Thursday, October 11, 2018

Alternate Routes

By Tim Powers

Sebastian Vickery used to be a Secret Service agent until one day when he overheard something he wasn't supposed to hear. Now he is hiding out, working for a taco truck / taxi service company in Los Angeles.
Things are weirder than normal in LA and weirdest of all on the freeways. The almost constant traffic on the freeways generates some kind of spectral energy field that the Federal government is tapping into to gather intelligence. This field enables them to communicate via radio with the dead and milk them for data and to track those still living and  connected to the deceased.
One of those deceased is Vickery's wife, who committed suicide on the freeway, using her husband's gun. Now this secret government agency, the TUA (Transportation Utility Agency) is using her to track down Vickery. They coerced the dead wife into revealing Vickery's location and the TUA sent two agents to kill him. But another TUA agent, Ingrid Castine, arrives just before the two killers to warn Vickery. She didn't get there soon enough and she and Vickery get in a shootout with the two agents. After killing one of the agents and knocking the other one out, both Vickery and Castine are fleeing for their lives.
Meanwhile, Los Angeles is on the verge of a major catastrophe due to the TUA and its demented chief, Emilio Terracotta, and their contacts with the deceased people. Terracotta has been possessed by a dangerous entity from the other side that wants to unite the two realities, with possibly apocalyptic results.

This was a fairly good read. For me, it was a little too much of an action story, which made it less appealing to me. Also, I found the tone of the novel a bit depressing, especially its depiction of the "afterlife." It isn't clear if the ghosts or "deleted persons" as the TUA refers to them, are the souls of the dead or just a bit flotsam cast off by the deceased. Their lot in death is certainly heartrendingly sad.

Review by Publishers Weekly.

Saturday, October 06, 2018

The Good Daughter


By Jasmin Darznik

The story of Jasmin's Iranian grandmother and mother. Both women suffered under the unfair rule of selfish and uncaring men and a patriarchal, overly religious society.
The grandmother, Kobra, lived with her husband and his mother. The husband was a gambler and the family's fortune ebbed and flowed with his wins and losses. Kobra had three kids, two sons, one of which died as a toddler and a daughter, Lili.
Lili's father wanted his daughter to be educated so she attended school. When she was about thirteen, she attracted the unwanted attention of a man. The man proceeded to ask to marry Lili, even though she was just a kid. In Iran, a girl was considered old enough for marriage once she had her first menses. So Lili ended up married to Kazem, a grown man.
Kazem turned out to be a brute and he beat Lili. After she gave birth to her first child, a daughter named Sara, Lili decided she could no longer tolerate being married to Kazem.
Unfortunately, in Iran at that time, a divorced woman was considered to be little more than a prostitute. Also, any children born to a married couple belonged to the father and not to the mother. Lili was forced to give up baby Sara.
But giving up Sara gave Lili the opportunity to leave Iran and travel to Germany to further her education. She attained a degree in midwifery. She also eventually married an European man and they moved to Iran.
Lili tried to maintain a relationship with her daughter, Sara, but Sara's father and his family poisoned her mind against her mother. Lili then gave birth to another daughter, Jasmin.
The political situation in Iran was becoming unstable. This was shortly before the time of the Iran hostage crisis in 1979. Lili and her husband left Iran and moved to California. Jasmin was only about three years old at the time.
Growing up in America, Jasmin didn't know about her mother's past. She didn't know Lili had been divorced, she didn't know she had a half-sister named Sara. She accidentally came across an old photo showing her mother and Kazem on the day they were married and naturally wanted to know what the deal was. But Lili refused to talk about it, telling her it wasn't any of Jasmin's business. Lili must have had second thoughts about it and she sent her daughter ten audio tapes, describing her life in Iran and her first, failed marriage and the child she left behind.

This was an OK read. When ever I read one of these Middle Eastern memoirs, it always seems to me that the women are just as much to blame for the oppression they suffer under as the men and the laws that oppress them. The women go along with it, they accept the abuse as their lot in life and they actively fight against the changes that could make their lives better, like education, like ending female circumcision, like ending child marriage. So many prefer to stay with the old ways, the old religion.

Kirkus Reviews has a review of the book.

Friday, September 28, 2018

How to Build a Girl

By Caitlin Moran

Johanna is fourteen year old and lives in poverty in Wolverhampton in the UK. Her parents live on welfare and they have four other kids beside Johanna. Her dad drinks to excess and has pinned his hopes on a career in music, a career that is going nowhere fast.
Johanna is not happy and decides to reinvent herself. Amazingly she gets a job writing music reviews and starts calling herself Dolly Wilde and dressing all in black, with a top hat and lots of eyeliner.
Her new career throws her in with a fast group of people and, before much longer, she is drinking alcohol daily, smoking cigarettes, having sex and even using the occasional illegal drug.
She falls in love with one of the performers she is reviewing and the crush lasts two years, unrequited, because he is very busy with his career and his travels. Since she can't have him, she hooks up with one of the other reviewers at the magazine she works for and loses her virginity to him. Their affair lasts until the day she overhears one of his posh friends refer to her as his "bit of rough".
Eventually, she is successful enough to leave home and move to London and have her own apartment.

I don't really know what to make of this story. I found her behavior to be outrageous. Her parents seem not to care at all about the trouble she may be getting herself into. Booze, drugs, smoking, promiscuous sex just seem like a recipe for disaster. Somehow, though, the worst thing that happens to her is a urinary tract infection.
Beside that though, I just didn't find the story all that interesting. It was OK, I guess.

The New York Times has a review.

Princess

By Jean P. Sasson

A memoir from a member of the Saudi royal family, a minor princess who goes by the fake name of Sultana in the book to hide her identity and protect from government wrath.
Sultana was born into wealth and influence. Although she certainly enjoyed the wealth but, due to her gender, she was deprived of influence. Although she was a passionate child and was not above throwing a tantrum to get her own way, it often did not work for her any more than it worked for any women living under a repressive Muslim regime.
As she grew up, she observed many instances of the imbalance in Saudi society: women beaten and murdered, divorced on a whim, unbridled male lust preying on little children, child abuse, child marriage, men chasing after child brides and putting aside their first, second & third wives, women locked away in darkness as a kind of perverted punishment for wanting to live like modern women, women servants preyed upon by their male employeers.
Sultana sees it all and chafes against the restrictions. But when her turn comes, she willingly accepts the arranged marriage and marries a man she barely knows and proceeds to bear children to him, children she has no legal right to, according to the archaic laws of her land.
But when the husband turns away from her and wants to take second wife, she runs away with the children and millions of dollars. She forces him to sign a contract guaranteeing her rights before she is willing to come home with the children.
Needless to say, such drastic actions destroy what little harmony there existed between herself and her husband. But her marriage was pretty much dead from the moment he decided he needed a second wife. So kudos to her for getting him by the short hairs.

This was an OK read. I was hoping for a little more rebellion from Sultana, but she pretty much does what is expected of her: marries young, has kids, stays behind closed doors and really doesn't do much to fight for women's rights in Saudi Arabia. Her only real rebellion comes when she gets angry at the husband for wanting to bring a second wife into the family. Maybe that was a big step for a woman in her society.

Publishers Weekly has a review.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Heechee Rendezvous

By Frederik Pohl

Third book in the Heechee series, this one finds Broadhead in his last days and mostly referred to in the book as Robin. He is happily married to his second wife and they are tremendously wealthy. But all his wealth is not enough to stave off death, as his body is slowly breaking down, despite the many transplants he has had.
Meanwhile, the Heechee have just been told about the human adventures in space and they are alarmed. The Heechee hid themselves out of fear of a race of immaterial beings they call the Assassins. The Assassins destroy all technological societies that they find and are in the process of attempting to change the universe to suit them better than the current universe. However this will take them billions of years.
The Heechee are worried and frightened that all the human activity will attract the attention of the Assassins and bring destruction down not only on humanity but on the Heechee too. The Heechee emissary and his crew are racing to prevent this from happening. The first human-crewed ship they encounter is that of Wan and his passenger, Gelle, Robin Broadhead's first wife, whom he believes has been dead for thirty years. Instead, she was stuck in a black hole where time passed extremely slowly until she was found by Wan.
When Robin finds out this first wife is alive, he is in a pother what to do about it. He loved and missed his first wife but he also dearly loves his second wife, Essie. Meanwhile, his body is giving out on him, a fact he hides from everyone until it is too late. Which totally solves his wife dilemma.

This was an OK read. I found myself skipping much of the parts that deal with Robin and his aches and pains and his dialogues with his computer-generated companion, Albert. Albert gets to stick his two cents worth into the story with several short interruptions that too often deal with subject matter a bit too esoteric for me to enjoy:
The energy density of black-body radiation goes up as the cube of the temperature—that's the old Stefan-Bolzmann [sic] law—but the number of photons goes up linearly with the temperature, too, so effectively it's a fourth-power increase inside the kugelblitz. At one Kelvin it's 4.72 electron-volts per liter. At three million it's three million to the fourth power times that—oh, say about 382,320,000,000,000,000,000,000, 000 ev/liter.
 I mean, really. I don't need to know that or read that. But a lot of science fiction writers like to stick that kind of stuff in their stories. Just goes over my head though. I usually just skip those parts.
Also, I thought kugelblitz was a term made up by the author. Turns out it is not. A kugelblitz is a "black hole" made of light. Huh? Nevermind!

Kirkus Reviews has a review.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Witch World

By Andre Norton

Simon Tregarth is a man on the run and is facing certain death. So when a fellow offers him a one-way route to a new life, but with no return, Tregarth accepts.
The man leads him to a strange stone gateway that leads to a different world, a world, the man promises, "in which his spirit, his mind—his soul if you wish to call it that—is at home. " But the catch is, "there is no return—and only a desperate man chooses an irrevocable future."
Once through the doorway, Tregarth does find himself in a strange new world. Escaping from being hunted himself, he is catapulted into another hunt. The hunted is not Tregarth, but is a woman dressed in rags and being trailed by men on horseback.
Tregarth, who has a handgun, helps the woman escape her hunters. The woman was on a spy mission and she takes Tregarth back to her home country and introduces him to the leaders of her country, Estcarp.
The woman, who will not give her name, is a witch as are the leaders of her country. They are all women and they are all witches. They govern by consensus and by magic. They all keep their names secret, it is part of their belief that knowing someone's name gives them power over the named person.
The witches are worried. Something is rotten in the world of Estcarp and it has all started in the land of Kolder. Kolder, which has technology strange to the other lands of Witch World. Kolder, which has the ability to turn enemies into weapons to use against their homelands. Kolder, who will find in Simon Tregarth an outworlder who is able to stand against their technological "magic."

This is the first book of Norton's Witch World series. In Witch World, the women of Estcarp are the bearers of magic. To keep their magic abilities, they must remain virgins, because they believe once a woman is deflowered, she loses her powers. Their technology is mainly medieval, with strange exceptions (excluding the technology of their enemy, Kolder).

This was an OK read. The story centers around Tregarth, who was a soldier and a mercenary back home, and who continues that roll on Witch World. The story mainly follows him on his campaigns as he fights for Estcarp.
It's a fun introduction to Norton's style of storytelling and contains many of her trademark themes: ancient alien tech; mysterious ruins that reek of evil; strange, magical abilities; seemingly ordinary people who are not ordinary; creepy, dangerous, evil creatures; foggy marshes and moor; underground installations of unknown origin containing peculiar machines; and loners fighting against the status quo.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

The No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency

By Alexander McCall Smith

The first book in the No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, this one gives the backstory of Mma Ramotswe, the chain of events that led to her setting up as a detective.
After her father died, as his only child, Mma Ramotswe inherited all his assets that, once liquidated, enabled her to buy a house and small office building and a vehicle.
Naturally, the detective business didn't take off right away, but, due perhaps to the novelty of a woman detective, Mma Ramotswe did get a few good and fairly straightforward cases. She tracks down a missing husband, exposes a couple of con men twins, and helps a father discover what his teenage daughter is doing in her spare time.
Her most serious case, though, is that of a missing child. Her inquiries lead her to turn down the case as being too dangerous and sensitive to handle. But eventually she stumbles onto the solution to the mystery, with the help of her suitor and friend, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, the owner and chief mechanic of Speedy Motors garage.

I finally got around to reading the first book in this series. The first book I read was the seventh in the series. Like that book, this was an entirely enjoyable and gentle mystery story, completely absent of any murders, the only death being that of a poor fellow who got eaten by a crocodile. The story is enhanced by its exotic location, Botswana on the continent of Africa and containing part of the Kalahari Desert.

Review by The Guardian.

Monday, September 10, 2018

The Well of Lost Plots

By Jasper Fforde

Thursday Next has had a rough time of it. So she has left the real world and moved into BookWorld, taking up residence in an unpublished detective novel. While there, she will be working for Jurisfiction as an agent in training under the supervision of Miss Havisham, the jilted bride from Charles Dickens' Great Expectations. 
In the previous novel, Lost in a Good Book, Thursday's husband was erased from history and Thursday found she was pregnant and that she is the only one who remembers her husband. But she is starting to forget him too, due to her enemy, Acornis Hades. Acornis has the power to mess with people's memories and she has planted a mindworm in Thursday's mind that is slowly erasing her memories of her husband and trying to implant new memories of a life in which he never existed.
Thursday is planning on staying in BookWorld until after her baby is born.
BookWorld is on the cusp of introducing a new book operating system, UltraWord™, which is supposed to greatly enhance the reader's experience and streamline BookWorld operations. But Thursday gradually comes to understand that UltraWord is an evil plot to generate revenue to make rich people richer. Once again it is Thursday vs a heartless, greedy bunch of capitalists.

Fforde keeps making the Thursday Next universe more and more complicated. So much is mentioned in the BookWorld dimension that is becomes a tad overwhelming. Combined with a rather lackluster plot, this book really doesn't add much to the series.

Review by Publishers Weekly.