Bearing an Hourglass by Piers Anthony

Bearing an Hourglass, the second in the Incarnations of Immortality series, follows the pattern of the first book pretty closely. I liked On a Pale Horse fairly well, so it was nice to return to a set way of writing. I would say that, even though I enjoy Piers Anthony’s stories, I found a bit of the language and attitude a little dated, and, with this one, the time travel a tad confusing.

One of the best things about this series is that you know it’s setting up for something good. As opposed to the last book, where we meet the new Thanatos (death), we this time get to see the story of the origin of Chronos (time). It establishes a pattern of the reader meeting the Incarnations at the beginning of their service time, which will be nice if that’s how the rest of them go.

Norton, our hero, manages to stumble into his new line of work by meeting up with Gawain, a ghost, and serving as a surrogate father for him. This leads to some discomfort on Norton’s part, and, to make up for it, the ghost arranges for Norton to become Chronos, able to go forwards and backwards in time as he pleases.

There’s some love interest for Norton with a couple of women, but he seems to understand that his new life (and, really, his old one, too) doesn’t allow for relationships. His fondness for being on the move, both through time and space, don’t allow for it. Satan takes advantage of these aspects of Norton’s personality to confuse him and to get him out of the way of his plot. This is where having read On a Pale Horse becomes important.

Luna, the beloved of Thanatos, is fated to become a powerful politician who will thwart, once and for all, Satan’s takeover of the world. By playing games with Norton, Satan manages to make Luna’s rise to power disappear. The rest of the book involves Norton setting things right and realizing that the power of manipulating time comes with huge costs.

I liked this book, but I think it’s mainly for the fact that it’s part of a larger story that I’m really interested in. I liked Norton, but he wasn’t the most compelling of characters to me — he’s a drifter, and I’ve always been more interested in those who at least have a goal of settling. And his reaction toward situations in any way sexual were a little embarrassing, although maybe the books were intended for young adults and Anthony didn’t feel it appropriate to make things more explicit.

The one other main problem I had with the book is I got confused with a lot of the time movements. I forgot what some of the more exotic sand colors meant in the hourglass (I had red, blue, and green down, though), and I had a hard time remembering which way was forward and which way was backward.

Overall, I’m glad I read this book. Bearing an Hourglass has a lot of entertaining moments, and I’m looking forward to seeing the full story when I read the rest of the books in the series.

Rating: 4/5.

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Threshold by Caitlín Kiernan

Threshold

I have a feeling I’m going to have a lot of people disagree with my opinion of Threshold. From what I’ve seen, it, and the author, Caitlín Kiernan, are well-respected by a lot of other authors, and she has a devoted fan base. I have to say, though, that Threshold is, at best, a poor attempt at a Lovecraftian novel that manages to read more like a pretentious Christopher Pike manuscript.

The story starts out with a good introduction to Kiernan’s writing style. That was my first clue that I wouldn’t enjoy the book, and I honestly considered returning the book to the library. I hate to give up on a book, though, and the plot appeared to have some promise — we’ve got a young woman whose had most of the people she cared for die, one way or another, who appears to be in the grips of depression. Add to that Kiernan’s choice of nonlinear storytelling, and there’s a little bit of interest generated for me. So I stuck with it.

What a bad choice that was. As I got further and further into the novel, it dissolved into a messy mix of geology, nonsensical horror, and story lines that don’t appear to serve any good purpose. Add to that Kiernan’s affectation of forming her own compound words (for example, scorncold to describe looks Dancy, an albino character, gets in the library), and you’ve got one frustrating piece of fiction.

The plot, as it were, involves Chance, a young woman studying geology. She’s following in the footsteps of her grandparents, who raised her since the death of her parents. The book takes place after both of her grandparents have died. She has also had the recent suicide death of a friend. Her ex-boyfriend, Deacon, and his current girlfriend Sadie, come into contact with Chance when Dancy finds them in order to contact Chance. Fast forward a little bit, and we’ve got mysterious fossils that never get explained, malevolent creatures that are given no reason for existing, and some weird attempt at a tie-in with Beowulf. Let me tell you: Threshold is no Beowulf. The thought of it being referenced several times even kind-of made me angry.

The book doesn’t manage to end in a way that leads to any sort of satisfaction, in my opinion. I don’t know if reading the rest of the series would provide that sense of completion, but I’m not really interested in spending any more of my time reading any more of Kiernan’s work. I’ll give her a point for writing about geology, and that’s about as high as I can go.

Rating: 1/5.

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The Believing Brain by Michael Shermer

I am a devoted Michael Shermer fan. I’ve read most of his other books — and enjoyed them a lot. Imagine my excitement when The Believing Brain came up as a possible advanced review book. I applied only for this one book, and I’m so glad I did. The Believing Brain is a wonderful introduction to how our minds make themselves up, then look for support for their conclusions.

Shermer breaks the book down into four parts. I feel it’s appropriate to explore the book based on the parts he’s decided to present.

Part 1: Journeys of Belief

Providing us with real-life case studies first, Shermer gives us a blue-collar gentleman whose experience one late night in the 1960s made him look for the otherworldly being he thinks visited him and gave him a message of love. This gentleman then took up philosophy and science, hoping to prove there is such a being.

The next gentleman Shermer discusses is a scientist who believes in God. He tells Shermer that he used to not have belief, and then, one day, he made the leap and became a believer. He sees evidence of a creator in the fact that he has a choice whether to believe. He thinks doubt is a chance to grow in one’s faith.

Then Shermer tells his story. Once a born-again Christian (by his own choice — his family was mostly secular), Shermer grew to see in college that his beliefs didn’t jibe with what he was learning.

I thought this part was somewhat interesting. I already knew Shermer’s story, but it was refreshing to read the stories of the other two gentlemen to see how they ended up on the other side of the belief table.

Part 2: The Biology of Belief

This was a really fascinating part of the book for me. Shermer discusses how the human brain is wired to find patterns — if we make a mistake on whether there is a pattern to a random occurrence, we don’t really suffer a consequence, but if we think things are unrelated when they actually are, then there’s a problem. We also tend to think there’s a cause behind things, which has aided our species to survive. I like the fact that Shermer provides us with these tendencies, because they’re helpful to keep in mind both when reading the book and when exploring one’s own beliefs.

Part 3: Belief in Things Unseen

This is the part that felt most familiar to me in the entire book. Shermer goes through several types of beliefs (e.g., belief in UFOs) and discusses the research on them. He explores the experiences of those who think they have had contact with or some other experience involving these “things unseen”, and then talks about the science behind those beliefs. I’ve read books, both by Shermer and others, that talk about similar things, but it’s always nice to be up on the latest science in the field.

Part 4: Belief in Things Seen

I loved this section of the book. Here, Shermer talks about facets of our everyday lives, like politics, and why we dig our heels in when confronted with a contrary tenet. He also talks about the history of astronomy to illustrate how even science can be affected by our set beliefs. I thought this was great. To show that science is, ultimately, something done by humans and is prone to human mistakes and tendencies is fantastic. How else are we to try to eliminate bias if we don’t acknowledge its existence?

Overall, I really liked the book. My only quibble with it (and for shame on me, after having read it) is that Shermer reveals he’s a libertarian. My cliché sirens went off! I really don’t think it’s something he necessarily had to share. The Believing Brain is a thoughtful and thought-provoking look at how people decide on what they’re going to think, and then seek the evidence. I think we all need to be aware of that tendency, and also be wary of it.

Rating: 4.5/5

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The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

On the advice of a coworker, I put The Hunger Games on my reading list. I noticed that the third book in the series came out not too long ago, and I thought I would give it a shot — it’s a successful series and it came with a recommendation. I’m so glad I did.  The Hunger Games is a remarkable young adult book, and I’m pleased I got the chance to read it.

Suzanne Collins wrote the book in the present tense, which is unusual. It’s not every day that a piece of fiction is written that way. It serves The Hunger Games well, telling the story of Katniss and her entry into The Hunger Games in a spectacular way. Katniss’ journey is a kinetic one — there’s a lot of movement, whether it be benign hunting or the malevolent tracking and frantic running of the actual Games, someone’s always doing something. That’s why I love the choice of present tense for the book. It captures the moment because it is the moment.

The story could be summarized on two levels. The large-scale plot is that of Panem, the capital of the what used to be the United States, and its treatment of the outlying districts it has sovereignty over. At one point in the past, the districts rebelled, but failed in their rebellion. Panem then started The Hunger Games, a competition in which one boy and one girl between the ages of twelve and eighteen must fight to the death for the amusement of the people in the capital. The citizens of the capital are well-fed and happy, while those who toil in the districts live fairly austere lives.

The small-scale story is of Katniss, who volunteers to take the place of her sister when she is selected to be the female representative for District 12, one of the poorer districts. Katniss has experience with hunting, which she did with Gale, a male friend. The male representative for The Hunger Games is Peeta, a baker’s son who has been on the periphery of Katniss’ awareness for a long time. The development of their relationship through the preparation for and the events of The Hunger Games is compelling and complex. It’s been a while since I’ve encountered a relationship so well-written and heartbreaking.

If I had to pick a favorite part of The Hunger Games, it would be the dynamic between Peeta and Katniss. The book ends on a bit of a cliffhanger, and I really want to know what’s going to happen next. There’s little an author wants more than to gain readership, but I suspect if Collins’ other work is of similar quality, a lack of readers is not something she’ll have to worry about.

Rating: 5/5.

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The Mabinogion Tetralogy by Evangeline Walton

Evangeline Walton’s books about the Isle of the Mighty are a magical read.  She based her stories on the Mabinogi, a set of myths and legends written sometime in the twelfth century, and her language use fits with the timing of the original.  She has a gift for word usage that makes her stories seem otherworldly — as, indeed, several of them are.  I liked some better than others, but they are, in all, a good set of fantastical literature.

Prince of Annwn

Prince of Annwn is probably my favorite of the four books included in the tetralogy.  In it, Pwyll, a rather boastful prince in the land of Dyved, sets out early for a hunt.  He gets separated from his companions in a wood that seems to become thicker and thicker.  All of a sudden, there’s a clearing, and Pwyll encourages his hounds to take some of the kill another man’s dogs are feeding on.  They shy away from doing so, and here’s where Pwyll should have finally realized that maybe the clearing was more than just a normal clearing.  But no.  He forces his dogs to take some of the kill, and then death shows up.

Death, whose name is Arawn, calls Pwyll out on his bad behavior.  He then admits that he set up Pwyll to arrive in the clearing without his companions, for only Pwyll can defeat Havgan, the death of the east.  Pwyll and Arawn become as brothers, and Pwyll takes on the other’s likeness in order to hide and trick Havgan and his army.  On his way he faces great obstacles, which make this story.  Some of the things Pwyll experiences in the land of the dead seem like they could come out of Stephen King, and that’s great.  There’s lots of gore and suspense, which I was surprised to find in a book with a rather flowery language.  It’s just fantastic.

The Children of Llyr

The Children of Llyr, more than the other books, is a tale of warning about change from one culture to another.  This really does weave amongst all four books, but it seems most prominent in this one.  Llyr’s children number four sons: Bran, Manawyddan, Evnissyen, and Nissyen.  He also had one daughter, Branwen.  After Llyr’s death, Bran, well-known for his strength and wisdom, receives a request from the King of Ireland — the hand of his sister as his wife.

Bran’s people didn’t do the wife thing, and so this had to be mulled over.  Unfortunately, Bran forgot to ask his brother Evnissyen to the council.  Evnissyen spends the rest of the book trying to cause problems for everyone.  For Branwen, however, her main problem was caused by her brother’s decision to let her go to Ireland.  She was abandoned by her husband and mistreated as a slave; when she managed to get word back to her brother, it sparked war.

The main moral of this story is that marriage is dangerous.  It puts women in a subordinate position to men and leaves them to their whims.  I thought the story was interesting, but not as good as the first.

The Song of Rhiannon

Here, we meet up with Pryderi, the son of Pwyll.  His true paternity is actually hidden from him, for it was Manawyddan who fathered him with Rhiannon, who was considered a hard-won consort for Pwyll.  After the war in the second book, Manawyddan went with Pryderi to his home of Dyved and, with Pryderi and his wife Kigva, made a new life.

Unfortunately, some holy stones were taken out of the land of Dyved by a rival of Pryderi’s, which caused everyone save those four to disappear from the land.  They had to leave Dyved and work to earn their keep.  Also to their bad luck, they did finer work than the other craftsmen in town, and they were constantly being forced to leave a location.  Through all this, Pryderi and Rhiannon disappear, leaving Manawyddan to wander and set up house with Kigva.  Eventually, though, the story ends happily.  I liked The Song of Rhiannon for its fairy tale leanings.  I thought it very much in the style of Grimm’s fairy tales, and that pleased me.

The Island of the Mighty

This is truly the masterpiece of the four books.  It centers upon Gwydion, the nephew of Mâth, the wisest of all druids.  He causes some mischief when he steals pigs from Pryderi, eventually killing him for them.  Mâth punishes him for it, forcing him to live as various beasts for three years.  We then get to follow Gwydion in his struggles against his sister, Arianrrhod.  He tricks her into proclaiming her virginity — which she lacks, and Mâth punishes her by causing the premature birth of two children from the seed of the man she had lain with.

While the story follows Gwydion and his rearing of his resulting nephew, Llew, it is really Arianrrhod who drives the story.  She loathes the existence of her child and places serious obstacles in his way, which Gwydion gets around using guile.  I think the moral here is that she’s a miserable woman because she took on the morals of the new way, and then when she was found out became bitter.

Overall, I really enjoyed all the books, but probably the first one the best.  If you’re in the mood for some well-written, well-researched folklore, I highly recommend The Mabinogion Tetralogy.

Rating: 4/5.

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Summer Knight by Jim Butcher

After a break, I’ve gone back to the Dresden Files.  My fiancé has nearly caught up to me (he’s on the third book in the series), so I felt the need to keep ahead of him.  What a good thing it is that he’s indirectly pushed me, because Summer Knight goes beyond the first three books in the series into creating an actual Dresden mythos, rather than being more reliant on traditional folklore to tell the tale.  I think this stretched Butcher more as an author, and the result is an engaging and eminently readable book.

The book starts off where a Dresden Files book usually starts off — with Harry in dire financial and emotional states.  Instead of being offered a well-paying job by a desperate woman, however, he gets a shock.  His faerie godmother has traded her claim over him to the Queen of Winter, Mab.  She offers to release him from all obligations to her if he performs three jobs for her.  The first she tasks him with is to clear her of the murder of the Summer Knight, the guardian of the opposing faerie court.

Not so bad, right?  Well, he is also tasked with passing a test from the White Council of Wizardry, which also involves the faerie courts.  If he isn’t able to pass the task, he’ll get turned over to the vampires (whom he started a war with in the last book).  This would not be a good thing.  No pressure, but Dresden has a lot riding on his shoulders — and the return of an old flame makes things even more complicated.

Summer Knight brings something completely new to the Dresden Files series.  We get an actual second world to explore.  There are some old characters making a return, but something feels really fresh and new about what Butcher is offering the reader.  It may be that I just haven’t read enough in the topic area, but, other than the names, I think a lot of what he delivers is out of his imagination in a different way from the other books.  It feels creative in the most basic sense — he’s making a new world for us to explore, with new characters and situations.

I really think that Summer Knight is the best of the Dresden Files books.  There’s a lot to keep track of, so it keeps the brain working.  Dresden’s path in this book is by no means predictable, and the fact that we’re taken on a wondrous trip through both Chicago and the Nevernever makes it special in a different way from the books that precede it.

Rating: 5/5.

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The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan

I waited a long time to read The Botany of Desire.  When it first came out, the local library couldn’t keep it on the shelves; I ended up on long waiting lists that I never reached the end of before having to go back to college in the fall.  So I was excited to be able to get it and read it.  It’s not quite what I thought it would be, but that’s mostly in a good way.  Michael Pollan has written a book that is thought-provoking, unexpected, and wide in scope.

The book starts with a short introduction, in which Pollan states that he is interested in how certain plants meet certain human desires:  the apple satisfies sweetness; the tulip, beauty; marijuana, intoxication; and the potato meets our need for power.  He also sets forthhis hypothesis that cultivated plants have used humans to their advantage in order to survive in conditions they wouldn’t normally be able to.

This was probably my biggest disappointment with the book — it seems a fairly obvious idea that plants we care for have used us for their purposes, just as we use them.  It’s an idea I remember encountering in Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene (although on a smaller scale, and with bits that are much more integral to our physical makeup and survival), and, indeed, Pollan admits that The Selfish Gene played a role in the development of his book.

I loved reading the four chapters, though, because they don’t just push this idea.  Pollan starts out with the apple.  He discusses how wild apples are normally so bitter as to be inedible, and that grafting is the only way to ensure that a tree will bear tasty fruit.  He also gives quite a history of John Chapman — Johnny Appleseed — that I quite enjoyed.  Chapman was a character, spreading seeds (and thus unpredictable apple trees-to-be) into Ohio and, later, Indiana.  He was a vegetarian who went barefoot and enjoyed best sleeping in hollowed out trees.  His story is a charming one that I was completely unfamiliar with.  It was a delight to find such a piece of American history included here.

The section on tulips was a little less interesting to me.  The fact that color variation is due to a virus was news to me, but I’ve heard the story of tulipomania quite a few times.  Pollan brings some insight to the craziness — mainly, that the Puritan conditions of the Netherlands led people to indulge their lust in something relatively harmless, rather than the more earthly pleasures their religion prohibited.  Overall, though, I found it a little long and prone to navel-gazing.

Marijuana, the next chapter, discussed not just intoxication by that particular drug, but also talked about the historical use of many types of substances to induce altered states of consciousness.  Pollan talks about the science at the cutting-edge (at least for the time the book was written) of how marijuana affects the brain.  It’s incredibly fascinating to think about — substances in so many plants, that developed for so many purposes, also have a place in human culture and in human biology both in order to give us experiences we otherwise would never experience.

The lowly potato is the subject of the last section.  I found it a bit preachy; Pollan spends most of the time talking about how the Monsanto corporation has developed a potato with genetic modifications that make the plant create its own pesticide.  He visits some potato farmers, grows his own Monsanto potatoes, and eventually can’t eat the produce once they’re fully-grown, despite the fact that he’d already eaten them at one farmer’s home and in processed potato products.  As a man who is an avid gardener — and who put himself up to the task of growing these potatoes — I would think that he should have at least given them a shot.

The Botany of Desire was a mix of biology, culture, and personal experience.  It worked well in some situations, but not in others, but I think the good parts of the book overshadow the flat ones.  Just don’t look for a straightforward cultural history of agriculture, and you’ll have an enjoyable read.

Rating: 3.5/5.

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