Book Reviews: Aliens, Time Travel, Tokyo

Definition of Awkward:
Walking innocently down Hollywood Blvd. and being solicited by a hooker whom a second later realizes she usta model for me. . .

Tokyo’s Mystery Deepens
This is a sequel to “Beauty and Chaos,” which I reviewed last month, a collection of essays on what it’s like for an American to live in Tokyo.
It’s gonna be hard coming up with something I didn’t say about the first volume, as this is more sheer goodiness in the same vein. Michael Pronko is one of those people who notices all the little things that most don’t, like the intriguing relationship between mothers and daughters in public. Considering what’s in energy drinks here in the States, I sure as hell wouldn’t try an energy bottle. People don’t lose their speaking inhibitions at the bars, but rather at the gym. The author laments that train stations are now like shopping centers. There’s even a chapter on sweating; basically, don’t do it, or at least never let them see you doing it.
To point out how observant the author is, how many Tokyo natives would notice all the flowers? Other than when the cherries blossom. But for me personally the most important chapter was about smoking, where it’s mentioned that despite all the prohibitions against certain behavior in Tokyo, lighting up is not one of them. Boy, is he right; I’ve been in Romanian nightclubs that didn’t have as much nicotine residue in the air as strolling along a sidewalk in Tokyo.
As I mentioned in the previous book, I read this almost like science fiction, as though I was receiving insights into an alien culture. If you ever wonder how something like Hello Kitty could become so huge, this is the place to start.

Second Contacts
In brief, this is a collection of science-fiction short stories about what happens after first contact, specifically fifty years after.
The start was not auspicious, as the first two stories hardly seemed worth the effort. By the time I reached the midpoint there was only one entry I liked, about a young lady chosen to interact with a being that wants to eradicate all life from Earth.
Thankfully the second half was much better than the first. For me the best was “Grief,” which involves an alien race where two entities function as one—not quite Trill, but you get the point. When one dies, the other part is inconsolable, so they get a human grief counselor to help. Another fine entry was “The Peace of the World,” where Mars conquers Earth economically after invasion fails. Funny.
So as to be expected with collections, some are good and some are bad. Compared to others I’ve read, though, there’s less to like here than usual. Though I’m a science-fiction fan I didn’t recognize one single author here, though that’s hardly different than today’s Analog or other magazines. Perhaps there are too few stories in this very narrow niche to provide the editors with a richer choice.

Doc’s Codicil
This is one of those stories where the recently deceased leaves the descendants some puzzles to solve before they can receive the inheritance goodies. There’s the good girl, the guy who thinks it’s a waste of time, and other stock characters, though their interactions and thought processes as they try to solve the puzzles are stimulating enough. But most of the story is taken up by two historical threads, which are described in a book that is where the characters most look for clues. One concerns the dead man’s life as a veterinarian, while the other involves a Christmas pageant where everything that can go wrong does.
I will say that I learned far too much about veterinary medicine than could possibly be good for me. The humor sneaks up on you, especially with the character—if you can call him that—of Doofus (drawn faithfully and hilariously on the cover), although the crown of best individual goes to Gladys the camel. Though it seems to meander at times, in the end it does lead exactly to where the inheritance hunters need to go, if they can figure it out.
If nothing else, whenever I need to get away from someone I can’t stand, I can say that I’m taking Doofus squirrel fishing. . .

In a world where there is no USA, North America is still part of the British Empire, and there are social levels that can’t be escaped, a highly intelligent but poor bookworm of low standing finds himself recruited into a secret organization of time travelers whose motives might not be what they claim.
This is an intriguing variation on the time-traveler-screws-up-history trope, though it’s interesting that the author doesn’t mention any of this; you figure it out from small clues in the first few chapters. As the story goes on there’s a few counterfactuals that made me think “This is the moment where everything changed,” but no, they were just interesting tidbits until we get to the actual moment where history was sidetracked, due to the slightest error by the protagonist. And suddenly the story is taking place in our actual existing universe, outside the book.
But here’s the switch: whereas in most stories of this ilk it becomes a struggle to set everything back the way it was, in this one the new world is so much better than the “real” one of the book, leading the hero to wonder which is the best course, not just of action but of history.
For me the best part was this fish-out-of-water trouble he had in my world, describing things I’m very familiar with, like the subway and the central library in downtown Los Angeles. There’s even a mention of the Hollywood/Vine subway station, normally not a big deal except that I was there on the very day I read that (I know, it takes so little to make me squee). The t-shirt his new friend gets him, with a famous glasses-wearing dog, was hilarious.
It’s easy to cheer for him, and the story has plenty of villains to root against. Ultimately I wondered if his solution was made for the betterment of mankind or personal reasons, but I suppose his answer would be “Both.”

Flash Bang
In what appears to be the start of a series—quite a relief considering I usually end up joining them in progress—a young professional in Chicago has her work life destroyed, only to be followed by a plane crash and EMP attack that have her leaving the city for her family’s farm up north. Attacked by rednecks—apparently they exist everywhere—she’s saved by former Marine Corps Recon guys who have their own survivalist-type compound in the woods.
But this isn’t your typical romance, even with the erotica thrown in. The leader of the group and his best friend have a habit of sexually double-teaming a woman, and she’s certainly hot enough to fit the bill. So does she give in to them or continue on her journey to get back to her family? Or both, somehow?
Why are the characters in romance/erotica always so stubbornly stupid? I suppose if they didn’t have such interpersonal conflicts to overcome it would be a much shorter story, but as a former Marine who came so close to qualifying for Recon—flunked scuba—while there’s plenty of guys like this, there’s many more who are not. You don’t get to be in the Special Forces of any branch by being as dumb as the main male character was too many times. Of course it’s not all his fault, as our heroine had to be almost suicidally stubborn as well. I suppose I shouldn’t knock the author for what’s really the genre’s fault, but it’s still irritating enough to make me give it a slightly lower score than otherwise. The writing is well done, the characters more than just stock with interesting backstories, the sex scenes steamy, and there’s plenty of humor, so there’s a lot to like, as long as you don’t expect the protagonists to make sense.


Poetry Tuesday: The Young Fools

Paul Verlaine, 19th century France

High-heels were struggling with a full-length dress
So that, between the wind and the terrain,
At times a shining stocking would be seen,
And gone too soon. We liked that foolishness.

Also, at times a jealous insect’s dart
Bothered our beauties. Suddenly a white
Nape flashed beneath the branches, and this sight
Was a delicate feast for a young fool’s heart.

Evening fell, equivocal, dissembling,
The women who hung dreaming on our arms
Spoke in low voices, words that had such charms
That ever since our stunned soul has been trembling.