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24th-May-2015 12:43 pm(no subject)
Purge, by Sofi Oksanen. Black Cat, translated edition 2010

One night in 1992, Aliide Truu finds what at first glance seems to be a pile of rags in her front yard in Estonia. A closer look reveals that it’s a young woman, bruised and battered. Against all instincts, she goes out and brings the girl in. Zara tells the first of her stories to Aliide; that she’s had a fight with her rich husband. In reality, Zara is running from her pimp, who lied to her in her Vladivostok home, telling her she could go to Germany for job training. He brought her to Germany and made her into a sex slave, controlling her with emotional, physical, and sexual abuse. The shame she feels over this makes her lie to Aliide, sure that she is so disgusting no one would ever help her if they knew. And she wants- needs- Aliide to take her in. They have a connection that Aliide doesn’t know about.

Aliide has secrets of her own. Flashbacks show her living in Estonia as it’s invaded and controlled first by the Fascists and then by the Stalinists. She is ashamed that she was brutally raped as part of an interrogation. She also married a Communist, making the townspeople she grew up with call her a collaborator and shun her. Then there is the matter of what ultimately happened to her brother-in-law, a man she wanted to take from her sister- the sister she had deported via her husband’s contacts. Both women are deeply ashamed to what has been done *to* them.

The ending surprised me. I suppose it shouldn’t have, as Aliide had already shown herself to be a survivor. I thought it was be best ending possible, despite being violent.

It’s a hard book to read. Not because of the writing; the writing flows quickly and fluidly. It’s because the things that happen to the characters are so awful. Oksanen describes the rapes and abuse quite graphically, yet so matter-of-factly that it’s almost surreal; just, well, that happened; let’s keep going. And I think this is because that’s how the people in their situations- and there were and are many- have to deal with it. Just keep going. No time for a screaming fit. These are horrors unimaginable to most of us in the USA, and so many people- whole countries- have endured them. In my opinion, this is a book that should be required reading at some level. There is too much sex and violence for schools in the USA to accept, but it should at least be required in college.
23rd-May-2015 01:47 pm(no subject)
Uprooted, by Naomi Novik. Del Ray, 2015

In a world that sounds remarkably like Eastern Europe a number of centuries ago, seventeen year old Agnieszka knows she’ll be losing her best friend, Kasia, soon. Kasia is smart, beautiful, and moves with grace. Agnieszka is clumsy, always manages to get dirty, breaks things, can’t cook or sew worth a darn, and manages to muck everything up- although she does have a knack for negotiating the forest without harm and always comes back with something, be it mushrooms, fruit, firewood, or herbs. This is the year of the Choosing, when the local wizard known as the Dragon chooses a seventeen year old girl to take to his tower. She will not be seen again for ten years. The girls, who claim he never molests them (and they are never believed), never stay in the valley after they return and do not speak of what happened to them. It’s important to keep the Dragon happy, because his magic is all that stands between the area and the Wood. Something evil and greedy lives in the forest- IS the forest- and it always seeks to expand its territory.

To her surprise, Agnieszka is picked. She goes to live in the tower- and is surprised to discover that the Dragon is trying to teach her magic. She has a unique natural talent, linked to the earth, and how it is expressed creates problems between her and the Dragon. She has reason to need this new power soon, as warring kingdoms and the Wood create havoc.

I loved this book. I really liked Agnieszka- I can very much identify with a heroine who constantly gets dirty and rips her clothing! The way her magic worked had a very authentic ring to it. The snippy, sarcastic Dragon is kind of an ass at first, but he grew on me a lot. The Wood is a unique menace and very well done; I found it quite creepy. The style is rather like that of a fairy tale- one of the darker ones. There are battles, possessions, assassinations, perilous escapes, horrors, and good things. The ending, when the Wood is revealed and dealt with, surprised me. I could not put this book down- it’s over 400 pages and I read it in two days.
19th-May-2015 01:20 pm - Flashman and the Mountain of Light
Flashman and the Mountain of Light appeared in 1990 and was the ninth of George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman novels, chronicling the adventures of the notorious cad and unlikely Victorian hero.

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16th-May-2015 07:55 pm(no subject)
Simon's cat
The Guest Cat, by Takashi Hiraide. New Directions. Written 2001; translated 2008

A couple in their 30s live in a small house on the property of a larger, older house. Childless, they spend their days working from home, writing and editing, and not interacting all that much. Then one day the neighbor’s cat comes into their house like it belongs there. The next day it returns. And again after that. While she won’t let them pick her up and she won’t get in a lap, she does accept offerings of cat food and fried mackerel. She becomes what I call a time share cat. And she changes their lives. Not in any sudden, large, ways, but slowly they begin to interact and to see the beauty in the garden their house sits in. She is ephemeral in their lives but lasting in her effect on them.

It’s a precious little story (the book is quite short). The book itself seems precious; the size of an old style pocket book, albeit thinner, with a wonderful ink drawing of a cat peering over a table’s edge. It’s like a little jewel, and yet contains so much in a subtle way: aging, death, relationships, spirituality, and being in the moment. Sit in a quiet place and read this book.
11th-May-2015 12:59 pm(no subject)
The Pattern in the Carpet: A Personal History with Jigsaws, by Margaret Drabble. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2009

Margaret Drabble gives us the history of jigsaw puzzles in a meandering manner with lots of detours along the way. In her research (which was extensive) she found that jigsaw puzzles started out as educational toys- maps cut into countries or counties, teaching geography as they are put together. Later, picture puzzles were used as a free gift with purchase. They became immensely popular, triggering the creation of picture puzzles as things to be sold. The author relates them to the history of games in general (there have always been games), and, at the suggestion of a cab driver, to mosaics.

Drabble was introduced to jigsaw puzzles as a child by her spinster aunt Phyll, and so this memoir talks a good bit about her, and Drabble’s relationship with her- a relationship more loving –or at least friendlier-than what existed in Drabble’s own home, where the children were always being told to shut up and be quiet. It was a lifelong relationship; Drabble continued to visit her aunt until Phyll’s death in a senior home. She has also continued working jigsaw puzzles as a means of relaxation.

This is neither autobiography, family history, nor strict history of puzzles. It’s not in chronological order. It’s like sitting down with a very erudite friend and having a chat-quite possibly over one of those jigsaw puzzles- and bouncing back and forth between subjects as one does in conversation. It was a pleasant book to read, and it was very interesting to hear one of my favorite author’s personal voice as opposed to her fiction writing voice. Reading about how her research branched and led her down rabbit holes made me laugh- I know how that happens. And I found it reassuring that someone as educated and smart as herself still wastes time doing puzzles- it makes me feel less guilty about it!
I’ve just finished reading Stephen Turnbull’s Genghis Khan and the Mongol Conquests 1190-1400. I’ve always been a bit of a history geek but I have to confess that I knew very little about the Mongols and their extraordinary empire (at one point their empire was so vast they were simultaneously fighting European knights in Poland and samurai warriors in Japan). The book is only a brief introduction to the subject but it’s readable and fascinating.

And it has maps! History books these days are woefully short of maps but this one is from Osprey Publishing and their publications always includes maps as well as being generously illustrated.

Which leads me on to another related subject. I’m also a huge fan of historical fiction. Offhand the only writer of historical fiction that I can think of who has dealt with the Mongols is the American Harold Lamb (1892-1962). The Mongols figure in quite a few of his short stories, including several in the excellent collection Swords from the West. Does anyone know of any other historical fiction dealing with this subject?

10th-May-2015 11:57 am(no subject)
Out of the Woods, by William D. Carl. Post Mortem Press, 2015

An old mental institution out in rural Pennsylvania is being shut down because it’s physically a wreck-so bad that the top floor can’t even be used anymore. The only patients left are the ones in the worst shape, in solitary lockdown; the staff is down to a skeleton crew. It’s the day before Halloween. A huge storm is brewing. When a new patient is brought in, he is hallucinating badly- they assume. Our narrator listens for a while to the nonsense being spouted by the surprisingly articulate Gary McCoy and decides that this could be his ticket to publishing and a better job, his very own Three Faces of Eve or Billy Milligan. Because McCoy has created an incredible tale that hangs together pretty well.

McCoy is from a village in the woods that is unknown to outsiders. The people there, all related, have been inbreeding for years to create McCoy, who, as ‘The Preacher’, will be the gate through which the Old Ones will come on Halloween night. The dimension of the Old Ones overlies our own, and sometimes the dwellers can be seen, horrible creatures that long to eat us all up. While the narrator tells the story from today, his tale takes place in 1983, back before cellphones and GPS.

A quick trip to the area McCoy mapped out shows the narrator and his fiancé, Dr. Deena Bierce, that McCoy is telling the truth about at least some things. The ramshackle village exists, and the majority of the dwellers show signs of inbreeding. McCoy’s father is outraged that his son has been locked up and demands his return, threatening to come get him if he’s not returned promptly. On Halloween night the half dozen staff still in the hospital find themselves under assault by nature, villagers, and supernatural forces.

The story is on one hand nearly laughable- the characters make every mistake made in horror movies. I expected them to hide behind the chainsaws. On the other hand, it’s scary as hell with a huge amount of tension. Other than the narrator we don’t know who will survive. They are fighting forces that seem insurmountable. Things keep going from bad to worse. Once I got a ways into the story I couldn’t put it down. The author has managed to make McCoy a sympathetic character. If you like B-grade horror movies, give this story a read. Note: the story is graphically bloody. It’s not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach.
25th-Apr-2015 04:44 pm(no subject)
The Glass Magician, by Charlie N. Holmberg. 47 North, 2014

This is the second book in Holmberg’s trilogy about Ceony Twill, an apprentice magician. Set three months after the events in ‘The Paper Magician’, we find Ceony falling more in love with her teacher, Magician Emery Thane, feelings which she thinks he doesn’t reciprocate. We also find Grath Cobalt, partner to the evil Lira who Ceony froze, set on getting the secret of how she did the freeze out of Ceony so he can reverse it, and he’s willing to kill her family and friends to get it. Meanwhile, an Excisioner – a blood magician- is targeting magicians, seeking to increase his powers.

This book took a departure from ‘Paper Magician’ in that the first novel is told all from Ceony’s point of view, while ‘Glass Magician’ also shows Thane’s POV in one instance. ‘Glass Magician’ also has Ceony in a constant fret over how Thane feels about her- she manages to convince herself through much of the novel that she is.. unworthy.. somehow. While I realize she’s a teenager experiencing her first love, it seems odd in a person who is pretty darn resourceful and brave. I also found it annoying that she felt the entire problem with the two renegades was entirely her fault, and that only she should be at risk fixing it. This feeling leads her to rush into situations that lead to her needing rescue, rather than her solving things. In fact, it seemed like every female in this story ended up needing rescue. Ultimately she solves one of the problems on her own- in brilliant fashion- but the first part of the book made me feel like giving up on her.

Once again, it’s the author’s creation of a new kind of magic that impressed me the most. In the first book, it was how many ways paper could be enchanted even though it didn’t seem like a strong material. In this book, it’s glass that’s used in ways I’d never thought of. Of course I’ll read the third one- and hope that Ceony settles down some.
23rd-Apr-2015 01:23 pm(no subject)
Dorothy Parker Drank Here, by Ellen Meister. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2015

Norah Wolfe has a long standing obsession with has-been author Ted Shriver. When her mother gave her a copy of one of his books when she was 13, his words touched her so deeply she almost couldn’t finish the book. So when the TV show Norah works for gets canceled, she says she can get Shriver on the show, even though they’ve never met. This would be a big deal because many years ago, at the height of his fame, Shriver was accused of plagiarism. He never explained, and vanished from sight.

Shriver is staying at the Algonquin Hotel, home of the famous Algonquin Round Table during the 1920s. There is another guest at the hotel, too, one that while famous goes unnoticed by most. This is Dorothy Parker, in phantom form. She has chosen to stay in the hotel rather than passing on through the white light, and is desperately lonely. She wants to make a deal with Shriver, too.

Shriver, for his part, doesn’t give a damn about either woman. He’s dying of a brain tumor, feels that’s best for the world, and just wants to be left alone in his hotel room with his Vicodin and booze.

There is a great deal of running around; of deals made and deals broken with an ex-wife, an ex-best friend, the ex-best friend’s wife, the sister of the deceased hotel manager, and more. Most everyone is at cross purposes and it’s a miracle anything gets accomplished. It does, though, even though it doesn’t work out the way anyone envisioned. It’s a fun little book, and Meister seems to have Parker’s voice down pat. While most of the plot revolves around Shriver and Norah, Parker is really the star of the book. Which is as it should be.
22nd-Apr-2015 05:05 pm(no subject)
tracks through time
The Siege Winter, by Ariana Franklin and Samantha Norman. William Morrow, 2015

In 1180 AD, an abbot lays dying. He has a story to tell before he goes, though, and calls a young scribe to take dictation. His story takes place in the early 1140s in an England torn apart by the war for the throne between Empress Matilda and King Stephen.

Stolen from her family while gathering fuel in the fenlands, an 11 year old, red haired girl is found by an archer, Gwil: she has been raped, is nearly dead and is without any memory. He nurses her to health, names her ‘Penda’, disguises her as a boy, and teaches her to shoot both long and cross bows- to great success.

Meanwhile, Lady Maud, possessor of Kenniford castle, is married at knifepoint to a monstrous man who is in it for the money. He rapes her, while his none too stable mistress is installed upstairs in Maud’s castle. His men take over the castle; eating, drinking, and making free with the women. When the Empress Matilda shows up on their doorstep, Maud immediately makes her welcome. It makes no difference to her husband’s men; they’ll all fight for whoever pays them best. Meanwhile, Gwil and Penda have been hired into the Empress’s small force. There is a siege, along with battles, plotting, discoveries of secrets, and a second plot running in parallel with the siege. There isn’t a dull moment. The plotting is well done, especially the way the two plots finally merge. Things are described in a realistic manner- nothing is sugar coated here!

There are several strong women in this book: the Empress, Lady Maud, Penda, and Maud’s serving woman. These women do not wait for a handsome knight to ride in and save them- although it’s certainly nice when one does. They take charge. They are self-sufficient, as women would have had to have been in an era when the men could be gone for months or years. This historical fiction is a far cry from much of what was written in the past, when the women existed to be rescued. I’m so happy that this kind of historical is being written now. Sad that this is the last we’ll ever seek from Ariana Franklin, but based on this book I hope her daughter is inspired to continue writing as she has finished up her mother’s story very, very well. A new ‘Mistress of the Art of Death’ book from her would be excellent!
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