Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Neutronium Alchemist - Peter F. Hamilton

1997; 1137 pages.  New Author? : No.  Book #2 of the Night's Dawn Trilogy.  Genre : Space Opera.  Overall Rating : 8½*/10.

    The battle between the Possessed and the Unpossessed rages throughout the galaxy.  The Possessed hasten to infect as many habitats as they can; the Unpossessed struggle with immense logistical issues while learning ways to repel the menace.

    In the midst of all the chaos, a new danger emerges.  Dr. Alkad Mzu has escaped her 30-year house asrrest on the habitat Tranquility and seeks to reclaim the Doomsday device she developed, called the Neutronium Alchemist.  And while it is a threat to all, it is also a prize.  If either side manages to seize the Neutronium Alchemist, or even just capture Dr. Mzu, they gain the upper hand in the cosmic warfare.

What's To Like...
    This is epic Space Opera - a multitude of detailed worlds, races, gadgets and characters to explore and get acquainted with.  There is despair and brutality, but there is also hope and goodness.  The sex has been toned down in this second book, and a bit of comic relief has been added. most notably through a flower child possessor with a magic bus, who's helping to save a bunch of unpossessed children.  Hamilton even brings back two historical figures, Al Capone and Fletcher Christian, and both occupy important roles in the drama.

    There are very few purely Good or Evil characters.  Indeed, there are a lot of what we old AD&Ders call "chaotic evil" and "chaotic good" players, who often hinder their causes more than they help it.  It's fun to watch "lawful evil" Al Capone as he gets frustrated with his chaotic minions.

    There is a "Cast of Characters" at the back of the book, which is very helpful because there are a zillion storylines and people to keep track of.  It is hard to see how everything will be tidily resolved in one more book, but that's the "hook" to keep reading.  Oh yeah, there are also a couple "super agents" who act as observers in the action, and their presence offers tantalizing possibilities of this whole crisis being manipulated by higher powers.

Kewlest New Word...
Orrery : a mechanical model of the solar system.

    "I'm sorry, Ralph, but as I said, you simply cannot threaten me.  Have you worked out why yet?  Have you worked out the real reason I will win?  It is because you will ultimately join me.  You are going to die, Ralph.  Today.  Tomorrow.  A year from now.  If you're lucky, in fifty years time.  It doesn't matter when.  It is entropy, it is fate, it is the way the universe works.  Death, not love, conquers all in the end.  And when you die, you will find yourself in the beyond.  That is when you and I will become brother and sister in the same fellowship.  United against the living.  Coveting the living."  (pg. 165)

    Al knew all about kilometres; they were what the French called miles.  (pg. 93)

    "Wait!  What are you observing us for?"
    "To see what happens, of course."
    "Happens?  You mean when the Kingdom attacks?"
    "No, that's not really important.  I want to see what the outcome is for your entire race now that the beyond has been revealed to you.  I must say, I'm becoming quite excited by the prospect.  After all, I have been waiting for this for a very long time.  It's my designated goal function."
    Moyo simply stared at him, astonishment and indignation taking the place of fear.  "How long?" was all he managed to whisper.
    "Eighteen centuries."  Rosler raised an arm in a cheery wave and walked away into the shadows...  (pg. 909)

"And what is the purpose of life?"  "To experience."  (pg. 388)
    For all its entertaining Space Opera theatrics, Peter F. Hamilton's The Neutronium Alchemist also gives you some fascinating spiritual what-if's to ponder.  What if all your soul does when you die is fall into a giant repository of other souls?  If that was your eternal fate, what would you do if, say after 600 years,  you were given the opportunity of coming back, albeit at the expense of taking over someone else's body and life?  And if you were among the living when such a "beyond" was revealed, how would it affect your actions and spiritual beliefs?

    The Neutronium Alchemist, like any Book 2 in a trilogy, is neither the beginning or the end of the tale.  It is action-packed from page one; but I can't say whether the Doomsday device plays a vital part in the story, or is just a tangent whose only purpose is to tide you over until Book 3.  The Neutronium Alchemist is not a stand-alone book, so you commit to reading 3600 pages when you take up this trilogy.  So far, I'd say it's worth it.  8½ Stars

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Earthman's Burden - Poul Anderson and Gordon R. Dickson

1957; 189 pages.  Genre : 50's Science Fiction; Humor.  New Author(s)? : No.  Overall Rating : 5*/10.

    Earthman's Burden consists of six short stories (each about 30 pages long) about the Hokas, a race of Teddy Bear-like creatures on an alien planet.  You also meet their human plenipotentiary, Alexander Jones, and his wife, Tanni.  All but one of the stories originally appeared in various Sci-Fi magazines in between 1951 and 1955.  A couple "interplanetary memos" were later inserted to try to give some cohesion to the tales, but frankly, it wasn't necessary.

What's To Like...
      Hokas love everything about earth - our movies, our books, our history, our radio transmissions.  They take everything as absolute truth, so if they see a movie, say, about ancient Rome, they immediately try to build a settlement on their planet Toka to mimic it.

   Each of the stories in Earthman's Burden is set in one of these mimicries.  Specifically, the settings are (in order) : (1) the Wild West; (2) Don Juan; (3) Space Travel; (4) Sherlock Holmes; (5) Pirates; and (6) the French Foreign Legion.

    The stories all have a similar template.  Alex awakes to find the Hokas embracing a new bit of terra-culture; he gets embroiled in their antics; some sort of crisis arises; mayhem ensues, Alex devises an ingenious solution by going "in character", and all turns out well because of (or in spite of) the best-laid plans of the Hokas/Alex.

Kewlest New Word...
Tussock : an area of raised solid ground in a marsh or bog that is bound together by roots of low vegetation.

    "Great jumping rockets!" exclaimed the other Hoka.  "Don't tell me the Coordinator didn't recognize you?"
    "It's the moonlight, probably," said the first Hoka.  "All clear and on green now, Coordinator?"
    "I- I-," stammered Alex.
    "Aye, aye!" repeated Jax Bennison crisply.  (pg. 68)

    Alex discovered the consensus among them was that the captain was becoming too obsessed with his navigation to pay proper attention to the running of the ship.  No one had been hanged for several weeks, and there hadn't been a keelhauling for over a month.  Many a Hoka standing on the sun-blistered deck cast longing glances at the cool water overside and wished he would be keelhauled (which was merely fun on a planet without barnacles).  There was much fo'c'sle talk about what act could be committed dastardly enough to rate the punishment.  (pg. 135)

"Damn the tiddlywinks!  Full speed ahead!"  (pg. 186)
    The stories are cute but formulaic and shallow.  This was my second Hoka book, and chronologically precedes the other one, which is reviewed here.  Frankly, I didn't find Earthman's Burden as entertaining as Hoka!.

    Maybe it was because Poul Anderson and Gordon R. Dickson were still feeling their way around in the series.  Maybe it was because the attempt to string these six stories into a coherent overall novel was ill-advised.  Maybe it was because of the horrid printing job - each page was set on about a 10-degree angle.

    In any event, all six tales are still amusing to read, and a pleasant break if you're plodding through a 1200-page Space Opera like I am.  It's uninspiring fluff, but that's okay at times.  Anderson and Dickson would subsequently  tweak and refine their style, and their efforts would pay off when Hoka! came out.  And I do appreciate it when authors evolve and improve with each work they put out.  5 Stars (out of 10).

Sunday, May 15, 2011

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich - Alexander Solzhenitsyn

1962 (Russian); 1963 (English).  139 pages.  Genre : Russian Lit.  New Author? : Yes.  Overall Rating : 9½*/10.

    The title says it all - the story is simply a single day in the life of a Russian prisoner serving a 10-year sentence at a Stalinist gulag in Siberia.  His crime?  Escaping from the Germans as a POW during World War 2.  The Russians suspect he is a spy for the Nazis.

What's To Like...
     The day is an ordinary one. There is no daring escape or dramatic confrontation.  The greatest excitement consists of smuggling a stub of a hacksaw blade into the campground.  Yet this is a powerful story (and probably more so in its original Russian) that will open your eyes to man's inhumanity to man.

  You will spend about 18 hours total with Ivan Denisovich Shukhov.  You will feel his hunger and his exhaustion.  You will rejoice over a pittance of food; you will freeze to the bone in the Siberian winter; you will ache from back-breaking labor.  But you will survive.  Because if you can survive one day, you can survive 3,650 days (his 10-year sentence).  Plus three more days for leap years.

    Not every prisoner makes it.  You must learn when to grovel, who to kiss up to, how to fool the guards, how to get extra food, when to share, and when to hoard.  Most of all, you must learn how to psychologically deal with your fate.  These lessons must be re-learned every day.

    Work was like a stick.  It had two ends.  When you worked for the knowing you gave them quality; when you worked for a fool you simply gave him eyewash.
    Otherwise, everybody would have croaked long ago.  They all knew that.  (pg. 12)

    They sat in the cold mess hall, most of them eating with their hats on, eating slowly, picking out putrid little fish from under the leaves of boiled black cabbage and spitting the bones out on the table.  When the bones formed a heap and it was the turn of another squad, someone would sweep them off and they'd be trodden into a mush on the floor.  But it was considered bad manners to spit the fishbones straight out on the floor.  (pg. 13)

    Who is the zek's main enemy?  Another zek.  If only they weren't at odds with one another - ah, what a difference that'd make!  (pg. 101.  "Zek" is an abbreviation of Russian for prisoner.)

Scrape through today somehow and hope for tomorrow.  (pg. 69)
   One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is a riveting story, made all the more believable because it is such an ordinary day.  But its importance extends beyond the literary world - its publication was a milestone in Soviet history as well.  Alexander Solzhenitsyn was a gulag survivor, and this book was the first one dealing with the gulags that the Soviet government (specifically Nikita Khrushchev) allowed to be printed in the USSR.

    Overnight, it changed the psyche of the Russian people.  Stalinist repression was dealt a mortal blow.  To quote Khrushchev :
    "It is our duty to gain a thorough  and comprehensive understanding of the nature of the matters related to the abuse of power.  Time will pass and we shall die, we are all mortal, but so long as we work we can and must clear up many points and tell the truth to the Party and to the people. ...  This we must do so that such things never happen again."

    ODITLOID is a short, powerful, sometimes painful piece of Russian literature that just might touch your very soul.  At 139 pages, what have you got to lose?  9½ Stars.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Gods Behaving Badly - Marie Phillips

2007; 292 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Fiction; Humor.  Overall Rating : 6½*/10.

    You won't find any Greek gods on Mt. Olympus anymore.  Most of them now live in a house in London that they purchased way back in the 1600's.  Artemis is a professional dog-walker.  Aphrodite is doing phone sex.  And Apollo just shot the pilot for a phony clairvoyant TV show.

    They're all lousy housekeepers, so they've hired a (mortal) cleaner.  Who by a strange coincidence is...

What's To Like...
    This is a light-hearted read that also asks some weighty questions.  Why should we assume the Greek gods aren't around nowadays?  What do we really know about the afterlife?   If we could live forever here on earth, would we get bored?  How would we act if we were immortal?

    The two human protagonists are a cleaning lady and a nerdy engineer.  How kewl is that?  There's Romance and Sex; yet strangely, they never appear together.  Any book that showcases Greek mythology is a plus for me.  And the whole Underworld portion of the tale is fascinating.

Kewlest New Word...
Derisory : ridiculously small or inadequate.  (Get your mind out of the gutter; here it refers to a paycheck).

    "You did what?" said Aphrodite, rising to her feet...
    "I...," said Apollo.  "I..."
    "You wouldn't heat up so much as a cupful of water for me, and yet you were willing to waste gallons of your power on transmogrifying some stupid mortal slut?"
    "She wasn't a slut," said Artemis.  "Not with him anyway.  I think that was the problem."  (pg. 16)

    In the kind of novels that Neil sometimes read in secret, this would be the moment when the hero took the heroine in his arms, pressed his lips roughly to hers, and then ravaged her.
    "I've got Scrabble on my Palm Pilot," he said.  "Multiplayer."  (pg. 23)

    "We haven't got the sun, we haven't got Apollo, and if we don't work together to keep the earth going, the world is going to end."
    "And then all the mortals will die?" said Hades.
    "And this is a bad thing?"  (pg. 261)

"That isn't a lady.  That's a goddess."  (pg. 248)
    The underlying premise in Gods Behaving Badly - that of old deities still hanging around - is neat but not original.  This is Gaiman's 'American Gods' done a bit more lightly; or Pratchett's 'Pyramids' done a bit more raunchily.  There was even an old episode from the original (black & white!) Star Trek series that explored this theme.  But it's always nice to see a fresh take on it.

    There are some weaknesses.  The original conflict (which we won't detail here; this is a no-spoilers blog) is never resolved.  The R-rated language and situations serve no purpose.  The ending is somewhat prosaic.  The pacing felt choppy.  If you aren't versed in Greek mythology, you may find the gods to be 2-D.

    Still, it was an entertaining read, and I don't think Marie Phillips intended to write an epic.  Gods Behaving Badly is her debut book, and ANAICT, she hasn't penned any more.  Which is a shame because this had a "diamond in the rough" feel to it.  Once her style is polished up, her creative imagination will undoubtedly shine through.  6½ Stars.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Hyde Park Headsman - Anne Perry

1994; 343 pages.  Genre : Murder Mystery.  New Author? : Yes.  Book #14 (out of 27) in the "Charlotte & Thomas Pitt" series.  Overall Rating : 7½*/10.

    With the unsolved Jack-the-Ripper murders still fresh in their minds, Londoners now face a new terror.  Someone keeps dumping decapitated bodies in Hyde Park at night.  The public and the elected officials want newly-promoted Police Superintendent Thomas Pitt to catch the murderer, and pronto.  Pitt has one thing going for him - at least the perpetrator has the decency to deposit the severed heads beside their torsos.

What's To Like...
   The action gets going immediately; by page 2 we have a victim (in two parts), and a hysterical populace.  The backstory was confusing for a while, especially trying to keep the women straight.  There's Charlotte and Caroline, Vespasia and Gracie, Emily and Grandmomma.  But once you get the cast squared away, things chug along nicely.

    The series takes place in Victorian (1890's) London, and I'm partial to murder/mysteries set in historical times.  The setting is for the most part handled well.  There are lots of bodies, lots of heads, lots of suspects, and lots of secrets.  Not all the pleasant characters are innocent, and not all of the unpleasant ones are guilty.  Pitt's assistant, Tellman, is a particularly interesting study - he's initially jealous and surly, but gradually he and Pitt learn to work together.

Kewlest New Word...
Consanguinity : related by blood.  (I guess I cooda figured that one out)

    "What else do you know about it?" Pitt asked, looking up at Grover and leaning back in his chair...
    "Sir?"  Grover raised his eyebrows.
    "What did the medical officer say?" Pitt prompted.
    "Died of 'avin' 'is 'ead cut orf," Grover replied, lifting his chin a little.  (page 3)

    "Good God, man!  What is the world coming to when such an act can be perpetrated in a public place in London, and men see it and do nothing!  What is happening to us?"  His face was growing darker as the blood suffused his cheeks.  "One expects barbarity in heathen countries, outposts of the Empire, but not here in the heart and soul of a civilized land!"  (pg. 45)

"With a twisted cue and a cloth untrue, and elliptical billiard balls,
My object all sublime, I shall achieve in time..."  (pg. 246)
     The Hyde Park Headsman has the curious distinction at Amazon of having all the reviewers giving it one to three stars.  No 4* and no 5* ratings.  Wow.

    I'll grant this isn't a masterpiece.  Pitt questions lots of people, the bodies pile up, but you don't get the feeling that the story is progressing.  The key break is what I call a "Cold Case Moment" (*).  The ending has a nice twist or two, but still feels arbitrary.  Worst of all, it never is answered why the killer keeps transporting the bodies to Hyde Park; they aren't killed there.

    Still, it was captivating enough to keep me turning the pages.  Thomas Pitt won't supplant Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes as my favorite Victorian sleuth, but who will?  I'll probably buy a couple more of Anne Perry's novels the next time I'm at the used-book store.  7½ Stars.

(*) : Cold Case Moment.  Named because it got to where every Cold Case episode had one.  The detectives would be questioning someone, and it would go like this :
Detective :  "Yadda yadda.  Blah blah.  Hey, why are you wearing that odd pin on your jacket?"
Suspect (staring wistfully at the sky) : "It brings back memories, man."
Detective : "Oh. Yadda yadda.  Blah blah."

    See, the problem is - that would never be part of the dialogue unless it was the key break.  So even though Cold Case could go on another 40 minutes, you always knew they'd get back to this eventually, and use it to solve the murder.  Good murder-mysteries use this device to introduce red herrings.  Not-as-good murder mysteries use it to point straight to the perp.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Threshold - Caitlin R. Kiernan

2001; 312 pages.  Genre : Cozy Horror.  New Author? : Yes.  Overall Rating : 7*/10.

"I can see monsters," says Dancy Flammarion, the mysterious albino girl who wanders into Chance Matthews' life to solicit her help in dealing with them.  And a couple of Chance's Goth friends as well.

But are the monsters just in Dancy's head?  She's been in institutions, you know.  And if they are real, why the heck would they hang out in Birmingham, Alabama of all places?

What's To Like... 
Caitlin R. Kiernan has a distinctive writing style - in the present tense, and with lots of compound adjectives - about one per paragraph.  Some examples : velvetsoft, shoescuffed, housesifted, syrupslow, dustysafe, birdnervous.

The main cast of characters are fun-to-get-to-know anti-heroes, who for the most part don't have their sh*t together.  They drink, smoke, get stoned, and break into places they shouldn't enter just for the fun of it.  Though interestingly, Chance eschews the tobacco.

Hey, the book has lots of Paleontology in it; how kewl is that?!  And if you don't know much about Paleontology, there's a helpful appendix at the back.  If you don't care about Paleontology, there's still some good news.  The enjoyment of Threshold doesn't really hinge on it.

Kewlest New Word...
Travertine : a form of limestone deposited by mineral springs, especially hot springs.  (Wiki it for some kewl images).

    "Why are you a drunkard?" Dancy asks, finally turning away from the window, swiveling around to face him.  "Because you don't like hearing what the angels say, what they show you?"
    "There are no g*dd*mn angels!"
    "It doesnt matter what you call them," she says so calm, so confident.  "My momma said they usually don't care."  (pgs. 110-111)

    "We can't have people sleeping on the grass," the old woman says, and now she sounds as bewildered as she sounds indignant.  "This is a House of God.  We can't have people sleeping on the grass."
    "I'm sorry," Dancy says, and the sprinkler sweeps back over her, a few seconds of rain, and then it's gone again.  "I didn't mean to fall asleep."
   ""Well, okay," the old woman mumbles.  "Okay I guess, but you understand that we can't have people sleeping here,"  (pg. 151)

"Some stories don't have endings ... in some stories, there arent't even answers."  (pg. 259)
This is what I can only call a "Cozy Horror" story - most of the killing is done off-stage or recounted via flashback.  While that's certainly novel, I found it to be kind of an oxymoron.  If you want to scare me, I need some in-my-face action and violence.

    A lot of people hated the ending, but I found it to be non-trite and unforeseen.   It did feel "rushed" however, particularly with regard to our clique of anti-heroes.  It's also possible that their fate is taken up in some sequel that I'm unaware of.

   There are a lot of things - the present tense, the adjectives, the Gothiness, the science, the cozy horror, the ending - that will be hit-or-miss for the reader.  This was only Caitlin Kiernan's second novel, so her writing may well have evolved with time.  For me, the "likes" outpaced the "meh".  I'd give the Style a "9", and the Story a "5".  That averages out to 7 Stars.