Book Review – The Forever War

216113.5 stars. Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War is a mixed bag for me: great concept, intriguing themes, and well-written, but I just didn’t connect with it. Perhaps it’s a case where the expectations of a book with “sci-fi classic” status left me looking for more than I found?

First, Haldeman’s premise is well-done. William Mandella is a grunt in humanity’s first interstellar war. He’s not a mover and shaker, just a guy drafted to fight in a war where his greatest desire is simply to return home. The nature of interstellar war causes a relativistic time dilation effect–although weeks and months have passed for Mandella, centuries have gone by on Earth.

The thematic content is rich, drawing from Haldeman’s service in Vietnam and shock at the cultural changes the country underwent while his life was in suspension as he simply tried to survive day-to-day. He touches on themes of the root cause of conflicts, the perspective of civilian vs. soldier, and the perverse economic buoyancy that wartime economy provides. As his objective age increases, so does his seniority, leading him to command position over young soldiers that he can barely understand due to language changes. They consider his ancient societal outlook to be hideously antiquated.

For all the depth of theme and setting, I never identified with the characters. As Mandella ages, the characters are significantly more different from him, and he never develops any relation with them other than as the object of curiosity. His only real relationship, with his lover Marygay Potter, is the only part of the book that resonated with me on a character level. Mandella himself, despite being the narrator, is rather sparsely written. I never felt like he had much personality or gave me any particular reason to care about him.

The Forever War is a book that is important in the science fiction pantheon, and I’m glad I read it… though I don’t know if I’ll feel the need to read it again.

Book Review – The Honest Truth

22571259Dan Gemeinhart’s The Honest Truth is sweet, meaningful, heartbreaking, and hopeful. Feeling overwhelmed due to a return of his cancer and facing its harsh, uncertain treatment, 12 year old Mark and his dog Beau slip away on a bus to climb Mount Rainier.

The strength of this book is that Mark is easily believable and likeable. Gemeinhart makes us understand why Mark makes the choices he does, and invites us to empathize with him. We’re not sure whether to root for him to make it to the top, die on the mountain on his own terms, or be found by the searchers. We admire his strength and his carefully considered plan, as well as his resilience when the plan meets reality.

The Honest Truth is a little pat, a little hokey, and a little predictable in an afterschool special sort of way, but its earnest sweetness is enjoyable nonetheless.

Book Review – The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet

227337293.5 stars. The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is character-driven sci-fi that tries very hard to be pleasing, and mostly succeeds, but feels both a bit derivative and saccharine-sweet. Becky Chambers’ misfit crew of the Wayfarer is tasked with building a shipping lane to a planet of contentious aliens, and the story follows their year-long trip to complete their task.

What I appreciated most about this book is Chambers’ obvious imagination and care for her world. The universe is rich with aliens of various physical descriptions, cultures, and personalities. Their interactions provide the depth to the story, as well as its most uplifting and redemptive moments. Ultimately, this is a story about relationships and the stumbling, well-intentioned yet sometimes hurtful ways we seek to overcome differences and make connections.

I fear that reading this book without comparison to Firefly is next to impossible; there is too much in this book that toes the line between homage and derivation, and the story and characters are paler in every instance. Dialog lacks the snap of Joss Whedon’s touch, and characters don’t have the same life to them.

My main complaint is that the story is not terribly compelling, and the characters feel disconnected from it. The central story–the long trip to build the wormhole–is barely mentioned through large swaths of the book, and the characters seem to have no impetus to be involved other than that they were hired to do it. There is little conflict between characters–naively sweet but not anything that kept me turning pages.

This book also has a bit of a message-y tone (let’s check all the diversity checkboxes!), but fortunately it’s never preachy about it.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is a decent read with an interesting cast of human and alien characters set in an intriguing world. I enjoyed it, yet wish there was a little more storytelling to go with the rich world-building.

Book Review – Girl Waits with Gun (Kopp Sisters #1)

237193785 stars. Amy Stewart’s Girl Waits with Gun is the fictionalized story of Constance Kopp, one of the first female law enforcement officers in the US. In 1914, a motorcar precariously driven by silk factory owner Henry Kaufman strikes the buggy of the Kopp sisters, Constance, Norma, and Fleurette. When Kaufman refuses to pay damages, responding with threats and violence, the Kopp sisters unite to defend themselves.

Sometimes a random book find proves to be exactly what I wanted. I ran across this book via Rachel’s review on Pace, Amore, Libri, and the subject matter combined with her glowing review had me quickly checking it out from my library. I was thrilled to find that this book is a rollicking, charming, and thrilling read that works so well on so many levels. As a character drama, the relationship between the three sisters is deep and heartfelt, and the way they respond to events keeps the pages turning. The story itself is a well-told tale of taking on corruption and malfeasance. As historical fiction, it’s an enjoyable capsule of society, place, and time.

What I really enjoyed about Girl Waits with Gun is Constance’s gutsy, cheeky personality. The first-person narration from her point of view shows her strength of character, and her dialog is full of sly humor–especially her repartee with her opinionated, outspoken sister Norma. Constance’s narration also allows the story to maintain a lighthearted tone, even when the events are grim and threatening. It also amplifies the emotional impact of the story by demonstrating the depth of Constance’s love for her sisters, fierce streak of independence, and innate sense of fairness.

Constance’s brave encounters with Kaufman are of the “stand up and cheer” variety; she’s a great character to root for. No less cheer-worthy are her refusals to comply with social norms of the time. Another crux of the story is the respect and compassion between Constance and Bergen County, New Jersey Sheriff Robert Heath; I suspect (and hope!) the sequels will offer a much broader look at their association.

While this is definitely a fictionalized account, primary source material is presented–newspaper articles, text of the letters, physical locations, court records, etc. The central plot of the book (the accident and the sisters’ attempts to bring Kaufman to justice) recreates what is known of the events. The afterword states that the secondary plot (Lucy’s tale) is completely fictional, though it flows well with the rest of the work and has historical basis. The author’s website contains a wealth of historical background that added to my enjoyment of the story.

Girl Waits with Gun is a satisfying read that successfully blends action, character, historical interest, and societal themes. I completely enjoyed the adventures of the Kopp sisters, and have already purchased Amy Stewart’s next volume of their tale.

Book Review – The Rest of Us Just Live Here

229109003 stars. The concept of The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness is that Mikey and his friends are “normal” high school seniors working through the choices and uncertainty of what comes next while an epic battle against supernatural forces is waged by classmates with superpowers. The chapters start with a well-used conceit, describing the events of the supernatural world, then narrates the tale of Mikey and his crew. Knowing the brief description of the supernatural events gives reference to the unexplained things that the “normal” kids observe.

To me, this book came across as an entertaining teen drama, with complex, real-world teen issues of friendship, sexuality, and what comes after graduation. The story was interesting enough to stand on its own as the characters develop and mature.

There were also nicely-handled themes of mental illness, sexuality, homosexuality, politics, and complex parent/child relationships that are very applicable to today’s teens. Ness presents them without “messaging” and their inclusion felt natural in the storyline.

The real joy in The Rest of Us Just Live Here, in addition to seeing the characters forge their relationships amidst uncertainty, is Ness’ straight-faced skewering of pop culture. This book is worth the read just for the scene with a concert by boy band “Bolts of Fire”; his descriptions of the band members and the stages of ecstasy experienced by the squealing pre-teen girl audience is hysterically funny.

The downside of this book is that I always had a feeling that there was a much bigger story going on that we weren’t being told. Perhaps that’s part of its wit; we know important deeds transpire but the day-to-day quest for happiness is higher priority.

The Rest of Us Just Live Here is an enjoyable read for its characters, charm, and sly pop culture references.

Book Review – The World to Come

304144183 stars. I was intrigued by Outside Magazine’s glowing review of Jim Shepard’s new short story collection, The World to Come The expectation of greatness was amplified by the book jacket description:

“These ten stories burst with his wicked sense of humor and incomparable understanding of what it means, and has always meant, to be human. The World to Come is the work of a true virtuoso.”

I’d say that sets the bar pretty high…

The author indeed has a gift for giving his characters distinctive voices. He’s captured period diction almost perfectly, from the dry “stiff upper lip” of British explorers to the pioneer diary of an upstate New York woman to the elaborate and stylized prose of the dying days of the French aristocracy. The author’s obvious talents are on display in a second-person story of the destruction of Santorini. Shepard’s settings are clearly exquisitely researched as well, rich with details that give authenticity to a WWII submarine and a crude oil train conductor’s experiences.

For all the writing skill, The World to Come was largely “meh” for me largely because I never made an emotional connection with the characters. Two of the stories are told in a journal format, which relate events instead of developing characters. Stories such as “The Ocean of Air” overwhelmed with detail to the exclusion of personality. “Intimacy” and “Safety Tips for Living Alone” presented a wide cast of characters but spent so little time with any one that they seemed largely interchangeable. “Wall-to-Wall Counseling”, “Forcing Joy on Young People”, “Telemachus”, and “Positive Train Control” all featured detached characters who didn’t relate to those around them, and thus were never able to reach me.

My chief critique of Shepard’s writing is that there is very little dialog. This inhibits character relationships from developing. Most characters feel like the anti-Donne: every one is an island, and when the bell tolls for them, it doesn’t toll for me.

Many of the stories ended with the implied death of their subjects. This prevented me from experiencing closure and catharsis necessary to appreciate the theme of the story. The first-person narration of many of the stories limits this by nature; in others, they end with no conclusion.

I felt that my enjoyment of a particular story was largely tied in with my interest in its subject matter, which left the collection feeling uneven. The three-page “Cretan Love Song” was my favorite because it captures the raw emotions of the destruction of Santorini so poignantly. “Safety Tips for Living Alone” is an intriguing account of the Texas Tower 4 disaster; a foreboding sense of doom kept me turning the pages. “HMS Terror” is another high point. Its scholarly journal entries added to the classical tragedy feel of the lost Franklin expedition. Shepard’s masterful foreshadowing in “Positive Train Control” adds power to his scathing indictment of the lack of safety focus in the crude oil trains that feed our energy dependency. “Telemachus” reads like pulp WWII fiction with its fatalistic narrator and high-stakes deeds.

On the down side, “Wall-to-Wall Counseling” portrayal of a woman facing family and work crises ended without resolution, character development, or theme. Similarly, “Forcing Joy on Young People” meandered aimlessly here and there throughout its principal character’s life, and he was so flawed that the only conclusion I could reach is that he deserved what he got.

I do not regret reading The World to Come; nor did I feel any regret when I turned its final page.

Book Review – Tea with the Black Dragon

222373754.5 stars. R. A. MacAvoy’s Tea with the Black Dragon is a book that I read likely not long after its 1983 publication. Thus, I remembered little of the story or characters, yet retained a favorable impression of it. When it was a cheap Kindle buy a while back, I got it on a whim.

Martha Macnamara travels cross-country to San Francisco at the behest of her daughter Liz, who indicates some sort of trouble. At her hotel, she meets mysterious gentleman Mayland Long, feeling the appeal of his magnetic personality. Liz appears to have vanished without a trace, and Martha enlists Mayland’s help to find her. The plot thickens as Martha herself disappears, leaving Mayland to navigate a web of computer crime and nefarious thieves in a tale that is part philosophy, part fantasy, part romance, and part techno-thriller.

Tea with the Black Dragon is a short, easy read that contains considerable depth and nuance. The prose is restrained, with an elegant sparseness; MacAvoy’s words and phrases carry purpose and intent (and occasional sly, subtle wit. The compelling strength of this tale is its strong characterization–their personalities leap off the page with vibrancy–and the thought-provoking dialog that builds their relationships.

It’s always a pleasure find that a pleasantly-remembered book has stood the test of time, and R. A. MacAvoy’s Tea with the Black Dragon most certainly has.