Books in Brief

Sigh.  I have been reading, honestly.  I just haven’t been writing.  Again.  Here’s a quick look at some books that I have read over the past few months.

 

The Handmaid's TaleThe Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.  In this post-apocalyptic vision of the future, part of the former United States is now The Republic of Gilead, a far-right totalitarian Christian theocracy.  Women are assigned to various classes; they are not allowed to read or to have money of their own; they are not even allowed to keep their own names.  Offred is a Handmaid, the role assigned to fertile women not eligible for marriage.  Unless she is able to conceive a child by Fred, for him and his wife to adopt as their own, she will be declared an Unwoman and banished to the Colonies to clean up hazardous waste.  Offred recalls her happy past and relates her chilling present.  An absolutely terrifying vision of the future.

A Wrinkle in TimeA Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle.  A government scientist has gone missing; his daughter, Meg, her younger brother, Charles Wallace, and her friend, Calvin O’Keefe, travel through space and time to find him.  They are aided by Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which.  I loved this book as a kid; I was less impressed with it this time around.

Artemis AwakeningArtemis Awakening by Jane Lindskold.  Centuries have passed since the Empire was shattered by war and the advanced technology it enjoyed was lost.  Legends tell  of Artemis, a planet created to be a pleasure resort back in the Empire’s Golden Age.  All tech was concealed and the occupants, animal and human alike, were bioengineered to help the guests enjoy their stay.

Archaeologist Griffin Dane investigates the legend and it leads him to the actual planet.  Finding himself stranded there, he is rescued by Adara and her psych-linked puma, Sand Shadow.  What will he discover about the forgotten technologies that created Artemis and her inhabitants?  Intriguing beginning to a new series.

A Darkling SeaA Darkling Sea by James Cambias.  Humans first alien contact was with the Sholen and years of conflict followed.  A hard-won truce and an uneasy peace are challenged when humans explore the oceanic world of Ilmatar and make contact with its residents.  The story is narrated by Rob, a member of the human exploration team, Broadtail, an Ilmataran, and Tizhos, a Sholen scientist.  Slightly uneven plotting but a fascinatingly detailed space opera.

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The Perfect Ghost by Linda Barnes

Book Review:  The Perfect Ghost by Linda Barnes

perfect-ghostEm Moore is painfully shy.  As the silent partner of a successful writing team, she’s able to live a mostly solitary and self-sufficient life; she does the writing, her partner Teddy does the information gathering and the PR.  When Teddy dies in a mysterious car accident, her world changes drastically.  Determined to finish their last project together, the biography of reclusive movie director Garrett Malcolm, she leaves the safety of her apartment and resolves to complete the interviews with the man himself, despite everyone’s doubts.

The story unfolds slowly but deliberately, told by Em and addressed to Teddy in absentia.  Details from her past seep into the narrative and they aren’t pleasant.   Em is a survivor, but will she fall victim to a fatal accident herself?  Malcolm clearly has secrets, and it seems more and more likely that Teddy’s accident wasn’t an accident at all.  Did he discover something scandalous?  Was he up to something scandalous himself?

This book was impossible for me to put down and the ending caught me by surprise — I love it when an author can do that!  I immediately began re-reading and became even more impressed.  It takes a lot of skill to show readers everything they need to know but lead them in an entirely different direction.  Linda Barnes just made my “Must Read” list.

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Rooms by Lauren Oliver

RoomsBook Review:  Rooms by Lauren Oliver
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It’s rare that a book with unlikeable characters can hold my attention.  Not only did Rooms hold my attention but it kept my nose buried in its pages for an entire weekend.  Rooms is a well-paced novel that feels absolutely real even though two of its main characters are ghosts.  Not Casper the Friendly Ghost variety but not the Poltergeist variety either.  More the invisible, silent roommate variety.  Richard Walker has just died and his estranged family has come back to clean house.  Alice and Sandra, bound to the house since their deaths, pay witness to the family’s comings and goings, commenting, reminiscing, and arguing as the days go by.
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Oliver’s imagery throughout the novel is exquisite but what appealed to me most was the mystery.  Each character in this novel is haunted, not by ghosts, but by events from their pasts.  I may not have liked any of the characters but I was curious about them.  Oliver does not disappoint.

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The High Druid’s Blade by Terry Brooks

High Druid's BladeBook Review:  The High Druid’s Blade by Terry Brooks

Over the centuries, whenever dark forces have emerged in The Four Lands, the Leahs have always been part of the small group of heroes who fight the good fight and save the day.  Legend has it that the family sword that now hangs above the fireplace was once a magical weapon but Paxon Leah has never found a way to unlock that power.  That will soon change.  The Leahs aren’t the only ones aware of the sword’s history — a powerful sorcerer has set his sights on the sword AND the two youngest members of the Leah family.  Arcannen intends to take down the Druids and the Leahs play an important role in his plan.

Disappointed.  I love the world of Shannara and I don’t mind if the quests from one book to another are overly similar to one another.  Brooks has always been good at creating a strong sense of place and he’s always given me a character or two that I really care about.  That said, the first in the The Defenders of Shannara spin-off didn’t work for me.

The first problem I had with the book was the lack of urgency felt when Chrys is threatened.  Jayet and Paxon walk quickly, sure, but shouldn’t Paxon have been running?  He’s just been told that his sister is in trouble at the local tavern over a dice game with a stranger.  I could have let that slide — maybe — but Paxon’s long introspection after Arcannen escapes with Chrys as his hostage — that was a bit much.  Yes, I know he just got pummeled.  Yes, Arcannen is clearly powerful so Paxon needs a plan — but couldn’t he plan as he did something?  His sister’s been abducted by someone who clearly means her harm — I find it hard to believe that he wouldn’t have given chase immediately, if for no other reason than not trusting that Arcannen would take her where he said he was taking her.  Couldn’t he have told someone from the airfield what was going on and send a message to Jayet asking someone follow him, bringing weapons — or something?

The lack of urgency isn’t the only problem.  Things are also too easy.  Chrys is tortured — turns out, there’s a potion for that.  The Druids are framed, quite convincingly, but crisis is averted because the Federation guy is different from every other Federation leader Brooks has given us.  That sort of thing.  Assuming Brooks continues this storyline, I’m sure he’ll introduce wrinkles, but as it stands, everything was simply too easy.

 

 

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Fall From Grace by L.R. Wright

Fall From Grace

Book Review:  Fall From Grace by L.R. Wright

More than the heat is simmering in the picturesque community of Sechelt.  Herman Ferguson has high hopes for his roadside zoo but someone is freeing his animals and he suspects the Crazy Cat Lady up the road.  Bad Boy Bobby Ransome is back in town and he’s worrying at least one husband.  And a former resident mysteriously falls to his death from a scenic cliff with an exceedingly full money belt around his waist.

Wright again excels at atmosphere — the Sunshine Coast of British Columbia is on my Places to Visit list, thanks to her.  She doesn’t just excel at creating a sense of place, however; she also excels at connecting the reader with multiple characters’ points of view.  Opportunities lost, regrets, longing, jealousy, rage — Wright takes readers on a tour of the soul.

Even though Wright’s suspense typically comes from Why Did They Do It rather than Who Did It, by the end she usually shows all of her cards.  Usually — Fall From Grace is an exception.  Some of the mystery I pieced together fairly early and she was kind enough to pull back the curtain enough for me to see that I was spot on.  Some of the mystery remains shrouded — there was a hint of something that happened long ago and I think I know what happened — but maybe not.  But no worries — there’s no question of how the man fell to his death and why.  If you like psychological mysteries, you will not be disappointed.  Highly recommended.

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Simon Said by Sarah Shaber

An archaeological dig uncovers the body of a woman shot in the head  70 years ago and buried with care under the old kitchen of Bloodworth House.  Historian Simon Shaw is an expert on the history of site and he identifies the victim as Anne Bloodworth, an heiress who disappeared in 1926.  Why would someone want her dead?  And why did they bury her with reverence?  When discovered, her arms were crossed demurely over her chest and she was neatly shrouded in a quilt.

Puzzling as those questions are, Professor Shaw has more immediate concerns.  Just as he’s pulling himself out of an emotional nosedive following his divorce, a colleague tries to discredit him.  Is the colleague also behind the recent attempts on Shaw’s life?  Attempts which are staged to appear like suicide?  Who else would have motive to want this popular, Pulitzer Prize winning professor out of the way — permanently?

Simon Said is the first entry in the Simon Shaw series.  Described by his love interest as “small, bookish, and unambitious”, Shaw has a certain charm.  A 30-something unexpectedly finding himself single and quite uncertain about dating the second time around, Shaw’s personal situation is easy to relate to — as is his apparent caffeine addiction (do not read this book if you are trying to kick the soda habit).  I like the fact that he teaches where he feels at home rather than seeking a position at a more prestigious university.  I like that he surrounds himself with heirlooms from his family.  I like that he has a cat and for a first date, he took his love interest to a baseball game.  Yes, he has a certain charm.  :)

I also liked both mysteries, past and present.  My only quibbles would be that Shaber has a tendency to spell everything out and yet somehow allow our characters to miss the obvious.  While most of the story is told from Shaw’s viewpoint, we are given glimpses of other characters’ viewpoints as well, particularly regarding their feelings toward Shaw.  So, there’s not much excitement there, because we know that no one who counts believes he’s suicidal.  There were too many obvious clues that intelligent characters should not have missed — and, as good as Shaber’s characterization of Shaw was, some details seemed to suddenly emerge when needed.  Still, it’s a cozy read with a strong atmosphere of small-town life in the South and I will definitely give the next book in the series a go.  Looking forward to Snipe Hunt!

 

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The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Book Review:  The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

In 2075, underground colonies thrive on the moon — Luna, as its inhabitants prefer to call her.  A penal colony for all of Earth, most residents are criminals, exiles, or their descendents.  The mixture of cultures, extreme conditions, and scarcity of women have led to a uniquely Lunar way of life.  While there are no laws, there is an accepted code of behavior.  There is no room on Luna for those who don’t earn their way or who mistreat women.  Wrongs are dealt with immediately and often permanently.

All in all, Mannie is content.  His happy polyamorous family is faring well and, as a non-inmate, he is independent of the Authority.  Things take a drastic turn however, when he heeds the request of the self-aware master computer he has nicknamed Mike and attends a political rally that leaves several guards dead.  Mannie escapes with Wyoh, an attractive political agitator, and they meet up with “rational anarchist” Professor Bernardo.  Mannie decides to introduce them to Mike who verifies that if Luna continues exporting wheat to Earth, its resources will be depleted in seven years.  And a revolution is born.

Mike is a fascinating character.  Lonely until noticed by Mannie and introduced to other not-stupids Wyoh and Professor, he felt real to me the minute Mannie stated “Not that Mike would necessarily give right answer; he wasn’t entirely honest.”  I love Mike’s childlike sense of humor.  I also love that he was as flawed as any person, expressing disappointment in his “idiot son”, a computer that he trains to handle certain tasks.  Heinlein did an excellent job making Mike’s sentience believable.

Heinlein’s excellent characterization extended to the other characters as well — love Mannie! And the lunar dialect, a mish-mash of predominately Western colloquialisms strongly influenced by Russian grammar, felt real.  While not overly-descriptive, Heinlein’s attention to detail made it easy for me to picture a system of interconnected warrens, bustling with life.  It was refreshing to see a vision of a future in which a scarcity of women establishes a respect for them, as opposed to property to be fought over.  Not that this is an optimistic tale.  It’s filled with politics and even the “good” guys manipulate the masses.  But it is a tale of the innate desire to be independent, to be respected, and to be dealt with fairly.

“Individuals. Each responsible for his own acts. I am free, no matter what rules surround me. If I find them tolerable, I tolerate them; if I find them too obnoxious, I break them. I am free, because I know that I alone am morally responsible for everything that I do.”

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