AXIS by Robert Charles Wilson

I’ve been feeling in the mood lately for some good hard science sci fi,  so thought I would get back to the Spin series.  I strongly recommend that you go to my review of the first book, Spin,  which you will find here,  because you will need it to understand Axis.

Axis takes place on the new planet introduced at the end of Spin, a world the Hypotheticals engineered to support human life and connected to Earth by way of the Arch that towers hundreds of miles over the Indian Ocean. Humans are colonizing this new world — and, predictably, fiercely exploiting its resources, chiefly large deposits of oil in the western deserts of the continent of Equatoria.

Remember those folks who colonized Mars back in Spin? The reversed engineered some Hypothetical pharmaceuticals and created a drug that would add 20 or 30 more years to one’s lifespan, while at the same time making the individual more compassionate and caring.  Bring it on,  we could use some of that ourselves.  It was all done around a kind of quasi-religious structure in order to control it.  The head guy brought it to Earth on his only visit between the planets, and the Earth government was quick to outlaw it, seeing  how it would surely instantly be explointed.  People who took the drug were call Fourths, for what was thought of as the fourth stage of life, and it was illegal and the Fourths kept their existence very secret and hidden.

Lise Adams is a young woman attempting to uncover the mystery of her father’s disappearance ten years earlier. Turk Findley is an ex-sailor and sometimes-drifter. They come together when showers of comet dust seed the planet with tiny remnant Hypothetical machines. Soon, this seemingly hospitable world becomes very alien, as the nature of time is once again twisted by entities unknown.

A quasi-religious group of “Fourths” from Earth, led by Dr. Avram Dvali, lives in the desert seeded by falling dust. They’ve created a child they call Isaac with a Martian upgrade (fatal to adults) that connects him with the Hypotheticals.   They are hoping he will be able to communicate with the Hypotheticals and gather some answers for them.  The Fourth-hunting “Department of Genomic Security” is searching for this group or for a visiting Martian Fourth who disapproves of Isaac’s creation.

I don’t know that this a good stand-alone or merely a bridge between Spin and the third of the trilogy, Vortex,  but you can read it and enjoy it without having first read Spin, but why would you?  The trilogy is an examination of our notions of religion, identity, our place in the universe, and what would appear to be our need for a deity.  If you prefer your sci fi to be space opera-y, and less intellectual, maybe this is not for you, although the storyline is compelling on its own without having to think too much.  But if you prefer, as I do, the kind of sci fi that does what sci fi does best — that is, look at the bigger picture, ask the big questions that probably have no answers, make you realize that we really ARE just a microscopic dot in this ever-expanding cosmos, then you will truly enjoy this trilogy.

THE WELL OF LOST PLOTS by Jasper Fforde

This is the third in the Thursday Next series.  I read the first two before I started the blog, and although I had high hopes of writing up my thoughts on those books, I think we can safely say that it is probably  never going to happen.  I am having trouble keeping up the blog with what I am currently reading.  I do have some excuses, but they are not very good ones, so I am just going to get on with the writing.  I have four more to get down on pixels,  and I have an I Want to Read This One Absolutely NEXT list that is growing alarmingly fast.  I used to worry about living long enough to read everything on my To Read List.  Now I worry about living long enough to read everything on my I Want to Read This One Absolutely NEXT list.

Jasper Fforde is a truly gifted writer.  He is clever, funny, and has an imagination that stretches into the infinite mists.  His style is somewhat like that of Terry Pratchett, the writing is serious, but the word play and the situations are really funny.

The Thursday Next series is  a series of comic fantasy, alternate history mystery novels about a young woman named, what else, Thursday Next.  For Americans, we would say, about a day in the following week, next Thursday, but of course, the British use the expression, Thursday next for that, so her name has more ummmm cachet for the folks across the pond.  The first series is made up of the novels The Eyre Affair, Lost in a Good Book, The Well of Lost Plots, and Something Rotten.  There is a second collection, consisting of  First Among Sequels, One of Our Thursdays Is Missing, and The Woman Who Died a Lot.

In this parallel universe, England is a republic, with George Formby as its first president, elected following the success of Operation Sea Lion (the mooted Nazi invasion of Great Britain), occupation, and liberation. There is no United Kingdom, and Wales is the independent “Socialist Republic of Wales”. The Crimean War is still being waged in 1985, Russia still has a Czar, and the Whig Party still exists in the House of Commons.

Genetic engineering is far more advanced than in our own timeline, and so Thursday has a pet dodo, Pickwick. Re-engineered mammoths can cause damage to local gardens if in their path, and there is a Neanderthal rights movement, given the resurrection of this kindred branch of human evolution. Interestingly, the duck is extinct in this universe. Computer and aviation technology are far behind our own timeline, with the transistor having never been invented (computers are still massive and run on vacuum tubes) and research into the jet engine unfunded as propeller and dirigible technology are viewed as ‘good enough’.

The line between literature and reality is quite thin, allowing characters in the books and those in ‘real life’ to jump in and out of novels. This leads Thursday to change the ending of Jane Eyre, the joke being that the plot we know in our reality is the far superior change caused by Thursday. This also happens to other classic novels: Uriah Heep becomes the obsequious, and generally insincere character we know, due to an accident inside the book world, and Thursday’s uncle Mycroft becomes Sherlock Holmes’s brother.

In this world, the characters in novels are self-aware, knowing they are in a book. They make comments stating they are not needed until page ‘such and such,’ rather like actors in a play, and thus have time to help Thursday.

The world of fiction has its own police force – Jurisfiction – to ensure that plots in books continue to run smoothly with each reading. Thursday ends up hiding in a book, and working for Jurisfiction. The book Caversham Heights  that features in The Well of Lost Plots is a detective novel featuring Detective Inspector Jack Spratt and his sergeant, Mary Mary, (listed as Mary Jones in WOLP) who swaps with Thursday. Spratt and Mary get their own Fforde series, The Nursery Crime Division books, and appear in The Big Over Easy and The Fourth Bear featuring crimes against characters in classic children’s literature.

Ok, so that is a brief description of the series, lifted with no shame whatsoever on my part directly from Wikipedia.

From this volume, The Well of Lost Plots,  we have a character named Harris Tweed,  and a fine description of a Grammasite:

Generic term for a parasitic life-form that lives inside books and feeds on grammar.  Technically known as Gerunds or Ingers, they were an early attempt to transform nouns (which were plentiful) into verbs (which at the time were not) by simply attaching an ing.  A dismal failure at verb resource management, they escaped from captivity and now roam freely in the subbasements.

[I would like to add that grammasites can be seen in the wilds of Facebook on posts such as “I am wanting to find a copy of xxxxx….”   “My son is wanting to travel to Barcelona.  Does anyone have any hotel recommendations?”]

We learn that

The twentieth century has seen books being written and published at an unprecedented rate — even the introduction of the Procrastination 1.3 and Writer’s-Block 2.4 Outland viruses couldn’t slow the authors down.   Authors are beginning to write the same books.  There is maybe a year, possibly eighteen months, before the well of fiction runs dry.

We learn of UltraWord™,  which Text Grand Central, the final arbitrators of plot, setting, and other story elements,will release BOOK version 9, code-named UltraWord. UltraWord is touted at a JurisFiction meeting as the greatest advance “since the invention of movable type” because it creates a thirty-two plot story system and allows the reader to control the story.  However, it has its drawbacks — it makes books impossible to read more than three times, thus rendering libraries and second-hand bookstores useless, and the quality of the writing is also substantively poorer.

There are all kinds of threads and twists, and it is all too complicated to tell you all of it, but if you are a Terry Pratchett fan, and a book fan, it is a good bet you will enjoy Fforde and his cast of lovely characters.

 

 

 

WHEN GOOD FRIENDS GO BAD by Ellie Campbell

A nice, pleasant chick lit (oh, pardon me, women’s fiction) about four friends who met in grade school in England, and after an incident where they burned down a barn because they were smoking in it, were hauled off by their folks to go their separate ways.   There was American Meg, fat Georgina, Jen who married a guy 8 years younger, and Rowan, terribly naive and very beautiful.

It has the usual elements — boyfriends, betrayal, being dumped, etc.  When they meet in their late thirties,having been out of touch for a couple of decades  turns out fat Georgina had become svelte and successful with a design business in textiles and clothing, and had married Jen’s old boyfriend, who was the one who dumped her without a word.  Meg, daughter of hippies show business people, was herself still a hippie, if a bit faded, and Rowen, who called the get together, was a no show.

Ten years later, it is Meg who calls them together, hinting at a life or death situation, and the rest of the book is trying to find Rowen who seems to have completely disappeared.

The plot, engaging as it was, is not worth recapping. It is about friendships.  Not many people have friends going back to their grammar school days.  It’s chick lit — that means there are relationships, emotions, ups, downs, and a happy ending.  I like happy endings.

I needed a palate cleanser after that post apocalypse book.  Right?

Well, this was a dark book!  I guess it has been a couple of years since I have read a post apocalyptic tale.  Not usually my thing, me being the glitter unicorns dancing in the daisy-filled meadows type, but every once in a while I have the urge to try another one, maybe because things being are so politically apocalyptic these days.

This is the world of the berserkers ….. people with some kind of ingredient in their blood that makes them go, well, berserk.  Usually they are set off by a traumatic event, or something.  Then they lose their minds and rip apart everything and everyONE in their paths, for about 20 minutes, or so, then recover.   But every time they have an episode, they get stronger, and lose a little tiny piece of their mind permanently, until eventually they look like The Hulk with a mind of a two year old.

(You know, it all seemed so much more plausible when I read it, than now, trying to explain it to you.  That is the trouble with apocalypse stories …. they don’t bear thinking about too much.)

Our protagonists, two young sisters, are in a car with their drunken father in the middle of a blizzard.  The car slides off the road, and is stuck.  The mother races after them, trying to free the girls, and OMG, turns into a berserker.  Who knew she had berserker blood!  She is trying to pull off the car doors and smash the windshield to get at the occupants to destroy them, the father takes out a gun he conveniently had in the car, and forces himself to shoot his wife to save his kids.

He is jailed for murder, and although he could have gotten off with the berserker defense, but he does not want to. He wants to be punished for his role in the event, first being a professional drunk and then driving off in a snowstorm with his kids in the car.  He gives the girls to his brother in the midwest to raise while he is in prison.

But while he is serving his time, the world gets destroyed.  More and more people are getting more and more crazy, people stop going to work, utilities fail, and eventually some nut cases get a hold of some nukes and take out a lot of the biggest cities on the planet.  The world has become dangerous and primitive.

Flash forward to the girls as 16 years old and 11 years old.  The brother has died of something, I forget what, and the girls are now in the care of his best friend and his sons and friends.  (Where are all the women?  Hmmm.)  Anyway, the oldest girl and the younger son are having it on, she  has a berserker episode and kills him, and OMG where did she get the berserker blood?

Flash laterally to the dad in prison, doing all kinds of research on the berserker phenomenon.  He comes to a startling discovery/conclusion:  it seems that all of the clients of one fertility doctor have produced children with berserker blood.  So his wife’s parents, being infertile, went to this doctor, and so did he and his wife.  So now he has a mission that when he gets out of prison, he is going to track down that doctor and kill him.

So there is a lot more to this story, and lawsy, lawsy, it is only the first of a trilogy.   There are baddies, and villains, and innocents, and those who have lost whatever innocence they had, and a lot of discussion of how to survive in a post apocalyptic world.  Everyone starts off by scavenging.  I always want to know what everyone is going to do after they clean out the Walmarts and Coscos, and have shot and eaten all the animals.  Well, the answer is part of this story.

Good world building, some really likable characters, and the nice touch of climate change, what with it snowing in July.

But it was a cliff hanger.  Any of you who have been reading my blog for a while know my feelings about cliff hangers.  Betrayed and scammed.  That’s my feelings.  This one could have easily stood alone.  Here’s what happened.  The two girls are captured by baddies who will try to take their blood for berserker infusions.  But the father figure has gone to the city-like enclave to figure a way to save them.  Of course, they escape, and find the father figure with an arrow in his chest but alive, so they take him with them on their escape.  He barely survives the trip to their old homestead, which has been taken over by a friendly tech-savvy group, there is a tense night when the group rallies round to try to dislodge the arrow,  and whew! are ultimately successful.  It could have …. should have….. ended there.  But no, it has to drag on with the reveal that the baddies have tracked them from the enclave to the farmhouse, and…..

See what I mean?  It could have ended leaving the reader wanting more, wanting to know now what happens in the story.  But that cliff hanger was just too heavy handed.  It does not make you want to buy the next volume, because you know that will also end in a cliff hanger forcing you to buy yet another book in the series.

Well, I am off to throw out my microwave.  Don’t want it spying on me.  Good thing I don’t have a smart phone.  I am not smart enough for a smart phone, but turns out that is probably just as well.  I feel like I am living in a George Orwell novel.

 

BLINDMAN’S BLUFF by Faye Kellerman

This is another in the apparently endless series of Detective Peter Decker and Rina Lazarus mysteries.  What I like about the series is …. no, ARE ….. the characters are likeable and grow.  It started with Decker meeting Rina, a young widow with two young sons, they fell in love, married, and through the series, they had their own child together who in this book is now 18.  Rina is a religious Jew, and Decker has come back to his Jewish roots, so especially in the earlier volumes, there was a lot about the religious Jewish life and traditions.   And to top it all off, the mysteries are all top notch.

If you want to know what I thought about a bunch of the other books in the series, just put Kellerman’s name in the search box, and you will get a list of them all.

In this mystery, an extremely wealthy husband and wife are slaughtered in their remote and extensive ranch.   One of their adult sons who was with them was shot  but escaped death, and the other was in another location.   A maid was found in her room viciously murdered.

The family has a cadre of guards, and state of the art security systems, so how did this happen?  and why?

The story takes us through the migrant worker world, the gang world of the city, the interconnectedness of the Latino community, and of course, the family life of the Deckers.

Another fine mystery in a series I have really enjoyed.

 

 

MAN WALKS INTO A ROOM by Nicole Krauss

This was an odd sort of book.  A late-thirties man is found stumbling in the desert in the Las Vegas area.  He does have ID on him, but is incoherent.  He is taken to a hospital, hydrated and treated for heat stroke, etc, and further studies reveal a brain tumor, a pilocytic astrocytoma.  His wife is contacted, flies out from NYC, and oks the operation that will save his life, but possibly leave him with some brain damage, due to the location of the tumor.

When he recovers after the operation, he has no memory of anything at all after age twelve.  He does not know his wife,  remembers nothing of his adult life, where he was a lit professor.  He returns home with his wife, and tries to put together a life for himself.

It is predominantly a psychological novel,  an examination of the concepts of forgetting and remembering, and what  that does to relationships, old and new.  He retains the ability to form new memories, but never recovers any of the older ones.    As he and his wife try to put together a new version of their relationship, they find it impossible, because when one half of a couple remembers everything, remembers the former whole person,  and the other half remembers nothing of the other person, and only knows them in the ‘now’, the relationship is doomed to always remain unbalanced and unequal.    He and the wife eventually separate, each to try to remake their individual life apart from the other.

He returns to his college office where a young female student sees him, and tries to help him remember things from his classes, but it is no use.  They become friends, without benefits,  and she seems to be the only one with whom he is comfortable, maybe because she is so young and naive, and is not much concerned that he remember anything.

Of course, he has a bunch of doctors, none of which are  much help, but one he visits regularly.  That one puts a scientist friend working in the desert in Nevada in touch him about a project for which our amnesiac guy would be perfect.  Having nothing better to do, he travels to Las Vegas, meets the neuroscientist, and agrees to go to the almost hidden research facility, where he eventually learns that the project the crew are working on is an attempt to record a memory of one person, and embed that memory into another person.  Our guy is perfect for this because he has no other adult memories to interfere with the new one.

Through a method that I don’t understand, mainly because I was not paying attention, the scientists manage to get a memory from another guy of seeing a bomb test during the sixties in the Nevada desert.  This memory just devastates our amnesiac, he stomps off away from the facility, takes a bus trip to the west coast, meets other people, yada yada yada.

My telling of the bare bones of this book makes it sound like there was more going on than there actually was.  I am not so fond of books that ruminate on any of the various human conditions and which use all this musing in place of a plot trajectory.  I kind of prefer a story arc, a narrative that goes from point A to point B with some interesting stuff happening in between.

So my 30-second plot description of this book is:  man has a brain tumor removed, loses all his adult memories, dithers around trying to construct a new him, screws up a fair amount, wants to still be in love with wife, but isn’t because he doesn’t know her, wife wants to still be in love with him, but it isn’t him anymore, so she isn’t.  Man, after fumphering around a while ends up with a job in a library on the West Coast.

The book was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award.   Those kinds of book awards tend to like books that muse.

 

NOT ALONE by Craig A. Falconer

I do love a good hard science sci fi book.  And this one was a doozy.

A young man, a believer in aliens since childhood,  is working in a bookstore cum coffee shop, when he is sent to deliver a book on his bicycle.  Near the large IDA building, which stands for  Intelligence Something Something, a masked man carrying a bag of folders and six gold bars, dashes out from between parked cars, running into our guy, knocking him over, scattering the folders.  He pulls a gun on our boy Dan, tells him not to touch the folders, grabs them up and disappears!   But Dan sees one that had slid under a car, picks it up and takes it home.

It contains information about mysterious objects that were discovered back in the time of the Second World War.   All evidence points to these objects being from outer space.  The German government decides the best thing to do was to hide them, and so all evidence was hidden all these years. Among the papers was a letter in German.  Dan decides to publish them on on social media, in the interest of Truth, all but the letter.  He then gets a book on translating German, and little by little, translates the letter which is a confession by a known scientist of his day, telling all about the discovery and how it was all put under wraps.

Most of the book is about the media, publicists, government coverups, and how governments use all of this to smokescreen their own problems.  One of the first characters to appear is a young, brilliant  P.R. gal who pushes her way into Dan’s life to help him take charge of the narrative.  I couldn’t help but see her in my mind’s eye as KellyAnne Conway, but her heavenly twin (you know, as opposed to the evil twin), lol.

It was a really really really long book …. 700 and some pages, and try as I might, I could not think of any part of it that could be shaved, cut down, or eliminated, without being a detriment to the book.

The final portion has first twists that you don’t see coming, then twists that you do, then twists that you don’t.

I really enjoyed it, but do confess that I ‘read’ about two thirds of it via audio while I was quilting.  My Kindle Fire has a text to speech feature and the speech has improved so much over the robotic voice of the early Kindles.

Great book.