Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Children of the Lens / E.E. "Doc" Smith

3 out of 5 stars
It was beginning to look as if no one could prevent the destruction of the Universe. For a strange intelligence was directing the destruction of all civilization from the icy depths of space.

Kim Kinnison of the Patrol was one of the few men who knew how near the end was. And in the last desperate plan to save all life, he knew he had to use his children as bait for the evil powers of the planet Ploor

More adventures in ancient science fiction—certainly Smith’s series does not stand up to today’s standards, but it certainly shows where sci fi had its beginnings. Reading it is rather like an archaeological dig, exposing the roots of the genre. I’m glad to see in this book that the female characters get to step up and show what they’re made of. Clarrisa dons her gray Lensman leathers (which still fit after having five children, including two sets of twins). Her four daughters keep all the male Lensmen (and even the Arisians) on their toes. Mind you, it’s implied that there just aren’t any men out there who will ever measure up to these women and that they better get used to a celibate life. Clarissa, after all, has been the only female Lensman and she and Kim Kinnison (Stage Two Lensman) have produced the only stage-three Lensman children. The four daughters have only their brother Kit and, to some extent, their father Kim as their male equals. Obviously the Arisians’ breeding program has come to a screeching halt unless they were planning to mate brother to sister like dog breeders. So it’s just as well that they have ridden out of town, leaving everything to the new sheriff, …er, I mean to the Galactic Patrol, by book’s end.

It is fiction of its era—matters are very black and white, characters are all good or all bad, whole scale destruction is good if it is done by the right people. Written in the years following World War II, this is hardly a surprising outlook. It’s been 100 years since the beginning of WWI, and we’re just starting to see a more nuanced history of that event starting to spread into popular culture, replacing the good guys and bad guys with military guys on both sides. Science fiction has come a long way, too, in the ensuing 50+ years and we enjoy the products of that progress.

This is my 148th book read from the NPR list of great science fiction and fantasy.

Monday, 25 August 2014

The Owl Killers / Karen Maitland

4 out of 5 stars
England, 1321. The tiny village of Ulewic teeters between survival and destruction, faith and doubt, God and demons. For shadowing the villagers’ lives are men cloaked in masks and secrecy, ruling with violence, intimidation, and terrifying fiery rites: the Owl Masters.

But another force is touching Ulewic—a newly formed community built and served only by women. Called a beguinage, it is a safe harbor of service and faith in defiance of the all-powerful Church.

Behind the walls of this sanctuary, women have gathered from all walks of life: a skilled physician, a towering former prostitute, a cook, a local convert. But life in Ulewic is growing more dangerous with each passing day. The women are the subject of rumors, envy, scorn, and fury…until the daughter of Ulewic’s most powerful man is cast out of her home and accepted into the beguinage—and battle lines are drawn.

Owls are among my favourite birds, mainly because they were important to my maternal grandmother Matilda and they will always be associated with her in my mind. Anyone who kills an owl is immediately persona non grata to me. My one disappointment with this book was that the followers of the pagan religion in this book turned out to be bad guys, killing owls to warn people that they were next if they didn’t conform and murdering people just as readily. However, in this novel, there is plenty of bad behaviour to go around, no matter which religion a villager adheres to. Religion, whether nature-based or not, is used in this medieval society as a means of social control (as it still is in our century, let’s be honest).

I had no idea there were Beguinages in the Middle Ages—communities built for and by women, to escape the male-dominated church and male-dominated society. In the beguinage, women could still engage with the world, unlike nuns, who were expected to withdraw from worldly pursuits (this is shown starkly by the comparison between Servant Martha and the Anchorite known as Andrew). Women in a beguinage could pursue their own economic interests and intellectual interests with fewer barriers and more personal independence.

The book is full of strong women—from the many Marthas who run the beguinage, to the old witch woman who is feared by all, to the village women who work like horses while raising children, to even the girl-children who are beaten and worked hard, even while half-starved. As Eleanor Roosevelt said, “A woman is like a tea bag; you never know how strong it is until it’s in hot water.” I know that I derive encouragement from the stories of women in my family tree—the circumstances that they endured, the events that they participated in, and the toughness that they exhibited. Although we are gradually emerging from the societal mindset that says that history is made by men, it is important to acknowledge that the men were able to do the historical things only because they had a female support system at home. As a single (straight) working woman, I have often proclaimed that I do not need a husband, but I could sure as heck use a wife! However, my woman’s wages would not support more than one person, so I am stuck doing all the support work as well as the wage-earning—but after reading this book, I shall not be whining too often about this situation.

I also appreciated that medieval life is portrayed as I think it really was: medicine is next to nonexistent, crops fail, natural disasters happen, superstition is rampant, education is only for the rich, and life is difficult for everyone, but especially the average villager. If you escape plague or starvation, you still have to manoeuver through village and church politics. I know that as a teen, I had idealized visions of how people in earlier eras lived and a book like this would have opened my eyes. (There was a time that I believed that I had been born too late—I think I had read too many romantic frontier novels by the likes of Zane Grey—and have since learned more about the experiences of my home-steading grandmothers. I now know very definitely that I am a 21st century woman, through and through).

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Dust and Shadow / Lyndsay Faye

4 out of 5 stars
From the gritty streets of nineteenth century London, the loyal and courageous Dr. Watson offers a tale unearthed after generations of lore: the harrowing story of Sherlock Holmes's attempt to hunt down Jack the Ripper.

As England's greatest specialist in criminal detection, Sherlock Holmes is unwavering in his quest to capture the killer responsible for terrifying London's East End. He hires an "unfortunate" known as Mary Ann Monk, the friend of a fellow streetwalker who was one of the Ripper's earliest victims; and he relies heavily on the steadfast and devoted Dr. John H. Watson. When Holmes himself is wounded in Whitechapel during an attempt to catch the savage monster, the popular press launches an investigation of its own, questioning the great detective's role in the very crimes he is so fervently struggling to prevent. Stripped of his credibility, Holmes is left with no choice but to break every rule in the desperate race to find the madman known as "the Knife" before it is too late.

I am neither a devotee of Sherlock Holmes nor of Ripperology (the study of Jack the Ripper), but I did find this book very engaging. I think that the author caught the rhythm and atmosphere of Conan Doyle’s fiction very well—there were only a few instances where modern sensibilities slipped through. By and large, I felt that Holmes and Watson behaved very authentically and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to my Sherlock-obsessed friends.

Mind you, I am also a fan of forensics-based mysteries, and Ms. Faye gives Holmes and Watson quite a boost towards modern forensic method. She brings them right to the brink, as far as they can go without modern theories and equipment. I also appreciated how she gave Jack the characteristics which we now recognize as those of a psychopathic killer, while sticking quite closely to the facts of the case.

It is an easy and enjoyable read, well suited to the doldrums of summer.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

The Rosie Project / Graeme Simsion

4 out of 5 stars
Narrator Don Tillman 39, Melbourne genetics prof and Gregory Peck lookalike, sets a 16-page questionnaire The Wife Project to find a non-smoker, non-drinker ideal match. But Rosie and her Father Project supersede. The spontaneous always-late smoker-drinker wants to find her biological father. She resets his clock, throws off his schedule, and turns his life topsy-turvy.

Can you have romance and relationships if you are different from the societal norm? Emphatically yes, says this charming novel. Don Tillman is a genetics professor with a different approach to life and work—it is implied that he exists on the Asperger’s Spectrum and is therefore not neuro-typical but is highly intelligent. He embarks on the Wife Project [a questionnaire to find the ideal woman for him] with enthusiasm and runs into all kinds of unexpected obstacles, not the least of which is personal chemistry [a quality which is unlikely to be quantified on any kind of form].

Don is actually quite astute—he has realized that he is different and the parameters of the difference and has developed coping strategies to deal with his reality. He has recognized that many people are amused by his attempts to act normally, and has begun to play to this audience. I had great sympathy for him, as I have chosen a life path that doesn’t adhere to the norm and have had to deal with plenty of people who think that my life is therefore deficient! I like to think that my “difference” is a combination of introversion and independence, but I certainly felt some affinity to Don’s struggles. I too head straight for a book if there is a new skill that I need to learn, an occupational hazard involved with library work.

I think we are all like Don in some ways—he is not familiar with giving his emotions much consideration during the decision making process for instance. I often have to do some serious journaling to get in touch with *exactly* what I am feeling to aid in decision making. I think we all need time for reflection to sort out life and have to hope for astute friends who can give us constructive suggestions and fond pushes in the right direction. Don is lucky to have Claudia and Gene (although Gene made me cringe as a friend advising on relationships) to nudge him into actions he wouldn’t usually have chosen for himself.

I also enjoyed Don since I have several Don-like people in my life—including one of my male friends, for whom I was on the “unsuitable list” for some time. I am pleased to report that I am now very much on the “suitable list,” as I simply refused to go away or conform to his preconceived ideas. Just call me Rosie.

I’m not usually a fan of romances, but this one charmed me with its differences from regular script.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

The Bride Box / Michael Pearce

3 out of 5 stars
Cairo, 1912. The Pasha receives an unexpected gift: a traditional Bride Box. When opened, however, the box contains an unwelcome jolt from the past – one which connects with practices long thought dead. At the same time, a little girl is discovered riding under a train from Luxor – and the Mamur Zapt, Head of the Khedive’s Secret Police, is called in to investigate.

An Englishman squeezed between the demands of a world about to disappear and the emerging needs of a world about to come, the Mamur Zapt, finds himself confronting a political storm as the end of British rule approaches and his investigations uncover a tangled web of family loyalties and betrayals, with its roots in a slave trade long supposed to have been stamped out in Egypt.

In our age of instant everything, it is hard to remember what life used to be like—back when travel by train was the fastest option and considered so much faster than travel by donkey, when letter post was the ultimate in communication and when life proceeded at a much slower pace, albeit with sudden surges in action. This novel catches that pacing really well. It is still a modern novel in that there are none of the flowery descriptions and diversions that one encounters in 19th century literature (I always have to find a slowed down, more patient head-space before I tackle older fiction). Pearce’s investigators know that they have to do things at the proper pace (i.e. the rural Egyptian pace) or they will jeopardize their results.

I had two reasons for choosing this novel—it was recommended as summer reading on CBC radio and it was set in Egypt, a country which fascinates me (and which I kick myself regularly for neglecting to visit before the current upheaval). I have consumed a certain amount of Ancient Egyptian fiction, but this was my first foray into early 20th century Egypt. Jumping in at the 17th book in the series, I found I was still able to sort everybody out—I would probably be fonder of some of them if I had been reading from the beginning, but I liked them well enough on short acquaintance.

If you like things tied up in neat and tidy bows, this may not be your book. Pearce acknowledges the messiness of life and the dissatisfaction of having the best outcome not being necessarily the most just outcome. Reality, in other words.

It seems that the slower pace of life just 50 years ago has really been brought to my attention recently—just this morning, I was chatting with a student assistant about the differences between using typewriters and computers. We still have an electric typewriter in the library’s labelling department for use on one specific type of label—and our students universally find the technology difficult. If I confess that I learned to type on an ancient manual typewriter, I immediately become a little old lady in their eyes. (Additionally, I had to fight to take typing in high school—the thinking back then was that I wanted to end up as a boss, rather than a secretary, so I shouldn’t learn how to type because that was a secretarial skill. Since I now make my living by typing, I’m very glad I didn’t listen to that argument). In addition to the typing issue, I’ve been working on a writer’s archival papers the last several weeks and I find modern correspondence by email much more confusing to sort through than the stately letters of the past, which may refer to former letters, but don’t just attach copies of them to the body of the current communication! Content of archives is certainly shifting!

Not that I’m unhappy about using computers vs. typewriters or email vs. snail mail—just an observation about how much life has changed during my lifetime. It makes me wonder how my grandfather felt, going from plowing with a mule to farm mechanization to seeing a man land on the moon. He never did get the hang of reversing a car (my father, as a boy, had to back the car out of the garage always and as a result could drive in reverse at high speed for quite a distance—I’m somewhere in between, reversing slowly, carefully and not always accurately.)

It also makes me wonder if we can maintain the speed of change into the future—what will our society be doing by the end of my life? If I’m falling behind now, how will I feel at 90? Eek!

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

A Conspiracy of Faith / Jussi Adler-Olsen

4 out of 5 stars
Detective Carl Mørck holds in his hands a bottle that contains old and decayed message, written in blood. It is a cry for help from two young brothers, tied and bound in a boathouse by the sea. Could it be real? Who are these boys, and why weren’t they reported missing? Could they possibly still be alive?

Carl’s investigation will force him to cross paths with a woman stuck in a desperate marriage- her husband refuses to tell her where he goes, what he does, how long he will be away. For days on end she waits, and when he returns she must endure his wants, his moods, his threats. But enough is enough. She will find out the truth, no matter the cost to her husband—or to herself.

Carl and his colleagues Assad and Rose must use all of their resources to uncover the horrifying truth in this heart-pounding Nordic thriller from the #1 international bestselling author Jussi Adler-Olsen.

I like Detective Carl Mørck, despite a couple of his unlovable characteristics—he is quite a prejudiced guy, not really giving his assistants, Assad and Rose, much credit. He is also a gold-bricker, trying his very best to sleep through his final years in the cold case division before retirement. Despite his intentions, the case of this mysterious letter, written in blood and pleading for help, eventually galvanizes him into action and even into danger. It takes a lot of prodding on his assistants’ part to get Mørck moving, but eventually he is taking the situation seriously and starts to expect more of them in return.

The translation of this work annoyed me somewhat, however—the translator used British idioms, some of which sounded silly in the conversation of a Danish investigator. There were an awful lot of people who “couldn’t be arsed to do something.” Not a common turn of phrase in North America, although easily understood. There were several mentions of “stroppy teenagers,” which I’m guessing is a shortening of obstreperous. I found those things rather distracting, but decipherable. Those are the two that stick in my memory, although I remember having to decode another couple of expressions.

What I’m now wondering about is how much of the racism in the book (directed mostly toward Assad, the Syrian immigrant on police staff) is in the original and how much was influenced by the translator. Assad is referred to as a “camel driver” on one occasion, is shown getting into a fist fight with an Iranian officer [presumably about country-of-origin issues], and being less than truthful about where he lives. Much is made of how dark his skin and hair are and how much he stands out from the rest of the staff. I was relieved that by the book’s end, Mørck is treating him much more like an equal, valuing his input and his back-up in the field. Assad is definitely willing to work and finds all kinds of connections to current cases, stirring up several investigations and being the brains behind the operation on several occasions. And he is certainly the muscle during stressful situations. Mørck also comes to value Rose more highly and perhaps not to judge her by her appearance and gender.
Her work assignments also gain in importance as things progress and she gets treated more kindly.

In addition, there is a confusing situation in which Mørck’s former common-law wife takes up with a man of Indian origin—although Carl wanted her to find someone else & move on, he still seems affronted that she has chosen an Indian man and once again, skin colour and turban are referenced in uncomplimentary ways.

I think my Canadian-ness may be showing through here, as we are quite used to have a multi-ethnic society and think nothing of encountering Asian, Arab, African, etc. people on an everyday basis. [I found that as a very-white Caucasian, I really stood out in some areas of China that I visited and people would be quite pushy about wanting to be photographed with our tour group because we were considered so unusual. Since I have cousins who have Chinese and Korean ancestry, it took me a while to figure out what the fuss was about].

Enough of the anthropological dissection of the novel, however, on to the rest of the book! The action is well-planned and engrossing, plus the villain is suitably deadly, cunning, and mysterious. The plot is sufficiently convoluted to keep the reader interested. The exploration of religions of various sorts in a secular society also adds to the mix. Excellent summer reading!

Monday, 11 August 2014

Frozen Moment / Camilla Cedar

3.5 stars out of 5
One December morning in a small rural town on the Swedish coast, Ake Melkersson is on his way to work when his car breaks down. He spots a garage nearby, but as he approaches he realizes something is wrong. The owner of the garage lies dead, sprawled on the ground, his lower body crushed where a car has repeatedly driven over him. The murder investigation is led by Inspector Christian Tell, known as something of a lone wolf, but he has very few clues to go on and the deceased's wife is out of the country on holiday. Cut to 10 years earlier—Maya Granith is living at a college for troubled teenagers after escaping her shattered home and her neurotic mother. But when an older student takes an overbearing interest in her things begin to go wrong. Back in the present, another murder occurs when a man is shot in the head; again his body is driven over several times. Tell is becoming increasingly involved with a reporter but their relationship is complicated—especially when aspects of the case remind the reporter of someone she knew who went missing 10 years earlier.

You would never know from Nordic mysteries that the Scandinavian countries rate highly on the lists of the world's happiest countries! There are more unhappy marriages, failed love affairs, psychologically fragile or unbalanced people, and miserable work careers per page that you can shake a stick at.

Mind you, my sister works at a court house here in Alberta--she tells me that no one EVER comes to the court house for a happy reason and that they have a lot of "frequent flyers" who she now knows by sight and can recount their rap-sheets. I imagine that working as a homicide detective would entail the same limitations--you are never dealing with a happy family and there will be some unhappy facts to face.

This first novel from Ceder seems to be a study in the many ways that a person can be lonely. Have a job that takes up too much of your time and attention to the detriment of your relationships? Have a mental illness that causes even your children to hate you? Have an abusive background that has warped your life in significant ways? Welcome to Frozen Moment, we have a character for you.

Two parallel stories play out as the novel progresses, encouraging the reader to figure out how they intersect. The interplay between present and past is tantalizing and keeps the pages turning even as the stereotypical homicide detective navigates his way through the crime scene and investigation. As usual in Scandinavian fiction, there is tension between the male & female members of the police force and tension between genetic Scandinavians and immigrants.

I will be very interested to read the further adventures of Christian Tell.