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Wednesday, June 30, 2010

"The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet" by David Mitchell (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)


Official David Mitchell Website
David Mitchell at Wikipedia
Order "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet" HERE
Read FBC review of Cloud Atlas

INTRODUCTION: "Imagine a nation banishing the outside world for two centuries, crushing all vestiges of Christianity, forbidding its subjects to leave its shores on pain of death, and harbouring a deep mistrust of European ideas. The narrow window onto this nation-fortress is a walled, artificial island attached to the mainland port and manned by a handful of traders. Locked as the land-gate may be, however, it cannot prevent the meeting of minds – or hearts. The nation was Japan, the port was Nagasaki and the island was Dejima, to where David Mitchell's panoramic novel transports us in the year 1799. For one young Dutch clerk, Jacob de Zoet, a strange adventure of duplicity, love, guilt, faith and murder is about to begin – and all the while, unbeknown to the men confined on Dejima, the axis of global power is turning..."

And so was the "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet introduced last year which made it a double asap novel for me: first it's a new David Mitchell novel and second it deals with one of the most fascinating countries in history, a land which chose to try and stop the seemingly inevitable Western penetration in the 1600's by isolating itself. Of course ideas have a power by themselves and this novel shows how they were entering the inquiring Japanese minds despite all the barriers raised by the officialdom.

FORMAT/CLASSIFICATION: "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet" stands at about 470 pages and is divided into three parts, "The Bride for Whom We Dance", "A Mountain Fastness" and the "Master of Go" for a total of 40 chapters. Each chapter heads with the location of its action and with the date Japanese style. The novel also contains several drawings either from western anatomy manuals used in Nagasaki or "done" by Jacob de Zoet.

Narrated in third person which is a change for the author who usually writes novels in first person from multiple POV's, The Thousand Autumns has three main characters - Jacob de Zoet, an idealistic and devout Dutch clerk who comes to make his fortune in the East, Uzaemon Ogawa a young Japanese samurai/translator/scientist-to-be and Orito Abigawa a Japanese midwife, daughter of a samurai and scholar who wants to be a doctor/scientist too despite the barrier of her gender - but a plethora of various others, including a slave, various Japanese nobles, an Englishman naval officer have their own pages and the author makes it completely believable and immersive.

There is a little touch of the fantastic in the novel too and of course the readers familiar with David Mitchell's work can have fun to try and decide what characters here are reincarnations of whom from the other novels of his.

ANALYSIS: "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet" is set in 1799-early 1800's mostly on the artificial island of Dejima that was Japan's only window to the West from the 1640's to the 1850's and which was connected to the city of Nagasaki by a simple "land gate", gate that metaphorically connects two worlds, though there is a lot of action both in Nagasaki and in its surroundings; the novel has three main interweaving threads:

1: The life and fate of Jacob de Zoet.

2: The isolation of Japan as expressed through its one window to the European world, the artificial island of Dejima.

3: A story of cross lovers, murders, abductions, secret mystical and very dark cults that gives the novel both a tinge of the fantastic and powers its action and emotional content.

The first chapter throws the reader directly into the fray, with a vivid and quite graphic description of a difficult birth in the house of the chief magistrate of Nagasaki; his favorite concubine and the baby boy are in grave peril - there is an anatomy manual diagram which shows why - but "midwife" Abigawa uses her knowledge from her father to save them and in return she is granted the boon of studying under a famous Dutch physician who works on Dejima. This will of course send her directly into the path of the newcomer Jacob de Zoet, while in parallel the strong desire for knowledge of young translator Uzaemon, makes him overlook the psalm book that the deeply devout Jacob smuggles to Dejima - all Christian literature was strictly forbidden on the island and discovery would lead to deportation - in return for borrowing Jacob's copy of Adam Smith's famous book.

"The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet" is a very complex novel that needs attention to detail since so much is packed into it, but the main storyline of the novel follows from the decisions above and a bit of past history that I will leave the reader to discover as the author hides it for a while and only slowly unfolds it.

The worldbuilding is just exquisite, both the "hothouse" atmosphere on the tiny artificial island that only the Chief Resident, his adjunct and occasionally the doctor can leave, with its little intrigues, the clerks and the regular "mates", the slaves, the Japanese handlers and spies, the concubines and even a silly monkey, and then Nagasaki and its environs, including a secluded abbey and a sinister but powerful abbot that makes his presence felt early when he comes to buy all of Jacob's quicksilver that he brought for his personal trading account.

The writing style is vintage Mitchell and it's astounding how well he handles so many voices, making you believe that you listen to a ship captain from the American South, renegade German and Irish clerks who pose as "dutch" -
in theory only Dutch nationals are allowed on Dejima but since the posting is so isolated with a three year minimum enlistment, one ship visit per year if any and no going beyond the tiny island, the Dutch take anyone that wishes to work there - Dutch merchants, Japanese nobles...

Of the main characters Jacob is quite likable though the reader can easily see that his naivety and idealism will get him into trouble with his wilier bosses and coworkers, but the two main Japanese leads, Uzaemon and Orito steal the show with the sinister abbot dominating the page whenever he appears.

"The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet" is a novel that you literally do not want to end being so engrossing and interesting, though when the ending comes it is powerful and fitting, while followed by an epilogue detailing the further fate of the main characters. There is a lot to explore in this book and it's really worth spending the time to do it; an A++ and a novel to savor at length and reread from time to time.
Tuesday, June 29, 2010

"The Invisible Bridge" by Julie Orringer (reviewed by Liviu Suciu)


Official Julie Orringer Website
Order 'The Invisible Bridge" HERE
Read an Excerpt from The Invisible Bridge from the NY Times

INTRODUCTION: As I mentioned in a recent review, sometimes books come out of nowhere, hijack my reading schedule and it takes a while until I can un-weave the magical spell they had exerted on me and leave their universe, usually needing at least one complete reread as well as an immediate review.

The novelistic debut of the author, The Invisible Bridge attracted my attention by its fascinating cover in a Borders bookstore several days ago and the blurb below made me open it; I got hooked on the first page which you can read in the extract linked above and I stayed way, way too late to finish the novel since I really needed to find out what happens with the main characters, while rereading it at leisure during the next few days.

"Paris, 1937. Andras Lévi, a Hungarian Jewish architecture student, arrives from Budapest with a scholarship, a single suitcase, and a mysterious letter he has promised to deliver to C. Morgenstern on the rue de Sévigné. As he becomes involved with the letter's recipient, his elder brother takes up medical studies in Modena, their younger brother leaves school for the stage - and Europe's unfolding tragedy sends each of their lives into terrifying uncertainty. From the Hungarian village of Konyár to the grand opera houses of Budapest and Paris, from the lonely chill of Andras's garret to the enduring passion he discovers on the rue de Sévigné, from the despair of a Carpathian winter to an unimaginable life in forced labor camps and beyond, The Invisible Bridge tells the unforgettable story of brothers bound by history and love, of a marriage tested by disaster, of a Jewish family's struggle against annihilation, and of the dangerous power of art in a time of war."

FORMAT/CLASSIFICATION: The Invisible Bridge stands at about 600 pages divided into five parts and 42 named chapters with an epilogue some decades later. The novel spans the turbulent years from 1937 to 1945 with action mostly in Paris, Budapest and various labor camps on or behind the Eastern front lines where Hungarian Jewish males were conscripted as forced laborers for the army instead of as soldiers, since they were considered unreliable to be given weapons and training to use them.

The novel follows the intertwined destinies of the lower-middle class Levy family from a village near Debrecen, of whom middle brother and architect-to-be, Andras is the main hero, though older brother Tibor and younger Matyas play important roles too and the rich Hasz family of Budapest, of whom early forties Gyorgy is a Bank President and his son Jozsef, a painter-to-be is studying - and partying, with more of the latter than the former of course - in Paris.

There is also mysterious early thirties Klara - Claire - Morgenstern who is a ballet teacher in Paris with a 16 year old strong willed daughter Elisabet, to whom Gyorgy's mother, the matriarch of the Hasz charges the twenty two year old Andras to secretly deliver a letter when he gets to Paris for his studies, in addition to carrying a huge package with goodies for Jozsef.

Romantic, epic, dark even painfully so at times, The Invisible Bridge is historical fiction of the highest caliber.

ANALYSIS: "The Invisible Bridge" succeeds so well because of three aspects:

1: The characters: Andras and Klara first and foremost are such extraordinary characters, the young idealistic student who cannot help himself but fall in love with the 31 year old woman with a 16 year old girl and a dark past we get hints about and who somehow managed to make a reasonably successful life for herself and Elisabet despite all; also Tibor, Andras' friends, the closet gay Polaner and the handsome Ben Yakov, the wastrel but good natured Joszef, theater manager Zoltan Novak who is Andras' mentor and first employer and the rest of the Hasz and Levi families are all memorable and distinctive characters and you want them to succeed and later to survive, though of course the odds were what they were, so do not get overtly fond of anyone...

2: The writing style which is spellbinding; the book is a page turner end to end and it manages to combine the first half cautious optimism of the main characters even in face of the clouds of war and of rising antisemitism in France and violence in Germany and other places, with the day to day struggle to survival in the face of the tightening vise of the second half. "The Invisible Bridge" does not descend into melodrama in the first half, nor does it descend into despair and darkness without a light in sight, in the second half, but it maintains a "matter of fact" attitude throughout that kept me guessing almost to the end what will be the fate of the characters.

3: The world-building: as noted at the end of the novel, "The Invisible Bridge" is based on the author's family stories and real life experiences plus a lot of research and it shows. The feel of both Paris of 1937-1939 and of Hungary from 1939-1945 is pitch perfect and the Jewish traditions are vividly expounded. "The Invisible Bridge" feels to me "right" as a book set partly in Eastern Europe in a way few books by Western authors feel and the little details like recipes, names, ways of speech contribute mightily to that feeling.

There are several moments that descend a bit into farce like the story of Ilana, the Italian Orthodox Rabbi's daughter that Tibor helps elope to Paris to secretly marry Andras' friend, the handsome ladies' man Ben Yakov - who is actually in love with Black American student Lucia - and of course Tibor falls in love with Ilana, while Ben Yakov is desperately unhappy that he cannot marry Lucia so he hopes that Ilana's beauty will 'cure him" of his "wandering eye" so to speak- all with predictable results of course, but the novel manages to surprise after that. But the lighter interludes work well as a balance to the increasing darkness that descends on the world and on our characters.

Another superb touch in the novel was how famous stories like Job's fate are weaved explicitly in the novel, first in the story of Andras' father nicknamed "Lucky Bella" in an ironic and tragic way as he lost everything in life - family, child, inheritance - by age 30 and was living in depression and despair on the community's charity until a wise rabbi convinced him to try and turn around his fortunes and then in the tragic story of one of novel's important characters, though for this one you have to read the book to find out what's what. The last meeting of Andras with the respective character in 1943 is one of the emotional highlights of the second half of the novel.

In turns, a wonderful love story, an epic historical saga in the grand traditions of yore and a dark story of destruction and survival, The Invisible Bridge (A++) is one of two awesome mainstream novels that will lead that category in my best of 2010 list.
Monday, June 28, 2010

The Mind Behind The Empire of Moghul: An Interview with Alex Rutherford




Alex Rutherford is the pseudonym for the writing duo of Diana Preston and Michael Preston. They have written several historical non-fiction books. Raiders from the North (reviewed here) is their first adventure into the fictional aspect of writing.

Mihir Wanchoo was able to conduct an email interview with half of the writing duo, Diana Preston.

A big thank you goes out to publicist Caitlin Raynor for making this interview possible and to Diana Preston for taking the time to answer our questions.

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Could you introduce yourself and tell us how you got into writing?

I was always very interested in history and English literature. At Oxford University I read the Modern History course which wasn’t that ‘modern’ – I spent most of my time studying mediaeval history and loved working with original sources. While still a student I got involved with journalism both at the university and starting to write for national magazines – often historical or travel features. While doing some other jobs I continued to write part-time. Eventually about fifteen years ago I began with my husband to write non-fiction books such as one on the Antarctic explorer Captain Scott and the story of the 17th century buccaneer, scientist, explorer, William Dampier – the first European to reach Australia and whose writings inspired Swift and Defoe to write Gulliver’s Travels and Robinson Crusoe.

Why did you choose to write under the pseudonym “Alex Rutherford” for these historical fiction books?

We decided to use a pen name to keep our work as non-fiction and fiction writers apart since we take different approaches to the two. Initially we wanted to keep our identities a strict secret and it was only after much pressure from our publishers in the UK, US and India that we agreed to ‘out’ ourselves.

What was it that led to your choice to write about the Mughal dynasty in your fiction debut?

The decision wasn’t sudden. Our love of and interest in India began long before we ever thought of telling the Moghuls’ story. Over the years we’ve travelled all over India from the Rajasthani deserts to the Dal Lake in Kashmir. The great Moghul monuments of northern India – Humayun’s tomb and the Red Fort in Delhi, Akbar’s tomb, the Taj Mahal and the Fort in Agra - overwhelmed us. We became increasingly curious about their creators and started to read the Moghuls’ own diaries and chronicles. They revealed to us a compelling dynastic saga combining the high emotions and rich cadences of grand opera with enough edge-of-the-seat historical drama to fill a dozen big-screen epics and inspired us - after writing a non-fiction book on the story behind the Taj Mahal - to write these novels.

One of the most human and compelling parts of the story is that for all its outward brilliance the Moghul dynasty carried within it the seeds of its own destruction. Their inheritance from their ancestor the great Timur was the warrior code that the strongest takes all. With no law of primogeniture, Moghul princes fought each other and even their fathers for the crown. The succession was never secure and jealousy seeped corrosively down the generations. The story of the Moghuls is one of sons plotting against fathers, brothers murdering brothers and half-brothers and of empresses and would-be empresses plotting, scheming and seducing. Re-creating this in a series of novels was irresistible.

In this age wherein more than 90% of authors have an online presence either in the form of websites or blogs, how come you don’t have an official website? Is there any specific reason or do you just like to take a classic approach as practiced by authors of an earlier era?

We’re both quite private people and would prefer our readers to focus on our books not us. We’re also quite old-fashioned - we neither blog nor tweet in our personal life. However, we are currently updating the website about the Moghul quintet for our British publisher Headline to include further Readers’ Circle questions, a brief interview and some pictures of our travels in the Moghuls’ footsteps.

In your biography it is mentioned that both of you have travelled extensive, which countries have you visited & could you recount any memorable experiences which you had?

We love travelling and have now clocked up 140 countries. Some incidents do stick in the memory like being stranded on a remote island off the coast of Borneo and having to hide from pirates, or, while researching William Dampier, having to dodge FARC guerrillas and Colombian paramilitaries as we crossed the Darien Isthmus in Panama on foot with local Indian guides. Even more scary was knowing the deadly fer de lance snake was around.

To get away from the snakes we waded waist high in rivers – our guide said snakes can’t bite and swim at the same time but we still don’t know if that’s really true. But perhaps our most dangerous moments were in the Antarctic while working on our book about Captain Scott and the race for the South Pole. Our Russian research vessel was nearly lost in the Ross Sea in one of the worst storms in Antarctic history with 140 knot winds (over 150 miles per hour) and nearly 60 feet high waves. The life rafts washed overboard and the superstructure iced up like the inside of an old fridge, putting us in danger of capsizing. There are lots of lovely memories too like crossing the border from Siberia into Mongolia on the Trans-Siberian express to Beijing one New Year’s Eve. The Mongolians decorated the compartments with green branches and tinsel and sang beautiful, mournful songs about their mothers and their homes as they passed round bottles of Russian champagne and vodka and outside the snow fell.

Could you tell us about the research which you undertook before attempting to write this series and besides the royal accounts like “Baburnama” & “Akbarnama” what other accounts or books did you look into?

To write this series we drew on the research we had done for our non-fiction book about the building of the Taj Mahal, (‘A Teardrop on the Cheek of Time’ in the UK and ‘Taj Mahal’ in the US) which included as much material as we could find on the Moghuls. We read research by other writers and historians into aspects of Moghul history from military strategy to customs in the harem to food of the period and spent many hours in Oxford University’s Indian Institute Library. But our chief focus was on original source material and we are fortunate there is so much. The Moghuls weren’t modest. Some of the emperors wrote their own accounts and almost all employed court chroniclers.

We have been able to draw the major events - battles, coups, deaths, executions - and the principal characters from the sources that have survived. As well as Babur’s own account of his life the Baburnama – the earliest autobiography in Islamic literature – and the Akbarnama written by Abul Fazl, Akbar’s chronicler, which covers Babur, Humayun and the Moghuls’ early days as well as Akbar, we also have, for example, the Humayunnama written by Babur’s daughter Gulbadan and the account by Humayun’s cupbearer, Jauhar. The physical and emotional detail of the Moghul period is superbly captured in these chronicles and also, for the later Moghul emperors, in other surviving letters and diaries that convey the sheer excitement of events as they unfold. They burst with compelling, exuberant stories not only about great battles and the passions of family politics but more intimate things like the number of an emperor’s concubines and the frequency of his couplings, the name of his favourite war elephant, the cost of his bed linen and the way the empire was ruled.

For the later emperors beginning with Akbar, we also have the accounts and letters of European visitors - merchants, mercenaries and missionaries - to the Moghul court. These reveal the visitors’ open-mouthed wonder at the spectacle of Moghul wealth and sophistication beyond anything the European courts could offer. To Europeans, the magnificent Moghuls were like characters from an exotic legend. They fastened on every fantastical aspect of Moghul life - gems the size of duck eggs, the gold-leaf decorated food and rose-scented wine prepared for the imperial table, the number of wives and concubines the emperors enjoyed and the other sensual aspects of Moghul life. A French doctor, exceptionally invited into the imperial harem to treat a woman there, wrote in amazement that he could not locate her pulse because so many ropes of pearls were wound around her arms.

You also visited Mumbai/Bombay,India in April this year for the release of “Brothers At War” how was your visit & are there any anecdotal events for you to recollect?

We spent nearly five weeks in India in April/March on a combined research trip and book tour. Our abiding memories are of being stranded for eight days in Mumbai by the Icelandic ash cloud which gave us time to go to the caves of Elephanta, eat at some of our favourite Mumbai restaurants like the Copper Kettle, watch the IPL on TV and take an even closer look at the Mumbai Indians who were staying in our hotel. We also went to the re-opening of the Oberoi Hotel to see how it has been renovated after the terrorist attacks. It looks amazing and is a symbol of how the city has recovered from the trauma.

You have written seven previous books under your real name along with your husband on various topics and places such as the Taj Mahal, discontent in China at the beginning of the 19th century, Robert Scott’s Antarctic expedition, etc. What made you select the topics and people that you wrote about?

With all the books we’ve written whether non-fiction or fiction we’ve always looked for strong story lines, events and people you can empathise with and –if possible – good original sources so we can really understand events through the eyes of those who experienced them and take that immediacy to our readers.

Could you elaborate on the journey you went through from the germination of this series up to finally seeing “Raiders From the North” in bookstores?

Our journey began about four years ago when we first came up with the idea of an Empire of the Moghul series of historical novels. Before we could show the idea to publishers we had to work out the overall scope of the project, how we would break the story down between individual novels and – pretty important – how long it would take us to assemble all the research material and actually write it. When we were ready our literary agents put our proposal to publishers and we were delighted by the response in the UK, US and many other countries around the world where the series is appearing. Using the framework we had already drawn up we began to research and write the first novel’ Raiders from the North’ often doing the two activities in tandem – the research never really stops until the book goes into final production which is usually around five or six months before publication.

So how long have you been working on the Empire of the Moghul series and how much has it evolved from its original conception?

We’ve been working intensively on the series now for over three years – the second in the series ‘Brothers at War’ has just been published in the UK and India and comes out in the US and elsewhere soon. The project itself has stayed pretty much as we originally envisaged when we first suggested it to our publishers but the techniques we use to get the story over and involve our readers continue to develop which is one of the exciting things for us.

I have read that you plan to write a total of five books in this series and focus upon the first six emperors beginning from Babur leading all the way up to Aurangzeb. Do you think five books would be enough to cover the lives of these six men?

We thought hard about this when we first came up with the idea for the series and think that five books is probably right for containing and conveying the dynamics of a story which begins in the late 15th century with Babur and the Moghuls’ rise in central Asia and - we believe – comes to a natural end with the death in his son’s captivity of the fifth emperor Shah Jahan at a time when the once glorious empire is already in decline in the latter 17th century. The sixth emperor Aurangzeb will of course feature strongly in the last novel but we feel that by the time he came to the throne the character of the history changes and it’s the right time to bring our story to a close.

Could you tell us about your writing process and especially how do you & your husband go about it? Does one of you first write a draft and then the other one re write it or do you both write different sections and then combine it?

We collaborate on a detailed chapter structure for each book then subdivide that into scenes and decide who is going to write which scene. We then go away and when we’ve finished each shows their work to the other and we discuss and develop it further, talking through aspects like the tension of the action, our take on character development, motivations etc. The way we work is very iterative. In a way we’re a bit like a small script writing team.

Who are your literary idols? What books have you read recently that you would like to recommend to the readers?

Lawrence Sterne for the first real modern novel, ‘Tristram Shandy, with a blank page part way through for readers to contribute which is pretty innovative for the 18th century; Jane Austen because she understood human nature so well; Ian McEwan for his unique take on universal themes and Donna Tart for her masterly sense of the macabre in everyday things.

Have you decided what you will be writing next after the “Empire of the Mughal” series ends? Will you be exploring other eras in Indian history or will you moving on to other nations?

We’re not sure what we’ll write about next. While we were on our book tour in India many people suggested we write about earlier phases in Indian history like the emperor Ashoka but we still have a way to go on Moghuls and it’s absorbing us pretty much completely at the moment.

What led you to write using the third person narrative. What was the reason for this choice? What's your idea in the debate between using first or third person narratives in any story?

We chose the third person to give us as much flexibility as possible for putting our main characters over. Although the early books in the series are told mostly from one person’s point of view we knew from when we first planned the series that the later novels would be covering more diffuse stories with more voices and the third person approach seemed to us to deliver what we wanted most effectively.

Lastly amongst the six emperors whom you plan to write about, which one has intrigued you the most and why?

Babur for his vision, courage and the sheer excitement of his life and also for his ability to write so vividly about it! His diaries tell you everything from how to cement the heads of your enemies into a tower, to how many tulips grow on the hillsides around Kabul to the taste of a ripe musk melon. Of the all the emperors Babur is perhaps the easiest to get close to.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

"PS Showcase 8 - The Library of Forgotten Books" by Rjurik Davidson (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)


Official Rjurik Davidson Blog
Order "The Library of Forgotten Books" HERE
Read The Passing of Minotaurs (archived online from original Sci Fiction publication)

INTRODUCTION: Once in a while a book comes out of nowhere and impresses me so much that I either have to review it on the spot if it is relatively current, or write a "pre-review" post as most recently I've done HERE and HERE. The Library of Forgotten Books is a collection published under the PS Showcase imprint from which I thoroughly enjoyed Impossibilia (Showcase #5) by Douglas Smith.

I have not heard of Rjurik Davidson before but the title and cover of the book attracted my attention and when I checked its contents, the second part of the collection consisting of tales of Caeli-Amur jumped at me. Standing at about 160 pages The Library of Forgotten Books consists of 6 stories, four original to the collection and one available online at the link above.

The Library of Forgotten Books
starts with two alt-history tales, one set in France of the 60's and one in an Australia with an inland sea that made it a superpower in the late 40's and early 50's and then come the pieces of resistance, four stories set in the Caeli-Amur milieu of rival houses that have magicians and geneticists - including the title story set in Varenis a totalitarian rival of Caeli-Amur.

ANALYSIS:
The themes of the collection are the star-crossed lovers against a harsh and unforgiving world, deception and survival, intrigue and murder, all against a noirisih city background, whether in France, Australia or in Caeli-Amur's universe. And now the stories with their first several lines and my take on each.

The Cinema of Coming Attractions

"During the summer the crowds came to the town—starlets and champion surfers, playboys and fortune seekers, retired generals and declining pin-up girls—and bustled around the squares or lazed on the rocky beach beneath the white cliffs topped by even whiter buildings."

A story of a tourist French town in the 60's with a special cinema that may show glimpses of the future. A local young con-man who leads a gang preying on rich tourists, a corrupt cop, a Parisian starlet and compulsive writing that hooked me despite the relative straightforwardness of the noir storyline. (A)

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Int. Morgue. Night

"At first everything is black, but something is visible, emerging from the darkness, the world coming into being, like a sunken ship emerging from the depths. It’s a morgue, dank and dark, the tiles on the floor and walls grimy."

The second noir alt-history, this time a more sf-nal one involving a superpower Australia with an inland sea; it is 1951 and after winning WW2, the victory of Mao in China led to an invasion by the allies led by Australia; the large Chinese population is automatically suspect and opium dealer Laurence is a wanted man; PI Faulkner whose girlfriend Lucy - the daughter of Laurence - just kicked him out after four on and off years together is now dead in the morgue and Faulkner needs to find out the truth; more corrupt cops and a truly dark story with a redemptive ending, this one works great as atmosphere and world building despite its predictability. (A)

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TALES OF CAELI-AMUR;

Lovers in Caeli-Amur

"Anton Moreau stepped from his carriage, dressed in his finest suit, his long sleeves puffing out from beneath his jacket, and held his breath in anticipation. House Arbor had always held the most famous balls in Caeli-Amur.The Directors constantly tried to outdo each other in opulent decoration, sumptuous food, and extravagant entertainment. And this would be the night of Anton’s greatest triumph."

"Gratificationist-assassin" Anton Moreau is the trusted operative of House Arbor Director Lefebvre; when at a party Moreau fancies a young and seemingly shy girl, only to find out she is Lefebvre's young wife, his already dangerous life threatens to spin out of control; to top it all, the director suspects someone close to him steals House Arbor's bio-secrets for rival House Technis and Moreau is put in charge of the investigation and given an infallible truth-drug to use on the suspects. Twists and turns, all in a 24 page story to remember because it has it all; great characters, action, world building and a superb ending (A++)

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Twilight in Caeli-Amur

"The front of the house is overgrown with weeds, allowed to grow wild and free as they do on the hills behind Caeli-Amur. It’s a grand old façade: pillars to the side of the double doors,which stand open; windows high on the second floor overlooking the street."

This is the shortest story of the collection and the other previously published one; the old wife of a dead genius geneticist from House Arbor is asked
by a young scientists of the House to surrender her husband's notebooks. Very atmospheric and another great denouement (A)

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The Passing of the Minotaurs

"For the first time in ten years the minotaurs came to the city of Caeli-Amur from the winding road that led through the foothills to the north. There were three hundred or more of them.From the city they appeared as tiny figures—refugees perhaps.But as they approached, the size of their massive bodies, the magnificence of their horned bullheads, the shape of their serrated short-swords, became apparent.The minotaurs had come for the Festival of the Bull."

Kata is a former street urchin who was taken as "field operative" by House Technis and who volunteers for one mission that will set her free of the House. Kill discreetly two minotaurs since their body parts are highly sought commodities - it is a sacrilege to even provoke the powerful and long lived beings as they have a storied past helping Caeli Amur against enemies - so, using the oldest trick in the book, Kata goes bar-hopping to "seduce" her victims. Of course things do not quite work out to plan when Kata finds the minotaurs have powerful personalities and she even may fall for one. This story is on par with the first one, emotional, surprising and with a great ending (A++)

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Lost in the Library of Forgotten Books

"East of the twelve towers that stand in the centre of Varenis, and past the bustling boulevards filled with rickshaws and steam trams, the apartment buildings huddle close to each other, pressed together like vagrants in the cold. Hidden between them lies The Library of Forgotten Books, its walls grey from soot and smoke. Little minarets circle its dome, and the gloomy light barely filters through the blue and red stained glass windows. It stands like a symbol for its contents, almost forgotten except in certain critical administrative centres and among particular writers who shudder at its thought and close their eyes as they write during the long nights."

The one story set in Varenis and containing the most magic of all; narrated in first person by young Alisa, lowly librarian assistant in the library of the title where the totalitarian government of the City State buries inconvenient works; here the authors are free to write them as long as they hand all the copies to be hidden away, the capital crime is making an unauthorized copy to keep or give away. The nooks and crannies of the library are protected by monstrous beings called Guardians who "eat" the souls of the condemned and librarians use a magical pendant to protect them. When one day Alisa loses her way in the labyrinthine building, she finds a "friendly" Guardian who wants to talk with her. Of course things take a strange turn when Alisa immerses herself in a "sf" book the Guardian gives her to read aloud. More twists and turns and another powerful story (A++)

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Overall
The Library of Forgotten Books (A++) is the best collection I have read in a long time - and that in a year in which I have previously read five very impressive collections reviewed HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE and HERE. No story that missed for me and three awesome ones I plan to reread for a long time to come. I really want more form the author and any Caeli-Amur story is a must for me, while a novel set in that superb universe would be a big time asap. Read The Passing of Minotaurs at the link above and see if I am right!
Saturday, June 26, 2010

Iain M. Banks Returns to the Culture Universe in October 2010!

Iain Banks at Wikipedia

It is no secret that my top sff novel of all time is Iain "M" Banks Use of Weapons which I have easily read 10-15 times in the almost 20 years since I have discovered it in the early 90's. The quartet of early "M" Banks novels: Consider Phlebas, Use of Weapons, The Player of Games - all Culture - and the standalone Against a Dark Background (including the epilogue published later online) are probably the best four novels in a row I've read - many times of course - from any author.

Later Culture books while quite good, are not as awesome as those first three and the last one Matter which started extremely promising, kind of sputters a bit in the last third though it has a great "Banksian" ending and it offers some glimpses of the awesomeness it could have been when the most interesting character of the novel who sadly appears in only one chapter, discusses the title topic "matter" with one of the three main POV characters.

Last year's Transition while not a Culture book and published dually as a mainstream non-M in the UK and a sff "M" here in the US, was my top sff novel of 2009 by far; despite its flaws, it topped everything sfnally read by me by quite a lot, though it required three close readings to get all its nuances; Transition is a very complex novel that needs at least two readings to fully appreciate for reasons I explained in the review linked above.

Imagine my delight when several days ago news broke that the new IM Banks Culture novel "Surface Detail" has been brought forward to October 2010, from the envisioned early 2011 publication. Here is the blurb:

"It begins in the realm of the Real, where matter still matters.

It begins with a murder.

And it will not end until the Culture has gone to war with death itself.

Lededje Y’breq is one of the Intagliated, her marked body bearing witness to a family shame, her life belonging to a man whose lust for power is without limit. Prepared to
risk everything for her freedom, her release, when it comes, is at a price, and to put things right she will need the help of the Culture.

Benevolent, enlightened and almost infinitely resourceful though it may be, the Culture can only do so much for any individual. With the assistance of one of its most powerful – and arguably deranged – warships, Lededje finds herself heading into a combat zone not even sure which side the Culture is really on. A war – brutal, far-reaching – is already raging within the digital realms that store the souls of the dead, and it’s about
to erupt into reality.

It started in the realm of the Real and that is where it will end. It will touch countless lives and affect entire civilizations, but at the centre of it all is a young woman whose need for revenge masks another motive altogether."

Surface Detail has automatically become my number one expected novel for the rest of 2010, superseding the previous list, especially considering the very intriguing blurb which seems to be related to the awesome part of Matter alluded above.
Friday, June 25, 2010

"Sisters Red" by Jackson Pearce (Reviewed by Cindy Hannikman)

Visit Jackson Pearce's Official Website Here
Order Sisters Red from Amazon Here

Author Introduction: Jackson Pearce is the author of the previously published YA book, As You Wish. Sisters Red is the first book in a proposed series based very loosely off of the fairy tale, Little Red Riding Hood.

Overview: Scarlett March lives to hunt the Fenris-- the werewolves that took her eye when she was defending her sister Rosie from a brutal attack. Armed with a razor-sharp hatchet and blood-red cloak, Scarlett is an expert at luring and slaying the wolves. She's determined to protect other young girls from a grisly death, and her raging heart will not rest until every single wolf is dead.

Rosie March once felt her bond with her sister was unbreakable. Owing Scarlett her life, Rosie hunts fiercely alongside her. Now Rosie dreams of a life beyond the wolves and finds herself drawn to Silas, a young woodsman who is deadly with an ax-- but loving him means betraying her sister and has the potential to destroy all they've worked for.

Format: Sisters Red, is a YA paranormal/romance which is based in a contemporary world after the events that are just like Little Red Riding Hood. It is the first book in a proposed series. It stands at 346 pages, the chapters are told in the first person point of view that alternate between Scarlett and Rosie. It was released from Little Brown Books for Young Readers on June 7, 2010.

Analysis: Sisters Red is based very loosely off of the fairy tale Little Red Riding Hood. The novel kicks off with the "fairy" tale part of it but the bulk of the book are the after events of what happened that fateful night when the wolf came to visit Red's grandma, or in this case the March sisters' grandmother.

This novel can only simply be described as a mood altering book and really takes the mind set to read it. If a reader isn't in the right frame of mind this book will definitely not connect with them and prevent them from enjoying any part of this story. I describe this book as mood altering because Sisters Red has a tone of being very depressive and dark. Scarlett is disfigured by many scars that she has received (both physical and emotional) while Rosie has emotional baggage and gives up her life. From the characters to the events that happen throughout the book everything is laced with this dark stormy cloud and there really isn't any light. When there is a chance for something to be semi-happy, it is overshadowed by depressive or guilty thoughts. While Pearce does an excellent job of writing out and setting up this emotional state, it can be very taxing for the reader. For myself this was the biggest struggle of the novel, I just wasn't prepared for such a dark depressing novel.

Taking into account the rather unique nature of the writing, Sisters Red really does take a unique look at the werewolf aspect of YA novels. In this novel the werewolves are finely dressed men who lure unsuspecting girls and turn into wolves while they attack them. This little element of the novel allowed it to take a step away from the more traditional werewolf novels that have been popping up. Another area of the novel that stood out was the use of the fairy tale. It was amazing to see Pearce develop so much from such a traditional fairy tale. While the novel isn't fully based off of the fairy tale it was a very creative approach to it.

Besides the depressive, dark nature of the book there were a few elements that prevented me from really loving this book. First, was the romance between Rosie and Silas. It was a tad bit predictable and very much an in your face reader romance. From the first pages of the novel it was forced onto readers without any real background. Maybe it was the rather flat nature of Silas or the fact that he appeared to be a background character, whichever the reason it didn't work for myself. It just came across as very forced upon the reader.

Another element that didn't work for myself was the rather plot element of the book. While I read the book and enjoyed reading it, sometimes I would question where the plot was going. I understood that there were these girls fighting the werewolves, but I didn't really understand the whole why they felt so focused on it. There were times where it came across they were just fighting and I'm just reading about fights with no plot. That isn't what fully happened, as the novel did have a plot, but maybe if the book had been a bit shorter it wouldn't have had this feeling or it could have been that the book was just so depressing that it had this feeling.

Overall, Sisters Redd isn't a bad book it's just a book that takes the right mind frame and element to read. There is definitely an audience for this book and while I appreciate the attempt to not have a book that is all overly bubbly romance in the end it almost came across as too dark and depressive. For readers that are prepared and looking for a book like this, Pearce really will give you a treat and a great read.


Thursday, June 24, 2010

"Storm From the Shadows/Mission of Honor" by David Weber (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)


The Honorverse Wikipedia
Order Storm from the Shadows HERE
Order Mission of Honor HERE
Read FBC's An Invitation to David Weber's Honorverse
Read FBC Review of At All Costs
Read FBC Interview with David Weber


INTRODUCTION: As I mentioned in the Invitation to the Honorverse post, the structure of the series was relatively straightforward until the 10th book War of Honor with novel following novel in the main thread of the Havenite Wars. From the 11th novel Crown of Slaves - co-written with Eric Flint - the story acquired two secondary streams, the genetic slavery/Torch/Maya sector of that one and the Talbot Quadrant story of The Shadow of Saganami in addition to the main thread dealing with Haven.

At All Costs essentially ended the main story to date so the Talbot stream became the new main one in Storm from the Shadows and was continued in Mission of Honor, while we also dotted the i's and crossed the t's so to speak for the Havenite thread there.

So labeling Mission of Honor as the "next mainline" Honorverse novel after the superb At All Cost is misleading since in truth Mission of Honor is just the second half of the huge novel that starts with Storm from the Shadows. To make things even more complex, the combo SftS/MoH has a third novel that takes place simultaneously with them, Torch of Freedom that continues the Maya/Torch stream, but this last one while important in consequences for our story here is still a side show for now and can be read independently.

FORMAT/CLASSIFICATION: Storm from the Shadows clocks at about 800 pages, though to be fair the first 2-300 or so are events from At All Costs seen from different POV's, while Mission of Honor stands at a "slim" just under 600 pages; Storm from the Shadows ends on two cliffhangers, including a huge one, both being resolved in Mission of Honor, but this one ends the storyline with a mini-cliffhanger similar to the smaller one in Storm, though the actual ending is definite and just awesome as we knew from the "snerker snippets" on Baen's Bar.

The cast is huge and features Honor herself mostly as a diplomat with a fleet at her back, her academy roommate and actual admiral in charge where missiles fly, Michelle Henke, all the main leaders, official or not, from Queen Elizabeth of Manticore, President Pritchart of Haven, to the bureaucratic quintet leading the Solarian League from behind the scenes and of course the leaders of the "storm from the shadows" themselves like Albrecht Detweiler and his six sons, our favorite star ship commanders like Commodore Terekhov and Admiral Overstegeen, their junior officers like Helen Zilwicky or Abigail Hearns, enemy operatives like Aldona Anisimovna, various Solarian officers and bureaucrats, diplomats, journalists...

Even our favorite "bad boys", the duo of operatives, Manticoran (ret.) Captain Anton Zilwicky and Havenite super agent Victor Cachat, whose adventures form the main thread of Torch of Freedom appear before and after the events of that novel.

Storm from the Shadows/Mission of Honor are both epic sf with largely military dimensions in a vast interstellar domain and they offer both a transition from the "first Honorverse" series of the Havenite wars to the "new Honorverse" that will turn all human settled space upside down and the definite conclusion of that first part.

ANALYSIS: Reading Storm from the Shadows separately, I enjoyed it a lot but I was a bit dissatisfied due to the cliffhangers at the end which are quite uncharacteristic of David Weber - so much so that the author felt the need to add a note explaining the structure of these three books including Torch of Freedom, all pretty much done when Storm was published though it took some 16 months for actual publication of all of them for obvious reasons of adequate spacing.

Reading Mission of Honor separately - and after all it was my top expected novel of 2010 so when the e-arc went up for sale I could not resist but dig into it immediately and stay until the next morning for the first pass through - and again I loved it a lot but I was a bit surprised how relatively straightforward it was at least as the big picture goes; battles in Talbot, diplomacy on Haven and of course Oyster Bay - which was the huge cliffhanger of Storm and whose name is self-explanatory by obvious allusion to 1941.

Also while Torch of Freedom had some extremely emotional moments almost on par with the ones in At All Costs, both the treacheries and the resulting massive deaths in Storm from the Shadows and the huge devastation and megadeaths that Oyster Bay inflicted are less emotional since only (lots of) secondary characters die as opposed to the main ones in the above mentioned novels.

However reading Storm from the Shadows/Mission of Honor together and keeping the events from Torch of Freedom in mind was a different experience since in this case the whole is considerably superior to its component parts. The magic touch of David Weber is in clear view as the huge tapestry of events in these 1400 pages unfolds and things just slot naturally into place, which considering the scale of events and the huge number of characters is a tremendous achievement.

There are so many superb touches of which of course the first obvious ones are the two "night visits" that bracket Mission of Honor, but also Aldona's departure from New Tuscany in her yacht on a Manticoran's composer music accompaniment, Admiral Khumalo's first meeting with Captain Terekhov at Monica, the conversations between the two Solarian intelligence officers that start having a clue about what's what, the names of the "public leaders" of the super villains (of course there is a Clinton, king here as opposed to Grand Inquisitor in Safehold, but there are others that were unexpected and quite funny as it happens), the fate of Joe Buckley...

So overall Storm from the Shadows/Mission of Honor (together they are an A++, separately each is an A+) achieve their dual objective in grand style. They formally end the first Honorverse series and start the second one on a pretty dark note, while providing everything I came to expect from the author - space battles, intrigue, diplomacy, expansion of the technological universe of the series, great lines and unforgettable scenes, as well as superb characters both on the "good guys" side, but also on the "villains" side too. From now on we are really in uncharted territory - except for the little cliffhanger whose denouement will start the next novel in the series - and I cannot wait for the next novel.

NOTEWORTHY RELEASES

Click here to find out more about “The Shattered Crown”
Review HERE

NOTEWORTHY RELEASES

Click here to find out more about “Cauldron of Ghosts”
Review HERE

NOTEWORTHY RELEASES

Click here to find out more about “Rex Regis”
Review HERE

NOTEWORTHY RELEASES

Click here to find out more about “The Great King”
Review HERE

NOTEWORTHY RELEASES

Click here to find out more about “Like A Mighty Army”
Review HERE

NOTEWORTHY RELEASES

Click here to find out more about “Fortune's Pawn”
Review HERE

NOTEWORTHY RELEASES

Click here to find out more about
Review HERE