Great Reads

Walton, Jo. Among Others

The typical fantasy novel tells the story of an epic magical battle, with the fate of the world hanging in the balance. Among Others tells the story of what happens next.  Before the book opens, 15-year-old Welsh girl Morwenna and her twin sister fought a magical battle of wills against their twisted mother, trying to prevent her from taking great power and threatening the order of the world. The girls won, but at a great price. Morwenna, or Mori, is permanently crippled by the injuries she sustained and her sister was killed. Mori takes refuge with the father she’s never known, who sends her off to a British boarding school. There, a permanent outcast due to her disability, her Welsh heritage and accent, and her great love of science fiction and fantasy novels, Mori tries to endure. She trades science fiction books with her father, makes overtures towards the local fairy, makes a handful of human friends—including the school’s librarian, who encourages her reading—and finds a local sci-fi and fantasy book discussion group to join. But she knows her mother isn’t done with her and will try to get to her any way she can. Despite all the magical protections Mori places around herself, another conflict with her powerful and wicked mother is building, and this time Mori is on her own.

This novel is clearly a love letter to genre fiction itself, to the writers thereof, and to every sci-fi and fantasy fan who’s ever felt alienated from this world and sought refuge in another. Masterful. Highly recommended for all fans of the genre.

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McGregor, Jon. So Many Ways to Begin

As a child, David Corter happily dug up artifacts from the war and haunted the local museums, dreaming of running his own museum one day. He collected artifacts from his own life almost obsessively, cataloging them and preserving them, building a history of his and his family's lives. When, at the age of 22, a family friend suffering from early-onset Alzheimer's reveals the long-held secret that David was actually adopted, he finds himself having to reevaluate everything he thought he knew about his history.  Coupled with David's quest are his wife's problems...her abusive relationship with her family has left her prone to debilitating bouts of depression.

While the story itself, of two dysfunctional people finding their way in life, is not a new or original one, the way in which the story is told is unique. Each chapter takes as its center an item from David's collection, using that item as a jumping-off point for a story about his past.  These stories jump around in time, weaving together slowly into a complete picture of his life and struggle for identity. A quiet, slow-paced, melancholy title, this book is nevertheless engaging.

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Just a Thought...Year of the Apes

It’s been an interesting year for the apes.  Laurence Gonzales started it off with Lucy, in which a half-girl, half-ape Lucy is brought out of Africa and into the suburbs where her adoptive mother gradually learns the truth and must move quickly to save Lucy.  Then there’s Sara Gruen’s Ape House in which bonobos in a refuge are turned loose and then exploited in a reality show.  Then there’s Benjamin Hale’s The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore, in which chimpanzee Bruno learns to speak and believes he is becoming human. Human-animal communication is a fascinating subject and these books each frame the topic in unique ways.  In case you’re interested in even more Ape novels, take a look at these:

Banks, Russell. The Darling

Hoeg, Peter. The Woman and the Ape

Preston, Douglas. Jennie

Self, Will. Great Apes

Wesselmann, Debbie. Captivity 

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Simmons, Dan. The Terror

Simmons’ lengthy novel tells the hypothetical story of the lost Franklin Expedition to the Arctic in search of the Northwest Passage in the late 1840s. The story is told on a rotating basis through the eyes of several of the expedition members, including the leader, Sir John Franklin; Franklin’s second in command, Captain Francis Crozier; naïve young surgeon Dr. Harry D.S. Goodsir; Lieutenant Irving; and several others.  Little is known about the actual fate of the Franklin Expedition, but Simmons’ account is, for the most part, true to what little has been discovered.  In Simmons’ version of events, Sir John Franklin is an aging buffoon whose pride does not allow him to make decisions in the best interest of the survival of the crews of H.M.S. Terror and H.M.S. Erebus, but instead lead to the ships being trapped in the sea ice for years, waiting in vain for a thaw as their supplies slowly run out.  The men’s slow death by  starvation, scurvy, lead poisoning and botulism from ill-soldered tinned foods, near-mutiny, outright murder, and injury from frostbite and hypothermia are bad enough (and described in lavish detail), but Simmons has injected an extra horror—a huge white beast is stalking the ice-ridden ships, killing and eating men. Is it a white polar bear? Or is it something much, much worse?

“The Terror” is a book which demands patience. At times as glacial in pace as the ice in which the ships are trapped, it nevertheless builds inevitably toward the horror of the expedition’s nightmarish fate. Worth the ride for the historical detail alone, the fantasy/horror addition of the strange white beast on the ice and a final few chapters delving deeply into Inuit legend and mysticism will not be for everyone.  Enjoyable. 

Schlink, Bernhard. The Gordian Knot

Abandoned by his girlfriend and struggling to make ends meet as a freelance translator, Georg is leading a dull, lonely life until one phone call changes everything. Hired be a new translation agency where he meets and quickly falls in love with a new coworker, Georg’s life finally seems to be turning around. Then a former employer dies, and Georg has the chance to advance his career even further by buying his own agency.

All is well until one night he awakens to find his new girlfriend, Francoise, photographing the work he has done for a project involving a military helicopter.  Soon Francoise has disappeared, and Georg is in danger. Finding her and uncovering the truth about  his new employer takes Georg from France to New York where he finds himself on the run, in disguise, and plotting to sell what he knows for millions, if he can get away alive.

Although the ending is a bit contrived, Schlink’s stylish and fast-paced noir is an enjoyable read. 

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