September 17, 2008

The Spellman Files, by Lisa Lutz

Fun novel about a highly dysfunctional family of private investigators.

(That said, I hate the choice of typeface for most of the body text; it's too condensed for my taste.)

Posted by Shmuel at 8:42 AM

September 3, 2008

Sunshine, by Robin McKinley

The plot is good. The characters are wonderful. But the language is what really makes this book stand out. The characters speak a dialect that's entirely understandable and rings true, while also distinctively reflecting a postapocalyptic Earth with vampires and demons and magic and such. It's also a book in which it seems entirely natural for a dessert to be named "Sunshine's Eschatology."

I borrowed this from a friend, but I'll definitely need a copy of my own.

Posted by Shmuel at 9:32 PM

August 27, 2008

The Changing Land, by Roger Zelazny

This book answers the question "If Roger Zelazny had tried his hand at a pulp swords-and-sorcery novel, what would it look like?"

(Reposted from Goodreads, where I gave it two stars out of five.)

Posted by Shmuel at 9:11 PM

August 22, 2008

The Gods Themselves, Isaac Asimov

Asimov's masterpiece, rebutting charges that he couldn't write about aliens, sex, or women. The first part and last sections, on Earth and the Moon, are good; the middle portion, with the aliens, is brilliant.

Posted by Shmuel at 9:23 PM

August 21, 2008

The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl, by Tim Pratt

Lots of fun, well written. Sadly, the final showdown doesn't quite hold up, and that's the scene the entire book builds toward. But a good read anyway.

(Four stars out of five.)

Posted by Shmuel at 9:20 PM

August 19, 2008

Gold: The Final Science Fiction Collection, by Isaac Asimov

I rather liked the first story ("Cal"), about a robot who wants to be a writer, and the title story has some interesting ideas about a future sensory medium and may give some indication of Asimov's feelings about The Gods Themselves. The rest of the stories are okay, but nothing special.

That's roughly the first third of the book; the rest reprints introductions to other anthologies and editorials from Asimov's Science Fiction magazine (though without any headnotes indicating what came from where; you're left to extrapolate from internal evidence and the copyright dates at the end). On the whole, these aren't worth the bother.

Posted by Shmuel at 9:27 PM

August 15, 2008

Little Brother, by Cory Doctorow

Good social satire and how-to manual, but I had trouble with the reporter-ex-machina ending.

(Reposted from Goodreads, where I gave it four stars out of five.)

Posted by Shmuel at 9:05 PM

May 10, 2008

The Dark Is Rising, by Susan Cooper

A novel of predestination. So, so, so contrived. Hardly a chapter goes by without a deus ex machina. The only character who actually gets to make a decision does so out of our viewing, and even that decision is pretty much portrayed as being inevitable. And let's not get into the us vs. them moral code...

About the only saving grace is the book's strong sense of place, being rooted very firmly in England. And maybe the language, though frankly that's just a bit overdone.

Posted by Shmuel at 4:26 PM

March 11, 2005

Beekeeper's Apprentice by Laurie King

I'm a longtime fan of British mysteries, particularly the traditional British detective type of mystery. The series that begins with this book has turned me into a Sherlock Holmes fan. I know it's a little backwards to become a fan of the original by first becoming a fan of revisionist fiction (or, when we're at home with ourselves, glorified and published fan fiction), but there you have it. That's how I got into it.

More spoilerish type review ahead ...

It's a good exercise in the whole suspension of disbelief idea at first: that Sherlock Holmes would actually take a woman as an apprentice, that he would eventually fall in love with her, and that it is reciprocated by this woman who is about 40 years his junior. I grant that there are relationships between older men and younger women that are intellectually-based. I'm one of those who's dated and been much more comfortable with men ten to sixteen years my superior in age.


Anyway, the book won me over. I put aside all of that disbelief because the writing was good. The historical details were intriguing, the pace was great, and later books in the series are richly detailed. So. Yay. I'm sucked in, and I read every published book in this series within two months of reading this first one. That ought to say something.

Posted by Erin at 2:33 PM

May 21, 2003

National Lampoon's Doon, by Ellis Weiner

After reading the Barry Trotter parody, I was wondering whether perhaps my standards were too high. Sure, it wasn't Bored of the Rings, but the granddaddy of all fantasy parodies did have the advantage of being first. Possibly I'd even built it up too much.

And then I read this book, a parody of Frank Herbert's Dune, and realized that, no, there really was a difference between a good parody and a lame attempt. Mind you, Doon is no Bored of the Rings either.

It's better.

This is a lighter and faster read than its predecessor, which makes it all the more impressive how well it sends up Herbert's classic. This is a world in which the ecology features giant pretzels and beer... and granting the plausibility of animate pretzels, the whole thing actually makes sense, and does a neat job of playing off the ecology and plot of the original work. Still, every time it starts to seem as if the parody is a bit too pat, Weiner pivots around and unexpectedly challenges the reader's expectations. He also does a lovely job of satirizing Herbert's stylistic excesses, including the portentious interior monologues. For that matter, the Hebrew and Arabic word derivations of the original are here replaced with Yiddish and Variety-speak.

This is sadly out of print, but affordable copies can be found on Bookfinder.Com. If you haven't read Dune, don't bother; otherwise, it has my recommendation.

Posted by Shmuel at 7:07 PM

April 29, 2003

Fortune's Rocks, by Anita Shreve

[I never got around to filling this in.]

Posted by Shmuel at 7:49 PM

April 24, 2003

Anne of Green Gables, by L.M. Montgomery

[I never got around to writing this entry. In a nutshell, I liked the book.]

Posted by Shmuel at 11:38 PM

April 20, 2003

Steel Beach, by John Varley

[I never got around to writing this entry. In a nutshell, I liked the book.]

Posted by Shmuel at 10:25 AM

April 12, 2003

Barry Trotter and the Unauthorized Parody, by Michael Gerber

[I never got around to writing this entry. In a nutshell, while there were a few cute bits in this parody, on the whole, I wasn't very impressed.]

Posted by Shmuel at 11:06 PM

Bridget Jones's Diary, by Helen Fielding

124 lbs. Alcohol units: 0 Cigarettes: 0 Calories: 1490 (approx., as, unlike Bridget, am not proficient calorie-counter).

Reread Bridget Jones's Diary, in part to refresh memory re: style, for Camelot VSDs. Enjoyed v. much.

As aside, some time back, cited BJD as example of British book that was not Americanized in U.S. edition. Manifest nonsense; heavy editing clearly done to bring spelling and word usage into line, while still conveying impression of British flavo(u)r. This is not a criticism, though; would not have liked to have done conversions from stone to pounds. Editing appreciated.

Also: saw film just after finishing rereading book. With exception of v. bad bit at the end, loved it. Brilliantly done. (And those who claim that the actress wasn't remotely fat missed the point: neither is Bridget.)

Posted by Shmuel at 11:05 PM

March 30, 2003

Giggling Into the Pillow, by Chris Bridges

Let's start with the admission of bias: partway through reading this book, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I'm in it. Well, sort of. One of the pieces herein -- "A Tall Tale" -- features a fictionalized version of me, and the real version is referred to in the notes preceding and following the piece, albeit using the psuedonym I worked under when I worked for Clean Sheets. It's not the best piece in the book by a long shot, but I still find it gratifying.

(Incidentally, I did write a followup to that story at the time... I might be induced to repost the thing, if asked.)

Anyway, this is that rare case in which the cover really does give you a good idea of what you're in for, perhaps because it was designed by the author. The dominant image is of a nude, reclining woman... wearing Groucho Marx glasses. "Finally, a book about sex that's funny on purpose!" proclaims the blurb just above her. Indeed.

This book is a collection of various pieces Chris has written over the years, mostly for his own site devoted to humor and sexuality, Hoot Island. (Warning: probably not a work-safe link.)

[I never did get around to finishing this entry. I liked the book a lot. There's a blurb page here.]

Posted by Shmuel at 11:43 PM

March 28, 2003

Growing Up Weightless, by John M. Ford

This starts out really good. Ford sets up an intriguing situation, with a protagonist completely enmeshed within Lunar society, who doesn't even know how much he takes for granted every aspect and convention of being a Lunar native... who wants more than anything to leave the moon, or so he believes. The big question is how that's going to be resolved, and, alas, the author punts it. The last 35 pages or so, in which the whole thing is hastily wrapped up, pretty much totally suck.

With that said, Ford gets points on style; he does a nice jobs of seamlessly switching between perspectives (there's not a single chapter or section break in the whole book, and there's only one jarring transition in the bunch), and of making those perspectives noticably different from one another.

It's not a bad book. But it could have been so much better, had the ending lived up to the beginning.

Posted by Shmuel at 2:18 PM

March 17, 2003

Bee Season, by Myla Goldberg

The story of a Jewish guy who gets into mysticism without anything resembling a firm grounding in Jewish tradition or practices, with the predictable result being that he gets everything wrong and his family falls apart.

...well, okay, that's not the way the author intended it to be read, but that is sort of what I got out of it.

There's also this whole bit about spelling bees, and I must say that I'd expect a book about words not to misuse both "enormity" and "momentarily" along the way. (Quite jarringly, in the latter case: "The smile that appears momentarily erases years of report card trauma." What she means is that the smile appears a moment later. What she writes is either that the smile flickers onto his face for a fleeting instant, or that the smile erases her trauma for a fleeting instant. It takes much longer than a fleeting instant to untangle the syntax, figure out what she had in mind, and consider throwing the book across the room.)

Still, it must be granted that the book is generally well-written, although it skips around perspectives and time periods in a sometimes frustrating manner and end in the middle of nowhere.

It ain't bad. But it ain't great either. I can't recommend it.

Posted by Shmuel at 6:12 PM

March 15, 2003

Skipping Christmas, by John Grisham


Posted by Shmuel at 10:54 PM

Ella Minnow Pea: A Progressively Lipogrammatic Epistolary Fable, by Mark Dunn

I had high expectations for this one, having heard its praises sung by several people in the past. Perhaps this is the reason why I found it to be somewhat anticlimactic. It's a fun read; don't get me wrong. For plot-based reasons that you can read in any review, including the blurb at a popular online bookseller, in each successive chapter of the novel, one or more letters of the alphabet stops being used. An increasing number of circumlocutions are put into use to achieve this, an effect I'm employing here on the sentence level. While this is cute and amusing, and while it is, on the whole, fun to scan, that's about all there is to it. It's progressively lipogrammatic plus epistolary, yes, but re: the last subtitle term, it's rather thin. It is merely a shaggy canine story with a literary veneer. Anyway, go on, peruse it; however, raise not your hopes for meaning. The novel's purpose is thin. Playing with lexemes is all.

I could go on in that mode, with each sentence using only the letters employed in each successive chapter of the book, but I tire of this. I do have a bit more to say, but only to those who have finished the book, it being as spoilerific as it's possible to get. That'll follow at the end of this entry.

Otherwise, what was the typesetter of the hardcover edition thinking? A jarringly informal italic typeface is used throughout. This may have been an attempt to convey the feel of handwritten letters, but that effect is shattered by the use of a non-italic sans-serif face for italics. They should have either stuck with their original typeface and used underlined words for italics, or abandoned the whole idea and used a more conventional typeface from the start. (No "Note on the Type" is provided, by the way. Perhaps this was an attempt to protect the reputation of the typefaces in question.)

Anyway, those who haven't read the book, this is the point to stop reading.

(Major spoilers follow!)

So, it's like this. As I've said above, Ella Minnow Pea is a shaggy-dog story; the author clearly started with the ending and wrote the rest of the novel around it. This is well and good, but I wish he'd done a better job of it. For while the novel in general is a smooth read, when he tries to nonchalantly slip in the punchline, he bobbles it. I found myself reading the key sentence over several times, when I first encountered it, wondering why it seemed so out of place. I did not, at the time, realize that it was a pangram, but something definitely seemed off, if for no other reason than that the word "liquor" had never been used before with reference to the miniature amphorae (nor, I think, in any other connection), even in the two chapters in which that would have been permitted. Dunn really should have established the usage earlier; he didn't; in a book as concerned with words as this one -- and one in which heavy emphasis is placed on the claim that the sentence was a naturally-occurring accidental one -- that definitely qualifies as a screw-up. And even putting aside the "liquor" matter, the sentence in question could have been used more smoothly than it was. And, yes, okay, I'm nitpicking, but this was the one page above all others that Dunn had to get just right, and he blew it thoroughly enough to throw me out of the novel for a bit.

But again, on the whole, I did like the book.

Posted by Shmuel at 10:42 PM

February 24, 2003

Weetzie Bat 2: Witch Baby, by Francesca Lia Block


Admittedly, I haven't read the first book in the Weetzie Bat series, and my head was spinning a bit after getting through the accelerated recap at the start. But only the knowledge that I had borrowed this book, and therefore had to take good care of it, kept me from hurling it across the room partway through.

Part of this is due to the oppressively pervasive use of slang-- I am so sick of "slinkster," for starters. Part of this is due to the unbearably cutesy names-- one character is actually named "My Secret Agent Lover Man." But these pale by comparison to the main problem, which is that this book is concerned with the doings of a thoroughly dislikable cast of characters, who are uniformly immature, self-absorbed, self-righteous, and bloody stupid to boot. And I'm especially speaking of the alleged adults here.

To pick one illustration, which probably counts as a spoiler despite the essential facts being given away on the first page, so if want to be certain not to have this book ruined (ha), skip the next two paragraphs... the eponymous character, Witch Baby, is the daughter of My Secret Agent Lover Man, and Vixanne Wigg. She, however, doesn't know that, despite being raised by My Secret Agent Lover Man and Weetzie Bat; her father, in other words, has been lying to her and claiming not to be her father.

Not entirely surprisingly, the central problem for Witch Baby in this book is that she doesn't know where she came from, and doesn't feel as if she belongs anywhere. Eventually, she confronts My Secret Agent Lover Man, and he reluctantly admits that he is her father, and says that he's been lying to her every day and repudiating his relationship with her for all these years because "I was afraid you would be ashamed of me." Are we supposed to take this as a reasonable excuse? Are we supposed to take this as an even remotely sympathetic character? Please.

(Again, this is just one example. Others abound throughout the book.)

Now, if this were intended as a novel in which the central character survives in a world of selfish, clueless grownups, there might be something here. But from all indications, the author expects us to like these characters.

Possibly this is another example of the New York / L.A. divide, but if you ask me, this book sucks.

Posted by Shmuel at 1:47 AM

February 23, 2003

Sir Apropos of Nothing, by Peter David

Eh. A mediocre read, not as clever as it thinks it is. I'll probably read the inevitable sequel, but without much enthusiasm. Peter David's done better.

Posted by Shmuel at 7:38 PM

February 12, 2003

Star Trek: Mission to Horatius, by Mack Reynolds

Originally published in 1968, republished in 1999, and bought new at a dollar store for one buck, this is about as good as one would expect, which is to say, "not very." But amusing at times, for wholly unintended reasons.

Posted by Shmuel at 1:21 AM

February 11, 2003

Amber 5: The Courts of Chaos, by Roger Zelazny

A disappointing finish to the original 5-book Amber series, one that leaves way too much open at the end. I think I said this earlier, but I'll say it again: Zelazny never should have been given this much room to play with in the first place.

On the bright side, I can now confidently insist that Lord of Light is his masterpiece, without having to worry about Amber being in the running. Because it's not even close.

Posted by Shmuel at 1:20 AM

February 9, 2003

Young Wizards 6: A Wizard Alone, by Diane Duane

The unresolved stuff from Book 5 continues to be unresolved, but this is not a problem, as it seems reasonable to assume that matters will come to a head in Book 7 or beyond. Once again, Duane changes lots of the rules to fit her present purposes... or, to put it in the terms of the book, she alters the kernel of Kit and Nita's universe whenever convenient.

But I'm just nitpicking. It's a good book and I liked it.

Posted by Shmuel at 8:44 AM

February 2, 2003

Enchanted Forest 2-4: Searching for Dragons, Calling on Dragons, and Talking to Dragons, by Patricia C. Wrede

These are by no means bad, but they're not as good as the first book in the series. The author never really earns the right to use the soapsuds trick as extensively as she does in these books; when it comes in at the end of the first book, it works on a temporary basis, but for it to be used this much, I'd expect some stronger limitations, or at least a better explanation, neither of which happen. More importantly, I was frustrated by the way Cimorene's character is dumbed down in the middle two books, apparently in order to give the newer characters a chance to shine. That said, book 4 is the second-best of the series, so it does end on an upswing.

Posted by Shmuel at 1:14 AM

January 26, 2003

Enchanted Forest 1: Dealing With Dragons, by Patricia C. Wrede

Very charming and delightful. I love books that take on fairy tales with a feminist sensibility, and this is a very good example of that genre. The writing style is reminiscent of Mary Anne's at times, or perhaps vice-versa.

As an aside, if I were the author, I'd want the head of whoever wrote the cover blurb on the edition I borrowed. It's an entirely inaccurate misrepresentation of what's inside.

Posted by Shmuel at 1:08 AM

January 23, 2003

Amber 4: The Hand of Oberon, by Roger Zelazny

Then again, this is Zelazny we're talking about; his modus operandi is to keep information from the reader at the outset, revealing important pieces of the puzzle only at the end, so that the reader can then go back to the start and see what had been going on in the first place. I think five books may have been too much space to allow him, frankly, but I'll reserve my judgment until I get my hands on Book 5. As for this installment, things are finally coming together. The revelation at the end was visible a mile away, but I'll take that as having been intentional.

Posted by Shmuel at 1:05 AM

January 22, 2003

Amber 3: Sign of the Unicorn, by Roger Zelazny

I begin to tire of the dei ex machina (Elaine? Is that the right plural?), but otherwise Amber Book 3 ain't bad.

Posted by Shmuel at 1:05 AM

January 21, 2003

Amber 2: The Guns of Avalon, by Roger Zelazny

The second book of the Amber series, which I'm finally getting around to reading only now, despite having been a Zelazny fan for years. A bit episodic and verging on overwrought, but good.

Posted by Shmuel at 1:00 AM

January 19, 2003

Space Cadet, by Robert Heinlein

Written in 1948 and clearly targeted at young boys, this book hasn't aged very well, but it has historical interest, akin to the sort one feels when reading a "Dick and Jane" book. How quaint! How charming! How simple and Utopic! And how vaguely creepy...

Posted by Shmuel at 12:59 AM

January 14, 2003

Young Wizards 5: The Wizard's Dilemma, by Diane Duane

I have a few minor quibbles (Duane tends to redefine the rules in every book, which comes across as owing more to expedience than reflecting a more sophisticated outlook), and one major one that might not be a problem at all, if it's addressed in Book 6. (A major plotline from the first half of the book is abruptly dropped, with no payoff of any sort.) But all of that aside, this was a good installment of a good series, and I'm looking forward to reading the next one.

Posted by Shmuel at 12:59 AM

January 12, 2003

Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe

A bit dated -- one gets the sense that the author is trying to make points about African and European culture that are no longer controversial -- but a fairly important book, and not a bad read.

Posted by Shmuel at 12:58 AM

January 7, 2003

Syrup, by Maxx Barry

A fun, light read, more than a little trashy, with flashes of wit. Not very substantial, but a nice diversion for the start of this trip.

Posted by Shmuel at 12:58 AM