Book Review: The Sundered Worlds

Book Review: The Sundered Worlds by Michael Moorcock (also published as The Blood Red Game)

In the distant future, Jon Renark comes to the wretched hive of scum and villainy known as Migaa, where the criminals and misfits of the galaxy have gathered.  It’s the closest world to where the Shifter System will at some point appear, their one chance to escape the rigidly ordered society that rules humanity.  For the Shifter System normally exists outside the universe as we know it, orbiting into it sideways from time to time.

The Sundered World

Jon Renark has also come to go to the Shifter System, but with a nobler cause.  He is a Guide Senser, a powerful psychic able to detect the shape of things, down to the very atoms of a human body or up to the location of every star in the galaxy.  And he has learned that the universe is contracting at a rate faster than the speed of light.  Renark has a hunch he’ll find answers in the Shifter…somehow.

Gathering up his two best friends, technician Paul Talfryn and former prince Asquiol of Pompeii, as well as Asquiol’s current squeeze Willow Kovacs, Renark makes the dangerous journey to the Shifter when it appears.

Within the Shifter System, the normal physical laws don’t seem to consistently apply, and the visitors are immediately attacked by beings they will learn are called the Thron, absolute xenophobes whose lust to destroy all other intelligent life is indirectly responsible for the existence of the Shifter in the first place.  Renark and his crew are rescued by ships from the exile planet Entropium.

Entropium, filled with the refugees of a dozen different universes, has one governmental law–do what you like, as long as you don’t try to tell anyone else what to do.  It’s not a happy place, but everyone has to get along, as the other planets are worse, and there’s no leaving the Shifter system once you’re inside.  Talfryn and Willow decide to play it safe and stay, leaving Renark and Asquiol to planet-hop within the system to learn the truth of the multiverse!

This book is some of Michael Moorcock’s earliest published work, cobbled together from two novellas.  It’s primarily important because it introduced the Multiverse concept he’d use heavily in his future work.  Later editions have a bit of editing to fix the multiple typos in this first U.S. printing, and to tie the story into his Eternal Champion cycle.

It’s not much like Moorcock’s more famous New Wave fiction, being space opera in the tradition of E.E. “Doc” Smith.  This story is all about the big concepts, and characterization is told, not shown.  In the first half of the story, Willow seems to exist solely to be a female character.  She’s quickly consigned to the galley (and never does finish cooking a meal), then dumped on the first alien planet, not to be seen for a while.

There’s a bit of mild humor in a side character who’s a parody of “beat” musicians, on Entropium since the galactic government outlaws his kind of music.

In the second half of the story, Renark and Asquiol return from the Shifter System changed both mentally and physically by their discovery of the nature of reality.  It’s impossible, it turns out, to save their home universe, but they can preserve large portions of galactic humanity by getting them on spaceships fitted with dimensional drives, and emigrating en masse to another universe.  Renark stays behind for vague reasons, and is the last living mind as the universe shrinks to zero.

The new universe is already inhabited, and while Asquiol tries to negotiate with the natives, the story focus switches to Adam Roffrey, a rebellious type who’s barely stayed within the law up to this point.  Now he deserts the rest of humanity, piloting his ship to the new position of the Shifter System.

Turns out Roffrey is the husband of the madwoman Mary the Maze, briefly met on Entropium in the first half of the story.  She’s been missing a long time, and until now Roffrey hadn’t known where.  Roffrey retrieves Mary, and as an afterthought Talfryn and Willow, and heads back to where he left the rest of humanity.  An understated love triangle begins.

Meanwhile, the natives of the new universe have proved to be hostile, but they’ve challenged the invading humans to a game to determinate who will be master.  The Blood Red Game consists of teams beaming disturbing mental images at each other until one side collapses. (The cover illustrates a hallucination caused by the Game.)  The humans are losing badly, but Mary the Maze may be the key to victory!

Overall, some great concepts with two-dimensional characters who do things because that’s what the plot says they do.  Mostly for Moorcock completists, and even for them I’d recommend the later revised editions.

Book Review: Fresh Fear

Book Review: Fresh Fear edited by William Cook

Horror anthologies are like a box of chocolates.  One story might be crunchy frog, another spring surprise, while a more disappointing one is just maple cream.  (Seriously, maple cream?)  This is because horror tends to be a balancing act between what the writer finds scary and what the reader does.   Two different readers looking at the same story may fiercely debate whether it’s terrifying or just kind of gross.

Fresh Fear

This particular anthology is listed as “contemporary horror” which seems to mean mostly recent stories, set close to the present day.  Other than that, there’s no real overarching theme or subgenre requirements.  After an introduction that talks a bit about why people read horror stories (among other things, to feel horrified), the opening story is “God of the Winds” by Scathe meic Beorh, a hallucinatory piece that is at least partially about the tendency of white people to appropriate Native American mysticism in stupid ways.  The final story is “Out of the Light” by Anna Taborska, a Lovecraftian-feeling story about a man who gets too heavily invested in reading a horror anthology.  Hmm.

I was a bit disappointed that the piece by big-name author Ramsey Campbell (“Britain’s most respected living horror writer”) was a reprint from 1988.  Which is not to say that “Welcomeland” itself wasn’t a fine story.  It concerns a man returning to his home town which has been partially rebuilt into a failed amusement park.  Or has it succeeded at its true purpose?  It doesn’t feel dated.

Also outstanding is Christine Morgan’s “Nails of the Dead” which looks at Norse mythology from the point of view of a very minor character with a small but important job.  Of local interest to me is “Just Another Ex” by Roy C. Booth and Axel Kohagen.  A man is sent to find another man who may be unfaithful to his loved one.  His reward is non-standard.

There were some typos, most clustered in “Spencer Weaver Gets Rebooted” by Thomas A. Erb, about a bullied high schooler who gets pushed too far.  Because of this, and the rather immature feel of the plot points, it felt more like something a high school student would write than something for a professional anthology.  (“Did I mention the head bully has a small penis?  Well he does.”)

This is an “18+” book, which has sex, rape, foul language, torture and in some cases excessive focus on body fluids.   Happy endings are few.  But with twenty-eight widely varying stories, there’s something for almost every horror fan.   Recommended for the horror buff who wants to try some new authors.

Book Review: Insurrections of the Mind

Book Review: Insurrections of the Mind edited by Franklin Foer

Disclaimer:  I received this book through a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.  The copy I read was an uncorrected proof, and changes will be made in the final edition.  (Specifically, a second introduction by Leon Wieseltier–an index may also be forthcoming.)

Insurrections of the Mind

The New Republic magazine has its centenary anniversary this year, so a collected volume of some of the many interesting articles that ran in the magazine is an expected celebration.  For many years, the New Republic (so named because there was already a Republic magazine at the time) has been the home of many of the leading voices of liberal political philosophy.  But in addition to politics, it covers art and cultural events as well.

After an introduction which explains the history of the magazine, its ups and downs (Stephen Glass is cited as a mistake, and his writing is not represented), the remainder of the book is essays grouped by decade.  From “The Duty of Harsh Criticism” by Rebecca West to “The Idea of Ideas” by Leon Wieseltier, this book is jam-packed with thought-provoking work.

I especially liked the afore-mentioned Rebecca West piece (I am a reviewer, after all), “Progress and Poverty” by Edmund Wilson, which contrasts the opening of the Empire State Building with a ruined man’s suicide,”Politics and the English Language” by George Orwell, in which you can see some of the ideas that went into 1984, and”Here Comes the Groom: A (Conservative) Case for Gay Marriage” by Andrew Sullivan, which is what it sounds like.

Not every writer represented here saw the future clearly–some of them guessed very wrong about the issues and people they wrote about.  But all of them are worth at least checking out.

“But Scott,” you say, “I am not a liberal.  What is there for me in such a book?”  I recommend the essays “The Corruption of Liberalism” by Lewis Mumford, “The Liberal’s Dilemma” by Daniel P. Moynihan and “The Great Carter Mystery” by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.  Liberals are not above raking each other over the coals, after all.

The book is due on shelves by the end of September 2014.  i recommend it to former readers of the New Republic (current readers should already be aware of it), 20th Century history students, the politically-minded, and those who enjoy a good essay.

Book Review: The Third Chimpanzee for Young People

Book Review: The Third Chimpanzee for Young People by Jared Diamond, adapted by Rebecca Stefoff

Disclosure:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

The Third Chimpanzee for Young People

This is a young adult version of Jared Diamond’s The Third Chimpanzee, originally printed in 1992.  I have not read that book, so will not be making direct comparisons.  I have, however, read Guns, Germs & Steel, which has some overlap with this volume.

Mr. Diamond is a biogeographer and evolutionary biologist.  In this book, he discusses the information (current as of 1992) that scientists have about the evolution of humans, who share about 98% of their DNA with chimpanzees.  This segues into an examination of human behavior, how it is (and is not) unique among the world’s animals; and winds up with some thoughts about what this might mean for humanity’s future.

The language is clear and should be suitable for strong readers from 10-11 up; there’s also a helpful glossary at the back along with an index.  There is no bibliography, presumably because the sources would not be written for young adults.  There are several illustrations and sidebars to break up the text.

Parents of sensitive tweens should be aware that the book covers some “heavy” subjects, such as war and genocide.  There’s also some discussion of the probable evolution of human sexuality.

A couple of chapters recap the information from Guns, Germs & Steel about why some human societies developed technology more quickly than others.  Mr. Diamond frequently uses “narrative causality”; trying to find the most logical sequence of cause and effect without being able to fill in all the links in the chain.

The final chapters deal with the looming specter of environmental destruction and mass extinction of animal species.  (But not anthropogenic climate change.)  Mr. Diamond is pessimistic about the chances of alien contact.  He does believe, however that conservation and population control can mitigate the worst effects of human behavior.   After all, while evolutionary biology explains many things about human behavior, it is not the only explanation.  We have free will.

This would be a good general introduction to anthropology and biogeography for  middle schoolers and non-science majors.  Some of the information is out of date, due to it being more than two  decades since the original book was written–serious students should review the recent research as well.  As Mr. Diamond repeatedly reminds us, his opinions influence his interpretation of the available evidence.

Book Review: Girls Research! Amazing Tales of Female Scientists

Book Review: Girls Research!  Amazing Tales of Female Scientists by Jennifer Phillips

Disclosure:  I received this book from a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

Girls Research!

This is a part of the Girls Rock! series by Capstone Books, which presents short biographies of women and their achievements, aimed primarily at young girls.  In this book’s case, the stories are about female scientists and women who made advances in science-related fields.   The introduction talks a bit about the difficulties that faced women who wanted to become scientists, and still do.  But it’s emphasized that these are women who overcame those obstacles.

There’s a variety of presentations, from short quarter page blurbs to two-page spreads.  Some entries have a dry recitation of facts, while others use “creative non-fiction” for the scientist to tell her story in the first person.  There are plenty of photographs, some in color.

Naturally, the usual suspects such as Marie Curie and Florence Nightingale appear, but there are also much less well known examples, such as Chien-Shiung Wu, who was a vital member of the Manhattan Project.  There’s a good effort to include diversity, but the book does tend a little bit U.S./Western Europe-centric.

The obstacles faced by women who are scientists are mentioned in various stories; difficulty getting an education, getting hired, getting listened to (a couple of them had their research outright stolen!)  At least one is mentioned as having additional difficulties because she was Jewish in Mussolini’s Italy.

But there are also accounts of Frances Glessner Lee, who turned her dollhouse hobby to good use in developing forensic crime investigation techniques, and Hedy Lamarr, who was a glamorous Hollywood actress when not inventing torpedo guidance systems.

The biographies are grouped by the type of science (astronomers here, primate researchers there) with an alphabetical index at the end.  There’s also a timeline of when these scientists did their most important work.  My major nitpick is that the source citations are on the indicia page in tiny print, and not well-formatted.  The bibliography is short and a bit lacking; parents will need to do the heavy lifting to find more complete biographies and vet them for their children.

The book has a nice sturdy binding, suitable for elementary and middle school libraries.  While the primary audience is of course elementary school girls, boys should also find the biographical sketches interesting, and parents may find out some new things too.

Book Review: Kitty Genovese

Book Review: Kitty Genovese: A True Account of a Public Murder and Its Private Consequences by Catherine Pelonero

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

Kitty Genovese

I am not quite old enough to have any firsthand memories of the coverage of the March 13, 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese in Kew Gardens, a quiet neighborhood of Queens, New York City.  Certainly my parents would not have discussed the more sordid details of the case where I could hear.    By the time I graduated high school, I knew the vaguest outline of the case, as it demonstrated the “bystander effect.”

It was, and is a notorious case precisely because of that bystander effect; the crime was committed in the hearing and sight of many of Ms. Genovese’s neighbors, and the final assault was in the hallway leading to a friend’s apartment, a friend who refused to open the door.  For various reasons, many understandable,  the witnesses did not intervene beyond one person shouting at the man, and the police were not properly called until much too late.

The first chapter is a description of the crime itself, as pieced together from the murderer’s confession, witness testimony and police investigation.  This is followed by an account of the initial investigation, then the book moves to biographies of both Kitty Genovese and her killer, Winston Moseley.  After that, the account moves forward in a more linear fashion through the police investigation, and the press pieces that exploded the case onto the world stage.

The section on Mr. Moseley’s trial is perhaps the least interesting part–it’s largely repeating of testimony saying things already covered in earlier chapters.  The defense tried to get an insanity verdict, but although Winston Moseley clearly had something wrong with him, the jury decided he knew what he did was illegal and could have chosen not to kill.

There’s a bit of excitement when Mr. Moseley escapes from Attica in 1968 and Buffalo is terrorized for three days.

The remainder of the book is about the continuing legacy of the Kitty Genovese case, including the institution of the 911 system to make it easier to call the police when you suspect a crime or other emergency is happening.   One thing not mentioned in the book is that the case plays a role in the Watchmen comic book series; it spurs Rorschach to take an active role fighting crime, and his mask is cut from cloth meant for Kitty’s dress.

Much of this material has been covered in previous books, but this volume includes the revisionist view that emerged in the 1990s that the stories of the witnesses’ apathy were deliberately exaggerated by the police and media.  The author finds this view suspect, more of an attempt to shift blame than an honest rethinking.

Other issues also are discussed.  The possible effects of racism on Winston Moseley’s psyche, for example (he was black, Kitty Genovese was white.)  For those who are easily triggered, rape and domestic violence are discussed.

There’s a spread of black and white photographs in the center (be aware some of the building photos are much more recent and may be slightly misleading.)  There is a bibliography (and some other media sources), and an index.

Due to the nature of the content, I would recommend this to no lower than senior high students, although younger teens with morbid tastes (like mine at that age) will find it interesting as well.  I would most recommend this book to true crime readers who don’t already have a volume on Kitty Genovese, and students of psychology.

Book Review: The Thing with Feathers: The Surprising Lives of Birds and What They Reveal About Being Human

Book Review: The Thing with Feathers: The Surprising Lives of Birds and What They Reveal About Being Human by Noah Strycker

Disclaimer:  I received this book from the publisher as part of a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.  I received an Advance Reading Copy and there may be changes in the final edition.

The Thing with Feathers

As the title states, this is a book about the behavior of birds.  Mr. Strycker is a field researcher with a specialty in birds, so most of the chapters have stories of his personal experiences with the type of birds mentioned.  Each chapter covers a different type of bird and an interesting topic about it, from the ability of homing pigeons to find their way, through the pecking order of chickens to albatross monogamy.

Some of the topics will be familiar to anyone who paid attention in biology class, but others have up to the year research with new implications.   For example, the chapter on starlings explains how mathematics, physics and computer modeling have advanced our knowledge of flock behavior.  Many of the chapters do tie back into possible ties or comparisons to human behavior and biology.

It’s fascinating stuff, and is written in a casual, easy to read style.  The book should be suitable for bright junior high students on up to non-ornithologist adults who enjoy watching or reading about birds.  However,  the casual style carries over to the end notes, and there is no index.  Serious ornithology students will want to dig for more rigorously cited works to please their professors.  Each topic has a bird drawing by Janet Hansen.

Please be advised that this book does cover biological functions of birds and nature red in tooth and claw, so may not be suitable for sensitive children.

I recommend this book to bird lovers and science-minded readers.

Book Review: Limestone Gumption

Book Review: Limestone Gumption by Bryan E. Robinson

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

Limestone Gumption

When Big Jake Nunn, former football star and big man around the sleepy town of Whitecross, Florida dies while diving the limestone caves of the Suwannee River, suspicion naturally falls on the man who was supposed to be diving with him, psychologist Brad Pope.  Brad, only recently returned to his hometown after years away getting an education and a reputation, had a motive for killing Big Jake, but he’s pretty sure he’s not the killer.  Could it be his stubborn Grandma Gigi and her Women’s Preservation Club, who definitely have something secret going on?  Or is it one of the other eccentric townsfolk?

This is the first fiction book by Mr. Robinson, but he’s written quite a few non-fiction books, and it shows in how polished the writing is for a first novel.  The story flows well, the characters are interesting (a couple of them perhaps a little too colorful, but I’ve certainly met people like them before) and there were a couple of twists I didn’t see coming.

Brad Pope manages to be a quirky protagonist without going over the top; like many psychologist characters, he has a number of issues from his past, and secrets of his own, not all dark.  The WPC take up a lot of the story with their eccentric ways, not the least of which is calling themselves “sisterfriends.”    Several reviews have mentioned humor; I found relatively little of that, except perhaps of the observational type, plainly writing down the foibles of the neighbors.

I need to issue a Trigger Warning for rape and physical, verbal and emotional abuse in the backstory.  One of the themes of the book is how the law enforcement around Whitecross has failed people, especially women.  (Though the protagonists wind up taking advantage of the same sort of thing by the end.)  There’s also some racism, including by the protagonist, to his shame when he realizes what he’s done.

The title refers to one character’s philosophy of life, which is first stated in a frontispiece to the story, but repeated several times within.  There are several recipes, supposedly from the Women’s Preservation Club, in the back, along with some guided questions for book club use.

Some readers might find the eccentric small town characters a bit thick, but I quite enjoyed the book.  Recommended for “cozy” mystery fans.

Book Review: Thanks for the Feedback

Book Review: Thanks for the Feedback by Douglas Stone & Sheila Heen

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.  Also, the version I read was an Advance Readers’ Copy and some changes may be made in the final version.

Thanks for the Feedback

We’ve all been there.  You go above and beyond busting your butt on the job for a year, but your boss’ evaluation says “meets minimum standards” and no pay raise.  Your mother asks for the thousandth time why you can’t be more like your Nobel Prize winning sister who married a brain surgeon and has provided Mom with two lovely grandchildren.  A random crack from a passerby about your nose puts you in a depressed funk for the rest of the day.

We all get feedback that’s not useful, not helpful, unwanted, badly timed or just wrong.   It can really do a number on your psyche, or get rejected out of hand, no matter what the actual truth value of it is.   However, there can be parts of the feedback that would actually be useful if you can excise the wrong parts and the hurtful way it was delivered.

And that’s what this book is about.  It’s by two of the three authors of Difficult Conversations, because they learned that giving proper feedback and receiving feedback were both listed as very difficult conversations indeed.    Most businesses concentrate on teaching their managers to give feedback, so this book primarily works from the other direction, learning to receive feedback in a manner that makes it productive.

First, there’s some discussion of the three main types of feedback, appreciation, coaching and evaluation, what the difference is, and how each is useful in its own way.  Quite a bit of the book is examining the various types of “triggers” that can prevent feedback from being received correctly;  truth triggers (this information is factually wrong), relationship triggers (the person telling me this is not credible) and identity triggers (“so what you’re saying is that I’m an unfit parent?”)

The text examines how to spot that these triggers are happening and how to deal with them.   According to the authors, triggers can make the conversation about the triggers, rather than about the original feedback.  Redirecting the conversation to what the other person actually means by their feedback can be more productive.  One of the concepts I found most helpful was dealing with “switchtracks,” where both people in the conversation  are addressing different issues so both are monologuing about their own pet peeve, rather than addressing them one at a time.  Some of the suggested phrasing is things no human being would ever say in a natural conversation, but that’s what is supposed to make it effective by breaking the negative feedback cycle.

There’s a section on brain functions, which the authors acknowledge may become dated swiftly,   Neuroscience is a rapidly changing field and in five years time everything quoted here may be obsolete or proved wrong.  They do their best to explain current theory and how people can deal with their brain wiring to get better results from feedback.

Then comes the section on using the information on feedback in the actual process, including how to set boundaries (you need to receive feedback properly; that doesn’t mean you’re going to take the advice you’re given.)    There’s information on how to “coach your coach” so that they can learn to give you the feedback that will be the most helpful.  One thing they don’t really cover is dealing with trolls and bullies, people who deliberately give you wrong or injurious feedback for malicious purposes.  You’re still on your own to spot the difference between them and people who give hurtful feedback for non-malicious reasons.

Finally, there’s a chapter on how to integrate better feedback reception (and giving) into an organizational culture.

The acknowledgements are especially interesting as a model for showing appreciation, and there are extensive end notes.  The ARC did not have an index, but did include a “road map” that goes into more detail than the table of contents.  There are a number of illustrations; mostly figures.

Is this a useful book?  I would say yes.   It’s well-organized, has useful information in an understandable format, and has applicability in the real world.

That said, I think it is a book the readers will need to seek out for themselves.  Being given or recommended this book is a form of feedback that could be taken wrongly.  (“Are you implying I can’t take feedback?!”)  And being given this book by your manager will arouse as much suspicion as say, Who Moved My Cheese?, notorious as a book that management loves and employees find self-serving.

I recommend this book for business people,  college students (high school students might need a slightly simpler version), bloggers and anyone who finds themselves surrounded by idiots that never, ever give good feedback.

 

Book Review: The Weird Ones

Book Review: The Weird Ones by Frederik Pohl, Poul Anderson, Milton Lesser, Eando Binder, Mack Reynolds, Sam Sackett & L. Sprague de Camp

Weird

This is an anthology of 1950s science fiction published in 1962.  In the Fifties, SF became more “thinky” than in the pulp era, with an emphasis on the soft sciences like psychology and sociology.  While still rather staid in certain areas, which would be radically updated with the New Wave in the 1960s, Fifties SF came closer to literature.  This was the first book printing for these stories, which is why the cover calls them rare.

A preface by H.L. Gold discusses the need for neologism in science fiction, and how it compares to real world neologism.

“Small Lords” by Frederik Pohl has a first contact situation go horribly wrong.  Can the Earthmen somehow communicate their peaceful intentions before they all die?

“Sentiment, Inc.” by Poul Anderson concerns a scientist who’s developed a way to influence people’s emotions and is determined to use it to make the world a better place.  Even if it means what some people would consider treason…or worse.  Period sexism is evident in the use of women as “rewards” rather than as people with agency in their own right.

“Name Your Tiger” by Milton Lesser is about a Mars colony threatened by a killer that can become your worst fear.  The thinky bit here is what exactly constitutes a greatest fear.  The man who says “goldfish” is lying.

“Iron Man” by Eando Binder is even heavier on the psychological aspects.  A downtrodden man develops the delusion that he’s a robot.  A psychiatrist attempts to help him, but is it too late?

“The Hunted Ones” by Mack Reynolds is set in a future where humanity has decided that Zaroff was the hero of “The Most Dangerous Game.”  Their alien prey finds a way to remind them that “alien” doesn’t just mean odd-looking.

“Hail to the Chief” by Sam Sackett has a professor who believes that the government should be run by smart people discover that this is actually true of the American government.  Be careful what you wish for.

And “Impractical Joke” by L. Sprague de Camp involves an expedition to an alien planet disrupted by a bully’s trick on a mentally ill man.  A story where the joke isn’t one bit funny.

A good selection of stories, though rather dated.  Worth looking for.

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