Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Something Rotten - Jasper Fforde

This is the 4th volume in the "Tuesday Next" series. (The first 3 are The Eyre Affair, Lost in a Good Book, and The Well of Lost Plots.)These books are all set in an alternate world to ours, where literature is taken VERY seriously, genetic recombination is commonplace (dodo birds are a favorite pet) and people can go in and out of books, often wreaking havoc. Tuesday Next is the intrepid detective who has marvelous adventures, meeting Jane Eyre (and saving the original ending!), Miss Haversham and other famous literary folks. Meanwhile folks are trying to kill her, her husband has been eradicated via time-travel (oh- and her dad is popping in and out of the time stream, trying to keep history straight), and she has to deal with the usual work hassles.

As you may assume from the title, this 4th book is very Hamlet-related. In fact, the Danish Prince has accompanied Tuesday back to "real life", where he is trying to convince everyone that he doesn't have a fatal flaw of indecision! He CAN make decisions! Er, well, sort of...

There are just too many funny bits - for instance, another detective branch in the police department is tasked with taking care of things like vampires, werewolves and zombies. And then there are the William Shakespeare clones...

This is not a "science-fiction" book, depite the familiar SciFi themes. It's really more of a mystery series, that just happens to take place in a rather odd world. Anyone who loves literature will appreciate these books. I think this 4th one is the best yet!

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Out by Natsuro Kirino

I saw this book on the bookshelf at the store, and being a bit attuned to things Japanese of late (because of my recent trip there), it just jumped out at me. The cover proclaims it to be the "winner of Japan's grand prix for crime fiction" and an "Edgar Award finalist". The fact that it was written by a woman sealed the deal for me - I bought it.

Once again, I found myself immersed in the dark side of Japanese culture. The book follows the lives of several women who work the night-shift packaging box lunches. All of the women, though working, are struggling to get by. When one of them kills her abusive husband in a fight, they rally around her, and decide they must dispose of the body to keep anyone from knowing about the crime. How they go about doing this, and the consquences that this leads to is much like the old cliche of watching a train crash - you want to look away, but you just have to keep looking.

The characters in the book were fairly interesting, with a few stereotypical ones found any any crime drama, such as the young 'mafia-type' punk who wants to make a name for himself. I can't say that I could identify with any of them - nor could I really feel the desperation that their situation supposedly put them in. I don't know if this is due to the translation, the nature of Japanese novels, or the nature of this author's writing. So I never really "connected" with the book. While the depiction of the dark side of Japanese life was intriguing, it didn't really reach out and grab me. (And I still don't know what the "out" of the title refers to - getting "out" of the situation? Being "out" of normal society?) So, not sure I'll read another of her books.

The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea by Yukio Mishima.

Having recently travelled to Japan, I wanted to understand their history and culture a bit more. Before coming back to the US, I picked up an English translation of this book. Mishima is one of Japan's most famous authors, though he died (by his own hand) in 1970, at the age of 45. (He led a most interesting life, and the circumstances of his death are also intriguing - you may want to read more about it here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yukio_Mishima)

If I had to give a one-sentence summary of the book, I'd call it the Japanese Lord of the Flies. Like that book, it deals with the cruel and animalistic nature of adolescent boys. If anything, Mishima's book is even more disturbing. (I do wonder if the reason I think this is the very different ages at which I read these - LOTF I read in high school, or even junior high. TSWFFGWTS I read at the ripe old age of 50. I should probably re-read LOTF to see if my impression still holds.)

At any rate, the book is hauntingly written, and tells a very bleak and often disturbing story. The protagonist of the story is 13 year old Noboru, who lives with his widowed mother. They meet a sailor, who had alwasy dreamed he would do something grand and heroic in his life. He falls in love with Noboru's mother, which is the turning point of the story. Noboru is in a 'gang' of other boys - all brilliant, but all completely disgusted by "normal" society, and through a philosophy called "objectivity" they feel destined to rule the world. They see the sailor's "abandonment" of the sea and his dream as betraying mankind, and another example of a "typical" no-good father. (I will have to read more about Mishima's relationship with his father - and his mother!)

I was riveted by the story, yet at the same time I was repulsed by what was happening. I will probably read another of Mishima's books, because this one was so well written and the theme, while disturbing, it seemed to me that it revealed some truths about human nature.

Isaac Asimov Presents the Great SF Stories - 1939

1939 is seen as the beginning of the golden age of science fiction. Asimov, Heinlein, Del Ray, and Sturgeon are just a few of the 'big' SF authors who got their start at this time. I was curious to see how dated these stories might be, nearly 70 years later, and overall, I'd have to say they held up pretty well.

I was expecting a lot more "Buck Rogers" type action with all the melodrama of a space opera, but that was not what I found. Instead, I found a wide variety of pretty darn good stories. Several of them, such as The Cloak of Aesir by Don Stuart, The Black Destroyerby A.E. Van Vogt, and Heavy Planet by Milton Rothman, were very interesting stories of alien cultures, and other than some antiquated language, could have been written today.

There were several 'fantasy' type stories - not in the Tolkien vein, but definitely not very science-based. These seemed a little naive and simple, but I must say I did enjoy Jack Williamson's Star Bright.

The most obvious clue to the age of the stories was the antiquated writing. Without fail, a full-grown woman was always referred to as a girl. Men were definitely the "leading man" type - taking the lead (when there were women in the story at all!). There were also a couple of slightly racist references, such as describing the character of an Asian man as having the "ancient politeness of his race".

I am glad I got to read these stories, even though they weren't all great, because they were all significant. Personally, I am very grateful at the progress seen in modern writing, but it was most educational to read stories from the very birth of science fiction as a legitimate genre. (Thanks, Robin, for sending it to me!)

Interview with the Vampire - Ann Rice

I had avoided reading any of Rice's vampire books, as I was afraid they would be too dark and satanic. Finding a copy of Interview with the Vampire at a yard sale for 10 cents, I figured I could take a chance - if I didn't like it, I was only out a dime! As for my fears, I was partially right - it was dark. But not inherently satanic. Yes, there are vampires. Yes, they kill people to survive. But it was not a "scary" book, nor was it particularly gory. It was more like a tragic Gothic romance - emphasis on tragic.

This is not a book full of sunshine and flowers. It is most definitely dark, but the story is quite well-written and I was engaged after the first few pages. But far from being something from a Bela Lugosi movie, and far from being a Stephen King horror novel, it was really just a very sad tale of a very sad (albeit artifically long) life.

The vampire being interviewed is Louis, and the time of the interview is modern-day. Louis' story begins in the 1700's in Louisiana, and we follow him through his life: becoming a vampire, being mentored by the vampire Lestat, falling in love, finding other vampires and all the strange life he led. He is loath to kill humans, though doing so brings him great ecstasy. He is constantly warring against his nature, and pondering if he is truly evil and damned. He is a tragic character in the full, literary sense of the word. (Did I mention that this wasn't a "happy" book?)

The vampire culture created by Rice is very interesting, and is well thought-out. She breaks somewhat with 'traditional' vampire lore, in that garlic & crucifixes are not vampire deterrents. But, they still sleep in coffins (though I really don't know why - why not any large container that could be sealed?), sunlight is fatal to them, and they have to drink blood to live.

All in all, I enjoyed the book, mostly for the good writing and interesting culture and characters. It's not a book that upon putting it down I say "Wow! I have to read that one again!", but I certainly didn't dislike it. However, having read this one and satisfied my curiosity, I'm not sure I'll read any more in the series. I just don't care to be that depressed all the time! ;-)