Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Read This Now!

Incredibly wonderful analysis of what book reviews should encompass!

Friday, March 20, 2009

Eifelheim [Review]

Title: Eifelheim   
Author: Michael Flynn (author's live journal)
Copyright: 2006, Tor Books, New York
Genre: Science Fiction
Length: 312 pages

Summary: This is a braided tale of time and space. Flynn takes us back to the culture of 14th century Rhineland Germany, a period of technological shifts and venture into the sciences. He introduces a foreign (or, as this is science fiction novel, alien) culture into the village of Oberhochwold. This culture contrasts sharply with the medieval culture because its governing values are more closely related to the modern sensibilities (mechanistically, scientifically oriented rather than theological). That tale is juxtaposed with the experience of a trio of modern-day researchers who are investigating issues tied to both time and space. The stories intertwine, but the tale of primary interest is the first contact story between the medieval priest, Father Dietrich, his parish, and the Krenk.
Flynn draws a parallel between the encounter of historians grappling with an ancient culture of centuries past with that of a science fiction "first contact" between space alien and mankind. The conflicts presented in scientific concepts and spiritual beliefs are intriguing because each side understands and explains the world differently. Father Dietrich, in a world that has only the most shallow grasp of mechanics, energy and disease, must communicate his rational understanding of how the world operates (temporal and eternal) to a highly advanced race of beings with a far more sophisticated understanding of how the world operates. While Dietrich is challenged to incorporate the aliens into his belief structure, the aliens are faced with technological, physical and ultimately spiritual challenges. When both sides are faced with an unreasoning challenge to survival (bubonic plague), which belief structure emerges as being correct? This is what *good* science fiction does -- it explores assumptions and ideas -- and it is not surprising that this novel was nominated for a Hugo Award. (It lost against Rainbow's End by Vernor Vinge.)
Pacing is slow until the last quarter of the novel; the long build-up introduces a variety of questions relevant to the final outcome of the story. Flynn's use of language is not particularly lyrical, as one might expect of a trained mathematician and statistician. There is an extensive list of historical names and dates that play into the development of the theme as well as a complex set of fictional characters that one must keep straight. The characterization, however, is quite robust. These characters have flaws and temperament and behavioral quirks.
The author demands intellectual engagement by the reader because Eifelheim is neither a frothy space opera nor is it a bastardized medieval fantasy. There are lengthy passages of theology as well as physics. However, the story's conflict is primarily revealed in human capacity for understanding as well as a stubborn failure to understand. That extends not just to the inter-species relationships but the human relationships as well. Dietrich has a ward, his primary familial relationship, and that relationship is tested as is his primary professional relationship with a mendicant Franciscan, Father Joachim.  

Extract:  "There was no cadence to the voice," he decided, "or rather its cadence was mechanical, without rhetorical flourishes. It lacked scorn, amusement, emphasis,...hesitation. It said 'Many thanks' with all the feeling of a shuttlecock flying across a loom."
"I see," said Manfred, and Dietrich raised a finger post.
"And that was another convincing point. You and I understand that by 'see' you signified something other than a direct impression on the sense of sight. As Buridan said, there is more to the meaning of an utterance than the precise words uttered. But the Heinzelmannchen did not understand figures. Once it learned that the 'tongue' is a part of the body, it became confused when I referred to the 'German tongue'. It did not comprehend metonymy."
"That's Greek to me," Manfred said.
"What I mean, my lord, is that I think...I think they may not know poetry."
(page 76 of the hardcover)
For more, there is a limited preview on Google Books.
Also relevant: This novel was written as an offshoot of a novella originally written and published in 1986. The modern portions of this braided tale are taken from that novella, which was also nominated for a Hugo. Fans of James Blish's A Case of Conscience or Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow may find this to be of equal interest. Religious belief systems are accorded respect in this narrative  as having equal footing as scientific knowledge in constructing an understanding of how we traverse this world and our lives (again, that theme of temporal vs. eternal). This is a challenging read, but well worth the time it takes to get through it.  

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Spam & Eggs [Review]

Title: Spam & Eggs: A Johnny DeNovo Mystery 
Author: Andrew Kent [official web site]
Copyright: 2009
Length: 256 pages
Genre: Mystery (Hard-Boiled)

Summary: Johnny DeNovo, ultra-cool and world famous detective, gets spam in his email box. Well, who doesn't? And why would such a mundane occurrence trigger an investigation? As with all great detectives, such as Sherlock Holmes or Philip Marlowe, when between cases, Johnny is bored. It is due to this lack of significant brain stimulation that he notices some peculiarities in his spam messages and sets out to make sense of the problem. Supported by both his beautiful publicity agent, Mona Landau, and his techno-geek friend, Tucker Thiesen, Johnny follows clues that take him from his Boston condo to the rolling hills of Virginia's horse country as well as to the side streets and art galleries of Paris. 
Andrew Kent successfully delivers in this debut both an interesting sleuth as well as a cyber-crime that surprises and challenges the thoughtful reader. Most interestingly, he articulates the back-of-the-mind processes that permit a detective to understand what it is that has taken place in a crime, both in terms of the actual behavior as well as misdirected perception of behavior which allows the criminal to believe his or her acts have gone unnoticed. Just as Miss Marple would solve a crime by thinking of some seemingly unrelated occurrence in her village of St. Mary Mead, Johnny Denovo is a sleuth who toys mentally with metaphors,allowing useful connections to surface in his thinking and succeed in his public persona.   
Pacing is good and the laughs are not infrequent. DeNovo may be a sly send-up of Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe character, but there is sufficient action of the sort that Chandler would applaud. The setting is modern-day and all of the technology is futuristic. Normally, this would not be a formula that I would find engaging (preferring as I do a good cozy Miss Marple) but Kent has mastered the technique of ending chapters in ways that induce one to keep turning pages. About half-way through the novel, I was sure I had figured out the identity of the mole who keeps Johnny DeNovo under close watch, but I was charmed when I realized that I was thoroughly mistaken in my conclusion. The book avoids predictability, in part because of the running themes that deepen the story. Kent touches on the nature of metaphors, self-presentation in both a physical and virtual sense, the nature of detection, and the brain processes necessarily employed in solving puzzles. Recommended.
Extract: The site linked to above has excerpts from chapters one and three, but I've bulleted a gem or two here worth noting.
  • It wasn't good for weapons to become metaphors for security.
  • Choice and chance separated people only very faintly, yet gazing across the divides made people seem very different.
  • ...he always thought he sensed behaviors changing as the light faded, as if criminality, identity and possibility emerged as illumination dimmed. 
  • ...savoring the touch of chaos he'd injected 
Also Relevant: This book is self-published. Like many readers and many acquisition librarians, I would tend to consider such a statement immediate cause for dismissal if not outright disdain. Do not make that mistake. Kent writes a satisfying, literate, and neatly executed tale of detection.  There is a balance in Spam & Eggs between the logical structure of the mystery form chosen by the author, and the nuances of perception and misdirection caused by the reader's tendency to make assumptions (in much the same way that a detective is required to do in the course of his work).  Indeed, the title itself playfully draws on words and symbols which percolate throughout the material. This book didn't have to be self-published because the author had reason to fear  the wash-wring-press of traditional editorial work. The book is self-published because the author chose to experiment with new mechanisms for distribution and there is a world of difference in the experience. Spam & Eggs isn't perfect; there were one or two annoying questions that occurred to me by the end, but the questions were more niggling slips rather than significant gaps in the narrative.
The book is worth your notice and your time. Personally, I look forward to the next title in the Johnny Denovo series, The Green Monster.