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.