book reviews by Althea

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The End – Lemony Snicket ***

(A Series of Unfortunate Events #13)

What, you were expecting answers? I dunno, I wasn’t that surprised that Daniel Handler chose to end this the way he did. I think it’s in line with his sense of humor and his general philosophy. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a great artistic choice, but on the other hand, I kind of appreciated it: in real life, you don’t always get a happy ending, you don’t get the answers to all the questions, and not all the mysteries are solved. The whole point is that ‘the End’ is not the end, because there is no ‘end.’ That said, the book as a whole is a mix of refreshing and aggravating. Kind of like life. And hey, it’s not like Lemony Snicket EVER promised you a happy ending. He SAID you should stop reading…


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The Fresco – Sheri Tepper *

I’ve read quite a few of Sheri Tepper’s books. I usually consider them a guaranteed entertaining read; regardless of the author’s tendency to preach her spiritual/ecological agenda, and her tendency toward overwrought denouements. I can take that in stride, when balanced out by vivid worldbuilding, unique and interesting settings and social extrapolation, and dramatic events that ofter veer toward the horrific. Lots of Tepper’s books have lots of that good stuff.

This one features none of Tepper’s strengths, and practically works as a showcase for all of her weaknesses. I think most of the problem here is that it’s set in present-day Earth, rather than a fantasy world. Usually Tepper is forced by her sci-fi settings to use metaphor to get her agenda across. Without that barrier, every single page of this book beats the reader over the head with Tepper’s political opinions. It also made me less than impressed with those opinions. When filtered through a fantastic allegory, I’ve usually felt that I agree with her (even if I don’t agree with the didacticism). I still don’t totally disagree, but the opinions in this book, applied directly to our own world, made her politics come across as overly simplistic and somewhat condescending.

Our heroine, Benita (that means “good” – get it!) is a minority woman escaping an abusive relationship. (Men! Bad!) Luckily, although disadvantaged in many ways, Benita works at a bookstore and has been able to self-educate herself (Education! Good!). Her employers are nice to her (Gay men! Good!). She has a son who’s a jerk and a daughter who’s nice. (Men BAD! Women GOOD!) Benita’s life really turns around, though, when she happens to meet a couple of aliens, members of the Pistach race, who ask her to be their representative to Our Leaders.

These aliens seem to just want to help Earth and help end our wars and ecological depredations, (Peace and Ecology GOOD!), and help us join a Galactic Federation. Unfortunately, they’re just one member of a complicated society out there in space, and some other alien species would rather use Earth as a hunting reserve. (Humans tasty!) Some self-centered right-wing politicians make a deal with other aliens that would give away our legal rights. (Right-wing BAD!) In order to defend Human Rights (to not be hunted as game), Earth will need the help of our new allies. Unfortunately, at a critical juncture, the Pistach have a social crisis of their own regarding religious and historical revelations. If it’s not resolved, they might descend into chaos and leave us to our fate. (Snacks!)

The way the crisis is resolved is absolutely INFURIATING (not to mention unrealistic, unbelievable, and dumb). Without creating any spoilers, I think I can say that Tepper comes out firmly on the side that believes that both truth and history should take a back seat to a political agenda, and that knowingly re-writing the past as lies is just fine and dandy if it serves her perceived ‘greater good.’ She dismisses the destruction of ancient historical artifacts with a blithe ‘they weren’t very well-crafted anyway.’ Myself, I believe in learning from history – even the most unpleasant aspects of it. I don’t believe in whitewashing the past or intentionally twisting facts. So I really did find this book quite personally offensive.

I also felt that it failed as far as what Tepper was trying to do. I couldn’t tell if it was supposed to be humorous or not. There certainly are many bits that seem to be intended as funny (the anti-abortionists being injected with alien fetuses; the middle-eastern women having an illusion of ugliness cast over them) but then it veers into over-earnestness. The tone wasn’t consistent or effective. Overall, it just wasn’t very good. At all. Disappointing.

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An Instance of the Fingerpost – Iain Pears ***

For ages, everyone told me that ‘An Instance of the Fingerpost’ is Iain Pears’ best novel. Partly because of this I sort of ‘saved it up’ and held off on reading it for a while. (The other factor in this decision was that this book, even in paperback, weighs about 10 pounds. It’s enough to make me want a Kindle!) But, because of this expectation-of-awesomeness (and maybe a tiny smidgin because of sore wrists?) I was a little bit disappointed. This is definitely Iain Pears’ most ambitious novel – but I didn’t like it the best.

I also wish I’d known in advance that the whole concept of the novel is that you’re going to hear the whole story, repeatedly, from different perspectives. It’s always disappointing when you think (due to the number of pages on the right) that there are many more events to come – and there aren’t. Certainly, seeing the events through a different perspective, there are further revelations… but the ‘that’s it?’ realization was a bit of a let-down.

‘An Instance of the Fingerpost’ is a 17th-century British mystery-drama. I’d never heard the term ‘fingerpost,’ but it’s the British term (perhaps quite obviously) for one of those signposts that look like a hand pointing the way to a location. Here, each narrator’s tale seems to point in a somewhat different direction. (And all the narrators are probably-historically-authentic but quite-utterly-despicable people. Get ready to feel icky about spending time in their self-justifying, nasty company.) The first is Marco de Cola, an Italian dandy ostensibly in London to look after his father’s financial interests, but seemingly more interested in pursuing medical experimentation and intellectual pursuits. Second, Jack Prestcott; obsessed with rehabilitating his father’s reputation and overcoming his reputation as the son of a traitor to the realm. Third, John Wallis – a mathematician and cryptographer, and also a religious fanatic. Fourth – Anthony Wood – a socially pathetic man with somewhat-hidden intellectual abilities and an historian. None of them are reliable. Some may be intentionally deceitful. Some may be insane.

The events center around the tale of Sarah Blundy; a poverty-stricken young woman accused of murder; but encompass a host of political machinations and conspiracies, going up to the highest level. Keeping track of all the characters (most of whom are historical figures), their motivations, and the elements that agree and conflict in each of their stories is intellectually stimulating. However, I wasn’t as emotionally drawn in to many of the events as I would’ve liked to be.

However, I’d challenge any reader to fail to feel for Sarah Blundy, caught as she is in a trap not of her own making. More than most books, this vividly brings to light the unenviable situation of simply being a woman without means in this time and place.

This was a very good novel – but as I said, my (very) high expectations led me to feel a little let down by it. I’d still recommend it to anyone who likes complex mysteries and a 17th-century historical setting.

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The Good Husband of Zebra Drive – Alexander McCall Smith ***

(No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency #8)

As fully expected by this point in the series, McCall-Smith delivers light and charming reading mixed with insights into ethical dilemmas and human nature. Mma Ramotswe receives what might be her most serious case yet – three different patients at the local hospital have died mysteriously; all in the same bed. Could it actually be murder? As usual, multiple things are going on at once, so we also hear about secretary Mma Makutsi quitting and looking for another job, apprentice Charlie quitting and deciding to start a taxi company, fiancé JLB Matekoni trying to break into detecting, and oh yes, who is stealing from a local business? This installment is actually a little odd, with many characters who are striving to break out of a mold and do something more – but with an overarching message that this might not be a good thing, and that the status quo is comfortable. Or is the message more that home is a good place? Or that a change isn’t always a change for the better? Hmm.

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A Thread of Grace – Mary Doria Russell ***

One really could never accuse Mary Doria Russell of not being diverse as a writer. I first read her science-fiction duology “The Sparrow/Children of God;” which explores issues of culture and religion through the story of a Jesuit first-contact space mission. Then I read “Doc,” an historical Western centered on Doc Holliday. Now – “Thread of Grace” – a WWII novel.

The story centers on a less-well-known aspect of the war – Jewish refugees fleeing ahead of the Nazi occupation, entering Italy, and being aided by anti-fascist Italian partisans. At first it seems as if the book will be the story of teenage Jewish girl Claudette Blum and her budding romance with an Italian soldier who helps her and her grandfather – but the scope of the book quickly widens and encompasses a large number of different characters. In the end, the most memorable might be the alcoholic veteran & former flying ace Renzo Leoni, and his interactions with the Nazi deserter Doktor Schramm.

The book is historically fascinating & definitely well written and well-researched – but I couldn’t help feeling that the plot was a little unfocused. Also, all the Italians are portrayed as virtually saintly. (In her afterword, Russell defends this choice, but I do think it weakened the book a little.) Themes include morality and forgiveness… and as one might assume from the setting, don’t expect too much upbeat cheeriness.

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After The Apocalypse – Maureen McHugh *****

I held off on reading this collection, knowing that eventually it would undoubtedly be a selection for my post-apocalyptic book club. And it came up this month… now I’m back to having read all of McHugh’s published books.

“The Naturalist” – This was a second-read – it’s included in Strahan’s ‘Best SF&F of the year #5.’ As I said last time I read it: A good, nasty zombie story, with shades of ‘Escape From New York.’ You can read this for free, online:…

“Special Economics” – The most upbeat/hopeful of the stories in this collection, and our book club pretty much agreed: it might’ve been a more powerful/believable story if it wasn’t. The setting itself is not actually fantastical in any way – it portrays the situation that many young women (like the protagonists) are caught in right now – economic ‘slavery’ implemented by tricking young workers into taking a factory job where the setup ensures that they will always be in debt – and you’re not allowed to quit if you’re in debt. Eye-opening, without didacticism.

“Useless Things” – Another re-read; this appeared in “Eclipse 3,” also edited by Strahan, hmm. A sad story, set in a post-apocalyptic (but all too realistic) American West, about the erosion of trust. A dollmaker is robbed by people she tried to help. Meanwhile, her (creepy!) dolls are used to defraud… Beautifully written; very depressing.

“The Lost Boy: A Reporter at Large” – Not the strongest in the collection, in my opinion, although it does strongly illustrate one of McHugh’s themes: an apocalyptic event may have occurred (in this case, a dirty bomb), but that’s not the main story. The story is about people: how they interact (or fail to), and carry on with life. Here though, I wasn’t captured by the journalistic style, or the story of a boy who disappears in the midst of a disaster, and late reappears, pleading amnesia.

“The Kingdom of the Blind” – This one almost reminded me a a Ted Chiang story, but from a woman’s perspective. (Not surprising, since McHugh, like Chiang, works in software.) It’s a tech-y, conceptual story about the possibility of artificial intelligence and the nature of sentience – meshed with a young woman’s journey to gain her own self-awareness in a hostile environment. Available online:…

“Going to France” – My least favorite/least memorable selection in the book. It reads like a transcription of a dream – one of those dreams you wake up from, review to yourself, and go, “wow, that really doesn’t make any sense at all.”

“Honeymoon” – No sci-fi/post-apocalyptic elements here; unless you count a personal/emotional apocalypse. A young woman gets married, and promptly realizes that she’s been blinding herself to her new husband’s faults. She promptly ditches him, and saves up money for a girlfriends’ getaway to Cancun. Emotionally wrenching. The real strength of this story is in McHugh’s ability to make the reader feel real compassion and understanding for characters that one might be tempted to mock, or dismiss as ‘trailer trash.’

“The Effect of Centrifugal Forces” – The greater apocalypse is impending – a mad-cow-like disease, this time spread by chicken. But the emotional apocalypse is at hand, as a teenage girls tries to hang on and deal with the people in her life – her mother dying of this disease, her mother’s partner a hoarder, her father a hopeless junkie…

“After the Apocalypse” – In the classic format of the post-apocalyptic story, and mother and daughter on the road through the wasteland. Hard and nasty choices are made. It’s about strength, weakness, necessity, self-interest – the ties that bind; or fail to bind. As usual, McHugh looks unflinchingly at what people will do; discarding the pretty myths we might tell ourselves about ourselves along the way.

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The Penultimate Peril – Lemony Snicket ***

(A Series of Unfortunate Events #12)

The Baudelaire orphans have made their way to the Hotel Denouement, supposedly the ‘last safe place.’ However, the effects of the schism in VFD are apparent, and it’s impossible to tell who might be on the orphans’ side – and who’s a villain (especially when identical twins are involved).
As events play out in unexpected way, the orphans may not even be sure if they themselves are villains or not…

The book features the same witty wordplay and arch humor as the previous installments, but introduces a bit of complexity and ambiguity which really adds to the book (very welcome, since there was beginning to be a bit of repetitiveness to the formula…)