Monday, August 31, 2015

Manifold Origin - Stephen Baxter


    2002; 518 pages.  Book 3 of the Manifold trilogy.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Hard Science Fiction; Epic Sci-Fi.  Overall Rating : 9½*/10.

    It all happened in a flash.  A blue flash to be exact.  One moment, Emma Stoney is in a T-38 jet with Reid Malenfant, flying towards a reported UFO sighting over Africa.   But this is not your everyday flying saucer UFO, it’s a huge blue ring, many miles in diameter.  And when it puts the T-38 in danger of crashing. Malenfant wisely hits the button to Emma’s emergency ejector seat.  Whoosh!  Out she goes.

     But things rapidly go awry, and instead of being parachuted to safety, Emma finds herself sucked into the blue ring.  Into a new place.  Maybe into a different time.  Perhaps into a different dimension.  But the air is breathable, and there even are other humans in this strange new planet.  Well, not humans, exactly; more like cavemen.  Kinda.

    But the weird thing is – they speak a few words of pidgin English.  Jeez, who the heck would’ve taught them that?

What’s To Like...
    Manifold: Origin is the final book in Stephen Baxter’s “Manifold” trilogy.  Whereas the first two (reviewed here and here) deal with the Time and Space aspects of Quantum Physics, this book focuses on the fascinating concept of Multiverses.  Baxter spotlights one of the popular Multiverse theories – that whenever a key event occurs in our world, the universe splits off into one or more possibilities.  Since there are many crucial events (such as a comet crashing into the Earth and obliterating the dinosaurs), you end up with infinite universes.

    In Manifold: Origin, the multiverses occur along Earth’s timeline, and rather than having our protagonists dimension-hop on their own volition, Baxter comes up with a big blue portal to scoop up beings from various universes and deposit them on its accompanying red moon.

    If you’re a Sci-Fi reader who’s not into Quantum Physics, don’t despair.  You can just as easily read this as an alt-history novel where all the long-gone hominids (Cro-Magnons, Neandertals, and a host of earlier species) still exist, along with homo sapiens snatched from various points in our recorded history.  It may seem like our modern-day heroes would have a natural advantage, but when they’re transported without warning, they're carrying very few technological gadgets,  They're forced to be hunter-gatherers, which means every other critter is on equal footing.

    The chapters are titled according to whichever character’s POV will be followed, and this inherently leads to rich, deep character development.  It was a pleasant change to read about a world where homo sapiens are not the smartest species around.  The book is superbly structured.  Stephen Baxter blends in each new species/tribe gradually, allowing the reader to get to familiar with each of them before introducing a new set.  There are lots of plot twists and “hard science” to ponder.  That new moon is 4x bigger and 20x heavier than our old moon, and its tidal effect on Earth is humanity-threatening.

    The storyline is gritty, and includes things like rape, flatulence, shitting, periods, cannibalism, erections, hand-jobs, and cold-blooded murder.  I think it made for a realistic tale - life in paleolithic times was indeed brutal - but if you’re the kind who got upset when the lions catch and eat the poor antelopes in those old nature documentaries, you may want to skip this book.

Kewlest New Word ...
Fossicking (v.) : rummaging; searching (Aussieism; informal)
Others : Woad (n.); Parsimony (n.)

Excerpts...
    “Are you religious now?”
    “No.”  He had tried, for the sake of the priest, Monica Chaum, as much as anybody else.  But, unlike some who came back from space charged with religious zeal, Malenfant had lost it all when he made his first flight into orbit.  Space was just too immense.  Humans were like ants on a log, adrift in some vast river.  How could any Earth-based ritual come close to the truth of the God who had made such a universe?  (pg. 90)

    When Manekato was two years old she had been shut in a room with a number of other children, and a handful of artifacts: a grain of sand, a rock crystal, a bowl of water, a bellows, a leaf, other objects.  And the children were told to deduce the nature of the universe from the contents of the room.
    Of course the results of such trials varied – in fact the variations were often interesting, offering insights into scientific understanding, the nature of reality, the psychology of the developing mind.  But most children, working by native logic, quickly converged on a universe of planets and stars and galaxies.  Even though they had never seen a single star.
    Stars were trivial mechanisms, after all, compared to the simplest bacterium.  (pg. 252)

“A pinch of observation is worth a mountain of hypothesis.”  (pg. 210 )
    The storyline builds to a plausible ending, but it is happy, sad, hopeful, and bleak all at the same time.  Stephen Baxter even supplies an original and imaginative possible answer to the Fermi paradox (if there are other beings in the Universe, why haven’t we seen evidence of them?).  I liked that.

    Not all of the threads are tied up.  We never do find out who taught the various hominids their rudimentary English; who built the blue portal and red moon and why (although we are given some hints); or what became of The Ancients.  The most important goal – to stop the moon and portal from wreaking their multidimensional havoc – is not achieved; and we never learn why someone built the people-scooper/moon-dumper.  At least one loose plot thread, Maxie, stays unresolved, although it is obvious this was deliberate on the author’s part.   Yet I don’t believe Baxter has any plans to add a fourth book to this series.

    But I wouldn’t expect an epic story on the cosmic scale of Manifold: Origin to wrap everything up.  That’s not the way the real world works – no matter which dimension you find yourself in.

    9½ Stars.  The whole Manifold series is a fine read, but I thought Manifold: Origin was the most coherent of the three, and therefore the best.  Stephen Baxter is a fantastic Sci-Fi writer, and if you like this genre, particularly “hard” Science Fiction, by all means pick up one of his books.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The Goddess of Buttercups and Daisies - Martin Millar


   2015; 208 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Mythology; Fantasy; Historical Fiction.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    It’s 421 BC, and the city-state of Athens has been at war with her rival, Sparta, for ten long years.  All the Athenians are tired on the conflict, including Aristophanes, one of the city’s celebrated playwrights.

    Well, not quite everyone in Athens has had enough of war.  General Lamachus and his Spartan counterpart, General Acanthus would prefer the fighting to never end.  Ditto for Lamachus’ crony, Euphranor, who supplies the weapons.  None of them is pleased that Aristophanes is getting ready to stage a play titled “Peace”, which might be just enough to sway a majority of the Athenian populace into voting to end the conflict.  And Athens ascribes to that pesky thing called “democracy”.

    But there are lots of ways to thwart Aristophanes and keep his subversive play from being performed.  Earthly things like bribery and sabotage can be quite effective.  Then there are the deities on Mt. Olympus who can be invoked, and who are also not of one mind about Sparta vs. Athens and Peace vs. War.

    And gods and goddesses don’t believe in silly concepts like democracy.

What’s To Like...
    The Goddess of Buttercups and Daisies is a pleasant read that draws extensively from the mythology, history, and theater in the Golden Age of Greece.  So if you’re into any or all three of those areas (and I very much like the first two), you’ll enjoy this book.  Martin Millar includes a “Historical vs Made Up” section in the back of the book, and it may surprise you how much of the plotline is factual.  And if you want a second corroborating opinion, check out Wikipedia.  There is also a glossary at the end of the book, but I didn’t make use of that.  You can pretty much suss out the meanings of the technical terms.

    The chapters are short and (for the most part) are titled for whoever’s Point Of View is going to be given therein.  George RR Martin would be proud.  The book is written in “English”, as opposed to “American”, and I always like that.  The plot is not very twisty, but the shenanigans of the various players will keep your interest. There’s a smidgen of Romance for the lady readers, but not enough to turn away the guys.

    The character development isn’t particularly deep, but it’s refreshing to have a protagonist who’s somewhat of a butthead.  The Goddess of Buttercups and Daisies is a delight to meet, and even the Bringer of Discord has a certain charm to her.  There is steady stream of humor flowing throughout the story, but not a lot of the “yuk-yuk” variety.

    TGoBaD is a standalone novel, and ANAICT it’s Martin Millar’s only novel that focuses on classical Greek history and mythology.

Kewlest New Word ...
Draughty (adj.) : cold and uncomfortable because of currents of cool air.  Basically, British for “drafty”.

Kindle Details...
    The Goddess of Buttercups and Daisies sells for $9.99 at Amazon.  There are 8 other Martin Millar novels available at Amazon, and all but one of them go for that price as well.  Millar is also the author of the fantasy series Thraxas, for which he uses the nom de plume Martin Scott.  For the most part, those e-books sell for $5.49.   You can find a short biography of the author at Wikipedia.

Excerpts...
    “I hear you’re going to a drinking party at Callias’s house.”
    “We call them symposiums.  What of it?”
    “It will be full of literary people.  Take me with you.”
    Aristophanes seemed surprised.  “Why would I do that?”
    “Why not?  Callias is the richest man in Athens.  It will be full of influential people.  You could invite me to recite my poetry.”
    “The evenings are meant to be enjoyable.”  (loc. 438)

    “Isn’t he meant to be a comedian?”
    “Yes,” said the goddess.  “But nowadays, Aristophanes does like to think of himself as a man with a message.  Really, I preferred his earlier, funny work.”
    “I can’t stand him.  You know I had to give him a place to sleep last night because he was too drunk to get home?  It’s outrageous.  I’m an Amazon.  It’s against my sacred Amazon creed for a man to spend the night in my room.”
    “It’s not, actually.  You just made that up.”
    “Well, I still don’t like it.”  (loc. 1792)

 “I hate it when you need someone and then you find out they’ve changed into a river and gone away.”  (loc. 595)
    The nitpicking is minor.  There is a recurring joke about the chorus members and their costumed penises and phalluses.  I didn’t find it offensive, but it was used over and over again, and it got old after a while.  OTOH, the flying dung beetle stage prop was both ingenious and hilarious.

    An even smaller nit to pick is the use of the term “zero” late in the story.  Sorry, folks.  But for the Greeks, there was no such thing.  Read the Wikipedia article on it.  Leave it to the Greeks to make it a philosophical conundrum: How can “nothing” be “something”?

    But I quibble.  If you want a light, feel-good book, convincingly set in 5th Century BC Athens, I recommend you give The Goddess of Buttercups and Daisies a read.   Besides entertaining you, it might just bring back fond memories of your High School Literature and History classes.

    8 Stars.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Laughing Policeman - Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo


   1970; 211 pages.  New Authors? : No.  Book 4 (out of 10) in the Martin Beck series.  Genre : Murder-Mystery, Police Procedural; Swedish Noir.  Laurels : Winner of the 1971 Edgar Award for “Best Novel”; made into a 1973 movie (starring Walter Matthau and set in California instead of Sweden).  Overall Rating : 9*/10.

    On a cold, wintry night in Stockholm, Sweden, a gunman spreads death and destruction by machine-gunning every rider on a city bus.  The police happen onto the scene rather quickly, and find eight people dead, another one dying, and the killer gone.

    The crime becomes personal for Chief Inspector Martin Beck when he learns that one of his detectives was among the dead.  It is a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, since the detective was off work at the time.

    It comes as a surprise, then, when the detective’s widow insists that he’d been working that night.  And the ill-fated bus was not on a route that would lead to or from their home.  This begs two questions.

    Is it possible that the killing was a premeditated murder instead of wanton violence by some crazed psychopath?

    And why was Beck’s detective on that late-night bus?

What’s To Like...
    The Laughing Policeman is another fine police procedural by the Swedish husband/wife team of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo.  Martin Beck and his team of detectives start with almost zero clues and motives as they probe into every victim’s life and  doggedly track down every lead that crops up.  A motive can be found for the majority of those killed – drug usage, drug pushing, ties to crime, an affair, etc. – and the investigators have varying opinions as to which is the most likely.

    As always, there is a nice “feel” to the 1967 Sweden setting, and Sjowall and Wahloo deftly weave some social commentary into the story.  There are demonstrations against the Vietnam war; some “iffy” actions by the detectives with regards to warrantless entry and rounding up suspects; and questionable priorities in the fight against crime.

    The banter among the team of detectives infuses both wit and insight into the book.  I was impressed by the way a pair of Keystone Kops, Kvant and Kristiansson, were smoothly incorporated into the storyline, thus providing a bit of comic relief.

    The title has nothing to do with the crime-solving, so don’t get hung up on that.  This is a standalone novel, and at 211 pages, a quick, page-turning read.  The entire series is available through my local library’s e-book database, although I read the paperback edition.  Sadly, the series is limited to 10 books due to Wahloo’s untimely death in 1975.

Kewlest New Word ...
Jeremiad (n.) : a long, mournful complaint or lamentation; a list of woes.

Excerpts...
    “I read somewhere that out of every thousand Americans, one or two are potential mass murderers,” Kollberg said.  “Though don’t ask me how they arrived at that conclusion.”
    “Market research,” Gunvald Larsson said.  “It’s another American specialty.  They go around from house to house asking people if they could imagine themselves committing a mass murder.  Two in a thousand say, ‘Oh yes, that would be nice.’”  (pg. 93)

    Most of the people who usually busied themselves with crime had been forced into inactivity during the past month.  So long as the police were on the alert, it was best to lie low.  There was not a thief, junkie, pusher, mugger, bootlegger or pimp in the whole of Stockholm who didn’t hope that the mass murderer would soon be seized so that the police could once more devote their time to Vietnam demonstrations and parking offenders and they themselves could get back to work.  (pg. 166)

“When the burglar wakes up at night and hears a rattling in his cellar, what does he do?  Calls the police, of course.”  (pg. 101 )
    Two things stand out in The Laughing Policeman.  The first is the meticulous and masterful construction of the murder-mystery itself.  Lesser writers either make the clues blatantly obvious or completely arbitrary.  Not so here.  For instance, our lone survivor emerges briefly from his coma, utters a couple cryptic words, and dies.  So deciphering them must be the key, right?  Not really.  They give supporting evidence to a theory, and that’s about it.  Which, probability-wise, is about what you’d expect if this were a real-world murder investigation.

    The second is the rich character development, particularly of the members of the homicide detective squad.  The emphasis here is on the whole team as they all share the enormous task of pursuing all leads.  Martin Beck may be the team captain, but that just means he gets to hand out assignments and have his name attached to the series.  But any of his detectives might get the “break” and/or be the one who finally solves the crime.  This means the reader, along with Beck, must weigh the opinions and research of all the detectives in order to solve the crime.

    9 StarsThe Laughing Policeman is a superb police procedural, but that can also be said of the three other books in this series that I’ve read.  I also enjoy another Swedish author, Henning Mankell, and his police procedural Kurt Wallender series.  But it was Sjowall and Wahloo that blazed the trail.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

A Quest of Undoing - John P. Logsdon and Christopher P. Young


    2013; 342 pages.  Book 1 (out of 3 so far) of the Tales from the Land of Ononokin series.  New Authors? : Yes.  Genre : Fantasy.  Overall Rating : 6*/10.

    It’s a minor thing, really.  A mere technicality.  The esteemed wizard, Xebdigon Whizzfiddle, has been called out by his former apprentice, Treneth of Dahl, at the Wizard Guild for failing to ever complete a quest fully and to the letter of its contract.  That means technically Whizzfiddle isn’t qualified to be part of the Guild.

    No biggie.  Whizzfiddle simply needs to fulfill one quest, and there are lots of poor unfortunate souls looking for someone to take up their cause.  But he’s only got 30 days to complete the quest, and even something as straightforward as finding a lost cat won’t work if the critter stays lost or turns up dead.

    Well, how about a Quest of Undoing?  Find one or more persons (and we use that term loosely) who’ve had a spell put on them, track down the wizard who did it, and convince him to reverse the spell.  Easy peasy.  But Treneth has his reasons for forcing Whizzfiddle to go on a quest.  And if he can delay its completion for a month, someone will have to take Whizzfiddle’s place in the Wizard Guild.

    Now who do you suppose that would be?

What’s To Like...
    A Quest of Undoing is a comedic fantasy introducing a fresh, new world that brings to mind Terry Pratchett’s Discworld and Piers Anthony’s Xanth, with a couple pokes at Tolkien’s LOTR thrown in for flavor.  Whizzfiddle, the main protagonist, will remind you of Rincewind.   If you like your fantasy to come with a wide variety of beasties, this book’s for you.  There are elves, dwarves, wizards, dragons, orcs, trolls, werewolves, giants, halflings, ogres, gorgans and vampires, and probably a couple more that I forgot to jot down.

    The chapters are short, which makes for a quick and easy read.  The emphasis is on humor, and co-writers John P. Logsdon and  Christopher P. young do a decent job of keeping the wit flowing.  I wouldn’t call it “hilarious” as the book blurb implies, but everyone’s taste in humor is different, so if you are amused by flatulence, goat lovers, and the correct usage of finger gestures, this may be your cup of tea.

    I found the writing to be good, but the storytelling only so-so.  Our band of heroes spend a lot of time wandering around from one land to another, not accomplishing much, while we wait for Trenth’s intrigues back home to come to fruition.  The world-building is adequate, but not exceptional.  There is a very helpful afterword, titled “About the land of Ononokin” that should probably be used as an Introduction and moved to the front of the book.  The bipolar levels of technology – swords and sorcery on one plane; movie cameras cell phones on the other - didn’t seem believable to me.  For a better handling of anachronisms, see Terry Pratchett's approach in his Discworld universe.

    Despite being the first book in a series, this is a standalone novel.  The ending ties up all threads, but I didn’t find it very clever, both in resolving the Quest of Undoing and for the Wizard Guild intrigues.

Excerpts...
    “Wizards stay in line,” Gungren piped up.  “Hurry up.  Us wizards got work to be done.”
    “It’s ‘we’ wizards’, Gungren,” Whizzfiddle said to Gungren as the others walked off toward town.
    “That don’t sound right.”
    “No,” Whizzfiddle said.  “I suppose it doesn’t.”  (loc. 537)

    “What’ll you gents be having?”
    “Ale,” Ibork said.
    “Do you have any freshly brewed tea?”
    “We have ale and stew, sir.”
    “’No’ would be a more succinct response,” Treneth pointed out.
    “That’s right true, sir,” the barkeep said, but when I respond in such a way, people ask what we do have.  Two birds, one stone, sir.”  (loc. 2394)

Kindle Details...
    A Quest of Undoing currently sells for $3.99 at Amazon, although I picked it up for $0.99 on one of its discount days.  Most of Logsdon & Young’s full-length books go for $3.99, and they also have a bunch of short stories for $1.49 or less.  They promote their e-books frequently via discount and/or freebie days, so be on the lookout for them.
  
“Okay, okay.  Don’t turn your britches into butt floss.”  (loc. 788)
    For all its wit, some of the attempts at humor were a bit disturbing.  There’s a gay character in our band of questers whose primary purpose seems to be to set up stereotypical gay jokes.  Another quester resorts to popping pills, which I guess was intended to be a scathing commentary on drug usage.  But it felt forced and out-of-place in a world of magic spells and potions.

    Even worse is the portrayal of the women.  Date rape is apparently an acceptable ploy in Ononokin.  True, it was a bad guy who used it, but most of the ensuing criticism seems to be that he was deceptive, not that he violated an unwilling victim.  Bill Cosby might find this gratifying.  Everybody else won’t.

    The other females are cast in an equally sexist light.  Offer any of them enough money and they’ll take off their clothes and pose nude for PlayDragon, which was yet another poor attempt at humor.  Assuming teenage boys are the target audience here, I’m leery of the message being sent.

    6 Stars.  This could've been a much better novel without the seemingly deliberate effots to be politically incorrect.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The Columbus Affair - Steve Berry


   2012; 526 pages (plus a 50-page short story).  New Author? : No.  Genre : Action-Thriller.  Overall Rating : 9½*/10.

    Talk about bad timing.  Disgraced investigative reporter Tom Sagan is just about to end it all by putting a bullet through his head when somebody knocks on his window.  He wants to show Tom a video of his daughter, bound and gagged, and in imminent danger of being harmed.

    This is a bit silly, really, since Tom and his daughter have been estranged for years.  Nevertheless, some sense of fatherly duty tugs at Tom, and hey, he can always kill himself some other day.  Especially when the ransom demand is so bizarre.  Instead of money, the kidnappers want Tom to do them one favor.

    They want the body of Tom’s father exhumed.

What’s To Like...
    The Columbus Affair has everything we’ve come to expect from a Steve Berry novel.  There are exotic settings, including Vienna, Prague, Jamaica, and Cuba.  The historical twist – and a Steve Berry book always has one – revolves around the hypothesis that Christopher Columbus was actually Jewish; and brought a secret cargo along with him to the New World.

    The excitement starts immediately, and the action and intrigue are nonstop thereafter.  The overall plotline is a treasure hunt, although none of the seekers, along with the reader, is exactly sure what the treasure is until the very end.  The evildoers are as resourceful as the good guys, and come in varying shades of gray.  I particularly liked Béne Rowe.  I also liked Berry’s handling of Israeli political stances – pragmatic, yet iron-willed – and the mindset of Israeli Orthodox Jews.

    The book is well-researched, and the history info dumps are plentiful and enlightening.  I especially enjoyed learning about the Maroons of Jamaica, their patriarchs (and matriarchs), and their long and surprisingly successful struggle for freedom.   Plot twists abound, and the jumping back and forth between the Caribbean and European settings means that there are no slow spots.  Everything builds to an exciting ending.  The only thing missing from the book is Cotton Malone (but see next paragraph), although Stephanie Nelle makes a cameo appearance late in the story, and one of the other characters is a Magellan Billet agent.

    Once again, Steve Berry takes the time to separate fact from fiction in the Writer’s Note that immediately follows the story.  After that is a 50-page short story, starring Cotton Malone, and having a tangential tie-in to the Columbus storyline.  The book ends with the opening chapters from the next Steve Berry offering, The King’s Deception, but I never read those teasers.

Kewlest New Word ...
Cacique (n.) : a Taino-derived title for the pre-Columbian chiefs of the tribes in some of the Caribbean islands.

Excerpts...
    A grille of stalactites barred the passage, the rock thick and black, like metal.
    “The iron grille?” he asked.
    Frank nodded.  “A little fact creeps into every legend.”
    He recalled what else he’d been told.  “And men have died getting this far?”
    “That they have.”
    “What killed them?”
    “Curiosity.”  (pg. 368)

    “Sagan,” he yelled.
    He saw the light above, but not the man.  Then a face peered down close to the wall.  “There’s a way down.  See it there.”  He pointed his light.  “Come on.  Let’s keep going.”
    “Somebody just tried to kill us.”
    “I know.  But they didn’t, so let’s keep going.”
    “What if they come back?”
    “Actually, I hope they do.  It’ll save me the trouble of finding them.”  (pg. 462)

“Never tell more than half of what you know.  That’s not lying.  That’s smart.”  (pg. 433 )
    The quibbles are miniscule.  There are some riddles to be solved (another Steve Berry staple), but don’t waste your time trying to figure them out them before Tom Sagan does.   And I don’t recall one of them – Columbus’ enigmatic ‘signature’ – ever being explained, even though it makes an appearnce in the short story as well.

    If you’re not into history and/or travel, then the info dumps might get a bit tedious.  And although what everyone is chasing can rewrite history, in the end, nothing has changed.  But that’s the annoying norm with most history-thrillers.

    Ah, but I pick at nits.  The Columbus Affair is another  fine addition to Steve Berry's novels, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

    9½ Stars.  Subtract 1 Star if you just gotta have Cotton Malone in your Steve Berry thrillers.  It would’ve been impossible to cast him as the protagonist here, although spoilers prevent me saying why.  And having co-protagonists would’ve been an awkward fit.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

The Giver - Lois Lowry


   1994; 208 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Laurels : 1994 Newbery Award; 1994 Regina Medal; 1996 William Allen White Award; 2007 ALA Margaret Edwards Award.  Genre : Dystopian Fiction; YA.  Overall Rating : 9½*/10.

    It’s an exciting time for 11-year-old Jonas.  The “Ceremony of Twelve” is coming up, when he and all the other Elevens will be assigned their lifelong careers.  Most Elevens have at least some idea of what career they will be assigned.  The Elders of The Community give this a lot of thought, and Jonas has no doubt that they’ll pick the correct one for him.

      But although he’s spent a lot of time musing about it (and what Eleven doesn’t?), Jonas has no idea about The Elders will choose for him.  Hopefully the Elders don’t know about a couple weird vision issues he’s had lately.  Anything that deviates from Sameness is frowned upon.

    Ah, Jonas.  You have a lot to learn.  Very little escapes the attention of the Elders.  And there are some community positions that are filled only on rare occasions.  Such as one they call The Receiver.

What’s To Like...
    The Giver is dystopian literature in its purest sense – the powers that be really are trying to build a utopian society, and have taken extensive steps to create a world without strife, pain, prejudice, hunger, poverty, rudeness, and injustice.  To their credit, they’ve been largely successful, but, as in any dystopian novel, there is a price to be paid by the citizenry, and here it is being closely monitored and obeying a myriad of rules, all enforced by the carrot-and-stick application of “Sameness” and “Release”.

    The main theme of the book is an oft-asked classic question in this genre: does a person have the right to make choices, even if some of them turn out to be wrong?  The natural answer is always “yes”, but Lois Lowry probes deeply into the consequent ramifications.  How does this impact the Communal Ideal of sameness and predictability, and whose welfare takes precedence – the Individual or the Community?

    The storytelling is powerful – you’ll bond with both Jonas and The Giver, yet Lowry manages to do this in a “YA” easy-to-read writing style, and a relatively short book.  This particular edition also came with some way-kewl illustrations, which was a nice touch.

  The ending is either brilliant or disappointing, depending on how much resolution you expect in dystopian fiction.  I thought it was very good.  If included in your edition (here, it was the book’s final chapter), be sure to read Lowry’s acceptance speech from winning the Newbery Award.  Her talks are every bit a thought-provoking as her writing.

    The quibbles are few.  Some of the technical issues are unresolved.  The significance of having pale eyes was never explained, and I couldn’t help but wonder how they controlled the climate and manipulated colors.  But let’s remember the target audience was YA’s, not science geeks like me.

Kindle Details...
    The “vanilla” version of The Giver sells for $6.99 at Amazon, with the other three books in the series all in the $3.99-$5.99 range.  The “illustrated” version, which is what I read, sells for $11.49, which seems pretty steep for just a couple pictures added in.  But this is a very popular book, so if your local library offers e-books, you might look there first.   

Excerpts...
    “There are good things each year,” Jonas reminded her.  “This year you get to start your volunteer hours.  And remember last year, when you became a Seven, you were so happy to get your front-buttoned jacket?”
    The little girl nodded and looked down at herself, at the jacket with its row of large buttons that designated her as a Seven.  Fours, Fives, and Sixes all wore jackets that fastened down the back so that they would have to help each other dress and would learn interdependence. (loc. 473)

    “Why don’t we have snow, and sleds, and hills?” he asked.  “And when did we, in the past?  Did my parents have sleds when they were young?  Did you?”
    The old man shrugged and gave a short laugh.  “No,” he told Jonas.  “It’s a very distant memory.” 
    (. . .)
    “But what happened to those things?  Snow, and the rest of it?”
    “Climate Control.  Snow made growing food difficult, limited the agricultural periods.  And unpredictable weather made transportation almost impossible at times.  It wasn’t a practical thing, so it became obsolete when we went to Sameness.”  (loc. 937)

 “Fun doesn’t end when you become Twelve.”  (loc. 240)
    Like A Wrinkle In Time (reviewed here), I was interested in reading The Giver because it is both a highly-acclaimed, award-winning YA novel and a book that is always in the “most frequently requested to be removed from libraries” lists.  Unsurprisingly, the rationale for banning both books is remarkably inane.  Apparently, there are parents out there who live in mortal fear that their dear little kiddies might be encouraged to think for themselves and arrive at their own conclusions.

    Most of the plotlines are not resolved, and Lois Lowry has indicated this was deliberate.  In the years since 1994, she’s penned another three books set in the same world, but my impression is they involve new characters, and we never will learn the rest of Jonas’ story.

    I’m okay with that; I can’t think of any dystopian novel where all the woes are cured and life becomes all peaches and cream thereafter.  My local digital library has the other three books, but I may or may not get around to reading them.

    9½ Stars.  I found The Giver to be a masterpiece of YA literature, fully deserving of the many awards it has garnered.  I recommend it highly for young adults and older persons alike.  Read it and then tell me what sensible reason can be given for wanting to ban this book.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies - Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith


   2009; 319 pages.  New Author? : Yes and Yes.  Genre : Classic Literature; Mash-Up; Humor.  Overall Rating : 7*/10.

    Hey, why don’t we liven up Jane Austen’s acclaimed-but-boring (at least to us guys) novel, Pride and Prejudice by adding a bunch of zombies to the story?  That’ll give it some gore and violence, to say nothing of killing the undead and eating BRAINZ!

    While we’re at it, let’s throw in some Ninjas, a Shaolin master, and a team of kick-ass kung-fu girls too.  And some vomit.  Yeah, that’s the ticket!

    And to top it off, let’s add cauliflower eating!  Awesome!!

    Wait.  What was that last one?

What’s To Like...
    I’ve been wanting to read Pride & Prejudice for some time, but not Jane Austen’s version of it, so Pride and Prejudice and Zombies seemed like the logical choice.  It did seem prudent, however, to read the plot synopsis in Wikipedia beforehand, and that really helped in understanding what was going on.

    This is really more of a mash-up than a smooth blend of two genres.  ANAICT, Seth Grahame-Smith uses Jane Austen’s verbiage quite a bit, and then tosses zombie scenes in for the heck of it at various spots.  It works better than you’d think, although some of the (presumably) Austen text sometimes made for slow reading.

    The titular themes of pride and prejudice are studied in depth through the two main protagonists – Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy.  But a lot of other topics are here as well – “Regency” manners and upbringing; the importance of money and status; the learning of the social graces and civility; and last-but-not-least, the absolute necessity of improving the position of one’s family by marrying for money or gain in social standing.

   In addition to the zombie fighting, there are lots of other neat things in the story – the game of Kiss Me Deer, the Seven Cut of Shame, and some way-kewl illustrations in this particular edition.  There is also the recurring double-entendre concerning “balls”, and apparently, back in that day, marrying one’s cousin was NBD.

    The ending is well done, although I suspect we have Ms. Austen to thank for this.  Be sure to read the section, “A Reader’s Discussion Guide” in the appendix; it’s quite excellent.  And reportedly (per Wikipedia), P&P&Zit is being made into a movie, due out in the summer of 2016.

Kewlest New Word ...
Propinquity (n.) : proximity; the state of being close to something or someone.
Others : Phaeton (n., and not a Star Trek weapon).

Excerpts...
    “Pride,” observed Mary, who piqued herself upon the solidity of her reflections, “is a very common failing, I believe.  By all that I have ever read, I am convinced that it is very common indeed.”
    Elizabeth could not help but roll her eyes as Mary continued.
    “Vanity and pride are different things, though the words are often used synonymously.  A person may be proud without being vain.  Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves, vanity to what we would have others think of us.”
    At this point, Elizabeth let out a most palpable yawn.  (pg. 19)

    “When they all removed to Brighton, therefore, you had no reason, I suppose, to believe them fond of each other?”
    “Not the slightest.  I can remember no symptom of affection on either side, other than her carving his name into her midriff with a dagger; but this was customary with Lydia.”  (pg. 227)

“Spoken like one who has never known the ecstasy of holding a still-beating heart in her hand.”  (pg. 44 )
    The 800+ reviews at Amazon tend to fall into two major categories.  In one camp are those who have read the Jane Austen classic version, love it, and think Grahame-Smith’s undead take-off is a crime against literary humanity.  In the other camp are those who have read Austen’s book, hated, and hail the zombie version as a refreshing new slant to a yawn-inducing classic.

     Since I haven’t read the Austen version (I strive to avoid American classic literature like the plague), I’ll take the middle ground on this.  The mash-up worked, but still felt awkward.  But Grahame-Smith’s close adherence to the original storyline and Austen’s text and style means I got a good feel for Austen’s Pride and Prejudice without undergoing the drudgery of actually reading it.

    7 Stars.  It’s rather obvious, but add 1 Star if you hated reading Austen’s opus; subtract 1 Star if you read it and loved it.  And if you’re one of those devotees who likes to go on a literary retreat called a “Jane Austen Weekend” (such things really exist), I don’t know whether to pity you or be in awe.