Sunday, December 15, 2013

Mayhem, by Sarah Pinborough. Quercus, 2013

In 1880s London, grisly murders are taking place: women dismembered and disemboweled. But it's not Jack the Ripper; his modus operandi is very different. They come to the attention of Dr. Thomas Bond, medical examiner, insomniac, and frequenter of the Chinese run opium dens. He is quit the detective and forensics expert, and, haunted by the gruesome murders, sets out to find the killer. The murderer turns out to be both someone and something no one would suspect- or believe.

Pinborough depicts the underbelly of London with creepy and hair raising detail. As Bond discovers who the murderer is and he is put into the place of having to deal with it, tension mounts. The story is fairly tight, although the pacing sometimes lags. This is a very good Victorian horror/mystery with a new supernatural element instead of the usual vampires etc. Recommended.

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Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Land of Painted Caves, by Jean Auel. Crown Publishers, 2011

Back in 1980, ‘The Clan of the Cave Bear’ was published; it spawned a genre of prehistoric novels, none of which ever grabbed me the way that book did. Jean Auel not only put an incredible amount of research into her books, but her heroine, Alya, was one of the most engaging protagonists I’ve ever ‘met’. I followed the series as this Cro-Magnon superwoman survived being orphaned at age five and then being raised by a band of Neanderthals, learned to hunt, tamed animals, learned herbal healing, and so much more. Auel showed, in an entertaining way, how various things could have been learned and invented. I read that book at a time when I was going through a back to the land phase, and Ayla’s adventures resonated with me.

I waited eagerly for each new volume. Sadly, the quality dropped as the series went on; the books started to drag. Still, I could not give up on the series, even though I didn’t get to reading ‘Land of the Painted Caves’ until it had been out for two years. I kind of wish I hadn’t read it at all.

There is little in the way of plot; Ayla and the First (the spiritual leader of the caves and her mentor) make a journey to visit all the caves with paintings in the area. There are some personal issues for Ayla, of course, but they seem contrived. And the book is extremely repetitious; every time Ayla is introduced (which, given the travel theme, is very, very often) her entire list of names and affiliations is given as if we have never read them before; as is the fact that she has an accent. We read about every person’s reaction to the horses and to Wolf. While it’s valid that people would have never seen tame animals before, we don’t need to know about every single reaction. Nor about every time Ayla brews up tea. It’s a huge book and I feel would have benefited from some serious editing.

It is almost like Auel felt she needed to finish the series but didn’t really have it in her. It’s a sad ending for the Earth’s Children series. 

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Saturday, December 7, 2013

Carniepunk, anthology. Gallery Books 2013

Normally with any anthology they’ll be a few stories I like and some I either hate or just don’t get. ‘Carniepunk’ is an exception; there are a few stories I love, a lot I like and none I hate or don’t get. I’m not sure if it’s because of the subject matter or because of which authors have work included in it, but this is a great collection. These carnival themed stories are very dark, but, for the most part, not gruesome. The only annoyance I found was that a number of the stories were set in worlds that are the settings of series and had some presumption that the reader would be familiar with that world; on the other hand, these stories provided an introduction to some series I might follow up on.

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Dead and Alive: Frankenstein Book 3, by Dean Koontz. Bantam Books, 2013

In this book, the story lines that were created in books 1 & 2 come together and conclude. The beings that Helios/Frankenstein created are having programming breakdown faster and faster with every new batch; the latest Erika (his wife), Erika Five, starts misbehaving after only a few hours, and has made friends with a mysterious dwarf who appears in the backyard. The head maid now thinks she’s the mistress of Manderlay. The minions who run the county dump – where bodies are disposed of by Helios- are thinking for themselves. Something is happening the dump. And people who are supposed to be dead may actually be alive- for a while, anyway. 

Sadly, despite all these things happening, the breakneck pace generated in the second book is not sustained in this one. Sequences that should have been crisp and rapid dragged. Not all of them, mind you, but enough that I felt the book was a little longer than it needed to be. Still a good book with weird events, but not quite as good as it could have been.

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How Doctors Feel: How Emotions Affect the Practice of Medicine, by Danielle Ofri, MD. Beacon Press, 2013

Doctors are expected to have a professional demeanor, treating all patients equally and compassionately, without their emotions interfering. But doctors are human beings first and physicians second. They have prejudices. Med school and internship overworks them and burns out their empathy before they ever get their license. Dr. Ofri writes from the perspective of some one who has worked the emergency room in a poor area for some time and she has seen the good and bad sides of what happens when doctor’s emotions guide them.

Common prejudices include those against alcoholics, drug abusers and overweight people, who they feel bring their own problems on themselves. These prejudices can lead to doctors giving these patients less time and less thought- even though what they are in the ER for may have nothing to do with their addiction or weight. On the other hand, sometimes doctors come to care very much about patients and move heaven and earth to get them the treatment they need and grieve when they die. A huge source of stress to doctors is the ridiculous amount of paperwork that doctors have to deal with these days; insurance companies demand that doctors justify every test and then deny tests or life changing treatments; that can suck the joy out of anyone. Ofri tells us of how stress reduction programs in hospitals have decreased problems with doctor burnout and lack of empathy- it looks like every hospital needs such a program, especially for doctors who staff the ER.

That part of the book is good. I appreciate seeing things from the other side of the stethoscope; this sort of book can only improve doctor patient relationships. But on the other hand, MDs are idealized in much of the book. Ofri feels that malpractice suits hurt patients as much as they do doctors; I have no idea if this is true.  She states that doctor rating sites- sort of like Angie’s list but for MDs- shouldn’t exist because a doctor can get a rating about a bad day they were having and it would drive possible patients away and also hurt self esteem. Sorry, but I don’t buy that. The same could be said of anyone, of any career, who gets rated. Bad ratings are part of the system and, if the rater isn’t a crank, could serve as hints that the doctor has some problems, whether it be with their front office procedures or their bedside manner, which could be improved. The world doesn’t owe anyone blind trust.

All in all, the book is good and useful if somewhat slanted in favor of MDs and a bit disrespectful of patients. 

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Sunday, December 1, 2013

Warbound, by Larry Correia. Baen Books, 2013

This is the concluding volume in the Grimnoir Chronicles trilogy, and the series goes out on a high note. Jake Sullivan and his motley crew of Knights must save the world again; this time from the Enemy, a powerful alien that is in pursuit of The Power, the being that gave magic to the world not too many years before the story starts. Set in a film noir 1930s of an alternate universe, Jake & company find themselves fighting both the Japanese Imperium and the Enemy while dodging the US FBI agents who want to round up all the magical beings. The good guys are all stretching their magical powers to the limit, learning new things. Throw in airships, a nearly invincible Samurai defector, and a teenager that is so powerful that the head of the Grimnoir Knights wants her killed and it’s nonstop action.

I love this alternate universe that Correia has created. My only complaint is that the characters aren’t always developed enough. The action is what the book is all about. It’s got somewhat the flavor of the old pulp magazine stories that went from one crisis to another and left you wanting more. Which brings me to this: I said it’s the last of the trilogy, but I, for one, wouldn’t mind seeing more books in this series. 

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Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Three Lives of Tomomi Ishikawa, by Benjamin Constable. Gallery Books, 2013

I’m not entirely sure how to review this novel. It’s told from the point of view of Benjamin Constable- yes, the author’s name but this is supposed to be work of fiction. Benjamin’s best friend, Tomomi ‘Butterfly’ Ishikawa, disappears and leaves him a note: she has committed suicide. But her note sends him on a game of treasure hunt all around Paris and then on to New York City, leaving parts of her journal in hidden places. It’s like a mad cross between Kafka on the Shore and Angels and Demons.

I couldn’t even begin to like Butterfly, with her manipulation of Benjamin and another friend, Beatrice. She treats them horribly, especially Benjamin, torturing him physically and emotionally. If this is how she treats her friends, I’d hate to see what she’d do to an enemy. The descriptions of Benjamin’s journey through Paris and New City are pleasant enough, but that is not enough to sustain a book. And what does the author mean by naming his protagonist for himself? Is he trying to say that this really happened to him? Is it just one more illusion in this book where the reader- and Benjamin for most of the story- has no idea what is real and what isn’t? Or was the author just tired of the question every writer gets: “Is this character you??”

I think I’m not cool enough to appreciate this avant garde book. 

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Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Valley of Amazement, by Amy Tan. Ecco, 2013

With her first novel in eight years, Amy Tan returns to the theme that she does so well: mothers and daughters. Spanning four generations and two continents, The Valley of Amazement tells us the story of Lucia (Lulu), her daughter Violet, Violet’s daughter Flora, and Magic Gourd, the courtesan who stood in as surrogate mother to Violet after her mother left her in Shanghai.

Conflicts with her mother and father lead Lulu to become sexually active at a young age and at a time when this was not permissible to women. When she falls in love with a visiting Chinese artist, she runs away from home and follows him to Shanghai. But she ends up having to make her own way, with Violet a toddler and her infant son kidnapped by the artist’s family. With few paths open to a woman in China at the time, Lulu chooses to establish a courtesan house, which becomes renowned for accepting both Western and Chinese clients and for providing business advice. She becomes wealthy, but doesn’t realize what growing up in a brothel, however high class, is doing to her daughter, who feels the business- and her missing brother- mean more to Lulu than Violet does, just as Lulu had felt her mother’s passion for science mean more to her than Lulu did.

The story is written from more than one point of view; Violet, Magic Gourd, and Lulu all take a turn speaking. All have hard lives; the men in their lives are, for the most part, uncaring as to the needs of the women, treating them as objects that will be dealt with only when convenient- or even keeping them as outright slaves. Taking place in the dawn of the 20th century, the story is set against the political and social changes that took place in China.

I loved this book and couldn’t put it down. The details of the lives of these women made them come alive; what they wore, what they were expected to do, how they felt. I have to admit I had a hard time liking Violet at first; she comes off as a spoiled brat in some ways, but when you figure that she was being left on her own so much of the time, with only her cat as a friend, it’s hard to expect her to be otherwise. And she very quickly learned how hard life could be later. I was disappointed in ‘Saving Fish From Drowning’ but I’m very happy to see that Tan has returned with a great story. 


I received my copy of this book from the Amazon Vine program in return for a fair review. This in no way influenced my review. 

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Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Goddess Chronicle, by Matsuo Kirino. Canongate 2012

Sisters Kamikuu and Namima are inseparable as little girls, so it’s a shock when one day they are forcibly separated. Kamikuu, the older sister, stands for light and will be trained to be the isolated island’s new Oracle, separated from the rest of the tribe, her only contact with Namima being a few words when Namima delivers her basket of food for the day. One day, the teen Namima is informed that she will be the servant of darkness and guard the cave where the dead are stored, as is ever the fate of the sister of the Oracle. This, she thinks, is the worst fate possible. Little does she know that worse awaits when her lover betrays her.

Namima narrates this story, which interweaves with the story of Izanami, the Goddess of the Underworld, who likewise had a faithless lover, Izanaki. Readers who know Japanese mythology will recognize those names; this book is one of the ‘Myths’ series put out by Canongate wherein famous writers retell the old stories. Izanami and Izanaki are part of an ancient creation myth as the parents of the islands of Japan. When Izanami died, Izanaki trapped her in the underworld and went about impregnating mortal women, who Izanami then killed. The moral of The Goddess Chronicle seems to be that males, whether they be god or mortal, are tricky beings only after one thing and women are destined to die because of them.

The book is somewhat dry but well written. My problem with it is that it seemed a bit simplistic: women die because of men. I can see that being true in the age when the myth arose; childbirth was dangerous and frequent; men ruled and took what they wanted. But to make that the point of a book today seems dated; it’s like a feminist book from the 1970s where the women were all good and the men all bad (and if a woman was bad, it was because a man caused them to be). Nonetheless, I enjoyed it and found myself caught up in Namima’s story, rooting for something bad to happen to her erstwhile lover. 

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City of Night: Frankenstein, Book 2, by Dean Koontz. Bantam Dell 2005

This is the second volume in Koontz’s modern day reimagination of Frankenstein and his creation. Victor Frankenstein- now going by the name Victor Helios- is a wealthy scientist who has created an army of lab grown minions in his bid to take over the world and eliminate humankind. Carson O’Conner and Michael Maddison are New Orleans detectives who have become aware of Helios and his plans via Deucalion, the ‘monster’ of Shelley’s novel. In this installment, things are not going well with some of Helio’s creations. Some are going mad. At least one has escaped. Some are developing free will and volition, which Helios had specifically tried to eliminate. He is having special trouble with creating a wife who is perfect and intelligent yet never asks questions. And there is something weird going on at the city dump- weird even by the standards of beings created in a lab for specific jobs, jobs that include burying bodies by the dozens.  

The book has a frantic pace, with several plotlines running: Carson  & Michael; Arnie, Carson’s brother and his caretaker Vicky; the events at the city dump; Helio’s wife and the house servants; to top if off, there is a hurricane brewing. Reading it feels like you’re careening out of control, but Koontz has it all well in hand. The books suffers a bit from being the middle book where no plot lines are tied up, but it leaves the reader eager to get to the third book. 

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Sunday, November 3, 2013

Schizophrenia: A Brother Finds Answers in Biological Science, by Ronald Chase. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013

Ronald Chase is uniquely qualified to write a book on schizophrenia; as a biologist he has combed research papers on the subject and as the brother of a person with schizophrenia he knows up close and personal what havoc the disease wrecks on the lives it touches. To blend these two perspectives, Dr. Chase utilizes a unique way of structuring the book: the chapters alternate between the personal story of his brother, Jim, who developed schizophrenia while in college, and the historical and scientific story of schizophrenia itself. The reader is free to either read alternating chapters first, either acquainting themselves with Jim’s story or reading the hard science; or to read them as presented. Personally I read it as presented; the short chapters on Jim’s life (hard to have much of a life when your disorder keeps you living in group home type situations and blunts your curiosity, cutting short what could have been a brilliant life) broke up the facts and figures of the hard science nicely. I found it to be the best book on schizophrenia I’ve read. Jim’s story is heartbreaking, but at the end the science gives just a little bit of hope for others with this same brain disorder- and the author makes it clear that schizophrenia *is* a disorder of the structure and chemistry of the brain, not a ‘mental’ illness that a person can just buck up and overcome. 

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Thursday, October 31, 2013

A Journey Through Tudor England, by Suzannah Lipscomb. Pegasus Books, 2013

This is a little guidebook to the structures- castles, houses, churches- that were built during Tudor times. Sometimes they are intact; sometimes they have been altered through the centuries; sometimes they are in ruins. The book is divided into geographical areas, making it easy to plan a trip to the area. Each structure has its story given in detail; it’s a quick history of Tudor fortunes given in an easy to digest style. Sadly, save for a tiny line drawing at the beginning of each chapter, there are no illustrations, making it a good guide for one able to make the trip but not so good for those of us unable to see them in person.


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The Inexplicables, by Cherie Priest. Tom Doherty, 2013

‘The Inexplicables’ takes us back to the zombie ridden; poison gas saturated Seattle of the late 1800s that Priest brought to life in ‘Boneshaker’. This time, the main protagonist is Rector ‘Wreck ‘em’ Sherman, an orphan who has just turned 18 (or thereabouts) and so is evicted from the orphanage he grew up in. Feeling guilty over helping his friend Zeke enter the deadly Seattle, and thus condemning him to death, the sap addicted Rector himself seeks entry to the walled city. Imagine his surprise to find that not only are there people in the city, but one of them is Zeke, alive and well. But along with its regular woes of zombies and poison gas, Seattle is being haunted by some creatures that aren’t zombies, creatures they dub the Inexplicables. At the same time, something is happening to the city’s zombie population. Are the two things connected? Seattle’s various peoples will have to work together settle things.

I love this series and I was glad to see this story set back in Seattle, the place where the characters from all the books congregate. I love its underground world and the characters that live there. While this story isn’t as much flat out action as some of the others, a lot of character development happens and there are still plenty of perilous things happening. I enjoyed seeing some Pacific Northwest mythology come to life, too. A very satisfactory addition to the series.

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Monday, October 21, 2013

A Guide to Bearded Irises: Cultivating the Rainbow, by Kelly D. Norris. Timber Press, 2012

From Timber Press comes another informative and lavishly illustrated gardening book. Norris has been obsessed with iris since a very young age; as a boy, his idea of a great time was to go and buy fancy iris rhizomes. That passion has led him to breeding his own iris, and buying and moving an existing iris nursery that was going out of business to the family farm in Iowa (it’s now run by the Norris family). This child prodigy of horticulture is the youngest person to win Iowa State Horticulture Society’s Presidential Citation, Award of Merit and Honor Award. He has ten years experience running a nursery, and he’s only 25. He knows his stuff, and I was happy to find he’d shared that knowledge in this book.

The Guide describes the various types of bearded iris, tells you how to grow them, tells you what pests and diseases afflict them (which doesn’t happen very often), and even how to hybridize your own iris. The back half of the book is an encyclopedia of his recommendations of the best of the six classes of bearded iris. Many of these iris I had never heard of; some are very new and exciting. The pictures are stunning; this book has the beautiful photos of a coffee table book but in a regular book size that makes reading it a lot easier. While this is a beginner’s guide, there will be things in it to inspire even long time iris growers. 


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Monday, October 14, 2013

The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells, by Andrew Sean Greer. HarperCollins, 2013

After her twin brother dies and her lover of many years abruptly leaves her, Greta Wells sinks into an unrelenting depression. Nothing she tries for it works. As a last ditch effort, she tries a series of shock treatments that have unexpected side effects: she finds herself first in 1918, then, after a second treatment, in 1941, before returning to 1985 after a third one. That she travels in time is weird enough, but in each era she is still Greta Wells, and the full cast of characters from her life is there, too: her aunt Ruth, lover Nathan, her brother Felix, Felix’s lover Alan as well as Dr. Cerletti to give her the shock treatments. Each era has differences, too; in both 1918 and 1941 Greta and Nathan are married, Felix is still alive but deeply closeted instead of living with Alan, one Greta has a child, one a lover. Yes, there are multiple Gretas- every time ‘our’ Greta changes eras, so do the other Gretas. This is not really a time travel story, because it makes no sense that the same set of people would exist in multiple times; it’s more a story of multiple universes. But that’s not the important part of the story. It’s the relationships that are important.

In each era, Greta places a different relationship in the primary place. To one, it’s Nathan, To another Greta, it’s her lover. To the third, it’s brother Felix. Each Greta is dealing with loss and/or the possibility of loss; the 1918 influenza pandemic, World War 2 starting in 1941 and an auto accident, AIDS in 1985. In each era, the Gretas are trying to fix the relationships most important to them.

But I had a hard time caring about Greta very much; she managed, despite her traveling in alternate worlds, to be boring. I didn’t like Nathan, who wasn’t much more than a cardboard cheater. Aunt Ruth was the most appealing but even she was sort of a generic eccentric, crazy enough to believe Greta’s tale of time travel. The book does, however, serve up a great line, uttered by Felix to a horrible rude woman: "When you were a little girl, Madam.....was this the woman you dreamed of becoming?" It’s a good question, one that propelled Greta to try and get things right in all three eras. It’s also a question we should all ask ourselves, before it’s too late to make things turn out better.  I admit the ending surprised me, but that wasn’t enough to make me love the book. 

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Monday, October 7, 2013

The Pure Gold Baby, by Margaret Drabble. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013

In a novel that spans 50 years, from the early 1960s to the present, Margaret Drabble follows the lives of Jess and her daughter Anna, the pure gold baby of the title.

Jess was a budding anthropologist planning on doing field work in Africa when she became pregnant by a married man. Putting her career aside, she becomes instead a free lance writer so she can stay home and support and raise her child. At first Anna is seen as a perfect child; never cranky, never colicky, always cheerful. In a few years, however, it becomes clear that she is developmentally delayed, never to learn to read or do numbers, always to remain a child in mind. A very self possessed child, though; she seems to be ever calm and even unwilling to upset others, especially her mother, with her problems. All the people around her go through turmoil and change, Anna remains the still heart of the storm. The story, in fact, does not seem to be so much about her as about relationships and obligations that swirl around her as she remains her mother’s anchor.

Anna’s preeminence in Jess’s life obvious; she dumps lovers (and she has very few of them) if she feels they interfere with her relationship with Anna. Other people are background filler: Anna’s father who goes nameless until late in the book; the first person narrator about whom we know just as little and who also goes nameless until late in the story; the husband who Jess moves out of her house after just a few months but who stays in her life to help with Anna; a sort of satellite, a body with little gravity and pull.

Drabble explores many things in this novel; motherhood, friendship, commitment, the treatment of the mentally ill, aging, feminism, and more. While there is little action, the book is dense with themes. For such a quiet book, it was gripping to me and I couldn’t put it down. 

I was given this book by the Amazon Vine program in return for an honest review. The above is an affiliate link; if you click on it and buy the book, Amazon will give me a few cents. 

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Love & Haight, by Susan Carlton. Henry Holt & Company, 2012

Chloe is seventeen and pregnant- even though she used protection the one and only time she had sex. It’s 1971 and Roe v Wade is still two years in the future, and abortion is only legal in California and New York. Chloe lives in Arizona. Lucky for her, she has an aunt who lives in San Francisco and a friend willing to take a road trip with her over winter break. So Chloe and MJ find themselves in ‘Frisco with no real idea where aunt Kiki lives, unable to get hold of her by phone, and it’s getting late. That pretty much sets the tone for the rest of the trip- nothing goes easily or as planned. Abortion may be legal, but there are still hoops to jump through to obtain one, especially for someone under 18. Add to this Chloe’s occasional doubts about her proposed action, her feelings about her previous relationship with MJ’s brother, and the fact that Kiki is a stoner performance artist and you’ve got it.

The book is very short, and I think because of this the characters aren’t developed very well. MJ seems to serve as chauffer and conscience; Kiki is the cool adult; Chloe’s mother is the feminist. MJ’s brother, Teddy, is the good guy Chloe should have waited for- the perfect, understanding guy. Even Chloe’s portrayal seems rather surface, which is odd, given that the book is from her POV. But the author does get the feel of the time and place well. The characters all fit that time and place, even if they aren’t deep. I knew people like Kiki and Chloe’s mother! It’s a very quick read, and while not great, it’s not bad, either, and would serve as a good book for a young teen to introduce them to the issue of abortion.

I do have to say that it was alarming to find an era I lived through listed as ‘historical fiction’! 


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Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Amphigorey Too, by Edward Gorey. Perigee, 1975

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Edward Gorey had a style all his own; black and white line drawings that seem simple but sometimes have an immense amount of detail in them- wallpaper, draperies, carpets all meticulously drawn in. The pieces all seem to be set in the Edwardian era and are frequently grim and bleak. But there is also a humor to them all; very dark humor mostly. ‘Amphigory Too’ is a collection of twenty of Gorey’s works, including ‘The Beastly Baby’, ‘The Gilded Bat’ and ‘The Osbick Bird’. ‘The Gilded Bat’ is one of his best know pieces, the story of a poor girl who becomes a prima ballerina but who’s life still remains basically dreary. ‘The Osbick Bird’ I found rather sweet, being about the lifelong friendship between man and extremely large bird. As for ‘The Beastly Baby’, well, I sympathized with the parents in that one. Like any anthology it’s a mixed bag, but most of the stories included are winners. 


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Saturday, September 7, 2013

Rivers of London, by Ben Aaronovitch. Orion House, 2011

‘’Rivers of London’ is the first in an urban fantasy series that so far has four books in it, and I look forward to reading those other three. Constable Peter Grant is coming to the end of his probationary period as a new police officer and faced with the prospect of being put on a desk job when a witness to a murder turns out to be a ghost. But that’s not the strangest part; it turns out that the London PD has a special unit for supernatural crimes and goings on. It is staffed by one person, Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale- and, now, by Constable Grant. Peter is our narrator, and he quickly proved to be someone I’d like to spend time with, listening to him tell stories in a pub.

Up to now, Grant has not believed in anything supernatural. Suddenly he is thrown into a world he’s not noticed before; ghosts, learning magic, spirits of the rivers, a housekeeper who isn’t quite human. He accepts it all with amazing easiness, though. I suppose that’s part of living in a huge city; you get used to running into unusual people and things. When it becomes obvious that the supernatural killer the ghost witnessed is a serial killer things get more complicated. To add to learning magic and solving the crime, Peter must act as liaison between Father Thames and Mother Thames, who are feuding.

I loved how the gods and goddesses of the rivers – the genii locorum - are still in place, even with modern London laid over the ancient landscape. To me, that was even more appealing than the vengeance story that started over a hundred years ago. While the characters aren’t terribly deep- there isn’t much fleshing them out- they are likable and I’m hoping to get to know them better in later volumes. The book is funny and exciting. It would make a great series on the BBC. 

The American edition was renamed "Midnight Riot' for some reason. 

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MaddAddam, by Margaret Atwood. Doubleday, 2013

 ‘MaddAddam’ is the final volume in the near future dystopian trilogy that started with ‘Oryx and Crake’ and continued with ‘The Year of the Flood’. While the events in the first two novels about the end of the world as we know it took place at the same time, albeit with different casts of characters, ‘MaddAddam’ moves us forward in time and unites the two sets of characters. Jimmy, once Crake’s best friend, now deathly ill with an infection, is in the care of the remnants of God’s Gardeners, an ecological/religious group, who also find themselves the caretakers of the Craker’s, those innocent, leaf eating people who Crake created as replacements for the fatally flawed human race. The group is also imperiled by two of the Painballers- former prisoners who earned their freedom in gladiator style fights that burned out their ability to feel empathy and left them with a huge appetite for torture- who are lurking in the forest that surround their home and garden.  An even bigger peril they face is the fact that food and other supplies are rapidly running out; it’s getting harder and harder to find anything useful in the remnants of the city, and they have no ideas how to survive in Stone Age conditions.

While the plot that moves the book along is how the group deals with the Painballers, it really doesn’t take up much of the text. The majority of the story is Zeb’s history: how he and his brother (who became MaddAddam) grew up tortured by their father, the head of the Church of PetrOleum; and the close calls he had after running away. This history serves to tell us about how the world right before the apocalypse was functioning.

It’s a horrific world that God’s Gardeners and the rest inhabit, but t he real horror is that humans already possess the technology to make all the creatures in this book, including the deadly diseases that wipe out humanity and the Painballers with their inability to care about anyone other than themselves. We are already on the course of megacorporations taking over our lives and government. Ice caps are already melting and permafrost thawing. The gap between rich and poor widens.

‘MaddAddam’ is brilliantly written and serves as a warning about the path we’re headed down. But it’s not preachy; it’s a damn good adventure story. My only complaint was with the character of Toby; in ‘Year of the Flood’ she is an incredibly strong person, focused and capable. In ‘MaddAddam’, we witness her relationship with Zeb turning her into an insecure, jealous woman, tortured by doubts about Zeb’s feelings for her and whether he is having sex with other women- especially one who is putting on a display of her sexual readiness for all the males of the camp. This bothered me a lot to see Toby reduced to this state, but later I wondered: was she written like this to compare her to the Crakers, who have no sexual jealousy? Or to show that in a situation where the world has ended and must be rebuilt, the fertile woman is reduced to her ability to repopulate the world? Or perhaps just that no matter what happens in the larger world, human beings will be human beings. I don’t know, but I found it very irritating.

The best part of the book is the way that big parts of it are told by Toby to the Crakers in their nightly story time. You only hear Toby’s voice; what the Crakers are saying and doing is implied by her answers. I found their naivety funny and felt sympathy for Toby’s frustration with their incessant questions. One of the most surprising things in the book is who became the allies of the God’s Gardeners in the end.

While it wasn’t the most satisfying conclusion, it’s still a very good book. It’s a standalone novel and has a ‘the story so far’ section in the front, but I recommend reading the first two volumes before this one. 

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I was given this book by the Amazon Vine program in return for a fair review. This in no way changed my opinion of the book. 

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Black Orchid, by Neil Gaiman & Dave McKean. DC Comics, 2012

This book gathers the three part graphic novel story arc of Black Orchid into one paperback. Originally published around 1990, this the origin story of a DC character that had been around for years but little used. The original character was a woman of mystery; she never even had a secret identity given to her. This book explains why: she had no human identity, but was created by placing the genes of a specific woman, Susan Linden, into an orchid plant. Black Orchid was not born, but grown.

It’s a very violent story of vengeance and greed; film noir meets superhero story. Other characters from the DC universe are in it; Lex Luthor places a large part, while others make only brief appearances. It’s very different from what I would have expected from DC comics in that era; it’s not just a superhero story, it’s a very personal one. Black Orchid’s relationship with the plant world in the Amazon is almost spiritual. The art is stunning; McKean’s use of light and dark is beautiful.


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Deeply Odd, by Dean Koontz. Thorndike Press, 2013

This is the latest volume in the Odd Thomas series, about a young man who can see the lingering dead and has the ability to find people by a sort of psychic magnetism. Trouble seems to seek him out, and his conscience won’t let him step away from it when he can possibly help someone. This book starts out with Odd walking to the store, only to run into a someone he tags ‘the rhinestone cowboy’, a trucker who tries to kill him right in the grocery store because Odd was looking in his truck. When Odd touches the trucker, he sees a man torching some children, and he knows he has to follow the rhinestone cowboy to prevent the deaths of innocents. With the help of the ghost of Alfred Hitchcock and a little old lady with a 12 cylinder Mercedes limo, he goes into action against the most dangerous foes he’s faced yet, a demon worshipping cult. He also learns that the world is a far, far weirder place than even he thinks it is.

Koontz writes a find blend of horror and black humor. Written in the first person from Odd’s point of view, he gets to make dry comments about society that wouldn’t be possible in a different format. He describes things in a these are just the facts manner that is none the less very humorous, a relief from the suspense of the rest of the writing. I love this series, and I see I’ve missed a couple. I must remedy that before the next one comes out- one that may be the last of the series. 

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Monday, August 26, 2013

Pantomime, by Laura Lam. Strange Chemistry, 2013

Iphigenia Laurus (who prefers to be called Gene) is the daughter of one of the noble houses on Ellada. She is being taught the usual pursuits of a noble lady- embroidery and the like- which bore her to tears. She prefers reading, or the company of her older brother, Cyril, and running through the woods with him, climbing trees and scaffolding in the city. At the same time, she loves dancing and lovely dresses. Her parents have her future all planned out for her: a proper marriage that will bring more fortune to her family. When she finds out that something awful is planned for her before her entry into the marriage market, she wants to flee.

Micah Grey is a teenaged runaway, trying to join the circus. To prove they should take him in, he does some crazy things on the high wire- despite never having been on one before. He impresses the aerialists, Arik and Aenea, enough that he is taken in, a new member of R.H. Ragona’s Circus of Magic.

I’m not giving anything away by letting out that Gene and Micah are one and the same – you can figure it out in the very beginning of the story. That’s not all that unusual a situation in a YA story where there is a teen runaway. But Micah/Gene has a secret that, if discovered by the wrong people, could get hir beaten, ousted or killed.

This is fantasy, an incredible coming of age story where the protagonist has a lot more to discover about them self than the usual teen, a circus story, and a love triangle all brought together beautifully by the author. In a cast of fleshed out, well drawn characters, Micah/Gene is a brilliant creation. I eagerly await the next book in the series! 

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