Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Handle with Care by Jodi Picoult ****

Voyage or Destination? Quest or Reward? Learning or Report Card? Life or Funeral? Good advice says Live Today Today - A life well lived is its own reward. Handle with Care by Jodi Picoult makes me believe the rules should be different for lives lived in fiction.

Real people are subject to unknowable forces: tragic (even fatal) accidents, chance meetings, and extraordinary luck. On a drive to the store, the brakes can fail, leading to death, crashing into a future spouse, or a rich insurance settlement. In real life, one never knows.

But a novel is different. The author is God. So when a novel ends in an arbitrary way, we readers feel disappointed. We even have a technical term for this: deus ex machina - God from a machine. We don't like it.

Thus, Handle with Care has wonderful characters who live through with the challenges of osteogenesis imperfecta - brittle bone disease. Along the journey they examine the issues of medical malpractice and abortion. The journey is thought provoking and enlightening. However, the ending is arbitrary and nihilistic, and, for me, this spoils the journey.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Faces by Martina Cole *

A science fiction meme posits that Neandertals were not brutish cave people, but gentler folk driven to extinction by aggressive, violent homo sapiens sapiens. Now that scientists have discovered Neandertal DNA in modern humans, we can wonder the meaning and implications of this ancient interbreeding.

I imagine Faces by Martina Cole shows us those unfortunate (for the rest of us) humans who did not benefit from the infusion of Neandertal compassion and empathy. The novel is peopled exclusively by brutish, violent, self-obsessed, rationalizing characters. If you enjoy violent murders, unfeeling brutality, and simplistic excuses for mayhem, this is your book.

I think of this story as a chronicle of the race that drove the gentle Neandertals to extinction without the benefit of interbreeding - a cautionary tale from the past.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

In a Gilded Cage by Rhys Bowen ****

In a Gilded Cage is a (women's) historical novel by Rhys Bowen. You should not imagine the book is of the fashion and feelings genre written for a certain class of feminine readers. This is a novel about women's history.

Set in 1902, almost 20 years before women got to vote, its chronicles the lives of young graduates from Vassar College, some who get married and others who try to make it on their own. The protagonist is Molly Murphy, an Irish immigrant and a detective. While all the history has been carefully researched, the story is a detective novel, with the expected murders, suspects, and surprising ending.

I found this to be both enjoyable and enlightening.

The Empress of Mars by Kage Baker ****

What's the difference between Fantasy and SF? Video game designer Sean Patten suggests it may be scale, with fantasy tending toward personal scales and SF tending towards societal scales. The Empress of Mars by Kage Baker supports this notion. While the protagonist, bar owner Mary Griffith, and her myriad customers, provide a seemingly endless parade of interesting characters, the central theme is the evolution of civilization on the frontier. The conflicts between rugged pioneers, opportunistic crooks, fanatical missionaries, and corporate investors provide the majority of the plot motivation.

Of course, since this is Science Fiction, we learn much of life on Mars, such as the need to nanotechnology pollinators to replace bees that can neither fly nor survive in the Martian environment, and the dangerous Strawberry, a tornado of red dust sprinkled with black rocks. There is plenty of science here to satisfy the hard SF reader.

But, like Episode I, another science fiction adventure on a large scale, I found the economics and politics less engaging than the characters. But this may only be me. With my tendency towards Asperger's I am forever fascinated by the mystery of human relationships and emotions, while my age and education put me beyond much interest in fictional politics.

In the end, I found this to be excellent Science Fiction with a balance of science, plot and characters and very readable - an echo of older science fiction before the genera got bogged down in so much techno-babble and nerd worship.