Wednesday, 23 December 2015

The Wandering Fire / Guy Gavriel Kay

5 out of 5 stars
The Wandering Fire is the second novel of Guy Gavriel Kay’s critically acclaimed fantasy trilogy, The Fionavar Tapestry. A mage’s power has brought five university students from our world into a realm where an ancient evil has freed itself from captivity to wreak revenge on its enemies…The ice of eternal winter has reached out to enshroud Fionavar, the first of all worlds. For the Unraveller has broken free after millennia enchained—and now his terrible vengeance has begun to take its toll on mortals and immortals, mages and warriors, dwarves and the lios alfar, the Children of Light.

Only five men and women of our own world, brought by magic across the Tapestry of worlds to the very heart of the Weaver’s pattern, can hope to wake the allies they so desperately need. Yet none can foretell whether even these beings out of legend have the power to shatter the Unraveller’s icy grip of death upon the land…
  


 What can I say about book two that won’t be too spoiler-y for book one? I guess I can say that there is more of the same. The world of Fionavar is locked in an unnatural winter, caused of course by a Mage-gone-wrong. What can the forces of good do against the very winds of winter?

King Arthur is the Eternal Warrior, needed for any possibly-world-ending war. The five wayward Canadians who have found their way to Fionavar have also proven why they were selected by fate to make the transfer to that world. There is pain and there is happiness.

I can’t quit reading—finished The Wandering Fire last night and barely paused before starting The Darkest Road. I think this series is going to become part of my “nursing home library,” those books that I intend to take with me to the nursing home when such a move becomes necessary.

Book 199 of my science fiction and fantasy reading project.

The Summer Tree / Guy Gavriel Kay

5 out of 5 stars
Five men and women find themselves flung into the magical land of Fionavar, First of all Worlds. They have been called there by the mage Loren Silvercloak, and quickly find themselves drawn into the complex tapestry of events. For Kim, Paul, Kevin, Jennifer and Dave all have their own part to play in the coming battle against the forces of evil led by the fallen god Rakoth Maugrim and his dark hordes.


This is Guy Gavriel Kay’s earliest published novel. I’m sure there were previous books that didn’t get published, because you don’t become such a skilled writer without plenty of practice. To be fair, I have previously read two of his more recent novels (set in Ancient China) which are masterful and The Summer Tree is very obviously an early entry in his oeuvre. It is very complex, there are many characters, and there is a LOT going on. A very ambitious novel.

Okay, up front I have to say that I adore the King Arthur story cycle and I have a true love for Norse and British mythology. Plus, I have a serious love affair with Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. These predilections predispose me to love this novel and this series. It makes complete sense to me that Kay, who worked with Christopher Tolkien to get The Silmarillion edited to publish, would be heavily influenced by Tolkien’s world.

What I appreciate is his spin on things Tolkien. Yes, there are dwarves who delve in the earth and there are elf-equivalents (lios alfar) but they behave in GGK ways, not just Tolkien ways. He also takes a page from Donaldson (the Thomas Covenant series) in having modern people transported into an alternate world, but in my opinion he does it so much better (by orders of magnitude). Plus, instead of just being a completely different world with different rules, Fionavar is related to our world. Fionavar is the master copy and our world is one of many versions of it.

Also a plus for me was prominent female characters with substantial roles to play in the action, although I was disappointed that all he could think of to torment Jennifer was overwhelming sexual assault.I was disappointed that all he could think of to torment Jennifer was overwhelming sexual assault. (hide spoiler)]

I hadn’t meant to read the second book until sometime in January, but somehow I just grabbed The Wandering Fire and plunged back into the story immediately. I expect I will be too involved to pause between it and The Darkest Road either. One of the benefits of reading an older series is not having to wait for the next installment. A complete joy to read.

Book 198 of my science fiction and fantasy reading project.

Monday, 21 December 2015

In the Forest / Edna O'Brien

3 out of 5 stars
IN THE FOREST returns to the countryside of western Ireland, the vivid backdrop of Edna O'Brien's previous novel, WILD DECEMBERS. Murder is again the story's climax, but the killer's motives are deeply buried in his psychoses rather than triggered by exterior conflict. Michen O'Kane loses his mother as a boy and by the age of ten is incarcerated for petty crimes in juvenile detention centers, "the places named after the saints." But his problems go beyond early loss and abuse - the killing instinct is already kindled in him. He is christened by fearful neighbors "the Kinderschreck," meaning someone of whom small children are afraid. As in Greek tragedy, there are unwitting victims for sacrifice in the Kinderschreck's world - a radiant young woman, her little son, and a devout and trusting priest, all dispatched to the forest of O'Kane's unbridled, deranged fantasies.
Taken from a true story, Edna O'Brien's riveting, frightening, and brilliantly told new novel reminds us that anything can happen "outside the boundary of mother and child," where protection isn't afforded. The villagers of IN THE FOREST see "one of their own sons, come out of their own soil, their own flesh and blood, gone amok." It is an intimate portrayal of both perpetrator and victims - a story that is old, and current, and everywhere.



I started into this novel with the wrong idea, thinking it would be a murder mystery—instead, I found a kind of murder documentary and it took me a while to get my mindset altered to properly appreciate it. I’m not sure I actually achieved that switch in outlook.

Based on an actual person and the murders he committed, In the Forest charts a life that has run off the rails. O’Kane starts life with mental illness, losing his mother, being brutalized by his father, and ending up in custody where things continue just as cruelly. When he is finally released, he returns to his home territory, hearing voices and determined to bring the same kind of horror to those who didn’t help him when he was a child.

We watch as he takes up residence in the forest (perhaps being wilderness as opposed to civilization) and takes the ultimate revenge on people who represent the things that he has desperately wanted: a little boy with a mother who loves him, a woman who would love him as an adult, and a male authority figure who is kind to him.

The writing is excellent, very evocative. I appreciated that the author did not describe the ultimate violence—however, I found that my imagination provided the details only too well. I will definitely be reading more of Edna O’Brien’s fiction in the future.

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake / Aimee Bender

3.5 stars out of 5
On the eve of her ninth birthday, unassuming Rose Edelstein, a girl at the periphery of schoolyard games and her distracted parents’ attention, bites into her mother’s homemade lemon-chocolate cake and discovers she has a magical gift: she can taste her mother’s emotions in the cake. She discovers this gift to her horror, for her mother—her cheerful, good-with-crafts, can-do mother—tastes of despair and desperation. Suddenly, and for the rest of her life, food becomes a peril and a threat to Rose.

The curse her gift has bestowed is the secret knowledge all families keep hidden—her mother’s life outside the home, her father’s detachment, her brother’s clash with the world. Yet as Rose grows up she learns to harness her gift and becomes aware that there are secrets even her taste buds cannot discern.


So I guess this is magical realism? That concept seems kind of nebulous to me, but I think this book must qualify for it. Rose, at 9 years old, starts to taste the emotions of the person who prepared her food. This means cookies can suddenly taste like furious anger, when made by a bakery employee who hates his job. And it means that Rose is suddenly relying on metallic-tasting junk food to avoid knowing too much about those around her.

She certainly knows too much about her mother’s emotional life—as children we often feel strangely responsible for our parents’ feelings and Rose is no exception. She is burdened with too much knowledge too early in life. As a result, she becomes very observant, noticing things that others don’t. She is also a strange mix of very adult and very childlike—it’s like some part of her gets stuck at the nine-year-old point and unable to advance, while another part of her becomes a little old lady.

Somehow, she is also the lynch-pin between the various members of the family—the one who intuits everyone’s secrets and holds the family together despite those secrets, some strange, some mundane. The book is very much Rose’s journey—from shy child to successful-in-her-own-way adult.

Monday, 14 December 2015

Ender's Game / Orson Scott Card

4 out of 5 stars
The war with the Buggers has been raging for a hundred years, and the quest for the perfect general has been underway for almost as long. Enter Andrew "Ender" Wiggin, the result of decades of genetic experimentation.

Is Ender the general Earth so desperately needs? The only way to find out is to throw him into ever-harsher training at Battle School, to chip away and find the diamond inside, or destroy him utterly. Ender Wiggin is six years old when his training begins. He will grow up fast.

But Ender is not the only result of the experiment. His two older siblings, Peter and Valentine, are every bit as unusual as he is, but in very different ways. Among the three of them lie the abilities to remake a world. If, that is, the world survives.


THERE ARE MANY SPOILERS TO FOLLOW.  READ NO FURTHER IF THAT BOTHERS YOU.

This was a re-read for me, but the first time around was back when it was first published. Then, I adored the book. I was curious to see how the reading experience would change for me now, 30 years later.

This time, I really noticed the age of the main characters—they are child soldiers, manipulated by adults with larger agendas. We’ve always sent young men into war, while the older tactitians remain safely behind, but this depiction was extreme at the time. Now we actually do see 10 year olds with machine guns in some conflicts in some parts of the world.

I’m also more aware of the cause of the war—a lack of communication between humans and buggers. Add to that our basic xenophobia; if we can’t accept people of other skin colours or religions, how can we accept a species that aren’t mammals? It’s like asking for someone to hand you a can of Raid and then casually exterminating the insects that have inadvertently invaded your home. If we meet other species, will we be able to overlook their evolutionary differences and almost-certainly very different way of looking at the world?

It also brings to mind drone warfare—where the people dropping the bombs are well out of the field of battle and can do it rather clinically, without experiencing the effects of those bombs. Ender doesn’t realize that he is leading real battalions, as he is still in an environment which he perceives as a school room. He is insulated from the results of his choices & actions at every step of his training, allowing him to exterminate a whole world without questioning what is going on.

The last few pages of the book were the best part, in my opinion—where Ender becomes the Speaker for the Dead. Where he represents the species that he was responsible for destroying, where he finds out how deeply they understood him, especially when he felt completely misunderstood by his fellow humans.

Book number 197 of my science fiction & fantasy reading project.

Friday, 11 December 2015

Contact / Carl Sagan

4 out of 5 stars
Pulitzer Prize-winner Carl Sagan imagines the greatest adventure of all... the discovery of an advanced civilization in the depths of space. December, 1999, a multinational team journeys out to the stars, to the most awesome encounter in human history. Who-- or what-- is out there? In Cosmos, Carl Sagan explained the universe. In Contact, he predict its future-- and our own.

Contact. The first contact with a non-human intelligence, beaming information at Earth from somewhere in the vicinity of the star Vega. I was reminded strongly of Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001, a Space Odyssey and also his Rendezvous with Rama. Sagan and Clarke were both very familiar with the political maneuvering that takes place in multi-institutional projects and could provide very believable back-room machinations.

At first, I thought that Sagan’s main character, Ellie, was rather like Clarke’s characters—clinically removed from emotions, observing them more than experiencing them. But I came to realize that the book was also about her contact with those around her, letting her tendency to observe and analyze stand in the way of truly making meaningful personal contact—with her lovers, with her colleagues, with her mother and stepfather. After a painful realization—that she has been taken advantage of by one of her lovers—she has no close woman friend to go have a drink with, no one to agree with her that the guy’s treatment of her was shitty, or to commiserate.

The book is also a thoughtful exploration of the complex relationship between science and religion—and the aspects of both where we can find “contact.” Because scientists do feel awe—who can stare up into the night sky, or think about the complexity of DNA, or hike in gorgeous surroundings without feeling it? But this book was written in the days before the militant atheists had claimed science as their territory and told religious believers that they couldn’t come in unless they recanted their beliefs.

Much more than just a “first contact” story, there are layers and depths here that frankly surprised me. Scientists are not necessarily good fiction writers—but I guess that Sagan was an effective story-teller, so I shouldn’t have been so startled.

Book number 196 of my science fiction & fantasy reading project.

Thursday, 10 December 2015

A Stainless Steel Rat is Born / Harry Harrison

3 out of 5 stars
In this prequel to the Stainless Steel Rat, Slippery Jim is a brash 17-year-old who has left his parents' porcuswine farm, planning to embark on a life of crime. The book opens with Jim bungling a bank job so that he can be arrested and sent to prison, where he plans to learn the art of being a master criminal. Deciding that the Bishop should be his mentor, Jim sets about proving himself worthy of the master's attention. He eventually has to flee his home planet of Bit O' Heaven with the Bishop, but Garth, the Captain of the ship who promised them safe passage, sells them into slavery. The latter part of the book details Jim's adventures on the planet Spiovente, a semi-industrial world fighting feudal wars with weapons smuggled in (against League regulations) by Captain Garth.

Harrison breathes some new life into the Stainless Steel Rat series by going back to Slippery Jim’s beginnings. Prequels must have been a fairly new phenomenon in the mid-1980s, as the author feels the need to explain them in a foreword. How times have changed—now we have all kinds of numbering orders and it feels quite normal.

Going back to Jim’s genesis was an inspired idea. Fresh off the porcuswine farm, he is determined to get sent to jail, where he anticipates meeting some impressive criminals who can provide a master-class in crime. Instead, he finds that the wise guys aren’t in the joint, they are free and doing what they do best. After escaping, he must hatch a plan to lure in the smartest criminal of all time, The Bishop.

We watch as Jim meets his mentor, develops his “code,” and adopts the SSR persona. Very entertaining and great for a couple of evenings of reading. Very cute, if somewhat repetitive. The writing is serviceable, but kindly don’t expect anything of Raymond Chandler quality. Harrison must have blasted these books out quickly and for fun, between other projects (or whenever he needed to top up the bank account).

Book no. 195 of my science fiction & fantasy reading project.

Monday, 7 December 2015

Silverthorn / Raymond E. Feist

3.5 stars out of 5
A poisoned bolt has struck down the Princess Anita on the day of her wedding to Prince Arutha of Krondor.

To save his beloved, Arutha sets out in search of the mystic herb called Silverthorn that only grows in the dark and forbidding land of the Spellweavers.

Accompanied by a mercenary, a minstrel, and a clever young thief, he will confront an ancient evil and do battle with the dark powers that threaten the enchanted realm of Midkemia.


This is the one and only book of this series which my public library possesses. Go figure. Why have only the 3rd volume of a 4 volume series? Another one of the mysteries of library acquisition.

I found this the most engaging book of the series that I’ve read, perhaps because it deals less with Pug & Tomas and more with Prince Arutha and his new squire, Jimmy the Hand. There is a certain amount of comedy to be devised by making a thief into a squire and his shenanigans lighten the mood of some otherwise rather grim events.

This installment is very much about relationships—namely Arutha’s relationships, with Anita, with his brothers, with his travel companions, etc. It is also about his realization that as a prince, he can no longer afford to do things purely for himself—he must take his position and the people dependent upon him into consideration when making plans. Arutha is hands-down my favourite character of the series, so no wonder I am pleased with this novel.

There are definitely echoes of the Sleeping Beauty story in this one, and Jimmy reminds me strongly of Slippery Jim DiGriz of Stainless Steel Rat renown.

Right, now I’m off to request Darkness at Sethanon by inter-library loan!

Book 194 of my science fiction and fantasy reading project.

Friday, 4 December 2015

The Scream of the Butterfly / Jakob Melander

3 out of 5 stars
The mayor of Copenhagen is found murdered in his luxury apartment. Detective Lars Winkler is put on this sensitive case, which is further complicated by the fact that the victim’s mother is the leader of the country’s most radical political party and the current minister of finance. Lars notices the minister and her husband are strangely untouched by their son’s death. When he begins to dig into the mayor’s past, he slowly uncovers the dark story of a young, idealistic man, who had only one wish: to free himself of his family and live his own life.

I received an Advance Reading Copy from the publisher, House of Anansi Press.

 It was a bit confusing at the beginning, getting it all the characters straightened out and figuring out the flashbacks, but once I had those details established in my brain, this became a pretty standard Nordic Noir. The main character, Lars Winkler, is the typical detective of the genre—he’s getting divorced, his ex-wife is living with his boss, and he’s a bit reluctant to share all of his thoughts about an investigation with his colleagues.

The real star of this mystery, however, is the transgender woman, Serafine, whose tale winds its way through the novel. I found the sections depicting her point of view to be the best written in the book. In fact, I think it’s too bad that this publisher changed the title—in Denmark, the book is called Serafine. I know very little about the struggles of transgender people, but it seemed to me that Melander really felt for this character and portrayed her extremely sympathetically.

Other than those two, the other people are little more than cardboard cut-outs. They exist only to fill their roles and they have very little substance. I hope that in future volumes of this series that they will get suitable back stories and become well rounded in their own right.

The other aspect that is written extremely well is the music—and a quick check of the author’s bio reveals that he has a musical background, so that makes perfect sense. In this aspect, the book reminds me of Mankell’s Wallander, with his passion for opera.

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

I'm Coming / Selma Lønning Aarø

2.5 stars out of 5
In a society where we discuss sex openly, the most embarrassing secret is to admit that you can’t make "it" happen. I’m Coming is a hilarious and provocative novel about why women fake it.

Ever since her sexual debut, Julie has faked orgasms. One day she decides she's had enough and locks herself in the bedroom with food, baby oil, and Mr. Rabbit — a vibrator with a thirty-day orgasm guarantee. Lying in bed she reviews her sexual history: boyfriends, casual lovers, and, not least, the man she married. Meanwhile, her husband and their three children stomp around outside her bedroom, along with the sexually well-functioning Ukrainian au pair, all of them wondering why Julie isn't coming.



I received an advanced reader copy from the publisher, Anansi Press. Opinions expressed are strictly my own.
 2.5 stars. Not my cup of tea. I rarely read “humour” because, for me, it just doesn’t translate to the page. I don’t get it. And this book is no exception. I really didn’t see the humour in it.

Not that weren’t some timely topics addressed—women feeling they have to live up to the standards of pornography or feeling that they are unworthy unless they are half of a couple. However, Julie, the narrator, was not a sympathetic character for me. How could I like someone who “lost” a dog, just because she got tired of caring for it? Her behaviour is so self-centred that I tired of her quickly.

Western civilization has become so sexualized—it would be difficult to have a sexual dysfunction. Plus, it is a touchy thing to talk about, although I felt Julie chose odd people to confide in. Why would she not just go to a doctor? I’m sure that Norway has plenty of professional, discreet physicians and psychologists who could help with such an issue. She seems to have plenty of boundary issues—putting up with an abusive relationship as a younger woman, not standing up to her mother about when she will get married, unable to exert any authority in her relationship with the au pair.

It’s a very limited commentary on these issues, because Julie is so limited as a human being. I certainly hope that any men reading this novel won’t view her as an average woman. I believe that most of us run our own lives successfully and don’t drift from sexual encounter to sexual encounter in some vain attempt to define ourselves. Yes, women like this exist (I can think of at least one I know personally), but they aren’t common. Sex is an important component in women’s lives, but it is far from being the be all and end all.

Needless to say, your mileage may vary. There’s a lid for every pot, as the old saying goes, and others may find this more entertaining than I did.

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

The Green Road / Anne Enright

4 out of 5 stars
Spanning thirty years and three continents, The Green Road tells the story of Rosaleen, matriarch of the Madigan family, and her four children.

Ardeevin, County Clare, Ireland. 1980. When her oldest brother Dan announces he will enter the priesthood, young Hanna watches her mother howl in agony and retreat to her room. In the years that follow, the Madigan children leave one by one: Dan for the frenzy of New York under the shadow of AIDS; Constance for a hospital in Limerick, where petty antics follow simple tragedy; Emmet for the backlands of Mali, where he learns the fragility of love and order; and Hanna for modern-day Dublin and the trials of her own motherhood. When Christmas Day reunites the children under one roof, each confronts the terrible weight of family ties and the journey that brought them home. The Green Road is a major work of fiction about the battles we wage for family, faith, and love.


This is not a book you read for the plot, because there isn’t much plot. This is a book that you read for the characters and the beauty of the language. If you can’t hear the lilt of the Irish accent when you read these words, you aren’t paying attention.

One of the blurbs on the cover compares Enright to Alice Munro, and I would have to second that impression. The Green Road is all about family relationships—Rosaleen and her four children and their success or lack thereof. It’s true that when you go home to the childhood home, it’s next to impossible not to slip back into childhood patterns, no matter how much your life has changed when you are out in the world. Enright examines each life in a tough, beautiful way—not a word wasted, but everything is expressed anyway.

Read it for the perfection of the words, for the lilt of the Irish accent, for the simple complexity of the people. 

Monday, 30 November 2015

The Handmaid's Tale / Margaret Atwood

4 out of 5 stars
Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. She may leave the home of the Commander and his wife once a day to walk to food markets whose signs are now pictures instead of words because women are no longer allowed to read. She must lie on her back once a month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining births, Offred and the other Handmaids are valued only if their ovaries are viable. Offred can remember the years before, when she lived and made love with her husband, Luke; when she played with and protected her daughter; when she had a job, money of her own, and access to knowledge. But all of that is gone now...  


“It was after the catastrophe, when they shot the president and machine-gunned the Congress, and the army declared a state of emergency. They blamed it on the Islamic fanatics, at the time.”

Once again, I wonder at the prescience of Margaret Atwood. I know that she was thinking of the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Iran, back in the 1970s and early 1980s, but it sounds exactly like a headline in next week’s paper. It is completely believable in 2015, a time when a shyster like Donald Trump stands on stages telling people that the Bible is his favourite book. We exist in a time when anyone who wants to be president of the US has to trumpet his religious belief, something which would horrify the founding fathers of the United States, who worked hard to separate church and state.

Fundamentalism seems is epidemic in the United States and the Middle East—Christians, Israelis, and various flavours of Islam, leaving the moderates in all of those religions frustrated that they are being represented worldwide by the extremists, being forced to apologize for their religions while also trying to point out that not all members of their religions are bigoted idiots. And one of the symptoms of fundamentalism is the desire to exert complete control over female sexuality and female lives.

Add to that the increasing comfort with violence—police who feel justified in shooting anyone who isn’t immediately completely submissive, politicians who feel increasingly justified in bombing the opposition, general media audiences who prefer explosions and shooting to relationships and sex, the prevalence of violent woman-hating pornography that has become common on the internet.

Ursula K LeGuin has noted that women can get to about the 30% mark of winning awards and gaining recognition for their art and then men start to protest that women are “taking over” and that there is some conspiracy against male artists.

“Those years were just an anomaly, historically speaking, the Commander said. All we’ve done is return things to Nature’s norm.”
Combine it all—fundamentalism, violence, and intolerance for female freedom & sexual expression, and The Handmaid’s Tale seems almost inevitable. Thankfully, although Atwood imagined it 30 years ago, we have managed to avoid fulfilling her prophecy for at least that long.

Book number 193 of my Science Fiction & Fantasy reading project.

Enchanters' End Game / David Eddings

4 out of 5 stars
The quest was over. The Orb of Aldur was restored. And once again, with the crowning of Garion, there was a descendant of Riva Iron-grip to rule as Overlord of the West.  But the Prophecy was unfulfilled. In the east, the evil God Torak was about to awaken and seek dominion. Somehow, Garion had to face the God, to kill or be killed. On the outcome of that dread duel rested the destiny of the world. Now, accompanied by his grandfather, the ancient sorcerer Belgarath, Garion headed toward the City of Endless Night, where Torak awaited him.

To the south, his fiancée, the princess Ce'Nedra, led the armies of the West in a desperate effort to divert the forces of Torak's followers from the man she loved. 
The Prophecy drove Garion on. But it gave no answer to the question that haunted him: How does a man kill an immortal God?


For me, this was the most enjoyable book of the whole Belgariad series, and that despite all of the “happily-ever-afters” that occur by book’s end. Those of you who know me, know that I much prefer “Lady or the Tiger?” type endings that leave things more to my imagination.

Garion finally comes into his own during this installment and his elders and the Prophecy actually help him. He and Ce’Nedra start communicating, instead of guessing what the other is thinking or feeling. And even Hettar, the implacable horse-lord, finds a mate and mellows a bit, although it takes an altercation for that to happen (it kind of reminded me of Zane Grey’s The Last Trail, where Lou Wetzel meets his match).

Garion naturally approaches his prophesied mission with trepidation—how does a mere mortal battle a god like Torak? The answer is a bit slick, but believable in the world that Eddings has created. There are still a couple of bad guys left, but that’s for other series. By the end of End Game, one has the feeling that the party is over—the leftover food has been put away, the dishes have been washed, the floor swept and everything has been returned to its place.

Life is short and the number of books I want to read is huge, so I don’t know that I will pursue any more of Eddings’ writing, but I did enjoy this series.

Book 192 of my Science Fiction & Fantasy Reading Project.

Saturday, 28 November 2015

It Ended Badly / Jennifer Wright

4 out of 5 stars
Spanning eras and cultures from ancient Rome to medieval England to 1950s Hollywood, Jennifer Wright's It Ended Badly guides you through the worst of the worst in historically bad breakups. In the throes of heartbreak, Emperor Nero had just about everyone he ever loved-from his old tutor to most of his friends-put to death. Oscar Wilde's lover, whom he went to jail for, abandoned him when faced with being cut off financially from his wealthy family and wrote several self-serving books denying the entire affair. And poor volatile Caroline Lamb sent Lord Byron one hell of a torch letter and enclosed a bloody lock of her own pubic hair. Your obsessive social media stalking of your ex isn't looking so bad now, is it?
With a wry wit and considerable empathy, Wright digs deep into the archives to bring these thirteen terrible breakups to life. She educates, entertains, and really puts your own bad breakup conduct into perspective. It Ended Badly is for anyone who's ever loved and lost and maybe sent one too many ill-considered late-night emails to their ex, reminding us that no matter how badly we've behaved, no one is as bad as Henry VIII.
 

“No one gossips about other people’s secret virtues.”—Bertrand Russell
How true! What fun would that be? And this book is fun and snarky. In a very 21st century way, the author discusses some of the most prominent romantic break-ups in history. It can be difficult to judge the past by their own standards, so let’s not, just for the duration of this little book. Get all judgey with 21st century values and giggle while you do it.

There are poets behaving badly (Lord Byron), Romans behaving viciously (Nero), and rather sad tales, like Oscar Wilde (eventually abandoned by the guy that he went to jail for). Then there are the ladies who won the public relations battle—Elizabeth Taylor and Debbie Reynolds, whose friendship outlasted both of their marriages to Eddie Fischer.

Light & frothy, just the thing to get you interested in reading serious biographies of some of these people, and a wonderful change from heavier fare. 

Friday, 27 November 2015

Dinosaur Lords / Victor Milan

4 out of 5 stars

A world made by the Eight Creators on which to play out their games of passion and power, Paradise is a sprawling, diverse, often brutal place. Men and women live on Paradise as do dogs, cats, ferrets, goats, and horses. But dinosaurs predominate: wildlife, monsters, beasts of burden – and of war. Colossal planteaters like Brachiosaurus; terrifying meateaters like Allosaurus and the most feared of all, Tyrannosaurus rex. Giant lizards swim warm seas. Birds (some with teeth) share the sky with flying reptiles that range in size from batsized insectivores to majestic and deadly Dragons.

Thus we are plunged into Victor Milán's splendidly weird world of The Dinosaur Lords, a place that for all purposes mirrors 14th century Europe with its dynastic rivalries, religious wars, and byzantine politics…and the weapons of choice are dinosaurs. Where we have vast armies of dinosaur-mounted knights engaged in battle. And during the course of one of these epic battles, the enigmatic mercenary Dinosaur Lord Karyl Bogomirsky is defeated through betrayal and left for dead. He wakes, naked, wounded, partially amnesiac – and hunted. And embarks upon a journey that will shake his world.


Reasons to love The Dinosaur Lords:

1. DINOSAURS. Yup, they're part of everyday life on the planet of Paradise.
2. A chance to actually use that French/Spanish/Latin that you've studied in school.
3. All the fun stuff included in high fantasy epics--battles, personal vendettas, romances, escapes and captures, death, lies, and sometimes truths.

This novel owes a debt of gratitude to many that went before it. There is a nod to Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books (if you are present at the hatching of one of the large carnivorous dinosaurs, it will bond to you and you alone). The quotes from various texts at the beginning of each chapter were very reminiscent of Frank Herbert’s Dune series, although this world is much less complex. And there is a distinct Robin Hood vibe to the last chapters of the book wherein the Rob, the “Irish” bard, and Karyl Bogomirksy, the old campaigner, take a group of peasants and unwilling nobles and try to forge them into a fighting force to stand up to the Dinosaur Lords.

Still, I found some aspects of the book jarring. Every now and then, in a pseudo-Medieval setting, a blunt, modern term would slap me out of the narrative. Usually something just a bit too coarse for the rest of the writing. There was only one sex scene, which was described much more towards the porn end of the spectrum than I would have expected—if you haven’t seen your lover for months, there is urgency yes, but there is still affection and tenderness that was completely missing from this depiction. Unfortunately, there is a rape in the latter stages of the book and I found it more realistic than the supposedly loving sex.

However, this novel passes the Bechdel test with flying colours! There is a whole bevy of strong women who surround princess Melodía, who is herself seeking a way of making her life more meaningful. Instead of just letting life slip by in a series of pleasures and entertainments, these women are seeking to influence their society. They have sexual agency and a fair bit of freedom and are making the most of it. Bonus points!

I can definitely see where those who are not dinosaur aficionados would be somewhat confused (although that is what those chapter headings are there to help with) and if you resolutely resist using any language except English, you will encounter difficulties. Some interest in Medieval vocabulary is of utility to the reader as well (i.e. knowing that a sackbut is a trombone-like instrument and that Parasaurolophus had a long crest which presumably gave it’s call a trombone-like quality, hence calling this species of Hadrosaur a Sackbut).

I think every dinosaur lover has dreamt of being able to see these marvelous animals in the flesh (and not in Jurassic Park, either!); this book allows us to indulge this dream a bit. The dinosaur masters, who care for the war-dinosaurs, obviously love their charges and have fond relationships with them. I think many of us will insert ourselves imaginatively into that role!

I look forward to the second installment of the tale, The Dinosaur Knights.

Battlefield Earth / L. Ron Hubbard

2 out of 5 stars

Earth has been dominated for 1,000 years by an alien invader—and man is an endangered species. From the handful of surviving humans a courageous leader emerges—Jonnie Goodboy Tyler, who challenges the invincible might of the alien Psychlo empire in a battle of epic scale, danger and intrigue with the fate of the Earth and of the universe in the tenuous balance.


My kingdom for an editor! At over 1000 pages, this novel really needed one, but I guess it’s not so easy to edit a paranoid madman (for that’s what L. Ron Hubbard was at this point). He states in the introduction that he didn’t make any effort to contain himself while writing Battlefield Earth and it shows. What also shows is the era when Hubbard did the majority of his science fiction writing. Battlefield Earth may have been published in the 1980s, but it reads much more like a novel of the 1950s.

The main character is Jonnie Goodboy Tyler. That middle name says it all really. Tyler is very much a Gary Stu character—he can and does learn anything. He masters the language of the invading aliens, the Psychlos. Despite coming from a material culture that has been reduced to the horse, he easily adapts to machines. He also becomes an expert diplomat after a half hour of coaching from one of his assistants. Also telling is that computers are not introduced until very much towards the end of the novel—just like the Lensman series of E.E. Smith, complicated craft are run without their benefit. This makes sense, as in the late 1970s computers were uncommon and expensive (so it also makes sense that the first characters in the book to use them are the inter-galactic bankers). Plus, Hubbard had been isolated from mainstream society for years, hiding from the authorities on his ship, and may have been unaware of the importance of computers in aviation.

Another 1950s aspect to the novel is Jonnie’s relationship with Chrissie, his love interest. In the beginning, he barely acknowledges her and during her ordeal of being held captive by Terl, a Pscyhlo who needs leverage over Jonnie, the most contact they have is an almost-hand-holding incident. Somewhere after page 990, they finally get to embrace. By book’s end, they have two children, leaving the reader to assume that they eventually get beyond the embrace. It is ironic that in his introduction to the novel, Hubbard admonishes other writers that sci fi is more about people than about science and then he goes on to create absolutely wooden, almost-emotionless characters. The best realized emotion is anger (something that may accurately reflect Hubbard himself).

What I found truly fascinating was the duality of Jonnie and Terl (his Psychlo captor). Jonnie is upright, able to do anything, a leader of men, smart—in short everything good thing that Hubbard liked to believe he himself possessed. Terl, one of the Psychlo overlords, is almost a parody of a sadistic, crazy-like-a-fox bad guy. He is cunning, given to fits of temper, a substance abuser, cares about no one but himself, and is acknowledged as being mentally unstable. This being the description of Hubbard the Scientology leader, especially in his later years (when this novel was published), one wonders how much of himself he realized that he was channeling into this character!

Incidentally, it seems that bad guys always smell bad. The Psychlos are furry, mangy and stinky. The Brigantes, a nasty human tribe, are not only cannibals but don’t wash and can often be smelled before they are seen.

By about page 530, I was wondering why in the world I was reading this monstrosity. By about page 770, I was actually committed to finishing and wanted to know how in the world Hubbard would wrap things up. Turns out, Battlefield Earth is 1066 pages written in order for Hubbard to stick out his tongue at the psychiatric profession! Hubbard spent his entire life trying to be the one in control, controlled by no one. Jonnie actually manages that (and goes one better, as he not only runs Earth, but out manoeuvres other planetary races plus the inter-galactic bank). Hubbard has fun with his depiction of the bankers (they seem to be descended from sharks and have insatiable appetites), but he saves his venom for the psychiatric field. It turns out that it was it was evil “catrists” (i.e. psychiatrists) who took the smartest among the Psychlo population (Hubbard calls them the “brain-brains”), recruited them to the Security Service, and taught only them the valuable secrets of controlling inter-galactic trade. No one knew the previous name of the race—they were known as Psychlos, after the evil people who conquered them from within. All non-security members of the race have brain implants that kill them if they try to even think about maths and sciences.

This is richly ironic, as Hubbard probably wished for such a mind control device often, when dealing with his Scientology followers, who had an unfortunate tendency to think for themselves! He worked hard to set up a very punitive system to keep them in line and thinking only what he wanted them to think.

In real life, Hubbard hated psychiatry (probably because they could have recognized his mental illness and would have confined him for treatment). There is a point in the book where Jonnie realizes that he has “cured himself of an injury through the power of his mind,” a not-so-subtle plug for Hubbard’s Dianetics program. No wonder this novel is so popular among Scientologists (including John Travolta who insisted in starring in the dog of a movie).

This is book 191 in my science fiction and fantasy reading project.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

The Gap of Time / Jeanette Winterson

4.5 stars out of 5
The Winter's Tale is one of Shakespeare's “late plays”. It tells the story of Leontes, King of Sicily, whose insane jealousy results in the banishment of his baby daughter, Perdita, from the kingdom and then the death of his beautiful wife, Hermione. Perdita is brought up by a shepherd on the Bohemian coast, but through a series of miraculous events, father and daughter, and eventually mother too, are reunited.

In Jeanette Winterson's retelling we move from London, a city reeling after the 2008 financial crash, to a storm-ravaged city in the US called New Bohemia. Her story is one of childhood friendship, money, status, video games and the elliptical nature of time. It tells in a hyper-modern way, full of energy and beauty, of the consuming power of jealousy on the one hand, and love, redemption and a lost child on the other.



This review is based on an uncorrected proof that I won in a GoodReads give away.

4.5 stars. I loved it. But this contains things that are catnip to me: a Shakespearean story retold by a talented writer. I saw The Winter’s Tale performed last year, so it was reasonably fresh in my mind as I read The Gap of Time. Winterson, Winter’s Tale, how perfect.

Winterson has the writing chops to pull this off. I love the playfulness of her writing in this novel—totally appropriate, as Shakespeare wrote plenty of humour into the original. And I think the bawdy Bard would approve of some of her cheeky observations about human sexuality.

A couple of the things that made me smile:

Xeno, describing computer games: “Have you ever noticed how ninety per cent of games feature tattooed white men with buzzcuts beating the shit out of the world in stolen cars? It’s like living in a hardcore gay nightclub on a military base.”

“There was a knock at the door. It was Clo and Lorraine LaTrobe. ‘We’ve come to wish you luck, little sister,’ said Clo. Lorraine LaTrobe was dressed in a skintight one-piece Lycra suit and spike heels. Her hair was piled on her head and dyed red like a stop light…’Hello, Mrs. Levy,’ said Lorraine. ‘We’ll be in the front row.’ She took Clo’s hand and led him off. ‘She’s quite a woman,’ said Shep. ‘She’s trans,’ said Pauline [Mrs. Levy]."

And of course, I love tons of literary references. Oedipus, Hemingway, several other Shakespearean works, plus a little reference to the author herself!

So why did I knock off half a star? The reason may not even be in the final version of the book. It’s the last 5ish pages, the explaining and philosophizing. Put it in an afterword. Put it in a post-script. Just don’t attach it to the actual tale as if it’s part of that story.

Looking forward to more volumes in the Hogarth Shakespeare series.

Monday, 23 November 2015

The Haunting of Hill House / Shirley Jackson

4 out of 5 stars
First published in 1959, Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House has been hailed as a perfect work of unnerving terror. It is the story of four seekers who arrive at a notoriously unfriendly pile called Hill House: Dr. Montague, an occult scholar looking for solid evidence of a "haunting"; Theodora, his lighthearted assistant; Eleanor, a friendless, fragile young woman well acquainted with poltergeists; and Luke, the future heir of Hill House. At first, their stay seems destined to be merely a spooky encounter with inexplicable phenomena. But Hill House is gathering its powers—and soon it will choose one of them to make its own.

 A classic ghost story. As per usual, I read this only during day light hours in order to prevent a lot of unnecessary cowering on my part. I truly hate being scared by my own imagination.

While reading this short tale, I was reminded forcibly of two other books. The Haunting of Hill House shares significant characteristics with The Turn of the Screw by Henry James: an unreliable female narrator, who may or may not have mental issues, and strange things going that we have to take her word for.

Stephen King has called The Haunting of Hill House “one of the finest horror novels of the late 20th century” and it was obviously an influence on his novel The Shining. The malevolent building, which influences the people within it, the staff who give obvious warnings to those who choose to enter said building, the confusion developing in those who stay for any length of time. In King’s work, the horror of the situation is more concrete—we are left in no doubt that there is evil in the hotel and that it is stalking the humans within.

Meant to be my Halloween book for 2015, I found myself too busy with life to finish even this short tale until well into November. I love to see the relationships between classic books and look forward to reading more of Shirley Jackson’s work.

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Bare-Faced Messiah : the true story of L. Ron Hubbard / Russell Miller

4 out of 5 stars
The founder and leader of the Church of Scientology, L. Ron Hubbard was promoted for over 30 years as a romantic adventurer and philosopher with a mission to save the world. Miller has carefully researched Hubbard's life, and provides a biography unlike any of those the church has produced and interwoven with lies.

Let’s begin at the beginning, with the DSM-5 criteria for narcissistic personality disorder:

1. Having an exaggerated sense of self-importance
2. Expecting to be recognized as superior even without achievements that warrant it
3. Exaggerating your achievements and talents
4. Being preoccupied with fantasies about success, power, brilliance, beauty or the perfect mate
5. Believing that you are superior and can only be understood by or associate with equally special people
6. Requiring constant admiration
7. Expecting special favors and unquestioning compliance with your expectations
8. Taking advantage of others to get what you want
9. Having an inability or unwillingness to recognize the needs and feelings of others
10. Being envious of others and believing others envy you
11. Behaving in an arrogant or haughty manner

L. Ron Hubbard is a classic example of these criteria. In every area of his life, he expected to be acknowledged as a master, despite proof of the opposite. In the navy, he aspired to command, but his fellow officers recognized his incompetence early and he rarely got a chance to cause too much mayhem before being removed from that capacity. Every single university or job application that he wrote contained what might be kindly called “exaggerations,” more realistically called fabrications. He truly felt entitled to do whatever he pleased, including marrying his second wife without divorcing the first one. When socializing with other science fiction writers, he told fabulous stories—the others did the same of course, but it was acknowledged that they were stretching the truth or improving the story. Hubbard would get really angry if anyone questioned the veracity of his tales—he expected to be believed unconditionally. He could take a tiny incident (he took a picture somewhere) and turn it into a major event (he was a National Geographic photographer) without blinking.

The rest of us, those who have consciences and who care about the people around us, can’t conceive of living life this way—this is why we are so slow to respond to a narcissist. For the first while that we are dealing with the person, we just can’t compute what is going on. It seems stranger than fiction. I had an assistant for a while who just about drove me to drink, until I realized that I was dealing with a narcissist. He just wanted a job listing on his resumé—he didn’t care if he did a good job and really didn’t listen to any instructions that he was given. He spent a lot of time telling me that his professors just didn’t realize what a genius he was, hence a C+ average. And of course there were lots of awesome projects and fabulous travel that he had done (note, he came from a wealthy family, so some of it was actually possible). But I have to wonder how much of the story was fiction.

Hubbard had a good dose of paranoia to go along with the personality disorder. But his is one case where just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean that someone isn’t out to get you! His habit of viewing international laws as tedious rules that someone as special as he shouldn’t have to worry about made him persona non grata around the world.

I think that since Hubbard considered himself far superior to everyone else, he expected that he would be able to do everything excellently. “After all,” he could tell himself, “if that guy can skipper an ocean liner and I’m better than him, then running an ocean liner will be a piece of cake for me.” No acknowledgement that training or talent had any bearing on success.

Long story short: Thankfully, LRH has moved on to the next level of research (i.e. died). Less happy is the fact that another control freak was waiting to take over the reins of Scientology and is still taking advantage of thousands of people. For an insider’s perspective, I would recommend Beyond Belief : My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape by Jenna Miscavige Hill (niece of the current leader).

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Castle of Wizardry / David Eddings

3 out of 5 stars
It had all begun with the theft of the Orb that had so long protected the West from the evil God Torak. Before that, Garion had been a simple farm boy. Afterward, he discovered that his aunt was really the Sorceress Polgara and his grandfather was Belgarath, the Eternal Man. Then, on the long quest to recover the Orb, Garion found to his dismay that he, too, was a sorcerer.

Now, at last, the Orb was regained and the quest was nearing its end. Of course, the questors still had to escape from this crumbling enemy fortress and flee across a desert filled with Murgo soldiers searching for them, while Grolim Hierarchs strove to destroy them with dark magic. Then, somehow, they must manage to be in Riva with the Orb by Erastide. After that, however, Garion was sure that his part in these great events would be finished.

But the Prophecy still held future surprises for Garion--and for the little princess Ce'Nedra.


 This fourth installment of the Belgariad series plunges in exactly where the previous volume left off—there is no exposition, no reminding the reader gently what came before. Fortunately, everything is simplistic enough that even my menopausally-challenged memory was able to fish out the necessary details within the first chapter, the circumstances slowly coming back to me.

I have to say that Belgarion is a frustrating hero. He never seems to catch on to what is happening in his own life and he ends up surprised by things that the not-necessarily-astute reader has seen coming since book one. I found myself a bit offended on his behalf at several points, however, as the adults in his life kept shoving him into situations that they should have been preparing him for. They all could see that he was struggling and not understanding his role in things and I felt they should have been more forthcoming with information and support.

I do appreciate that Eddings didn’t go all “Lord of the Rings” in this series—there are no elves or orcs and the sought-after Orb doesn’t need to be destroyed. In fact, there is another “Sword in the Stone” moment as Garion accepts the Orb and it acknowledges his status as heir. Eddings does create a moderately interesting world, albeit a fairly shallow one. When reading Tolkien, I always appreciate the fact that he knew Middle Earth inside out, had created a complex history for it and designed authentic feeling languages for all of its peoples. There isn’t that same feeling of depth to Edding’s world, but how many people would go to the extremes of world-building that Tolkien did?

Even the main characters are a little wooden in the Belgariad, but a few are quite entertaining. I am always fond of Silk and his spying, conniving ways. It was also lovely to see Lord Barak settle into a more comfortable family situation. Lady Polgara and Princess Ce’Nedra provide some female main characters, but they rarely talk about anything except Garion & Ce’Nedra’s relationship, such as it is. Bechdel test fail.

One more book to go, and I hope to read it before the end of this year!

Book number 190 of my science fiction and fantasy reading project.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

The Adversary / Julian May

3.5 stars out of 5
Until the arrival of Aiken Drum, the 100,000 humans who had fled backward in time to Pliocene exile on Earth knew little but slavery to the Tanu, the humanoid aliens who came from another galaxy. But King Aiken's rule is precarious, for the Tanu's twisted brethren are secretly maneuvering to bring about his downfall. Worse, Aiken is about to confront a man of incredibly powerful talents who nearly overthrew a galactic rule. He is Marc Remillard. Call him...The Adversary.

My least favourite of the 4 Pliocene Exile books. It took me a while to get into this one, although eventually I found myself back into the flow. I have to admire the intricate nature of May’s plot and how it all ties together eventually. I did find that the sheer number of characters (not all of whom I remembered well) was part of the reason that it was slow going in the beginning. Also, the involvement of Marc Remillard was tiring to me—I was much more interested in the other humans, the Tanu and the Firvulag and their various plots and plans. Looking back, I realize that there was much less attention paid to the ancient environment and extinct animals in this book than in the others, and since that was one of the best parts of the series for me, it stands to reason that this book would be less appealing. I also missed the firey Felice and so many others who perished en route to this installment of the tale. (Perhaps George R.R. Martin learned a thing or two about killing off beloved characters from Ms. May?)

A satisfactory conclusion to a really good tale. Many of my questions have been answered, although I think Ms. May has left herself some wiggle room to continue on at some future point, should she hear the Many Colored Land calling to her again.


Book number 189 in my science fiction and fantasy reading project.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

The Sisters Brothers / Patrick deWitt

3 out of 5 stars
Hermann Kermit Warm is going to die. The enigmatic and powerful man known only as the Commodore has ordered it, and his henchmen, Eli and Charlie Sisters, will make sure of it. Though Eli doesn't share his brother's appetite for whiskey and killing, he's never known anything else. But their prey isn't an easy mark, and on the road from Oregon City to Warm's gold-mining claim outside Sacramento, Eli begins to question what he does for a living–and whom he does it for.

This is not Louis L’Amour nor is it Zane Grey. Traditional Westerns have good guys and bad guys and you can tell them apart by hat colour. This is not one of those Westerns; things are not so cut and dried with The Sisters Brothers. It’s as if Charlie and Eli Sisters are two halves of one person. Charlie is a drinker, a killer, everything you would imagine in a bad guy, but he still has a brother who cares about him. Eli is the more sensitive of the two—he is concerned with what others think, wants to get out of the sordid business he is involved in, he cares about animals and people, plus he worries about his weight. No wonder their boss wants Charlie to dump him!

The Sisters Brothers examines the family bond—how far are we willing to go to humour or protect our family members? The brother relationship is tested repeatedly, each one knowing how to push the other’s buttons. Charlie has been protecting Eli since before Eli could walk. Eli’s temper can be harnessed to protect Charlie in return. Charlie is a typical older sibling—he makes decisions and expects Eli to follow.

This reminded me of Clint Eastwood’s movie, Unforgiven, which Wikipedia calls “a dark Western that deals frankly with the uglier aspects of violence and how complicated truths are distorted into simplistic myths about the Old West.” Not your granddad’s Western.




Wednesday, 4 November 2015

The Heart Goes Last / Margaret Atwood

4 out of 5 stars
Living in their car, surviving on tips, Charmaine and Stan are in a desperate state. So, when they see an advertisement for Consilience, a ‘social experiment’ offering stable jobs and a home of their own, they sign up immediately. All they have to do in return for suburban paradise is give up their freedom every second month – swapping their home for a prison cell. At first, all is well. But then, unknown to each other, Stan and Charmaine develop passionate obsessions with their ‘Alternates,’ the couple that occupy their house when they are in prison. Soon the pressures of conformity, mistrust, guilt and sexual desire begin to take over.

Atwood writes very believable dystopian worlds—this one is set after a global economic meltdown where things are getting pretty desperate for regular people, those who are currently being politically courted & labelled as “middle class.” Stan & Charmaine are living in their car, struggling to survive. Stan hasn’t yet knuckled under & joined his criminal brother’s enterprise and Charmaine is still waitressing and resisting the idea of turning tricks on the side for extra income. As a last resort, they end up in the Positron community—a prison town with a twist. Each month, the prisoners and the townspeople trade places.

It is also a cautionary tale: be careful what you wish for, for you might get it. You can have security and comfort, but is it worth giving up your freedom? You can have a robot sex slave, but is that really what any of us want? You can have another human “adjusted” to make him/her desire you, but does the thrill last when you know that your partner has no choice in the matter? Does sex actually directly equate to love anyway?


Ever notice how the dystopian worlds are always complicated by human sexuality?  Orwell's 1984, Huxley's Brave New World, Zamyatin's We--The Heart Goes Last follows in the footsteps of these older classics.
 
I would be interested to hear from men if the sexuality of the men in the story is portrayed accurately. To me, it seems that Atwood nails it, but I’m female and I’m just judging by the men in my own life and those thoughts that they are willing to share with me.


Atwood’s strength, it seems to me, is taking events in the current news and spinning a future world where the implications of these stories is fully realized.  

Monday, 2 November 2015

The Tower, the Zoo and the Tortoise / Julia Stuart

2.5 stars out of 5
Balthazar Jones has lived in the Tower of London with his loving wife, Hebe, and his 120-year-old pet tortoise for the past eight years. That’s right, he is a Beefeater (they really do live there). It’s no easy job living and working in the tourist attraction in present-day London.

Among the eccentric characters who call the Tower’s maze of ancient buildings and spiral staircases home are the Tower’s Rack & Ruin barmaid, Ruby Dore, who just found out she’s pregnant; portly Valerie Jennings, who is falling for ticket inspector Arthur Catnip; the lifelong bachelor Reverend Septimus Drew, who secretly pens a series of principled erot­ica; and the philandering Ravenmaster, aiming to avenge the death of one of his insufferable ravens.

When Balthazar is tasked with setting up an elaborate menagerie within the Tower walls to house the many exotic animals gifted to the Queen, life at the Tower gets all the more interest­ing. Penguins escape, giraffes are stolen, and the Komodo dragon sends innocent people running for their lives. Balthazar is in charge and things are not exactly running smoothly. Then Hebe decides to leave him and his beloved tortoise “runs” away. 


I liked this book. But I couldn’t help, while reading it, thinking that I should like it more. It has many elements that often provide me with reading pleasure. The animals for instance—the poor wandering albatross that is missing its mate; the monkeys wildly flashing their junk at inopportune times; the missing penguins.

Plus, this is a book about grief—about Balthazar and Hebe Jones grieving the loss of their son, Milo. And grieving for a child has potential to either pull a couple closer together or push them completely apart. It’s exquisitely painful to experience and almost as painful to watch, and here we are as readers, voyeurs to this couple’s pain.

I’ve never lost a child, but my parents were killed in a car accident and I think I know a thing or two about grief. I know that it was two fuzzy rabbits who kept me going in those days of depression following my parents’ deaths. Someone had to get up each morning to feed the bunnies and since I live alone, that someone had to be me. Once I was up and the rabbits were cared for, I would then think, “I might as well go to work, now that I’m up.” Without those two furry critters, I’m not sure how often I would have made it out of bed. So I could relate to Balthazar’s communing with the animals of the Royal Menagerie.

The book is cute—almost to the point of being too cute. Lots of side stories get started—Valerie Jennings and Arthur Catnip’s romance, the Ravenmaster’s clandestine adultery, Reverend Drew’s secret career of writing erotic literature. They each get quickly, and for me, unsatisfactorily resolved at the end of the novel. Perhaps they were meant to lighten the mood in a book about grief? Each situation seems to be meant to be comic, but they are also real problems for the characters involved. The eccentricities that I would usually find charming were instead irritating—if the book is truly about grieving and communicating, why distract from that story with this fluff?

Everyone has secrets—and their situations could be improved with less secrecy. Julia Stuart does have a talent for writing adorable, eccentric characters, but somehow her books just rub me the wrong way. I wish that I liked them more than I do.

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

The Hoarder in You / Robin Zasio

4 out of 5 stars
We all have treasured possessions—a favorite pair of shoes, a much-beloved chair, an ever-expanding record collection. But sometimes, this emotional attachment to our belongings can spiral out of control and culminate into a condition called compulsive hoarding. From hobbyists and collectors to pack rats and compulsive shoppers—it is close to impossible for hoarders to relinquish their precious objects, even if it means that stuff takes over their lives and their homes. According to psychologist Dr. Robin Zasio, our fascination with hoarding stems from the fact that most of us fall somewhere on the hoarding continuum. Even though it may not regularly interfere with our everyday lives, to some degree or another, many of us hoard. The Hoarder In You provides practical advice for decluttering and organizing, including how to tame the emotional pull of acquiring additional things, make order out of chaos by getting a handle on clutter, and create an organizational system that reduces stress and anxiety. Dr. Zasio also shares some of the most serious cases of hoarding that she’s encountered, and explains how we can learn from these extreme examples—no matter where we are on the hoarding continuum. 

I guess I intuitively knew there was a “hoarding continuum.” I have one sister who exists very much on the minimalist end of that scale—I envy her ease at keeping her house clean and organized. My other sister and I inhabit the mid-range of the scale, thankfully well away from OMG territory, but we struggle with accumulations of “stuff” in our homes.

It makes complete sense to me that the hoarding tendency goes hand in hand with anxiety issues and with perfectionism. My desire to do things not merely well, but excellently often stands in my way when I am sorting household debris—if I could just toss things into the dumpster and leave it at that, my home would be much less crowded. However, I feel the necessity to recycle as many items as possible—making things available for people who have less and keeping things out of the landfill. I’m starting to see that I need to let go of this perfectionism. Even the charities are getting picky about what items they accept and I need to just chuck some things.

Anxiety certainly also plays into my issues—questions like “where exactly is that electronics recycling depot?” hold me back, because I am reluctant to load the car and hope that I can find the spot. I like to know where I am going, but I can’t know until I actually go there the first time. I’ve managed to work myself into the perfect circular loop of inactivity.

I think one of the best tips in this book is the existence of thought distortions which make it difficult to part with certain objects. The whole “what if I need this later?” myth is a great example and one which I have heard directly from my sister’s lips. The truth is, if we need it later, we can borrow it or rent it or maybe find it second-hand. The real truth is we are unlikely to EVER need it and it is taking up real estate that could house things that are actually useful.

I had already come to see my household accumulations as piles of unmade decisions—now I have a few tools to deal with those problem piles. And I also have a book recommendation to make to my sister.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Nowhere Wild / Joe Beernink

3.5 stars out of 5
** spoiler alert ** Sorry, this review is very spoiler-y, as I can't talk about the issues that particularly interested & annoyed me without giving away large chunks of the plot & the ending. Read at your own discretion.

I’m still puzzling over the title of this one—I assume it means that they are in the middle of nowhere and it’s wild. All of this novel takes place in northern Manitoba, a great location to set a survival novel. It’s a wild and unforgiving landscape, requiring skill and luck to survive.

Nowhere Wild does pose a likely scenario—what if a pedophile uses the “opportunity” of a flu pandemic to abduct a girl and drag her off to the wilderness (basically as a sex slave, although that terminology isn’t used). The gravity of her situation sneaks up on Izzy, as she starts feeling less and less comfortable under Rick’s “protection.” She starts putting together remembered bits of conversation and realizing that she is definitely not the first girl that he has abused.

Jake is a young aboriginal man, left in the family’s remote summer camp with his wounded mother and his grandfather. His father, Leland, paddles for help and never returns. Jake and his grandpa eventually bury the mother and survive together until spring, the grandpa pouring as much of his traditional knowledge as possible into the teenager. When the grandfather dies in the spring, Jake is left to find his own way back to what is left of civilization.

The internal dialog of both young people is pretty realistic—I remember piecing together memories, just like Izzy does (although about much more innocuous subjects) and I still hear my dad’s voice in the back of my head (“Are you going there without a coat?”), just as Jake hears his grandfather’s advice as he travels.

Although not described in graphic detail, the reader is witness to the first time that Izzy is subjected to Rick’s sexual desires. What I appreciated was that she doesn’t give up hope immediately, nor does she become subservient. She plans for her escape, practices her skills, and looks for opportunities. She is not a passive victim and she doesn’t blame herself—she puts the blame squarely on Rick, where it belongs. A couple of items did annoy me however—Izzy is old enough to be experiencing her menstrual periods, but this is never mentioned. I realize that lack of food might have delayed the onset of her menses, but it seemed to me that they ate well enough during the winter that this should have been an issue (and it looms large in the life of a teen girl). It also seemed to me that a 13 year old would know enough to also be concerned about pregnancy and yet the idea is never broached. These two subjects would have been very much on my mind as a teen and I found the lack to be unrealistic.

The other thing that really bothered me was part of the rescue scene. Izzy and Jake have teamed up by this point, to try to escape from Rick and get back to civilization. In the process, Rick is killed and at exactly the same time, local men arrive. At first they are suspicious, but when they find out who the deceased is, they all say basically, “Oh, it’s him. Yeah, everyone knows what kind of perv he was” and they then take the teens into their care. And I’m thinking, so everyone knew that Rick was molesting girls AND THEY DID NOTHING. That really bothers me, because I’m afraid that sort of reluctance to report goes on far too often.

There are many unanswered questions at the book’s end—what happened to Jake’s dad? What has transpired in Thompson while the teens were gone? Are they returning to a recovering society? It seemed to end a bit abruptly, leaving a lot of hanging threads.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

Neuromancer / William Gibson

3 out of 5 stars
The Matrix is a world within the world, a global consensus- hallucination, the representation of every byte of data in cyberspace . . .
Case had been the sharpest data-thief in the business, until vengeful former employers crippled his nervous system. But now a new and very mysterious employer recruits him for a last-chance run. The target: an unthinkably powerful artificial intelligence orbiting Earth in service of the sinister Tessier-Ashpool business clan. With a dead man riding shotgun and Molly, mirror-eyed street-samurai, to watch his back, Case embarks on an adventure that ups the ante on an entire genre of fiction.

I can certainly see where Neuromancer was important in the 1980s when it was published. It brings together many threads of literature and assembles a lot of ideas that hadn’t previously been combined. There is the drug culture and general aura of darkness of Philip K. Dick’s fiction; the technology of Spider Robinson’s Mindkiller; the emergent machine intelligence foreshadowed by Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress; the “heist” elements of the story. For me, it also had faint echoes of Dhalgren, with the whole “degeneration of society” aspect. I can also see where Neuromancer and Blade Runner both had influence on The Matrix movies.

The idea of computer hacking was fresher in the 80s—the mass media was just starting to catch on to what it was and who was involved in it. Neuromancer explores possible future implications of hacking, including being able to directly wire one’s self into cyberspace or to eavesdrop on/ride along with augmented people. The bulkiness of the gear required to do this is shocking to 21st century sensibilities—our hardware just keeps getting more compact. This is one of the aspects of the book that truly ages it.

There are lots ideas that were au courant then that really haven’t turned into mainstream items. Despite a lot of work, no one has managed to create a sentient artificial intelligence, so we don’t need a Turing Law Code to govern such things. It was a great idea on Gibson’s part, however. Space habitats that are easily accessed and cryogenics are still fiction at this point as well.

I was struck by Case’s disparagement of his “meat,” his physical body. Our physical selves have their limitations, but they are also the sources of our greatest comforts—food, sleep, sex—and I’m unsure that we would feel the same emotions without our brain structures to support them. I, for one, have no desire to ever be uploaded to a machine—like the Flatliner Dixie that Case works with, I hope to cease to exist when my time comes.

I give high marks for the world building—I felt like I could actually envision the dark corners of The Sprawl. Somewhat depressing is the fact that so many people are still living on the edge, scrambling to make enough cash to support themselves. So much for the happy, prosperous futures envisioned in earlier science fiction.

This is book number 188 in my science fiction & fantasy reading project.

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Bridge of Birds / Barry Hughart

3.5 stars out of 5
When the children of his village were struck with a mysterious illness, Number Ten Ox sought a wiseman to save them. He found master Li Kao, a scholar with a slight flaw in his character. Together, they set out to find the Great Root of Power, the only possible cure.

The quest led them to a host of truly memorable characters, multiple wonders, incredible adventures—and strange coincidences, which were really not coincidences at all. And it involved them in an ancient crime that still perturbed the serenity of Heaven. Simply and charmingly told, this is a wry tale, a sly tale, and a story of wisdom delightfully askew. Once read, its marvels and beauty will not easily fade from the mind.



My surname is Li and my personal name is Kao, and there is a slight flaw in my character.
So says Master Li to Number Ten Ox when Ox is sent to the city to find a sage to assist his village, dealing with a mysterious disease. I personally was born in the Year of the Ox and therefore had a soft spot for Number Ten Ox.

This novel rated about 3.5 stars for me which, I hasten to add, I consider to be a good rating. I may have been reading Bridge of Birds at the wrong moment for me, as I am in a bit of a slump right now and finding it difficult to concentrate on the page.  Or there may be a slight flaw in my character.

In many ways, BoB reminded me of reading Aesop’s fables—as a reader, I was very aware that the author was not in any way attempting to reconstruct Ancient China. He was using Ancient China for a fun backdrop to his own kind of fable, enjoying have different cultural elements to play with than are common in Western literature.

He did, however, borrow the trope of the shady character who really has a heart of gold and who uses his criminal talents for a good cause. I thought of Harry Harrison’s Stainless Steel Rat many times while reading Bridge of Birds. Master Li is the brains of the operation and Number Ten Ox is the brawn. That reminded me strongly of Fritz Leiber’s Ffafhrd and the Gray Mouser series. Some of Master Li and Number Ten Ox’s adventures may also have been influenced by the Indiana Jones movie franchise.

An enjoyable, fun book well suited to lunch-break reading.

Book number 187 in my Science Fiction & Fantasy reading project