Tuesday, August 09, 2022

39. Deathworld by Harry Harrison

I was a big fan of Harry Harrison when I was a teenager.  I don't remember much about his books but that they were always kind of fun.  I hung out with my old friend from that time recently and we went through his excellent sci-fi collection, where we re-discovered this lovely hardback edition of all 3 Deathworld novels (with a cool Corben cover), which he lent me.  I tore through the first one, partly because it is such a quick and fun read and also partly because of some jetlag-induced insomnia.

I have to applaud again the now mostly outdated practice of the shorter fantasy or sci-fi book.  I do enjoy the depth of detail and absorption of a thousand-page per book trilogy but authors like Harry Harrison show that you can deliver epic scope and cool characters in 150 pages.  The hero is Jason dinAlt, an itinerant gambler/cheater whom we learn has a psionic ability to read and manipulate objects of chance.  Kerk, the ambassador from the planet Pyrrus hires him to turn a 17 million credit front into 3 billion dollars.  Jason succeeds and he and Kirk barely escape the casino security.  Jason learns that Kirk has a deal to use the money to buy a ton of armaments to take back to his planet, which is so deadly that the small group of colonists who live there spend all their lives just fighting it to survive.  Jason, intrigued, convinces Kerk to let him come and visit.  In order to survive, he is forced to join the training program with the six year-olds.  

At first, it seems like most of the book will just be about exploring this super deadly planet, but we quickly get into a greater plot, where Jason suspects there is more going on than just a hyper-dangerous environment.  His investigation leads to some pretty big ideas about man vs. the environment and conflicting types of society.  It goes quickly and therefore seems a bit too easy and simplistic, but we appreciate this is a function of the speed of the book.  It also ends nicely with an option for greater adventure (which I will explore in Deathworld 2).  Good stuff. I am glad to be rediscovering Harry Harrison.

Sunday, August 07, 2022

38. The Stone Sky (book 3 of the Broken Earth trilogy) by N.K. Jemisin

Once again, I hamstrung myself somewhat by waiting too long to read the third book in a trilogy.  Jemisin is a skilled enough writer that most of the characters and plot lines came back to me by the time it mattered. Nevertheless, it diminishes the pleasure when you are trying to remember who is who and what happened before especially in the third book where all the shit is revealed.  Other than a few annoying (but thematically crucial) elements, this conclusion really did a tremendous job of delivering an epic science fiction tale.  It both wraps up the main narrative of the various heroes (the most important now being distilled into separated mother and daughter Orogenes) and entirely reveals the history that brought the world to its broken state.  Extremely interesting and satisfying.  I am not quite sure that the Broken Earth breaks radical new ground in sci-fi/fantasy (is that even possible?) but it deserves all the praises and awards it has received and I won't argue too hard with someone who considers it a masterpiece.  The depth of the world building and how that ties in with the contemporary themes of colonization and oppression are richly and beautifully constructed.  The third book delivers a climax that is deeply satisfying and reinforces all that came before in the first two books.  It's really fucking cool.

My complaint is that there is at times what feels to me like a forced conflict in Essun's (the mother) relationship/feelings about herself and her daughter.  I find at times in post-colonial sci-fi there tends to be a self-criticism that feels forced and rings false.  She blames herself for things she did or did not do that are completely outside of her power.  There is a lot of "I am a failed mother because I couldn't protect my daughter" when there was absolutely no way to protect her and the earth being ripped in half separated them.  It was lightly applied enough that it only got in the way of the story a few times.  However, at the end it really threw me off.  The mother and daughter finally meet and if they had just shared a few sentences with each other, a lot of fake conflict would have been avoided. Instead, the daughter goes storming off.  I'm sorry, no matter how tough the mom had been with her, after two years and all they had gone through, there would have been some greeting and interaction before they started blasting each other with their magic power.  It just felt forced.

Maybe I am too much of a male doofus to get the subtleties.  As I say, this was a minor flaw in what was otherwise a really cool epic journey that pretty much did everything you want an epic fantasy book to do.

Monday, August 01, 2022

37. Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L. Sayers

After figuring out the various grandes dames of British detective fiction, I realized that I had never read a Dorothy L. Sayers and so was happy to discover several in a free box in Vancouver, in particular this lovely 1974 reprint of this early 1926 Lord Peter Wimsey novel.  Also, a good choice for a vacation read.

A big part of the charm of these mysteries is reading the lifestyles and interaction of the aristocracy.  Clouds of Witness is rich with these elements as the murder takes place in (or rather just outside) a house the family is leasing for shooting and Wimsey's elder brother, the Duke of Denver, is the accused.  I don't know how much of his history and family play a role in the rest of the books.  Here, though it is his older brother, Wimsey displays British "business as usual" and adds no extra emotion to his detecting (we also learn that he doesn't really like his brother all that much, which is later affirmed in a biographical note added to the end written by their uncle).

The mystery here wasn't too tricky and I appreciated that it seemed more of a vehicle to get Wimsey, his man Bunter and his confederate in the police Parker to have adventures and interact.  Really, the crime is complicated by a series of coincidences.  Basically, his sister's fiance is found dead, shot in the heart.  The brother discovers the body and is bending over just as the sister comes downstairs and she thinks her brother shot him.  Both of them are also hiding something.  And it has come out that the fiance was a cheat at cards and the elder brother had found out.

It's sort of hard for me to distinguish between the styles of Ngaio Marsh and Sayers at this point, as both have aristocratic detectives with a backstory and I've only read one of  the latter.  Sayers has a slight lead for now in that the one book I did read was not so fiendishly complex and obsessed with the revelation of the crime.

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

36. Harvest Home by Thomas Tryon

For some reason, this book blew up on my twitter feed a few years ago.  Maybe it was re-released?  I'm not a horror guy, but according to the generally pretty savvy book nerds I follow, Harvest  Home is a horror classic.  Not sure if they also added "unsung" which seems not totally accurate as it was a big bestseller at the time.  I was happy to stumble across it in paperback in a free library in Toronto.  [This is what I had written on a slip of paper I put in it when I came back from that trip last summer, but my memory says I actually found it at The Monkey's Paw (a great curated bookstore where I never find anything I actually want to read but love going into and talking to the owner).]

It is a great premise.  A young family leaves the rat race after stumbling upon an idyllic town that seems almost out of time in the New England countryside. Though very old-fashioned and while not unfriendly not necessarily welcoming either, the family eventually starts to make a home for themselves in the community.  The economy is based around corn and they are way into it, including having a big harvest festival and all kinds of other weird old traditions.  There are, of course, hints of darkness underneath the pastoral simplicity.

Now, having grown up in a small town, I do have a great fear of the countryside.  Not because of some weird, potentially murderous rituals, but rather because of the ignorant, angry redneck shitbirds that these places seem to grow.  This book comes from a more innocent time and perspective, where we don't have facebook-fuelled conspiracy tards in the countryside but just really old school, hard-working types who don't want to change their ways but really aren't hating unless you actually try to change their ways.  And all things considered, except for a few minor sacrifices, their ways aren't all that bad.

It's what makes this book interesting.  The protagonist is the husband, who starts to uncover what's actually going on.  The mystery is fun to follow, but he is also kind of a dunderhead and also kind of a dick.  Near the end, it's hard to sympathize with him.  He is way too righteous and thinks that his discovery of one crimes entitles him to completely fuck everything up.  

It's a well-written book, with a thoroughly thought out town and history that Tryon slowly unravels for you in a way that keeps the pages turning.  I didn't ever find it that scary, though there are a couple of pretty freaky scenes with Missy the girl with the vision.  The aesthetics of the magic and the ritual are really cool as well.


<spoiler select to see>What's hilarious about this book is that the final climactic horror in the end is basically a classic Penthouse fantasy:  the husband is forced to watch while his wife gets plowed (pun intended) by the super well-endowed Harvest Lord.</spoiler>

Wednesday, July 20, 2022

35. Eternity Road by Jack McDevitt

Finished this one on of the most beautiful spots in the world, leaning on some driftwood at Comber's Beach on the west coast of Vancouver Island.  I can't remember where I got the recommendation, perhaps Ken Hite (again), but it was solid.  It takes a while to get moving but once the journey starts, this is a very good addition to the PA genre.  It stands out by being kind of chill and not filled with dread and fear.  One could almost call it a "cozy" PA book.

It takes place thousands of years after the collapse of our own civilization, seemingly from a sudden plague.  Society is very low-tech and achieving some level of political stability after a period of warring regions has led to an alliance.  With the constant reminder of the failed "Roadbuilders" most people are not really into  exploring the past and consider the ruins to be dangerous and even haunted.  There is enough wealth and stability now for there to be learning centers and Eternity Road begins with a scholar returning from a failed attempt to find "Haven", a rumoured place where the Roadbuilders have still survived and maintained their knowledge.  This is all really the prologue as when the scholar dies, he triggers a new gang to head out and trace his path by leaving a single copy of a Mark Twain book to the sister of one of the vicitms of the original party.

What I particularly enjoyed about this book is that it takes its story and narrative drive from the quest and the interplay of characters.  There are so many possibilities where you could have a strong antagonist (small-minded locals trying to stop the journey; bad characters joining the party to undermine, etc.) and it just doesn't happen.  Everybody in the party is a real person, well-rounded and there for various reasons that don't always jibe but there is none of this unnecessary artificial conflict of one guy spazzing out or stupid power conflicts.  The journey is the pleasure for the reader.  There are real dangers and bad stuff happens, but it never made me feel anxious.  I just really enjoyed the depiction of the world, the clues about what happened to the past and some really cool interactions with ancient/modern tech (the bank robbery was a particularly neat  and clever scene).

I did have a couple of minor quibbles.  It felt like the language and shared awareness seemed to expand in the latter half of the book, where characters talked about things too easily that they didn't even understand before.  I also didn't quite get the behaviour of the survivor of the original journey to Haven.  I understand why he was bitter, but to deprive everybody else of so much knowledge because of his accident seemed a bit extreme.  But I guess without it we wouldn't have had this book, which was quite enjoyable and satisfying.

Tuesday, July 12, 2022

34. Death at the Bar by Ngaio Marsh

I've found somewhat of a pattern in my reading.  When feeling a bit lazy about it, I will go to a cozy mystery as an easy palette cleanser.  Being of a discerning and intelligent reader by nature, it has to be somewhat smart and well-written and fortunately for all of us, these grand dames of the mystery world have provided us with a lot of books that fall under that category.  Currently, Ngaio Marsh is deliving the goods for me but when I was reading Death at the Bar, I realized I was getting her confused with Dorothy L. Sayers and then realized I actually have only read a book of short stories by Sayers.  Furthermore, I've only read one P.D. James (liked it) never read any Ruth Rendell (is she as good?) or Margery Allingham (at least not in the life of this blog;I had read one by her in my college years and did not enjoy it).  I kind of "get" Ngaio Marsh now so I hope to add at least some James and Sayers to my on-deck shelf as future palette cleansers.

Death at the Bar takes place in a cool-sounding small town (accessible only through a precarious tunnel cut into the hillside) on the Devon coast of England where a trio of gentlemen have come to vacation.  One is a painter, one an actor and the third a prosecuting lawyer (barrister? K.P.? Who the fuck can figure out the weird British legal system).  The lawyer has a minor fender-bender on his way in and then encounters again the other driver at the bar.  This leads to a weird, subtle conflict which ends in a dart contest which ends in the lawyer getting pricked by a dart and then collapsing and dying from ostensibly cyanide poisoning.  A classic, complex whodunnit where everyone at the bar could have done and at least three ways the poison could have been applied (the dart, the brandy he was given afterwards and the iodine used to treat the dart wound).

I really enjoyed the setting, the characters and the interplay between Marsh's detective Alleyn, his sidekick Sergeant Fox and the suspects.  I actually ended up staying up way too late the night before an early flight because I wanted to find out who dunned it.  Unfortunately, I ended up not being super satisfied. The last section spends the entire time on going over in great detail all the possibilities and suspects and eliminating them until the mystery is finally revealed.  The solution is clever, but for me, I realize I actually do not have the patience and focus to care about these details.  It all feels too nerdy for me.  I think I may not be a true mystery lover at that level where you can actually think through the details of the crime and try and figure it out and I realize that is what Marsh excels at (similar level of detail in the other book of hers that I read).  I'm there more for the setting and interplay of characters.  I suspect that real mystery buffs may have been somewhat underwhelmed at the solution to this one as it turns out to be the most obvious suspect (after he had been sort of eliminated, so a clever twist by Marsh but still leaves you feeling like you didn't get the big reveal).


Thursday, July 07, 2022

33. Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie

I finally jumped in to the third and final book in the Imperial Radch trilogy.  I was saving it because I enjoyed the first two so much, but that might have been a bit of a mistake.  Book three basically continues directly from the second book and there are quite a lot of plot threads that I had forgotten.  She does a good job of catching you up, but you need the meaning and emotions fresh in your head to make their conclusions resonate.  I felt a bit distant from this book because of the gap since I had finished the second. Maybe in the future I just need to plow through trilogies or series like this.

So while I quite enjoyed it, it was mainly because we were still in the really cool universe that Leckie has created and less then because the narrative satisfied me.  It felt like a bit more of a whimper than a Big Bang when Fleet Captain Breq and her team finally prevail against one of the clones of the Radch emperor Anaander that is fighting with itself and tearing apart the Radch empire.  It is cool to see how this vast colonizing space empire starts to break apart and how this will manifest itself.  The massive change that Breq initiates is giving self-determination to the AIs that allowed the Radch to so dominate.  We only get a  little taste of it (as it is granted to two ships and a space station) so it would be cool to see future book or series that deals with how this change will impact the universe.

Another really cool element, the alien Presger, are further expanded upon here and it is quite fun.  Well we don't actually get to meet the Presger themselves, just a somewhat human being that was created by them to act as "translator".  There is a running gag about fish sauce that was funny but also did give you a sense of something truly alien.

So I enjoyed reading it, but I wished that it had expanded outwards more.  There also is a lot of interpersonal conflict among various characters on the crew that felt somewhat trivial and overblown.  I think Leckie could be accused of a bit of moralizing driving the narrative. The big conflict involves a character from an upper class background doing micro aggressions and not apologizing when called upon it; feels very contemporary and a bit didactic but worse you just don't really care all that much.