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


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 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 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.