Monday, October 31, 2011

The Dog Who Knew Too Much (Mystery Book)

A Shady Ex-husband. A Wilderness Camp. A Missing Boy. A Gold Mine. Corrupt Officials.  

The Dog Who Knew Too Much, the fourth book in the Chet and Bernie Mystery series by Spencer Quinn, was well worth waiting for. (The book was at our library almost two months before I was able to check it out. One day I almost tackled someone who got a hold of the book before I reached the New Book shelf.) Like the previous books, it is intriguing, warm, and fun; it is a solid mystery. I love this series because it is fresh and interesting. Because the story is told from the point of view of Chet (the dog), we are given details that we might not normally pay attention to: scents, the flow of air, small body gestures, critters, faint sounds, and, of course, food. The Dog Who Knew Too Much can easily be understood without reading the previous books but rewards fans. We not only catch up with Chet and Bernie, but renew our acquaintance with Bernie’s girlfriend Suzie —who is kickass in this book—Iggy and Mr. Parsons.

Briefly, Bernie is approached by Anya, who wants Bernie to pose as her boyfriend when she goes to Parents’ Day at the wilderness camp her son is attending. She is afraid of her ex-husband and wants a bodyguard. When Bernie and Anya arrive, they discover that her son, Devin, is missing, never making it back from an overnight trip with his group. The story becomes even more complicated when Bernie is implicated in a murder. What happened to Devin? Who is the real murderer or was there even a murder? Can Chet once again rescue his best friend?

I don’t remember laughing out loud while reading the previous books, but I did with this one. It is humorous without being too cute. Bernie is the type of person I would want on my side. I wish I had someone as loyal to me as Chet is to Bernie. The book is easy and quick to read, while still being intelligent. Part of me was slightly (a teeny, teeny bit) disappointed with the book, but I have felt that way with almost every sequel I have read this year. I still am talking up this book to everyone who will listen to me.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Foundation and Earth (SF Book)

Earth. A Search. Galaxia. Isolates. Robots. Transducer-lobes. Zeroeth Law. 

Isaac Asimov’s Foundation and Earth is the sequel to his Hugo Award winning novel Foundation’s Edge and continues the storyline.

Briefly, in Foundation’s Edge, Trevize was asked to choose the fate of his fellow galactic citizens. He chose the way of Gaia, a group entity. In Foundation and Earth, he questions his decision. He decides that if he can find Earth he will understand his choice, but he can’t find references to Earth in any records. So, he searches for anyone who might know where Earth is located. He also attempts to determine where Earth might be based on how humans expanded into the galaxy. On his journey, he is accompanied by the historian Pelorat and by Bliss, who is both an individual woman and part of the entity Gaia. Later on in their journey, they adopt the orphan Fallom. Each planet they explore in their quest has some danger. Ultimately, their combined talents help them find out the truth about Earth.

Foundation and Earth is a nice story. It is not a book that I would rave about, and I have mixed feelings about the ending. What I did find interesting was the contrast of Bliss to Trevize. They are often at odds in the novel. Bliss is reluctant to kill anyone, even when the little group is in danger, much to Trevize’s consternation. In decision-making, Bliss chooses options based on her perspective of being part of a larger entity. Trevize thinks from the perspective of an isolated individual. At times the discussion felt spiritual to me. I am reminded of the belief that many people have that all people are a part of the Divine and interconnected with one another. This is interesting given the fact that Asimov was a professed atheist.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Magnificent Ambersons (Pulitzer Winning Novel)

An Old Love. A Spoiled Son. Repudiations. Changing Fortunes. The Dawn of the Automobile. Gossip. Comeuppance. Riffraff.  

The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington is the winner of the 1919 Pulitzer Prize for the Novel. This novel has the feel of a period piece. It describes the rise of the automobile, the metamorphosing of towns into cities, and how wealth changed possession from old families to those associated with industrialism. The novel has been made into a number of movies.

Briefly, the beautiful and wealthy Isabel had two suitors. After one does something silly and embarrassing, Isabel chooses the safe one. They marry and have one child, George. She worships him and thinks he can do no wrong. To most other people he is an arrogant and obnoxious child. Tarkington refers to people hoping that he will get his “comeuppance.” The novel follows his growing up, including his success at proving his social superiority to those around him, his falling in live with Lucy—the daughter of Isabel’s old boyfriend, the death of George's father, and George's efforts to protect his mother from the gossip of the town’s people.

The Magnificent Ambersons made me think about a number of things. First, despite George being a young man, he is very resistant to change, which is different than most novels. Second, the idea of evolving towns expanded my awareness of my own city. Yesterday, when I was out walking and looking at the various buildings, I thought of the different eras they come from and how the area has changed over the decades. Third, our society is currently undergoing tremendous changes, the West losing substantial power and influence. Reading about another time of great change gives some perspective to our current situation.

Alternating reading Science Fiction and Pulitzer Winners is giving my brain a workout. I was surprised that both make me think about the passing of time and how transitory our current world really is.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

His Family (Pulitzer Winning Novel)

And when you come after me, my dear, oh, how hungry I shall be for all you will tell me. For you will live on in our children's lives.
While reading Ernest Poole’s novel His Family, I had a hard time wrapping my mind around the fact that this was a novel written almost a hundred years ago and not a more recent novel set in the 1910’s. The novel seems timeless. It tells the story of a father dealing with his grown-up daughters. I see this theme playing out in the lives of the people around me, including one of my cousins who has three grown-up daughters. His Family was the first novel to receive the Pulitzer Prize for a Novel, and so begins my own adventure reading this esteemed group of novels and fiction.

Briefly, Roger Gale is a widower, who lives in New York, with three grown-up daughters. Edith is the traditional one, with a husband and three children. She builds her life around her family. Deborah, who lives with Roger, has a brood of thousands, so to speak. She is what I would call a social reformer. She heads a school—later schools—and tries to better the lives of the people living in the tenements. Roger wants her to settle down with Allan, a doctor who has been courting her for years. Laura is the free spirited child. She only wants to have fun and does not want to have children. She marries a man, and they go off to Paris. His Family tells the story of how Roger and his daughters adjust to the changing times of the 1910’s, including the beginning of World War I.

His Family is a beautiful story, still relevant to today. Roger is a loving, caring father, who is easy to relate to. The setting was fascinating to me. The 1910’s were the height of the Progressive Era, when so many social reforms were going on, including Women’s Suffrage. I can only hope that most of the Pulitzer winning novels will be as interesting as this one.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Importance of Stories (First Among Sequels Quote)

The book may be the delivery medium, but what we’re actually peddling here is story. Humans like stories. Humans need stories….Story clarifies and captures the essence of the human spirit. Story, in all its forms—of life, of love, of knowledge—has traced the upward surge of mankind. And story, you mark my words, will be with the last human to draw breath…
First Among Sequels by Jasper Fforde

Sunday, October 16, 2011

First Among Sequels (SF Book)

Stupidity Surplus. Too Many Thursdays. The Recipe to Unscramble Eggs. Long Now. Dirty Bomb. Difficult Teenagers. 

First Among Sequels, the fifth book in Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next Series, is fun and fast-paced. Thursday is now the mother of three children–I think. Mycroft has passed away. Pickwick has some feather issues. Most of the Special Operations divisions have been disbanded, including Literary Detectives. And the Common Sense Party is now in power. Fforde has major and minor story threads woven throughout the story; a reader new to the series would have no clue what was going on.

Briefly, Thursday and friends are secretly continuing to run SpecOps divisions under the guise of a carpeting store. Thursday also continues to be heavily involved with Jurisfiction, keeping the fact from her husband, Landen. Thursday finds herself in charge of two apprentices: a granola munching Thursday 5 from the last Thursday Next book; and an oversexed, violent Thursday 1-4 from the earlier Thursday Next books. Among the numerous other problems that the Bookworld is dealing with, book readership is in sharp decline and Speedy Muffler threatens to release a dirty—think smut—bomb. Back in the real world, Friday refuses to fulfill his destiny of becoming a luminary in the ChronoGuard; and they plan to replace him with a potential Friday. Late in the story Thursday joins forces with Goliath Corporation to help save the Classics. Oh, and someone is trying to kill Thursday. By the end of the book, the Thursday Next series undergoes a radical change.

I enjoy First Among Sequels for all the reasons that I have enjoyed the previous books in the series. Most notably, it is silly while still being intelligent. It speaks to those of us who like to read books. It makes me think, not necessarily in deep philosophical ways, but in intelligent ways. For example, at one point a character offers proof that Speedy has released a dirty bomb in a classic by citing the word “ejaculated.” Yesterday, I did indeed find the word in His Family, a 1918 novel that I am reading. Fforde talks about ways of making novels more appealing to the masses with interactivity, and in fact Fforde has practiced some of that with his own books, offering additional content on his website. He also listed the major components of fiction, and you better believe I am going to write that down in my notes for further reference when I discuss novels. After I finish reading a Thursday Next book, I feel like a puppy that has just had a good romp in a dog park. Oh, the fun!

Monday, October 10, 2011

Sirius (Classic SF)

A Man-Dog. Super-Sheep-Dogs. Nature vs. Nurture. A Life-long Relationship. Scents. Manual Dexterity.

After reading Olaf Stapledon’s rather aloof Last and First Men and Star Maker, I was delightfully surprised to find that Sirius is an intimate story. Not only does Stapledon describe the life of Sirius, a dog-man, but he also shows humans in all their complexity. The plot has a comfortable rhythm and moved me emotionally.

Briefly, Thomas Trelone is a scientist who attempts to create super-intelligent mammals. He succeeds in creating a number of super-sheepdogs. When he tries to create an even more intelligent dog, he manages to produce one viable puppy, Sirius. In order to create the most conducive environment for high intelligence, Thomas and his wife Elizabeth raise the puppy alongside their newborn daughter Plaxy, treating them as similar as possible. The results are sometimes amusing and sometimes sad. Sirius is often frustrated by his lack of hands. Sirius and Plaxy form a unique bond that is tested by the world and their own natures.

I enjoyed the story and found it ponderable. It is definitely written for adults and stays away from any cuteness. Stapledon has a skill for showing human nature. He uses the dog Sirius to illustrate people’s true intentions as well as what they do when they think no one is looking.

One of my favorite mystery series is Chet and Bernie by Spencer Quinn. I wonder whether Quinn was influenced by Sirius. They use similar perspectives to look at the world of a dog.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Odd John (Classic SF)

Homo sapiens. Homo superior. 

In Odd John, Olaf Stapledon explores what might happen if Homo sapiens began to evolve into a new species. The result is fascinating, and, at times, disturbing. While Odd John was first published in 1935, between the release of Last and First Men and Star Maker, the novel has a stronger plot line and more character development. It tells the story of John, a Supernormal.

Briefly, John is born prematurely after eleven months in the womb. His parents immediately know that he is unusual, and his mother calls him Odd John. He looks unusual, physically develops slowly, and is incredibly intelligent. He realizes that he is different from those around him. He thinks of Homo sapiens as cattle, not quite human. Those who he cares about he thinks of as beloved pets. He nicknames the narrator of the story, a family friend, Fido. John teaches himself about Homo sapiens and the world around him. He is able to manipulate people to get what he wants, especially information. He also develops a certain amount of psychic ability. To deal with the loneliness he often feels, he seeks out others of his kind. The story ends with John’s death.

Although Odd John is not as brilliant as Last and First Men and Star Maker, I found it easier to read. Stapledon does a nice job of balancing some sympathy for John with some revulsion for his actions. Other than some cosmetic details, the story is timeless and has some ponderable ideas. It provides some ideas of how humans might evolve. It also looks at the everyday world from an outsider point of view. Stapledon continues to expand my view of reality. 

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Star Maker (Classic SF)

But, as we advanced on our pilgrimage, our own desires began to change…We came less and less to require that Love should be enthroned behind the stars; more and more we desired merely to pass on, opening our hearts to accept fearlessly whatever of the truth might fall within our comprehension.
I found Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker amazing and difficult. This sequel to Last and First Men has a scope that spans from the birth to the death of our cosmos, and beyond. It includes many different types of “men” in many different periods of our galaxy, sometimes discussing the sociological implications of particular types of biology. Star Maker also includes a fascinating creation myth. I admire Stapledon’s imagination. Yet, the book is challenging. Other than the opening and closing sections, Stapledon does little to help the reader relate to the characters. Likewise, the book has only a tenuous plot. The book is more like a travel guide that discusses zoology and galactic anthropology than a dynamic story.

Briefly, the story opens with the narrator outside of his house in England, looking at the stars. He finds himself disembodied and able to travel beyond the Earth. Slowly he learns how to navigate and begins to travel to other planets that contain types of men. He is able to go inside their consciousness, seeing the world from their perspective and also communicating with them telepathically. As with Last and First Men, each world has its crises and successes. He is also able to travel in time. As the story progresses, he is joined in his travels with other beings, often forming a group consciousness. At first the group only goes to planets that contain similar types of men, but gradually they visit beings who are less and less like themselves. Toward the end of the story the narrator learns that even the stars have consciousness. Many of the beings that the narrator meets have an urge to know about the Star Maker, what I would call God or the Divine Creator.

Star Maker made for very slooooow reading. In the beginning I literally would read a paragraph or two and fall asleep. Yet, I was and am awed by Stapleton’s talent and imagination. I am very glad I read the book, but I am also very glad that I am done with it.