Review – Under the Dome

On the day Dale Barbara has decided he’s had enough of the small town of Chester’s Mill, Maine is the day the dome descends on the town closing it off from the outside world. The town Selectman, James Rennie — Big Jim to those who know him, which is everyone in town — takes charge seeing his efforts as all for the greater good. When hell begins to rise in the dome, Colonel Cox, a former colleague of Dale’s, wants to put him in change by order of the President of the United States but Big Jim has other plans. And those plans don’t involve letting Dale take charge of anything.

Want to know what will cause society to break down? Put people under a dome and let them have at it. And that’s pretty much what King does, or course, he adds a few little bumps to help it all come to a burnt crisp in the end by throwing in a meth lab, religious zealots, a nut job with a brain tumor, and mix up a few outsiders with the town natives with opposing thoughts on how things can and should be done and what you get is a big mess.

There are two points in the story when a character mentions burning ants with a magnifying glass and that’s essentially what this story is. A study in what people would do when forced into a situation they can’t control and can’t change. I liked the thought behind it, and frankly, the entire story up until the point when I found out what the dome was and how it got there was good. There are hints along the way but I didn’t want that to be the explanation and was a bit disappointed that was the case but, like I said, the story and what’s going on under the dome is what you want to focus on.

It’s not a nice story by any means. People are brutal to each other, they murder each other, and they go crazy. In a way, I guess I can see that being the result but I had trouble believing that so many of these mean bastards were all gathered in the same town. But that aside, it was where all the drama came from so you have to go with it.

This was a story I couldn’t put down though and due to a mistake on my part (when I put this book on hold at the library, I accidently put the large print edition on hold and it’s a very large book in large print) I read this book only in the morning and the evening. I couldn’t wait to get back to it every day and find out what these crackpots were doing to each other and the fresh tortures they managed to inflict on their fellow townspeople. This is what I expect out of a King book and I was satisfied with that.

There’s something I need to mention and it’s not something I ever thought would happen when reading a King book. He made a reference to a character created by another author. The author in question is Lee Child and his Jack Reacher character. It made me stop cold. Did he really do that? Yes, I think he did. Well, why not. It was so weird I had to mention it.

Here’s the thing about this book — I liked it. I really did for all its violence and horrible actions. Then again, I don’t go into reading a King book thinking I’m getting unicorns and rainbows so I was OK with that. If you’re not, try 11/22/63. The violence is more manageable, there’s a little love story, and it will still give you the chance to look in on the crazy things characters will do to each other.

Under the Dome

By Stephen King

Thorndike Press

ISBN: 9781410423962

4 stars

Review – The Left Hand of Darkness

Genly Ai is an envoy, a traveler and explorer if you will. He is from the planet Hain and is now a guest, of sorts, on the planet of Winter or Gethen as it’s known by its inhabitants. He is on Winter solely on a mission of discovery, there is no malice in his mission but he finds resistance. The Gethenians are reluctant to believe that he is from another planet even with the physical differences readily visible between him and the Gethenians.

The Gethenians are a genderless race. When, and as needed, they can become either male or female. Genly has trouble with the concept and the individuals on Winter think of him as a freak constantly stuck in the state of kemmer — the time when Gethenians transform to mate. This difference is almost impossible to overcome as Genly, a male of his race, can’t comprehend the idea of kemmer and the switching of genders for mating purposes but yet he is fascinated by a people he can’t understand. When he makes a journey with one Gethenian who becomes a close friend, Estraven, he comes to an understanding of the people even if he finds some of their customs strange.

I had some trouble with this read. Maybe trouble is the wrong word. I felt like I was a bystander. It was like reading a report and in many ways it is. There are reports by Genly and stories of the Gethenians history as well. It’s very unemotional, even the emotional parts of the story felt that way to me.

While I was reading I came across a column by author Joe Walton — Some Thoughts on Anthropological Science Fiction as a Sub-Genre.  She talks about a single traveler meeting up with a new culture and the results. It’s a fascinating article. You should read it. It changed the way I was thinking of this book and maybe gave me a better idea of what I was reading. It didn’t change my mind about it but just made me look at it with a new eye toward what the author was trying to accomplish. It’s very effective looking at it in a new light and that helped me appreciate the story more.

In many ways, it’s a look at how we as humans view gender and what it means to be a man or a woman and the expectations — societal and personal — that go with those thoughts. This is a topic I’ve read absolutely nothing about and am speaking only from my own personal point of view. I could understand Genly’s inability to comprehend the idea of becoming another gender during sex. Gender is who we are and how we define ourselves in society. It’s more than a difficult idea to grasp but unlike Genly, I think I would be interested in being able to switch genders to see what other life experiences would be like. I was sort of letdown by an explorer who didn’t seem interested in seeking new experiences. He does try but never gets there and, yes, part of the story is about his shortcomings but he’s certainly more a traveler than an explorer to me.

Science fiction is a means of exploring topics uncomfortable or incomprehensible to us. Looking at this novel from that perspective makes it fascinating, but it doesn’t make me like the book more because of it. It’s almost as if I have a neutral feeling about it. It’s weird because part of this story was wonderfully fascinating in the ideas it was exploring and at other times it felt flat. Considering this is a book about a space traveler I found this funny in a weird sort of way. Shouldn’t everything be fascinating to an explorer? Shouldn’t he want to see and experience everything possible?

Even though I’m feeling neutral in terms of whether or not I like this book, I do think it was worth the read. It’s not my first Le Guin; I read the Earth Sea books many years ago. The Left Hand of Darkness was completely different than I remember those books. It won’t change my opinion of the Earth Sea books but it has made me think differently about Le Guin and that’s refreshing.

The Left Hand of Darkness

By Ursula Le Guin

Ace Books

ISBN:9780441478125

3 stars

Review – The Devil’s Teeth: A True Story of Obsession and Survival Among America’s Great White Sharks

Susan Casey is a writer home sick when she comes across a documentary on great white sharks filmed at the Farallon Island. The islands, a bleak outcrop of rocks 26 miles past the Golden Gate Bridge are a dreary, perilous place at the best of times, but for great white sharks, a virtual paradise thick with elephant seals to feast on. When the sharks arrive for what is known as shark season, it becomes a dangerous place for man and beast but shark heaven for those creatures lurking beneath the surface. Casey, along with a few biologists who feel at home on the less than sparse island, becomes obsessed with the place and the sharks.

I love reading about sharks. Any kind of shark species really but the great white has a special allure. Is it the size? They can grow over 20 feet in length and weigh thousands of pounds. The fact that the species is an evolutionary throwback that hasn’t changed much in millions of years may have something to do with it too. For me, it’s more the idea that these sharks have a society, if you’ll humor me, and personalities all their own. Most people don’t think of sharks this way — these are far from cuddly animals — but they exhibit tendencies that can make you wonder. And, let’s face it, we know very little about them or the other creatures that inhabit the cold seas of this world of ours.

The author’s fascination with the sharks was an obvious plus for me. I’m one of those people who watches hours and hours worth of BBC, National Geographic, and Discovery channels programming dedicated to sharks. Air jaws? Sure. World’s deadliest sharks? Yes, please. If you aren’t a huge shark fan, this probably wouldn’t be something to draw you in. But the good news is that Casey, who comes from a magazine writing background, knows how to interest the reader in more than just the sharks. It’s also about the islands, the scientists who call the desolate islands home for months at a time, the seals, the birds, the tourist boats, and of course the sharks.

If you’ve ever had an interest in sharks, this book is a good read. Admittedly, I did have some issues with the author herself and the way I thought she glossed over a few events involving herself and her actions.  But I also understood that maybe not inserting herself into the book anymore than she already had was better for the story.

I’ve noticed that a good portion of my non-fiction reading, and non-fiction books on my list, are based around the ocean — sharks, squid, ill-fated trips to the North Pole. Maybe I should have given marine biology a try in college after all.

The Devil’s Teeth: A True Story of Obsession and Survival Among America’s Great White Sharks

By Susan Casey

Henry Holt and Company

ISBN: 9780805075816

4 stars

 

Review – Salem’s Lot

I’ve been re-reading a lot lately. I tend to re-read when I’m in a slump but earlier this year I decided I would pick up several books that I kept meaning to re-read and actually do it. So I did. This is one of those books. After finishing 11/22/63 last year, I wanted more King but what I wanted was old King. Salem’s Lot seemed like a perfect match. The last time I picked this one up I was high school and I’m glad to know this one still delivers. It was as creepy as I remembered.

Ben Mears is a writer looking for inspiration and believes he’ll find it in Jerusalem’s Lot, Salem’s Lot to the locals, where he spent several happy years as a child living with his aunt. He’s also planned to exorcize a few demons while writing his next book and he thinks he know what will give him the inspiration to do it — the old Marsten house in Salem’s Lot which gave him nightmares as a child. Ben tried to rent the old house but as it turned out, it was already sold. The house, which was the place of a murder/suicide, is now home to something much more sinister. When strange things begin happening around town, and the dead start disappearing, Ben and a few friends go hunting for more than just the truth about the strange rumors in town.

The start moves slow but builds quickly once the people start disappearing. Isn’t it always that way? While it takes more than vampires to be creepy these days (at least none of these sparkle in the sun!), King does what he does best, creep you out by making you think that noise you heard was really nails tapping on your window and not a tree branch. Yes, pale faces hovering at second story windows, nails tapping on the glass, eyes as black as coal, teeth long and pointy, blood, and gore all about to happen. Oh, good fun. The vampire myths are pretty straight forward in this book — stakes through the heart, garlic, crosses — and I liked the simplicity there. I also liked that they were dead and dead-looking. There was no attraction to these monsters. The aspect that religion plays is small but I liked that it was included, and I liked even better that it came in the form of an alcoholic priest with faltering faith. Really, what a better way to fight vampires than a priest who doesn’t believe what he preaches. I’m not calling it out for hypocrisy but for reality. I liked that about the priest.

I read horror every once in a while and always enjoy the genre when I read it. I’ll even say that there are very few books that scare me, but for the first time in a long time, I found myself reading this book strictly during daytime hours and switching to another book to read in bed. The reason? Well, at first, I didn’t think much of it because when I’m reading two books I tend to consider one a day book and one a night book. In this case, I think my subconscious made the decision for me. Who am I kidding; I didn’t want to imagine ghostly white faces hovering outside my bedroom window. There I said it.

So, yes, it was worth the re-read. Now I need to see what other King I have on my list and get to it. It’s nice to re-discover an author every few years.

Salem’s Lot

By Stephen King

Pocket Books

ISBN: 067103975X

4 stars

Review – Tooth and Claw

Tooth and Claw is my second foray into Jo Walton’s books; my first being Among Others. Now watch how I go all silly over this one.

A dying father calls his family to his side. One son, a parson, hears his father’s final confession, a practice no longer held by the church he belongs to but something he feels he must do for his father to ease his soul before he passes. The remaining son and three daughters await news of his final breath. When the father’s death is finally announced, a brother-in-law interprets the will very broadly, a second son protests taking his brother-in-law and sister to court over what he believes is rightly his family’s due. The case, and the family politics, turns everyone against each other and the claws come out, as the family we are speaking of is a family of dragons.

Can I just tell you how much I loved this book? I loved this book. I’ve said it and can’t, and won’t, take it back. Really, you must read this. It might seem like a simple story of families and inheritance but it’s filled with so much more. Class prejudices, elements of slavery and an abolitionist movement, loss, love, treasure (we’re talking dragons here), and manners. There’s a slight Austen feel to the manners — hats, hearts, dowries, and titles — and it’s all lovely. Then you get to throw in scales, claws, tails, and wings and you have something so very wonderful in the end.

I keep thinking that I’m hung up on the fact that this story is about dragons. It’s more than just the dragons though and at times I forgot I was reading about a family of dragons until a claw came out to remind me. I love the feel of the story — somewhat Victorian — the family politics, brothers, sisters, in-laws, and the intertwining and unraveling of their lives after the death of a beloved father. The addition of the cannibalistic nature of dragons (gently-born dragons eat their parents) and the social aspects that play into all of that bring so much to a story that is simple on its face but has so much depth. I adored the morals of the society. It was fascinating and I wish there had been so much more of it. There are hints of treasure and old religions but nothing is explained in detail but I wanted it to be because I wanted every single bit of the story I could have and more. It was a very rich story for all that it was about dragons fighting over gold and dragon flesh.

This review was difficult to write as you might have gathered from the rambling gushiness of it. What I wanted to write over and over again was, “Just read this. It’s great,” but that seems inadequate. If you’re looking for something different, something that will keep you entranced, then read Tooth and Claw. Oh hell, I’ll say it. Read it. It’s great.

Tooth and Claw

By Jo Walton

A Tom Doherty Associates Book

ISBN: 9780765319517

4.75 stars