book reviews by Althea

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The Great Divorce – Valerie Martin ***

Picked this up after enjoying Martin’s ‘Mary Reilly.’
‘The Great Divorce’ is a very well-crafted book. However, it’s not really what I would describe as enjoyable experience. A worthwhile one, certainly, but it creates a difficult atmosphere.
The stories of three women are told here: Ellen, a veterinarian at the zoo, enjoys a typical middle-class lifestyle – but her life seems happier from the outside. Her marriage is crumbling – her philandering husband has finally decided to leave her for a younger woman, and her daughter is emotionally traumatized by this and acting out. Meanwhile, all the animals at the zoo are dying of mysterious ailments.
Camille is an assistant at the same zoo, but to her Ellen’s lifestyle seems glamorously unattainable. Camille is desperately lonely, and desperate to be loved, but only knows how to express that by sleeping with men that most women wouldn’t even consider. She lives with her abusive, controlling mother, and sees no way out.
Meanwhile, back in the pre-Civil War South, Elisabeth, a young aristocrat, thinks she has her future husband wrapped around her finger – until after the marriage, when she finds herself trapped with a man capable of unspeakable cruelties.

The third story, to me, was by far the most interesting, but it was only tied to the first two by the concept that Ellen’s husband is researching the historical crime that involved Elisabeth. (And, of course, by the themes of the stories). It felt a little awkwardly meshed.
All three women are, somehow, involved with big cats. I’d say there’s a commentary here on the frequent erotic association of women with cats (such as in ‘Cat People’)… but this is a very cynical, non-erotic, and depressing take on the association.


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Lady of the Reeds – Pauline Gedge *****

Long eons ago, in the days when the Internet was just something called Usenet… before amazon. before paperbackswap. before goodreads… back in Those Days, I made a special trip, while in Canada, to the bookstore. I’m pretty sure it was the World’s Biggest Bookstore (yes, that’s its name). And I bought every single one of Pauline Gedge’s books, and brought them all home with me. Very heavy.
I never really did understand why Gedge is so popular in her home, Canada, and completely unpublicized in the US. Now, of course, you can get any book online – if you know about it – but I fail to see why publishers have seemingly believed that people in the USA are significantly more uninterested in nice, juicy historical fiction about Ancient Egypt than their neighbors to the north.

Anyway, this was a re-read. I’d previously read it under the Canadian title, “House of Dreams.”
I have to admit, reading it this time, it did feel slightly dated, just in the way characters interacted. I also felt mildly annoyed at having a blue-eyed protagonist (you can’t really call her a heroine) in ancient Egypt. Yes, it’s explained and all… but post-Memoirs-of-a-Geisha, I guess I just feel differently about it.
But I’m still giving it 5 stars, because I just really enjoy Gedge’s writing. She manages just the right balance between historically researched details and vivid speculation; really bringing the era to life.
Lady of the Reeds is based on a known incident of a plot to assassinate Ramses III. However, the concubine Thu is all her creation. Starting out as a commoner, daughter of a foreigner in a small town in Egypt, Thu has always felt she is destined for greater things. Hungry for knowledge and power, she will scheme and plot to feed her ambition. She’s a ruthless, and not necessarily likable character, but her story is compelling.

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The Age of Miracles – Karen Thompson Walker ***

A Post-Apocalyptic Book Club Selection.
I enjoyed this book; it was a bit different than your typical apocalyptic novel. No rough men marching the wastelands here, no cannibal gangs desperate for survival.
Instead, we see the slow apocalypse through the eyes of a young girl. For the young, everything is new… so the gradual falling apart of civilization is somehow equivalent to the more mundane traumas of adolescence.
The earth’s rotation is slowing, and in many ways this is a slow-moving book. it’s also sweet and evocative. I felt like the author is probably referencing tropes of a whole genre of books that I don’t really read… mainstream literary fiction that’s kind of woman-oriented and deals with quotidian drama, perhaps? She’s taking this and meshing it with the end of the world… and overall, I felt that it worked.
I particularly liked how, faced with an inevitable disaster of unprecedented scope, society here starts focusing on completely inconsequential things (such as which hours of a lengthened day people choose to sleep)and basing hatred and bigotry on these things. So typical.
However, the book doesn’t give a wholly negative view on humanity – there are heartbreakingly touching moments, as well an effective depiction of the drive to persevere, even in the face of hopelessness.

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Dreamsongs – George R.R. Martin *****

(Review of both Book One and Book Two)
Got both of these anthologies from the library. Together, they’re a great retrospective of Martin’s career.
They’re worth reading, for any Martin fan, even completists who’ve already read nearly everything in them, as Martin introduces and arranges the contents. His commentary on the stories is worth the price of admission alone.
It starts off with a hilarious (and, admittedly, hilariously bad) fantasy story first published in an independent fanzine when Martin was a teen… and quickly moves into his excellent sci-fi and horror stories, includes some TV scripts, and more recent short fiction. Nearly all of it is 5-star material, with, (in my opinion) the exception of the ‘Wild Cards’ material… but that’s just me; I’m just not a fan of the superhero genre, even when it’s well-done, socially relevant and gritty as hell. I just can’t force myself to love it.
That’s OK, though, because I love everything else here – and that’s a lot to love – this collection is two big, thick books. Go read.

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Sandry’s Book – Tamora Pierce ***

(Circle of Magic, #1)

I felt that this book started very, very strongly – enough so that I ordered up the 3 sequels when I was only about a third of the way through it.
Unfortunately, I felt that as the story progressed, it got much more formulaic – a group of young people are brought to a magic school by a mysterious but wise mentor, and each discovers that one ‘element’ of nature is their particular specialty, as far as magical talent.
Feel like you might have read something like that before? Probably.
However, the tale-telling is both charming and entertaining enough that I do plan on reading all 3 sequels. They go quickly, too.

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The Repentant – Brian M. Thomsen, ed.

Saw this and said, “oh, horror anthology, Nina Kiriki Hoffman, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, I’ll check it out.”
The theme of the book is that the “monsters” are actually the good guys, or at least sympathetic to some degree, so it’s not really a very ‘horrific’ book.
Some of the stories are OK, some really not so good; none of them really made a lasting impression. If Goodreads had half stars, this would be a 2.5.

Lycanthrope summer / Jeff Grubb
The Salem trial / Jody Lynn Nye
The den mother / Edo van Belkom
Brothers in the flesh / Fiona Patton
Heat / Jean Rabe
She dwelleth in the cold of the moon / James Lowder
Sceleratus / Tanya Huff
Slaughter / P.N. Elrod
A Hollywood tradition / Brian M. Thomsen
Intercession / Chelsea Quinn Yarbro
The devil you know / Nina Kiriki Hoffman
The recall of Cthulhu / Tom Dupree
Redeemed / Allen C. Kupfer.