Monday, May 30, 2011

The Exile Waiting

By Vonda N. McIntyre

Mischa lives in an underground city, built in a complex of caves and populated by refugees from a nuclear war that has left the Earth in dire condition. Life in the underground city is harsh, with slavery and children mutilated and forced to become beggars. Mischa is not technically a slave, but is at her uncaring uncle's beck and call and forced into a life of crime to keep him happy. His hold over her and her older brother is their sister, Gemmi, who is retarded and who the uncle tortures in order to bend Mischa and her brother to his will.
So Mischa is determined to get her and her brother away from the uncle. She has decided to try to get a berth for the two of them on the next space ship to land at the city. Life is better out in space, on the various worlds that humans have populated.
Mischa sneaks into the city ruler's palace to confront him and to ask for a place on one of the space ships he owns. For her troubles, she is chained to a pillory and whipped in the public square.
Mischa is still determined to get out of the city. Then outworlders land at the space port and take over control of the city from the ruler. Mischa sees this as her last chance to get her and her brother a better life off of Earth and goes to the outworlders for help. Together they will shake up the dissolute underground dwellers and free not only Mischa and themselves from tyranny but also those strange, misshapen outcasts who live in the depths of the great cave system, hiding from and persecuted by the underground city's decadent, declining citizens.

This was a very interesting story. Mischa and her companions have lots of adventures and get into tight scrapes and get to meet strange and unusual people including a boy named Crab who turns out to be one of Mischa's siblings, abandoned at birth because of his terrible deformities and rescued by the outcasts who dwell in the deepest part of the caves. This is quite the science fiction adventure story and a very good read.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Gibbon's Decline and Fall

By Sheri S. Tepper

A group of girls become friends in college and form a club called the Decline and Fall Club in which they promise never to allow themselves to decline and fall. One of the girls, Sophy, seems mysterious and different but the other girls never figure out her secret.
Forty years passes. The women still get together for an annual Decline and Fall gathering. They have been successful, for the most part, in their lives. They have various professions: a doctor, a lawyer, a scientist, a society wife, and a nun. And Sophy, who fights for women's rights and to protect abused women.
Then the group gets word that Sophy has committed suicide. Of all of them, she was the least likely to do such a thing. But in the years after her death, she seems to be haunting the women. They hear her voice, they get glimpses of her. Maybe there is something she wants them to do for her.
Meanwhile, an ominous new political force is becoming a major player in the US political scene. Posing as a fundamentalist, moral majority, ultra-conservative group, they appeal to those who long for the good old days when men were men and women knew their place: barefoot and pregnant. Leading the group is a handsome, charismatic man who has come up with a solution for what he calls "the woman problem."

This was an OK story. I couldn't buy its main premise though. I just don't believe that men hate women enough to do to them what was posed as the solution to the "woman problem" in the story. Also, it just seemed to go on and on with too much of it about the young teen in prison for killing her baby. It is basically a feminist story with science fiction elements.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Working Stiff

By Grant Stoddard

Grant Stoddard came to the United States from Britain and decided he wanted to live here. He managed to get a work visa but the place he was working for was foundering and he faced the unhappy prospect of becoming unemployed and no longer eligible to remain in the U.S.
He had entered and won a contest where the prize was to have sex with a sex columnist. He went through with it and the columnist gave his name to people behind, a sex website, with the end result that they offered him a job. A kind of a strange job: he would write about the various sexual adventures that Nerve sent him on. Grant, who wasn't exactly a sexual athlete, found himself doing things that he never imagined. But it was worth it if it meant he didn't have to leave New York and go back to Britain!

Well, this was quite a story. I was not familiar with Stoddard or and some of the things that he writes about are gross, disgusting and very odd. It is quite an adventure story and often rather dismaying. People are so weird! But, nasty as it is, it was still fascinating and I think Grant Stoddard is either a very brave man or just plain bonkers. An unforgettable read.

The Practice Effect

By David Brin

Dennis Nuel was the genius behind the zievatron, a machine that opened a portal to an alternate universe, but he got pushed out of the research project and sidelined. So he was thrilled to be offered a chance to rejoin the team. But there was a catch...he would be obliged to enter the zievatron and allow himself to be transported to an unknown world, a world from which he may never be able to return.
When he exited the zievatron and onto the strange planet, he immediately discovered why the return mechanism had stopped functioning. It had been hacked to pieces. Before much longer Dennis discovered that the locals were humans who even spoke English. But their technology was at a stone age level and they regarded Dennis as a kind of wizard and he soon found himself in thrall to the local warlord who wanted him to create powerful weapons like the gun they confiscated from Dennis.

This was a fun story. Dennis soon figures out that the physics of this strange place are very different and quickly manages to use it to his advantage, winning his freedom from the tyrant and rescuing the beautiful princess in the process. He and his friends, including a strange little animal, a robot, the princess and a thief, have lots of adventures and Dennis uses his superior knowledge to create devices, that, with the strange local physics, enable them to rescue themselves from peril from the bad guys who are anxious to capture their escaped wizard. It was quite an enjoyable read.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Color of Water

By James McBride

Ruchel Zylska was born in Europe and immigrated as a child with her parents to the United States. Her father Fishel (good name for him as he was a kind of "fishy" guy) was a traveling rabbi, moving his family from city to city, from temple to synagogue. He was an unpleasant person and soon wore out his welcome at every new job. Finally he decided to give up the traveling rabbi business and opened a kind of general store in Virginia.
Fishel was neither a loving father or loving husband. He married his wife Hudis for her family connections and made no secret of his disdain of her. His children were obliged to work in the store all the time except on the Sabbath and when they were in school. They despised their father and quickly left home as fast as they could.
Ruchel, who was called Ruth, became enamored of a young black man and soon found herself pregnant. Her mother sent her to New York to stay with the mother's sister and an abortion was performed. But Ruth decided that New York was the place for her and, once back in Virginia, quickly escaped again, returning to her aunts in New York. It was there that she met the man she was to marry, Andrew McBride.
This was not what Fishel wanted for his daughter. He wanted to marry her off to a suitable Jewish man not to a black man and a Christian to boot. Ruth found herself cut off from her family, told that she was dead to them.
Ruth and Andrew had eight kids together and after he died she remarried and had four more with that husband. She never spoke of her past life to her kids, she never practiced the Jewish religion, becoming instead a born-again Christian. Her break with her past was total. Her kids never even met any of her relatives.
Her son James never knew his father. He died while Ruth was pregnant with James. Ruth was left in dire straits, with no support from her family and no money coming in. She did what she could, but the family always struggled, even after she remarried. She never talked to her children about her past, even about the fact she was Jewish. She had left her Jewish past behind. But as James grew older, he became curious about her past and his heritage and he gradually coaxed the story out of his mother. It was a journey of discovery that helped him to understand some of the puzzles that used to confuse him as a little kid and come to grips with his mixed blood heritage.

This was a interesting story. Ruth raised her twelve kids and saw to it that they graduated from high school and went on to college. Sure they struggled and times were hard, but somehow they all made it through. It is a story about a family who overcame the many strikes against them, with their determined Jewish mother as their guiding star.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Leaping to the Stars

By David Gerrold

After Jumping Off the Planet and Bouncing Off the Moon, Charles and his two brothers Stinky and Doug are now Leaping to the Stars with their fugitive computer HARLIE that is disguised as a toy monkey. And once again they are on the run as various factions are determined to gain possession of HARLIE and the power that it can deliver. So they are pretty much forced to leave the moon and decide on Outbeyond, a struggling settlement on a planet in a different star system. Problem is, due to the state of crisis on Earth, it will be a one-way trip with no chance of return. And no guarantee of survival once they get there. Plus the only reason the Outbeyond colonists are willing to take the fugitives is that they also want the HARLIE unit, which could be the key to the colony's survival on a hostile and dangerous and isolated alien world.

Currently this series is referred to as a trilogy, which leads the reader to the assumption that Charles and the rest will reach their destination and have all sorts of adventures in their brave new world. At least that's what I thought. So I was disappointed that this book is solely concerned with the journey and not the arrival. Once the author gets his players off the moon and resuming their journey, that's all the further they get. The rest of the story is situated on the colony ship headed to Outbeyond. So that was a let down.
This story mainly focuses on Charles' growing pains as he learns to negotiate life on the ship. His older brother and younger brother are merely bit players in this story as are his mom (the dad got left behind on the moon), popping up occasionally to offer bits of advice and wisdom. Even the HARLIE unit makes only brief appearances and has a few boring philosophical discussions with Charles. Speaking of philosophical discussions, the book is loaded with them, a real bonus if you like that sort of thing. I don't and found them tedious and sometimes preachy.
Anyway, the main thrust of the book becomes the conflict between Charles and a large group of passengers who are a bunch of religious zealots. They feel that the HARLIE unit is a tool of the devil and that Charles is its pawn. At first they try to convert Charles and when that doesn't work, they organize a mutiny.
I tried to like this book, but what I really wanted to read was a book about settlers on a new world, not about dissension between a bunch of people stuck on a spaceship. Still parts of it were pretty interesting and engaging even if the story ends before they ever arrive at Outbeyond.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Citizen Girl

By Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus

Girl (that's the character's name) majored in women's studies and was pleased to get a job working for a feminist nonprofit. But it soon becomes clear that feminists are no different than most and her boss is taking credit for Girl's work and when Girl dares to mention it, she is abruptly fired. When she goes to file for unemployment, she finds out she is ineligible because her boss is claiming Girl quit.
But despite the rough-handling she received working for an avowed feminist, Girl is still committed to the cause and is thrilled to be offered a job at My Company, an online service that is interested in attracting the feminist element to their website and has hired girl as their expert in this demographic. But Girl soon discovers that My Company is not really interested in supporting feminism. No, what they really want is to sell stuff to feminists. And they want Girl to promote products as feminist that really have nothing to do with feminism, like cosmetics and skimpy underwear. Well, the job pays really well and My Company has promised to donate one million dollars to a feminist nonprofit that helps exploited women if Girl succeeds, and so she swallows her misgivings and gives it her best shot. But in the process she manages to really annoy her boss, Guy, while earning raves from Guy's boss. But in the end, nothing can save My Company and a new boss is brought in to run things. Finally, Girl has a boss she can admire, a woman who is organized, intelligent, competent and down-to-earth, everything Guy was not. Now maybe Girl can finally relax and breathe a little. Or not.

This was an OK story. I did think Girl was a little too naive and more than a little gutless. She seemed incapable of getting through to her boss and her fellow employees. She pretty much lets folks run over her, including her boyfriend, who comes off as a jerk and makes one wonder what she sees in him. I can't say I really liked Girl and it is hard to understand why it took her so long to figure out that business is all about making money and that any philanthropic impulse it has is merely a ploy to increase sales.

Bitter Is the New Black

By Jen Lancaster

Jen had the world by the tail. She had a well-paying job, a nice apartment, a sweet live-in boyfriend, and money to spend. She never imagined living any other way. But life has a way of kicking us in the ass, and Jen sure got her ass kicked, big time. She lost her job and was unable to find another despite her excellent work credentials and experience. But the boyfriend, Fletch, was making a very good living and, with a little effort and some minor economizing, they would be OK. Because, surely Jen would soon find a new job...
But she didn't. And then Fletch lost his job. And now the two are going to have to make some major changes or end up living on the street!

It's not a new story. There are tons of books about people who lose their jobs only to find themselves. But what set this memoir apart from many of those other books, fiction and nonfiction, is the author's very funny take on herself and her life. She knows she is a bit of a diva, she isn't ashamed to admit it and to laugh at her pretensions. It was a funny read and I liked it a lot.

From the Dust Returned

By Ray Bradbury

A collection of stories about the Elliot family, who live in the Midwest but are certainly not the typical Midwesterners. There's Uncle Einar with his great huge bat wings. Great-something Grandmere Nef, who is an Egyptian mummy and Nefertiti's mommy. Cecy, beautiful and young and always asleep but who travels in the minds of others. And there's Timothy, just a regular kid who somehow ended up in the care of this very odd family and who is torn between their midnight ways and normal life in the sunshine. It's a gathering of the strange, the spooky, the hidden and the ought-to-be-dead. But what these strange folks want mainly is to be left alone and yet not be forgotten either.

For the most part I enjoyed the stories, like "Uncle Einar" who flew into an electrical line and lost his night vision and thus his ability to fly at night. And "West of October" where the minds of four rambunctious young men end up occupying the body of a 4000-year-old man, the mummified husband of Great-something Grandmere Nef. Some of the stories didn't appeal to me but overall it was an entertaining and enjoyable read.