Sunday, November 13, 2011

Six Moon Dance by Sheri S. Tepper

Member Recommendation

The planet of Newholme was first settled hundreds of years ago, but that group of violent men vanished. The later waves of settlers had their own problems trying to develop a world strangely devoid of metals, with increasing volcanic activity and a 50% death rate amongst baby girls. The female-dominated society that has developed subordinates the men, who must remained veiled in order to prevent arousing lust in women. Marriage is an expensive business agreement designed to give the men the offspring that they want, whilst allowing women to obtain entertainment and sexual fulfillment from Consorts, sterilized men who are trained to be the perfect companion and to provide ‘compensation’ for the unpleasant business of breeding. Mouche is an only child and, as a boy, he is only a drain on resources, so he is sold to one of the Consort schools where he begins his training. He soon discovers that life on Newholme is not as it seems: another, indigenous, race lives amongst the humans, but their presence is denied, so much so that everyone over the age of seven simply does not see these ‘invisibles’.

The increased volcanic action, strange gender relations and rumors of the indigenes catch the attention of the Questioner. ‘She’ is a bionic construct, including three human female brains, that is tasked with judging societies against a set of ethical standards. She chooses a pair of humans to join her: Gandro Bao who chose to train as a Kabuki dancer, playing female roles and Ellin Voy a cloned Nordic ballet dancer. The Questioner’s arrival causes panic amongst the Hags who rule Newholme and soon Mouche joins the Questioner, Gandro, Ellin and Ornery Bastable, an orphan girl who has become a sailor and pretends to be a boy, on a quest to discover the truth behind all the problems and peculiarities.

Set in the distant future, this science fiction story includes some novel concepts, such as the idea that people are cloned, grown and trained to be authentic, living parts of history exhibits. Some of the exposition is a bit laborious, but Tepper explores gender / power relations within societies with great insight. Although I found this is very interesting it does slow down the flow of the story, and some readers could get bored in these sections. Also, she follows several strands of the story in a way that seems somewhat random at first, so, for example, we meet Ornery very early on, but then hear nothing more of her for another one hundred pages. Again, this interrupts the flow of the story and can be frustrating. However, there are nuggets of great wisdom to be found that really made me think. Some of Mouche’s training lectures on the ways in which men, women and society function are particularly enlightening, as are the Questioner’s insights into human behavior. It is also refreshing to come across aliens that are truly different in every way, not just humanoids with bumps or based upon a form of life we already understand. The misunderstandings that occur because of these differences show how difficult it is to think outside of our own experience. The characters are intriguing and engaging, even the Questioner, who is nothing like the typical cyborg / bionic constructs that plague science fiction writing. She is grouchy and funny, with a no nonsense attitude and a love of card games. The journey paints a wonderful picture of an alien world, while the ending is satisfying, bringing everything together neatly and leaving no unanswered questions. This is a work of great imagination from a writer with a profound understanding of the human condition. It is also a great read and I look forward to trying some of her other works.

This review is also available at SF Mistressworks

Thursday, November 3, 2011

You Slay Me by Katie MacAlister

October Pick

Aisling Grey is just recovering from a horrible divorce, so a trip to Paris, France, to deliver an ancient artifact seems like a great chance to forget her problems for a short time. Unfortunately, nothing goes to plan. She arrives to find the recipient hanging from the ceiling, which is bad enough, but there is a circle of demon summoning on the floor and a strangely attractive man called Drake Vireo who claims to be an agent from Interpol. As the police arrive, she finds that Drake has disappeared with the artifact and that she is now the prime suspect in a bizarre killing. Within 24 hours she discovers that she is a Guardian, controller of the gates of Hell; that Drake is actually a dragon and she is his Mate; and that there is a whole, hidden world of magic and supernatural beings. In her attempts to clear her name and retrieve the artifact she gains some allies, including the demon Effrijim. “Jim” has been cast out by his Demon Lord, and is a free agent, which means he can be quite useful. However, he manifests in the form as a huge black Newfoundland, with an endless appetite, an overpowering obsession with cleaning his ‘bits’ and a massive crush on her friend’s corgi. As Aisling deals with gallons of drool and prodigious mounds of ‘leavings’, she cannot help thinking that being his new Demon Lord is not such a great job. The bodies pile up as Aisling tries to learn about being a Guardian and Drake’s Mate, while solving the murders and stopping Jim from doing anything too disgusting.

This was an enjoyable read, which moved along nicely and kept me interested. The sexual tension between Aisling and Drake was handled fairly well, and the characters were interesting and well drawn. However, there didn’t seem to be much development in Aisling’s character. Also, she seemed rather passive in her reaction to every revelation, accepting more in 24 hours than seems realistic. If she had been numb and shocked, and later ‘awoke’ to have a major screaming fit / nervous breakdown I would have felt less uneasy. This unease also extends to the first few sex scenes, which she dismisses as dreams, even though there is evidence to the contrary. However, my major stumbling block was the taxi driver, Rene, whom I found totally unbelievable. He collects her at the airport and is exceptional helpful and very, very cheap, dropping his normal business to drive her about for practically nothing. Excuse me for being cynical, but I simply cannot mesh this with my experience of taxis in major European cities. This made me believe that he had some other connection to the story, and so I kept waiting for the big reveal that he was someone important. I will try the other books in this series or some MacAlister’s other titles, but they are not at the top of my reading list at the moment.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen

September Pick

SIBA Award Winner for Fiction 2008

I love this book!

In fact, a really, really love this book – and my desire to recommend it to as many people as possible was a big motivator for starting this blog.

Sorry, I just had to throw that out there . . . now on to the review . . .

In Bascom, North Carolina, every family has a ‘trait’: the Hopkins men always marry older women, the Kelly women are fantastic at sex and the Waverleys are ‘strange’, each bearing a magical gift. The Waverley house has a magical garden that fruits and flowers throughout the year and a cantankerous apple tree with a mind of its own. The apples cause people to see the most significant event of their life, which could be good or bad, so the Waverleys always collect and bury them. However, sometimes the tree gets frustrated and starts throwing them at people.

Claire is comfortable with her Waverley gift, which is the ability to take things from the garden and use them to affect the people who eat her food. Her baked goods and catering company are very successful. Her younger sister, Sydney, has run away from her thug of a boyfriend with their 5 year old daughter, Bay. Fearing for their lives, she has run home, to the sleepy Southern town that she left years earlier to escape her family name. She has yet to embrace her gift, to make people look beautiful, but Bay has been using hers for years. She knows where things should go, and has been trying to keep her father happy so that he won’t get angry. The only other Waverley is Evanelle, a cousin who is 79, but looks 120, and has a real appreciation for the male backside. Her gift is to know what people will need in the future, although she has no idea why she should take someone a mango slicer, for example: the locals tolerate her as a harmless eccentric. We follow the Waverley women as they deal with Sydney’s arrival and the aftermath.

I am always a little cautious when approaching a highly recommended book, film, etc. as there is always the fear that it will not live up to expectations. That could not be further from the truth for Garden Spells. The writing is amazingly evocative and the characters are beautifully drawn with such brevity that a single sentence can say as much as several pages. For example, Bay is named after her father’s restaurant, a fact that gives us a shortcut to understanding his character. The developing romances are emotional and you are genuinely moved by the reality of the relationships. Strangely, for a story involving magic, it is so true to life that you feel very close to the characters, laughing and loving with them. Nothing seems strained or out of place, characters make decisions that seem sensible and there is little to break the spell that draws you to keep turning the pages. Indeed, most of us finished the book in one sitting because we couldn’t stand to put it down. The plot moves along at a nice pace, with plenty of dialogue and time to smell the roses, but no sections that seem drawn out or unnecessary. Great writing, setting, plot, characters, dialogue make this the perfect read. However I do have a complaint . . . I wanted more: I wanted to stay with these people and watch them as they lived out their lives. I wanted to trot beside Evanelle rating the backsides of the new Freshmen; to follow Bay through school; to find out if Fred got what he wanted . . .

In short: I LOVE this book – go and read it!

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Gerbil’s Jockstrap???

One of the big problems of starting this blog was choosing a suitable name.

A straightforward approach would lead to something very descriptive, but wildly unimaginative, such as “My Book Review Blog” . . . yawn . . . Not only was this a boring name, but also I guessed that it had been snapped up years ago, so the search for a more unique name began.

At first I tried to capture the profound influence that books can have upon our feelings and thoughts. I looked to the great thinkers of the past, searching for quotes about reading, books or literature. These were mostly too long, although I did like “Medicine for the Soul” the inscription over the entrance to the library of ancient Thebes. However, I decided that this was too obscure and serious: it didn’t have the right tone. The name had to be personal, and linked to the book group, whilst being funny and memorable. It needed to be recognizable to my fellow group members, but also inviting to other people.

After much head scratching I thought that “The Good, The Bad and The Trashy” reflected the range of our books quite nicely, but I wasn’t really happy with it, so I asked my hubby for some input. His brainstorming produced some (ahem) interesting suggestions. “The Gerbil’s Jockstrap” was his favorite, though I pointed out that Jockstrap is a British term (it is a sportsman’s cup/support thingy). He then swapped to “The Bat’s Nadgers” . . . I’ll leave you to guess what nadgers are . . .  and after a few more animals had their nether regions explored, I decided that he didn’t really understand what I was aiming for.

I wanted a name that summed up what happens at the meetings, but also conveyed the warm, cozy feeling of friendship and acceptance that I get from the group. Group meetings are easy-going and fuelled by our mutual love of books, rather than a tense and earnest debate of the finer points of literary technique. It is more like a coffee group than that . . . so that is where the name came from. We drink coffee, nibble cookies (or other delicious baked goods) and have a good time chatting about books.

And the chili peppers? They are how Jan and Sarah warn us about the “spice” level of the titles, so that people who don’t want to read that sort of thing won’t be offended or shocked: after all, we want everyone to enjoy a good read.

And so “Coffee, Cookies and Chili Peppers” was born. I hope it was worth all the brain strain.


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