that word) that you almost don’t want to read about. Their first meeting in the Newberry is one of the former, and I went back and reread it to my profit after I was 80% of the way through the book. The last party is one of the latter, and it will stay with you for a long time; so is the car wreck and Henry’s constant return to it as a helpless spectator. I loved the house-hunting scene, too, and the occasional lovemaking scenes are nicely steamy. There are moments of comedy, and intellectual appreciation, and sudden understanding. There are lines like “I now have an erection that is probably tall enough to ride some of the scarier rides at Great America without a parent.” And “He takes a gumdrop from the immense bowl in the Children’s section [of the bookstore], not realizing that those gumdrops have been there for years and you can hurt yourself on them.” All in all, this is a profoundly affecting book and I’ve already begun recommending it to numerous friends. I’ll be very interested to see what this author comes up with for her next book — and I certainly hope there will be one. (5/18/07)
Windling, Terri (ed). Life on the Border. NY: Tor, 1991.
Some years ago, Windling thought up a highly original setting for “urban fantasy” stories — a city after the return of Faerie to our world, a border region where magic sometimes works, technology is undependable, and runaway kids, both human and elf, are seeking their dreams. It’s a little Haight-Ashbury, a little Oz, and a lot of fun for the reader. In this volume (one of several that have been published, plus a couple of novels), seven authors set their stories in Bordertown with varying degrees of success. “Nevernever,” by Will Shetterly, an old Borderlands hand, is about Wolfboy, how he came to be what he is, and what he does when the opportunity arises to get even. A very good story. Kara Dalkey’s “Night Wail,” about banshees and dealing with death, is a bit of a downer but well written. “Alison Gross,” by Midori Snyder, is about true love and dark magic. Charles de Lint’s “Berlin,” one of the two really good ones here, is about dragons and drugs and getting even. “Reynardine,” by Michael Korolenko, about shape-changers and other horror tropes, just didn’t do much for me. Craig Shaw Gardner’s “Light and Shadow,” a take-off (sort of) on The Maltese Falcon, is just dumb. Bellamy Bach’s “Rain and Thunder,” also a love story, is kind of the other side of “Berlin,” and it’s very, very well done. There’s also a frame story by Ellen Kushner consisting of unmailed letters home written by a young human runaway, describing her arrival, her time in Oberon’s House (not a nice place, and for not very obvious reasons), and how she survives. All in all, it’s an above-average volume. (5/15/07)
Miéville, China. Un Lun Dun. NY: Ballantine, 2007.
Miéville has made a reputation for dark urban fantasy, especially Perdido Street Station, but this one lightens things up considerably. There’s a counter-London called Un-London, sort of a through-the-looking-glass world where broken umbrellas and outmoded London Transport double-decker buses go. And a lot of our effluvia, as well. And that’s making things difficult for the residents of Un-London, both the living ones and the half-ghosts. Zanna and Deeba are adolescents in a London council estate, just trying to get by and deal with being teenagers, but strange things are happening to Zanna, who appears to the “Schwazzy.” (There are a lot of words in this book that you’ll have to be patient with, and All Will Be Made Clear.) And for the first part of the book, you can see the set-up coming for a Hero (or Heroine) on a Quest, with a loyal sidekick thrown in. But then, quite suddenly, everything changes, and you’ll discover what that the author has in mind does not necessary involve following the Storytelling Rules. He has a real ear for contemporary Brit teen slang and speech patterns, Deeba and her friends and supporters are immensely likeable — Deeba being the sort of leader who, presented with a series of seven traditional tasks to accomplish, gets fed up after the first one and jumps straight to Number Seven. And the villains are thoroughly scary, and also very modern in their style of evil. A marvelous book. It’s being marketed as a YA novel, but I fear it will be an unusually literate and thoughtful American young adult who will be able to do it justice. Adult readers will love it, though. Also, given the right screenplay, this could be a terrific film. I can almost hear Emma Watson doing Deeba’s lines; this would be an excellent vehicle for her after she wraps up Harry Potter. (5/11/07)
Harrison, Kim. For a Few Demons More. NY:Eos/HarperCollins, 2007.
Well, it took her a couple or three volumes to get her narrative skills up to the level of her highly original plotting and her admittedly perceptive character development, but Harrison does seem to be getting the hang of this writing stuff. This fifth novel in the series is very much the other half of the fourth one. Rachel Morgan, earth witch and skilled “runner” (sort of a combination bounty-hunter and P.I.) in an alternate Cincinnati in which half the population is nonhuman, has come back from Michigan with the were “focus” in hand, stashing it in the home freezer of David, her pack alpha (yes, she belongs to a werewolf pack, too; it’s a complicated life) for safekeeping. But women begin dying and David is the main suspect — and he worries that it may be him, too. And then the demon who sent Rachel back from the everafter in the last book turns up in the church Rachel shares with Ivy, high-caste living vampire (another very complicated life) and nearly tears it apart searching for something. (Rachel assumes it’s the focus she wants, but . . . nope, I won’t tell.) And Rachel’s search for a “blood balance” between her and Ivy — who wants sex with her blood — takes an interesting new turn. And Rachel gets hired for wedding security by scumball Trent Kalamack, whom she has been trying for some time to get put away, even though his father and Rachel’s father were friends, and Rachel herself wouldn’t even be alive if not for Kalamack senior. And Al, the demon who has been stalking Rachel through the four previous novels, finds a way to “walk under the sun,” which he’s not supposed to be able to do. And there are half a dozen additional plot threads, all of them interconnected, and all of them hang together. There’s also a very hot love and sex scene which is balanced by a tragic climax to the action — which does not, however, answer all the questions. I don’t ordinarily read vampire novels, but I’ve become a dedicated fan of this series. And they really are getting better and better — but don’t even think of starting anywhere but with the first volume! (5/06/07)
Golding, William. Rites of Passage. NY: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1980.
It’s the tail end of the Napoleonic wars and a superannuated warship makes its way very, very slowly from England to Australia. Among the passengers are Mr. Edmund Talbot, aristocrat, headed for a term as assistant to the Governor, thanks to the influence of his patron and godfather. He keeps a journal for the latter’s eventual entertainment and we are treated to his stumbling attempts to understand the nautical world. Still, he’s a gentleman and that smooths his way. He has various small adventures, social and amorous, all of it lighthearted to the reader. Then we meet the Rev. Mr. Colley, newly frocked and headed for his first congregation, and a very different sort of personality from Talbot, not to mention the ship’s officers and men. And from there the story begins a slide into a much darker place, culminating in the “rite” of Crossing the Line, when Mr. Colley is humiliated once too often, and subsequent events result in a funeral at sea. Golding has absolute control of his subject and his characters, sucking you into a consideration of the nature of Justice, and of the division between the social orders. This is not at all a “fun” book, but it’s a very affecting one. (4/30/07)
Tea, Michelle. Rose of No Man’s Land. San Francisco: MacAdam/Cage, 2005.
Tea is spot-on at getting inside the head and life of fourteen-year-old Trisha, aimless, frustrated, and rather trashy resident of a decaying Massachusetts mill town. Her hypochondriac mother never leaves the sofa except to dig her welfare checks out of the mail, her relentlessly optimistic older sister is a graduated hairdresser whose goal is being selected by a reality TV show, and her view of the world is filtered through the local mall — where, with the assistance of her sister’s Olympics-level lies, she manages to get a job at the most popular teen clothing store. Until she’s fired before lunch the first day. But all this is a character-establishing lead-in to Trisha’s discovery of Rose, a scrawny, fearless, adventuresome girl with a lesbian mother and a cigarette voice. The relationship between the two — established within hours of their introduction and apparently played out before the next morning — will have evangelical parents screaming to their local library about the “homosexual agenda,” but, hey: This is life. The author also has an ear for sardonic description (a vodka/energy drink combo?) and an eye for painting character portraits that come to life. Don’t worry about the putative morality these girls don’t much subscribe to — just enjoy the book. It’s a messy, questing coming-of-age you won’t soon forget. (4/28/07)
McDermid, Val. The Grave Tattoo. NY: St. Martin, 2006.
This latest from one of the most highly regarded present-day British mystery writers may be her best, though it’s rather different from her previous work. Jane Gresham, native of a small village in the Lake District, is an impoverished graduate scholar specializing in William Wordsworth, a local boy. She’s forced by financial circumstances to live in a rather horrible council flat, where she has become a sort of mentor to Tenille, a very bright thirteen-year-old girl of mixed race who has managed not to get mixed up with drugs and early pregnancy. When a 200-hundred-year-old body turns up in a bog near her home, Jane resurrects a local legend that Fletcher Christian, Bounty mutineer and also a native of Jane’s village, made it home secretly from Pitcairn and told his story — the “true” story of the mutiny — to his old buddy Wordsworth. The manuscript, naturally, would be worth a fortune. Unfortunately, Jane isn’t the only one looking for it. And then elderly people who might have inherited the manuscript begin dying. And Tenille is wanted in London on suspicion of murder and arson. And she and Jane both seem to the cops like a good fit. McDermid is very, very skillful at building characters and there’s large cast here. The action drags just a little at the midway point but picks up again quickly, and you won’t guess whodunit until the very end — or I didn’t, anyway. An engrossing read. (4/27/07)
Goldman, James. The Man from Greek and Roman. NY: Random House, 1974.
This is a delightful romantic thriller, part archaeological mystery, part art fraud, with loads of memorable dialogue. It’s practically a screenplay in novel form — which isn’t surprising since the author (who was the brother of novelist William Goldman) wrote both the stage plays and the film scripts for The Lion in Winter and They Might Be Giants, as well as Nicholas and Alexandra. Dr. Melvil West (his father was a librarian) is curator of the classical wing of the Metropolitan Museum, a job he loves. If only he could get his “big book” written. But the museum’s director makes a deal for a chalice created by the greatest Greek goldsmith who every lived, a deal in which the seller and the vessel’s provenance both have to be kept secret (not uncommon in the rarefied levels of the art world), and West is on Cloud Nine. Then questions begin to be asked in the press about the chalice’s true origins, a British archaeologist on the trail of Camelot claims it was stolen from his dig at Cadbury Castle, and West doesn’t know what to do. Unfortunately, his wife, a not very talented artist, has had enough of marriage, which is the shock that sends him over the edge. He grabs the treasure and heads for the airport in search of The Truth. Fortunately for him, he hooks up with Carrie Gardener, a young woman with nerves of steel who’s done everything twice, and she’ll get him through the sticky parts until he can find himself — which he will do, of course. Parts of the plot seem almost quaint now (like the ease with which the couple evade airport security), but none of it is really meant to be taken seriously. Moreover, there’s a nice twist ending and you can almost see Cary Grant in the title role. (4/25/07)
Ludlum, Robert. The Bourne Identity. NY: R. Marek, 1980.
I’m not necessarily a big fan of Ludlum’s novels and most of them are nothing special, but he sure hit a home run with this one. I read it when it first appeared — having recently completed Le Carré’s “Smiley” trilogy and concluded that no spy novel could ever match up to that masterpiece — and became totally absorbed in the world and very short amnesiac life of Jason Bourne (a/k/a Delta, Cain, and several other pseudo-identities) as he tries to figure out just who he is, how he came by his highly specialized skills, what he’s expected to do with them — and just who is trying to kill him. And why. There’s a certain amount of suspension of disbelief that’s necessary here, especially in Bourne’s relationship with Canadian Marie St. Jacques, who is very conveniently an economist, and also with the bitter French general who appears to do a one-eighty in an extremely short period of time. But I can live with that. Nor is the movie anything but the palest reflection of the novel. This is also not a book to race through in a weekend, not if you want to appreciate all the tangential complexities of the twisting plots, but it’s worth the effort. (4/23/07)
Mitchell, David. Black Swan Green. NY: Random House, 2006.
It’s no surprise that this novel was long-listed for the Booker Prize last year. Mitchell takes the reader deep into the mind and life of Jason Taylor, thirteen-year-old “townie” in 1982 in the small Worcestershire village (the nonexistent swans are a “local joke”). The structure is somewhat episodic, with thirteen chapters each set in a separate month, January to January, as the unusually introspective Jason tries to maintain his middling status in the local social hierarchy. Between his own adolescent naivete, his father’s soul-crushing job as a regional grocery store executive, the growing friction between his parents, his sister’s getting ready to go off to university, his poetry-writing (kept carefully anonymous), his crush on a slightly dangerous and totally unattainable girl, the possibility of being accepted by the local secret club, his smarmy uncle and cousin, a run-in with the gypsies, and — on top of everything else — the Falklands War and its direct effect on his village, . . . well, he has a busy year. But he isn’t at all the same person at the end of it that he was at the beginning. Mitchell has a real gift for the language — including Jason’s negotiations with his stammer, induced by the “Hangman.” You don’t often find marvelous lines like, “The world’s a headmaster who works on your faults,” or “Dad watched his future wife and his only son from his ex-garage.” (4/16/07)
Levitt, Steven D. & Stephen J. Dubner. Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything. NY: William Morrow, 2005.
This is the sort of book that can drive your friends and family nuts because you’ll keep insisting on reading passages aloud to them. Levitt is something of a maverick among economists, possibly because he so often strays into sociology and politics in his investigations. It comes as no surprise to learn that the economic structure of a successful ghetto crack gang is very similar to that of a successful corporation, because a capitalist is a capitalist and a free market is a free market. But Levitt also describes how to tell whether schoolteachers cheat as a result of No Child Left Behind (yes, lots of them), and the later-in-life effects of distinctively “black” childrens’ names, and why your real estate agent isn’t really (or at least not entirely) on your side. The most fascinating study is the one that’s gotten so much publicity: The clearly demonstrated effect of legalized abortion on the sudden decline in the national crime rate during the 1990s. His arguments and interpretations are very persuasive. Levitt also explains clearly the difference between “cause” and “correlation” and what can happen when politicians and even other scholars confuse the two. An engaging and fascinating book. (4/13/07)
Weber, Katharine. Triangle. NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2006.
This is a good but often annoying book. Parts of it are fascinating (George’s lengthy discursions into the theory of musical composition), but parts of it have nothing whatever to do with the main narrative (the lengthy discursions into musical composition). Esther’s constant recitation of the facts of her escape from the fire is unnecessarily repetitive, even when you know to look for disconnects in what she purports to remember. The reader is left to wonder whether Esther did, in fact, take a $20,000 bribe from the management of Triangle Shirtwaist (there are numerous other possibilities for the money’s origins), and the last-minute revelation that, apparently, Rebecca and George, are related three generations back doesn’t seem to have anything to do with anything. (Or maybe I just missed something, I dunno.) The characterization is generally quite good, though Ruth Zion comes across as more of a pastiche of a feminist scholar. This novel needed a much more rigorous editor. (4/12/07)
Asimov, Isaac. The End of Eternity. NY: Doubleday, 1955.
I probably first read this classic sometime in the late 1950s; certainly, it’s the earliest time travel novel I can remember reading. Andrew Harlan, a native of the 95th century, is a Technician in Eternity, a member of a corps of self-appointed guardians of reality that exists outside of ordinary time. It’s a highly stratified society and Harlan is a member of the caste that actually effects changes by making the “Minimum Necessary Change” at the selected point in time and space. Then he meets a woman outside of Eternity with whom he falls in love — sort of — and takes it upon himself to protect her from a Change planned for her continuity. Of course, it’s a far more complicated matter than that, as Harlan finds out the hard way. In fact, the very existence and survival of Eternity is at stake. But maybe it ought not to survive. The writing seems a bit sappy now, a bit turgid, but styles and tastes change. The basic “time patrol” theme, however, has been riffed on by scores of subsequent novels and short stories. Some points seem rather naive to us now: The enormous size of the “computaplexes,” even thousands of years in the future, a voice recording device that’s still large enough to require a storage case and a separate microphone, and so on. (It’s always surprised me how many Golden Age authors failed to anticipate the minute size of electronic devices so short a distance in their future.) But ignore all that and just enjoy the story for what it is. (4/10/07)
Barry, Max. Company. NY: Doubleday, 2006.
Barry seems almost to have cornered the publishing market in the area of corporate satire. In this one, young Steven Jones has been hired as a Sales Assistant by Zephyr Holdings, which he thinks is in the business of selling training packages. And so they are — but only to other departments of Zephyr. The company’s Mission Statement is impenetrable. The receptionist in the lobby drives a very expensive sports car. And on top of everything else, someone took Roger’s donut! Barry takes every opportunity to examine the nature and purpose of work, the proper role of Senior Management (if any), and the right of employees to be happy in their work — or not. There’s a lot of sly fun here but also a semi-serious purpose, and I’ll be waiting for his next one. (4/07/07)
Barry, Max. Syrup. NY: Viking, 1999.
I recently read Jennifer Government, Barry’s last book, and enjoyed it immensely, so I went back and hunted up his earlier ones. Syrup was his first novel, a very off-the-wall satire of the world of marketing — except that it’s also very true. Scat is a young guy with a degree in marketing (he changed his name in order to market himself into a job) who gets involved with Coca-Cola, a ruthless business type called Sneaky Pete, and an even more ruthless woman known only as “6.” Then there’s Cindy, a gorgeous stewardess who wants to be an actress and who would sort of like to have Scat into the bargain. And there’s Tina, 6’s roommate and a film student who hates marketing. And not to forget the film-length Coke advertisement they end up making, in a sort of Andy Hardy fashion. The dialogue is hilarious, the torch Scat is carrying for 6 is really big, and the plot has more twists and turns than a mountain road. And where else are you going to find Gwyneth Paltrow as a character, playing herself, and also playing D&D with a group of geeky film editors? (4/05/07)
Boyd, William. Restless. NY: Bloomsbury, 2006.
Always excepting John Le Carré, I’m not ordinarily a big fan of spy stories — but this one is a considerable exception. Ruth Gilmartin is a late-twenties single mother and tutor at Oxford in 1976 who has a somewhat prickly relationship with her aging but still very sharp widowed mother, Sally. Then one day Sally tells her daughter her real name is Eva Delectorskaya and that she was a Russian émigré recruited by the British Secret Service in 1939. Ruth has doubts about her mother’s mental state but the vividness of her extremely detailed memoir — passed to Ruth episodically — convinces her. The thing is, Sally is sure someone is planning to kill her. The chapters alternate between Sally/Eva’s third-person narrative and Ruth’s quiet life teaching English to foreign engineers and businessmen, with Eva doing things as a yong woman in pre-Pearl Harbor Europe and the U.S. that her daughter — now about the same age — can hardly believe. Both women are fully three-dimensional, and so is Lucas Romer, the spymaster with his own agenda, with whom Eva fell in love. Boyd also does a terrific job elucidating the propaganda war Britain fought to try to get America into the war, planting false news stories and disinformation to sway public opinion. James Bond this ain’t. A remarkable and riveting book with an extremely realistic non-Hollywood ending. (4/02/07)