Saturday, February 2, 2013

Book Reviews-The Book of Joby, Beyond The Black River, Black Science Fiction, One Shot

The Book of Joby
by Mark J. Ferrari
This was Ferrari's first novel. It's impressive. The book is longer than 600 pages. I don't think that Ferrari needed quite that much room to detail everything that happened. But the story hardly ever drags. 

The Book of Joby is as you might expect from the title, an epic, humorous and magical retelling of the The Book of Job from The Bible. It also nods to some other popular religious conspiracy books but that doesn't become apparent until later. As usual Lucifer is trying to find a way to destroy all creation. Lucifer remains convinced that man is God's biggest mistake. Due to his pride (he was the Morning Star after all) Lucifer thinks that God is simply too stubborn to admit that Lucifer is right. God remains an engaging being who has seemingly infinite patience for Lucifer's shenanigans. God reminds Lucifer that Lucifer has only won bets with God twice (Adam and Eve and Judas) and that both times Lucifer's victories rebounded to God's and humanity's glory. Eager to prove his creator wrong, Lucifer claims that God cheated in the Jesus situation. God responds that He never said Jesus would stay dead. Lucifer just assumed.

The two immortal beings make another bet. Lucifer still insists that given time and resources he can make even the most righteous human despair and curse God. God says he can't. If Lucifer wins the bet, God agrees to wipe creation and start over using Lucifer's ideas, which primarily involve getting rid of that nasty little free will feature that humans have. Free will drives Lucifer crazy. God will pick the human whom Lucifer will get to test for about 30 years. Neither God nor any of His angels will interfere. Lucifer and his hellish subordinates can't kill the human or threaten to kill him but can do anything else.

The chosen child is one Joby Peterson, an unabashedly happy and optimistic nine year old with fantasies of being King Arthur, fighting the devil and doing good. Both God and Lucifer appear in Joby's dreams and obtain veiled permission for his role in what's to come.
Starting immediately and ramping up through first puberty and later adulthood, Lucifer and his minions find many ways to attack Joby's self-esteem. They seek out every weak spot and exploit it. Whether it's preventing Joby from finding true love, causing a Joby led protest to go horribly wrong or telling Joby that only perfection may get God's love and entrance into heaven, Lucifer stays busy. The story's funniest parts are Lucifer's interactions with God or discussions (really more rants) with his own sullen subordinates in Hell. At a managerial status meeting, irritated by another devil's incessant table tapping Lucifer calmly tells the hapless employee that if he taps that table one more time, his fingers will be the least of the appendages which he loses. I had a boss like that once. I still have all my fingers but it was touch and go for a while.
Joby grows into a mediocre sad man beset with self-doubt and riddled with hidden rage. But Joby has something secret which Lucifer didn't see. Joby is drawn to Taubolt, a hidden town that Lucifer and his agents don't know about. And something here hurts, incapacitates and can even kill supernatural evil creatures. 

This story seamlessly blends a very Western Christian understanding of free will with Arthurian legends and Biblical stories. It's a very enjoyable book. Lucifer constantly accuses God of cheating only to be forced to admit that no their agreement really didn't include the contingency that Lucifer didn't see but which God did. There's a lot here about missed opportunities and sacrificing for your children. Children play an integral role in this book. If you skim over the "silly kid stuff" you may miss some important things.

I appreciated the lack of cynicism and anti-heroes. The Book of Joby shows cynicism, despair and pessimism masquerading as honesty to be bad, even demonic things. This book was a much needed break from morally gray stories. This book will touch people (especially religious folks) who enjoy seeing the good in life and like watching the butterflies and eating fresh summer strawberries. The good guys may not win, but they are the good guys. The bad guys don't have redeeming features, unless it's Lucifer's fondness for fine suits and accoutrement. He really is a man of wealth and taste. Lucifer's also incredibly mean, petty and short-tempered. Hell reflects Lucifer's vile nature as rival devils constantly attempt to one-up each other and replace Lucifer as King of Hell.

Beyond The Black River
by Robert E. Howard
One thing that Robert E. Howard often did in his stories, besides including an idealized version of himself, was to show his amateur yet deep knowledge of history. In one story Conan is tangling with Vikings but in another he's matching wits with barely disguised 16th century Spanish privateers. The effect is very intoxicating, especially as Howard's prose pours from the page and transmits you to a world that never was yet feels so true to life you'll swear you're reading and experiencing historical accounts. Beyond the Black River is one of Howard's best stories.

Here Howard draws heavily for inspiration from the history of White/Comanche wars in Texas. He learned some of this from his mother and other female relatives. Howard also traveled extensively around Texas as a child and later as an adult, soaking up history from older ruins and forts. Beyond The Black River also appears to have been very strongly influenced by James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking tales. You could strip out the minor fantastic elements and this story would work just as well as a colonial America tale or as a Western. Some characters sound like Texans. Even the title hints at "Injun country", that zone in the American mind where the laws of the white man do not apply.

Conan is roughly at the age where he's "getting too old for this s***" . Conan is serving as a scout for the Aquilonian military, which is overseeing a settlement expansion beyond the Black River (the previous boundary between Aquilonian hegemony and Pictish controlled lands). Howard's Picts were a fictional creation based on the indigenous Scottish/Welsh inhabitants but here they very much read as Iroquois or Comanche. Aquilonia is the age's superpower, something akin to High Middle Ages France/Britain. Obviously, the Picts aren't very happy about this expansionism and are fighting back in hit and run attacks.
Conan meets up with a slighter more civilized version of himself, a settler named Balthus. They find the body of a merchant who's been killed with sorcery by a Pictish nationalist and wizard named  Zogar Sag. Zogar Sag has the power to talk to and even control animals and deadlier things that lurk in the woods and swamps. Zogar Sag could unify all the Pict clans. Conan gets the assignment to take out Zogar Sag. Conan agrees, even though he thinks the Aquilonians are greedy and overconfident about being able to take and hold land so far from home. Being Cimmerian, Conan has an atavistic hatred for Picts but he has a grudging respect for their fight against Aquilonian colonialism. Howard has Conan show a strong class consciousness and speak approvingly of land reform. Conan says, "This colonization business is mad anywayIf the Aquilonians would cut up some of the big estates of their barons, and plant wheat where now only deer are hunted, they wouldn't have to cross the border and take the land of the Picts away from them. " Conan himself was part of a successful Cimmerian attack against Aquilonian invaders when he was just fifteen. Conan, Balthus and a few others, including a Pict hating dog named Slasher (its previous owner and family were murdered by Picts) set out to kill Zogar Sag. But they find themselves making a last stand far from home while a Pict army attempts to overrun the Aquilonian fort and settlements and kill all of the settlers. Despite being action packed, this story is also somewhat philosophical as Conan spends some time ruminating on what he sees as the hypocrisies and savageries of "civilized" men. 

This short story is famous for its final quote, that of a woodsman looking at Conan. The quote pretty much expressed Howard's views as well.

"Barbarism is the natural state of mankind. Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph.

Black Science Fiction
by John M. Faucette Jr.
John Faucette was a Harlem born black science fiction writer. He may have been best known for his allegorical novels Warriors of Terra (inspired by Harlem gang wars) and Crown of Infinity (inspired by Black experiences in America). Faucette, however, did not become wealthy from his writing endeavors. He had tremendous experience and frustration with racism in the publishing arena and more specifically with scarce black presence in science fiction. By his own admission he was not at the top of his craft and like many writers regardless of race had to deal with constant rejections. The foreword to this book drips with anger about the rejections. Evidently he took this very personally. I guess I would too after a while.
Faucette's insistence on writing black heroes or mildly disguised allegories dealing with racism, slavery and colonialism added to his unmarketable reputation. Other times, publishing houses just weren't selling work by black authors. Period.

Black Science Fiction is a self-published collection of short stories that are more or less exactly what they sound like. Often, not always, the protagonists are black. Faucette wrote that "I am no Hopkinson, Delany, Butler, or Barnes. But I try. I will always try. Till the day they bury me". This collection came about in part because of an uptick in interest in some of Faucette's older stories and the ability of the internet to link together like minded people. Faucette discovered people who actually liked his older works as well as younger writers who were self-publishing e-books and the like. So Faucette decided to publish short stories he had written over the years.

He's deceased now but this is an interesting group of stories. The collection is highly uneven in quality. Faucette was correct. He wasn't the best writer. But he did have a great talent for "what-if" stories and an insight into the underdog's mind. He also didn't mind putting extremely frank erotica into a story, if he thought it necessary, sort of like Martin or Laymon. So this collection isn't really a group of stories for kids or prudes of any age. However as my brother reminded me it is probably just the sort of thing I may have read myself as a teen and "neglected" to tell anyone about.
Black Science Fiction is a little over 400 pages and contains about 40 short stories of varying length. Standouts include "The Redemption of Robert E. Lee" in which Pickett's Charge succeeds and leads to a southern victory and an attempt by General Lee to outlaw slavery; "Hitman for a Day" where due to overpopulation pressures, citizens can play a lottery and kill someone they hate; "The Outrage", where a security guard must defend aliens accused of rape from a human lynch mob; "The Slave and The Time Machine", where an enslaved African goes to the future and comes back with some little friends for slave owners to say hello to; and "The Promised Land" where a black secret agent who can pass for white discovers that the victorious Confederacy is creating a Final Solution for blacks out west. There are other stories here which I didn't like and a few which I positively hated ("Cinderella 3000") so YMMV. If you like speculative fiction writers with an idiosyncratic and occasionally rather perverse take on things, this book might be worthwhile. If you don't like a particular story, just turn the page. There's probably something better coming up shortly. Overall I'm glad I have it in my library. 

One Shot
by Lee Child
This is the book which the Tom Cruise movie Jack Reacher was based upon. I'm not enough of a Tom Cruise fan to go run and see his movies in the theaters. But I was intrigued by the howls of fury from Lee Child fans that Tom Cruise was playing the titular role. So when I saw this book on sale a few weeks back I bought it.

Now I can understand why book readers would have been disappointed, even upset with Cruise taking the movie role. In the book Jack Reacher is a former Army MP who is a blonde haired, blue eyed giant of a man, standing 6-5 and weighing about 250#. Few people want to tangle with him physically. He consciously and subconsciously uses his size and muscle to subtly intimidate people. I don't think Cruise could have brought that element of the character to life visually.

Though Reacher's size is an important part of his overall persona and how he is viewed by others, it's definitely not the most important thing about him. Reacher's primary tool is his brain. He's able to out think just about anyone he's up against. He's sort of a modern day Sherlock Holmes or Doc Savage. Reacher notices and remembers things which other people don't. He has quite the talent for living and moving off the grid. This second is somewhat less believable in a post 9/11 world but then again Reacher is ex-military with skill sets other people lack. He's a ghost. You can't find him. He finds you.

The story opens in a small Indiana city with an unnamed man methodically shooting five people from his parking garage perch. He misses one shot and does not retrieve all of his ejected cartridges. All five people that he did shoot are dead. Obviously this is a skilled sniper.
The physical evidence all points to a former Army Sniper, one James Barr. James Barr tells the cops they got the wrong guy and to get Jack Reacher for him. But Reacher, who was engaged in empty sex with a beautiful woman, is already on the way to the city. He saw the news. He and Barr have history. Bad history. The case appears open and shut. The lead police investigator and DA are basically already congratulating each other as the trial appears to be a mere formality. Barr can no longer assist in his defense as shortly after being put in jail he was beaten into a coma. Barr's semi-estranged sister Rosemary doesn't believe her brother did it despite the abundance of evidence. Reacher is nothing if not a straight shooter and after talking to the police and DA he doesn't see much to shake their faith in Barr's guilt.  But someone is shadowing Reacher's moves around town. Reacher becomes aware of this not long after the reader does. Someone wants to make sure that Barr is convicted. Eventually Reacher notices a few anomalies, things which other investigators wouldn't have. And he starts pulling a few strings. Hard. Even though Reacher would like to hurt Barr and doesn't always care about the exact letter of the law, his sense of honor, intelligence and quiet morality won't let him leave Barr to the tender mercies of the Indiana courts if Reacher is not convinced that's where Barr should be.

Barr's defense attorney, Helen Rodin, is the daughter of the DA prosecuting the case. She, Reacher, Rosemary and a Reacher associate uncover a conspiracy. The shot-callers aren't happy. They play for keeps. They take increasingly deadly steps to take Reacher off the board. This was a very quick fun read. The author walks you through many ways in which people unknowingly leave evidence of who they are and where they've been all through the day.
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