Friday, 31 October 2014

Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer

I enjoyed this more than I expected too, coming right on the heels of reading one of the Percy Jackson books, which are okay, but nothing special. (Sometimes the universe just throws books at me in clumps like that. Or, to be more precise, the London public library system.)

This one felt more inventive than the Rick Riordan books, and I enjoyed the playing with fairy legends and weaving them together into something that was very enjoyable to read. I also appreciated that the 12-year-old protagonist was a 12-year-old genius and super-criminal. Artemis still verged a tiny bit on being precious at times, but most of the time, was thoroughly enjoyable as a character.

Artemis, having lost his father in a mysterious boat explosion, and his mother to grief over losing his father, is trying to rebuild the family criminal empire. Being a twelve year old, he is more receptive to ideas that adults might dismiss, and discovers that a) fairies do indeed exist and b) they have a lot of gold.

So he sets out to capture one, but it ends up being part of the elite LEPRecon team, and the first female member at that.

This book wasn't deep, but it did create a sense of sheer enjoyment in the world Eoin Colfer was creating, and the delight of discovery.

Read as part of The BBC Big Read

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Komarr by Lois McMaster Bujold

This was a pivotal book that I missed on my first patchy run at this series. The library didn't have it, but it did the next one, so I came to read this with some idea of what happened in Komarr, but not when. Which ended up being important. And it may be superfluous to say about a Lois McMaster Bujold book at this point, but I liked this a lot.

Let's step back a bit and talk about the plot, then go on from there. This is set on Komarr, under Barrayaran control since the time of Miles' father. Miles is sent there with another Imperial Auditor to investigate the destruction of part of the solar array that helps keep Komarr viable as a world. Was it sabotage? A mistake? Simple accident?

Miles is feeling out his power as Lord Auditor, trying to walk a narrow line between using his power well, and the ability he can clearly perceive to abuse it. This is set against a domestic story of a marriage in tatters, where a long campaign of isolation and emotional abuse has taken its toll on a wife and mother. What power does she have in the situation? To whom does she owe her loyalty? Who is she if she is forsworn?

These are heavy topics, yet, as always, the books are not dour. They are entertaining, and interesting, and Bujold sprinkles through little insights of such depth with light touch. It is breathtaking, but never preachy. I am in awe of this talent.

This brings me to what I mentioned in the first paragraph, and what I'm coming to realize is a hallmark of many of her books. Having read A Civil Campaign, I knew one very important event in this book. It's the kind of event that, consumer of fiction as I am, I assumed was the big denouement, the centrepiece at the end that brought everything to a climax.

It wasn't. In fact, it happened almost exactly halfway through. And so most of this book was about the aftermath. I start thinking about her other books, and realize that that's often the way she seems to approach it. What other authors would likely have as the end, the strings wrapping up, Bujold puts about in the middle, and her stories are as much about how you survive those big moments as what led up to them. The repercussions, physical, emotional, social, communal - that's what she's interested in, much of the time.

I love it. I love everything about that. She is so good at saying "and then what?" and going from there, and watching these characters we love struggle with loss, with betraying and betrayal, with knowledge, and then watching the further wringer those things put them through - it's amazingly well done.

Of course, it's Miles, so my emotions are already engaged. But this first introduction of Ekaterin, even though, with my messed-up reading schedule, it's the second time I'm meeting her, it's hard not to fall for her as a character as hard as you do for Miles. She is just so entirely herself. She could be no one else. That's true of so many of Bujold's characters, and that is high praise indeed.

Watching her struggling with the aftermath, watching Miles, it makes me glad to know the next book already so I know what will come. But it's still a difficult one - perhaps one of the more difficult Bujold books, emotionally. Again, not heavy. But with surprising depth.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

The Siege of Krishnapur by J.G. Farrell

Yet another book that I liked but didn't love. There were times when I found it hard to go back to - there was never, for me, any drive to see what happened next.

The book takes a curiously meandering approach to the English under siege in Krishnapur. Maybe that's what a siege is like - long days of nothing, followed by attacks, followed by more nothing, all the while slowly running out of food and people.

The Siege of Krishnapur also takes long detours into late-Victorian fads and theories, including phrenology and the causes of cholera. (For the record, Dr. McNab is right.)

But it is a good look at the inexorable decline of a group under intense pressure, and is bookended by the opposing journeys of two of the main characters - the Collector, who starts out believing fully in English civilization and its gadgets, and ends up losing his faith both in Empire and in civilization itself; and Fleury, who initially believes that all the emphasis on things and gadgets and creation obscures the true wonders of the universe, and ends up believing he can invent almost anything to keep him alive in combat (although, notably, none of his gadgets work.)

If you need drive to your books, and something to make you keep turning the page, this is probably not the book for you. But if you don't mind a good meander, The Siege of Krishnapur has many subtle delights.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown

Wow, when Dan Brown finds a formula he likes, he digs his teeth into it and just doesn't let go!

Extended scavenger hunt through the secret past of a city? Check.

Attractive woman (often a scientist) who will tag along? Check.

A villain with an obviously fake name who will end up being someone we've met before? Check.

A villain/henchman who is often noticeably physically different in appearance who will follow their beliefs/patron with zeal and fanaticism? Check.

Claustrophobia? Check.

The death or mutilation of a powerful person requiring that Robert Langdon be called in? Check.

So how do you even rate The Lost Symbol, given that so much of it is a retread of his last two books? It's entertaining, fast-paced, and doesn't bear more than a moment's thought.

Oh, and the reveal about who the bad guy "really was?" Painfully telegraphed. I knew over half a book before it was revealed. And Brown tends to get off on making sure his characters know more than the reader, which is really false drama, in cases like this, where a couple of sentences could clear the whole damned thing up.

A beach read, a mindless read, but never anything more. And the formula is getting worn and creaky and showing signs of age.

Friday, 24 October 2014

The Star Beast by Robert A. Heinlein

This is distinctly a Heinlein juvenile, and it's not one of the best. It's not terrible - Heinlein is almost always readable and interesting, whether or not the story is great, or the politics worrisome. But it's not great, and certainly not as good as some of his other juvenile novels. His take on female characters is particularly weak in this one.

This is about a preternaturally intelligent young man (not uncommon in the juveniles, and at least the young female character seems to be just as intelligent, and much more savvy) has been raising his family pet, Lummox, for his whole life. So did his father. And his grandfather. All the way back to his illustrious starfaring ancestor, who brought Lummox back from one of the first successful interstellar trips.

Lummox has grown from an adorable puppy-sized creature to one much bigger than, well, just about anything. Elephant-sized, at least. Or bigger. Even though she speaks in a high-pitched adorable voice. (The gender of Lummox is never quite discussed - her species apparently has nine of them. But at the end, they refer to her as a princess a lot, and she seems to like that, so, lacking nine pronouns, I'm going with "she.")

Lummox is also hungry. For just about anything. Metals, the prize-winning roses next door, trees. Anything John Thomas hasn't specifically told her not to eat. And so, she causes quite a ruckus one day, which brings the law down on her head. The local sheriff wants her destroyed. So does John Thomas' mother, who is a two-dimensional mother caricature if I've ever seen one.

The diplomats get involved, and eventually Lummox's people coming looking for their wayward child. This is all very amusing, and the bits of powerplay amongst politicians and career bureaucrats more entertaining than John Thomas' mother yet again playing the heavy for no particular reason. I mean, she had to have accepted Lummox when she married his father, right? Then what the hell? If she has chosen to hate Lummox, give her a reason. I don't care if it's a juvenile. The character just made me sigh irritatedly at the author for such a weak villain.

So, it's a juvenile science fiction novel, and the mother is irritating, and at the end, John Thomas shows he knows how to keep his girlfriend in line after all when he forbids her from painting her face the way she wants when they get married. Yeah, there's some troubling stuff in here.

It's also very readable, because I'm not sure Heinlein knew how to write a line that wasn't readable. It's frequently entertaining, and the bureaucrats stole the novel, as far as I was concerned. I didn't really care about the young protagonists, and I think that's a weakness. The adults, when they're allowed to be adults and not just roadblocks, are far more interesting.

It's a weaker Heinlein juvenile, but still, it was mostly fun to read.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

The Orenda by Joseph Boyden

 Some Spoilers Ahead

I have complicated feelings about this book. There are so many things it does well. The research is excellent. The complexity is top notch. The writing is good. On the other hand, the characters are weak. The story is often predictable. And there are issues with what happens to the female character. [Trigger warning]

First, the plot. The Orenda is set in Native North America, around the first settlement of New France - Champlain's death sets the beginning in the early 1630s. It is about misunderstanding, told through three main characters - a Jesuit priest, a Huron man, and an Iroquois girl. It goes through the first entrance of the Jesuits into Native culture, famines, pestilences, and the slow and rapid decline of different native groups.

The Jesuit priest is reluctantly accepted into a Huron village, while the Iroquois girl is more readily adopted into a Huron family. There are raids, skirmishes, the founding of a missionary village, planting seasons, and wars. Not necessarily in that order.

So, what's good about it? Well, looking at his acknowledgements, he's read pretty much exactly the history books I would have expected him to read, given the subject matter. I recognize many of the major arguments of those books coming up as plot points. This is great, but it's also a bit limiting. There was very little I was surprised by.

But he used his research well. There aren't the data dumps I get from some historical fiction, where details are strewn like petals to show the breadth of the author's research, instead of being there to enrich the story or the setting. And certainly that story may not be as familiar to most people as it is to people who had to read a bunch of books on the topic of Native/European relations as part of one of their comprehensive exams. So I may be overly picky.

What I do appreciate is the way that this book shows, not a two-way culture clash, but acknowledges deep divisions and cultural differences between native groups. The first section of the book is rife with misunderstandings of what the other two major characters are doing, and this isn't just the European misunderstanding the Native, or vice versa. No, this is as much the Iroquois misunderstanding the Huron as it is about their interactions with the Jesuit. (A note - the Jesuit calls them Huron or Iroquois, but the Huron man and Iroquois women identify themselves with individual tribes within those confederacies.)

The writing style is not obtrusive, and I was never discombobulated by it. Nor did I particularly notice it.

On the other side of the equation, as I've said, things felt rather predictable. Only one thing surprised me, near the end. And the characters are weak, and I think these two things are connected. Because the characters felt ill-drawn and largely devoid of any of those quirks of personality that make people spring to life, what they did felt like it was as scripted as what they said. These felt like cardboard figures on a vast scenery, and while that scenery was good, the lack of connection to people hindered my enjoyment.

And then there's Snow Falls, the main female character. One of my friends, when we were having a pre-book club chat about this book (the actual meeting is later in the week) about it, said that he was bothered that she was mostly there to be threatened with rape, threatened with rape, raped, have a baby, get poisoned, and die. I hadn't put it all together quite like that, but had a sense of unease that this put in stark perspective.

And, yeah. It's a problem. There is more to the character, but not a ton. Her struggles to not integrate into her adoptive family are interesting, but they are overshadowed by some other parts of her story. And in the end, her death seems to strike her adoptive father very lightly, even though he's been grieving his former family throughout the whole book, and we're repeatedly told how much he loves her. It's more than a little strange.

So, how do I feel about this book? It was worth a read, but I didn't love it. I think it will incite interesting discussions at the first meeting of our book club. There are some great aspects, and some not-so-great aspects. It's...interesting.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

The Luxe by Anna Godbersen

Gossip Girl meets The Age of Innocence. Except that there's not really any Age of Innocence here.

I tried with this book, because my sister recommended it as enjoyable fluff. I tried to think of it as light and fluffy and inconsequential, a book to read as a break from heavier things. It didn't work. I know that I have biases as a history grad student. But I don't demand absolute historical accuracy, as long as it's a good story, well told. This was beyond the pale.

First of all, when you start your fricking book with a quote from The Age of Innocence, one would think that you had absorbed a little bit from that book, other than thinking it would be hilarious to cast Edith Wharton as a dotty old aunt with much of the history of Ellen Olenska. Also, when said quote is the very famous one about "the way of people who dreaded scandal more than disease, who placed decency above courage," etc, etc, then you would have to have characters who ever, ever, ever placed face above personal interest. Who were in any way worried about scandal. Who tried not to commit scenes.

Apparently, "scenes" and "scandal" don't include vomiting in public, public female drunkenness, or every single young woman character sneaking out (often through the streets) for a rendezvous with their secret lovers. No one is ever concerned that they'll be caught. There are no repercussions.

To add to that, every young man of the upper crust of New York society is sleeping freely with young women of the same class, and not sexually harassing the maids or going to prostitutes? Yeah, right.

This is what really drives me crazy - it commits one of the two cardinal historical fallacies. One is to see the people of the past as utterly alien, consumed by crazy superstitions and irrationalities, people we can barely understand. The second, and the one to which The Luxe falls prey, is that the past is populated by people who are EXACTLY like us, just in different clothes.

Neither is true. The past is both alien and familiar, and both the strangeness and the familiarity crop up in absolutely unexpected places.

So, jet set mores of our time period are not the same as the upper crust mores of Gilded Age New York. Sure, I'm sure there was premarital sex going on, but it was much more likely to be outside of one's own class (if you were male.) And there may have been premarital sex going on within a class, but it would have been bloody discreet, and very dangerous. Nothing had repercussions in this book. I didn't even believe the threat of financial ruin, and in the end, it didn't matter to the characters either. Not that it happened - it was just brushed off.

But mostly, I just hated the characters. They were self-absorbed, petty, and solipsistic. I would have hated them in a modern setting and I loathe them as supposed representations of a different time period as well.

Monday, 20 October 2014

The Devil in the White City by Eric Larson

This is an interesting mix of two stories. I'm not entirely sure that they hang together, except for coincidences of time and place. But neither, perhaps, was enough of a story by itself to make a book. And so they've been woven together, fairly skilfully, perhaps, but still a bit oddly. It helps that both are interesting as stand-alone topics, so the relationship between them doesn't need to be as strong.

The juxtaposition of horror with great achievement, is, I guess, an interesting theme. Perhaps it's just that it's not developed enough. I don't know what grand statements you could make out of tying the two stories together, but there isn't an effort to do so. Perhaps that would be grandiose and in the end, unnecessary.

But what are the two stories? I'm rambling on about whether or not they fit without at all writing about what they are. All right. Story #1 is the story of the Chicago World's Fair, the trials and tribulations of winning the bid, designing, building, and maintaining it. Story #2 is the story of a serial killer who was luring women to their deaths in the same city over the same period. The link seems to be a) Chicago in general and b) that he visited the fair with two of his eventual victims - although I'm pretty sure that that's not much more than saying that he lived in Chicago, given the eventual popularity of the fair.

Of the two, I liked the Chicago World's Fair story more - not surprising, if you know of my general aversion to anything that smacks of serial killers. It's also exactly the kind of popular history that's going to appeal to me - full of disagreements and characters. Strangely, there's a third story woven in here, that fits better with the Chicago World's Fair half of the novel, about a young man who grows increasingly unhinged in his desire for political patronage and his love and then hate for the mayor of the city. This, it feels, fits in like a perfect dovetail, given that the story of the Fair is also one of patronage and playing the angles, looking for consideration and ignoring warnings. It, too, is woven in, popping up with portentous phrases that lets us know that something big is coming. And that works in this case. Better than the serial killer.

But that may be just me. The story of the World's Fair is engrossing, from the crazy designs people submitted for the centrepiece, at least a couple of which had me laughing out loud, to the minutiae of trying to organize such an event. I was stunned to see how much work went on after the fair had opened - how even the centerpiece wasn't fully built or functional. (I don't know why I'm dancing around what that was, but Larson refrains from naming the engineer for chapters and chapters because it gives it away. I guess I'm doing the same thing.)

The story of the serial killer, well, it's interesting, but not really my favourite topic. I'm sure for those more interested in the workings of a serial killer would be fascinated, but while I wasn't overly disturbed by it, I was almost always wanting to get back to the World's Fair. That may just be me.

The two stories don't hang together that well, but Larson does a good job with each, and it's not so jarring that it mars the books. Still, this is an interesting popular history of incredible undertakings. In both senses of the last word.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay

When did this book sneak up on me? It's a story of a prodigy - mentally, physically, in geology, botany, boxing, gambling, chess, in pretty much anything but music, where he's merely competent. Bryce Courtenay's hero should irritate the hell out of me. And yet somehow he doesn't. It's also the story of how a white boy becomes a symbol of power for black South Africans. I'm a little uncomfortable with that, and yet, it's handled as well as such things can be.

And yet, this book snuck up on me. I fell in love with the supporting characters, starting with Granpa Chook, the chicken, continuing through Doc, Giel Piet, and Morrie. Notice that these are all male characters. Women are present in this book, and even important at times, but their characters are much less clearly drawn.

The world of South Africa is seen through a child's eyes, although, as I have said, a child so precocious as to be almost unbelievable. But thankfully, not precious. Or cute. Or indeed, who has a name. That we ever find out, anyway. The whole book, he goes by Peekay, which is sounding out of the initials of what he was called by his first childhood enemies - Pisskop. Pisshead. We get no other name for him.

The book is a travelling through camouflage, first with Peekay by trying to be invisible when he is young and too obviously British in a Boer school, and tormented by his schoolmates, to his time in a village where everyone loves him for different reasons (and the one who doesn't dies of rectal cancer. Huh. The more I write about this, the more it makes me subtly uncomfortable), and everyone wants him to follow certain paths, on to another school, where he hides in excellence. And then, at the end, when he finds himself in the mines of Rhodesia.

It's funny sometimes how, as I'm writing reviews, I'll either uncover more things I liked about a book than I realized, or, in this case, things that I didn't even realize nagged at me.

And yet I did enjoy this book. But it doesn't sit entirely comfortably. But the world Courtenay creates was engrossing while I was in it, and encompasses so many topics I don't even think I could being to try to summarize them. And listing them would tear them out of their habitat, reduce them when they make perfect sense where they grow between the pages. And if that's not a mixed metaphor to end on, I don't know what is.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Part of my ongoing attempt to read at least a few of the books that are popular at any given time. This book has been on both the Globe and Mail and New York Times Bestsellers lists for much of the past year. And I don't know if it's a classic, but it was a good read.

The author does a fairly good job of juggling what is really two stories - the story of the cells cultured from Henrietta Lacks' cervical cancer (without her permission, at a time when permission was rarely asked), and the story of the children Henrietta Lacks left behind, and their struggles consistently being denied information about what those cells were and what was being done with them. The two stories intertwine around the theme of poor people, particularly, in this case, poor black people, and their interactions with a medical system that they have every reason to be deeply suspicious of.

It's also a tale of medical ethics, and how much and how little has changed in regards to tissue samples and patients' rights to donate, know what has happened to, and to make money from, if money is being made, parts of their body left behind in doctors' offices.

I don't know if it's one that will hold up to a reread, or if I feel the need to reread it, but for a book that's popular these days, it's quite good.

Monday, 13 October 2014

Vitals by Greg Bear

In this one, Greg Bear has kind of abandoned the ideas for the thrill of the chase. It's much more technothriller than science fiction, although I suppose the science is enough out there it could sort of qualify. But it's the speed at which everything happens, the plot racing by too fast for there to be real consideration of the ideas, that I find a pity. I know he can do better, and I'd much prefer a novel of ideas.

But that's bemoaning the fact that the book isn't the book I thought it would be, and that's a little unfair. Although, I would say, not unjustified, given that I've read so many Bear books over the years, and this seems a marked deviation. It's one of my first delves into his recent canon, and if this is the way it's going, I'm a bit disappointed.

On the other hand, if you're just looking for a good technothriller, this is not at all bad.

And it's not that there aren't ideas, they're just considered at such a breakneck pace, that it's like a doppler effect - fading out as it rushes by, so you only catch every other word.

This is about the search for eternal life, which two twin scientists become fixated it on as possible through blocking bacteria and mitochondria from winding out bodies down. But they discover (as one is killed), that they may have been beaten to that particular secret by decades, by a scientist in Stalinist Russia, who is still around and may be controlling the world.

Because longevity also gives you mind control? That seems to be the theory, but there is no time to dwell on it because people are trying to kill our protagonists! At any rate, the secrets rulers of the world have both longevity and mind control, and yet Hal, the remaining twin scientist, remains alive for a startlingly long time, possibly because he's been messing around with his own bacteria.

He races through the landscape, accompanied by his brother's beautiful wife, who is only too happy to sleep with him. He encounters an anti-Semitic historian, who, despite his Holocaust-denial, may know something about the mind controllers. He finds another historians. They find a film director whose lover was brainwashed at length by the bad guys. They are strafed! They go to New York! They find a secret lair with weirdness inside!

I'm not going to go into any more plot. But this book was, while fine, and entertaining as I read it, as thin as onionskin. It's plot as an excuse for incident, breakneck speed for the sake of tension, and not much underneath. I preferred the Darwin books he wrote, even if they were maybe drifting a bit this way by the end. At least there was time to sit, catch your breath, and talk about what the hell was going on.

I did find myself impatient that the main character didn't know who "Koba" was - who doesn't know that?!  Then I remember that I only know that because I played a roleplaying game set in Cold War Berlin, and it came up there and maybe I was being a bit unreasonable. And then I felt pleased with myself, for no particular reason.

Friday, 10 October 2014

Supernatural Noir edited by Ellen Datlow

There are some very good stories in this anthology, and a number of only so-so ones. I said that to my husband, and he replied, "so, it's an anthology?" Fair enough. More of the problem, if it's a particular problem, is that many of these stories are not very noir. Supernatural, sure. But a few fall down on the noir front. They lack that cynical edge of noir, even a few that manage to include detectives. It's not always a bad thing - one of my favourite stories in the collection isn't in the least a noir story. It's just a really good ghost story.

I read through this collection very slowly, so I'm not sure I remember a ton about a few of the stories. That may say something. But here we go, story by story:

The Dingus by Gregory Frost

This one has the driven detective (in this case, former coach), out to figure out what really killed his former protege and left him in a pile of shapeless ooze on the floor of a whorehouse. It's not bad, but not really striking. Definitely noir.

The Getaway by Paul G. Tremblay

I'm not really convinced this one was noir, more of a straightforward crime getaway story. But it's a good creepy supernatural story, as the men who planned a simple robbery pile into the car and start...disappearing? 

Mortal Bait by Richard Bowes

Definitely noir. And noir mixed with the fae works rather well - they have that potential cruelty and carelessness with human life that seems to be to be a hallmark of noir. This also has the nice twisty plot, where everyone is turned around and there are at least two more twists waiting.

Little Shit by Melanie Tem

I'm not really sure what I think about this story. The question about entrapping someone you care about is a good one, and the story certainly is disturbing. Noir? Maybe. Maybe not. This is the first time that I realized that a lot of these stories have lesbians as their protagonists, but not a single gay man. Interesting. Not a problem per se, but interesting that this seems to have gotten inclusive in one way but not another.

Ditch Witch by Lucius Shepherd

Oh, wait. The main character in this one, well, he's not gay himself, but might dabble? Okay, I sort of retract. But not really. At any rate, this young grifter picks up another young woman on the sleazy side of the street, and they end up staying at a roadside motel where - hey did that garden gnome just move? It's okay. Nothing stellar.

The Last Triangle by Jeffrey Ford

I really liked this one. I couldn't tell you why. I think it's the combo of the unreliable narrator and the old woman who takes him in that appealed to me. It's got an interesting detective story as she employs him to help her find out who might have been killing people at occult spots around town. And discovers that the culprit might be a figure from her past.

The Carrion Gods in Their Heaven by Laird Barron

Another one that just doesn't feel that noir. Parts of it at times, but it's mostly a story of a woman and her lover shacked up in the woods, where the lover discovers the powers of an old wolf pelt, and seems to be spending more time as a wolf than as a woman. I guess there is a detective. Still, more horror than noir.

The Romance by Elizabeth Bear

This is one of my favourite stories in the collection, and is absolutely in no way noir. I may be biased, as Bear is one of my favourite authors, but it's a really excellent ghost story, set around an old carousel. Just because there's a crime doesn't make it noir, unfortunately - how do we think most ghosts come into being? But still, it's creepy and the protagonist is middle-aged and interesting.

Dead Sister by Joe R. Lansdale

Probably the most noir and most accomplished story of the bunch, but would we expect anything else from Lansdale? Noir needs that neat turn of phrase as well as crime and a detective, and this has the trifecta, with a dame and everything. A woman shows up at a detective's door, with a story about her sister's grave being disturbed every night, and the answer is creepy as hell.

Comfortable in Her Skin by Lee Thomas

Frankly, I don't remember this one very clearly. It's something to do with a wizard and the ability to wear someone's else's skin, and while I think it was fine, the fact that I've forgotten most of the things about it is not a good sign.

But For Scars by Tom Piccirrilli

This is a haunting little tale about love and loss and how fucked up that can make someone. Set right in the middle of a biker gang, one man must try to figure out who killed the former leader years ago, if only to pay a debt to the daughter of that leader that he has failed. It's got a light touch with the supernatural, which seems just exactly right.

Blisters on My Heart by Nate Southard

I really liked this one, told by a dying man possibly facing the end of the world, telling the story of the woman he loved and may have doomed the world for. It's an intriguing voice, and truly unsettling in implications. 

The Absent Eye by Brian Evenson

This was more a meditation than a story. There's no real narrative to the story, most just the backstory for something else. It's interesting as a meditation, the idea of creatures that live with us until our deaths, but don't know what happens to themselves when they die. They find a human who can see them and he becomes a detective on the trail. Interesting, but still not really a story.

The Maltese Unicorn by Caitlin R. Kiernan

The most obviously noir in terms of the title, and makes good use of the conventions of noir. The twist here is not only the supernatural, but that the "detective" swept up in this who must figure out what's happened to her, is female. And a dame walks into her shop, telling her to pick up an object for a demon madam she does odd jobs for. This one is rife with more explicit sex than you would find in old noir, while still retaining the flavour, and the twistiness of alliances.

Dreamer of the Day by Nick Mamatas

Also one of the very noir stories in the bunch, this one has a dame trying to get a guy to off her husband. Her present lover takes her to an old man who might be able to help. But he might be sick of his position, and things may not work out the way she thought. Nicely twisty, tightly focused. Fun.

In Paris, in the Mouth of Kronos by John Langan

Unwieldy title, but a very good story. It taps into real-life horrors like those that happened at Abu Ghraib, and puts a supernatural twist on them. Another one I'm not sure was really all that noir, but a very creepy story, and the melding of the real-world with the supernatural was excellently done. 

Thursday, 9 October 2014

All The Windwracked Stars by Elizabeth Bear

Elizabeth Bear is one of my favourite authors these days, but I struggled with the start of All the Windwracked Stars. I don't mind being plunged in at the deep end and left to figure my own way out, but this world was so alien, built on such different assumptions that just a tiny bit more of a roadmap would have been helpful.

This book takes place on the world that was born after Ragnarok, at the end of the lifecycle of that world as well. "Our" world, Midgard, died, and was reborn as Valdyrgard, and now we are at the end again. Through the life of this world stalked the valkyrie (or, in this book, waelcyrge). The book begins with their deaths, fighting those who were once their brothers and sisters.

Muire, the smallest of the waelcyrge, survives, as does one steed, who chooses her. She lives through the rest of the world, the rise of man, the spread of Technomancy, the beginning of the end, and now the end.

That's all backstory, if you can believe it. (And very little of it is given at the beginning.)

Now, at the end, one city remains, willed into survival by the last Technomancer, with the aid of her unmans, the moreaux (animal/humans.) Muire must face her ancient enemy, and discover why the souls of the other waelcyrge, fallen so long ago, are being reborn in the people of the last city. And what the terrible price for survival has been.

Once I got up to speed, I enjoyed this book immensely. But for the first third, I floundered, trying desperately to figure out what the heck was going on. But as the pieces began to fall into place, I began to understand how well Bear had been layering in operatic emotions in simple language, the extent of the love and the risk and the horror only evident as new pieces of the puzzle were revealed.

Her characters are strong, complex, and fascinating. I could rhyme them off, but that would lose something in the translation. Just let it be said that good and evil, waelcyrge and tarnished are not simple categories, and the people that negotiate the end of the world are often short-sighted, honourable, stubborn, loving, and angry.

So in the end, I would highly recommend it. But you may feel as lost as I did at the beginning. It is worth pushing through.

But I'm not sure it needed to be quite that opaque.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

The Wise Man's Fear by Patrick Rothfuss

There are points at which that this is starting to feel like it's mostly meandering. The thing is, it's such enjoyable meandering that I continue to enjoy this series quite a lot. But we're still in the prologue, so to speak, explaining how Kvothe became the man he was to become, and are not yet at that man. Let alone his fall. Because the writing is so good, and the characters so enjoyable, Rothfuss can get away with this. For now.

So, what do we get out of this one? We learn how Kvothe learned to be a superlative lover. We learn how he became a martial artist. We learn how he created a debt between himself and a ruler, only to find out how fickle power can be. We learn how he got better than his already amazing prowess at magic, and specifically, naming. We watch as his legend starts to grow and outstrip the man.

There's a lot more. This is a hefty tome, and it takes its time with all the pertinent details. Again, it is a testament to the quality of the writing that this doesn't become tedious. (I'm reading a Neal Stephenson book right now, and I just realized today that it's the slavish adherence to realistic detail that is bogging me down a bit. Detail can be great. Detail for details' sake, or to show how much research a writer has done, can be tiresome.)

So, where was I? Pleasant meandering? Yes. But I'm starting to become aware of it as meandering, so I hope the next novel (whenever it may come out) starts to pick up narrative drive. Not a ton, because I enjoy some meandering, but some. Because now it feels like we've had two books of "how Kvothe became..." and it's time to move forward. I realize he's the awesomest at everything, even when you strip the myth away, but let's see him take those skills to a larger stage now, please?

Kvothe's diversion into the kingdom of the people who have amazing martial arts skills and who reluctantly agree to teach him a few things is well done, and entertaining. The cultural twist that sex is quite public, but that speech and song are private matters alone is interesting.

The court intrigue of the place Kvothe travels to to help a ruler with his wooing (and, as it turns out, his slow poisoning) is also entertaining, and Rothfuss has a knack for creating different systems of denoting power and difference. Again, though, it's maybe going on a bit too long?

I do like it, I do. I enjoyed reading this book. But by the end, I was a bit impatient. I feel like that Monty Python crowd shouting "Get On With It!" I don't want to feel that way. I want to lose myself in the story. But while the characters are fantastic and the prose really excellent, the story has been absent long enough. Or rather, it's been retreading the same beats for too long, and while those bits are interesting and well-written, they are also starting to feel like footdragging.

I hope the next book takes a major step forward with Kvothe and his adventures to become whoever he will become. I want to get thoroughly back on board. And I'm looking to this shorter novel about one of the side characters coming out soon.

In summary, very well-written, enjoyable, but yet, there's something about the pacing that is starting to get to me.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Stiff by Mary Roach

I really, really enjoyed this book but for anyone who might want to read it, there are some caveats:

1) Don't read it if you're squeamish. Imagine someone telling you some cool fact, except that that fact involves corpses and the decomposition thereof, and if your gut reaction is "I don't want to hear it!", as my husband's was, this is probably not a book for you.

2) Even if you have a strong stomach and are interested in things like the above, don't read this book while you're eating. My mother was an emergency room nurse for decades - I would have said there was nothing too disgusting to hear about/read while eating. This book proved me wrong. Have another book on hand if you read during meals.

Outside of that, I found this fascinating in all ways. Very few things exceeded my squick factor. I particularly loved the section on ecologically-friendly methods of body disposition.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Memory by Lois McMaster Bujold

Another of the books that turned up on my doorstep in a wonderful Lois McMaster Bujold care package from the lovely Nele! I am so enjoying reading through these. I knew there was a reason I was cursing our library for not having many of them in the system.

Here we are at the bridging point between Miles' two careers. One, as admiral of the Dendarii Fleet, Naismith. The other? Well, if you're reading through them and haven't jumped ahead and seen, I'll leave the other to your discovery.

This is a book that is largely about disability and what that might or might not mean for a person's life. About anger and depression. About moving forward anyway. About accommodation and resistance.

In that, it's not just about Miles. It's also about Simon Illyan, the terrifyingly intelligent person in charge of Imperial Security. Who appears to be losing his memory in the most terrifying way possible. Miles observes this, as he reports home and has to face the repercussions of his own new disability, the seizures he has been prone to since he came back from the dead.

Miles must, after his meeting with Illyan, deal with life without the touchstones he'd relied on for so long, because of his disability and his attempts to hide it from those who, he will admit, really needed to know. But because Miles is Miles, when Illyan is struck down, he can't keep from sticking his nose into what's going on. And finds that someone was trying to frame him for the sudden malfunction of Illyan's memory augmentations.

As always, Miles is an incredibly fun character to watch, particularly when he's in his "force of nature" phase. But his melancholy and depression are equally as important, the flipside of his usual forcefulness.

One thing this book reminded me, though, is how much I love Gregor as a character. He's grown through the books, and become quite a savvy Emperor, who very subtly maneuvers things behind the scenes to get what he wants. And isn't above using Miles as his agent to get them done. Of course, this book adds the contrast where he's daffy in love and just trying to go through all the motions until he can be married to the woman of his dreams.

This book also delves in interesting ways into the inner works of ImpSec, and how difficult that life is, always analyzing others. But when betrayal strikes from within, how do you find the culprit, much less the motive?

As always, Bujold's prose is a joy to read. It's light and fast-moving, but with surprising depth.  She will be barrelling through scenes, and drop little pearls that make you stop and think. There's really nothing about these books I don't like. And a great deal I love. They are old-fashioned science fiction with plenty of insight and intelligence all her own.


I read this book as part of an attempt to read all the Hugo Nominees

Friday, 3 October 2014

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl

This is a reread review. A many, many times reread. I really don't think I could count - the Roald Dahl books are part of the wallpaper of my childhood, and I reread books I loved over and over then.

My husband says that this and the Great Glass Elevator are the only two Roald Dahl books he's ever read, which slightly terrifies me. And must be rectified, immediately.

But this is the one that I think most people are likely to have read - although I have to tell you, when I bought a used copy last week and took it over to a coffee shop to read, the woman serving me looked at the book, and asked brightly "Is that a good book?"

Yes, I said. Yes, it is. You should read it.

But on to the actual book. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a wonderful story, full of whimsy and delight, but undercut with tones of poverty and despair, which makes the lightness of the story show up in greater detail, and makes the eventual ending even more pleasurable.

There are also strong disapproving undertones of "kids these days" with their gluttony and gum-chewing and tv-watching and being spoiled. None of the other children knows what it is like to want, and so Charlie is the only child who has any self-restraint.

Class is, thus, a major theme in the book, and poor downtrodden Charlie the only character with morals or ethics. Poor boy makes good. And that's heartwarming, although at times on this particular reread, when I knew I was going to review it, the awfulness of every other child and parent in the book struck me as a little heavyhanded. But that's the way fairytales go, I guess. There is only one who can pass the tests and display goodness and kindness.

But I am doing a disservice to the book's prose if I don't mention it here, strongly. The writing is wonderful, the songs amusing, the joy in creating drips through every line.

Thank you for so much of my childhood, Roald Dahl. Even if The Witches did scar me for life.

Read many, many times, but once as part of the BBC Big Read

Thursday, 2 October 2014

The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough

Oh, these books, these books that are hugely popular and overwrought and, well, interesting, but not enough to really grab me. I never resented reading this book, it moved along quickly, but in the end? I'm not sure it had anything that really took possession of me while I was reading it, nor anything that will really stick with me.

Reading The Thornbirds was part of my long-term attempt to read the BBC Big Read list, and perhaps because of that, this and The Shell Seekers are linked in my mind, since they both appear on the list. They're both sprawling stories of women who can never be with the man they love. The characterization of the less-likeable characters was better in the Thornbirds than it was in The Shell Seekers, who had real caricatures for the children born by the wrong man. But the loveable characters in The Shell Seekers were more strongly drawn, drawing me in to the story in a way that I didn't really feel with the Thorn Birds.

Love and loss on the Australian plains. Wanting someone you can never have. Losing everything, simply because you love it. These are the major themes of the book, and they're just too...overt for me. I prefer a bit of subtlety, not being whacked over the head repeatedly that THIS SHOULD EVOKE EMOTION.

Sometimes I think I dig in my heels at those moments and think "You can't tell me how to feel!" Possibly just part of my overall stubbornness.

So, for me, The Thornbirds was fun to read, once. But it'll only be once. It's a sprawling family story, of the sort I usually enjoy, but there wasn't enough there to draw me back in a second time.

Oh, and another comparison with The Shell Seekers, which is something I didn't like very much in either of them - they both buy entirely into the idea of the maternal imagination. When pregnant by the "wrong man," the pregnancies are terrible (not because of stress, but because it's the wrong semen?), and the children are strange. Even if the mothers bring them up lovingly, they are strange and different (The Thorn Birds) or selfish and greedy (The Shell Seekers.) On the other hand, being pregnant by the "right man" creates a child that is fantastic in every way. Nothing needs to be done by them, that right-guy sperm and the maternal imagination creates a child that, by the time they pop out, are already sparkling specimens of humanity.

I'm not fond of this "marked before birth to be unlikeable" stuff.

Read as part of The BBC Big Read