One-Minute Book Reviews

May 9, 2009

Tom Disch’s ‘The Genocides’ – One of the ‘100 Must-Read Science Fiction Novels’ Involves an Ecological Catastrophe

Filed under: Fantasy,Science Fiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:28 am
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Where are the science-fiction novels for sophisticated teenagers? You might wonder after reading Stephenie Meyer’s bestseller about aliens, The Host, which is written at a fourth-grade reading level. You’ll find answers in 100 Must-Read Science Fiction Novels (A&C Black, 2006), written by Stephen E. Andrews and Nick Rennison with foreword by Christopher Priest.

Among the novels tapped by the authors: The Genocides (Vintage, 160 pp.,$12.95) by the late Tom Disch. Andrews and Rennison write:

“When unseen aliens decide to claim Earth for themselves, they sow the planet with seeds that grow into massive plants which begin to destroy the ecosystem. The plants adapt swiftly whenever new toxins are used against them and civilization itself begins to crumble. Then huge spherical incinerating machines descend to raze the cities, clearing the way for the extraterrestrial crop’s full bloom. Following the struggles of a small American community as they try to survive the onslaught of the alien agriculturalists by burrowing into the roots of the monstrous vegetables, The Genocides is an invasion story with a difference: what chance can human beings have against beings who consider us nothing more than garden pests? Using John W. Campbell’s approach to pursuing an idea to its inescapable conclusion while refusing to conform to the psychologically dissatisfying conclusion invasion stories have suffered from since The War of the Worlds, Tom Disch had the audacity to defy decades of convention, consequently producing a marvelous debut that both broke new ground and upset traditionalist SF fans.”

Andrews and Rennison add that despite his occasional “remoteness of tone,” Disch is “a humane author whose highly accomplished and often very funny work marks him as one of the finest writers of literary SF ever to emerge from America.”

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda,com

January 5, 2009

Stephenie Meyer’s ‘The Host’ Has a Fourth-Grade Reading Level, Microsoft Word Statistics Show — For One More Day With Aliens

Filed under: Fantasy,Science Fiction,Young Adult — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:17 am
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The dust jacket says The Host is the “first novel for adults” by the author of the Twilight” series of vampire-romances for adolescents, but the readability statistics on Microsoft Word show that Stephenie Meyer is still writing at a fourth-grade level

The Host: A Novel. By Stephenie Meyer. Little, Brown, 619 pp., $25.99.

By Janice Harayda

Mysterious things happen in the books of Stephenie Meyer. Take The Host, a No. 1 New York Times bestseller. The dust jacket calls the book Meyer’s “first novel for adults.” But right away you wonder: How can this be when the novel has a fourth-grade reading level, according to the readability statistics on Microsoft Word?

Not that you’d want your 9-year-old to have much to do with this creepily Freudian tale of a woman who is captured by aliens and wages a host-verses-graft struggle with the new “soul” the extraterrestrials have inserted into the base of her skull. The sexual undertones of the story need little elaboration. (“Would it hurt, having something put in your head?” a character wonders. Kids, ask your mothers!) Let’s just say that the book has more than one “insertion” involving a soul that looked like “a silver ribbon” or “slid smoothly into the offered space.”

For all their repressed sexuality, the characters in The Host never seem to get beyond kissing. This is fortunate given that when lips do meet, Meyer describes it this way:

“He nuzzled his face against mine until he found my lips, then he kissed me, slow and gentle, the flow of molten rock swelling languidly in the dark at the center of the earth, until my shaking slowed.”

You can understand why the captured woman, Melanie Stryder, wouldn’t be in the mood for sex, although the Stockholm Syndrome strikes early in the novel. The aliens have conquered most of the earth and threaten to kill Melanie when she won’t obey Wanderer, the “soul” who inhabits her body. So she and Wanderer hide out in caves with a band of rogue humans who are resisting the takeover of the planet.

Tensions flare as the aliens search for the fugitives. These strains may explain why we often read that characters “barked,” “roared,” “groaned,” “howled,” “muttered,” “growled,” or “bellowed.” Aliens do their share of this. (“I groaned internally,” a “soul” says.) But no one can accuse the novel of portraying extraterrestrials unsympathetically. Meyer spares no effort to show how her aliens are different from – and, in many ways, better than — humans, one of which is that they can decide when to die. “It’s a choice,” an alien says. “A voluntary choice.” Just like, presumably, the “voluntary choice” Meyer made to pad this book with many redundancies.

For all of the overexplaining, some things remain unclear. If this is a novel “for adults,” why does the story reassure you that despite the alien takeover, the planet still has soccer games, Snickers and Pop-Tarts? (Why not golf, Chardonnay and goat cheese?) Why do most of the references to sex read like parodies? (One romantic scene – which could be describing a kiss or more – makes lovers sound like candidates a burn unit: “Gasoline and an open flame – we exploded again.”) And why is the book written at a fourth-grade reading level when Meyer was apparently hoping to attract more fans than the teenagers who read her popular “Twilight” vampire series?

The trouble with all of this isn’t that Meyer is a writer of books for adolescents who has tried to move into the mainstream. Many writers – E. B. White, C. S. Lewis and Madeleine L’Engle among them – have written beautifully for both groups. Nor is the problem that grown-ups can’t enjoy novels written for younger people. Laurie Halse’s Anderson’s Chains, a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, draws on such extensive research into the Revolutionary War that many adults might learn as much from it as children would.

The Host offers further evidence of the Mitch Albom-ization of America — the glut of dumbed-down books masquerading as profound or at least intelligent. On the evidence of this novel, Meyer lacks either the ability or the inclination to adapt her writing for adults. The flap copy says that The Host is about “the very essence” – not the essence but the “very” essence – “of what it means to be human.” Midway through the book, you find a more revealing line, one that shows Meyer’s love of short sentences consisting of words of one- and two-syllables. Pursued by an angry human, Melanie’s resident soul says: “Maybe I should have run the other way.” Don’t say you weren’t warned.

Best line: “Maybe I should have run the other way.” If taken as advice.

Worst line: Lots of competition here. No. 1: “It’s a voluntary choice.” No. 2: “When we thought of the new planet – Earth, so dry, so varied, and filled with such violent, destructive denizens we could barely imagine them — our horror was overshadowed by our excitement. Stories spun themselves quickly around the thrilling new subject. The wars – our kind! having to fight! – were first reported accurately and then embellished and fictionalized.” No. 3: And here’s how a “denizen” named Uncle Jeb speaks: “ ‘Well, for Pete’s sake!’ Jeb exclaimed. ‘Can’t nobody keep a secret around this place for more’n 24 hours? Gol’ durn, this burns me up!’” No. 4: The line quoted in the review, beginning, “He nuzzled.”

About the reading level: The reading level for The Host comes from the Flesch-Kindcaid readability statistics that are part of the spell-checker on Microsoft Word. To find it, I used passages of at least 300 words each on pages 31–32 (Grade 4.1), 131–132 (Grade 4.6) and 431-432 (Grade 3.3). The reading levels for the three sections averaged Grade 4.0. American children typically begin the fourth grade at the age of nine. The post “Does Mitch Albom Think He’s Jesus?” lists the reading levels of other bestselling or classic novels and tells how to use Word. It tells how to use Word to find the level of a book.

Published: May 2008

About the author: Stephenie Meyer also wrote Twilight, New Moon and Eclipse for young adults.

Answer to Friday’s quiz, “Do You Have What It Takes to Write a No. 1 New York Times Bestseller?”: All of the lines on Friday’s quiz appear in The Host.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

August 8, 2008

A New Definition of Science Fiction (Quote of the Day / Bookseller Stephen E. Andrews)

Filed under: Fantasy,Quotes of the Day,Science Fiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:32 am
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Few questions will start an argument among science-fiction fans faster than, “What is the definition of science fiction?” More than 30 years ago, Michael Crichton wrote in The Critic As Artist (Liveright, 1972): “As a category, the borders of science fiction have always been poorly defined, and they are getting worse. The old distinction between science fiction and fantasy – that science fiction went from the known to the probable, and fantasy dealt with the impossible – is now wholly ignored.”

But if the old distinction doesn’t work, what does? Here’s a proposed new definition of science fiction from Stephen E. Andrews, a bookseller and co-editor of 100 Must-Read Science Fiction Novels: Bloomsbury Good Reading Guides Series (A&C Black, 2007) www.acblack.com:

“SF is the literature that suggests the significant, scientifically explicable changes that may potentially occur in the sphere of human knowledge and experience, exploring how they might affect our minds, bodies and culture.”

For more on this topic see “What Is The Difference Between Science Fiction and Fantasy?” www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/09/12.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com and www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

July 8, 2008

Thomas Disch (1940–2008), Author of ‘The Brave Little Toaster’

Filed under: Fantasy,News,Science Fiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:18 pm
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‘One of the finest writers of literary SF ever to emerge from America’ dies at 68

Thomas Disch, author of The Brave Little Toaster and other books, died Friday in Manhattan. Douglas Martin reported in the New York Times that he shot himself after a series of personal setbacks www.nytimes.com/2008/07/08/books/08disch.html.

“Mr. Disch’s work was voluminous and included many forms and genres,” Martin wrote. “In addition to writing speculative fiction (his preferred term for science fiction), he wrote poetry from light to lyric to dramatic; realist fiction, children’s fiction and historical fiction; opera librettos and plays; criticism of theater, films and art; and even a video game.

“One of Mr. Disch’s best-known works is The Brave Little Toaster: A Bedtime Story for Small Appliances (1986), in which a toaster, a clock radio and an electric blanket come to life. In the New York Times Book Review, Anna Quindlen said the book was more sophisticated than it seemed: ‘Buy it for your children; read it for yourself,’ she advised.”

Disch tomsdisch.livejournal.com/ also wrote The Genocides, which Stephen E. Andrews and Nick Rennison named one of the “100 must-read science fiction novels” in a recent guide to the genre. The book centers on aliens who sow the Earth with seeds that grow into giant plants, which begin to destroy the planet’s ecological balance and undermine civilization.

The Genocides is an invasion story with a difference: what chance can humanity have against beings who consider us to be nothing more than garden pests?” Andrews and Rennison say in 100 Must-Read Science Fiction Novels (A & C Black, 2007). They add:

The Genocides is packed with black wit, mordant observation of characters and the kind of self-consciousness present in the very best contemporary art. This was the start of a glittering career for Disch, whose novels, poetry and criticism have won him considerable acclaim … Despite his occasional remoteness of tone, Disch is nevertheless a humane author whose highly accomplished and often very funny work marks him as one of the finest writers of literary SF ever to emerge from America.”

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

June 17, 2008

The Two ‘Must-Read’ Science Fiction Novels Published Since 2000 Are ‘Super-Cannes’ and ‘Altered Carbon,’ Editors Say

Filed under: Fantasy,Science Fiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:16 pm
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Except for a few books by H. G. Wells and others, most science-fiction classics were published in the 20th century. How many essential novels in the genre have appeared since 2000?

Stephen E. Andrews and Nick Rennison name only two in their 100 Must-Read Science Fiction Novels (A & C Black, 294 pp., $8.95, paperback) www.acblack.com, part of the Bloomsbury Good Reading Guides series. Here are their choices and part of their explanation for them:

Super-Cannes (Picador, 400 pp., $15, paperback) by J. G. Ballard: In the near future or maybe the present, publisher Paul Sinclair visits an emerging corporate utopia on the French Riviera and finds that “a new kind of cathartic brutality is arising from a most unexpected source.” Andrews and Rennison say that although Ballard has written only one pure science fiction novel, Hello America, since the late 1960s: “Super-Cannes is masterful speculation in social science that can arguably be claimed for the genre.” First published in 2000. Foreword by Christopher Priest. us.macmillan.com/supercannes

Altered Carbon: A Takeshi Kovacs Novel (Del Rey, 544 pp., $7.99, paperback) by Richard K. Morgan: Andrews and Rennison call Altered Carbon “authentic cyberbpunk” that envisions a future in which only the poor die: “the majority of people have their personality backed up regularly and recorded in microstacks embedded in the flesh at the back of the neck, ready to be retrieved and ‘resleeved’ in a new body” that had belonged to someone else. “Much has been made of the book’s debt to noir fiction, but a contemporary hard-boiled writer like James Crumley would be a more fitting comparison than the more chivalric Raymond Chandler, given Morgan’s penchant for extreme violence, explicit sex and Gordian-knot plotting,” the authors say. First published 2002. www.randomhouse.com/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9780345457691

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

June 16, 2008

Three Essential Works of 20th-Century Science Fiction — What Are Their 21st-Century Counterparts?

Filed under: Classics,Fantasy,Science Fiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 7:37 pm
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Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. William Gibson’s Neuromancer. All of these 20th-century books made a list of “100 Must-Read Science Fiction Novels” published in a recent guide to the genre. What essential works of science fiction have appeared so far in the 21st century? The answer will appear tomorrow on One-Minute Book Reviews with comments from the guide defending the choices. Hint: The authors say there are only two.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

January 14, 2008

Orson Scott Card Wins Lifetime Achievement From Librarians for His Science Fiction Novels for Teenagers, ‘Ender’s Game’ and ‘Ender’s Shadow’

Orson Scott Card has won the 2008 Margaret A. Edwards Award from the American Library Association for “his outstanding lifetime contribution to writing for teens” for his novels Ender’s Game and Ender’s Shadow. The ALA said that Card “weaves the everyday experiences of adolecence into broader narratives, addressing universal questions about humanity and society.” The organization added:

Ender’s Game and Ender’s Shadow, both published by Tor Books, present a future where a global government trains gifted young children from around the world in the art of interstellar warfare, hoping to find a leader whose skills can prevent a second attack upon humanity by the insect-like aliens descriptively nicknamed ‘buggers.’ Young Andrew ‘Ender’ Wiggin may be the savior they seek. He is not alone, as seen in the companion tale, Ender’s Shadow, where orphaned Bean relates his own Battle School experiences. Just as the stories of Ender and Bean are paralleled in the novels, their experiences echo those of teens, beginning as children navigating in an adult world and growing into a state of greater awareness of themselves, their communities and the larger universe.”

Card’s most recent novel is the Christmas tale A War of Gifts: An Ender Story www.hatrack.com, a 2007 novel that takes place during Ender’s early years at the Battle School, where students are forbidden to celebrate religious holidays.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

September 12, 2007

What’s the Difference Between Science Fiction and Fantasy? Quote of the Day (Michael Crichton)

Filed under: Fantasy,Quotes of the Day,Science Fiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:10 pm
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One of the major literary changes of recent decades has been the shifting of boundaries between genres, such as the novel and memoirs. Some of the borders have all but disappeared. More than three decades ago, Michael Crichton www.michaelcrichton.com made this comment in a review of Slaughterhouse Five:

“As a category, the borders of science fiction have always been poorly defined, and they are getting worse. The old distinction between science fiction and fantasy – that science fiction went from the known to the probable, and fantasy dealt with the impossible – is now wholly ignored. The new writing is heavily and unabashedly fantastical.

“The breakdown is also seen in the authors themselves, who now cross the border, back and forth, with impunity. At one time this was dangerous and heretical; the only person who could consistently get away with it was Ray Bradbury. Science fiction addicts politely looked the other way when he did books such as Dandelion Wine and the screenplay for John Huston’s Moby Dick. It was assumed he needed the money.”

Michael Crichton in “Slaughterhouse Five” in The Critic As Artist: Essays on Books 1920–1970 With Some Preliminary Ruminations by H.L. Mencken (Liveright, 1972), edited by Gilbert A. Harrison.

Comment by Janice Harayda:

The trend Crichton describes has become stronger since made his comment. What do you think of the change? Have science fiction and fantasy benefited from it? What about the opening up of the borders between the novel and memoirs or other genres?

Other links: Ray Bradbury www.raybradbury.com, Slaughterhouse Five www.vonnegut.com and Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America www.sfwa.org. For information on John Huston’s Moby Dick, search the Internet Movie Database www.imdb.com for “Moby Dick (1956).” You can also search IMDb for the names of Michael Crichton, Ray Brabury and Kurt Vonnegut to learn about the films of their books.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

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