Saturday, February 24, 2007

The Man Who Tried To Get Away, Stephen R. Donaldson

The Man Who Tried To Get Away
Stephen R. Donaldson

The Man Who Tried To Get Away is the third of Stephen R. Donaldson's mystery novels. In content, it follows immediately on the heels of The Man Who Risked His Partner.

Here we see Mick Axebrewder and Ginny Fistoulari take on what appears to be a simple security job, only to find it is more than they anticipated. Brew's medical situation complicates things further, but to describe that would be a spoiler for those who haven't read the previous book.

As with the other Axebrewder/Fistoulari novels, Donaldson's main concerns are ethics and character. The convoluted relationship between Brew and Ginny is on center stage here.

The plot is complex and, alas, seems a bit contrived to me. Brew and Ginny are providing security for a week long murder mystery event at a remote lodge where - of course - the guests start dying. As I say, the setting felt contrived, but it also felt over used. I haven't read that many mysteries, but I am willing to bet this setting has been used a lot. It felt well worn right from the start.

Worse, there were too many characters for me to easily keep track of. Perhaps that is a fault of the writer - not making them different enough for me to sort them out - but I'm not so sure. I've had similar issues with books by other authors (George R. R. Martin for example) where other readers clearly didn't encounter such issues, so it may just be me. Regardless, some of the characters here ran together, making parts of the plot harder to follow.

What I am certain of is that Donaldson likes the Axebrewder character. There's a certain feeling to the writing that shows it. Ginny is never center stage, so it's harder to tell how he feels about her, but he clearly likes Brew.

In the end I call this a good book, but not a great book. It wasn't quite as enjoyable as The Man Who Risked His Partner, but it was still a reasonable read.

And that completes my reading of the Donaldson mystery novels. In the end I think they're OK books, but I'm just not that big a mystery fan. In my experience, mystery novels all seem alike, regardless of author. It's not a genre I will be spending a lot of time with.

For the record, the novels in question are, in order:
  1. The Man Killed His Brother
  2. The Man Who Risked His Partner
  3. The Man Who Tried To Get Away
  4. The Man Who Fought Alone

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The Man Who Risked His Partner, Stephen R. Donaldson

The Man Who Risked His Partner
Stephen R. Donaldson

The Man Who Risked His Partner is the second in Donaldson's mystery novel series, once again featuring Mick Axebrewder and Ginny Fistoulari. This novel sees Brew and Ginny taking on a bodyguard job shortly after the events portrayed in The Man Who Killed His Brother.

I found this novel to be substantially better than the first, and probably a bit better than the fourth. The story is more complex and I (at least) didn't figure it out until the hero did. There are more characters this time around as well, and they're given more depth and background. There was one nit that bothered me, but overall it seems a solid story.

As before, Donaldson continues to pound on his characters, but since his stories really are all about internal struggles with our desires and abilities, as well as our relationships with others, that's what I'd expect. This time both Ginny and Brew have big holes to dig themselves out of, both mentally and physically.

One of the reviews on Amazon said something like: the angst ridden nature of the novel depresses the reader. I didn't find that the case, but I can see that others might. If that's a problem for you I suggest not picking up any Donaldson at all. His novels are the literary equivalent of Pink Floyd's The Wall, in which everything is dark and black and tormented until the very last second. In that last moment - Outside The Wall on the Floyd recording, and the last few pages of TMWRHP - we get just a tiny glimmer of hope; a hint that things might get better. And even in the Thomas Covenant novels, the restoration of The Land at the end is almost an afterthought in the writing. The real story is Covenant and/or Avery's inner struggle and redemption. The Land is simply that struggle made outwardly visible, and its recovery is basically the last thing we see, and then only briefly.

The Man Who Risked His Partner is a good book. It may be from a genre I'm less interested in, but it's still a worthwhile read. If it interests you, you'll probably want to read The Man Who Killed His Brother first - to set the stage - but it's not as good as this one.

The Donaldson mystery novels in question are, in order:
  1. The Man Killed His Brother
  2. The Man Who Risked His Partner
  3. The Man Who Tried To Get Away
  4. The Man Who Fought Alone

Sunday, February 18, 2007

The Man Who Killed His Brother, Stephen R. Donaldson (spoilers)

The Man Who Killed His Brother
Stephen R. Donaldson

Possible spoilers are at the end of this review, and clearly marked as such. You can safely read until you're told not to.

The Man Who Killed His Brother is Stephen R. Donaldson's first mystery novel. Originally published under the pseudonym Reed Stephens, it was re-released a few years back under his real name. Some time back I reviewed The Man Who Fought Alone, the fourth (and so far, last) in the series. I'm finally getting back to these books and learning about Mick Axebrewder and Ginny Fistoulari's past.

Given the title, it's no spoiler to tell you that Brew - no one calls him Mick - killed his brother. It's also not really a spoiler to tell you his brother was a cop, or that Brew's life is pretty screwed up as a result. At the time we meet him, he's an alcoholic gone way off the deep end. Then his niece turns up missing, and he and his partner, Ginny, have to find her.

I'm not an alcoholic myself, and I've never talked in depth with anyone who is, so I cannot asses how accurate Donaldson's view of that condition is. What I can say is I buy his presentation of it. I also buy his presentation of the town in which the story happens - Puerta del Sol - and the criminal underworld operating there.

Sadly, there are a few things I didn't buy. One is related to the bad guy. I had him picked out immediately after we met him. I had no evidence yet, but Donaldson's descriptions and treatment of him left me in no real doubt that he was the heart of the problem, so to speak. I've previously said I don't read a lot of mysteries, and the genre really doesn't interest me all that much, so I'm not all that qualified to judge these things, but it seems the villain should have been a bit more difficult for me to pick out.

Another problem for me was a turning point in the book. Someone comes in with some interesting information just at the right time, but we never learn how he got it. It just seemed a bit too unlikely given the build up for that particular character. A few paragraphs of explanation would have helped with that concern, and it might have been possible for me to accept it fully with a bit more support.

The last issue - a logical flaw in the plot - is the possible spoiler, so I've put it at the bottom of this review. You can find it there if you'd like to read it.

The reviews on are pretty positive as of the date of my own review. The one negative one is way off base, as it accuses Donaldson of "tossing off" these mystery novels. I've spent some time on Donaldson's web site and I highly doubt that is the case.

Overall, Donaldson continues to create interesting characters and beats them to a pulp. In this case, though, I was surprised that Brew doesn't have quite as tough a time of it as I expected. All the same, ethics is still a major issue in this novel, as it is in Donaldson's other novel length works.

In short, an OK book with one major flaw that bugged me. Even so, if you're a Donaldson fan you might enjoy it.

Possible spoiler alert. Stop reading here if you care.

The most significant problem for me is the time frame the events in the novel take place in. To me it appears the horrors the victims go through just couldn't have happened in the brief time span between their kidnapping and recovery. I won't give details, but when I think logically about how fast the story takes place and so on, it doesn't hold water. I could be way, way off base, I suppose - I've spent zero time in the worlds of prostitution and drugs - but somehow I doubt I'm that far off.

The Donaldson mystery novels in question are, in order:
  1. The Man Killed His Brother
  2. The Man Who Risked His Partner
  3. The Man Who Tried To Get Away
  4. The Man Who Fought Alone

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Tuf Voyaging, George R. R. Martin

Title: Tuf Voyaging
Author: George R. R. Martin
Rating: OK

Tuf Voyaging is the story of Haviland Tuf, the captain and sole human (at least I think he's human) occupant of a giant starship. That ship is a relic from an ancient war, and it was a bio-warship. Tuf calls himself an ecological engineer and takes the ship to various places where he uses the ship's equipment in interesting ways. The novel collects the stories of some of those voyages.

Alas I think it could have been better. It was OK reading, and there are some fun bits here, but it didn't hold together for me.

One problem isn't the fault of the author or the prose. What Tuf Voyaging actually contains is a set of novellas, originally published between 1978 and 1985, mostly in Analog. In their original form, they might well have been more palatable. The repetition of certain things (character appearance, certain behavioral oddities, that cats have "a touch of psi", etc.) that bothered me in novel form makes sense when you realize that originally these stories were published at wide intervals. It was necessary to refresh the reader's mind about Tuf and his situation each time around.

But that's not the only issue I had. If it was, I'd have said it was a good book and gone on. In fact, I have three other issues with the material here.
  1. There is a problem with the text itself. Somehow, I found the writing to be less than ideal. In general, it was OK, but there were times when Tuf himself was speaking that it just felt wrong. I know the character is supposed to have a stilted speaking style, but it often felt like Martin wasn't letting Tuf say what he meant in places. And then on page 313 of 376 I found a concrete example of what it was that had been bothering me all along.
    "Reg Laithor asks me why," Haviland Tuf said to Dax, stroking the cat softly. "My motives are always imputed. People have no trust in this hard modern age, Dax" ...
    Did you spot the issue? The word "imputed" doesn't fit in there. Looking it up, it means "to attribute or ascribe" or "to estimate" but the query (from Laithor) isn't imputing anything... it's asking a question, and there is an implication that Tuf's motives may not be pure. If I'm correct, the word I suspect Martin should have put in there was "impugned", which means "to attack as false or questionable". In context, that makes more sense to me.

    I don't have other cases like that - where I noted words were actually wrong - but something about the prose in here struck me as odd all along, and when I found that example I felt justified in my sense of things.

    Martin's actual writing hasn't bothered me before - in the first couple Song of Ice and Fire books it seemed fine. I'm at a loss as to why this bugged me as much as it did, but that's the way it was.

  2. Character development, or the lack thereof. We never learn about Tuf's background. We do see him acquire the ship, but that's about it. We never learn anything more about him, his past, why he is the way he is, etc. Perhaps that is another fault of a novel composed of several separately published novellas, but it still bothered me. I kept wanting to ask "why" questions as I read, but no answers were ever given. And Tuf has some interesting personality quirks that could have made for great back story.

    Oh, and at some points I think Tuf's morals can be questioned, but that's never explained either. The problem with Tuf's morals being uncertain is that he's presented as a hero. Not a flawed hero or an anti-hero, but an honest, simple, hero. Without any back story to explain the oddities of his behavior, it rings false.

  3. My last issue has to do with the rather cavalier attitude Martin displays about ecological engineering. Tuf winds up introducing new species on all kinds of planets, and wiping out old ones without concern. Yes, supposedly Tuf runs a lot of computer simulations to figure out what is going to happen, but I didn't buy it. I can't say too much about any specific case without writing a spoiler review, but I could justify the concern with a passage or two from the book if I wanted to give story points away.

    The fundamental gripe is that even back when these tales were originally published, the dangers associated with introducing non-native species into an ecosystem were well known. There were then all kinds of examples of ways in which relatively harmless looking species became significant problems for the native species in an area. In Tuf's case, he's introducing wildly different species - from alien planets - into places with nothing to keep them in check. It's hard for me to like a hero who does that sort of thing. It's not - as a rule - a smart thing to do.

    I'm not saying that every story has to be ecologically pure or that heroes must be perfect in their behavior. Far from it. I just want explanations for behavior and some - possibly minimal - accounting of the impacts of the actions of the characters. Letting Tuf entirely off the hook didn't feel right.
Anyway, while I found the book mildly interesting, it was pretty fluffy in the end. If you're a science fiction and/or George R. R. Martin aficionado, you may want to read this. If not, you can probably give it a pass and not miss much.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Sock, Penn Jillette

Title: Sock
Author: Penn Jillette
Rating: Good

Sock is a book. I am a reviewer. The guts of the relationship is all right there, see? I am the best reviewer. Sock is a good book. Not the best book. But a good book. It has a few characters. Some dead people. A murderer. He's creepy. It's got philosophy. The author hates religion. You'll see that if you read it. It's also got sex. And profanity. Lots and lots of sex and profanity. But it's still pretty well written. Wham, bam, thank you ma'am!

And there you have a capsule review of Sock, in something vaguely similar to the style of Sock.

If that isn't enough for you, read on...

The first thing you need to know is that I had no idea what I was in for when I picked up Sock and started reading. As I mentioned in my review of Teller's book, I like Penn & Teller's brand of magic. I acquired Sock based entirely on that basis, nothing more. I did know that Penn & Teller have published articles in Skeptical Inquirer, and that they were atheists, but I've never seen their cable TV show, and I've never seen their act live. But I really had no expectations at all going into this book. Enough confession.

What you've got here is a strange package. The narrator is a sock monkey. Yes, you read that right, a sock monkey. Thus the title. The prose is distinctly odd, and it was the hardest thing for me to get past in reading Sock. As in my review above, the sentences are - typically - short, sharp, and simple. For the first quarter of the book or so, I kept wondering if I was going to finish it or not just because of that. It got that annoying. (It's hard not to write like that myself now. Ugh!) But then we moved out of introduction and more into the story itself, and things got better, or I stopped noticing the writing style as much.

There's another prose oddity, but it didn't bother me. Just about every paragraph that is written by the narrator (as opposed to dialog or a very few other things) ends with some pop culture quote - mostly song lyrics. These are usually related to the topic at hand, but they can be a bit weird until you get used to them. If you read it, you might be interested in a full list of the references.

The story itself is a pretty standard (as I define these things) murder mystery. Perhaps it's even a bit simpler than most. The hero is a police diver who winds up going a bit nuts end when he happens to be the one to pull his ex-girlfriend's body out of the river. He winds up with a gay sidekick and they solve the crime, but not before a few others wind up dead as well.

The truth in this case, though, is that the story is secondary. It's actually a vehicle for other things. Jillette is strongly - and I mean strongly - anti-religion. He's also strongly against nonsense of just about any other sort. He uses this novel to advance his perspective, and he drives it home with all the subtlety of a Mack truck coming through your living room wall. To give you just two quotes pertaining to religion that caught my attention:
If it's stupid to believe in a religion with a god who looks out for you, how stupid is it to believe in a religion that has no god watching over you? Buddhism is the slowest competitor in the Special Olympics that is religion.
What's the difference between god and a sock monkey?
There is a sock monkey.
This is music to my ears, as I'm both a committed atheist and a skeptic. But if you lean towards the mystical in your life - in any way - you're probably going to find Sock insulting. Anyone who calls god an "imaginary friend" isn't going out of his way to placate the religious among us.

And it's profane. Deeply and profoundly profane. Profanity flows through Sock like water over Niagara falls. And it isn't just swearing for swearing's sake. It's discussions about how to have sex, depictions of sex, and the philosophy behind sex. If he could have found a way to include it, he'd have discussed what color sex should be. Oddly, most of this actually advances the plot or the philosophy, so it's not as awful as it could have been. But if you're of a sensitive nature, this is not the book for you.

So it's got an odd narrator, strange syntax, a strong anti-religion message, profanity, and sex. Put that all together and it turns out there's a lot to think about in here. Jillette makes some significant points about how we live our lives, what we think is important, and so on. His vehicle for making those points is crass - to say the least - but the points definitely do come across. This isn't a scholarly denial of religion, but not everyone can (or will) read those. You should come out of Sock asking yourself some tough questions about what you believe and why.

The reviews on are mostly positive, but a few people really hated it. Amusingly, there is disagreement about the pop references at the end of most paragraphs. It looks like a 50/50 split (among those who commented about them at all); they either love them or hate them. I guess it takes all kinds.

I say it's recommended, if you can take it.

Thursday, February 8, 2007

The Best From Fantasy And Science Fiction, Fourteenth Series, Avram Davidson

Title: The Best From Fantasy And Science Fiction, Fourteenth Series
Editor: Avram Davidson
Rating: OK

I bought an old, used copy of The Best From Fantasy And Science Fiction, Fourteenth Series to get one specific short story - Automatic Tiger by Kit Reed - on Doug's recommendation.

Alas I once again get to disagree - at least somewhat - with Doug. I didn't find Automatic Tiger the stand out story here. For me that honor fell on A Rose For Ecclesiastes by Roger Zelazny. Automatic Tiger was OK, but not all that special in my mind.

For more on the topic of my favorite short story, you can look here, and you might contribute your own favorites here.

But about this book...

It's a collection of (mostly) fantasy short stories, originally published in Fantasy and Science Fiction magazine in 1963, 1964, or 1965. (The copyright data in my copy is very limited, and not even the editor's introduction says what - if any - specific year these stories were published in.

As I read over the back cover, reviewing each of the stories I read just a few days ago, it's sad to note that I remember so few of the details. Some are already mostly forgotten and a few I actually don't recall at all. Perhaps my tastes really are changing in some way, but clearly most of these stories didn't stick with me. For the record, in this volume are:
  • Sacheverell by Avram Davidson
  • Trade In by Jack Sharkey
  • The Illuminated Man by J. G. Ballard
  • A Bulletin From the Trustees of the Institute of Advanced Research by Wilma Shore
  • Automatic Tiger by Kit Reed
  • The Court of Tartary by T. P. Caravan
  • Touchstone by Terry Carr
  • Thaw and Serve by Allen Kim Lang
  • Nada by Thomas M. Disch
  • Into The Shop by Ron Goulart
  • A Rose For Ecclesiastes by Roger Zelazny
  • Olsen and the Gull by Eric St. Clair
  • Dark Conception by Louis J. A. Adams
  • The Compleat Consumators by Alan E. Nourse
  • The House by the Crab Apple Tree by S. S. Johnson
  • The Girl With the Hundred Proof Eyes by Ron Webb
  • Fred One by James Ransom
So how many of those stories and authors have you heard of, now that we're 40+ years past the initial publication of these works?

As stated above, the highlight of this collection - for me - was Zelazny's A Rose For Ecclesiastes. I'd probably read it before, somewhere, but if so it was a long, long time ago. In that story, I finally found what I believe to be the origin of this line: "Tone of Voice: An Insufficient Vehicle for Irony", which I have heard many times in my life. It comes from this slightly larger quote:
Someday I am going to write an article for the Journal of Semantics, called "Tone of Voice: An Insufficient Vehicle for Irony."
As with nearly everything Zelazny wrote, he really can turn a phrase, and he keeps my attention. This is an early work, and the first he published in Fantasy And Science Fiction. He was 25, and (among other things) a former epee instructor. I knew I liked him for a reason. If only he was still among the living.

The rest of the book is what it is: uneven, with a couple of average or slightly better pieces, with the rest being basically forgettable, at least for me. But read A Rose For Ecclesiastes from some source, even if it isn't this one. That's a great story.

Sunday, February 4, 2007

Dimension Of Miracles, Robert Sheckley

Title: Dimension Of Miracles
Author: Robert Sheckley
Rating: OK

I'm afraid this review is going to bother a couple of people.

Dimension Of Miracles came highly recommended by at least two others, and it has been claimed that it is much like The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. It has even been suggested that Adams might have cribbed ideas from Sheckley. In the interests of intellectual honesty, you can go read the thread that caused me to pick up the book and that discusses some of these claims.

Alas I once again have to disagree with the crowd and say I was unimpressed. At best I found it mildly amusing in a few places.

Every single scene was so short that it was impossible to get a good feel for things before you were whipped on to the next one. That might have been called "rapid pacing" - and it could have been a plus - but given that the book dragged overall it is hard for me to grant it that attribute.

Another negative: every single character sounds exactly the same. They're all walking, talking encyclopedias, even the hapless earthling who plays the hero. That got old, even in such a short work.

As to the idea that Adams borrows concepts from Sheckley, I find it a bit far fetched. On re-reading Eisworth's review, I don't think the parallels are as dramatic as he suggests, but then again my copy of Dimension of Miracles is so old - dated June 1968 - there is no essay within it about the parallels with Adams's work. But even if Adams did borrow from Sheckley, for my money he did it better than Sheckley by a large margin. If I thought such borrowing had happened, I'd compare it with Mozart borrowing - and radically improving on - a theme from some unknown composer, rather than plagiarism. I stress, however, that my guess is that Adams wrote his works without influence from Sheckley. Lots of people write murder mysteries as well, and deep parallels could be drawn between many of them after the fact.

In summary I think Dimension of Miracles is OK, but not great. I may be banned from Doug's forums for saying so, but I found it pretty bland.