Ghirlandaio’s Daughter by John Spencer Hill

Ghirlandaio's DaughterGhirlandaio’s Daughter by John Spencer Hill
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Usually I’m all about an art related mystery. Priceless paintings, forgeries, sculptures, intrigue, threats, and murders are my cup of tea. Many of those items show up in Hill’s oddly long winded tale that starts, of all things, with an accident. British ex-pat and painter Nigel Harmsworth finds himself staring down at the body of an American, a stranger who had turned up at his door mere moments ago and was now lying skewered by the spear of a Grecian statue in his garden. It’s a unique and fascinating way to start off a story, and as this is only Hill’s second novel I was impressed. Unfortunately, things overall got less interesting from there on. Hill shoehorns in more characters than you can shake a paintbrush at. They complicate the plot like flourishes on handwriting. Not really adding anything to the message. And they don’t make the obvious ending any less obvious. I’m sure you’ll guess it before you’re halfway through. Furthermore, this book has some truly cringe-inducing language when discussing, well, any culture aside from North American or European. It’s more akin to something you’d find in writings from the era of colonization than the late 20th century. There’s some descriptions of violence, a lot of discussion of infidelities, and the standard death threats should the loved one even blink the wrong way, though thankfully those were never uttered aloud. There’s a few mild sex scenes as well. Those are one of the few places Hill doesn’t flaunt his impressive vocabulary, preferring only to hint at what’s happening. For the rest of the 200 pages, you may wish to make sure you’ve got a thesaurus handy. Unless you decide to read something else, which I could also support.

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Rise by Mira Grant

Rise: A Newsflesh Collection: The Complete Newsflesh CollectionRise: A Newsflesh Collection: The Complete Newsflesh Collection by Mira Grant
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Joy of joys, Mira Grant has published another installment to her Newsflesh collection! This goose-pimply sci-fi post-zombie-apocalypse series follows teams of bloggers chronicaling the presidential race in the first four books, but in Rise Grant takes us back to the beginning of the zom-pocalypse and fills in some of the blanks. It’s a collection of short stories and novellas with new faces and old favourites, and it’s every bit as good as the others. Even though some of the stories pre-date the first books in the series, I would recommend finishing the series proper before reading Rise. Major spoilers otherwise. Furthermore I must furnish content warnings for a sizeable quantity of gore and violence, suicide, suggestions of sexual assault, and violence involving children. Despite all of that, Newsflesh remains my all time favourite zompocalypse series and possibly one of my favourite science fiction books. I also can’t finish a review without commenting about Grant’s emphasis on inclusivity. She has multiple characters from diverse racial backgrounds and from along the LGBTQIA+ spectrum. And it’s never a “thing,” it just is. She mentions it the way she mentions this person writes fiction, or is a whiz with electronics. A normal part of someone’s personality. I’m really looking forwards to when that attitude is the mainstream one. I’m also impatiently awaiting the movie adaptations of all of these books, so, Hollywood, get on it. No whitewashing or straightwashing, K?

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The Breakwater Book of Contemporary Newfoundland Poetry edited by Mark Callanan & James Langer

The Breakwater Book of Contemporary Newfoundland PoetryThe Breakwater Book of Contemporary Newfoundland Poetry by James Langer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Mark Callanan and James Langer combed the rock for its premier poets to build this collection and the rock was not lacking. Showcasing the works of Al Pittman, Tom Dawe, John Steffler, Mary Dalton, Carmelita McGrath, Richard Greene, Michael Crummey, Agnes Walsh, Ken Babstock, Sue Sinclair, and Patrick Warner, each poet has a section all their own. The smallest section has only six poems in it, but most of the others are 10 or more. Some of my particular favourites were Tom Dawe’s Outport Christmas and Abandoned Outport for the beautiful landscapes he wove with his words, Mary Dalton’s many poems with authentic Newfoundlander slang, and the part in John Steffler’s poem That Night We Were Ravenous where he describes a moose as “a team of beavers trying to operate stilts” which amused me so much I immediately texted it to four people. Less amusing were the poems dealing with violence or hinting at abusive relationships. But in the whole book there were maybe five works addressing those topics, and none were excessively graphic. Overall, this book was a wonderful experience and made me long to visit Newfoundland.

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Classic Tales of Science Fiction & Fantasy

Classic Tales of Science Fiction & Fantasy (Leather-bound Classics)Classic Tales of Science Fiction & Fantasy by Jules Verne
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This huge book is a hodgepodge of some well-known sci-fi and fantasy tales, with some lesser known ones. The editors arranged them in order of publication, which also makes this book an interesting glimpse into the progression of fantasy/sci-fi through the mid-nineteeth to early twentieth century. With all the racist and sexist attitudes from those times, unfortunately. Thankfully some are better than others.
The Diamond Lens by Fitz James O’Brian (1858): The opening story shows us a young man obsessed with microscopy who stumbles across the secret to create the world’s most powerful lens, which leads to an unexpected discovery. Really reminded me of Edgar Allan Poe, right up until the ending when I think the author looked at his watch and realized he was late for something important? Content warnings for murder.
A Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne (1864): The classic sci-fi tale of the professor and his nephew who decipher a text from a mysterious Iceland/ic explorer and embark on a trek to the planet’s core is one of my favourites.
Looking Backward: 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy (1888): Less a story and more a “Communism: You Should Try It!” instructional pamphlet. If pamphlets were 150 pages long. I struggled to get through this one, but it was interesting to read a story about one author’s vision of the world over 100 years in the future, which is set 17 years in our past. The things Bellamy assumed would change (which mainly didn’t), and the things he assumed would stay the same (which mainly haven’t), and the changes he didn’t predict made for a unique take. Not quite enough to make up for the dullness of the plot, but I gave him extra points for effort. Even if it wasn’t his doing.
The War of the Worlds by HG Wells (1897): Another fantastic sci-fi classic. Wells’ tale of a Martian invasion – and its unexpected resolution – is something everyone should read.
A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1912): Opening the “John Carter of Mars” series by the author of Tarzan is this action-filled novel where the main character discovers a mysterious cave which transports him instantaneously to an inhabited Mars. Fortunately it has a breathable atmosphere or this would have been a very short series.
The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle (1912): The original Jurassic Park, with dinosaurs and egos larger than life.
The Scarlet Plague by Jack London (1915): Did not live up to the high hopes I had for it, after having read White Fang and The Call of the Wild. A multi-generational band of apocalypse survivors roaming the States listens to its oldest member reminiscing about the disease that nearly ended the world.
Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1915): Tied with Looking Backward for worst title, but a far better plot. Wealthy, mismatched college students chasing a rumoured all-women society bite off more than they can chew when they find that society and think they can just waltz in and be the cock of the rock. Content warnings for sexual assault.
Armageddon 2419 A.D. by Philip Francis Nowlan (1928): In this extravagently racist tale, Nowlan imagines the second World War will be everyone ganging up on America…because industry? Who knows, because now China rules everything and only a few stalwart forest bands stand between us and total moral degredation in a society where ease and luxury abound (and that’s bad). Super duper racist, but not as sexist as you would think for 1928. Overall an interesting story, despite the somewhat unbelievable premise.
The Dunwich Horror by HP Lovecraft (1928): Classic Lovecraftian fantasy has this small town attacked by an interdimensional monstrosity whose origins may be alarmingly local. A great story for when you feel like something creepy. Content warnings for animal mutilation.

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Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges

Labyrinths:  Selected Stories and Other WritingsLabyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings by Jorge Luis Borges
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Were it not for the parables, I would have wound up hating this book. The section of short stories is followed by a relatively small group of non-fiction essays, through which I had to force myself with my pace slowing more each pasing day. A combination of quantum physics and philosophical discussions, they very nearly killed my enjoyment of Labyrinths. Only the final segment of short, questioning parables saved me from throwing the book down in frustration. What would have become of it had the publisher chosen to end with the essays I dare not speculate.
I can summarize the style and feeling of this book for you in one sentence: “At the end of the thirteenth century, Raymond Lully (Raimundo Lulio) was prepared to solve all arcana by means of an apparatus of concentric, revolving discs of different sizes, subdivided into sectors with Latin words; John Stuart Mill, at the beginning of the nineteenth, feared that some day the number of musical combinations would be exhausted and there would be no place in the future for indefinite Webers and Mozarts; Kurd Lasswitz, at the end of the nineteenth, toyed with the staggering fantasy of a universal library which would register all the variations of the twenty-odd orthographical symbols, in other words, all that it is given to express in all languages.” (p213) While this behemoth opens the essay A Note on (toward) Bernard Shaw it could just as easily be the beginning of one of the fictions. If this language and the ideas Borges expresses intrigues you then I wholeheartedly recommend this book. (Here, take my copy. I’m done with it.) If discussions of physics and philosophy make you drool like Pavlov’s dog, and complicated mish-mashes wedding reality with fiction have your rapt attention then Borges has written the book for you. If not? Well, read some of the Fictions, some of the Parables, and maybe try an essay. I’d recommend The House of Asterion, The Library of Babel, The Lottery of Babylon, The Zahir, and The God’s Script, for your fictions, Ragnarok and The Witness especially for your Parables, and Kafka and His Precursors as a not-too-long essay to tackle. Brush up on Zeno’s paradox first though. At least that essay by the time you’ve flipped the first page you can see the ending. Others not so much. A New Refutation of Time is not for the faint of heart. Or faint of physics. Borges wows with his turn of phrase and one-of-a-kind plots, and I think if I had let myself skip the essays when I found myself avoiding picking Labyrinths up, it’s possible it would now be one of my favourite books. Don’t make the mistakes I did. Life is short. If you hate the story, skip to the next one.

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A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute

A Town Like AliceA Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A treasure I had no idea existed. A Town Like Alice combines a war novel with a western/frontier story and then wraps the whole thing round in a lovely romance. It was published in the 50’s so it has the attitudes about race and pre-marital sex (referred to as “a fate worse than death” on page 198) from those times; when the setting moves to Australia and they mention the Aborigines things can get cringy. The book actually starts in England, in 1905, and is told from the point of view of an estate lawyer. Certainly not what I was expecting based on the cover picture of a young couple and their dog, standing outside with a prairie landscape behind them. Shute is setting up the story and after a chapter or two we meet the main character, Jean Paget, and as she shares the story of her death march in Malaysia – for by now we have moved past the end of the second world war – with our narrator Noel Strachan, we get to know her a little better. It was there that she met Joe Harman, an Australian soldier who was also a prisoner of war, and whom we think is the love interest mentioned on the back cover. But the war and tragedy intervene, and she returns alone to England. It is when Strachan’s client dies and Jean inherits his estate in trust that circumstances and coincidences conspire to place her on a ranch in Australia and bring to her the man she loves. The plot is laid out creatively and I was hooked before I was 30 pages in. Definitely add this book to your collection.

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The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald

The Great GatsbyThe Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Not a book for the faint of heart. Narrator Nick Carraway – long-time friend of wealthy socialite Daisy Buchanan, though not an admirer of her husband Tom – performs a favour for new friend Jay Gatsby and re-introduces him to Daisy, kicking off a sequence of only partly predictable events and rushing the novel to its grisly conclusion. Occasional violence and bloodshed mingles with beautiful descriptive passages on the landscapes and Gatsby’s lavish parties. It’s a novel about believing you are almost close enough to touch your dream, only to realize too late that it passed you by long ago. Quotable and re-readable, The Great Gatsby well deserves its place in the canon of English literature.

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The Waste Land and Other Poems by T S Eliot

The Waste Land and Other PoemsThe Waste Land and Other Poems by T.S. Eliot
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Are you good at interpreting poems? At diving into the mysterious language and metaphors and resurfacing after minutes or hours or days, breathless but exultant with your hard-won treasure of meaning? I’m not. I’ve read enough about these poems to know that there is scads of depth to them, that every word and line break is resplendent with meaning. But they all went over my head. I can’t tell you, for example, why, in The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, the women “…come and go/Talking of Michaelangelo.” (9) Are they at an art gallery? I suspect not. This edition has the odd line in German, preambles in Latin and Italian and (maybe?) Greek, but to be honest even when I went and translated them the poems they were part of didn’t become measurably clearer. In spite of all this, I still kind of enjoyed reading Eliot’s work. His sentences tended to linger in my head, cropping up at random times during the day and giving me something else to think about. And there’s something to be said for writing that you have to work for. Eliot’s poems are that. Keep it in mind; it’s a really skinny book so you can finish it in a day and check it off your to-read list. Or just read the same poem ten times over until you actually understand it. In which case you may be somewhat longer.

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Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse

SteppenwolfSteppenwolf by Hermann Hesse
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I will say one thing about this book; there aren’t many authors who would combine a philosophical treatise on the soul of man and the nature of depression with a rave, then plunge it all into a drug-addled murder. (Spoiler alert. Sorry about that.) Steppenwolf was decades ahead of its time. Published in the 1920’s, it reads like something more suited to the 60’s or 70’s. That impressed me. Hesse delves deeply into the make up of a human soul, the needs that drive us; the urge to live lives bigger than ourselves, battle against impossible odds and either surge to glorious triumphs or be crushed beneath a merciless foe. Unfortunately all that gets really boring after the first couple chapters of it. And because Harry Haller’s life is devoid of the challenges he longs for, he struggles with depression and suicide throughout the text. At least, until he meets a beautiful young woman. Honestly, if Hesse hadn’t drilled into the narrative that Harry had been suffering from these feelings for the entirety of his adulthood, I would have dismissed this as a mid-life crisis, resolving when Harry finally starts making new friends and has a relationship with a woman the age his daughter would be, if he had had any children. Harry spends a lot of time feeling sorry for himself. A lot. Then he kills someone. But it’s not a big deal! It was just a misunderstanding. His newfound friends forgive him. Honestly, unless you’re really in the mood to read pages of someone dancing around the edges of self-annihilation, coupled with pages on the multiplicity of souls inhabiting a person, and then cap it all off with a grim drug-induced psychotic break and a murder, I’d skip this one. Maybe see if there are Cliff’s notes? I bet Wikipedia has a great article that will tell you all about what Hesse was trying to say without you having to read him saying it.

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The Aeneid by Virgil

The AeneidThe Aeneid by Virgil
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

One. That’s how many lives I have, you guys. And sometimes I can’t force myself to fritter it away reading dull books when I have stacks of other books looking at me longingly, calling my name, whispering that they will love me so much better than that other book if I would only put it down and listen to them…

Anyways, I didn’t finish the Aeneid. Virgil’s writing is descriptive but not engrossing and the same could be said for his characters. The whole book is essentially a Roman version of The Odyssey, but boring. Aeneas and his ships escape their beloved city of Troy after the Greeks sack it and sail around the Mediterranean in a quest for the land Venus has promised them wherein to found their new nation. Madcap hijinks ensue. Or they would, if anything that happened was exciting and quirky. Dull road-trip is closer. There’s a lot of sacrificing bulls, pouring streaming bowls of wine and oil upon altars, sailing cautiously through dangerous passages, and the like. They have the ancient Roman equivalent of a sports day, with sailing, shooting, running, and sparring challenges complete with fabulous prizes (more bulls). They battle harpies. Once. The ships pass Scylla and Charybdis and nobody dies. One of the most legendary, feared sea dangers; a piece from the Odyssey which I have never forgotten reading and seen reproduced in other movies and books time and again, and Virgil has his fleet get insider’s sailing advice from a god and slip through without so much as an interested snuffle from Scylla, nor a bubble from Charybdis. It’s not that there isn’t enough death, just that after the fall of Troy the whole book becomes almost unrelievedly boring. One life, guys. Don’t squander it on draggy sagas.

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