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Monday, August 31, 2015

Neworld Papers: Is Science Important in Science Fiction?

After having reviewed this book for The Bookplex,  I realized that I had an opportunity to expand on a topic in my review on my blog.   Neworld Papers: The Historian's Tale by KB Shaw is the first in a science fiction series.   As such, it's establishing the background and context of the series.


The novel’s concept isn’t that original.  There is also some plot predictability. I was reminded of the sort of science fiction that I read when I was a teenager. Yet I did enjoy a number of the characters.

                                                   

                                                        
Since history was my undergraduate major, I very much wanted to read a book in which a historian is the hero.  Yet when I was first introduced to Fallon I wondered if he could be a hero of any kind.  By the end of the book, I wouldn’t say that he matured but he does seem to be on his way toward maturity.  He is in the process of growing into the role that events have required him to play.  I consider him a realistic character with doubts and inner conflicts.  

Since I read the author's bio, I know that Shaw is writing for the male YA/NA audience who read less than their female contemporaries.  So he crafts novels that  he believes will appeal to his chosen audience.  They have actually always been the demographic group that are assumed to be most interested in science fiction.  

When I started reading science fiction in the 1960's there were few girls or women active in science fiction fandom.   Girls weren't supposed to be interested in science, yet not all science fiction contains any appreciable science content.   The pseudo-scientific explanation of the FTL (Faster than Light) drive that is a staple of  space opera tends to be blessedly brief if the author even bothers to include one. Then the novel would launch into a heroic adventure such as how the space marshal put a stop to the pirates who were ravaging the space lanes. Science fiction that has a priority on accurate science is known as hard science fiction.  Young men who identify as science geeks look down on the readers of space opera.  They consider the hard science fiction that they prefer to be the only genuine science fiction.

In the current publishing environment with a large volume of indie and self-published science fiction being released in addition to the offerings of traditional publishers, hard science fiction is no longer privileged.  It vies with a wide variety of sub-genres for the attention of a larger and more diverse audience than the more homogeneous one that existed in the 1960's.

So when I discuss the science in Neworld Papers: The Historian's Tale, readers should understand that this represents my preference.   I expect to see extrapolation in science fiction based on current science.  I would not describe myself as a science geek,  I am just accustomed to science fiction that meets a certain standard.  The audience that KB Shaw is trying to reach may or may not agree.

I have to say that from a scientific viewpoint I was disappointed. Since the planet where this book takes place was located in a binary star system, I expected to see some description of unusual seasonal patterns at the very least.  Shaw pretty much ignored this aspect.  I think it was a missed opportunity. Shaw could have provided his readers with some unique worldbuilding if he had done some thinking about the impact of a binary star on a planet within their orbit. 

 If this is going to be a series, Shaw will definitely need to make a decision about the size of the habitable zone on such a world.  Another possible consideration for a planet in a binary star system is whether there would be a reliable cycle of day and night. There are a number of factors that could affect planets in this system.  They include the size of the two stars, the distance between them and whether their orbits are long or short.  Yet if Shaw just decided to make this a binary star system to increase the coolness factor of the book for his audience, he may not be interested in adjusting his worldbuilding to include binary star effects. 
 
On the whole, this was an entertaining novel but I hoped for a more creative approach which would have markedly improved the book.

                                                       

Saturday, August 29, 2015

The Constable's Tale: Freemason Mystery in Colonial America

I have always been drawn to mysteries taking place in Colonial America.   Each colony had its own unique set of characteristics and discontent with the British crown's policies was slowly rising.  It was a fascinating period.  That's why I agreed to read The Constable's Tale by Donald Smith for this blog.  I received an ARC from the publisher for free in return for this honest review.
                                                       

                                                    
The summary indicated that the protagonist, Constable Harry Woodyard, went on an extensive foray through North America in order to discover the truth about the murder of a family in North Carolina.  Knowing that The Constable's Tale is a first novel,  I thought that the narrative might possibly become bogged down in travel details.   I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Smith wielded his power of description with admirable restraint.  Some popular bestselling authors should learn from his example.  Suspenseful incidents that were relevant to the plot, or scenes involving character development happened at every stage of Woodyard's journey.

The motive that originally impelled the protagonist on his  investigation was the arrest of a Tuscarora elder known as Comet Elijah for the murders.  Comet Elijah had played an important role in Woodyard's life, and he is not the sort of man who'd forget that he owed a debt of gratitude to someone.

Other than this one character, the Tuscaroras didn't play a central role in this book.  Yet I was astonished that an Iroquoian people lived as far south as North Carolina.  I wanted to know more.  On the  Tuscarora website I learned that the North Carolina Tuscaroras had been the victims of the largest massacre of Native Americans.  The page about this tragic event can be found at Neoheroka Massacre.

A more prominent element in this mystery was Freemasonry.   A Freemason medallion that was found at the scene of the crime led Woodyard to suspect that a Freemason was the perpetrator.  In order to uncover the identity of the medallion's owner, Woodyard needed to unravel a Masonic code.  An article in Wired Magazine shows how complex Masonic codes could be.

I admit that I found the resolution of the case anti-climactic, but I did gain a much better grasp of certain aspects of colonial life.  Donald Smith made an impressive effort to maintain authenticity.  All quotes from journals, letters and documents were in the vocabulary and script of that period.  If this author continues to follow the career of Constable Woodyard,  I would be inclined to join him on his next adventure.

                                                       






                                                             

                                 

Friday, August 21, 2015

Alice Takes Back Wonderland: Explosive Fairy Tale Mashup

More copying of my posts from Book Babe makes me a copy cat.  I wonder what the Cheshire Cat would say to that.  I know what the Alice in Wonderland in David D. Hammons book would be likely to say. "Why is a raven like a writing desk?" This Mad Hatter riddle became Alice's battle cry in Alice Takes Back Wonderland.  According to the Harry Potter Wiki , there is a spell to transform a raven into a writing desk.  Why would you want to do that?  Welcome to Wonderland.

If  you enjoy the television series Once Upon A TimeAlice Takes Back Wonderland by David D. Hammons will have a very similar vibe.  Characters from  Wonderland, Neverland and the realm known in this book as Grimm are all mashed together quite delightfully.   I received a free copy in advance of publication from Curiosity Quills, the publisher, in return for this review.

                                                 



Hammons' premise is that authors such as Lewis Carroll, James Barrie or the Grimm brothers are receiving echoes from other realities. Echoes aren't the same as accurate descriptions. The "real" stories are quite different.

Literary mashups are usually considered as the equivalent of stunt-casting for fans of the characters involved who want to know what would happen if they met.  It's akin to fanfic,  and is based on the same playful impulse. This novel is for those fans, but is also much more.

Hammons is seriously posing the question of why people want to escape through fiction.  The general assumption is that the audience for escapist literature are people who are bored by humdrum lives, but some people like the Alice in this novel (who starts out in our contemporary world) lead lives that feel like prisons.   Escapist fiction gives them hope.  It allows them to imagine that their lives could be better.

Yet what if  even your ability to dream of a better future were somehow removed? In Alice Takes Back Wonderland, Alice discovers that a dictator who has seized power in Wonderland is "taking the wonder" out of people.  This actually parallels Alice's 21st century experience.  Well-meaning adults were trying to remove her capacity to perceive alternate worlds through modern medicine.  So Alice's battle to restore Wonderland is a war on behalf of imagination against those who consider imagination dangerous.   At one point the iconic Cheshire Cat declares "You call us mad for acting free."  Without imagination, there can be no freedom.

At first, I had an ambivalent reaction to the HEA ending because it appeared to eliminate all possibility of a sequel.   Yet it eventually occurred to me that if Alice was going to keep her happiness, she would have to fight for it.   All HEA endings are really provisional.

                                           


Tuesday, August 18, 2015

From A High Tower: The American Wild West German Style

I copied my post from Book Babe again.  Book Babe especially welcomes reviews of books with active woman protagonists like this one, but From A High Tower is also a fantasy novel which is more appropriately reviewed here. Fantasy is one of my favorite genres.  The author of this book is now at the top of my most read author standings on Goodreads. 

From a High Tower by Mercedes Lackey is the latest in her Elemental Masters series.  I think it's the best of her series.  I have read almost all of them.  Its premise is that these books would be  fairy tale re-tellings taking place in the 19th century  starring mages with elemental gifts.  This is the second volume in this series that takes place in Germany.  Giselle,  the protagonist of the book, is an Air mage who begins as a version of Rapunzel.

Later in this book there is a brief  Hansel and Gretel re-telling.  I admit that if I had known that there was a Hansel and Gretel element in this novel, I would have avoided it.  I consider Hansel and Gretel a very nasty story that has fueled hysteria about witchcraft.  Others feel that Hansel and Gretel exposes the neglect and abuse of children. I think that other fairy tales deal with this theme, and that Hansel and Gretel has done more harm than good.  There is a long history of  false accusations that have been primarily made against women because this fairy tale is engraved in the Euro-American collective unconscious. The only re-telling of Hansel and Gretel that I've liked is Louise Murphy's WWII novel, The True Story of Hansel and Gretel.  I have no more use for Lackey's version than I have for any other traditional re-telling of this poisonous tale.  The best I can say for it, is that it takes up relatively little narrative space in From a High Tower.

So let me tell you about some more interesting aspects of this Elemental Masters book that relate to feminism and popular culture. 

                                           


The re-telling of Rapunzel is a narrative frame that is fully woven in the opening of the novel.  This is really a book about an Air mage who uses her gifts to earn a living as a sharpshooter.  She eventually joins a Wild West show that is touring Germany.  There are two perspectives to take on this character.  One is that Giselle is an unethical fraud who is only pretending to be the equal of  the real historical sharpshooter Annie Oakley. ( Annie Oakley is mentioned in From a High Tower.  She was also touring Germany in Buffalo Bill's Wild West show.)  The second is that Giselle is a feminist hero.  She is a resourceful survivor who has found a really cool way to utilize her magical abilities.  Do the ends justify the means?  I will allow readers to make their own decisions about Giselle.

What interested me most about this novel is that Lackey portrays German perceptions of the American Wild West as being drastically different from American perceptions.  Germans have been influenced by the works of the 19th century bestselling German author,  Karl May.   I have chosen to link to an English page on the Karl May Society website because it discusses why this author is regarded as important.   I had heard of Karl May, but had never read his books or understood their appeal before reading From a High Tower.  Like many other Americans , I had dismissed Karl May as inauthentic.

Popular culture is steeped in legend.   Each nation is very attached to the way their popular culture portrays the individuals who are regarded as key figures.  American popular culture about the 19th century American West, which is still known as the Wild West, is no more authentic than the German version created by a single author.    Lackey presents the American Wild West show performers with a dilemma.  Their rendition of  the Wild West didn't connect with the German audience.  They wanted to see a  dramatization of  a scenario out of the works of Karl May, and their expectations were being disappointed.

Why should this culture clash matter to 21st century readers?  The most important issue was the portrayal of Native Americans.   Should they be heroes or villains in a Wild West show?  Karl May's novels depict Native Americans as heroes.  In the U.S. of the 19th century such a scenario would never be seen.  As a 21st century reader, I might consider Karl May's view romanticized, but the universal villainization of  Native Americans that occurred in U.S. Wild West shows during that period is totally unacceptable to me.   So I was on the side of the German audience and the Native American performers who deserved better than to be depicted as hateful caricatures.

This is noteworthy because Germans are now so often associated with Nazism which regarded all non-whites as inferior and degenerate.  In From a High Tower, Lackey depicts Germans in opposition to American racism in the century before the rise of the Nazi movement.

So Mercedes Lackey's tale is primarily about abandoning stereotypes.   I just wish that she could also have also broken the mold of Hansel and Gretel.  We need to grow beyond demonizing anyone.

                                               

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

In The Oneness of Time: The Memoir of a Diviner

I downloaded this book from Net Galley because I'm interested in divination.  The author, William  Douglas Horden, has written a number of books on the subject that I haven't read.  In the book's opening, I learned that Horden came from rural Ohio which was an environment where dowsing was common.  So I thought that Horden would have an unusual perspective and an interesting life.

                                               

The memoir isn't written in chronological order.  I wasn't always sure why his narrative wandered between different periods in his life.  Sometimes it was clear that events were connected, but there didn't always appear to be any overarching framework for Horden's thoughts.   It was as if  he was doing divination by sortilege, and picking up on whatever nugget of his past  happened to drop from his unconscious mind at random.

Horden didn't discuss his childhood experiences in a cemetery until Chapter 56.  He says that he was brought up by ghosts.  One of these ghosts was his older brother who was stillborn.  So this is not the same story as Neil Gaiman's popular novel, The Graveyard Book ,despite the similarities.

Much of the content dealt with Horden's travels.  Since he is also a poet his descriptive prose can be very lyrical.  I enjoyed reading it even though I was more interested in the spiritual aspect of his life.

Horden had a number of spiritual teachers.  I was most impressed by the insights of Master Khigh Alx Dhiegh who taught him the I Ching.  Yet I also liked Don Alfredo's use of the term "wild seeing" or seeing without preconceptions.

I had some disagreements with Horden.  For example,  there were points in the narrative where he gave the impression that it's necessary to use drugs or alcohol to attain the altered state of consciousness that diviners use.  Fortunately,  elsewhere in this volume he makes reference to meditation, music and dance which are safer means of altering your consciousness that have been used successfully for millennia in many cultures.  I would also like to add self-hypnosis as a very reliable modern method for achieving the desired trance state.

Horden  indicates that he was allowed to visit First Mesa on the Hopi reservation, which was closed to the general public, because he had a Navajo escort.  Since I knew that there have been disputes between these neighboring peoples, I wondered how this became an acceptable practice.  When I did a search on the subject, I was given a link to the pdf of the 2006 Intergovernmental Compact between the Hopis and the Navajos.  Provision 2.9 deals with anyone traveling for a religious purpose getting a free escort from the landowning nation.  In this case, the landowning nation would be the Hopis.  So I still don't understand how a Navajo was considered a proper escort in that case. Perhaps there is a reader with more knowledge of this issue who will explain it to me.

At one point in Horden's life he was in charge of a shelter for abused and neglected children.  He describes a terrible case of two autistic brothers who were locked in a basement for three years.  I was reminded of  the much more horrifying case of Sylvia Likens which ended in murder.  Feminist author Kate Millett fictionalized it in a powerful book called The Basement.  I can't help thinking about Sylvia Likens whenever I read about children being confined in a basement.  I bring this up in my review because it occurred to me that some readers might be triggered by Horden's description of what happened to these boys.

From a spiritual perspective, I thought that there were some useful observations in this volume.  Yet I also wondered how Horden arrived at some of his conclusions.  I remarked "How do you know?" in my notes about this book a number of times.  Horden has written about these topics previously, so he may not have wanted to repeat himself in In The Oneness of Time.  So I refer those who want to know more about Horden's spiritual approach  to his website.

                                                   


                                      

Saturday, August 8, 2015

The Hurricane by Jewell Parker Rhodes--The Ultimate Mississippi Delta Whydunit

 This is a review I wrote for this blog, but I posted it to Book Babe first.   It's definitely the sort of post that's more suited to this blog.

When I reviewed the Jewell Parker Rhodes children's fantasy Bayou Magic recently  here, I said that I wanted to catch up on novels by Rhodes that I hadn't read.  That included this final book in her contemporary mystery trilogy about Dr. Marie Levant, a physician descended from Voodoo priestess Marie Lavaux.  Levant became a Voodoo priestess herself after re-locating to New Orleans.

As readers might expect Hurricane deals with Hurricane Katrina, but not a description of NOLA's experience of Katrina.  Rhodes doesn't even reveal the post-Katrina fate of Charity Hospital where Dr. Levant worked. I personally discovered what happened to Charity Hospital while watching a Book TV discussion on C-SPAN 2 on We're Still Here Ya Bastards, a non-fiction book by Roberta Brandes Gratz about NOLA's recovery.  If you're interested, you can read Gratz's article on Charity Hospital which appeared in The Nation here.

Now it's time to begin the review of what Hurricane did include.

                                                         


It starts with Marie Levant discovering an entire family murdered in their home outside the small fictional African American community of Delaire.   When she reports the crime in NOLA, no action is taken.  So she decides to investigate herself and discovers that the case is much larger than she ever imagined.   I was exposed to some very sad information that I can't unlearn now about the tragedy of environmental degradation in the Mississippi Delta that didn't begin with the Deepwater Horizon disaster.  This is a novel about real life horror and monsters that do exist.  Similar environmental atrocities can and do happen anywhere.

Delaire also had a Hoodoo woman known as Nana who was a visionary and a healer.  She had seen that Marie was coming to Delaire.  Dr. Levant was expected to be their savior, but addressing symptoms without any knowledge of the underlying cause is not really healing.  In fact, it can be a terrible mistake. 

Marie recognized one of the spirits that Nana worked with.  She was Mami Wata, the mermaid goddess from West Africa who I encountered in Rhodes' Bayou Magic.  As a nature spirit, the interests of Mami Wata did not necessarily coincide with those of humans.  This was a spiritual lesson that Marie Levant needed to learn while Katrina descended on her city.

I've said a great deal about the themes of Hurricane and their implications in this review, but I don't think I can convey the brilliance of this book.  Readers must experience the hard truths that Hurricane uncovers for themselves.