Saturday, December 17, 2016
Revisionary by Jim C. Hines
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This is book four in the “Magic Ex Libris” series. I would recommend that you read the first three books before reading this one, as events in those books have direct bearing on what is happening in this one. If you’ve not read them, some of the things in this review will be spoilers, but I will not spoil the plot of Revisionary.
At the end of the last book, there was a huge magical confrontation that was impossible to hide from the “mundanes” - who up until this point were unaware of magic in the world. Our protagonist, Isaac Vainio, who is is a “Porter” - one who can perform magic using books - took it upon himself to basically let the world know about magic, after the big fight. It was too much to be able to hide, so he went public with everything. His hope was that the mundanes would see that the Porters could be a help to humanity. He was naive in that hope.
This book opens several months later, and Isaac has created a community/research center called New Millennium that does research into the limits of LIbriomancy, and attempts to keep it from being used by nefarious entities. However, the US government is conducting Congressional inquiries into the events of the last book, and is quite hostile to Isaac, the Porters, and other magical beings. The government wants to register all Libriomancers and non-human entities (vampires, werewolves, etc), or even lock them all up. I found this to be a direct parallel to current events in the US, with respect to Muslims. It was all driven by the need for “national security” - just as it is promoted in real life.
Things happen fast and furious in this book - there are attacks by magical beings, killing humans; there are attacks by humans on magical beings; and through it all Isaac has to figure out what’s going on and who he can trust. There isn’t much let up in the action, as Isaac and his companions go from crisis to crisis. This relentless pace, coupled with the very real-world political climate meant that this book was hardly “fantasy escapism.” While the magic is very fantastical (and really well though through), the politics and machinations by shadowy government figures felt all too real. Because of this, I didn’t enjoy this book as much as the previous ones in the series. Don’t get me wrong - this is still a well-written book, with lots of cool magic and magical creatures. But because it takes place in what feels very much like today’s political climate, it wasn’t really escapism. For those who like their fantasy grounded in reality (if you know what I mean) then this book is spot on. For those who are looking to escape from today’s issues into a fantastical world, this is not your book.
Wednesday, December 14, 2016
Mary Russell's War by Laurie R. King
3.5 stars - the stories range from 2.5-4 stars
This is a collection of short stories that fill in the gaps and add more history to the Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes series of books by Laurie R. King (which begins with The Beekeeper's Apprentice.) All but one of these stories has been published elsewhere (including for free online) but it’s nice to have them all in one collection.
The title story was previously serialized on the author’s web site, and it follows the lead-up to, and outbreak of, WWI and its impact on a young Mary Russell and her family. It is told as a series of journal entries, often with accompanying illustrations (taken from actual newspapers of the time.) Without giving away too much, suffice it to say that extremely important events happen during this story. As such, it is a critical bit of life history for Mary Russell, and fans of the novels will be gratified to have a deeper understanding of the character.
The story titled “The Marriage of Mary Russell” is another one that fills in a gap left by the novels. At the end of A Monstrous Regiment of Women, we see Holmes propose to Russell, and her acceptance thereof. However, the next novel (A Letter of Mary) opens several years later, with the wedding a fait accompli. This delightful story gives the reader the chance to experience the wedding - which is not your normal wedding, as is to be expected by these two people!
“Beekeeping for Beginners” gives us the story of Holmes and Russell first meeting (as fully told in the first book of the series, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice), but told mostly from Holmes’ perspective. It’s quite fun to see what Holmes thought of that initial encounter, and subsequent events.
Most of the other stories only tangentially touch the novels, but all connect in some way and give fans more details of the lives of the two main characters, as well as more about some of the secondary characters - Mrs. Hudson, for example. While not every story is worth a 4-star rating, each one brings a little more depth to the characters and their history. Fans of this series will definitely want this book.
Friday, December 2, 2016
The Last Days of New Paris by China Miéville
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
China Miéville has an imagination that runs in overdrive, seemingly fueled by LSD or other mind-altering drugs, because his books contain some of the weirdest and most bizarre (in a good sense) ideas and plots in any fiction I’ve read. (And since I’ve been reading for over 55 years, that’s a lot of fiction!) This latest novella is a perfect example of his glorious weirdness. The fundamental plot line - that a “surrealist bomb” exploded in WWII Paris, unleashing living manifestations of surrealist art - is amazingly original and bizarre. I mean, who thinks of stuff like this?
The book opens in 1950, in “New Paris” where we are introduces to Thibault, a French freedom fighter. But what he is fighting is not just Nazis, but “manifs” - pieces of surrealist art come to life - and also demons from hell. The reader is not explicitly told these things, we simply discover them through Thibault’s experiences and memories. In this version of Paris, WWII never ended, and Paris is quarantined from the rest of the world, to keep the manifs from spreading. It is a gritty, dangerous place, and we feel Thibault’s sense of desperation and despair.
Alternate chapters flash back to 1942, where we learn about the “S-bomb” that resulted in the creation of the manifs and the opening of hell, which unleashed the demons. We get a veritable who’s who of surrealist artists and philosophers, as we see the events unfolding. (For art aficionados, there is a handy appendix that references the actual works of art that are manifesting.)
The afterword of the narrative purports to be the tale of how Miéville came to write this book - from a retelling by Thibault himself. I’m not sure that this added anything to the story for me, but it’s mildly intriguing, nonetheless.
The real brilliance of the book is the world of New Paris. The reader is immersed in its danger and its weirdness, as we follow Thibault throughout his day. Miéville makes the bizarre - living works of art - fit into the world in a cohesive whole. A weird whole, but a whole, nonetheless. You get the feeling that this could really happen, it seems so real.
Miéville is a great storyteller, and while this book doesn’t have quite the narrative depth of some of his longer works, the characters are fully realized, and the world-building is masterful. For anyone who enjoys a bit of weirdness in their fiction, this book is for you!
Thursday, December 1, 2016
Doc by Mary Doria Russell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Doc is a fictional retelling of the life of John Henry “Doc” Holliday, he of the gunfight at OK corral fame. It is based on family memoirs, and covers his life before the gunfight. We see his childhood in Georgia, as the son of a wealthy plantation owner, and follow him though his teens and twenties as his tuberculosis advances. This is sometimes painful to read, as we see his suffering at the hands of this horrific disease, which was incurable in those days. I felt a bit of a dark shadow over all the events, knowing the eventual outcome. (And many of the descriptions of his illness are quite graphic - not for the squeamish!)
Mary Doria Russell is a wonderful writer, and in this book she manages to capture the personalities of a myriad of characters: Doc, the Earp brothers, Kate (Doc’s mistress), and various people in the town of Dodge City, where the majority of the book takes place. I enjoyed getting a bit of background on the Earps, especially, and discovering how very different each brother was, and learning what shaped them into the men they became. Wyatt Earp is the brother that is most deeply explored, and the relationship between Doc and Wyatt is developed quite richly.
Russell has the ability to bring the “Wild West” to life, without glorifying it. Dodge City is a dirty, rowdy, dangerous mess, with politics affecting everyone who lives and visits there. Secondary characters are never simply caricatures, but are made real through little details of personality and background. Every person in this book is a fully realized person, which adds to the rich tapestry of the storyline.
All that being said, this was not as deeply moving as The Sparrow - at least for me. The book was well-researched and well-written, but it doesn’t have the philosophical depth of The Sparrow and its sequel, Children of God. Don’t get me wrong, this is a great piece of historical fiction! But it didn’t “grab” me emotionally. It may be because I held myself at a bit of a distance from Doc, because I knew he would die, and therefore was not as emotionally invested as I could have been. It certainly isn’t any fault of Russell’s writing or research. This is an excellent book - it just didn’t quite hit home for me. But for anyone who is interested in the real “Wild West” and the people who shaped it, this is a worthy addition to the genre.
Monday, November 14, 2016
Imprudence by Gail Carriger
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is book two of the “Custard Protocol” series by Gail Carriger. The book is set in the same universe as the “Parasol Protectorate” series and the “Finishing School” series. You don’t need to have read any of those books to enjoy this one, though the PP series is pretty much the foundation for all the other series, and if you’ve read it, you will get a bit more out of the other series. You will want to have read the first book in the series (Prudence), however, as events in that first book lead directly to events in this one.
As with all books set in this universe, there is lots of steampunk technology, plenty of detailed descriptions of attire and food (oh, the food!!), and vampires and werewolves and ghosts. And tea, one cannot forget the tea! And lots of light-hearted humor. I found the dialog in this book to be particularly sparkling, laughing out loud at several points. The action moves along quite well, and there is just enough romance to keep it interesting.
This book continues the adventure of Prudence Alessandra Maccon Akeldama (AKA “Rue”), the daughter of a werewolf, a soulless human, and a vampire. (It’s complicated.) She is the proud “Lady Captain” of The Spotted Custard, a dirigible painted like a lady bug. She and her intrepid crew have just returned from a harrowing trip to India, and events in this book send them off to Egypt and points south.
The character development continues in this book, and we learn much more about many of the other crew members. Even the secondary characters are not given short shrift - Spoo, the former sootie and now deckie, is my favorite, and I suspect I’m not alone. Even Percy, the prissy brother of Rue’s best friend, manages to develop a spine. And, of course, the romance between Rue and Quesnel, is finally acknowledged and acted upon. Oh my! (Still quite PG-13.)
For me, this book is even better than Prudence. This is Carriger at her best: witty and fun, with crisp dialog, a smattering of action, and a bit of romance. And tea. Always, tea. :-)
Friday, November 4, 2016
Kindred by Octavia E. Butler
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Quick review summary:
Part historical novel (antebellum South), part time travel mystery, Kindred is a powerful - sometimes painful - book about race, identity, and family. Masterfully written, highly recommended.
In this book, Butler tackles slavery and race relations, cleverly woven into a time travel story. It follows the life of Dana, a young black writer, as she bewilderingly and repeatedly finds herself back in the South during the time of slavery. She gradually determines that each time she is pulled into the past, it is because a white boy (and later, a grown man) named Rufus is in danger. Somehow, she is snatched back to rescue him. The problem is, she is trapped there for an unknown length of time, and must survive at a time when most blacks were slaves. Butler gives an unflinching account of life as a slave, including several beatings and whippings. But we also see the relationships between slaves, between slave and owner, and among whites. Nothing is black and white (pardon the pun) - but there are many shades of gray in all these relationships. It is a complex society, but one that is obviously ill. Butler gives us no “Gone with the Wind” happy-go-lucky “darkies” - instead we see the physical and emotional cost of being owned by someone else, and having no ability to direct one’s life. It is a harrowing account, on all levels.
The time travel is never explained, which is fine in this story. It is clear that the link is between Dana and Rufus, and we eventually learn what ties them together. But throughout the story, Dana is at the mercy of whatever it is that pulls her back into history. She has to cope with the jarring dissonance of being a slave one moment and then being back in modern America the next. She learns to prepare for her next journey, by keeping a bag of essentials (such as aspirin) with her at all times. Her husband is also drawn into the journeys, further complicating matters. I liked that Butler never goes into the “science” of the time travel, or how it happens. It just is.
The parts of the story that take place in the past are obviously quite well researched, with many details of life as a slave, and life in general during that time period. Obviously, because slavery is involved, many of the scenes that take place in the past are difficult to read, because of the physical and emotional cruelty. But these do not overwhelm the narrative, which really focuses on the people and their relationships. It is not a simple novel, yet it reads as such, which is a credit to Butler’s skills as a storyteller.
For anyone interested in the topic of slavery and the antebellum South, this would be an essential read. I would also highly recommend it for those who enjoy time travel and the conundrums therein, as long as they don’t want to know the science behind the time travel.
Wednesday, November 2, 2016
Fledgling by Octavia E. Butler
A great addition to vampire lore, with a believable type of vampire, still very sexy. Great story, fascinating characters, but bogged down slightly toward the end, which dropped it from what would have been a 5 star rating. Nevertheless, highly recommended!
This book tells the story of Shori, a 53- year old vampire (still considered a child by other vampires), who looks like a pre-adolescent black girl. It begins with Shori awakening in a cave, horribly injured, with no memory of who she is or how she came to be injured. She begins to heal, and ventures out to find out who she is and what happened to her. A young man finds her wandering along the road, and Shori is drawn to him. She feeds briefly on his blood, and we see how very sexual this act is, both for Shori and the man. She moves in with him, and they begin to unravel the mystery of her past. The reader discovers the facts along with Shori, which makes for interesting reading. She eventually finds some of her relatives, and discovers why she is black, and what happened to her. This entire portion of the book is fast-paced, and the gradual reveal of what is going on draws the reader inexorably on. It was only in the latter third of the book, where we get into a sort of trial, that the story bogged down for me. It wasn’t terribly slow, but it was a lot of exposition, and not much action, compared to the beginning section. For this reason, it lost one star in my rating. Up until that point, it was undeniably a 5-star book.
The twist that Butler brings to vampire lore is quite interesting, and quite believable (assuming one can believe in vampires.) In this world, vampires are an ancient race, who evolved along with humans (or possibly an alien race - the vampires aren’t sure), and who have a symbiotic relationship with humans. They do not kill humans when they feed (though they could), but they gather a group of humans together and live much like a commune. The vampire feeds on a different human each night, so as not to take too much blood. The humans benefit from the vampire feedings by receiving near perfect health and a much extended life span (200 years) because of the vampire venom. Additionally, there is a psychological bond between vampire and symbiont, based on the sexual feelings aroused by feeding. Vampire and symbiont become a “family” with extremely strong bonds. The sexual nature of the relationship was done very well by Butler, along with how the “family” forms. I really like this kind of vampire, and am so sorry that Butler died before she could write any more books in what was clearly going to be a series.
This being a book by Butler, race and gender play a crucial role. By making Shori black, when all other vampires are white, brings our own racial conflict into the narrative, giving us another perspective, as all good literature should do. Giving her the appearance of a young girl brings gender and age/power roles into the mix. It’s quite a mental image to have of a pre-teen girl having sex and behaving like a grown woman. It’s a little uncomfortable, even, which I’m sure was part of what Butler wanted to achieve. The reader is forced to look at her own views on age, race, and gender.
Overall, this is a great addition to the vampire genre, and a book that any fan of the genre should read. Spectacularly well done!
Tuesday, September 13, 2016
The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I finally got around to reading this book. I, of course, first heard about it because of the movie (which I haven’t seen.) I’ve been meaning to read it ever since, and finally picked up a used copy at a second hand store this summer. And it finally made it to the top of my “to-read” list, so here we are.
First of all, I can see why so many people loved the book - it’s atmospheric and moody, and there are several love stories unfolding. But for me, it didn’t really hit home. Maybe my heartstrings are broken, but the love stories weren’t all that compelling. The only one that seemed real was the one between Kip and Hana - I was definitely rooting for their relationship to survive. The romance between the English patient and Katherine never came across as truly romantic. It could be partially because of the way it was related (through flashbacks) and maybe because the relationship itself just didn’t seem healthy. But either way, I was not engaged with that particular love story.
I did really enjoy how the book unfolds - slowly spiraling in on the events of the past that will reveal the identity of the English patient, all the while the four main characters do a similar dance around their various relationships. The style of the writing makes the book seem to be almost dream-like in quality. The mystery of the English patient’s identity was handled well - though I did figure it out before the big reveal.
The four main characters were each quite interesting in their own right. In fact, I was most drawn to the character of Kip, the Sikh who is a sapper (bomb defuser/engineer) in the British Army. Each of the other characters is physically or emotionally damaged: Hana is shell-shocked, Caravaggio has lost both thumbs, and the English patient is horribly burned and disfigured. Yet Kip seems to be quite whole in all regards. He is also the only non-white (though, curiously - and probably significantly - the English patient’s skin is nearly black due to the burn treatments he got in the desert.) As the book progresses, we learn more and more of each character’s back-story, and see how each one came to be at this particular place and time. All of the stories are interesting, and draw the reader along.
One of the biggest flaws, however, was the way the book ended. Kip’s reaction to the US dropping nuclear bombs on Japan seemed to be way out of character and a huge overreaction. Don’t get me wrong, I could see how someone like him could be that outraged, but we never saw any hint of such feelings in him at all. His reaction seemed to come out of the blue. Clearly, the author needed a reason to end Kip’s relationship with Hana, and to end the book as a whole, but this just didn’t ring true to me.
Overall, the book was pretty good. The characters and their stories were interesting, the slow unfolding of the past worked well, and the mesmerizing prose set the appropriate moody, dreamy ambience. It just didn’t have much of an emotional impact on me, personally, though I could see where others might be swept away by the romance. I’m glad I read it, if for no other reason than to know what people are talking about when it’s mentioned.
Sunday, June 26, 2016
The Black Dream by Col Buchanan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This is the third book in the Farlander/Heart of the World series. (The previous two are Farlander and Stands a Shadow.) This is not the end of the series, FYI; I'm guessing there will be at least one more, but the author's website has no information on what's next.
The series is set in a different world than ours, but one that has many similarities, both social and geographical. The main character is Ash, a member of the Roshun (ninja-like assassins), who is dying. In the first book he takes on an apprentice, Nico, who dies at the end. Ash avenges his death, which has major political repercussions. The fallout from the vendetta makes up book two. In this third book, Ash is trying to make it to the hidden "Islands in the Sky" where it is rumored they have the ability to bring the dead back to life. He is bringing Nico's ashes in hopes of doing this.
The backdrop to the series is the "heart of the world" - a very Mediterranean-like area, dominated by the Empire of Mann (that is much like the Roman Empire at its worst.) The Empire has managed to conquer most of the countries around the sea, with only the peninsula of Khos managing to remain free - though they have been under siege for years. We follow many characters throughout the books, from all areas - the Empire, Khos, the Free Ports, etc. The author manages to keep the narrative flowing, despite the many viewpoints. It's actually quite interesting to be in the minds of so many disparate characters, and not just be following Ash all the time.
Technologically, it's a little bit steampunk, with airships and the like, but no computers. There is a kind of magic that is introduced in this book, whereby "Dreamers" can manipulate things in the real world, such as creating storms or throwing large stones. This magic is based on manipulating the "bindee" which is described as the binary code(!!) underlying everything. Some people, called rooks, can manipulate the area of the bindee that is used for long-distance communication (think hackers with the internet), which makes sense to me. But having binary code underlying objects in the real world makes me think of The Matrix movies, and hints that this world is an artificial construct inside a computer, which I don't think is the author's intent. This discrepancy is one of the books few weaknesses.
The other weakness for me is lack of a character with whom I can really identify. The other main character in this book, Shard, is a young female Dreamer/rook, who seems tailor-made for me to identify with, but even here I just don't quite connect. Ash, as the main character, is sympathetic and someone the reader can admire and root for, but I don't really connect with him, either. There are many other lesser characters, as well, who are all well fleshed-out, but there is no one to personally connect with.
However, the strength of this book (and the series) is the world-building. The author makes this world feel 100% believable. The best comparison I can make is with the Game of Thrones series, where the socio-political constructs immerse the reader in a world that seems fully real. Buchannon also does a great job with action/battle scenes. I raced through the last half of this book, pulled along by the action.
Overall, this may be the strongest book in the series, and it introduces some major new plot twists, while moving the main story toward what looks to be the inevitable showdown between the Empire and the nation of Khos.
One other caveat - this series is not for the faint of heart. It is dark, grim, and gritty. There isn't much levity at all, except maybe a little gallows humor in some characters. There are many evil, sadistic characters, and with the overall backdrop being a war of conquest, there really isn't any let up in the bad things that happen. If you're looking for a light, escapist fantasy, this ain't it! But if you enjoy complex world-building, with lots of political intrigue and action, this is your series.
Thursday, May 26, 2016
White Crosses by Larry Watson
My rating: 1 of 5 stars
As a native Montanan, I know all about the white crosses that are placed by the side of the road to mark traffic fatalities. So I was intrigued by a book that uses these crosses and the fatalities thereof as the main plot device. I wish I could say that the book was as good as the premise, but it was not. The ending was horrible, and did not fit with the rest of the book. It ruined the entire book for me.
The story takes place in a fictional eastern Montana town, and is set in 1957. Sheriff Jack Nevelsen receives a call about a fatal wreck just outside of town. When he discovers that those who died were the high school principal and a girl, June, who just graduated, he decides that he has to cover up the true story of them running off together. He convinces the principal’s son to say that it was he and June who were eloping, and his dad was merely driving her out of town to a rendezvous point. Jack also spreads the story himself, by telling it to some of the local gossips. His motivation for doing so is to preserve the morality of the town - to protect its citizens from the uncertainty and fear that would arise if they felt that high school girls were not safe from older predators. He is trying to keep his town “safe” in its innocence. The rest of the book is the playing out of this rumor, and how Jack fears its unraveling.
Most of the book is spent inside of Jack’s head, as he ponders what he’s done - which is against his usual truthful nature. We learn of his past, growing up in town, and we see his insecurities and how they influence his actions. We also see his growing attraction for the principal’s widow, despite his own marriage. We also get a good feel for the town and its residents. And while I got a little tired of Jack’s endless worrying and indecision, the author does a very good job of describing life in small-town Montana. The characters are diverse and interesting, and fit the locale well, and the descriptions of the weather and scenery capture eastern Montana well.
The big crisis of the book appears near the end, when Jack must decide if he will act on his attraction to the widow. And this is where the book falls apart, big time. For the entirety of the book, we see Jack’s thoughts and his divided loyalties. He is at heart a moral man, but he has to lie to keep the true story of the crash from the town, and this seems to open him to the temptation of the widow. The logical ending of the book would be for him to make one of two choices: to uphold his morality and not commit adultery, or to continue his slide into untruthfulness and to go to bed with the widow. As a reader, I could see this decision looming, and I would have been fine with either choice - Jack could go either way. The problem is that Jack gets shot and killed before he can finally decide. And then the book ends! It was a pointless murder, to boot (the killer thought he was shooting someone else.) This ending was a total cop-out!! The entire book is about morality and life’s choices, and the end is simply nothing. No final choice, no completion of Jack’s initial lie, in either direction. Does he turn around and act morally? Or does he continue his downward fall into immorality? We never know. Perhaps that was the author’s intent, but I felt betrayed by the cheap melodramatic ending, one that didn’t complete the main arc of the entire novel. It was a pointless ending to an otherwise good book. And I consider it a fatal flaw (pardon the pun) to the book, overall. The author sets up the whole book to lead us to this final choice, and then he cops out and doesn’t give us that choice. If we had seen Jack take that final step, I would have given the book 3.5 stars. As it is, I have to give it a single star. Maybe 1.5, since the first part of the book was well done. But I cannot recommend this book to anyone. There are better books about life in Montana - ones that are capable of bringing the reader to an ending that fits the rest of the book. (Ivan Doig and Wallace Stegner are two authors that spring immediately to mind.) Don’t waste your time on this book, unless you like getting cheated out of a proper ending.
Sunday, May 15, 2016
The White Company by Arthur Conan Doyle
Most people are familiar with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle from his Sherlock Holmes mysteries, yet, according to the afterward of this edition, this book was his personal favorite. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t say it’s my favorite of his. While I enjoyed the tale, overall, it was just a bit too old-fashioned and stereotypically swashbuckling for my taste.
The book is a coming of age story of Alleyne Edricson, a young man who was raised in a monastery, and who leaves at age 20 to “see the world” before he makes a decision to commit to a religious life or not. He meets a bowman, fresh from the wars in France, who befriends him. After Alleyne is rejected by his brother, he decides to follow the bowman back to France in service to Sir Nigel Loring, a brave and chivalrous knight. Many thrilling adventures ensue, and the book ends on a predictably happy ending.
The setting of the book is the year 1366, during The Hundred Years War, in France and Spain. Medieval life is presented rather benignly, without much mention of the hardships of life for the peasants. Only in France do we see the privation endured by those not of noble birth. England is depicted as a bastion of freedom and justice. The battles are portrayed without much gory detail, and are always shown to be opportunities for the ideals of chivalry and bravery, instead of the butchery that they were.
Doyle is clearly enamored by the ‘nobility’ of chivalrous life. Over and over we are treated to Sir Nigel pontificating on opportunities to defend the honor of his wife against a noble opponent. In fact, I found Sir Nigel to be not a little unlike Don Quixote in his outlook. The only difference here is that Sir Nigel faces real opponents, not windmills.
The dialog is stilted, and quite flowery. I kept having flashbacks to Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood movie! The story here is just as unrealistic. Not only is Alleyne handsome, he is said to be extremely talented in art, writing, and music. He never flinches from his duty, and basically has no flaws. Sir Nigel is also perfect, and the brave English soldiers are unwavering in their devotion to Sir Nigel and England.
The other thing that bothered me was Doyle’s continual denigration of monks and religion: real men go out and fight noble battles - they don’t stay home behind walls praying and leeching off of society, as monks do. While I am no fan of the church of that era, this simplistic view of what men should aspire to be is more than a little over the top.
I must call out the illustrations of this particular edition, done by the famous N. C. Wyeth. They are rich and beautiful, and are a wonderful addition to the narrative. Simply gorgeous!
Overall, this book is a typical swashbuckler, a la The Three Musketeers or Ivanhoe. Not very realistic, but especially for younger readers it’s probably quite the thrilling tale.
The Murder of Mary Russell by Laurie R. King
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is a wonderful addition to the series! It was a real page-turner, keeping me engaged from the suspenseful opening scene through to the denouement and ending. It is something of a departure from the rest of the series, however, as only the very beginning and ending are told from Mary’s viewpoint. Most of the rest of the book is a look at the early life of Mrs. Hudson, the Holmes’ inestimable housekeeper, which may not be to everyone’s liking. As I enjoy historical fiction, this was no hindrance to my enjoyment of the book.
The book opens with a rather horrific encounter between Mary and a stranger who appears unannounced at her door, while she is home alone. All we know is that afterward, Mary is gone and there is blood all over the floor. The link between the intruder and Mrs. Hudson sets us off on a journey through Mrs. Hudson’s childhood in Australia, and early adulthood in England. We find out that the meek and mild Mrs. Hudson has a rather sordid past, though this is presented without condemnation. I found this part of the book to be fascinating, and I was drawn fully into the story. It’s almost a novel in and of itself. The events of her life lead us to see how she became Sherlock’s housekeeper, but along the way we are treated to a wild ride in the seamy underground of grifters and conmen.
The mystery surrounding Mary Russell’s disappearance is wrapped up quickly at the end, thanks to Sherlock’s brilliance, of course. I have a few quibbles with the story (see the spoiler section, below) but overall I thoroughly enjoyed the book.
I loved how Mrs. Hudson and Sherlock Holmes meet for the first time. It was a treat to see the young Sherlock, before he became a legend, at the beginning of his career and at the early development of his talents.
I didn’t love the conditions Sherlock placed on Mrs. Hudson for her return to England. I thought that forcing her to leave her child was cruel, and their agreement seemed to put Mrs. Hudson in thrall to Sherlock. It’s as if Sherlock is her parole officer. I don’t like this change in their relationship. While I have no problem with her shady past (it’s kind of thrilling to know she led such a double life) I really don’t care for how I see her now, in relation to Sherlock. I used to think of her as something of a mother hen to Sherlock - that he was dependent upon her. But this new view of their relationship definitely puts him in control over her. It is a somewhat benevolent control, to be sure, but it is control, nevertheless, and it’s not to my liking at all.
I also HATED the fact that Mrs. Hudson leaves the Holmes’ employ at the end!! You can’t have Sherlock without Mrs. Hudson!! I hope that in subsequent books she will be able to come back home where she belongs.
Thursday, May 5, 2016
This Census-Taker by China Miéville
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I am a huge fan of China Mieville’s work. I got hooked with Perido Street Station, and I think I’ve read everything that he’s written since. His books are always chock full of weirdly imaginative stuff, and they often veer off into unexpected places. This book is quite a bit simpler than most of his other books, and on the surface it’s not that weird. But just under the surface is a simmering stew of darkness and strangeness. I found it disturbing to read, and put it down several times, because it was just…uncomfortable for me to read it. Let me see if I can explain.
The book is set in a town in an unnamed country and unspecified time. They seem to have some modern conveniences such as electricity, but in other regards the place seems Medieval. The book is narrated by a man who is recalling events from his childhood, beginning with him seeing his father kill his mother. But the narrative does not flow linearly, nor is the narration always first person. Sometimes it switches to second person and then into third person - often doing so on the same page. As a reader, this is quite unsettling (which, I’m sure, is Mieville’s goal.) Another unsettling thing is the town and society. It seems normal, most of the time, but their are oddities that skew it just a bit off center, again making the reader uncomfortable. The final bit of off-putting storytelling is the plot point of the murder. It’s given to us up-front, but then we go back in time before the murder and see the boy’s life leading up to it. The murder hangs over the narrative like a dark shadow, and the father’s behavior is just creepy enough to see how the murder could happen. But we also get hints that maybe the boy is making things up, maybe it was his mother who killed his father, maybe the boy is crazy. So the reader is carried along a dark and twisting path, never quite feeling secure.
All of this adds up to a strange story, but one that is masterfully told. Mieville’s experimentation with varying points of view fits this tale perfectly. Fans of Mieville will not be disappointed, though newcomers to his work might just be confused and wonder what all the fuss is about. Personally, this is not my favorite of his, but I can appreciate his skill to create such a story.
Tuesday, April 26, 2016
Shards of Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is the first book in Bujold’s wildly popular Miles Vorkosigan series. In fact, it’s technically the 0th book in the series, because this is pre-Miles; it tells the story of how his parents met, and introduces us to pivotal characters and events that influence the entire series. It really should be read before any other books in the series.
We meet his mother, Cordelia Naismith, an officer in the Beta Colony Expeditionary Force. She is leading a scientific mission to an inhabited planet. While she and another crew member are away from their base camp, the camp is attacked by forces unknown. As Cordelia rushes back to aid her crew, she is attacked and knocked unconscious. When she awakens, a gruff officer from Barrayar (a military caste planet) is her captor. But he is wounded, and also seems to be a victim of the attack. Nevertheless, they do not trust each other, at first, but as they make their way to what he says is a cache of supplies, they begin to find admiration for each other, despite their differences. (Beta Colony is very “free” sexually, and has no rigid societal rules, while Barrayar is ruled by an emperor and the military ruling class of Vor families.) We discover that her captor is Lord Aral Vorkosigan, of one of the more prominent families on Barrayar.
After several harrowing close calls, Aral manages to return to his ship, with Cordelia as a prisoner. We discover that Barrayar is attempting military expansion in the area. Events ensue such that Cordelia manages to escape and eventually return to Beta Colony.
Months later, the war progresses, and once again Cordelia ends up a prisoner on Aral’s ship. Critical events transpire on this ship, this time, and Aral and Cordelia realize they are in love. (At last!) The book ends on a hopeful note for all concerned.
The plot moves along at a brisk pace, and the blossoming romance is handled with a minimum of “cute.” (It is nice to have a mature romantic relationship, and not moody, emo teen romance!) We learn much about both Cordelia and Aral - their backgrounds, planets, and especially their shared sense of honor. All of this sets up the appearance of Miles in later books. But, even as a stand-alone novel, this is a good space opera, with a nice little romance thrown in for good measure. A most enjoyable read!
Sunday, April 24, 2016
The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Well, I guess I’m in the minority, here, as I didn’t love this book or find it fabulous and life-changing. I enjoyed it, it was ok, but it felt like reading a rom-com, with the standard events for the genre: couple meet “cute,” couple disagree about things and think they hate each other, couple eventually ‘discover’ they were made for each other and end up getting married. The End. The only thing setting this book apart from other stories like this is the narrator being on the Autism spectrum (probably high-functioning Asperger’s Syndrome.) Everything else was completely as expected, including the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, Rosie.
But, I get ahead of myself.
The Rosie Project is the story of Don Tillman, a professor of genetics at a university in Australia, and his search for a wife. His Asperger’s Syndrome makes him a humorous narrator, as his quirks are on display in full force. He decides to apply logic to the problem of finding a wife, and creates a long questionnaire to weed out the undesirables (smokers, vegans, etc.) His best friend, Gene, a womanizing psychology professor, helps him find women to evaluate, and one day Rosie appears in Don’s office, telling him that Gene sent her. From the very first, Rosie is obviously unsuitable, according to the questionnaire, but Don decides to help her in her quest to find her biological father. Hijinks ensue.
I found the book mildly humorous, and the mystery of Rosie’s father was handled well. The story moved along at a good pace - I read the book in just two sittings. Nevertheless, I had issues with it, overall. As mentioned above, Rosie is a quintessential Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Nathan Rabin, who coined the phrase, defined a MPDG as "that bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” That is Rosie to a T. This book was ALL about Don learning to embrace life and its quirks, and not be so regimented. And that’s what Rosie does. She dresses non-traditionally, has tattoos and piercings, and is generally depicted as a “free spirit” who introduces Don to the fullness of life. I had trouble fully enjoying the book because of the shallowness of her character, and her blatant MPDG qualities.
The other issue I had was Don’s Autism/Asperger’s. As he is the narrator, we get first-hand experience of his thought processes and approach to life. I almost felt as if we (the ‘normal’ readers) were supposed to laugh at this poor sap who has his life scheduled out to the minute. “Ha, ha, ha, those crazy Aspies! Aren’t they funny?” I just felt uncomfortable the whole book, as if Don were someone to be ridiculed and pitied. This is in sharp contrast to the (also fictional) narrator of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and the non-fictional narrator of \Born on a Blue Day: Inside the Extraordinary Mind of an Autistic Savant. With neither of these books did I feel that the narrators were comic relief, as I did with The Rosie Project. (I should note that two of my book club members who listened to the audio version of the book did not feel that way toward Don, so maybe it was just my interpretation as a reader, versus a listener. Still, I didn’t feel that way with the two books I just mentioned, so I don't think I have a super-sensitivity to narrators on the Autism spectrum.) I would be curious to know the opinions of people on the spectrum to this book and narrator, to see if they felt he was the object of ridicule or not.
So, in summation, this was a light, mildly enjoyable read, but one with definite flaws. It would be a nice diversion for someone looking to be entertained, especially if they enjoy rom-coms. It hasn’t much else to offer.
Wednesday, April 6, 2016
All Tomorrow's Parties by William Gibson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This is the third book in the very loose “Bridge” trilogy. (The first two are Virtual Light and Idoru.) Despite the connection among these books, it’s not really necessary to read the first two before reading this one. While I have read the first two, it’s been decades since reading them, and I don’t remember many details, but I still thoroughly enjoyed this book. That being said, reading this one has made me want to reread those two, and maybe I’ll find more links among them than I remember.
On to this book:
Like all of Gibson’s books, ideas and their implications for society are at the fore. His world building shines again, with a not-too-distant future full of tech that is just barely beyond today’s science. (Note: this book is copyrighted 1999.) The main characters are Colin Laney, a man whose consciousness has been altered by an experimental drug; Rydell, an ex-cop; and Chevette, Rydell’s ex-girlfriend. Colin’s new abilities to “see” data has him convinced that a major “node” is coming, which will end the world as we know it. Because Laney is sick and dying, he hires Rydell to be his “boots on the ground” in San Francisco, where the node is centered. It is there that Rydell runs into Chevette again, and all of them have roles to play in the Big Event.
Gibson is a master at creating his vision of the future, and totally immersing the reader. His descriptions are evocative and make the world come to life. The first part of the book, where we meet each character, is chock full of little vignettes that help draw the reader deeper into the world he’s created.
Once he’s set up the characters and the situation, then the action starts. And it goes at a break-neck pace from there on out. The ending is a little abrupt, however, and if you’re not paying attention, you won’t understand what just happened, and how it really does change everything.
Anyone who enjoys future tech and/or thrillers will find this book quite satisfying. It’s believable, the characters are interesting, the future world is fascinating, and the story is compelling.
Friday, February 26, 2016
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I first read this book when I was in high school. I don’t recall if it was for a specific class, but I remember that I simply loved it and always thought of it as my favorite Dickens, even after reading such classics as David CopperfieldDavid Copperfield and Great ExpectationsGreat Expectations. However, since high school was over 40 years ago (gasp!) and our book club likes to read at least one classic a year, I nominated A Tale of Two Cities, as I wanted to refresh my memory on why I loved it so much. And a third of the way into the book, I was seriously questioning my high school judgment!
As most people know, ATOTC is about the French revolution. The two cities are Paris and London. The first part of the book introduces us to the cast of characters, which isn’t as large as many other books by Dickens. We learn about Charles Darnay, the young French aristocrat who has walked away from his estate and title to live in London. He falls in love with Lucie, the daughter of Dr. Manette, who was a political prisoner in France until recently. Sydney Carton is the barrister who becomes involved in their lives, and who also loves Lucie. Those are the main characters in London, though there are a few secondary characters that end up playing significant roles in the action that transpires. In Paris, we meet the Defarges, a married couple who are both leaders in the revolution. Again, there are a few other characters that impact the plot, but it is the Defarges that we mostly follow.
Because the entire first half of the book is establishing characters and their relationships, I was baffled by why I had loved the book so much when I first read it. We see lots of little vignettes showing the characters involved in what appear to be insignificant activities. I was just not engaged by any of the characters, and even the love triangle seemed forced. Thankfully, Dickens is a master at creating an interesting turn of phrase, and quirky characters, so I kept plugging away at the book. And I was rewarded by the last third - in spades!
The action in the last part of the book takes place back in Paris, where Darnay has returned to carry out a mission of mercy. But the revolution is in full swing and he is arrested because he is an aristocrat. Things happen fast and furious from this point on, and we see how events from the first part of the book tie into events in this section. Dickens was absolutely masterful at sprinkling these seemingly unrelated events throughout the book, and then weaving them all together in an intricate tapestry. It was brilliant! He also gave each secondary character a scene of their own, where we get to see them at their best/worst. The themes of love, honor and sacrifice were powerfully played out. This last section of the book is clearly why I loved it so in high school! And why I still think it’s one of Dickens’ best books, despite the seemingly slow start.
Dickens’ portrayal of the revolution and its proponents was quite interesting. For someone whose writings helped change the way the poor were treated in Great Britain, he doesn’t paint the revolutionaries in a very favorable light. He certainly highlights the abuses of the aristocracy, but the proletariat are portrayed as blood-thirsty villains, uninterested in truth, only revenge. His depiction of what can happen in mobs, and how easy it is for noble causes to be hijacked by baser motivations, shows great insight. I was reminded of the events in South Africa, when they threw of Apartheid, and how they didn’t succumb to a spirit of revenge, though God knows they had enough motivation. I was also struck by the similarities of the world (and U.S) today, where great wealth is in the hands of a very few, who live lives so completely removed from the lives of the rest of us that they could be on an entirely different planet. I wonder if at some point there will be a similar revolution. Food for thought.