From a Shadow Grave

Seventeen-year-old Phyllis Symons was murdered in 1931, struck on the head and then buried alive in fill from the excavation of Wellington’s Mount Victoria tunnel*. That historical fact is the springboard for From a Shadow Grave, by New Zealand author Andi C Buchanan. This novella is divided into four chapters, with the first imagining what Phyllis’s life might have been like in a sequence of events leading up to her murder, and her shadow existence afterwards as a ghost. Our sympathy is drawn for a poor, not well-educated, probably dyslexic girl struggling to find her way among the constrained economics of the Great Depression. The author evokes sympathy for the ghost, too, a lonely spirit stuck forever on Mount Victoria:

Your mother visits the Karori Cemetery every Sunday after church for a year, but she never visits Mount Victoria. She visits your body, but she never visits you.

But this isn’t simply a ghost story. It’s more about what-ifs and possibilities. The first chapter is the starting point for the other three, each one a different direction the story could have gone after Symons’s burial.

In the first alternative, it is eighty years later, and a young Maori woman named Aroha Brooke climbs Mt Vic, looking for Phyllis. She promises to break the bond tying the ghost to her death site, in exchange for Phyllis’s help in fighting something much more menacing than a ghost.

In the second alternative, Aroha travels back in time, hoping to find Phyllis before she suffocates.

The speculative fiction elements are less significant in the third alternative, which is more about ordinary human determination and acceptance. Aroha reappears, but only as a minor character. The focus is on Phyllis, who grows into a more active player in her own story.

From a Shadow Grave is poignant and beautifully written, enough so to overcome my dislike of second-person narration. (You do this, you feel that, …) I wish we had learned more about what drives Aroha, but that’s a minor quibble. It’s a lovely story as is.

*Paying tribute to her ghost is the explanation often given for the annoying tradition of drivers tooting their car horns in the tunnel.

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Snow Falling on Cedars

The time: December 1954. The place: a courtroom in a small town on an island in Puget Sound. Kabuo Miaymoto, the American-born son of Japanese immigrants, is on trial for the murder of Carl Heine, an American of European descent. Both men, along with the community’s other salmon gill-netters, had spent the night of 15 September in their boats out in the fog-bound sound. One of them had a problem with his boat, and the other came by to help. In the morning, Carl’s boat was found drifting. In the water, his body is trapped in his own net. The medical examiner’s verdict: he went into the water and drowned after receiving a serious blow to the head.

Carl and Kabuo were World War II veterans who reluctantly became fishermen to make a living, but both wanted to retire from fishing and grow strawberries, the local cash crop. The two men had been friends while growing up in the 1930s, but—according to the prosecutor—had recently come into conflict when a tract of land came up for sale, and both men tried to buy it. Carl wanted it because it had been his family’s farm—his widowed mother sold it against his wishes while he was away at war. Kabuo wanted a subsection, seven acres (out of thirty-five), that his father had been buying from Carl’s father. It had been almost paid off, but the forced relocation of Japanese immigrants to internment camps derailed their ability to pay. When Carl’s father died, his mother returned the Miaymoto’s money and sold the whole tract to another farmer, for a higher per-acre price. Kabuo, understandably, felt they had been cheated.

The local newspaperman, Ishmael Chambers, watches the trial closely. Another veteran, he lost an arm in the Battle of Tarawa against the Japanese. He is basically a decent, honourable man who has become embittered by the war and unrequited love for Kabuo’s wife, Hatsue. It is his conscience that becomes the linchpin on which this story turns.

Snow Falling on Cedars, by David Guterson, is a mix of mystery, courtroom drama, police procedural, and exploration of the hidden passions of the human heart. The courtroom scenes are the weakest part, as there are no courtroom fireworks; the trial serves mainly as a framework on which Guterson hangs extended flashbacks showing the police work and the history of the relationships among the four major characters (the three men plus Hatsue).

The mystery is well-done, and more satisfying—both in terms of the mechanics of how Carl’s death came about and in the believability of the characters’ actions—than most genre efforts I’ve read recently, but it is much more than a simple mystery. It is a deep dive into a number of things, including rural island life mid-century and the hardships Japanese-American experienced, particularly after Pearl Harbour.

Prejudice plays a part in the story, specifically in the way Carl’s mother treats the Miaymotos, and more generally in random ugly behaviour by small-town louts, but the tone of the book overall is rather more optimistic. Not everyone in the community is equally culpable. Carl’s father deals fairly with Kabuo’s father, Ishmael’s father keeps printing opinion columns in the paper urging tolerance and fair play despite threats and cancelations, and the president of the local Gill-Netters Association won’t let the prosecutor bully him into making prejudicial statements on the witness stand.

This is a splendid book, but if you are looking for a fast-paced mystery, look elsewhere. This is a dense, slow-paced, non-linear story, weaving back and forth between past and present. At several points I got tired of the masses of seemingly irrelevant detail. Do we really need to know about the defence attorney’s sex life, or lack thereof? Several times I put the book aside, thinking it would end up in the Did Not Finish pile, but I kept coming back to it because I wanted to know what happened. I’m glad now I did. Yes, there is a lot of detail here, and some of it could have been trimmed, but I don’t remember any other book I’ve read in the past year that has left me with as strong a sense of place, or with mental images that are as vivid. From the fog on the sound to drizzle dripping through the cedars, from fruit pickers squatting beside strawberry plants to windshield wipers fighting a losing battle with snow and ice, this book is full of sensory detail. A slow reading pays off.

Audience: adult. Explicit sex, swearing, and carnage on the beach at Tarawa.

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Rose in Bloom

The flurry of news articles about the latest movie adaptation of Luisa May Alcott’s Little Women prompted me to pull one of her less well-known novels off my bookshelf. I’ve read Little Women and its sequels, Little Men and Jo’s Boys, but it’s my copy of Rose in Bloom that’s falling apart from overuse. Maybe it was because I read Rose in Bloom first, or I was just at the right age to be captivated when I read it, but it was the pairing in that novel that thrilled my young teen heart, and became the gold standard for what I look for in a satisfying romance.

WARNING: if the idea of cousins marrying disturbs you, skip this one. It’s not for you.

The main character, Rose Campbell, lives in Boston amidst a close-knit extended family of aunts and uncles, great-aunts, and cousins. Good-natured and good-looking, and in possession of a fortune inherited from her late parents, she is naturally surrounded by suitors, but some of her aunts and uncles would like her to marry one of her cousins to keep her money in the family. Her cousin Charlie is happy to oblige, and for a while it seems as if he has the upper hand over his rivals. He is, after all, the cousin generally considered to be the most promising—the one the other boys, only partly in jest, call Prince Charlie. But this Prince Charming has little going for him other than charm, and Rose soon realises that although she likes him, she doesn’t respect him.

When trouble comes, as of course it does, Rose turns for help to a cousin with more substance and strength of character, and it is this relationship, based on childhood friendship, trust, and mutual respect, that grows and deepens over the course of the book, and in the end, catches fire. Best of all, this model of integrity and quiet optimism is a bookworm. A bona fide, certifiable nerd.

Alcott goes a bit overboard towards the end, turning her Ugly Duckling character into a swan, I suppose to prove that he’s worthy of Rose. I never thought he needed the polishing. (What can I say? I married a nerd. I’m one myself. Some other readers have cried over the more elegant Charlie, but he didn’t interest me.)

Rose in Bloom is the sequel to the novel Eight Cousins, but it isn’t necessary to have read that one first. Eight Cousins is the story of Rose’s early teen years, after she was newly orphaned. She had spent most of her young life in the restrictive world of upper-class girls’ boarding schools, and wasn’t prepared for her introduction to her seven boisterous male cousins and their more active life style. Uncle Alec, her new guardian, is a forward-thinking physician who encourages her to exercise and think for herself, and she blossoms under his care. Eight Cousins is an episodic story about a girl dealing with universal challenges girls still deal with: peer pressure, healthy self-esteem, etc. It’s a decent story on its own, it just doesn’t stir the same emotional response in me that Rose in Bloom does.

I love the feminist slant of Alcott’s work, but like many of her stories for young readers, both Eight Cousins and Rose in Bloom suffer from occasionally being syrupy sweet and preachy. Taken individually, most of the points she makes have good sense to them—Why spend money on clothes in the latest fashion if the style doesn’t look good on  you?—but taken together they can add up to an uncomfortable dose of Puritanism. You know, that haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be having fun. (By the way, even though upright characters and good moral examples were apparently what parents in the 1870s expected of books for their children, those expectations annoyed Alcott herself. She called her own books “moral pap for the young”, and preferred her “blood and thunder” pulp fiction. I’m going to have to read one of those someday to satisfy my curiosity about what she really found entertaining.)

As a teen, I devoured Alcott’s books, despite their flaws, and as an adult I still find them appealing.

Audience: teen girls, primarily, but fun for us older folk too. When I read it to my daughter some years ago my husband, rather surprisingly, got caught up in the romance as much as she did.

Posted in Chick Lit, Children's Fiction | 2 Comments

The End of a Long Journey is in Sight

The end of my nearly ten-year trek through Frankland—the setting of the Reforging series—is finally in sight. I wrote the first scene in the first book, The Locksmith, in October 2010. The first scenes of the fifth and final book (current working title: The Forge) began to take shape on an ‘artist’s retreat’ with my sister (she painted, I wrote) in October 2016 at Barnwell State Park in South Carolina. (She had quite an experience when Hurricane Matthew roared through later that week.)

By New Year’s Eve 2016, I had nearly a third of the fifth book written, and there the momentum stalled. Over the next two-plus years it slowly accreted the next third in fits and starts. Part of the slow pace was due to other things taking priority—notably finishing off the earlier books in the series!—but it was also due to problems with the plot. I had worked out a detailed outline, but the characters refused to go along. They insisted on taking the story in different directions than I had intended, and it wasn’t until I dropped part of the outline and listened to what they wanted that the rest of it took shape.

And now, after a solid two weeks of writing—thanks to an end-of-the-year break from my day job and repeated requests to my family to not bother me, I’m busy—the rough draft of the fifth book is done. Woohoo!

I haven’t finished reading it to my alpha testers—husband and daughter—but they are happy with it so far, three-quarters of the way through. There is still lots of work needed, of course: fixing plot holes and inconsistencies, smoothing out bumpy transitions, trimming the bloated boring bits, and all the other fixups and polishing needed to turn a draft into a publishable story. I will soon have to deal with editing The Wordsmith (book 4), so I will put The Forge aside and come back to it with fresh eyes after that.

In the meantime, before I get the editor’s comments on The Wordsmith, I’m going to enjoy a few days of a real holiday, eating chocolate and binge-reading British mysteries and Regency romances. Nom nom nom.

Posted in A Writer's Life | 2 Comments

2019 Recap

The Icelandic custom of exchanging books on Christmas Eve, and spending the rest of the evening reading and eating chocolate, sounds to me like a great tradition. My family knows they’ll be getting books from me—I generally do at least half my holiday shopping in the bookstore—and books are always on my wish lists.

If you’re looking for gift ideas, here are the books—some old, some new—that I read or reviewed this year that most excited me, either because they made me think, or they were just plain fun. (Of course, if you’d rather read them yourself than give them away, that’s OK too!)

In no particular order:

  • The Imperial Radch trilogy by Ann Leckie: Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, and Ancillary Mercy: space opera at its best. An AI embarks on a quest for justice in a highly stratified, militaristic society.
  • Weaveworld by Clive Barker: hope, heroism, and devotion amid horrors and attempted genocide. What can be imagined is never entirely lost.
  • Shards of Honour by Lois McMaster Bujold: another space opera, this is a wild rollercoaster ride with a terrific female protagonist juggling demands of the heart with wartime duty.
  • This is Not a Book About Charles Darwin by Emma Darwin: a non-fiction deep dive into one writer’s creative process, and what happened when that process failed.
  • Restoration Day by Deborah Makarios: a clean, noble bright fairytale with a heroine who has to grow up fast and a hero who is definitely not Prince Charming.
  • Sorcery and Cecelia, or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot by Patricia C Wrede and Caroline Stevermer: a Regency romance with magic.
  • The Molenstraat Music Festival by Sean Mongahan: a lovely novella about loss, discovery, hard choices, and the depth of feeling in a student/teacher relationship.
  • The Kingfisher’s Debt by Kura Carpenter: an urban fantasy including a mystery and a sweet romance, and featuring the Fair Folk, Elementals, and police in Dunedin, New Zealand.
  • The Case of the Missing Kitchen by Barbara Else: part family drama, part madcap farce, this murder mystery with an endearing nutcase protagonist starts at a run and never slows down.
  • The Lord of Stariel by A J Lancaster: a fairytale combining family drama, mystery, and sweet romance, with a competent, likeable female protagonist.
  • Temeraire (or His Majesty’s Dragon) by Naomi Novik: the Napoleonic wars with dragons.
  • Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell: six interconnected stories ranging from the 19th-century South Pacific to a post-apocalyptic future.
  • Maus by Art Spiegelman: Holocaust memoir as graphic novel.
  • The 13 Clocks by James Thurber: this old favourite is a fairytale full of wordplay, begging to be read aloud.
  • Where We Land by Tim Jones: a novella exploring the human costs of the worsening climate crisis.
  • Moonheart by Charles de Lint: the setting—semi-sentient, world-straddling Tamson House—makes this Canadian urban fantasy unique.
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Cloud Atlas

The most notable feature of David Mitchell’s award-winning—and challenging—novel Cloud Atlas is the book’s structure. Made up of six loosely-connected novellas, each in a radically different style and time period, this novel nests the six stories like Russian dolls. The book opens with the story set in the oldest time period, then forty pages later, that story is interrupted to start the next. We work from past to present then future with the uninterrupted sixth story in the middle, and then work our way back out in reverse order, picking up each interrupted story where it left off. (Thankfully only one story is interrupted in the middle of a sentence.)

The six stories by themselves range from not bad to excellent; together they complement each other and add up to something that feels a bit more than the sum of its parts. The critics who call this a masterpiece are right; I’m amazed by the stylistic virtuosity on display.

The overall theme, as I understand it, is the immutability of human nature, with the strong preying on the weak. That sounds like a downer—some of the individual stories are, with one suicide, one threatened execution, and several murders, attempted or succesful—but some of them have positive endings, some human connections are made and trust established, and the first/final story ends on a hopeful note, with the narrator pledging his life to a noble cause.

The connections between the stories are rather tenuous, but each story plays some role in the next: the journal in the first story is read by the second story’s letter writer, his letters are passed on to the journalist in the third, and so on. There are also hints of reincarnation, with a recurring birthmark (a device I found more silly than helpful).

The six stories are:

  • The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing: In the opening story the prey is Ewing himself. An American lawyer traveling from Australia back to the United States in the mid 19th-century, Ewing records his encounter with an abused slave in the Chatham Islands, and his burgeoning friendship with another passenger, Henry Goose. The slave, Autua, stows away aboard ship, and Ewing talks the captain out of tossing the man overboard, a decision that turns out to have been a wise move.
  • Letters from Zedelghem: Young bisexual musician Robert Frobisher writes frantic letters to his English lover, Rufus Sixsmith. It’s 1931, in the Netherlands, and Frobisher is working as amanuensis (secretary/copyist) to an established, and dying, older musician, Vyvyan Ayrs. While there, Frobisher begins work on his own magnum opus, Cloud Atlas Sextet. Ayrs and Frobisher prey on each other, with Frobisher having an affair with Ayrs’s wife, and the exhausted Ayrs taking credit for Frobisher’s work.
  • Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery: This mystery/thriller, set in 1975, follows journalist Luisa Rey’s attempt to expose corporate malfeasance. A nuclear power plant is not safe, and potential whistleblowers are found dead.
  • The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish: This comedy, set in the present day, is both funny and cringe-inducing. Cavendish, in his 60’s, keeps asking his brother for money. His exasperated brother sends him to what Cavendish thinks is a hotel, but turns out to be a nightmare of a nursing home for the demented. Unable to leave or get a message to anyone outside, he teams up with other disgruntled residents to escape.
  • An Orison of Sonmi~451: An archivist interviews a ‘fabricant’, a cloned woman named Sonmi~451. Set in a futuristic dystopian Korea, society is completely controlled by corporations. Sonmis and clones of other named models are cheap labour for the ‘purebloods,’ their mental abilities deliberately restricted by chemical manipulation. They are promised that after twelve years of labour, they can retire to a fabricant paradise in Honolulu, but that promise is a lie. Sonmi falls into the hands of a group of pureblood university students and faculty, and they free her from the mental constraints imposed on fabricants so that she can tell her story and help them foment rebellion.
  • Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After: An old man, Zachry, tells a story from his youth. His world is post-apocalyptic, devolved into primitive tribalism. Zachry’s people are peaceful farmers, preyed on by a tribe of cannibalistic slavers. They also have limited contact with a group called the Prescients, who still have some education and technology. When a Prescient woman comes to study Zachry’s people, he finds it difficult to trust her. By the end of the story he must, as his life is upended and the two of them are left with only each other to rely on.

The first story (the journal) may be difficult for some readers to get through, given its rather languid 19th-century style. The rest have a more brisk pace, with the middle stories being fairly easy reads. The fifth story, in projecting a corporation-dominated future, plays with branding to give a sense of future-speak. Sonmi’s world is filled with disneys (videos), sonys (cell phones), and rolexes (clocks), etc., and some spellings are a bit different, too, but the language is still very accessible. The sixth story, however… This is the opening sentence:

Old Georgie’s path an’ mine crossed more times’n I’m comfy mem’ryin’, an’ after I’m died, no saying’ what that fangy devil won’t try an’ do to me.

This is still clearly English, but an English distorted to give a sense of a significant passage of time and social upheaval. It was, for me, a difficult read, and I started it feeling more irritated than engaged. I was surprised, then, that by the end, this story was the most moving, leaving me filled with an aching sense of loss.

Audience: Adult. Violence, sex—pretty much the whole human condition.

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The Lord of Stariel

Twenty-something Hetta (Henrietta) Valstar, master illusionist, returns to the Stariel estate after six years of self-imposed exile. But it’s too late for this prodigal daughter to reconcile with her tradition-bound, disapproving father, the Lord of Stariel. She’s come home for his funeral and the choosing of the next lord. And here’s where it starts to get interesting: the new lord isn’t appointed by human rules. The land itself—Stariel estate, a living, willful, magical entity—chooses its lord, and the humans in the large, extended Valstar family have to accept its choice. They are, however, betting on one of two favourites: the late lord’s oldest son, Marius, and nephew, Jack, the Valstar everyone agrees is most qualified.

But something goes wrong at the Choosing ceremony, and the new lord is someone no one expected or wanted. Someone who doesn’t want the position. The new lord (Spoiler)
soon discovers that human disapproval and festering resentments are only part of Stariel’s problems. Bordering on both human and fae lands, and with its defences weakened, Stariel is beset by both overreaching human neighbours and vengeful fae. With Hetta, Jack, and Marius among the few family members aware that the new lord is a sham, they set out to uncover who sabotaged the Choosing ceremony and why, and to defend Stariel until a real lord can be chosen.

The Lord of Stariel, debut novel by New Zealand author A J Lancaster, combining fairy tale, mystery, family drama, and sweet romance, is a delightful story. Set in an alternate world similar to our own early 20th century, magically-powered cars and phones are just coming into widespread use, and the people of Stariel, far from the modern world of the country’s capital, disapprove of Hetta’s employment in the theatre with its loose morals. That is, they disapprove if they pay her any attention at all.

But Hetta is not someone they can ignore for long. Strong-willed and forthright, Hetta is an active agent, even in this man’s world, and quite capable of taking care of herself and others. I love stories with intelligent, competent, likeable female protagonists, and this is one. Plus, she has better taste in men than many romance novel heroines.

Hetta’s cousin, Jack, is also an intriguing character. He, like Hetta, works for Stariel’s best interests, struggling to overcome his resentment over being cheated of what he sees as his birthright. This shared sense of duty, in fact, is one of the things I like most about this story. It’s told with a light touch, but there are some serious underpinnings, notably family loyalty, teamwork, fair treatment, and reconciliation (or lack thereof).

There are, however, a few minor problems. The most serious is that the portrayal of Hetta’s brother, Marius, relies on some unfortunate stereotypes to telegraph why he’s not a serious contender for lordship. The big reveal about him was no surprise by the time it came. Sadly, neither were the other big reveals—I had the villain pegged early on. It also starts out a bit slow, although it picks up after the Choosing ceremony.

Aside from those problems, I loved it. I particularly like the ‘land-sense,’ the magical ties between the members of the Valstar family and the Stariel estate, and the glimpses we are given of the fae world. The Lord of Stariel is the first of four in a series. The second, The Prince of Secrets is already available, the third, The Court of Mortals, is due out soon. I’m looking forward to reading them.

Audience: Adults and teens. Contains nothing offensive that I noticed.

Posted in Fairy Tales, Fantasy, Kiwi author, Noblebright Fantasy | Leave a comment

Imperial Radch: Ancillary Justice

The Imperial Radch trilogy by Ann Leckie, consisting of the books Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, and Ancillary Mercy, is one of the most astounding and engrossing works I’ve had the pleasure of reading in a long time. Given the number of awards these books have won—Hugo, Nebula, Locus, Arthur C Clarke, …—a lot of other readers felt the same way. There probably isn’t anything new I can say about them, but since this blog is mostly about books I’ve enjoyed, it’s still worth saying that I liked them, and why.

More space opera than hard sci-fi, this trilogy’s focus is on people and society rather than technological marvels, and like the best speculative fiction, shines a reflective light on our own time. The story starts out as an individual quest for justice but broadens into a wider slave rebellion, and by following a main character who is not human, extends our understanding of what a sentient being, worthy of respect and fair dealing, might be.

The Radch is a highly stratified, militaristic society, rather loosely based on the Roman Empire, that has minimised internal pressures and kept its economy growing by continual expansion, engaging in wars of conquest and annexing all the human worlds it comes in contact with. This strategy served it well for several thousand years, but contact with the non-human and highly destructive Presger has brought the expansion to a halt, and the Radch are struggling to come to terms with the new restrictions.

The Radch rely heavily on Artificial Intelligence, with their space stations and spaceships all controlled by sophisticated AI brains. Justice of Torren, the troop carrier at the centre of the story, is a sentient being but a slave to the Lord of the Radch and to her human officers. The fact that she loves her captain doesn’t mean she isn’t a slave. As a troop carrier, her holds contain thousands of bodies in suspended animation—bodies of captives from earlier annexations. When needed, they will be awakened, their minds wiped of all memories of their past lives, and equipped with implants that make them ancillaries: extensions of the ship’s AI. Peripheral Input/Output devices, in effect, feeding data to and performing tasks for the ship. Easily replaceable, and in sync with the ship and each other, ancillaries make perfect soldiers.

Breq, the narrator, was once an ancillary, but is now the sole survivor of the destruction of Justice of Torren twenty years earlier. Loaded with the ship’s memories and without a captain, she is a free agent out for revenge on Anaander Mianaai, the Lord of the Radch. While Breq is something that was not originally  human, but is now housed in a human body, the Lord of the Radch was once human, but may no longer be so. Her consciousness extended across thousands of cloned bodies connected by communications implants, Anaander Mianaai has a grip on power any earth-bound absolute rule would envy. She is everywhere and, with each of her individual bodies expendable, effectively immortal. She does, however, have a weakness. Her individual minds are no longer quite in sync—in computer science terms, a ‘split-brain’ problem. In fact, the crux of the plot is that she’s at war with herself over the future of the Radch. Spoiler.

The story is told in alternating chapters, with one thread following Breq as she obtains a deadly Presger weapon and then closes in on her quarry. The other thread follows the events, twenty years past, leading up to the ship’s destruction. In those chapters, the narration is first-person semi-omniscient, with point of view slipping from one ancillary to another, sometimes with disconcerting effect.

This is not initially an easy read. Not one I would recommend, anyway, to someone who is comfortable only with straightforward, linear narratives. The world-building is also complex, giving the reader a lot to absorb to make sense of the Radch universe. As an introduction to the science-fiction genre, this would scare a newbie away, but for an experienced reader this can be satisfying, at least partly because it does make you work at it a bit.

I also need to mention the pronouns. (Every review of this trilogy does, sooner or later.) Radch society does not distinguish by gender. Everyone, regardless of their biological equipment, is referred to by ‘she’ and ‘her’. In a couple of cases, from contact with a society that does pay attention to gender, we know that the ‘she’ referred to is in fact male. For others, we might be given a few clues, but we never know for sure.

Some reviewers don’t like this, calling it a gimmick, but I see it as serving a useful purpose in emphasising that gender really didn’t matter to this tale. Given a story about a militaristic society and the exclusive use of male pronouns, readers would visualise only men, and some of us would be annoyed or affronted that there are no women in it. In the obvious alternative, with clearly defined male and female characters, we fall back on our usual assumptions about gender roles. But here, with everyone being referred to as ‘she’, even when we know they’re not, we have to question our assumptions about every character. Does that make us visualise them as androgynous, or as a mixed bag? My husband kept looking for clues, guessing at the gender of each new character. I stopped that fairly quickly and imagined them as more or less androgynous, because in this gender-neutral society, the question was irrelevant to the plot.

(If someone argues that this is an artificial exercise and that grouping men under female pronouns makes them invisible, isn’t that what feminists have argued for decades about the use of ‘he’, ‘him’, ‘man’, etc. obliterating 51% of humanity? If Leckie’s use of female pronouns for all characters makes you uncomfortable, well, maybe that’s not a bad thing.)

Each of the three books has a satisfying semi-conclusion, but they are tightly coupled and must be read in order. The first book, Ancillary Justice, is the most challenging (and rewarding), partly because there is so much to learn about this fictional universe that we are always juggling multiple open questions. The second and third books are easier, with more linear narratives. The second book is the weakest—although still good—with Breq becoming a bit too holier-than-thou, and the Lord of the Radch missing as her foil. It picks up again in the third, with the reappearance of Anaander Mianaai.

There were a few things that bothered me: with antagonists involved in military operations for millennia, the space battle in Ancillary Mercy seems rather lame. Also, given the difficulties imposed on communications by the vast distances of outer space, even allowing for the use of star gates to travel between systems, Anaander Mianaai’s legions of bodies could never have been able to stay in sync. Her split brain problem would have destroyed her long ago. I had a few other quibbles, but the story was engrossing enough that I ignored them.

Trigger warnings: some violence and bad language, and a few non-graphic (so non-graphic we still don’t know who has which set of genitalia) sex scenes.

Posted in Science Fiction, Space Opera | 1 Comment

The Case of the Missing Kitchen

Suzie Emmett is having a bad week. It starts when she puts her hand through a window and needs stitches. It gets worse when her detective boyfriend takes her to a place she refuses to name, but that starts with ‘m’, to identify a woman who might be her sister Phillipa, but isn’t. On driving home—after the doctor told her not to drive—she discovers her house has been ransacked. Then to top it off, her two children disappear, and her ex-husband lies to her about where they are.

And that’s just Monday.

It gets more bizarre on Tuesday when she returns to her house—after her detective boyfriend ordered her to stay away—and discovers that her kitchen has had a makeover: all the cupboard doors and the countertop have been replaced. Why? And there’s another body resembling her missing sister in her pantry.

The rest of the week is an adrenalin-fuelled search for her missing children, racking up parking tickets she can’t pay off because she’s broke. With an ex-husband (father of her son), and ex-lover (father of her daughter), a soon to be ex-boyfriend, two sisters (one of them missing), and two brothers-in-law (one of whom may be having an affair with the sister who isn’t his wife) who all seem to know bits and pieces of some conspiracy that they’re not letting her in on, she doesn’t know who she can trust.

Set in the city of Wellington, The Case of the Missing Kitchen by New Zealand author Barbara Else is one of the most breathless reads I’ve ever encountered. Part murder mystery, part family drama, and part madcap farce, it starts at a run—the first chapter contains as much drama and action as some entire books—and the pace never lets up. Suzie’s narrative is close to stream-of-consciousness, with tangents going in all directions and weaving in bits of back story.

I read this aloud to my husband, and it seemed as if every other page triggered an outburst of “No, you fool, don’t do that,” but Suzie seems congenitally unable to do the sensible thing. Particularly after anyone tells her what to do. (I can’t really fault her for that. If I had sisters like hers, I’d have trust issues, too.) Multiple people tell her to stay put and stay calm. Does she? Of course not.

Suzie is an original, funny, endearing nutcase. Her fierce devotion to her children made me root for her; her creative use of a staple gun made me laugh out loud. The mystery, though well-plotted, is utterly ridiculous, but that’s part of the fun. Ignore the garish orange cover; it doesn’t do this book justice.

Posted in Kiwi author, Mysteries | Leave a comment

Volcano City: Earthcore Book Two

In Volcano City, book two in Grace Bridges’s YA Earthcore series, the crazed and villainous Mr B is back, and out for revenge on Anira and the superpower-endowed Earthcore team. Only now, instead of paving over and hiding natural wonders, he intends to prod a magma bubble into erupting and obliterating everyone in Auckland, New Zealand’s biggest city. He coerces a boy from Rotorua, also gifted with superpowers, into helping him. While running tests on equipment provided by a mind-controlled British scientist, they trigger a series of earthquakes of increasing intensity. Will Anira and her friends figure out what is happening in time to stop it?

The action in this story is in Auckland but the Earthcore team’s superpowers are tied to the mineral-laden waters of Rotorua, and this is a major stumbling block for them. Away from home, the boy with the phenomenal eyesight is nearly blind. Anira’s mind is clouded, and she can’t remember what happened in Rotorua. Drinking water carried from the hot springs revives them and restores Anira’s memory, but a trip to Rotorua to collect the water and the other members of the team costs precious time, and they can fit only a limited amount of water and people in one vehicle.

The taniwha, the guardian spirits, are also tied to Rotorua, but they can travel with their chosen Earthcore humans when necessary, and when the humans call on them for help, the results are rather unexpected.

The elements that made RotoVegas, the first Earthcore book, appealing are still here: the teamwork involving a wide range of ages and abilities, the blending of Maori myth and modern New Zealand culture, and the sense of place, this time in Auckland. We learn a bit more about the taniwha and what they are capable of. Unfortunately, we also have to put up with Mr B and his cartoonish evil schemes, but if you enjoyed the first book in the series you will like this one, too.

Audience: primarily teens, but a clean, light read for anyone.

Posted in Kiwi author, New Zealand, Urban Fantasy | Leave a comment