As we dig out of almost a foot of late winter snow, I’m reading furiously.
I have less than two weeks to finish books I’m leading discussions on at work. The King Must Die: A Novel, by Mary Renault for our noon discussion group and And Then There Were None, by Agatha Christie for our new mystery group. The Christie book will be no problem. I really enjoy mysteries, and there’s few better than Christie. The Renault book is another matter. I’m having real problems getting into it. Maybe it’s the book, maybe it’s the dreary weather we’ve been having, but I just can’t seem to get going. Even my boss says it’s a good book.
Time to buckle down and force myself to read. You gotta do what you gotta do.
When people hear the words “fantasy stories,” their thoughts leap to J.R.R. Tolkien and his works. These may be among the most popular fantasy books, but there’s a lot more out there than Tolkien (and his imitators). Here, in no particular order, are some of my personal favorite fantasy books:
- Bleach – I’ll admit it: I’m a manga/anime fan. This is one I enjoy a lot.
- War in Heaven – Charles Williams is probably the least known of the Inklings, the group that also included Tokien and C.S. Lewis. To be honest, even though I like Tolkien a lot, Williams is probably my favorite. War in Heaven is a modern-day Grail romance/murder story. If you haven’t read it, I recommend you give it a try. $0.99 on Kindle, what have you got to lose?
- Animal Farm – This is truly a classic. A cautionary tale about what happens when a class of citizens gets greedy for power and “stuff.” Not a children’s tale, but one every adult should read at least once.
- Xanth – Start with A Spell for Chameleon, and then just keep going. A funny (punny?) but seriously good fantasy series set in an analogue of Florida, where magic works.
- The Worm Ouroboros – A strange story, and a precursor to Tolkien. Anthony Boucher considered it to be one of the greatest imaginative works of the 20th century. I would have to agree.
- Rhinegold – If you like the northern myths, then you’ll enjoy Stephan Grundy’s retelling of the Volsunga Saga. It’s out of print, but you may find it in a library or a used bookstore. If you do, grab it!
- Troll: A Love Story – Here’s an odd one: Johanna Sinisalo tells the story of a man who finds a young troll near his apartment and takes it into his life. I enjoyed this book quite a lot.
- A Princess of Mars – The first of Edgar Rice Burrough’s John Carter of Mars series. It seems a little dated today, but it is a classic and a must read for any fantasy fan. It’s also much better than the recent movie.
- Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon – Not a book, but an excellent movie, that easily qualifies as a modern classic. This is the film that popularized fantastic martial arts in the USA. If you like fantasy films, you’ve got to watch this one!
Just finished Dan Brown’s Inferno. I’ve enjoyed the three previous titles in his Robert Langdon series (see also Angels & Demons, The DaVinci Code, and The Lost Symbol), but this one is by far the best. So many twists and turns, complicated plot lines, unexpected revelations, and some very interesting ethical questions. I’m not at all sure he can top this one.
I’ve finished Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister (which, by the way, was a simply amazing book!). Check out my (brief) review on Goodreads. Time to move on to Dan Brown’s Inferno. First, some sleep, though.
Chinua Achebe, widely seen as the primary force behind post-colonial African literature, has died at the age of 82. Although he wrote many books (most recently There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra) and taught at the University of Massachusetts (Amherst), he’s probably best known for his 1958 novel Things Fall Apart. He was one of my favorite writers, and is one of the major influences on my interest in modern, post-colonial literature. He will be missed, both by friends and family, and by the literary world (BBC News story).
When it comes to mysteries, the cozy sub-genre tends to draw pretty extreme reactions. Most readers either love them or hate them. You can count me in the “love them” camp. They’re usually written in series, which is something I enjoy. Part of it probably goes back to growing up with the Hardy Boys (and, yes, Nancy Drew), but mostly I like seeing how the main characters change as the series advances. Of course, like everyone, I have my favorites, and ones I don’t like so well. So here’s a list of ten of my favorite cozy mystery series, as well as ones I don’t like so much.
If you’re looking for some unusual science fiction books for the summer, here’s a list of ten of my favorites. Some of the are easy reads, some are extremely challenging (like Dhalgren). All of them are sure to make you think. I’ve included links to Kindle and Nook versions where available. The books are listed in no particular order, except as they came to mind.
- The Schrodinger’s Cat Trilogy (Robert Anton Wilson). Includes The Universe Next Door, The Trick Top Hat, and The Homing Pigeons. Wilson’s solo follow-up to the Illuminatus! trilogy, this book is just as strange, but less dated. An amusingly weird exploration of what quantum physics can mean for individuals. (Kindle – Nook)
- And, of course, the Illuminatus! Trilogy (Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson). Includes The Eye in the Pyramid, The Golden Apple, and Leviathan. A funny, at times disturbing, piece of 70’s weirdness. (Kindle – Nook)
- I Will Fear No Evil (Robert Heinlein). Not as widely known as Stranger in a Strange Land, this book tells the story of a dying, immensely wealthy old man who has his brain transplanted into the body of his beautiful young secretary. Part trashy sci-fi romp, part serious philosophical work on the nature of consciousness, all good! (Kindle – Nook)
- Stand on Zanzibar (John Brunner). I first read this years ago. It’s an oddly frightening look at the consequences of unlimited population growth. (Kindle – Nook)
- The Andromeda Strain (Michael Crichton). One of his early works, yet it can still be creepy. Definitely a foreshadowing of some of Crichton’s later “dangerous technology” works, like Prey. (Kindle – Nook)
- Pebble in the Sky (Isaac Asimov). You can’t have a sci-fi list without Asimov! This is his first published book and the first in his Galactic Empire series. Late WWII concerns about atomic energy and weapons are clearly evident in this story of a 20th-century American transported to a future Earth rendered virtually uninhabitable by radioactivity. (Kindle – Nook)
- Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (Philip K. Dick). The basis for the dystopian film Bladerunner. If you’ve seen the movie, read the book. If you haven’t seen the movie, read the book and then see the movie! (Kindle – Nook)
- Dhalgren (Samuel R. Delany). Massive in scope, this post-apocalyptic novel tackles serious questions of race, gender and sexuality in a ruined mid-America. Difficult, but well worth the effort.
- Alongside Night (J. Neil Schulman). A dystopian/utopian story of a United States in collapse and the brave new world that follows. A bit over the top in some places, but still an excellent read. (Kindle)
- The Probability Broach (L. Neil Smith). An interesting polemic about a Denver cop who is transported to an alternate world where the United States as we know it doesn’t exist, and the national hero is the man who killed George Washington. Also available as a graphic novel, but I prefer the original.
There we go. My list of favorite offbeat sci-fi. I’m sure you have your favorites. Tell me about them in the comments.
Sworn to Silence is the first book in Linda Castillo‘s Amish Thriller series. It features Kate Burkholder, Chief of Police of the small Ohio Amish Country town of Painter’s Mill. I’ll admit I had started this book with pretty low expectations. I had tried unsuccessfully to read another Amish-themed mystery about a year ago. It didn’t help that the reviews for this book that I read on Amazon weren’t encouraging, either. In fact, some of them were quite brutal. If I hadn’t needed to read the book for an upcoming book club meeting, I likely wouldn’t have bothered. That would have been a shame, because it would mean I had missed one of the best contemporary mysteries I’ve read in some time.
Castillo is a very good writer, and she clearly knows her stuff. Whether it’s modern-day police procedures or life among the Amish, she has a depth of knowledge that I found refreshingly unexpected. Her portrayal of Amish life is particularly well done, showing the complexity behind the stereotypical simplicity. Castillo manages to be both sympathetic toward and realistic about the Plain people, thus avoiding the idolization I’ve seen in some other authors. This was one of the characteristics that drew me to the book.
As for the story itself, I simply couldn’t put it down. The two main characters, Burkholder and BCI field agent John Tomasetti, have both been badly damaged by events in their lives and so are always on the edge of despair. Nevertheless, they remain likable characters. We want them to succeed at their task, as well as in their lives. And what a task they’ve got! A series of horrific (and I don’t use that word lightly) murders are happening in this small country town that exactly mimic murders from 16 years previously. Is it a copycat or the same killer? If a copycat, then how does the killer know details of the killings that were never made public? If the same killer, then why the 16 year break between murders? The investigation is confusing, and is further complicated by local politics and long-held secrets from Burkholder’s past. The author puts a great amount of detail into telling the story of both the investigation and the murders. Sometimes a truly disturbing amount of detail. Much of the book reads less like fiction and more like true crime reporting. After finishing the book you’ll want a long, hot shower to try to wash yourself clean. But you’ll want to put Linda Castillo on your list of must-read authors, too. I know I have.
The Unscratchables by Cornelius Kane
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This was a surprisingly good book. The author, Australian Cornelius Kane, has an impressive understanding of the noir genre. He has the ability to write a noir story with cats and dogs as the main characters, and write it as well as Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler.
The Unscratchables is the story of a dog (a former POW and veteran of the Siamese war) who has to team up with a Siamese cat in order to capture a feral cat on a murderous rampage in the Kennels of Kathattan island. I don’t want to give away the ending, so I won’t say more than that. If you enjoy a good story filled with plot twists, you’ll like The Unscratchables. If you like your books a little deeper, then you’ll really enjoy the ongoing political, social and media commentary Mr. Kane weaves into the book.
I read it in less than twelve hours. It’s that good.
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