B. Morris Allen

Speculative stories of love and disaster

Another side of Vance, done well

The Fox Valley Murders (Joe Bain, #1) - Jack Vance

Jack Vance was a genius in the SFF field, but he also wrote mysteries, including two books about Sheriff Joe Bain. This first one introduces the setting and Bain himself, a ne'er-do-well who's found himself as a lawman. After a convicted killer gets out on parole, things start to go wrong, and it's up to Bain to figure it all out before the upcoming local elections.

Bain is a likable character, and the mystery is well constructed. It's fair, with clues provided and several people to suspect. The resolution is satisfying, though there's a strange little unneeded coda to wrap up loose ends.

All the same, the story falls a bit flat, in the end. I wavered between three stars and four, and on BookLikes, I've given 3.5, which is what it deserves. The mystery genre just doesn't give Vance a chance to bring out his quirky, eerie nature, nor the extravagant language that makes him so great. It does mean that the characters are more natural and fully drawn than the Vancian norm, but it's not a fair trade.

If you're looking for a good, logical mystery with some intriguing human nature, this is a good read. If you're looking for another side of Vance, this is it. But if you're looking for the classic Vance you know from his best known books, you may be a little disappointed.


Fun farce, but lacking the Vance magic

Space Opera - Jack Vance

Vance plays on the phrase 'Space Opera' by offering ... space opera. The result is the very definition of farce, as a well-meaning philanthropist and her opera troupe wander the stars offering a taste of Earth's culture.

The setup is decent, and the fulfillment is okay, but for me this lacked Vance's usual sparkle and color. It's funny, but not as funny as Vance often is. The characters are drawn too clearly; there's not much in the way of subtlety. It's an episodic story, and the episodes are fun, but it doesn't really add up to much.

Certainly worth reading for Vance fans, and somewhat for those looking for a light read, or one with operatic references. Otherwise, I recommend looking for some of Vance's other, and much stronger work.



Vance exploring the ramifications of an interesting idea

The Languages of Pao - Jack Vance

I first read this book a long time ago. It was my first exposure to the idea that language shapes not just how one says things, but what it is possible to say and think. I was tremendously impressed.

Vance takes that idea, and runs with it. While I wouldn't say that this is a complete examination of the concept, he does apply it with a certain amount of rigor, and the result is striking.

The setting is typically Vancian, if a bit less overt than usual, and a little more on the adventurous side. Women barely get a look in, and the one woman who does is to some extent a loose thread.

I didn't like the book as much this time around, but I've left the rating untouched because of its initial impact, and because it's one of the few examples of Vance preferring concept over mood and setting.

All that sounds a bit gloomy, but the fact is I thought this book was tremendously powerful on first read, with a concept that I thought about for years. Beyond that, it's a well-written Vancian adventure, and that's always worth reading. Recommended.


Good, but not great

The Dragon Masters - Jack Vance

Despite being one of Vance's more celebrated stories, a re-read didn't really change my view. I'd say it's a 3.5 rather than a 3, but I round down because it could have been better.

Vance starts with an interesting idea (view spoiler) and introduces it in an understated way. But the result lacks the usual Vance narrative charm, and emotionally, the story doesn't go very far. It feels more like a sketch than a full story. It's a shame, because as a novel, I think it could have achieved it's promise.

Certainly worth reading, but if I had to choose a story for which Vance should have won a Hugo, this wouldn't be it.


Touching, moving, and the best Conan Doyle I've read

Round the Red Lamp -  Arthur Conan Doyle

I know Conan Doyle almost entirely from Sherlock Holmes and Professor Challenger. I like those stories a lot, and I downloaded some other books to try when I had a free moment.

Round the Red Lamp is a collection of loosely medical themed stories - mostly about doctors in one way or another. One or two falls in science fiction or adventure category, but most are straightforward fiction.

I was surprised by how good these stories are. Sherlock Holmes is fun, but the stories are usually more clever than touching. The closest we usually get to emotion there is perhaps Irene Adler in "A Scandal in Bohemia", or Dr. Watson's expostulations (and background romance). Here, we have something completely different. While I like the more fantastic stories toward the end of the book, it's the stories that open the book that really hit home. They're small, but intensely moving. After reading this set, it's clear that I have not given Conan Doyle enough credit for writing skill. While not all of the stories here are excellent, they're all good, and mostly very good. I'll definitely be looking for more of his non-adventure work.

Overall, a surprising and very welcome look at Conan Doyle's more literary side. If you're a fan, pick this up. If you're just looking for touching stories, pick this up. If you like stories about doctors, pick this up. It's free, and you won't be sorry. Strongly recommended.

Better in memory

Riders of the Purple Sage - Zane Grey

I read a lot of westerns when I was young - mostly Louis L'Amour and Zane Grey. I recall preferring Grey; maybe L'Amour's sagas were too complex for me. Still, I never got around to Riders of the Purple Sage, so when I saw this for free, I thought I'd go back to those childhood days for a visit.

Reading this book reminded me that I've changed, and that westerns deal with a lot of things I don't care for - horse riding and cattle ranching among them - and that Grey and L'Amour wrote in a different time, about an even earlier time. Men are strong and silent, women are dependent.

This book holds pretty much true to the western stereotype. Hard, mysterious gunslinger, lonely rich woman, cattle rustlers. Here, the main villains are Mormons, and even in the context of the day (the somewhat recent end of polygamy), it's jarring. The plot is complex, and frankly doesn't hold up that well - some parts are fairly obvious, some convoluted, some just not credible. Characterization is thin. Overall, the book reads more as a romance with horses than a western with romance.

The scenic description is on the purple (forgive me) side, but it's still attractive. Grey does a nice job of putting us in the scene, and of describing beautiful terrain. If the exact geography is vague, we still know what the place looks like. And yes, a lot of it is covered with sage.

As a trip to memoryland, this was something of a disappointment. I'm frankly unsure why this book was seen as a watershed for westerns. I could swear that the other Grey books I read were better, but I'm not too inclined to check. I think I'm better off keeping a warm hazy memory of summers with Zane Grey than actually digging back into them any further.

For newcomers to the genre - I'm not sure this is the place to start with westerns. It's an easy read, and scenic, but full enough of present day -isms that you may want to look elsewhere for a first exposure. I'd probably give it a 2.5, but I round up in favor of nostalgia.

Reblogged from Wrighty's Reads:
Source: http://www.pinterest.com/pin/569142471630405857
Orphans of Chaos - John C. Wright I started this book with some trepidation. I first encountered John C. Wright via his [b:Golden Age Trilogy|2973880|The Golden Age Trilogy|John C. Wright|https://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1280356377s/2973880.jpg|3004199]. The first book of that trilogy was great, ending on a cliffhanger that promised mystery and revelations in an entirely new setting. I was hugely disappointed that the author completely threw away the advantage in the second book, which was literally more of the same - like stepping through a door to fairyland to find ... hardware stores, fast food, and traffic. I finished that trilogy but wasn't excited about it, and didn't buy any of Mr. Wright's other work.

When I saw this book for free, I picked up this book with some worry about what I would find. The book has an engaging premise hostage children who are Titans - I'm sorry to say that it took me a few chapters to be sure of this, that relies heavily on Greek mythology. It's mythic SF in a vaguely English setting. Five children with special powers struggle to find out who they are and why they're kept at this boarding school. Wright mixes in a number of interesting concepts, and the heroine is likeable.

Unfortunately, the story is undermined by two factors.
1) The extent of the mythological references is extreme. I understood most of the key references - confirmed by the occasional 'now I explain it all' moment - but there were dozens of minor references that passed me right by. Understanding these is not essential to the story, but not understanding means that they're just so much blather - like reading a technical manual that goes on about the components of the paint, when all you need to do is screw one piece onto another. I like my mythology, but this was only mildly interesting.
2) Some of the heroine's reactions are troubling. I have no problem with putting unpleasant elements in a story - often they can strengthen it. But I do like to relate to or understand characters, even when bad things happen to them, or they do bad things. I had trouble with that here. The heroine, a 14 or 20 year old girl (it's unclear), expresses a desire to be subdued and taken sexually by force. By pretty much any male she meets. That's not my thing, but I'm willing to accept that as a character trait. Unfortunately, it's a central and defining trait - it comes up a lot. There are some indications that this element is the result of evildoing, and perhaps that will be explained in later books.

I'm unsure whether to go on with the series. On the one hand, the premise is engaging, and much of the writing is good. On the other, the two points above did substantially decrease my enjoyment of the book. Last time I read a Wright trilogy, the sequels fell very flat. So on balance, I think I'm unlikely to continue. If I see book 2 for free or cheap, I might give it a chance to improve. Otherwise, probably not.

Our Children's Children

Our Children's Children - Clifford D. Simak Our Children's Children isn't so much a novel as an exploration. The idea is one echoed later by [a:Julian May|23284|Julian May|https://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/authors/1340457886p2/23284.jpg] in her [b:Saga of Pliocene Exile|378639|The Many-Coloured Land (Saga of Pliocene Exile, #1)|Julian May|https://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1174314750s/378639.jpg|368245] - humans come to our time, escaping from 500 years in the future, only our time is a pit-stop on the way to the Miocene.
The story is a careful and thoughtful examination of the ways in which humans - generous, cautious, and venal - might react. It's packaged nicely - mainly through the eyes of the White House press secretary - but what Simak is interested in here is the idea, not primarily the people.

It's an interesting exploration, and holds up for most of the book. The end, however, is something of a letdown. Having created a troublesome situation, Simak cops out at the resolution. It essentially fixes itself.

Despite the somewhat weak ending, the concept is interesting and thought through. Plus, this is written with Simak's characteristic engaging style and pleasant characters - that's primarily what rounds it up to 4 stars from 3.5.
The Magic City - E. Nesbit, H.R. Millar I read a fair amount of Edith Nesbit as a child, but hadn't run across this one. About a boy who magically enters a city he had built of odds and ends, this book is reliable, if unexciting Nesbit.

The story, and the substory about the boy making friends with his new step-sister, doesn't bring much that's new. But the magic of Nesbit's writing is in the light, good-natured feel of her writing, and that's present here in full force.

All in all, a nice, light-hearted story, and a fun, safe read for young children.

Gateway to Elsewhere

Gateway to Elsewhere - Murray Leinster I'd previously only read Leinster's short fiction, I think. I liked it. This longer piece is just as good, style-wise. The story of a New York misfit who finds a way to travel to an alternate universe, it's a fun, sometimes funny piece of light SF.

The attitudes (towards women and foreigners) are somewhat dated, but not so heavily that they're hard to disregard. The plot is on the thin side, and there's not great emotional depth. But 4/5 for style. It's a fun, likeable, harmless read. It won't change your life, but it's an enjoyable way to spend some time.

Recommended for a lazy afternoon when you're looking for some easy distraction.
Some of the Best of Tor.com - Patrick Nielsen Hayden,  Liz Gorinsky,  Yoon Ha Lee,  Nnedi Okorafor,  Paul Park,  Michael Swanwick,  Charlie Jane Anders,  James Alan Gardner,  Matthew Sanborn Smith,  Harry Turtledove Anthologies are always something of a risk. Themed anthologies rarely stick close to their theme. Single-editor anthologies (as with magazines) often end up with a numbing sameness in the feel or mood of the pieces. Happily, this 'best of' collection avoids both traps.

Up to about the halfway point, I thought that the anthology had even managed that rare feat of including only really strong stories. Unfortunately, after the first few stories, things start to weaken, and by the time I reached Paul Park's 'poem', it was clear that too many of the stories are self-consciously 'intellectual'. I'm a fan of intelligent writing, and some of these stories provide that. Some, however, seem designed more to display the author's cleverness than to tell a good story. They're good, in a technical sense, but they're not engaging of moving.

To pick one example (by an author whose trilogy [b:Starbridge Chronicles|8484171|Soldiers of Paradise Starbridge Chronicles 1 |Paul Park|https://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1277062368s/8484171.jpg|791987] was both intellectual and excellent), look at the 'poem' "Ragnarok" by [a:Paul Park|284559|Paul Park|https://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/authors/1223871259p2/284559.jpg]. It's broken up into equal-sized units of free verse, but there's nothing else about it that says 'poem' to me. In fact, it's a short story written in brief, declarative sentences, set out in the form of a poem. The story wasn't bad, but the whole thing seemed contrived and awkward. Some of the other stories displayed an equivalent awkwardness in their (failed) effort to be clever or poetic. It's a shame, because much of the material was good. Only one of the stories was really weak, though the final story drags on well after its point is made.

All in all, well worth reading (and it's free!) for several very good stories. I can see re-reading some of the stories here, though others I may well skip the next time around.

Looking Backward

Looking Backward - Edward Bellamy Looking Backward is more of a socio-economic treatise than a novel. Each chapter essentially picks a point or two (labor, say) and explains how if we only did such and such, utopia would result. That's no surprise - that's pretty much what it says on the back cover. The surprise is that despite this strong concentration of analysis, the framing works surprisingly well. The protagonist, Julian West, comes across as an interesting fellow, and if his coming romance is not exactly a surprise, it's still warm and nice.

The book is hampered, of course, by being viewed from a post-Soviet vantage. We've seen a version of what Bellamy predicted, and it didn't work. To be fair, Bellamy might not have been very much in favor of what the Soviets actually achieved, but it's the closest thing we've seen to what he proposed (the current Chinese model is moving away from his views, not toward them).

The main failing of the book is its overly rosy view of human nature. Bellamy takes pains to argue that his proposals work because they play to self interest, but too many of the details are glossed over. The incentives that he does describe complicate the simple system that he started out to describe. I'm more idealistic than most, and I enjoyed the concepts Bellamy lays out. It's fun to think about, but hindsight makes me sceptical that any of it would actually work, or that it would be a good idea. There simply aren't adequate safeguards built in against corruption.

Bellamy takes his best shot at acknowledging and addressing the stumbling blocks. The hardest ones, of course, are the ones he doesn't know are there. On the question of gender (which he leaves so late that I feared he wouldn't address it at all), he goes not for 'separate but equal', but for 'separate and it's amazing how much those little women accomplish'. The question of race (which enters through his 1887 'colored' servant), doesn't get a mention in the analysis.

All in all, I was surprised at Bellamy's literary skill (I liked the initial analogy of society as a coach pulled by the poor, with the rich ever at risk of sliding out of their high seats), and this was a book worth reading. I don't see reading the sequel, but I do expect to try some of his more literary work, to see if his style holds up when he's writing about less serious issues.

Also - he offers a sort-of preview of the (ebook) self-publishing industry. Not very close, but still interesting.
Witch and Wizard (Witch and Wizard, #1) - James Patterson I found this book as a free selection at Barnes and Noble. I'd never heard of James Patterson or Gabrielle Charbonnet, but I was attracted by the shiny cover. The book is described as both an excerpt and as book 1; I'd have to say it's more the former, but at 100 pages, it's a generous excerpt. For some reason, the publisher thought a little tiny font would be the right choice, but that's the beauty of e-readers - it takes only five seconds to defeat the evil masterminds.

I found the story to be only mildly interesting, but a really fast read - a victory of engaging style over modest plot. The concept is a bit strange - sort of Harry Potter meets dystopia. The book feels like the two sides haven't really meshed together that well. The two protagonists suddenly discover their magic powers when they're arrested by authoritarian goons led by "The One who is The One". It's funny in parts, but also annoying, because the book can't make up its mind what kind of story to be. I tried to let it create its own sui generis niche, but it never really did.

Initially, I planned to seriously consider buying the rest of the book. Then I saw that excerpts of the first books in each of several following series are also available, all by James Patterson and Small-font Co-author. To me that says a) author selling out his name to make money, and b) high likelihood of inconsistent style and quality. Maybe I'm wrong (and in any case, yippee for the co-authors for getting some visibility), but it had a quelling effect on my enthusiasm - highlighting the inconsistencies rather than building on the strengths.

If you're looking for a light, fun, fast read, I can recommend this excerpt. If you're a J K Rowling fan with a darkly funny side, give it a shot. I can see the full work providing a nice afternoon beach read. More than that might be asking for too much.

Wounds in the Rain (Barnes & Noble Digital Library)

Wounds in the Rain (Barnes & Noble Digital Library) - Stephen Crane Like many others, I was first exposed to Stephen Crane in school. In middle school, I think, we all read [b:The Red Badge of Courage|35220|The Red Badge of Courage|Stephen Crane|https://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1327936136s/35220.jpg|2314709]. It had no impact on me that I can recall. I don't really remember the story at all - I remember what people have said about it.

On the other hand, some years later, I was exposed to Crane's poetry.
A man said to the universe:
"Sir I exist!"
"However," replied the universe,
"The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation."

I loved it, and still do. Much of my own (miserable) poetry is influenced by Crane's.

In any case, I downloaded Wounds in the Rain along with a bunch of other classics. I'm glad I did. Despite the ghastly title, and the fact that the stories are unsurprisingly all about war, this is an excellent collection. Virtually all told from the perspective of a correspondent reporting on the Cuban war of independence, the stories are moving, funny, and grim in turn. They all carry a pretty clear message (war is awful), but it's not heavy handed, and the stories are not solely about that. One or two of the stories get a little long, and the war theme is a bit wearing, but read in bits and pieces, these stories are excellent.

Overall, an excellent collection, and well worth checking out for an author whose prose is as concise and trenchant as his poetry.

Fire & Ice (Icefire Trilogy #1)

Fire & Ice (Icefire Trilogy #1) - Patty Jansen This is a book with promise that doesn't quite deliver. The central concept (a font of special power, a revolution with a hazy past), while not entirely novel, is well conceived and offers some nice touches (antarctic location, a steampunk-ish approach to magic).

Unfortunately, the book reads as a not-quite finished draft. It starts in media res, and Jansen takes her time to give us enough clues to put the pieces in place. Some of that is deliberate (the murky background of the last regime change), but some is clearly not (who's who, and how they're related). I felt that it just didn't all hang together well, though, frustratingly, it could have, with a little more work.

I like that the key characters weren't simple black and white, though some of the supporting cast were, and others were simple stereotypes. There were some reveals that I felt were unnecessary, and made the story a little mawkish, or at least brought it below the level it could otherwise have reached.

Mostly, the story and world simply wasn't as well realized or described as I would have hoped. A solid beta draft, rather than a finished product. It's for that reason that, though I'm intrigued by the story, I probably won't go on to volumes 2, 3, or .5.

* A note on typos, which seem to feature unusually heavily in the comments, and even led Ms. Jansen to include a note defending Australian norms: Aside from use of single quotes instead of double, I didn't notice or care about the Astralianisms. (There were some cases of inconsistent voice, but that's nothing to do with the variety of English.) I did note a moderate number of typos that I would have expected to be corrected by now (I got my copy recently from Amazon). I'm pretty sure that missing punctuation, misspelling of the heroine's name, mistaken words ('had' for 'and') also have nothing to do with Australian English. But we're talking about 11 instances in a 250 page book (I mark them to edit out later) - noticeable, but not too worrying. I know how hard typos can be to spot, so the concern is not that there were some, but that there still are.

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