Althea M. (althea) - Reviews

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1610 : A Sundial in a Grave
1610 : A Sundial in a Grave
Author: Mary Gentle
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 4/5 Stars.
 4
Review Date: 9/15/2008


Mary Gentle is definitely one of my favorite authors. In 1610, she continues with some of the themes that run through much of her work historical settings, swordswomen, and hermetic magic.

Rochefort is loyal man to the Duc Sully, a member of the court of France. But when Marie de Medici embroils the unwilling Rochefort in her conspiracy to kill her husband the King and that assassination attempt is unexpectedly successful Rochefort must flee the country, also half-unwillingly bringing along the headstrong young duelist Dariole (whom he cant decide if he would rather kill or ravish), and soon acquiring a shipwrecked Japanese ambassador/samurai, Saburo. However, practically no sooner have the unlikely trio assembled themselves in England, that a separate group of conspirators want to compel Rochefort to assist in yet another regicide this time that of King James. And this conspiracy, headed by the mysterious Doctor Fludd, and backed by the Crown Prince, seems much more insidiously dangerous because the Doctor seems able to truly divine the future through his mathematical equations. And the future seen through these equations shows that much more than the fate of a kingdom may rest on the outcome of this conspiracy.

Although Gentle sets up a situation that would seemingly be very unlikely in the 17th century, her well-researched details make her theories at least seem possible. The device of having the book purport to be a computer-reconstructed version of a damaged manuscript works well, also. And with the addition of an awfully sweet sadomasochistic love story well, Id have to say that Id recommend this book to anyone who loves reading Alexandre Dumas, but cant help wishing for more spicy bits


The 1977 Annual World's Best SF
The 1977 Annual World's Best SF
Author: Donald A. Wollheim (editor)
Book Type: Hardcover
  • Currently 3.5/5 Stars.
 1
Review Date: 9/11/2008


I always enjoy these "little slice of history" anthologies... this one, while not dramatically outstanding for me, was good as always, as most of this series is...
I'd read the Cowper, Del Rey and Tiptree stories before, but long enough ago that I read them over...

Appearance of Life - Brian Aldiss
Holographic recordings of a long-dead couple lead to an insight(?) about the nature of our universe.

Overdrawn at the Memory Bank - John Varley
A futuristic 'vacation' technique involving transfer of consciousness leads to a man being stuck inside a computer system in this playful tale.

Those Good Old Days of Liquid Fuel - Michael Coney
A nostalgia-fest for the future - pretty original gimmick, actually. The 'classic' early spaceships are being phased out by new technology. A man remembers his boyhood watching the dramatic launches and landings with his best friend - who has grown up to be a very different person.

The Hertford Manuscript - Richard Cowper
Could H.G. Wells have been telling the truth when he wrote The Time Machine? Excellent recreation of the Victorian literary style.

Natural Advantage - Lester Del Rey
Humans are smart, and underestimated by some rather fatalistic aliens.

The Bicentennial Man - Isaac Asimov
A classic tale investigating the nature of humanity through the story of a robot who wants to be human. Won the Hugo and Nebula that year, but honestly, I thought the robot was way too whiny and frustratingly stupid. And WHY does he want to be human, anyway? Is it just pressure to conform and be like everyone else?
OK, so I haven't read it in many years, but I really thought "Pinocchio" did a better job with this same theme. (Did you know that in the original (1883), Pinocchio dies at the end? I didn't, until just now! Collodi apparently was pressured by publishers to write a 'happy ending.')

The Cabinet of Oliver Naylor - Barrington Bayley
The inventor of the 'thespitron' (a sort of automatic movie generator) is asked to transport (unbeknownst to him) a government agent in his spaceship in order to apprehend a petty criminal. Things go badly.

My Boat - Joanna Russ
I haven't been a huge Joanna Russ fan - I've sort of WANTED to like her work, but I've read Extra(ordinary) People and We Who Are About To, and neither of them really did it for me. But I liked this story quite a lot - featuring a couple of kids who escape the mundane misery of life in 1960s America into glorious history and the worlds of H.P. Lovecraft(!) - from the perspective of one who doesn't go. Really nice piece!

Houston Houston Do You Read - James Tiptree, Jr.
Also won the Hugo and Nebula.
Strangely, this story reminded me a lot of Joanna Russ' short story "When it Changed," which was retrospectively awarded the Tiptree award. "When it Changed" was written first (1972.) Both feature a situation where, due to a plague or epidemic, only women have survived, and have created a self-sufficient, peaceful all-female society. Men arrive, and don't get it.

I See You - Damon Knight
Shortlisted for the Hugo. Inventor creates a "far-seeing" machine which can view both through space and time. He disseminates these machines widely, and they become omnipresent, changing the nature of society radically.


2001: A Space Odyssey
2001: A Space Odyssey
Author: Arthur C. Clarke
Book Type: Mass Market Paperback
  • Currently 3.8/5 Stars.
 83
Review Date: 9/16/2008
Helpful Score: 1


Id read this book before, but not since I was a kid, so I didnt remember it all that clearly. This anniversary edition of it also included an introduction by Clarke that was rather interesting, talking about the writing of the book and the making of the movie. However, Clarke mentioned in this introduction that he drew idea for the book from no fewer than four previously existing short stories of his and, reading the story with that in mind, perhaps I was predisposed to consider problems of cohesiveness but I really didnt feel, this time around, that the different parts of the story meshed well enough the ideas and themes are quite different. First, is a story of an alien artifact which gives a boost to our primitive ancestors, enabling our evolutionary development. (possibly my favorite part of the book, and interesting in the moral ambiguity that progress is intertwined with the potential for violence.) Second, we have a very realistic look at what might happen, politically, in a near-future scenario when humanity is faced with the potentially significant discovery of an alien artifact. The third part (with HAL) is focused on individual human psychology and the potential for problems inherent in mans use of his own technology. Finally, the end of the book is an unusual and interesting first contact story (although, in my opinion, one that suffers from a both overblown and indeterminate ending.)
Sure, all of these issues reflect on each other and interconnect to some degree, creating a big-picture view of intelligence, evolution, and our possible place in the universe mixed in with lots of (amazingly, not-too-outdated) speculations on space travel and our solar system. But I still found myself wishing for a more cohesive narrative


Abhorsen (Abhorsen, Bk 3)
Abhorsen (Abhorsen, Bk 3)
Author: Garth Nix
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 4.2/5 Stars.
 155
Review Date: 9/15/2008
Helpful Score: 2


These were fun books.
Sabriel is pretty much a stand-alone book, but the second two are really one novel - Lirael ends right smack in the middle on a cliffhanger, and Abhorsen starts right where it left off...
The trilogy gives us a dual world - one which very strongly resembles Britain in the early twentieth century - and then, across the Wall, the Old Kingdom, a magical land which is currently in a dire state of anarchy and seriously plagued by the Dead - which rise as zombies and make themselves the sort of nuisance that zombies generally do.
Sabriel has been raised at a girls' school in Ancelstierre (Britain), but has always been aware that her father is the Abhorsen, a powerful individual with magical influence over the Dead. But when her father disappears, and Sabriel sets out to find him, she realizes that she has never been aware of even half of her father's abilities and duties... duties which are now on her shoulders, as she realizes that more is at stake than merely her father's life...
The second story (Lirael/Abhorsen) takes place around 20 years later, and deals mostly with the next generation... of course, things are even worse, plots are afoot to bring about the end of the world, necromancers are causing problems, and our young protagonists, Lirael and Sam, must both discover who they truly are, find their path/calling in life, and, oh, save the world. With the help of the snarky magical cat (?), Mogget, and the Disreputable Dog.


Accelerando
Accelerando
Author: Charles Stross
Book Type: Hardcover
  • Currently 3.3/5 Stars.
 23
Review Date: 9/16/2008
Helpful Score: 2


From the book itself:

"An old-fashioned book, covering 3 generations, living through interesting times... A work of postmodern history, the incoherent school at that - how do you document people who fork their identities at random, spend years dead before reappearing on the stage, and have arguments with their own relativistically preserved other copy? ... I thought that perhaps as a narrative hook I'd make the offstage viewpoint that of the family's robot cat."

Yep. That about sums it up.
(That quote is not from the blurb, btw, but from within the text.)

It's an ambitious book - but, overall, an annoying one. It's so self-consciously uber-hip, saturated with today's geek-speak. Although it aims to be a sort of "accelerated future-history," it already feels dated. The story - such as it is - really takes a back seat to the concepts - which could be OK, except that the concepts are really quite unbelievable, to the point of being uninteresting.


An Acceptable Time
An Acceptable Time
Author: Madeleine L'Engle
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 3.9/5 Stars.
 51
Review Date: 9/10/2008


This book mixes characters that L'Engle readers have previously met in both her Murry and Austin family books, although it's a stand-alone novel. Two college-age folks, Polly and Zachary, along with a family friend who is a retired bishop, pass through a "time-gate" into 3000 years ago, and a tribe of celtic-influenced Native Americans, some of whom, regrettably, think that strange and seemingly powerful strangers would make an excellent blood sacrifice to bring rain.
This book is more overtly Christian than I remember her earlier books being (although all of her writing is informed by her beliefs). However, it's the sort of Christianity that makes me think her books should be required reading for all the anti-science, xenophobic, war-mongering so-called Christians out there!
Still, there are a few moments when it gets out of hand - the bishop character has a tendency to preach, and there's a totally unneccessary little jab at the "evil" of fortune-telling (which I personally think is a totally harmless and entertaining [if a bit silly] activity.)
What I find a bit more off-putting (to me personally) than her religion is the portrayed centrality of family. Not just in this book, but in her writing in general. Family members Always love each other and get along fabulously. If she has a character that isn't in the family, and isn't a family friend (as opposed to a personal friend), they're bound to be bad news. If a character doesn't have a strong relationship with their family, they're bound to be sad, disturbed, and in need of help. When confronted with a dilemma, her young adult characters think of confiding in/consulting their parents or grandparents, first thing! (Eh, my mom would think it was just wonderful....but it's just not likely.)
Like I said, maybe it's just me... I've always been a very independent person; I left home very early, and although I love my immediate family and make an effort to stay in touch and see them at least once or twice a year, they're not central to my life, nor do they know every detail of what's going on in my life... which I find happy and normal!

Still L'Engle is a good writer, and this is a fast read... (it didn't feel like over 300 pages at all!)


After Dark
After Dark
Author: Haruki Murakami
Book Type: Hardcover
  • Currently 3.5/5 Stars.
 24
Review Date: 11/7/2008
Helpful Score: 2


A dreamlike book, written extremely visually, almost like a screenplay, and of an equivalent length. (short)

Taking place over the course of one night in Tokyo, it follows a young woman, Mari, who has decided to stay out all night. A young man, Tetsuya, sees her sitting in a coffeeshop and introduces himself, reminding her that he met her once, on a double-date with Mari's sister. From this chance encounter, Murakami draws out an enigmatic but insightful glimpse into the lives and dramas of Tokyo's late night denizens, from workers at love hotels and late-night offices to mobsters and others... intercut with scenes of Mari's beautiful model sister, asleep but seemingly drawn into a mysterious and sinister place.

Not, perhaps, a major work, but very well done.


After Long Silence
After Long Silence
Author: Sheri S. Tepper
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 4/5 Stars.
 33
Review Date: 9/16/2008
Helpful Score: 3


I can't help suspecting that this book was written directly after Tepper read Anne McCaffrey's "Crystal Singer" (1982), was horrified by its portrayal of the exploitation of alien worlds, and said, "I'm going to show a different perspective on this!"
Both books feature an alien world of harsh yet dramatic aspect, covered with large crystals that respond to sound (esp. singing), are extremely sharp and dangerous, prone to slicing up people, but yet have an elite/apart group of people (singers) to work with them. But in McCaffreys book, the 'Crystal Singers' sing to shatter the crystals in specific ways for mining, and in Tepper's the 'Tripsingers' sing to *avoid* shattering the crystals, allowing caravans and other travellers to pass through them unharmed.
It fits with Tepper's usual ecological awareness.
Of course, there are other elements on the planet: governmental, corporate, and religious, who would just love to destroy the unique crystals, for their own immediate profit... which of course leads to much dramatic conflict.
Published in 1987, this book is not quite as adeptly written as many of her more recent books, but, if one can disregard the distracting resemblance to the earlier book, it's a pretty good sci-fi thriller with an action-filled climax.


Against a Dark Background
Against a Dark Background
Author: Iain M. Banks
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 3.9/5 Stars.
 10
Review Date: 9/10/2008


Very, very good. It's less conceptual and more an adventure story than many of his other books - but it's a VERY good adventure story! Lots of action and violence, without neglecting depth of character & emotion.... very effective portrayal of a female protagonist by a male author too! (something I find is rather rare...)


The Algebraist
The Algebraist
Author: Iain M. Banks
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 4/5 Stars.
 5
Review Date: 9/16/2008


Iain Banks is one of those authors who just makes you realize that other books are just Not As Good. I love him.
'The Algebraist' takes place in the same universe as other Banks SF novels, but is a fully stand-alone novel. It is the story of Fassin Taak, a Seer (basically, an alien anthropologist), who in his research, unwittingly comes across a clue that seems to indicate that ages-old legends may have some truth to them after all: the seemingly frivolous but enigmatic Dwellers, a widespread alien race who live in gas giants, may have access to a secret network of wormholes - which are the key to interstellar travel.
The empire that humans belong to, the Mercatoria, would literally kill for this secret, as their own network was decimated by the past AI Wars. Others would kill as well.. including an invasion fleet headed by a sadistic maniac.
Fassin is co-opted by the military/government to further investigate - but not only he may be heading into danger, but his entire planetary system.

At some points toward the beginning of the book, there were some slow-moving parts, and some points at which the shifts in time frame and point of view became slightly confusing - but toward the latter part, all of the threads were pulled together for an emotional, satisfying ending...


Alien Earth
Alien Earth
Author: Megan Lindholm
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 3.4/5 Stars.
 4
Review Date: 1/5/2009


Generations ago, an altruistic alien race, the Arthroplana, rescued
humanity from the ecological disaster of earth, and resettled them in
a new system, with dire warnings on the necessity of fitting in to the
local ecology. Since then, this desire to "leave no mark" has become
an obsession - possibly to the extreme detriment of the human race.
The result of generation of selective breeding has been a race of tiny
people who do not reach puberty until late middle age, who are in
danger of soon not being able to naturally reproduce at all.
But there is a radical element of humans that believe it has all been
a big lie - that Earth is really fine, and that the powers-that-be
don't want people to know about it. They blackmail a man, John, to
sign on to one of the alien Beastships to survey earth, and arrange to bring back data that hasn't been filtered.
But on the way, an ancient stowaway makes contact with the Beastship, which, shockingly, is no dumb beast but yet another sentient species fallen under the dominion of the Arthroplana. Her awakening could change everything.
An entertaining sci-fi book, but I did feel that in pointing out some
of the ridiculousness of ecological concerns gone overboard, some of the message of the seriousness of those concerns, and the importance of balance, goes astray.


All Clear (Oxford Time Travel, Bk 2)
All Clear (Oxford Time Travel, Bk 2)
Author: Connie Willis
Book Type: Hardcover
  • Currently 4.2/5 Stars.
 25
Review Date: 10/28/2011


Blackout/All Clear.

The two books are really one novel (thanks, publishers, for getting me to pay double!) so there's no reason to talk about them separately.
They're also part of Willis' time travel series, although they're not advertised as such. I really wouldn't recommend starting with these books; I feel that a lot of the questions and criticism of these books that I see in other reviews stems from the likelihood that readers haven't read the other books in the series: The Doomsday Book, To Say Nothing of the Dog, and Fire Watch. At the very least, you have GOT to read Fire Watch before reading these books.

That said, the books are excellent. Blackout starts slowly, but Willis does a great job of gradually but surely building the tension and intensity of the story, working from trivial humor up to tragedy... (and the tragedy that can spring from the trivial) although it never gets as intense as The Doomsday Book. The pacing is the main reason why I feel that the book should not have been split in two. The end revelations also came dangerously close to getting too sentimental/religious for me... but I think they fall on the OK side of that line...

I found the representation of London during the Blitz to be completely convincing and memorable - I found myself saying, "wow, I didn't know...." And I've also decided that it is virtually incomprehensible that I've been to London over a dozen times, and I don't think that I've ever been inside St. Paul's cathedral. I'm sure Willis would think that was sad and horrifically neglectful.

For another depiction of the Blitz, which also focuses on its effect on ordinary individuals, I'd highly recommend Sarah Waters' The Night Watch.


All Tomorrow's Parties
All Tomorrow's Parties
Author: William Gibson
Book Type: Hardcover
  • Currently 3.9/5 Stars.
 27
Review Date: 9/16/2008


Gibson is just such a great writer. His imagery isn't distracting as one reads it, but has a way of transforming the most mundane things into the exotic and futuristic. His settings are often barely sci-fi - but the way he talks about them, they seem as if they are. Leads to philosophical musings about - it's all in how you look at the world....
'All Tomorrow's Parties' is a sequel to Virtual Light and Idoru, but works as a stand-alone as well. Not much actually happens in the book. It's more about setting, characters, concepts.
Ex-cop Rydell is now working as a security guard at a chain convenience store, when he gets an offer to do a mysterious 'job' for his friend Laney, which sends him to a squatter's community of The Bridge. Escaping an abusive ex-boyfriend, former bike messenger Chevette also returns to the Bridge, towed by a more bourgeoise friend, a film student bent on documenting the Bridge's "interstitial" community. Meanwhile, Laney, ill in a homeless man's cardboard box in Japan, remains online, perceiving, with the abilities given him by experimental drugs, the convergence of a nodal point, which could mean the end of the world.
Of course, the AI 'idoru' Rei Tei, is involved as well...


Alvin Journeyman (Alvin Maker, Bk 4)
Alvin Journeyman (Alvin Maker, Bk 4)
Author: Orson Scott Card
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 3.6/5 Stars.
 154
Review Date: 9/16/2008
Helpful Score: 1


Card is an extremely good writer, and his books are always a pleasure to read, but at times I did feel that the stories here occasionally suffered for being too allegorical, and too much about Card's ideas of morality.

In the 4th book, 'Alvin Journeyman' Alvin tries to strike out on his own, with his visions of creating a 'Crystal City' (kinda like Augustine's City of God?) before him... however, he is accused, falsely, of theft, and his concepts of justice impel him to sit in jail and face charges, even though his powers mean that he doesn't have to. Too much of the book is really spent in courtroom drama, and Alvin begins to really just seem annoyingly 'moral.' As a foil, the character of his younger brother Calvin is drawn - Calvin also has quite a lot of magic powers, but none of Alvin's desire to use them only for good - he kinda rides a line between being amoral and actively malicious.


The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
Author: Michael Chabon
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 4/5 Stars.
 417
Review Date: 9/16/2008
Helpful Score: 2


A copy of this book had been sitting around at work for a while now, so since it had been in my consciousness, I noticed when I saw a copy of it at my brother's house as well. I asked about it, and my brother highly recommended it - and plus it won the Pulitzer prize - so I thought I'd read it too!
It's about two Jewish cousins who meet in New York in the lead-up to WWII, and start in the business of comic books together. Throughout the book, their comics and superhero characters reflect on and illuminate the young men's concerns and dreams - fighting against Nazis and other evils, being father figures, objects of desire, and/or totems of wish-fulfillment.
It's well-done, well-researched, and gives insight into various aspects of life circa 1940's NYC, the Jewish Experience, and all that good literary-type stuff.
It starts very light-heartedly, gets much more serious, and finally, I thought, ended rather abruptly - which was my only complaint with the book.


Amnesia Moon
Amnesia Moon
Author: Jonathan Lethem
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 3.2/5 Stars.
 12
Review Date: 9/16/2008


Since I just re-read 'Motherless Brooklyn' I thought I'd get around to reading the sci-fi book of Lethem's that's been sitting on my shelf. Unfortunately, I didn't like it nearly so much.
'Amnesia Moon' is really a seriously wanna-be-Philip-K.-Dick book. If you really like Dick and his trippy perspectives on things, you might love this book. I thought it had some interesting moments - but, as a whole, it didn't work for me.
It's a post-apocalyptic scenario. There's definitely been some kind of disaster, but no one seems to remember exactly what happened. No one really seems to remember much. Everett Moon, aka Chaos, etc, leaves the derelict town he believes he's been in for the last five years, along with a mutant teen, and embarks on a journey... it seems that everything has become very "localized" - different areas are completely different realities, possibly controlled by those individuals whose dreams have gained the power to influence reality. Moon seems to be searching for something - but it's hard to identify what you want when you can't even remember your old loves or friends...
Like I said, there were some interesting scenes - the "green" town is memorable, and the idea of accessing and communicating with people by injecting drugs was kinda interesting (if, again, Dick-ian). However, the book has no conclusion whatsoever, let alone an explanation. I felt like the author couldn't think of a satisfying way to explain what had happened - so he just decided not to bother with an ending at all. Disappointing.


An Artist of the Floating World (Vintage International)
An Artist of the Floating World (Vintage International)
Author: Kazuo Ishiguro
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 3.6/5 Stars.
 35
Review Date: 9/16/2008


I picked this up because I loved his near-future novel of clones being harvested for body parts! (Never Let Me Go).
Although very well done, I didn't like this book as much.
Told in the first person, the narrator, Ono, is an elderly man who, we learn, came to success and recognition as a patriotic artist during WWII. However, now that the war is over, the tides of opinion have turned, and now many that were considered to be patriots are now called traitors.
Since we only see the narrator's perspective on things, it is hard to tell how accurate his perceptions are. His daughters are shown to claim to disagree with him - but are they merely being polite? Is Ono as important as he thinks he is? (Although he keeps claiming to be humble, he certainly is not).
It's an interesting study in character and cultural attitudes, but there's not much more of a story than 'Will his daughter get married, or will the family reject the match due to Ono's reputation?'


Anansi Boys
Anansi Boys
Author: Neil Gaiman
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 3.8/5 Stars.
 5
Review Date: 1/28/2011


I got this book shortly after it came out, but I think I waited so long to get around to reading it because I had heard it described as a "companion piece" to 'American Gods' - and that book was, unfortunately, probably my least favorite of Gaiman's works.

Happily (for me), I didn't find the tone of this book to be similar at all. It's a very clever, funny book - with serious ideas thrown into the mix. Stylistically, as well as in its sense of humor, it reminded me more of Terry Pratchett than anything else Gaiman has done [with, of course, the exception of Good Omens ;-) ].


Anathem
Anathem
Author: Neal Stephenson
Book Type: Mass Market Paperback
  • Currently 4.3/5 Stars.
 44
Review Date: 2/14/2011


Just finished re-reading for book club.

I'm giving it 5 stars, even though, after reading it twice I do feel justified in saying that the pacing does flag in a couple of places (during Raz' final conversations with Orolo, and during the Convox). The first time I thought it might just have been my mood while I was reading those passages, but I felt exactly the same the second time around.

Still, the book has more than enough 'awesome' for two or three 5-star novels, so 5 stars it gets nevertheless. With the couple of exceptions I noted, the book does a great job of presenting mathematical and philosophical ideas in the context of an exciting, fascinating story with intriguing and well-rounded characters. As well, it is frequently humorous, and has very clever use of language. It reminds me quite a lot of the novels of Umberto Eco.


The Ancient One (Adventures of Kate, Bk 2)
The Ancient One (Adventures of Kate, Bk 2)
Author: T. A. Barron
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 3.5/5 Stars.
 29
Review Date: 9/11/2008


Picked this up because of the rave review on the back from Madeleine L'Engle. I'm not surprised they solicited her for a blurb, as it's a quite similar story to her "An Acceptable Time" - young girl and a problematic young man travel back in time to meet a Native American tribe. This book however, takes a more typical quest-story format, has more fantastic elements, and has a more blatant (but well-done) environmentalist message. (The main plot element has to do with saving a lost stand of ancient redwoods from the short-sightedness of a poor Oregon logging town.)
It's not marketed as a YA novel, but I would definitely categorize it as such.


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