Monday, January 21, 2013

The Ginger Star by Leigh Brackett (1974)

I have gushed about how much I like Leigh Brackett before, so I won't go over all her awesome qualities again except to say that she never disappoints. When I saw this copy of Brackett's The Ginger Star (1974) at a second-hand store in Omaha earlier this year, I grabbed it (along with a ton of Edgar Rice Burroughs' books) right away.

Eric John Stark was born in a mining colony on Mercury. When his parents and the rest of the humans died in an accident, he was taken in and raised by the native inhabitants of the planet. Later more humans came and killed all the "savage beasts" and took Stark as a curiosity. He was caged and humiliated until being rescued and taught English and human ways by Simon Ashton. Now Ashton, a representative of the interplanetary alliance, has disappeared on a little-known planet called Skaith and Stark will do whatever it takes to find him.

Skaith is an ancient and dying planet. Many thousands of years ago it had a vibrant artistic and scientific culture. Then planetary climate changes forced people to abandon the northern cities and resettle in the South. Much of their culture was lost in the struggle for survival and over the centuries pockets of people evolved into very different beings with very different ways of life. Over it all sit the Lords Protector -- unseen and ever present -- represented throughout the planet by their Wandsmen, wizards who maintain order and punish wrongdoing. Most of the planet scrapes by to support the lifestyle of the Wandsmen and the Farers, children of the Wandsmen who never work and only seek out pleasure in sex and drugs. But the sun that Skaith orbits is dying and the planet is gradually becoming more and more uninhabitable. A group of Iranese reach out to the interplanetary alliance and ask to be transported off the planet and resettled elsewhere. This threatens to destroy the world of the Wandsmen and the Farers and they fight back against Ashton and Stark.

Brackett is like a combination of Burroughs and Bradbury -- this is inventive, classic science fiction with an exciting action/adventure bent. As Stark traverses the planet looking for Ashton, we touch on the various inhabitants -- mer-people who had their genes altered centuries ago so they could survive the planetary changes by living under the ocean, people who join together in hypnotized religious pods before killing themselves as a group, Northern miners who harvest metal from long-abandoned ancient cities, and many more. Brackett gives each character a full description and a solid purpose but doesn't dwell on any one group, sticking instead with Stark, the ultimate instinctual outsider, as he works through his single-purposed quest.

This is the first book in a trilogy, and I liked it so much that I've already bought the other two. If you come across anything by Brackett at the used bookstore, pick it up right away -- you will not be disappointed.

P.S. I'm working on a theory that George R.R. Martin read and liked these Skaith novels because there are so many parallels with the Game of Thrones: a hero named Stark, a modern world reacting to an ancient and partially-forgotten past, a North/South divide, tiny mystical people called the Children who live in the far north, freaky giant wolves, an abundant use of the word Southron -- definitely something to think about!

Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Walking Dead, Volume 11: Fear the Hunters by Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard and Cliff Rathburn (2010)

This volume maintains the tight pacing and close observation of characters that we've had since leaving the prison. At this point, we are so deep in a morass of complicated human failure and moral conundrums that it almost doesn't matter that there are herds of zombies out there just waiting to eat our brains. If you put those herds up against fratricide, the death penalty for children, and very very talkative cannibals, it is hard to say which way of life is really the more rewarding. This volume also features the death of one of my favorite characters, but it was done with such care that I almost don't mind at all.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Gathering of Waters by Bernice McFadden (2012)

I got this copy of Gathering of Waters by Bernice McFadden (2012) through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program early in 2012 and I'm sad it took me so long to read it. Luckily, it got its chance when the book I'd just started was way too big to take with me in my carry-on bag on a recent plane trip, and Gathering of Waters was just the right size. I started the book at 4:30 in the morning at the Austin airport and finished it at two in the afternoon in the plane on the way to my final destination.

Gathering of Waters centers on the infamous 1955 murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Money, Mississippi by two white men after they say he whistled a white woman at the grocery. Instead of being weighed down by the heavy history of her centerpoint, McFadden's novel creates a structure that is epic and small, spiritual and humorous, and that acknowledges the evil that exists in humanity while resolutely turning away from it.

The book starts in the early 1900s where a young girl in Oklahoma named Doll is possessed by the spirit of a murdered prostitute. Her mother unsuccessfully tries to exorcise the spirit and gives her daughter to the local pastor to raise as part of his family. Things are fine for several years, but when the spirit awakens in Doll, she seduces the pastor, breaks up the home, and the new family ends up moving to Money, Mississippi. We then follow Doll, her daughter Hemmingway, and her husband and son (along with the parallel story of a white family in the same town whose fate is intertwined with Doll's) through a rocky life leading up to the deadly flood of 1927. Eventually we make it to the 1950s where Hemmingway's daughter, Tass, has a crush on Emmett Till, the outspoken boy from Chicago who is in Mississippi visiting his uncle. And we even move further along to the present day as Tass marries, has a family, and ages and the spirit of Emmett finds her again.

This isn't a book that I feel I can do justice with a simple plot description since there is so much more to it than what happens. McFadden's writing style is the perfect mix of plain and poetic, and the easy incorporation of spiritual and magical elements into everyday life is reminiscent of Toni Morrison in all the best ways. I really liked this one.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Walking Dead, Volume 10: What We Become by Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard, and Cliff Rathburn (2009)

As the journey to Washington, D.C. begins in The Walking Dead, Volume 10: What We Become by Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard, and Cliff Rathburn (2009), Rick, who has been doubting his ability to lead, butts heads big time with Abraham, the ultimate alpha-male. And somehow, in the course of this conflict, Rick starts making good decisions and the two men come clean about how broken their strength has made them. I am very into this move away from the character-heavy prison into a stripped down, more focused look at individual personalities in a moving group. Rick and his son Carl (and their relationship) are some super interesting characters. Let's do more of this in Volume 11!

[Also, I may be wrong, but I think the "scientist" in the group is full of shit. Still, I'm glad they have a purpose, even if it seems far-fetched.]

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

The Modigliani Scandal by Ken Follett (1976)

I got this copy of The Modigliani Scandal by Ken Follett (1976) from the free bin at my library, and I'd say it was worth just about that much.

The story focuses on a group of people who have all been put on the trail of a lost Modigliani painting. Our first protagonist, Dee Sleign, is looking for a topic for her thesis while she is vacationing in France with her rich older boyfriend. Her topic of interest is drug use and art. She goes to talk to an old man who used to know all the painters, and he clues her in to the surviving painting, although he doesn't really know where it is now and can only provide the vague clue of the name of a town in Italy. The thing that makes this particular painting even more exciting to the art world is that Modigliani painted it while he was high! On hashish!

Dee is so excited about this that she sends her uncle, the owner of an art gallery, a postcard with one sentence about her possible find. He gets so excited that he naturally puts a private detective on the case to get the painting before his niece does. Then, after finding another clue, Dee sends a postcard to her friend Samantha Winacre, a popular actress. She should really stop communicating through impulsive postcards. Julian Black, a failed artist and failing gallery owner who is emasculated by his wife and her family money, sees the postcard, and goes to Italy to try and get the painting for his gallery. Plus art forgery! Sex! Drugs! Sex! Money! Europe! Art!

Follett makes the mystery of the painting secondary to the machinations of all these shallow and unlikable characters who dance around each other in predictable and uninteresting ways. His commentary on the art world is very heavy-handed, and the sex and drugs, as well as the way the women are written, really date the book. This gave me a definite Jacqueline Susann feeling, but with all the fun and tawdriness taken out.

This is the only novel by Follett that I've read, and it was one of his first. He turned into a bestselling writer of thrillers, so this obviously isn't the one to judge him on. Follett himself says as much in the preface to this edition and on his website (which you should go to just to see the author picture in the banner).