THE BUTTON COLLECTOR by Elizabeth Jennings

Pleasant enough chic lit (oh, pardon me, women’s literature) offering.  The basic storyline is built around the memories that a jar of buttons brings out for the main character, a woman who was kind of the black sheep of the family.

She goes to a flea market and ends up buying a mason jar of buttons because it is pretty, and then getting out her own mother’s button jar, and as she sorts through the buttons, she remembers the clothes of the various people from which the buttons came, and each button provokes a vignette or slice of memory of that person and the event that possibly resulted in the button coming off the garment.

It is the usual family stuff, mother dying of cancer, who loved who best, etc.  Like I said, pleasant enough, and very readable.

My mother had a fancy large tin in which she saved buttons.   When she died, I took on the curatorship of the buttons, complete with that decorative tin, and part of the joy of sewing garments was sifting through the unsorted buttons looking for matches.  A nice way to keep little fingers busy while I sewed was to give the little one a large blunt yarn needle threaded with a length of yarn, and the button tin, and let her sift through them, putting her favorites on the yarn string.

 

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CHRISTINE FALLS by Benjamin Black

Irish novelist John Banville, writing  under the pen name Benjamin Black, has created a crime series that is both detective work and literary fiction, a fine work, interesting and gritty.

It features pathologist Quirke, (who seems to have no other name,so I am assuming it is his last name),  a widower of 20 years who still mourns his wife and dead child.  He works in the morgue of a Catholic hospital in Dublin along with his brother-in-law who is a famous ob-gyn.   The BIL is married to the sister of the dead wife.

Quirke comes upon his BIL in his (Quirke’s) office late one night writing in a file of a young woman brought in, dead of a botched abortion.  But when Quirke goes to view the body, it is gone.  This starts off a casual investigation in which Quirke tries to find out what became of the body.  It becomes more serious, as it appears it was not exactly an abortion, but a botched delivery, in which the baby seems to have disappeared.

The story moves to the Boston area of the USA, and an orphanage and a young childless couple who are given a baby to raise.  It becomes clear that this orphanage and others like it have been established to receive unwanted Irish babies to informally adopt them out, to be later taken back and educated to be priests and nuns.   A source, as it were, to maintain the Catholic clergy.

Quirke’s family is involved, lots of skullduggery and unpleasantness ensue as Quirke more or less stumbles upon clue/fact/incident and is threatened by unknown assailants to stay out of it.

Great story, dark, noir, twisty, and eccentric as only Irish writing can be.

THE ARTIST OF THE FLOATING WORLD by Kazuo Ishiguro

Because they fall

we love them –

the cherry blossoms.

In this floating world

does anything endure?

—   Ariwara no Narihira (823-880)

Yes, THAT Kazuo Ishiguro of Remains of the Day fame.   I really like his work.  It all has this somewhat prickly undercurrent of negativity, of pointing out the absurd attitudes we carry around with us.

Set in 1947 Tokyo, it is narrated in first person by an aging artist, now retired, who is faced with the problem of getting his youngest daughter married.  He lost his wife in the war to a stray bomb, and his son was killed in the war, but he was left with two daughters, one now married with a young son.

Not a lot actually happens in this book.  It follows the musings of the old man, now thinking about the current life of his neighborhood, now going back into the past.  He was an acclaimed artist, but before the war, he turned from art to nationalist propaganda, and became a prominent leader of the artists calling for Japanese nationalism and imperial expansion.  Now that the war is over, he is retired, and his reputation is tainted, and there are those who are disgusted with him for his political views. It was felt that the turn toward the politicization of art leads toward fascism.

In Japan at this time, marriage negotiations included hiring a detective to investigate all the family members, and the negotiations of the previous year fell through for an unknown reason.  But of course, everyone is quite sure it is because those investigations revealed his distasteful past, and the groom’s family pulled out of the negotiations.    Now there is another interested young man, and the daughters of the artist are very much afraid that this too will end in a failed negotiation, and so ask their father to please go around to his old acquaintances and ensure that these people will say good things about him.

And what is that floating world thing all about?  “Floating World” describes the urban lifestyle, especially the pleasure-seeking aspects, of the Edo-period Japan (1600–1867).    About 1750, a courtesan named Kiku renounced the sex trade and became the first geisha or arts person, thereby initiating a new cultural tradition. The poetry of the Floating World, like its art, was gritty and realistic and dealt with life as it is rather than as we would wish it. The poets of the Floating World did not feel the need to explain things, and so we find that our artist in this book does not feel the need to explain things, but only to present them as he remembers them.   Is he an unreliable narrator?  Perhaps, but only in the sense that we each of us write our own narratives,  putting ourselves in the light in which we can tolerate being seen.

FOR WE ARE MANY by Dennis E. Taylor

This is the second of the Bobiverse space opera trilogy.  I missed the first book, and had a bit of catching up to do in this volume, because they are not true stand alones;  each builds quite a bit on what went before.

The basic idea is this:

Bob Johansson has just sold his software company and is looking forward to a life of leisure. There are places to go, books to read, and movies to watch. So it’s a little unfair when he gets himself killed crossing the street.

Bob wakes up a century later to find that corpsicles have been declared to be without rights, and he is now the property of the state. The world is in a state of apocalypse with a kabillion population, and humanity quickly on its way to total annihilation.   He has been uploaded into computer hardware and is slated to be the controlling AI in an interstellar probe looking for habitable planets. The stakes are high: no less than the first claim to entire worlds. If he declines the honor, he’ll be switched off, and they’ll try again with someone else.

Original Bob clones himself, and eventually there are a whole bunch of Bobs piloting space ships which are locating and terreforming and populating habitable planets with the humans brought from Earth.  Each Bob clone names himself, and the story arc bops back and forth between  what each Bob is doing in his particular area of the universe.  

There are First Contacts with some alien species, some baddie aliens, and lots of fun references to Star Trek.  There are also a lot of holes in the plot, many of which concern the virtual realities each Bob builds in which to appear, since each is really only a computer program.  More holes as to the exact science of getting from one remote section of the universe to another, but really, it is such a fun read.

Heads up, ladies.  This is a guy’s book.  There are only two female characters –  one a human doctor that one of the Bob clones falls in love with, and the other is the female mate of an humanoid species on one of their discovered planets. It’s a man’s world, written by a man, for men.  For nerdy, Star Trekkie men.  Boys club.  No girls admitted.

Fun premise, pretty interesting, actually.  Not sure if I will bother with the third book in the trilogy.

 

THE HERETIC by Lucas Bale

As I have mentioned before, I download books when they are offered for free, they go into the depths of the Kindle until I get around to reading them, because of course every day there is ANOTHER one offered that I just gotta read first.  Then, as I peruse the ‘stacks’, as it were, those shelves back in the far corners, you know, the ones where they usually don’t have enough lights to see the titles on the spines very well?, yeah there, I choose a book by its title and start reading.  I seldom remember anything about it, and being the laziest person South of the Border and East of the Sierras, I don’t bother looking them up for plot, I just start reading.

I thought this was going to be about the middle ages, you know, when heretics were hunted down and exterminated.  Imagine my astonishment to find that it is a sci fi.  Who knew?

Here is the official plot description:

Centuries have passed since life ended on the blue planet. Humanity’s survivors are now dispersed among distant colonies, thousands of light years from the barren, frozen rock that was once their home.

At a time when power means everything, the ultimate power, the imperium, rests with the Consulate Magistratus. In return for its protection, citizens must concede their rights absolutely. The Magistratus controls interstellar travel, access to technology, even procreation. Every citizen is implanted with a device to monitor their location, health and emotions. Freedom, religion and self-determination are anachronisms. Humanity’s true history survives only in whispers of a secret archive.

On the planet Herse, a nasty hostile kind of place, Shepherd, a freighter-tramp and smuggler, is commissioned to deliver illicit medical supplies to a village some distance from the main city.  It is here he discovers just how monitored the citizens are, and how free will and autonomous thinking and actions are stamped out.

The storyline follows Shepherd and a teenager named Jodi, who is one of the citizens of a village that are being hunted by the Magistratus for heretical beliefs, for following the Preacher, who talks of freedom and choice.

Not exactly a new storyline, but hey, there are only 7 basic stories in the world, and this is a version of one of them.  Exciting, fun, and once again — one of my huge pet peeves — we have interplanetary space travel and no indoor plumbing.

This is the first of a four book series in this space opera.

FELLOWSHIP OF FEAR by Aaron Elkins

After reading a  book further along in this series and liking it, I decided to start at the beginning of the 18-book series.  (Don’t panic.  I may not get through all of them.  I may not actually live that long.)

The opener of the series featuring the likable Gideon Oliver, a  forensic anthropologist,  finds him on his way to Heidelberg, Germany, to take part as a guest lecturer for a teaching fellowship consisting of a two-month series of lectures at the United States Overseas College (USOC), which serves those stationed at US military bases in Germany, Sicily, Spain, Italy and Holland.

Keep in mind, this was written in 1982, and the Cold War was still chilly-ish, and the I Spy-You Spy thing was still  the Real Deal.  Dr. Oliver, (who I can’t stop picturing as Tom Hanks in The DaVinci Code), affable, self-effacing, improbably fit, lands in Heidelberg and lands in the middle of an internecine clusterf**k within the NATO Security Directorate (NSD)’s counterespionage bureau, and the KGG’s two spy bureaus.

Each organization thinks he is a spy who is courier-ing (is that a word?)  secret information around Europe, and he is attacked a couple of times,  his room is searched a couple of times, and all in all, it’s a pretty big leap from mild mannered professor to Espionage Agent.

The frantic search is on for who really is the mole in the USOC organization, and frankly, even I — the worst detective in the world — figured it out.

Some interesting side identifications of bodies through only a few bones, and of people’s origins, through language use and cultural mannerisms.  Which is why I am reading this series, not because the mysteries are all that fantastic.

Not bad, not great either,  but definitely readable.  On to the next.

The final book of The Broken Earth trilogy, with The Fifth Season as the first, and The Obelisk Gate the second.

The whole series is a great big sprawling complex, hard-to-follow-at-times plot, featuring people (orogens) who have powers to move earth objects, gemlike objects in the sky, which these same people of high abilities can connect with and move, stone eaters, creatures who are made of stone but are able to move through the earth, and who feed on normal people, and when the orogens work with the big gems in the sky, parts of their bodies turn to stone,  humans,  who are afraid of the orogens because they can turn humans into ice, and lots of other terrible things.

I saw it as a giant metaphor for the racial conflict of not just the USA but globally, with the orogens representing the hated ‘race’ but here that hated race is given superpowers.  It is all about who runs things, the payoffs, the usual stuff, all cloaked in a sci fi fantasy, grimdark, dystopian guise.   As one reviewer writes:

The Broken Earth is a hateful trilogy of hating; so it’s appropriate that book 3 emphasized that the Earth was alive and conscious and really really hated humanity. Like every other character in this book, Father Earth was petty and resentful, even going so far as to descend to the most childish of self-justifications: ‘You started this!’ He wanted revenge on humans because they tried to drill to the core, without stopping to think about how Earth would feel about that. Of course, humans didn’t know that Earth was living and conscious, so they never gave a second though to his feelings. This was presented as a terrible failure on the part of humanity.

So yeah, I enjoyed it, what I understood of if.  Some of it just made no sense to me.  I need a smidgeon, a soupçon , a pinch, of plausiblity here and there for me to really get into it, and stone creatures moving through the earth just didn’t make the cut, but generally, I loved the characters, who were all beautifully drawn and fleshed out, and the world building was fantastic.

See, here is the difference between good sci fi, great sci fi, and really great sci fi.  Good sci fi gives you an exciting story with great world building.  Great sci fi gives you that plus more involved characters and situations.  Really great sci fi gives you a world, and characters, and situations that would never occur in your own world, because your own world is nothing like that world.  Good sci fi plops down  recognizable characters and recognizable and familiar situations into some made up futuristic  world that although is interesting and entertaining, does not strike you as much more than a stage set as background for that familiar trope of people and situations.  But really great sci fi gives you a world you could not possibly imagine on your best imagining day, and then creates a plot there, which because of that alien world, could only happen there.

A trilogy — with each volume just as interesting and compelling as the one before it.  Don’t find that too often, do we.