“Flinx’s Folly” by Alan Dean Foster review

Flinx's Folly

Flinx’s Folly

Author:  Alan Dean Foster

Released:  2002

Unfortunately for Pip & Flinx fans, Alan Dean Foster has fallen into a bad habit of placing the protagonist (and his pet mini-drag) into seemingly deadly situations only to have him rescued by characters that were otherwise absent from the plot of the current story. Following multiple rescues in that manner in Mid-Flinx, and similar instances in Reunion , I was not shocked to see that the same development was utilized in Flinx’s Folly but I was disappointed. That sense of cheating employed by the writer really put a sour finish on what was otherwise a pretty fun adventure.

Rather than visit an alien barren landscape, here Pip & Flinx visit paradise, or the closest planet in the Commonwealth to such a thing. Located in that perfectly habitable distance from the sun and with a favorable tilt resulting in tropical seasons, the setting is as much a vacation for our protagonists as any book in the series. This makes sense as Flinx’s motivation for travel is to visit his most memorable love interest, Clarity Held, the beautiful, intelligent gengineer (genetic engineer) who could write her own ticket for love or career.

The start of Flinx’s Folly has an interesting occurrence where Flinx’s ability causes a mass blackout at a shopping mall, however the plot from there takes on fairly standard adventure tropes. Flinx must flee from a hospital (executed cleverly). Flinx must flee from death worshipping fanaticals (executed less cleverly). The main conflict doesn’t arrive until he locates Clarity (looking for the one person in the Cosmos he feels comfortable opening up to) and her sort of fiancé (whose name I can’t recall, so I’ll just call him Bond Villain).

The most ridiculous and entertaining aspects of Flinx’s Folly all involve Bond Villain’s plans to thwart this interloper from chatting with his lady. He takes the usual steps that us guys need to take to make sure our ladies aren’t being romanced by tall and mysterious foreigners: hiring private investigators and thugs to get dirt or break kneecaps. If that doesn’t work **spoiler alert** sometimes you need to build completely functional android decoys of your fiancé, knife wielding spider robots or set elaborate traps involving gene therapy, but all’s fair in love and sci-fi.

The deus ex machina ending featured two of the best recurring characters from this series, but it’s such a shame that they had to show up in such a plot convenient manner. Taking the Bond analogy further, the final ending of the book left an option for an expanded cast of characters continuing on adventures, but Foster prefers to take our hero to the next installment with no strings attached. (As F. Paul Wilson writes, “a spear has no branches.”) The sect of death worshippers make convenient bad guys that our heroes can kill without remorse, but I don’t find them particularly believable or interesting which puts them in line with the series main antagonist, a massive entity of nothingness accelerating toward our galaxy. Not one of the better entries in the series so far but there were certainly enough ridiculous and fun scenes to make it memorable.

3-star

Advertisements

“Bad Seed: The Biography of Nick Cave” by Ian Johnston review

Bad Seed

Bad Seed: The Biography of Nick Cave

Author:  Ian Johnston

Released:  1995

Prior to reading Bad Seed: The Biography of Nick Cave, I was a bit of a Nick Cave fan. I own all of albums, 16 studio albums by the Bad Seeds, two by Grinderman, a few soundtracks by Cave and Warren Ellis, and a few Birthday Party records. I’ve read both of Cave’s prose novels, And the Ass Saw the Angeland The Death of Bunny Monroe, and bought and enjoyed the films he has written, particularly Lawless and The Proposition. I’ve seen Cave in concert twice, once in Chicago as part of the “Dig Lazarus Dig” tour, and again in Louisville for the “Push the Sky Away” tour. So, take the rest of my review with however main grains of salt because odds are you won’t line up on the Cave fan spectrum at the same level as myself, for good or bad.

That disclaimer out of the way, the biggest takeaway I had from reading Ian Johnston’s book was that it was way to early in Cave’s career to write any sort of a comprehensive biography. Johnson’s book came out in 1995, which was prior to “Murder Ballads” being released. That’s eight studio albums ago. That’s before Grinderman was a band, and released two more. The most prolific collaborate or Nick Cave’s career after Mick Harvey is Warren Ellis, who is not mentioned until page 302 (the book is 304 pages long). The book ends a decade before Cave published another novel or wrote his most successful films. So if you’re looking for a book to discuss all of the amazing work in his career, this book will leave you with less than half of it.

The strength of this book is as a a biography of The Birthday Party band, extensively documenting their early years, discography and breakup. This portion of the book is 150 pages, or roughly the first half. The following half gets into Nick Cave’s sobriety and increasing artistry, but as already outlined it is certainly an unfinished story.

The writing of the book is very detailed and features extensive quotes from people with firsthand knowledge of events. This ends up being the books greatest weakness however as well, as often Johnson will spends over a page quoting the same source and as a reader I would often lose track of who was recanting a story because a quote would go on for so long. It also seemed like for a work of scholarship the number of sources cited outside of interviews was on the low side.

It’s obvious Johnston agrees Cave is a genius, and I learned a lot about Cave’s early years and the critical reception of Cave early in his career by reading this book. I also got more of an idea as to his creative process and the personnel on the classic Bad Seeds albums. Perhaps a part two in another twenty years will help finish where this book leaves off, as Cave was just getting started when this came out.

3-star

“The Touch” by F. Paul Wilson Review

The touch

The Touch

Author:  F. Paul Wilson

Released:  1986

As a stand alone book in F. Paul Wilson’s Adversary Cycle, The Touch barely ties into the events of the Repairman Jack world or even the rest of the Adversary Cycle stories, but was overall one of my favorite books I’ve read by the author. The book is the story of Dr. Alan Bulmer, a family physician who gains the ability of the Dat-tay-vao, a healing touch that works for about an hour a day. Patients who come in with hearing loss or broken bones leave Bulmer’s office completely healthy. The ability seems to know no limits, fixing life long birth defects or nearly fatal cancer. The ability draws Bulmer into the intrigue of an ambitious senator, as well as the attention of other local medical professionals, all of which believe Bulmer is either having a breakdown or is now a scam artist. The only man who seems to have any idea what is going in is the Vietnamese gardener for the local widow, a man with a set of skills reminiscent of Liam Neeson in Taken.

While Wilson can craft great page turners, nobody will ever confuse him for John Steinbeck. Wilson often falls back on cliched character types and racial stereotypes throughout his writing, and The Touch is no exception. The bad guys are foreshadowed early and there is no guessing when it comes to who Alan should trust. Despite all that, the story moves at a brisk pace and I frequently found myself wondering how I would respond in the same situation. The progression of the touch on Bulmer is obvious to the reader immediately, but it is understandable how Bulmer could ignore or overlook the negative effects (or diagnose them as stress) for as long as he does.

Much of the suspense of the book hinges on whether Bulmer’s ability would work on a person with autism, which was sort of odd to distinguish among all the conditions a patient could have. Wilson wisely focuses much of the doubt as coming from a character worrying about the possible effects on her son. With a simple story and few major characters, this is the type of book that lends itself to thinking of cinematically while reading. (For my reading, I pictured Harrison Ford as Bulmer and Catherine Zeta-Jones as the widow (when they were in their 40’s), Naomi Watts as Bulmer’s wife and Richard Jenkins as the Senator.)

My book also included the short story, Dat-tay-vao which explains how the ability crossed the ocean from Vietnam to America. The story features some very unlikable characters in a tense Vietnam setting, while filling in a blank that I wasn’t particularly interested in knowing about. Still, who can complain about a free bonus story.

5-star

“Beyond the Blue Event Horizon” by Frederik Pohl review

Beyond the Blue Event Horizon

Beyond the Blue Event Horizon

Author:  Frederik Pohl

Released:  1980

This is the sequel to Gateway a book that I thought had some really interesting ideas about some uninteresting and unlikable characters. That book ended **spoiler alert** with Robinette Broadhead being the lone survivor of a mission of ten people with the other nine being sucked into a black hole and Broadhead feeling guilty over the loss of his lover most of all. Beyond the Blue Event Horizon picks up several years later, with Broadhead being very wealthy and no longer going on Heechee missions himself.

Pohl has created a fascinating world that provides plenty of interesting questions about the ancient race that humanity has stumbled upon. Here humans are still piloting Heechee ships with no idea of where they are going in the hopes of making discoveries and becoming wealthy. Broadhead has sent a family to discover a food factory, and when they arrive they find a horny teenage boy that has been isolated on the spacecraft for fifteen years with only “The Old Ones” (mysterious entities) alive with him. Meanwhile on Earth Broadhead is dealing with the bureaucratic fallout of his mission and his wife’s failing health.

For a book about intergalactic space travel and the stored consciences of the deceased, BTBEH spends a lot of time on the personalities of the characters, which sounds like a positive but is really not. Broadhead is no more likeable here than he was in Gateway, and Wan (the teenage boy on his own) is as shallow and horny as any caricature of a teenager that I have seen. The other family members on the trip are fairly generic with nobody that I was able to latch onto as an interesting lead.

The science of BTBEH is very well done. A large chunk of the end of the book involves two characters discussing the potential motivations and locations of the Heechee population and did enough to interest me that I’ll be reading book three of this series. The characters also make enough discoveries that it should open up the possibilities for future characters to take a more proactive position in unraveling these mysteries.

3-star

“Songbook” by Nick Hornby Review

songbook

Songbook

Author:  Nick Hornby

Released:  2003

My favorite book I read last year was Ten Years in The Tub, Nick Hornby’s collection of columns from The Believer detailing his book reading and purchasing each month. Being a huge music fan as well, I was eager to read Songbook(originally published as 31 Songs, then rereleased with a few bonus essays) Hornby’s collection of essays on various songs and albums. Apparently when this book was first released, a few versions of it came with CDs containing either 11 or even 18 of the 31 songs, so readers could hear these mostly obscure songs that Hornby has chosen to write about. However in the distant future of 2017, readers can now just log on Youtube and listen to every song or album discussed in this book while reading the corresponding chapters.

I’m a pretty big music junky, but apparently my knowledge of Hornby’s favorites was lacking as prior to reading this I only knew the following tracks:
· “Thunder Road” by Bruce Springsteen
· “I’m Like a Bird” by Nelly Furtado”
· “Heartbreaker” by Led Zeppelin
· “Samba Pa Ti” by Santana
· “Mama, You Been On My Mind” by Rod Stewart
· “Rain” by the Beatles
· “Smoke” by Ben Folds Five
· “Caravan” by Van Morrison
· “Puff the Magic Dragon” by Gregory Isaacs (I think we all know the original, but I was unfamiliar with this version)
· “Late for the Sky” by Jackson Browne

That’s only ten of thirty one tracks, so I’m going to assume that part of Hornby’s goal was to focus on music that isn’t already known by the masses. I faired much better on his discussion of albums, owning all of the ones he discussed in depth except for a Steve Earle album, and I’ve got a few others by that artist. On a related note I enjoyed the album chapters the most, although if you told me up front Nick Hornby would spend a few pages discussing Nick Cave, Aimee Mann or Blink-182 I could predict with absolute certainty that I would enjoy it.

I wish I could say I fell in love with several new songs by reading this book, but the songs I was unfamiliar with were all pleasant enough but not so amazing that I had to go out and purchase on my own. The one exception was “Frankie Teardrop” by Suicide, which was an exception because it wasn’t pleasant but instead a curiosity on unpleasantness stretching out for 10 minutes.

Right away I guess this book loses points compared to Ten Years in the Tub, as I discovered several books and authors I loved from reading that, whereas my musical horizons were not expanded by Songbook (in terms of knowledge, yes, but as of yet no new favorites). As for the writing itself, this is a very quick read with typically 5 to 7 not particularly dense pages about Hornby’s relationship to each song (how he discovered it, how often he listens to it, how it compares to other music he enjoys). My favorite music criticism tends to involve some use of the first person as music is very subjective. In order to trust somebody else’s opinion on music I need some assurances that they have good taste. When I was through with this I had a good understanding of Hornby’s musical tastes in relation to my own styles of enjoyment.

I suspect the most common criticism of Mr. Hornby’s music writing will be his preference for songs that conform to the pop style and format. The final chapter in the book is a review of the top ten albums of the previous year, and Hornby’s critiques of Destiny’s Child, Blink-182, Linkin Park, P. Diddy and others shows a definite preference for music that would be classified as “dad rock” or “oldies” by many people under the age of 30 or so today. I’ll go on record as saying that I didn’t care for a lot of those albums when they came out as well, but I can recognize that several of them resulted in tracks that are still radio favorites 15+ years later, while Hornby’s only song he really appreciated from the list was “Falling” by Alicia Keys.

The real joy in reading this book is in Hornby’s conversational style and charming anecdotes that reveal more about him than the music he is writing about. Hornby’s openness about the challenges of dealing with an autistic child, the changing perceptions of his work once he became famous and his habits upon purchasing box sets stand out in terms of enjoyable sections the reader will take away and retain. Much like Fever Pitch or Ten Years in the Tub, Hornby is upfront that the writing is autobiographical and I suspect readers familiar with his other writing will have a similar reaction (positive or negative) to his work in Songbook.

4-star

“The Left Hand of Darkness” by Ursula K. Le Guin Review

Left Hand of Darkness

The Left Hand of Darkness

Author:  Ursula K. Le Guin

Released:  1969

Much like the previous books in the Hainish Cycle, I found this book to be full of interesting ideas but delivered through average execution. The story is about a Human emissary to an alien world called Winter, where the intelligent life forms are stubborn, bureaucratic humanoids who can change their gender when it comes time to mating. The largest differences between our world and the world of Winter is that with no dominant sex, traditional gender roles do not exist. The human is actually considered a pervert by the natives, as he is always ready for mating while the alien life forms only mate at certain times of the monthly cycle.

Beyond that there is some additional world building relating to the different governing faction on the planet and the mathematics and calendar that heavily depend on the number 13. The perspective is mainly told through the human protagonist, although it does shift to a secondary character named Estraven who at times is not trusted by the human and at others is his only ally. I found these shifts in perspective frustrating as they weren’t marked by anything and typically happened in chapters with little dialogue so I wasn’t even aware the perspective shifted right away on several instances. Better executed are a few chapters that go into folklore and history of this alien planet, which are more clearly marked and provide some interesting context.

One of the most common criticisms of science fiction are books where characters and places all have weird names and which keep it from reading like a typical story. I actually found that to be the case here, as aside from three characters (the human, Estraven, and the King (who is usually referred to as the King)) the names were all so complex that I rarely retained them and had no interest in trying to pronounce them in my head while reading to myself. Perhaps this would have been alleviated by reading this as an audiobook, but between the jargon names and the unclear shifting perspectives I found this to be a frustrating read at times.

The plot is fairly straight forward, with the human emissary trying to open trade (mainly of thought and culture) with this alien world, which will primarily be accomplished via the use of an ansible that allows for instant communication across the universe. The trip to the planet is seventeen years from the nearest inhabited world, and “a lifetime” away from Earth. What should have been an easy sell is complicated by the bureaucratic intrigue of the government officials and the rivaling governmental factions on the planet. The result is a journey that leads across secured borders, into prison stints and a 700+ mile journey over barren frozen landscape. The best passages deal with the human’s interactions with Estraven, as the two try to understand each other and mind-speak (I picture the Vulcan mind meld) to each other. There are clearly some interesting relationship dynamics between the human and the androgynous/multisexual aliens.

The previous books I’ve read that have been both Hugo and Nebula award winners have all been fantastic, and while this book was interesting I was let down overall in comparison.

3-star

“Underground Airlines” by Ben H. Winters Review

Underground Airlines

Underground Airlines

Author:  Ben H. Winters

Published:  2016

I got this book as part of my Brilliant Books “Book of the Month Club.” For the first time, I’ve received a book I’d actually been aware of by reputation, as this book has been mentioned in several publications as a point of reference for discussing an in development HBO show also about an alternative history where slavery was never abolished. That show is causing many to voice their opinions on the merits of fiction focusing on alternate histories that White Supremacists might enjoy.

I’ll start with a disclaimer. I’m firmly against censorship of thought, so as a rule I think any story can be worth telling. I understand the concerns that certain viewers/readers will take away the wrong things from certain controversial subject matter, but I think in most cases the authorial intent and execution are the only worthwhile basis for criticizing artwork, not what some a-holes make of it afterwards. That being the case, I went into this book open minded and hopeful that it would be an enjoyable story.

As for the book itself, it mostly delivered but also felt like a missed opportunity. This was a quick read and features about 2/3 of the book in the free state of Indiana and the other 1/3 in a southern slave state, all told through the first person perspective. The main character is an escaped slave who is caught and given the choice to be killed or sold back into slavery or to work for the U.S. Marshalls catching other escaped slaves. The book focuses on his assignment to catch a recent escapee named Jackdaw who has made it to Indiana using the famous “Underground Airlines” although early on the protagonist begins noticing things that don’t add up in his investigation. Along the way there is also a subplot with a white woman and her mixed race son who have their own adjacent mission and secrets.

I called this book a missed opportunity because it reads like a mystery novella but consistently feels like a story that would benefit from a more extensive examination. On the micro level, the mystery is solved fairly quickly, but the bigger issue is Victor (the main character who goes by many names) is not developed as somebody that all these racist white people would need to solve their problems. How did he become the only man for such an important/sensitive mission. There are some flashbacks included in this story, but all they do is provide reasons why Victor would not be trusted for this. These issues are probably fair to complain about, as it’s the story Winters wants to tell and I was left with doubts and questions at its conclusion.

Less fair to complain about are the details on the macro level, but I’ll do it anyway. Winters details some variations in U.S. history (Lincoln’s assassination prior to taking office, a compromise that allowed for continued Slavery) but basically leaves the period between 1860 and present day a mystery with a few exceptions (some references to still bombing Japan in WWII, another war for Texas independence, and several famous African Americans now living in Canada). While Winters decided to keep this an intimate story about one man’s internal conflict and mission, as a reader I was left with a million questions I would have rather had answered regarding what happened to famous people/events during this fictional timeline.

The ending of this book provided a few twists that were not easy to see coming, though it was mainly due to very little time being spent with the characters that provide them. Still, this is definitely a book that was memorable enough and different enough from other stories that I’m glad I read it. It made me think of American history and how I would expect things to diverge compared to the author’s version, and it also lined up nicely with the James Buchanan biography I was finishing at the same time which dealt with the exact diverging time period. However, my biggest takeaway was that of a missed opportunity to do so much more with a very interesting subject than what was actually delivered.

**Note – I gained some additional enjoyment of this book from it taking place in Indianapolis and mentioning landmarks that I’ve seen or traveled on. Non-Hoosiers may find it less interesting by comparison.**

3-star