Friday, February 28, 2014

After the Apocalypse

Maureen McHugh
Small Beer Press
Reviewed by: Nancy
4 out of 5 stars


The apocalypse was yesterday. These stories are today.

Following up on her first collection, Story Prize finalist Maureen F. McHugh explores the catastrophes, small and large, of twenty-first century life—and what follows after. What happens after the bird flu pandemic? Are our computers smarter than we are? What does the global economy mean for two young girls in China? Are we really who we say we are? And how will we survive the coming zombie apocalypse?

My Review
I’m not sure why I haven’t read more of Maureen McHugh’s stories. She has a subtle, quiet style and writes with a graceful economy of language that is powerful but not overwhelming. There is no filler here, no unnecessary words or overly descriptive scenes. What these haunting stories have in common is their exploration of various ways in which the world could fall apart and how humanity copes. I loved these wonderfully character-driven stories and am thrilled I was able to find this at the library.

This collection definitely has more hits than misses.

The very first story, The Naturalist, is not your typical prison or zombie story. The humans were definitely scarier.

Special Economics takes place in a China ravaged by bird flu. Young Jieling is desperate for money and takes a job in a biotech company that sounds perfect until she discovers the reasons why people can never quit.

Useless Things is about a dollmaker who lives in a southwest severely affected by drought. She is alone in her house, protected by several large dogs.

“I make reborns. Dolls that look like newborn infants. The point is to make them look almost, but not quite, real. People prefer them a little cuter, a little more perfect than the real thing. I like them best when there is something a little strange, a little off about them.”

The dolls creep me out, almost as much as clowns do, but the real strength of this story is the arid atmosphere, the loneliness, and the sense of danger.

In The Lost Boy: A Reporter at Large, dirty bombs explode in Baltimore and a young boy remembers nothing about his family.

The Kingdom of the Blind is an intriguing story about two programmers who work in a medical facility and discover that they can’t outsmart their computer system. Too much tech talk and too many acronyms kept me from truly enjoying this one.

Going to France went over my head, just like the people who were flying.

If I could pick out one favorite from this collection, Honeymoon would be it. A wedding that never happened, the start of a new life, and a need to save money for a trip to Cancun. This is a taut and disturbing story that made me miss my bus stop.

A young girl’s mom is dying of Avian Prion Disease (APD) in The Effect of Centrifugal Forces. This chilling story makes me never want to eat chicken again.

After the Apocalypse is the perfect conclusion to this collection. A mother and daughter do their best to survive in spite of homelessness, unemployment and a constant threat of danger.

I typically take short breaks between short stories, but I found myself immersed and had difficulty putting the book down.

Highly recommended to those who like thoughtful short fiction that feels intensely real. 

Also posted at Goodreads.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

I Miss You Mr. Vonnegut


by Kurt Vonnegut 

Review by Zorena

Five Stars


Broad humor and bitter irony collide in this fictional autobiography of Rabo Karabekian, who, at age seventy-one, wants to be left alone on his Long Island estate with the secret he has locked inside his potato barn. But then a voluptuous young widow badgers Rabo into telling his life story.

My Review

I would call this the most mature of any of Vonnegut's books that I have read so far. I know that Vonnegut began his novel writing close to the age of 30 which is considered an adult but his work still lacked maturity. Which can be a good thing as his earlier works were meant to be biting satire and not high literature.

Bluebeard is more melancholy and less slapstick than
Slaughterhouse-Five and Breakfast of Champions which he is more renowned for. It has a more subtle humour that lends itself to better storytelling. This perspective and style work really well when looking at life through art. I felt I was looking into Vonnegut's heart and mind as I read each page. The medium is different but the message is the same. This really make's McLuhan's quote “the medium is the message” resonate with me. That's not to say he doesn't take the occasional bite out of how we view the art world. He does, and with great relish.

I think I've found a new favourite by Mr. Vonnegut and one I would rather use to introduce people to the real brilliance of his writing.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Alcoholic Musings

The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking by Olivia Laing
Reviewed by Diane K. M.
My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

This book combines two of my favorite topics -- alcoholism and writers. And yet, I was disappointed.

Olivia Laing picked six writers who struggled with alcohol addiction: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, John Cheever, John Berryman, and Raymond Carver. Laing traveled around the United States to visit their old haunts, analyzed their writings about drinking, and mixed it all up with some scientific research into alcoholism. 

"I wanted to know what made a person drink and what it did to them. More specifically I wanted to know why writers drink, and what effect this stew of spirits has had upon the body of literature itself ... There have been many books and articles that revel in describing exactly how grotesque and shameful the behaviour of alcoholic writers can be. That wasn't my intention. What I wanted was to discover how each of these men ... experienced and thought about their addiction." 

What I found most interesting were the drinking stories and quotes she included from the writers themselves or from those who knew them. However, there are only eight chapters in the book, and instead of focusing on one writer in a chapter, she jumped between the six men so often that I found it jarring. For example, just when I would be getting in the groove about Cheever, she'd suddenly switch to a Fitzgerald anecdote. 

I think my favorite section discussed the friendship/rivalry between Fitzgerald and Hemingway, and how Hemingway would look down on Scott for not being able to hold his drink. Hem wrote: "Alcohol was a straight poison to Scott instead of a food." Of course, we know that alcohol is a poison, but Hem didn't see it that way.

There was also a strong section on Tennessee Williams and his time in New Orleans. Laing, who is British, said she "found it almost impossible to piece New Orleans together. It wasn't like any place I'd ever visited, though at times it reminded me in its rich confusion of Addis Ababa, especially at night."

Aside from the New Orleans section, the travelogue portions were the weakest part of the book. Laing took an Amtrak train for much of her journey across the States, and she included far too many pointless observations and random conversations with strangers that had no bearing on the narrative. 

It seems like Laing was trying to mix three different types of writing: scientific research into alcoholism, a travelogue around the U.S., and a critical analysis of literature and letters, but the final concoction was flat. 

Note: The title refers to a line in Tennessee Williams' play "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," when Brick, the alcoholic husband, says he's "takin' a little short trip to Echo Spring," which was a nickname for a liquor cabinet that housed a brand of bourbon.

Stealer of Flesh

Stealer of FleshStealer of Flesh by William King
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When an ancient amphora containing a demon is stolen, Kormak tracks the thieves down until one remains. Staggering out of a blizzard, Kormak finds himself at a fortified manor where both the last thief and the amphora are guests....

I knew William King from Gotrek & Felix: The First Omnibus so I was pretty excited when this popped up on my Freebooksy email one morning.

Basically, a body-stealing demon gets loosed upon the world and Kormak crosses an entire continent to slay it. The story is told in five smaller tales, all linked, much like some of the old Conan paperbacks this was inspired by.

King's prose is a cut above it's media fiction roots. Much like the Gotrek and Felix books, there's a good dose of humor interspersed with the gratuitous carnage.

Kormak is much deeper than the Conan ripoff I originally had him pegged for. He's a member of a religious order dedicated to fighting the forces of darkness and doesn't have a great love of wizards.

Still, if you're not a fan of the way the Sword and Sorcery subgenre of fantasy treats its women, you aren't going to find it to your liking. The female characters are largely interchangeable.

While he's not going to unseat Joe Abercrombie or any other of fantasy's current juggernauts, William King delivers the goods in Stealer of Flesh. It's bloody good fun. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

View all my reviews

9 Tales of Henghis Hapthorn

9 Tales of Henghis Hapthorn9 Tales of Henghis Hapthorn by Matthew Hughes
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

9 Tales of Henghis Hapthorn is a collection of tales about Henghis Hapthorn, Old Earth's best freelance discriminator. There are nine of them.

First, these tales occur in Matthew Hughes' Archonate Universe, in an age just before the time of Jack Vance's Dying Earth (or a very similar setting different enough to avoid litigation), an age where magic is slowly replacing science. Secondly, this would have been great to have before reading the three Henghis Hapthorn novels.

The Immersion: An old enemy hires Henghis to find out who dumped goo on his head and left him hairless.

The Immersion was a good way to reintroduce me to Henghis' sometimes confusing world. The tales are told in the first person and he talks like the Sherlock Holmes of thousands of centuries in the future. The mystery was fairly complicated, as Hapthorn's usually are, but still satisfying and somewhat hilarious.

Will it be the best tale in the collection? It would be premature to say...

Mastermindless: All the men of Old Earth have been rendered penniless, unattractive, and dull, and it's up to a penniless, unattractive, and dull Henghis Hapthorn to unravel what happened.

This was the first Henghis Hapthorn story published and the rise of magic is present in abundance. Where did everyone's looks, money, and intelligence go? Henghis beats his suddenly less effective head against the wall until a pattern emerges. Quite entertaining.

Falberoth's Ruin: Who wants Falberoth, Old Earth's biggest crime lord dead? Pretty much everyone so Hapthorn has the unenviable tasks of narrowing it down to just one suspect.

This one has the Agatha Christie ending where the suspects are gathered. Hapthorn is quite a character and I have to say the short stories are as enjoyable as the books. It's a pity it's not easy to read one without the other.

Relics of the Thim: A known charlatan has apparently figured out a way to snatch objects from the past. But everyone knows time travel is impossible. Or is it? That's what Henghis Hapthorn intends to find out!

Henghis didn't play much of a part in solving this mystery. His relationship with his Integrator continues to degrade. I'll have to consult the introduction but I think this story found its way into one of the Hapthorn novels because I think I've read it before.

Finding Sajessarian: Adventurer/criminal Sajessarian hires Henghis Hapthorn to try to find him. Is he up to the challenge?

This one was a little strange but very amusing. I like that Hughes isn't afraid to show Hapthorn isn't as brilliant as he thinks at times.

Thwarting Jabbi Gloond: Jabbi Gloond takes over Gresh Olabian's house and Henghis resolves to get to the bottom of things.

This was another odd mystery that almost had an Agatha Christie ending. I'm not sure if its in the appropriate chronological place in the collection, though.

The Gist Hunter: While adjusting to the profound changes in his integrator, Henghis attempts to clear the name of Turgut Therobar.

Turns out Turgut was kind of a bastard. I found the parts about the integrator adusting to life as something resembling a lemur rather than a machine way more interesting.

Sweet Trap: Henghis Hapthorn is hired to find a man who has fled Old Earth for parts unknown. Fortunately, aiding him are his Integrator, now a lemur-like grinnet, and Osk Rievor, the intuitive part of his brain that has taken on both a personality and a name.

This one also feels like something I've read before, especially since I don't forget names like Tabanooch.

Fullbrim's Finding: Fullbrim goes missing and Hapthorn is at it again!

Hapthorn is in fine form in this, what I believe is his last outing to date.

Overall Thoughts: While the stories probably weren't meant to be read consecutively, I really liked this collection. As I said earlier, it would have been great to have access to all the short stories while I was reading the three Henghis Hapthorn novels.

Hughes' writing evokes Doyle, Vance, and P.G. Wodehouse in equal measure. The mysterious, while not solveable by the reader, are very entertaining.

The later stories are easier to fit into the chronology of the series. For instance, Osk Rievor has become a second person by this point, which I believe happened at the end of the second book.

I don't know how accessible they'd be to someone with no previous background with Hughes' Archonate setting, however. Still, free on the Kindle, they were well worth my time. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

View all my reviews

Monday, February 24, 2014

Alex Morrow Investigates a Kidnapping Gone Wrong

Reviewed by James L. Thane
Three out of five stars

This novel features a cast of tortured characters, some good, some bad, and others somewhere in between. It opens when two relatively incompetent thugs named Pat and Eddy burst into a home in Glasgow, intent on kidnapping some guy named Bob. But there’s no Bob there, and the panicked family in the home insists that they don’t know anyone named Bob. The thugs refuse to believe them and, since Bob isn’t available, they kidnap the family’s elderly father instead, this after Pat accidentally shoots the family’s daughter in the hand. Pat and Eddie promise to bring the father back as soon as the family forks over two million pounds in ransom.
By rights, the case should be assigned to DI Alex Morrow, but for any number of flimsy reasons, her sexist, dimwitted boss assigns the case to Morrow’s sexist, dimwitted associate, a guy named Bannerman, and then instructs Morrow to follow Bannerman’s lead on the case. Morrow is not a very pleasant person to begin with and she’s deeply troubled herself for reasons we do not learn until very late in the book. She’s also the smartest cop on the beat, with a big mouth and a quick temper. Needless to say, this will not sit very well with her.
The crime and the case seem screwed up from the start. The kidnap victim is a Ugandan immigrant who owns a convenience store. The family is middle class at best and has only about forty thousand pounds in the bank—a far cry from the two million that the kidnappers have demanded. At first glance, it appears that Pat and Eddy have attacked the wrong home, but acting on her own initiative, Morrow discovers an important clue that suggests that there’s more to this situation than meets the eye.
The story is told from the viewpoints of several different characters and the bulk of it is a psychological study of them and their various problems. The investigation of the kidnapping proceeds at a very slow pace and, while it appears that other crimes may be involved, it’s hard for Morrow or anyone else to get a handle on them.
I enjoyed this book up to a point, but it didn’t work for me as much as I had hoped. For starters, I had great difficulty warming up to any of the characters. It was hard to feel any real sympathy for the family that was victimized, because they all seemed to be a bunch of losers. The sole exception was the kidnapped father who was my favorite character in the book. Whenever the story shifted to his point of view, I found it much more interesting.
I also had trouble liking Alex Morrow who was simply too abrasive to engender any empathy even when, at long last, I learned what her problem was. By then, I was completely out of patience with her and it was too late for me to reverse my opinion of her. Additionally, the crimes at the heart of the story, didn’t seem all that substantial, and, save for the hope that the kidnapped father would be saved, it didn’t seem all that important that the crimes be solved. Finally, there’s a love story in the book that I found totally implausible and could not buy into.
Mina is best at setting the scene, and her descriptions of Glasgow and the Scottish countryside are first-rate. She also does a very good job of creating and fleshing out these characters; I only wish that she had created at least one or two that I could have really cared about.

What Is Pushed Down Will Rise Up

The Moon is DownThe Moon is Down by John Steinbeck
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Short and bitter sweet, The Moon is Down shows what becomes of docile countryfolk when they are invaded and subjugated.

Not sure what to expect from this lesser known work by Steinbeck, my first impression after a few pages was that I was in for a light comedy, a sort of Catch-22 anti-war declaration, apparently with silly citizens and gullible army officers acting out a daffy pre-"Hogan's Heroes" farce.

But then it turned serious and dark, and actually hopeful. There are small heroes, tiny victories. The struggle is not valiant. There are no action-packed depictions. It is furtive. Victory over their oppressors is implied.

Aspects of The Moon is Down had a deja vu familiarity about them and then one particular scene jarred my memory and sent me back 30 years or more to a TV version of All Quiet on the Western Front. In it actor Richard Thomas (aka "John Boy") plays a German. I think in the early 80s he was trying to get away from his good-guy Waltons persona. Playing a Nazi would do it. Well anyway, the scene in question is not, to my recollection, from All Quiet..., but rather from this book. I hope Steinbeck got some credit.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Midnight Mayor --kept me up until midnight

The Midnight Mayor
Kate Griffin
Reviewed by Carol
★   ★   ★   ★  1/2

A solid urban fantasy read. 

The second installment of the Matthew Swift series, The Midnight Mayor continues to follow recently reincarnated Matthew Swift and the co-inhabitants of his body, the electric angels. Once again, Matthew regains consciousness near a public phone, lying in the ground in the dark and the rain; cold, burned, and bloody. As he tries to orient himself, hooded faceless spectres start to stalk him. He manages to escape after some clever displays of sorcery and goes to find the Whites, the graffiti magicians, for healing. Vera, as enigmatic as always, gets him fixed up with Dr. Seah. Dr. Seah has questions about his injuries: “Now, while every case is, like, unique, I gotta tell you, electrocution by telephone leading to the appearance of a cross carved in the palm of the victim’s hand is unusual even for central London. You seriously have no idea how it got there?

In the midst of recovery, The Alderman intrude. Much like conventional politicians, the Alderman (and women) are largely concerned with managing the magical influences of the city for London’s greater good. Unfortunately, they have their suspicions about Matthew’s role in the recent murder of the Midnight Mayor, the head of the Alders, and it’s mutual antipathy from the start: “The Alderman who’d spoken was young, male, and destined to rule the world. He had dark blond hair, slightly curled, a face just bordering on deeply tanned, bright blue eyes, a hint of freckle and a set of teeth you could have carved a piano with. If I hated the Aldermen on basic principle, I hated him on direct observation.

Mayhem ensues, and before long, Matthew is roped into solving the mystery of the systematic destruction of London’s magical protectors. The religious fundamentalist Oda is once again assigned to Matthew, and this time there are resources from the Aldermen. There’s also a missing teenage boy who Matthew is determined to find. 

The plot moves relatively quickly, but as a sorcerer who is connected to the magic of the city, events are often broken up or transitioned through long descriptive passages about the city. At times it worked, and at other times, less so. Although some scenes created the feel of London to a non-Londoner, some were so focused on observing the surroundings that they didn’t quite have a sense of weighty history, nor the bemused sensory experience of the angels. There’s a definite moral ambiguity to many aspects of the storyline, and I find that it was one of the aspects I enjoyed about the book–there wasn’t necessarily facile answers, and that achievement of the goals comes with costs. I enjoyed the complexity of the plotting–a lot of questions are raised in the search for answers, much like real life. Are the angels benign? Is the Alders’ goal of protecting the City of London at the expense of the people worthwhile? Is there such a thing as a selfless motive?

Magical elements continue to be fascinating, from London’s warding magic traditions, to magic linked to the city at time of day, to more modern incarnations of evil, such as the ‘saturate,’ a giant fatty blob no doubt based on a recent story. I continue to enjoy the fascinating magic of the Whites–”it was realised that the image of a great eye painted at the end of Platform 14… was a scrying tool of infinitely more value than your traditional bowl of silver water, and that nothing bound as effectively as a double red parking line burnt chemically into the earth“–and the magic surrounding a pair of shoes was inventive and yet logical. The updated three hags was also a fun twist on a fairly common myth.

Narrative style has changed slightly from the first book. I remain fond of Swift’s voice. For those who might have been bothered by the poetic deconstruction in the first, the second book is far more coherent, with Swift and the angels gradually assuming more of a uniform identity, and structure largely in paragraph form, complete sentences and all. 

Characterization remains a strong point, and I felt there were enough support for the side characters that they obtained individuality. I was impressed by how much Griffin was able to imply about the former Midnight Mayor from the contents of his pockets. Dr. Seah remains one of my favorites with her slightly impaired bedside manner (“Dr. Seah knew the sound of a refusal when she heard one, and knew that the only way to get round these things, was to ignore them before they could become admissible in court”), along with the ghostly nurse of the (almost) abandoned NHS hospital.
There’s definitely a fair amount of humor in the book, which helps lighten the fairly significant consequences. Griffin does a nice job of not allowing humor to overshadow the action or to sacrifice character for the quip. The humor is often subtle or slightly skew:

‘A large number of people, I suspect. But they wouldn’t know what to make of it.’
‘Anyone… of alternative inclining?
‘I’m guessing you’re not referring to sex, biology or morals?‘”

I looked him up and down. He seemed like a principled man, the last thing I needed to see.”

I enjoyed it a great deal, and have many more scribbled page numbers with quotes to prove it. I’ll have to settle for adding it to my library and re-reading at leisure.

cross posted at

Friday, February 21, 2014

The Gargoyle

Andrew Davidson
Reviewed by: Nancy
4 out of 5 stars


The narrator of The Gargoyle is a very contemporary cynic, physically beautiful and sexually adept, who dwells in the moral vacuum that is modern life. As the book opens, he is driving along a dark road when he is distracted by what seems to be a flight of arrows. He crashes into a ravine and suffers horrible burns over much of his body. As he recovers in a burn ward, undergoing the tortures of the damned, he awaits the day when he can leave the hospital and commit carefully planned suicide — for he is now a monster in appearance as well as in soul.

A beautiful and compelling, but clearly unhinged, sculptress of gargoyles by the name of Marianne Engel appears at the foot of his bed and insists that they were once lovers in medieval Germany. In her telling, he was a badly injured mercenary and she was a nun and scribe in the famed monastery of Engelthal who nursed him back to health. As she spins their tale in Scheherazade fashion and relates equally mesmerizing stories of deathless love in Japan, Iceland, Italy, and England, he finds himself drawn back to life — and, finally, in love. He is released into Marianne's care and takes up residence in her huge stone house. But all is not well. For one thing, the pull of his past sins becomes ever more powerful as the morphine he is prescribed becomes ever more addictive. For another, Marianne receives word from God that she has only twenty-seven sculptures left to complete — and her time on earth will be finished.

My Review

I’m usually suspicious of over-hyped books, but a friend at the library highly recommended it.

A short way into the story, the narrator’s mom dies, his grandmother dies, he gets severely burned in a car accident, and his aunt and uncle die. I felt beat over the head with all the suffering and seriously thought about giving up reading by page 50. Then Marianne Engel, a woman with a history of mental illness, shows up in the nameless narrator’s hospital room telling a story about her previous life in medieval Germany. That was the hook that drew me in.

The story jumps back and forth between stories about Marianne’s life as a nun and scribe, the narrator’s past as a mercenary soldier, and the tragic lives and loves of other people from different places that Marianne has known. The contemporary part of the story deals with Marianne's passion for creating gargoyles, the narrator’s treatment and recovery from his burns, his drug addiction, former career in pornography, his growing friendship with his psychiatrist and physical therapist, and his love for Marianne.

The thing that bothers me most is the narrator’s seemingly hasty transition from a drug-addicted, sex-addicted, selfish, friendless porn star to a man who finally develops a soul after he becomes smitten with a mentally ill woman who tells him stories. This flaw was relatively easy to overlook, as I too, was swept away by Marianne’s stories - the religious imagery, literary references and beautiful, tragic tales of love that felt so very real.

Highly original, magical, heart wrenching, and a real treat!

Also posted at Goodreads.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

I Seem To Be Obsessed With Obsession

The Collector

John Fowles

Review by Zorena

Four Stars


Withdrawn, uneducated and unloved, Frederick collects butterflies and takes photographs. He is obsessed with a beautiful stranger, the art student Miranda. When he wins the pools he buys a remote Sussex house and calmly abducts Miranda, believing she will grow to love him in time. Alone and desperate, Miranda must struggle to overcome her own prejudices and contempt if she is understand her captor, and so gain her freedom

My Review

I found this book far more horrific than Silence of the Lambs which had a some similarities. You really didn't need the addition of skinning a victim alive to be frightened by this story, just getting into Clegg's mind was enough. Seeing him justify each abuse and each irrevocable step was chilling. He tries to pass off each violation as his way he shows her love not as the psychopathy that it is. The darkest form of obsession.

The writing is some of Fowles best and he uses it to make you really feel for Miranda and cheer at her attempts for freedom and feel just as crushed when she fails. The plausibility of the plot is one of the biggest creep factors of this book.

I'm not that fond of horror stories any more and it's mostly due to the expected gore or grossness value. There are few books that are written like Fowles novel these days and it says something about what we want out of our entertainment. Which I find as disturbing as I find the main character of this book.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014


The Heat of the DayThe Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

”Overhead, an enemy plane had been dragging, drumming slowly round in the pool of night, drawing up bursts of gunfire--nosing, pausing, turning, fascinated to the point for its intent. The barrage banged, coughed, retched; in here the lights in the mirrors rocked. Now down a shaft of anticipating silence the bomb swung whistling. With the shock of detonation, still to be heard, four walls of in here yawped in then bellied out; bottles danced on glass; a distortion ran through the view. The detonation dulled off into the cataracting roar of a split building:

direct hit,

somewhere else.”

 photo BombingLondon_zps15b0ae56.jpg

This novel is set against the backdrop of the very tail end of the London Blitz. There are still explosions, but the inhabitants of London have more pressing concerns dealing with the rubble that has steadily accumulated. Stella Rodney, like most women with husbands in the war, has been displaced to a smaller apartment. None of the possessions that fills the rooms are hers. Her husband Victor, after leaving her for a nurse, promptly paid for his sins with a glorious/inglorious death in the war. His family think that the reason the marriage dissolved was that Stella was a tart, and she is unsure of how best to disabuse them of that idea.

Stella is still a lovely woman.

”She had one of those charming faces which, according to the angle from which you see them, look either melancholy or impertinent. Her eyes were grey; her trick of narrowing them made her seem to reflect, the greater part of the time, in the dusk of her second thoughts. With that mood, that touch of arriere pensee, went an uncertain, speaking set of the lips. Her complexion, naturally pale, fine, soft, appeared through a pale, fine, soft bloom of make-up. She was young-looking--most because of the impression she gave of still being on happy sensuous terms with life. Nature had kindly given her one white dash, lock or wing in otherwise tawny hair…”

She is in love with Robert Kelway, a man with a limp from a war wound at Dunkirk.
”His experiences and hers became harder and harder to tell apart; everything gathered behind them into a common memory--though singly each of them might, must, exist, decide, act, all things done alone came to be no more than simulacra of behavior: they waited to live again till they were together, then took living up from where they had left it off.”
Robert has a nebulous job with the war effort that has him gone for days at a time. His personality morphs as the novel progresses. He seems so strong; and yet, he has unresolvable issues with his dead father, and bitterness about the circumstances that led to his wounding at Dunkirk.

”I never knew you before you were a wounded man.”
“In one way that would have been impossible--I was born wounded; my father’s son. Dunkirk was waiting there in us--what a race! A class without a middle, a race without a country. Unwhole. Never earthed in--and there are thousands of thousands of us, and we’re still breeding--breeding what? You may ask: I ask. Not only nothing to hold, nothing to touch. No source of anything in anything.”

Stella may have some worries in regards to Robert, but she has some real problems with another Robert referred to by his last name Harrison. (Okay there are only a handful of characters in this novel, why do authors insist on using a similar or in this case the same name. Bowen resolves it by referring to Harrison by his last name.) Harrison works in counter-intelligence, and is convinced that Robert is working for the Germans. He is an odd fellow as those shadowy characters always seem to be.

” of his eyes either was or behaved as being just perceptibly higher than the other. This lag or inequality in his vision gave her the feeling of being looked at twice--being viewed then checked over again in the same moment. His forehead stayed in the hiding, his eyebrows deep in the shadow, of his pulled-down hat; his nose was bony; he wore a close-clipped little that-was-that moustache. The set of his lips--from between which he had with less than civil reluctance withdrawn a cigarette--bespoke the intention of adding nothing should he happen to speak again. This was a face with a gate behind it--a face that, in this photographic half-light, looked indoor and weathered at the same time; a face, if not without meaning, totally and forbiddingly without mood.”

Harrison is willing to make a deal if Stella will leave Robert and become his girlfriend. If she complies he will turn a blind eye to Robert’s transgressions. She is unconvinced of Robert’s guilt, but at the same time she has doubts about his loyalty to his country. She is also attracted to Harrison which lends even more confusion to her already jangled feelings about both men.

There are some interesting sub-characters in this novel. Stella’s son Roderick who is in the service not because of any loyalty to the cause, but simply because that is what young men of his generation did. He has recently inherited an estate from his father’s family. He takes some time off from the war to tidy up the affairs of his inheritance.

”Dark ate the outlines of the house and drank from the broken distances of the valley. The air had been night itself, re-imprinted by every one of his movements upon his face and hands--and still, now that he was indoors and gone to bed, impregnating every part of the body it had not sensibly touched. He could not sleep during this memory of the air.”

This whole novel feels dipped in shadows. The descriptions of the terrain of London and the surrounding areas certainly had me thinking of how noirish this book would look on film. Stella is dramatic, elegant, and trapped in circumstances that feels like only something tragic can free her from the bonds of two men. Harrison and Stella are both characters who could have stepped out of any Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett novel.

Louie Lewis, the opposite of Stella, in so many ways. She sleeps with men to feel closer to her husband who is away fighting in the war. That is so sweet… I’m not sure the husband will see it quite that way. I really enjoyed Bowen’s description of Louie.

”Everything ungirt, artless, ardent, urgent about Louie was to the fore: all over herself she gave the impression of twisted stockings.”

Louie is somehow connected to Harrison and isn’t about to go quietly into the night. She wouldn’t know how.

Bowen has an unusual writing style that continually caught me by surprise. The words sometimes came at me in machine gun flashes. At other times her sentences were almost languid like Stella’s droopy eyelids. The first Elizabeth Bowen I’ve read and certainly not my last. Categorize this book as noir espionage with a splash of blitz.

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The Vice Begins to Close

The White-Luck Warrior

R. Scott Bakker

Penguin Books

Reviewed by: Terry

4  out of 5 stars


Beware, there are some spoilers for key plot points/character revelations below. 

So, volume two of the “Aspect Emperor” series has come to a close and so far R. Scott Bakker still proves that he has the chops to pull off a multi-volume epic fantasy that not only uses the standard tropes in new and interesting ways, but that gives his characters depth, darkness, and complexity and does so with prose that is always enjoyable and sometimes downright exhilarating to read. I don’t think that I really *like* any of his characters (though Achamian, and to a lesser extent Mimara and even Sorweel, come close), but I find them all thoroughly intriguing, even when they are frustrating or repellent…or perhaps it’s because they are. Kellhus is still a fascinating cypher: a saviour who is chillingly amoral and manipulative, but whose ultimate aims and decisions on how best to reach them seem maddeningly right. Achamian, the ostensible hero of the tale, comes across at best as a petty cuckold hazarding ridiculous risks (for himself and others) for the sake of ill-feelings and wounded pride, and at worst as a monomaniacal menace who is little more than a tool that could lead to the utter destruction of all mankind. Kosoter and his pack of Sranc scalpers (esp. the mysterious Nonman mage Cleric) are always an intriguing bunch and watching their inner dissolution on the trail to the Library of Sauglish as they become pared down to a nub, leaving only their most essential (and repellent) characteristics is fascinating. I have to admit that I found the struggle for power at the heart of Kellhus’ empire in Momemn a little less captivating (probably because I find Esmenet a less interesting character than some of the others), but the glimpses we get into the dysfunctional and super-powered Dûnyain family (from “Uncle Holy” Maithanet right on down to dear little psycho Kelmomas) is always a fun train wreck to watch. And Sorweel, Serwa and Moënghus? Let’s just say I’m intrigued to see where and how the heck they end up.

While much of the story is devoted to either having two of the main plot threads cover huge distances of geography (Kellhus & the Great Ordeal and Achamian & the Skin Eaters) or another main thread devoted to plunging into the labyrinthine intrigues of the slowly dissolving imperial court (with Esmenet, Maithanet, and Kelmomas taking centre stage) and thus at times it can seem that not a lot happens in a relatively large span of pages, there are some really exciting, edge-of-your-seat type moments on display. Whether it’s the kick-ass fight that Cleric and Achamian have with Wutteät, the seemingly undead Father of Dragons in the bowels of the Library of Sauglish, or the psycho machinations of ‘little’ Kelmomas in the hidden mazes of the Imperial Palace, or the endless sea of hording Sranc inundating a portion of the Great Ordeal in the midst of the ruins of mankind’s first great empire, or even the somewhat confusing but thoroughly intriguing mystery of the White-Luck Warrior and his seemingly time-warped journey through the Three Seas, there’s more than enough to maintain a reader’s interest.  The Cleric and Achamian thread was especially intriguing to me as the entire scenario seemed like some untold tale taken from _The Silmarillion_ and twisted in incomprehensible and often lurid ways. It was as-if  Gil-Galad went insane, lost his memory, and went adventuring with an even darker version of Túrin and his outlaw buddies and they just happened to stumble upon Ancalagon the Black or even Glaurung and had a magical slugfest in the heart of the ruins of Nargothrond.

Ultimately Bakker seems to strike a nice balance between moving the story forward and taking time to flesh out his characters and events. One could argue that some of the storylines don’t move forward (certainly geographically and sometimes plot-wise) as far, or as quickly, as one might wish, but ultimately I never felt bored with Bakker’s pace, or thought that he was sacrificing the story in the name of broadening his horizons or navel-gazing (I’m looking at you GRRM). Despite this nice balance, however, I still have a creeping fear that leads me to ask the question: Can Bakker wrap up this story in only one more volume given the relative leisure with which he has unfolded it to this point? As noted above I don’t in any way view his unhurried pace as a bad thing and I appreciated the way in which it allowed events to seemingly unfold organically and characters (even peripheral ones) to grow in interesting and realistic ways. It’s just that in looking back and seeing that approx. 2/3 of the apparent page count allocated for the story has been expended and then looking forward to see what he still needs to cover I really hope he isn’t forced to rush to the finish in order to reach the climax of the story in only one more volume. After all he is already working with a large cast, many with significant ties to the previous series who are still only beginning to be fully sketched out at this point. How will they develop? Should they have even been introduced? It's certainly nowhere near as bad as GRRM spinning out of control and adding viewpoint characters, locations, and subplots to an absurd degree, but is at least mildly analogous and makes me squirm a bit. Bakker’s also working with some pretty significant (and indeed numerous) plotlines that need to not only resolve, but also dovetail with each other to some extent, none of which seem to have their ultimate goal in sight yet. That being said, at the end of the day I have faith that he has the chops to pull it off...don’t let me down R. Scott Bakker!


Also posted at Goodreads

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

What's in a Face?

Wonder by R. J. Palacio
Reviewed by Diane K. M.
My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Wow, I wish this book had existed when I was in 5th grade. It would have been a comfort while dealing with bullies.

This kind of great Young Adult writing has revived my faith in the genre. Last year I read two popular YA novels and I hated them so much that I was ready to swear off the whole damn category. But this book is so lovely and bittersweet that I am glad I gave it a chance.

"Wonder" is the story of 10-year-old August, who was born with a severe facial deformity. This is his introduction:

"I know I'm not an ordinary ten-year-old kid. I mean, sure, I do ordinary things. I eat ice cream. I ride my bike. I play ball. I have an Xbox. Stuff like that makes me ordinary. I guess. And I feel ordinary. Inside. But I know ordinary kids don't make other ordinary kids run away screaming in playgrounds. I know ordinary kids don't get stared at wherever they go. If I found a magic lamp and I could have one wish, I would wish that I had a normal face that no one ever noticed at all. I would wish that I could walk down the street without people seeing me and then doing that look-away thing. Here's what I think: the only reason I'm not ordinary is that no one else sees me that way."

August has been homeschooled until now, but his parents want him to branch out and enroll him in 5th grade. August has a good sense of humor and makes a few friends at school, but most of the students avoid him, and a few are downright mean. The novel follows August through the school year, and there are many ups and downs, which I shan't spoil. By the end of the book, I was a blubbering mess and I couldn't finish reading without wiping my eyes every half-page.

I really liked the writing in "Wonder" -- it's smart and complex for YA, and it didn't dumb down the material. I also liked that it gave different perspectives. Most of the book is told from August's point of view, but we also get to read the thoughts of his sister and of some friends, which fleshed out the story.

One chapter that was especially powerful was about Halloween, which August loves:

"For me, Halloween is the best holiday in the world. It even beats Christmas. I get to dress up in costume. I get to wear a mask. I get to go around like every other kid with a mask and nobody thinks I look weird. Nobody takes a second look. Nobody notices me. Nobody knows me. I wish every day could be Halloween. We could all wear masks all the time. Then we could walk around and get to know each other before we got to see what we looked like under the masks."

Another highpoint (and where I needed several tissues) was August's graduation day. The principal makes a speech referencing a quote from J. M. Barrie:

"'Shall we make a new rule of life ... always to try to be a little kinder than is necessary?' ... What a marvelous line, isn't it? Kinder than is necessary. Because it's not enough to be kind. One should be kinder than needed ... what I want you, my students, to take away from your middle-school experience is the knowledge that, in the future you make for yourselves, anything is possible. If every single person in this room made it a rule that wherever you are, whenever you can, you will try to act a little kinder than is necessary -- the world really will be a better place."

It's a wonderful, beautiful little novel. I hope more people give it a chance.

One Crazy Summer

One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson
Reviewed by Diane K. M.
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

This is a fun and interesting look at America in the 1920s, but specifically the summer of 1927. It is remarkable how much happened in a few short months:

"Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs. The Federal Reserve made the mistake that precipitated the stock market crash. Al Capone enjoyed his last summer of eminence. The Jazz Singer was filmed. Television was created. Radio came of age. Sacco and Vanzetti were executed. President Coolidge chose not to run. Work began on Mount Rushmore. The Mississippi flooded as it never had before. A madman in Michigan blew up a school and killed 44 people in the worst slaughter of children in American history. Henry Ford stopped making the Model T and promised to stop insulting Jews. And a kid from Minnesota flew across an ocean and captivated the planet in a way it had never been captivated before. Whatever else it was, it was one hell of a summer."

I've always loved history, and Bryson does a marvelous job of weaving together different stories and putting events in context. For example, Prohibition was still going on in 1927, but Bryson goes back to 1920 and explains how it came about. Or take the story of Charles Lindbergh. Before Bryson covers that first famous flight to France, he gives a brief history of aviation and explains how deadly and dangerous it had been. Those kinds of details really make the book fly, if you'll forgive the pun.

There are so many interesting stories in this book, but here are the Top 5 Things I Learned from One Summer: 

1. That Henry Ford was an ignorant jackass. "He was defiantly narrow-minded, barely educated and at least close to functionally illiterate. He did not like bankers, doctors, liquor, tobacco, idleness of any sort, pasteurized milk, Wall Street, overweight people, war, books or reading, J.P. Morgan and Co., capital punishment, tall buildings, college graduates, Roman Catholics or Jews."

2. How ridiculous Prohibition was, and that it lasted for 13 years! "The 1920s was in many ways the most strange and wondrous decade in American history, and nothing made it more so than Prohibition. It was easily the most extreme, ill-judged, costly, and ignored experiment in social engineering ever conducted by an otherwise rational nation... It made criminals out of honest people and actually led to an increase in the amount of drinking in the country."

3. That Babe Ruth was a hot mess. "The most brilliant, headstrong, undisciplined, lovable, thrillingly original, ornery son of a bitch that ever put on a baseball uniform."

4. How widespread bigotry was. "Of all the labels that were applied to the 1920s -- the Jazz Age, the Roaring 20s, the Age of Ballyhoo, the Era of Wonderful Nonsense -- one that wasn't used but perhaps should have been was the Age of Loathing. There may never have been another time in the nation's history when more people disliked more other people from more directions and for less reason." 

5. The incredible impact that American films had, especially after talking pictures were created. "Moviegoers around the world suddenly found themselves exposed, often for the first time, to American voices, American vocabulary, American cadence and pronunciation and word order. Spanish conquistadores, Elizabethan courtiers, figures from the Bible were suddenly speaking in American voices — and not just occasionally but in film after film after film. The psychological effect of this, particularly on the young, can hardly be overstated. With American speech came American thoughts, American attitudes, American humor and sensibilities. Peacefully, by accident, and almost unnoticed, America had just taken over the world."

I listened to 70 percent of this book on audio CD, and then my car CD player broke. While I enjoyed finishing up with a printed copy, I did miss Bryson's voice. If you like audiobooks, I highly recommend his narrations.

I've lost track of how many Bill Bryson books I've read, but it's never enough. I love his humorous and clever style, and I hope he keeps writing for several more decades.