The Hot Rock – 3/5 Stars
A farcical kind of heist book. John Dortmunder is getting out of prision and his old pal immediately brings him a caper to work on. Together with three other specialists, the friends will be stealing an emerald from a museum that has cultural and sentimental value for two warring African nations. One of the nations currently possesses the emerald, while the other is hiring the thieves. Paid a salary, plus the promise of a large reward, Dortmunder begins to make his plans for the heist. And it works! They steal the emerald and almost make it out. However, the one group member who had emerald was arrested, and he swallowed it right before getting caught. Now they have to plan a second heist, and eventually a third one, etc etc.
The book is funny and goofy and very 1970 — so a little bit sexist, a little bit racist, and ultimately pretty fun for a caper.
The Dark Tower – 3/5 Stars
It’s not that this collection of short stories by CS Lewis is a throwaway collection or anything like but it’s that it’s so short, clearly unfinished (and abandoned) and therefore very limited in its use and appeal. The stories here don’t really fit anywhere else. Lewis already had published a lot of fiction by the time the last of these stories was completed — the seven Chronicles of Narnia books, the three space trilogy books, Til We Have Faces, and however you would classify books like The Screwtape Letters. If there are others in addition to these, I don’t know them, but that demonstrates my point that his fiction output was pretty robust, and alongside his nonfiction created a pretty rich and diverse catalog of works.
Therefore a series of half thought out or not quite finished stories doesn’t add much besides some completionist things. That said, what constitutes “The Dark Tower” here is incredibly rich, oddly disturbing, and haunting (and is a lot like the third book in the space trilogy That Hideous Strength) that it’s a shame there’s not more, because he’s at his mythopoeic best in this one. I probably won’t recall anything of the other stories within a month of reading, unfortunately.
Braiding Sweetgrass – 3/5 Stars
I probably took this book on in the wrong way, so that’s my fault. I think if this were a night-table book for me, I would have enjoyed it a lot more than I ended up doing. Partly this is because the essays sometimes are very direct and clear-cut in terms of their goals and ideas, and other time work more as ruminations (a ruminant joke?) on ideas rather than tied specifically to an argument or a clear thesis. I think that a little rearranging of the book would have helped with that in the first place. There’s a great essay in the middle that really did help to demonstrate the balance that this book wants to take, where the traditional methods of Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Potawatomi’s cultural heritage reflects an alternative knowledge to traditional Western scientific knowledge. I am using the word knowledge here in the more academic sense, because the data is pretty much the same, and the ideas themselves are not all that different, but the metholodology, the language, and the interpreations are different. This essay, and it might include a part that I recall, or that might be part of a different essay, showed the limits of presenting her cultural knowledge within a scientific framework, but also showed how ineffective the scientific framework has been at times in representing ideas understood through traditional practices.
When this book is on, I think it’s very good, and the essays that work for me, were interesting, hard to argue with, and made clear sense.
Robot Dreams – 4/5 Stars
A lot of robot stories, and then some stories “about” “robots” in some tangential ways. The collection starts barreling toward the end in the last 100 pages or so where there’s a lot of short stories that can sometimes blend together a little bit, but the early and middle stories stand up as pretty strong and interesting. As other reviewers will mention, many of these stories appear in other collections, so if you’ve come to this collection late in your Asimov reading, it’s a lot of rehashing. But if you’re me, and you’ve only read a handful of stories, I, Robot, and a few novels, these are mostly new. And like the stories in I, Robot, and plenty of his other writing, there’s a lot of thought-experimenting happening here, in probably more ways than plot.
Some of the better stories are the ones that let the conceit driving the plot to keep going well past the “reveal” happening. For one, we are presented with a scientist revealing a discovery to governmental and military leaders that he has figured out a way to do arithmetic by hand on paper. Those leaders are shocked, think it’s a gmick or a trick, or think it’s unimportant because the world is so controlled by computers that they don’t even fully conceive how it could happen. The eventually figure out some ways to exploit this new discovery. A different, but similarly structured story tells us about a world controlled by Multivac (a story device Asimov uses in about a dozen stories in his career) a super computer that can accurately predict the voting patterns of the electorate in such a way that elections are now run by interviewing a single voter and predicting the election by imputting their answers to basic questions. Another story that stood out for me was one which re-explores the three laws of robotics, after a slight change to one opens up humans to vulnerability.
The collection over all explores a lot of different ideas, but is a little eclectic in its output, so be warned that reading it all in one go will likely make it blur a little.
The Feathers of Death – 3/5 Stars
This is the first novel by Simon Rvane, well known for his Alms for Oblivion series, which I am interested in but haven’t read anything from. I am curious about all those big British novels collections from the Pallisers to the Forsyte Saga to Brothers and Strangers to Dance to the Music of Time to the Cazalet Chronicles, but have only read sparingly, as they’re all big undertakings.
Anyway! This is presented through an imprint called the Gay Men’s Press, which checks out, but is oddly marketing as a “Gay adventure” which feels out of sorts for the content here about colonial violence and homophobia and plenty of unnecessary death and violence. The tone doesn’t scream adventure to me, and is closer to the William Golding Rites of Passage books that would come out twenty years later.
More so, this is an anti-colonial book as a regiment is sent to an English African colony to put down an uprising, and finds the time in the aftermath of the quelling of the uprising to try a gay man for murder after his lover is killed under suspicious circumstances. It has the weird feeling of novels and movies where the chaos and violence of the apocalypse is somehow set aside five minutes for a smaller also violent form of oppression.
The Invention of Sound – 2/5 Stars
|A not particularly good Chuck Palahniuk is still curious and interesting. But his worst books indulge in bad tendencies and gross-out moments that aren’t situated in fun or thrilling narratives. This book, whose title comes from its main character’s job as a foley artist, is basically a gross-out version of “The World’s Funniest Joke” by Monty Python, which is unfortunate as South Park and even Chuck Palahniuk have already written those stories before. It does raise the question of “what if snuff films” but audio?|
The Drowned Cities – 4/5 Stars
|I am not sure what to call this book, and maybe a word exists, and maybe it doesn’t, but this is a follow-up to the novel Shipbreaker, in the sense that it takes place within the same world and with a lot of the same context. I think you could probably read this one on your own with having read that (not there’s a reason to) and you wouldn’t be lost storywise, but context wise you would.
We begin in a small town where a doctor and his assistant are healing the wounded. The town is occupied by a local militia group made up of resisters to a previous occupied army. Our assistant is missing one hand, a gift of being a child of mixed parentage (local and occupying army). On a scavenging mission, she and her friend come across a wounded half-man. Thinking he’s dead, the two kids try to pull out his teeth to sell on the black market. Not being dead, he minds this very much. He holds the boy captive sending the girl back to get medical supplies. In town, she finds a group of the local militia recovering (or dead) from a recent attack (the half-man) and they waylay her getting back. This triple tension creates the conflict in the novel.
Shipbreaker spends a lot more time building up the world and as a consequence there’s more heart there, but this one is still strong.
The Woman in White – 4/5 Stars
A book that took me 15 years to read (kind of) and I had always thought of it as a kind of ghost story. And in a way, it’s kind of a ghost story, but like The Moonstone, it ends up being pretty squarely a mystery novel, just one without a detective. In a way, we are the detectives as we piece together the story and the truth from the assorted narratives and documents that create this novel. We have several direct narratives, depositions, police inquests, letters, interviews and other kinds of written texts.
The story begins with an art master being hired to tutor a young lady. They of course fall in love, and of course, since she is engaged to be married, they can’t pursue it. But falling in love causes a scandal in the heart of the young lady who presents this to her fiance (not someone she really wants to marry but agreed to based on finances) who rejects her appeal to release her from he promise, not to marry another, but to be alone in her shame and sin. (was great to be a young woman [ever] in the 1850s).
She rejects her appeal and they marry. We find out later that she has died of illness of the heart.
Or did she? The clues pile up, and are young art master is on the case trying to find out what exactly happened to her, and if she’s still alive, locate her, and if she’ll have him marry her. The question of course arises, how deep is the mystery? Is it just about money? Or something more?’