book review: (invasion of) the body snatchers

Original Title: The Body Snatchers; title updated to Invasion of the Body Snatchers with the 1978 edition.  Written by Jack Finney, originally published in 1954 as a short story and as a novel in 1955.  Film versions in 1956, 1978 (my favorite – w/Donald Sutherland), 1993 (Meg Tilly, R Lee Ermy & Forest Whitaker), and 2007 (w/Nicole Kidman & Daniel Craig).

Written in 1954 but set in 1976, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a science fiction classic.  If you haven’t read it, you should.  It’s a fun, fast read.  It won’t challenge you intellectually, but you’ll have fun.  I take that back, actually – you very well may engage in some deeper thinking when you finish this book, I think, but that’s really kind of based on your background more than Finney’s story.

One interesting thing in the story is that the two main characters – Dr. Miles Bennell (our hero) and Becky Driscoll – go to see a movie at one point.  They go see Time and Again – which happens to be another novel written by Finney.  This is a retcon introduced in the 1978 revision – because Finney didn’t write that book until 1970 and it was never made into a movie.  It’s a time travel story, and the method of time travel in that book was used in a movie (1980 – Somewhere in Time, starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour), but even that happened after the revision. (I suppose it would have been in the works in 1978, though.)  I don’t have access to a 1955 version of the story, so it may not have originally been set in 1976; Miles is telling the story in the past tense, after all.

The entire novel feels blissfully set in the early 1950s, and indeed Finney serialized this story in Collier’s Magazine in 1954, just another of many short stories he wrote that was published that way.  He fleshed it out a little, adding characters and plot side-points (but not too many, and they’re not too distracting) for the 1955 novel.

Reading the story from a 21st century perspective, the characters – our heroes plus the Belicecs, Theodora (Teddy) and Jack – seem a bit … well, stupid at times.  Miles is a medical doctor with a small family practice – he’s just wrapped up a sprained thumb as the story opens.  Jack is a writer (a nice call-out for Finney himself) and there’s no real indication of what the two women do for a living – or any of the women, actually, which somebody in 2015 might think is weird.

In 1955, not so much.  It would have been nearly scandalous that both Miles and Becky were divorced to somebody reading the book in 1955.  Divorce wasn’t uncommon back then, but divorced people were viewed as more …damaged… by American society, and as such, it would have been no surprise that Miles and Becky end up together.  (Don’t worry, I’m not ruining that – it’s clearly broadcasted from their first meeting that they’ll become an item.)  Their relationship builds as gradually as the story, and there’s some real emotion in it on Miles’ part.  When they finally have sex, it’s portrayed chastely, tastefully, and I wouldn’t hesitate to have a younger pre-teen (that already knows about sex) read this book.  Miles’ description of their first kiss is sweet, tender and full of emotion – which brings me to my next point.

Emotion is the central theme of the book, perhaps, or one of them.  It’s the way the characters identify the pod people.

Oh, wait a minute.  I need to back up.

IMG_1139The town of Santa Mira, a sleepy hamlet near US 101 in California not far from San Diego, is just like any other small town in America.  You can feel the small town atmosphere in Finney’s writing, it just oozes charm and beauty.  Some time in September or October 1976, though, pods drifted into town.

From outer space.

The pods, we soon learn, contain aliens that exist as parasitical mimics.  They float through space, gently, unthreateningly, until they find a planet teeming with life.  They morph themselves in a process that’s described in detail in the book – it’s not disgusting in the least, but it is fairly terrifying – and the become whatever life form it is they’ve imprinted upon.  Once the pod completes its transformation, the original being mimicked disappears in a cloud of dust.  Poof!  Gone!

The new alien mimic is an exact replica of the victim in every way – physically (down to the last scar or mole), mentally (all memories completely intact), and socially (not just social conventions but speech patterns) – but not emotionally.  The aliens-as-us don’t have the emotional depth we do, and that’s what enables a few minor characters to identify them early in the story.  One such minor character, Becky’s cousin Wilma (a very 1955 name if ever there was one) says her Uncle Ira looks, talks, acts, everythings like Uncle Ira – but he isn’t Uncle Ira.  Becky is concerned for her cousin and comes to the good doctor to ask him to go meet Uncle Ira, who of course Miles has known since he was a child.

Miles can’t tell any difference in Uncle Ira, but his curiosity is piqued, and the story boosts from there.

Finney does a great job of portraying emotion between Miles and Becky, and their feelings for each other intensify through the story to their natural culmination.  Because we know how strongly they feel for each other, when they’re confronted by the townies that know they haven’t transformed – led by a colleague of Miles’ named Mannie, a psychiatrist to whom Miles sends the people who feel like their kin aren’t really their kin at the beginning of the story – we can easily see the benefits of being an emotional being and exactly why Miles and Becky resist their nigh-inevitable transformation.

It would have been easy just to go to sleep, after all, and let the change come, but when Miles discovers that the aliens have a limited life span and what they’ll really do to the Earth, he resists, fighting back and (of course) eventually winning.

This isn’t a horror story – I’d call it a thriller.  Maybe a slow-burn thriller.  Finney builds the story well, gradually increasing the tension, until the characters discover – together – what’s really going on.  The pace is excellent and the writing is engaging.  The story is a little predictable, and there’s some points where it’s clear that Miles, Becky, Jack and Theodora are overlooking some quite obvious clues, but in general, they solve the mystery at a good pace.

In that slow-burn vein, one of the best scenes in the book is when Miles and Becky watch – from the window of Miles’ office – the transformed townsfolk gather.  They pin on matching buttons so they can identify who’s been changed and systematically remove – gently, carefully – anybody not wearing the right button.  Then they lay out their plan to take the pods out of Santa Mira.  It’s at that point that Miles knows he has to do something, but he figures out – too late – that the last two pods they saw in the truck were for him and Becky.

Because this book came out in the first decade of the Cold War, there have always been folks who call it a warning about the evils of Communism.  I can see how they came to that conclusion, but I think it’s incorrect.  People have also said it was a warning about Communism’s American antithesis, McCarthyism, and I think that’s incorrect as well.  Maybe I think those portrayals are incorrect because neither Communism nor McCarthyism is a threat in 2015, 60 years after The Body Snatchers came out in book form.

When I read it, I see the theme of change – and not the priceless, beneficial changes we see our children go through.  The scary changes we see ourselves go through as we age. The flattening of life, the suppression of emotions, perhaps even dementia and Alzheimer’s.  The aliens are POD PEOPLE, after all, and alien pod people at that, and they don’t have those human dimensions like we do.  They are, in essence, a shell of what we are, and turning into that shell scares the shit out of us all.  Finney seems to be telling us that change is inevitable, but if you fight hard enough, that change doesn’t have to be uncontrollable and you can change for the better.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers features some violence (the main character assaults and overcomes a policeman) and some scary imagery (when our heroes find some of the “blanks” before they transform).  There is no cursing and a few mentions of sex, including one implied sex scene.  I wouldn’t hesitate to offer this book to a child as young as 10 years old, provided I thought they could handle the idea of space pods drifting to Earth and sitting in the basement, slowly turning into their parents and then replacing them while Mom and Dad sleep.

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best movies of 2014

It’s the end of another year … after going to see Big Hero 6 yesterday, I doubt I’ll get out to the movies again, so I’m here with my year-end “best movies of 2014” pronouncements.  Plus also the worst, because I’m that kind of guy.

WORST FIRST

Anchorman 2 – I even saw the “raunchier” unrated version – is probably the worst movie I’ve paid to see since Ishtar.  This movie sucked in so many ways I can’t even count them. It’s a shame, too, because I enjoyed the first one. This movie goes to prove my theory about Will Ferrell’s hit-and-miss career.  I’m looking forward to the day he stops doing comedies regularly and becomes a dramatic actor, like Tom Hanks did. Tom Hanks’ comedies are hit-and-miss, but generally OK. His dramatic movies, though, are nearly all excellent.

Under the Skin – this is the kind of artsy film I’m glad I skipped at the theater and rented from iTunes.  While it certainly has some positives to it, it should have been about 30 minutes long.  At 30 minutes, the self-discovery/coming-of-age film warped into the alien-lands-on-Earth ouvre would have really worked.

The Machine – another one I’m glad I saw on Netflix instead of paying $12 to watch. Great concept, just poorly executed.

NOW THE BEST

5. The Grand Budapest Hotel – funny, manic and touching.  Worth every penny.

4.  TIE: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes/Godzilla – I’m a total sucker for reboots, and I think the Planet of the Apes reboot series is doing well.  I missed the presence of James Franco, who was absolutely stellar in the first movie in this rebooted series (he’s another comedic actor that is ofter better in dramatic roles), but the story was good, the effects were excellent, and the apes were STELLAR.  Caesar is a subtle, nuanced character that rivals any live human in any movie this year.  Godzilla suffered from a bit of bloat – I’m going to say about 15 minutes too much – but man, what a good movie!

3.  Interstellar – if they’d trimmed 30 minutes off this movie, it’d probably have been my #2, if not #1.

2.  Big Hero 6 – maybe it’s just because I saw this yesterday & it’s still fresh in my mind, but this was a fun movie.  The animation was top notch and the story was compelling (it was, however, a little predictable).  Only the identity of the villain surprised me, but I enjoyed the story of the plucky underachiever and his puffy robot sidekick teaming up to save the world.

1.  Earth to Echo – I know, I know, you know I dislike “found footage” films, but you also know I’m a total sucker for sci-fi (see 2 of the 3 worst films, above).  This is a fantastic story about innocence and the loss thereof.  Imagine Super 8 without the scary space monster and you’ve got this movie I think was the best of the year.

Here’s all the 2014-release movies I saw:

  • The Lego Movie
  • The Monuments Men
  • RoboCop (remake)
  • Anchorman 2
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel
  • The Muppets: Most Wanted
  • Under the Skin (rental)
  • Captain America: The Winter Soldier
  • Godzilla
  • The Machine (Netflix)
  • Earth to Echo
  • Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (video)
  • Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
  • Ghostbusters (30th anniv. release)
  • Big Hero 6
  • Interstellar

Here’s the movies I seriously thought about going to see, but didn’t:

  • Shoot Me (Elaine Stritch documentary)
  • Particle Fever
  • Chef
  • A Night in Old Mexico
  • A Million Ways To Die in the West
  • Age of Uprising
  • Night Moves
  • The Signal
  • A Fantastic Fear of Everything
  • A Letter to Momo
  • Hercules (starring Dwayne Johnson)
  • Lucy
  • A Most Wanted Man
  • Guardians of the Galaxy
  • Get On Up
  • The Congress
  • Frontera
  • The Zero Theorem
  • This Is Where I Leave You
  • The Box Trolls
  • The Equalizer
  • The Judge
  • Automata
  • Fury
  • The Book of Life
  • Birdman
  • John Wick

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10 science fiction books you should read before you die

I saw a list the other day with this same title – “10 sci-fi books you should read before you die.”  I thought, well, that’s a serious challenge, especially since I’m already 45. I could go at any time.

As I looked through the list, however, I noticed that several of the books were fantasy novels – not sci-fi.

“What?” I hear you cry. “Aren’t they the same thing?”

No, gentle reader, they most certainly are not.

Perhaps I’m a bit more stringent in my definition of science fiction than most people. Clearly, novels directed at people are going to have people like us in them, so they could be any genre. Fantasy, to my mind, involves people in fantastic situations. Maybe those situations are believable, maybe they’re not.  Maybe they’re utopian, maybe they’re dystopian.  If it’s got elves and shit like that in it, it’s not sci-fi. Period.  Magic?  Probably not sci-fi.

George Orwell’s 1984 is quite often on lists such as these, as is Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. To me, neither of these books are sci-fi.  They’re fantasy – dystopian fantasy.  Why?

No spaceships.  No ray guns.  No aliens.

To me, it’s not sci-fi unless it has at least one if not all three of those things. A book like William Gibson’s Neuromancer is an absolutely great book, but to me it’s on the fringe of sci-fi because it’s all just plain humans. Fantastic, modified, souped-up humans, but just plain humans nonetheless.  To me, it’s a fantasy novel.

Here, in no particular order, is my list of 10 sci-fi books to read before you die, then, and they all contain at least two of those things.

  • Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The whole series is fun, but the first book is the one that will really blow your mind. It contains so many sci-fi tropes that you’ll finally understand where most of them come from.
  • Ray Bradbury, The Martian Chronicles.  One of Bradbury’s best collections of short stories, and all on the theme of humans colonizing Mars. Utterly brilliant.
  • Frank Herbert, Dune. I only read this just this year and I totally see why it’s a giant of sci-fi literature. Reviewed not too long ago in this very blog.
  • Isaac Asimov, I, Robot. If you read my blog, you know how much I dig robots. This is a collection of short stories and a really fantastic book.
  • Philip K. Dick, We Can Remember It For You Wholesale. This book was the inspiration for two movies, both of which are pretty good, but only one of which features the trip to Mars.
  • H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds.  Possibly the best really old sci-fi novel around.
  • Alan Dean Foster, Lost and Found. A funny and poignant book I only recently discovered. It’s good enough to make my list, and one of the main characters is a talking dog.
  • Robert A. Heinlein, Have Space Suit, Will Travel. There’s a lot of Heinlein books involving the three sci-fi criteria, but this is the most accessible and most fun of all of them.
  • Harry Harrison, The Jupiter Plague.  Not the book the movie Soylent Green was based on, but still a great read.
  • John Scalzi, Old Man’s War. Another book I only discovered just this year, and WOW! what a great book!  I love his book Redshirts, too, but Old Man’s War is a more traditional sci-fi novel.  You can go back through my blog to find my review of this book.

If your favorite sci-fi novel isn’t on this list, I either don’t consider it sci-fi, I haven’t read it, or if I have read it, it didn’t resonate with me – like Asimov’s Foundation. I’ve heard dozens of times what a great book this is, but when I read it, all I could think was … meh. I really just didn’t do it for me.

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book review: Old Man’s War

This is perhaps the last book I’ll get to read (quickly) for pleasure until my summer class ends.  Oh, I’ll pick one out to read, but with teaching requirements now encroaching on my free time, I won’t be able to rip through them as quickly as I’ve been doing since mid-May.

Old Man’s War, by John Scalzi, 2005

photo 1If you’ve never read Robert A. Heinlein’s classic (of both science fiction and critique of communism) Starship Troopers, you might want to hold off on that.  Scalzi’s Old Man’s War is – and it pains me to say this – a better version of that story.

Well, perhaps “better” is a loaded word.  It’s not exactly the same story, but it’s pretty damn close.  The differences aren’t all that significant – except for one.

Heinlein is clearly preaching in Starship Troopers.  Scalzi doesn’t presume to do so.

The similarities are numerous, though.  In both books men and women fight side by side as absolute equals.  There are boot camp sequences.  The warriors have super-human capabilities (in OMW, through genetic engineering; in ST, through their jumpsuits).  They face vicious alien bug enemies (though OMW features some non-bug enemies as well).  Both stories feature dropships and military camaraderie – you could layer Scalzi’s description of why the Colonial Defense Force (CDF) troops don’t immediately accept replacements over Heinlein’s description of why the Mobile Infantry (MI) troops don’t immediately accept replacements and practically be reading the same book.  I take that as homage rather than ripoff, though, because I really dig both books.

Scalzi also wrote one of my favorite – and I mean all-time favorite – sci-fi books, Redshirts. Absolutely great book.  It’s because of that book I wanted to read something else he wrote, to see if he’s really that good (spoiler alert: HE IS).  I’m not a big fan of series, though, so I picked up this stand-alone book (which, apparently, he wrote a sequel to, but I didn’t know that when I got this).

The premise of Old Man’s War is pretty simple.  Humans are expanding throughout the universe, colonizing as they go.  They must protect themselves from any number of hostile races they have suddenly found themselves competing against for territory, from the vaguely birdlike Rraey to the very scary beetle-like Corsu.  To effect this protection, Earth’s senior citizens sign up to leave the planet at age 75 and venture forever off world to fight – and die – for the colonists.

The gimmick, though, is that when you sign up, you get a fresh, new body to do the fighting in… and it’s glorious.  You’re young again.  When you finish your term of service (up to 10 years), you’ll get another new, but entirely human, body in which you’ll live out the rest of your (un)natural life, growing old again and dying in your due time.

The geriatric warriors reminded be a bit of the blue folks in that movie Avatar – even though Scalzi’s genetically-modified old-man (and -woman) warriors are green.

This book is both funny and poignant, lofty and disturbing, and even though it’s kind of a cliche, I have to say it’s a real page-turner.  I read it in one sitting, starting at 9 pm and not stopping until the wee hours (I think it may have been 1 am).  Fantastic book.

The science aspects of science-fiction are present here, which I dearly love.  Skip drives, alternate universes (or are they?), tachyon fields, and even some math.  Ray guns, space ships, and all that, but the plot pivots on a weird cross between gladiator games and a soccer game-ending shootout.

One of the themes of the book is the human reliance on technology; I’m not entirely sure if Scalzi thinks it’s a negative, but he certainly paints the picture of what can happen when we rely to heavily on technology without understanding how (and why) it does what it does.

There’s lots of violence (with some gory wound descriptions) and plenty of sex (though none too graphic) that would push this book into older teen territory.  Younger readers might not understand the dilemma faced by the main character, John Perry, as he realizes his role in the universe, but it’s far more lightly developed than in Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and that, I think, makes this book a lot more fun to read. Not as thought provoking, certainly, but a lot more fun.

(now I’m all caught up on my book reviews – three in one day…ooof!)

book review: Dune

There are classics of science fiction and then there are CLASSICS.  If you enjoy the genre, you owe it to yourself to read the CLASSICS, if only to learn where the modern writers get their inspiration.

Dune, by Frank Herbert, 1965

Before I get into this review, which encompasses more than just the book, let me break into an aside for a bit.

I’ve had 6 weeks off school, the break between the end of the spring semester and the beginning of my summer class.  I decided to use that time to read, read, read and opened myself up to new material. I  asked friends to help celebrate my birthday this summer by sending me books – I’d read whatever they sent, then send them something to read.  I’ve read some books that I never would have otherwise picked up, and have enjoyed almost every book that I received.  I’m hoping to get some more, too (hint! hint!).

Since I finished the first batch of books sent or given to me – 9 of them! – but classes hadn’t started up yet, I decided to dive into my pile of recently-purchased books (I can’t resist a good used book store) and see what was there.  Apparently I really needed to read Dune, because I bought it TWICE in the last six weeks!  The upside of that is that I have an extra copy to give away now.

photoDune is one of those books that, if you’re a fan of science fiction, history, fantasy or epic stories, you simply have to read.

The greatest thing about Dune is that Herbert drops you into a fully functioning (though dysfunctional) galaxy-spanning society. It is both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time, and Herbert doesn’t waste a lot of time trying to explain the things you haven’t encountered before.  He drops you right into it and you’re fully immersed from page one.

The story is pretty straightforward – political intrigue and courtly maneuvering, with healthy doses of betrayal, magic and mysticism thrown in for good measure.  The characters positively crackle with life and the situations are wrought with tension.

Paul Muad’Dib, nee Atreides, is the main character, but we experience the maelstrom of people that surround him, including his parents, sister, concubine, friends and enemies, both civilized and otherwise.

I imagine this book seemed a lot more exotic in 1965 when it first came out than it does now.  Herbert infuses the book with Arabic words that invoke Islam; while “jihad” is a word we’re all familiar with in 2014, in 1965, many Americans would have had to figure out what he meant by examining the context.  I actually found this aspect of the writing somewhat distracting, but the story is compelling enough that it didn’t matter too much to me.

This really is a fantastic book with very few hiccups in the plot.  I’ve heard and read largely negative opinions of the sequels, so I think I’ll be stopping with this book, but it’s an excellent book all around.

Having never read this book before, I quickly discovered how absolutely shitty that Dune movie really was.  The mini-series wasn’t much better but did adhere more to the story.  Still, both can be judged not by what they included (or, as in the case of the theatrical film, made up entirely), but by what they left out.  I realize you can’t translate a book to film word for word, but still … I don’t know how either team could justify leaving out that very intense dinner party scene when the Atreides have just arrived on Arrakis.

The film especially glad-hands the fate of the Atreides’ Mentat, Thufir Hawat.  He goes from loyal to captured to traitor in the movie with no explanation – and that’s it. Bam.  Weak.  I doubt I’ll be able to watch that movie ever again despite being a big fan of Sean Young.

One question I have for Herbert (which I might ask if he was still alive) is why Paul gets two Fremen names (Usul and Muad’Dib) but nobody else does.  Paul has a pet nickname for Chani, but we never learn her “other” name, nor that of Jamis, Stilgar, or any of the other Fremen.  The planetologist Kynes has a Fremen name, Liet, but that doesn’t count because he has a human name, too, and we never learn his other Fremen name.  It’s a little thing, but it bothered me.

Something that I really found interesting was the religious aspect of the story.  Paul is clearly the Fremen messiah and a cult begins developing around the Lisan al-Gaib, the person of this Fremen prophecy.  To that end, there is one passage that really struck me in a powerful fashion:

“When religion and politics travel in the same cart, the riders believe nothing can stand in their way. Their movement becomes headlong – faster and faster and faster. They put aside all thought of obstacles and forget that a precipice does not show itself to the man in a bland rush until it’s too late.”

It’s credited as a Bene Gesserit proverb, but it’s amazing how Herbert could see in 1965 that religion and politics are difficult bedfellows.

The book features a good bit of violence and some disturbing imagery (the test with the Box at the beginning of the story pops immediately to mind), but there’s very little sex (if any, really) in the book.  There’s some courtly romance, but this wasn’t Herbert’s strong suit.

summer book exchange #3: Among Others

No matter what else transpires in this review, or even in this book, you must remember this one thing, for it may someday save your life:

“If you love books enough, books will love you back.”

photoAmong Others, by Joe Walton (2010)

This book was sent to me by a guitar buddy, Tom, who is himself an author. He graciously gives me credit for turning him on to Heinlein. I’m very much looking forward to reading Tom’s own novel someday, hopefully someday soon.

Here’s the short strokes of Among Others.

Teenage girl suffers personal, family and physical trauma, survives, suffers, grows, perseveres, and triumphs.

Now for the long version.

Morwenna Phelps/Markova is her name, and she LOVES books. Or rather, I should say, the author’s love of science fiction books is weaved throughout Mori’s narrative. The one truly negative thing I have to say about this book is wrapped up in the constant listing of sci-fi (or SF, as Mori refers to the genre) books, series and authors that permeates the story.

It’s annoying. It’s oppressive. It’s right on the verge of literary bullying.

I can live with it, though, because the rest of the story is that good.

I know, I know, you’re thinking, “Is he really telling me a story about a crippled 15-year-old girl who sees and talks to fairies and whose mother is a witch (a real, ugly inside and out, wart-on-the-nose witch) that she has to battle – twice – is a ‘good story’?” Yes, gentle reader, yes I am.

I’m always wary of throwing down spoilers, but the journal-entry style of the book lays things bare in such a methodical fashion that you’re unlikely to be surprised by anything that happens. Morwenna is half of a set of magic-sensitive twins; her sister is tragically killed in a confrontation with their mother. This much is revealed on the back cover of the book, by the way.

If you’ve ever read a book written about a 15-year-old girl, let alone BY one (as this one truly feels like it was), you already know some of the other things that are going to happen. Raised by her mother’s extended family, she runs away to escape the wrath of her mother and the reminders of her dead sister; she ends up in the care of her estranged father, who ran away himself when the girls were babies. She’s sent to boarding school, where she’s marginalized as an outsider because of her Welsh accent, standoffish personality, and perhaps most especially, her deep, devoted love of reading (mostly sci-fi). The only place she truly feels comfortable is in the library, the only people she trusts – as much as she can trust anybody – are fellow SF fanatics.

The girls at the boarding school treat her poorly. The school’s food sucks. She loses touch with her friends from back home. Her mother attacks her at night with magic whenever she gets the chance – you know, typical English boarding school stuff.

Though Mori is a big SF fan, this book is actually fantasy, not SF. I’m not the biggest fantasy fan, though I do have my moments. One of the biggest fantasy series – perhaps at this point, THE biggest – is the tale of Harry Potter. I’ve read parts of 3 or 4 of those books, and I have to say I hated them. A lot.

This book about magic, though, I really liked. In Mori’s world (which spans September 1979 to May 1980, with a little dip into 1975), magic is mostly subtle, unexperienced by most people. Her introduction to it is through fairies; she and her sister see, talk to and play with fairies as children. The fairies help them, and Mori helps the fairies when she can, especially in one very touching scene. We learn, however, that the fairies are not entirely benign, and in the story’s double climax, she has to stand up to them in a way that is difficult for her.

Magic, then, so much a part of Mori’s consciousness, is merely a background element for 98% of the book; this is so unlike Harry Potter’s world, where magic pummels the reader at every turn. In Harry’s world, magical objects are fantastical! They’re everywhere! People fight, die and kill over them! In Mori’s world, magical objects are things like stones she keeps in her pocket and kitchen spoons that get lovingly used over the years. The one truly magical object in the entire story is a cane the fairies give her.

Mori needs a cane; her hip was smashed in the car crash that claimed her sister’s life. Mori’s handicap is one of many things that sets her apart from the girls in her school, but it’s not the most significant thing.

What I liked most about the story was the subtlety of the magic. Nothing truly, thoroughly magical happens until the second climax, when Mori is forced to fight her mother again. Even though it’s the story’s one scene of true violence, it’s done quite pastorally – not passively, by any stretch of the imagination, but not with the swing of a sword and a fiery spurt of blood. Indeed, Mori would have found such an instance to be vulgar. Instead, she uses her magic and her love of books to overcome, and bingo, we know that’s the happy ending. She walks (er, limps) into the gathering moonlight with her recent boyfriend and her un-estranged father, safe from the fairies and her mother and her past forever.

The (double) climax seems a  bit rushed, though, but it’s done well.  The story builds so slowly, so cleanly, that when it’s time for Mori to at last face her mother (again), it feels like it happens very all-of-a-sudden, and it seems a little out of place for such a languorously paced story.

My favorite little tidbit was toward the end, when Mori comes upon a freshly-released Heinlein paperback, The Number of the Beast.  Not one of Heinlein’s greatest hits, but a decent book, and I remember buying my first copy of it when I was about Morwenna’s age.  My least favorite part was a long scene where Mori spent time in the hospital having her leg rather incompetently dealt with; that part hits a little too close to home (though my doctors were eminently competent, I promise!).

This was a really good book. Very little violence. There are some frank passages (remember, the story is told as a series of diary entries) and short scenes (including a drunken, groping teenage make out session) of solo, hetero and homosexual activity (or near activity, at any rate). Mori’s father chain smokes and drinks.

I’d say this book is appropriate for anybody over about 13 or 14 years old that likes stories about fairies, magic, and teenage girls in a coming-of-age environment.

Naturally, somebody combed through and listed all 168 books mentioned in this book, and that list is on GoodReads.  168 books in 283 pages is 1.7 books mentioned per page.  I told you it was oppressive! I’ve read just 26 of them.

summer book exchange list

I’ll update this list (hopefully I’ll remember to do it) with all the books that I’ve read this summer.

(Italics means I’ve received it, but haven’t read it yet.)

  1. The Dogs Don’t Bark in Brooklyn Any More, by Eric R Nolan
  2. World of Warcraft: Arthas: Rise of the Lich King, by Christie Golden
  3. Among Others, by Jo Walton
  4. The Children’s Story, by James Clavell
  5. Killing Mr. Griffin, by Lois Duncan
  6. Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel
  7. How To Be a Woman, by Caitlin Moran
  8. The Name of This Book Is Secret, by Pseudonymous Bosch
  9. Christmas Truce: The Western Front, December 1914, by Malcolm Brown & Shirley Seaton
  10. The Stupidest Angel: A Heartwarming Tale of Christmas Terror, by Christopher Moore

Exchanged books sent (or planned to be sent):

  1. Jennifer Government, by Max Barry
  2. Christine, by Stephen King
  3. The Cursing Mommy’s Book of Days, by Ian Frazier
  4. Marc Antony’s Heroes, by Stephen Dando-Collins
  5. Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury