book reviews by Althea

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A Wild Sheep Chase – Haruki Murakami *****

This was Murakami’s first novel published in English, and it’s got everything I like about his work – and most of what he was become known for: the dissociated, disaffected characters, the portrayal of contemporary Japanese culture, enigmatic women, jazz music… and deep, deep weirdness.

It also features the Sheep Man, and ear fetishism.

The surrealism and metaphysical musings never get in the way of an entertaining story – rather, they add to it. This might actually be my favorite book I’ve read so far by Murakami – but I haven’t read all of them yet.


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Field Gray – Philip Kerr ***

(Bernard Gunther, #7)

I read the Berlin Noir trilogy a few years ago, which contains the first 3 Bernie Gunther novels. I haven’t read 4, 5, or 6, so I’m not sure what I missed. However, ‘Field Gray’ concentrates heavily on backstory.

The reader doesn’t realize this at first, which I’m not sure was the best strategy. There’s a great setup – Gunther ditching Havana (circa 1950s) on a cigarette boat with a sexy dame who just might be a wanted criminal… but all that is soon all-but-dropped, and we’ve flashed back to the 1930’s.

The real focus of the book (we learn, as Gunther is interrogated, and thinks back to his past), is the relationship between Gunther and a man named Erich Mielke (an actual historical figure).

The facts (well, the fictional facts), on the face of it, seem unambiguously incriminating: Bernie Gunther was a member of the SS who repeatedly helped a man who was highly placed in the echelons of power, a murderer and a war criminal. But, as the reader learns, what actually happened was more nuanced, and much more complex.

Bernie Gunther is in some ways the quintessential noir investigator – hardboiled, tough and moody. It’s still a bold move to have a Nazi (even a reluctant Nazi) as your hero; the Kerr pulls it off. I’d be happy to read the others in this series.

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The Slippery Slope – Lemony Snicket ***

(A Series of Unfortunate Events, #10)

The children, are, quite literally, sliding down the slippery slope as the book opens. Actually more like plummeting. But – a typically-ridiculous scheme saves them, they meet a group of Scouts in the mountains who sing an annoying and repetitive song (if you thought that it couldn’t get worse than ‘have a heart-shaped balloon; you were wrong.)
Plus, the terrible Carmelita Spats is back!
On the more positive side; they meet the presumed-dead Quigley Quagmire – who might actually know something concrete about the mysterious V.F.D.
Will the children be able to rescue Sunny from the nefarious clutches of Count Olaf, and unravel the mystery behind what happened to their parents in that terrible tragedy that left them orphans?

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Brothers in Arms – Lois McMaster Bujold ****

(Vorkosigan #5)

Admiral Miles Naismith is back from an extended and successful mission leading the Dendarii mercenaries. Now, at the legendary home planet, Earth, Miles expects to be able to collect six months’ pay (plus expenses) for his fleet, and do some tourism.
Unfortunately, there seems to have been a breakdown in communication regarding the position of his ‘real’ identity as Lord Miles Vorkosigan and his covert work for the Barrayaran Empire. No pay seems to be forthcoming, and he finds himself confined to the embassy. But would Miles obey orders meekly when he hears his men are in trouble? Of course not! He sneaks out and ends up having to concoct a ridiculous cover story about the clone who looks just like him.
Unfortunately for Miles, his wild story doesn’t end up being nearly as far-fetched as he thought it was… and soon he’s in yet another imbroglio of action and politics

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In The Forest of Forgetting – Theodora Goss *****

This is the kind of mythopoeic fiction I like. A collection of quite short stories, but they pack a lot in to their brief length.

“The Rose in Twelve Petals”
A fractured retelling of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ (or, ‘Briar Rose’), in a dozen brief vignettes, set in a more concrete version of Europe than the usual fairy-tale fare.

“Professor Berkowitz Stands on the Threshold”
A not-very-successful professor and a French poet, both with hidden talents, are summoned by a mysterious figure to an interstitial place-between-the-worlds, and offered a choice. Why does the professor make the choice he does? I’m still not sure.

“The Rapid Advance of Sorrow”
A poetic, surreal piece on the theme of trying to have a relationship with a revolutionary.

“Lily, With Clouds”
Two sisters, long estranged. One conventional, the other the lover of artists. The latter’s terminal cancer brings them back together one last time. Closure or understanding may not be possible, but the meeting will leave its mark.

“Miss Emily Gray”
Emily Gray features in several of Goss’ stories – and I want more of her! I LOVE this morally ambiguous Mary Poppins figure who, here, shows up as a young girl’s governess – and grants wishes in a quite unexpected way.

“In the Forest of Forgetting”
This title story is actually probably my least favorite piece in the book. A fairy-tale allegory that is explicitly about a woman dying of cancer; I felt it would’ve been more effective if it were more subtle.

“Sleeping With Bears”
Another allegory, which compares men to bears – but this one is done with a deft touch, and wry humor.

“Letters from Budapest”
A spooky and lovely Hungarian vampire story about an undead artist who suck talented young men dry. Reminded me a bit of Tanith Lee.

“The Wings of Meister Wilhelm”
One of the more powerful pieces I’ve read about the tragedy of European anti-semitism, and a beautiful story of a young girl, her violin instructor, and his impossible dream.

Another Emily Gray story! Here, as a nurse, she’s a powerful if mysterious advocate for a young boy whose own family is trying to poison him.

“A Statement in the Case”
The ‘case’ is question is the possible arson of a pharmacy – and the witness in question admits that he was drunk and that he might not have seen exactly what he believes that he saw.

“Death Comes for Ervina”
An elderly former ballerina receives a visit from an old lover, and reminisces about her complicated past.

“The Belt”
“I will tell you… that every fairy tale has a moral. The moral of my story may be that love is a constraint, as strong as any belt. And this is certainly true, which makes it a good moral. Or it may be that we are all constrained in some way, either in our bodies, or in our hearts and minds… Or perhaps my moral is that a desire for freedom is stronger than love or pity. That is a wicked moral, or so the Church has taught us. But I do not know which moral is the correct one. And that is also the way of a fairy story.” (And that is why I have realized that I love Theodora Goss.)

A truly creepy and horrific story about a monastery where all the monks are blind. Or maybe it is an inspiring and uplifting story of spiritual triumph. I’m picking the former, but others will probably think the latter.

“Pip and the Fairies”
‘Pip”s mother featured her as the title character in a series of books for children, which have made her a kind of minor celebrity, as the books have achieved a classic fame. But, thinking back, she wonders if the stories that she told her mother about her adventures with the magical folk were true…

“Lessons With Miss Gray”
Yay! Emily Gray again! Here, she offers three girls lessons in witchcraft. It’s their obsession, for a summer…

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The House of Discarded Dreams – Ekaterina Sedia ***

I expected to like this far more than I did. Maybe my expectations made me like it a little less? Not sure. I preferred both ‘Alchemy of Stone’ and ‘Secret History of Moscow.’
In ‘House of Discarded Dreams,’ teenager Vimbai is seeking her independence (and, especially, some distance from her overbearing mother’s socio-political opinions). She moves into her own place for the first time, becoming roommates with another young woman and her strange roommate – a guy whose ‘hair’ is actually a bizarre pocket dimension. it only gets stranger from there, as soon their dilapidated beachside house is adrift on the waves, seemingly growing endless rooms – and the book is spewing a steady stream of surreal, unfocused philosophy.

There were aspects to the book I liked very much – it did accurately capture the inchoate but allusive feeling of dreaming – and I could empathize with Vimbai and her conflicted feeling about identity/growing up. But I still felt the book was missing something in its meanderings.

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Diplomatic Immunity – Lois McMaster Bujold ****

(Vorkosigan #13)

Imperial Auditor Miles and his wife Ekaterin just want to make it home in time to see their babies born (like most civilised people, they’re opting for a replicator birth). However, enroute, Miles is asked to stop and investigate a minor incident – Barrayaran troops have apparently created quite a disruption on Graf Station. Miles’ diplomatic authority should be able to calm things down.
However, once he gets there, Miles discovers a thornier problem than expected. The issue isn’t just drunk-and-disorderly troops, but a host of intertwining issues involving theft, smuggling, a host of political difficulties, any number of suspicious characters, and a chain of connections that may put the peace of the entire Barrayaran Empire at risk.

Great fun.

I’m not reading these in order, at all, but before reading this one, at the very least, you should’ve read ‘Cetaganda’ – I’m glad that I had.