Monday, 30 March 2015

The Evening Chorus / Helen Humphreys

4.5 out of 5
Resigned to living out the Second World War in a German POW camp, James Hunter, an English officer, begins studying a pair of redstarts near the camp. His interest in the birds captures the attention of the Kommandant and gives James cause to fear for his life. Meanwhile, back in England, James's young wife, Rose, falls headlong into a passionate affair with another man. When James's sister, Enid, is bombed out of her London flat, she comes to stay with Rose, and the two women form a surprising friendship that alters the course of both of their lives.

What a beautifully written book! Under normal circumstances, I avoid books about World War II like the plague. By and large, they do not appeal to me. But how could I resist a book in which one of the main characters, James, a POW in Germany, studies a pair of Redstarts (those are birds, for the non-birders out there) as a way to see himself through the war.

Birds are one of the ways to my heart and this book wiggled its way in quickly. I found it amazing how well I felt I knew the various characters and how strongly I felt for each of them despite the sparseness of the writing. There are no extraneous words, no awkward phrases, just gracefulness.

There were so many contrasts: James watching the birds while the German guards watched him. The freedom of the Redstarts compared with the confinement of the prisoners. The misinterpreted kindness of the Kommandant with the brutality of some of his men. The real lives of both Germans and POWs compared with their current posting.

The women, Rose and Enid, are no less interesting and all of them find some solace in the natural world. Since the outdoors and bird watching have been responsible for healing many of my own wounds, I guess I am predisposed to find this book uplifting. Because I could see something wonderful the next time I go out looking—and isn’t that something worth living for?

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Kraken Bake / Karen Dudley

4 out of 5 stars

It’s a great day for Greece when Perseus defeats the dreaded kraken. But victory begins to lose its lustre when tonnes of tentacles start to swamp the shores and fishing nets of the Aegean. Now after weeks of kraken cakes, kraken kabobs, kraken fritters and kraken stew, everybody is getting decidedly sick of kraken—none more so than Chef Pelops.

In response to the "kraken crisis", the city of Athens announces the inaugural Bronze Chef competition. Normally, Pelops would jump at the chance to prove himself the best celebrity chef in Greece. The trouble is, the competition’s secret ingredient is sure to be kraken—and, having once offended Poseidon, Pelops can’t cook kraken to save his life.

To make matters worse, the Chef has serious cash flow problems and the woman he secretly loves is about to marry his best friend. Meanwhile, his loathsome rival Mithaecus has vowed to win the contest by fair means or foul.

Now, Pelops must overcome the sea god’s curse to prove once and for all that he is the better chef—a task made all the more difficult by the insufferable antics of a most unexpected relative...

A worthy follow up to Food for the Gods. A quick disclaimer here: the author is a friend of mine. I was fortunate enough to go to a reading from Kraken Bake held here in Calgary, and I therefore have the advantage of hearing her lovely voice in my mind’s ear telling me the tale.

Chef Pelops is in quite a state—in fact, he has got himself so worked up that he is being an insensitive jerk to pretty much everyone around him, even the friendly gods, Dionysus and Hermes. And he has enough unfriendly gods to deal with—Hera has it out for him and Poseidon holds a deity-sized grudge. The result of the latter is that activities requiring water and/or sea creatures do not run smooth for Pelops. He cannot successfully cook Kraken under any circumstances.

I love the combination of historical facts (bread dildos, anyone?) with (somewhat altered) mythology (a Pegasus who stomps rainbows and farts flowers?) and a liberal dose of the author’s imagination (why does Perseus talk like a surfer dude anyway?). Throw in some current pop-culture (a Bronze Chef competition, you say?) and this book is a salad of fun. Karen’s sense of humour appeals to me strongly, as you might expect.

But some more serious issues are examined through Pelops’ struggles—how do we establish and maintain our reputations? How important is career success to a happy life? Who are the most important people in our lives and are we doing what we need to in order to maintain those relationships?

It’s not necessary to have read Food for the Gods in order to enjoy Kraken Bake, but what the heck, go read it too before you begin this one. We need to support originality, not to mention the Canadian publishing scene. I can’t guarantee that you will enjoy this book as much as I did, but I encourage you to give it a try.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

The Book of Jhereg / Steven Brust

4 out of 5 stars
A welcome addition to any fantasy fan's library, The Book of Jhereg follows the antics of the wise-cracking assassin Vlad Taltos and his dragon-like companion through their first three adventures:Jhereg, Yendi, and Teckla. From his rookie assassin days to his selfless feats of heroism, the dauntless Vlad will hold readers spellbound and The Book of Jhereg will take its place among the classic compilations in fantasy.

 An anthology containing the first three novels of the Vlad Taltos series. A very enjoyable introduction to his world and life. It did its job—I was sandwiched in a middle seat on an airplane, badly needing distraction from the two men I was shoe-horned between for the flight from Houston to Calgary (4 hours, if you’re interested). Dude on my left seemed to resent my very existence, so it was with great pleasure that I imagined my personal assassin, Vlad, doing his thing.

The first book (Jhereg) was spent getting to know the wise-cracking, paranoid assassin and learning the lay of the land, so to speak, on the world he inhabits. Brust includes a lot of detail—a multi-layered, complex social structure, a couple of systems of magic/sorcery, a fairly large cast of characters, plus a few new biological creatures to assimilate (specifically Vlad’s jhereg familiar, a flying lizard). Brust leaves you to glean facts along the way as he flings Vlad into a rather Rococo plot which twists and turns as more facts are uncovered. Brust owes a debt to series like Harry Harrison’s Stainless Steel Rat, whose main character is Slippery Jim DiGriz, another charming conman.

Book two (Yendi) told the backstory of Vlad’s marriage. I appreciated his wife Cawti, as she had her own kick-butt history and a female business partner with whom she obviously had a real friendship. However, the two women never really get to take centre stage for a scene—their conversations are assumed off the page, which disappointed me somewhat. I had hoped that Yendi would pass the Bechdel test, but no dice.

Teckla (Book three) changed the tone of the series entirely. Suddenly, it becomes necessary for Vlad to question the morality of his crime & assassination business and to decide if he is satisfied in a society where he is constantly discriminated against because of his race. These are serious questions which Vlad struggles with, being in a rather privileged position for an Easterner. He could lose it all, but what is it actually worth? Plus he is soon at odds with Cawti—which causes believable distress for our assassin friend. I appreciated the depiction of continued stress and misunderstandings in the relationship, as both parties sort out what they can and cannot live with.

With as many complexities as Brust introduced in these two volumes, there are bound to be details that don’t get as much attention as they deserve. For me, I wished that Vlad’s relationship with his familiar, Loiosh, was better developed. The flying lizard-like jhereg had great potential that never really got explored—he was more like a living, smart-cracking weapon than like a true partner to Vlad.

I will happily read more books in this series in months to come.

Monday, 23 March 2015

Merchanter's Luck / C.J. Cherryh

4 out of 5 stars
The fateful meeting between the owner of a tramp star-freighter that flies the Union planets under false papers and fake names and a proud but junior member of a powerful starship-owning family leads to a record-breaking race to Downbelow Station--and a terrifying showdown at a deadly destination off the cosmic charts.

Sandor Kreja is a survivor. He managed to escape the massacre of his family and has run the family spaceship, first with his brother, then without, for a very long time. The ship’s control system speaks in his brother’s voice, a comforting reminder of the loving connections he used to have. He has lived at the edge of the law and at the margins of society for his entire adult life and is longing to just have a chance to achieve a normal life.

Contrast this with Allison Reilly, who comes from an enormous family who run the ship Dublin Again. Allison knows that her family always has her back—the downside of this is that everyone knows each other’s business and feels no compunctions about expressing opinions about it. Add to that the limited number of meaningful positions available to the young merchanters on the ship—just like Generation Xers who follow the Baby Boom generation, they are ready to move on to bigger and better things, but the previous generation isn’t going anywhere.

Opposites attract, they say. It’s inevitable that when these two meet, there are fireworks. A casual hook-up becomes much more when Sandor recklessly follows Dublin Again to their next port of call, despite his lack of legal paperwork. Although not a traditional romance, there is a thread of their relationship running through the work, drawing the reader along to see if it will all work out. Can the lonely captain accept people back into his life again? Can the crew members of Dublin Again exorcise the ghosts of Sandor’s family from his ship? Can people from such divergent backgrounds trust each other?

I was struck by the hungry loneliness of the young man, alone in space on a ship built for a family. As part of a university project, my sister once attended a substance abuse support group. I remember how appalled she was when she realized that each of these people had absolutely no loving connection in the world. Their families had either given up on them or were part of their problems. Their only friends were other addicts. They had no one to encourage them, help them, or give them any kind of boost. It’s amazing, really, that any of them ever manage to escape those circumstances, and yet some do. I felt like Sandor was up against the same kinds of obstacles—no family, no friends, no trust, no papers, yet he was clawing his way towards respectability.

I’ve never known real loneliness, for which I am thankful. I hope that books like this one are as close as I ever get.

Book number 167 from the NPR list of science fiction and fantasy classics.

Thursday, 19 March 2015

The Eyre Affair / Jasper Fflorde

3 out of 5 stars
Welcome to a surreal version of Great Britain, circa 1985, where time travel is routine, cloning is a reality (dodos are the resurrected pet of choice), and literature is taken very, very seriously. England is a virtual police state where an aunt can get lost (literally) in a Wordsworth poem, militant Baconians heckle performances of Hamlet, and forging Byronic verse is a punishable offense. All this is business as usual for Thursday Next, renowned Special Operative in literary detection, until someone begins kidnapping characters from works of literature. When Jane Eyre is plucked from the pages of Brontë's novel, Thursday must track down the villain and enter the novel herself to avert a heinous act of literary homicide.

An eccentric but charming book. I read it on my way to Mexico—there was plenty of time, we missed our connection in Mexico City and had to buy a new ticket for much later in the evening. The tour leader who was expecting us is a charming Welshman, who had recommended Jasper Fforde to me a couple of years ago (on an earlier tour). It was time to be able to say that I had given it a try.

I do think that a passing familiarity with Jane Eyre would be a good thing before picking up this novel, but even if you’ve never even read the blurb of JE, you should still be able to find some amusement within.

The humour reminded me somewhat of Douglas Adams—very British and somewhat silly. I loved the pet dodos, the People’s Republic of Wales, the “new” ending to Jane Eyre, debates about Shakespeare, and the Literary Forces, among other details.

Recommended for English majors, Bronte fans, Shakespeare buffs, and anyone else who has read widely in the classics, but is willing to be a bit silly.

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

The Many Colored Land / Julian May

5 out of 5 stars
When a one-way time tunnel to Earth's distant past, specifically six million B.C., was discovered by folks on the Galactic Milieu, every misfit for light-years around hurried to pass through it. Each sought his own brand of happiness. But none could have guessed what awaited them. Not even in a million years....

A re-read as a refresher before tackling the rest of the series. I remember reading it while on vacation a number of years ago at a friend’s cabin and staying up far too late in order to finish the book. I originally gave it 5 excited stars from that reading and I think I will leave that score intact to reflect my first excitement about the work. Despite my initial enthusiasm, I am amazed at how many details were completely wiped from my memory banks—as a result, I enjoyed my second read almost as much as the first.

Paleontology has always been an interest of mine and I’ve read a number of sci-fi works that deal with time travel back to prehistoric times to hunt or investigate ancient animals. Julian May gives this a new twist by making the trip a one-way journey. You can go back to the Pliocene, but you can never come home. Part of the interest of this book is the psychology of the people who would choose such an option—the misfits of the Galactic Milieu, those who can’t or won’t abide by the strictures of advanced society as part of a multi-race future. It makes for an interesting mix of personalities for May to work with for the rest of the series.

I did love the Pliocene animals, of course, but there are also interesting aliens to deal with—refugees with much the same outlook as the humans who come to the Pliocene. The Tanu and the Firvulag (two morphs of the same species) also were in flight from a changing society and chose to maintain their ancient ways of life on a new planet far from home. Their society is thrown into imbalance when the humans begin arriving and are just too tempting a resource to be allowed to wander off into the sunset. The translation site is within Tanu territory and they quickly take advantage of the regular shipments of people and goods, giving the Tanu a large advantage over the less organized Firvulag.

There are echoes of Celtic and European mythology woven throughout the novel. The Tanu have “domesticated” the small apes known as Ramapithecines (called Ramas in the novel) which were believed at the time to be human ancestors (I’m not sure what the paleoanthropological doctrine on the matter is today). Perhaps May is suggesting some kind of racial memory passed down from the Ramas in the Pliocene. It is also interesting to speculate on the archaeological record and why none of this activity is discovered in the future which the humans come from.

As a kind of throw-back to the 60s, there is a theme of psi powers (telepathy, telekinesis, etc.) featured in both the Tanu/Firvulag and in those future humans.

In short, there are many interesting threads to follow and I will very much look forward to reading the second book, The Golden Torc.

Monday, 16 March 2015

The Citadel of the Autarch / Gene Wolfe

4 out of 5 stars
Severian the Torturer continues his epic journey across the lands of Urth, a journey as fraught with peril as it is with wonder. Exiled from his guild he is an outcast, but his travels are woven with strange portents. The Claw of the Conciliator, relic of a prophet and promise of a new age, flames to life in his hands. He carries the great sword Terminus Est, the Line of Division. The dwellers in the deep waters offer him a kingdom under the seas. And he is hunted and driven by terrors from beyond Urth.

Now all his travels move him inexorably toward a grander fate, a destiny that he dare not refuse. For a devouring blackness gnaws at the heart of the Old Sun, and the fate of Urth rests in the return of the Conciliator, the New Sun long foretold.  

I've already written about the first half of this volume, The Sword of the Lictor, so this will cover only the second half.

The conclusion of the Book of the New Sun—this series was apparently written as one manuscript and divided into four books for publication and they truly feel that way. I think that to properly appreciate it, I would have to go back and read through all four continuously. The second time through, I would know which details to pay attention to and a lot of the small confusions which I have regarding the plot would likely resolve themselves. Unfortunately, life is short and I’m unlikely to be willing to relinquish reading time to a re-reading this series. I do plan, however, to read the fifth book set on Urth when I reach it in my reading project.


There are definitely similarities to Frank Herbert’s Dune series—at least with regard to the nature of the Autarch. Just as with Atreides rulers, Severian ends up truly being able to use the royal “we.” I also found myself wondering if he truly needed the Claw of the Conciliator in order to perform many of the “miracles” which followed in his wake. Perhaps the dog, Triskele, which was saved in the first pages in the first book, was the original signal of Severian’s unusual talents and foreshadowing of his future. I was also gratified to realize that my first thoughts about Dorcas (that she was one of the dead people “buried” in the lake and somehow revived) were true.

This is very much a “chosen one” story—but the ones doing the choosing are interesting. If I’ve got it figured correctly, Severian is chosen by people from the future of Urth who spelunk into the past to make sure that events occur as those people desire it to. Are they aliens? Or are they future, evolved members of Urth’s population? To me, at least, the answer to that question is unsure.

Although it is a very engaging tale, it does fail the Bechdel test miserably. There are a number of female characters, but they don’t interact much—their attention is riveted on Severian. Mind you, this is the state of most of the male characters too, so I can’t hold it against the work too much.

A very good series. I would recommend that science fiction and fantasy fans read it at least once.

Title 165 of my science fiction and fantasy reading project.