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.


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.