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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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The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman

So, I’ve finally reached the end of the His Dark Materials series.  I have my answers as to what happens to Lyra and Will — for the most part.  I also have answers for what happens to all the major characters, which is satisfying.  Out of all the books, The Amber Spyglass is the most complex of the three by far.  It is, therefore, the most rewarding to read.  Pullman constructs a universe whose properties lend us the freedom to imagine many answers to our questions, and to make what we will of the final events in Lyra and Will’s story.

We start out the book with Lyra kidnapped and drugged by her mother, with Will and Iorek in pursuit.  Meanwhile, Lyra’s father, Lord Asriel, is raising an army — and an armory — to wage war with Metatron, the angel who has taken control of all the forces loyal to the Authority.  The main story in a more conventional book would be the fight between Lord Asriel and Metatron.

Instead, we follow Will’s efforts to free Lyra from her mother and keep her safe.  They are joined, at various points, by angels, Gallivespians (a sort of fairy-like creature), and Mary Malone, the scientist from The Subtle Knife.  Their main task, Lyra discovers from the alethiometer, is to set free the spirits in the world of the dead.  The two of them, along with two Gallivespians, travel to perform this task, facing significant peril along the way, not the least of which is separation from their dæmons.

Meanwhile, Mary Malone, who slipped through into another world after destroying equipment back in Oxford, finds herself at home among a species of creatures called mulefa.  She lives with them, learns their ways, and discovers that even they are untouched by the problems of Dust; it’s required for the survival of trees the mulefa depend upon, and it’s not flowing as it used to.  Mary constructs a spyglass in order to view the Dust directly, which comes in handy when she happens upon Will and Lyra once again.

I think the beauty of The Amber Spyglass is that it has a lot to say about religion — especially Christianity — but that one can interpret its message in many ways.  There’s a historical commentary in there, as well as a warning about the dangers of blind faith.  That’s one of the reasons I liked the book so much; I can see many of my own attitudes toward organized religion (as opposed to faith come by honestly) folded within.  I don’t agree with everything Pullman suggests, but I at least enjoyed the food for thought he provides.

I’m going to miss this series.  I whizzed through it, by my own standards — I usually break up series in order to provide myself a little bit of time to process what’s going on.  It was just too engrossing for me to do that this time.  I think the His Dark Materials series is one of the best I’ve read that’s intended for children and young adults.  I’ll be holding on to them for my own children to read some day, and that’s one of the highest sorts of praise I can offer a book.

Rating: 5/5.

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Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

Water for Elephants sat on my reading list for a while.  I wasn’t sure if I really wanted to read a book about a circus.  They aren’t my favorite setting, and the fact that my mother was taking forever with her copy helped cement my decision to wait on reading it for a more suitable time.  What a shame I waited.  Water for Elephants is unexpectedly complex, proving to be a more compelling story than what I originally expected.

Gruen structured Water for Elephants in an interesting way.  The book starts off with the protagonist, Jacob, in a nursing home in ; he is in his nineties.  Then she pulls us through several chapters that take place in the early 1930s, followed by another chapter with Jacob as an old man.  In the copy that I read, the chapters involving young Jacob have a picture of circus life in the thirties before it — some were from the Ringling Brothers museum in Florida, and others were from the circus museum in Wisconsin.  I liked this touch; it gave me a good clue as to when the following chapter occurred, plus I got to see some pretty cool photographs.

Jacob is not a perfect man, which is another thing I like about Water for Elephants.  He is frequently cowardly, even though he knows what the correct action is, and I think this is an accurate portrayal of a young, college-age man.  He doesn’t know how to assert himself to protect those he cares about effectively.  He needs the help of others in order to have the courage to do the right thing.  Even as an old man, he’s prone to saying things that hurt others and being reactionary, which prevents him from forming lasting relationships with the other people in his retirement facility.

Jacob has two most obvious failings.  The first is falling in love with another man’s wife.  Marlena is a performer in the circus, controlling horses and, eventually, Rosie the elephant.  Her husband, August, is the manager of the menagerie.  He makes a case for hiring Jacob, who almost finished training as a veterinarian.  The man is his boss and seems to genuinely like him.  Unfortunately, Jacob becomes infatuated with Marlena, and it’s a mutual feeling.  Rather than finding ways to distance himself from her, he pursues a rather odd courtship with her.  This is not the way to treat a man who has taken you under his wing.

Jacob’s second failing is his inability to protect those he loves.  He doesn’t stand up for Rosie when she is abused by August.  After sustaining a concussion, he was rescued and nursed by his roommate, Walter.  Jacob then, knowing that Walter is in danger, still chooses to pursue a revenge plot, leaving Walter alone and vulnerable.  He is only partially successful in keeping Marlena safe while she is married to August.

For some reason, Jacob’s failings, rather than being overwhelmingly annoying, convince me that he is a real person.  My experiences as a college-age adult are similar.  I’m more assertive now, and I imagine I’ll become even more-so in the future.  I’m also less indecisive.  Jacob mirrors my own feelings and fears while I was that age, and thus he feels authentic to me.

The one thing I thought was not so great was the depiction of August.  Toward the end of the book, we are told by Uncle Al, the amoral owner of the circus, that he is a paranoid schizophrenic.  They put up with it, he says, because August is so brilliant.  I have a hard time with this, mainly because the description of August’s behavior are more those of a person with bipolar disorder.  Yes, he’s paranoid, but he in no way is depicted as hearing voices or having serious delusions.  He doesn’t make many irrational decisions or actions.  I dislike this confusion; people with schizophrenia behave in a different way than how August behaves.  The two mental disorders are not interchangeable.

Water for Elephants is an excellent book with a unique setting and a compelling story.  Gruen has a gentle writing voice that is very pleasant to read.  I’d definitely read something else written by her.  Her adept exploration of how a young adult approaches life makes me eager to see how she will treat other stages of life.

Rating: 4.5/5.

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Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri

Unaccustomed Earth, a book of short stories by Jhumpa Lahiri, has been on my reading list for a while.  I read The Namesake, one of Lahiri’s previous books, five or six years ago and really enjoyed it.  While Unaccustomed Earth is a collection of enjoyable stories, they feel more coarsely developed than her earlier novel.

Lahiri delivers to us a group of stories about second-generation Indian immigrants.  They are their coming-of-age stories; some are somewhat surprising, since it takes some of the characters forty years to reach a point of true maturity.  I think Lahiri has it right when she casts her population in that category of delayed social milestones — the pressure to be successful academically and to have a good career takes precedent above love and creating a family for a lot of these people.  Their parents want them to do both, but the push to be wunderkinds causes a lot of social immaturity.  Add to that the cultural pressure to stay within the ethnic group with all romantic affairs, and it’s no wonder the children of Indian immigrants are often seen in academia without a spouse or children until they are well into their thirties (or even early forties).

My favorite story in this book, also called “Unaccustomed Earth”, is about a Bengali woman who is married to a white man, has a son with him and another child on the way.  Her father, with whom she trades the narrative voice, is a widower living on the other side of the United States.  He has taken to travelling, and has a secret travel partner who is also Indian.  His daughter, while starting her own family, feels the pull to follow Indian tradition and ask her father to stay with them.  I felt that the interplay between her wants and her perception of what society expects of her were interesting, as was what her father actually wanted.  I thought the end of the story, especially, was very good.

I also liked the second half of the book, composed of three short stories, which is about two families and their only children — one boy, one girl — and their journeys through growing up.  The first, “Once In a Lifetime”, is written in the second person by the girl, Hema, to the boy, Kaushik.  She talks about the re-emigration of Kaushik’s family and the interaction the two families had when hers hosted his when they were first back in the country.  The second, “Year’s End”, is from him to her, about his life during college.  The last, “Going Ashore”, is their stories to each other when the get reacquainted.  The series is pretty good, and would have been interesting as a book on its own.

My main issue with Unaccustomed Earth is with Lahiri’s narrative.  She feels as though each character’s inner workings needs to be written down for the reader to read.  Why can’t their actions speak toward their feelings?  Give the reader some work to do.  We like it.  That’s why we read.  The book could have been shorter that way, too, or it could have included more stories.  As they stand, the stories feel bloated.  The only ones where this structure makes sense is in the second half of the book, where two characters are basically writing to one another.  For the other stories, it feels heavy-handed and coarse.

I loved the stories in Unaccustomed Earth.  I like Lahiri.  I just wish that her editor had taken the time to tell her to be a little more subtle with her narrative.

Rating: 3.5/5.

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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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The Marriage Bureau for Rich People by Farahad Zama

What if a retired man, encouraged by his wife, started a business to match people up?  What if he’s matching them up for arranged marriages?  This is the premise of The Marriage Bureau for Rich People, a cute and likable story by Farahad Zama about life and love in India.  Presenting a straightforward story, the book gives us small bits of life advice while remaining an ultimately light tale, providing for easy reading.

Books taking place in India, and discussing the people who live there, are nothing new.  One of my favorites is The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy.  In fact, there seems to have been an explosion of the genre recently, with many new Indian writers bringing their works to the world.  I, for one, am ecstatic about this.  I’ve been fascinated by India since I was little, and I can always read a little more fiction that takes place there.  I don’t care if it’s serious, like Roy’s novel, or lighthearted, like Zama’s book.

The basic premise, that an older man, Mr. Ali, helps others find marriage matches, struck me as quirky and charming.  He sets up shop on the front veranda of his and his wife’s porch, advertises for clients, and starts taking in their information to add to lists, which he sends out to clients who would find them of interest.  His business becomes so popular that he takes on an assistant, Aruna, a sweet, intelligent young woman who has been forced out of her master’s program in order to provide money for her family.

Aruna proves to be a very capable employee, as well as pleasant enough to Mr. and Mrs. Ali that they consider her like a daughter.  Their own son causes them no end of troubles, with his social activism, and Aruna appears to offer them a bit of stability and comfort their lives would otherwise lack.

It is a bit predictable that Aruna is good with managing the office and at assisting people in finding their marriage matches.  I can easily accept it since Aruna is such a sympathetic character — she needs to be good at her job because her family needs the money.  Plus, her job leads her to a match of her own, so it’s a good plot device.

I have to admit, I expected that Aruna (and possibly her sister) would end up married by the end of the book.  I think that’s pretty much a given with a book like this — someone important to the story will get married.  It’s practically a rule.  Zama did, however, surprise me a bit.  I was guessing about one man for Aruna, and it turned out to be someone completely different.  I liked that he was able to distract me to a certain extent, although I did manage to get the right man before the official reveal.

There was another way The Marriage Bureau for Rich People surprised me.  The Alis are Muslim, Aruna is Hindu, and the customers of the matchmaking service are both, with some Christians tossed into the mix as well.  There is no friction between the groups; in fact, the people seem to readily acknowledge the similarities of their core beliefs, and choose to take the opinion that God is God and religion is a creation of man.  This is amazing, and I wonder how accurate that assertion is for actual Muslims and Hindus living in close proximity to one another.  For this book, it made storytelling easier, so I suspended my disbelief.  That doesn’t mean, however, that I don’t wonder about the actual relationships people build with their neighbors with beliefs different from their own.

My last surprise was actually closely tied with the premise of the book:  I didn’t realize that so many marriages in India are arranged. I knew it was a practice commonly employed in the past.  Why I thought love-marriage was predominant now, I have no idea; the caste system, plus the difficulties of meeting people of the opposite sex who would be considered suitable to not only the individual but also the family, makes it a challenge to find someone.  No wonder family members, like uncles, or services like Mr. Ali’s, are necessary to help marriage matches along.

I enjoyed learning a little more about an aspect of Indian culture that I haven’t read a lot about.  I also thought the romance part of the story endearing.  I hope that Zama writes more books, because I already know I’d like to read them.

Rating: 4/5.

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The End of Eternity by Isaac Asimov

If there’s one thing I’m a sucker for, it’s a good alternate-history piece of speculative fiction.  There’s nothing like the navel-gazing pleasure a lot of these stories provide.  So what could be better than a book that posits that there are people out there creating new realities and new histories all the time?  As The End of Eternity proves, not a whole heck of a lot.

The story follows Andrew Harlan, a man who is responsible for making some of the changes in the flow of time in Reality.  He and all the other people who work to perform these changes live in what is called Eternity, an outside-time location.  Here people (mostly men) are trained from puberty to study Reality culture, preserve artifacts, decide on how to alter Reality, calculate Changes, and make those Changes.  Harlan is a Technician, which makes him one of the detested and feared group that actually makes the final decision and makes the Change.

Harlan is an isolated and lonely person.  His few interpersonal relationships are solely work-related — his first boss, whom he detests; the esteemed elder who takes him under his wing; the trainee he tutors in Primitive (pre-27th-century) history.  He has no family.  No Eternal does.  They give them up when they start training, and are never allowed to go back.

Thus, when Harlan is introduced to Noÿs, a (gasp!) woman working as a secretary for his former supervisor, he does not understand how his feelings of attraction are supposed to work.  He attempts to suppress them, but fails when he is sent to her time in Reality to do more study before a planned Change.  This is not surprising, seeing as he was sent to stay with her.

His infatuation leads him to take some drastic actions.  I’m not going to outline them here; that would ruin the surprise.  I will say, though, that the ending is not what I suspected, and shows, I think, a rather more nuanced view of the importance of the individual in relation to concerns for the overall good.

I had my misgivings about Asimov when I read I, Robot a couple of months back, and I hesitated in requesting this book by him through inter-library loan.  This, however, is worth it.  Rather than a woman who is overly emotional, Noÿs is feminine but also competent.  She is a rarity in the Eternal world, but is, from the start, capable of being both openly loving and intellectually capable — in other words, she’s like most actual women.

Harlan responds to this, and does some interesting things in response.  He is a good study in the book-smart, experience-dumb bookworms and nerds that exist in sufficient numbers for them to have been a tried and true group for the last century, at least.  While Noÿs’ reactions are real, his are artificial at first.  He can’t trust them, and has to grow through the emotional atrophy his training and occupation impose.  While his decisions, at times, seem to be overreactions, they show that Asimov understood that men are just as capable of letting their emotions get the best of them.

This is a fantastic exploration of both reality and relationships.  It made me surprised every time I looked up at the clock — how could another hour have gone by?  That’s the measure of a good book.

Rating: 4.5/5

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