book reviews by Althea

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The Witling – Vernor Vinge **

I started out giving this book 3 stars, as a perfectly serviceable sci-fi adventure; although certainly not up to the standards of Vernor Vinge’s later work (I absolutely love Fire Upon the Deep).

It’s a First Contact story, and the premise is a little familiar, but not bad: anthropologists from Earth arrive at a seemingly non-advanced alien planet and gradually figure out that the native people have highly-developed mental abilities (teleportation). Those who lack these abilities are generally seen as useless slaves – Witlings – but in a twist, the crown prince is also a Witling. Naturally, he’s delighted to hear about a society where no one has the powers he lacks.
So – all that is fine. However, the ending of the book bothered me, and kept bothering me until I deducted a star.

[Spoilers: At the end of the book, one of the anthropologists (who happens to be the only female character of any note in the entire book) is nearly killed in a conflict, and ends up with severe, irreversible brain damage. Amnesiac, and now lacking the intelligence and initiative she showed throughout the book, she will be happy to end up being cared for by the crown prince, who’s had an unrequited crush on her since the day they first met. OK, fine. That’s kind of yucky, but I don’t demand ‘nice’ outcomes for everyone. Tragedy can be great. What bothers me is the one line at the end, where an authorial voice feels the need to say something about ‘knowing a happy ending when you see one.’ Is this supposed to be ironic? That a brilliant, successful woman who’s always been given a hard time and never been considered attractive is now rendered ‘happy’ by having her personality and abilities removed and left in the care of a man who never really knew her, but finds her physically beautiful? I’m really not sure. ]

Does the author really have these opinions? I would like to think better of Vinge than that.

Oh, and the illustrations are juvenile and rather dreadfully inaccurate.


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Blue Shoes and Happiness – Alexander McCall Smith ***

(No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency #7)

After reading the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency a couple of years ago, I accumulated a few of these, and went through 6 in less than a month. They’re very quick reads – I read 2 and part-of-a-third in one day.

They’re very entertaining, charming, and compulsively readable. Although marketed as mysteries; they’re not, really. Rather they follow Mma Ramotswe and those around her through their daily lives – it’s almost besides-the-point that the business she runs is a detective agency. The stories are suffused with McCall-Smith’s obvious sincere love of Africa (where he grew up), and the reader feels that a genuine window has opened up into the lives and mindsets of ordinary Africans. I don’t agree with many aspects of Precious Ramotswe’s view on the world, and I probably wouldn’t get along with her in real life – but these books made me feel like I might understand people like her more than before.

However… there’s also a weird aspect to the books. They’re so relentlessly cozy. It’s not that McCall-Smith ignores the poverty, the devastation of AIDS, the lack of education, etc… these things are acknowledged, but then almost swept to the side. On the one hand, it’s a celebration of the spirit of the people of Botswana and their love of their homeland… but on the other hand, it sometimes feels like a minimization of these things. It’s not just larger social issues: there’s domestic abuse, adultery, etc… all the normal foibles of humanity (although all reference to sex of any kind are totally non-existent)- but all the unpleasant things somehow get almost drowned out in the cozy, feel-good atmosphere of the books. Maybe it’s just that I usually read darker, grittier material [especially in mysteries {McCall-Smith is no Stieg Larsson!}] but it felt a bit strange to me. I can’t decide if it’s a detriment or a positive asset to the books.

In ‘Blue Shoes and Happiness’ Mma Ramotswe’s beloved van is stolen. Luckily, her new (as of last book) employee, Mr. Polopetsi, comes to the (ingenious) rescue. However, his attempts to solve and remedy the mystery of why a whole village seems frightened and worried do not go so well. Mma Makutsi has a bit of a misunderstanding with her fiance, and the detective agency handles a case of blackmail, and helps a nurse who is concerned about a doctor’s possible wrongdoing, gratis. Mma Makutsi also insists on buying a pair of fancy blue shoes, even though they clearly do not fit.

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The Full Cupboard of Life – Alexander McCall Smith ***

(No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency #5)

In ‘The Full Cupboard of Life’ Mma Ramotswe is beginning to get a little antsy about her engagement – which is stretching out indefinitely, with no wedding date set. Mr. JLB Maketoni is a fine man and a great, honest mechanic – but his issues with depression make him a little indecisive when it comes to important matters such as marriage. However, he’s sometimes easily pushed into things too – and here he finds himself terrified to have been pushed by the matron of the orphan farm into sorta-of agreeing to do a parachute jump for charity. Meanwhile, a wealthy woman hires the detective agency to investigate the possible ulterior motives of her multiple suitors.

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In The Company of Cheerful Ladies – Alexander McCall Smith ***

(No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency #6)

In ‘The Company of Cheerful Ladies’ Mma Ramotswe is happy to finally be married – but life’s complications are not over. She accidentally hits a bicyclist with her van – and ends up giving him a job at the garage. Meanwhile, Mr. JLB Maketoni’s tenant is running an illegal bar/nightclub out of his house, the apprentice Charlie is getting involved with a rich woman who may be taking advantage of him, and Mma Makutsi finds herself becoming involved with a rather dorky and painfully shy man that she meets at a dancing class. There’s also the mystery of the house intruder-who-escapes-without-pants, and the mystery of the appearing pumpkin.

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Jagannath – Karin Tidbeck *****

This volume is so short that it’s barely a book (134 pages). Are these all of the short stories that Tidbeck’s written? Why not put more in? This is not enough! I hope that her other writing is translated into English, because this is an excellent (if brief) collection.

I would highly recommend these stories for fans of Kelly Link and Theodora Goss. (As well as Ursula LeGuin, who blurbed it, and Elizabeth Hand, who wrote the introduction.)


Beatrice – “If you love someone, set them free.” If they don’t come back… oh well. A steampunk tale of a man in love with an airship and a woman in love with a steam engine. Bizarre, disturbing, and an incisive commentary of the different types of feelings which we might call ‘love.’

Some Letters for Ove Lindstrom – An estranged son finds his alcoholic father dead, and writes letters thinking back to when everything went wrong – when his mother disappeared. An effective mix of modern-day sensibilities and folklore.

Miss Nyberg and I – A glimpse out of the corner of an eye turns into a story that might be more true than its author guessed.

Rebecka – What if God insisted on repeatedly ‘saving’ a suicidal person, refusing to let them take their own life? What extremes might that person be driven to? A fantastic story that captures the harrowing feeling of friendship with a suicidal person.

Herr Cederberg – Escape from the cruelty of this world in an airship. Or is it a metaphor for suicide? Or is it transcendence? Reminded me of a less fleshed-out version of Theodora Goss’ “The Wings of Meister Wilhelm.”

Who Is Arvid Pekon? – A man is employed in a call center where the job involves pretending to be whoever it might be that the caller wishes to speak to. That’s weird. But it gets weirder.

Brita’s Holiday Village – A journal from a writer who takes a cottage in the off-season to get some work done in peace and quiet, and unexpectedly encounters something fragile and amazing.

Reindeer Mountain – Two sisters, rivals. A conflict over a family heirloom. A family tale, folklore about the mysterious Sidhe-like ‘vittra.’ One girl has always dreamed of other worlds. She’d be delighted to be swept off by a fairy lover to ‘under the hill.’ But that’s not what happens.

Cloudberry Jam – Reminded me of a warped version of Thumbelina. A woman creates herself a child – but it’s not a real human child, and can’t be what she wants.

Pyret – A faux encyclopedia entry on an imaginary creature, read like it belongs in one of Jeff VanDerMeer’s collections.

Augusta Prima – A look into what it might be like to live under a faery mound – from a fairy’s point of view. Fairly horrifying.

Aunts – A further exploration of a element mentioned in passing in Augusta Prima. Like the preceding story, strongly horrific, but also sad.

Jagannath – A very China Mieville-esque story about a group of humans who have lived for generations inside a giant insect, dependent on it for every aspect of their lives. But their ‘Mother’ is dying… Grotesque and memorable.

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Brave New World – Aldous Huxley *****

It’s a classic – I feel like I can’t give any less that 5 stars for a book that’s been so influential.

This month’s post-apocalyptic book club selection (even though technically, it’s dystopic, not apocalyptic). I dug it out of my crate of books-from-high school that my dad unexpectedly dropped off to me one day saying, “hey, these were in my basement.”

I was surprised to find that I actually didn’t remember as much of the book as I would’ve sworn that I did. I must’ve read it last over 20 years ago, and although there there bits that were clear, some I’d totally forgotten. Others in the book club admitted that they as well had done thing like confuse parts of ‘1984’ with this book, in memory (seems like a lot of people read both back-to-back, initially!)

Definite differences this time around: I had to look at the politics more analytically. I kept finding myself saying: ‘what exactly is Huxley saying here?’ I didn’t uncritically accept or agree with all of his presumptions or conclusions this time. I also found myself more sympathetic to Lenina in some ways than I was when I was a teenager.

It’s interesting that in his introduction to the book (which I believe was written in 1946, 14 years after initial publication) Huxley disavows the dichotomy between the controlled, soma-addicted urban dwellers and his depiction of the ‘primitives.’ He said that he would’ve liked to show a third, ‘sane’ way of living… but that would’ve really destroyed the book and its focus completely.

Still, the strength of the book lies in its depiction of Huxley’s dystopia, where people are in service to technology, literally engineered and conditioned to be content in their place, and the ‘happy’ majority bear a disturbing resemblance to jocks and sorority girls. The depiction of the primitive village is not nearly as strong, or as convincing.

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Green Mars / Blue Mars – Kim Stanley Robinson **

(#2 & #3 of the ‘Mars’ trilogy)

If you liked ‘Red Mars’ a lot, and read it with sheer pleasure – then you should definitely go ahead and read ‘Green Mars’ and ‘Blue Mars.’

If however, like me, you found ‘Red Mars’ to have some very interesting idea and details, and appreciated Kim Stanley Robinson’s research into a broad range of fields for his epic dissertation on the possible ramifications of terraforming a planet, but ultimately found the experience of reading the novel akin to studying a somewhat-boring textbook, then you should probably skip these two sequels.

Unless, of course, like me, you have committed yourself to reading all the Hugo and Nebula award winners, in which case you will just have to go ahead and read them.

Basically, ‘Blue’ and ‘Green Mars’ are a lot more of the same, but with even more soap-opera-ish drama thrown in. The characters still exist wholly in service to the ideas/concepts of the book (and some get dropped unceremoniously by the wayside after having served their purpose, which makes the narrative structure feel a bit amorphous.)

Honestly, I found these sequels a slog. However, they did win awards, and other people obviously love them…