Tag Archives: fantasy fiction

“The Ocean at the End of the Lane” by Neil by Gaiman

A friend handed me this book because “it’s as good as Terry Pratchett”! OK… but I’m ambivalent about Pratchett. See my eulogy, dated March 19, 2015. So where does this Gaiman novel rate on the Pratchett scale?

I would give if about at 90. Not as good as my absolute Pratchett favorites, but very good.

The plot (told entirely as a flashback): A child’s family life is disrupted by the suicide of a boarder. Strange events follow hard on – money keeps turning up – a lottery win, a found coin. Sounds good, but goes all wrong.

The child meets neighbors and they team up to wage a supernatural battle against the forces of disorder. It all makes sense when told from the eyes of the child.

I’ll take more of Gaiman with me to the beach. Perfect reading for a rainy day!

“After Alice – A Novel” by Gregory Maguire

I don’t quite know how to categorize this book. I’d be inclined to say “fan fiction” but I’m quite ignorant about that, and this book seems to be more highly regarded. A blurb on the back cover says it was reviewed in Kirkus Reviews. So I guess it is a “real novel”.

After Alice is a take on the Lewis Carroll classic – not the first I’ve read. It’s whimsical to the point of being bizarre, but so was the original.

Most of the story is told from the point of view of Ada, who barely shows up in the original book. It’s clever and amusing, and the “identity” of the Jabberwocky is a surprise. What I can’t quite figure out is how Maguire came up with Siam, a boy escaped from American slavery, now cared for by a visitor to England. Scarred and traumatized, Siam decides to stay in Wonderland when Alice and Ada go back to their “regular” lives. Are all the characters in Wonderland similar displaced persons?

Maguire also wrote Wicked, a modern version of The Wizard of Oz and source for the wildly popular Broadway musical of that name, which I have not yet seen. I’ll take a look at Wicked (the book) before I decide about Gregory Maguire.

“Seveneves” by Neal Stephenson

Published 2015. 861 pages.

SPECULATIVE FICTION is a wonderful thing! I loved this book! I liked it even better than the author’s Anathem, which I wrote about just after I began this blog (see June 27, 2013).

Science fiction is one way to describe this book, but it could also be called “social science” fiction. In particular, “anthropology fiction”. Emergence of new cultures! The clash of world views and values! And the anthropologist’s dream, contact with long isolated human groups.

Plot wise, this is fiction about disaster and survival. The plot astonished me several times. Stephenson plays around with all manner of archetypes and myths, including the Fall of Eve.

I love to read a book that makes me feel the author really enjoyed writing it. Stephenson has a goofy sense of humor. How else do you explain a character named Sonar Taxlaw? (It does make sense in the context.) He goes ahead and parodies contemporary public figures. POTUS Julia Bliss Flaherty = Hilary Clinton. Probably many other characters would be recognizable to readers more sophisticated than I.

In some ways, two thirds of the book is the set-up. If so inclined, Stephenson could have stretched this out longer than Game of Thrones.

There’s lots of biology in Seveneves, some of it fairly improbable. For example, some humans are capable of “epigenetic shifts”, that is, a change in which of their genes are expressed. Breeding humans that can swim long distances undersea and humans with intentionally “neanderthal” characteristics also seem unlikely. But it’s fiction, so why not go wild.

Stephenson invented (but did not develop) an entirely new social science called “Amistics”. It’s the study of how societies decide whether or not to adopt available new technology – honoring our plain living neighbors in Pennsylvania.

When an author creates so many characters, I have to wonder if there’s one with which he identifies. I’m betting on Tyuratum Lake, the canny bartender who sees and knows ALL.

A friend raised the issue of whether this type of literature is socially unhealthy because it leads people to believe we can irresponsibly trash the earth and then leave for space. This argument has been around for decades – nothing new. We all need to be responsible about how we choose to live. And we all need some escape literature! So why dump this guilt trip on Neal Stephenson in particular?

I enjoyed this book so much I burned through it in a week. I recommend it to anyone with a taste for Sci Fi or fantasy.

“In the Balance (World War, Book One)” by Harry Turtledove

Alternative historical fiction! A new genre to explore! And what a great idea! After all, who can resist speculating on “What if the South had won the Civil War?” So I downloaded this highly recommended book. The premise is extreme – what if space aliens had invaded Earth towards the end of World War II?

I think this would have worked better without the space aliens (any universal threat would do, like an epidemic), but they allowed for an interesting line of argument, namely that a reader of science fiction might have an advantage when communicating with bug eyed monsters. Turtledove’s monsters are rather like lizards. The point, I think, is that reading sci-fi makes you mentally flexible. I agree, as long as it’s not your only reading matter.

Despite this interesting starting point, I found the book to be plodding. The characters were interesting but their dilemmas were rather predictable.

Turtledove made one joke he didn’t intend. The aliens come from a hot, dry planet, and they are headed for a military denouement with American forces in Illinois in mid-winter. Yes, winter is coming! Let’s hear it for Game Of Thrones.

I enjoyed another book series that posited a different path for WW II. Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next novels take place in England, but after Nazi occupation during WW II. The occupation disrupted the country so extensively that Wales separated and became an independent nation. Tensions remained. This is not the theme of the books (which deal with the manipulation of time and the tribulations of heroine Thursday Next), but it provides an interesting subtext. (I think Fforde is classified as a writer of post modernist fantasy. I like him better than the other “postmodernists” I have encountered.)

I’ll read more by Harry Turtledove if I’m faced with truly challenging boredom (say a 30 hour train ride), but for now, I’m moving on to other authors.

“The Magicians: A Novel” by Lev Grossman – book AND TV series

I know I read this book many months ago, but I can’t find it in my blog. Maybe I was embarrassed about reading “junk”? Was I away on vacation? I read it on my Kindle.

“The Magicians” is like the Harry Potter books, but takes place in the USA and at the college level (graduate school in the TV series). A bright, moody young man is recruited by Brakebill’s University of Magic, an elite training ground for the magically inclined. Most of the faculty and students have read (and obsessed over) a series of books that sound just like the The Chronicles of Narnia by CS Lewis.

I went BACK to this book after the TV series started. We watched out of curiosity, to see if the series stayed close to the books. The casting is good, but the plot diverged early and extensively. As usual for me, I prefer the books. But I’ll start watching the series again if it shows the students traveling to Antarctica as a flock of geese!

I liked The Magicians better the second time I read it, when I wasn’t hurrying along just to figure out the plot. The TV series is darker and less coherent than the book, and I lack any particular taste for the dystopian.

“The Shepard’s Crown” by Terry Pratchett

This posthumous book is a total treat. It is subtitled “A Tiffany Aching Adventure”. We first met young Tiffany in “The Wee Free Men”, one of Pratchett’s funniest books. The five Tiffany Aching books are part of the Discworld series. Some people consider Discworld to be right up there with Narnia and Middle Earth.

Tiffany Aching is a witch in training. Her mentors and fellow witches are a typical Pratchett crowd of eccentrics. As usual, Tiffany faces off with the forces of evil (in this case, fairies) to save her rural community. It’s the details that make this book amusing.

If you want to read for fun, grab “The Wee Free Men” (the first Tiffany Aching Adventure) and get to know Tiffany and company. You will also meet the Nac Mac Feegles, a gang of riotous but well intentioned pixies who guard Tiffany, whether she wants them to or not.

Happy reading!

Terry Pratchett (1948 – 2015) Rest in Peace

I just checked my shelves to see how extensively Terry Pratchett was represented. I found six hard covered books and sixteen paperbacks. Two of my favorites are missing. They are The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents (which might have been my very first Terry Pratchett book) and The Wee Free Men; loaned out, no doubt, to family and friends who also love Pratchett’s zany humor.

One Pratchett character who made his way into our ongoing family chit chat was CMOT Dibbler. Yes, Cut-me-own-throat Dibbler, seller of highly suspicious meat patties. When one of us gets something “odd” in a restaurant, CMOT is mentioned.

Considering our employment at a local college, references to the irresistibly whacky Unseen University are inevitable.

It’s sad that Pratchett died at the relatively young age of 66, but beyond sad that he died of Alzheimer’s disease. Its hard to say if it was better or worse that he suffered from a form of the disease that was diagnosed while he was still entirely able to understand his grim prognosis. Pratchett looked death in the eye for years, and did so with amazing composure and strength.

Pratchett moved the discussion of death with dignity and assisted suicide into new and difficult territory. Most “aid in dying” laws, like the law in the state of Oregon, are designed in support of people with relatively short expected survival horizons, like six months. I don’t think any physician will make predictions about Alzheimer’s, as patients may live many years with the disease. And if an assisted suicide decision must be made by a person “of sound mind”, at what stage does a sufferer of Alzheimer’s cease to qualify?

I ponder these questions with particular care, because my mother died of Alzheimer’s in 1983, the same year Pratchett wrote his first Discworld novel. My mother would have loved Pratchett’s books! The Wee Free Men would have delighted her! She actively encouraged us to play “make believe”. I think maybe she believed in fairies. She might have liked the term Pratchett coined to describe his Alzheimer’s diagnosis – he called it an “embuggerance”. Pure Pratchett – if there isn’t a word for something, make one up!

So rest in peace, Sir Terry Pratchett! Thanks for all the laughter.