Third Time’s The Same Old Boring Stuff: Isaac Asimov – Second Foundation

My opinion of Isaac Asimov, his writing abilities, and his position as one of the greats of science fiction, wasn’t that great to begin with. But reading the Foundation Trilogy (which was later turned into a longer series) pretty much makes me question earlier generations and their taste in fiction. I also don’t get how publishers let Asimov get away with writing the same story three times and publishing it as if it’s something new…

by Isaac Asimov

Published: Harper Voyager, 1953
227 pages
Foundation #3
My rating:

Opening line: The First Galactic Empire had endured for tens of thousands of years.

When the First Foundation was conquered by a force Seldon had not foreseen – the overwhelming power of a single individual, a mutant called the Mule – the second Foundation was forced to reveal its existence and, infinitely worse, a portion of its power. One man understood the shifting patterns of the inhabited cosmos. This was Hari Seldon, the last great scientist of the First Empire.

The mathematics of psychohistory enabled Seldon to predict the collapse of the Empire and the onset of an era of chaos and war. To restore civilization in the shortest possible time, Seldon set up two Foundations. The First was established on Terminus in the full daylight of publicity. But the Second, at the other end of the galaxy , took shape behind a veil of total silence.

Because the Second Foundation guards the laws of psychohistory, which are valid only so long as they remain secret. So far the second Foundation’s location, its most closely guarded secret of all, has been kept hidden. The Mule and the remnants of the First Foundation will do anything to discover it. This is the story of the Second Foundation.

Wow, I can’t believe this got published the way it did and that people actually ate that shit up… I have rarely read such an overhyped, totally undeserveing of its acclaim, classic as this.
Asimov spends pages upon pages re-explaining the same thing to us, over and over again. That thing is the Foundation, how it came to be, and its purpose. So basically the first chapter of the first book. You’ll get to read that crap in every single Foundation book and also have every character explain it to another character several times throughout that book. Which doesn’t leave all that many pages for, you know, an actual new story. And that’s because Asimov really doesn’t have a new story to tell, he just wanted to milk this idea he had for all it was worth.

This impression is only strenghtened by the fact that each book ends with a sort of cliffhanger. The follow-up book then adresses the rest of this story and only then starts a new larger story arc. Which, again, is finished only in the next book. So I guess Asimov wasn’t lying in his introduction, when he said he wanted to make sure they’d publish another book by him. He pulled the same trick (how very clever) several times to get book deals. Now if only he were a proper storyteller. Alas, all he can do is repeat himself.

So Second Foundation begins with the finale to the Mule story arc which made me angry in so many ways, and only then begins a new story, which actually has to do with the Second Fondation that Hari Seldon said he would set up “at the other end of the galaxy”. At this point, it really wasn’t clear whether Second Foundation was good because its people are a safety net for the first Foundation working the way it should, or whether Second Foundation was the enemy and needed to be defeated by the first Foundation so the first Foundation can take over the galaxy. And ultimately, as the goal is always and exclusively world domination, I couldn’t care either way and I hated the premise. I don’t want to root for anyone in these books because the characters all have the same personality anyway and nothing they do makes any difference.

The problem is that Asimov was so in love with this trope one of his that he turned it up to eleven making anything that happens essentially worthless. You see, when every chapter is one person being secretly so much cleverer than the other person and then, in the end, explaining how they tricked the other person, that can be fun once or maybe twice. That’s all the first book was, chapter after chapter. But if every chapter works that way, it gets old fast. And if – like in Second Foundation – you do this Batman Gambit within a Batman Gambit three times in a row, it really loses all value. What was the point of reading this story if none of what happened, none of the character actions, mean anything?Because it turns out, everyone who outsmarted someone else was in turn outsmarted by yet another player in the endless game that doesn’t even have stakes. Because remind me what the point of all this is? Building a Galactic Empire again in 1000 instead of 30000 years. In the meantime, people are living on various planets, science and technology are evolving, politics are politicking, and so on… And because Hari Seldon’s plan is basically infallible, nothing any one person does can change the course of history anyway. So WHAT’S THE POINT of telling meaningless “stories” set in this world??

Speaking of the world. I had to think of a certain Sad Puppy argument from a few years ago that, back then, science fiction still used to be about science and epic space battles, and sense of wonder and ideas. And I can now definitely say that they can’t have meant Asimov with that. Because there is no world building whatsoever. People are said to live on different planets but there is neither any difference between these planets (other than the fucking weather), nor is there anything much to travelling between them. Who needs science, after all? Distances in the galaxy? Just say “parsec” and “lightyear” a lot and it will sound spacey and sciencey… And then the whole premise of this book is a group of magicians threatening the Foundations. I’m serious, the Second Foundation, which is supposed to consist of nothing but psychologists, can basically mind-control people… with “science”. Don’t make me laugh!
And that doesn’t even take into account the convenient ease with which new inventions are brought about just when needed. Any character either just has had a magical gimmick all along or just quickly invents it because he needs it to defeat the current bad guy. Who will turn out to have been a good guy after all, controlled by the real bad guy. Who then turns out to have been outwitted by someone else. Does it seem like I’m a bit tired of the trope? Because I really am.

Seriously, the more I think about this series, the stupider it is. Asimov’s one cool idea basically ruined any story told within that world because it preempts the outcome. Just for a moment, when he actually made a 14-year-old girl named Arcadia one of the main characters, a proper protagonist in her own right, I got interested again. But the casual mysogyny and ultimate meaninglessness of Arcadia’s cleverness destroyed all pleasure I might have felt.
Oh and it’s not just mysogyny here. There is a tremendous amount of hate directed at all sorts of people. Old people, young people, and especially people with physical deformities. Neurodiverse people are called names and completely disregarded as if they’re not even human. I mean, the whole idea behind the Mule is that he’s too skinny and has a large nose and that’s why he was bullied and now wants to take over the Galaxy… And it’s equally terrifying that being physically unattractive is apparently bad enough in Asimov’s world to make someone a “monster” and a “freak” in everyone’s eyes.

So yeah, I have very little to say about this that’s good. I did honestly enjoy a part in the middle of this book when Arcadia went on an adventure, but as all that happened to her, turned out to have been for nothing, that doesn’t really save the book. And as in his third book, Asimov still hasn’t learned how to write a story, how to create characters or an interesting world, I don’t see much reason to continue this series. That said, the next book did win a Best Novel Hugo Award and it was written 30 years later. So I have the tiniest glimmer of hope that even someone as full of himself as Asimov may have learned a thing or two in that time. The hope is slim, however, so if I ever do read that fourth book, it will be a long time until I find the motivation for that…

MY RATING: 3.5/10 – Bad

Still Mostly Meh: Isaac Asimov – Foundation and Empire

Ages ago, I read the first Foundation book because it’s a sci-fi classic and on all the “Best SF” lists and all that other jazz. I found it okay then but now that the book series is being turned into a TV show, I wanted to both refresh my memory and finally continue the series. Turns out, my second reading of Foundation was exactly as middling as the first one. I did continue and read the second book, though, and that experience – although a teensy bit better – was similarly meh.

by Isaac Asimov

Published: Harper Voyager, 1951
240 pages
Foundation #2
My rating:

Opening line: The Galactic Empire Was Falling.


The Foundation series is Isaac Asimov’s iconic masterpiece. Unfolding against the backdrop of a crumbling Galactic Empire, the story of Hari Seldon’s two Foundations is a lasting testament to an extraordinary imagination, one whose unprecedented scale shaped science fiction as we know it today.

The First Foundation survived two centuries of barbarism as the once-mighty Galactic Empire descended into chaos. Now it mist prepare for war against the remnants of the Empire as the Imperial fleet advances on their planet, Terminus.

Hari Seldon predicted this war; he even prepared his Foundation for it. But he couldn’t foresee the birth of the mutant Mule. In possession of a power which reduces fearsome opposition to devoted slaves, the Mule poses a terrible threat to Seldon’s Foundation.

This book is comprised of two stories. The first one is simply a continuation of what was done in the first book – namely a Seldon Crisis which is resolved by one dude being slightly cleverer than another dude, and also “fate”. Because Hari Seldon predicted the various crises the Foundation would encounter, and he also predicted that by the laws of psychohistory the Foundation has a super high chance of surpassing all those obstacles, there’s not really all that much excitement left. We know ahead of time the Foundation will continue to strive, no matter what kind of problem comes up next. So by creating Hari Seldon, Asimov made it harder for himself to build up tension.

The second, much longer, part of this book is called “The Mule” and it can almost be called a proper story. There’s multiple character POVs, we travel different parts of the galaxy, there’s a big threat to the Foundation, and there’s some new political stuff coming up. Again, a big problem for me was the utter lack of tension throughout the whole story. I knew the Foundation would come out on top because that’s the entire point of this series. So why should I worry that a mysterious conquerer who calls himself The Mule is apparently defeating Foundation forces left and right?

Asimov’s characters are still as bland and interchangeable as in the first book. It literally doesn’t matter who is talking to whom. You could literally exchange the people with talking cats and it wouldn’t change a thing about the story (well, it would make it more awesome). Nobody has a personality because this is not the kind of book that’s actually trying to tell a riveting story or make its readers feel empathy for its characters. It’s a vessel for ideas and, in my opinion, those ideas were transported well enough in the first book. I don’t need a second book to tell me the exact same ideas, slightly differently.
But – color me surprised – one of those bland characters is a woman! Who gets to speak!! And who even has a vital role in the tale!!! Never mind all the microaggressions, the sexist remarks, the obvious disregard for women in general, at least we have proof that there are women in Asimov’s galaxy. Despite this revolutionary development, I found that the whole Mule story dragged along unnecessarily and the twist ending was super obvious and lacked any impact whatsoever. Again, Asimov is his own worst enemy because of course the “good guys” win and the Foundation is safe.

Speaking of “good guys” – I find the entire premise of this series quite disturbing. When it was all about preserving humanity’s knowledge, it was one thing. But what it has always really been about is power and colonization and gaining control over everything through a massive galactic empire. Why the hell should I root for that?

I don’t think it’s all that surprising that many of the so-called science fiction classics didn’t age well. Asimov’s idea of psychohistory is still pretty cool, and the Foundation series doesn’t have much more to offer in terms of sfnal ideas (so far), but everything that surrounds it, every tiny little bit of worldbuilding or character work I could find in this rather mediocre story is really rather startling in its misogyny, blind love for the military and colonization, hunger for power for power’s sake, and totally casual hate towards neurodiverse people.

This book also makes me wonder at this so-called golden age of science-fiction. Sure, many of the ideas that came up at the time must have felt new and exciting, but didn’t people also care about storytelling? Because, as interesting as certain ideas may be, they are rather worthless if the story about them sucks. Having just re-read the first Foundation book and then going straight into this one, I did notice that Asimov’s writing style has evolved, although he continues to do the same thing over and over again, just slightly better told. At least now we get some descriptions of surroundings, of how a given planet works, instead of just two men standing in a room trying to outsmart each other.

I’m still going to read the third Foundation book just so I have finished what was then The Foundation Trilogy but I very much doubt I’ll check out the rest of the series. This trip to a distant past that many people seem to glorify is just not for me.

MY RATING: 5/10 – Utterly meh!

A Messy, Trope-Ridden YA Novel: Lisa Mantchev – Eyes Like Stars

There are books you love and books you hate, and then there are books that are so mediocre, that offer so little to either rant or rave about that you just… nothing them. This is one such book. The more I think about it, the more I can put into words what’s wrong with it but while I read it, I just noticed that I didn’t  care about anything in it. The characters, the plot, the setting… nothing.

by Lisa Mantchev

Published by: Square Fish, 2009
Paperback: 352 pages
Series: Théâtre Illuminata #1
My rating: 3,5/10

First line: The fairies flew suspended on wires despite their tendency to get tangled together.

The fantastic first novel in Lisa Mantchev’s Theatre Illuminata trilogy
Welcome to the Théâtre Illuminata, where the characters of every play ever written can be found behind the curtain. The actors are bound to the Théâtre by The Book, an ancient and magical tome of scripts. Bertie is not one of the actors, but they are her family. And she is about to lose them all because The Book has been threatened, and along with it the Théâtre. It’s the only home Bertie has ever known, and she has to find a way to save it. But first, there’s the small problem of two handsome men, both vying for her attention. Nate, a dashing pirate who will do anything to protect Bertie, and Ariel, a seductive air spirit. The course of true love never did run smooth. . . .
With Eyes LIke Stars, Lisa Mantchev has written a debut novel that is dramatic, romantic, and witty, with an irresistible and irreverent cast of characters who are sure to enchant the audience.

I thought I could begin this review the way the author began this book. By throwing you right in without any information whatsoever, with nothing making sense, and with a girl dying her hair blue. But I don’t want to be that kind of person. So I’ll just tell you how I experienced this strange book that I still don’t know how to classify. Is it YA? Is it Middle Grade? Does it matter?

Beatrice Shakespeare Smith, called Bertie, lives in the Théâtre Illuminata, a place where all characters from all Shakespeare plays reside and live to play their part over and over again. Their plays are all collected in The Book, a mysterious tome that is protected by the Theatre Manager. Bertie’s friends (if you can call them that) are the fairies from A Midsummer Night’s Dream and while they are obviously only there for comic relief, I quite liked them and their silly antics. Other characters include Ariel, the air spirit from The Tempest, Nate, a dashing pirate who is obviously in love with Bertie, and the Stage Manager as well as the heads of the Properties, Scenery and Costume Departments.

There is very little plot in this book but the basic premise is that Bertie is a troublemaker and faces explusion from the Theatre. If she wants to stay in the only home she’s ever known, she needs to prove that she can make an invaluable contribution. Her plan is to restage Hamlet in ancient Egypt. At the same time, Ariel is constantly flirting with her and trying to manipulate  her to set him free – because, as it turns out, all those characters are trapped inside the Theatre and have to play when management says so. That made Ariel, who is supposed to be the bad boy in an unnecessary and lifeless love triangle, the most sympathetic character to me. I mean, who wants to be enslaved? Of course he’s going to try everything to gain his freedom! And one of his attempts brings down chaos  on the Theatre. There is also a weird sub-plot about a magical amulet that Nate gives Bertie. And Ophelia randomly walks around and tries to drown herself in puddles. It all felt very contrived.

Bertie herself, our super special protagonist of the blue hair, was incredibly unlikable. Not only is it true that she makes trouble in the Theatre and I would totally have kicked her out as well had I been the Theatre Manager, but she is also just rude and mean to every single person around her. Nate obviously loves her, she leads him on, but then turns around and goes all googoo for Ariel because he’s pretty. Only to change her mind a few chapters later and treat Ariel like shit. Bertie is an entitled, mean girl who wants everyone’s attention, contributes nothing, and doesn’t care about anyone’s feelings but her own. What a bitch!

But I have no problem with antiheroes in general. If the rest of the book had made any kind of sense, I would have been there for it. A magical theater sounds like so much fun and I don’t always need a magic system that makes perfect sense. But in the Théâtre Illuminata, nothing makes sense. Scene changes happen automatically (by magic), so why is there even a scenery department? And there also doesn’t seem to be a crew, only players and managers – who does the costume manager manage? She doesn’t have any workers.
Another thing that bothered me about the setting was the time period. What time does this take place in? Characters mostly talk very old-timey, which may be attributed to them being Shakespeare characters, but the managers aren’t actors and they can technically leave the theatre whenever they want. Then suddenly the fairies will say something utterly modern, making references to things they can’t possibly know if they’ve never been out of the theatre. The same goes for Bertie, who orders a quadruple shot cappucchino (she doesn’t outright say “from Starbucks” but it felt like a line from a contemprary teen movie). But they also talk about horse-drawn carriages and people wearing monocles? It just left me confused and annoyed!

Here are some examples (emphasis mine):

“It’s rather like a spa,” Peaseblossom said, trying to rassure her from the safety of the button box.
(How would a fairy trapped inside a magical theatre know what a spa is?!)

Or take this:

“Did someone call for mummification?” Moth appeared, armed with a buttonhook. “We’ll prepare you for eternal slumber, internal organs removed and body wrapped in gauze, for one low, low price!”
“But wait” Cobweb added. “If you act in the next five minutes-”
(So fairies apparently also watch TV commercials, which makes the time period even hazier and the equipment of the old-timey theatre even more questionable.)

As for the forced love triangle, there was no chemistry between anyone. I did like Nate because all he does is look out for Bertie and try to protect her (not that she appreciates it). The bad boy Ariel was more enticing as a characters – because  unlike Nate, he has a personality and agency, he wants his freedom! Nate just wants Bertie. – but Bertie’s reaction to both boys changed so frequently and never made much sense. So I didn’t care if she ends up with either of them and I would recommend they both find themselves a kinder person to fall in love with. I mean, who kisses a guy, then literally enslaves him, then changes her mind again and again. And while she’s messing around with Ariel, she still kind of wants Nate’s attention as well. Again: Antiheroes are okay if their story is good, but I just didn’t understand Bertie and I really don’t like people like her who play with others’ feelings for their own personal amusement.

Oh yes, and let’s not forget another sub-plot which is probably going to be the story arc for the entire trilogy: How Bertie Came To The Theatre. Bertie has always lived there but she has no idea who her parents are or where she actually came from. Some of this is revealed at the end of the book but, as I cared nothing about Bertie or most of the other characters, the revelation fell flat. There was no emotional impact because there was never any build-up. Stuff just happens all the time, most of the book is chaos, but nothing ever got to me. It’s not even that I hated the story, I just really, really didn’t care. Which is probably worse than a book I actively hate because at least hate is an emotion and this book made me feel nothing.

The best thing I can say about this is that, because the book is pretty much made of dialogue, it’s a very quick read. There are random sequences that are written as stage plays for some reason, but only in the first third of the book. That was a nice idea but it felt like the author had no plan whatsoever for this book and just wrote whatever popped into her mind at the time.
For the next book, there will probably be a quest for Bertie (getting someone out of trouble for which she is responsible in the first place) and of course she wantsto find out more about her heritage. As I don’t care about Bertie or the others and didn’t find anything particularly appealing in the world or setting (whenever and wherever that may be), I won’t continue reading this trilogy. It’s a shame because the covers are really pretty.

MY RATING: 3,5/10 – Bad

Franz Kafka & Coleridge Cook – The Meowmorphosis

Holy shit, I had forgotten how utterly depressing Kafka was. Even this – at times quite clever – retelling couldn’t lift my spirits. I read The Metamorphosis in German a long time ago and while I remembered the main things that happened to Gregor Samsa after he wakes up as a cockroach/bug, I had forgotten how depressing every single character and every single monologue or dialogue was. Well, Coleridge Cook has reminded me. I can’t say this was a pleasure but I am rather impressed with the author’s skill.

by Frank Kafka and Coleridge Cook

Published by: Quirk Classics, 2011
Paperback: 206 pages
My rating: 7/10

First line: One morning, as Gregor Samsa was awking up from anxious dreams, he discovered thathe had been changed into an adorable kitten.

Thus begins The Meowmorphosis—a bold, startling, and fuzzy-wuzzy new edition of Franz Kafka’s classic nightmare tale, from the publishers of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies! Meet Gregor Samsa, a humble young man who works as a fabric salesman to support his parents and sister. His life goes strangely awry when he wakes up late for work and finds that, inexplicably, he is now a man-sized baby kitten. His family freaks out: Yes, their son is OMG so cute, but what good is cute when there are bills piling up? And how can he expect them to serve him meals every day? If Gregor is to survive this bizarre, bewhiskered ordeal, he’ll have to achieve what he never could before—escape from his parents’ house. Complete with haunting illustrations and a provocative biographical exposé of Kafka’s own secret feline life, The Meowmorphosis will take you on a journey deep into the tortured soul of the domestic tabby.

If you’ve read or at least heard about these Quirk Classics books, you pretty much know what you’re going to get. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was just that – the Bennett sisters fighting off zombies and polishing their swords instead of doing embroidery and learning French. It is a silly sort of fun that you have to be in the right mood for. These books are also essentially the original text with only some words or passages replaced so the new “version” makes sense. There’s Android Karenina, Sense and Sensibility and Seamonsters, and as I found out only recently, The Meowmorphosis.

Coleridge Cook took Kafka’s Metamorphosis and, instead of having Gregor Samsa wake up as a cockroach (“Ungeziefer” doesn’t actually mean cockroackin German, but it’s a sort of collective word used for small, unwanted creatures, usually bugs), he wakes up as an adorable kitten. But if you think the fact that Gregor has turned into something that our society views as cute and fluffy makes this a happy or fun book, you are so wrong. Kafka’s original was a great book but also super depressing. And what made it so depressing wasn’t even that the protagonist was changed into a huge cockroach, but rather how his family deals with this change.

In this version, Gregor wakes up as a kitten and does what kittens do. He has a fondness for naps, he has to learn how to walk on four paws instead of two legs, he wants milk and fish and also to be left alone. His parents react to this rather fantastic change not with the kind of outrage one would expect (like, what the hell, our sun turned into an animal overnight!!) but they think more of themselves and their future, as they were dependent on Gregor’s job as a traveling salesman. It’s been a while since I read the original text, but if this book is anything like the Austen adaptations, then the text itself remains very much the same, except Gregor is a kitten and not a cockroach.

Where the story does change – and that’s at the same time this book’s strength and what makes it even more depressing – is when Gregor escapes his apartment and explores the town. He soon meets another cat and (because humans don’t understand his speech anymore) tries to talk to it. As it turns out, Gregor isn’t the only sad working man who has turned into a cat overnight. He meets a whole group of cats who used to be men and now roam the streets of Prague in their new feline shape. This bit also incorporates one of Kafka’s other books, The Trial, into the plot. And Gregor talks with some other cats and how they are, in every way, superior to us humans.

But one thing is too obvious to have escaped me, namely, how little inclined they are, compared with us cats, to stick together, how silently and sullenly and with what unspoken hostilities they pass one another by, how only the basest of interests such as food, drink, or breeding can bring them together for a little time in ostensible union – and how often those very interest give rise to violent conflict among them.

The ending of the book is equally sad and disturbing as the original. But I do want to say that Colerdige Cook did a fantastic job writing the original parts in Kafka’s style. There are seriously long monologues about how shit the world is, especially if you’re working a mediocre job that you hate. I’m not personally a fan of Kafka’s writing style but I have great respect for anyone who can imitate it to the point where you don’t know where Kafka ends and Cook begins. The entire book reads as one, without any noticable breaking point.

My favorite part by far – because it was funny rather than depressing – was the little Kafka “biography” at the end which explains that Kafka has been followed by cats much of his life. The suggested reading group questions are even funnier (“Gregor Samsa has some issues, doesn’t he?” and “Frank Kafka had some issues, didn’t he?”). If you like Franz Kafka or even if you don’t like him and want to see one of his tales made slightly ridiculous, then pick this up. As much of a downer as it is, I actually quite enjoyed reading it.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

Ray Bradbury – The Martian Chronicles

I’ve been slacking in two departments this year. One is science fiction novels, as I’ve been leaning heavily on the fantasy side, and the other is older SFF. Last year, reading one newer book and one older one was a very rewarding experience for me. But as new releases and award ballots come floating in, it’s easy to forget the classics. Thanks to the Sword & Laser Podcast, however, I finally picked up this Bradbury book and – again – was positively surprised at how much I liked it.

by Ray Bradbury

Published by: Doubleday, 1950
Ebook: 263 pages
My rating: 7/10

First sentence: One minute it was Ohio winter, with doors closed, windows locked, the panes blind with frost, icicles fringing every roof, children skiing on slopes, housewives lumbering like great black bears in their furs along the icy streets.

The strange and wonderful tale of man’s experiences on Mars, filled with intense images and astonishing visions. Now part of the Voyager Classics collection.
The Martian Chronicles tells the story of humanity’s repeated attempts to colonize the red planet. The first men were few. Most succumbed to a disease they called the Great Loneliness when they saw their home planet dwindle to the size of a fist. They felt they had never been born. Those few that survived found no welcome on Mars. The shape-changing Martians thought they were native lunatics and duly locked them up.
But more rockets arrived from Earth, and more, piercing the hallucinations projected by the Martians. People brought their old prejudices with them – and their desires and fantasies, tainted dreams. These were soon inhabited by the strange native beings, with their caged flowers and birds of flame.

This story of humanity colonizing Mars is presented as a fix-up novel, a collection of connected short stories, that each show different aspects of the migration to Mars, starting from the very first efforts to even reach Mars, the first settlements there, dealing with the locals, and questioning the meaning of humanity and life itself.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this book. Fix-up novels are usually not my thing because I like to get to know a set of characters and then follow them for a while. Here, you meet a character and they’re gone by the next story. Sure, some are mentioned later on, but you only really follow a character for as long as their story lasts. But The Martian Chronicles worked for me. I loved that it started with the Martians, the aliens living on the Red Planet before humans arrived in their shiny metal rockets and started messing shit up.

The book goes along chronologically, beginning with the first few (failed) missions to Mars. But they were intriguing in how they failed. While the people on Earth may believe the rockets never even arrived, us readers get to find out that they did arrive, but things weren’t as simple as putting a flag in the ground and building a house. Humanity’s arrival also has other, unforseen, consequences for the local population – and that’s not even considering that humans plan to do what they’ve always done and just take someone else’s land for their own and drive away the people who lived their before…

As colonization progresses and more and more people come to live on Mars, more and more questions arise about history. We meet characters who feel great concern at what has happened on Mars, who look at the ruins of Martian buildings with awe. Then there are others who want to make a fortune and build a completely new life for themseves on this new planet. And let’s not forget the threat of war down on Earth. Remembering this book was published in 1950 helps a lot in putting things into perspective and gives an interesting glimpse into the issues and fears of that time.

And while we’re on the subject of the book being “of its time”, there is a highly controversial story included here – “Way in the Middle of the Air” – that has been edited out of some edition (or so I hear). The story deals with an unabashed racist, a despicable piece of human garbage, as he watches pretty much all the black people from his home town pack up their stuff and decide to leave for Mars. While others have called the story racist, I felt that Bradbury was always clearly on the side of the black characters and hated his protagonist as much as I did. I found the story hard to read (not only because of the frequent use of the n-word), but I didn’t think the story as such was racist. Only the shit-for-brains protagonist was and although worse things could and maybe should have happened to him, the story doesn’t exactly end well for him.

There were some things about this book that felt at the same time silly and very Golden Age of Science Fiction. The fact that astronauts landing on Mars can simply walk around without space suits, breathe the air and experience no difference in gravity – it was weird, at first, but with a healthy dose of suspension of disbelief, I got used to it. I would have liked to read more chapters from the Martian’s point of view or at least featuring them in a more prominent way, and I definitely would have liked more (or even a single) female characters who were more than just that important guy’s wife or somebody’s mother – women with jobs, women with hopes and dreams for this new life in Mars… you get the idea.

But again, considering this book as a product of its time, and judging simply on reading enjoyment, I quite liked. My foray into older SFF has once again been rewarded.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

FTF Book Review: Lisa Jensen – Alias Hook

I will never tire of Peter Pan and the spin-offs, sequels, prequels, alternate stories, and whatever else it has inspired. The Neverland is a special place and fertile ground for the imagination. Some writers have made brilliant new stories of J.M. Barrie’s play, others riff on the Disney version of Peter Pan. Lisa Jensen gives a voice to the unsung hero of the story, Captain Hook. Let’s be honest. We all have a soft spot for that dark and sinister man, right?

alias hook newALIAS HOOK
by Lisa Jensen

Published by: Thomas Dunne Books, 2014 (2013)
Ebook: 368 pages
My rating: 6/10
Review copy provided by the publisher (thank you!)

First sentence: Second star to the right of what?

divider1Fairy Tales Retold

  • Peter Pan


“Every child knows how the story ends. The wicked pirate captain is flung overboard, caught in the jaws of the monster crocodile who drags him down to a watery grave. But it was not yet my time to die. It’s my fate to be trapped here forever, in a nightmare of childhood fancy, with that infernal, eternal boy.”
Meet Captain James Benjamin Hook, a witty, educated Restoration-era privateer cursed to play villain to a pack of malicious little boys in a pointless war that never ends. But everything changes when Stella Parrish, a forbidden grown woman, dreams her way to the Neverland in defiance of Pan’s rules. From the glamour of the Fairy Revels, to the secret ceremonies of the First Tribes, to the mysterious underwater temple beneath the Mermaid Lagoon, the magical forces of the Neverland open up for Stella as they never have for Hook. And in the pirate captain himself, she begins to see someone far more complex than the storybook villain.
With Stella’s knowledge of folk and fairy tales, she might be Hook’s last chance for redemption and release if they can break his curse before Pan and his warrior boys hunt her down and drag Hook back to their neverending game. Alias Hook by Lisa Jensen is a beautifully and romantically written adult fairy tale.


Hook is trapped in the Neverland. The cultured and correct but lonely man yearns for nothing more but to finally die. Whether it’s at the hands of the tyrannical boy Peter Pan or through some other means, doesn’t really matter to him. But then he stumbles across a woman – a grown woman – in the Neverland…

Lisa Jensen takes her sweet, sweet time telling the story of how Hook got his life back. There is magic involved, and a prophecy (naturally), Hook needs to come-of-age in a way, despite his immortality and his eternal war with the eternal child. I could sum up the plot in one sentence or I could do it like the author and talk and talk and talk without getting to the point. Lisa Jensen’s strength is her use of language – she writes flowery prose with tons of description, an introspective, thoughtful protagonist, but very little action. I have nothing against a book that moves slowly, that demands to be savored rather than devoured in one quick bite. But the need for plot, for a reason for this story to be told, is still there. And this is where I was disappointed a bit.

Alias Hook started out well enough. It slogged along a bit until Stella Parrish showed up and turned Hook’s head with her modern (comparatively) speech, manners, and ideas. I loved, loved, loved the scene where the two banter over a bottle of wine and I really wish there had been more scenes like it. This book is also supposedly a romance. But apart from the abovementioned snappy banter, there is very little to go on. Hook falls in love with Stella, to a large part because Stella doesn’t mind his missing hand, his scars, or his dark past. Once they are together however, it gets sappy as hell and I rolled my eyes frequently.

alias hook audio coverI can forgive cheesiness for the sake of good old Captain Hook becoming a little more human, a little less cold-hearted. But what I can’t forgive is the very thin plot. We find out why Hook is in the Neverland in the first place, and then, through convenient intervention by fairies, the Indians, and the mermaids are shown the signs of an ancient prophecy that will finally set Hook free – if he reads the signs right and does the right thing at the right time. That’s it. There isn’t much more to it, I’m sad to say. The rest of the nearly 400 pages is filled with description and inner monologue and rehashing of the same things we read in the beginning of the book.

I did like certain aspects of the world-building, however. Pan’s tyrannical rule, for example, is shown through small details, such as his dislike of roses. The Neverland accomodates the boy in everything he wishes, so there are no roses. Another cool spin on the original is the mermaids, the only creatures that Pan is afraid of. We only touch the surface of their story but I was really hooked whenever the mermaids showed up. They did what I always hope for in a fairy tale retelling – they added something new to a well-known and beloved story.

The fact that it took me weeks and weeks to finish the book, reading in small increments only, speaks to its readability. It is not a difficult story to follow but the prose is so thick, so luscious that it can be overwhelming if you read too much of it in one go. This was by no means a bad book, just one that had quite a few flaws. A tighter and faster moving plot and more layered side-characters would have been a good place to start. Nonetheless, I had fun in this Neverland adventure. Recommended to readers with patience or a deep, deep love of Peter Pan.

RATING: 6/10 – Good

divider1Second opinions:

Review: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – A Study in Scarlet

I had read only one Sherlock Holmes novel – The Hound of the Baskervilles – before trying the BBC series Sherlock. As many others before me, I am completely and utterly in love with this TV show but like any serious reader, I felt the need to finally read more of Doyle’s original stories. And what better way to start than with my huge Complete Works paperback (and a Gutenberg free ebook) of A Study in Scarlet?

by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Published: Penguin, 2011 (1887)
ISBN: 0241952891
Pages: 162
Copy: paperback, ebook
Series: Sherlock Holmes #1

My rating: 6,5/10

First sentence: In the year 1878 I took my degree of Doctor of Medicine of the University of London, and proceeded to Netley to go through the course prescribed for surgeons in the army.

A Study in Scarlet is the first published story of one of the most famous literary detectives of all time, Sherlock Holmes. Here Dr. Watson, who has just returned from a war in Afghanistan, meets Sherlock Holmes for the first time when they become flat-mates at the famous 221 B Baker Street. In “A Study in Scarlet” Sherlock Holmes investigates a murder at Lauriston Gardens as Dr. Watson tags along with Holmes while narratively detailing his amazing deductive abilities

Dr. John Watson has just returned from his work as a war surgeon in Afghanistan and is looking for somebody to share a flat with him. He is introduced to Sherlock Holmes, the only existing consulting detective in the world – and his theory of deduction. Soon Watson learns that it is more than a theroy as he watches Holmes figure out the details of a murder case. A dead man is found on the floor of an empty apartment, the only (to us ordinary people) clue is the German word RACHE written on the wall in blood.

I was surprised at how readable this book was. Maybe I underestimate my own ability to read English but then I did read my first Sherlock Holmes when I was about 19 years old. Either way, the language has a nice flow to it and I finished this small adventure in about two hours. The unravelling of the case was done quickly, even for Holmes’ standards, but the second half of the book shows us the murderer’s backstory. We turn from dialogue-heavy banter between Holmes and the police force to a tale that makes us look at the murderer in a different way and shows us his true motive.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle managed to pack a fair bit of criticism into his detective story and that also took me by surprise. I will definitely read all the other Sherlock Holmes stories (even though I’m worried I might deduct the outcome from my having seen the TV show) and I’ll probably reread The Hound of Baskervilles as well. Holmes is a likable, if very cocky, hero (don’t tell him I called him that) and while his knowledge in certain fields is almost unbelievable, I will gladly suspend my desbelief for the sake of a good story.

I recommend these books for anyone who – like me, a number of years ago – is daunted by the idea of “reading the classics”. This quick read doesn’t only show the beginnings of Holmes and Watson’s beautiful friendship but it offers a fun detective story and a surprisingly intriguing background to our murderer.

THE GOOD: Easy to read, great characters, a lot of depth that I was surprised to find on so few pages.
THE BAD: The actual detecting could have lasted longer for my taste. I can’t get enough of Sherlock’s wise-cracking.
THE VERDICT: Recommended, but maybe a longer Sherlock tale would be a better starter-drug.

RATING: 6,5/10

SHERLOCK vs. Sherlock Holmes

Having just seen the first episode of the BBC TV show, I can’t help but notice how brilliantly this classic story has been translated to the screen. Its beginning is almost a scene-by-scene adaptation of the original Sherlock’s case into 21st century London, including the war in Afghanistan (makes you wonder, doesn’t it?). Who would have thought that cell phones, the internet, blogs, and automatic guns could work with such a well-known and well-loved tale. I am impressed and a little bit awed. Also, I couldn’t help but picture Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch and simply dress them in their appropriate garb (including the hat). My curiosity to discover the other Sherlock stories and compare them to the BBC TV show has risen – and I can’t wait for season 3 of that. I am, so to speak, Sherlocked.

Mary Shelley – Frankenstein

I often wonder why I, the biggest bookworm in my circle of friends, have always been cursed (or blessed?) with teachers who never required any reading. We were encouraged to read, sure, but we never had reading lists or discussions about the classics, or modern controversial books, not even Orwell. So I’m behind on all of those books and as I’m catching up, I wish more and more my teachers had pushed some of these titles into my hands then.

by Mary Shelley

Published: Signet, 1999 (1818)
ISBN: 0451532244
Pages: 272
Copy: paperback, ebook

My rating: 7/10

First sentence: I am by birth a Genevese; and my family is one of the most distinguished of that republic.

The Original Gothic-Horror Literary Classic! Mary Shelley’s deceptively simple story of Victor Frankenstein and the creature he brings to life, first published in 1818, is now more widely read-and more widely discussed by scholars-than any other work of the Romantic period. From the creature’s creation to his wild lament over the dead body of his creator in the Arctic wastes, the story retains its narrative hold on the reader even as it spins off ideas in rich profusion.

Victor Frankenstein relates the story of his life in minute detail and with great care. We learn first of how his parents met and how he and his siblings grew up in the happiest of families, living in Geneva, surrounded by loving friends and caring neighbours. Once Victor discovers science for himself and moves to Ingolstadt to attend university, his life takes a turn and his sole ambition is the creation of life – without a woman or divine intervention. Yet as soon as his creation comes to life, Victor renounces all responsibility and wants nothing to do with it. Misery ensues…

Dense and maticulate in style, I felt it easy to fall in to this gothic tale of horror and – yes – science fiction. Frankenstein and his family, while rather too good to be true, are characters I came to care about and whose happiness I was hoping for. I was surprised into how much detail the author went relating the family life and, especially later in the book, travels and landscapes. More surprising was the fact that the key scenes – the coming to life of Frankenstein’s creature – as well as some gruesome murders, encounters with the monster, and other potentially impressive scenes – were told almost hastily, as if the author wanted to leave all the details to her readers’ imagination.

My imagination went wild. The themes discussed here make you think. Creating life means having to take responsibility. And whatever it is you create, however much you may see it as an object while it’s a work in progress, as soon as it’s alive, it has a mind of its own. Frankenstein learns this in the most painful way imaginable and as the story progresses, we descend into the darker realms of life.

This was an impressive story with some great charactarisation – especially the monster felt more human to me than some too-good-to-be-true women featured in the story – and just a bit too much travelogue and landscape descriptions for my taste. Ultimately, I am glad to have read it and recommend it with some reservations.

THE GOOD: Raises the question of responsibility for ones actions and of what makes us human.
THE BAD: Some pacing issues in the second half, too much blah-blahing about landscapes for my taste.
THE VERDICT: A dark and intriguing story that fans of gothic horror won’t want to miss.

RATING: 7/10 Very good.

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Dodie Smith – I Capture the Castle

It must be the healthy air or simply the fact that during your holidays you can relax and finally get to some books you’ve neglected. Which is why I thought I’d get right into my resolutions for the second half of 2012 and kicked the list off with Dodie Smith’s classic novel. I caught the beginning of the movie a while ago and was so enchanted that I felt I would love to book. And I did. Truly, I loved it… and hated it. Here’s why:

by Dodie Smith

published: Vintage, 2004 (1948)
pages: 416
copy: paperback

my rating: 6,5/10

first sentence: I am sitting in the kitchen sink.

This enchanting novel tells the story of seventeen-year-old Cassandra and her unusual family who live in not-so-genteel poverty in a ramshackle old English castle. Cassandra’s eccentric father is a writer whose first book took the literary world by storm but he has since failed to write a single word and now spends his time reading detective fiction. Cassandra’s sister, Rose, despairs of her family’s circumstances and determines to marry their affluent American landlord. She is helped and, sometimes, hindered in this by their bohemian stepmother, an artists’ model who likes to commune with nature. Finally there is Stephen who is hopelessly in love with Cassandra. Amid this maelstrom Cassandra hones her writing skills, candidly capturing the events that take place within the castle’s walls, and her own first descent into love.

Our heroine Cassandra leads us into the enchanted world of the castle she lives in with her rather eccentric family. As she writes her diary (which we read), we see just how bad poverty can get and with how little this strange family can be content. Cassandra’s thoughts and observations are surprisingly deep for a girl her age. Without any envy, she describes her older sister’s beauty, without bitterness she talks about the way her father never wrote again, after the initial success of his novel. But her life is boring and observing and trying to “capture” the people and landscapes around her is not as fulfilling as she would hope. When two young men enter the neighbourhood (very Jane Austen, isn’t it?), her life changes forever…

I was instantly feeling sympathetic towards our narrating heroine. Her family suffer but manage to creatue happiness in their very own way, and I enjoyed reading about their little routines and rituals. But Cassandra got on my nerves very quickly. Precocious – yes. Smart-ass? Not so much. The way she always sets herself apart from the group and describes, sometimes quite coldly, what is happening, made her feel cold and arrogant to me. She certainly doesn’t think too much of herself but I couldn’t shake the feeling that she considered herself a notch above everybody else – for she is the one who captures everything, who sees more than others. Or who would like to. Her flaws make her believable but personally, I just couldn’t really like her.

The plot dragged a little and felt like a soap opera at times. But the love and engagement and childish fun and unrequited love mixed with the very mature style made this a nicely balanced book. I didn’t pine for anyone, I didn’t really care who ended up with whom. But I did find myself wanting to go back to the book whenever I put it down.

It suddenly seemed astonishing that people should meet especially to eat together – because food goes into the mouth and talk comes out. And if you watch people eating and talking – really watch them – it is a very peculiar sight.

An unlikable protagonist is one thing but a whole cast of lovable, deep side characters make up for it. Rose and Topaz, Stephen (above all) and even our two gentlemen captured my heart by storm. I did care a lot about them and would have actually liked to see more of their perspectives. This being a diary, however, that wasn’t possible. I look forward to finishing the movie and I hope the focus is not so heavily set on Cassandra’s fate alone. Her coming-of-age story is certainly better than a lot of modern YA tales I’ve read but it’s far from my favorite…

THE GOOD: Concise and beautiful writing, a very different family life from what I know, in a romantic setting with a heroine full of ideas and thoughts.
THE BAD: Not really a bad point but I didn’t warm to the narrator. Which dragged the entire story down a bit.
THE VERDICT: If, like the sisters in this book, you like Austen and Bronte and can’t decided with romance you’d rather live in, you’ll probably enjoy this story. A young girl’s coming-of-age with love, betrayal, and a castle.

RATING: 6,5/10  Very good with some reservations.

George Orwell – 1984

This was one of the most impressive books I have ever read. It was also one of the most depressing (along with anything by Kafka). I read this in January of 2011 at the old age of 25 because in my school we never had to read anything. We were encouraged to but there was never any required reading and I felt way behind everybody else in not having read this classic for so long. Also, it being a popular book read in schools, I assumed it would be hard to plough through but it really wasn’t. Orwell’s specific horror made me race through this book in a matter of days. If you haven’t read it you should. Right now!

by George Orwell

Published: Signet Classics 1950 (1949)
Pages: 326
Copy: paperback

My rating: 10/10

First sentence: It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

Written in 1948, 1984 was George Orwell’s chilling prophecy about the future. And while 1984 has come and gone, Orwell’s narrative is timelier than ever. 1984 presents a startling and haunting vision of the world, so powerful that it is completely convincing from start to finish. No one can deny the power of this novel, its hold on the imaginations of multiple generations of readers, or the resiliency of its admonitions a legacy that seems only to grow with the passage of time.

Winston Smith lives in a world without freedom. The four Ministries – the Ministry of Peace, Plenty, Love, and Truth – control everything. Big Brother is watching you! For younger readers, or people who don’t read in general, it may be interesting to know that this is where Big Brother comes from. Being watched any time of any day and judged if you take so much as one step in the wrong direction, is a quite chilling perspective. This father of all dystopias is as terrifying – if not more so – now as it must have been when it was first published. If we look at our world today and how willingly we publish the most private details about ourselves, about our habits and preferences (think Facebook), this book gives you an incentive to question your own behavior.

From the very first page, I plummeted into this novel. It has something of a traffic accident quality to it – terrible and scary but you kind of can’t look away. Discovering Winston Smith’s world and how the government is controling everybody in it, is at the same time a pleasure to read, simply because it is a well-written book, and eye-opening in a very uncomfortable way. Ideas such as doublethink or newspeak scared me more than Pennywise the Clown ever did. But the modification and simplification of language to keep citizens in check is only one of the things that took my reader’s breath away. The seemingly random rewriting of history to suit the government’s current needs was another. If the country is now at war with Oceania, it is made clear that it has actually always been at war with Oceania – even though that’s not true.

People simply disappeared, always during the night. Your name was removed from the registers, every record of everything you had ever done was wiped out, your one-time existence was denied and then forgotten. You were abolished, annihilated: vaporized was the usual word.

Chapter 1

I could go on and on about all the little details and the big ideas that make this such a monster of a book. But apart from all that, it is an incredibly well written story. The plot shows us how Smith wants to break out of this world and that he’s not the only one. Orwell gives us the slightest bit of hope which keeps us going and rooting for Smith to find something better than a world with though police.

It was almost normal for people over thirty to be frightened of their own children. And with good reason, for hardly a week passed in which The Times did not carry a paragraph describing how some eavesdropping little sneak —  ‘child hero’ was the phrase generally used — had overheard some compromising remark and denounced its parents to the Thought Police.

Chapter 2

I cannot recommend this book enough and I’m quite angry with myself for waiting so long to read it. After a year-and-a-half, the imagery is still as vivid in my mind as it was when I first read the book. I find myself jokingly using words like doubleplusgood, I find myself questioning my lifestyle – and that currently acceptable by our society. Even if you hate the plot, even if you don’t sympathise with Winston Smith, this novel does one thing above all else. It makes you think! I assume that’s why it’s so widely read in schools and I hope it will continue this way. Any friend I have, avid reader or not, I beseech to read this book. It won’t make you happy and it won’t make you feel good, so reviewing it in summer is maybe not such a great idea, when everybody wants light, fun reads. But I don’t care. Whether you’re 13 or 83, if you have a shred of curiosity in you, if you think the world is not perfect and if you want to share this vision of a man from the 1940ies: Read. This. Book.

THE GOOD: A great, an important novel, full of chilling ideas, plenty of food for thought and a great plot, well written.
THE BAD: It won’t exaclty leave you happy. There might be a post-book-mourning period afterwards.
THE VERDICT: Everybody should read this book. If my children aren’t told to read it in school, I will rave about it so long that they’ll want to read it, too. One of the most impacting books I have ever read.

RATING: 10/10 A truly magnificent book!

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