Category Archives: Books

Book Review: 2016 Revue

I read a lot.  Sadly, books are probably only about 25% of what I read.  Here’s what I read in 2016.  11 measly books.  Sheesh.  I pretty much stuck to sci-fi this year, with a little non-fiction thrown in.  There were a bunch of short story compendiums that were mostly so-so except for the wonderful “The Other Half of the Sky”.  David Foster Wallace was definitely the highlight of the year and, sadly, the first book I read this year.  I’m going to try to branch out from sci-fi in 2017, but 2017 is certainly going to need some good escapism.

Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace – 5/5 stars

The Hidden Reality by Brian Greene – 3/5 stars

Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow – 4/5 stars

Crandolin by Anna Tambour – 2/5 stars

The Narrator by Michael Cisco – 1/5 stars

Not Dark Yet by Berit Ellingsen – 3/5 stars

The Bestiary edited by Ann VanderMeer – 3/5 stars

The Eisenberg Constant by Eugen Egner – 3/5 stars

The Other Half of the Sky edited by Athena Andreadis – 5/5 stars

Clarkesworld: Year Six edited by Neil Clarke – 2/5 stars

A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick – 2/5 stars

Book Review: A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 2/5 stars

I have come to think of “A Scanner Darkly” as an artifact of its time.  It is semi-autobiographical and written about a time in Philip K. Dick’s life where he was recently divorced (again) and spent a few years in the early 70s inviting various teen-ish druggies to live in his house so he wouldn’t be alone.  Obviously, he did a lot of drugs in that period.  He also lost a lot of friends to drugs during that period.  Thus was born “A Scanner Darkly”.  I say the book is an artifact of its time because the drug culture back then was vastly different from what it is today, or at least vastly different from how popular culture portrays the 70s drug culture vs. the 90s and beyond drug culture, because let’s face it, a drug culture expert I am not.  “A Scanner Darkly” is not violence-free, but it’s a far cry from the hyper-violent drug culture we see today.  That makes it very difficult to relate to the individuals who are just going through their daily motions and decidedly not in a buddy drug comedy a la Cheech and Chong or Harold and Kumar.

The story deals with Bob Arctor who is really “Fred”, an undercover agent whose identity is even hidden by his bosses by a scramble suit which jumbles a person’s appearance.  In the line of duty as an undercover druggie, Bob gets addicted to Substance D, a made up drug that plays into the story.  Much of the story is about Bob’s descent into addiction and the symptoms he starts to exhibit.  It’s a bit trippy and somewhat interesting from a psychological perspective, but it’s mostly dry and plodding as a story.  Bob’s addiction is a very necessary plot point in the story, but the entire book is basically Bob’s addiction with a loose plot to give the book some semblance of a narrative.

“A Scanner Darkly” is basically an attempt to keep kids off drugs.  It’s every bad anti-drug commercial from the 80s.  This is drugs. *holds up egg*  This is your brain on drugs. *cracks egg into hot frying pan* Any questions?  Only 200+ pages of it.  Personally, I’d rather have watched the commercial again and saved myself hours of reading.

Clarkesworld: Year Six edited by Neil Clarke

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 2/5 stars

Clarkesworld” is an online, totally free collection of sci-fi and fantasy short stories that also publishes a magazine of said stories.  Neil Clarke is the purveyor of said totally-free-if-you’d-like endeavor and all sorts of kudos to him for keeping this alive.

“Clarkesworld: Year Six” is a collection of all the fiction stories the magazine produced in its sixth year.  As you might expect from a totally-free-if-you’d-like collection of stories, it’s very hit and miss, mostly miss.  There are a total of 34 stories that comprise year six and only a handful are good.  My favorite story is probably “Fragmentation, or Ten Thousand Goodbyes” by Tom Crosshill.  It can be a little hard to follow as it blurs the line between humanity and AI, but the exploration of that line is well crafted and intriguing.  Another story that left an impression was “A Hundred Ghosts Parade Tonight” by Xia Jia.  It is about a young girl growing up in a ghost town filled with robots that time has forgotten, but all is not what it seems.

This is not a terribly good collection of stories, but you should buy it and support things like “Clarkesworld” anyway.  Why?  First off, did I mention it was free for people who can’t afford it?  Beyond that, though, writing short stories is incredibly hard and getting your short story published is even harder.  Magazines like “Clarkesworld” provide a needed outlet for would-be writers to show their stuff to a wider audience beyond their tiny little blog that about 10 people read.  *looks around furtively* Outlets like this are vital for incubating new talent and should be encouraged and supported.  I mean, seriously, the dude asks for a donation of $1 per month to keep the magazine going.  Switch your order from a daily venti latte to a grande and support 20 magazines like this.

Book Review: The Other Half Of The Sky edited by Athena Andreadis

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 5/5 stars

This may be the single best collection of multi-author science fiction short stories I have ever read.  I would recommend each and every story in this collection to anyone who enjoys sci-fi.  While some are obviously better than others, each and every story is unique, imaginative, and compelling.  Let’s get into why I like this book so much.

Women are criminally underrepresented in science fiction.  Both as authors and as protagonists.  The main theme of this book is women.  Almost all of the authors are women and every story has a woman as the protagonist.  For better or for worse, women see and interact with the world differently than men and that can be seen in their writing, which in this case is definitely for the better.  This book treats you to some completely different worlds that you won’t find in the minds of men and even those worlds that could come from the minds of men are seen in a polarized light that reveals a different side of familiar scenes.

I have a passion for language.  And by that, I mean that you don’t want to get me started on how stupid gendered nouns and pronouns are and how they reinforce gender stereotypes.  That’s why it was pleasant to see that some of the stories in this collection embrace gender fluidity as a norm.  It is a concept somewhat on the fringes of sci-fi and only normally used as an afterthought to shape a world instead of being front and center as it is in the stories in this book.  Given the gender fluidity of humans, of course aliens may be much more gender fluid, of course future humans may fully embrace their own gender fluid nature.  Reading these stories it’s kind of a “well, duh” moment that these ideas would be explored but it’s good to have them explored nonetheless.  And while it may be somewhat discomfiting to some, reading gender neutral pronouns like zie and zir and zem in a story, it is a great introduction to those who still think of gender as binary.

If you like science fiction, you should run out and get this book right now.  If you like the stories in this book, you should run out and get more books by the authors in question.  I haven’t had a feeling of such pure delight reading sci-fi in quite some time and this book completely put me in my sci-fi happy place.  That said, this is also what I would call softer science fiction so it is also very accessible to those not really into science fiction.  I don’t mean that to sound like an insult, as the worlds created in this book are rich and complex, but they are told more from a viewpoint of taking the advances in technology for granted, like we would if we were writing a story where someone calls someone on their cell phone, instead of getting bogged down in technical details of warp drives and tachyon fields and such.  That’s how I define soft vs. hard science fiction.  Regardless, everyone should buy this book and give the authors all their monies.

Book Review: The Eisenberg Constant By Eugen Egner

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 3/5 stars

This is more of a short story or maybe novelette than a book so I’m not entirely sure why it came as a stand alone story, but that’s what you get sometimes when you buy e-books in bundles, I guess.

The premise of this story is pretty cool.  A technology exists which can create a time loop which allows super rich lonely people to relive the same week over and over again.  You have full autonomy and can basically do whatever you want but your actions have no consequence and at the end of the week, everything kind of gets reset.  Since reliving the same thing over and over a la “Groundhog Day” would get pretty tiresome pretty quickly, the technology has some randomness added to it using a device called the Eisenberg Constant.  People aren’t necessarily going to be in the same place at the same time, individuals won’t react the same way in the same situation, etc.  Things are going swimmingly for Henry Selinger until things seem to start going awry with the Eisenberg Constant.  A locomotive-like vehicle has crashed into a nearby field.  Strange voices can be heard in his bathroom.  The news on the radio is getting weirder and weirder.  An exceedingly frightening creature is haunting his dreams.  And the Eisenberg Constant repairman won’t be here until Monday!  What’s a man to do?

I should probably give this story 4 stars because it really is a fun and interesting read, but man is the ending unfulfilling.  The curse of the short story.  Egner has a very interesting writing style and he clearly describes some pretty absurdist stuff in this story.  It would be interesting to read some of his other works.  Unfortunately, it looks like this is his only story that has been translated from his native German into English.  Oh well.

Book Review: The Bestiary edited by Ann VanderMeer

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 3/5 stars

Reading “The Bestiary” is like reading a more mundane version of a Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual.  It is a collection of short stories from various authors each of which describes a not-quite-of-this-world animal.   I am not sure how the authors or the stories were selected for this compilation or if the stories were written specifically for this compilation, but it is interesting how similar in scope much of the bestiary ended up being.  I would say fully half of the stories describe either parasitic or mimetic animals.  I found this very strange until I thought about it for more than a few seconds.  Bestiaries of the past were fantastical because so much was unknown.  A modern bestiary needs to be somewhat more grounded into the reality we now know and the obvious choice for animals are those that can blend and those that live off others.

Overall, this is an ok collection of stories even if some are a bit of a slog to get through.  They range from the mundane to the fantastical to the downright weird.  There are 28 beasts in total, one for each letter of the alphabet plus two non-alphabetic animals.  I will say that I had more of an affinity for the parasitic type stories just because they seem more believable.  There were also a few mind controlling ones that were fun reads as well.  Favorites include “The Counsellor Crow” by Karen Lord, “Daydreamer by Proxy” by Dexter Palmer, “Pyret” by Karin Tidbeck, and “Zee” by Richard Howard.

Can I recommend the book?  Eh, yes?  I would say that if you love reading Monster Manuals, this book has a lot to offer even if it is missing the “claw, claw, bite, rake” portions of Monster Manuals.  For others, I’d give the same warning that I give every collection of short stories:  There’s good stuff to be found here, but as with every collection, your mileage may vary.  Personally, I think that as long as there are a few gems, it’s worth reading.  This collection doesn’t quite hit that mark but it comes close.

Book Review: Not Dark Yet by Berit Ellingsen

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 3/5 stars

The protagonist’s name in “Not Dark Yet” is Brandon Minamoto.  If you’re going to read this book, remember that because it is only mentioned in the very first sentence of the very first chapter.  In fact, I thought the main character was nameless throughout until I read someone else’s review and they said his name was Brandon.  I had to actually do a search of the ebook to see if the author actually did name him.  I can’t recall how far into the book I had read before I realized that I didn’t know this man’s name, but I do recall finally getting the style of the prose after I realized he was repeatedly not named.  It’s an interesting style and it reflects nicely the nothingness feeling of the character.  Until that point, I was quite confused and it was an ah ha moment that made me enjoy the novel much more than I otherwise would have.

The setting is somewhere in the near future and the planet is beginning to reap the whirlwind of global warming.  States and countries are mostly a thing of the past, though governments still exist.  Food and water shortages are rampant.  Riots are a daily occurrence.  The weather grows more unpredictable and more violent.  This is the world that Brandon is floating through.

The novel starts with a jumble of stories from random moments in Brandon’s life.  Only with some thought can you later piece together those snippets into some sort of chronological order.  By the end, the pieces are all there to figure out, but it’s quite the jumble.  The problem is there’s not much reason for you to want to care about reassembling the jumble since nothing really exciting happens throughout the book to make you want to care.  If you bother, you will see that despite the book’s bleak ending, the real ending is possibly hopeful.

Despite the zero-sum nature of the novel, I found it enjoyable to read, if slightly disappointing given the abundant attention to detail without the corresponding fleshing out of any real connection of the main character to anyone or anything.  For that reason, it’s difficult to recommend the book to those who are looking for a more novelistic read.  If upon reading my review, it still sounds worth it, I don’t think you will be disappointed reading it.

Book Review: The Narrator by Michael Cisco

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 1/5 stars

I can only imagine that this novel was an experiment.  Populate a world with both the mundane and the fantastical and blur them all together.  Add to it a special character called a “Narrator” whose job it is to follow along on the action and put into words all that he sees and does.  Make that Narrator very bad at his job.  Write a novel from that Narrator’s perspective.  What you are left with is a jumbled confusion.  While I was able to track the basics of the story, at very few points did I have a concrete picture of the how or the where or the why or the what of what people were doing.

Many of the descriptives in the book read like the author picked the most obscure words out of a thesaurus and sprinkled them throughout.  I have never used the dictionary more than while reading this book.  There are also many instances of the Narrator making simple grammatical errors and then correcting them in the next sentence.  Add to that the fact that this Narrator is describing a fantastical world with places and characters that require well thought out narratives in order to understand and you have one hell of a confusing jumble of a mess.  I mean, there’s never really even any explanation as to why there are these Narrators to begin with or why they’re entrusted with the telling of history.

I’m sure much of what I said above is exactly the point of the novel.  It’s an accurate description of what it must be like to go through war.  A jumbled mess of marching from place to place with randomly interspersed bouts of extreme violence.  Perhaps the Narrator lost his mind in the process and the result is the jumbled mess of his attempts to do his job.  Good reading material it is not, however.  If I had to describe the novel in a way that you might be able to understand, I’d say you start with the story of “Heart of Darkness”, add a hint of Lovecraftian horror, then sprinkle with a dash of “A Clockwork Orange” then mix with some “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, but that makes “The Narrator” sound much better of a read than it actually is.

Book Review: Crandolin by Anna Tambour

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 2/5 stars

Imagine you are using drugs.  These drugs make you hallucinate a little bit.  They also take the ordered sections of your brain and shuffle them together just once, but you’re not really very good at shuffling either so the last parts just kind of get tucked down at the bottom of the deck.  Then, suddenly, there is a pen in your hand and a stack of paper in front of you.  You start writing.  That is the best description I can give behind the genesis of Anna Tambour’s “Crandolin”.

The book starts out in what can only be described as micro-chapters.  It flits and darts from place to place and time to time and person to person with so few words separating the chapters that you don’t know whether you’re coming or going and you don’t have a clue what the characters mean to each other or where or when they are.  It’s dizzying to the point that you stop caring.  Eventually, the book coalesces into something more tangible and you get a solid feeling for who is where and when, but there is still a disjointedness because it’s never quite clear who or what is being pursued or even if there is any point to the story at all.

This may be one of those books that you appreciate more when you read it a second time.  You know, if you’re an English major.  But since I’m here for you, the common bookworm, and not those ivory tower prigs, maybe if I explain the story a bit you’ll enjoy it a little more than I did.

There’s this guy named Nick Kippax.  You might call him an epicurean.  Always searching for new and exciting flavors and recipes.  One day, he finds this cookbook with a recipe on how to cook a crandolin.  Crandolins totally don’t exist.  On the page of that recipe is a mysterious stain.  Maybe it’s a stain from the last time someone cooked the recipe.  Why not taste it?  Thus Nick Kippax finds himself blown into tiny pieces and spread across time and space.  One piece finds him/itself as a Gorbachevian spot on the face of a young woman who works on a train in Russia with a bunch of people who are in love with her.  Another piece finds him/itself in some jars of honey belonging to the best honey maker in the world which a man who makes sweets envies and kidnaps.  Another is in a birds nest somewhere?  Maybe another is in a virgin’s pubic hair that some weirdo wants to make a mustache out of, I think?  There’s also this old dude who isn’t real, but is, and goes around planting factual stories in writers’ minds and is going senile.  There’s also this woman who isn’t real, but is, and goes around planting fanciful stories in writers’ minds and is looking for something.  There’s this bunch of dudes questing for a girl locked in a tower by her father who has just died.  A bunch of stuff happens to them.  The end.

Did I make you want to read the book?  No?  What if I told you there was lots of sex in it?  There isn’t, but would that change your mind?  I have failed as a book salesman.

Book Review: Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 4/5 stars

You know that scene in “Spaceballs” where Dark Helmet asks “How many assholes we got on this ship?” and the entire crew raises their hand and says “Yo!”?  The more I read about our Founding Fathers, the more I picture George Washington as Dark Helmet and the rest of the Founding Fathers as the crew of the ship.  They were all such assholes.  They were petty, vindictive, and cocksure.  This is also somewhat comforting of a revelation because it shows modern politics to be not nearly the black hole of pettiness and despair as it would seem without the historical context.  We revere our Founding Fathers like we revere our guns; with a tunnel-vision that is so narrow as to be awe-inspiring.

Without a doubt, the king of the Founding Assholes was Alexander Hamilton.  He also happened to be truly brilliant, a polymath of the highest order, and perhaps the most prolific writer the world has ever known.  His story is equal parts inspirational and a testament to the dangers of letting the demons of your past destroy you.  Ron Chernow’s biography does a good job of highlighting both the good Hamilton and the bad Hamilton.

The Good Hamilton:  Dude was a genius.  Anything he put his mind to he excelled at.  He overcame astronomical odds to rise farther above his station than would seem possible.  Before all you “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” people take him on as your personal hero, remember he had lots of help; free passage on a ship, free schooling, a decent support system.  People love to overlook those things.  Hamilton could also write.  And boy, did he write. Ask his opinion on the color blue and you’ll have a 10,000 word essay about its transcendent beauty by nightfall.  Personally, I also think that he’s by far the main reason why the United States has lasted as long as it has and grown as powerful as it has.   He wrote the book on American economics.  Probably about 100 books if you joined all of his essays and laws together.

The Bad Hamilton: Dude had skin as thin as your 100-years old grandmother.  Insult him, cross him, look at him funny, and you’ll soon see a 10,000 word essay published in the paper on how horrible of a person you were.  Partly, this was understandable.  People did hate him.  Irrationally so.  Many thought he didn’t deserve to be where he was just because of where he came from.  He suffered decades of bilious rumors and innuendo both during his life and decades after his death and was determined to fight tooth and nail against it while he could.  This also led him to see attacks where there weren’t any and to fight against ghosts of his own making.  Want some insight as to why Hillary Clinton is the way she is? Get to know Alexander Hamilton.  The worst thing about Hamilton is a shared dishonor.  He and Thomas Jefferson double-handedly brought into existence our dreaded two-party system through their often petty squabbles with each other.

I have a few minor critiques of the book.  First, it seems to diminish in readability during the post-Treasury period of Hamilton’s life, becoming somewhat of a slog to get through.  I am not sure if it’s because Chernow got tired of writing his 800+ page project or I got tired of the 800+ page book or Hamilton’s later life was that much less exciting.  Second, Chernow spills a lot of ink talking about Hamilton’s personal rise and fall, but having read the book, I see plenty of evidence of a rise and little evidence of a “fall”.  Hamilton was Hamilton from start to finish.  Even when he was out of favor politically, he was still always in the thick of things, if behind the scenes.  The only fall was his untimely death at the hands of Aaron Burr.

If you can stand to get through such a large book, Chernow’s “Alexander Hamilton” biography offers great insights into the life of the most interesting of America’s Founding Fathers.  There’s lots to love and lots to hate about the man.  Both are on display in this book.

A brief note to fans of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s smash hit “Hamilton: The Musical”: Mr. Miranda is a genius.  I am as overly obsessed with the musical as you are.  But please recognize the fact that he takes great liberties with historical facts to present a compelling story.  This should go without saying, but people are people.