book reviews by Althea

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Review: In Calabria

In Calabria
In Calabria by Peter S. Beagle
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Claudio Bianchi is a rural Italian who’s gone out of his way to assure his solitude. He hangs out with his dog and his goat, and his social contact is often limited to the mailman who drops off the junk adverts. But then, one day, a unicorn appears on his land. Bianchi, a secret poet, is perhaps the ideal type of person to appreciate the magical beast with his combination of rustic earthiness and appreciation of beauty. He wants to keep the creature’s secrets and to help as he can with what she needs.

However, in our modern world, secrecy is difficult. Soon, the postman’s lovely sister discovers the unicorn as well. Less felicitously, so does the local mob. It may come down to what Claudio is willing to sacrifice in order to preserve the magic…

The writing is lovely and lyrical – a quiet book, but with enough tension to keep a reader moving along. Still, I would say the same thing about this book as I did about Beagle’s last book, ‘Summerlong’ – it’s “fantasy for older people.” I believe that at one point in the book, Claudio is described as being in his late 40s. That’s not that old! However, he’s written as if he’s much older. I ‘felt’ like he was 65, at least. This is partially explained by his life situation, but he spends a great deal of the book moaning about how he’s ‘too old’ for his 20-something love interest. He’s not *really* too old, but his protesting had me pretty much convinced that he was – and the fact that this is the second book of Beagle’s in a row to feature an ‘older’ man rejuvenated by the love of a beautiful ‘younger’ woman makes me feel a little bit uncomfortably “Woody Allen” about it all.

I’m still sticking with 4 stars due to the loveliness of the writing, and the deft touch that introduces the glimpse of the sublime into a too-modern, too-coarse world.

Many thanks to Tachyon and NetGalley for the opportunity to read. As always, my opinions are unaffected by the source of the book.

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Review: Penric and the Shaman

Penric and the Shaman
Penric and the Shaman by Lois McMaster Bujold
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After reading a few rather slow-moving and occasionally laborious long novels, jetting through this novella was tangibly refreshing!

As always, Bujold’s writing is a delight, and the story here is light, fun and wholly entertaining. Of course, this is a sequel to ‘Penric’s Demon’ and although this is a wholly self-contained episode, I’d recommend starting with the first one to get to know the characters.

Here, Penric is assigned, in his position as a Divine sorcerer, to accompany a lawman who’s trying to track down a dangerous murderer on the run. The lawman is skeptical due to Penric’s youth, and nervous about his demon, Desdemona – who’s much more full of personality than he thinks she ought to be. Can Penric prove himself – while coming up with the best possible solution regarding the crime at hand?

Many thanks to Subterranean and NetGalley for the opportunity to read. I’ll be sure to seek out Penric & Desdemona’s next adventure!

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Review: With Blood Upon the Sand

With Blood Upon the Sand
With Blood Upon the Sand by Bradley P. Beaulieu
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I enjoyed the first book, “Twelve Kings in Sharakhai,” so was eager to pick up this sequel. In ‘Twelve Kings’ we met Çeda, accomplished swordswoman, who makes it her secret mission to destroy the dozen immortal Kings who rule the city of Sharakhai with a heavy hand. In the first book, she manages to kill one of the twelve…

In ‘With Blood Upon The Sand’ we continue where we left off. Çeda has achieved the elite position of Blade Maiden, and is conspiring from within the system for her hoped overthrow, plotting slowly and laboriously to try to assassinate more of the Kings and to discover from whence their power and life-extension ability come.

As in the first book, there’s an extremely low page-count to kings-killed ratio. I have to admit that at several points I really wished we could dispense with some of the one-step-forward, two-steps-back details, and get this revolution moving! But we spend an awful lot of time on Çeda’s rivalry with a hostile colleague, her training to commune with/control the undead ‘asirim,’ covert communications that don’t go anywhere, and her frustration with the stagnant situation. I felt frustrated too!

Stick with it though, and there WILL BE exploding zombies!

It’s really not a spoiler to say that there are still plenty of Kings left in Sharakhai to fuel further sequels in this epic.

Man thanks to NetGalley and DAW for the opportunity to read. As always, my opinion is unaffected by the source of the book.

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Review: Cold Counsel

Cold Counsel
Cold Counsel by Chris Sharp
My rating: 0 of 5 stars

DNF at 21%.
This one just isn’t catching my imagination.
It’s always an interesting conceit to tell a story from the point of view of a “bad guy.” However, while Slud the troll is indubitably a “bad guy,” he’s merely thuggish and brutal, rather than interesting. He’s also rather dim-witted, and doesn’t seem to possess any personal motivation: his quest for revenge is merely something that he’s been trained into by his ‘foster-mother,’ Agnes.
Agnes could be an interesting character, but rather than being a mortal individual consumed by loss and bitterness, she seems to be some sort of avatar of a supernatural being, with the result that she feels extremely flat and opaque.

I have to admit that while reading the prologue, I found myself hoping that the narrative would switch to another point of view for the main story. But, it didn’t, and after checking other reviews, it seems that the whole book sticks with Slud. Unfortunately, I’m not sticking with him…

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Review: Vigil

Vigil by Angela Slatter
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have read a great deal of Angela Slatter’s short fiction, and enjoyed it greatly. And by “greatly” I mean, 5-stars, up-to-the-top-of-my-favorite-authors-list, “greatly.” When I heard she had a full-length novel coming out, I was shivering with antici… pation. Got the book through ILL since it isn’t available in the US.

Soooo… I was disappointed. I really didn’t want to be, but I was. “Vigil” is a perfectly competent, supremely marketable, and firmly in-genre entry into the paranormal investigation/urban fantasy oeuvre. It’s a fun little adventure, featuring the requisite feisty heroine. It’s a nice couple of evening’s entertainment, but it doesn’t really stand out from other stories in this niche in any memorable way.

If you’re a fan of Patricia Briggs, Ilona Andrews, Carrie Vaughn, Kelley Armstrong, &c, you will undoubtedly be delighted to discover Verity Fassbinder, her mixed human/supernatural heritage, her “it’s complicated” love life, and to join her on her attempts to unravel murders and plots involving humans and the Weyrd in modern-day Brisbane.

I didn’t mind it, but I prefer Slatter’s challenging and disturbing yet beautiful and timeless short fiction.

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Review: A Crown of Wishes

A Crown of Wishes
A Crown of Wishes by Roshani Chokshi
My rating: 0 of 5 stars

DNF at 35%.

I really enjoyed “The Star-Touched Queen” but this one just isn’t grabbing me. The characters of Gauri and Vikram aren’t gelling, and I’m uninterested in their obviously-impending romance.

It isn’t the author’s fault, but the plot is extremely similar to Stephanie Garber’s ‘Caraval,’ which I read recently and also wasn’t enthralled by: two attractive young people must gain entry to a magical ‘game’ in order to win a wish; the girl’s main goal being to save another young woman, although she might be distracted by the attractiveness of the young man…

Maybe it’s my mood, but I have lots of other books to read!

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Review: Nightmares: A New Decade of Modern Horror

Nightmares: A New Decade of Modern Horror
Nightmares: A New Decade of Modern Horror by Ellen Datlow
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

** “Shallaballah” by Mark Samuels
Starts off really strong, outlining the scenario: a well-known celebrity is in the strangely dingy offices of a surgeon-to-the-stars who’s rumored to be a provider of not-quite-legal services. But his results are legendary. Still, something seems off about the whole thing… As a matter of fact, the whole place is downright creepy-as-hell.
The ending didn’t really do it for me though – it suddenly gets a lot more vague and abstract, with implications that I thought needed more development.

**** “Sob in the Silence” by Gene Wolfe
Gene Wolfe is always a good writer, and this is a good story, even though it’s not the genre he’s most known for. As a matter of fact, this is more reminiscent of Stephen King than most of Wolfe’s other work. A horror writer has invited an old friend’s family for a country weekend at his old (and rather dilapidated) manor house. Not all will go well.
Crime fiction meets ghost story…

**** “Our Turn Too Will One Day Come” by Brian Hodge
Previously read in ‘The Monstrous.’
A brother is called to his sister’s side in a moment of crisis. Family has to stick together, even when it might go against the law. But he learns that there are things about his family that have been kept from him his whole life… things that go back generations.
Great idea, but it gets a tiny bit ‘tell-y’ with the explication in the latter half.

*** “Dead Sea Fruit” by Kaaron Warren (Aurealis Awards nominee)
Weird. A dentist whose job includes seeing to the needs of patients in the anorexia ward dismisses the girls’ odd prattling about the kisses of an “Ash-Mouth Man” as part of their mental dysfunction. But then, she starts dating a man who refuses to kiss her, and their words come back to haunt her.

*** “Closet Dreams” by Lisa Tuttle
A girl tries to explain how she escaped her horrible situation: caught in an Elizabeth-Smart-like scenario; she was kidnapped and held in a closet by a vicious sexual predator. While her captor was at work, she had nothing to do but fantasize about ways to get away. But something about her story doesn’t add up.
Chilling, but I saw the twist coming.

*** “Spectral Evidence” by Gemma Files
A small collection of strange snapshots has been found in the files of an agency specializing in supernatural investigations. Through a set of notes and descriptions, a story begins to emerge, involving wrongdoing at the agency: con artists & predators who may have gotten in too deep while toying with the occult.
I liked this, but it felt like ancillary content to a larger novel.

*** “Hushabye” by Simon Bestwick
Crime story with a supernatural element. As any brave person would, a man leaps to try to apprehend a child predator when he has the chance. But he may have gotten into more than he bargained for.

*** “Very Low-Flying Aircraft” by Nicholas Royle
Literary vignette with a psychological emphasis. Well-written, but it’s more tragedy than horror.
(Trying to impress girls with stupid stunts – a bad idea since time immemorial.)

**** “The Goosle” by Margo Lanagan
Really creepy, disturbing ‘sequel’ to ‘Hansel and Gretel.’ Some time ago, in this post-apocalyptic, plague-ridden world, Hansel escaped from the witch’s cottage – but fell into the hands of another abuser. His sister Kirtle is no longer with him. Now, the con-man and thief who uses his body has taken him back to the witch’s mud hut. Explicit, upsetting – and very, very good.

*** “The Clay Party” by Steve Duffy
‘The Clay Party’ ends up much like ‘The Donner Party’ – but there’s a supernatural twist.
Told in the form of a ‘found journal’ we first hear about the group of settlers expected in California being disturbingly late – and then we find out about what happened after their leader insisted on taking that ill-advised short cut.

**** “Strappado” by Laird Barron
My favorite one in the collection so far. Would appeal to fans of Kathe Koja, I believe.
A bunch of ex-pats and foreign businessmen go on an outing to what’s been billed as a secret, one-night-only exhibition by a legendary, anonymous artist known for pushing the envelope. But what they get is more than they bargained for.
Pay attention to all the details!
The tale is properly horrifying; the only thing keeping it from 5 stars is that I wished it had a bit more depth; that the actions had wider implications. But it’s definitely memorable.

**** “Lonegan’s Luck” by Stephen Graham Jones
Throughout the scattered, isolated towns of the Old West, folk know not to trust a travelling ‘snake oil’ salesman too far – but what they’re in for when one certain individual rides his limping, bleeding horse into town goes beyond their expectations – or their ken.
Pulls no punches.

*** “Mr Pigsny” by Reggie Oliver
Tweedy college professor attends the funeral of a mobster inlaw – and encounters the peculiar and decidedly shady Pigsny. What’s his angle?

**** “At Night, When the Demons Come” by Ray Cluley
In a ruined, post-apocalyptic America, demons ravage the land and threaten the survivors. But. as this genre often points out, humans can be just as bad as any monster. Strong story; recommended for those who liked Marcel Theroux’s ‘Far North,’ and/or Alden Bell’s ‘The Reapers are the Angels.’

**** “Was She Wicked? Was She Good?” By M. Rickert
I’d imagine that, as a parent, it must be very disturbing to realize that your young child has a tendency toward cruelty – say, tearing the wings from flies. At first, we think that might be what the little girl here is doing. But no, it’s worse – and much stranger. The story leaves us with a lot of unanswered questions, but they simply contribute to the atmosphere. Really liked it.

*** “The Shallows” by John Langan
A man, alone, tries to survive in his home, surrounded by the bizarre and dangerous manifestations of the alien phenomenon that has destroyed the world. As he tends his garden in this precarious oasis, he muses on the loss of his wife and son, and relates an anecdote about taking in a stray dog. Mundane incidents are weighted with ominous freight. Weird, and well-written.

*** “Little Pig” by Anna Taborska
Another selection that’s more tragedy than horror. The theme: how a generation who’s grown up in comfort and safety may not understand the trials and sacrifices that their forebears from the Old World may have endured.

**** “Omphalos” by Livia Llewellyn
A family where more than one thing is not quite right goes on a road trip vacation where things get strange. They are following a road map which seems to appear different to each person. But considering the situation, can it lead to anything except disaster? Explicit – ominous – disturbing – and very effective.

*** “How We Escaped Our Certain Fate” by Dan Chaon
After the zombie apocalypse, a single father tries to raise his teenage son right; and succumbs to a dangerous amount of sentimentality.

*** “That Tiny Flutter of the Heart I Used to Call Love” by Robert Shearman
Weird story of a girl, the dolls her distant father gives her, and what her jealous brother makes her do to those dolls. Let’s just say it doesn’t all bode well for her future husband.

**** “Interstate Love Song (Murder Ballad No. 8)” by Caitlín R. Kiernan
I feel like I maybe read this before, but I’m not sure. Either way, it’s worth a read – and a re-read.
Beautifully written. The story creates a shattering tension by creating empathy in the reader for a person who absolutely, unquestionably deserves none at all. The slow reveal is poetic and expertly done, elegiac and lovely details balanced against the carnally grotesque.
Oh, and it’s pretty incest twins on a serial-killing roadtrip spree.

**** “Shay Corsham Worsted” by Garth Nix (Shirley Jackson Award nominee)
Previously read in ‘Fearful Symmetries.’ (It always seems like ‘cheating’ to me when one editor includes the same story in multiple anthologies – but it’s a good story.)
Garth Nix is always excellent; and this tale closes the collection on a strong note. A retired secret service agent has been watching a certain house for thirty years. But when the threat that’s been feared for all these decades erupts, the weapon has been forgotten, and bureaucracy gets in the way.

**** “The Atlas of Hell” by Nathan Ballingrud
Re-read – previously read in “Fearful Symmetries.” Paranormal mystery meets Clive Barker-style horror.
A mafia boss sends his minions out into the bayou in search of a man who’s been holding out on him; selling occult artifacts. But even experts in the arcane may get more than they bargained for.

**** “Ambitious Boys Like You” by Richard Kadrey
Re-read – previously read in “The Doll Collection.”
A pure horror tale; would make a great start to a late-night movie. Two lowlifes decide to burglarize the home of an old man whose eerie, doll-festooned, dilapidated house was always rumored to be haunted. The house looks like it was upper-class, once upon a time, and they suspect he’s got something good stashed away. However, the ‘something’ in the house is more than they bargained for.

Many thanks to NetGalley and Tachyon publications for the opportunity to read. As always, my opinions are unaffected by the source of the book.

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