Random Reading

Here are three books I have enjoyed recently, with absolutely no connection to one another.

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Daisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid is a terrific novel. If you remember the 70s (although some say that if you think you remember that era you weren’t really there), you will recognize the time of sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll, and Daisy Jones pretty much exemplifies all that.

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The story covers the formation of the band called The Six, the tension, conflict, and success brought about by the addition of singer Daisy Jones, and the eventual sudden and unexplained (until now) break up of the band.

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Although Daisy was a spoiled brat in many ways, and a hard core addict, I was still pulling for her to somehow survive it all. Billy Dunne, leader of The Six, also deep into the drug scene (as was pretty much everyone in the cast) had enough redeeming qualities, and made enough good choices (Daisy rarely did) that I was pulling for him, too. And Karen, and Graham.

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The story is told in the form of bits of interviews, arranged by the nameless (until the end) Author; none of the characters are together through the interviews, but their versions of the story and their reactions to one another are skillfully braided together, in a sort of modern version of the old epistolary novel.

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It took me a while to find this book, but I’m so glad I did. Now I’ll have to keep an eye out for Reid’s other novels.

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A friend recommended Lyssa Kay Adams’ The Bromance Book Club, a book that might not otherwise have been on my reading radar, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. The premise, a group of men (most of them professional athletes) who read romance novels and regard them as “manuals” for puzzling out what the women in their lives really want, is as humorous as it sounds. The newest member of the club is baseball player Gavin Scott, whose wife of three years has thrown him out, for reasons he really doesn’t want to share with his friends. But he loves his wife, Thea, and he’s willing to take advice from his friends, as humiliating as that might be. If following the path to true love laid out in a paperback Regency romance called Courting the Countess (yes, there are excerpts) will get him back into Thea’s good graces, he’s willing to try. What could possibly go wrong?

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Well, it’s a funny, entertaining, heart-warming story, and of course all sorts of things go wrong. But Gavin and Thea are likable characters, clearly meant for each other, and worth rooting for. Adams also does an excellent job of showing how the hurts in their respective pasts cause problems in the present, and how sharing those buried secrets help to solve those problems.

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Thea and Gavin’s three-year-old twin daughters talk and sometimes act like six-year-old girls, and now and then Gavin’s male friends break into feminist rhetoric (if this was a movie they might break into song), but these are minor problems. On the whole The Bromance Book Club is funny and touching and optimistic, and well worth reading. My friend just picked up the sequel, Undercover Bromance.

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Not long ago I ran across an article listing good science fiction romances and thought that Finders Keepers by Linnea Sinclair looked particularly interesting. So I clicked on the Amazon link, only to learn that I had bought the book in June, 2016 — those little notices are definitely a blessing for bookaholics like me!

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So I located the book in my Kindle library, and a few days later I jumped in. I’ve been a science fiction fan all my reading life (and that goes back a long time), and I suspect Sinclair has been as well, because the science fiction aspects of Finders Keepers are as solid as the romance.

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Trilby Elliot is the captain and sole human crew member of an antiquated and beat up freighter called the Careless Venture. She and her android crewman Dezi are making repairs to the ship at her little hideaway on a rather inhospitable uninhabited planet when another space craft crashes nearby. Trilby rescues the pilot and brings him back to her rudimentary sick bay, where the equipment has a bit of trouble reading him.

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Trilby’s medical bay may be old and somewhat unreliable, but the truth is that Rhis Vanur really isn’t quite what—or who—he appears to be. By the time Trilby finds out the truth, she’s too far involved in galactic politics to get out. And she’s finding out the truth about far more than Rhis.

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Finders Keepers is just the ticket if you’re in the mood for a rousing space opera with a good (but never very graphic) romance running through it. My only complaint is that the ending seemed rather abrupt—and that Sinclair apparently never wrote a sequel (although she has written numerous other novels). I really wanted to know what happened next to Trilby, Rhis, and several of their colleagues.

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Now that I think about it, there is a connection: they all have love stories. That probably says something about my taste in books. I do like a happy ending.

Marie Brennan: Turning Darkness Into Light

One of my favorite science fiction/fantasy series of the last decade (or ever, for that matter) has been Marie Brennan’s Memoirs of Lady Trent, beginning with A Natural History of Dragons in 2013 and ending, alas, with Within the Sanctuary of Wings in 2017. So I was delighted to spot Turning Darkness Into Light last summer.

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Why it sat in one of my To Be Read stacks this long I have no idea, perhaps so I’d know I had one more book to read set in Lady Trent’s world, which is like our own in many ways, from its pseudo-Victorian social structures to its vaguely familiar (but strangely named) geography, but totally different in others, most especially the existence of a wide variety of dragons (non-sentient wild animals) and the remains of the ancient and mysterious Draconean civilization.

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Turning Darkness Into Light tells the story of Lady Trent’s granddaughter, Audrey Camherst, a philologist studying the clay tablets left behind by the ancient Draconeans. When she is recruited to translate a recently discovered cache of ancient tablets by Lord Gleinleigh, a collector of antiquities and the discoverer of the tablets (and a rather unpleasant fellow), she takes the job against her better judgment: Lord Gleinliegh’s restrictions seem unreasonable and his estate is isolated and unwelcoming. But the lure of previously undeciphered tablets is too much to resist. The project leads Audrey and her allies into misadventure, danger, conspiracy, and revelation.

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If you haven’t read the five books of Lady Trent’s memoirs, Turning Darkness Into Light will probably be wildly confusing, not to mention that it is full of spoilers for the earlier books (which is why I’m not going into more detail here). If you have read the series, this book provides many answers to “so what happened next?”

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Turning Darkness Into Light is an epistolary novel (something I love), told in the form of diary entries, letters, translations of the tablets, occasional newspaper clippings, and even a couple of police reports. Most of the story is told from Audrey’s point of view, but quite a variety of other characters have a chance to chime in, including Lady Trent herself.

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Perhaps I find this series so fascinating because I share a background in anthropology, archeology and folklore with Brennan, or because I love the alternate world premise, or just because I’m blown away by Brennan’s imagination and writing skill, but I highly recommend all six books. One of these years I’ll have time to reread them all (paper copies on my keeper shelf) without the year or two wait between volumes.

Nostaligia Fail

When I saw Poul Anderson’s Three Hearts and Three Lions on an ebook sale recently, I knew I had a paper copy on my SF&F keeper shelf, a very old copy with tiny print and slightly yellowed pages. So I downloaded the digital copy and set out to find out why I’d held on to the book for so long, decades in fact. I read a lot of Poul Anderson’s novels back in the day, and enjoyed them, but only kept a few.

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And having reread Three Hearts and Three Lions, I’m not entirely sure why I kept this one. All I remembered was the basic premise, a Danish engineer swept from a World War II battle to an alternate Faery/Carolingian world. His adventures there weren’t nearly as interesting now as I apparently found them forty years ago. Making allowances for the fact that the novel was published in the early 60s (and expanded from a novella written in the 50s), it’s no surprise that the writing seemed dated. The hero’s occasional bursts of humor were a welcome relief from the heavy lifting of working through the thick dialect of some of the characters, but the plot was rather episodic and confusing.

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Another old paperback still on my shelf is Anderson’s Midsummer Night’s Tempest, and I downloaded a copy of that to my Kindle. I love the premise: a world in which Will Shakespeare is a respected historian, writing about true events. But I couldn’t get past the thick dialect on the third page.

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Anderson was a giant in the science fiction and fantasy world, and undoubtedly a major influence on many authors who came after him, but the books I’ve reread haven’t held up for me. (I made a stab at the David Falkayn series a while back and wasn’t swept away by those novels, either, although I loved them long ago.)

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Perhaps some literary memories are best left undisturbed.

The Night of the Triffids

All bookaholics have books we’ve read more times than we remember. One of mine is The Day of the Triffids, by John Wyndham, an author my voracious reader parents introduced The Day of the Triffidsme to decades ago (my dad even kept a plant labeled triffidus americanus on the patio). Several of Wyndham’s other books also fall into the treasured book category, and a couple of years ago I even replaced my tattered copies with brand new editions (from their British publisher, through the Book Depository, as much of Wyndham’s work has gone out of print in this country).

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The Day of the Triffids tells of the collapse of civilization after much of the human population is blinded by a strange comet’s light show, while man-eating and mobile plants called triffids escape from greenhouses and gardens and overwhelm London, the countryside, and as far as anyone knows, the world. The novel ends with the narrator, Bill Masen, and his family safe, at least for the time being, in a growing colony on the Isle of Wight, defensible against triffids from the mainland.

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I only recently discovered The Night of the Triffids by Simon Clark, although it was published in 2001 and won the British Fantasy Award for Best Novel in 2002. Clark, The Night of the Triffidsprimarily known as an author of horror novels, wrote this sequel with the permission of Wyndham’s estate (Wyndham died in 1969) and with obvious respect and love for Wyndham’s work.

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The narrator of The Night of the Triffids is David Masen, Bill’s son. Some thirty years later, David pilots one of the ancient flying boats the Isle of Wight colony uses to maintain contact and trade with the other channel islands. One morning he awakens to total darkness, an echo of the long ago blinding. As the sunlight gradually comes back David’s adventures mount. Rescued after a crash by an American survey ship, he travels across the Atlantic to Manhattan, a seemingly idyllic island of civilization. But we all know that things are rarely as they seem.

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Clark piles on the disasters and surprises, and the triffids continue to terrify (some American triffids reach sixty feet in height), but he knows, as Wyndham did, that sometimes one’s fellow humans are more to be feared than the forces of nature.

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Clark is not Wyndham, but he’s done a good job of carrying on the voice and the story of The Day of the Triffids. I highly recommend all of Wyndham’s novels (Re-Birth and Out of the Deeps, British titles The Chrysalids and The Kraken Wakes respectively, are my other favorites, and The Midwich Cuckoos may be the best known after Triffids). The 1981 BBC TV version of The Day of the Triffids is excellent, and the most faithful to the novel, but unfortunately it seems to have gone out of print (if that’s the right term for an unavailable DVD).

 

Star Trek and Red Shirts

I watched Star Trek Beyond last night. No, I’m not the most up-to-date movie fan. I did manage to see the first Star Trek reboot film in a theater (where it was breathtaking). I watched Star Trek Into Darkness on TV. I watched Star Trek Beyond on my Fire, because it’s just come available on Amazon Prime. (I also have all the original series and Next Gen movies on my DVD shelf).

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I enjoyed Beyond. The movie had some humor, LOTS of action and explosions, people in red uniforms lying dead in corridors, fabulous CGI and special effects. Exactly, I suspect, what the movie makers were aiming for and what the audience wanted. There was even a sweet tribute to the late (and so very much lamented) Leonard Nimoy (Spock was always my favorite). Early in the movie, young Spock is disturbed by the news of Ambassador Spock’s death. Near the end, young Spock receives a box of Ambassador Spock’s belongings; he opens one intricate container to find a picture of the bridge crew from the original timeline.

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As much fun as the reboot movies have been, I still can’t quite see Chris Pine as Kirk. Karl Urban comes a little closer with McCoy—he has the acerbic wit and says what he thinks. Zachary Quinto comes closest as Spock—he does the mannerisms well, and he’s physically believable.

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But as much as I love a good alternate timeline story, as much as I’ve enjoyed the reboot movies as visually stunning space opera, I still have a hard time seeing them as “real” Star Trek.

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And now back to books: If you’ve ever been a Star Trek fan, the title of John Scalzi’s RedshirtsRedshirts says it all. Well, maybe not all, because the minute you (and the five newest crew members on the good ship Intrepid, flagship of the Universal Union, or Dub U) think you have it figured out, the story takes off in some new direction. I’m not going to give away much, because I love being surprised by a story, and this one bounced me around but good.

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The Trek universe redshirts were the extras who went on away missions with the regular cast. Guess who got killed. Often for no apparent reason, except to lead into a commercial break. No matter how much you enjoyed the Trek franchise, didn’t you ever suspect that the “science” side of the science fiction equation made no sense at all? And what about all those other people on the ship (three hundred or so on the original series, over a thousand on Picard’s Enterprise, at least 150 on Voyager)? What the heck were they doing in all those labs and on all those decks that we never saw?

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Redshirts is full of the most surprising answers to questions like that, sending up the whole SF TV genre from the inside (and with great love and respect). It won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2013, and it’s one of the most entertaining (and funniest) books I’ve read in a long time. My appreciation for John Scalzi rises another notch.

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It’s been fifty years now, hasn’t it? I still love Star Trek, old and new. Bring it on.

John Scalzi’s Fuzzy Reboot

Several years ago when I heard that John Scalzi had published Fuzzy Nation, a retelling of H. Beam Piper’s much loved 1962 classic Little Fuzzy, my first thought was Why? My second thought was No Thanks.

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Little Fuzzy and its 1964 sequel The Other Human Race (published together as The Fuzzy Papers) have remained on my keeper shelf for decades and multiple readings. Although Piper wrote numerous novels and short stories between 1947 and 1964, influencing many of the science fiction writers who came after him, he is probably best remembered for his Fuzzy tales. Other authors stepped in after Piper’s 1964 suicide and wrote Fuzzy sequels, which were knocked out of Piper’s time line by his own third Fuzzy novel, Fuzzies and Other People, discovered long after his death and published in 1984. (That one is on my shelf, too, along with The Complete Paratime, Piper’s Paratime Police/alternate timeline series.)

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Recently, though, I’d heard so much praise for Scalzi’s work that I picked up his latest novel, The Collapsing Empire, from the New Book kiosk at my local Half Price Books. Fuzzy NationLooked interesting, so I went back to the science fiction section to see what else they had and found a copy of Fuzzy Nation. Well, why not, I thought. If I hate it, I don’t have to read it.

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I didn’t hate it. I loved it.

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In his author’s note, Scalzi calls Fuzzy Nation a reimagining of Piper’s story, a “reboot” not unlike the recent Star Trek movies. I’ve enjoyed those, despite being a Trek fan since the premier of the original series. And I hadn’t read Piper’s stories in at least twenty years (so little time, so many books on my To Be Read shelves, and on my Kindle, and on my Keep To Reread shelves, and people keep writing new ones).

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Fuzzy Nation is indeed a reimagining of the story. It does begin with prospector Jack Holloway discovering a huge seam of sunstones on the apparently uninhabited planet Zarathustra XXIII. And Jack Holloway does indeed meet a family of Fuzzys (Scalzi’s rebooted spelling), adorable, clever, cuddly creatures vaguely resembling large bipedal cats. And Scalzi’s story, like Piper’s, revolves around the question of Fuzzy sentience. If the Fuzzys are people, Zara 23 will no longer be an uninhabited planet, and all the rules for its exploitation will change.

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Scalzi’s Holloway isn’t quite the same person as Piper’s, nor are Scalzi’s Fuzzys, not that they’ve lost any of their intrinsic charm. The supporting cast is completely different, the characters more developed than Piper’s. Not to mention Holloway’s amiable dog, Carl, who lets the Fuzzys into the cabin through his doggy door (when he’s not setting off explosives on command).

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Scalzi has also brought the sensibilities and technology of the story up to date. A lot has changed in the last fifty years, from computers to ecological awareness. He has also added at least two more sentient species to the story (although we don’t meet them), along with the warning story of a possible third which was exterminated before its existence could disrupt the exploitation of its world.

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If you read Piper’s Fuzzy stories back in the day, don’t be put off by Fuzzy Nation. Scalzi’s love and respect for the original is clear, and the book was written with the approval of Piper’s literary estate. If you’ve never even heard of Piper (alas, sadly possible these days), you need no prior knowledge to enjoy Fuzzy Nation.

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I liked Scalzi’s approach and style so much that I ordered a copy of his 2013 Hugo Award winning novel, Redshirts. I mean, how could an old Trek fan not love that title? I’ll keep you posted.

Seven Months of Trek

I’ve been a Star Trek fan since the beginning of the original series. I was in college then, without easy access to a TV, and it probably took me years to catch all the episodes (mostly on black and white sets back in the day). Since then I’ve seen every episode of Star Trek and The Next Generation an embarrassing number of times. I can nearly recite the dialog along with most of them. On the other end, I have to admit that, as much as I enjoy Scott Bakula, I never really warmed up to Enterprise.

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But I loved Voyager and Deep Space Nine, both long off the air. I’d seen all of Voyager, but not since its original run, and I’d missed big chunks of Deep Space Nine, which was shown in syndication and probably moved around the schedule a lot. So I chortled with glee last July when the oldie channel Heroes & Icons announced it would be showing all five series six nights a week, straight through in their original order. Voyager wrapped up (and started again from the beginning) last week, Deep Space Nine this week, and it was great fun to watch the whole sagas in seven months instead of the original seven years.

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voyager-companionI had picked up a copy of Star Trek Voyager Companion at Half Price books a couple of years ago and stashed it on the shelf with my well-worn copy of Captains’ Logs (which covers the franchise from the beginning through the casting of Voyager). Not the sort of book one sits down and reads from cover to cover, the Voyager Companion includes episode synopses, cast lists, lots of pictures, features on the characters, and several passable indexes, but not much behind-the-scenes information. When the series started its run last July, I started reading the book, episode by episode (especially useful when I dozed off during Act 3, not an unusual occurrence given the 11 PM time slot).

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I immediately decided I needed the corresponding Star Trek Deep Space Nine Companion, but that book was out of print and not easy to find. Enter Alibris, where I found a copy indeep-space-nine-companion mid August. I quickly caught up to reading by the episode. The Deep Space Nine book far outshines the Voyager volume (except for its lack of multiple indexes). Detailed synopses of the episodes are followed by behind-the-scenes sections describing the writing process, character development, special effects, connections to other episodes, and more. The tales of “story breaking” are informative not just for screenwriting techniques, but for the choices made in developing character and plot consistent with the long arcs of the series. Many finished episodes reflected only a kernel of the original story idea.

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Why do I continue to watch Trek episodes that I’ve seen over and over again? Not for the plots, good, bad, or indifferent. I know what happens, no surprises there. I watch for the characters. I don’t so much care what they’re doing—I care who they are. There’s a lesson for writers in that: we may have a plot, but without characters that our readers care about, we may not have a story.

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Live Long and Prosper!

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