Category Archives: Review

Crow Country by Mark Cocker

Crow Country by Mark Cocker

Vintage Books, London, 2008

From my TBR pile.

Mark Cocker is not a biologist or any kind of scientist but he was introduced to the mysteries that are rooks at young age and has been fascinated by Corvids ever since.

One evening, near his home in Norfolk, England, he watched a massive, ear-shattering gathering of rooks and jackdaws on the way to their roost.  From that point on they became an obsession and he traveled the length of England in search of them, trying to find answers to why they gathered and where they choose to roost.  Interspersing his travels with poetry, historic journal entries and scientific research, he wanders his home territory, fascinated by these birds.

Cocker’s writing is poetic prose, layered with feeling and deep thought. It is the kind of “nature” writing that stops me, makes me really think about my own assumptions, about what I “know”.

You may ask, how could the rook have subverted my whole approach to birds?  The answer starts, like birding itself, with the business of identification.  You can’t proceed with an interest in ornithology unless you are able to identify the creatures you observe.  Identification itself hinges upon breaking down a bird into its constituent parts – the primaries, wings, tail, head, legs, etc.  Having deconstructed it into this detailed feathered map, one can then attach a specific name to the suite of observed features.  In a sense the issue of the rook’s flocking instinct was previously important to me only as a characteristic allowing me to recognize the bird.

I have come to recognize that even this exercise carries within it a subtle kind of complacency, a curious intellectual sleight of hand, because every time you pin a label on a living creature it reaffirms a sense of mastery over it.  The naming of the thing gives you the wonderfully reassuring illusion that you know it.  You don’t.  Sometimes all you have is a single datum.  The name.  In a bizarre way, the process of recognition can actually be a barrier rather than a doorway to genuine appreciation.  From page 39.

This is  nature writing at its best, filled with facts and history, featuring beings that have lived with and haunted humans for centuries.  It is also a reminder that the earth is not just ours.  It is a place  shared with a multitude of other creatures.  If we wish to lead full and joyful lives, we must value our connections to them

15 Comments

Filed under Birds, Corvids, Natural History, Review, Science, TBR Double Dare

Shards by Ismet Prcic

Shards by Ismet Prcic

Black Cat, New York, 2011

From my library hold list.

A young Bosnian, Ismet Prcic, has left his home, his family and his war-torn country to make a new life in Southern California.  But it is not what he expects.  When he hears a car backfire he dives for cover.  He has flashbacks at the strangest times.  He falls in love and misses his mother.  He remembers the war.

Advised to write “everything” he builds a great pile of pieces, descriptions of his life, letters to his mother, memories of home, bits of the past and the present.  And then Mustafa appears.  Is he a construct, someone Ismet has created to distance himself from the war?  Or is he real?

These are the shards that make up this unusual and disturbing novel.  At time a difficult read because of the many bits and pieces, Shards is almost blinding, reflecting life in a war zone, life as an immigrant, and the sometimes mind-bending qualities of memory.

8 Comments

Filed under Bosnia, LiteraryFiction, Review, War

Planesrunner by Ian McDonald

Planesrunner by Ian McDonald

Pyr, Amherst, NY, 2011

From my library TBR holds.  This is the first book in the Everness series.

A great young adult novel, the first in a series,  from one of my favorite science fiction authors.

Everett Singh leads a pretty normal life for a fourteen year old until the day his father is kidnapped.

Everett knows his father is a theoretical physicist, working on the Many-Worlds Theory, but when he tries to explain to the police that his father has been kidnapped they brush him off.

“Do you know what the Many Worlds Theory is?” Everett said. He leaned forward across the table. Previous occupants had doodled stars and spirals and cubes and the names of football clubs on the peeling plastic. “Every time the smallest least tiniest thing happens, the universe branches. There’s a universe where it happened, and a universe where it didn’t. Every second, every microsecond every day, there are new universes splitting off from this one. For every possible event in history, there’s a universe, out there somewhere, right beside this one.” Everett lifted a finger and drew a line through the air. “A billion universes, just there now. Every possible universe is out there somewhere. This isn’t something someone made up, this is a proper physical theory. That’s what physics means: real, solid, actual. Does that sound not so important to you? It sounds to me like the biggest thing there is.”

Through clues and an inter-dimensional map left by his father, Everett opens a gate between worlds and finds himself in a London that is at once familiar and terribly strange, dealing with people from that world, his own world and many others worlds.

McDonald does a fabulous job of making a very complex idea understandable for both young adult and adult readers.  There is adventure, drama and the meaning of family wrapped up in this wonderful story and I can’t wait to read more in this series.

5 Comments

Filed under Review, SciFi, Young Adult

The Wandering Falcon by Jamil Ahmad

The Wandering Falcon by Jamil Ahmad

Riverhead Books, New York, 2011

From my library TBR list.  This book has been short listed for the 2011 Man Asian Literary Prize.

Born in 1933, Jamil Ahmad spent time in the Pakistani Civil Service.  He served in the frontier province, traveling through the “Badlands” between Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan.  Ahmad is a traditional story-teller.  He values and love these lands and the tribal people who live in and travel across them.

The Wandering Falcon is a small book made up of stories.  Stories you might hear sitting at an old man’s feet or around a fire with many relatives.  I have to believe that this still happens somewhere.  That people tell stories to the young, to each other.

A young couple runs away from their tribe and takes shelter with a group of soldiers.  They build a life and have a son.  Eventually the head man of their tribe comes looking for them and they run away, only to be killed in the desert, their son left to starve. This boy is Tor Baz, the “Black Falcon” and he grows up to wander the land.  The stories follow him from tribe to tribe, from youth to adolescence to manhood.

The area where Pakistan and Afghanistan meet is inhospitable.  It’s people are traditional, tribal, most are nomadic, following their herds through summer and winter, over open pasture, through difficult mountain passes.  They live a harsh, honor-bound life. Many of their beliefs and traditions clash with those of the west.  They are being forced to change.

Jamil Ahmed, through this small collection of linked stories, as written the late 20th and early 21st century history of this land.  The closing of borders, wars fought for territories, western influence, these pressures and others force a people who have lived in certain ways for centuries to change those ways over night.  Ahmed’s stories bring this land, these people, to life.

I enjoyed this book, loved Jamil’s traditional story-telling.  I am sad for these people, for their struggles, for being caught in a time of great change.

Other reviews:

Farm Lane Books Blog

S. Krishna’s Books

Winstonsdad’s Blog

3 Comments

Filed under Afghanistan, Historical Fiction, Pakistan, Review

Play The Monster Blind by Lynn Coady

Play The Monster Blind by Lynn Coady

Vintage Canada, Toronto, 2001

From my TBR pile.

This is a collection of short stories, linked by characters, family histories and location.  It is the first time I have read Lynn Coady, an author and playwright from Nova Scotia who now lives in Edmonton, Alberta.

Reading these stories felt like walking barefoot over gravel, sharp and painful, wanting to hurry and get into cool grass.  Coady is an insightful writer, exploring the dynamics of family and community in a small town.

Anyone who has lived in a small town, particularly as an adolescent, knows the feeling Coady expresses in her stories.  Gossip, back-biting, bullying, the need to fit in and the need to escape.

…When you think about people gossiping, you think about everyone sitting around and talking and talking until it makes everyone sick, but that’s not really how it works at all.  All it takes is one sentence every couple of days, a passing remark or a joke.  And then that person and all that is wrong with them is riveted inside your skull and if  anyone ever says their name around you it triggers all the remarks and jokes in a flood – that’s what you think of when you think of them.  That’s how it works.  From The Ice-Cream Man, page 36.

And there’s that closed in feeling of not getting anywhere as an adult, of giving in, and giving up.   There are also those people who escape small towns and then find themselves drawn back, for a funeral or a wedding or because life is just too difficult “out there”.

I know, this sound depressing, but Lynn Coady’s abilities bring a sharp humor to these stories and make even the most unlikable character understandable.  Some of the stories focus on girls growing up and women who blame themselves for the state of their families and the state of the world.  This made me angry but I found that while Coady shines a light into some dark corners, she does so with compassion.

Other reviews:

Buried in Print

17 Comments

Filed under Canadian, Review, StoryCollection

Lamb by Bonnie Nadzam

Lamb by Bonnie Nadzam

Other Press, New York, 2011

From my TBR pile.  I first read an excerpt of Lamb in Harper’s last summer and was completely drawn in by Nadzam’s writing.

David Lamb’s life is falling apart.  His marriage is over, his father has died and he is in danger of losing his job because of  an office affair.  Then, while sitting in a parking lot, a young girl approaches him on a dare.  This is eleven-year-old Tommie, bumbling and awkward and, Lamb thinks, a to change his life.

At first it seems  Lamb truly wants to help Tommie, to offer her the things he feels are missing from her life. Then, when he decides to take her on a road trip to a cabin in the west, the reader has to question his motives.

Dear girl, how could she not carry Lamb with her, all the grassy fields he painted hanging between her little face and the world, bright screens printed with the images he made for her: flashes of green and silver; huge birds circling in the wind; the wet brown eyes of a horse; yellow eggs on a breakfast dish; the curve of their backs on a weathered rail fence on a cool blue morning.  From page 36

This pair, so awkward and needy, make it hard to stop reading and yet the possibilities are terrifying.   Lamb’s lies become clear but is he lying to Tommie or to himself?  Does it matter? Nazdam’s writing surrounds her characters, covers their emotional dysfunction and manipulation with layers of beauty.

A stunning, morally ambiguous novel,  Lamb is dangerous and difficult book.  It will be on my 2012 favorites list.

10 Comments

Filed under LiteraryFiction, Review, TBR Double Dare

Seed by Rob Ziegler

Seed by Rob Zielger

Night Shade Books, San Francisco, 2011

From my library TBR list.  With a recommendation from Paolo Bacigalupi, author of The Windup Girl, I wanted to read this one when I first saw it on the Night Shade Books website.

At the beginning of the 22nd century most of the United States has become a dust bowl, ravaged by violent waves of unpredictable weather.  Migrants, ragged and hungry, travel from place to place, on foot or in rigged-up vehicles,gathering Seed from government depots and hoping to find a place to grow and harvest a crop, enough food to last until the next harvest, never knowing when that will be.  They are swayed by prairie saints and harassed by La Chupacabra, a gang of violent thieves.

Seed is bio-engineered and precious, marked by a tiny barcode.   Made by Satori, a living,  growing animal of a city, controlled by the Designers, and genetically coded to be sterile,  it is the only source of food available, and the Government struggles to control  it.  Satori’s Designers, bio-engineered themselves, have minds of their own and have created modified humans as laborers and security forces.  And there is Tet, a deadly virus slowly spreading through the population.

Ziegler has written a dystopian western, filled with shoot-outs and clipped dialogue.  His use of imminent climate change and terminator technology turns this first novel towards speculative fiction.  It is messy, violent and I found it a quick, disturbing read.

2 Comments

Filed under 2012 Speculative Fiction Challenge, Review, Sci-Fi Experience, SciFi, SpeculativeFiction, TBR Double Dare

Scottsboro by Ellen Feldman

Scottsboro by Ellen Feldman

Picador, New York, 2008

From my TBR stack.  On the short list for the 2009 Orange Prize.

It is difficult taking a piece of history and turning it to fiction.  Helen Feldman has done that by taking a racial motivated  event from 1930’s America and using it to create a powerful historical novel.

In 1931 nine black teens ranging in age from 12 to 19,  jump a train traveling from Tennessee to Alabama, end up in a brawl with some white men and are accused of raping two white women.  The arrests and subsequent trials of the Scottsboro Boys drew national attention.

Scottsboro is told in two voices.  One, Alice Whittier, a reporter from New York City sent to cover the initial trial, is a whip-smart, well-educated white women from New York City with a trust fund. Distanced from her family and involved in a sexual relationship with her boss she is thrilled to be offered the story.  The other, Ruby Bates, is one of the accusers, manipulated by her “friend” Victoria Price and considered “poor white trash” by members of her own community.

The case is a magnet for the national media and for the Communist Party who hope to recruit more members from the south.  The C.P. sends lawyers from International Labor Defense to stand as defense attorneys for the accused.

Knowing some of the history of this case, including the fact that the crimes did not occur, does not detract from Scottsboro.  Feldman includes many of the  actual participants in her novel, using quotes from articles, reports and interviews as epigraphs for each chapter.  She gives voice to the politicians, reporters,  lawyers and defendants.

Ruby and Alice are central to Scottsboro but historical elements of the 30’s America add strength to the novel.  The descriptions of Jim Crow lynchings,  prison environments , the rampant racism, anti-Semitism and sexism pervasive throughout the country and the political maneuvering by the courts, the government and the Communist party are woven throughout and, for me, add to the sense of historical truth.

Feldman also includes other pieces of 1930’s American  history.  The depression, Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt, Hooverville and The Bonus Army all have a place here.  Alice tells the story from the future, reflecting on all that has happened to the country, to the 9 defendants, to Ruby and in her own life since that fateful train ride from Chattanooga.

I enjoyed this novel and would like to read more about Scottsboro, including  Remembering Scottsboro by James A. Miller and Stories of Scottsboro by James E. Goodman.

3 Comments

Filed under Historical Fiction, OrangePrize, Review, TBR Double Dare

The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

Riverhead Books, New York, 2011

From my TBR pile.  This novel was long-listed for the 2006 Orange Prize.

A novel of World War 11 written so that it takes the reader back in time from 1947 to 1941.   Waters gives us the stories of five characters living through that war in London.  The characters connect and intertwine with each other in many ways, some of which are unknown to each of them.

The four women and one man struggle with personal choices, family pressure and society.  Three of the women are entangled in a love-affair, one is helped through a life-changing event by sheer accident and the young man, imprisoned for a crime the reader can only guess at, is connected by blood and history to the others.

Sarah Waters’ writing brings the thoughts and emotions of her characters to life.   Dialogue tells the stories, descriptive language creates the atmosphere.  Sometimes not muchseems to be happening but inner dialogue builds up personal histories, some  filled with happiness, some with regret and a  sense of longing.  Longing for the past, for different choices and always there is the war.

     He lost his footing, then righted himself and went on without speaking.  Partridge was coughing because of the dust.  Mickey was rubbing grit from her eyes.  The chaos was extraordinary.  Every time Kay put down her feet, things cracked beneath them, or wrapped themselves around her ankles: broken window-glass mixed up with broken mirrors, crockery, chairs and tables, curtains, carpets,  feathers from a cushion or a bed, great splinters of wood. The wood surprised Kay, even now: in the days before the war she’d imagined houses were made more or less solidly, of stone – like the last Little Pig’s, in the fairy tale.  What amazed her, too, was the smallness of the piles of dirt and rubble to which even large buildings were reduced.  This house had three intact floors to it, and hour before;  the heaps of debris its front had were no more than six or seven feet high.  She supposed that houses, after all – like the lives that were lived in them – were mostly made of space.  It was the spaces, in fact, that counted, rather than the bricks.  From page 172.

These characters live in a time when their choices, how they live their lives, who they love, put them in danger.  Waters’ sensitivity and attention to detail brings the fullness of their  lives to the reader without being overly dramatic.  This is a brave and beautiful book.

16 Comments

Filed under Historical Fiction, OrangePrize, Review

Anathem by Neal Stephenson

Anathem By Neal Stephenson

William Morrow, New York, 2008

From my library hold list.

I have been a Stephenson fan since reading Snow Crash in the early ’90s.  It is one of those books that I return to again and again and it always seems to be several steps ahead of  modern techno-culture.

Anathem is 900+ pages.  Reading it felt taking a step back in time and ending up thousands of years in the future.

On the planet called Ambre,  Fraa Erasmas, a young Avout living in a monastery-like community called a Concent, is happy to take part in rituals he and his cohorts do not really understand.  He spends most of his time in deep dialog with his teachers.  Avouts are intellectuals, removed from society and all technology,  like monks or nuns.  Concents are walled compounds and members are grouped into Maths, based on the study of certain disciplines and on lengths of time.  Members of Maths are allowed to enter society during a yearly 10 day event called an Apert.   Depending on their Math, Avouts take part in this celebration every year,  every ten years,  or every hundred years. Then there are the Millenniums.  The rest of the time Avouts are sequestered in their Concert unless called upon to help the outside world is a matter that requires scientific or theoretical problem solving.

Erasmas’ teacher, Orolo, has discovered a strange ship circling the planet and manages to take pictures of it. This sets off a series of events that has Orolo expelled from his community and the secular and political society calling on members of Concents from all over Ambre to help determine what the ship is and where it comes from.

Simple, huh?  The thing about Stephenson is things are never simple.  I spent the first couple hundred pages flipping back to the glossary, learning what all the terms meant.  Ambre itself seems earth-like but  reversed and regressed.  Concents are intellectual and time is spent discussing mathematics, physics and philosophy.  Thinking is their avocation and the spiritual is intellectual.

Outside, in the Sæcular world, there is commerce, technology and religion, very like our own. We learn that thousands of years of war and peace have developed this divided society.  I am fascinated by Stephensen’s ability to create a world that is so like our own and yet so different.  He states that his inspiration for Anathem comes from the Long Now Foundation and their 10,000 year clock.  Long Now is an organization I have following for several years.

I devoured Anathem over a period of four days and only found a few bits that didn’t quite work for me.   The end feels rushed and left some questions unanswered.  There is no way I can write about Anathem in any way that does it justice.  If you are fascinated by the history of human thought, by philosophy and science, and are a fan of science fiction you will enjoy this book.

Now I think I am ready for Stephenson’s newest novel,  Reamde.   It is over 1,000 pages long.

13 Comments

Filed under 2012 Speculative Fiction Challenge, Review, Sci-Fi Experience, SciFi