book reviews by Althea

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Smoketown – Tenea D. Johnson ****

In a post-apocalyptic city, a woman waits for her missing lover.
Fearful of a recurrence of plague (some kind of mutated avian flu?), the city of Leiodare has banned birds of all kinds, and most citizens have a phobia of them.
Anna, however, has a magical gift; her drawings can come to life – and she is compelled to draw birds.

In an emotional limbo, Anna’s path intertwines with that of the inhabitants of Leiodare, which under the surface, is a pressure-cooker waiting to explode.

This short novel has a poetic feel to it which shines beautifully against its gritty background. Objectively, in some ways the book feels like the work of a new author (the plot sometimes felt a bit awkward and uncertain, almost shoehorned into the atmosphere; and some elements felt like they should’ve been in sharper focus), but it feels like the work of a very talented new author. Aesthetically, I loved it, thus the bump up to 4 stars.

I’ll definitely seek out future work by Johnson.


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Cryoburn – Lois McMaster Bujold ****

(Vorkosigan #14)

Extremely fun, fast-moving, entertaining entry into this series.

Miles is in trouble: he’s on a foreign planet investigating suspected fraud. Suddenly, he finds himself drugged and disoriented, lost in a pitch-black labyrinth of cryochambers. Rescued by a gutter urchin, Miles comes to realize that the nefarious goings-on far exceed what he’d previously expected – and that the locals’ custom of having themselves frozen in hopes of future medical advances, and the economic complications associated with this habit are deeply tied in with a far-reaching web of crime.

Some very engaging new characters, and a good helping of everything I enjoy about Bujold’s writing.

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Trafalgar – Angélica Gorodischer ***

Picked this up shortly after reading Gorodischer’s Kalpa Imperial, yes, because it was translated by Ursula K. LeGuin.
This book had a different translator, but the ‘voice’ is very much the same (confirming, I guess, that both translators did a good job!)

I didn’t like this one as much; but it was still enjoyable, and it did have quite a few similarities, both in format and theme. Both books are very concerned with the narrative voice, with storytelling as a human phenomenon. Both are (sort-of) collections of short stories which are intended to form a cohesive whole (this one even exhorts the reader to please read them in the given order.)

The narrator of this book has a friend, named Trafalgar, who likes to tell stories. His stories may or may not be tall tales; they all relate his adventures as an interstellar merchant, which are very reminiscent of Golden-Age science fiction adventures. It remains intentionally unclear if space travel is a given in the narrator’s world.

At times, this reminded me a bit of George Alec Effinger and Spider Robinson. But only a little bit. Your mileage may vary.

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A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess *****

A re-read (of course). There’s little one can say about this book that hasn’t been said before.
As with the first time I read it; I was overwhelmingly impressed with the use of language, how effective the slang is in context, and how readable Burgess makes it. (I definitely understood more of the etymologies than I did when I was a teenager!)
The first time I read it, I was unaware that there was a glossary at the back of the book. DON’T use the glossary. It wasn’t even compiled by Burgess; I don’t think some of the definitions were quite right, and referring to it will only detract from the reading experience.

This time was the first time I read the 21st chapter. (Thanks to the Internet.) All I can say is: sometimes editors are right, and authors are wrong. I know that Burgess felt that the final chapter was structurally necessary to the book, and it does brings some elements full circle, BUT – (view spoiler)

For the book, without the last chapter, a full five stars. As it stands, it is a gloriously dystopic treatise on sociopathy and abuse of authority; about the value of free will.

It may not be the book that Burgess intended to write – but sometimes truth shines through regardless of intentionality.

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The Windsingers – Megan Lindholm ****

It’s been 3 years since I read the first book in the series; I wish it’d been a little fresher in my memory…
Still, this is an excellent fantasy, following the adventures of Ki and Vandien…
The itinerant almost-couple, who we met in ‘Harpy’s Flight’ have to split up in this installment – Vandien commits himself to a treasure hunt in a remote fishing village, while Ki gets herself sucked into a feud between the wizard Dresh and the powerful Windsingers – women who control the weather with their voices, and exact payment for assuring favorable conditions.
For a good part of the book, the two stories feel very separate (and I found Vandien’s story much more compelling), but Lindholm does a great job of eventually tying the two narratives together.

What might seem fairly standard fantasy fare is lifted above the typical by a deft and nuanced treatment of characters and relationships – there’s a lot of emotional tension around Vandien’s scarred face – a scar which he got while saving Ki’s life, in the last book – and the situation is handled well. Nice action, plenty of entertainment, a bit of humor, and a dash of romance. I’m looking forward to reading the next in the series before another 3 years go by!

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Embrace the Mutation: Fiction Inspired by the Art of J. K. Potter – William Schaefer, ed.

I’ve been wanting to read this book since it came out, and finally got it through interlibrary loan. Yay ILL!
The idea here is that all the authors (a solid roster of respected and well-known horror writers) contributed stories inspired by the surreal and horrific photomontages of J.K. Potter.

*** Michael Marshall Smith – Night Falls, Again.
Key West. A bar. Tourists. A guy that goes in for a drink, and a girl sitting at the sidewalk cafe. And a mood that shifts from sunny and bright to dark and violent, in just the way an alcoholic’s mood turns evil. Well done.

*** Graham Joyce – First, Catch Your Demon.
A solitary, bitter man kills two of three scorpions that turn up in his cabin. Then, a naked woman turns up, who gluts him with sex and drugs. Bizarre things happen, that may or may not be hallucinations. OK, but not nearly as good as Joyce’s more recent writings, from what I’ve read.

*** Ramsey Campbell – No End of Fun.
A man visits his young niece and her mother, at the seaside boarding house they run. Memories of a dead woman haunt him, and undercurrents of nastiness out of proportion to the mild events described flow through the story.

* John Crowley – The War Between the Objects and the Subjects.
Just the other day, I was thinking that I probably shouldn’t have embraced my hatred of diagramming sentences quite so strongly, considering my current field of work. None the less, I really do hate sentence diagramming. If I loved it, I might love this story. But I don’t.

** Dennis Etchison – In a Silent Way.
Sneaky manipulation and murder in an insane asylum. It was OK, but felt a little typical. Might’ve fit in well, with a little tweaking, as an episode in the last season of American Horror Story.

**** Elizabeth Hand – Pavane for a Prince of the Air
Unlike most of these stories, not horror at all, but a story of grief. A friend of the narrator (author? It feels very, very autobiographical), an old hippie, passes away, and the narrator participates in his widow’s neo-pagan death ritual.

* Michael Bishop – Help Me, Rondo.
A monologue written in the form of a screenplay. I really can’t stand reading screenplays, so that probably affected my feelings. But I also just wasn’t won over by the slight plot. A boy with acromegaly shows up at the door of the widow of a B-movie horror actor who also had acromegaly. Apparently, the boy thinks the actor might have been his father, but the old lady says so – and seems to have a bit of the hots for him. But nothing much really happens, and the theme of Hollywood prejudice didn’t really wow me.

*** Poppy Z. Brite – The Goose Girl.
Here, Poppy Brite makes the salient point that goths are not the type of outcasts who become school shooters. As a matter of fact, they might be the victims. It’s true, but I think Id’ve liked this story a lot more when I was in highschool.

**** Lucius Shepard – Radiant Green Star.
I really liked this tale of a low-budget Vietnamese circus troupe. The characterization and setting were vividly realized and fascinating, making me want to seek out more of Shepard’s writing. The only thing keeping it from 5 stars is that I wished the two elements of the plot tied together more strongly at the end: there’s the ‘circus attraction’ who may or may not be a genetically modified American prisoner-of-war, kept alive beyond his time, struggling to recall his past – and then there’s the convoluted murder plot of a boy encouraged from a young age to kill his father, whom, he is told, is a murderer himself, and out to steal a rightful inheritance. I just wanted a stronger conclusion. (Locus Award Winner for Novella)

** Kim Newman – Egyptian Avenue.
Set in the same world as many of Newman’s novels (featuring the Diogenes Club.) This quick horror story deals with an ancient Egyptian (or is it?) curse on a nasty Victorian industrialist’s tomb – and ties it in to his even nastier descendant. These have just never really won me over. They’re OK.

* James Morrow – The Cat’s Pajamas.
You would think that I would like the writing of a “self-described “scientific humanist”.” But I don’t. I read his ‘Only Begotten Daughter,’ really disliked it, and I dislike this too. I just don’t enjoy his flavor of satire. A self-described “sane scientist” creates grotesque human-animal hybrids with an agenda of small-scale social improvement.

*** Peter Crowther – Breathing in Faces.
This could totally be a sequel / companion piece to Ray Bradbury’s ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes.’ Evil carnivals, storms, small towns, ‘innocent’ children… it’s pretty spooky, too.

** Norman Partridge – And What Did You See in the World?
A guy drives around with his girlfriend locked in the trunk of his car. But the situation isn’t quite – not quite – what you might guess. OK.

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Fatal Women – Tanith Lee ****

Wow – this book is great. One of Tanith Lee’s best – and I love Tanith Lee. I don’t really understand the pseudonym – the conceit is that she wrote these stories as if she were an imaginary author called Esther Garber – but, believe me, the style is all Lee.

A woman, after agreeing to do away with a couple of abusive husbands, finds herself emotionally obsessed with the bereaved mistress of one of the men she’s killed.

Virgile, The Widow
An elderly woman who, for years, has run a salon for women at her manor house, decides to retire before dying – and to hire an infamous courtesan to be her companion in her last days. One of the young habituees of her salon develops an unhealthy obsession with the courtesan…

The Umbrella/The Woman Under The Umbrella/Rain
A story in three parts. This was apparently co-written – Lee did the first part (which is by far the best), another author wrote the response, and then they collaborated on the conclusion. Love at first sight, thwarted by misapprehensions…

Green Iris
A typist, after encountering an alluring woman at a party, inveigles her way into being hired to type the woman’s husband’s work (he’s an author). Unfortunately for her, the wife seems to have no inclination toward women – but the husband sets his sights on pressuring his typist into becoming his mistress.

Le Jardin
A ruthless and wealthy collector is bent on pressuring a poverty-stricken woman into selling him a valuable drawing by a famous artist, which he is sure that she owns. The only blatantly ‘fantastic’ piece in the book, it speaks eloquently about the pricelessness of art, and the richness it brings to our lives.

All of these stories are incredibly beautiful. There are few writings that I read and say, “YES – that is how I think.” This did that.

The ‘official’ description of the book makes much of the lesbian content, but none of these are really erotic – though they are certainly sensual. At time I was reminded of both Anais Nin and Sarah Waters (the salon in ‘Virgile’ reminded me quite a lot of Diana’s house in ‘Tipping the Velvet.’)