Wednesday, 29 July 2015

The Gods of Riverworld / Philip Jose Farmer

2 out of 5 stars
Thirty-five billion people from throughout Earth's history were resurrected along the great and winding waterways of Riverworld. Most began life anew--accepting without question the sustenance provided by their mysterious benefactors. But a rebellious handful burned to confront the unseen masters who controlled their fate--and these few launched an invasion that would ultimately yield the mind-boggling truth.

Now Riverworld's omnipotent leaders have been confronted, and the renegades of Riverworld--led by the intrepid Sir Richard Francis Burton--control the fantastic mechanism that once ruled them. But the most awesome challenge lies ahead. For in the vast corridors and secret rooms of the tower stronghold, an unknown enemy watches and waits to usurp the usurpers . . .

What a bleak view of humanity this book presents! The only semi-believable emotion portrayed is anger and there is a LOT of violence, especially since these are supposed to be the new & improved humans who finally made it to the mysterious tower on Riverworld. They soon prove themselves to be as self-involved and poor of judgement as Humanity 1.0.

Good things about the book? Farmer’s version of Sam Clemens does not appear, nor does King John. He only gives measurements in metric (rather than metric & Imperial, as in previous books). And it really does finish the series.

Bad things about the book? Still too much description of what people are wearing and eating which is completely unrelated to the plot. Too much fighting and too little cooperation. All the characters are cardboard cut-outs, very one dimensional and over the course of 5 books they have not grown or changed or deepened.

Weird things about the book? A strange aside as Burton attempts to solve the Jack the Ripper mystery. And then all the people involved in that sad situation are mysteriously resurrected causing chaos and distrust. And a creepy party given by Alice (of Alice in Wonderland fame) with android versions of Lewis Carroll’s characters as party favours.

There is no doubt that Farmer dealt with big issues in this series—the nature of the soul, the role of religion in society, the question of free will vs. determinism. Unfortunately, I didn’t think the quality of the writing did these big issues justice. Better characterization, tighter plotting, more realistic emotions—all these would have contributed to a much superior product.

I am relieved to be finished this series—thankfully I’m not entirely unhappy to have read it, as it is one of the seminal science fiction works of the 20th century.

Book number 182 of my Science Fiction & Fantasy reading project.

On a Pale Horse / Piers Anthony

2.5 stars out of 5
When Zane shoots Death, he has to take the job, speeding over the world riding Mortis, his pale horse/limo, measuring souls for the exact balance of Good and Evil, sending each to Heaven or Hell instead of Purgatory. The new Thanatos is superbly competent, ends pain when he ends lives. But Satan is forging a trap for Luna, the woman Death loves.

I can see where I would have been really into this series if I’d read it as a teenager. I was just busy reading at that point in my life and not very much into evaluating what I was taking in. It is a very male-oriented story, with women being mostly objects that they compete for and fight over. The male characters evaluate women by their age and attractiveness, although Zane/Death comes to grudgingly admire Luna’s strength, intelligence, and morality. If I had children, I wouldn’t encourage them to read this series, but if they did, we would need to talk about the role of women in it and why it shouldn’t be used as a model for relationships. The female characters often say some very chauvinistic things, as if Anthony believed it was acceptable to be prejudiced as long as the female characters voice those thoughts (e.g. that as women get old, they just bag & sag and lose all their attractiveness, implying that without youthful attractiveness they really aren’t worth anything anymore).

The writing is acceptable; the morality is extremely black-and-white. Having characters like God and Satan included in the list of characters plunges the reader very much into a Christian universe and there is no escaping that uni-religion slant. Since I attended Sunday School as a child, I was conversant with the details of that worldview, but I wonder how many modern young people would be? It might be interesting for non-Christian readers, although I would hate for them to get their Christian theology from Anthony, or it might be off-putting.

On the plus side, I really enjoyed the horse/car Mortis and the idea that a new person in the Incarnation of Death could shake up the job quite a bit.

I’ve read these books out of order (it doesn’t affect their understanding all that much since they’re fairly simplistic), so I’ve only got a couple to go. I’ve abandoned Anthony’s Xanth series because it bores and annoys me, but I haven’t made any hard-and-fast decisions about this one. Not my favourite author, although I can understand what others may see in his work.

Book number 181 in my science fiction & fantasy reading project.

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

How to Clone a Mammoth / Beth Shapiro

4 out of 5 stars
How to clone a mammoth? Well, you can’t yet. So this is not an instruction manual. Cloning requires a living somatic (body) cell from a creature and a living egg from the same or a very closely related species. Mammoths are not currently living creatures, therefore, there will be no cloning of mammoths. Cue relief for all the terrified folks out there.

This was a very interesting read, it covered a lot of ground—not just scientific issues, but the moral & ethical issues surrounding the subject too. I found it to be quite balanced—not overly enthusiastic about cloning but not scared to death of the prospect either.

The most interesting things I learned?
  • Birds cannot be cloned. But there are other ways that they can be genetically modified, as the chicken farming industry has discovered.
  • The closest living relative to the mammoth is the Indian elephant
  • There is a Pleistocene Park in Siberia and the animals in it are certainly changing the vegetation (in a good way, if you think the tundra should be greener & more lush)
  • The only DNA you get out of animals trapped in amber is fungal DNA (sorry Jurassic Park).
  • Working with ancient DNA is very difficult because it is so easily contaminated and there is modern DNA just hanging in the air, waiting to contaminate everything!
  • The most likely scenario is to splice mammoth genes into the elephant genome and produce a mammoth-like animal which could play the same ecological role as the ancient animal did.
The author points out quite clearly that bringing back exactly one mammoth would be a bad idea. They, like other elephant species, were very social animals and having a lone individual would be needlessly cruel. Also, any mammoth would have to be raised by elephants and would necessarily be influenced by that upbringing. Its behaviour is unlikely to be genuine mammoth behaviour. Both extant elephant species are endangered, so using females of these species to gestate mammoth babies is probably not a good idea—they need to be producing more baby elephants, not indulging our desires to resurrect an extinct animal (and with a gestation period of almost 2 years, they are already very slow-reproducing animals).

A very interesting read, especially as I went to the movie Jurassic World on the weekend (the SeaWorld like scene with the Mosasaur is awesome and I finally learned why my online women friends are enthusiastic about Chris Pratt). Plus, I heard on the radio this morning that cattle geneticists are considering splicing genes to make white Black Angus cattle, which would theoretically be less heat-stressed in this climate-changed world we inhabit. Because I had just finished this book, I actually knew a little something about the process that was being described!

Slave to Sensation / Nalini Singh

3 out of 5 stars
****Wanda'a Summer Festival of Reading Fluff****

This is just an observation: this is much more “romancy” than I would usually choose. Not that there’s anything wrong with that—it’s just outside my reading tastes. Every once in a while, I have to test those boundaries, to make sure I’m not missing anything.

This reminded me strongly of the Harlequin Romances that my grandmother used to pass along to me when I was in high school. If I wanted to be kind, I could reference Romeo & Juliet (as in the whole star-crossed-lovers thing), although the main characters are members of not just different families, but seemingly different subspecies. It probably would have been catnip to me at age 16 or 17. Now that I’m in my 50’s, there’s absolutely no man out there that I would be willingly tied to the way Sascha and Lucas end up being bound together. (I now prefer the Shakespearian ending where everybody dies.)

The setting is interesting and I would love to know how it was that the Changelings got their start. The three subspecies of humans (Psy, Changelings & humans) were vaguely reminiscent of Wells’ The Time Machine, where the time traveler goes into the future and is confronted by the Eloi and the Morlocks who are presumably descendants of different strata of Victorian human society. Having a bit of biological training, I was dismayed by the use of pack dynamics when referring to those changelings with big-cat alter-egos. Cats aren’t pack animals, but then humans can’t change into jaguars either, so why am I quibbling?

There is a mystery involved (a serial killer who apparently belongs to the ultra-rational Psy subspecies), but it’s not very mysterious. I guessed who it was almost as soon as this subplot was introduced. And it was a subplot—the romance is the main point, with the mystery merely being a way to throw Sascha and Lucas together more frequently.

Not bad, not my usual fare, but well enough done for its genre.

Monday, 27 July 2015

Time Travelers Strictly Cash / Spider Robinson

2.5 stars out of 5
I am rapidly coming to the conclusion that my sensibilities just do not mesh with those of author Spider Robinson. I think he is strong on writing skills, but his sense of humour and mine miss by a mile. He punning skills are high (and there is lots of it in his Callahan’s stories), but I find them more of a mental puzzle to figure out, rather than amusing. But that’s just me.

This little volume of stories has only 4 actual Callahan’s tales in it. The rest is filler—and much of it is now dated. One section became Chapter 2 of his novel Mindkiller (which I read earlier this year and was very “meh” about). There were a couple of speeches which were passably interesting, but a bit dated (hard to avoid that with thirty year old opinion pieces).

For those of you who are die-hard Callahan fans, don’t miss these stories. They were the best part of the collection. Those of you seeking time-travel tales may be somewhat disappointed—there is only one tale involving a time traveler who shows up at Callahan’s.

Robinson is a very good writer and I wish I could appreciate him more.

Book number 180 of my SF&F reading project.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Hounded / Kevin Hearne

3 out of 5 stars
****Wanda's Summer Festival of Reading Fluff****

This promises to be a rather fun series. Atticus O’Sullivan is a decent main character—in that he is both interesting and a decent guy (and druid). What I really like, however, is his Irish wolfhound, Oberon, who really makes this book work for me. Oberon’s observations of the people & creatures around them are spot on and his commentary is hilarious.

I haven’t run across many druids in fantasy literature, so that was a fun angle to the story. I loved Atticus’ observations on current day beliefs about his religion. He is the only one of his kind, but there are plenty of werewolves, witches, vampires, and Irish gods & goddesses keeping him busy. A little knowledge of Irish mythology is useful, but not required; Hearne explains the basics as he introduces the more obscure mythological characters. I also enjoyed that the ancient gods & goddesses just don’t seem to understand 21st century people—Atticus’ attempts to enlighten them were also entertaining. Like any of the god-like set, he must be careful not to offend, even while having a smile at their obtuseness.

Unlike so many urban fantasies, which somehow assume that mortals will only be involved by accident, Hearne takes the time to have Atticus interact with the humans around him—the widow whose grass he mows, the nosy neighbor who causes trouble for him, the police force that he must dodge around somehow.

But truly, I will read the next book in the series mostly to see what’s happening with Oberon, the charming wolfhound.

Monday, 20 July 2015

The Stainless Steel Rat for President / Harry Harrison

3 out of 5 stars
The Stainless Steel rat is back! Slippery Jim diGriz, the future's most lovable, laughable, larcenous conman turned counterspy, returns for yet another high-tension mission.

This time the Special Corps has given the Rat a daring assignment - liberate a backward tourist planet from the clutches of an aging dictator. With his lovely but lethal wife, Angelina, and his two stalwart sons, James and Bolivar, diGriz pits ballots against bullets in the fight for freedom. He's vowed to restore truth, justice, and democracy to the world of Parisio-Aqui, if he has to lie, cheat, and steal to do it.

What is left for the Stainless Steel Rat to fight for? Democracy, of course—a rather ironic struggle for Slippery Jim diGriz, who is much more at home in the criminal underworld. But Harrison couldn’t resist the politician-as-crook angle, so Jim must run for president of the planet Parisio-Aqui.

Harrison must have known a little Spanish and/or Esperanto, judging by the frequency of those languages showing up in the Rat books. If the reader has some familiarity with them, there are amusing little plays on words here and there.

Angelina, Jim’s wife, is still putting up with him and putting a damper on any wooing of lovely locals that he would like to do. And his grown sons, James and Bolivar, are chips off the old block. It seems to me that Jim’s alcohol intake may be a bit higher than in previous books, but his ability to think on his feet is still keeping him one jump ahead of his adversaries.

Harrison obviously was fond of the Stainless Steel Rat and enjoyed returning to see what he had been up to lately. This series has laid down templates for charming con-men and criminals in science fiction, introducing the less-than-innocent main character that is presented with humour and knowingness. Still, you wouldn’t want to read the books one right after the other, or the formula would become very cloying.

This is book number 179 in my science fiction & fantasy reading project.

Thursday, 16 July 2015

First Grave on the Right / Darynda Jones

3 out of 5 stars
****Wanda’s Summer Festival of Reading Fluff****

I see dead people.

Well not me, the reviewer, but Charley the main character of this book does. Because she is a Grim Reaper, make of that what you will. But a girl can’t make a living doing that, so she is also a private investigator and often drafts the dead people around her to help out with the investigations.

There’s a lot of wise-cracking silliness that often over-rides the plot at the centre of this novel. At least Charley has her best-friend and personal assistant, Cookie, to debrief with frequently. (As a result, this book does pass the Bechdel test, despite the fact that they also talk a lot about the mysterious man in Charley’s life (or at least in her dream life).

Reyes is that man and he is what pushes the book over into the paranormal romance category for me. He is the stereotypically tall, dark and handsome man, the “man of her dreams,” as well as being the strong, silent type. In fact, I bet he says less than 50 words by book’s end. Obviously only a supernatural being can captivate Ms. Davidson, and Reyes’ presence haunts the book, so to speak.

The crime/mystery gets solved almost as an afterthought. I will see if I have time during July and August to get to the next book in the series—I see that there are quite a few and I doubt that I will read all of them. But I will at least give the next one a shot if I have the time.

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

The Grendel Affair / Lisa Shearin

3.5 stars out of 5
We’re Supernatural Protection & Investigations, known as SPI. Things that go bump in the night, the monsters you thought didn’t exist? We battle them and keep you safe. But some supernatural baddies are just too big to contain, even for us…

When I moved to New York to become a world famous journalist, I never imagined that snagging a job at a seedy tabloid would change my career path from trashy reporter to undercover agent. I’m Makenna Fraser, a Seer for SPI. I can see through any disguise, shield, or spell that a paranormal pest can come up with. I track down creatures and my partner, Ian Byrne, takes them out—usually saving my skin in the process.

Our cases are generally pretty routine, but a sickle-wielding serial killer has been prowling the city’s subway tunnels. And the murderer’s not human. The fiend in question, a descendant of Grendel—yes, that Grendel—shares his ancestor’s hatred of parties, revelry, and drunkards. And with New Year’s Eve in Times Square only two days away, we need to bag him quickly. Because if we don’t find him—and the organization behind him—by midnight, our secret’s out and everyone’s time is up.

****Wanda’s Summer Festival of Reading Fluff****

A very cute beginning to what promises to be a fun, fluffy series. Makenna Fraser is a likeable main character, learning her new job with Supernatural Protection & Investigations. She is a Seer, able to see through the glamours that supernatural beings can use to hide themselves from regular humans. It’s a rare skill and she hopes to make a place for herself in the company.

As the title implies, a descendent of the great Grendel (slain by Beowulf) is on the loose. Grendels are quite noise sensitive, explaining why the original Grendel attacked the hard-partying Danes that were his neighbours. SPI is based in New York City and it’s almost New Year’s Eve—so there’s lots of opportunity for loud humans to once again annoy the grendels.

I must say that I loved the Scandinavian team that came to help with the hunt—at least one of them a Berserker with a famous sword! I wasn’t quite as keen on the depictions of the grendels. Beowulf’s Grendel looks much different in my imagination than Lisa Shearin’s version, but I was able to set aside my version and enjoy hers for the purposes of the book.

Shearin has a good sense of humour and uses a few pop-culture references that even someone who is as out of touch as I am could still recognize & enjoy.

Friday, 10 July 2015

Shovel Ready / Adam Sternbergh

4 out of 5 stars
***Wanda’s Summer Festival of Reading Fluff***

“I may have once had some thin faith in something like cosmic justice, but now I believe in box-cutters.”

So says Spademan, ex-garbageman, current hit-man, and very noir protagonist in the gritty, post-dirty-bomb world of New York City. Sternbergh speaks in the crime noir voice quite effectively. Spademan can drink with the best of them when he chooses to. He knows his way around the underworld of NYC and he stays on the right end of the box-cutters, even if he does get roughed up occasionally in virtual reality. Even Spademan’s name elicits comparisons to Sam Spade. Plus, Spademan has the same somewhat twisted set of values of a Philip Marlowe—there are some things he won’t do for any amount of money.

“I kill men. I kill women because I don’t discriminate. I don’t kill children because that’s a different kind of psycho.”

Sternbergh is no Raymond Chandler, but he writes a good science-fiction noir. The reader must have no prejudices against sentence fragments, dialog sans punctuation, or stream of consciousness.

Very entertaining, a quick read. I will never hear that tired politicians’ phrase “shovel ready” in quite the same way again.

Friday, 3 July 2015

In the Woods / Tana French

4 out of 5 stars
Dublin 1984 dusk, three children vanish in the woods. One, Rob Ryan, grips a tree trunk in terror, unable to recall any detail of previous hours. Twenty years later, the detective on the Dublin Murder Squad keeps his past a secret. But when a girl 12 is killed in the same woods, Rob and Detective Cassie Maddox — partner and best pal - investigate present and past.

Not recommended for those who like a book to tie up into a nice neat parcel with a ribbon on top by the last page. This novel will leave you with questions. I liked it—but then I remember as a teen really liking an author whose books always left an ambiguous ending. Would the heroine be able to get out of the burning house? Questions like that and no sequels to answer them.

French’s writing is excellent and the story is well paced. I loved the unorthodox professional relationship between Detectives Ryan and Maddox. I think most authors would be unable to resist creating some kind of love interest between male & female partners and French resisted that urge. Instead, these two are like brother and sister, with amusing repartee and an unusually close relationship.

I also loved her occasional acerbic comments on the human race—for instance, “Humans are feral and ruthless.” That observation, early in the novel, prepares you for things to come.

In the Woods is very much an exploration of the limits of human memory. Any police officer or lawyer will be able to tell you that the human memory is incomplete at best and completely unreliable at worst. Neurologists think that all of our memories are in the brain somewhere—the problem is accessing those memories. And in the very act of accessing them, we may be altering those memories as well. Each time we recall something, when we re-store it to memory, we add bits & pieces, impressions, opinions, and down-right fabrications. This is why any case going to trial also requires firm forensic evidence and why so many people have been wrongfully convicted based strictly on eye-witness testimony. Detective Ryan is the guy with the slippery memory—what happened to him in 1984? How did he end up in blood soaked sneakers, rips in the back of his t-shirt, backed up against a tree with his fingers dug into the bark, catatonic? Why has he never been able to remember any details? And does this have any bearing on the current murder which has occurred in the same stand of woods?

Thursday, 2 July 2015

The Nonborn King / Julian May

4.5 out of 5 stars
Book 3 of the Saga of Pliocene Exile.

This series would make a wonderful graphic novel—it has lots of prehistoric beasties, action-packed battle scenes, dramatic psychic powers, and lots of opinionated & quirky characters.

Humans from our future have become part of the Galactic Milieu, a kind of Federation of those races with psychic powers of various sorts. But not everyone has what it takes to fit into this system and others are unhappy with the direction that their society is moving. Some of the most disgruntled take a one-way trip through a time portal into the Pliocene era. You can imagine the sort of people who would not fit in to this future—those who really don’t care to conform. And the Milieu has made a ruling that no one with advanced psychic powers is able to take advantage of the time gate. What could possibly go wrong?

Upon arriving in the Pliocene, these non-psychic humans find themselves taken into custody by an alien race, the Tanu, who also fled their own world in order to do things their own way. By using neck-torcs of various colours they are able to wield psi powers too. The human “deliveries” from the time portal have meant that the Tanu have a distinct advantage over their traditional enemies, the Firvulag (deformed gnomish people who have similar powers without the hardware).

The political machinations are convoluted and, humans being what they are, there are many deviations from the Tanu tradition & system of honour. (As Tana French says in her novel In The Woods, “Humans are feral and ruthless.”) None demonstrate this as clearly as Aiken Drum, the self-proclaimed Nonborn King—created in a laboratory, without family, but with blinding ambition and late-developing psychic talents, Drum attempts to take over the Pliocene world. He faces opposition from all three races, none of whom fancy being ruled by a psychopathic upstart human.

As with the previous two books, female characters continue to play major roles in the action, if not in the warfare, and strong women of various races cause Aiken Drum some major headaches and sleepless nights.

Add to the mix one last group of future asylum seekers (who attempted to overthrow the Milieu and ended up retreating to the past) and the whole situation becomes precarious. There are few pauses in the action and lots of exploration of inter-race relations.

I definitely want to read the fourth book, The Adversary, and also to find May’s other books sets in this universe, Jack the Bodiless, Diamond Mask, and Magnificat.