readingtrance

book reviews by Althea


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New Terrors 1 – Ramsey Campbell, ed. ***

A horror anthology from 1980, which lived up to but did not exceed my expectations. Apparently some other editions included additional stories, but there are the ones that were in my copy:

The Stains · Robert Aickman – Long story, good build-up, quite creepy, but I thought the ending fell flat, and didn’t live up to the promise… A man grieving the death of his wife meets a mysterious young woman in a remote rural area, while visiting his brother, a noted specialist in lichens.

City Fishing · Steve Rasnic – Hey, this is back before he became Steve Rasnic Tem! Plays off both stereotypes about rural hicks and urban ghettos in an interesting way, but was only OK.

Yare · Manly Wade Wellman – A folklorist is tricked into becoming a monster hunter.

A Room with a Vie · Tanith Lee – Loved this. Not strikingly original, but a nice riff on the haunted-hotel-room theme.

Tissue · Marc Laidlaw – eh, not for me. Again, a nice psychological buildup regarding the interdependence of families, but the end relies solely on physical grossness, which makes it a little weak, to me.

Without Rhyme or Reason · Peter Valentine Timlett – Really well-done story, with some nice twists. A young woman is placed as a housekeeper of sorts to an eccentric, wealthy older woman. But when she discovers how many women have preceded her in this position, her fears are stoked.

Love Me Tender · Bob Shaw – This was the only story in this anthology I’d previously read. A nice horror riff on insect mimicry, in a remote shack down in the swamp. There’s a similar sci-fi story out there… which I’ve read at least twice, and now I have no idea what it was. Arg. I’m asking BookSleuth now…

Kevin Malone · Gene Wolfe – Thematically similar to the Timlett piece preceding it, but with shades of Beauty and the Beast. A young couple answer an ad for employment at a manor house. When they arrive, they are given anything most people would dream of… but yet, horror ensues. Well done.

Chicken Soup · Kit Reed – A story of a mama’s boy gone bad…

The Pursuer · James Wade – A man is convinced he has a stalker. But is is true, or paranoia?

The Spot · Dennis Etchison & Mark Johnson – A horror story about the emptiness of the entertainment industry, and ambition. Creepy, but I didn’t love it.

The Gingerbread House · Cherry Wilder – A woman goes to visit her brother, who’s rented a cute cottage in Germany. All seems idyllic… but, as it turns out, the woman is anorexic, her brother’s on the lam, and the house is haunted.

.220 Swift · Karl Edward Wagner – A Lovecraft-esque story of a rural town, and the beings that lurk in the forgotten tunnels underneath…

The Fit · Ramsey Campbell – A nasty witch who tries to control people by giving them handmade clothes freaks out a young man. Well, either it’s the witch, or his forbidden but blossoming attraction to his aunt. Take your pick.

Big Wheels: A Tale of the Laundry Game – Stephen King. Huh. I usually like King’s short stories, but this has got to be the poorest offering from him that I’ve read. A couple of hicks get drunk, drive around, and ambiguous weirdness ensues. It didn’t do it for me.

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Revenge of the Rose – Nicole Galland ***

I quite enjoyed this!
It reminded me a bit of a more adult version of Jane Yolen’s ‘Queen’s Own Fool,’ which I read recently. It’s likely less historically accurate, but I found the characters to be wonderfully vivid (if not quite ‘believable.’) This is historical fiction for readers who want a well-crafted, entertaining story. It won’t hold up if you’re nitpicky about “did that really happen,” but it’s got internal consistency.

Set in 13th-century Burgundy, the story involves a naive knight from a small town – and his friend, a traveling minstrel who happens to have the king’s ear, and a privileged position at court. The minstrel, Jouglet, schemes to bring the knight, Willem of Dole, to the king’s attention, and even aims to convince the king to marry Willem’s sister. But what are Jouglet’s real motivations?

Galland does a nice job of contrasting the ideals of ‘courtly love’ with the not-so-idealistic behaviors of the people of the court, all while crafting an absorbing story with plenty of romance and mystery.

I picked this up because of the Neal Stephenson cover blurb. The writing bears zero resemblance to anything Neal Stephenson has ever published, but I’m not sorry I read it!


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Across the Wall – Garth Nix ****

A re-read – due to my somehow forgetting to mark down that I’d read the book, and finding another copy at the thrift store for $1. The stories are good enough that I didn’t mind re-reading.

Nicholas Sayre and the Creature in the Case — This story features characters from the ‘Abhorsen’ series, but relates a stand-alone adventure. Nicholas gets involved with secret agents and has to save the aristocratic attendees of an annoying party from a vicious and magical creature from Across the Wall. Very action-oriented.

Under the Lake — What if the Lady of The Lake, of Arthurian legend, was an amoral, inhuman creature, interacting with Merlin for her own purposes?

Charlie Rabbit — A very sentimental, but effective story. Two boys are trapped in a bomb shelter after an air raid. The older boy tells his brother a story starring his toy rabbit to keep from panicking…

From the Lighthouse — I really like this one. A boorish developer arrives at a remote island that he has (possibly) purchased, with all kinds of plans to change it utterly. But a clever woman does not intend on letting her home be stolen from her community.

The Hill — Apparently, there was an objection to this story featuring Aboriginal Australian characters, and it got bowdlerized. I’d like to read the original. Still, it’s good. Thematically similar to the previous selection: a boy and his grandfather team up to prevent the boy’s father from selling the family land to developers.

Lightning Bringer — This one reminds me a bit of Charles deLint. A young man sees a girl he knows killed by lightning summoned by a strange drifter… There’s nothing he can do, but when the man arrives in town for the second time, and sets his sights on his girlfriend, he knows he has to somehow prevent a second crime.

Down to the Scum Quarter — A ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ story. If you remember the series, you’ll find this hilarious. If you don’t, you’ll probably be mystified.

Heart’s Desire — A story of doomed love between Merlin and his apprentice Nimue.

Hansel’s Eyes — A cyberpunk-ish, dystopian & futuristic Hansel and Gretel story, where the witch’s cabin is a video game store in a ghetto. Really quite creepy and disturbing.

Hope Chest — In a Old West town, a foundling girl has a mysterious legacy – that will help her to defeat evil, but lose her the ones that she loved.

My Really Epic New Fantasy Series — A brief, humorous speech given at a con. Not really necessary. But it’s only two pages.

Three Roses — A short-short with an authentic fairy-tale feel. A king high-handeldly demands ownership of a gardener’s roses, but they always fail to thrive…

Endings — Another short-short – but possibly the most powerful piece in the book. Love it.


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Mortal Suns – Tanith Lee ***

Tanith Lee is one of my favorite authors, but while this book isn’t bad, it’s also not one of her best.
This tale of a priestess’ life is interesting, but lacks forward motion, or any sense of urgency. Although technically a fantasy novel; it reads very much like a fictional historical biography.
In a land very much like ancient Greece, a girl is born to a royal princess – but she is born deformed. In shame, the princess sends her infant to the temple of a dark god, fully expecting her to die. But she lives; and when politics change at court, the young princess is summoned back – and embarks on a life of power and frustration, beginning with learning to walk…
(An absurdly detailed plot synopsis can be found here: http://concord.wikia.com/wiki/Mortal_Suns_%28novel%29)


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The Prisoner of Heaven – Carlos Ruiz Zafón *****

While I was reading this, my acquaintance saw me carrying it: “OOOOOhhh! A new Carlos Zafon book?!?!? When did it come out?!?!?! But… it’s so TINY!”
OK, it’s not really all that tiny, at 279 pages. But it is significantly shorter that either of the previous ‘Cemetery of Forgotten Books’ stories. It also reads much quicker – it almost feels like a TV episode, as opposed to a whole movie.
That said, I’m still opting to give it 5 stars, because I love these books. I love their feel, the atmosphere, the content… And, I suppose, “I wish it was longer” isn’t a very valid complaint.

This story concentrates on the character of Fermin and continues the romance we saw him start in Shadow of the Wind. A dark secret from his past turns up on the bookseller’s doorstep, and dredges up the terrible events that happened under Franco’s dictatorship.

Can Fermin trust his friend Daniel to help him; or will he drag everyone he loves into danger?

Even when Zafon is talking about people being tortured in fascist dungeons, his vivid depictions of Barcelona make me want to travel back to the city…


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Fair Coin – E.C. Myers **

Taking inspiration from the fairy-tale idea that while wishes may come true, they’re bound to always go wrong; Myers creates a riff on the alternate-universes theory aimed at teen boys.

It may be because I’m not a teen boy that this didn’t really capture my imagination. I just felt like I’ve seen parallel universes used to more impressive effect, in both teen and adult fiction. This might remind me most of Diana Wynne Jones’ “Tale of Time City,” but while that is primarily a quest story, this book deals more with the moral implications and unintended consequences of wishing for things to be different.

I also had an issue with the book: the main character’s best friend is a jerk. He’s a jerk from the get-go, and he’s even worse in all of his ‘alternate’ versions. There’s potential here to talk about how friends aren’t always what you expect, or how unpopular kids sometimes end up socializing with people for the wrong reasons – but none of that discussion is in the book.

I also felt like there were some very interesting issues brought up regarding the uniqueness of (or similarities between) the different ‘analogs’ of the characters from different universes, especially as objects-of-affection, but that discussion didn’t happen either.

There’s more to the series, so perhaps more depth will come, along with the development of the story.


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Divided Kingdom – Rupert Thompson ***

My post-apocalyptic book club selection for this month.
Not actually post-apocalyptic as dystopian, Thompson’s novel posits a near-future England which has been divided into four sectors, based on the four ‘humors’ of Hippocratic medicine. In order to describe these four areas, Thompson then has a narrator who manages to travel through all four restricted sectors: Red: for those of a sanguine temperament, who are expected to be positive and energetic. Yellow, choleric, for those with a tendency toward violence. Green, melancholic, for the depressed and insane. Blue, phlegmatic, for the tranquil and artistic.

I like Thompson’s writing style, and his handling of the beginning of the book, with forcibly divided families, is very good. The creation of artificial geopolitical divisions is very much based on Berlin during the wall, and feels convincing.

However, as the book went on, I felt like it lost focus. The narrator was being mechanically moved from one place to another simply to illustrate the author’s ideas. I liked the author’s point about how people will often live up to the expectations placed upon them, but I didn’t see the political utility of having whole sectors full of people expected to be aggressive yobs, or expected to be cripplingly depressed. I didn’t feel like the execution of the idea lived up to its full potential. It wasn’t bad though – I’d try another of the author’s books if I come across one.