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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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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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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Ramayana by Valmiki, retold by William Buck

RamayanaRamayana by William Buck
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What story has a cast of gods, demons, humans, animals and magical objects, spans thousands of years, features wars and curses and kidnapping along with tender scenes of romance and vibrant descriptive passages, and is way more interesting than you think?

Twilight.

No, I’m kidding. It’s Ramayana. William Buck discovered this famous epic poem around 1960, along with other priceless works of Indian literature, and was so captivated by it that he set himself to re-writing it for modern English speakers. Creative license was taken; the original was printed in chronological order but Buck has placed some later events at the beginning of the book, and in other places outright revamped interactions, even to the point of completely fabricating a letter which doesn’t appear in the original. Because this is my first experience with Ramayana I can’t speak to the veracity of Buck’s efforts, but I can tell you this is now one of my favourite ancient epic poems. Valmiki devotes lyrical passages to the beauty of the characters and saturates every page, body and outfit with rich colour and a wealth of ornamentation. People are by turns aggrieved, capricious, generous, forgiving, selfish, and kind. There is a handy list of characters at the front – to which I referred constantly – but no crash course in Hindu theology so if you aren’t familiar with the basics you may wish to do some light reading before embarking on Rama’s journey. It’s a very complex universe. Numerous gods reborn as different people, different gods, or whole sets of siblings. Since knowledge of this is sometimes assumed in the text it can be a little challenging to keep track of who is who. Even with the cast up front. Here’s a rundown: Ravana, the demon king, through devotion and will-power persuades Brahma to gift him with immunity from death by the gods or other demons. He then runs rough-shod over all the other gods, sacking heavenly cities and forcing their rulers into servitude. Indra, the rain god and king of heaven, after escaping from Ravana’s prison, goes to confront Brahma about Ravana’s omnipotence and how Brahma intends to stop him. Brahma sends him to see Narayana, who reveals his plan to be reborn as a man and defeat Ravana that way. Ravana saw men and animals as lesser beings and didn’t think to ask for protection from them. So Narayana, who is also Vishnu, is reborn as Rama, Lakshmana, Bharata, and Satrughna, sons of king Dasaratha’s three wives Kausalya (Rama), Sumitra (Lakshmana and Satrughna), and Kaikeyi (Bharata). Narayana’s consort Lakshmi is reborn as Sita, playing a crucial part later in the story. Despite all four of the sons being Narayana incarnate, the story revolves almost completely around Rama. Lakshmana is clearly an important supporting character, but Bharata plays only a minor role and Satrughna is practically irrelevant. Meanwhile Ravana has brothers Vibhishana and Kumbhakarna, sister Surpanakha, son Indrajit (né Meghanada), and numerous wives, spies, demons, and councillors, all of whom play roles of various importance. Anyways, through various godly machinations Rama and Lakshmana spend their youth learning heavenly weapons, Rama and Sita meet and are wed, and they all return to Rama’s childhood home of Ayodhya for a few blissful years together before political intrigue gets Rama exiled for fourteen years. Sita and Lakshmana refuse to be separated from him and join him as travelling ascetics until they cross paths with Ravana. And Ravana starts a war. In Buck’s retelling, the poem is related by a storyteller to his friend and unfolds in layers a little like 1001 Nights, where the character of one story becomes the narrator for a story within the first, and so on. It’s a literary device I quite enjoy. There are relatively minor content warnings for battle scenes and mentions of rape, plus the standard sexism you find in almost everything. Beyond that, there’s just guts, glitz, and glory. Ramayana is truly epic.

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Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Mrs DallowayMrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

One hundred seventy two pages of deceptively complex sentences are what make up this delightful snapshot into the lives of Clarissa Dalloway and her friends, as she prepares to throw a dinner party for the upper class of London. Such simple premise belies the thought and effort Woolf put in to writing this and which you, the reader, will have to put in to reading it. Paragraphs that start with one person’s perspective can suddenly switch to another’s. Pronouns point wildly every which way like some sort of befuddled compass needle. Very “James Joyce”, but with well-off characters and no onomatpaeic sound words. Which may or may not be a perk, depending on how much you enjoy puzzling through unintelligible consonant strings. Mrs. Dalloway stood up well to a second reading and I suspect it will enjoy a place of respect in the literature canon for decades hence. Woolf’s ground-breaking writing style and interesting female characters merit a read from any dedicated literary buff.

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