Thursday, June 29, 2017

Dancing at the Harvest Moon

By K.C. McKinnon

Maggie's married life ends when her husband and the father of their two grown daughters announces he has found a new love, his pretty, young twenty-something assistant.
Maggie has money of her own, she is an accomplished professional woman. In the aftermath of divorce, she begins to think longingly of her first love, a boy she met while working as a waitress in a resort town in Canada, Robert Flaubert.
At the time, Maggie decided she wanted more out of life and went back to America to continue her education, meeting the man who became her husband and earning a doctorate.
She has some guilt about the break-up with Robert and is fantasizing about returning to Canada and getting in contact with Robert again, maybe to put to rest the guilt and her feelings about him. But she hasn't been in touch with him or with any of her old friends from Canada for over twenty years. How will they respond?
She heads back to the restaurant/dance hall were it all started, the Harvest Moon. When she gets there, she finds the place closed and for sale. So she buys it, intending to fix it up and reopen the dance hall.
Getting back in touch with old friends, she is grieved to find out that Robert died years ago. But he didn't spend his life yearning for his lost lover. He was happily married and had a son, a son who is the very image of his late father, as Maggie is shocked to discover. The son, a man in his mid-twenties, is very definitely interested in getting to know his father's old flame a whole lot better. A whole lot better!

What a book! Frankly, I just skipped vast amounts of the text. Too many lyrical descriptions, too many old love letters from Robert, too much poetry. Yeah, it was that kind of book. And Maggie is a bit of a dope. You learn at the beginning of the book that she has earned a doctorate. Yet as she is getting the Harvest Moon ready for reopening, she feels, "a kind of self-satisfaction that Maggie had never felt before" as if doctorates grow on trees. So silly, she spends a few weeks cleaning up an old house and never mind the years she spent getting her doctorate. And, at one point in the story she sneers at another woman for her feminist leanings: "'Are you a feminist?' Maggie asked mockingly."
Anyways, I think Maggie is dopey and I think this story is dopey too.

For another review, see https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/kc-mckinnon-2/dancing-at-the-harvest-moon-2/.

Turn Left at Thursday

By Frederik Pohl

Seven science fiction stories:

  • Mars by Moonlight — Are they criminals? The small group of colonists on Mars have no memory beyond a set point of their past lives. They have been told they are in a penal colony and have had their memories erased as part of their rehab and punishment. But when a stranger turns up dead, the whole lie begins to unravel.
  • The Richest Man in Levittown — Harlan finds himself suddenly wealthy due to the death of his rich Uncle Otto. Now the whole world is beating a path to his door with a variety of investment opportunities. But Harlan is not interested and turns them all down, including an old friend, McGhee. McGhee has created a pill that lets a person remember everything.  He just needs a backer. As they are talking, the pills fall on the ground and Harlan's baby eats a handful. Nothing good will come from this.
  • The Seven Deadly Virtues — Life on Venus is hard. It's way too hot, way too muggy and power is concentrated in the hands of the elites. Step out of line and the consequences are terrible.
  • The Martian in the Attic — A  man figures out the secret of a man's great success: all his fabulous inventions are really the product of a Martian the man holds captive. The  man tries to use the information as blackmail only to have it all blow up in his face.
  • Third Offense — Using time travel, a criminal is sentenced to various terrible locations in the past in an attempt to rehabilitate him.
  • The Hated — Astronauts returning from a trip to Mars have so much animosity for their fellow crew members that they are required to live in restricted areas to protect each other from their murderous wrath.
  • I Plinglot, Who You? — Plinglot, posing as a human, is meeting with various factions on Earth with the goal of setting off world war and destroying humanity. But maybe we humans are not quite as easily manipulated as he thinks.
These stories were pretty good, even for someone who generally tries to avoid short stories.

A common theme in the stories is people sweating or shivering.

  • From Mars by Moonlight: "...he shivered and his breath made a white mist in the thin air." "...he was sweating like a hog..." And more.
  • From The Richest Man in Levittown:  "He was sweating—you could see the black patches on his blue shirt."
  • From The Seven Deadly Virtues: "I felt her shiver in spite of the fact that the temperature was one hundred and ten." "...even inside the thermosuit I was wringing wet."
  • From Third Offense:  "They marched off in the shivering cold." "...a cold place that stank...of sweat and sickness."
  • From The Hated: "I began to sweat, although this place was air-conditioned too." "And I was drenched with sweat."
  • From I Plinglot, Who You?: "...sweating, his forehead glistening..."
Only one story doesn't have its characters sweating or shivering, The Martian in the Attic. 

Masters of Time

By A.E. Van Vogt

Norma stood on the bank and contemplated throwing herself into the water. But her courage failed and she turned away only to find herself confronted by a strange man, Dr. Lell. Amazingly, he seemed to know a lot about Norma and he even offered her a job and a place to live.
Dr. Lell claimed to be recruiting men to fight in a war and he needed someone one to handle the front desk. And she could live in the apartment above the office.  Hungry and broke, Norma agreed to the deal. Only to find out that it was all a lie.
Dr. Lell is recruiting men to fight in a war, that part was true. But the war being fought far in the future and the recruits would never be coming home. Not only that, but he had control of Norma's mind and even of her body. Every time she tried to break away, he punished her by taking away her youth and turning her into a withered crone.
In desperation, Norma turned to a lost love from her past,  Jack Garson. He came to the recruiting station and, unable to do anything to help her despite his best efforts, he found himself kidnapped to the very far future and forced to fight in a war that he didn't understand or care about. But he was determined to escape and to find some way back to Norma.

This was an OK read. I did find a bit difficult to follow, something I have experienced in the past when reading a Van Vogt story. And, once again, it takes a man from a more primitive time to straighten things out for the poor, misguided future folks, just like in the other novel I recently read, The Long Way Home.

The Long Way Home

By Poul Anderson

Captain Edward Langley and his crew of two men and one alien creature, Saris, are traveling in an experimental space craft. This craft can travel incredible distances in mere seconds. But what the four didn't understand was that it was also traveling through vast amounts of time in mere seconds too. So when they come home to Earth it is the Earth of 5000 years in the future. And they have no way to ever return to their own time.
Earth is on the brink of interstellar war. Humans have widely colonized other planets and one group, the Centaurans, is getting a bit big for their britches and is pushing against Earth government, the Technon (a super computer). A third party is also involved, a confederation of planetless traders known as the Company. And, unknown to the major players in the developing conflict, a shadowy fourth party is pulling strings behind the scenes.
Into the midst of this lands Langley and his crew and  Saris, the alien, who has telepathic power to control electronics. All the interested parties want to gain control of Saris in order to study his power and develop it into a weapon.
Langley and company become pawns in the hands of the competing factions, as they are also trying to grapple with the knowledge that everything they loved and knew is long dead and buried.

This book didn't do it for me. It's basically a political story, as four different interests try to gain an advantage over each other. I am not a fan of  political stories, a subject I find boring. Also, the idea that it takes a man from 5000 years in the past to unmask the hidden fourth party was really not believable.

For another review, see http://www.sfreviews.net/longwayhome.html.

Holidays in Hell

By P.J. O'Rourke

O'Rourke sets off the discover life in some of the trouble spots and places of interest around the world:

  • A Ramble Through Lebanon
  • Seoul Brothers
  • Panama Banal
  • Third World Driving Hints and Tips
  • What Do They Do for Fun in Warsaw?
  • Weekend Getaway: Heritage USA
  • The Post-Marcos Philippines
  • Christmas in El Salvador
  • At Sea with the America's Cup
  • Intellectual Wilderness, Ho
  • In Whitest Africa
  • Through Darkest America: Epcot Center
  • Among the Euro-Weenies
  • Thirty-six Hours in Managua
  • Through Darkest America, Part II
  • Mexican Border Idyll
  • The Holyland—God's Monkey House
Even though written in the 1980s, O'Rourke's tour still has a lot of interesting points to make about these modern times. I admit, at times I found it a bit boring. But even though dated, it is still an important look at the trouble spots and troublesome spots around the world.

Written during the era of President Reagan, O'Rourke's disdain for the Republican Idol comes through loud and clear:
"The last time an old, sick, addled American president (Roosevelt) sat down with a Soviet leader who'd had great press ("Uncle" Joe Stalin), half of Europe was given away."
Now the USA has another "old, sick, addled" president, Donald Trump, who is also no match for a dangerous, tyrannical Russian leader, Vlad Putin.
O'Rourke is a conservative Republican. I wonder what he thinks of the latest addition  to the senile president lineup?

For another review, see http://www.roadjunky.com/897/holidays-in-hell-by-pj-orourke-travel-books/


Thursday, June 15, 2017

The Bachelor Home Companion

By P.J. O'Rourke

O'Rourke gives "advice" on the bachelor lifestyle, addressing such items as:

  • House Cleaning
  • Home Ownership
  • Cooking
  • Entertaining
  • Home Decorating
  • Home Repair
  • Lawn and Yard Care
  • Children
Much of this book reminded me of something you would find in MAD Magazine. This is not to say it is bad, quite the opposite. It is very funny and enjoyable. To quote just a few of the jokes:

"Bill Clinton was only a microscopic polyp in the colon of national politics, and Hillary was still in flight school, hadn't even soloed on her broom."

"Plus a home gives you something to do around the house. Furthermore, there is no real satisfaction in pissing out of somebody else's window."

"Don't cook steaks in the toaster, even little ones. I've tried this and the fire department comes."

"Stay away from goofier kinds of lettuce. Any lettuce that comes from the store in a form that can't be thrown from third base to home is too exotic."

"The next best vegetable is the jalapeno pepper. It has the virtue of turning salads into practical jokes."

"But yogurt does make good shaving cream."

"Eggs: When something starts pecking its way out of the shell, the egg is probably past its prime."

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Fields and Pastures New

By Dr. John McCormack

The setting is the early 1960s and John McCormack and his wife and children have moved to rural Alabama for John to start his career as a private practice veterinarian.  This would be a first for the locals too because there had never been a veterinarian in their area before.
Since it was a rural location, a lot of his work would be with farm animals and farmers. Folklore was quite important to these people and folk remedies were the order of the day, with the vet often being called in only when all else had failed. People also relied upon an untrained local man, Carney Sam, who, just like them, subscribed to strange and mostly worthless folk remedies to treat their ailing animals. Like rubbing turpentine on a horse's belly to treat kidney problems. The thinking was that the turpentine would be absorbed through the skin and travel to the kidneys. Total rubbish, but those sorts of treatments were very popular.
But Dr. John is a modern veterinarian and his methods relied upon proven, scientific knowledge. They weren't foolproof, of course, but they were certainly much more effective than the strange and useless cures inflicted upon the poor, suffering critters they were meant to treat.
So rural, backward Alabama got itself a fancy new vet and before long, it was  clear that the community was very lucky to have Dr. John in their midst. And it was clear to Dr. John and his family that they had found themselves a warm and welcoming new home.

This was an interesting read, the memoir of  a young vet establishing himself in his new location, coping with the backwards farmers and the less-trying doctoring of the local dogs, cats and other pets in addition to the work with livestock. The author has real feelings of affection for his neighbors and clients and he and his wife and kids become a greatly appreciated part of the community.

For another review, see https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/john-mccormack/fields-and-pastures-new/.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Slaves in the Family

By Edward Ball

Edward Ball's ancestor came to America and started plantations near the Atlantic coast, growing rice. They used slaves from Africa to do the plantation work.  At one point, the family owned several plantations in the same area of South Carolina.  They owned thousands of slaves. They also fought to keep their slaves in the Civil War.
Knowing this, Ball set out to connect with the descendants of those slaves that he was able to track down by perusing family documents and historical records. In several cases, he was able to find these people and give them the information he was able to gather about their ancestors and from their family lore piece together more of the story of their ancestors' history, even to the probable location their African origins.
Not surprisingly, he also figured out that his ancestors had mixed race children from informal liaisons with their female slaves. Ball was able to track down some of the descendants of these relationships, people who are distantly related to himself.
He encountered some anger but he also gave people a better understanding of their own personal history and this valuable information was welcomed by the families.

This was a very informative read as it goes quite deeply into the slave-owning experience of the author's own family. And his interviews with the descendants were touching to read. It's a long book and I must admit I got a bit bored with it towards the end. But I do feel it is a worthwhile book to read.

For another review, see http://www.thedailybeast.com/if-you-only-read-one-book-about-the-legacy-of-slavery-slaves-in-the-family.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The Statement

Pierre Brossard chose the wrong side in World War II. He was a Nazi collaborator and was responsible for the murder of at least fourteen Jewish people. He has been on the run for decades, helped out by a shady association of Catholic clergy who see no problem with helping out a mass murderer because, "the Church's law of asylum supersedes...the laws of the civil authority."
But now someone is on Pierre's tail. Driving up a isolated road, Pierre is waylaid by an assassin. But Pierre is too canny and shoots the killer first. He then flees to his Catholic refuge.
But this murder brings to the front the question of Pierre's real character. All along, the church claimed to believe that Pierre was truly repentant of his war crimes. But now that he has killed again, doubt arises and the church moves to distance itself from him. The word goes out and Pierre finds that he is no longer as welcome at his old haunts as he used to be.
Meanwhile, the police are actively involved in tracking Pierre down after decades of letting it slide. His face is in the newspapers and he is running for his life. facing down and killing a second man who came gunning for him. But the question he needs to ask himself and fails to do is how these killers know his routine and the locations of his hiding places. Because, although the killers want the world to believe Pierre is being hunted by Jewish avengers, this is not the case at all. Even though that is what Pierre fervently believes, his guilty conscience prevents him from seeing the simple truth.

This was an OK read. I found it a bit dull, to be honest.  I also found the ending unsatisfying.

For another review, see https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/brian-moore/the-statement/.

Paradise News

By David Lodge

Bernard's aunt is dying and she wants to see her brother before she dies. The aunt, Ursula, lives in Hawaii and Bernard and his father, Jack, live in Britain. Jack, who is rather frail, is not eager to undertake such a long trip. In fact, he has never flown on an airplane before and is rather alarmed by the whole idea. However, the thought that the estranged sister has money does much to reconcile Jack's family to the idea.
Bernard is a part time teacher and he has the time to escort his dad on the long trip. Bernard is a bit of a black sheep as is Ursula. Ursula married against the advice of the family. Bernard is an ex-priest who lost his faith and is regarded as a failure by the family.
Bernard bought a package tour for himself and his dad because it was the cheapest travel option and they end up traveling with a small group of their fellow Brits whose activities form a sort of backdrop to Bernard's story.
Arriving in Hawaii, not even there for one full day, Jack, used to British traffic patterns, steps in front of a car and gets hit. He is not gravely injured, but his hip is broken and he will be stuck in the hospital for quite a while. Meanwhile Ursula has taken a turn for the worse and she is also confined to her bed.  The reunion is delayed for the time being.
With his dad and his aunt in the hospital, Bernard is left to his own devices and he gets to know the woman who knocked his dad down with her car, Yolande. Yolande is at a turning point in her life. Her husband has left her for another woman (younger, of course) and Yolande is fighting the divorce, mostly because she is angry. She is attracted to Bernard and escorts him to some of the local tourist attractions. They end up in a relationship and she helps him with some of his personal problems.
Jack and Ursula eventually get to meet at Jack's hospital and they confront some issues and misunderstandings from their childhood and both find comfort in the reconciliation.
Soon Jack is well enough to travel home and they leave the islands behind, with hope for the future.

This was an entertaining story. Bernard is a good guy and the story ends very nicely.  And it is nicely amusing too, not hilarious, but just sweetly, mildly amusing.

For another review, see https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/david-lodge/paradise-news/.

In a Sunburned Country

By Bill Bryson

Australia: perhaps the most exotic place in the world. Full of flora and fauna found nowhere else on our planet, some of which is dangerous and/or toxic. Much of it is inhospitable, uninhabited and pretty much unexplored. Parts of the interior have never been closely surveyed and may possibly contain unknown  reserves of mineral wealth.
Australia is nearly the same size as the continental United States but sparsely populated, with most of the people living in cities on the  southern and eastern coasts.  The coasts have the best climate, with lush forests and land suitable to grow crops. The interior is desert of the harshest, most deadly kind.
Bill Bryson has a love affair with Australia, despite its much touted dangers. He set off on a tour of the civilized places, visiting some of Australia's most outstanding and amazing attractions. Throughout his trip he finds the people welcoming and helpful and the natural wonders simply amazing. He rarely has a harsh word to say and is looking forward to returning in the future.

I enjoyed the book a lot. Bryson has a lovely sense of humor and doesn't mind poking fun of himself. I laughed out loud several times as Bryson describes some of the predicaments he gets himself into.
But besides the humor, Bryson's descriptions made me long to visit Australia some day. If I could, I would go there without hesitating, eager to see all the sights that Bryson does such an excellent job describing.

For another review, see https://www.publishersweekly.com/978-0-7679-0385-1.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Middlesex

By Jeffrey Eugenides

Callie was born a male. But due to his lack of testicles and minuscule penis, he was misidentified as a female. So his parents, believing he was a girl, raised him as a girl. Which was fine. He was a very pretty little girl and did all the girly things most little girls do. But then when he didn't go through the usual transformations that occur to most young teen girls, his parents decided to take him to a specialist in New York City.  The doctor recommends to the parents that Callie have surgery to remove his undescended testicles and put him on hormone therapy and  let him live out his life as the female he has been raised to be.
But Callie reads his medical file and suddenly his life makes sense: his attraction to girls, his budding mustache, his gangly body, his height.  And he runs away to California.
But before we get to this point in the story, we have to delve into Callie's antecedents. We have to learn about his grandparents, brother and sister, who fled Europe to the safety of America. We have to follow them as they get married (to each other!), have two kids and settle in Detroit. Then there is their son, Milton, who marries a cousin, Tessie and who gives birth to two sons, one of whom is Callie who they think is a girl. It takes almost 200 pages for the story to even get to the moment of Callie's birth. Then we have to read about her childhood before we get to the meat of the story, Callie's struggle to understand the truth about himself.

This book is really a family saga and is more concerned about the story of the whole family than it is about the story of Callie's sexual identity.  I wanted the story of Callie, not the story of the whole family. Two hundred pages into a five hundred page novel and Callie is only briefly touched on, which was rather annoying. For me, the story didn't really get that interesting until it focused more on Callie and less on her family.
Also, this novel is described, by some, as a comedy and as a comic epic, as hilarious, funny, playful. I didn't find it to be any of those things.
For another review, see http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/11/29/american-dreams-middlesex-by-jeffrey-eugenides?source=dictionary.

The story of Callie reminded me of David Reimer. He was a boy whose penis was accidentally removed as a baby and who, as a result, was castrated and raised as a girl until he rebelled and reclaimed his male identity. I wonder if Eugenides based his novel on David's tragic story.

The Passage

By Justin Cronin

A new virus has been discovered in a South American jungle. The bad news: it kills most. The good news: those who survive are changed into super-beings. The further bad news: they become remorseless, bloodthirsty killers. In other words, they become vampires.
So the government, with dreams of deathless superhuman soldiers decides to take this virus and engineer the vampire-ness out of it and retain the superhuman-ness. To do so, they require human subjects: men on death row whom no one will miss.
But all they get are more vampires. Finally, they think they have refined the virus to what they want. They think the reason they keep getting vampires is that the test subjects are too old, too flawed, too evil. They decide they need an innocent child, a homeless child with no family, who, like the condemned men, will not be missed. That is how they acquire Amy, who they heartlessly inject with their vampire virus. But they are wrong that no one will miss Amy. Two people who have encountered her have an instant bond with the little girl: a nun and  the FBI agent who brought Amy to the secret government facility in Colorado.
So Amy gets injected with the vampire virus and becomes ill and slowly begins her transformation into superhuman. Meanwhile the 12 convicts/vampires are exerting their superhuman powers on the people of the facility resulting in a disaster: The vampires get loose and bring down Armageddon on the world. Most people die but lots of people become vampires too. The surviving people live in hiding and in isolated locations as they fight to survive the vampire onslaught.
And then there is Amy. What can she bring to the struggle of humanity vs vampire? For in her case, the scientists were right. She has the strengths and vitality of the vampires but without their craziness and thirst for blood. She may be humanity's best hope, if she is up to the job.

This was a really long book: 891 pages. Parts of it were really interesting and parts just seemed like they could have been condensed quite a bit. I know I skipped through some of the later part of the story. This is a bloody story. People are slaughtered, torn to shreds. Animals are slaughtered, torn to shreds.  Characters that you start to care about are killed. A pet dog is killed, pointlessly, I thought. Just to be cruel, it seemed to me.
This book is the first in a trilogy. It is an interesting story but just too bloody for me. Once the author killed off that poor dog, I knew I wouldn't be reading the next book in the trilogy. Plus it is just too damn long.

For another review, see http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2010/06/24/justin-cronins-the-passage-reviewed-by-lizzie-skurnick.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Long Hot Summoning (The Keeper's Chronicles #3)

By Tanya Huff

Diana Hansen has just graduated from high school and now she is, at last, a Keeper. As a Keeper, Diana, along with her older sister Claire, who is also a Keeper, has to maintain the balance between Light and Darkness. Mainly they have to keep the powers of Darkness from taking over the normal world.
Diana's first summons as a Keeper is to a shopping mall. Some strangeness has been spotted at the Erilking's Emporium, a gift shop. Upon arrival at the mall, the first clue that something is up is the excess number of minivans in the parking lot. Sure enough, Darkness is trying to sneak into the world and is doing so by creating a mall identical to the real mall in the Dark realm. It is to this counterfeit mall that Diana, her angel cat Sam, and Claire must enter and put a stop to the foul plan. In the process, they are helped by King Arthur and his merry band of mall elves who are a group of homeless teens who somehow got sucked into the Dark realm and have been transformed into elves, which is some kind of side effect of being too long on the Dark side of things.
Meanwhile, back home, Claire's boy friend (husband?) and her elderly cat Austin are facing problems of their own. Namely, an ancient Egyptian mummy who is surreptitiously draining the life force from all around her in order to restore herself back to life.

This was a fun and enjoyable read. The book is quite amusing, with lots of silliness, fantasy and adventure. I did feel a bit lost at times, not having read the previous two books in the series, especially at the beginning. It never really explains why the cats can talk or why the cat Sam used to be an angel or why he stopped being an angel. Or even what the whole deal is with the cats. This is one of those series where it really helps to have read the previous stories. But even feeling a bit lost at times, I still liked the book a lot.

For another review, see: http://www.errantdreams.com/2014/06/review-long-hot-summoning-tanya-huff/.