Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Books for August

This month we continue our journey into the world of Scout Finch with Harper Lee’s new novel, Go Set A Watchman. The group was unanimous in its opinion that To Kill A Mocking Bird was indeed a masterpiece, but the mixed reviews of this sequel and the controversy surrounding it make me uneasy and I wonder if it will fulfill our expectations.

Our second choice is Strong For Potatoes by Cynthia Thayer. We previously read her title A Certain Slant of Light, but this is her debut novel . . . perhaps we should make more of an effort to start with author’s debuts first in future!

Both books are now on the Nooks.

Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee

From Harper Lee comes a landmark new novel set two decades after her beloved Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece, To Kill a Mockingbird.

Maycomb, Alabama. Twenty-six-year-old Jean Louise Finch--"Scout"--returns home from New York City to visit her aging father, Atticus. Set against the backdrop of the civil rights tensions and political turmoil that were transforming the South, Jean Louise's homecoming turns bittersweet when she learns disturbing truths about her close-knit family, the town and the people dearest to her. Memories from her childhood flood back, and her values and assumptions are thrown into doubt. Featuring many of the iconic characters from To Kill a Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchman perfectly captures a young woman, and a world, in a painful yet necessary transition out of the illusions of the past--a journey that can be guided only by one's conscience.

Written in the mid-1950s, Go Set a Watchman imparts a fuller, richer understanding and appreciation of Harper Lee. Here is an unforgettable novel of wisdom, humanity, passion, humor and effortless precision--a profoundly affecting work of art that is both wonderfully evocative of another era and relevant to our own times. It not only confirms the enduring brilliance of To Kill a Mockingbird, but also serves as its essential companion, adding depth, context and new meaning to an American classic.

Strong For Potatoes by Cynthia Thayer

Cynthia Thayer's acclaimed debut novel, Strong for Potatoes, is the resonant story of the difficult youth of Blue Willoughby, a remarkable girl growing up in eastern Maine. In a life beset by tragedy, beginning with the death of her twin sister Berry only days after their birth, Blue must discover on her own strength she needs to survive.

Blue's true ally is her grandfather, a full-blooded Passamoquoddy Indian who teaches Blue life's most vital lessons: that the ways of nature can illuminate life, that family can be depended on, that true passion is worth waiting for, and that grief can heal. Most important, he he passes on the ways of his ancestors-knowledge that Blue will need to find a sense of her own true self amid the chaos of her adolescence.

Reminiscent of Dorothy Allison and Barbara Kingsolver, Strong for Potatoes is a rich, evocative literary debut by a gifted writer and teller of the most rewarding kind of story: beautifully crafted, authentic, moving, and ultimately uplifting. 

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Six Moon Dance by Sherri S Tepper

The planet of Newholme was first settled hundreds of years ago, but that group of violent men vanished mysteriously. The later waves of settlers had their own problems trying to develop a world strangely devoid of metals, with increasing volcanic activity and a 50% death rate amongst baby girls. The female-dominated society that has developed subordinates the men, who must remained veiled in order to prevent arousing lust in the women. Marriage is an expensive business agreement designed to give the men the offspring that they want, whilst allowing women to obtain entertainment and sexual fulfillment from Consorts, sterilized men who are trained to be the perfect companion and to provide ‘compensation’ for the unpleasant business of breeding. Mouche is an only child and, as a boy, he is only a drain on resources, so he is sold to one of the Consort schools where he begins his training. He soon discovers that life on Newholme is not as it seems: another, indigenous, race lives amongst the humans, but their presence is denied, so much so that everyone over the age of seven simply does not see these ‘invisibles’.

The increased volcanic action, strange gender relations and rumors of the indigenes catch the attention of the Questioner. ‘She’ is a bionic construct, including three human female brains, that is tasked with judging societies against a set of ethical standards. She chooses a pair of humans to join her: Gandro Bao, who chose to train as a Kabuki dancer, playing female roles, and Ellin Voy, a cloned Nordic ballet dancer. The Questioner’s arrival causes panic amongst the Hags who rule Newholme and soon Mouche joins the Questioner, Gandro and Ellin on a quest to discover the truth behind all the problems and peculiarities.

* * * * *

I first read this book several years ago at the recommendation of another book group member, so I was both delighted and a little worried when it was selected by the group. Whilst I was fairly sure that the book’s exploration of gender identity and ethics would be interesting to the group, I was not sure quite how much they would enjoy the experience. Yet again, I have been proven wrong in my estimation of the group members and their ability to go beyond their comfort zones. I cannot express how delighted I am that this book was enjoyed even more than Mr Lynch’s title!

Set in the far distant future, this tale includes some novel concepts, such as the idea that people are cloned, grown and trained to be authentic, living parts of history exhibits. Whilst we are made aware of technologies far in advance of our own, there is very little time wasted on explanations or details of how they function. They are simply a part of everyday life for some of the characters that we encounter and so we are not subjected to a great deal of the boring exposition that sometimes plagues lesser titles in this genre. Indeed, some of the storylines made me wish for a much greater exploration of this world, which was a little frustrating but ultimately I appreciated Ms Tepper’s restraint.

I also appreciated her choice to place Newholme in a pre-industrialized level of development. At first this seemed a little strange for a colony within a giant intergalactic empire, because the colonists were acutely aware that they were not indigenous to this planet. The addition of a space port and regular communication with off-world authorities and entities made this seem even more strange, but the explanation provided was very sensible and eventually this aspect of Newholme society seemed much more likely than if everyone was living in the same sort of environment that we see in Ellin’s life on Earth. It was also a neat way of avoiding too much immersion in a highly technologically advanced society and thus made it much easier for us to identify with Newholme and its colonists.

After all, this book is primarily intended to allow us to explore gender / power relations within societies and the ethical dilemmas that these produce rather than to keep us entertained with pew-pew zap guns and space battles. It includes some pearls of t wisdom that really made me think, and which had resonances with the current debates about gender equality, racism, religious extremism, same sex marriage, gun rights and the function of the police. There were so many instances when I could see direct connections to the current news items that it was almost unnerving. It is not that I think that Ms Tepper had any particular foresight when she wrote this book; simply that she has a profound understanding of the human condition. Indeed, I found it rather depressing that mankind was basically still as dysfunctional as it is now, even all those centuries in the future. This was particularly true of some of Mouche’s training lectures showing that men and women were still incapable of seeing individuals instead of sexual stereotypes. However, I was most disturbed and disappointed by the revelations about the deaths of the Questioner’s three brain donors: I had rather hoped that humans would be able to move beyond such barbaric behavior if given enough time.

Still, the Questioner herself is a truly wonderful creation. Her description is suitably vague and yet she is unlike any other cyborg that I have come across before. Perhaps this is because of the inclusion of her human brains, so that she has all the mechanical benefits of a superior body whilst still displaying a human personality and some emotions. She is grouchy and funny, with a no nonsense attitude and a love of card games. The final scene, where Mouche uses all his skills to offer her ‘compensation’ for her impersonal life is particularly wonderful.

It was also refreshing to come across aliens that were truly different in every way, not just humanoids with bumps on their faces or based upon a form of life that we already understand. The misunderstandings that occur because of these differences show how difficult it is to think outside of our own experience. Whilst I struggled with trying to imagine how the Quaggi evolved their form of reproduction, I was massively intrigued by their life cycle, and I wanted to know more about them. Was this particular incident typical of their matings, or an anomaly? Did Quaggima and his offspring go on to change their society or receive justice for a malicious act? Even more intriguing was the almost Gaia-like life on Newholme. Whilst the planet itself was not alive, it was inhabited by just a single entity with many individual units. Again, this was an idea that I had not encountered before, so it made me reexamine how we assume so much about possible alien entities because we are prejudiced by our own experience.

My only real criticism of this title is that we begin several storylines and then leave them hanging for some time in a way that seems somewhat random at first. For example, we meet Ornery very early on, but then hear nothing more of her for another one hundred pages. This interrupted the flow of the story and was slightly frustrating until their respective roles in the story began to intertwine. However, this is a minor complaint about a generally excellent read.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch

In the city of Camorr, the plague known as the Black Whisper is a disaster, killing everyone over eleven years old. However, this provides an opportunity for those who like to ‘adopt’ orphans. Slavers take most of them, but those who seem talented are apprenticed to the Thiefmaker and put to profitable work in the streets, markets and houses of the city. One particular apprentice is tiny Locke Lamora, who displays a massive talent for the noble arts of theft and conman-ship. Unfortunately, young Locke doesn’t always foresee the outcomes of his schemes and drives the Thiefmaker to pass him along to Father Chains, a blind priest who spends his days begging outside a dilapidated temple. Chains makes people feel righteous because they have been charitable whilst simultaneously making himself very happy as he gains their wealth without really trying very hard.

Chains molds Locke into the leader of a band of equally light-fingered misfits known as the Gentleman Bastards and pretty soon Locke has become infamous in the city. The Bastards are especially talented at intricate and inventive plans that help to relieve noblemen of vast sums of money, although they are noticeably reluctant to share their wealth with the deserving poor so his similarity to Robin Hood is somewhat limited. As his talents and confidence grow, Locke even succeeds in fooling the underworld's most feared ruler, but in the shadows lurks someone still more ambitious and deadly. Faced with a bloody coup that threatens to destroy everyone and everything that holds meaning in his mercenary life, Locke vows to beat the enemy at his own brutal game, or die trying.

* * * * *

As a fan of Mr Lynch’s writing I was rather apprehensive about our discussion of his debut novel. I had pretty much convinced myself that everyone would hate it, but that is because I am a pessimist. I was concerned that the interweaving timelines would create a barrier to enjoyment or that the ‘earthy’ vocabulary would offend some of our more gentile members. I am pleased to report that my worries were mostly unwarranted, although not everyone fell in love with the book as much as I did.

This is Scott Lynch’s debut novel, but you would never know that from his skill with dialogue and descriptive writing. His voice is very engaging and witty, giving us memorable quotes and laugh-out-loud descriptions of events, and I find his writing as warm and comforting as a pair of old slippers. His characters are well drawn and fully realized and we come to love some of them very quickly: there are few ‘throw away’ place fillers in evidence and even minor characters are fully realized. The setting is expertly drawn and we are given enough detail to leave us wanting more: it is similar to Elizabethan Europe, but different enough to tick all the required Fantasy boxes. The plot has enough originality to keep us off balance and surprised, with bold moves that will have you shouting angrily at the author because you do not want him to do THAT to the characters.

Locke and the other Bastards are all engaging characters even though they are thieves. Their choice to rob from the rich makes their profession a little easier to accept, though they don’t seem to do much wealth distribution, so we know that they are not all that noble. However, it is very nice to have characters that are slightly less than the usual perfectly good heroes that litter Fantasy novels. Although Locke is the brains of the outfit, he is dependent upon his support crew, especially Jean Tannen. Jean is the gentle giant type who has his special hatchets, ‘The Wicked Sisters’, but who wears glasses and reads Romance novels. He and Locke are supported by the Sanza twins, when they can be kept away from gambling and wenching, and Bug, the latest apprentice to join the team. One of the appealing things about Locke is that he really needs his crew: he is hopeless at fighting for a start! The secondary cast is also well crafted. Father Chains deserves several books all to himself, because I want to read his entire life story. The nobles ensnared in the Bastards’ trap are not your usual idiot nobility, but more than capable of some plotting of their own. One particularly wonderful character is Dona Vorchenza, an incredibly elderly noble who has an entirely unexpected role in the story and who would be a perfect role for Dame Maggie Smith if there is ever an adaptation. The antagonist of the piece, The Gray King, is a suitably shadowy figure for most of the book, but his history and motivations are unusual and logical, if a little extreme.

The world that Mr Lynch creates is full of wonderful touches and hints, such as his use of alchemy in everyday life, that really places it into a true fantasy setting. Unlike many Fantasy writers, who bury you in a massive pile of details and histories, he keeps to the bare minimum. This is frustrating in some ways, but it does stop the exposition from getting in the way of the story and it is a testament to Mr Lynch that I left the book wanting more. He uses an interesting technique of interweaving the main plot with Interludes from the past, which either add color to the characters or explain or support aspects of the story or world. I found that this provided quiet moments to catch my breath in some of the most frantic action sequences and also gave more context to the world and its inhabitants whilst allowing us to miss out on a prolonged introduction to the Bastards. The rest of the group found the structure easy enough to follow once the basic outline became obvious.

The plot is like one of the great caper movies mixed with a dash of Mafia politics: think Oceans Eleven meets The Sopranos with more grime and some magic thrown in for good measure. There are bluffs within bluffs, political maneuvering and random violence at every turn, but our heroes are destined to rise above it all with their mythical hero aura, right? Nope, this is a cruel, brutal world, so nothing is certain. Our heroes get beaten, stabbed, drowned, poisoned, bitten and they bleed real blood: when they finish a fight you would have trouble finding bits that aren’t black, blue or red. There is a real sense of danger, which ratchets up the tension for most of the second half of the book as our heroes stagger from one danger to the next. The journey is certainly convoluted, but Mr Lynch manages all the unexpected moves beautifully, making sure that everyone behaves in ways that fit their characters. There is a slight lack of female characters, but the city of Camorr seems to be very politically correct, with no obvious division of professions along gender lines and the females we do meet are all strong and feisty.

There are a couple of things that I do want to mention though. Firstly, this is not necessarily a book for the weak stomached. There are some scenes of unpleasant violence that might be difficult for some people to read, though there is surprisingly little description of what is really happening. Secondly, there is quite a lot of profanity in the dialogue. If you look at Amazon or Goodreads, you will see plenty of one star reviews that are due to this. I do not want to debate the suitability of giving a low star rating to a book because of its choice of language, but I do think that the language is suited to the environment being described in this case. It is not used inappropriately and is not there for shock value: it is simply an accurate reflection of how I would expect criminals to speak. I was very relieved that the rest of the group agreed with the assessment.

The Gentleman Bastards are supposed to endure a total of seven adventures eventually. The next two books, Red Seas Under Red Skies and The Republic of Thieves, have already been published and I am eagerly awaiting The Thorn of Emberlain, which is due in September of this year. Mr Lynch is a notoriously slow writer, but his books are definitely worth the wait.