Tuesday, 19 June 2018

Dora Doralina / Rachel de Queiroz

3 out of 5 stars
"What kills you today is forgotten tomorrow. I don't know if this is true or false because all that's real for me is remembrance." In her old age, Dora reflects on the major influences in her life: her mother, her career in the theater, and her one true love. Set in Brazil in the early part of the century, Dora, Doralina is a story about power. Through her fierce resistance to her mother and her later life as a working woman and widow, Doralina attempts to define herself in a time and culture which places formidable obstacles before women. Married off by her mother to a man she does not love, told what to wear and eat, Dora's reclaiming of herself is full of both discovery and rage. For her, independence is the right to protect herself and make her own choices. From a life confined by religion and "respectability," even her passionate attachment to a hard-drinking smuggler contains an act of free will previously unavailable to her. Dora, Doralina is an intimate, realistic, and vivid glimpse of one woman's struggle for independence, for a life in which she owns her actions, her pleasure, and her pain.

I read this book to fill the Q position in my quest to read women authors A-Z in 2018. I will honestly tell you that it is not a novel that I would naturally pick up so I probably didn’t appreciate it as much as someone who regularly reads literary fiction.

This is a character driven story which reads very much like an autobiography. It is basically a window into the world of women in Brazil in the first half of the twentieth century. Brazilian society, as in many societies at the time, is extremely macho and women don’t have all that much latitude.

The book is divided into three sections, representing three stages in the life of our narrator, Dora. The first section is Dora growing up and struggling with the control of her domineering mother. Dora refers to her as Senhora, not mother, and seems to be one of the only people in the household who longs for freedom. Dora ends up in a marriage which was more-or-less engineered by Senhora, and while she doesn’t mind her husband, she’s not desperately fond of him either. When he is killed, Dora takes a page from her mother’s playbook and uses her widowhood to give herself more freedom in the world.

The second section is Dora’s adventures in the world outside her mother’s farm. She finds employment and eventually ends up on stage, despite her shyness. She is both fiercely independent and highly reliant on her friends in the acting company, a duality that she freely acknowledges. And it is during her travels with the company that she meets the love of her life.

Part three is her life with The Captain. He reminded me of her first husband in several ways (his drinking, his macho possessiveness) but Dora’s feelings for him make the marriage an altogether different experience from the first.

Documenting women’s lives is an important pursuit, filling in the blanks of previously ignored reality. The novel also shows the particular barriers that many South American women are up against culturally.

The Constant Gardener / John Le Carré

4 out of 5 stars
Tessa Quayle-young, beautiful, and dearly beloved to husband Justin-is gruesomely murdered in northern Kenya. When Justin sets out on a personal odyssey to uncover the mystery of her death, what he finds could make him not only a suspect but also a target for Tessa's killers.

A master chronicler of the betrayals of ordinary people caught in political conflict, John le Carré portrays the dark side of unbridled capitalism as only he can. In The Constant Gardener he tells a compelling, complex story of a man elevated through tragedy as Justin Quayle-amateur gardener, aging widower, and ineffectual bureaucrat-discovers his own natural resources and the extraordinary courage of the woman he barely had time to love.


***2018 Summer of Spies***

So its summer, finally and at last, here in the Great White North. It’s time for some summer fun reading about espionage! This is my first venture into Le Carré’s work and I enjoyed it.

I had expected a rather light & frothy thriller and instead I got a serious examination of big pharma—its use of the unfortunate as test subjects and its desire to put profit well ahead of human kindness. Also explored is the nature of colonialism in Kenya, reminding me a bit of The Poisonwood Bible. Heavy subjects for a popular novel!

I also got a reminder on the nature of marriage—those of us on the outside of a marriage really have no idea what’s happening on the inside. On the outside, Sandy and Gloria Woodrow look like the stable, steady couple and Justin and Tessa Quayle look like a precarious, unmatched union. The book begins from Sandy Woodrow’s point of view and quickly disabuses the reader of the notion that his marriage is solid. Woodrow’s constant search for sex outside his marriage was tiresome and it was a relief when I reached the point where Le Carré switched to Justin’s POV. There we discover that, far from being unstable, Justin and Tessa trusted and loved each other a great deal.

Thereafter followed the labyrinthine machinations that I had been expecting. Who knows what, who is hiding something, what can be done about it all? I can definitely see why The Guardian lists it as one of their 1000 recommended books

Wizard's First Rule / Terry Goodkind

3.5 stars out of 5
In the aftermath of the brutal murder of his father, a mysterious woman, Kahlan Amnell, appears in Richard Cypher's forest sanctuary seeking help . . . and more.

His world, his very beliefs, are shattered when ancient debts come due with thundering violence. In a dark age it takes courage to live, and more than mere courage to challenge those who hold dominion, Richard and Kahlan must take up that challenge or become the next victims. Beyond awaits a bewitching land where even the best of their hearts could betray them. Yet, Richard fears nothing so much as what secrets his sword might reveal about his own soul. Falling in love would destroy them--for reasons Richard can't imagine and Kahlan dare not say.

In their darkest hour, hunted relentlessly, tormented by treachery and loss, Kahlan calls upon Richard to reach beyond his sword--to invoke within himself something more noble. Neither knows that the rules of battle have just changed . . . or that their time has run out.


I’ve read quite a number of “high fantasy” epics as part of my SFF reading project and the Sword of Truth series is yet another one. Maybe I’ve read a few too many of these series over the past couple of years, as I was quite weary by the end of the first 100 pages. Goodkind believes in getting right to it—by 100 pages we are introduced to Richard Cypher (our chosen one for this series), Kahlan Amnell (his love interest & travel companion), and Zedd (the obligatory wizard). Not only that, Richard’s brother is set up as the corrupt politician who is going to cause trouble later. I guess it’s a toss-up between those who don’t want too much exposition or description and those who would like a gentler introduction to this new fantasy world. I cut my high fantasy teeth on Tolkien, so I tend to favour more introductory material before plunging into the adventure.

Warnings to those who are sensitive souls: both torture and pedophilia are aspects of this story. If you choose your TBR based on avoiding these issues, strike this book from your reading agenda. The torture section, where Richard is in the power of a Mord-Sith, Denna, is rather long and dwells lingeringly on her brutal treatment of Richard. We learn about what Mord-Sith are right along with Richard. Needless to say, they are on the Evil side of the equation in this story.

Richard’s talents appear to be a questioning nature, insisting on getting to the truth of things, and an ability to see things from another’s perspective and appreciate them despite their behaviour. This is how he manages to find an affection for Mistress Denna and sweet talk a dragon, among other diplomatic coups. The fact that he is portrayed as a highly unusual man because of these capabilities (to empathize with others) I leave to your judgement.

Richard and Kahlan have a whole Romeo-and-Juliet plot line going through most of the book, probably one of the oldest plot devices going. If you’ve read The Lord of the Rings you will also see echoes of Wormtongue when you consider Richard’s brother Michael and hints of Gollum when you read about the former Seeker who has been distorted by magic. Not to mention Zedd’s tendencies to give incomplete advice and to disappear when he is most needed, rather like Gandalf.

I think that perhaps my adoration of modern urban fantasy is a reaction to the plethora of rather medieval settings and simplistic good-vs-evil plots of much of high fantasy. There’s a place for both and I enjoy them both—they use many of the same tropes, after all—but we all need variety in both our physical and reading diets.

Book number 289 in my Science Fiction & Fantasy reading project.

Friday, 15 June 2018

Red Mars / Kim Stanley Robinson

3 out of 5 stars
For eons, sandstorms have swept the desolate landscape. For centuries, Mars has beckoned humans to conquer its hostile climate. Now, in 2026, a group of 100 colonists is about to fulfill that destiny.

John Boone, Maya Toitavna, Frank Chalmers & Arkady Bogdanov lead a terraforming mission. For some, Mars will become a passion driving them to daring acts of courage & madness. For others it offers an opportunity to strip the planet of its riches. For the genetic alchemists, it presents a chance to create a biomedical miracle, a breakthrough that could change all we know about life & death. The colonists orbit giant satellite mirrors to reflect light to the surface. Black dust sprinkled on the polar caps will capture warmth. Massive tunnels, kilometers deep, will be drilled into the mantle to create stupendous vents of hot gases. Against this backdrop of epic upheaval, rivalries, loves & friendships will form & fall to pieces--for there are those who will fight to the death to prevent Mars from ever being changed.


A “hard” science fiction book which takes the reader to Mars with the First Hundred settlers, tasked with making the planet livable for humans. There’s a lot of science in this one, folks, and not presented in Andy Weir’s humorous fashion as in The Martian. There were actually a couple of equations and diagrams, so if that kind of stuff gives you a rash, strike this book from your TBR.

Now, I’m generally a preferential fantasy reader, but I’m also a fan of science fiction, even occasionally this kind of technical science fiction, but I found the amount of detail about the building of things, the science of trying to change the atmosphere, the geology, etc., to be a bit excessive. If all the science-y stuff really turns your crank, you will love Red Mars.

This author could really have taken some lessons on describing landscapes from Zane Grey. Grey wrote romantic westerns in the early 20th century and is acknowledged for his beautiful descriptions of the settings of his tales. Mars in this book becomes rather like a wild west, also with some awesome (in the original sense of that word) landscape features, but they tend to be described in terms of physics, rather than the beauty that is inherent in them. Having seen the movie version of The Martian with its gorgeous planetary scenes, I feel there was room for a bit less utilitarian description of the features of Mars.

I’m glad that the author chose to have women in the First Hundred and that a couple of them achieve high standing among them. That said, there were some dynamics in the group that were awfully predictable. The two people who reach the highest are, of course, white American men. The author is a white American man, and its true that these positions have been disproportionately inhabited by that demographic, but wouldn’t it be more interesting if someone else rose to that level on Mars? There’s a lot of talk about building a new, fresh society, but things end up back in the old rut. (Perhaps that’s what the author intended, to be fair). There are also Russians on this mission, but they are stereotypically fixated on socialism and revolutionary plans. The two Russian women followed throughout the book are polar opposites—Maya is beautiful, emotional, flighty, and manipulative, while Nadia is plain, practical, solid, and steady. I loved Nadia, despite the fact that she was an engineer’s engineer, totally fixated on building and problem solving. But really, are those the only roles available to us? Beautiful prima donnas or practical Plain Janes?

I liked the book well enough that I will read the next one in the series, and not just because it is part of my reading project, but it will never be one of my favourites. And that’s okay, because it will be loved by the people who love this kind of book.

Book number 288 in my Science Fiction & Fantasy Reading Project.

Darkwalker / E.L. Tettensor

3.5 stars out of 5
He used to be the best detective on the job. Until he became the hunted...

Once a legendary police inspector, Nicolas Lenoir is now a disillusioned and broken man who spends his days going through the motions and his evenings drinking away the nightmares of his past. Ten years ago, Lenoir barely escaped the grasp of the Darkwalker, a vengeful spirit who demands a terrible toll on those who have offended the dead. But the Darkwalker does not give up on his prey so easily, and Lenoir has always known his debt would come due one day.
 
When Lenoir is assigned to a disturbing new case, he treats the job with his usual apathy—until his best informant, a street savvy orphan, is kidnapped. Desperate to find his young friend before the worst befalls him, Lenoir will do anything catch the monster responsible for the crimes, even if it means walking willingly into the arms of his own doom…...


I didn’t connect with this character as much as I did the characters in the author’s other series (The Bloodbound, Erin Lindsey), but I still enjoyed the reading experience. I’m not gonna lie, I found many of the plot points to be a bit predictable, but the writing was good enough that I was willing to forgive that. I do like a paranormal detective story, even if Nicolas Lenoir is a moody, often drunken jerk. There’s a bit too much lingering (without details) on the big bad awful thing that happened in his past that left him in this detached state.

He may initially remind the reader of Sherlock Holmes, but there are significant differences. His alcohol dependence resembles Holmes’ drug habit, but the reasons behind them are different. Holmes indulges occasionally when he’s bored, Lenoir drinks every night to forget the dark event in his past. Holmes, for all his disdain for regular people, is pretty honest & upright. Lenoir is open to bribery and willing to slack on investigations that he doesn’t consider particularly important. With his snarly, detached demeanour, Lenoir is certainly lacking a sidekick like Watson, although he has Sergeant Kody waiting in the wings to fill the position. In this volume, Lenoir has Zach, a wily orphan boy, who stands in for all the Baker Street Irregulars, to help him with his inquires.

The setting is Victorian without being set in London. This world is obviously not ours and we learn the differences as the story progresses. Magic is very much a thing in this reality and has to be taken into account. The Adali people are very Romany-like and provide an exotic source of tension.

This author will be at the August conference that I’ll be attending. I think I’ll have read all of her books by then! She has attended before and I enjoyed her perspectives on fiction and writing, so I’m looking forward to more of the same.

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World / Haruki Murakami

3 out of 5 stars
In this hyperkinetic and relentlessly inventive novel, Japan’s most popular (and controversial) fiction writer hurtles into the consciousness of the West. Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World draws readers into a narrative particle accelerator in which a split-brained data processor, a deranged scientist, his shockingly undemure granddaughter, Lauren Bacall, Bob Dylan, and various thugs, librarians, and subterranean monsters collide to dazzling effect. What emerges is simultaneously cooler than zero and unaffectedly affecting, a hilariously funny and deeply serious meditation on the nature and uses of the mind.

I’m not sure what to say about this book, beside the fact that it is not really my cuppa tea. Not that I disliked it, I often found it amusing and I easily read to the end, no arm twisting necessary. But it certainly wouldn’t encourage me to pick up more of this author’s works.

It took me a little while to get into the rhythm of things, the chapters alternating between two narrators. Both story lines felt a bit odd to me, despite my love of fantasy fiction. But it was interesting in its nonconformity to traditional fantasy plots. Neither narrator is really very heroic, none of the women are portrayed as serious love interests, the reasons for the adventures are largely undefined, plus there is very little wrap-up at book’s end.

Interestingly, none the characters have names—they are referred to by title (the old man, the chubby girl, the librarian, etc.). Which I guess makes sense, as I assume that they are all parts of the same brain! At least it seemed to me that the point of the book was to explore the idea of the unconscious and how it interacts with the conscious mind.

Pluses? Unicorns! Even if they were kind of sad and decrepit unicorns, they were still unicorns. And who doesn’t love enemies like the INKlings who worship a large fish with violent tendencies? Also, the narrator’s fondness for the librarian. Good taste that.

Book number 287 of my Science Fiction & Fantasy Reading Project.

Friday, 8 June 2018

Macbeth / Jo Nesbø

3.5 stars out of 5
He’s the best cop they’ve got.

When a drug bust turns into a bloodbath it’s up to Inspector Macbeth and his team to clean up the mess.

He’s also an ex-drug addict with a troubled past.

He’s rewarded for his success. Power. Money. Respect. They’re all within reach.

But a man like him won’t get to the top.

Plagued by hallucinations and paranoia, Macbeth starts to unravel. He’s convinced he won’t get what is rightfully his.

Unless he kills for it.



My enjoyment of this book suffered greatly from a case of bad timing—it came in at the library when I was in the mood for lighter, happier reading. And yet, I’d waited many weeks for it and there were 60 people behind me in line, so I felt duty bound to read it and pass it on. Perhaps I should have returned it and rejoined the line of holds.

Macbeth is a dark, bloody story. Jo Nesbø is expert at dark and bloody plot lines. This is a match made in hell. But I came to realize that when I watch Shakespeare’s version, I am insulated. There are kings and thanes and witches and iambic pentameter, none of which occur in my regular life and I’m able to distance myself from the violence, the blood and the back stabbing. This version, set in a modern town and police department, removed that cotton wool and exposed my nerve endings! During the first third of the book, I had a difficult time picking it back up after a break, because I knew the basic story line and knew that death and destruction were coming. Seeing it in modern terms, with modern weapons, in a current setting somehow made it so much worse and made it so much more relevant to a 21st century reader.

In Nesbø’s version, Macbeth is the successful head of a SWAT team in a town seething with corruption, double dealing and drugs. Everyone is on the take, it seems, if the price is high enough. Macbeth, orphan child, former circus performer, recovering addict, has come up in the world and is poised to go even higher. His love, Lady, has similarly come up from violence and poverty to now own a large and successful casino.

I thought Nesbø’s choice to make Hecate the head of the most successful drug cartel in the town was brilliant, and especially to have three women brewing the drugs. One of these three, Strega (Italian for witch, dontcha know) is Hecate’s main way of communicating with Macbeth and Lady, among others.

Someday, when I’m more in the mood for dark and dangerous, I may take this book on again and see what I make of it the second time around. In the meanwhile, I may check out the National Theatre’s production of the play (starring Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff) later this month at my local movie theatre.