Tag Archives: death

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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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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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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Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury

The last time I read Ray Bradbury, the book was Fahrenheit 451.  I really liked it, but nothing sparked my interest enough to start reading another of his books.  Spurred by something I read about him recently, I thought I would give another of his books a shot.  I read the description of Dandelion Wine and wondered how the man who wrote a speculative piece of fiction in which books are forbidden would treat the story of a Midwestern boy’s summer.  It turns out that they’re not so different, and he does a fantastic job.

Before I even deal with the overall themes of Dandelion Wine, let me talk about Bradbury’s use of language.  I regret not reading him right along now, after experiencing this book.  His prose is absolutely gorgeous.  The way he goes about describing his characters’ surroundings evokes the feel of a mid-American summer to perfection.  Perhaps it’s because I’m a Midwesterner myself, but I can feel the days, hear the cicadas, and see the layout of the town.  Green Town exists for me in a way that few fictional locations have when attempted by other authors.

Bradbury also has a remarkable way of regulating what he allows us to know of a character’s mind.  Douglas Spaulding, the twelve-year-old protagonist, is a sensitive boy; we know this through his thoughts and his actions.  But there are also things that we are never allowed to know about him, such as the extent of what he saw one particular night, and how those things affect his later behavior and health.  I thought it well-handled, keeping a sense of suspense that serves the plot well.

The story, on its surface, is that of Douglas and his brother, Tom, during the summer of 1928.  Throughout, we follow them on their adventures, but we also see other townsfolk and learn some of their stories, making the book, for all intents and purposes, just as close to a collection of very tightly-related short stories as to a novel.  It’s really quite a nice way for Bradbury to present what he wants to convey, since the story really isn’t a coming-of-age tale; or, rather, it’s the ultimate coming-of-age tale — that of handling the most damaging of losses.

Wound through Douglas’ story are shorter tales of unexpected and sorrowful events, forcing the people of Green Town to adjust to new understandings of life.  A man builds a happiness machine, only to find that people become miserable when they have to leave it.  The cruel disbelief of children crush the self-image of an elderly woman to the point that she denies she ever was anything but an old woman.  The entire town faces with hushed voices the horror of a stalking killer of women.  Friendships are built, then destroyed through moving and deaths.

Bradbury’s whole story is about fleeting existence.  Everything changes, and, overall, everyone dies.  No one is immune, and how one handles that fact determines how they will be able to live their life.  For Douglas, coming to the realization that he, himself, is alive and thus will die, leaves the reader in serious debate as to how he will cope with it.  Bradbury also seems to imply that there are those who become changed by this realization, and that there are others who are either able to take it in stride or never make the mental leap at all.  It appears Tom falls into one of those two latter groups, and it would be interesting to see how Bradbury thinks this changes how the boys experience their lives.

Maybe I’m in a slightly morbid mood, but I found Dandelion Wine beautiful.  It felt true and fresh to me, exposing me to a completely new way of viewing life.  That’s one of the best things a piece of literature can do for someone, and that’s why I like Dandelion Wine so much.

Rating: 5/5.

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Fatherland by Robert Harris

I have to admit, I was a little excited to read Fatherland.  It was recommended to me on the basis that it takes place in an alternate history.  I am a sucker for alternate histories, so I bit.  The premise sounded interesting:  what if Nazi Germany had won and survived World War II?  What type of society would that be?  Just such a nation is set as the backdrop for the story of a detective charged with solving the puzzle of the death of a high-ranking retired Nazi official.

It is unfortunate that the premise doesn’t lead to a truly unique story.  Our hero, Xavier March, is a detective in Berlin.  Called in to oversee the investigation of a body found in a river, March soon realizes that the death is more than a simple drowning.  He makes some quick discoveries as to who the dead man is, learning that he was one of the first high-ranking Nazi officers.

Then he is thrown off the case.  This is the first in the cliches embedded in Fatherland.  It makes liberal use of the tropes of how mysteries and thrillers work.  Despite the cleverness of the setting, Robert Harris merely took his story out of a real-life setting, like Russia, and plugged it into a slightly more interesting place and time.  He also has the woman who, at first, hated our hero, but came along and became the only person he can trust.  And we have the betrayals by people close to March — all of which were pretty predictable.

Even Xavier March’s feelings toward his own country are relatively predictable.  He’s always spurned the nationalistic activities and groups.  This makes it easier for him to accept the horrible secrets he later discovers, but it also makes it fairly unrealistic.  What person, raised and grown almost entirely in a land full of national and ethnic pride, is likely to be a malcontent?  He should, at least, be involved to an average degree.  I can’t help but think that, if he were miserable in Germany, he would have found a way to leave in a way acceptable to his government.  After all, his son isn’t a pull enough for him to stay once he realizes he needs to leave; he merely was going to give him some money.

I do think, however, that Harris’ setting is remarkable.  The way the society is structured is pretty believable.  The actions of people — the reporting of others, the shunning of those who don’t make the cut, the sterilization of people thought to have Jewish heritage, the fear of anyone in a uniform, the growth of an underground opposition — these are all clearly divined from what happened in the real (and failed) German Nazi state.  There, Harris has found something remarkably terrifying in its potential reality.

In whole, Fatherland‘s setting and society is wonderful.  The plot and characters are not.  For someone who enjoys the typical mystery thriller, this can, at least, provide for some entertaining and predictable reading.  But it almost certainly will disappointing those wanting more out of a book with such amazing promise.

Rating: 2.5/5

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Critical Care by Theresa Brown

No matter how many medical memoirs I read, I never seem to get enough.  The best ones, I’ve found, lead me to a new understanding of how we, as biological creatures and thinking beings both, function.  They bring me into a realization about myself and others that would not have otherwise occurred to me.  I think this is a gift that this particular genre can give more easily than most other forms of nonfiction.  Theresa Brown’s entry into the field, Critical Care, is a competent work written about the in-hospital training of the author as a nurse.

In her book, Brown discusses some of the standard concerns of a new nurse:  feeling inadequately trained for some of the situations that arise; facing the strict chain of command that structures every hospital; dealing with horrible time constraints and unreasonable work loads; and learning to balance personal life.

Brown writes on these topics with an open hand, allowing the reader to easily grasp what is being said.  She has a gift for making the reader understand what, exactly, is going on with a particular treatment or procedure, and is able to make most situations fairly approachable.  I suspect this is because she has a background as an English professor, and has the technical skill to use language in a very effective way.  In fact, I think her idiosyncratic career history makes her story more compelling — it’s quite the career change to go from being in front of a classroom to being in a hospital room, hanging an IV.

She takes a look at some interesting topics, such as injuring her knee after becoming a nurse and viewing the role of patient from within, rather than without.  In fact, the book is full of fascinating stories about patients, the learning process, and on keeping one’s humanity while working with those who are ill.  It takes a while to realize that even those people Brown discusses as having gone into remission are more likely than not either dead or experiencing relapses.  How hard that must be for their caregivers, both past and present, to handle.

The stories she tells about her experiences and the people she has known and taken care of are not, however, ultimately satisfying.  The main reason for this is that she doesn’t manage to provide a feeling of depth to the lessons she attempts to impart.  Her anecdotes and recalled stories all have an underlying message of some sort or another, but are lacking the aspect of new insight.  The things she tries to teach feel as if they have been discussed before and been discussed better; she has nothing to add to the conversation that is special or innovative.

This is sad, because I think, with a little more encouragement, Critical Care could go from being a mediocre nurse’s memoir to being a work of incredible power.  Brown works with oncology patients, and, from what she has written here, she has had many powerful experiences.  She just needs to be able to focus on creating tight narratives that can stand on their own, without the explanation of what should be gleaned from the story she feels compelled to include.

Rating:  3/5.

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Alraune by Hanns Heinz Ewers, translated by Joe E. Bandel

Alraune

I am a novice reader for this book in a couple of senses: I do not read many translations, and I also do not read many books older than I am.  I believe this might be a major reason why I didn’t thoroughly enjoy this book, which was generously provided free of charge as an eBook by the translator.

One of the big issues I had with the book is that I don’t know a lot about how Germany was around the turn of the century.  A lot of the geography, politics, and culture are foreign to me, and the book flows as if the reader is intimately familiar with the setting already.  I think this might be why the author is not well-known today; what separates truly great works from those that have their set place is the ability of the author to create something that rises above the mundane and everyday to find at least one universal truth to stand upon in order to be understood outside its time and location.

The story itself has an interesting pace, at times moving quickly from event to event, at other times slowing to allow some suspense to build. It’s an odd plot, to say the least — feeding both a fear of science and a fear of folk magic, I think — that mostly works.  The one fault, I feel, is that there really isn’t someone to identify with.  The title character is mainly to be alternately feared, loathed, or pitied, but so are the people who become her victims, for the most part.  If they aren’t one of those three, they’re too-small a character to participate in the action.

The translation, I thought, was fairly good.  I have a feeling that most of the issues I have with the written word was the fault of Ewers’ word choice in the original German, and not with Bandel’s interpretation of his words.  Overall, I feel that, if I were better educated or more experienced, I would have pulled something more out of this book.

Rating: 3/5.

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