book reviews by Althea

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Signal to Noise – Silvia Moreno-Garcia ****

I picked up this book because I’d read one of Moreno-Garcia’s short stories in the ‘Dangerous Games’ anthology, and really enjoyed it.

From that one previous experience of her writing (a modern Lovecraft tribute), this book wasn’t quite what I expected – however, it won me over.

Alternating between scenes set in 1988 and twenty years later, the novel introduces us to Meche.

In 1988, she’s a teen in Mexico City. Her family doesn’t have much money, and she’s an unpopular, nerdy girl. However, she’s got two friends, Sebastian and Daniela. The trio often seems inseparable. And she’s got her music, a world which her dearly beloved father introduced her to.

In 2009, Meche is a successful computer programmer based in Oslo. After years away, she’s visiting Mexico and the old neighborhood after her estranged fathers death. To the reader, it’s at first inexplicable why she’s so very strongly opposed to seeing either of her old friends – and what happened to the relationship between her and her father.

As the book progresses, the answers are gradually revealed. It all has something to do with a discovery of witchcraft: objects of power and wishes come true. But more, it has to do with the long, slow process of growing up; about decisions and regrets. Choices have consequences; some things, once broken, can never be mended. But some things, perhaps, can.

The magic here is powerful and believable, integrated seamlessly with daily life. However, although the magic is an integral part of the story, the kernel of the book is about love and hate: interpersonal relationships.

Moreno-Garcia’s writing is excellent, and she excels at drawing fully-rounded, complex characters. Mexico City came to vivid life under her pen. If I had to point to one thing I would change, though, I’d say I wished I was given a little bit more a a grounded sense of what Meche’s life in Oslo is like – we don’t actually see Norway at all in the books, so it feels a bit dreamlike when she talks about living there: like her family members that have never left Mexico, we can’t even really imagine it. Perhaps that’s intentional, though.

This is a young author to watch – I expect further great things from her.

Many thanks to NetGalley for the opportunity to read this book. As always, my opinion is my own.


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The Glittering World – Robert Levy ****

Imagine: Kelly Link’s “The Summer People” meets Elizabeth Hand’s “Last Summer at Mars Hill” with a bit of the ‘feel’ of Graham Joyce (especially ‘Some Kind of Fairytale’).

If you haven’t read those other stories, go read them now. But read this book too.

Blue is a young New York City restaurateur. Recently, the grandmother he never knew passed away, leaving him a cottage in the small community where he lived as a child. All he knows is that his mother left the place – some kind of hippie commune – and hated his grandmother. He’s arranged to sell the house to pay off some debts, but figures he might as well see the place at least once before it’s gone.

And hey, it’s a good excuse for a getaway. He travels up to the rural community along with his best friend, her husband, and the young bus boy from his restaurant who’s recently fallen into an obsessive friendship with him.

Once at their B&B, they’re made welcome by the locals. (Maybe just a little bit too welcome.) But perhaps there was a reason Blue’s mother made him promise to never visit this town. It might be related to the reason that Blue has very few memories from his childhood. And the tall tales that the eccentric locals tell about faeries gradually become more and more inescapable.

I found some of the details here fun but slightly distracting – the characters mention partying at Limelight, which is a club I worked at. That facet of their past did not endear them to me (although I got over it). Then, there’s a mention of an incident there it seems that one of them was a regular at The Slipper Room. (And drag king Murray Hill is performing!) Now, that’s a night I might’ve been at! However, if you wanna be very nitpicky, x parties at Limelight and Murray Hill at the Slipper Room were not concurrent events. There’s a few years between those two. And the Venn diagram of people who voluntarily attended both types of event is very small (although not nonexistent). However, pretty much no one else in the world who reads this book is going to care about that… it’s just background info.

Overall, this book is an excellent mix of faerie fantasy and contemporary thriller. An impressive debut.

Many thanks to NetGalley and Gallery Books for the opportunity to read this book. It was right up my alley! As always, my opinions are my own.

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Dragons at Crumbling Castle – Terry Pratchett ***

When Terry Pratchett was a young man, he worked at a newspaper. These short and humorous stories were published in that paper, The ‘Bucks Free Press’ as part of their ‘Children’s Circle’ page. They’re a wonderful glimpse into the early development of a writer – but they’re also wholly enjoyable on their own merits.

Dragons at Crumbling Castle: The title story is a charming and punny, if not altogether unfamiliar-feeling, tale of a quest to slay some dragons who turn out to be more congenial than expected. (LOL, the Sports Page.)

Hercules the Tortoise: If you ever happen to have a child whose pet turtle goes missing after being let out to crawl around the yard – this is the perfect story for that moment.

The Great Speck: A simple yet very true analogy about cooperation vs. nationalism and one-upmanship. And a story about the two nations resident on a floating dust mote going to visit a passing, neighboring dust mote.

Hunt the Snorry: Basically, an extended joke with a pretty funny punchline, making fun of Great Hunts and glorious quests.

Tales of the Carpet People: Pratchett fans who’ve read his recently re-published first novel “The Carpet People” will be familiar with the characters here. I actually think the conceit works better in a shorter format.

Dok the Caveman: The Dawn of Civilization, according to Pratchett.

The Big Race: Have you ever wondered why we use gasoline-guzzling cars, rather than steam-powered ones? Here’s Pratchett’s theory.

Another Tale of the Carpet People: Here, the Carpet People set out on a voyage of exploration (with certain parallels to the storybook conception of Columbus’ famous voyage) and ‘discover’ the Rug.

The Egg-Dancing Championship: A small-town folktale of rivalries surrounding two neighboring villages’ (rather silly) traditonal contest.

Edwo the Boring Knight: Edwo may be boring (in fact, he bores a dragon stiff – literally), but this story of a youngest son off to seek his fortune, is not.

The 59A Bus Goes Back in Time: A typical London bus takes a most unusual route…

The Abominable Snowman: A funny spoof of the traditional style of British Scientific Expedition to Foreign Parts (and the British tradition of package holidays).

The Blackbury Monster: The mayor of a sleepy small town comes up with an innovative way to attract tourism: pretend there’s a monster in the lake. However, the fallout from his scheme isn’t quite what he expected.

Father Christmas Gets A Job: In today’s job market, even our much-beloved Santa Claus might find he’s not very ’employable.’

Many thanks to NetGalley and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for the opportunity to read this collection. As always, my opinions are my own.

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The Salt Roads – Nalo Hopkinson ***

Undoubtedly, a tour-de-force of magical realism.

Here, Hopkinson does not merely aim to tell a story. She aims to create a collage illuminating the experiences of black women throughout history.

The first, and perhaps the primary character introduced is Mer, a slave in Haiti, shortly before the revolution. She faces hard decisions when faced with choices about whether to seek her own freedom or to stay and try to help the other slaves (she’s the closest thing to a doctor they have). Love and loyalty are complex things to negotiate, for her, and she actions are not always appreciated or understood by those around her.

The narrative also closely focuses on an actual historical character: Jeanne Duval, known as the mistress of Charles Baudelaire. As a mixed-race woman in 19th-century Paris, in a relationship with a wealthy white man, she also has a minefield to negotiate through life.

The third, (and strangely much smaller) story here is that of Thais, an Ethiopian prostitute in Egypt. In search of a better life (and adventure) she and her best friend embark on a journey to Greece. Her fate is to be remembered by history as Saint Mary of Egypt.

There are many parallels between the lives of these three women, even separated as they are by time, geography and circumstance. Each is caught on a low rung of the social hierarchy due to circumstances beyond her control. Each ends up in a land far from that of her birth. And each must make choices about who to love and who to cleave to.

Tying together these three disparate stories is the ‘magical’ aspect of the novel: the African goddess Lasirén or Ezili, a goddess of water and love, a rival to the spirit of war. The spirit observes, possesses, influences the turn of events.

I’ve read a few things by Hopkinson, and I would say this is her most notable work.

Many thanks to NetGalley and Open Road Media for the opportuntiy to read the new ebook edition of this book. As always, my opinions are my own.

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Get in Trouble – Kelly Link ****

***** The Summer People
This story could function as a wonderful introduction to Link’s writing. It features many of the elements and themes that pop up again and again in her stories, and is executed wonderfully.
Here, we have the elements of classic fairytales (“Be bold, be bold. But not too bold – lest that your heart’s blood should run cold.”) which emerge in a lovely, but seemingly prosaic modern setting. We have the interactions of teenage girls, a legacy passed down through generations. We have things so beautiful and mysterious that they hurt the heart – with a dark undercurrent of dread and disgust. And of course, questionable motivations and an ending that while ambiguous, feels altogether ‘right.’
Since, for me, this wasn’t an introduction to her work, it was a reminder of all the reasons I admire her so much.

**** I Can See Right Through You
While reading this story, an image came into my mind: that of holding a carefully carved but strangely shaped object in my hands. Blindfolded, the reader gently explores the odd and spiky contours of this object, carefully hefting its weight, unsure of its exact measurements…
Link’s stories are like that precisely crafted but unidentified object.
Here, she spins us a tale of the fraught relationship between two celebrities. I’m usually not one for feeling too much sympathy for the tribulations of the rich and famous, but this piece worked very well. (And, the grand finale at the haunted (?) nudist resort was the perfect mix of weird and hilarious).

***** Secret Identity
A fifteen-year-old girl from a small town shows up at a New York City hotel to meet someone she’s only chatted with online. Amidst a flurry of superheroes and dentists (the hotel is hosting two conventions), a strangely touching story emerges, with a lot to say about what ‘identity’ actually might be.
Although none of the details here directly apply to me or my past (no, no one has ever assumed I was a superhero’s sidekick) this story perfectly captured the essence of what it was to be fifteen.

**** Valley of the Girls
Previously read (in The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of The Year Volume 6 – Jonathan Strahan, ed.)
This story grew on me. The first time through, I found myself not liking it as much as most of Link’s work, and I kind of slid over some essential details. Then, I got to the end… and went back to the beginning, and started right over to get all those details in. It’s an exploration of the consequences of celebrity, the meaning of identity… and it’s also just plain creepy. Excellent.

***  Origin Story
This one seems to take place in the same ‘world’ as ‘Secret Identity’: a scenario where superheroes and mutants are a common and accepted part of society. At first, this conversation seems to be one between two normal (if a bit messed-up) teenagers, but gradually more is revealed: both supernatural and mundane. I didn’t feel that this one was as strong as others in this collection.

**** The New Boyfriend
Previously read (in Monstrous Affections)
On the face of it, this story is a bit teenage-y – but Link’s trademark weirdness suffuses it. Here we have a group of four high school friends. Ainslie’s a bit more indulged by her mother than the rest of them, and has been given not just one but all THREE models of the hottest new ‘toy’ – realistic robot ‘boyfriends.’ The models are Vampire, Werewolf, and the latest, hard-to-get version, Ghost. Ainslie’s best friend, Immy, is consumed with jealousy – she desperately wants a fake boyfriend of her own. Things get even more complicated when it seems that the ‘ghost’ boyfriend may be genuinely haunted.

**** Two Houses
Previously read (in The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, Volume 7 – Jonathan Strahan, ed.)
A small group of astronauts, far out in lonely space, tell each other ghost stories and succeed in freaking each other out. I actually really liked the main ‘secondary’ story in the piece (creepy art installation!), but I didn’t think that the parallel that was set up worked as well as it should have.

*** Light
This one felt very, very familiar – I think I may have previously read it online (it was first published in 2007.) It takes place in a future Florida where things have gone ‘weird’: pocket universes are everywhere, alien oddities bleed into our world, and children with double shadows can ‘develop’ twins. In this world, a hard-drinking but oddly responsible woman works managing a warehouse full of sleeping bodies. In her off hours she has to dealing with her difficult gay twin, and picks up men at the local bars. I loved the setting, but in this one, the ending felt too random and inconclusive for me.

Many, many thanks to NetGalley and Random House for the opportunity to read this excellent collection of Link’s work. As always, my opinions are solely my own.

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Beastkeeper – Cat Hellisen ****

I suspected I might be in for a treat when I read the dedication page on this book, which mentions the author’s two children: “Tanith and Noa.” Tanith? You named your KID after Tanith Lee? This book CANNOT be bad!

And indeed, it is quite excellent. I wouldn’t say it’s derivative of, or even particularly similar to Lee’s writing, but the aesthetics are all what I love.

It’s a contemporary fantasy, but it succeeds very well in meshing the timeless beauty of fairy tales with a modern setting.

Sarah is a young teenager whose family is collapsing around her. At first a reader might assume that her neglect is simply the sad but typical effect of divorce and depression on any family: her mother’s abandoned them, and her father is incapable of keeping up even appearances. But once Sarah is bundled off to live with the grandmother she’d always been told was dead, in a crumbling, decrepit tower in the middle of nowhere, gradually we learn that there’s more to it than this: her family is the victim of a curse – and Sarah herself may be the next one to be destroyed by a bitterness and rivalry that has come down through generations.

Beautiful writing; highly recommended for everyone who loves stories based in folklore and fairytales.

Many thanks to NetGalley and Henry Holt and Co. for the opportunity to read. As always, my opinions are solely my own.

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Seeker – Arwen Elys Dayton

At 6%: OK, I am already tired of hearing about how very, very good-looking every single one of the protagonists is.

Also: authors: you don’t have to explain how to pronounce words of the English language within your text.

At 12% = there have already been two whole scenes that seem to exist for the sole purpose of informing young people that drinking alcohol is Bad. (Note: hard cider is not actually so strong that you can ‘smell the alcohol’ in the air of a room if someone is drinking a cup of it… smell the apples, sure…)

DNF at Chapter 10… awkward, simplistic writing and the story just hasn’t caught me up…

The setup is:
It’s a future Scotland. Three teenagers (who are very, very good-looking and clearly fated to get into a love triangle) are being trained to be Seekers, which involves the use of weapons made with lost technology and the ability to use some kind of advanced travel.

The Seekers, a dying breed, are reputed to be like Knights, sworn to do good deeds, protect the weak, and all that. However, the reality is clearly that there’s something else to the whole thing: they’re not quite the ‘good guys’ they’re reputed to be.

I didn’t actually despise what I read of this book, but I felt that the marketing blurb I read before picking this up was inaccurate – this just isn’t a book for me.