Monthly Archives: July 2010

Booking Through Thursday: A Day at the Beach

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Suggested by Joy:

Which fictional character (or group of characters) would you like to spend a day at the beach with? Why would he/she/they make good beach buddies?

Interesting question.

While not necessarily literary characters (though they did feature in tie-in novels when the series was on the air), I think it’d be fun to hang out with the Cunninghams (plus Fonzie, of course) from Happy Days.  Why you ask?  Well, they were just such a well-adjusted family that it seems like they’d be ideal beach companions.   Plus Mrs. C could probably pack a mean picnic lunch to eat there.  And with Fonzie around, there’s be plenty of cute girls too….

On the other hand, it always seems like when you go to the beach, at least one afternoon you can’t get in the water due to jellyfish or some other creature.  In that case, it’d be handy to have AcquaMan around to send said creature back out to sea so I can boogie-board and body-surf.

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“The Liar’s Lullaby” by Meg Gardiner

The Liar's LullabyMy rating: 3 of 5 stars

After a disappointing second installment in the Jo Beckett series, Meg Gardiner bounces back with “The Liar’s Lullaby.”

Singer Tasia McFarland is killed during her show in San Francisco. Normally the death of a country music star wouldn’t be front page news, except that she’s the ex-wife of the President of the United States and she’s paranoid that someone is out to get her.

Beckett happens to be at the concert and is called in on the case to determine if the death was suicide or if Tasia was killed. Before you know it, Beckett is caught up in a web of intrigue as she finds out Tasia had stalkers and that the gun apparently used belonged to the President. She also met with the President privately before her death, something that has gone unreported.

As with other entries in this series, “Lullaby” is a fast paced with twists coming every couple of chapters. Gardiner keeps the chapters short and sweet, rarely allowing Jo or the reader to catch their breath. That’s a good thing because this is a novel that probably wouldn’t hold up well if you had time to stop and think about what’s happening. It’s a popcorn read, perfect for a bit of escape or some light summer reading.

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“The Man in the High Castle” by Philip K. Dick

The Man in the High CastleMy rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve been aware of Philip K. Dick as an author since I was 12 or 13 years old. That’s not because I was reading novels by Dick at that age, but more because his novels were often placed close to the “Doctor Who” novelizations by Terrance Dicks in the sci-fi section of the bookstore and library.

It wasn’t until I was a bit older and saw “Blade Runner” and “Total Recall” that I decided it might be time to sample a little bit of what PKD had to offer.

One of my first entries into the literary world of PKD was “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.” This is probably the case for a lot of people given how easily accessible it is–not only from a literary standpoint but because it’s easy to find in multiple paperback editions at most new and used bookstores. “Androids” is very much an entry level PKD work and it’s a good place to get your bearings and find out if you’d like to go deeper into PKD’s world of questioning reality and paranoia.

Next up in my literary overview of PKD was his second most famous novel, “The Man in the High Castle.” It was the selection of the month by a science-fiction book club I’d joined. I remember reading it at the time, feeling a bit perplexed by book and feeling like if there were an audio version of the book that George Takai should read it.

“The Man in the High Castle” is certainly a deeper PKD novel that “Androids” but it’s one that I’d argue is just as accessible to readers. It’s one of the first alternate histories published and it deals with what question of what would the world be like if the United States had lost the second World War. Interestingly, the novel doesn’t really start off telling you what its premise is, but instead introduces this universe over the course of several chapters. There’s no long infodump of how the universe ended up this way and where history took a different turn from the one we’re used to. Instead, PDK fills in the details as needed throughout the story and even leaves it up to the readers to fill in some of the rest.

But make no mistake–while this is, on the surface, an alternate history story, many of the standard PKD themes are on full display here.

One is the question of what is real and what isn’t. This is most evident in the story of Robert Childan, an owner of a shop that specializes in pre-War American “artifacts.” Childan believes that his offerings are authentic antiques but finds out that some of what he’s offering are cleverly forgeries. Childan than begins to question everything in his store and whether it’s real or forged. Chidan has built a reputation on offering quality, authentic pieces and while he bears a great deal of ill-will to the totalitarian Japanese regime and people, he’s still conflicted by his need to win their approval and possibly become part of their social structure. Several scenes with Childan trying to impress a young Japanese couple who has come into his store are intrigued as we watch his internal struggle to say the right thing and not offend them, all while wondering why he bothers because he also finds them inferior.

Of course, this being a PKD book, the question of what’s real doesn’t just extend to trinkets like a gun from the old West or a Mickey Mouse watch. (Both are pivotal to the story). The book ingeniously creates an alternate history within the alternate history in the form of the novel, “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy.” The novel speculates on how the world would be if the Allies won World War II. And while it gets the broad strokes right, it still misses a few things. The book is banned in the Nazi dominated sections of the world and the Nazis have a plan to assignate the author.

Several of the characters read the book and are aware of it during the course of the story. The story within the story shows how some of the characters are deeply aware of how their version of history may not be the proper one, but they’re trapped within it, unable to escape. This storyline is one that questions the essential nature of reality and is one that is prevalent in a lot of other PDK novels and short stories.

If there’s one complaint that I can lodge with “Man in the High Castle” it’s that the story isn’t necessarily the most linear. PKD introduces a lot of characters, many of whom know each other but many of whom don’t. The connections that come to exist between some of them is intriguing. The novel has a beginning and an end, but it’s not necessarily following the conventional rules of story and structure we all learned in high school English classes. And yet, I’d say the book is stronger for that. It read less like a drug-induced ranting that many of PKD’s later books become and it also is one that assumes the reader is intelligent enough to follow the threads and put pieces together. It’s certainly a challenging novel, not only to read but also in its implications.

And that’s what makes it a classic for me and one of my favorites books. It’s also a story that rewards reading it again every couple of years.

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Booking Through Thursday — Podcasts

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Suggested by Clare:

Do you ever listen to book-related podcasts?

If so, which ones and why? (Include the URLs for people who aren’t familiar with them.)

Or, of course, there’s the flip side … did you even know that such a thing existed? (I ask because I know a lot of people who have no idea what a podcast is.)

Oh we’ve opened quite a can of worms here. I enjoy a wide variety of podcasts and I have a few that are book related I’ll listen to.

Here’s a sample:
DragonPage Cover to Cover — the original and one of the best.
The Kick-Ass Mystic Ninjas
Variant Frequencies (it’s short stories…it sort of counts)
Chronic Rift Podcast — They cover all aspects of pop culture, with a book episode every once in a while.

Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t put in a plug for the myriad of shows available at Farpoint Media. (I contribute to some of the shows there, esp. Slice of SciFi) Yes, it’s a shameless plug…but there are a lot of great shows over there. :)

And, of course, if you’re looking for free audio fiction, there’s Podiobooks.com.   A lot of authors who are getting published now got their start there and it’s free audio books.   So even if you sample a podcast novel you don’t like, you can stop and you’re not out anything!  (Well, save time and electrons).

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“Theodore Boone, Kid Lawyer” by John Grisham

Theodore Boone, Kid LawyerMy rating: 3 of 5 stars

After storming the best-seller charts for adult fiction, John Grisham tries his hand at fiction for young adults. And the results are fairly mixed.

It seems a lot of young adult fiction I read these days paints the protagonist as the lovable loner–whether by choice or because of the society within the halls of school. Theodore Boone is no exception. He’s an eighth grader who loves the law and dreams of becoming a lawyer some day. His parents are partners in a successful firm in his town, with his father working real estate law and his mother a divorce lawyer. And now his small town faces its first big trial in years–a murder trial of a man accused of killing his wife after taking out a huge insurance policy on her.

To Theo, this is even more exciting than his beloved Minnesota Twins making it to and winning the World Series. Theo is wrapped up in following the trial, even getting his government class prime seats for the opening day to go and observe the trial.

Theo also offers legal advice to friends at school, including to a cute girl whose dog has been picked up by animal control. In the course of his working with his parents at a local mission, Theo meets a boy who may just have a vital witness to the crime and the murder trail that he’s obsessed with. The only problem–said witness is an illegal immigrant and is scared to come forward for fear of being deported.

“Theodore Boone, Kid Lawyer” has its moments of entertainment. Grisham clearly is setting up Theo to come back in future installments and maybe they’ll move a bit quicker now that the burden of establishing the characters and the situation is complete. The dilemma Theo faces (whether to tell the truth of what he knows) is an interesting one, though there’s very little doubt what choice he’ll make.

As a legal thriller for young adults, it works fairly well. It lacks the complexity of your standard Grisham thriller. If you’ve read his adult books, it will feel like a lighter version of those. If Grisham hopes to win over younger fans and have them eventually move on to reading more of his adult titles as they grow up, that’s not a bad thing. (Anything to get young adults reading something other than “Twilight” is a great idea). However, younger readers may have the same reaction I did when it comes to the ending–it feels a bit rushed and unsatisfying. It dropped the book down a star in my rating. I found myself thinking it was a lot of set-up for a second installment.

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SciFi & Fantasy Classics Canon

There’s a meme going around associated with the new group blog covering the SFF Masterworks series published by Gollancz (in the UK).

I’m always intrigued by the titles offered.  Now there’s a list of what’s offered.  Looking at it, I’ve read quite a bit of it.  And there’s still some I need to read at some point.  I am following the lead of a fellow book blogger and bolding those I have read and italicizing those I have in my collection but haven’t read yet…

SciFi List:

I – Dune – Frank Herbert
II – The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula K. Le Guin
III – The Man in the High Castle – Philip K. Dick
IV – The Stars My Destination – Alfred Bester
V – A Canticle for Leibowitz – Walter M. Miller, Jr.
VI – Childhood’s End – Arthur C. Clarke

VII – The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress – Robert A. Heinlein
VIII – Ringworld – Larry Niven

IX – The Forever War – Joe Haldeman
X – The Day of the Triffids – John Wyndham

2 – I Am Legend – Richard Matheson
3 – Cities in Flight – James Blish
4 – Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – Philip K. Dick
5 – The Stars My Destination – Alfred Bester

6 – Babel-17 – Samuel R. Delany
7 – Lord of Light – Roger Zelazny
8 – The Fifth Head of Cerberus – Gene Wolfe
9 – Gateway – Frederik Pohl
10 – The Rediscovery of Man – Cordwainer Smith

11 – Last and First Men – Olaf Stapledon
12 – Earth Abides – George R. Stewart
13 – Martian Time-Slip – Philip K. Dick

14 – The Demolished Man – Alfred Bester
15 – Stand on Zanzibar – John Brunner
16 – The Dispossessed – Ursula K. Le Guin
17 – The Drowned World – J. G. Ballard
18 – The Sirens of Titan – Kurt Vonnegut
19 – Emphyrio – Jack Vance
20 – A Scanner Darkly – Philip K. Dick

21 – Star Maker – Olaf Stapledon
22 – Behold the Man – Michael Moorcock
23 – The Book of Skulls – Robert Silverberg
24 – The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds – H. G. Wells
25 – Flowers for Algernon – Daniel Keyes
26 – Ubik – Philip K. Dick
27 – Timescape – Gregory Benford

28 – More Than Human – Theodore Sturgeon
29 – Man Plus – Frederik Pohl
30 – A Case of Conscience – James Blish

31 – The Centauri Device – M. John Harrison
32 – Dr. Bloodmoney – Philip K. Dick
33 – Non-Stop – Brian Aldiss
34 – The Fountains of Paradise – Arthur C. Clarke
35 – Pavane – Keith Roberts
36 – Now Wait for Last Year – Philip K. Dick
37 – Nova – Samuel R. Delany
38 – The First Men in the Moon – H. G. Wells
39 – The City and the Stars – Arthur C. Clarke
40 – Blood Music – Greg Bear

41 – Jem – Frederik Pohl
42 – Bring the Jubilee – Ward Moore
43 – VALIS – Philip K. Dick
44 – The Lathe of Heaven – Ursula K. Le Guin
45 – The Complete Roderick – John Sladek
46 – Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said – Philip K. Dick
47 – The Invisible Man – H. G. Wells
48 – Grass – Sheri S. Tepper

49 – A Fall of Moondust – Arthur C. Clarke
50 – Eon – Greg Bear

51 – The Shrinking Man – Richard Matheson
52 – The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch – Philip K. Dick
53 – The Dancers at the End of Time – Michael Moorcock
54 – The Space Merchants – Frederik Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth
55 – Time Out of Joint – Philip K. Dick
56 – Downward to the Earth – Robert Silverberg
57 – The Simulacra – Philip K. Dick
58 – The Penultimate Truth – Philip K. Dick
59 – Dying Inside – Robert Silverberg

61 – The Child Garden – Geoff Ryman
62 – Mission of Gravity – Hal Clement
63 – A Maze of Death – Philip K. Dick
64 – Tau Zero – Poul Anderson
65 – Rendezvous with Rama – Arthur C. Clarke
66 – Life During Wartime – Lucius Shepard
67 – Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang – Kate Wilhelm
68 – Roadside Picnic – Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
69 – Dark Benediction – Walter M. Miller, Jr.
70 – Mockingbird – Walter Tevis

74 – Inverted World – Christopher Priest
75 – Kurt Vonnegut – Cat’s Cradle
76 – H.G. Wells – The Island of Dr. Moreau
77 – Arthur C. Clarke – Childhood’s End
78 – H.G. Wells – The Time Machine

79 – Samuel R. Delany – Dhalgren (July 2010)
80 – Brian Aldiss – Helliconia (August 2010)

81 – H.G. Wells – Food of the Gods (Sept. 2010)
82 – Jack Finney – The Body Snatchers (Oct. 2010)
83 – Joanna Russ – The Female Man (Nov. 2010)
84 – M.J. Engh – Arslan (Dec. 2010)

Fantasy List
1 – The Book of the New Sun, Volume 1: Shadow and Claw – Gene Wolfe
2 – Time and the Gods – Lord Dunsany
3 – The Worm Ouroboros – E.R. Eddison
4 – Tales of the Dying Earth – Jack Vance
5 – Little, Big – John Crowley
6 – The Chronicles of Amber – Roger Zelazny
7 – Viriconium – M. John Harrison
8 – The Conan Chronicles, Volume 1: The People of the Black Circle – Robert E. Howard
9 – The Land of Laughs – Jonathan Carroll
10 – The Compleat Enchanter: The Magical Misadventures of Harold Shea – L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt

11 – Lud-in-the-Mist – Hope Mirrlees
12 – The Book of the New Sun, Volume 2: Sword and Citadel – Gene Wolfe
13 – Fevre Dream – George R. R. Martin
14 – Beauty – Sheri S. Tepper
15 – The King of Elfland’s Daughter – Lord Dunsany
16 – The Conan Chronicles, Volume 2: The Hour of the Dragon – Robert E. Howard
17 – Elric – Michael Moorcock
18 – The First Book of Lankhmar – Fritz Leiber
19 – Riddle-Master – Patricia A. McKillip
20 – Time and Again – Jack Finney

21 – Mistress of Mistresses – E.R. Eddison
22 – Gloriana or the Unfulfill’d Queen – Michael Moorcock
23 – The Well of the Unicorn – Fletcher Pratt
24 – The Second Book of Lankhmar – Fritz Leiber
25 – Voice of Our Shadow – Jonathan Carroll
26 – The Emperor of Dreams – Clark Ashton Smith
27 – Lyonesse I: Suldrun’s Garden – Jack Vance
28 – Peace – Gene Wolfe
29 – The Dragon Waiting – John M. Ford
30 – Corum: The Prince in the Scarlet Robe – Michael Moorcock

31 – Black Gods and Scarlet Dreams – C.L. Moore
32 – The Broken Sword – Poul Anderson
33 – The House on the Borderland and Other Novels – William Hope Hodgson
34 – The Drawing of the Dark – Tim Powers
35 – Lyonesse II and III: The Green Pearl and Madouc – Jack Vance
36 – The History of Runestaff – Michael Moorcock
37 – A Voyage to Arcturus – David Lindsay
38 – Darker Than You Think – Jack Williamson
39 – The Mabinogion – Evangeline Walton
40 – Three Hearts & Three Lions – Poul Anderson

41 – Grendel – John Gardner
42 – The Iron Dragon’s Daughter – Michael Swanwick
43 – WAS – Geoff Ryman
44 – Song of Kali – Dan Simmons
45 – Replay – Ken Grimwood
46 – Sea Kings of Mars and Other Worldly Stories – Leigh Brackett
47 – The Anubis Gates – Tim Powers
48 – The Forgotten Beasts of Eld – Patricia A. McKillip
49 – Something Wicked This Way Comes – Ray Bradbury
50 – The Mark of the Beast and Other Fantastical Tales – Rudyard Kipling

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Summer of Series: “Trading in Danger” by Elizabeth Moon

Trading in Danger (Vatta's War, #1)Trading in Danger by Elizabeth Moon

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The only daughter of the powerful Gerald Vatta, young Kylara (Ky as she is known to most of her family and friends), dreamed of being the first military officer from her family. That dream is shattered when her good intentions at helping a fellow cadet turn into a public relations nightmare and a political incident. Ky chooses to resign her commission and returns home to her family.

Her father decides it would be best for Ky to be out of contact for a while and gives her command of her own ship. The ship is an older one, on its final run to the salvage yard because the costs of upgrades outweigh the benefits for her father’s shipping company. Ky isn’t convinced and decides she’ll look for opportunities to possibly pay for the repairs and purchase the ship from her family as her own command vessel. This leads to Ky taking on a contract to deliver some agricultural equipment to a colony and, once again, being inadvertently drawn into a political situation that could lead to a public relations nightmare.

On the surface, all of that sounds like a fairly entertaining and exciting space opera story, but “Trading in Danger” isn’t necessarily always entertaining or exciting. Part of the problem is the character of Ky herself, who doesn’t necessarily seem to learn from her mistakes of the past and keeps making the same blunders over and over again. Early on the story establishes that Ky is a leader who leads with her heart, though that often has disastrous and unforeseen consequences for Ky and those around her. Also, Ky sits back and allows things to come to her instead of being a more active protagonist, especially in the early stages of the story.

At times the story here reminded me of the Miles stories by Lois McMaster Bujold with Miles at the center of galactic doings and surviving by his wits and instincts. Elizabeth Moon is clearly drawing from the same well that gave us Miles, but “Trading in Danger” isn’t quite as successful as the Verokosigan series–at least not in this first installment. At times, it feels like Miles and Ky are similar characters, trying to overcome the odds stacked against them, but Miles seems to do it in a most interesting, dynamic way than what we see from Ky.

Both have issues that make them feel inferior and over their heads in certain situations, but the reaction of the two characters is entirely different. Whereas Miles will take and run with an issue, barreling forward and either making things better or worse, Ky seems to spent a lot of time reflecting on her shortcomings but not really actively working to overcome them. (This may be an unfair comparison because I’ve known Miles and his style for more books than I do Ky. I did try to cast my mind back to the earliest Miles novels to try and recall my feelings about the character then).

After reading “Speed of Dark” by Moon earlier this year and hearing several friends rave about the Vatta’s War series, I was fully expecting a more enjoyable reading experience than I got here. There are some interesting moments, times when Moon truly had me engaged and actively interested in what would happen next. But there are also large portions of the story where I was less involved in Ky’s dilemma–whether it’s due to repetition of a similar issue or that we weren’t learning anything new about Ky or seeing any growth from her as a character. I realize this is the opening segment of a five-book series and I’m assuming that Moon has a greater plan for Ky and the novels to follow. I’m hoping this is like the first season of “Babylon Five” and it takes on a deeper significance to the series because its sewing some seeds that will blossom down the road.

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