Damn John C. Wright for writing a story that has been bouncing around in my head for years, but like so many stories, I never wrote: children who wentDamn John C. Wright for writing a story that has been bouncing around in my head for years, but like so many stories, I never wrote: children who went on a magical adventure to another world grow up, and then the evil returns and they must face it again as adults.
Well, the idea is not wholly original. Stephen King did it in It. Lev Grossman did it in The Magicians. But those were both R-rated deconstructions of a children's portal fantasy, while One Bright Star to Guide Them is a loving tribute.
The land Tommy and his friends journeyed to is very obviously a Narnia analog (there is even a lion in the end), and one way in which I felt the story dragged a bit was that Wright tried to make up for the fact that this little novella is not really a sequel to an established work of children's fantasy by packing the pages with descriptions of the Summer Knights and the Lands of the Fairy and magic mirrors and the One Good Werewolf in the World and a host of other names and events that supposedly happened during the protagonists' childhood adventures but which the reader has never actually read. These are frequently recited to us by Tommy, the last hero standing, as he seeks out his former companions and tries to get them to join him in his quest, only to find out that they have been corrupted or made fearful by adulthood and the loss of magic and innocence.
Tommy, called upon to save the world once more by a talking cat, has various MacGuffins to acquire. Many of his adventures are simply related to us after the fact. In the process he has his own heart and soul tested, and the ending is suitably epic, if abbreviated.
There's definitely a Christian subtext here, as with the Lewis stories that Wright is paying tribute to. If you read and remember fondly the Chronicles of Narnia, or any children's series of that genre (but especially Narnia), then One Bright Star to Guide Them will certainly spark some fond memories and is worth reading. On the other hand, if you don't particularly care for children's portal fantasies, then this novella is not really a grown-up version of one, nor a subversion, so you may not find much here to savor....more
This novella by former military officer Tom Kratman is obviously inspired by and throwing a twist into the worlds of Keith Laumer's Bolo series. BolosThis novella by former military officer Tom Kratman is obviously inspired by and throwing a twist into the worlds of Keith Laumer's Bolo series. Bolos, if you have never read those books (and you really should if you are any kind of military SF fan), are sentient war machines, futuristic tanks with minds and even souls, figuratively speaking. Laumer's stories were not just war stories, but stories about the relationships between fighting men and their machines, and they're genuine classics of the genre.
Kratman has a big legacy to live up to here, and I felt this story did a serviceable job. His Ratha are massive sentient tanks with enough firepower to level cities, and capable of taking near-direct hits from nuclear weapons. Like Laumer's Bolos, the Ratha have been programmed not just as intelligent war machines, but machines with feelings, capable of feeling pain and grief, pride and, in the case of MGD aka "Magnolia" aka "Maggie," betrayal.
Maggie, heavily damaged in her last battle and waiting to be scrapped, questions why she's been given the capacity to feel, and makes us question why you would want to create a sentient weapon of mass destruction with emotions, as we walk back through her "life."
Kratman's political metaphors are not subtle, and he is clearly exercising some venom he feels about the current state of the U.S. military and global politics. But whether or not you care to try to identify the intended real-world analogs of Maggie and her masters, this is military SF with heart. The ending is not much of a surprise, but Big Boys Don't Cry is certainly more than just a war story about a giant machine, though if you like copious details about weaponry and armor and extended descriptions of shit getting blown up, there is plenty of that....more
This is the sort of the book that will either blow your mind or leave you confused and annoyed. Unfortunately, I fall into the latter category.
Self-ReThis is the sort of the book that will either blow your mind or leave you confused and annoyed. Unfortunately, I fall into the latter category.
Self-Reference ENGINE is "not a novel, not an anthology; it is a SELF-REFERENCE ENGINE." What it is is very weird science fiction surrealism, with a thin thread of - I won't call it a plot, more like a theme or some common ideas - running through disjointed chapters that sometimes refer to one another and sometimes seem dropped in at random from some other book.
At the heart of the book is the "giant corpora of knowledge," collections of artificial intelligences that exist in the future but became extinct in the past, become quite upset to realize they don't actually exist, triggered an Event that split the universe into an infinite number of realities, and are visited by a star-man named Alpha Centauri who tells them very politely that they are unfortunately a bit inconvenient and will need to be pushed out of the way. (I suspect that tones of Hitchhiker's Guide were not coincidental - there are a lot of other in-jokes for serious literary and sci-fi geeks.)
Originally written in Japanese by a theoretical physicist (Toh EnJoe is a pen name) and translated into English, I think much of my problem with this book was the translation. The tone and cadence of language changes dramatically - for example, the constant repetition of the phrase "giant corpora of knowledge" (there are actually in-book explanations why they can't simply be referred to as "computers" or "AIs") - but also the style does not flow in English. I've read other Japanese books in translation and know that sometimes even the best translation can be a little choppy or odd - Japanese literature is just different from Western writing - but I didn't have this problem with Murakami or Abe or Kawabata. Still, I suspect even if I read it in the original Japanese I'd have found this book hard to get through, despite being fairly short.
There are lots of very bizarre and interesting ideas, from quantum physics to alternate realities. Zeno's Paradox and time travel mechanics get passing mentions, but what will probably stick with you are the arguments with a sentient bobby sock, the girl who fires a bullet into the future, that one of the narrators worries will be aimed at one of his testicles, and the giant corpora of knowledge that are recursive and matrioshka-like, and sometimes take the form of old Japanese men in a traditional print shop, and sometimes are more like constructs out of the Matrix.
Reading this was an experience. I just can't call it a fun experience. It's worth looking at, because it's probably unlike anything you've read before, but it seems like one of those books destined to become a cult favorite by the elitist of nerds who will look down their noses at you if you claim you like Japanese science fiction. "Oh yeah?" they'll sneer. "I'll bet you mean weaboo shit like Gundam and Battle Royale." And of course Haruki Murakami is for hipsters. But read some Toh EnJoe, man, that's real Nipponophile cred.
I wish I'd liked this book more. It's of those books that leaves you with the disquieting feeling that maybe you just weren't smart enough to appreciate it....more
I have a read a lot of superhero novels. There isn't a nerdier, more ridiculous premise, not even dragon fantasy or space opera, and also hardly a fanI have a read a lot of superhero novels. There isn't a nerdier, more ridiculous premise, not even dragon fantasy or space opera, and also hardly a fantasy/sci-fi premise harder to do well as a book. Some authors just revel in the cheesiness of a four-color universe, others try to take them seriously, some tackle superheroes "scientifically" and make them just another science fiction concept.
Please Don't Tell My Parents I'm a Supervillain is more towards the four-color end of the spectrum, but it's not cheesy. Instead, it's written as if it takes place in a standard kid's superhero comic universe, and then plays it straight. Every genre convention is observed and taken seriously. Penelope Akk and her friends live in a world with an extensive superhero mythos of its own — there is magic (which Penelope's super-scientist dad refuses to acknowledge) and there was a secret alien invasion that all the heroes and villains know about but most of the "civilian" world does not, there are unspoken rules governing conduct between heroes and villains which most (but not all) of the villain observe, and in Northeast West Hollywood Middle School, there are numerous children of superheroes (and villains).
Penelope Akk's father is Brian Akk, a super-genius inventor, and her mother is the Auditor. Her friend Claire in the daughter of the retired super-seductress the Minx. Her friend Ray is... well, we don't learn much of anything about his parents in this book, though what little we do learn implies that they aren't good.
When Penelope's powers start to manifest, her parents are proud but tell her it will probably take four years for them to develop enough for her to become a full-fledged superhero. Little do they know that Penelope's gift for mad science is evolving at record speed, and soon Penelope is creating gadgets even her father couldn't conceive. When she concocts a formula that triggers Claire and Ray's powers, the three of them decide to get a start on their own superhero careers... except an ill-timed run-in with a sidekick who also happens to be their school's Mean Girl puts them on the wrong side of a public brawl, and suddenly the three of them are... villains!
Worse, they discover they're really good at it.
This is a fun, young adult romp with enough homage to classic superhero tropes to entertain even an adult (if you like superheroes). If your favorite character has always been the mad scientist/gadgeteer/supergenius type - the Reed Richards, the Tony Stark, the Lex Luthor - then this book is for you. Penelope's power has almost a mind of its own as she goes into a sort of trance state in which she starts building things that could only exist in a world with superhero physics, but she also turns out to have a genius for plotting and tactics. She and her friends go from one battle to the next, cleaning the clocks of much more experienced superheroes and supervillains, and making a name for themselves: The Inscrutable Machine.
Richard Robert's superhero universe is well-rendered - it has exactly the feel of a long-running comic book universe with its own history and continuity, established old timers, mighty powers whose names are spoken with awe, old battles and grudges, a big pool into which these three middle schoolers are now wading.
It seems like most of the negative reviewers complain that this book isn't "heroic" enough - Penelope and her friends stumble into being bad guys through mischance, but although they're never evil, and plan to "reform" eventually, they discover they kind of like making chumps out of heroes and proving they can hold their own against grown-ups. Thus, they embark on a number of schemes that are, let's face it, worse than criminal mischief, all while telling themselves they'll just go straight before their parents find out. This hardly makes them the noblest of "heroes" (though they remain rather adorable), but it does make them believable thirteen-year-olds, whose moral lobes haven't fully developed yet.
I actually thought this book treated its middle-school protagonists with surprising maturity - they act like kids, but kids on the threshold of adulthood. They are smart enough to compete with adults, but not wise enough to know when they shouldn't. They are starting to feel the rush of hormones, and you can tell that Claire is going to be big trouble when puberty really hits.
Mostly, though, the powers, the supers, and the battles were just awesome.
I give it 4.5 stars for pure fun, but your mileage will vary unless you are a superhero devotee like me. The book was a little bit bloated - there are a lot of extraneous scenes that were interesting but probably could have been cut. Also, the one point I got hung up on, challenging my suspension of disbelief even in a superhero novel, was the Inscrutable Machine's ability to fool their parents and keep their secret identities. Penelope's parents are both supergeniuses, and as a supervillain, she goes around calling herself "Bad Penny" - now come on!
But, I'm still rounding up to 5 stars because it hooked me hard enough to definitely buy the sequel!...more
Did you know that Jack London wrote a post-apocalyptic novel? I didn't!
"The Scarlet Death broke out in San Francisco. The first death came on a Monday
Did you know that Jack London wrote a post-apocalyptic novel? I didn't!
"The Scarlet Death broke out in San Francisco. The first death came on a Monday morning. By Thursday they were dying like flies in Oakland and San Francisco. They died everywhere—in their beds, at their work, walking along the street. It was on Tuesday that I saw my first death—Miss Collbran, one of my students, sitting right there before my eyes, in my lecture-room. I noticed her face while I was talking. It had suddenly turned scarlet. I ceased speaking and could only look at her, for the first fear of the plague was already on all of us and we knew that it had come. The young women screamed and ran out of the room. So did the young men run out, all but two. Miss Collbran's convulsions were very mild and lasted less than a minute. One of the young men fetched her a glass of water. She drank only a little of it, and cried out: "'My feet! All sensation has left them.' "After a minute she said, 'I have no feet. I am unaware that I have any feet. And my knees are cold. I can scarcely feel that I have knees.'
I was expecting a nifty adventure in the tradition of H.G. Wells or Edgar Rice Burroughs after reading The Call of the Wild, but The Scarlet Plague, written in 1912, seems to be from a later stage in Jack London's career when, according to Wikipedia, he was often just churning out stories to pay for upgrades on his ranch. It rather shows - that dialog, above, is hardly realistic, and London's imagined plague, striking in 2013, shows little imagination, and his futuristic world even less.
This wasn't a bad story, it just wasn't particularly exciting or original, and I doubt it was very original even in 1912. There isn't much tension, because it's all narrated by an old man, once a Professor of English Literature at UC Berkeley, telling his savage grandchildren how the plague came over 60 years earlier. His incurious grandsons rudely complain and call him names whenever he uses words they're not familiar with.
It is an interesting early entry in the post-apocalyptic sub-genre, and while I could compare it to any number of later global plague novels, if I had to guess which modern author was most heavily influenced by it, I'd say Cormac McCarthy, with his surprisingly similar (and equally tedious) novel The Road, which like The Scarlet Plague shows little concern about the science of the disease that ended civilization or the details of the world, but is centered on one survivor trying to keep the fire alive. The fact that both novels end on the California coast also seems an interesting coincidence.
That said, you might want to read this for historical reasons if you are into post-apocalyptic novels, but I don't think it was one of London's best....more
Wow! I don't know if I've ever actually read a Jack London story before. I suppose I must have in elementary school. But The Call of the Wild, a shortWow! I don't know if I've ever actually read a Jack London story before. I suppose I must have in elementary school. But The Call of the Wild, a short novel of 84 pages, is really an excellent adventure - simple, straightforward, but with crisp prose, rousing adventure, and who doesn't love a dog story? And no sentimental tail-wagging doggie here, but a metaphor for the ancient struggle between civilization and nature, the blessings and disadvantages of giving up our ancestral survival instincts and attunement to the natural world for the comforts of hearthfires and permanent shelter.
Buck, our furry protagonist, is half-Saint Bernard, half-German Shepard. He starts life as the lazy pet of a wealthy California judge, but during the Klondike gold rush of 1897, big dogs like Buck are in high demand as sled dogs, so he is kidnapped and sold up the coast to begin a new life. He soon learns the way of fang and club, as this formerly gentle giant proves to be a sort of Conan among canines. Not just in brute strength and capacity for violence, but also in cunning.
He was beaten (he knew that); but he was not broken. He saw, once for all, that he stood no chance against a man with a club. He had learned the lesson, and in all his after life he never forgot it. That club was a revelation. It was his introduction to the reign of primitive law, and he met the introduction halfway. The facts of life took on a fiercer aspect; and while he faced that aspect uncowed, he faced it with all the latent cunning of his nature aroused. As the days went by, other dogs came, in crates and at the ends of ropes, some docilely, and some raging and roaring as he had come; and, one and all, he watched them pass under the dominion of the man in the red sweater. Again and again, as he looked at each brutal performance, the lesson was driven home to Buck: a man with a club was a lawgiver, a master to be obeyed, though not necessarily conciliated. Of this last Buck was never guilty, though he did see beaten dogs that fawned upon the man, and wagged their tails, and licked his hand. Also he saw one dog, that would neither conciliate nor obey, finally killed in the struggle for mastery.
Jack London made Buck a compelling protagonist — while the dogs are anthropomorphized just a little, depicted as having greater understanding and self-awareness than real dogs probably do, they do not speak, or behave in any other way unrealistically. (Well, towards the end, Buck becomes something of a super-dog, capable of heroic feats like pulling a thousand-pound sled and defeating black bears, wolverines, Indian tribes, and wolf packs by himself. But let's give Jack London some artistic license.) Buck's gradual awakening to his true primitive nature evolves from his understanding of men with clubs, to his fatal duel with a rival huskie, to his penultimate stage of life, at last, with a man he truly loves, and then his final trek into the wilderness.
This is a very masculine, adventuresome book and I can see why it's popular with kids, especially boys. Jack London clearly idealized the wilderness and the life of a primitive, though it may have contributed to his own early demise. In reality, of course, the life of a dog turned loose in the wild is likely to be brutal and short, but you can read The Call of the Wild and imagine Buck running free in the Alaskan Yukon, howling with his wolf-brothers.
It's a great little story, not all that deep, but it does resonate with clear and powerful themes, and Jack London's prose goes down surprisingly well....more
Cited as an early satirical work and one of the first English historical novels, Castle Rackrent is the story of the Rackrents, formerly the O'ShaughlCited as an early satirical work and one of the first English historical novels, Castle Rackrent is the story of the Rackrents, formerly the O'Shaughlins, a family of land-holding Anglo-Irish aristocrats who sink into dissolution and ruin over the course of four generations. The narrator, "Old Thady" or "Honest Thady," is the Rackrents' steward. Offering occasionally obsequious, occasionally wry commentary, never directly insulting the family he's served for his entire life but making it pretty clear that some of them are wastes of space, Thady is also supposedly an early example of an unreliable narrator.
As a work of satire, Castle Rackrent isn't that funny, though the Rackrents are certainly comical figures. Thady describes one Rackrent heir after the next: the generous but spendthrift Sir Patrick O'Shaughlin, the litigious Sir Murtagh Rackrent, the cruel Sir Kit Rackrent, who abuses his Jewish wife and locks her in her bedroom for seven years, and the last of the Rackrents, Sir Condy, who ends up selling the estate to the narrator's son, Jason. It emerges as a single long stream of narration, interspersed with Thady's highly vernacular commentary, telling the history of Castle Rackrent until at least it falls into the hands of their long-time Irish steward's son.
Politically, this book was apparently something of a hot potato, being published just prior to the 1800 Act of Union that supposedly united Ireland with Britain. Edgeworth was ostensibly describing the Irish people for her English readers. From the Author's Preface:
For the information of the IGNORANT English reader, a few notes have been subjoined by the editor, and he had it once in contemplation to translate the language of Thady into plain English; but Thady's idiom is incapable of translation, and, besides, the authenticity of his story would have been more exposed to doubt if it were not told in his own characteristic manner. Several years ago he related to the editor the history of the Rackrent family, and it was with some difficulty that he was persuaded to have it committed to writing; however, his feelings for 'THE HONOUR OF THE FAMILY,' as he expressed himself, prevailed over his habitual laziness, and he at length completed the narrative which is now laid before the public.
As she puts it, the Irish were more alien to the English than the people of continental Europe. Her description of the Irish is sympathetic yet slightly condescending; betwixt the lines one sees the sharp criticism of English overlordship, and how mismanagement by profligate and irresponsible, mostly absentee, landlords has driven the Irish to poverty and pathos.
That said, it's a very early work. The novel form was still being refined. Edgeworth writes with a certain amount of humor and depth, but I saw little of the wit or understanding of story found in Jane Austen's much better novels, which came a few years later. This would be of interest to people with a historical interest in Anglo-Irish relations, and Edgeworth casts neither the English nor the Irish as heroes or villains; they're just two groups of people thrown together into a historical stew; the bloody outcome persisting for generations was probably not foreseeable by the author, even if she shows an awareness of what sort of calamity is already being perpetrated. 2 stars for entertainment value, 3 stars for its historical value and place in literary history....more
A number of other reviewers have made the obvious comparison to Xanth, and they're right - this first book in a prolonged series reads very much likeA number of other reviewers have made the obvious comparison to Xanth, and they're right - this first book in a prolonged series reads very much like a slightly more mature Piers Anthony novel. But only slightly. The River of Dancing Gods is part traditional portal-epic fantasy, part satire of that genre. Chalker must have had a lot of fun writing this, but in his self-aware parody, he sometimes comes off as trying a little too hard to convince us it's all a joke. "See, the bit about beautiful women walking around half-naked, it's in the Rules!" Yeah, okay Jack, I get it, you're being totally subversive. Har har.
Ruddygore turned to Marge. “You realize, of course, that you’re almost more in a state of undress than dress. That’s what Joe was talking about.” “Well, yeah, but…Oh, those books again.” Ruddygore nodded. “Volume 46 is mostly concerned with appearances. Page 119, section 34(a)—‘Weather and climate permitting, all beautiful young women will be scantily clad.’ It’s as simple as that.” She just stared at him.
Marge and Joe, a trucker and a woman on the run, find themselves at a literal ferry crossing, where they meet an enormously-girthed wizard named Ruddygore who gives them the classic call to adventure, layered with a bit more metaphysics. Chalker builds his alternate world with a story about heaven and hell and how the magical fantasy world of Husaquahr was built as a sort of prototype for the "real" world, Earth. Ruddygore needs a couple of adventurers from Earth, for rather obscure reasons that aren't completely explained in this book, to help prevent the Dark Baron from conquering Husaquahr, which hell will then use as a beachhead from which to launch an invasion of Earth.
Upon crossing over, Joe becomes a brawny, iron-thewed barbarian warrior complete with a magic sword, and Marge becomes a half-naked elfin witch. The two of them go through a quick training period, then acquire a group of companions to accompany them on their quest, which involves a Circe-like sorceress who transforms men into animals, some battles with enemy soldiers in the mountains, a neurotic dragon, a genie in a magic lamp, and finally, a big staged battle between fantasy armies.
This is a classic, cliche-heavy epic fantasy, but the twist is that it's deliberately and intentionally so - when the angels created Husaquahr, they did so with a book of Rules concerning how magic and quests and everything else were supposed to work. Then a Council of wizards took over the job, and like all bureaucracies, has added to it over time until now the Rules are an immense library governing everything from genies to magic swords to barbarian heroes to the attire of beautiful young women. Each chapter begins with an excerpt from these Rules, so we are continually reminded that there's a reason for the cliches.
And here's how it ends:
He sighed. “Remember back at the start of this thing? Remember, Marge, when you labeled it the start of an epic?” She chuckled. “Yes, I remember. I didn’t know how true that was when I joked about it.” “You still don’t,” he told her. “The Books of Rules, Volume 16, page 103, section 12(d).” “Yeah? So what’s that crazy set say about us?” Joe wanted to know. “All epics must be at least trilogies,” Ruddygore replied, and laughed and laughed and laughed…
This book was fun, light reading, though were some passages where it felt like Chalker was just kind of filling space by telling us what happened between the scenes he really wanted to write. The worldbuilding hints at a bit more complexity than is immediately apparent, but nothing like his Well World or Quintara Marathon series. This is basically a book that's a product of its time, the 80s boom in epic fantasy of indifferent quality, and while Chalker is always an entertaining author, this series was probably not his best work. The first book was okay, but I'm not really motivated to read the rest.
I downloaded this ebook as a free Phoenix Pick, and then randomly read it out of order in my TBR queue because I used to really like Jack Chalker but had not read him in a long time. (FYI and OT, if you are a SF&F fan, especially if you like older stuff, you should subscribe to the Phoenix Pick newsletter - they offer a free ebook every month, usually an older first-in-a-series book, and have a nice mix of classic formerly OOP SF and new stuff for sale.)...more
Margaret Atwood is a marvelous writer but not such a marvelous science fiction writer, in my opinion. Her characters are engaging and compelling, herMargaret Atwood is a marvelous writer but not such a marvelous science fiction writer, in my opinion. Her characters are engaging and compelling, her writing is excellent, and the story draws you in, but the worldbuilding does not bear too much scrutiny; her "SF" (a label she once shied away from) is more a loose collection of fancies to support her story. The Handmaid's Tale was an excellent dystopian novel with compelling, if heavy-handed and not entirely plausible politics; Oryx and Crake, which takes aim at corporate states, consumer capitalism, and genetic engineering, is an eco-apocalypse in which mad scientists wipe out humanity and replace it with... something else.
The story skips between the present, in which "Snowman" is babysitting a race of Eloi-like neo-humans, and the past, in which Snowman was named Jimmy, and he had a genius best friend named Crake and a lover named Oryx, who was a survivor of a pedophile/child porn ring. Then Crake bioengineered an apocalypse, and Jimmy wound up being the last man on Earth. Snowman's flashbacks set up the world, in which corporations have entirely replaced governments, all food is genetically engineered frankenfood, and scientists are creating hybrid monstrosities like kangalambs, rakunks, wolvogs, and pigoons. Gradually the flashbacks catch up to the present, in which Snowman is responsible for "the children of Crake," genetically engineered humans whom Crake created to breed out all the "imperfections" of man — violence, competitiveness, jealousy, religion, territoriality.
The obvious but unspoken question the book leaves us with is: can these peaceful, childlike beings who've been carefully engineered to never want to build or conquer or possess be considered "human" at all?
I enjoyed the book because Atwood is of course a superb writer, but once you've absorbed her unrelentingly depressing vision of the future and her bizarre (and rather silly) genetically engineered creations, there isn't much else to the story except the final revelation about how the apocalypse we already know came occurred. Snowman, in his post-apocalyptic squalor, decides to take a hike to get some supplies, dodging wolvogs and pigoons, and while there's a bit of a cliffhanger at the end (this book is the first in a trilogy), it's mostly about Jimmy and his sad, angsty life, brooding in the ruins.
Really a 3.5 star book, which I'm rounding to 4 because Atwood is such a superior writer, but I don't know if I'll be bothered to read the rest of the trilogy....more
Warning: This book review comes with extensive soapboxing - I have my own take on the situations described here, based on personal experience as an exWarning: This book review comes with extensive soapboxing - I have my own take on the situations described here, based on personal experience as an ex-pat in Korea. So, take the rant into account with my rating.
I was originally going to give this self-published novel my usual "one to three chapters and done" treatment unless I really liked it.
I did not really like it, but I kept reading, which I suppose says something about its readability, but I still can't give a very high recommendation. I think this is an ambitious attempt at a contemporary, multiple-POV, cross-cultural literary novel that doesn't quite succeed. I respect the author's efforts, but the finished product is lacking.
Much of my interest in the story (and probably why I kept reading) is that two of the main characters are American English teachers in Korea at a time not long after I spent a year and a half teaching English in Korea. So I recognized a lot of the references and scenery and situations, and in a way, the characters (as in, "Yeah, I knew assholes like that").
The Korean Word for Butterfly takes place in South Korea in 2002, against the backdrop of the 2002 World Cup (held in South Korea that year) and the Yangju highway incident, in which a U.S. tank accidentally ran over two Korean schoolgirls.
This was shortly after my own tenure in South Korea - I was there a couple of years earlier - so I fortunately did not experience the anti-American sentiment that that incident stirred up, though of course there have been other incidents before and after that — I recall a student protest at the university where I was teaching in which they displayed graphic photographs of a Korean woman who'd been raped and murdered by a U.S. soldier. Fortunately, I never had any personal animosity directed at me. In fact, my experience in Korea was wonderful overall, one of the best experiences of my life. But I was conscious of the status I enjoyed just by virtue of being an English-speaking American, and though I tried not to be a dick about it, I probably did make some cross-cultural blunders and display some unintentional American arrogance, for which my gracious hosts never remonstrated with me. I also saw some other Westerners (not just Americans, for the benefit of all you Brits and Canadians and Aussies who want to get smug about how much more well-mannered y'all are abroad...) who were rude and arrogant douchebags — insensitive, greedy, and convinced that South Korea was a combination ATM machine and nation-wide massage parlor.
There are three POV characters. The first is Billie, who with her boyfriend Joe came to Korea to teach English at a kids' school. Billie and Joe are purportedly graduates of Reed College, in Oregon, but in fact, they just graduated from high school the previous year and faked their college diplomas to get the teaching gig. They arrive in Korea convinced that they're qualified to teach English because hey, they're native speakers — how hard can it be?
Oh man. There is so much baggage to unpack here. The first thing to realize is that in Korea, private English schools (or "hogwans") are a huge business. English is absolutely mandatory for any Korean who aspires to any kind of professional or high-status job — regardless of whether they're actually going to need it, or will ever even speak to a foreigner. So parents enroll their kids (including preschoolers) in these English schools, which are for the most part unlicensed and unregulated and charge huge tuitions, and in which the chief draw is native English-speaking teachers. White English-speaking Westerners can come to Korea and make significant bank just because of their white faces and native language — not quite as much as in the pre-IMF era, but it's still the case even now. The better schools, and especially the universities, do try to hire foreigners who actually have a teaching degree, or at least a TEFL certificate, but the demand is high and checking of credentials is not rigorous, so a minimally or unqualified Westerner can easily walk into a job anywhere in the country and make more money than a Korean with a Master's degree in English education.
And let me tell you, being a native speaker of a language does not make you qualified to teach shit. Especially to children. I'd rather reenlist in the Army than spend 8 hours a day riding herd on a classroom full of children. That takes a special skill set over and above being able to teach language.
(For the record: I had a Master's degree in Teaching English as a Second Language when I went over there. So at least I was, theoretically, qualified. But I taught university students; I never had to work at a hogwan and I refused to do the summer kids' classes.)
So obviously, I was immediately biased against our two American teenagers who thought Korea would just be a fun money-making adventure. But in fairness, this kind of stunt was believable for kids that age, and it is not portrayed as an awesome thing for them to do — in fact, eventually, their fraud catches up with them.
But the main subplot involving Billie and Joe is Billie discovering shortly after they arrive that she is pregnant, and now that she's stuck here in another country with her high school sweetheart who has knocked her up, realizing that she doesn't really like him very much. This leads to immature and petty behavior on both their parts, which does little to endear either of them to the reader who already thinks they're kind of assholes for the whole "Let's pretend we're qualified English teachers" and their all-too-typical culture shock which leads to dismissive and condescending attitudes towards their host country.
That's one subplot. The other two POV characters are Korean employees of Kids Inc!, where Billie and Joe teach. One is Moon, who assists the owner. Moon is a former music producer who was living the fast life before he decided to do something less soul-sucking, like taking care of dumbass foreigners. Moon has an estranged wife and a young son, and it turns out, he is a former/reformed alcoholic who nearly dislocated his son's shoulder one drunken night (hence his estrangement). Now he's full of remorse and penitence, which is dwelled upon in angsty detail.
The third main character is Yun-ji, also an employee at the English school, working as an administrative assistant, whose duties also often involve trying to clean up after the foreign teachers' messes. (I felt so sorry for these office ladies, who are present at every hogwan and university extension, because yes, us foreign teachers tended to take up an enormous amount of their time even when we weren't being offensive, unprofessional, calling in sick over hangovers, sleeping with students, and other nonsense which is, sadly, almost routine and expected from foreigners.) Yun-ji is quite aware that Billie and Joe are making four times what she does just because they speak English natively, but she's always kind and helpful to them, as is Moon. But her subplot involves her hooking up with a handsome and charming American soldier, which makes discovering that, like Billie, she's got an unexpected visitor a case of very bad timing when the following week an American tank runs over two schoolgirls, provoking anti-American demonstrations.
One of the biggest problems with this book is that the three storylines above are not really connected, except that the characters all happen to work at the same place. Billie, Joe, Moon, and Yun-Ji all know each other, but their individual problems don't really intersect and they don't even talk to each other about them - Moon and Billie never learn about Yun-ji's pregnancy, Yun-ji and Moon never learn about Billie's, Billie meets Moon's son but she and Joe never really get to know him well enough to be involved with his own family drama, so they're essentially a group of superficial acquaintances thrown together during a period that's stressful on each of them but for entirely separate and unrelated reasons.
The Korean Word for Butterfly seems to be trying to say something heartfelt, but what it's trying to say, I'm not exactly sure. Are we supposed to sympathize with Yun-ji, knocked up by an American soldier and not sure how to tell her alcoholic, American-hating father? With Moon, living in perpetual guilt and shame over one bad moment for which his spotless sobriety cannot atone? With Billie, an oblivious, privileged white girl who discovers shit got real when her equally privileged and oblivious boyfriend knocked her up? I suppose they are all sympathetic to a degree (Yun-ji and Moon much more so), but I actually found Billie and Joe more interesting, but less likeable, while Moon and Yun-ji were very nice people in very pat roles, nearly as pat as the snowball fight in the end that "brings everyone together."
This is, I think supposed to be a literary novel, though I'm not sure if the author is trying to invoke Jodi Picoult or Jonathan Franzen. But the writing is, while not bad, amateurish in construction and in stylistic affectation. Zerndt emphasizes portentously with chapters full of one-sentence paragraphs.
Outside the vegetable man and his cart have arrived. The human alarm-clock. The vendor of headaches and buh-nah-nuhs. I like it when he says that though. And lemon. He says it lay-mon. They're the only two words I can make out. The rest is a litany of Korean, all prerecorded, listing the specials of the day. I swear he parks his cart outside my window just to antagonize me. It's the perfect soundtrack to the miserable drama being played out inside this apartment. It definitely needed something Korean and hellish to accent it. Why does the caged bird sing again? I can't remember. All I know is that this bird is going to peck its eyes out if something doesn't change soon.
This is Billie's observant internal dialog. Poor baby.
Most of the book reads like this, regardless of POV.
This was a Kindle freebie, and I'm not sorry I read it, but I cannot say I'd have been happy if I'd paid for it. I think the author has writing talent but this is the sort of book that should have been a trunk novel or else polished with the help of a good professional editor. It's just not good enough for professional publication. On the other hand, apparently it's a big seller and getting lots of 5-star reviews on Amazon, so what do I know? This is not the first time I've been a bit baffled by the popularity of what to me seems like a sub-par novel, so clearly it is a good thing that after teaching English to Koreans, I went into computer science instead of publishing....more
Maxim Gorky was one of the USSR's favorite sons — there's a park named after him and everything.
The MotherGood godless commies, this book was a slog.
Maxim Gorky was one of the USSR's favorite sons — there's a park named after him and everything.
The Mother tells the story of Pelagueya Nilovna, mother of Pavel Vlasov. Nilovna, or "the Mother" as she is called throughout the novel, is married to a big wife-beating ogre of a man who works for the factory in some village. He dies, leaving the Mother alone with her teenage son, who turns out to be cut from very different cloth than his father. Pavel is a well-spoken, sophisticated young man who comes back after some time spent getting an education with revolution and love of all mankind in his heart.
The Mother is a pure revolutionary novel, written before the Russian Revolution actually happened and touting the praises of the glorious workers' revolution that would lift the serfs out of bondage and bring justice to the workers and the masters. It is full of miserable oppression and suffering by the working classes, long heartfelt speeches laced with very non-Soviet Christian subtext, and soapboxing by Pavel, the author's mouthpiece, and his friends.
"This is the way it ought to be!" said the Little Russian, returning. "Because, mark you, mother dear, a new heart is coming into existence, a new heart is growing up in life. All hearts are smitten in the conflict of interests, all are consumed with a blind greed, eaten up with envy, stricken, wounded, and dripping with filth, falsehood, and cowardice. All people are sick; they are afraid to live; they wander about as in a mist. Everyone feels only his own toothache. But lo, and behold! Here is a Man coming and illuminating life with the light of reason, and he shouts: 'Oh, ho! you straying roaches! It's time, high time, for you to understand that all your interests are one, that everyone has the need to live, everyone has the desire to grow!' The Man who shouts this is alone, and therefore he cries aloud; he needs comrades, he feels dreary in his loneliness, dreary and cold. And at his call the stanch hearts unite into one great, strong heart, deep and sensitive as a silver bell not yet cast. And hark! This bell rings forth the message: 'Men of all countries, unite into one family! Love is the mother of life, not hate!' My brothers! I hear this message sounding through the world!"
It is, frankly, quite boring. About the only positive thing I can say for The Mother is that Gorky does a good job of capturing Russia at a particular point in its history and from a particular angle, like a skilled photographer framing exactly the picture he wants to capture even if it does involve leaving a few things out of the picture.
Gorky describes the political awakening of the Mother as she proudly watches her son go to prison for what he believes. He recruits her to the cause of distributing illegal socialist literature to wake up the masses. The book ends in a long trial scene with more speeches, then the Mother picking up the cause of her exiled son.
Russia has never struck me as a particularly hospitable place to live. No insult to the Russian people, who have survived the worst that history can throw at them, but you just don't associate laughter, light, and joy with the place that went from brutal Czars to brutal Soviets. I can't blame Gorky for not knowing what his revolution would reap, but as a novelist, he was a less entertaining soapboxer than Tolstoy and his characters are all mouthpieces and plot puppets. His descriptions are, I admit, vivid and alternately grim and humorous, and some of my disdain for the writing may be the result of an inferior translation.
The factory spread itself like a huge, clumsy, dark-red spider, raising its lofty smokestacks high up into the sky. The small one-storied houses pressed against it, gray, flattened out on the soot-covered ground, and crowded up in close clusters on the edge of the marsh. They looked sorrowfully at one another with their little dull windows. Above them rose the church, also dark red like the factory. The belfry, it seemed to her, was lower than the factory chimneys.
The mother sighed, and adjusted the collar of her dress, which choked her. She felt sad, but it was a dry sadness like the dust of the hot day.
"Gee!" mumbled the driver, shaking the reins over the horse. He was a bow-legged man of uncertain height, with sparse, faded hair on his face and head, and faded eyes. Swinging from side to side he walked alongside the wagon. It was evidently a matter of indifference to him whether he went to the right or the left.
"Gee!" he called in a colorless voice, with a comical forward stride of his crooked legs clothed in heavy boots, to which clods of mud were clinging. The mother looked around. The country was as bleak and dreary as her soul.
"You'll never escape want, no matter where you go, auntie," the driver said dully. "There's no road leading away from poverty; all roads lead to it, and none out of it."
Shaking its head dejectedly the horse sank its feet heavily into the deep sun-dried sand, which crackled softly under its tread. The rickety wagon creaked for lack of greasing.
Still, I can't really recommend this book for entertainment, and I don't know why anyone would want to read it unless they're deeply interesting in early Bolshevik history or on a Russian literature jag. 2 stars is being generous — it's a serious work, just too damn serious and neither entertaining nor, with historical hindsight, convincing....more
This is John Scalzi's signature novel, the one that kicked off his popular military SF series and was supposedly going to be made into a movie.
I haveThis is John Scalzi's signature novel, the one that kicked off his popular military SF series and was supposedly going to be made into a movie.
I have enjoyed a lot of Scalzi's novels, but always found him to be a good writer, an entertaining writer, but never a great writer.
Old Man's War leaves me...underwhelmed.
By his own admission, this book is a Heinlein tribute. Hence the obvious similarities to Heinlein's "signature novel" (I suppose Heinlein purists might argue about this), Starship Troopers. It's got the same basic theme — humans going out into space and gotta toughen up to fight a hostile universe full of aliens who want to kill us. But what was glaringly apparent to this ex-military dude is that Scalzi, unlike Heinlein, has never worn a uniform and never spent much time hanging out with actual military folks. And when it comes to hostile, advanced aliens who would just as soon flick us off the table, David Brin does it so, so much better.
Old Man's War does have a lot of nifty and novel ideas. The "Old Man" of the novel is John Perry (a painfully Mary Sue-ish authorial stand-in - I mean, come on John, couldn't you at least have given your protagonist a different first name?), who at age 75 signs up for the Colonial Defense Force. Although humans are now colonizing other star systems, no one on Earth knows exactly what the situation is like out there among the stars. Hence the first few chapters reading like Anytown, Ohio (bearing a startling resemblance to John Scalzi's home town) has basically not changed in centuries. The CDF accepts septuagenarians into its service, who are never seen on Earth again. It is assumed that they have some sort of advanced technology to rejuvenate their elderly recruits, since otherwise why the hell would a military want old people with one foot in the grave? But no one knows exactly what the process is - when you sign up for the CDF, it's a one-way trip.
So John Perry leaves Earth, and finds out what the deal is - they're given vat-grown super-soldier bodies with green skin.
From here, we have Scalzi attempting to write all the usual military SF cliches - band of new recruits bonds, goes through basic training under the harsh tutelage of a weak imitation of Sergeant Zim who tells them that everything they know about the military and fighting aliens is wrong, etc., etc..
Once out of basic, Perry goes from one battle to another with the expected loss of friends in various encounters, but despite the bloody massacre in which he's the sole survivor of a bungled invasion and the graphic depiction of his injuries, it all feels so very bloodless. The verisimilitude just isn't there. The men and women of the CDF act like civilians who are going to an office job that happens to be very dangerous and involve aliens shooting at them, they don't really act like soldiers. Scalzi has no sense of the actual camaraderie formed under fire - his "band of brothers and sisters" is more like your old college gang getting together for boardgame night. He tries and fails to write convincingly about the attachment formed between a soldier and his weapons. There is no sense of the discomfort and crudeness of military life, even if they are flying around in starships. When John Perry encounters the "Ghost Brigades" - the CDF's special forces - Scalzi tries to convey the gap between CDF regulars and the Special Forces, but he's got no sense of what inter-service rivalry is really like.
And the aliens - the Consu, the Rraey - well, I've seen other reviewers praise Scalzi for writing "alien aliens" who aren't like Star Trek humans-in-latex-mask aliens, and I just don't see it. Sure, because in written form you can describe your aliens as being physically very different from humans, the aliens the CDF fights are not at all human in appearance, but even the Rraey, who think it's just peachy to eat other sentients, are described in very human terms. (They have a "celebrity chef" who broadcasts a cooking show about how to prepare humans. Maybe this was supposed to be funny, but it just made the Rraey seem cartoonish to me.)
I think this book will appeal to people who like "light sci-fi" but it is not really military sci-fi, even if it is about a colonial military fighting aliens. People generally like Scalzi for his humanistic style of writing, and in that sense perhaps he is the anti-Heinlein. This review may seem mostly negative, but I enjoyed Old Man's War and will probably read the other books in the series, but I didn't love it. It's not that it struck any wrong notes, just too many not-quite-right ones....more