Tag Archive for Book reviews

Reading Through the Bookcase: Isaac Asimov

As I’ve mentioned already, I often have just a few books from a set rather than the whole shebang. And this, alas, is true for Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novels. I only have the original three (Foundation, Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation), and then the first sequel to them (Foundation’s Edge). I knew I didn’t have the fifth (Foundation and Earth), and until recently, I didn’t even know that there had also been two prequels (Prelude to Foundation and Forward the Foundation). However! I had never actually managed to get through the trilogy, even though I’d started it a couple of times, so l am very proud that I’ve finally done it. And I’ll get the other books as soon as I can. I am really wanting to read them.

My only Asimov novelsFirst, it was fascinating how it was possible to tell that the early books really were written several decades ago. Changes in spellings, hyphenation, and usage might be subtle, but they are definitely there.

Meanwhile, another couple of things made me chuckle. The first was the portrayal of women. This seems to me to be somewhat typical of the earlier SF writers. Even the women (probably called “girls”) with brains are a bit…cutesy. They might know rocket science, but they still tend to gush when they talk and get pretty emotional. And be a bit dismissed by the men, who shrug women’s minds off as rather incomprehensible. I was encouraged, though, about Harla Branno, the female mayor of Terminus (the Foundation planet) in the fourth book, because she had a lot of authority and tended to be quite intimidating. She never gushed. So Asimov had learned a few things by the end.

But speaking of learning. I kept wanting to yell, “Stop explaining everything!” Another thing that made me chuckle even while it exasperated me was that most conversations seemed to be explanations of how something worked or some mathematical principle or other. (People really don’t talk like that, most of the time.) There was rather a lot of theory, and in many cases, the dialogue just seemed to be a substitute for the narrative, to avoid the whole thing sounding like a treatise. Granted, some parts were worse for this than others, so the books weren’t all like that. But it did seem to me that the emphasis was far more on the ideas than on the development and expression of story. I think (I’d need to test this idea) that that was probably more true of the earlier SF writers than the later ones, and that the later ones came in more with the idea of telling a good story first of all.

But still! I loved the idea of psychohistory, the science of very large populations and how their progress through history can be predicted. I really enjoyed following those early stages and watching the Foundation evolve from a society of encyclopedists to traders I think, in fact, that that’s why I kept getting stalled in the second book over the yaers. I really hated the idea of the Mule and the disruption of the tale of the psychohistorical progress of the Foundation through its thousand years. I was much more interested in seeing all the theoretical stages that a population would go through than in seeing what would happen if they were interrupted.

I was glad when things seemed to have gotten back on track by the end of Second Foundation. And I quite enjoyed Foundation’s Edge…except…

I had checked Wikipedia to find out how many sequels there were, and while reading about them, discovered that at some point, Asimov decided to set the Foundation books in the same universe as his Robot books (none of which I have read) and also to integrate other standalone novels as well. (Including The Stars Like Dust, which I also read this time.) So as I progressed through Foundation’s Edge, it really started seeming to me that the book was really written just to set up the relationship of the Foundation books to the Robot books.

And I didn’t actually like that. I have vague recollections of other writers who have done this–tried to integrate all of their books into a single universe and timeline–and I had found it really awkward and, eventually, contrived. I wanted the story of the fourth book to stand on its own merits and not merely be a quest that led to an explanation of how the Robot books eventually led to the Galactic Empire that collapsed during the Foundation books.

I enjoyed The Stars Like Dust, partly because it really seemed to stand alone (rather than having to be seen as what it was later conceived to be, a part of that whole encompassing history). It seemed to have more of a real story arc and somewhat more space adventure than the other books. Yet I am still interested in reading Foundation & Earth and then the prequels, just to get the whole story as Asimov finally envisioned it.

So the Asimov books are done, except for a collection (Gold) that is stacked differently on the shelves and will be read later. On to Jane Austen!

Reading Through the Bookcase: the Margaret Atwood Books

Bookcase reading: Margaret Atwood

Same photo as last time, but note the position of the hardcover.

So yes. While starting to read through my fiction bookcase, I finished the three Margaret Atwood books that I own. I have now switched to the science fiction & fantasy bookcase for a few books (one Douglas Adams and at least the first of Asimov’s Foundation books). But I noticed something interesting while reading Atwood. I wonder if this is going to happen more often.

I could almost literally see her writing style, her craft, improving and maturing as I went. I should mention that I neither read the books in chronological order nor in alphabetical. Basically, The Robber Bride is a tall hardcover, so it stands flush against the left edge of the bookcase, so the adjacent, lower paperbacks have a consistent flat space upon which I can put other books. (See the photo.) So I read Bride first, followed by The Edible Woman (written earlier in Atwood’s career) and then Alias Grace (written later, in the mid-90s).

I loved The Robber Bride both times I’ve read it. I was sort of chuckling, as I went, how most of the novel is backstory. As you gradually learn the backstory of all three main characters, the plot that’s taking place in the “present” becomes so layered and rich. I love how she develops each of the three women, and how different they are from each other. And I love how they’ve grown by the end. You kind of fear for them at the beginning, but you’re very impressed by the end.

Going from that to The Edible Woman was a surprising experience. It seemed to clear to me that Ms. Atwood’s style and command was still just developing, in this earlier novel, and it was not yet “there.” The ideas are good, but she had learned more subtlety later. Where the underlying ideas were implicit in The Robber Bride, they felt (to me, at least) a bit too obvious and overworked in The Edible Woman.

And interestingly, I could even see how some spelling conventions had changed since the earlier publication. I can’t remember the specifics now, but there might even have been a spelling like “to-day” in there, which was how that word started out. Certainly, some word combinations were hyphenated then that aren’t now. (An example of the sort of thing I mean would be something like “garden-party,” which might have been hyphenated at that time but would no longer be hyphenated now.) So the language fiend in me was fascinated by that.

One thing that was consistent between these first two books was the shift of point of view. In Bride, it was the shift among the three main female characters, both in the present and in their past. That was masterfully done. In Woman, it was a shift between first person and third person, from the same person’s point of view. That, too, was excellent. That shift clearly showed the stages at which the main character was someone exercising a degree of control of her own life (first person) compared to a stage at which she became more of an object whose role was determined by others’ expectations (third person). That was very well done.

There are shifts of point of view in Alias Grace too, the third novel. And reading this one, I just wanted to weep, it was so very well done. This novel was written by someone with full mastery of her craft, in all its subtlety and layering and wordsmithing. I had read the other two novels once before, but this was the first time I read this one. And it was like a crescendo, not just because I could see how skillful and masterful Ms. Atwood was, but also because, you know, I loved the story itself. Everything about this book, at least for me, was wonderfully done.

So that was the first three fiction books. The next author, also with three books that I own, was Jane Austen. And I wasn’t really in the mood for that era of things after Ms. Atwood, which was why I switched to the SF&F bookcase for a bit. But I’d say that Margaret Atwood got this project off to a wonderful start.

Book Review: The Shadow King, by Jo Marchant

Cover of and link to the book, "The Shadow King," by Jo MarchantIf there’s one thing archaeologists like to do when studying the mummy of Tutankhamun, the ancient Egyptian pharaoh, it’s top each other’s stories. But that’s not too surprising when you recall that that’s what many pharaohs used to do too: erase the previous pharaoh’s story in favour of their own.

Science journalist and writer Jo Marchant chronicles all the archaeology stories about Tutankhamun in her new book, The Shadow King: The Bizarre Afterlife of King Tut’s Mummy. Starting in 1922 with Howard Carter, she shows how each successive archaeologist, with each new test and new discovery about the ancient boy king, tried to erase previous theories about his life and death in favour of new ones. Many of the new stories stemmed from genuinely new or refined evidence. But one suspects that some of them also stemmed from the agendas of the storytellers.

But that’s precisely the thing. Marchant gradually concludes that while the evidence is important, the storytelling may be almost more important. Here’s how she describes the history of all those archaeologists’ stories about Tutankhamun: “The king has gone from a tragic child who succumbed to tuberculosis, to a murder victim, daredevil chariot racer, malaria-infected cripple, brave soldier, and even a hippo’s last meal. You can pick whichever story you like.” We can pick because these stories go hand in hand with society’s own fascination with the ancient king’s history; they tell a great deal about us.

Think of Dr. Zahi Hawass, that most famous leading man in documentaries about ancient Egyptian archaeology. It’s very likely that the evidence described in some of those documentaries was just a liiiiittle bit slanted in his preferred direction. In many ways, he’s less of a rigorous archaeologist and more of a storyteller. But he tells his stories for the sake of Egypt, for the idea of Egypt’s continuity from Tutankhamun’s day till today, and for Egypt’s own self-esteem. (And you wonder whether his stories are finally over, as Hawass has fallen out of public favour, and modern Egypt is now in turmoil. Can Tutankhamun’s story—or one of his many stories—ever help Egypt now?)

Marchant takes us on a fascinating trip from the past to the present, giving us the stories and ideas of the archeologists as well as of the young pharaoh. Her book is thorough and objective when it comes to the actual evidence about Tutankhamun, but it’s also an exploration of the complexities of the human tale itself. Through her own story, she gives us hints of what the people in our society want—maybe even need—from the history of Tutankhamun. And given the fact that the boy king’s mummy has been handled so much over the years that it may soon be on the verge of crumbling at last into final nothingness, the book may well be one of the final memorials and stories of Tutankhamun himself.

Review: The Last Child, by John Hart

Link to The Last Child, by John HartJust to be clear, I really enjoyed The Last Child, by John Hart. This is only the second Hart book I’ve read (I reviewed his Down River almost three years ago), but if these two are typical, Hart has a gripping way of capturing the intense response of pre-teens to family trauma and mystery.

I confess, though, that I occasionally yelled at the characters in The Last Child: “Do you really think that kid is going to stay home this time either??” The “kid” is Johnny Merrimon, a thirteen-year old whose twin sister, Alyssa, was abducted and disappeared a year earlier. His family pretty much fell apart after that. His mother, Katherine, blamed her husband for not picking up Alyssa as usual that evening; he eventually disappeared too; and Katherine fell under the influence and control of a nasty family “friend” who now keeps her drugged up to serve his pleasure, under the guise of “helping out.”

Johnny goes out on a regular basis at night, visiting the seedier neighbourhoods, searching out known sex offenders to try to find Alyssa. And Clive Hunt, the cop who promised he’d find her — and didn’t — tears his hair out trying to persuade Johnny not to go out, and to let the cops keep trying to do their jobs. After a while, it gets almost comical. As new leads finally come up after a year of drought, Johnny keeps getting told sternly to stop going out — and somehow the silly adults believe that despite the last twenty times they told him, he’s actually going to obey this time. It made the story good, but really, that wasn’t very plausible.

But still. The story was good, and you ended up waiting breathlessly for whatever surprise turn it was going to take next. More than once, it seemed that they finally had an iron-clad suspect, with evidence so damning it couldn’t possibly be anyone else. Then the plot took another turn, and suddenly the suspect-pendulum swung wildly in another direction.

You really felt for Johnny and his mother, and also for Detective Hunt, who took his failure to find Alyssa way harder than was professionally good for him. And despite the grimy situations all of the characters got into, by the time everything was resolved, you felt that there was finally a degree of hope for them. And that maybe now, Johnny Merrimon would finally stay home.

The Last Child, with its intricate twists and turns, kept me turning the pages and waiting eagerly to see what it would do next. It was a very good book, which I’d really recommend.

 

 

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