book reviews by Althea

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Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti – Genevieve Valentine ***

There were things I liked about this book… and there were things that annoyed me about this book.
I felt as if any Readers Advisory Service out there would say? What? You loved China Mieville’s ‘The Scar?’ and you loved Erin Morgenstern’s “The Night Circus?” Well then, HAVE I GOT A BOOK FOR YOU! And I have to say… “but…no.”
This book does indeed have many of the elements that I’ve loved from both of those books. Grotesquely mechanically enhanced people. A circus with performers who do not die. A land torn by conflict. Lots of ambiguity, lots of metaphor.
But somehow, it just didn’t come together for me, emotionally or intellectually, like the other two books. (This book was actually published slightly before The Night Circus, the authors were probably working on the books at the same time, so I do not actually think one imitated another; they just happen to have many of the same elements and themes.)
I’ve spent some time now thinking about why it didn’t wholly come together for me.
Part of it was aesthetic. I really did not like how the author keeps taking time out to refer to the reader as “you.” I felt like it was a device intended to lure me into the story; which had the opposite effect, and pushed me out of the story… with feelings of aggravation.
The other thing was that: Mechanical enhancements are usually about ingenuity, technology, the uses and misuses of physical ability. Here, they are not. The enhancements/mutilations as they function in this story, are fully and completely magical. There is no reason, plotwise, for them to be mechanical; they don’t actually function as if they are mechanical.
I also was just not drawn in by the love/hate conflict over “who gets the wings.” I didn’t feel it. Many of the characters were too vaguely drawn. (For example: we know Elena is a cruel bitch, because we are told how mean she is ad infinitum. But I did not once notice, or feel, her being particularly cruel.) I wanted to know the characters as people; to know what drove them to their extreme decisions. Instead they felt like stock characters in fairy tales. The time and place are ambiguous – and I liked that – but I felt like it needed some sharply human figures to anchor it.
On the other hand, there were things about the book I liked very much. I thought that the war-torn land, in near-eternal conflict, with the circus endlessly making its circuit, worked very well. I ended up really liking the Boss – and the thwarted feelings of her musician for her were understated and effective. Nice themes of dependency, independence, sacrifice, oppression, responsibility, loyalty. And the final conflict, where it comes down to a choice between letting herself and those who personally depend on her die… or potentially destroying all of her larger dreams – it’s horribly effective.


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Distrust That Particular Flavor – William Gibson ****

With this book, Gibson reminds me, yet again, how much, and why, I love him.
So many times, in this book, I found myself saying, “Yes! Exactly! I’ve thought that before – but never quite so clearly; I never would have expressed it just like that…” His writing brings concepts into focus, vague idea suddenly cohere…
This is a book collecting the non-fiction writing that Gibson’s published over his career, with brief introductions/thoughts on the pieces. There’s not a lot of it; and some of the selections are a little peculiar (like introductions to other books, which feel slightly bizarre, out of context.) I’m also not sure that the order of the pieces, as presented here, really makes sense or adds to the experience.
However, all of it is worth reading, both as good writing, and out of historical interest. It also provides insight into Gibson, both philosophically, and as a writer.
Recommended for his fans.

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Spartacus: The Gladiator – Ben Kane **

I received this book through a First Reads giveaway.

I entered the giveaway because: I like historical fiction, I like the Roman era, and I’ve been enthused about the story of Spartacus lately due to the excellent TV show. I was interested in seeing another take on the story.

I’ll start with the good. Ben Kane writes action scenes, violence, and military tactics very well. This sort of thing, on the written page, often bores me; I often have trouble picturing exactly what’s happening or I just don’t find it intriguing. This was not the case here. Every fight (and there are many) comes vividly to life; you can picture every blood splatter and move.

Other than that, the writing’s not amazing. The characters felt rather flat, like they were just being put through the historical moves of what is known (or presumed) of the story. The one really “new” addition is that of the character of Carbo, a young Roman whose family has fallen on hard times, who sells himself into slavery at the ludus where Spartacus is also imprisoned, and becomes one of Spartacus’ men. But overall, I found myself asking – “Why another version of Spartacus’ story? What new does this add?”

I do not object to violence against women occurring in books. I am perfectly aware, as the author tells us in this book in pretty much every chapter, that rape is a part of war. However, there is not a single woman in this book – not even one glimpsed in passing, or obliquely referred to – who is not a rape victim, a whore, or both. It’s not just that this is a book mainly about men, there are plenty of rape victims and whores hereabouts. It began to bother me a bit about half way through – and then another female character was raped, to death this time. Basically, women show up in this book to get raped, and then men can be affected by that (but not TOO affected). Oh, there’s one woman that can be a mystic, inspiring priestess when she’s not busy getting raped. But there are no female characters in this book who are there to have any opinions, agency, or to do anything except be victims. It gets tiresome. And no, the story, time period, and setting does NOT demand this. (See: the Spartacus TV show, or the probably-thousands of historical novels set in Roman times that feature interesting, well-rounded characters of differing genders.)

On top of that… the story ends in the middle. Yes, there’s to be a sequel. So it just kind of fizzled out at an unexpected juncture. Rather unsatisfying.

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The Bourne Identity – Robert Ludlum ****

Never seen the movie; figured I’d read the book instead. Never read anything by Ludlum at all, and since he’s sold umpteen billion copies and spawned a posthumous industry, I thought I should see what it’s all about.
I was pleasantly surprised – I enjoyed the book very much. It’s a thriller that keeps you guessing, with lots of twists and turns. I appreciated (especially after reading the execrable ‘The Eight’) that the female lead was an intelligent woman who actually seemed to KNOW about the field that we are told she is an expert in (economics, in this case.)
Yes, there are a lot of Very Unlikely occurrences in this book, and elements that might not stand up to too much detailed analysis. The writing also had a tendency to get a bit much (too many exclamation points!!!) But as a fun, entertaining thriller, it worked very well.

I may buy the sequel, next time I run across a copy in a bargain bin.

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The Duke’s Ballad – Andre Norton *

I feel bad about giving this book one star, but I’ve decided not to finish it. That very rarely happens. But… it’s been over a week, I’m over half-way through, and I keep picking up other books instead.
I don’t find myself even minutely caring what happens to any of the characters. I can barely picture who the characters are; they’re so bland and generic.
What happened? I used to love the Witch World series! I loved Andre Norton in general.
In part, it’s that 25 years have passed. In a larger part, I believe, it’s that this book isn’t by Andre Norton at all.

Slightly funny: The day I started reading this book, the guy was looking over my shoulder. It might have been the first page: “Silly child. You won’t be able to move until I release you from my spell… The captive gasped defiantly, and Kirion snickered… At some stage in the proceedings, the girl lost consciousness.”
He said, “Wow, that is SO badly written. Who is that by?”
I said, “some lady from New Zealand.”
He said, “Are there sheep?”
I said, “No, this is a fantasy book.”
The sheep showed up, I believe, on page 54. It was an off-screen appearance, but still….

Anyway, there’s a girl, she’s secretly a witch, and she must endeavour to stop her evil brother, with the help of her nice brother.
I don’t know if she succeeds or not, but it seems likely that she will.

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The Windup Girl – Paolo Bacigalupi *****

What? I haven’t said anything about this book yet?
I’ve now read this book for two different book clubs. And I’m working on reading everything that Bacigalupi’s ever published. The Windup Girl won the Hugo and the Nebula, and well-deserved both.

What makes this book so excellent?
Well, first, it posits a frightening, fully believable, and wholly realized future. Set an indeterminate amount of time from now, not all the details are filled in. The Expansion (a time period that we’re obviously in right now) has occurred, followed by the Contraction (a period of economic and ecological collapse), and now it’s been long enough that some people have schemes and dreams of rebuilding… but things potentially are just getting worse. What I like about the setting is that although not every detail is IN the book, you get the impression that they EXIST. Wars have occurred, names of countries have changed, crises have happened elsewhere, offstage… All the action takes place in the context of a world, not a little narrative bubble.

Bacigalupi also excels at portraying the intersection of individual and culture. All his people have depth of character as individuals, but their actions and behaviors are also informed not only by their circumstances but by their cultural background and/or group identity.  Nearly all of the characters in the book are reprehensible people, who do unforgivable things. As a reader, however, you can’t help feeling empathy, or at least, understanding, for nearly all of them, because their motivations make sense. Everyone in this book has a believable reason for behaving in the way that they do. Circumstance drives people to do as they do, and if you want to survive in this world, you have to have an eye for the main chance.

I don’t think that a description of all the main characters is called for. The book reveals them. But it’s unavoidable to mention the titular character, Emiko. A character genetically engineered and trained to be a slave and a sex toy. The mere premise causes a knee-jerk reaction in some people, and admittedly, doing this right could be hard to pull off. However, Bacigalupi does a fantastic job with her character. (I have to note here that any ‘reviewer’ who refers to Emiko as a “robot” did not actually read the book.) In creating her, and depicting what happens to her, he harshly criticizes some very real aspects of certain cultures which fully warrant that criticism, and does so fairly and accurately. (Not one culture or group in this book gets a pass, or is portrayed as ‘good’ – just about everyone has somehow been complicit in bringing the world to where it is.) But Emiko also exists not just as a political statement but as a fully realized, sympathetic character. Like all of us, she is torn between one instinct and another, conflicted, having to endure, able to find hidden reserves of strength to survive. She also shows us that whatever people try to do to humanity, people will always strive for freedom. And she also, finally, tells us that although technology may be the instrument and cause of our downfall, it also may be the only slim straw of our hope.

The book is not without aspects that I quibble with. One of the main premises of the book is that food is in short supply, and energy is measured in calories. People are described as on the brink of starvation. However, the book itself is FULL of food. People are constantly walking through markets full of fruits and vegetables, stopping at noodle stands, eating, eating eating. It undercuts the stated scarcity of food when you’re seeing food everywhere. Also as far as the calories – I love the megadonts. It makes cultural sense that the Thai would want to genetically engineer giant elephants. BUT – how are they feeding them? Do you really get enough work out of feeding them to justify the expense? (That’s actually already an issue with today’s, smaller elephant in Southeast Asia.)

I loved that the book takes place in Thailand. In reality, Thailand is the only Asian kingdom that has continually maintained its independence and never fallen to an invader or colonial forces. It makes sense that in the future, they could be a last holdout, maintaining strength in isolation, protecting their heritage even while torn by internal conflict.

I didn’t actually have a problem with the imaginary kink-spring tech. It’s something people are working on. (—articles/articles/nanotechnology/carbon-nanotube-super-springs)

Bacigalupi obviously thinks genetically modified foods are a threat. I’d say he’s far more against them than I am. But, hey, it is entirely possible that Monsanto (oh, I mean AgriGen) could and would create genetically engineered crop plagues that would force industries worldwide to rely on their products. It’s not the technology, it’s about the use to which the technology is put. And, I suppose, if you believe that technology will never be put to its worst possible use, you have rosier view of human nature than either I or Bacigalupi has. There’s an inevitability there… OK, I’m rambling. But, yay, seedbanks! Yay crop diversity! And yay, rambutans!

Go read this book. And then go read Pump Six.

Addendum: I think everyone should also read Apatt’s review,

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Companions on the Road – Tanith Lee ****

Really, nice, really well-written quest fantasy in the classic vein. Three unlikely companions, all with different motivations, end up looting a chalice from the sacked city of Avillis.
On the road, however, they come to know that the chalice is cursed.
Will the soldier Havor be able to fulfill his vow to a dying companion; to bring money to his destitute family? Or has he met his doom with the ill-advised theft?

Tanith Lee’s writing brings a richness and depth to this type of story that’s rarely seen. However, this book is very, very short. (This edition only contains the one story.) It’s really a novella, not an novel.