Saturday, 30 January 2016

The Cat Who Walks Through Walls / Robert A. Heinlein

2 out of 5 stars
When a stranger attempting to deliver a cryptic message is shot dead at his table, Dr. Richard Ames is thrown headfirst into danger, intrigue, and other dimensions, where a plot to rescue a sentient computer could alter human history...

I believe this novel is the last Heinlein in my reading project and I can’t say that distresses me. I realize that this was written late in RAH’s career, after bouts of serious illness. Maybe that had something to do with the quality of these later works. The Cat picks up where Time Enough for Love and The Number of the Beast left off, retreading much of the same territory.

I must say in Cat’s favour that there are far fewer sex scenes, and as a result less incest and pedophilia. There is still an excessive amount (to my taste anyway) of dialog spent expounding Heinlein’s political and social views—some of which I can live with, others are just icky. He has managed to take a couple of interesting ideas—the multiverse and being able to travel between alternate universes, and an exploration of the meta-universes of fiction—and make them boring by sandwiching them back into the world of Lazarus Long.

Great Goddess, is Long ever a bore! And Richard Ames, our new main character, is even more boring, if that is possible. Although there is plenty of flitting about and (as mentioned previously) enormous amounts of pointless dialog, nothing much really gets done.

The best part of the whole thing, in my opinion, is the lovely book cover. When it was first published, I remember that cover catching my eye in the book stores and I thought then that I wanted to read it. I’m unsure why I didn’t purchase a copy back then, but I am thankful now that I didn’t. I had only read Stranger in a Strange Land at that point and would probably never have touched another RAH book if Cat had been my second.

I appreciate that if you read this in your teens or are a die-hard Heinlein fan, your opinion will differ substantially from mine. That’s fair enough, there is a lid for every pot. Unfortunately RAH’s late fiction doesn’t work for me at all, to my disappointment.

Book 208 of my science fiction and fantasy reading project.

Thursday, 28 January 2016

Bitter Lake / Marika Deliyannides

4 out of 5 stars
Past, present, and future collide when an unhappily pregnant, mid-thirties woman visits her childhood home near the shores of Bitter Lake.

My nostrils shrink from the stink of formaldehyde. The boys can always be counted on to handle the dissections. That’s what I like about boys—they prefer to mess with animal innards instead of ripping each other’s guts out.

I must confess, I often shrink away from books which explore that hellish part of life, junior high and high school. Who really wants to remember all the nasty things we did to each other back then? But this is what Zoe Lemonoupolos must do, as she returns home to Bitter Lake to help her parents move into a seniors’ villa. Zoe is successful in her own way—she runs a thriving business as a professional organizer, she has a dentist husband, and she has just discovered that she is pregnant. Perfection, right? Well, maybe.

It is one thing to sort through other people’s belongings, purging and organizing. It’s another to sort through your own past and deal with what you find there. Even under good circumstances, there are issues that families don’t want to deal with, questions they don’t want to answer, and places they don’t want to go. Zoe has always had a difficult relationship with her parents and her sister, for reasons that the reader is unsure of.

It becomes obvious early in the novel that Zoe has become a professional organizer because she is rigidly controlling her own life, and it spills over into her career choice. What is this intelligent woman running away from? Why is she so unsure of her own mothering skills? Can she sort it out and find happiness in this pregnancy?

Deliyannides nails the small town environment of Bitter Lake—she has obviously spent time in just such a community. Everybody thinking they know enough of everyone else’s business to judge. The business owners in precarious financial situations, the laid-off rig workers getting drunk and abusive, the popular kids at school lording it over the less popular. She also knows the small details—the sliver of old soap melded to the new bar, the throw pillows arranged to cover stains, the sentimental calendar of the old country hanging in an office.

Coming from an Alberta small town myself, I appreciated the accuracy of the details and the complexity of the emotions. A very enjoyable book.

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

The No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency / Alexander McCall Smith

3 out of 5 stars
The No.1 ladies' detective agency consists of one woman, the engaging and sassy Precious Ramotswe, who sets up shop in Gabarone, Botswana. This unlikely herione specialises in missing husbands, wayward daughters, con men and impostors.

If you have had a rough week, if your day has been hectic and you feel frazzled, I recommend sitting down with The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency for a while. I would describe the feeling of reading it to be “calming.” It is very unlike the North American or Scandinavian crime fiction genre.

I’ve never been to Botswana, but I felt like I had taken a mini-holiday there by the end of the book. And you get an insight into the people and their culture than you would never get as a tourist—a sense of how completely different their approach to life is.

Just took a look and have realized that there are seventeen books so far in this series. I have friends who adore them and I can see why they do. I felt that No. 1 was quite well written and I liked Precious Ramotswe very much as a main character. I love the kindness and the gentleness that contrasts with the situations when she gets tough.

This was a selection for my real-life book club and is also a recommendation by Book Riot (their African authors reading list). I’m very glad to have read it and eventually I may get around to further books in the series. For now, I am off to other things. So many books, so little time.

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Callahan's Secret / Spider Robinson (Callahan's #3)

3 out of 5 stars

Callahan's Place is open for business, and all of the "regulars" are here—a talking dog, an alcoholic vampire, and two telepaths—enhancing their joys by drowning their sorrows. Everyone, that is, but Mickey Finn, a seven-foot tall alien in danger of enslavement at the hands of a traveller from across the galaxy...

Come inside, pull up a chair, order a drink, make a toast, and let Spider Robinson introduce you to the most unique patrons to frequent any establishment, at a bar where the most important law is "shared pain is lessened; shared joy is increased." And if there's time left at the end of the night, just maybe they'll save the world...

This is the first Callahan book and indeed the first Spider Robinson book that I can unreservedly say that I enjoyed. Perhaps that was because there were only four stories in it, so each one got more time and attention from the author and also because there wasn’t any non-Callahan material included.

My impression is certainly that Spider Robinson believes in the redemptive value of friendship and in the associated virtues of compassion and empathy. Not to mention alcohol, humour, and music, which are also extolled as great joys.

Be warned, these stories are pun-laden. If you adore punning, you will love Robinson’s work. If you are like me and merely tolerate puns, be advised that I did not find them overly obnoxious. Probably if I had an audiobook, I would have snorted a few times.

This is book 207 of my science fiction and fantasy reading project.

Monday, 25 January 2016

Hammered / Kevin Hearne (Iron Druid #3)

2.5 stars out of 5
Thor, the Norse god of thunder, is worse than a blowhard and a bully—he’s ruined countless lives and killed scores of innocents. After centuries, Viking vampire Leif Helgarson is ready to get his vengeance, and he’s asked his friend Atticus O’Sullivan, the last of the Druids, to help take down this Norse nightmare.

One survival strategy has worked for Atticus for more than two thousand years: stay away from the guy with the lightning bolts. But things are heating up in Atticus’s home base of Tempe, Arizona. There’s a vampire turf war brewing, and Russian demon hunters who call themselves the Hammers of God are running rampant. Despite multiple warnings and portents of dire consequences, Atticus and Leif journey to the Norse plain of Asgard, where they team up with a werewolf, a sorcerer, and an army of frost giants for an epic showdown against vicious Valkyries, angry gods, and the hammer-wielding Thunder Thug himself.

This novel in the series was disappointing to me. I didn’t like Atticus as much as usual—and I’m often willing to cut the author some slack if I love the characters. I think that’s one of the problems for me with this one—there’s much less Oberon wolfhound extraordinaire, less of Druid-apprentice Granuaile, less of the whisky drinking widow, all of whom make these novels pleasant for me. Taking the action out of Arizona and moving it to the Norse realm left out many of the elements that allow Atticus to show himself to be a decent guy. Instead, he has been drawn into a revenge plot that he actually has no stake in besides keeping his word. Indeed, by insisting on keeping his word, he is drawn into a thoroughly no-win situation, ignoring excellent advice given to him by both Jesus and Flidais, and neglecting his responsibilities in Midgard/Arizona.

Too much of the book required tenuous connections using various “hammer” puns. Plus, the whole section with the Hammer of God zealots and Jesus was actually in questionable taste, in my opinion, despite my lack of religious affiliation. It’s risky business to poke the bear of current religions, although I think it’s fair to show them as equal to Norse paganism or the ancient Irish religion.

I did enjoy Atticus and Leif’s dueling Shakespeare quotations, as well the pop culture references. I’m almost reluctantly drawn towards the fourth book, just to see how things work out. 

Friday, 22 January 2016

Blood Bound / Patricia Briggs

4 out of 5 stars
Mechanic Mercy Thompson has friends in low places-and in dark ones. And now she owes one of them a favor. Since she can shapeshift at will, she agrees to act as some extra muscle when her vampire friend Stefan goes to deliver a message to another of his kind.

But this new vampire is hardly ordinary-and neither is the demon inside of him.

More Stefan and more vampires. Yay! And these are dangerous vampires, not cutesy ones. Mercy faces them all bravely and it turns out that her feminine ways of doing things are more effective than all the macho werewolf snarling in the world. My impressions of Stefan (a character I like very much) are morphing—he is changing from a supernatural buddy into someone tall, dark, and dangerous!

The more I learn about Briggs’ paranormal world, the more I like it. She takes the stereotypical vampires, werewolves and fae and does interesting things with them. Despite the changes, it is fairly easy to keep up with who can do what and why—but the explanations are worked into the book well, not as annoying info dumps.

I guess I’m older than the usual target audience for urban fantasy—I’m well beyond the stage of thinking that competing men, vying for my attention, is a wonderful romantic thing. So I’ll be very glad if Mercy chooses one of them in the next book or two and we can get on with sub-plots that are of more interest to me. Fingers crossed.

Thursday, 21 January 2016

Faithful Place / Tana French

5 out of 5 stars
Back in 1985, Frank Mackey was nineteen, growing up poor in Dublin's inner city, and living crammed into a small flat with his family on Faithful Place. But he had his sights set on a lot more. He and Rosie Daly were all ready to run away to London together, get married, get good jobs, break away from factory work and poverty and their old lives.

But on the winter night when they were supposed to leave, Rosie didn't show. Frank took it for granted that she'd dumped him-probably because of his alcoholic father, nutcase mother, and generally dysfunctional family. He never went home again.

Neither did Rosie. Everyone thought she had gone to England on her own and was over there living a shiny new life. Then, twenty-two years later, Rosie's suitcase shows up behind a fireplace in a derelict house on Faithful Place, and Frank is going home whether he likes it o
r not

Getting sucked in is a lot easier than getting out again. Frank finds himself straight back in the dark tangle of relationships he left behind. The cops working the case want him out of the way, in case loyalty to his family and community makes him a liability. Faithful Place wants him out because he's a detective now, and the Place has never liked cops. Frank just wants to find out what happened to Rosie Daly-and he's willing to do whatever it takes, to himself or anyone else, to get the job done.

Have you any idea how much I want to immediately re-read Faithful Place?? Or how difficult it is not to request the fourth Dublin Murder Squad book from the library right this very second??? But I must not give in to the urge to read Tana French’s books in a continuous cycle, or I will be finished much too quickly. As it was, there was no way I could pace myself reading Faithful Place. I basically read it in two sittings—the first evening, I polished off 30%; the next day, I read one chapter during my lunch break and it has never been so difficult to put a book mark back in a book and return to work; that evening, I grabbed the book as soon as I got home and proceeded to inhale the rest of it, surfacing occasionally for a bit of dinner or a glass of water.

The magic of French’s writing for me is in the total immersion in the main character’s life. Frank Mackey, one of the prominent characters in The Likeness, is the focus of Faithful Place, and although I didn’t really warm up to him in the earlier book, I couldn’t help but care about the guy in this one. French makes each of her main characters into fully rounded, understandable people. I could almost expect to go to Dublin and find them in the pub, having a pint, much the way that people go to 221B Baker Street and expect to see Sherlock Holmes.

This is one of the beauties of French’s series—I come for the mystery, but I am dazzled by the human dynamics. As a reader, I soon realized that Frank, his brother Shay, and their Da are three peas in a pod. Highly intelligent men, trying their damnedest to escape from the grinding poverty of Faithful Place, Frank’s childhood neighbourhood. These three continuously butt heads because they are all so similar—handsome, tough, decisive, and possessing a fierce temper. Frank has escaped in a half-assed way, by running away and becoming a cop, a profession which now makes him persona non grata in his former life. The way these three men circle each other, looking for advantage, is mesmerizing.

And the writing! As Frank would say, Jaysus! It’s beautiful, even when it’s describing ugly events. The dialog is pitch perfect, the vocabulary is lovely (including the Irish idioms), and the pacing is intense. I rank Tana French right up there with Raymond Chandler for beautifully written crime fiction.

I cannot recommend this series or this book highly enough. You don’t need to read the books in order, but for the best reading experience, I would recommend it. Go, find a copy of In the Woods, and get started—you won’t regret it.

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Beowulf / translated by Seamus Heaney

4 out of 5 stars
Composed toward the end of the first millennium, Beowulf is the classic Northern epic of a hero’s triumphs as a young warrior and his fated death as a defender of his people. The poem is about encountering the monstrous, defeating it, and then having to live on, physically and psychically exposed in the exhausted aftermath. It is not hard to draw parallels in this story to the historical curve of consciousness in the twentieth century, but the poem also transcends such considerations, telling us psychological and spiritual truths that are permanent and liberating.

Beowulf is an interesting window into the past—specifically where Christianity and older pagan religions overlapped. It was fascinating to see the older, warrior culture being lived with an overlay of Christianity. But deeds of bravery and being able to hold your liquor whilst on the mead-bench were still valuable commodities! Modesty was not yet a virtue—a warrior was expected to declaim his exploits (a la the Norse god, Bragi, from whom we get the English verb “to brag.”)

Although I was familiar with the story line of the first half of the poem, dealing with Grendel and his mother, I found the second half completely new. I was unaware of the portion dealing with a dragon that Beowulf faces. I know that Tolkien also translated this poem and I was amazed at how similar some sections of it were to parts of The Hobbit when Bilbo and the dwarves are dealing with Smaug, the dragon occupying the former home of the dwarves. Obviously, Beowulf was inspiring for Tolkien.

I know that I had to translate parts of this poem from the old English for a linguistics course that I took many years ago. I remember it being a difficult task and I have to admire Seamus Heaney’s accomplishment. He has created a very readable version of the text. I tried something quite different for me with this work—I borrowed both the text and the audio book from the library and allowed the poet to read his work to me, while I followed along in the text. The only problem with this arrangement was the abridgement of the spoken-word version, requiring occasional pausing on my part to find my place further ahead in the text. Despite this, I enjoyed the experience very much and plan to use audio-books for other foundational texts of Western literature, such as The Iliad and The Odyssey.

Several of my friends have warned me that is it very important who is providing the vocal performance on an audio-book. I felt that a poet of Heaney’s stature would have a good grasp of performing his work and I was not disappointed.

Monday, 18 January 2016

Demon / John Varley

4 out of 5 stars
The satellite-sized alien Gaea has gone completely insane. She has transformed her love of old movies into monstrous realities. She is Marilyn Monroe. She is King Kong. And now she must be destroyed.

It strikes me, as I finish up Demon, that John Varley’s trilogy is in many ways a mirror-image of Arthur Clarke’s 2001, a Space Odyssey. While both stories begin with humans exploring alien technology in the outer solar system, Clarke’s is all about the computers, space travel, and alien technology, while Varley’s is all about human relationships. Clarke’s aliens are aloof and cold, leaving behind technology just in case humans manage to develop into something interesting; Varley’s Gaea is intensely interested in humans—luring them to her world, sometimes with very convoluted methods, and using their films to express her insanity in this final volume of the trilogy.

About mid-book, Conal (a man from Earth with all of the prejudices associated) and Nova (a woman from a lesbian society on a human made satellite) have an argument/discussion which I think articulates Varley’s view of things rather well. Conal came from a society in which males were privileged and Nova came from one which demonizes men. They are thrown into a situation where they will have to co-operate and they must work out their differences and an interesting discussion on in-groups and out-groups ensues. Conal realizes that Nova’s choice of wardrobe (or lack thereof) is really none of his business (and shouldn’t affect how he relates to her) and Nova realizes that you don’t have to be a lesbian female to be a worthy companion. I re-read this particular section 2-3 times, just because I enjoyed it so much—it fit so well into the action, without feeling overly preachy (at least to me).

Needless to say, this whole series passes the Bechdel test with flying colours, very refreshing in a works from the 1970s and 1980s. The whole Gaean world, with its odd plants and animals, is interesting and fun to explore and has its own internal logic that made perfect sense to me as I read it, despite its oddity.

Book 205 of my science fiction & fantasy reading project.

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Midnight Riot / Ben Aaronovitch

4 out of 5 stars
Probationary Constable Peter Grant dreams of being a detective in London's Metropolitan Police. Too bad his superior plans to assign him to the Case Progression Unit, where the biggest threat he'll face is a paper cut. But Peter's prospects change in the aftermath of a puzzling murder, when he gains exclusive information from an eyewitness who happens to be a ghost. Peter's ability to speak with the lingering dead brings him to the attention of Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale, who investigates crimes involving magic and other manifestations of the uncanny. Now, as a wave of brutal and bizarre murders engulfs the city, Peter is plunged into a world where gods and goddesses mingle with mortals and long-dead evil is making a comeback on a rising tide of magic.

A delightful, fun book, unlike any other urban fantasy series that I have read. Well, no, not completely unlike—just an unusual combination. It read like a hybrid of Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus series (for its setting & police procedural aspect) and Rowling’s Harry Potter series (for the beginner’s state of Peter Grant’s magic), with a dash of Butcher’s Harry Dresden series thrown in (for that shot of urban-fantasy) and maybe just a sprinkling of the The X-Files (for Peter’s relationship with the police department). I think Aaronovitch is alone in this precise calibration of elements and I liked it a great deal.

Also intriguing was a non-white main character. Peter Grant’s mother is from Sierra Leone and he is sometimes able to use what he calls his “ethnic-ness” to his advantage. I couldn’t help but love Peter and his devotion to both London and to policing, as well as his skeptical approach to wizardry.

I loved Aaronovitch’s ability to describe things economically—as when he describes Peter’s parents’ kitchen as a potential training site for the mess staff of a Trident submarine. You immediately envision how tiny it is, while smiling about something that wouldn’t normally cause happiness. This is a statement of high praise coming from me, a person who often dislikes humourous writing. I’m not good an interpreting humour on the page—I most often need to hear it spoken in order to properly appreciate it. But I stayed with the program throughout this novel, an unusual and pleasant experience.

I look forward to reading future adventures of Peter Grant and seeing how he continues to apply his police training and rudimentary scientific skills to his study of magic and to Magical London.  

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Heretics of Dune / Frank Herbert

2.5 out of 5 stars
Leto Atreides, the God Emperor of Dune, is dead. In the fifteen hundred years since his passing, the Empire has fallen into ruin. The great Scattering saw millions abandon the crumbling civilization and spread out beyond the reaches of known space. The planet Arrakis-now called Rakis-has reverted to its desert climate, and its great sandworms are dying.

Now, the Lost Ones are returning home in pursuit of power. And as factions vie for control over the remnants of the Empire, a girl named Sheeana rises to prominence in the wastelands of Rakis, sending religious fervor throughout the galaxy. For she possesses the abilities of the Fremen sandriders-fulfilling a prophecy foretold by the late God Emperor...

I do love the Dune universe, but I usually limit my re-reading to the first three books. The fourth book, God Emperor of Dune, is definitely the worst of the bunch, in my opinion, and yet I’m glad I read it long, long ago so that I knew what the main characters in Heretics were talking about! (Not enough to re-read God Emperor, mind you.)

Things I like in this book? Miles Teg, beloved Bashar and Atreides descendent and his interesting development in the last chapters. Yet another Duncan Idaho ghola, but this one seems to have a better grip on existence than the last several hundred of them. Plus, more insight into the world of the Bene Gesserit. Sheeana, the little minx on Arrakis/Rakis who has defied the Priesthood and has ridden the great sand worms, because really what is a Dune book without sand worm riding?

Things that make me scratch my head: The extreme weight given to sex in this book—really? I mean sex is nice and all, but it can be lived without fairly easily. Although individual people can be yanked around by their gonads, I don’t think whole societies can be warped or controlled through sexuality. Except now that I say that I’m thinking about modern marketing and imagining that people’s consumerist lives are definitely manipulated by sexuality in advertising. Hmmmm…. I suppose it’s the opposite of most of the dystopia books, where the human sexual drive provides the cracks that start the destruction of the evil order. In the Dune universe, it is resistance to sexuality that is rebellious.

Then there’s the whole issue of the Bene Gesserit and the Honored Matres being two very influential groups of women, bent on controlling the universe through sex. Mr. Herbert did not have a very flattering view of women, did he? When the men in the novel have sex, well they are just fulfilling a natural drive. When the women indulge, they are manipulating bitches. Quite a double standard. I suppose Heretics passes the Bechdel test, as there are lots of prominent named female characters who talk to one another (an awful lot) about issues besides men. Although most of the political issues that they talk about usually devolve at some point back to trying to figure out the (nominally male) God Emperor and how to escape from his Golden Path. So in a way, they are still talking about men—although they are focusing their lives on trying to escape from his plan, which I can fully understand.

All of the political and social machinations that made the original so interesting (to me at least) are back in Heretics, so that is something to be thankful for. I have only the vaguest of memories of the events of Chapterhouse Dune, but it is currently in my TBR pile from the public library, so I will likely continue on to the bitter end. Having read a couple of Brian Herbert’s prequels, I think I will skip his efforts to finish his father’s series.

Book 204 of my science fiction and fantasy reading project.

Monday, 11 January 2016

Stormbringer / Michael Moorcock

3 out of 5 stars
The epic tale of Elric of Melnibone, albino prince of ruins, moves to it's awesome conclusion -with the whole of the natural and supernatural world in mighty conflict - the final conflict, Armageddon. Elric holds the key to the future: the new age which must follow the destruction.To turn that key he must sacrifice all that he loves and risk his very soul.

The strongest feeling I get from Moorcock’s Elric series is melancholy. I understand the lure of that state, as I get it when I read my beloved King Arthur books or at the end of a Shakespearian tragedy. But I feel like Moorcock does it with smoke & mirrors instead of through masterful story-telling. In Stormbringer (and the other Elric novels to be sure) I get this feeling from a combination of atmosphere and setting, but Elric himself leaves me cold. It’s pretty hard to root for the guy who is portrayed as the lesser evil. The details of each novel are tiresomely repetitive—Elric tries to resist using his demonic sword, Stormbringer; without it, he is too weak to be of any use in macho pursuits; he returns once again to using his soul-sucking weapon.

One simple word, repeated several times, was also jarring to me. Elric keeps saying “thanks,” which to me feels like a very modern usage and out of place in this rather archaic setting. If he said “many thanks” it would have grated less for me. Likewise, a number of times contracted words were used, when I thought that spelling out both words would have been more true to the ancient atmosphere, not to mention matching with the other language used. I guess I expect more precise language in a pseudo-archaic world.

I can’t say that I’m unhappy to be finished the Elric saga… many ways, it has felt like reading the same book six times.

Book 203 of my science fiction and fantasy reading project.

Friday, 8 January 2016

The Likeness / Tana French

5 out of 5 stars
Six months after the events of In the Woods, an urgent telephone call beckons detective Cassie Maddox to a grisly crime scene. The victim looks exactly like Cassie and carries ID identifying herself as Alexandra Madison, an alias Cassie once used. Suddenly, Cassie must discover not only who killed this girl, but, more importantly, who she is. A disturbing tale of shifting identities, The Likeness firmly establishes Tana French as an important voice in suspense fiction.

No pasts. This is the rule for the 5 young adults who live in Whitethorn House. As a result, their lives are rather like a biosphere project—things go off balance because no one in charge realized how important worms or spiders are to the ecosystem.

How I remember those achingly close and highly charged relationships of our 20s that we just assume will always be there. You look up some time in your 40s and realize that those people are long gone, you have no idea where they went, and you couldn’t contact them if you wanted to. But you do want to, desperately. It’s probably a good thing, though, that you can’t, because those days were lightning in a bottle and can only exist as a rainbow haze in your memory. The Good Old Days.

Ms. French is expert at creating intriguingly damaged characters who are still likeable. Cassie Maddox has her issues, but she is still a sympathetic narrator. I was almost happy that she still missed her former Murder Squad partner Rob with such intensity, because I miss him too. [See In the Woods for that part of the story]. Cassie is irresistibly drawn into the arrangement in Whitethorn House because she recognizes it as close facsimile of the closeness of her relationship with Rob.

Mind you, this book asks a lot of the reader—a big suspension of disbelief. Cassie’s undercover persona, Lexie Madison, has been appropriated by an “imposter” who has ended up dead. Cassie’s boyfriend on the Murder Squad (Sam) has been called to the scene (because there was a murder, natch), as has her former superior officer (Frank) from Undercover (because one of his “operatives” has died). The freaky catch to all of this? The dead “Lexie” is virtually identical to Cassie in appearance. It would be more likely to win the lottery and be struck by lightning ON THE SAME DAY as for this convergence of chance to happen. And yet, because this is Tana French writing, I barely paused to consider it—I just allowed her beautiful writing to pull me along into the increasingly complicated scenario. Because of course she will infiltrate the household and try to find out what happened to her doppelganger.

A great, tense plot line that had me thinking about it at work, while trying to catalogue other books. Gorgeous writing—wonderful turns of phrase and beautiful sentences. Not necessarily something you expect to find in a police procedural. I’ve already got a hold on the third book and I’m sure I’ll devour it too. 

Thursday, 7 January 2016

2015 Reading Round-Up

2015 was some kind of record for me.  I don't think I have ever read so many books in a year!  I even read 93% of the books that I intended to read, which is quite acceptable.

Without further ado, here are the stats and the awards:

Total books read in 2015: 155

Total number of pages: 53.768

Number of books read for my science fiction & fantasy reading project: 47

Nonfiction: 27

Written by women: 70

Shortest book: Follow Your Gut, non-fiction at 120 pages. Only worthy of remark because of its shortness.

Longest book: Goddess save me, Battlefield Earth by L. Ron Hubbard (or as I like to think of him, Elron). This door-stop weighed in at 1066 pages and I wouldn’t have finished it if I hadn’t been stuck at home with a nasty cold and nothing better to do.

Highest rated book of my science fiction/fantasy reading project: The Many Colored Land by Julian May. Loved the Pliocene animals, the idea of going one-way back into the past, and the surprise of being greeted by unknown aliens when the travelers got there.

Best re-telling of a classic: The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson (re-telling Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale). I love Shakespeare and I love good writing—I am eagerly awaiting more volumes of the Hogarth Shakespeare series as they become available.

Favourite new author discovered in 2015: Tana French—I thoroughly enjoyed Into the Woods and am looking forward to reading The Likeness. I have always enjoyed murder mysteries and police procedurals, but damn this woman can write! Excellent writing + a favourite genre = very happy reader.

Best translation: And the Birds Rained Down by Jocelyne Saucer. So well translated, I didn’t feel like it was a translation. Plus a fabulous story about the restrictions of age and the desire for freedom.

Classics that I can’t believe I haven’t read before: Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely. Chandler’s writing is gorgeous—dialog to die for and such atmosphere!

Most powerful depiction of real life: Under the Visible Life by Kim Echlin. Mesmerizing in its depiction of the intertwined lives of two women involved in the music scene, their struggles and their triumphs.

Post-apocalyptic with a sense of humour: Thomas King’s The Back of the Turtle. Want to laugh a bit about everything that’s wrong with our world? And end on an upbeat note? Then Turtle is for you!

Best book about a subject I usually avoid: Because it’s a book about WWII and I don’t read those. The Evening Chorus by Helen Humphreys. But being transported by nature—who can resist?

Most appropriate to my profession: Aislinn Hunter’s The World Before Us. Working in libraries/museums as I do, this book charmed me. Finding redemption through research? Bien sûr!

Best imaginative invention of a species: The Aeslin mice of the InCryptid series by Seanan McGuire. They charmed me in Discount Armageddon, Midnight Blue-Light Special, and Half-Off Ragnarok. What woman wouldn’t want her own colony of cheeky mice to worship her as a goddess? Every man, after his first night at a woman’s house, should have to face an army of mice!

Books which charmed me despite my cranky no-romance rules: Lisa Shearin won me over to the side of romance by spicing it up with plenty of vampires, werewolves, and other supernatural critters. After reading The Grendel Affair and The Dragon Conspiracy, I am waiting with bated breath for the third installment of the SPI Files.

Best series by a beloved author: I love Guy Gavriel Kay’s work and could hardly put down the Fionavar Tapestry series. Yes, it is another Lord of the Rings clone, but Kay writes so well that I forgave him that sin. And yes, I cried at several points during the last book.

Book I regret reading: The Ginger Man by J.P. Donleavy. I read this purely because it was on the Modern Library 100 list. I didn’t find it funny or redeeming in any way. Blah!

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Half-Off Ragnarok / Seanan McGuire

4 out of 5 stars
When Alex Price agreed to go to Ohio to oversee a basilisk breeding program and assist in the recovery of his psychic cousin, he didn't expect people to start dropping dead. But bodies are cropping up at the zoo where he works, and his girlfriend—Shelby Tanner, an Australian zoologist with a fondness for big cats—is starting to get suspicious.

Worse yet, the bodies have all been turned partially to stone...

The third book in the InCryptid series takes us to a new location and a new member of the family, as Alex tries to balance life, work, and the strong desire not to become a piece of garden statuary. Old friends and new are on the scene, and danger lurks around every corner.

Of course, so do the talking mice.

Hail! Cheese and cake for all!

Half Off Ragnarok is another delightful installment of the Price family series, cryptid investigators and protectors par excellence. This third book follows Alexander Price, Verity’s brother, in his studies of reptiles, both regular and cryptid. I appreciated the accuracy of the reptile information and of Alex’s location at a zoo, an environment that I am familiar with.

The excellent Aeslin mice are still present, although we are obviously dealing with Alex’s branch of the species. Colonies of sapient mice are one of the best inventions in McGuire’s series and they retain their charm in this third novel. They don’t have the same prominence in HOR, but they still provide an important touchstone—the mice need to be fed, consulted, and protected.

We also meet Shelby Tanner, Alex’s love interest and a stereotypical representation of an Australian. Even the cover illustration makes her a strange cross between Barbie and Bindi Irwin. Thankfully, she becomes a more rounded person as the reader gets to know her, since I suspect she will be a regular character in future.

I’m a fan of urban fantasy and this remains one of my favourite series. 

Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Armor / John Steakley

3 out of 5 stars
The planet is called Banshee. The air is unbreathable, the water poisonous. It is the home of the most implacable enemies that humanity, in all its interstellar expansion, has ever encountered.

Felix is a scout in A-team Two. Highly competent, he is the sole survivor of mission after mission. Yet he is a man consumed by fear and hatred. And he is protected not only by his custom-fitted body armor, the culmination of ten thousand years of the armorers’ craft, but also by an odd being which seems to live with him, a cold killing machine he calls “the Engine.”

This best-selling science-fiction classic is a story of the horror, the courage, and the aftermath of combat and also of how strength of spirit can be the greatest armor of all.

Roll together Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and Arnold’s Terminator, and you get the influences on Armor. It must have been part of the zeitgeist of the mid-1980s, as Card’s Ender’s Game was published right around the same time. The suit of armor is its own character, which binds the two bits of the story together. At first, we follow the exploits of semi-superman Felix, as he battles the Ants, an insect-like interstellar enemy of Earth (very like the Buggers of Ender’s Game). Eventually, we see space-pirate Jack Crow acquire the suit of armor and explore it’s stored memories with two scientists on a world that he is supposed to be infiltrating.

It was engaging, although I found the Jack Crow sections to be a bit opaque in meaning. Why did the author switch to his point of view? I’m unsure. And I found long unbroken stretches of text, where it was difficult to find a reasonable place to leave a bookmark, pausing places if you will.

All in all, military science fiction isn’t really my thing, although I appreciate the things that it can say about society.

Book 202 of my science fiction & fantasy reading project.

On Beauty / Zadie Smith

4 out of 5 stars
Howard Belsey, a Rembrandt scholar who doesn't like Rembrandt, is an Englishman abroad and a long-suffering professor at Wellington, a liberal New England arts college. He has been married for thirty years to Kiki, an African-American woman who no longer resembles the sexy activist she once was. Their three children passionately pursue their own paths: Levi quests after authentic blackness, Zora believes that intellectuals can redeem everybody, and Jerome struggles to be a believer in a family of strict atheists. Faced with the oppressive enthusiasms of his children, Howard feels that the first two acts of his life are over and he has no clear plans for the finale. Or the encore.

Then Jerome, Howard's older son, falls for Victoria, the stunning daughter of the right-wing icon Monty Kipps, and the two families find themselves thrown together in a beautiful corner of America, enacting a cultural and personal war against the background of real wars that they barely register. An infidelity, a death, and a legacy set in motion a chain of events that sees all parties forced to examine the unarticulated assumptions which underpin their lives. How do you choose the work on which to spend your life? Why do you love the people you love? Do you really believe what you claim to? And what is the beautiful thing, and how far will you go to get it?

 I requested this book from our public library because I have obtained a ticket to her Zadie Smith speak at our University in February 2016. I think it will be a lively evening!

Zadie Smith is a shrewd observer of the human condition. And she takes a good hard poke at the idea that knowledge and art can be somehow value-neutral, that we can ignore the purpose of the person who created a piece of art (I think that’s post-modernism?).

One of her main characters, Howard Belsey, is a college professor who teaches art history. But Howard is completely unnerved by expressions of firm belief and strong emotion. His lectures are virtually incomprehensible in their refusal to discuss the beauty of the works, the purpose of the artist, or response of the viewer. The students of the college describe the various college courses in terms of tomatoes—a history course becomes Tomatoes 1867-1967, for example. Howard’s student, Victoria, nails his reluctance to grant value to love, beauty, or truth when she describes his art history class to him:

But your class—your class is a cult classic. Your class is all about never ever saying I like the tomato…Because tomatoes are not there to be liked…Your tomatoes have nothing to do with love or truth. They’re not fallacies. They’re just these pretty pointless tomatoes that people for totally selfish reasons of their own, have attached cultural—I should say nutritional--weight to.

The irony is that an art history professor is completely unable to recognize or appreciate the beauty in art or in his own life. He is disconnected from his family and out of touch with other college faculty. He has had an affair with a woman about whom he cares nothing (and she, if possible, cares even less about him) out of sheer thoughtlessness. Because he has espoused this value-free existence (absolutely no religion, no Christmas, etc.) he is seemingly unable to resist doing the wrong thing, frequently. (Mind you, the religious characters fare no better in Smith’s tale).

Howard’s part of the story is just that—only a part. Smith also gives us a window into his wife, Kiki’s, world as well as their children, Jerome, Zora and Levi. All of them have to find what they will and will not live with, what they will do with their lives. Kiki must decide whither her marriage will go, Zora whether she will follow in her father’s academic footsteps, Levi whether he identifies with the middle class or with Haitian immigrants. Of all of the family, Jerome seems to be the clearest of purpose, although things certainly don’t begin that way.

Smith writes gorgeously. Her insights into our interpersonal communication difficulties are right on the money. Because the Belsey family are mixed-race and middle-class, she is able to explore race and class issues effectively as well. An excellent novel and I am very much looking forward to hearing Ms. Smith speak in February.

Monday, 4 January 2016

The Darkest Road / Guy Gavriel Kay

5 out of 5 stars
And so the time of prophecy has come at last, the final days for those who dwell in Fionavar, first of all worlds. Even as the Unraveller's armies march to battle, even as his rain of death unleashes plague upon the lands, the ancient of powers to aid in their stuggle.

A fitting end to a great trilogy. We can often solve big problems by stepping out of the accepted patterns in our lives. Jennifer resists the Unraveller by bearing his child and by setting that child free to choose his own destiny. This resistance begins in the first volume and culminates in the third.

In my opinion, Fionavar is the Platonic ideal of our world—it contains all the ideas that are available for religion, myth, and literature. Paul on the Summer Tree “becomes” Odin; Kevin, when he sacrifices himself, mirrors the Adonis legend; Jennifer has a parallel existence as Guinevere. Dave, in battle, becomes a berserker and Kim is pressed into service as the mysterious Seer. What started as a chance association at a lecture becomes entirely meaningful as each of these people accepts their role in the grand design, The Tapestry that represents the integrity of the world of Fionavar and thereby all of it’s alternate worlds. And this book is the only one of the three that takes place completely in Fionavar, making it the strongest of the three, in my opinion. Everyone is fully committed to this particular plot.

Kay gives us tragedy (Diarmud and Sharra, anyone?) but he also gives us victory. Galadan, that demi-god who supported the Darkness is allowed a chance to return to the Tapestry. The eternal triangle of Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot is maybe resolved as they move once again out of human history. Perhaps Arthur is no longer the King Who Will Return? I will admit to a few tears, as I finished this wonderful trilogy.

Book 201 of my science fiction and fantasy reading project.

Heechee Rendezvous / Frederick Pohl

3 out of 5 stars
At last —the ultimate book in the renowned Heechee Saga!
Advanced Heechee technology had enabled Robinette Broadhead to live after death as a machine-stored personality, enjoying his life by flitting along the wires from party to party with a host of other machine-people. But suddenly his decadent existence ends when an all powerful alien race intent on the utter destruction of all intelligent life reappears after eons of silence, and threatens the lives of all heechee and humans. Even Robin, virtually immortal and with unlimited access to millennia of accumulated data, cannot discover how to stop these aliens. It began to seem that only a face to face meeting could determine the future of the entire universe....

This is the book where we learn about the HeeChee. They cease to be a mystery and frankly, the people who meet them fail to be properly impressed, in my opinion. Real, live aliens with “wisdom” to impart and they can’t focus on that. Plus, we start to question the opinions of the HeeChee—are they right to be scared of the race that they call the Assassins or have they completely misinterpreted their actions?

I did think that Pohl’s use of the data fans as storage devices was rather prescient—very much like today’s USB devices to store information, photos or written words. Consider that the computers in use at the time were using floppy drives, something much more delicate and less than truly reliable. Any floppies existing in archives at this point are a nightmare for conservators, as you would have to locate the ancient technology of a computer with a floppy drive to extract the information (and assume that nothing has degraded). Anything that you really want to survive into the future? Print it out and preserve it. Paper is going to survive long after our technologies are as obsolete as floppy discs.

Also explored is the transfer of human consciousness to machines, as Robinette gets downloaded and struggles to learn how to interpret the world from that angle and how to express himself again. Pohl addresses a question of ownership—once your physical body is dead, is your disembodied intellect still considered legally alive? Or do you renounce your assets and projects to your heirs? The book doesn’t really get very far along exploring these questions, which will maybe get more treatment in the next book. I hope so. And I want to see what Pohl thinks will happen to such downloaded people—do they retain their humanity?

This is very much a transition book, moving from the demystifying of HeeChee technology to actual contact.

Book 200 of my science fiction and fantasy reading project.