book reviews by Althea

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Summerlong – Peter S. Beagle ****

Summerlong by Peter S. Beagle

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Both the feel and particulars of this book reminded me quite a lot of Patricia McKillip’s more recent stories, where she explores a contemporary setting impinged upon by mythic elements. (If you liked ‘Kingfisher,’ or ‘Mer,’ don’t miss this one!
It’s also kind of a fantasy for older people. I feel like it probably would’ve resonated with me far more strongly if I were 20 years later in life, and I fear that younger readers probably won’t enjoy it at all.

Joanna and Abe are an older, long-term couple whose relationship has been loving but has also depended on a certain amount of distance. Joanna’s job as a flight attendant means she’s frequently away, and Abe has his own house, and takes plenty of time for his writing and academic research.
The setting also feels distant – an island on the outskirts of Seattle. The sense of foggy isolation that the location lends the narrative feels very appropriate to the story.

At their local diner, the couple meet a new waitress – a young and alluring woman. By the end of their meal, they’ve discovered that she doesn’t have a real place to live, and Joanna is urging Abe to let the quirkily-named Lioness (Lyonesse?) stay in his garage. This over-the-top act of generosity seems a bit out-of-character – but soon we realize that people just seem to be compelled to do whatever they can for Lioness. Who is she, really? Just a free-spirited hippie wanderer, as she seems to be – or something more rich and strange?

Ancient gods and myth (particularly that of Demeter and Persephone) weave a skein of the otherworldly into a contemplative exploration into the dynamics of mature relationships. And even when the gods mean no harm, it’s hard to survive the aftermath of their touch.

Also inspired by this painting:

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

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The Wolf Road – Beth Lewis ****

The Wolf Road
The Wolf Road by Beth Lewis

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Read for post-apocalyptic book club. (My selection, but then events happened and I couldn’t make it to the meeting. Mea culpa!) I liked it, but I just hope others did as well!

Now, I did like this book, very much. And I picked it up because it was advertised as a post-apocalyptic selection. BUT. This story is really a Western. There is nothing at all about it that requires a post-apocalyptic setting, and much as I love the genre, I felt that the efforts to fit the story into a presumably-future disaster scenario were a little distracting and unnecessary. It would’ve been fine in the Old West, 19th-century Canada, or maybe even present-day rural Appalachia.

Elka is a young girl who’s been raised by her grandmother after her parents set out to find their fortune in gold mining, and never returned for their daughter. One day, after a terrible storm, she’s lost in the woods. Starved and tired, when she comes across a remote cabin she’s lured by the strips of jerky set out to dry outside the homestead. The man who lives there promises to find her grandmother and take her home. But then, “Trapper” tells her that her grandmother was killed in the storm. He takes Elka in, gives her her name, teaches her the ways of wilderness survival – and in return, Elka bestows upon him all the affection she has in her abandoned heart, regarding him as her father.

But now, there’s a new sheriff in town. And she says that Trapper is Public Enemy #1, wanted for terrible, horrific crimes. Magistrate Lyon’s quest for justice (or is it just vengeance?) sets Elka on a desperate journey north, accompanied by a young woman who could not be more different from her, trying both to escape the long arm of the law, and to find her parents.

I thought the journey that the book takes the reader on was extremely well-crafted, as the secrets that Elka has hidden even from herself are gradually revealed.

Many thanks to Crown Publishing and LibraryThing for the advance copy of the book! As always, my opinions are solely my own.

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Crosstalk – Connie Willis ****

Crosstalk by Connie Willis

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Reading this book is like experiencing a prolonged anxiety attack. But wait! That’s not a bad thing! It’s like having a funny, clever and romantic anxiety attack!

Connie Willis’ books tend to either feature a comedy of manners set against a dark and dire background… or a comedy of manners in a somewhat less catastrophic situation. This is one in the less-dire and more light-hearted category. But Willis’ humor always has her own distinct flavor; it’s unmistakable – and I love it.

Here, she riffs on the idea that’s been getting tossed around for a while now about whether or not our ever-increasing capability for communication, enhanced by ever-progressing technology, is really a good and productive thing. (Not just ‘riffs,’ but goes into a brilliantly wailing guitar solo on the topic.)

Briddey works for a cell phone company. So does her fiance, Trent. Trent has recently asked Briddey to get an EED with him – a new and trendy surgical procedure which is supposed to help bonded couples have a greater degree of empathy with each other; even enabling them to sense each others’ emotions.

As readers, we’re not led to think that this is a good idea for Briddey for a second. Trent is so enormously clearly a schmuck and a half, and the two haven’t even been together for two months. We’re not the only ones to think it’s a terrible idea – the weird computer geek in the basement lab is also full of dire pronouncements about the plan. And every single person Briddey knows has SOMETHING to say about it, because gossip, whether it’s from family or coworkers, travels faster than the speed of light.

There wouldn’t be much of a story, of course, if something didn’t go wrong – but believe me, the multifarious ways in which things go wrong are unpredictable and terribly amusing.

Many thanks to Gollancz and NetGalley for the opportunity to read this new book by one of my favorite authors. As always, my opinions are solely my own.

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The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead ***

The Underground Railroad
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I really loved Colson Whitehead’s ‘The Intuitionist’ and ‘Zone One’ so was very excited to get a copy of ‘The Underground Railroad,’ courtesy of NetGalley and Doubleday (many thanks!)
This is a very strong novel, but I didn’t personally love it as much as those other two books. It’s a bit hard to criticize a book at all when it deals with such a significant and terrible issue as the history of slavery in the United States. The traumas of that era, so frequently swept under the rug, are fully brought to light and examined here, shedding illumination on the repercussions that the atrocities of that time are still having today. However, it’s a bit hard to forget at any point during the reading of this book: “this is an important book about important issues that you ought to understand.”

This is true, however, on this level, I feel that it would’ve worked better if the book had been wholly true to history. The setting of the novel is nearly completely historically realistic (although different situations and incidents are placed and adjusted for narrative impact) – except for the alt-history concept that the “Underground Railroad” was an actual network of tunnels, with rails and train cars, secretly built through the labor of escaped slaves and their allies. Now, this is an intriguing alternate history idea – but I don’t think it was fully successful here, because nothing in the story actually depends on that idea, or is significantly enhanced by the concept of having actual underground trains. It’s used a few times in some nice metaphors, but that’s about it. I felt that for me, the ‘fantastic’ element watered down the impact of the book’s depiction of the very real horrors suffered by real enslaved people, just a little bit.

However, I still very much admired the book. The main character of Cora, a woman who grows up under the conditions of slavery and seeks to gain her freedom, was extremely well-realized, and her difficult journey is tense and gripping.

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Nevernight – Jay Kristoff ****

Nevernight by Jay Kristoff

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If I had read this when I was 15, it would’ve been my new favorite book and a serious life inspiration. However, now that I’m older and more sophisticated… ah, who am I kidding, I still eat this right up with a spoon, cheese on top and all.
I loved the writing style. It has a great balance of beautiful & dramatic with all-out funny. I laughed at the clever similes and I thought the footnotes were hilarious. And hey, the story was pretty damn good, too!
Mia Corvere’s father was a military traitor, condemned and executed by the ruling powers of this Roman/Venetian-influenced world. Now, the young woman’s life is a matter of living and breathing her desire for revenge. In pursuit of this goal, she has trained for years to become a deadly assassin. Now, she’s at the point where she must go on a quest to seek admission to a special school for assassins… a particularly dangerous school, where a good chunk of the students end up dead rather than graduated.

There a are definitely areas where criticism of the book is valid. Mia’s ‘dark’ powers and her familiar shadow-‘cat’ are great, but the whole idea that she’s (view spoiler) However, quibbles aside, this was an enormously enjoyable story, and I’d love to read more from this author.

Many thanks to St. Martin’s & NetGalley for the opportunity to read. A always, my opinions are solely my own.
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Dreams of Distant Shores – Patricia A. McKillip

Dreams of Distant Shores
Dreams of Distant Shores by Patricia A. McKillip

*** “Weird”
“Weird” is an appropriate adjective for this scene, not just its title. A couple are holed up in a bathroom, in what, at first, seems to be a romantic interlude. As, perhaps, a bit of pillow talk, one asks the other what the weirdest thing that has ever happened to her is. In between the relation of a number of odd incidents, we gradually realize that in fact, the ‘weirdest thing’ might be happening right now.
I liked the idea, and of course, the writing (It’s McKillip!) but I don’t prefer stories that are so open-ended and unexplained. (As I said, it’s more of a ‘scene’ than a ‘story.’)

*** “Mer”
In tone and feel, this reminded me a lot of McKillip’s latest novel, “Kingfisher” (…). An ancient witch, after sleeping through the ages, ends up embodied in a mermaid statue… just at the moment that the statue is the subject of an illicit ‘prank’ committed by a few young men, in a modern-day coastal town.
I liked it, but I thought that the amount of time devoted to the witch’s history made it feel unbalanced compared to the page time dedicated to current events.

***** “The Gorgon in the Cupboard”
I read this as a companion piece to McKillip’s “The Kelpie” (…).
There’s no fantasy element here, but it’s a powerful and lovely story that explores the relationship between Pre-raphaelite painters and their models: how the men often idolized and idealized these women, making them heroes and victims of classical and supernatural dramas – while ignoring or wholly blind to the very real dramas and trials going on in these women’s very real lives.
Beautifully done.

**** “Which Witch”
A re-read – previously read in “Under My Hat.” (…)
“I challenge anyone to read this story and not wish they were a part of the rock band described. This tale would fit in really well with Terri Windling’s ‘Bordertown’ series. However, the plot elements are very slight, and cry out for further development…”
Upon re-reading, I actually though the plot was fine, but yes, I’d be happy to read a whole novel about the adventures of this band of witches and their familiars.

**** “Edith and Harry Go Motoring” (original)
The particulars of this story, as well as the general feel of it, reminded me quite a lot of Rudyard Kipling’s ‘They.’ (…)
A woman and her friend have a chauffeur take them on a drive, and, crossing a bridge with a strange toll keeper, they end up at a dilapidated and seemingly-abandoned mansion. Exploring the interior will lead both of them to profound – if vague – realizations.
A haunted house (?) tale with an undercurrent of mythology.

**** “Alien” (original)
When grandma starts saying she’d been abducted by aliens who are regularly visiting her, her family immediately is concerned about the obvious: senility, or possibly bad side effects of a medication. But is there another possibility?
A lovely, but poignant, story.

*** “Something Rich and Strange”
Previously read, some time ago. This was previously published as a book on its own. This one story is fully half the page count of this volume; which is worth considering, if you’ve already read it. (…)
“A rather dreamy, slow book, this novella tells the story of an eccentric couple, Megan and Jonah, who live in a seaside town. Megan’s an artist and Jonah runs an artsy souvenir shop. But a mystic couple arrive in town… Megan finds herself irresistibly drawn to a travelling jewelry-maker, and Jonah finds himself obsessed with a beautiful singer he sees in the local pub. Magic intertwines with reality as Megan and Jonah’s relationship seems to be tearing apart, for these strangers are magical beings from the sea, and Jonah is drawn in like so many other of legend, by siren song. But today, the mermaids want for than sensual, cruel amusement – they want to draw attention to the ecological disaster being faced by the world’s oceans.
I really love Patricia McKillip, but this novella gave me a bit of an ‘unfinished’ feel – there were a few loose ends, and the ‘message’ seemed awkwardly fitted in.”

Many thanks to NetGalley and Tachyon for the opportunity to read this book by one of my preferred authors! As always, my opinions are solely my own.

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Tremontaine: The Complete Season One

Tremontaine: The Complete Season One
Tremontaine: The Complete Season One by Ellen Kushner

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Riverside is back! Yay!!!

1. I honestly didn’t realize this “serial novel” was a Riverside book when I picked it up, so was quite delighted to find that it is. I still have my doubts about the story being ‘shared’ by a number of different writers, but I’ll see how that goes when I move along to the sequels. This first installment, however, is by Ellen Kushner herself, and even though it’s really just an introduction, it’s got the magic!
Here we meet the Duchess of Tremontaine, a savvy but less-than-compassionate woman seeking to restore the family fortunes (and, it seems, not succeeding).
Ixkaab Balam is a young woman from a Mayan-influenced culture, sent away by her chocolate-trading merchant family for unspecified transgressions. She has a secret ambition to become a renowned swordswoman, and is full of fantastic notions of honor and chivalry, ready to run off to Riverside and get into trouble at the drop of a brightly-colored scarf.
Finally, Micah is a farmer girl who’s a socially awkward math genius. On an errand, she gets lost and falls in with a number of students who immediately appreciate her remarkable skill at card games.
How will these three stories connect? On to the sequels to find out!
If you are a fan of ‘Swordspoint,’ ‘The Privilege of the Sword’ and ‘The Fall of the Kings,’ do not miss this one!

2. The first scene, with Ixkaab and her family, felt a little bit too YA for me… but as this second installment progressed, it felt more stylistically in keeping with the first episode of the serial novel.
(view spoiler)
As one expects from a serial, it ends on a cliffhanger/teaser… On to the next episode!
I’ve only read one of Alaya Dawn Johnson’s novels, but liked it very much – and she did a great job with this segment. I’ll have to keep an eye out for more of her books.

3. The third episode in this serial novel.
Looks like they recruited a gay male author to do the (first?) gay male sex scene! It was pretty hot, actually, if somewhat vague (keeping it R-rated?)
Going down to three stars, though, because, as I was afraid would happen in this kind of multi-author venture, there is some inconsistency. (view spoiler)
However, quibbles aside, I still enjoyed it! On to the next!

4. I’m very much enjoying this serial. I’ve heard good things about Malinda Lo’s writing, but this episode is very much in keeping with the overarching style of this story, so I’m not sure how much insight it gives into her personal oeuvre.
(view spoiler)

5. This episode had a multi-flashback format that was inconsistent with the style of the previous episodes, and didn’t really feel necessary. The content was good, though! The plots thicken…
(view spoiler)

6. This episode was brought to me (and you?) by a couple of authors I’m not familiar with – but I thought it was one of the best so far.
(view spoiler)

7. Mixed feelings about this episode… I’m never a big fan of dream sequences, and I also thought that the “recap and summary from an omniscient perspective” was unnecessary and too large a chunk of the chapter.
However, the ball of the title is an epic (and humorous) scene, which makes it all worthwhile.

8. In this episode, more plots and underhanded dealings are revealed, with a side of romance. (view spoiler)

9. Somehow, this feels like one of the more low-key episodes in this serial, even though two key events happen here: (view spoiler)
It went quickly, therefore moving quickly along to the next…

10. High drama in this episode! One of the best ones yet!
The segment starts with foreshadowing, telling us about a legendary poison which makes the victim behave in an irrational and paranoid manner… we can guess that someone will be using this herb, but who will it be?
In additional to the politicking and plotting, we get an action-packed showdown in the form of a sword duel, and a hefty dose of romance.

11. I said the last episode was “one of the best ones yet” – but this one is absolutely the best one yet!
Finally, the Duchess’ deep, dark secret is revealed – and the plots thicken as the stakes in the games increase.

12. While the great secret of the Duchess of Tremontaine was revealed in the last episode, this segment features big chunks of flashback, where we learn all the bloody details of what exactly happened, seventeen years ago.
And in the ‘present,’ an attempt at blackmail, involving that very secret. But is the blackmailer really ready to go up against the master of spider-craft?

13. That’s it! The end of the ‘season.’
Overall, I really liked this. It ends with plenty of open opportunities to continue the story, but enough resolution to feel satisfying.

I think my biggest quibble with the story over all is (view spoiler)

Anyway, I definitely plan on continuing the story and finding out what’s in store for the troubled house of Tremontaine…

Many thanks to Serial Box and NetGalley for the opportunity to read. And thank you to Ellen Kushner for creating the world of Riverside.
As always, my opinions are solely my own.

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