Monday, May 23, 2016

Truthwitch

First in the "Witchlands" series by Susan Dennard, this is a fantasy world where witches--many different kinds of them--are common but still feared. Safiya was born to a noble family but she is a truthwitch--she knows when people are lying--and this makes her a hot political commodity. She escapes the stultifying life of nobility and becomes an apprentice in a small coastal town far away, where she meets Iseult, a threadwitch who can see the ties that bind people together. Iseult is also an escapee from a repressive life; in her case it was/is as a gypsy outcast who previously lived with her small community in a walled enclave. Now both young women (late teens) are just living their lives, with Safi plotting adventures that frequently get them in trouble, and Iseult usually figuring out a way to get them out. But this time, they mistakenly try to rob the wrong person and now a mercenary bloodwitch is after them. They escape in different directions but eventually come back together as they flee--first by ship and then on land--those who would capture or kill them.
Settings are vividly described and the idea of multiple types of witches is developed well. The story is fast paced and there is some resolution although it is obvious that sequels will follow as "larger forces" are clearly in play. I actually found most of the other characters more interesting than Safiya, who seems to be mainly a reckless, headstrong, and mostly self-centered young woman who seldom thinks of potential consequences and does not truly seem remorseful afterwards. She claims devotion to her thread sister (a term that readers are left to figure out) Iseult, and cares for her teachers, and yet plunges from one disastrous situation to the next. The romantic involvement with windwitch and prince of another kingdom, Merik, is predictable and takes up a bit too much space for my taste. We are reading this for next month's SF-fantasy book group and I will be curious to hear what my fellow readers have to say. Review is available from Kirkus, and it was well reviewed in the library sources, Booklist and School Library Journal.
Dennard has written several other fantasy series, some of which are online and free to registered readers. She has a historically based romantic series about zombies, the "Strange and Deadly" series. Might dip back in when the next installment of "Witchlands" surfaces, just to see if Safi grows up a bit.

Seven Wonders

This book by Ben Mezrich revolves around a secret society of Amazons--yep those warrior women of legend. They are, apparently, fairly ruthless in keeping their existence secret, AND they seem to have endless financial resources to achieve that. The protagonists, a "field anthropologist" named Jack Grady, and a botanist, Sloane Costa, are brought together by their own individual discoveries and spurred on by the murder of Jack's brother, a reclusive computer genius who inadvertently discovered a connection between the seven ancient wonders of the world and the more modern seven wonders of the world. Jack and Sloane begin to follow the clues that lead them from Christ the Redeemer to each of the remaining architectural wonders in order to complete the puzzle--if they don't get killed first. For deadly Amazon assassins seem to always be barely one step behind them on their dizzying global itinerary.
The ending was predictable, the editing errors were annoying, and the characters were only mildly interesting, so overall this was a disappointment in spite of the intriguing premise for the plot. Kirkus gives it a less-than-flattering review, as did the Boston Globe. Mezrich has written over a dozen books that seem about equally split between SF-fantasy and "highly addictive genre of nonfiction, chronicling the amazing stories of young geniuses making tons of money on the edge of impossibility, ethics, and morality" (from the author's website), including two #1 NYT bestsellers that were made into movies (The Accidental Billionaire became The Social Network, and his Bringing Down the House became the movie 21) Several of his other books, including Seven Wonders, have been optioned for films. I may try one more book from the library...

Thursday, May 19, 2016

The Water Knife



Expanding upon the theme and setting of a short story written in 2006, "The Tamarisk Hunter," Paolo Bacigalupi takes us into the not-so-distant future where the scarcity of water has come home to the southwestern United States, with the consequent rise of the "haves" vs. the "have nots" and the violence, greed, depredations, treachery, and hopelessness that one would expect to follow.
Having lived in the Las Vegas metro area for four years and hearing the then-director of the SNWA (Southern Nevada Water Authority) say that they had no plan for managing growth/ development, this book felt frighteningly close.
In Bacigalupi's world, the states have become armed camps with their own militias and barbed-wire fences sealing the borders. Only the very wealthy can afford to live in the self-contained high rises that recycle their water, grow their own crops, and basically insulate their tenants from the harsh world of barren land, huge tenements built of salvaged materials, and communal water pumps provided by relief organizations--if you have the money. The price is visible on the pump meter, constantly fluctuating, as politics and power shift control for water futures from one entity to another. Arizona has less senior water rights than Las Vegas and California and the woman who controls the SNWA, Catherine Case, is ruthless is enforcing her rights, never hesitating to blow up pumping stations to strand thousands without water, or murder those who get in her way. One of her main enforcement tools is a paid hit man  she plucked from the slums, Angel Velasquez, known as a "Water Knife." Sent to Arizona to sort out some anomalies in Case's enforcement strategy, he comes across an idealistic Pulitzer winning journalist, Lucy Monroe, who has taken on the devastated southwest as her cause. She is now also pursuing the killers of a friend and it is in this quest that her path crosses Angel's. A third major character is desperate and determined teenager, Maria Villarosa, a refugee from Texas, who has lost her entire family and will do just about anything to get across the border from Arizona to California.
Well crafted setting, reasonably complex characters, and a compelling narrative all made this a good read and I will seek out more of Bacigalupi's work.
Bacigalupi has written several novels, including--in the climate sci-fi, or "cli-fi" genre--including the Hugo and Nebula awards winner, The Windup Girl (2009). He has authored books for YA's (e.g., Ship Breaker) as well as over a dozen acclaimed short stories. A list of his works and awards is available here.
Good reviews here from the LA Times, NPR, The Washington Post, and the Denver Post. There
 is an interview with the author, done in 2012 before he wrote this book, on the Publishers Weekly site.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

A God in Ruins

Author Kate Atkinson says this is a "companion book" to her previously acclaimed novel, Life After Life, told this time more from the perspective of Teddy Todd. One person in my bookgroup described Teddy as "everyman" and that is probably a pretty good summary. Set in England in the run-up to WWII and thereafter, the characters and story lines cover four generations of the Todd family. Teddy seems to lead a pretty idyllic childhood with loving if somewhat laissez-faire parents and an aunt who uses him as the model for a long-running series of boys' adventure books. He has brothers, sisters, dogs, and neighbors, one of whom he is good friends with and eventually marries--maybe.
Teddy follows his father into banking and then joins up and becomes a bomber pilot in WWII. The question is, does he really get captured and spend the last couple years in a POW camp or does he go down with his plane on one of his last ops and drown. Perhaps, as was suggested, the "what if" approach of Atkinson is to highlight the millions who have died in wars, thereby losing the possible future. Most of the book is based on the version where Teddy comes home and marries neighbor girl Nancy and has a daughter and puddles around as a newspaper reporter and lives to a ripe old age while becoming the primary caretaker of his daughter's two children for a chunk of time.
For the most part, I did not like the book. The first reason is that Atkinson jumps around in time and perspective, sometimes from one paragraph to the next, which was maddening and seemed to serve no useful purpose IMHO. The second reason is that I did not like any of the characters very much and some of them I really detested (e.g., Viola). The only times any characters really seemed fully alive and the story line was compelling--to me at least--were the few chapters dealing with Teddy's year's flying a bomber in the war. And, in fact, it seems that was when Teddy reported feeling like a truly vital person. Lots has been written/said about the special camaraderie shared by groups of men in war. Unlike other treatments, however, Atkinson does not glorify or justify war in way, shape or form. Those I heard from who have read both books (Life After Life and this one) like the previous book better. I skipped about 100 pages towards the end of the book and have no inclination to go back and finish it. I might pursue reading some of her several crime novels featuring Jackson Brodie, which have been made into a BBC series, however.

Monday, May 9, 2016

A Dirty Death

Having read a much later book by Rebecca Tope (one of her "Cotswold Mysteries," A Grave in the Cotswolds), I decided to go back to the beginning and read her first book, which also inaugurated her "West Country Mysteries." Set on a dairy farm, our story opens when irascible Guy Beardon is found dead in the slurry pit--where all the cow shit is kept before being sprayed on the fields. It looks like an accident and the police treat it as such, only to find they have shit on their shoes for not treating it as a crime scene when it becomes apparent that Guy was murdered. Two more murders on this and the neighboring farm are what cinch the conclusion that someone is killing people in this lovely pastoral setting, and, although everyone would like to think it's an outsider, all evidence suggests otherwise. Our protagonist is Lilah, Guy's nearly grown daughter who has to run the farm pretty much on her own with only Sam to help (until he is murdered), who Lilah thinks is a hired hand but turns out in her father's will to have been a partner in the farm. Lilah's younger brother and mother are busy with their own dramas--real and imagined--and offer no substantive assistance. Only the local policeman, Denholm Cooper, who was a couple years ahead of Lilah at school, seems to offer a stable point of reference. The cast is filled out by neighbors, previously unknown family, friends, and town characters (notably the uncharitable vicar), who are all keeping secrets of one kind or another. It is one of these secrets that holds the key to solving the murders, and it won't be apparent whose guilty until the very end.  I would give this about a 7 on a 10 point scale. Written with a good eye for detail by an author who grew up on a farm, the writing also well conveys what life is like in a small village where everybody knows everybody else's business.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Little Paris Bookshop

This novel by Nina George (who has written dozens of books and stories, but only this one has been translated from German by Simon Pare) is a luscious little cruise through the Rhone River valley of France aboard a book barge called the Literary Apothecary. It even comes with a swell map opposite the title page, something for which I am always grateful. There are delicious descriptions of food, countryside, people, cats, and feelings. Jean Perdu considers himself a literary therapist and prescribes books to help people sort out their emotions, and he is remarkably astute in figuring out just what people are feeling and needing at a given point in their lives. Except for himself, of course. For the last 20 years he has lived a frozen statue of a man, even since the love of his life, Manon, left him. He knew she was married to a farmer in the south of France, but was happy to have her in his life for the few weeks a year she spent in Paris. He never read the letter she left him, until a new tenant, Catherine, moved into his building and needed a table; he was happy to be rid of it, having rid himself of almost everything else in his life. But in the drawer of this table, he had stuffed the letter. And now he learns that Manon left him in order to go home and die from a cancer she had not disclosed to him. She asks him to come and see her before she dies. Of course it is 20 years too late for that.
Still, Jean, must seek forgiveness and so he unties the barge and heads south. He's not alone. There are the two resident cats, and at the last minute, his neighbor, the reclusive author, Max Jordan, jumps aboard, losing most of his belongings to the river in the process. It is a journey of discovery in many ways. Jean finally begins to deal with his grief and to realize how he has cut himself off from life. He starts paying attention again to the smells, tastes, sights, and sensations of life. When he reaches the town where Manon lived, he finds her husband has remarried, has a daughter, runs a vineyard and makes a wine named Manon. Jean still isn't ready so he leaves the barge in the hands of other fellow travelers, and drives even further south to put himself back together. Eventually he comes to allow Catherine in as a new love in his life, goes to visit Manon's grave--where she is clearly NOT there in any way, shape or form--and connects, not only with Manon's family, but reconnects with his own parents as well. Pleasant read. Good reviews available from Kirkus, the NYT Sunday Book Review, the Toronto Star, The Guardian, etc. It spent 13 weeks on the NPR bestseller list for hardcover fiction and was also on the NYT Bestseller list.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Once a Crooked Man

I had to read this book because it is by David McCallum, who played Ilya Kuryakin on "The Man from U.N.C.L.E series many years ago and is now Dr. Mallard in NCIS, one of our favorite TV shows. It is a competently written tale with some quirky characters, but I would not go out of my way to read another book by him. This one centers around 3 brothers (Sal, Max, and Enzo Bruschetti) who have run several illegal businesses and made a lot of money but now want to get out and go legit. In the process of shutting down, however, there is the inevitable cleaning up to do. Like getting rid of people who know their names and illegal activites. An actor, Harry Murphy, just happens to overhear their plans to get rid of some people connected with their operation in London and takes it upon himself to warn the targets of their impending demise. He does, in fact, initially save one man from being assassinated, but in process becomes a target himself, and also gets enlisted by the police to help them find the Bruschetti brothers. Harry turns out to be remarkably resourceful--he is an actor after all so he can tell a pretty convincing lie when needed. He manages to throw a real monkey wrench into the Bruschetti works, but in the end, it hardly seems like much has changed.