book reviews by Althea

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Broken Monsters – Lauren Beukes *****

NetGalley sent me an ‘invitation’ to read this book from an author I’d never heard of. The blurb didn’t necessarily make the book sound like it was my kind of thing… but I decided to give it a try. I LOVED IT.

If you’re someone who’s missed Kathe Koja’s early writing (Strange Angels, Skin, Bad Brains, etc.) you HAVE GOT to get yourself a copy of ‘Broken Monsters’ ASAP. It’s not that similar in actual writing style, but the content and themes are very similar: Beukes explores the fuzzy line between art and insanity. Her characters are realistic, believable people who tend to live on the fringes of society. The horror and suspense lie both in what people will do, and do to themselves – as well as in straight-up eerie supernatural bleedover into our world.

Weirdly, although Beukes lives in South Africa, ‘Broken Monsters’ is set in modern-day Detroit – where Koja has moved to, and is now heavily involved in the local arts scene.

At the outset, the book seems like it will be a fairly standard police procedural, maybe a serial killer tale. A young boy is found killed, and the crime scene is both grotesque and bizarre. We are introduced to several different viewpoint characters – the detective who’s on the case, her teenage daughter, a homeless scavenger, an itinerant artist, a journalist recently arrived in town and looking to make a fresh start… Gradually, as the book progresses, the viewpoints converge, and as more clues are revealed, the situation gets weirder and more disturbing…

Great suspense, some truly creepy elements, a deft touch with the use of horror…

I’m going to have to go find more of Beukes’ writing.


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Dust and Light – Carol Berg *****

(Sanctuary Duet #1)

You can always count on Berg for a great fantasy tale, and this one is a top-notch entry into her bibliography.

I thought this would be a direct sequel to the ‘Lighthouse Duet’: ‘Flesh and Spirit’ and ‘Breath and Bone’ – but instead, it’s a separate story that takes place in the same world.

The ‘Lighthouse Duet’ gives us an initially unlikable protagonist named Valen, an attractive young man who becomes contracted to a doubtful master, has to learn about his magical heritage, and who goes through all manner of trials and tribulations, meanwhile growing as a person and solving a problem larger than those that affect just his own life…

Here, we are introduced to Lucien, an initially unlikable protagonist who becomes contracted to a doubtful master, has to learn about his magical heritage, and who goes through all manner of trials and tribulations, meanwhile growing as a person and solving a problem larger than those that affect just his own life… 😉

Yes, Carol Berg likes tortured young men. I don’t mind! And the two characters are actually quite different in their specifics and personality.

The book largely reads as a murder mystery – Lucien is a professional portrait painter, whose magic, when used in conjunction with his art, has developed a tendency to reveal more than intended about the sitter. Unwittingly, he triggers the destruction of his entire family, and is cast from his position. But, the talent that was his downfall may also be his redemption.

Can’t wait for the sequel!

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Alas Babylon – Pat Frank ***

A re-read – but, at my best guess, I previously read this just about exactly 30 years ago. It was a ubiquitous presence on library and bookstore shelves. (The paperback with this cover:…)

I couldn’t have told you the details, but re-reading (for post-apocalyptic book club, of course), it was striking how certain images came back to me with such clear familiarity – the radiation burn around a woman’s finger from irradiated jewelry, for example.

In style, the book reminded me quite a lot of Nevil Shute’s ‘On the Beach,’ which was published two years earlier (1957).…
Objectively, I think that ‘On the Beach’ is a better work of fiction, but ‘Alas, Babylon’ is not without its appeal. It is funny though, that in Pat Frank’s introduction, he mentions that his main reason for writing this book was to convince people how very disastrous a nuclear conflict would be. However, compared to ‘On the Beach’ (which he must’ve been aware of), this is a sunny and optimistic novel. It definitely falls into the sub-category of post-apocalyptic fiction that focuses on people coming together and re-building, with unbroken spirit.

The writing and attitudes shown here definitely reflect the time period. It could definitely be argued that it is quite racist and sexist. Ironically, however, I think that it is more than probable that Pat Frank himself felt that he was very progressive in his attitudes. He clearly made an effort to treat his black American characters with dignity and respect, and to create what he felt to be strong, educated women. However, a modern reader will most likely not feel that he was successful in these endeavors. I simply decided to look at it as a snapshot of American social attitudes in the 1950’s – and, as such, it is really quite fascinating and illuminating.

The plot? It deals with one man, who, after a nuclear war, finds himself in a position of leadership in his small Florida town. Miraculously, the town is in a ‘pocket’ relatively free of radioactive fallout, and the book is largely taken up by the daily minutiae of what happens, and what the various townsfolk have to do to survive. There are many details that one could quibble with – would ‘x’ really be such an issue? Logically, would ‘y’ really work that way? – but overall, it keeps the reader’s attention.

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I Am Morgan Le Fay – Nancy Springer ****

A very nice addition to the body of works featuring a female-centric, pagan-influenced take on the Arthurian mythos.
It’s not as complex as ‘The Mists of Avalon’ (which it is clearly influenced by), but it shares some of the same themes.

Here, we see events from Morgan’s point of view, as she grows up in tune with old magics, and discovers a stone that enhances her powers. Hurt by the traumatic events that shake her family, she is often blind to her own faults – but she is also not unsympathetic.

The events told here largely deal with Morgan le Fay’s youth, her growing up, her first love, and the forces that formed her character and led her to, later, do the things her legend tells of.

The flavor of the story reminded me a bit of ‘King Arthur’s Daughter,’ by Vera Chapman.

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The Willful Princess and the Piebald Prince – Robin Hobb ****

A prequel or ancillary to Hobb’s Farseer series This short novel (very brief, compared to other volumes in the series) takes a point of history referred to in the other books (How those with the animal-focused telepathy known as ‘the Wit’ came to be maligned), and fleshes it out, showing how rumor and propaganda can become future generations’ accepted facts.

As the title suggests, there’s a lot of the fairy tale in this story, which is narrated by a wet nurse’s daughter, raised as servant to royalty – but the style is purely Hobb’s. It meshes epic events with the quotidian with aplomb, and introduces us to flawed yet sympathetic characters with such a deft touch that you’ll finish the book feeling like they’re people you really know.

Recommended for all fans of the Farseer world.

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Ready Player One – Ernest Cline ****

I enjoyed this book a lot. That said, I feel like it has a very narrow audience; a reader much younger (or older) than me would probably miss a lot, and a reader geekier than I would probably like it even more. But if you were around for 80s pop culture, you’ll get something out of this.

In the near future, a virtual reality world has taken over pop culture. Gaming, socializing, even school classes take place in this MMO environment. It only adds to the popularity when the fabulously wealthy designer of this interface dies – and leaves his entire fortune to the person who follows the clues and wins the secret video game he’s hidden in easter eggs in his virtual world.

The deceased programmer was a child of the 80s, so his clues are all based in 80s video games, movies, music and other pop culture references – which spawns a massive cultural retro fad for all things 80s, which creates an odd veneer on this dystopian future landscape (things aren’t doing too well, out IRL.) Communities of people devoted to playing the game spring up – but, with that much money at stake, evil corporate interests also have an eye toward winning.

Wade (known as Parzival online), a poor but fully geeky boy, becomes one of the leading players of the game, hoping to leverage his videogame skills and his in-depth knowledge of 80s trivia into success. With the help of his friends – whom he’s never actually met – he goes up against the Borg-like Sixers (paid corporate hackers) – and soon gets in deeper than he’d expected.

The book’s a fun adventure, but it also has a lot to say about both the good and the bad aspects of today’s increasingly wired environment; the pitfalls and the benefits of online identities, and how the ‘virtual’ can also be quite real.

One thing that struck me while reading the book, however, which wasn’t really discussed as deeply as it could’ve been, is the limitations inherent in fandom. The author is clearly, as we could say himself, a ‘fanboy,’ as are his characters. However, the author has now created his own art, in the form of this book, and his other creative output. However, his characters don’t. They spend hours obsessing over and memorizing trivia. The can play pre-programmed video game routines flawlessly. They can recite all the dialogue to movies that others created, lyrics to songs others wrote. They immerse themselves in virtual worlds that others designed. This may apply to today’s ‘geeks’ as well, but in the book it’s much more glaring because for these characters it’s practically ancient history, decades removed – their grandfather’s pop culture. Not much new and creative seems to be going on at all; the world is kind of falling apart, while people escape into VR. There’s a fun, rich aspect to this fandom – but also a desperation, and a stagnant, stifling side.

I forgot to mention: the ‘armchair treasure hunt’ aspect to the video game contest made me remember the book, ‘Masquerade’ from my childhood:…. I thought it was funny that the book didn’t make even a passing mention of book-oriented puzzles of this sort, that were very popular in the 80s.

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Beowulf – Seamus Heaney, trans. ****

Four stars, only because it’s not as amazing as Tolkien’s translation, which I read right before this version. (I read them back-to-back, for comparison.) I’ve read other translations before, but I don’t recall which ones specifically.

This one, the Heaney translation, is apparently the standard in today’s college classes. (It wasn’t yet published last time I read ‘Beowulf.’)

The Tolkien direct translation is more ‘difficult,’ but both (I cannot verify, but I got the feeling) more accurate and more lovely to the ear, with evocative and musical language. Tolkien’s language and imagery is both vivid and elevated; and gives the reader the feeling of a glimpse into the past.

Heaney apparently admitted that he sacrificed literal accuracy to his desire to keep the poem a poem – to maintain a certain ‘alliteration and rhythm.’ He also gives the story a far more modern-sounding vocabulary; which some may prefer – but I did not.

For me, the Heaney lies between two of Tolkien’s versions. Tolkien did his accurate, scholarly translation. But he also wrote his own poem or ‘lay’ based on Beowulf – which is true, musical poetry. Both work amazingly at being the best possible iteration of what they are. A faithful translation. A heart-moving poem. Heaney’s translation – while it is undoubtedly better than many others – is sometimes awkward rather than gloriously archaic. Still; had I not read the other version directly preceding it, I probably would’ve given 5 stars.