Mad Times

“To be sane in a mad time is bad for the brain, worse for the heart.” – Wendell Berry

June 1st, 2008 at 3:18 pm

Bitter Waters by Wen Spencer

This book appeared on my chair at work one day. I later found out it landed there because a friend found it in the company cafeteria, started it and didn’t like it. It wasn’t bad. It’s the third book in a series about a guy who’s part alien and uses his secret powers to find missing persons. There’s lots of violence and lots of sex and lots of car (and motorcycle and boat) chases. Basically a men’s adventure novel with some scifi thrown in for flavor. I got the first two books from the library but other stuff looked more interesting until they came due and I returned them unread. Probably won’t try again. If it sounds like your thing it might be your thing.

June 1st, 2008 at 3:06 pm

Spin by Robert Charles Wilson

Wilson won the Hugo for best novel for this book. If you’ve read any of his other books you know the basic structure of this one: baffling technology indistinguishable from magic mysteriously appears throwing society for a loop with the story told by a person conveniently placed to learn more about it than the general public. The remarkable thing is how much better each successive telling of Wilson’s story is. In Spin he has struck a fine balance among interpersonal, political, and alien influences resulting in a novel of a future stranger than we could imagine but still somehow familiar in a way that feels almost nostalgic. This is science fiction that pushes the buttons that made me a fan. It bent my brain quite agreeably. I just learned while writing this that there is a sequel out and another on the way, but Spin stands alone just fine.

June 1st, 2008 at 2:16 pm

Dragon’s Keep by Janet Lee Carey

This is a young adult fantasy loosely based in the Arthurian tradition. I finished it back in February and my recollection of the details is dim. A female member of Arthur’s family fled or was banished to an island where she rules as queen over a small population. The book is from the point of view of her daughter who for reasons that become clear in the course of the book has one finger that looks like that of a dragon. Dragons being nasty peasant-eating creatures, she hides this fact from all but her mother. The daughter goes through a hero’s journey coming-of-age kind of plot line. Dragons are involved. Also dashing young men. But while the basic shape of the story is almost boilerplate, Carey does enough interesting things with the texture and details to make the book rise above the conventions.

March 30th, 2008 at 11:36 pm

Spook Country by William Gibson

graphic building silhouettes against a cloudy sky

If Spook Country were a blog it would be Boing Boing. If you’re not aware of it, Boing Boing is subtitled “A directory of wonderful things”. It primarily covers topics that appeal to geeks. Gadgets, intellectual property, fringe art, pranks, institutional fuckups, all the ways real life has become stranger than the strangest science fiction.

So it’s no surprise that Gibson’s SF novel set in the present day reads like a week of Boing Boing. It’s full of the arcana of the collisions between the worlds of art, geolocation, pop culture, and espionage. The protagonist is Hollis Henry, one-time member of a pop punk band, now a freelance journalist. Her job for a new magazine turns out to be something more than she bargained for. Gibson is doing really good work with these last couple of novels that basically take a science fiction sensibility and apply it to a present-day thriller.

March 30th, 2008 at 2:28 pm

The Silver Ship and the Sea by Brenda Cooper

person riding giraffe watching space shipAnother Endeavour book. Set on a distant human colony planet. The book has a refreshing depth of backstory. The colony is recovering from a war with a second colonizing group. It turns out that the first group is sort of backwards in their denial of genetic progress in the human race. The second colony is made up of heavily modified people with abilities far beyond the unmodified humans. This setup would tend to imply that one side or other would be the clear good guys, but that’s not the case. The book opens well after the war has been won by the humans who have repelled the enhanced colonists. The book is told from the point of view of one of a handful of enhanced children who were left behind the retreat and have been raised by the humans.

The children start to come into their enhanced powers in the course of the book and the friction this causes with the human colonists opens all sorts of interesting questions about progress and heritage and tolerance. Pretty meaty stuff handled deftly.

March 30th, 2008 at 2:13 pm

Dragonhaven by Robin McKinley

Stylized green dragon against a sunset skyJake Mendoza is growing up in a national park/nature preserve/research institute. The park exists to preserve a large, rare, and dangerous species: dragons.

McKinley writes the book from Jake’s point of view as he looks back on the exciting events of the past year or so. It’s an intimate breezy style that bears a striking resemblance to that of McKinley’s blog on livejournal (though the book doesn’t have footnotes (or footnotes with footnotes)). I liked the book well enough, but it’s not one of her best.

March 30th, 2008 at 1:46 pm

How Not To Be Afraid of Your Own Life by Susan Piver

smiling blonde woman in simple yoga poseI saw this on the shelf at Village Books in Bellingham and was intrigued enough by the title that I jotted it down to check out from the library. The answer promised by the title is: Buddhist meditation.

I appreciated how short the book was. I read the whole thing in a couple of hours. The “afraid of your own life” in the title is a shorthand for all the fears that assail us, from fear of failure and fear of loss to fear of external disasters. The book proposes that the experience of fear in the face of these things is counter-productive to a happy life, and that by practicing meditation one can inoculate one’s mind against letting the emotion of fear take over. Piver is an adherent of the Shamatha school of meditation which means “peaceful abiding”. The practice she describes is keyed largely on dismissing active thought during meditation by recognizing when your mind wanders from the task of meditation and labeling the distraction as “thinking” to stop the digression and return to centered null focus.

There are a lot of other specific practices outlined in the book all aimed at performing a kind of mental judo taking negative patterns of thought and channeling that energy in a more positive direction. I haven’t taken on any of the practice in the book and that’s largely because Piver encourages a seven-day induction phase including a three-day full retreat. It’s going to take some effort to make that happen even though it sounds like a good idea in theory.

March 30th, 2008 at 1:17 pm

Not Flesh Nor Feathers by Cherie Priest

uninhabited clothing walking into waterI’m so far behind on book reviews I need to just fling some out there. I read this book for Endeavour as Priest recently relocated to the northwest. It’s set in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The main character is Eden Moore and like the boy in The Sixth Sense, she sees dead people. And talks to them.

The book is a creeping dread kind of horror thing where the victims of a past atrocity are coming back to get their revenge on the living. They are aided by a major flood.

There are prior books with the Eden Moore character, but I thought this one stood well enough alone. There was clearly a lot of backstory I was lacking, but Priest sketched in the necessary details well enough I didn’t ever feel lost. The characters are engaging and the mystery was intriguing and creepy enough to keep me turning the pages. But horror’s not really my thing so I probably won’t be picking up the earlier volumes.

March 2nd, 2008 at 12:51 am

The Secret Hour by Scott Westerfeld

fuzzy figure viewed through a water dropBook 1 of his Midnighters series. I got this out of the library after hearing Westerfeld say interesting things on an episode of the Tor Podcast. (Just in case anyone at Tor is wondering if those things lead people to their books. In this case, at least, yes.)

Jessica Day is a teenager who has moved with her family from Chicago to the small town of Bixby, Oklahoma. Shortly after starting school she discovers that something strange happens to the world every night in Bixby but she and a few other kids in the town are the only ones who can perceive it.

One of the things I liked about it is that the strangeness has been going on for a long time prior to the arrival of the protagonist. While this is a handy storytelling device, allowing lots of plausible info-dumps, it also nicely defuses most of the aura of “chosen one” about Jessica since she has peers who have spent years working to make sense of their world.

The book is a quick read and the setting is intriguing enough I may pick up the next couple books.

March 2nd, 2008 at 12:26 am

Good Omens By Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman

an angel reading a bookSubtitled “The nice and accurate prophecies of Agnes Nutter, witch.” Good Omens is about the end times. Only in this version things don’t go entirely as planned. It’s really hard to say too much more about it than that without spewing spoilers in all directions. But the central screwup is that the antichrist and a regular human baby get switched in the confusion of their birthing.

From that beginning things proceed in a manner consistent with the tendencies of its two authors in a very silly mood. Indeed, the book seems to have taken Steven Brust’s “cool theory” (whenever you’re stuck for what happens next in a book you are writing you should ask yourself “what is the coolest thing that could happen next?”) and interpreted it with a very British slant toward the absurd. Not to say that the book is all goofiness. It is the end of the world in the offing and some of that takes forms very nasty indeed.

What kept me turning the pages was the way all the characters reacted to the lunacy around and among them just as real people would. A little agog, but trying to make sense of it all and trying to do the right thing in the face of it.

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