Monthly Archives: October 2010

On a Pale Horse by Piers Anthony

On a Pale Horse

On a Pale Horse, the first in The Incarnations of Immortality series by Anthony, is an interesting mix of speculative fiction and fantasy.  The modern-day world has cars and computers, but also has magic.  Ghosts are an accepted part of society; well, you don’t mix with them, but they’re a part of the neighborhood.  Most importantly, the world is freely acknowledged to be a neutral battleground between God and Satan for the souls of the occupants.

The book starts off a little slowly, with our main character, Zane, in a magic stone shop looking for something that can rectify his financial situation.  In exchange for a money-finding stone, he agrees to use a lovestone to help out the magician behind the counter.  He gives up the woman he would have met and fallen in love with in exchange for … a rock that finds pennies.  Not exactly the treasure-seeking wonder he was hoping for.

Behind on rent with nothing to eat, Zane decides to kill himself.  All of a sudden, his door opens, Death walks through, and Zane accidentally shoots him.  Then Fate shows up, informs him that now he’s Death, puts him in the garb, and sends him on his way.  Zane, through trial and error, with a little help from Mortis, his car-cum-horse, figures out his position.  Then love gets in the way.

Luna, the daughter of a powerful and tainted magician, is offered by her father to Zane before he dies.  Luna’s father has unloaded some of his evil onto her so that he can go to Purgatory rather than Hell, not knowing that her soul can’t take it on without becoming weighted toward evil due to some behaviors of her own.  Zane is intrigued by her, and they start seeing each other.

Unfortunately, Luna is a linchpin in the fight against Satan twenty years from now, and has thus attracted his attention.  That’s when things start to get interesting.

Most of the book, other than the last seventy pages or so, are about Zane getting used to life as Death and adjusting to doing the job.  This is quite entertaining — I almost always enjoy the parts of books when a newly-initiated magical or mythical character learns about his powers.  I don’t know why.  It’s just cool.  Anthony writes it in a realistic way, having Zane mess things up that he later figures out, but he’s not a dumb character.  He doesn’t need others to inform him what to do, for the most part.

The adventure at the end is pretty good, too.  It involves a lot of thinking on Zane’s part, which is fantastic.  He’s not there for beat-’em-up action (at least, not totally); he’s there to figure a smart way out of the problems he faces.

The only issue I have with the book is that I was able to guess at the solutions to some of Zane’s conundrums before he does, but that’s not a big problem.  It doesn’t interfere with the enjoyment of the book, which I would guess depends more on whether someone likes the genre than about the quality of the plot and characters, which is excellent.  Overall, On a Pale Horse is a quick, clever book with an original story.  There’s not much more a reader can ask for.

Rating: 4.5/5.

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Filed under 4.5/5, Book review, Favorable, Fiction

Towing Jehovah by James Morrow

Towing Jehovah, at first blush, appeared to be a great fit for me for reading material.  God’s dead, a failed oil-tanker captain is charged with moving His body to the Arctic to give Him a proper resting place, and antics ensue.  Unfortunately, Morrow’s telling of this promising story lacks a solid core.  The reader can sift through without finding much that will enlighten or entertain, which disappointed me greatly.

First, though, the positives, for the book does have some.  Morrow’s characters are often entertainingly funny, whether they mean to be or not.  I enjoyed a lot of the individual scenes simply because they are constructed to be awkwardly humorous.

Some of the character development is also pretty good.  Anthony Van Horne, the aforementioned captain, grows throughout the book from a washed-up, beaten-down character to one who is in control of himself and his situation.  This is a gentle process, and it was almost surprising toward the end, when Anthony behaves like one hell of a good ship captain.

Unfortunately, a lot of the other characters are basically empty shells in which Morrow can pour his preconceived notions of how certain people should act.  An atheist feminist, Cassie, is incensed that God exists and was a man.  She arranges for the body to be sunk into the ocean, so that … the world wouldn’t know that God once existed and was a man.

I’ll be honest.  The entire thread in the book that places atheists in an antagonistic position regarding the big dead body in the water is a little confusing.  There is one member of the atheist group who insists that they should study the body, which is summarily dismissed for the much more rational decision to bomb the corpse using World War II reenactment planes.

In fact, besides Anthony (and Cassie, once she’s in a relationship), the only character who appears to be a rational and admirable person is Thomas Ockham, a Jesuit the Church sent along on the voyage.  He’s the voice of reason and basically can’t do wrong.  Don’t misunderstand me — I think that Catholic monks are just as likely as anyone else to behave in an admirable way.  It was just irksome to me that he was the only one who appeared to have no issues with temptation, sin, or to suffer major ill effects from the body of God.

This obviously isn’t true for the rest of the crew, a good portion of which mutiny and go wild, Roman-style, complete with gladiatorial-style brawling.  I seriously doubt that most people’s reactions to a  gigantic dead deity would be to completely rebel against common morality and revel in debauchery.  Maybe that’s just my optimism coming out, but I seriously don’t think that most people think enough about God and His impact on their behavior for His death to alter said behavior too much.

There was one other part of the book that I just couldn’t get my head past.  It’s a personal thing, but, for those of you who have read Stranger in a Strange Land, it’s the same reason I don’t like that book, either.  Well, one of the reasons.

Maybe there’s just something about me and fiction involving boats.  I know that I didn’t particularly like Island in the Sea of Time, and that heavily featured a boat.  It’s probably a good thing, then, that I’ve never even attempted Moby-Dick; I’d probably pan it.  Towing Jehovah had its charming moments.  They just weren’t charming enough.

Rating: 2/5.

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Fool Moon by Jim Butcher

After having read Storm Front, the first book in the Dresden Files series, I promptly put the rest of the books on my to-read list.  I’m one of those people who isn’t happy unless she’s reading through at least one series; I think it’s because recurring characters and a familiar world is easier to lose yourself in.  Anyway, Fool Moon is the second book in the series, and it is certainly just as thrilling as the first one.

We meet up with wizard Harry Dresden six months after the end of Storm Front.  He’s healed up, but most of his business has dried up.  Chicago’s Special Investigations unit isn’t using him much anymore, since he caused all kinds of problems for them the last big case they had him work on.  So it’s not surprising when he’s willing to talk to Kim, a woman he’s been mentoring in the wizardly arts, about something she’s stumbled upon in exchange for dinner.

He recognizes the power of what she’s messing with, and warns her away.  Then Karrin Murphy, the head of SI, asks for Dresden’s help, and we’re on our way to another supernatural adventure.

This series has many good things going for it.  Butcher writes well, with a good mix of narrative and dialogue.  There’s a good amount of humor in both, which is probably the biggest draw for me.  Literary fiction, almost by definition, takes itself seriously, sometimes to the point of tedium.  Genre fiction, whether it be science fiction, fantasy, romance, or mystery, gives the author so much more room for exploring that essential part of human experience.  Butcher gives the reader plenty without overdoing it, which I really like.

I also enjoy the first-person point-of-view.  I don’t get to read many that stick with one character and also has him “narrate” his own story, and I like that.

There were some stumbling points for me with the book, however.  It felt, to me, that we missed some things in the six months between Storm Front and Fool Moon, and that’s a bit unsettling.  I like to feel like I’m getting the full story in a series like this, and dislike it when the author leaves a good amount of information out.  This is probably just me, but I would have liked a little bit more about Dresden’s life in-between the end of the evil wizard of Storm Front and the beginning of the bad werewolf of Fool Moon.

Butcher also stretched my ability to suspend disbelief with the amount of abuse Dresden is able to take.  I mean, sure, a main character can withstand more than the average person, but not even a Timex watch made of titanium and Teflon could make it through what our hero is forced to endure.  I hope future books give him a little more healing time between beatings.

Overall, I find Butcher’s writing to be fun.  Everyone needs their fiction to be something they can immerse themselves in with no hesitation, and the Dresden Files is definitely a series that I can sit back and enjoy with relish.

Rating:  4/5.

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You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know by Heather Sellers

Heather Sellers says again and again that, when she shares the story of her family with other people, people who don’t know her parents, they react with shock and incredulity.  How, exactly, could a child have grown up relatively normal if both her father and her mother were so irrational, so abusive, so … well, crazy?  In her memoir, You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know, Sellers explores her current life in the context of her childhood in an interesting way that leads to a greater understanding of her own behavior and the path she is living.

Sellers starts off discussing her trip from Michigan to Florida with her boyfriend and his two sons.  They are going because Sellers has a speaking engagement, because the boys haven’t been to Disney World, because she has her twentieth high school reunion, and because that’s where her parents are.  The visit to both parents’ homes goes badly, leaving Sellers disheartened.

Throughout the rest of the book, we learn why her parents’ behavior is so odd.  Well, not why it’s odd, but we learn that it’s normal for her mother to behave as if someone’s been looking through her purse and for her father to think it’s appropriate for his daughter to sleep in a recliner she shares with a dog while he has an extra room filled with odd gadgets.  These are not people who should ever have had children — at least not together.  Instead of providing Sellers with stable ground to find her feet, these two constantly caused earthquakes.

In her adult life, Sellers accosted by a former high school boyfriend, who pesters her with questions about her mother.  “What was she, schizophrenic?” he finally asks, leaving Sellers struggling to cope with the realization that her mother might be mentally ill.  She asks her parents, but gets no answers from either of them.

Meanwhile, while she’s worried about her mother’s well-being, Sellers is also realizing that she has something going on in her brain.  She can’t recognize faces.  While she can make guesses as to who people are, she often walks right by people she knows (and occasionally greets people who are strangers).  She figures out what she has, asks for diagnostics … and her concerns are minimized.  It is not until researchers at Harvard find out that she thinks she has face blindness and invite her to be part of a study does she get confirmation of the fact that she cannot, in fact, recognize people.

Try getting people to believe that.  Most of the rest of the book documents her attempts to get those around her to realize that, no, she’s not being rude, she just can’t recognize you.  No, it’s not that she doesn’t remember names.  No, hair and clothes aren’t always enough to be able to discern someone.  Sellers explores the difficulties in trying to get others to realize that she does have a disability, which is something a lot of us can relate to.

My main issue with You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know is that, with the split structure, I had a limited amount of interest in Sellers’ story.  I wanted her to pick one line and stick to it!  Having read the entire thing, I see why she made the choice she did.  I still think it might have been better to make the two a little more distinct; the book is already divided into chapters and sections; why not use a section to explore one time period?

Other than that, You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know is a solid medical memoir with some interesting familial twists.  I’d recommend it to anyone who likes reading about dysfunctional families, odd medical maladies, or both.

Rating: 3.5/5.

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Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

While Cutting for Stone was on my reading list, it was not particularly high; it was a book I’d get to eventually.  My mother, however, bought it, read it, and passed it along.  I am glad she did, because Cutting for Stone is an engrossing family saga that, despite its length, I managed to get through in only a couple of days.

The book is about Anglo-Indian twins born in Ethiopia to a nun-nurse and a surgeon.  Abandoned by the father (who tried to perform in-the-birth-canal infanticide) and having lost their mother to the trials of their birth, they are taken in by the two other doctors at Missing Hospital.  The book follows Marion, the firstborn of the two boys, and his experience growing up in a multitude of ways: as a twin, as the child of doctors, as a ferengi despite having been born in Addis Ababa, as a witness to upheaval in Ethiopia, and as a romantic idealist.

Verghese does a wonderful job of crafting the events of Marion’s childhood and adolescence.  Marion and his brother, Shiva, have a companion in Genet, an Eritrean servant’s daughter.  The pettiness of his childhood grudges and mixed feelings about Genet and Shiva snowball into something very interesting throughout the book.  His emotions are understandable and very human.

Hema and Ghosh, the two doctors who, for all intents and purposes are Marion and Shiva’s parents, are very good parents.  The only thing I question about them is something that also makes the book totally worth reading if you’re at all interested in surgery: they allow their sons access to medical texts, Gray’s Anatomy, and, eventually, let them watch and participate in procedures.

The most amazing component of this book is the detailed surgical and medical description.  Abraham Verghese is himself a physician, and he manages to create a real surgical scene while not making it feel as if it were artificially plopped down in the middle of a chapter.  It’s just so wonderfully crafted that I can barely believe it.

The only drawback Cutting for Stone has is that the ending wraps up a bit too neatly.  There are a few too many coincidences and a few too many things that just cause me to lose my suspension of disbelief.  This is most likely because the rest of the book is so realistic.  I understand Verghese’s choices regarding how he ended the book; I just don’t feel like they made for the most realistic — or satisfying — conclusion.

Overall, Cutting for Stone is a well-crafted, realistic tale about a family both brought together and torn apart by the same things — medicine, education, and love.  It’s too bad that the last part of Marion’s story didn’t hold to the realistic standard Verghese had set up through the vast majority of the book.

Rating: 4/5.

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Storm Front by Jim Butcher

Storm Front isn’t a book that I normally would choose to read on my own.  I’m not a huge mystery reader and I’m not all that enthralled with the urban fantasy genre.  My fiancé got me interested in The Dresden Files when he picked up Storm Front last year from the library, telling me that he thought the books would be good.  He wasn’t able to get into it, due to work-related craziness, which is to his detriment.  Storm Front is a rather good story with a compelling main character.

Harry Dresden is a wizard living in Chicago.  He most likely is the only one who is listed in the phone book and offers his services to the public for a fee.  He is an unusual wizard in many other ways, as well.  Having to defend himself to the death from his apparently evil former mentor, he is being monitored closely by the White Council, the administrative body overseeing wizards.

This causes problems for him when a disturbing double-murder occurs and the Chicago Police Department’s Karrin Murphy, in charge of Special Investigations, calls him in to investigate.  Dresden knows just from the look of the crime that incredibly powerful magic had to have been used to kill the two people.  Murphy asks him to figure out how.

Meanwhile, Dresden is also investigating a missing-person (even though he doesn’t typically do that type of thing).  Monica Sells’ husband is missing.  She basically tosses money at Dresden — who appears to be perpetually broke — then desperately calls the whole thing off, which piques his interest.  So he decides to investigate anyway.

Mixed into these investigations is the Mafia boss Johnny Marcone, who doesn’t want Dresden looking into any of this mess.  One of his henchmen was one of the victims of the double homicide, and it also happens that the murders are related to his struggle to control the drug trade in the city.  Dresden has some challenges.

Author Jim Butcher has mixed into all this a good, healthy dose of dark humor.  Dresden has a skull-inhabiting spirit who can tell him the ingredients for just about any potion he needs.  The characters have good banter, which I think is essential for a mystery novel.  I found it to be a book that I actively looked forward to reading; most I really enjoy, but don’t get the energy to read them outside of exercise and waiting rooms, simply because I’m too tired.  The fact that I had a cold while reading this and still wanted to read it is a true feat.

I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised that I liked Storm Front.  I have read and enjoyed Stephen King in the past.  To my shame, I even read Christopher Pike when in late elementary and middle school — my only defense is that I had no taste at the time, and that it was better for me to be reading something than nothing at all; my mother would not have appreciated a delinquent teenage daughter.

My only issue with the book is that some of the prose was either awkwardly written or not edited in the best fashion.  Some of the prose fell a little flat for me, so that took a little of the joy out of reading it.  Still, the story was well enough crafted, and Dresden well enough developed, for me to truthfully enjoy the first book in The Dresden Files.  I’m taking a trip to the library later today; maybe Full Moon will be on the list of books to get.

Rating: 4/5.

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Who’s Afraid of Beowulf? by Tom Holt

Tom Holt’s Who’s Afraid of Beowulf? is a silly caper story involving a hidden cache of Norsemen, an archaeology graduate student, and their journey together through Britain while trying not to gather too much attention — and failing.  It’s a story that reminds me of Terry Pratchett’s DiscWorld books, which means that it was an entertaining read involving quirky characters and a kooky plot.  This is a good thing.

The entire thing starts with the discovery of a Norse ship uncovered by a construction crew in Scotland.  A rather naive grad student, Hildy Frederiksen, is sent to check it out.  She’s excited to see that the boat is a complete specimen, goes back to her hotel, and then gets the urge to return to the mound.  Once there, she discovers the crew of the boat awake and walking around, which they most certainly should not be doing, having been buried there for twelve hundred years.

The crew really is a well-honed battle group whose slumber has been in place merely until the time is right to prevent a particularly bad person from doing … well, something particularly bad.  Hildy takes on the responsibility of finding food and clothing for the men, as well as shuttling them around and getting them acquainted with the modern world.  This last task, surprisingly, isn’t as hard as it would seem.  The Norsemen take modern technology in stride, thinking it the same as their magic; most likely it is, seeing as they have brooches they connect to electrically-charged chthonic spirits to make things happen.

Mixed in here is the story of Danny Bennett, a fluff-piece reporter who earnestly wishes to write something more substantial.  He stumbles on the Norse gentlemen, and his future gets entwined with theirs.  Also making an appearance is the enemy’s guy Friday, whose experiences help to fill in a little back story (and provides for some nail-biting).

I think this book is really quite good.  The writing is light, pulling just short of treating the plot as inconsequential.  Holt manages to give us a full story with some endearing characters experiencing something very surreal without it feeling like a fairy tale, which is nice.  The end feels as realistic as possible for a fantasy tale; things aren’t perfect, but they turn up good at the end.

A couple of things were a little off with the book, though.  I didn’t quite get why we needed the chthonic spirits (other than to give the plot something to turn on).  If they’re basically little living batteries, why can’t they use batteries when they discover them missing?  They managed to do that with the other brooch, so that was a little confusing.

I also felt like the book was a little light on substance.  It’s one thing to have a breezy feel.  It’s quite another to whisk the reader by points before they get a chance to sink in.  A slightly slower pace would have made Who’s Afraid of Beowulf? a little better.

The last problem I have with the book is that, without an interest in Norse history and literature, you might be a little lost during some sections of the book.  Sure, the person might know “Viking”, but I’m not sure how many know the mythology, the Eddas, and the sagas well enough to pull out some of the more interesting bits of the story.

Overall, though, Holt put together a delightfully humorous story about Norsemen in modern-day Britain.  This makes him okay in my book.

Rating: 4/5.

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Filed under 4/5, Book review, Fiction, Mixed