Thursday, October 29, 2009

Book Review - Homer & Langley by E. L. Doctorow

Homer & Langley
E. L. Doctorow
Random House
ISBN: 1400064945
Autographed Copy
224 pages

Confessions of a book reviewer:

Confession One: I currently own a number of E. L. Doctorow’s novels but I’ve never actually read any of his works. That is until Homer & Langley. (I never understood what I was missing but now have something to look forward to.)

Confession Two: I had not heard of the Collyer brothers before reading Doctorow’s loosely based account of these very real yet tragic characters. Being a Midwesterner this particular story had never come to my attention.

Back Story:

Homer and Langley Collyer were the sons of a successful doctor and as such grew up in the relative comfort of pre-World War I Manhattan. They lived and died in a brownstone mansion in Harlem, which was in a fashionable and trendy neighborhood when it was originally purchased. Both brothers attended Columbia University. Homer received a degree in admiralty law and Langley earned a degree in engineering. As the neighborhood deteriorated and after the abandonment of their father and the eventual death of both parents the brothers inherited the mansion and became hermits and hoarders in their own home. Electing to remove themselves from society the two men began to hoard an eclectic list of items; tons of bound newspapers, books (law and medicine), mechanical contraptions (including a working Model T), scientific oddities (jars of medical samples), and numerous household appliances and knick-knacks. When burglars, who’d heard they were hoarding cash, gold, and jewelry attempted to break in the men closed off the house and set traps to deter additional would-be thieves and intruders. In the end the massive hoarding (over 134 tons of clutter) and the improvised traps would prove their downfall. Both men were found dead in 1947. Homer succumbed to starvation after the death of his brother and Langley was crushed to death by one of his own traps.

Book review:

I found E. L. Doctorow’s style lyrical, provocative, and spellbinding and “Homer & Langley” is beautifully written and wonderfully illustrative of character, place and time. Told in the first person by Homer Langley the story engrossingly recounts the genesis of the hermetic attitudes adopted by the men and gives us an insight as to how and why their world changed so dramatically over the course of their lives.

Doctorow takes minor liberties with the time line in which the Collyer Brothers lived but it in no way deters from the story itself. He succinctly presents world events through the lives of the brothers as they intersect each other. Beginning just after World War I and culminating in the 1980’s we follow the brothers through their failing health and their troubles with the utility companies, banks, and neighbors. Knowing full well at the beginning of the story that it was going to end in tragedy I was, nonetheless, captivated by the details and Doctorow’s prose. If Homer Langley had lived to recount his memoir this is much what it might have been. Doctorow handles the Collyer’s history as it was surely meant to be. Insightful and tragic yet full of the spirit and nature of men trapped by circumstance he gives voice to a family that could not do so on their own.

As the narrative glides through the decades Homer and Langley are befriended by a gangster, invite friends and neighbors into their home to dance, turn their home into a safe haven for immigrants, take up with a group of counter-culture hippies, and then plunge into the depths of ill-mental and physical health and paranoia.

In the final chapters of the story, after Homer has become completely blind and when he’s lost most of his hearing, a sympathetic character tells him, “You think a word and you can hear its sound. I am telling you what I know – words have music and if you are a musician you will write to hear them.” This is, I believe, Doctorow’s Creative Doctrine and he certainly follows the law to the letter in this story. Lyrical, musical and emotionally evocative “Homer & Langley” is a must read.

4 stars out of 5

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Book Review - Wrack & Roll by Bradley Denton

Wrack & Roll
Bradley Denton
Popular Library/Questar
ISBN: 0445203064
Cover art by Richard Corben
eBook edition: 1001 pages

“Wrack and Roll” is one of those hard to define books. Part Urban Fantasy, part Science Fiction, part space-race story, and part counter-culture expose Denton connects them all together into a funny, witty, and frightening mixture of a world that teeters on the brink of self-destruction.

Upon opening the book one of the first things I noticed was the creative language. My first impression was that it was a weak attempt at urban hipness but it soon became apparent to me that it was much more than that. It was the language of an arrogant counter-culture, of die-haired, tattooed, body-pierced anarchists that fit perfectly with this new and oddly almost-alternative universe. With words like “scrod” and “jackbugged” (and I’ll use them both in a sentence momentarily) “Wrack & Roll” gives us a sense of a world that easily might have been.

One of the best things about this novel was Denton’s fleshing out of his alternative universe and its history. Not only does he change the way that world politics evolve but he’s given it his own contingent antagonists and the language to go with them. This is an alternative world of the Straights and the Wrackers, two diametrically opposed cultures. The Straights are the moral majority, the corporate slaves, and the monotonous Joe Q. Public types while the Wrackers are the sub-culture “off-the-grid” rock and roll performers and their fans.

“Wrack & Roll” personifies the “Butterfly Effect,” that part of chaos theory that states that small variations in any event may produce major changes later. In this case, President Franklin Roosevelt dies when he chokes on a chicken bone in 1933 and Patton rolls into Russia after the fall of Germany which changes the world’s political climate. And while the United States still leads the space race the accidental death of a most beloved musician and celebrity astronaut, Bitch Alice, on a visit to the moon in 1967 causes the unexpected destruction of the entire U.S. Space Program. Her last words? “Trash Dallas!” Why Dallas? It’s the home of the fictional National Organization for Space Science (a veiled reference to NASA). In 1979, Bitch Alice’s daughter, the Bastard Child Lieza, goes on tour with her band “Blunt Instrument” to stop the war between the U.S. and the Anglo-Chinese Alliance and prevent total world annihilation. I won’t give away the ending here but it is pure WRACK & ROLL.

And now for that sentence I promised you.

I’ve written some scrod-awful reviews in my time but most of them were because I was jackbugged out of my mind at the time. I hope this isn’t one of them.


4 out of 5 stars

Related Websites:

Brad’s author site:

Author Wikipedia site:

Bradley Denton Internet Science Fiction database site:

Wrack and Roll Internet Science Fiction database site:

Denton Interview:

The Alternative
Southeast Wisconsin

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Book Review – Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

Oryx and Crake
Margaret Atwood
Bloomsbury Publishing PLC
ISBN: 0747562598
384 pages

It only seems fitting that since I’m currently reading Atwood’s “The Year of the Flood” that I review her dystopian masterpiece “Oryx and Crake” as well. Both are set in the same apocalyptic future universe with events that run parallel and simultaneously to each other and contain some of the same characters and places. Perhaps, I thought, it’s a good time to construct a tandem review. (“The Year of the Flood” 2009 to follow.)

Are we doomed to repeat our mistakes?

What if synthetic genetic biology, horizontal gene transfer, and bio-engineering had no restrictions or laws? What would the world become if these scientific pursuits were allowed to evolve and experiment unchecked and without repercussion? What if a scientist with unscrupulous morals and unlimited resources decided to play god, believed that humanity was flawed beyond salvation, and was arrogant enough to think that he could do better? This is the setting, albeit a harrowing alternative one, of the world of “Oryx and Crake.”

Crake is a prominent scientist at HelthWyzer, a biotech corporation, and he decides to create his own version of a utopian society that will live harmoniously with each other and with nature. The genetically engineered results, part-human herbivores that are programmed to have sexual intercourse only during specific breeding seasons are the last remaining “humans” in a society that has engineered itself into extinction. The “Crakers” have been created without cultural conflict, without inhibitions, without anger or hatred. But in the process of creating the perfect society something else has gone horribly wrong.

Civilization has collapsed. An unidentified plague or disease or “waterless flood” has been released. Only a very few survive. The innocent Crakes, the moral compass of the “people,” Snowman, the mad/brilliant scientist, Crake, and his rescued paramour, Oryx are the last remaining members of the human race. Bizarre bioengineered, hybrid creatures roam the barren lands, civilization has disappeared, and the Crakes must learn to live in this brave new world. Can Snowman point them in the right direction or are we doomed to repeat our mistakes?

I’m not entirely sure how it happened but the first few books of Atwood’s that I read were her dystopian works, “The Handmaid’s Tales,” Oryx and Crake,” and most recently, “The Year of the Flood.” Each is an exceptional snap-shot of a world that could easily ‘become.’ Unlike most of the other dystopian fantasies I’ve read Atwood does not spend 300 pages extolling the evils of man, pushing and poking her point until it blurs into a political agenda. Instead, she proposes an alternate scenario of a “what if” world and allows her imagination to roam freely within it. And she does it expertly and with an edge that makes it so believable that we should make it required reading in every corporate setting that touches bio-engineering in any form. It should be read in high schools to deter would-be scientists from becoming too amoral. It should be read by government as a cautionary tale. Quite simply, it should be read!

There is something absolutely compelling about Atwood’s characters, her settings, and her science. The characters are so endearing that they almost become family members, the settings so natural yet surreal that they resemble the universe next door, and the science so believable as to be frightening. An enjoyable read… but with consequences.

5 out of 5 Stars

Main Characters:

* The Crakers – An innocent group of bioengineered children and the inheritors of the Earth.
* Snowman (Thickney) – “Father” figure and protector of the Crakers and an old classmate of Crake.
* Crake – a brilliant geneticist/mad scientist who devises a plan to rid the earth of Homo sapiens and replaces the current “destructive species” with a more peaceful and environmentally friendly human-like creature: the “Crakers.”
* Oryx - a mysterious woman symbolically related to a waif-like girl from an online child-pornography site that begins to haunt Crake as an adolescent and whom he “rescues.”

Xeno-transplanted and genetically engineered creatures:

“wolvogs” (hybrids between wolves and dogs),
“rakunks” (raccoon and skunk)
“pigoons” (pigs and baboons, for organ transplants)

Related Websites:

Margaret Atwood Official site:

Margaret Atwood Wikipedia Entry:

Margaret Atwood Society Page:

Official Oryx and Crake website:

Google books:
Wikipedia Entry:


Publisher Site (Year of the Flood):

The Alternative
Southeast Wisconsin

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Book Review – Sarah Canary by Karen Joy Fowler

Sarah Canary
Karen Joy Fowler
ISBN: 978-0452286474
Trade Paperback
304 pages

I’ve neglected reviewing this unusual book for far too long and since I’m currently in the middle of at least five reads (see sidebar) I thought I’d post my review of “Sarah Canary” by Karen Joy Fowler during the interim. So stay tuned for a profusion of new reviews in the coming weeks. With that in mind…

I have a weakness for hard to place works, especially those with an historical undertone. (See previous posts – World War II essentials, “Those Who Went Remain There Still,” “The Book Thief,” etc.) Sub-genre? Fantasy, science fiction, mystery, Western, non-fiction, horror it makes no difference to me. So this particular work was appealing from the very first page. And, I was not disappointed.

Who is Sarah Canary? And you’ll ask your self this question a number of times throughout the story. And just as often your perception may change. Is she:
A. A lost, pampered member of an aristocratic family?
B. A runaway suffering from a congenital mental defect?
C. A simple feral child raised by forest creatures?
D. An alien outcast banished to Earth?
E. All of the above?
F. None of the above?

The answer is… seven! (I’ll get back to this later.)

Set in the logging region of Washington Territory in 1873 “Sarah Canary” tells the story of a white woman who wanders unexpectedly into a Chinese railway workers’ camp. She is despondent and silent but captivating. And everyone she meets falls under her strange spell, including Chin, a Mandarin scholar working on the railroad; B.J., an escaped inmate from the Territorial Asylum; a union survivor of Andersonville Prison; Adelaide Dixon, a suffragist feminist on a lecture tour; and Harold, a huckster who wants to put Sarah in his traveling side-show. What do they all have in common? They are all discards of society and they all hold their own unconventional perceptions of reality. And, for some unexplained reason, they all see in and want something different for Sarah.

In addition to the flowing narrative Fowler adds quotes from Emily Dickinson before each chapter and interesting news fragments from the era to help provide clues for us to follow as we read. The historical facts give us a perspective of the times and the Dickinson quotes correspond to the action that takes place in each of the chapters. So much so, that they appear as if Fowler wrote them herself. An extraordinary feat of research in and of itself.

Fowler has given us a fine piece of historical fiction, one which manages to remain thoroughly entertaining in spite or perhaps because of the powerful and abstract nature of the subtext which is clearly alienation and perception.

Who is Sarah Canary, then? My answer “seven” above is meaningful in its meaningless. It really doesn’t matter who she is. What she is is a representation of the alienated. She is an outcast and Fowler asks us all take a step back and recall our own lonely moments, our own times of confusion, our own prejudices. And, in the end, the moral is this… even a true alien can find companionship, understanding, and empathy from complete strangers; sometimes, without even looking for it.

Sarah Canary has all the elements of good science fiction, gripping history, the suspense of mystery, and the excitement and action of a Western. In the end the book is genderless, belongs to no one genre, and yet somehow seems to fit them all. It is a retrospective on human nature, superstition, prejudice, and cultural differences and Fowler forces us to examine our own feelings concerning them in minute detail.

4 out of 5 stars

Related websites:

Author site:

Author Wikipedia Site:

Author page Internet Speculative Fiction Database:

Sarah Canary page Internet Speculative Fiction Database:

The Alternative
Southeast Wisconsin

Monday, October 12, 2009

Classic Book Review - Midnight at the Well of Souls by Jack Chalker

Midnight at the Well of Souls
(Book One of the Well World Series)
Jack L. Chalker
Del Rey / Ballantine, New York, NY
Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 0345297695
Cover Art: H. R. Van Dongen
360 Pages

If you’ve never read anything by Science Fiction Master Storyteller, Jack Chalker, I suggest you immediately open a new browser tab, head over to B & N or Amazon, and purchase the entire Well World series. I’ll wait…

Back now? Good.

From the unique and creative imagination of Jack Chalker comes the Well of Souls.

Imagine a world designed by a long-extinct alien race using a planetary super-computer to xeno-form 1560 different hexagonal environments. Each “nation” is unique and home to a different intelligent alien, mythological creature, or sentient animal species. Hex 1, for example, may contain an earthlike atmosphere with citizens that resemble centaurs. Hex 2, in comparison, may harbor an alien ghostlike race that breathes and thrives on pure cyanide. Hex 3, a mountainous region, is populated by sentient giant wasps, Hex 4, a water-land dominated by mermaids. And so on…

Now, imagine your spacecraft has crash-landed on this planet and you’re forced through a zone gate (the Well of Souls) to be transmogrified into an alien species. And not just any species but the one best suited to your mental, genetic, and physical disposition as detected by the computer. You are then transported to your “home” Hex with your memories intact but buried inside an alien body. Now, survive…

This is the general premise of the Well World series. But wait, there’s more… The story begins with a monumental discovery followed by a series of murders. Mystery mounts when the murderer and a group of innocent, would-be rescuers are transported to the Well World. What follows is a combination of high drama, intrigue, politics and science all monitored by a planetary machine with a god complex. There are races of pure magic and others who hold secrets to super-science. Some are technologically advanced. Others have no resources whatsoever. Some are carbon based. Some are not. What do they all have in common? They’re all in search of the meaning of life and they lust for the power to control the Well World. Within the story you’ll encounter spaceships and evil dictators and scientists set on ruling and using the Well of Souls for their own purposes. There is slavery and debauchery, innocence and confusion, surprise and compassion, and love and hate. And that’s just the first few chapters.

The Well of Souls houses a thousand improbable well-gates built by a technologically advanced race (The Markovians) whose memory has been lost to time. Nathan Brazil, loner, space captain, enigma finds himself companioned by a mysterious mermaid, a bat-like man, and an impassioned female centaur. But Nathan Brazil's metamorphosis is more mystifying than any of the others and he’s beginning to regain a long-suppressed memory which may unlock a powerful secret at… Midnight at the Well of Souls.

Main Characters in “Midnight at the Well of Souls”

  • Nathan Brazil, an enigmatic freighter captain with a mysterious past

  • Datham Hain, a drug trafficker (“sponge” which causes an incurable, degenerative brain disease) and slaver

  • Wu Julee, Hain’s sponge-addicted servant transformed into a centaur

  • Elkinos Skander, a brilliant (and psychotic) archaeologist transformed to a fish

  • Varnett, an exceptional mathematician with an agenda of his own

  • Vardia Diplo 1261, a diplomatic courier transformed into a sentient plant

  • Serge Ortega, a former freighter captain reborn on the Well World as a six-armed half-walrus, half-snake being with political pull

The Complete Series:

Well of Souls
1. Midnight at the Well of Souls (1977) 5 out of 5 stars
2. Exiles at the Well of Souls (1978) 4 ½ out of 5 stars
3. Quest for the Well of Souls (1978) 4 ½ out of 5 stars
4. The Return of Nathan Brazil (1979) 5 out of 5 stars
5. Twilight at the Well of Souls: The Legacy of Nathan Brazil (1980) 5 out of 5 stars
6. The Sea Is Full of Stars (1999) 4 out of 5 stars
7. Ghost of the Well of Souls (2000) 5 out of 5 stars

Watchers at the Well
1. Echoes of the Well of Souls (1993) 4 out of 5 stars
2. Shadow of the Well of Souls (1994) 4 out of 5 stars
3. Gods of the Well of Souls (1994) 4 out of 5 stars

Entire Series Rating: 4 ½ out of 5 stars

Related websites:

Wikipedia site:

Google Books:

Well World Wikipedia site:

Jack L. Chalker at BookRags:

Internet Speculative Fiction Database:

Baen Books page:

Unfortunately, it appears that Jack’s official website ( was abandoned sometime after his untimely death in 2003.

The Alternative
Southeast Wisconsin

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Why Book Reviews Are Important To Me (A Mission Statement) by The Alternative

The other day I was asked by a speculative fiction blog writer to participate in a survey concerning this blog and its content. The main idea was to identify the most popular single entry here and write a short paragraph telling why that post was considered the most heavily trafficked. This got me thinking and I realized that I’d never really contemplated why I maintain and write this review blog. Reviewing books just sort of happened one day; was a natural result of reading for enjoyment and wanting to share my experiences. This is especially true of the works that make an impact on me or are remarkably or exceptionally enjoyable, creative, or unique.

So, why do I review the books I read? What’s in it for me?

The answer is both simple and complex but also obvious. I love books! But what exactly does that mean? Simply, I adore the locations that books take me, the feelings they evoke in me, the situations they take me to, the sights, the sounds, and the smells of exotic unimaginable places. Mysteries, aliens, murders, wars, politics, religion… speculative fiction has them all. And this is perhaps the main reason I love the genre so much and why I choose to share my thoughts here. My love of the written word is an addiction, an obsession, and has become a way of life.

I love books so much, in fact, that I have many thousands of them in different formats and styles. I use an electronic reader, my phone, computer files, and of course, the universal standard known as paper to read them. I collect anthologies, signed editions, magazines, novels, chapbooks, novellas, and every imaginable combination thereof. And, I have found merit in each and every one of them. Even those I have panned in review. You see, I truly understand how damn difficult it is to write. Even something as uncomplicated as this paragraph went through a painstaking process. Why? Because I wanted to get it right. I wanted to write it in such a way that you would understand exactly what I wanted to say. The same is true of the novelist. They understand what writing takes out of them and what they take back from it. And they want to get it right.

Complexly, there is a satisfaction I get from reading that cannot be attained through any other form of entertainment. To me a book begins as a skeleton. Bare-boned, it has no real flesh. It is a printed story. Words on paper. Even the great classics and my favorite books start out this way. But what I do with that story in my own imagination, using my own experiences, my own intelligence, my own faults, desires, imperfections, is much more than the sum of all its parts. I fill in the blank spaces, the colors and the characters and the scenes and the smells, with my own perceptions as I understand them and turn them into something better than simple words on paper. The author strings a series of words together to make a cohesive story but I bring life to the words. In my hands a book becomes a living breathing entity that lives in my imagination. Conversely, your experience will be similar but completely different then mine. This is what the literary critic Edmund Wilson meant when he said, “No two persons ever read the same book.”

A movie, by comparison, leaves very little to internal machinations. The images are presented in live action for two hours. You do not have to labor for nor supply any of the filler, any of the detail. They are forced upon you through visuals, by the filmmaker’s grand perception of the movie, and all of us sitting in that theatre see those same images. Colors are dazzling. Special effects are mind-blowing. Characters are visualized, flaws and strengths and all, but all the work has been done for me by the cinematography crew. There’s nothing left for me. In a book the characters, scenes and places evolve, grow, change and become much more than an image on the screen. They become an entire world created in the mind. And once they’ve left the page they become a permanent part of us. We will never be the same person we were; will have changed because of it. Sometimes those changes are poignant and easily identifiable, others times they are incomprehensible, waiting to be explored but we are changed none-the-less.

As many of you already know I try to review a book not by repeating what I’ve read but by trying to give you a better understanding of the essence of the story. Repeating a story in your own words is not a book review. It’s a synopsis and you can get that by simply reading the book flap or the back cover. What I hope to do here is to give you, the reader an idea of what the book meant to me as I was reading it and why I’ve rated it as I have. My insights are recorded to give you a better feel for what I’ve read so that you can make an informed decision about whether or not you might like to read it yourself. Hopefully, I’ve been successful. If I have please let me know: Add a comment here, become a follower, check a reaction, send me an e-mail and let me know your thoughts. Is this as worthwhile to you as it is to me?

Delving deeply into a story and telling you what it means to me is admittedly a difficult task. And I’m certain that I don’t always get it right. But I do hope that what I say, what I feel, about a work gives you a better understanding of the story. Whether you agree with me or not is beside the point. That we contemplate the merits of the work, gain an understanding of the skill used to create it, and feel the depth of the characters and their emotional impact on us, and the feelings we experiences when traveling to that other world is of utmost importance. If I personally can do that better, for even one of you, then I know that my work here is not in vain.

Thank you all for visiting this site and for returning.

The Alternative
Southeast Wisconsin

P.S. The very professional speculative blog I spoke about earlier can be found here: