readingtrance

book reviews by Althea


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Of Sorrow and Such – Angela Slatter *****

Of Sorrow and Such
Of Sorrow and Such by Angela Slatter
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

WHY haven’t I known about Angela Slatter till now?

I feel like the presentation of this book is aiming to attract fans of Patricia McKillip; and if so, it worked on me, at least. I wouldn’t argue with that decision, but while this story contains the magical mix of fairytale and realism that McKillip’s work does, this story is quite a bit darker, in some ways.

Mistress Gideon is a witch, in a rural, medieval-esque world that punishes magic users with death. She’s hidden her original identity and, of course, making her living as a healer – tolerated by her community for her usefulness. However, Gideon’s secret is not the only one in the town, and although she’s very much not looking for trouble, trouble is bound to come her way.

The characterization here is wonderful: Slatter succeeds brilliantly in making her people jump off the pages and into our hearts – even though they’re not at all ‘nice.’ Indeed, many of them are selfish, petty, short-sighted, and display many of the most unfortunate qualities of humanity. Gideon herself is pragmatic to the point of ruthlessness, and although we sympathize with her, I couldn’t help understanding just why some communities might not want her or those like her around.

After finishing this, I immediately went out and made a request for another of Slatter’s books through interlibrary loan. This is my very favorite sort of story.

Also, I want to give a nod to the cover artists, Anna & Elena Balbusso. Lovely work! http://www.balbusso.com/index.php?opt…

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

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The Gap of Time – Jeanette Winterson ***

The Gap of Time
The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Hogarth Books has embarked on a project to commission acclaimed modern writers to re-tell the stories of Shakespeare. ‘The Gap of Time’ by Jeanette Winterson is the first of the books to be published.

http://www.vintage-books.co.uk/about-…

This volume retells ‘The Winter’s Tale.’
Would I have noticed that it was a retelling of Shakespeare if it hadn’t been stated right up front? Not at first, no. (There’s an introductory re-cap – kind of ‘The Winters Tale For Dummies’ – to get the events and characters fresh in our minds.)

The first part of the novel introduces a contemporary drama. Stumbling into the aftermath of a violent crime scene, an African-American father and son discover a dead body on the ground, next to a ‘safe-haven’ baby drop. Although unwilling to call the cops and get involved, the two men ‘rescue’ the baby, assuming she was abandoned and unwanted, and adopt her, calling her ‘Perdita.’

Little did any of them know the complicated and ugly truth behind why baby Perdita ended up where she was. But as readers, we gradually learn, as we meet Leo, an arrogant, obnoxious and obsessive “1%-er,” his closest friend from childhood, the free-spirited slacker Xeno, and the woman who (inexplicably) cares for both of them – the French chanteuse MiMi. Leo insists on using the strands of the tangled web woven between them to strangle them all, in a shocking tragedy.

I really liked this first part of the book, and thought it worked quite well on its own merits. However, the second and third parts of the novel start getting more concerned with the Shakespeare/Winterson parallels, which I thought began to feel forced. The plot events also begin to cross the line from family melodrama into straight-up absurd comedy. And around there, it lost me a little.

Overall, it’s good, but not one of my favorites of all time. Definitely recommended if you’re a particular Shakespeare fan though.

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

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Lightless – C.A. Higgins **

Lightless
Lightless by C.A. Higgins
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I picked this up because the I saw that the main character shares my name. 😉
And because I love sci-fi. So, I was predisposed to love the book. Unfortunately, I just wasn’t able to.

The premise: Three crewmembers are aboard an experimental spacecraft, on a top-secret mission, about which even they do not know all the details. The action begins when they discover and capture two men who have illicitly boarded their craft. Are the men simple burglars or space pirates? Or are they affiliated with an infamous terrorist group which intends to bring down the entire interstellar empire known as The System?

The System sends a senior investigator, Ida Stays, to interrogate the prisoners. Before she gets there, one of them escapes. He’s presumed dead – but the investigator is none too pleased. However, at least she’s still got one captive to question.

And then… well, the bulk of the book is the inquisitor (a completely two-dimensional character) questioning the guy, and what he tells her. He’s mystifyingly forthcoming, sitting down and blabbing his life story, even though Ida’s much-vaunted interrogation techniques don’t seem to consist of much more than: “Talk to me. And if I think you’re lying, I’ll give you a truth serum.”

Meanwhile, there seems to be a ghost in the machine – that machine being the ship’s AI. Althea, the engineer/computer tech, bumbles around trying to fix things, getting emotional about the situation, and trying to cover up how very confused she is about the malfunctions.

Well… that’s about it. I felt like I kept waiting for the story to get started but it never did. The style of the writing felt like it ought to be a not-too-deep but entertaining & exciting space opera… but we just all sat there on a malfunctioning ship, with some people talking.

It’s been mentioned in multiple other reviews, but I’m also compelled to chime in that the publisher’s blurb comparing this to ‘Alien’ and ‘Gravity’ is wholly baseless. All three stories do take place in space, and feature astronauts. That’s where the similarities end.

Many thanks to Del Rey and NetGalley for the opportunity to read. As always, my opinions are solely my own.

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The Girl in the Road – Monica Byrne *****

The Girl in the Road
The Girl in the Road by Monica Byrne
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As William Gibson famously said, “The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.” In ‘The Girl in the Road,’ Monica Byrne gives us a near-future in those parts of the world which have still not received their fair share of the ‘distribution.’

An enormous structure which generates power from wave energy has been built, stretching across the Arabian Sea from India to Africa. This feat of technology has been hyped by its creators – but to some, its most significant feature is the possibility of a ‘land bridge’ a way to escape, undocumented, from one country to another. For this reason, they insist on calling it ‘The Trail.’

In one half of this story, we meet a woman who is drawn to the Trail for just this reason. Meena is an educated, seemingly privileged woman of Mumbai. However, she’s clearly experiencing severe emotional trauma regarding an event involving her lover, Mohini, the details of which she is hiding from us. And it seems likely that on top of that trauma, she may be a disturbed individual to begin with.

The other half of the story follows Mariama, a young girl in Mauritania who is on her own after escaping slavery with her mother. Attaching herself to two men she randomly meets, by stowing away on their transport convoy; she hopes to make it across the continent to Ethiopia and the hope of a better life. When another girl, the young woman Yemaya, joins the convoy, Mariama latches onto her with passionate hero-worship.

Of course, the stories of Meena and Mariama will eventually meet, and it will be revealed how they are interconnected. Along the way, Byrne creates a gritty and vivid world, both believable and hallucinatory. The book relies very heavily on symbolism, and is involved with the inner states of both of our (very unreliable) narrators. At times, I found myself wishing it would concentrate just a bit more on the science-fiction elements of the book, because I found some of the ideas incredibly interesting and deserving of more exploration into how the described changes have affected society. However, then the book – which has set up our characters and situation as what seems to be a fairly standard, though original, future-adventure with two fairly sympathetic protagonists – left-turns into darkness.

Revealing more would be spoilers, but let’s just say that it borders on horror territory, and is not at all a comfortable or easy read. The reader’s sympathies don’t quite end up where you might expect. And for me, that’s what pushed the book up into 5-star territory.

My one complaint? The epilogue. It ends with an ambiguous meeting of two characters, whose identities are not fully revealed in the text. However, the way it’s written, the reader feels like they ought to be able to figure out who they are. I had to go to an interview with the author to get the answer… I didn’t find that last scene to be necessary.

Overall, though, I was still extremely impressed with the book, and I look forward to seeing what this new author does next.

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Dreamstrider – Lindsay Smith **

Dreamstrider
Dreamstrider by Lindsay Smith
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

“Hi! I’m Livia. I’m the dreamstrider – the one and only known person in the world who can travel through the dreamworld into another person’s body, controlling their actions and seeing their hidden thoughts. But although I’m so very extra-special, it has never occurred to me that I’m in a position to demand pretty much whatever I want in return for my work as a spy. Nope, instead I’m going to splash my low self-esteem over every single page in this book, moaning about how I’m just not good enough and I don’t really ‘deserve’ anything.”

Admittedly, there’s a reason given for Livia’s issues – she’s a member of the literal underclass in this country, the ‘tunnelers’. She’s been brought up to think of herself as not worth much. However, having to listen to her whining throughout this book was unspeakably tedious.

The matter wasn’t helped by the other characters’ behavior and interactions, either. Every single person in this book acts like they’re in some kind of middle-school drama, letting petty emotions overtake them in the middle of serious situations, bursting into confessions for no particular reason, clamming up about other things that could really stand to be spoken, playing social games instead of communicating like adults. The characters even refer to each other as “boys” and (I think) “girls” rather than men and women, although they are all of age. “YA” doesn’t mean “all the characters have to behave with absurd immaturity!”

I haven’t read a lot of books with this specific failing, but I suspect there are a lot of them. I’ve gleaned this pretty much just from following Khanh’s (https://www.goodreads.com/user/show/4…) reviews here on Goodreads. If so, I think it’s a really horrible trend. Even when I was a kid, I didn’t want to read a book where spies acted like members of the cattiest and stupidest cliques at school – I wanted to read a book to imagine spies being brilliant, devious and bad-ass, and to get AWAY from all that stupid crap.

On top of this, there’s an annoying love triangle (this is a very (too) romance-y book – and it’s one of those no-sex romances, too); there’s a grand finale that turns into a religious allegory with a preachy self-help message AND magical bits that come out of nowhere and make little sense in the context of what’s happened earlier. There’s also a major opportunity missed in that what Livia is doing in her spycraft is a serious, rape-like violation of extremely questionable ethics – even if it is targeting people who are planning on invading her country. I would’ve like a bit of wrestling with that dilemma, at least. (view spoiler) Oh, and did I mention our main character moaning about just not being good enough, even AFTER she’s saved the world?

OK, I’ve just done a lot of bitching about this book. Maybe too much. Because: I liked the world. I liked the set-up. I liked the STORY. I liked the portrayal of Barstadt, with its jeweled aristocrats, its oppressed undercaste, its overweening religiosity. I liked seeing Barstadt through the eyes of foreigners with a different culture, as well. I liked the plots and the spying. I liked the whole concept of the dream world, and I loved how Livia’s talent isn’t something that comes easily. I could’ve done without the “collect the lost magical thingies” bit of the plot, which has been done to death (these were particularly horcrux-ish), but I didn’t even really mind it.

I just wished the whole treatment had been different. You know those cartoons and such where they take characters from a drama and make them into children to be cutesy? Like this: I feel like I just watched ‘Star Wars’ with those characters, and I just want to watch the regular ‘Star Wars.’ Because there’s a good story in this book.

Many thanks to Roaring Brook Press and NetGalley for the opportunity to read. Al always, my opinions are solely my own.

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The Book of Phoenix – Nnedi Okorafor **

The Book of Phoenix
The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The beginning of this appeared, in slightly different form, in Clarkesworld (http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/okorafor_03_11/), causing me some confusion as I begin to read it…
____

I loved ‘Who Fears Death.’ I very, very much liked the short story that forms the beginning of this book. I did not like this book. I was sorely disappointed by it.

I’ve been trying to think of how to articulate exactly why. I think that part of it is that the main character is a woman with an ‘adult’ intelligence, but who is chronologically only 2-3 years old. All she has known is life as an experimental subject. Although she was been allowed extensive reading material, which she consumes preternaturally quickly, she has been treated with extreme callousness, as a slave.

This is ‘her’ book (excepting the framing device), so it makes sense that the story is filled with an odd combination of naïveté and conspiracy-theory-style paranoia. However, I felt that this spilled out from the characterization of Phoenix, and Phoenix’s point of view, and became a quality of the work itself. It also, I felt, has an odd style, one meant to evoke a folktale. That’s something I usually like, but in this case, mixed with the near-future setting, I just felt that it wasn’t working for me.

Another thing that didn’t work for me was the rather simplistic viewpoint taken toward the ‘good guys’ vs. ‘bad guys’ conflict. Interestingly, the ‘heroine’ here, although sympathetic, sees herself as a “villain.” There’s definitely moral ambiguity to the “good guys” of the book. However, the “bad guys” (the scientists) are just plain flat-out evil. If I’m being presented with such evil characters, I want more of an explanation of why they’re so evil. I want to see their point of view, how they see themselves, how they justify what they’re doing. Of course, we don’t – we’re in Phoenix’s POV, and she understandably sees them as 100% evil. But again, I thought it weakened the story. (Full disclosure: I am a pretty pro-science person, and I am generally not a fan of the mad/evil scientist trope, so to win me over with it; you’ve got to be convincing. I wasn’t convinced.)

I also felt like the events portrayed here weaken the context of ‘Who Fears Death.'<spoiler>It was strongly implied in that book, IIRC, that the apocalypse was a nuclear war. It’s stated here that many people in Phoenix’s future believe it was a religious punishment for humanity’s sins. I just wasn’t much for the idea that both of those are incorrect, and that the apocalypse was actually caused by a grieving, vengeful mutant-supervillain-angel.</spoiler> And what was with the bits endorsing the tired old trope that women are just too emotional? Was that meant to be funny? Serious? I couldn’t tell. I also wasn’t on board with a random and wholly unexamined slut-shaming comment from one of the “good-guys.”

And then… some of it just seemed far-fetched and/or poorly-researched. I know, I know, we’re talking experimental mutants here (and some randomly thrown-in alien stuff, too), but it makes everything more convincing if you START with a plausible scenario. And I’m sorry, but there was no excuse for Chapter 13. As an archivist, I probably care more about this than most people will… but:
____

The Chapter 13 Debacle

* To find records (the sole copy of these records!) on a recent, top-secret government experiment, recently updated with the status of experimental subjects, you WOULD NOT GO to the Library of Congress. Current records would be held by the governmental organization doing the experiment, and would only be submitted to an archive much later.

*IF you wanted to find government records that had been archived, you STILL WOULD NOT GO to the Library of Congress, you would go to NARA, the National Archives and Records Administration. In DC, different building, different organization.

*IF you went to DC to see research materials, EITHER at the LOC or NARA, you do not have to submit to a background check beforehand. There is no way anyone would pay high sums of money for a fake Reader Identification Card at the LOC. Anyone off the street is allowed to come in and get a Reader ID on the spot; the purpose of the ID is to keep track of materials, not to restrict access. Masquerading as a Middle-Eastern Prince would likely elevate suspicions, not lower them.

*When you come into an archive as a researcher, I have never heard of such an absurd thing as a one-hour limit being imposed. Time restrictions are solely based on the hours the facility is open, and when the archivist will have time to ‘pull’ your requested material.

*NO ARCHIVE IN THE WORLD is organized using the Dewey Decimal System. That system is used by public and elementary-to-high school level school libraries. Academic, research libraries and special collections usually use the LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING SYSTEM. (Ya think the LC might use the LC system?) However, both those systems are designed for published materials. An archive will be organized by the archivist, according to what makes sense for the collection. The archivist creates a Finding Aid for the material, describing the folder structure of the collection, and outlining exactly what papers are in which folder. A Finding Aid would NOT be in a ‘card catalog’ format.

*I find it unlikely that in the future, the LOC or NARA would not have a digital catalog including the Finding Aid information. BUT, if this was a paper-copy-only kind of thing for whatever reason, the researchers STILL would not be ushered into the stacks by a ‘guard’ and left alone to poke around.
Archival researchers are generally ushered into a Reading Room. After their requests are made, an archivist will pull the material, and will bring the folders containing the requested material to them at their table. There may be a limit to the number of folders one can request at once, to limit the changes of the material becoming disorganized.

This information is all available to even a casual online researcher. There’s even a video online of what you can expect as an archival researcher. I would expect that most authors are intimately familiar with the process.

More info at:
http://www.archives.gov
http://www.loc.gov

___

This book has some important things to say about racism, and some interesting ideas about the nature of storytelling. But both themes, I felt, were realized more fully in ‘Who Fears Death.’ I will definitely read more by Okorafor, but this was just not my favorite work by her.

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The Haunting of Hill House – Shirley Jackson *****

The Haunting of Hill House
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A re-read… but I believe I first read it 25, maybe even 30 years ago, so it fell into the category of ‘everything old is new again.’

Of course, this is the classic book the Shirley Jackson is most well known for, and a haunted house story which has set the benchmark for the genre.

A professor with an interest in the paranormal has heard rumors about Hill House – a remote mansion that’s been shut up for years, in the wake of a family tragedy. In order to properly investigate the reputed phenomena of the house, the professor advertises for assistants who are known to have been associated with unexplained events in the past. The ones who respond are two women: the dramatic Theodora, and the more timid or withdrawn Eleanor. The heir to the family who currently owns the house, Luke, makes it a foursome.

Although the house is undeniably unfashionable and unpleasant, regardless of the professor’s hopes, the general expectation is that the four will spend a few days playing cards and generally trying to stave off boredom. However, Eleanor is a more troubled person than is obvious to the casual observer. And there is something truly malefic in the house that responds to her presence with a dangerous synergy.

We see events through Eleanor’s perspective, and only gradually come to realize how profoundly that perspective is affected by her wildly vacillating moods and how unreliable she might be. By the time those around her realize what the reader is beginning to understand, it may be too late.

A masterwork of horror; highly recommended for all fans of both the psychological and paranormal aspects of the genre.

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