Monday, January 30, 2023

The Facts of Life

Graham Joyce
Completed 1/29/2023, Reviewed 1/29/2023
5 stars

This is one of those books that really is general fiction with just a touch of fantasy or perhaps magical realism.  And yet that touch brought it to the forefront of readers enough to win it the 2003 World Fantasy Award.  The book is about a large, quirky family, some of the members being able to see ghosts.  It takes place during and shortly after WWII in Coventry, England.  Joyce has been compared to many authors, but I’d say he reminds me most of early John Irving.  The prose is luscious and the characters are, well, quirky.  And I found it to be one of the most entertaining, engrossing, and tear-jerky novels I’ve read in a long time.

Martha is the matriarch of a family of seven daughters: Aida, Evelyn, Ina, Olive, Una, Beatie, and Cassie.  The youngest, Cassie has just had her second baby out of wedlock, this time, by an American GI in England during the war.  But this time, she can’t give the baby boy up.  Martha and the sisters are worried about the welfare of the boy because Cassie has “blue” periods where she sees her dead dad and goes off for days.  She’s clearly bipolar.  But it’s the mid- to late-40s, and some issues are kept in the family.  Martha figures a way of keeping baby Frank out of harm’s way, by having Cassie and Frank live with her, then with the families of the other sisters.  

At first Cassie is a little off-putting.  I was disturbed by her keeping the baby when she clearly has mental health issues.  However, Martha, with her pipe and stout beer, is like a conductor, orchestrating the care of Frank amongst all the sisters.  Not only does it give us insight into all the sisters, but also Cassie and Frank and how they live and react to the changing environments.  Frank gets to live on a farm with Una and her husband, with the spriritualist twins Evelyn and Ina, with the anarchist Beatie, and with the prim and proper wife of an embalmer Aida.  And during this, Cassie gets to have blue funks while Frank is cared for.

I really liked all the characters.  I was amazed at how Joyce could fit so much character development in three hundred pages.  I felt I had a really deep sense of each of the sisters.  The husbands got occasionally confusing, though.  The big issue in the family is that Martha, Cassie, and Frank can see and hear the dead.  It’s not overwhelming, but happens every now and then.  For Martha, the occurrences are generally prophetic.  For Cassie, they signal a bipolar swing.  For Frank, well, his experiences are just plain creepy.  

It's a little hard to write about this book.  It’s just a wonderful slice of the lives of a very peculiar family.  It’s executed so well that I loved every minute of my reading and had a few tears at the end.  I was wrapped up in all their dramas and quirks.  There’s even an appearance of the “ghost” of Lady Godiva, who hailed from Coventry.   I give this book five stars out of five.  I may be rating this high because it reminds me of how good general fiction can be.  It’s certainly not the best fantasy out there, but it’s one of the best near-non-genre books I’ve read in a long, long time.

Saturday, January 28, 2023

Suldrun’s Garden

Jack Vance
Completed 1/28/2023, Reviewed 1/28/2023
4 stars

This was a tough book to like, but in the end, I did like it.  It’s the first book in a sprawling fantasy trilogy that takes place on an imaginary isle south of the British Isles, west of France, and north of Spain.  The isle is made up of about ten kingdoms, all vying for a return to a single kingdom.  It has many plotlines and characters, making it occasionally a little difficult to keep up with.  I’d say it’s somewhere between “Lord of the Rings” and “A Game of Thrones” in its hugeness.  I read this book because the third book in the trilogy won the WFA, of which I am reading all the winners.  It took me a while to get through its denseness, but I think it paid off in the end.

The book opens in the kingdom of Lyonesse, ruled by Casmir.  He has a daughter, Suldrun, whom he wants to use to forge an alliance with another kingdom.  She wants none of it, preferring solitude.  So he exiles her to her beloved garden where she often hid from her teachers and minders.  She meets a castaway young man, a prince, who was nearly killed by his cousin, and they fall in love.  She becomes pregnant, much to the consternation of her father, but her son is the subject of a prophesy.  Casmir throws the prince in a pit.  When Suldrun’s son is born, he is hidden away and later swapped with changeling.  And this is just one of the many plotlines, but it lies at the core of the book.  

There are many different storylines in this book.  Vance changes the focus of the narration between all the major players in this book to develop each character.  I found it a difficult form to follow.  Once I got comfortable with a character and his/her plight, the POV changes, making the reader get used to a new character, often in a different part of the isle.  All the characters do come together at various points in the book, culminating in an exciting climax, but the process of getting there bothered me.

Nonetheless, the book is well written, with lovely prose for the most part.  The dialogue is a little medieval, but not boring.  The world-building is fascinating.  It is one of the most well-thought-out fantasies I’ve read in a while.  The complexity of ten kingdoms and its geography, castles, and rivers is superb.  It is a sausage fest, though.  There are only a few women in the book.  The book was first published in 1983, so I can forgive this for the time frame in which it was written.  

I really liked Suldrun.  The plight of the introspective and subversive girl tore at my heartstrings.  When the POV shifts to another character, I was frustrated.  I wanted to story to go back to her perspective.  However, the thoroughness of Vance’s establishing of characters was well done and I did find myself having a lot of empathy for many of the characters, even some of the bad guys.  

The one thing that bothered me the most though was the LGBTQ+ content.  One of the bad rulers has a sexual relationship with a wizard.  I felt like Vance was using a gay relationship as a way to further the evilness of the character.  And often in the story, Vance uses the term sexual perversions, which simply gets under my skin.  Again, I had to step back and say to myself this was the early ‘80s and it was written by an old, straight, white guy.  It didn’t make it better, just a bit more tolerable.

Despite my dislikes of the book, I give it a four star out of five rating.  I think it’s an underappreciated fantasy epic that should have lasted with a little more prominence than it has.  I would recommend this book to fantasy lovers, as it has everything from kings to faeries, wars and magic.  Sometimes the political intrigue gets a little overbearing, but it’s not all politics.  I’ll be picking up the next book in about a month or so, so we’ll see how that one holds up.

Monday, January 16, 2023

Soldier of Arete

Gene Wolfe
Completed 1/16/2023, Reviewed 1/16/2023
4 stars

For some reason, this second book in the “Latro” series held onto me a little better than the first, Soldier of the Mist.  Perhaps it’s because I read it over one long weekend rather than over a week.  I think it was easier to remember the complicated story line and Greek character names when read all at once.  There are still a lot of characters and their names are often long and complex.  The plot meandered quite a bit, with there being three parts to the book which made me lose the main plot.  But I did like it.  Thankfully, I don’t have to wait seventeen years like his fans did for the next book.  “Soldier of Sidon” came out in 2006 and hopefully brings a conclusion to the story.  “Arete” was nominated for a couple of 1990 awards.

I’m not really sure of the plot.  The overarching storyline is the continuation of the Roman with amnesia and short term memory loss.  He still doesn’t know who he is or where he’s from.  He travels with a group of people, most of whom care about him and try to help him in his quest to get his memory back.  Their progress is regularly interrupted by skirmishes and redirection due to the Latro still being a slave.  This time, he has encounters with Amazons who come to his aid when he is attacked.  His entourage also grows by a lame man, a nymph, a young boy, and a man whose hand he chopped off during a battle.  His travels take him through the Greek coast (I think) to find an escaped convict.   He ends up in Sparta where he participates in athletic games that alternate with the Olympiad.  Throughout the journey, he continues to see gods, ghosts, and this time, mythical beasts.

Latro, whose real name may be Lucius or maybe Lucas, grew on me as a character.  Where in the last book I found him to be a frustrating narrator, I found myself empathizing with him.  I guess I finally accepted the basic conceit of the book.  I also came to like Io, his own slave, a young girl, perhaps a teenager, who might be falling in love with him.  Latro also picks up another slave, Polos, a boy without a family who doesn’t want to be free because he’s afraid that he will be picked up by an abusive master.  I think the thing that really got me about Latro, though, is that he becomes a reluctant hero.  He has no idea what he can or can’t do, so he surprises himself and others as he battles the different enemies they come across.  Everyone in his entourage grows more respectful of him and this reputation as hero spreads throughout the land.  

The prose is very nice, but I think the form of the novel makes the action less dramatic.  Latro writes down everything of significance of the day that night so that he can read it the next morning and have some inkling of what’s going on.  The way he (and of course, Wolfe) writes is that the end of a chapter has something significant happen, but then it is explained the next chapter.  While the events are dramatic, there’s no excitement because we already know what happens.  It’s like exposition, but not quite.  So while I was into the story, it didn’t propel me from scene to scene.  

This certainly is not a series you can read quickly.  It requires a lot of concentration.  One of my friends calls Wolfe’s writing byzantine, and I must agree.  While it doesn’t propel you through the book, you do end up trudging (as in walking with intensity and purpose) through because you want to see what happens next to Latro.  I give the book four stars out of five, which is really a round up from 3.5.  I liked it better than the first book and still want to see what happens in the next.

Saturday, January 14, 2023


Elizabeth A. Lynn
Completed 1/14/2023, Reviewed 1/14/2023
3 stars

This is the first book of a series called “The Chronicles of Tornor”.  I read the third book several years ago and really liked it.  The Northern Girl had excellent world building and characterization, particularly for the third book in a trilogy.  However, the books are somewhat standalone, taking place in the same universe.  “Watchtower” was not as enjoyable as the other book.  I found the prose to be quite dense and erratic: sometimes long, confusing sentences, other times too short and choppy.  I never quite cared for the main characters.  Still, this book and author are considered big names in feminist and LGBTQ+ fantasy literature.  It also won the 1980 World Fantasy Award.

This book was published in 1979, so the plot over forty years later feels rather tired.  When the northern hold of Tornor is conquered by a southern invading army, the former prince Errel and his trusted man Ryke escape, making their way to a secret southern valley.  There they experience a new way of dealing with life and conflict.  After a short time, Van, the leader of the Valley assembles a small group of his people to join Errel and Ryle to return to Tornor to overthrow the usurper.

The overthrowing of the usurper is such a common trope that I had lots of trouble getting into the book.  It begins at the end of the war.  Prince Errel is made a jester and Ryke is sworn to defend the usurper Col under pain of Errel’s death.  I found this beginning incredibly tedious.  It unfortunately set the tone for the whole book.  I didn’t begin to get interested in it or the characters until they found the secret valley and meet Van and his people.  There, at least, valley’s inhabitants were more colorful and their actions more interesting.  

The narration is from Ryke’s point of view.  It was an interesting choice because he never finds peace in the hidden valley the way Errel does.  Ryke’s mind is solely on revenge on Col the usurper for killing the lord of Tornor and abusing Errel.  This too was tedious.  I never found myself liking Ryke.  I was much more interested in Errel who seemed to have more diverse emotions and was certainly more open to new experiences and ideas.  There’s a sense of an unspoken homoerotic tension between Ryke and Errel that I felt and was glad to see others felt once I read some reviews.  A lesbian relationship is later revealed as well.  And for 1979, this book good, strong female characters.  

I read this book in ebook format, borrowed from the library.  The page count was 113.  What I didn’t realize was that in hard copy form, the book is about 250 pages long.  So as I read, particularly in the first third of the book, every page was two to three swipes.  I would read for an hour and only get through about eight to ten pages.  It added to the tedium of that first part, feeling like a page took forever to get through, achieving no progress.  

I give this book three stars out of five.  I was thinking of giving it two stars, but it does have some neat moments, like the time spent in Van’s valley.  And I have to say, despite not liking Ryke, I did become invested in his revenge.  I don’t know how the second book is, and I don’t know if I’ll get around to reading it, but the third book was quite good.  I’m also interested in another book by the author, “A Different Light”, considered a classic in LGBTQ+ genre literature, so much so that a now famous bookstore in San Francisco was named after it.

Saturday, January 7, 2023


Guy Gavriel Kay
Completed 1/7/2023, Reviewed 1/7/2023
3 stars

This sweet YA novel was decent fare, but not what I expected from this author.  I thought his The Lions of Al-Rassan was brilliant, with amazing prose weaving history and fantasy together.  This fantasy book weaves the present with the distant past, but it doesn’t have the gorgeous prose of “Lions”.  I did find myself engaged in the story despite several issues.  According to reviews I read afterwards, some of the characters appeared in an earlier novel by Kay and make references to that work.  I didn’t notice anything really missing, but I often found myself feeling as lost as the main character.  This book won the 2008 World Fantasy Award and was nominated for a few others.  

Ned is a fifteen-year-old Canadian boy visiting the Provence region of France with his famous photographer father.  At a shoot at a cathedral, Ned meets Kate, a girl his age from New York there on a foreign exchange program.  When they explore the cathedral, they meet a strange man with some magical powers.  He warns them stay out of it.  Out of what, the two teens don’t know.  It eventually becomes clear that there is battle between this and another man for the right to love a woman named Ysabel.  The first man contains the spirit of a pre-empire Rome, the other and Ysabel, the spirits of two Celts.  They return every so often to renew their love battle, and this time Ned seems to be involved.  The thing is no one really knows how.  As the story unfolds, Ned gets deeper and deeper into the conflict, manifesting his own psychic and magical abilities.

The star of this book is Ned’s relationship with those around him:  Kate, his parents, his estranged Aunt Kim and Uncle Dave, and his father’s staff.  Being a teenager, he’s somewhere between child and adult.  So it makes his relationships with these people very interesting, both playful and intense.  I liked how Ned’s father talks to him as an adult, and as a child, which Ned recognizes by facial expressions alone.  Ned’s mother is in Darfur with Doctors without Borders.  When they talk on the phone there’s the definite weirdness of a boy who wants to be independent while still longing for his mother.  Ned is also a jokester, always wanting to make people laugh.  This adds some well-deserved hilarity to the strange and increasingly scary events happening around him.  

What I didn’t like in this book was the mystery of what was really going on and how Ned was a major player in it.  It felt like there were so many internal thoughts and external discussions about what they didn’t know.  It got to be repetitive and annoying, right down to the climax where the Celts and the Roman are talking way above Ned’s head.  I also felt the prose was pretty standard and not nearly as mature as in “Lions”.  I realize this is a YA novel, however, that doesn’t mean an author should skimp on the style.  

But in the end, I found the book to be really sweet and wholesome.  It’s kind of a feel-good novel where you like all the characters, even the “bad” ones.  In fact, there are few really bad characters, mostly people dealing as best they can with fate.  I give this book three stars out of five.  It’s a good, quick read with empathetic characters, a good amount of action, and a very interesting plot.  I had to knock it down because in various places, I simply got sick of the “I don’t know what’s going on” stuff.  

Wednesday, January 4, 2023


Lavie Tidhar
Completed 1/2/2023, Reviewed 1/2/2023
2 stars

I am generally not a fan of noir.  For this book, I tried hard to put that aside and be open to a new experience.  It’s touted as an alternate history tale, so I thought it would be different.  Instead it was dull and confusing.  In this universe, Osama bin Laden is character in a series of pulp novels and there is no terrorism.  The protagonist is a gumshoe hired to find the books’ author.   Excerpts from the books are interspersed throughout the narrative.  These excerpts are the actual terrorist actions instigated by al-Queda.  They are still disturbing to read after twenty years.  Despite these, the book is just one big snoozer.  Somehow, this book beat out some really big names to win the 2012 World Fantasy Award.  

Joe is a private investigator with an office set up in the capital of Laos.  In typical noir fashion, he smokes and drinks too much.  A mysterious and beautiful young woman hires him to find Mike Longshott, the author of the Osama bin Laden: Vigilante series of pulp novels.  These books are wildly popular despite being what some call escapist trash.  She gives Joe a black credit card for payment and expenses.  Joe takes the case and travels to Paris, London, and eventually New York trying to find Longshott.  Along the way, he is physically and mentally harassed by mysterious men who want him to drop the case.  He finds himself with prostitutes, in an opium den, and in other situations trying to find the author.  

The book has six parts, the first five are straight-forward in the narrative.  Joe travels, gets beat up a lot, eventually finds a lead, and goes to the next location.  The last part, though is very confusing.  Joe finds himself in Kabul watching the bombing of the city, as if he is a character in one of the books.  Eventually, I came to the conclusion that this alternate universe is a kind of Purgatory or Limbo where people killed by terrorist acts in our dimension are sent.  And Joe might just be one of these “refugees” himself.  That’s my interpretation of it.  I’m not sure if it’s the correct interpretation or not.  The ending is purposefully vague and maybe misleading.  I could have this all wrong, but that’s what I got out of it.

Despite disliking this book, Joe was an interesting character.  I liked following him around.  What I didn’t like was that people were after him and constantly roughing him up and we don’t know why.  It was like they were the thought police, trying to get him to disclose information about Longshott and the Osamaverse.  But Joe doesn’t know anything except what’s in the Osama books.  He doesn’t know the answers to any questions they pose.  For some reason, though, he continues his quest.  He has drive and from somewhere, he is motivated.  

One thing I thought was interesting was the use of opium.  Besides being a horribly addictive drug, it also seemed to be a portal to our universe.  When Joe’s path leads him to an opium den, he quickly gets high from being around all the smoke.  He fades out and into our reality, seeing t-shirts with Metallica logos, ads for The Gap, and Star Wars paraphernalia.  But he doesn’t know what all this is because it’s not in his universe.  

As I sit and reflect on this book, I’m coming to realize that it’s has a lot of potential.  It’s well written, although there’s not much action or dialogue.  And the concept of the refugee, or ghost, or fuzzy-wuzzie perhaps being a person from our dimension is quite interesting.  But I can’t help think that reading it was a chore.  I was frustrated with the pointless beatings Joe got.  I got tired of the endless prose.  I didn’t like not knowing where this book was going, and then getting to the end and it being more vague than the preceding parts.  The concept may be inventive, even genius, but I thought the execution sucked.  I give the book two stars out of five.  I really have no motivation to try anything else by this author.   

Monday, January 2, 2023

Alif the Unseen

G. Willow Wilson
Completed 12/31/2022, Reviewed 12/31/2022
4 stars

This is a great cyberpunk fantasy taking place in a fictional Arab country just before the Arab Spring uprising begins.  Despite being in the computer biz, I don’t always care for cyberpunk, but I really enjoyed this one.  I think it’s because of the setting, the Arab world. I do like jinn stories and this one has many different types showing up throughout the book.  I think it also grabbed me because it immerses the reader in modern Arab culture and shows the clashes between the old and the new, not much unlike Black Water Sister, which I read just a few days before this.  It was received pretty well, winning the 2013 World Fantasy Award and garnering a few other nominations. 

Alif is the handle for a gifted hacker who provides a forum for anyone against the oppressive state.  He loves a girl of a much higher class than he.  When he finds out she has been betrothed to marry the sleazy State security head, commonly known as “The Hand”, he also finds out The Hand is after him for his support of anti-government voices.  The girl gives him a book which turns out to be a very rare book, similar to Tales of 1001 Nights, but supposedly written by a jinn.  Alif runs for his life, with the book and with his neighbor Dina.  They seek the help and protection of Vikram the Vampire, a gangster, who turns out to be a jinn.  Together they try to evade and bring down The Hand just as the Arab Spring erupts in their country.  

I really liked Alif.  It was easy to identify and empathize with him.  He’s extremely gifted as a coder, but of course, lacking in some common sense.  He’s also not perfect.  He’s moody and emotional and sometimes doesn’t see what’s right under his nose.  Dina is also great as his more conservative neighbor.  They grew up together, but now is less approachable as she has taken up the full veiled covering.  Another great character is a Sheik who preaches at a local mosque.  He gets dragged into Alif’s drama when he and the others come to hide there.  He’s conservative as well, but open to scholarly discussions.  He makes some surprising choices at the book approaches its climax.  And Vikram and the other jinn are just plain cool.  

The world building is pretty cool, with excellent details of the different types of jinn and their hidden city.  The prose is just right, not being overly flowery.  It has just about the right balance of description and dialogue.  There were times when I though we spent too much time in Alif’s head, particularly after he is incarcerated in a lightless prison cell.  While in prison, yes, you’d expect almost everything to take place in his head.  But afterwards, there were times when I thought some of his head time could have been cut a little shorter.

I give this book four stars out of five.  It’s interesting and engrossing.  It’s generally fast paced, except for the few times when Alif is thinking too much.  It’s another great non-western-centric fantasy.  As far as Middle Eastern stories go, I liked it almost as much as The Golem and the Jinni which, by the way, I have the sequel of and plan to read in the new year.