book reviews by Althea

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The Door in the Mountain – Caitlin Sweet **

Sweet takes Greek mythology as her inspiration, and blends and reinterprets classic elements into her own fantasy tale.

I appreciated the two main conceits of the book:
First, the two main characters, rather than being the ‘special’ ones with unusual powers, are actually the only two developed characters who do not have powers and are just ordinary.

Second, the main viewpoint character is the ‘bad guy’ rather than the hero.

Both of these are not at all what is usually seen in fiction for young people, and were quite refreshing.

Unfortunately, ultimately, the book as a whole didn’t work for me. The author kept teasing me with a dark, mythological feel, but then the tone would slip into a more contemporary-YA thing that reminded me of ‘Percy Jackson.’ The fact that we’re dealing with teens who’ve inherited powers from, or may be the children of, Greek gods, adds to that. Now, I don’t care for Riordan’s writing; many many people do – so your mileage may vary.

However, my main issue with the book is that I found Ariadne’s character unconvincing. She is consumed with jealousy & resentment and filled with a drive toward vindictive, destructive actions… but why? There’s a nod given toward her not living up to her mother’s dreams; the old chestnut about wanting to be daddy’s favorite girl. Of course, a certain amount of jealousy of an older sibling toward a younger might be normal – but what’s shown here goes way beyond normal (it’s murderous!), and I wanted to be given reasons to buy it. I didn’t find those reasons. While I don’t judge the quality of a book on the likability of its characters, it’s still worth a mention that Ariadne is a thoroughly nasty person to have to spend any amount of time with.

In contrast, the slave Chara, who works against Ariadne’s plots, is thoroughly wonderful. Clever, generous, loyal, accepting all indignities with equanimity… she’s just too perfect.

My other issue was simply that: this is a retelling of the story of the Minotaur. Icarus is also a major character. I feel like the book is aimed at readers already familiar with the associated myths. Therefore, we anticipate the inevitability of certain outcomes. And… we don’t get them. The book ends abruptly, with an appended ‘teaser’ chapter for the sequel. I don’t always hate a setup for a sequel… but I just didn’t feel that the ‘shape’ of the story arc here felt complete.

A copy of this book was provided by NetGalley for review. As always, my opinions are solely my own.


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The Red Magician – Lisa Goldstein ****

Here, Goldstein brings the feel of the mythopoeic into a WWII story.

Kisci is a young Jewish girl who’s never been outside her insular, rural community. She longs to experience the wider world, and when a red-haired traveler comes to town, he captures her imagination, even though his warnings of doom are nothing anyone wants to hear. The local rabbi insists that the traveler is an enemy, and works himself up to a raging vendetta against him, ignoring evil omens… and the source of the real threat.

However, soon enough, the outside world will encroach on Kisci’s village in a way that none of her neighbors could believe. War is on the way…

Traditional Jewish folklore is prominent, with the myth of the Wandering Jew and the legend of the Golem woven into the narrative. The format of the story is a familiar fantasy: the battle between two powerful wizards. But, while crafting a fairy tale; the story deals with historical horrors with a delicate yet moving touch.

Recommended: this story is a bit what I expected Jane Yolen’s ‘Briar Rose’ (…) to be like.

I’ve only previously read one other book by Goldstein, and I much preferred this one. (I’m glad that, when deciding to read this, I actually hadn’t remembered that I’d read it – I might not have chosen to, and I would’ve missed out!)

Many thanks to NetGalley for providing me the opportunity to read this novel. As always, my opinions are my own.

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Acceptance – Jeff VanderMeer ****

(Southern Reach, #3)

I loved ‘Annihilation’; I had a few doubts about ‘Authority’ – but ‘Acceptance’ pulled it all back together.

However, if anyone reading this is thinking about starting here: don’t. You will be totally lost. I actually think you could conceivably skip the middle volume, but ‘Annihilation’ is a required prerequisite.

‘Acceptance’ brings us back to the depths of Area X.
The book has a lot of jump-cuts and flashbacks (I actually think it might’ve worked better chronologically, but that’s not what VanderMeer wanted to do, so I’ll just have to accept it).

The main character here is Saul, the lighthouse keeper/former preacher. Where before he was a cipher, merely a figure in an old photograph, here he becomes a fully realized and fascinating individual – and we find out how his presence at the inception of Area X may have influenced the direction of events to come…

We also learn more about the Science and Séance Bureau – and how they might’ve been involved.

And of course – the biologist, her duplicate, and what happened there…

The language is beautiful. Especially as one is just entering the book (and it does feel like entering, like crossing the barrier) it is truly striking how lovely the phrasing is. In some senses this trilogy is a work of apocalyptic horror – but one can’t help feeling a certain awesome beauty in what is happening, and the way in which the story is told reflects that.

There are layers and hints of symbolism here as well – but it remains indefinite what elements of the story are meant to stand for something, and which are there just because they ARE. There’s a lot of room for the reader to bring their own interpretations.

As the book ends, there is a slight sense of frustration, which, for me was gradually replaced by a sense of, yes, acceptance. Upon contemplation, I actually think that VanderMeer answered just enough of the many questions he created, and left just enough open-ended.

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The Time Roads – Beth Bernobich **

Throughout reading this book , I had the impression that it was a debut novel, and came away with the impression that, for all its clunkiness, it showed promise. I initially slid up from my ‘more-like-2.5-stars’ impression to 3. However, I’ve just noticed that it is not a debut; the author has half-a-dozen other books to her name… so I’m sliding back down to 2.

The novel is in three distinct sections. (Technically, four, but the middle two ‘felt’ like one, to me.) The first is quite short, and is from the perspective of the young, soon-to-be-Queen of the Empire of Éire, Áine Devereaux. The set-up feels like that of a typical romance, introducing a love triangle. Áine meets and is instantly attracted to a dashing blond inventor, Breandan Ó Cuilinn, who seeks royal patronage for his research into time fractures; but she also soon has sparks flying with her dark and handsome personal bodyguard Aidrean Ó Deághaidh. [I have to admit, I found myself reading the names as Ann, Brendan, and Adrian O’Day.]
My initial reaction was, “Oh, I didn’t realize this was a romance.”

Well, it’s not. Soon enough, a science-experiment-related accident has taken Brendan out of the picture, and the narrative focus switches mostly over to O’Day. He’s been re-assigned by Queen Ann (ok, it’s actually pronounced ‘Anya’) to investigate the serial murders of several brilliant college students – many of whose field of expertise seems to relate in some way to the ‘time roads’ and ‘time fractures’ that Brendan was working on, before his disappearance. There may also be a connection to terrorist plots having to do with ‘The Matter of Anglia’ (yes, here England is the disgruntled colony, not Ireland). Things start exploding…both literally and figuratively.

In this section, I think many fans of alternate history would get very frustrated. A politically complex Europe is introduced here, but we don’t get any of the background into why and how this timeline got to where they are. Why does the Queen of Eire have a French (or ‘Frankonian’) name, for example? How did Ireland come to ascendance at all? Why do the various countries bear grudges against the empire? It’s hard to enjoy unraveling a mystery and a plot when elements are just introduced randomly: “Oh, well, it could be the Anatolian terrorists!” (What Anatolian terrorists? Never heard of them before!)

In addition, the time experiments seem to have introduced ‘fractures’ into this timeline, which is an interesting idea, but in practice makes for a further element of confusion. Characters start “remembering” events that didn’t happen… or did they? Or are they insane? Did certain murders happen at all? Even at the end of the book, it hasn’t all been fully clarified…

The third section brings us back to the Queen, and the main plot points do all get wrapped up. Thankfully, the Queen has definitely matured over time. The reader doesn’t actually see it happening, but she’s become a believable leader, rather than a moony-eyed teenager.

Overall, there’s definitely some fun adventure here, some colorful, appealing characters.. but the worldbuilding and pacing needed some work, in my opinion.

Copy provided by NetGalley – many thanks for the opportunity to read. As always (and obviously) my opinion is my own, and unaffected by the source.

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Tales from High Hallack, Volume Three: The Collected Short Stories of Andre Norton ***

I was a big fan of Andre Norton when I was a kid… but I hadn’t previously read any of these stories. This is the third in an (I presume) chronologically-arranged series of Norton collections, the majority of the stories here were written in the ’90s – after my big Norton-reading phase. Regardless of the title, there aren’t any ‘Witch World’ stories in this collection (no actual mentions of High Hallack).

I was definitely curious to get a sense of her later work, and to revisit an author from a new perspective. The result? Well, I’m not actually sure Norton’s writing, if it came out for the first time today, would gain the popularity it enjoyed. The literary bar for genre writing has moved over time. However, I definitely saw what I always loved about her writing. She had a talent for creating appealing characters (both human and feline), and her stories show a pro-woman, pro-tolerance and understanding attitude that was far from ubiquitous at the time.

Auôur the Deepminded
Relates the tale of a Scandinavian woman who leads her people to settle Iceland. I’m not sure if the character is fictional, legendary, or possibly historical, but this is a fine tale.

No Folded Hands
A response to “With Folded Hands …”, a 1947 science fiction novelette by Jack Williamson, in which humanity comes to accept alien overlords. I haven’t read Williamson’s story, but Norton imagines a brave resistance to the deceptively benign-seeming antlike aliens by Native American shamans.

Bard’s Crown
A Scottish woman must deal with her dissolute brother, and his quest for treasure that should better be left to lie…

Frog Magic
Usually, it’s the wizard turning people into frogs. But now, the tables have been turned, and a wizard finds himself unexpectedly in the middle of a stream, catching flies with his long, sticky tongue…

Herne’s Lady
At the advanced age of twenty-six, an heiress finds herself the lady of the manor, and unattached. The neighboring lord is a threat – but an elderly woman will help her find her true destiny in the surrounding wood.

The Outling
Outside her village, a midwife finds a mother in the midst of a difficult birth. Despite her best efforts the mother – clearly not human – dies, and the midwife takes the normal-appearing baby to foster. But eventually, ancient heritage will out… I particularly liked this one, with its fairy tale setting, and exploration of ethics, loyalty and identity.

Stonish Men
A Knight Templar, blown far off course while fleeing enemies, eventually finds himself alone and lost in a strange and unknown land. He has no option but to hide the casket containing his order’s greatest treasure. Centuries later, the relic will be found…

Churchyard Yew
A story of malevolent ghosts and exorcism at a historic bed and breakfast. This reminded me a lot, in feel, of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s ‘Witchlight’ series.

Root and Branch Shall Change
An Arthurian musing, from the perspective of Nimue, about Merlin. This one didn’t really capture my attention.

White Violets
Traditional-feeling, old-fashioned story of a curse, a broken engagement – and an evil that may visit itself in yet another cycle, affecting two families.

Needle and Dream
Celebrating ‘women’s work,’ in this story, a homely craft becomes a potent force against evil, in a small town where villagers are occasionally gifted with true dreaming.

Procession to Var
This kind of story is what I think of when I think “classic Andre Norton.” Sci-fi, interesting aliens, a focus on cultural differences/understanding, and some golden-age-style action. A group of spacefaring archaeologists discover an interesting mural on an alien planet – realize that the alien culture is not at all dead – and then deal with the nefarious raiders that secretly followed them to their remote location…

Set in Stone
Another classic sci-fi tale… An enslaved young man, forced into dangerous space exploration as a ‘scout’ by his overlords, hopes to find escape on an alien planet – even if it’s through death.

On a working retreat at a friend’s ancient manor, a young artist is overtaken by pagan magic filtered through Arthurian lore. Can she escape the power of her spiritual heritage?

Three-Inch Trouble
A spaceship has unintentionally got itself infested with angry alien gremlins. It’s the ship’s cat to the rescue: he knows and understands far more than his clumsy human crewmates guess!

The End is the Beginning
The themes here will be familiar to those who’ve read the ‘Star Ka’at’ books. Through endless years on a generation ship, the humans who built the infrastructure and planned the voyage have died out – but ‘their’ cats have mutated or evolved into increasingly intelligent beings…

The Familiar
When raiders strike, a young girl’s favorite toy reveals itself as a sentient being with – possibly – the power to save her.

Red Cross, White Cross
Two brothers, forced into Holy Orders – one a Knight Templar, one a Knight Hospitaller. Years later, when the Templars are discredited and disenfranchised, both meet and find their oaths and loyalties tested.

Sow’s Ear—Silk Purse
On the eve of an unwanted marriage, a young woman seeks out a witch to ask her to curse her with ugliness. Surely her betrothed will reject her if she is truly hideous! But things don’t work out as expected…

The Cobwebbed Princess
Sleeping Beauty’s rescue depends upon her loyal cat, in this retelling of the classic fairy tale.

Faire Likeness
Trouble comes to the Renaissance Faire, in the form of a black magician and his malevolently-created voodoo dolls. A woman and a cat team up to use heretofore-untapped powers to defeat the evil…

Copy provide to me by NetGalley – many thanks for the opportunity to read this volume. As always, my opinions are my own.

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Infidel – Kameron Hurley *****

(Bel Dame, #2)

Everything I hoped for in a sequel…

I felt this was every bit as good as ‘God’s War,’ and I loved being transported back to Hurley’s poisonous, bug-infested world.

However – I’d definitely recommend starting with the first book – this is one where you won’t be lost, plot-wise, but it’s going to be a richer experience if you’ve already ‘gotten to know’ the characters.

Mercenary assassin Nyx is down on her luck, taking ‘babysitting’ jobs as a bodyguard. But when she stumbles into a revolutionary plot involving warring governments, supposed third parties, and, of course, the organization of female assassins called bel dames who kicked Nyx out years ago… she jumps at the chance to get involved, and drags her team in behind her.

It’s a violent, gritty, action-oriented book – but it also explores complex motivations and emotions, the interplay of cultures, and conflicting loyalties. Plus, it’s chock-full of nasty, fascinating details…

Now… time to find the third in the series!

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Althea & Oliver – Cristina Moracho ***

Full disclosure: I read this book because of the title. Yeah, that’s my name… and when the blurb told me it was about a punk rock girl moving to New York… I was sold.

Well, it’s not, really.
It’s about a girl whose best friend from childhood comes down with a rare and life-changing illness. Althea has to face both the difficult time Oliver is having, and the normal strains and stresses about how relationships – and one’s sense of self – change as one grows up.

Yes, as part of growing up, Althea kinda-sorta runs away and finds new friends and community in New York. Even though she and her new friends weren’t really ‘punk’ (they’re more Brooklyn hipsters, really… I felt like I’d been here 10 years by the time things were like the descriptions here, even though the blurb says it’s supposed to be the early 1990s) this was by far my favorite part of the book, and yes, it really did have aspects that I could relate to.
However, that’s only the latter part of the book. The larger, first half is all suburban angst and high school drama. It’s pretty well done – Althea thinks and acts like a teen, and I found her believable, even though I never had an Oliver that I expected to stay close to for my whole life.

Oliver’s plight, meanwhile… well, when I was a kid I went through a phase of reading books about children who go through awful, horrible things: abuse, fatal illnesses, etc. (It started with Torey Hayden’s ‘One Child’ and expanded…) There’s a whole genre of these books. I think the appeal is in the exploration of: what’s the worst possible thing that could happen to you?
But, I’m long over that phase, and Oliver’s illness seemed like a very non-severe and watered-down version of the kind of drama to be found in that genre. It was a little interesting to learn about Kleine-Levin Syndrome, but it didn’t totally grab me.

I did, however, really like the ending – I was afraid the book was going to paint itself into a difficult corner, but I thought the resolution was quite satisfying.

I felt like I wasn’t exactly the target audience for this book. If I’d read it at a certain point in time when i was younger, I think it would’ve resonated a lot more – so I would definitely recommend it to 12-16 year olds, especially rebellious ones.

Many thanks to Netgalley for the opportunity to read a copy of this book.

As always, my opinions are solely my own.

PS note on other reviews: I find the number of other reviews that are criticizing Althea for ‘raping’ Oliver while he was sick kind of odd. Did these readers miss the part where, later, Althea says, “I don’t think I could’ve stopped it”? In his illness, Oliver was very physically sexually aggressive. Yes, she wanted it – but he also physically overcame her. I thought that was a good part of making the incident a convincing emotionally complex event.
In addition – I think a number of readers are criticizing this as if it were a romance. Yes, there is a lot of hurtful and bad behavior in this book. But at no time does the author glorify people’s hurtful actions, or portray them as romantic. People aren’t always nice to each other, and a good, insightful novel will recognize this – as this one does.