Book Review: Time and Again

(Sorry about this; I know it’s been a month, and this is lame, but I wanted to make sure I posted something in the month of August. I’m teaching now, so therefore not doing enough of what I should be doing, reading and writing. I’ll try to get something better up soon. For now, here’s this.)

Image result for time and again jack finney

Time and Again

by Jack Finney

I bought this because Jack Finney wrote Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which is a science fiction classic, and one of my all-time favorite short stories, Contents of the Dead Man’s Pockets, which is just brilliant. Also, my copy of this is from the Fantasy Masterworks series; and, last but not least, it’s about time travel. I wrote a book – two, now – about time travel. Clearly I need to read this fantasy masterpiece by an excellent author about a theme similar to mine.

Now I’ve read it; I’m not sure I really needed to read it.

The book is the story of a government project to realize time travel. The concept is deceptively simple: based on Einstein’s theories that time is similar to space in that it is a dimension of the space-time continuum, which means it has an axis, and therefore just as you could move in either direction along one axis in space (up-down, right-left, forward-back), you should be able to move in both directions in time. I don’t want to get too far into it, but the government project is, I think, quite well done: they do things the government would do, in the way that government would do them. The main character is a graphic designer and illustrator living in New York City in the 1960’s or so (The actual date of the modern era is left vague), who eventually attempts to travel back in time to 1882. The key is to find a space that can be isolated from the modern era completely: in this case (though there are several different attempts going on at once), the central element is the Dakota, a residential apartment building/hotel in New York City that has remained unchanged from the 1800’s until now. It’s a clever idea, honestly, and Finney does it really well.

There are some things about this book that are incredible. The level of detail that Finney was able to summon and wield in order to capture the time frames, both the character’s starting point and the destination, is amazing. The world he describes is lovely, but not actually idealized – one of the very best scenes is a conversation the hero has with a wagon driver in 1882 who describes what absolute hell it is to have his job in the New York winters, and it’s a brilliantly dark moment – which just made its loveliness more impressive; reading the book feels like being nostalgic for an era that I never knew, and a city I have visited but never cared too much about. As much as anything else, this book is a love letter to New York City: the comparison between the Big Apple of the past and the modern one makes both cities seem glorious, from Central Park to St. Patrick’s cathedral to Madison Square, from the Museum of Natural History to the Dakota building to the Statue of Liberty. It’s all wonderful. The descriptions are specific and detailed and interesting, and Finney made liberal use of original photographs and drawings from 1882 New York, making his main character into an artist as a means of drawing the actual historical art into the narrative. Some of the reproductions in this paperback edition were a bit sketchy or blurry, but it did certainly bring the setting to life, and I loved that.

You know what I didn’t like, though? The characters. Not a one of them. The main character, Simon Morley, struck me as an arrogant putz, and they went downhill from there. The best people are the cast of characters in the past, but several of them are, as you might expect, a little too alien for me to relate to very well; I suppose I can appreciate gathering with the other roomers in my boarding house to sing songs together in the drawing room, but I can’t help but think it strange, too.

You know what else I didn’t like? The plot. The major conflict is resolved in the first 150 pages (of 400) when – spoiler – time travel works. After that it’s Simon Morley putzing around, making bad decisions and then following them up with worse decisions; it does, I admit, make him realistic, because I think most people would do a lot of the things he did – but they were stupid things to do, so I can’t like him for it. I do like his final decision, which I will not spoil here but which did surprise me; unfortunately, it made reference to an earlier detail that I had forgotten entirely, so the poetic denouement was lost on me. Part of that is because the book took me a long time to read: a slow plot and annoying characters, combined with the start of the new school year, dragged this one out for a couple of weeks, which is a long time for me.

Don’t let me ruin this one, though. The time travel idea is interesting, if in some ways far fetched (Yes, as compared to the far more realistic means of time travel from other books – like mine, where it is, y’know, magic. Reality squared, that’s what that is), the writing and the descriptions really are remarkable, along with the photos and the historical details. It’s a good book. I just wish Finney had written a better hero.

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Book Review: Platinum Magic by Bruce Davis

Davis Platinum 150

Platinum Magic

by Bruce Davis

 

I recently bought four small-press novels at the Tucson Festival of Books; I’ve read three of them so far, and though I don’t want to throw anyone under the bus, I have to say: I’m one for three. Two of those books are clearly self-published, because no publishing house, agent, or editor would take these books on: the writing isn’t good, the stories aren’t very good, the characters are terrible.

This one, however, is the good one.

All of those elements are, in this book, well done. The writing is quite good, the story is a lot of fun, the characters are excellent if a bit cliché. The best part of this book, actually, is the world-building: that’s often a sort of weak praise, as many authors – of all levels, professional, amateur, self-published or NYT bestsellers – specialize in the world-building more than the writing. I understand; the world-building is the fun part: you get to make stuff up, fix the problems you see in our world, add interesting things. It’s great, and a lot of authors let their imaginations run wild, usually without considering whether or not the world they create is at all realistic or plausible, or a good place to put a story – the Eragon series is a prime example of this, I think. Christopher Paolini wrote the first book when he was a teenager, and it reads like it: dragons are cool! Magic is cool! Sword-fighting is cool! And the hero (a teenaged boy – weird how that works) masters all three things in short order, and then flies off on his dragon to kick the world’s ass. Cool!

But also, lame.

Anyway, enough of other, worse books: Davis has done an excellent job with this world he’s created. He’s turned our world into a magic world – or perhaps a magic world into our world. The main characters are cops, investigating a murder case that has larger implications; and while those cops are dwarves and half-elves, and they use repeating crossbows rather than firearms, they still function like cops, in a world with precinct politics and public pressures and corruption and everything else that cops actually deal with. In some ways, this reads like a police procedural, just in a fantasy world. It reminded me quite a bit of Glen Cook’s Garret, P.I., series, in that the familiar tropes are put into an unfamiliar situation, and bring those old cliches to new life by doing so.

And just like the Cook series, this book has deep roots: there are political implications to the case these cops are investigating, and the political tensions between races and nations are built on a long history which slowly unfolds over the course of the book, just as it would in a novel with a real-world setting; that was well done. Though I will say that this element was also the source of my one complaint: though I appreciated Davis’s ability to avoid pages and pages of explication of his world’s history and politics, I was also quite confused early on in the story, as there were references made to old political alliances and upheavals that had strong implications in the story’s present, and I didn’t know what the hell the characters were talking about, which was annoying for a while. But it did all become clear in the end, so it was only a temporary annoyance.

I liked the mystery, particularly the twist Davis puts on it – no spoilers, but the perpetrators were involved with interdimensional travel and smuggling, which allowed Davis to step outside his own world, and gave a great surprise in the final conflict – and I really liked the characters, especially the main two cops, Simon Buckley and Haldron Stonebender. I thought the romance was a little too pat, a little too cliché, but it was sweetly written, nonetheless; Davis makes a nice point about love between different races which I liked. And I loved the use of orcs in this as second-class citizens, despised by the more powerful races, treated with deep suspicion and contempt by the cops, forced into ghettoes and menial labor and crime. Davis does what good fantasy should do: make a point about our world through the use of a fantasy lens that focuses our attention in a way that a more familiar setting might not be able to. He does it well, without making his allegory too on-the-nose; he just writes a good story, with some themes that should ring true even to those of us who aren’t part elven.

This book alone was worth the purchase of all four. I would definitely recommend it.

 

(The book is available here, if you’re interested; since this is the publisher, I expect the author gets the biggest return from this site’s sales.)

Book Review: Norse Mythology

Image result for neil gaiman norse mythology cover

Norse Mythology

by Neil Gaiman

 

I can’t decide if Loki’s better or worse than I remembered him.

The gods are worse. No question. Not all of them: the female gods, Freya and Sif and Idunn, bearer of the golden apples of immortality, are better than I remembered them; Gaiman manages to give them an air of tender exasperation with the idiotic men who surround them. The dark gods, and especially the giants who show up in almost every story, are better, too; I was rooting for them half the time, especially when they had to deal with Thor.

I hate Thor.

He does have his moments; I like the stories about his limitless might, and especially his nigh-infinite capacity for food and drink; I love that that was a sign of his prowess, that he can eat more and drink more than any other being alive. But he keeps getting mad and attacking everything, and rather than justify his actions, or – Odin forbid – atone for his sins, he tends to just kill anyone who would take him to task for breaking things or stealing things or what have you. The fact that Loki so often targets Thor is probably his best quality.

This is a great book. The myths are so much fun to read, the characters so human and relatable even while they are doing impossible things; Gaiman has this incredible ability to layer character traits deep into the narration, so that you’re hardly aware of it, but then before the story is over you know: Tyr sacrifices his hand for love of Fenris, as much as for love of his fellow gods. Kvasir, the god of wisdom, not only knows his own doom before it comes, but he almost welcomes it, because it saves him from having to deal with bastards like the evil ones that – but I don’t want to spoil it. Odin is the Allfather, all right: and his kids annoy the crap out of him. The stories in this book aren’t familiar enough to me to make them boring; there were a few that I knew, and of course I knew the last one, the story of Ragnarok, but even that one had new aspects that made it fresh and exciting: because I love the idea that Ragnarok gives rise to the next cycle of existence, that it is not, in fact, the end, even though it is the end of the Aesir and the Vanir.

And frankly, considering what they do in the end to Loki? They deserved everything they got.

Of course I recommend this. Of course it was wonderful. I read it in small pieces, but I think it would go just as well being swallowed whole – like the sun and the moon into the maw of Fenrir. It was magical, and funny, and human, and otherworldly, all at the same time.

But you know what the best part was? Honestly, it was this. At the funeral of Balder, most beloved of all the gods, brought down by Loki’s envious plotting, Thor is mad (because the gods won’t let him kill a giantess who is present) and then this happens:

Lit, one of the dwarfs, walked in front of Thor to get a better view of the pyre, and Thor kicked him irritably into the middle of the flames, which made Thor feel slightly better and made all the dwarfs feel much worse.

From now until Ragnarok, whenever one of my teenaged students says, “This is so lit!” I will think of nothing else but Thor kicking the dwarf into the fire. And for that, Mr. Gaiman, I thank you.

Book Review: Modoc

Modoc: The True Story of the Greatest Elephant That Ever Lived

by Ralph Helfer

 

This is a very sweet book, an amazing story about a remarkable elephant. It is also unbelievably cheesy.

That doesn’t have to be a problem, of course. Most love stories are cheesy to one extent or another, and this is, most definitely, a love story. It’s a story about a man named Bram Gunterstein and the three loves of his life: the two women he loved, Sian and Gerdie, and the elephant, a female Indian pachyderm named Modoc. He called her Mo. Mosie.

Mo and Bram were born on the same day, in the same hour, on the farm owned by Bram’s elephant-trainer father, near the Black Forest in Germany. The two grew up together, and the pastoral idyll of this portion of the book is almost painfully innocent and sweet – it did, for me, get a bit saccharine, especially when Gerdie comes into the picture and she, Bram, and Mo spend summertime frolicking through the hedgerows and splish-splashing in the lakes. Ah, Youth. But then reality catches up and the owner of the circus where Modoc performs with her elephant family sells everything to an American circus owner. Bram is to be left behind as Modoc and the other animals are moved to America.

But Bram can’t leave Mo. So instead, he leaves Gerdie – and as sad as it is, it is clearly the right choice.

Unfortunately, when Bram and Modoc leave the pastoral perfection of their childhood, frankly, the shit hits the fan. A whole lot of shit hits a whole lot of fans, and spreads far and wide. The two have incredible adventures, most of them in some way terrible. There is suffering, war and blood and death, disease and starvation and fire and misery. There is also a tremendous amount of love, and quite a lot of spirituality; Bram believed that the way to God was through communion with nature, particularly through close bonds with specific animals as he had with Modoc. If he was right, then he no doubt found his way to God, because I can’t imagine a closer bond than his with this elephant.

In the end, I liked the book. It was absolutely riveting at times, and heartbreaking at others; though the author, Helfer, who knew Bram and Modoc both towards the ends of their lives, tends heavily towards the cheese, I would say it’s because he’s an animal trainer, not an author. I will also say he’s a much better poet: there is a memorial poem he wrote included at the end of the book which is by far the best moment of writing. But even if he was a terrible writer – which he is not – this book would be worth reading just for the story, and the characters. Definitely recommended.

Book Review: The Last Werewolf

The Last Werewolf

by Glen Duncan

 

This is the third Glen Duncan book I’ve read, and probably the one I’ve liked the most. I enjoyed I, Lucifer, and I thought Death of an Ordinary Man was just too damn depressing; but I thought the concept of this one suited Duncan perfectly. In every case, I’ve been struck by the poetry of the man’s writing, and this one was no exception; but Duncan seems to be best with switching between sacred and profane, going from lyrical descriptions and philosophic ponderings to filth and dirt and blood-sex-death. And what could be better for that than a book about werewolves?

I admit I was a bit less enamored of the basic plot of this book, at least in the beginning. The idea (no spoilers – at least no big ones) is that the hero, Jake Marlowe, is the last living werewolf. It has been more than a century since a person was turned by being bitten; the theory is that a virus of some kind has arisen that makes the transformation impossible. Jake is still alive because once turned, werewolves can survive for centuries; unless they are killed by fire or silver.

Unfortunately for Jake, there is a group of humans who have been hunting down werewolves. With fire and silver. That’s why he is now the last: this group has killed every other surviving werewolf. And now they’re coming for him.

But they want to make it interesting. For the lead Hunter, Jake’s death is personal, and he wants to take him out, mano a – I guess lupo? But there’s a snag with this plan: Jake is ready to die.

That’s the part that makes this book depressing; which also seems to be a Glen Duncan specialty, because both of the others I read were equally dark and melancholy, Death of an Ordinary Man even more so. This one spends a fair amount of time going through Jake’s malaise and the reasons for it. I will say that I understand why he feels that way, which made it a little easier to take. There’s something else, though: even when he’s in the depths of it (I’ll spoil the book this much: this blue funk of Jake’s does not last. I won’t spoil it by telling you why it ends.), it feels insincere. It’s like he’s trying to force himself to believe there is no point in going on; wracked by guilt, Jake feels as though there shouldn’t be any hope for him, and so he convinces himself there’s not.

But that doesn’t work for the Hunters. And so they try to force Jake to rise to the occasion, to give them some kind of grand final fight. And that’s the story of the book: the Hunters trying to provoke Jake, and Jake responding to their provocation. And throughout, Duncan does a masterful job of blending the two sides of Jake’s personality, and matching them with his prose: there is the man who has been alive for 200 years, who has learned everything there is to know (at least everything he wants to know) and who understands far too much about the apparent futility of existence; and then there’s the Wolf, who wants to run, and hunt, and mate, and kill; kind of all at the same time.

So the book has a lot of sex (a LOT of sex), and a lot of violence and blood and death; pretty gruesome stuff, too – the violence, not the sex. Lots of foul language, too. The sex is largely unloving, mostly lusty and sometimes dirty; but it suits the character and the feel of the book. There’s good action, along with that, though much of it is brought a little low by Jake’s indifference to his own life: he doesn’t really fight very hard for a lot of it, and that makes the action, well, anticlimactic. Honestly, I didn’t much like the Hunter organization; I suppose it’s possible that such a thing could exist, in a supernatural world, and even be fairly effective – but they’re the biggest kids on the block, and in a world that has werewolves and vampires, I have some trouble accepting that. Seems like the superpowered immortal things would be able to do some real harm to a human organization. But any road, the story takes a great turn, and the second half of the book is far more interesting – and the first half is pretty damn interesting. Jake is a good character, and Duncan is a hell of a writer, even when he’s being depressing and angsty.

The ending is sad. Again, maybe a Duncan standard: the three books I’ve read all end sadly. But this one is largely redeemed by the circumstances of that sad ending, which may be why I liked this one best. It was very good. I recommend it.

 

And holy crap: I just found out that this is actually the first book in a trilogy. Okay, now that makes the ending even less sad, because it isn’t actually the ending! Now I have to go read the others!

On the Eighth Day of Blogging, Just Dusty Blogged for Me . . .

…A book review from Purgatoryyyyy!

A quick word: though I have said a lot about the uselessness of New Year’s resolutions, I’m still going to  make something akin to one. Because I’m not against promises, just against them being attached to January 1, and the promise I’m making has little to do with that, as it isn’t bounded on either end by 2017. But the promise is this: books. This year — and beyond — will be about books. I have a book to finish writing, and two books to publish, and at least 100 books to read, before another year has passed. This book is the first of this year, though I started it last year, and don’t actually care what year it is. Point is: books. Lots and lots of books.

This was a good place to start, if starting is what I’m doing.

 

Lost Gods

by Brom

This is the fourth book I’ve read by the illustrator Brom – the other three were The Child Thief, The Devil’s Rose, and the unforgettable Plucker – and I feel about this one much as I felt about the others: Brom has an incredible imagination, a good ability to tell a story, and a thorough obsession with blood and gore and hell. I still think he should stick to the illustrated novels, though, because The Plucker is by far his best work, including this one.

This is a good book. It’s a fantastic cosmology, with Brom following in the footsteps of Jim Butcher and Kevin Hearne and others, finding a way to unify ancient mythologies with the modern monotheistic religions; in this book, set largely in Purgatory/Hades/The Underworld, the idea is that the One Gods (And maybe my favorite word play in this book is that one: the plural “gods” after the number “one”) have taken over from the ancient pagan gods and driven them into the Underworld, where all souls go. There the gods have continued their ways, trying to draw worshipers and maintain their own power and glory, but still losing out to the modern religions and to ambitious and godless men.

Enter our hero, a man with a mission: to save his wife and child. Whatever the cost.

I don’t want to give away more than that – don’t even want to tell you which character is actually the hero, because the first impressions you get, from pretty much every character, are wrong. That was the best part of the novel, for me: the underlying idea that nobody can be taken at face value, neither good nor evil. That was done extremely well in this book, and it kept me guessing all the way. Kept me reading, and enjoying it. There are characters to root for, and ones you hope will be destroyed; many of them end up exactly where you want them to, and it is satisfying. But there are also some that make you change your mind: first you want them to fail, but then you want them to succeed; some of those resolutions were actually the most satisfying.

Other than that, the world-building was great, as I said, and the visuals are brilliant at times: Brom doesn’t always have a great gift for describing things in detail, but the pictures he imagines, and then puts into words, are stunning. It’s why I wish he’d stick with illustrated novels, because when he paints those visuals, then the whole story is elevated to magic. Fortunately, this book has a set of full-color plates, illustrations of the demons and gods in the Underworld, which are beautiful. Combine that with a good fantasy world, a good story, lots of action and violence and blood and gore, and with interesting characters, and this is something worth reading. (And spend the money for the hardback: you want the illustrations full-size. Don’t know what they’ll be like if there’s a paperback. If you find it in a store, check: they’re inset about two-thirds of the way through the novel, in a group. Not necessarily the best part of the book — it is a good story — but they are a necessary part of the book.)

 

In his acknowledgments at the end, Brom says a wonderful thing while thanking his editor for helping him put this book together. He says,
“When I started writing this novel I never stopped to consider the logistical challenges of my idea. I, like so many creatives, don’t have time for such silliness. I needed to plunge in, chase my muse before she slipped away. I did not realize until later that in order to make my particular vision of purgatory believable, I would need not only to invent an entire history, a system of government, a political/social structure for both souls and gods, tie it into all religions, add some kind of monetary system, define magics and spells and powers, but also to invent a physiology for the dead, figure out if souls eat, drink, and if so, what. Can the dead die? If so, how? And, as with most mysteries, answering one question often leads to ten more.”

He’s never been more right. And he’s done a good job of this with Lost Gods. I recommend it.

Book Review: Too Many Curses

Too Many Curses
by A. Lee Martinez

 

This book was a surprise for me. I’ve read three or four by Martinez before, and he writes a pretty good wacky/funny fantasy. I expected this one to be the same.

And there are some elements of wacky/funny fantasy in here: it is the story of an evil wizard, one who spends his long life seeking more power for himself, which he then uses mainly to unleash his cruel vengeance on anyone who irritates him. His victims then live in his castle, transformed into mice, into decapitated animated skeletons, into nothing but an echo.Some of the curses are loony and silly and fun, and so are some of the characters living with those curses — a hero turned into a fruit bat, the wizard’s mother transformed into a clinging ivy plant while his brother occupies a small jar, reduced to nothing but a few body parts floating in goo, a banshee that can only materialize to give dire warnings, so she stretches the meaning of the word “dire” in order to materialize as often as possible, whereupon she moans hideously, “Yooooouuu’ll stub your TOOOOOOEEEEEE!” And so on.

But the main character is the very opposite of wacky. She is serious, and she is a genuinely good protagonist — both for the story, and as a person. Nessy the Kobold takes care of the evil wizard’s castle; that is her task, and she does it well. When things go wrong with the wizard, it is up to her to take care of things, simply because there is nobody else who can. Fortunately, Nessy is good at taking care of things, and she does the best she can with her limited abilities.

It’s a good story. There are some nice twists. I was a little disappointed with the revelation of what’s behind The Door That Must Not Be Opened, but the secret of the castle itself, and of Tiama the Scarred, and the final fate of the wizards in the story, was most satisfying. I loved Sir Thedeus (He’s the fruit bat), and the monster under Nessy’s bed who just wants her to read him stories every night. And I really did love Nessy, both as a character and as a protagonist; I agree with the message she presents to the reader, which is basically the same message from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings: heroes may be small, but it is the small, good things that we do which make all the difference in the world.

Good book. Recommended.