Friday, December 2, 2016
The Last Days of New Paris by China Miéville
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
China Miéville has an imagination that runs in overdrive, seemingly fueled by LSD or other mind-altering drugs, because his books contain some of the weirdest and most bizarre (in a good sense) ideas and plots in any fiction I’ve read. (And since I’ve been reading for over 55 years, that’s a lot of fiction!) This latest novella is a perfect example of his glorious weirdness. The fundamental plot line - that a “surrealist bomb” exploded in WWII Paris, unleashing living manifestations of surrealist art - is amazingly original and bizarre. I mean, who thinks of stuff like this?
The book opens in 1950, in “New Paris” where we are introduces to Thibault, a French freedom fighter. But what he is fighting is not just Nazis, but “manifs” - pieces of surrealist art come to life - and also demons from hell. The reader is not explicitly told these things, we simply discover them through Thibault’s experiences and memories. In this version of Paris, WWII never ended, and Paris is quarantined from the rest of the world, to keep the manifs from spreading. It is a gritty, dangerous place, and we feel Thibault’s sense of desperation and despair.
Alternate chapters flash back to 1942, where we learn about the “S-bomb” that resulted in the creation of the manifs and the opening of hell, which unleashed the demons. We get a veritable who’s who of surrealist artists and philosophers, as we see the events unfolding. (For art aficionados, there is a handy appendix that references the actual works of art that are manifesting.)
The afterword of the narrative purports to be the tale of how Miéville came to write this book - from a retelling by Thibault himself. I’m not sure that this added anything to the story for me, but it’s mildly intriguing, nonetheless.
The real brilliance of the book is the world of New Paris. The reader is immersed in its danger and its weirdness, as we follow Thibault throughout his day. Miéville makes the bizarre - living works of art - fit into the world in a cohesive whole. A weird whole, but a whole, nonetheless. You get the feeling that this could really happen, it seems so real.
Miéville is a great storyteller, and while this book doesn’t have quite the narrative depth of some of his longer works, the characters are fully realized, and the world-building is masterful. For anyone who enjoys a bit of weirdness in their fiction, this book is for you!
Thursday, December 1, 2016
Doc by Mary Doria Russell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Doc is a fictional retelling of the life of John Henry “Doc” Holliday, he of the gunfight at OK corral fame. It is based on family memoirs, and covers his life before the gunfight. We see his childhood in Georgia, as the son of a wealthy plantation owner, and follow him though his teens and twenties as his tuberculosis advances. This is sometimes painful to read, as we see his suffering at the hands of this horrific disease, which was incurable in those days. I felt a bit of a dark shadow over all the events, knowing the eventual outcome. (And many of the descriptions of his illness are quite graphic - not for the squeamish!)
Mary Doria Russell is a wonderful writer, and in this book she manages to capture the personalities of a myriad of characters: Doc, the Earp brothers, Kate (Doc’s mistress), and various people in the town of Dodge City, where the majority of the book takes place. I enjoyed getting a bit of background on the Earps, especially, and discovering how very different each brother was, and learning what shaped them into the men they became. Wyatt Earp is the brother that is most deeply explored, and the relationship between Doc and Wyatt is developed quite richly.
Russell has the ability to bring the “Wild West” to life, without glorifying it. Dodge City is a dirty, rowdy, dangerous mess, with politics affecting everyone who lives and visits there. Secondary characters are never simply caricatures, but are made real through little details of personality and background. Every person in this book is a fully realized person, which adds to the rich tapestry of the storyline.
All that being said, this was not as deeply moving as The Sparrow - at least for me. The book was well-researched and well-written, but it doesn’t have the philosophical depth of The Sparrow and its sequel, Children of God. Don’t get me wrong, this is a great piece of historical fiction! But it didn’t “grab” me emotionally. It may be because I held myself at a bit of a distance from Doc, because I knew he would die, and therefore was not as emotionally invested as I could have been. It certainly isn’t any fault of Russell’s writing or research. This is an excellent book - it just didn’t quite hit home for me. But for anyone who is interested in the real “Wild West” and the people who shaped it, this is a worthy addition to the genre.
Monday, November 14, 2016
Imprudence by Gail Carriger
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is book two of the “Custard Protocol” series by Gail Carriger. The book is set in the same universe as the “Parasol Protectorate” series and the “Finishing School” series. You don’t need to have read any of those books to enjoy this one, though the PP series is pretty much the foundation for all the other series, and if you’ve read it, you will get a bit more out of the other series. You will want to have read the first book in the series (Prudence), however, as events in that first book lead directly to events in this one.
As with all books set in this universe, there is lots of steampunk technology, plenty of detailed descriptions of attire and food (oh, the food!!), and vampires and werewolves and ghosts. And tea, one cannot forget the tea! And lots of light-hearted humor. I found the dialog in this book to be particularly sparkling, laughing out loud at several points. The action moves along quite well, and there is just enough romance to keep it interesting.
This book continues the adventure of Prudence Alessandra Maccon Akeldama (AKA “Rue”), the daughter of a werewolf, a soulless human, and a vampire. (It’s complicated.) She is the proud “Lady Captain” of The Spotted Custard, a dirigible painted like a lady bug. She and her intrepid crew have just returned from a harrowing trip to India, and events in this book send them off to Egypt and points south.
The character development continues in this book, and we learn much more about many of the other crew members. Even the secondary characters are not given short shrift - Spoo, the former sootie and now deckie, is my favorite, and I suspect I’m not alone. Even Percy, the prissy brother of Rue’s best friend, manages to develop a spine. And, of course, the romance between Rue and Quesnel, is finally acknowledged and acted upon. Oh my! (Still quite PG-13.)
For me, this book is even better than Prudence. This is Carriger at her best: witty and fun, with crisp dialog, a smattering of action, and a bit of romance. And tea. Always, tea. :-)
Friday, November 4, 2016
Kindred by Octavia E. Butler
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Quick review summary:
Part historical novel (antebellum South), part time travel mystery, Kindred is a powerful - sometimes painful - book about race, identity, and family. Masterfully written, highly recommended.
In this book, Butler tackles slavery and race relations, cleverly woven into a time travel story. It follows the life of Dana, a young black writer, as she bewilderingly and repeatedly finds herself back in the South during the time of slavery. She gradually determines that each time she is pulled into the past, it is because a white boy (and later, a grown man) named Rufus is in danger. Somehow, she is snatched back to rescue him. The problem is, she is trapped there for an unknown length of time, and must survive at a time when most blacks were slaves. Butler gives an unflinching account of life as a slave, including several beatings and whippings. But we also see the relationships between slaves, between slave and owner, and among whites. Nothing is black and white (pardon the pun) - but there are many shades of gray in all these relationships. It is a complex society, but one that is obviously ill. Butler gives us no “Gone with the Wind” happy-go-lucky “darkies” - instead we see the physical and emotional cost of being owned by someone else, and having no ability to direct one’s life. It is a harrowing account, on all levels.
The time travel is never explained, which is fine in this story. It is clear that the link is between Dana and Rufus, and we eventually learn what ties them together. But throughout the story, Dana is at the mercy of whatever it is that pulls her back into history. She has to cope with the jarring dissonance of being a slave one moment and then being back in modern America the next. She learns to prepare for her next journey, by keeping a bag of essentials (such as aspirin) with her at all times. Her husband is also drawn into the journeys, further complicating matters. I liked that Butler never goes into the “science” of the time travel, or how it happens. It just is.
The parts of the story that take place in the past are obviously quite well researched, with many details of life as a slave, and life in general during that time period. Obviously, because slavery is involved, many of the scenes that take place in the past are difficult to read, because of the physical and emotional cruelty. But these do not overwhelm the narrative, which really focuses on the people and their relationships. It is not a simple novel, yet it reads as such, which is a credit to Butler’s skills as a storyteller.
For anyone interested in the topic of slavery and the antebellum South, this would be an essential read. I would also highly recommend it for those who enjoy time travel and the conundrums therein, as long as they don’t want to know the science behind the time travel.