Sunday, May 1, 2016

shadow of night

The second installment in the All Souls Trilogy is Shadow of Night. Its a big undertaking for an author that's new to fiction, it seems to me, but what do I know. Deborah Harkness seems to know what she's doing, and she certainly has plenty of writing under her belt at this point given the scholarly work she has previously published.

Lots of times I find that the second or middle book in a trilogy ends up being a link, or filler between the beginning and the end of a long story arc; as a stand-alone book in these cases, they're sometimes a little weak. Not so with this one. Shadow takes the two main protagonists to a completely new place. The reasons for being there are obvious by the end of the first volume, but I was surprised at how much this diversion ended up being critical to the overall story-line. It wasn't just blab on the way to the story ending, but seemed critical to the overall narrative. So, good on you Deborah Harkness.

Harkness takes a different tack on witches and vampires in this trilogy, and part of the re-envisioning comes (I think) from her historical research background. She re-imagines witches and vampires as potential historical fact, seen through the lens of history and the accompanying hysteria early Judeo-Christian Europe felt about anything that seemed to lean in the direction of sin. Maybe there were people that were good with herbs and medicines, and maybe folks didn't understand them, were frightened by their knowledge, and assumed they were in league with the devil. Seems like a sensible motto: kill the smart ones. No wonder we had the Dark Ages.

I've had fun with this trilogy thus far. I'm hoping the professor can bring it home in the final installment.






Monday, April 18, 2016

discovery of witches

This book is from a few years ago. I discovered the third book at one of the libraries I'm working on--if I get there early, or if they aren't ready for me, I sometimes have few minutes to take a look at the new books. I don't usually spend a lot of time with the book jacket, I just try to get a feel for a book, so I didn't realize it was part of trilogy: the All Souls Trilogy written by Deborah Harkness. I took a picture of the third book, and when I looked it up in my library, I found the trilogy.

Harkness is a little different than your average witch/vampire book author; she comes at this from a very successful, non-fiction historical writing, by all accounts. Harkness teaches history at the University of Southern California, and has won a number of awards for her historical writing. She has also done pretty well in the past with a wine blog. According to her bio she has also lived or worked in many of the places that figure large in this book as settings. They say write what you know, sounds like good advice. The main protagonist in this story is a historical writer doing research in libraries for her new book. Books, libraries, writing, history, collegiate life, scholarship, mitochondrial DNA, and wine all figure into the story. Harkness is definitely writing what she knows and it shows. A Discovery of Witches shows a depth not often found in stories in this genre, based on my limited experience. Good on you Deborah Harkness.

Diana Bishop is spending her time in the library these days, researching alchemy for her new book, and thinking about a scholarly presentation she needs to make in a few months, when she stumbles across something in the
Bodleian Library at Oxford, something that hasn't been seen for 150 years. Suddenly, she has a lot more attention that she'd planned on, and from the types of people she didn't expect to run into at the library. She pretty quickly realize that she's opened up a major can of worms, and... we're off.

Harkness's sense and understanding of history, the research required to do what her protagonist does, and the background to this fantastic story are effortlessly painted in. That first-hand understanding is what I think, gives this story its formidable sense of depth and place. The science, magic, wine discussion, and secret society slant fill the picture in nicely. This is a wild romp, and its got some of the same elements we've seen in other stories of this ilk, but its smarter. Reminds me a little of David Mitchell's take. I'd put this is the same read-alike category.

I'm looking forward to picking up the next installment tomorrow.

Friday, April 15, 2016

strange library

The Strange Library. With a title like that, how could I not pick this one up. I've read a few of Murakami's books and while this has some similarities, it's really a thing all its own; more of an art project than a novella. I'm curious about what this book looks like in the original Japanese version. you know what, using the magic of the interwebs I'm going to see if I can do that virtually right now. Boom. *

The form of the book from the artwork and design of the top to bottom overlapping front cover captures the imagination immediately. A quick flip through the heavy pages, printed in a large typeface font, and illustrated full pages tells us that we're in for a wild ride.

I don't think it's a spoiler to say that this is one strange library that our young protagonist has stepped into, but I wasn't prepared for furries, labyrinths, spirits, and cannibalism. That's a lot to squeeze into a little novella like this. I'm not sure how he did it but I think the larger question is: what does it mean?

Before I blab what I think, I'll say that I don't think my speculations represent spoilers either, but if you'd rather not hear what I think I'd skip to the next paragraph. I didn't spend a lot of time thinking about what Murakami was trying to say while I read--it only took an hour or so to read this--but since then I've been wondering. Maybe libraries represent education, learning, and/or empirical data vs. spiritual understanding. Perhaps that's why a spirit arrives; to provide guidance. The kind of guidance book larnin' alone can't give us. If so, is that why cannibalism? Our minds being filled with information only to sate the consumption demands put upon us by other, similarly 'educated' people? Or maybe the lesson is: we should be careful what we choose to learn so that we aren't being programmed against our will. A call to think for ourselves. Even when it comes to thinking about WHAT we think about. Not sure if that's it or not, but these seem like interesting questions in any case. yeah, that was me patting me on the back for being so deep

So I would read this book if I were you. If you see it in the library, you could just find a comfy spot and read it right there. and Then get something else Murakami wrote and take it home.



* Originally titled Toshokan kitan and published in six arts in 1982 in a periodical, and later published as a complete novella titled Fushigi na toshokan, according to this Murakami translation blog.


Tuesday, April 12, 2016

saturn run

I picked this book up in a library I'm working on a month or so ago. I knew it was science fiction, and had a pretty good idea it was about a trip to Saturn. I had no idea that it would so many similarities to Seveneves. Let me be clear, its not the same story, they are completely different, but they both have a hard science approach, and deal with people working in space in long-term, difficult conditions. It ended up being a great follow-up book. I'd say they fall into the 'also like' category for anyone who enjoyed either. that means go get the other one, and read it. go on.

John Sandford has a lot of books published, and a lot of them have the word 'Prey' in the title, so I assume its some kind of series. Ctein, who has co-author status on this book, is more an unknown. He seems to be Sandford's science go to guy, and ended up being much more involved in both helping to crank the science, and help inform the storyline. His credits include writing as well, so I'm sure it was a team effort. And having someone who can help run orbit injection simulation software and help vision future interplanetary-capable engines has got to be handy.

Saturn Run is a fun, exciting sci fi adventure. Its got  a hard science core, and an engaging story with a series of sub-plots and intrigues, from geopolitics, to sexual tension. There are some well crafted characters here to, that show some real depth and complexity. Sanford and Ctein do a good job of spelling out the science and explaining its implications in a very simple way so that allows the story to move forward. I can see that Sandford has done really well with the Prey books, but I, for one, would like to see more of this from him and Ctein.

Friday, April 1, 2016

buried giant

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro is a short novel set in England in the years after King Arthur faded away to Avalon. The story is slow and contemplative; following the trials of an old couple over the course of a few difficult days in their long lives together. A lot happens in the course of 2 or 3 days to this couple, but Ishiguro takes his time telling it.

After a brief mention of an actual buried giant early on in the story, I felt sure that the title would refer to one of the characters, allegorically. In the end I think the giant in question ended up being a little mushier than that.

I didn't love this book, but I didn't hate it either. I'd have to put it in the myeh list. After a hundred pages or so, I felt like this story had some real legs, and even if it was slow going, I thought it would crack open to reveal something...well, giant.

It didn't.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

slade house

Slade House was great! 

I read this book in two days; unheard of. I've read a couple of David Mitchell's books recently. The first was The Bone Clocks. I'm reminded by my earlier blog entry and that is why I write this stuff down; otherwise, I'd forget that I borrowed that book from my library on a lark. That ended up being a good move; Mitchell is writing stories like no one else is as far as I have read. The other one I read is Cloud Atlas. These three books have some similar themes: Mitchell is writing about men and women who find their way through time unlike the rest of us do. And there seems to be two classes of these folks: the good and the bad

Even though they all share a common theme, Slade House is more directly tied to The Bone Clocks, with a simpler storyline. Its not much bigger than a novella and the story arc is very straight forward and easier to follow than Bone Clocks. Cloud Atlas was a little difficult to follow actually; it took a while to figure out what was going on. Maybe if I had read some of Mitchell's earlier books I would have known what to expect.

So right off, I'm a fan. The front cover is die cut to reveal an image on the end paper within, a kind of corridor or ramp, in a square spiral, drawing us in and down. Once you open, the rest of the artwork  is revealed, a kind of map, presumably of Slade House. The map reminds me a little of the board game Clue; the square spiral sort of filling in for the secret passageways in that game. Lastly, I just love a hardcover with something on the front to remind me which way is up when I'm reading without the book jacket. And my library was kind enough to NOT wrap this book up in plastic the way they normally do, to allow their patrons to get the full effect.

So this was a fun, easy read. If anything, maybe a little too simplistic in form, but it may make a good introductory book to draw in a younger audience that doesn't necessarily want to pound through 600 pages unless they know what they're getting. Once you've read this one, you'll want to out and get the others I'm sure.

Mitchell also includes a fair dose of English slang, which to Americans is a little opaque at times, but in most cases the context explains things perfectly. Its no different from made up word is SF and fantasy books, right? And I guess that's what this is, I guess. Hard to pin down really. see, that's why I like it



Sunday, March 20, 2016

seveneves ii

End paper illustration by Weta Workshop
I just finished Seveneves, which was pretty quick reading for me. This book is almost 900 pages, and I'm pretty sure there will be another, and it may even be a trilogy. Neal Stephenson has created a universe with a lot of traction, and at a scale and scope that reminds me of the Foundation Series by Isaac Asimov. I'm looking forward to what comes next in this series; hopefully it won't take as long as this book did to come to fruition. Stephenson mentions in the acknowledgements at the end that he had the idea for this story 10 years ago, and it took him 7 years to get it all put together. Research and story development is what took the time.

Stephenson also mentions in the acknowledgements that he worked at Blue Origin, the private space exploration company started by Jeff Bezos, that just recently released the footage of their successful vertical rocket landing. On his website, Stephenson goes into more detail about when he worked there and described the various things he did, saying "...the bulk of my efforts were devoted to investigating possible alternatives to conventional rockets as ways of getting into space." This work ends up being very handy when it came to writing science fiction stories like Seveneves, and I'm sure helped him to develop connections with others in the aerospace industry that he also thanks in the acknowledgements.

What I really like about this story is how Stephenson uses the doomsday event from which this story grows, as a tool that allows us to examine ourselves as a people, or maybe more accurately, as a species. I can't say how he does this without spoilers; what I can tell you is that the future represented in this Seveneves universe is neither utopian nor dystopian, which in and of itself, separates this story from a lot of the SF out there. Stephenson's SF is based on hard science that being developed right now, and he extrapolates our technology out into the future is a way that that lends a realness to the storyline. His writing style is easy to read, and he allows himself to spin off on a tangent to explain or describe something when he needs to and then gets back to the story. Walking that fine line in a novel can be tricky, needing to fill the reader in on what they need to know without boring us with the details is one of those things that he has down.

So yes, read this book. And if I'm right, read the follow up(s) as well. Maybe late this year, early next is my guess.



Monday, March 14, 2016

seveneves

As I begin writing this, I am almost halfway through Seveneves. I'm not sure at this point if this will be the only review I write for this, or if it will turn into a partial review in itself. I guess it should tell you something that I've decide to write about this story part of the way through. Neal Stephenson knows how to write a compelling story, that's pretty clear and I've enjoyed the books I've read by him.

Seveneves seems to be a kind of sensation that has blown up the internet. Well, the part of the internet populated by SF geeks, fan artists, and make-it-into-a-movie advocates. I wasn't aware of this until I started writing this review and did a search. Folks seem pretty excited about this book, the artwork on the end papers, and the illustration(s) inside haven't got there yet There is even a companion book written by another author out already. Amazing.

At the halfway point, there are still some things that are hanging out there, that as readers, we just don't know the answers to. Not least is where the title comes from. I have an idea, but its not clear in my mind yet. And that's not all, but leaving some things hanging is what keeps us reading. Stephenson is great at developing a premise (even if its crazy) and attacking the idea the way that science would, digesting the problem, analyzing it, and developing solutions that could work, and then playing them out--along with a host of complications and ramifications that may attend these solutions.

What would we do, Stephenson asks us, in the face of a doomsday event in the not to distant future? His answer: we would do what we could, based on solutions we have already developed, and limp along as these solutions are tested in the real world, with no back-up plan available. How will all come out in the end? We don't know, but Stephenson gives a glimpse of one possible future.

Looks like I'm going to publish this as a two part review. Stay tuned for more.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

night villa

I found this one at the library book sale, on the back cover I read, "The eruption of Italy's Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79..." and that was it. Between the title and those first words in the description, I was sold. Of course, its doesn't take much when you're talking about spending a dollar or so and supporting the library. Its funny, I don't take too many new library books out, I think its because the newer books have two week lending periods, and I don't usually read that fast.

Carol Goodman writes a good story. This one has a little bit of everything. It is not--as I suspected from the little I read on the back cover--historical fiction, although it does have an historical fiction aspect to it. Its a modern day story, but involves archaeological study of the era leading up to Vesuvius, and in particular, the late occupants of Villa della Notte, or the Night Villa.

The Night Villa is a fictional place, but this villa in Herculaneum, and this story in general, is based on the true story of Petronia Iusta, a slave who sued for her freedom from Calatoria Themis. Scrolls were indeed found in a trunk in an excavated building in Herculaneum which describe the Roman court case involving this young woman. She was born to a woman called Petronia Vitalis, who was once the slave of this Roman couple, but who eventually bought her freedom from them. After her daughter, Petronia Iusta, was born, Iusta continued to live with the couple as a servant, and her mother paid for her upkeep. After the deaths of both Iusta's mother, and Calatoria's husband, Petronius Stephanus, Calatoria claimed that Iusta was born while her mother was still a slave, and therefore was still her slave, whereas Iusta claimed she was born after her mother was freed, and was therefore free herself. facinating

It seems clear that Carol Goodman read this story,* and decided that it was ripe for some historical fictionalizing. Good decision. I liked this story, and as I read, I was very taken by the story that slowly emerged from the depths of time, and the twist about Iusta's case was great. Little did I know at the time that it was based on a true story.

There are a series of sub-plots and backstories that also charge this story with a sense of mystery, not least of which is an ancient cult based on the teachings of Pythagoras. whaa?

Yeah, read this book.



* Here's a link to a PDF of a research paper about the Petronia Iusta case written by Ernest Metzger of the University of Aberdeen, The Case of Petronia Iusta. Originally published as E. Metzger, 'The Case of Petronia Iusta', Revue Internationale des Droit de l'Antiquité (3rd series) 47 (2000), 151-165.