Friday, July 3, 2015

The Canterbury Sisters (Novel)

The Canterbury Tales. Mothers and Daughters. Death. Forgiveness. Healing. Stories. A Pilgrimage. Friendships. Death. Relationships. Lovers. What Women Want.
Okay, I thought. Here’s what I don’t have. I don’t have a mother, or a lover, or a phone, or any fucking clue of why I’m here, where I’m going next, or what any of this means.
Kim Wright, The Canterbury Sisters

When Che receives her mother’s ashes, there is a note attached, a last request: take the ashes to Canterbury, “It is never too late for healing.” Che would have ignored the note, except that her boyfriend had also sent a note. He was breaking up with her and would call her to work out the details. So, to fulfill her mother’s last wishes and to avoid the inevitable conversation with her now ex-boyfriend, Che books a flight to London. When her private tour guide becomes ill, Che finds herself on a pilgrimage (run by Broads Abroad) going from London to Canterbury with eight other women. In the tradition of The Canterbury Tales, each woman is to tell a “love story,” whether true or fictional. Through the pilgrimage and the stories, Che finds the healing that her mother wanted for her.

The Canterbury Sisters by Kim Wright gave me the same pleasure that I associate with the sight of a well-planned, well-maintained garden. There was the pleasure of the description of the walk to Canterbury, based upon Wright’s own experiences. There was the pleasure of the skillful writing.The description of Che’s mother’s ashes in the zip lock bag and then in the fish and chips bag is wonderful, both amusing and touching. The women’s stories and the narration of their experiences on the trip gave me insight into the lives of women and their complexities. Che is a bit snooty and at the same time vulnerable, making her an appealing character. My only major criticism is that part of the ending seemed contrived.

I rarely read non-genre –science fiction, mystery, fantasy– fiction. I’m not sure it is in my true nature. But, this novel does make me want to read more novels by Kim Wright.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Terms of Enlistment (Science Fiction)

What would you do if you were desperate? You live in a welfare tenement surrounded by hopelessness, crime, and extreme poverty. You are given synthetic food that never quite tastes like food. Your only real chance out is to enlist in the military. You need to stay in and stay alive for five years to see any real reward and then it is a minor one. But you get to eat real food and get a chance to experience life beyond the Public Residence Clusters (PRC). Could you be focused enough, disciplined enough, and lucky enough to at least have a chance at a decent life? Through the character of Andrew Grayson, who lives in the not so distant future, Marko Kloos explores that question in the novel Terms of Enlistment.

Terms of Enlistment begins with Andrew’s farewells in the PRC and his basic training. While Andrew dreams of escaping his life and going into space, his “permanent” assignment is a disappointing one, the Territorial Army, think the National Guards. There he makes good friends but must help control the very violence in the PRC’s that he tried to escape. Despite his bravery and exceptional military savvy. Andrew makes a major mistake, one that costs dozens of civilians their lives. Through his well-earned earned political connections, Andrew manages an unheard of reassignment, one to the Navy, which now allows him to go into outer space. But, his first real mission is far more unusual than anyone ever expected; they learn that humans are not alone in the universe.

As I’ve said repeatedly, I am not a lover of military fiction, even if it is science fiction. The fact that I even ended up reading Terms of Enlistment is the result of a series of flukes. So here we are. I won’t praise or criticize the novel. What I can tell you is that my reaction to the PRC’s and the military fighting in them surprised me. First I thought that Kloos was cynical when it came to human nature. And then the Boston riots happened in the world outside the book. While Kloos interpretation of unrest wasn’t a literal one, it did capture some of the flavor of it. The book made me think in ways I would not have otherwise, which I always consider a good thing.

Well, since I talked my local Library system into purchasing the first two books in Kloos’s series, I’m committed to reading the follow-up to Terms of Enlistment, Lines of Departure. At least it has space aliens in it. We will see.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Trader (Urban Fantasy)

Imagine that you are Max Trader, a world renowned luthier, a maker of string instruments. A "Trader" is something that musicians dream of owning. Then, imagine one day waking up in the body of a stranger, someone loathed. Soon you are homeless. You are friendless and without the trade that you have loved and thrived in all your life. Now what do you do? This is the premise behind Trader, another book in Charles de Lint’s Newford series.

In Trader we also meet Nia, the teenager daughter of a single mother. Max Trader has become her confidant. She is the first person to realize that there is someone else in Max’s body. Then, she sees her mother kissing a woman. Has the world turned into a dangerous place filled with body snatchers? The only thing she can think of doing is to run away from home.

Trader is a novel with a lot of heart. I couldn’t help but fall in love with Max and Nia and many of the others characters in the story. Trader is also thoughtful and thought provoking. Is Max totally a victim or does he bear some responsibility for what happened to him? How does a physical body affect the consciousness that inhabits it? And, as Nia asks: “What were you supposed to do when your world came to an end, when there was nothing you could count on anymore? What was the point of even trying to go on?”

The novel isn’t perfect. I found one of the minor subplots flat and cliché. Also, if the novel had been written post-economic crash, I would have been frustrated with the ending, wanting the same overall feeling but a little different outcome. While the story is for the most part timeless and relevant, in a small way we have emotionally changed since 1997.

I found Trader comforting, like having a nice conversation with a friend. The story is enjoyable and interesting. I like the world de Lint creates in the Newford series. He doesn’t come back to the same protagonists, though Jilly does play an important part in the plotline of Trader. In that it differs from my other favorite series. I remember first discovering the Bryant and May series and not wanting to stop reading the books until I ran out of them. So far, I feel the same way about the Newford series.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Dreams Underfoot (Urban Fantasy)

Where or where have I been? When I found Dreams Underfoot, a book in the Newford Series by Charles de Lint, at my local library, I felt like someone who found out that their new best friend had been living only a few blocks away most of their life. The book is over two decades old. (If I had discovered the series earlier, I could have avoided reading a lot of bad fiction.) The book is the exact style that I have a hard time putting down. The fantasy is fresh. Even familiar plotlines are presented with new twists. The characters are sympathetic and three dimensional. De Lint dares to take on some difficult subjects.

Dreams Underfoot is a series of short stories which take place in the city of Newford. Magic can be found for those who believe and are willing to experience it. A number of the stories take on the subject of child and sexual abuse. Some of the stories have happy ending; other do not. At least one is a horror story. While many of the same characters are woven into the stories, only one story requires a direct knowledge of a previous one.

Dreams Underfoot contains good storytelling. The fantasy element never becomes distracting or silly. Rather, it enriches the plot. Let’s see whether the other books in the series are just as good.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Memory and Dream (Urban Fantasy)

Art. Mentors. Magic. Being Real. Physical Abuse. Emotional Abuse. Friends. Love. Community. Having a Purpose. Identity. Suicide. Success. Justification of Physical Violence. Power. Control. Acceptance of Different Realities.

Over the last few years I have come to believe more and more that science and religion have failed us. The only real hope for the long term survival of the human race –and for many individuals—is art. I have been in such a deep, deep depression recently that there is no way that I can critique Charles de Lint’s novel Memory & Dreams. I’m not sure whether it is a good or mediocre book. I’m not sure whether I would recommend it. Quite frankly, I’m not sure whether I enjoyed it. What I do know is that in this second book that I have read of De Lint's I continue to admire his commitment to take on tough subjects. I am fascinated that he chose an urban fantasy format to tell this story. The story could have just as easily been told as a science fiction story with parallel universes or a supernatural detective story. Instead he chose to wrap the story around the lives of artists. My depression compromised intellect also knows that there are layers of meaning to this story, I just can’t follow them right now.

The main character in Memory and Dream is Izzy/Isabel, an artist. She is flattered when a renowned artist, Rushkin, discovers her and takes her on as his protégée. His mentoring helps her become an accomplished artist. Right from the beginning of their relationship, we learn that he is controlling. As the story progresses, we learn that he is emotionally and physically abusive. Yet, the abuses are just the overt aspects of his darkness. As Izzy learns more and more from Rushkin, she acquires the ability to create painting that bring numena over from the “before.” Are numena creatures that Izzy has created or are they independent beings for which Izzy has provided a doorway?

The story takes place in two general time periods: roughly, Izzy’s early years as an artist and the present when her friend Alan is trying to convince her to illustrate a volume of Kathy’s stories. Kathy was Izzy’s close friend who died. Why does Isabel insist that Kathy died of cancer when Alan know that Kathy killed herself? Who set that fire that destroyed all of Izzy’s most cherished paintings? The destruction of the paintings killed Izzy’s numenas, who were like children to her, and caused her to withdraw from the world. What is the true nature of Rushkin’s relationship to Izzy? How will Izzy’s friendships be affected when the truth about the paintings is known? Can Izzy/Isabel survive the truth about her past?

Memory and Dreams is an early book in Charles de Lint’s Newport series. Having the same setting and some familiar characters as the earlier book of short stories gave me a sense of “coming home” when I read this book. While the characters from the earlier book take on minor roles, it is nice to see them again. Even if I wanted to, I think it would be very hard to get ahold of all the books in the series. Unlike some of my other favorite series, it doesn’t appear to matter. The punchline is that Newport is filled with magic for those willing to see it, period.

Despite my surface level ambivalence about Memory and Dream, part of me positively responded to the book. I want to read more, not necessarily because I’m drawn to the magic, but because I’m drawn to the universal messages clothed in the magic. Like the numena in Memory and Dreams, I don’t think any of us really understands what it is to be real, but we have to try our darndest to live it.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Bryant & May and the Bleeding Heart (Mystery Novel)

After reading Bryant & May and the Bleeding Heart, I have once again put the Bryant and May Series by Christopher Fowler on the top of my list of favorite book series. The Bleeding Heart has the right blend of silliness and seriousness. It has a good mystery that had me holding my breath in places. It has good heart. And, of course, it contains arcane facts about London that Fowler is so good at uncovering.

The Invisible Code, the last book in the series, ended with a bit of foreboding. Bryant had found a new nemesis, Mr. Merry, a necromancer. In Bryant & May and the Bleeding Heart, Mr. Merry menaces the somewhat fragile Bryant. But, first things first, the Peculiar Crimes Unit is under new jurisdiction, reporting to the City of London. They now report to Orion Banks, who unfortunately speaks little conversational English. She is, on the other hand, fluent in marketing and business jargon. (Fowler almost had me rolling on the floor laughing.) The Peculiar Crimes Unit must solve two mysteries: a man reportedly rising from the dead and the disappearance of the ravens from the Tower of London. In addition, Janice Longbright has finally risked her heart in love, with Jack Renfield. Janice’s attempt to befriend his teenage daughter results in unexpected consequences.

Bryant & May and the Bleeding Heart has what I refer to as “good heart.” We finally find out Bryant’s backstory, why he became a police officer. We see Bryant in all his vulnerability and all his strength. While Longbright’s story is a secondary plotline, it is well developed, giving her the attention that she deserves and making us feel for her. Fowler develops the character of one of the victims so well that we feel his lost after his murder. With the addition of Banks, Fowler asks the question, “What role can the Peculiar Crimes Unit possibly play in a world where cyber and white collar crime are now the fares of the day?” The question made me look at my own place is this rapidly evolving world.

Bryant and May and the Bleeding Heart is a little—just a little— lighter on the occult and on Bryant’s usual shenanigans than in some of the earlier books in the series. In their place is some stronger character development. The novel was just the right blend for me, keeping me as a loyal fan of the series.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Blood of Angels (Science Fiction Novel)

The Blood of Angels is one of the most thought-provoking and controversial books that I have read in a long, long time. The novel was written by the Finnish author Johanna Sinisalo and translated into English by Lola Rogers. This short novel takes on such issues as Colony Collapse Catastrophe (Disorder), the meat industry, capitalism, and the funeral industry. The Blood of Angels contains numerous descriptions that made me feel vaguely nauseous. Parts of the plotline are incredibly sad. Yet, I actually enjoyed the book. It was well written. The main character and his son are characters whom I am glad that I met. I enjoyed learning about bees.

The main character in The Blood of Angels, the narrator, is the owner of a funeral home. But, his passion is raising bees. His grown son is a blogger, who is involved in a controversial animal rights group. The novel weaves between the blog posts and the narration. Bit by bit we learn that something tragic has happened to the son. In addition, the father thinks that he has found a portal into another world, one where the bees are healthy. Does the portal really exist or is it the result of grief and too much alcohol?

The Blood of Angels haunted me for days. How can you unread a book? It still makes me question my own values and behavior. Yes, I definitely recommend the book. But, in some people it will stir up thoughts that they have comfortably ignored.