book reviews by Althea

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Nine Inches: Stories – Tom Perotta ****

Received this through Goodreads’ First Reads giveaway! THANK YOU!

I had an interest in this book after reading Perotta’s ‘The Leftovers’ for my post-apocalyptic book club. There’s nothing apocalyptic here, but Perotta’s stories are all about social entropy.

I actually feel that most of these stories work even better than ‘The Leftovers’ which features an ensemble cast and many situations. The short stories here each focus on one situation, and that tight focus intensifies the experience.

Suburbia and high-school figure prominently in these stories – nothing flashy or exotic, or even that dramatic – but Perotta describes the difficulty of being an individual trying to navigate through life, and captures the tragedies of ordinary lives.

Backrub – A teen boy has unpleasant encounters with a local cop.
Grade My Teacher – A teacher confronts the student who gave her a bad write-up online.
The Smile on Happy Chang’s Face – Conflict at Little League, and conflict at home.
Kiddie Pool – A man breaks into a deceased neighbor’s garage and confronts both memories and revelations.
Nine Inches – A school dance chaperone confronts his own feelings and the life choices he’s made.
Senior Season – An injured football player adjusts (or fails to adjust) to his new status, and finally meets his elderly neighbor.
One-Four-Five – A divorcé gets back into playing rock guitar.
The Chosen Girl – A lonely old woman becomes obsessed with a young girl in her neighborhood, who seems neglected, and in a member of a religious cult.
The Test-Taker – A boy who’s getting paid to take the SAT for other students is assigned to take the test for one of his own classmates.
The All-Night Party – A high-school party chaperone has to work alongside a cop she has a grudge against for the evening.

There’s a lot more to all of these stories than my little aide-memoire summaries above… Perotta is truly a masterful writer.


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The Incrementalists – Steven Brust & Skyler White **

Found an advance copy of this on the ‘free’ shelf at work, and was pretty enthused – I’ve read Brust before, and found his books to be good fun.

However, this one didn’t do it for me. The premise is engaging: an ancient secret society has knowledge of the technique of transferring memories from one body to another (as well as storing information in a kind of mental ‘cloud’ internet). The society is devoted to using their experience and knowledge to become adept at psychological manipulation, which they are vowed to use to make the world a better place through small, incremental changes.

Unfortunately, the society does very little ‘trying to make things better’ and instead does a great deal of bitchy, catty infighting and things of questionable ethics.

The main focus is on a new recruit to this society, whether she will be able to maintain her own personality, as she has to deal with an ‘upload’ of the mind of a particularly domineering individual, and whether she will fall in love with the guy who recruited her (a romance which I just wasn’t ‘feeling’ at all.) Is she being manipulated, and, if so, who is doing the manipulating, and for what agenda?

It’s very slow and soap-opera-esque. People do a lot of standing around arguing in circles about who is doing what, and why. I found it a bit tedious.

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Batman: The Night of the Owls **

I must admit that I am not the most-qualified person to review a Batman graphic novel from a fan perspective. I don’t think I’ve read one since Frank Miller’s ‘The Dark Knight Returns.’ But I did quite like that, and was interested in giving this a try. (Thus, I entered the Goodreads First Reads Giveaway – THANK YOU Goodreads!)

However – this volume just did not capture my interest. I don’t feel that it worked as a unified narrative. It’s a collection of a number of comic books which take place on a single night, when a cabal has planned a number of assassinations of Gotham’s prominent citizens. (Plus a few historical episodes thrown into the mix.) Unfortunately, it rather feels like each team of writers was assigned an episode, given only a tiny amount of back story, and then proceeded without communicating with anyone who’d worked on any of the other segments. Both on a stylistic and a practical level, there are jarring inconsistencies.

A great number of the episodes don’t actually feature Batman at all, and there isn’t much depth or development, on any level. I’d have to say this is one for the completists.

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Fantasy – Sean Wallace, ed.

“Like your fantasy edgy, modern, and sophisticated?” OK, if that’s not a pretentious, self-congratulatory tagline, I don’t know what is. But the stories collected here aren’t bad. This slim volume seems to be aimed at getting people to subscribe to ‘Fantasy’ magazine (Now ‘Lightspeed’).

**** Goosegirl – Margaret Ronald. A very effective re-telling of the old fairytale of a princess and a goose-herder who switch places on the way to meet the princess’ betrothed. Although this is a many-times-told tale, I feel this telling really did bring something new and original to the story, while maintaining its kernel.

** All the Growing Time – Becca de la Rosa. Aims for a surrealist meditation on time and a relationship. But it didn’t work for me – the style was distancing.

**** Somewhere Beneath Those Waves – Sarah Monette. Just read this in Monette’s collection of the same title. In a seaside town, a woman is caught in a loveless marriage, a selkie is trapped by the cruel man who has stolen and hidden her skin, and a creepy museum curator hold the spirits of female ship’s figureheads in his gallery. When the three elements come together, all will gain their freedom.

*** Shallot – Samantha Henderson. I don’t know why it’s spelled like the vegetable. What if the Lady of Shalott was an alien with hypnotic powers? I feel like I’ve read a very similar story about the Lady of the Lake.

*** Bone Mother – Maura McHugh. (Not Maureen McHugh.) A tale from the point of view of Baba Yaga. Not bad, not more memorable than average.

*** The Greats Come A-Callin’ – Lisa Mantchev. As an inheritance gift, a woman receives the ghosts of her ancestresses. There are both good and extremely inconvenient aspects to this.

*** Zombie Lenin – Ekaterina Sedia . A Russian girl is rather obsessed with zombies, and seems to see them following her around. Nice, works on multiple levels, but seems a bit like an early work by Sedia.

** The Yeti Behind You – Jeremiah Tolbert. The stress and fear brought about by hearing there’s a baby on the way manifest, for this man, as invisible extinct animals that follow people around. Didn’t really work for me.

*** The Salvation Game – Amanda Downum. A nice, dark, paranormal-action fantasy. Good fun.

*** Sugar – Cat Rambo. A plantation owner runs her factory by using golems, and is emotionally torn between two women – one, dying, one living, and her complicated relationship with both of them. (I know Britomart is a name from Greek mythology, but it always sounds like a 24-hour grocery store, to me.) The setup here was very nice, but the style was distancing, to me.

*** Brother of the Moon – Holly Phillips. In a war-torn land, a twin leaves his sister and goes to make some kind of sacrifice that may save the land. Again, a nice feel to this, but too many unanswered and undefined questions – like, if this magic was possible, why didn’t one of the twins do this much earlier? What exactly IS the sacrifice, what happens? It felt either unfinished or like an excerpt.

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Unnatural Creatures – Neil Gaiman, ed.

**** [inkspot] – (1972) – Gahan Wilson
An ominous inksplot grows every time an obnoxious aristocrat takes his eyes off it. Both amusing and creepy.

*** The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees – (2011) – E. Lily Yu
Just read this earlier this month in Nebula Awards Showcase, when I said: I feel like maybe I missed something here. Or maybe the ‘something’ just wasn’t there. I liked the set-up, the conflict between the two insect species and the revolutionary faction amongst the bees. But I didn’t feel that it all pulled together.

*** The Griffin and the Minor Canon – (1885) – Frank R. Stockton
A vain griffin come to town to see his likeness carved in stone, as the gargoyles of the local church – to the great consternation of the townspeople. An amusingly written story, but the social commentary rather fell flat, for me. No, I don’t subscribe to the idea that the “sick and the poor” are all actually just malingerers.

*** Ozioma the Wicked – Nnedi Okorafor
Kind of a ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’ set in an African village. People dislike and fear Ozioma, who is reputed to speak with snakes and to be a witch. But when her talents save a man’s life, and incidentally bring wealth to the villagers, they change their tune. Ozioma’s too forgiving for my taste…

Sunbird -(2005) – Neil Gaiman
*** Skipped, as I’ve read this story at least twice before, and remember it well. (read in Fragile Things and in Noisy Outlaws…)

The Sage of Theare – (1982) – Diana Wynne Jones
*** A short story which ties in with Wynne-Jones’ Chrestomanci series, in which a mysterious enchanter travels between worlds. In this mythologically-influenced tale, the gods of an extremely orderly realm eject a child whom, prophecy indicates, will grow to tear down their society. But it’s Chrestomanci’s job to restore balance, and his magic is aware that the child is in the wrong world… Some nice philosophy here regarding cause and effect, but it’s still not my favorite tale set in this world (or, rather, worlds).

*****Gabriel-Ernest – (1909) – Saki
This is a completely excellent werewolf story, and I can’t believe I’ve never read it before now. The young man/wolf’s insolence and effrontery are just perfect – an amoral reflection of the nature of a wild, predatory creature who encounters ‘civilisation,’ and a man who really doesn’t know how to handle the situation.

*** The Cockatoucan; or, Great-Aunt Willoughby -(1900) – E. Nesbit
The style and content of this story reminded me of The Phantom Tollbooth – which I haven’t read in long enough that the similarity could be completely illusory. A young girl and her nanny, on the way to visit a dreadfully dull great-aunt, accidentally take the wrong bus, and end up in a strange fairy-tale land where reality shifts every time the caged Cockatoucan laughs. But why is the bird laughing?

** Moveable Beast – Maria Dahvana Headley
A weird and unpleasant small town is centered around their one-block by one-block mini-forest. But not is all as it seems… Good idea, but the writing style didn’t appeal to me.

*** The Flight of the Horse – (1969) – Larry Niven
Sent back in time to retrieve a horse, to satisfy a spoiled prince’s whim, the hapless agent captures what is clearly, to the reader’s eye, a unicorn. What will the prince want next? Mildly amusing.

*** Prismatica – (1977) – Samuel R. Delany
By far my favorite thing I’ve read by Delany. Of course, it’s billed as an ‘Hommage a James Thurber,’ and I like Thurber. So, Delany imitating Thurber gets my thumbs-up. A classic quest fairy tale with clever and memorable twists – and a bit of a sappy ending, but that’s OK.

*** The Manticore, the Mermaid, and Me – Megan Kurashige
A kid discovers that his mom’s colleague at The Museum of Natural History has been sneaking hoax (?) taxidermy into the museum. Strange events occur, and perhaps two children learn something about friendship.

*** The Compleat Werewolf – (1942) – Anthony Boucher
Professor Wolfe Wolf (known around the office as Woof-Woof) discovers that his name relates to his identity far more closely than he’d ever realized. And proceeds to get himself into trouble.

** The Smile on the Face -(2004) – Nalo Hopkinson
Teenage girls should be happy with their bodies and stick up for themselves against attempted date rape. Yes, fine, I agree. But I didn’t love the story.

**** Or All the Seas with Oysters -(1958) – Avram Davidson
A horror/fantasy story about two partners who run a bike shop – not without much interpersonal conflict. Feels far more contemporary than its 1958 publication date. Really good.

**** Come Lady Death – (1963) – Peter S. Beagle
A bored aristocratic lady invites Death as a guest to one of her many soirees – and gets more than she bargained for. I imagine that this story may have influenced Gaiman’s portrayal of Death in Sandman. Excellent story.

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A Pale View of Hills – Kazuo Ishiguro ****

As always, Kazuo Ishiguro delivers a masterfully written and melancholy work.

A middle-aged Japanese woman living in England receives a visit from her semi-estranged younger daughter, following the suicide of her older daughter.

As the narrator, the middle-aged woman, Etsuko, tells the story of another woman, Sachiko, claiming: “I never knew Sachiko well. In fact, our friendship was no more than a matter of some several weeks one summer many years ago.” It doesn’t take long to realize that Etsuko seems remarkably emotionally involved – if that was the case, and if she’s telling the truth. As the novel progresses, more and more parallels between the painful lives of Etsuko and Sachiko become evident.

It’s left up to the reader to decide what might be factually true – but the book is really about emotional truth – a musing on the idea that, as Ishiguro describes it: “the English are fond of their idea that our race has an instinct for suicide, as if further explanations are unnecessary.” The novel’s descriptions of the trauma following the years of WWII, and the details of how the social upheaval of that time affected the lives of ordinary people, work toward giving part of an explanation.

A sad, but beautiful and illuminating book.

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Death of a Nightingale – Lene Kaaberbøl ***

(Nina Borg, #3)

Natasha,a young Ukrainian refugee in Denmark, will do anything to save her kidnapped daughter. But why was her daughter a target in the first place? The authorities suspect Natasha of killing two men, but she’s got an ally in Red Cross nurse Nina Borg.

Frequent flashbacks to the story of two sisters and their sufferings under Stalin in 1930s Ukraine let the reader know that the events of the two time periods must be linked… but we don’t discover how until well into the book.

There’s a mystery here, but I’d classify the book as ‘crime fiction’ rather than mystery, because not much investigating really happens. Rather than a character finding things out, the vital information is doled out in small bits by the authors… which makes the tension feel a bit artificial.

I’d also have liked to know more about Nina Borg, right off the bat – I know there are two previous novels featuring her, which I haven’t read – perhaps reading them first would have solved this issue! As it was, however, her character seemed a bit underdeveloped and extraneous to the story.

Still, not bad.

I received this book as a giveaway from Goodreads FIRST READS. Thank you Goodreads!

(PS – as with, it seems, most Scandinavian fiction, this book does indeed, if briefly, mention Ikea.)