book reviews by Althea

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The Reptile Room – Lemony Snicket ***

(A Series of Unfortunate Events, #2)

I feel it would not have been inappropriate for a publisher to have mushed all 13 books in this series into one volume. Then I would have just powered through it.
As it is, I’ve been trying to pick them up, but I don’t have them all in order, and I’m not SO thrilled with them that I feel motivated to go acquire all of them.
So now, I’ve read two. I have a couple more that come later in the series floating around.

This second “chapter” in the story finds our Unfortunate Orphans at a seeming upswing… they’ve escaped their evil cousin Count Olaf, and have been placed in the care of their uncle, a kindly herpetologist.
Fun and interesting activities are promised, such as taking care of unusual reptiles and amphibians, and even a trip to Peru… but of course, things are bound to go wrong.


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Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman – Haruki Murakami *****

Wonderful, surreal, dreamlike… Murakami excels at the art of the short story; and I’d definitely recommend this book as a good introduction to his work.

Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman – One of the more surrealist works here. A young man has to take his younger cousin to a doctor’s appointment – which leads him to recall visiting a friend in the hospital, years before. I know that doesn’t sound surreal… but you have to read it.

Birthday Girl – Stuck working on her birthday, a young waitress is called upon to bring the reclusive restaurant owner his dinner. And she’s offered a gift, of sorts. What is it? Don’t expect to find out.

New York Mining Disaster – A young man who owns no formal suit has to borrow one five times in one year from his friend who likes to go visit zoos during typhoons – each time for a funeral. Then, a woman at a party tells him she killed someone. Then, a vignette related to the title. OK, I gotta admit this one did not make logical sense, unless you look at reading a story in much the same was as one might experience listening to experimental jazz. Which, I suspect, might very well be how Murakami looks at stories, at times.
Aeroplane:Or, How He Talked to Himself as If Reciting Poetry – A man is having an affair with an older,married woman. She tends to cry mysteriously. She tells him he talks to himself, although he’s not aware of doing so. More surrealism.

The Mirror – A nightwatchman has a supernatural(?) experience. Can’t say too much about it without giving it away, but yes, there’s a mirror, and this is hands down one of the best ‘ghost stories’ I’ve ever read.

A Folklore for My Generation: A Prehistory of Late-Stage Capitalism – In college, the narrator always thought that two of his classmates seemed to be the most perfect students – and naturally, they seemed to share a perfect relationship. However, when he meets one of those classmates, years later, he hears the story from a different point of view.

Hunting Knife – At a vacation resort, a man on vacation with his wife notices a strange couple of guests staying at the same hotel: an elderly mother and her disabled son. Again, a story that’s weirder than you might think.

A Perfect Day for Kangaroos – Sometimes, you should do something immediately, and not wait for the perfect day, because then, it’ll be too late. But after all, if it’s too late, life goes on.

Dabchick – This one crosses the line from surreal into absurd. It really sounds like one of those dreams that you have that make total sense while you’re dreaming it, but after you wake up you realize it was completely ridiculous. I would totally have this dream, too, since I really need a better job right now.

Man-Eating Cats – A couple have an affair. When it’s discovered, their marriages end, and they take off to Greece. But sitting pointlessly in Greece isn’t necessarily as idyllic as it might seem. And it might end up stranger than you expect.

A ‘Poor Aunt’ Story – A meta-story about the writing process. Not my favorite in the collection. (But not bad enough to cause a star-docking).

Nausea 1979 – It might be a horror story about a man suffering a curse. Or it might not. There is, indeed, vomiting, either way.

The Seventh Man – “In my case, it was a wave,” he said. “There’s no way for me to tell, of course, what it will be for each of you. But in my case it just happened to take the form of a gigantic wave. It presented itself to me all of a sudden one day, without warning, in the shape of a giant wave. And it was devastating.”
This is the story of that typhoon, and what was lost, and the trauma following. Again, I’m tempted to classify this as a ‘ghost story’ – and to put it up there with the best of them.

The Year of Spaghetti – A guy cooks spaghetti for a year and it is lonely and depressing. “Thinking about spaghetti that boils eternally but is never done is a sad, sad thing.”

Tony Takitani – The moral of the story is: Don’t try to get your wife to give up shopping, ’cause then she’ll end up dead; it will be your fault, and what the hell are you going to do with all her clothes then?
You’ll be sorry!
OK, maybe that’s not actually the moral. It’s actually a pretty emotionally harrowing, bizarre, and interesting piece.

The Rise and Fall of Sharpie Cakes – Very similar to ‘Dabchick’ in tone and feel. Both stories even have bizarre and supernatural birds. And I can tell you without a shadow of a doubt that Murakami doesn’t think much of marketing conferences, and is not going to ‘sell out.’

The Ice Man – None of her friends want her to marry the Ice Man. Is he even human? Why does she love him? But she plows on ahead, and it’s even her idea to move with him to Antarctic climes. It might not have been a good idea, however.

Crabs – Aww! I think trying strange restaurants in foreign countries is an excellent idea; and one of the most fun parts of travelling! Don’t let this story scare you off! (It’s pretty effectively scary!) I’ve got a feeling Murakami got a bad case of food poisoning at some point…

Firefly – This story ended up being part of the novel ‘Norwegian Wood.’ I think it worked better in the context of the novel than as a short story – so go read the book!

Chance Traveller – Jazz, and coincidences. The torn relationship between a brother and sister is mended by events that seem like more than mere synchronicity.

Hanalei Bay – A Japanese woman’s only son is killed by a shark, and she feels driven to travel and see, and understand the surfing community where he died.

Where I’m Likely to Find It – An investigator is hired (?) to look into the disappearance of a woman’s husband from the stairwell of his own apartment building. But what is he really investigating?

The Kidney-Shaped Stone That Moves Every Day – A man, strangely obsessed with a one-time statement from his father that every man will only have three women of tru significance to him in his life, finds himself in a relationship with a women who won’t tell him what she does for a living. He won’t find out until after she has left his life.

A Shinagawa Monkey – A woman begins to have bizarre episodes of forgetting her own name. It’s only her name – she doesn’t seem to be losing track of anything else. Doctors and psychologists won’t help her, as the problem is too odd, and not that severe, by their lights. But then she finds a counselor who can track this down to the source…

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Earthman, Come Home – James Blish **

Did-not-finish. (Read to page 118.)
Usually, I’d give only one star to a did-not-finish, but there’s nothing about this book that has aggravated me; I have no strong criticism. It just has failed to hold my interest. I started reading some Haruki Murakami short stories and can’t bring myself to pick this back up.

I hadn’t read any Blish in probably 25 years – since I was really into reading Star Trek novelizations. As far as I recall, his Star Trek books were OK – some of the first ones – but not the best ones, even back then.

I rather feel that when people criticize science fiction as a genre, they’re talking about books like this (if they know what they’re talking about.) It features lack of significant characterization, a plot that’s a series of events rather than a dramatic structure, and a concentration on ideas rather than story. And they’re some quite half-baked ideas too. Socially, it also feels extremely dated (as if everyone in the future is still living in an imaginary 1950’s). I’d blame the time period – but I just read some Theodore Sturgeon, written around the same time period, and the guy doesn’t fall victim to that trap in the slightest, so… yeah, this book just isn’t very good.

The concept is that anti-gravity is invented, which causes cities (as a group) to lift themselves off the face of the earth and to function as mercenary spaceships-for hire. This means that the Mayor of New York (just Manhattan) is now essentially a spaceship captain. Interstellar travel and adventures ensue. Eh.

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Among Ohters – Jo Walton ****

I liked this book significantly more than I expected, from the descriptions I’d read. I’d also only read one Jo Walton book before, and felt a bit lukewarm about it – but ‘Among Others’ kept winning awards and garnering praise; so I suggested it for my book club.
Technically, this is a fantasy novel about a young girl, gifted with the ability to see fairies, who has recently saved the world in a magical confrontation that killed her twin sister, left her crippled, and tore apart her family.

However, it’s also an authentic, undoubtedly autobiographical story of growing up in Wales in the 1970’s as a smart, not-particularly-popular girl who’s a voracious reader and science-fiction fan.

I am sure that many of Walton’s readers can identify with her character in at least some ways, and yes, this may have something to do with this book’s accolades. As far as  the criticisms lobbed against the book that you have to have read the books the character reads to understand it – I disagree strongly. Admittedly, I have read a good chunk of them, but others in my book club discussion had not, and did not feel that they were missing anything: it’s all explained in context. It’s not so much about the books, as it is a vivid depiction of how an avid reader thinks: how daily events are recontextualized, explained, and enhanced by the content of recently read books; how books enrich life. I really enjoyed that aspect of the book.

It wasn’t a perfect book – some elements were a bit too wish-fulfillment-y, especially in the autobiographical context. (Wim is just too good to be true… a perfect guy, misunderstood by everyone else…) And bits of the plot kind of seemed tacked-on-as-excuse. But overall, reading this was a wonderful experience.

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The Dog Stars – Peter Heller ****

A post-apocalyptic book club selection!
The author is a writer for magazines like National Geographic Adventure (so I know I’ve probably read some of his writing before). He concentrates on outdoor & adventure writing, so the whole post-apocalyptic survival thing seems to come naturally. I felt that may of the details of flying a small plane, traveling through the wilds, etc felt like personal experience, and lent a sense of reality to the book.

The writing style is a very stream-of-consciousness flow, which varies depending on the emotional state of the narrator. I felt it was done very well. There seems to be a big trend in the post-apocalyptic genre toward non-standard language usage, and it often annoys me (see: The Road; The Book of Dave),but I just fell into this, and went with it.

As far as the plot – well, there are a lot of familiar elements. The holed-up-in-a-safe place trope, the fighting off mad gangs, the survivalist trek, the dealing-with-plagues, all that good stuff.

Two men have teamed up to try to survive in a violent world.
One has a small plane, one has weapons expertise (and is almost psychotically, defensively violent). They’ve been doing well, or at least as well as can be expected: they’re alive. But when the pilot’s aging dog dies, he sets out on an almost-surely-doomed expedition to try to find the source of a mysterious radio broadcast he’d heard years before.

In addition to the expected, though, there are also some really original and interesting elements here. I really liked some of the characterizations. I saw the book as a musing on what people need to survive, and an exploration of the theory that compassion must balance aggression, but that both are needed and essential parts of humanity.

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Samaria (1-5) – Sharon Shinn ****

Samaria Series

If all romance books were like these, I might consider myself to be a fan of romance novels in general.
The ‘Samaria’ series is primarily romance – but it’s balanced with enough other plot elements that it doesn’t get too tedious. They’re even frequently… romantic!… in a way that doesn’t (usually) make me want to strangle the characters! (They’re never explicit/erotic, though.)
I did read all five books back-to-back, which meant that some of the elements did get a little repetitive. Obviously, to a certain degree, Shinn found a formula and stuck with it. It wouldn’t have bothered me at all if I hadn’t been doing a Samaria marathon, though.
They are undeniably wish-fulfillment-based books. These are designed for women who think that having a drop-dead-gorgeous, preternaturally strong, winged lover who can pick you up and fly you through the sky is a super-sexy idea.
In tone and feel, I thought these were actually very similar to Anne McCaffrey’s Pern series. They’ve got the nominally sci-fi setting, the fantasy ‘feel,’ and the character-based plot elements, with a similar mix of action, politics and personal drama.
All of the books are fully stand-alone stories.

The angel Gabriel is set to become the next Archangel, as decreed by the voice of Jovah. However, before he ascends to his position of leadership, he must find the wife determined for him by his god – a woman named Rachel. Without an Angelica (the female counterpart to the Archangel), the complex acappella musical concert known as the Gloria cannot occur, and Jovah will rain destruction upon the land.
Being named Angelica is an honor that all girls dream of – so what could possibly go wrong? Plenty, if your destined bride belongs to a persecuted ethnic group, and has been sold into slavery – and bears no love toward angels.

Jovah’s Angel
Set around 100 years after the first book. In a dramatic beginning, the well-respected Archangel Delilah is crippled in a storm, her consort killed, and Jovah names a most unlikely successor to replace her: a shy, studious angel named Alleluia (or, informally, Alleya). Like in the previous book, Alleya must find her predestined mate – but Jehovah does not know his name, identifying him only as “son of Jeremiah.” Things are further complicated by Alleya’s growing feelings for the inventor Caleb (who makes a bunch of steampunk-y stuff). But Caleb cannot be her destined mate… can he?
Meanwhile, Delila must deal with her feelings of resentment, and learn to live without flying. But of course, she’ll find someone too – a man of the Edori (an ethnic group that resemble Jewish gypsies.)
Meanwhile – a big issue is going on. When the angels sing the songs that control the weather, often nothing happens. Climate change is leading to disaster.
I didn’t like this one quite as much as the first in the series, mainly because I wasn’t thrilled by the theme of industrialization going on in Samaria. Also, all the technological/sci-fi elements that were alluded to in the first book are made very clear in this story, and some of the mystery is lost. It won me over, after a while, though.

The Alleluia Files
A few hundred years have passed… The Archangel at this time, Bael, is cruel and harsh. He rules with a strong hand, and is secretly committing genocide against the Jacobites, claiming their heresies threaten the land. But – does he secretly know that their heretical stances regarding the god Jovah are true?
Far more than the other books, this one has a clear villain (Bael). However, the clear hero, the upstanding and just Jared, will make things right, if he can ever stop being too lazy to bother. He’ll be helped out by the angel Lucinda, who has grown up on an isolated island, far from the politics of the angel’s Aerie, and the strong-willed Tamar, a member of the heretic Jacobites.

The Archangel Gaaron has his life mate picked out for him by Jovah. Never before has an Edori woman been picked to be Angelica – but although Susannah has the implant that allows Jovah to track the people of Samaria, unlike the Edori, she has been raised by the Edori and identifies with them. She’s also only just broken up with her long term lover. (He was a big jerk though, so the reader is sure she will get over him.) She’s not at all sure she wants to be Angelica. (Sound familiar? Yeah.) This one is set far before all the other books. Like in the other books, there’s also a social problem to address while the romance is given time to develop: mysterious, disappearing invaders are attacking and burning the caravans of both Edori and Jansai, as well as isolated villages.
The day will be saved, and love will triumph.

After finishing the previous book in the series, I was thinking: “Hey, are we ever going to get to see the point of view of one of the oppressed Jansai women? Pretty much all the other ethnic groups in Samaria have been covcered by POV characters.” And, ta-da, here we are. Rebekah’s charcter is very well done, actually. She’s a rebellious girl in a repressive culture, but even after she falls in love with an angel, her ties to family and tradition hold her in a frighteningly realistic way. She also horribly underestimates her fate, if she’s caught…
Meanwhile, the title character, Elizabeth, becomes an angel-seeker – a woman who desires more than anything, to bear an angel child, and will do pretty much anything to further that goal. Again, the motivations here were really well portrayed.
Both women grow as individuals over the course of the book – and, of course, find love.

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E Pluribus Unicorn – Theodore Sturgeon *****

“Essay on Sturgeon” by Groff Conklin – Who is this guy and why on
earth did he write this introduction? It’s terrible. Complete with
gratuitous references to Sturgeon’s “lovely wife.” Thank goodness I’d
already read Sturgeon, or this intro might have turned me off…

“The Silken-Swift” – This is the story that justifies the cover art. I wouldn’t say that the cover is really very indicative of the overall content of the book; but this is, technically, a fairy-tale, with a unicorn. However, it’s more complex and disturbing than one might expect.

“The Professor’s Teddy-Bear” – an evil teddy bear gives a child waking dreams in which he kills people horribly. But are they dreams or visions of things to come?

“Bianca’s Hands” – a young man develops a disturbing obsession for a retarded woman. Things do not end up well.

“Saucer of Loneliness” – a UFO – or a message in a bottle? The only woman to have communicated with aliens refuses to tell what she has learned. Beautiful, powerful, and surprisingly positive…

“The World Well Lost” – Hard to talk about with spoilers… like so many short stories! Sad, revealing, and surprisingly sensitive.

“It Wasn’t Syzygy” – A man meets a woman who seems perfect for him – almost too perfect to be true. And, of course, there’s a reason.

“The Music” – A one-and-one-half-page long horror story. Creepy, for all its brevity!

“Scars” – A Western story… out on the range, one guy relates what it means to be called a ‘gentleman’ to another. Some good moments, but probably the weakest story of the collection.

“Fluffy” – May be the nastiest cat portrayed in fiction!

“The Sex Opposite” – A CSI-style tale of a medical examiner called in to investigate a brutal crime. Apparently, a pair of conjoined twins has been murdered, their bodies mutilated. But the events that unfold are even weirder that they initially appeared…

“Die, Maestro, Die!” – Jealousy and murder tear a jazz band apart…

“Cellmate” – You seriously, seriously do not want to be stuck in jail with this guy.

“A Way of Thinking” – A philosophical and nasty tale of a voodoo doll.

So – overall, I’d say this collection is mostly horror, with a bit of sci-fi & fantasy thrown in. However, it’s hard to convey in a brief summary how really good these stories are. Sturgeon was truly a master. It’s also remarkable how very non-dated most of them feel. Many of them could have been published this year: the characterization, the psychology, it all feels fresh and true. It’s hard to believe that these were published in the 40’s and 50’s.