Monthly Archives: January 2011

Grass by Sheri S. Tepper

Sheri S. Tepper’s Grass, the first in the Arbai trilogy, is nothing short of amazing.  We are given a multi-layered story that keeps true to the science fiction and fantasy genres while managing to create something completely new and fresh, which is no easy task.  I was so engrossed in the book that I read the last 250 pages or so during one day.  It’s just that good.

A universal plague has broken out amongst the people of Grass‘ universe.  People are becoming sick and dying, even years after being exposed.  The doctors and scientists don’t know how to stop it.  The only ones with any information, it seems, are the leaders of Sanctity, the most popular religion.  The head of Sanctity decides to send his nephew to Grass, the only planet that has had no sickness.  And thus, Rigo, Marjorie, and their two children end up in an entirely new world with unfamiliar rules and strange taboos.

The wonderful about Grass is that Tepper has shaped it to be so many things.  The main plot circles around Grass and its relationship with the plague.  But it’s easy for the reader to completely forget about the disease and explore the relationships between Marjorie and those around her.  She’s our protagonist, and Tepper positions us well in her head.

Marjorie’s marriage is not a good one.  Her husband and she have personalities that tend to make things worse for one another, rather than better.  Stella, their daughter, takes after her father, much to Marjorie’s chagrin.  Rigo’s mistress is along for the ride, to round out the dysfunction.  These people can’t work together in a cohesive unit.

This lack of unity hurts them.  Meeting the “bons”, the noble families of Grass who exercise their veiled hostility toward all non-bon people, in such a state makes gaining their trust a difficult task.  They could try hunting with the bons, but one view of the creatures these settled people both hunt and hunt with disturbs Marjorie greatly.

On another part of Grass, Brother Mainoa of Sanctity is working on the Arbai village ruins.  The ruins of several Arbai villages have been found on many planets now inhabited by humans.  No one knows what happened to the Arbai; all the villages show few remains and relatively obscure relics.  Except for the one on Grass.  The Arbai remains there are ripped apart.  Brother Mainoa studies the site in order to gain new insight, whether from the artifacts or from the strange friend he gains.

Mixed into all this are religious anarchists, monstrously evil creatures, horsemanship, disease vectors, people with their minds wiped blank, murderous monks, and kind people in unexpected places.  Grass is so complex that I don’t really feel that I can describe it properly.  It’s a marvelous story.  I especially enjoyed the option Tepper gives the reader of focusing on one particular part of the story — they don’t all wind together until close to the end.  It makes it more difficult to predict what’s going to happen, which is great.  I like to be surprised when I read!

Once everything is together, things still go off in surprising directions.  So surprising that I’m going to have to get the next book in the series soon.

Rating: 5/5.


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Bellwether by Connie Willis


I looked forward to reading Bellwether.  I read Doomsday Book several years ago and really enjoyed it.  As I soon found out, however, Bellwether, while it is an enjoyable story, can’t be compared to Doomsday Book.  Their stories are too different and Connie Willis’ goals for the two books are far away from one another.  Still, Bellwether was a good way to spend a couple days; it’s a smart book with a clever plot and interesting characters.

Bellwether has a rather fun premise — a sociologist studying fads forms an unlikely partnership with a man studying chaos theory, and end up doing their study with a flock of sheep.  Sandra, our sociologist, is studying the fad of hair bobbing in the 1920s.  She works at HiTek, a science company — it literally has taken scientists from all fields, put them in one building, and now treats them like office workers.  There’s more pointless rules and hoops to jump through than any sane person should put up with.

Since they’re treated like office workers, they’re expected to fill in forms with the best of them.  When Bennett, our hapless chaos theorist, loses his funding forms (by turning them in to the person he was supposed to), he also loses out on his macaque money.  Sandra, who has developed an interest in Bennett due to his complete immunity to any and all fads, offers a unique solution — share funding by studying the movements of sheep — they’re less complex and easy to track for Bennett and are creatures who like to follow others for Sandra.

Mixed into this is the Niebnitz grant, an astronomical sum awarded to scientists considered to be doing work above and beyond their colleagues.  HiTek is determined to have a winner among their scientists, even if it means studying the past Niebnitz winners and manufacturing projects that match the pattern.

The most enjoyable part of this book is the interplay between Sandra and her employer, her coworkers, and the outside world.  She studies fads for a living, but she’s not exempt from having to experience them in real life.  The management always has new procedures (with a new acronym).  Flip, the irresponsible mail girl, constantly surprises Sandra with something new she’s wearing, saying, or doing.  Trends in food come and go, much to Sandra’s chagrin; she just wants chocolate cheesecake and iced tea.

There are, however, some problems with the book.  It feels a little slap-dash.  Maybe part of that is its length — it’s only 247 pages.  There is also a feeling of disconnection, to a certain extent.  Sandra’s job is fads, something that is inherently human, but it seems as if they are something she detests in personal life.  She appears to feel as if she’s above others, which is a little uncomfortable to read.  It’s not so great when the hero of the book thinks that most people are dumb.

Bellwether also contains what appears to be an obligatory romance between Bennett and Sandra.  It is particularly irritating to me because their behavior so clearly indicates their feelings, but those feelings aren’t acknowledged in the book until pretty close to the end.

Other than those couple of things, Bellwether is a perfectly pleasant read.  It was a fine way to spend my reading time for a couple of days, but I don’t think the story will stay with me for a long time.

Rating: 3/5.

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Night Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko

Night Watch, the first of the Watch series, reminds me of the Dresden Files books.  We’ve got a man whose job is to be part of the fight of good against evil.  Lukyanenko, however, has created a darker world than that of Butcher’s Harry Dresden.

Lukyanenko’s world consists of normal people and Others, people with magical powers.  A small number of Others are part of one of two Watches.  Those on the side of good take part in the Night Watch, keeping tabs on what evil Others are doing, while those of the side of evil monitor the good by becoming a member of the Day Watch.

Night Watch is composed of three interwoven stories.  The first, “Destiny,” starts off with the almost-killing of a teenage boy, Egor.  Our hero, Anton, comes to his rescue, outright killing the male vampire involved in the attack and seriously wounding the female vampire.  After all, they were poaching — Egor wasn’t on the list of acceptable prey, and the woman had no license at all.

Anton gets a better look at Egor’s aura after the fact, and realizes the boy is an Other, like him, but undecided as to whether he will become good or evil, making him a rare creature indeed — most people over the age of three are decided in one way or another.

Mixed into all this is a woman Anton came upon while hunting down the poachers.  Svetlana, a physician, has a dark cloud over her the likes of which are rarely seen.  A cloud as large as she has means not only the destruction of Svetlana herself, but also that of the entirety of Moscow if left unchecked.  While trying to balance his debt to Egor and his concern for Svetlana, Anton gets himself into a very difficult situation — needing to stem two crises at the same time.

The stories of Egor and Svetlana twine through the next two stories as well.  “Among His Own Kind,” the second story, is about a rogue good Other — who doesn’t know he’s an other — who goes around killing evil Others.  For a while, it appears that Anton is being framed for the murders.  He has to go on the search for the actual killer while trying to prevent Svetlana from killing those who threaten his life and, later on, needing to protect Egor once again.

The last story, “All For My Own Kind,” pushes Anton and Svetlana to the test — Svetlana’s powers are becoming stronger than Anton’s, pushing the two apart.  Anton is lamenting this, and is angry over the change.  He is tempted by the Light Watch.  He has to make a choice between his feelings and his sense of duty.

I thought Night Watch was very good.  Anton has a tendency to ruminate, almost to the point of annoyance, but it is, to an extent, understandable.  Lukyanenko also likes to quote Russian music, which also is slightly annoying.  Overall, though, Anton’s tale is interesting and suspenseful, which is just what I was looking for.

Rating: 4.5/5.

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About My Sisters by Debra Ginsberg

I have no siblings.  I have been told, at various times, how lucky I am.  Brothers are bullies.  Sisters are snots.  There’s forced sharing.  I’m sure these things are true at some points.  My response has always been, “I would have liked a sibling.”  I don’t understand the relationships siblings have, which makes me sad.  I don’t know what it’s like to grow up in a house with other children, experiencing most of the same things they do.  This ignorance is what drew me to About My Sisters, a memoir about growing up with three younger sisters (and a younger brother).  I really enjoyed the opportunity to look inside a family that I would consider large and take a glimpse at the inner workings thereof.

Debra Ginsberg, the author, is the eldest of her siblings.  She was already an established author at this point, having written a book about her experiences as a waitress and a book about raising her son.  She’s structured this book to follow the family through a year — February 2002 to January 2003.  Each month has some sort of event going on or an important interaction between Debra and one of her sisters.  I think the clever part of this way of telling her family’s story is that she takes the present-day interactions and then takes us back to an earlier time to explore a previous time when things were the same, or the opposite, or set her family up for today to happen the way it happened.  I really liked this.

Ginsberg explores her relationship with Maya, a sister about two years younger and with whom she’s lived for most of her adult life, first.  Maya is the person who made her feel complete when they were little, and still fills that role today.

Lavander, her nine-years-younger sister, is the one who pushes her buttons.  Lavander is moody and temperamental, much more so than the other women, and she seems to have a knack for causing drama.  Ginsberg and Lavander have the most troubled relationship out of all the sisters, and this brings out more negatively-toned introspection from Ginsberg than does her relationships with her two other sisters.

Déja, the youngest of the Ginsberg sisters, is sixteen years younger than Ginsberg herself.  She’s still quite young, and has been treated more softly than the other children.  It shows in her personality, which is also soft — to a point.  This is the sister Ginsberg treated as if she were her own daughter, and the changing dynamic of their relationship is interesting to read about.

I have three small issues with About My Sisters.  The first one is that Ginsberg is sometimes too self-reflective; her penchant toward examination is what makes the book good and valuable, but occasionally she bends delves too far into her own motivations and comes across as a bit self-centered, which I don’t think is a true depiction of her.

My second issue is the dialog.  I realize that Ginsberg had to recreate what people said after the fact, which must have been difficult.  Most of the time she does a fair job.  There are some lines, however, that feel a little artificial.  That may just be my inexperience with brothers and sisters, but I think someone with siblings would also find it a bit stilted at times.

My last issue is truly trivial.  Ginsberg and her family are apparently into astrology and the like.  She talks about it in the first chapter, then dumps it for the rest of the book.  It’s almost as if she mentions her interest in the occult in order to shed people she thinks wouldn’t be sympathetic to her family’s story and her experience as the eldest sister in a big family, which is sad.  I really liked what she had to say.  I just also really dislike astrology and tend to have a negative view of those who believe in them.

Sisters are, and will always be, an unknown element to me.  I think, though, that reading About My Sisters gave me more insight — some knowledge that I might be able to use if I have more than one child myself.

Rating: 4/5.

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