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.

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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.

The Blue Castle

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Title: The Blue Castle

Author: Lucy Maud Montgomery

Publisher: e-artnow

Pages: 235

Format Read: Kindle

L.M. Montgomery is best known for “Anne of the Green Gables” – the story of that redheaded, talkative, imaginative child called Anne (whose name is spelt with an ‘e’). This was a book I read and really, really enjoyed. Montgomery’s writing was beautiful, and Anne was a spirited little girl with her head full of dreams and magic stories. It was hard not to like her. “Anne…” was originally published in 1908.

“The Blue Castle,” published first in 1926, introduces a grown-up protagonist, Valancy Stirling. Valancy is twenty nine, socially awkward, and low in self-confidence, and, in what is considered quite scandalous, unmarried. She is unattractive, her bossy mother likes to remind her. She is strange, her aunt and cousins like to tell her. There is also, much to Valancy’s chagrin, a younger, exquisitely beautiful cousin called Olive who is graceful and articulate and engaged to a wealthy young man.

As an escape, Valancy conjures up a ‘blue castle’ in her mind, where she is the lady of the house. A place where everybody likes her and she has an endless stream of suitors.

The atmosphere at home is oppressive, and Valancy, in a shocking revelation, is told that she has a fatal heart condition. The doctor’s terse letter explaining her illness to her shakes Valancy up – and she finds courage that she never knew she had. She moves out of her home (ignoring her family’s hysterics) and takes up residence with the terminally ill Cissy Gay and her father.

With Valancy’s new found independence also comes a romance with the notorious Barney Snaith. Naturally, Valancy’s family is scandalized, and to their shock, Valancy just does not care. That she is now as notorious as her husband in the little town of Deerwood does not concern her at all.

The fictitious town of Deerwood is beautifully described – you can almost see the beauty of the landscape through Montgomery’s lyrical use of prose. The author also makes some astute observations on human nature. Valancy is a relatable, flawed heroine, a young woman who manages to break free from those who constantly tell her she can never, ever succeed. And her happiness, she discovers, is entirely of her own making, without the shackles of negativity that dogged her throughout her life.

An inspiring, gentle story of self-discovery that is masterfully told.

 

Man-Eaters of Kumaon

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Title: Man-Eaters of Kumaon

Author: Jim Corbett

Publisher: Rupa

Pages: 170

Format Read: Paperback

“While looking at the leg I had forgotten all about the tigress until I suddenly felt that I was in great danger.”

– Jim Corbett in ‘Man-Eaters of Kumaon’

A British hunter and conservationist, Jim Corbett (1875-1955) was instrumental in the creation of the tiger reserve in Uttarakhand, India, the Jim Corbett National Park. He was also, as his writings show, a keen tracker of man-eaters and a prolific writer. The anecdotes in the book took place in the first half of the twentieth century.

“Man-Eaters of Kumaon” is probably his best known work, and as the title suggests, this is a book about the hunter Corbett on the trail of man-eating tigers. Some of these animals had kill counts in the hundreds, terrorized villagers, and left a trail of destruction and fear in their wake. These were, from the accounts of Corbett, highly intelligent creatures that waited for the perfect moment to strike.

Corbett’s view of the villagers, their lives and customs, and his commentary on their beliefs do not come across as supercilious in “Man-Eaters of Kumaon” unlike several other colonial writings of the time. He appears to understand that Hindus cremate their dead and tries to find the bodies of victims killed by the tigers.  He offers insights into the habits of man-eating tigers and why they become man-eaters in the first place. He recounts his efforts to track the tigers and notices the unusual way they hunt. His account in ‘The Chowgarh Tigers’ is particularly eerie, where a tigress and her cub hunt as a pair. And the Champawat man-eater, Corbett says, reportedly killed 436 people.

Nearly all of his short essays in “Man-Eaters of Kumaon” are about actual man-eaters. The exception being ‘The Bachelor of Powalgarh’ which was, frankly, a disturbing recollection of big game trophy hunting.

My favourite piece in this book is naturally the short essay titled ‘Robin.’ Robin was Jim Corbett’s dog, a little animal that Corbett chanced upon quite unexpectedly. Robin was a happy and faithful companion on Corbett’s adventures, a dog who quickly learned how to accompany his human on hunting quests.

Corbett takes pains to elaborate his hunting process and does not hide the fact that these tigers terrified him as much as they frightened their victims. Man-eaters are intelligent creatures that have strayed from their normal diets to feast on humans, and that is not natural, as Corbett explains. Almost all of these tigers were also, he remarks dryly, well nourished.

“Man-Eaters of Kumaon” is a very well written, highly readable work that explores the techniques of a hunter on the trail of other hunters in the wild.