Thursday, 28 April 2016

Bone Crossed / Patricia Briggs (Mercy Thompson #4)

4 stars out of 5
Marsilia, the local vampire queen, has learned that Mercy crossed her by slaying a member of her clan. Now, she's out for blood. But since Mercy is protected from direct reprisal by the werewolf pack-and her relationship with its sexy Alpha-it's not Mercy's blood Marsilia is after...

 Finally, Stefan is back on the scene, still mysterious in motive, but protective to our heroine, Mercy. And that is despite his treatment by the local vampire seethe. (Isn’t that a great collective noun for vampires?)

This is also the book that sees Mercy make her choice between werewolves Adam and Samuel. I’m somewhat disappointed that she had to choose, rather than remaining independent. So often, once a choice is made, the sexual tension drains out of a series and it becomes less interesting. I will be interested to see how Briggs maintains the forward momentum.

Also of interest, Mercy continues to discover the special powers of a skinwalker that make her anathema to the mainstream vamps. She is extremely fortunate to have Stefan as a friend & protector and I hope this means that he will continue to appear in future volumes.

I still maintain that Mercy needs some women friends, and not like her friend Amber who shows up in this installment. She needs some strong, good women in her life to help her sort out all the demanding men in her world.

Once again, the cover art makes me shake my head. Who in the world are they trying to appeal to? Take my word for it, Mercy looks nothing like the covers.

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

When Gravity Fails / George Alec Effinger

3 out of 5 stars
In a decadent world of cheap pleasures and easy death, Marîd Audran has kept his independence and his identity the hard way. Still, like everything else in the Budayeen, he is available...for a price.

For a new kind of killer roams the streets of the decadent Arabic ghetto, a madman whose bootlegged personality cartridges range from a sinister James Bond to a sadistic disemboweler named Khan. And Marîd Audran has been made an offer he can't refuse.

The 200 year old "godfather" of crime in the Budayeen has enlisted Marîd as his instrument of vengeance. But first Marîd must undergo the most sophisticated of surgical implants before he dares to stop a killer with the powers of every psychopath since the beginning of time...

Wry, savage and unforgettable, When Gravity Fails is a major new work of dark genius by one of the most celebrated talents in science fiction today - a cutting-edge, heart-stopping tour-de-force detective story about an insane future world not so far removed from our own.

 A strange mixture of elements that I’ve seen in earlier science fiction--When Gravity Fails reminded me A LOT of Spider Robinson’s Mindkiller. Want to speak fluent German? Clip a German module into the jack in your head, and there it is in your brain, waiting for you to use it. Want to be someone cooler that you regularly are? There are personality modules available; just pop one in and you too can be James Bond (or a psychopathic serial killer). Want to go without sleep, hunger, or thirst? This too can be arranged, though you’ll pay for it later.

Marid Audran, the main character, is also a charismatic criminal, harking back to the days of the Gray Mouser (Lieber) or Slippery Jim diGriz (Harrison). But he has the drug habits that you’ll find in Philip K. Dick’s fiction. Plus, he’s a non-observant Muslim, making observations on his society reminiscent of Frank Herbert’s Dune series, but in a world that blends Dune and Neuromancer.

Surprisingly, there are an awful lot of transgender people in WGF. Lots of women who used to be men (although why they would make that change in a society where it seems that women can only hustle in bars or be prostitutes, I’m not sure). Even those who maintain their genetic gender go in for body modifications, changing their appearances drastically.

Add to this odd community a killer who is eliminating friends and associates of Marid, and we also have a murder mystery element. There’s a lot going on in this novel and it was engaging to read, but I just didn’t connect with the ending.

Book 220 in my Science Fiction & Fantasy reading project.

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Club Dead / Charlaine Harris (Sookie Stackhouse #3)

3.5 out of 5 stars
Things between cocktail waitress Sookie and her vampire boyfriend Bill seem to be going excellently (apart from the small matter of him being undead) until he leaves town for a while. A long while. Bill's sinister boss Eric has an idea of where to find him, whisking her off to Jackson, Mississippi to mingle with the under-underworld at Club Dead. When she finally catches up with the errant vampire, he is in big trouble and caught in an act of serious betrayal. This raises serious doubts as to whether she should save him or start sharpening a few stakes of her own ..

 The third installment of Sookie, and I feel that she represents many of the best qualities of a Southern woman. Her appearance is important to her, but beneath that obvious outer layer, there is a strong, tough woman lurking, one who can handle a shotgun or a baseball bat. She’s no shrinking violet, more like a steel magnolia.

Sookie is generally content with her lot in life, which is small town life, and this may annoy more ambitious readers. I have some sympathy for her, having grown up in a small community. I knew that I needed to get out, but plenty of others don’t feel that same drive to leave. They are quite happy to repeat their parents’ pattern of working & raising children in a familiar place.

The addition of Bill to Sookie’s life has made it feel closer to complete, but Bill has proven that being a vampire doesn’t mean that he is ideal partner. In some ways, it’s a shame that Sookie has committed herself to the first “man” that she has ever seriously dated. This may also be a side effect of small town life—compatible partners are of limited number and societal pressure to pair up is strong.

Add to that the fact that Bill is busy providing monetary resources for his descendants, the Bellefleurs, and overlooking Sookie’s financial needs. The many “jobs” that the vampires involve her in take her away from her source of income. No one makes riches waiting tables, but one does what one must in a small town environment. Every shift that Sookie misses makes it harder to meet her financial obligations, a realistic aspect of the novel that I can appreciate as a single, working woman. But Sookie abides by Southern standards—she won’t be asking for money, Bill will have to offer.

Can Eric take advantage of this situation? He’s certainly trying to. On to the next book to see what develops!

Monday, 25 April 2016

The Year of Lear / James Shapiro

4 out of 5 stars
Preeminent Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro shows how the tumultuous events in England in 1606 affected Shakespeare and shaped the three great tragedies he wrote that year—King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra.

In the years leading up to 1606, since the death of Queen Elizabeth and the arrival in England of her successor, King James of Scotland, Shakespeare’s great productivity had ebbed, and it may have seemed to some that his prolific genius was a thing of the past. But that year, at age forty-two, he found his footing again, finishing a play he had begun the previous autumn—King Lear—then writing two other great tragedies, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra.

It was a memorable year in England as well—and a grim one, in the aftermath of a terrorist plot conceived by a small group of Catholic gentry that had been uncovered at the last hour. The foiled Gunpowder Plot would have blown up the king and royal family along with the nation’s political and religious leadership. The aborted plot renewed anti-Catholic sentiment and laid bare divisions in the kingdom.

It was against this background that Shakespeare finished Lear, a play about a divided kingdom, then wrote a tragedy that turned on the murder of a Scottish king, Macbeth. He ended this astonishing year with a third masterpiece no less steeped in current events and concerns: Antony and Cleopatra.

The Year of Lear sheds light on these three great tragedies by placing them in the context of their times, while also allowing us greater insight into how Shakespeare was personally touched by such events as a terrible outbreak of plague and growing religious divisions. For anyone interested in Shakespeare, this is an indispensable book.

 So this year is the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. I didn’t realize that earlier in the year and it is just fortuitous that this has become my year of binge-watching and binge-reading the Bard. I’m having a grand time doing it too.

I heard about this book on CBC radio and since I think I saw King Lear twice last year (once live & once via film), I was intrigued enough to put a hold on our public library’s copy. I am so glad that I did! I haven’t read a great deal about the Bard himself, but I am going to have to rectify that lapse in coming months.

The Year of Lear is a fascinating look at this eventful year in William Shakespeare’s world. I usually think of him as an Elizabethan playwright, but as the author of this book reminds us, he also wrote during the reign of King James (he of the famous Biblical translation). Politics had changed a lot—witness the fact that 1606 had England dealing with the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot (and they have been celebrating Guy Fawkes Day ever since!) Not to mention the ravages of plague, visits of foreign rulers, and many other events which would have impinged on Shakespeare’s life.

What I had not realized was how prolific 1606 was for the playwright—he wrote King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra that year! If you are interested in how current events shaped all three plays, give this book a try.

Accessible writing, fascinating history, and a timeless playwright. What more could one desire?

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Mirror of Her Dreams / Stephen R. Donaldson

2.5 out of 5 stars
The daughter of rich but neglectful parents, Terisa Morgan lives alone in a New York City apartment, a young woman who has grown to doubt her own existence. Surrounded by the flat reassurance of mirrors, she leads an unfulfilled life—until the night a strange man named Geraden comes crashing through one of her mirrors, on a quest to find a champion to save his kingdom of Mordant from a pervasive evil that threatens the land. Terisa is no champion. She wields neither magic nor power. And yet, much to her own surprise, when Geraden begs her to come back with him, she agrees.

Now, in a culture where women are little more than the playthings of powerful men, in a castle honeycombed with secret passages and clever traps, in a kingdom threatened from without and within by enemies able to appear and vanish out of thin air, Terisa must become more than the pale reflection of a person. For the way back to Earth is closed to her. And the enemies of Mordant will stop at nothing to see her dead.

Stephen Donaldson is a decent writer—he writes plots that make me want to keep on reading. But he creates characters that I just hate!  I couldn’t stomach any more of Thomas Covenant after reading two books.  Now, I’m confronted with Terisa Morgan, possibly the dullest, most slow witted, whiniest protagonist that I have ever encountered in science fiction and fantasy.  Hand her over to the Castellan, she could benefit from a bit of torture, just to make her realize that life could be a whole helluva lot worse.

The excuse that she is presented with: her parents were abusive narcissists, who mostly ignored her. But when she came to their attention, she was apparently punished by being locked in closets and ignored some more.  Eventually, when she is old enough, she begins work in a city mission, secretary to the clergyman who is assisting the down and out.  In this environment, how do you continue to be so incredibly naïve?  Once you’re free of the restrictive home environment, how do you restrain your curiosity about what the world is really like?  How do you remain so utterly passive?  How did she actually summon the energy to step through the mirror into the world of Mordant?

Despite supposedly being the lynchpin on which the future of Mordant rests, she continues to whine and lollygag around, denying that she could possibly be of any importance and rarely using her brain to think about things. And when she finally does get around to thinking, it’s like she’s moving heavy furniture!  Everything is slow and ponderous.

In short, she drives me nuts. But I want to know who done what, so I will read the second book and thank my lucky stars that there are only two of them, unlike the seemingly endless Thomas Covenant series.

Book 219 of my Science Fiction & Fantasy reading project.

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Grave Peril / Jim Butcher (Dresden Files #3)

3.5 out of 5 stars
Harry Dresden has faced some pretty terrifying foes during his career. Giant scorpions. Oversexed vampires. Psychotic werewolves. It comes with the territory when you're the only professional wizard in the Chicago-area phone book.

But in all Harry's years of supernatural sleuthing, he's never faced anything like this: The spirit world has gone postal. All over Chicago, ghosts are causing trouble - and not just of the door-slamming, boo-shouting variety. These ghosts are tormented, violent, and deadly. Someone - or something - is purposely stirring them up to wreak unearthly havoc. But why? And why do so many of the victims have ties to Harry? If Harry doesn't figure it out soon, he could wind up a ghost himself....

 For me this is the most enjoyable installment in the Dresden series thus far. I think Butcher has finally solidified Harry’s character to where he feels comfortable with it and he is defining Harry’s Chicago in more detail.

Also appreciated: Harry isn’t going it all alone in this book. He has several partners—Michael, a righteous knight; Murphy, his police contact; and Thomas, a vampiric conspirator.

I was glad to see more women in this book and that they were assigned more substantial roles. Including some awesome evil women, Harry’s godmother & the queen of the Red Vampire court. That makes up for poor old Susan, who as usual is pushed aside while Harry fights ghosties (until she needs rescuing right on cue).

Michael has potential to be a great foil for Harry. He kind of gets dumped into the narrative early in the book and we have to figure him out as we go, but he lends strength & courage to the partnership. Maybe some of Michael’s goodness gets rubbed off on Bob, the skull, as even he seems more supportive of Harry this time out.

I do have to wonder is poor old Harry is going to get the shit beat out of him in absolutely every chapter of every book? Even if he heals quickly, he’s going to be moving like a hundred year old man in no time, if that’s the case. More companions = less physical abuse, Harry. You may wear a western duster, but there’s no reason to go it alone like an outlaw.

Monday, 18 April 2016

Macbeth / William Shakespeare

5 out of 5 stars!

Oh, ambition! Here in North America, we like to see it as the sign of good things in a worker. MacBeth is an excellent reminder that ambition has its dark side.

I am left pondering after seeing this excellent play—would MacBeth have become king if he had just had a little patience? Or were the three witches also predicting that his lack of that virtue would drive him to murder?

The play also reminds me that killing another human being is not a light undertaking. Sure, we see simulated murders regularly on the telly and read about them often in literature, but it isn’t a casual occurrence for the average person. The army has to train and train its soldiers until their muscles react automatically, otherwise their brains and emotions will interfere with their appointed task—to kill the enemy. So MacBeth and his lady are setting themselves up against a difficult taboo and both of them suffer for it, MacBeth with sleeplessness, fear, and hallucinations; his wife with sleepwalking and anxiety. So much for thinking that they were mentally tough enough to murder lightly.

As to the performance that I attended, it was magnificent! Haysam Kadri, who played MacBeth, was absolutely spectacular. I never even noticed that he was speaking in iambic pentameter or Elizabethan English. He made it his own in the way that truly talented actors do. (I’ve also seen him inhabit Sherlock Holmes, which he does pretty much perfectly). It was an abridged version, but the cast managed to hit all the high spots and all the iconic lines were performed. The witches were suitably spooky, and refreshingly not all female. There was one tall, male spectre, one obviously female witch, plus one androgynous actor (does wearing trousers making this one male?).

When well-acted, this is a spectacular piece of theatre which still has things to tell the twenty first century audience.

Friday, 15 April 2016

Texts from Jane Eyre / Mallory Ortberg

4 out of 5 stars
Hilariously imagined text conversations—the passive aggressive, the clever, and the strange—from classic and modern literary figures, from Scarlett O’Hara to Jessica Wakefield.

Mallory Ortberg, the co-creator of the cult-favorite website The Toast, presents this whimsical collection of hysterical text conversations from your favorite literary characters. Everyone knows that if Scarlett O’Hara had an unlimited text-and-data plan, she’d constantly try to tempt Ashley away from Melanie with suggestive messages. If Mr. Rochester could text Jane Eyre, his ardent missives would obviously be in all-caps. And Daisy Buchanan would not only text while driving, she’d text you to pick her up after she totaled her car. Based on the popular web-feature, Texts from Jane Eyre is a witty, irreverent mashup that brings the characters from your favorite books into the twenty-first century.

Cute. Smart. Very literate.

Unfortunately for me, I think I had already read the funniest section (the Jane Eyre section IMO) online. It still made me smile (because of course Rochester would text in all caps). I also really enjoyed the Wuthering Heights exchange between Cathy and Heathcliff.

It helps if you are familiar with the literature that Ortberg is parodying. The sections on Sweet Valley High and The Baby-Sitters Club meant little to me, as I’ve never read any of the books or even read about them. However, I’m tempted to re-read a Nancy Drew book, just to see if poor old Ned really did get as thoroughly ignored by Nancy as Ortberg’s texts would suggest.

I also really enjoyed the mythology bits.

Good, light-hearted fun for well-read people.

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

F*ck Feelings / Michael & Sarah Bennett

3 out of 5 stars
The only self-help book you’ll ever need, from a psychiatrist and his comedy writer daughter, who will help you put aside your unrealistic wishes, stop trying to change things you can’t change, and do the best with what you can control—the first steps to managing all of life’s impossible problems.

In this brilliantly sensible and funny book, a Harvard-educated shrink and his comedy-writing daughter reveal that the real f-words in life are “feelings” and “fairness.” While most self-help books are about your feelings and fulfilling your wildest dreams, F*ck Feelings will show you how to find a new kind of freedom by getting your head out of your ass and yourself onto the right path toward realistic goals and feasible results. F*ck Feelings is the last self-help book you will ever need!

Life sucks and then you die.

But what you do about it in between those two events will make a difference to how you feel about that statement. Are you ready for straightforward advice about what you can change and what you can’t? If so, pick up F*ck Feelings and start figuring it out.

I expected to enjoy this book far more than I did. It is written by a psychiatrist father and his stand-up comedian daughter and while it definitely has its moments, I found myself skipping large portions of each chapter. Apparently the regular readers of self-help books require generous doses of repetition to drive home even the simplest point. I soon found myself by-passing their examples, the “quick diagnosis” sections, and the suggested scripts to make your intentions clear.
By and large, I found the advice dispensed to be highly sensible. Common sense really, which as several of my friends like to remind me, is not all that common. I do find myself thinking about the warning that if brain wiring or brain chemistry are working against you, all the struggle in the world may not get you anywhere. In situations like these, it may be best to just find a way to cope with the way you are wired and move along.

Also sensible: you can only be responsible for your own behaviour. Trying to control other people is an exercise in futility. Decide if the person you are trying to change is someone that you can live with just the way they are or whether you are best off backing away from the relationship. If you decide to disengage, back away slowly and quietly, not making a big deal about it. In other words, just fade out.

Plus, don’t ask questions that you don’t want the answer to. Bugging a quiet person for more input is likely to produce information that you didn’t want to know. Sometimes, silence really is golden.

And yes, Assholes exist in the world. Just about everybody knows at least one. You can’t change them either. Do the fade out if possible, but if they are a permanent fixture in your life (i.e. a co-worker) then you are wise to not engage them in any sort of warfare. Ignore them to the best of your ability and do your own work. Drama accomplishes nothing.

Basically, stuff that I can’t believe that people need a psychiatrist to tell them. I did appreciate that Dr. Bennett did say that therapy is only recommended if you have a specific issue that you want to deal with and only for as long as it takes to deal with it. Don’t waste your money on messy, nonspecific therapy where you just muck about in the past “seeking insights.” That kind of muddy groping about for that “je ne sais quois” can actually make you less happy, more confused, and can even cause harm.

If there is someone in your life who still hasn’t figured out the basics of life, this book might be helpful for them (unless they’re an Asshole, but you know that). Not entertaining enough for the rest of us. Give it a pass if you’re basically happy with your life and aren’t really into the self-help genre.

Ethan of Athos / Lois McMaster Bujold

4 out of 5 stars
The familiar old SF "planet of women" chestnut is reversed in the planet of Athos — an all-male planet made possible by the invention of the uterine replicator. Ethan, drawn out of his beloved Athos by a quest, finds himself an alien in more mainstream human society, and cannot help but find women disturbing aliens as well, especially the ultra-competent, ultra-beautiful Elli.

Ethan of Athos is Lois McMaster Bujold's third novel. It departs from the concerns of the Vorkosigan family to explore the ramifications of advanced biotechnology, turning many a cliché on its head along the way.

Men like writing about all-female planets, so why shouldn’t a woman write about an all-male planet, Athos? Although we don’t see too much of Athos in this novel—quite quickly it becomes apparent that Dr. Ethan Urquhart will have to leave the womb of his planet and deal with out-worlders, a scary proposition for someone who has been raised to believe that women are dangerous.

Ethan is a talented doctor, in charge of conceiving test-tube babies and establishing them in the uterine replicators that Bujold introduced earlier in her Vorkosigan saga. But the ovarian cultures that have been providing eggs for fertilization for centuries are aging and becoming unreliable. When a long awaited replacement shipment is filled with garbage, the high council on Athos is both enraged and chagrined. Someone must go to sort things out and obtain the necessary new ovarian cultures. Ethan, for a variety of reasons, draws the short straw.

For those who are seeking more adventures of Miles Vorkosigan, you may safely skip this volume. He is present only as a distant commanding officer to Elli Quinn, the first woman that Ethan meets and who helps him achieve his goals despite himself. An interesting look into the operations of prejudice and the results of sheltering away in restricted communities to avoid the people that you are prejudiced against. I personally would be very interested to see more of Athos and explore its society further. I’m sorry that Bujold didn’t produce more volumes about Ethan or his brotherhood.

Book 218 of my Science Fiction and Fantasy reading project.

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Replay / Ken Grimwood

4 out of 5 stars
Jeff Winston was 43 and trapped in a tepid marriage and a dead-end job, waiting for that time when he could be truly happy, when he died.

And when he woke and he was 18 again, with all his memories of the next 25 years intact. He could live his life again, avoiding the mistakes, making money from his knowledge of the future, seeking happiness.

Until he dies at 43 and wakes up back in college again...

This book doesn’t have a catchy title or an alluring cover, but I certainly enjoyed it once I convinced myself to get started on it. The premise of the novel, that the main character is reliving a chunk of his life over and over again, isn’t a new idea but Replay  extends it further that previous versions that I had read.

It reminded me strongly of an H. Beam Piper short story (I thought) and I went in search of that story in my Piper collection. Turns out I was conflating TWO of Piper’s stories, namely Time and Time Again and Hunter Patrol.  In the first, a man is badly wounded fighting in World War III and when he awakes he is somehow back in his 13 year old self, trying to decide what to do.  In the second story, a man in a life-threatening situation on a battlefield is snatched by people from the future who want him to perform an assassination for them, and at story’s end there is some suggestion that he is now caught in a loop.  Interesting ideas, but not fleshed out very much.

That is where Replay shines, in its examination of exactly how shocking this “rebirth” would be to the person experiencing it, how intimidating it would be to try to change history, and how difficult it would be to get other people to believe the whole situation. In Piper’s fiction, the boy’s father is rather easily converted, but in Grimwood’s version there is a lot of derision and/or incarceration involved for those who try to make themselves known, more realistic to my way of thinking.

Interesting ideas are pursued in the resilience of history (the protagonist tries to stop JFK’s assassination in one “replay” for example and fails) and the notion of branching universes being produced with each version. The notion of the “replay” reflects the burgeoning videogame culture starting to make itself felt in the 1980s.  I wonder if the makers of the film Groundhog Day were familiar with Replay?

No. 217 of my Science Fiction & Fantasy reading project.

Monday, 11 April 2016

Martin John / Anakana Schofield

3.5 stars out of 5
Martin John is not keen on P words. He isolates P words from the newspapers into long lists. For you, so you know he's kept busy, so you don't have to worry he might be beside you or following you or thinking about your body parts. So you don't have to worry about what else he has been thinking about.

From Anakana Schofield, the brilliant and unconventional author of Malarky, comes a dark, humorous and uncomfortable novel circuiting through the minds, motivations, and preoccupations of a character many women have experienced, but few up until now, have understood quite so well. The result confirms Schofield as one of the bravest and most innovative authors at work in English today.

Another entry on my “Horrible Humans” shelf. Martin John is certainly not someone you would want to be Facebook friends with. He is a creepy sexual offender of the nuisance variety, although as I read the author planted just enough doubt into my mind that, by book’s end, I was pretty certain that he would be destined for worse crimes if he remained uninterrupted.

I was unsure of the time period of this book. The only pop culture references were to the Eurovision singing competition (which MJ is obsessed with) which I guess would put it into the last decade. He is a walking catalog of psychological problems—obsession, hoarding, ritualistic behaviour, among other things. It also becomes obvious to the reader that his family, such as it is, is a part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

The writing style was unique, sometimes with only a few words to a page. There was a chaotic aspect of it that seemed to mirror Martin John’s mental state at the given time. More orderly towards the beginning of the book as he is going to work and dealing with roommates, less so as he acquires a housemate that he comes to distrust and fear.

An interesting spelunking expedition into the dark cave of mental illness and human motivation.

Thursday, 7 April 2016

Shylock is my Name / Howard Jacobson

3.5 stars out of 5
With an absent wife and a daughter going off the rails, wealthy art collector and philanthropist Simon Strulovitch is in need of someone to talk to. So when he meets Shylock at a cemetery in Cheshire’s Golden Triangle, he invites him back to his house. It’s the beginning of a remarkable friendship.

Elsewhere in the Golden Triangle, the rich, manipulative Plurabelle (aka Anna Livia Plurabelle Cleopatra A Thing of Beauty is a Joy Forever Christine) is the face of her own TV series, existing in a bubble of plastic surgery and lavish parties. She shares prejudices and a barbed sense of humour with her loyal friend D’Anton, whose attempts to play Cupid involve Strulovitch’s daughter – and put a pound of flesh on the line.

Howard Jacobson’s version of The Merchant of Venice bends time to its own advantage as it asks what it means to be a father, a Jew and a merciful human being in the modern world.

 Confession of ignorance first: I am completely unfamiliar with this author. Even his name is unknown to me, which is unusual for one who works in a library and frequently plays in them too. But the Hogarth Shakespeare has chosen well for their Merchant of Venice rewrite. Jacobson is a talented writer.

To my mind, the two plays of Shakespeare which are the most challenging for modern audiences are The Taming of the Shrew due to the role of women in it and The Merchant of Venice for what appears to be anti-Semitism. I know that there are plenty of arguments on either side for why these plays are or aren’t examples of prejudice and whether we should care or not. I don’t have the credentials to express any definitive opinions on these matters, although I can see where the debates spring from. I just know that I enjoy the works of Shakespeare and I don’t avoid these two plays, although they may make me uncomfortable.

Writing a modern version of the beloved works of Shakespeare can’t be an easy task, but Jacobson is up to it. The choice of a Jewish author for this volume was inevitable—who else to tackle the thorny problem of prejudice embedded in the plotline? And Jacobson explores it thoroughly and examines the nature of the prejudice from several angles. I found the introduction of the “actual” character of Shylock into the modern setting an interesting choice. At first, I was unsure that people besides the main character Strulovitch could see him, but it soon became obvious that he was an actual corporeal being. He is definitely more than just being Strulovitch’s outer conscience or cheering section. In fact, it is through his commentary that Jacobson analyzes the prejudice embedded in the play, and by extension in society.

During the first maybe 50 pages, I was strongly reminded of our Canadian writer Mordecai Richler, who wrote so colourfully of the Jewish experience in Montreal (thinking of St. Urbain’s Horseman). Perhaps it was just the suggestion that both men were Jewish and the impression melted away as I progressed. But it did make me think that I need to return to more of Richler’s works, which I haven’t read since I was in university many years ago.

I have to say that I didn’t enjoy this novel as much as Jeannette Winterson’s version of The Winter’s Tale, which is not to say that I didn’t find it worth my time. As usual, it is probably more to do with the fact that I have never seen The Merchant of Venice performed. I will also definitely keep Mr. Jacobson in my mind for future reading. I am very much looking forward to the next Hogarth Shakespeare volume—I have a library hold on Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl and have recently seen The Taming of the Shrew, so I expect to enjoy it a great deal.

Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Watchmen / Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons

3 stars out of 5
This Hugo Award-winning graphic novel chronicles the fall from grace of a group of super-heroes plagued by all-too-human failings. Along the way, the concept of the super-hero is dissected as the heroes are stalked by an unknown assassin.

A formative volume in the history of the graphic novel. My impression is that Watchmen is the title that took the genre from being the lowly comic book and elevated it to the graphic novel level, garnering more respect for the illustrated story. As a child, I read stacks of comic books—Batman, Superman, Super Girl, Spiderman, plus the more traditionally female comics like Archie and Classics Illustrated. We had an enormous stack of comics, which my cousins used to enjoy when they came to visit. But I’m pretty sure that no one at that time considered them to be “literature.”

Watchmen takes many of the early tropes and turns them on their heads. The costumed “super” heroes are far from being the uncontested good guys that I remember reading about. . Rorschach is arguably a psychopath, holding people to his very strict “letter of the law” standards of justice, not recognizing compassion or extenuating circumstances. The Comedian is cynical from the very start and prefers expediency over the law. Doc Manhattan is the only one who truly possesses what we would consider to be super powers—and they remove him so far from human concerns that he gets distracted by the inner workings of subatomic particles.

We are left to wonder (and the characters sometimes discuss) what inspires a person to dress in tights and go out in the dark to fight crime. Are they noble or crazy? Or both? What qualifies them to put themselves forward as crime fighters? I found the women’s participation in this world very disturbing, as they most seem to be playing dress-up, rather than being functioning super heroes and they get pushed to the side as appendages to the men almost immediately.

The art work is detailed and dark. The story line is shot through with the fallout from the Second World War (when society thought we could tell the good guys from the bad guys) to a Cold War reality where our former allies, the Soviets, are suddenly a huge threat. Underlying the main story line is a comic book story, read by a bystander in the Watchmen’s world—a tale which is maybe even darker and more desperate than the main story line (and very meta).

I can certainly appreciate the effort that went into the creation of this volume—the deconstruction of the super hero, the examination of the changes in society, and so on. A little too dark and violent for my taste, however.

No. 216 of my Science Fiction and Fantasy reading project.

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Magic Strikes / Ilona Andrews

4 out of 5 stars
Drafted into working for the Order of Merciful Aid, mercenary Kate Daniels has more paranormal problems than she knows what to do with these days. And in Atlanta, where magic comes and goes like the tide, that’s saying a lot.

But when Kate's werewolf friend Derek is discovered nearly dead, she must confront her greatest challenge yet. As her investigation leads her to the Midnight Games—an invitation only, no holds barred, ultimate preternatural fighting tournament—she and Curran, the Lord of the Beasts, uncover a dark plot that may forever alter the face of Atlanta's shapeshifting community…

Snick! That’s the sound of the pieces of this series clicking together in my brain and the Kate Daniels saga being elevated from good to excellent in my opinion. There are three major reasons for the change in my attitude.

1. We finally get the pieces of Kate’s backstory that make her choices and attitudes make sense! Knowing her history makes her awesome fighting skills, her hidden talents, and her reluctance to accept friendships understandable.

2. Note to authors: Read this novel to learn how to show instead of telling. In the last installment, Kate acquired a “niece,” Julie. Julie is having a difficult time in boarding school, being bullied by other children because she doesn’t have the same magical/battle skills that they do. Do the authors tell us how committed Kate is to her child’s happiness? No, we see Kate staging an elaborate visit to the school, dressed in intimidating fashion, with a tough guy in tow, on gorgeous horses, and timed to make a display designed to impress those little reptiles who are giving Julie grief. The girl understands the theatre right away and plays along, knowing that her street cred is being established. Genius!

3. The most cogent explanation of the romance/paranormal romance genres that I have ever read in a piece of fiction. Kate is instructing Raphael on the way to win her best friend’s heart—she has recommended that he acquire the two books that Andrea is missing from her absolute favourite romance novel series.

”Novel number four for Andrea’s collection?” I guessed.
Raphael nodded and took the book from my hands. “I’ve got the other one Andrea wanted too. Can you explain something to me?”
Oh boy. “I can try.”
He tapped the book on his leather-covered knee. “The pirate actually holds this chick’s brother for ransom, so she’ll sleep with him. These men, they aren’t real men. They’re pseudo-bad guys just waiting for the love of a ‘good’ woman.”
“You actually read the books?”
He gave me a chiding glance. “Of course I read the books. It’s all pirates and the women they steal, apparently so they can enjoy lots of sex and have somebody to run their lives…These guys, they’re all bad and aggressive as shit, and everybody wets themselves when they walk by, and then they meet some girl and suddenly they’re not uber-alphas; they are just misunderstood little boys who want to talk about their feelings.”
“Is there a point to this dissertation?”
He faced me. “I can’t be that. If that’s what she wanted, then I shouldn’t even bother.”
I sighed. “Do you have a costume kink? French maid, nurse….”
“Catholic school girl.”
Bingo. “You wouldn’t mind Andrea wearing a Catholic school uniform, would you?”
“No, I wouldn’t.” His eyes glazed over and he slipped off to some faraway place.
I snapped my fingers. “Raphael. Focus.”
He blinked at me.
“I’m guessing—and this is just a wild stab in the dark—that Andrea might not mind if once in a while you dressed up as a pirate. But I wouldn’t advise holding her relatives for ransom nookie. She might shoot you in the head. Several times. With silver bullets.”
An understanding crept into Raphael’s eyes. “I see.”

Ladies, next time your significant other sneers at your reading material, hand him Magic Strikes and have him read pages 201-202. We all have fantasies that we recognize as unreal but which still give us pleasure, men and women alike. We have just as much right to our fantasies as men do. And men, you don’t have to conform to those fantasies, you just need to be ready to role-play with us occasionally.

And now, excuse me, I have a costume or two to get planning…..

Westward Weird

4 out of 5 stars
From a Western circus where monsters and heroes collide to a Civil War robot that clanks into battle to a mining family that encounters parallel universes, "Westward Weird" features 13 original stories that open the Old West to new frontiers of science fiction and fantasy. 

A fun collection of stories for the end of a long week, when you’re too tired to tackle serious literature and your attention span is that of a gerbil.

Somehow, the mixture of science fiction and fantasy with the western is a genre mash-up made in heaven. I enjoyed all the stories in the volume, but I had specially chosen it for the Seanan McGuire offering, The Flower of Arizona. McGuire did not disappoint, although I did think that if you were new to the InCryptid world, you might not have the Aeslin mouse knowledge to fully appreciate the story.

Bonus points for the cover art, which would have attracted me without my having any clue what waited inside.