Paul’s Book Reviews: Fiction, Science Fiction, Mysteries, DNFs

“Leroy bet me I couldn’t find a pot of gold at the end, and I told him that was a stupid bet because the rainbow was enough.”
—Rita Mae Brown, Rubyfruit Jungle

fated skyThe Fated Sky (Lady Astronaut #2)
by Mary Robinette Kowal

When I finished the first Lady Astronaut novel, “The Calculating Stars,” I decided to read the second, “The Fated Sky.” Expecting to wait a few weeks, I ordered a copy from the library, but it came in the next day, allowing me to read the novels back to back. I finished this one in two sittings, and am eager for more (sadly, book three won’t come out until next year).

In this one, Elma goes on the first Mars mission as part of a large exploratory crew split between two ships, the Pinta and the Nina (the third ship, the Santa Maria, is unmanned and loaded with supplies). As a predictor for our own Mars mission, should we ever get there, this novel seems as good as anything else I’ve read.

Mary Kowal concentrates on human factors during the year-long voyage from Earth orbit to the first Mars landing, but there are a few interesting edge-of-your-seat mechanical malfunctions as well.

I don’t know why every science fiction author worth his or her salt realizes the importance of building space stations and ships that spin to provide artificial gravity for long-duration stays or trips in space, yet NASA stubbornly doesn’t. I guess that means fictional space travel is more appealing to me than the actual thing. Which brings me to Mary Kowal’s human factors:

Besides Elma’s occasional bouts of anxiety-induced vomiting, there’d be a hell of a lot more vomiting in real life. Kowal comes closer to reality with the rapid and near disastrous spread of an e coli infection aboard the Pinta … has NASA considered such a possibility on a long space voyage?

The South African astronaut is a piece of work. Disappointingly (but more true to life as it is lived), his racial issues remain stubbornly unresolved (and essentially unpunished). This was a nasty bit of reality, explained by the novel’s early 1960s setting, when South Africa was still an apartheid state (and similar racial animosity was just as bad in the USA and other Western societies). Actually, if there’s anything unrealistic in Mary Kowal’s alternate timeline, it’s the racial and gender diversity of her astronaut corps … would change have really come so fast in the 1950s and 60s?

Otherwise, as a primer for human factors that will affect astronauts and space voyagers in our timeline, the Lady Astronaut series seems sociologically and scientifically sound, and Mary Kowal, if you read her fascinating afterwords to the novels, shows that she’s done her research: everything she postulates comes across as realistic, predictable, and probable.

This is good stuff. I can’t wait to read more!

late showThe Late Show (Renée Ballard #1)
by Michael Connelly

I read about a woman LAPD detective in the Los Angeles Times. The article mentioned that Michael Connelly, who writes the Harry Bosch novels, has started writing a new series about a detective modeled on that woman. I immediately bought a Kindle copy of Connelly’s first Renée Ballard novel, “The Late Show.” It did not disappoint and I will soon read more.

Which makes me wonder why I’ve only read one of the Bosch books when I liked it almost as much as I liked this Ballard book. Good question. Note to self: read more Bosch too.


dark sacred nightDark Sacred Night (Renée Ballard #2)
by Michael Connelly

Excellent and engaging police procedural from the author of the Harry Bosch series, featuring his new LAPD character Detective Renée Ballard, this time working with the older, semi-retired Detective Harry Bosch on an unsolved case that figured prominently in Season #3 of “Bosch,” the Amazon Prime streaming TV series.

It strikes me that Michael Connelly must be very involved in the TV series production, given the amount of overlap between the series and the newer Bosch and Ballard novels, and I will not be surprised if Renée Ballard doesn’t show up as a regular in Season #4.

I’m not sure I want my entertainment this thoroughly packaged. My reaction is a desire to read some of Connelly’s earlier Bosch novels, the ones he wrote before Bosch became a TV character, the ones that don’t have actor Titus Welliver on their covers.

I have in fact read the first Bosch novel, “The Black Echo.” It was damn good; so too was Connelly’s first Renée Ballard novel, “The Late Show.” Both are free of TV-series connections, and both stand quite well on their own.

rubyfruit jungleRubyfruit Jungle
by Rita Mae Brown

I’m unqualified to say much of anything about Rita Mae Brown’s “Rubyfruit Jungle,” my book club’s August 2019 selection. Wrong gender, wrong sexual orientation, etc. And anything I do say can so easily be taken negatively. So I’ll tread carefully.

I liked the novel and thought seriously about a four-star rating, mainly because Rita Mae Brown created such a vivid and engaging character in Molly Bolt. I found myself rooting for Molly from page one all the way to the end.

I understand “Rubyfruit Jungle” is one of the most influential word-of-mouth LGBT young adult novels out there, and I’m not suggesting Molly should have been written any differently than Brown wrote her. Molly undoubtedly did … and continues to do … a world of good for young people growing into, and accepting, their own sexuality. I’m presuming here that young men read “Rubyfruit Jungle” as avidly as young women do.

And that’s all I’m going to say about that, because expanding on these trite observations will only make them more vapid.

From the perspective of a reader in 2019, the novel is dated. As other reviewers have mentioned, this shows up repeatedly in the slang characters use (but this is true of any novel ever, so never mind). I wonder, though, about the lesbian gay bar scene Molly gets introduced to, and the butch lesbians who keep hitting on her. Is the scene still the same today? I don’t know, but it felt like ancient history to me.

I thought the ease with which Molly finds previously hetero lovers unrealistic; ditto the ease with which she finds her feet in New York City after being kicked out of college and home. I was prepared to be angry if Brown ended the novel by granting Molly instant success in the movie world. That would have made it too much of a feel-good fairy tale; Brown instead wrote a realistic ending, making Molly all the more relatable.

Molly Bolt’s world was not ready for her. She was born forty years too early. But hey, at novel’s end Molly still has her whole adult life ahead of her, and this reader at least is left with a sense of hope.

fall or dodge in hellFall, or Dodge in Hell
by Neal Stephenson

I was frankly disappointed in “Fall, or Dodge in Hell,” a long-awaited release from one of my favorite science fiction authors.

I thought it opened well and was more than willing to go along with the idea that the “connectome” of a living person’s brain could be digitally mapped and activated in a giant server farm after bodily death. It seemed sensible to me that such a reactivated brain would only gradually become self-aware and take an interest in, and begin to shape, its environment. I even went along with the idea that the first such digital brain, or soul, would in its digital afterlife create a landscape similar to those he constructed as backdrops to the video games he produced in life.

I balked, though, at the idea that a community of digital souls would wind up creating a second-rate Lord of the Rings world for themselves, then re-enact the plot of Paradise Lost or Moby Dick or whatever the hell archetypal morality tale their activities were modeled after. I especially balked at the death-world climax in the last third of the book, when the white-hat deads go on an elvish quest to defeat the black-hat deads. Really? Is this what our reanimated brains would choose to do in a digital afterlife, where there would be an infinity of possibilities?

A level of geekiness is characteristic of Stephenson’s novels, but this one goes overboard. Whether in meatspace life or digital death, every character is identically nerdish and logical, given to long, earnest disquisitions on the nature of chaos and life.

The characters are further undifferentiated in thought and speech. The lead characters, in meatspace, were movers and shakers in the gaming sector of the tech industry. Every one of them dies white & wealthy. Nor can I recall a single peripheral character—Maeve possibly excepted—who didn’t likewise start out white and wealthy. Ain’t no poors in this afterlife.

Related to the elitism of the novel’s characters, the high point of Stephenson’s tale, to me anyway, was the trip taken by the living Sophia and her college friends through the no man’s land of “Ameristan,” a backwater in flyover country populated by descendants of today’s deplorables, lost souls who clung to what they knew when the Smarts destroyed social media as we know it and moved on. Stephenson’s contempt for the Stupids drips off the page, and as a fellow elitist, I cheered him on. I expect this section of the novel will have broad appeal to Stephenson stans.

The adjective I’d apply to this overlong novel is “masturbatory”: it’s Stephenson indulging his worst impulses and waving it about shamelessly. One detail I’ll share: there’s a deader named Brindle. Stephenson can’t resist having Brindle bridle. It’s bad enough he does it once, but a page later Brindle bridles again, in case we missed it the first time around. If that’s not literary wankage, I don’t know what is.

by Matthew Mather

It took me a month to get through this near-future disaster novel, dragging myself back to it again and again, able to handle only a few pages at a time. For reasons that remain unclear I was determined to finish it, and finally did, speed-reading through the concluding chapter to get to the bloody end.

Why was this such a painful read? Because it was unrelentingly dreary and bereft of hope. It’s told by one man, Mike, trapped with his family and neighbors in New York City during a horrific winter month: a mysterious cyber attack has shut down the power grid, starting a cascade of failures resulting in millions trapped on the island of Manhattan without electricity, plumbing, food, civil government, news, or law enforcement, starving under unrelenting snow and sub-freezing temperatures. This month takes up 90 percent of the novel and feels like years.

It’s disaster porn, is what it is, and it’s exhausting. You quickly realize things are going to get worse and worse for the trapped inhabitants of Manhattan, and they do, and before long it’s the Donner Party writ large, and Mike is pretty much just an observer, faithfully chronicling one hardship after another, right down to counting the lice in his wife’s hair.

And like a bad closed room mystery, you don’t find out what happened to cause the cyberstorm of the title, or why individual characters trapped in the city with Mike did some of the seemingly-inexplicable things they did, until the final chapter where it’s all laid out in the third person, which came across to me as the author grabbing me by the lapels and shouting explanations in my face.

One reviewer said this would have been a better read if the author had combined an overhead view of national and regional events as the cyber attack triggered power grid and utility failures up and down the Eastern seaboard, interspersed with news bulletins and journal entries from an observer trapped in NYC, and I have to agree, that would have been a better way to tell the story.

friendThe Friend
by Sigrid Nunez

No rating: did not finish.

This was my book club’s selection for July. I finished all but the last chapter, but will refrain from giving it a rating because who knows, I may have missed a surprise ending. (Turns out I did, according to book club members who finished it: the entire story, including the breed of the dog, is called into question in the final chapter, so there’s your spoiler for the day).

Purportedly a book about the bond between a person and a dog, it’s mostly about the miseries of self-absorbed writers, filled with despairing quotes from, and sad anecdotes about, famous writers and philosophers, a surprising number of whom committed suicide, which appears to be what the book is really about. It reads like something out of a creative writing seminar.

Not my cup of tea, but I persevered, I really did, and had the due date had not come around, I might have plowed on to the end, if only to see how close the author’s character came to swallowing a bottle of pills or sticking her head in the oven and turning on the gas.

forgottenForgotten (The Forgotten, #1)
by M.R. Forbes

No rating: did not finish.

I downloaded this ebook after seeing a promoted post on Facebook. The ad made me think of Hugh Howey’s self-published Wool series and I was hoping for another undiscovered gem, but it fell woefully short. Shallow writing, loads of typos, an okay start but crap follow-through. I quickly lost interest.


© 2019, Paul Woodford. All rights reserved.

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