Mockingbird

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Title: Mockingbird  

Author:  Walter Tevis

Publisher: Gollancz (S.F. Masterworks)

Pages: 278

Format Read: Paperback

“Mockingbird” is set in an indeterminate future – a near future though, I think, not one removed from the present by a thousand years. This future is a world of drug haze and maddening languidness. There is no art, no cinema, no creativity and imagination, and no books.

There are no children either, except for robotic copies that mimic childlike antics without really realizing what they’re doing.

At the heart of “Mockingbird” is a robot, Spofforth, a machine that is described as perfect. He is more intelligent, better looking, and more self-aware than his human contemporaries. And that self-awareness leads him to contemplate deactivation, or suicide, if only those safety protocols programmed into him would let him.

There is also Bentley, a human born in that eerie world. Amidst the peculiarity of existence everybody else is trapped in, Bentley teaches himself to read. It is a skill that is forbidden and dangerous, a skill that will lead to imprisonment. But reading gives him insights into a world gone by. One with beauty and imagination and the joys of family.

And then there’s Mary-Lou, who is something of a vagrant. She spends her time at the zoo with robotic animals. Despite her wandering, Mary-Lou never goes hungry, and she always finds shelter. With Bentley, she learns to read.

The strange world of “Mockingbird” focuses on these three. Each of them learns something from the other. The art of reading helps them rediscover lost ideas such as friendship. And for Mary-Lou and Bentley, something like romance.

“Mockingbird” is a novel about reading and, in spite of the bleak world it presents, it is not about bleakness. It is a novel of hope, an emotion that gives even the melancholy Spofforth something to hold on to.

Overall, for me, this was a thought-provoking novel.

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Borderline

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Title: Borderline

Author:  Mishell Baker

Publisher: Saga Press

Pages: 390

Format Read: Paperback

It’s been a while since I’ve read urban fantasy and Borderline is intriguing. For one, the protagonist Millicent Roper, or Millie, is an absolutely unexpected protagonist. She is in a facility at the start of the book after a failed suicide attempt. That attempt has left her with two prosthetic legs.

And she also has Borderline Personality Disorder or BPD.

In short, she’s a bit of a mess and she knows it. She is also fascinating. When a mysterious visitor by the name of Caryl Vallo drops in at the facility and offers Millie a chance to join the Arcadia Project, she takes it. It is, among other things, a second chance at life, and an opportunity to leave the facility, and to experience something new.

Never mind that the Arcadia Project is a shadowy organization that keeps watch over fey visitors from another dimension. And that they recruit members with a history of mental illness. It’s a strange and bizarre situation Millie finds herself in once she joins and takes up residence with the rest of their crew. To start with, Millie is partnered with the unpredictable Teo and asked to find a certain actor who has gone missing. He is also a member of the Seelie Court of the fey. In short, a nobleman.

Trying to find that missing actor opens a Pandora’s Box of secrets and magic and capricious fey, gates and glamour. And a potential war between humans and fey.

Borderline is filled with a cast of interesting characters. Millie for one is prone to extreme moods and irrational thoughts, but she is creative and extremely intelligent. She has problems and she acknowledges them, and the book does do a good job of presenting her issues with BPD. And her prosthetics. She is also prone to extreme mood swings and she can be pretty judgemental– and that makes her more believable.

Overall, I thought Borderline fun and engaging, fast paced and really quite complex.

Revelation Space

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Title: Revelation Space  

Author:  Alastair Reynolds

Publisher:  Gollancz (S.F. Masterworks)

Pages:  598

Format Read: Paperback

I’ve always been fascinated by space operas and the idea of lost civilizations in science fiction. The possibility of vanished alien civilizations in deep space are even more fascinating. As is the question of the possibility of life on other worlds…and why they haven’t made contact with the human race.

Revelation Space is remarkable in that sense. Here, the human race has reached the point of lighthugging spacecraft and interstellar travel – but the aliens are, for some reason, still missing. The galaxy is eerily silent. Except for the Jugglers, and those aren’t aliens in the way humanity had come to expect. They are strange, unreachable, and utterly incomprehensible.

Dan Sylveste, though, is curious about the remnants of the bird-like Amarantin race. The ruins are vast, and they are cryptic – because somewhere, somehow, they seem to suggest that the galaxy did have aliens at some point in the distant past, and they all vanished when they become spacefaring civilizations. The Amarantin themselves succumbed to that odd galactic mystery and disappeared nine hundred thousand years ago. It occurs to Sylveste that something out there has been targeting fledgling civilizations. And perhaps eradicating them.

Ana Khouri has been hired by the mysterious Mademoiselle to assassinate Sylveste. She boards the lighthugger Infinity and meets Volyova, one of the de-facto captains of the ship. And as she nears her target, Khouri finds that the Infinity has been hijacked by a peculiar entity called Sun-Stealer, the Mademoiselle has kept secrets from her, and perhaps assassinating Sylveste needs a rethink.

This novel starts out slow and takes its time with worldbuilding and setting the stage for something larger. It does appear to meander a bit with new characters introduced…the cast is very large. I found them a little flat, for they seem to sound alike for a great deal of the novel. And, Revelation Space being a hard science fiction novel is crammed full of detail.

This is a very slow read – but I found it fascinating nonetheless. It was scientific, and creative, and very imaginative, and it managed to keep that shadowy, frightening sense of loneliness in deep space throughout its narrative.

Lud-in-the-Mist

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Title: Lud-in-the-Mist  

Author: Hope Mirrlees

Publisher: Prologue Fantasy

Pages: 290

Format Read:  Kindle

“To the imaginative, it is always something of an adventure to walk down a pleached alley. You enter boldly enough, but soon you find yourself wishing you had stayed outside…”

– Hope Mirrlees in ‘Lud-in-the-Mist’

Originally published in 1926, Lud-in-the-Mist is a delightful novel set in the mysterious Dorimare, with its capital Lud-in-the-Mist. This is a charming, well ordered place, with noble families and strange physicians, magic in the air, and secrets.

For Lud-in-the-Mist is closer to fairyland than the inhabitants would like to admit, and the presence of the fairy folk startles them, and even frightens them – to the point of not speaking about them. Fairy fruit is anathema, because it induces strange dreams and a longing for that moonlit land beyond the realm of the mundane. And, as Master Nathaniel Chanticleer, mayor of Dorimare of the prestigious Chanticleer family discovers, fairy magic also comes in the form of music. Or, in this case, with a haunting note from a certain musical instrument he had tried to learn in his childhood.

For the citizens for Dorimare, the world of Faerie is a world to be avoided. It is the centre of magic and the supernatural and all things unseen. Whereas in Dorimare, logic, reason, and the prosaic everyday form the basis of existence. But magic will not be shut out so easily. It seeps into their lives and the suspense builds up as more and more folks slip into its fold.

And for Nathaniel Chanticleer, the note almost drives him mad. And then, his son is affected by that peculiar malaise drawing him to Faerie.

‘Lud-in-the-Mist’ reads much like a fairy tale, with beautiful prose and lyrical descriptions. The tension is palpable as the rational minds of Dorimare struggle to deal with the supernatural. And they try to deny its presence by ignoring it. Which does more harm than good.

This is a slow moving, elegantly crafted novel.

The Loom of Thessaly

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Title: The Loom of Thessaly  

Author:  David Brin

Publisher:  N/A

Pages:  48

Format Read:  Kindle

“The Loom of Thessaly” is a novella about a loom. To be more precise, it is a sci-fi novella that blends Greek myth and science and maybe a touch of fantasy (and it’s difficult to go into too much detail without spoiling the story). And, humanity, with its hopes and ideals and creativity, may actually be ‘guided’ by…well. That is part of the suspense.

Basically, the novella refers to the Greek Fates – Clotho, who created the threads of human fate, Lachesis, who dispersed the threads, and Atropos, who determined death by cutting the threads of fate.

The protagonist Pavlos discovers that not all myths are inherently mythical when he finds a certain Doric, or Minoan, or Cretan style structure. He is also called a hero by a mysterious stranger and given a bronze suit of armour whose design seems ancient. But it can’t be old, because it looks new. Besides, it fits him perfectly. And from there on, the story gets really, really strange.

“The Loom of Thessaly” is a fascinating and an extremely innovative story, and I found that I read through this one really quickly. It is strikingly original and a lot of fun to follow Pavlos into that bizarre and peculiar adventure.

Overall I thought this novella unexpected and delightful.

Girl with a Pearl Earring

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Title: Girl with a Pearl Earring

Author: Tracy Chevalier

Publisher: HarperCollins

Pages: 248

Format Read: Paperback

This is a book I’ve wanted to read for a long time. Set in 17th century Holland, the novel follows Griet, a girl who receives a couple of surprise visitors one day. She is, she is told by her mother, to work as a maid for a certain painter, and the painter and his wife have come to see her. The wife is a little short of temper, pregnant, and difficult. The painter notices that Griet arranges vegetables for her soup in a methodical fashion, and asks her about it, much to her surprise.

That painter is, of course, Johannes Vermeer.

Griet learns to work at his household that is full of children with more on the way. She learns how to deal with the older housekeeper, Tanneke. She meets the formidable mother of Catharina, Vermeer’s wife. She learns how to clean Vermeer’s studio without making it seem that she’s been in there at all.

And then she becomes a part of Vermeer’s world and the subject of a painting of a girl with a pearl earring.

Griet and the events surrounding her employment at the painter’s household are fictitious, but Girl with a Pearl Earring is a fascinating novel. The historical world of the Delft is brought to life in simple prose without the ponderous verbiage that sometimes accompanies historical fiction novels. Griet comes across as impetuous yet courteous, curious without being overbearing, and is a well-drawn out character. It is easy to sympathise with her as she navigates this new world of art and the painter’s peculiar attention to her. Vermeer himself is rarely named, and simply alluded to by Griet as ‘he.’ Which is, actually, an interesting way of referring to him. Naturally, Catharina is impatient with her, Tanneke is annoyed and a little jealous, Maria Thins (Catharina’s mother) does not know what to do with her. And then there’s Vermeer’s daughter Cornelia, who, despite her youth at the beginning, manages to get Griet into all sorts of trouble.

There are also some other…problems that Griet must learn to deal with. Uncomfortable problems, like van Ruijven, Vermeer’s patron. Griet is just a maid, now, isn’t she? And thus, van Ruijven thinks he can take liberties with her, putting her in a perilous situation, considering her station and his influence.

I thought this a very interesting novel indeed.

The Sundial

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Title: The Sundial

Author: Shirley Jackson

Publisher: Penguin (Modern Classics)

Pages: 222

Format Read: Paperback

I enjoyed this book. Mrs. Halloran inherits Halloran House with its peculiar past on account of her son’s death. Naturally, her daughter-in-law is upset, and that much is made clear right at the beginning of the novel.

And her daughter-in-law is the least of Mrs. Halloran’s problems. Her husband isn’t in the best of health, and her sister-in-law has begun to have visions of her dear departed father. So much so that she has declared herself a prophetess of doom (all while wearing her mother’s diamonds, of course. You can’t be a prophetess without the diamonds.)

But what is the book about, exactly? It seems to be about the house itself, and its history. Then it seems to be about the visions Aunt Fanny (the prophetess sister-in-law) talks about. There’s also a doomsday cult thrown in for good measure.

Most of all, though, I found the novel a fascinating interplay of characters in an odd setting trying to make sense of looming uncertainty, even insanity. There’s an undercurrent of wry humour, a sense of dread. Nobody is quite sane in the book, and Aunt Fanny’s nightmare wanderings in the garden are eerie. Tying the story together is that odd sundial in the garden with its inscription ‘WHAT IS THIS WORLD?’

Added to the fracas are visitors, employees, and Mrs. Halloran’s creepy little granddaughter Fancy. A strange novel, to be sure, and difficult to describe, but a lot of fun to read.