Tuesday, July 12, 2016

At the Mountains of Madness - H. P. Lovecraft

At the Mountains of MadnessAt the Mountains of Madness by H.P. Lovecraft

October 2005
My rating: 2 of 5 stars (5/10)

I first really encountered the whole concept of Lovecraft's Mythos (something I remain unclear on, so please excuse any mistakes) while reading a BBC Eight Doctor Doctor Who novel, which I guess is kind of backwards. From there I was interested in finding about a bit more about it, but it all seemed to be very confusing and I didn't know where to begin or how much I really wanted to do so. When this was one of [BeyondReality]'s October selections, it seemed providential. It took me while to get hold of the book, eventually finding a copy online.

The story itself is fairly basic. A geologist, one of a small number of survivors of an ill-fated expedition to Antartica in 1930, finally reveals the true horrors discovered there in order to dissuade a new expedition from following in his footsteps.

So what did I think of it?

Well, in all honesty the writing is pretty mediocre. It's lurid and rambling and the vague hints that are supposed to build suspense, I found annoying. For all that though, I keep reading. I kept thinking of giving up, but there was something compelling about the story that kept me going. I found the beginning very slow, but it smoothed out and picked up in the second half before petering out into a somewhat unsatisfying ending.

I have to say that I didn't find this in the least scary; the writing was too clinical for that as it didn't stir any emotions. Also, especially in the first half, there was lots and lots of description, especially through Lake's reports. I am not at all a visual person, so it was just words to me and I wasn't building up any picture of these creastures. That may have diminished the impact. Where I did feel my emotions was being tugged was as the narrator makes his conclusions about what must have happened to the Old Ones who believed they were returning home and his guesses at their feelings about that.

All in all, this is very much a "tell, don't show" story, and as a modern reader, I tend to prefer the opposite. I often feel when things are hinted at and events described obliquely that I've missed a lot, but in this case I did feel I'd got most of the details I was supposed to by the end. Although I'm still not clear about what kind of creature was chasing Danforth and the narrator as their fled back up the tunnels from the abyss. If anyone can enlighten me, I'd be grateful.

If you want a taste of Lovecraft to see what all the fuss is about - as I did - I do think this is a good story to try. It turned out not to be my thing, but it might be yours.

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Fallen Host - Lyda Morehouse

Fallen Host (LINK Angel, #2)Fallen Host by Lyda Morehouse

October 2004
My rating: 4 of 5 stars (9/10)

Before I even started reading this book I knew I was going to have trouble reviewing it. Not because there is anything wrong with it - in fact, it is a great book - but because it is so different from anything I've read before. (Well, except for Archangel Protocol which is the book before it in the series and that I read before I started doing these reviews.)

It is the latter half of the twenty-first century; after a catastrophic war in which a terror device called Medusa was unleashed, humanity has turned away from the sciences and virtually all governments are now theocracies. What we know as the Internet has become the LINK, an all invasive network that individuals can access through implanted hardware. Two fully sentient artificial intelligences traverse the LINK, as do angels. In Archangel Protocol, Deirdre McMannus exposed the LINK-angels as a high-tech fraud and met a real angel - the Archangel Michael, no less.

Fallen Host is told through the first person point of view of three main characters. Page is an AI created by the same computer genius who programmed the LINK-angels. After helping expose his "father" in the previous book, he is trying to make his own way on the LINK. A Muslim, he also dreams of visiting Mecca. Emmaline McNaughten is a Papal Inquisitor, a maverick who has been sent to discover if Page and the world's second AI, the Dragon of the East, have souls. The third main character has chosen to call himself Morningstar. He has been known through history by many names; the Fallen One, the Adversary, Iblis, Lucifer, Satan.

In the first chapter, Morningstar meets with Jibril, the Archangel Gabriel, who obliquely reveals that the End of Days are upon the world. That leaves Morningstar with a quest - to find the Antichrist. He believes this to be Page and attempts to contact and recruit the AI. Emmaline is also looking for Page and the three protaganist's stories soon become inextricably entwined. This book ends with this section of the story complete the scene set for the third book, Messiah Node.

I was a little dubious about this series. As a Christian, a Catholic in fact, I want my beliefs to be treated with respect in the books I choose to read. So long as that is the case, I am perfectly happy to explore an author's 'what ifs'. This is exactly what Lyda Morehouse has done. She has begun with the premise that the God of Judaism, Islam and Christianity does indeed exist as in the One True God. From there, she has explored how the Second Coming might happen in our own near future.

This is a work of fiction, sprung from a lot of research (she discusses her research in the FAQ on her website), scientific extrapolation and a great imagination. It is a science fiction story about religion, not a religious science fiction story. I enjoyed it immensely and I'm looking forward to fitting the next one into my packed reading schedule. However, the bad news is that Fallen Host is currently out of print, although the other three books in the series are readily available. I recommend starting the series with Archangel Protocol, although this isn't necessary to follow the story. And if you think you might like these books, go and find a copy of Fallen Host now, while there are still some around.

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Anne of Green Gables - L. M. Montgomery

Anne of Green Gables (Anne of Green Gables, #1)Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery

October 2004

I really love this book, and all the other Anne books, but I'm really struggling to read this one at the moment. I have enough stresses in my life at present and I'm not going to add to it by forcing myself to finish a book that deserves to be savoured and properly appreciated.

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Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Murder with Puffins - Donna Andrews

Murder With Puffins (Meg Langslow, #2)Murder With Puffins by Donna Andrews

September 2004
My rating: 3 of 5 stars (7/10)

After the chaos of the summer (weddings, peacocks and murder among other things, chronicled in Murder with Peacocks) Meg Langslow and her boyfriend Michael are desperate for some time and space to themselves. Meg suggests they go to the island of Monhegan off the coast of Maine, where her Aunt Phoebe has a summer cottage and Meg has an open invitation. There might not be any electricity and it is no longer exactly summer, but that should just help insure they get some peace and quiet.

Meg couldn't be more wrong. They arrive along with a coming hurricane to find the island swarming with bird watchers - and Meg's parents (back from their honeymoon in Europe), her brother Rod, Aunt Phoebe and Aunt Phoebe's friend Mrs Fenniman. The cottage is already full and Michael ends up sharing a room with Rod while Meg gets the sofa. So much for a romantic getaway.

Things only get worse after Meg and Michael find themselves in a confrontation with local artist Victor Resnick, who take potshots at them when they stray onto his land. They soon discover no-one on Monhegan likes Resnick and he likes no-one in return. This includes Meg's parents, since her mother knew him when she spent summers on the island as a teenager and local gossip has it that Meg's father is intensely jealous of this.

Then the hurricane hits, the island is cut off, Meg's father and Aunt Phoebe go AWOL at the height of the storm and when Meg and Michael go looking for her father the next morning they find Resnick instead, face down in a tidal pool and quite, quite dead. Meg's father is immediately considered a suspect and when Meg and Michael find a draft of a horribly purple prosed biography of Resnick that implies he had an affair with Meg's mother when she was only fifteen, things look even worse.

Meg takes it upon herself to solve the case, clear her father and save her mother's reputation, all before the hurricane abates enough for the ferry to start running again and the mainland authorities can arrive.

Like its predecessor, this book was wonderfully fun to read. Meg is a great character, her family remains totally insane and Michael puts up with them all with great grace. Andrews has had much fun with the chapter titles, taking known titles and sayings and substituting "puffin" in there somewhere. Examples include "A Long Day's Journey into Puffin" and "Zen and the Art of Puffin Maintenance".

My main reservation is that as I approached the end, I began to feel that the focus on the book was much more on the detection than on the solution. Working out who did it suddenly seemed to take about thirty seconds, and any following confrontation with the murderer seemed anti-climatic, as if it was just a side issue. Indeed, the book didn't end there, since it was now more important for Meg and Michael to discover the author of the awful Resnick biography and find a way to hush up any potential scandal. All of which they manage of course, even if some of their methods are far from conventional.

That said, this is still a very fun book to read. I thoroughly enjoyed going along for the ride with Meg and Michael and I look forward to their further adventures.

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Sorcery and Cecelia (or the Enchanted Chocolate Pot) by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer

Sorcery & Cecelia: or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot (Cecelia and Kate, #1)Sorcery & Cecelia: or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot by Patricia C. Wrede

September 2004
My rating: 3 of 5 stars (7/10)

In a slightly alternative England just after the Napoleonic Wars, where magic and wizardry are real, two cousins start exchanging letters. Kate Talgarth has gone to London for the Season with her beautiful sister Georgina. Her cousin, Cecelia Rushton, remains at home in the country. Mysterious things soon start happening to both of them, starting with a strange woman trying to poison Kate with hot chocolate under the belief she is a man named Thomas - and they soon find themselves caught up in a series of strange, dangerous and magical events.

That's not much of a description compared to the other books I've reviewed, but this one is different. It grew from the authors playing the "letter game" and since the plot only developed between Wrede and Stevermer as the letters were exchanged, it does the same for the reader.

I really wasn't sure what I was going to think of this book when I started it. I had heard about it before and how it had grown out of "the letter game", where each author had taken one of the principal characters (Wrede is Cecelia and Stevermer is Kate) and written the letters in persona. Their one rule was that each writer must not reveal her idea of where the plot was going to the other. To a certain degree, this sounds like a brilliant idea. But it also reminded me of online fanfic round robins which I know from experience can go strange and dangerous places, developing terrible plot and logic holes as they go. These authors didn't even have an established universe they were playing in.

At first I was afraid my fears were being realised as I had trouble figuring out who was who and how all the characters were connected to each other. Whatever was going on also seemed rather confusing. However, the book soon took off as more pieces were revealed. I did find it a little frustrating that the two male leads - James and Thomas - were so darned secretive and unable to give any proper explanations. However, since those desired explanations hadn't been invented before the book began, it was inevitable that each author would be dropping hints for the other to pick up on. When the explanations did start coming, they all worked and the story concluded itself very nicely. I did see in the authors' note that they got together once they had decided to submit the book for publication and tidied up any few loose and/or shaky ends.

Kate and Cecy are fun characters, and the reader gets to know them better as the story progresses. However, I felt all the other character were sketched rather than drawn. I suppose part of that could be because we only see as much of them as the girls put in their letters. In the same way, the romances seemed a little forced. Both women found their man "odious" a long way through the book and then they were in love and getting married. It was there, but the progression wasn't as smooth as it might have been.

My grumble done, I still recommend the book. If, like me, you feel a little confused at first, stick with it. The story unfolds neatly and by half way I was reading every moment I could to find out how everything turned out. I will certainly be reading the sequel, which my friendly librarian has reserved for me. (Aren't I lucky, having a friendly bookstore owner and a friendly librarian, even if the former takes a lot of my money!)

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Monday, July 4, 2016

Police at the Funeral - Margery Allingham

Police at the Funeral (Albert Campion Mystery #4)Police at the Funeral by Margery Allingham

September 2004
My rating: 3 of 5 stars (7/10)

On a Margery Allingham list I'm on, someone accidently posted a message that was meant to go to a different Allingham list - one for group reads of the Campion books. This seemed like an excellent idea and I nipped over and joined. They are still early in the series (this is the fourth book) so I jumped in with glee. I've read Police at the Funeral before, but on starting it, I couldn't remember exactly what happened or who "dunnit". In fact, as I kept reading, I still couldn't remember. While my terrible memory (made worse by all my years of CFS) is often a detriment, in this case it was a great advantage.

The story appears simple: an old friend of Campion's asks his to ease his fiance's fears about the disappearance of her uncle. However, the story gets murkier and nastier and more confusing with each passing page. The lost Uncle Andrew is part of a decidedly dysfunction family still living in the 1890's or so (the book is set in 1931) and run with an iron fist by Great Aunt Caroline who keeps her middle-aged children (William, Julia and Kitty) and nephew, Andrew, at home with her and treats them as if they were still in the nursery.

By the time Campion arrives in Cambridge, Uncle Andrew has been found dead. By the time he's been there a couple of days, Aunt Julia is dead under mysterious circumstances and Uncle William is under suspicion of murder. It is up to Campion to solve the mystery, save the family name and hopefully prevent any more deaths.

It is in this book that Allingham's writing becomes much deeper and more serious than it was in the earlier Campion books, which have a certain Boy's Own Adventure atmosphere to them. This novel, despite a strong and moody description of London at the very beginning, looks like it may be the same. Campion, lurking in a deliberately dramatic hidden meeting place and dressed in a Holmes-style deerstalker cap, waits to meet a young woman and soothe her worries with a performance as the "clever detective". But it is soon clear her troubles are real ones and Campion abandons his frivolity at the same moment he abandons the cap, becoming serious about the case. Despite his sometimes contradictory appearance, he is to remain so in his following adventures in print. Allingham's skill in description also comes to the fore, as the forbidding house in Socrates Close almost becomes a character in its own right - and a disturbing and dangerous character too.

As I said, I couldn't remember who the murderer was as I re-read Police at the Funeral. Up to the revelation I still didn't. I was both surprised and disappointed. The solution was clever, although the character's immediately assumption to why it had all been done did seem rather simplistic to me. However, I think that is just a difference in seventy year's perspective. We try to make some things more complicated these days.

This is a good book and I enjoyed spending time with Campion again. I am looking forward to re-reading Sweet Danger with the list. Yay, I'll get to meet Amanda all over again.

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The Silver Spoon - Stacey Klemstein

The Silver SpoonThe Silver Spoon by Stacey Klemstein

August 2004
My rating: 4 of 5 stars (8/10)

This is Stacey Klemstein's first novel and it's a great debut. I hope it will be the first of many to come in the years ahead.

Two years ago, Zara Mitchell began having terrible nightmares and has been known since as the local crazy. At the same time, Earth made its first contact with aliens. The Observers had been watching us from a distance for a while and have since landed on Earth, sending out small numbers of research parties. Zara is terrified of the aliens, but fortunately unlikely ever to meet any.

Or so she thinks. As the story opens, she is working in her diner, The Silver Spoon, when the sheriff stops in with his latest captive - one of the Observers. Moments later her world turns upside down when the diner explodes, her life is saved by Caelen, the Observer, and he insists she was the target of the attack. Reluctant, but determined to find answers to the questions in her life, Zara finally agrees to go with Caelen. From there, her life just gets more complicated as every answer raises a host more questions.

Klemstein has placed her characters very neatly on the board and proceeds to play havoc with them with skill, ease and a delightful touch of wit and humour. What impressed me most is the way, as she slowly revealed more about the nature and plans of the Observers, she made them more human at the same time as she showed us how different they were. Zara too finds she is not exactly what she has always believed as she finally discovers the source of her nightmares. She deals with this realistically rather than easily, a fact that made me like her more. She has a wry sense of humour and is strong without being forcefully or unbelievably so.

Caelen is less clearly drawn, partly because we never see his thought processes (the story is told first-person from Zara's point of view) and because his motives remain cloudy and uncertain. The romance between Zara and Caelen is gentle, cautious and uncertain; while "happy ever after" is definitely a possibility at the end, it is not yet certain.

Many of the questions facing the characters at the start of the book are answered by the end, but some remain and others have been created. This book is crying out for a sequel and I hope Stacey Klemstein is in the process of writing one. I'll be buying it.

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