book reviews by Althea

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The Bird Eater – Ania Ahlborn ***

The Bird Eater
The Bird Eater by Ania Ahlborn
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I think I would’ve liked this book better if I’d read it before the author’s other book, ‘Within These Walls.’ I gave that one 4 stars – and I can’t really argue that it was necessarily a superior book – but it was a very similar book. I suspect that if you read this one first, you might feel that ‘Within These Walls’ was the bit of a letdown. Both share the same basic ‘haunted house’ plot outline and progression.

Here, Aaron Holbrook is grief-stricken and drinking too much after the death of his young son in a car accident – an accident that he blames himself for. His failure to get himself together has also precipitated his relationship toward a divorce. Separated from his wife, he decided to go back to his hometown and renovate the home that was left to him by his aunt.

He hasn’t been back there since his aunt, his guardian, died in an accident in that home when he was just a boy. Returning is a bit of a shock, as he discovers that the town had all kinds of rumors about his disappearance – rumors that he was actually dead, that he’d murdered his aunt, that the house left empty was haunted. Reconnecting with his childhood best friend and first girlfriend is emotionally fraught, and being in Holbrook House doesn’t seem to be helping Aaron’s already-fragile mental state.

It’s not bad, and there were definitely some tense and chilling moments. It just didn’t feel strikingly original. Recommended for fans of the haunted house genre.

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Mr. Splitfoot – Samantha Hunt ***

Mr. Splitfoot
Mr. Splitfoot by Samantha Hunt
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Ruth and Nat are two teenagers stuck in a religious group home in upstate New York. Unsure what they’ll do when they turn 18 and ‘age out’ of the Love of Christ! facility, Ruth is ready to consider desperate measures to find some kind of future for herself and her best friend. An option turns up when the two meet a traveling con man, Mr. Bell, who suggests that they start profiting off Nat’s reputed ability to speak to the dead – one he’s so far only used to scare and entertain the fellow foster kids at the home. Mr. Bell also comes from an unusual religious background, we learn – his father was the leader of an apocalyptic cult. Is this commonality of experience the reason he’s drawn to Ruth and Nat, or is there a different agenda behind his seeking them out?

Intercut with Ruth & Nat’s story is one that unfolds some 20 years later. Cora is a seemingly ordinary young woman with a normal job and life. She knows that her mother didn’t have a good childhood, but those foster homes and abuse seem very far in the past. But when her boyfriend reacts very, very badly to the news that Cora is pregnant, and emotional crisis point is reached. Just at that moment, Cora’s enigmatic but long-idolized Aunt Ruth appears. Refusing or unable to speak, Ruth leads Cora on a long walk through New York State, with no known destination.

I picked up this book because of the comparison to Kelly Link, but I didn’t quite feel the similarity there. Rather, I felt that this book was very much written in the style of a great deal of contemporary post-apocalyptic lit-fic. It’s not apocalyptic (although there is that apocalyptic cult), but the way it is written makes modern life feel apocalyptic. The fact that all the characters are alienated from modern society (either emotionally or through forced isolation) contributes significantly to this, as does the narrative’s occasional tips into the realm of the bizarre. The themes of the book are also ones that are present in much of the post-apoc genre.

I liked the book, and moreover, appreciated that it was very well-crafted. I didn’t emotionally love it, however… perhaps just because of the high unpleasantness quotient.

Many thanks to HMH and NetGalley for the opportunity to read. As always, my opinion is solely my own.

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Only the Stones Survive – Morgan Llywelyn **

Only the Stones Survive
Only the Stones Survive by Morgan Llywelyn
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Fans of Morgan Llywelyn will be familiar with the setting and themes presented here – her fantasy/New Age take on Celtic history. I’ve read a good number of her books, although not in a few years, and enjoyed them greatly. However, ‘Only the Stones Survive’ feels more like backstory for a novel than the novel itself. It’s the alternate history, not the story set in that history.

Here we learn how the Tuatha Dé Danann, a tribe with ancient and possibly extraterrestrial or supernatural origins, have settled on the island of Eire. They’ve been here for so long that they themselves no longer remember all their history. They have renounced their fearful weapons in favor of a peaceful, agricultural existence. Even their formidable magic is rarely used.

None of this works to their advantage when they are invaded by a rough group of seafarers from Iberia. The softheartedness of the Tuatha Dé Danann allows the invaders to make landfall – and live. In return, many of the peaceful people are soon slaughtered.

The book has a main character, a young elvish (oops, I mean Tuatha Dé Danann) man, through whose eyes we see the sweeping events that affect his people. But none of the individual characters really came alive for me. The focus here is Llywelyn’s fantastic/wishful-thinking history of the origin of the Celtic people.

If you’re a Llywelyn completist, you may very well enjoy this. If you’re new to the author, I’d recommend starting with one of her classics instead, such as the epic ‘Lion of Ireland.’

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

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High Couch of Silistra – Janet Morris *****

High Couch of Silistra
High Couch of Silistra by Janet E. Morris
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A re-read.

I first read this book because my mom checked it out of the library for me. She knew I liked fantasy, and came home with a random selection of paperbacks… this was one of them. I was probably eleven or twelve? My mom was not a fan of ‘trashy’ books, and I read this with big eyes, hoping that she didn’t decide to peek inside… Nope, she never did, and I got all the sequels out of the library later, too. She had absolutely no idea what she’d provided me with.

My five-star rating is taking that early experience into consideration. Is this a great work of literature? No. But it was certainly something that made a lasting impression on me. Going back to read it again, decades later, I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about it.

I remembered the basic story: Estri, a beautiful woman of the planet Silistra, is the High Couch of Astria – one of the most powerful people on the planet, and also a high-paid prostitute. Due to their difficulty in having children, Silistra has developed an interesting economic system. Promiscuous sexuality is expected, and status and power is centered around the ‘wells’ – brothels run and controlled by women. However, this is no ‘feminist’ paradise – a woman becomes a man’s property if he manages to impregnate her. Childbearing is one of the most important social responsibilities on Silistra, symbolized by the twisted chain called the chald worn by all upstanding citizens – so it’s a desired outcome.

Born into the Well system, Estri has no idea who her father is, but knows that he was an offworlder. When her mother dies, she lays an obligation on her to find her father. The book follows Estri on this quest. And along the way, Estri has a lot of sex. Of various kinds. A lot of it thoroughly non-consensual. With a great many different people.

On re-reading, the sex wasn’t quite as graphically explicit as I’d remembered, but it was clear enough, and, really, just as racy as I’d thought it was. Some of the descriptions (especially of the outfits) were amusingly 1970’s-tinged. I still found it enormously entertaining. Just keep in mind that this is primarily a sex-fantasy and only secondarily a sci-fi-fantasy. However, it doesn’t allow the sex to get in the way of a good story either, or to ‘dumb it down.’ The mix works for me.

If you like ‘Barbarella’ – you’ll probably like this series.

Many thanks to Perseid Press and NetGalley for the opportunity to read the newly released eBook. As always, by opinions are solely my own.

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Cold Shoulder Road – Joan Aiken ***

Cold Shoulder Road
Cold Shoulder Road by Joan Aiken
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“Every night, around nine o’clock in Cold Shoulder road, the screaming began. It came from the end house in the row. It was not very loud. The sound was like the cries of the gulls that flew and whirled along the shingle-bank on the seaward side of the road…”

Joan Aiken really knows how to write stuff that, while wholly appealing to young people, is also genuinely chilling. When I was a kid, my local library had ‘The Wolves of Willoughby Chase’ and its first two sequels. I was young enough when I read them that I wasn’t quite certain which elements in this alternate-history England were fantasy and which were just British – it all seemed quite exotic to me! I read those three books several times each, but didn’t later follow the series – and and no idea until picking this up that it had continued into the mid-90s!

The setting was familiar, but the characters here are ones I wasn’t familiar with – although it’s clearly not the first time they’ve been introduced. Is Twite and her cousin Arun are travelling in search of Arun’s mum, whom he left to strike out on his own several years ago. Arun is devastated when he comes back to an empty house, with no clues as to where she might have gone. Arun’s mother was a member of a strange cult called the Silent Sect, and the unsavory neighbors seem to think that odder-than-usual things have been going on within the group.

There’s also a gang of vicious smugglers calling themselves the Merry Gentry, who are well on their way to keeping the local populace under their thumb with fear and threats.

Add in an antique buried treasure that everyone has plans for… and the plot is underway.

Several times, while reading this, I was reminded that this is the exact sort of story that Lemony Snicket’s Unfortunate Events was inspired by.

However, while it’s good, it’s not Aiken’s best. The telepathy isn’t really intrinsic or necessary to the story, the villains are a bit lacking in back story, and events tend to happen rather too conveniently.

I’m still glad to have had the opportunity to read it. Many thanks to Open Road and NetGalley. As always, my opinions are solely my own.

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Barrayar – Lois McMaster Bujold ***

Barrayar by Lois McMaster Bujold
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

(Vorkosigan saga)

The chronological sequel to ‘Shards of Honor’ follows Cordelia Naismith as she defects from Beta, in order to make her way to Barrayar and find her former captor Aral Vorkosigan – a man she has come to love and respect.

It’s not incomprehensible that her Betan psychologists assume that she must be suffering from something like Stockholm syndrome, or some more insidious mental conditioning. The suspicion cast on her means that even though the war between Beta and Barrayar is technically over, Cordelia must leave the familiar comforts of home behind and give herself fully to her new life on primitive, violent, militaristic Barrayar. Nearly immediately she finds herself plunged into the dizzying complexity of the upper levels of Barrayaran politics, as Aral discovers that the peaceful retirement he’d been planning is not in the cards for him. And that’s not the only sudden change: Cordelia is pregnant.

If you’ve read later books in this series, a great deal of this book is a lot of tension waiting for certain events that you’ve already read about, to happen. It’s intentional on the author’s part – this book involves her backtracking and filling in details about events that have already been referred to in other books. I think it would be an equally enjoyable, although different, experience to read it without already having been introduced to Miles and knowing the difficulties and circumstances surrounding his birth.

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A Free Man of Color – Barbara Hambly ****

A Free Man of Color
A Free Man of Color by Barbara Hambly
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

(Benjamin January, #1)

My book club selection for this month.

Previously (and many years ago) I’d read a few of Hambly’s early fantasy books, and not been overly impressed – they were OK, but didn’t transcend any of the genre standards. After reading ‘A Free man of Color’ at a friend’s recommendation, I can confirm that yes, Hambly definitely improved over time.

Aside from a few suggestions that voodoo curses and/or protective charms may be efficacious, the book does not have fantasy elements – it’s historical fiction. Benjamin January is the titular ‘free man of color.’ Of African heritage and raised in New Orleans, he is both a trained surgeon and an accomplished musician. Recently returned to his home town, after having spent the past few years in France, where he was accorded a certain degree of respect, he’s experiencing a great deal of ‘culture shock’ in adjusting to the inferior status he holds in New Orleans. And the racism in Louisiana is getting worse, as the region’s French culture is diluted by an influx of boorish men with an ‘American’ identity and an assumption that anyone with dark skin deserves nothing more than to be enslaved.

The reader has to ask why January would stay in such an inhospitable environment. Hambly strives to answer the question: January is fleeing his grief over the death of his wife; he feels an obligation to friends and family; he has a sense of ‘belonging’ and ‘home’ tied to New Orleans. I didn’t find all these reasons fully convincing. I myself would’ve been outta there in a hot second. But I could accept that someone else might feel differently, and might’ve behaved as January does here.

The plot itself is a standard mystery/investigation: During a courtesans’ ball, a woman is found murdered. As the victim was a woman of mixed race, and of ‘low moral standing’ to boot, the first reaction is to sweep the incident under the closest convenient rug. Benjamin January, with an innate sense of justice, doesn’t allow that to happen. However, soon afterwards he realizes that his attempt to do the right things may not have been in his self-interest. He was one of the last people to see the victim alive, and it’d be far easier to pin the crime on a black man than to investigate a crime which was probably committed by a white man, and one likely highly placed in society, at that. January’s only hope to avoid being arrested may be to try to solve the crime himself, in order to clear his name.

But as he looks into what may have happened and who may have had a grudge against this woman, things only get more complicated. For she wasn’t a particularly nice person, and the list of people who may have held something against her only gets longer, the more details emerge…

The solid mystery plot is raised from 3 to 4 stars by the meticulous and well-incorporated historical and social details; which make for fascinating reading – and also by the satisfying yet bittersweet ending. There were several ‘easy outs’ the author could have taken in finishing up the story – and she opted for none of them, resulting in a much better book than this might’ve been.

I’d definitely read more in this series.

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