book reviews by Althea

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Fitcher’s Brides – Gregory Frost ****

This book is quite radically different from the other entries in Terri Windling’s ‘Fairy Tale Series.’ Most of the other books Windling selected stayed much closer to the classic feel of fairy tales in their retellings. I knew that, from what I’d read in other reviews, and for that reason waited quite a while to get around to reading this – the description just didn’t appeal to me that much.

However, now I’m sorry I didn’t give it a chance earlier! No, this book doesn’t have that ‘fairy-tale’ feel to it – but it’s a damn good book.

It retells the tale of Bluebeard – so the reader knows from the start this isn’t going to be a pleasant story.
Set in 19th-century America, Frost gives us an apocalyptic cult which has set up a compound in upstate New York. A widower has been converted by his new wife, and he relocates, bringing his three unmarried daughters, to join the utopian community. The family falls under the spell of the charismatic preacher that leads the cult – and of, course, it’s an honor one can’t refuse when the leader chooses the oldest daughter to be his bride.
You know bad things are coming when one of the cult members mutters, “she’s not the first, and she won’t be the last…”
And, of course, things degenerate to the exact opposite of a utopia…

Frost is an excellent writer. I found the setting and the characters to be completely convincing, even when they were acting against all reason. He portrayed the cult mentality in a way that felt utterly believable.
Almost 5 stars, but I felt that the demonic denouement didn’t flow smoothly from the events leading up to it. It was a bit much, in an effort to give it a Big, Dramatic ending. (Kind of like how I feel about the ending of Foucault’s Pendulum – which is also an excellent book.) I’d still recommend this.


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The Safe-Keeper’s Secret – Sharon Shinn *****

Highly recommended for anyone who loves mythic fiction and fairy tales. Like many books in this genre, this was marketed as YA, but is really a book for all ages – at no point did I feel that it was ‘juvenile’ in any way, although it does have a definite ‘coming-of-age’ theme.

Set in a rural (English? Medieval?) village, it posits a world where each village has a Safe-Keeper and a Truth-Teller, and somewhere, in the world, there is a Dream-Maker.
Fiona’s mother is a Safe-Keeper – a person whom everyone entrusts with their secrets, who is bound never to tell them, no matter what – and Fiona desires nothing more than to follow in her footsteps. However, the local Truth-Teller – a person who is similarly honor-bound to say nothing but the truth, and to tell even the hard and difficult truths – tells her that such is not her destiny.

Beautifully written and emotionally satisfying, the novel follows Fiona and her family through hard times and hard decisions.

There are two sequels to this book, but this works as a stand-alone novel, complete in itself.

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The Eight – Katherine Neville *

I read a review of this book online that led me to believe I might enjoy it. I ordered it – and when I got the book in the mail, I saw that the cover blurb read something like, “If you loved the Da Vinci Code, you’ll love The Eight.”
“OH NO,” I said. Because I certainly did NOT love the Da Vinci Code (although it is, admittedly, the best of Dan Brown’s shoddily researched and crappily written novels.)
Nevertheless, I read this book; cover blurbs are not always correct. Unfortunately, in this case, it was absolutely correct. It was very similar to Dan Brown’s writing, both in style and content.
If you are into unlikely and ridiculous conspiracy theories that don’t stand up to a bit of logical thought, and have a lot of time to kill, go for it.

(My problem is that I really like novels that involve conspiracies – but I have absolutely no patience for conspiracy theories.)

The premise is that Catherine Velis, a computer expert at the top of her field (or so we are told – not ONCE in the VERY LONG book does she do anything, or even THINK in such a way that would indicate she knows anything about computers), is sent to Algeria on assignment. Her antique-dealing friend takes advantage of this to try to get her to acquire some rare chess pieces while she is there.

Meanwhile, back in the 18th century, two young novice nuns (yes, this is an excuse for some unnecessary but oddly understated trashiness) are asked by their abbess to participate in hiding the Very Same chess pieces, which everyone is out to get – because they are imbued with Magical Powers which will allow the owner of the whole chess set to Take Over the World.

Poorly written. Characters that seem to have their attributes assigned to them by dice roll. Historically inaccurate. Unnecessarily long. Trashy, but not trashy enough to be titillating. Unconvincing fantasy elements. Plot elements that don’t stand up to any sort of analysis. Boring.

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Fantasy, the Best of the Year 2008 – Rich Horton, ed.

Above-average collection of short stories. Most are ‘modern’ rather than ‘classic’ fantasy.

“Unpossible” by Daryl Gregory
“Light” by Kelly Link
“The Teashop” by Zoran Zivkovic
“The Rope” by Noreen Doyle
“Buttons” by William Alexander
“Brother of the Moon” by Holly Phillips
“A Diorama of the Infernal Regions” by Andy Duncan
“Heartstrung” by Rachel Swirsky
“Something in the Mermaid Way” by Carrie Laben
“Public Safety” by Matthew Johnson
“Stray” by Benjamin Rosenbaum and David Ackert
“The Comb” by Marly Youmans
“Sir Hereward and Mister Fitz Go to War Again” by Garth Nix
“The Last Worders” by Karen Joy Fowler
“Singing of Mount Abora” by Theodora Goss
“Save Me Plz” by David Barr Kirtley
“Bufo Rex” by Erik Amundsen
“The Master Miller’s Tale” by Ian R. MacLeod
“The Cambist and Lord Iron: a Fairy Tale of Economics” by Daniel Abraham

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Chill – Elizabeth Bear **

(Jacob’s Ladder, #2)

I really enjoyed the first book in this series, “Dust.” I very much liked the juxtaposition of the near-derelict generation ship with the mythology that has grown up around its technologies, and the complex, ‘old-fashioned’ court hierarchies of the society.
Unfortunately, I didn’t feel that “Chill” lived up to the first book’s promise. I just wasn’t sucked back into the world. The plot kind of meandered, and while there were some interesting ideas and imagery, I didn’t feel any tension or driving drama… it was a bit of a slog to get through it.

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We – Yevgeny Zamyatin ****

I really wish I’d had the opportunity to read this book back at the age of 12 or 13 or so, when I discovered 1984 and Brave New World. I enjoyed reading this book now – but I would have been passionate about it then.

Either way, this ranks up there with the best of the classic dystopian novels. It’s an incisive indictment of totalitarian states, filled with black humor and disturbing tragedy.

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After the Quake – Haruki Murakami ****

This short book is a collection of six short stories, thematically linked – all take place shortly after the 1995 Kobe earthquake. All display Murakami’s masterful writing. Technically, the book probably deserves 5 stars, but somehow, I found myself only liking it 4-stars’ worth. Which is still excellent.
As in much of Murakami’s writing, the characters here are ‘floaty,’ hard to pin down or grasp.

UFO in Kushiro.
The main character here is the literal embodiment of this aspect of Murakami’s characters. His wife has left him because, she says, being married to him is like being married to “a chunk of air.” A friend asks him to deliver a package, which seems to be a pretext to get him to meet a couple of sexy young women… but abruptly the narrative shifts to a musing on identity and loss.

Landscape with Flatiron
The title embodies Murakami’s frequent juxtaposition of the surreal and the mundane. A young woman who has run away to live with her loser boyfriend is strangely drawn to an eccentric older man who is obsessed with lighting bonfires. Eloquent, depressing and shocking.

All God’s Children Can Dance
The main character’s mother, an eccentric born-again, has always claimed that he was the product of an immaculate conception. Unsurprisingly, he doubts this, and when he randomly encounters a man who fits the description of one of his mother’s pre-conversion lovers, he follows and stalks the man. Again, it deals with issues of identity.

A businesswoman on the verge of a nervous breakdown vacations in Thailand. Her hired driver, she learns, was the private chauffeur of a Norwegian man for over thirty years. Now that his employer has died, his identity is oddly truncated. Reminiscent of ‘The Remains of the Day.’

Super-Frog Saves Tokyo
The only story here with ‘fantasy’ elements – although it could all be a drug-induced delirium. An ordinary businessman is approached by a human-sized, talking frog and told that he is the only one who can possibly save Tokyo from a devastating earthquake, if he assists the frog on his heroic and probably-doomed quest. Absurd, but touching, as it discusses what it means to rise above.

Honey Pie
Three friends meet in college. Both men fall in love with the woman… but one has the personality of taking what he wants, while the other tends to defer. Years pass, the relationships continue, odd and complicated.