Saturday, May 10, 2014

To Live Forever

Author: Jack Vance
Genre: Science Fiction
Original Pub. Date: 1956

A recent reread of this book reminded me why I generally reread others of Vance's books instead of this one when I'm looking for a dose of restoration of my faith that books don't all suck. Compared to the rest of Vance's oeuvre, which includes hyper-intelligent sardines that maintain part-ownership of a sardine canning plant, a galactic criminal who spends several fortunes mining a moon into the image of his own face to get revenge for a disappointing real-estate deal, and a planet where murder by poison is commonplace but throwing sour milk on one's grandmother is a capital crime*, To Live Forever is nothing special. It relies on heavy-handed allegory and a setting that appears to be Earth in a not-too-distant possible future, and as such, it fits right in with much of the sci-fi of the fifties.

The idea's an okay one. On this version of Earth, civilized humanity's packed into a relatively small area, with wilderness and barbarians without. Because of limited resources, everyone only gets a certain allotted lifespan, with extensions possible based on contributions to society. There are machines like ATMs where you can get a readout of your remaining life in a handy graph format and find out when the executioners are likely to come for you.

Making this state of affairs more bitter for those of low status, immortality is a technological reality, and it's reserved for those considered worthy of it. Our hero, though already immortal, has lost his place among the society of his equals and is determined to get it back. In typical Vancian style, he manages to cause utter mayhem in the process. Also in typical Vancian style, various pompous blowhards get their comeuppance simultaneously. (Vance is the best at satisfying revenge stories; he's the spec-fic Rafael Sabatini, and in more than just that way, come to think of it.)

Anyone who's read Jack Vance will already know that he could probably rewrite the phone book into a gripping mystery, alternately darkly hilarious and almost unbearably poignant. He was (sad to say, he died in 2013) a master at combining horror and humor and at drawing out the funny tragedy of human life with just a few sentences. Any aspiring writer who doesn't want to slit his own wrists a little after reading Vance, just because he'll never be that good, doesn't have any sense of proportion.**

So To Live Forever isn't bad at all -- it's Vance, and he's never bad. It's just not that engaging. The hero's motivations are entirely selfish up until about 95% of the way through the novel, and he's not funny or weird enough (for Vance fans, think of Cugel) to redeem his essential unlikability. There's also the fact that the story's mostly depressing, featuring a variety of unhappy people living mostly meaningless lives. And then there's the aforementioned fifties-style problem: this book has a message.

For a writer of science fiction, Vance maintains an unusually small scope in his novels. Almost all of them are structured like mystery novels. There are no battles to determine the fate of the galaxy, his protagonists aren't secretly the emperor of anything or the only remaining Furyan or whatever, and generally the central mystery of the story is important to a very limited group of people. This restricted focus is where Vance shines; his angel is in the details, while his devil, as demonstrated in To Live Forever, is in the big picture. With this novel he tried to make a larger point about the Meaning of Human Life, and in the process lost his usual effortless grasp on what it means to be a human being. In other words, it doesn't rank among Vance's better works, though it'd be a masterpiece for most of his contemporaries.***

This book gets three stars, one of the only Vance novels I'd rank that low. For an introduction to this truly stupendous author, try The Demon Princes or The Complete Dying Earth. Vance enthusiasts will enjoy this one, though, particularly if their only other choice is Isaac Asimov.

* I'm not going to say which books I've referenced here. You should immediately go and read them all to find out for yourself.

** He's basically the Total Perspective Vortex for sci-fi and fantasy authors.

*** Yep, looking at you, Eando Binder.

Takedown Twenty

Author: Janet Evanovich
Genre: Chick mystery? It has a shiny cover.
Original Pub. Date: 2013

There are a few popular female authors out there -- Barbara Cartland, Nora Roberts -- who have a seemingly superhuman ability to pump out mediocre books at a rate that would be considered alarming if they were producing, say, enriched plutonium. Janet Evanovich isn't quite in that class, but with about 50 books to her name she's definitely in the silver-medal running. (If Barbara Cartland is Soviet Russia, Evanovich might be the equivalent of those Libyans in the van in Back to the Future, to extend the plutonium idea past its point of usefulness.)

Takedown Twenty is actually the twenty-fourth (if you count the "between-the-numbers" holiday-themed books) novel in Evanovich's Stephanie Plum series, the long-running saga of a former lingerie buyer turned bounty hunter from Trenton, NJ. In the first book, twenty-something, pretty, not-badass-at-all Stephanie's out of work, and rather than go to the personal products plant and get a job putting maxi pads in boxes, her mother's suggestion, she blackmails her sleazy cousin Vinnie into giving her a bounty hunter job at his bail bonds business.

If you think predictable hijinks immediately ensue, well, don't bother thinking again. The charm of this series isn't in its leaps of startling literary innovation. It's charming nonetheless; Evanovich has a good sense of humor and knows how to do slapstick while keeping readers invested in her characters as people. She's also adept at writing plots that are just simple enough to be blown through in a day while you're drinking coffee and lounging around but complex enough that they're not boring. Basically, she's your garden-variety bestseller-writer, with a little more pleasant goofiness than most.

But Janet Evanovich has achieved something notable with Takedown Twenty that's worthy of special praise; in fact, she's done something unique in my experience. I've touched before on series-itis, the tendency of authors of long-running series to start writing on autopilot and reducing their characters to sad, cardboard caricatures. (Let us all have a moment of silence for the Southern Vampire Mysteries series, may it rest in peace.)

And in about books 14 through 18 or 19, Evanovich was following this pattern to the T. The supporting characters had all become their own shadows, the overall plot arc had stalled out like a Dodge Aspen, and I was just about to give up. It takes a lot to make me give up -- like, the only series I haven't even been tempted to finish began with possibly the worst book ever written.*

But lo and behold! Along came Takedown Twenty, which doesn't quite recapture the magic of the first ten books, but which is head and shoulders better than the last five or six at least. There's a love triangle in the series, of course -- although given some very popular but dreadful series out there, we're lucky it's just a triangle and not a hexagon or worse -- and for the first time in many books, I felt like there were some hints of a shift in the relationships between Stephanie and her two paramours. Overall, Evanovich seems to have recaptured her joie de vivre and resumed some interest in the series again, and I'm genuinely looking forward to the twenty-first book, due out in June.

Since I hear that book reviews are supposed to include some discussion of what happens in the actual book, I'll just tell you that there's a runaway giraffe and some mobsters. Anyone who's read previous books in this series will immediately fill in the blanks, and if you haven't read any of them, it's pointless to try to summarize this one for you. Bottom line: most mystery/chick lit readers will enjoy the Stephanie Plum series. If this is your dish of tea, I say go for it and read them all. This one gets 3.5 stars.

* Yep, I'm including this.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Suggest a Title! Win a Prize!

It may not have escaped the attention of very alert readers that the Indiscriminate Reader has just a touch of the old OCD. Punctuation errors weigh on my mind, tiny inconsistencies in plots prey on my soul, and in this case, I haven't yet reviewed books by authors whose last names start with I, L, N, O, P, Q, U, V, X, Y, or Z, and it's driving me nuts.

Now is your chance to see the Indiscriminate Reader post the review of your dreams! Provided, that is, that the author's last name starts with one of the letters above and/or that you agree with my eventual review -- so not all that likely. Let's rephrase. Now is your chance to see the Indiscriminate Reader post another review!

Pride, honor, and a grim satisfaction at being proved entirely right about yet another piece-of-crap book will prevent me from turning down even the most spiteful and sadistic of suggestions* (talking to you, Cousin E.), but I urge my gentle readers to try to think of something I might actually enjoy.

So write a comment, write an email, or just give me a call (Hi, Mom!!), and suggest! Your prize will be the review. Really, that's it.

* With one exception: I will not, under any circumstances, read or review any book by Stieg Larsson. No matter how many kinky girls with tattoos ride big symbolic motorcycles through the pages of those books, nothing can make me wade through hundreds of chapters of stiffly translated Swedish politics in order to get there. You can withhold ice cream forever. I just won't.

Monday Classic: The Scarlet Letter

Author: Nathaniel Hawthorne
Genre: Utter, miserable crap
Original Pub. Date: 1850

For the seven people in the western hemisphere who remain blissfully unaware of this pernicious work of student-torturing literature, The Scarlet Letter is about adultery, mystical signs in the sky, and a nasty little demon child who exists only to add another layer of metaphor to the novel.

The depressing and unedifying plot: Hester Prynne, who is married and not living with her husband, but assumed to be single by her Boston neighbors, sleeps with one of the local ministers, gets pregnant, bears a daughter, and then is publicly shamed with a scarlet "A" for "adultery" that she has to wear sewn to her clothes. She refuses to name her lover, and the useless coward lets her suffer alone -- probably because he's a spineless douchebag, although other interpretations doubtless exist. Hester's nasty, one-dimensional doctor husband shows up and blackmails her into not revealing who he is; he then spends the rest of the book taunting her and trying to figure out the identity of Hester's lover.

This is, allow me to note, the one and only point in The Scarlet Letter at which anyone does anything with which a normal person could sympathize. Of course the betrayed husband wants to know who slept with his wife. And, sensibly, he thinks the jerk ought to be punished just like Hester is. After this brief moment of clarity, the novel meanders on to the next crazy person . . .

Pearl, the baby daughter, who grows into a psychopath child. When the authorities try to take her away from Hester, you'd think this would be a relief, but for some reason Hester fights to keep the horrible little yelling creature with her, and the story goes on. There's some more blackmail and taunting, and pointless wandering in the woods. That fills up most of the middle of the book. Finally, because even the more literary editors of the nineteenth century had to be telling Hawthorne, at this point, that something had better happen sometime or the publication deal was off, Hester and her lover agree to run away together and start over in England.

Scarlet As appear on the lover's chest, and in the sky, and for all I know in the whole of Boston's Puritan breakfast gruel, and then the lover and the husband both die. Not, mind you, in any kind of exciting way -- a duel, aliens, an invasion of the French, etc. -- but just because they're both sick and lame. One of the two, I think the gross husband, leaves Pearl enough money that she gets to go to Europe and live happily ever after; meanwhile, Hester lives a dull and A-emblazoned life until she dies too, at which point she's buried next to her lover under a tombstone with, you got it, a dumb scarlet A on it. Why? Because nothing in this novel gets to be vowel-free.

Other questions include: Why didn't they just go to England in the first place and live happily ever after? Why didn't Hester go somewhere else with her baby before her horrid husband tracked her down and/or she was publicly shamed? Why did Arthur, the stupid lover, not act like half a man and step up? (He was feeling guilty, you see, so that absolved him of doing anything practical like supporting the woman he loved or taking care of their child. Makes sense.) Why didn't Hawthorne just take some damn anti-depressants before he wrote the third most* purposeless, demoralizing novel of all time? And what is the deal with that crackhead Pearl, seriously?

So few of these questions have answers. Maybe most of the above are covered by "Hawthorne was being paid by the word"? Four stars for the author's beautiful writing, clever use of symbolism, and philosophical, ethical, and theological scholarship; two stars for using those in place of logic, sympathetic characters, and/or a plot in which something happens about which someone gives a damn.

* 1) The Grapes of Wrath and 2) The Sun Also Rises (see the two-haiku reviews of these for more details).

Friday, June 14, 2013

Howl's Moving Castle

Author: Diana Wynne Jones
Genre: Fantasy/YA
Original Pub. Date: 1986

I'm not sure how I missed this one, since I was a bit of a Diana Wynne Jones junkie as a kid, but it somehow never made it into my hot little hands until a couple of weeks ago. I still haven't seen the movie, and I don't intend to -- anyone looking for an adaptation review, go elsewhere.*

Like all of Jones's books, or at least those I've read, Howl's Moving Castle is an object lesson in what other young adult fantasy authors are doing wrong. Of course, it was written in a kinder, gentler age, when it wasn't considered standard for tween girls to fantasize about losing their virginities to much older men who turn into animals on the weekend. So there's that.

Also like all of Jones's books, or at least those I've read, this book features a complex plot, a dash of slapstick, and a little bit of actual menace for savor. As the story opens, our heroine Sophie is lamenting the fact that she's stuck at home making hats while her two younger sisters are off following their dreams (a bakery and witchcraft lessons, respectively). As the eldest, fairy tale law decrees that she can't have any adventures -- at least until another witch takes a dislike to Sophie and turns her into an old woman out of spite.

Sophie runs away and ends up joining the moving-castle household of the charming, undisciplined lothario Wizard Howl, who's also under a curse. Other characters include a fire demon bound to serve in the fireplace (who refuses to be cooked over unless he gets some of the bacon), an apprentice wizard, a semi-sentient scarecrow, sisters in disguise, some witches, and the king. Trying to describe the plot would merely give spoilers, so suffice to say this is a charming, light read suitable for anyone who's sick of angsty vampires.

Lately I've complained about how all the mainstream fantasy book lists I find are actually made up of young adult fantasy. The strong implication was that young adult fantasy isn't very good, so it's time to qualify that statement. Adult fantasy isn't very good these days, either; the big difference between the two seems to be that in adult fantasy, the gross vampire sex takes place right in front of the reader, while in YA fantasy it often happens off-screen, as it were. Or, if the YA fantasy is of a different stripe, no sex happens at all, and instead all females within range are forcibly empowered, whether they like it or not.

This doesn't generally apply to YA fantasy written before the last fifteen years or so, and so all negative commentary on the subgenre should be assumed to apply only after that cut-off point. No one is empowered in Howl's Moving Castle, off-beat sexual antics are (appropriately for the target age group) frowned on a bit, and the story's entertaining. Three and a half stars.

* Gosh, I think I'm really getting the hang of that increasing blog traffic thing!

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Administration

Author: Manna Francis
Genre: Science Fiction/Erotica
Original Pub Date: ??

The Administration is a series of novels, novellas, and short stories, all of them comprising one total narrative. At present, the series has several books' worth of words, and I'm not going to bother listing the various titles in their online and print incarnations. If you're interested in finding out more -- and I recommend strongly that you change your mind if you are -- you can find the whole series by Googling the author's name. I'm not even going to provide a link, because there's no way to get a sponge and 409 into all the little crevices of my blog.

You may have gathered that this series wasn't my favorite. Why, then -- and I realize this is a perpetual question from my imaginary audience of thousands (Hi, Mom!!) -- did I read most of it*, including the first full novel and a selection of novellas?

That's not an answer I have readily available, maybe because most of what usually passes for thought and interest in life was drained out of me by the dull, grinding repetitiveness of this story. I think I kept reading because so many great reviews on Goodreads praised the series for its creative, detailed dystopian setting, awesome sex scenes, and deep character development, and I kept waiting to see if any of those aspects of the book would appear. (Spoiler: they didn't.)

Let's take each of these alleged elements one at a time. First, we have the setting, "New London," which is just like regular London except that buildings are made of glass and metal, everyone talks on little earpiece headsets rather than handset phones, and computers are all touch screen.

I mean, what an imagination, right?

Then there's the eponymous Administration, almost the EU under a different name. I don't have a window into Francis's brain, but if this isn't intended to be biting political commentary on the fact that the EU is basically a reboot of the Committee of Public Safety, then the author has no sense of humor. Without a few of the slightly more futuristic gadgets (brain-reading interrogation equipment, for example -- oh, no, wait, we've almost got that too), the Administration could have been literally the EU government under a different name. While I couldn't agree more that it's dystopian, the setting basically whisked me away to a world in which everything is exactly as it seems.

Next: the awesome sex scenes. Objectively, if you like bondage, I guess they could be okay. Not good. Okay.

And on to character development, a.k.a. strike three. There are two main characters in this series: Toreth, a mean, nasty sex addict/occasional rapist who works as an Administration interrogator and investigator, and Warrick, a hot, suave, sophisticated computer programmer** who gets involved with Toreth after a couple of murders that take place while the victims are using Warrick's company's virtual reality technology. Both of these characters left me cold. Toreth is a sociopath. Not a seeming-sociopath using a lack of outward emotion to disguise deep feelings, not a semi-sociopath who kills lots of people in the service of some twisted morality, but truly a self-centered bastard who doesn't experience normal human attachment and lacks all empathy. It takes real skill to write a true sociopath who can still inspire interest and sympathy in the reader -- Exhibit A: Jane Emerson (Doris Egan) and her character Tal from City of Diamond -- and Francis doesn't have it.

Warrick, on the other hand, acts like an S&M robot throughout most of the series. His only motivations appear to be his corporation, which ceases to be a priority as soon as he wants to get laid, and sex, which seems like it might pall after a while, particularly when your chosen partner is unpleasant, rude, cheats constantly, and has all the personality of an alcoholic blowfish. Both of these characters are utterly, irredeemably charmless. The one-dimensional secondary characters, who exist only to warn Warrick that Toreth is bad for him or to codependently enable Toreth's gross personality disorders, are better only in that they appear less frequently. I guess these reminders that the relationship is sick and stupid exist so that we can root for those crazy kids to make their star-crossed relationship work? Or maybe the author really does have a sense of humor.

I'm starting to feel a little sick myself just thinking about these crappy people and their horribly disgusting antics***, so let's move on to the reason why this series is getting one star rather than the generous one and a half I might have granted otherwise.

This series is boring. I think the kind term for the meat of the first book's narrative might be "police procedural," but you could get the full experience of the first novel in The Administration by getting a job as a sheriff's office filing clerk, doing your job for 80 hours straight, and then hitting yourself with a riding crop a few times.

Toreth goes to Warrick's company office. He interviews several people; their responses, no matter how easily -- oh, how very, very easily! -- they could be summarized in two sentences, always take ten paragraphs. No dialogue is paraphrased. Then, Toreth goes out into the hall and gives some predictable orders to his staff. Did the witness tell Toreth there was a problem with the security tapes? There will then be a page of Toreth telling his security tape person to check all the security tapes.

If we're very lucky, there are then more witnesses, whose enthralling recitations of their movements to and from the company lobby will be recounted in every detail -- and in their own rambling words. After a few more rounds of this, with explanations each, single, time of how Toreth set up the camera for the interview, or noticed that someone else had already set it up for him, he leaves the company offices.

Back in his own office, he then reviews all the files. At length. And then the other files. And then the interview transcripts. And then some other files come in. He reviews those. Then, he calls someone in some other department and asks them for an update. None of this thrilling dialogue is paraphrased, either, because who would want to be left out of the loop?

No sex scenes, no matter how spicy, could compensate for page after weary page of watching one of the least engaging characters I have ever encountered do paperwork. As with The Road, I don't think even a sudden attack of cannibals could have saved this story. One star.****

* Not quite all. Unlike one of the protagonists, I'm not a masochist.

** At least the author has an imagination sometimes.

*** And I wish I meant the bondage. Out of bed, these characters display even more mental problems than they do in it.

**** A quick note about star ratings for self-published (but reasonably polished) works like The Administration. I'm never going to review a self-published book that doesn't meet at least some basic standard for mechanical writing skill. I fully support self-published authors, since the mainstream publishing industry leaves something to be desired, and this means 1) I'll offer self-published authors who meet a minimum standard for professionalism the same respect I'd give normally published authors and review their books on the same playing field (for good or ill), and 2) I'm not going to stoop to picking on delusional losers who can't even write a coherent sentence but insist on putting their work out there anyway. (This doesn't mean I won't pick on delusional losers who can't write a coherent sentence and who have also been edited by a nominal professional, ahem, E.L. James.)

Monday, June 10, 2013

King Lear: A Two-Haiku Review

King Lear, by William Shakespeare

Which daughter is best?
Not the one who acts all nice.
No, that's too easy.

Instead, I'll wander
around this dumbass damp moor
until we all die.