Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Blind Assassin

The Blind Assassin

Margaret Atwood

4 Stars


More than fifty years on, Iris Chase is remembering Laura's mysterious death. And so begins an extraordinary and compelling story of two sisters and their secrets. Set against a panoramic backdrop of twentieth-century history, The Blind Assassin is an epic tale of memory, intrigue and betrayal...

My Review

I think I'm becoming addicted to tale within tale style stories, especially if they are done well. Did Atwood nail it? Yes she most certainly did. I was as anxious to find out what happens with the Blind Assassin as I was with the Chase sisters.

The book started off slow but that's okay as I have patience if it leads somewhere. Weaving together two stories and one of them in two time periods can take a bit but the wait is worth it. Seeing Canada prior to WWII was an education for me and helped me understand both Laura and Iris a lot more. Two very strong but different women. Iris in her eighties has reminded me of what we are all in store for if we don't pull a “James Dean”.

I really don't know if the ending was meant to be a reveal but I know that I had suspected it for quite awhile. I have the feeling it was more like an already known confession and the circumstances that led up to it along the way.

The Forever War

Four Stars

The Forever War

Joe Haldeman


The Earth's leaders have drawn a line in the interstellar sand—despite the fact that the fierce alien enemy that they would oppose is inscrutable, unconquerable, and very far away. A reluctant conscript drafted into an elite Military unit, Private William Mandella has been propelled through space and time to fight in the distant thousand-year conflict; to perform his duties without rancor and even rise up through military ranks. Pvt. Mandella is willing to do whatever it takes to survive the ordeal and return home. But "home" may be even more terrifying than battle, because, thanks to the time dilation caused by space travel, Mandella is aging months while the Earth he left behind is aging centuries

My Review

Sure this has your typical space wars that were popular in mid 20th century sci fi but what makes this book stand out is the time dilation and it's effects. When the soldiers return home approximately 60 years have passed during their two year tour and much on Earth has changed.

So many people so lacking food and the basic necessities that they are more than willing to kill others for what they have. Overpopulation and lack of medical care for the majority of it. Sound familiar? Acclimatization is rough and trying to just live a regular life is seemingly impossible so the only logical step is to re-enlist.

Haldeman has done a great job of showing the culture shock that some historical soldiers faced when returning home from war. He's using space as a backdrop but the story remains the same. He conveyed Mandella's confusion with the changes very believably.

I also found his solution for overpopulation unique and interesting. Outlawing heterosexual couples to curb population growth would certainly be one way to deal with things. I also liked how Haldeman ended the story. It was both plausible and satisfying. A classic science fiction well worth the read.

The Best Almost-Folk Tale You've Never Read

Bridge of BirdsBridge of Birds: A Novel of an Ancient China That Never Was

Del Rey, 1985
Reviewed by Carol

Recommended for fans of The Princess Bride, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland
★ ★ ★ ★ ★

“Nothing on the face of this earth–and I do mean nothing–is half so dangerous as a children’s story that happens to be real, and you and I are wandering blindfolded through a myth devised by a maniac.”

Bridge of Birds opens on a pastoral setting, a remote unicorn-shaped village in the peaceful valley of Cho in ancient China. Narrated by Yu Lu, also known as Number Ten Ox (the tenth of his father’s sons and as strong as an ox), it begins with a promising silk season coming to an abrupt end. A plague strikes the village’s youth and at the same time decimates the silk harvest. Number Ten Ox volunteers to run to Peking to bring a wise man back to the village. Unfortunately, all of the cosmopolitan wise men laugh at Ox and his mere five thousand copper, all except a hung-over Master Li. “Could this be the great Li Kao… who had been elevated to the highest rank of mandarin, and whose mighty head was now being used as a pillow for drunken flies?”  After a brief restorative, Master Li takes pity on Ox’s plight and determines they need to make haste back to the village. Poor Number Ten Ox. He has never met the likes of Master Li, former first place scholar among all the scholars in China (a mere seventy-eight years ago). But he has a slight flaw in his character.

“The abbot paused to consider his words…’You are a good boy, and I would not like to meet the man who can surpass you in physical strength, but you know very little about this wicked world,’ the abbot said slowly. ‘To tell you the truth, I am not so worried about the damage to your body as I am about the damage to your soul. You see, you know nothing whatsoever about men like Master Li… His voice trailed off, and he groped for the proper words. Then he decided that it would take several years to prepare me properly.”

What follows is along the lines of traditional folk tales and orphan adventures; the quest to save the children of the village, Ox as the innocent youth and Li as the wise man/guide–except Master Li’s wisdom often comes from knowing the wicked ways of human nature and his own participation in debauchery. He also seems to have read all the great tales, as his solutions sound suspiciously familiar. One of the first chapters is how Master Li tricks a rich miser out of enough gold to finance their trip (and gets Ox a night with the young concubine to boot). Their third or fourth adventure is an exceptional revenge on a selfish princess, and another one a bloody mess. Hughart is able to manage the delicate balance humorous violence requires, perhaps by invoking our earliest folk tales, such as the one where Bluebeard keeps bodies in a locked room, or the version of Little Red where the huntsman hacks open the wolf to free her and grandma. Horrific, but so clearly symbolic, so clearly not real.

Their adventures take them throughout China, and from one frying pan to another. There’s ghosts, dungeons, a tricksy duo, an evil duke, a labyrinth, an enormously rich man, a tower, treasure, fond friends, a torture chamber, redemption, gods (and there’s even a little kissing). If it lacks the R.O.U.S., it makes up for it with an invisible hand.

“The supernatural can be very annoying until one finds the key that transforms it into science,’ he observed mildly. ‘I’m probably imagining complications that don’t exist. Come on, Ox, let’s go out and get killed.’”

Writing is lovely and contains a satisfactory balance of description and action. Gentle humor abounds. There’s a motif where Li and Ox are certain they are going to die and share hopes of what they will be reborn as on the Great Wheel. Li prefers the three-toed-sloth, Ox a cloud. Later, a third company member adds another angle to their bucolic reincarnation. But Master Li is clearly the cynic of the bunch, and his comments usually provide comic relief:

“‘Well, it’s an idea, and even a bad idea is better than none,’ said Master Li. ‘Error can point the way to truth, while empty-headedness can only lead to more empty-headedness or to a career in politics.’”

It’s silly, sweet, subversive and really clever. Ox’s youthful innocence is charming and believable, and while Master Li knows much, he is clearly puzzling his way through the quest as well. The end was a lovely synthesis, satisfying both emotionally and in plotting, both immediate and symbolic. Barry Hughart clearly has a flaw in his character. The world needs more Master Li.

“‘O great and might Master Li, pray impart to me the Secret of Wisdom!’ he bawled… To my great credit I never batted an eyelash. ‘Take a large bowl,’ I said. ‘Fill it with equal measure of fact, fantasy, history, mythology, science, superstition, logic, and lunacy. Darken the mixture with bitter tears, brighten it with howls of laughter, toss in three thousand years of civilization, bellow kan pei–which means ‘dry cup’–and drink to the dregs.’ Procopius stared at me. ‘And I will be wise,’ he asked. ‘Better,’ I said. ‘You will be Chinese.’”

Time Riders

Time Riders
by Alex Scarrow

Reviewed by Sesana
Four out of five stars

Publisher summary:

Maddy should have died in a plane crash. Liam should have died at sea when the Titanic sank. Sal should have died in a tragic fire. But a mysterious man whisked them away to safety.

Maddy, Liam, and Sal quickly learn that time travel is no longer just a hope for the future; it is a dangerous reality. And they weren't just rescued from their terrible fates. . . they were recruited for the agency of TimeRiders created to protect the world from those seeking to alter the course of history for personal gain. By reliving the highly documented events in New York City on 9/11, they can closely monitor history for any deviations—large or small. When just such a change is detected, they are alerted that a threat is at hand unleashing the evil of the Nazis to wreak havoc with Earth's present and future. Can Maddy, Liam, and Sal fulfill their destinies as keepers of time to save the world from utter destruction?

My Review:

This book and I didn't have the smoothest start. It has more than its fair share of time travel cliches. Titanic, Nazis, the Kennedy assassination... Not the most original stomping grounds for time travelers. And then the character from 1912 hears somebody say "time travel" and says, "What's time travel?" And I facepalmed. At this point, I didn't have high hopes for this book.

Luckily, it all improves from there. Despite an unimaginative choice of time travel destinations, the way that time travel is actually handled is done in a way that's interesting and, to my mind, fairly original. It also seems to have been executed with a great deal of forethought. The stakes feel very real, and very urgent. And the characters themselves were done better than I'd been afraid they would be. They're all new at this whole time travel business, of course, but they're all bright enough, brave enough, and competent enough at the beginning to make it believable that they can become the time travel cops they were chosen to be. And guess what? No romance!

I have to say, I was surprised by how much I ended up liking this book, despite a less than promising start. I'm not sure yet if I'll read any further in the series, but this was a solid start.