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Books To Look For
Ace, 2007, $23.95.
WHEN I'M in the mood for some good hard sf, nothing makes me happier than to have a new Joe Haldeman book on hand. He's such a treasure in this genre. In a Haldeman book, you always get great characters, real honest-to-goodness fresh speculative ideas, and a story worthy enough to hold the two together. I can't remember ever being disappointed by one of his books, and there aren't many writers of whom I can say that—in or out of the genre.
With my fondness for time travel stories, I was particularly delighted with this latest novel of his.
Of course, Haldeman being Haldeman, you don't get a traditional time travel story. His character makes jumps into the future rather than to the past: small ones at first—so small that they're barely noticeable—but the time and distance grows exponentially with each trip, so soon we're in the far far future.
It begins when Matt Fuller, a research assistant at MIT, accidentally puts together a simple calibrator that disappears when he hits the reset button, only to reappear a second later. With a little experimentation and calculation, Fuller discovers that every time he hits the reset button, the machine goes missing twelve times longer than the time before.
Fuller's not at a good point in his life. His girlfriend has dumped him and he's lost his job (to the guy his girlfriend dumped him for), so he figures he has nothing to lose by testing the machine on himself. He borrows a vintage car from a local drug dealer, stocks it with provisions and the pet-store turtle on which he first tried the machine, and sends himself into the future—where he's arrested for the murder of the car's owner who dropped dead when his vehicle disappeared before his eyes.
So Fuller does the only thing he can: he uses the machine to go further into the future.
The futures he visits are more commentaries on present day society, rather than Haldeman's trying to predict what the future will actually be like. But the science sounds good, and using other worlds to comment on one's present is a viable, informative, and entertaining literary device with roots that go back to Jonathan Swift, and probably further. And like the best of such literary forerunners, Haldeman doesn't sacrifice story or character to make his points.
The Accidental Time Machine is first and foremost a terrific sf adventure story. Everything else is just icing on an already delicious cake.
Blaze, by Richard Bachman (Stephen King),
It's hard to imagine that an author as prolific as Stephen King, with as many books as he has published, could have one more trunk novel lying around, but according to his foreword, that's what Blaze is. What I don't understand is King's somewhat apologetic introduction to it in that same foreword.
Because this is an absolute delight of a book. It's a tragedy (in the classical sense of the word), yes, though it couldn't be anything but, given the lead character, his background, and the story. Still, it ranks among my favorite King stories, ones like "The Body," "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption," The Green Mile, Hearts in Atlantis, and the recent The Colorado Kid.
I really like it when King tells a smaller story, when he gets right into some little corner of the world as seen by one individual.
Here that individual is Clayton Blaisdell, Jr., known as Blaze. We meet him talking to his dead partner George (who could be a real ghost, could be just in Blaze's head—the reader has to decide), vowing to pull off the one last score that they'd been planning since before George died: the kidnapping of a baby heir worth millions.
The story goes back and forth between the kidnapping and Blaze's youth, both storylines equally compelling, both enriching the other.
As a kid, Blaze's father threw him down the stairs to land on his head, then threw him down again. Blaze grows up slow-minded, a huge bulk of a kid who grows into a giant of a man with a big dent in his skull. He is formed by his years being raised by the state, but never loses the sweetness that lies at his heart. When he goes wrong, it's because those around him—particularly George, whose name recalls George Milton of Of Mice and Men—use him in their criminal schemes.
Blaze never really cared one way or another about his misdemeanors. But then he meets George, someone who, for the first time, accepts him as an equal. Who trusts him and treats him fairly. We know, as readers peering between the lines, that George isn't as altruistic as Blaze thinks he is, but it would be impossible to convince Blaze otherwise.
By the time you're a third of the way into the book, you completely understand how this gentle giant could go through with the kidnapping plan. The oddest thing is how, you're sort of rooting for him, even though what he's doing is utterly and inexcusably wrong.
Therein the tragedy.
King's writing is restrained throughout, but this isn't a story that needs the big scares or gross-outs to be powerful. And as it barrels along to its inevitable conclusion, you can't condone Blaze's actions, but you sure wish things could turn out otherwise. That the simple, sweet boy he was could have had a chance to have a larger life than the narrow confines of the one he was given.
This might be a trunk novel, revised and updated, but King has nothing to be embarrassed about because it really does rank among his best books.
Strays, by Ron Koertge,
"So where are you staying?" the dog asks.This is easily one of my favorite books so far for this year. It's a slender exploration of a kid dealing with the death of his parents and having to go into state-run foster homes. He's a bit of a loser—was never liked at his old school, he's awkward and uncomfortable around his peers, and because his parents ran a pet store, he was made the brunt of many jokes about smelling like animals and the like. He doesn't expect anything to change just because he's going to a new school, even though nobody there knows anything about him.
Oh, and he can talk to animals, and they talk back to him.
While the quick plot synopsis above makes this sound like a downer of a book, it's really anything but. And I don't mean that it's some after-school, feel-good movie-of-the-week take on a difficult subject either.
Here's what I loved about the book:
Though sixteen-year-old Ted O'Connor is a loser, Koertge writes him with such skill that we have sympathy, rather than impatience, with his situation. We genuinely like him and root for him, even when he doesn't stand up for himself the way we want him to. And the character always feels real—from the usual teen anxieties, to how he's dealing with his parents' death; parents who argued a lot and while they obviously cared for him, worked him hard in the pet store and never saw how unhappy his life was.
The prose is a delight: lean, but without a nuance missing, while the dialogue crackles with authenticity without ever falling into the easy predictability of the so-called "authentic" dialogue you might hear on a TV show. This is the way kids talk and interact with each other, and it's beautifully portrayed.
But it's how Koertge handles Ted's ability to communicate with animals that sets this book above so many of its peers, and I recommend it to all new fantasy writers (and established ones, too) to see how well this can be done. It's never twee, it's never rationalized, it's not in his head, and how it plays into the end of the book is an absolutely brilliant analogy of the passage from childhood to adulthood.
There are other things that I loved about this book—many other things, subtle nuances, great narrative choices—but frankly, I'd rather you discovered them on your own.
While I suppose this is aimed at a YA audience, it's really just a book with a young protagonist that I think anyone, of any age, will appreciate and enjoy.
Very highly recommended.
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